- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 26, 2000

Taking it easy in a hotel lounge Saturday night, the defensive line coach of the Arizona Cardinals was asked how the record-setting Baltimore Ravens defense compares with past great NFL defenses, notably the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s and the Chicago Bears of the mid-'80s. Ravens owner Art Modell, who has been involved in the NFL for 40 years, recently said about his club, "This is the best defense I have ever seen."

Quite a statement. But what did this Cardinals assistant, whose name is Joe Greene, a k a Mean Joe Greene, think? Greene, one of the greatest defensive tackles ever, anchored the Steelers, crushing ballcarriers and quarterbacks with a furious, unbridled intensity. His teammates played that way, too, and three of them are with him in the Hall of Fame linebackers Jack Ham and Jack Lambert and cornerback Mel Blount. And some of the others were almost as good. Greene also saw the Ravens close up this season, when Baltimore beat the Cardinals in Arizona two weeks ago.

Greene waited a moment, then two, then three, pondering the question, affixing the inquisitor with his best Mean Joe stare. Finally he said in a measured, even tone, "How long did we do it?"

The Steelers back then had a terrific offense Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and all that but the team's essence, its identity, was the defense. The Steel Curtain hung as a near-impenetrable barrier between opposing offenses and the goal line, and largely because of that the Steelers won four Super Bowls.

The Ravens are in the playoffs for the first time.

"There's the answer," Greene said.

The Ravens defense is "very impressive," said Greene, who was in town for Arizona's game against the Redskins on Sunday. But, he added, "The measure of comparison is consistency over a period of time. Time will bear all of that out. But you can't compare one year to five or six or seven. I know it's fashionable to make comparisons, but you can't do it."

Well, you can, but there is the question of whether they are fair or accurate. Statistically, over the course of one year, the Ravens are right there with the best. Despite giving up 524 yards to the New York Jets on Sunday, the Ravens forced six turnovers and won 34-20. They finished the season as the stingiest defense in NFL history, yielding a total of 165 points, breaking the record of 187 set by the 1986 Chicago Bears. Baltimore also pitched four shutouts this year, missing by one the record held by Greene's 1976 Steelers.

Mike Ditka, who was coach of the Bears when they led the NFL in total defense for three straight seasons in the '80s, said there is, in fact, reason for comparison. The Bears, he said, were a close-knit team on which everyone knew and understood their roles. The Ravens are the same way.

"I'm really impressed with their togetherness," said Ditka, a commentator on the NFL Today studio show on CBS. "These guys really understand they're as good as the people next to you and behind you. Does that make them better than the Steel Curtain or the Bears? I don't know. But it does make them one of the best defenses I've seen in 20 or 30 years, and they get the job done."

More than the Steelers, the Bears depended on their defense. Orchestrated by Buddy Ryan, Chicago's defense produced a Super Bowl victory after the 1985 season and was even better statistically the following year, when the Bears fell short in the playoffs. Ryan was the defensive coordinator under Ditka and had autonomy over a unit that included the likes of Dan Hampton and Richard Dent up front and a fabulous linebacking trio of Wilber Marshall, Mike Singletary and Otis Wilson.

Ryan, now retired and living on a farm near Frankfort, Ky., after coaching stints with the Philadelphia Eagles and the Cardinals, assessed the Ravens defense the same way as Greene.

"I think they will be known as one of the great defenses of all time if they win the Super Bowl," Ryan said. "If they don't, they'll be like the Minnesota Vikings [who were 0-4 in Super Bowl appearances]. To get recognition, you've got to win the Super Bowl."

But make no mistake, Ryan said, he loves the 2000 Ravens defense. And not just because his son, Rex, is the defensive line coach.

"That front four is awesome," Ryan said, referring to ends Rob Burnett and Michael McCrary and tackles Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa. "And that middle linebacker is awesome," he said, meaning Ray Lewis, who overcame the distractions of a murder trial and is the odds-on favorite for defensive player of the year.

Lewis "is a hell of a player," said Ryan, who visited the Ravens training camp during the summer. "He's the same kind of leader as Mike [Singletary] was."

Even though the Ravens broke the Bears' record for fewest points, Ryan said he calls that the "third most important" statistic. "The most important thing is turnovers, takeways," he said. "Next is time of possession. You can hold a team to 17 points, but it doesn't matter if your offense never gets the ball."

The Ravens forced 49 turnovers to lead the league and were the only team with at least 20 more takeaways than giveaways. They also were the first team in NFL history to hold opponents to less than 1,000 yards rushing.

Baltimore might not end up leading the league in total defense that will depend on what Tennessee did against Dallas last night but, historical perspective aside, there is no doubt the Ravens have made an impact this season.

"I think they've got a terrific defense," said Ham, a commentator for the CBS Radio Network. "Probably today, I'd take our football team when we played, but I'm sure everyone on the Ravens feels they have a great defense. They're playing in an era where the offenses are more wide open. But they also play in [the AFC Central] with an expansion team [Cleveland] and a lousy Cincinnati team."

Ham said he sees some stylistic similarities between the Ravens and his Steelers fast, punishing defenses that knew how to adjust and played with intelligence.

"We could play the Raiders, who were a very physical team, or the Cowboys, who used five wide receivers and all kinds of different sets," he said. "Any way an offense wanted to play, our defense could react to it. The Ravens are the same way. They make adjustments to any style of offense you can throw at them.

"They're just a smothering type defense. They don't give you any air at all. The key for them is they don't make many mental errors. With [free safety] Rod Woodson back there, they've got some smart people in the secondary. They don't beat themselves."

Ravens cornerbacks Duane Starks and Chris McAlister have been torched on occasion, but they've also made some big plays. Witness McAlister's 98-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Jets. The presence of Woodson, Ham said, makes all the difference. A 14-year veteran and a member of the NFL 75th Anniversary team as a cornerback, Woodson is to the Ravens what Mike Wagner was to the Steelers, Ham said.

"The Bears had Gary Fencik, the Ravens have Rod Woodson, we had Mike Wagner," Ham said. "Every one of those defenses had a free safety who was a very bright player. That's a big reason those defenses didn't make a lot of mistakes."

Tennessee general manager Floyd Reese, who has been around the NFL nearly 30 years, said the only thing separating the Ravens from past defensive giants is experience.

"For example, I think McAlister will be one of the great corners in the league," Reese said. "He has a chance to be as good as anyone. He's just not there yet. They've got a handful of guys who fit into that notch.

"But they've been very smart in what they've done, and I think they play with tremendous effort. They play as hard as any defense you'd want to watch. If they have any one trait, that would characterize their defense. Great effort and intensity. And they've got a ton of speed… . They've used their draft choices wisely, and the heart and soul of that whole thing is the middle linebacker [Lewis]. He's got such a tremendous game-day attitude, a tremendous junkyard-dog attitude."

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