Despite the fact that football is one of those team sports in which the entire supporting cast is crucial, it inevitably all boils down to the quarterback. The Baltimore Ravens need to cover the three bases of quarterback-related play if they are to maximize their Super Bowl chances: getting a play-making quarterback to lead your offense, protecting that quarterback and generating pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
It’s the last of those three that has fallen between the cracks in Baltimore over the last couple of seasons. That’s not to say that the pass rush will definitely be a fatal flaw for the Ravens in 2014, but there are a few reasons to be concerned about the state of the pass rush—both for this season and in the long run.
There are more pressing issues around the roster, starting with the secondary and whether or not Ricky Wagner is ready to be a starting right tackle. But the pass rush is getting overlooked on the Ravens’ list of concerns and it shouldn’t be.
Here are the two aspects of the situation that could bring trouble to Baltimore.
Which Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil Will We Get?
It’s strange to think that a team with Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil in its ranks could have a question mark of a pass rush. After all, both crack the top 15 of active sacks leaders (Suggs at No. 7 with 94.5 sacks and Dumervil at No. 15 with 73.0 sacks).
But you also should remember that their best days are behind them. Both are over 30 years old and it would be foolish to expect either of them to improve. It’s only natural to see a dip in production, and the extent of that dip will make or break the team’s pass rush.
The Ravens can live with a slight downturn. They cannot, however, live with the decline they witnessed over the second half of last season.
The duo opened the season with a flurry, but that production dried up. Why?
According to Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com, Suggs attributes his drop-off to weight gain over the course of the season:
I probably put on a little too much weight down the stretch. That’s one of my big focuses going into this year is to keep my weight down so I can have a strong finish.
Dumervil, on the other hand, was hampered by an ankle injury midway through the season, which certainly played a factor in his limited production.
Maybe it was just a coincidence, but injuries and conditioning issues are likely to cause more problems for players as they get older, so it’s definitely cause for concern.
If the Ravens have the Suggs and Dumervil (is it just me, or does that sound like a great name for an '80s buddy-cop series?) from the first half of 2013, they will be able to generate enough pressure to cause problems for opposing offenses.
The really scary side of the pass rush emerges if they don’t get that kind of production from the tandem.
Who Else Can Generate Pressure?
After the dynamic duo, the pickings get very slim. Daryl Smith (5.0 sacks) and Arthur Jones (4.0 sacks) were the third- and fourth-leading pass-rushers on the team last year, and Jones has moved on to the Colts.
Smith was an effective blitzer up the middle, and the athleticism of C.J. Mosley and Arthur Brown means they have the potential to do a similar job.
But what about players who can get sacks of their own accord (i.e. not off good play-calling and pressure packages)? Who on this roster is going to consistently beat his blocker in a one-on-one situation and get to the quarterback?
The answer is…nobody.
Pernell McPhee is the best bet, but he hasn’t been able to replicate the success of his rookie season (6.0 sacks) after transitioning to rush linebacker.
Courtney Upshaw and John Simon are limited pass-rushers (at least so far) who are much better against the run. Neither of them possess the quick-twitch athleticism or first step you see in good pass-rushers. They are coverage-sack artists, players who continue to work through the play and will eventually get to the quarterback if he’s forced to hold onto the ball for an unusually long time.
There are better options along the defensive line, and Haloti Ngata in particular needs to step his game up this season. According to reports from Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun, he’s very aware of that. When asked if there are areas in which he sees room for personal growth, he responded:
With the pass rush, definitely. I want to get better and better and try to at least get to double-digit sacks. That's something that I've never done. Hopefully, I can continue to get better and get to my goals.
Double-digit sacks is probably an unrealistic goal, but it would be a big boost if Ngata could return to his 2010-2012 form, when he racked up at least five sacks per season.
Young players like Timmy Jernigan and Brandon Williams also have the athleticism and power to generate pressure from the middle of the defense, but the Ravens are counting on a lot of young and unproven players to supplement Suggs and Dumervil.
The entire combination will be enough supporting firepower if the premier pass-rushers (Suggs and Dumervil) can return to their dominant form, but the Ravens don’t have enough pass-rushing depth to compensate for even one of the two having a subpar season, and certainly don’t have the talent to recover from an injury to one of them.
By all accounts, Suggs and Dumervil have looked like they’re in great condition in Ravens practices so hopefully the team doesn’t need to contemplate either of those scenarios. Even still, Baltimore needs to generate enough pressure to help out a secondary with question marks at free safety and nickel corner (at the moment, at least).
Moving forward, the Ravens need to spend an early draft pick on a promising young sack artist to combat the aging process of their only proven pass-rushers. The recent release of Adrian Hamilton took the only intriguing developmental rusher off their roster.
The Ravens don’t have the time to draft more projects.
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