Ravens force defense issue

Team ranked first overall, against run and against the pass

October 09, 2001|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

The encore was deemed improbable.

But in many ways, the Ravens' defense may be putting on a better show this year.

With a quarter of the season complete, this year's Ravens defense has registered shutdowns rather than shutouts. Fresh off Sunday's 26-7 pasting of the Tennessee Titans, the Ravens (3-1) are ranked first in the league's top three defensive categories -- overall, against the run and against the pass -- a feat never accomplished by last year's record-setting group.

"As much as they don't want to believe, I think everyone is finally realizing that we're one of the top defenses in history," said defensive end Michael McCrary, who leads the Ravens with five sacks. "We're forcing the issue now with our consistency."

Even the Ravens' most-prized record may be at stake.

Last year, the Ravens allowed 55 points through their first four games in establishing the NFL's 16-game mark for fewest points (165). With 10 of 11 starters back this season, they have surrendered just 47, which come with an asterisk.

The five touchdowns scored against the Ravens this season have come as a result of four turnovers and a blocked punt. The three touchdown drives against the defense have been 3, 18 and 33 yards.

Can any team march 80 yards for a touchdown against the Ravens?

"It's almost an impossible task," cornerback Chris McAlister said. "When our defense is playing on all four cylinders and everybody is executing their assignments, I don't think a team can go 80 yards."

Said McCrary: "It's a difficult task. We've been showing teams for two years now. They keep coming in and trying to, but they pretty much abandon it after the first or second series."

On the first series of the season, the Chicago Bears moved the ball 74 yards to the Ravens' 2-yard line before settling for a field goal. Since then, no opponent has started a drive in its own territory and penetrated farther than the Ravens' 19-yard line.

"They know they can play good enough to keep people from scoring," defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said. "They have that kind of confidence and we don't ever want to give that up."

This season's domination reached its peak on Sunday, when the Ravens forced a turnover or a three-and-out on nine of Tennessee's 13 possessions.

"They earned a shutout," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "They really did. I know that sounds petty and personal. But I'm petty and personal, what the hell."

This week's test is the NFL's third-ranked offense, the Green Bay Packers (3-1), who aren't the happiest of groups nowadays.

After catching just one pass against the Buccaneers on Sunday, wide receiver and Baltimore native Antonio Freeman made it clear he is not thrilled with his current role. Quarterback Brett Favre only threw two of his 35 passes in Freeman's direction.

"I watch the film after every game, so I'm open," Freeman, a Poly graduate, said to Green Bay reporters after the game.

Packers coach Mike Sherman played down any dissension within the team at his news conference yesterday.

"I can understand his frustration," Sherman said. "I'd rather have him talk to me rather than vent to the newspapers. There have been times he has been open and the ball has gone elsewhere."

The Ravens may not be the best team for Freeman to face at this point. Against the Titans, the Ravens amazingly allowed just one completion to a wide receiver.

Still, the Ravens are showing the utmost respect for Favre, the league's only three-time MVP.

"I don't know that this defense has faced a quarterback of that stature that has the talent around him in place since I've been here," Billick said.

But Favre is catching a Ravens defense on a torrid pace unlike any other.

Based on 16-game projections, this Ravens will better last year's defense in total yards and first downs allowed as well as rushing yards per carry and passing yards per attempt. No team has produced more than 228 yards against the Ravens in a single game so far.

This impressive start has even surprised the orchestrator himself.

"I think you always hope that you can pick up where you left off," Lewis said. "But I'm excited about how quickly we got to where we left off."

First and foremost

The Ravens' defense is ranked first in the NFL's main three categories - overall, against the run and against the pass - this week, an accomplishment never achieved by last season's record-setting unit. Here's a breakdown of the six defensive categories in which the Ravens lead the league:

Total yards 201.3

Yards per play 3.4

Rushing yards 57.8

Yards per rush 2.5

Passing yards 143.5

Yards per pass 4.72

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