Behind Enemy Lines: Texans face Lewis, Ravens' elite defense

December 10, 2010|By Jeff Martini | Houston Chronicle

In 1996, the expansion Baltimore Ravens used the second of their two first-round draft picks, the first choices in franchise history, to select linebacker Ray Lewis.

Former defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis immediately installed Lewis on the weak side, but, after a couple of days, the former Miami Hurricanes star sought out his new coach to request a shift to the middle. Lewis, now the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, responded with news that the organization had just released Pepper Johnson, the player who had been occupying the rookie's natural spot.

"He looked at me and said, 'This is your team now. It's your defense. You run it,' " Lewis said. "From that point, whatever knowledge he had to share with me, I grabbed it. I grabbed it from him, and I was sitting in meetings with him and started to understand it. 'Coach, why this? Why that?' Then it came to a point to where their job became to give us the game plan and my job became to run my team, let my players know what our mentality should be.

"That's why, to this day, I still give speeches before the games the night before."

And that, in his own words, is the essence of Lewis.

In Houston, as the Texans stumble through a season that started with so much promise, there are cries for change, usually directed at head coach Gary Kubiak, defensive coordinator Frank Bush or any members of the secondary.

But actual movement? Lewis has witnessed plenty with the Ravens in the last 15 years. As teammates, coaches and coordinators have come and gone, he has remained the constant in the middle. Voted to 11 Pro Bowls and a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, he is the impossibly high standard by which all linebackers, including the Texans' DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing, are judged. Quite a run for defense

During Lewis' rookie season, Baltimore finished last in the NFL in total defense. The next year, it was 25th. In 1998, it was 22nd. Then, in 1999, the Ravens vaulted to No. 2, where the unit remained for three consecutive seasons, including a Super Bowl run in 2000. Baltimore tumbled to 22nd in 2002, but Lewis only played in five games that year.

The following year, healthy once again, the Ravens were back up to No. 3 in 2003, and the defense finished in the top 10 for the rest of the decade.

"He's the face of the defense," Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said. "He's the guy who sets the tone through many coordinators and through three head coaches. I think that Ray Lewis is the personality of that defense, and he's real good player still."

Lewis obviously is gifted, despite originally being deemed too small by ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper. But so are Ryans and Cushing, along with a slew of linebackers who have entered the league since 1995.

What sets Lewis apart?

"I think that he's just a complete player," Harbaugh said. "You got a guy who is very knowledgeable of what he's doing, but he's also extremely talented. He knows that position, I would assume, better than anybody who ever played that position."

Lewis attacks film as he might an opposing ball-carrier -- he's relentless. His focus, however, is strictly on the offensive side of the ball. While he was complimentary specifically of Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson -- "He's just an animal" -- and running back Arian Foster -- "He kind of reminds you of a Roger Craig back in the day" -- Lewis admitted he hasn't paid much attention to the Texans' defensive woes. Not ready to retire

As a result, though, he realizes how dangerous the team can be.

"You just tip your hat to them that they are still fighting," Lewis said. "Those are the scary teams in the NFL, the ones that have nothing to lose and just really want to go out there to play."

He would know. Baltimore once was one of those teams, limping to losing records in each of their first three years of existence. As the statistics attest, the Ravens weren't always renowned for their defensive acumen. But that personality eventually was reshaped, and Lewis was the blunt instrument applying the force.

"I think passion is the reason you have to play," said Lewis, who said Thursday retirement isn't on his mind. "That is the only way you could play defense. I don't think you could play defense with a lackadaisical attitude because defense is different. … You've got to always have a chip on your shoulder. I think, from my side, that's what the passion comes from."

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