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John Harbaugh is confident that Ravens can fill void left by Ngata, McPhee

Ravens John Harbaugh voiced some confidence in his defense Tuesday. "The young guys just have to develop."
Ravens John Harbaugh voiced some confidence in his defense Tuesday. "The young guys just have to develop." (Baltimore Sun photo)

Despite the losses of Haloti Ngata and Pernell McPhee and the ongoing questions about the secondary, Ravens coach John Harbaugh doesn't sound all too worried about the state of his team's defense.

Instead, Harbaugh spent part of Tuesday's AFC head coaches breakfast expressing confidence in several players who figure to take on big roles on that unit during the 2015 season. That includes second-year defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw, recently signed safety Kendrick Lewis and young cornerbacks Asa Jackson, Rashaan Melvin and Chris Greenwood.

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The last time Ravens fans watched Melvin, he was getting picked on by Tom Brady and company in the team's AFC divisional playoff loss to the New England Patriots. However, while Harbaugh conceded that the team wants to add a cornerback, he also feels that Melvin, Jackson and Greenwood are capable of pressing for starting roles.

"The young guys just have to develop," Harbaugh said. "We've got some good developmental corners - those three guys, at least, are going to develop. I still like Anthony Levine as a depth safety/corner type guy.  He proved himself this year that way. Those young guys are potential starters for us, too. It will be a lot of fun and it will be a great competition at corner."

Harbaugh also said he expects Lewis, formerly of the Houston Texans, to give the Ravens' secondary a boost. Last season, the team got uneven safety play and tackling and miscommunication were issues for much of the year. Lewis, who has started 31 games over the past two seasons, is known as a smart player and a sure-handed tackler.

"The first thing I noticed about him is he knows how to play the position," Harbaugh said of Lewis who is expected to be paired with holdover Will Hill. "He's in position, he's got good eyes, he's got really good range. He's a good tackler. He's a good, smart player and I think his best football is in front of him."

As stout as Ngata was -- and Harbaugh acknowledged that the Ravens are going to have to "deal with and overcome his loss" -- the Ravens do feel like they have accumulated great depth along the defensive line. The hope is that nose tackle Brandon Williams, who played at an extremely high level last year, will only get better, as should Jernigan, who more than held his own during Ngata's four-game suspension last season.

The re-signings of defensive linemen Chris Canty, Lawrence Guy and Christo Bilukidi, plus the potential injury recoveries of Brent Urban and Kapron Lewis-Moore should give the team more than enough size and strength to maintain a strong rushing defense.

"There's no reason that we can't be a great defense and a great defensive front next year," Harbaugh said.

If there are questions about the front seven, they will concern the group's ability to pressure the quarterback. Obviously, outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, who combined for 29 sacks last year, are formidable on the outside. But the Ravens will need to find interior pass-rushing threats.

Ngata had only two sacks last season and never more than 5 1/2 in any season, but he had the ability to occupy blockers and push the pocket. McPhee, who had 7 ½ sacks last season, terrorized offenses with his ability to line up at different spots and still get to the quarterback.

The Ravens don't currently have a replacement with his skill set on the roster, though that could change as the team is expected to target a pass rusher early in the draft. Harbaugh, though, also seemed comfortable with Upshaw playing on passing downs rather than just being used against the run

The 25-year-old Upshaw has only three sacks in three career seasons and he had none last year, but team officials feel that he has steadily improved his pass-rushing skills.

"Courtney was on the field as a pass rusher last year. He's in a rotation with those other three guys," Harbaugh said. "If he moves into the next spot, he'll probably be on the field more in third-down situations and passing situations. He did a good job rushing the passer, especially toward the end of the year. He's had plenty of quarterback hits. He doesn't have as many sacks. I think he's a split-second late or the quarterback gets rid of it but he's had a lot of quarterback hits. We like Courtney as a pass rusher."

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