Ravens' defense returns to form, but attitude appears reformed
Ravens cornerback Samari Rolle knew the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were in trouble on the bus ride to Raymond James Stadium yesterday morning. That's when he learned that the Buccaneers had cut veteran receiver David Boston, leaving them only one deep threat in receiver Joey Galloway. "I screamed it to Chris McAlister [the Ravens' other starting cornerback]," Rolle said. "I couldn't believe it."

Already without their two starting guards and a receiver to complement Galloway, the Buccaneers were easily shut down in the running game and routed by the Ravens, 27-0, in the 2006 season opener. Tampa Bay released Boston to add an offensive lineman to its roster Saturday night, but it probably wouldn't have made much difference if they hadn't.

The Ravens had the perfect game plan. Tampa Bay couldn't match the Ravens' intensity, which was only rivaled by game-time temperatures, which reached the high 80s. The Ravens converted three turnovers into 17 points, and surprised the Buccaneers by playing zone coverage rather than man-to-man. And they physically pounded the Buccaneers with some hits that are sure to make ESPN's "Jacked Up" segment tonight.

It was vintage Ravens football, with the defense leading the way. "We got the monkey off our back," said Ravens outside linebacker Bart Scott, who finished with five tackles, including two sacks, and also nearly decapitated Tampa Bay quarterback Chris Simms three other times, and knocked down two passes. "There is no more talk about the road streak [11 straight losses before yesterday]. This game set a tone, but we're not looking at it that way. We're taking it one play and one game at a time, and this was the first step."

That's a good sign. In the past when the Ravens beat teams like the Buccaneers, they usually beat on their chests and started comparing themselves with the 2000 Super Bowl-winning defense. There was none of that yesterday.

In fact, there was enthusiasm and confidence, but no arrogance. Maybe the Ravens realized that the Buccaneers weren't a really good offensive team, or they know it's only the first game of the season. But this defense seems on a mission after last season when it had the fewest forced turnovers (15 forced fumbles, 11 interceptions) since Brian Billick became coach at the start of the 1999 season.

"We were embarrassed by the lack of take-aways we had last year," said Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. "We expect this football team to go a long way. I know it's the first game, but it worked out well."

The strategy and performance on the field were nearly perfect. The collisions were brutal, at times frightening. How about middle linebacker Ray Lewis stretching out running back Michael Pittman on a short pass over the middle? How about Lewis and Scott sandwiching tight end Doug Jolley on another pass in the right flat? Outside linebacker Adalius Thomas once folded up Jolley like a piece of aluminum foil on an attempted pass later in the game, and Rolle simply threw Simms to the ground on an interception by defensive tackle Haloti Ngata that resulted in a Ravens field goal. Ouch.

When McAlister intercepted Simms and returned it for a 60-yard touchdown in the second quarter for a 14-0 lead, this game was just about over. "Baltimore is a very good, physical football team. That showed today," said Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden. "We never got anything going offensively. They run a complex scheme. We just didn't do a good enough job overall in the game, giving our quarterback a chance to step up in the pocket and find some down-the-field throws."

The Ravens played less man-to-man than usual, and more zone. They stayed in zone coverages because they wanted to force Simms to find the holes and make tight throws. Their defensive backs also took deeper drops than usual to keep Tampa Bay's receivers, including the running backs, in front of them.

The Ravens also blitzed less than usual, but when they did, it was with a twist. One time, the Ravens blitzed two players from the same side, but played zone defense behind them. Galloway was usually double-teamed by Rolle underneath and safety Ed Reed in the back. Simms was confused. The Buccaneers rushed for only 26 yards, and Simms threw for only 133 and had five passes batted down at the line of scrimmage.

The Ravens had worked on these various blitzes in training camp, but never used them in the preseason. "We switched up on them, and sometimes when you drop the ball underneath, you pay the price," said Ryan, referring to some of the vicious hits taken by Tampa Bay receivers.

This is the second year for Ryan as the Ravens' defensive coordinator. He lost two starting defensive linemen from a year ago in Maake Kemoeatu and Tony Weaver to free agency, and has added three new faces. But the nucleus of this defense is back with Lewis, Scott, Thomas, Terrell Suggs, McAlister, Rolle and Reed.

Unlike a year ago, everything that Ryan was throwing at this defense was new. Now it's old, with a few more gimmicks added. The Ravens also have an offense, too. They're still going to have trouble scoring points, but at least this unit can control the ball without turnovers. Yesterday, the Ravens moved so much faster than the Buccaneers, who seemed like they were still in preseason mode.

"We're making strides from training camp," Scott said. "Anytime you shut a team out, especially on the road, it's a good thing. We're not a great defense yet, and we haven't earned the right to call ourselves that. We're working on it, though."

Mike Preston, The Baltimore Sun 11 September 2006