Dec 11, 2011; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens defense including tackle Haloti Ngata (92) and linebacker Terrell Suggs (55) and defensive end Pernell McPhee (90) do a group cheer during the game against the Indianapolis Colts at M

The Hegel Hour: Will the Ravens Defense Be Better Than Last Year?

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A question that is frequently asked heading into training camps is: how will the Ravens new defense fare next season? The Ravens, for the first time in a decade, will be putting out a defense without the talents of Ed Reed and Ray Lewis. Losing two players that are the caliber of Ed Reed and Ray Lewis would be enough to send any team into disarray. The Ravens also lost talented pass-rushing outside linebacker Paul Kruger to AFC North rivals, The Cleveland Browns. They also lost to free agency the man that they expected to replace Ray Lewis when Dannell Ellerbe left for Miami. The Ravens cut ties with strong safety and resident hot head Bernard Pollard. An off season like this on defense would cripple most teams for years. Luckily for the Baltimore Ravens they’re not most teams and their front office is the best in football.

They key to this off season was not to replace the talent of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Those two are irreplaceable assets to the team. You have one of the greatest ball-hawking safeties to ever play the game and, I say this with pride, the greatest inside linebacker to ever play the game.  You cant replace what those two brought to the organization. That being said and as great as those two men were over the years for the Ravens, they were getting old and it was starting to show. As for the other men lost, I had high hopes for them if they resigned with the team. I think both have a lot of talent and they will be missed. But as Ravens fans learned this off season, you have to move on and you have to do it quickly.

The Ravens were not as good on defense last season as they have grown accustomed to being. They were ranked 17th overall on defense. They played better against the pass than they did the run. In the run game they were ranked 20th in the league allowing an average of 4.0 yards per attempt and they gave up over 100-yards rushing 9 times last season. Ravens fans are not used to seeing teams run the ball at all against out defense. I think part of that was due to poor line play, injuries, and the fact that our defense was getting up there in age.

Well, the Ravens addressed the defensive line during this off season. They brought in stout defensive tackles Chris Canty and Marcus Spears to help anchor that defensive line. With the addition of those two, plus Terrance Cody and third-round draft pick Brandon Williams the Ravens should have a lot of options moving forward here. Canty is a big upgrade from Ma’ake Kemoeatu who started most of the season at the defensive tackle position after winning the job from Terrance Cody. Hopefully this influx of new faces on defense can light a fire under Terrance Cody too. His play last year was not up to snub with what the Ravens expected of him after the 2011 season, he’s going to need to up his level of play again if he wants to become a regular fixture on the defensive line. Reports are saying that he has lost a bunch of weight heading into the mini camps. If this is true it is a good sign because it is showing that Cody has the dedication to becoming a better player.

The defensive end position has also gotten a bit of a revamp as well. Most likely we’ll see Haloti Ngata moving around on the defensive line, but I feel that in the past he’s been most effective while he has been on the end position. He’s great at shooting gaps inside, taking on double teams, and sealing the edge against the run, but we all know that. The biggest improvement to the defensive end/outside linebacker position is easily Elvis Dumervil. The Ravens managed to swoop in and grab Dumervil after a fax snafu in Denver resulted in the untimely release of the all-pro pass rusher. Obviously I really like this addition to the team, not just for the talent aspect, but we’re getting a better deal at the position that Kruger would have been playing. The Ravens signed Dumervil for 5 years @ $35 Million. Kruger’s deal with the browns came at a much steeper price when he signed a 5 year contract worth $42 million. So replacing Paul Kruger who, wasnt very productive until later in the season when Terrell Suggs came back. We get a prove all-pro pass-rusher. I’d say that’s a pretty good deal. I’d also like to point out, not that many of you need this pointed out, but the Ravens defense was without two defensive player’s of the year for most of the season. Terrell Suggs was out for the first 6 games of the season, and Ray Lewis missed the last 10 games of the season leading up to the playoffs. Ngata was also playing some of the season with injury as well.

The Ravens are going to be starting the season, barring any major injuries during the pre-season, with three all-pro players who like to get after the quarterback. I think that it is safe to say that any offensive line is going to have their hands full trying to block Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs, and Elvis Dumervil. Another great addition to the team, I think, is going to be John Simon. I could very well see him working his way into a starting position as the weak-side defensive end. The Ravens could move Dumervil into the other outside linebacker position opposite Terrell Suggs.

The linebackers, particularly the inside linebacker position, was one that raised a lot of speculation. The Ravens needed someone to replace Ray Lewis. Let’s face it, no one is going to replace what Ray Lewis meant to the team. Replacing his production however might be a bit easier. Ray Lewis was definitely showing signs of age last season, while he could still make tackles in between the tackles, his use in coverage was somewhat lacking and teams with better tight ends often tried to pick on Ray Lewis and the couple of steps that he had lost. That being said he did have 57  tackles in 6 games for the Ravens during the regular season (44 of them were solo tackles). Pretty good numbers overall, but I think that the Ravens can meet those numbers with other players. They signed Rolando McClain, a man 14 years Ray Lewis’ junior. He has a troubled past, and didnt help ease the worries of Ravens fans when just nine days after he was released from the Raiders and signed a contract with the Ravens, he was arrested for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. If he does make the team he is still a good line backer and can put up numbers that could rival what Ray Lewis was putting up toward the end of his career. He is young and has a lot of room to grow if he can keep his nose clean. He was a former first round pick for the Raiders and there was a l0t of pressure on him to become a franchise line backer there. I think that he can find a good spot here on the Raven’s roster where there is not as much pressure on him to preform. He can just get back to playing football. That being said the Ravens have also added some insurance through the draft. They do play a 3-4 defense mostly, so the need for two inside linebackers is a must. The Ravens also addressed this need by drafting a phenomenal linebacker in the second round, Arthur Brown. The Ravens also have Jameel McClain coming off of an injury. He knows the system because he’s been in it for years now. If he’s healthy he could also contribute to the Raven’s defense in a positive way. Let us not forget Courtney Upshaw either. Upshaw had a pretty good rookie season with the Ravens and has a lot of versatility. I could definitely see him being moved inside and a good 4-man rotation of Upshaw, McClain, McClain, and Brown producing well. Upshaw is also a good pass-rusher and I could see him filling in and getting some playing time at the outside position. Also not mentioned in the defensive linemen discussion was Pernell McPhee. No, I didnt forget him. The Ravens have expressed interest at moving him to outside linebacker to see if he can play there. McPhee is a very talented player and can play at multiple positions on the field. Its not set in stone, so if he doesnt work out he could very well fight right back into the rotation on the defensive line, but I’m definitely interested to see how McPhee handles the transition.

The Raven’s secondary is also one with a lot of holes. The Ravens went out and replaced Ed Reed with Michael Huff. Huff, like McClain, was also cut from the Raider’s roster this off season to free cap space. Huff is a solid coverage safety that will probably give the same amount of production as Ed Reed would have given anyway. While he doesnt have nearly the career numbers that Reed does, I think that at this point in Ed Reed’s career he and Huff are playing at about the same level defensively. Lets look at the numbers:

Ed Reed last season – started 16 games,  58 tackles, 4 INTs, 16 PDs, 1 TD

Michael Huff last season – started 16 games, 56 tackles, 2 INTs, 13 PDs, 0 TD.

Both guys are putting up similar numbers at this point in their respective careers. If we’re just looking at numbers, then Huff is a good fit for the team. His instincts are nowhere near as sharp as Ed Reed’s. That cant be replaced. Huff is a solid player who is versatile because he can play coverage as a safety, he can play bump and run as a corner (which he likes to do) and he can even line up in the slot and cover some of the bigger tight ends in the league. I think for the money we’re paying Huff, 3 years @ $6 million we’re getting a really good value. Reed is set to make $15 million over the same time frame as Huff. Another stat I would like to point out is that last season Ed Reed missed 21 tackles in the open field. Huff in the last 3 seasons combined has only missed 18 tackles in the open field. I’ve liked Huff ever since he came out of college because he knows how to wrap up and tackle. This will definitely help the Ravens in their run defense if the ball carrier can make it past our very stout, very tough front 7. The Ravens also managed to draft safety Matt Elam in the first round to replace Bernard Pollard. Elam is an All-SEC guy and plays the game much like Pollard. He loves playing man-on-man and delivering big hits to receivers coming over the middle. While covering the draft I actually saw him compared numerous times to former Colts safety Bob Sanders. As most of you may know Bob Sanders was a VERY promising safety in the league who could never quite get over the injury bug that affected his whole career. If Elam can stay healthy and live up to that comparison, I think the Ravens struck gold with pick #32. Also in the secondary we still have Ladarius Webb. He’s coming off quite a gruesome injury, but all signs are pointing to a very smooth recovery. The next starting CB is probably going to be another first round pick from a couple of years ago, Jimmy Smith. I could see Graham starting on the other side. He is a very good player who could continue to develop into something special. But I would really like to see Smith finally rise to the occasion and become the corner back the Ravens expected him to become when they drafted him.

After taking a full look at the Ravens defense, I am very comfortable saying that I expect them to be a top-10 defense again this year. Obviously I could be bold and say that they are going to be a top-5 or even top-3 defense, but there are too many question marks that still need to be answered. Despite the fact that they are without two future hall of fame defensemen on their roster, I actually think that the Ravens are going to be better off. They’re younger and faster on defense. While the experience isnt going to be there, I feel that the Ravens also have more than capable players that will step into the leadership void left by Reed and Lewis.  There is a lot of potential on the defensive side of the ball and with the coaching staff that the Ravens have on defense I’m sure that we could see a lot of talent developed this season and a great Raven’s defense put out there. Something that the fans are used to seeing.

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Tags: Baltimore Ravens Defense Haloti Ngata Terrell Suggs

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