The Baltimore Ravens are currently light on healthy outside linebackers that are projected to make the final 53-man roster as it stands with training camp about a month away. They have a pair of players at the position recovering from torn Achilles tendons in Tyus Bowser and David Ojabo and second-year pro Odafe Oweh had offseason shoulder surgery.
While they have signed veterans Vince Biegel and Steven Means following this year’s draft, neither are notable additions with proven track records of high-level production. This has led to many questions about how the Ravens will be able to consistently apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks and where their pass rush will come.
The game-wrecking ability that interior defensive linemen such as Aaron Donald, Chris Jones, DeForest Buckner, and Jeffery Simmons consistently put on display proves that being able to collapse the pocket up the middle can be just as, if not even more valuable as the pressure generated off the edge.
While they aren’t deep on the edge of their defensive front seven, the Ravens bolstered their interior defensive line depth chart with versatile linemen that can play multiple positions and possess high upside as pass rushers. In addition to re-signing six-time Pro Bowler Calais Campbell, General Manager Eric DeCosta brought back some familiar faces in Michael Pierce and Brent Urban and drafted Travis Jones.
They also have Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington who are both heading into pivotal third seasons. Each of them showed signs of growth in 2021 and are expected to take another step in 2022, when the team will need them to come through and deliver. Madubuike, in particular, has been tabbed as a potential breakout candidate for the past two years and has received ringing endorsements from several of his coaches and veteran contemporaries.
“We really expect him to take off,” Head Coach John Harbaugh said. “We expect Justin to just take it to another level, and that’s what he’s practicing to do – [to be] more consistent against the run, although he was good against the run last year, and let’s start disrupting the pass a little bit, like you’re seeing with the batted balls, and get a few sacks.”
Washington flashed his pocket collapsing potential at times in 2021 recording his first career sack and three quarterback hits. He was one of the standouts of the offseason program with the way he was being disruptive during OTAs and Minicamp.
Pierce only recorded just 3.5 sacks during the first four years of his career with Ravens but showed he could be more of a pass-rushing threat in the lone season he suited up for the Minnesota Vikings, recording three sacks in just eight games last year. He is slated to replace Brandon Williams as the starting nose tackle in base defense and hopes that he can prove that he is more than just an early-down run-stopper.
Jones was drafted in the third round of this year’s draft out of UConn and is considered quite the steal relative to his talent and where he was projected to be selected during the pre-draft process. He recorded 8.5 career sacks in college, will rotate with Pierce at nose tackle and is capable of playing three-technique as well.
Urban has been a bit of a journeyman since leaving Baltimore, playing for three different teams since 2019, and he isn’t a lock to make this year’s team. However, his ability to be stout against the run and play either five or three-technique could help preserve Campbell with a regular rotation so that he can be more effective on third down and obvious passing situations.
Sacks aren’t the ‘end-all-be-all’ stat or the most accurate measuring tool of a pass rusher’s overall effectiveness. Although, the fact that Campbell has just 5.5 in 27 games since becoming a Ravens isn’t great considering he recorded 31.5 over the span of three years at his last stop.
While he was playing more snaps and primarily on the edge with the Jacksonville Jaguars from 2017-2019, the dramatic dip in sack production probably isn’t what the team expected when they acquired him via trade, even though he’s managed to remain an elite run defender. With more reinforcements in the interior and a new play-caller in Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald who has shown he can get the most out of his pass rushers, Campbell could be primed for his best and most productive season in years.
“We always say, ‘The team goes where the D-line goes.’ Obviously, there’s the quarterback, and there’s the D-line,” Campbell said. “I feel like we have to be at our very best and lead this team.”
An improved and consistently disruptive interior pass rush will help elevate the play of the outside linebackers and the entire defensive unit as a whole. When the pocket collapses up the middle, the timing of opposing offenses will be thrown off and their quarterbacks will be flushed into the grasp of edge rushers and blitzing second and third-level defenders.
The team leader in sacks will still likely come from the outside linebacker depth chart but don’t be surprised if the defensive line as a whole is the more productive position group in the end. Oweh is the current favorite to lead the team in sacks and if he reaches double figures in that statistical category for the first time in his career, he will have Campbell and the rest of the interior to thank for many of those opportunities.