Mike Preston: Make no mistake, Ravens defense is still the star of the show | COMMENTARY

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The Ravens defense is as good as advertised.

Baltimore entered Sunday’s game against Detroit with the NFL’s No. 2 overall defense but had not played an offense as complete as the Lions’. Then the Ravens shut them down. Actually, it was a beatdown, 38-6.

There will be a lot of talk about Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson and the offense after they scored five touchdowns and a field goal on 10 possessions and piled up 503 yards of total offense, but the story of this win was the Ravens defense.

This group has been consistent all season, and it has to be that way because the offense is erratic. On Sunday, the Ravens shut out Detroit for three quarters and allowed only 337 yards of total offense, 97 of which came in the first half when the game was still somewhat competitive.

If the Lions are one of the best offenses in the NFL, then what does that say about the Ravens defense? Baltimore crushed Detroit until the last quarter, when it was garbage time.

“If I recall, I think earlier in the week, I said I’m from the ‘show me’ business,” Ravens middle linebacker Roquan Smith said. “A lot of things happened here and there, but you have to show me once we’re on the field.

“I don’t believe in all the things you hear and say. Like I said, that team hadn’t been tested just yet, so that’s what it was.”

The same could have been said about the Ravens. In the second half of the 2022 season, they had perhaps the best defense in the NFL after the San Francisco 49ers. But in 2023, they hadn’t been tested by a good quarterback because both the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow and Pittsburgh Steelers’ Kenny Pickett played injured and Deshaun Watson missed the Ravens’ 28-3 victory against Cleveland on Oct. 1 because of a shoulder injury.

Then came the Lions. They were without injured starting running back David Montgomery, but the Ravens were also missing their top back J.K. Dobbins.

Let’s call that a draw. The game wasn’t.

The Ravens sacked Lions quarterback Jared Goff five times. In previous years, there were always questions about the Ravens’ pass rush, but they entered Sunday leading the league in sacks. It will be interesting to see if outside linebackers Kyle Van Noy, 32, and Jadeveon Clowney, 30, hold up at the end of the season, but so far they’ve played well.

Van Noy had five tackles Sunday, including two sacks. By the end of the third quarter, Goff’s body language was easy to read: “Can’t we go home now?”

“[Defensive coordinator] Mike [Macdonald] reiterated all the time throughout the week that if you startle Goff early, he starts to get panicky,” Ravens defensive end Justin Madubuike said. “That’s exactly what happened.”

The Ravens also stuffed the Lions’ running game, which finished with 84 yards, 21 of which came on a touchdown run by rookie Jahmyr Gibbs with 14:05 left in the fourth quarter.

No team has been able to run the ball against the Ravens, which is why they entered Sunday ranked 10th in the league allowing 97.7 rushing yards per game.

A major key to winning in the NFL is to shut down the run and the play-action passing game, making the opponent one-dimensional. That’s what the Ravens did to the Lions.

“You know, the run game always helps us,” Detroit coach Dan Campbell said. “That’s something that we always want to hang our hat on. It’s kind of where everything starts for us. I’ll be the first to say, when you go three-and-out your first two series, and then they gain 14 points in their first two series, that’s a hard recipe there early in the game. You feel like you get put in a pretty tough spot in both areas.

“I thought we would be able to overcome it and get some momentum back. We thought, but we couldn’t get it turned over. We couldn’t quite get going.”

Maybe the most surprising development has been the play of the Ravens secondary. All week there was concern about the Lions’ passing game with receivers Josh Reynolds and Amon-Ra St. Brown and rookie tight end Sam LaPorta. Detroit had the NFL’s fourth-ranked passing game (averaging 259.5 yards per game), and the Ravens were concerned about yards after the catch, especially since Detroit entered with 32 plays of more than 20 yards.

But the Lions averaged only 8.6 yards per catch Sunday. St. Brown had 13 catches for 102 yards but wasn’t much of a factor. The receivers couldn’t shake free of cornerback Marlon Humphrey and safety Kyle Hamilton.

The Ravens also got strong games from reserve safety Geno Stone — who added his league-leading fourth interception — and cornerback Arthur Maulet. They also started cornerback Brandon Stephens, a converted safety. Maulet had eight tackles and a sack, and Hamilton added seven tackles.

Where do the Ravens find these guys?

“You have to be steeled to play back there,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “You have to have a certain mindset, and we want tough guys. We want guys that will do their job, but guys that will have their eyes where they’re supposed to be when they’re supposed to be there, tackle and play hard.”

That’s the brand of football Baltimore fans are used to seeing.

The game has changed since the Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV with one of the best defenses ever, but this year’s unit, built around linebackers Smith and Patrick Queen, is good, too. It sounds familiar to the one in 2000 with linebackers Peter Boulware, Jamie Sharper and Ray Lewis.

Only time will tell if the 2023 Ravens can be mentioned in the same breath as that legendary group. But for right now, the calling card of this team is still defense, which has to carry the Ravens until the offense becomes more consistent.

The offense is a work in progress. The defense is already a finished product.

They proved it again Sunday.


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