Can the Baltimore Ravens' defense succeed without Terrel Suggs?
Yes. Even without the former defensive player of the year, the Ravens' defense still has the potential to remain a top ten, and quite possibly, a top five defense.
There is no denying that Terrell Suggs has a tremendous impact on the defense. When healthy, he is an ideal outside linebacker. He can set the edge to stop the run, get to the quarterback, and even drop back into coverage. Here’s a quick look at his career stats: 729 tackles, 106.5 sacks, 27 forced fumbles, and seven interceptions.
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In 2011, he won the defensive player of the year award with 14 sacks, seven forced fumbles, and two interceptions. The next year he missed half the season due to a torn Achilles.
Since that injury, he has not replicated his DPOY performance, but that is expected simply due to age and playing time. At 32, this is Suggs’s 13th season, and pass rushers tend to decline after they hit 30. Take a quick look at Jared Allen, Julius Peppers, or Dwight Freeney; all very good players, but ones that saw a dip after they turned 32 or so.
However, even with his age and mileage in the NFL, Suggs turned out two solid seasons following his injury.
Last year, he and Elvis Dumervil combined for 29 sacks (of which Suggs had 12). His presence on the field allowed Dumervil to focus on pass rushing (his specialty), and he is a team leader.
Without exploring his intangibles, such as vocal presences, it’s important to figure out what the Ravens need from the players on their roster to make up for not having Terrell Suggs.
It would be reasonable to assume that Suggs would get around 10-13 sacks this season. From 2010-2014 he has never dipped below 10, except for his injury shortened season. Therefore, the Ravens need to find a way to replicate that number.
Current Outside Linebackers
Courtney Upshaw needs to play better. He has always been touted as a player who is willing to do a little bit of everything to help his team win.
As Garrett Downing wrote during the preseason for BaltimoreRavens.com:
“He sets the edge to stuff the run. He grapples with tight ends at the line of scrimmage. He frees up playmakers like Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil to do what they do best and get after quarterbacks.”
These types of plays rarely show up on a stat sheet; 135 tackles, three sacks, and two forced fumbles are his career stats. However, coming out of college he had shown pass rush abilities.
In his last two years at Alabama, he had seven and nine and a half sacks. He weighs about ten more pounds than Suggs (272 compared to 265) and is an inch shorter at 6’2”. He does not lack in size and has shown (albeit in college) that he has potential.
Now, with the likely extended playing time and having an opportunity to rush the passer, Upshaw may be the next Raven to take advantage of an ideal situation (this is his contract year as well).
It must be noted that the Ravens repeatedly find a way to take potential and turn it into production.
Two recent examples include Paul Kruger (final year with the Ravens: nine regular season sacks and four and a half in the postseason) and Pernell McPhee (final year with the Ravens: seven and a half regular season sacks and a half sack in the playoffs).
Upshaw has the potential to be the next pass rusher who struggled his first few years with the Ravens before showing what he can truly do.
The other outside linebacker on the Ravens roster prior to week 1 was Za’Darius Smith, a fourth-round pick out of Kentucky. He is another big body at 6’4” and 275 pounds.
In college, he had six and four and a half sacks playing in the very difficult SEC. He remains a bit of a wildcard, but clearly has the size and possibly the potential to rack up a couple of sacks.
Jason Babin is the newest addition to the Ravens. He’s already been dubbed as a player who plays like a Raven according to BaltimoreRavens.com. However, there shouldn’t be much expected out of Babin.
He’s 35 and he’s coming into a new defensive scheme. To put it into perspective, Jared Allen at 32 had his worst statistical season with the Bears, tallying only five and a half sacks.
Babin, on the other hand, had his best season in 2011 with the Eagles. He had 18 sacks. In 2012, split between the Eagles and Jaguars, he had seven sacks.
Last year, he finished with two while playing with the Jets. While he does have quite the motor, his age and decline should lead to a below average performance. He should only be used in pass rush situations and nothing more.
With these three players—Upshaw, Smith, and Babin—the Ravens may be able to replicate Suggs’ sacks statistically.
It may not be too much to expect five sacks from Babin, three from Smith, and with more playing time, seven to nine from Upshaw (that is quite generous). However, the problem becomes that none of these players can set the edge, get to the passer, and drop into coverage like Suggs.
Upshaw is the closest and has yet to prove he deserves to be an every-down player in the NFL.
The Rest of the Defense
Suggs' injury should not be taken lightly, but, at the same time, needs to be put into perspective. Even the best defensive players cannot lead a team to the playoffs.
JJ Watt’s Texans failed to make it last year due to numerous other reasons, but his tremendous play couldn’t get them there either. Defensive players, alone, do not seem to have the same weight as an offensive weapon such as a quarterback or running back.
There are a lot of reasons to expect the Ravens' defense to play better than last year when they finished eighth in total defense.
Brandon Williams looks to be a wrecking ball inside and has been declared the next great defensive lineman for the Ravens.
Timmy Jernigan showed flashes of first round talent last season as he racked up four sacks with limited playing time. The defensive line should open up holes for many others to have a shot at the quarterback (CJ Mosley had two sacks against the Broncos).
Speaking of Mosley, he went to the Pro-Bowl as a rookie last year and was selected to the second all-pro team. Barring a sophomore slump (knock on all the wood) he should continue to rise and show (I hate saying this) that he is the next “Ray Lewis.”
Darryl Smith has been solid ever since arriving in Baltimore, and Albert McClellan seems to be a solid backup.
Finally, the Ravens spent a lot of time fixing the secondary which features a healthy Jimmy Smith (did you see his pick 6?), Kyle Arrington, Kendrick Lewis, Will Hill, Rashaan Melvin, and Ladarius Webb (although even I will admit I am skeptical to put faith in him).
A better secondary should lead to more time for the pass rushers to get to the QB, a luxury Dumervil and Suggs did not have last year due to defensive back injuries.
The Ravens cannot find a player who has all of Suggs' talents, but they shouldn’t need one. They can make up for his sacks in other ways, and Upshaw might be able to take a huge step forward (best case scenario).
The improvements in the secondary and the growth of younger players should make the Ravens defense better than last year with or without Suggs. Luckily they will play the Raiders next and have a bit of a breather and can show what they’re capable of without one of their best defensive players.