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Ray Lewis lauds Ravens defense for sustaining excellence

FILE - In this Dec. 26, 2010, file photo, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis (52) inspires his teammates, including linebacker Terrell Suggs (55), before an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns in Cleveland. Lewis played on many a great defense with the Baltimore Ravens, including the 2000 team that won a Super Bowl and set an NFL record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta, File)

OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — Ray Lewis played on many a great defense with the Baltimore Ravens, including the 2000 team that won a Super Bowl and set an NFL record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season.

The former standout middle linebacker ranks the current unit right up there with the best of them.

"It 100 percent does not get any better than watching these guys play defense," Lewis said this week in an interview with The Associated Press.

The Ravens (6-5) lead the NFL with 18 interceptions and 26 takeaways. Baltimore has three shutouts this season, and last Monday night allowed only one touchdown and forced three turnovers in a 23-16 win over Houston.

Now in his eighth season with the Ravens, defensive coordinator Dean Pees deftly calls the shots for a unit that long ago built a reputation for being relentless and tenacious.

"Look, let's just give credit to Dean Pees and what he's been doing with defenses for ages," Lewis said. "When you see this defense play, they are aggressive, they are physical and they are telling people, 'We can absolutely beat you up.' That's always been our simple motto: You want to come in and act cute? We're coming in to punch you in the mouth. And that's what the Ravens are doing."

Lewis played 17 seasons with Baltimore, was named to 13 Pro Bowls and was a two-time AP Defensive Player of the Year. He ended his final season in 2012 under a rain of confetti after the Ravens beat San Francisco 34-31 to win the Super Bowl.

Terrell Suggs was a member of the championship team, and Lewis credits the outside linebacker, now 35, with carrying on the tradition of excellence that defines Ravens defense.

"You know what? A lot of the great defenses I was on, Terrell Suggs was there," Lewis said. "When you think about it, he came in as a young kid, getting experience playing with me and Ed Reed. Now guess what? He's that guy.

"The same focus, the same leadership that starts with Terrell Suggs starts to trickle down. When you bring in veterans like Eric Weddle, and the knowledge of a C.J. Mosley and combine all of those things with the athletic ability they all have, what you get is a tremendous defense."

That's how it worked with Lewis, who thrived as the centerpiece of a team that fused in-house talent with proven free agents.

"I used to say this when I was playing: You can compare us to whoever you want to, but we are who we are," Lewis said. "Same thing with the 2017 Ravens. There are so many different pieces. There are guys coming from different teams, just like we had Rod Woodson and Sam Adams and Michael McCrary."

Lewis now appears on Showtime's "Inside the NFL," a job that requires him to closely monitor action around the league. He watched the Ravens-Texans game intently Monday night, and relished the pivotal fourth-quarter moment when Suggs forced a fumble while sacking Tom Savage.

"Before he did it, I said, 'Sizzle, I need a play. I need a sack-caused fumble right now,'" Lewis said. "That was a close game. If he just sacks the quarterback, guess what? The next play maybe the Texans throw a pass to DeShawn Hopkins, maybe get a pass interference, maybe a first down. But that does not happen when you take the ball away.

"The point is, these guys are playing with a chip on their shoulder. If you're loose with the ball, they're going to make you pay for it. That's Ravens history, that's Ravens defense, and that's why I appreciate on every level watching these guys play."

The 2000 Ravens went five straight games without a touchdown. The current team also features a struggling offense, but remains unified in its quest to win.

"Same thing that we had," Lewis said. "You never hear about guys being mad because the offense isn't doing anything. No. They win games together, they lose games together, and that's the Ravens way. It's always been our way."

Though this defense has accomplished a lot so far, it's too early to measure its place in Ravens lore.

"How well we play the rest of the season on defense will determine its place in history," coach John Harbaugh said.

Lewis said: "They can be as great as they want to be, and I honestly think they have a chance to be fantastic. I'll say this much: This is the one defense — and I don't care who you are — that you do not want to face in the playoffs."

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