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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The brutal hits and relentless harassment never stopped. Interceptions were actually caught unlike a year ago where dropped footballs spread like a contagious disease in the secondary.
And the Baltimore Ravens actually scored on defense in their 27-0 victory Sunday over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, something that occurred only three times last season with every touchdown produced by linebacker Adalius Thomas.
“We were embarrassed by the lack of takeaways we had last year,” defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. “We expect this football team to go a long way. I know it’s the first game, but it worked out well.”
How well? To quantify the Ravens’ performance in their second year under Ryan’s direction, just look at the sheer numbers. Baltimore (1-0) ranks second in the NFL in total defense after allowing 142 net yards to the Buccaneers, intercepting Tampa Bay quarterback Chris Simms three times to directly lead to 17 points.
A year ago, Baltimore finished fifth in the league in defense, but allowed 284.7 yards per game.Only the San Diego Chargers, who routed the Ravens’ next opponent, the Oakland Raiders, on Monday night, have allowed fewer yards by surrendering 129.
The Ravens devastated Tampa Bay with violent collisions, including middle linebacker Ray Lewis’ heavy hit on running back Michael Pittman on a short pass over the middle, Thomas’ accordion shot on tight end Doug Jolley and cornerback Samari Rolle nailing Simms with a block during rookie defensive tackle Haloti Ngata’s interception return.
Lewis, who registered 10 tackles and a sack, was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week for the first time since 2003, the last time he was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
About the only thing that went wrong was outside linebacker Jarret Johnson dropping an interception, which earned him a quip afterward from Ryan about his stone hands.
The progress, particularly in terms of Ryan’s ability to fully implement his aggressive schemes, is dramatic compared to last season when the Ravens occasionally appeared confused and disjointed.
“I think clearly you have seen the growth from last year to this year,” Ravens coach Brian Billick said. “The fact that it was a staff intact, there were still enough changes that we had to make that the learning curve was maybe a little steeper than you might think. They are clearly communicating better.”
Meanwhile, the Raiders might be in for another rough time.
The Chargers sacked Raiders quarterbacks nine times, treating Oakland starter Aaron Brooks like such a tackling dummy that he was taken out in the fourth quarter for his own protection.
“He was taking a lot of hits out there,” Raiders coach Art Shell told reporters. “We have to learn to protect much better.”
In a hurry, too.
Brooks was limited to 6 of 14 passing for 68 yards. Offensive tackle Robert Gallery struggled in pass protection and was flagged for a false start and holding.
The classiest San Diegan was Pro Bowl linebacker Shawn Merriman, who easily bull-rushed Gallery and finished with three sacks.
“If we play against Baltimore the way we played against the Chargers, we’re in trouble,” said running back Lamont Jordan, who fumbled once and rushed for 20 yards on 10 carries. “Maybe we’re still in that coma. As men on the offensive side of the ball, we got dominated. If we don’t match their speed and we don’t match their intensity, it’s going to be a long day.”
Especially if the Ravens repeat their showing against Tampa Bay where they limited the Buccaneers to an average of 2.8 yards per offensive play, 26 net yards rushing, generated three sacks and had 123 yards worth of interception returns.
Allowing receivers and running backs to catch the football in front of them with deep pass drops, the Ravens registered several aggressive tackles. They also knocked down five of Simms’ passes at the line of scrimmage.
“We switched up on them,” Ryan said. “Sometimes when you drop the ball underneath, you pay the price.”
In the Ravens’ first shutout since 2003, Ryan often ran blitz packages with two linebackers penetrating the pocket from the same side. Plus, they took away Simms’ favorite target, receiver Joey Galloway, with double-team attention from Rolle and safety Ed Reed.
“Whenever it’s a Ryan coaching the defense, Buddy, Rex or Rob, you know it’s going to be a great defense,” nickel back Corey Ivy said. “What we ran against Tampa Bay is only a small part of all of the stuff we’ve got in our playbook. We want to leave them wondering, ‘What’s going to happen to us next?’”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.