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The brains behind Baltimore's D

Ed Reed isn't a ferocious hitter like Ronnie Lott or Jack Tatum. He just strikes the same amount of fear into opponents.

Reed's mental toughness is what will stand the test of time.

He gets into the heads of quarterbacks, baiting them into mistakes. He understands the minds of offensive coordinators, frustrating them by being precisely where they never expect him.

Our Pro Football Hall of Fame panel appreciates everything Reed brings to the table. Baltimore's star safety was given the No. 13 spot on the ESPN.com/ESPN The Magazine NFL Any Era team.

To say Reed is the NFL's best ball hawk because of his instincts undermines the work he puts into making interceptions. His squinty-eyed focus in his preparation in meetings and practices is his key to outplaying and outwitting teams.

"Can't say I've ever coached against anybody better than Ed Reed in the secondary," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said.

Reed wasn't the fastest or the biggest safety coming out of college. That's why he was the 24th overall pick in the 2002 draft.

What scouts forgot to measure was his relentlessness.

In a 2008 wild-card game at Miami, Reed ran down a pass that appeared to be beyond anyone's grasp with an over-the-shoulder catch. Never satisfied with just making the interception, Reed quickly weaved his way upfield, making an "S" through the entire Dolphins offense to score a touchdown.

Reed later said the play reminded him of playing on the street of his childhood home in Louisiana, where mailboxes marked the end zones.

"He looks like Willie Mays in center field," former San Francisco 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said.

Actually, he looks like Kenny Easley when he plays centerfield for the Ravens' defense. Reed's 57 career interceptions are the most in the NFL since he entered the league in 2002.

Reed is also like Ken Houston in how he turns interceptions into scores. He has recorded 13 touchdowns in his career, including returns of 107 and 106 yards.

"You got to taste it," Reed said. "I guess it comes from my offensive mentality; I played offense in high school, did punt returns, kick returns and all that. It's a matter of wanting the ball and understanding it's part of my job, to go out there and be where I'm supposed to be and make the plays I'm supposed to make."

Reed, an eight-time Pro Bowler, has become the standard for today's safeties.

"I've told him to his face many times, 'You're the greatest safety ever to play the game,'" said All-Pro Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. "We all learn from each other, but we all learn most from him.

"Whenever you see him have a one-interception game, it's disappointing. 'What happened to Ed? He only took it to the 1? He must be injured.' I don't think it's athleticism that makes great plays. He's got a football IQ, a really instinctual way of playing the game."

Reed also doesn't let pain get in the way of his performance.

He came back for the playoffs in 2009 after missing four games with a hip injury. Reed went on to intercept Peyton Manning three times in a divisional playoff game, although two were negated by his teammates' penalties.

Despite being sidelined for the first six games of the 2010 season following hip surgery, Reed still led the NFL in interceptions with eight in 10 games.

"It's tough as football players," Reed said, "but this is what we signed up for."

Reed's old-school approach to the game causes players to gravitate to him.

"A lot of people see this as Ray Lewis' team and Ray's defense. Everything about the Baltimore Ravens, a lot of it is focused on Ray," Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth said. "And that's the thing about Ed is, he doesn't care. He gives those impassioned speeches that motivate us as a team from time to time. When there is a gripe on the team, or when we need some rest, he'll go upstairs and confront Coach [John] Harbaugh just as much, if not more, than Ray. But that doesn't get reported, and Ed doesn't care. Because he's genuine. It's not about how it looks. It's not about who's going to be [mad] at him. It's not about who is going to love him. It's about what he thinks is best for the team."

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