Eisenberg: We're About To Find Out If Ravens' No. 2 Defense For Real


There's no debating the fact that the Ravens defense has been the revelation of the team's fast start.

The offense has sputtered at times, but the defense is ranked No. 8 in the league against the run, No. 3 against the pass and No. 2 overall. It also has grabbed five interceptions, one short of its entire total for 2015.

Although the Ravens have beaten three teams with a combined 1-8 record, the change in the defense from a year ago has been drastic enough that you can't help wondering if it's a dream. Is Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees' unit really going to play this way for the rest of 2016?

We're about to find out.

The offense of the Oakland Raiders, in town to play Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, will test the defense's mettle.

A year ago, Oakland's offense brought Baltimore's defense to its knees. After quarterback Derek Carr orchestrated a 37-point, 448-yard total offensive performance in a Week 2 upset, the Ravens defense was never the same in 2015.

Carr is back this year along with most of the weapons that gave the Ravens such trouble, starting with wideouts Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, who totaled 220 receiving yards in last year's game. This year, the Raiders are ranked No. 2 in the league in total offense through three games.

"It's a very, very explosive offense," Pees said this week.

To improve to 4-0 for the first time since 2006, the Ravens must slow the Raiders down.

I'm not that worried about the rushing defense. Timmy Jernigan has taken a major step forward in 2016. Michael Pierce has been a huge surprise, no pun intended. Lawrence Guy is among the team's most underrated players. Brandon Williams is a force. Besides one long run that got away in Cleveland, the pile isn't moving much.

The pass defense hasn't been quite as airtight, despite its higher league ranking. Buffalo's Tyrod Taylor missed an open receiver in the end zone in Week 1. Cleveland was able to produce big plays early in Week 2. Last Sunday, Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles picked on Shareece Wright and overthrew a receiver who was open deep behind Jimmy Smith.

We'll know the secondary's impressive ranking is misleading if the Raiders have their way Sunday. Conversely, if the Ravens are able to limit Carr and his offense, we'll know they've really turned things around.

A year ago, the Raiders bombed the Ravens into submission with big plays of 68, 37, 29, 24 and 21 yards. But a major overhaul of the secondary has occurred since then.

That day in Oakland, Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb were the corners, Kendrick Lewis and Will Hill III the safeties. Smith is the only one still starting in the same role. Now it's Webb and Eric Weddle at safety, and Wright at cornerback opposite Smith.

Why are they giving up fewer big plays? As Pees noted this week, it's a speedier group overall and Weddle's savvy has improved communication. Pees also streamlined the defensive playbook during the offseason, an important adjustment receiving little attention.

Of course, a secondary can't function without the support of an aggressive pass rush, and the Ravens have rolled out a solid rush so far in 2016, generating nine sacks in three games.

With Carr having only been sacked twice in 2016, another facet of the Ravens defense will be tested Sunday.

Honestly, the game should provide a fair gauge of the Ravens' status on ALL fronts. If their offense really is going to be potent in 2016, it should have a productive day against Oakland's struggling defense, ranked No. 31 in the league. The Ravens also will likely have to find another way to win a close game, a skill that eluded them in 2015 but has made all the difference this year.

Playing in Baltimore will be an advantage. I'm guessing the fans will be pumped about the 3-0 start.

It's also to the Ravens' advantage that Oakland is making a long trip for a second straight week. The Raiders defeated the Titans in Tennessee last week, but they're 1-18 in their last 19 games in the Eastern time zone.

The Ravens didn't thrive when faced with a "long travel" schedule last year, but it's a new year and they're rolling out a new team in many respects.

Is it a "new and improved" team? We've seen reasons to believe so, but we're about to start finding out for real.

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