Making a grab at greatness

Defense: Challenged by Ray Lewis, the Ravens' defense might have the ability and ambition to measure up to the record-setting Super Bowl unit of 2000.

Nfl Preview 2004

The Ravens

September 09, 2004|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

The idea of pursuing NFL immortality commenced months ago, tossed out by Ray Lewis like an unprotected football.

Now, it's up to the Ravens to pounce on it.

In one of the first defensive meetings this year, Lewis stood before his teammates, and the team's undisputed leader spoke passionately about how they had more talent than the 2000 defense and should shoot for greatness.

"I threw out the challenge," Lewis said. "I told them when our defense came together in 2000, it was one heartbeat. We had that landmark - the football - and everyone went after it together. That's our goal: to have that same will and dedication to what we all believe in, and that's being better than 2000."

As the Ravens begin their quest for another Super Bowl, once again spearheaded by defense, the debate has ensued:

Can this year's defense be as dominant as its record-breaking predecessor?

Can these young defenders carry the Ravens to a championship, as the 2000 veteran-laden group did?

Popular opinion among former and current Ravens is that this defense has enough talent to make a legitimate argument.

But the division between those who believe this unit can ascend to the same historic class and those who think otherwise is as wide as the run-stopping wall of Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams.

In this deliberation of defenses, there was only one definitive agreement.

"It doesn't matter how well they play defensively. Unless they win a championship, it's not even close," said Shannon Sharpe, a tight end on the Ravens' 2000 team and now a CBS television analyst.

"On paper, yeah, there's a great chance for them to do it. But on paper, the [U.S. Olympic basketball] Dream Team was supposed to win the gold medal, and they got bronze."

Is it realistic to think there could be an equally stout next generation of Ravens?

Like the old days, Siragusa was the mouthpiece for many of the former defensive players.

"It's a pretty high bar that we set, but I think they have the capability," he said. "Can it happen? It could. Would I put my life savings on it? No way."

Different pieces

Both defenses were built on the same principles - speed, swarming tackling and swagger. And that's where the similarities end.

The new version relies on a different scheme, switching from the 4-3 (four linemen and three linebackers) to the more versatile 3-4.

It relies on different players, changing from an experienced group that took a businesslike approach to the game to a youthful bunch that thrives on emotion.

It even relies on a different identity, transforming from a run-stuffing unit to a ball-hawking one.

"We look different, but these guys play like Ravens," said defensive line coach Rex Ryan, the only coach remaining from the 2000 defensive staff. "This whole team understands their role and that's what the key was in 2000. So, if anybody is going to do it [rival that 2000 defense], it will be this group. And I think we can do it."

Some consider such an assertion blasphemous.

The 2000 defense staked its claim among the all-time greats after allowing the fewest points (165) and the fewest rushing yards (60.6 a game) over a 16-game schedule in NFL history. That group also posted four shutouts, one shy of another league mark.

In contrast, this year's defense has yet to wipe out certain points of concern.

The Ravens don't know when injured linebacker Peter Boulware will return this season. They don't know how effective Deion Sanders will be as the nickel back (fifth defensive back) after a three-year layoff. And they don't know if Terrell Suggs has truly made the transition to an every-down linebacker.

"I won't say this defense can do anything as compared to 2000," said cornerback Chris McAlister, one of three remaining starters from the 2000 defense along with linebackers Boulware and Lewis.

"This is 2004, and I would never disrespect the guys that I played with in 2000. What I can say, the talent that we have here now, there's a great potential for this defense to be the best in the league this year."

Whereas the 2000 defense had an impeccable pedigree (five of 11 starters were originally top 10 draft picks), this new one is primarily composed of mutts.

The Ravens probably would have drafted linebacker Napoleon Harris in the first round of 2002 if the Oakland Raiders hadn't taken him one spot ahead of them. Instead, the Ravens' fallback choice was safety Ed Reed, who has developed into one of the game's top playmakers.

That was the same year in which nose tackle Kelly Gregg was seen as a stopgap player, one to hold down the position until the Ravens had more salary cap room to upgrade. Gregg, the stocky former practice squad player once referred to as the team's "mascot" in 2000, has established himself as a Pro Bowl-caliber lineman.

And remember when Gary Baxter was drafted in the second round in 2001 as the heir to safety Rod Woodson? He is now regarded as one of the fast-rising cornerbacks in the league.

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