Comparisons to 2000 Ravens premature, but this year’s defense could be exceptional

October 06, 2011 | Luke Jones

We just can’t help ourselves, can we?

After more than a decade of defensive excellence in Baltimore, we always compare the latest eye-popping Ravens defense to the platinum standard of that 2000 unit. It was that group, of course, that lifted a caretaker offense — rookie running back Jamal Lewis being the lone exception — to the franchise’s lone Super Bowl championship.

It was a once-in-a-generation defense, yet we refuse to acknowledge that type of group won’t come along again — even if we say otherwise.

We did it in 2003 when Ray Lewis led a young group of budding defensive stars to the No. 3 overall defensive ranking and an AFC North title.

It happened again in 2006 as the Ravens finished 13-3 and first overall in both points and yardage allowed, something the 2000 group wasn’t able to do.

And the similarities were examined between that championship group and the 2008 defense – ranked second overall behind only the Steelers — coached by Rex Ryan in his final year in Baltimore before taking his antics to the Big Apple.

It sure feels a lot like 2000, doesn’t it?

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It’s not surprising the whispers have already started about the 2011 edition of Ray Lewis and company after a 3-1 start in which the Ravens rank third overall in total defense, third against the run, tied for seventh against the pass, and first in the NFL with 14 takeaways. The pass rush is improved with 11 sacks already after posting a franchise-low 27 in 2010. The Baltimore defense has already set single-game franchise records when it forced seven turnovers against Pittsburgh in Week 1 and scored three defensive touchdowns against the Jets last Sunday night.

But, are we really going to start talking about comparisons to 2000 after only four games?

For the sake of the argument, comparing the two units through the first four games of the season — one small sample deserves another if we’re going to be fair — shows the championship group with the upper hand. The 2000 Ravens allowed fewer yards (996 to 1,138), gave up fewer points (55 to 57), and recorded two shutouts while this year’s defense has yet to post a goose egg for 60 minutes. However, this year’s 14 takeaways trumps the 10 forced by the 2000 group.

Those first four games in 2000 included two of the four largest point totals surrendered by that defense in the regular season, including the 36 scored by Jacksonville in a thrilling 39-36 shootout win in Week 2. This year’s Ravens have faced only one offense currently ranking in the top half of the league (Pittsburgh is ranked 13th), but the 2000 group faced only one top-10 offense (Jacksonville was seventh overall in 2000) through four games.

As fun as it is to draw comparisons between the known and the unknown, the reality is it’s too early to determine where the 2011 defense will even rank among the many good defenses in the 16-year history of the franchise, let alone talk about any potential similarity with one of the greatest units in NFL history. The only link between the two defenses is Ray Lewis, who depends far more on his intellect as a 36-year-old than he had to as a 25-year-old wrecking machine.

Moving beyond the statistics, Chuck Pagano’s 3-4 hybrid defense is far more similar to a Ryan-coached unit than Marvin Lewis’ record-setting defense from 11 years ago. The current unit relies on deception and blitzing to create pressure, disguising its intentions until the last possible minute. Lewis, on the other hand, largely played his 4-3 defense straight up, using a dominating front four that created pressure on the quarterback and a brick wall impenetrable for running backs.

And here is where we get to the largest discrepancy that should end any real discussion between the championship group and this year’s edition.

The secondaries.

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