Dominating definitely isn't a word you would use to describe the 2012 edition of the Ravens' defense. Resilient, though, fits it like a glove. Plagued by injuries much of the season, the Ravens finished 17th in total defense, 14th in takeaways and tied for 12th in points allowed.
They spent much of the season without two of their defensive leaders - linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs. Lewis tore his right triceps in Week 6 and missed the rest of the regular season. Suggs ruptured his right Achilles' tendon last March and sat out the first month-and-a-half of the season.
Cornerback Lardarius Webb suffered a season-ending torn ACL in his left knee in the same Week 6 game in which Lewis got hurt. Another starting linebacker, Jameel McClain, suffered a season-ending neck injury in early December. Several other starters and key players also missed time with injuries.
Yet, here the Ravens are, one win away from claiming another Lombardi Trophy.
"It's been a challenge," said Dean Pees, who is in his first season as the Ravens' defensive coordinator after replacing Chuck Pagano, who left to become the head coach in Indianapolis. "I give a lot of credit to our defensive staff. Sitting down every week and saying, 'OK, who do we have this week? Let's take roll and find out who we've got.'
"Then it was a matter of saying, 'Now what can we do within our system? What can these guys do well and what can we do?'
"Sometimes it was more about us than the opposition. You have to stop what they do best. But we had to figure out whether we were putting a guy in position where he really couldn't do it."
The Ravens' season almost certainly would be over already if not for the amazing returns of Suggs and Lewis.
Both suffered injuries that should have been season-ending. Suggs was back on the field less than 7 months after tearing his Achilles'. He wasn't anywhere close to 100 percent when he returned, and had just two sacks in eight regular-season games.
But he found a second gear in the playoffs, recording two sacks of Peyton Manning in the Ravens' 38-35 overtime win over the Broncos in the divisional round.
"What we wanted to do when Terrell first came back was just really bring him back slowly and try to figure out what he could do," Pees said. "We didn't want to put him in harm's way and have him get hurt again and do more damage to himself."
The 37-year-old Lewis sat out the final 10 regular-season games, but returned for the playoffs and has a team-high 44 tackles in the postseason.
"What Terrell has done is as close to a medical miracle as you're going to see in this game," linebackers coach Ted Monachino said. "It's truly remarkable what he's done. He's finally starting to hit his stride. From a lower-body perspective, you're starting to see the explosiveness back in his game. You're starting to see some change of direction.
"The thing that Terrell brings us more than anything is veteran leadership and toughness, and a very, very high football IQ. He has the ability to change games, no matter what kind of shape he is in physically. I'm really excited he decided to continue to work out and try to come back this year."
Lewis' return, which may or may not have been deer-antler-extract-aided - is almost as impressive. He announced before the season that this would be his last year. When he tore his triceps in October, it was assumed he had played his last down of football.
But when the playoffs started, there was Lewis. He isn't the same player he was in 2000 when he anchored that amazing defense. And, he doesn't have anywhere close to the lateral movement or explosiveness he had 6 or 7 years ago.
But he is the defense's inspirational leader.
"We knew that we wanted to make the playoffs in order for Ray to have a chance to come back," said safety Ed Reed. "He's just that engine, that motor, that's going to go all the time.
"He understands what the offense is trying to do to you when you're talking about the run game. He's calling out plays before they even happen. That's what you really miss when Ray's out. You don't have a guy that's calling the play out."
Said cornerback Cary Williams: "Getting Ray back was the defining moment for the defense. When he was able to go out there and strap it up against the Colts [in the wild-card round] in front of our fans, I think that really ignited the team and really ignited the defense. As a team, we've been able to ride that."
The Ravens, who had just 25 takeaways the entire regular-season, have eight in their three playoff wins. In their AFC Championship Game win over the Patriots, they held the league's most prolific offense to 13 points, forced three turnovers and gave Tom Brady & Co. just one touchdown in four red-zone opportunities.
"What Terrell has done in the playoffs, sacking Peyton Manning twice; what Ray has done, leading the entire playoff pool in tackles over 3 weeks after not playing for 2 1/2 months - you can't take those things out of the equation and expect to have the same results," Monachino said. "Those guys are the bell cows of our defense."
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