Sports columnist Mike Preston talks about the importance of the Ravens winning the first game of the season. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
The Ravens coaches began the arduous process of self study immediately after the conclusion of a disappointing 2015 season. What coach John Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Dean Pees saw on tape didn't look a whole lot like the defense that longtime admirers have come to expect from the Ravens.
Injuries diminished their pass rush and challenged their secondary, and forced Pees to simplify the defensive game plan. The results were good in the second half of the season as the Ravens had the NFL's second-ranked defense and the top-ranked pass defense. What they didn't have was the type of attacking, playmaking and quarterback-punishing unit that has defined the franchise.
Their efforts to regain that will go a long way toward determining whether the Ravens return to the playoffs. The defense's first test comes Sunday against the Buffalo Bills in the regular-season opener at M&T Bank Stadium. With Rex Ryan and Ed Reed on the opposite side, it would be a fitting time for the Ravens to turn back the clock.
"We want to get turnovers. We want to be aggressive. We want to hit," Ravens top cornerback Jimmy Smith said. "That's been the mentality from the end of last year until now. That hasn't changed. We want to make sure people still fear the Ravens."
As a young cornerback building a career with the Ravens, Lardarius Webb enjoyed the comfort of knowing that whatever happened on the field, free safety Ed Reed was behind him to help the defense make a stop.
Ryan, who enters his second season as Bills head coach, was a Ravens defensive assistant from 1999 to 2008 and the unit's coordinator for the final four of those seasons. His fearlessness in how he sent guys after the quarterback helped cement the Ravens' defensive mentality and swagger.
Reed, in his first season as Buffalo's assistant defensive backs coach, was the ultimate playmaker as a Ravenssafety for 11 seasons, registering 61 regular-season interceptions and scoring 13 touchdowns.
As the Ravens prepared for the season and what they hope will be a defensive rebirth, coaches frequently showed the players video packages of some of the team's top defenses. Reed, Ray Lewis, Haloti Ngata, Bart Scott and the team's current rush linebacker, Terrell Suggs, all figured prominently.
The films "showed us how they used to play, how they did things. Some of the rules have obviously changed since then, but as far the mindset and everything, that's what we want," starting weak-side linebacker Zachary Orr said. "It's talked about every day — getting after the quarterback, getting after the football, punishing guys that carry the football, just pretty much hitting anything that moves. That's what we have to get back to doing."
From 1999 to 2011, the Ravens had a top-five ranked defense in nine of 13 seasons, and finished sixth two others. They've finished eighth each of the past two years, which is nothing to gloss over. However, the group the past two years has been unable to consistently make game-changing or game-saving plays. Last season, the Ravens lost nine of their 14 games decided by eight points or fewer and in several of them, the defense had a chance to get a stop to put the game away.
The Ravens finished last year with just 37 sacks, which tied for 17th in the NFL. They also had a league- and franchise-low six interceptions. To put that in perspective, Reed had more than six interceptions by himself in five different seasons.
"There's no Ray Lewises, there's no Ed Reeds. There's no people like that here anymore, but we can still implement the Ravens' way, which is hard-nosed, physical, defensive football," nose tackle Brandon Williams said. "We talk about that swagger. We talk about that mentality that it's bigger than us. It's just the way you become a Raven that's embedded into your DNA. That's who you are. We talk about that a lot."
Not only have the defensive coaches harped on creating turnovers in every meeting for months, but the Ravens did drills nearly every day in practice to hammer the point home. Players worked on stripping ball carriers of the football. Defensive backs did tip drills and worked on their hands and concentration skills by tracking down tennis balls in midair. Whenever the football hit the ground in training camp, even if it was on an incompletion and the ball was dead, a defensive player would swoop in, pick it up and head the other way.
"The focus since April every day — creating turnovers, creating sacks, making your plays when it comes your way, being in position. We do those things and stress them every day," safety Eric Weddle said. "It carried over in the preseason games. [We] forced a bunch of fumbles. We are going to be in a position to make our plays this year, and we have to make them — the game-changers — especially early on in the game. … We have been stressing it, the coaches have been stressing it. It is time to go execute now."
The defensive unit didn't undergo a ton of changes this offseason. Albert McClellan will replace the departed Courtney Upshaw at weak-side linebacker. C.J. Mosley moves into the middle to take over Daryl Smith's role, and he'll play alongside Orr. The Ravens signed Weddle, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, and paired him with converted cornerback Lardarius Webb.
They drafted two pass rushers in Kamalei Correa and Matthew Judon, and two corners in Tavon Young and Maurice Canady.
Ravens officials believe the team is much deeper defensively and more equipped to handle the inevitable injuries, like the current foot ailment that has sidelined strong-side linebacker Elvis Dumervil. The coaching staff also believes there are things it can do to put players in position to not only punish quarterbacks but to deceive them.
Bills QB Tyrod Taylor talks about returning to play at M&T Bank Stadium, where he spent four seasons as the backup to Ravens QB Joe Flacco. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
They want quarterbacks to question who is coming after them and who is dropping. Unlike last year when injuries and inconsistent play forced Pees and his staff to abandon certain plans, they want to do more things on the back end to trigger mistakes.
In the preseason, the defense — despite not blitzing much and playing basic schemes as to not give away any secrets in otherwise meaningless games — showed pretty well with 12 sacks and five forced turnovers over four games.
"[In camp,] We've had really a lot of different [pass breakups] and interceptions — a lot more than what I've seen in the past," Pees said. "The thing of it is all of that is well and good, but now it has to carry over into the live bullets on Sunday. Now it's the season, and now we have to carry that to the field. I think the emphasis has worked. Now let's see if the emphasis continues to work when we really need it to work."
The correlation between forcing turnovers and sacking the quarterback, and playing winning football is obvious. Nine of the top 10 teams in sacks last year went to the playoffs and the leader in that category, the Denver Broncos, won the Super Bowl. Seven of the top 11 teams in takeaways qualified for the postseason.
When the Ravens have been at their best, their defense has been a fixture at or near the top of those two categories. The one player who can talk from experience about the dominant defenses of old is confident the current Ravens can get back to that level.
"You don't want to show your hand in preseason," Suggs said. "We do hold a lot back. We don't want our opponents to know exactly everything we're doing. You don't want to show your hand, but we feel really good, I'll say that. We feel really good. We're very optimistic and we're encouraged."