At some point this summer, Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees figures to have a better idea of how all the pieces will fit together. Bookend pass rushers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, rookie defensive end Bronson Kaufusi and top cornerback Jimmy Smith could all be recovered from injuries and back on the field. A clear leader will eventually emerge to start at inside linebacker alongside C.J. Mosley.
Pees, though, already feels comfortable answering two questions that have hovered over his defense throughout a long offseason. No, he insists, the Ravens are not switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defensive alignment despite what you may have read or heard. And yes, the team's reworked secondary will be significantly improved in 2016.
"I feel like there's been a lot said about the secondary," Pees said at at the team's mandatory minicamp this month. "I think you're going to be very surprised."
If nothing else, the Ravens' defense will certainly have a new look. Gone are veteran starters Daryl Smith, Chris Canty, Courtney Upshaw and Will Hill. Long-time cornerback Lardarius Webb is now a safety and Mosley has moved over into Smith's middle linebacker role. The defensive additions include two-time All-Pro safety Eric Weddle, veteran cornerback Jerraud Powers and rookie pass rushers Kaufusi, Kamalei Correa and Matthew Judon.
General manager Ozzie Newsome "did a great job of bringing in additional help," said Dumervil who is expected to be recovered from foot surgery in time to return early in training camp. "We have [Correa], we have Za'Darius [Smith], we have Terrell coming back. Our secondary became more tight with Eric back there. We're excited. We feel good about our plan. We feel good about the players we have. It is just a matter of getting everybody healthy and finishing strong in the offseason so when the real bullets start coming, we're all ready."
There wasn't a ton to be gained from observing the Ravens through two organized team activities and in mandatory minicamp. Several of the team's standouts on both sides of the ball didn't participate, and the defensive staff was more focused on making sure the players had the play calls down and knew their assignments.
But, by reviewing their offseason activity alone, the Ravens clearly prioritized having a quicker, versatile and more opportunistic defense. Weddle, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, has 19 career interceptions, and Powers, who started 40 games for the Arizona Cardinals the past three seasons, has 11.
Correa, the team's second-round pick, can play both inside and outside linebacker. Kaufusi can line up at defensive end or on the outside.
As things stand, the Ravens will replace Daryl Smith, who was the team's leading tackler two of the past three seasons but struggled in coverage, with either Zachary Orr or Arthur Brown, two quicker players. The younger and more athletic Za'Darius Smith will replace Upshaw, who was primarily an edge setter.
"The ability to play guys in different spots, make it difficult for offenses to identify as far as their structure and who they're supposed to block [and] whose playing what coverage — those are all really important things," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Having the players that can do that, that can play multiple positions, goes right hand in hand with that. Having guys who can run and are athletic is really important. We've tried to do that."
The Ravens' defense ranked eighth in the NFL last year (10th against the pass and 12th against the run), marking the 11th time in the past 13 seasons the organization has had a top-10 defense. The final ranking was fueled by a strong second half. Over the season's last eight games, the Ravens allowed only 291.1 yards per game after surrendering 383.6 yards per contest over the first eight weeks.
But the defense still came up short in certain key areas. The Ravens forced only 14 turnovers, and their six interceptions ranked last in the league. They also had an uncharacteristically low 37 sacks, which ranked 17th in the NFL, and allowed opponents to convert on third downs nearly 40 percent of the time.
Those shortcomings prompted speculation the Ravens would make significant changes. The hiring of assistants Leslie Frazier (secondary) and Joe Cullen (defensive line), who both came from a 4-3 defense in Tampa Bay, was taken as a sign by some that one of the changes would be a shift in alignment. However, Pees reiterated that the Ravens have always employed some 4-3 concepts.
"When haven't we been 3-4 and 4-3 and multiple other things? We have always been that," he said. "We were that when Rex [Ryan] was the coordinator here, and Chuck [Pagano] and Greg [Mattison]. We're a little bit of everything. Basically what we are is we look like a 3-4 personnel that plays a lot of 4-3 defense. But it's not necessarily a standard 4-3 that everybody thinks of. There are all different ways to play 4-3 defense, and we're multiple. We're not changing to a 4-3 defense. We aren't changing to anything. We're playing what we play, and we're trying to tweak it, and we studied some things in the offseason that we think will make us better – both in the front and both in the coverage, and that's what we'll do just like you do every year. There is no wholesale change here."
The Ravens' defense, which has long prided itself on getting after the quarterback, will still depend heavily on Suggs, 33, and Dumervil, 32, who are both coming off surgeries. But if one goes down like Suggs did last season in Week 1, the Ravens still have Za'Darius Smith, who had 5 ½ sacks as a rookie, along with Correa and Judon. The Ravens also figure to create more pressure from the interior with either Brent Urban or Kaufusi replacing the departed Canty on passing downs, and Timmy Jernigan rushing from the defensive tackle spot.
Injuries have decimated the team's secondary in recent seasons, but the team currently has six safeties who have experience (Weddle, Webb, Kendrick Lewis, Matt Elam, Terrence Brooks and Anthony Levine), and veteran corners in Jimmy Smith, Wright, Powers, Kyle Arrington and Will Davis, along with draft picks Tavon Young and Maurice Canady.
"I think we are going to be good, but I always think that," Jimmy Smith said. "I think putting Webb back there at safety – that whole competition right now is really good. You've got guys coming on really strong. Terrence Brooks, Elam is playing pretty well. Weddle, obviously, he is commanding the defense back there and is making plays as well. Everybody in that room, including our coaches, kind of are putting it in our head to get turnovers."
The Ravens spent time in every practice at minicamp working on stripping the ball carrier, and the defensive backs do drills daily that emphasize reading the ball and going after it. The team is also keeping a chart of caused turnovers for each player this summer. Harbaugh hopes to establishes a ball-hawking mindset that carries into the regular season.
"We have high expectations for our defense this year, we really do," Harbaugh said. "I really like the players out there running around, young guys and veteran guys. We'll see how it gels in training camp and in the preseason."