With all eyes on offense, Ravens defense continues leading way in 2020

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The Ravens offense continues to dominate the conversation here in Baltimore.

It’s understandable with the reigning NFL MVP leading a unit that shattered both franchise and league records a year ago. Even after a franchise-best 14-2 campaign, great offense remains a novelty for local fans who lived through so many years of offensive futility. That helps explain the handwringing over a group that hasn’t lived up to the near-impossible statistical standards set last season despite again leading the league in rushing.

With most of the focus on the struggling passing game, the season-ending injury to Pro Bowl left tackle Ronnie Stanley, and the recent comments made by quarterback Lamar Jackson about the play calling on “The Rich Eisen Show,” we’ll wait and see if an overall middling offense finds its stride in the second half of the season. The 265 rushing yards against Pittsburgh and the second half in Indianapolis were positive signs, but those were far from complete performances.

Meanwhile, the defense continues to play at a championship-caliber level, leading the way to a 6-2 mark with less fanfare. I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same for the Ravens in their 25th season.

“There’s a standard around here in Baltimore,” said defensive end Derek Wolfe, a first-year Raven and a member of Denver’s Super Bowl-winning defense in 2015. “I just try to live up to that standard every day.”

That old standard that originated with Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis continues to be met in 2020 as the Ravens are allowing a league-low 17.8 points per game. Their performance comes while we’ve seen more scoring through the first nine weeks of any season in NFL history. There’s been no shortage of adversity along the way either, ranging from the Earl Thomas saga in training camp and the early Tavon Young injury to the Week 9 absence of Marlon Humphrey and the accompanying list of COVID-19-related disruptions.

When five-time Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell went down with a calf injury on the third play from scrimmage against the Colts last Sunday, the Ravens didn’t flinch, holding Indianapolis to their season-low 10 points – none in the second half — for a 10th straight road win. It was the Marcus Peters forced fumble and Chuck Clark 65-yard return for a touchdown that immediately halted a 7-0 deficit that was moving in an unsettling direction late in the first quarter.

“We all took it as somebody just has to step up,” said Peters, who added that the defense wanted to finish strong after shaky second-half performances in the previous two games. “We can’t complain. We understand the situation that we’re dealt with right now. We know that things are going to be up and down throughout this whole year. We just have to find a way to adapt and overcome these types of situations.”

The ability to adapt has been aided by general manager Eric DeCosta, who went to great lengths to address the defensive roster in the middle of the season for a second straight year. In 2019, the Peters acquisition headlined an in-season makeover that included the additions of Fort, inside linebacker Josh Bynes, and defensive tackles Domata Peko and Justin Ellis. The result was a Ravens defense that played as well as anyone down the stretch despite being overshadowed by Jackson’s historic campaign.

This season, the Ravens acquired 25-year-old pass rusher and University of Maryland product Yannick Ngakoue to beef up a pass rush that’s relied too heavily on the blitz in recent years, a reality reinforced by the Week 3 loss to defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City. Along with just-signed cornerback Tramon Williams fortifying the injury-depleted depth in the secondary, Ngakoue has a chance to be an X factor in the second half of the season. He didn’t make the stat sheet against the Colts, but anyone watching could see Ngakoue disrupt veteran quarterback Philip Rivers on multiple occasions, coming very close to his first sack as a Raven.

“Man, I’ll tell you — he adds a speed factor to our defense,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “We have some fast guys out there anyway, but he adds another element of that, which is a big plus. He was physical. I’m very happy with ‘Yan.’ I think he adds a lot to our defense. The stats that you’re talking about, those are definitely going to be on the horizon. There’s no doubt about that.”

There’s no shortage of talent at every level with the secondary leading the way, the defensive line offering strong play and experience, and the inside linebackers providing youthful upside. The Ravens have had superior defenses over the years, but this group hasn’t wavered playing through the challenges of the pandemic, a major credit to defensive coordinator Wink Martindale.

They’ll now face the likelihood of not having Campbell these next two weeks against New England and Tennessee, the types of rushing attacks the Ravens struggled to stop last season. It’s why they sent a fifth-round pick to Jacksonville in exchange for the 34-year-old back in March, but the defense showed last week it won’t panic without him.

Turnovers are making the biggest difference as Baltimore entered Week 10 tied for third in the NFL with 14 takeaways and a league-best 15 forced fumbles by the defense. It’s why the Ravens offense has benefited from the league’s best starting field position, making life easier for a group still finding its way in a season that hasn’t been as smooth as last year.

The Ravens have now forced a turnover in 21 straight games, the NFL’s longest active streak and the second longest in franchise history.

“We work on that every day, just trying to get turnovers and do it in practice,” said Clark, who scored his first career touchdown against Indianapolis. “But we say our goals before the game, and we say them in front of each other just so we know how we feel coming into the game.

“A defense that can get the ball back and then score [or] give it back to our offense. Then, we’re cooking for real.”

Baltimore’s Super Bowl hopes may ultimately rest on the passing game being able to do its own cooking, but the heavy lifting done by the defense continues to buy more time for that to happen.

Even as most attention remains on the other side of the ball.