For as long as I can remember, the Raven’s defensive strategy has been “If you can’t run, you can’t hide”:
- Take away the opponents run game in order to make them one-dimensional; and then,
- Create chaos in the opponents’ backfield and force poor decisions.
This strategy often led opponents to rely on an increasingly frantic pass game, and then, due to the turmoil, it led to turnovers… Since we always had a good running game, we were able to eat the clock, which created even more desperation on the part of the opponent, and even more turnovers. This strategy was successful, and made our defense fun to watch.
In 2009, the Raven’s ability to stop the run wavered at times, and our ability to create chaos in the backfield was lacking. As a result, the opponent was able to exploit our weaknesses, and, well, we lost some games. Fortunately, it seems that the personnel decisions made for the 2010 season will allow the team to return to its long cherished defensive strategy.
If You Can't Run…
For 40 games, no running back gained 100 yards on the Ravens. Sadly, this streak ended last year, and the Raven's allowed Cedric Benson (twice) and Adrian Peterson to run for more than 100 yards. We lost all 3 games. For each of these games, Haloti Ngata was suffering from injuries and operating at significantly less than 100%. It all starts with the line… So how do we look in 2010?
The Ravens lost Justin Bannan (37 tackles) and Dwan Edwards (50 tackles) to free agency. However, we added Terrence Cody, Cory Redding, Lamar Divens and Art Jones. Kelly Gregg (64 tackles), while a little long in the tooth (but so was Bannan), is 2 years removed from a micro-fracture surgery.
So, on balance, I think the defensive line looks stronger than last year. Cody will be a force. Gregg will get enough rest to accommodate his age. Ngata will be healthy. Redding only started 3 games last year and had 20 tackles (and 2 sacks - more than Bannan and Edwards combined.)
An improved line makes our linebackers better. Even though Ray Lewis has lost a step, it only really showed when the defensive line wasn’t up to speed—Ray did have 164 tackles! However, with Cody, a healthy Gregg and Ngata, I think the line gives Ray his step back by taking the step away from opposing blockers. In addition, Ellerbe (55 tackles) has a year under his belt and will likely be much better. Jarrett Johnson (70 tackles) is one of the best in the business and is in his prime. And even though Suggs is seen as a pass rushing linebacker, he is great against the run (58 tackles).
Dawan Landry has some weaknesses as a pass defender but he is a great tackler (82 tackles.) And even though he doesn't tackle like he used too, Ed Reed still had 54 tackles.
All in all, our rush defense looks stronger than last year—maybe, if the Cody/Ngata combination fares as well as I think, this team may be as strong as the 2000 team...This means the strategy of stopping the run is well in hand… leading to the opportunity for classic Ravens organized chaos…
You Can't Hide…
Pass defense starts with the pass rush. In 2009, the Ravens only had 32 sacks. Trevor Pryce had the most with 6.5. Suggs has made a big deal about how 2009 was not a typical season for him: only 4.5 sacks! He has vowed that 2010 will be different—and his participation in OTAs is a good indication that he is right. Paul Kruger, who has bulked up, will be used more (I think he and Redding will share starting duties with Price.) Sergio Kindle will be used with great effect in passing situations, and Cody's ability to eat blockers will allow Ngata to collapse the pocket—the first step towards chaos...
So, the pass rush looks significantly improved from 2009. Assuming the run has been stymied, Suggs, Kindle and Kruger will be flying in from all angles contributing to the chaos, leading to turnovers…The key question is whether the pass defenders can make the most of this.
I am a little concerned about Ray Lewis' ability to defend against the pass, but Ellerbe looked good last year and Gooden will be healthy too. Jarrett Johnson is very capable against the pass. In addition, we get to see what Jason Philips can offer. (Kindle will likely be used as a rusher, so his questionable ability to defend against the pass may not be an issue.)
This brings us to the defensive backfield. Foxworth defended 21 passes last year, and looked pretty good at the end of the season. Chris Carr also stepped in admirably when Webb and Washington were hurt. After a very shaky start, Frank Walker played well at the end too, though it is unclear whether he will return to the Ravens (and I know many fans don't want him to), Ed Reed looked like superman (even with the bonehead lateral) against the Colts; and, from all indications, he will be back and healthier (his hip will be better, but, his neck will still be an issue.) Landry is solid; and, Zbikowski acquitted himself quite well when he played. Nakamura will also be healthy.
However, Washington and Webb: two of our top three cornerbacks are still recovering from serious surgery. Webb looked very promising when he was in; but, he won't be back until mid-season, and even then, it remains to be seen whether he will be at top form. Washington may be back for the beginning of the season, but we just don't know what his recovery will look like.
We did acquire Travis Fisher from free agency; but, unless he completely reinvents himself, he is only a stopgap filling in for Webb and Washington. The rest of our depth at cornerback is unproven rookies.
Fortunately, the Raven’s formula of “can’t run, can’t hide” doesn’t require we have Revis Island. What is required is that we have opportunists in the defensive backfield. Reed, of course, is the preeminent opportunist in NFL history. Landry has made good on opportunities. Zbikowski has been effective and Nakamura shows every indication that he is cut from this cloth. Chris Carr plays smart too.
I think that the Ravens have an improved run defense over last year. I think that their pass rush will leverage that to create havoc in opponents’ backfields. These will more than make up for pedestrian cornerbacks. Look for Ed Reed to have a career season. The enemy won’t be able to run; and, they won’t be able to hide.
And, I haven’t even gotten to the improvements on offense…