Ravens' defense remains grounded

Giving up 100-yard games to three running backs in '04 doesn't worry Nolan

Pro Football

December 01, 2004|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

There are two schools of thought on how to run the football on the Ravens.

The first, which the past three teams have done with varying degrees of success, is to spread the field by employing a three- or four-receiver set, then run a draw that can be bounced to the outside. The second requires a tight end, maybe even two, a fullback, an offensive line that is willing to take on linebackers and a bruising running back that is willing to pound the ball between the tackles all day.

Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is aware of both of the theories. Neither has him losing any sleep.

The Ravens may have fallen to 11th overall against the run (giving up 107.7 yards per game), but a deeper look inside that statistic has Nolan right where he wants the defense to be.

"We're No. 2 in yards per carry," Nolan said. "To me, we have to minimize the opportunities. That is the statistical measure that gives us reality."

So there will not be an extra safety devoted to stopping the run this week when the Ravens host the Cincinnati Bengals and running back Rudi Johnson, who gained a career-high 202 yards on the ground in a win over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.

"All I would be doing is chasing a ghost," Nolan said. "We'd be robbing Peter to pay Paul, and we'll be talking about pass coverage all next week."

In fact, the only measure devoted to improving the rush defense will be an indirect one. Three running backs have gained more than 100 yards on the Ravens this season - the most recent coming from New England's Corey Dillon on Sunday - one more than the team gave up all last year, but the key to that lies in number of opportunities.

Dillon (123 yards), Kansas City's Priest Holmes (125 yards) and the New York Jets' Curtis Martin (119) needed a combined 91 attempts to top that mark (none had fewer than 28 carries), and the average gain per attempt was 4.3 yards.

Overall, the Ravens are giving up just 3.5 yards per rush attempt, tied for second in the league with the Buffalo Bills and trailing only the Washington Redskins (3.1).

The difference for the Ravens comes on third downs, where the team was second in the league in forcing punts last year but has fallen to 11th this season.

"I'm concerned about getting off the field more than I am the integrity of what we are doing," Nolan said. "Because our guys do a good job. They also have a tremendous amount of confidence in what we do, but with that many opportunities, do the math and it all adds up."

The Patriots converted six of 17 (35 percent) third-down situations, two of which came on the decisive touchdown drive that put New England up 17-3. The focus this week will be on lowering that number, which in turn, should help the overall run defense.

And of course, if the Ravens' offense can muster more than eight first downs and 124 total yards, numbers it put up against the Patriots, that might be the biggest help.

"The truth of the matter is, we're [on the field] a lot," Nolan said.

Still, the Ravens cannot dismiss the amount of overall yardage teams have gained on the ground this year. The team was sixth in rush defense last year and fourth and first in the playoff years of 2001 and 2000, respectively.

Since 1999, only 11 running backs have gained 100 yards against the Ravens, who managed to win five of those games.

Asked if it is strange to see three running backs topple that mark through 11 games, defensive end Tony Weaver said, "A little bit, yeah, because it's so out of character. At the same time, we have to watch why they and Corey Dillon ran for 100 yards. That's all you can do."

The Ravens can also tackle better. Dillon ran through or eluded 15 tackles, a season high against the Ravens.

"We need to [not allow outside runs] better, either schematically, or individually or the turf or whatever it was, we will look at it obviously," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Once the game got going a bit, we had to start doing things to disrupt and make things happen, and we left ourselves vulnerable."

The Patriots pounded a worn-down defense in the second half, and the Bengals, who rushed for 109 yards the first time the teams met this year, may look to do the same.

For sure, the Ravens will see a straight-ahead, in-your-face variety of attack from the 220-pound Johnson.

"You can go straight downhill if you want or you can spread us out," Nolan said. "We find both. ... Those are two-wide ranging philosophies, and I'm all for both because we do see both."

Next for Ravens

Matchup: Cincinnati Bengals (5-6) vs. Ravens (7-4)

Site: M&T Bank Stadium

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Ravens by 7

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