Ravens' endgame: Uphold tradition of excellence on defense

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens came together as a full team for the first time this offseason, but there was an emotional void felt on the reigning No. 1 defense in the NFL this week.

The Ravens aren't relying on the cliche of "next man up" after losing Terrell Suggs, Eric Weddle, C.J. Mosley and Za'Darius Smith in free agency. Their play, character and leadership will all be terribly missed.

Transition period? Defensive coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale has another word for it.

"Transition could be substituted for mourning," Martindale said. "It’s like that Avengers movie, that Thanos guy snapped his finger and you’re like, 'Where did everybody go?'"

The Ravens' endgame: Maintain their standard of excellence on defense like they've always done.

When Ray Lewis retired and Ed Reed left in free agency after the 2012 Super Bowl season, Baltimore actually improved five spots as a defense the following year (going from No. 17 to No. 12) and climbed into the top 10 the next season.

After perennial Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata was traded in 2015, the Ravens remained the No. 8 defense in the NFL.

And after longtime defensive coordinator Dean Pees left in 2018, Baltimore became the league's best defense in its first season with Martindale.

Now, the Ravens players know what to do when newcomers and younger players are being asked to replace the franchise's all-time sacks leader (Suggs), last year's leading tackler (Mosley), a six-time Pro Bowl safety (Weddle) and last year's team sacks leader (Smith).

"It’s our job as the vets to pass that tradition down," said cornerback Jimmy Smith, the longest-tenured defensive player on the Ravens. "Especially for this organization, especially being a defensive guy and for all the young defensive guys we have, I think it’s extremely important for them to understand the type of defense we play here and the brand of football we have to play in order to keep up what we believe is a Ravens defense."

What the Ravens believe is they should have the NFL's best defense year after year. Over the past 20 seasons, Baltimore's defense has ranked in the top 10 an astounding 16 times, including nine years of finishing in the top three.

History suggests the Ravens should remain among the top defenses in the league. In the previous 10 seasons, the No. 1 defense has stayed in the top 10 the following year seven times. The Pittsburgh Steelers (2011-2012) and Seattle Seahawks (2013-2014) both repeated as the top-ranked defense.

The Ravens, though, are used to the skepticism.

“I feel like last year, they were saying that our defense was too old, and that we couldn’t do anything and blah, blah, blah," safety Tony Jefferson said. "Now, those guys are gone. We’re not really worried about that. We’re trying to be the best in the league, so whatever that takes, whatever that holds, we’re trying to do. ‘Harbs’ [John Harbaugh] said it best: ‘How good are you trying to be? You just have to be the best in the world.’ That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Ngata, who retired last month as a Raven, recalled the first time he learned about the level of effort required to be part of this defensive tradition. In his first training camp, he hit the wrong gap and started walking because the ball was all the way on the other sideline. As Adalius Thomas was running past him, the veteran linebacker shouted to Ngata, "Run to the ball."

"Ever since then, I just ran to the ball," Ngata said. "That’s when I’m like, ‘OK, if I can just run to the ball all the time, I’m a part of this defense.’"

What the Ravens are losing this season with Suggs (Arizona Cardinals), Mosley (New York Jets), Weddle (Los Angeles Rams) and Smith (Green Bay Packers) amounts to 3,134 snaps, 252 tackles and immeasurable leadership.

Some suggest change was needed. Suggs and Smith combined for four sacks in the final nine games, Weddle failed to record an interception last season, and Mosley failed to hold up in pass defense.

"There are a lot of stories you’ve seen about new faces on the Ravens," cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. "But you guys see a lot of new faces, and I see a lot of new opportunities."

Even with the loss of Weddle, the Ravens should have one of the best secondaries in the NFL (and possibly team history) with the addition of ballhawk Earl Thomas. With Mosley gone, Patrick Onwuasor is looking to carry over last season's strong finish and can be heard more as one of the new vocal leaders. Without Suggs and Smith, Martindale believes the pass rush can become even more dynamic with the different body types and styles of third-rounder Jaylon Ferguson and veteran additions Pernell McPhee and Shane Ray.

When Martindale spoke to reporters after Wednesday's minicamp practice, he proclaimed, "We are a fast, fast defense."

But, can the Ravens still be the NFL's best defense?

"I think that’s been the conversation with all of them, and that’s nothing that I’m pushing, either," Martindale said. "It’s just the standard of Raven football, Raven defense, John Harbaugh defense. We know where we need to be. We know where we’re expected to be, and we’re excited to accept that challenge."