Days before their regular-season finale, the Baltimore Ravens are achingly close to a playoff berth. Baltimore currently leads the AFC North with a 9-6 record and with a victory over the division rival Browns on Sunday, or with a Steelers loss, or by tying the Browns and seeing the Steelers-Bengals or Colts-Titans games also end in a tie. This is not necessarily a position many expected them to be in when you consider where they were just six weeks ago.
Heading into their Week 10 bye, the Ravens had a record of just 4-5. They'd lost three-consecutive games, including one to the Steelers that dropped the Ravens 2.5 games back of the division lead. We all know what happened next. The Ravens made the switch from Joe Flacco to Lamar Jackson, and along with it one of the most drastic in-season offensive scheme changes in recent NFL history. They have won five of their past six games, with the lone blemish being a three-point overtime loss at the hands of the No. 1 seed Kansas City Chiefs, and have vaulted into the AFC North lead with an outside chance at securing a first-round bye.
But the Jackson-led change in the offensive scheme would not have mattered nearly as much as it did were it not for the spectacular play of the Baltimore defense, which helped bank those four early-season wins and has allowed 17 points or fewer in four of the five victories the Ravens have since Week 11.
Baltimore ranks first in the NFL in both yards (284.1) and points (17.5) allowed per game, and second in defensive efficiency, per Football Outsiders' DVOA. No NFL team has allowed fewer yards per play (4.6) or per drive (25.3), and no team has allowed its opponents to score less often on a per-drive basis (only 28.7 percent of opponent drives have ended in a touchdown or field goal). Baltimore is also one of just five teams with a rush and pass defense DVOA inside the top 10, and they're in this position despite facing the third-toughest schedule of opposing offenses in the NFL this season, per Football Outsiders.
The defensive front shuts down the running game better than almost any in the league, with nose tackle Brandon Williams once again ranking among the best run defenders in all of football. He's gotten plenty of help from players like Chris Wormley, Michael Pierce and Brent Urban, as well as Baltimore's incredibly strong and flexible crop of up-the-middle defenders: linebackers C.J. Mosley, Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young, and safeties Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson. That crew has helped the Ravens rank first in yards allowed per carry. The Ravens' defense also checks in near the top of the league in several more advanced measures of run defense like adjusted line yards (seventh), second-level yards per carry (fifth), open-field yards per carry (second), and yards after contact per attempt (third).
The pass rush -- led by the defensive linemen as well as Terrell Suggs, Matt Judon, Za'Darius Smith, and sophomores Tim Williams and Tys Bowser -- is dynamite. Baltimore has the sixth-most sacks in the NFL, as well as the fifth-most pressures (sacks plus hits plus hurries) and the fourth-highest Adjusted Sack Rate, per Football Outsiders. And along with that pass rush the Ravens have a secondary playing as well as any in the NFL, as the safeties are joined by cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey, Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr, and Tavon Young. That group has helped the Ravens to rankings like first in completion percentage and yards per attempt, and second in opponent's passer rating and touchdown rate. Football Outsiders says the Ravens have the NFL's fifth-best pass defense against No. 1 receivers, second against No. 2s, eighth against slot wideouts, and first against running backs; fourth against short passes and fifth against passes deep downfield.
In other words, this Ravens defense is elite at all three levels, just like so many defenses of Ravens teams past.
And when you talk about the Ravens defenses of the past, you can't help but think of the 2000 Super Bowl-winning team, whose defense is considered one of the best in NFL history. That team, with stars like Ray Lewis and Rod Woodson and Sam Adams, as well as high-level contributors like Rob Burnett, Peter Boulware, Michael McCrary, Jamie Sharper, Tony Siragusa, Kim Herring, and more, is obviously held up as the gold standard of Ravens defenses. (That team's defensive assistant coaches included Marvin Lewis, Jack Del Rio, Rex Ryan, and Mike Smith, by the way. The level of talent on hand was absurd.)
There are damn good reasons for that. Those Ravens, like these, ranked first in the NFL in both yards (247.9) and points (10.3) allowed per game, and second in Football Outsiders' defensive DVOA. Those Ravens, like these, ranked first in yards allowed per play (4.3) and per drive (20.4), as well as the percentage of opponent drives that ended in a touchdown or field goal (15.5 percent). That defense even allowed almost the exact same third-down conversion rate as this one (34.1 percent against 34.0 percent).
Obviously, each of those figures was better for the 2000 team than it is for the 2018 team. But the NFL of the year 2000 was also vastly different. The offensive environment was much less friendly than it is right now, as the average team gained only 319.7 yards and scored 20.7 points per game, compared to averages of 354.1 yards and 23.4 points per game this season. Those 2000 Ravens also happened to face a friendlier slate of offenses than this one has. Baltimore faced the single easiest schedule of opposing offenses during the 2000 season, per Football Outsiders, compared to the third-toughest slate this year.
And by at least one measure, this year's team has done a better job suppressing scoring than the 2000 Ravens did, even though they've allowed 7.2 points per game more overall. Baltimore's 2000 opponents averaged 18.2 points per game in contests not played against the Ravens, compared to 10.3 in games against the Ravens. That 18.2 points per game average was 2.5 points worse than the league average team. This year's Ravens have faced better-than-average offenses overall, as their opponents have averaged 25.5 points per game in contests against teams other than the Ravens. That's 2.1 points per game better than average. But the Ravens have held those same opponents to just 17.5 points per game.
That means this year's Ravens squad, which has held its opponents to 8.0 fewer points per game than their collective average against non-Ravens opponents, has actually done a better job in that area than the 2000 squad, which held its opponents to 7.9 fewer points per game than other defenses did.
As you can see in the above chart, the 2000 Ravens held their opponents to a scoring average 43.4 percent worse than their collective average against other teams, while this year's team has held its opponents 31.2 percent below their average against other squads. One could argue, though, that forcing a 31 percent decline by 2018 offenses is nearly as difficult to accomplish as a 43 percent decline was 18 years prior, given how the rules have evolved to favor offenses over the ensuing years.
It's unlikely this particular Ravens defense will take on the mythic quality that one did, simply because the numbers don't look quite as impressive, even though that is largely due to the changing of the times. This defense also may not have the good fortune to win a Super Bowl, as that 2000 one did, which has helped it take on the legacy it has. But it's still a damn impressive defense, and should be recognized as such.