OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The premise could be taken as sacrilege, maybe even borderline blasphemy by some. But my theory regarding the state of the Ravens' rebuilt defense was met mostly with a series of Cheshire-cat smiles at Baltimore's training camp.
The knee-jerk perception was that the defending Super Bowl champions got decimated on defense this offseason, losing the likes of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe, Bernard Pollard and Cary Williams in a massive talent drain that would certainly presage a post-championship hangover. But while many were focused on the high-profile defections, I surmised they failed to fully appreciate the roster additions made by the Ravens.
It looked like it was all gloom and doom for a while there in Baltimore, but when the smoke cleared, the team's defense didn't emerge just dramatically different. It got better. Younger. Faster. Stronger. More athletic. All of which is in the direction you have to be trending to play quality defense in today's NFL, with its host of mobile quarterbacks and multi-faceted skill-position weapons.
Yep, you read that right. The Ravens' defense upgraded this offseason. No Lewis, no Reed? But no real sense of worry in Baltimore, either.
"Those guys left their mark here and they'll never be forgotten, but anybody who knows football knows better than to think this defense got dismantled," said new Ravens outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, the centerpiece of Baltimore's offseason. "It's great, man, because we've got a lot of new pieces and yet everybody brings something different to this defense. What they had started here was great already, but I'm excited to see how it all plays out this season, because on paper it looks crazy, doesn't it?''
Here's maybe the craziest thing about Baltimore's makeover: The Ravens somehow won a Super Bowl last season despite an aging and at times mediocre defense that was wholly un-Ravens-like, ranking 15th in sacks (37), 17th in yards allowed (350.9), 17th against the pass (228.1), 20th against the run (122.8) and 12th in scoring defense (21.5), the first time Baltimore didn't finish in the top five in that all-important statistical category in the five-year John Harbaugh coaching era.
So hold tight to the glory days of the Lewis/Reed era if you like, but the need for change on defense was obvious to the Ravens. There was indeed a plan all along in Baltimore to get younger and faster, and it was going to take place this offseason, with or without being preceded by a Super Bowl parade.
"The thing I loved about last year's defense was the fact they overcame a lot of adversity,'' Harbaugh said last weekend, during my stop in Ravens camp. "We played a lot of guys with all the injuries we had. But guys really played their best when it mattered the most, starting with that game against the Giants [in Week 16] and all the way through the Super Bowl. That's when we were at our best as a defense, and I'm proud of the guys for that.
"But this year it's the natural evolution of where you go in the National Football League. You have to stay young, you have to turn guys over. I'm excited about this defense.''
The turnover was breathtaking in scope, especially for a team that had its defensive core together for at least a decade. The Ravens' defense could have as many as seven new starters this season, thanks to an influx that includes Dumervil, he of the fax machine fiasco in Denver; underrated veteran free-agent defensive linemen Chris Canty (Giants) and Marcus Spears (Cowboys); safety Michael Huff (Raiders); inside linebacker Daryl Smith (Jaguars); and the team's top three draft picks in Florida safety Matt Elam, Kansas State linebacker Arthur Brown and small-school standout Brandon Williams, a versatile and intriguing defensive tackle prospect from Missouri Southern State.
Anybody who watched future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis drop into coverage in recent years knew he was losing ground on that front athletically, and he all too often got easily blocked out of the play on run defense, too. As for the ball-hawking Reed at safety, his skills were still strong but his body was simply breaking down, a fact that has become apparent as he waits out the rehabilitation of hip surgery in Houston, still unable to take the field for the Texans.
"You have to face the fact the game is changing from an offensive standpoint, with more spread offenses and more read-option,'' Ravens longtime general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "You have to become more athletic and you have to have people who can change direction and move and accelerate. I think our moves allow us to play that style of game on defense. And also, with some of our new guys in the secondary, with Matt [Elam], Dig [carryover James Ihedigbo] and Michael Huff, we've got guys who can match up and play man to man, and that means you don't have to be substituting all the time. I think those components are going to allow us a chance to be a pretty good defense.''
While Dumervil's signing garnered most of the attention, and the Ravens are thrilled to team him at outside linebacker opposite 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs, many within the organization cite the addition of unsung veterans Canty and Spears as two of the club's more pivotal moves this offseason.
"I don't know how people are missing what those two guys could mean to us,'' said one Raven. "Where were people when we got those two deals done? Because they're important to what we're going to do.''
The question left unanswered about the Ravens' defensive rebuilding is whether the loss of Lewis, Reed, Pollard and others will leave a void in terms of veteran leadership in the locker room. No easy fix there, because Lewis and Reed were elite figures in that respect.
"It'll be different, but sometimes I've actually seen defenses where all of a sudden you lost your stars and you even became better, because now everybody has to be responsible and take part ownership for the leadership factor,'' Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "Sometimes the sum of those parts is greater than the whole. There might not be the guy who was a tremendous leader like Ray or Ed, but now everybody knows they have to do a little more than what they had to do before, because we can't rely on those two alone.''
Dumervil will help replace some of the leadership the Ravens defense lost. The eighth-year veteran has wowed Baltimore's brass with his sense of professionalism and work ethic, and younger players began to quickly gravitate to him in the locker room. Newsome and Harbaugh sing the same tune: It's very nice to have Elvis in the building.
"I didn't know him, I just knew him as a player,'' Harbaugh said. "But I didn't realize what a great leader he is, what a great worker he is and what a great pro. He's made good relationships with Terrell and those guys, and then he's great with the young guys. He takes them and lifts with them, shows them how to eat, shows them pass-rushing moves. He's just the total package. A really good addition.''
Dumervil, Suggs and defensive lineman Haloti Ngata are now the face of Baltimore's defense, and the tandem of Dumervil and Suggs gives Baltimore its most lethal combination of outside rush linebackers in at least the past decade (they both rank among the league's top 20 active sack leaders). Their pass-pressure skills are greatly needed, since seven players accounting for 20 of the Ravens' 37 sacks in 2012 were part of the offseason exodus, including Kruger, who tallied a team-high nine.
Dumervil had 11 sacks for AFC West champion Denver last year, with 9.5 sacks the season before, and an NFL-best 17 sacks in 2009, when current Ravens inside linebackers coach Don Martindale was the Broncos' defensive coordinator. Newsome, rarely known for hyperbole, gushes about Dumervil's knack for the pass rush.
"He can play very effectively against the run, but he just has the natural ability of being able to finish the rush, more so than anybody I've seen,'' Newsome said.
And how much will a fully healthy Suggs mean to Baltimore's defensive remake? After tearing his right Achilles last offseason, and suffering a torn biceps muscle during the season, Suggs was a slower, heavier version of himself in 2013, returning to the field earlier than expected, but notching just two sacks in eight games.
But this season Suggs is jonesing for a comeback, with a remodeled body that I described to Harbaugh as positively chiseled. (The Ravens coach laughed and suggested a new nickname for the guy they call "Sizzle," offering "Chizzled, with lots of Z's.") Baltimore's team record for sacks by two players is 24, set in 2006 by Trevor Pryce and Adalius Thomas, but Suggs is said to have the record in his sights for he and Dumervil.
"It's great to play with [Suggs],'' Dumervil said. "I'm fortunate in that I left Denver and playing with Von Miller, but came here and am with another great player [at the opposite outside linebacker slot]. Suggs is in great shape and he has something to prove. I'm excited for him. He's ready to bounce back from last year's injuries, and he's in the best shape of his career.''
The Ravens' defense is in a lot better shape than many realize. But they seem to know what they have rebuilt almost overnight in Baltimore, where the quality additions outnumber some very significant subtractions.
"It was time,'' Newsome said, of the defensive transition. "The defense has been kind of solid over the years, and we've had guys for years and years. But things change in this game. And the availability of these new players also helped us make the transition. We've got depth and competition almost everywhere, and that's what's going to make us better on defense.''
Not just different. Better. No wonder the Ravens are all smiles.