New Scheme, New Defense

When Marvin Lewis packed his bags to head for Washington D.C. to become the Redskins' new defensive coordinator, the Ravens weren't as worried about his departure as most were. True, Lewis helped architect one of the greatest single season defenses of all-time in 2000 and one of the better defenses in the league for the past three years.

But the Ravens had a contingency plan in place. His name is Mike Nolan, the former defensive coordinator for the Giants, Redskins and Jets. And while the Ravens had hoped that former linebackers' coach Jack Del Rio would take over for Lewis once he departed, Del Rio instead opted to take the defensive coordinator position with the Carolina Panthers. Nolan, who the Ravens hired to be their wide receivers' coach last season, essentially became the team's emergency quarterback.

And when the Ravens hired him to be their new D.C., things changed in a big way. Out were a slew of veteran Pro Bowl caliber players from the defense like Rob Burnett, Tony Siragusa, Sam Adams, Rod Woodson and Jamie Sharper. Out was a 4-3 scheme that Lewis instituted which stressed gap control, making opposing offenses one-dimensional and let inside linebacker Ray Lewis roam sideline to sideline to seek and destroy all ball carriers.


In were a number of first-year, second-year and third-year starters and a hell bent hybrid 4-3/3-4 scheme that stresses constant pressure on the offense. Things sure do change.


Under Lewis, the Ravens rarely brought an extra linebacker other than Peter Boulware to rush the quarterback. Under Nolan, not only will the coordinators use extra linebackers from all different angles to bring the heat, but they will also use the safeties and corners in the same role.


Nolan, the former student of defensive gurus like Bill Arnsparger and Bill Belichick, believes that the certain strengths a defensive player possesses should be taken advantage of.  


If a linebacker's strength is to rush the quarterback, let him get after the passer. If a cornerback's strength is to play in tight man to man coverage, let him play right on top of the wide receiver. If a defensive tackle's strength is to eat up blockers and take up space, let him be a plugger.


And Nolan has already begun to institute his theory on this current Ravens' defense. Seeing that the defensive line was decimated due to a salary cap purging, Nolan will use a constant rotation of players to stabilize things to a degree. That's why Adalius Thomas was moved back to defensive end, just to give Nolan one more player to use on the line, along with just about everybody else.


The Ravens' cornerbacks will also be asked to play more man to man coverage than they have before. That is due to the fact that both starting corners—Chris McAlister and Gary Baxter—are physical at the line of scrimmage, having good straight line speed and the wingspan to hold up in single coverage.


Nolan will also use all of his linebackers to blitz the quarterback. While Ray Lewis' tackles should come down some, he may get more sacks. Peter Boulware is a shoe in for a double-digit sack season and Edgerton Hartwell has better speed than scouts thought he had coming out of college. In just four preseason games, Hartwell has compiled four sacks. When the first team defense played against the Lions, Jets, Eagles and Giants, the unit recorded a total of ten sacks. This Ravens' defense could end up registering more sacks than any Ravens' defense has before.


Another new wrinkle being implemented by Nolan is the 3-4 scheme. While Marvin Lewis also used this defense in certain situations, Nolan will likely use it more often, on 30% of all defensive snaps. The new scheme will help to keep offenses guessing to a degree. Few teams use a 3-4 defense, let alone use it as inconsistently as the Ravens will.


But while the new defense will give the Ravens some hope this season, there are certainly a number of questions to answer.


Will Ray Lewis still be a force at the inside linebacker position? Will Ed Reed and Anthony Weaver play well as rookies? Will the Ravens find a true nose tackle? How will Michael McCrary adapt to his new role as a situational pass rusher and can he stay healthy? Will Gary Baxter be able to keep his job as the starting cornerback? Will the lack of depth at certain positions end up hurting the Ravens' defense down the road?


And then there are the question marks that Mike Nolan himself has to answer. He is going through his fourth coaching job and his last two stints with Washington and N.Y ended with him getting fired. While Nolan had a nice comeback season with the Jets in 2000 (his defensive unit was ranked No.10 in total defense), he still needs to alleviate the dire reputation that followed him after his bad Washington defenses consistently ranked in the bottom half of the league.

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