Ravens' defense focusing on Martin

OWINGS MILLS -- Ray Lewis quickly erased any mystery regarding where he'll apply the majority of his trademark intensity to defend the New York Jets. Here's a hint: It's not untested former third-string quarterback Brooks Bollinger, or venerable backup Vinny Testaverde.

In the wake of Jets starter Chad Pennington being out for the season with a torn rotator cuff, Lewis and everyone involved with the Ravens (0-2) expects New York (1-2) to fall back on their most reliable option.

That should mean a steady diet of veteran running back Curtis Martin -- the NFL's fourth all-time leading rusher -- Sunday when the Jets travel to M&T Bank Stadium.

Turning around to face a New York reporter, Lewis quipped: "You can actually go and play quarterback this week and go hand the ball off to Curtis Martin. Seriously, though, Chad Pennington is a great quarterback.

"When you miss somebody like that, never take your attention away from Curtis Martin. This is what that offense is built on. I don't know how you discredit that."

Martin led the entire league in rushing last season with 1,697 yards, and has sterling career totals of 13,562 yards and 70 touchdowns.

The 11-year veteran made a major impression on the Ravens when he stomped all over them in the first half of a 20-17 overtime win for Baltimore. Martin gained 119 yards and scored two touchdowns with 68 of his yards coming by halftime.

Baltimore ranks sixth in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing 91.5 yards per game and 3.3 yards per rush. However, they looked extremely vulnerable last year against Martin.

"We can't let that happen again," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "We were lucky to come out of the game with a win based on the way they ran the ball."

Some of Martin's success last season can probably be attributed to the Jets' scheme. They ran directly at Lewis, cutting him off on isolation plays with their fullback and six-time Pro Bowl center Kevin Mawae.

Lewis was outnumbered when the Jets ran their spread formation, employing three and four wideouts to pull Baltimore's extra defenders away from the line of scrimmage. Operating with six defensive backs, the Ravens left Lewis in a precarious situation as there were four linemen plus Lewis paired against five offensive linemen and Martin.

"They lightened the box," Suggs said. "When they're spread out, that just leaves Ray in there with four defensive linemen and it's five-on-five where you need someone to make a miraculous play. We have to change the math on them. We have to squeeze that box down tight and give Ray and our front four a lot more help."

Defending Martin is typically a tricky proposition.

Although relatively undersized at 5-foot-11, 210 pounds, he appears to glide upfield and makes sharp cuts. He rarely withstands a full-force hit because of his elusiveness.

That was especially true last year in the Meadowlands as he became one of four running backs to eclipse 100 yards against the Ravens in 2004.

"Everything was working well last year," Martin said. "We had a pretty balanced attack. The offensive line was doing great and just about everything we ran was pretty successful.

"We ran the draws and we ran the off-tackle plays. There isn't one particular thing. I just think they did a good job up front last year."

However, Martin hasn't been nearly as effective this year. He has rushed for 196 yards and a 2.8 average per carry with a long run of 16 yards.

He has been regularly been stymied by stacked line of scrimmages against Kansas City (57 yards), Miami (72 yards) and Jacksonville (67 yards).

"He's got vision, he's a great back," Suggs said of Martin.

In Suggs' next breath, he mentioned Mawae, a formidable blocker who's undersized at 6-foot-4, 289 pounds but blessed with superior upper body strength and the speed to pull and lead sweeps.

"This guy is very quick, strong and tough, so I have the utmost respect for him," said nose guard Maake Kemoeatu, who outweighs Mawae by roughly 61 pounds depending on the size of his last meal. "I have to slow him down. I can't let him run around and get shots at Ray. I have my work cut out for me."

Bollinger has thrown only nine career passes. A former Ravens starter from long ago, Testaverde is 41 and wasn't invited to attend any team's training camp.

It's clear where the primary matchup lies. It's Martin against the Ravens' defense.

"We'll deal with the quarterback," Suggs said, "but definitely our biggest problem is Curtis Martin."

In addition to being a long time contributor to RavensInsider, Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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