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With Terrell Suggs out, Ravens defense in uncharted territory vs. Raiders

With Terrell Suggs out, Ravens defense in uncharted territory vs. Raiders
Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith, left, celebrates his touchdown with Lardarius Webb during the second half against the Denver Broncos on Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015, in Denver. (Joe Mahoney / Associated Press)

In many respects, Terrell Suggs was the last man standing, the final link to these Ravens and their great defenses of the past.

Middle linebacker Ray Lewis retired after the 2012 season. Safety Ed Reed departed in free agency that same offseason, and has since retired. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata was traded to the Detroit Lions in March. But there was still Suggs, a Raven since 2003, rushing Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, setting the edge against the run and calling out commands to a defense he led.

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The torn left Achilles tendon Suggs suffered against the Broncos last Sunday, ending his season, doesn't necessarily mark the end of an era for the Ravens. Suggs, who turns 33 next month, is still under contract with the Ravens, and few believe his final trip off an NFL field will be on the back of a cart.

But Suggs' absence puts the spotlight on a defense with different leaders and a decidedly new look. When they face the Oakland Raiders today at O.co Coliseum in a game between two Week 1 losers, the Ravens defense will take the field for a regular-season game without Lewis, Reed or Suggs for the first time since Oct. 11, 1998.

"It's absolutely going to be different, without a doubt. But we still have a game to play," Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith said. "We've been without each one of them at some point before. I'm not saying it's going to be a smooth transition, but it's something that we're going to be able to handle."

Even in Week 2, there is too much on the line for the Ravens to get sentimental. An 0-2 start isn't a death knell for a season, but it would make for a tough climb back: The Ravens next face their biggest division rivals, the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers, in a five-day span beginning Sept. 27.

The Ravens never have been 0-2 under coach John Harbaugh, and they've lost their first two games just three times in franchise history. Each time, they failed to finish with a winning record. According to ESPN Stats & Info, only 24 of the 205 teams to start 0-2 since 1990 have qualified for the postseason.

"We'll find out how good we're going to be by what we do," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "You can sit there and speculate all you want. You have to go out and play. I'm confident in our guys. The question keeps coming up: Are we confident? Of course we're confident. What are we doing here if we're not confident? We believe in these guys and we believe in the work that they've put in and how much they care, how good they are. That's what you stand on, and you have to go out there and do something about it."

For years, the Ravens always have had a defensive leader, and a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, to lean on. Lewis was that guy for 17 seasons. Reed, a Raven for 11 seasons, was revered by his teammates for his playmaking ability and football intelligence. Suggs became the voice of the defense after Lewis and Reed left, and other Ravens have followed his lead.

When news of Suggs' season-ending injury started to circulate around the Ravens locker room last Sunday, several players appeared to be in shock.

"Obviously, in no way do I want to diminish the fact of losing Terrell — he's a great player. When Ray left, that was hard. When Ed left, it was [hard]. It is hard when they all leave … or in Suggs' case, getting hurt," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "But I also don't want to diminish the opportunity that it is for our guys to raise up and find other leaders. And everybody's got to take a part in this. It is not one guy that's going to come up and say, 'OK, well, I'm going to be Suggs.' Everybody has to be their own personality; we've got to do it collectively as a defense and as a coaching staff, too. We've got to do our part. We've all got to rise up and just play a little harder and do a little more."

Harbaugh and Ravens coaches have long said they have a group of leaders on defense. Nobody is as vocal as Suggs, but defensive end Chris Canty and cornerback Lardarius Webb have enough clout to speak up.

Linebackers Elvis Dumervil, Daryl Smith and C.J. Mosley, along with cornerback Jimmy Smith, are more lead-by-example types, but they're highly respected in the locker room.

"I think once you have a bunch of guys who kind of seem to pave the way [for how] things are, as far as playing like a Raven, I think we have a definition of what that is," Dumervil said. "We have young guys that have to step up, and we're excited for that challenge. And I think there are more leaders on this team than you may think. Like I said earlier, you can't replace Terrell Suggs in the sense of he's that emotional leader, but there are other guys that can lead in other ways."

In the Ravens' scheme, Dumervil will be Suggs' replacement. He'll shift over to the rush linebacker spot, and Courtney Upshaw will remain on the strong side. Newly acquired Jason Babin, fourth-round NFL draft pick Za'Darius Smith and veteran Albert McClellan also should get opportunities to rush the passer as an outside linebacker.

The Ravens will miss Suggs' skill at getting to the quarterback — he's the franchise's all-time leader with 106 1/2 sacks — and holding the point of attack in the running game. They'll miss his ability to diagnose plays before they happen and to get into opponents' heads.

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"It's tough to lose Terrell Suggs," Webb said. "He was such a huge part of this team, this organization. The thing [Suggs] did at practice, the leadership he showed in the locker room and on the field before the games, it was huge."

The Ravens, though, have said all the right things this week. They are moving on and focusing on trying to get their first win — even if, for the first time in nearly 17 years, they won't have Lewis, Reed, Ngata or Suggs on the field.

The times, they are a-changin', indeed.

"It's going to be different because they are who they are," nose tackle Brandon Williams said. "But it also gives a chance for someone else to step up and give you everything they got. When a door closes, a window opens somewhere. You got to work hard and continue to grind. We will, as a defense and a team, continue to get better and execute and become 1-1."

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