Last season, one of the more disappointing aspects of the Baltimore Ravens' game was their lack of a pass rush. The Ravens ranked 15th in sacks, with 37, and linebacker Paul Kruger lead the way with a mere nine.
The reason for this was simple: The Ravens missed Terrell Suggs. The 2011 Defensive Player of the Year suffered a partially-torn Achilles tendon in the 2012 offseason that kept him on the sidelines until Week 7, and a biceps tear in December again limited his effectiveness.
The question was whether Suggs would ever return to his dominant form. The Ravens boosted their pass rush when Kruger left in free agency by signing Elvis Dumervil, but all eyes were still on Suggs.
After letting so many defensive veterans go—Ray Lewis retired, Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard moved on to other teams, Kruger joined the Cleveland Browns and Dannell Ellerbe went to the Miami Dolphins—Suggs was tapped to be the leader of the defense. However, he couldn't pull this off without production on the field.
Though the Ravens rank 14th in total defense presently, giving up 335.4 yards per game, their pass rush is back to what it used to be. With 19 sacks on the season, the Ravens have the second-highest total in the league, behind the Kansas City Chiefs with 21. And a healthy Suggs is the reason why—he's accounted for seven of Baltimore's 19 sacks, up from just two on the year in 2012.
Seven sacks in four games means Suggs in on pace to shatter his 14 sack total from his award-winning 2011 season. There's little doubt Suggs has managed a return to form—even defensive coordinator Dean Pees thinks Suggs is having a standout season.
Ravens DC Dean Pees on Terrell Suggs: "I'd say he's at the top of his game right now and playing as well as I've ever seen him"— Matt Zenitz (@mzenitz) October 10, 2013
Though pressure is generally more successful on third downs, Suggs is actually more dangerous on first and second downs. That's where the Ravens struggled to get sacks in 2012 while Suggs wasn't healthy.
In 2011, the Ravens had a combined 21 sacks on first and second downs, with Suggs responsible for nine of them. In 2012, the Ravens had 18 sacks on first and second downs, and only two were Suggs'. This year, the Ravens have 11 sacks on first and second downs, and Suggs has four of them.
Establishing a pass rush early in opponents' drives sets a tone. It puts the offense in a bad down-and-distance situation before they even get to a third-and-long. It can neutralize a passing game, forcing teams to predictably run or to take unnecessary risks in order to earn another first down. Without this dimension to their defense—and without Suggs—the entire Ravens defense struggled in 2012.
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Suggs is a difference-maker on 1st and 2nd downs
Also worth noting is the presence of Dumervil. With Suggs and Dumervil paired up as outside pass rushers, offensive lines now have to account for two Pro Bowl-level defenders. Sure, they can double-team both, but that frees up other members of Baltimore's defense, like Arthur Jones and Chris Canty, who each have two sacks this season.
Dumervil has three sacks so far this year, along with four quarterback hits and 12 pressures. Suggs has seven sacks, three quarterback hits and 11 pressures. A pair of quality pass-rushers has helped the Ravens out significantly so far this year, but the real difference-maker has been a healthy Suggs.
The Ravens already have over half as many sacks as they did last year, and it's just Week 6. It's not just the signing of Dumervil alone that has produced these results.
If there were any questions about Suggs' ability to bounce back from injury or about his importance to Baltimore's defense, they appear to have been answered. Though more under-the-radar than he's ever been, few pass-rushers are performing at Suggs' level. A healthy Suggs is as dangerous as ever.