The Ravens finished the 2013 season with the 12th-ranked defense in the NFL, but they didn't have the usual swagger.
They didn't intimidate anybody. They couldn't stop the run. They gave up big plays. They couldn't get off the field in crunch time of the fourth quarter.
Swagger? The only Raven who had any was place-kicker Justin Tucker.
So, that's what this training camp is all about as far as defense. The Ravens want to go old-school.
"When we're in the heat of the moment, then maybe we may start to do some of those things — reacting too much to personnel groups or personnel — and let's just get back to the basics," Ravens rush linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We forget sometimes that [teams] have to stop us. We've always been a very fast and violent defense, and we need to get back to that."
That's the hope. The Ravens seemed to lose their nerve in the last three games against the Detroit Lions, New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals last season. They had no creativity. They didn't disguise coverages. If a team got a good read on them in the first half, it only got better in the second because there wasn't much change.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh talked at the end of the season about the need for the element of surprise. In 2014, the Ravens want to use more exotic blitzes and try to apply more pressure. They'll put their cornerbacks in press mode more, getting into receivers' faces at the line of scrimmage.
Because of the infusion of youth, the Ravens are quicker and faster. They are ready to attack instead of being attacked.
"I feel like we got a faster defensive football team. We're trying to be physical; we need to be more physical," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "We've got to juice it up a little bit."
It all starts with run defense. Last season the Ravens allowed an average of 124 yards a game. That's unheard-of in Baltimore. But that could change this season. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata has played well in training camp, and end Chris Canty has vowed to improve on a disappointing 2013 season.
But the improved play could come through young players such as third-year defensive end DeAngelo Tyson and second-year tackle Brandon Williams. The Ravens have two strong rookies in end Brent Urban and tackle Timmy Jernigan.
Jernigan could become special. He has great explosion and is relentless.
"I love the guy," Pees said of Jernigan. "I tell you, the [Brent] Urban kid, too, is a big man out there, and he's playing with some power. I like all those young guys. I think as a whole this may be one of the best groups that we've had since I've been here. I don't know before that, but even when I was in New England, I think that group [of Ravens] is as good as I've been around for a total group working hard."
The Ravens are going to need that combination of speed, power and size because their linebackers aren't big. Inside linebacker Daryl Smith has good size, as do Suggs and outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw, but Arthur Brown and C.J. Mosley are small on the inside, as is pass-rushing specialist Elvis Dumervil.
Brown and Mosley are fast and can run sideline to sideline, but it will be interesting to see how they handle those big offensive linemen when teams run right at them.
Another area of concern is the secondary. All through training camp, Pees and secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo have talked about cutting down on the number of big plays from a year ago.
Actually, the Ravens allowed only 50 passes over 20 yards or more, but a lot of those seemed to come in the fourth quarter when they needed to make a game-winning stop and couldn't.
They will be willing to take more risks this season. If a team is going to blitz, it needs cornerbacks who can jam receivers at the line of scrimmage and throw off timing routes.
The Ravens have two in Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb. Both can run and both are physical. Now the Ravens need to find a nickel cornerback, and that hasn't gone well so far.
There are also questions about the safety positions, with second-year player Matt Elam moving from free to strong and Darian Stewart playing at free after spending last season with the St. Louis Rams.
The Ravens have to find more playmakers.
"You always evaluate what you did the previous years," Spagnuolo said. "Dean has done that — the whole defensive staff has — and the one thing everybody's disappointed in is the big plays. The one thing about having the responsibility of being in the secondary, whether you're coaching or playing in it, is ultimately on a pass play that is deep, it falls on those guys. We take it personally."
A lot of the defensive players have chips on their shoulders. They aren't happy being in the Top 15. A Top 10 ranking might be the difference between staying home and going to the playoffs, or possibly winning a Super Bowl.
"So, we've got to be a Top Five defense, Top Three, No. 1 really," Daryl Smith said. "In order to do that, it starts with everybody on it, and I'm taking ownership to say that I need to step up with everybody else on the defense."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun