Lamar Jackson's Ravens Have a Secret Weapon: The NFL's Next Great Defense

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterMarch 24, 2020

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) is tackled by Baltimore Ravens free safety Earl Thomas (29) in the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, in Baltimore, Md. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)
Gail Burton/Associated Press

The Ravens have done some big things to help Lamar Jackson this offseason.

They grabbed Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell at the Jacksonville Jaguars sheriff's auction in exchange for a fifth-round pick. They also signed thumping run defender Michael Brockers away from the cap-strapped Rams for three years and a pricey-but-not-exorbitant $30 million. And they franchise-tagged nasty edge-rusher Matt Judon, possibly to trade him, though there hasn't been any reported movement on that front.

Wait a minute: Those are all defensive players. What do they have to do with Jackson? 

It's simple: One of the best ways to help a young quarterback continue to develop is to give him a great defense.

The Ravens fielded an excellent defense last season: third in the NFL in points allowed, fourth in yards allowed, fourth in Football Outsiders DVOA. But that defense did have a few weaknesses. The run defense ranked 19th in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders, with opponents averaging 4.4 yards per rush. Also, the Ravens recorded just 37 sacks, 21st in the league. 

Most opponents had to abandon the run once the Ravens started whomping them, so a high per-carry average didn't amount to much for most of the year. And no one except the defensive coordinator frets too much about a low sack total after a 45-6 victory. But minor flaws are still flaws, and the issues with the run defense came to roost against the Titans in the playoffs. A team that finished 14-2 must keep finding ways to improve to get over the playoff hump and keep pace with powerhouses like the Chiefs.

That's where Campbell and Brockers come in. Campbell has 88 career sacks, 31.5 in the last three seasons. He's one of the most consistent defensive linemen in the NFL, and he has the versatility to play many different gaps and techniques. Brockers doesn't post big sack numbers, but he's the glue that held together both the Robert Quinn-Chris Long defensive lines of Jeff Fisher's St. Louis Rams (the teams were 7-9, but the lines were great) and the more recent Aaron Donald-Dante Fowler lines in Los Angeles.

While the additions of Campbell and Brockers are important, they aren't exactly joining a unit lacking in talent. Earl Thomas, Marcus Peters, Marlon Humphrey, Jimmy Smith and Chuck Clark headline one of the league's best secondaries, though the departures of Brandon Carr and Tony Jefferson rob them of some depth. Nose tackle Brandon Williams anchors the upgraded defensive front. Judon and his 9.5 sacks are still in the mix as of now. And the Ravens are masters of the draft-and-develop game, so talented youngsters like Jaylon Ferguson could be ready to step into bigger roles. It's tough for a playoff team to add to its veteran core without wrecking the salary cap, but the Ravens found a way.

These latter-day Purple People Eaters may not be as star-studded or dominant as the Ray Lewis-Ed Reed Ravens defenses of past decades. But they don't really have to be. They just have to complement the Ravens offense. 

This is where Lamar Jackson comes in. 

On paper, the Ravens offense has taken a step back while its defense has taken a step forward. All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda retired. Tight end Hayden Hurst and a fourth-round pick were traded to the Falcons for second- and fifth-round picks. The team's most glaring need appears to be at wide receiver, but the Ravens did not address the position at all in free agency. The departures make it hard to envision how Jackson can take the step Patrick Mahomes took last year: from highlight-generating MVP to Super Bowl champion.

The Ravens' sack-needy defense will have a new look next season with Calais Campbell, who has averaged more than 10 sacks the past three seasons.
The Ravens' sack-needy defense will have a new look next season with Calais Campbell, who has averaged more than 10 sacks the past three seasons.Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press/Associated Press

But the Ravens have been wise to not overreact on offense. Yes, Yanda isn't the sort of player any team can replace in free agency, but Hurst is no huge loss: The Ravens have Nick Boyle, Mark Andrews and a scheme that makes block-first H-back types look like rock stars. As for wide receiver, the draft is teeming with them, and the Ravens are likely banking on their draft-and-develop strategy to pay dividends with second-year receivers Hollywood Brown, who played well despite missing much of last offseason with a foot injury, and Miles Boykin, who looked great in camp last year but caught just 13 regular-season passes.

The Ravens could have tried to help Jackson take the next step by overpaying for receivers or offensive linemen during last week's frenzy, where the pickings were pretty slim unless you caught Bill O'Brien in just the right mood. Instead, they will develop Jackson by maintaining continuity, adding a piece or two in the draft and upgrading on defense, where more talent was available at need positions.

Great defenses help young quarterbacks develop by making it much easier for them to maintain the lead. When leading, NFL quarterbacks complete 65.8 percent of their passes, average 8.0 yards per attempt and post a quarterback rating of 114.7, per Pro Football Reference. When trailing, their numbers dip to 61.8 percent, 6.8 yards per attempt and have a 79.6 rating. Put another way, ordinary quarterbacks look great when punching in short drives after turnovers or tossing stat-padding screen passes on 3rd-and-long with a 17-point lead, whereas very good quarterbacks look ordinary-to-bad when forcing passes into coverage while playing catch-up.

Jackson's option-heavy style makes the game situation even more important: He can threaten opponents with his legs much more effectively when leading than when trailing, as last year's playoff loss again illustrated. 

Indeed, the synergy between the Ravens offense and defense created a snowball effect against many opponents last year. When the Ravens took an early lead, their defense clamped down, and Jackson had the cushion to be a dual threat. That made life even easier for the Ravens defense, and so on. The Titans turned that snowball against them in the playoffs. With Campbell and Brockers, the Ravens made their side of the hill a lot steeper.

The Ravens hope that an improved defense will provide the type of leads that will allow Lamar Jackson the freedom to utilize all of his talents, be they with his ground game or his passing attack.
The Ravens hope that an improved defense will provide the type of leads that will allow Lamar Jackson the freedom to utilize all of his talents, be they with his ground game or his passing attack.Nick Wass/Associated Press

The original Purple People Eaters were the 1970s Vikings defense, led by rugged defensive linemen Alan Page, Carl Eller and Jim Marshall. That team's quarterback was undersized, unconventional scrambler Fran Tarkenton, who was the Russell Wilson—or perhaps the Lamar Jackson—of his era. Those Vikings never won a Super Bowl, but they won the NFC three times in four years, sent a bunch of players to the Hall of Fame and established a blueprint for how to successfully merge a devastating defense with a freewheeling, unpredictable offense.

The Ravens' traditional blueprint has been to merge a devastating defense with as little offense as possible. But Jackson allows them to have the best of both worlds. The team that won Super Bowls with Joe Flacco and Trent Dilfer knows what a great defense can do for any quarterback. Now they will get a chance to see what a great defense can do for an MVP.


Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.