The inconsistent and often ineffective pass rush was one of the most perplexing issues for the Baltimore Ravens last season. They had a great season overall, but there’s no denying that they fell short of most fan and analyst expectations, which was winning a Super Bowl.
The reason for the disappointment isn’t just because the Ravens didn’t make it to the Super Bowl. Everyone would have been much happier if the Ravens had played up to their potential but simply lost to better teams. The problem is that most people feel that the Ravens rarely played a complete game.
One of the biggest overall problems that the team faced last season was fourth quarter melt-downs. The Ravens were outscored 119-80 in the fourth quarter and gave up fourth quarter leads nine times last season. Luckily, the Ravens only lost four of those games.
Giving away fourth quarter leads is not something that elite teams normally do and was one of the most frustrating parts of last season for the Ravens. There were many factors in the Ravens’ fourth quarter struggles.
One factor was the struggling running game. When a team has the lead, they will typically lean heavily on the running game to keep the ball away from the other team and run out the clock. That has been a trademark strategy of Baltimore for many years, but the injuries on the offensive line greatly hampered the effectiveness of the running game and forced the Ravens to throw the ball to keep it away from opposing teams.
"To me, the bottom line is when you can run the ball in the fourth quarter, you will extend leads and you won't give the ball back to the [other team]," John Harbaugh told The Baltimore Sun. “On defense, you've got to be able to get that critical stop and get off the field. It starts with coverage."
"When your corners can line up and cover - knock a ball out, not give up a slant, or something like that, in tight coverage, make a play, get a ball tipped, get an interception - that'll happen and then that dictates the pass rush.”
The coverage was one of the weakest areas on the Ravens’ defense at the beginning of the season and limited their flexibility in calling blitzes. The cornerbacks were adjusting to the loss of Domonique Foxworth to injury, and the secondary didn’t get on track until later in the season when the cornerbacks, many of whom had never played on the outside or in an extended starting role, began to play with more confidence.
“I've said my goal [is], I want to blitz more than 50 percent of the time all the time. Early in the year we were unable to do that, frankly, because we weren't really able to play cover-one like we wanted to. And I think Greg [Mattison] was a little nervous about that at times,” Harbaugh said.
“As the season got on, the corners started playing better and better...We covered a little better, so we blitzed more.”
Unfortunately, opposing teams were able to stop the Ravens’ running game as the Ravens blitzed more later in the season. It was clear that the Ravens were able to get to opposing quarterbacks early, but the lack of an effective running attack hurt the defense late in games.
In most games, the Ravens defense would play many more snaps than the offense. The disproportionate number of plays caused the defense to become exhausted as the game wore on. The Ravens tried rotating players, but no matter what they did, the end result was a huge decrease in pressure on opposing quarterbacks. There was no greater factor in the fourth quarter melt-downs last season.
While the knee-jerk reaction to fixing the pass rush may be to sign a big-name pass rusher, the best thing that they could do would be to fix the running game and the secondary.
Improving the running game will allow the Ravens to close out games easier and should be the biggest factor in preventing fourth quarter melt-downs. To that end, the Ravens drafted Jah Reid, who they hope can be a great future RT, but they need to do more.
Most people seem to believe that the Ravens will sign another player to help their offensive line, which struggled to open holes for Ray Rice last season. Jared Gaither may be their best option to bolster the offensive line, and both sides have indicated a desire for him to return.
Improving the secondary, especially the corners, will give the Ravens more flexibility on defense and will allow them to blitz with reckless abandon. The power of defensive flexibility should not be underestimated.
The New York Jets defense has inferior talent at nearly every position in their front seven by comparison to the Ravens, but is still better at pressuring the quarterback. The difference is the flexibility that Darrel Revis and Antonio Cromartie bring to that defense. Rex Ryan can blitz with impunity because of the confidence he has in his secondary.
The Ravens hope to have the same type of confidence in cornerback Jimmy Smith, their first-round selection in the 2011 draft. They will also have Foxworth, who played very well towards the end of his first season with Baltimore, back from injury. Between Smith and Foxworth, the Ravens hope to have the flexibility to blitz more on defense.
The Ravens have expressed interest in signing a free-agent pass rusher, and that would certainly help. However, they know that the pass rush will not significantly improve without addressing the running game and secondary, and there's no doubt that they will put high priority on solving those issues. The Ravens have always been committed to being aggressive on defense, and that’s not going to change anytime soon.
“By the end of [last] year, I thought we were bringing it as much or more than anybody in the league,” Harbaugh said. “And I said all season, that's who we have to be, that's who we want to be, that's what I grew up with in Philadelphia and [under] Jim Johnson, and that's what the Ravens have always done, too."
"I like the way Chuck [Pagano] said it. 'We like to wreak havoc.'"