It was the 2019 NFL annual league meetings and Head Coach John Harbaugh was asked about his expectations for two of the Ravens' young pass rushers: Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams.
About two weeks earlier, former Raven Za'Darius Smith signed a mega contract with the Green Bay Packers. Harbaugh knew he had a void that needed to be filled by at least one of his third-year outside linebackers.
In the 2017 draft, the Ravens picked Bowser in the second round and Williams in the third. They had each made some plays here and there, and Bowser had played in nearly every game in his first two seasons, but neither had made a resonating impression yet. They were at a career crossroads.
"Those two guys need to step up," Harbaugh said in March of 2019. "It's their job to do that. They're very committed to doing it."
Fast forward and Bowser has not only stepped up once, earning himself a four-year contract extension this past offseason, but he's stepping up yet again to overcome another free-agency loss, this time with Matthew Judon's departure to New England.
Bowser leads the Ravens with 5.5 sacks. He's closed out the last two victories, ending the comeback in Chicago with a sack of Andy Dalton that prevented a Hail Mary attempt, then taking down Browns tight end David Njoku short of the sticks on fourth down.
According to Pro Football Focus' grades, Bowser has been the Ravens' second-best defender this season, tied with veteran Justin Houston behind veteran Calais Campbell, who might both be in their final years. The Ravens defense is going to undergo some change in the 2022 offseason, but one thing has become very clear. Bowser is, and will continue to grow into, a cornerstone of the Ravens defense.
"He's been playing at a Pro Bowl level," Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale said. "When you close the game out in Chicago with a sack, and then you close out the game in coverage like he did against Cleveland, that just shows you. I think he's been playing elite against the run, elite against the pass and elite rushing the passer."
For Bowser, it's "definitely been a journey." The Houston product came to the NFL with a lot of talent and not a lot of words. He was a quiet and thoughtful guy his first couple of seasons, often keeping to himself.
Bowser said he was in his own head as a young player trying to find his way and impress coaches. He wasn't sure where he stood with them or the front office. Even as the 2019 season kicked off, Bowser still hadn't earned their full confidence.
In the first three games that season, Bowser recorded just three tackles and saw his percentage of the defensive snaps go from 47% the first week to 19% in Week 3. The following week, Martindale reminded reporters that the Ravens led the league in quarterback hits but Bowser and Williams "need to join the party."
Bowser asked some of his veteran teammates – Eric Weddle, Terrell Suggs, and Judon – if they'd ever been in similar situations, fretting about where their career might be heading.
"Their main thing was to just play football," Bowser said. "'This is a job, man. You have to understand that. As a GM or someone in the front office, those guys are going to try to find ways to try to replace you regardless of if you're playing good or you're not.'
"You see that all over the league. One of my main things was Khalil Mack. He was the Defensive Player of the Year and [the Raiders] traded the guy. You look at that and you're like, 'Regardless of what happens, just go out there and play football. Make sure you're going out there and having fun. Don't take the joy away of playing football because of the business part.'"
The following week, against the Browns, Bowser recorded his first full sack since his rookie season. Two days after that, the Ravens released Williams. It was a wake-up call and Bowser had received the message. Williams, by the way, is now a member of the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League.
Bowser finished the 2019 season with five sacks, second on the team behind Judon. Last season, Bowser improved in another area, becoming one of the league's top coverage linebackers and finishing second on the team with three interceptions, only behind Marcus Peters.
While Judon was one of the biggest prizes of free agency, the Ravens brought back Bowser at less than half the cost – reportedly $22 million over four years compared to Judon's $56 million.
Judon has been a stud for the Patriots this season, as he sits at third in the NFL with 11.5 sacks through 12 games. Judon never hit double-digit sack totals in his five seasons in Baltimore. It's not too dissimilar from Smith, who went from a breakout final year in Baltimore with 8.5 sacks to back-to-back monster campaigns in Green Bay with a combined 26 sacks in two seasons.
Bowser hasn't reached that level of stardom yet, but it's fair to wonder if part of the reason is because of the defense he plays in. In Martindale's scheme, outside linebackers are often required to drop into coverage and fulfil other assignments, especially ones as nimble as Bowser. While that may not lead to as many sacks and as much fanfare, those who know the intricacies of football know how valuable Bowser's skillset is.
"Most of the time when people say outside 'backers, what's the first thing they look for? It's how many sacks he has," Martindale said. "They don't even understand what they're looking at here with this guy. I've had other offensive coordinators tell me that; he's a weapon that nobody else has."
"Wink, his defense is a lot different than every other defenses, and their job – whether that's Judon or anybody else – is going to be different than what it is here, and my job is different than their job, and our defense is different than their defense," Bowser said. "So, what I do is what I do, what they do is what they do, and I just take advantage of it – simple as that."
Bowser continues to show the coverage ability that made him such a versatile weapon last season. Now he's taken the next step with his pass rush. His 5.5 sacks so far this season are a career-high, and he's doing it with more than just his trademark speed. His power is what overwhelmed Bears nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters.
A better all-around game has led to Bowser becoming a three-down linebacker. He began the year playing about 60% of the snaps. Against the Bears, Bowser got 83% of the defensive snaps and versus the Browns, Bowser played all but three of the snaps (95%). Bowser answered with two huge games: nine tackles, three sacks, five quarterback hits, two passes defensed and one forced fumble.
Bowser's gap-toothed smile is showing more these days, and his confidence isn't so quiet anymore. He talked Wednesday about how much he loves playing in Pittsburgh's Heinz Field because "it just gives you a different type of energy to go out there and shut them up."
But, at the end of the day, Bowser said "my main thing is just going out there and keeping my head down and being confident in myself, knowing what I'm capable of doing. Whenever my name is called, I go out there and play my hardest, I go out there and run to the ball. I go out there and take care of my job, and the rest will take care of itself."
Harbaugh gave Bowser a game ball after the defensively dominant win over the Browns. Now his coaches are enjoying the show.
"It's been great to watch. I told him after the Browns game how proud I was and how happy I was for him," Martindale said. "Because I've seen the work he's put into it, the preparation in watching tape, the preparation in the weight room and the preparation out here on the field."