The Ravens' defense is very good, but it wants to achieve even more.
Baltimore was carried by another impressive defensive performance in Week 16, holding the Falcons without a touchdown during a 17-9 victory that helped clinch a playoff spot for the Ravens. Yet, in the locker room afterward, defensive players like Patrick Queen and Roquan Smith weren't focusing on how well they played.
They believe the best is yet to come.
"We know how great we can be," Queen said. "We know how many points we can really hold people to. It's just small plays here and there that we're not executing. Once we really lock in and really execute to our potential, ain't no telling."
Over the past four games, the Ravens have yielded just three touchdowns. They have been difficult to run against, difficult to throw against, and already have more takeaways (24) than all last season when they only had 15.
Smith led the Ravens with 15 tackles against the Falcons, his season-high since being traded to Baltimore seven games ago. One of Smith's many impressive plays against Atlanta came on third-and-1, when he knifed into the backfield to tackle Cordarrelle Peterson for a loss.
Smith and Queen (nine tackles) have quickly become a dynamic linebacker duo, playing off each other to give Baltimore a speed element at inside linebacker that has made them better at blitzing and pursuing ballcarriers. Smith picked up Baltimore's defensive system quickly after being traded, but now he's playing with even more freedom. For opponents, that's a scary thought.
"I feel way more comfortable in this defense than I did when I first got here," Smith said. "I feel like I've been in this system for a while now. I can keep getting better."
Even without Calais Campbell (knee) and Marcus Peters (calf) against the Falcons, the Ravens looked like a defense at full strength. Brandon Stephens stepped in for Peters and played well as a starting corner, while Marlon Humphrey played like a Pro Bowler, which he is. Humphrey took the difficult assignment of covering Atlanta's top receiver Drake London (seven catches, 96 yards), who showed why he has a promising future. However, Humphrey had a huge play in the second quarter when he punched the ball away from London after he made a catch, causing a fumble that was recovered by Queen to end a promising Atlanta drive.
"That was classic Marlon Humphrey," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "He got the tough assignment; he got London. He was following him all over the field, and that's a tough job. The dude's 6-foot-5, and he's really good and the quarterback and he have a connection. So, Marlon had a heck of a game. I thought Bandon Stephens came in and played very well. The safeties are playing well, [Kyle] Hamilton. Of course, Marcus Williams and Chuck [Clark]. There's nothing going really deep on us. It's hard to throw the ball down the field on those safeties right now, so I feel really good about our entire defense."
Atlanta came into the game with the NFL's third-best rushing attack, but even without Campbell the defensive line had a strong day as Baltimore held the Falcons to 115 yards rushing. Defensive tackle Justin Madubuike (seven tackles) was having his way with offensive linemen, either overpowering them or using his quickness.
"He's been playing great all year to be honest with you," Harbaugh said. "He's been dominant, really."
Madubuike said the defensive line accepted the challenge of playing without Campbell.
"He's one of our best players," Madubuike said. "When he was down, I know that on the defensive line, we have to step up, and I feel like we did that tonight. Executed at a high level, especially in the fourth quarter, having great knock-out punches on fourth down and third down."
The speed element that Smith and rookie safety Kyle Hamilton have added to Baltimore's defense is significant. Baltimore's pursuit to the football is impressive, and even when one player misses a tackle, there's often another player close by who ends the play.
The Ravens haven't allowed more than 14 points for four straight weeks, which allowed them to win three of those games without explosive offensive production. Excellent defense can carry a team a long way, particularly in December and January when the weather turns frigid and throwing the football can become more challenging.
Clinching a playoff spot and holding another team without a touchdown made the Ravens' defensive feel good. But they're still not satisfied.
"I think we are playing really good," Smith said. "But I always think there is room for improvement. I think there are little things that we can clean up. You know, we just can't get complacent. But, it was an awesome job of us, sticking together, bending but not breaking. I've got a lot of respect for the guys inside the room and all over the defensive side of the ball."