Baltimore's defense was the talk of the town a year ago.
The Ravens had spent big money in the offseason to re-sign defensive tackle Brandon Williams and add safety Tony Jefferson and cornerback Brandon Carr. They then drafted defensive players with their first four picks, giving them talented young players to infuse the veteran core.
The Ravens didn't shy away from big expectations, as players mentioned words like "legendary" and "historic" when talking about how good they expected to be.
Now, the Ravens have all 11 defensive starters back, plus key role players returning from injuries, but the group is flying a bit under the radar. Baltimore's new-look offense has dominated the conversation the last few months, and it seems like some of the external attention is overlooking how good the Ravens expect to be.
"People who know football, they know the Ravens are going to have a great defense," veteran safety Eric Weddle said during last week's minicamp. "We have high expectations for ourselves. It's built in playing for this organization. If you don't expect to be one of the best defenses in this league, then you shouldn't play here."
The Ravens finished last year with the league's 12th-best defense, but the glaring issue was the inability to close out games. The blown lead in the fourth quarter of the season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals ended the year on a sour note, and improving in those situations is the focus for the group in 2018.
"We've just got to shore up late-game situations," Weddle said. "We've got to win those situations with two minutes, continue to turn the ball over, be better in the run game – which we will – and you know, shoot, win."
The Ravens have made some key changes to the defense this offseason, most notably at coordinator. Wink Martindale took over at defensive coordinator after Dean Pees retired, and then unretired to join the Tennessee Titans.
Veteran players like Weddle, Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley have praised Martindale for the tweaks he's made to the defense, particularly when it comes to giving more freedom to the players.
"It's changed a lot," Suggs said. "We're happy about it."
The Ravens defense is also healthy at this point. Cornerback Tavon Young is back on the field after missing last year with a torn ACL, and he's expected to step into the starting nickel role. Defensive end Brent Urban is back after last year's Lisfranc injury, and cornerback Jimmy Smith even returned to minicamp in a limited capacity just six months after tearing his Achilles.
"We just have to stay healthy," Martindale said. "There is more depth across the board."
Just about every team is optimistic at this point of the year, but the Ravens have real reason for the confidence. They have star veterans like Suggs, Weddle and Mosley who are all coming off Pro Bowl seasons, and they also have talented young players like cornerback Marlon Humphrey and outside linebacker Matthew Judon poised to take big steps in their careers.
The Ravens also expect their offense to improve, which will help the defense stay fresh for those late-game situations.
"We're confident," Weddle said. "We obviously have to go show it. It's a big year for everyone, but expectations are high here, and they should be. This is a championship organization, so anything less is not getting it done."