We spent the offseason trying to figure out how the Ravens could get back to the playoffs after a two-year absence, and much of that focus was on surrounding Joe Flacco with enough playmakers to rejuvenate an offense that had stagnated in recent years. And while Jeremy Maclin appears to be a solid addition, we were looking in the wrong place.
This is one of the many reasons why Ozzie Newsome is the Ravens' general manager and we are not. Instead of trying to make this offense into something that it's not -- namely, a dynamic score-at-will machine that can go up and down the field like division rivals in Pittsburgh and AFC foes in New England and Kansas City -- Newsome looked to the past to inform the present: He took an already good defense and made it great.
You don't say "great defense" lightly in Baltimore, where a Lombardi Trophy was won on the backs of those tasked with keeping opposing offenses off the scoreboard. Middle linebacker Ray Lewis, not quarterbacks Tony Banks or Trent Dilfer -- was the face of the franchise on that 2000 team that went 12-4 and destroyed the Giants in the Super Bowl. That defense, considered one of the NFL's best in the modern era, ranked No. 2 in 2000, according to Football Outsiders' metrics (statistically, the Titans were first).
In addition to dominating opponents, the hallmark of those Ravens' defenses was consistency -- both from game to game and from season to season. Behold (via Football Outsiders):
Year - Defensive Rank
1999 - 1st
2000 - 2nd
2001 - 4th
2002 - 6th
2003 - 1st
2004 - 2nd
2005 - 6th
2006 - 1st
2007 - 5th
2008 - 2nd
2009 - 4th
2010 - 6th
2011 - 1st
2012 - 19th*
2013 - 7th
2014 - 8th
2015 - 20th
2016 - 6th
* Fun fact: The 2012 season saw the lowest-rated Ravens defense in nearly two decades. But the offense ranked 13th, and Flacco caught fire during the postseason and carried the team to its second Super Bowl title.
And though it's early, the Ravens are the NFL's best unit through two games of the 2017 season. This is by design; Newsome knows that, even in an era of high-octane passing offenses, you can win with defense.
We saw it in Week 1, when the Ravens went to Cincinnati and smothered the Bengals, 20-0, and forced veteran quarterback Andy Dalton into five turnovers and four interceptions -- to four different players. It was Baltimore's first shutout since 2009 and the first sign that they weren't just flapping their gums this offseason about this defense being among the franchise's best.
Afterward, Terrell Suggs, the team's 2003 first-round pick who is playing better the older he gets, gave Newsome his due.
"Shout-out to Ozzie Newsome [for adding] Brandon Carr, Tony Jefferson, the young kid, Marlon Humphrey," he said. "That's what the GM is supposed to do, go get some Raven guys. I feel honored to be out there with them today. So shout-out to Ozzie Newsome, make sure you print that too."
On Sunday against the Browns, the Ravens' D continued to force mistakes. Rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer tossed three interceptions and lost a fumble and looked out of sorts for most of the afternoon.
.@LWebb21 intercepts Kizer in the end zone! pic.twitter.com/hyLeL8CYKq— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) September 17, 2017
The performance wasn't as flawless as the one that preceded it -- when Kizer went out for a quarter with a migraine, backup Kevin Hogan had some success exposing the Ravens in the passing game. But the defense stiffened every time the Browns approached the red zone. When it was over, Baltimore cruised to a 24-10 victory, held the Browns' quarterbacks to 46.7 completion percentage (20 of 42) and the offense to just 2 of 12 on third downs.
"We made too many mistakes, too many blown coverages, too many big plays as a defense, so we're not happy about the performance we had," veteran safety Eric Weddle said after the game, via the Baltimore Sun. "We let those mistakes creep in and if we don't fix them, it's going to hurt us down the road. It may look like a great, great defensive effort, but when you look at it, we made too many mistakes out there. Luckily, we clutched up."
These are good problems to have.
And those names Suggs mentioned after the Bengals win? Those guys showed up against the Browns too.
Going after Brandon Carr in coverage today was a mistake pic.twitter.com/awdZ5LqUer— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) September 17, 2017
Brandon Carr finished with a grade of 81.6, according to Pro Football Focus, who had this to say about rookie first-round cornerback Marlon Humphrey (79.7 grade): "[Humphrey] only played 11 defensive snaps but ... was targeted three times on the afternoon. He allowed just one of those balls to be caught for a total of just three yards. Humphrey also defended a pass on the day and made two stops."
There's more: PFF ranks Suggs at No. 10 among all outside linebackers and Tyus Bowser, who had an interception against the Browns, is 22nd. Brandon Williams is No. 4 among defensive tackles, C.J. Mosely is 10th among inside linebackers, Jimmy Smith is 20th among cornerbacks and safety Tony Jefferson, an offseason signing, is 21st.
We're sensing a theme.
Meanwhile, not only did the Ravens force five turnovers in back-to-back games for the first time in team history, they're only the third team since 1970 to intercept at least four passes in each of the first two games.
There's more: Baltimore has outscored opponents 44-10, and the 34-point differential is second only to the Raiders, who have outscored opponents 71-36. And the 10 points allowed is second only to the Panthers, who have given up a mind-boggling six points in two games. (The last team to not allow a touchdown in its first two games? Yep, the Ravens, who did it in 2010.)
Baltimore faces the Jaguars in Week 3 before squaring off against two of the NFL's best offenses in back-to-back games: home against the Steelers and in Oakland against the Raiders. Still, the goal before the season remains unchanged.
"[W]e're tired of losing," Weddle said in the days leading up to the Bengals game. "I'm tired of losing. It irks me every day that I didn't have a chance in the playoffs. That's not me, it's not what I'm about. Even if [the offense does] have a problem, I don't care if they have a problem. It's the way we're going to win. ...
"The history of the Ravens shows that you play great defense, you run the ball, you don't turn the ball over, you win, and you'll have a chance at the Super Bowl. We're going to show that and see where it takes us. I think it'll be great."
In terms of specific goals beyond another Lombardi Trophy, Suggs offered this after the win in Cincinnati: "We've been preaching plus-28 [turnover differential]. That's the NFL record for a team [over the last 33 years]. ... [T]hat's a great way to start the opener; a good way to start against a tough conference team."
We'll have to wait to see just how good the 2017 Baltimore defense can be. Luck -- fortuitous bounces, turnovers, injuries -- always plays a huge part in how a season unfolds. But even though the Ravens were down nine players before preseason, they aren't using that as an excuse.
One thing is for certain, though: Despite this team's history of success, which includes two Super Bowl titles, these players aren't taking anything for granted after missing the playoffs the last two seasons.
"We have won two games. We don't have the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. We have not won the division. We have not clinched a playoff berth," Suggs said. ... "[T]he standard is very high here and we did some things that we are kind of kicking ourselves in the butt for. We're going to go back to the drawing board and try to fix them."