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Quoth the Ravens: Points Nevermore

Pro football: Baltimore's defense is on the verge of an NFL record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season.

December 24, 2000|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Rod Woodson knows the score.

"We'd have to have a pretty big meltdown," the veteran Baltimore Raven safety said.

Linebacker Ray Lewis, the leading tackler on a team that has given up only 145 points--a mere 9.7 a game--doesn't have much doubt either.

"You know, that's almost unrealistic to say the Jets are going to score 41 points," Lewis said. "I don't see that happening."

That's all that stands between the Ravens and a piece of NFL history today--the New York Jets and a 41-point cushion.

That's the margin the Ravens have to work with as they try to set the record for fewest points given up in a 16-game NFL season.

They've given up more than 14 points only three times.

Four times, the other team hasn't scored at all.

The only meltdown was a 39-36 victory over Jacksonville in Week 2.

Against the Jets, the Ravens can give up 42 points and still tie the record of 187 set by the 1986 Chicago Bears.

That would put them in the books.

But it's going to take more than that to become a truly memorable defense like the great Bear, Steeler, Packer and Viking defenses of old.

It will take a deep run into the playoffs, if not a trip to the Super Bowl.

"Ultimately, a championship is how it's going to be measured," Baltimore Coach Brian Billick said. "We're measured against the '86 Bears, because they're the ones that have the record. But people forget it was the '85 Bears that won the Super Bowl.

"So which was a better defense, the '85 team that went to the Super Bowl or the '86 team that didn't but had the record?"

Not much doubt where the Ravens stand, especially because Buddy Ryan, defensive coordinator of the '85 Bears but not the '86 Bears, is a frequent visitor to Raven games and training camps. His son Rex coaches the defensive line.

One of the ironies of the Ravens' 11-4 season is that Billick is known as an offensive coach. But the Ravens--who endured a five-game touchdown drought at midseason before Trent Dilfer took over at quarterback and rookie Jamal Lewis emerged at running back--are a defensive team.

That's because of a collection of well-known talent.

There's Woodson, the former Pittsburgh Steeler cornerback and future Hall of Famer in his 14th season.

There's Ray Lewis, quite possibly the best linebacker in the NFL, though he is more famous for facing murder charges this year. His trial ended when he pleaded to obstruction of justice and testified against two co-defendants who were later acquitted.

Add to that linebackers Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper, and a front four of Rob Burnett, Sam Adams, Tony Siragusa and Michael McCrary.

But the Ravens' success is also largely because of a relatively little-known talent: defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis.

If USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett had talked to him after Lewis' agent sent a letter inquiring about the coaching job, he would have found a lot to like.

At 42, Lewis is in his fifth season as the Ravens' coordinator. He is strikingly bright and personable and raves about the USC aura from his stop as an assistant at Long Beach State before the school dropped football. And his players swear by him.

"I personally think he's the best coordinator in the game today," Woodson said.

"He's a genius," Ray Lewis said. "Sometimes he thinks of so much stuff, you sit there and say, 'Wow!' It's just a great thing to see how he works."

Marvin Lewis shrugs off USC's lack of interest.

"You know, you have to have an association, I think, with people," he said. "I think people hire through association."

Billick is a little more firm.

"I don't know what criteria they used," he said. "I know Marvin Lewis clearly is head-coaching material and will be a successful head coach wherever he goes."

That Lewis hasn't gone anywhere for five years has been Baltimore's good fortune, and many of the players have been with him for almost that long.

The front seven have been a unit since 1997, with the exception of Adams, a key free-agent pickup from Seattle last summer.

It makes a difference.

With that basic unit, the Ravens haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher in the last 32 games, the longest streak in the NFL since the San Diego Chargers' 34-game streak from 1993-95.

"That's the thing I have to compliment the Ravens' organization for, realizing it's not about just bringing people in every year, trying to upgrade every year," McCrary said. "It's about keeping the group together, the continuity, that's the key.

"I think [owner Daniel] Snyder's going to find out the hard way with the Redskins."

The players know the defensive system so well, it allows Lewis to introduce more complexity.

"Our defense, a lot of guys don't even take their playbooks home anymore because we know the defense like the back of our hands," McCrary said. "So now our defense basically is just a react, attack defense, instead of thinking. There's no hesitation to our defense, which means we're always at least a step ahead."

The Ravens play an attacking defense, though it's not as all-out as the old 46 defense the Bears played.

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