When Chuck Pagano was promoted from secondary coach to defensive coordinator by the Ravens in January, he said that his defensive philosophy was, "Let's go out and wreak havoc."
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger learned exactly what that meant when he was harassed into three interceptions, two fumbles and four sacks in a season-opening 35-7 loss to the Ravens.
Nearly two months later, the Ravens and Steelers will meet again Sunday night at Heinz Field, and the defining characteristic of Pagano's defense is even clearer: it knocks down quarterbacks early and often.
The Ravens' top-ranked defense is second in the NFL with 25 sacks, trailing only the New York Giants, by one. The 25 sacks are the most through the first seven games of a season in team history, and put the Ravens on pace to challenge the team record in that category, which is 60 during the 2006 season.
"I think they've done a unique job of that, not only for them, but just relative to everyone in football," said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. "I think they're clearly the best in that area."
Not just added blitzes
Getting to and knocking down the quarterback has been a point of emphasis since last year when the team finished with just 27 sacks, three fewer than any Ravens defense has ever had. However, it probably would have been unreasonable to expect this dramatic of an improvement in that area.
Not only is the current team just three sacks shy of surpassing last season's total with nine games to go, but the Ravens have logged 15 more sacks than last year's team did through seven games.
That has prompted the popular conclusion that the rise in sacks is a product of the ultra-aggressive Pagano blitzing a lot more than his predecessor, Greg Mattison, who was accused of being too conservative even though his unit blitzed one-third of the time. However, Ravens' defenders say that's too simple of a conclusion.
"We're aggressive, but I think what makes it work, we're keeping legs fresher, we're not keeping it so one dimensional all the time," said linebacker Jarret Johnson. "It's a combination of personnel, scheme and the [secondary] playing better."
Thirteen different Ravens have at least half of a sack. Linebacker Terrell Suggs leads the team — and is tied for eighth in the NFL — with six, but six different players have at least two or more. That group also includes defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (three), second-year outside linebacker Paul Kruger (three), Johnson and rookie defensive end Pernell McPhee (2.5) and middle linebacker Ray Lewis (two).
The players say that the number of people who have sacks is a result of the way Pagano aggressively seeks certain matchups, and regularly interchanges his personnel. Johnson, a staple of the Ravens' defense for years, often goes to the sidelines in obvious passing situations, and pass-rushing specialists like McPhee and Kruger go in.
"Just having fresh bodies is huge," said Kruger, who had one sack in 11 regular-season games last year. "You got guys like Pernell rotating in and that makes such a big difference. He' sitting on the sideline ready to go, just pinning his ears back. It's a combination of the young guys with fresh legs and the older guys with their knowledge and experience, and the type of players they are. It's just an all-around good effort."
More time to get there
The Ravens also are quick to credit the improved play of the secondary. Aside from the Week Two game against the Tennessee Titans, the team's cornerback tandem of Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams has held up remarkably well, giving the coaching staff more confidence to call blitzes and leave the cornerbacks in one-on-one coverage and forcing opposing quarterbacks to hold onto the ball a little longer. That wasn't always the case last year when the Ravens were susceptible at times in man-to-man coverage.
"I think that's crucial," Suggs said. "I think that's the only way you get a lot of sacks, is if your back end holds up and they are covering guys. They are going beyond the call of duty just to make the quarterback hold the ball."
That will especially be important Sunday night against Roethlisberger, a quarterback who is a load to bring down and loves getting out of the pocket and improvising. Playing in front of an unsettled offensive line, Roethlisberger has been sacked 25 times this season, more than any other quarterback. In contrast, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has been brought down 16 times.
"Most quarterbacks, when you take away that first option, you pretty much get them in trouble. So, in that first game we were able to really confuse Ben and take away his first and second options," Lewis said. "But, always, with him … he is one of the greatest warriors the way he plays the game. He's going to get out of the pocket and make a plan. So, that's one of the things we have to limit. We have to limit his mobility of getting out of the play, because he's not going to beat you running, per say, but he'll do enough to really get you out of your game plan. I think overall we've been doing a great job."
Along with praising the secondary, Ravens coach John Harbaugh said that his pass rushers have simply won one-on-one matchups more consistently. Suggs has always been one of the game's more talented pass rushers and Ngata has made drastic improvements in that part of his game.
But the players say that the Ravens have gotten many of those sacks not just with aggression, but by creating confusion. Pagano loves mixing up coverages, switching from three-man rushes to blitzes. He has joked about the number of volunteers that he gets when he designs a blitz.
Already this year, safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard have come in on blitzes. Webb and cornerback Chris Carr have as well, creating a situation where the opposing quarterback doesn't know if they're coming or where they are coming from.
"They are executing the game plan and doing a good job with disguise," Pagano said. "Again, we're doing a much better job on first and second down and we're getting them into throwing situations so you take the run totally out of it. You're always worried about a screen here or there, but we play the screens really, really well so we haven't seen a bunch of those of late. It's a combination of a lot of things, but they are hungry and they love to get to third and long and get after the quarterback."
Roethlisberger knows all about the Ravens' pass rush. In 11 career regular-season games against them, he has been sacked 38 times. Tomlin knows that it will be a challenge to keep his quarterback upright Sunday.
"Not only are they rushing hard individually, I think they're doing an awesome job collectively," Tomlin said of the Ravens. "[They're] closing the doors with their rush lanes. Man, it's very disciplined. It's really impressive when you look at it. If the first man doesn't get the quarterback, usually the second man or third man, in some instances, is in place to close the door."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun