Baltimore Sun columnist Mike Preston is not pleased with the play of the Ravens despite remaining undefeated in a 19-17 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
The Ravens have played only three games this season, but it's safe to conclude that the defensive front seven will have to carry this team in 2016.
Defenses are usually ahead of offenses in the first quarter of the season, and the Ravens' front seven is young and hungry. They fly to the football. They make plays.
They are for real.
"I think we're still coming into our own," Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We still have a lot of young guys, despite this year being Year 14 for me."
No one is getting carried away with the front seven because the Ravens have beaten Buffalo, Cleveland and Jacksonville to open the season. The Ravens held Jacksonville to 216 yards of total offense Sunday in a 19-17 win, and the Jaguars were just as much a part of the victory as the Ravens.
They were missing two starting offensive linemen in left tackle Kelvin Beachum and center Brandon Linder. They have a quarterback in Blake Bortles whose picture is right next to the word "erratic" in the dictionary. This league has become so awful that a team such as the Ravens can commit three turnovers and still win on the road.
But while there hasn't been any improvement in the Ravens' offense, especially in the running game, this defense is getting better. Some things are starting to come together on the defensive line, and their linebackers are playing well without Suggs performing at a Pro Bowl-level and without fellow outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil playing at all.
With the game on the line, the Ravens held Jacksonville to thee points on three series that started inside the Ravens 39-yard line. With 3:06 left in the game, Ravens defensive lineman Brent Urban blocked a 52-yard field goal attempt by Jason Myers to prevent the Jaguars from grabbing a 4-point lead.
Instead, the Ravens went 22 yards in eight plays to set up a 22-yard game-winning field goal by Justin Tucker.
"I just dove across the air and tried to get my hand in between the goal posts and the ball," Urban said of his block.
That's his role. The 6-foot-7 Urban is used mostly as a third-down pass rusher, but also as a field goal blocker because of his height and long arms.
On Sunday, the Ravens used a five-man rotation on the defensive line with reserves Urban and Michael Pierce mixing in with starting defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, nose guard Brandon Williams and end Lawrence Guy. They can all play any position, but Jernigan is the penetrator, the player with the lethal first step off the snap of the ball.
He had one sack and was credited with knocking down two passes even though Bortles threw one of those misfired passes into his helmet.
"Sometimes you just have to recognize the formation, make a step, get up field and make the running back change direction," Jernigan said. "I know the guys behind got my back to make the tackle."
Pierce usually subs in for Williams, but there were times Sunday when the two played alongside one another. On one side there was the 339-pound Pierce and on the other was the 340 pound Williams.
The Ravens haven't had this much quality beef up front since Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams in 2000. No wonder the Jaguars had only 48 yards rushing.
And then there is the unheralded Guy, who had one sack and one quarterback hurry.
"We used every defensive lineman that was activated today," Guy said. "We were able to keep everybody fresh, and all of our guys can play as a starter. It's a good rotation, and we didn't pay attention to the weather. We just went out and played football."
Because of their ability to tie up two blockers, Williams and Pierce have a big effect on the linebackers, especially C.J. Mosley in the middle. After a rough start in the opener against Buffalo, Mosley has played well running sideline to sideline. More importantly, he is better in pass coverage than a year ago, when he played on the weak side and teams isolated quicker receivers with him.
Mosley made a one-handed interception late in the first quarter against Jacksonville. The played show great athleticism but what was more impressive was the depth on his drop. He was 27 yards back from the line of scrimmage when he snagged the ball.
Mosley has something to prove. He is now running the defense, filling in for departed veteran Daryl Smith, and the Ravens have two new starting linebackers in Zachary Orr and Albert McClellan. McClellan has had opportunities to start before, but didn't hold the position.
Orr played well in the preseason a year ago, but seemed to disappear once the regular season started. With McClellan playing well and the Ravens using Za'Darius Smith and Kamalei Correa to spell Suggs at times, the Ravens tired out Jacksonville.
A stout defensive front is the Ravens' identity is as a franchise. And all of these players know about the tradition in Baltimore.
"This is what you sign up for," Jernigan said. "It doesn't matter what is going on around you. It doesn't matter how many times you are out on the field. When you play for this organization, you figure out a way to win football games. You play great defense."
The biggest difference from last year is that the Ravens are getting consistent pressure. Bortles made some plays Sunday because of his scrambling ability, but the Ravens often forced him out of the pocket.
They also didn't quit. Time and time again, they had to go back onto the field following a turnover by the Ravens' offense.
"When we go out there, we play hard every play, no matter what we do; we strive to make the big play, get after the quarterback or shut down the run," Guy said. "When we turn it over, we want to get the ball back and give it to our offense again. That's Raven football."
It's necessary in order for the Ravens to play winning football. Right now, the Ravens' offense have no rhythm. Flacco is out of sync, and can go from setting a team record for completions in the first half to becoming a Bortles facsimile in the second. The only consistent receiver Sunday was Steve Smith. The Ravens have no running game because they can't control the line of scrimmage, and they don't have a dynamic back that can accelerate through holes.
The secondary is still suspect, even though safety Eric Weddle is playing well. The only groups that are consistent are the kickers and the defensive front.
There is still a question of how good this group can become, but at least it gets better every week. The front seven carried the Ravens on Sunday, and that's going to be the case for the rest of the year.