Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees didn't hesitate in training camp when discussing expectations for his group.
A reporter asked about whether the Ravens could return a top-five defense this year.
"I think we can be higher than that," he said at the time. "The sky is the limit."
Pees' hopes are coming to fruition during the first half of the season.
The Ravens have played like one of the league's best defenses lately, and their dominance in the red-zone is a big reason why. The Ravens have allowed the fewest points in the NFL (104) and they are re-gaining a reputation as one of the league's stingiest units.
"I do think we're playing at that caliber," Pees said Thursday. "But just because we have [played well] the last couple of weeks, now we have to continue to do it."
Baltimore's bend-but-don't-break approach has been critical in the team's success this year. Opponents have been able to move the football at times, but the Ravens have been lock-down once teams cross the 20-yard line.
The Ravens have the top-ranked red-zone defense in the league, allowing opponents to score touchdowns on just 36.4 percent of their trips inside the 20. Opponents have come away with points on just 61.3 percent of their trips inside the 30-yard line, which is more than 10 percentage points better than the second-best team in the league.
Pees pointed to three key components for Baltimore's red-zone success:
- Physical play
- The right mindset
"They've played well down there and I think they have those three elements," Pees said. "You just have to have a mindset that you're not in a panic mode."
Lately the Ravens have been rock-solid everywhere on defense, not just in the red zone. Baltimore dominated a potent Falcons offense by pestering quarterback Matt Ryan all day, sacking him five times and hitting him nine.
They also shut out the Bucs for the first half in Week 6 before allowing a pair of late touchdowns in a lopsided game.
"The defense is clicking," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "When you have a defense that is playing together – I think everything is starting to come along – a lot of things start to happen."
The Ravens are currently 16th in the league in yards allowed, which is most often the measure used in ranking the top offensive and defensive units. The unit has allowed an average of 345.9 yards per game.
Part of the explanation for the difference in the Ravens' top ranking for points allowed, but middle-of-the-pack ranking for yards allowed, is the strong play in the red zone. Another reason is the Ravens have allowed some big plays in games that are basically decided already.
For example, the Ravens gave up 263 yards in the second half to Tampa Bay when the game was already well in hand.
"I think we would be there if we hadn't given up some big plays and yardage in some games that we just absolutely didn't need to give up," Pes said. "We just gave up some plays early on that hurt us statistically. But at this point it's not about that, it's about playing as well as we can play."
The Ravens look like they're starting to hit their stride defensively, and the players and coaches like the direction the group is headed. The key that they've stressed is the need to continue that momentum.
"It's starting to feel like [we're in a groove]," Suggs said. "But last year we felt like we were in a groove and then everybody knows about the skid down the stretch. You want to keep going. You always want to keep the momentum going."