The Baltimore Ravens have been one of the most dominating defenses of the last decade. When people think about the Ravens, they think about their defense, which has been highlighted by big-name players like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata.
The Ravens have been dedicated to their defense, which has been revolutionary in its scheme. The Ravens were one of the first teams to use a hybrid defense, a defense that can shift between three-man and four-man lines, with hybrid players. Their ideas helped define a new age of defense in the NFL where more and more teams are switching to 3-4 systems and most implement some sort of hybrid scheme.
Ravens fans have become accustom to hard-charging, aggressive defenses that rack up sacks and force turnovers. Over the last two seasons, the Ravens defense was good under its defensive coordinator, Greg Mattison, but it always felt like something was missing.
The defense wasn’t dominating opponents on a regular basis and was vulnerable to aggressive passing attacks. Teams began to attack the Ravens through the air, and even though they were still strong versus the run, the Ravens had a very hard time beating teams with great quarterbacks. Unfortunately for the Ravens, most good playoff teams have great quarterbacks, and those teams consistently beat the Ravens, who have lost to the Steelers and the Colts in the playoffs over the last two seasons.
Greg Mattison has moved on to coach college football at Michigan, and the Ravens promoted Chuck Pagano, their secondary coach, to defensive coordinator. Pagano is known as a fiery, energetic coach and is loved by the Ravens’ players, many of whom say that Pagano is the best defensive coach they’ve ever had. Pagano should bring an aggressive attitude back to the Ravens defense, which wasn’t as aggressive under Mattison as it had been in the past.
As a secondary coach, Pagano has been incredibly successful throughout his career. At the University of Miami from 1995-2000, he coached four first-round defensive backs, Ed Reed (Ravens, 2002), Phillip Buchanon (Raiders, 2002), Duane Starks (Ravens, 1998) and Mike Rumph (49ers, 2002), and his secondary was generally considered the best in college football. During his time with the Browns from 2001-2004, the Browns’ secondary accounted for 28 of the team’s NFL-leading and team-record 33 interceptions.
Pagano also helped the Raiders lead the NFL in pass defense in 2006. They allowed just 150.8 yards per game, ranked third in total defense and surrendered only 284.8 yards per contest. With the Ravens, Pagano has held together a patchwork secondary many times, including last season, and his system has allowed Ed Reed to amass an amazing nine interceptions in 2008, Pagano’s first year with the Ravens, and eight interceptions in only 10 games last season.
As a former secondary coach, Pagano should help the Ravens sure up many of the holes in the pass defense. He has already stated that he will run an aggressive defense with more focus on pressuring the quarterback.
“I’ve always been around defenses that have been attacking defenses, and there’s a time and a place,” Pagano said at his introductory press conference. “I know [John Harbaugh] is an aggressive guy and comes from an aggressive philosophy, and I know these guys like to play that way. And so, we’re going to be aggressive.”
This bodes well for the Ravens defense because their players are ideally suited to an aggressive system. For that reason, Pagano should get more production out of his players from day one.
Pagano enters an ideal situation for a defensive coordinator. He has a defense that is not only full of the big-name veterans like Lewis and Reed but also budding with elite talent like Ngata and Suggs who are still in their prime. Pagano also has the luxury of having worked with those players on a daily basis over the last three years, so he won’t be trying to prove himself to them. Pagano will be able to walk in at the start of training camp, know every player on the roster and immediately begin communicating his new defense to them. Immediate productivity in a locked-out offseason should not be underestimated.
Finally, one of the biggest impacts on the defense next season may actually come from a rookie, Jimmy Smith. Smith is a prototypical shut-down corner in the form of Nnamdi Asomugha, a player Pagano utilized with great effect in Oakland.
Smith should give the Ravens the flexibility on defense to blitz and use exotic coverages. Ozzie Newsome believes that Smith could be effective very early in the season. “Jimmy’s impact may not be in interceptions, [pass break ups] or a bunch of tackles.” Newsome said on a conference call after the draft. “It might be that people get to the point very early on into the season not to throw at him. When that happens, that will allow our defense to do a lot of creative things.”
That creativity is something that the Ravens defenses have lacked since 2006, Chris McAlister’s last effective season as a shut-down corner. Smith will allow the defense to role the coverage away from him and has the ability to match-up with elite receivers like Roddy White and Andre Johnson, guys that torched the Ravens last season.
The increased coverage and the ability to shut-down elite receivers should force teams into the jaws of the defense. Opposing teams will no longer be able to throw over the top of the Ravens elite front seven. The secondary will force quarterbacks to hold the ball longer, and the extra blitzers will have more time to get to the quarterback. For the first time since 2006, the Ravens should be able to force coverage sacks, negative plays and turnovers on a regular basis. Throw in the fact that the overall scheme will be more aggressive, and we can begin to look forward to a dominating season by the Ravens defense.