This is the second installment of a three-part series in which Baltimore Sun reporter Matt Vensel examines the Ravens and how each area of the team can be improved this offseason. He will look at the Ravens' special teams unit in Saturday's paper.
The Ravens' defense was the team's best unit in 2011, ranking among the NFL's elite in sacks, scoring defense and yards allowed per game.
But you could argue that the defense has the most question marks entering this offseason.
Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano left to become coach of the Indianapolis Colts. The Ravens have a handful of key free agents on defense — starting linebackers Jarret Johnson and Jameel McClain and defensive end Cory Redding — who might be tempted to follow Pagano to Indy. Then there's the annual uncertainty with safety Ed Reed.
Still, those issues and others shouldn't cloud a sparkling 2011 season by the Ravens' defense.
Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year after he had a career-high 14 sacks. Young cornerbacks Lardarius Webb, Cary Williams and Jimmy Smith were bright spots, especially Webb, who some feel was a Pro Bowl snub. And thanks to Pagano's schemes and swagger, the Ravens racked up 48 sacks, 21 more than in 2010.
Pagano is gone, though, and a major storyline will be whether his replacement can replicate the chaos.
"You're going to see a fiery Dean Pees and you're going to see an aggressive defense, just like you've seen in the past," coach John Harbaugh said when Pees was introduced. "We'll be getting after people. That's the plan. That's not going to change. We're going to build on that."
Here are three tweaks the Ravens could consider to improve their defense in the 2012 season:
1. Start planning for life after Ray and Reed
The Ravens hope Reed will return for another title run alongside inside linebacker Ray Lewis, who said he will be back for a 17th season. Though Father Time is closing in on the two all-time greats, the Ravens say their championship window isn't close to shutting.
"We have great players like [Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti] Ngataand Suggs that are their replacements," Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said at last week's season-ending news conference.
The Ravens can't leave their positions vacant, though, so they should start transitioning now.
If they believe that McClain and Dannell Ellerbe, a restricted free agent, can play significant long-term roles at inside linebacker, sign them back. If not, the Ravens should look for a young linebacker in the draft — one whom Lewis can tutor — instead of going the free-agent route.
"It's hard to find an eventual successor for Ray Lewis as the leader of the unit. Those guys don't pop up often. And it's hard to bring in [a top free-agent linebacker] if Ray Lewis is still there," Ian Eagle of CBS Sports said, adding that "there is something to be said for learning under him."
The same goes for the safety position, which could experience significant turnover this offseason even if Reed returns. Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura are free agents, and though they played valuable roles as reserves and special teams players, they are not in Reed's league.
The Pro Bowl free safety turns 34 in September, and if he plans to be playing then, he hasn't shared his plans with the Ravens yet. Reed's instincts and coverage skills rank among the NFL's best at his position but his tackling was scrutinized as he played injured again in 2011. It's time to draft a long-term fill-in for Reed because it's unclear how much longer he can be counted on.
2. Find a pass rusher to pair with Suggs
Suggs had his best seasonin 2011. He set a career high in sacks. His seven forced fumbles were a single-season team record. And his strong play against the run helped him win Defensive Player of the Year over other defenders with higher sack totals, including Jared Allen of the Minnesota Vikings and Jason Pierre-Paul of the New York Giants.
But he had just one sack in the team's final five games, including the postseason. Opponents gave Suggs even more attention with double teams, and running backs and tight ends often chipped him on their way out. With teams scheming against Suggs and with Ngata not as dominant down the stretch, the Ravens had just four sacks in those games.
"What we like about both of those guys is that they show up in both the run and pass," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "The stats show up as far as sacks, but the way both of those guys impact the way we play against the run, it's unbelievable."
Even if Johnson and Redding return in 2012, the Ravens should target a pass rusher in the draft.
They like young defensive tackle Arthur Jones and defensive end Pernell McPhee, who had six sacks in his rookie year. Third-year outside linebacker Paul Kruger chipped in with 5.5 sacks. But the Ravens could use a more consistent threat opposite Suggs. Two years ago, they appeared to have drafted that talented edge rusher in Sergio Kindle, but he has yet to contribute.
Finding that wingman for Suggs is one way to get the Ravens defense back to No. 1 in the NFL.
3. Make sure the swagger stays in Baltimore
Despite a change at defensive coordinator from Greg Mattison to Pagano in 2011, the Ravens were third in both scoring defense and yards allowed. Their hallmark has been stopping the run, and they did that, finishing second in rush defense. They were also fourth against the pass.
The Ravens nearly doubled their sack total from 2010 to 2011, which might have been the biggest coup in Pagano's year as coordinator. They were loose and confident, and played with an edge.
"They really thought they were able to just let it go and play the way they are comfortable playing," said Ritchie, who believes other teams didn't want to play against the Ravens' defense. "Now the problem lies in that their defensive coordinator is the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts."
Pees acknowledged two weeks ago that his personality differs from his predecessors', but the former New England Patriots defensive coordinator was adamant that the personality of the defense would not change in 2012. And that's a good thing because Lewis, Suggs and Co. are at their best when they play with attitude.
"These teams that have been successful over time in the NFL are the teams that have been able to pass along their philosophies," Eagle said. "We've seen it with the Steelers. We've seen it to some degree now with the Giants. And the Packers. If you want to sustain excellence in this league, you need an ideal that players believe in that the veterans can pass along to the young players."