What made Reed so incredible was just how damn long he was on top of his game. In 11 seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, Reed only missed 16 games and had a whopping 61 interceptions. Even toward the end of his career, he was still one of the league’s most feared defenders.
One game that encapsulates that was the Ravens’ opening week victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2011. On his 33rd birthday, Reed went off, collecting six tackles, one tackle for loss, four passes defended, and two interceptions.
It was a quintessential Ed Reed game — one that reminds you why he’s considered one of the GOATs at his position.
There were four plays in particular that showed off the traits that made him a game-changing menace of a safety.
Recognition against the run: Reed’s tackle for loss vs. Rashard Mendenhall
It’s a tired football cliche, but Reed had a “nose for the football.” Only a handful of players in the history of the game shared his ability to diagnose plays and end them before they went off for big gains.
This tackle for loss against Rashard Mendenhall is a prime example. Reed was playing as the overhang defender on the left side of the field. Once he recognized that Pittsburgh was running to the left, he made a beeline toward the ballcarrier.
Mendenhall bounced the ball outside, where Reed was waiting to cut him down for a tackle in the backfield.
Here’s the end zone view of that play. Even in the waning years of his career, Reed was utterly fearless as a tackler. Mendenhall wasn’t a small running back either — he was listed at 225 pounds compared to Reed’s 205.
Reed’s ability as a run defender was top notch, but it was his work as a pass-defending savant that cemented him as a legend.
Stopping power as a pass defender: Reed’s breakup vs. Hines Ward
Reed wasn’t afraid to lay the wood in the passing game either.
The Ravens were running a fire zone on this play. They rushed five defenders with three defenders playing deep and three roaming the middle of the field. Reed’s job on this play was to cover the flat and stop anyone in that area from gaining yards after that catch.
Well, he did a lot more than that.
Hines Ward was running a quick route to the flat in hopes of picking up a first down — all he needed was two measly yards to get that done. At the snap of the ball, Ward looked like he was open. By the time Ben Roethlisberger threw the ball, there was still about five yards of separation between Ward and Reed.
It took Reed less than a second to figure out where the ball was going before he exploded toward Ward and crushed him at the point of the catch, breaking up the pass.
Here’s the other angle of Reed’s hit. It took him no time to find Ward and create the kind of big hit that became expected when the Ravens and the Steelers shared the field.
Reed put a bow on this performance by intercepting two passes in the second half, sealing a 35-7 beatdown for the Ravens.
Breaking broken plays: Reed’s first interception vs. Big Ben
Both of Reed’s interceptions came on broken plays.
On the first one, the Steelers were running a play action pass from an under center empty formation — which is something that doesn’t really exist in today’s version of the NFL.
Haloti Ngata generated instant pressure due to a miscommunication by the Steelers offensive line, flushing Roethlisberger outside of the pocket. Roethlisberger rolled out to his right and floated a pass across his body back to the middle of the field, where you-know-who was waiting to make a play.
Roethlisberger is one of the great improvisational talents we’ve seen in the NFL, but he wasn’t about to pull a fast one on the best improvisator of the 21st century.
Freelancing awareness: Reed’s second interception
Once again, the Ravens generated pressure that forced Roethlisberger to play out of structure.
The Ravens were sitting back with two high safeties, clearly waiting for a pass. Reed started off on the right hash, but followed Roethlisberger as he ran out of the pocket to his left. Roethlisberger lofted an inaccurate pass away from his body and Reed was waiting to pick off the pass and close the door on the game.
Reed wasn’t even supposed to be there. The zone that he was supposed to occupy was on the opposite side of the field — but no one executed freelancing better than Ed Reed. He trusted his gut, followed Big Ben, and made him pay.
Even at 33 years old, Ed Reed was still making his presence all over the field. We’ll never see another player like Reed — this performance against the Steelers epitomizes everything that made him a once-in-a-lifetime type of player.