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Schmuck: Ravens intent on adding to franchise's defensive legacy

While the best competition is yet to come, the Ravens defense has looked like a franchise throwback this seaso

When the Ravens signed veteran Eric Weddle, they weren't sure whether he would play free safety or strong safety, but they did know they were getting a free spirit who would be a strong influence on their developing defense.

When Terrell Suggs came back from his second Achilles tendon injury, the Ravens weren't sure if he would be the same superstar player from a physical standpoint, but they knew he'd still be T-Sizzle — the scary face of a defensive unit that needed to reclaim its historical identity.

It remains to be seen whether that has happened. But it certainly appears that this Ravens team is intent on adding to the defensive legacy that has contributed so mightily to the success of the franchise over the past two decades.

This year's model has allowed the fewest yards per game in the NFL, has three more takeaways (17) than last year's team did all season, and has delivered back-to-back performances against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns that were — at least — reminiscent of their defensive glory days.

The first three quarters against the Steelers, in a must-win divisional showdown, showed that the Ravens can dominate a quality team. The Browns didn't provide the same kind of test, but the defense came within one missed assignment of completely stifling another division opponent on national television Thursday night.

"This showed a lot of our character, our toughness, our focus, our ability to believe in what we can become as a team, especially on defense," Weddle said after the game. "To put on the performance we did [Thursday night] was one for the memories. Take away that terrible play by me, and we shut them out. But you live and you learn."

It looked for a while like the defense might have to carry the Ravens to the end against the winless Browns. But the inconsistent offensive attack awoke in the second half to allow coach John Harbaugh and the sellout crowd the rare opportunity to relax well before the clock ran out in the final quarter.

The 28-7 victory was the first Ravens win decided by more than seven points since they manhandled the Steelers, 30-17, during the 2014 playoffs. And it was only the third game since then — win or loss — to end with the loser more than one possession from either tying or winning the game.

That level of parity in the NFL is another reason the progress of Dean Pees' defense since the final weeks of last season creates hope that the Ravens can stay in contention in the AFC North as the quality of the competition improves over the final seven weeks of the regular season.

The Ravens have gotten this far with a number of bright young guys playing key roles, which also bodes well for the future.

"They're growing, right before your own eyes," Weddle said. "Tavon [Young], [Michael] Pierce, Timmy [Jernigan], even [Za'Darius Smith] his first-year starting and C.J. [Mosley]. Those are all young, talented, eager players, and look at us from the first time we played until now. Just the growth, the confidence, the belief in each other. We're looking at each time we go out there, and we don't want to give them an inch. We want to create turnovers. We want to finish each drive, and that's showing right now. We've just got to keep harping on the little things and keep pushing each other to be great."

The old guys are pretty good, too. Suggs is playing with a torn biceps, but you never would have known it from his prime-time performance Thursday night. He delivered a sack and a forced fumble in the fourth quarter, and got rave reviews from Harbaugh and Weddle for the way he disrupted the Browns quarterbacks throughout the game.

"'Siz' is a once-in-a-generation type player," Weddle said. "You just can't replicate what he brings. Not just on the field but his whole belief, his mantra, his aura about himself that he brings to our defense. He just brings that confidence to all of us."

The Ravens still are something of an unknown quantity after opening the season with three straight wins and then losing four straight before recovering to reclaim first place in the AFC North. The consistency of the offense remains an unanswered question and the durability of the veteran leaders — Suggs, Joe Flacco and Steve Smith Sr. — is a legitimate concern.

Thus far, the defense has been the glue that has held this season together and might have to do even more to put the Ravens in a position to make the playoffs.

So, what else is new?

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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