Now we’re onto something…
Amongst the reasons of optimism for an improved 2022 season for the Ravens — obviously below the expected return to health of some prominent players — was a defensive line that offered some promise.
The return of Calais Campbell for another year in the sun, along with a reunion with defensive tackle Michael Pierce, led people to believe that at least the run defense should remain stout. The addition of another familiar face in Brent Urban caused many to feel that depth should not be an issue.
But where the uptick in production from last year’s squad would seem to be most possible would be with some young guys of intriguing potential, particularly in generating rush from the middle. Justin Madubuike has certainly flashed in his time in Baltimore, but has yet to put together a consistent run of play. Broderick Washington, another third-year guy, hasn’t quite shown the ceiling of Madubuike, but has improved his play steadily since the start of his rookie campaign through the end of his second year.
And when big rookie Travis Jones began shining daily during the summer, well, all of a sudden this looked like a unit that could create some problems. Some quarterback-shaking, drive-killing, children-cover-your-eyes kind of problems.
And while Jones is still trying to work his way on to the field after a late-summer injury, the rest of the unit showed up for the season opener against the Jets and delivered what most of the Ravens fandom has been begging for since Haloti Ngata moved out of town — they brought mayhem.
Madubuike might have been the best player on the entire field in that game, lighting up running backs and our old friend Joe Flacco all afternoon. He was powerful and explosive and downright frightening if you were wearing green and white. If I had a second-place vote for game MVP against the Jets, it would have gone to Pierce, who was nearly as disruptive, making his way into the Jets backfield time and time again, and seemingly bringing the line of scrimmage along with him wherever he went.
How about Campbell? He had an early pressure on Flacco that resulted in an intentional grounding penalty, and seemed to get a step upfield every snap. Washington got a pressure, knocking Flacco to the ground, and batted down a pass at the line.
According to Football Outsiders, the Ravens graded out well against both the rush and the pass on Sunday, which usually bodes well for your defensive line right off the bat. They ranked the Ravens as the eight best overall defense on Sunday, despite giving up a bunch of late passing yards in garbage time — empty calories, if you will. So, yes, the numbers were good.
The film was even better.
With the Ravens being somewhat limited at edge right now as they await the return to health of Tyus Bowser and David Ojabo, along with the horrible loss of Jaylon Ferguson this summer, their best option at generating pass rush was probably going to be via blitz or an improved push up the middle. They got it up the middle. And then some.
It was one game, and that one game was against the New York Jets, but it was a good one game. Assuming health, which is always a dicey proposition, this is a unit that should only improve as the season goes along. Jones brings a different skill to the group, and shuffling guys in and out can create mismatches against opposing lines and keep the veteran legs of Urban, Pierce and Campbell fresh.
There’s no Aaron Donald on this team, but there are six big man who can play — and they can come at you in different styles. That might end up being enough to put this defense back on top.