Posted in Ashley's 3 big questions

Baltimore Ravens: Three Big Questions About the Linebackers

By: Ashley Anderson

Linebacker has always been a position of pride for the Baltimore Ravens. After the Hall of Fame career, Ray Lewis put together, every inside linebacker to don the purple and black has inevitably had huge shoes to fill. On the outside, names like Peter Boulware and Terrell Suggs immediately come to mind. This year’s group has a ton of potential, but there are a few big questions.

3.) How will Justin Houston fit into the Baltimore Ravens rotation?

Cheers of applause rang out in Baltimore when Justin Houston finally agreed to a one-year deal to become a Raven. He was linked to them from the start of free agency and looks to fill the only major hole on the defense. After initially selecting number 48, Houston pulled a jersey swap with Otaro Alaka and now rocks his usual 50. While Houston looks great in photos, it remains to be seen how he will fit on the field.

With much of the training camp focus falling on the performance of Lamar Jackson and his receivers, there has not been much mention of Houston. Since he did not suit up against the New Orleans Saints, fans have yet to get a taste of what he brings to the table. There is a possibility he plays against the Carolina Panthers, but it will likely be a short appearance. Likely, it will be until Week 1 before Houston is unleashed full force.

Houston is a proven veteran with 97.5 career sacks including eight in 2020. Those eight sacks matched former Raven Yannick Ngakoue’s total, although only three of his came in a Ravens uniform. Baltimore’s sack leader was technically Matthew Judon with six. There has recently been some criticism of Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale regarding his usage of outside linebackers. As such, fans will be paying close attention to how Martindale utilizes his new weapon.

2.) Can Jaylon Ferguson make the leap and become a presence at outside linebacker?

When the Ravens snagged Jaylon Ferguson in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft, they felt they were getting a steal. Although he was coming from a smaller school in Louisiana Tech, some saw him as the next Suggs. After all, his nickname was Sack Daddy.

To date, he has not lived up to the moniker. After logging two-and-a-half sacks in his rookie season, that number dipped to two last year. However, it often takes smaller school prospects a little longer to adjust to the NFL. Now entering his third year, the Baltimore Ravens are looking for a breakout from Ferguson.

Reports indicated Ferguson showed up to training camp in excellent shape. He did not do much early on before players were in pads, but it seems like his performance has improved as camp continued. In the first preseason game against the Saints, Ferguson logged three tackles and half a sack.

The Ravens clearly felt they needed more help in the pass rush department. After drafting Odafe Oweh and Daelin Hayes, they still went out and signed Justin Houston. That is not exactly a ringing endorsement for Ferguson, so he needs a big season to continue his career in Baltimore.

1.) Will Malik Harrison and Patrick Queen take their game to the next level?

When Baltimore selected Patrick Queen in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft, the usual Ray Lewis comparisons began. Some, including Lamar Jackson, referred to him as Ray Lewis Jr., which definitely upped the hype surrounding the young linebacker. His rookie season went mostly as expected with the usual ups and downs.

Queen finished tops on the team with 106 total tackles, and he added three sacks and two forced fumbles. Although he looked confident, there were times he got beat badly in coverage. He was still a relatively raw prospect coming out of LSU, so his coverage was an area of concern. Now, with a full, normal offseason to improve, Queen says he feels two steps faster.

Opposite him is former third-round pick Malik Harrison, who was used in a rotation last season. Harrison is currently penciled in as a starter, although the Ravens retained LJ Fort. Known for being a thumper, Harrison also needed to polish his overall game. Without a doubt, practicing against Baltimore’s excellent running backs and tight ends is helping him gain an edge.

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The Ravens are counting on their dynamic linebacker duo to be a force for years to come. If they can both improve on their rookie outputs, the defense will be in excellent shape. On the flip side, they must avoid sophomore slumps, or the whole unit will feel the negative effect.

 

 

 

Posted in Ravens Thoughts

Malik Harrison will be the surprise of the Ravens defense

By Ronald Toothe

In 2020, the Ravens filled a pressing need at middle linebacker by drafting a player who many considered the best at the position in Patrick Queen. Much more quietly, they also spent a third-round pick on Malik Harrison the following day. While Queen and his promising talent made most of the headlines last season, Harrison could be the one ready to make the biggest jump in 2021.

What we’ve seen so far

Malik Harrison first burst onto the scene as a member of the Ohio State Buckeyes in 2018, wherein his first season as a full-time starter he compiled 81 tackles. Harrison was a brick wall for Urban Meyer’s defense and translated that over to a similarly successful 2019 with 75 tackles, 16.5 of which were behind the line of scrimmage.

Bleacher Report analyst Matt Miller’s draft profile featured Harrison as a pro comparison to former Patriots LB Dont’a Hightower. Miller also said he was “a blast to watch and is a wrecking ball against the run game.”

It’s hard to argue, given performances like the ones he had at Penn State in 2019 and vs Northwestern in 2018. Perhaps most promising is that those biggest performances came when the lights were on bright. Big Ten championships, ranked match-ups, no stage was too big for Malik Harrison at Ohio State.

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Harrison’s success in one of the toughest conferences in college football has already begun to translate to the pros. In 2020 we started to see his potential as his playing time increased. In week 8 at Indianapolis, Harrison was arguably the best player on the Ravens defense with 11 tackles. Two weeks later vs Tennessee, he recorded another 7 tackles and his first career tackle for loss.

Harrison’s biggest contributions came around the line of scrimmage. Harrison was everywhere, whether it was blowing up a screen pass or shading down the line of scrimmage to blow up zone runs. The Ravens team lineage is loaded with hard-hitting middle linebackers, and Harrison is next in line.

What we’ll see going forward

The middle linebackers will be relied on heavily in 2021 to help jam up the run game. This plays right into the biggest aforementioned strengths of Harrison’s game. The interior defensive line is still performing at a high level, but father time is undefeated. Calais Campbell is in the twilight of his career, and Brandon Williams is in the last year of his contract. Derek Wolfe re-signed earlier this off-season as well, but he’s no spring chicken either (with all due respect). Harrison taking a step forward this season will make the workload much more bearable for those older veterans.

Despite re-signing L.J. Fort earlier this off-season, the flashes we’ve seen have already warranted Harrison taking the bulk of the reps alongside Queen. Fort is a great rotational veteran to have, but Harrison is the future. His skill set will cause nightmares for opposing backs.

There are of course improvements still to be made in Harrison’s game. He’s never been known as a natural when it comes to dropping back in the pass. Another year under Wink Martindale’s watchful eye could certainly help in that department though, as could his variety of different schemes. Given the massive talent the Ravens have in the secondary, those deficiencies are easier to mask for now.

It’s no secret that the Ravens’ Super Bowl window is open now. They have one of the most electric talents in football at quarterback and numerous elite players around him. The 2020 Buccaneers defense surged towards a title thanks largely to the studs in the middle of their defense.

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The Ravens might just have their own version of that tandem in Harrison and Queen. If Malik Harrison can take yet another step forward in 2021, Baltimore’s championship dreams only become closer to reality.