Today, we’re going to talk about another one of the most dominant defenses in NFL history: the 2000 Baltimore Ravens. That defense allowed only 165 points in the regular season, less than even the 1985 Bears and the 1972 Dolphins. Just like those two teams, the Ravens won the Super Bowl that year, but with a competent offense, they could have joined the ’72 Dolphins by going undefeated. Instead, they finished 12-4.
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Every Friday, host John Gidley shares interesting stories of games, players, coaches and teams that aren’t necessarily forgotten, but are not as well-known as they should be.
A Little Backstory
As you probably know, the Baltimore Ravens were once the Cleveland Browns. In 1995, owner Art Modell stunned northeast Ohio and the rest of the NFL by announcing that the Browns would be moving to Baltimore at the end of the regular season. Maryland’s most populous city knew what it was like to have a pro football team leave town.
Even worse, they had to wake up to such jarring news. In 1984, Baltimore Colts owner Bob Irsay circumvented city council and moved the team to Indianapolis literally overnight. Several attempts to bring pro football back failed over the next decade, until 1995 of course. There was such an outcry over the Browns’ move that the NFL promised Cleveland that they would get an expansion team by 1999, allowing them to keep the Browns’ name, colors, and history.
That meant that Baltimore needed a new name, for which they chose the Ravens, and new colors, deciding on purple and black. So by definition, the NFL had another expansion team, even though Art Modell was still the owner, and most of the 1995 Browns made up the 1996 Ravens. It was complicated.
Drafting Two Legends But Starting Slow
The 1995 Browns were considered a Super Bowl contender by many prognosticators. They started the year 3-1, but lost three of their next four, and after Art Modell announced the move, Cleveland only won one more game all season. Since they finished with a 5-11 record, the “new Browns” had the fourth pick in the 1996 draft.
They used it to select UCLA offensive lineman Jonathan Ogden, who would go on to become a Hall of Famer. Additionally, they had the 26th pick in the first round. Somehow, a dominant, passionate linebacker from the University of Miami fell all the way to 26th, and the Ravens didn’t hesitate to select him, envisioning him as a centerpiece of the defense and the franchise as a whole. His name, of course, was Ray Lewis. Lewis hit the ground running in 1996, leading Baltimore with 110 tackles. He was one of the only bright spots, however, in a defense that allowed the third-most points in the NFL.
This negated the performance of one of the higher-scoring offenses in the league, and sent the Ravens to a 4-12 record in their “first” season. They only won six games in both 1997 and ’98, and fired their first head coach, Ted Marchibroda, after that third season. His replacement was Brian Billick, who had spent the previous six seasons as the offensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings.
His last season in Minnesota saw the Vikes’ offense, led by Randall Cunningham, Cris Carter, and rookie Randy Moss, score 556 points, almost 35 per game, making him a slam dunk for a head coaching position. At this same time, the Ravens were solidfying their soon-to-be-dominant defense. Ray Lewis obtained two solid teammates in the linebacking corps, Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper. The secondary was anchored by Duane Starks, Chris McAlister, Kim Herring, and veteran Rod Woodson, later elected to the Hall of Fame.
And last but not least, a punishing defensive line consisted of Rob Burnett, Michael McCrary, Sam Adams, and Tony Siragusa. This defense allowed the sixth-fewest points in football in 1999, but only finished 8-8 due to a mediocre offense. That aforementioned unit was just as mediocre in 2000, but the D was even more dominant.
A Historic Start Negated
Even though this statistic seems straight out of the 1920s, it’s absolutely true: the Ravens shut out three of their first five opponents to open the 2000 season. It began on Opening Day, with a 16-0 blanking of the Steelers in Pittsburgh, spoiling the last home opener at Three Rivers Stadium. The next week was the defense’s worst performance of the season.
In their home opener against Jacksonville, the Jaguars led at halftime, 23-7. Jimmy Smith caught three Mark Brunell touchdown passes with a whopping 291 receiving yards. Baltimore’s offense woke up in the second half, however, as Tony Banks threw four of his five touchdowns in the final two quarters to lead the Ravens to a 39-36 victory. The following week in Miami, the defense played well, but the offense only mustered two field goals, and the Dolphins won, 19-6.
Back-to-back shutouts of division rivals followed: 37-0 over Cincinnati, and 12-0 against Cleveland. In their week six rematch with Jacksonville, Jimmy Smith was held to 95 receiving yards and no touchdowns, and five Matt Stover field goals carried the Ravens to a 15-10 win. Baltimore was now 5-1, but would soon enter perhaps the most agonizing three-game losing streak in NFL history.
Where's The Beef?
That losing streak began in Washington. The Ravens only allowed ten points to their Beltway rivals, but only scored three of their own. There’s your final score. The next week was more of the same: only two field goals registered in a 14-6 home loss to Tennessee. Worst of all, however, was their week nine performance against Pittsburgh. Baltimore had a 6-0 halftime lead that was broken by a 45-yard touchdown pass from Kordell Stewart to Hines Ward.
Kicker Kris Brown missed the extra point, however, so the game remained tied. A ripe opportunity for some offense, right? Not exactly. Brown redeemed himself by kicking a 24-yard field goal later in the third quarter, and the Steelers held on for an old-fashioned 9-6 victory. The Ravens were now only one game over .500, and they had nobody to blame but a woeful offense that didn’t score a single touchdown during that three-game losing streak.
A Marginal QB Change Makes All the Difference
During that Pittsburgh game, Brian Billick benched Tony Banks in favor of Trent Dilfer. The two of them had an equal skill set, but Dilfer knew what it was like to be an average quarterback on a team with an amazing defense, since he had just come from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were near the Ravens’ level defensively. He got a clear message from Billick, however: put some points on the board. In his first start, Dilfer threw three touchdown passes with no interceptions, and Baltimore cruised to a 27-7 win in Cincinnati.
A season-defining win came in week 11 in Nashville. With the game tied at 17-17 late in the fourth quarter, Dilfer was intercepted at the Titans’ 13-yard line by Perry Phenix, who returned the pick 87 yards for a touchdown. However, just like what had happened two weeks earlier to the Steelers’ Kris Brown, Al Del Greco missed the extra point. The Titans’ lead was only 23-17. In direct contrast to the previous narrative of the 2000 Ravens, they won the game with their offense, as Dilfer drove all the way down the field, capping a 13-play drive with a two-yard touchdown pass to Patrick Johnson. Matt Stover’s extra point was good, and Baltimore escaped with a 24-23 victory, handing Tennessee just their second loss of the season.
How About That Offense?
This was one of the last times the Ravens had to sweat out a victory that season. The next three games were easy wins over Dallas, Cleveland, and San Diego. In week 16, Baltimore’s offense reverted to its old form, but did just enough to escape Arizona with a 13-7 win over the dismal Cardinals. Finally, on Christmas Eve, the Ravens hosted the New York Jets, who were eyeing a playoff spot.
The Jets took a quick 14-0 lead, but were soon out of the game, as Baltimore scored 20 unanswered points in the second quarter. The defense stepped up for a few of those points, as Jets running back Curtis Martin was tackled in his own end zone for a safety, and Chris McAlister intercepted Vinny Testaverde and ran 98 yards for a touchdown. The special teams got into the act in the second half, namely Jermaine Lewis, who took not one, but two punts to the house, capping off an exciting 34-20 win to eliminate the Jets and close out the regular season.
A Near-Flawless Playoff Run
Despite finishing 12-4, the Ravens had to settle for a wild-card spot, since they finished one game behind Tennessee in the AFC Central division. In the wild-card round, the city of Baltimore hosted its first postseason game since 1977, and saw the Ravens easily beat the Denver Broncos, 21-3. The two stars of the game were Jamal Lewis, who ran for 110 yards and two touchdowns, and Michael McCrary, who earned three sacks.
The next week, Baltimore traveled to Nashville for the second time in as many months. The game was tied at 10-10 through the first three quarters, but special teams and defense did the job yet again. Anthony Mitchell blocked what would have been an easy Al Del Greco field goal and took it 90 yards for a touchdown, and Ray Lewis did the same with a 50-yard interception return off of Steve McNair.
This vindicated Trent Dilfer, who finished the day completing only five passes on 16 attempts. Sometimes, playoff wins are ugly. In the end, though, they get the job done. Much was the case the next week in Oakland, with a trip to Super Bowl XXXV on the line. After a scoreless first quarter, Dilfer redeemed himself for the previous week’s performance by throwing a 96-yard touchdown pass to Shannon Sharpe, putting the Ravens ahead to stay.
Three Matt Stover field goals padded their lead, and Baltimore advanced to the Super Bowl with a 16-3 victory over the Raiders. Two weeks later in Tampa, the Ravens’ final opponents were the NFC champion New York Giants, who were cut down to size rather quickly. Baltimore led 10-0 at halftime, and added to their lead during an action-packed 36 seconds in the third quarter.
It began when Duane Starks intercepted Kerry Collins and took it back 49 yards for a touchdown. New York’s Ron Dixon took the very next kickoff 97 yards to the house to put the Giants on the board. Jermaine Lewis, who had scored two touchdowns on punt returns a few weeks earlier against the Jets, was obviously upset that Dixon had stolen his thunder, because he took the ensuing kickoff all the way for 84 yards. In a terrific all-around effort, the Ravens easily won the Super Bowl, 34-7.
Technically, the defense pitched a shutout, since the Giants’ only touchdown came on special teams. A perfect way to cap the season for one of the greatest defenses in NFL history. Speaking of which, getting back to my previous point: since Baltimore won each of their final seven regular-season games and all four of their playoff games, this may be a moot point, but here are the final scores once again from their four losses: 19-6, 10-3, 14-6, 9-6. Imagine what could have happened with Trent Dilfer at quarterback. Bet you’ve never heard that one before.
Two final thoughts before we wrap up: first, five years after the Browns were “relocated,” a good portion of their original roster and the players they could have drafted won the Super Bowl. You have to feel for Cleveland. Unless, of course, you’re from Baltimore, Pittsburgh, or Cincinnati, then you probably couldn’t care less. And while we’re on the subject, you know who the Ravens’ defensive coordinator was in this era? Would you believe me if I told you it was Marvin Lewis?
That’s right, the same Marvin Lewis that coached the Bengals for 15 years and never won a single playoff game coordinated one of the greatest defenses the NFL has ever seen. Some guys just don’t have what it takes to be a head coach. Just ask Matt Patricia.
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