With many people questioning the Ravens’ pass rush, outside linebacker Matthew Judon was asked for his thoughts. Judon began to answer, but he was interrupted by safety Earl Thomas III.
“Is the pass rush good or not, bro?” Thomas said playfully, drawing laughter from the assembled media.
That’s Thomas’ style – direct and to the point. But while he was kidding with Judon, there are a lot of questions, and doubt, about Baltimore’s pass rush, and the Ravens are clearly not happy with the disrespect. It’s the biggest perceived question mark about their defense heading into Sunday’s season-opener against the Miami Dolphins.
The skepticism began when the Ravens lost Terrell Suggs (seven sacks last season) and Za’Darius Smith (8.5 sacks) during free agency. And it has continued throughout the summer, although the Ravens had 11 sacks during an undefeated preseason.
Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh has noticed that the pash rush storyline has continued.
“I’m certainly not as worried about it as you all are,” Harbaugh said to the media. “What little I read, it’s all I read about. So, I appreciate your concerns. We’ll see what happens.”
The true state of the Ravens’ pass rush will begin to reveal itself Sunday. As their top returning pass rusher with 15 sacks over the past two seasons, Judon enters the year bearing more responsibility than ever, as both a performer and leader.
Judon says he won’t try to be somebody’s he’s not, just because Suggs’ personality and talent have departed. However, Judon is confident the pass rush will be a problem, not for the Ravens, but for opposing quarterbacks.
“Y’all going to see,” Judon said. “Y’all going to see this Sunday. Y’all going to write about it. Y’all going to talk about it, and then y’all going to say whatever y’all want to say about it. We’re just going to go out there and continue to do us.”
Judon appears poised for a strong season, in fantastic shape and in a contract year. Nine-year veteran Pernell McPhee, signed during free agency, is back for his second tour of duty with the Ravens, and is expected to start opposite Judon at outside linebacker. The Ravens’ other primary pass rushers are outside linebackers Tyus Bowser, Tim Williams and rookie Jaylon Ferguson, who had 45 sacks in college to break Suggs’ all-time NCAA record.
Bowser enjoyed the strongest summer of that group, consistently around the quarterback during practices and contributing 1 ½ sacks during the preseason. Now in his third season with the Ravens, Bowser believes he is ready to blossom.
“This whole summer has been a confidence-builder, just from the start of camp through the preseason games, working on my game,” Bowser said. “I’ve learned from my bad snaps and my good snaps, learned from other guys, seeing how they rush. I’m in game mode for Sunday.”
Asked if he had a new sack celebration ready, Bowser smiled and said, “I’ve got my normal stuff I’ve had the past two years. But I guess we’ll have to find out.”
It will be interesting to see how creative the Ravens get with their pass rush Sunday. Will they blitz often against Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, or will they rely on their pass rushers to win one-on-one battles?
Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale didn’t reveal much strategically during the preseason, not wanting to give opponents a clue. But the Ravens had the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense last season, and while the pass rush is just part of the equation, the expectations for the defense haven’t changed.
“I shouldn’t be standing here if we don’t want to be the best,” Martindale said. “There’s a standard here, always has been here.
“It’s a fair question (regarding the pass rush). We’ll see where we’re at. I’m looking forward to it, because those guys have made great strides. I think it’s been Tyus Bowser’s best training camp he’s had. I think it’s been Tim Williams’ best training camp. Jaylon Ferguson – you can really see these past 10 days even, really come on. And ‘Phee (McPhee) … you guys don’t see practice, but he was in regular-season form yesterday.”
Should the Ravens decide to blitz more this season, one of their most capable pass rushers is linebacker Patrick Onwuasor, who had 5 ½ sacks last season. The Ravens can also bring pressure up the middle by moving McPhee inside. Meanwhile, defensive tackle Patrick Ricard also had an excellent preseason with two sacks, showing he has improved as an inside pass rusher.
The Ravens also have one of the NFL’s best secondaries, and their ability to cover will help the pass rush. Fitzpatrick has deceptive mobility, but he’s not a quarterback who makes a living beating teams with his legs. The more pressure the Ravens can put on Fitzpatrick, the more likely he is to make a mistake. Over the past three seasons, Fitzpatrick has thrown almost as many interceptions (32) as touchdown passes (36).
“He can light you up when he’s on, so you’ve got to be able to respect him,” Ravens running back Mark Ingram II said. “He’s played a lot of snaps in the league. He’s had success. Sometimes he hasn’t, but you’ve just got to prepare for him because he can hurt you.”
However, the Ravens are determined to stop Fitzpatrick on Sunday, and they believe their pass rush will have plenty to do with it. They know that if the sacks come, many of the questions about their pass rush will be silenced.
“These (games) count now,” Judon said. “The wins and losses, they start getting tallied, and your team starts to perform and take shape. So, with that, we’ve just got to go out there and get the first one and make this one count.”
Step into Ravens practice as they get ready to take on the Miami Dolphins in Week 1.