CHARLOTTE – When it comes to the Ravens defense, the numbers don't lie.
When it comes time for the Panthers to line up against the Ravens defense, the numbers aren't going to make the Carolina offense lie down.
"We know we're playing a good defense; it doesn't matter what their numbers or what their stats are," left tackle Chris Clark said. "Anytime you play a good defense, it's important that the offense is on the same page, so it's about us.
"Yeah, they're a pretty aggressive defense, but we're an aggressive offense. It's going to be a good game. I'm looking forward to it. But in order to win this game, we've got to put our best foot forward."
It's nothing new for the Ravens to sport a top-flight defense. Since 1999, following three slow seasons at the dawn of the franchise, Baltimore has ranked in the top 10 in total defense 15 of a possible 19 times (the Panthers were in the top 10 nine times). But the Ravens have finished No. 1 in total defense just once (2000), and the last time the Panthers played a team that entered the game ranked No. 1 in total defense was in 2011, which resulted in a late-season road victory in Houston.
This Ravens team doesn't just rank first in total yards allowed at 280.6 yards per game; Baltimore also is allowing a league-low 14.4 points per game and has a league-high 27 sacks. Eleven of those came in a Week 6 shutout of the Titans.
"But it's just one week at a time – we didn't have very many last week, I know that," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who clearly doesn't want a defense that sacked Drew Brees just once in Week 7 to rest on its laurels. "The statistics are probably what sets it apart right now, but you know that's fleeting. It's only seven games in, so you don't put too much stock in that right now.
"We're just trying to find a way to stop a very good Panthers offense this week."
And the Panthers are trying to find a way to attack – and to dodge the attack of – a very good Ravens defense.
They have some ideas.
"Just imagine if we don't have to come back from 17," wide receiver Jarius Wright said. "It would be a lot easier game for us."
The Panthers have fallen behind 17-0 in each of their last two games, though they nearly rallied to victory two weeks ago in Washington and did rally to victory last week in Philadelphia. Carolina's opening drives have produced a single field goal, and the Panthers are averaging 2.8 points in the first quarter – 30th in the league.
The Ravens, to state the obvious, aren't an easy team to start fast against. But doing so could keep Baltimore's dynamic defenders at least slightly on their heels.
"It's important to start fast – it's very important. Not just because it's the Ravens, but just because as an offense we've lacked that," Clark said. "We're working hard to get to where we need to be. I think it's starting to fall into place."
HANDLE THE BLITZ
The Ravens return all 11 starters from a defense that ranked a relatively disappointing 12th in the NFL last season, but they did switch up the lineup in one significant way – promoting longtime linebackers coach Don Martindale to defensive coordinator.
"I think Coach Martindale has done a nice job as their coordinator," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "He's a very aggressive play-caller."
In the 11-sack showing against the Titans, none of Baltimore's five second-half sacks came from a defensive lineman, and just one came from a rush linebacker in the Ravens' 3-4 scheme. Rush linebackers Terrell Suggs and Za'Darius Smith are tied for 11th in the league with 5.5 sacks each, but no other Raven ranks in the top 50 because Baltimore has an astounding 13 players with at least one sack.
A fast start might help stave off the relentless rush, but the Ravens under Martingdale aren't afraid to "pin their ears back" in any situation. Six of their sacks against the Titans came in the first half.
"The concern is just controlling the blitz," quarterback Cam Newton said. "Those guys move around. They disguise so much, and they've got guys that play fast, that understand what they're doing. When you have as much veteran leadership as they have on that team, those guys know exactly what they want to do and how to attack the offense. That's an added advantage."
STAY ON SCHEDULE
The Panthers' advantage can be keeping Baltimore's defense off-balance.
"A very physical, stern, stingy defense," Newton said. "We've got to be prepared to not only run the football but pass the football and be able to execute."
The Panthers have turned the ball over just seven times – tied for eighth fewest – and as good as Baltimore has been on defense, its seven takeaways are tied for 10th fewest. Of course Carolina would love to use the Ravens' aggressiveness against them in the form of a big strike or two, but taking care of the ball and the little things is even more important.
"Second-and-long situations, third- and long-and-medium situations, that can put us in situations that can hurt us," running back C.J. Anderson said. "If we play Panther football and play our way, we'll be just fine."
Added Wright: "You just have to keep pecking away, keep pecking away. Hopefully they'll finally break."