After an absolute monster game in Week 9 under the primetime lights of Monday Night Football, Baltimore Ravens veteran outside linebacker Justin Houston was aptly named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week.
The four-time Pro Bowl pass rusher went “God Mode” according to second-year pro Odafe Oweh as he recorded 2.5 sacks, three total tackles including one for a loss, and an interception. It marked the third game in a row in which he recorded multiple sacks which set a new franchise record and improved his team-leading total to 8.5, tied for the second most in the league with Nick Bosa of the 49ers and former Raven Za’Darius Smith of the Minnesota Vikings.
Despite being 33 years and in his 12th year in the league, Houston is having one of the best seasons of his illustrious career and is the most efficient pass rusher in the league according to Next Gen Stats with a league-leading pressure rate of 19.5 % and sack rate of 6.4 % among 159 players with 100 or more pass rushes.
What makes what Houston has been doing since he returned from missing three games with a groin injury so remarkable is he is being so disruptive, effective, and utterly dominant despite playing fewer snaps. He has seen a gradual increase in his total defensive snaps and percentage of snaps during the team’s three-game winning streak but hasn’t played more than 33 over that span.
His awe-inspiring production is made sweeter by the fact that the Ravens are getting elite-level play for what is essentially pennies on the dollar compared to the deal that they had agreed to in principle to bring Smith back to Baltimore before he decided to sign with the Vikings.
At the time, fans and pundits were outraged that general manager Eric DeCosta wouldn’t up the anty to improve what was a much-maligned pass rush in 2021 but now the Ravens are incredibly deep and talented throughout their front seven and did so without having to break the bank.
Mike Macdonald Is Finally Getting Some Respect
The orchestrator of Houston’s resurgent season and mastermind behind the Ravens’ entire defensive turnaround over the last month and a half following an inconsistent start to the season is the team’s first-year defensive coordinator.
After having the blame for several of the Ravens’ late-game collapses placed at his feet earlier in the year, the tune around the league and in the media about the young up-and-coming coach has changed. His unit ranks third in the league in total takeaways with 16, fourth in sacks with 27, and has allowed the sixth-lowest third-down conversion rate with 33.7 %.
It doesn’t seem that long ago that former NFL coaches turned analysts were calling for his job and proclaiming him incompetent. Former Ravens defensive coordinator and long-time NFL coach, Rex Ryan went as far as to call him “terrible” on ESPN’s Get Up after just a two-game sample size.
He still hasn’t recanted those statements since Macdonald’s unit improved their communication, and consistency, and elevated their overall level of play now that young players that made those costly mistakes are stepping up and playing much better. However, there are those in the media who are giving the 35-year-old play-caller his just credit and praise.
“Mike Macdonald deserves some credit for getting this defense together in recent weeks,” NFL.com’s Nick Shook wrote. “After blowing multiple double-digit leads early in the season, the Ravens have figured out how to close games, allowing 18.3 points per contest in each of the last three weeks… Houston played a big part in their success, of course, but so did Macdonald’s timely blitz calls, which shut down multiple touchdown-scoring chances for New Orleans, forcing the Saints to settle for field goals.”
Despite only having been on the team and in Macdonald’s system for less than a week, Ravens newly acquired All-Pro inside linebacker, Roquan Smith, was effusive with his praise for his new play caller after making his impressive debut in Week 9.
“It’s going to be scary after I get it all down pat, so I’m excited,” he said in postgame comments. “I love the way Mike [Macdonald] calls the game, so I think there’s going to be so many great things in store for us.”
Marlon Humphrey Is Quietly Having Another All-Pro Season
While Houston’s stellar season has him square in the spotlight because it involves flashy stats like sacks and pressures, the Ravens’ No.1 cornerback is also having an extremely dominant season and is playing at an elite level. While he isn’t among the league leaders in any one statistical category, Humphrey has recorded two interceptions, five pass breakups, one fumble recovery, a sack, and two quarterback hits.
“You wish you could just clone him and just put him all over the field because of the kind of guy that he is,” Ravens pass game coordinator and secondary coach Chris Hewitt said in a press conference on November 8, 2022. “He’s playing at a high level right now playing at corner.”
An area where Humphrey has shined the brightest is in coverage which is the primary responsibility of his position. According to Pro Football Reference’s advanced metrics, he is only allowing 9.8 yards per completion, an opposing passer rating of 76.1, and a career-low average depth of target of seven yards.
With Tavon Young gone and rookie Pepe Williams not ready for a large workload, the Ravens have been using Humprey a lot more in the slot he did during his First-Team All-Pro season in 2019 and both his Pro Bowl years from 2019-2020. His ability to move inside and play the nickel role when needed allows them to use him more often as a blitzer where he excels coming off the edge.
“He has that element there, that toughness inside that you need,” Hewitt said. “I’m definitely pleased with Marlon, where he is right now, and where he’s going.”