This one’s for Vince Lombardi, John Madden, Dick Butkus, Mean Joe Greene, Jim Brown, Bronco Nagurski, Dick “Night Train” Lane, Ronnie Lott, Ray Nitschke and every other old-school football purist who ever walked the Earth.
In an era dominated by spread offenses and speedy, fleet-footed finesse playmakers, the Baltimore Ravens are a refreshing relic. They’re a team that will line up and hit you in the mouth. As you’re wiping off the blood, they’ll hit you again.
And should you gather enough courage to return a blow, they’ll take it on the chin, laugh a little, and strike you even harder.
How well does this formula work? Well enough for last year’s Ravens to go from 5-11 to the AFC Championship under the guidance of a first-year head coach (John Harbaugh), a rookie quarterback from Division 1-AA Delaware (Joe Flacco) and an offense that had exactly zero preeminent playmakers. The simple purity of Baltimore’s smashmouth style is almost as intriguing as the very success it produces. While teams were referring to the shotgun formation in record numbers last season, the Raven offense, under new coordinator Cam Cameron, lined up in a jumbo formation––which is to say, they replaced a wide receiver with a third offensive tackle––roughly 30 percent of the time.
The jumbo formation is the equivalent of the stare-down in boxing. There’s nothing discreet or subtle about it. It’s a simple declaration of your intentions to ram the ball down your opponent’s throat. The Ravens rammed the ball a league-high 592 times.
Of course, let’s be fair: it isn’t the offense that makes this Ravens team go. It’s that vaunted defense. Baltimore’s offense might hit you in the mouth, but their defense will be what puts teeth in your throat. And, unlike with the offense, you’ll have no idea where the punch is coming from.
The hybrid 3-4 defense is as deceptive as the offense is straightforward. The Ravens D registered a fairly average 34 sacks last season. But it regularly rattled opposing quarterbacks by destroying the pocket with only four––and you could never predict which four––rushers. This is what led to Baltimore’s league-best 26 interceptions.
Given the way it dictates field position, you could say that the Ravens defense is this team’s offense. Future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis is the quarterback. Front seven bruisers Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs are the workhorses.
Luminous star safety Ed Reed is the playmaker. These guys are as smart as they are mean. And they’re as mean as they are gifted. And they’re all pretty damn gifted.
But it hasn’t been enough. Nasty as this team is, the evidence suggests that, right now, the Steelers are nastier. The AFC North foe, with its own throwback offense and aggressive, byzantine 3-4 defense, defeated this Baltimore team three teams last season. All three games––including the 23-14 AFC championship––had the disposition of Roman gladiator games.
The intense vitriol of the one-sided rivalry has made Pittsburgh the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons to Baltimore’s Chicago Bulls. If the Ravens are to claim their second Lombardi Trophy, they must cross the three rivers.
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