Ravin’ about defense
Patriots have a good idea what they will be up against
FOXBOROUGH - The best teams in the NFL, despite annual coach and player turnover, tend to have a certain identity. The undefeated team that visits New England at Gillette Stadium Sunday has one, and its strength leaves an indelible mark on every opponent, from pregame preparation straight on through to the extra Advil the morning after the game.
Baltimore’s Ravens are synonymous with tough, physical defense, plain and simple. “This is who we are,’’ quoth the Ravens. “Are you good enough to score on us?’’
While there have been moving parts - most notably Rex Ryan, who left last year after 10 seasons as defensive coordinator to become the New York Jets head coach - the Ravens still feature a stable nucleus of some of the best defensive players in the NFL: Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs. Baltimore has established a pattern of nasty, smash-mouth dominance that has the Patriots’ full attention, and, to a man, they seem to describe the Ravens defense with the same word.
“They’ve got instinctive players at every position,’’ quarterback Tom Brady said. “They can really disrupt offenses because each of their guys adds his own unique quality to the defense. A guy like Ed Reed, for example, who just covers up so much in the passing game, and Ray Lewis, who is so instinctive. You always have to be aware, because it could be any guy at any time.’’
Baltimore’s offense is flourishing under second-year quarterback Joe Flacco - the Ravens have scored 38, 31, and 34 points - but it’s the defense that has keyed the 3-0 start. No surprise, the Ravens lead the league in rushing defense at just 51 yards per game. They’ve gone 38 games without allowing a 100-yard rusher, the longest active streak in the NFL. That will pose a challenge for Fred Taylor, who notched his first 100-yard game as a Patriot in last Sunday’s 26-10 win against Atlanta. Taylor, who had 105 yards against the Falcons, knows what he’s up against.
“They’re a great defense, always have been, ever since I’ve been in the NFL,’’ Taylor said. “They’re a defense that challenges you, they get up in your face. On tape, they seem very physical. Not dirty - they play within the rules - but very aggressive, a lot of pressure up front. They disrupt a lot.’’
That starts with Reed and Lewis, who have combined for 20 seasons in Baltimore and 15 Pro Bowl appearances. On Sept. 20, Lewis stopped Darren Sproles on fourth and 2 in the final minute to seal a 31-26 win in San Diego, a game-winning play that the linebacker called one of the best of his storied career.
“His track record speaks for itself, he makes a lot of plays,’’ said Patriots running back Sammy Morris. “It’s his 13th or 14th year, but he still looks like he’s in his fifth or sixth year, the way he moves around. He’s definitely a guy we have to account for.’’
So is free safety Reed, the franchise leader in interceptions who has picked off 35 passes in his seven seasons and returned three for touchdowns.
They might be the two best Ravens on defense, but they’re complemented by a cast that has the same aggressive, ball-hawking mentality.
“They’re good. They’re really good,’’ said Patriots rookie receiver Julian Edelman. “Ray Lewis? Ed Reed? Man, they’re all good.’’
Baltimore’s defense is led now by Greg Mattison, who took over the coordinating duties when Ryan left. Patriots players say the system has some similarities to Ryan’s defense - the Jets held the Patriots without a touchdown in a 16-9 win in Week 2 - but Ravens coach John Harbaugh says any scheme is only as good as the players in it.
“Any scheme is valuable. It’s something we spend a lot of time working on, but it’s good players playing well in a scheme that accentuates their abilities and things they do well,’’ said Harbaugh, who guided Baltimore to the AFC Championship game last year in his first season. “We don’t look exactly the same as we did when Adalius [Thomas, now a Patriots linebacker] was here, or even last year. New England doesn’t look exactly the same as they did.
“You try to set up the scheme where the guys who are in the scheme can do the things that they do specifically well. It’s a matter of good players playing well.’’
Patriots coach Bill Belichick sees similarities to the defense that gave his team trouble two weeks ago, but it’s the players he’s concerned with.
“There’s some carryover from a scheme standpoint,’’ said Belichick. “The biggest difference between the Jets and the Ravens is the players. You’re playing against a different set of players: Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed - right down the line.
“In the end, you need to block them. I don’t care whether they’re over or under, whether they blitz or don’t blitz, somebody’s got to block them, somebody’s got to get open. As long as those players are there, that’s a big problem.’’
Patriots offensive lineman Kendall Simmons knows all about the Ravens, having faced them twice a year for the seven seasons he spent in Pittsburgh. He says the key for the Patriots is simple.
“You’re going to have to finish everything,’’ said Simmons. “It’s not take a couple of steps and think you have the guy blocked.
“It’ll be a big-time fight. Their front seven will be the hardest we’ve faced so far, no doubt about that.
“If you’re not tired at the end of this game, against this defense, then you haven’t done enough.’’
Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com.