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Baltimore’s make or break defender

With major losses in his positional group, this player must step up to the plate in a major way.

The Baltimore Ravens have a long maintained an air of swagger and personality defensively. Names like Lewis, Reed, McAlister, Suggs and Siragusa come to mind. Even more recently, Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, Pernell McPhee and DeShon Elliott have brought intensity and personality to the Ravens defensive group. Particularly, the outside linebackers have been boisterous over the years. Terrell Suggs made headlines when he debated Skip Bayless on ESPN’s First Take. Za’Darius Smith had exuberant celebrations alongside Suggs and has turned into a bit of a superstar in Green Bay. Most recently, Matthew Judon jovially danced, laughed, argued and brought every bit of personality into the room.

Suggs, Smith, Judon have departed from Baltimore. Sure, the veteran Pernell McPhee remains, bringing energy and personality. However, the player that the Ravens may depend on the most to step up this season, is perhaps the quietest. Tyus Bowser has an infectious smile from ear to ear. His Instagram page shows a humble, hard working 20-something professional athlete who unapologetically grins whether surrounded by family, friends, fans or merely in his own company. Bowser, who is entering his fifth season in Baltimore, has flown under the radar. He’s never been a full time starter, nor has he had produced any drama off the field. The former Houston Cougar just works in silence.

The quiet days of being a contributing player are now over. Bowser signed a four year contract extension to stay in Baltimore through 2024, while Judon and Ngakoue signed deals in New England and Las Vegas respectively. That leaves Bowser to take over the starting SAM linebacker role, increasing his playing time and the spotlight on him to perform.

With Bowser in line to take over full time starter duties, I wanted to turn on the tape and take a look at the player who has quietly earned the trust of the Ravens coaching staff and front office, and has the opportunity become their next impact outside linebacker.

Just as silently as Bowser has flown under the radar, he’s discreetly become arguably the best on-ball cover linebacker in the NFL. Per Sports Info Solutions, Bowser dropped into coverage 155 times in 2020. He was targeted 10 times, allowing five catches for 50 yards with three interceptions and two passes defended. All five incompletions were a result of Bowser’s action. Two of Bowser’s three interceptions were the result of on-ball (lined up on the line of scrimmage) spot drops, where he displayed intelligence and athleticism.

Bowser has also shown chops in man coverage, as well as match coverage. His quick feet and fluid hips allow him to stay with different body types between tight ends and running backs, even the occasional receiver. Bowser is a rare mover for his size.

Sports Info Solutions has a metric called “points saved” that aims to determine how many points a defender saves their team in various aspects defensively. In coverage, Bowser saved 21.52 points in just 155 snaps, good for third on the Ravens. On a per snap basis, Bowser saved 0.148 points, tops on Baltimore’s defense. Bowser, alongside DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Watt, Malik Harrison and Von Miller, is one of five linebackers in NFL Combine history to check each of the following boxes:

  • 6-foot-3 or taller.
  • 245 pounds or heavier.
  • Sub 6.85s 3-cone time.
  • 36-inch vertical or higher.

His athletic prowess is evident in coverage, where his fluid transitions and closing speed allow him to make plays that most linebackers can’t.

While Bowser hasn’t filled up the sack column at this point in his career, there’s more than meets the eye. Bowser, who often is deployed as a field or weak-side edge defender, is tasked with coverage duties and maintaining contain responsibilities to the sideline. In those assignments, he comes off the snap in ‘low gear’ quite often. Low gear, as opposed to high gear, is staying balanced at the line of scrimmage after the snap to diagnose run or pass, maintain contain and stay ready to move laterally, as opposed to pinning the ears back and rushing upfield. Low gear is a way of maintaining gap responsibility, preventing cutback lanes then attacking in backside pursuit.

These low gear snaps have allowed Bowser to successfully diagnose screens, move laterally to thwart outside run concepts as well as clog throwing lanes. His closing speed provides the ability to generate quarterback hits and pressures despite not flying upfield initially after the snap.

Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale has also deployed Bowser’s closing speed by utilizing him on stunts, as well as mugging Bowser over the A-gap as an inside linebacker, then blitzing him to create mismatches and flush the pocket.

While the former two-sport athlete (Bowser played on both the Houston football and men’s basketball teams) only has 11 career sacks, he’s flashes speed, power, hustle and savvy hand usage in true pass rushes. Bowser’s career high in pass rushes is a modest 266 (t-70th in the NFL among edge rushers in 2020.) Despite five other Ravens having more pass rushes last season, Bowser produced the second most pressures (33) and hits (22) and knockdowns (12). He isn’t the fanciest pass rusher, but gets the job done when he pins his ears back.

While Bowser isn’t an elite pass rusher by any means, he has the athleticism and fundamentals paired with hustle to make a 50 pressure/8+ sack season realistic considering an anticipated uptick in pass rush opportunities.

The final integral aspect of Bowser’s game, run fitting, has been a work in progress. Bowser struggled early in his career to win the edge when locking horns with tight ends and tackles. He’s consistently improved to turn that aspect of his game into a strength from a weakness. While he doesn’t have the size of a Terrell Suggs or Jadeveon Clowney, Bowser has utilized his film study and hand technique to win reps and thwart a bevy of blocking concepts.

Riddled throughout the outside linebacker’s reps are examples of confident and deliberate pre-snap communication. While he appears quiet off the field, he’s seemingly become confident in his film study and diagnosis of personnel, alignments and motions. Bowser, in short, has become an assured, well rounded outside linebacker. While not an elite as a pass rusher or run defender, he excels in coverage, provides versatility and makes plays within his assignments without recklessly abandon. The spotlight that comes with being the Ravens SAM backer will certainly turn to Bowser this season.

If he’s able to play consistently and continue making strides in the run game, he will turn many heads in 2021. On the other hand, if Bowser falters, the Ravens will find themselves in a hard spot following the departure of two experienced edge defenders that commanded more contract money than they felt the need to dish out.

With two rookies (Odafe Oweh and Daelin Hayes) an aging veteran who needs a pitch count (Pernell McPhee) and a player that hasn’t consistently flashed (Jaylon Ferguson) the Ravens will rely on Bowser to carry a heavy load in 2021. He has the athleticism, tools and has spent enough time in Wink Martindale’s system to make excelling with more snaps a much higher likelihood. If Bowser can replace Matt Judon effectively, Eric DeCosta will have hit a home run, paying less for a player who is better in coverage and has a similarly well rounded game. For the Ravens to make a deep playoff run and accomplish their goals, they will need Bowser to excel from the get-go.