Ravens load up defensive front line

Injuries force shift, but results positive


After devising a defense that amounts to a brick wall, Ravens coaches beam when opponents continually ram their proverbial heads against it.

Such was the case in Sunday's 12-10 loss to the Denver Broncos, who entered the game with the league's second-best rushing attack. Denver, behind the trio of Tatum Bell, Mike Anderson and Ron Dayne, did not stray far from its identity, though the results against what essentially was a five-man defensive front line were negligible.

The Ravens held an opponent to less than 100 rushing yards for the seventh time this season, doing so primarily with a combination of eight linemen and linebackers. With Ed Reed as the lone safety, the Broncos averaged 2.6 yards on 15 first-down carries, none going for more than 8 yards.

It was the third game this season the Ravens have used that look as their base formation, and they had a similar result Nov. 20 against the Pittsburgh Steelers (70 rushing yards). It is a formation made to stop the run, and one most teams use exclusively in short-yardage situations.

"You only generally do one or two things out of it, but we've been able to do several things," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "And it's based on the fact that our personnel allows us. Mentally, you've got to have people who understand your defense, and we're fortunate to have that."

The Ravens also have defensive linemen who have matured during the season.

Backups Dwan Edwards, Aubrayo Franklin, Jarret Johnson and Peter Boulware all rotate in, with little drop-off. Second-year players Edwards and Franklin, who are considered tackles, have learned to play outside as well, allowing the Ravens to feature a line with three 300-pounders.

Edwards and Franklin played sparingly last season.

"At times, Denver was trying to run the ball against three nose tackles in Kelly Gregg, Aubrayo Franklin and [Maake Kemoeatu], plus four linebackers. So they're beating their head on a wall," Ryan said.

Ryan admits that what he is asking of his players and coaches is unconventional, but the ingenuity was born out of injury.

The Ravens have not had Reed and Will Demps together since the fifth game of the season, leaving Chad Williams as the only other experienced safety. It was assumed Williams would ascend to starter when Reed went down, and while he did for two games, the Ravens introduced their one-safety look against the Steelers and have liked the results.

Williams struggled in pass coverage as a starter, but Ryan said the one-safety look is not an indictment of Williams. He has returned to his role as the dime (sixth) defensive back in passing situations and the top backup to Reed. Demps is out for the season with a knee injury.

"We believe in Chad Williams, but the problem is, if you had the two traditional safeties, you'd have to get a guy like [rookie] B.J. Ward up to speed to where we could get him going in [if another injury happens]," Ryan said.

Deion Sanders and Dale Carter also have seen time at safety, with Sanders playing half the game at that position against the Houston Texans. All the maneuvering has left quarterbacks confused - Cincinnati's Carson Palmer admitted as much after the Nov. 27 game - and offensive coordinators poring over film.

"They have to wonder what we're going to do to them," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "I'm sure Green Bay, as an example, they have to look at it and go, `Geez, what exactly are they going to show?'"

Of course, the more the Ravens stay in the one-safety look, the more film accumulates, which allows offensive minds to formulate a counter plan. Palmer, with an assist from injuries to Demps, Carter and cornerback Chris McAlister, went on to shred the Ravens with six touchdown drives after being confused in the first quarter against the look.

Palmer attacked the Ravens vertically on first downs, taking advantage of a defensive formation inherently susceptible to big plays, and the Packers' Brett Favre is capable of the same Monday night. But if the great Favre struggles against a one-safety look, could the formation be around on into next season?

"It could be," Ryan said. "Personnel-wise, you're not always guaranteed to have the exact players you want in your system. Your system better be flexible enough to where it can handle different types of players. If we have Will Demps and Ed Reed as safeties, then great; obviously you play those guys. But if you have an injury to someone like that, we've proven we can do other things."


Packers @Ravens Monday, 9 p.m., chs. 2, 7, 1300 AM, 102.7 FM Line: Ravens by 3 1/2

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