By embracing a few new wrinkles and generating pressure with blitzing linebackers or a four-man pass rush, the undefeated Ravens have produced nine sacks and have yet to allow a touchdown.
Baltimore skidded to a 6-10 campaign last season where the defense finished fifth in total defense, but only produced 42 sacks and slumped in the turnover game with just 12 interceptions and 14 fumble recoveries.
Now, the Ravens (2-0) lead the entire league in turnover margin with a plus-8 ratio behind six interceptions and three fumble recoveries.
"I think that's been our winning style for the longest time, going out there and setting the tone on defense," said linebacker Adalius Thomas, who headlined the Ravens' 28-6 victory Sunday over the Oakland Raiders with a safety, seven solo tackles, two sacks and an interception. "I think our defense is still that way because we accept that responsibility."
The Ravens battered Raiders quarterback Andrew Walter for six sacks primarily behind the strength of their defensive line as rush end Terrell Suggs had two sacks and defensive end Trevor Pryce claimed his first sack since joining the team.
"Anytime your quarterback drops back against a four-man rush and he's constantly under pressure, that's a problem," Raiders running back Lamont Jordan said. "That's a big problem."
Defensive coordinator Rex Ryan's complex schemes have continually masked where Thomas is lining up. At 6-foot-2, 270 pounds, Thomas is a hybrid defender with a unique combination of size and athleticism.
"They don't know if he's a safety, a defensive tackle, a defensive end or a linebacker," Suggs said.
Last season, Thomas registered 104 tackles, a team-high nine sacks, four fumble recoveries, two interceptions, three forced fumbles and scored all three of the Ravens' defensive touchdowns.
"He's always had tremendous athletic ability," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "There's a maturity to his game. He's all over the place and has a chance to make a lot of plays.
"That takes a real in-depth knowledge to not leave yourself vulnerable: ‘Who am I now and what am I supposed to be doing?' He's a player who teams have to recognize, ‘Where is this guy?' because he affects what they're doing."
The Ravens have installed three new starters: Pryce, 6-foot-4, 340-pound rookie defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and rookie safety Dawan Landry.
Landry has fit in with his hard-hitting style, even winning ESPN's weekly "Jacked-up" segment with a shot on Alvis Whitted that separated the Oakland receiver from his helmet.
Ngata has a 60-yard interception return, and is gradually improving on the job with his interior line responsibilities.
"There's a growth period," Billick said. "His physical presence is obvious. The subtleties of taking on a block and ripping yourself free to make a play, he came off that just a little light in the Tampa Bay game.
"To see him do a much better job [Sunday] of engaging, shedding and making a couple of plays, you saw that he's at least aware of it and he's working on it."
Nose guard Kelly Gregg, who had a franchise-record 59-yard fumble return against Oakland, said getting turnovers can be contagious.
"Last year, we had some trouble getting turnovers and this year they come in bunches," he said. "We have to keep working on it and hopefully next week we'll get seven."
Pryce, according to teammates and coaches, has occupied blockers and cleared pathways for Suggs, Thomas and linebacker Bart Scott (three sacks) to hit the quarterback. At 6-foot-5 and 286 pounds, the four-time Pro Bowl selection has shifted inside to tackle on obvious passing downs. He had been relatively quiet throughout training camp and in the season opener against Tampa Bay.
"Trevor Pryce has made a huge, huge difference in our ability not only in terms of the rush we get inside, but what that does for the rush outside," Billick said. "Trevor was a huge addition for us and he will give us a presence we haven't had to date."
It was Pryce who drew the Raiders' blocking attention toward him and opened a pathway for Thomas to tackle Walter in the end zone.
"I told him, ‘If you come around, you'll get the sack,'" Pryce said.
With Walter enduring major punishment, the Raiders switched gears to maximum-protection blocking.
That's another indicator of a defense's effectiveness.
"The easiest thing for people to do is just keep a lot of people in and block," Pryce said. "That's what folks did against us when I was in Denver, and that's what people do against us here. That's always a sign of a great defense."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.
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