I'm ready to do away with the "it's only the preseason" caveat when assessing the Ravens defense.
I believe it's going to be good this season – quite possibly one of the NFL's best defenses.
Ordinarily, making such a prediction based on games that don't count is a risky business. Ravens Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees expressed caution last week when asked if he believed his unit's dominant preseason signaled the approach of a stellar regular season.
"I'm still worried about it," Pees said. I understand why he said that, but between the first team's stout interior, agile linebackers and fortified secondary, I've seen enough in three preseason games to convince me this defense will still be difficult to budge when the regular season begins.
Could it rate with the franchise's best? It's an inevitable question that I'm already hearing and, frankly, find ridiculous – not because it's way too soon for that comparison (even though it is) and not because Baltimore's Super Bowl-winning 2000 unit set a standard that few defenses, if any, are going to touch.
No, the idea of measuring this year's defense against its famous predecessor is ridiculous because pro football has changed so much it's almost an "apples and oranges" comparison.
I mean, with all due respect to the sainted 2000 unit, it didn't face the kind of explosive, versatile offenses now in vogue in the NFL.
In 2000, if you smothered an opponent's running game, as the Ravens did every week, you were well on your way to winning. But today, many offenses just forsake the run in that situation and continue to probe for weakness with complex passing games.
There's no doubt which side has the upper hand. Thanks to a general philosophical shift toward offenses in the league and a steady diet of rule changes, the guys WITH the ball are better off. Life on defense is tougher than before.
Consider: The NFL's top-ranked defense last season (Houston's) gave up 4,821 yards, an amount that would have earned just a No. 12 league ranking in 2000.
Similarly, the Ravens defense earned a top-ten league ranking last season with 5,157 yards allowed, an amount that would have earned just a No. 16 league ranking in 2000.
You get what all that means, right? Even if the Ravens field one of the NFL's best defenses in 2017, it's going to give up more yards and points that one normally associates with a suffocating defense.
I'm not pointing that out to make excuses for the Ravens' unit even before the season begins. I'm just pointing out that you should be careful with your expectations because the very nature of dominating defenses has changed.
Having said that, the mission statement for this year's defense is still similar to the 2000 defense's mission statement. That year, the defense carried the Ravens through good times and bad. This year, in a reprise of sorts, there are far more questions surrounding the offense as the regular season approaches.
Asked last week how he foresees the Ravens winning games this season, safety Eric Weddle said, "Play great on defense, play unbelievable special teams, and play solid on offense – that's going to be the secret for us to win."
Not pulling any punches there.
Granted, Weddle also said it's a "team game" and "there are going to be games where we give up a ton of points and the offense is going to bail us out." In the end, though, he confirmed that the defense expects to have to pull more weight, just as it did in 2000.
Asked if the offensive players might have a problem with his frankness, Weddle said, "Even if they do have a problem, I don't care if they have a problem. It's the way we're going to win. You put your ego aside for what's best for the team."
It's clear the defensive starters are optimistic about what they can achieve. And I'm guessing the starting offenses of the Redskins, Dolphins and Bills, all of which were dominated by the Ravens, can attest to the Baltimore defense's toughness, speed and versatility.
But best ever? Please, let's just not go there. All the Ravens want is a defense that's good enough to win games. And it looks like they may be on the right track.