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Preston: Often overlooked, Ravens’ Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce handle heavy lifting for defense

Neither Brandon Williams nor Michael Pierce were among the 12 Ravens chosen for the Pro Bowl on Tuesday evening, but Ravens coach John Harbaugh will call on them to do a lot of heavy lifting Sunday in Cleveland against the Browns.

Again.

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The Ravens have perhaps the best team in the NFL, and it’s easy get caught up in the hype surrounding second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson, running back Mark Ingram II and some of the other glamour-position players, such as cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters.

But the foundation of a successful football team is built on grunt guys such as Williams and Pierce, and without them the Ravens would have struggled. In losses to the Kansas City Chiefs and Browns this season, the Ravens allowed more than 140 rushing yards.

In the 40-25 loss to Cleveland on Sept. 29, Browns running back Nick Chubb rushed 20 times for 165 yards, including an 88-yard touchdown run around right tackle that virtually sealed the win with about 10 minutes left.

The Ravens were without Williams, who missed the game with a knee injury. The Ravens will have him on Sunday, but the Browns also have running back Kareem Hunt to join Chubb. He missed the first meeting because he was suspended for violating the league’s personal-conduct policy.

The Browns have a great one-two combination. With Chubb, they have the total package, a 5-foot-11, 227-pound back with sprinter’s speed who leads the league in rushing with 1,408 yards on 270 carries. With Hunt, they have a runner at the same height but 11 pounds lighter who has breakaway ability.

“Both of their backs, the way they use them, obviously, they’ve done a really good job with Kareem and Nick both together,” Harbaugh said. “Nick hurt us badly in the first game. They do a good job of blocking. They do a good job of scheming up the run game. But also, he’s really special. He’s really fast. He’s really big, and he can accelerate with the best of them. He’s a tackle-breaker. He has good one-cut ability, laterally, to make a guy miss, and he can lower his pads. So, I really do believe he’s one of the best backs in football.

“Kareem Hunt complements him really well, very talented,” said Harbaugh of the back who has rushed for 167 yards and caught 30 passes for 220 yards. “He’s another starting-level back. They’re a little different in their style, and they use them accordingly. So, we’ll have to have all hands on deck to stop those two guys.”

Playing against Chubb and Hunt would make a lot coaches uncomfortable, but the Ravens have a reputation for being able to shut down the opposition’s running game. It’s been that way since the 2000 season, when the Ravens won their first Super Bowl.

The legacy has stayed intact for the most part. The Ravens are ranked No. 5 against the run, allowing an average of 96.1 yards per game. Most of those yards have come outside the offensive tackles or on the perimeter. Some teams don’t even attempt to run inside against Williams and Pierce.

Williams has 32 tackles and Pierce has 29, which is pretty good in their scheme. Nose tackles don’t rack up big numbers. They just tie up one or two big bodies on every play to clog gaps and keep offensive linemen off their linebackers. Combined, Williams and Pierce weigh 681 pounds.

That’s a lot of beef.

“This league is driven by stats, sacks, analytics and quarterback pressures,” Pierce said. “Our scheme is unique. It’s doesn’t always lend to Pro Bowl voting. But obviously it is effective, and they [coaches] appreciate what we do. It is what it is. The recognition will come when it comes.”

If the Ravens can shut down Cleveland’s running game, they will have a great chance to succeed and clinch home-field advantage in the playoffs. Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield has struggled, completing only 285 of 474 passes for 3,356 yards. His completion rate is 60.1% and he has 17 interceptions.

A one-dimensional Mayfield almost guarantees a victory for the Ravens, even though the Browns have two top receivers in Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. Beckham has only two touchdown receptions, while Landry has five. Both have complained recently about not being involved much in the offense.

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But it all starts with Chubb.

“He is the best back in the league according to the statistics,” Pierce said. “He is special and was amazing against us the last time. We all know what Kareem Hunt can do when healthy and rolling. We got a tough challenge in front of us.

“But we have a cohesiveness and we’re good when everything is clicking and everybody is accountable for gaps. We have to stay together, know where each person is supposed to be and that’s when we flow off each other.”

The Ravens added another piece to their run defense when they signed Domata Peko Sr. on Nov. 12. Like Williams and Pierce, he is another big man that is hard to move. But somehow, when it comes to Pro Bowl voting, Williams and Pierce get little recognition even though they are so valuable to the Ravens’ run defense.

“OK, they’re in that range,” Harbaugh said of the Pro Bowl voting. “I don’t know. I never get surprised, really. It seems like it’s always. … Who didn’t make it is always a concern. I would’ve voted for them if you were allowed to vote for your own guys. I don’t think you’re allowed to vote for your own guys, are you? But yes, I would have voted for them.”

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