NFL's top defense plotting an encore

OWINGS MILLS -- The Baltimore Ravens' top-ranked defense was the scourge of the NFL last season, harassing quarterbacks, bullying running backs and frustrating receivers. There was no other defense in the league that allowed fewer yards. Or that surrendered fewer points.

Or that intercepted more passes, or returned more for touchdowns.

Or another defense that was stingier in how it protected its turf in the red zone and third downs.

You get the picture.

And now the defending AFC North champions are eager to duplicate last year's success despite the free-agent departure of versatile All-Pro linebacker Adalius Thomas.

So, what do they have planned for an encore? "We expect to dominate the league," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said at a June minicamp. "We expect to put ourselves right back in position to do some damage this year."

Building upon last year's statistical model would mean allowing less than the 264.1 yards per game given up last year, including 75.9 rushing and 188.2 passing.

Or improving upon allowing just 12.6 points per contest. Or intercepting more than 28 passes and returning more than five for touchdowns.

Or finishing atop the league in sacks after registering 60 a year ago to finish one behind the San Diego Chargers. Or topping the rushing yards allowed chart after being edged out by the Minnesota Vikings last season.

For the Ravens, though, citing statistical measures don't seem to do this defense justice. It doesn't define the intimidation factor of outspoken linebacker Bart Scott rocking Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's head into the ground on a devastating sack, or taunting New Orleans Saints runner Reggie Bush.

It doesn't factor in the subtle ways that omnipresent linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed anticipate offensive coordinators' intentions.

And it doesn't really define the pass-rushing prowess of bookends Trevor Pryce and Terrell Suggs, or the pass-coverage skills of Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister.

Asked where the defense can improve, Reed didn't hesitate with an answer.

"Everywhere," he said. "It's a new year. Last year is gone and we can't focus on that. We have got to come in and try to do things the same and differently at the same time to make sure that we are getting better."

A year ago, Baltimore allowed 16 touchdown passes with several coming on deep throws targeting former Pro Bowl cornerback Samari Rolle.

Besides Rolle dealing with a nagging foot injury and confidence issues, communication in the secondary could have been much better between the safeties and the corners. That's one area where the defense can improve.

"We're definitely getting better," Reed said. "Communication is definitely the key. So we go forth from there, and make adjustments as we go."

Surrendering too many deep passes is about the only identifiable flaw to an otherwise pristine campaign. The Ravens intercepted Peyton Manning twice in a playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts, limiting them to five field goals.

"You can pick it apart and criticize it anyway you want to, but at the end of the day the only thing we strive for is to be No. 1," McAlister said. "Anyway you slice it, it's the best secondary in football."

Other than replacing Thomas with former backup Jarret Johnson little has changed cosmetically about the defense.

Yet, the perception about some players is likely to change.

For example, offenses are much more likely to specifically game-plan for Scott's loud presence. He's coming off a Pro Bowl season where he registered 135 tackles, a career-high 9 ½ sacks to lead all NFL inside linebackers and two interceptions.

"Encore? You're always trying to take it to the next level, understanding that you are going to draw a lot more attention," Scott said. "You are going to be in guys' scouting reports. Even to produce the same results that I had last year is going to be tougher.

"I have to prepare myself for the beating and the guys trying to prove themselves against me, just like I try to prove myself against what is supposed to be the upper echelon of talent." One change the Ravens are relieved they didn't have to endure was getting accustomed to a new field general as Ryan nearly landed the Chargers' head coaching vacancy that went to Norv Turner.

"There's no question I'd like to be a head coach one day, everybody would," Ryan said. "I'm happy doing what I'm doing. If I'm going to be a defensive coordinator anywhere in this league, I want to do it in Baltimore where playing defense means something."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

Ravens Insider Top Stories