Revamping pass rush big priority for Ravens this offseason

January 04, 2017 | Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — There wasn’t much to like about the Ravens defense over the final four weeks of the 2016 season.

Allowing 26 or more points in each of the last four contests and 127 or more rushing yards in the final three games, a unit that entered Week 14 ranked first in total defense was anything but special down the stretch. The late struggles of the run defense garnered much attention, but the season-long ineffectiveness of the pass rush was magnified when the Ravens needed it the most as top cornerback Jimmy Smith was sidelined.

Baltimore collected a total of three sacks over those final four games with two coming from veteran rush specialist Elvis Dumervil, who was limited to eight games while recovering from offseason Achilles tendon surgery. Turning 33 later this month, Dumervil is entering the final season of a five-year contract and is scheduled for a $6 million salary and an $8.375 million salary cap figure for 2017.

“I was able to — the last five or six games of the season — come out and be a little productive, so I’m looking forward to next season,” said Dumervil, who estimated being at 85 percent from where he was before the injury. “I’ve got one year left on the deal, so that’s where I’m at right now. Me personally, I’m trying to get my body back to where I need to be, so that’s the most important thing for me.”

His price tag and age make Dumervil a prime candidate to be a cap casualty, but the Ravens must first construct a plan to boost their pass rush in 2017 after finishing tied for 24th with 31 sacks. Though still a productive all-around player while leading the Ravens with eight sacks, six-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs will turn 35 next season and did not record a single quarterback takedown in the final five games.

It’s obvious that the Ravens’ need youthful options who can get after the quarterback, but 2015 fourth-round pick Za’Darius Smith failed to pop in his second season like the organization had hoped and managed just one sack in 494 defensive snaps. Fifth-round rookie Matt Judon flashed potential with four sacks, but Smith had also shown promising signs with 5 1/2 sacks in his rookie season before disappointing in 2016.

“We have to get there,” said head coach John Harbaugh, who believes Judon has the potential to become a premier player. “It is one thing to have high hopes; it is another thing to get there. We are looking for another pass rusher certainly.”

Of course, the Ravens could have selected edge rusher Noah Spence in the second round of last year’s draft, but general manager Ozzie Newsome instead traded back and eventually took Boise State linebacker Kamalei Correa, who profiles more as an inside option and played sparingly as a rookie. Spence was selected by Tampa Bay in the second round and finished with 5 1/2 sacks in 2016.

Whether a prospect such as Alabama’s Tim Williams or Carl Lawson of Auburn is the right fit with the 16th pick in this spring’s draft remains to be seen, but the Ravens can no longer count on Suggs continuing to fight off Father Time and must do more to address what was a clear weakness in 2016.

At the end of the season, the Ravens were unable to get to the quarterback with a four-man rush and were too vulnerable in the secondary. You can scheme ways to overcome one or the other, but a defense will almost always break when enduring both of those deficiencies.

And that’s exactly what happened to a group that had played admirably for most of the season.