Shannon Taylor (Allsport)
Want something to get excited about, Ravens fans? Watch the linebackers.
It's funny how the more things change, the more things stay the same. For the last 3 years, the unit that made the 2nd ranked Ravens defense go was the linebackers. After all, you had arguably the best player in the league at MLB, and 2 Pro Bowl caliber OLB's. They were young, aggressive and fast, and they set the tone for a defense that won the Ravens a Super Bowl.
Flash forward to the 2002 season. The Ravens are a shell of their former selves; only 16 players remain from that team that won in Tampa some 19 months ago. They've got 19 rookies. They only have 4 starters left from last year's defense. To top it off, they not only lost their defensive coordinator, but their linebackers coach as well.
But, while the DL is probably too small for the new 3-4 defense, and the secondary is young and unproven, the LB corps looks once again to be the strongest unit on the team. In fact, it was the talent on this unit that played a large part in the Ravens deciding to switch from the more standard 4-3 to the aforementioned 3-4 defense.
As with everything involving the Ravens, it all starts with Ray Lewis. The Super Bowl XXXV MVP has spent the pre season & training camp adjusting to his new role in the defense. While the Ravens will still play the 4-3 a fair amount of the time, in the 3-4, Lewis will still have to take on more offensive lineman one on one then he did in the past.
On the flip side, this defense will allow Lewis to be used in many different ways and in many different spots. Look for him to blitz more and more of a factor in the pass rush than ever before. In the end, Lewis's ability to read offenses will mix very well with the more aggressive nature of this defense and he'll present a whole new problem for opposing offenses.
Lining up right next to Lewis at ROLB will be 2 time Pro Bowler Peter Boulware. If Boulware stays healthy this year, he'll be a 3 time Pro Bowler after this season. It's hard to imagine a LB better suited for a 3-4 defense. Boulware worked very hard to become a 4-3 LB, becoming solid in all areas of the game, not just rushing the passer.
But, it's that ability to rush the passer that makes Boulware a special player that the defense must account for every passing play he's in the game for. In the 3-4 defense, Boulware will be turned loose and will soon become a QB's worst nightmare. The explosion and speed that Boulware has in rushing the QB will be amplified in the new formation which will give him more space to work with. Last year, Boulware lead the
AFC with 15 sacks. Expect him to at least equal that number this year.
Starting next to those two All Pros will be a couple of young and unproven, but very talented players, second year ILB Edgerton Hartwell, and third year OLB Shannon Taylor. Hartwell had 4 sacks and 20 tackles in a huge pre season for the Ravens. Look for much of the same in the regular season from Hartwell, who has shown a great ability to shoot the gaps that are there
in the 3-4. His presence as a run stuffer, which is what got him drafted in the 4th round in the
2001draft, will also allow Lewis to make more plays.
By the end of the year, Hartwell very well might be considered a rising star in this league. Taylor, who the Ravens signed last September after his release by the Chargers, has shown a great flair himself for getting to the QB and providing pressure. He doesn't have the power or even speed that Boulware has, but he's got good speed and great quickness that will enable him to be a factor in both covering the pass and rushing the passer.
This unit also has the best depth on Ravens, which true isn't that hard when the only other position with good depth on the roster is TE. But, still the depth is here starting with veterans Cornell Brown and Bernardo Harris. Brown, recently resigned by the Ravens after being out of football last year, is a tough run stopper and good special teams player. He'll
see plenty of action for Taylor in obvious running situations. Also, don't be too surprised to see him rush the passer more than he has in the past. Brown is also a very good special teams performer who should help out the Ravens coverage teams. Harris started the last 5 years in Green Bay, proving to be a solid run stopper himself. He will provide the Ravens with much
needed veteran experience.
Two raw and very talented undrafted rookies round out the unit. Bart Scott, from Southern Illinois, has proven to be a great find for
Ozzie Newsome and Phil Savage showing great, if
unrefined skills. He's a name to watch for in the
future. J.R. Johnson made the team almost exclusively due to his prowess on special teams, where his 4.35 speed and 240-pound frame make him an ideal gunner. He'll be a huge factor on those coverage units for years to come.
Not to be forgotten is Adalius Thomas,
who after an aborted attempt at converting to an OLB, has returned to work mostly with the defensive line. Thomas, though, will see the occasional snaps at OLB for the Ravens.
Fans of the Ravens know that this is likely to be a tough season for the Ravens with lots of growing pains, and after watching the pre season there might not be very much excitement among Ravens fans. But, I'm here to tell you, we're going to be watching one of the best set of the LB's in the league this year and this unit alone will offer plenty to get excited about.