OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Now in his 16th NFL season, Ray Lewis is still a terror at age 36. At this point in his magnificent career, the Baltimore Ravens’ middle linebacker is a wiser version of his former self.
“I would always love to be the Ray Lewis I am now instead of the younger Ray Lewis,” the 12-time Pro Bowler said. “That younger Ray Lewis, he was a time bomb. He would run around and not know a lot of things that were going on. But my play right now, I am just really slowing the game down.”
There’s a lot to be said for youth, however, and 27-year-old Haloti Ngata has got that and so much more. Now in his sixth season with Baltimore, the 6-foot-4, 330-pound defensive tackle combines speed, agility and brute strength to clog the middle of the line.
It’s a role that has long been a part of Ravens lore. While Sam Adams, Tony Siragusa and Kelly Gregg neutralized opposing offensive linemen, Lewis would swoop in to annihilate the man with the ball.
Ngata has taken the assignment to another level.
“Early in my career here, I was basically here to protect Ray,” Ngata said. “Now that I’ve been in the league awhile, I’m able to do that and make more plays, just from experience. When I can get those 1-on-1’s and the double teams, hopefully I make some plays. Me and Ray Lewis, it’s been an ongoing thing. It’s been growing and growing ever since I’ve been here, and hopefully we can d o better things down the road.”
With Lewis and Ngata leading the way, the Ravens have allowed an NFL-low 14.2 points per game. Even more impressive: Baltimore’s defense has scored nearly as many touchdowns (four) as it has given up (five).
In a 29-14 win over Houston last Sunday, Lewis and Ngata combined for 20 tackles and two sacks. If there’s a more potent 1-2 punch in the NFL, no quarterback wants to see it.
“Haloti, there might not be a better defensive player in the league right now,” Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson said. “And then you’ve got Ray Lewis, who’s, well, he’s Ray — probably the best middle linebacker in the league.”
The Ravens make a point of keeping their best defensive players, and Ngata is one of them. Lewis, safety Ed Reed and sack-specialist Terrell Suggs have spent their entire careers with Baltimore, and Ngata moved in that direction last month by signing a five-year, $61 million contract.
For the Ravens, it appears to be money well spent.
Asked if there was any tackle in the NFL that compares to Ngata, Lewis replied, “I don’t even know who else to mention when you talk about that. For as young as he is, and everything he’s done in this business, he’s proven himself to be the best.”
Lewis compared Ngata to Adams, who showed exceptional agility for a 350-pounder and was a key component in Baltimore’s 2000 Super Bowl champion team.
“They remind me of each other. They’re so big, and people don’t realize how quick they are,” Lewis said. “Sam Adams is the quickest person I have ever seen off the ball. Haloti has the same exact quick step. That’s what, I think, makes those guys so special.”
Imagine what a quarterback feels like when he gets to the line of scrimmage against the Baltimore defense. He’s got Ngata directly in front of him, Lewis lurking a few feet farther back and Reed behind them both. If that isn’t enough, 350-pound Terrence Cody is lined up next to Ngata, while Johnson and Suggs surround Lewis at linebacker.
Ravens end Cory Redding played the first six years of his career with Detroit and made a one-year stop in Seattle before coming to Baltimore last season. Upon joining the Ravens, he learned what defense was all about.
“First of all, it’s an attitude and a mindset. That’s the biggest thing, because if you didn’t have that, this defense wouldn’t be where it’s at,” he said. “Secondly, you have the men with the mentality and attitude to match that kind of defense. You have Ray, the front-runner, leading it off, and then you have Haloti Ngata, a big man, and people love following a big man. You know wha t I’m saying? Those two guys, they bring it every day.
“Ray knows it all, and Haloti, you have to put two or three guys on him, because if not, he’s going to have a heck of a day on somebody. That’s just how it is. When you have those guys leading the way, then you have Terrell Suggs, Jarret Johnson, T. Cody, myself, all these guys. It’s just awesome to put all these bodies together and go out there and have a blast and make plays.”
Ngata was an All-Pro last season, and this year he’s playing even better. Like Lewis, he’s improving with age.
“I kind of feel it now,” Ngata said. “I feel I’m lot better mentally now than I was earlier in my career. I think it comes with experience. The game has definitely slowed down for me, and hopefully it can continue to slow down.”
The Ravens (4-1) lead the AFC North and hope to ride their defense deep into the playoffs. Lewis isn’t quite ready to compare this unit with the one that in 2000 set an NFL record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season, but he isn’t dismissing the idea, either.
“We’ve got a special opportunity to do something great,” he said. “We stay healthy, and the sky’s the limit for us.”