Much attention is being paid to the Baltimore Ravens' attempt to improve their offense, from the line to the running game to the receiving corps. However, the Ravens are also hard at work in trying to bring their defense back to its former, dominant form.
Last offseason, the Ravens cleared house on defense. They overhauled both safety positions, lost three starting linebackers and a cornerback and replaced those holes with new faces, both veteran free agents and rookies.
Ultimately, Baltimore's defense performed well—and better than its offensive counterpart. It ranked 12th in both yards per game and points per game allowed, but it certainly wasn't as fearsome as Ravens defenses of years past.
|Key Ravens Defensive Stats, 2013|
|Pass YPG Allowed||230.1||12|
|Rush YPG Allowed||105.4||11|
A lack of aggression was the reason. The Ravens tied for 16th in sacks with 40 and tied for 15th in interceptions with 16. Technical execution was not an issue, but big, game-changing plays were not a common sight.
The Ravens spent four of their nine 2014 draft picks on defense, starting in the first round when they selected linebacker C.J. Mosley and continuing with the trend with the selection of defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan in Round 2, safety Terrence Brooks in Round 3 and defensive end Brent Urban in Round 4.
They also have a number of second-year players—linebacker Arthur Brown, defensive tackle Brandon Williams and defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore—vying for significant playing time this season. The ideal result is that the youth will yield both speed and aggression, which could boost the Ravens' top-12 2013 defense into a top-five unit this season.
However, the Ravens also need their more experienced defenders to make an impact this year, especially outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. The pair led the team with a combined 19.5 sacks last season and will again be the team's primary source of quarterback pressure.
Per Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun, Dumervil was displeased with his performance in his first year as a Raven and has added 10 pounds this offseason in an effort to improve his all-around game. He had a fairly quiet second half of the season, with one sack in the Ravens' final six games. Suggs had only one sack in the last eight games of 2013, and he blamed it on gaining too much weight, according to Wilson.
Both are proven talents, but each needs to be more consistent on a weekly basis.
Helping the team's pass rush in 2014 will be middle linebacker Daryl Smith, who had five sacks last year. He'll be joined on the inside by either Brown or Mosley. Brown appeared in 14 games for the Ravens last season and played 211 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), primarily as a pass-rusher and coverage linebacker. Brown had 15 combined tackles in 2013 to go along with a half-sack and a forced fumble.
Brown is looking good in OTAs and minicamp. Per Matt Zenitz of the Carroll County Times, coordinator Dean Pees stated: "Art Brown has improved light years from a year ago. This guy has really had a great camp. He still has a moment, like all of them do, but he has so improved from a year ago. I'm really, really excited about him."
Mosley has been showing off the athleticism that earned him two consensus All-American honors at Alabama. The Ravens will have a hard decision to make regarding which of the two, but it's not a bad problem to have. It's also possible the two could split time, with Mosley handling run-stopping duties and Brown reprising his role as a coverage and pass-rushing inside linebacker.
The addition of Jernigan certainly adds a physical element to Baltimore's defense. The offensive linemen are taking notice, too, with guard Kelechi Osemele saying, per Jamison Hensley of ESPN.com, "He's playing fast, especially for being a young guy and being thrown in there with the ones every now and then and it being a new system."
Tackle Eugene Monroe added, per Hensley, "That kid is really quick-twitch, really explosive and strong. When they introduced all of the rookies in our first meeting, they put on a clip of him, and he just bench pressed a guy, threw him off and made a tackle. Hopefully, we can get a lot of that out of him."
And, with Arthur Jones moving on in free agency, Jernigan has a chance to be a full-time starter this year. He'll be competing with Williams and Lewis-Moore, who is currently sidelined with a hamstring injury, according to Wilson. Jernigan and Lewis-Moore are two players that Ravens director of pro personnel Vince Newsome says have stood out so far in practices, per Zenitz.
The Ravens appear to have a lot of talent in their front seven, enough to terrorize opposing quarterbacks and stop running backs in their tracks. But how about the secondary? It too has been overhauled over the past two offseasons, and the team seems to be on the brink of fielding the youngest safety tandem in the league with Matt Elam and Brooks—if Brooks beats out Darian Stewart, of course.
Successfully pressuring quarterbacks has two positive effects for a defense: It can produce drive-killing sacks and also throw a quarterback off his rhythm, resulting in errant passes that are ripe for the picking. The Ravens having a more fierce defensive front therefore means that the secondary will have more opportunities to make plays.
Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith will remain the team's starting cornerback tandem, but behind them the team is rather thin at the position. The nickel corner battle is presently down to two players: Asa Jackson and Chykie Brown. Jackson played zero defensive snaps last year, while Brown played just 39, per PFF. That would explain why the team worked out six veteran free agent corners this week, including Aaron Ross and Drayton Florence.
More intriguing than the cornerback situation is what is occurring at safety, especially considering how young the Ravens could be at the position this year. Elam will move to strong safety, his natural position, after playing free safety in 2013 and amassing 77 tackles, three passes defensed, an interception and two fumble recoveries. Battling for free safety will be Brooks and Stewart.
With a 4.42-second 40-yard-dash time at this year's combine, per NFL.com, Brooks is certainly fast, which is a necessary trait for a free safety who will roam the entire field to have. He had 126 career tackles at Florida State as well as five interceptions and three forced fumbles.
His ability to start in Baltimore will be dependent on how quickly he learns the defense, a fact not lost on him: "I feel like it's just a matter of me getting the playbook down. As soon as I get down and comfortable with it, I can play fast," he said earlier in June, per Wilson.
Stewart, an undrafted free agent signed by the Rams in 2010, has started at both free and strong safety with his former team. He had 36 combined tackles and a forced fumble last year and has 147 tackles, four sacks, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and an interception returned for a touchdown in his career.
Brooks has the edge when it comes to aggressive play, but Stewart has four valuable years of NFL experience to his name. It's possible that both could see action this year, with Stewart getting more work early as Brooks becomes more acclimated to the game. Either way, both safeties have considerable upside, even if neither one is the second coming of Ed Reed (no one is, though).
On the whole, the Ravens defense looks like it's on the precipice of again being dangerous and dominant. They are one year into their defensive overhaul, which means that last season's new faces are this season's experienced veterans.
The Ravens defenders are younger and faster, and as long as those two things produce more aggression, the whole defense will be more productive. Sacks, pressures, tackles for a loss and takeaways should all be on the rise for the Ravens this year. If that happens, Baltimore should again possess one of the league's most fearsome defenses.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of ESPN.com.