With a 4-5 record, the Baltimore Ravens are in second place in the AFC North, tied with the Cleveland Browns and a game and a half behind the division-leading Cincinnati Bengals. Their record could be even better, if it weren't for their struggling offense.
In fact, that struggling offense—no run game to speak of, a poor offensive line, few reliable targets for quarterback Joe Flacco's passes—has attracted so much attention that the defense has often been ignored. But quietly, and seemingly against all odds, the Ravens defense has been playing very well.
The defensive side of the ball prompted the most discussion in the offseason, after the defending Super Bowl champions made a series of seemingly baffling moves.
They let eventual Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed leave in free agency—he joined the Houston Texans before being released on Tuesday according to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle. They also cut fellow safety Bernard Pollard, willingly allowed linebackers Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe and cornerback Cary Williams to test free agency and, of course, there was the matter of replacing retired middle linebacker Ray Lewis to deal with as well.
The Ravens managed to plug these holes with in-house talent, veteran free agents and rookies.
In Kruger's outside linebacker spot came Elvis Dumervil, whom the team landed thanks to a notorious fax machine problem. Josh Bynes, Arthur Brown and Jameel McClain came to the rescue at inside linebacker, where Ellerbe played.
Veteran Daryl Smith came aboard to take over Lewis' vaunted roster spot, safety Matt Elam and defensive Arthur Jones were both drafted in April and free agent Michael Huff was brought in, initially to take Reed's old free safety job. Jimmy Smith and Corey Graham took over for Williams. A pair of veteran defensive linemen, Chris Canty and Marcus Spears, were also signed.
Not all of these moves panned out—Huff was benched after a dreadful Week 1 performance in which he gave up three touchdowns with no passes defensed, and was later released, as was Spears—but most of them did.
Though the beginning of the season was shaky, considering how difficult it is to build immediate chemistry in a new-look defense, things have come together well for Baltimore now that they have made it past the midseason point.
To see the full picture of the Ravens defense, one must look beyond the most basic metric by which success is determined—yards allowed. Baltimore ranks only 15th in opponent yards per game, at 342.2. They are 10th in rushing yards allowed, at 102.6, and 18th in passing yards, at 239.7.
No, what makes the Ravens defense Pro Football Focus' third-best unit (subscription required) and Football Outsiders' eighth-best comes down to three things—points allowed, the pass rush and their innovative rotational approach with their front seven.
The Ravens are a bend-but-don't-break defense, much as they were last year. In 2012, they ranked ninth in points per game allowed (21.1), while ranking 21st in yards allowed per game (361.1). This year, the Ravens are allowing 21.0 points per game, which ranks eighth in the league. They rank ninth in opponent red-zone possessions per game, at 2.7 and allow touchdowns on just 33.33 percent of those attempts, ranking them second.
Despite having so many new faces in starting positions, Baltimore's defense has managed to stay consistent in its ability to keep opponents from scoring. That's a feat few other teams could pull off.
This has been particularly helpful this year, considering the Ravens offense is averaging just 20.9 points per game; the defense is trying to do its part to keep the entire team above water. If the Ravens had even just a slightly underperforming defense, their record would be far worse than it is now.
The pass rush has been another valuable component to Baltimore's defensive success this year. The Ravens are tied for third in the league in sacks at 32. Leading the way is outside linebacker Terrell Suggs with nine, followed by Dumervil with eight and Jones with four. In total, 11 Ravens defenders have at least a half-sack so far this year.
The sacks and the overall pressure they are bringing to opposing quarterbacks—40 hits and 102 hurries—both kill drives and make up for the low number of turnovers the Ravens have generated this year. Twenty-six of their sacks have come on second and third downs, and 19 have come on 2nd-and-6 or 3rd-and-six or longer. They aren't just getting pressure, they are getting it consistently on the down-and-distances that matter most.
This highly effective pass rush is a byproduct of how the Ravens are rotating their defensive front seven this season.
Though a true commodity, Dumervil has played only 375 of a possible 641 defensive snaps this year—211 as a pass-rusher, 116 as a run-stopper and 48 in coverage. He splits his time with second-year linebacker Courtney Upshaw, whose 350 snaps are a bit more run-heavy, with 150 snaps against the run, 120 on pass rushes and 80 in coverage.
Linebacker-defensive end hybrid Pernell McPhee is a situational edge-rusher who has been working in relief of Suggs, Canty and Jones this year, logging 120 of 179 snaps as a pass-rusher. Bynes, Arthur Brown and McClain have been rotating at both right and left inside linebacker, with Bynes and McClain taking up run defense and coverage duties and Brown used situationally to rush the passer, like McPhee.
via Pro Football Focus (subscription required)
Many of the so-called Ravens linebackers have also seen time at defensive end. Canty and Jones have each played around half of Baltimore's defensive snaps this year, and it's not just the released Spears (145 snaps) or DeAngelo Tyson (63 snaps) taking the balance.
Rotating players—and defensive formations—is nothing new to the Ravens, who for years have run a 3-4/4-3 hybrid, but now they have the proper collection of experienced veterans and young, fast players to make this work so well.
This is not exactly the season the Ravens expected after winning the Super Bowl last year. However, the nature of their struggles isn't exactly what we as observers and fans expected either. Despite a high rate of turnover at many starting defensive positions, it is the offense and that has been the liability this year.
Thankfully for that subpar offense, the Baltimore defense has handled many changes and come out stronger for them.