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The Ravens need more from recent first-round defenders

Time to grow up

Miami Dolphins v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

When you think of the Baltimore Ravens, you think of hard-hitting, stifling defenses filled with legendary players at each level. At least, you used to. After a fourth-quarter meltdown of cataclysmic proportions in Week 2 in which the Ravens surrendered a three-score lead to the Miami Dolphins, the defense finds itself under much-deserved scrutiny. With so much invested into that side of the ball, including a $43.69 million cap hit for the secondary in 2022, and three first-round picks in the last three years, there is little excuse for the unit’s trend of struggles in recent years.

I know what you are thinking, that Baltimore has been hit hard by injuries in recent years, specifically in the secondary. You would be absolutely correct to say that, and that certainly played a role in finishing with the 32-ranked pass defense in 2021, but injuries are not an absolver for this multi-year dilemma. Even when the only injured starter in the secondary was Marcus Peters to start the 2021 season, the Ravens were still being gashed through the air by the likes of Derek Carr and Carson Wentz. Communication issues have led to coverage breakdowns far too many times for multiple seasons now, no matter which players were on the field.

Just as troubling and consistent for Baltimore has been the lack of a pass rush. Time and time again, opposing quarterbacks have picked the Ravens apart while remaining upright in the pocket. It’s one thing to fail to consistently get pressure, but even when a Baltimore defender has gotten home, far too often they have failed to bring the quarterback down on the play. A lack of a pass rush paired with consistent coverage breakdowns is a recipe for disaster in the modern age of high-flying offensive attacks.

Ray Lewis will not walk through the doors of The Castle in Owings Mills to lead the charge for a defense seemingly lacking true leadership. A 44-year-old Ed Reed will not return to the field as a bandage for a hemorrhaging secondary. Terrell Suggs is unlikely to find the fountain of youth and return to harassing quarterbacks for the next decade in purple and black. No, the path forward for an organization that has built a legacy of incredible defenses falls on the current generation. In the past, when Baltimore selected a middle linebacker, edge rusher, or safety in the first round of the draft, you felt confident that the Ravens had just selected the next great staple of dominant defenses to come. Now, that belief is not as strong.

No player will ever live up to the gargantuan footsteps left by Lewis, Reed, or even Suggs in my lifetime, but the fact of the matter remains that the Ravens need much more from their last three first-round picks on the defensive side of the ball. Inside linebacker Patrick Queen, outside linebacker Odafe Oweh, and safety Kyle Hamilton are all under a microscope at the moment to see who might be the next great Baltimore defender. So far, none of the three fit the bill. It has only been two games for Hamilton, but you would hope for a little more from a player touted by some as a generational safety prospect and a steal for the Ravens. Instead, the Notre Dame star has found himself on the wrong end of highlight plays so far, most notably against the Dolphins.

Meanwhile, Oweh has been one of the bigger disappointments through the first two weeks of the season. Following a strong rookie season, the Penn State pass rusher was reportedly terrorizing offensive linemen throughout training camp. Poised for a breakout into stardom, Oweh has been relatively quiet to start the 2022 season, despite facing two backup right tackles. Instead, it has been the 33-year-old Justin Houston who has been the team’s best edge rusher and by a considerable margin so far this season. It doesn’t take long to recognize when you have a star pass rusher on your hands — just look at fellow Nittany Lion Micah Parsons for that. Oweh’s floor appears to be that of a fine NFL player. Baltimore is not known for spending first-round picks on just “fine” players though. The Ravens need Oweh’s production to match his insane athletic profile.

Then you have Queen. This is a pivotal season for the former LSU Tiger, as the team will have to make a decision on whether or not to pick up his fifth-year option this offseason. Through his first two seasons, and two games this year, Queen has shown flashes of playmaking ability on the back of his sideline-to-sideline speed. He has struggled to maintain consistency in almost every area required of an NFL middle linebacker, however, including defeating blocks, tackling, pass coverage, and play recognition. The truth of the matter is that Queen’s first-round pedigree has given him a much longer leash than previous players at the position such as the undrafted Patrick Onwuasor or fourth-rounder Kenny Young. After an encouraging start to the season under a new defensive coordinator that led many to believe the third-year linebacker was finally taking the next step, Queen visibly struggled in coverage in Week 2 with PFF charting him with 111 passing yards allowed.

Baltimore picked extremely talented players with each of the three selections. Physical makeup is only part of the equation for success at the NFL level, though. All three players have endless potential and have all shown playmaking ability as professionals. If Baltimore wants to return to their roots of stout defense, then these three players need to step up. Hamilton has more leeway at the moment, but any player selected within the top 15 enters the NFL with lofty expectations from the jump.

The story of the Ravens’ defense, both for the remainder of this season and for seasons to come, will be molded by players such as Queen, Oweh, and Hamilton. As Head Coach John Harbaugh said during Monday’s press conference, “there’s certain guys that gotta grow up fast.” With offenses such as the Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Chargers, and Cincinnati Bengals in the same conference, Harbaugh’s words are imperative.