Still formidable though less fearsome in the pass-rush, the Ravens' defense will count on its savvy veterans, led by super safety Ed Reed, to stop the Steelers
Ed Reed is not one of those stars who likes to pretend playing football doesn't hurt. A seven-time Pro Bowl pick and arguably the best safety of his generation, Reed is 32 now, with a blaze of gray in his hair. He is only 5' 11", 200 pounds. Despite leading the NFL in interceptions for the third time in his nine seasons, he will tell you he's rather vincible. The recovery from surgery he had last spring to rebuild a torn labrum in his hip, which caused him to miss the first six weeks of the season? "That was a whole different pain," the Ravens' veteran said last week. The rib injury he sustained two Sundays ago while making his eighth and final regular-season pick? "Painful," he said last Thursday, grimacing as he pulled off the adhesive heating pad he'd worn under his jersey during practice.
And so when Reed was asked in the visitors' locker room at New Arrowhead Stadium to describe "how good it felt" to make the hit that seemed to spark his team to its 30--7 wild-card blowout of the Chiefs on Sunday afternoon—a jarring, perfectly timed, drive-killing shot to rookie Dexter McCluster near midfield on third-and-eight in the second quarter, as the Chiefs held a 7--3 lead—Reed responded not with bluster but with honesty. "It felt all right," he said. "A little ringing there." Then he added, "Just doing my job."
In doing it, Reed is no less than "a unique, once-in-a-lifetime football player," according to Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, and his career statistics bear out that claim. In an accomplishment so often cited that it might one day be printed on Reed's business cards, he is the only player in NFL history to have scored touchdowns off a punt return, blocked punt, interception and fumble recovery. His 61 combined regular-season and postseason interceptions rank him 12th alltime. He has played three fewer seasons than anyone else in the top 18.
More important, says Mattison, is how Reed's experience rubs off on his teammates—how he explains to them the way a quarterback thinks and an offense works; how he can create all those turnovers without gambling outside the structure of the defense. In 2010 his importance to the Ravens has been as evident as ever. In the six games Reed missed while recovering from his hip surgery, Baltimore, with a patchwork secondary, produced just three interceptions. In the 10 games Reed played, the Ravens picked off 16 passes.
On Sunday in Kansas City it was Baltimore's secondary—specifically Reed and his hit on McCluster—that led the way. "He came up out of nowhere and laid the boom on him," safety Dawan Landry said. "That kind of woke us up. If a play can be made, Ed can make it." At the time the Chiefs had accrued 138 yards. They would gain just 23 more. Baltimore's secondary also produced four turnovers after the Reed hit—on interceptions by reserve safety Haruki Nakamura, Landry and cornerback Josh Wilson, and on a fumble recovery by cornerback Chris Carr—to give the Ravens five in total against a Chiefs team that had just 14 giveaways all season. And the Ravens held Pro Bowl wideout Dwayne Bowe, the NFL's leader in touchdown receptions, without a catch; flustered K.C. quarterback Matt Cassel, in fact, did not even attempt a pass in Bowe's direction. "For Ed to do what he did under the circumstances, and to play the way he played, to lead the way he led, that's just an incredible thing," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh.
The circumstances Reed had to overcome on Sunday extended far beyond his physical maladies. Two days before, in Louisiana, his younger brother, Brian, 29, reportedly jumped into the frigid waters of the Mississippi River while being pursued by officers from the St. Charles Parish sheriff's office. His body has not been recovered, and authorities called off their search on Saturday. After the game Ed Reed boarded a New Orleans--bound private jet, provided by the Ravens, to be with his family.
Still, he said he hadn't found it difficult to concentrate on the task at hand. "It's a child's game we play," he said, clutching the game ball his teammates had given him. "It's not tough to focus on this. We had to concentrate on this one, and now we have to concentrate on the next one."
The next one will come on Saturday afternoon in Pittsburgh, against a Steelers team that, Reed and the Ravens know, represents a far more formidable challenge. The AFC North rivals split this season's series, trading a pair of three-point victories for the second consecutive year, though Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger missed the 17--14 Ravens win on Oct. 3 while serving his four-game suspension. The Ravens cannot expect to beat Pittsburgh while reaching their opponent's 11-yard line three times and settling for field goals, as they did against the Chiefs; they cannot expect Steelers safety Troy Polamalu (page 52), the only player who makes Reed's preeminence among this era's safeties even slightly arguable, to allow tight end Todd Heap to repeatedly gallop unmarked across the middle, as he did in catching 10 passes for 108 yards in Kansas City. Most of all they cannot expect Roethlisberger, who has won six straight against them, to wilt as Cassel did in his first playoff start.
Containing Roethlisberger will be a task mostly left to the Ravens' secondary, as their defense features just one true pass-rushing threat, linebacker Terrell Suggs, who had 11 sacks. (Baltimore's total of 27 was the fourth fewest by any team.) That means it will be a task left to Ed Reed, who will again—with his little brother missing, with his own body aching—seek to push everything aside for three hours to simply do his job, the job at which he is one of the best there ever was.
Photograph by DAMIAN STROHMEYER
EXPERIENCE NECESSARY Sunday was the 14th career postseason start for Ray Lewis (52) and the first for the Chiefs' Cassel (7)—and it showed.
DAVE KAUP/REUTERS (LEWIS AND REED)
SHORT WORK Reed (right, with Lewis) led the league in picks though he played just 10 games.