NFL’s top de­fense meets Dal­las’ vaunted O-line

Baltimore Sun - - RAVENS WEEK­END - Mike.pre­ston@balt­sun.com twit­ter.com/MikePre­stonSun

Marvin Lewis, whose team lost to the Cow­boys, 28-14, in early Oc­to­ber. “They do a great job of ex­e­cut­ing their scheme.”

That’s what makes Sun­day’s matchup so in­ter­est­ing. While the Ravens have the league’s top-ranked de­fense, there are some who still doubt them be­cause of a sched­ule that has in­cluded the Buf­falo Bills, Jack­sonville Jaguars, New York Jets and Cleve­land Browns (twice).

Now, if the Ravens beat Dal­las, they will gain some cred­i­bil­ity, and folks will start talk­ing about how this group fits in with those old rugged Ravens de­fenses in the early 2000s. This is a huge op­por­tu­nity. “As a de­fense, you def­i­nitely want to play against the best,” out­side line­backer Ter­rell Suggs said. “When you were 10 years old, you were like, ‘I want to go play in the NFL. I want to be con­sid­ered one of the best play­ers in the NFL.’ To be best, you have to play the best. It is a chal­lenge for our de­fense, but we ac­cept it. I think we are just the men for the job.”

So are the Cow­boys. Dal­las’ front line is out­stand­ing be­cause it is phys­i­cal and dom­i­nant at the point of at­tack. The Cow­boys are space eaters big enough to move de­fen­sive line­men off the ball, but pa­tient and ath­letic enough to make blocks into the sec­ond level.

They trap, pull and cut off pur­suit from the back side. Rookie quar­ter­back Dak Prescott has been sacked only 13 times.

“I think they have a com­bi­na­tion of be­ing big, strong guys, but they have re­ally good feet,” Ravens coach John Har­baugh said of Dal­las’ of­fen­sive line­men: tack­les Ty­ron Smith and Doug Free, guards Ron­ald Leary and Zack Martin and cen­ter Travis Fred­er­ick. “They bend re­ally well. They’re very pa­tient block­ers, and I think they’re very ath­letic.

“They cover peo­ple up, and they have a run­ner with re­ally good vi­sion who also has the abil­ity to ac­cel­er­ate once he sees it and get into a hole. It’s a com­bi­na­tion of all of those things.”

Dal­las doesn’t just have one good run­ning back in rookie Ezekiel El­liott, who has rushed for 1,005 yards on 198 car­ries, but it also has a Pro Bowl-cal­iber backup in Al­fred Mor­ris, who has 205 yards on 57 car­ries.

The Cow­boys also have one of the game’s best wide re­ceivers in Dez Bryant, giv­ing Dal­las a dom­i­nant player at all three skill po­si­tions. The Ravens have only dreamed of hav­ing such tal­ent.

It’s an up­hill bat­tle for the Ravens. Even when they have stopped the run against other qual­ity of­fenses, they have strug­gled against top quar­ter­backs such as Derek Carr, Kirk Cousins and Eli Man­ning. The se­condary has to con­trol not only Bryant, but also tight end Ja­son Wit­ten.

It will be key for the de­fen­sive line­men to keep their shoul­ders square once they en­gage with the Cow­boys on run­ning plays and to stay dis­ci­plined. The slight­est step out of po­si­tion could re­sult in them be­ing over­pow­ered.

“They have a few guys who have been there awhile, work to­gether well — it’s a good unit,” Ravens de­fen­sive tackle Bran­don Wil­liams said. “Ob­vi­ously, they are big, and you can’t get past them or through them. They are stout. They like to run the ball; we like to stop the run. It is go­ing to be a good test for the front seven to put out there who we are.”

The Ravens like their matchups up front, with Wil­liams and fel­low tackle Michael Pierce, and the speed of end Timmy Jerni­gan. Com­pared with a year ago, the Ravens are also faster; lineback­ers Zachary Orr and C.J. Mosley have good speed, which lets them run side­line to side­line.

The Ravens are al­low­ing only 281.6 to­tal yards and 71.3 rush­ing yards per game.

Dal­las coach Ja­son Gar­rett has al­ready got­ten the mes­sage.

“They’re a very well-coached group. They have a lot of re­ally good play­ers on all three lev­els of de­fense,” Gar­rett said of the Ravens. “They play with the phys­i­cal style. It’s easy to see why they’re among the best de­fenses in the league.”

The phys­i­cal­ity calls to mind Ravens de­fenses of the past. It brings back mem­o­ries of for­mer Ravens such as Ray Lewis, Peter Boul­ware, Rob Burnett, Tony Si­ra­gusa and Sam Adams. They left Bal­ti­more with a tra­di­tion.

But in re­cent years, the Ravens haven’t lived up to the rep­u­ta­tion. The term “play like a Raven” has be­come noth­ing more than a slo­gan.

That can change Sun­day in Dal­las.

DON WRIGHT/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Cow­boys run­ning back Ezekiel El­liott, sec­ond from left, cel­e­brates his game-win­ning touch­down with of­fen­sive line­men Travis Fred­er­ick, left, Ty­ron Smith and Ron­ald Leary.

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