After watching his New York Jets' offense get steam rolled in a 34-17 loss Sunday night, Rex Ryan paid the Ravens' defense the ultimate compliment, saying the group reminded him of the 2000 and 2006 units that he helped coach.
The Ravens' 2000 defense set the NFL record for allowing the fewest points scored, and, of course, found Super Bowl glory. Their 2006 model finished the season as the league's No.1 ranked defense, a franchise first.
The current unit must go a long way to garner such recognition, but the dizzying rate it is forcing turnovers and converting them into touchdowns has brought back pleasant memories of the defense's dominant past.
"It's about carrying on tradition, you know?," said inside linebacker Jameel McClain, who had one of the Ravens' franchise-record three defensive touchdowns Sunday night, picking up a loose ball after Ed Reed's sack and strip of Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and returning it six yards into the end zone.
"You don't step into a position like this half way. You know everything that this defense has done, and you know what this organization is about. … We are just going out there [to] perform, and to be a part of something great. Where can it go in the future? Our goal is to get better every day and become consistent players."
As the Ravens start their bye week and begin preparations for another significant AFC game, next Sunday versus the Houston Texans, there are still plenty of questions about the team's offensive identity and the play of quarterback Joe Flacco, who completed just 10-of-31 passes Sunday and committed two turnovers. The team still has significant injury concerns with guard Ben Grubbs, wide receiver Lee Evans and rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith among the players who remain out of action.
But any of the team's deficiencies so far have been mostly minimized by first-year defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano's blitz-happy group, which has forced a league-best 14 turnovers and made life miserable for opposing quarterbacks. The Ravens' defense has four touchdowns in its last five quarters, one more than the Jacksonville Jaguars have scored all season. The Ravens, by the way, play the Jaguars on Oct.24.
"We're developing that killer instinct. We have to," said Reed who had two interceptions in the Ravens' 35-7 season-opening victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. "But it's a long season, and we've just got to keep building on that and continue to get turnovers. A good defense definitely gets turnovers. I would think that to be a playoff contender, you've got to continue to get those turnovers, and that just makes team prepare for that even more so — holding onto the ball and being a little cautious with what they're doing. So we've just got to continue to build on it."
Through four weeks, the Ravens trail only the Tennessee Titans for fewest points allowed at 14.3 per game. They are third in the NFL in rushing defense (72.5 yards ), and tied for seventh in pass defense (212). They are third in overall yards surrendered (284.5).
But it would be hard to imagine any defense playing better than the Ravens did in smothering the Jets and their young quarterback Sunday. Overall, they allowed just 150 yards, the ninth fewest in Ravens' history, and 38 rushing yards, the 12th fewest in team history. Both were lows for the Jets under Ryan.
Sanchez went just 11-for-35 for 119 yards, threw one interception, which was returned 73 yards for a touchdown by Lardarius Webb, and fumbled four times, losing three of them. His 31.4 percent completion percentage was the worst ever for a Jets quarterback with at least 35 passing attempts in a game, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
"We've had a lot of big games here … but that was as good of a defensive performance as I've been a part of," said linebacker Jarret Johnson, who also scored a touchdown after Haloti Ngata slammed into Sanchez and separated him from the ball. "After watching the film and seeing it, there was some huge individual efforts, big plays all over the place. Extremely physical."
Coach John Harbaugh, who said after the game that it was the most amazing defensive performance that he's ever seen, didn't backtrack from that Monday.
"Those guys played last night just the way you want to see them play," Harbaugh said. "It was fast, it was aggressive, it was physical. It was with abandon yet it was with great discipline and attention to detail. To me, those are the things that make for a great defense."
Four games is certainly not a long enough stretch to make any significant conclusions about where the current defense would rate in the franchise's proud defensive hierarchy. The NFL's offensive-friendly rule changes and the shifting by so many teams to a downfield passing philosophy are added factors that make such comparisons difficult to make. But by any measure, this year's defense is off to a strong start.
The current Ravens, who have a much younger group than most of the other notable Ravens' defenses, have given up more points, yards and first downs than the 2000 and 2006 teams did through four games. However, the current Ravens have also forced more turnovers, and are on pace to finish with 56 take-aways. The franchise record is 49, set by the 2000 Ravens.
"We have an unbelievable respect for those guys. When you talk about the Ravens defense and the history it has, it all started with those guys," said Johnson when asked if he's talked with middle linebacker Ray Lewis about the 2000 defense. "They set the bar and they set it as high as you can set it. We're trying to match that, we're trying to beat that. It's tough to do. They had a lot of very good veteran players. They had some extremely physical guys and they had a great scheme to go along with it. You never set out to match anybody, you want to be your own self. But if we play anywhere near those guys, we're going to be a good defense."
The defining characteristic of this year's defense has been aggressiveness. Unlike his predecessor Greg Mattison, who was a little more conservative and had mixed results, Pagano has shown a willingness to send anybody and everybody at the quarterback.
That was evident Sunday when the Ravens blitzed at least one defensive back on 13 of quarterback Sanchez's 38 drop backs, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The aggressive style has resulted in 11 sacks — the Ravens had a franchise low 27 last year — and many more hits on the quarterback (26 in their three victories). They've also forced eight of their 14 turnovers on first down.
"He's not afraid of anything," Lewis said of Pagano.
Another change this year has been a reliance on getting more players involved on the defensive end. Mostly by necessity because of a rash of injuries, the Ravens have mixed it up in the secondary. They've also gotten valuable snaps for players like Arthur Jones, Paul Kruger, Pernell McPhee and Brendon Ayanbadejo. Even Johnson has been coming off the field in certain situations.
"We do have more depth. We do have more pass rushers. We do have more run stuffers," Harbaugh said. "I think the guys who were young last year have kind of moved into those roles. We just have a rookie class that is ready to play and that's been a big plus for us. The fresher you are out there, obviously the faster you can play. It's good to play all the guys. You get maybe 21 or 22 defensive players and it's good to play them all."
The dominant play of the Ravens' defense has led to some comparisons between the current unit, and the defenses from 2000, and 2006. The Super Bowl-winning 2000 defense set an NFL record for allowing the fewest points. The 2006 unit finished the season ranked No.1 overall in the league, a franchise first. Here is a look at the numbers of all three through four games.