Piecing together gang tackle

M. Lewis' top defense is the cohesive sum of carefully chosen parts

The Defenses

January 28, 2001|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

TAMPA, Fla. - In an age of overpowering offense, the Ravens are proving you can win with unyielding defense.

In an era of free agency and quick fixes, they have shown the more patient path may produce the greater reward.

The arrival of the Ravens' indomitable defense in Super Bowl XXXV is no overnight success story. This was five years in the making, a project launched in 1996 with the hiring of Marvin Lewis as defensive coordinator.

Lewis stands on the verge of earning a Super Bowl ring and a head coaching job in Buffalo or Cleveland.

The defense he sends into Raymond James Stadium tonight against the New York Giants is a hand-picked collection of some of the finest athletes in the NFL.

Ray Lewis is already being compared to the greatest middle linebackers ever to play the game. Outside linebacker Peter Boulware was good enough to go to the Pro Bowl playing with one arm a year ago. Chris McAlister and Duane Starks are among the quickest cornerbacks in the game.

All four players are home-grown, chosen in the draft by the Ravens. Seven of the starting 11 on defense were drafted by the organization, including defensive end Rob Burnett, a 1990 pick by the Cleveland Browns. Eight of the 11 were originally first- or second-round picks.

"This was like going to school," said Marvin Lewis, who had a voice in those draft choices. "It is a process. You can try to do it the way the Redskins did it [through free agency], or you can do it this way.

"This way stays a little longer because you're teaching the fundamentals of it from the bottom up. That way, we're not having to spend as much time reshaping attitudes."

It is a process of selection and maturation, coaching and commitment.

It took second-round pick Jamie Sharper three years to establish himself at outside linebacker in Marvin Lewis' scheme. His performance this year, his fourth with the Ravens, will propel him into the off-season as one of the league's most attractive - and expensive - free agents.

It took defensive tackle Sam Adams one season in that scheme to shed a reputation as a slacker with the Seattle Seahawks. Adams, Seattle's first-round pick in 1994, will head to the Pro Bowl tomorrow.

And it took Boulware and defensive end Michael McCrary, two of the league's best pure pass rushers, time to buy into the greater concept of team defense.

"Boulware and McCrary were both so consumed with sacks, sacks, sacks, that draws and traps were a big problem two years ago for the Ravens," said linebackers coach Jack Del Rio, who will become the defensive coordinator if Marvin Lewis leaves. "They have sacrificed and understand now what their responsibility is to the team. And they embrace that.

"This team has done incredible things that would never have occurred had they not bought into the team concept. Everyone's been asked to do what needs to be done for the scheme and for us to be a cohesive unit."

This might be the most cohesive unit in the NFL. Everyone has a role and no one oversteps it. It is a swarming, meet-you-at-the-ball defense. It is a raucous, take-the-ball-away defense.

Incredible things?

It's been well-documented that the Ravens this season allowed the fewest points (165) over a 16-game schedule in NFL history. They allowed the fewest rushing yards (60.6 a game) over a 16-game schedule, too.

But that is only half the story.

In May, when Marvin Lewis mapped out his blueprint for 2000, he pinpointed three critical areas that needed upgrading: take-aways, third downs and red-zone defense. When he pulled out the sheet of paper listing those goals last week, he could only grin.

"We've hit every one of them," he said.

The Ravens increased their take-away total from 31 in 1999 to 49 this season.

They improved their third-down success rate from 65.9 percent in 1999 to 68 percent, including the playoffs. (The two games they didn't meet their third-down goals, they lost.)

The Ravens also allowed a league-low 27 penetrations inside their 20, surrendering only eight touchdowns. Counting the postseason, the Ravens have allowed just nine touchdowns in 34 possessions inside the 20.

"We stay on our feet, we run and we tackle," said defensive line coach Rex Ryan. "There are probably teams more creative on defense than we. But as far as fundamentals, I think we play fundamentally as well as any team in the league."

One of the things the Ravens do best on defense is play fast, which is not as simple as it sounds.

"The only way you can play fast is if you're certain of what your role is," Del Rio said. "You know what you're supposed to see, what you're supposed to key, where you're supposed to go, and then you go without hesitation or concern. You build a trust that everyone will do his job."

An 11-year linebacker in the NFL, Del Rio played on a similar defense with the Minnesota Vikings in 1994.

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