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Preston: With another test looming, Ravens defense trying to regain old form

The Ravens’ defensive players are trying to forget last week’s loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, but the memories will be in front of them Sunday when they host the unbeaten Denver Broncos at M&T Bank Stadium.

Cincinnati and Denver are very similar. Both offenses rely on a quick, three-step passing game. Both teams have two dominant running backs, big-play, skilled receivers and quarterbacks that are agile enough to extend plays outside the pocket.

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In the embarrassing 11-point loss to the Bengals, the Ravens allowed 373 yards and 34 points. They are looking to re-energize at home and regain some pride in a defense that has traditionally been tough for nearly 20 years.

There is a term for it.

“The key is just getting back to Ravens football, doing what we do,” defensive tackle Brandon Williams said. “Also, just kind of getting out there and going at it — just going and giving everything we’ve got. That’s what we have to do.”

In Denver, the Ravens face the NFL’s No. 4 ranked offense (427.5 yards per game), which is No. 2 in rushing (157 yards per game) and No. 13 in passing (270.5 yards per game). The Ravens will also be without two starters, including top cornerback Jimmy Smith (league suspension) and defensive tackle/end Willie Henry (hernia). Star middle linebacker C.J. Mosely (knee) will likely miss the game and cornerback Maurice Canady (thigh) was recently put on injured reserve.

“The game plan is still the same,” cornerback Brandon Carr said. “We can’t wait for Jimmy to get back and he is chomping at the bit to get out on the field. But as far as us out there now, we will continue to do what we do best, and that’s get after the ball and try to make plays.”

If the Ravens are going to play “Ravens football,” that means stopping the run first. The Broncos have two good rookie running backs in Phillip Lindsay (29 carries for 178 yards) and Royce Freeman (23 for 99).

They have a successful downhill running game built by former Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who now works in Denver’s front office. It’s a one-cut, get upfield style. In the case of Lindsay, it’s one cut and goodbye. The kid can fly.

“Lindsay’s a rocket. I think he runs a 4.3 [40-yard dash],” Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said. “So you always have to be aware. Your antennas go up when he’s in the game. And the other kid’s [Freeman] a really good running back. He just doesn’t have 4.3 speed. But you can see why they drafted him and why they signed Lindsay as an undrafted free agent because he has the skill set that jumps out at you.”

To contain the running game, the Ravens are going to need strong games from Williams, fellow tackles Michael Pierce and Chris Wormley and end Brent Urban. Outside linebacker Matthew Judon needs to control the edge and keep Lindsay from turning the corner.

It will be interesting to see how the Ravens attack Denver quarterback Case Keenum, who has completed 44 of 74 passes for 551 yards with three touchdowns and four interceptions. Like Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton, Keenum relies on timing. The Ravens failed to sack Dalton last week, though they knocked down several passes at the line of scrimmage.

The Ravens might want to press and physically challenge the Broncos more at the line of scrimmage. They match up well with receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas. Carr is big enough to slow Thomas, and Marlon Humphrey can match speed with Sanders, who is more of a downfield threat.

When asked if the Ravens might play more press coverage, Martindale said: “Yes. We’ll do press coverage. We’ll do off coverage. We’re going to continue to rolodex our coverages to give the quarterbacks different looks, but we’ll do that, yes.”

The lack of contact at the line of scrimmage allowed Bengals receivers to run to soft spots in the Ravens’ zone defense.

“Some of it has to do with coverage,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “We opened up a little bit, opened up some of the receivers a little bit in our zone coverages more than we wanted to, and gave him some quick throws that allowed him to get the ball out quickly. We want to try to force those to be tipped balls, interceptions, or he has to hold the ball and take the sack. So, the coverage and the pass rush go hand in hand.

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“They want to get the ball out quick, on time, on rhythm and to complete passes. They combine that with a really good running game. I think they do a good job of scheming. They’re kind of based … They have packages that they put together, not as much RPO [run-pass option], not as much of the read-option, though it’s in there.”

This will be the second tough challenge for the Ravens defense in as many weeks. Despite the strong preseason, it was hard to determine if the Ravens were as good as their reputation. They were stellar in the first week against the Buffalo Bills, but below average against the Bengals.

Overall, the Ravens are still ranked No. 2 in total defense but just 15th against the run. Come Sunday, we’ll find out if they have rebounded or were overrated.

“Ravens football” could be an old term or still in style.

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