Eisenberg: Out-Ravens the Ravens

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It is a defense that is punishing, unpredictable, and seemingly impossible to dent, having allowed fewer points than any in the NFL. It will be on the field Sunday when the Ravens and Broncos play in Baltimore.

I must be talking about the Ravens' defense, right? You would think so, given the team's proud history on that side of the ball.

Wrong. It is the unbeaten Broncos who are bringing the impregnable (at least so far this season) defense into Sunday's game. The Ravens' unit, ranked 16th in the 32-team league, is yielding more than expected this season, leaving the team with a 3-3 record despite its vastly improved offense.

Talk about an irony. The Broncos are coming to Baltimore playing more like the Ravens than the Ravens. They're fourth in the league against the rush, second against the pass, and have allowed only five touchdowns in six games. They're blitzing, hitting, and making their opponents' lives miserable.

Sound familiar? It's not a coincidence. Denver's defensive coordinator, Mike Nolan, held the same job in Baltimore from 2002-2004. He was a keen proponent of the chin-first style for which the Ravens are known. Now he has installed the same style in Denver after a so-so stint as the 49ers' head coach.

Asked this week if he had seen a defense play like Denver's, Ravens tight end Todd Heap said, "I see them doing some of the same things I've seen here over the years. They try to confuse you. They show you a coverage and then blitz from the other side, that sort of thing."

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco agreed. "They're capable of making a quarterback feel uncomfortable. It looks a lot like what our guys have done in the past."

But the Ravens aren't doing it as much this year, at least not consistently. Asked earlier this week what the team needed to do better on defense, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said, "The bye gave us a chance to go back and study it. Specifically, we need to do everything better. We need to cover better. We need to pressure better. We need to (play) run defense better."

So how are the Ravens going to get, gulp, dare we call it Denver-like play out of their defense? Here are their options:

  • They can try different tactics. If they aren't getting enough pressure on quarterbacks out of the 3-4 scheme that new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has installed, maybe they need to blitz more.
  • They can get better play out of their starters. Most played well in 2008 on a defense that went to the AFC championship game; surely they can rekindle some of that fire. Asked what could be done to improve the pass rush, Mattison said that defensive linemen need to win the battle when blocked one-on-one.
  • They can try some new blood. If the starters aren't getting the job done, maybe it's time to give some younger guys a shot. They're backups for a reason, but rookie cornerback Ladarius Webb is expected to play more Sunday, and other possibilities include safeties Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura, and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe. Mattison said yesterday that he would be "putting people into positions that are good pass rushers." Stay tuned.

It probably will take a combination of all three to get the defense back on track. A debate I've heard a lot lately is whether the scheme or the players is the problem, but neither deserves sole responsibility. Clearly, the coaches need to find some way to ramp up the pressure (it would be nice to see Terrell Suggs, with 2½ sacks so far, wreak more havoc along the lines of Minnesota's Jared Allen or Denver's Elvis Dumervil), and just as clearly, the players need to raise their games after yielding, among other things, consecutive 100-yard rushing performances.

"We spent the bye week breaking it down," cornerback Domonique Foxworth said. "Most of it involves being more consistent, making plays all the time, not dropping the ball at certain times."

Maybe it's going to take a personal challenge such as Sunday's -- the affront of having another defense coming to town and trying to out-Raven the Ravens. Players generally worry more about technique and individual responsibilities than gut-check challenges during games, but this one hits close to home. It's time for the Ravens' defense to protect its house.

John Eisenberg worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.

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