Thursday, December 18th, 2014

2008 Season (The MOTHERFLACC’IN FUN Season) – Part 2: Defense

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The Ravens’ defense managed to stay relatively healthy in 2008, and when the next man needed to step up, there were plenty of capable bodies.  In Rex Ryan’s final year as defensive coordinator, his unit finished #2 overall in the NFL, allowing only 261.1 yards per game.

Defensive Line

The D-line had another very strong year, as the Ravens extended their league best streak of games without allowing a 100-yard rusher to 35 (and counting), and allowed only 81.4 yards rushing per game.  This was good for 3rd in the league, and was only two yards more than in 2007.  This is even more impressive considering they lost the 80 tackles of Kelly Gregg, who did not play a snap all year due to preseason knee surgery.  Justin Bannan stepped up huge in replacement of Buddy Lee, and Haloti Ngata continued his ascent to elite DT status.  Ngata was again snubbed from a Pro Bowl berth, despite his 55* tackles, 1 sack, and 2 interceptions.  His INT of Sage Rosenfels in the end zone in Houston was a perfect example of the kind of athletic ability Haloti possesses.  In only his 3rd season, he is legitimately a Top 5 defensive tackle in the NFL.   The next step in his progression as a player is to become more effective in collapsing the pocket.

Trevor Pryce rebounded from his injury-ridden 2007 to start all 16* games.  Although he put up only 4 sacks (the 2nd fewest of his career in a full season), he regularly pressured quarterbacks and occupied blockers to open up lanes for Ravens’ blitzers.

Despite a healthy Pryce, the Ravens still only managed 34 sacks all season – a modest improvement from 2007′s 32.

Mid-season additions Brandon McKinnie and Marques Douglas also played well in spot duty.

The Ravens’ trouble in getting to the QB over the past 2 seasons really highlights their need for a true “rush” defensive end to compliment the aging Pryce and the versatile Terrell Suggs.  It will be a position they will likely try to address in this year’s draft.

With Kelly Gregg, who will benefit in 2009 from having a full year’s rest, Bannan, who would start on just about any d-line, and Ngata, a certified beast, teams will continue struggling to get anything going on the ground against the Ravens in coming seasons.

Linebackers

The Ravens linebackers, to the surprise of absolutely nobody, had another stellar season as a group. This position has become synonymous with Baltimore football, and the ’08 group carried the torch admirably.

Ray Lewis continues to seemingly get younger rather than older.  At 33, he registered his most solo tackles (85) since 2004, most interceptions (3) since 2003, added 3.5 sacks to his career totals, and still hit harder than anybody on the team (just ask Rashard Mendenhall).  Ray was named to his 10th Pro Bowl and 6th All Pro Team.

Terrell Suggs rebounded from his slightly below average 2007 with a vengeance, setting a career high with 53 solo tackles, racking up 8 sacks, and picking off 2 passes, which he returned for his first and second career touchdowns.  The way he read those screen passes that sealed the deals in both Miami and Cleveland are true testaments to his development as a player; Suggs is no longer just a pass rusher.  As his hybrid DE/LB status attests to, he is a freak of nature out there.

Bart Scott has yet to reproduce anything resembling the monster season he had in 2006, but was solid nonetheless.  He fits the Ravens’ system very well, and although his numbers have fallen off (only 2.5 sacks and 0 INTs last 2 seasons combined, compared to 9.5 and 2 in ’06),  he was rarely caught out of position or missed tackles (on anybody not named Chris Johnson).

Jarret Johnson had another steady year, and recorded career highs in solo tackles (45), sacks (5), and passes defended (3).  For the 5th consecutive season, Johnson did not miss a single game.  Unfortunately, due to his lack of “flash” on the field, Johnson’s 2008 campaign may be best remembered for his silly unnecessary roughness penalty in Pittsburgh on Monday night.  You remember the one – he got baited into a shove by Cheap Shot and Pitt scored a few plays later.  JJ is a good player though, and is the one starter from this group certain to be on the field in purple in ’09.

This group faces a world of uncertainty this offseason, as Suggs, Lewis, and Scott are all unrestricted free agents.  Ideally, the Ravens would like to sign all three, but it just doesn’t make economic sense to commit that much money to one position.  Especially considering the Ravens’ proven track record of finding good young LBs to replace departing veterans.  To whit, Tavares Gooden, Jameel McClain, Prescott Burgess, Edgar Jones, and Antwan Barnes are all waiting in the wings to one degree or another.  Suggs has recently been quoted as saying that the trio may be open to giving a “home town discount.”  As Lee of Ravens365 points out though, that’s all well and good…until agents get involved.

Nest prediction:  Suggs is signed long-term, they find some way to bring Ray back, and Bart Scott “Jets” off to New York with Rex Ryan (I say that without knowing anything about NYJ’s cap space).

Secondary

The Ravens’ biggest problem in 2007, the secondary stepped up big in ’08, and finished the year as the NFL’s #2 pass defense.  They allowed only 17 passing TDs, 10 fewer than the previous year.

Ozzie made what turned out to be some pretty astute moves during the offseason in an attempt to fortify a group decimated by injuries in 07.  Fabian Washington and Frank Walker proved to be critical acquisitions, and the impact of the Jim Leonhard singing was immeasurable.  Washington had some bumps early, but turned into a very reliable cover man (tackling, not so much) by the end of the year.  Walker also struggled a bit to begin with, and had some stupid penalties scattered here and there, but Frank is still head and shoulders above Corey Ivy.  Samari Rolle played in only 10 games, but was his usual consistent, professional self when he was in there.  Even at 32, he was the closest thing to a “shut down” corner the Ravens had after Chris McAlister went out.

Ah, C-Mac.  We thought he had finally gotten his head on straight after all these years, but apparently the new regime was all it took to tip Chris back into crazyland.  McAlister saw his final action for 2008 in Week 6 (when Marvin Harrison absolutely ABUSED him).  There were reports of a hotel lobby confrontation/big scene involving him, some coaches, and some “ladies” in Miami the following week, then the odd explanations from John Harbaugh in which he wanted us to actually believe that Frank Walker was the better option for the team at that point than C-Mac – even though he was perfectly healthy.  He was finally placed on IR November 12, following knee surgery.  “Dollars to donuts” says that McAlister has played his last game as a Raven.

Another guy placed on IR that same day was strong safety Dawan Landry, who was injured trying to tackle Jamal Lewis in the 2nd game of the season.  He suffered a spinal cord concussion and, although it was hopeful he would play again at the time, that was not to be the case.  His injury opened up the door for little Jimmy Leonhard.  Leonhard, signed off the free agent wire after being released by Buffalo in training camp, never missed a beat.  He reportedly learned the Ravens’ entire sophisticated defense in two days, and seemed to always be in the right place at the right time.  In his first season as a full-time starter, he had 69 tackles, 6 passes defended, and 1 interception (which, being a Raven, he of course returned for a TD).

Then of course there was Ed Reed.  Reed has gotten as much ink this season as just about anybody, so we won’t rehash all of that here. Suffice to say:

  • Reed tied a career high with 9 picks.
  • Two of those were returned for touchdowns.
  • One of those broke his own NFL record for longest TAINT.
  • He added a touchdown on a fumble recovery, after forcing said fumble.
  • At one point (including the postseason), he had TWO interceptions in 5 out of 7 games.
  • If DPOY voting didn’t end after Week 4 (or whatever), he may well have earned his 2nd.
  • He was the only unanimous 1st Team All Pro.

In short, he was Ed Reed.  Not bad for a guy playing with a nerve impingement in his neck, who wasn’t even sure he would step on the field at all in 2008.

Rookie backups Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura also played well when their numbers were called.

An interesting plot heading into the offseason is what the Ravens will do with Leonhard, an unrestricted free agent.  He definitely earned himself some money, but whether he gets that payday in B’More remains to be seen.  Ravens fans would certainly love to see Jimmy stick around…but then what to do with Dawan Landry?  And who’s to say that a guy like Zbikowski can’t become exactly what Jim Leonhard is now, with a little experience (and at a much cheaper price)?  In Ozzie we trust…

Special Teams

Despite having a new head coach with a special teams pedigree, the Ravens were….uneven, at best, in 2008.  Forty year old kicker Matt Stover got off to a rough start, hitting only 4 of his first 7 FG attempts.  He would right himself though, and connect on 23 of his final 26 tries.  Still, Stover’s 81.8 percentage was his lowest since 1998, and his season long of 47 was his shortest season-long since 1995.  On the bright side, Stover set a new NFL record for consecutive PAT’s made, having not missed one since 1996.  Stover is still “Auto-Matt-ic” from inside 40 yards, but his weak leg is starting to hurt the Ravens, especially on kickoffs; they need to use a game-day roster spot each week on a kickoff specialist.  He is an unrestricted free agent, so there will be some off-season conversations in Owings Mills regarding Stover for probably the first time ever.

Stover’s understudy, rookie Steven Hauschka, handled kickoff duties and was 1/2 on long FG tries.  Including the postseason, he managed 7 touchbacks on 56 kickoffs. The Ravens have yet to give any indication on whether or not they consider him to be the “kicker of the future.”

The Ravens’ coverage teams made fans queasy all season.  Although they finished around the middle of the pack in kickoff coverage (tied for 14th), they allowed 2 kick return touchdowns, which tied for most in the NFL with New England.  On punts, Sam Koch was a monster, finishing 2nd in the league in punts inside the 20, and 1st in punts inside the 10.  Koch gave the Ravens a great weapon in the field position game.

It was fortunate for the Ravens that Koch was such a weapon, because they had no such playmaker on returns in the battle for field position.  Yamon Figurs got off to a terrible start and never righted himself.  Hopefully, it was just his “sophomore slump,” but he was atrocious.  Ray Rice and Tom Zbikowski both filled in at times for Figurs, but neither was remarkable.  For an idea of just how bad the Ravens’ kick return team was, look no further than the fact that fans still had no idea who would be the main KR by the time the AFC CHAMPSIONSHIP GAME ROLLED AROUND!  Pretty bad.

Figurs was also terrible on punts, and was supplanted by Jim Leonhard.  Leonhard nearly doubled Figurs’ average return (11.6 – 6.0), and finally gave the Ravens some stability back there.  Of punt returners with at least 20 attempts, Leonhard’s average was good for 6th in the league.

Also of note: undrafted rookie Jameel McClain blocked a punt for a safety and also recorded a sack for a safety, tying the rookie record with 2 2-pointers.

* all stats are regular season only unless otherwise noted

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