OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) As he prepares for his seventh NFL season, Baltimore Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith finds himself surrounded by exceptional talent, motivated players and, best of all, people he considers to be close friends.
That unique bond gives Smith reason to believe Baltimore's defense is poised for greatness in 2017.
''Over the years, I played with Ed Reed and all these guys, but the way we jell and how cohesive we are as a unit, it has been different since I have been here,'' Smith said. ''We have had tight core groups, but this one is different in the sense that everybody on defense is together.''
Baltimore's defense ranked seventh the NFL last year, the 12th time in the last 14 seasons it's finished in the top 10. This season, with seven starters returning and the addition of standout safety Tony Jefferson and cornerback Brandon Carr, the potential is seemingly limitless.
''This year it is a special unit,'' Smith declared. ''We feel it.''
If the preseason is any indication, Smith might be right. After two games - a 23-3 win over the Redskins and a 31-7 rout of Miami - the Ravens lead the league in fewest points allowed and fewest yards surrendered (258).
It would be foolish to equate a team's performance in August with what might happen when the games count. But that doesn't necessarily mean those gaudy numbers can be entirely ignored.
''The whole idea of us going into this year was that we want to be a great defense and we want to finish,'' defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. ''You have to start to finish. I would rather have a good start than a bad start and be sitting there worried about a bunch of stuff.''
So far, there's not been much to be concerned about. Baltimore has allowed just one touchdown, 17 first downs and has five sacks.
The pass rush was a problem last year, in part because Elvis Dumervil missed much of the season with injuries. That enabled opposing defenses to double-team sack specialist Terrell Suggs.
This summer, the linebackers have gotten help from the inside trio of Brandon Williams, Michael Pierce and Brent Urban.
''You are not necessarily seeing sacks, but you are seeing a good push on the quarterback,'' Pees said. ''The rush has been good. It has not been great, but it has been good.''
The abrupt retirement of middle linebacker Zachary Orr due to a spinal condition forced Pees to turn to second-year pro Kamalei Correa, who started one game as a rookie last season. Correa, like the unit as a whole, is a work in progress.
''I think he has played well,'' Pees said. ''There are certainly things he can get better at, like we all can. I'm pleasantly surprised by some of it.''
With quarterback Joe Flacco nursing a sore back and the offensive line missing several key parts due to injury, it appears as if the Ravens will be counting heavily on the defense in their effort to return to the postseason after two straight misses.
If camaraderie means anything, the defense is ready to do its part.
''When you really get a good unit together, they can help each other. They can talk about each other's job,'' Pees said. ''I think the guys have a little spirit about them. Hopefully we can keep that going.''
The next test comes Saturday in a preseason matchup with Buffalo. It will likely be the last time the starters will be on the field together before the regular season opener at Cincinnati on Sept. 10.
''This next game especially, we've got to go out there - however long coach has us out there - and shut the offense down,'' Smith said. ''That's going to be the only thing that really matters. We keep talking about how strong (the defense) is, but the proof is in the pudding.''
For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL