Ravens defensive tackle Tony Siragusa has played enough football to know that three games do not allow an accurate assessment of a defense.
But Siragusa knows how low the Ravens have been, and he senses where they are going. And with each passing week, he sees the unit making the kind of strides that puts last year's dismal showing a little further in the past.
Take the regular-season opener, a 28-27 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars that still makes Siragusa mad. In the closing minutes, defensive end Rob Burnett forced a punt with a third-down sack. Then rookie safety Kim Herring forced a fumble that gave the Ravens another chance to win.
The following week, the Ravens' defense shut out an explosive Cincinnati offense in the second half of a 23-10 victory. And, in Sunday's come-from-behind, 24-23 victory over the Giants, the defense recovered from a shaky three quarters to stop New York on its final two possessions, sparking the Ravens' offense to 10 unanswered points and sealing the biggest victory in the team's two-year history.
"You can't just have one good game or a few good games and feel like you've arrived, because you haven't. You have to string it out over the long haul," said Siragusa, one of the key additions to a defense that is digging its way out of the NFL cellar from a year ago.
"But the more big plays you make, the more all of the guys on a defense start thriving on it. We've matured a lot in the last few weeks. It's coming along. We're not that far away."
At this time in 1996, the Ravens' defense already was beginning to crack under the weight of a lack of talent, speed, pass rush and coverage ability.
And that was before a string of injuries struck the defensive line, forcing the Ravens to switch from a 4-3 alignment to a 3-4 at midseason. As a result, they were a 2-10 disaster from October on, as their defense blew second-half leads in most of those losses.
The off-season make-over already is beginning to yield dividends. By revamping their front four -- adding Siragusa, signing free-agent right end Michael McCrary, getting Burnett back healthy from a season-ending knee injury -- the Ravens are developing a run-stopping presence, which they will need against Eddie George-led Tennessee on Sunday. The Oilers average an NFL-high 220 yards rushing a game.
The strong play up front has allowed second-year middle linebacker Ray Lewis to take off with 45 tackles, 34 solo. Rookie outside linebackers Peter Boulware (19 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks) and Jamie Sharper (13 tackles) have added speed and pass-rushing ability that were sorely lacking in 1996.
"There's more talent this year, especially up front and at 'N linebacker, and there's more stability," Burnett said. "I'm confident we can go out and win a game on defense. Last year, we were just trying not to lose a game on defense."
The Ravens are still struggling in the secondary, especially at cornerback. Through three games, they are allowing 285 yards per outing, which places them 28th among the league's 30 teams.
Defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis is far from satisfied. He frowns at the fact that the Ravens have forced only three turnovers. He knows that opponents' 48.9 percent success rate on third down must be lowered. But he likes other signs, such as the plays that are coming at critical moments.
"When you see and feel good things happen in the fourth quarter, it's gratifying. That's the part of the game you look forward to if you're a player," Lewis said.
"Last year, we had guys who were afraid to stick their necks out. You can't run a business that way, and you can't win football games that way. We've got veterans like Tony and McCrary and James Jones and Rob Burnett who understand that, and the exciting thing is we're also doing it with young players. Every day is a new day for all of these guys."
Ray Lewis said he has seen continued defensive improvement since the early days of training camp. And Lewis, who battled knee soreness and swollen hands to make 22 tackles against the Giants, said a sense of sacrifice has taken over the defensive huddle.
"We look at each other and know that somehow, somebody is going to make a play," Lewis said. "When you win, you don't feel much pain."
The signs of an emerging defense are a welcome sight to quarterback Vinny Testaverde.
"I don't feel like we have to score 35 points to win a game. You need a solid defense to win in this league, and ours has made big plays in the fourth quarter of all three games, which is something we didn't see last year," he said. "Offense sells tickets. Defense wins games."
A look at how this year's Ravens defense stacks up with last year's after three games:
.......... ....... 1996 .. 1997
Pts. allowed ....... 74 .... 61
Total yds. ........ 976 .. 1140
Rushing ........... 406 ... 285
Avg. per carry .... 4.3 ... 3.5
Passing ........... 570 ... 855
Avg. per catch ... 11.0 .. 11.9
Comp. pct. ....... 65.8 .. 63.3
Turnovers ........... 4 ..... 3
Sacks ............... 5 ..... 8
Pub Date: 9/17/97