Only time will tell whether Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs will be able to return to the field at some point during the 2012 season.
But there’s no disputing Baltimore’s Super Bowl aspirations took a significant blow on Thursday with the news of the 2011 AP Defensive Player of the Year suffering a torn Achilles tendon in Arizona last weekend. Suggs insists he’ll be ready to play by midseason, but the severity of the injury suggests just how ambitious that proclamation might be.
Plain and simple, the Ravens must prepare for the 2012 season under the assumption that they won’t have their best defensive player for the entire year.
What looked more like a luxury pick six days ago when general manager Ozzie Newsome selected Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw with the 35th overall pick of the NFL Draft now looks like a foretelling gift from a higher power as the rookie becomes the most logical candidate to assume Suggs’ spot at the rush linebacker position.
Most view Upshaw as a promising addition to the vaunted Baltimore defense, but the Ravens and their fans know the unforgiving truth.
There’s simply no replacing Suggs, who collected a career-best 14 sacks and earned an invitation to his fifth Pro Bowl a season ago. His subtraction alone transforms an elite defense into one without the dominant pass-rusher required in this pass-happy era of the NFL.
Ray Lewis is still the heart of the defense and Ed Reed the soul, but Suggs was the one-man wrecking crew that propelled the defense to an AFC-leading 48 sacks and the third overall defensive ranking in 2011. In addition to the sacks, forced fumbles, and tackles, Suggs’ impact on the defense goes beyond what you see on the stat sheet.
Even if Upshaw is ready to contribute immediately at the position, the trickle-down effect of Suggs’ absence will be felt in all aspects of the defense. His ability to consistently beat offensive tackles allows the Ravens to play more four-man fronts and rely on fewer blitzes in passing situations. Opponents game-plan specifically for the rush linebacker, having to account for him on every play while defensive teammates often reap the benefits along the way.
With so little cap room – less than $2 million — at their disposal and the draft and primary wave of free agency already in the rear-view mirror, the Ravens won’t have the luxury of making dynamic changes to their makeup on either side of the football. They have little choice but to depend on those already on the roster to make the game-changing plays Suggs provided in past seasons.
Replacing Suggs’ production and impact cannot simply fall on the shoulders of the rookie Upshaw.
Third-year linebacker Paul Kruger, who looked like he had found himself in a competition with the Alabama rookie, will presumably take the reins of the strong-side backer position left behind by veteran Jarret Johnson. In addition to setting the edge and becoming an every-down player, Kruger will need to provide a larger presence as a pass-rusher after collecting 5 1/2 sacks last season.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees may now be forced to take more chances upfront by using defensive end Pernell McPhee more often than he anticipated since projected starter Arthur Jones doesn’t offer as much in the pass rush as he does defending the run. This would leave the Ravens lighter along the defensive line and vulnerable against the run in certain situations.
Young reserves such as Albert McClellan, Sergio Kindle, and Michael McAdoo will now find themselves a spot higher on the depth chart and only an injury or two away from potentially being forced into action.
However, the component of the defense facing the most pressure without Suggs is the Baltimore secondary, which surprisingly ranked fourth in the league in pass defense a year ago. Taking nothing away from the breakout seasons enjoyed by Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams, there’s no arguing how much the secondary benefited from Suggs’ ability to pressure the quarterback.
Webb, Williams, and 2011 first-round pick Jimmy Smith – with Reed still patrolling in center field – will need to take additional steps forward as opposing quarterbacks won’t have No. 55 chasing them around in the pocket — at least for the first half of the season. After signing a new long-term contract and proclaiming his unit the best secondary in the NFL a few weeks ago, Webb and his teammates in the defensive backfield will need to prove just that to prevent the defense from taking a substantial step back in 2012.