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Baltimore Ravens

Ravens film study: Breaking down the NFL’s best run defense

At some point in the second half Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers decided they’d rather not run the ball anymore. It’s possible the Ravens had made the decision for them.

Starting running back Najee Harris’ last carry came midway through the third quarter of the 16-14 loss. The 2021 first-round pick fell forward for a 1-yard gain on first-and-10, denied daylight on a zone run by Ravens rookie defensive linemen Travis Jones, who’d absorbed a double team like it was a pillow, and Brent Urban, who’d shut down Harris’ cut-back lane.

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Wide receiver Steven Sims’ only carry came on Pittsburgh’s first play of the fourth quarter, a 1-yard end-around that was doomed as soon as cornerback Marlon Humphrey answered wide receiver Gunner Olszewski’s block attempt with a get-off-me shove.

The Steelers’ 20th and final carry came three plays later, an 8-yard outside toss to backup running back Jaylen Warren that tied Pittsburgh’s longest run by any non-quarterback Sunday.

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“In our room, our mindset basically is, like, ‘If they can’t run the ball, they can’t win,’” defensive lineman Broderick Washington said Tuesday. “And that’s just kind of what we go with, really.”

Steelers running back Najee Harris reaches out the football over the goal line for a touchdown in the first half of Sunday's game against the Ravens in Pittsburgh. Despite the score, the Steelers finished with 65 yards rushing, the sixth straight opponent Baltimore has held to fewer than 90 overall.

The Ravens aren’t letting anyone run the ball these days. The Steelers finished with 65 yards (3.3 per carry), the sixth straight opponent the Ravens have held to fewer than 90 overall, and the fifth team they’ve beaten in that stretch.

As the Ravens approach a potentially season-defining stretch run, questions surround the health of quarterback Lamar Jackson’s knee, the viability of their receiving corps and the consistency of their pass defense. But no unit in Baltimore — maybe no unit in the NFL — has been better or more reliable than their run defense.

Since Week 9, the Ravens lead the league in yards allowed per carry (2.8) and in run defense efficiency. According to the analytics website Football Outsiders, no defensive group has a higher defense-adjusted value over average than the Ravens’ run defense over the past two-plus months. Only two offensive units have a higher DVOA in that stretch: the passing attacks for the now Jimmy Garoppolo-less San Francisco 49ers and the banged-up New York Giants.

“I truly think we’ve got the best defense in the NFL, and I don’t think they’ve even played up to their standard yet,” left tackle Ronnie Stanley said after Sunday’s win. “Going against those guys in practice, it’s second to none. Those guys are going to get you right. … We have guys in the trenches leading the way, and I think that’s very important.”

The Ravens’ run-stuffing emergence has coincided with the arrival of All-Pro inside linebacker Roquan Smith and outside linebacker Tyus Bowser, both of whom made their season debuts in Week 9. But even with a talented front, the Ravens are perhaps doing more with less.

Structurally, the team asks a lot of its run defense. Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday that, entering the season, he’d expected the defense to play with more “base” looks: three down linemen, four linebackers and four defensive backs — a heavier, more run-oriented approach.

All season, though, the Ravens have played with relatively light boxes. Since trading for Smith and getting back Bowser from his torn Achilles tendon, the Ravens have had six defenders or fewer in the box on 33% of opponents’ run plays, according to TruMedia, the ninth-highest rate in the NFL and a notable increase from former coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s approach.

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Those light boxes haven’t compromised the Ravens’ run fits, though. On early downs, they’ve allowed just 0.86 yards before contact per rush since Week 9, the NFL’s third-best mark. On third and fourth down, opposing ball-carriers typically don’t even make it to the line of scrimmage before meeting the Ravens, who are averaging minus-0.6 yards per carry before contact in that span.

All of which has added up to a dramatic turnaround. Over the season’s first eight weeks, the Ravens’ run defense ranked 24th in DVOA and 17th in success rate. (A play is considered successful for the offense when it gains at least 40% of the yards to go on first down, 60% of the yards to go on second down, and 100% of the yards to go on third or fourth down.) During their recent dominant stretch, the Ravens lead the NFL in both.

“To us, if a team comes in here and runs the ball on us, or we go to somebody else, and they run the ball on us, it’s like, ‘Shoot, they’re bullying the big guys,’ basically,” Washington said last month. “So we don’t want to get bullied. We prefer to do the bullying than to get bullied.”

The Ravens have the personnel to do it again Saturday, against the Cleveland Browns’ vaunted rushing attack. Up front, Washington, Urban and Jones, a third-round pick, have stepped up since starter Michael Pierce suffered a season-ending biceps injury in September. Calais Campbell, even at age 36, is still a stalwart. Justin Madubuike is one of the NFL’s best zone-run defenders.

On the outside, linebackers Justin Houston, Jason Pierre-Paul, Odafe Oweh and Bowser have helped reliably set the edge after a disappointing, injury-marred start. In the middle, Smith has stepped in seamlessly, teaming with Patrick Queen to give the Ravens two potential Pro Bowl inside linebackers.

Beyond them, the Ravens can rely on standouts like Humphrey, one of the NFL’s better run-stopping slot cornerbacks; rookie safety Kyle Hamilton, whom Humphrey likened to a “unicorn” athlete playing as an “undersized linebacker”; and safety Chuck Clark, who has years of experience playing closer to the line of scrimmage.

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“We’ve got a lot of horses up front,” Smith said Sunday. “Those guys tracking blockers, keeping the ‘backers clean. And also, they’re tearing off and making plays in their gaps. We have some great support, too, from the corners in the secondary, and everyone in the secondary. I just think it’s a good combination of everyone playing good, physical football. We’re only going to keep getting better.”

Week 15

Ravens at Browns

Saturday, 4:30 p.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 4, NFL Network

Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM

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Line: Browns by 3


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