Ravens defense playing well through 4 weeks, and reinforcements are on the way

Coach John Harbaugh didn’t provide any definitive updates Monday on his team’s injured players beyond saying there’s a chance the Baltimore Ravens get a few guys back this week ahead of their matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

When it comes to the Ravens and injuries, it feels like a weekly game of wait-and-see. Yet, there’s at least hope that outside linebackers Tyus Bowser (knee) and Odafe Oweh (ankle), and cornerback Marlon Humphrey (foot) are nearing a return to the practice field. Safety Marcus Williams, who came back to practice last Wednesday following a Week 1 pectoral injury, could return to game action as early as Sunday.

The Ravens defense, coming off a dominant performance against the backup quarterback-led Cleveland Browns, has been pretty good in a 3-1 start. The Ravens rank third in yards allowed per game (260.8) and tied for third in points allowed (14.5). They are third against the pass and seventh against the run.



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And yet, Baltimore’s defense should only be getting better with reinforcements on the way.

“As we get guys back, yes, it will give us even more flexibility and more depth,” Harbaugh said

The silver lining to the Ravens’ injury-riddled start is that they’ve been forced to rely on certain players to occupy much bigger roles than initially anticipated, and most of those players have emerged as significant contributors.

Bowser and Oweh will join an outside linebacker group that has Jadeveon Clowney playing well and just added solid veteran Kyle Van Noy, who had a strong debut against the Browns. Young linebackers Jeremiah Moon and Tavius Robinson have gotten valuable snaps over the past two weeks with both Oweh and David Ojabo sidelined.

Humphrey, Baltimore’s top cornerback who can play both outside and in the slot, will be a welcomed addition. However, Ronald Darby and Brandon Stephens have played well as starters and Rock Ya-Sin has done his job as part of a rotation with Darby. Add in a healthy Humphrey and suddenly, a position that was one of the Ravens’ biggest perceived preseason concerns could become a strength.

At safety, Geno Stone has played so well in Williams’ absence that it will probably be hard to take him off the field when Williams returns. Defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald will undoubtedly find ways to have Williams, Stone and Kyle Hamilton on the field together. That likely means Hamilton playing closer to the line of scrimmage, where he has excelled this year.

The Ravens have found defensive success by plugging and playing guys to compensate for the myriad injuries. In the coming weeks, Macdonald should have even more options. That’s an encouraging development because the Ravens’ defense is already playing well.

Money in the red zone

For all the early angst about Todd Monken’s new offense, there is one clear and immediate area of improvement from last season: The Ravens are scoring touchdowns in the red zone. They went 4-for-4 in Sunday’s 28-3 victory over the Browns, who entered the game having not allowed a red zone touchdown all season.

Through four weeks, the Ravens’ 80 percent scoring rate in the red zone tops the NFL. Since a Lamar Jackson interception on the Ravens’ first red zone trip of the regular season, they have entered the opponents’ 20-yard line 14 times and come away with 12 touchdowns and two field goals.

“We’re executing very well down there,” Harbaugh said. “Our coaches do a very good job of scheming it … and then it comes down to the guys again making plays. The players deserve the credit, and Lamar is a very good red zone quarterback. It goes back to the accuracy part of it, but also the fact that he can extend the play. … There’s not as much space down there, so when you can spread the defense out a little more with the running game, which Lamar helps you do with his skill set, all those things are a part of it. But we’ve done well, and we have to keep getting better.”

Last season, the Ravens finished 30th in the NFL in red zone offense, scoring at a 44.4 percent clip. It was a stated priority of Harbaugh and Monken to improve significantly on those numbers. To that end, Baltimore had red zone sessions in pretty much every training camp practice. So far, so good.

10 random thoughts, observations

1. With Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett hurting his knee in Sunday’s loss to the Houston Texans and reportedly dealing with a bone bruise, the Ravens could face a backup quarterback for a third straight week. If Pickett is unable to go, Mitch Trubisky would follow the Indianapolis Colts’ Gardner Minshew and the Browns’ Dorian Thompson-Robinson in opposing Baltimore. Trubisky has started against the Ravens twice, once with the Chicago Bears in 2017 and once with the Steelers last year. In those two games, he’s completed 30 of 46 passing attempts for 389 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions, and he’s been sacked five times and lost a fumble. The Ravens took advantage of facing a backup quarterback in Cleveland. They did not against Indianapolis.

2. Melvin Gordon reverted to the practice squad Monday after he used his third — and final — standard elevation against Cleveland. If the Ravens want the veteran running back on game days, they are going to have to add him to the 53-man roster. They had three injuries Sunday with right tackle Morgan Moses, safety Daryl Worley and cornerback Jalyn Armour-Davis going down. The Ravens could move one of the three to injured reserve and open up a spot for Gordon, or they could just wait and take a look at other No. 3 running back options behind Gus Edwards and Justice Hill. Kenyan Drake still has two practice squad elevations remaining. Speedy undrafted rookie Keaton Mitchell is eligible to return to practice and play this week. The Ravens could give either of them an opportunity and hold off on promoting Gordon. Gordon deserves some credit, though. He’s done a nice job in limited opportunities, rushing for 53 yards on 13 carries and catching three passes for 46 yards, including a nice 23-yard reception from Jackson on a wheel route in Cleveland.

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Melvin Gordon has proven to be solid out of the Ravens’ backfield when given opportunities this season. (David Richard / USA Today)

3. One of Jackson’s best throws all of Sunday — and he had several that were notable — was an incompletion. Jackson made a perfect throw in the corner of the end zone to Nelson Agholor, who was tightly covered by Greg Newsome II. Agholor caught it but only got one foot in. That’s a play Agholor, who had a quiet game, probably wants back. He seemed to have time and room to get a second foot down, but he wasn’t able to. Jackson hooked up with Mark Andrews for a touchdown on the very next play, so the missed opportunity didn’t hurt the Ravens.

4. Tell me again why the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons didn’t at least make a play for Jackson this offseason? The Falcons, who opted to stick with 2022 third-round pick Desmond Ridder, always made the most sense. They needed a face of the franchise. They play in a very winnable division. They have some exciting skill position players who would be buoyed by a talent like Jackson. They also weren’t in a position in April to draft one of the best available quarterbacks. Yet, there was no evidence that the Falcons started down the Jackson road at all.

5. Worley was playing well for the Ravens and had started the last two games with Hamilton in the nickel. However, if he were to miss extended time with a shoulder injury, Baltimore has a veteran replacement on the practice squad. Safety Duron Harmon is an 11-year vet who has started 78 games in his career. He’s known to be a smart player and should have a good handle on the Ravens’ defense by now. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him fill Worley’s role.

6. Moses’ potential absence — he also has what the team announced as a shoulder injury — would be a little more complicated. If left tackle Ronnie Stanley is ready to return from a knee injury, and he practiced two days last week, the Ravens could move Patrick Mekari over to right tackle, where he’d undoubtedly see quite a bit of T.J. Watt on Sunday. If Stanley isn’t ready, the Ravens will likely have to face one of the league’s best edge-rush duos in Watt and Alex Highsmith with reserves Mekari and Daniel Faalele at the tackle spots. There’s also the matter of tackle depth. Ben Cleveland played on the edge a lot during the preseason, although he’s a natural guard. The Ravens, though, don’t really have a depth option on the practice squad. If Moses is going to be out for any length of time, Baltimore probably needs to bring in a tackle this week.

7. Clowney joked after the game that if he had just finished the plays this season where he’s gotten into the backfield, he’d lead the league in sacks. That may not entirely be true. Clowney has 1.5 sacks, and the league leaders — Khalil Mack, Josh Allen and Watt — all have six. However, it is accurate to say Clowney has failed to finish several opportunities for both sacks and tackles for loss. The good news is he continues to get there and looks pretty explosive in doing it. The Ravens have to be thrilled with what the veteran has brought to the table so far. According to Pro Football Focus, Clowney has 19 quarterback hurries in four games this year. That includes six in each of the past two games. He’s playing at a high level, and the statistics will come if he sustains it.

8. Ojabo potentially being done for the season with knee/ankle injuries is a significant blow to both the player and team. One, you feel for Ojabo. If he is indeed done, he will have lost the better part of his first two NFL seasons to injuries. That’s tough for any young player to overcome. Ojabo really only played one year of college football, so it was well-documented that there would be some development he’d have to do. It’s really hard to do that when you’re missing so many game and practice reps. As for the Ravens, they were counting on Ojabo to become a high-impact pass rusher, not just this season but going forward. The window hasn’t closed, but if Ojabo misses the rest of this season, half of his rookie contract will have already been exhausted.

9. The NFL trade deadline is still four weeks away, so it’s a bit early to speculate on what Baltimore could do and the players who will be available. But as long as the Ravens don’t head badly off course over the next three weeks, you’d expect general manager Eric DeCosta to explore a potential deal. The question, though, will be what’s the Ravens’ biggest need in two or three weeks and whether there’s someone attractive and available to fill it. Edge rush and cornerback help have been perceived as the team’s biggest needs, but that may not be the case if Humphrey, Bowser, Oweh and Damarion Williams return in good form. It makes perfect sense for the Ravens to monitor the running back and offensive tackle markets, too. The injury concerns at both spots aren’t going away.

10. In Week 1, the Ravens lost running back J.K. Dobbins (Achilles), Stanley (knee), center Tyler Linderbaum (ankle) and Marcus Williams (pectoral). In Week 2, they lost Hill (toe), wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (ankle), nickel corner Ar’Darius Washington (pectoral) and Oweh (ankle). In Week 3, they watched wide receivers Rashod Bateman (hamstring) and Tylan Wallace (hamstring), and Ojabo (foot/knee) go down. And Sunday, they had Moses, Worley and cornerback Armour-Davis suffer injuries. A few of those are season-enders. Some of the injuries have only spurred a week or two absence. But any way you look at it, losing three or four guys every week is a trend that will be difficult to overcome.

(Top photo of Jadeveon Clowney and Geno Stone: Brent Skeen / USA Today)

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