Change is supposed to be a good thing, but it may be hard to convince fans in Baltimore that a minor overhaul of a storied and respected defense will end up helping their football team.
Despite a familiar chorus of criticism directed at the offense, most of the Ravens’ moves this offseason have involved the defense. Unfortunately, not all of the changes were entirely voluntary.
Defensive coordinator Rex Ryan has found a new home, this time in New York as a head coach. Under Ryan, the Ravens defense never finished worse than sixth in the league in yards allowed, and they also consistently ranked near the top of the league in rushing yards allowed as well as turnovers.
And it is not just Ryan who’s gone. He took with him star linebacker Bart Scott and safety Jim Leonhard, who filled in for the injured Dawan Landry for nearly the entire 2008 season.
Top it all off with the fact that three-time Pro Bowl selection Chris McAlister, the team’s lockdown cornerback for the last nine seasons, is gone as well.
For the Ravens, the combination of coordinator and player changes will lead to some pretty glaring differences on the field. Given the team’s depth and breadth of defensive talent, however, you can be sure that Baltimore will again be ranked among the league’s best defenses.
The most significant change resulting from this transition will come in response to the loss of Scott.
In Rex Ryan’s signature “organized chaos” schemes, the Ravens typically ran out of a 3-4 set, with occasional dips into a 46. The ability to shift between the two sets was made easy by the Ravens' depth of talent at defensive end and linebacker; in particular, Pro Bowler Terrell Suggs could line up as an end to anchor a 46, allowing Bart Scott to become the team’s strong side linebacker, or he could stay on his feet and work as an outsider linebacker in a 3-4.
The loss of Scott, however, makes the slide to a 3-4 more difficult for the Ravens, who are now lacking an experienced inside linebacker to play alongside Ray Lewis. Combine this difficulty with the introduction of new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, and the entire defensive playbook is in for a rewrite.
Mattison is an old-fashioned kind of defensive coach. His primary focus is on the line of scrimmage, where his defensive line sets the tone. Mattison’s primary goal is to stop the run, which should fit in well with a Ravens’ unit that prides itself on shutting opposing running backs down.
Early indications are that Mattison is going to shift the Ravens to a 4-3 base defense, with a solid linebacking corps of Lewis, Suggs, and Jarrett Johnson behind a bulky defensive line. Suggs will still see lots of time on the line of scrimmage, though, especially with the Ravens' depth at linebacker and relative lack of pass rushers up front.
The Ravens have a lot of youthful talent at 'backer, including the likes of Antwaan Barnes, Jameel McClain, and Tavares Gooden, not to mention rookie end/linebacker Paul Kruger.
On the defensive line, however, the Ravens have just one established pass-rushing threat in the form of veteran Trevor Pryce. The addition of Kruger will certainly ease some of Pryce’s load, but Suggs will certainly have his chances as well.
Given the depth of the Ravens linebacking corps, a shift from a 3-4 may seem unnecessary. But amidst all the youth, only Gooden has experience playing inside linebacker, and never in a 3-4. The unit would rather have Ray Lewis patrolling the middle of the field with a defensive front eating blockers than risk putting an inexperienced linebacker in his way.
To further help Mattison and this adjustment, the team has used the off months to focus on acquiring speed in the secondary. With the addition of Dominique Foxworth and Chris Carr, the team now has one of the fastest defensive backfields in the league; Fabian Washington and Foxworth may well be the game’s two fastest corners.
The hope is that faster corners can play closer to the line and hold their coverage longer, giving the restructured front seven a little more time to find the quarterback. The formula is simple: Better coverage downfield plus an improved pass rush should lead to more pressure, even after losing Bart.
While the names and faces may be changing slightly, and the schemes in the playbook may be changing a lot, fans should still expect great things from the Ravens defense in 2009. The unit’s goals remain the same: stop the rush, pressure the pass, and force big turnovers.