The Ravens' defense has been trending upward, and it's also getting better and deeper.
The acquisition of inside linebacker Roquan Smith and the expected return of outside linebacker Tyus Bowser will add more wealth to the Ravens' defense as they prepare to face the Saints on Monday Night Football.
Smith is the NFL's leading tackler who's multi-talented as a run defender, pass defender and blitzer. Bowser led the Ravens in sacks (7.0) last season and was their best linebacker defender the pass.
Meanwhile, even if rookie outside linebacker David Ojabo (Achilles) doesn't make his season debut against the Saints, he's expected to be in action soon, which will add even more punch to the pass rush being led by veteran Justin Houston who already has six sacks.
"I would love to be Mike Macdonald with all these weapons, man," veteran defensive lineman Calais Campbell said. "Draw up different ways to put us all on the field and make plays different ways and take turns."
Macdonald has never had a full complement of pass rushers since the season started. But with Bowser joining Houston and Odafe Oweh at outside linebacker, coupled with capable blitzing linebackers like Smith and Patrick Queen to support the defensive line, Macdonald has more ways than ever to bring pressure and confuse quarterbacks.
The Ravens' defense has been playing better in recent weeks, but the players believe the unit is just scratching the surface.
"It gives us a burst of energy, knowing we're getting good players back who can help us win ballgames," said Campbell, who is also expected back Monday night after missing one game due to illness.
"This defense can be really special," Campbell said. "I would love to start get a couple of shutouts. I know this defense is capable of doing some great things."
With new pieces moving into the lineup, the Ravens will have to pay close attention to cohesiveness to reach their potential. In their first few games, miscommunication and coverage mistakes led to surrending big plays that cost them games.
Smith is a great player, but he's learning his new teammates and Baltimore's system on the fly. Bowser is an experienced player, but he hasn't seen game action since January. There may be some growing pains working Smith, Bowser and Ojabo into the mix, but Campbell wants says that if players pay attention to details the growing pains can be minimized.
"You get a bunch of guys on the field playing as individuals, you're not going anywhere," Campbell said. "We have to continue to build that team chemistry, new guys coming in have to gel with us, come together and find a way to play good team football."
Yet on paper, the Ravens' defense looks imposing even without starting safety Marcus Williams (wrist), who is still on injured reserve. Queen doesn't feel it will be an issue working Smith, Bowser, and Ojabo into the lineup with minimal growing pains.
"Obviously, it's going to take a game or two for them to really get their feet under them and stuff, but after that, we're going to be rolling," Queen said. "(Smith) he's been in the pros for a long time. He knows how to handle it. He's asking a lot of questions around the facility and stuff [to] different guys and getting a different feel for the defense."
Macdonald loves to use a variety of defenses, playing to the strength of his personnel in different situations. Bowser and Smith have proven their multiple skills sets as run defenders, pass rushers, and pass defenders at the NFL level. Ojabo is a talented rookie that Macdonald has great familiarity with from their days together at Michigan.
The Ravens strung together a lineup of veterans and practice squad call-ups at outside linebacker through the first eight weeks. Now having Bowser expected to be back is a game-changer that can have a ripple effect on the entire unit.
"We have rotations now. Earlier, we didn't. It was just two guys busting our [butts], man," Oweh said.
Campbell pointed to Bowser's projected return as especially crucial to what the defense can do.
"What he can do for a football team, his ability to cover in space, he adds so much for a rush gap plan and what we can do from a blitz standpoint," Campbell said. "It's great to have him out there and definitely gives us a burst of energy knowing that we're getting some good players back that can help us win ballgames."
Meanwhile, the secondary is anchored by three experienced players in cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters and safety Chuck Clark, while Geno Stone has stepped into the starting lineup seamlessly for Williams. That has allowed rookie safety Kyle Hamilton to be used as a situational defender, matching up against tight ends in pass coverage on blitzing in obvious passing situations.
The Ravens feel like they can make a run in the second half of the season, and their defense is looking to lead the charge.
"This team is hungry, we're excited, the future is bright," Campbell said. "We definitely know this team is definitely capable of doing something great."