Eisenberg: Defense Just Needs Tweaks

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By signing Donte' Stallworth, trading for Anquan Boldin, and re-signing Derrick Mason, the Ravens have made it clear that upgrading their offense is their priority this offseason. Don't be surprised if they keep going, drafting another wide receiver or a tight end, or both. They have deduced that they need weapons to become a top-tier team, and given the pass-happy nature of today's NFL, who can argue?

Meanwhile, they've done nothing about their defense. The offseason news on that side of the ball hasn't been so exciting -- or positive. Defensive tackle Justin Bannan jumped to the Broncos. Defensive end Dwan Edwards is shopping himself. Marlin Jackson, a free agent defensive back, signed with the Eagles after visiting Baltimore. That's about it.

Training camp is still four months away and there'll be plenty of defensive news and maneuvering by then, most importantly safety Ed Reed's yes/no call on returning. But by focusing their big moves on the offense, the Ravens are basically saying their 2010 defense will resemble their 2009 defense.

Some fans and observers are OK with that, and some aren't, calling for the team to use the draft and free agency to bolster the pass defense and/or pass rush, two areas that caused concern at times last season. Here's what I say: Yes, some moves need to be made. The team needs to pick a starting defensive end, whether it is Edwards, Trevor Pryce or someone else. The depth in the line needs to be addressed. And the secondary needs to be deep enough to handle Lardarius Webb and Fabian Washington possibly not returning at top speed from the injuries that ended their 2009 seasons. But overall, if the price of making all these offensive moves is having to go with basically the same defense in 2010, fine.

The unit stumbled badly enough early in 2009 that there were times when it seemed the Ravens would be forced to spend their top picks and moves on that side of the ball. But those concerns eased as the season progressed. The defense got better and better, and by the end, was right where it always is, among the league's elite.

In terms of yardage allowed, the Ravens had the fifth-best rushing defense, the eighth-best passing defense, and third-best overall defense. Only two teams, the Jets and Cowboys, allowed fewer points. The defense befuddled Tom Brady in a first-round playoff victory over the Patriots and held its own against Peyton Manning and the Colts in a losing effort in the second round.

Despite all that, the unit never fully satisfied some fans because it wasn't an absolute brick wall in the fashion of some of its predecessors, especially the legendary Super Bowl-winning defense, against which all Ravens defenses are measured.

But I'm not sure that's a fair standard anymore. In the past decade, the league's top passing offenses have become much more sophisticated and finely-tuned, helped by rule changes designed to produce more scoring. Completely shutting down any top offense is pretty much impossible now. Green Bay had the league's No. 2 defense in 2009, but Arizona's Kurt Warner punctured it for 379 yards and five touchdowns in a playoff victory in January. The Jets had the top defense, but Manning threw for 377 yards and three touchdowns against it in the AFC title game.

Measured against that yardstick, the Ravens' defense was as stout as any by the end of last season, and can be expected to play similarly in 2010. Yes, Ray Lewis and Kelly Gregg are in their final years, but they held their own in 2009. Yes, the pass rush needs to become fiercer, but having Terrell Suggs in better shape should help that. And yes, the pass defense becomes a major concern if Reed, Webb and Washington are all out of the picture, but let's see how all that plays out before pushing any emergency buttons.

The defense doesn't need a major overhaul, just some tweaks. There will be changes, but in general, the unit will look pretty much the same. And that's fine. It was on offense where the Ravens ultimately fell short last season. That they're focusing now on that side of the ball is entirely appropriate.

John Eisenberg worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.

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