How the Ravens went bargain shopping and rebuilt their defense

Marcus Peters already has two pick-sixes with the Ravens. Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The last time the Baltimore Ravens played the Cleveland Browns, their defense plummeted to a new low as a franchise.

Three months later, the Ravens get another shot at quarterback Baker Mayfield and the Browns with a defense that is among the fiercest and stingiest in the NFL.

How did Baltimore suddenly transform its defense on the fly? The Ravens essentially struck gold at the NFL’s dollar store. First-year general manager Eric DeCosta added cornerback Marcus Peters and a handful of impact defenders at bargain rates.

There were no seven-figure signing bonuses. There were no first-round picks lost. What was gained has been key to one of the bigger comeback stories in the NFL.

Since their last loss in Week 4, the Ravens have allowed the fourth-fewest yards (281.8) and the second-fewest points (15.7) in the league.

“Eric should get Executive of the Year with as much help he’s given us,” defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said recently.

After giving up 33 points and 503 yards to the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 3, Baltimore reached its breaking point defensively the next week against the Browns. Cleveland put up 40 points, and Mayfield threw for 342 yards. Browns running back Nick Chubb rushed for 165 yards, including racing down the sideline 88 yards untouched into the end zone. For the first time in team history, a Ravens defense allowed 500 yards in consecutive games.

Just days later, the Ravens brought calmness to the middle of the defense by signing linebackers Josh Bynes (a former Super Bowl star for Baltimore) and L.J. Fort (a free-agent target for the team in March) off the street.

On Oct. 15, they added a playmaker in Peters by trading a fifth-round pick and reserve linebacker Kenny Young to the Los Angeles Rams.

Over those two months, they bolstered the defensive line by signing two more free agents in Jihad Ward (a second-round prospect they liked in 2016) and Domata Peko (who played against the Ravens for a decade in Cincinnati).

For the Ravens, it was about finding players who fit the system and not about making a splash with a big-name addition.

Since the start of this defensive overhaul, Baltimore has won 10 straight, forcing more turnovers (18) than touchdowns allowed (15).

“Shout out to the GM upstairs for making those moves,” linebacker Matthew Judon said. “They seen flaws or little weaknesses that we had and they righted the ship. They got some people in here that helped us. There are some people who are Ravens who haven’t lost yet. We want to continue that trend. But the people who were here for those two losses -- those two long weeks -- we heard all the talk and all the chatter about how bad we were, we just came together as a team. I think that’s what sparked the run that we’re on right now.”

The coup of this defensive revival was Peters. The Rams needed the cap space to trade for cornerback Jalen Ramsey and the Ravens took advantage by acquiring Peters for a Day 3 pick and a benched starter.

With Baltimore, Peters has returned two interceptions for touchdowns and made the playoff-clinching pass breakup at the 1-yard line in Buffalo. Since acquiring Peters, the Ravens have an opposing passer rating of 72.5, the second-best in the NFL over that time.

Asked if he was surprised by what little the Ravens had to give up for Peters, Baltimore cornerback Jimmy Smith said, “I feel like it’s almost disrespectful to him and his talent. But it’s a steal for us, so you can’t be mad at that. I think it was kind of a little bit slap in his face, but it’s also to let him know what the Rams valued him at.”

Injuries have played a factor in Baltimore’s improvement. Smith and defensive tackle Brandon Williams returned after missing time. Since safety Tony Jefferson and linebacker Pernell McPhee weren’t on injured reserve, safety Chuck Clark has become the team’s leading tackler and rookie linebacker Jaylon Ferguson has held his own.

In addition to the changes in the lineup, there was an attitude adjustment. Days after that loss to the Browns on Sept. 29, Martindale and his players had what was described as a “come-to-Jesus” meeting.

“They’ve been locked in ever since,” Martindale said.

What was said? “Nothing I can repeat,” Martindale replied.

The Ravens have taken out their frustration on quarterbacks. Baltimore is blitzing on 53% of dropbacks this season, which is No. 1 in the NFL and 8 percentage points higher than the next-highest team, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

This strategy has come out of necessity after losing top pass rushers in Za'Darius Smith and Terrell Suggs in free agency. When the Ravens send four-or-fewer pass-rushers this season, they have the second-lowest rate of sacks per dropback (3.6%).

“I think Wink has a lot of pent up aggression,” Jets coach Adam Gase said of the Ravens’ frequent blitzing. “When you're a defensive coordinator [and] you know your offense is going to score points, you can be aggressive. And I'm really sure giving Wink any kind of green light with that -- that's probably not ideal for guys calling plays on the other side.”

After that September loss to Cleveland, the Ravens were 2-2 and ranked No. 27 on defense. Entering its rematch with the Browns, Baltimore is 12-2 with the league’s No. 6 defense.

It’s a remarkable makeover, but Ravens coach John Harbaugh isn’t ready to pat anyone on the back.

“The season is still going on, so the rest of the story isn’t written yet,” Harbaugh said. “As you guys have pointed out two different times, they scorched us last game. So, we have to stop these guys before we start talking about who deserves credit for anything.”