The Ravens' defense has been good all season, but Saturday night in Los Angeles, it was great.
In a must-win situation, the NFL's No. 1-ranked defense slammed the door on the Chargers. This is what a dominant defense looks like.
In a convincing 22-10 victory, Baltimore's defense checked every box. The Ravens engulfed Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, forced three turnovers, and sealed the victory with a 62-yard fumble return for a touchdown by cornerback Tavon Young, who scooped the fumble forced by linebacker Patrick Onwausor.
When the game ended, Ravens Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle celebrated with Ravens fans near the tunnel leading to the locker room, exchanging high fives and congratulations. This game had special meaning for Weddle, who played his first nine NFL seasons with the Chargers. But for the entire defense, this game was special.
"We were going back and forth," said Weddle, describing the trash talk between he and Rivers, not only a former teammate but a close friend. "We feel we have a great defense and we can cause a lot of problems for our opponents with our movements, with our disguises, with our blitz coverages, and with the way our defensive coordinator calls games.
"We had them on their heels the entire game."
Those strengths were evident in this game. Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale stayed one step ahead of one of the game's smartest quarterbacks all night, but it was the players who executed the plan almost to perfection. This was the kind of hurdle the Ravens' defense had to clear – finishing the job against a quality opponent on the road.
Earlier this month, the Ravens suffered a heartbreaking overtime loss to the Chiefs when the defense couldn't stop quarterback Patrick Mahomes from making big plays late in the game. The Ravens' defense couldn't get off the field last year against the Cincinnati Bengals, or against the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2016 in Week 16. Giving up late-game touchdowns in both of those games cost the Ravens a playoff spot.
But there is a different feeling about this Ravens defense, especially since it is now causing turnovers. In many ways, the tone for this game was set on the first play from scrimmage, when Ravens cornerback Brandon Carr made a spectacular acrobatic interception. The Ravens didn't settle for just stopping the Chargers. The Ravens took the balk from the Chargers and took over the game.
Baltimore was near the bottom of the league in turnovers for much of the season. They got three of them Saturday night.
"This showed who we are," Carr said. "We've been talking about getting turnovers the whole season. Now we're getting them. The icing on the cake is taking the football. We've played a lot of these high-caliber teams, and we haven't finished the game out. Today was taking the game into our own hands."
The only touchdown the Ravens surrendered came after a fumble by Kenneth Dixon to start the second half set the Chargers up with a short field. But the offense got the lead right back on Lamar Jackson's 68-yard touchdown pass to Mark Andrews on the next possession.
Once the Chargers fell behind again, it was all downhill for them, because Baltimore's defense was swarming. Every phase of the Ravens' defense was excellent. Rivers was sacked four times, twice by Onwuasor, who had a superb all-around game. Safety Tony Jefferson had several bone-jarring tackles, while the Ravens' top four cornerbacks were all excellent – Marlon Humphrey, Jimmy Smith, Young, and Carr, plastering Los Angeles' receivers all over the field.
This was the first Chargers game all season that Rivers did not throw at least one touchdown pass. Baltimore's defense limited Los Angeles to 198 total yards of offense. The Chargers had not been held under 200 yards since 2014.
The Ravens cannot let up, still needing to clinch a playoff spot heading into their Week 17 home game against the Cleveland Browns. But with the defense playing like this, there is no team the Ravens don't match up well against, no opponent that can count on moving the ball at will against Baltimore.
This performance embodied what the players and coaches mean by "Ravens football." It was physical, it was impressive, and it made a statement to the Chargers, and to anyone who saw it. The Ravens (9-6) have won five of their last six games. And with this defense, the best may be yet to come.
"Just very, very proud of our guys," Head Coach John Harbough said. "Very appreciative of the effort. So many guys stepped up and made plays. … Turnovers complement our defense. To see guys like Peanut (Onwuasor) and Tavon come up with those plays, man, that's the final piece to our defense."