November 26, 2004
A Defense To Be “Raven” About
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
The last time the Baltimore Ravens came to Foxborough, it was the valedictory to the Pete Carroll Era.
January 2, 2000. Baltimore comes into Foxborough Stadium, complete with a decent defense and a running back named Priest Holmes. Bob Kraft informed Carroll before the game that this would be his last game as Patriot head coach. The players were unaware of this prospect, but went out and played their best game in about a month and defeated the Ravens, 20-3 to square their season record at 8-8. The Patriots had just completed a disastrous second half, going 2-6 after a midseason bye week.
The Patriots have played Baltimore only twice since their move from Cleveland. In addition to this game, they won a shootout at old Memorial Stadium in 1996, 46-38. The Patriots are 2-0 against the Ravens, and have never played at the Ravens’ glistening new home, M&T Bank Stadium. In the time that has passed since the meeting at the end of the 1999 season, the Ravens have won a Super Bowl, and have established themselves as a rock solid defensive club combined with an often anemic offense.
Brian Billick’s forte is offense. He was the architect of the Minnesota Vikings offense for seven seasons prior to becoming Ravens head coach. He reached the apex of this portion of his career in his final season in Minnesota, as the Vikings rolled up an NFL record 556 points in a season, breaking the record set by the 1983 Redskins. This was that Vikings team that went 15-1, but lost in overtime at home in the NFC Championship Game to a 14-2 Atlanta squad.
Billick turned this record-breaking season into a head-coaching gig in Baltimore. Ironically, Billick has never been able to recapture the offensive level he achieved in Minnesota, and really hasn’t had to, at least in the 2000 season. During that season, the Ravens became the biggest poster children for the phrase “defense wins championships”. The Ravens supplanted the 1985 Chicago Bears as the best one-season defense in league history, as they rolled all the way to a win in Super Bowl XXXV despite going into a touchdown-scoring drought of epic proportions.
The Ravens managed to score a bit in the big game, defeating the Giants 34-7 in Tampa. The Ravens did score a then-unthinkable four touchdowns, but one was on a kickoff return and another was on an interception return. Trent Dilfer’s quarterback rating was 80.9, as he completed less than half of his passes. He is arguably the worst quarterback in NFL history to win a Super Bowl.
The bottom line is that defense carried the day for Baltimore like no other had done so in NFL history. The way the Ravens finished in 2000 left the rest of the league agog at how well this team was able to play defense.
You had Rob Burnett, Sam Adams, Mike McCrary and Tony Siragusa down low. You had Peter Boulware, Jamie Sharper, and some guy named Ray Lewis at linebacker. You had Duane Starks and Chris McAllister at the corners, Kim Herring and Rod Woodson deep. The Fridge could not crack this group. This was defense at its finest, none like whatever had been seen up to that point in league history. With Lewis at the epicenter and its heart and soul, the unit had a powerful persona combined with a nasty mean streak.
Naturally, things change over the years. Adams is now with Buffalo, Sharper with Houston, Herring with Cincinnati, Starks with Arizona, Siragusa with Fox and the dipolar opposite of Michele Tafoya or Suzy Kolber. Lewis is still there, so is McAllister, so is Boulware. A strong safety named Ed Reed came along three years ago and assumed the title of “best strong safety in the league”. Their defensive coordinator in 2000, Marvin Lewis, is now the head man at Cincinnati. Their current head defensive guy, Mike Nolan, is the son of former 49ers head coach Dick Nolan, and has kept the defensive fires burning in Baltimore.
The Ravens come to Foxborough third in the league in overall defense, third against the pass and seventh against the run. Some Patriots were quoted as saying that Lewis could stop the run all by himself. The Ravens are more than familiar with Corey Dillon, having faced him twice a year during his Bengal days. As for the pass defense, Tom Brady would be well advised to not throw near Reed in the end zone, as Reed has perfected the art of returning interceptions over 100 yards for touchdowns (one such play produced an NFL-record 106 yard interception return, the other was wiped out on a penalty).
If there is a sure way to beat the Ravens, it is merely to shut down their offense and try to eke out a field goal or two or three, and maybe get a defensive score. It is already known that Jamal Lewis, the NFL rushing champ last season, will be a scratch. All that’s left is to just handle quarterback Kyle Boller, right?
Wrong, Clarence Moore breath.
Moore can leap higher than any Celtic. And Boller is playing the best football of his young career at present. Boller, who was trying his best to imitate Dilfer in every way imaginable, has rung up four games this year of 100 or more rating points. In a 30-10 win against Dallas last week, he hit on 23 of 34 passes for 232 yards and two touchdowns, and a rating of 106.5, his second highest of the year. Boller is no longer the offensive liability he has been most of his career.
And if he gets it anywhere near Moore, he will leap higher than Dwight Clark and make that catch.
What the Patriots will try and do is to run Dillon off the tackles and around the ends, staying away from Lewis. They may also try and attack Gary Baxter, the cornerback opposite Deion Sanders (if McAllister does not play, he is listed as questionable). Flooding the secondary with multiple receiver sets would be nice, as long as Brady manages to stay clear of Reed.
One area of note concerns the punting game for Baltimore. Dave Zastudil, the Ravens punter, remains on the shelf, and Nick Murphy will punt for the Ravens in his second game. If Murphy has a bad game, it will greatly benefit the Patriots as field position may play a key role in what shapes up to be a bitter defensive struggle.
Having Deion Branch back and not having to deal with Jamal Lewis might spell a winning formula for the Patriots. But make no mistake, Ray Lewis and his gang will present perhaps the toughest defense the Patriots will have faced in a long time. Patriot Nation always seems to want the Patriots to avoid the Ravens come playoff time. This Sunday, they get to find out if their fears are justified.
The Patriots need to follow Ray’s Rule: We must protect this house.
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