This may not be your father's Baltimore Ravens defense but it's sure starting to look like your older brother's.
Depleted by injuries for much of the season, the Ravens' traditionally strong defensive unit had a down year at least by its standards, finishing 17th in the NFL by allowing 350.9 yards per game, the franchise's worst showing on that side of the ball since 2002.
But as the year progressed, so too did the defense. Over the final six games of the regular season, Baltimore allowed the NFL's fourth-fewest yards per game, yielding 299.0 per.
Led by Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed and All-Star defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, the Ravens, permitted 21.5 points per game, the league's 12th-best mark, and the Ravens' red zone defense was as stout as usual, surrendering a 43.4 percent touchdown mark inside the 20 -- the NFL's second-best figure.
Things really started to pick up in the postseason, though, with the return of four key defensive starters from injury: star middle linebacker Ray Lewis, his running mate behind the line, Dannell Ellerbe, safety Bernard Pollard and the 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, elite pass rusher Terrell Suggs.
The fact that Lewis, the heart and soul of defensive coordinator Dean Pees' defense, has announced his retirement at season's end, has only upped the intensity of the unit.
Lewis, a seven-time All-Pro, missed 10 games this season with a torn triceps, but has turned it on since returning for the postseason. In Baltimore's three playoff games, Lewis has amassed 44 total tackles (25 solo), ranking as the NFL's second most in a single postseason dating back to the 2000 campaign, when he earned NFL Defensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl MVP honors.
"His leadership, obviously, is really important for us," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "His leadership off the field and understanding how to approach a game like this is big for our younger guys. Also, as a football player, he has played really well. He's played just like he's always played."
It's been a long and often surreal ride for Lewis -- once indicted for murder and now regarded as one of the faces of the NFL.
During the pregame festivities before the Ravens' Wild Card Weekend win over Indianapolis. Lewis' last game in Baltimore, he was almost a one-man receiving line, accepting well-wishes from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, along with his teammates and children
Lewis, who is bound for Canton as the leader of one of most consistent and ferocious defensive units of this generation, believes his rest due to injury, while unwelcome, has actually helped in the long run.
"My mind is probably as sharp as it is going to be," Lewis said. "I've always said that anytime you can give your body a true rest -- not just your body, anytime you can give your mind a certain rest from the game and from the every week wear and tear -- when you come back you come back just as fresh as ever. For me right now, I feel fresh. My mind is fresh, my body is fresh and I'm just excited to really be able to end this thing up the right way."
Lewis is so focused he asked to have the Lombardi Trophy removed from the Ravens' CBS pre-game television shoot.
"You see (the trophy here and) everybody wants to have you take pictures with it," Lewis said. "Like I told my team, don't ever take pictures with nothing that's not yours, nothing that you haven't earned. When we hold that Lombardi, whoever holds that Lombardi next Sunday, you've earned it when you touch it."
For Lewis, there's only one right way to go out -- by cementing his legacy with a second Super Bowl championship.
"Honestly, outside of putting my head in the playbook and really just studying San Fran, I haven't really thought about anything else. It's going to be a great day -- period -- no matter what happens," Lewis said. "And that's kind of the way I've approached it. The real prize is actually going and winning the Super Bowl. It's great to get there, don't get me wrong, but to win it is something special."
Below is a capsule look at the defense of the Baltimore Ravens:
DEFENSIVE LINE: The Baltimore and San Francisco defenses are similar. Both use a 3-4 scheme with one stalwart on the defensive line and a linebacking corps filled with playmakers. For the Ravens the big dog on the line is Ngata, a tremendously strong player who engulfs blockers.
Ngata teams with nose tackle Terrence Cody, a difference maker with limited snaps and Pernell McPhee, a solid if unspectacular edge player. Ma'ake Kemoeatu also gets significant repetitions inside and is just a tad behind Cody as a run stuffer.
"We are really pretty young, expect for those two guys," defensive coordinator Pees said when discussing Ngata and Kemoeatu. "One thing they bring is in the classroom is the experience of how to be a pro, how to study, how to watch film, how to do all those things, plus that -- Then you add onto that their physical ability. They're two big guys that can kind of hold forth in there. They have done a great job. I'd say it is a combination of both of those things."
LINEBACKERS: Lewis belongs on the Mount Rushmore of linebackers. Although not the player he once was, the leadership he brings to the field had been sorely lacking from the Baltimore defense. His running mate inside is the underrated Ellerbe, who was second on the team in tackles this season and can create havoc with his penetration skills.
Suggs is the 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, who missed the first six games of the season after tearing his Achilles in the offseason and has also struggled with a biceps injury, He's not the same explosive guy who has 84 1/2 sacks since entering the NFL in 2003 but Suggs is still more than capable of contributing, although his biceps could make it difficult to hold the edge, especially in the read-option.
Rookie Courtney Upshaw brings youth and explosion to the unit while Paul Kruger has developed into a more than solid situational pass rusher, amassing a career- best and team-high nine sacks, 7 1/2 of which came in the Ravens' final eight games.
CORNERBACKS: It took quite awhile before Baltimore recovered from the loss of its best corner Lardarius Webb to injury (ACL). Former first round pick Jimmy Smith simply hasn't developed but the unheralded duo of Corey Graham and Cary Williams have combined to settle things down on the outside. Neither player is going to conjure up visions of a shutdown corner but they've done their part.
"One unit. Through all our ups and down, we've stuck together," Pees said when talked about his corners. "We always believed, and we kept our eyes on the prize, and that's what we just kept doing."
SAFETIES: Reed, a Louisiana native and the eight-time All-Pro, would love to garner his first Super Bowl crown in the Bayou. Reed has 61 career picks in his 11 pro seasons, including 4 thefts for 78 return yards and a TD during the 2012 campaign.
"Going home. I'm speechless when it comes to talking about going home for this Super Bowl," Reed said. "It's amazing to me. I just give everything to God on that one. This is just amazing. Everybody doesn't get this chance to even play in the Super Bowl, win the Super Bowl. It's just amazing to me. I'm just soaking it up, just really enjoying it -- ever minute, every second."
Reed doesn't have the wheels he once had but still has the football smarts to make things happen. Matching up with Vernon Davis could be a problem, however.
"He's a receiver to me," Reed said. "(He's a) 4.3-4.4 (40-yard dash) guy. That size -- He's definitely a threat that you've got to know where he is at all times. So, you've got to watch the guy at all times. He might not have been as much as a threat with [Colin] Kaepernick in there, but he's always a threat."
Reed's running mate, Bernard Pollard, is a big hitter and intimidator. The AFC Championship Game swung dramatically in Baltimore's favor when Pollard blew up Pats running back Stevan Ridley with a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit that knocked Ridley cold before he hit the ground, causing a fumble. Like most safeties who bring the wood, however, Pollard struggles in man-to-man coverage.