Last year, the Ravens had perhaps the deepest and best outside linebacker room in the NFL.
Now, it looks as if rookie fourth-round pick Za'Darius Smith will be Baltimore's top edge pass rusher heading into Sunday's game against the 49ers.
Pernell McPhee departed for Chicago in free agency, still leaving a pair of Pro Bowl bookends in Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. Suggs' season was ended by an Achilles injury in Week 1 and Dumervil suffered a groin injury Sunday against Cleveland and hasn't practiced yet this week.
Veteran outside linebacker Jason Babin, the man fans envisioned stepping in for Suggs, was released earlier this week.
Reserve linebacker and special teams standout Albert McClellan, who will likely shift to help at outside linebacker, said Smith is "growing up in front of everybody's eyes," He'll have to do it quickly.
"It's not a good thing, but it just gives us young guys a chance," Smith said. "That's what I got drafted for is to come here as an outside linebacker and rush the passer and set the edge. I know I can get it done."
Smith has all the physical tools at 6-foot-4, 275 pounds and got early comparisons to McPhee based on his build (and dreads).
But Smith was a bit of a raw rusher coming out of Kentucky, where he played with his hand in the dirt. He had to make the transition to being a stand-up linebacker again, this time at the NFL level.
Smith was a healthy scratch in the season opener against Denver. After his first game in Oakland, Head Coach John Harbaugh said he saw "OK, average play" from Smith. That was just three weeks ago. The words caught Smith's attention.
"I actually took that personally because he expects more out of me," Smith said. "It made me hustle more just for him cussing me out every day at practice. It wasn't good."
Since then, Smith has taken his game up a notch or two.
He logged four tackles, including back-to-back sacks on Mike Vick, in Pittsburgh. He got his best rating (plus-1.3) of the season from Pro Football Focus (PFF). Smith got thrown into the fire last week when Dumervil went down and got a negative-4.7 rating. With 72 of the defense's 90 snaps, Smith didn't register any quarterback sacks, hurries or hits, according to PFF.
But Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees seems pleased with his progress, even last Sunday. He specifically remarked on one play where Smith tracked 10 or so yards back down the field to make an open-field tackle on a Browns receiver who was dancing his way across the field and may have broken loose.
"That tells me enough about the guy," Pees said. "I love a guy like that. Like I say, if you're tough, you're smart and you play hard, what else can you ask of somebody? I'm really pleased with the guy. I think he's just going to keep getting better and better."
The Ravens have just three true outside linebackers and one is Dumervil. If he doesn't suit up, that leaves Courtney Upshaw and Smith as the only options as starters. McClellan will likely slide over to help.
With Suggs and Dumervil, who combined for a league-high 29 sacks last year, injured, Pees said he's forced to pressure by using other blitzes. The Ravens have been using a mixture of linebacker and secondary blitzes, and sometimes use their outside linebackers as bulldozers to open up holes.
With Pees pulling different levers, the Ravens are still tied for sixth in the league with 15 sacks this season after being tied for second in the NFL with 49 sacks last year.
"One of the things in the pass rush has been [that] we've had to kind of manufacture it a little bit," Pees said. "When guys are out, guys are out. You have to find another way of doing it."