FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 22: Lardarius Webb #21 of the Baltimore Ravens celebrates with teammates Bernard Pollard #31 and Jimmy Smith #22 after makinig an interception in the second quarter against the New England Patriots during their AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
For the vaunted Baltimore Ravens defense the motto has always been clear, "stop the run first", and make the other team force themselves into mistakes.
I'm sure defensive captain Ray Lewis will have the team practicing what they preach once again this season but this year he may not see the same results. Sure, you still have the ageless Lewis roaming the middle of the field and he is better than anyone at knowing where an offense is trying to move the ball. You have Haloti Ngata and Terrence Cody on the line again and they should clog up the middle pretty well but what about the outside?
The Ravens will be playing two brand new starters at OLB this season and if you were going to try and run the ball against them, the outside may be the place to go. With number 52 not quite as fast sideline to sideline as he used to be and the youth infusion at OLB, why not?
Not to say that Paul Kruger, Courtney Upshaw, Albert McClellan and Sergio Kindle will not turn out to be great run defenders but they will definitely be lacking in the chemistry department where Jarret Johnson and Terrell Suggs excelled for so long. Johnson and Suggs have played outside of Lewis their entire careers and can probably read each others minds at this point. With no disrespect to the younger players, no matter how good they are, they will not have the continuity that the Ravens defense has had for the past several years right off the bat.
In 2012 the biggest strength of the vaunted Ravens defense may be the secondary. They have the best ball hawk in the game at safety in Ed Reed. They have the thumper in "angry man" Bernard Pollard. Baltimore also has a trio of promising young corners in Lardarius Webb, Jimmy Smith and Cary Williams. Any one of whom could be headed to their first Pro Bowl this season.
We all know that the NFL has turned to favor the pass over the past few seasons so maybe the Ravens are ahead of the game. Even behind the "big three" corners you have some promising young talent in Danney Gorrer and rookie Asa Jackson, who plays a lot like another small school gem Lardarius Webb.
While I still think the Ravens defense will be in the top 10 and possibly top 5 this season, I do believe that the run defense will take a step back. At least in the beginning of the season any way. For what they may lose in the run game they could gain in the pass defense as all three starting corners will have a full training camp this year. Last season was basically the first year for all three as starters and they finished fourth in the league in pass defense. Imagine what they can do with a full off season.
I also believe that the pass rush will be a strength as well this season. Even with the loss of Terrell Suggs. With a strong secondary and solid pass rush the Ravens could find themselves at the top of the league in turn overs again this season. If that is the case look for more and more teams to try and test the Ravens young outside backers early and often. You know there in no one in the league lining up to run directly at Haloti Ngata so outside may be the only place to go. Let's just hope that the youngsters are up to the challenge because they will surely be tested.