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Better, worse or the same? Ravens defense focused on being the best

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Continuity is key for the Baltimore Ravens’ defense, and it starts at the top.

In Don “Wink” Martindale’s three seasons as defensive coordinator, Baltimore ranks first in the NFL in fewest yards given up (307.8) and fewest points allowed (18.2). This season, the Ravens return all but one starter, losing outside linebacker Matt Judon to the New England Patriots in free agency.

Baltimore has the makings of being the NFL’s No. 1 defense for the third time in franchise history. The biggest concern is generating a consistent pass run, and Baltimore could sign a veteran free agent like Justin Houston before the start of the season.

As of right now, are the Ravens better, worse or the same on defense?

After breaking down the Ravens’ offense, here is a position-by-position analysis of the defense for 2021:

Defensive line

Additions: Jovan Swann

Losses: Jihad Ward

Returners: Calais Campbell, Brandon Williams, Derek Wolfe, Justin Madubuike, Broderick Washington Justin Ellis, Aaron Crawford

Better, worse or the same? Same, although Campbell could change that.

Baltimore brings back all three starting linemen from last season — Campbell, Williams and Wolfe — each of whom is over 30. The Ravens are hoping this group can be more disruptive this year because a calf injury and COVID-19 never allowed Campbell to play like himself. If Campbell can bounce back at this late stage of his career (he turns 35 before the start of the season), the Ravens can cause problems up front. If he doesn’t, this group regresses.

This can be a breakout season for Madubuike. Coaches and teammates raved all offseason about Madubuike’s high effort and his explosiveness in getting out of his stance. It wouldn’t be surprising if Madubuike forced his way into the starting lineup this season.

Inside linebacker

Additions: Barrington Wade

Losses: None

Returners: Patrick Queen, L.J. Fort, Malik Harrison, Chris Board, Kristian Welch, Otaro Alaka

Better, worse or the same? Same

A year after infusing this position with young talented players, the Ravens retained the core middle of their defense. Queen, who finished third in NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year voting last season, believes he will be more physically ready for this season after a full offseason. A big focus for Queen was improving in pass coverage.

At the weak side, Baltimore split playing time between Fort and Harrison last season. The Ravens brought back Fort as a safety net, but they would love to see Harrison step up and take over this spot.

Outside linebacker

Additions: Odafe Oweh, Daelin Hayes

Losses: Matt Judon, Yannick Ngakoue

Returners: Tyus Bowser, Pernell McPhee, Jaylon Ferguson, Aaron Adeoye, Chauncey Rivers

Better, worse or the same? Worse

You don’t lose your best outside linebacker in Judon and say you got better. Plus, Baltimore parted ways with its second-most accomplished pass-rusher in Ngakoue, who proved to be a bad fit. No current Ravens outside linebacker has produced more than five sacks in a season since 2016, which is why many expect Baltimore to sign a more established pass-rusher like Houston or Melvin Ingram at some point.

Bowser and McPhee were re-signed to become the veteran anchors on the outside. Coaches and teammates have raved about the growth of Ferguson, a former third-round pick, who has a disappointing 4.5 sacks in his first two seasons.

The Ravens are excited about Oweh, a first-round pick who should make an instant impact because he has picked up the defense quickly. He’s not the typical rookie who hesitates because he’s thinking about his assignment. Hayes, a rookie fifth-round pick, stood out in offseason practices.

Cornerback

Additions: Brandon Stephens, Shaun Wade, Chris Westry

Losses: Tramon Williams

Returners: Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, Tavon Young, Jimmy Smith, Anthony Averett, Khalil Dorsey, Davontae Harris, Iman Marshall

Better, worse or the same? Same

It will be tough to find a deeper cornerback group than this one. Humphrey is a physical playmaker, and Peters is a top-tier ball hawk.

You could argue the Ravens’ cornerbacks will be better if Young remains healthy. A game-changer at nickelback, Young has been limited to 17 games over the last four seasons because of injuries.

It’s quite a luxury to have Smith and Averett as your fourth and fifth corners. Smith has started 88 career games, and Averett could compete for a starting job on other teams.

Safety

Additions: Ar’Darius Washington

Losses: None

Returners: Chuck Clark, DeShon Elliott, Anthony Levine, Jordan Richards, Geno Stone, Nigel Warrior

Better, worse or the same? Same

Clark and Elliott are back for their second year together after a solid 2020 season. Clark has been called the quarterback of the secondary, and Elliott can be a physical enforcer with his hard hits.

The Ravens lack depth here after not addressing this position in free agency or in the draft. Smith, a long-time corner, has the skills to transition to safety if Baltimore is in a pinch. Stephens, who is listed as a corner, was projected by general manager Eric DeCosta as a possible candidate for free safety.

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