Ravens will have to be creative with pass rush
Without Terrell Suggs, defensive coordinator Dean Pees will be challenged
Pernell McPhee and Paul Kruger prepare for Ravens practice. (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun / August 14, 2012)
The loss of NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs to a partially torn Achilles tendon is expected to provide a serious challenge to the creativity of defensive coordinator Dean Pees.
Although the Ravens tied the New York Giants for third in the NFL with 48 sacks last season for the third-highest total in franchise history, that was achieved as Suggs recorded a career-high 14 sacks and seven forced fumbles.
"They obviously don't have anybody on campus that's capable of replicating Suggs' production," said NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a former scout with the Ravens. "They're going to have to get more of an inside pass rush to offset not having Suggs. I think they'll have to be more aggressive with their schemes than they have been. You have to replace Suggs collectively."
The Ravens will lean heavily on Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, one of the more dominant interior linemen in the game.
And they'll feature outside linebackers Paul Kruger and rookie Courtney Upshaw as well as defensive end Pernell McPhee.
Still, none of those players has approached Suggs' pass rushing skills.
"Suggs brings a unique power and speed to that hybrid linebacker-defensive end, but when someone gets hurt you ask yourself: 'Who's going to step up?'" former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann said. "They can get push up the middle with Ngata, and the ends will benefit. Sizzle is Sizzle for a reason, but I expect very little lag time in performance. The Ravens have always been a top-flight defense. I don't see that changing even without Suggs."
Generating pressure through more elaborate blitz packages and overloads is likely to be a large part of the equation.
For Pees, who was promoted from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator in January, , hiding his intentions is pivotal.
"It's tough for everybody because quarterbacks are smart, coaches are smart," Pees said. "They can figure that stuff out pretty good. The key is trying to disguise the blitz, make them think you're coming and you're not and vice versa. Every time you put in a blitz, you try to put in something coverage-wise that looks exactly like that.
"Every time you play coverage, you try to have a pressure off of that. It's just hard sometimes. Linebackers can't sit 5 yards off the line and pressure from there. So, disguise is always a big part of it."
Known for his cerebral approach, Pees has an instant recall of opponents' tendencies gleaned from studying countless hours of game tape.
The Ravens are counting on Pees' football acumen.
"Dean is a very, very sharp guy," linebacker Jameel McClain said. "A lot of people are going to find that out with his schemes. It's going to be interesting.
"Everybody knows what's at risk with Suggs hurt. Sadly, one person went down, but it's an opportunity for someone else and they all recognize that."
When Pees was the New England Patriots defensive coordinator (2006-2009), the Patriots were the lone team in the league to rank in the top 10 in scoring defense annually during his four-year tenure.
"He's the best I've gone against," Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "The reason is because he's very difficult to decipher what they're trying to do."
Added Ngata, who had five sacks last season: "He's great at just disguising a lot of things and making defenses look one way than the other."
Pees cautioned, though, that simply bringing extra defenders after the quarterback isn't always the correct answer.
"Sometimes, it's not bad to play coverage and get a good four-man rush," he said. "You can sit there and blitz sometimes, and if it's a quarterback that's really good at picking up the blitz, it may hurt you more than it helps you."
With Suggs expected to miss at least the majority of the season, McPhee is the Ravens' leading healthy returning pass rusher.
Regarded as a sleeper when he was picked in the fifth round last year, McPhee thrived as a rookie. He registered six sacks while primarily playing on third downs.
Having bulked up to 6-foot-3, 290 pounds, McPhee combines speed and power and is capable of rushing outside the outside shoulder of tackles as a traditional defensive end or shifting inside and grappling with hefty guards.
"He's very gifted," Jeremiah said. "When I was in Philadelphia and we played him in the first preseason game last year, he stood out like a sore thumb. The Ravens knew they hit on him right away."
Part of the Ravens' plan has been cross-training Kruger and Upshaw at Suggs' vacated rush outside linebacker spot and strong side linebacker.
A former second-round draft pick, Kruger had a career-high 5 1/2 sacks last season.
"I like Paul Kruger," Jeremiah said. "He's got a chance to be a really solid player. In my opinion, he's not a double-digit sack guy."
With the defense under scrutiny without Suggs, the Ravens don't appear to lack for motivation.
"Yeah, it's a chip on the shoulder to keep the pass rush going," McPhee said. "We ain't got to be creative. We just got to go out and compete and be ourselves."
McClain and hard-hitting strong safety Bernard Pollard and the cornerbacks are among the top candidates for increased blitzing roles this fall.
"It's in my repertoire," said McClain, who played defensive end in college.
In seven different games last season, the Ravens had at least four sacks.
That included tying a franchise record with nine in a November victory over the San Francisco 49ers.
"The guys here know how to get to the quarterback," cornerback Lardarius Webb said. "They know how to attack. It's something they teach around here, and it don't go away no matter who we got rushing."