Inventive Ravens patent big plays

Road to AFC final hardly conventional, but wildly effective

`I'm amazed every Sunday'

`Best ever' defense, in Modell's eyes, bears up to increasing load

Ravens Vs. Raiders

Afc Championship Game

January 09, 2001|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

They win in the most outlandish style, riding a tidal wave of big plays on defense and special teams that threatens to swamp this year's Super Bowl tournament.

The Ravens are nothing if not inventive in finding ways to make their mark this season.

Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game in Nashville, Tenn., was a case in point. A 90-yard return by Anthony Mitchell on a deflected field goal and a 50-yard interception return by linebacker Ray Lewis propelled the Ravens past the Tennessee Titans, 24-10.

This was after the Ravens had punts of their own blocked on consecutive possessions, after their offense had produced just two first downs in a tepid second half.

Despite another lifeless performance on offense, the Ravens won decisively on two unlikely plays.

"That tells you about the character of this team," coach Brian Billick said. "They didn't blink through all that. And a lot of teams would in that situation, particularly a team that's never been there."

The 14-4 Ravens have never been there, but next Sunday they will go to the AFC championship game in Oakland against the 13-4 Raiders. That's where their defense will make another stand in its bid for a prominent place in history.

After 18 games, the defense still surprises its architect, defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis.

"I'm amazed every Sunday," Lewis said. "As a coach, you expect the guys to go out and play well. But how we do it, and how resilient we are, is the amazing part."

Resilient?

The Ravens' defense has been on the field for more than 80 plays two of the last three weeks. It played a season-high 91 snaps against the New York Jets in the regular-season finale - and won.

In Nashville, the Titans had the ball for nearly 21 minutes more than the Ravens, generating 183 more total yards. Four times the Titans advanced inside the Baltimore 20-yard line. Only once did they reach the end zone.

That's remarkable resiliency. But it's not surprising for the defense that team majority owner Art Modell says is the best in NFL history.

"I've been saying it's the best ever for weeks," Modell said in the glow of Sunday's win. "Better than the '76 Steelers. Better than the '85 Bears. But what they did, we have to do. We have to get into the Super Bowl and win to prove we are the best.

"This is a very special defense. There's great love for each other. They pull together, and I'm very proud of that."

The Ravens have a bond on defense that is hard to miss, and harder to create.

"We've got guys that love each other, trust each other," said defensive end Rob Burnett. "It's very unique. A lot of times you deal with egos and animosity. We don't have that on this team. We really care about each other.

"There's no dealing with a lot of haters on our team. We want to win collectively, no matter who makes the plays."

It's a feeling of harmony that didn't always exist with this team. In the pre-Billick days, it was a defense of characters, but not necessarily character. Individual talent didn't translate into wins.

Then one day early last season, Billick brought his talent-laden defense together with a challenge. It hasn't been the same underachieving bunch since.

"What Brian said was we can send six guys to the Pro Bowl, or we can lead the league in defense," Marvin Lewis said. "That was four or five weeks into the season, when we were just playing good enough to not lose, but we weren't playing like we should be able to play."

A winning chemistry grew from there. According to Lewis, the Ravens' defenders began to accept coaching as positive correction, not criticism.

The results were stunning. The Ravens finished the 1999 season ranked No. 2 in total defense. They finished second again this season, albeit by only 153 yards behind the Titans.

Along the way, they broke the NFL's 16-game records for fewest points and fewest rushing yards allowed.

Now, through the first two rounds of the postseason, that defense has reached a dominating high. It not only stops the other team, it scores, too. Ray Lewis' touchdown on Sunday was the first of his NFL career.

"You're looking at two [future] Hall of Famers," Marvin Lewis said, referring to linebacker Lewis and safety Rod Woodson. "You're looking at a couple of ends as good as there are in the NFL. You're looking at a couple of linebackers that don't know how good they can be. You're looking at two corners that are just scratching the surface of how good they can be.

"The dominance of the tackles inside - they come to play."

The defense comes to play every week. Against Tennessee, it pulled the team out of an early hole, then made the plays down the stretch to win.

"We're going to Oakland and we could be down 21-0 in the first quarter and we will stick together," Burnett said. "We will fight for 60 minutes."

So far, it has been enough.

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