John Eisenberg: Significant Talent Drain On Run Defense

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McKinney, 28, was a backup defensive lineman, a massive 350-pound hole-plugger who slogged away in the Ravens' defensive interior for maybe a dozen plays a game. He joined the team in 2008 after being cut in San Diego, played in 61 games over four seasons, made four starts, and was occasionally deactivated when the Ravens needed help at other positions on a Sunday – as they did in the AFC title game in January, for instance.

He was the opposite of a prime-time player, but he did have a role in the Ravens' eternally-stout run defense, and it's a testament to his value that Chuck Pagano, the former Ravens defensive coordinator now coaching the Colts, thought enough of him to sign him.

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For those not keeping track, three unrestricted free agents who were key elements of the run defense have now departed for other teams. Jarret Johnson, the rugged linebacker, and Cory Redding, the veteran end, had even larger roles than McKinney, playing the first two downs of most series.

That's a significant talent drain from the rotation of guys who helped the Ravens set an NFL record for run-stopping longevity in 2011. That's right, an NFL record – and a darn good one at that.

When their opponents gained just 3.5 yards per rush last season, that made it 16 years in a row that the Ravens had held their opponents under the benchmark of 4.0 yards per rush. The Buffalo Bills did it for 15 straight years from 1986 through 2000, and the Dallas Cowboys also did it for 15 straight years from 1964 to 1978, but now the Ravens own the record.

Think about it: in the 16 years the team has existed, it has never allowed opponents to average as much as 4.0 yards per rush over a season. Along the way, the Ravens have ranked in the top three in the league in run defense 10 times, including last season, when they were second, allowing almost a yard less than the league average of 4.3 yards per rush.

Stopping the run is the first commandment of Ravens football, the one aspect of the sport they have mastered through winning and losing seasons, good times and bad. It's what they do, period. If you unravel them down to their essence, their very core, they're a hard-hitting, defensive-minded team intent on making opponents one-dimensional. Stop the run. Force them to pass. "Playing like a Raven" starts there.

But stopping the run is not headline-grabbing football. There are no gaudy statistics to celebrate, no sack dances to ogle. It's the battle of the uglies and unknowns, the place in the game where big guys collide, seeking to impose their will on the equally big guys opposite them.

You don't stop the run year after year with a single star, a golden quarterback or a fleet receiver. (Although having Ray Lewis helps.) The Ravens do it with a rotation of linemen and linebackers, keeping the freshest possible legs on the field, some better known than others.

McKinney was part of that rotation on many Sundays, as were Johnson and Redding. There was little glory in their art, little notice received except when they struggled, as they did in the home playoff game against Houston. They just pounded away down after down, quarter after quarter, game after game, then look up at the end, having helped set a record.

The Ravens have to replace McKinney as well as Johnson and Redding, and they can only hope the new guys are as proficient at setting edges and sticking their noses into piles. The Ravens can't afford to fade as superior run defenders. More than anything else, that's who they are.

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