A central theme the past two offseasons for the Ravens has been to strengthen its defense in the trenches.
In the last two classes, they’ve drafted Brandon Williams, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Timmy Jernigan and Brent Urban, along with acquiring Chris Canty and Marcus Spears (though the latter didn’t work out as planned). Even though the Ravens were able to win the Super Bowl two seasons ago, it’s clear the Ravens haven’t had the same kind of push those in Baltimore have become accustomed to seeing.
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Up until the 2012 regular season, the Ravens finished in the top 10 in yardage allowed for nine consecutive seasons. Yes, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed were big reasons why, but there has long been a stout front across the board, freeing up the linebackers to make plays at the line of scrimmage or behind. In their primes, players such as Kelly Gregg, Trevor Pryce and Dwan Edwards, along with a young Haloti Ngata, contributed to some beastly units that could continuously get a push against opposing offensive lines.
In the last two years, the Ravens’ defensive line has become a bit uncharacteristic. That push play in and play out is no longer present, with the Ravens exercising more of a bend-but-don’t-break scheme at times. Without the defensive line getting pressure and forcing multiple blockers to pay attention to them, the outside linebackers can be keyed on, preventing blitzes from reaching the quarterback. Despite having two top-tier pass rushers on the outside, the Ravens ended 2013 with 40 sacks, ranking 16th in the NFL — only nine sacks better than last place (Chicago, Jacksonville) and 20 less than first place (Carolina).
As mentioned, the Ravens have addressed this in the past two drafts by taking four defensive tackles. Jernigan and Williams are three-technique/nose tackle types, with Lewis-Moore and Urban more of your five-technique linemen, which should back up Canty this year. Ngata and Cody should still primarily play the nose tackle spots, giving the Ravens plenty to work with this season.
The talent at the position is rich, but there’s still a great deal of youth. To start the season, Ngata and Canty will definitely start (obviously), with the three-technique position up for grabs. That spot could come down to Williams, Jernigan or third-year lineman DeAngelo Tyson, a 2012 seventh-round pick.
Here’s how the three compare:
Tyson has the most experience, appearing in 23 games over the past two seasons. He tallied his first two sacks and recorded an interception, working his way into the rotation by mid-season, especially after Spears was released by the organization. Not a flashy player, Tyson is strong against the run and has deceptive speed getting after the passer. It’s easy to overlook him, but his play has proven that he’ll be tough to cut when those decisions are made.
Williams dealt with a foot injury early a year ago but was able to appear in seven games. He recorded his first career sack against Pittsburgh, adjusting to playing multiple spots on the line as opposed to nose tackle, which he played in college at Missouri Southern State. Williams is one strong dude, able to bench press 525 pounds. If Williams gets off the ball and gets good leverage, he’s tough to stop — at least he was in college, albeit at the Division II level. A ton of potential is in him, it’s a matter of tapping it.
Jernigan could be this year’s Williams, in that he may not play as much despite his second-round billing. The reason is that he’d have to move from his natural nose spot to three-technique. And like Williams, there may be an adjustment period that comes along with it. What’s great about Jernigan’s game is that when he wins the snap, he’s nearly impossible to stop. He runs through blockers and can disrupt passing games quickly. At 6-2, 299 pounds, his 4.90 speed is often too much for offensive linemen, and that was at the Division I level in the ACC, as well against Auburn in the BCS National Championship.
At the five-technique, it’s pretty clear-cut. Backing up Canty will be a mix of Lewis-Moore, Urban, and perhaps Tyson, too, as he’s versatile enough to play both spots. At the University of Georgia, Tyson got a great introduction to the 3-4, starting out as an undersized nose tackle before moving outside.
At the nose, Ngata will start, but could rotate out in various packages. That’s the great part about having this kind of depth along the defensive line. There will be a ton of opportunities to work guys in and keep them fresh. Gone are the days when Courtney Upshaw was forced to play down in the defensive line in sub packages. There should be enough bodies to keep things going in high gear for these guys.
Cody will open as Ngata’s primary backup, though the numbers game could be too much for him to be on the 53-man roster when it’s all said and done, even with though he signed a one-year deal this offseason. If Jernigan shows he’s a better backup option at nose tackle than Cody, then why not go ahead and make the move? If the Ravens pegged him as the second-best player to open the second round, then they must feel pretty strongly about his ability up front.
With the influx of youth, combined with the veteran presence of Ngata and Canty, the defensive line should see a big improvement this season. If the line can get back to its disruptive ways, the rest of the defense will be able to thrive, especially outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil.
Success on both sides of the ball always starts up front. The Ravens have invested plenty in the defensive line over the past two years for the unit not to get the kind of results they’re looking for this season.
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