BALTIMORE – For all these years now they've patrolled the middle, this generation's most menacing linebacker and its most ball-hawking safety. All these years together in Baltimore for Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, first ballot Hall of Famers each, and they have a combined one Super Bowl to show for it, just Lewis on that 2000 Ravens team.
Year after year, season after season, the Ravens fall short. Baltimore is always the most dangerous and punishing out of the playoffs but it's an out nonetheless. It's mostly because of an offense that is so, at best, average that not even the great Ray Lewis and the great Ed Reed can hold off the Patriots or Steelers forever.
Time ticks. Windows close. Lewis is 37 now. Reed is 34 "in two hours" he said Monday after the Ravens' explosive and dominating 44-13 pounding of Cincinnati and …
Wait, yes, an explosive, dominating 44-13 pounding of Cincinnati.
Explosive as in: 299 yards and two touchdowns from Joe Flacco. Dominating as in: two more TDs from Ray Rice. Pounding as in: 430 total yards from an offense that often went no-huddle, featured eight receivers catching a pass and regularly ran end-arounds, reverses and even a halfback option, although Rice held onto it because everyone was covered.
Is this the offense you've been waiting all these years for, Lewis was asked?
"I've been here a long time … " he said with a pause and then a smile. "You can finish that off for me."
There is always urgency in the NFL, especially on a team that has won at least one playoff game in the past four postseasons. So it's wrong to say they care more about winning the Super Bowl this season. That said, there is also an understanding that this legendary defense can continue for only so long.
It was last January, on a cold New England day after falling a field goal short in the AFC championship game, when Lewis stood in front of his locker and answered legitimate questions about whether he would retire. And it was Monday when Reed, while setting the all-time record for yards gained on interception returns (1,497 yards), tweaked his hamstring when diving past an offensive lineman.
"Father Time does catch up with you," Reed said.
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Realistically, this may be it. If not, then soon. Yet suddenly, this forever group of defenders knows it doesn't have to pull the entire train. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has opened up things with a no-huddle approach. New quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell has worked with Flacco on accuracy and pace. The team has loaded up with weapons on the outside.
This is entirely different than the stereotypical game-managing, don't-beat-yourself, the-defense-will-keep-you-in-it Ravens.
Throughout Lewis' now 17 seasons, the Ravens offense has ranked 15.9th in total points, an almost perfectly average, average in the now 32-team league. It's been over a decade since Baltimore ranked better than 15th in total yards for a season. Meanwhile the defense has been top three in points allowed in five of the last six campaigns.
Now there appears to be an offense the defense can be proud of, an offense that can lighten the load, change the dynamics of how you game plan against the Ravens and, perhaps, get this franchise back to the promised land before Father Time really catches up to Lewis, Reed and their punishing, intimidating games.
"[I want to] give Ray another," cornerback Lardarius Webb. "I want Ed to feel it. It's not even about me."
Lewis and Reed tend to brush it all aside. It isn't about them either. It's about all the Ravens, including late owner Art Modell, who was honored Monday. That's the attitude that makes these guys who they are. The reality is something different. This offense finally looks capable of knocking teams on their heels.
"Yeah, it was a lot of fun," Flacco said. "You can't lie about that."
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After the game, John Harbaugh declared Flacco "scary good" and "elite" and shrugged off suggestions that his price tag would go up with all these high-wire plays and big yardage nights.
"Pay him whatever he asks for," Harbaugh laughed. "Pay the man."
"You all heard that," Flacco noted.
It was that kind of night, a divisional game against a playoff team turned into a show of force full of postgame jokes. It's the confidence that comes from obvious progression of an offense finally coming together. Sure it's just one game, but the entire franchise knows what this could mean.
"Our offense goes against a great defense every day," linebacker Brendon Ayenbadejo said. "We pushed them to be what they are. We've challenged them every day in practice. In the past Joe was young, the offense was young."
The defense had its way with the offense.
"Of course we did."
Not anymore they don't. At some point during this preseason, players said, the script flipped. Suddenly Lewis was considering the advantages of having a great offense.
"Anytime someone has to play from behind on us, in the history we have, it's hard," Lewis said. "It's hard. That's going to be real rough."
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He and Reed loved this. They both talk like they're indestructible and there's reason for that, also. It was Reed with the pick-six that crushed Cincinnati's hopes. And it was Lewis who delivered 14 tackles, one sack, a stripped fumble and a pregame bear hug of Michael Phelps that nearly broke the Baltimore native in half.
They are still brilliant players. There's still country for old men. Yet they hear the chatter.
"People talk about Ed's age," Lewis said. "They talk about my age."
Windows close. Careers end. Famed units, even one as great as the Baltimore Ravens defense, even as great as Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, break up, often without warning. Already Terrell Suggs, Lewis' linebacker running mate the last nine seasons, is out with an injury for at least the first six games.
So it might be this season or bust. If not, soon. Here at last though, just in time for another run, maybe a final run, Baltimore may deliver to its defensive legends the offense of their dreams.
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