Flight plan of Ravens is defense Victory over Giants puts final touches on undefeated August

Stakes about to increase

Front seven rush gives secondary room to soar

August 30, 1998|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

The Ravens went into Friday night's preseason finale against the New York Giants as the best defense in the NFL.

Think about that. Suspend the cold reality that the preseason means nothing, that exhibition games are inhabited by countless players going nowhere in the big leagues, that offenses are notoriously conservative by design in August, generally tipping the scales in favor of defenses.

Then, think about this. Two years ago, the Ravens came to Baltimore and unleashed one of the worst defenses in history upon the land. Remember the futile days of Mike Croel and Jerrol Williams and Vashone Adams and Isaac Booth?

The Ravens, whose defense put its final stamp on an undefeated August by shutting down the Giants, 14-6, are well aware that the stakes are about to increase dramatically. The Pittsburgh Steelers will see to that when they visit the Later To Be Named Stadium at Camden Yards in next Sunday's regular-season opener.

Recall the progress the defense made in 1997, with promising rookies like linebackers Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper and defensive backs like Kim Herring and Ralph Staten, and veteran free-agent acquisitions like tackle Tony Siragusa and end Michael McCrary. Consider the steps, with Pro Bowl middle linebacker Ray Lewis and newly-acquired cornerback Rod Woodson leading the way, they appear poised to take in 1998.

One more snapshot to capture the difference a season makes. Donny Brady started at right cornerback in last year's season opener. He will make the team as a fifth cornerback this time around. Rondell Jones started the season at free safety in 1997. He is out the door as soon as he and the Ravens finalize an injury settlement.

"You look at last year. The defense got better and better as the season went on," Siragusa said. "We started playing together, we made some adjustments in the secondary. Then, we brought Rod Woodson. We're playing with veterans now, not rookies, and it's helping us out tremendously. I also think everything we've accomplished in the preseason is great, but it means absolutely squat right now."

Meaningless games or not, the defense accomplished plenty. They entered the Giants game tops in the league in fewest points allowed, fewest passing yards, rushing yards and first downs allowed, then stuffed the Giants the same way they manhandled their first three opponents.

They finished the preseason having surrendered just 19 points, including only six points -- two field goals -- by the first unit, which was missing strong safety Stevon Moore for all but the opener with a dislocated shoulder. Moore is expected to start against the Steelers.

"We thought we had a good football team coming in, and as the preseason progressed, we tended to believe we're a better football team than we originally thought," Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda said. "I don't think we could have asked too much more out of our defense. Now, we go from 4-0 to 0-0 and everything counts from here on in. But we've gained a great deal of confidence, probably more so on defense."

"They've worked very hard, they've matured, and that preparation has made them very confident," defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said. "There's been a carry-over from the good things we did at the end of last year, and now we've got some continuity. The key has been how little our guys have played."

Indeed, the Ravens' defense has been conspicuous in its absence. Opponents were successful in only nine of 48 third-down situations. Two years ago, the Ravens were the league's worst in that category.

The most striking aspect of the defense has been the ferocious, swarming play of its front seven.

Tackle James Jones has been his usual, dependable self, while McCrary, Siragusa and left end Rob Burnett have pretty much put nagging knee injuries behind them. With Ray Lewis setting the tone behind them and Boulware and Sharper showing their maturity, the Ravens consistently have stuffed running games and forced teams into obvious passing situations.

A good pass rush is just what young cornerbacks like DeRon Jenkins and rookie Duane Starks and safeties like Staten and Herring need.

"We didn't face Dan Marino or anybody like that, but those are still NFL quarterbacks," Marvin Lewis said. "True, we've gone into games and been somewhat offensive on defense. We've done things that offenses have allowed us to do, and that will change [in the regular season]."

NOTES: Backup defensive end Keith Washington (knee), who went down late in the first half on Friday but returned to play, should be ready for the Pittsburgh game. The news isn't as encouraging for tackle Larry Webster, whose sore hamstring could keep him on the sidelines. Marchibroda said rookie offensive tackle Sammy Williams suffered a sprained right knee and ankle, but is not seriously hurt. Veteran safety Corey Harris, who takes over for Rondell Jones, had a spot on the team the day he signed a one-year, $525,000 contract. The deal includes a signing bonus of $75,000 and a roster bonus of $50,000.

Pub Date: 8/30/98

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