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Ed Reed: The Ravens' Bird of Prey

September 26, 2007
By Joe Platania, PressBox Staff

Swagger was invented at the University of Miami, and Ed Reed had every bit of it.

With dreadlocks in his hair, speed in his shoes and flair in his game, Reed was one of many who came to define the intense Hurricanes program in a whirlwind 20-year period from the early ’80s to the dawn of the new millennium.

They were winners, but they were spinners, too, spinning college football's sometimes-dowdy, conventional ways on their ears.

Ed Reed
(Sabina Moran/PressBox)
It was all about big plays on big days under a bright sun's rays. It was all about feeling good about being young and a Hurricane, a sure ticket to the top of the NFL ladder. It sounds like a story about dreams that got shattered. 

Not so, for Ed Reed's story is about how such dreams come true and goals evolve. 

Despite Miami's national visibility and Reed's high draft stock, most folks knew him by one play, albeit a very big one.

In 2001, during a late season game at Boston College, the Eagles were threatening to derail the Hurricanes' unbeaten streak and knock them out of the national championship picture.

However, a late Eagle drive ended in an interception. Reed, a two-time All-American during a stellar college career, quickly closed on his teammate and screamed for the ball. The ensuing lateral and Reed's running head start resulted in a touchdown that sealed the game and eventually pointed Miami toward another title.

Fast forward to Nov. 5, 2006, a pivotal home game for the Ravens against Cincinnati.

Teammate Samari Rolle intercepted an overthrown pass over the middle and started to run toward the end zone. Surrounded by tacklers at the 25-yard line, Rolle -- following the Ravens' "scoop and score" philosophy -- wanted to pitch the ball to someone.

Normally, the maneuver makes fans and coaches cringe. "Just fall on the ball!" everyone says.

But not only is it acceptable in Baltimore, it's encouraged -- and once again, there was the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Reed, encouraging Rolle to pitch the ball.

Along the sideline and trapped, Rolle did just that and Reed took it the rest of the way for a 14-0 lead barely five minutes into a pivotal division game the Ravens held on to win by six, 26-20.

That play mirrored the one at Boston College in that it took speed, instinct and great field awareness to pull it off. It has made Reed -- the NFL's 2004 Defensive Player of the Year and a three-time Pro Bowl selectee -- the modern-day prototype for the safety position.

Ed Reed
(Sabina Moran/PressBox)
In a defense that has been loaded with superstars and led the league in a myriad of categories since 2000, conventional wisdom suggests it would be impossible for anyone to stand out.

Not in Reed's case.

"It's a little like watching Ray [Lewis] if you take the great natural instincts and then you add the maturity that gives him anticipation," coach Brian Billick said. "So, when you add experience to the ability to anticipate and pull the trigger with someone that has such incredible quick instincts, it's a beauty to watch.
What Reed tapped into was a chance to change the way the safety position was played in Baltimore, not an easy task considering who came before him.

In 2001, the last season played before Reed came to the team, Corey Harris and Rod Woodson were the men in the deep middle. Harris was a hard hitter who excelled on kickoff returns and other special teams units. Woodson, a lead-pipe cinch future Hall of Famer with 71 career interceptions -- third on the all-time list and just 10 behind leader Paul Krause -- had earned Pro Bowl berths playing all over the secondary and is regarded as one of the best ever.
But Woodson was part of a boatload of veterans released in an infamous salary cap purge on Feb. 27, 2002, creating a void that Reed filled with the 24th overall pick.

Many observers thought the Ravens would move to take cornerback Lito Sheppard to step in for the departed Duane Starks. But, as has happened so often in Ravens' draft history, Reed, with his physical play and glittering credentials, fell into their lap when the likes of Quentin Jammer and Phillip Buchanon were taken ahead of him.

Reed quickly established a style of play conducive to the ever-changing world of safety play, one where bigger, faster safeties had more coverage responsibilities thrust upon them.

The physical manner of the modern-day safety seemed to come into vogue when Cincinnati's David Fulcher pounded his 230-plus pound frame repeatedly into enemy receivers to the tune of 31 interceptions between 1986 and 1992.

By comparison, other safeties that attempt to play in coverage as well as Reed does -- Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu, Dallas' Roy Williams and Patrick Watkins -- often come up empty, as Polamalu did on two Steve McNair touchdown passes in a Ravens' Christmas Eve blowout in Pittsburgh last year.

"I play with instincts," Reed said. "I'm never going to change my game or how I play. But at the same time, I play within the defense and choose when and when not to go and make a play. It's more or less breaking on a ball."

Reed began his climb to the top of the team's all-time interception table by getting the first five of his 28 career pickoffs -- four more than second-place Lewis and the second-most in the NFL since 2002 -- in a team-leading performance for a young roster. That team was still mathematically alive for a playoff berth in the season's final weekend.

Reed's ballhawking abilities, dovetailing with a "run after catch" philosophy usually applied more to wideouts, have led to an NFL-best 750 interception return yards in the last five years.

"It still seems like it was yesterday for me," Reed said. "When we come back to training camp, I always feel like a rookie. I can continue to get better the way I want to."

Another thing Reed has always wanted to do is contribute on special teams. Even today, he can be seen on the practice field participating in the punt and kick coverage and return drills that precede each day's main session.

Through arduous film study, he always seems to know the tendency of every punter in the league, in order to better time his rush and threaten a block.

It seems strange now, but the Ravens had never blocked a punt in their first six seasons until Reed victimized Denver's Tom Rouen in a famous Monday night 34-23 win.

The Ravens were 0-2 at the time and coming off a bye week, and their resounding victory is remembered more for Chris McAlister's 107-yard return of a missed field goal, the longest play in league history at the time.

But Reed read Brian Griese perfectly and got his first career pickoff that night as well. 

That, plus the blocked punt -- one of four career blocks, three of which he has run back for scores -- showed how far Reed had already come.

Eighty-nine tackles. Two sacks. Nine interceptions for 358 return yards. Seventeen passes defended.

That line from the 2004 season put Reed into the league's elite as the Defensive Player of the Year, one of many reasons recently said Reed was a "lock" for the Hall of Fame.

But as a testimony to how things can quickly change in the NFL, Reed's career and the team's fortunes slid backward just one year later.

A troublesome ankle sprain sidelined Reed for six games, one of a plethora of Ravens' injuries that led to a 2-7 start, sending the locker room into a highly divided state and propelling Reed into a more visible leadership role. However, it wasn't a Hurricane-style fire-and-brimstone speech Reed gave the team. By this point, he did what any good four-year veteran would do.

Reed led by example in 2005 with a philosophy he explained earlier this year.

“[It's about] just us being a whole team," Reed said. "Being together as a team, being a cohesive team and understanding what we need to do together: special teams, offense, defense as a whole and going forward from there.”

General manager Ozzie Newsome agrees.

"The way he works, the way he prepares speaks volumes to his teammates," Newsome said.

That year was also Reed's last as the listed primary strong safety. The team's traditionally strong run defense relied not just on bulky defensive tackles or Lewis or Bart Scott flying to the ball, but Reed jumping into the box and supporting as well.

The challenging '05 season also featured Reed's efforts to help his native Louisiana recover from Hurricane Katrina -- which helped him win the Whitney Young Award from the Baltimore Urban League -- as well as his negotiating a new contract extension.

The six-year deal that made him the highest paid safety in the game was finally done in late June the following year. It not only made Reed rich, but gave him a chance to learn the free safety spot and be a mentor to draft pick and new strong safety Dawan Landry.

Landry ended his rookie year next to Reed with 89 tackles (fifth on the team), three sacks and five interceptions.

“Hopefully, [he goes] across the water [to the Pro Bowl]," Reed said of Landry. "He’s a great safety. Dawan is definitely getting better and eager to get better. He’s willing to learn as much as you can give him.”

Even with all his accomplishments, skills and leadership ability, Reed just turned 29 in September. That means he still has much to give. 

Reed showed that in this year's Week 1 loss to Cincinnati, stepping in as an emergency punt returner and using his extraordinary field vision to take one back 63 yards and keep the Ravens in a game they had no business being in, considering their six turnovers.

But what has made Reed special all these years is not so much how he helps himself, but the team as well.

Even in a division-winning campaign, Reed came in for some criticism last season for freelancing too much and not playing within defensive coordinator Rex Ryan's schemes.

Steve Smith's game-breaking 72-yard touchdown in the Ravens' loss to Carolina was an oft-cited example. As Rolle ran down the seam, Smith cut towards the hashmark and then through the middle of the field where Reed was seemingly supposed to be.

On Nov. 30, in a nationally televised road loss in rainy Cincinnati, the Bengals ran a well-disguised flea-flicker in which T.J. Houshmandzadeh got open for a 40-yard score. Replays showed Reed getting drawn into the box on Carson Palmer's play-action fake.

Reed and the rest of his secondary mates definitely have the talent, but better communication could even help a 13-3 team improve.

"We have a lot of things that we can get better on and communication is definitely one you have to stay up on, because those are the little things we messed up on last year,” Reed said. “We gave up touchdowns that we shouldn't have given up."

But one thing on which Reed will never give up is his two-pronged desire to continue to be one of the best at what he does while taking his team with him to heights as yet unfulfilled.

"Ed Reed is Ed Reed," Scott said. "He's a tremendous leader, and he's a student of the game, and he's communicating with those guys back there. I think guys like Landry and the guys that aspire to be like Ed Reed one day are really learning from his communication and knowledge of football."

And over the years, Reed -- and everyone who watches him, learns from him and respects him -- knows it won't take dreadlocks, swagger or style points to make that happen.

Issue 2.39: Sept. 27, 2007