Facing the best running attack in the NFL brought out the best in Baltimore's defense.
Even with Calais Campbell (concussion) unable to play, Baltimore's front seven dominated during a 16-10 victory over the Cleveland Browns on "Sunday Night Football" that kept the Ravens atop the AFC North, holding the best record (8-3) in the conference.
On a night when Lamar Jackson struggled and threw four interceptions, the defense had his back with a superb performance.
The Ravens held the Browns to a season-low 40 yards rushing – a team that entered the game averaging 156.8 yards on the ground. Star running back Nick Chubb was held to just 16 yards on eight carries and Cleveland's longest run went for nine yards. Kareem Hunt tallied 20 yards on seven carries in his return to the field.
This has been a wacky NFL season, with things changing dramatically from week to week. But after giving up just 13 points against the Chicago Bears in Week 11, Baltimore's defense was even better in Week 12. Tackling and giving up big plays have been issues for Baltimore's defense this season, but not Sunday night.
One of the leaders was rookie outside linebacker Odafe Oweh, who continued his campaign for Defensive Rookie of the Year with a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a sack.
With six games left in the regular season, Oweh believes the Ravens' defense could be peaking at the right time.
"We're just starting to get to come together," Oweh said. "The crazy part is that's not even the best we can play. We're still missing people. We're still cleaning up the little things, but once we get that figured out, it's going to be light's out. I'm so proud of the defense. I'm so proud of how we played. I can't wait for the future."
Oweh's future is bright, and he's already making impact plays as a rookie. The journey to become a defensive standout took longer for Tyus Bowser, but the fifth-year outside linebacker is having his best year and bidding to make the Pro Bowl for the first time.
Bowser was superb (four tackles, one sack) filling a myriad of duties as a pass rusher and pass defender, while also defending the run. In Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale's scheme, a versatile player like Bowser can be a disruptive force, and it was fitting that he helped close the show Sunday night.
The Browns' final two possessions were three-and-outs and Bowser was in the center of the action. On Cleveland's last drive, Bowser had tight coverage on an incompletion to tight end Austin Hooper on third down. Then on fourth down, Bowser made the game's final tackle when he stopped David Njoku short of the first down after he caught a pass from Baker Mayfield.
Bowser's teammates have come to rely on him as a defensive leader.
"It seems like these past two years he just all of a sudden went kind of crazy – kind of turned into that household name that we all kind of wanted to be when you first get drafted, and you want to stay with a certain team forever," All-Pro cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. "Tyus has been doing great things. He was covering Jarvis Landry like a safety. He's kind of one of those guys that's showing he can do it all, so wherever Wink puts him, wherever we decide to put him, I know he'll execute."
It was a true collective effort on defense, as inside linebacker Patrick Queen and Humphrey led the team with eight tackles apiece. Queen continued a run of strong play that began when he moved from middle linebacker to the weak side. Having fewer defensive responsibilities to make calls and line up teammates has freed Queen to play faster, and he is reading plays quickly and using his speed to fly into the backfield.
Queen suffered a rib injury late in the third quarter and walked off the field in pain. However, Queen showed his toughness by re-entering the action and finishing the game.
"I just tried to hit somebody that was a little bit bigger than me," Queen said. "That's football – it comes with it. I was going to return regardless."
"We just knew that it was a physical game, and it was going to come down to who wanted it more. So, that's what we preached the whole week, [and] that's what we preached before the game. We just came out, executed our plays, and everybody just did their job, one play at a time."
The Ravens had a blueprint that they followed almost to perfection against the Browns. They ganged-tackled Chubb and Hunt, shutting off their running lanes with physicality up front and well-timed run blitzes. Defensive tackle Justin Ellis continued to play stout against the run and nose tackle Brandon Williams made his presence felt after a three-game absence due to a shoulder injury.
"They're a really good defense," Mayfield said. "They were timing up some of our cadences, shooting the gaps, and they played really well. They played really great, to be honest with you."
The end result was pleasing for a Baltimore defense that came through when Jackson clearly wasn't at his best. The Browns had a chance to win the game, needing a touchdown with 1:10 left on the clock and no timeouts. The Ravens snuffed them out on four straight plays.
"Me and 'Co-Cap' [Anthony Levine Sr.] talk sometimes, and we're like, 'We're kind of spoiled sometimes having Lamar [Jackson] as our quarterback,'" Humphrey said. "But our defense … we want to take pride in being able to deliver."