You can't talk dominant defense in the NFL this season without talking about the Ravens.
In almost every important defensive category, the Ravens are either leading or near the top. Following Sunday's 21-0 shutout over the Tennessee Titans, the Ravens are allowing the fewest points per game (12.8), fewest yards per game (270.8), and they lead the league in sacks (25) after a franchise record 11 Sunday.
Can the Ravens sustain their defensive prowess over a 16-game season? From this point, that challenge becomes even tougher, starting with Sunday's home game against the New Orleans Saints, who average 36 points per game, tops in the NFL.
Preparing for Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who just set the league's record for most passing yards, is getting the Ravens' undivided attention.
"His vision is unbelievable," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "His pocket awareness is the best, and he's very accurate. He can see, he can find the open receiver, and he gets guys in position. They scheme guys open. He knows what he's looking at pre-snap, and he knows what he's looking at post-snap. So, he's not going to miss an open guy very often, and he has a great feel for the rush.
"He has the numbers he has for a reason. He's every bit of what he's cracked up to be. I have a lot of respect for him, have a lot of respect for the whole offense."
If the Ravens finish with the NFL's top-ranked defense, it will be well deserved. Over their last 10 games, the Ravens will face five quarterbacks that have a passer rating over 100.0 – Brees (122.3), Philip Rivers of the Los Angeles Chargers (115.1), Matt Ryan of Atlanta (113.6), Patrick Mahomes of Kansas City (112.2) and Jameis Winston of Tampa Bay (101.8).
The Ravens must still play six teams currently ranked among the top eight in total offense – Tampa Bay (No. 2), New Orleans (No. 3), Kansas City (No. 5), Pittsburgh (No. 6), Los Angeles Chargers (No. 7) and Atlanta Falcons (No. 8).
However, the Ravens' defense is playing on a different level, compared to what's happening around the NFL. Teams are averaging 24.1 points per game this season, which would set a league scoring record for a season if it continues. Yet the Ravens remain the only NFL team that has not allowed a second-half touchdown. The team allowing the second-fewest points, the Dallas Cowboys, have surrendered 17.2 points per game – more than four points more than the Ravens.
The Ravens' defense has answered almost every challenge. The biggest exception was the first half in Week 2 against the Cincinnati Bengals. The Ravens allowed four straight touchdown drives in that game after linebacker C.J. Mosley, who communicates the defensive play-calls, left with a knee injury. Cincinnati is the only team that moved the ball with consistently against the Ravens this season, but in the second half, the Ravens regrouped and held the Bengals to just six points.
Under first-year Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale, the Ravens' defense has taken an aggressive mentality, and Martindale has plenty of tools to work with. They are pressuring quarterbacks with a host of talented pass rushers led by linebackers Za'Darius Smith (5 ½ sacks) and Terrell Suggs (4 ½).
Harbaugh is pleased that the sacks are coming from a variety of sources. Thirteen Ravens have at least one sack.
"We're built that way," Harbaugh said. "We bring a lot of pressure. We bring different people from different places. Everybody can blitz on our defense, so when you do that, you're not going to have a lot of time, you're going to have all the rush lanes filled up, and it just kind of ends up being who gets there. Sometimes the guy with the best rush doesn't get the sack."
The Ravens are doing more than just tormenting quarterbacks. They are stuffing the run with stout play up front, led by tackles Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce. They are covering wide receivers aggressively with four talented and versatile cornerbacks – Jimmy Smith, Marlon Humphrey, Brandon Carr and Tavon Young. And the Ravens are rarely caught out of position, with safety Eric Weddle and Mosley adept at making the right pre-snap reads and lining up the defense.
Baltimore's defense is earning plenty of praise, but the players seem determined not to lose their intensity. The Ravens remember last season, when they were plagued by several late-game defensive breakdowns, leading to losses that cost them a playoff berth. Players and coaches are also keenly aware that the Ravens have missed the playoffs the past three seasons.
Those subjects are not discussed regularly, but the Ravens are not getting full of themselves after just six games. The most challenging part of the schedule is ahead, and the Ravens say overconfidence will not be an issue.
However, through six games, the Ravens are off to a special start defensively, one that perhaps only they expected. They will have to play even better to sustain it, but are looking forward to the challenge.
"We have to be humble when we win," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We're still not satisfied."