While talking over each other on the Sunday pregame shows, national analysts often make passing comments about the increasing age of the Ravens' defense, as if the team's Gatorade jugs were filled with prune juice and 11 senior citizens were trying to trip up ball-carriers with their walkers.
John Harbaugh cringes, too, when he hears those talking heads calling his defense old.
"I get mad as heck. It doesn't make me happy," the Ravens coach said. "[But] it's great to be underestimated. That's a big advantage in life. So hey, spread the word, tell everyone that we're old and over the hill, the window's closed, and all those great clichés they want to use."
As linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed play deeper into the twilight of their careers, the Ravens have actually gotten much younger on defense in the past two years. Teams have to, Harbaugh says, because even though legends last forever, their playing careers do not. Now, after infusing young talent into their starting ranks in recent drafts, the Ravens believe their defense will still be one of the NFL's stingiest — not just this season, but for several to come.
"We have crazy talent at every position," 27-year-old strong safety Bernard Pollard boasted.
During Friday's practice, Jimmy Smith, a 2011 first-round draft pick, out-muscled Anquan Boldin to break up a quick hit then batted down a deep pass a moment later. Rookie outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw harassed offensive tackle Addison Lawrence. Later, starting inside linebacker Jameel McClain blitzed quarterback Tyrod Taylor and corralled him inside the pocket for a sack.
This youth movement accelerated two years ago, after the Ravens fielded the NFL's third-oldest defense in 2010 with an average age of 29.6, according to Football Outsiders.
The following offseason, the Ravens cut then-34-year-old nose tackle Kelly Gregg, opening up a starting spot for 2010 draft pick Terrence Cody, who was 23 at the time. Veteran cornerbacks Chris Carr and Fabian Washington, who combined to start 24 regular season games in 2010, were replaced in the starting lineup by younger players in Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams.
The team shaved the average age of its defensive starters to 28.6 and had the eighth-oldest defense coming out of training camp, according to ESPN. In that 2011 season, the Ravens ranked in the top five in many major categories, including scoring defense, total defense, and sacks.
This offseason, the Ravens let starters Jarret Johnson, 30, and Cory Redding, 31, walk in free agency; they could be replaced in the lineup by Upshaw — a second-round draft pick in April — and third-year player Arthur Jones, respectively. Smith, a 24-year-old cornerback, will push Williams for a starting spot. And though the lineup change was not by design, Paul Kruger is four years younger than Terrell Suggs, who is expected to miss at least a large chunk of the season as he rehabs the surgically-repaired Achilles tendon he shredded in late April.
Should Upshaw and Jones start in the front seven this season and if Smith overtakes Williams in their training camp competition, the starting defense will have an average age of 27.3 for the season opener. Only two starters, Lewis and Reed, would be above the age of 28. Remove those two greybeards from the equation and the average age of the rest would be 25.6.
"People want to talk about this 'aging defense,' but I just don't see it," Harbaugh said during offseason workouts. "We've got a lot of good young players rolling in there. ... I think we have some star players — two guys, basically — who are older guys who can still play at a high level."
And that's likely why some outsiders say this is an aging defense: they are only looking at its core. Lewis, Reed, Suggs and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata were recently voted by their peers as four of the top 20 players in the NFL today. Lewis is 37 and Reed turns 34 in September. Ngata and Suggs are in their prime, but both Pro Bowlers are closing in on their 30th birthdays.
"I think if we are [aging], all of the great defenses are still watching us in the playoffs, which is the ultimate," Lewis said of the old-age perception. "I don't even think we think about it that way, because being playmakers and winning is much greater than all that other stuff people are talking about. It's who we are. We kind of don't want to be liked. We like to be respected."
For nearly two decades, Lewis has been the snarling, eye-blacked face of the hard-hitting Ravens defense — and maybe the face of defense across the entire sport, as well. He and Reed are widely considered to be among the best to ever play their respective positions, and they are expected to give Hall-of-Fame speeches in Canton, Ohio, a few years after retiring.
Both were named to the Pro Bowl in 2011 and continue to play a key role in the team's success. That's because, as Pollard put it, Lewis and Reed "have wisdom out the wazoo." But eventually — whether it is this season or one in the near future — Father Time will finally sack both of them.
By then, though, the Ravens are hoping they will have groomed more future stars on defense.
"We have leadership within this team — phenomenal leadership," McClain, 27, said. "A lot of teams wish they had the guys that we have. But, the great thing about our leadership is they teach the younger people how to become where they are, how to get there. And it's a progression and everything, so everybody knows when it's their time to step up."
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