For more than a decade, one mantra has been held with the highest regard by the Baltimore Ravens in spite of changing trends in the NFL over the last several seasons.
Defense wins championships.
In this current era of 5,000-yard passers, high scoring, and rules that cater to offense, the Ravens’ defensive dominance is considered a dying breed by many. Of course, don’t bother telling that to veteran linebacker Ray Lewis, who is preparing to play in the third AFC championship of his 16-year career and has gone to the playoffs eight times despite never enjoying the luxury of an explosive offense supporting his defense.
“I’ve been doing it for so long, when you do watch how the games are played, nine times out of 10, I just truly believe defense is going to find a way to win the championship,” Lewis said. “You can go back however many years you want to go back, and defenses have a way to come out to make a play that changes the outcome of games.”
In reality, the cliche isn’t true in the purest sense of defense alone winning championships, as even the 2000 Ravens needed a run-first offense that took care of the football and positioned their defense to impose its will on weaker opponents. The 2011 Ravens clearly enjoy a more productive offensive attack than the Super Bowl XXXV winners but still generally rely on that old-fashioned formula of winning ugly.
For that reason, the media have focused on the high-octane offense of the New England Patriots and have wondered how the Ravens can possibly stop quarterback Tom Brady and a unit that averaged 32.1 points per game this season. In contrast, few of considered the possibility of the New England offense running into a buzz saw of a defense that finished third overall in points and yards allowed in the regular season.
Has the lack of attention — or even a perceived lack of respect — rubbed the Ravens the wrong way as they prepare to travel to Foxborough?
“We always have a chip on our shoulder,” cornerback Lardarius Webb said. “We’ve always felt this way about ourselves.”
That’s not to say the Ravens don’t respect Brady and the New England offense. The weapons are everywhere, from wide receivers Wes Welker and Deion Branch on the outside to young tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez wreaking havoc all over the field.
But much like Lewis’ command of the Ravens defense for the last 16 years, Brady is the mastermind that makes New England the dynamic offense that’s scored 30 or more points in eight of its last nine games, including 45 against Denver in the Patriots’ divisional-round win last Saturday.
“You’ve got your hands full from Day One, before you even step on the field with him, because it’s a film study game with him,” Lewis said. “He wants to [identify] everything that’s coming out and know what you’re in. Your job is to disguise and not show him all of that. It’s a chess match, almost.”
The Baltimore defense and the New England offense provide an interesting juxtaposition. While the former has a reputation of physical play and intimidation and the latter is built on finesse, both units are extremely cerebral, built to deceive and confuse the opposition as much as possible. Adjustments at the line of scrimmage are a regular part of each unit’s plan.
That deception will be critical for the Ravens as Brady tries to dissect coverage and to identify potential blitzes, allowing him to make adjustments on the fly with so many options in the passing game.
“You try to do everything you can to try to disguise and hide what you’re doing,” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “At the end of the day, if we just sit and play one or two things and let the tempo of the [Patriots] dictate what we do, then he’ll shred us, he’ll pick us apart. They’re just too good.”
While much time has been spent discussing exactly how the Ravens plan to defend Welker (Webb will draw the assignment in most instances) and the monstrous Gronkowski (a likely combination of a linebacker and safety Bernard Pollard), the true key will be making Brady uncomfortable in the pocket, something Baltimore has been able to do in recent years against the Patriots.