Preston: Biggest reason for Ravens' defensive revival is return of big man Brandon Williams

Nearly a week ago Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees was trying to describe the biggest difference in his unit compared with previous years without hurting anyone’s feelings.

He got the basic message out. The Ravens have an improved secondary, but there is more. Tackle Brandon Williams has proved that he is the most valuable player on the defense, and Pees deserves some credit for his play-calling as well.

The Ravens (5-5) are ranked No. 6 in total overall defense, allowing 306 yards a game, and No. 2 in pass defense, allowing 185.2. They are third in points allowed with a 17.1 average but 26th in rushing defense at 120.8 yards per game. That will get better as long as Williams stays healthy.

As for now the Ravens are good and possibly knocking on the door of greatness. If they can make a couple of more big plays, especially in crunch time, then even Pees concedes that this group could be outstanding.

The turning point, though, just wasn’t in the offseason, when the Ravens signed free-agent cornerback Brandon Carr and safety Tony Jefferson and drafted Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey in the first round.

The key moment came Oct. 22, when Williams returned to the starting lineup after missing the four previous games with an ankle injury. The Ravens and a rusty Williams gave up 169 rushing yards to Minnesota that day in a 24-16 Vikings victory.

But since then the Ravens have allowed only 45 rushing yards to the Miami Dolphins, 71 to the Tennessee Titans and 75 to the Green Bay Packers. They are 2-2 since Williams’ return and 1-3 without him. Without him, they lost to quarterbacks Blake Bortles, Case Keenum and Mitchell Trubisky.

Now that they have shut off the run, quarterbacks such as Green Bay’s Brett Hundley and Houston’s Tom Savage have little chance for success. Combined with the personnel changes in the secondary, the Ravens are dominant again.

“I think we have been much more aggressive as far as pressure and things like that, just because I felt like we had the ability to cover out there, whether it be man or a zone pressure,” Pees said.

General manager Ozzie Newsome and coach John Harbaugh are still taking criticism about loading up on defensive players during the offseason, but they made the right move. In previous years they repeatedly lost big games because they couldn’t mount a pass rush or match up with the other team’s top receiver.

That has changed. Instead of playing with average cornerbacks such as Shareece Wright, Asa Jackson, Chykie Brown or Corey Ivy, the Ravens have Jimmy Smith, Humphrey and Carr. All three are physical and can play press coverage.

The Ravens don’t have to design coverage to hide a weak player or shade a safety to provide deep help in the middle of the field. It’s almost like a trip back in time when the team had cornerbacks Duane Starks, Samari Rolle and Chris McAlister.

And then there is the IQ factor. Jefferson and Weddle are veterans, so there aren’t as many problems with alignments and assignments as in previous seasons or even earlier this year.

Pees’ new comfort level has allowed him to bring more pressure on quarterbacks because he isn’t as afraid of giving up big plays in the secondary. The Ravens already have 28 sacks this year compared with a total of 31 in 2016.

Often on passing situations Pees brings seven or eight players near the line of scrimmage. He can blitz with linebackers C.J. Mosley or Patrick Onwuasor or bring pressure of the edges with Weddle or Jefferson. Or safety Lardarius Webb or Anthony Levine Sr., who doubles as a linebacker and safety.

It’s just good to have options.

To become a great defense, the Ravens have to get more consistent pressure with the front four in base defense, but they don’t have a dynamic pass rusher or win enough individual battles.

Also, Weddle and Jefferson are good box safeties who play well near the line of scrimmage, but they don’t cover a lot of ground on the back end. Maybe by the end of the season they’ll be able to make a big stop in a big game in the closing minutes.

It will be interesting to see how much more the defense can improve. It’s gotten better ever since Williams returned to the middle.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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