Ravens defense starting to draw comparisons to 2000
The Ravens all but ended Pittsburgh's playoff hopes and all but guaranteed that any talk about Super Bowl contenders must include Baltimore, writes John Clayton.
BALTIMORE -- Ravens defensive end Trevor Pryce, then a Denver Bronco, remembers meeting up with Ray Lewis following the Ravens' 2000 Super Bowl season. Lewis was celebrating and in a championship cloud. Pryce tried to bring him back to earth.
"We were sitting around and he was going, 'Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,'" Pryce said. "I said, 'Ray, laugh now Fatman because they are about to gun after your ass.' Sure enough, they did."
It's hard being on that Super Bowl pedestal. Pryce knows. His Broncos won two Super Bowls and then teams started gunning for them. They went 6-10 after John Elway retired and haven't been back since. Lewis hasn't been back to the Super Bowl either. They've dismantled the team once and gone through numerous quarterbacks in their effort to return. On Sunday, the Super Bowl torch might have been passed from the Steelers to the Ravens during a 27-0 blowout that all but buried the Steelers' hopes of making the playoffs and repeating as champs.
Had Pryce run into Ben Roethlisberger after Pittsburgh's Super Bowl victory over the Seahawks, he would have offered the same advice. Opponents were gunning for the Steelers all season, but on this 57-degree November day, the Ravens didn't just gun for Roethlisberger. They attacked him with a machine gun assault of blitz packages that went virtually unblocked.
Roethlisberger was sacked nine times. He was knocked down nine other times. Sixteen of his pass attempts were hurried. Considering Roethlisberger dropped back to pass 50 times -- including the nine sacks -- he barely had time to get off 16 passes without a Ravens' body pounding him into submission.
"They beat us with schemes, they beat us with one-on-one and they pretty much dominated at the line of scrimmage," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said.
Basically, the Ravens punished the Super Bowl champs and Roethlisberger. At 4-7, the Steelers have to finish out a disappointing season that could cost them their head coach. Cowher's contract runs out in 2007, but he built a $3 million home in North Carolina and most people in the organization believe he will spend next season there and not in Pittsburgh. He has rejected a contract extension that could pay him as much as $6.5 million toward the end of the deal.
"Everybody who wins the Super Bowl, the next year, more than likely, seventy-five percent of them have problems," Pryce said. "If you become the Super Bowl champ, the season is so long and by the time you recover, it's June and you are staring training camp in the face. So that's the downside of playing in the Super Bowl. But if you win, guess what? You are world champions and no one can take that away from them."
But the Ravens defense sure made Roethlisberger pay for his success. With 3:27 left in the first half, Ravens linebacker Bart Scott came unblocked off the corner and legally slammed Roethlisberger to the ground.
"That's probably the hardest hit I've ever been hit in my life," Roethlisberger said. "I truly feel that way. I didn't see the guy coming. He came clean, hit me front side, and I just remember my head hitting the ground. He just knocked the wind out of me and I couldn't breathe very well. So I just had to lay there for a second."
Said Scott: "It's a dream shot. You dream as a child of hitting the quarterback like that. Adalius Thomas did a great job of drawing the tackle out of position."
To his credit, Roethlisberger returned after missing only one play. Of course, the whole season has been like that for Roethlisberger. He's taken a pounding and his game has suffered as a result. In 11 games, Roethlisberger has been sacked 36 times and thrown 19 interceptions. The quarterback who couldn't lose during his first two years can't win this season.
"We have just been coming up on the short end every week," Steelers halfback Willie Parker said. "It's frustrating, but we went out there and played pretty sorry today."
The Steelers offense generated only 172 yards on 62 plays, a pitiful 2.8-yard average. The Ravens offense was relentless against the Steelers, using Jamal Lewis power runs and Steve McNair short passes. The Ravens drove 56 yards in six plays on their game-opening possession to score a touchdown. Before the first half ended, they built up a 17-0 lead and cruised to victory.
But this Ravens team wanted everything, including making sure they embarrassed the Super Bowl champs. They wanted the shutout.
"The shutout was very important," defensive end Terrell Suggs said. "We've got a rivalry game and they didn't score. You're not only sending a message for the next time you play them. You're sending a message for the next team you play. We just sent a message that we're here now."
For the defense, it's the same message the Baltimore sent out in 2000 -- fear the Ravens.
Opposing quarterbacks are completing just 53.2 percent of their passes against the Ravens defense. The Ravens have intercepted 20 passes. Thomas returned a fumble 57 yards for a touchdown, bringing the number of defensive scores to five in 11 games. They've sacked quarterbacks 39 times. The quarterback rating against the Ravens is 60.6. The pain factor is over 100.
"We couldn't do what we wanted to do on offense," said Roethlisberger, who completed 21 of 41 passes for 214 yards and threw two interceptions. "Whether that's their scheme or not, they got after us. They were teeing off and they were coming. They pinned their ears back and were blitzing hard."
Defensive coordinator Rex Ryan estimated the Ravens blitzed on only 50 percent of the 62 Steelers' offensive plays. It was just the way that they blitz. They occasionally blitzed out of his father Buddy Ryan's fabled 4-6. They blitzed from the 3-4. They blitzed from the 4-3. They moved guys around and the Steelers' linemen had no idea where they were coming from.
Ryan used one alignment in which Pryce is the only defensive lineman on the field.
"It's called the best pass rushers we have, and that's what it boils down to," Pryce said of the unusual alignment. "I think they brought me here to put as much pressure on the inside as possible. It works out really. I haven't been able to rush like this on my own probably in about three years."
Pryce is second on the team with 8½ sacks. Adalius Thomas, who rushes as a linebacker or defensive end, has 9½. Scott has 6½. Suggs has six.
This was the Ravens' second shutout of the season, and they are starting to get that swagger back. But the big question is how does this compare to the Ravens defense of 2000?
"Back then we were just built big and made people just stop playing by playing base defense," Lewis said. "This defense right here is totally different. We have so much athleticism here at every position that it's just scary."
Seconds after dispatching the Super Bowl champs, the Ravens zeroed in their focus on Thursday's game against the Bengals. They can clinch the AFC North if they win that game. Head coach Brian Billick won't have the team do a conventional practice before then, although he wants each player to have one lifting session before Thursday's game.
The defense won't need too much work. They got in a workout lifting Roethlisberger off the ground 18 times Sunday. It was pretty tiring.
John Clayton is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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