Ravens' defense resurgent

OWINGS MILLS - Bellowing out signals with authority from the middle, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis led a defensive resurgence. Even though it was a veterans camp with no score tabulated Monday, Lewis and the defense took the competition quite seriously. And it showed. On a majority of third downs, the defense triggered a bunch of incompletions and forced quarterbacks to flee the backfield. Often, the passers would have been sacked if these were full-contact drills.

Lewis was in the thick of things, chasing down running backs and closing down passing lanes.

"Yeah, this where you start turning it up right now," said Lewis, a five-time Pro Bowler who was limited to five games last season because of a partially dislocated left shoulder that has been surgically repaired. "When you step on a football field, you have to have a certain mentality and practice is where it starts. When you're on the field on third down, it's, 'Let's go get some Gatorade.'"

A year removed from going 5-6 in Lewis' absence and ranking 22nd in the league in total defense, the Ravens have designs on returning to the dominant play that characterized their Super Bowl campaign.

The Ravens finished 13th in the NFL against the run, going second overall in average yards surrendered per running play with a 3.7 average. Baltimore went 7-9 while missing the playoffs, ranking 22nd against the pass and leading the AFC in interceptions with 25.

"We improved every game even though it wasn't what they had done in the past," nose guard Kelly Gregg said. "We're leaps and bounds ahead of where we were last year at this time."

Besides Lewis' return, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan points to the acquisition of veteran defensive back Corey Fuller and drafting pass rusher Terrell Suggs in the first round as keys to how the Ravens might be able to dictate terms to offenses.

"Overall, I think we have a very aggressive scheme," Nolan said. "We want to set the standard as far as tempo goes in games. "That has been our M.O. in games for a long time. That needs to be us. That's what Ray Lewis is. That's our kingpin."

By adding Fuller, the former Cleveland Browns standout, the secondary gained nine years of experience. Fuller worked at cornerback again Monday with returning starter Gary Baxter continuing to stay at free safety next to strong safety Ed Reed, an all-rookie selection last season.

"It could work out that way, but at some point we will make a decision," Nolan said. "We're not going to let it hang out there, but Gary's doing a good job and enjoying it. He would go back to corner in a heartbeat. "We have to figure out which is the best four and how to put them out there."

Tom Knight played opposite Fuller at cornerback in place of franchise player Chris McAlister, who didn't attend the voluntary camp.

A year ago, McAlister was the lone returning starter in the defensive backfield.

Linebacker is the strength of the Ravens' primary 3-4 alignment. Ed Hartwell established himself when Lewis went down by leading the team with 191 tackles. Peter Boulware was selected to his third Pro Bowl. Suggs, who was back on the field after experiencing back spasms last week, set an NCAA record with 24 sacks last fall at Arizona State.

"We've got all the potential in the world," Boulware said. "We've got great players, great leadership and great attitude. It's really up to us to put it all together."

And the Ravens have solid depth in Cornell Brown and Bernardo Harris.

"The guy, right now, that's really doing some good things is Cornell," Nolan said.

Gregg and left end Anthony Weaver are certain starters along a defensive line likely to be defined by a constant rotation.

Who will make the team from a current group of 12 defensive linemen remains undecided. Adalius Thomas and Marques Douglas are leading contenders to assume the starting job at right end.

"There's going to be some tough decisions," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "That's probably as a group going to be the most hotly-contested position just because of the number of guys that we think can play."

NOTES: The Ravens signed former Tampa Bay Buccaneers long snapper Mike Solwold. He has also played for Dallas and Minnesota. ... Fullback Alan Ricard wasn't at camp. … Veteran receiver Frank Sanders returned to workouts after missing last week's passing camp. … … Ravens owner Art Modell and his wife, Patricia, will receive a community leadership award today from the Points of Light Foundation & Volunteer Center National Network at the Baltimore Convention Center during the final day of a national conference on community volunteering and national service.


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