Ravens defense braces for head-on collision

High-scoring Eagles pose yardstick for stingy group

Ravens Vs. Eagles

October 31, 2004|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

In what has been hyped as the "T.O. Bowl," the Ravens' mission today cuts deeper than the receiver who scorned them seven months ago.

It's taking them on a short ride up the interstate to face the Philadelphia Eagles (6-0) at a raucous Lincoln Financial Field, a stage on which the Ravens (4-2) are determined to prove their defense can remain impenetrable against one of the NFL's most unstoppable offenses.

This showdown promises to be a combustible mix of ball-hawking defenders and dazzling playmakers, a head-on collision between the game's stingiest defense and the league's No. 2 scoring offense.

For the Ravens, the writing is on the wall - and it has nothing to do with another Sharpie incident with Owens.

"It's going to be one of those matchups where we're going to find out exactly where we stand as a defense and exactly where we sit in the NFL," cornerback Chris McAlister said.

Where the Ravens sit today is atop the NFL in scoring defense (14.2 points per game), the same pedestal on which their historic 2000 defense was perched.

But this year's Ravens have wreaked almost all their havoc against the league's worst offenses. They have encountered only one attack currently ranked in the top 19, that of the Kansas City Chiefs, who rang up a season-high 27 points against them.

The Ravens have shut down the rest - Cleveland (22nd), Pittsburgh (20th), Cincinnati (23rd), Washington (27th) and Buffalo (26th) - holding those five offenses to a total of five touchdowns and 58 points.

Their domination was thorough, closing off the end zone while scoring touchdowns of their own. Over the past six quarters, the Ravens' defense has not allowed a touchdown, forcing seven turnovers in 20 drives and returning two of them for scores.

"I think it's probably the best defense, period, that we've played against," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "I don't see a lot of weaknesses in their defense."

The debate about whether this defense is an elite one could be settled today.

Headlined by Owens and quarterback Donovan McNabb, the Eagles have cracked 30 points in four of their six games and have yet to be held under 19 points. They have produced 28 plays of 20 yards or longer, including 10 of 40 yards or more.

"Our biggest challenge is ourselves; I don't think it's Philadelphia," Ravens linebacker Adalius Thomas said. "As long as we play our defense and as long as we execute the calls, the rest will take care of itself. When we start worrying about what people do, that's when we get out of our game."

The unspoken message was: Owens will not distract them.

But this offseason, Owens stiff-armed the Ravens, successfully fighting his trade from the San Francisco 49ers to the pass-challenged team and landing in Philadelphia after a three-team settlement.

Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis later said Owens went "against his word" and ominously advised him not to come across the middle when he's playing the Ravens. Owens countered that Lewis was "not the hardest hitter that ever played the game of football" and said he wouldn't shy away from a confrontation.

Lewis and Owens tiptoed around any inflammatory remarks last week.

"I look forward to anyone in the opposite-colored jersey coming over the middle," Lewis said. "There's no emphasis on T.O. more than anyone else."

For one of the few times since the offseason drama, Owens agreed with Lewis.

"They should be over it. I'm not with the Baltimore Ravens," Owens said. "If they're worried about that, their priorities are in the wrong place."

The Ravens have gone to great lengths to show Owens is not a priority. They have even said shut-down cornerback McAlister won't shadow him this time.

Last year, McAlister single-handedly held Owens to three catches for 23 yards, his least-productive non-injury game since the 1999 season.

"We don't flop because we have capable corners," nickel back Deion Sanders said. "We don't single a guy out."

That means Owens could line up most of the time against the Ravens' other cornerback, Gary Baxter. It was only 72 days ago that Owens burned Baxter in the preseason for an 81-yard touchdown on the game's first play from scrimmage.

From that point, Owens and McNabb have continued that explosive connection. Owens has scored eight touchdowns (which matches the Ravens' entire offensive total) and has six receptions for 40 yards or longer. Asked about the chances of another long touchdown, Baxter said, "It's the same chance if you walk outside and get hit by lightning on a rainy day."

The Ravens probably can play their safeties deep because the Eagles won't have the same running game. Brian Westbrook will be sidelined with a rib injury, moving 34-year-old backup Dorsey Levens into the starting running back role.

"That's going to affect them," Ravens coach Brian Billick said, "but welcome to our world."

Ravens injuries have sidelined two Pro Bowl players on offense (left tackle Jonathan Ogden and tight end Todd Heap). Another Pro Bowl starter, running back Jamal Lewis, is serving the last game of his two-game NFL suspension.

The Ravens, though, still believe they can exploit Philadelphia's suspect run defense with backup running back Chester Taylor and reserve tackle Ethan Brooks. The Eagles have surrendered 4.9 yards a carry, which is second-worst in the NFL.

"With all of them down, it's going to be tough. We're definitely going to feel that," left guard Edwin Mulitalo said. "One of the great things is that this is a team sport. If we can come together and play as a team, we can overcome this."

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