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Defense still matters in the NFL playoffs, and the Ravens are playing it as well as anybody

Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale leads one of the best units in football. (Nick Wass/Associated Press)
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Inside the Baltimore Ravens’ defensive meeting room, a grease board on the wall doubles as a time capsule of their season’s darkest moment. Players and coaches met at the conclusion of Baltimore’s bye week, when the Ravens stood at 4-5, their coach’s job was in jeopardy and their defense had yielded an unacceptable 83 points over the last three games.

“I’m big into goals,” defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said. “We’re big into goals. We sat down and said: ‘Okay. Here’s where we’re at. Here’s what we see. Here’s what we need to improve on. Here’s what we’re good at.’ It’s open forum in the defensive meeting room.”

The Ravens defensive players reassessed themselves. They could still end the season as the No. 1 defense in the NFL, but they would have to improve in key areas, especially stopping opponents in the red zone and protecting leads in the fourth quarter with more aggression. Martindale scrawled the new goals and objectives on the grease board. Over the course of the final seven weeks, as he saw players peek at the board, he knew they would be fine.

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As the Ravens retooled their offense and rode electrifying rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson to a division title, they also leaned on a familiar force suddenly back in vogue across the NFL: defense. The Ravens finished the regular season as the NFL’s leaders in yards allowed and yards per play, and they ranked second in points allowed, just four behind the Chicago Bears.

While they arrived at their stinginess in divergent ways, the Ravens and Bears — both of whom open the playoffs at home Sunday — proved defense still matters in an NFL chock-full of pyrotechnic offense. The touchdown pinball played between the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Rams on Monday night in Week 11 convinced many that the future of the sport had arrived and it would be a contorted, crazed version of its previous self.

That night may still represent the future of the NFL, but not the immediate future.

Through the season’s first 12 weeks, NFL teams scored 24.1 points per game, which put the league on pace to smash the record. Immediately after Rams-Chiefs, scoring dropped. In the season’s final five weeks — the final Thursday night of November and all of December — teams scored 21.6 points per game.

As happens every season, the colder climate and inclement weather decreased offenses’ firepower. Defenses had more film to study and more time to conceive schemes to confront the innovation on the other side of the ball. Injuries decreased cohesion, which is more damaging to offense. Defensive players adjusted to the new rules prohibiting contact on quarterbacks. Whatever mix of those factors, the league titled in the direction of teams such as the Ravens and Bears.

Baltimore’s defense rose to the top of the league by eschewing modern strains of defensive philosophy, particularly the idea that defenses need to rely on turnovers and big plays. Chicago embraces that approach. It led the league in turnovers, forcing one on 19.5 percent of possessions, the highest mark since the Bears and New England Patriots surpassed 20 percent in 2012.

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The Ravens forced turnovers on 9.5 percent of possessions, which ranked 24th in the NFL. They still held both the Los Angeles Chargers, their first-round playoff opponent, and the Chiefs, the highest-scoring team in the NFL, to their lowest point totals during regulation of the season. The Ravens forced 17 turnovers, and six of those came in the final two weeks. For most of the season, they stopped offenses without having to take the ball away.

“We’re known for defense here,” safety Eric Weddle said. “We have great coaches and great players. We know what we’re doing and know how to play it. We don’t gamble. We play sound defense. Over time, that’s going to be better than giving up big plays and creating a turnover here and there.”

The Ravens’ defense is built with a mixture of youth and experience at every level — “a perfect storm,” veteran cornerback Brandon Carr said. Terrell Suggs, 36, is probably in his final season in Baltimore, and while his production has dipped, teammates insist his ability to read offenses is a crucial asset. Weddle, 34, quarterbacks the defense, while cornerbacks Carr and Jimmy Smith, both in their early 30s, add more experience on the back end. The Ravens can afford those veteran contracts because they’ve hit on several contributors in the draft — undrafted defensive tackle Michael Pierce, second-year corner Marlon Humphrey and edge rushers Matthew Judon and Za’Darius Smith are all on their rookie deals.

“I’ve been on some confident defenses here,” Jimmy Smith said. “But I feel like this is our best one.”

As the regular season neared its end, the Ravens started checking off those goals on the whiteboard. One of their key points helped save their season. Back during the bye week, the Ravens had decided they needed to be more aggressive in protecting fourth-quarter leads. When the Cleveland Browns needed a handful of yards to set up a game-winning field goal last Sunday, with Baltimore’s postseason chances on the line, Martindale called four consecutive all-out blitzes.

On the final play, linebacker C.J. Mosley intercepted a desperate pass and sent the Ravens to the playoffs. They had made it there with defense, fitting for the franchise and, in a late-season twist, for the league itself.

“The standard is high here to play defense for this organization, for this city,” Martindale said. “We all know that. We all accept that responsibility.”

correction

A previous version of this article said the Ravens held the Chiefs to their lowest point total of the season. It was actually the lowest point total in regulation.

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