Time to put memories of 2000 defense to rest

December 27, 2004|By MIKE PRESTON

PITTSBURGH -- The Ravens should make it official and ban any comparisons between their current defense and the record-setting group of 2000.

If you mention the C-word, you should have to run extra sprints or pay a heavy fine. Worse yet, make the culprit sit through an instructional film five times on how to kill a quarterback's career (produced by Brian Billick and Matt Cavanaugh).

This 2000 mess keeps getting the Ravens in trouble, and out of the playoffs. They're stuck in that time warp, with those blueprints of winning a Super Bowl.

It went something like this: Great defense, good special teams and conservative, run-oriented offenses equal Super Bowl title.

The Ravens thought they had another great defense for 2004, which is why Billick started rookie Kyle Boller last season to gain valuable experience. It's also one of the reasons they didn't bring in athletic offensive linemen during the past offseason.

It hasn't worked. This defense isn't great, not even in the same solar system as the 2000 Ravens. As a matter of fact, this group isn't even good anymore, not after another second-half meltdown in a 20-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers yesterday at Heinz Field.

The defense can't stop the run or big pass plays. When the time has come for the defense to step up, it has gotten stepped on.

It happened on the road in New England and in Indianapolis. It also happened against lowly Cincinnati at home. And then Pittsburgh punched and knocked out the Ravens yesterday. They're still counting in Pittsburgh.

This is a team without a leader. Billick seems to have lost his grip a little on the team, and Ray Lewis isn't commanding the same respect he used to.

"We have been a little up and down," said defensive end Tony Weaver, discussing the season. "There have been times we've been brilliant, and other times we've been up and down. We've underachieved."

You can understand the Ravens' logic. A lot of teams keep the championship formula for years. But the 2000 defense was special, a unit that comes along once in a lifetime.

The Ravens have invested a lot of money in defensive players since Billick became coach in 1999, but it's time to find some balance or get more dominating defensive players. This defense is good enough to win most games, but not good enough to win against good teams without some help from the offense.

In 2000, the Ravens were in a 4-3 defense, and Lewis could roam the field at middle linebacker because of the two heavyweights in front of him, tackles Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams.

Where were those two sumo wrestlers yesterday?

Pittsburgh rushed for 183 yards, 117 by halfback Jerome Bettis. The Ravens were in the game until the start of the third quarter, when Pittsburgh opened up with a relentless, demoralizing, humiliating 14-play (12 of them running), 71-yard touchdown drive that used up nearly nine minutes and gave the Steelers a 17-7 lead.

Where were Pro Bowl linebackers Lewis and Terrell Suggs? Where were defensive linemen Kelly Gregg, Marques Douglas and Weaver?

On "skates," as the old expression goes.

"We have to respond better in those circumstances," Billick said.

The Ravens failed to respond to anything. With Pittsburgh ahead 17-7 and faced with third-and-eight at its 37-yard line with 6:15 left in the game, running back Verron Haynes ran up the middle on a draw for 14 yards. About two minutes later, on third-and-three at the Ravens' 42, Bettis ran off left tackle for 6 yards.

First down.

It was downright embarrassing. You saw it coming earlier in the game when the Steelers went for it on fourth-and-two from the Ravens' 32 with 3:13 remaining in the half and leading only 10-7. Forget the result (the Steelers failed to convert), it just let the Ravens know what Pittsburgh thought of them before and after the game.

Here's fullback Dan Kreider on Lewis' 13-tackle performance: "He was making a lot of tackles 4 and 5 yards down the field, and fortunately, that was good for us."

Here's Kreider on some of the Ravens' missed tackles against Bettis: "It's great being a fullback in this offense and watching guys miss him. There are times when guys miss him because they're trying not to tackle him."

The Ravens' pass defense wasn't as poor, but there were gaping holes, especially in the middle. Plaxico Burress had three catches for 97 yards, including a long of 36 (for a touchdown). Antwaan Randle El had three catches for 55 yards including one of 33, and tight end Jerame Tuman had a 24-yarder.

"A lot of missed tackles, and we didn't match the physical part as well," said Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.

That didn't happen in 2000 because Lewis and outside linebacker Peter Boulware were better players. Douglas and Weaver are small compared with Siragusa and Adams, and can't generate a pass rush like ends Michael McCrary and Rob Burnett did.

Ravens cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Duane Starks were a hot tandem in the 2000 stretch run, but McAlister and fellow cornerback Gary Baxter aren't in the same class.

It has been unfair to put that kind of pressure on this defense, and the Ravens need to make some alterations to the blueprint. The year 2000 was an aberration. This current group has been hearing about the 2000 unit since the 2001 season. The players are tired of it. It's time to put it to rest.

"Every time a great boxer comes out, if they compare him to Muhammad Ali, he will never make it to the podium," said cornerback Corey Fuller. "A lot of comparisons that we throw out around here need to be stopped."

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