- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 9, 2020

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Forgive John Harbaugh for mixing up his crustaceans.

The Baltimore Ravens coach has had other things on his mind lately, like how to stop Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry. But when asked about the balance between his offense and defense earlier this week, Harbaugh used a sea metaphor to explain his preference for complementary football.

“We never want to be a lobster,” Harbaugh said. “Don’t they have one big claw and one little claw? Is that a lobster?”

A fiddler crab, actually.

The point remains: As the Ravens prepare for Saturday’s AFC Divisional matchup with Tennessee, Baltimore has an offense and defense each ranked as a top-five unit in the league, according to Football Outsiders’ efficiency metrics (DVOA). Baltimore ranks first in offense and fourth in defense.

It wasn’t always that way.

Back in September, the Ravens gave up 40 points to the Cleveland Browns and fielded one of the league’s worst units. But since then, Baltimore has won 12 straight, giving up 15.2 points per game in that span.

In terms of DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), the Ravens ranked 22nd in defensive efficiency through the first four weeks. The raw stats were just as ugly. Baltimore ranked 26th in yards (395.5 per game) and 22nd in points (25). By the end of the regular season, the Ravens had jumped up to fourth in yards allowed (300.6) and third in points (17.2).

That sort of change isn’t easy to accomplish.

“The best way I can answer it is look at the first time we played Cleveland,” defensive coordinator Don Martindale said. “Look at the second time we played Cleveland.”

When the Ravens faced the Browns again in December, Baltimore had eight different players starting on defense compared to the first meeting. Throughout the season, the Ravens made significant changes at defensive line, linebacker and secondary.

For instance, they acquired Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters from the Los Angeles Rams in October and received a boost from Jimmy Smith returning from a knee injury in Week 9. Safety Chuck Clark also was a noticeable upgrade at safety when starter Tony Jefferson suffered a season-ending leg injury in October.

The change in personnel worked, as the Ravens avenged a 40-25 defeat with a 31-15 victory.

The Ravens‘ passing defense saw the most improvement over the course of the season. After four games, opponents were throwing for 395.5 yards per game. But in the final 12, that number was just 268.9 — the third-best defense in that stretch.

“It’s just the power of belief,” safety Earl Thomas said. “When we were 2-2, we still had the belief. We talked about what could be, if we got to this situation now. And we knew we could do it.”

That, however, is easier said than done. The Ravens were incorporating new players and making changes without the benefit of a full training camp. Linebacker Josh Bynes, for example, signed with Baltimore on Oct. 3 and started seven of the following 12 games. There wasn’t much time for him to get caught up to speed, though it helped he had spent three years (2011 to 2013) with the Ravens previously.

Players, though, credit Martindale for helping the transition. Defensive tackle Michael Pierce said the defensive coordinator makes play calls that everyone is comfortable with, playing to players’ strengths.

“He has a tremendous feel for the game,” Pierce said. “He’s not afraid to be aggressive in certain situations and we got the back-end guys to cover when we do go zero (blitz) or man (coverage).

“We’ve got a great collection of things going our way this year.”

On Saturday, the Ravens will have to stop Henry, the NFL’s leading rusher who ran free for 182 yards last week against the New England Patriots. The Ravens understand the challenge the 6-foot-3, 247-pound running back presents. “He’s like one of those guys that the kids create on ‘Madden,’” Martindale said. “You shouldn’t be that big and be able to run like he runs.”

But they feel prepared due to the growth they’ve had throughout the year.

“I think it’s the culture around here, man,” said defensive lineman Domata Peko, a 14-year veteran who signed with Baltimore in November. “You got guys like Ed Reed that used to be here. Freaking Ray Lewis, (Terrell Suggs), Haloti Ngata. You just want to keep that going.

“Those are big shoes to feel, but when you come in here as a player, you want to live up to those standards.”

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