Ravens putting it all together on defense

With five sacks again this week, the Baltimore Ravens defense is reaching another level.

The Ravens could be on the brink of something special.

They trounced the Atlanta Falcons 29-7 Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, one week after crushing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 48-17. That might sound impressive, except both teams play in the NFC South, the worst division in the NFL.

But it's early in the season, so one doesn't necessarily just look at points, wins and losses. Consistency and improvement are vital as well.

Over the past two weeks, the Ravens have gotten better, especially on defense. And the Ravens have a chance to prove they are serious contenders in the next three weeks with two straight road games against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, and then a home game against worthless Tennessee.

It's an opportunity to show they have become a top team again, or that they are just an average team that can beat up on the lousy ones.

"This is a special team," said Ravens running back Justin Forsett. "This atmosphere is different from any place I've ever been, and the sky is the limit for us. Man, offense, defense, special teams, I think we're clicking right now."

The offense has been clicking, but it was the defense that was always a concern. Since the first game of the season, the Ravens have had a bend-but-don't-break mentality.

Translation: They scheme well enough to hide weaknesses inside their own 20-yard line.

But that might not be the case anymore.

No one took the Ravens seriously after they shut down Tampa Bay, but the showing against Atlanta was strong. Before Sunday's game, the Falcons were ranked No. 6 in the NFL in points (27.3 per game), No. 3 in total yards (410) and passing (306.8), and they had allowed 10 sacks.

They left Baltimore Sunday night with just 228 yards passing, seven points, 254 yards of total offense and they gave up five sacks. The Ravens stopped them twice in fourth-down situations and didn't yield a point after three Ravens turnovers.

Remember folks, we're talking about quarterback Matt Ryan and receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones.

This was a thorough butt whipping.

"I think we have just been building," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh. "I think we have been putting one brick on top of the other and going through a process and trying to get better every single day. And when you do that you can move down the road and improve. And our guys take it seriously."

It's not just physical dominance, but scheme as well. Outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil have been outstanding the past two weeks, and they were relentless going after Ryan as Dumervil finished with two sacks and three quarterback hits, and Suggs with one sack and two hits.

But here's where the Ravens have even more potential: About three weeks ago, they moved outside linebacker Pernell McPhee to nose guard on passing situations and he had two sacks against Atlanta. With rookie Timmy Jernigan now back from a knee injury, the Ravens should be able to bring endless pressure.

That's only with the front four. Against Atlanta, the Ravens blitzed often as well, rushing six players at times.

"I thought we would get screened to death and they would get guys in open space to slow down our pass rush, so it would all come down to tackling," said Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees. "I think we played a little bit better on the back end covering because we tried to protect some guys a little bit [earlier in the season] and play a lot of zone pressures.

The development time appears to have ended. Not only did the Ravens hit Atlanta with an assortment of blitz and pressure packages, but the Ravens also used some new coverages in the secondary.

At one time, the Ravens had safety Will Hill lined up on a wide receiver and cornerback Jimmy Smith playing safety in two-deep coverage. Pees was dialing up packages like he was a mad scientist in a laboratory.

"We have gotten to the point where we've got to pressure, mix it up and put a little man on it," Pees said about his coverages in the secondary. "Teams have been able to hold the ball just a hair longer and we've been able to get there.

"We rolled out a few," Pees said, laughing about new wrinkles he threw at Atlanta. "I do stay up late at night."

Actually, it seems that the Ravens' defense gets off to a slow start every year, especially in the secondary. But there didn't appear to be any confusion Sunday. On passing situations, rookie Terrence Brooks was usually in the game at free safety while Pees rotated Hill, Matt Elam and Darian Stewart at the other safety position even though Elam played more in running situations.

With Lardarius Webb back in the lineup after missing the first three games with a back injury, the Ravens now have two corners in Webb and Smith who can play man to man.

There is no longer the fear of getting burned by blitzing.

"The thing is you do a lot of studying during the offseason," Pees said. "We kind of put in new stuff and when you run that stuff, it probably takes the guys a few times to see it before they really adjust. The more they play, the more confidence we all have."

The Ravens might be ready to go on a roll. But we've seen this at other times during the season, and then watched the dominance disappear against the Bengals and Indianapolis Colts, their only two losses of the season.

Against Cincinnati, Pees said he had never seen so many different offensive plays in one game. But if the Ravens can continue to play strong defense and run the ball, they have the formula for success.

But it has to kick into another phase next week in Cincinnati.

"Meaningful at Week 7," Harbaugh said. "So, it's good to be there, in that situation, at this time. But, you have to build on it, you have to keep getting better. We're not a good enough team to do the things that we want to do right now, so we have to keep improving. But, huge game this week. Our eyes are on the horizon. We're headed to Cincinnati. It's a very, very tough place to play. They're a very, very good football team. We know each other inside and out, and we're looking forward to the opportunity."

Not just to win, but finally beat a quality team.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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