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Strength vs. Strength: Ravens' Top-Ranked Run Defense Readies For NFL Rushing Leader Ezekiel Elliott


It's an old NFL cliché that games are won and lost in the trenches.

Get ready to hear that one a lot this Sunday as the run-stopping Ravens take on the run-happy Dallas Cowboys this Sunday at AT&T Stadium.

The Ravens have long built their vaunted defensive approach around stuffing the run and currently have the league's top-ranked run defense, allowing just 71.3 yards per game. 

The Cowboys have heavily invested in their offensive line and rushing attack. Rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott is the NFL's leading rusher and the Cowboys have the league's top-ranked rushing attack (161 yards per game).

Something's gotta give.

"They could be the best front that we've played," defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan said. "It's going to be a challenge for us, but at the same time, I don't think they've seen a front like ours either. It's going to be on."

For both teams, it's a matter of identity and pride.

In the Ravens' previous 20 seasons, they've boasted a top-10 rush defense 14 times and finished in the top five in 10 of those years.

The last time they had the No. 1 unit was in 2000 as part of perhaps the league's greatest defense of all-time. Defensive tackles Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa anchored the front, with linebacker Ray Lewis behind them.

That group only gave up a stunning 60.6 rushing yards per game and 2.68 yards per attempt, back when offenses relied on the ground attack much more.

This year's Ravens run defense may be the best since then. Their 71.3 rushing yards allowed per game is the team's best mark since 2000, and 3.3 rushing yards allowed per carry is tied for second best.

The Ravens said the unit is having success this year because they've all bought in on the team's core principle that stopping the run comes first.

"Instead of coaches telling us to do it, we want to do it," defensive tackle Brandon Williams said. "It's kind of embedded that stopping the run is what we're going to do. We hang our hat on that." 

The hulking Williams is a possible Pro Bowler in waiting. Undrafted rookie defensive tackle Michael Pierce has been a big, pleasant surprise. Jernigan is having a breakout season and defensive end Lawrence Guy is one of the team's blue-collar standouts.

Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs is shutting down the run as he has for years, along with edge-setting linebacker Albert McClellan. Behind them, athletic inside linebackers C.J. Mosley and Zachary Orr are gobbling up tackles. But it's the men up front that deserve much of the credit.

"Our defensive line is the most underrated position group in the NFL," Orr said. "Those guys up front are monsters. They do a great job of dominating the line of scrimmage, and they make our job easy."

Just like the Ravens defensive line makes Baltimore's linebackers look better, the Cowboys*offensive line has helped Elliott *post a staggering 1,005 rushing yards through nine games.

The Cowboys have used their first-round draft pick on an offensive lineman in three of the four drafts from 2011-2014. This year, they used the No. 4 overall pick on Elliott, who Harbaugh said would have been quite tempting to draft had he slipped to No. 6.

"He's a hard runner, he's a good back, but his power comes from the offensive line," Williams said.

Dallas drafted left tackle Tyron Smith in 2011 and he's gone to three Pro Bowls. They grabbed center Travis Frederick in 2013 and he's gone to two Pro Bowls. The Cowboys selected guard Zack Martin in 2014 – one pick before the Ravens took Mosley – and Martin has gone to the Pro Bowl in each of his first two seasons.

That's three draft picks and seven collective Pro Bowls.

"The offensive line is the heart of this offense," Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott said. "We go as they go."

Still, Elliott's talent can't be ignored, and the Ravens know it. Orr watched Sunday's game between the Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers, in which Elliott rushed 21 times for 114 yards and two touchdowns and caught two passes for 95 yards, including an 83-yard touchdown on a simple screen.

"A lot of running backs miss holes. He's not missing any holes," Orr said. "The O-line did a great job blocking, but how many guys can go 83 yards? Especially a running back."

There's a tangible excitement around the Ravens locker room for the challenge of facing the Dallas offensive line, rushing attack and offense in general.

The Cowboys are generating a lot of buzz while Baltimore's top-ranked defense has gone overlooked, and is still doubted based on the competition the Ravens have faced so far this year. But this is the kind of game Suggs said he thought about when he was 10 years old.

"They are No. 1 running the ball. We are No. 1 against the run," Suggs said. "This is NFL football. I think this is very good for our league and our sport. Everybody is going to tune in to watch.

"To be the best, you have to play the best. It is a challenge for our defense, but we accept it. I think we are just the men for the job."

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