Lewis' emotional speech sparks a Ravens revival

Nick Wass / Associated Press
Ray Lewis delivered an emotional speech that ignited the Ravens prior to their win over the Saints.

Ray Lewis didn't plan on addressing his teammates Saturday night. It wasn't something he gave much thought to -- until the Ravens began gathering for a meeting that evening.

Ideas just kept bounding through his head, recollections of his personal journey through struggles on the field and off. He felt like a voice was pushing him to speak, to seize this moment, and that's precisely what he did on the eve of a crucial game with the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints.

Lewis, a gifted orator and natural leader, took the floor and delivered a passionate message to the team that, at its core, amounted to this: "How much would you sacrifice to win a title? What would you give for the man sitting next to you?"

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The future Hall of Famer took his teammates back through his life and career, pouring his heart into his words, imploring them to do all they possibly could to bring glory to this franchise.

For a Ravens team that has endured heartbreaking defeats and had been wobbling recently in the fourth quarter, it came at the perfect time. Lewis' sermon sparked Baltimore to a 30-24 victory over the Saints -- a very chippy, hostile affair in which it dominated the final quarter -- and might just carry the team on another sustained playoff run. Judging by his teammates' reactions Saturday night, and their inspired play Sunday afternoon, Lewis could already see manifestations of his verbal manifesto.

"You don't have to think about it long," Lewis said. "All you have to do is listen to your teammates when they walk up to you after your speech. Some of them have tears in their eyes and some of them really understand it.

"I will never get up there and speak just to speak. If it's meant to be it's meant to be, and that's all it's about. For us to fight way the we did the last .. 14 weeks with what we've been through, this team just keeps building and building and building and getting stronger."

Two weeks ago this team was at a crossroads; now the Ravens (10-4) can clinch a playoff berth with a win at Cleveland on Sunday.

They blew a lead at home to the Steelers on a Sunday night in which a win would have essentially wrapped up the AFC North and, in all likelihood, the No. 2 seed. It was the most crushing blow of the John Harbaugh era, even more deflating than the loss in Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game a few years back, because players and coaches believed strongly that Baltimore was the superior team this time around without a doubt. To lose on a strip, sack, fumble, and then nearly rally to tie, left a hollow feeling around the Ravens, with some questioning how quickly they could rebound.

"We know we were the better team, but we gave that game away," one Ravens coach said.

Then, Baltimore traveled to Houston for Monday Night Football, and endured another agonizing contest. The defense blew a 28-7 second half lead (blowing leads has become a recurring issue), the offense again could not run the ball at all (the Ravens' once dominant rush attack sits near the bottom of the NFL), and it took a defensive touchdown in overtime to secure the win over the desperate Texans. It was ugly all the way around, but essential in the standings.

"Our season really came down to the Houston game. That was a must-win," said the coach.

Some assumed the Saints would duplicate the second-half success of Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson, slicing through a pedestrian secondary. The Ravens knew that a return to their brand of uber-physical football on both sides of the line was paramount, and they responded with their best performance of the season in all critical areas.

Ray Rice touched the ball 36 times, notched his second 100-yard game of the season, and Baltimore totaled 208 yards on the ground (5.3 per carry). The defense limited Drew Brees and the Saints to 269 total yards and just five third-down conversions. Joe Flacco threw a handful of huge passes and, most importantly, did not turn the ball over.

"That's Ravens football," Harbaugh said in an emotional locker room after the game, just minutes after shouting, "How 'bout those Ravens!" into the shower area, eliciting huge cheers from his players. "Our offensive line stepped up and pushed people around. That's how we have to play."

While Rice has shouldered some criticism, several Ravens coaches privately pointed directly to the offensive line as the reason for the running woes. They believe Rice is every bit of the special back who put up over 2,000 all-purpose yards in 2009, but losing left tackle Jared Gaither for the season in training camp, and then reshuffling the line several times since, has hurt. Michael Oher is still adjusting to left tackle at this level, and the Ravens were forced to experiment on the line more than they would have liked.

"It's definitely different when you don't have that 6-6 guy (Gaither) just pretty much taking up the left side of the field," Rice told me. "But we have to find answers."

Sunday they moved versatile Chris Chester back to guard -- he had been playing a lot of tight end in tackle-eligible situations -- benched O'Neil Cousins, a prospect they wanted to better evaluate with others ailing, and moved their best guard, Marshall Yanda, back to right tackle. They manhandled the Saints.

"We think we got out best five (linemen) back out there," Harbaugh said.

Sustaining this power-football approach against the Browns and Bengals before the postseason begins is a must. Opposing coordinators still believe that despite all of Flacco's gains, he is still not given full leeway to check out of plays and make major adjustments at the line that can leave the Ravens vulnerable. Those issues were evident on Troy Polamalu's safety blitz and was duplicated with success by the Texans; Baltimore adjusted protections better against the Saints and Pro Bowl fullback Le'Ron McClain was big in pass protection as well.

Rice (a demon in the screen game, who finally tore off more 20-plus yard runs Sunday), Willis McGahee and McClain have not been called on with as much regularity with the Ravens adding receivers like Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmanzadeh in the offseason, and there have been recalibrations about precisely what is their offensive identity.

"We didn't really know if we were going to be a run-first team or a pass-first team," Rice said. "But I can tell you we're definitely not worried about our numbers. It's all about just finding ways to win football games."

The defensive approach Sunday was also decidedly more old-school Ravens. They more resembled the bunch coached by Rex Ryan or Marvin Lewis in the past, bringing lots of pressure from various points. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has taken heat for being more conservative and using more three-or-four-man pass rushes. But against Brees, the Ravens blitzed more early in the game, and on more early non-passing downs than had been the norm, with players like linebacker Jarrett Johnson reveling in the increased aggression afterwards.

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"That was a lot more our style," Johnson said.

"You saw what happens when we dictate and make the ball come out quickly," Lewis said.

"We're definitely clicking on the pass-rush front," said Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs, who had a part in consecutive strip-sacks Sunday (both recovered by the Saints) and is playing dominant football lately.

It could just be that the Ravens are peaking, or re-peaking, at the optimum time. They do not lose to inferior teams under Harbaugh, and if the running game truly revives, then a team that already gave New England all it could handle (losing in overtime), won at the Jets and split with the Steelers, could have its best football yet to come.

The Steelers would have to lose to the Panthers or Browns for Baltimore to win a division title at 12-4, but this club has already won three playoff games the past two years -- including a thrashing of the Pats at Foxboro in January -- and Flacco is undoubtedly better equipped for a Super Bowl run now than ever before.

With Lewis' message in their hearts, it's hard to discount their chances of being a major factor in the AFC playoffs.

Quick hits

» Give the Steelers tremendous credit for discarding kicker Jeff Reed and picking up journeyman Shaun Suisham. Reed's antics got old, and Suisham has not missed a kick since being signed. Suisham was a part of a bunch of kicker competitions again, during this season, and it takes time for kickers to get established. After attempts with Dallas and Washington, perhaps this will be Suisham's team for a while. Heinz Field has some of the worst conditions in football, to say nothing of the state of the field itself, and to find a kicker that late in the season to produce this well is awfully hard. Suisham is 10-for-10 on field goals, with seven of them coming from outside the 40. Full marks again to Pittsburgh's astute personnel department.

» Lots of hype flying around about Tim Tebow and Rex Grossman right now. I'd slow that roll on both counts. Grossman turned the ball over three times, struggled against Dallas' base defense and put up numbers once the Redskins fell way behind. Tebow provided some moments of brilliance, but also ran the ball as many times as he threw completed passes (eight), completed just half of his throws overall, and is being thrust into a ridiculously challenging position on a poor football team with no defense and no ability to run the football. I wouldn't look for either of these two to sustain much down the stretch.

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» Speaking of quarterbacks, add Miami to the list of teams needing a new one (a list that includes, off the top of my head, Arizona, San Francisco, Carolina, Washington, Seattle, Cincinnati). I cannot see Chad Henne having any kind of job security there next season. Also, it's some kind of statement on the woefulness of the NFC West that two of the three teams in the hunt for the division title do not have a solidified starter heading into Week 16 -- although Mike Singletary said Wednesday he's going back to Troy Smith over Alex Smith -- despite being in full health, and the other is starting a rookie. ... And how about the 49ers nearly controlling their playoff destiny despite being 5-9. That's unreal. Think about this, a team that ditched a coordinator along the way, changed QBs like three times for performance reasons and is 2-8 overall outside of its division is on the cusp of hosting a playoff game. All the 49ers have to do is beat the Rams and Cardinals, and have the Seahawks lose either at Tampa or to the Rams at home, and there will be another banner coming to Candlestick Park. Couple that with the Raiders possibly going 6-0 in their division yet missing the playoffs (because of failures in large part against the NFC West), and it would make for one heck of a wacky football year in the Bay Area.

» While some wanted to criticize Green Bay GM Ted Thompson for not trading for Marshawn Lynch, I've never seen too much allure in anything he's done in the pros. Seattle and Miami are the only teams in the NFL without a 100-yard rusher this season, by the way. Teams with a 100-yard rusher are 79-34 this season (.700 win percentage); teams with a 300-yard passer are 41-44.

The picks are in

Went just 9-7 last week with the picks (another zany week in the NFL). So I'm now 142-82 on the season. This week, give me the Steelers, Cowboys, Jets, Pats, Chiefs, Jags, Dolphins, 49ers, Ravens, Texans, Raiders, Chargers, Eagles, Bucs, Packers, and Saints.

Merry Christmas!

Follow Jason La Canfora on Twitter @jasonlacanfora.



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