Terrell Suggs' surprising comeback could be the difference between success and failure for the Ravens defense.
The Baltimore Ravens have been kicking themselves for months.
They had a Super Bowl appearance in their grasp last season until Lee Evans dropped a perfect throw in the corner of the end zone and Billy Cundiff infamously missed the subsequent field goal to send the Patriots to the big game.
The Ravens are fortunate though—despite the crushing loss, there is so much talent and discipline in the organization that a bounce back season has been in the making since Week 1. Baltimore is 8-2, leading the Steelers by two games in the AFC North, and occupies the second seed in the conference.
Things have been different for the 2012 Ravens, though.
A team that has been one of the NFL's best on defense for the last decade has suddenly fallen to 25th in the league and can't stop the run to save its life. Remember when it was impossible to run for 100 yards in a game against the Ravens?
Now Baltimore allows 132 per game.
A combination of factors has led to this decline. First, injuries have decimated the secondary. Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb, the two corners, are out (Webb is on IR), while Ed Reed hasn't been fully healthy also. And in the linebacking corps, Ray Lewis has been out, and Terrell Suggs is still on the comeback path.
The other factor is age.
The Ravens defense has simply gotten older. Lewis and Reed weren't going to be great forever, and the legends on that side of the ball have fallen victim to Father Time.
There's still plenty of potential, though, and if the Ravens want to make another run to the Super Bowl, it hinges on the ability of the defense to step up and make a difference.
It could be the defense that determines whether or not this team wins its first Super Bowl since its magical 2000 season.
Ray Lewis might be back in time for the playoffs and would give the Ravens a huge boost against the run.
It doesn't matter how good a team is at throwing the football—when January rolls around, the weather becomes unpredictable, and running the ball will inevitably play a part in whether or not a team scores enough points to win.
To that end, the Ravens are facing a huge problem that needs to be fixed before the playoffs arrive.
Baltimore currently ranks 27th in the league against the run. That would make Baltimore the worst run defense out of the teams that would make the playoffs if the season ended today—by far.
It's difficult to watch because this has been arguably one of the best defenses against the run in league history over the last several seasons. But times change, and the Ravens must adjust.
The linebacking corps is weak (and it's painful to say, but it's not that much better with Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs) and the defensive line has taken a step back.
To win in January, the notoriously violent Ravens defense must rediscover its attitude. It can't play soft against the Arian Fosters of the world.
If that happens, the Ravens will be all but finished.
Joe Flacco has had a stellar start to his NFL career, but his inconsistency on the road means the defense will have to cover for him if the Ravens have to go to Houston.
It has been common for people to say that the defense no longer carries the Ravens. This is true, but that doesn't necessarily mean the offense carries them.
In fact, there are times that the Ravens look utterly hopeless on offense.
This falls into Joe Flacco's hands. Flacco has more wins and playoff appearances at this point in his career than any other quarterback in NFL history, but he has been the beneficiary of playing on some pretty good teams.
And while he's a stud at home, he leaves a lot to be desired on the road.
In his career, Flacco has a 92.9 quarterback rating at M&T Bank Stadium but a 79.9 rating everywhere else.
This has been an even bigger issue in 2012. Flacco is literally a different player on the road. His rating at home is 108.3, but it's a dismal 65.2 on the road. That's a difference of 43.1 points.
No matter what your opinion of the quarterback rating formula is, there's no arguing that that's simply unacceptable.
Chances are, the Ravens will have to travel to either Denver or Houston, or maybe even New England in the playoffs. It seems inevitable that Flacco will struggle if that is the case, and the defense will have to step up in a big way.
The only way to offset his struggles would be to prevent the other team from scoring, and the veterans on the defensive side of the ball will have to give their all to prevent a letdown.
If the Ravens can't pressure the likes of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, they can't hope to make a Super Bowl run.
No matter how you slice it, the other teams in the AFC playoff picture are better on offense than the Ravens, and they have the quarterbacks to prove it. The Texans' Matt Schaub rarely loses when he's healthy, Tom Brady is always excellent and Peyton Manning is having one of the best seasons of his career.
The Ravens haven't done a very good job of getting consistent pressure on opposing passers in 2012, and if they hope to win in the playoffs, they'll have to find a way.
If they don't, they'll be shredded by some of the league's best passers.
There was a time when Baltimore could make life miserable for quarterbacks in its sleep. Those days are gone. Even when it played well against Tom Brady in the playoffs last season, he made it seem like the game was never out of reach.
If the Ravens want to make a run in the playoffs, they must find a way to make it a tough-go for the elite quarterbacks in the AFC.
Joe Flacco is good, but he's not in the same league as the guys he'll be playing against. That's why it's up to Haloti Ngata and the front seven of Baltimore to pressure the quarterback and force turnovers.
It may be the Ravens' only hope.
Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will always make the game a close one. Forcing them into one critical mistake could be the difference between getting to the Super Bowl or finishing as a footnote.
Ray Rice and the Ravens offense have endured a very disappointing season.
The old saying is that defense wins championships, but the script has been flipped.
Offense has never been more important, and that could spell doom for the Ravens.
Baltimore has plenty of talent on offense but it has only added up to ranking 21st in the league in yards per game. The Ravens score over 27 points per contest but that's because of superb special teams and timely turnovers.
The defense will have to force loads of turnovers in the playoffs if the Ravens hope to win, because they certainly can't depend on their offense.
Running back Ray Rice has been a general disappointment, and the only legitimate threat on the outside is Torrey Smith, who can disappear for stretches.
The Ravens, despite what is said, just don't have the talent to win a shootout.
That's why it's paramount for the defense to step up and play like it did last week in Pittsburgh. Given it was Byron Leftwich at quarterback, but that doesn't take away from the performance. If Baltimore can be as physical as it was in that game against the Steelers, the Ravens will have a chance.
The offenses they'll face in the playoffs depend on finesse, and the best way to combat that is with brutal physicality.
It won't be easy, but there are few defenses in the league who have the potential to make a turnaround like the Ravens.