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MIKE PRESTON

Slow down on calling the Ravens defense 'great' just yet

The Ravens' defense is certainly the heart of this year's team. Just how good is it?

Nearly two weeks ago, the Dallas Cowboys rolled the Ravens defense in a 27-17 victory that really wasn't as close as the score indicates. Last week against Cincinnati, the Ravens dominated as they held the Bengals to 64 rushing yards.

By Monday morning, the talking heads on sports radio were showering praise on the Ravens' effort against Cincinnati, and how great they had played and become.

So, what gives? Are the Ravens so good that coach John Harbaugh is now being asked to compare them to other strong defensive teams in franchise history?

It's time to put this defense into perspective. The Ravens are good, not great. They might be able to get to that level in a year or two, with some additional players, but it's hard to get to there these days because so many rules favor the offense.

But if they were great, they would have showed out instead of getting showed up against Dallas. They didn't get beat because of scheme or one or two big plays; they were involved in a physical beatdown in which Dallas scored on its last five possessions.

The Ravens rebounded with a strong performance against Cincinnati, but the Bengals were missing their two top pass-catchers — wide receiver A.J. Green and running back Giovani Bernard.

Even Harbaugh concedes all this greatness talk is premature.

"I would like to think that this defense can be that caliber of defense," Harbaugh said. "That's what you work for and strive for, but when you're in the middle of it, it's really not what you think about, because that's big picture stuff. What we're trying to do is look at the details in the end that will help us get to that point.

"We're not there yet, I don't think, to those defenses. I'm talking about two defenses, maybe three, in the last 15, 16 years. We can get there. It's going to come down to how well we cover people in the back end, how well we cage the quarterbacks — keep them in the pocket and get to them — also stopping the run."

Never has Harbaugh been so on target. The Ravens have already achieved one of those objectives. Few teams can run against them and they are ranked No. 1 in rush defense allowing only 74.9 yards a game.

The Ravens' front seven might be the best in the NFL, paced by tackles Brandon Williams, Michael Pierce and ends Lawrence Guy and Timmy Jernigan.

Inside linebackers C.J. Mosley and Zachary Orr are fast, and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs is still one of the best in the NFL as far as holding the edge against the run. It's ironic that during the previous two seasons some critics were calling for defensive coordinator Dean Pees to be fired.

It was never really about Pees.

It was about the maturation process. Williams is now in his fourth season while Orr, Jernigan and Mosley are third-year veterans. Pierce is a rookie.

The Ravens, though, still have problem areas to overcome.

One is covering receivers. Safeties Eric Weddle and Lardarius Webb are good inside the box and helping support the run, but slow in coverage. Neither has the range to be a good center fielder in defending the long ball.

The play at cornerback hasn't been spectacular, with or without often-injured starter Jimmy Smith. Opposing teams should come in prepared to throw 35-40 times against the Ravens.

They don't have a shut down cornerback. Their top cover guy, Smith, is decent, but certainly wouldn't force a good team to throw to the other side of the field. Rookie cornerback Tavon Young is aggressive and learns fast, but not fast enough to know how to work officials yet.

The Ravens are also still searching for a dominant pass rusher. Rookie outside linebacker Matthew Judon could be that player, but needs more polish. Outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith has cooled after a good rookie season, and he gets a reprieve because he is only in Year 2.

Great defenses bring pressure from their front four, and that allows them to drop seven into coverage. The Ravens have to blitz to get pressure. Suggs can still get after the quarterback, but he tends to disappear during games against quality opponents. Elvis Dumervil is on the recovery trail with a foot injury, but it's doubtful he can return to the same dominant form of two years ago.

The great Pittsburgh defenses of the 1970s and the Chicago Bears of the mid-1980s didn't struggle with getting pressure on a quarterback. The Ravens defense of 2000 could beat a team in so many ways, and teams such as Seattle and Denver have won recent titles with dominant defenses.

But that's still hard to do. The NFL wants pass happy offenses, and they coddle quarterbacks. Defensive backs aren't nearly as aggressive as they were a decade ago in press coverage.

The Ravens have the beginnings of something special, and great defense has been a tradition here in Baltimore.

It could happen again, but they aren't there yet. Maybe in a year or two.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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