Tweaking the Ravens Part II: The defense

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.