Inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor was the Ravens' highest-graded defensive player in Sunday's playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF).
It was hard to argue. Onwuasor was all over the field with seven tackles, including Baltimore's only sack, and had yet another key forced fumble. It capped a strong finish to a season for Onwuasor, who took home AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors in Week 16 after the "Peanut Punch" sealed the Ravens' win in L.A.
During the Ravens' drive to the playoffs, Onwuasor stepped up his game. He's an emerging defensive player, an example of what the Ravens will need from other young defenders next season.
Baltimore has six key players on defense who are all 26 years old – defensive tackle Michael Pierce, inside linebackers C.J. Mosley and Onwuasor, outside linebackers Za'Darius Smith and Matthew Judon, and safety Tony Jefferson. Talented cornerback Marlon Humphrey is just 22 years old, while nickel cornerback Tavon Young is 24. Rookie inside linebacker Kenny Young (24 years old) also had bright moments, particularly early in the season.
Those players are either in their prime or ascending, and many of them will be counted on more heavily next season. Baltimore's No. 1-ranked defense may take an offseason hit. The Ravens could lose Mosley, a four-time Pro Bowler who will be one of the NFL's most coveted free agents. They could lose Smith, a free agent who may get an offer he can't refuse after leading Baltimore with 8 ½ sacks.
There is also uncertainty regarding the return of four key veterans on defense – linebacker Terrell Suggs, safety Eric Weddle, and cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr. It's hard envision a scenario where Mosley, Suggs, Weddle, Za'Darius Smith, Jimmy Smith and Carr all return.
To make whatever departures there are easier to absorb, the returning defenders hope to keep ascending.
"It's never going to be the same," Judon said. "That's how this game works. You got to ask the personnel, the scouts, and the GM's about all that stuff. I just work here.
"I want the whole (group) back. Keep everybody, not draft nobody, trade them all away for money. But that's not how it works. I'm not playing video games, it's real life and I don't control those things. I'm going to be the best version of me next year. Hopefully upstairs can take care of that."
It remains to be seen who the Ravens will acquire through the draft and free agency. But they will be counting on Judon (seven sacks) to be a bigger pass-rushing force, particularly if they lose both Smith and Suggs. The Ravens tied for 11th in sacks this season (43) and generating pressure on quarterbacks is key to their defensive success.
Tight secondary coverage is another key to Baltimore's aggressive defense. The Ravens have rarely been as deep at corner than they were this year with Carr, Humphrey, Young, and Jimmy Smith. However, there is a chance Smith could be let go to create more salary cap room, and Carr may retire.
Humphrey is the team's next potential shutdown corner, and with more consistency, he could become a star. This season was a major step in that direction, as Humphrey finished with a top-10 mark in coverage from PFF this season and was voted the team's Most Valuable Player by the Baltimore media.
"I thought this year went well for me, my second year," Humphrey said. "I thought I improved on some things, but still every year, you have to grow. I'm just looking forward to growing and polishing up a lot of things, and hopefully come back next year a little better."
Pierce was the Ravens' highest-rated defensive player by PFF this year (91.0), a premier run-stopper who combined with defensive tackle Brandon Williams to make Baltimore extremely difficult to run against (No. 4 in the NFL). However, Pierce did not have a sack this season and wants to add effective pass-rushing to his repertoire.
"I need to get some more sacks – well, a sack, to start with," Pierce said. "I think I've been stopping the run pretty well, that was something I pride myself on. I got better as a pass rusher, but for me to be able to get some sacks would be paramount for this team going forward."
The Ravens don't want to give up their crown as the NFL's top-ranked defense. As impressive as Onwuasor was during the final month of the season, when he registered 4.5 sacks and three forced fumbles in six games, he said the team's young defensive group will continue to set loftier goals.
"We had fun. We played our hearts out. Nobody can take that away from us," Onwausor said. "(Now) get the body right and come back focused next year."