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What Changes Do the Ravens Need to Make? – Part II: Defense

Let’s continue to examine what the Ravens need to do to take that next step towards a championship in 2012.

This time we turn towards the defense.

While at first glance it may seem that things look fairly strong from a group that almost doubled its sack totals from a season ago and is still considered one of the Top Five Defenses in the league. But things always change year to year and staying on top isn’t always easy.

Defensive Coordinator Chuck Pagano packed his bags for Indianapolis to take on his first Head job, several key pieces like Cory Redding and Jarret Johnson have become free agents, and Ed Reed’s status is season to season at best.

Once again I’ll use Matt Vensel’s column as the framework and toss in my own ideas.


1. Start planning for life after Ray Lewis and Ed Reed

Lewis has stated that he will be back in Baltimore for his 17th season in purple while Reed on the other hand has said close to nothing about his status for 2012. I agree that the time has come to have plan in place if one or both of these players decide to retire from football.

“Replace” is such a tough word to use when talking about Hall of Fame types like Reed and  Lewis. They are special players who even in the current advanced state of their careers can make a difference on the field. You don’t just find players to replicate their production or their value to the unit just anywhere. So what are the Ravens’ options?

For the past couple seasons there appeared to be a three-way competition for the Inside Linebacker job featuring former third rounder Tavares Gooden and undrafted players Jameel McClain and Dannell Ellerbee. Gooden was cut and now plays special team for the 49ers while both McClain and Ellerbee are both up for new contracts.

McClain has made steady progress over the years and had his best season as a full-time starter. The Ravens definitely like his skills since last season they put a second round tender on him when he was a restricted free agent. Now that he’s unrestricted what type of money would he command on the open market? I’d like to see him back but this could turn into another Edgerton Hartwell situation where some team just throws too much money at him. Ellerbee, who was entrenched in Coach Harbaugh doghouse in 2010, had a different issue to overcome this past season – injuries. I’d expect him to be back though due to cost and he has shown flashes of great ability.

Of course Baltimore could add Lewis’ successor in the draft. I’ve seen some Mocks having the Ravens select from Arizona State – Vontaze Burfict who some have compared to Lewis due to his competitive nature and violent tackles. Burfict seems to have the physical tools but he has questions about his self-control (too many penalties).

The last idea might be simply waiting for Lewis to retire and going the Free agent route. That might not be the best way to go since you have no idea what choices you may have due to the available pool.

A similar situation exists with Reed and his backups, Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura are both free agents and while neither is in the same class as Reed (few are) they have been here for four seasons and have been able to contribute in a variety of ways. If I had my choice I’d keep Nakamura over Zibby due to his coverage skills. But there’s no guarantee that either could be available which leaves probably the free agent route to get a Free Safety of which there isn’t a very strong crop out there.

2. Find a pass rusher to pair with Suggs

It was a need the team hoped 2010 second round draft pick Sergio Kindle would be able to solve. I think Kindle will get a chance to make the team but I don’t see him on this roster in 2012. He still has reported hearing issues and didn’t get the playbook until about midway through last season.

Even though the team did a nice job developing young players like Art Jones, Paul Kruger, and Pernell McPhee if they added a bookend to Suggs this group could be among the league’s elite. Just think of Baltimore’s own version of the Harrison/Woodley combo up north.

Where to look is the question. Free Agency doesn’t look that appealing at the moment – maybe Anthony Spencer from Dallas is a possibility. Otherwise it they may need to continue to develop what they have or go to the draft again. Jonathan Massaquoi from Troy State is one option that could be had in Round Two. He would be another of the hybrid DE/LB types who would need to convert to linebacker.

3. Make sure the swagger stays in Baltimore

In other words – Stay Aggressive!

Greg Mattison is not someone most fans would think of as being a successful coordinator even though his units still finished in the top ten every season. It’s all perception of course. His team used more of a “bend, don’t break” philosophy and were a bit more straight ahead in its approach.

The fiery Pagano re-instilled the confidence of the defense this past season to simply play hard and fast to the ball. Not only did the team double it’s sack total and generate pressure from different angles the secondary may have been the beneficiary of a change in style. Long considered a weakness the cornerback position played fairly well with Lardarius Webb, Cary Williams, and Jimmy Smith.

Now with Pagano gone, Dean Pees must retain that attitude and game plan for the defense to continue it’s decade long run of success. he may be a different coach but these players feel energrized when their coordinator shows confidence in them to let them play.

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