May 21, 2024

When the Baltimore Ravens host the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, the significance will transcend a battle between two of the AFC’s top teams. With each quarterback hit, every tackle for a loss, the Browns and Ravens will be making a statement that they have the best defense in the NFL.

Cleveland ranks first in yards allowed (234.8), the fewest given up in the league through nine weeks in 15 years. Baltimore tops the league in points allowed (13.8), which is the franchise’s lowest this far into a season since its 2000 Super Bowl-winning defense.

So, how far will Sunday’s game (1 p.m. ET, Fox) go to crowning the NFL’s No. 1 defense?

“I talk with my pads, you know what I mean?,” said Ravens defensive tackle Justin Madubuike, who leads Baltimore with 7.5 sacks. “But I definitely have confidence on our side. Let’s just say that 100 percent.”

There’s reason for confidence on both sides, especially coming off decisive wins Sunday. The Browns recorded their first shutout since 2007 in beating the Arizona Cardinals 27-0 — a game in which the Cardinals gained 58 total yards — and the Ravens allowed their fewest yards in five years when they held the Seattle Seahawks to 151 in a 37-3 victory.

It’s rare to see two such dominating defenses on the same field this late into a season. Sunday’s matchup will mark the first meeting between two defenses allowing fewer than 275 yards per game in Week 10 or later since 2008, when the Ravens played the Steelers, according to research by the Elias Sports Bureau.

“We say it all the time: We are the best in the world, as a defense and particularly as a secondary,” Browns cornerback Greg Newsome II said after beating the San Francisco 49ers last month.

The Ravens last boasted the NFL’s No. 1 defense in 2018, but the last time the Browns finished with the top-ranked defense was 1955. Ravens linebacker Patrick Queen has said since the start of the season that the whole focus of the defense has been finishing No. 1.

“Excuse my French, we’re a bunch of a–holes out there,” said Ravens safety Geno Stone, who leads the NFL in interceptions with six. “It is what it is, and we want to be the best defense we can be.”

ESPN Browns reporter Jake Trotter and Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley break down the matchup, and NFL analyst Aaron Schatz provides a historical perspective.

Defensive MVP

Browns: Defensive end Myles Garrett. He is having his best individual season, and he’s among the favorites to win the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. He’s tied for second in the league with 9.5 sacks. And on Oct. 22 in a victory over the Indianapolis Colts, Garrett became the first NFL player this millennium to finish a game with 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and a blocked field goal.

The Browns lead the league in third-down conversion (26.0%) and three-and-out (37.7%) rates. Garrett’s unrelenting pass rushing off the edge is the biggest reason. — Trotter

Ravens: Middle linebacker Roquan Smith. While it seems like many of the Ravens defenders are delivering career years, Smith is the commanding presence of this defense. The best way to summarize his impact is this: Since Smith was acquired in Week 9 of last season, Baltimore has allowed the fewest yards (275.7) and points (14.2) of any team in the NFL.

Smith is a relentless sideline-to-sideline linebacker who is one of two defenders this season to total over 85 tackles and produce at least one sack and multiple passes defensed. Described as a “force multiplier” by Ravens GM Eric DeCosta, Smith raises the play of everyone around him. — Hensley

Strength

Browns: As dynamic as the Browns are rushing the passer with Garrett, they’ve been even more prolific in coverage. Cleveland boasts one of the top cornerback tandems in Denzel Ward and Martin Emerson Jr.

Their ability to blanket outside receivers is why Cleveland has been able to rely on man coverage so often (53.6% of the time, sixth most in the league). It’s also why Cleveland has the lowest opponent QBR (18.2) while in man coverage. Ward and Emerson are also beginning to pick off passes. The two have a combined four interceptions over Cleveland’s past four games. — Trotter

Ravens: Surprisingly, it’s the pass rush. Despite not having an elite edge rusher, Baltimore leads the NFL with 35 sacks, the most in the team’s storied defensive history through nine games.

The most disruptive force is Madubuike, whose 7.5 sacks top all interior defensive linemen this season. Defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald keeps quarterbacks on their heels because he sends players from all angles. Thirteen players have recorded sacks for the Ravens this season, with blitzing defensive backs accounting for six sacks. Baltimore’s seven straight games with multiple sacks are the NFL’s longest active streak. — Hensley

X factor

Browns: Defensive end Ogbo Okoronkwo. He isn’t a starter, but his emergence has allowed defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to deploy three defensive ends on key downs, which has proved to be Cleveland’s most imposing lineup.

Okoronkwo has played 58% of the defensive snaps, while giving the Browns another pass-rushing weapon alongside Garrett, defensive end Za’Darius Smith and playmaking defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson. Opposing offenses remain committed to double-teaming Garrett, but that has given Okoronkwo plenty of favorable opportunities to create pressure from elsewhere. — Trotter

Ravens: Safety Geno Stone. Filling in for the injured Marcus Williams, Stone has gone from a career backup to the league leader in interceptions. His six picks are not only two more than any other player in the NFL, but they’re more than what 12 teams have totaled this year.

Stone’s takeaways have been timely. Two of his interceptions came around the goal line or in the end zone, and two others set up the Ravens offense in the opponent’s territory. Baltimore has converted Stone’s interceptions into 24 points.

No one in Ravens history — not even Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed — had had this many interceptions in the first nine games of a season. — Hensley

Vulnerability

Browns: The Browns had one of the worst run defenses in the NFL last year, but Cleveland has drastically improved this season, ranking seventh in yards allowed per rush (3.7). Still, the Browns continue to be susceptible at times against solid rushing offenses, including in their first meeting against the Ravens, who had 131 yards on the ground in Cleveland. The Colts and Seahawks combined for 282 rushing yards against the Browns.

Cleveland doesn’t have any notable apparent weakness defensively, but an offense committed to running the ball could find a way to move the chains. — Trotter

Ravens: The Ravens haven’t had as many late-game meltdowns as last season, but the Baltimore defense has been at its shakiest in the final quarter. In the Ravens’ last loss — 17-10 in Pittsburgh in Week 5 — Baltimore gave up 12 points in the final seven minutes, 10 seconds of the game. The winning touchdown was a 41-yard catch by George Pickens, who burned cornerback Marlon Humphrey.

In Week 8, Baltimore nearly suffered an embarrassing collapse in Arizona, giving up the fifth-most yards in the fourth quarter this season (175). Overall, the Ravens have allowed 56 points in the fourth quarter, which ranks 20th in the NFL. — Hensley

Historical perspective

Browns: Cleveland has the No. 1 defense (-32.2% DVOA) after shutting out the Cardinals in one of the 10 best single defensive games ever measured by DVOA (since 1981). That game improved the Browns to the point where they rank seventh among all defenses since 1981 through eight games. The 2019 Patriots are No. 1 on that list, followed by the 2002 Buccaneers.

Cleveland is now No. 1 both against the pass and the run. This is clearly on pace to be the best Browns defense we’ve ever measured. In 42 years, the Browns have finished a season ranked better than eighth in defensive DVOA only one time: 1989, when they were fourth.

Ravens: Baltimore has the No. 2 defense (-28.9% DVOA), after Cleveland, with a huge gap between those two AFC North rivals and everybody else. The gap between the Ravens and the No. 3 defense, Jacksonville (-14.1%), is larger than the one between the Jaguars and the No. 14 defense (Patriots, 0.4%).

The Ravens are No. 2 against the pass and No. 3 against the run. In fact, Baltimore ranks 11th among all defenses since 1981 through nine games, although that doesn’t include the 2023 Browns because they haven’t played nine games yet.

This is the best Ravens defense ever through nine games, which is remarkable because this is a franchise with a history of strong defenses. In 27 seasons, the Ravens have ranked No. 1 in defensive DVOA five times, and they ranked in the top 10 every year from 1999 through 2011.

The Ravens’ defense in 2008 finished at -27.7% in DVOA. The 2000 Super Bowl champions were at -30.6% if you include the postseason. — Schatz

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