Can a special defense still win the Ravens a Super Bowl?
In the time since the Baltimore Ravens kicked off their inaugural season in 1996, the franchise has built its identity around strong defense.
Few units of the modern era compare favorably to that of the 2000 Ravens, a group so frighteningly talented that it made a champion of journeyman quarterback Trent Dilfer. And while Joe Flacco put together one of the greatest playoff runs for any signal-caller in NFL history, Baltimore’s 2012 championship squad featured the defensive star power of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Terrell Suggs. It only seems fitting that, should the Ravens win another title, their defense would lead the charge.
However, in the NFL’s current incarnation, the idea of defense carrying a team to a championship might elicit laughter. By design, offensive efficiency and scoring have risen across the board in 2018. At present, seven quarterbacks are on pace to throw for over 5,000 yards, an astounding figure considering that only nine such seasons have occurred previously. Likewise, three teams average enough points that to finish in the top 10 for scoring all time if they hold steady. All of which leaves little to dispute the idea that today’s NFL belongs to the offense, not its counterpart.
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Even so, it appears the Ravens possess a special defense this year, one that has outperformed every reasonable expectation from the offseason. Entering Week 7, they have allowed a league-best 12.8 points per game, more than four points better the No. 2 ranked unit. Baltimore has also allowed the fewest yards from scrimmage per game (270.8), the only team under the 300 mark. Even the advanced metrics like the Ravens defense, with Football Outsiders’ DVOA rating it No. 2 in the league.
And that statistical dominance echoes what the Ravens have shown on the field. Under new coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, the defensive front swallows up any runner that comes its way. The unit has yet to allow a single 100-yard rusher all season, and only three have so much as crossed the 50-yard threshold. The poundage provided by Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce as well as the dynamic play of linebackers C.J. Mosley and Kenny Young have given opponents fits, and their ability to stop the run will only grow more valuable as the season progresses.
Meanwhile, opposing offenses haven’t done much better through the air, in large part thanks to the efforts of a better-than-expected pass rush and an experienced secondary. Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith have combined for more sacks this season (10) than all but two other pass-rushing tandems, and the backup edge rushers on the roster might provide a boost later in the year. Further back, the secondary has plenty of built-in improvement with the recent return of corner Jimmy Smith from suspension. It will take Martindale some time to fully define every defensive back’s role, but only health seems capable of derailing the group.
Yet, the question remains, can such a defense carry the Ravens to a championship in the league’s current offensive-friendly environment?
No simple answer exists, but the possibility should not be entirely discounted. The fact that the Ravens have maintained their strong defensive play deep into October separates them from the vast majority of their contemporaries. Furthermore, when the weather turns later in the year and NFL offenses regress as a result, the Baltimore defense could see its metrics actually improve.
And while the Ravens trail the Cincinnati Bengals for the division lead, only a tiebreaker separates the two teams at this point. The Pittsburgh Steelers continue to lurk in third place, but even the possible return of All-Pro Le’Veon Bell cannot revive their flailing defense. Looking at the conference at large, only the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots have firmly established themselves as title contenders.
While those factors don’t make the Ravens a favorite by any stretch of the imagination, it does give them a path. Perhaps more importantly, none of those other teams possess even an adequate defense. That could prove the difference should Baltimore face any of them in a hypothetical playoff game.
This outlook comes with caveats, of course. The Ravens offense cannot significantly regress as the season unfolds. The unit probably needs to resolve its broken running back, one of the worst in the league by any metric. An injury to Flacco or another major contributor could also turn into enough of an albatross to negate Baltimore’s defensive advantage.
Still, if enough things break the Ravens’ way, the defense could indeed put them in the mix for the Lombardi Trophy.
Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. He has bylines at SB Nation, Sports on Earth, and other outlets. He also serves as the senior writer and editor for Acme Packing Company, a Green Bay Packers blog.