OWINGS MILLS, Md. – Ray Lewis and Ed Reed have spent 11 seasons together with the Baltimore Ravens, making one big play after another for a defense that is perennially among the best in the NFL.
Although it's difficult to imagine the Ravens without Lewis in the middle of the huddle and Reed as the last line of defense, the unit has plenty of young players eager to make an imprint after the two aging veterans finally walk away from the game.
Baltimore's defense, which ranked third in the NFL this season, is the main reason the Ravens (13-4) are in the AFC championship game and stand a decent chance of defeating the high-powered New England Patriots (14-3) for a berth in the Super Bowl.
Lewis and Reed are the most recognizable stars, but they're getting help from 29-year-old Terrell Suggs, 27-year-old Haloti Ngata, 23-year-old Terrence Cody and rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith, who was 8 when Lewis played his first game with the Ravens in 1996.
"You need that veteran presence and you need enough young people to run around and make the plays," Smith said. "I think it's a great mix on this team."
It is quite by design. Lewis was drafted in the first round of the NFL in 1996, the Ravens' first season after making the move from Cleveland. Since that time, general manager Ozzie Newsome has worked to surround his sensational middle linebacker with enough talent to keep the defense operating at an extremely high level.
Reed was plucked from the University of Miami in the first round of the 2002 draft, Suggs was the 10th overall pick in 2003 and Ngata came aboard as a No. 1 pick in 2006. Pass-rusher Paul Kruger (2009) and Cody (2010) were second-round selections, and Smith was taken in the first round last April.
"Sixteen years I've been in this business," Lewis said. "Do you know how many men I have seen come walk in and out of this door?"
When Lewis went to the Super Bowl during the 2000 season, Tony Siragusa was one of the defensive tackles. One year ago, Kelly Gregg was playing in front of Lewis. Now it's Cody, and there's been no drop off in production.
The Ravens have been ranked in the top 10 in total defense in each of the last nine years. The cast has changed around Lewis and Reed, but the blend remains the same.
"We've got veteran experience, guys that have been around a long time, and young, raw talent. When you mix those together, it's a great combination," linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "Ozzie deserves a lot of credit. You've got your veteran guys that do things right, good guys that are also good football players. Then you bring in good talent and they watch and learn, then pretty soon those guys are the old veteran players and they're bringing in a new batch of young guys."
Baltimore is the only NFL team to reach the postseason in each of the past four years. Much of the credit goes to Lewis, Reed, and a defense that has withstood the test of time.
"Old? I call it experienced," Smith said. "You've got two of the best at key spots. Their experience is what guides us, and it's helped us get to the position we're in now."
Defensive end Cory Redding, a 10-year pro, said, "This is what you want to have. The veterans set the tone for the young guys on how things are run, how we jell together, how we hold each other accountable. So when they get to five, six, seven years in the league, they can say, 'OK, I've learned from Haloti Ngata, Cory Redding, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. I know how to conduct myself. I know how to lead, because I saw them do it.'"
John Harbaugh has been in the AFC title game twice in his four seasons as Baltimore's coach. Under his guidance, young players such as Kruger, cornerback Lardarius Webb and former sixth-round pick Haruki Nakamura, a solid safety and special teams ace, have matured into key contributors.
"It's always good not to be a bunch of young guys or a bunch of old guys, or whatever," Harbaugh said. "It's good to have a nice mix of experience. Some guys can train some younger guys into a certain way of doing things. It begins to permeate everything that you are. And then those young guys, in turn, teach others. It just becomes a perpetuating type of situation."
Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch said, "Ray and Ed and Suggs and Ngata have strung along those younger guys and they've picked up the speed. So it looks like regardless of who they have out there, a second- or third-year guy looks as if he's been playing there for eight, nine years with those guys. So you're playing with the best."
At the center of it all are Lewis and Reed, who endlessly preach the importance of film study and dedication to the game. The Patriots are certainly aware of the overall ability of the Baltimore defense, but New England's game plan starts and ends with accounting for those two playmakers.
"They're great players," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. "I've played against both those guys quite a few times. You always enjoy going up against the best because you can really measure where you're at. You can't take plays off against those guys. You can't take things for granted when you're out there against them. You have to see where they're at on every play because they're guys who change the game."
Reed has eight interceptions in 10 playoff games, including a key pick in last week's 20-13 win over Houston.
"Ed Reed is the best weak safety I have seen since I have been in the NFL in my career," Patriots coach Bill Belichick declared. "He's outstanding on everything, including blocking punts, returning then for touchdowns, returning interceptions for touchdowns. Pretty much anything he is out there for."
Lewis and Reed won't be around forever, but it might a while before the Ravens' defense drops from the top 10. When Lewis missed four games this season with a right toe injury, Baltimore went 4-0 with 26-year-old Dannell Ellerbe and rookie Albert McClellan in the middle.
"In my opinion, we're built to last a long time," said Kruger, who contributed 5½ sacks. "I think next year we'll be just as effective."