Although it’s difficult to imagine the Ravens without Lewis in the middle of the huddle and Reed as the last line of defense, the unit has plenty of young players eager to make an imprint after the two aging veterans finally walk away from the game.
Baltimore’s defense, which ranked third in the NFL this season, is the main reason the Ravens (13-4) are in the AFC championship game and stand a decent chance of defeating the high-powered New England Patriots (14-3) for a berth in the Super Bowl.
Lewis and Reed are the most recognizable stars, but they’re getting help from 29-year-old Terrell Suggs, 27-year-old Haloti Ngata, 23-year-old Terrence Cody and rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith, who was 8 when Lewis played his first game with the Ravens in 1996.
“You need that veteran presence and you need enough young people to run around and make the plays,” Smith said. “I think it’s a great mix on this team.”
It is quite by design. Lewis was drafted in the first round of the NFL in 1996, the Ravens‘ first season after making the move from Cleveland. Since that time, general manager Ozzie Newsome has worked to surround his sensational middle linebacker with enough talent to keep the defense operating at an extremely high level.
Reed was plucked from the University of Miami in the first round of the 2002 draft, Suggs was the 10th overall pick in 2003 and Ngata came aboard as a No. 1 pick in 2006. Pass-rusher Paul Kruger (2009) and Cody (2010) were second-round selections, and Smith was taken in the first round last April.
“Sixteen years I’ve been in this business,” Lewis said. “Do you know how many men I have seen come walk in and out of this door?”
When Lewis went to the Super Bowl during the 2000 season, Tony Siragusa was one of the defensive tackles. One year ago, Kelly Gregg was playing in front of Lewis. Now it’s Cody, and there’s been no drop off in production.
“We’ve got veteran experience, guys that have been around a long time, and young, raw talent. When you mix those together, it’s a great combination,” linebacker Jarret Johnson said. “Ozzie deserves a lot of credit. You’ve got your veteran guys that do things right, good guys that are also good football players. Then you bring in good talent and they watch and learn, then pretty soon those guys are the old veteran players and they’re bringing in a new batch of young guys.”
“Old? I call it experienced,” Smith said. “You’ve got two of the best at key spots. Their experience is what guides us, and it’s helped us get to the position we’re in now.”
Defensive end Cory Redding, a 10-year pro, said, “This is what you want to have. The veterans set the tone for the young guys on how things are run, how we jell together, how we hold each other accountable. So when they get to five, six, seven years in the league, they can say, `OK, I’ve learned from Haloti Ngata, Cory Redding, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. I know how to conduct myself. I know how to lead, because I saw them do it.’”
John Harbaugh has been in the AFC title game twice in his four seasons as Baltimore’s coach. Under his guidance, young players such as Kruger, cornerback Lardarius Webb and former sixth-round pick Haruki Nakamura, a solid safety and special teams ace, have matured into key contributors.