Baltimore Ravens newly signed nose tackle Domata Peko on joining the team that has quarterback Lamar Jackson running the offense.
One near-constant this season in an ever-changing Ravens defense has been the presence of defensive tackles Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce.
While the defense’s turnaround has been highlighted by the midseason signings of veteran free agent inside linebackers Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort, along with the acquisition of cornerback Marcus Peters, Williams and Pierce have anchored a unit that allows the eighth-fewest rushing yards per game.
The 300-plus-pound run-stuffers don’t fill the box scores every game, but players and coaches know the defense’s success starts with those two players.
Refer back to the Ravens’ worst performances defending the run: In a 40-25 loss on Sept. 29, the Ravens surrendered 193 rushing yards to the Cleveland Browns, a game in which Williams didn’t play because of a knee injury.
“[Williams has] played a lot of good games, and he doesn’t get a lot of the attention because being a run-stopper isn’t sexy in this league anymore,” defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said Oct. 31. “Everybody wants sacks. But all the stats prove that when he’s on the D-line for us, we play better against the run. Just look at the difference between Cleveland and Pittsburgh.”
In last Sunday’s 49-13 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, Cincinnati rushed for a season-high 157 yards. Pierce played just three snaps, hampered by an ankle injury that threatens his availability for this Sunday’s AFC matchup against the Houston Texans (6-3). Harbaugh said Friday that Pierce will be a game-time decision.
With Pierce out for the majority of last Sunday’s game, Williams played a season-high 78 snaps. It’s a workload the team would rather not have Williams, 30, take on, but it became imperative with the team’s lack of interior linemen.
Martindale said the team also had to make changes to adapt to the Bengals’ offense, which emphasized ball control and running the ball in rookie quarterback Ryan Finley’s first career start.
“I think we made adjustments,” Martindale said Thursday. “And part of it was my adjustments and my calls. I didn’t realize we were going to play a four-minute offense the whole time we were playing them.”
Defensive linemen Chris Wormley, Zach Sieler and even fullback Patrick Ricard, who has played sparingly on defense, received increased time on defense last Sunday, but none bear a reputation as stout run defenders.
Over the course of his 14-year career, Peko has been featured as a nose tackle, most notably with divisional rival Cincinnati. Last season with the Denver Broncos, Peko recorded 31 combined tackles and two tackles for loss.
Ellis last played a full season in 2017 with the Oakland Raiders. In 16 starts, Ellis registered 48 combined tackles and one tackle for loss.
“I come to fill gaps and knock back blockers,” Ellis said Wednesday, speaking to reporters for the first time. “Stop the run, that’s really what I’m here for.”
“I feel good about them to contribute Sunday,” Harbaugh said Friday. “They both practiced well, they practiced hard. They’re in good shape. It’s not the most complicated thing. They have to figure out where to line up on the different calls, or certain checks they need to understand. But they’re good at that and they know how to play the techniques that we play.
“They have a chance to play if the circumstances work out with Michael.”
More important than having depth is the ability of the Ravens to place two run-stuffers on the field at the same time. The numbers show that the Ravens’ run defense is much more effective when Williams and Pierce play together, rather than by themselves.
Williams has been on the field this season with Pierce for 65 run plays. On those plays, the Ravens’ defense has allowed 244 yards, an average of 3.75 rushing yards. Those numbers, if projected to an entire season, would be among the league’s best.
When Pierce is on the field without Williams, opposing offenses average 6.02 yards per rush. When Williams is on the field and Pierce is sidelined, that number increases to 7.16 yards per rush.
“You might not see it on the stat sheet, but when him and Michael are in there together, sometimes it takes four blockers, and that frees up linebackers and things like that,” defensive line coach Joe Cullen said during the team’s bye week.
“[Pierce] is invaluable. ... He just does a great job playing square, playing violent on the center and does a great job demanding two blockers. And usually, when they don’t [double him], he’s usually making a play. So, to have two of those guys is — we’re very fortunate.”