Hold on to your helmets, better defense is on way

THE BALTIMORE SUN

We are here today to present a theory, a theory as radical as the notion of Bob Dole winning the presidential election.

Ready, sports fans?

The Ravens' defense will get better.

Simple logic tells us it can't get worse.

The Ravens are allowing 29 points per game, most in the NFL. They've allowed 37 points per game the last four weeks. And they allowed 31 points Sunday to the St. Louis Rams, the worst offensive team in football.

So, what calamities await against Jeff Blake, Carl Pickens and the Cincinnati Bengals when the second half of the season begins Sunday at Memorial Stadium?

Heaven knows, but our theory isn't simply based on the idea that the Ravens have hit rock bottom, because Sunday figures to be another shootout, and they still must face Jerry Rice in San Francisco on Nov. 17.

No, our theory is based on the big picture, that the Ravens need time to adjust to a new system under first-year defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, and even more time now that injuries have forced them to switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4.

Lewis, 38, went from coaching the vaunted Pittsburgh linebacking corps to coordinating the 28th-ranked defense in the NFL.

He could be a head coach someday.

Or, if things don't change, he could be fired when the season ends.

Such is life in the NFL, but Lewis actually believes the defense is improving. The Ravens allowed 486 yards on Sunday. But take away six huge gains, and the Rams averaged only 3.68 yards per play.

Of course, you can't take away those six huge gains, and they're even more embarrassing when you consider the Rams start five rookies on offense.

Still, at the start of the season, everyone figured the Ravens would rely on their defense to carry a suspect offense. Instead, they're relying on their offense to carry a suspect defense.

Defensive end Rob Burnett and defensive tackle Dan Footman likely are out for the season, but safety Eric Turner and linebacker Mike Caldwell came back strong last week.

Why can't the trend reverse?

"Last year, we were 3-4 in Pittsburgh, not playing to expectations," Lewis said yesterday. "There were reasons why. But as soon as we got that turned around, the sky was the limit.

"It was just what has come about on offense, the way they've rallied around Vinny [Testaverde], made good things happen. You've got to start somewhere. On offense, they're feeling invincible right now. We have to get that feeling."

They might never get it with Antonio Langham at one corner and rookie Donny Brady at the other, but Lewis is of the opinion that the salary cap has left most teams with comparable talent.

The defense finally made plays Sunday, mounting a goal-line stand, forcing four turnovers, recording six sacks. True, it was only the Rams. But, as Lewis said, you've got to start somewhere.

"They were throwing their bodies around," head coach Ted Marchibroda said. "We hit harder. The tackling was crisper than it has been. They just played tougher."

Problem was, the Ravens were down to only three healthy defensive linemen by game's end -- James Jones, Tim Goad and Elliott Fortune.

Jones signed just before the season opener. Goad is an undersized defensive tackle. And Fortune, who had never taken an NFL snap before this season, drew an offsides penalty on third-and-nine in overtime.

The good news is, Anthony Pleasant and Mike Frederick are expected back Sunday. Marchibroda said Jones is emerging as a leader, just as Caldwell is for the linebackers, and Turner is for the secondary.

Yet, even when healthy, the Ravens still aren't near the level with which Lewis grew accustomed in Pittsburgh, where he coached All-Pro linebackers Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene.

The Steelers' defensive talent is superior to nearly every NFL team's, but Lewis said the players' biggest edge is their "hunger to learn," their eagerness to implement new wrinkles in the game plan week after week.

"People thought we did a lot in Pittsburgh," Lewis said. "We didn't. The guys were just open to learning and adjusting. And we knew who could adjust and who couldn't."

The Ravens' defensive coaches haven't had that advantage -- they came together late, and are still learning about their players. The offensive coaches faced the same challenge, but they haven't had to deal with this many injuries.

Marchibroda envisioned both lines as anchors, but it hasn't happened on defense, where the players change every week. The instability began even before the season started, when Larry Webster was suspended for substance abuse.

The Ravens aren't learning.

They're trying just to survive.

"With the injuries, there hasn't been any carryover," Lewis said. "You have to spend time on certain things just to get guys caught up, to make sure you get Step A handled before you get to Step B."

Still, this will be the third week of the 3-4, and the second with Turner and Caldwell back in the lineup. The Ravens lack the dominant outside linebackers to make this scheme work. But certainly, they can play it better.

Lewis made a significant adjustment last week, lining up Pleasant mostly on the outside rather than inside the rush linebacker, so he wouldn't get caught between a guard and a tackle.

And the Ravens finally addressed their lack of depth yesterday, signing free-agent cornerback Dorian Brew and replenishing their practice squad with linebacker Dexter Daniels and offensive lineman Spencer Folau.

No one will confuse any of their defensive linemen with Reggie White, any of their linebackers with Bryce Paup, any of their cornerbacks with Deion Sanders.

Long-term, they need to start over.

Short-term, they will get better.

They can't get any worse, can they?

Pub Date: 10/30/96

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