The Baltimore Ravens are going back to their roots: Examining the 2017 Defense

The Baltimore Ravens won their first Super Bowl in 2000 with a stifling Defense that ranks as one of the best all-time. The Ravens won their second Super Bowl in 2012, again with a dominant Defense while also riding the arm of a red-hot Joe Flacco. Yet after just one playoff appearance in the past four seasons, the Ravens embarked on a major philosophical change. General Manager Ozzy Newsome looks to transport this Baltimore Ravens team back to their roots and to the dominant Defensive outfit he built in the early 00s. With this latest group of players, Newsome has proven that he still knows  what it takes to build a dominant Defense.

Ed Reed and Ray Lewis were a permanent fixture in the Baltimore Ravens Defense for a decade. Terrell Suggs is the last remaining piece from the dominant 00s Ravens Defense. (Photo credit: Baltimore Sun)

 

The Re-build

The Ravens went all in on Defense this past offseason despite having gaping holes on an Offense that simply didn’t work at stretches in 2016. Four of the first seven selections in the 2017 NFL Draft (five in total) were used on Defense. GM Newsome placed a premium on athleticism (and if you’re from Alabama) and helping his Defense get after the QB with help in both back end and front end through physical press corners and track-speed edge rushers. The Ravens also made six significant free agent picks up, five (!) of them were Defensive players…

These additions should add to a Defense that performed well in 2016: 9th fewest points allowed, 7th fewest total yards allowed, 3rd fewest 1st downs allowed, 9th fewest passing yards and 5th fewest rushing yards allowed. Baltimore was joint-1st for most interceptions, pulling in 18 INTs on the year, but struggled to get home and were ranked 24th with a measly 31 sacks. Edge Rusher Terrell Suggs led the way with 8 sacks but at 34 years old, Suggs is better suited to being a situational pass-rusher where the Ravens can get the most production out of him. The Ravens had a stout run defense, but on passing downs they were unable to pin back their ears and get after QBs. This is something that Newsome looked to address this offseason.

Below we will break down the individual units within the Baltimore Ravens Defense. What strikes me most is not just the amount of stars that the Ravens have – spread across their Defense – but the depth at each position and how it’s likely that the Ravens will get production from 2nd and 3rd stringers – they are also ideally situated to cope with the long and grueling NFL season’s where injuries always impact teams.

The Ravens play a 3-4 and their Defensive Coordinator is Dean Pees. He’s been DC in Baltimore since 2012 and was previously their LB coach. He was the New England Patriots DC from 2006 to 2009 serving under Head Coach Bill Belichick. He was the LB coach in New England for two years before this under Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini. It’s interesting to note that current Patriots DC Matt Patricia was Pees’ LB coach in New England. Before working in the NFL, Pees cut his teeth under Nick Saban in the college ranks. He was Saban’s DC, first at Toldeo, and then at Michigan State.

 

Defensive Line

They say it all starts upfront and in a 3-4, the Ravens need defensive linemen who are tough, strong and able to anchor against the run while occupying blockers allowing their athletic linebackers to get home in the pass rush. The D-Line is led by Brandon Williams in the middle at nose tackle. Williams is built like the ‘old school’ mould of thick interior defenders who appear to be dying out in the modern day NFL. Williams is a force inside who occupies multiple blockers and lanes on both passing and running downs, allowing his team mates free gaps or one-on-ones in order to disrupt the pocket. Williams is a phenomenal ‘space-eater’ and routinely collapses the pocket by pushing centers and guards back into their QBs lap.

The Ravens rewarded NT Brandon Williams with a 5-year, $54m contract extension this off-season (Photo credit: Nick Wass/ AP)

Next to him is DE Michael Pierce who is built more like a Tackle than an End. Baltimore’s 3-man front places great emphasis on stopping the opponent’s run game while pass-rushing is reserved for Baltimore’s nimble edge rushing linebackers. Competing for the free spot at DE will be either 2nd-year Bronson Kaufusi (who missed his entire rookie season with a broken ankle in training camp), 3rd-year Brent Urban or rookie Chris Wormley. Wormley was a 3-year starter at Michigan with the other Harbaugh brother and was a steal at pick 74 for the Ravens.

 

Linebackers

The Baltimore Ravens have a rich history at linebacker. Ozzie Newsome built a fearsome linebacking corps that led the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory in both 2000 and 2012. In 2000, the Ravens had Ray Lewis (1st round 1996), Peter Boulware (1st round 1997), Jamie Sharper (2nd round 1997) and Duane Starks (1st round 1998) at linebacker. The 2012 squad consisted of Ray Lewis for the final play off push alongside Terrell Suggs (1st round 2003), Courtney Upshaw (2nd round 2012) and Jameel McClain (undrafted 2008).

Inside this year, Newsome will entrust C. J. Mosley (1st round 2014) and Kamalei Correa (2nd round 2016). Mosley has been dominant since entering the league out of Alabama and is slowly growing into the fearsome Mike LB/ leader role that Ray Lewis occupied for so long. Outside, Baltimore have the ever reliable Terrell Suggs with the veteran Albert McClellan. Newsome has, however, invested significant capital at the OLB position and soon we can expect to see Za’Darius Smith (4th round 2015), Tyus Bowser (2nd round 2017) and Tim Williams (3rd round 2017) developing into that next generation of ferocious Ravens linebackers. These young, hyper athletic linebackers are markedly different to the 2000 and 2012 incarnations and they underpin the direction modern Defenses in the NFL are heading. With TEs becoming effectively over sized WR’s and the increasing use of 3/ 4 WRs in formations; coverage skills at the linebacker position are becoming an increasingly important aspect.

C.J. Mosley has been an excellent addition at MLB for the Ravens. Newsome found a winner going back to his alma mater as Mosley picks up the mantle and occupies the position Ray Lewis held for so many years in this Baltimore Defense. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

 

Secondary

The Ravens have a safety duo that challenges the Seattle Seahawks as the NFL’s best duo. Both Eric Weddle (arrived from San Diego in 2016) and Tony Jefferson (arrived from Arizona this season) are extremely versatile. Both have the range and football IQ to play the centre-fielder role in the deep third. Yet both can also play in and around the line of scrimmage, shutting down the run and being an enforcer in the box. They are both able to hang with tight ends and mirror them stride-for-stride down the field in obvious passing situations. The Ravens have a fine back up in Lardarius Webb while Anthony Levine is good in zone coverage. Weddle was PFF’s No.1 ranked safety in 2016, while Jefferson ranked 5th (2nd best run defender). Webb finished 15th (1 place behind Earl Thomas) and must be disappointed that the team brought in Jefferson despite having a fine 2016 campaign.

Eric Weddle is one of the best safeties of his generation. (Photo credit: Baltimore Sun)

The Ravens will have a competitive cornerback room in 2017, something this team has lacked the past few seasons. Jimmy Smith will remain the teams no.1 corner and will likely start next to newly signed Brandon Carr. Carr spent 5 years in Dallas where his large contract overshadowed his level of play. Carr was a consistent starter and never missed a game in his 5 years in Big D. Both Carr and Smith are over 6 foot and will play an aggressive, in-your face still of coverage which matches the overall aggressive nature of this Defense. Newly signed Brandon Boykin is the perfect slot corner in the modern NFL while rookie Marlon Humphrey will likely sit and develop – he’s an ultra aggressive, alpha corner who has the potential to develop into a lock-down corner in the not so distant future. Playing aggressive on the outside with their corners while their two versatile top-5 safeties lock up and jam receivers/ tight ends or play the cenre-field role should allow the Ravens newly invigorated pass rush more time to get home in 2017.

 

Conclusion

While it is way too early to anoint the 2017 Baltimore Ravens Defense as the 2000 unit reincarnated, it is clear that GM Ozzie Newsome is going back to his roots as he looks to put together a championship-caliber unit which should hopefully hide the deficiencies  on the Offensive side of the ball. The 2017 Ravens Defense have all the makings of a future juggernaut as the next wave of talented playmakers look to take over from the old-guard with Suggs as the last lieutenant of the talented 00’s Ravens. The transition has already been made from Lewis to Mosley and soon we should expect to see others from this group pick up the mantle as the Ravens look to first win the AFC North and soon challenge the Patriots for AFC supremacy…

 

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