Patchwork Ravens defense making strides

OWINGS MILLS - Josh Bynes is starting at middle linebacker. Paul Kruger is the top threat as a pass rusher. Albert McClellan has started most of the season at outside linebacker. Cary Williams and Corey Graham are the two starting cornerbacks. And Chykie Brown is now being depended on to provide valuable minutes in the secondary.

This is far from the same star-powered Ravens defense that finished last season ranked third-best in the NFL in total defense.

$50 million cornerback Lardarius Webb was lost early in the year to a season-ending knee injury. Future Hall of Fame middle linebacker Ray Lewis hasn't played since mid-October because a torn triceps. Reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs missed the beginning part of the season with a partially torn Achilles tendon, and he's now playing through a torn biceps. And Pro Bowl defensive lineman Haloti Ngata has been limited by a sprained knee and an injured shoulder for much of the season.

Thirteen defensive starters - or players with significant starting experience - have missed at least one game this season for Baltimore and only two defensive players - Williams and safety Ed Reed - have started all 15 games this season.

"Every week, it's like I take attendance in our room to see who shows up," joked Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees.

The result has been a defense that's struggled at times to stop the run, had problems at different points slowing down opposing passing attacks and had issues consistently generating pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

But the makeshift group has actually started to show signs of progress in recent weeks, and Pees continues to get contributions from players that were off the radar even as recently as a month ago.

Bynes had 13 tackles against the Denver Broncos two weeks ago, Brown had four pass deflections against the New York Giants last week and even Omar Brown, a reserve safety just called up from the practice squad two weeks ago, chipped in with a sack against the Giants.

Against the Broncos, Baltimore had five players starting on defense that began the season as either a special teamer, a member of the practice squad or a street free agent.

But the unit held a potent Denver offense scoreless on six of its first eight possessions and, a week later, limited a dangerous Giants offensive attack to just 186 yards of total offense.

New York had just six first downs before mounting a late scoring drive that began with it trailing 33-7 midway through the fourth quarter.

The Ravens limited Giants quarterback Eli Manning to just 150 yards through the air, recorded three sacks and nine quarterback hits against an offensive line that entered the game as the NFL's best at protecting the quarterback and held New York to just 67 yards on the ground.

"We're paid to perform," Baltimore defensive lineman Arthur Jones said. "Everyone in this locker room has been a starter at some point during their career, even if it was just in college, and it's really just the next guy up."

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