The Ravens brand of football is synonymous with rugged defense. Buoyed by Baltimore icon Ray Lewis, supported by ballhawking safeties Ed Reed and Rod Woodson as well as lockdown corners Chris McAlister and Marlon Humphrey and disruptive defensive lineman such as Trevor Pryce and Haloti Ngata, defense has led the way throughout team history. And in each season since 1997, their pass rush has been spearheaded by a Pro Bowl caliber edge defender.
After fielding the No. 28 ranked defense in their inaugural season, legendary general manager Ozzie Newsome set out to bolster the Ravens pass rush, signing underrated free agent Michael McCrary off a 13.5 sack campaign and drafting LB Peter Boulware with the fourth overall draft selection. Boulware and McCrary combined for 21.5 sacks in their first season in Baltimore and comprised a potent edge rushing tandem through the 2001 season, accumulating four Pro Bowl awards and contributing to a Super Bowl championship.
Following the 2001 salary purge, Ring of Honor inductee Boulware carried the torch until Newsome selected OLB Terrell Suggs with the tenth overall selection in the 2003 draft. Suggs began his Hall of Fame worthy career with a 12-sack Defensive Rookie of the Year showing and would anchor Baltimore’s pass rush for the next 16 seasons. Supported by a revolving cast of complementary edge rushers, including OLB Adalius Thomas, Jarrett Johnson, Pernell McPhee, Paul Kruger and Elvis Dumervil, Suggs was the mainstay who provided the stability required to overcome free agent departures.
Seven years removed from his Defensive Player of the Year season, and with the team feeling the salary cap ramifications of Joe Flacco’s ill-conceived 2016 contract extension, Suggs and ascending pass rusher Za’Darius Smith departed during an offseason linebacker exodus in 2019. Fortunately, Baltimore had been grooming small-school product Matthew Judon, who had been the best Raven on the field during their 2018 playoff defeat.
While failing to supply the gaudy sack totals of his predecessors, Judon delivered for the Ravens. A three-down performer who specialized in making impact plays, Judon earned Pro Bowl acknowledgement in each of the last two seasons. But an unexpected global pandemic-induced decline in the salary cap prompted the Ravens to watch Judon flee to New England in March. With him, the under appreciated edge defender took a considerable volume of snaps and a 24 year tradition of fielding at least one established, premier edge defender.
Now entering the 2021 season with Super Bowl aspirations, the outside linebacker corps includes an injury-prone Pernell McPhee, pass-coverage specialist Tyus Bowser and underwhelming Jaylon Ferguson, along with developing rookies Odafe Oweh and Daelin Hayes. The Ravens will lean on these edge rushers, combined with inside linebacker and safety blitzes behind a run stopping defensive line, to pressure quarterbacks in coordinator Don Martindale’s aggressive, deception based scheme.
Working in their favor, the Ravens have assembled a truly elite quintet of cover corners in Humphrey, Marcus Peters, Jimmy Smith, Tavon Young and Anthony Averett. Pressure will be on these cornerbacks to compensate for the shortcomings of the defensive front and a concerning lack of proven safety depth next season.
Prioritizing coverage above pass rush is a wise strategy in the ball-out-quick era and cornerback has become the most valuable position on a roster after quarterback. Nonetheless, the best defenses in team history - 2000, 2006 and 2011 - boasted difference makers at every level of the field. Without the salary cap constriction, the Ravens would have preferred to retain a top tier edge defender to lead the unit. Analytically-minded general manager Eric DeCosta displayed as much when he traded a coveted third round draft pick for Yannick Ngakoue last October while he had Judon, McPhee, Bowser, Ferguson and Jihad Ward packing the depth chart.
Perhaps McPhee and Calais Campbell will provide vintage seasons, Justin Madubuike will blossom, Bowser will thrive in an expanded role and Oweh will turn in a Rookie of the Year season in 2021. Better yet, Baltimore’s retooled passing offense may be able to claim early double digit leads, allowing the highly effective dime defense to close out victories, as they did during their 2019 12-game winning streak.
A pass rush-by-committee may actually be the best plan in today’s NFL. In conjunction with the other components of the team, a committee approach can certainly be part of a championship formula. But make no mistake, the 2021 roster construction signals a clear departure from the Ravens edge rusher tradition of the last 24 seasons.
DeCosta appears poised to attempt an experiment that could propel the Ravens to glory, or be their Achilles’ heal, in a fiercely competitive AFC.