More than any other factor, except possibly the rash of unfortunate injuries, the secondary play was most accountable for the Ravens five win 2015 campaign. The 2015 pass defense allowed the ninth most passing touchdowns in the NFL, with 30, even after tightening up considerably in the second half of the season. Even worse, the team only collected six interceptions in sixteen games, the worst total in the league.
Despite this obvious weakness, the Ravens front office refused to reach for a cornerback in the first three rounds of the draft. In fact, the Ravens have only drafted a single cornerback, Jimmy Smith, in the first three rounds over the last six drafts combined, a span of 22 early round draft picks.
Making the situation even more challenging, the Ravens upcoming 2016 regular season schedule includes many of the very best receivers in the league. Of the 16 games on the slate, only the Cleveland Browns do not boast a formidable wide receiving corps. The Ravens will be tasked with covering the likes of Antonio Brown, A.J. Green, Odell Beckham Jr., Dez Bryant, Sammy Watkins, Allen Robinson, Amari Cooper and Brandon Marshall, among other promising receivers and quality secondary options.
However, there are more than a few reasons for optimism regarding the 2016 secondary. First and foremost, Jimmy Smith is having surgery to remove the screws in his foot that should improve the change of direction limitations that hindered him for most of 2015. The second big change is the free agent addition of veteran Eric Weddle, who is expected to line up at strong safety and help improve communication on the back end.
Lardarius Webb is apparently moving full time to free safety, a position that could better employ his diminishing agility and speed. Shareece Wright will return after a solid, if unspectacular, half season opposite Jimmy Smith at cornerback. Promising young corner Will Davis will return from injury to compete with rookies Tavon Young, Maurice Canady and veteran Kyle Arrington for the backup cornerback roles.
A shakeup in the coaching staff has also brought in Leslie Frazier, who holds the title of secondary coach. Frazier is an experienced teacher of technique who has utilized the Cover-2 scheme at his previous stops around the NFL. The knock on Frazier is that he prefers conservative tactics that limit the turnover totals of his defenses. In the nine season he served as a coordinator, going back to 2003, Frazier has only produced two defenses that finished in the top ten in takeaways.
Perhaps the biggest reason for optimism is the hope of an improved pass rush. After the departure of Pernell McPhee in free agency and the Week 1 injury to Terrell Suggs, the Ravens sacks tally last season fell from 49 in 2014 to 37, ranking seventeen best in the league after being second best the previous season.
The Ravens brass focused on improving the pass rush this offseason and likely accomplished this goal. After the draft, the Ravens roster could boast as many as five outside linebacker with edge rushing ability and a seven man defensive line rotation featuring several interior pocket collapsers.
An improved pass rush will go a long way towards solving the pass defense issue. But pass rush can only do so much against the Erhardt-Perkins offensive scheme that some teams use with great success by moving the ball through a quick, rhythm, short passing attack.
The Ravens offense extremely deep and is primed to thrive in their second year under coordinator Marc Trestman. The 2016 draft fortified the offensive line and the offensive skill personnel now includes a full assortment of deep threat receivers, possession receivers, reliable tight ends and elusive pass catching backs. The advantage that playing with a lead provides for the defense cannot be overstated.
Every NFL team is flawed in some way and the Ravens secondary is probably their biggest weakness before any post-draft veteran additions. All in all, there are several reasons to be optimistic for improvement in the pass defense and some basis to be concerned.
The strategy that defensive coordinator Dean Pees chooses for crucial in-game situations will ultimately determine if the potential weakness in the secondary can be overcome by the other phases of the game in the 2016 season. Or if the pass defense will thwart yet another Ravens season.