Ravens' D hopes to regain intimidation factor

OWINGS MILLS -- It was a mighty fall for the Baltimore Ravens' proud defense last year, a regression defined by the exposure of backups forced into action they ultimately didn't handle well enough. Perhaps no game illustrated that giant step backward than a humiliating 38-7 defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers as Ben Roethlisberger tossed five touchdown passes against an injury-riddled secondary.

One year after sporting the top-ranked defense in the NFL as Baltimore all owed the fewest points and yards overall, injuries and illness crippled the Ravens' pass rush and secondary.

Although the Ravens managed to rank sixth in total=2 0defense, they finished 22nd in scoring defense with an average of 24 points allowed per contest.

"Maybe we weren't respected and feared as much," linebacker Bart Scott said. "We had a lot of injuries, and we just want to come back and decide for ourselves to be who we are."

While cornerback Chris McAlister's knee injury, cornerback Samari Rolle's trying bout with epilepsy, defensive end Trevor Pryce's torn pectoral landed all three players on injured reserve after missing a combined 29 games and a turnover-prone offense creating short fields were major factors in the uncharacteristic struggles, the Ravens also missed departed former All-Pro linebacker Adalius Thomas' versatility.

In 2006, the Ravens won the AFC North as they surrendered just 12.6 points per game. That figure doubled last season, giving up 27 touchdown passes.

"You never want to make excuses, but we did have a lot of injuries to great players," strong safety Dawan Landry said. "Last season left a bitter taste in all of our mouths and it definitely motivates you to get back on top."

The Ravens led the league in interceptions in 2006, but tied for 14th with 17 interceptions last year, including seven from Ed Reed.

They dipped from second overall with 60 sacks to 19th with 32 sacks as linebacker Terrell Suggs had a career-low five sacks. Scott led all NFL inside linebackers with 9 1/2 sacks in 2006, but had just one last season as he wasn't involved nearly as much in blitz packages while fulfilling many of Thomas' old pass-coverage responsibilities.

"People might look at the sack numbers and might not see me as much as a threat, but I think that's a good thing," Scott said. "With Trevor coming back, he's going to get the attention because he's a life-long stud. That should open things up for me and Suggs."

Baltimore ranked 20th in pass defense after finishing sixth the previous year, and opposing quarterbacks improved from a 63.4 average rating against the Ravens to 87.6.

Virtually the only area where they maintained standards was against the run as they finished second with a 79.2 yard average.

Now, the Ravens hope to get back to their traditional brand of intimidating, stingy defense.

"You know the higher you go, the farther you fall," Scott said. "We fell pretty far last year. We were kind of off the radar. We have to build that respect back up."

The Ravens have reason to believe that they won't experience the same calamity as last season.

McAlister and Pryce are healthy. Rolle's condition appears to be under control with proper medication. And the team traded for former Oakland Raiders cornerback Fabian Washington to upgrade the nickel package.

"I think the injuries played a big=2 0role in what happened last year," Scott said. "It's good to see those guys back because they are dynamic players."

Plus, the Ravens return two former NFL=2 0Defensive Players of the Year in Reed and Ray Lewis.

Baltimore held onto veteran defensive coordinator Rex Ryan who interviewed for the Miami Dolphins and Atlanta Falcons' vacancies. He was promoted to assistant head coach by new coach John Harbaugh.

"The tough thing is to start a tradition, but we've been successful in keeping this thing going for 10 years," Ryan said. "We've replaced the man at the top, but John understands defense and the value of that better than anybody.

"He's not trying to come in and change this defense. We like the direction that this defense and the entire team is going."

Although Lewis turned 33 in May, he led the Ravens with 120 tackles last season and has impressed the coaches with his mobility and enthusiasm. Lewis said he weighs 255 pounds and has six percent body fat.

"He was outstanding," Ryan said. "I think he just wanted for all the new coaches to see that, 'Hey, this is Ray Lewis.' He made some spectacular plays.

"I know eventually he's going to have to slow down. I just don't see it=2 0happening in the near future. He looked tremendous. He was in great shape, and that age is just a number right now."

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

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