Mike Preston

Mike Preston: Ravens’ defensive front returning to full strength at just the right time | COMMENTARY

Early in the third quarter Sunday, New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones completed a 15-yard pass over the middle to wide receiver Darius Slayton. As Slayton was falling to the ground, Ravens nose tackle Brandon Williams went flying over his body like a 757 jet.

There was your sign: the player nicknamed “Big Baby” was back.


Earlier in the game, the Giants attempted to run a quick outside screen, only to have it forced back inside by defensive end Calais Campbell, who must have gone to the same flight school as Williams.

Buried under the Ravens’ avalanche of offensive production in recent weeks are the returns of Williams and Campbell to the starting lineup. Replacements Justin Madubuike, Justin Ellis and Broderick Washington performed well when the two veterans were out with injuries, but the Ravens need their top linemen if they want to get into the postseason and make a run.


The tandem only combined for two tackles in the Ravens’ 27-13 win against the Giants, but players in the trenches don’t always compile big individual statistics. The final score is the bottom line, but New York only had 54 rushing yards on 12 carries and only 269 yards of total offense.

The Ravens also registered six sacks, including one each from linemen Madubuike and Jihad Ward.

“It’s a plus,” coach John Harbaugh said about the return of Campbell and Williams. “I thought Calais played well. It’s good to see him getting healthy again, and I think he’ll be even better as we go forward. Brandon is playing at a high level. [Starting defensive end] Derek Wolfe is playing at a high level. Madubuike had another really good game; he keeps getting better every single week.

“Justin Ellis is playing really well. Those guys all did a great job in the game. So, we have some depth in there. Certainly Calais, he’s one of the best ever. It’s great to have him back, and it makes a difference.”

The returns of Williams and Campbell come at the right time. The Ravens (10-5) play in Cincinnati on Sunday in the regular-season finale and must win to get into the postseason. The Bengals (4-10-1), winners of two straight, have a rejuvenated offense thanks to a running game that produced 152 yards on 41 carries in a 27-17 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers and 169 yards and two touchdowns in a 37-31 triumph Sunday against the Houston Texans.

They shouldn’t have the same success against the Ravens.

Williams missed Weeks 11 and 12 with an ankle injury but has started the past four games. He struggled moving laterally until he turned in a strong effort against the Jacksonville Jaguars last week with five tackles.

Campbell has struggled with the coronavirus and a calf injury in the second half of this season, which forced him to miss three games. The Ravens played him on a limited basis as he recovered, but he was never fully comfortable. Campbell was held out of the Jacksonville game and it appeared as if he might sit out Sunday’s game too, but he played and moved reasonably well. He isn’t at his Pro Bowl level, but his presence makes a difference.


Despite the missed games, Williams is 13th on the team in total tackles with 31 and Campbell has 28. When they are in the lineup together, at least one of them has to be doubled teamed, which frees up middle linebacker Patrick Queen. The rookie has had problems shedding blocks, but still leads the team in tackles with 102.

Campbell can also collapse the pocket, which stops quarterbacks from stepping up to throw. Without any lanes in the middle, Jones became a much easier target for outside linebackers Matthew Judon, Pernell McPhee and Yannick Ngakoue.

The silver lining for the Ravens during the absences of Williams and Campbell was that young players such as Madubuike and Washington got more playing time, which gives the team a better five or six-man rotation.

“It’s not me, it’s the whole defensive line,” Judon said when asked about his performance after Sunday’s game. “You see Madubuike got his first sack today, too. So, we have some young guys stepping up. Broderick has been playing well when he gets his opportunity, and ‘Jelly’ [Ellis]. So, we just hit our stride right now and we’re going to continue the tempo.”

But the bulk of the work will be handled by Williams, Campbell and Wolfe (49 tackles), which was the plan when the Ravens shored up their run defense this offseason by trading for Campbell and signing Wolfe.

When training camp started, the only top player on the defensive line who returned from a year ago was Williams. Now, all three starters are together and close to being fully healthy again.


The timing is perfect.