- The Washington Times - Friday, December 15, 2006

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The lineage is there, but that’s about the only comparison between this year’s Baltimore Ravens defense and the record-setting 2000 Super Bowl unit.

“Personality, scheme, athleticism — there’s a great deal of difference,” Ravens coach Brian Billick said. “The youth on this defense, starting a rookie safety [Dawan Landry] and a rookie nose guard [Haloti Ngata], yeah there’s a great deal of difference.”

Despite the differences, the success remains the same. Defense wins championships — especially when that defense can score.

Linebacker Ray Lewis, the long-time face of the franchise, said this year’s opportunistic unit thinks like an offense. Opponents plan to stop the Ravens’ defense from scoring, he said, not the other way around.

“This defense is exciting because it has so many different athletes in so many places that can do so many different things,” said Lewis, a seven-time Pro Bowl selection. “We’re just built a certain way where we can make a play anywhere. We have so many different people that can play any and every position, it’s scary.”

That defense has scored five touchdowns this season off interception and fumble returns. Its plus-16 turnover ratio (22 interceptions and 10 fumbles) is the best in the league, a key to the Ravens’ success.

Baltimore is 40-0 under Billick when its turnover ratio is plus-2 or better and 57-5 at plus-1 or better. The message: Play loose with the football against Baltimore, and expect to lose.

As a result, Baltimore (10-3) can clinch first place in the AFC North with a victory Sunday against Cleveland (4-9).

“Every Wednesday when we come in, we do a turnover circuit. They really stress it. It’s been working for us,” nose tackle Kelly Gregg said. “It’s just drills — strip the ball, tip drills and picking up fumbles.”

The 2000 Ravens’ record-setting defense is widely regarded as one of the greatest ever, so dominant it carried the team to an improbable Super Bowl victory. That year, the defense set NFL records for fewest points allowed (165) and fewest rushing yards allowed (970) in a season.

“I’m not comparing this team to 2000. I’m not making any comparison,” said two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister, one of two holdovers (Lewis is the other) from that 2000 unit. “Every time we walk out on the field, [scoring is] our whole objective. Either three-and-out or create a turnover and keep moving.”

The Ravens have had three defensive coordinators under Billick — Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan, and Rex Ryan — and the defense has remained one of the NFL’s best through the years. It was Nolan who changed schemes from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense to better use the athletic ability of the Ravens’ linebacker corps.

This year’s group of linebackers is considered the best in the league. Lewis (84 tackles and two interceptions), middle linebacker Bart Scott (89 tackles and 81/2 sacks) and outside linebackers Adalius Thomas (67 tackles and 10 sacks) and Terrell Suggs (49 tackles and seven sacks) all should merit consideration to the Pro Bowl.

Lewis appears headed for another trip to Hawaii, along with possibly seven other players from this defense.

But Lewis is quick to give quarterback Steve McNair credit for the play of the defense. McNair rarely throws interceptions (nine in 398 attempts), sustaining longer drives to help the defense rest.

“It doesn’t get any better,” Lewis said. “I always tip my hat to the offense, because a great defense is always built on a good offense. For us to be able to get that kind of rest and then come back on the field as fresh as we are, it’s a huge advantage.”

That rest has helped contribute to a relatively injury-free season. After playing just six games in 2005, Lewis has missed only two this season, the lone starter to miss as many games.

And because of a strong draft and good free agent signing, the Ravens have an interior pash rush that had been missing since 2000, when behemoth tackles Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa jammed the middle.

Defensive tackle Trevor Pryce, who signed as a free agent after nine seasons with Denver, already has 10 sacks, his highest total since he had 12 in 2000. Rookie Ngata, the Ravens’ first-round pick out of Oregon, has started every game and has 23 tackles and an interception.

“When you see a quarterback trying to run away from Trevor Pryce or Kelly Gregg or Haloti Ngata, it’s always exciting because you know as a secondary that the ball is not going to be as accurate. You’ve seen that in the past couple of games,” said safety Ed Reed, who had two interceptions Sunday against Kansas City. “When [the pass rush] is going well, that means we’re covering well, too. It all works hand in hand.”

That defense likely will pose problems for Browns quarterback Derek Anderson, a Ravens’ sixth-round draft pick last season who is starting his second game in place of Charlie Frye.

“I think we cause problems for any quarterback, but it’s multiplied triple or double when you put in a young guy,” Scott said. “[Anderson] knows this defense. He knows because he was given a look against a No. 1 defense. So, he knows how ferocious and how fast and how many sets we have. I’m sure he’s shaking in his pants.”

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