Title defense is apt term for Ravens' task

A revived defense will likely decide how far champs go

January 10, 2002|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

The Ravens' defense hears history beckoning once again, and how it responds will likely decide the outcome of its postseason.

If it delivers another scintillating playoff run - loaded with intimidation and game-changing turnovers - the Ravens could boldly march to New Orleans, establishing a defensive legacy on the way.

If it flinches under the pressure to repeat, the Ravens probably will make an early exit and watch their crown of best defense get handed over to the likes of the Pittsburgh Steelers or Chicago Bears.

The Ravens' defense strong-armed its final three opponents to finish No. 2 in the league, the same ranking as a year ago. Is it possible for this defense to again carry the Ravens to the Super Bowl?

"Absolutely," defensive tackle Tony Siragusa said. "Something magical happens in this locker room come playoff time. The magic is here. We're as good as we want to be."

Defenses are defined by championships as well as longevity. Pittsburgh's "Steel Curtain" won four Super Bowls from 1975 to 1980. Dallas' "Doomsday Defense" earned back-to-back Super Bowl trips, winning once.

But the mark that the Ravens want to live up to is their own personal one. During last season's playoffs, the Ravens' defense surrendered just one touchdown. That group didn't allow a touchdown in its final 44 drives and shut out its opponents on the last 23 possessions of the playoffs.

"These guys don't want to relinquish that title," Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said. "They are very prideful of that. They established a standard that made it cool to play defense again."

Unlike last season's record-setting defense, the Ravens enter the playoffs having three fewer shutouts and 100 more points scored against them.

Injuries this season have cracked that wall of invincibility.

Their starting front four played only nine games intact, with everyone being inactive for at least one game. Defensive end Michael Mc- Crary had his season end in Week 10 after knee surgery and the other end, Rob Burnett, has been hampered with injuries.

By the end of the regular season, the defense's top 12 players had missed a total of 21 games.

That meant shifting Peter Boulware from outside linebacker to defensive end and replacing him with Brad Jackson. The aches along the line also brought more playing time to Adalius Thomas and Lional Dalton.

That transition gave way to numerous big plays, dropping the defense to No. 6 at one point.

"I believe we have guys that know how to play football," Lewis said. "But sometimes for whatever reason, you don't quite believe that you're part of the problem. And you have to come to the resolution that you are part of the problem to fix the problem. For the most part, that page had to get turned. Everybody looked at themselves in the mirror to rectify the situation."

Now, the Ravens' defense can clean the slate.

In Sunday's wild-card game, the Ravens face the Miami Dolphins and the NFL's 21st-ranked offense.

The Dolphins want to control the clock with a run-oriented attack behind back Lamar Smith, who has struggled to average 3.1 yards a carry. Their chances of winning, though, depend on quarterback Jay Fiedler. While the second-year starter completed 61 percent of his passes and is a threat to run, he has hurt Miami at times with 19 interceptions.

"It's like having finals in college," Lewis said. "It doesn't matter how you screwed up in the first semester, you still have a chance to make a statement. How they cram these next three days will determine a lot of things."

Their ability to cram at the end of the regular season has brought back the Ravens' confidence.

In the final three games of the regular season, the defense didn't permit a touchdown twice, forced eight turnovers and allowed only seven drives of 35 yards or longer. The Ravens ended the season with the fewest yards given up per play (4.4) in the league.

"If they want to say we got our swagger back, then yeah, we got our confidence back," said cornerback Duane Starks, who had the best games of his Ravens career during last season's playoffs. "As you can see over the past few weeks, we have been really stepping our game up. If we can continue on with that success, we can carry our team to the Super Bowl once again."

If that's the case, the offense is happy to go along for the ride.

"I think the past three weeks they're rounding back into the defense we saw last year," tight end Shannon Sharpe said. "If they can be that, we're definitely going to take care of the football. If I have to put tape over the mouths of [coach] Brian [Billick] and [offensive coordinator] Matt Cavanaugh and just call run plays myself, we're going to run the football and take care of the football. Trust me."

Heading into the playoffs, the Ravens are placing their trust in their defense once again.

"There's no doubt in our mind that we can carry this team," Thomas said. "If we play even close to what we're capable of playing to, nobody stands a chance."

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Miami Dolphins in AFC wild-card playoff

Site: Pro Player Stadium, Miami

When: Sunday, 4 p.m.

TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 9/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Records: Ravens 10-6, Dolphins 11-5

Line: Dolphins by 2 1/2

Defending the crown

The Ravens became only the fifth team in NFL history to not permit an offensive touchdown in the Super Bowl when they defeated the New York Giants, 34-7, last January. Three of the previous four teams that accomplished that feat repeated as champions the next season.

Team....First Super Bowl....Following season

'71-72 Cowboys...Def. Miami, 24-3...Lost in NFC championship game

'72-73 Dolphins...Def. Washington, 14-7...Super Bowl champions

'74-75 Steelers...Def. Minnesota, 16-6...Super Bowl champions

'88-89 49ers...Def. Cincinnati, 20-16...Super Bowl champions

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