What a welcome to the 2009 NFL season if you're the Kansas City Chiefs. The Baltimore Ravens were fantastic last year, getting within a game of the Super Bowl. In last season's magical run, the Ravens went 11-5 in the regular season and knocked off both the surprising Dolphins and mighty Titans in back to back weeks before succumbing to Mike Tomlin's Steelers. And now they look even better.
On the outside, it might not seem that way. You hear about their losses and feel a bit optimistic. The exit of defensive genius Rex Ryan to the Jets also cost the team high-caliber linebacker Bart Scott and promising safety Jim Leonhard. Three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister was released and, surprisingly, is still a free agent. Dominant young center Jason Brown was a prize in this year's free agent crop and he quickly left for the Rams.
But the Ravens were ready for this. The best teams always are. Each year, the winners are looted by the losers, grabbing their coordinators on both sides and their impending free agents with much more money than the mother ship ever planned on offering. The Ravens knew they couldn't keep Ryan on their sidelines forever and that they had to choose between Ray Lewis and Bart Scott. And in their plans, they've been grooming the back-ups.
More analysis after the jump:Yet even the back-ups don't matter nearly as much as the familiar face coming back to anchor the entire defense: DT Kelly Gregg. The longtime starter for most of this decade missed all of last season due to knee surgery, but his size (315 lbs.) and unrelenting motor make him one of this decades best interior defensive linemen and the unsung hero of this defense. He teams with Haloti Ngata, Justin Bannan and Brandon McKinney (360 lbs!) to absolutely stuff the middle.
And that doesn't even touch the linebacking corps - the unit that's served as the heart and soul of this team. Ray Lewis obviously steals the stage - and rightfully so - but Terrell Suggs changes a game with his ability to rush the passer and play some coverage. Jarret Johnson quietly had five sacks on a loud team around him and should enjoy more of this year's spotlight without Scott in his way. The hopes are also for Tavares Gooden to step up, yet if not, there's that rookie pass rusher named Paul Kruger - this year's second rounder - waiting in the wings to become the next great Raven defender.
Looking for the good news if you're a Chiefs fan? That would be the secondary. Of course, there's all-world Ed Reed ever-looming and that's no small feat to overcome. But it's not like I said this was a talentless bunch. It's just that there are more question marks in the secondary than anywhere else.
Need proof? After releasing McAlister, the Ravens are turning to (mostly) career back-up Domonique Foxworth to man the position. He's always had the tools, but has never quite put it all together to be a top cover corner. Safety Dawan Landry comes back from an injury plagued 2008. The other corner, Fabian Washington, won't make anyone adjust their game plan much around him.
Thus, it's Greg Mattison's turn to take over and see what he can do with such a strong core of players, both young and old. The ole' defensive coach served in the best trenches in college for over 35 years - from Michigan to Notre Dame to Florida's 2006 championship team before head coach John Harbaugh tapped him on the shoulder to lead their linebacking corps a year ago. That silver platter position now gives him his first NFL coordinator job at the age of 60.
My guess? He'll be just fine with on-field leaders like Lewis, Reed, Trevor Pryce and Suggs. The Chiefs will learn first-hand what it's like to face such a stout group and the Chiefs defense and front office personnel would do well to learn from a group like this and see what it's like to build such a talent base. With youngsters like Brandon Flowers and Glenn Dorsey and new linemen like Alex Magee and Tyson Jackson, the Chiefs seem on their way to doing just that.
In Part Two, coming tomorrow, we'll take a closer look at how the Ravens defense matched up last year against their opponents and how the Chiefs could best utilize their talent against them.