Ravens' defense on the upswing

OWINGS MILLS – Domonique Foxworth smiled and laughed before asking if the Baltimore Ravens' defensive progress could somehow be kept a secret. Over the past seven games, the Ravens' traditionally stingy defense has allowed an average of just 12.6 points per contest. That average and the 88 points surrendered during that span represented the fewest points allowed in the NFL.

"Don't start spreading that," Foxworth said. "I like when people say we suck a lot better. So, wash all that stat business out and let's go over some other stats that tell how bad we are. You're trying to get me to spread that nonsense. No, we feel awful."

In all seriousness, though, the defense has been playing much better lately despite injuries to free safety Ed Reed and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs.

Now, the Ravens rank eighth in total defense by allowing 305.9 yards per contest. They're 11th in pass defense, giving up 208.2 yards a game, and sixth against the run with an average just under 100 yards per game (97.8).

Most importantly, by cutting down on the big plays regularly surrendered earlier this season, they're ranked fourth in scoring defense with just 16.8 points allowed per game.

"You never want to let a team put up points on you," strong safety Dawan Landry said. "If you can hold teams to minimal points, you have a great chance to win."

Over the past 10 games, the Ravens' defense ranks first in points allowed with a 15.3 average just ahead of the Cincinnati Bengals and the Green Bay Packers.

And the Ravens have been dramatically improving as far as creating turnovers.

In a 48-3 win over the Detroit Lions, the Ravens intercepted Daunte Culpepper twice and forced a fumble.

During a 27-14 loss to the Green Bay Packers two weeks ago, the Ravens intercepted Aaron Rodgers twice.

Dating back to a Nov. 1 win over the Denver Broncos, the Ravens have intercepted 10 passes over the past seven weeks.

"I hadn't noticed, honestly," Foxworth said when asked about the sudden increase in interceptions. "We're just going out there and trying to do what we do. It's good fortune to some degree and probably attention to detail to some degree. Definitely, the coaches deserve some credit."

Starting in place of Reed for the past two weeks, Tom Zbikowski has intercepted one pass per game.

The former third-round draft pick from Notre Dame attributes some of the progression to improved chemistry and playing sound technique.

"Yes, just playing together and making sure communication is in order," Zbikowski said. "We've minimized any breakdowns and made people try to beat us."

Heading into this week's game against the Chicago Bears, the Ravens may have increased opportunities to pick off some passes.

Struggling Bears quarterback Jay Cutler leads the NFL with 22 interceptions.

He also has thrown 19 touchdown passes and is considered the poster boy for inconsistent quarterback play. Not to mention questionable facial expressions when things go wrong.

"You've got to be ready," Zbikowski said. "It could be a touchdown or an interception. You have to be on your game every time Cutler drops back."

For the season, the Ravens have intercepted 16 passes.

They only have 23 sacks and six fumble recoveries off 15 opponent fumbles, though.

"We're getting good pressure, the balls are coming out a little quicker," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We're getting some hits on quarterbacks. We want to see the sack numbers go up, but that's, a lot of times, a function of how fast the quarterback gets the ball out, which can lead to interceptions.

"We definitely want to get more fumbles. We haven't gotten as many fumbles or as many fumble recoveries as we want. We need to get the turnover numbers up. Those are all things we try to chase."

Over the past several weeks, the Ravens seem to be playing more assignment-oriented football on defense.

And they have allowed an average of188.1 passing yards over the past seven weeks to rank third in the NFL in pass defense over that time.

There has been a lot less freelancing and more of a fundamental approach emphasized by defensive coordinator Greg Mattison and middle linebacker Ray Lewis.

A lot of the big plays allowed earlier this season occurred when players, including Reed, got out of position or tried to do too much to overcompensate.

"It's just been that the leadership stepped up," rookie cornerback Lardarius Webb said. "Ray got us all together and we're trying to become a defense, a whole defense now. It's just everybody trying to take care of their own business now and trying to become a great defense."

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