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Sometimes pro football math is as simple as childhood addition and subtraction. One player goes down, another has to step up. Minus one, plus one.
But sometimes the math is far more complex. In the calculus of defensive football as the Ravens play it, cornerback Domonique Foxworth's*ACL tear, which will keep him off the field for the entire 2010 season, means Terrell Suggs* needs to step up.
With Foxworth out, the Ravens are scrambling to find two healthy and able cornerbacks for the startling lineup, let alone the nickel and other specialty packages. Chris Carr, Travis Fisher and Walt Harris are currently the frontrunners, with Fabian Washington and Lardarius Webb playing catch-up as they finish rehabbing their own ACL injuries from a year ago. Others in the mix include Doug Dutch, obtained from the Redskins in a trade yesterday.
But no matter who mans the corners in 2010, they likely won't have Pro Bowl credentials. So, how are the Ravens going to defend the pass? They'll hope to still get quality play at the corners, but they'll really hope to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks than they did in 2009.
In one of his first training camp sessions with the press last week, Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh was asked what he hoped to accomplish in camp. A stock question, but his answer was interesting. The first aspect of the game he mentioned was "wanting to improve our ability to rush the passer…that's a big priority."
And here's where the calculus comes in.
Greg Mattison, the Ravens' defensive coordinator, is not a proponent of blitzes. Perhaps you have heard him expound on this. He believes you're eventually going to lose if you take too many defenders out of your pass coverage too often, leaving the cornerbacks to fend for themselves. You just can't let your cornerbacks go it alone, Mattison believes, not with the pro game being so pass-happy today.
We can debate the merits of his philosophy as opposed to that of his predecessor, Rex Ryan, who loved to blitz. Fans loved Ryan's aggressive style, but Mattison's defense wound up playing well at the end of last season.
In any case, by believing in rushing just four without a blitz, Mattison is asking the players on the defensive front to beat their blockers one-on-one and apply the necessary pressure – the ends and a linebacker from "the edge" and the tackles "pushing the pocket" from the middle. And who on the Ravens' front is the rush specialist? That would be Suggs.
The eighth-year end signed a $63 million contract before last season, seemingly signaling his elevation to elite status, but he reported to camp out of shape and proceeded to have one of his worst seasons, compiling just four-and-a-half sacks. It wasn't a coincidence that the Ravens' pass rush, or lack of it, was a factor in several key losses.
Inevitably, there were questions about Suggs' conditioning before he reported to camp last week. But amid a run of bad news that included Foxworth getting lost for the season in a non-contract drill and rookie Sergio Kindle falling down two flights of stairs in Texas and fracturing his skull, Suggs generated some indisputably good news. He reported to camp in shape, noticeably slimmer and clearly motivated to play better.
The Ravens really need that from him now that Foxworth is out, the cornerback situation is so jumbled and Kindle, a rush specialist, won't be around to provide a jolt at least for now.
The team is hoping bulked-up second-year end Paul Kruger will pressure quarterbacks more this season along with veterans Cory Redding and Trevor Pryce, but there's no doubt who should lead the team in this department. Having signed a reported $23 million roster bonus in the spring, a paycheck that made him one of the highest-paid athletes in all of sports this year, Suggs is the man.
It's complex calculus, but in terms of football strategy, pretty straightforward. You take your big-money veteran pass-rusher and tell him to go get the quarterback. His team needs him. Like, a lot.
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.