Thursday, January 8, 2009

Breaking an Opponent's Will

Much I marveled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning - little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door -
Bird or beast above the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as `Nevermore.'

As a Ravens fan, I remember the 2000 season more than fondly, I remember it in simple amazement of what that defense accomplished. It was, in my opinion, the greatest single season defense of all time, followed exceptionally closely by the Bears and the Steel Curtain. The Bears get the nod over the Steelers as they were better in a single season, but in terms of dynasty defenses, I don’t know that we’ll ever see anything match the Steel Curtain.

One of the things I feel the ’00 Ravens did better than any team possibly in history (I’m young, I never saw the Steel Curtain or Purple People Eaters or [insert other from pre-1980] play) is completely break the will of the opposing offense in such disparate proportion to the rest of the league. As the NFL has evolved, the rules have become decidedly detrimental for defensive prowess. All you need to do is ask the Demon Deacon Jones if he would have been as effective a pass rusher had he not been allowed to lay repeated crushing head slaps on would-be blockers. The ability to make an opposing player cry is virtually impossible these days (unless your name is Elvis GrBac, in which case crying comes naturally).

But this is what the ’00 Ravens specialized in. They would break the will of their opponents. They made offenses want nothing to do with the ball. They did it by laying crushing blows on their opponents, and in general inflicting as much pain as possible (note the hit around 25 seconds into that video).

I remember seeing a pair of very clear examples of this in their playoff run that I thought were worth mentioning. The first was against Denver in the Wildcard round. It was the 4th quarter, the game was still within reach, and the Broncos were driving. McCaffery went down the sidelines on a deep slant, and as the pass almost reached him, a defender was bearing down on him. He literally ducked. I turned to my dad (I was at the game) and said “He doesn’t want anything to do with that ball.” The second was the next game, at the Titans. Eddie George took a McNair pass around the same time Ray Lewis got there. Lewis simply took the ball from George, who on the play looked like he was a tired, old man who didn’t have the will or energy to compete for the ball.

That’s the reason that defense was so successful. They hit you and hit you and hit you and did it so hard that at some point in the second half, you were praying that the ball was going to someone else. I imagine some teams huddling up in the 4th quarter of a close game, the QB calling the play, and the intended receiver groaning and asking for a different play.

It’s largely the difference that I’ve seen between the ’00 defense, and the Ravens ’08 defense. The ’08 defense is more of a ball-hawk defense, and they still hit very hard, but during the regular season they weren’t doing it quite like they were in ’00. I think that’s a lot of the reason behind why teams (Steelers, Titans, Cowboys) were able to mount offensive drives late in games against them.

But against Miami, I saw a bit of what that ’00 defense did so effectively. They didn’t put together a great defensive performance. They simply broke the Dolphins’ will to play the game. They laid down crushing blows, and forced the Phins to make critical errors that made it a futile effort to mount a come-back . Even the reverse the Phins ran where Ginn mishandled the snap, Ray Lewis had fully penetrated the offensive line and was hitting Pennington as he was handing it off. At first glance I thought it was a lucky fumble. On replay, I think Lewis may have actually had more to do with disrupting the handoff.

The Ravens ability to overcome Joe Flacco’s inexperience will lie completely in this factor. The Ravens play dominant defensive football. But up until the Miami game, they weren’t playing it like they did in the ’00 season. Flacco is going to make mistakes, and he’s going to look like a rookie QB in the playoffs against some fantastic defenses. The Ravens cannot afford for teams to mount come-back drives against them.

To go far, they’re going to have to do to the next three teams they face, exactly what they did to the Dolphins. They’re going to have to demoralize them, to viciously attack them, to force critical mistakes and to break their will so that they do not want to touch the ball.

Without the ability to do that, they’re just another playoff team not going to the promised land, but with a really good defense.

1 comment:

  1. 85 Bears did more to crush the will of the opposing team. Offensive players actually looked frightened out there. It was astonishing. The 2000 Ravens would stop teams stone cold on their possessions; the 85 Bears would actually plow teams backward on their possessions.

    It's possible the 2000 Ravens were overall a better D. Buddy Ryan sometimes didn't seem to care whether he actually covered receivers (his pass rush made it irrelevant), whereas that Ravens team had a very good secondary. But no team was more likely to knock the starting QB out of the game, or make guys quit, than that 85 Bears D.


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