Surprisingly, Sanders needed in prime role

Ravens Gameday

Ravens 20, Bills 6

October 25, 2004|By David Steele

AS IF ANYONE thought Brian Billick could resist saying, "I told you so," Billick said he told us so. Told us signing Deion Sanders was the right idea back in the summer, and saw himself proved right yesterday.

The problem is - and it is a problem - not even Billick could have imagined then how much he would have needed Deion. No way he could have thought he'd be sitting there near the end of October, after a home victory against the lowly Buffalo Bills, this thankful that he had another offensive weapon on defense.

The Ravens, it's obvious now, can use all the offensive threats on defense they can muster. Most people figured that the Ravens had enough before they lured Sanders out of retirement, that shoehorning him into this unit was overkill.

Apparently, it's not. If all your scoring is coming from the guys who don't generally have the ball, you might as well pack on as many weapons as possible.

Even Sanders recognizes this as a unique group. He has been on some top-rated defenses in his day, he acknowledged afterward, "but not this potent, not at all."

Who describes a defense as "potent"? Offenses are supposed to be potent. This team is writing a new language for this game, out of necessity.

The defense is doing a lot out of necessity these days. More than it should be expected to. Deion himself is doing more than anyone should have thought, too, although he was feeling his oats yesterday. He relished all of his action on defense, offense and punt returns, as well as the close-up on the video board late in the game (he bowed to what was left of the wet but satisfied crowd) and the attention of the cameras afterward.

"I'm a 37-year-old kid out there," he said, and he looked more than frisky while high-stepping (well, high-stepping halfway) to his first touchdown in five years.

Time will tell whether Sanders can keep this up. The same goes for his defensive cohorts.

Sanders' 48-yard touchdown return surely made all the highlight shows. More than likely, so did the other pick he made, in the end zone in the fourth quarter. So did the one his latest protege, Chad Williams (12 years his junior), made in the end zone later in the fourth and returned nearly all the way.

A few wrap-up shows probably squeezed in the two other times the Ravens stopped the Bills inside the 10-yard line and held them to field goals. Not to mention the fumble Terrell Suggs forced while sacking Drew Bledsoe near midfield, one of the quarterback's five turnovers.

Note the theme developing. As wretched as the Bills' offense was all day and as inept and confused as Bledsoe looked, the Ravens spent a lot of time being pushed toward their goal line, only to push back - and then to trot out and do it again after their own offense stalled.

They dominated the game, yet they could never afford a big slip-up, of the type that cost them a win in the opener in Cleveland. To their eternal credit, they never slipped up yesterday. Had they slipped up, they might not have survived. Once again, they played with a fire fanned by their own teammates.

Yesterday, the offense pounded out a whopping 17 yards in the second half. The Bills had possession 6 1/2 minutes longer in that half, most of the time while the score was 17-6, when a touchdown and two-point conversion would have brought them within a field goal.

The "D" never broke, but it couldn't settle for that. It had to get the ball and either score or get it close, to provide a cushion. That's going far above and beyond.

It has to get tiresome after a while. The defense, to a man, insists it hasn't. A little testily at times, as Chris McAlister proved while bristling at yet another question about one unit bailing out the other.

"Why are you trying to bash our offense?" he barked to one questioner, and it wasn't clear whether he was kidding. "Did we win? Did we win? So we can win with that type of offense." Nope, wasn't kidding.

The problem, though, isn't whether it's tiresome. It's whether it's dangerous. Especially with the upcoming schedule.

In hindsight, Sanders does more than make it easier to win with "that type" of offense. He helps ensure it. His touchdown was the fourth scored by the defense or special teams in the past three games, and without all of them, the Ravens might have lost not just one of them but all three.

The Ravens already had players who could do what Sanders does - turn a scoring drive the other way. Now, having the original version is no longer a bonus or a luxury; he's close to being essential. They need every thing Prime Time can give them.

If Billick envisioned that back in August, he's better than anyone's giving him credit for.

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