Little by little, Ravens defense making strides

Younger players emerging, attacking style working

The Ravens coaching staff has been ecstatic with their winning record, but never happy with the overall performance, especially on defense.

If the Ravens are going to go deep into the postseason and possibly to the Super Bowl, they have to find more to build on than just saying a "win is a win."

They might be on to something now.

In the past three weeks, the Ravens' defense has gotten better. No, they are not the Ravens of old, but the younger players are more consistent and the style of play is more aggressive.

The attitude is starting to change.

"We're playing fundamentally better," said Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees. "We've done some things as a staff to help players out technique-wise. We've built some confidence, which makes a lot of difference."

It's not like the Ravens have made a significant jump in the NFL rankings. They are still ranked No. 25 in total defense, No. 27 against the rush and No. 23 versus the pass.

None of their three previous opponents — Pittsburgh, Oakland and Cleveland — had explosive offenses.

But in the past three weeks, young players started to emerge, especially Paul Kruger as a pass rusher and Courtney Upshaw as a run stopper.

Weakside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe has been dominant and is now second on the team in tackles with 72, two behind team leader and safety Bernard Pollard.

"We have helped those guys because we have made their roles specific," Pees said. "They are not trying to do everything, not trying to be ends, outside 'backers and all this other stuff. We've defined their roles and we have four guys, including Albert McClellan and Terrell Suggs, on the outside, who are all good players.

"You can't play them at the same time, so we have told them this is what we need you to do, we think this will suit you and try to use them that way. They all play about the same number of snaps and actually we've gotten more production out of them doing it that way."

It's been that way on the defensive line as well. This group struggled early in the season, but the Ravens started playing some of their younger players — like rookie end DeAngelo Tyson and second-year tackle Bryan Hall — after they got smashed by Houston nearly a month ago.

Of the seven linemen, only Haloti Ngata has a guaranteed starting job. The rest fight for playing time depending how they practice, how they played, who is the next opponent and the upcoming game plan.

It's interesting to see that some players, like tackle/end Arthur Jones, have turned their games up a notch.

"Again, it has been about simplifying things," Pees said. "For instance, if we have guys who can't angle, we're not asking them to do that. We have some guys who can play better outside and others who can play better inside. We have decreased roles but we're playing to our strengths of our personnel."

Maybe the biggest adjustment, and certainly the most noticeable improvement, was the physical play of the secondary last week against Pittsburgh.

For the first time this season the cornerbacks, Cary Williams and Corey Graham, put their hands on receivers at the line of scrimmage. Instead of just playing turn-and-run coverage, they jammed, held and knocked the Steelers off their routes.

Pollard was back to being an enforcer, punishing the Steelers after receptions. He appears completely healed from a bruised rib suffered in the second game against Philadelphia.

"We wanted to be more aggressive against those guys because they are speed guys and we wanted to get them to restart," Pees said. "Corey Graham is a really smart player. Everybody has assets, everybody has liabilities, but he is a professional, he really studies the game. He doesn't make mental errors."

The Ravens still have a lot of work to do. Against the Steelers, there were several times receivers were wide open in the middle. If Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had played, it might have been a different game.

The Ravens face San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers on Sunday. Despite a poor offensive line, Rivers still loves to throw deep.

Last year, the Chargers blew the Ravens out in San Diego, 34-14, despite Baltimore having a 10-3 record.

"They have an explosive offense, big receivers," Pees said. "Every time we play them, they have receivers who are 6-4, 6-5. They can throw the deep ball and the thing that killed us last year were those big plays, and we haven't done a good job of that this year.

"We've played well, been fundamentally good, but you can't afford to give up big plays. They did that last year and once they did, they did whatever they wanted to us. You can't give up the bonehead plays"

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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