Ravens bracing for defensive clash

OWINGS MILLS -- It doesn't exactly qualify as a major revelation with two stingy defensive combatants, but carrying the football Sunday could rapidly become a dangerous activity. This impending encounter between the Baltimore Ravens and Tampa Bay at Raymond James Stadium features two of the elite defenses in the NFL, headlined by the Buccaneers' reigning top-ranked defense from last season.

"One thing we do know is that it's going to be one of those tough, hard, grinding, hitting games," Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister said. "It's going to be the most dominant defense that will come out on top."
The Ravens' ultra-complex defense is built around unpredictable schemes and interchangeable personnel. Especially versatile athlete Adalius Thomas, who's capable of playing everywhere from linebacker to safety and defensive end.
Comparatively, the Tampa 2 is a purely simple approach that makes up for in hustle and an aggressive mentality what it lacks in elaborate sophistication.
Originated by Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith and present defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin when the trio worked together in Tampa, the defense relies on its players' collective attitude, speed and gang-tackling.
"They really fly to the ball," tight end Todd Heap said. "That's a huge challenge for us, and it just becomes who can make the play and who can beat their guy across from them."
Last season, Tampa Bay allowed the fewest yards in the league, surrendering 277.8 yards per contest, followed by the Bears with the Colts finishing 11th. Now, the Buffalo Bills, Minnesota Vikings, Kansas City Chiefs and Detroit Lions are adopting variations of the Tampa 2.
"I think the hardest thing is being patient because if you try to force the ball down the field against the Tampa 2, you will make mistakes," quarterback Steve McNair said. "It's all about taking what they give us, protect the ball, minimize our mistakes offensively and just move the ball. They thrive on making other teams come in their house and commit turnovers. "We're going to know how far we've come along. I think we can handle it. We can execute, but we need to be patient."
Tampa's defense is considered player-friendly because each defender is assigned to a specific gap to attack.
Eight players crowd the line of scrimmage to contain the run. On passing downs, it executes a Cover 2 zone that rarely calls for all-out blitz packages where no safeties are in the middle and cornerbacks are isolated in man-to-man coverage. The front four is primarily relied upon to generate a pass rush.
"They are very athletic, they are multiple in their schemes to a degree, but they are disciplined and they play very smart and are very deserving of that No. 1 ranking," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Monte utilizes the strengths of his players and doesn't put them in positions to do what they aren't capable of doing."
Led by hard-hitting linebacker Derrick Brooks, 33, speed-rushing defensive end Simeon Rice, 32, and cover cornerback Ronde Barber, 31, Tampa seems to make up for any lost speed through discipline and knowledge. A former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Brooks has been selected to nine consecutive Pro Bowls.
"Derrick, you can watch him on film, he hasn't lost a step," Heap said. "Whatever he has lost, he makes up for in how smart he plays. You watch his eyes and he's always figuring out where the ball is. You don't trick him or catch him asleep on the backside."
With brawny defensive tackles Anthony "Booger" McFarland and Chris Hovan manning the trenches, Tampa allowed only 94.7 rushing yards per game last season to rank sixth overall.
"They stop the run because that's the first thing they commit to and they play aggressive and fast," running back Jamal Lewis said. "We need to run the ball hard and throw the ball well, so we can have a balanced attack."
Rice is a flamboyant pass rusher who finished third in the NFL last year with 14 sacks. No one has as many sacks as his 56 ½ over the past four seasons.
"Anytime you play against a speed rusher like that, you have to speed up that clock in your head and get the ball out of your hands quickly," McNair said.
Since 1997, the Buccaneers have given up the fewest points in the league: 2,380. Since 2000, they've allowed 52 rushing scores for the least during that span. Under Kiffin's direction, they've twice finished atop the league rankings for defense, including 2002 when they won the Super Bowl.
"They haven't been ranked as one of the top 10 defenses for the last 10 years for nothing," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "Obviously, what they are doing down there is working. That defense is as good as advertised.
"They are going to try to take you out of what you like to do offensively, try to pressure your quarterback and throw you out of your game."
When the Ravens have won under Billick, it's traditionally been because of their defenses, allowing an average of only 89.9 rushing yards in 63 wins while registering an average of 3.1 sacks.
"They have a great defense, we have a great defense," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "They like to run the ball, we like to run the ball. I think both teams are going to come in with the intention of playing hard-nosed football."
NOTES: The Ravens reported no changes to their second injury report, leaving running back Jamal Lewis (hip) listed as questionable. He missed a portion of team drills. Defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin (thigh) and running back P. J. Daniels (thigh) didn't practice. Meanwhile, Tampa suffered a blow, learning that standout rookie offensive guard Davin Joseph will be out Sunday with a knee injury … Musa Smith is expected to operate as Lewis' primary backup ahead of Mike Anderson. ... The Ravens completed their practice squad by cutting defensive tackle Nick Leaders and signing defensive tackle Lorenzo Alexander (California-Berkeley) and linebacker Junior Glymph (Carson-Newman). … Billick expressed concern about the Florida heat: "We've got to carb up and get a lot of electrolytes and no alcohol. That last one, I need help. Anybody see any of my players having a beer between now and Saturday, I want to hear about it. God, my e-mail is going to be full."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times.

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