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Ravens' stingy pass defense faces Broncos top-flight passing offense

Once a question mark, the Ravens' pass defense currently ranks as the stingiest in the NFL. The accolades have begun pouring in, but at least one member of the secondary said he didn't mind the doubts.

"I'm happy for all of the criticism we got this offseason because I feel like guys stepped up and felt like we had to silence some people," cornerback Fabian Washington said Wedensday. "But we want people to just keep talking because it's motivation. Some people go in the tank off of stuff like that, and others rise up and use it as motivation. I think that's what we've done thus far."

The unit's top ranking will get its first test this week, but not in the form of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (that's next week), the Houston Texans' Matt Schaub (that's Dec. 13) nor the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees (that's the week after).

The Denver Broncos' Kyle Orton leads the league in passing yards through the first four weeks of the season, and he is the only quarterback to have reached the 1,400-yard plateau.

His 1,419 yards are the second-most in NFL history in the first four games, trailing only Kurt Warner who passed for 1,557 yards for the St. Louis Rams in 2000. Not surprisingly, the Broncos — who visit M&T Bank Stadium Sunday — also boast the league's most prolific passing attack.

Orton, who has thrown for more than 300 yards in each of his last three contests, presents the Ravens with their most intriguing challenge thus far.

"We've said it before: We've got confidence in all our guys," coach John Harbaugh said. "But that's going to be a big challenge for us. Pass defense is everybody. It's the pressure, it's the back-end, it's a team effort."

Orton is on pace to surpass the career year he enjoyed in 2009 when he set career bests in completions (336), passing yards (3,802), touchdowns (21) and passer rating (86.8).

Despite the organization's decision to acquire Brady Quinn from the Cleveland Browns and select Tim Tebow in the first round this past April, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound quarterback is tied for second in the NFL in completions (118), fifth in completion percentage (67.4), and tied for eighth in touchdowns (six) and passer rating (96.3).

Ravens free safety Tom Zbikowski can remember playing against Orton when Zbikowski and Notre Dame met Orton and Purdue several years ago.

"I played him in college, and honestly, he was the best quarterback I faced," said Zbikowski, who also played against Mark Sanchez, Chad Henne and Troy Smith in college. "He's the player he was then. It's hard to get interceptions against him. He's got timing, he knows the offense, he's got a quick release, and he's got a strong arm. A very good quarterback."

Orton has thrived despite the departure of Pro Bowl wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who was shipped to the Miami Dolphins. In Marshall's place, Brandon Lloyd ranks second in the NFL in yards (454), Eddie Royal is tied with Lloyd for ninth in the league in catches (25), and Jabar Gaffney has also registered 22 receptions.

The lack of a bona fide No. 1 receiver might be anathema in some NFL circles, but Orton said he has confidence in the team's receiving corps.

"I really like my receivers," he said during a teleconference with Baltimore media Wednesday. "We've got a good group, guys that can really do a lot of things. Everyone of them, when their number has been called, they've been making big plays for us."

Orton credits a second season in head coach Josh McDaniels' offensive system as a foundation for his success. Under McDaniels, the Patriots scored an NFL-record 75 touchdowns and 589 points in 2008.

"I think Kyle just has such a great command of our offense," McDaniels said during a conference call. "We don't really stay the same from one week to the next, and that's not an easy thing to transition to. If you're a quarterback that likes to do the same things over and over again, then our system's probably not great. But Kyle has certainly worked really hard this offseason in training camp and this season to make sure that he's prepared as well as he can possibly be. He has great command of what we're doing. I feel very comfortable with his ability to execute our entire offense, and he's been very effective for us so far."

One of the few criticisms of the Broncos' aerial attack is that the running game has stalled. The rush offense is ranked 32nd in the NFL, and its 2.2 yards-per-carry average is also last.

A one-dimensional offense plays into the hands of the Ravens defense, which handcuffed Orton to just 152 yards and zero touchdowns in a Ravens' 30-7 rout on Nov. 1. But outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said he would understand if Denver leaned on its passing game Sunday.

"They're throwing the ball so well that it's probably why they're not having much success running," he said. "They're slinging it all over the place, and they can always revert back to the run. They were running the ball pretty good last year, so we know they've got that in their package. So it's something that we have to be ready for, but if they're throwing the ball all over the place, why change it?"

So which top-ranked unit will concede Sunday? No one is sure, but Washington said the defense is eager to prove its mettle.

"We're ready for the challenge," he said. "I feel like they are going to challenge us because they've got four really good receivers, but I think we have five very good corners. So l think we match up well with them. But we'll see what's their game plan on Sunday."

edward.lee@baltsun.com

A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of Josh McDaniels. The Sun regrets the error.

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