Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Defensive Descent of the Ravens

Much has been made about the Baltimore Ravens sudden falling off as a defense. Is the sun setting on the Ravens once proud defense? Is it now an offensive team? The answers to those questions are yes; and this has been brewing for some time now. The Ravens defense is not close to the unit it used to be. There are many reasons for this change, too. Rex Ryan, now the enigmatic head coach of the New York Jets, is no longer the defensive coordinator. The Ravens knew they needed a better offense in today’s pass oriented NFL to succeed and get to the next level. They finally drafted a quarterback who can win games for them with his arm. With all that said, there is another reason why the Ravens defense just isn’t as good as it used to be: the players in 2010 aren’t as good as they were from 2000-2008.

Building an Identity

When Art Modell moved the franchise from Cleveland to Baltimore in the fall of 1995, he came with a great offense and a terrible defense. The offense consisted of such players as quarterback Vinny Testaverde, wide receivers Michael Jackson and Derrick Alexander. General manager Ozzie Newsome realized that the team could put up big numbers on offense but couldn’t stop anybody on defense. In those days, the quarterback play in the league wasn’t quite as good as it is today, and the rules weren’t as much directed towards the offense as they are today. Newsome knew that if he could build an elite defense he could maybe win a championship or two.

The Ravens had two first-round picks in the 1996 NFL Draft. They selected offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden with the no. 4 overall selection, and a linebacker from the University of Miami with the 26th pick who was thought to be too small to play inside. His name? Ray Lewis. Lewis was named defensive player of the week after his first professional game and would just keep getting better. Lewis instantly became the leader and helped set the tone for the defense. Building the defense wouldn’t stop there.

Stacking the Defense

For the next three drafts, the Ravens had top-10 picks in the first round of each. They proceeded to take three defensive players. In 1997 the Ravens took Peter Boulware (Florida State), arguably the best defensive player and best pass rusher in the draft, with the 4th overall pick. In 1998, the Ravens took another Hurricane in cornerback Duane Starks with the 10th overall pick. In 1999, the team took another cornerback 10th overall in Arizona star Chris McAlister. They added a few free agents in defensive end Michael McCrary and defensive tackle Tony Siragusa. Suddenly, by 1999, the Ravens had the makings of an elite defense. In 1999, they also signed former All-Pro Rod Woodson to be the free safety and to provide leadership in the secondary. All of the pieces fit together, and in the year 2000 the Ravens won a Super Bowl largely because of their defense.

The offense continued to struggle in the early to mid 2000’s. Their first round quarterback pick of Kyle Boller in 2003 failed miserably, and only one of their two first round offensive picks in 2000, Jamal Lewis, had longevity with the team. In 2001, the Ravens took Arizona State tight end Todd Heap in the first round. However, the long-term goal was always to have an elite defense.

Rebuilding the Defense

In 2002, the Ravens were ready to undergo a rebuilding project because they couldn’t keep some of their best players due to the NFL salary cap restrictions. They took another Miami Hurricane, safety Ed Reed, with the 24th overall selection. Reed, like Lewis, is likely headed for the hall of fame when his career is all said and done, as he is arguably the best safety of his generation. The Ravens used other high-round selections (1-4 rounds) on defensive players around this time, too. Cornerback Gary Baxter and linebacker Jamie Sharper come to mind right away. Both players were too expensive to keep in the end because their play garnered too much money for the Ravens. Once again, the salary cap stripped the team of a few good players. Another terrific linebacker picked in the high rounds named Edgerton Hartwell also had to go because he couldn’t get the money he felt he deserved from the Ravens.

The Ravens always kept their core players on defense. McAlister, Boulware, Reed, and Lewis were able to stick around. The Ravens figured they’d just fill in players around them. The Ravens were also able to draft pro bowl performer Terrell Suggs in 2003 in the first round. Suggs is a core player, too. However, it became obvious in the mid-2000’s that the Ravens needed a much better offense if they wanted to become an elite team. Around 2005, they started drafting more offensive players with their high round picks.

Beginning the Offensive Transition

In 2005, the Ravens selected wide receiver Mark Clayton with their first round selection. In the 4th round, they selected offensive lineman Jason Brown, who has since gone on to sign the biggest contract for a center in history with the St. Louis Rams. Both of these players are no longer with the team, but they signaled a change in philosophy within the organization. They also signed veteran receiver Derrick Mason, who is statistically the best wide receiver the team has had. In 2006, the Ravens took offensive lineman Chris Chester in the 2nd round and Demetrius Williams in the 4th round. Both players failed to live up to expectations, but Chester has come on strong the last few years and is currently starting with the team. Williams was a huge disappointment and was cut in training camp in 2010.

In 2007, the Ravens took guard Ben Grubbs in the first round. They were trying to go for a new look offensive line that would feature quicker, more athletic lineman. Third round pick Marshal Yanda is now the starting right tackle, and is another smaller lineman with excellent feet. The Ravens were able to find two-time Pro Bowl fullback Le’Ron McClain in the 4th round. They only took two defensive players in this draft, both after the 4th round.

Finding a Franchise Quarterback

Now that the Ravens had their line, they could pick a franchise quarterback. Boller was clearly never going to lead them to where they wanted to go, and they needed to find a new quarterback to lead them. They picked a little known University of Delaware product named Joe Flacco in the first round, and a well-known running back considered by many to be too small to be a first round pick named Ray Rice. Flacco and Rice have had excellent starts to their careers. Later in the draft, the Ravens took safeties Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura, but neither of these players was picked in the higher rounds.

Flacco has been everything and more that the team could have hoped for. In his first two years, he started every game and won three playoff games on the road. Through nine games in 2010, he has thrown 15 touchdowns to 7 interceptions and has the team 6-3 with a good chance to win the AFC North division.

The Beginning of the End

With the defense starting to lose key members like McAlister and linebacker Bart Scott, it became obvious the Ravens needed help on this unit. Lewis was still playing at a high level, but he was approaching his mid-30’s by now. Suddenly, the cornerbacks weren’t as good as they once were. They lost some players who could rush the passer, as well. While the offense was starting to get better, it was clear the defense wasn’t as good. Many thought the team would choose a cornerback in the first round of the 2009 draft, but they selected offensive tackle Michael Oher instead. While this was a tremendous pick, it also meant the defense couldn’t get any high impact players. They picked defensive end Paul Kruger in the 2nd round, but he has yet to make a true impact. Many observers feel that he is too small to be a defensive end and not quick enough to be a linebacker. He is still a work in progress. The Ravens signed cornerback Domonique Foxworth via free agency. While he did very well in 2009, he tore his ACL in training camp in 2010 and was lost for the year. The Ravens now had to turn to players in the secondary who are not nearly as good as the players before them. Corners Frank Walker and Fabian Washington are not nearly as good as McAlister, Starks, or Baxter. Reed developed a nerve impingement in his neck and virtually had to change his game. What used to be a sure tackling, take all chances safety, turned into a tackling liability, but still a tremendous ball hawk. Because he played differently, he ended up hurting his hip in late 2009. He is back, but he isn’t nearly the same player he once was.

The Ravens defense has slipped. Other than 2006 first round pick Haloti Ngata, who is a pro bowl caliber player, the team has not used a first round pick on a defensive player since 2003. This has contributed greatly to not having playmakers anymore on defense. They once used first round picks on defense four years in a row (1996-1999) and each of those players except Starks made multiple pro bowls. Because of the salary cap in the NFL, there had to be a tradeoff. While the offense got better, the defense had to get a little worse. It’s a reality of the NFL today. My guess is now that the offense is better; they will probably use a first round pick on a defensive player in 2011. Getting Foxworth back next year will also help them out greatly in the secondary.

What does the Future Hold?

The Ravens are in good shape going forward. They have a franchise quarterback, a tremendous running back, a number one receiver in Anquan Boldin (acquired from the Arizona Cardinals), and a young offensive line. Their offense will only continue to get better. The transition from defensive team to offensive team was bound to happen. The defense had been becoming less dominant over the past couple of years, and 2010 seems to be the real boiling point. Nobody should be surprised by what has happened to the defense based on the number of great players they’ve lost and the lack of high picks they’ve used on that side of the ball. It will just have to take Baltimore fans time to let it soak in: the defense isn’t the same defense it used to be.