OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The bullying defense of the Ravens can get downright offensive at times — as in parlaying turnovers into touchdowns.
To linebacker Ray Lewis, the heart and soul of that unit, it's a mind-set rooted on the playgrounds of their youth.
"It's kind of how you played in childhood football," Lewis said earlier this week at his team's training facility. "If you took the ball away, go score. Do anything you can do to score."
Of course, it's a bit more involved than that. But Baltimore's second-ranked defense does work hard at converting fumbles and interceptions into touchdowns, which it did six times in the regular season. Safety Ed Reed, who, like Lewis, is a former University of Miami standout, led with three, two off interceptions and one off a fumble, and added one off an interception in the wild-card victory against the Dolphins.
Turning takeaways into touchdowns is a Ravens tradition. They led the league in 2006 and 2004 with six and seven, respectively, and had another five in 2003.
"We work on that during practice," Lewis said. "We work on pitching the ball. We work on setting the wall for each other and things like that. We don't take that lightly. We like getting into the end zone. That's a huge advantage for us."
It also puts offenses at a major disadvantage when burly linemen and smaller skill position players are cast into defensive roles. That's why teams such as the Ravens, and notably the Bucs, spend time choreographing return schemes that exploit mismatches.
"You get a couple of key blocks, the confidence is definitely there to score with it," Reed said.
But even when they're not scoring, Baltimore's defense forces mistakes and constantly rattles offenses.
2008 marked the sixth consecutive season it ranked among the top six overall and fourth time it ranked second. Also this season, it led the league in forcing three-and-outs (60), interceptions (26, nine by Reed), takeaways (34) and opposing QB rating (60.6).
"We take pride in (the fact that) we'll give you a little bit, but we're not going to give you everything you are looking for," Lewis said. "And most of the times when we do give up (a play), one thing we take pride in is just getting the hit after the ball is thrown.
"When the ball is thrown or the ball is handed off, everybody finds the football. That's where I believe a lot of turnovers are coming from. Everybody is always around the ball."
The defense has one other defining trait: a relentless, passion imbued by Lewis, in his 13th season with the Ravens. He hasn't slowed a bit, leading them with 160 tackles and adding three interceptions to earn his 10th Pro Bowl honor.
"Words can't say what Ray means to this defense," linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "As a leader and a player, he's unbelievably important to us. He's a coach on the field. He's got a knack for being in the right spot, and he brings it. He's been doing it his whole career, and I think he'll be doing it until the day they drag him off the field."
No doubt, trying to score.