D is new MVP: Ravens defense stealing spotlight from Lamar Jackson

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens remain one of the headliners in the NFL. They’re just putting on a different kind of show.

A season ago, Lamar Jackson led the Ravens to the best record in football by producing electrifying runs and throwing the most touchdown passes in the NFL. In jumping out to a 4-1 start this season, the Ravens are being carried by blitzes, run-stuffing tackles, forced turnovers and defensive touchdowns.

With Jackson and the offense no longer leading the league in scoring, the Baltimore defense has become the team’s MVP, holding teams to a league-low 15.2 points per game.

"They just make our job a lot easier,” Jackson said after Sunday’s 27-3 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. "Our defense is playing lights out.”

It began with the first series of the season, when cornerback Marlon Humphrey’s interception of Baker Mayfield set up Baltimore’s first touchdown against the Cleveland Browns. It extended through Sunday, when rookie linebacker Patrick Queen returned a fumble 52 yards for a touchdown against the Bengals.

With defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s creative and unpredictable schemes, quarterbacks have watched defensive backs charge through the middle of the defense unblocked and defensive linemen like Calais Campbell drop back to knock down a pass.

When you exclude the Week 3 loss to Kansas City, this defense has created more than twice as many turnovers (nine) as touchdowns allowed (four). In the four wins this season, this defense has totaled more quarterback hits (43) than points given up (42).

It's been a nonstop barrage of Humphrey punched-out fumbles, Marcus Peters interceptions, Matthew Judon quarterback hits and Queen tackles.

"This defense is fun,” Judon said. "That’s the best way I can describe it. When we hit like that, everybody is on point, and we’re just fired up. We feed off of each other’s energy.”

The Ravens' defense had plenty of energy last season, when it ranked No. 4 in yards allowed and No. 3 in points given up. But the defense was considered the sidekick to a Ravens offensive attack that regularly put up 40 points and dominated time of possession.

So far this season, Jackson and the Ravens are not reaching the end zone as frequently and not eating up as much clock. This hasn’t affected the defense, which ranks in the top five in yards per play, rushing yards allowed and third-down conversions.

“We want to be the best,” safety Chuck Clark said. "We want to be No. 1 in every category, so that’s our goal. We’ll let the chips fall from there.”

If the role reversal between the Ravens’ offense and defense wasn’t apparent during Sunday’s win over the Bengals, it certainly was afterward. During his postgame media session, Jackson was promoting Humphrey for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Last season, it was Jackson getting touted by teammates for league MVP. Now, he’s the one pushing Humphrey, who has forced a turnover in all four wins for Baltimore. He’s one of two players to make more than 20 tackles and record at least one sack, forced fumble and interception (Vikings linebacker Eric Wilson is the other).

"He studies the game. He treats the game right. He plays the game right,” linebacker Pernell McPhee said. "He plays it with a swagger -- an attitude. He stays focused. Shoot, he keeps me in it when he comes on the field sometimes, yelling. I think there’s a lot more to come. So, yes, MVP -- best cornerback in the league."

Even though the Ravens were statistically among the best defenses last season, team officials recognized where they needed to improve. Baltimore overhauled the front seven, trading for Campbell, signing free-agent defensive lineman Derek Wolfe and drafting Queen in the first round. In the secondary, the Ravens abruptly released Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas three weeks before the regular season began after he punched Clark and had to adjust when nickelback Tavon Young suffered a season-ending knee injury early in Week 2.

While the Ravens' offense continues to search for its identity, the defense has quickly bonded by playing together with high intensity and discipline.

"The thing I was really happy with and proud of was the way they played," coach John Harbaugh said. "The pursuit, the effort, the technique, their eyes -- back to front, all the way through the defense -- was really, really good. It’s definitely very encouraging. We never take that for granted. That’s something you have to pack and bring every week. You have to be locked in play after play. As a defense, you can build a season in terms of focusing on that part every single week."