Defense deserves label of greatness

Ravens 16, Raiders 3

Ravens Extra

January 15, 2001|By MIKE PRESTON

OAKLAND, Calif. - Regardless of whether the Ravens win Super Bowl XXXV against the New York Giants in Tampa, their defense has earned the right to be called "great."

There is the theory that great defenses win Super Bowls, but the Ravens have to be considered one of the best ever after defeating the Oakland Raiders, 16-3, in the AFC championship game yesterday at Network Associates Coliseum.

Forget about those stellar performances against San Diego, Cincinnati, Cleveland and some of the other poor offensive teams they played in the regular season. True greatness is measured in the playoffs, and the Ravens' defense has had a great run.

Yesterday, the Ravens made another victim of the Raiders, who came into the game with the league's No. 6 offense overall and No. 1 in rushing and left with 191 yards of total offense, including just 24 rushing, and a quarterback with a shoulder injury.

During the playoff run, the Ravens held Denver's No. 2-ranked offense to 177 total yards and Tennessee's No. 14-ranked offense to 191 yards passing. They have shut down such quality players as Denver running back Mike Anderson, Broncos receivers Ed McCaffrey and Rod Smith, Titans quarterback Steve McNair and one of the fastest group of receivers in the league in Oakland's James Jett, Tim Brown and Andre Rison.

Are they the best ever? Who cares?

Are they the best in the 2000 season? Yes.

Are they great? You betcha.

"I'll leave that up to you all for the historical value," Ravens coach Brian Billick said when asked if this was the best defense ever. "But I've been in this league 10 years and I've never seen another one like it."

The Ravens made a believer out of Oakland coach Jon Gruden yesterday.

"If they are not the best, then they're way up there at the top," Gruden said. "They are very explosive from left corner to right corner; they are outstanding. They have a great pass rush with their front four with a lot of stunts."

There is more.

"They force you to check the ball down at times, and when you do, there are guys like Ray Lewis and Jamie Sharper to rattle you," he said. "They don't give up many yards after the catch. That's the most impressive thing that I have seen from them. They are up there with the Fearsome Foursome and the Steel Curtain."

Let's face it, the Ravens' defense is so good you really expect them to score before the offense. When the Ravens' offense is on the field, you hold your breath and hope they don't commit a turnover that leads to a touchdown.

How great is this defense?

This is a Super Bowl team that really doesn't have a top-notch quarterback, a go-to wide receiver or a dominating offensive line. The team's top running back, a rookie, looks tired, and the Ravens are fortunate to get two big plays out of the offense per game.

Yet the Ravens are going to The Show.

Earlier in the season, the Ravens wanted to be considered great, but there was something missing. This was a unit that made big plays but didn't make enough of them in the fourth quarter when the game was on the line.

Now, it has become routine. Cornerback Duane Starks picked off two passes yesterday, and the Ravens finished with four interceptions and a fumble recovery.

Middle linebacker Ray Lewis recovered a fumble by quarterback Rich Gannon at the Oakland 6-yard line with 11:32 remaining in the game, which set up a 21-yard field goal that put the Ravens ahead 16-3 with 7:28 left.

Then, as Oakland drove late in the game, weak-side linebacker Sharper stepped in front of a pass intended for Jett at the 2-yard line with 3:41 remaining.

"We're always making big plays," defensive end Michael McCrary said. "There can be no doubt about the greatness of this defense. We made a statement today about who has the best defense."

But those statements just didn't come in the fourth quarter. Ravens quarterback Trent Dilfer had a pass picked off and returned to the Ravens' 39 with 13:41 left in the third period. The defense surrendered only a 24-yard field goal.

Then, with 54 seconds left in the third quarter, running back Jamal Lewis fumbled and the Raiders recovered at the Ravens' 43. But two plays later, Starks picked off an underthrown pass intended for Rison at the Ravens' 15, which he returned 35 yards to the 50.

"It's like watching a child grow," Billick said of the defense. "Relatives come in after a year and they go, `Ooh, your kids have gotten so big.' So when you are there every day, you don't notice it as much in terms of just how special it's become."

The Ravens have had one of the best front sevens for the last two years, but were waiting for young cornerbacks Starks and Chris McAlister to mature. Starks, who has been picked on most of the season because teams throw away from McAlister, has performed well in recent weeks, and teams still won't throw on McAlister.

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