MIAMI – This is the type of skill you develop when it's just you against the rest of the group, the sidewalk and the fence.
That's how Baltimore Ravens free safety Ed Reed and his childhood friends practiced their football skills growing up in Louisiana, where his family moved around. There'd be 12-15 guys out on the field. One would have the ball and the rest would chase him, trying to keep him from scoring.
"Like playing 21 or Hog in basketball, just you against everybody else," said Reed, who finished third this season in the balloting for NFL Defensive Player of the Year and will try to help the Ravens reach the AFC championship game when they face the Tennessee Titans on Saturday.
Reed's score concluded with a leap into the end zone.
(AP Photo/Pat Carter)
No blockers, no help of any kind. Worse yet, there'd sometimes be a sidewalk bordering one side of the field and a fence on the other. It was all fair game.
"It was still tackle on the sidewalk, so that was no fun, but the fence was what really hurt," Reed said.
Other times, Reed would play tackle in the living room with his brother Wendell Sanchez, who is four years older. As Sanchez would kneel, Reed tried to get around him, looking for any way to squeeze past the couch or by the television. Ultimately, if you don't want to get dog-piled by a dozen or so of your best friends, have a chain-link pattern etched into your skin or get knocked into the arm rest of the couch, you better learn to improvise.
Learn to find those tight spaces to sneak through and make sure you keep an eye out behind you. In short, you better be able to make it up as you go along.
"Make a move, run fast or get killed," Reed said with a hearty laugh.
That shows up most when the Baltimore safety is returning a turnover, weaving back-and-forth across the field as he did Sunday in leading Baltimore to a playoff victory over Miami. After he tracked down an errant deep throw from Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington late in the second quarter, Reed initially ran to his left, skipping away from a would-be tackler who swiped at his feet, then worked way back to the right before finishing the 64-yard return in the end zone for a touchdown that put the Ravens ahead for good.
"That's just Ed Reed," Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "When he has the ball in his hands, he's always got a chance to score because of the way he can see that field. That's why I say he's the best safety in the world."
While fans of Ronnie Lott or many of the other greats who have roamed the middle of the secondary may argue, Reed is putting up a pretty good argument to support Suggs' belief. In seven NFL regular seasons, Reed has 43 interceptions. The NFL record is 81, set by Paul Krause, who played 16 years.
Reed has had at least five interceptions in all but one season, 2005, when he missed six games because of a right ankle injury. Including the score on Sunday, he has now returned eight turnovers for touchdowns in his career. Six of those are on interceptions, putting him halfway to Rod Woodson's record of 12 set over 17 seasons.
In the playoffs, Reed has five more interceptions in only three games. He had two Sunday in what was his first postseason victory, two against Indianapolis' Peyton Manning following the '06 season and one against Tennessee's Steve McNair following the '03 season. After he left the locker room at Dolphin Stadium, he signed autographs for the dozens of Ravens fans who waited for him and chanted "MVP" as he stood there with pen in hand on a sultry South Florida evening.
"It's sweet, but I don't even want to think that we won," Reed said. "I keep thinking we lost. I want to stay sharp, stay hungry."
Always be ready, always be thinking ahead. Earlier this season, Reed put that improvisational skill on display after he tweaked his hamstring and couldn't run at full speed. Instead of playing free safety, where he would have to cover the deep routes, Reed switched to strong safety. He played up against the run and the short-passing game, knowing exactly what to do.
As the season has worn on, Reed has been tested in other ways. The Ravens have lost strong safety Dawan Landry and cornerback Chris McAlister to injuries, depleting what was considered a thin secondary before the season. Yet the Ravens still ranked No. 2 in overall defense and No. 2 in pass defense in the regular season. Even more impressive, the Ravens are allowing only 5.4 yards per pass attempt and finished with 26 interceptions (most in the league) compared to only 17 touchdown passes allowed.
"Ed's back there by himself, taking away the whole field," Suggs said. "When you got a guy who can take away both halves of the field like that, it makes it so easy to just get after it with the pass rush."
Sometimes Reed's improvisational skills are more subtle.
In a divisional round matchup against the Colts two years ago, Indianapolis lined up at the Ravens 5-yard line. Reed could see that the call was going to be a run. Despite all of Manning's gesticulating and pass-happy tendencies, the ball was going to Joseph Addai. Reed just knew it. So Reed looked over at the sideline to defensive coordinator Rex Ryan and gave a quick gesture to say to his coach, "I'm blitzing." The Ravens had never worked on that blitz before, never even conjured it in any of the thousands of hours they'd spent going over video and game plans.
"That's my favorite Ed Reed play," Ryan said Sunday. "Ed just made it up right there. He has an amazing feel for the game."
Reed tripped up Addai and Suggs finished the play with the tackle to force a field goal.
"He knew exactly where to go, right there on the fly," Ryan said.
That's what happens when you learned how to make it up on the run long ago.