One way to ground defense: Take to air

Super Bowl Xxxv

Ravens Vs. Giants

January 23, 2001|By John Eisenberg

TAMPA, Fla. - The Ravens are the first to admit that a fortunate bounce or three has aided their run to the Super Bowl. "I don't know if I believe in destiny, but I do believe in luck," Tony Siragusa said recently.

The deflected pass that turned into a 58-yard touchdown. The blocked field-goal attempt returned 90 yards for a score. Brian Griese's injured shoulder. Al Del Greco's misery. The chilling wind that sabotaged Denver's offensive plans.

Don't misunderstand. The Ravens have earned their trip to the big game, outscoring three playoff opponents by 45 points and going on the road to beat the AFC's top two seeds.

But some elements of their success are best left unexplained. And of all those elements, perhaps the most crucial is their opposition's steadfast refusal to follow the offensive road map that the New York Jets drew in the Ravens' final regular-season game.

Remember? Less than a month ago, a defense now regarded among the best in NFL history gave up two first-quarter touchdowns and 473 yards passing. The Ravens still won, returning an interception and two punts for touchdowns, but the Jets made the defense sweat.

It was assumed at that point that the Jets had shown the world the best way to play the Ravens. Forget the run. Don't even try to run on the Ravens' top-rated run defense. Just flood the field with receivers and throw the ball all over the place. Make the secondary make plays. You might not win, but you'll certainly stand a better chance.

Three games and three wins later, the Ravens are still waiting for another team to take them on in such a fashion. Will it be the Giants in Sunday's Super Bowl? That's a question on which the game easily could turn.

The Giants certainly played that way against the Vikings' pitiful defense in the NFC championship game, throwing on 34 of their first 45 plays and scoring what amounted to a first-round knockout, a 34-0 lead before halftime. Those who had believed the Giants' supposedly plodding offense was incapable of such a performance were proved wrong, as quarterback Kerry Collins threw numerous downfield strikes to receivers Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard.

Many NFL coaches would rather wear a tutu on the sideline than (gasp) alter their blueprint with a title on the line, but the goal is to win the game, not prove a point, and Giants coach Jim Fassel deserved kudos for adjusting.

The Ravens' defense will be exponentially tougher than Minnesota's, but a reprise of that all-out attack would seem to make sense, especially given the mediocrity of the Giants' rushing game. If you can't envision Ron Dayne or Tiki Barber making much headway on the ground against the Ravens - and who can? - why not just open things up and, at the very least, put more pressure on the Ravens' defense?

"I think we're going to see the Giants' [regular, balanced] offense," Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said. "They don't have the Jets' quarterback. They're not going to run the Jets' offense."

The Ravens will be fortunate - again - if that's the case.

The Raiders didn't adjust in the AFC championship game, stubbornly sticking with their plan to run even when it was clear they couldn't. Oakland receiver Tim Brown later criticized coach Jon Gruden for being "too patient."

A week earlier, the Titans actually had some success with their typically conservative blueprint, generating 23 first downs and 91 rushing yards for Eddie George, but they blinked when it mattered most, running on third-and-goal at the Ravens' 3 with the score tied in the third quarter. The failure of that weak, conservative call changed the game's momentum.

Denver, with its prolific passing game, was best suited to putting pressure on the Ravens' defense, but Griese's injury and the windy conditions short-circuited those plans.

Three playoff games, three relatively passive challenges to the Ravens' defense.

Go figure.

"Actually, it's not surprising at all," Lewis said. "The Raiders had an offensive style they used all year, and they just continued to use it against us. Same with Tennessee. You can't change what you do. It's hard to become that kind of [wide-open] offense in one week."

Maybe, but it can be done. The Jets did it against the Ravens, virtually eliminating running back Curtis Martin from their game plan in favor of Vinny Testaverde's arm. Then the Giants did it against the Vikings, eschewing their typical balance.

No, the all-out approach can't possibly work as well for the Giants against the Ravens, whose pass defense ranked eighth in the NFL during the regular season. It might not be quite as impregnable as the Ravens' run defense, but it's still plenty tough, with young cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Duane Starks playing brilliantly.

"Remember, the Jets didn't score a touchdown on us after the first quarter, even though they kept throwing and throwing," McAlister said. "A team that throws 69 times against us [like the Jets] is taking a huge risk. We're making a ton of plays back there. Personally, I don't think that's the way to play us."

Yet trying to run the ball is close to pointless, as the Raiders, Broncos and others now know.

It could be that the Ravens' defense is just too good, that there are no weaknesses, that any approach is doomed. You don't pull within 60 minutes of a Super Bowl title by accident.

But either way, let there be no doubt: An opponent that plays conservatively, wastes time trying to run and limits its challenges to the secondary is playing right into the Ravens' hands.

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