There are times when Matt Ryan misses playing quarterback. But not when he watches Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen play inside linebacker.
In today's fast-paced, pass-happy, spread formation NFL, Queen and Smith are proving that you can build a great defense around two inside linebackers.
"Having two inside guys like Roquan and P.Q. can create a nightmare to go against," said Ryan, who played 15 NFL seasons with the Falcons and Colts before becoming an analyst for CBS. Ryan worked the Ravens' victory over the Bengals in Week 2 and watched Queen and Smith firsthand.
"Versatile inside linebackers can change the look of a defense quickly on any play. You're never certain where Roquan and P.Q. will show up. As a quarterback, they stress you in terms of pass protection, because they can both blitz. They stress your running attack because they cover so much ground. They stress your passing game because they both drop into coverage. Watching them reminds me that it's a lot easier watching games from the booth."
Smith and Queen have set a dominant tone for Baltimore's defense, two seek-and-destroy tacklers leading a unit that has been elite, even with Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey sidelined.
Former Jets and Dolphins general manager Mike Tannenbaum, now an analyst for ESPN, says the importance of any position is greatly impacted by talent. In Smith and Queen, Tannenbaum sees two inside chess pieces that many teams don't have, being deployed in ways that make them game wreckers.
"Why couldn't you build a dominant defense around those two?" Tannenbaum said. "Usually cornerback and defensive end are the premium defensive positions. The inside linebacker position has changed, and there's a definite premium now on speed. The nickelback has become more important than the third linebacker.
"But, if you have an inside linebacker who never comes off the field and can play on third down, that enhances his value tremendously. On third down, you've got to get your defense off the field. Those two do that."
Heading into Sunday's game against the Colts, Smith and Queen have played every snap side-by-side except one, when Queen got a little banged up in Cincinnati and begrudgingly had to come to the sideline for one play. The Ravens haven't allowed a first down in the first quarter and rank seventh in the NFL in yards and points allowed.
Last season, the Ravens made Smith the highest-paid inside linebacker in NFL history with a five-year contract extension. The Ravens did not pick up Queen's fifth-year option this offseason, which means he's in a contract year. But Queen is making a case to get a sizeable payday too, whether that be in Baltimore or elsewhere. With how well the duo is playing together, the notion of paying two inside linebackers in their prime is no longer something to scoff at.
Queen and Smith have no problem calling themselves the best inside linebacker duo in the league, and they plan to back that statement up.
"We've got to keep doing it every week if we want to solidify ourselves as being the best tandem in the league," Queen said. "We're trying to pave the way for other linebackers.
"The offense is pretty-boy style nowadays. They get all the calls. The game is made for the offense to be successful. Anytime you can be on defense and stop that success, you know you've done something special. Ruin somebody's day. That's what I like to do."
When Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald puts together a game plan, he's always searching for creative ways to utilize his players' strengths. Smith and Queen give him a broad canvas to work with.
"You have two great players on the field that happen to play the same position and have great chemistry," Macdonald said. "You want to enable them to do what they do best, which is run around and hit and blitz and play different coverages. I'm just very excited about where they're at mentally, leading the charge for what we're trying to do on defense. They're definitely the heart and soul of that."
In Baltimore, where Hall of Famer Ray Lewis reigned supreme at middle linebacker, Macdonald knows the inside linebacker position will always be revered. He doesn't worry about how the position is viewed elsewhere.
"It's not my job to figure that out," Macdonald said. "I couldn't make a fair evaluation from my standpoint. But I know this. I work for the Baltimore Ravens. This is a franchise built on linebackers. We had the best to ever do it. So absolutely, it's an important position for us, and we've got two great ones. Being an inside backer for the Ravens is a special thing."
When the Ravens traded for Smith last year, it instantly changed the swagger of Baltimore's defense.
Smith is the first player since Lewis to post at least 100 tackles, two sacks and one interception in each of his first five seasons. His physical gifts are obvious, but his detailed film study allows him to anticipate many plays before the ball is snapped.
"He's one of those guys who'll be calling out the play to his teammates as you're about to take the snap," Ryan said. "It's like, 'Uh oh, he knows what's coming.' That's a bad feeling as a quarterback."
Smith has taken over wearing the green dot communication helmet this season, relaying the defensive signals to his teammates after he gets the call from Macdonald. Smith and Macdonald communicate often during the week as the game plan is being put together.
"It's been amazing playing for a guy like Mike," Smith said. "I like his mindset. Attacking at every opportunity."
Smith begins every Ravens practice by running onto the field like a kid who's being let out of school for recess. His energy is infectious, a player who looks ready to play another 60 minutes when the game ends. Macdonald said Smith's attitude, coupled with Queen's dependability and durability, helps their teammates push through a long season that is challenging both mentally and physically.
"We're playing a child's game for a king's ransom, but this is a tough gig," Macdonald said. "To stay mentally fresh all the time for every practice - that part is not easy, and to their credit, they're always ready to go. They always have great energy on the practice field. The defense feeds off that, and it allows you to continuously have great days. When you stack those days over the course of time, you have no choice but to get pretty damn good."
Smith pushes back on the notion that he's been the catalyst that lifted Queen's game to another level. They love playing together, but their main goal isn't stats or recognition. They want to win a Super Bowl together, setting the standard at inside linebacker by leading a defense that feeds off their excellence in the center of the action.
"I think he's an amazing player before I got here, an amazing player while I'm here," Smith said. I'm just happy to be alongside him. I think we make an amazing combination able to run hit and cover all day, and we can go all day long."