Pressure to score should haunt defense nevermore

September 10, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

Last year was a major disappointment for the Ravens' so-called "stellar" defense. How great could it really have been if it scored only three touchdowns all season?

No wonder the Ravens went 6-10. The defense didn't hold up its end of the bargain - which, as everybody in town and in the NFL has known for too long, includes playing offense.

Starting today in Tampa, Fla., those days of the defense doubling as the offense could be over. The Ravens fervently hope they will be. And no one hopes so more than the Ravens' defensive players, who have done a remarkable job over the years of gulping down their frustration over having to do the offense's job as well as their own.

Year after year, ever since the Super Bowl season, the defense has been promised an offense that can take care of itself. Instead, it has watched one quarterback experiment, big receiver addition and offensive restructuring after another blow up in everybody's faces.

This, they were told, is the year you won't have that extra burden on your shoulders. No, really, this year ... no, seriously, for sure, this year ...

"Ah, it wasn't bad. We disappointed ourselves, but it wasn't that we felt completely like that," Adalius Thomas, who actually was responsible for all three defensive scores last year, said with a shrug earlier in the preseason. He smiled and added: "We want to get back to that, but it is cool to think we really don't have to."

Oh, we've heard that before. Now, though, we can believe it. Mainly because now, finally, they believe it.

You can read it on their faces. The defensive players are radiating a confidence in the guys on the other side of the ball taking pressure off them, instead of vice versa, for a change. Hence, Chris McAlister's crack last week about finally getting to sit down and sip Gatorade once in a while.

The Steve McNair Effect is changing the way everybody thinks and feels, not just the guys he lines up with.

"We just concentrate on making the plays when the opportunities are there - and on playing with a lead," said Samari Rolle, who, like his teammates, wants to get his numbers up from last year (he had all of one interception; remarkably, no returning defensive back had more).

"Some teams get interceptions every week. Look at Indianapolis. But that's because they're always leading and the other team is trying to come back on them. There's no reason we can't do things the same way."

Comparing the new Ravens' offense to the Colts' might be a touch exaggerated, but the point is still clear. "Steve McNair is the big difference," Rolle said of his longtime Titans teammate. "If you're even thinking about questioning what the offense is doing, you're wasting your time."

He didn't have to add " ... as opposed to last season."

This, then, could be the year the Ravens' defense becomes fun again. In past years it was good enough, cocky enough and motivated enough to think that it could get the ball into the end zone as easily as the team it was defending could. And often, it did. In the two seasons before last, including the playoff game at Tennessee in January 2004, the defense pulled it off a ridiculous 12 times, and just missed going the distance a handful more times.

Besides driving opposing coaches and offensive coordinators crazy, the defensive players reveled in it and fed off it. They lateraled the ball back and forth trying to get a newcomer into the touchdown club; they cracked on each other on the sideline and in the locker room for coming up short of the goal line.

Better to do that than to watch Dave Zastudil or Matt Stover march back and forth onto the field.

Last year, though, their pride and joy made an ominous turn to necessity. As the offense hit rock bottom, the defense merely giving it field position and scoring opportunities wasn't enough. As the dismal numbers piled up, the desperation for turnovers and instant points grew. This time, they didn't come.

Takeaways went from 36 in 2003 to 34 in 2004 to just 25 last season. Thomas' three scores came in the season's last five games - and they lost one game when he did it and barely pulled out another. That was typical of everything else that was sunk by the offense: The Ravens lost four times when holding the other team to 20 points or fewer, including 10-6 in Chicago and 12-10 in Denver.

The fun should be back this season. Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, two of the most notorious perpetrators, are back and healthy. Rex Ryan's scheme practically begs for big plays to be made. The players have done extra drills throughout the preseason to get balls and hang onto them.

Most important, they no longer take the field every time thinking: If we don't score, nobody will.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

Points after -- David Steele

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