The Ravens have addressed one of their biggest needs by adding pass rushers in recent years, but it remains unclear if those players will develop fast enough to carry them deep into the postseason.
Recent draft picks Odafe Oweh, Daelin Hayes and David Ojabo offer plenty of potential at outside linebacker, and veterans Justin Houston, Tyus Bowser and Steven Means are valuable on-field mentors. But is that enough in 2022?
To compound the problem, both Bowser and Ojabo are trying to return from torn Achilles tendons. Bowser is expected to be ready for the season opener Sept. 11 at the New York Jets, while Ojabo might not return until the middle of the season.
So, for next year or two, the outside linebackers will be more scrutinized than any other position on the roster — even more than fifth-year quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Jackson’s story is well known. He is a great talent, the most explosive offensive player in the game, but his lack of accuracy and field presence has prevented him from dominating a postseason game the way superstars are supposed to.
He is limited in a sense because the Ravens have to establish a strong running game and control the tempo to win. If they fall behind early, they struggle.
But the recent postseason failures can’t all be put on Jackson. The pass rush is Baltimore’s Achilles heel.
The Ravens are 1-3 in the postseason since Jackson, the league’s Most Valuable Player in 2019, became the starter. In those games, they have allowed 20 sacks and collected only five. That’s a difference-maker, too.
Teams that go deep into the playoffs usually have some dynamic defensive playmakers and can get pressure with their front four. Under former defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, the Ravens proved that a team relying on blitzes and disguises to generate pressure can succeed in most regular-season games, but not in the postseason.
When the Ravens won the Super Bowl in the 2000 and 2012 seasons, they had strong pass rushers such as defensive end Michael McCrary and outside linebackers Peter Boulware and Terrell Suggs.
The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and the AFC has an abundance of them in the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen, the Denver Broncos’ Russell Wilson, the Las Vegas Raiders’ Derek Carr and the Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert.
That’s why the Ravens have invested in young talent on defense.
Oweh, a 2021 first-round pick out of Penn State, has done everything necessary to have a breakout season. He is bigger, stronger and faster and now has an assortment of moves to complement his explosive speed.
The ideal combination would be to have him on one side, and Ojabo, a 2022 second-round pick out of Michigan, on the other. Unlike Oweh, Ojabo already has a full arsenal of moves.
There are some draft experts who privately thought that Ojabo has more upside than Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, the No. 2 overall pick by the Detroit Lions.
“He has great positive energy,” Ravens outside linebacker coach Rob Leonard said of Ojabo. “Him and Odafe have a great relationship. That’s what you’re trying to create in that meeting room is a brotherhood and guys that genuinely care about each other. I once heard that it’s hard to get two guys to trust each other, let alone 11 on the field. So, it’s nice to have that from two guys who have known each other for a long time.”
Said Oweh of Ojabo, his former high school teammate: “I can’t wait till he gets back, and it’s going to be crazy.”
Hayes, a 2021 fifth-round pick from Notre Dame, played in one game last year before a knee injury ended his season. He has prototypical size (6 feet 4, 253 pounds) and played well during offseason practices.
“He missed a lot of time,” Leonard said. “So, with some regard, he’s still going through what, like, rookies go through in terms of learning the game and playing the game. And really same thing with him, just staying the course, trying to get his eyes and hands right.
“I think that’s my job as a coach. The key to playing fast is, ‘You have to look at this, you have to strike this guy.’ The more he trusts his keys, he’ll be able to play faster and hopefully have some success.”
Houston, 33, has 102 career sacks, fourth-most among active players. He isn’t the game-wrecking force he used to be, finishing last season with just 4 1/2 sacks, but he’s usually one of the last guys leaving practice because of his work with Oweh.
Leonard, in his first season with the Ravens, also comes to Houston for suggestions.
“How could I not?” Leonard said. “If you look up the stats of how many sacks this guy has had, he’s right up there with the biggest names you can think of. So, I always refer to him, ‘How do you see this? Do you see it the same way?’ Because details are everything. So, it’s one thing to go over it in the meeting room, another thing to actually have done it and [see] what works. So, I’m constantly relying on him as source, and he’s been great.”
Bowser, in his sixth season, is a late bloomer. The former Houston standout has never been flashy, but solid and dependable. The right term is “grinder.”
He’ll play solid technique on the outside and has excelled the past two seasons in pass coverage. Last year, he set single-season career highs in tackles (59), tackles for loss (eight), sacks (seven) and quarterback hits (15) and added two forced fumbles. The Ravens need his steady presence.
Means has played for four teams in eight years, but he was relentless defending the run and rushing the passer in training camp. He’s yet another reliable veteran voice.
But again, this all has to come together. The Ravens had the league’s No. 1 run defense last year but only recorded 34 sacks, tied for seventh-fewest in the NFL. They also had the league’s worst pass defense as injuries decimated the secondary.
To improve on the backend, the Ravens signed Pro Bowl safety Marcus Williams and selected Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton with the No. 14 overall pick. They also drafted two promising cornerbacks in Jalyn Armour-Davis and Damarion Williams in the fourth round.
But even great defensive backs struggle covering receivers when opposing quarterbacks aren’t pressured. The Ravens have the potential players in place to improve their pass rush, but will they have time to develop?