Eisenberg: Not Your Father's Defense

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It was so startling to me that, I confess, I rewound the broadcast to double check. And sure enough, what I had seen was correct.

On many plays Monday night, as the Ravens tried to stay within sight of the Packers, their defense featured Lardarius Webb and Tom Zbikowski in the secondary, Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger as linebackers and Dwan Edwards at defensive end.

No, none were out-of-nowhere surprises. All five were on the field because of injuries to other players or depth-chart shuffles reported in the media.

But suddenly, the sum of the many changes just hit me. This was a vastly different defense from the one the Ravens had expected to field in 2009.

Webb, Kruger and Ellerbe are rookies. Zbikowski is a second-year guy who was making his first career start. Edwards is a sixth-year player who had been a career backup until a month ago. After Kelly Gregg left with a shoulder strain in the second half, more than half of the guys on the field on any given play were de facto reserves. And of the many shuffling in and out, only Ray Lewis had a Pro Bowl on his resume.

The sight of Lewis in the middle gave the impression that it was business as usual, but if you looked closely, you could see that, well, this was not your father's Baltimore D.

With that in mind, the unit didn't fare that badly. Playing on the road against a sharp quarterback, it gave up three touchdowns but also forced three turnovers. It came into the game as the NFL's 10th-best defense, and when the final gun sounded, it was still ranked No. 10. Yes, the Packers controlled the ball for 35 minutes and won by 13 points, but the Ravens were close in the fourth quarter.

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday that injured stars Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed obviously were missed but the guys on the field "did well."

After watching so much new blood playing together, I think it's fair to wonder whether this is a defense just dealing with typical injuries or a defense in the early stages of what could become a significant transformation. Don't be surprised if it's the latter.

Every unit on every NFL team is constantly evolving to some degree; the Ravens' defense certainly did when Bart Scott and Jim Leonhard departed via free agency after last season along with coordinator Rex Ryan. But now, even before this season ends, the defense is already evolving again, with more moves possibly on the way.

Trevor Pryce, who was replaced by Edwards in the starting lineup a month ago, is 34 years old, as is Lewis. Gregg, coming off a serious knee injury, is 33. Reed is 31, and while he had started 64 straight games before missing Monday, he is dealing with mounting injuries – a chronic nerve impingement in his neck that had him thinking about retirement a few years ago, and now, a strained hip.

Among the slightly younger guys, cornerbacks Domonique Foxworth and Fabian Washington haven't excelled, leading to speculation about their futures. (Washington is out for the season with a knee injury.) Suggs? He was supposed to anchor the defense after signing a big contract, but he wasn't having a banner season (just 3½ sacks) before going down with a strained knee last month.

I'm guessing a few of those starters, at the very least, won't be back in 2010, either because they retire or because the Ravens elect to cut ties. That's fine. Some change is needed. Though certainly capable enough, the defense is ranked 26th in the league in sacks and is on pace to generate 21 percent fewer turnovers than it did a year ago. The schemes of first-year coordinator Greg Mattison, who changed the base alignment from a 4-3 to a 3-4, must be evaluated.

The only slam-dunk certainties to return are Lewis, Haloti Ngata, Jarret Johnson, Dawan Landry and Suggs – and Reed, injuries willing. Johnson is having a superb season. Ngata is a mainstay. Landry, after a slow start, ranks second on the team in tackles.

But I'm also guessing that electric young players such as Webb and Ellerbe will continue to see more action along with linebacker Tavares Gooden and others from the next generation. Slowly, or maybe not so slowly, the page is turning.

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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