Street Talk Overhauled Ravens designed for another successful decade

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When an NFL team wins in a Super Bowl in the recent past, there’s a tendency to compare seasons to everything that went right in that one special year.

Ray Lewis enters his 15th season in the NFL -- all with Baltimore.
Ray Lewis enters his 15th season in the NFL — all with Baltimore.

When it comes to examining the Baltimore Ravens, that year is 2000. In the regular season, led by middle linebacker Ray Lewis, the Super Bowl 35 MVP, the defense was a dominant force. The run-heavy offense, often scraping by with clusters of field goals from Matt Stover, simply was a complement.

Ever since, the same question has been asked: The Ravens have a great defense, but do they have enough offense to get back to the Super Bowl?

Considering it has been a decade, it’s time to stop asking and comparing. Lewis, the only remaining Raven from that Super Bowl team, says the overhaul was necessary for the team’s evolution.

"The teams are totally different — the coaching staff, the players, the plays we run," Lewis said. "I don’t believe in complacency."

With so much turnover in the NFL, it’s impressive the Ravens were able to make the playoffs in six of the past 10 seasons, especially with considerable changes in both personnel and scheme. Here are five reasons why Baltimore will be a more consistent playoff team the next decade:

1. The 3-4 defense. Until Hall of Fame-bound playmakers such as Lewis and safety Ed Reed hang it up, fans always will think defense first. Before it was Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa clogging the gaps, and now it’s big athlete Haloti Ngata leading the front three.

Through changing alignments, the Ravens have maintained their stinginess against the run and knack for coming up with critical sacks and takeaways. It’s important to note that former coordinator Rex Ryan, now the Jets’ head coach, created the aggressive 3-4 blueprint.

"Defense still wins championships," Lewis said.

2. Joe Flacco. In 2000, Baltimore split quarterback duties between Tony Banks and Trent Dilfer, two stopgap veterans and neither a long-term solution. The team’s first attempt at landing a franchise QB failed with Kyle Boller, leading to another veteran stopgap, the late Steve McNair.

Dilfer did start and win a Super Bowl, and McNair also was able to guide the team to the playoffs. But most winning NFL teams have a long-term star at quarterback, and Flacco already is 2-for-2 on leading his team to postseason.

3. Ray Rice. Although the ’10 team still can hammer away when necessary with fullback Le’Ron McClain, the current state of the running game is far removed from the 1-2 power punch of Jamal Lewis and Priest Holmes in 2000. As the passing game has blossomed, Rice is the ideal open-field feature back: He’s fast, elusive and versatile.

"When you watch them, they both have a burning desire to get better," Ray Lewis said of Rice and Flacco.

4. John Harbaugh. There’s no doubt the cerebral Brian Billick was effective when the team was laden with well-schooled veterans, but Harbaugh’s old-school motivation meshes well with a team on the upswing from a youth movement.

Ray Rice started 15 games for the Ravens last season, scoring 7 rushing TDs for 1,339  yards.
Ray Rice started 15 games for the Ravens last season, scoring 7 rushing TDs for 1,339 yards.

5. Ozzie Newsome. Like Ray Lewis, the Ravens’ general manager has been a consistent presence for more than a decade. Newsome has a knack for finding great talent and has proven capable of adapting, able to acquire the right players to fit changing schemes on both sides of the ball.

Take one of Newsome’s most recent draft successes, Michael Oher—he made getting a long-term left tackle to replace another, Jonathan Ogden, look easy. As long as they have Newsome in the front office, the Ravens will be in the Super Bowl mix.

Better when balanced

The Ravens have made the playoffs five times since winning Super Bowl 35. Not surprisingly, in those five years, they finished in the top half of the league in both scoring offense and scoring defense. Their combined NFL rankings in 2009 give them great promise for ’10: (bold indicates they made playoffs that season)

Year     Points scored     Points allowed
2000     14th                 1st
2001     18th                 5th
2002     23rd                 19th
2003     8th                    6th
2004     20th                   8th
2005     25th                 10th
2006     12th                   1st
2007     24th                 23rd
2008     11th                  3rd
2009     9th                     3rd

Only Ray has stayed

After Baltimore decided not to bring kicker Matt Stover back for last season, it meant that now 11-time Pro Bowl inside linebacker Ray Lewis was the only holdover from the Super Bowl 35 champs. A quick look at how the team has changed in a decade:

2000 Ravens

Coach: Brian Billick
Starting QB: Tony Banks, Trent Dilfer
Backfield: Jamal Lewis, Priest Holmes, Sam Gash
Defense: 4-3 scheme
Division: AFC Central
Toughest competition: Titans, Steelers

2010 Ravens

Coach: John Harbaugh
Starting QB: Joe Flacco
Backfield: Ray Rice, Willis McGahee, Le’Ron McClain
Defense: 3-4 scheme
Division: AFC North
Toughest competition: Bengals, Steelers

Vinnie Iyer is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at [email protected].

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