OWINGS MILLS, Md. – The giant speakers near the edge of the Baltimore Ravens' practice fields crackle. There comes a pause, a pop and then enough bass to crack a windowpane. This is the trend in the NFL now, teams practicing under the rumble of music. The Ravens have embraced it too. But on this lost spring OTA the music stops and a strange sensation fills the sun-splashed fields.
Ray Lewis didn't always find OTAs worth his time. Spring football wasn't a priority to the face of the Ravens. But even on the days he didn't feel like being in town the idea of him loomed over the practice facility. Things were noisy just because he was noisy. He was, after all, the franchise's longest-running act, a first-round draft pick in the first season in Baltimore.
And now he is gone, retired to the television studio. Lost with him is safety Ed Reed, the stoic leader as important to the defense in his silence as Lewis was with his bellow. So much history disappeared after the confetti spilled from the Superdome ceiling back in February. It is a very different Super Bowl champion defense going through its OTAS. The forgotten roar of Ray Lewis is hardly the only difference.
Jimmy Smith has noticed. The Ravens' cornerback feels the absence in meetings. Certainty is gone. "It's a different learning curve," he said. "You don't have Ed Reed knowing everything to help you out anymore."
For all the talk about Joe Flacco's contract and the search for a receiver to replace Anquan Boldin, the Ravens are probably at heart a defensive team. No one should forget the Super Bowl was won on a final defensive stand. With Lewis, Reed and linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger, and cornerback Cary Williams no longer around there is a question as to just what kind of defense Baltimore will have.
And yet a strange thing has happened in the absence of so much experience. These OTAs, which are supposed to be glorified walk-throughs, are surprisingly competitive. The pace is faster. A pile of Pro Bowls and a whole lot of certainty has left but the remaining players can smell opportunity.
"We don't have the lion in the middle and the general in the secondary," Smith said.
But they also have openings for the first time in years. Openings mean chances. And chances give players a thought they might win jobs that otherwise wouldn't be available.
"The competition has kind of ramped up a little bit," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "It's like if you walk in here as a [middle] linebacker, you are saying in the last 16 years, you are pretty much saying, 'I'm a backup.' You walk in as a [middle] linebacker now, you could be a starter. … There are guys out there really competing at corner. There are guys really competing at safety. There are guys competing at inside 'backer. There are new faces on the D-line.
"To me, the best thing I like about when I watch film is the competitiveness between the first and second group – even the third group that gets in there – they are all fighting for a spot. They all kind of see, 'I have a chance.' Sometimes that's very rewarding."
As he watched his defense fighting harder than you would expect a recent Super Bowl-winning defense to fight in an OTA, Pees was reminded of one of his great memories as a college defensive coordinator when in 1986 his Miami of Ohio team visited eighth-ranked LSU. To protect against his players tiring in the Louisiana heat, he split the defense into three units, mixing starters among the three groups. He discovered that every player – regardless of his standing on the depth chart – felt he had a role. Miami won 21-12. And Pees learned a lesson he would take with him forever.
"The thing of it is that sometimes the more you get involved in a package and guys aren't just looking and saying, 'I'm a perennial backup,' guys play a little harder and play a little faster and play a little more together," he said.
Perhaps this is what will happen to the Ravens. It's probably too soon to know. Just because Lewis, Reed and Ellerbe are gone, there are enough pieces still remaining like Smith and linebacker Terrell Suggs and tackle Haloti Ngata. And maybe having new players will be a good thing. Many Super Bowl teams stumble in the season after the big win, a natural letdown that comes from the weeks of celebrating. Maybe competition in the Ravens' defense will protect against complacency.
"Somebody will step up," Pees said. "Somebody always does, and they have to. But on the other hand, guys are learning and coaches are coaching their rear ends off to get everybody on the same page. The other point of it is kind of as a coach, you take nothing for granted right now. As a coach, you really have to coach everything, because you are coaching new guys in that position. It's not like, 'Oh yeah, I know Ray [Lewis] knows how to do this. I don't have to spend a lot of time telling them.' Now, we do. We have to be a little more specific and a little bit more detailed as coaches."
In the months after a Super Bowl title that might be the best thing the Ravens could have asked for.
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