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Mike Preston: It's only preseason, but Ravens' pass rush looks much improved

During the off season, a major focus of the Ravens was to improve their pass rush. So far, so good.

One area that might have frustrated the Ravens more than their inability to cover Steelers receivers last year was their lack of a consistent pass rush.

So when general manager Ozzie Newsome went into the offseason he wanted to add a couple of young pass rushers and put more pressure on elite quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady.

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The Ravens are just two games into the preseason and they have already shown improvement — and not just from outside linebackers Terrell Suggs, Matthew Judon, Za'Darius Smith and Tyus Bowser.

Defensive tackles Michael Pierce and Brandon Williams are collapsing the pocket and that's a major step in putting pressure on the quarterback. The Ravens pass rush is more complete.

"I think it has been good. It could be better," said defensive coordinator Dean Pees in evaluating the pass rush. "What I have really been pleased with, actually, is kind of the push up the pocket from the big guys in a couple of these games with Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce and some of those guys

"You are not necessarily seeing sacks, but you are seeing a good push on the quarterback, which is making him get rid of it early, and also sometimes have to come over the top a little more than what he wants and maybe not being able to complete it. I think it has been good. It has not been great, but it has been good.

The defense has five sacks and numerous pressures this preseason.

A year ago the Ravens finished with 31 sacks but the pressure wasn't consistent. Suggs led the team with eight sacks, but the 15-year veteran appeared tired at the end of the season.

Defensive end Timmy Jernigan had five and Judon finished with four but seldom did they come through in crunch time.

Pees tried a number of different looks and pressures but the problem was two-fold. Exotic blitzes leave cornerbacks isolated one-on-one and the Ravens corners weren't physical enough to press receivers at the line of scrimmage.

So the Ravens either had to gamble or stay somewhat basic. Their 8-8 final record tells the story. But if Williams and Pierce continue to dominate inside that won't allow quarterbacks to take that one or two steps up into the pocket to pass. The Ravens also have 6-feet-7 Brent Urban at end and those long arms should knock down several passes.

In addition, Suggs surprised the coaching staff by fully committing to offseason workouts and he has played well in the preseason. Judon, who played rush outside linebacker last season, has moved to the strong side. He should be a good complement to Suggs because he is faster and stronger than a year ago and his game is more complete even though he still should be an effective pass rusher.

Bowser, the team's second-round pick out of Houston, has played well in preseason and has been a consistent pass-rushing threat. Two players who need to step up are Smith, a third-year player, and rookie outside linebacker Tim Williams, the team's third-round pick out of Alabama.

Williams had practiced well but it hasn't transferred to games. The Ravens want him to be the same force he was at Alabama when he was considered the second best pass rusher in college football.

"Well, I think what he has to offer is exactly what we drafted -- a guy coming off the edge. He has a good pass rush. I think the run game is a little different than what they're used to seeing in college," Pees said of Williams. "It is almost like playing as an outside 'backer for us. It is a little different. But as far as pass rush, pass rush is pass rush. I do not care whether it is college or whether it is pro.

"Like I said, I think he is what we drafted. I am pleased with him. He is like all the rookies. They all have to learn the system and learn the scheme, and that takes a little while. But as far as when you are just out there and he just gets to go, I think he can some time be special."

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This just isn't coach speak. Cornerback Jimmy Smith agrees with Pees about Williams.

"You have seen him. You have seen him flash," Smith told reporters after Wednesday's practice. "We need him to keep flashing. We need him to be consistent. He is going to get his opportunities. He is young. The sky is the limit for that guy."

If Williams can play he'll give the Ravens a lot of options because he can play outside linebacker or end and even tackle in certain passing situations. A large rotation would allow the Ravens to keep Suggs fresher near the end of the season.

Another key has been the improved play of the secondary. The Ravens signed former Dallas cornerback Brandon Carr during the offseason, as well as Tony Jefferson, one of the top safeties in the league. If Smith stays healthy opposite Carr, the Ravens will have two cornerbacks who can play man to man.

This group would have been better with Tavon Young and Maurice Canady, but both young cornerbacks are out for the season with injuries. As Pees' confidence grows in this group, which includes safeties Eric Weddle and Lardarius Webb and cornerbacks Jaylen Hill and Sheldon Price, it will allow him to be more creative.

He is already crowding seven or eight players around the line of scrimmage on passing downs and at times bringing Webb or swing safety/linebacker Anthony Levine off the edge. It's a guessing game the Ravens want to engage in because they want to attack more and not be so predictable.

The best thing is that it's only preseason and the Ravens haven't showed a lot.

"Wait until you see our sub packages," Suggs said, smiling. "We're only going to get better."

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