the swagger is back

The Baltimore Sun

They can change defensive coordinators and not miss a beat. They can even change head coaches and not lose their way.

The brand of defense the Ravens have played for almost a decade - organized mayhem - has rarely been better, and perhaps never more dominant, than it has been in the first two games this season.

It's a stifling, unremitting kind of defense that cuts opposing teams off at the quarterback.

Exhibit A: Carson Palmer of the Cincinnati Bengals produced the worst passer rating of his six-year Pro Bowl career in Week 1.

Exhibit B: Derek Anderson produced the second-worst passer rating of his four-year career with the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, and it almost cost him his starting job.

Up next is the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger on Monday night in Pittsburgh. The winner of the AFC North's most bitter rivalry gets the division lead for the first month of the season.

For the Ravens, it's heady territory so soon after a dreary 5-11 season, a coaching change and a big change at quarterback.

The defense has its swagger back a year after it was beset by a disproportionate number of injuries and big plays against it, although coordinator Rex Ryan said the Ravens never lost their confidence.

"Even last year, as long as we had our [regular] guys, we were fine," Ryan said yesterday. "We were still a premier defense. We finished sixth in the league [in total yards], and, quite honestly, we were out there with not our best guys.

"It wasn't that we replaced them with our backups; we had to go to their backups. It was tough."

Injuries notwithstanding, the Ravens have finished in the NFL's top 10 in total defense the past five years and eight of the past nine. Restored health and renewed commitment have rejuvenated the defense this season.

The Ravens rank first in total defense this season (161.5 yards a game), first in passing yards (91.5) and third in rushing yards (70.0).

"It's always health with us," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "The first thing that comes from health is chemistry. When you have chemistry, the way we have chemistry on our side of the ball, it's just special."

In the switch from Brian Billick to John Harbaugh at coach and Kyle Boller to Joe Flacco at quarterback, the Ravens also rediscovered ball-control offense. They hold a 14-minute advantage over opponents in average time of possession through two games.

The offense ran off the final seven minutes of an opening-day win over the Bengals and controlled the ball a staggering 13:18 of the fourth quarter against the Browns.

"That's the best thing you [can do] for a great defense like ours," Lewis said. "But at the same time, if you've got all of our pieces back playing like that and everybody is back flying around, we can be rough. We can be arguably the best defense in this league, easily."

The Ravens might have lost a step here and there on defense (they have five starters who are 30 or older), and they might still make a concession to injury (two starters, Kelly Gregg and Dawan Landry, are out).

But they more than make up for that with familiarity and an attitude nurtured by Ryan, in his fourth year as coordinator and 10th with the team.

"When the coaches let you do your thing and they try to figure out a way to best get you involved in the game plan, it's easy to have confidence in your ability," defensive lineman Trevor Pryce said.

"Everybody has ability in the NFL. But Rex makes you feel like you can beat the world."

The Ravens looked like world-beaters against Cleveland. Safety Ed Reed made an interception on a play he knew was coming, and Lewis caused another interception on a play he was expecting.

In each case, preparation was the key.

"Ed and Ray sit at home and watch film for hours by themselves," Pryce said. "That makes the game easier for them."

After Sunday's win, Reed spoke to the camaraderie the Ravens enjoy on defense.

"We know how to help each other, and Rex knows how to help us," Reed said. "We know Father Time doesn't stop, and we know at some point we're not going to be able to play this game. So right now, we just enjoy it."

Ryan knows what Reed means.

"We have an opportunity this year with this group," he said. "We think we have a special group of people. We've been together forever, and it's not that we want to ride off into the sunset, but we have other things we want to accomplish."

RAVENS @STEELERS

Monday, 8:30 p.m.,

Ch. 13, ESPN

97.9 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Steelers by 5 1/2

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