Nolan's defense silencing skeptics

When Marvin Lewis headed down the Beltway to become the Washington Redskins' latest defensive coordinator, Ravens Nation briefly wallowed in self-pity and panic. People were convinced that Lewis' cerebral importance to an intimidating defense that produced a Super Bowl victory approached the physical level of another Lewis: All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis. They shouldn't have been so worried.

Mike Nolan, Lewis' replacement, had an effective plan to bypass their doubts by embracing a youth movement and a revamped 3-4 alignment.

One that has meant first place in the AFC North, the eighth-best run defense in the league and a 17-10 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday.

The victory was keyed by end Adalius Thomas' interception to set up a touchdown and a last-second interception by undrafted rookie safety Will Demps to ensure the win.

 "We've faced a lot of challenges, but we're building a lot of chemistry and trust," said cornerback Gary Baxter, one of seven new starters. "Hat's off to Mike Nolan and all the coaches for teaching us discipline. It's definitely a defense you can win with. The world knows what we're doing."

No matter how many shots were taken and yards gained by quarterback Mark Brunell, running back Fred Taylor and receiver Jimmy Smith, the bottom line is points allowed. The Ravens bent like a drinking straw without an injured Ray Lewis, but never broke under the weight of the Jaguars' pressure.

 "We had great leadership," Nolan said. "We had Ray sitting there, but the young guys got it going by playing together."

Two years ago under Marvin Lewis' leadership, the Ravens' defense set marks for least points allowed in a regular season and fewest rushing yards allowed. Salary-cap losses shredded that veteran unit.

Besides Lewis' departure, the Ravens are defending their castle without Rod Woodson, Duane Starks, Tony Siragusa, Sam Adams, Rob Burnett and Jamie Sharper. Reminders that Nolan, promoted from receivers coach, had prior stints as defensive boss of the Giants, Redskins and Jets fell on deaf ears. Nolan was staring down the barrel of a loaded gun.

"He wasn't going to blink," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "That's why he has the job."

Yes, the Ravens allowed a whopping 397 yards of total offense, but stopped two fourth downs to stop promising drives. Brunell was intercepted three times. The Ravens have 11 interceptions in their last four games.

"Mike was as underestimated as our defense and he's done an excellent job," end Michael McCrary said. "He has kept it real simple and hasn't overwhelmed the young guys. Mike is a real cool character. He never yells."

The tabloid town of Gotham and an unhappy stint under mercurial Redskins owner Daniel Snyder toughened Nolan's skin. He rates this coaching experience as superior in enjoyment to his time with the Giants in 1996.

"You go into a year hopeful these guys will come on, but you have to be realistic," Nolan said. "We've exceeded expectations to this point, but I don't think in their mind, which is probably the best thing about it."


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