Ravens' trio of linebackers tackles best-ever questions

September 10, 2001|By Mike Preston

IT'S OFFICIAL NOW. The torch has been passed.

The Ravens' defensive line carried the league's best defense a year ago, but the heart and soul has become the linebackers, and it has been this way since Day One of training camp in July.

Tough, young, focused and aggressive. The Ravens' trio of Ray Lewis, Jamie Sharper and Peter Boulware is ready to accept the mantle of the best in the NFL.

Yesterday in the 2001 season opener, the Chicago Bears brought a new offensive strategy to PSINet Stadium. They nullified the Ravens' defensive line with quick, short passes to the outside. They went with five receivers and no backs. They went with no huddle at times because they wanted to take on the Ravens' linebackers and secondary.

Wrong choice as far as the linebackers were concerned.

Lewis, Sharper and Boulware run as well as any linebackers in the league. Lewis gobbles up everything in the middle. Sharper freelances on the weak side and, because of the Ravens' gap control schemes, usually is one of the top tacklers every game.

And Boulware, on the strong side, is the pass-rushing specialist.

Here were their stats yesterday in the Ravens' 17-6 win: Sharper had 12 tackles, eight unassisted, and three knocked-down passes. Boulware was the team's second-leading tackler with 11, including two sacks. He also knocked down two passes. Lewis had eight tackles, with one interception that set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Terry Allen with 2:36 left in the game.

The Bears finished with 183 yards of total offense.

"They are on a mission," said Ravens linebackers coach Jack Del Rio. "It just keeps getting better. Jamie has really developed into a guy who stays on the field every down. Peter is healthy and Ray is Ray. It's a special group."

"We talk about being the best all the time," Del Rio said. "The focus is they have to be the best every play, every day. That's how we approach it, and that becomes who we are."

If the linebackers had one overall weakness, it was pass defense. But it wasn't because they couldn't cover; they didn't want to cover. This trio has way too much athletic talent to be deficient in any area.

But yesterday, they joined the secondary in shutting down the passing lanes. By the second half, Lewis and Sharper had pretty much wiped out those quick hitch and screen passes that the Bears had success with in the first half. What was impressive is that the Ravens' linebackers could line up and cover some of the Bears' receivers in the slot position.

But that was only half the show. The linebackers are unselfish, and they are starting to feed off each other's contributions. It was that way in training camp when several members of the defensive line took it easy, but Lewis, Sharper and Boulware always set the pace and tone for practices.

It was that way yesterday. Several times Boulware stuffed Bears fullback Daimon Shelton on the perimeter, which allowed Lewis to work underneath and tackle running back James Allen

Lewis' interception was tipped by Sharper first on a pass from Shane Matthews. Sharper and Boulware already know that Lewis is the best among the group, perhaps the best to ever play his position in the game.

They are now playing catch-up. They are all about the same age, but Lewis was drafted in the first round along with offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden in 1996. Boulware and Sharper came a year later in the draft, Boulware in the first round and Sharper in the second.

"We want to be the best linebacking crew in the league this year," Boulware said. "I'll go out on the limb and say we want to be the best to ever play the game. That's what we want to be known as. We already have the best middle linebacker in Ray Lewis; now it's up to me and Jamie to reach his status. We're behind, but making moves in the right direction."

Boulware's progress has been delayed by a shoulder separation the past two seasons. He has missed substantial practice time in training camp because of the injury, and a special harness limited his arm movements. Sharper has always been the least noticeable of the three, partly because he came off the field on third-down situations as part of the team's nickel package (five defensive backs).

Also, he doesn't have Lewis' charisma or skill, and Boulware will get more attention because he is a pass-rushing specialist. But during the off-season, Del Rio gave all three of them special instructions.

"Brian [Billick, coach] said focus on one or two things," Del Rio said. "I told Ray about increasing his turnover ration. I told Peter he had to become more of a physical factor, and that would take his game to a whole new level. He embraced it, worked his butt off in the off-season and is playing with two healthy arms."

"Jamie was to continue to work on his footwork and keys so his natural ability would come out," Del Rio said. "All three of them have taken it to another level."

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