After dominating the NFL for the past decade, the Ravens' defense enters the 2009 season squarely at a crossroads with a new defensive coordinator set to take the controls.
Greg Mattison replaces Rex Ryan as the architect of the league's most feared defense, and he inherits a group that led the league in takeaways on the way to finishing second in yards allowed in 2008.
Those numbers are a continuation of the decade-long dominance that has seen the team surrender the fewest yards allowed, rushing touchdowns and rushing yards allowed per game in the league since 1999. Moreover, the Ravens have tallied more shutouts, takeaways and interceptions than any team during that span. With such a storied tradition on the defensive side of the ball, Mattison faces a daunting task in his first job as an NFL coordinator.
Mattison, a 37-year coaching veteran with 11 seasons of experience as a college coordinator, plans to continue running the scheme that his predecessor Ryan used to guide a Ravens defense that never ranked lower than sixth in total defense from 2003-08. Ryan's was a multiple front system with a blitz-heavy emphasis that featured a variety of blitz coverages from a two-deep disguise. The "organized chaos" bewildered quarterbacks and blew up protection schemes with its unconventional variations.
Mattison, formerly a defensive coordinator with the University of Florida, didn't show the same eccentric defensive mind as Ryan, but he did display the same "stuff the run" philosophy as Ryan while building top defenses with the Gators. As the Gators' co-defensive coordinator in 2006, Mattison assisted in the direction of a unit that led the SEC in rush defense and ranked 10th nationally during the team's national championship run. Although Mattison utilized a traditional 4-3 scheme that loaded the box on run downs while revving up the pressure in passing situations at Florida, he has committed to maintaining the attack-style defense that has become a hallmark in Baltimore.
Whereas the Ravens' scheme has been credited for the overwhelming success of the defense, it has been the exceptional assemblage of defensive talent that has kept the team among the ranks of the elite over the past decade. And that will continue to be the case with Pro Bowlers Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed comprising the nucleus of the defense.
The talented trio, however, will have to steady a defense that will have to adjust to the loss of several key contributors during the offseason.
Bart Scott, Jim Leonhard and Corey Ivy left the team via free agency, and the team dumped former Pro Bowler Chris McAlister at the beginning of the offseason. While the defense has absorbed the defections of other talented players in the past, this year's exodus poses a difficult challenge due to the outstanding contributions of the group.
Scott served as the perfect complement to Lewis on the inside, and his versatility allowed Ryan to flip-flop the Ravens' blitz package to feature either Pro Bowler as the "Mike" linebacker. This subtle move made it difficult for the offense to properly set its protection scheme, which often resulted in a Ravens rusher coming free on an exotic blitz.
The loss of Leonhard is significant as well due to the four-year veteran's ability to coordinate the back end. With Ed Reed serving as the "robber" in many of the team's trap schemes, Leonhard's ability to cover the deep areas of the field was essential. In addition, he brought a unique set of playmaking skills to the table while serving as the quasi-coach on the field. His cerebral presence was necessary to run such a scheme.
In McAlister, the Ravens lose a talented cover man with the skills to match up with the opposition's top target. Though the three-time Pro Bowler's skills have shown signs of deterioration due to injuries the past two seasons, he still ranks as a quality starter in a league with few "shutdown" corners.
While Ivy's departure didn't draw much fanfare, the loss of the nine-year veteran impacts the team's sub-package as he served multiple roles in the scheme. As a crafty cover man with underappreciated rush skills, Ivy was an ideal fit as the nickel corner in Baltimore's unconventional pressure package. He tallied 7.5 sacks during his three-year tenure with the team and came up with two interceptions. Those numbers represent a significant contribution by a player used only in select situations.
Baltimore followers should take solace in the fact that the team has excelled at developing its own talent in the past, and it appears to have quality replacements at each position.
Tavares Gooden and Jameel McClain are set to compete for the starting job opposite Ray Lewis. Gooden, the Ravens' third-round pick in 2008, only played in four games before landing on injured reserve, but he is first in line to fill Scott's void in the middle of the defense. As an athletic player with solid instincts and awareness, Gooden has the tools to be a competent replacement for Scott if he can avoid the injury bug that has plagued him throughout his career as a collegian and a pro.
If Gooden fails to live up to the challenge, the Ravens have a potential replacement in McClain. The second-year pro starred on the team's kicking units and has the requisite toughness to play alongside Lewis in the middle.
In replacing Leonhard, the Ravens have the luxury of tabbing a former starter in Dawan Landry. The fourth-year pro has 34 career starts under his belt and five career interceptions. Though Landry has not recorded an interception since his exceptional rookie season, he has proven to be a solid contributor when on the field.
Challenging 'Father Time'
Domonique Foxworth was signed during free agency to take McAlister's place as the team's top corner. The four-year veteran enjoyed the best season of his career with the Falcons in 2008, and he showed the potential to become a top flight corner in the league. However, critics will point out that Foxworth only recorded one interception last season while playing in a two-deep scheme that rarely exposed him in single coverage. Moreover, last season was his first season as a full-time starter and he has just four career interceptions. Thus, there are serious concerns about whether Foxworth will be able to adequately serve as the team's No. 1 corner.
With Ivy no longer available to serve as the team's utility player in the secondary, Lardarius Webb may find himself occupying a major role. The rookie enters the league with the reputation of being an aggressive hitter with outstanding ball skills, and he appears to be an ideal match for the team's nickel corner spot. If Mattison continues to employ some of the sub-package pressures favored by his predecessor, Webb will likely occupy the role vacated by Ivy. While placing so much responsibility on a rookie is risky, the reward could be great if Webb plays up to his reputation.
The Ravens' menacing defense has ruled the roost for years behind a talented cast of characters thriving in an unorthodox scheme. But with a new leader orchestrating a reshaped unit, 2009 may be the first season in a long time that the defense doesn't soar to extraordinary heights.