Newsome the Key to Baltimore’s Perpetually Fearsome Defense
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Led by the NFL’s best defense, the 4–0 Baltimore Ravens are the most surprising team in the first month of the season. The Ravens have dominated their opponents against the run, allowing a league-best 2.6 yards a carry and 63.2 yards a game — and against the pass — leading the league with 17 sacks and eight interceptions.
But while linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed get most of the attention, neither player is the most important reason for the Ravens’ defensive success. The person most responsible for the best defense in football is a tight end who retired 16 years ago.
That tight end is Ozzie Newsome, a Pro Football Hall of Famer and Baltimore’s general manager. Newsome spent his entire playing career with the Cleveland Browns, and when the Browns moved to Baltimore and changed their name to the Ravens in 1996, then team’s owner at the time, Art Modell, put Newsome in charge of the personnel decisions. He has since shown an unparalleled eye for talent, especially when selecting defensive players.
In Newsome’s first draft he picked Lewis late in the first round. This proved to be the first step in building one of the greatest defenses in NFL history. The defense led the Ravens to a Super Bowl title after the 2000 season and has continued to be one of the best in the league. Five of the Ravens’ 11 defensive starters are Newsome’s first-round draft picks. In many ways, Newsome drafts players like himself: He was an All-American at a bigtime college program (Alabama) and every one of his first-round picks has come from a top football school. He was a tough player who never missed a game in 13 NFL seasons, and toughness is a trait shared by his players. He was known for an ability to play in any style of offense, and he has drafted players who have successfully switched from a 4–3 defense under coordinator Marvin Lewis from 1996 to 2001, to a 3–4 defense under coordinator Mike Nolan from 2002 to 2004, and now back to a 4–3 under coordinator Rex Ryan for the last two years.
In addition to Lewis and Reed — both of whom were first-round picks out of Miami who went on to win the league’s defensive player of the year award — the other defensive starters Newsome took in the first round are tackle Haloti Ngata, end Terrell Suggs, and cornerback Chris McAllister. Great success with first-round picks isn’t the only thing the Ravens have going for them, though. The best player on the defense this year has been an unheralded linebacker whom Newsome, and every other general manager, passed on in the draft. Linebacker Bart Scott, who leads the team with five sacks, was an undrafted free agent coming out of Southern Illinois when Newsome signed him in 2002. After spending a few years primarily playing special teams, Scott became a starter midway through last season and is now the best blitzing linebacker in football.
Lewis and McAllister are the only defensive players remaining from the 2000 Super Bowl team, but when one player leaves the Ravens, Newsome always seems to find the perfect replacement. When two Pro Bowl starters on that Super Bowl defense — safety Rod Woodson and tackle Sam Adams — left in free agency, Newsome drafted Reed and signed tackle Kelly Gregg as a free agent. Newsome is the reason the quality of the defense has remained consistent even as the personnel has changed.