Last season, out of necessity, the theme of the 2012 Baltimore defense was bend but don’t break.
As the best red zone defense in the NFL, the Ravens certainly held up when they needed to. However, they weren’t themselves. They weren’t imposing their will. And they weren’t creating as many turnovers, only forcing 12 fumbles and 13 interceptions. Thirteen teams finished with more turnovers.
Instead of attacking, the defense was holding on for dear life.
Once the unit was healthy and able to showcase all of their key defensive players in the postseason, they got back to their playmaking ways from years past. Dean Pees’ group notched nine sacks and forced 11 turnovers (including five forced fumbles) in just four games. The battle-tested defense also continued their regular season red zone prowess, most notably against the Patriots and during their final defensive stand in the Super Bowl.
Carrying the momentum from their Super Bowl run, the bend but don’t break theme needs to transform into mayhem.
When it comes to gambling with the blitz, Pees may not be Chuck Pagano. And he’s certainly no Rex Ryan. However, his use of creative and deceptive blitzes certainly multiplied when he had the horses to execute.
The former New England defensive coordinator ran more variations of zone blitzes in which he moved his outside backers around. He also deployed ILB Dannell Ellerbe as a human battering ram at the line of scrimmage. Even when the players he launched couldn’t get home, they created enough pressure to throw off the timing of a play. There was no better example of this than Colin Kapernick’s overthrow of Michael Crabtree on the Niners’ final TD scoring attempt. It was Ellerbe who created enough pressure to rush the throw.
Clearly, Ellerbe isn’t coming back in the building. Neither are the six other starters that flew the coop in the offseason. But Pees has more pure talent to work with than a year ago. And he won’t have to hold back in his play-calling to protect a limited and injured defense from being exposed. Now he can take more chances all over the field and install a more unpredictable plan of attack.
It all starts up front. With the defensive line that the Ravens have, Pees can mix and match personnel with stand up rushers or linemen who can switch between DE/DT positions. Take Chris Canty as a prime example. He’s someone who can play on the nose or even play as a 4-3 defensive end.
In comparison, last year’s line was hardly versatile with perhaps the lone exception of an injured Pernell McPhee. This year, the line is so deep that McPhee’s versatility will go outside where he is going to function as a hybrid rusher. Like Canty, McPhee will line up in various spots but he’ll also rush from a two-point stance.
Then there are the rest of McPhee’s new edge rush mates—Elvis Dumervil, Courtney Upshaw, and of course Terrell Suggs. All of these guys can shift around from LB to down line spots. In the case of Upshaw, there is a chance that we will see him rush from the ILB spot, supplanting Ellerbe’s inside crasher role. During camp Daryl Smith and Arthur Brown have assumed such duties as well.
On the back end, the return of cornerback Lardarius Webb should naturally usher in the return of the slot corner blitz. Between Webb and Corey Graham, Pees has two corners that have impeccable timing as blitzers and they’ll be dangerous in third-down passing situations.
At safety, it will be interesting to see how Pees plays things. In Matt Elam, James Ihedigbo, and Michael Huff, he has players who aren’t afraid to throw their bodies around and attack the line. All three defenders could be on the field at the same time depending on the formation.
If the Ravens are going to be the type of defense they expect to be, they need to stop teams from scoring, and in turn, they need to create scoring opportunities for their offense. They have to get back to being a more dynamic defense that takes the ball away. There is a great chance for them to continue their playmaking ways from the postseason while remaining an elite red zone defense.
If those two sides come together, the Ravens will be back to ranking in the top five on defense.
And mayhem will be back in Baltimore.