A season of gradual improvement from the safety combo of Kendrick Lewis and Will Hill has the Ravens confident they have their long-term solution at the position — and eyeing the safeties on the opposing sideline Sunday as the standard they hope to one day meet.
The Seattle Seahawks safety tandem of Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor has played a large role in the team's two straight Super Bowl runs, the product of five straight years starting together. In their first year as a pair, Hill and Lewis know it will take time to get to that level, but believe they've earned a chance to grow beyond this season.
"Those guys were one of the best duos in the league for quite some time now," Lewis said. "That came with them coming in the league together, being there all those years, their whole career together. It's just like brothers out there playing with each other that love the game. That's what we want to build with me and Will."
While Thomas and Chancellor were drafted together in 2010, Hill and Lewis came to Baltimore looking to establish themselves as free agents. Hill was a training camp signing with the Ravens in 2014 after multiple failed drug tests earned him a six-game suspension and a release from the New York Giants.
Lewis arrived as a free agent from the Houston Texans in March after beginning his career with four years as a Kansas City Chief.
They appeared to be the team's long-term safety pair when Hill signed a two-year contract extension during training camp, though the early part of the regular season saw growing pains for both and the entire secondary.
The Ravens secondary was prone to big plays, allowing 33 completions of 20 yards or longer through the first eight weeks of the season. As the last line of defense, Hill's and Lewis' roles were under scrutiny at that point, but the defense has come around since.
The Ravens have held opponents to 257 yards per game over the last four games, second-best in the NFL during that stretch, with a league-low 164 passing yards per game allowed in that time.
Perhaps more importantly, the Ravens have allowed just seven completions of longer than 20 yards. Coach John Harbaugh said the safeties "improved tremendously."
Cornerback Lardarius Webb said the safeties' process of acclimating to each other dragged on "maybe for too long," but "once they got comfortable with one another, comfortable with the defense, you could tell our defense started going north."
Over the course of the season, they've grown into roles they're comfortable with. Webb said Lewis is the man making the defensive calls and lining everyone up, while Hill is the muscle.
"That's the type of duo that we have in there — a ball hawk, and a guy that's going to knock a person out," Webb said.
The sound coverage of recent weeks is a positive step for the Ravens defense, one that many attribute to getting a strong run of games from Lewis and Hill. Lewis missed one game with a knee injury, in Week 7 against the Arizona Cardinals, but they've been together almost every snap since.
"It's just hard to get used to how somebody plays, how they communicate and when they communicate," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "The more guys play together, the better it is."
Hill and Lewis, along with the rest of the secondary, have taken to jump-starting their on-field chemistry by bonding off it. Hill and Lewis have cookouts together, set up outings for their young daughters, and take part in the weekly "DB Night," an activity that ranges from dinner to bowling to Dave and Buster's trips for the secondary.
Lewis said they're trying to build a "brotherhood where you know even when times get thick outside football, I've got your back."
"We take that same mentality off the field, and apply it on the game field," Lewis said.
Said Hill: "We complement each other well. There's a lot of chemistry. … Since Day One, since he's been here, we've been together and working things out. We've just got to come out and work hard every week, and that's when it's going to take over."
Hill believes the feeling-out process ended when they started seeing each other make plays. Hill has delivered a highlight-reel hit a week, and Lewis' strip of Miami Dolphins running back Lamar Miller was a pivotal moment in Sunday's game. Those plays have made each other "a lot more comfortable," Hill said, and will be the next step to reaching the level of the likes of Thomas and Chancellor.
Hill and Lewis have 10 passes defensed to 11 for Thomas and Chancellor, but the Seattle duo has six interceptions. Hill has one, while Lewis is waiting for his first interception as a Raven.
"Obviously, the combo [in Seattle], their reputation comes from making plays together," cornerback Jimmy Smith said. "K-Lew and Will are starting to jell and really know how to play off each other, what calls to make, who's the one to direct everything back there to help cohesiveness. Them together has gotten a lot stronger throughout the season."
That's led Lewis to believe they deserve a second season together, something that would stabilize a secondary that has been in flux for years and allow them to be "a real, dominant threat in this league," he said.
Smith said you only need to look at how well the NBA's Golden State Warriors play together with years of continuity to see what's possible for the Ravens secondary with stability, especially at safety.
"They've had a team that's been together for two years, and their core has been there for a while," Smith said. "That chemistry they have now, the confidence, it's unshakable right now. That's kind of where we're coming through with our secondary."