The deal that the Baltimore Ravens and their fans have been praying for and waiting on since April has finally gotten done. Veteran edge rusher Justin Houston will officially be joining the team pending the passing of a physical after agreeing to a one-year contract worth up $4 million on Saturday afternoon.
The four-time Pro Bowler provides the proven pedigree that the Ravens lost when they let both outside linebackers Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue walk in free agency. He has nearly 100 career sacks—97.5 to be exact—and will continue the tradition of the defense possessing at least one upper echelon-to-elite pass rusher among their edge-rushing ranks for another season.
As far as what Houston’s role within the Ravens’ defense will look like, let’s first establish where he is and what he can contribute at this stage of his career. At 32-years old, he can still be very disruptive and productive if utilized correctly but not excessively.
Despite recording 19 sacks over the last two seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, according to PFF, Houston’s pressure rate dropped from nearly 14 percent in 2019 when he logged 11 sacks to a career-low 8.3 percent in 2020 when he recorded eight sacks. Yet, he still has a higher pass rush win rate from the edge on true pass sets over that span than many of the younger edge rushers who are making substantially more than he is slated to make in Baltimore even if he hits all of his incentive escalators.
The Ravens would be wise to avoid and likely won’t put too much on Houston’s plate this year and employ him both strategically and judiciously instead. He’ll be a member of a three-to-four-man rotation at the RUSH outside linebacker position depending on who is active on game day.
After trading for Ngakoue at the midway through last season, the Ravens had more edge rushers than they new what do with down the stretch so Jaylon Ferguson and Jihad Ward took turns being active and inactive on gamedays. With the Houston in the mix at RUSH, they now have Pernell McPhee, Ferguson, and rookie Odafe Oweh who can also play some SAM.
The Ravens could opt to activate all six of their edge rushers more often this year and go lighter another position on defense. Two candidates could be at inside linebacker where they often have one or two guys playing almost exclusively on special teams at time or on the defensive line where they lack much quality depth behind their starters.
If he is used as a situational pass rusher, he’d be able to stay fresh, be more potent later in games, and preserve his body for the length of the expanded regular season. It would allow McPhee and or Ferguson to do what they do best and predominantly set the edge against the run on early downs and kick inside on third downs as well as in sub-packages.
Head Coach John Harbaugh didn’t provide any specifics on how they intend to utilize Houston when he stepped to the podium following the team’s open practice at M&T Bank Stadium. However, he did express his exuberance for the move and divulged that they do have a plan in place.
“He’s a proven player,” Harbaugh said. “We have a role for him, and he has a chance to really help us. So, I’m excited about it.”
In addition to giving the Ravens’ pass rush a much-needed boost off the edge, Houston will also be instrumental in the development of their young position group, especially the two rookies in Oweh and fifth-rounder Daelin Hayes.
He could be to Oweh what Calais Campbell was to Justin Madubuike as a rookie and still is as he is set to embark on a sophomore season in which he expected to breakout after showing tremendous promise in year one. The first-round rookie embraces the additional competition that the veteran’s arrival will bring and is excited for the chance to both learn and play alongside another future Hall of Famer.
“Man, we got better – that’s how I can take it,” Oweh said. “It’s an opportunity for me to learn from a guy that has [97.5] sacks; that’s always great. I’m learning from Calais [Campbell] every day, and now you just added another guy that has a history of just getting to the quarterback.
“I can use help, every angle I can get. We just added another nice outside linebacker, so I just see it as competition, as well, but we got better. So, I’m good.”
Houston hasn’t recorded fewer than 7.5 sacks in a season where he’s played at least 11 games since he was a rookie in 2011. He’s hovered right around the double-digit sack threshold in each of the last four seasons and even eclipsed it in 2019 with 11 sacks.
While expecting him to reach or surpass that mark with the Ravens in 2021 might be asking a little much for an aging player that will likely be playing in a regular rotation, it’s not farfetched and well within the realm of possibilities. His presence will not only enhance their perimeter pass rush, but it could potentially have a ripple effect that will benefit interior rushers like Campbell and Madubuike. There is now a threat on the edge that commands respect from the jump instead of on the sly.
Defensive Coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale most likely still dial up creative pressure and blitz packages but with Houston in the equation, he won’t have the schematic flexibility to generate consistent pass rush with four. It will allow him to drop more defenders into coverage against opposing quarterbacks who can thrive under pressure and are proficient at getting the ball out before blitzes, twists and stunts have time to develop or get home.