League tackles task of imitating Ravens

Trend: In the copycat world of the NFL, dominating defense is now in style, as several teams are trying to duplicate the Ravens' Super Bowl success by beefing up at the tackle position.

September 07, 2001|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The NFL's past two Super Bowl champions could not have been more disparate in methodology.

In 2000, the Ravens won with a dominating defense and smash-mouth offense, forcing the issue with their fierce defensive line.

In 1999, the St. Louis Rams won with prolific passing and timely defense, forcing the issue with a spread offense designed to create mismatches.

What style will win this season? A defensive mind-set like the Ravens used to throttle opponents? Or an offensive philosophy like the Rams' that often turned the game into Arena-ball?

The proponents are lined up on each side of the ball.

Advocates of defense-inspired success include three 2000 playoff teams - the New York Giants, Miami Dolphins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. All three finished in the top 10 in defense, yet none finished higher than 13th in offense.

Attempting to follow the lead of St. Louis' No. 1-ranked offense of last year are the No. 2 Denver Broncos, No. 3 Indianapolis Colts, No. 4 San Francisco 49ers, No. 5 Minnesota Vikings and No. 6 Oakland Raiders.

Of those teams, only Oakland cracked the top 20 rankings in defense, a middle-of-the-road 17th. And only San Francisco missed the playoffs last season.

Worth noting is the position of Brian Billick, coach of the defending champs. Shortly after the Super Bowl, Billick said he didn't believe the formula of ball-control offense - linked to dominant defense - would give the Ravens their best chance to repeat.

Toward that end, he replaced quarterback Trent Dilfer with 4,000-yard passer Elvis Grbac. Then, when star running back Jamal Lewis blew out his knee in training camp, Billick had even more reason to adjust the formula.

"Last year, [outsiders] said `You can't win this way,' " Billick said of the ball-control/defense mode. "We said, `Yeah, we can.' This year, they're saying, `That's the way to win.' And we're saying, `No, it's not.' "

A number of teams already have begun to emulate the Ravens' defensive success. With Pro Bowl player Sam Adams and veteran Tony Siragusa, a pair of 330-pound-plus defensive tackles, clogging the rush lanes, teams were forced to throw - with minimal success - against the Ravens' physical cornerbacks, Duane Starks and Chris McAlister.

In the off-season, at least 12 teams made major upgrades at defensive tackle. The Chicago Bears signed 330-pound Ted Washington and 305-pound Keith Traylor. The offensive-minded Rams drafted two 300-pounders in the first round, Damione Lewis and Ryan Pickett. The Seattle Seahawks signed Chad Eaton and John Randle. The Colts signed Mike Wells and Christian Peter.

Three teams in the Ravens' division, the AFC Central, drafted defensive tackles in the first round (Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars and Pittsburgh Steelers). Another, the Cincinnati Bengals, signed free-agent tackle Tony Williams.

Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis has watched the rush toward big tackles in quiet curiosity.

"We didn't try to get big defensive tackles; we wanted guys who were athletic and could stay on their feet," he said. ""It's like trying to go out and copy John Elway. You're not copying his arm strength. It's all the other things that [the Ravens' tackles] do."

The one team in the division that didn't make a concession to the Ravens' blueprint was their chief rivals, the Tennessee Titans.

"I think there's always going to be a few teams that are going to try to emulate somebody that had success the previous year," said Titans coach Jeff Fisher. "We don't have big tackles. Our tackles are 280 pounds. They're fast and we play different. We had a pretty good defensive year ourselves."

Fisher doesn't follow the copycat trend in the NFL. He's more focused on his own plan of action.

"You have to have some plan; you have to have direction," he said. "You have to take advantage of the people you have, and you have to do it your own way. Because if I spend time trying to be like Denver, Denver is going to change a year from now, and then who am I trying to be like?

"We all have to do it our own way. There is an identity crisis in the NFL; it changes every year."

The Titans are trying to win with balance, a rarity in this salary cap era when finances force teams to pick and choose their strengths. Other teams that appear to be balanced on both sides of the ball this year are the New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers.

Which style will win in 2001? Dominant defense? Prolific offense? Or uncommon balance? The next 20 weeks will tell. But one thing is certain: Whichever style does win will become the rage next off-season.

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