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In red zone, Ravens' defense has put up stop sign this season

Ravens linebackers Daryl Smith and Courtney Upshaw tackle Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams.
Ravens linebackers Daryl Smith and Courtney Upshaw tackle Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Ravens outside linebacker Pernell McPhee zeroed in on his target after lining up over the right guard and looping inside to his left to bust through the middle of the Atlanta Falcons' offense Sunday.

Once McPhee wrapped up besieged Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan with his right arm, he alertly popped the football out of Ryan's grasp with his left as outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil pounced on the fumble deep in Ravens' territory.

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The big play was emblematic of the kind of stout red-zone defense the Ravens' defense is becoming known for this season.

Heading into Sunday's game against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Ravens have emerged as the top-ranked red-zone defense in the NFL, allowing opponents to score touchdowns on just 36.4 percent (8 of 22) of their possessions inside the Ravens' 20-yard line.

That's a major reason why the Ravens have surrendered only 104 points — 14.9 per game — the fewest in the league.

"The main thing down in the red zone is execution, and it's a big sense of pride for the defense that we don't want to let the other team into the end zone," said Ravens rookie inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, who leads the defense with 60 tackles. "We just stay calm. You've got to have communication and smart guys on defense, especially in the back end. There's not much space, but there are so many things the offense can do running routes. It all comes back to communication, and we have that history of stopping people."

Inside the red zone, space is severely constricted and offenses tend to get creative. Quick-hitting passes, misdirection, jump balls and old-fashioned power football are the traditional ways to score.

None of those strategies have been particularly effective against the Ravens this season, nor were they last season, when the team ranked ninth in red-zone defense and 12th in scoring defense.

As the Ravens' defense continues to emerge as a stingy red-zone outfit, they're building a hard-nosed mentality about protecting their turf in close quarters.

"It's where you get the points, and, obviously, we don't want to let them score," said Dumervil, who leads the Ravens with seven sacks. "I don't like the phrase of [bend, don't break], whatever that's called. We kind of want to be steady throughout the whole field, but it's something where we can't allow the offense to score points.

"We have to keep it up. To whom much is given, much is expected. So, we had a good start, but we have to continue to go the whole season. That's the difference between being good and great. For me, playing defense is all about energy and having fun, flying to the ball. When those things happen, turnovers happen, big plays happen."

The reasons behind the Ravens' success in the red zone goes back to personnel, scheme and the mentality the defense has derived through years of playing together.

The Ravens have a large, active front seven headlined by outside linebackers Terrell Suggs, Dumervil and McPhee, big defensive linemen in Haloti Ngata and Brandon Williams, fast-reacting inside linebackers in Mosley and veteran Daryl Smith and a secondary that's physical and not susceptible to jump balls, especially imposing cornerback Jimmy Smith.

The Ravens have also played intelligently, maintaining gap integrity and lane discipline in run-stopping and pass coverage, and have avoided bunching up. They've already forced four turnovers in the red zone.

"Good communication, it starts with that," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "Whatever the call is down there, you can't have a mental mistake. When you have a mental mistake and break down in the red zone, it's usually a touchdown. Second of all, I think you have to be physical on defense because you can't allow them to run the ball in. That's always the No. 1 priority.

"And, three, I think you just have to have a mindset that you're not in a panic mode. It's just like when you have a sudden change. After a turnover or something, you can take two mindsets: You can either run in there or go in all upset because the ball was turned over or they had a big play, or you can go in there with the mindset that, 'Hey, we have to really hunker down and get it done.'"

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The last time the Ravens played the Bengals, they contained a typically explosive offense and held them to five field goals in the first half. The Bengals converted none of their two red-zone scoring opportunities, keeping the game close as the Ravens' defense prevented a potential blowout during an eventual 23-16 defeat. Wide receiver A.J. Green's 77-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter was the difference.

"You want to be good, period, but you don't ever want to give up points and you always try to limit their scoring," said Daryl Smith, who ranks second on the defense with 57 tackles. "We work on red-zone defense every week. We take a lot of pride in that.

"It's just guys coming together, understanding what we have to get done and playing together, trusting each other. There's still room for improvement. We've just got to continue to build on that and continue to grow together."

The Ravens rank 16th in total defense because they've given up an average of 345.9 yards per game. Big plays have been the problem, and Pees acknowledged that bothers him.

They've also surrendered a lot of yards in the second half of blowout victories when they've stopped trying to actively pressure the quarterback.

"I really feel like we're starting to get there," Pees said. "I think we would be there in that top-five group if we hadn't given up some big plays and yardage and some games that we just absolutely didn't need to give up the yardage in, not that you ever want to give up any. But we just gave up some plays early on that hurt you statistically. It's not about that. It's about playing as well as we can play. And I do think that we're playing at that caliber.

"You can't sit back and say, 'OK, well, we have a good red zone team.' Right now we're playing well in the red zone, but we have to continue to do that."

It's been nine years since the Ravens led the NFL in scoring defense during the 2006 season when Rex Ryan was their defensive coordinator. The only other time the Ravens led the NFL in scoring defense was during their Super Bowl XXXV championship season in 2000, when they established the league record for fewest points (165) allowed in a season.

"We're doing some good things," Dumervil said. "There's a lot of football left. We're not going to get too excited about what we're doing right now. We just have to stay hungry, continue to work, and we have a lot to prove this year."

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