At 7-4 and currently in tied at second place in the ultra-competitive AFC North division, the Baltimore Ravens are in a fairly favorable position when it comes to the playoff hunt.
Following an impressive road primetime win at New Orleans, the Ravens close out the season with five winnable games, including three at home, one of which is the much-anticipated season finale with the Cleveland Browns (a game that will likely decide the playoff fate of one or both teams).
With things looking grim after a Sunday Night Football debacle just three weeks ago in Pittsburgh, it’s safe to say the Ravens are back on track and ready to make a late-season push for the playoffs, potentially solidifying their spot in the postseason for the sixth time in seven years.
What has been the reason for Baltimore’s renewed playoff hopes and 7-4 record?
As shown on Monday night, the dominant run game of Baltimore – fueled by breakout performer Justin Forsett – can largely be credited for the team’s success, as well as more efficient play from quarterback Joe Flacco.
But on the defensive side, one aspect has kept the Ravens in games, and will be one of the reasons why the team will stay in contention for the playoffs for the remainder of the season.
That aspect is the run defense, which has for the most part carried a Baltimore defense that often looks inferior due to poor secondary play.
Despite having conceded the 4th-most (2,911) passing yards in the NFL through 11 games, Baltimore’s defense as a whole still ranks in the top half of the NFL in total yards allowed. The defense is also 5th in the NFL in points per game allowed (18.9).
The innate success despite porous performances by the cornerbacks and safeties further magnifies the tremendous performance of Baltimore’s front seven against the run this season.
Baltimore’s defense is allowing just 3.7 yards per rush, which ranks 6th in the league, and has allowed only 6 rushing touchdowns for an average of about one every other game.
The run defense’s ability to bail out the secondary in close games was never more evident than against the New Orleans Saints on Monday night.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees torched the Ravens secondary for 420 yards and 3 touchdowns on 45 attempts. However, Baltimore’s run defense held the Saints running backs (Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas) to 46 yards and 0 touchdowns on 16 carries.
New Orleans’ opening-drive meltdown at the goal line was largely due to the superb play of Baltimore’s defensive front, particularly defensive lineman Haloti Ngata.
Monday night was just one more time to clarify how valuable Baltimore’s run defense has been to the team this season.
Without the weekly work put in by the big guys up front, it’s hard to picture this team being 7-4 through 11 games.
It has been a group effort by the entire front seven this season.
How has Baltimore’s run defense asserted its dominance?
The most notable name when it comes to Baltimore’s run defense is nose tackle Brandon Williams, who is having a breakout season as expected.
Playing almost exclusively as a run-stopping nose tackle, Williams has been just what the Baltimore defense needed this season. He’s the definition of a block-occupying, lane-clogging defender who helps out the entire defensive front. Along with his immense size, Williams’ elite athleticism and consistent pursuit to the ball makes him the complete package with it comes to NFL nose tackles.
Take a play where Williams doesn’t record a tackle for example.
Here, with the run play directed toward the right middle, Williams occupies two blockers, which opens up space for defensive end Lawrence Guy and inside linebacker Daryl Smith.
The design of the blocking by the Tennessee Titans is that of which one lineman will shed off Williams and reach Smith at the second level.
However, Williams’ ability to occupy the blockers is long enough that the lineman who originally planned on blocking Smith at the second level is thrown off balance.
This leaves the lineman reaching for Smith unsuccessfully as the linebacker quickly closes in on the run lane.
Meanwhile, Williams simply just takes up too much space for the running back to go anywhere.
The combination of Smith’s reaction to the run play, Williams’ block-occupying ability and Guy’s success at crashing to his right on the run play leads to a minimal gain.
While Williams often opens up opportunities for others against the run, he isn’t completely lacking in the tackles department.
As noted, his continuous pursuit for the ball carrier on every play leads to Williams regularly making an impact.
In the same game against the Titans, that was apparent.
Working laterally to his right to get to a run play on the left side of the line, Williams throws away Titans guard Chance Warmack with ease.
After pushing aside Warmack, Williams closes in on the ball carrier.
The running back’s decision to spurn the outside and cut back toward a lane to his right gives Williams a chance to make a play.
The cutback by the running back can be credited to quality gap discipline by the other Ravens run defenders, including outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw.
Williams displays his short area quickness and closes in fast on the ball carrier, recording the tackle.
While Williams has been the epitome of a run defender, other key Ravens defenders have stepped up against the run.
Even outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, largely known for his pass rushing ability, has made plays on the edge.
Against the Pittsburgh Steelers, an outside run by Le’Veon Bell has Dumervil working with the duty of controlling the edge while being blocked by tight end Heath Miller.
With two run lanes to occupy – off each shoulder of Miller – Dumervil must be able to react in time to diagnose the play and focus in on one lane.
He recognizes that Bell is staying true to the lane off Miller’s left shoulder and begins to shed off Miller’s block.
Dumervil successfully rips off the block by Miller – typically a fairly tough run blocker to go against – and closes in on Bell just in time to wrap him up. The quick reaction by Dumervil leads to just a small gain on the run.
Miller is left watching Dumervil by the end of the play.
It has been a collective and impressive effort by the Baltimore defense this season when facing the run.
There isn’t a single star performer; almost everyone in the front seven has contributed, although the most notables are Williams, Ngata and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs.
To get the space-clogging impact plays inside as well as having pass rushers such as Dumervil set the edge makes it hard to run the ball against the Ravens.
Over the final five regular season games, the Ravens will face three teams (Miami, Houston and Jacksonville) which are in the top half of the NFL in yards per carry. Having a stout front seven will certainly aid Baltimore in those crucial match-ups.
If the Ravens manage to survive the daunting AFC North and move on to the playoffs, a good chunk of the credit can be given to a fearsome run defense.