The Ravens do not lead the NFL in every defensive category, but they are first in enough. They dominate the glamour statistics, ranked No. 1 in yards and points allowed and in defensive touchdowns. They are tops in yards allowed per play. They allow the lowest completion percentage. Just for good measure, they give up the fewest points per fourth quarter, too.
All of which safety Eric Weddle, the unit’s signal-caller, either knows or at least seems to understand. So when, on Christmas Eve, he read an ESPN.com article highlighting some of the NFL’s top defenses, as measured by “defensive win expectancy,” he asked for clarification.
Asked Wednesday about the back-and-forth, Weddle said he had no hard feelings. He understood why the defense’s relatively low turnover rate had hurt its ranking. Still, he said, it was “just funny.”
“We're in a great position where we are,” he said. “We don't necessarily worry [about media coverage]. … But we're so highly ranked in everything else that you just don't take into account everything else. We'll see what happens. We're not really too worried about that. It's a team game. I just wanted to see his answer on it, and we'll move forward.”
As the Ravens (9-6) reconvened in Owings Mills on Wednesday, preparing for the Cleveland Browns’ visit Sunday to M&T Bank Stadium, a few expected refrains emerged from the team’s locker room interviews: Yes, they know the stakes of their Week 17 win-and-they’re-in matchup. No, last season’s lost postseason bid will not have any bearing on Sunday’s game. And of course the Ravens defense wants to finish the regular season atop the NFL, as respected as it is productive.
The team has finished a season ranked No. 1 in both scoring and total defense just once before, in 2006. Those Ravens lost their only playoff game, a divisional-round appearance against the eventual Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts. But at least they had clinched a postseason spot by Week 16. These Ravens are one bad late afternoon from wasting a season of defensive dominance.
“I think it'd be terrible,” defensive tackle Michael Pierce said, chuckling at the notion. “Just missing the playoffs the way we did the past two years, we kept that in the back of our mind. People mention it all the time. But yeah, it would be a shame, and that's something we're working on.”
It is not rare for a defense to finish the regular season No. 1 in scoring and total defense; six have done it in the past decade.
It is rare, however, for such an elite unit to not even advance to the postseason. Since 2009, only the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers and 2010 San Diego Chargers have finished with the No. 1 total defense and not made it to the playoffs. In the NFL’s modern era, a period that dates to 1970, only the 1977 Atlanta Falcons have finished with the league’s best scoring defense and not qualified. (Those Falcons finished second best in total defense.)
January football has tended to reward teams like the Ravens recently. The 2017 Minnesota Vikings, 2014 and 2013 Seattle Seahawks, 2009 New York Jets and 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers, all of whom finished atop the NFL in the two defensive categories, advanced to at least their conference championship game. The 2013 Seahawks and 2008 Steelers won the Super Bowl that season.
“Anytime you put something together, you hope it’s going to be tough on your opponent,” coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “That’s the whole idea, is to impose your will upon your opponent however you can do it based on what your personnel is, and how you want to play and what your fundamental beliefs are.”
Week 5 was just another day at the office for the Ravens defense, which held the Browns to under 5 yards per play in regulation. But the Ravens still lost, 12-9 in overtime. Sunday’s test will be at another degree of difficulty.
While Cleveland (7-7-1) ranks 20th in offensive efficiency, according to analytics website Football Outsiders, their weighted score, a mark adjusted for later-season games, is 10th overall. They have averaged 24.2 points over the past six games, winning all but one. Weddle said Cleveland has “playmakers everywhere,” from quarterback Baker Mayfield and running back Nick Chubb to receivers Jarvis Landry and David Njoku.
The defense has heard all that before. Pierce joked that the only kind of offense they haven’t stopped yet is one with quarterback Lamar Jackson. To the Ravens, it matters little what the media says or whom they must stop. None of it has kept them from reaching No. 1 yet.
“It would mean a lot,” Weddle said. “It's about setting goals and then going to achieve them, and when you do, it's something to be proud of. A lot of guys can look back, and that was a driving force for this team, and to have an opportunity to say you were the No. 1 defense in the league is something that you'll cherish.”
“That’s the goal,” cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “We have one more game to conclude that goal. So if we do what we’re supposed to do, we’ll be there.”