Baltimore Ravens: Why Fans Should Not Fret About Team's Poor Pass Defense

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Baltimore Ravens: Why Fans Should Not Fret About Team's Poor Pass Defense
Rob Carr/Getty Images
Paul Kruger celebrates his sack versus the Browns.

Through the first four weeks of the new 2012 NFL football season, the Baltimore Ravens are 3-1.

They have played a rigorous schedule of four games in 17 days, including three on national television.

The Ravens offense is off to a blistering pace, ignited by the stellar play of quarterback Joe Flacco. Given the Ravens' tradition of stagnant offensive play, Flacco's performance thus far this season is not something that people of Baltimore are used to seeing.

As for the more illustrious Ravens tradition—that of a stifling defense—there's concern that the unit is aging and in decline.

The run defense has been its usual solid self—although ranked 11th in the NFL, fans wouldn't think so. The only one bad performance was in Week 1, when BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran over them (a moot since the Ravens won the game, 44-13).

The area that needs improving on is obviously the pass defense. Tasked with playing one of the toughest schedules in the league this year—a slate that includes lot of top quarterbacks in the NFL—the Ravens knew they were up against it. After four weeks, the pass defense ranks 29th in the NFL and has Baltimore fans wringing their hands over the rest of the season.

But I'm here to tell you why there is no cause for panic about the Ravens' struggles so far. Many factors have accounted for the Ravens' slow start in terms of defending passes this season.

First off, the Ravens faced the Bengals, Eagles, Patriots and Browns in the first four weeks. Three of those teams have very good, and elite offenses with big-time playmakers. Any team would be hard pressed to contain the weapons these offenses rolled out.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Terrell Suggs in Week 1 against the Bengals, telling fans six weeks till he returns.

The most criticized aspect of the pass defense has been the play of cornerbacks not named Lardarius Webb. Cary Williams, who was a very good corner last season, struggled in training camp and in the preseason. He has continued his struggles through the first three weeks of the season. Williams seems to give opponent receivers too much space and always has his back to the quarterback when the ball arrives.

The team's first-round draft pick in 2011, Jimmy Smith, also has been average at best. Smith doesn't seem to like jamming receivers at the line—odd for a cornerback with the wingspan that he possesses.

Although Cleveland's Brandon Weeden threw for over 300 yards against them, the Ravens corners played better. Williams got his first career interception, which he returned for a touchdown. Still, the play of Baltimore's zone coverage against the Browns left a lot to be desired. The middle of the field always seemed to be open for the Browns, as Weeden was happy to play pitch-and-catch with his receivers on intermediate routes all night.

Even as porous as the pass coverage has been this year, the Ravens' lack of a pass rush overshadows everything.

We all know that the NFL's reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Terrell Suggs, injured his Achilles in the offseason and has been sidelined for the first six games of the season. He is eligible to return Week 7 in Houston against the Houston Texans.

Many questioned how big of an impact Suggs' absence would have on the Ravens defense; the answer is huge. Without blitzing safeties or corners, the Ravens have barely been able to mount any sort of a pass rush this season. Of course, when they blitz their safeties or corners, that leaves more man-on-man coverage and open holes within the secondary, which teams have exploited.

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However, with the return of Terrell Suggs, I believe the Ravens defense will fall in line.

Suggs' loss has been significant, but so has the loss of other key defensive players. Coming into training camp, the Ravens were already without Corey Redding and Tom Zbikowski, who signed with the Indianapolis Colts, joining former Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano. They also lost Jarret Johnson to the San Diego Chargers and Haruki Nakamura to the Carolina Panthers.

The losses of Zbikowski and Haruki were especially big because—aside from starters Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard—the Ravens have no proven depth at safety. The loss of Redding hurt, but Terrence Cody, Pernell McPhee and Arthur Jones have slid in nicely.

The Ravens dearly miss Johnson, who was a key run-stopper and coverage guy in his eight years in Baltimore. The Ravens have tried replacing him with Paul Kruger and 2012 first-round draft Courtney Upshaw, but neither have impressed. Kruger has 1.5 sacks on the year to go along with seven tackles, and Upshaw has a half-sack and 17 tackles.

The Ravens' struggles can be characterized as that of young players failing to meet huge expectations as they assumed control of key positions. While Kruger has more experience than Upshaw, he never was an every-down linebacker. Moreover, Kruger depended on the presence of other defensive stalwarts to free him up to make plays; with some of those players gone, Kruger has struggled.

Upshaw is still a rookie, and although his first four games have been disappointing, he will get much better. I believe he has a very high ceiling.

 

The return of Terrell Suggs will free up opportunities for other players to get pressure on the quarterback. Suggs might start slowly after he returns, but teams are still going to have to account for him. When Suggs gets to full strength, the opposing teams better watch out.

Upon Suggs' return, expect Kruger and Upshaw to get better as the year progresses, as well Williams and Smith. His performance against the Browns could prove to be the springboard that Carey Williams needed to elevate his game. Williams was jamming Cleveland receivers, and covering well all night, albeit getting burned on one 40-yard pass down the field. His increased play should put pressure on Jimmy Smith to respond and become the player the Ravens expected him to be when they drafted him in the first round in 2011. 

The Ravens' tough schedule does not get easier at all throughout the season, especially after Suggs gets back. But if the Ravens want their pass defense to improve, they need Terrell Suggs back to help increase pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The lack of a pass rush has allowed opposing quarterbacks to sit back comfortably and pick apart the Ravens secondary. As good as Lardarius Webb and Ed Reed are, they unfortunately cannot cover the whole field by themselves, and All-Pro Haloti Ngata can only break so many double- and triple-teams to get pressure.

Once the Ravens are able to sustain a consistent pass rush, they will force quarterbacks into making mistakes, throwing the ball away and taking sacks. We should see passing yardage by opposing offenses go down.

There is no reason to fret, Ravens fans. If it was Week 10 sitting around .500 and the pass defense was still ranked 29th, then you would have some cause for concern. But the Ravens are 3-1 going into a game they should win, and their offense has been more than up to the task in picking up the slack for the defense.

The sacks, the turnovers, the defense getting better...it will all come. We just have to be patient. Wait for their best pass-rusher to come back and cause havoc like he did last year, and you will begin to see everything fall into place. 

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