The Baltimore Ravens defense has been the cornerstone of the team since 1999. Many forget that this defense started to show signs dominance in 1998 when the team finished ranked 16th in total defense. In 1999, the defense took a huge leap forward and finished the season ranked sixth in total defense. The Ravens defense ranked second against the rush in 1999 and the makings of dominance were coming into place. Over the previous years, Ozzie Newsome drafted some very talented defensive players to build what has become arguable the best defense over the last 13 years.
It all started in 1996, when Newsome drafted 20 year old, Ray Lewis, from the University of Miami, with the 26th pick in the draft. Lewis slipped all the way to 26 because he was said to be undersized. As history shows, the Ravens were wise to select Lewis who is now going into his 17th NFL season. In 1997, linebackers Peter Boulware (Florida State) and Jamie Sharper (University of Virginia) were added to the defense via the 4th and 34th picks in the draft.
1997 was also a critical free agent year for the defense because four year veteran Michael McCrary signed with the team as an unrestricted free agent which helped bolster the defensive line. McCrary did not disappoint in his first season with the Ravens as he recorded 69 tackles, 2 pass deflections and 9.5 sacks. McCrary was described as having a motor that never stopped and his fiery attitude worked well with the desire, heart and skill of Lewis. Boulware also had a strong rookie season posting 11.5 sacks.
The last major piece of the defense that arrived in 1997 was defensive tackle Tony Siragusa. The fan favorite nicknamed “Goose” was a huge character and an even larger presence on the Ravens defense as he often drew double teams and kept would be blockers off of Ray Lewis and the rest of the linebackers. In 2005, Lewis described Goose as part of the heart of the Ravens defense.
Lewis, Boulware, Sharper, McCrary and Goose brought an attitude to the Ravens that would stand the test of time. Hard work, knowing your role and sacrificing yourself for the team was mandatory. More talent came in 1998 when Duane Starks was drafted with the 10th overall pick in the draft and helped solidify the backfield with free agent arrival Rod Woodson. Chris McAlister arrived with the 10th overall pick of the 1999 draft and was a physical, albeit, moody shutdown cornerback. Throw in 1997 second round pick Kim Herring and 2000 free agent pick up Sam Adams, the defense was set. Role players and stud special teamers such as Cornel Brown and OJ Brigance, the onetime Baltimore Stallion (CFL) helped make the Super Bowl 35 Championship defense arguably one of the best if the not the best defense of all time.
The main cog in the wheel of the defense has been Lewis. He is without a doubt the heartbeat of the team and the city every Sunday. He studies film, knows every position and the job of each player and is the quarterback of the defense. In looking at the Ravens, since the super bowl, Ozzie has always been strong in finding the right players to replace outgoing players. When McCrary left, Suggs came in. Woodson left, and Ed Reed arrived in 2002. The names are known all over the place. Kelly Gregg, Ed Hartwell, Bart Scott, Jarrett Johnson, Samari Rolle, Dawan Landry, Haloti Ngata have all fit the image of Ravens defense. The Ravens feature tough and hardworking guys who buy into the system. The Ravens want players who understood how important Lewis is to the equation and do their job. When a player like Hartwell questions the process, he is allowed to seek greener pastures. More often than not, guys like Hartwell have failed in other places. Gary Baxter, Hartwell, Scott and Sharper all never could replicate the success they had in Baltimore.
The Baltimore Ravens Defense truly goes with the theme of next man up. Ozzie Newsome constantly adds players who can step in and contribute and replace superstars. Suggs is out for much of 2012, but there are multiple players who have the ability to contribute in his place. Paul Krueger, Sergio Kindle and Courtney Upshaw have all been drafted to rush the passer and play outside linebacker. They are tough guys who fit the Ravens motto. Krueger has the motor of McCary. Kindle has the pass rush ability that Suggs has, now he just needs to fulfill his potential. It started in late 1998 and still goes strong in 2012 that this defense is the backbone of the team. As John Feinstein said, “Next Man Up,” and that is the art of the Ravens defense.
Part II: Coming soon will break down the 2012 Ravens defense before the start of training camp.