In order for Patrick Queen to take the next step forward in his promising young career, he needs to improve going backwards.
As Queen embarks on his second training camp, he's looking to show the strides he made this summer in understanding not just Baltimore's defensive scheme, but how offenses scheme as well.
By better grasping and reacting to NFL route concepts, Queen can become a better linebacker in pass coverage and the all-around force Baltimore's defense is looking for in the middle. And now Queen has one of the NFL's best and most tenured linebacker coaches, Rob Ryan, breaking it down.
"I'm way more comfortable now," Queen said, adding that he spent a lot of time working with his coaches this summer. "We just got to work. Since [minicamp], I feel like I'm going up, so it's only up from here. I feel like I'm way more confident, I'm way more into the defense, so it's going to be a good season."
The 28th pick in last year's draft, Queen had a dynamic rookie season. He started all 16 games and led the team with 106 tackles, while also making splash plays with three sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries (one touchdown), one interception and 10 quarterback hits. The one place where Queen had some troubles was in pass coverage, and he was particularly targeted in losses to the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots.
It's not uncommon for a rookie linebacker – fellow first-round pick Jordyn Brooks of the Seattle Seahawks got worse grades from Pro Football Focus – considering the jump in route concepts from college to the NFL is steep. But for Queen, a player who says he wants to be the best in the league, it's an area where he knows he needs to grow.
Progress has definitely been made, and that's shown itself early in training camp. Inside linebackers across the league have a tough time covering athletic tight ends, and Mark Andrews has won some battles, but Queen is coming out on top more often than last year. Head Coach John Harbaugh pointed to the fact that Queen didn't have a lot of college experience with coverage, but said he had a "really good day today in coverage."
"Earlier today, you might have seen that one little play; they got right behind me, and then 'MP' [Marcus Peters], came and talked to me," Queen said. "Then the rest of the day, it was shutdown. So, I feel like it's up and down. Sometimes you're going to get beat; sometimes you're not. It's football. So, I feel like I'm going up on the elevator right now with the coverage."
Queen has a lot of experience to guide him now with Ryan, who has coached in the NFL for 18 seasons and is back at it after a year off. Ryan has worked with a lot of talented linebackers, and he views Queen as a special one.
"Not too often do you come into a place with such a great talent and a guy that's just striving for more," Ryan said. "He's such a smart guy. People know he's physical and he's athletic, but you don't realize how smart he is. He's a big thinker."
Ryan called Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale's scheme "cutting edge." Queen said "it's a tough defense, I'm not going to lie," but that Ryan is helping.
"He's just making it way simpler than what it has to be, so everything that he's telling me, I'm taking in," Queen said. "And as you see, I can make plays out there in the pass-coverage game. So, I'm just going to keep trusting in him, keep trusting my eyes, keep trusting my instincts, and I'm going to make plays.
"It's tough to get, but once you get it and it clicks … You could see with Chuck [Clark] and DeShon [Elliott] and all those veterans. They're like, 'When it clicks, it clicks.' So, that's just the level I'm trying to get to right now. I'm trying to get to where it clicks and I can just play free. Once I get there, you all will know, for sure."
After the addition of veteran Justin Houston, the Ravens don't have any holes left on their defense. If the unit is going to improve from last year, in which it ranked second in points allowed, the growth will have to come from some of the young, ascending stars such as Queen.
"He loves this team, he's going to be a terrific leader for this team [and] he's going to be fantastic this year, I know that," Ryan said. "There's no reason for him not to be."