The Baltimore Ravens defense has been one of the biggest surprises this season. It's not a surprise because it's playing well—the Ravens have always had a good defense. The surprise is that the defense is doing as well as it is right now.
Many fans and analysts probably take the Ravens defense for granted at this point, but just think about what it's accomplished so far. Last season, the Ravens defense had a franchise-low 27 sacks, and this season, the Ravens already have 45 sacks through 13 games. Obviously, sacks aren’t everything, but when you consider the Ravens are also in the top five in almost every defensive statistic, it’s clear this defense is much, much better than it was last season—especially at defending against the pass.
A strong pass defense is what teams need when they go up against the San Diego Chargers and their very talented offense. They may not have had the success they’re used to having this season, but they certainly came alive last week against the Buffalo Bills. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers threw for 240 yards and three touchdowns and helped lead the Chargers to a 37-10 win.
Coming alive late in the season has been a pattern for the Chargers in recent history. Since 2008, the Chargers have posted an impressive 14-2 record in December games and seem to be following that pattern this season as well. They have scored 75 points in their last two games.
The Ravens are definitely playing a very dangerous and talented offense. That being said, the last two games the Chargers have played do need to be taken into context. They were playing against the Jacksonville Jaguars two weeks ago and the Buffalo Bills last week. Both of those teams are in the middle of multiple-game losing streaks.
The last good defense the Chargers faced was the Denver Broncos defense three weeks ago. The Broncos managed to hold Rivers to less than 200 yards with one touchdown and sacked him three times in the game, so it is possible to slow down the Chargers offense.
As good as the Broncos defense has been this season, it doesn’t hold a candle to the Ravens defense. The Ravens have a better pass defense, have a better run defense and can bring more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Ravens defense is the key to the game versus the Chargers, and the Ravens should feel confident with how they match up against the Chargers.
Many fans and analysts will look back at the Ravens-Chargers game from 2009 where Rivers was bombing the ball down the field to his big, tall receivers and the Ravens defense couldn’t seem to slow them down, but the Ravens defense—particularly the corners—is playing much better now than it did at that point. This game should be much different than the game we saw in 2009.
"We're kind of excited about the fact that we've got some bigger corners who are playing really well to take out there,” Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said at Wednesday’s press conference. “We didn't have that as much a couple years ago when we were out there, so we'll be looking forward to seeing how those guys match up against their great receivers."
The Ravens corners versus the Chargers receivers is probably the biggest matchup to watch in this game. The Chargers have Vincent Jackson, Antonio Gates and Malcom Floyd in their receiving corps, and every one of them is over 6’4” tall.
The size of the Chargers receivers posed a serious problem for the Ravens in their last meeting and it is definitely something the Ravens will have to defend because Rivers loves to throw the ball deep and let his big, strong receivers battle for the ball down the field.
"Well, [Rivers] makes big plays," Harbaugh said. "That's what he wants to do. They're kind of built on throwing the ball downfield, and if they can make plays downfield on you, I think that's how they want to play. And he was able to do that in [the last] game."
As Harbaugh said, the Ravens have much better size at the corner position than they did in the last game against the Chargers. In particular, rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith is 6’2” and has been playing very well in the last few games in limited participation.
Against the Indianapolis Colts last week, Smith was targeted four times and didn’t allow a single catch. Smith also made an impressive third-down pass deflection against Colts receiver Pierre Garcon. Since getting back on the field after missing the first six games of the season with an ankle injury, Smith has only been allowing an impressive 38.9 percent of the passes thrown in his direction to be caught, according to Pro Football Focus. The Ravens will need him to keep up that level of play against the Chargers.
The Ravens also have several other corners playing very well. Lardarius Webb has been having an All-Pro-type season as the starting corner on the defense, and the Ravens expect him to play despite the fact he has been battling a toe injury. Cary Williams, another young, big corner who stands 6’1” tall, has also been impressive starting opposite Webb.
On top of the solid play they are getting from their corners, the Ravens are also extremely good at getting to quarterbacks. As already mentioned, they have 45 sacks on the season, and Terrell Suggs is playing the best football of his career with 13 sacks by himself.
The relationship between the pass coverage and the pass rush is very interdependent. Many of the sacks the Ravens get are because of great coverage, and the pressure the front seven puts on quarterbacks makes the pass coverage look good at times.
Against the Chargers, the Ravens will need to continue to play excellent defense, but they have to love the matchup they have with the Chargers offense, which is the strength of their team. If they can slow down the Chargers offense, the Ravens will not only have an excellent chance to leave San Diego with a win but they will also prove that they can stop elite quarterbacks and elite offenses.