Mention the Baltimore Ravens during discussions in NFL locker rooms across the league, on sports talk radio or TV round tables and the first thing that comes up is the team’s defense. The Ravens have established a tradition of excellence dating back to 1999 and save for a season ravaged by a salary cap purge (2002) the club has been among the league’s best.
Of course at the heart and center of that defense since the franchise’s inception has been future Hall-of-Famer Ray Lewis. With Ray as the general on defenses skippered by the likes of Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan, Rex Ryan and Chuck Pagano (all of whom graduated to the head coaching ranks), the Ravens have produced competent linebackers the way the Atlanta Braves once produced starting pitching.
And as in the case of the Braves in the Peach State things aren’t what they used to be at the position of linebacker here in The Land of Pleasant Living.
Flanking Ray Lewis this season there will likely be four undrafted free agents; an undersized special teams ace; and a trio of unproven former second round picks who while they show promise, they’ve accomplished next to nothing in the NFL. Add it all up and that spells more pressure for the defensive line.
Guiding the defensive front is the highly underrated position coach Clarence Brooks. Brooks has very capably picked up where Rex Ryan left off, implementing a rotational system that maximizes the talents of his personnel grouping both individually and collectively. Brooks’ system coupled with the front office’s keen eye for second-tier talent, have helped to take bargain basement reclamation projects and turn them into millionaires.
But as is the case with Ray Lewis & Co. Brooks may be challenged like never before. He might also be feeling the pressure.
During the team’s first live scrimmaging this training camp, Brooks ripped into an obscenity laced tirade over the poor tackling of his unit. Productive role players like Cory Redding and Brandon McKinney are gone. Ryan McBean, thought to be the answer to Redding’s departure, is on the shelf for the season with a dislocated ankle fracture. And so Brooks will look to the next men up.
Unproven players like Bryan Hall, DeAngelo Tyson, Ishaa’ily Kitchen and Nicolas Jean-Baptiste will be called upon to augment Brooks’ rotation and help keep a linebacker corps with an uncharacteristically thin resume clean.
Maintaining the team’s tradition of excellence particularly in a front seven that has regularly engulfed even the league’s best running backs for over a decade might not be so easy in 2012. It might not be a question of “Will they slip?” but rather, “How much will they slip?”
Time will tell but until this all develops under the capable guidance of Brooks and defensive coordinator Dean Pees, the “next man up” might have to come from the offensive side of the ball where the Ravens will need to be more prolific scorers while the defensive front begins to gel.
And given the team’s daunting schedule, it won’t be easy.