OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Pride has been restored in the Baltimore Ravens' run defense. A season after being ranked 20th in stopping the run -- the Ravens' worst showing since 1996 -- Baltimore is back to shutting down big gains and keeping backs out of the end zone.
The Ravens' biggest test comes Sunday, when the NFL's leading rusher comes to Baltimore. How the Ravens hold up against the Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson will determine whether Baltimore wins its third straight game and remains in control of its playoff fate.
This is a statement game for the Ravens' run defense, although no one would acknowledge it is.
"I think the only thing our guys [on defense] are thinking about in terms of making a name for themselves is winning," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.
In order to win, the Ravens have to contain the powerful back who just became the 28th player in NFL history to surpass 10,000 rushing yards. When teams have held Peterson under 140 yards rushing, they've gone 7-1 against the Vikings this season.
The Ravens are in a much better position to limit Peterson than last season, when the Ravens watched their streak of having a top-five run defense end at six straight years. After winning the Super Bowl, the Ravens upgraded their defensive line by signing end Chris Canty in free agency and moving Haloti Ngata to nose tackle. Baltimore also improved at middle linebacker, where Daryl Smith has made everyone forget that Ray Lewis is no longer playing.
Three-quarters of the way into the season, the Ravens run defense ranks No. 6 in the NFL, giving up 22 yards less on the ground per game than last year. The Ravens also rank first in fewest rushing touchdowns (two), fourth in yards per carry (3.7) and tied for third in 20-yard runs (three).
"We're happy about what we're doing, but we know there's so much more room for us to grow," inside linebacker Jameel McClain said.
The key to slowing down Peterson is not missing tackles, which is easier said than done. Peterson has gained 557 yards after contact this season, which is 110 yards more than anyone else in the NFL. In the Ravens' last and only meeting against Peterson (October 2009), 40 percent of his yards (58 of 143) came after contact.
"You've got to play good fundamental team defense," Canty said. "We've got to be sound. We've got to be in our gaps. We've got to get 11 hats to the ball and swarm him."
The Ravens' run defense hasn't faced many daunting challenges this season. Baltimore has gone against three running backs who rank in the top 10 in the NFL in rushing, which could be the reason why the Ravens have allowed one 100-yard rusher (Green Bay's Eddie Lacy) this season.
The true measuring stick comes Sunday, when the Ravens face a five-time All-Pro running back in Peterson.
"We wouldn't' be in this game if we weren't trying to compete with the best," McClain said. "Our mentality is no different than anybody else's mentality, but the result remains to be seen."