Why the Ravens’ defense is poised to rejoin NFL’s elite

After missing out on the playoffs for two consecutive seasons, the Baltimore Ravens are making a clear effort to get back to their roots.

The football community, of course, knows all about the history in Baltimore. Despite so often getting little to no help from the other side of the ball, a dominant and borderline fear-inducing defense long made the Ravens a perennial contender.

From 1999-2011, a 13-season span that saw the club make eight playoff appearances and earn one Super Bowl title, the Ravens ranked sixth or higher in total defense 11 times. Baltimore was also a top-six scoring defense on all but three occasions during that stretch.

The five seasons since, coincidentally beginning with a 2012 campaign that saw the club chase down its second Lombardi Trophy, have been far less consistent.

After taking a step back in the right direction in 2016, and then spending the ensuing offseason loading up on defensive talent, the unit is ready for a return to the heights an entire generation of football fans grew to expect.

Offenses around the league better buckle up.

As is the case with any good defense, it all starts up front. Rather than allowing Brandon Williams to cash in elsewhere on the open market, something general manager Ozzie Newsome has done with numerous other players poised for a payday, the Ravens shelled out to keep one of the NFL's premier nose tackles.

Williams' presence alone is enough to spearhead a top-flight run defense, but the $52-million man is also flanked by some intriguing talents in second-year lineman Michael Pierce and third-round rookie Chris Wormley. Pierce is another stout run defender and Wormley is the perfect fit to contribute as an every-down player at the five-technique spot.

A need for pass-rushers alongside an aging Terrell Suggs was satisfied with the draft additions of Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams in the second and third rounds, respectively. Bowser is a versatile defensive talent that, despite a raw skill set, could be moved all over the defensive front seven to take advantage of various matchups. Williams seemingly tumbled down draft boards due to off-field concerns and a disappointing combine, but many in the draft community considered his pass-rush talent to be worthy of first-round consideration.

The primary inside linebacker was never a concern with C.J. Mosley leading the way, and 2016 second-rounder Kamalei Correa could very well emerge as a suitable replacement for the now-retired Zach Orr at his side.

For the most part, fielding an uber talented front seven has been par for the course. The secondary is what's held this defense back in recent seasons, and that's where Baltimore just so happened to make its most significant additions.

The blockbuster free-agent signing of Tony Jefferson could very well give Baltimore one of the league's top safety tandems, as veteran star Eric Weddle now has a dynamic, young talent to pair with in the deep middle. Scooping up Brandon Carr in free agency, and then spending a first-round pick on former Alabama standout Marlon Humphrey, provide the exact kind of upgrades to the cornerback depth chart that was needed behind Jimmy Smith.

With pressing needs on offense still unresolved, it would be entirely fair to raise an eyebrow or two at the strategy to allocate nearly all resources to the defensive side. But why mess with success?

A defense with no holes may give the Ravens the best chance of any AFC club to challenge Tom Brady and the juggernaut New England Patriots offense. Baltimore getting anything near average production from Joe Flacco and Co. would once again see the value in an elite, shutdown defense shine through.

Ugly as it may be, that's just the way this team likes it.

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