Carroll County Times

Ravens' new-look defense looking 'pretty darn good'

Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs talks with teammate Pernell McPhee on the sideline of a training camp practice at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis Sunday, August 4, 2013.

OWINGS MILLS - What one local reporter said during a Ravens practice last week maybe best sums up the growing belief regarding the Ravens' new-look defense.
The defense, as it has consistently done during the first two weeks of training camp, was getting the best of Joe Flacco and Baltimore's offense.
After one particular sequence, the reporter turned to two other reporters who were standing next to him on the sideline and said confidently, "This defense could be really good."
Players and coaches talked about the defense's potential during the spring, but the first two weeks of training camp have validated that potential to many who cover the team.
The preseason will provide a better gauge as to just how good Baltimore's defense can be - and the regular season will even more. But at least through the first two weeks of training camp, the defense, as Flacco put it up Tuesday, "looks pretty darn good."
For most, tonight provides the first opportunity to take a look when the Ravens face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their preseason opener.
The game also provides the first chance for the defense to see how it fares against someone in a different uniform.
"We're very excited," new starting safety Michael Huff said. "We can be a dominant defense. Everything looks good on paper, but we're looking forward to seeing what it looks like on the field Thursday night."
This is a much different-looking Baltimore defense.
No more Ray Lewis. No more Ed Reed. No more Dannell Ellerbe. No more Bernard Pollard.
The list goes on.
As many as seven of the Ravens' 11 defensive starters this year could be players that weren't even on their roster last season.
But the widespread belief at this point is that this overhauled group has a chance to be dynamic.
Remember, Baltimore won the Super Bowl last season, but its traditionally dominant defense was uncharacteristically average.
Longtime core players like Lewis and Reed were older and not nearly as impactful as they were earlier in their careers.
The defensive line was a consistent area of concern and was a primary reason a typically stingy Ravens run defense struggled at times to stop the run.
A pass rush that had been among the NFL's best in 2011 had problems generating pressure, as 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs was sidelined by and later limited by an Achilles tendon injury.
And a pass defense that was originally expected to be one of the Ravens' greatest strengths was exploited at different points, even before top cornerback Lardarius Webb suffered a season-ending knee injury.
The Ravens won the Super Bowl, but they finished the regular season ranked 17th in total defense, 17th in passing defense, 20th in rushing defense and tied for 15th in sacks after ranking among the five-best in the league in those same four categories in 2011.
But, even though it's still early, Baltimore's defense once again has the look of one that could be among the league's best.
The front-seven in particular has those within the Ravens' organization enthusiastic.
Free-agent signing Chris Canty has been a standout during training camp, and Baltimore believes Canty gives the defense a complete presence at five-technique defensive end - one that can both rush the passer and hold up against the run - that it didn't have last season after losing Cory Redding as a free agent.
The Ravens are also encouraged by the progress of fourth-year defensive lineman Arthur Jones. Jones began to emerge last season - he finished the regular season with 47 tackles and 4.5 sacks - but he's having a "tremendous" training camp, according to coach John Harbaugh, and Jones said last week that he's trimmer, more explosive and more polished in his technique than he was last season.
Canty, Jones and Pro Bowler Haloti Ngata appear set as the first-team defensive line - with Ngata manning a nose tackle position that was one of the Ravens' biggest problem areas last year - but Baltimore also expects to get contributions from, among others, promising third-round defensive lineman Brandon Williams and veteran Marcus Spears, a highly regarded presence against the run.
"Those guys [the defense], they feel pretty good out there, especially with those guys on the defensive line," Flacco said. "I think that's a big part of being a good defense is having a solid defensive line, so I think they look pretty good."
The pass rush has also looked good and has shown glimpses of being dynamic with a healthy Suggs, Elvis Dumervil and players on the defensive line like Ngata, Canty, and Jones.
Suggs in particular has stood out during training camp. He no longer appears limited by his surgically-repaired Achilles, is in maybe the best shape of his 11-year career, and teammates have said Suggs looks like the 2011 Suggs who had 14 sacks and seven forced fumbles.
Inside linebacker was probably the Ravens' biggest remaining area of concern early in June, but the addition of veteran Daryl Smith combined with Smith's play during camp appears to have alleviated concern at the position.
It's still unclear if linebacker Jameel McClain will be able to play this year as he continues to work back from the spinal cord injury he suffered in December, but Baltimore seems happy with Smith at one inside linebacker spot and either Josh Bynes, Albert McClellan or second-round pick Arthur Brown at the other starting inside linebacker spot should McClain not be able to play this season.
There are some question marks at cornerback, with Webb coming off of a torn anterior cruciate ligament and former first-round pick Jimmy Smith yet to live up to expectations through his first two seasons, but Webb appears on track to playing in the regular-season opener against the Denver Broncos and Baltimore seems encouraged by the progress Smith has made since the end of last season.
And as a whole, the Ravens are deep at cornerback. Corey Graham emerged as a viable starter last season and has had a strong training camp. Third-year player Chykie Brown has also impressed during camp, enough so that Harbaugh called him a starting-caliber cornerback last week.
At safety, Reed and Pollard are gone, but Huff is a longtime NFL starter, and veteran James Ihedigbo and first-round pick Matt Elam, battling for the starting job next to Huff, have both had strong camps.
"It's starting to jell, but, again, we haven't played a football game yet," Canty said. "So, we need to go out there, need to compete against another football team, play at game speed, at game tempo and go through that process.
"I think that will be a great opportunity for us during the course of this preseason to come together. I'm looking forward to it."