With an Incredible Hulk shirt sticking out from under the bottom of his jersey, Brandon Williams manned his customary spot along the interior of the defensive line at the Ravens' practice Wednesday and, suddenly, all seemed right again with the team's beleaguered run defense.
Williams' absence for the past four games because of a toe/foot injury has coincided with near-unprecedented struggles for the Ravens' run defense under coach John Harbaugh. What has long been the foundation of a proud defense has crumbled in recent weeks as the Ravens (3-3) enter Sunday's matchup with the Minnesota Vikings (4-2) at U.S. Bank Stadium with the league's 30th-ranked run defense.
That's why the mere presence of Williams and defensive lineman Carl Davis, who also didn't play in Sunday's overtime loss to the Chicago Bears, on the practice field seemed to lift the spirit of several of the Ravens' defensive players who have grown tired of teams gouging them with persistent running attacks.
"We've got our $50 million man coming back," Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith said before Wednesday's practice.
Williams, who was a full participant in Wednesday's practice after returning to the field on a limited basis late last week, downplayed the significance of his return.
"I'm just a guy. I'm just a guy who is working to get back on the field. That's all I'm doing," he said. "Today felt good. I have two more days to go. Hopefully, I'll be back soon. We'll just take it day by day, play by play and just see how it goes. I'm just trying to worry about practices and make sure I have all my bearings back."
The Ravens' decision to give Williams a five-year, $52.5 million deal in March raised some eyebrows around the league because the big defensive tackle is primarily a run stuffer in a pass-happy league. However, what's transpired over the season's first six weeks has seemingly justified the move.
With Williams on the field for the first two games, the Ravens allowed 85 rushing yards per game, 3.95 yards per carry and no rushing touchdowns. In four games with Williams out, the Ravens surrendered 169.5 rushing yards per game, 4.4 yards per carry and four rushing touchdowns.
The struggles were epitomized in the loss Sunday, when the Bears ran for 231 yards, the most the Ravens have ever given up in a game. It did take 54 rushing attempts and almost a full overtime period to do it, but the performance nonetheless stung a team long known for having a dominant run defense.
"I saw too many yards between the tackles, bottom line," Harbaugh said. "I thought we played pretty well on the edges, for the most part. That is a stretch-zone team, and we defended that play pretty well. They were cutting the ball back, and they were squeezing it between our tackles or between our tackle and our end too much for 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 yards. I thought we had too many second-and-5s, second-and-6s, second-and-4s than we normally would want to have."
Williams' absence, coupled with starting defensive end Brent Urban's season-ending foot injury in Week 3, has left the Ravens with little experience up front. Davis is a third-year pro who missed his entire second season. Michael Pierce, Bronson Kaufusi and Willie Henry are all in their second year, but neither Kaufusi nor Henry played any defensive snaps last season. Patrick Ricard and Chris Wormley are true rookies.
"When you take a great player out of the middle of your defense, it's going to have an impact," Harbaugh said of Williams' absence. "That's not to take away from what the other guys did. I think the other guys played very well, especially for where they're at in their career."
Harbaugh said Williams will be evaluated this week to determine whether he can play Sunday. His return will obviously help, but will it be enough to completely turn around the team's fortunes against the run?
The Ravens have given up 848 rushing yards, which comes out to 141.3 yards on the ground per game. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars (145.7) and Los Angeles Chargers (152.5) are allowing more.
"Wow. That's terrible," Pierce said after the team's ranking against the run was mentioned to him. "We started off wanting to be the No. 1 run defense in the league. We have time to correct that and time to prove ourselves again, so that's definitely heavy on our mind and heavy on our hearts. We're going to get that corrected."
The Ravens are currently on pace to allow 2,261 rushing yards, which would be the most in franchise history. The previous record came in 2012, when they allowed 1,965.
Regardless of the circumstances, the team's struggles with stopping the run have been so jarring because it's become almost a given that the Ravens will have a vaunted run defense. In 11 of the past 14 seasons, they've finished in the top 10 against the run. In eight of those years, they ended up in the top five. They've finished worse than 15th in the league against the run just three times in franchise history.
"When they first brought me in as a free agent, the first thing they told me is, 'We stop the run here and then we play the pass after that,'" Pierce said. "You earn the right to rush the passer. The last couple of weeks have been terrible."
While the Bears mostly hurt them between the tackles, the Pittsburgh Steelers took advantage of the Ravens' youth at outside linebacker and their struggles to set the edge. Relying heavily on counter plays and outside runs, the Steelers rushed for 173 yards and two touchdowns in a 26-9 victory over the Ravens on Oct. 1.
Pierce has bore the brunt of Williams' absence because the double teams that normally target Williams have been coming at him. Williams' loss has also affected middle linebacker C.J. Mosley, who is unaccustomed to blockers getting to him at the second level, and rush linebacker Terrell Suggs, who is not getting as many one-on-one matchups.
"We always believe in the next man up, but this machine has working parts to it and you need all of your parts," Suggs said Wednesday. "It's always great to have one of the best interior linemen back on the [field]."
The Ravens are allowing 4.3 yards per carry, which ranks 21st in the NFL. But perhaps most galling is how many teams have run repeatedly right at them and had success. The 199 rushing attempts against the Ravens are the most against any team in the NFL.
There would be games in the past where teams barely even bothered to run the ball against the Ravens front, knowing it was a losing proportion. Ravens players insist that they can still have that type of run defense and it starts with having Williams back on the field.
"I'm just prepared to get out there and do what I do best, which is stop the run, get after the passer and push the pocket," Williams said. "I don't feel any weight on my shoulder, but I'm urging myself to get out there."
Wearing down without Williams
With mammoth defensive tackle Brandon Williams out for four games with a foot/toe injury, the Ravens have had one of the worst run defenses in the league.
Opponent; Result; Rushing attempts; Rushing yards; Yards per carry; Rushing TDs
Jaguars; L, 44-7; 35; 166; 4.7; 1
Steelers; L, 26-9; 42; 173; 4.1; 2
Raiders; W, 30-17; 25; 108; 4.3; 1
Bears; L, 27-24 (OT); 54; 231; 4.3; 0