After three games, the Ravens perennially imposing defense is ranked 27th in the league and lacks the dominant look opponents and fans have come to expect from the purple and black. What began as preseason whispers has turned into an open lament: the defense is going to have to rely on the offense to win games. Panic button. Identity crisis. Baltimore's defense is on the decline. This premature hysteria is understandable, especially considering the predictions leading into the season.
Without Terrell Suggs, the Ravens won't be able to pressure the quarterback. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are getting too old. The new outside linebackers won't be able to set the edge against the run. Now, it's all coming to fruition... right? Take deep breaths, folks. Hold your horses. Suggs-less, the Ravens have managed to amass eight sacks, which ranks eighth in the league. Ray Lewis, 25 pounds lighter and all over the field, is looking strong in every faze of his game. Ed Reed already has two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. And after giving up an alarming 91 yards to Cincinnati running back Benjarvus Green-Ellis, Baltimore held a much more talented LeSean McCoy to 81 yards, and held the Patriots to just 77 total rushing yards. It is undeniable that in 2012, the Ravens defense has not had as devastating an impact on opponents as Baltimore is used to.
However, with just three weeks down, throw the statistics out the window. The defense will be fine. Not because Suggs will come back and save the day (even if the 2011 defensive player of the year is able to return, he won't be in 2011 form.) There is a much more realistic reason for hope. The fact is, the Ravens defense is not lacking in talent or leadership, simply in experience and cohesiveness. The defensive line, held down by veteran Haloti Ngata, features a 2012 rotation of Arthur Jones, Terrance Cody, Pernell McPhee, and Ma'ake Kemoatu. Jones had recorded only one start going into this season, while second year McPhee had not started a game in the NFL. Kemoatu was cut by the Washington Redskins in July 2011, and did not play in the NFL last year. Cody did start in all 16 games last year, but is still a work in progress.
The linebacking corps went from featuring two longtime Ravens in Jarrett Johnson and Terrell Suggs, to showcasing Paul Kruger, Albert McClellan, and rookie Courtney Upshaw. Between the three of them, they had two total combined 2 starts heading into 2012. While the front seven are skinny on experience, the new starters are strong talents, and will continue to improve with experience. Just as importantly, the front seven will continue to grow as a single entity. The individuals are still becoming a group, and with Ray Lewis at the helm, there's little doubt communication and chemistry will build with every week. By late October, the Ravens defense should have a very different feel. Expect the reemergence of the intimidating bunch that at times has an organic quality to playmaking as a single force, a defense that is comfortable in its own skin—as parts and as a whole.