OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — The current members of the Baltimore Ravens defense speak in reverent tones about the play of the 2000 unit, which set a record for fewest points allowed en route to winning the Super Bowl.
"We have unbelievable respect for those guys," linebacker Jarret Johnson said Monday. "When we talk about the Ravens defense and the history we have, it all started with those guys. They set the bar, and they set it as high you can set it. We're trying to beat it, and it's tough to do."
This squad is certainly off to a good start. Baltimore forced a team-record seven turnovers in a season-opening win over Pittsburgh, limited St. Louis to a single touchdown and mercilessly hounded New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez in a 34-17 win Sunday night.
In limiting the Jets to 150 yards and seven first downs, the Ravens (3-1) scored a franchise-record three defensive touchdowns. Jameel McClain returned a fumble 6 yards for a score, Johnson ran 26 yards into the end zone with a loose ball and Lardarius Webb raced 73 yards with an interception.
"That was as good a defensive performance as I've been a part of," Johnson said.
Jets coach Rex Ryan, who worked with the Baltimore defense from 1999-2008, says this group reminds him of the ones that excelled in 2000 and 2006. In 2000, Baltimore yielded a record-low 165 points and notched four shutouts. In 2006, the Ravens went 13-3 behind the league's top-ranked unit.
Three former Baltimore defensive coordinators went on to become NFL head coaches: Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan and Ryan. Chuck Pagano, in his first year on the job, appears to be worthy of his predecessors. Defense has long been the Ravens' trademark, and this year is no exception.
In only four games, Baltimore has forced 11 fumbles, picked off six passes and recorded 11 sacks. The defense has allowed only four touchdowns, none in the fourth quarter.
The one constant in every Ravens defense is middle linebacker Ray Lewis, whose first season coincided with the team's move from Cleveland to Baltimore. Lewis was the driving force in 2000, 2006 and today, even at age 36.
"If you're going to put any label on it, put Ray's label on it. That's the thread that probably runs through this defense," coach John Harbaugh said. "But there's been a lot of people who have put their fingerprints on it, so to speak, and a lot of people who have had a lot of input over the years.
"I think all the guys out there who have been part of the Ravens defense can take pride in that performance (Sunday) night. It was fast, it was aggressive, it was physical, it was with abandon. Yet it was with great discipline and attention to detail."
Here's some scary news for the rest of the league: There is a distinct possibility that this defense can get even better. Baltimore was without injured cornerbacks Chris Carr (hamstring) and Jimmy Smith (ankle) on Sunday, but both are expected to return after the Ravens' bye this week.
Baltimore also hopes to have wide receiver Lee Evans (ankle) and guard Ben Grubbs (right big toe) back in the lineup for its next game, at home against Houston on Oct. 16.
"We hope to get them all back," Harbaugh said. "Probably the No. 1 goal this week is to improve the health of our football team."
Lewis won't spend much time this week trying to rank Sunday's defensive gem with some other exceptional games by the Baltimore defense over the years.
"The best defensive performance is the next one," Lewis said. "We are looking to get some rest, come back completely healthy. We get Lee Evans back, we get Jimmy Smith back, we get a lot of people healthy. We are really looking forward to that."
When the Ravens return, the defense will resume its pursuit of excellence.
"We can be special, but it all depends on where we go from here," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We can't take any steps back because that's not how championship teams are built. Not in this league. You've got to make the momentum snowball."