Last year against the Denver Broncos, Odafe Oweh came off the edge, beat the right tackle with a speed move to the outside, then clobbered Broncos quarterback Teddy Bridgewater so hard that his helmet popped off.
Oweh got up thumping his chest. It was his second NFL sack and part of the hot start to his rookie season with three sacks and two forced fumbles in his first five games. The first-round pick out of Penn State, who had no sacks in his final college season, had proven that was a mirage.
Heading into his sophomore season, many prognosticators predicted a huge season from Oweh. Longtime NFL scribe Peter King had Oweh finishing second in his preseason Defensive Player of the Year prediction.
However, heading into Sunday's Week 13 game against the Broncos, Oweh sits at one sack, which came in Week 4 against the Bills. Last week against the Jaguars, Oweh was shut out in the box score for the first time this year and second time in his young career. He played 25 defensive snaps – 40% for the second straight week.
There's no dodging it. It's been a tough and unexpected sophomore season for Oweh. But it's not one he's running from.
"I'm good, man. It's obviously discouraging," Oweh said Wednesday.
"I talked to Justin [Houston] after the Saints game, he had a good game, and I was like, 'Man, I wish I could have some of that. Something. Something fall into my hands.' He just told me you have to just keep on working hard and trusting the process. Don't deter from what you're doing just because you think you're not having success. He said once you get one, the floodgates will open. I know when it comes, it's going to come. I'm not even tripping."
Houston knows from experience. He was so discouraged last offseason after finishing with 4.5 sacks, his lowest career total in a full season, that he was considering retiring. He put in so much work and just wasn't getting the stats to reward it, he thought.
But Houston came back this season and it's been a very different story, as he leads the Ravens with 9.0 sacks – the 10th-most in the league.
Houston has been a mentor for Oweh ever since the two joined forces last season, and he still sees a player with unlimited potential who is learning the game and learning himself. Houston has guided many young pass rushers in his day and they don't all have the same timeline for success, he said.
For example, former Raven Za'Darius Smith had 5.5 sacks as a rookie and followed it up with just one in his second season. He broke out in his fourth year and has since become one of the NFL's premier pass rushers. Oweh had 5.0 sacks as a rookie, and perhaps he's on a similar track.
"I just think he's figuring out who he is as a professional. He's still learning," Houston said of Oweh. "He wants to be the best. When you think like that and work like he does, you're going to have success in this league."
Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald said not to put too much stock into Oweh's snap counts. He was carrying a heavier load earlier this season, but with the addition of Jason Pierre-Paul, Oweh doesn't have to play as many run downs.
"His production – stat wise – isn't exactly where you want it, but he's doing the things that we're asking him to do. Right now, we're happy with where he's at," Macdonald said. "He's setting a good edge right now, and when we're calling his number to rush, you can feel his fast ball out there.
"We're focusing on process, so don't get discouraged with the lack of stats. He's being very unselfish in a lot of things we're asking him to do, so that's definitely a positive."
Houston said one thing Oweh is still adjusting to is being a stand-up outside linebacker versus having his hand in the dirt as a defensive end like he did mostly in college. "When you're standing up, you see everything. Everything is coming at you," Houston said.
While the stat production hasn't been there, a closer look at Oweh's tape shows more encouraging signs that he could heat up at any time.
"I think everybody looks at the numbers, but if you watch the film and watch how he rushes – he's either getting held, he's winning his rep and the ball is getting out, or he's getting double teamed," linebacker Patrick Queen said. "There's just not much you can do about those things."
Like Oweh, Queen is also a first-round pick who had some tough stretches along the way. He's worked through those and is having a breakout third season. Queen knows it takes patience and persistence, and he called Oweh a "grinder."
"When they come in, they flood in," Queen said. "Once it kicks in and he starts getting a lot, everybody will be talking about, 'That's the guy we knew.' But I know who he is now, and I know what the film's showing. When they start coming in, I won't have expected anything else."