Three Rising Defensive Stars

Street Talk Three Rising Defensive Stars

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Over the past few seasons, the Ravens have invested a considerable amount of resources toward building a menacing defense.

The Ravens have selected a defensive player with 11 of the team’s last 18 draft picks, while five of the last seven picks of the 2017 NFL draft also went towards defense.

As is the case for many mid-round draft picks for the Ravens, it will take some time to develop these young defensive talents.

For example, it’s too early to determine the returns the team will receive from Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams – both had their moments in limited playing time, but each have their own to improve on before garnering more snaps.

But I get it, why are their names even worth mentioning if they haven’t amounted to much yet? Bowser and Williams had a combined 15 tackles and 3 sacks in their rookie seasons, which aren’t the most inspiring numbers considering how much they were hyped upon being drafted. Bowser was considered a Round 1 talent who fell to Round 2. Some even believed Williams could be a dark horse candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Expectations were not met, to say the least.

But here’s an example of why it’s best to stay patient – Willie Henry.

Do you know how many games Willie Henry was active for in his rookie season?

One.

Do you know how many snaps he played?

Zero.

Do you know who cared about Willie Henry before his sophomore season?

Nobody. But that definitely isn’t the case now.

Sometimes, it takes a bit of fine-tuning before a player can reach their true potential, and that was exactly the case for Henry. Who knows what an entire training camp could accomplish for the two sophomores, especially Bowser who flashed great potential in his pass coverage ability last season?One of my favorite plays of his was his interception during Week 2 against the Browns– it was a great lurk in zone coverage. He may be the next Raven to come out of the shadows and steal your heart, just like what happened with this first rising star …

Willie Henry

To be clear, Willie Henry isn’t the typical hidden gem defensive tackle that the Ravens are consistently able to draft in the late rounds. He’s become an essential component to the Ravens defensive line and may end up as a starter if he continues to build.

After losing Brent Urban for the season and Brandon Williams for an extended period of time, Henry got his break and made the most of it. He finished the season with 32 tackles, 3.5 sacks and 5 PDs. Per PFF, Henry had the highest percentage of QB knockdowns per snap up until Week 12 after recording either a sack or hit on 56.3% of his pass rush snaps.

Henry was the most productive interior pass rusher for the Ravens last season, which can be attributed to his high motor and ability to maintain leverage on blocks. His massive frame and strong hands make him difficult to hang onto and once Henry gets loose, he’s a wrecking ball. Henry might not win all his battles right away, but his sharp play awareness helps him to sense where the QB is and land his strikes upon nearing proximity.

Henry’s play awareness also helps him to recognize screen passes. Often times I was impressed in how quickly he turned his body toward running backs and catch up to provide coverage.

Harbaugh loves defensive players who use their speed to get to the ball and Henry fits that mold. During Week 12 against the Texans, Terrell Suggs had a strip sack on QB Tom Savage and the fumble was recovered by C.J. Mosley. But had it not been for Henry who managed to get a hand on the loose ball to bat it away, the Texans would have recovered. I believe Harbaugh gave Henry a game ball for that.

Favorite Game: Week 11 @ Green Bay Packers – 5 tackles and 2 sacks

This was one of Henry’s better statistical performances and it exhibited the many ways he’s able to disrupt an offense. Although providing solid containment in the run game, his ability to put pressure on QB Brett Hundley through patience and play awareness was the difference maker. Check out Ken McKusick’s defensive notes vs. the Packers here for more detail on Henry that game. I was contemplating choosing his game against the Texans instead, but I feel like this performance best demonstrates Henry’s utility.

Favorite Play:

This is what I mean, Henry’s production is slow to develop but well-rewarded in the end. Here he explodes off the LOS into LG Jeremy Vujnovich, shoves him backwards from the shoulders and continues to bat away his arms to prevent him from gaining hand placement. As Henry stays in gear, Matt Judon applies pressure and forces QB Jacoby Brissett to move up in the pocket. Henry makes one final chop to gain leverage and works around Vujnovich to swallow Brissett whole.

Za’Darius Smith

In my first guest submission to RSR, I wrote about how Za’Darius Smith was one of four overshadowed Ravens ready to contribute in 2016. Smith managed only 20 tackles and 1 sack. I guess I was one season too early.

Smith had a reinvigorating 2017 season after re-adjusting his role as a versatile situational pass rusher. Once again, Smith’s numbers weren’t dazzling after reaching only 24 tackles and 3.5 sacks, but he definitely made his presence known in other ways.

Smith was one of the most consistent pass rushers at generating pressure last season. Although not always able to finish what he started, his contributions did not go unnoticed by the coaches.

“We have a close-but-no-cigar reel,” said DL coach Joe Cullen said about Smith during the 2016 offseason. “Not only was he close, but he had them in the grasp.”

Per PFF, Smith’s 12 QB hits were the 4th most among all OLBs up until Week 15 in 2017. This shows that Smith’s value is represented by his work behind the scenes and if he continues to refine is technique, this value will also be represented by sacks.

The Ravens drafted Smith to fill the Pernell McPhee mold and Smith has embraced the role well. Smith can line up on the outside as a rush linebacker or inside in the 3-technique position. This allows the Ravens to get creative with their front seven in creating mismatches on the line. Smith’s build is overall imposing and he plays with a high amount of energy, thus making him quite the difficult assignment to take on.

As he approaches a contract season, it wouldn’t be shocking to even see Smith reach more sacks than Judon in 2018.

Favorite Game: Week 16 vs. Indianapolis Colts – 4 tackles, 1 sack and 4 QB pressures

Smith took full advantage of an injury-riddled Colts OL by remaining stout against the run and dominant as a pass rusher. His sack on Brissett in the 4th quarter was a lifesaver where he was able to trip up Brissett after initially being hit by Judon.

Ken gave Smith an outstanding review that game in his defensive notes vs. the Colts here. Ken also made mention that his 3 tackles were all run stuffs, which is a positive development considering that Smith struggled with setting the edge in 2016.

Favorite Play:

This was the most elegant sack of all Ravens defenders last season. Here Smith fakes an inside rush and stutter steps around LT Spencer Drango with gorgeous footwork. Smith chops Drango’s hands away and speeds by him for the strip sack on QB DeShone Kizer. Brandon Williams then recovers the ball in the end zone for the first TD of his career. Ravens sacks are usually far more blue-collar than they are flashy, but this one by Smith was pretty impressive.

Brent Urban

Re-signing Brent Urban will go down as Ozzie Newsome’s most underrated move of the offseason. Urban is the Ravens best 5-technique DE, and by remaining healthy, he’ll serve a vital role in the run game and greatly improve the interior pass rush.

Many have linked the Ravens early-season struggles in the run game to the absence of Brandon Williams. But losing Urban might have been just as critical considering the Ravens had no immediate replacement to step into the 5-technique spot. Carl Davis eventually took over as starter but was more solid as a run defender than he was as a pass rusher. Chris Wormley and Bronson Kaufusi both had opportunities as well but often found themselves deactivated for developmental purposes.

So, what makes Urban a rising star if he’s barely had the sample size to show it? It’s the contributions he’s made in limited playing time that make Urban so promising, and they go far beyond his 4 tackles on the year. In his three games, Urban played 80.6% of the team’s defensive snaps and each of the team’s 10 turnovers and 8 sacks in that span occurred with him on the field (thanks to Ken once again for stat in this piece). His ability to blow up runs and provide significant interior pressure allowed Urban to earn himself a new contract and future on this team.

Urban is a BEHEMOTH. His skillset combined with his 6’7” height and 295 lbs. frame results in one big problem for opposing OLs. That size also helped Urban to notch 2 career blocked FGs, including the miraculous “Kick 6” block that lead to a TD for the win against the Browns in 2015. Urban pulled that off in his first NFL game, so I guess you can say he has a knack at making something from nothing.

Favorite Game: Week 1 vs. Cincinnati Bengals – 1 tackle and 3 pressures

This game made the case for Urban to be considered one the team’s best defensive linemen. Each of the team’s 5 sacks and 5 turnovers occurred with Urban on the field and also had two run stuffs on the day. Check out Ken’s defensive notes vs. the Bengals here, he did great analysis on Urban and the rest of the DL. There’s plenty of talk of how deep the Ravens secondary is but this DL is very exciting to think about.

Favorite Play:

This is just nonsense. Urban may not have gotten the sack but look at how he manhandles this double team with ease. He pushes C Russell Bodine into the turf while continuing to work with RG T.J. Johnson, leaps for the PD attempt and then chases after the fumble once it’s stripped by Suggs. Like Henry, Urban has the drive to get after the ball and doesn’t quit until the play is over. He was also very close to the recovery too had the ball not been knocked by Mosley.

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About Mitchell Wolfman

Mitchell is a passionate Ravens fan and avid supporter of the Northern Flock community. On Sunday afternoons in Toronto, Ontario Canada, you might hear the distinct sound of Mitchell yelling profusely at the TV during Ravens games. Mitchell is in his final year at Wilfrid Laurier University to complete his BBA degree and also works as a Sales Manager at a software company. Apart from football, Mitchell is also a big hip-hop head and will make you feel sorry for trying to play him in Madden. Mitchell's favorite parts about the Ravens are filmstudy and team-building. More from Mitchell Wolfman
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