Ravens' `D' shines without two stars

On the Ravens

November 02, 2005|By MIKE PRESTON

Before Monday night's game against the Steelers in Pittsburgh, injured Ravens Ray Lewis and Ed Reed were dancing on the field during pre-game warm-ups. At least some Ravens were feeling good, but this was a team in search of leadership with the two Pro Bowl players on the sideline.

But despite the Ravens' 20-19 loss at Heinz Field, the Ravens' had cause to celebrate. If the two stars had played, along with injured defensive end Tony Weaver, the Ravens might have been able to hold on for a victory.

And then again, maybe not.

But the game served as a coming-out party for several players. Lewis is still the team's unquestioned leader and Reed is the heir apparent, but younger players like outside linebacker Bart Scott and defensive linemen Aubrayo Franklin and Dwan Edwards are starting to emerge.

And then there are veterans like defensive tackles Kelly Gregg, Maake Kemoeatu and inside linebacker Tommy Polley. In a good defensive effort against one of the league's dominant teams and best offensive lines, the Ravens held the Steelers to 261 yards of total offense.

Now it's time for Franklin, Edwards, Scott, Kemoeatu and Polley to dance, celebrate and high-five for a brief time before the Cincinnati Bengals come to town Sunday.

"We believe that everyone in our group can play, and some of these guys stood up for us," Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "We got some guys down, but who is going to feel sorry for you? Nobody, and that's the way it is."

It was a strong showing, one desperately needed by the Ravens' defense. Lewis is expected to miss three more games with a thigh problem, and Reed and Weaver are both expected to miss the Bengals game with foot injuries. But Ryan isn't sweating as much as he was last week.

Scott, according to Ryan's statistics, had nine tackles against the Steelers starting at weak-side linebacker. Polley, moving from outside linebacker, replaced Lewis in the middle, where he had 10. Gregg had seven, Kemoeatu four and Edwards and Franklin combined for four as part of a four-man rotation.

Maybe no one was more impressive than Scott. For the past three seasons, he has been a backup at every linebacker position. Before Monday night, he was part of the Ravens' goal-line and short-yardage defense.

But when Lewis went down, the Ravens moved Scott to the outside and Polley inside. Scott is the more physical of the two, but he runs just as well as Polley.

Both looked extremely fresh Monday night. Scott came off the edge hard several times to force Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to misfire on several throws. With Gregg and Kemoeatu clogging the middle, Polley ran everything down to the outside.

He missed only one tackle. More importantly, he called the defensive signals.

"Of course, he doesn't know the calls like the back of his hand like Ray does," Ryan said. "We moved Tommy to the inside instead of Bart because Tommy has always been the backup for Ray and it was more of a natural fit. Tommy came in here under the radar from other free agents like Samari Rolle. But I tell you what, we're glad we got him.

"Bart has always made plays for us, always come up big when he got a chance to play," Ryan added. "He is aggressive, young, a downhill player. I understand he is going to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. He is going to make a lot of money for himself. With Ray out, he is going to get a chance to showcase."

Kemoeatu and Gregg haven't been spectacular, but they've been steady for most of the season. They went against two of the best in Steelers guards Alan Faneca and Kendall Simmons. Before the game, Kemoeatu could barely walk from a knee injury. He still took 45 snaps.

Yesterday, the knee was swollen, and red and blue with discoloration. When Kemoeatu needed a rest, the Ravens rotated Edwards and Franklin. Edwards, a second-round pick last year, has played well in recent games. Ditto for Franklin, a fifth-round selection two years ago.

The Ravens aren't trying to fool anyone. Overall, they know there is a drop-off in talent, especially with the underrated Weaver out of the lineup. But for at least a week, the defense still played well.

There is a concern there might be a letdown against the Bengals. As a team, the Ravens turned in their best overall effort against Pittsburgh. Maybe it was because the game was on national TV against a division rival. Maybe it was because some of these players were challenged by the absence of star players.

Whatever the reason, the Ravens played surprisingly well. Instead of Lewis beating his chest after tackles, it was Scott and Polley, because the four tackles were winning the battle inside and keeping opposing offensive linemen off them.

Instead of Reed celebrating, it was an entire defense feeding off the team concept, playing well enough to win, but not good enough to finish off the Steelers. It won't get any easier Sunday, not with the explosive Bengals coming to M&T Bank Stadium.

"But at least the players and the coaches know we have guys who can step up and are ready to play," Ryan said.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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