Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs wait for the next snap. (Christopher Hanewinckel-US…)
Ravens fans have fretted for weeks about the dismantling of their team's legendary defense, but it only takes a cursory review of the relevant 2012 statistics to see that, as always, there is a method to all the recent roster madness.
The tremendous success of this franchise in Baltimore has been built on a foundation of hard-hitting, take-no-prisoners defensive football — and the arrival of premier pass rusher Elvis Dumervil should help extend that tradition — but the dramatic turnover that has been taking place on that side of the ball probably shouldn't have come as such a surprise.
It is easy in the aftermath of a Super Bowl victory to romanticize every aspect of the new NFL champions, but the numbers say that it was high time for general manager Ozzie Newsome, coach John Harbaugh and the rest of the braintrust to move decisively to make sure the defense will be younger, healthier and hungrier when the Ravens embark on another top-loaded regular-season schedule come September.
They made an amazing late-season run to secure their second Lombardi Trophy and the defense stepped up when it counted, especially in those final minutes in New Orleans, but it wasn't the same stifling Ravens "D" of seasons past.
The 2012 edition ranked just 17th among the 32 NFL teams in total defense (350.9 yards per game) and 20th against the run (122.8 yards per game). No team in Ravens history, in fact, had ever given up that many yards on the ground.
To be fair, the Ravens ranked a more respectable 12th in points allowed (21.5 points per game), which is a testament to their resiliency in the red zone, but it was only the second time in the last decade that they have allowed an average of 20 points per game or more.
So, there was a strong case to be made for some wholesale changes, even if the Ravens did not plan on losing as many key defensive players as they did. Newsome hoped to re-sign linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and safety Ed Reed if the price made sense, but the retirement of Ray Lewis and the strong possibility that Reed would land elsewhere — along with the unavoidable salary cap limitations — made this a logical offseason to take the defense in a new direction.
Harbaugh did not deny that during Dumervil's introductory news conference at the Under Armour Performance Center on Tuesday, but he was quick to put the overall performance of last year's defense in a very positive perspective.
"To say 'no' just wouldn't be honest," Harbaugh said. "We want to be the best at everything. We want to be the best defense in football. We were the winningest defensive team in football last year. I thought our coaches and players did a great job of figuring how to win games. We got it done in the most important settings, against the best quarterbacks in football and the best teams in football when it counted the most.
"So, I'm really proud of our defense, but you're either getting better or getting worse, right, and we need to get better in everything we do, and I know our defensive coaches and defensive players feel the same way. It's how I feel. Let's put together the best defense we possibly can, and that's what we're trying to do."
Certainly, the signing of Dumervil to a five-year, $31.5 million contract is a big step in that direction. The Ravens ranked 15th in the league with 37 sacks, but that number should go up with Dumervil (63.5 career sacks) working alongside a healthy Terrell Suggs.
The rush defense also has been shored up with the signing of veteran defensive linemen Chris Canty and Marcus Spears and the Ravens still have some cap room to beef up the secondary after losing cornerback Cary Williams to free agency and releasing safety Bernard Pollard.
If you really need any more proof that Newsome is pretty good at this front office stuff, consider that he has signed Dumervil, Canty and Spears for about the same total outlay as the Cleveland Browns spent to steal Paul Kruger.
The arrival of Dumervil is the latest indication that a new defensive era is dawning in Baltimore, but Harbaugh isn't quite ready to let go of the old one…or the departed players who were such a big part of it.
"All of those guys were a huge part of what we accomplished," Harbaugh said. "They are great friends and will continue to be great friends. We walked together and we walked to a championship together, so we have that together and that binds us together. But like everything in life, things do change and you evolve and grow and move in another direction, and you just have to make sure it's a successful direction."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.Orioles Insider | Live scores | Photos | Baseball app