BOSTON (CBS) — Considering that John Harbaugh works just a short drive from the National Security Agency, a suggestion he received in a teleconference Wednesday seemed to make total sense.
The Baltimore Ravens head coach was fielding questions from media on the Patriots beat when asked about the challenge of preparing for a possible return of New England receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins.
“I was really hoping you guys would provide me with some information along those lines,” Harbaugh joked, prompting a reporter’s rejoinder.
“Call the NSA,” Harbaugh was advised, before countering with a quip of his own.
“I don’t think they could even crack Bill Belichick’s phone line,” he replied, drawing a roomful of laughter inside Foxborough’s Gillette Stadium.
All midweek kidding aside, as Harbaugh matches wits with Belichick for the seventh time in his five-year tenure in Baltimore, few secrets exist between the two and their teams. As the league’s winningest franchises since 2008, they’ve met six times previously during that span, including a split of the last two AFC Championships.
Given the nature of those encounters — all either occurring in or impacting the postseason — and the power of the teams’ personalities — even as personnel has changed — Patriots vs. Ravens has become one of the game’s fiercest rivalries.
“You’d like to think the thing that defines rivalries are great games played by great teams over an extended period of time, and there’s a lot at stake,” Harbaugh said, seriously. “I feel like that’s been the case in our rivalry with the Patriots.”
In their case, familiarity breeds not just contempt — just ask Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs or Haloti Ngata, as ESPN and Sports Illustrated did in the last year — it stirs strong mutual respect.
“It’s an impressive football team, like they usually are,” Belichick says. “Real solid organization, they do a great job from all the way at the top with (owner) Steve (Bisciotti) and (general manager) Ozzie (Newsome) put together a good football team. Well coached, John (Harbaugh) and his staff have done a great job. Play well very in all three phases of the game.”
Belichick continued by touching on those three dimensions; his impression of the Ravens reinforced by their current four-game winning streak amidst a 5-1 stretch in defense of their Super Bowl XLVII title.
“Excellent on special teams. Obviously the kicker (Justin Tucker) is having a big year; good returner, good specialists, good coverage people,” he said. “[They’ve] made a lot of good plays on defense; one of the best situational teams in the league – red area, third down. Big, physical team that’s tough to move the ball against. Offensively, they’re an explosive group: outstanding quarterback, running backs, tight ends…big receivers, physical receivers, good offensive line.
“They look like the championship team that they are.”
Following are a few examples, exploring one from every aspect of play, of how the current cast of Ravens resemble their former selves.
Baltimore’s longtime heart and soul, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, are now in television and free agent exile, respectively. Meanwhile, other defensive stalwarts from the 2012 championship drive like Bernard Pollard, Danell Ellerbe, Cary Williams and Paul Kruger are playing elsewhere in 2013.
Yet, as always under Harbaugh, the Ravens are rugged on that side of the ball.
“We’ve turned over some personnel, but we’ve kept a lot of players too,” Harbaugh said. “I think if you look at our defense, especially, you’ll see a lot of similar faces that have been there for a number of years, so those guys, they become what it revolves around.
“And then what the other guys left in terms of expectations with the younger guys, that kind of carries forward, that’s what a legacy is all about. So if we have a tradition of that then the young guys pick up on that and it becomes who they are as well.”
Heirs to that legacy include oft-overlooked veteran Daryl Smith, a nine-year Jacksonville Jaguar, and rookie Matt Elam, a first-round draftee out of Florida. Respectively, they’ve inherited the roles of Lewis at linebacker and Reed at safety.
“Ray Lewis is a Hall of Famer; he’s one of the best players I’ve ever played against but Daryl Smith has really stepped in and been a big leader for them,” Tom Brady said. “He’s right in the middle of the defense. Really smart, instinctive player, really good against the pass, fast sideline to sideline. He’s got a lot of qualities, a great linebacker.
“Elam is a young player with all the skill and ability. He’s made some big plays for them. He’s gotten some pretty key interceptions; made one last week. He’s a really good player.”
Then Brady added with a laugh.
“Friggin’ Baltimore, they’ve always got a good defense,” he said. “We’ve played against them for so long.”
About this time a year ago, the Ravens were a team in transition on offense. Coordinator Cam Cameron was replaced by Jim Caldwell during a mid-December rut.
But despite losing four of the regular season’s last five games, Caldwell and Flacco connected. Then the young quarterback proceeded to hook up with receivers time and again for score after playoff score. He equaled the marks of Joe Montana and Kurt Warner by throwing 11 touchdown passes in a single postseason.
Like the original ‘Joe Cool,’ Flacco did it without being intercepted in becoming Super Bowl MVP. Shortly thereafter, he was rewarded with a new contract that briefly made him the game’s highest-paid player.
But Flacco has gone almost all of this season without his top two targets from 2012, while being exposed by a re-made offensive line. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin is now a 49er and tight end Dennis Pitta is about to play only his third game following a preseason injury. At the same time, the Ravens have surrendered 42 sacks, while failing to get much traction in the running game. Their rushing offense ranks 29th in the NFL.
Nonetheless, Flacco, who’s poised enough to produce six career road playoff wins, seems unfazed by pressure. And numbers notwithstanding, he’s armed with the ability to produce big plays.
“(Flacco) manages the game really well,” Patriots safety Steve Gregory says. “He does a good job of putting the ball in spots that his receivers can make plays on them. He’s got a strong-arm. He can throw it from anywhere on the field and, basically, bomb it out there. He’s got good accuracy and he has a good awareness of their scheme, what their trying to do, and getting them in the right checks. He’s a heck of a quarterback and a guy that definitely presents challenges for you.
“They can stretch you out deep, whether it’s on the outside or down the middle of the field, and they’re also good at hitting those intermediate routes and backs on check-downs. They spread the ball around, get it all over the field, and they do a good job of balancing out what they do on offense.”
Pitta’s return gives Flacco a short-to-intermediate option to complement a pair of long ball hitters who beat defenders with speed and strength.
“You look at Torrey Smith on the outside,” Gregory said. “He’s fast and a physical guy who can go up and catch the ball. He plays a physical brand of football. Their receivers are willing to go in there and block.
“Obviously, Jacoby Jones in the (kick) return game, he’s a physical return guy. He plays that way at receiver as well. They have a lot of guys that are kind of molded in that way.”
Lest one forget about Ray Rice. His production is be sub-par compared to his past, but he still does enough to hold New England’s attention.
“Rice has been one of the better backs in this league for a longtime,” Gregory says. “He does a good job pretty much at everything. He’s a playmaker for them and someone you always have to be aware of.”
With his six field goals Monday at Detroit, culminating with a game-winning and franchise-record 61-yarder, Baltimore’s Justin Tucker kicked his way back into the national spotlight.
We first learned of him on a Sunday night in Sept. 2012, when Tucker decided a Ravens’ victory over the Patriots. He enters today toting a string of 33 consecutive field goals made and has accounted for 50 of Baltimore’s 88 points during its current winning streak.
In addition, veteran Sam Koch remains a reliable punter, as the franchise leader in career gross (44.7) and net punt (38.6) averages. Collaborating with Tucker, he gives Baltimore one of the league’s most solid kicking units.
Of course, the Ravens also field a very dangerous return team.
Tandon Doss is the NFL’s top punt returner, averaging 15.6 yards an opportunity. In Week 3 vs. Houston, he covered 82 yards en route to a score.
On kickoffs, the aforementioned Jones averages 30.0 yards per return. Last year alone, he ran three kicks back for scores, including 108-yard returns vs. Dallas in the regular season and San Francisco in the Super Bowl. Two weeks ago, in a snow storm against Minnesota, he covered 77 yards for a TD return.
“They’re something special on special teams, (imagine) the irony of that,” said reserve running back Brandon Bolden, who covers both kickoffs and punts for New England. “They’re real good. Jacoby is amazing back there. He’s a real fast guy and he wants to hit it downhill. Once he gets rolling downhill, it’s pretty much ‘a wrap’ after that.
“It’s not so much what his mentality is, it’s what the (other) team gives him. You can tell he’s taking exactly what your defense gives him. If you cover down there and one guy’s out of place, he’s gone. So we’ll just have to be sound on all of our coverage units, get down there as a team, tackle as a team and hope for the best.”
Bob Socci is in his first season as the radio play-by-play voice of the New England Patriots. You can follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.