The last Penn State-Michigan football game was a tough one for Odafe Oweh. A year after he helped put away the Wolverines in one of his final college games, the Ravens outside linebacker had to watch from afar as the Nittany Lions gave up a late lead in a narrow home loss.
Other than the whole beating-his-alma-mater thing, though, Oweh remembers liking what he saw from the Wolverines. Under then-defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, now in his first year overseeing the Ravens’ defense, Michigan developed one of the country’s pass-rush duos. On one side was Aidan Hutchinson, the eventual No. 2 overall pick in April’s NFL draft, and on the other was David Ojabo, a first-round talent who fell to the Ravens in the second round because of injury concerns.
“He lets them go,” Oweh said Friday of Michigan’s edge rushers under Macdonald. “That’s what I like. He lets them go. He lets them have freedom and just be who they are. So I’m looking forward to how he uses me.”
Three days into training camp, it’s impossible to know just how the Ravens will use Oweh, or how their pass rush will look, or how much the blitzing tendencies might change from the days of Don “Wink” Martindale, because Macdonald himself still doesn’t know what his unit can do. The limitations of last year’s pass rush were apparent by season’s end; the potential of the 2022 group is still unknown.
In his first news conference of camp, Macdonald, 35, recalled defensive players and coaches promising one another that they “wanted to be the defense that we envisioned.” But he acknowledged that those outlines are, for the moment, sketched out in pencil, not pen.
“I just think it’s an evaluation of your team,” Macdonald said. “We realized last year that our best players [at Michigan] were our edge guys, and we wanted to let them do what they do. So we’re in the process right now of figuring out who our best players are, what they do best, and then the goal will be to let them go do those things, you know? It’s not rocket science, but it’s probably easier said than done. But that’s what we’re looking to do.”
For a coordinator taking over one of the NFL’s most disappointing defenses — the injury-ravaged Ravens finished 28th in the league in efficiency last season, according to Football Outsiders — Macdonald doesn’t have to worry about a teardown job. The secondary should be one of the NFL’s strongest and most flexible. The defensive line should be stout. There’s finally continuity at inside linebacker.
Outside of wide receiver, though, no Ravens group has been more scrutinized than the team’s pass rush. Last year, in Martindale’s final season as coordinator, the Ravens had a 31% blitz rate (uncharacteristically low, yet still sixth highest in the NFL) but finished with just 34 sacks in 17 games (11th fewest) and a 23% pressure rate (ninth lowest). In high-leverage situations, they were even worse: just 12 sacks on third and fourth down, the Ravens’ fewest since 2002, with just two over their final eight games.
Injuries have done the pass rush no favors. Outside linebacker Tyus Bowser, who led the team with seven sacks last season, is still recovering from a torn Achilles tendon and has not been cleared to practice. A shoulder injury limited Oweh to individual work over the team’s offseason program, though he’s impressed as a full participant in the opening days of camp.
“I definitely didn’t like the way last season went, all the injuries and stuff,” outside linebacker Justin Houston, who re-signed earlier this month, said Thursday. “But I’m excited for this year. I think we’ve got a lot of things going — a lot of special things going. I just pray that we stay healthy.”
With good health, the Ravens should have a solid rotation on the edge. The 33-year-old Houston, who graded out as the Ravens’ top pass-rushing outside linebacker last season, according to Pro Football Focus, is the group’s “sensei,” Oweh joked. Outside linebackers Daelin Hayes and Vince Biegel have both flashed. Ojabo, who’s still unsigned, could emerge as a situational pass rusher if he recovers from his torn Achilles tendon in time to contribute.
The Ravens should also have an improved interior pass rush, with rookie Travis Jones and an improved Justin Madubuike helping to lighten fellow lineman Calais Campbell’s workload. Inside linebacker Patrick Queen, who’s poised to become a more regular third-down presence this season, has impressed as a blitzer in camp.
“One thing we’re challenging the guys right now throughout camp is, we’re looking for the best three, four, five guys at any given time that not only rush the best but work together the best in the pass rush,” Macdonald said.
Macdonald’s most impressive feat in his one year at Michigan might’ve been the Wolverines’ pass-rush turnaround. Michigan finished with almost 2 1/2 sacks per game last season, up from 1 1/2 per game in 2020, even as its blitz rate fell from 42.5% to 30.1%, according to Sports Info Solutions.
Standouts at every level of the Ravens’ defense, from the secondary to the defensive line, have raved about Macdonald’s talents as a teacher, how he can make the complex seem simple. Six weeks from the season opener, Oweh’s optimistic about the jump the defense can make.
“Everyone is communicating differently,” Oweh said. “We’re all fired up. I don’t want to compare anything. Obviously, at the end of the day, it’s up to the players making plays and everything, but I feel like everyone’s fired up to start something new, be communicating more, be more sound and everything. So it should be a good year.”