A Shifting Identity

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When Ravens tight end Todd Heap was drafted in 2001, he came to a city that first and foremost celebrated its Super Bowl-winning defense.

That defense forged the Ravens' reputation as the bully of the NFL, a team that punishes the opposing offense and hopes it scores enough points to be victorious in the end.

"The feeling was just, 'What can we do to help the defense out?'" Heap recently said.

Fast-forward to this season.

Through six games, the Ravens' offense ranks seventh in the NFL in total offense with 393.2 yards per game. If the offense continued that pace, it would crush the franchises' record of 357.7 total yards per contest over the course of a season.

Meanwhile, the defense has fallen to 17th in the NFL. The Ravens' current average of 332.7 yards surrendered per game would rank third-worst in Ravens history.

So, has Baltimore's vaunted defense given way to its burgeoning offense?

"Our defense is still a staple for us and now we're just adding the offense," Heap said. "We're trying to be a well-rounded team, a team that can go the distance."

Historically, the Ravens have found the most success with balance. In 1996, the Ravens surrendered a franchise-worst 368.1 yards per game, but set the franchise record for offensive total yards. That team finished 4-12.

The Ravens responded by spending three straight first-round draft picks on the defense (linebacker Peter Boulware, cornerback Dwayne Starks and cornerback Chris McAlister) and signed free agents including safety Rod Woodson and defensive end Michael McCrary.

"We started to put the pieces in place for what would become one of the most dominating defenses to ever be assembled in the National Football League," general manager and executive vice president Ozzie Newsome said in a Rave-TV exclusive video, Insights From Ozzie.

"As we were building the defense I think the offense started to suffer a little bit. To be honest, we thought we were a year away. But we didn't tell our defense that."

In 2000, the defense was second in total yardage and first in points allowed while the offense was 16th in the league – a Super Bowl combination.

The Ravens' offense dropped off in the years following, ranking in the bottom third of the league every season until 2008. The defense remained dominant, ranking in the top six in the NFL the past six seasons.

The pendulum swung too far the other way.

Like he did in putting the pieces together to build a championship-winning defense over several years, Newsome and the rest of the Ravens' management have focused on the offense in recent years.

Since 2003, the Ravens have selected an offensive player in the draft's first round every year they had a pick except once. They also signed free agent wide receiver Derrick Mason in 2005, traded for quarterback Steve McNair in 2006 and signed free agent running back Willis McGahee in 2007.

Last year the Ravens hired head coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and drafted strong-armed quarterback Joe Flacco in the first round. Suddenly, the pieces started to fit together.

The Ravens' defense continued its dominance, ranking second in the league in total yards surrendered. Buoyed by a rushing attack that was fourth in the league, the offense ranked 18th in the NFL in yards per game. The combined result was an appearance in the AFC championship game.

The Ravens have taken the next step this season and opened up the passing game. Flacco has matured so quickly within the Ravens' offense that Harbaugh and Cameron have unleashed his potential on the NFL. The Ravens have attempted the second-most passes in the NFL and Flacco ranks fourth in passing yards through six games.

"We take pride in that if the defense isn't playing so well, we're able to give them a cushion if they need it," Mason said. "But we still understand, that our defense is good. They're still, basically, the cornerstone of what this franchise was built on. As an offense, we want to make sure we make their job a lot easier."

But just as the offense has emerged, the see-saw has tipped the other way. The Ravens' defense has uncharacteristically been the team's Achilles heel in a three-game losing streak. Its pride has been cut as well, as the unit saw its 39-game streak without allowing a 100-yard rusher snapped – twice.

"I think the defense, we have to hold up our end of the bargain and do what we do; and that's stop people," defensive tackle Kelly Gregg said. "And we're not doing that right now."

The last thing the Ravens are blaming the skid on is an identity problem. Players and coaches said the offense and defense doesn't compete against one another and isn't concerned if one unit outshines another.

"That's a media thing," linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "'What's your identity? Who are you? What kind of team are you?' You hear that all the time on T.V. Honestly, that's bull. It's all about playing your technique, playing physical and trusting each other. Your identity is your identity."

What the Ravens strive for is balance. More specifically, to have both units balanced at the top of the league.

"I think it's a good identity to have where people say, 'That's a good football team. They're good all the way around; there's no way you can slice the cake or give credit,'" running back Ray Rice said.

"Defense wins championships, but you need the offense to score points. To be saying we're an offensive team doesn't fit us. When they know about this Ravens team, they're going to say, 'That team was a physical, good football team.' That's what we aspire to."

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