Steel Curtain, Doomsday Defense, Lombardi Packers, Purple People
Eaters, Buddy Ryan's 46 defense.... Now, on the heels of their
34-7 triumph in Super Bowl XXXV, we have the Baltimore Ravens.
Are they as good as those proud and dominant defensive units of
the past? Better, maybe? Or one-year wonders, so new on the scene
that they don't even have a nickname?
"You can compare them with anybody," Giants coach Jim Fassel
says. "They're that good."
"They compare favorably with any defense I've ever seen," says
new Kansas City Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil, who has worked in the
NFL for more than two decades. "The offenses they face are more
wide open than offenses of the past. They have to defend against
more things every week than previous defenses did."
"Time will tell," Giants defensive coordinator John Fox says.
"Based on what they accomplished today, and this year, they stack
up against those defenses, but it's only a starting point."
My opinion? It's impossible to rank them ahead of the great
Dallas, Green Bay and Minnesota units of the late '60s and early
'70s, because the game is so different now than it was then. The
Ravens certainly can't match the Pack's collection of five
defensive Hall of Famers, but none of those teams, including
Green Bay, could match Baltimore's team speed, which the Giants
found out about the hard way.
What's more, none of those teams had a middle linebacker who
could play the pass like Ray Lewis can. His run-stopping ability
is well known, but what won him MVP honors on Sunday was his
brilliance against the pass. The official stat sheet credited
him with a game-high four knockdowns, but that didn't include a
Jamie Sharper interception off his deflection. "As a unit, the
Ravens' starting linebackers are terrific pass defenders,"
Giants backup quarterback Jason Garrett says. "They get great
depth and then rally to the ball on underneath patterns. And, of
course, you can't run on them."
Ryan's Chicago Bears defense of the mid-'80s was a crushing,
punishing, overwhelming unit, keyed by the relentless blitzes of
the outside linebackers, Wilber Marshall and Otis Wilson, and
occasionally the middle linebacker, Mike Singletary. The Bears
had two terrific frontline rushers in Richard Dent and Dan
Hampton. The cornerbacks were ordinary and basically anonymous.
The safeties, Dave Duerson and Gary Fencik, were All-Pro at one
time in their careers. Singletary had great range in his
coverage, but he was usually dropping into a zone. He couldn't
lock onto an intermediate receiver as Lewis can. Call it a tie
for second between Chicago and Baltimore.
My No. 1 defense, though, remains the Pittsburgh Steelers of 1974
through '79, if only for the sheer abundance of talent. That unit
didn't have to face the variety of offenses that the Ravens do,
but the '70s wasn't a primitive era, either. Bill Walsh was
working his magic in Cincinnati, Don Coryell had already put his
offensive stamp on the Chargers, and Tom Landry's Cowboys
presented a tremendous assortment of formations and innovations.
If you want to compare personnel, let's start with the tackles:
Ernie Holmes and Hall of Famer Joe Greene against Baltimore's
Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams. Both sets of tackles have the
responsibility of keeping blockers off their middle linebackers,
but Holmes and Greene did more and were quicker. Hall of Fame
middle linebacker Jack Lambert had more range than any other
middle linebacker of his era, but Lewis is better in pure
coverage. The Ravens have no counterpart to Hall of Fame outside
linebacker Jack Ham or right cornerback Mel Blount, and two other
Steelers, left end L.C. Greenwood and strong safety Donnie Shell,
were good enough that they've appeared on Hall of Fame ballots.
Someday Lewis will be up for enshrinement, and Baltimore's free
safety, Rod Woodson, should make it on the first ballot--as a
cornerback, which he played for 12 years, primarily with the
Steelers. Cornerback Chris McAlister is also on the verge of a
Baltimore has put together a beautifully integrated, shockingly
fast unit. Still, the Steelers of '74 and '75 had 10 of 11
starters who made the Pro Bowl at some time in their careers.
Plus the Steel Curtain dominated for more than half a decade.
The Ravens lack another thing, and that's class. "Few people know
what a lack of class they have," Giants left tackle Lomas Brown
says. "Toward the end of the game, when the issue was decided,
they were still strutting and trash-talking. I heard [strongside
linebacker] Peter Boulware saying, 'Get off the field, losers.'
It wasn't necessary. Before they're compared to the alltime great
defenses, they'd better learn to show a little character, to
operate with the class of champions."
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Baltimore roughed up Collins, who was sacked four times and threw four interceptions.