Eisenberg: Ravens Organically Grow Pass Rush


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There are basically two ways to do it. They can go shopping – i.e., make the fix with a draft pick, trade or free agent – or they can make the fix organically, hoping for natural growth and improvement from players already on their team.

Coming out of the 2010 season, the Ravens identified key fixes such as improving their running game, getting faster receivers and tightening up their pass defense. They have addressed them with shopping purchases such as draft picks Jimmy Smith and Torrey Smith, free agent signings Vonta Leach and Ricky Williams, and recently, Lee Evans, a trade acquisition.


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But their pass rush, which they viewed as a crucial fix after it generated a franchise-low 27 sacks in 2010, was never addressed.

There was a lot of speculation before the draft that the Ravens might select a defensive end/rush specialist in the first round because this draft class was deep at that position, but in the end, they addressed a variety of other needs before finally taking a defensive end in the fifth round, hardly a major "purchase."

After that, it was widely assumed they would make a major move for a pass rushing fix either in free agency or via a trade. Lists were compiled, names bandied about, but the move never came. Other areas again received more attention.

It has become clear in this rushed run-up to the 2011 season that the Ravens intend to grow their pass rush organically, improve it mostly with the talent they already have on hand.

It is a roll of the dice, needless to say.

Finding someone other than Terrell Suggs to scare opposing quarterbacks would really amp up their defense, but the talent on hand doesn't have much of a track record, unlike, say, Carolina's Charles Johnson, who had as many sacks as Suggs in 2010 and was available as a free agent, but re-signed with Carolina.

But the issue there, of course, is the salary cap is back, which means you can't always get what you want. You can't blame the Ravens for letting someone else pay Johnson's exorbitant price tag (a six-year, $72 million deal with a $30 million signing bonus), which surely would have prevented them from making some of the other fixes they made.

So they're attempting to grow their pass rush organically. The thinking? Maybe Sergio Kindle can come back from his injury and help. Maybe Paul Kruger or rookie Pernell McPhee (that fifth-round pick) can surprise. Maybe Haloti Ngata (5½ sacks in 2010) keeps applying more and more heat. Maybe Jarret Johnson can raise his pressure game, being one more year removed from shoulder surgery.

Between all those possibilities and the more aggressive tendencies of Chuck Pagano, the team's new defensive coordinator, maybe the pass rush can indeed become more varied and intense. That's their thinking.

As I said, it's a risk. But the early returns are favorable. Kruger has been switched back to rush end for his third pro season and is showing vast improvement; it's as if he has been freed from shackles and his light has finally come on. Kindle has cleared all medical hurdles and returned to the field, looking physical and aggressive. McPhee, described by Pagano as a "violent, violent football player," made a big play in the exhibition opener, causing a fumble.

"Obviously, all we talked about in the offseason was sack totals and pass rush," Pagano said. "If you watched the tape and you watched what's going on out here in practice, these guys are doing a great job. All those guys are coming off the edge. They know the defense now, the maturity level is a ton better and the confidence level is growing. Paul is a really talented guy and so are the other guys. They're going to do great thing for us and that sack total is going to go up."

It's the biggest risk the Ravens are taking in 2011, but it's a calculated risk with a lot of thought behind it, and the Ravens just might pull it off.

John Eisenberg *covers the Ravens for Comcast SportsNet Baltimore. He 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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