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Improved Ravens defense finally faces a challenge against high-powered Raiders offense

Baltimore Sun Ravens' editor Mark Selig offers his prediction for Sunday's matchup between the Ravens and the Oakland Raiders at M&T Bank stadium. (Baltimore Sun video)

On Sunday, the Ravens will finally play against a top offensive team when they host the Oakland Raiders at M&T Bank Stadium.

That in itself is a game worth watching because in the previous three weeks, the Ravens played teams that struggled offensively and lacked talent at the skill positions. With the Raiders, the Ravens will face Derek Carr, one of the top 10 rated quarterbacks in the NFL.

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The Raiders have two quality receivers in Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper, and several good running backs that make up the No. 2 rushing attack in the league.

Finally, a challenge.

"We are going to have our hands full," Ravens inside linebacker Zachary Orr said. "What we always try to do each and every week is no matter what or who our opponent is, we want to get better. We just have to be one percent better than our opponent.

"The Raiders, they have a great offense, starting with their quarterback. They have a great offensive line, a good three-headed trio at running back, and then you know what they have on the outside at receiver. It is going to take us to be disciplined. We have to play fundamental football, just like each and every week, and continue to run to the ball. I think we will be OK."

But can the Ravens dominate?

It's true that the Ravens have played some of the league's worst teams to open the season, but they have showed much progress from last year, especially from the first half of that season. They didn't overhaul the system, but streamlined it enough to where they could be as good as their current statistics.

The Ravens are ranked No. 2 in overall defense. They are No. 8 against the rush, allowing only 86 yards per game, and No. 3 against the pass, allowing 168.3 yards per game. It's hard to point out one major reason for the success because there are about three or four.

First of all, the Ravens modified their pass coverages and decreased the number of checks or adjustments based on the other team's formations. According to coach John Harbaugh, some of the stuff the Ravens were using had been around since Rex Ryan and Chuck Pagano were the defensive coordinators.

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If that's the case, some of it had been around since the team moved to Baltimore in 1996 because Ryan stole some of his playbook from Marvin Lewis, the team's first defensive coordinator.

"Sometimes the less you have to think, the more efficient you are," Harbaugh said. "Over the years, things have been added but rarely have things been taken out. We felt there were too many layers of adjustments. Once our guys saw and learned what we were doing, I think they were excited."

It's easy to see the difference on the field. A year ago, the Ravens botched a lot of coverages. We're not talking about where a player gets beat one on one, but sometimes cornerbacks weren't even in the same zip code with receivers.

Ravens linebackers, who were tortured repeatedly by tight ends last year, have gotten good depth in their drops in zone defense, and few teams have completed passes over the heads and in front of the secondary. The concepts are still the same as a year ago, but the game has been simplified.

"There is less checking in and out of situations," said Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley, who has 14 tackles and two interceptions. "We're playing fast and flying to the football. You don't think as much; you just go play. And once you know where your other guys are, you develop that trust as far as pass coverage."

Mosley was alluding to the communication. The Ravens got better at it in the offseason by bringing in the highly respected Leslie Frazier as secondary coach. In addition, they signed veteran safety Eric Weddle, who has become the team's quarterback in the defensive backfield.

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"He is constantly talking to us," outside linebacker Albert McClellan said. "Not just to the DBs, but to the linebackers as well."

McClellan is one of the multipositional players you're seeing more and more in the NFL. Like Orr, he can play inside or outside linebacker. Both Weddle and backup strong safety Anthony Levine Sr. can double as linebackers in certain situations, and defensive end Lawrence Guy can play any position on the line, as can outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith.

"We have a lot of hybrid guys playing and running around, and it seems like that is what is going on around the league," McClellan said. "We have outside linebackers who can play defensive end rushing the passer on certain downs and it allows us to create more packages. It helps us because sometimes other teams can't determine what we're doing with certain personnel."

The Ravens also got younger in the front seven. They didn't re-sign veteran starters Daryl Smith, a middle linebacker, and Chris Canty, a defensive end. Instead, they moved Mosley inside and have worked Orr and McClellan into a linebacker rotation. They have other youngsters playing prominent roles like defensive linemen Brandon Williams, Timmy Jernigan, Michael Pierce and Za'Darius Smith.

So far, the group has played well, but it will be different Sunday. Carr, a third-year player, had his breakout game last season against the Ravens, throwing for 351 yards in a 37-33 Raiders victory.

The Raiders are averaging 436 yards per game, including 148.3 rushing. Oakland has the worst defense in the NFL, so it's safe to believe the Ravens will score some points. It comes down to whether the Ravens can slow down the Raiders offense and not allow this game to turn into a scoring marathon.

"You hear the numbers; there is no shying away from that," Orr said. "They are definitely top two or top three in the league, offensively. It will be a great challenge to see where we stack up. Statistically, we are one of the top defenses in the league right now. It will be a great battle."

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