Will The Ravens' 2013 Defense Be Better? Who Will Lead It?Posted on July 11, 2013
By Joe Platania
It's usually not a problem for professional athletes to look themselves in the mirror and confront shortcomings, as well as those of their teams. If they want to be part of a successful operation, they will occasionally do that in order to try to better themselves and their squads.
But to answer this next question, Baltimore football fans must look themselves in the reflecting pool and admit what could be a painful truth.
Of the last six Super Bowl champions, which team had the best defense?
The answer to that question is the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers, a team that not only ranked first overall and first in pass defense while placing second against the run, but also beat the Ravens three times on its way to the AFC North division title, the conference championship and a win during Super Bowl XLIII, the franchise's NFL-record sixth Vince Lombardi Trophy.
That Steelers team tied a league record, which the 1973 Los Angeles Rams originally set, by holding 14 consecutive regular-season opponents to less than 300 yards of total offense. Not only that, they did it by playing a difficult schedule -- their opponents won nearly 60 percent of their games in 2007 -- and featured the first undrafted player to win the Defensive Player of the Year award in former Ravens linebacker James Harrison.
But even though the NFL's modern-day transition toward a more passing-oriented league had already started to bring down overall defensive numbers before then, it didn't often affect which teams would rise to the top when February came around.
But since Pittsburgh took home its most recent championship, three of the four Super Bowl winners from 2009-12 have ranked in the bottom half of the league in both total and pass defense, and all four were 18th or lower against the run.
It's a group that includes the 2012 Ravens, who ranked 17th in total and pass defense and 20th against the run. That marked only the fifth time in team history and first time since 2002 that it fell outside the top 10.
The Ravens' Super Bowl XXXV-winning team fielded one of the best single-season defenses in NFL history, allowing 165 points (an NFL record low for a 16-game season), 33 fewer than the 1985 Chicago Bears, and posting four total shutouts, the same number as Chicago. Not only that, it is the only squad in league history to allow less than 1,000 total rushing yards.
How times have changed. The usual bromide was that offense wins games, but defense wins championships. These days, offenses can -- and have -- done both.
But in Baltimore, defense still has a place in the hearts of the fans, not to mention in the minds of the front office, which had a rebuilding job to do this offseason in the wake of retirements, releases and free-agent defections.
The key questions are these: Can this year's defense be good enough to help bring the team to MetLife Stadium Feb. 2, 2014? In the absence of retired linebacker Ray Lewis, who will lead it? Does anybody even need to?
Personnel And Scheme
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the 2012 Ravens now hold the record for losing the most starters after having won the Super Bowl (nine). Six of them were on defense, and all three levels were affected.
Nose tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu's contract expired; he had not signed with a new team as of July 8. Lewis retired. Inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe signed a free-agent deal with the Miami Dolphins. Cornerback Cary Williams bolted for Philadelphia. The Ravens released safety Bernard Pollard, who then signed with Tennessee. Future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed is now a Houston Texan.
But there had been problems during the season as well.
There were 23 different players who started at least one game on defense in 2012, with only Reed and Williams starting every regular-season contest. Four players had to make their first-career starts in a pinch: defensive end DeAngelo Tyson, cornerback Chykie Brown, and linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Josh Bynes. By contrast, the '08 Steelers did not need a single defensive rookie to start a game that year.
But after the Ravens' usual initial lull took place at the start of the free-agent signing period, the team went to work.
Baltimore drafted safety Matt Elam, inside linebacker Arthur Brown and nose tackle Brandon Williams to inject youth and athleticism at all three levels. It added defensive linemen Chris Canty and Marcus Spears, inside linebacker Daryl Smith -- the Jacksonville Jaguars' all-time leading tackler -- as well as ex-Oakland safety Michael Huff and former Denver pass-rush artist Elvis Dumervil during free agency.
Looking to play larger roles this year and possibly earn a few more starts are cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Corey Graham, as well as Upshaw.
Coming out of the sick bay with injuries presumed to have healed will be defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, cornerback Lardarius Webb (knee) and inside linebacker Jameel McClain (back). During spring practices, Webb appeared to be the healthiest of the three, and even the rookie Brown seemed active for someone who had undergone sports hernia surgery.
Speaking of surgery, that's quite a lot to do to one roster. But, as usual, head coach John Harbaugh found a way to take the bold print out of the headline.
"I feel like we have had this situation every year," Harbaugh said. "If you counted the numbers, we have always been in situations where we had to replace a lot of guys. It probably gets a little more attention because of who those guys are. I don't know, [former Ravens tight end] Todd Heap was a pretty big name and [so was former Ravens wide receiver] Derrick Mason. [Former Ravens defensive end] Cory Redding was a very valuable part. The list goes on.
"But, when you are talking about two first-ballot Hall of Famers [in Lewis and Reed], that does have an impact. This is the first time we've had to deal with that, so it has been a little bit different."
The Ravens have also added more sideline brainpower the last few years, promoting linebackers coach Dean Pees to defensive coordinator and this year acquiring senior assistant and former St. Louis head coach Steve Spagnuolo -- a former Philadelphia colleague of Harbaugh's -- to the coaching staff to mix and match the new young, speedy additions into the team's basic 3-4 scheme, which is not likely to change.
"It's a mixture of a lot of big, athletic guys," Spagnuolo said. "There's not a guy in that group that you look out there and you say, 'That guy is out of place.' That's a compliment to the personnel staff, Ozzie [Newsome] and his staff drafting and getting people in here.
"John, I think, said this to the team or maybe to just the rookies, but there isn't a guy out there who is not impressive to us. Now, you can only keep 53, but I think that goes right back to the people in this building and bringing all these players on board. That's key. That's key in this business. It really is."
Who Shall Lead Them?
For some, leadership is a concept that borders on overrated. After all, football is the ultimate team sport, with each team having 11 players on the field at the same time, more than the number playing for each side in MLB, the NHL or the NBA.
The 2008 Steelers may have had the league's best defensive player in Harrison, but safety Troy Polamalu is often put in the same breath as Reed as far as future Hall of Famers are concerned, and linebacker LaMarr Woodley was one of the NFL's best at his position at the time. The record-setting 2000 Ravens had many outstanding players, but Lewis is acknowledged as being that team's heart, even though it was only his fifth NFL season.
So it can work both ways for a defense, a unit whose innate aggressiveness lends itself to loud, motivating, fire-and-brimstone speeches that take place in the locker room, on the sidelines and on the field. Defenders can all focus on one singular voice, or they can be centered around the huddle, where the voices of all become one.
Some have opined that the leadership mantle has actually passed to the offensive side of the ball, in the person of quarterback Joe Flacco. Given Flacco's improved play the last couple of years, he is a candidate to lead by example, but can he deliver the intensity -- not to mention the decibels -- of Lewis?
Entering his 11th season, linebacker Terrell Suggs -- a talker without peer, on the field and off -- could be the one to assume the leadership role, but even he admitted that it could take more than a solo effort.
"We're a very unique locker room," Suggs said. "I think everyone knows their positions and their place. I don't think there's any pressure on any one man to do it. We have all been around here long enough to know what needs to be done, and if something needs to be said, who is appropriate to address something.
"We are a veteran team. There are a lot of guys in this locker room who are going to have to do some stepping up, not just me."
With Suggs and Dumervil on the same team, the Ravens now have two of the leading active sack artists in the league. McClain has worn the green dot helmet before when Lewis was injured, giving him control of sideline conversations through a radio transmitter.
At one point, Ngata was voted one of the 10 best players in the entire league, regardless of position. Daryl Smith served as a beacon of hope for a Jaguars franchise that has slipped from its former lofty position. Graham earned a bit of locker-room gravitas by virtue of his outstanding postseason play, and Webb was regarded as one of the league's five best cornerbacks before his injury during Week Six of the 2012 season.
So, who is the new leader? Does there need to be one? Even the soft-spoken Ngata said he didn't think the concept was overrated.
"It's real important," he said. "You don't just want to be somebody else or try to be someone else. You just are never going to be the player you are going to be. It's real important. Suggs is definitely one of those players that is his own player, is his own character and is fun. It's fun to play with him. He makes a lot of people better."
Whoever the leader turns out to be, he will have to make the Ravens defenders look hard in the mirror.
Because it is there they will see the only people that can make them as good as they want to be ... for that matter, as good as they almost always have been.
Issue 187: July 2013