Can Ravens Get Back To Elite Defense?

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Defense has long been the foundation of Baltimore.

Ever since future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis led the franchise to its first Super Bowl in 2000 with arguably the best defense in NFL history, the Ravens have been characterized as an intimidating group of defenders that can smother opposing offenses.

After that first Super Bowl, the Ravens continued to have one of the league's top defenses, ranking in the top 10 in points allowed in 10 of the last 13 seasons. However, in each of the last two years the Ravens have failed to crack the NFL's top 10 in points or yards allowed.

That's a trend the team's veterans are looking to change in 2014.

"We have the opportunity to [return to a dominating defense]," Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. "I think a lot of it falls on some of the veterans to lead these young guys. We definitely have the talent with all these younger guys coming in."

The Ravens had the NFL's No. 12 ranked defense in yards allowed (335.5 yards per game) and points allowed (22) last season. It was a slight improvement from the previous year, where the Ravens ranked 17th in yards allowed and 12th in points allowed.

The expectation this season is for the unit to get back to one of the most feared in the league.

"We have high goals," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "We have high expectations for the defense, no question."

The numbers the haven't been what the Ravens are accustomed to, and several factors have led to those results.

An aging roster forced the Ravens to undergo a significant defensive makeover after the Super Bowl season, as the team had the most turnover of any champion in NFL history. Part of that turnover was losing Lewis and fellow future Hall of Famer Ed Reed. With Lewis' retirement and Reed's departure, the Ravens lost two the team's key leaders and most productive players in franchise history.

To make up for the losses, the Ravens infused their defense with youth and also brought in a handful of key veterans. Players like linebackers Daryl Smith and Elvis Dumervil, lineman Chris Canty and safety Matt Elam all had to learn a new defense and how to mesh with the holdovers on the roster.

It was an adjustment for everyone. Now the group has a year of familiarity, and there wasn't nearly as much transition this offseason.

"When you have the turnover, there's always a little bit of time for those guys to develop, but also, just like every team goes through it, you can't keep the same guys forever,"  Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees said.

"We can be really good," Dumervil added. "I think we have the speed and athleticism. We're very versatile. We just have to continue to grind and continue to work, and the sky is the limit."

The Ravens have continued their youth movement on defense this offseason by using their first three draft picks on defenders for the second year in a row. Rookie linebacker C.J. Mosley, defensive lineman Timmy Jernigan and safety Terrence Brooks could all end up playing key roles this year. Second-year players like nose tackle Brandon Williams and linebacker Arthur Brown could also end up starting.

The young pieces complement All-Pro veterans like Ngata and Terrell Suggs.

"I like that mix," Suggs said. "I think that definitely makes for a great team to have young and veteran guys and guys that can grow up and come into their own. And we're just waiting to see what some of these guys can do."

The consistent answer from players when asked about what needs to happen for the Ravens to return to an elite defense was the need for more consistency. The Ravens displayed potential last season of being one of the league's top units, and the group now has to build on that foundation.

"Last year, at times, we showed flashes of being a good defense, but then we'd have breakdowns," Canty said. "We'd have mistakes, we'd have mental errors, we'd have lapses, and those are the things that just can't happen if you want to be successful in the National Football League. … We have to make sure that we're on top of our game every single play."

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