Michael Pierce only played eight games with the Vikings last season but produced a career-high three sacks.
Something clicked with Pierce as a pass rusher, and he wants to display more of that during his second stint with the Ravens. At 29 years old, Pierce is still evolving as a player. He entered the NFL in 2016 as an undrafted free agent with the Ravens, but proved he belonged as a powerful run-stopper who spent four years as a key part of their defensive tackle rotation.
Stuffing the run and controlling offensive linemen remains Pierce's bread and butter. But now that he's back with the Ravens, Pierce wants to become a bigger problem for quarterbacks, pushing the pocket and generating a consistent inside pass rush.
"I've grown a lot," Pierce said. "I think I've been rushing a lot better. I've been around the quarterback a lot this camp so far, and I've just been working on that part of my game, as well as stopping the run. At that time when I first was here, we had Timmy Jernigan and Lawrence Guy, and they slid Za'Darius [Smith] inside, and obviously Brandon [Williams] in front of me. So, I was just needed to be a run-stopper.
"The league is changing; I'm the last of a dying breed I like to say. But, I think I'm getting better at the pass rush. I did well last year, and I just have to keep working on that part of my game."
Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Line Anthony Weaver believes in Pierce's ability to become a bigger pass-rushing presence. He began has college career as a linebacker and still has excellent footwork, and Weaver was reminded how strong Pierce is once training camp started.
"Michael Pierce is a mountain of a man," Weaver said. "When he puts his hands on you, you can't help but feel them. Even when I'm doing individual drills, I feel like I'm fighting a bear.
"When you think of him, you think it's just run defense, but the effect that he has on the middle of the pocket, and making that quarterback throw out of a well, is going to help our edges, too. So, happy he's here, thrilled to have him. Love him to death."
There was speculation about Pierce's readiness for training camp after he missed mandatory minicamp for personal reasons, but those questions have been answered. He sat out the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns and missed nine games with the Vikings last year due to injuries to his calf and triceps. But Pierce camp to camp ready to roll. He passed the conditioning test and has been a consistent practice player, making it difficult on offensive linemen trying to block him.
The state of the Ravens' pass rush is unclear heading into the season, with last year's sack leader, Tyus Bowser, still on the PUP list, and second-round pick David Ojabo still recovering from the torn Achilles. However, Weaver believes the defensive line can become a bigger part of the pass rush with Calais Campbell, Pierce and rookie Travis Jones among those capable of providing pressure.
"We know we have to stop the run first and foremost, regardless of whether this is a passing league or not," Weaver said. "But once we do that, we're going to try to harass quarterbacks however we can. We can help them schematically by making sure we put them in the proper places to get the right one-on-ones, and then they have to go win. And with the guys on this roster, I expect us to do that."
Head Coach John Harbaugh believes Pierce wants to show he can stay healthy and become a consistent force after playing just eight games over the past two seasons.
"He looks really good out there; he's practicing well; he's very fit," Harbaugh said. "But I still think he's shaping himself and rounding himself into football shape. And in the big picture of his career, I know he's not satisfied with where he's at or how he's played the last couple years. He's been good, but not, probably, to his expectations yet. So, I believe he has a statement to make."
If Pierce remains healthy, he believes he will have his best season.
"It's time for me just to have a complete season, healthy and with more well-rounded games," Pierce said. "So, I'm looking forward to this like never before.
"I want to prove - especially turning 30 this year and however long God gives me in this league – that I'm a really, really good nose guard. I want to be one of the top ones whenever I do decide to go out. I definitely have a chip on my shoulder. It's going to be on my shoulder for the rest of my career."