Still, the first quarter in Minnesota might have been the worst time for his chance to happen. That’s because these middle six games on the Packers’ schedule all feature top defensive opponents according to advanced metrics. The Vikings have a great secondary and fast linebackers, the Saints feature the best young corner in the league, the Lions tackle and cover well as a unit, and the Bears have good pass rushers and clever blitz schemes.
On the next two Sundays it only gets harder. Baltimore and Pittsburgh are traditionally known for defense, and this year is no exception. For the first of these next two tests, this is what Brett Hundley (career so far: 1 win, 2 touchdowns, 3 losses, 4 interceptions) will be up against:
SCOUTING THE RAVENS
The only football team ever named after a poem is now on its third generation of great linebackers. In only their fifth year of existence, middle linebacker Ray Lewis led the franchise once led the franchise to a dominating Super Bowl victory. Twelve years later the 36-year-old Lewis was a shell of his dominating presence, but his team won the trophy anyway, partly due to the emergence of outside linebacker #55 Terrell Suggs.
Officially the Ravens still run a 3-4, but it often looks more like a 4-3 because Suggs plays on the edge of the line so much, and he almost never drops into coverage anymore.
Next to Mosley in the base defense is #48 Patrick “Peanut” Onwuasor, an undrafted second-year find out of I-AA Portland State. Despite his lack of pedigree, he is not a liability. He’s built more like our nitro backer/safeties (217 pounds) and will probably be covering Lance Kendricks over the middle (or Randall Cobb if we can confuse them).
The three best guys on the line are also from lower division colleges: 340-pound #98 Brandon Williams is in his fifth year out of Division II Missouri Southern, and this spring became the highest paid nose tackle in the NFL. 339-pound #97 Michael Pierce was undrafted last year out of I-AA Samson, but has played in all 25 games of his pro career so far. Last year’s fifth-rounder, 260-pound hybrid #99 Matthew Judon, emerged out of Division II Grand Valley State to terrorize the Bears last month with two sacks and twelve tackles.
The Ravens rotate in a lot more than just those three guys up front, and sometimes play formations with six or even seven hats on the line. The unpredictability of who’s rushing and who’s dropping has helped the Ravens lead the league in interceptions so far this season.
The crazy blitzes and zone drops have confused and hurried opposing QBs, but the main reason the Ravens are averaging 1.5 stolen passes a game is that they have the deepest secondary in the NFL. Both corners, the slot guy, and the free safety each have multiple interceptions, meaning this year’s 16th-overall draft pick, #29 Marlon Humphrey, can’t even get on the field for more than a dozen snaps per game despite how well he is playing.
None of the Packer corners would get any snaps on this team, and a healthy Morgan Burnett would probably be their #2 safety, behind #32 Eric Weddle and ahead of strong safety #23 Eric Jefferson.
LC #24 Brandon Carr, RC #22 Jimmy Smith, and nickel back #21 Ladarius Webb are better overall than any group Brett Hundley has seen yet, including the freaky fast Viking duo of Rhodes and Waynes.
The good news is that these Ravens are almost as bad at offense as they are good at defense. They have no playmakers at any of the skill positions, and QB #5 Joe Flacco has been massively overpaid ever since he won the Super Bowl MVP five years ago. With 10 interceptions through nine games, he’s got a chance to throw more picks than millions earned this season. It could be close.
Flacco does still throw a lovely deep ball, but those gorgeous arcs aren’t landing where he wants them to anymore. And other than #18 Jeremy Maclin there’s no wide receivers or tight ends worth targeting. His leading receiver so far this year is the backup running back, #37 Javorius Allen. Their leading rusher, #34 Alex Collins, was cut by the Seahawks in training camp even though his contract was for the league minimum.
Their offensive line is a bunch of nobodies other than their very highly drafted left tackle, #79 Ronnie Stanley, who was the best ranked rookie tackle in the league last year and is off to another good season.
HOW THE PACKERS MATCH UP
As bad as the Ravens’ offense has been so far this season, it remains possible that they’ll score points against this Green Bay defense. Inexplicable gaffes in the coverage schemes are traveling like a hot potato throughout the secondary. For several weeks Damarious Randall acted like he didn’t care, then just as soon as he got a bit focused, Davon House began lolligaging at the snap and then running to nowhere during key plays. Through it all, Ha Ha Clinton Dix is consistently having his worst season mentally and physically. He is disorganized and his hips just don’t swivel anymore. Morgan Burnett can’t stay healthy and so suddenly even safety is not a position of strength.
Clay Matthews is still stout against the run but can’t sack anybody anymore, and Nick Perry remains the king of sack stats but doesn’t affect most plays. The good news is that the tackles and interior backers are finally strong, and if they continue to stuff even good running teams like the Bears, then it’s possible the rest of the unit will coalesce around them.
If they don’t, there is no chance Sunday, because Brett Hundley is going to be lucky to outscore the Ravens’ defense, much less their offense. If there is a blueprint on how to find cracks against them, the Viking rolled it out in the 3rd quarter last month:
Against two straight 5-man blitzes, Minnesota covered 40 yards in two plays by sneaking to the spots where the aggressive defenders had just been. First a tight end leaked out against the run of movement, then the running back hit the hole that Suggs was vacating for a twist action. Did they get lucky? Maybe. But it shows that the right call can always be the antidote against fast talent so eager to anticipate. Can McCarthty outsmart Harbaugh even though the Ravens are coming off a bye and so have double the prep time? If he can’t, the season is in jeopardy. Never has there been more pressure on Coach.
THE BALTIMORE STRUGGLE
Ever since he was declared a genius two years ago, Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates has become the public heir to James Baldwin’s immense legacy. Toni Morrison declared this on the jacket of his best-selling book that explicitly took its cues from Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.
These two most recent books deal with subjects of tremendous scope, but it was his first book, The Beautiful Struggle, which is his most intimate and personal. Most of its autobiographical details take place in the city of Baltimore.
“We were another country,” he writes, “fraying at our seams…We lived in a row house in the slope of Tioga Parkway in West Baltimore.” This is less than four miles from where the Ravens play home games.
“My father was Conscious Man…From the day we touched these stolen shores, he’d explain to anyone who’d listen, they infected our minds…But none of it made sense. I was young and could not see the weaponry my ancestors had left for me…Slowly I came to feel that I was not the only one who was afraid.”
Toward the end of this debut memoir, Coates finds a way to begin speaking clear-eyed truths to American power structures, and especially to the tropes used to describe crime. “Politicians step up to the mic,” he says, “claim the young have gone mad, their brains infected, and turned superpredator. Fuck you all who’ve ever spoken so foolishly, who opened your mouths like we don’t know what this is. We have read the books you own, the scorecards you keep – done the math and emerged prophetic.”