A year ago, the Ravens finished 17th in total defense, a far drop from their third-place ranking in 2011.
In fact, under coach John Harbaugh since 2008, the Ravens hadn't placed below third in total defense in any season. With the drop-off in production, the Ravens made a slew of defensive moves, even though they had just come off a Super Bowl title.
Ray Lewis ended his 17th NFL season by retiring after the Super Bowl. Ed Reed left for Houston in free agency. Baltimore released Bernard Pollard and allowed Dannell Ellerbe (Dolphins), Cary Williams (Eagles) and Paul Kruger (Browns) to leave via free agency.
But as they say around Baltimore, general manager Ozzie Newsome always has a plan. The Ravens went out and signed outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, defensive end Chris Canty, defensive end Marcus Spears, safety Michael Huff and inside linebacker Daryl Smith. Then they drafted safety Matt Elam, inside linebacker Arthur Brown and nose tackle Brandon Williams with their first three picks. Given the personnel brought in, it was evident the Ravens felt the need to bolster the defense.
Which brings me to this question: Which unit is the strongest on the roster?
As you can see, there are a few to choose from. The outside linebackers boast what could be the best NFL tandem in Dumervil and Terrell Suggs. The secondary brings back Lardarius Webb from an ACL injury, and puts him with capable corners such as Corey Graham, Chykie Brown and Jimmy Smith.
On offense, the Ravens are working with an excellent running back tandem in Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. Joe Flacco proved he's worth the $120.6 million contract he received this offseason.
All are worthy options. But the winner is the defensive line.
In a 3-4 defense, generating a push and occupying blockers to free up the linebackers, either against the run or in pass-rush situations, is key. Bringing in Canty helps the pass rush along the three-man front. Spears is a superior run defender that can sub in on short-yardage situations, or play more against run-heavy teams.
Haloti Ngata is now playing nose tackle, which he believes is more of a natural fit. Art Jones came into his own during the second half of the 2012 season, totaling 4.5 sacks and notching one against the 49ers in the Super Bowl.
The Ravens' front was pushed back at times last year. In camp, that hasn't happened. The front office's goal was to win the line of scrimmage battle up front on defense so that Baltimore could get back to dominating on defense.
So far, the defensive line has done its part.
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