OWINGS MILLS — The football only seems to beckon Baltimore Ravens free safety Ed Reed, spiraling constantly in his direction as if quarterbacks intended to play catch with the instinctive former NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Actually, it’s just a case of Reed’s textbook anticipation and uncommon awareness built through countless hours of film study paying off with major dividends.
Factor in his rare range and a record-breaking game like the one Reed manufactured in a 36-7 rout of the Philadelphia Eagles is bound to happen.
With two interceptions, including a 107-yard return for a touchdown that broke his own NFL record for longest return by a yard, Reed piled up a franchise-record 150 yards in interception returns. It was 56 yards less than what the Eagles struggled to produce on offense.
"You’ve got to taste it,” said Reed, who excelled as a high school option quarterback in St. Rose, La., outside of New Orleans. “That’s what my brother tells me when we work out. I guess it comes from my offensive mentality. I played offense in high school, did punt returns, kick returns and all that.
“It’s a matter of wanting the ball and understanding it’s part of my job, to go out there and be where I’m supposed to be and make the plays I’m supposed to make."
Now, Reed’s game jersey and the football from his record-breaking feat have been sent to the Pro Football Hall of Fame for historical display. If the four-time Pro Bowl defensive back continues this pace, he may join them one day in Canton, Ohio for his own permanent enshrinement.
The return was initially registered at 108 yards, but the Elias Sports Bureau studied the game and reduced it to 107 yards.
Afterward, Ravens star middle linebacker Ray Lewis declared: “Ed Reed is one of the greatest ballplayers I’ve ever seen.”
For Reed, it was his 10th career touchdown in seven seasons. He has five interception returns for touchdowns to go with his one fumble recovery and punt return as well as three blocked punts into the end zone.
"Ed Reed has been doing that for a long time in his career, where he basically takes over the football game," Ravens rookie head coach John Harbaugh said. "It was fun to watch, me being here for the first time, to see it firsthand."
Reed’s athleticism is impressive, but not quite as remarkable as his intelligence and work habits.
He devotes himself to hours of studying film nearly every day, memorizing receivers’ patterns and tendencies.
“Studying film is definitely a big part of it,” Reed said. “After playing for so long, it kind of comes to you easy. Studying tape gives you that extra oomph you need to get to the next level.
Reed can tell you what the direction of a head feint, a shoulder shrug or a look in a receiver’s eye means. It usually spells another big play for the Ravens built through his cunning.
That’s a big reason why the former University of Miami star leads the Ravens with 37 career interceptions.
No NFL player has more interceptions than Reed since he entered the league as a first-round draft pick in 2002. And his 28.7 interception return average ranks first in NFL history among players with at least 30 interceptions.
“He’s smart, that’s what it boils down to,” Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason said. “Is he athletic? Of course, he’s athletic. I would take a guy who is smart over someone who has the ability.
“But with Ed, he shows both each and every time he goes out there. It comes through film study: understanding the game, understanding the position.”
During Reed’s impactful interception of Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb, his ability to figure out an offense’s intentions was on full display.
Working off a tip from rookie safety Haruki Nakamura that wide receiver Reggie Brown rather than a tight end was lining up at the end of the line, it revealed that a pass play was in the offing.
Reed stayed patient and hung back instead of jumping the play, letting Kolb think the seam was open before bursting into the picture and taking it the length of the football field plus seven yards. It ended an eight-game interception drought that marks the second-longest of his seven-year career.
“Ed is the best safety in football,” Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh told Baltimore reporters during a conference call. “Ed is just a receiver playing safety. And when he gets the ball, he’s like a running back: great hand-eye coordination, great understanding of the game. And if you don’t see him, he will hit you because he did that to me last year. I’ve got a scar on my face.
"Every time I look in the mirror, I remember who did it. Ed will probably go down as one of the best safeties ever to play because of the way he’s changed the game. When Ed came into the game, safeties weren’t getting big deals. Safeties weren’t big playmakers. When Ed came into the league all that changed, and I think it was because of him."
This season almost unraveled before it even started for Reed, though.
Because of a nerve impingement of his neck and left shoulder kept him from hitting during the entire preseason and led to a hamstring injury due to not being in optimum football shape. Reed consulted several specialists about the nerve problem who assured him that he wasn’t at risk of suffering a catastrophic injury, but it remains a painful issue.
“My neck still has pain in it, and it’s still something I’m dealing with,” Reed said. “It’s not something that’s weeded out, so to say. It’s still something that’s lingering on.”
Nonetheless, Reed has endured despite not having full confidence in his neck and shoulder while hanging back in pass coverage.
He has had to combat his own aggressive nature, hanging back in deep coverage and not blitzing hardly at all.
Against the Eagles, Reed felt like himself again and has heard about it from his friends and family.
“‘You look like your old self,’ stuff like that,” Reed said. “It keeps me going. I’m still the same Ed. I’ve never really changed.
“I had a birthday this year like every year, which is a blessing. I just try to keep going, do the things that God has blessed me to do.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.