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Ravens' 'D' ready for showdown

The Baltimore Sun

The Tennessee Titans enter M&T; Bank Stadium today with an undefeated record and a former Ravens Super Bowl opponent at quarterback.

Still, something else has caught the attention of the Ravens' proud defense.

The Titans (4-0) have the NFL's most stubborn ground attack, running the ball more than any other team in the league. Tennessee has run the ball down the throat of defenses 144 times this season, an average of 36 rushes a game.

If the Titans are determined to stick to this hardened philosophy, this clash between former division rivals will become "personal," according to Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.

"When the coaches go into the game plan and say, 'We can run on this team,' they're telling you that they are basically going to out-physical the team," said Lewis, the leading tackler for the Ravens (2-1) and the NFL's top-ranked defense.

"And that's why it's always personal. Because anytime somebody buckles up their chin straps and says we're going to run the ball 30 or 40 times, then they're telling you that we feel that our offensive line can get to your defensive line and we can get to your linebackers."

Stopping the run has become the foundation of the Ravens' defense.

Since 1999, no defense has allowed fewer rushing yards than the Ravens'. They have allowed 87.6 rushing yards over that span, 5 fewer per game than the next-best run defense (the Pittsburgh Steelers').

Lewis attributes this decade of excellence to attitude. Whenever a new defender comes into the fold, Lewis first tells him, "There's something we don't do, and that's we don't let people run the ball."

Said Lewis: "It's kind of the thing that we all buy into from Day One. When the ball is snapped, everybody has to find the football."

Finding the football won't be hard against Tennessee.

The Titans run the ball 57.4 percent of the time. That means Kerry Collins, the quarterback who faced the Ravens in the 2001 Super Bowl, has had to throw the ball only 83 times this season.

Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher said it's a credit to an underrated offensive line - one that averages 6 feet 5, 305 pounds - that the Titans can stick to this game plan.

"They love to lay out opponents ... and they know this week in particular is going to be a huge challenge for us," Titans coach Jeff Fisher said. "But I'm going to wage a guess that they'll be up for it."

The Titans' rushing attack is two-pronged with Chris Johnson and LenDale White.

Johnson, the fastest rookie at the NFL combine, has averaged 5 yards a carry, which is fourth best among running backs with at least 60 carries.

White, a 235-pound power back, has scored five touchdowns, which is tied for most in the NFL.

"We know about both of them," Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said, "and they're going to know about us when this game's over."

The Ravens have swarmed running backs this season, not allowing one to gain more than 56 yards. The longest run given up has been 14 yards.

But the Ravens' domination extends beyond statistics. They punish running backs with their hard-hitting style.

Monday night, the Ravens knocked out two running backs. Steelers rookie running back Rashard Mendenhall's shoulder was broken by Lewis, and backup Carey Davis left with a sprained ankle.

"This defense is as physical as any defense that I've seen or been around," first-year Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Our front seven is as good as any front seven you're going to see. They're physical, strong guys. That's the kind of defense we want to be, and that's the kind of defense they've been for a long time."

The two threads over the past decade have been Ryan and Lewis.

Ryan, who previously coached the defensive line, has taught techniques to get off blocks that date to his father, Buddy, a former defensive coordinator. Lewis has remained the backbone of the defense even in his 13th season.

"I almost look at him like he could play forever," Ryan said of Lewis. "Most guys, there's no way they can maintain the level that he plays at. But he's an unusual person."

Besides Ryan and Lewis, the Ravens have maintained their success despite overhauling their lineup.

Instead of Tony Siragusa and Rob Burnett up front, the Ravens now have Haloti Ngata and Trevor Pryce. Instead of Jamie Sharper and Peter Boulware at linebacker, they have Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs.

"A culture has been established here," nose tackle Justin Bannan said. "There's a tradition, and you do whatever it takes to uphold it."


Today, 1 p.m.

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Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Titans

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