I don’t quite think that people remember how good the Baltimore Ravens defense was last year. It wasn’t the best in the league, but it maintained a top twelve rank throughout the entire season, yet many people fail to recall that.
If you remember, the Ravens got lucky when Elvis Dumervil was released by the Denver Broncos. Dumervil agreed to sign with the Broncos at a reduced salary, but the paper work was not filed with the league office in time. “According to a source, both parties reached agreement at 3:25 p.m. ET on the restructured contract. But the team did not get a fax from Dumervil’s agent until 4:06 p.m. ET, so it had to release him, according to the source.” The Ravens seized the opportunity and signed the pro-bowl pass-rusher to a five-year deal worth $35 million.
As you would assume, many Ravens fans were extremely excited about the fact that Dumervil and 2010 defensive player of the year Terrell Suggs would be on the same defensive line. The one-two punch of Dumervil and Suggs was just about as good as advertised, particularly in the first half of the season. Suggs totalled nine sacks in the first nine games of the season, and ended the year with ten. He and Dumervil together ended the year with 19.5 sacks combined. They displayed the best quarterback pressure that the Ravens have had in years.
The biggest boost for the Ravens defense came out of nowhere. Three months before the 2013 season started, the Ravens signed middle linebacker Daryl Smith to a one-year deal. The veteran has been the anchor of the Jacksonville Jaguars defense since 2004 and he took his play to another level in 2009, eclipsing 100 tackles for the first time in his ten-year career. He picked up 97 tackles in 2010, followed by an 107 -tackle season in 2011. After missing most of the 2012 season, he was pretty much the only place the Ravens could look for middle linebacker, as future hall-of-famer Ray Lewis had just retired a few months earlier.
He was everything the Ravens could hope for and more. He not only lead the team in tackles (127) but was also third on the team in sacks (5) and second in interceptions (3). There is no question that he was the anchor of the Ravens defense last year and he was probably their best player as well. Without him, they might have lost a game or two more than they did, which is high-praise for a middle linebacker.
He performed so well that the Ravens re-signed him to a multi-year deal following the 2013 season.
Ravens and LB Daryl Smith reached agreement on a four-year, $16.1 million deal, per sources.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 14, 2014
However, Smith wasn’t the only pleasant surprise that performed well on the Ravens defense last year. With the 26th pick in the 2011 draft, the Ravens drafted Jimmy Smith out of Colorado, a very big and physical corner back who loved to play the bump-and-run. His combined speed (4.46 40-yard dash) and size (6’2″ 212 pounds) gave him a unique structure that not many DB’s could match.
Smith miserably failed when he got his chances in 2011, mainly due to injuries. He suffered a groin injury prior to his rookie year and then in week nine against the Pittsburgh Steelers, he suffered an ankle injury which forced him to miss another month of action.
He did manage to intercept two passes in the 2011 season including a huge interception off Tom Brady in the AFC Championship. However, in 11 games in 2012, he totaled just 30 tackles and he picked off zero passes while only defending three. He got exposed on Sunday Night football against the San Diego Chargers when starting corner back Lardarius Webb missed the game due to an injury. Philip Rivers tore the Ravens defense apart, specifically Jimmy Smith, passing for 270 yards and giving Smith his first real lesson in the NFL.
He was getting beat so often in his first two years that Bleacher Report dubbed him as a possible bust just half-way through his second season.
When Super Bowl 47 came along, he looked like a whole different player. He might have saved the Ravens’ season in the late stages of the game when he was defending on San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree. The Ravens were winning 34-29 with under two minutes to go and the 49ers had third-and-goal at the five yard-line. Colin Kaepernick‘s pass was intended for Crabtree, but Smith hit Crabtree with might and knocked the ball out of his hands to force fourth down.
The rest is history. Kaepernick drops back with 1:50 to go, he lobs a pass towards the right side of the end zone, and it’s incomplete thanks to the defense of Jimmy Smith (watch it here). That set of downs at the end of Super Bowl 47 paved the way to a much better year in 2013. He finished the 2013 campaign with 58 total tackles, two interceptions, and most impressively – 16 passes defended. He started all 16 games for the Ravens and has now gaiven fans hope that he could still live up to his first-round potential.
Smith, along with fellow corner backs Lardarius Webb and Corey Graham, and safeties Matt Elam and James Ihedigbo, forged a secondary that performed way better than most people expected. They picked off 12 passes and defended 63 as a group, and allowed the fifth least receptions (314) to the opposing team’s receivers.
The defense as a whole ended the year ranked 12th, which isn’t that bad considering that they were ranked in the high-twenties for most of the 2012 season. They also have a bunch of young players that failed to get opportunities to play last year — Courtney Upshaw, Arthur Brown, and Brandon Williams — all defensive players drafted in the second or third round. Safety Matt Elam performed well in his rookie campaign (77 combined tackles), but he is extremely talented and is only expected to grow and get better as he progresses.
Haloti Ngata staying healthy is a huge factor in how the Ravens defense will perform this coming season. He got off to a fast start in 2013, but injuries started to hurt him and he ended the year with just 52 tackles and 1.5 sacks. The impact that he has on the game is inevitable. At 6’4″ 340 pounds, he poses as a monster; but believe it or not, he is actually very athletic for his size. Such size, power, and athleticism can’t be wasted and that is why the Ravens are crossing their fingers for him to stay on the playing field.
Don’t get misled. I’m not saying that the Baltimore Ravens had the best defense in 2013 nor am I saying that they will in 2014. All I’m saying is that the defense took too much heat for what occurred on the offensive side of the ball. Offense has nothing to do with defense.
Ozzie Newsome has been known for drafting the right players for some time now, and there is just a load of young talented players waiting to get their opportunity with the Ravens. They re-signed all their key players from last year and have added some young talent, so they could easily go from being the 12th best defense in the league to being one of the top.