There has been one constant throughout the Ravens' five weeks of training camp and four preseason games -- the defensive line has to play well for the team to succeed this season.
Because the Ravens have inexperienced linebackers, a marginal to average secondary and an offense that is prolific but not efficient in time management.
Oh, and don't forget about depth. The Ravens have little.
"They are an important part because of the rush," Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda said of the defensive line, which probably will be without starting end Michael McCrary (knee) for the season opener next Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
"You need the rush and for them to dominate the line of scrimmage," Marchibroda said. "That's where the game is won. They are a big part of this ballclub."
Take a look at the four preseason games and one can see the Ravens were inconsistent in almost every area except on the defensive line.
It was never more evident than in Friday night's 31-28 loss to the Buffalo Bills at Memorial Stadium. The Ravens started all of their regulars except one on defense for the first time in the first half against Buffalo, and the Bills had only 89 yards of total offense, including just 29 rushing.
The pass rush limited the Bills' big plays in the first two quarters while linebackers Ray Lewis, Cornell Brown and Peter Boulware led the team in tackles.
When most of the first-string defensive line left at the end of the first half with a 16-3 lead, the Bills had time to throw, and they pummeled the Ravens' secondary for 234 yards passing to rally from a 28-3 deficit. A lot of the regulars were involved in the Ravens' dime coverage except safety Stevon Moore and cornerback Antonio Langham.
The Ravens' season depends on the legs and forearms of defensive tackles Tony Siragusa, James Jones and Larry Webster, and defensive ends Rob Burnett and McCrary.
McCrary, still recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery, didn't play Friday night, but imagine him teaming with Boulware and Burnett to pressure the quarterback.
"It's unbelievable at times," Lewis said. "This is the kind of line I had when I was [in college] at Miami."
Jones and Siragusa play off each other, and the young linebackers complement both of them. Jones or Siragusa will be drawing the double teams, which will allow Lewis and fellow outside rookie linebackers Boulware and Jamie Sharper to roam and make plays.
And the less these rookies have to think, the better they'll play at this point in their careers.
"Sharper has become a little more aggressive, and Ray is just Ray, simply making plays," Marchibroda said. "Peter is everything we expected and a little more. We always knew he was an outstanding athlete, but his natural instincts came out Friday night. I don't think you could ask for a better first game."
Boulware was relentless in every phase, even crawling to get to the quarterback on one play. He practiced only three days last week after ending a five-week holdout but finished with six tackles and two sacks against the Bills. He even impressed the team's sheriff, safety Bennie Thompson.
"He is the real deal," Thompson said.
The secondary, though, is a cause for concern. Langham has been consistent, and Moore will make big hits and provide leadership, but safety Rondell Jones and cornerbacks Donny Brady and DeRon Jenkins are still questionable, even though Marchibroda saw some improvement Friday night.
"DeRon stepped up this week. He made some nice tackles and recovered a fumble," Marchibroda said. "Rondell also may have played his best game. Neither DeRon nor Donny Brady are there yet, but they are showing improvement."
The Ravens seemed to have ironed out most of their problems on offense except finding a legitimate fullback. They have high hopes for rookie free agent Kenyon Cotton, but the team still will look over the waiver wire to see if it can improve the position.
Rookie fullback Steve Lee, a sixth-round draft pick, started out strong in training camp but seems to have leveled off. Marchibroda said yesterday that the team will keep all three fullbacks for now, including former Towson State standout Tony Vinson.
There were some concerns about the running game after the first unit gained only 16 yards in the first half in a 24-13 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Aug. 16. But the same group plowed through the Bills for 50 yards rushing in the first half, with veteran Earnest Byner and rookie Jay Graham looking impressive.
So did the offensive line, which had little trouble picking up the Buffalo blitz. Even more encouraging was the play and blocking of tight end Eric Green, who had three receptions for 29 yards. Marchibroda was ecstatic about the success of his double-tight-end formation Friday night.
If Green stays healthy, he adds another dimension to a versatile offense. The Ravens can only dream of having 250-pound Bam Morris running behind 323-pound right guard Jeff Blackshear, 350-pound right tackle Orlando Brown and the 285-pound Green.