While Pagano has done a fine job of masking his vulnerable cornerbacks — the Titans game being the lone exception — Lewis enjoyed the services of Duane Starks and Chris McAlister, who could cover nearly anyone even if the pressure wasn’t quite up to par on a given Sunday. Couple that with the ever-evolving nature of the NFL in which the advantage tilts more dramatically than ever toward offense and high point totals, and mentioning this year’s group in the same breath as the 2000 edition borders on the absurd.
But that said, the most intriguing element working in favor of the 2011 defense is its indisputable ability to get better as the season progresses.
The aforementioned secondary — still ranked seventh against the pass, mind you — has been decimated by injuries through the first quarter of the season. Projected starters Jimmy Smith and Domonique Foxworth have not made a start, with Smith injuring his ankle early in Week 1 and the veteran Foxworth now on injured reserve. Key veteran Chris Carr has played in only two games as he continues to be plagued by a hamstring injury that first surfaced in the middle of training camp. And versatile safety Haruki Nakamura has missed time with a knee injury.
Though expectations for the 27th overall pick to immediately become the shutdown corner that will draw comparisons to McAlister are unreasonable, the return of Smith and Carr would provide a major shot in the arm to a secondary that relied on Danny Gorrer and rookie Chykie Brown as the only backups to starters Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams last Sunday night.
Though Pagano has done an impeccable job creating pressure with his front seven to help an undermanned secondary, the Ravens will need improved play at cornerback for this defensive unit to be considered elite this season. Smith and Carr will be major factors in determining that.
Ultimately, the biggest element working in this defense’s favor is the overwhelming presence of superstars. Two future Hall of Famers, Lewis and Ed Reed, still play at a very high level despite their advancing ages, but even their performance has been overshadowed by linebacker Terrell Suggs and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata through the first four games of the season. The two have not only emerged as the best defensive players on the team, but they clearly belong in the discussion of the very best defenders in the entire NFL.
So, while it’s way too early — and unrealistic — to compare this defense to the 2000 championship group, the pieces and potential are there for this group to be special as the season progresses.
Getting — and staying — healthy will be critical to the defense’s success, but there’s no reason why it cannot become one of the best units in the history of the franchise.
And that’s saying a lot in this town.
Even if I’m not ready to put it in the same breath as the 2000 Ravens.