The best way to understand yet another dominating performance by the Ravens defense is to start with one of its few mistakes.
In the third quarter, faced with third-and-16, an embattled Geno Smith tossed to his tight end Noah Fant on the sideline, not seeing that Kyle Hamilton was sweeping down like a wraith. But, in his zeal to get to Fant, Hamilton realized a hair too late that he had a chance to pick off the pass.
The ball bounced off his hands — a conversion averted, but a potential pick six dropped. Hamilton headed to the sideline for pushups, punishing himself for not padding an already insurmountable lead.
“He better,” linebacker Kyle Van Noy later quipped.
Baltimore saved the bulk of its punishment for Seattle on Sunday, in a 37-3 blowout that was probably its best performance yet. The Seahawks were atop the NFC West, with a decent offense led by Smith’s passing and Kenneth Walker III’s rushing. Neither was much of a factor Sunday, and without a 50-yard reception by DK Metcalf, Seattle totaled just 101 yards on its other 46 offensive plays (a piddling 2.2 average).
Although the Ravens definitely celebrated this win, their fourth straight, they lamented that it wasn’t a shutout.
“We know we played good; we know we played great,” linebacker Patrick Queen said. “But that one field goal, we knew they shouldn’t have even had that. That’s something we can eliminate.”
We know from the numbers that this Ravens defense is special, leading the league in points allowed (124), yards per play (4.1) and sacks (35). We know it has saved some of its best performances for the best competition, shutting down Detroit and Seattle, who were previously considered some of the NFL’s hottest squads before coming to Baltimore.
But why the defense is successful is, perhaps this year more than most, a story of a unit being more than the sum of its parts. The Ravens of old were manifestations of superstars. Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs enforced their will and forced teammates to rise to their level. Although Roquan Smith is the vocal leader of this group, Baltimore is getting it done with young guys such as Hamilton, injury replacements such as Geno Stone and Brandon Stephens, and veterans plucked off the street such as Van Noy and Jadeveon Clowney.
Why does it work? Stone chewed on that question for a second.
“Excuse my French: We’re a bunch of assholes out there,” he said. “It is what it is, and we want to go be the best defense we can be.”
“Geno said that? OK, I’m with Geno: We’re a bunch of a-holes,” said Justin Madubuike, who has a career-high 7.5 sacks. “Just trying to play smash-mouth football. That’s what the Ravens’ defense is about.”
“We love trying to shut people out,” he said. “We love standing on opponents’ necks. We had the opportunity to do that today, and that’s what we did.”
Let’s define what we mean here. The Ravens are not jerks to each other. In fact, the supportive culture of the defense has been what many of the team leaders cite as perhaps the key factor.
Eight players have multiple sacks. Seven players have forced fumbles. Stone is by far the leader in interceptions, but the Ravens credit their coverage and pass rush for helping make them happen.
Queen credited general manager Eric DeCosta with bringing in the right kind of unselfish personalities to the locker room, and he said that willingness to let each other shine has been essential.
“If one person eat, we all eat,” he said. “As long as we know what we’re supposed to be doing, nobody cares who makes the plays.”
But the a-hole part: If you score on these Ravens, they get upset. They were angry when the Lions got a touchdown against them in garbage time. They were offended that Seattle, which has scored at least 13 points in every other game, got in position to kick a field goal.
They know how to come up in big moments. After one of the offense’s big goofs, a fumble by Odell Beckham Jr. that gave the Seahawks the ball shortly before halftime, the defense answered with back-to-back sacks by Van Noy, the latter of which forced a fumble and put the Ravens in position to kick a field goal and pad the lead. Coach John Harbaugh called it the “turning point” of the game, a moment that helped push it into a lopsided affair.
The Ravens defenders aren’t just chasing wins. They’re chasing the perfect performance.
“That’s something we’ve been hammering, games we didn’t close,” defensive tackle Michael Pierce said. “We want to shut the door.”
A lot of credit will and should go to coordinator Mike Macdonald, who in his second year has demonstrated a mastery of scheme that allows the Ravens to adjust regardless of the competition or even who the team has healthy. Functional quarterbacks like Smith and Jared Goff have been reduced to rubble against Macdonald’s schemes.
Comparing this defense to great Baltimore defenses of the past, coach John Harbaugh cited “the ability to morph the way we need to morph week to week, series to series.”
But, he added, there’s a DNA to the roster as well.
“The other thing is the guys. The guys have been on point,” Harbaugh said. “The guys are doing what they’re supposed to do as hard as they can every play. You’re not going to be perfect all the time, but if you do it as hard as you can, as well as you can every play, you get pretty close.”
The Ravens are as close as any defense is to perfection this year, boasting a mixture of talent and veteran savvy that has vaulted them into a Super Bowl contender. The way they’ve chased perfection so far — and been a-holes to the teams that dare line up across from them — there’s a growing confidence that this group can chase down the playoff success that has been elusive here for the past few seasons since the Super Bowl.
Just ask them.
“We talk about dominating,” Van Noy said. “That’s something that we really lean on each other for, and we mean it.”