How the Ravens’ historic defense fueled their first Super Bowl win - Jamison Hensley
Their NFL records for fewest points (165) and rushing yards (970) in a 16-game season have never been threatened. The one offensive touchdown allowed is the fewest ever in four postseason games. The swagger exuded by the Ravens caused jaws to drop at a record rate as well, though the NFL doesn’t exactly keep track of that.
The Ravens trash-talked running backs and even an opposing owner. They flipped the middle finger at the Black Hole in Oakland before the AFC Championship Game. Heading into the Super Bowl, the Ravens didn’t simply guarantee a victory, they repeatedly predicted a shutout (a promise which, technically, they did live up to) at news conferences all week.
Ray Lewis, the game’s best defensive player, manned the middle with linebacker Jamie Sharper on a defense that produced four shutouts. Up front, Siragusa and Sam Adams formed a 700-pound wall that held teams to 2.7 yards per carry. On the edges, Peter Boulware, Michael McCrary and Rob Burnett took out quarterbacks and wondered why the backups never wrote them thank-you notes for getting them into games. In the secondary, safeties Rod Woodson and Kim Herring teamed with two young first-round picks, Chris McAlister and Duane Starks, to turn interceptions into touchdowns.
The mood only worsened when Harbaugh put the week’s schedule on the screen and it revealed the plan for padded practices. Safety Ed Reed, never shy to speak his mind, told Harbaugh that the team was mentally and physically tired and needed a break.
“They kind of went back and forth a little bit while the whole team was sitting there. Then, it just got chaotic,” Suggs said. “It wasn’t a mutiny, but it was definitely the one and only time that I’ve seen players and coaches kind of hash it out.”
Harbaugh wasn’t relenting. He tried to involve Haloti Ngata, one of the team’s gentle giants who rarely made waves, but Ngata sided with his teammates. Other players, including outspoken defensive backs Bernard Pollard and Cary Williams, made accusations. The tone got louder and more personal. The grievances extended far beyond the bye week practice schedule.
As the back and forth grew in intensity, Suggs fired off a text to Lewis, who was away from the team rehabbing a torn triceps. The message was simple: Things were getting ugly and Lewis’ leadership in the locker room was missed.
“Things were said that day that will always stay in that room, but that meeting needed to happen,” said guard Marshal Yanda. “People were not happy.”
The players and coaches left the meeting feeling like they were on the same page. The Ravens came out of their bye week and won four straight to improve to 9-2.
“The crazy thing was more that Harbaugh accepted players speaking up about how they felt about it,” Jimmy Smith said. “One of the first times where I was like, ‘Oh, Harbs really does care about what the players think.’”
There are some who believe the Ravens are close to being top contenders and that’s probably the case with most fan bases heading into next season. But until proven otherwise, the Ravens are simply the best of the average teams in a league dominated by mediocrity.
There is a chance they can make up ground on teams like Buffalo, Cincinnati and Kansas City in the AFC through free agency, trades and the draft, but it takes time for those plans to come together, even with a 17-game regular season.
Once the Ravens get an offensive coordinator and reach some type of agreement with Jackson, then it’s on to the next step, the draft. They need a receiver like TCU’s Quentin Johnston or a cornerback like Miami’s Tyrique Stevenson or Maryland’s Jakorian Bennett. They likely need an offensive lineman to replace left guard Ben Powers, who is expected to move on when he receives a lucrative contract offer in free agency.
But remember, few rookies come in and dominate right away. Even Hall of Famers like linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed had learning curves that lasted a year or two.
There has been a lot of speculation that the Ravens could acquire Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, but how do the Ravens pay him, Smith and possibly Jackson? The Ravens probably can’t deal with Hopkins’ high-maintenance personality, either.
DE Calais Campbell ($7 million) Skinny: Perhaps the six-time Pro Bowl selection will make this decision a moot point if he elects to retire, but the Ravens will have a difficult time keeping Campbell for his age-37 season at his $9.4 million cap number without a team-friendly Jackson extension in place or a Jackson trade. Though the 6-foot-8, 307-pound Campbell remained Baltimore’s best defensive lineman in 2022, there are probably wiser moves to make than bringing back someone entering his 16th season unless he’s willing to take less money. You’d hate to lose the player on the field and the man in the locker room, but there are few other ways to create this much cap space.
RB Gus Edwards ($4.4 million) Skinny: With both Edwards and No. 1 back J.K. Dobbins scheduled to become free agents after the 2023 campaign, you’d assume the Ravens will consider taking a running back at some point during April’s draft. But if that’s the case, does it make as much sense to pay Edwards $4.4 million in base salary when acknowledging the current cap constraints and other positions of need on the roster? Of course, it’s easier said than done to move on from a physical 238-pound back who’s averaged 5.0 yards per carry or better in each of his four healthy seasons in the NFL. It’ll be interesting seeing how the Ravens value Edwards with a new offensive coordinator in place and the need to improve dramatically in the passing game.
“I was like, ‘What?! This freaking kid!’ Lewis said. “Now when I’m watching him, I’m saying, ‘How can I help him get better?’ This offseason, we’re really going to sit down and go through film, so I can teach him little things.”
“Who wouldn’t? A 17-year veteran, the guy is one of the best to do it, a defensive MVP, how could you not try to get that knowledge?” Smith said. “I’m just grateful to be in his presence, I’ve got a lot of respect for him and try to soak up everything I can.”
“Roquan, if he takes his game and just takes one more step up, I just think he could be freaking phenomenal,” Lewis said.