In 2014, the Ravens Defense looked good on paper: 8th overall defense, 4th against the rush, 2nd most sacks in the league with 49, and allowing just the 6th most points in the league thanks to a stifling red zone defense that allowed teams to score TDs on just 45% of red zone trips, good for second in the league. But in the Ravens 35-31 playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots, it was evident that this team’s defense was not so formidable. The Patriots exposed a weak secondary and overcame two separate 14 point deficits to move on, while the Ravens went home. Certainly injuries to the secondary hurt the team, but improvements were needed across the board. Let’s take a look at how the defensive side of the roster shapes up heading into 2015:
Defensive End: This unit should look pretty similar to last year’s, especially after resigning Chris Canty who was initially cut to save salary cap space. The 6’7 11 year man does a great job of knocking down passes at the line, and is a savvy veteran who works well in a rotation. Fourth year man DeAngelo Tyson has been a solid run-stuffer, but the talk around OTAs and in the blogosphere has been the battle between third year men Brent Urban (6’7, 295) and Kapron Lewis-Moore (6’4, 310) both of whom are coming off of serious injuries they suffered in 2014 training camp (Urban tore his ACL, and Lewis-Moore tore his Achilles). If they are able to stay healthy, the two are labeled as high-ceiling players who possess the ability to be game wreckers against the run and rushing the passer, and could work their way into the lineup.
Defensive Tackle: While the Ravens were unable to reach a contract extension with fan-favorite and long time Raven Haloti Ngata, the outlook is still positive at defensive tackle with young guns Brandon Williams and Timmy Jernigan. Williams, a 3rd year man out of Missouri Southern, was great against the run in 2014, accumulating a +16.7 run grade good for 4th in the NFL amongst DTs. Timmy Jernigan had a great rookie season, picking up 4.0 sacks and filling in nicely for Haloti Ngata during his 4 game suspension at the end of the regular season. Those two should make for a solid run blocking front with the ability to get to the Quarterback. But the player to watch will be Carl Davis, the rookie out of Iowa who stands 6’5 and 320 pounds, and was referred to by draft pundits as “an absolute steal” in the third round (it should be noted that while Davis is listed as a DT but will probably move around and see snaps at OLB and DE as well). He is receiving lots of praise from the media and is expected to see significant playing time, which tells you what the team thinks of his abilities. The group is rounded out by Lawrence Guy, a 5-year veteran who was a solid alternate in the Ravens rotation in 2014.
Outside Linebackers: Arguably the strongest position on this team’s roster (other than offensive guard), the Ravens have an embarrassment of riches at OLB. Terrell Suggs’s resume speaks for itself as a 6 time pro bowler, 2011 defensive player of the year and the Ravens all-time sack leader with 106.5. But he is much more than just a pass-rusher, as he has also received the best grade against the run of any OLB in a 3-4 scheme the past two years according to PFF. On the other side, Elvis Dumervil lines up in passing situations, making for one of the most dynamic rushing duos in the league. Dumervil matched his career high with 17 sacks last year, and should continue to be a disruptive force in 2015. Dumervil’s ability to stay fresh and harass the QB is largely thanks to the play of Courtney Upshaw, who earned a +5.0 PFF ranking against the run, and is optimistic about his ability to rush the passer, an area he focused on improving this off-season. Rookie Za’Darius Smith, the Ravens 4th round selection out of Kentucky, also will work into the rotation as a pass-rusher who can set the edge well. You can’t ask for a better group to learn from in your first year in the NFL, although it would be nice to see fewer penalties from Suggs and Dumervill, who combined for 14 (8 and 6 respectively).
Inside Linebackers: Ray Lewis is and will forever be the measure for an inside linebacker in Baltimore, but his play on the field is becoming an after thought much quicker than anticipated. Daryl Smith has been tremendous, accumulating 251 tackles, 6 sacks, defending 27 passes and forcing four fumbles in just two seasons in purple and black. While he is heading into his 12th season and likely only has a few good years left in him, the future of the Ravens defense looks bright thanks to CJ Mosley. Mosley appears to be Lewis’s heir apparent, and he made an immediate impact as a rookie earning a pro bowl nod and finishing second in defensive rookie of the year voting. Mosley put up incredible numbers for a rookie with 133 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INTs and 8 passes defended, and really took the league by storm. At times he did look susceptible in the passing game against faster running backs, but he should continue to improve and be one of the league’s best linebackers in just his second year. However, the depth at this position isn’t great, as after those two backs stand Albert McClellan, a serviceable role player, and Arthur Brown, the Ravens 2nd round pick from 2013. Brown has been a major disappointment, only managing to accumulate 15 tackles in 18 appearances with the team. This season will likely be his last in a Ravens uniform unless he is able to live up to the expectations associated with such a high draft pick.
Corner Back: Once Jimmy Smith when down to injury in 2014, it became evident that this position was the team’s greatest weakness. It certainly didn’t help that back-ups of back-ups went on to get hurt (5 different corners ended the season on IR), but Lardarius Webb looked like a shell of his former self, and the Ravens were pitiful in stopping the pass, as was exhibited by the Patriots in rushing for just 14 yards in their 35-31 playoff win. But with a healthy Jimmy Smith, the signing of Kyle Arrington from New England, and drafting Tray Walker from Texas Southern in the 5th round, the Ravens found much needed depth at this position. Jimmy Smith is a lock-down defender, and Webb will do better now that he won’t square off against #1 WRs. Arrington will be solid as a nickel back and lining up in the slot where he excels, and Walker will compete with Asa Jackson to grab whatever extra assignments become available. This is by no means the deepest set of corners in the league, but add in a strong pass rush like the Ravens should have once again and this group should be light-years ahead of the 2014 Ravens secondary.
Safety: The Ravens secondary woes were not limited to the Cornerback position in 2014. Matt Elam, the team’s first round selection in 2013 put in an awful second year campaign, constantly missing tackles and being relegated to more of a nickel back even as the team saw a revolving door at safety. With Terrence Brooks ultimately landing on IR, the Ravens ultimately went with a revolving door next to Will Hill (the one bright spot in the secondary) including Jeromy Miles, Darian Stewart and Brynden Trawick. To address this issue, the Ravens went and got former Houston Texan Kendrick Lewis, a solid Safety who made a career high 84 tackles last year. He is already making an impact in the locker room, and will line up next to Hill to make what should be a much more durable and reliable safety tandem. Behind them, Anthony Levine (who played admirably at CB when needed last season) and Elam will battle for playing time as well. Again, not the strongest group in the league, but much improved from 2014.
Return man: Outside of WR, this position is the biggest question mark on the roster as the team searches for Jacoby Jones’s replacement. WR Michael Campanaro took a few returns last season before pulling his hamstring and missing 6 games, and Webb has experience returning kicks as well. But the Ravens are too invested in Webb’s health to risk him returning kicks, so I expect this spot to go to one of the young gun WRs, most likely Campanaro.
Kicker/Punter: I’ll lump these guys together, because they’re both great and need little description. Justin Tucker is one of the most accurate kicker in NFL History and has seemingly an infinite amount of leg, and is a lot of fun both on and off the field. Sam Koch is the longtime Raven who received a contract extension after putting up his best season in purple and black in 2014. He doesn’t kick booming punts, but is an expert at pinning teams inside their own 20.
Now that we’ve looked at both the offense and defense, it appears this roster seems talented and deep across the board. As has been the question for this franchise in recent years, a lot of their success will rely on how Joe Flacco adapts to a new offensive coordinator and new targets around him. But overall, the Ravens have a great mix of young talent and pro bowl caliber veterans that should put this team right back into the hunt for a playoff berth and a chance at the franchise’s third Super Bowl.