FEEL THE RUSH

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was one thing to sack the Kansas City Chiefs' Brodie Croyle three times in a closer-than-expected opening-day victory for the Ravens.

But it'll be another issue to put San Diego's Pro Bowl quarterback, Philip Rivers, on his back in Sunday's classic confrontation between the Ravens' fierce defense and the Chargers' electric offense.

In fact, it's the challenge of the week.

The last time the Ravens faced Rivers - Nov. 25, 2007 - he carved them up for three touchdowns, 249 passing yards and a 32-14 romp. Never sacked, Rivers had free rein to bomb the Ravens' beleaguered secondary.

Getting a pass rush on Rivers will be paramount for the Ravens' defense.

"Anytime you play against a good quarterback, the pass rush is critical," linebackers coach Vic Fangio said. "Whether you're rushing three, four, five or six, the pass rush has to disrupt the passing game's rhythm, and it's always good to hit him. We need to hit this guy. We need to contain [him], too."

How the Ravens attack Rivers might turn out to be the story of the game. They mostly played a 4-3 look on defense against the Chiefs and blitzed sparingly. The Chargers could be vulnerable up the middle, where new center Scott Mruczkowski - replacing injured Nick Hardwick - will get a heavy dose of defensive tackles Haloti Ngata and Kelly Gregg. Consider that right guard Louis Vasquez is questionable, and you have the makings of a jailbreak.

"We have to get our pressure with our four-man front," defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. "We missed two sacks with a four-man rush the last game. Any chance you have to hit [Rivers] and to be around him, we've got to do that."

The Ravens' pass rush starts with Terrell Suggs, the highest-paid linebacker in the NFL, but it has strong complementary rushers. Strong-side linebacker Jarret Johnson posted a career-high five sacks a year ago and got two more Sunday. Even though Ngata only had one sack in 2008, he is a major force up the middle.

Ray Lewis is always a threat, and then there are second-year players Tavares Gooden and Jameel McClain.

Johnson worked through the offseason to improve his technique and performance in the pass rush.

"I think he's accomplished that, and I think we'll see more of that as the season wears on," Fangio said. "He's just done a better job of understanding how to be a better pass rusher and what goes into that, the more minute details of it."

Johnson, who played nose guard at Alabama before becoming a linebacker in Baltimore, became more of a playmaker last season.

"I think my [pursuit] angle is a lot better," he said. "I used to run up the field a lot. I think I've tightened my angle down and worked on my hands. The other thing is playing within the scheme. If they give you an opportunity to be part of a blitz, to be part of a stunt, if you take advantage, you can make some plays on this defense."

Gooden, a third-round draft pick in 2008, emerged as a potential blitzer in the preseason but injured his right knee in the opener. He expects to play. If he can't go, McClain, who went undrafted a year ago, assures there will be no dropoff.

The Ravens told McClain to learn to play middle linebacker in the offseason, but he's expected to know all three linebacking positions. Last week, he got a dozen snaps on the weak side when he replaced Gooden, and even had to replace Brendon Ayanbadejo in the team's sub-package at one point.

"We feel good about Jameel going in to play anywhere out there," Fangio said. "Right from the first day of the offseason, our main charge with him was to become a good [middle] linebacker, and he's done a really nice job of learning that position. ... He's one of the rare guys in the NFL right now who has to know all three positions, and he's done a good job of picking that up."

Gooden's first game as a starter was limited to 10 snaps because the Ravens played a lot in their sub-package.

"What I liked about [Gooden's] play last week was he kept improving with every play," Fangio said. "I think he may have had a little first-game starting jitters ... but he was improving as the game wore on. So we expect him to carry that over to this week."

With Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates (six catches, two touchdowns in 2007 against the Ravens) a major target downfield, getting to Rivers will be crucial Sunday.

"He's got a good pocket presence," Fangio said of Rivers. "He'll step up, he'll slide outside of contain. So he's a guy we've got to get penned up. We've got to have a good, even rush against him."

Ravens news online

At baltimoresun.com/ravens , we'll be open all weekend to feed your hunger for Ravens news.

Today

* Mike Preston's matchups to watch. * Jamison Hensley's scouting report for the game.

Sunday

* Ken Murray will blog before, during and after the game. * Updates from Qualcomm Stadium, including who's playing Sunday and who's not. * Instant analysis from reporters and columnists.

RAVENS @CHARGERS

Sunday, 4:15 p.m.

TV: Ch. 13

Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

* Line: Chargers by 3

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