It's been an offseason of change for the Baltimore Ravens defense. They've lost both starters and depth in free agency, are dealing with a season-threatening Achilles' injury to star linebacker (and last year's Defensive Player of the Year) Terrell Suggs and safety Ed Reed is feeling disrespected because he hasn't been given a new contract.
That all sounds like a recipe for the Ravens' defense to have a down year in 2012, but I don't believe that will be the case. In fact, I'm convinced they'll have the top defensive unit in the AFC North yet again.
It's a bit of a back-and-forth battle between the Ravens' and Steelers' defenses in terms of which one is the best in the division. Last season, the two teams were practically in a dead heat.
The Steelers allowed the fewest passing yards per game, while the Ravens allowed the fourth-fewest. Baltimore allowed the second-fewest rushing yards per game while the Steelers came in eighth. And the Steelers allowed the fewest points in the entire season, with the Ravens coming in third.
Despite all the changes the Ravens defense has experienced—and the changes the Steelers haven't—the Ravens will still edge ahead of their rivals again this season.
Baltimore's pass rushing is better than Pittsburgh's, even without Suggs. We'll be seeing a lot more of defensive end Pernell McPhee and of course, the newly-drafted Courtney Upshaw, both of whom will handle the responsibility well. There's the ever-present Ray Lewis—he's a little worse for wear as he gets older, but he's still a better linebacker than many players younger than him.
The secondary was also more successful last year than Pittsburgh's and should remain that way this season, especially considering the Steelers lost cornerback William Gay during free agency. Last year, the Steelers' interception rate dropped, and they had just 11 on the season, compared to 15 for the Ravens.
Can the Ravens still field a top defense even with all their offseason losses?
The biggest strength the Ravens defense has is that it's practically a plug-and-play unit. The team knows how to select and develop defensive talent and every starter is well-versed in the system. Changes in personnel and coaching, therefore, don't have as much of a negative impact as they would for other teams.
Therefore the Ravens are well-equipped to handle the changes that have befallen their defense thus far. Everyone knows that the defense is held to a high standard and the chances for a drop-off this year are relatively slim because of this.
Defense may be going the way of the Pony Express in many divisions in the NFL, but that's not so in the AFC North. It's not as though the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns have defenses worthy of marginalizing; it's just that the Ravens' and Steelers' units command the most attention.
This year, all four teams' defenses will be impressive, but none more so than the Ravens. For the second straight season, they'll be the best unit in the division.