Ravens' pass rushers feeling the pressure

Creating traffic in pocket is major emphasis after struggles last season

August 14, 2010|By Jamison Hensley, The Baltimore Sun

On one of the first days of training camp, someone asked John Harbaugh about the top priority this summer. The words came out of the Ravens coach's mouth as quickly as Terrell Suggs beating another offensive tackle in practice.

"We want to improve our ability to rush the passer," Harbaugh said.

The pass rush is on the Ravens' minds in the meeting rooms where they're watching tape of the NFL's sack leaders. It's in their thoughts at dinner time when Suggs passes on Popeye's chicken to maintain his leaner physique. And it's in their heads on the practice fields where they're working with new assistant Ted Monachino, one of only two coaches in the NFL who specializes in the pass rush.

Pass rush, pass rush, pass rush.

While fans bemoan the Ravens' cornerbacks, the crack in their defensive wall last season was the inability to pressure the quarterback, giving him too much time to pick apart the team's secondary. The Ravens recorded 32 sacks in 2009, tied for second-fewest in team history.

By drilling this into their players now, the Ravens hope their players will drill Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Matt Schaub and Ben Roethlisberger in the regular season.

"A big part of our defense this year is our ability to improve in that part," defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. "Anytime you put as much work as we have and have the players we have, you're going to see rewards."

If Thursday's preseason opener was any indication, the Ravens will reap plenty of rewards in the weeks to come. The defense roughed up the Carolina Panthers for seven sacks (and it would have been more if the Panthers didn't constantly hold Antwan Barnes).

This relentless pressure comes from a similar work ethic. Twenty minutes before the full team practices, the defensive linemen are working on their pass-rushing techniques. During special teams practices, the linemen are out on the field working on shedding blockers.

The Ravens' new emphasis dates back to after the season, when the Ravens hired Monachino after he was let go by the Jacksonville Jaguars. He joins San Francisco's Al Harris as the only pass-rush coaches in the league.

"In my opinion, that is the single-most important factor in every game," Monachino said. "The team that plays the best up front in the passing game is generally going to win. They are certainly going to have the most opportunities for the most big plays. I think it's critical. I think we have guys who have bought into that idea, and it's starting to bear out."

When debating the regression of the Ravens' pass rush, many pointed to Mattison's style of defense. He prefers generating pressure from a four-man front, which is a drastic change from Rex Ryan's exotic blitz packages.

Mattison indicated the scheme won't change much this season, but he said the Ravens will "mix it up" at times. Case in point: Bringing Tom Zbikowski on a safety blitz on third-and-10 against Carolina, which produced a sack and a fumble.

"You can't always blitz and bring more people than they can protect. It puts the secondary on an island," Mattison said. "So, you got to say the defensive line has to take unbelievable pride in saying we're going to pressure that quarterback with a four-man rush. That's a big part of it."

The goal is to get to the quarterback, but the Ravens have already put a tremendous amount of pressure on their pass rushers.

After the draft in April, general manager Ozzie Newsome said the Ravens didn't need to take a cornerback to help their pass defense.

"How you can affect a passer is you have to get after the passer," he said in April. "If you can hit the quarterback – and hit him enough time – you don't have to be as good in the secondary."

Newsome was referring to the Ravens' first draft pick in 2010, pass rusher Sergio Kindle, who is now questionable to play this season after fracturing his skull falling down two flights of stairs July 22. A week later, cornerback Domonique Foxworth was done for the season after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament.

So, how do the Ravens bounce back from these blows? By delivering some of their own.

Quarterbacks can't throw the ball deep downfield if Haloti Ngata, Trevor Pryce, Cory Redding and Paul Kruger are charging up the middle. They can't sit in the pocket to find the open receiver if they're getting chased by Suggs, Barnes and Jarret Johnson.

"When one side is down, the other side has to pick up," Johnson said. "The one thing we're going to pick up is our pass rush."

For the Ravens' pass rush to rebound, it needs Suggs to bounce back from a career-worst season. He managed 4 ½ sacks after signing a $63 million contract. To make matters worse, owner Steve Bisciotti called him out after the season for being out of shape.

Suggs' weight has dropped from 270 pounds in 2009 to the 260s now, which is close to his rookie playing weight. He accomplished this by laying off fried chicken under orders from the Ravens' team nutritionist, Sue James.

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