Geno Stone never dreamt of leading the NFL in interceptions when he was a kid.
Brandon Stephens played running back for most of his college career.
Michael Pierce hasn't been healthy in several years and plays one of the game's least glamorous positions.
The Ravens' elite defense is loaded with big-name stars, but Stone, Stephens and Pierce aren't the ones that jump to mind. Yet they're all having superb seasons, and they were the ones to make the game-changing plays in the Ravens' 31-24 win in Arizona Sunday.
Stone and Stephens made critical interceptions that set up touchdowns for an off-kilter Ravens offense. Pierce helped a defense that was sluggish out of the gates make key early fourth-down stops.
"When you're struggling a little bit and really not hitting – [the Cardinals] had some good schemes, and they were running some good plays – someone has to step up," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "In this league, you have to make plays."
The Ravens defense surrendered a touchdown to the Cardinals on their opening drive, gave up more yards (310) than it would have liked, and yielded a pair of late touchdowns that made for a tighter-than-necessary finish.
But it was two fourth-down stops that kept the Cardinals' early momentum at bay and two interceptions that turned the tide.
When the Cardinals scored a touchdown on their opening drive, it was just the seventh touchdown the Ravens defense had given up this season and snapped a 16-game streak of not allowing an opening drive touchdown. It was a shocker.
Behind a strong and persistent rushing game, Arizona marched back down the field and were beyond midfield when they went for it on fourth-and-1. Pierce batted down the pass at the line of scrimmage for a turnover on downs to keep it a 7-7 game.
After Justin Tucker missed a 53-yard field goal, the Cardinals were again on the brink of scoring range when they went for it on fourth down. This time, Pierce stuffed running back Emari Demercado for no gain with a massive hit.
"Mike was dominant," Harbaugh said. "He just took over the game inside."
Pierce said it's usually less "highlight-worthy plays" but confirmed that even nose tackles can be in the proverbial zone. And he was definitely there Sunday in Arizona in one of his best career games, which also featured a sack and forced fumble – his first sack since 2021.
"It's a momentum jump, man," Pierce said. "As a defender, especially for me, I never see those kinds of plays come my way. It's just a momentum jump for everybody; two fourth-down stops, no matter who makes them."
The game was tied at 7-7 for much of the first half after each offense traded touchdowns to open the game. The Cardinals were driving to try to take a halftime lead when Stephens stepped in front of an errant Joshua Dobbs pass for his second interception of the season.
Six plays and 43 yards later, Gus Edwards rolled into the end zone on a 1-yard touchdown to give the Ravens 14-7 lead at halftime.
The Cardinals didn't fade away though. The Ravens didn't pull away until late in the third quarter after Stone jumped another Dobbs pass, which may have been intercepted by Stephens if Stone didn't get it. Three plays later, the Ravens were in the end zone again and now they had a little breathing room at 21-7.
"They were huge," tight end Mark Andrews said of the defense's big plays. "All year, the defense has been getting timely turnovers, and for us to go and capitalize that and get points off those is big."
Stone's magical season continues as he entered Sunday night's game as the NFL's interceptions leader and only increased it with his fifth pick of the year. He has three interceptions in his last three games after getting one pick in his previous three seasons.
Stephens, who was a running back at UCLA before transferring to SMU and becoming a cornerback, has emerged as a steady and strong starter opposite Marlon Humphrey this season. Stephens was a jack-of-all-trades defensive back the past couple of years, but he's blossomed in a full-time role.
"It's been huge. Geno is getting a pick every week. I was talking on the sideline; he's inching into that Defensive Player of the Year [conversation]," Humphrey said.
"B Steve as well. Corner is obviously one of the hardest positions in the league and B Steve has really shown up big. Those guys have really stepped up and been big for us."