The Baltimore Ravens started the 2012 season without their best pass-rusher, 2011 Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs. Now, it looks like they'll be without two of their biggest defensive difference-makers for the remainder of the year.
Suggs, who tore his Achilles' tendon in the spring, may or may not make it back to the field later this season, and if he does, he'll be sorely needed.
Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb tore his left ACL in Sunday's win over the Dallas Cowboys, ending his season, and linebacker Ray Lewis, the undisputed leader of Baltimore's defense, is feared to have a season-ending triceps tear.
That means three of the Ravens' five best defenders are done, or mostly done, for the year. For a team whose identity has been shaped by defense and these three players in particular, being without them could doom its season.
However, that's a pretty dire prediction to make about a team that is currently holding a 5-1 record and first place in the AFC North.
No, this isn't the Ravens defense we've been used to—since 1999, they've ranked in the top 10 in at least one major defensive category—and things only project to get worse on that side of the ball without Lewis and Webb. But how much worse can things get considering how bad they were even with Lewis and Webb completely healthy?
Through six games, the Ravens have the 26th-ranked defense when it comes to yards per game (396.7), and they rank 26th against the run with 136.5 yards per game allowed on average and 23rd against the pass, with 260.2 yards allowed. They have just 10 sacks on the year, along with seven interceptions and five forced fumbles.
This is clearly not the intimidating, hard-hitting group it was just last year.
Suggs' injury played a part in this defensive drop-off, as did losing linebacker Jarret Johnson and defensive end Cory Redding in free agency. Both their abilities to rush the passer and stop the run suffered huge blows without these three players on the field in the past six games, and now it appears their yards allowed per game will only go up without Webb and Lewis.
The vast majority of Lewis' 453 snaps have been in pass coverage and run defense, with 190 in the former and 216 in the latter. He leads the team in tackles, with 38, and also has a sack and 20 defensive stops to his name.
However, he's actually proven to be a liability in pass coverage this year, and his run-stopping skills have dipped with every passing week. At 37 years old, he's on the wrong side of his peak years and has exponentially more value to his defense for his leadership skills than his on-field performance.
Lewis dropped weight this year to be a quicker pass defender, but this hasn't appeared to pay off. He's been targeted by opposing quarterbacks 21 times with receivers grabbing 15 of them—a 71.4 percent completion rate—and he has given up 195 yards and 100 yards after the catch.
With Paul Kruger, Albert McClellan and Courtney Upshaw handling duties at outside linebacker, Lewis' snaps will likely go to third-year player Dannell Ellerbe, who has played 248 total snaps so far this season. Like Lewis, his snaps are primarily spent in pass coverage and run defense (125 and 88, respectively), and also like Lewis, his coverage skills are suspect.
Ellerbe has been targeted by opposing quarterbacks 24 times, and he's given up 20 receptions for a total of 226 yards, 138 yards after the catch and one touchdown. Quarterbacks have a combined passer rating of 119.8 when throwing his way, and he's giving up 11.3 yards per reception.
So how do the Ravens minimize Ellerbe's weaknesses while also not having Webb in the secondary to take care of the deep ball? One way is simply giving the other linebackers more coverage assignments. Though Kruger and McClain have had just 34 and 84 snaps each in coverage, they both grade out positively, according to Pro Football Focus.
They'll likely need to move inside on certain plays to help out Ellerbe, which means the Ravens might have to go to a linebacker rotation rather than giving their players set positions. At the very least, the matchup problems this will present to opposing offenses provides Baltimore with a degree of unpredictability that ultimately works in its favor.
These injuries also mean that safety Bernard Pollard will be called upon to do even more. Pollard has had a strong season thus far, with 34 tackles, 12 defensive stops and a sack, and though receivers have caught nine of the 12 passes thrown in his direction, he's yet to give up a touchdown.
Expect more Pollard blitzes, more of him playing close to the line of scrimmage against the run and generally seeing him all over the field even more than we have thus far. He's now the de facto defensive leader with Suggs, Webb and Lewis not on the field, and he'll likely embrace this new role and continue playing at a high level, giving support to Ed Reed, Cary Williams and Jimmy Smith in the secondary as well as up front against the run and in pass-rushing situations.
But overcoming these defensive losses doesn't just rest on the remaining defenders—it also becomes the offense's responsibility.
Right now, the Ravens offense ranks ninth overall in average points per game, at 26.8; last year, with their defense performing at near-peak level, the offense had to do less, and it ranked 14th, at 23.2. They are 11th overall in average passing yards per game, at 272.7, despite averaging the 18th-most pass attempts, at 35.3, and they rank 14th in rushing yards per game, with 112.3, while running the ball a mere 23.8 times per game.
Going into the season, quarterback Joe Flacco and the rest of the Ravens offense knew more would be asked of them simply because the defense wouldn't be performing at its 2011 level. And now, with Webb and Lewis out, they'll need to work even harder.
One way the Ravens can mitigate their defensive losses is by controlling the clock on offense, which means running the ball more. Though Ray Rice is averaging five yards per carry, he's putting up an average of just 80.3 yards per game because he's getting around 16 carries per week.
Rice now must be treated like the true feature back he is and be handed the ball at least 20 to 25 times per game. Running the ball can eat clock, and it also helps the passing game by setting up play-action, something that Flacco is quite adept at, especially when receiver Torrey Smith can get deep in one-on-one coverage.
The longer Baltimore's offense can stay on the field, the less it will have to rely on its defense to control the game. The Ravens must add variety to their play-calling, focus more heavily on scoring points than ever before and become an offensively focused team rather than the defense-identified team of years past.
A team's true strength lies in its ability to adapt, and the Ravens have already had their evolutionary skills tested this season with Suggs' injury and Johnson and Redding's departures. They haven't fully stepped up to the task, but they have made enough adjustments to prove they aren't rigidly stuck in the past even when the situation changes.
Now, Baltimore must adapt on the fly to losing two of its top defenders. It's a test, but one the Ravens are equipped to handle considering the changes they've already been forced to make.
There are ways to not let these injuries harm their season, and they have no other choice but to try and put those solutions in place. Baltimore is, after all, a team rife with talent. There's no reason why it cannot find a way to limit the impact these injuries have on the remainder of their season.
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