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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The burden of hefting an entire football team is falling again on a familiar collection of brawny shoulders.
Because of yet another anemic offense despite a celebrated trade for veteran quarterback Steve McNair, itâ€™s the NFLâ€™s second-ranked defense thatâ€™s largely responsible for reclaiming contender status for the Baltimore Ravens.
Without a stingy defense thatâ€™s second in the league in yards allowed per game (219.6), third in rushing defense (73.8) and passing defense (145.8), tied for second with 18 sacks and third overall with 14 takeaways, thereâ€™s little question that the Ravens (4-1) wouldnâ€™t be atop the AFC North division.
That distinction is embraced with relish by the defense.
â€œWe like winning the games: If people donâ€™t score, we win,â€ outside linebacker Adalius Thomas said. â€œThatâ€™s how we approach it. I still think you have to win the game with defense.
â€œSteve can be on top of the game, but if we suck it doesnâ€™t matter. Itâ€™s still going to come down to the defense stopping them from scoring more points than we do.â€
Itâ€™s a familiar predicament for the Ravens, who had hoped that their days of imbalance between both sides of the ball were over when they acquired McNair, a three-time Pro Bowl passer.
Instead, Baltimore is 29th in the league in total offense and McNair is the 26th-ranked passer following a three-interception outing in Monday nightâ€™s 13-3 loss to the Denver Broncos.
The Ravens managed only a Matt Stover field goal in the chilly rain at Invesco Field at Mile High, and are averaging only 267.6 yards of total offense. McNair has produced just 5.52 yards per attempt with five touchdowns, six interceptions, 911 yards, 56.4 percent accuracy and a 67.0 passer rating that ranks below the season averages last season for Kyle Boller (71.8) and Anthony Wright (71.7).
â€œWe have the talent here to score points,â€ center Mike Flynn said. â€œThe first couple of games we scored some points, enough to win the last two games and then we didnâ€™t get it done in Denver. Thatâ€™s just really frustrating.
â€œWe do get overshadowed by the defense, but the frustration is more of us needing to figure out whatâ€™s going on and wanting to put points on the board.â€
Dating back to the Ravensâ€™ dominant Super Bowl defense in 2000, the defense’s standards have always been higher than their offensive counterparts. Until allowing 10 second-half points in the final eight minutes in Denver, the Ravens had surrendered just three points after halftime in their first four games. Linebacker Bart Scott actually lamented how the defense hasnâ€™t scored a touchdown since cornerback Chris McAlisterâ€™s interception return in the season opener at Tampa Bay.
â€œOur goal every year is to be the No. 1 defense in the league and to be No. 1 with impressive stats,â€ said Scott, the reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Month with five sacks and an interception. â€œWe put a tremendous amount of pressure on ourselves to uphold our standards, not the leagueâ€™s standards, but our own personal standards of being part of a great tradition. Itâ€™s really no pressure for us because we put more pressure on ourselves than anyone else could.â€
As recently as late last season, boiling frustrations about their offensive partnersâ€™ meager contribution were voiced more and more openly in the locker room. Now, itâ€™s a different story altogether as the defense has yet to break ranks and criticize the offense. Itâ€™s been a study in stoicism and patience while McNair struggles to get acclimated to the playbook and the running game, especially starter Jamal Lewis, continues to flounder.
â€œThis is a totally different team from last year,â€ outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. â€œWe knew they were going up against a great Denver defense. It was just unfortunate, but we havenâ€™t lost any confidence in our offense.
â€œWe know there are going to be games like this. This is a different team from last year, a closer team. This isnâ€™t familiar ground.â€
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland