There isn’t a more important player on the vaunted Baltimore Ravens defense than Terrell Suggs (+38.3). It was only natural for Baltimore fans to panic when news of his potentially season-ending injury broke. Calls to trade for Osi Umenyiora (+5.2) or Dwight Freeney (+5.8) have quickly followed as fans and media alike try to figure out exactly how the Ravens will replace his pass-rushing skills.
We just named Suggs the seventh-best player of 2011, but there is so much more to his game than generating pressure on opposing quarterbacks and his play against the run may be a far bigger loss.
Suggs epitomizes everything about the way the Ravens play defense and is as important to that unit now as Ray Lewis was back in the early 2000’s. His loss from the lineup is going to force the Ravens to make some tough decisions as they try to retain the AFC North crown in a division that sent three teams to the playoffs last season. Where will the pass rush come from? How do you replace his play against the run? Let’s find out if and how the Ravens can replace Terrell Suggs.
What makes Suggs so valuable is just how good he is at everything he does. There just isn’t a weakness to his game. In 2011, he graded positively as a pass rusher, against the run, and in coverage where he had a grade of +9.0 on a mere 69 snaps dropping back. Even more impressive was his consistency as he graded below +0.0 just twice and never worse than -0.9. His ability to excel both as a 3-4 outside linebacker and a 4-3 defensive end is a big part of what allows the Ravens to use multiple fronts. Suggs, Jarret Johnson and Haloti Ngata are the three players who can switch seamlessly between those schemes. Johnson went to San Diego in free agency, Suggs is now injured, and that leaves just Ngata to take the field for the Ravens in 2012. You have to wonder whether or not this forces them to be more rigid in 2012.
It’s the first thing most people think of when judging a defensive end or outside linebacker’s play on the field. While it’s not the most impressive part of his game, Suggs was still an outstanding pass rusher in 2011. On 598 snaps as a pass rusher (throughout the regular season and in two playoff games), he registered 14 sacks, 12 QB hits, and 37 pressures. His three best games in this regard came in the season opener against Pittsburgh, in Week 12 vs. San Francisco, and in Week 14 against Indianapolis, registering three sacks, a hit, and two pressures in each.
The Pittsburgh and San Francisco games were widely considered statement games in a season that led all the way to a loss in New England in the AFC Championship and Suggs was dominant in both. Against Indianapolis, he schooled rookie first round draft pick Anthony Castonzo (-7.0), forcing two fumbles on his three sacks that day. Suggs has a knack for making the big play and is known for knocking the ball out when he gets to the quarterback. He is so strong, he practically forces teams to make sure he is blocked with an offensive linemen, because he will just toss smaller blockers aside.
All is not lost for the Ravens pass rush, though. Both Pernell McPhee (+19.0) and Paul Kruger (+7.6) have given reasons for optimism despite limited snaps. As a rookie, McPhee was up there with the best inside pass rushers in the league when he saw the field. He concluded the regular season with seven sacks, six hits, and 20 pressures. His first season in the NFL was not different from Cincinnati’s Geno Atkins (+29.2) and if he can even get close to what Atkins accomplished in his second season, Baltimore would get a huge boost. Anyone looking for evidence of his ability need only to look at the final two defensive snaps of the Ravens home encounter with the Bengals where he dominated Andrew Whitworth on consecutive plays to end the game.
Kruger is someone who many had earmarked as a candidate to replace Jarret Johnson as a starter. That’s not a fair comparison to make, though, as the two are very different players. While he may not have demonstrated Johnson’s ability against the run, Kruger has shown himself to be a more than adequate situational rusher, generating six sacks, four hits, and 15 pressures during the regular season. Rookie second round pick Courtney Upshaw was drafted to replace Johnson, and would have to struggle not to be an upgrade on his pass rush. That leaves McPhee and Kruger to step up and bring the heat in the absence of Suggs on the other side.
The Ravens’ run defense has long been considered to be among the very best in the NFL. 2011 was no different with only San Francisco finishing the season with a higher cumulative grade against the run. That being said, with Suggs injury Baltimore has now lost three of their four highest-graded players against the run from last season. Only Ray Lewis (+25.1) remains as Johnson (+18.3) and Cory Redding (+12.6) left in free agency for San Diego and Indianapolis, respectively.
Redding is a loss, especially coming off his best season against the run since we began grading. However, it is the loss of Johnson that should concern new defensive coordinator, Dean Pees, the most. Long established as one of–if not the–best edge-setters in the league, he has never ranked any lower than third among all 4-3 outside linebackers against the run since 2008. His departure was always going to hurt, but the loss of Suggs means both sides of the defense are without their lynchpins, which could be catastrophic.
Since 2008, Suggs too has never ranked any lower than third against the run at his position. We covered his consistency earlier, but this was even more evident in this area of his game. Of the 18 regular season and playoff games he played in the 2011 season, Suggs had a grade of +1.1 or higher in 13 of them.
You can argue that the Ravens have the cogs to limit the loss of Suggs as a pass rusher, but with Redding and Johnson now gone too it’s hard to say the same here. Beyond him and the other three mentioned above, Ngata (+14.0) was the only other defensive lineman or linebacker to finish the season with a run defense grade of +3.7 or higher. The spotlight will fall on Jameel McClain (+6.4), who failed to generate much free agent interest despite a solid season. His 28 defensive stops pale in comparison to the 48 of Suggs. He did show potential when he stepped into the middle linebacker spot in Lewis’ absence, grading positively against the run in all four starts. That doesn’t address the issue of who can set the edge for the Ravens in 2012 and, looking at the roster, it’s hard to see anyone who looks ready to step up.
Baltimore is fairly tight against the salary cap, so if they are to add to the roster it will likely take some juggling, but there are at least some options out there should wish to do so. Andre Carter (+22.4) had his season in New England cut short by injury and he’ll have to prove himself healthy again before anyone signs him. If he is indeed healthy, Baltimore could do far worse. He doesn’t offer the scheme versatility of Suggs as his time in a 3-4 in Washington proved, but his play as a 4-3 defensive end last season was impressive. Grading positively as a pass rusher and against the run, he finished the year with 34 defensive stops.
If it’s scheme versatility the Ravens are looking for then Matt Roth (+9.2) could be an ideal fit. Recently cleared to resume playing following a concussion that ended his 2011 season, Roth has produced in both a 4-3 (Jacksonville) and a 3-4 (Cleveland and Miami). He’s a player who has always seemed undervalued but never disappoints when he lands on a roster.
The loss of the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year and PFF’s seventh-best player of 2011 was always going to hurt Baltimore. However, while the Ravens might be able to platoon players to replace the pressure that the man from “Ball-So-Hard University” generates, the state of the run defense looks much less encouraging–especially in a run-oriented AFC North. The Ravens either need to look outside the current roster, or someone already there has to step up to replace the biggest loss to injury this franchise has seen. If nobody does step up, we’re going to see a much more vulnerable Ravens defense in 2012.