The AFC North is widely considered one of the best divisions in the NFL, if not the best. Historically, the best matchups between AFC North foes have been defensive, low-scoring battles decided by a possession or two at most.
In Week 4, the Baltimore Ravens will be heading into enemy territory hoping to emerge victorious following an upset loss in Week 3. While their offense will be looking to exploit the top-ranked defensive unit of the Cleveland Browns, their defense will be trying to prove that they are the superior squad.
“We strive to be the number one defense." Michael Pierce: pic.twitter.com/dXtxUUy4g2— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) September 27, 2023
“We strive to be the No. 1 defense,” veteran nose tackle Michael Pierce said Wednesday. “We aren’t there yet at the moment . . . Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens has always been a big hit. Take punch, throw a punch kind of game.
“We definitely are aware that they’re No. 1. We definitely want to outplay them but at the end of the day, that No. 1 spot is still up for grabs until the season is over so that’s what we’re striving for.”
The Browns have been the stingiest defense in the league across the board. They’re allowing just 6.67 points per game, 136 passing yards per game, 52 rushing yards per game, and a league-low third-down conversion rate of 36 percent. While their first three opponents have fielded some of the most inefficient offenses in the league thus far, the fact that they’ve only given up one touchdown is still remarkable.
Similar to how the Ravens aggressively revamped their wide receiver room this offseason, the Browns did the same with their defensive depth chart — especially in the trenches. They traded for former Raven edge rusher and three-time Pro Bowler Za’Darius Smith to play opposite of Defensive Player of the Year front runner Myles Garrett. Then, they signed Ogbo Okoronkwo to add more quality depth on the edge, and significantly beefed up their interior defensive line with the signings of veterans Dalvin Tomlinson, Shelby Harris, and Maurice Hurst Jr.
The Ravens’ defense has been pretty stout itself despite missing several of their best and highest-paid players through the first three games. Three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey has yet to make his regular-season debut as he works his way back from foot surgery. Ball-hawking free safety Marcus Williams has missed the last two games with a pectoral injury, and their outside linebacker depth chart has gotten continuously banged up in each of the past two weeks.
Williams returned to practice on Wednesday. Fourth-year pro Geno Stone has performed exceptionally well in his place, ranking second on the team and seventh among all safeties in the league with an overall Pro Football Focus of 84.8 through three games. However, the unit is excited that one of their best players and stalwart leaders is getting closer to returning.
Geno Stone this season:— PFF BAL Ravens (@PFF_Ravens) September 28, 2023
84.8 PFF Grade
2nd among Ravens players
7th among all safeties pic.twitter.com/6JE3cNG0dt
“Anytime you can get a guy like Marcus back who changes the game in the blink of an eye, it’s always good to have that energy back and have those guys you can really rely on back,” Pierce said.
The Ravens recently brought in some reinforcements to their ailing edge defender depth chart by signing seasoned veteran Kyle Van Noy to the practice squad on Wednesday. This marks Van Noy’s fourth different team in the last four years. He has recorded five or more sacks in each of the last four seasons and five of the last six. Van Noy possesses the versatile skill set to play the SAM spot, which requires players to drop into coverage and play in space more often.
“I always have liked Kyle Van Noy as a player,” Harbaugh said. “You go back to the Patriots-Ravens games – him being out there, playing the way he played in that style and that manner. He’s just a ferocious player – smart player, tough player. I know he’s in shape, and he’s ready to go. If needed, he’ll be out there helping us.”
When the Ravens travel to Cleveland on Sunday, All-Pro linebacker Roquan Smith wants to show the “Dawg Pound” Browns’ fans that they’re not the only dogs in the building wanting a win.
“I consider myself a dog.” Roquan Smith: pic.twitter.com/IDT4bE9HNk— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) September 27, 2023
“You’re going into essentially another man’s house, and you’re trying to take over,” Smith said. “His wife, kids, and everyone is there to watch them. We’re going over there to beat their tails in front of their wife and kids. When you think about it from that perspective, any man is going to fight till the death at that point. I know if that’s me in that case, I know I would. I’m just going in just like I prepared for any other game – play till [you hear] the whistle, play physical and hit anything that moves.”