OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens coach John Harbaugh chose his words carefully, taking ample time to compliment his Super Bowl champion defense by labeling it the “winningest” unit in the NFL a year ago.
But the numbers didn’t lie and Harbaugh wasn’t going to hide from the Ravens finishing 17th in total defense, tied for 12th in points allowed, 20th in rush defense, and 17th in pass defense. The cracks in the foundation were bigger than ever, even as the Ravens perfected the “bend, but don’t break” mindset employed by coordinator Dean Pees in his first season in charge of the defense.
Trying to hold on would be a mistake in the Ravens’ minds and they shared that very sentiment at their season-ending press conference just a few days after the Super Bowl.
Change was inevitable for various reasons, evident by the free-agent departures of safety Ed Reed, linebackers Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe, and cornerback Cary Williams as well as the release of strong safety Bernard Pollard. Realities of both finances and age led to several unpopular departures, but it became easier to carry out these changes with the retirement of linebacker Ray Lewis, the iconic head of the Baltimore defense for the last 17 years.
Three-time Pro Bowl pass rusher Elvis Dumervil became the first dynamic addition in a new era for the Ravens. It’s a unit without Lewis and Reed leading the way but still employing impact players — Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, and Lardarius Webb — around which to build. Dumervil’s 63 1/2 career sacks bring instant credibility to a revamped front seven that’s also added veteran defensive linemen Chris Canty and Marcus Spears.
“You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse, right?” Harbaugh said. “And we need to get better in everything we do. I know our defensive coaches and defensive players feel the same way. It’s how I feel. Let’s put the best defense together we possibly can. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Following his unexpected departure from the Denver Broncos, the 29-year-old Dumervil immediately drew interest from the Ravens as Suggs and inside linebackers coach Don Martindale began selling the defensive end on coming to Baltimore. The 2006 fourth-round pick was drawn to the defensive culture still present in Baltimore despite the exits of the two iconic figures most responsible for creating it.
He and Suggs will now form one of the best pass-rushing duos in the NFL as the two have combined for 148 sacks in their respective careers. But the one thing Dumervil’s new teammates have that he doesn’t is what called him to the Ravens after making the decision to leave Denver.
“I want some hardware myself, so I’m a little envious right now,” Dumervil said. “The chemistry, they’ve had [it] here for a long time and I’m sure a lot of the guys learn a lot from that. If I can come in and try to fit in where I can and try to be part of that and keep it going, obviously, leadership and the team is important.”
Losing so much leadership on the defensive side of the ball, a question often asked this offseason has been who will take the reins of the defense with the emotionally-charged speeches of Lewis and the behind-the-scenes presence of Reed no longer in the building in Owings Mills. Dumervil didn’t shy away from assuming a leadership role to complement incumbents such as Suggs and Ngata.
For now, the Ravens will hope his ability to get after the quarterback will offset the free-agent loss of Kruger — and then some — and continue the ability to make game-changing plays like he did in Denver. Playing among such defensive standouts as cornerback Champ Bailey, safety Brian Dawkins, and linebacker Von Miller over his seven years with the Broncos, Dumervil was not only considered a good teammate but a player able to rise to the occasion at the most critical times.
“There’s no task too big for him. Whatever you need him to do, he’s going to do it,” said Martindale, who coached Dumervil in 2009 when the pass rusher collected a career-high 17 sacks. “The thing that jumped out at me the most from our time in Denver was not only looking at the stats — we know about rushing the quarterback — but when you needed a big play, Elvis always seemed like the guy who made the play.”
The Ravens will need more playmakers to reload a once-proud defensive unit undergoing a major makeover. There is more work to do as general manager Ozzie Newsome will look for solutions at inside linebacker, safety, and possibly defensive tackle.
The signing of Dumervil not only stopped the bleeding for a defense dealing with the loss of six starters from a Super Bowl season, but it reminded fans that there is a clear vision in place.
And the winning return for that plan doesn’t have to be delayed if executed correctly.
“Sometimes, you have to make a tough decision,” Dumervil said. “I just felt like it was time to change the scenery.”
It’s a lesson both Dumervil and the revamped Ravens defense had to learn this offseason, but both are hoping those changes will be for the better.