Defensive legacy is key to controlling Manning

Now in a four-man front, Ravens attempt to contain Colts QB again

September 11, 2005|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Inside each of the Ravens' defensive playbooks is a simple, yet poignant, message: "Upholding tradition."

It's an attitude that feeds off dominating running backs and intimidating quarterbacks.

It's a mind-set that focuses on taking away the ball and giving no points in return.

It's a legacy that says the defense isn't satisfied with being the sixth-best - last year's NFL ranking - but the best.

The determination of the defense must take control of tonight's nationally televised season opener at M&T Bank Stadium, where Peyton Manning and the high-powered Indianapolis Colts offense stand in the way of the Ravens re-establishing themselves as a team to be reckoned with in the AFC.

"We think we've got the best defense and they've got the best offense," first-year defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "There's no doubt we're taking it as a challenge."

Ryan, the only remaining defensive coach from the Ravens' storied 2000 group, has changed the scheme back to a four-man front and has incorporated three new starters into a group that now has eight former Pro Bowl players.

The Ravens beefed up their line by promoting 350-pound Maake Kemoeatu to starting nose tackle. They increased their speed by signing weak-side linebacker Tommy Polley, a Dunbar alum. And they put the finishing touch on one of the best secondaries in the NFL by luring cornerback Samari Rolle here.

"I think the sky is the limit if we play up to our abilities," Rolle said.

Though the defense's expectations are soaring, the offense's production has been sinking.

Until quarterback Kyle Boller can find his timing with his upgraded group of receivers and silence the boos from the hometown crowd, the offense will have to lean on the defense once again. Last year, the Ravens were 8-1 when holding opponents to fewer than 20 points and 1-6 when they failed to do so.

The players on the Ravens' defense say they concentrate only on what they can control.

"The tradition of our defense is to put on a show," defensive end Tony Weaver said. "We don't go out there to just win a game. We're trying to go out there and shut a team out."

So, the pressure will be on the Ravens' defense tonight. Or will it be the other way around?

The Ravens have talked all week about the bull's-eye on Manning, the stationary pocket passer.

"Our strategy is to come at him," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "You don't want him to just sit back there and have a field day."

Manning picked defenses apart last year like no other, setting NFL records for touchdown passes (49) and quarterback rating (121.1). The league Most Valuable Player completed 67.6 percent of his passes for 4,557 yards, flicking throws to Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, former Raven Brandon Stokley and Edgerrin James.

The only defense to contain Manning last year was the Ravens'. Nine months ago, the Ravens held the Colts to their second-lowest point total of the season (20) and became the only team to keep Manning from throwing multiple touchdown passes (with the exception of a Week 17 game against the Denver Broncos, in which Manning played just one series).

"You've got to frenzy Peyton Manning, and that's how you beat him," defensive end Terrell Suggs said. "He's a very composed quarterback, and that's why he's the best at his position. I have a feeling that if you get at him enough, it'll start to shake him a little bit."

Most defensive coordinators have chosen to play it safe against Manning - rush four linemen and drop seven defenders in coverage - because they fear his quick release.

The Ravens won't send a heavy blitz, just an unpredictable one. When Manning scans the defense to determine which play to call at the line, the Ravens want him to feel as if a linebacker, cornerback or safety could all be coming.

In many ways, the key is to outwit as much as it is to outplay.

"It's chess," Lewis said. "Peyton comes to the line and he checks to a pass or a run. And I come to the line and I check from a blitz to a zone. You're actually trying to figure out their next move. He's good at it."

Rolle, who played Manning twice a year from 2002 to 2004 with the Tennessee Titans, offered some advice to his new teammates.

"You can't get caught up in the fact that you're playing Peyton Manning," he said. "It's hard to do. You got to go out there and treat him like he's any other quarterback."

But this is a Ravens defense that seems ready for the challenge.

"On paper, we should be great," Weaver said. "Look at the personnel we have. We're all kind of coming into our own. The potential is there to be pretty unbelievable."

Staying strong

A look at the tradition of the Ravens' defense, which has ranked among the top six overall in the NFL in five of the past six seasons:

Year Overall Run Pass Scoring

1999 2nd 2nd 6th 6th

2000 2nd 1st 8th 1st

2001 2nd 4th 8th 4th

2002 22nd 13th 26th 19th

2003 3rd 6th 4th 6th

2004 6th T8th 10th 6th

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