Sunday is a chance for the Ravens and Browns to show which defense is the bully on the block.
Cleveland's defense led by All-Pro edge rusher Myles Garrett is off to a phenomenal start, ranked No. 1 in the NFL in just about every major category, including yielding just 163.7 yards per game. To put that in perspective, the 49ers are ranked No. 2, and they've given up almost 90 more yards per game (253.0) than Cleveland has.
However, the Ravens aren't ready to anoint Cleveland's defense as the best. Not this early in the season. Not with Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey (foot) yet to play, and star safety Marcus Williams (pectoral) having played just one game.
The Ravens are ranked 10th overall on defense, but All-Pro linebacker Roquan Smith sounds ready to toss that ranking into Lake Erie on Sunday. Smith says the Ravens' defense won't take a back seat to anyone heading into this AFC North matchup.
"You're not defined by being the best defense in the league [based] off of Week 4, period," Smith said. "It's a 17-game season, so it's what you're going to do late in the season.
"Hats off to those guys. I know they have some good players over there and whatnot, but I haven't really watched them. I don't really care too much if I'm being perfectly honest. I'm just more focused on our defense and what we're going to do to make sure we come out victorious in this game."
Trying to keep Garrett from wrecking the game defensively will be a top priority for the Ravens. He already has 4.5 sacks and 10 quarterback hits, and the Browns move him along the defensive front, making it more difficult for opponents to double-team or anticipate where he'll rush from.
Garrett has 6.0 sacks in 10 career games against Baltimore, and the Ravens have won six of those matchups. But this is a new version of Cleveland's defense under new coordinator Jim Schwartz. Garrett is thriving in it, with help from others like such as former Ravens edge rusher Za'Darius Smith, and defensive ends Ogbonnia Okoronkro and Alex Wright.
In victories over the Bengals and Titans, the Browns gave up just three points in each game and put relentless pressure on quarterbacks Joe Burrow and Ryan Tannehill, respectively. The Titans paid so much attention to trying to block Garrett in Week 3, they took a delay of game penalty when two tight ends kept switching sides, moving with Garrett whenever he moved.
Garrett is getting the most attention, but the entire Browns defensive unit is playing well. Top cornerback Denzel Ward and safety Grant Delpit are also playing at a high level, and opposing quarterbacks haven't had much time to go through their progressions. They've given up the fewest first downs in the league, and sustaining drives against the Browns has been difficult.
Jackson's ability to escape pressure has been a huge asset against Garrett, and the Ravens have a 6-2 record against Cleveland in games in which Jackson and Garrett have played. But whether they chip Garrett at the line of scrimmage, double-team him, or leave a running back in the backfield to pass protect, Jackson knows Garrett is a player who requires special attention.
"He's a great, great pass rusher. He's a great defender," Jackson said. "I've been seeing him around since college – since my freshman year of college – so I'm used to playing against him. He's a great defender and all-around defensive lineman."
While the Browns' defense will try to harass Jackson, the Ravens' defense will focus on shutting down quarterback Deshaun Watson and Cleveland's offense. The Browns suffered a huge blow when star running back Nick Chubb went down in Week 2 with a season-ending knee injury, but in a 27-3 win over Tennessee in Week 3, Watson (27 for 33, 289 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Amari Cooper (seven catches, 116 yards, one touchdown) carried the offense.
The Ravens' defense is fueled by the superb inside linebacker duo of Smith and Patrick Queen and the versatility of their players which Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald uses to create chaos and confusion. While the Ravens suffered their first loss to the Colts in Week 3, the defense still played well, led by safety Kyle Hamilton, who had nine tackles and three sacks as a blitzer.
With both the Ravens and Browns sitting at 2-1, both teams want to make an early statement in the AFC North, and Smith wants Baltimore's defense to speak loudly in Cleveland.
"You go in there as the enemy to go take over and that's our plan to actually go take over," Smith said. "I think they call it the dawg pound, and I consider myself a dawg, so I'm right at home in that place. I'm excited to get back in there. I know they're a physical football team, but so are we. At the end of the day, it's going to be the most physical football team that comes out of there, and whoever is the most physical football team in that game, that's who is going to come out victorious."
Smith approaches every game with unbridled intensity and relishes the physical nature of matchups like Sunday's promises to be. The idea of going into Cleveland, or any road game, and coming away victorious is the kind of challenge that stokes Smith.
"You're going into essentially another man's house, and you're trying to take over," Smith said. "His wife, kids, and everyone is there to watch them. We're going over there to beat their tails in front of their wife and kids. When you think about it from that perspective, any man is going to fight till the death at that point. I know if that's me in that case, I know I would. I'm just going in just like I prepared for any other game – play till [you hear] the whistle, play physical and hit anything that moves."
Sometimes, players claim not to notice statistics, but the Ravens know Cleveland's defense is ranked No. 1, and that's a distinction the Ravens' defense wants when the season is over. It's part of what makes Sunday's encounter intriguing, featuring two defenses that believe then can take over a game.
The Ravens view Sunday's setting as a perfect stage to show what their defense is made of. Regardless of what the statistics say, Baltimore hopes to make a statement.
"I would say we strive to be the No. 1 defense," nose tackle Michael Piece said. "We aren't there at the moment, but definitely. This is Cleveland Browns vs. Baltimore Ravens. It's always been a big hit, take-a-punch, throw-a-punch kind of game. We definitely are aware that they're No. 1, and they have an amazing front. We definitely want to outplay them, but at the end of the day, that No. 1 [defense] spot is still up for grabs until the season's over. That's what we're striving for."