With 3-4, the pressure's on


Peter Boulware is not foolish enough to guarantee the Ravens will be as dominant defensively this season as they have been in previous years. He can, however, promise more deception.

If all goes according to plan for Boulware and the Ravens' revamped defense, fans, opposing coaches and, most importantly, opposing players will have no idea which linebacker, cornerback or safety is coming toward the line of scrimmage.

It would be the 3-4 defense working at its finest and a change from the 4-3, gap-control alignment, a more predictable scheme that defined the Ravens the past three seasons.

"The major difference between the 3-4 and the 4-3, which I think is an advantage, is you just don't know who that fourth rusher is going to be," Boulware said.

Despite the absence of four starters because of injury through much of the preseason, the Ravens racked up 16 sacks, including eight in the opener against the Detroit Lions. With three of four first-time starters in the secondary, a premium has been placed on quickly getting to the quarterback.

End Michael McCrary and Boulware will still be the primary players counted upon to provide such pressure. But with linebacker Ed Hartwell lining up next to Ray Lewis - who is having to play with another middle linebacker for the first time since his rookie season - the Ravens have shown no hesitancy in blitzing either one.

Hartwell led the team with four sacks in the preseason.

"Eddie played well, and he played a lot," defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. "That was important because he didn't play at all last year. So he still is in his rookie season as far as playing goes. We'll look for Eddie to continue to get better; he'll have his good days and bad days, but I'm certain he will have more good days than bad.

"We're at the point where playing together as a unit is the most important thing as opposed to identifying who the individuals are. I think the last couple of weeks we've done that. It hasn't been clean but we're certainly going in the right direction with the guys."

Quick learning curve

With seven new starters, Nolan said his defense has exceeded expectations. Among the highlights, the Ravens allowed just one first-half touchdown this preseason - to a seasoned New York Jets offense on the opening possession.

That statistic might be misleading, however, because of the means by which it was achieved. Quarterback Mike McMahon played poorly in the opener with a sparsely talented Lions offense. Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb missed open receivers underneath the Ravens' zone to stall drives. And the New York Giants played without starting quarterback Kerry Collins and running backs Tiki Barber and Ron Dayne.

Still, for such a young group, the Ravens' defense held together at critical times. The Jets, Eagles and Giants combined to go 6-for-21 in the first half on third-down conversions.

The defense gave up at least 181 first-half yards in each of those games, but stiffened in the red zone, allowing four field goals and the one touchdown.

"I think we've done a lot of good things," Lewis said. "A lot of the young guys learned quickly, and that is one of the greatest things. I think the best thing is that we have everybody running to the football, and that is a big positive."

Despite not having Pro Bowl tackle Sam Adams in front of him and the veteran savvy of Rod Woodson and Corey Harris behind him, Lewis refuses to accept the notion that the defense will take a step back this year.

Asked whether the expectation level of the defense - which finished the previous three seasons ranked second overall in the NFL - has decreased with so many young players, Lewis defiantly said, "No. I've answered that 100 times. Every time we step on the field, we are trying to win. Period."

Trench play is key

In reality, it is hard to figure out how good the Ravens' defense will be. It is, however, unrealistic to think the defense can carry the team as it has in previous years.

"We're more balanced now," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "That's not to say the defense isn't going to be good. Are we going to break the all-time scoring record? I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that we won't. But that does not mean we are not going to be good defensively.

"We have the talent to be one of the top defenses in the league, but we're a long way from that in terms of developing a defensive team chemistry and a defensive personality."

Part of that new persona comes from the 3-4 alignment, which Billick said would have been implemented even if former coordinator Marvin Lewis had stayed. "Marvin was the original protagonist of this back in January," Billick said.

As in any scheme, the Ravens will have to win the battle at the line of scrimmage, and they will attempt to do so by committee.

With an undersized defensive line that has been without two of the three projected starters through much of the preseason, Nolan will have to focus as much on rotating personnel as he will making the defensive calls.

Tony Weaver, the team's second-round pick and one of the biggest linemen at 300 pounds, suffered a high ankle sprain early in training camp and did not play any preseason games.

The team cannot figure out what to do with Adalius Thomas (270 pounds), who has gone from linebacker to lineman, back to linebacker and now back to lineman. Nose tackle Kelly Gregg, who checks in barely at 6 feet and 285 pounds, spent the majority of the preseason at end, though he was flanked by a linebacker much of the time.

McCrary (260 pounds) always has been somewhat undersized as an end, and when the Ravens put an outside linebacker beside him, McCrary will effectively be a tackle. But he and Boulware will continue to rush from the ends on obvious passing situations, same as before.

"Wherever they put me, that's where I'm going to rush," McCrary said. "I'd like to come off the end, but if they want me in the middle, I'll go there."

The Ravens do have size in 312-pound undrafted nose tackle Maake Kemoeatu, who has filled in admirably for the hurting Weaver and McCrary.

"You'd always like to have the bigger, stronger guys but that doesn't mean the other guys aren't effective in what they do," Nolan said. "Kemo is a real big guy and he's been effective at doing his job. Kelly Gregg is not necessarily the biggest guy, but he's a good football player and certainly someone we need and plays well for us. [Thomas] and McCrary will be good; Marques Douglas will be all right.

"We're going to have a decent rotation going with those guys. It's not going to be the clear-cut Sam [Adams], [Tony Siragusa], Rob Burnett and Michael as your four-down guys. There is going to be rotations because we want to keep them fresh."

The R. Lewis factor

The faces along the defensive line may be different, but the responsibilities will be much of the same - keep blockers off Lewis and the other linebackers.

But during the preseason, Lewis had to fight off an increased number of guards and centers. Nolan said that will decrease as the season goes on.

"When we play together as a unit, it is our objective that Ray will be free to the ball," Nolan said. "And that will be the first thing our [defensive line] will tell you: 'I'm keeping this guy off Ray.'

"But sometimes - and it wasn't like Ray was free every play in the past - guys will get on him. We'll probably have to think a little more about scheming. We have a different hand dealt than we had a year ago. And we have to play it different."

Lewis, though, is not worried about having to face more blockers.

In fact, he and Boulware welcome the opportunity to grow with a different defense that they hope will one day match the success of its predecessor.

"It takes awhile," Boulware said. "It takes awhile for guys to start to come together, and you know what the guy on the right or left is going to do. And that just takes playing with each other."

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