Scoring defense points Ravens toward upset

Commentary

Pro Football

October 31, 2004|By David Steele | David Steele,SUN COLUMNIST

Considering that today's game in Philadelphia is as teeming with dramatic subplots as any game this year, a surprising number of questions were posed to the Ravens last week about their end-zone dances.

Never mind that the fluffy nature of the line of questioning made one wonder if MTV was now covering the NFL full time. What made this truly unusual was that the questions were directed to members of the Ravens' defense.

What more convincing do you need that the Ravens will hand the Eagles their first loss of the season today?

OK, guess you'll need a little more than that.

But that illustrates how special this defensive unit is. On normal teams, the offensive players devote the most time to touchdown celebrations. Case in point, the Ravens' nemesis today, one Terrell Owens, who has had so many opportunities to be annoying largely because he gets into the end zone so often.

So do the Ravens. On defense, that is. That's what will make the difference today.

There's no point in worrying about the offense at this point. Even if Jamal Lewis and Todd Heap and Jonathan Ogden were back and fully healthy (or cleared of all wrongdoing, as the case may be), only so many points a week can be squeezed out of it. Without them, expect more performances like the one last week and pretty much every week before that.

The Eagles' defense is going to be a pain, for sure. Kyle Boller is in for a brutal day. He's going to get hit, shaken up, flustered and turned every which way. If the Ravens have to play catch-up, the punishment will be worse. If they're ahead, a repeat of the 17 yards of offense and the Matt Stover-Dave Zastudil duet is certain.

And that's different from every other game exactly how?

As much as he wishes he didn't have to, Brian Billick is prepared to accept what his offense produces, for lack of a better term. "I'm sorry," he said last week, "but I'm not going to apologize for a team that gets ahead, plays great defense and tries not to put itself in a vulnerable position that costs us the win."

This defense requires no apologies, except maybe to those against whom it has done its damage.

What's different this time is T.O. and Donovan McNabb. They're threats the likes of which the Ravens haven't seen all year, with the possible exception of the Chiefs in the Monday night debacle last month. And that's a notable exception because the Eagles not only don't have a Priest Holmes, they also likely won't have Brian Westbrook, their best running threat and a formidable pass-catching threat as well.

Besides, the K.C. game is the only blemish on a body of work by a defense that can change a game like no other, in a different way from their 2000 Super Bowl predecessors.

It goes against all logic to envision a good-but-not-great team beating an elite team when all of the good team's strength is on one side of the ball. The logic tips the other way, however, when that one side is so utterly dominant. Not in the manner of shoving the ball down the other team's throats, but in taking it away and turning it into points in the other direction.

More stunning than the number of times the Ravens' defense has scored is the number of times it has come close. There's no way that doesn't rattle an opposing offense, knowing that any mistake can change the score and the game so dramatically. The quarterback, running back, receiver, coaches, all have to reconsider their worst-case scenarios against the Ravens, because they become so possible.

McNabb is great, but one mistake can become a 14-point swing in a hurry. Owens is on a roll, but he has been known to under-extend for a ball and round off a route before. And so far, neither has really been tested on his ability to transform from an offensive player to defensive. The Ravens, though, have mastered the reverse.

A "potent" defense, as Deion Sanders called it last week, is a great equalizer. Maybe even enough to tip an otherwise un-tippable scale.

So imagine this:

The Ravens get off the one lengthy drive they tend to manage each week and produce a Stover field goal. Boller doesn't turn the ball over too much, maybe once. Good field-position play - that is, defense and special teams - puts them in range for two more Stover field goals.

McNabb and Owens manage one big strike, and T.O. celebrates with some exaggerated mock "slapping." Give David Akers a pair of well-earned field goals.

And throw in a touchdown by - well, take your pick. Deion. Terrell Suggs. Ed Reed. Ray Lewis (he's way overdue). It could be anybody. These guys are lining up for chances to go long - and polish the dances they've been asked about so much lately.

Final score: Ravens 16, Eagles 13.

Remember, you saw it here first.

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