The Ravens want to become dominant on defense, and they looked the part in Week 11.
Coming close to their first shutout of the season, the Ravens forced three turnovers and sacked Baker Mayfield four times in a 13-3 victory over the Carolina Panthers. Both teams struggled offensively, but the Ravens kept making impact plays on defense and turned the game in their favor.
In their last two games, the Ravens (7-3) have allowed just one touchdown, and they are performing at a high level in many phases – pressuring the quarterback, stopping the run, and blanketing receivers in coverage. In the locker room following Sunday's victory, players clearly sensed that the defense is building momentum. Head Coach John Harbaugh gave the defense a collective game ball after the victory.
"You can't be too mad with three [points allowed], but we're really trying to chase Ravens' defenses [from] the past that have just showed an elite greatness," said All-Pro cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who had an interception and a fumble recovery. "That's kind of what we're chasing, and we're looking better and better every week."
Perhaps Sunday's biggest play came early in the fourth quarter from cornerback Marcus Peters, as Baltimore was clinging to a 6-3 lead. After Shi Smith caught a short pass from Mayfield, Peters stripped the ball away from the Carolina receiver and the fumble was recovered by Humphrey at the Panthers' 31-yard line. Three plays later, Lamar Jackson scored on a 1-yard touchdown run to give Baltimore a 10-point lead and some much-needed breathing room.
"That was a great play on the strip," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "And I think our defensive line deserves a ton of credit. If I had to go back in there and do it again, I'd give it to the D-line just because they dominated. This is a very good running team, and they pretty much dominated the run game, really dominated the run game. And, we were making it really hard on Baker all day."
There was a time this season when the Ravens struggled to hold fourth-quarter leads, and they lost three games after leading by at least 10 points. However, the defense has built an air of confidence after four straight wins, and defensive end Calais Campbell said nobody on the unit is satisfied.
"First thing is, we have a new defensive coordinator [Mike Macdonald], and he needed time to put his own spin on things," Campbell said. "We were also depending on some young players, and it took a little time to gel together. We had a lot of new faces and it just takes time.
"Coach [Harbaugh] talks about the trajectory of where you're trying to go, and right now that matters, 100%. We're on that trajectory and it's continuing to build. We have great players, and we expect success, and we had a lot, but for whatever reason couldn't finish. There were moments we couldn't make plays and that cost us. But now, we're rolling."
Outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul had an interception against the Panthers and through 10 games, the Ravens have 19 takeaways (11 interceptions, eight fumble recoveries) compared to 15 takeaways all last season. That ability to change momentum quickly has been a key to Baltimore's success.
"It's a major, major point," Harbaugh said. "For us to be able to kind of turn that back into being a turnover-creating defense is really a big deal. We have some guys that are ball hawks."
It's no coincidence that Baltimore's defense has been cooking in the two since All-Pro inside linebacker Roquan Smith joined the team following a trade with the Chicago Bears. Smith had seven tackles against Carolina, and his presence has been a catalyst for fellow inside linebacker Patrick Queen, who was all over the field with a game-high 12 tackles.
The Smith-Queen inside linebacker combination has made it more difficult for opponents to run on Baltimore, and more difficult to find mismatches in pass coverage. Baltimore's defense looks faster to the football and the open-field tacking has improved. Defensive playmaking can be contagious, and Baltimore's defenders are feeding off each other.
"That guy [Roquan Smith] is All-Pro for a reason, and I guess now they have two guys that they have to really account for in the blitzing game and just being an all-around playmaker flying around," Queen said.
"I think we're just all trusting each other to make the play, not leaving anyone to hang out dry. We're all running to the ball, being physical. Everyone is just doing their job, one-by-one, one play at a time. It felt incredible; it felt like Ravens football honestly."