OWINGS MILLS, Md. — As soon as December arrived Baltimore’s hard-shell defense turned as soft as a crabcake left in the sun. The Steelers, Redskins, and Broncos rolled up 88 points and 1,139 yards on consecutive Sundays. Could this be the final croaking of the Ravens? Not then and not yet.
This may be the last ride for Ray Lewis, their larger-than-life linebacker, but as long as he’s suiting up their Angry Birds persona endures. Once the playoffs began and Lewis and colleagues Terrell Suggs and Bernard Pollard returned to the lineup the Baltimore defense again began tearing rivals apart. On Sunday the Ravens return to Foxborough for an AFC Championship rematch with the Patriots with their usual approach — attacking talons-first as a flock.
“There’s no intimidation,’’ declared Pollard, whose purple-garbed associates sidestep no man, helmeted or hooded. “You have two good teams going against each other. One thing I say to any football player who is intimidated — you’re a coward and a punk. This is a man’s game. This is what it is. I am going to call it how I see it. You don’t fear no man or no team. We’re going to go in there with our heads held high and ready to play.’’
That’s been the approach of the Ravens’ defenders ever since they trampled all comers en route to their only Super Bowl crown in the 2000 season, allowing only 23 points in four postseason contests and plucking the Giants clean (34-7) for the title. Aggressive, opportunistic, vocal, relentless.
“They take the ball away from you, they’re excellent in the red area, excellent on third down, short yardage, things like that,’’ says Patriots coach Bill Belichick, whose club will be facing Baltimore for the sixth time in four seasons. “The big thing about the Ravens is they play good when they’ve got to play good. When they’ve got to make plays, they make plays.’’
That’s been Baltimore’s defensive DNA for more than a dozen years. Since the Super Bowl season the Ravens have ranked among the league’s top three in every important category — total defense, points per game, rushing yards allowed, third-down conversion percentage, opponents’ quarterback rating, takeaways, interceptions, and pick-sixes.
“I was in Chicago, too, so we cared a little bit about defense also,’’ said cornerback Corey Graham, who signed on as a free agent this season after five years with the Bears. “But it is different [here]. The system, the scheme, how physical they are, the coaching, the scouting — from top to bottom, it is a different world. Some of the stuff that we recognize here and that the coaches recognize here I never even noticed in Chicago. It is just a whole different world.’’
Baltimore’s defense has been in the spotlight for so long that four of its coordinators — Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan, Rex Ryan, and Chuck Pagano — have gone on to become head coaches elsewhere, as have assistants Jack Del Rio and Mike Smith. And while Dean Pees, the former New England assistant, is Baltimore’s third coordinator in as many years, the unit’s pugnacious culture hasn’t changed.
Much of that is due to the sheer stability provided by a quartet of Pro Bowlers — Lewis, fellow ’backer Suggs, tackle Haloti Ngata, and safety Ed Reed — who’ve been with the club for a combined 45 years. “Guys have been here a while,’’ said Graham. “They know what they are doing. They can teach you a little bit more because they know the system, they know what is supposed to happen. They have seen probably everything you could probably see.’’
So when Suggs missed the first half-dozen games while rehabbing from Achilles’ tendon surgery and Lewis was out for 10 games with a torn biceps and cornerback Lardarius Webb, the team’s top interceptor, was lost for the year with a torn ACL, unit solidarity predictably took a beating.
In all, 13 defensive starters or regulars missed an aggregate 53 games during the regular season and 24 players started at least one game. Only Reed and cornerback Cary Williams started all 16. “It was kind of like every week we were designing things and drawing up things in the dirt to try to make sure that we were giving our guys the best chance to succeed and had guys playing a little bit of everywhere,’’ observed Pees.
Because the Ravens had jumped off to a magnificent start (9-2), beating the Patriots and Steelers along the way, they could afford to drop three in a row and still retain their AFC North title, which they did by whacking the Giants two days before Christmas. That allowed them to treat the finale with the Bengals as an exhibition.
“The whole year has been kind of a roller coaster because of the injuries,’’ said Lewis. “The first time me and Ed and Sizzle [Suggs] actually played together this year was the Colts [playoff] game, so there are so many things that we had to fight through all year. But for us to fight through it and be where we are now I think collectively as a group we’re really starting to dial things in.’’
Once the playoffs began the Ravens reverted to their customary winter plumage. Since the 2000 season only Tampa Bay has conceded fewer postseason yards per game than Baltimore’s 272 and the 14.8 points they’ve allowed is the lowest team average since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. Indianapolis managed only three field goals in the wild-card game, marking the ninth time since 2000 that Baltimore has given up 10 or fewer points in a playoff outing.
And though Peyton Manning threw for three touchdowns against them last week, the Ravens got the job done when they needed to. When Manning was trying to run out the clock in regulation, they stopped him shy of midfield, giving Joe Flacco time to hook up with Jacoby Jones for the 70-yard “Mile High Miracle’’ that forced overtime. Then Graham, who’d already returned one pick for a touchdown, filched the killer to set up Justin Tucker’s winning 47-yard boot.
Thus has the circle come around to where everything ended a year ago — same rival, same building, same stakes. “We were a catch away, a field goal away from going to the Super Bowl,’’ mused Lewis.
It was a particularly bitter moment for the defense, which had kept Tom Brady from running out the clock and given the offense one final chance. When Billy Cundiff’s tying field goal attempt sailed wide, Lewis and his mates had to take the field once more just to watch Brady take a knee. This time, they crave turnabout.
“This is what we signed up for,’’ Pollard said. “In OTAs and training camp we said the Super Bowl was our stop. We just don’t want to stop there, we want to win there. With everything that we’re doing, our eye has always been on that Lombardi [Trophy]. It starts with getting past this team. We just want to win.’’