The chatter has died down.
After a loss at the Minnesota Vikings on Oct. 22, the Ravens found themselves in the unfamiliar spot of ranking last in the NFL against the run, having surrendered 145.3 yards per game. A defense that has traditionally stonewalled opposing rushing offenses was suddenly inundated with questions probing the reasons for the sudden decline.
Since then, the Ravens have played five game, and not a single opponent has reached even the 80-yard mark on the ground. The defense has risen to No. 17 in the league against the run, and the scrutiny has largely dissipated.
“We always aim to be No. 1,” nose tackle Michael Pierce said. “So this is something we’re going to fight for in the last couple games. We’re trying to get back to where we know we can be.”
Stopping the run has been a focus for the Ravens. In 13 years between 1999 and 2011, the run defense finished in the NFL’s top 10 12 times and in the top five nine times. The unit stumbled to 20th and 11th in 2012 and 2013, respectively, but has ranked in the top five in two of the past three seasons.
That’s what made this year’s slide so puzzling. Despite the returns of middle linebacker C.J. Mosley, defensive tackle Brandon Williams and free safety Eric Weddle, and the additions of strong safety Tony Jefferson and cornerback Brandon Carr, the Ravens got exposed by the Jacksonville Jaguars (166 rushing yards in Week 3), Pittsburgh (173 in Week 4), the Chicago Bears (231 in Week 6) and Minnesota (169 in Week 7).
So, what has changed? The biggest factor — literally — has been the return of Williams, the 6-foot-1, 340-pound lineman who missed four consecutive games because of a painful foot injury.
Williams’ 22 tackles put him in the middle of the pack among Ravens defenders, but his ability to force opponents to use more than one blocker against him opens up opportunities for teammates. And at times, Williams has lined up at nose tackle, where he has drawn even more attention.
Williams downplayed his impact on the run defense, but his absence in the team’s 26-9 loss to the Steelers on Oct. 1 was noted by Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
“Obviously, with him not being there, that was kind of our game plan coming in,” Roethlisberger said of Williams. “With him coming back, we still have not developed a total game plan. We like to be a balanced offense, so that means running the ball as well. We will do what we can, but we know that he is a phenomenal football player who is very powerful with good quickness and can really make a lot of plays and be very disruptive.”
Said outside linebacker Terrell Suggs: “If you are going to run the Kentucky Derby, you want your biggest horse in the race. You don’t want him in the stable. Brandon Williams, being one of the best interior linemen in the NFL, especially going against one of the premier backs and the premier rushing offenses in the league, you definitely want one of your best interior linemen. So we get him back this week, and we are going to see how it plays out.”
Another ingredient has been a subtle shift in roles for Jefferson. Asked at first to assume more pass-coverage responsibilities, Jefferson has returned to being an in-the-box safety. In that role, he had a career-high 96 tackles last season for the Arizona Cardinals.
“I’ve always been a guy who can help with the run,” Jefferson said. “Just with the experience that I have, I have a feel for the game and what’s coming so that I can react faster and get into the backfield faster. For the most part, I give credit to the guys up front because maybe I’m the eighth guy or the free guy. Those guys usually control the gaps and stuff, and I’m just playing off of them.”
Jefferson’s assignment has freed Weddle to be more of a rover in the defensive backfield, where he ranks second in the league in interceptions (five).
“I think [it has helped] moving TJ around and doing what he does best in the box and being the enforcer that he’s accustomed to doing instead of mixing around and mismatching on defense where he’s sometimes deep,” Weddle said. “Now a lot of times, he’s in the box, and teams have to account for him and his ability to tackle.”
How much better the Ravens are against the run will be borne out by what unfolds Sunday night when they clash with running back Le’Veon Bell. The two-time Pro Bowler leads the NFL in carries (270) and yards (1,057) and has 13 games with at least 175 yards from scrimmage since 2014, which is eight more than any other player over that span.
Bell had 186 yards from scrimmage (144 rushing) and two rushing touchdowns against the Ravens in Week 4, and Mosley said limiting him is the defense’s top priority.
“He likes to be patient,” said Mosley, who is tied for sixth in the league with 101 tackles. “If one guy pokes his head to the side, he has the ability to bounce it out. So that’s with any type of run game. You want to stay square with Le’Veon and make sure that we try to keep him contained. He’s pretty much like a quarterback. We want to keep him in the pocket.”
The run defense’s improvement has been a relief for defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who has publicly maintained that the unit has been as sound as it ever was.
“We’ve just played things better,” he said. “We went searching for a five-technique a little bit after [defensive end Brent] Urban got hurt, and then with Brandon out, it was just a couple things in there like that. And then we’ve done some things to adjust the scheme a little bit for the personnel we have. So hopefully all that entails has helped a little bit.”
Running against the Ravens
Saddled with the NFL’s worst run defense earlier this season, the Ravens have bounced back to No. 17 thanks to keeping their past five opponents below the 80-yard mark. Here is a look at how the unit has fared thus far in their seven wins versus their five losses.
Category; In seven wins; In five losses
Carries; 161; 185
Rushing yards; 542; 810
Average yards per carry; 3.4; 4.4
Average yards per game; 77.4; 162.0
Rushing touchdowns; 4; 5