On third-and-13 midway through the second quarter Sunday, Ravens outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith lines up across from Tennessee Titans left guard Quinton Spain. Six Ravens teammates lurk at the line of scrimmage with him. All but two Titans are clustered together in front of them.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh would remark later how the defense’s 11 sacks of quarterback Marcus Mariota, a franchise record and NFL high this season, weren’t so much a showcase of individual brilliance but of teamwide excellence — defensive tackles creating space for blitzing linebackers, a sticky secondary giving edge rushers enough time to collapse the pocket. But Smith’s third-and-long was a solo act that would’ve done just fine on Nashville’s Broadway.
At the snap of the ball, Smith charges into Spain. Just as quickly, he discards the 330-pound lineman with an inside swim move. He is so quick into the backfield that when Mariota finishes his five-step drop, Smith is already within arm’s reach of the ball as Mariota steps into a throw. Smith’s momentum takes him wide of the quarterback, but he extends his right hand instinctively, as if he’s Chris Paul testing a 7-footer’s ball-handling. The football falls, and Mariota falls on it.
The play was over in 2.5 seconds, the Ravens’ fastest sack of the fall and tied for the 13th fastest in the NFL this season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Afterward, Titans coach Mike Vrabel lamented that his offense would have to “fix a lot of things,” particularly how long it took to get rid of the ball in the 21-0 loss.
The Ravens defense has accomplished so much this season — No. 1 scoring defense, No. 1 total defense, still no second-half touchdowns allowed — but its greatest test, and perhaps greatest feat, is yet to come. If Tennessee’s passing offense Sunday was carried out with all the speed of a dial-up modem, consider the New Orleans Saints’ closer to fiber-optic internet.
Quarterback Drew Brees’ average time to throw, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, is 2.52 seconds, just a hair slower than Smith’s lightning-fast sack and second among NFL quarterbacks with at least 100 passing attempts. His completion percentage is an NFL-best 77.9 percent, almost 6 percentage points higher than the all-time NFL record, which Brees set last season.
In five games, he has been sacked only eight times, tied for the second fewest in the NFL. He has been pressured on just 24.5 percent of his drop-backs; among starting quarterbacks, only the Chicago Bears' Mitchell Trubisky and the Ravens’ Joe Flacco have had cleaner pockets. His passer rating when pressured (92.6), according to Pro Football Focus, is higher than Flacco’s overall rating (87.1) this season.
“His vision is unbelievable,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “His pocket awareness is the best, and he’s very accurate. So he can see, he can find the open receiver and he gets guys in position. They scheme guys open. He knows what he’s looking at presnap, and he knows what he’s looking at postsnap. So he’s not going to miss an open guy very often, and he has a great feel for the rush.
“He’ll take some sacks if he has to, but only if he has to. He throws; he’ll hang in there and make some tight throws when he has pressure all around him. He has the numbers he has for a reason. He’s every bit of what he’s cracked up to be, and I have a lot of respect for him, have a lot of respect for the whole offense.”
With another star, running back Alvin Kamara, spearheading the team’s ground game, the Saints have scored more points in five weeks (180) than 24 NFL teams have in six weeks. In Baltimore on Sunday, they will face a Ravens defense with its own too-good-to-be-true statistical profile: Just one touchdown separates their 74 points allowed in regulation this season from what New Orleans gave up over its first two games (66).
The Ravens cannot reasonably expect to one-up their 11-sack masterpiece at Nissan Stadium; it took them seven years and many great defensive fronts to eclipse the franchise record of nine tied in 2011. But they are now perhaps better equipped than at any point this season to dent a pass protection that had allowed nine sacks all season, as the Titans had, or contain an offense that leads the NFL in points per game, as the Saints do.
Top cornerback Jimmy Smith’s share of defensive plays continues to climb, from 44 percent against in Week 5 to 61 percent Sunday, as he returns to game shape following a four-game NFL suspension.
Defensive end Willie Henry, who also missed the first four games while recovering from hernia surgery, shared the field for the first time this season Sunday with defensive tackle Michael Pierce, who missed the overtime loss to the Cleveland Browns with a foot injury.
And while the Ravens offense spent so much time on the field Sunday that “we had offensive linemen who were breaking out in hot sweats getting on the plane,” Harbaugh quipped Monday, the defense played just 16 second-half snaps.
That’s normally a good thing, Harbaugh acknowledged. Especially for the plays this season that take longer than 2.5 seconds.
“When you're running in coverage and you hear the screams of a sack, you're happy, especially if you're slipping a bit,” Jimmy Smith joked Sunday. “So sometimes they save us, and sometimes we save them.”