Both Baltimore's Terrell Suggs and Tampa Bay's Da'Quan Bowers began practicing Monday -- each player tore his Achilles in the offseason -- and their teams now have three weeks to decide if they're healthy enough to activate off the PUP list.
Minus Suggs, the Baltimore defense simply has not been the same unit this year. In addition to an on-again, off-again pass rush, the Ravens have been absolutely shredded on the ground. Their situation was made worse on Sunday, when starting LB Ray Lewis and CB Lardarius Webb suffered season-ending injuries, further diminishing the star power on an aging and struggling unit.
Those players also do not force the defense to go out of the way to account for them, either, something Suggs does. Extra attention paid to Suggs on the outside combined with double teams on Haloti Ngata inside allows the Ravens to free up the other members of their defense.
Tampa Bay has faced the same issue this season, with Bowers sidelined since the summer and defensive end Adrian Clayborn out with a knee injury since September. Similar to Ngata in Baltimore (though the teams play different base defenses), the Bucs' Gerald McCoy has had to shoulder more of the load on the D-line, with injuries depriving Tampa Bay of two of its best pass rushers.
Bowers may not be able to totally replace Clayborn, the team leader in sacks last season with 7.5, but he would at least give offensive lines (and quarterbacks) something else to think about. Tampa Bay's run defense has held up much more stoutly than Baltimore's (just 75 yards allowed per game compared to 136.5), but the Buccaneers have generated just 14 QB hurries this season; Baltimore has 28.
The extreme needs for both Baltimore's and Tampa Bay's defenses make the next few weeks critical.
The two teams still have to weather the storm between now and whenever decisions are made on Suggs and Bowers. Simply having those players back on the field, though, should provide a boost.
Which situation is more desperate? Well, the Bucs are 2-3 and on the fringe of the playoff race in the NFC, so from that perspective, getting Bowers back could be critical.
The Ravens, on the other hand, are 5-1 and lead the AFC North by two games heading into their Week 7 bye. Their start, though unseemly, has bought them a bit of time. That said, their deficient defense already looks like it could be the Ravens' undoing, whether it's in the regular season or the playoffs. There are only so many moves to be made to replace Lewis and Webb, so getting Suggs back is now a virtual necessity.
If Suggs' return cranks up the Baltimore pass rush, it would take a lot of pressure off a pieced-together back seven.