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Pride, loyalty sustain defense

The Baltimore Sun

Regardless of the score, injuries or the embarrassment endured by the Ravens the past two weeks, the team's defense continues to play hard.

The bodies of linebackers Ray Lewis, Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs are still being hurled onto the field while stand-up guys like defensive linemen Haloti Ngata, Kelly Gregg, Justin Bannan and Trevor Pryce, and linebacker Jarret Johnson continue to do the grunt work.

In a season in which expectations have not been achieved and the offense has gone underground, the defensive players refuse to quit. They might eventually save coach Brian Billick's job.

Are they playing for Billick? No.

They play for defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, and they have an enormous amount of pride that won't allow them to give up.

Billick has three seasons left on his contract, but his future with the Ravens probably will be determined over the next seven games. If the Ravens are competitive, even in losses, he will stay.

If they keep getting beaten badly like they did against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals, Billick will be fired. And right now, Billick is fortunate because this defense won't quit.

Even when the Ravens were trailing Pittsburgh 35-7 in the first half, Lewis was huddling the defense together on the sideline, ranting and raving, but at the same time rallying the group.

At times, some of the defensive players irritate you. They pound on their chests after making tackles 6 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. They draw the dumbest penalties. They talk so much trash. Even when they're getting smacked around like they did in Pittsburgh, they won't shut up.

But you have to admire their fire and emotion. They usually play with so much passion. Against Cincinnati on Sunday, the defense had every reason to give up, playing without two starting cornerbacks.

The offense was providing nothing but turnovers, and most of the fans had exited the stadium early in the fourth quarter.

But you saw great heart. Lewis was starting to get pushed back late in the game, but he just kept clawing and pursuing. Scott was still jawing with opposing players and delivering vicious tackles while Suggs still was pressuring quarterback Carson Palmer from the edge.

Usually, big guys take plays off with such a lopsided score, but Ngata, Pryce, Gregg and Johnson were playing as hard in the last quarter as they were in the first.

And safety Ed Reed? He covered an enormous amount of ground in that game, and it was one of his finest, if not the best, games of his pro career.

It's a lot about pride. It goes back to 2000 with linebackers Lewis, Jamie Sharper and Peter Boulware, and tackles Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa and ends Rob Burnett and Michael McCrary.

They established a work ethic and a pride factor that still exists. No player comes to Baltimore and wants to become the so-called weak link. And if a player does, he won't last long because the other players won't allow it, especially Lewis. Say what you want about Lewis: He can be selfish and foolish at times, but no greater competitor has ever put on a Ravens uniform.

The burden of having one of the league's top defenses was created by Marvin Lewis, and passed on to Mike Nolan and now Ryan.

The Ravens know what is at stake for Ryan. He almost became the head coach of the San Diego Chargers in the offseason.

Since he became the Ravens' coordinator in 2005, the team has had the No. 2- and No. 1-ranked defenses in the league. With one more good season -- the Ravens are currently ranked fifth -- Ryan will become a top head coaching candidate again.

If Billick is fired, Ryan would become a serious candidate here, especially because he is so popular with the players.

They love Ryan. He's not just their coach, but a friend as well. If Ryan becomes a head coach elsewhere, most of them would prefer to opt out of their contracts in Baltimore to follow him. They'll never quit on Ryan.

Billick came here as an offensive-minded coach, yet we haven't seen that magic in his nine years in Baltimore. But he has always been rescued by a defense that won him a Super Bowl in the 2000 season.

And that group might just save his job in 2007.


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