Ranking The Best Ravens Defenses of the Modern Era

 

So the offseason is finally over, and we’ve transitioned from waiting for the preseason to start into waiting for the meaningful games to start. To pass the time, I’ll analyze the unit that has defined Ravens football for much of their history: their defense. Volumes of nostalgic analysis has been written on the dominant Ravens defenses of the early 2000’s which, as a fan since 2006, is unfortunately all I know of them. However, the legendary 2000 defense that won the Ravens’ first superbowl, along with great defenses from other teams that came before it, never had to contend with today’s elite quarterbacks. What if the 2000 Ravens faced mid 2000’s Peyton Manning, or early 2010’s Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers? They completely shut down opposing running backs, but we’ll never know if they could have been nearly as dominant against modern elite quarterbacks. That’s why I’ll take a different direction in this post. I will rank the Ravens top 5 defenses in today’s modern passing league.

What is the modern era?

Some time during the 2000’s, several top tier QBs emerged as passing offensive production exploded. The first instance of this, the Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf” actually predates the Ravens’ superbowl win in 2000. Later, the 2004 rule changes to more strictly enforce pass interference fouls were immediately followed by Peyton Manning’s most dominant season.  In fact, the passer rating of the entire league increased by 4 points from 2003 to 2004: not only did Peyton Manning have arguably the most dominant QB season ever, but it was also Duante Culpepper’s best season, and Drew Brees and Tom Brady’s first seasons as a top tier QB statistically. For this reason, I will use 2004 as the start of the modern era for the purpose of this post. Anyways, here’s my take on the top 5 Ravens’ defenses in this era. Pass defense is the primary focus, because most of the top teams of the era have good pass offenses, and a good pass defense is needed to stop them.

 

5. 2009 Defense

2009defense
Ray Lewis and Peyton Manning leading their teams in the first of two 2009 clashes

While generally viewed as a disappointment because of its decline from 2008, the 2009 defense will be remembered for how they completely embarrassed the Patriots in Foxborough in the playoffs. The defense got off to a rocky start against the Chiefs, and then was shredded through the air by Rivers and the Chargers in the game with Ray Lewis’ famous 4th down stuff of Darren Sproles. Fortunately, the suddenly emergent offense was able to keep pace and win both games. During their 3 game losing streak from weeks 4 to 6, Brady and the Patriots scored 27 on them, and Favre and the Vikings scored 33. After the bye week, the defense improved. They gave up more than 20 points only twice, despite facing Manning twice, and Brady, Roethlisberger, and Rodgers once each. Overall, they faced a top quarterback 8 times that season, and gave up an average of 23.4 points per game against them. While that’s a pretty average number, it shows that they held their own against the best. That puts them at number 5 on this list.

Key stats

  • 1.33 points allowed per drive
  • 32 turnovers forced
  • 6.0 yards allowed per pass play

 

4. 2004 Defense

2004defense
Beating the Patriots is difficult as is, especially with Boller at QB

The 2004 season was a significant black mark in Ravens history because it was the only season in which Kyle Boller started 16 games. With even a slighly above average defense, the Ravens would have struggled to win 4 games, but the Ravens had one of the best defenses in the NFL that year, which got them to 9-7. Leading the way for them was Ed Reed, who had the best season of his career in 2004. Reed intercepted 9 passes, defended 17 more, and forced 3 fumbles. The defense as a whole put up strong performances against both Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, holding them to a combined 1 touchdown, and their teams to a combined 3. Unfortunately, the Ravens offense scored as many touchdowns for their opponents as they did for themselves, and the Ravens lost both games, ultimately missing the playoffs.

Key stats

  • 1.20 points allowed per drive
  • 34 turnovers forced
  • 5.8 yards allowed per pass play

 

3. 2011 Defense

2011defense
The Ravens celebrate a win against Ben Roethlisberger for the first time under coach Harbaugh

This was the 2nd to last season when the Ravens had the duo of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, and the final season when they still could have been considered elite defenders. For this reason, 2011 is also the latest season on this list. Not only was 2011 the last season before the already declining Lewis and Reed sharply plummeted in level of play, it was also the best season for both Terrell Suggs and Lardarius Webb. Webb set career highs in interceptions (5) and pass defenses (21) in a season that should have earned him 2nd team all-pro honors at the very least. Terrell Suggs won the defensive player of the year award with his 14 sacks, 2 interceptions, 6 pass defenses, and 7 forced fumbles. This Ravens team also had a reasonably strong season against top quarterbacks. In 2 games against Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers, they allowed 7 and 20 points, and held Roethlisberger to passer ratings of 52.9 and 82.0. In their season ending AFCCG loss against the Patriots, the defense still managed to hold Brady and Co. to 23 points, and a passer rating of only 57.5. The only significant black mark on the 2011 defense was the 34-14 loss to the Chargers. It took Philip Rivers only 23 dropbacks to amass 270 yards, at an astonishing 13.7 yards per attempt. While the overall stats of this defense are a bit worse than those from 2004, the fact that the 2011 defense played 7 years later into the modern era gives them the edge.

Key stats

  • 1.27 points allowed per drive
  • 26 turnovers forced
  • 5.4 yards allowed per pass play

 

2. 2008 Defense

2008defense
Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, still at their peak

2008 was the final year in that run of great Rex Ryan defenses before he left for the Jets, and took Bart Scott and Jim Leonhard with him. It was arguably the final season of Ed Reed and Ray Lewis’ coinciding primes, with the duo playing 16 games together for the last time. It was the only year when Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, and Haloti Ngata all played together at their peak. Ed Reed nearly repeated the greatness of his 2004 season, with 9 interceptions, 16 pass defenses, and 1 forced fumble in a year where he arguably should have won defensive player of the year. What holds this defense back from the top spot is its relatively easy schedule, and its week 6 game against the Colts. They got destroyed by Peyton Manning, who average 8.6 net yards per attempt, with 3 touchdowns and 0 turnovers. The 2nd best QB they faced was Tony Romo, and they got off a bit easy this year when Roethlisberger had a down season.

Key stats

  • 1.08 points allowed per drive
  • 34 turnovers forced
  • 5.1 yards allowed per pass play

 

 

1. 2006 Defense

2006defense
Half of the 2006 Ravens’ pro bowl linebackers

The 2006 defense carried the Ravens to their only 13-3 season in franchise history. It was the last of the great Brian Billick defenses, and after the superbowl winning 2000 once, the 2nd greatest. This defense forced more turnovers than it allowed scores, and sent over half of its starters (Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Bart Scott, Adalius Thomas, and Chris McAllister) to the pro bowl. No matter who they faced, they defense held strong. They never gave up more than 26 points all season, and gave up more than 20 only thrice. They went up against Philip Rivers, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger (twice), and Peyton Manning, holding them to passer ratings of 75.0, 76.4, 46.2, 47.2, and 39.6 respectively. Neither of them managed to lead their team to more than 22 points. The season ended bitterly, with the Ravens offense scoring only 6 points, letting the defense down during their stand against Peyton Manning. The fact that this defense faced five top tier quarterbacks, and never had a truly bad game against them, makes the 2006 Ravens easily their best modern defense.

Key stats

  • 1.02 points allowed per drive
  • 40 turnovers forced
  • 38 scores allowed
  • 5.3 yards allowed per pass play

 

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