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Ravens are still defined by defense

ATLANTA — ATLANTA -- The new Ravens look a lot like the old Ravens, the same Ravens we began seeing in 1999.

Very little has changed.

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The defense is strong, the offense is sorry and the special teams are inconsistent. And it wouldn't be a typical Ravens game of the past two years if Matt Stover wasn't kicking field goals, right guard Bennie Anderson wasn't jumping offsides, right tackle Ethan Brooks wasn't getting beat on pass protection and Jamal Lewis wasn't forced to run left all the time.

The Ravens defeated the Atlanta Falcons, 13-10, last night in preseason game No. 2 at the Georgia Dome, and barring some major upgrades in other areas over the course of the season, defense is their only hope.

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So, what else is new?

The best news to come out of the Ravens' training camp and two preseason games is that the defense is strong enough to carry this team to the playoffs.

Is it as good as the 2000 Super Bowl defense?

No.

But there is potential. Two things stick out about this defense. First, the Ravens have outstanding speed, especially in their front seven because their defensive linemen run well. Second, this is a versatile group. It can make changes almost anywhere without missing a beat.

Defensive end Adalius Thomas can play outside linebacker, which he did last night. He also may have ended the Falcons' season when he tackled quarterback Michael Vick after a short scramble. Vick left with a broken right fibula and could be out for at least six weeks. Second-year linebacker Bart Scott can play outside and inside. Corey Fuller can play safety or cornerback. Gary Baxter can play corner or safety.

And you have to like what defensive coordinator Mike Nolan did last night. He didn't make Pro Bowl linebackers Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware stationary targets. On the first play from scrimmage, he blitzed and crossed Boulware and Lewis from the right side to put pressure on Vick.

On the next Atlanta offensive series, he brought Lewis and Boulware on a blitz from the left side. Once, safety Ed Reed was near the line of scrimmage just as tight as an outside linebacker.

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But there were other impressive things about the Ravens' defense. The first line, which is still suspect going into the regular season, dominated for a second straight week, particularly nose tackle Kelly Gregg. The intensity level was there from the opening whistle, and the first unit played at that same high level for the entire first half as Atlanta was held to 110 total yards, 42 of those on one reception.

The chemistry is already there.

"Other than the 50-yard throw, our first defense played well with a couple of three-and-outs against one of the league's best offenses," said coach Brian Billick.

The Ravens' defense has to play at such a high level because this offense is as erratic as ever. The Ravens didn't get their first first down of the game until 6 minutes, 20 seconds were left in the first quarter.

For the entire training camp, Billick has been downplaying a quarterback controversy, and he is right. There is no controversy because neither quarterback can do much with the first unit.

And how do Billick and offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh judge?

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When starter Chris Redman is in the game, the Ravens are conservative. Redman stays with short passes and close-to-the-vest play-calling like that bizarre end-around call on third-and-three at the Ravens' 41 with 10:10 left in the first quarter last night.

When The Chosen One, rookie Kyle Boller, is in the game, the Ravens open up the offense and Billick allows him to throw downfield more. It's a sound theory, and that's how the Ravens will play with both in the game during the regular season, but why not allow both players to make similar throws throughout the game?

Maybe, though, it wouldn't matter with the first team. Wide receiver Marcus Robinson dropped a crucial pass and missed some blocks, and neither Boller nor Redman had time to throw.

The major difference between the two is that Boller runs and eludes defenders better coming out of the pocket, but he has to because the Ravens throw more with him in the lineup.

Regardless of who worked with the first team (Boller replaced Redman with 12:14 left in the second quarter), the Ravens had trouble moving the ball. The first team started drives at the Atlanta 22, Ravens' 34, Atlanta 49, Ravens' 44, Ravens' 32, Ravens' 39 and Atlanta 35 in the first half, and all they could come away with was a 3-3 tie and 111 yards of total offense.

Redman completed four of seven passes for 42 yards in the first half, and Boller was four of 10 for 33. Boller was five of eight in the second half for 99 yards working against the Falcons' second team. He ran the Ravens' offense to perfection, the one where the quarterback just lofts it up for grabs.

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"I think we did some things well," Redman said. "Obviously, when you get field position like we did, we would like to get seven points, but we still have a few weeks to work and we'll be ready for the season."

Stover converted a 33-yard field goal with 13:11 left in the first quarter after Thomas batted a Vick pass near the line of scrimmage, and cornerback Chris McAlister returned it 4 yards to the Atlanta 22.

The scoring drive: four plays, 7 yards.

Stover has been dependable throughout most of his career in Baltimore, but he had a 35-yard attempt blocked with 10 seconds left in the first quarter. That, too, is nothing new.

The Ravens' special teams were inconsistent last year and got burned last week. Last night, the Ravens fumbled a punt return and had a field goal blocked.

It's still early in the preseason, and, as a fan, you would hope the Ravens can improve. Maybe they can establish a running game and not rely on an offensive line that can't go backward as well as it can forward.

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Maybe they can find an outside receiver who can stretch the field and take some pressure off tight end Todd Heap over the middle. Maybe, just maybe, they can find a return specialist who doesn't make you hold your breath when he is fielding the ball.

But history says no. The new Ravens are the same as the old Ravens, and we're back to the point where it's the offense's job just not to turn the ball over. Nothing has changed. The defense and coaching staff have to carry the 2003 Ravens on their backs again.


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