Sunday was the breakout game that Yannick Ngakoue and the Ravens pass rush had been looking for.
Seeing his former team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, on the opposite sideline lit a spark in the Ravens' outside linebacker that was obvious from the opening snap. Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew was prophetic during the week, when he said that Ngakoue would be "out for blood" on Sunday.
After getting just one sack in his first seven games with Baltimore, Ngakoue had two sacks, including a forced fumble, and was a defensive catalyst during the Ravens' 40-14 victory. Ngakoue has been a dominant pass rusher with 45.5 sacks during his five-year NFL career, but this was his biggest game since joining the Ravens after a midseason trade with the Minnesota Vikings.
With Ngakoue leading the way, Baltimore had five sacks and harassed Minshew from start to finish. It was a feel-good game for the entire defense, and especially for Ngakoue.
"This is what they brought me here to do," Ngakoue said. "They brought me here to come change the game, to be a critical part of the defense. That's my job. That's what I intend to do."
Minshew knew Ngakoue would be up for this game, after spending four years in Jacksonville before he was traded to Minnesota. Minshew didn't just feel Ngakoue during the game, but he also heard from him.
"I was talking to Yan during the game," Minshew said. "He's so competitive, as am I. I really tried to tune him out because he chirps a little bit, but I just know that's how Yan is. (He's) a guy that I have a ton of respect for, one of the great competitors in our league."
Ngakoue rose to the occasion with another former Jaguar, defensive end Calais Campbell (calf), and cornerbacks Marcus Peters (calf) and Jimmy Smith (ribs/groin) all out of action. The Ravens relied on their pass rush to set the tone, and it wasn't just Ngakoue. Derek Wolfe, Patrick Queen and Matthew Judon each had one sack, as the Ravens' pass rush came to life after failing to record a sack Monday night against Cleveland.
Judon set the tone on the Jaguars' second offensive snap with a sack for a safety that staked Baltimore to an early 2-0 lead.
It was an early indication that this would be a long day for Minshew. Ngakoue got his first sack of the game after making a spin move on Juwaan Taylor that left him flatfooted.
Offensive linemen have trouble with Ngakoue because he combines impressive agility with power. He's also a complete football player who takes pride in his run defense. Getting traded during the middle of the season has been a challenge for Ngakoue, fitting into a new system on a team that is battling for a playoff position.
Ngakoue's impact cannot be measured by sacks alone. Head Coach John Harbaugh has been impressed with Ngakoue's willingness to do whatever he can to help the Ravens win.
"He's definitely been harassing quarterbacks and pressuring quarterbacks," Harbaugh said. "So, it was just a matter of time before he was going to get there and get some sacks.
"The other thing I think bears worth noting, and I don't think too many people have commented on this, is he's been playing the run exceptionally well. He's been playing the edge really well, and I know that's something that he takes a lot of pride in. So, we're happy with him all the way around."
Once the Jaguars fell behind early, Minshew was forced into obvious passing situations, which made Baltimore's pass rush even more relentless. Ngakoue's strip-sack late in the third quarter came when he eluded Jaguars left tackle Cam Robinson and deftly punched the ball away from Minshew from behind. Minshew's fumble was recovered by Wolfe, and it was followed by Baltimore's final touchdown drive of the game.
The Ravens hope Ngakoue's game Sunday will be a catalyst for him during Baltimore's late-season push. He went to the AFC championship game once with Jacksonville, but also suffered through some long seasons. He is hungry to get another crack at the postseason.
"Being in this league for five years [and] only getting one playoff berth, it's not that fun," Ngakoue said. "I'm just trying to take it week-by-week – the whole team is – so we can get to that position to where we can get to the playoffs."
If the Ravens can pressure other quarterbacks like they pressured Minshew, it could take their defense to another level once they get healthier. Baltimore entered the game ranked in the middle of the pack with 28 sacks, but will jump up the rankings. Queen had an outstanding game Sunday, Wolfe was rock solid again, and the secondary played well despite not having Peters and Smith.
Baltimore wasn't satisfied with its defense Monday night, giving up 42 points to the Browns. But this was a performance that the Ravens' defense hopes to build on.
"This defense can be really scary," Ngakoue said. "We've got a lot of people that can play. As you can tell, we rotate, because we've got guys that can come fill in and not miss a beat. So, at the end of the day, I don't even feel like we reached the peak yet – which is scary and exciting at the same time."