- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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"It was a zone blitz, but we wanted to have something where we could get Lawrence matched on a back [in this case, Willis McGahee]," LeBeau said afterward. "Our [pass] defenders made the quarterback hold the ball for a second, and that gave Lawrence a chance to get around the back. It was a big play. He's delivered for us a lot of times."
So has LeBeau, an Ohio native with a folksy drawl who is beloved by his players for his modesty and respected for his expertise. He played 14 seasons at cornerback for the Detroit Lions, retiring after the '72 season with 62 career interceptions (seventh alltime). The last 36 years he has spent coaching. "He always makes the right call," says nosetackle Casey Hampton. "He understands football; he played football. A lot of coaches act like you're not supposed to make a mistake, but he understands that stuff is going to happen in the game. There's never any yelling or getting mad. He says, 'Just go out there and do your thing.'"
"Dick is the epitome of a team player," Tomlin says. "He has no ego. He just wants to win. If I had come in and tried to change the defense, it would have been about ego. But we all have to check our egos at the door. I've worked with guys like Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin, and I viewed working with Dick as another opportunity to work with a brilliant defensive mind. Every day he's tinkering, trying to figure out how to do something better. He comes to work with an emphasis on getting better every day."
THOUGH THE Ravens' defensive tradition isn't as old or as glorious as the Steelers', it began to take root soon after the franchise relocated to Baltimore from Cleveland in 1996. Operating out of a 4--3 scheme that year, the Ravens finished last in total D, allowing 368.1 yards per game, but it was also middle linebacker Ray Lewis's rookie season and Marvin Lewis's first as a coordinator.
Marvin began to incorporate elements of the 3--4 he'd learned as the Steelers' linebackers coach (1992 through '95), while player personnel boss Ozzie Newsome brought in free-agent tackle Tony Siragusa to control the interior line and end Michael McCrary to upgrade the pass rush. One of the game's better talent evaluators, Newsome knew the draft ultimately would be the lifeblood of the defense, so over the next three years he used 10 of his first 14 picks on defensive players.
By the '99 season the Ravens had the second-ranked unit in the league, and the following year a ferocious, Ray Lewis--led defense allowed a record-low 165 points in the regular season to key Baltimore's run to the Super Bowl championship. Newsome kept adding pieces, spending first-round picks on safety Ed Reed (2002) and linebacker Terrell Suggs (2003), who have become veteran leaders alongside Lewis. Since '99, Ravens defenders have earned 27 Pro Bowl berths, nine more than the Steelers.
"We had a core group of guys when I was there, and they continued to build on it after I left," says Marvin Lewis, who became the Washington Redskins' coordinator in 2002 and the Cincinnati Bengals' coach a year later. "They lost guys like Adalius Thomas [to free agency in 2007], but there were others in place who had been trained by the veterans [to know] this is our standard, this is how we do it, this is what we expect."
The person doing the teaching these days is Rex Ryan, son of Buddy, the master strategist whose attacking 46 defense spurred the 1985 Chicago Bears to a Super Bowl victory. Rex, a longtime Ravens assistant who succeeded Mike Nolan as coordinator in 2005, has tweaked the D to his liking, making it even more unpredictable and aggressive. He seemingly comes up with new pressure packages in his sleep, but one thing he refuses to change is what he looks for in a player.
"It's not necessarily the position, it's the disposition," he says. "You've got to have the right guys, the right mentality, to have consistency. Every now and then you get a flash-in-the-pan team that shows up and has a decent year on defense. But for the most part it's usually us and Pittsburgh right there with each other, and I think it has a lot to do with the type of players we have—and the mind-set of those players. There's a passion that both teams play with on defense."
When Ryan screens prospects on their predraft visits to Baltimore, he sits them in front of a video screen and shows highlights that illustrate how his defense works. Then Ryan asks each player whether he wants to be a part of that unit. Those slow to answer are scratched from the Ravens' list. You can't be faint of heart and play for Ryan.