With many of their recent defensive stalwarts moving on in recent years, whether it be Ray Lewis, Ed Reed or Haloti Ngata, the bottom line remains in that the NFL is a business and the writing was on the wall for the aforementioned Baltimore Ravens. But with several key pieces on the defensive side of the ball creeping up there in age, is the 2015 season one in which the chinks in the armor will begin to show?
As the Pittsburgh Steelers got a front row seat to witness, the Ravens’ pass rushers ate up the Pittsburgh offensive line to the tune of 5 sacks on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the 17-30 playoff loss. Tackles Kelvin Beachum and Marcus Gilbert were ravaged by Ravens edge rushers Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil and Courtney Upshaw, and the interior of the Steelers’ line was collapsed by Ngata and Brandon Williams.
However, longtime defensive anchor Ngata was shipped to the Detroit Lions, partly due to contractual issues and partly due to age. Despite receiving a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances, he came back near season’s end and was as dominant as ever. His power and grace at the line of scrimmage will be sorely missed, as he moves like a man much smaller than his size. He may be missed mostly in the leadership department, as the 5-time Pro Bowler was a veteran leader that the youth movement of the Ravens’ defense could rely upon.
With their secondary perilously thin last season, coupled with recent comments as to how the front office is not satisfied thus far with 2013 first round safety, Matt Elam, it could be a major red flag heading into the season, despite the return of Jimmy Smith. It should be attacked early and often by the Pittsburgh offense, especially with the weapons at Roethlisberger’s disposal. Their front seven seems to be a fortress, year in and year out, but 2015 could be a year where they realize they didn’t know what they had until it’s gone, a la Ngata. Also removed from the equation was edge rusher, Pernell McPhee. Ranked by Pro Football Focus as the #2 available 3-4 outside linebacker besides the Chiefs’ star, Justin Houston, he took his combination of 64 sacks, hits and hurries to the Chicago Bears for a massive pay bump. His versatility to the team was invaluable, as the 6-foot-3, 280-pounder lined up everywhere from outside linebacker to nose tackle.
The team’s unquestioned leader, Suggs, boasts 13 years of experience in the purple and black, but he will turn 33 in October and is no longer a spring chicken. The team may look to monitor his snaps much like Pittsburgh claims it will do to James Harrison’s, but next season may see a decline in his production.
Look for rookie Za’Darius Smith, Bud Dupree’s teammate at Kentucky, to log snaps behind Suggs, in an effort to keep him fresh.
Perhaps even Ozzie Newsome is taking a page out of Pittsburgh’s book, and realizes the legendary players that battled between the two teams in the early part of this decade are no longer with their respective teams. Instead of smash mouth football and playing rock-solid defense, Pittsburgh is an offensive juggernaut, and Baltimore coincidentally spent it’s first two draft choices this year on potential rookie starters on that side of the ball in Breshad Perriman and Maxx Williams.
With a murderer’s row of a schedule for every team in the AFC North in 2015, don’t be surprised to see Baltimore miss some of the key defensive figures it’s lost the last few years, and just like Pittsburgh, attempt to instead rely on its offense to carry the team.