Underrated defense keeping Ravens competitive in mediocre AFC North

November 07, 2016 | Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Eric Weddle was honest about the Ravens following their 21-14 win over Pittsburgh to snap a four-game losing streak on Sunday.

The veteran safety wasn’t trying to knock the offense, but he was stating the obvious eight games into the 2016 season. Tied with the Steelers for first place in the AFC North with a 4-4 record, Baltimore is leaning on an underrated defense to carry an offense that was again ineffective beyond Mike Wallace’s 95-yard touchdown on a short slant pass from Joe Flacco late in the first quarter.

The Ravens hope the offense will improve in the coming weeks, but the bye week and the return of three starters on that side of the ball once again brought disappointing results against a mediocre Pittsburgh defense.

It’s clear where Baltimore’s strength lies.

“Where we’re at as a team, we have to play great week in and week out to give ourselves a chance to win,” said Weddle about a defense that shut out the Steelers through the first three quarters. “When we limit teams’ big plays and we don’t let the ball go over our heads, you see what we can do and what were capable of.”

The standard for defense is unsurprisingly high in this town after watching the likes of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Terrell Suggs over the years, but the Ravens have quietly ranked in the top 10 in most major defensive categories, an improvement from the last few seasons. The 2016 defense might be a far cry from some of the elite units of yesteryear, but today’s NFL is also a different game with more rules catered toward scoring.

Allowing under 20 points per game says a lot more now than it used to.

Of course, the Ravens weren’t happy with allowing touchdowns on two of their final three defensive series, but those hiccups came only after Ben Roethlisberger and Pittsburgh had gained a total of 69 yards and two first downs through three quarters. The Baltimore offense didn’t help matters in that final period by failing to pick up a single first down to run more clock.

Still, it’s no surprise that the elder statesman of the defense was quick to note the imperfections in a win that brought more relief than excitement in the locker room. He helped set those high standards, after all.

“We gave up some plays down the stretch, and I don’t like that,” Suggs said. “You don’t ever want to have to win the game with your ‘hands’ team, especially when you have a 21-point lead in the fourth quarter. We’ve definitely got to finish better. We’ve got to get better. We’re going to take the win, but we’re not satisfied.”

Some good fortune was at work on Sunday with Roethlisberger clearly not himself less than three weeks removed from knee surgery, but the Ravens did an impeccable job keeping Pittsburgh’s two biggest play-makers — wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell — in check for much of the game. It wasn’t until the fourth quarter that Brown finally hit double-digit receiving yards while Bell finished with an underwhelming 70 yards from scrimmage on 20 touches.

With Suggs and inside linebacker C.J. Mosley returning to action and the defense controlling the line of scrimmage, the Ravens allowed just 2.0 yards per carry despite the Steelers’ clear desire to run the ball to take pressure off their hobbled quarterback. Mosley’s presence also tightened up pass coverage in the middle of the field, which had been a problem for Baltimore during his two-game absence.

Brown caught his second career touchdown against the Ravens on Sunday, but he found space only after the deficit had already grown to 21-0 with a punt block returned for a touchdown by rookie Chris Moore early in the fourth quarter. The four-time Pro Bowl receiver finished with seven catches for 85 yards, which included his 23-yard score with 8:38 remaining.

“It was really a team effort and a lot of credit goes to Dean Pees for his game plan,” said cornerback Jimmy Smith, who continues to play at a high level in the secondary. “We mixed some things up and kept Pittsburgh on their heels. They got some things late, which no one likes. But we’re real happy with our performance.”

The Ravens should be even happier with the current state of the AFC North. A 4-4 record typically doesn’t land a team in first place, but Pittsburgh has proven to be as mediocre as everyone else in the division with its current three-game losing streak. A 9-7 mark might win this underwhelming division, giving Baltimore a chance despite having a more challenging second-half schedule than the Steelers or Cincinnati.

The offense continues to be a major concern after gaining just 110 yards on 49 plays over the final three quarters, but it’s time to start giving more credit to this Ravens defense, especially with five-time Pro Bowl pass rusher Elvis Dumervil missing all but two games this season. It’s not an elite group, but the numbers shouldn’t be ignored.

Baltimore has allowed only 3.4 yards per carry with rookie free agent Michael Pierce serving as an impressive complement to Brandon Williams and Timmy Jernigan on the defensive line. The secondary has been better than expected with the free-agent arrival of Weddle and the surprising contributions of fourth-round rookie Tavon Young as a starting cornerback opposite Smith.

The defense did as much as you could have asked for against a talented Pittsburgh offense, but time will tell if the strong play will continue late into the season. Of course, it may not matter if the offense doesn’t start pulling its own weight.

“It’s all in how you finish. If you miss the playoffs, who cares where your defense ranked?” Suggs said. “This is about winning games, going to the playoffs, winning division championships, winning championships. At the end of the year, you can [say], ‘Oh, they had a top-10 defense, whatever.’

“But if you don’t win, it doesn’t matter.”

The strong defense certainly mattered on Sunday as the Ravens were able to stop the bleeding from last month and climb back into first place of a forgiving division.