I reached out to ESPN analyst Marcellus Wiley to chat with him about the "aging" Ravens defense for a story that ran in Saturday's newspaper, but I didn't hear from Wiley until after I had sent my story into my editors Friday night (I'll cut Marcellus some slack since he's operating on West Coast time). Anyway, I still wanted to pass along his thoughts, especially since he thinks the Ravens will contend for a Super Bowl again this season.
I asked Wiley, who played defensive end in the NFL for 10 seasons and recorded 44 career sacks, about the perception that the Ravens defense is over the hill. Wiley said it's because linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed have played at such a high level together for more than a decade, and that people immediately think of those two thirty-somethings when thinking about the Ravens, not some of their younger talents on defense.
Terrell Suggs was the Defensive Player of the Year," Wiley said. "[Lewis and Reed] deserve all the attention they get. They've earned it. And once again -- even this year -- you still have to respect those guys when they are out there."
Wiley believes that the leadership and experience Lewis and Reed bring to the table will help the Baltimore defense make the transition with younger players -- like outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw, defensive end Pernell McPhee, and cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith -- taking on more significant roles. As he points out, the Ravens have plugged many productive players into this defense over the past decade.
"You saw so much turnover, that they could move guys in and out and still be successful," he said. "When you talk about Ed Reed and Ray Lewis being there, they always have the same kind of constant progress and success. And even though they have lost some players -- like Jarret Johnson, who is in San Diego -- this is still a team that will continue to go out there and play because the culture is in place and the identity is in place."
Wiley said that the offense of the New England Patriots is similar in that regard, with quarterback Tom Brady being the constant. The Patriots have surrounded Brady with a lot of different players with different skill sets in his superlative career, and most have thrived playing with Brady. The same goes for Lewis and Reed here; the supporting cast has changed, but the Ravens have routinely ranked among the NFL's stingiest defenses.
That will continue in 2012, Wiley predicts.
"They were one Lee Evans bear hug away from advancing to the Super Bowl, if he comes down with that ball," he said, referring to the loss to New England in the AFC title game. "Baltimore is still the class of the division. ... Maybe we'll see a rematch of the AFC championship game. Those two teams are the class of the AFC. I think if I was on the Baltimore Ravens, getting so close last year would make me that much hungrier."