Ravens' defense approaching gold standard

OWINGS MILLS -- For those with vision blurred by Terrell Owens' mocking rendition of Ray Lewis' trademark dance after scoring the winning touchdown Sunday, the Baltimore Ravens' defense did issue a belated rebuttal that illustrated its high standard. <br><br> From that point onward in a 15-10 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, Baltimore allowed exactly seven more yards on three possessions.

Although they couldn't stop Owens from having the last laugh in an ongoing feud, the Ravens' defense surrendered merely one touchdown and three field goals against one of the top scoring offenses in the NFL.

Over the last three games, the Ravens have given up just two touchdowns while scoring two of their own during a span of opponents' 38 drives and 180 plays. Baltimore (4-3) has allowed 100 points and has the top-scoring defense in the league with an average of 14.3 points per contest.

"The points are always the first thing we want because that's the biggest team goal that you can have," defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. "That's largely due to the players' preparation and execution. In the red zone particularly, our guys have done a really good job. Knock on wood, let's hope that continues."

Against Philadelphia, the Ravens stopped 2 of 3 red-zone attempts.
When MVP candidate quarterback Donovan McNabb burst toward the goal line in the second quarter, he was met roughly by inside linebacker Ed Hartwell at Ravens' 1. Hartwell knocked the football out of McNabb's hands and safety Will Demps recovered.

After Baltimore answered Owens' touchdown, coach Brian Billick was confident enough in the defense to punt with 2:11 left rather than attempt a 4th-and-6 at the Ravens' 38. The Ravens got the ball back roughly 23 seconds later.

Baltimore, which ranks seventh in the league in total defense, rushing defense and passing defense, is tied for fourth in red-zone defense with the AFC North-leading Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Ravens have allowed eight touchdowns and seven field goals on 20 possessions defended inside the 20 for a touchdown percentage of 40 percent.

"Last year, we had the fewest plays in the red zone," Nolan said. "I would like to get back to that. We've had an inability at times to get off the field on third down. For all the good we're doing in the red zone, we're saying, 'Why are we in the red zone?'"

Last year's team finished third in total defense as Baltimore led the NFL in sacks (47) and tied for first in the AFC and second in the NFL with 41 turnovers forced.

Through seven games this year, the Ravens rank second in the NFL in yards allowed per play (4.4), which ranks first in the AFC. They're fifth overall in rushing yards allowed per attempt (3.5), fourth in percentage of passes intercepted and third in passing net yards allowed per play.

The Ravens are second in the AFC to Pittsburgh in turnovers forced with 15.

"When we step on the field, one thing we believe in is that we are the best defense in the NFL," said Lewis, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year. "It's based on wins and losses, but I think we did a heck of a job containing this explosive offense."

Baltimore only sacked the elusive McNabb twice as he scrambled for 36 yards on six carries. The Ravens have posted 20 sacks. They're paced by outside linebacker Terrell Suggs' seven sacks, which ranks last year's NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year second in the AFC behind the Jets' John Abraham.

"We were a little bit disappointed we didn't get more pressure on him, which we tried to do," Nolan said.

Another aspect of Sunday's game that bothered Nolan was not being able to keep Owens from catching eight passes for 101 yards despite an emphasis on containing him.

With Owens moving around and the presence of the Eagles' other skill players, the Ravens weren't always able to keep Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister isolated on the controversial Pro Bowl wideout.

"You're always trying to tweak your structure and I was talking to Chris and Gary Baxter today to see what they think," Nolan said. "I need that information to see what they think. It's all based on a chess game. You like to have your best on their best as often as you can."

Besides high-profile Pro Bowl selections such as Lewis, McAlister, injured outside linebacker Peter Boulware, safety Ed Reed and flamboyant nickel back Deion Sanders, the defense is populated by several above-average performers and young players on the verge of league-wide recognition like Suggs.

With 66 tackles, the hard-hitting Hartwell ranks second on the team behind Lewis' 99 tackles. Left defensive end Tony Weaver has registered three sacks despite playing against hefty right tackles.

"One day, Anthony will be able to play on the right a little bit more and you'll see a guy who really dazzles," Nolan said. "He's our best athlete on the defensive line and he sacrifices for us."

Baxter has 42 tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and eight pass deflections. Defensive end Marques Douglas has one sack, but has pressured quarterbacks fiercely all year and ranks third in tackles with 44.

Nose guard Kelly Gregg had eight tackles against the Eagles and posted 104 last year to lead all NFL down linemen. Massive backup Maake Kemoeatu has improved markedly.

Safety Chad Williams has intercepted two passes, returning one 93 yards against the Buffalo Bills. With two sacks, an interception, a forced fumble and five pass deflections, outside linebacker Adalius Thomas is having his most consistent season.

"When you look at guys like Kelly Gregg, Marques Douglas, Chad Williams and even backups like Bart Scott, they're all tough, solid football players," Nolan said. "Hartwell is a good example of a guy who plays to a very high level. Rex Ryan deserves a lot of credit for what he's done with the defensive line in developing guys."

The Ravens have maintained continuity defensively by securing players to contract extensions. McAlister received a $55 million, seven-year contract last month. Baxter, who's set to become an unrestricted free agent after the season along with Hartwell and Douglas, is likely one of Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome's next targets.

"Ozzie Newsome and Phil Savage pick the right people and we keep 'em, and that's the key," Nolan said. "The vast majority miss that target. Our personnel people do an excellent job and Pat Moriarty and Steve Bisciotti don't let those players go when it's negotiating time."

Thomas was re-signed last year even though at 6-foot-2, 270 pounds he lacks ideal size for a defensive end and is larger than most outside linebackers. He fits the Ravens' mold, though for their 3-4 defensive alignment.

"Not a lot of other teams wanted A.D because he's a 'tweener, but he fit so well with us and he's an intelligent, character guy," Nolan said of the Pro Bowl special-team selection. "We always have room for people like him. If you're not a good character guy, we don't have room for you."

NOTE: Rookie return specialist B.J. Sams is the AFC Special Teams Player of the Month after returning two punts for touchdowns in October. … Thomas, Edwin Mulitalo, Baxter and tight end Todd Heap helped refurbish a home Tuesday in Sandtown and Tony Pashos visited the Johns Hopkins Children's Center.

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times and ravensinsider.com


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