OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — The Baltimore Ravens will finally get to see what their new-look defense looks like against somebody else after two weeks of training camp.
The defense has been dominant at times during training camp. Players and coaches have repeatedly referred to the group as one that has the potential to be among the league’s best. But Thursday’s preseason opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will provide Baltimore with the best gauge to this point of how good its defense can actually be.
“We’re very excited,” Ravens starting free safety Michael Huff said. “We can be a dominant defense. Everything looks good on paper, but we’re looking forward to seeing what it looks like on the field Thursday night.”
Baltimore’s defense has been completely revamped since the end of last season.
Inside linebacker Ray Lewis is gone. So are free safety Ed Reed, inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, outside linebacker Paul Kruger, strong safety Bernard Pollard and several other key defensive players from last season.
Based on their roster as it stands now, as many as seven of the Ravens’ 11 defensive starters could end up being players that weren’t even on their roster last season.
But the early indication is that Baltimore’s defense could — and should — be better, possibly much better.
The Ravens won the Super Bowl last year, but their traditionally stellar defense was uncharacteristically average.
Baltimore struggled at times to stop the run, had problems at times versus the pass and had issues at different points generating a consistent pass rush.
It finished the regular season ranked just 17th in total defense, 17th in passing defense, 20th in rushing defense and tied for 15th in sacks after ranking among the five-best in the league in those same four categories in 2011.
But the defensive line that was a consistent area of concern last year was addressed through free agency and the NFL draft. The Ravens signed veterans Chris Canty and Marcus Spears and took nose tackle Brandon Williams in the third round of the draft.
Baltimore lost Kruger in free agency but replaced him with a Pro Bowl pass rusher in Elvis Dumervil.
The Ravens lost Lewis to retirement and Ellerbe to free agency, but took inside linebacker Arthur Brown in the second round of the draft and signed veteran Daryl Smith.
And they parted ways with both of their starting safeties from last year — Reed and Pollard — but it signed a productive veteran in Huff and took strong safety Matt Elam with its first pick in the draft.
It’s still early, but quarterback Joe Flacco said the rebuilt defense has looked “pretty darn good” through the first two weeks of training camp.
The front-seven in particular has those within the Ravens’ organization enthusiastic, including Flacco.
The first-team defensive line of Canty, Pro Bowler Haloti Ngata and emerging fourth-year player Arthur Jones has earned nothing but positive feedback through this point of training camp, and Williams has shown flashes of potential as well.
And at outside linebacker, Dumervil and former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs have shown glimpses of being the ferocious pass rush tandem that many expect them to be.
“Those guys (the defense), they feel pretty good out there, especially with those guys on the defensive line,” Flacco said. “I think that’s a big part of being a good defense is having a solid defensive line . so I think they look pretty good.”
But Thursday’s preseason will be the biggest test yet for the Ravens’ defense and will provide the best gauge to this point of just how good this new-look unit can be.
“It’s starting to gel, but, again, we haven’t played a football game yet,” Canty said. “So, we need to go out there, need to compete against another football team, play at game speed, at game tempo and go through that process. I think that will be a great opportunity for us during the course of this preseason to come together. . I’m looking forward to it.”
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)