The Baltimore Ravens have made many changes this offseason, and shocked everyone when they release several big-name, veteran players. They have never been a team that’s afraid of change when it’s needed or risks when their worth it, but they’re also smart enough to realize when not to change something that’s working.
Almost every change that the Ravens have made this offense has been to improve or modify the offense. They have left the defense relatively untouched. The only losses that the defense suffered were Kelly Gregg, who the team felt was overpaid for his role, Josh Wilson, who was their best cover corner last season, and Dawan Landry, who received a large contract from Jacksonville.
However, even the defensive positions that suffered losses still managed to improve. The Ravens added Jimmy Smith, a talented rookie corner who should be able to off-set the loss of Wilson, and Bernard Pollard to compete with Tom Zbikowski for Landry’s old position at strong safety. They believe that Cody has more upside than Gregg after playing well in the playoffs last season.
Overall, the Ravens are returning the majority of their starting lineup on defense and have arguably improved by getting younger and more talented.
However, that doesn’t mean we won’t be seeing any changes this season. Greg Mattison, the Ravens defensive coordinator last season, left the team to coach college football, and the Ravens promoted Chuck Pagano, their secondary coach, to defensive coordinator.
Like any new coordinator, Pagano will have to install his playbook and teach it to the defensive players, but unlike most new coordinators, he has the distinct advantage of having already worked with his players for the last three seasons.
Pagano already knows the strength of each of his players and understands how the Ravens play defense. He will certainly put his own mark on the defense, but there’s little doubt that he will design his defensive scheme around the strengths of his players.
The Ravens defense has been one of the best defenses is the NFL over the last decade. Even under Mattison, who was often criticized for not being aggressive enough with his play calling, the defense still ranked third overall in total points allowed last season.
The strength of the defense in recent history has been the versatility of their players. The Ravens run a hybrid defense that can switch effortlessly between three, four and five man defensive lines without changing personnel.
Versatility is important because it allows the defense to adjust to what the offense is doing before the snap. The players can move around and react to the offense. Furthermore, the hybrid scheme makes the Ravens defense hard to attack since the offense never knows which players will be blitzing and which players will be playing coverage.
Obviously, any team could put linebackers on the line and call themselves a hybrid defense. Most teams run a base 3-4 defense or 4-3 defense, and while the Ravens scheme does revolve around a three-man defensive line, the difference on the Ravens defense are the hybrid players, specifically outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson.
Both Suggs and Johnson are capable of playing defensive end, and Suggs in particular plays on the defensive line on more than 92 percent of his snaps according to a recent article by Pro Football Focus. Suggs is really the prototypical hybrid player, and his ability to play two positions makes him very special and helps define the Ravens defense.
Suggs is extremely strong against the run, and his 42 defensive stops last season are good for eighth among all defensive lineman. Although he doesn’t rank among the elite pass rushers in the league, Suggs is easily the Ravens best pass rusher and has had success against some of the best offensive lineman in the league.
Suggs may be the more talented player, but Jarret Johnson may be the most versatile. Johnson’s incredible strength in stopping the run is a key to the Ravens’ defense. He’s strong enough to set the edge as a defensive end and athletic enough to flow to the ball as a linebacker.
The same can be said of Suggs, but Suggs only switches between two different positions, defensive end and outside linebacker. Johnson actually switches between three and sometimes even four positions.
He plays outside linebacker in three man fronts, strong-side linebacker in four man fronts, defensive end in five man fronts, and in some odd sets, he is actually asked to play inside defensive line techniques.
The versatility of the hybrid system is the reason why the Ravens defense has been so good in recent history. It allows them to cover up flaws and prevents offenses from figuring out easy ways to beat them as the season goes on.
The Ravens may change a few things on defense under Chuck Pagano, but there’s little doubt that they will continue to rely on the hybrid scheme and the strengths of his players that have made the defense so successful in recent history.