NEW ORLEANS - Maybe the most telling moment of the preseason for the Ravens' defense came midway through the second quarter. After giving up a 47-yard reception to the Saints down to the Ravens 18-yard line, the Ravens held New Orleans to 10 yards on the next five plays.
The Saints had to settle for a 28-yard field goal from Nate Fikse, leaving middle linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed high-fiving and celebrating in the end zone.
First-year coordinator Rex Ryan has added some personal touches to the defense for 2005, but that unit for the Ravens remains dominant heading into the regular season after last night's 21-6 win over the Saints at the Superdome in preseason game No. 3.
This group is more fun to watch than in previous years because Ryan has so many toys and schemes. The Ravens love to blitz, but it's hard to determine where the pressure will come.
The Ryan family is known for the 46 defense, but that's only part of the total defensive package. Sometimes, the Ravens look like they're back in a 3-4.
Other times they'll crowd seven or eight players around the line of scrimmage. Sometimes safety Will Demps will line up as an outside linebacker.
They'll flip-flop outside linebackers Terrell Suggs or Adalius Thomas to hide a fourth pass rusher or sometimes crowd the line with eight players but only rush three. Watching the Ravens defense is certainly more entertaining then watching the offense.
In three preseason games, the Ravens have given up some big plays defensively, but that happens when you gamble and use a lot of blitzes, especially in the preseason. Actually, the Ravens have to gamble because the unit has to manufacture points.
The Ravens offense is so inconsistent, especially the passing game. They have a quarterback who was inaccurate again last night but was knocked around so badly that you felt sorry for him instead of trying to evaluate his performance. You can't criticize a quarterback who is running for his life or playing from his butt. Kyle Boller became gun-shy, but who could blame him? The offensive line can't pass block. The Ravens have tight ends and running backs who either can't pass block because of a lack of recognition or simply won't do it.
So, the defense has to score. They've got a couple of playmakers such as Lewis, Reed, Chris McAlister and Suggs, and a few more when cornerbacks Samari Rolle, Deion Sanders and Dale Carter are healthy.
The most impressive thing about last night's defensive effort, though, was the play of tackles Maake Kemoeatu and Kelly Gregg. Both turned in solid performances last year, but like the rest of the line, wore down late.
Gregg and Kemoeatu are now blowing up the other team's running plays. They're not just making tackles but penetrating at the same time and keeping offensive linemen off Lewis.
"We came out and played the tempo," Lewis said. "We had three or four three and outs before anything. I think we're getting better with every snap. We have to keep fine-tuning it, that's what preseason is for, just keep fine-tuning some things and communicating. We have a lot of different things we're running."
Despite dropping about five passes, the Saints are a good offensive team. They've got some great individual performers. Before last night's game, they were averaging 144 rushing yards and 203 passing yards in the preseason. They have a good offensive line and came out with two tight ends because they thought they could overpower the Ravens.
New Orleans had only 32 yards rushing in the first half against the Ravens starters. The Saints tried to run halfback Deuce McAllister outside, but the Ravens have too much speed.
It was clearly evident on that drive midway in the second quarter. On first and goal at the Ravens 8, McAllister took a pitch around left end. Suggs got penetration to force him deep into the backfield. Within a second, Lewis, fellow linebacker Bart Scott and defensive end Jarret Johnson had forced McAlister out of bounds for a 2-yard loss.
On the next play, Lewis knocked down a pass intended for receiver Joe Horn over the middle and quarterback Aaron Brooks overthrew Horn on third down.
"I think overall we had a great first half," Reed said. "We didn't give up any touchdowns, just field goals. But that's what we work for, to not let them in the end zone."
It worked last night, just as it has for the previous five seasons. The Ravens had a strong running game until they decided to pass, but they now have set a tone going into the opener. They made just enough plays for the defense to dominate and win the game.
That's nothing new here in Baltimore. We've seen it before. It's just more fun now watching Ryan coming up with ways to toy with an offense.