Last offseason, the focus was on the defense.
The Ravens re-signed Brandon Williams, inked the market’s top safety in Tony Jefferson and scooped up veteran cornerback Brandon Carr. Their first four picks in the draft were all defense – cornerback, outside linebacker, defensive end, outside linebacker.
“We thought we had taken a ‘B-plus’ and turned it into an ‘A’ by concentrating the early rounds on defense,” Owner Steve Bisciotti said last week. “And it did until a couple fateful plays and drives.”
The Ravens defense was really good for much of the season. While the offense played conservative as quarterback Joe Flacco’s back healed and his banged-up blockers gelled, the defense carried Baltimore to some early-season wins.
Baltimore’s defense finished short of its goal of being the best in the league, but it led the NFL in takeaways and gave up the sixth-fewest points.
The taste left in its mouth, however, will be the fourth-and-12 conversion from Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, which kept the Ravens out of the playoffs for a third-straight year.
So, how much change can the defense expect this offseason? It will have a new coordinator as Wink Martindale replaces Dean Pees, but other than that, not much.
“Well, from a personnel standpoint it is [pretty much set],” Bisciotti said. “I am looking for increased production from some people.”
Defensive end Brent Urban is the Ravens’ only defensive player set for free agency this offseason. Head Coach John Harbaugh is “all for” re-signing Urban, who began the year as a potential breakout starter, but suffered a season-ending Lisfranc foot injury in Week 3.
The Ravens could release some players to free up salary-cap space, but safety Eric Weddle is looking forward to rolling with the same crew.
“We’re all coming back. We got momentum,” Weddle said at the Pro Bowl. “We played well last year, as individuals, but didn’t get it done as a team, so we have to play even better than we did last season to get our goals accomplished and get back to winning a lot of games.”
To do that, the Ravens will need improvement from their current players, says Bisciotti.
First-round cornerback Marlon Humphrey excelled as a rookie, showing why it was wise that the Ravens used the No. 16-overall pick on him. Had it not been for Humphrey, Baltimore would have been in rough shape down the stretch after Jimmy Smith’s Achilles tear.
Next year, Humphrey will likely become a full-time starter, and could be especially important as Smith works his way back from the injury.
The Ravens didn’t get as many snaps as perhaps expected out of rookie linebackers Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams because the veterans ahead of them were healthy. Terrell Suggs started all 16 games and Matthew Judon and Za’Darius Smith combined to start 16 as well.
Baltimore will also look for big things from third-year cornerback Tavon Young, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL after having a strong rookie season.
Fellow third-year cornerback Maurice Canady, inside linebackers Kamalei Correa and Patrick Onwuasor, and defensive linemen Willie Henry, Michael Pierce, Carl Davis, Bronson Kaufusi and Chris Wormley are all players to watch.
“We have a lot of depth on defense,” Bisciotti said. “We have a lot of young kids that are ready to produce.”
Bisciotti said the Ravens “need an exciting brand of football,” and strongly indicated that Baltimore will look to bolster an offense that hasn’t finished in the NFL’s top-10 rankings since 1997. But that doesn’t mean he’s willing to sacrifice his defense either.
“Exciting doesn’t necessarily mean wins,” Bisciotti said. “We have been a defense-dominant team since I’ve been here, since long before I bought the team. And we want to keep that, because we don’t want people not to be scared of us, so we’re going to keep working on that, to keep scaring people.”