The struggles of the Ravens run defense this season have perplexed many around the league. What happened to make this once vaunted unit suddenly easier to run through than a hot knife through butter? Did Ray Lewis’ play really just drop off as suddenly as that? Or has the shift of focus to the offensive side of the ball left a once proud unit devoid of fresh talent?
After his injury, I was convinced that losing Ray Lewis wasn’t as big a loss at it would have been in the past, and that the drop off to Dannell Ellerbe as a defender against the run wasn’t that much. I still stand by that, but in taking a closer look at the first seven games of the season, my overall opinion on what has caused the problems shifted.
Lack of Edge Setters
The loss of Jarret Johnson was always going to be a tough one for the Ravens defense to take. Possibly the most undervalued Raven to play alongside Ray Lewis, Johnson established himself as one of the best linebackers in the league at setting the edge on running plays. What made the run defense so good, and what caused there to be less concern about the loss of Johnson, was that you had Terrell Suggs doing the same from the other side, either at defensive end or outside linebacker.
Teams struggled to run the ball to the outside because the Ravens, simply put, had two of the best players in the league playing their positions.
With Johnson and Suggs doing their thing on the edges, it forced more runs and cut backs to the inside, allowing the inside linebackers, and Lewis in particular to cover less ground in the middle of the field and feast on opposing running backs.
Ok so Johnson was headed to San Diego.
Yes, he was going to be a loss but there was still Suggs. And when you have the reigning Defensive Player of the Year setting the edge, there’s no reason to really be concerned. And then that same Defensive Player of the Year goes down injured. Now, all of a sudden, you’ve just lost arguably the two biggest keys to your run defense.
So what happens if nobody steps up?
The mantra in Baltimore has always been ‘Next Man Up’.
But this time nobody did step up.
Courtney Upshaw is a rookie who has fought to get down to the playing weight the team wanted, while Paul Kruger has so far been unable to make the step from pass rushing specialist to full time linebacker in the base defense.
Now when teams try to run to the outside they find nowhere near the same resistance as they did before. Suddenly it’s easier to get around that edge and suddenly those linebackers who have been feasting on running backs for years are having to run a little further for their meals. And that’s where it fell apart.
It wasn’t that Ray Lewis suddenly forgot how to tackle, or that he just didn’t have it in him to hold onto a ball carrier anymore – he missed just one tackle through the first six games of the season. The problem was that he was being stretched further and further from sideline to sideline and, with father time catching up on him, he just doesn’t have the same range he used to.
Some people would view that as a major concern and that the Ravens need to add three or four new players to an aging defense.
They might be right.
That said there is reason for hope for an improvement this season.
The return of Suggs gives the Ravens that presence on the edge again and Courtney Upshaw continues to improve a little each week. Is he going to be as good as Johnson was? Probably not, but there has been enough improvement to give you hope.
If Upshaw can even add just a little of what the team lost in Johnson, more runs will once again be forced inside and all of a sudden a group of hungry linebackers can begin to feast again.