NFL’s top defense meets Dallas’ vaunted O-line
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.
Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, second from left, celebrates his game-winning touchdown with offensive linemen Travis Frederick, left, Tyron Smith and Ronald Leary.