Ravens Hall of Famer Named GOAT at Key Defensive Position

Ray Lewis and Ed Reed

Getty One Raven who's in the Hall of Fame is considered the GOAT at his position.

Legendary defensive players have defined the Baltimore Ravens ever since the franchise’s inception in 1996. Few NFL teams have been blessed with as many greats on this side of the ball.

The likes of Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, Rod Woodson, Deion Sanders, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata all wrecked offeses for fun during their time with the Ravens. Multiple Pro-Bowl berths, All-Pro accolades and two Super Bowl titles were the fruits of having so many legendary names on defense.

Yet, for all the marquee talents dedicated to the limiting of points, one Ravens icon stands above them all. This member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame has just been voted the greatest ever at his position in a poll conducted by ESPN with “50 experts, reporters and analysts.”


Hall of Famer Voted Best of the Best

Aside from polling so many experts, ESPN’s “Jeff Legwold broke down why each GOAT was chosen, and ESPN Stats & Information dove into the numbers to pick out key stats to know.”

Those findings landed Lewis the distinction of being named the best linebacker to ever take the field. The Ravens’ two-time Super Bowl champion and 13-time Pro-Bowler finished ahead of Chicago Bears greats Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary, as well as Jack Lambert of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Of all the stats and accolades Lewis earned during 17 seasons on the gridiron, ESPN identified these distinctive numbers: “A two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Lewis is the only player in NFL history to have 40 sacks and 30 interceptions in a career.”

As well as his statistics, Lewis merited votes because of his mental aptitude for the game. This is a trait ESPN NFL Matchup host Sal Paolantonio acknowledged: “He was the toughest, smartest NFL player I ever encountered. Lewis’ film study habits allowed him to see things on the field before they happened. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning would both probably tell you Lewis rented space in their minds pre- and post-snap.”

Lewis was also a master motivator, somebody whose intensity and enthusiasm defined the defenses on which he played. The Ravens paid tribute to all of those things in 2018, the year Lewis was enshrined at Canton, Ohio:

Lewis deserved the praise because he was a staple of excellence for the Ravens as the franchise’s second ever draft pick. He was taken 23rd-overall in the first round, 19 picks after another future Hall of Famer, left tackle Jonathan Ogden.

After thriving on struggling teams during the Ravens’ early years under Ted Marchibroda, Lewis became the pre-eminent middle linebacker in the game during an era loaded with outstanding players at his position, names like Zach Thomas, Brian Urlacher and London Fletcher.

Yet, for all the talk about the many ways Lewis could dominate, not everybody was convinced he merited distinction as the greatest.


Lewis’ Critics Miss the Point

Of all Lewis’ critics, perhaps the most famous was iconic Sports Illustrated columnist Paul Zimmerman. The self-styled Dr. Z once described Lewis as “not the best but the noisiest,” back in 2005.

While many consider Lewis’ pre-game dance ritual and fiery speeches iconic, Zimmerman was not impressed: “I didn’t really see anyone get into the flow of it. Mostly, they looked embarrassed.”

Others shared Zimmerman’s view that Lewis’ vocal antics were often over the top:

In a separate column from 2016 about his picks for an All-Time Defense, Zimmerman outlined why Lewis wasn’t as deserving of consideration as Butkus: “Lewis had a pair of 350-pound monsters, Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams, to keep the blockers off him in the ’01 Super Bowl.”

It’s a common criticism of Lewis that his awesome 2000 season that yielded NFL Defensive MVP honors and the Ravens’ first Lombardi Trophy was more a product of those around him than his own talent.

Frankly, the critique is unfair, although it didn’t hurt for Lewis to have defensive tackles as big as Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams covering him up and absorbing blockers. Yet, putting a wall in front of Lewis was merely smart scheming by the Ravens to protect their best player and give him more opportunities to impact games.

Lewis was a tackling machine during 2000, logging 137 stops, but he was the same during the lean years, making a career-high 184 tackles in 1997. The latter number showed Lewis was a leading light on a struggling team, so it only made sense he’d still thrive with more talent around him.

Protecting the middle linebacker is an essential part of playing the 4-3 front the Ravens operated in 2000 when Lewis and Co. allowed just 165 points, the fewest during a 16-game season in NFL history.

The true key to Lewis’ greatness wasn’t his emotion nor any assistance from those he played alongside. Longevity defined No. 52, specifically, the ability to play at a high level for almost two decades.

Lewis was still a tackling machine after the Ravens switched to a 3-4 defense following their first Super Bowl triumph and stuck with the scheme into the 2010s. He continued to dominate in a new era, putting together impressive games like this one against the Buffalo Bills, highlighted by StatMuse:

The harshest critics of Lewis might scoff at the idea he had the number of quarterbacks as decorated as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, like Paolantonio concluded. Lewis went 3-5 against Brady, while he was 5-7 when facing off with Manning.

It’s easy to scoff at how Lewis fared, but not many defensive players, if any, would boast a comprehensive winning record against two Hall of Fame passers. Especially after facing them during an era where rules and strategy favored offenses over defenses.

If you still need confirmation of Lewis’ greatness, just ask those legends who had to try and get around him, including Manning:

Lewis doesn’t regularly appear in lists of the game’s greatest defensive players, the way he also did for CBS Sports back in June, because he was loud and protected. Instead, Lewis’ name comes up so often because he’s an easy choice for those who know greatness when they see it.

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