CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison asked Terrell Suggs what he knew about Brian St. Pierre just minutes after the Carolina Panthers surprisingly named the third-string journeyman their starting quarterback.
"I know we're going to get after [him]," the Ravens linebacker shouted.
Cranking up the Ravens' sluggish pass rush is certainly a priority in taking down St. Pierre and the crumbling Carolina Panthers (1-8) on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium. The Ravens have managed 16 sacks through nine games, putting them on pace for the fewest in the team's proud defensive history.
The Ravens' pass rushers have come up frustratingly short against quarterbacks getting rid of the ball quickly ( Tom Brady, Mark Sanchez and Kyle Orton) and ones eluding pressure by scrambling (Seneca Wallace and Ryan Fitzpatrick).
There should be no excuses for the Ravens (6-3) on Sunday. Standing in the way of the Ravens' best start in the John Harbaugh era is one of the NFL's worst pass-protecting offensive lines and a quarterback who has thrown five passes in seven NFL seasons.
"If you can really rattle [an inexperienced quarterback] early, then you can really get them off their spot and really start making them do things that they really don't want to do," Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis said.
How the Ravens attack quarterbacks these days has become an interesting debate.
Under former defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, the Ravens used exotic blitzes in a scheme affectionately called "organized chaos" by players. In their second season under Mattison, the general perception is the Ravens defense relies more on a four-man rush and is simply more "organized."
"Having been here with Rex, I was part of that scheme, and I tend to believe that we still have that scheme," Mattison said. "The first thing and the only thing we'll ever do is what I feel is best for this defense and what gives us the best chance to win and to put these players in the best position where they can be successful."
Numbers say the Ravens take more chances than most of the teams in the league. The Ravens blitz 38 percent of the time, which ranks 10th in the NFL (according to statistics provided to the league from the Elias Sports Bureau). Comparatively, Ryan's New York Jets lead the league by blitzing over half the time and the Indianapolis Colts are last by blitzing 15.5 percent.
"We blitz a lot," Harbaugh said. "Do I want to blitz more? Personally, I want to blitz every play. To me, that's fun, that's aggressive, that's how you want to do it. Can you get away with it in this league, the way the offenses are spread out, and the speed they put on the field and all that? Nobody's blitzing every play. Not in New York, not anywhere."
Fighting for pressure
The Ravens' pass rush hit its peak under Ryan in 2006, when they set a team record with 60 sacks. But the numbers dwindled to 32 sacks in 2007 and 34 sacks in 2008, Ryan's last two seasons with the Ravens. It was status quo in Mattison's first season, when the Ravens recorded 32 sacks.
Some NFL observers would argue that the Ravens aren't built to generate sacks. They don't have great speed rushers like the New York Giants and Indianapolis Colts. They can't gamble too much because they lack Pro Bowl cornerbacks like the Jets.
The other challenge facing the Ravens' pass rush has been the personnel on the other side of the ball. Six of the Ravens' nine opponents this year rank in the top half of the NFL in fewest sacks allowed. That means the Ravens aren't the only ones not getting to these quarterbacks.
"We're going to keep fighting for more pressure, we're going to keep fighting for more sacks, and we're going to come up with blitz and pressure packages as we go," said Harbaugh, who watched Philadelphia's pressure defense under coordinator Jim Johnson for a decade. "I think the foundation of our system is and always will be a pressure package. That's what our defense is. That's what we did in Philadelphia, that's what Baltimore has done for the last five or six years, and that's what we're going to continue to do, without question."
Still, would the players want to see more "organized chaos" back in the defense?
" Ozzie [Newsome, general manager] didn't draft me to be a defensive coordinator," Suggs said. "I just line up and play. I think we're doing a good job. We're 6-3 and ahead of the division. We have to be doing something right."
A two-man show
As far as the pass rush goes, Suggs and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata are doing something right. They have combined for 11 ½ sacks this season. But if Suggs doesn't beat an offensive tackle or Ngata fails to push his way into the backfield, the Ravens rarely produce a pass rush. The rest of the players have contributed 4 ½ sacks.
"We need to get after the quarterback more," outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "A lot of that applies to me. I need to do a better job at rushing the passer."
The Ravens miss the production of Johnson, whose sack total has dropped from six in 2009 to a half sack this season. They miss the inside presence of Trevor Pryce, last year's sack leader who bolted to the Jets after the Ravens tried to take him off the roster for a week. And they miss the speed coming off the edge from Sergio Kindle, their top draft pick who is out for the season after falling down a flight of stairs before the start of training camp.
As a result, the Ravens have collected the ninth-fewest sacks in the league.
"It could get better," defensive end Cory Redding said about the pass rush. "Different things happen: schemes, formations, personnel. Guys just have to all get better. All of us have to improve across the table in order for us to get better and be the kind of team we want to be down the stretch."
Prowling for Panthers
One remedy for an ailing pass rush is the Carolina Panthers. Knowing the Panthers will try to run the ball because of their inexperience at quarterback, defenses stack the line of scrimmage on first and second downs. That forces several third-and-longs, which allow pass rushers to tee off on Carolina.
The Panthers have allowed 27 sacks this season, the third-most in the NFL. The weakest part of Carolina's offensive line is in the middle, where left guard Mackenzy Bernadeau (who is replacing the injured Travelle Wharton) and right guard Geoff Schwartz have combined to give up seven sacks. The pass protection has been so poor that it led to starting quarterback Matt Moore getting knocked out with a shoulder injury (backup Jimmy Clausen is sidelined with a concussion, but he received the injury on a running play).
Carolina coach John Fox essentially shrugged his shoulders when asked about his team's problems in pass protection.
"Well, I think we need to get better really in every phase of offense," he said. "Right now, [the offense is] 32nd in the league out of 32 teams. It's not always just one area in the pass game. It's a combination of a lot of things — the quarterback recognizing the site, the receiver recognizing the site. It's not always just the O-line. It could be a back. There's just a lot of moving parts."
Like the Carolina offense, the Ravens' defense has received its share of criticism over the past week. For one of the few times during the last decade, players have had to defend a defense that has given up an unexpected amount of passing yards and fourth-quarter leads.
"Some people don't know anything about football," safety Ed Reed said. "We're still a great defense."
One way the Ravens can deflect the pressure is by applying it to St. Pierre and the Carolina offensive line.
"If you let that [criticism] get to you, you tend to let the things you're capable of doing slip away from you," Suggs said. "I'm not letting it bother me too much. It's definitely things we have to work on and get adjusted before we try to make a playoff run or a Super Bowl run. We have to take care of those concerns ASAP."
Note: The Ravens signed guard Bryan Mattison off the practice squad and waived offensive tackle Scott Kooistra. The move suggests that the Ravens are planning to play without starting right guard Chris Chester, who was hospitalized Thursday night with a skin condition. Tony Moll would likely start in his place.
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