Wilbon: When It Comes to Safeties, Reed Is a Worthwhile Pick

Once Baltimore's Ed Reed gets his hands on the ball, it's difficult to stop him. The Ravens' safety has 12 touchdowns in his seven-year career.
Once Baltimore's Ed Reed gets his hands on the ball, it's difficult to stop him. The Ravens' safety has 12 touchdowns in his seven-year career. (By Greg Fiume -- Getty Images)
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By Michael Wilbon
Saturday, January 10, 2009

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had been chased out of the pocket and was trying to simply throw the ball away to avoid taking a sack or throwing into heavy coverage by the Jacksonville Jaguars, so he just flicked the ball out of bounds, where his own teammates were gathered. Almost casually, Ed Reed, standing on the sideline, grabbed the errant throw. No doubt he just couldn't help himself.

Snatching imperfect passes out of thin air is what Reed does, perhaps better and certainly as dramatically than any defender in pro football history. He took two off of Miami's Chad Pennington, including a game-altering, 64-yard, over-the-shoulder, Willie Mays-style interception for a touchdown in Sunday's playoff game. Pennington said afterward of Reed, "He totally leaves his spot and shows up in a place you would never imagine him being in."

It's a play that has inspired people to speak of Reed with the kind of reverence reserved for the likes of Dick "Night Train" Lane, Larry Wilson, Mel Blount, Jack Tatum, Rod Woodson and Ronnie Lott. As great as Ray Lewis is, he again has to share the marquee. As in 2000, when defense led the Ravens to the Super Bowl, once again Baltimore's defense is a dark-alley threat to everyone in the NFL playoffs. This time, Lewis has a tag-team partner in Reed.

The extraordinary safety was the only unanimous All-Pro selection, and he might have more influence on the postseason than any non-quarterback, not just because he led the NFL in interceptions this season, but because of his and the Ravens' ability to turn a pick into what amounts to a punt return for a touchdown. The pick-six Sunday against Miami was Reed's fourth touchdown this season. He now has 12 career touchdowns and is the only player in NFL history to score via interception, fumble recovery, punt return and blocked punt. He also has five interceptions in three career postseason games.

Dan Dierdorf, the CBS analyst and Hall of Fame lineman, told a reporter recently: "I don't know how he can have a bigger impact than what he is doing right now. He is one of the great safeties that has ever played the game. He certainly, in defending the pass, is reaching a level where not many guys have been there before. To me, the best safety I ever saw in my generation was Ronnie Lott, in terms of the way he played the run and was a pure hitter back there. But in terms of playing the ball when it is in the air, Ed Reed is as good as anybody I've ever seen."

Even at a time when Lewis is back to dominating from the linebacker position the way he did at the beginning of the decade, the conversation is bound to turn back to Reed. Why, more than any player in the game, is he around the ball so frequently? Is it freelancing? Or is it the result of preparation?

Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' general manager and a Hall of Fame tight end, said in a conversation this week: "Even when Ed guesses, it's based on a lot of information. He'll tell the cornerback, 'Cover my back on this.' He told Chris McAlister [before a recent interception], 'You cover the post; I'll jump the end.' It's based on intellect."

Newsome was thrilled in 2002 when he was able to draft Reed 24th overall but not as thrilled as he is now. Newsome, like everybody else when the subject of Reed is broached, is asked to make comparisons. "Ronnie Lott, Ken Houston, Rod Woodson. As great as those guys were, I don't know that they had the ball skills Ed has," Newsome said. "The Willie Mays catch he made Sunday -- there are a lot of receivers who can't make that play. He ran good for his position [entering the draft], but he absolutely has football-playing speed on Sundays."

Reed's teammate, linebacker Bart Scott, said Thursday: "Ed's revolutionized the position. You have certain guys who are big hitters -- like Jack Tatum and Ronnie Lott. But no one in the history of the position has ever been able to take interceptions and turn them into instant points like Ed Reed."

Trent Dilfer, quarterback of the Ravens' Super Bowl team (two years before Reed arrived), played against Reed and now analyzes him in his new role for ESPN. Dilfer calls him "the best game-changing safety we've seen in the passing era of pro football. He's a game-plan disrupter. He might only [disrupt] three or four times a game, but they're all crucial. Is he out of position some times? Yes. But he's out of position at all the right times, never when you try to get him out of position.

"He understands the pass game, the protection schemes as well as a quarterback. He's got a unique combination of being very, very well prepared and unmatched instincts. He's like the boy genius who sees it once and forever knows it. Look, Deion [Sanders], Rod Woodson were great. Darren Woodson was great. LeRoy Butler is one of the most underrated players in the secondary ever. I grew up [in Northern California] watching Ronnie Lott. Okay, Ed doesn't have the physicality of some of those guys. But in terms of game changers, you'd have to put up the best argument ever to convince me he's not at the top of that list."

The long returns aren't a coincidence and they aren't a matter of Reed simply picking his way through offensive players. The Ravens practice blocking for Reed and anybody else who comes up with a turnover, just as they practice the laterals that drive Newsome and the coaches crazy in the moment. Newsome said they still tell players not to lateral but realize it's a waste of time. Nobody is discouraging the returns, which are effective in part "because five, six guys on offense simply aren't accustomed to tackling," Newsome said. When Reed grabs a pick, the defensive players are in transition to offense almost immediately, like a basketball team after getting a rebound. And if the Ravens, with their mediocre offense, are going to win in Tennessee today, the defense is almost certainly going to have to produce one touchdown and set up another.

The Ravens are 8-0 when Reed has two interceptions in a game, which he's done in three straight games. Even more amazing is that he got off to a slow start this season, grabbing only one interception in his first 10 games, perhaps because he missed the entire preseason with a nerve impingement around his shoulder and neck that is even now causing him pain.

The notion that a totally healthy Reed could be in the midst of an even better season is something neither the league's quarterbacks nor all-time great defensive backs want to consider.

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