Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees talks about the Miami Dolphins offense. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)
Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase was reluctant to single anyone out because when he watches film of the Ravens' top-ranked rush defense, he sees seven guys who adeptly play within the team's scheme. He observes defensive linemen occupying blockers and running lanes, outside linebackers setting the edge and inside linebackers flying to the ball and making tackles.
The key to making it all work, though, stands front and center on the Ravens' defense. At 6-foot-1 and 340 pounds and with hulking arms and tree stumps for legs, nose tackle Brandon Williams absorbs double teams on most running plays. He doesn't make a whole lot of tackles, but then again, it's really not his job to.
His responsibility is to fill holes, get penetration and keep blockers off of other Ravens. If you ask his teammates and coaches, Williams is doing his job about as well as anybody in the NFL.
"That's what he was born for," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "If you look at his body, he's built to be a run stopper and a pocket pusher. He's built perfectly for it. God gifted him to do that job."
Even in the current pass-happy NFL, the Ravens' defense focuses, first and foremost, on stopping the run. It's long been an organizational strength and the current Ravens are doing it better than any team in the NFL. They have allowed just 74.9 rushing yards per game and four touchdowns on the ground, both totals leading the league. Just once in franchise history have the Ravens allowed fewer than 75 rushing yards per game over the course of a full season, and that was the record-setting 2000 defense, which allowed 60.6.
On Sunday, the Ravens' run defense will face another significant challenge against the Miami Dolphins (7-4) and second-year back Jay Ajayi, who ranks seventh in the NFL in rushing yards (847) and is tied for first among backs in yards per carry (5.3).
"Stepping in the door as a rookie, that's what they've been preaching," Williams said about the team's success against the run. "That's been the standard. To keep that standard has been big. I'm very proud of the front seven, the guys who are in the box and stopping the run, especially all my defensive linemen. They've been practicing well, doing great things, executing anything that coaches have asked them to. I love that we are being a cohesive unit and getting the job done."
Six Ravens have more tackles than Williams and four of them have more sacks. Williams also is playing just 60 percent of the team's defensive snaps. But Williams' value is reflected in the 148 combined tackles for inside linebackers Zachary Orr and C.J. Mosley, who have often had unobstructed paths to the ball carrier.
It's evident in the number of times fellow defensive linemen Lawrence Guy, Timmy Jernigan and Michael Pierce have had to deal with just one blocker instead of two. And it's noticeable in the number of times opposing running backs have had to hesitate or cut outside after not finding any room in the middle of the Ravens' defense. Only three opposing backs — Isaiah Crowell, Matt Forte and Ezekiel Elliott — have gained more than 60 rushing yards in games this season against the Ravens.
"A couple years ago I can remember that Haloti [Ngata] didn't have a bunch of stats and everybody wondered, 'Was his value diminishing?' Not to the coaches that were watching the film because if you can't single-block the nose tackle, you can make those linebackers look awful good," Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "Those guys are so valuable to us, and like I've said before, it's kind of like building a baseball team. It's kind of right up the middle, and it starts there and then it goes out to the edges and then you kind of fill in from there. He's just been a great asset."
Williams, the fourth-year player and former third-round pick out of Missouri Southern, has 35 total tackles and one sack. He's third among NFL nose tackles in tackles, trailing the New York Giants' Damon Harrison (63) and the Cleveland Browns' Danny Shelton (45).
"The disruption that he creates every play, whether it's in the pass game or the rush game, the penetration that he gets, that's how we start our defense," Mosley said. "He does the simple things, but the simple things are such a part of our defense."
Opposing coaches certainly are cognizant of how Williams can wreck a play. The Dallas Cowboys, who are lauded for having the NFL's best offensive line, frequently double-teamed Williams. Before facing the Ravens this season, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin called Williams "the man inside" and said he "generally requires two men to block him."
Pierce, who plays alongside Williams, estimated that Williams sees a double team nearly 70 percent of the time.
"I feel like if I'm not getting double teams, there's something I'm not doing right," Williams said. "That's a respect kind of thing, I feel. I take that as a compliment because you have to put two people on me to stop me. That gives time for [Pierce, Guy or Jernigan] to get one-on-one blocking and get to the passer or running back. I appreciate it and I welcome it."
As for the attention and praise, Williams is just fine when that's doled out to his teammates and not him. He's been regarded as one of the top nose tackles in the league the past two years, and he's yet to make the Pro Bowl. CBS Sports columnist Pete Prisco labeled Williams the most underrated player in the NFL earlier this year.
Williams, though, is comfortable measuring his play by how many tackles Mosley and Orr get or by how many rushing yards the Ravens allow, or even by how many times he is double-teamed. That's the very nature of what he does.
"It's not a glorious position, but it' a very important one," said Pierce who has been mentored by Williams. "You just have to be physically and mentally tough. First of all, you have to want to do it. You have to want to be the man in the trenches. You have to want to be the king of the jungle, if you will. It definitely takes a different style of personality. It's not a glorious, run-up-the-field type job. You just have to want to be one of the toughest guys on the field at all times."
Having seen firsthand how much players such as Sam Adams, Tony Siragusa, Kelly Gregg and Ngata have meant to some great Ravens' defenses, team officials appreciate Williams' importance. They also know that they have a pending decision to make on their nose tackle, who is due to hit free agency following the season.
The Ravens want to re-sign Williams, but the question is whether they feel it will be financially feasible to do so. They'll have myriad needs this offseason, and Williams is headed for a huge payday if what the top free agent interior defensive linemen got last year is any indication. Harrison got a five-year, $46.25 million deal with the Giants and the Jacksonville Jaguars signed Malik Jackson to a six-year, $85.5 million deal.
"I don't have time to think about it," Williams said when asked about his pending free agency. "We still got games to play, places that we want to go this year. I'm not going to worry about anything I can't control. Right now, I'm focused on the here and now. I'm focused on Miami."