The Ravens used the NFL draft to rebuild their offense, but the development of young talent on defense could have the most impact on their 2018 season.
Ranked No. 12 in overall defense in 2017, the Ravens allowed 111.3 rushing yards, 213.8 passing yards and 18.93 points per game. They were No. 1 in interceptions with 22 and in forced turnovers with 34.
But if a good defense wants to become a dominant one, if the Ravens want to leave a calling card throughout the rest of the NFL, they will need to pressure the quarterback and produce more sacks than the 41 last year.
Granted, the Ravens could use a little tightening up on the run defense, which fell off in the final quarter of last season, but the pass defense was even more inconsistent.
The stories are already out there about Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs being in top shape with about a month remaining before training camp. He looks great. Kudos to the trainer. Kudos to the strength coach.
Suggs deserves all the compliments, but where are the complements?
We’ve seen this same movie in recent years. Suggs plays well throughout the first half of the season, and then fizzles down the stretch. That’s to be expected from a player who has been in the league 15 years and gone to seven Pro Bowls.
The question is, who will line up on the opposite side of Suggs? He’s still a great weapon and forces offenses to slide their protection toward him. New Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale might be able to move him along the line of scrimmage to cause some confusion.
That tactic would work better if some of those young linebackers stepped up their games. Specifically, outside linebackers like second-year player Tim Williams and third-year player Kamalei Correa need sacks. They were signed out of their respective colleges, Williams from Alabama and Correa from Boise State, for one major reason: to harass quarterbacks.
Both got reprieves last season. Williams was only a rookie, and Correa was on unfamiliar ground playing on the inside. Correa, though, is back on the outside and looks bigger and stronger than a year ago.
They need to answer this call for urgency. And so do fellow outside linebackers Matthew Judon and Za’Darius Smith. Judon, who will be going into his third season, played well on the strong side last year and was fifth on the team in tackles with 58, including eight sacks.
Smith, about to enter his fourth season, had 3½ sacks, which was disappointing considering he had 5½ as a rookie. A lot of times he was around the quarterback but always a second or two late.
That has to change. He is now at a time in his career when there is a demand for consistency. It’s the same on the Ravens’ defensive line, where the team hasn’t developed a good pass rusher in several years. Players like fifth-year end Brent Urban and third-year tackle Willie Henry have played well at times but not for sustained lengths.
The Ravens should be strong in the secondary. There are still questions surrounding the safeties. Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson proved last season that they were really suited as strong or box safeties, not the free-safety-type the Ravens needed to play center field in long passing situations.
But I like second-year cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who has the potential to be a shutdown type. Veteran Jimmy Smith can match up with any receiver when fully healthy, and the Ravens have some depth with veteran Brandon Carr.
But again, young guys like third-year cornerbacks Tavon Young and Maurice Canady have to play well in roles in the nickel or dime units, or as starters if needed. The talent, though, is there, and in some cases proven, just not consistent.
Regardless, even good cornerbacks have a tough time covering receivers if there is little pass rush. In recent years, the Ravens have proven competitive and have come close to making the postseason despite having only one premier pass rusher in Suggs.
During the last two or three years, the Ravens secondary seemed to have communication problems, especially when playing a zone. The guess here is that Martindale will try to simplify things and rely more on athletic talent than brain work.
Former defensive coordinator Dean Pees appeared to blitz more early in the season but became more conservative in the final quarter. That won’t happen with Martindale. He’ll bring pressure often and throughout the year.
But schemes will take a team only so far. Eventually, it will come down to talent — who can rush the quarterback and who can’t.