You can't overstate the momentousness of Terrell Suggs' latest Achilles injury on the arc of Baltimore Ravens history.
As they boarded a plane and traveled from Colorado to California late Sunday after a season-opening loss to the Denver Broncos made more discouraging by Suggs' injury, you could almost feel the Ravens flying on the winds of sweeping change.
Their defense has been their calling card, their signature unit, for nearly two decades, almost as long as the franchise has existed. Suggs, the prowling, preening sack-master, was the last link to that tradition, and now that he is 32, almost 33, and out for the rest of the 2015 season, the defense has officially entered a new era.
It's a stunning whirl of the evolutionary wheel, one unforeseen as recently as late last season, when Suggs and Haloti Ngata still ran the show on that side of the ball in Baltimore. But Ngata was traded to the Detroit Lions in March. Now, Suggs is out.
Between those subtractions and the previous departures of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, the defense has officially completed its icon extraction program. The unit is in different hands now, those of new stalwarts such as nose tackle Brandon Williams, linebacker C.J. Mosley and cornerback Jimmy Smith, with linemen Timmy Jernigan and Carl Davis, safety Will Hill III and others also looking to carve out major roles.
It's a young, hungry group. Smith is the oldest at 27, in his fifth pro season.
Sure, the defense also still relies on veterans such as outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, coming off a record season of sacks; inside linebacker Daryl Smith, an underrated force at age 33; and cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Kyle Arrington, who covered well Sunday against Denver's Peyton Manning. It takes a village.
But it was clear Sunday that Williams, Mosley and Smith are the cornerstones, for now and also in coming years.
Williams, a 2013 third-round pick, was immense in the middle against Denver. Mosley, a 2014 first-round pick, made plays from sideline to sideline. Smith, a 2011 first-round pick, was a Pro Bowl-caliber cover corner, contributing a team-high eight unassisted tackles and a pick-six that almost decided the game.
The fact that they now comprise the spine of the Ravens defense is the best reason I can give you to still feel encouraged about 2015 despite the team's season-opening defeat and Suggs' injury.
If you can play defense like the Ravens played Sunday, you can still win games, no matter what kind of condition your offense is in.
It's noteworthy that the young defensive spine has formed despite the front office missing on several high-round defensive draft picks in recent years. Sergio Kindle and Terrence Cody were also penciled in to become major puzzle pieces, but didn't make the grade. Matt Elam played his way off the first team a year ago, and now he's injured. Arthur Brown is one of the last guys on the 53-man roster.
Imagine if one or several members of that group had also lived up to their high-round status. The Ravens would really be set on defense.
But they're still in good shape, as they indicated Sunday by limiting Manning and the Broncos offense to four field goals.
Sure, Suggs' injury is a significant setback. He's no longer a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, but a year ago, he had 12 sacks, set an effective edge against the run and provided emotional leadership. As several teammates indicated Sunday, you don't really replace a guy like that. You just figure out another way to do things.
Understandably, the pressing concern is the pass rush, now without both Suggs and Pernell McPhee, who combined for 19.5 sacks a year ago. It wouldn't surprise me to see GM Ozzie Newsome sign a veteran with a history of bringing heat. Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said Monday it was a possibility. "We're still in the process of evaluating our options," Harbaugh said. But no addition is going to change how the Ravens move forward from here on defense. Their iconic old guard has dwindled and dwindled until, suddenly, it's not there anymore. So a new era begins, flush with promise, and, of course, uncertainty. But watching Smith, Mosley, Williams and the Ravens' other young defensive players, you get the feeling things are going to be OK.