John Harbaugh confident Ravens can replace Haloti Ngata

PHOENIX -- Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh knows one of the biggest challenges for his defense is replacing five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. He just believes the Ravens already have the players in place to fill that massive void in the middle of the defense.

The Ravens are banking on two 20-something linemen -- Timmy Jernigan and Brandon Williams -- to uphold the tradition of stopping the run that Ngata established for nearly the past decade.

"There’s no reason we can’t be a great defense and a great defensive front next year," Harbaugh said at the NFL owners meetings.

Harbaugh isn't simply being optimistic. He has watched the Ravens succeed without Ngata in the lineup.

Last season, the Ravens were statistically a better run defense with Ngata on the sideline. Their defense limited teams to 3.8 yards per carry with Ngata on the field and kept them to 3.4 yards per carry with him off the field, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

When Ngata was suspended for the month of December last year for violating the NFL's policy for performance-enhancing drugs, the Ravens went 3-1 with Jernigan in the starting lineup and allowed an average of 94.2 yards rushing per game (10th-fewest in the NFL during that span).

"I think Timmy Jernigan is a good, young player," Harbaugh said. "Obviously, he has a lot of work to do, and he acknowledges that, which is what I love about him. I have no doubts that he’s going to give it his best shot and he’s going to do well."

The Ravens wanted to keep Ngata because they realize they're a better team with him clogging up running lanes and hitting quarterbacks. The sides just couldn't agree on an extension to lower his salary-cap number, and the Ravens were forced to trade Ngata and a seventh-round pick to the Detroit Lions in exchange for picks in the fourth and fifth rounds.

The last time the Ravens prepared for a season without Ngata was 2005. The Ravens lost double-digit games that season, and Ray Lewis vented this frustration about not having space-eating defensive tackles in front of him that would allow him to roam free.

Since Ngata fell to the Ravens in the first round of 2006, their defense ranked first in fewest rushing touchdowns allowed (71) and second in fewest rushing yards per game (92.5). Assistant general manager Eric DeCosta acknowledged that he had a "sickening feeling" when the Ravens struck a deal with the Lions.

"He's an iconic player for the Baltimore Ravens. It's a difficult loss for us," Harbaugh said. "He's been a mainstay for us, as a player and a leader. It's going to be something that we're going to have to deal with and overcome."