For the past decade, the Baltimore Ravens have been known for defense. Led by future Hall of Fame middle linebacker Ray Lewis, Baltimore’s defense is perennially one of the top units in the NFL and this year is no different. On Sunday, when the Buccaneers bring their 7-3 record to M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, they will face the NFL’s eighth-ranked defense (311.8 yards per game) that is equally stout against the run (tied for ninth, 101.8 yards per game) and the pass (tenth, 210 yards per game).
“Yeah, we feel like this is one of the top defenses we’ve played all year,” said Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman. “They play well, they are an extremely veteran group. They have Ray Lewis in the middle and they have strong leaders. We definitely have our work cut out for us, but I’m really excited about the opportunity.”
The 22-year old Freeman grew up watching the Ravens’ all-time leading tackler, who is 35 years old, as a youth and is anxious to play against him.
“It’s an awesome opportunity,” Freeman said. “In my generation, he’s the best linebacker. I grew up watching him. I love the intensity level he plays with. It will be a great chance to go out and play a great defense led by a great middle linebacker.”
San Francisco inside linebacker Patrick Willis had two sacks on Freeman last week in Tampa Bay’s 21-0 victory, and Lewis, who has 38.5 career sacks and two this year, is a capable blitzer.
“Ray Lewis is a guy I have so much respect for,” said Bucs left tackle Donald Penn. “I don’t have too many guys I put up to that standard, but Ray Lewis is one of those guys. Every time I’ve met him in the offseason. He’s been such a nice guy, a great guy. I grew up watching him. It’s going to be a great feeling getting to hit him once. You grow up watching him and now you get to play him. It’s going to be a great feeling.”
As good as Lewis, who has 83 tackles in 2010, is at blitzing, Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs is the Ravens’ leading sacker with 7.5 this year and 65 in his career.
“Terrell Suggs is a great player,” Penn said. “He’s one of those guys that tries to intimidate you, but I like playing against those guys because that stuff is all show. You find out who the men are when you line up.”
The thing that makes the Ravens defense so dangerous is that Baltimore has playmakers at every level – in the linebacking corps, in the secondary and along the line. Haloti Ngata, who was drafted in the first round in 2006, is having a monster year with 48 tackles and a career-high five sacks. Whether he is lining up at nose tackle or at defensive end, the 6-foot-4, 350-pound behemoth is hard to handle.
“Haloti is a beast,” Penn said. “For him being so big, he’s up there with an athlete like me. He’s up there with me. I could kind of put him in the same category. That guy has been playing great. Their whole front line – they work together so well. You don’t see too many defenses that work together like that so well. Then they have [safety Ed] Reed. He’s like another Troy Polamalu guy. We’re going to have our work cut out for us. We have a good game plan and we’re going to stick to our game plan and that’s going to be the key.”
Reed, a Pro Bowl free safety has battled injuries this season and has only played in four games. However, he has four picks in those four games, giving him 50 in his nine-year NFL career.
“He’s one of those special players,” Freeman said. “He’s a lot like Troy Polamalu. He’s been in the game for a while and he’s played at an extremely high level his whole career. He understands what offenses are trying to do with routes and schemes and what a quarterback is looking at and what he is keying off of. His ability to disguise coverages and find a way to sneak out and rob the quarterback – he’s really good.”
The key to success against the Ravens defense is winning on first and second down.
“Those are going to be the big downs to get stuff going,” Penn said. “If you don’t get stuff going on first or second down, we don’t want to get into third-and-long against this team because it opens up everything in their playbook.
“We don’t want to give them third-and-long. It opens up their blitz package. It opens up their walk-around [defense]. It gives Ed Reed the chance to go back there and roam and just read Josh’s eyes, which he’s great at. If it’s third-and-short, you can do a lot of stuff – not just pass it. You can do play-action. It just opens up our offense.”
In third-and-long situations, Baltimore players like Reed, Lewis and Suggs will walk around prior to the snap and not stay in one spot, which makes it difficult for opposing quarterbacks to know exactly where the blitzers are coming from.
Penn said that as physical as the Ravens defense is, the 49ers defense was quite physical too, and served as a good test run for facing Baltimore.
“You have to start wearing them down,” Penn said. “You have to start rough and don’t let that deteriorate and go south. You have to keep working and keep consistency. In San Francisco, we had a good running game, but really, we didn’t have as many knockdowns as we usually do as an offensive line. That was probably one of our lowest knockdown games and pancake games. We keep track of that and that was one of our lowest ones ever because San Francisco is strong and big up front. If you look at the box scores, it shows different. That was a good, physical team.
“It’s going to be a grind this week. You don’t understand. This week, I’m hurting. Last week was a grind. That was a good defense. San Francisco has a good defense. It was a grind, and there’s going to be another one this week, and then another one next week.”
The Ravens game marks the first of a two-game stretch where the Bucs face teams with seven wins or more. After the trip to Baltimore, Tampa Bay returns home to face NFC-leading Atlanta, which has an 8-2 record.
“We’re not looking forward to Atlanta, we’re looking at Baltimore,” Penn said. “Teams that do that slip up a little bit. Last year we used to do that. I’ve done that at times, me personally. I’m just taking it day-by-day and week-by-week. I think that’s the best thing because you can control what you control. That’s what I’m doing and I think everybody else on the team is doing. Every game is big, but a lot of people are saying that we have three losses to Pittsburgh, Atlanta and New Orleans, so you have to beat a team that’s meaningful,” Penn said. “That’s another thing for me personally. I want to get that chip off my back because it is true. Against the top teams we fell short a couple times. It’s something that we need to do.”
The reason why the Bucs fell short is because Freeman did not play his best and the team didn’t win the turnover margin in those three losses. On the year, the Bucs are sixth in the NFL with a plus-7 turnover margin.
“Just go out and execute,” Freeman said. “That’s what it is. They have good players, but so does everyone else in the league. It really comes down to coming out as a team and playing disciplined, smart football and not turning the ball over.”
After losses to NFL heavyweights like Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Atlanta, the Bucs will get another big test in Baltimore to prove that they too are a heavyweight. That’s an opportunity that players like Penn are excited to have in what should be a playoff-type environment.
“You could put it up there, it’s 7-3 versus 7-3,” Penn said. “Playing in Baltimore with a rowdy crowd. It doesn’t get any better than that. You guys are going to be excited to watch the game. Imagine how excited I’ll be to play the game. It doesn’t get any better than this. It doesn’t.”
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