Since the first day it was together, the 2017 Ravens defense talked boldly about what it could become. Words like “legendary” were used and other football cliches, such as “imposing our will” and “dictating the terms,” were tossed around.
For much of the past three months, the Ravens have at least flirted with that standard. They’ve forced more turnovers than any other team in the NFL. Their pass defense has given up fewer yards than all but one other team. They’ve allowed the fewest fourth-quarter points in the league. The Ravens are just the fifth defense in the past 30 years to have three shutouts in a season, and they accomplished that over the first 10 games.
Yet, it’s an unavoidable fact that much of that dominance has come against backup quarterbacks and struggling offenses. The Ravens went to Oakland and faced EJ Manuel rather than Derek Carr. Brett Hundley and not Aaron Rodgers was under center for the Packers in Green Bay. The Miami Dolphins started Matt Moore over a banged-up Jay Cutler, and the Houston Texans were forced to rely on Tom Savage when rookie phenom Deshaun Watson was lost with a knee injury.
Over the next two weeks, the Ravens defense will step up in class, and the team’s playoff hopes might depend on whether it’s able to keep good quarterbacks under wraps and force the turnovers needed to set up a punchless offense. On Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens (6-5) will have to deal with Matthew Stafford and a talented Detroit Lions supporting cast in a key game for both teams. The following Sunday night, they’ll travel to Pittsburgh and oppose longtime nemesis Ben Roethlisberger and a stocked Steelers offense.
With the talent that we have and the leadership, we should be able to line up against anybody, play whatever coverage and play Ravens football.
Ravens safety Tony Jefferson
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"I think our mindset the entire time was that it doesn’t matter who you’re playing,” Ravens safety Tony Jefferson said. “With the talent that we have and the leadership, we should be able to line up against anybody, play whatever coverage and play Ravens football and come out with the ‘W.’ I don’t necessarily believe that a specific quarterback is going to change what we do.”
The Ravens spent the short week after their Monday night win over the Texans lauding Stafford, who enters the game ranked fifth in the NFL in passing yards and fourth in touchdown passes. He’s thrown just six interceptions despite being fourth in the league in passing attempts. Ravens rush linebacker Terrell Suggs, never one to dole out excessive praise to opposing quarterbacks, labeled Stafford “very elite.” Defensive coordinator Dean Pees marveled at how Stafford, a nine-year pro, can make all the throws and has complete control over the Detroit’s 10th-ranked passing offense.
There was also a palpable level of excitement in the locker room about the challenge of going against a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback after several weeks of answering daily questions about the good fortune of facing projected backups. Overall, the Ravens have played six of their past seven games against backups with the exception being the Tennessee Titans’ Marcus Mariota in Week 9. They lost that game, 23-20.
During the stretch, the Ravens beat teams led by Manuel, Moore, Hundley and Savage. They lost to Mariota’s Titans, Case Keenum and the Minnesota Vikings and rookie Mitchell Trubisky and the Chicago Bears. Mariota played a solid game, but the Ravens fell to the Vikings and Bears because they struggled offensively and couldn’t stop the run.
“People are giving us all kinds of flak, like it’s our fault we had to play against the second-string quarterbacks,” cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “We’ll get to go out and play against a really good one and hopefully show people what we’re doing.”
Said safety Eric Weddle: “Every week presents challenges — offensively, schematics, players. But Stafford is one of the best. He can make all the throws. He commands the offense, checks at the line, presents different challenges than we’ve seen in the past, but every week is a tough game regardless of who is playing quarterback. We have to go out and play great, and that is what we plan on doing.”
By almost every measure, the Ravens defense has been one of the league’s best. It’s allowing only 17 points and 189.9 passing yards per game, the second fewest in the league in both categories behind the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Ravens have 26 takeaways, one more than the Jaguars. Their defense is the fifth best in the NFL in the red zone and the sixth best on third downs. The defense’s Achilles’ heel earlier this season was stopping the run, but over their past four games, the Ravens are allowing just 64.3 rushing yards per game, the second fewest in the NFL during that span.
However, there is some curiosity about how the Ravens will match up against an upper-echelon offense because, for no fault of their own, they’ve rarely been in that situation this year. Only three of their 11 opponents currently rank in the top 12 in yards and points per game and the Ravens lost all three of those matchups, giving up 44 points to the Jaguars, 26 to the Steelers and 24 to the Vikings.
Of their six wins, four of them are against teams in the bottom nine in the NFL In total yards. They’ve faced only one quarterback (Roethlisberger) ranked in the top 12 in the NFL in passing yards, one in the top 10 in completion percentage (Keenum) and two in the top 15 in touchdown passes (Roethlisberger and the Cincinnati Bengals’ Andy Dalton). Stafford, meanwhile, ranks 16th in completion percentage but is in the top five in passing yards and touchdown passes.
“We do know the difference between a backup quarterback and the type of quarterback that we have to play this Sunday,” middle linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “With that being said, we just have to make sure that we don’t overreact and don’t try to do anything extra just because the starting quarterback is playing. We just have to play our type of football. … I don’t care who is the starting quarterback, who is the running back, or who is out and who is in. If we play our type of defense, we’ll have a good chance of winning most of our games.”
Still, the Ravens’ defensive leaders have readily acknowledged that plenty of stuff needs to be cleaned up, problems more productive offenses and more prolific quarterbacks would likely exploit.
Terrell Suggs has 9½ sacks and four forced fumbles, but the Ravens are seeking more pass-rush help from their younger players.
Weddle was disappointed by a handful of coverage breakdowns against the Texans, particularly ones in the middle of the field. Suggs was miffed in the same game about the number of defensive penalties called against the Ravens.
“We are coming into December football. You do not want to shoot yourselves in the foot,” Suggs said. “You want to do the good things you do. You want to exceed on those, and the things that you don’t do so well, you kind of want to limit those. We need to be playing championship playoff football from here on out.”
Suggs, the longest-tenured player on the team and the defensive leader, has downplayed any past comparisons to other Ravens defenses he’s played on. He said back in the summer that it was up to the current defense to carve out its own identity.
The Ravens are in the process of doing just that, but the next two games against the Lions and Steelers could reveal a lot.
“We have five-plus games still to play, and how well we play over the rest of the season, I think as a defense, will determine the place in history,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “That story has yet to be written.”