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The Ravens' top-ranked defense this preseason says it'll be 'special'

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- This offseason, safety Tony Jefferson made headlines when he said the Baltimore Ravens defense has an opportunity to be "legendary" and defensive tackle Brandon Williams drew attention when he let it be known that this defense is shooting to surpass the team's historic 2000 one.

Just 2 1/2 weeks before the regular season begins, the Ravens are already looking like a defense determined to be the best in the NFL.

The Ravens have been the most dominant defense so far in the preseason, ranking No. 1 in the league in points (5.0), rushing yards (42.5), passing yards (86.5), total yards (129.0) allowed as well as overall confidence.

"This year it is a special unit," cornerback Jimmy Smith said. "We feel it. I think the defense as a whole feels it. We know it, and like I said over and over, you have to prove it now."

What does it mean do be the top-ranked defense in the preseason? Recent history says not much.

Over the last five years, the No. 1 defense in the preseason has only finished in the top five in the regular season once. In 2014, the Ravens were the top defense in the preseason and ended with a respectable No. 8 ranking.

While few will remember about the preseason once the regular season begins, defensive coordinator Dean Pees said it's still better to be first than last.

"To say it doesn't mean anything, I think coaches tell you that," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "I think that is crap. You want to go out there and you want to play well every day and every week no matter who is on the field. If it is the first team, the second team, the third team -- whoever that heck that is -- you want to play well. If you don't want that, I don't know why you are coaching, and I do not know why you are playing. Yes, I am pleased with it so far, but we just have to keep it going."

Defense has long been the strength of this franchise. Smith, in particular, has been on defenses that were led by Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, finished as high as No. 3 and helped the Ravens win a Super Bowl.

This year's defense has quickly separated itself in one regard.

"We have had tight corps groups, but this one is different in the sense that everybody on defense is together," Smith said. "It sounds kind of corny to say, but it is like we really are all friends. We all sit on the bus [together], we all joke, and it means something down the road and especially on the field when you are talking to players and trying to pick somebody up or you are trying to push somebody else."

The Ravens' starting defense has been fast and aggressive in its two cameos this preseason. In the opener, Baltimore's first-team defense held Kirk Cousins and the Washington Redskins to minus-1 yard on six plays. Last week, the Ravens' starting defense limited the Dolphins to 44 yards on three drives. And no one has yet to score a point on Terrell Suggs, Eric Weddle and C.J. Mosley.

Pees said he couldn't answer just yet whether this defense has the potential to be his best in his sixth season as the Baltimore defensive coordinator.

"I just hope we can be good," Pees said. "We are working to be good. We are working hard to really be as good as we can possibly be. How we end up there, I hope it is at the top. But, we will see."

Baltimore was the best defense for the first 13 weeks of the season in 2016, holding teams to 296.1 yards per game. But the Ravens gave up an average of 400 yards in the final quarter of the season, when they lost three of their final four games to fall out of playoff contention.

That's why Baltimore spent $56.75 million in guaranteed money on its defense in free agency. The Ravens used their first four draft picks this year on defensive players.

"We have to finish. You have to finish everything," Pees said. "This is the start, not the finish. We have a long way to go."