Behind Enemy Lines: Going inside the Ravens
Craig Massei, publisher, NinersDigest.com: First thing's first: From being around John Harbaugh since he came to the Ravens in 2008, what is the sense that you get about Harbaugh and his relationship with his younger brother Jim? We've learned a lot about Jim's background since he came to the 49ers, and it seems that Jim has almost always gotten the better of John throughout their life in almost every kind of competition – sports, sibling rivalries, etc. etc. Do you get any sense that John has any kind of inferiority complex in relation to Jim, or is he just happy to see his brother's success and has welcomed their personal competitions over the years, all the way up to Thursday's game?
Aaron Wilson, Scout.com NFL analyst and RavensInsider.com publisher: People close to John Harbaugh have said that in the past he has always had this intense personal goal of proving that he's just as good as his younger, more famous brother. I don't think it consumes him, to the point of it being unhealthy, but it definitely has provided motivational fuel on his way to the top. He's genuinely happy for everything good that has happened for Jim, but he wants to be recognized in his own right, too.
Craig Massei: Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti took something of a gamble when he hired John Harbaugh to be Ravens coach in 2008 after Harbaugh had been nothing more in the NFL than a special teams coordinator. Obviously, it seems to be working out well for the Ravens. What do you think got Harbaugh the job back then, and what have you seen in him since that has made him a successful coach and has helped him keep the Ravens among the NFL's best teams and among the AFC elite?
Aaron Wilson: John Harbaugh became the Ravens' choice to replace Brian Billick for several reasons:
1) Jason Garrett turned down the Ravens' initial job offer because he knew he would eventually become the Dallas Cowboys' next head coach.
2) The Ravens thought that elevating defensive coordinator Rex Ryan could prove divisive to the locker room because they were concerned he would favor the defensive players.
3) Harbaugh really wanted the job, badly. Bisciotti identified a hunger in Harbaugh to prove himself. They liked his leadership style, toughness and the unconventional idea of hiring a special teams coach who was accustomed to dealing with the chaos of constantly changing personnel and schemes.
4) He came highly recommended with an unsolicited call from New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick to Bisciotti saying how impressed he was with Harbaugh.
5) He nailed the interview, displaying an engaging personality and an upbeat style with good communication skills.
6) He had a decent plan for how he would form his staff, hiring Cam Cameron and Greg Mattison as his coordinators and retaining some key assistant coaches held over from the Billick regime.
7) The Ravens liked his story, older brother overshadowed by his more famous younger brother and eager to prove himself. They liked his work ethic a lot.
8) He's lived up to expectations, handling internal issues with the team with strong leadership and, most importantly, he's delivering wins. The Ravens have been to the playoffs an unprecedented three consecutive seasons and are in line for another appearance at 7-3 and tied for first place in the AFC North.
Craig Massei: The Ravens step up for the big games, having beaten the Steelers twice this season along with wins over the Texans, Jets and Bengals. If the Ravens can be better than those teams, how do they lose to teams such as the Jaguars, Seahawks and Titans? Do they have a problem getting up for mediocre opponents on a week-to-week basis, or are they just inconsistent? If we asked for the real Ravens team to stand up, what would we be seeing? Is this a team that should be considered a real contender – or even a favorite – for the AFC's No. 1 playoff seed?
Aaron Wilson: They really do play down to the level of competition in my opinion. They have a natural tendency to relax when they know they're expected to win. And they've compounded the problem by committing critical miscues in key situations, including turnovers, penalties and bad game plans. They have abandoned the run way too early every time they've fallen behind, tiring out their defense because they don't have the edge on time of possession. Mostly, they just haven't played well. It could wind up hurting them down the road when it comes time for home-field playoff seeds to be awarded.
Craig Massei: The Ravens have Hall of Fame-caliber talent at every level of their defense in lineman Haloti Ngata, linebackers Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed, and several of those names have been together a while. With Baltimore again among the NFL's best defenses, is that unit being led by the same old names mentioned above, or are new players emerging to the forefront? What has been the key behind the Baltimore defense this season, and is that unit again the primary thrust behind Baltimore's overall success as a team?
Aaron Wilson: The players you mentioned are the top defensive players, but there is some new talent on the depth chart that's been important this season. Cornerback Lardarius Webb has emerged as the Ravens' top outside cover guy and is a strong tackler. He's tied with Reed for the team lead with three interceptions. Young defensive ends Pernell McPhee and Paul Kruger have combined for 8½ sacks. Surprisingly, tall, skinny cornerback Cary Williams has played so well that he's kept big, athletic first-round cornerback Jimmy Smith relegated to nickel package duty. The biggest key to the Ravens' defensive improvement has been new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, who has injected a more aggressive approach as far as blitz packages and line stunts.
Craig Massei: We'd like to get an inside perspective on what's up with Ray Lewis. He could be the best inside linebacker ever to play the game, but after 16 seasons in the NFL, is he starting to slow down at all at age 36? Or is he still among the league's best? Is he still the engine driving Baltimore's defensive machine, the player around which the team's defense is built? Recent reports indicate the Ravens will allow Lewis to decide himself if he'll play Thursday, but that he probably would be wise to sit out with his toe injury that last week forced Lewis to miss his first start since 2007. Should we expect to see Lewis on the field Thursday, and if we do, how close will he be to full strength and how much will he be able to actually help the Ravens?
Aaron Wilson: Ray Lewis remains a formidable middle linebacker, but has definitely lost a step as far as shutting down outside runs. Everything between the tackles is similar to his old NFL Defensive Player of the Year form. He doesn't shed blockers as easily as he did in his younger years due to shoulder problems. He's a hard hitter who gets the job done with his physical nature and savvy, anticipating plays adeptly. He studies a ton of game tape. He has a legitimate shot to play in this game and is determined to try to play Thursday. However, it would be more advisable for him to sit this game out and have 10 days to prepare for the next game against the Cleveland Browns or even take that game off to get ready for the San Diego Chargers three games from now. I wouldn't rule him out for Thursday. Depending on how he does in warmups, Lewis could have a chance to play. However, I doubt he will be anywhere close to 100 percent. So, playing could actually hamper the Ravens with the exception of the adjustments he makes of the defensive audibles.
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