“There’s a reason people are talking about him as an MVP,” Rams Coach Sean McVay said after the game. “It felt like it tonight.”
Jackson is certainly a big reason Baltimore has been torching the NFL, but he isn’t the only one. Baltimore’s defense has been Jackson’s unsung co-star, paralyzing opposing offenses, especially quarterbacks, during the team’s march through November. The Ravens have given up just 26 points over their past three games.
The defense’s performance, of course, has been overshadowed not just by Jackson but by two of the NFL’s most celebrated defenses: those of the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers. The former is allowing a league-low 0.7 points per drive, and the latter is only slightly behind at 1.2, second in the NFL. San Francisco’s defense will get its toughest test of the season Sunday during a trip to Baltimore in what could be a Super Bowl preview, but the 49ers’ offense will be similarly tested against the nasty Ravens.
That Baltimore’s defense has shined perhaps should not be a surprise. Before the season, Pro Football Focus projected the Ravens’ secondary to be the best in the NFL, complementing the projected 10th-best run defense. And yet the defense was part of the problem during Baltimore’s 2-2 start. Through four games, the Ravens had the league’s fourth-worst overall defense, per Football Outsiders, which measures efficiency by comparing success on every play to a league average based on situation and opponent. But Coach John Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Don Martindale tinkered with some schemes, consulted the analytics and brought in some outside help, and the results have been outstanding.
Safety Earl Thomas has been playing closer to the line of scrimmage since strong safety Tony Jefferson suffered a season-ending injury in Week 5, and the veteran has excelled in that role. Less than two weeks later, Baltimore acquired cornerback Marcus Peters in a trade with the Rams, and he, too, has flourished, allowing just 20 of 35 targets in his direction to be caught, yielding 191 yards and three interceptions. Quarterbacks have a miserable 36.7 passer rating when targeting Peters since the trade.
But the biggest catalyst for Baltimore’s improvement was its pass rush. Baltimore struggled to generate pass pressure with a traditional four-man rush, which in turn increased the pressure on the secondary, so Martindale started to dial up more blitzes. Through 12 weeks, no team had blitzed the quarterback more often than the Ravens.
Martindale had his unit blitz Tom Brady 22 times in Week 9, holding New England’s future Hall of Famer to 95 passing yards and getting two sacks and an interception on those plays. The Buffalo Bills, by comparison, blitzed Brady just 10 times in a Week 4 loss, yielding no interceptions or sacks.
With their aggressive blitz fully operational, the Ravens are allowing 1.2 points per drive since Week 7, the third-best rate in the league, while their red-zone defense has limited opponents to a league-leading 31 percent success rate. In that span, opponents are scoring 13 points per game fewer than expected after taking into account the down, distance and field position of each play, per data from TruMedia. Baltimore allowed four points per game more than expected during the first six weeks of the season.
Opposing quarterbacks have struggled the most in that span. They are completing just 60 percent of their passes over the past five games against the Ravens, resulting in 5.8 yards per attempt (fourth worst in the NFL) and a league-low three passing touchdowns compared to six interceptions.
This is all even more impressive when you look at the quarterbacks Baltimore has faced. Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks, another MVP contender, was held to 241 yards, one touchdown and an interception. Brady produced 285 yards, one touchdown and an interception. Deshaun Watson was held to 169 yards, no touchdowns and an interception in Baltimore’s Week 11 win over Houston. And in Monday’s steamrolling of the Rams, quarterback Jared Goff had 212 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. In the past five games, opposing quarterbacks have generated a measly passer rating of 68.1. Only the historically good Patriots pass defense has been better over that stretch (61.0 passer rating against).
Next up is San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo, who struggled against the strong pass defenses of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Carolina Panthers. He and the 49ers have faced just one other pass defense, the Cleveland Browns, rated above average by Football Outsiders. Five times, Garoppolo has faced a pass defense rated 26th or worse. And Garoppolo’s performance declines when he faces a traditional four-man rush or a blitz, the bread-and-butter of Baltimore’s revamped defense.
The oddsmakers at the Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas this week installed Baltimore as the Super Bowl favorite. Which explains why the 10-1 49ers, off to their best start since 1997, are 5½-point underdogs to the Ravens. San Francisco has been an underdog of five points or more 13 times since Kyle Shanahan took over as head coach and has lost every time. If the Niners can’t solve Baltimore’s pass defense, that streak won’t end on Sunday.