Inside the swagger, intimidation and excellence of the Ravens’ first Super Bowl defense
Editor’s note: The next installment in ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, “Bullies of Baltimore,” is set to debut Sunday at 8:30 p.m. ET. The film will be made available on ESPN+ immediately after its premiere. This piece originally ran in 2021, on the 20th anniversary of the Ravens’ first Super Bowl title. Since the piece originally ran, former Ravens defensive tackle Tony Siragusa, who was a leader of the Super Bowl team, died at the age of 55.
BALTIMORE — Jan. 28, 2001, will forever represent coronation day for the Baltimore Ravens‘ defense.
In the minds of Ravens players, their 34-7 triumph over the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV crowned the 2000 squad as the greatest single-season defense in NFL history.
On this 20-year anniversary, this Baltimore defense continues to stand out from the rest in every way — in records, in the postseason, and as the players proudly extoll, in attitude.
Known then as the transplanted franchise from Cleveland, the Ravens had never produced a winning season or clinched a playoff bid in their first four seasons. In 2000, Baltimore’s identity was forged by 11 bullies on defense who weren’t just bent on shutting out teams. They wanted to punish you with every drive-you-in-the-turf sack and swarming gang tackle behind the line of scrimmage.
Their NFL records for fewest points (165) and rushing yards (970) in a 16-game season have never been threatened. The one offensive touchdown allowed is the fewest ever in four postseason games. The swagger exuded by the Ravens caused jaws to drop at a record rate as well, though the NFL doesn’t exactly keep track of that.
The Ravens trash-talked running backs and even an opposing owner. They flipped the middle finger at the Black Hole in Oakland before the AFC Championship Game. Heading into the Super Bowl, the Ravens didn’t simply guarantee a victory, they repeatedly predicted a shutout (a promise which, technically, they did live up to) at news conferences all week.
How confident was this Baltimore defense? By midway through the season, the routine of discussing the defensive game plan before games had ended in the locker room.
“We didn’t really care about that anymore,” former Ravens defensive tackle Tony Siragusa recalled. “It was more about: What dance are we going to do when we get an interception? We’re not even talking about the game because we knew we were that good. We’re practicing ‘the grenade,’ where one guy throws the ball up in the air and everyone falls back. I was like, this is really messed up, man.”
Ray Lewis, the game’s best defensive player, manned the middle with linebacker Jamie Sharper on a defense that produced four shutouts. Up front, Siragusa and Sam Adams formed a 700-pound wall that held teams to 2.7 yards per carry. On the edges, Peter Boulware, Michael McCrary and Rob Burnett took out quarterbacks and wondered why the backups never wrote them thank-you notes for getting them into games. In the secondary, safeties Rod Woodson and Kim Herring teamed with two young first-round picks, Chris McAlister and Duane Starks, to turn interceptions into touchdowns.
By the end of the season, Baltimore ranked first in a half-dozen defensive categories. However, the only way to get mentioned in the same breath as Chicago’s Monsters of the Midway and Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain was to win a championship.
In the Super Bowl, the Ravens forced five turnovers, sacked Kerry Collins four times and returned an interception for a touchdown.
“I would say it’s the best one-year defense in NFL history,” Sharper said. “They’ll compare us to the Steelers defenses who ran for almost a decade and they’ll compare us to the Chicago Bears defense who didn’t have free agency back in those days either. So, it’s the best one-year defense definitely and it’s shown by the stats we have still.”
Here is the story of how the Ravens’ defense etched itself into NFL history two decades ago, as told by the people who lived it:
‘Tap that hat’
The Ravens started the season by shutting out three of their first five opponents. The defining moment of the first month of the season came in Baltimore’s 37-0 win over the Bengals in Week 4, when the Ravens caused Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon to quit after being held to nine yards rushing on 12 carries. Early in the fourth quarter, Dillon headed to the sideline and waved off coach Bruce Coslet about going back in. A day later, Coslet resigned.
McCrary: “That was my hit. It was on a defensive line stunt. Siragusa came across my face and took the guard with him. If you do it successfully, the guard is still stuck on Siragusa trying to pass him off to the tackle. So I came clean. And literally when Corey was handed the ball, I hit him. He had been hit so many times throughout that game behind the line of scrimmage, he’d just had enough. He was like, ‘This is ridiculous. What am I doing?’ That was like, wow.”
Sharper: “We couldn’t believe that he wasn’t out there. We thought that he was hurt, but then we heard from some other guys that he just didn’t want to go back in the game because he was getting hit so much. It was kind of shocking to see that, but we definitely intimidated some running backs. That’s when you knew that we had a great defense: When a running back says, ‘All right, I’m not going back in the game anymore. I’m not taking these hits.'”
Woodson: “Corey is an outstanding player. We started hitting him. Ray’s hitting him. Jamie Sharper’s hitting him. Big Goose and Sam Adams are hitting him. We’re getting in our licks in the secondary. After a while, you just tap that hat. That was our motto. We’re going to come downhill. We’re going to hit you in the first quarter, second quarter and third quarter. Can you take it in the fourth quarter? Do you give up the football or do you fight?”
Solidified by drought
The Ravens went 0-for-October, failing to score a touchdown the entire month. This five-game touchdown drought would’ve been a point where many teams hit rock bottom. The defense refused to point fingers and, in fact, helped the Ravens win two games during that stretch. For Baltimore, it’s where a Super Bowl team was galvanized.
Boulware: “We had a streak where we didn’t even score a touchdown, and I remember sitting in our defensive meeting room. We were maybe giving up nine or 12 points and [defensive coordinator] Marvin [Lewis] really cussing us out, saying, ‘Look, we’ve got to find ways to score, and we’ve got to do better than that.’ And I was like, ‘Man, we’re pretty dang good to be holding these teams to where we are, but now our mindset as a defense is not only are we gonna hold people to scoring nothing.’ That was a realization that we’ve got something special going on our side of the ball.”
Trent Dilfer: “[After taking over for Tony Banks as the Ravens quarterback in Week 9], we were in the field house after practice and Ray came over to me and we were just talking, probably cutting up like we always did, and he goes, ‘Yeah, but you saw that last week, right? You saw that nobody can score on us.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, no kidding.’ Ray goes, ‘No, no, no. You’re the guy. You get it. Let’s just all play together. If we all play together, we’ll never be beat.’ It just hit me. They’re not just good, they’re great. And he’s right. It just kind of made sense to me that you put the egos behind us. Put the stats and all that crap behind us. If this is about winning 3-0, then I’m good with that. Let’s make sure we don’t screw it up.”
Woodson: “[After the touchdown drought] every Friday, we would go with [tight end] Shannon [Sharpe] to the sauna and the cold tub together. We used to go up to Shannon and ask him: How many points are you going to give us this week? He would say, ‘We got 13.’ We’re like: ‘If you give us 13, we’re good. We’re going to win.’ His points were always close.”
Ticked off in Tennessee
The Ravens finished the regular season by winning all seven games after ending the touchdown drought and advanced to a playoff rematch with the top-seeded Titans in the divisional round. As the teams prepared for the opening kickoff, the Titans ran a montage on the stadium video board entitled “A special message from Brian Billick and the Baltimore Ravens.” It showed the Ravens celebrating their victory in Nashville earlier that season and included all of Billick’s comments about the Titans.
Billick*: “We get there and they run on the scoreboard all the [s—] that we were saying, and a lot of it was the stupid [s—] I was saying. The thing I do remember is I’m looking up and going, ‘OK, OK, it’s on.’ And Goose walks by me and says, ‘We got you, Coach.’ Then, [the Titans] go the length of the field [for a touchdown on the opening drive] and I go, ‘Uh, we got to rethink this.'”
Ray Lewis*: “They put a nice game plan together. Look, this team knew us very well. They hit us with some bootlegs early and [Titans quarterback Steve] McNair made a couple of plays. I’ll never forget when Rod made a play on [Titans running back] Eddie George and he got up and put his hands up. I told him, ‘You know what, they’re here for a fight. They really want to fight.’ Coming off to the sideline, I looked at coach [Billick] and he was shouting, ‘Ray, Ray.’ I told him, ‘Not right now. Not right now.'”
Billick*: “I made a hard left at the Gatorade and said, ‘OK, Ray’s got it. I’m going to stay out of the way.’ It worked out OK.”
Sam Adams: “[The Titans] came out with more energy than us, they executed and they were ready. They wanted to prove that they were men. Well, guess what? It takes 60 minutes to prove that and not one drive.”
The Ravens beat the Titans 24-10 and didn’t give up another offensive touchdown in the final 112 minutes, 43 seconds of postseason play.
Revenge in the Black Hole
The Ravens reached the AFC Championship Game in Oakland, where Siragusa made a free-agent visit in 1997.
Siragusa: “[Raiders owner] Al Davis brings me in, and first of all, he sleeps ’til noon, so you’ve got to meet with him in the afternoon. They bring me out there and they say, ‘We’re going to offer you this much money.’ So, being the person that I am, I knew that the tax situation was really bad in California. I wanted to talk to my accountants because [Davis] was offering me a little bit more [than the Ravens], but it wasn’t enough more. So I go in the next day and I say I figured it out, and he’s like, ‘Well, Tony, every day is a new day.’ And I was like, really? He goes, ‘I’m going to have to offer you $50,000 less than I offered you yesterday.’ I told him to give me my plane ticket. [F—] you. And I leave.”
Fast forward four years later, when Siragusa and the Ravens’ defense were pitted against All-Pro quarterback Rich Gannon. With 10:55 left in the second quarter, Siragusa crushed Gannon into the ground after an incompletion and knocked him out of the game.
McCrary: “Oh, he crushed him, man. We were messing with Goose that he hadn’t had a sack in 20 years, so he had to jump on him again just to make sure. But what a big play because that is not an easy play for a big man like that. When you come all by yourself and it’s just you and the quarterback, usually the quarterback can escape the big men. People think that’s an easy tackle but that’s an extremely difficult tackle to make.”
Boulware: “I remember when Goose did that, I looked at Gannon and he didn’t get up. In my mind, I’m like, ‘We are going to win, we are going to the Super Bowl. You can buy your tickets to Tampa right now.’ And everybody on the whole defense, we were thinking the same thing. This thing is over.”
Siragusa: “I didn’t want to hurt [Gannon], but I wanted to act like a Raider a little bit in a Ravens uniform. Just a couple cheap shots wouldn’t be too bad. As I’m walking off the field — we just beat the Raiders and we’re going to the Super Bowl — I see Al Davis in the tunnel. I walk up to him and I go, ‘Hey Al, how you doing? Good thing you saved that $50 grand, [a–hole].’ I walked right by him and into the locker room.”
The Ravens faced the top-seeded New York Giants, who routed the Minnesota Vikings 41-0 in the NFC Championship Game. Baltimore wasn’t impressed.
Woodson: “This is the God’s honest truth, when we looked at the New York Giants’ video of the first game that we watched of them, we were like, ‘They’re not going to beat us.’ I think we saw a half of that game — and that was their best game — and I was like, ‘We’re way better than that.’ We knew we were going to win the game. We didn’t’ know by how much. We did challenge ourselves: They’re not going to get across the 50. I think they got across the 50 twice [the Giants never got closer than 29 yards from the end zone the whole game].”
Adams: “You know, I don’t think people have the gumption to feel like it’s supposed to happen. I remember in the Super Bowl when we scored that first touchdown early in the first quarter [Dilfer’s 38-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Stokley], the defense was going crazy on the sideline because I remember saying, ‘The game is over. We just won the Super Bowl.’ Because all we needed was one touchdown. All we needed was one score. And that’s how we felt. We shut them out. They didn’t score in the Super Bowl either.”
The defense did shut out Kerry Collins and the Giants’ offense, but New York did avoid the shutout when Ron Dixon returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown with 3:31 left in the third quarter.
Woodson: “We were mad. We wanted to have the first shutout in Super Bowl history. So we were upset. Even though it didn’t go against us, it goes against us. That was a little upsetting that the return was going to go against us.”
Boulware: “My biggest memory of the Super Bowl was this is probably one of the easiest games that we played all year. That was a complete blowout. Going down to Tennessee, that was tough. It was kind of rough getting through Oakland. We beat the Giants 34-7.”
It was not so easy for McCrary.
McCrary: “I hit [Giants running back Tiki Barber] in the ribs trying to get the ball out and my hand ricochets and hits Rod Woodson’s helmet. I look down at my hand and it’s like the size of three hands. I got inside the tunnel with Bill Tessendorf, the trainer, and they peel the glove off. A bone is sticking through the knuckle and it is just shattered all in there. He looks at me and said, ‘Mike, you played a hell of a game.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, hell no. We’ve got two other quarters to go.’ They wrapped it up in the cast. I went out there, got a sack and forced fumble the next play at the Giants’ 1-yard line. So yeah, I finished the game with that cast on. But it shattered into 28 pieces. The doctor told me after surgery, he’s like ‘Yeah, you got lucky. I guess no one told you we thought we were going to have to amputate your finger.’ We narrowly escaped that. So I can’t use my [right index] finger, but I don’t need it. It just sits there.”
On the day of the Super Bowl, Siragusa showed up at the stadium six hours before everyone else because he was full of adrenaline. He flipped through the game program and saw a picture of all of the different Super Bowl rings. He cut it out and stuck that page in everyone’s locker. If the Ravens got that ring, they would be together for the rest of their lives because the organization would bring back the group that won the first Super Bowl. He was right — the Ravens will hold a virtual 20-year reunion in 2021.
Sharper: “The lasting memory for myself would be how much of a family we were. The first two years, I lived right beside Tony Siragusa and I was a single guy out of college. Peter Boulware stayed in my townhome for a little bit. I would go over to Siragusa’s house and his wife would cook food for me just because she knew I didn’t have anybody to cook for me. I’d go over there and eat. My favorite was wedding soup.”
Adams: “We all had our quirks and different personalities that clashed. But I would die for Tony Siragusa, Michael McCrary and Ray Lewis. Our bond is what made us special.”
McCrary: “When I talk to the guys, it seems like all of this happened yesterday. The mindset, the hard work and the teamwork, it’s carried me through everything I’ve done the rest of my life.”
* — From Ravens