Summer may be officially here and that normally signals a “dead” period for the NFL but all I had to do was search around a bit to see what the so-called experts were writing about the upcoming season to get some inspiration.
When it comes to most publications efforts in regards to the Ravens hopes for 2009 the same few cliches seem to materialize; Can Harbaugh be successful in his second year, Can Joe Flacco continue to develop and avoid the sophomore slump and Can the Ravens defense live without Rex Ryan? Let me address the last question.
After reading the article at NFL.com entitled Offseason departures will put Ravens’ Defense to the Test I felt the need to try and stomp out these ideas before they get repeated ad naseum until September.
After dominating the NFL for the past decade, the Ravens’ defense enters the 2009 season squarely at a crossroads with a new defensive coordinator set to take the controls.
Greg Mattison replaces Rex Ryan as the architect of the league’s most feared defense, and he inherits a group that led the league in takeaways on the way to finishing second in yards allowed in 2008.
If you are going to talk about the defensive dominance of the last decade then you must include Marvin Lewis and Mike Nolan. When each former coordinator left, the same question was asked as to how in the world Baltimore would continue to stop teams. Both men have had little success on the defensive side of the ball as head coaches, with Nolan out of a job and landing in Denver to handle the defense again and inexplicably Marvin Lewis still has his post after six seasons and only 1 playoff appearance.
Coaches often get too much credit when they have a wealth of talent at their disposal. Admittedly I didn’t see Ed Reed or Ray Lewis in a Bengals or Niners jersey.
Those numbers are a continuation of the decade-long dominance that has seen the team surrender the fewest yards allowed, rushing touchdowns and rushing yards allowed per game in the league since 1999. Moreover, the Ravens have tallied more shutouts, takeaways and interceptions than any team during that span. With such a storied tradition on the defensive side of the ball, Mattison faces a daunting task in his first job as an NFL coordinator.
From all accounts of anyone who has worked with Coach Mattison says he is the right man for the job. Thirty seven years of experience in the coaching ranks and last season he was Baltimore’s Linebackers coach. He’s made it clear that he isn’t going to change much and honestly why would you? But he did say that he may tone down some of the “organized chaos” that Ryan liked to employ. Honestly I’m fine with that because at times you get too cute and you get burned unnecessarily. Ask Peyton Manning if he’s afraid of Haloti Ngata lining up at middle backer.
Mattison is a traditional 4-3 coach who will continue to attack the ball in pressure situations. No problem there either. Marvin Lewis ran a 4-3, Mike Nolan ran a 3-4, Rex Ryan ran both and the 46 and whatever else he wrote on a napkin in the locker room. Mattison will be smart enough to put his players in a position to succeed.
Bart Scott, Jim Leonhard and Corey Ivy left the team via free agency, and the team dumped former Pro Bowler Chris McAlister at the beginning of the offseason. While the defense has absorbed the defections of other talented players in the past, this year’s exodus poses a difficult challenge due to the outstanding contributions of the group.
How do you replace players that have contributed to your success? That’s a better question.
Out of the group the biggest question is going to be replacing Bart Scott. There really wasn’t anyway Scott was coming back to Baltimore, not with a hefty payday from the Jets and a chance to step out of Ray’s shadow. Scott didn’t cause many turnovers but he did make tackles, a lot of them. It will be up to Tavares Gooden or Jameel McClain to fill the void. If Gooden can stay healthy he should do fine.
Jim Leonhard did a fantastic job filling in for the injured Dawan Landry this past season. But if Landry is back to full strength he’s a stronger hitter and Baltimore gains a starter back into the fold.
Corey Ivy was a player who played with great heart and passion but was simply undersized at the Nickel spot. Ladarius Webb should fill that spot as well.
With the exception of 2002, the Ravens’ defense has ranked in the top 10 in total yards and rushing yards allowed over the past decade.
Kind of amazing when you think about it. As long as the unit remains free of major injury I would expect another top ten finish. Ray Lewis is back to helm the middle. Ed Reed appears fresh. Dawan Landry and let’s not forget Kelly Gregg will return from IR. Ngata stuffing the run and all that speed that was added in the secondary.
The defense I’m not concerned about.
Now the offense, that’s another story.