Ravens defense could be showing signs of revival

  • Jimmy Smith takes part in drills at the Ravens' training facility on July 25.
Jimmy Smith takes part in drills at the Ravens' training… (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore…)
September 12, 2014|Mike Preston

As the Ravens left the field Thursday night, they had more than just a 26-6 win against the Pittsburgh Steelers. They also had reasons to be encouraged about their defense.

The Ravens didn't allow a touchdown. They forced three turnovers and scored off two. They contained Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for most of the game, and they basically pounded the Steelers into submission.

At the end, Pittsburgh was worn down and the Ravens had imposed their will.

"It is what it is. It's a tough ballgame, intense game from the start to the finish, and that's what they brought," Steelers linebacker Jarvis Jones said.

The Ravens were impressive in other ways. Pittsburgh isn't the Cincinnati Bengals, who beat the Ravens, 23-16, on Sept. 7, but the Ravens could possibly be seeing fourth-year veteran Jimmy Smith emerge as a shutdown cornerback. Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees matched Smith against Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown on Thursday night, and Brown had seven catches for 90 yards but wasn't a major factor.

He didn't have any big plays, and Smith showed great confidence jamming Brown at the line of scrimmage in press coverage. The Ravens haven't had a legitimate shutdown cornerback since Chris McAlister (1999-2008).

Even when Roethlisberger got out of the pocket, Smith was all over Brown.

"If you watch the last game, they got a few that way," said Smith, alluding to Pittsburgh's season-opening win against the Cleveland Browns. "Le'Veon Bell had something to do with that. That's what Big Ben does, and I have a lot of respect for him. Those guys uncover really fast, and they get open for him, and they are hard to track down. I'm happy he didn't extend any of those plays."

The Ravens also showed depth and determination in the secondary. Asa Jackson started in place of Chykie Brown at the other starting corner position Thursday night. Brown, who was beat for the game-winning 77-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green late in the fourth quarter in the season opener, replaced the injured Jackson in the first half Thursday night and played well.

The Ravens also got a strong effort from safety Matt Elam. Not only did Elam play well in run support, but he covered the Steelers' receivers outside in nickel and dime situations.

"They had some success," Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We didn't want [Antonio Brown] to get off and have a good game. [Ben Roethlisberger] did a good job of getting the ball out quick. But we played good fundamental defense. We didn't give up big plays, and we didn't give up a touchdown. Anytime you don't give up a touchdown, you are going to be pretty hard to beat. We'll take it. We're going to look at the film, we have a couple days off to get our bodies back healthy and get ready for Cleveland."

The Ravens have to find a way to get Suggs going. He had five tackles against the Bengals but only three against Pittsburgh. He has yet to record a sack and has only one quarterback hit. If he starts playing well, the Ravens might have the quality bookends they envisioned when outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil came to town a year ago.

Dumervil had two sacks against Pittsburgh after being shut out by Cincinnati.

"Guys were working hard, just being relentless. Give credit to Pees with his scheme, and the guys in the back end with great coverage and obviously playing opposite of Suggs," Dumervil said. "When the guys were pushing hard, good things happened."

"I mean, we're just trying to get off the ball and be disruptive," he said. "As a rush, you just want to be annoying. Just come out there and just get pressure, and as you keep hammering, the door will come down."

The Ravens have also been dominating against the run inside with tackles Haloti Ngata and Brandon Williams. Bell had 59 rushing yards on 11 carries, but most of those came on jump cuts or bounces outside after Ngata or Williams clogged gaps in the middle. Young players such as Timmy Jernigan and Pernell McPhee have also played well.

The Ravens never had this kind of presence last year. With these players jamming the inside lanes, inside linebackers C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith have been freed up to run sideline to sideline. Their speed also allows them to get deep drops in pass coverage.

"I just want to say that C.J. is way ahead of where I was as a rookie," Smith said. "He is an outstanding player. He is going to be a great player for us. It's a learning curve. He's going to see some things as the season progresses that he hasn't seen before. He just has to take things week by week."

Said Jimmy Smith: "You see what the Seahawks do. Their linebackers cover so you call more coverage packages and let your dogs up front hunt. You let your linebackers drop, and that allows your DBs to get some interceptions."

The speed really shows up inside the Ravens' 20-yard line because Mosley and Daryl Smith can run with most tight ends or running backs. The Ravens have yet to allow a red zone touchdown.

Overall, the defense is starting to shape up. Despite interior line weaknesses, the Steelers still have some outstanding players at the skill positions. But Brown didn't dominate and Bell had no big plays. Roethlisberger was forced to stay in the pocket and the Ravens wore down the Steelers. Pittsburgh players were suggesting the Steelers were done in by their own mistakes, but those turnovers were forced. The Ravens swarmed to the ball and they simply outhit Pittsburgh.

Maybe it's a sign of things to come.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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