The stereotypical image for a top-ranked defense is a snarling beast that breathes fire and leaves a path of destruction in its wake.
The Ravens’ 2018 defense, which finished with a No. 1 ranking, certainly brought such a creature to mind at times. The Tennessee Titans have some stories to tell.
But while Defensive Coordinator Don (Wink) Martindale’s unit could punish opponents, I would submit that other qualities besides its physicality were just as integral to its success.
There was, for instance, the chemistry. The Ravens all but oozed that intangible on defense in 2018. The players got along well off the field and performed well together during games. They liked playing with each other, which can’t always be said in the NFL.
The chemistry was so strong that I would suggest the defense’s sum was greater than the value of its individual parts. Only two starters, linebacker C.J. Mosley and safety Eric Weddle, were voted to the Pro Bowl. A third, tackle Brandon Williams, went as an alternate. That wasn’t exactly a flood of representation from the No. 1 defense. Something else obviously was at play besides pure ability.
Another important quality that helped the unit was its mental prowess. Quite simply, the Ravens were super-smart on defense.
Weddle, who turned 34 in January, deftly orchestrated the flurry of pre-snap movements that confused many quarterbacks. Terrell Suggs, 36, instinctively shouted out plays that were coming after watching the offense line up.
Yes, the Ravens were plenty tough on that side of the ball, but nothing helped the unit more than the frequency with which players were in the right places at the right times. Martindale’s complex system was built for experienced operators, and Weddle, Suggs and Mosley provided the necessary guile, as did veteran cornerbacks Brandon Carr, 32, and Jimmy Smith, 30.
You can be sure the Ravens’ decision-makers are debating the value of that experience as they set out to build the 2019 defense.
No one doubts the importance of football wisdom, but literally, what is it worth?
The question is relevant because Mosley and Suggs are pending free agents, and parting with Weddle, who is entering the final year of his contract, is a possibility. The futures of Carr and Smith are also uncertain because of their age, contracts and the Ravens’ cornerback depth.
Mosley belongs in a separate category, as he’ll turn 27 in June, so he is in his prime. Although he’ll be costly and there are always salary cap consequences to gauge, it’s a no-brainer for the Ravens to try to re-sign their most accomplished (and best) player under 30.
Suggs and Weddle are in different situations. The Ravens tend to move on from players in their mid-thirties, as many teams do. It’s nothing personal, just how life works with a cap in play. Whenever you can get younger and cheaper, you do.
But while no one is suggesting Suggs and Weddle are still in their physical primes, they remain solid. Pro Football Focus rated Weddle as the league’s 10th-best safety in 2018. Suggs received PFF grades in the above-average range.
And those tangible evaluations don’t measure what both players added to the mix with their football smarts.
Are the Ravens going to try to re-create their 2018 defense in 2019? How great is the risk of them falling a step behind physically if they keep all that experience on the field? And if they don’t, are they confident in the younger (i.e., cheaper) contributors they’ve developed on that side of the ball?
Those are big questions. The answers, in the end, will come down to the dollars involved, and in each individual case, whether those younger players are ready to step in as starters in place of veterans. I’m not necessarily seeing the latter with Suggs and Weddle, for instance, which is a factor to consider.
To be clear, the Ravens aren’t asking for my input. But if they did, I would suggest, given how important experience was to the defense in 2018, that it’d be a good idea to retain as much as possible and try to keep that good thing going.