Ravens' defense setting gold standard

OWINGS MILLS - Bring them your fly patterns, cut blocks and elusive skill players, the Baltimore Ravens' defense has answers.The defense established its gold standard in reducing the "Greatest Show on Turf" to a sideshow carnival. The Rams endured a stretch of seven consecutive series without producing a first down.

It was only one football game, a loss to the St. Louis Rams. However, it was also an indicator of how the Ravens can cover, rush the passer and tackle in the open field.The defense established its gold standard in reducing the "Greatest Show on Turf" to a sideshow carnival. The Rams endured a stretch of seven consecutive series without producing a first down.

"Making plays is what defensive players thrive on, and we have set a standard," defensive back Gary Baxter said. "If you do that consistently, you have a great defense."

Baltimore (5-4) held the top-ranked Rams' offense to a season-low 121 yards in a 33-22 loss where the Ravens generated four turnovers and four sacks.

Before kickoff, the Rams were averaging a league-high 374.5 yards. St. Louis had just seven first downs, but won by capitalizing on seven Baltimore turnovers.

Between an improved pass rush and pass coverage along with a traditionally-stingy run defense, Baltimore ranks second in the league in total defense heading into Sunday's contest against the Miami Dolphins.

"Obviously, a lot of the statistics show that we're doing some things correctly, but it is an ongoing process and it's just past the midway point," defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. "Our style of play is something that is critical to us being successful and leads to us getting the job done."

One aspect hasn't changed about a defense that eschews comparisons to the dominant unit that headlined a Super Bowl winner three years ago. Perennial All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis remains the focal point.

Lewis has a team-high 123 tackles with an interception in each of the last three games. He appears to have recovered well from a shoulder injury that cost him the majority of last season and required surgery.

"He certainly looks the same to me," Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese said. "Forget the fact that he's a great player. He's a great motivating factor because he gives that defense so much personality.

"He's their heart and soul. They play as hard as possible because he demands that from everybody that's out there with him. If you play on that defense, you're going to have to play hard to please Ray."

The primary reasons why Lewis was able to ascertain Rams quarterback Marc Bulger's intentions are film study, instincts and speed. During the season, Lewis regularly holds study sessions at his house. He rarely ventures out at night.

"Ray pays such close attention to the film that he studies," Nolan said. "Ray's just one of those guys who knows that it's going to happen for him at some point. There's no such thing as a slump for Ray."

Besides' Lewis contribution in helping Baltimore limit opposing runners to 3.5 yards per carry, safety Ed Reed has chipped in with a team-high five interceptions.

Linebacker Ed Hartwell has 85 tackles and two forced fumbles. Baxter has 63 tackles, two interceptions and eight pass deflections. And nose guard Kelly Gregg has 54 tackles and two sacks.

Baltimore held St. Louis running back Marshall Faulk to a 2.4 average with two short touchdown runs despite 20 attempts. Bulger passed for only 110 yards with a long completion of 24 yards along with interceptions for a quarterback rating of 29.3.

Meanwhile, elite receiving tandem Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce were bottled up by Chris McAlister and Baxter for a combined five receptions for 51 yards and no scores.

McAlister checked Holt. The Ravens' franchise player regularly shadows the opponent's top receiver, shutting down Denver's Rod Smith and Jacksonville's Jimmy Smith.

"Chris has probably had his strongest four weeks in a row since I've been here," Nolan said. "He has accepted the challenge on a lot of occasions. When you have a premier guy, you need to put him opposite their premier guy. Otherwise, you're not using his talents."

In particular, third down was critical for Baltimore, holding St. Louis to 3-of-14 for a 21 percent conversion rate. Since a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals last month, the Ravens have intercepted five passes.

"It's about execution," Reed said. "We have to continue to build on that."

Defensive end Tony Weaver has broken through double-team blocking for five sacks to go along with rookie outside linebacker Terrell Suggs' team-high six sacks.

Weaver has started 25 games in a row since Baltimore traded up in the second round to draft him last year out of Notre Dame.

"Tony is a very intelligent, athletic guy who has got a lot going for him," Nolan said. "He'll play a long time. He does a lot of dirty work. Ideally, we would get him freed up even more." Pro Bowl outside linebacker Peter Boulware has 3 ½ sacks and two forced fumbles.

Another development since losing to Cincinnati: 10 sacks over the last three games in compiling a 2-1 mark since the setback.

"A lot of it is just using what we have: true athletic ability," Lewis said. "It's really starting to show because our young defense is jelling right now.

"It's one thing to have great athletes. It's another thing to have chemistry. That's what we have right now, and it's growing."

Nolan, the son of former New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers coach Dick Nolan, has shifted Baltimore out of its primary 3-4 defensive alignment to integrate some disguised 4-3 looks.

He has also mixed and matched personnel, shifting Baxter between free safety and cornerback, using Adalius Thomas at linebacker, end and tackle. Baxter will play safety this week as veteran Corey Fuller starts at cornerback.

"Mike has always had a good reputation," Reese said. "He grew up in the NFL and his dad was an excellent coach.

"What's made Mike a little bit unique is he's been willing to change and adapt to whatever comes along. Whatever needs to be done, he's been willing to do."

Through nine football games, Baltimore ranks first in the AFC in defense and is eighth overall in the NFL against the run and fourth against the pass. Ravens coach Brian Billick attributes the defense's success as much to attitude and talent as its scheme.

"You've got to love the temperament," Billick said. "The players have a lot of belief in it and that includes the whole staff. With [defensive line coach] Rex Ryan and [secondary coach] Donnie Henderson, there's some carry-over from the earlier staff that understands what that kind of defense looks like. So, there's a real trust factor there."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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