Ravens confident that trademark defense can survive minus Suggs
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Subtract a reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year from the lineup of almost any team, and a lost season is likely in the offing. Certainly Super Bowl dreams would wither and die.
But in Baltimore, when pass-rushing outside linebacker Terrell Suggs went down with an Achilles' tendon injury in late April, jeopardizing his 2012 season, there was disappointment, yes, but also a steadying sense of determination. Losing Suggs for a significant stretch -- and maybe the entire season -- was a serious blow to the Ravens, but not the death knell for a Baltimore team that narrowly lost on the road to New England in last January's AFC title game.
This is a Ravens club with a history of playing suffocating defense for more than a decade now, and that mindset is not evaporating in the wake of one injury, no matter how far-reaching the potential impact. A month after Suggs went down, the reality of his absence has set in, but so far there's no sign that Baltimore's stiff upper lip will disappear too.
"The defensive locker room has so much pride, so much tradition and history, it's almost ingrained in them,'' Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said Wednesday, after Baltimore's latest session of OTAs (organized team activities). "Other guys understand how to pick up the slack, and we've done that at various times before.
"If you look at our record without a Ray Lewis over the last how many years, or an Ed Reed, we do pretty well. This is going to be a major hurdle for us. But sometimes an injury like this is really good for your team at the beginning of a year, because it forces players to emerge. It forces it. And someone's going to have to emerge for us to be a good defense.''
A check of the record confirms the cause of DeCosta's confidence. In the first four seasons of the John Harbaugh coaching era, the Ravens are an impressive 10-4 when their lineup is missing future Hall of Fame defenders Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. In the past two seasons alone, Baltimore has gone 4-0 without Lewis (2011), their all-world middle linebacker, and 4-2 without Reed (2010), their ball-hawking safety.
It's not proof the Ravens can repeat that resiliency and prosper despite the loss of Suggs, whose 14 sacks and seven forced fumbles last season earned him the league's highest defensive honor, but it's a track record that wards off any atmosphere of gloom and doom in Baltimore's locker room. The "next man up'' mantra, so popular everywhere in the NFL, doesn't ring quite so hollow with the Ravens, who really have been there, and done that.
It's not difficult to figure out where Baltimore's defense will look first for players to emerge and fill the void created by Suggs' torn tendon, which underwent surgery in early May and is likely to keep him sidelined until at least the season's second half. Fourth-year outside linebacker Paul Kruger was already expected to vie with second-round pick Courtney Upshaw to replace departed strongside linebacker Jarrett Johnson, who left via free agency. But now Kruger will be asked to step into Suggs' rush-linebacker spot in the lineup, always a featured position in the Ravens' successful 3-4 formation. Upshaw, a playmaking talent off the University of Alabama's national championship squad, is expected to be the team's other starter at outside linebacker, in the SAM role.
"That's the position (rush linebacker) I've been working at on and off since I've been here, so without saying too much about it, I'm the guy who's got to step up and take that spot and run with it,'' said Kruger, the former 2009 second-round pick who finished 2011 with a career-high 5.5 sacks in situational duty, the third-best total on the team. "You can't replace a guy like Suggs, and we're going to miss him until he gets back. He's a dominant player, he changes games. But it's time for me to get out there and do what I can do, and I expect big things.''
In reality, the Ravens know Kruger won't be able to make up for Suggs' lost production by himself. But in Baltimore's scheme, he doesn't have to. The idea is to get the best out of Kruger, have Upshaw hit the ground running as a rookie, and maybe generate some unexpected pass rush from the likes of young defensive ends Pernell McPhee (six sacks in 2011) and Arthur Jones.
Even 2010 second-round pick Sergio Kindle, who has done virtually nothing so far as a Raven, is seen as someone who could potentially pick up a bit of the slack with Suggs sidelined. If Kindle is ever going to contribute at rush linebacker, it better be now, because Baltimore is almost out of patience with the former University of Texas outside linebacker, who has played in just two games in his first two NFL seasons.
For his part, Upshaw has looked good so far in the earliest stages of his rookie season, generating some positive reviews in Baltimore's rookie minicamp and first two weeks of OTAs. He's not a dynamic and athletic playmaker in the Suggs' mold, but he's a polished and big-game-tested player, and the Ravens think his transition to the NFL will be a smooth one.
"With Sizzle (Suggs' nickname) going down, it's unfortunate,'' Upshaw said. "But coming in, my mindset already was to get in the playbook and get on the field fast, regardless. Everybody's mindset here is just to finish where he left off. I can't wait to play defense with him, but right now I just want to come in, learn the playbook and go out and help pick up the slack. I've been playing football for a long time, and think it's realistic for me to just go out and be productive and make plays.''
Whomever steps to the fore in the Ravens' third-ranked defense, they'll be doing it under the supervision of the fourth different Baltimore defensive coordinator in Harbaugh's five seasons on the job. With Chuck Pagano hired as the new Colts head coach in January, former Patriots defensive coordinator Dean Pees was elevated from Ravens linebackers coach to heading one of the most respected and decorated defenses in recent league history. Besides losing Johnson, and Suggs for at least part of the year, he's also faced with getting Lewis, 37, and Reed, 33, through another long NFL season.
"As a coach, you just go out there and coach the guys that are here,'' Pees said. "There aren't any other choices. Yeah, we may be missing a guy. I remember when I was in New England and they told me Tedy Bruschi had a stroke. Those weren't exactly the words that I wanted to hear about my starting (middle) linebacker, but we put in somebody else. It will be the same thing with Terrell. We'll have guys in place and we'll do things that we need to do until he gets back.''
If Suggs can be believed, the Ravens might have their All-Pro linebacker back in the lineup by midseason, even though many assume it'll be borderline miraculous if Baltimore gets much of anything at all out of him in 2012. The Ravens for now are holding out hope Suggs can recover quickly and perhaps play in a reduced role as a pass rusher late in the season, taking the field only on passing downs. At least this year's change to the injured reserve rules helps, allowing teams one exemption on a player who could return to the active roster at any point after midseason. Who knows, we might end up calling it the Suggs Rule.
But Baltimore knows it can't count on Suggs this season. Anything the Ravens get from him will be gravy. Instead, look for Harbaugh's team to lean on its long and distinguished history of defensive excellence, and to trust a proven scheme that has been its trademark since the late '90s. That's not going away this year in Ravens-land, with or without Suggs in the lineup.
"We'll be all right,'' Kruger said. "We've got a lot of leadership on this team. A lot of veteran guys who have been through a lot, and a couple veteran players (Lewis and Reed) who can get you through anything. So I still feel confident. I can't see too much negativity coming our way. We have too much to look forward to, and we've got too many guys to fill the roles that need to be filled. Yeah, losing Suggs is pretty tough, but I think we're going to take this and run pretty good with it.''
Even if new and unexpected playmakers do emerge on the Ravens defense this season, there's no silver lining in losing a talent like Suggs, who's still only 29 despite having nine seasons of NFL experience. But this is Baltimore, where defense rules, and that means there's no sense of panic either.