'It felt like Ravens football:' Baltimore channeling its great defenses of the past

BALTIMORE -- On Saturday night, Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald asked his players what they were thinking going into their game against the Carolina Panthers.

The response from everyone was the same: The Ravens wanted a shutout.

Even though Baltimore didn’t blank the Panthers, a defense-dominated 13-3 victory on Sunday still delivered a message. The Ravens’ defensive swagger is back.

A defense that was chided this year for fourth-quarter meltdowns is now the biggest reason why the Ravens (7-3) hold a one-game lead atop the AFC North. During Baltimore’s four-game winning streak, the defense has produced more turnovers (seven) than touchdowns allowed (five).

So, while the Ravens are officially No. 15 in the NFL in defense, they appear to rank No. 1 in confidence.

“We’re really trying to chase Ravens’ defenses [from] the past that have just showed an elite greatness,” Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey said.

Before the arrival of quarterback Lamar Jackson in 2018, the Ravens were synonymous with physical and game-changing defenses, from Ray Lewis to Ed Reed to Terrell Suggs. Baltimore has ranked in the top 10 in defense 18 times in the franchise's 26-year history.

And, like many of those great Ravens defenses, this one has been carrying the team lately. Jackson and the offense haven't been as explosive with tight end Mark Andrews (shoulder/knee) banged-up, wide receiver Rashod Bateman (foot) out for the season and the top two running backs (J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards) sidelined.

The top playmakers have come on the defensive side of the ball.

Humphrey is playing like a shutdown cornerback. On Sunday, he recorded an interception while allowing no catches (and just two passes thrown his way) on 31 coverage snaps.

Middle linebacker Roquan Smith, who was acquired in a trade from the Chicago Bears, has brought a high motor and has become a vocal leader. In two games with Smith, Baltimore has allowed one touchdown.

Outside linebacker Justin Houston has become one of the NFL’s top pass-rushers once again after contemplating retirement this offseason. With nine sacks in seven games, Houston needs one more to become the Ravens first player since Suggs in 2017 to record double-digit sacks in a single season.

Over the last four games, the Ravens rank third in the NFL in fewest points allowed (14.5) and yards given up (283.3).

“We’re starting to trend in the right direction,” defensive end Calais Campbell said. "Coach [John Harbaugh] talks about trajectory and getting better. If we stay with that mentality and everybody plays with that fire, this defense could be really, really good.”

There were concerns about the Ravens defense after Baltimore failed to hold double-digit leads in the fourth quarter twice in the first six games. There were also questions whether these late-game struggles would get into the defenders’ mindset.

How the Ravens finished against Carolina on Sunday showed how far the defense’s confidence has risen. At halftime, when the Ravens led 3-0, the defensive players were saying in the locker room: “If they don’t score, they can't win.” Baltimore then forced three turnovers on the Panthers’ four drives in the fourth quarter.

“It felt like Ravens football honestly,” Ravens inside linebacker Patrick Queen said. "I think we’re just all trusting each other to make the play, not leaving anyone to hang out dry. We’re all running to the ball, being physical. So, I think that if we keep doing that, and we keep stacking and building the trust, then we’ll be just fine.”

This has the makings of a strong finish for the Ravens defense. Baltimore plays just two offenses that rank in the top half of the NFL in scoring in its last seven games of the regular season (the Cleveland Browns are No. 10 and the Cincinnati Bengals are No. 3).

Asked whether this could be the best defense he’s ever played on, Humphrey mentioned how a group text was formed this week with some members of the Ravens’ top-ranked defense in 2018.

“It’s just hard to tell,” Humphrey said. "We obviously had a rough first half of the season. But since then, I think we’ve really been showing that we can be a really, really elite defense.”