Ravens' defense delivering pain in playoffs

Ed Reed, left, and Cary Williams are the only two Ravens to start every game on defense this season. USA TODAY Sports

NEW ORLEANS -- This Ravens defense isn't close to being as dominating as the one that led Baltimore to Super Bowl XXXV. This Ravens defense isn't ranked in the top 10 for the first time in a decade. This Ravens defense isn't statistically as strong as the 49ers'.

Maybe everyone should stop focusing on what the Ravens' defense isn't and appreciate what this group has become -- a vital part of the team's improbable run to the Super Bowl. Baltimore has overcome numerous injuries, some of which were supposedly season-ending, and it has overcome Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, who were supposedly unbeatable.

The story for this Super Bowl defense has been enduring pain in the regular season and delivering it in the postseason. Thirteen defensive starters missed 53 combined games this season, and the Ravens finished No. 17 in the NFL, their lowest defensive ranking since 2002. In the playoffs, which marked the first time Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed were on the field at the same time this season, the defense has forced twice as many turnovers (eight) as offensive touchdowns allowed (four), including Bernard Pollard's knockout blow that led to the key turnover in the AFC Championship Game.

“Through all our ups and downs ... we’ve stuck together,” Suggs said. “We always believed, and we kept our eyes on the prize, and that’s what we just kept doing.”

The Ravens always believed even when some thought it was foolish, especially when they dealt with injuries. Suggs tore his Achilles tendon in late April, and it was originally believed that he was done for the season. He returned six weeks into the regular season, only one week after Lewis tore his triceps. Lewis came back from a potentially season-ending injury just 10 weeks after surgery.

Besides those two former NFL defensive players of the year getting sidelined, the Ravens lost their best cornerback (Lardarius Webb) and third-leading tackler (Jameel McClain) for the entire season. The injuries piled up; only two players (Reed and cornerback Cary Williams) started every game on defense this season.

At one point, first-year Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees joked, “Every week, it’s like I have to take attendance in our [meeting] room to see who shows up.”

Where this defense eventually showed up was in the playoffs. Just ask Andrew Luck, who couldn't score a touchdown against the Ravens in the AFC wild-card game. Or Manning, who had one interception returned for a touchdown and watched another one set up the game-winning field goal in double overtime. Or Brady, who was shut out by the Ravens in the second half of the AFC Championship Game.

Suggs, usually verbose, was at a loss for words when trying to describe this season's defense. "We’ve had defenses that you guys have given names to, like ‘Organized Chaos,’ but you know, that defense doesn’t have a ring," he said. "This defense has the opportunity to get one."

By football logic, this defense shouldn't be having this type of success. Three of the Ravens' defensive starters came into the league undrafted: Williams, nose tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe. The leading tackler, Pollard, was let go twice in his first five NFL seasons. And the team leader in passes defended this postseason, Corey Graham, is a Pro Bowl player on special teams.

This ragtag bunch has been far from perfect this month. The Ravens have allowed at least 398 yards in all three of their playoff games this season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, they are the only team in NFL history to win three games when allowing an average of 375 or more yards in a single postseason.

The Ravens aren't history because they allow teams to march up and down the field but rarely allow them in the end zone. In the Ravens' three playoff games, opposing offenses have produced 14.3 points per game. As a result, the Ravens became the second team to beat Manning and Brady in the same postseason. (The 2010 Jets were the first.)

"I think it's been steady improvement throughout the course of the season, through the adversity they faced with the injuries," coach John Harbaugh said. "It was a transformation of our defense in a lot of ways."

The transformation is probably just beginning for the Ravens. Lewis will play the final game of his 17-year NFL career Sunday, and Reed might play his last for the Ravens because he's scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March. If Lewis and Reed don't return to the Ravens next season, the leadership role on defense will be passed to Suggs and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.

"You look at the guys who have been around here for years and years now," Lewis said. "I was just sitting there with Haloti, and I was looking at him. And 'Sizzle' [Suggs] and Ed. We have really grown together, and not just the perspective of just playing with each other, but we’ve been through a lot of heartaches with each other. And not just on the field, but off the field. That’s what makes this so special."