The Baltimore Ravens will take on the New Orleans Saints on Saturday in their first preseason game of the 2021 NFL season.
The Ravens enter the year hoping to earn a Super Bowl berth after shoring up their team on both sides of the ball in free agency and the draft.
Their start to the season has been less than optimal, as injuries and positive COVID-19 tests held out several key contributors, including star quarterback Lamar Jackson. Even with the shortened preseason, starters rarely play more than a quarter in the first game, so Saturday’s contest against the Saints will give players jockeying for a roster spot an opportunity to prove their worth.
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Here are two key defensive storylines to watch for on Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
The New and Improved Pass Rush
The pass rush has been a point of emphasis for the Ravens this offseason, who retained Tyus Bowser and Pernell McPhee and added veteran Justin Houston and rookie Odafe Oweh. Even though they lost Matt Judon and Yannick Ngakoue, the team is confident that their collection of talent and blitz-heavy defensive playbook will enable them to get to opposing quarterbacks with ease. Saturday’s game will offer them an early challenge in the form of the Saints’ imposing offensive line, ranked fourth in the league by Pro Football Focus. While Houston, and other veterans are likely to sit against the Saints, the Ravens’ other pass-rushers will look to excel against top competition.
The Ravens drafted Oweh with the 31st pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, trusting that the former Nittany Lion’s freak athleticism was more important than his lack of production at Penn State. He’ll line up against the best offensive tackle duo in the NFL in Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk this weekend, giving the Ravens a first glimpse at their highly-rated rookie. The Ravens will have a better idea of what Oweh can do once he goes up against the Saints’ top-tier tackles. If he can translate his speed and bend into consistent pressure, he could be a instant impact player for the Ravens’ defense.
The Ravens’ selection of Justin Madubuike with the 71st pick of the 2020 NFL Draft was widely seen as a steal, but a preseason injury kept him off the field until Week 5. With a season under his belt, plus a full offseason learning from veterans Calais Campbell, Derek Wolfe and Brandon Williams, the former Texas A&M Aggie should have enough pro seasoning to complement his athleticism. A defensive tackle who can get to the quarterback can be a game-breaking force in the modern NFL, and Madubuike has the speed and power to implode the pocket. A strong showing against the Saints could prime him for a breakout season.
After a stellar season last year, Bowser is taking on a bigger role in the defense this year, so the Saints game will be a good test to see how he performs against top competition. If he can improve his pass rushing, his ability to drop back in coverage will make him an exciting chess piece for defensive coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale.
Jaylon ‘Sack Daddy’ Ferguson has failed to live up his nickname in his career so far, only notching 4.5 sacks in his first two seasons. With the addition of Houston, the Ravens have six edge rushers, and they only carried five last year. If Ferguson fails to show progress in the preseason, he could be on the chopping block.
Daelin Hayes did not come out of Notre Dame as a highly-rated edge rusher, but he possesses a lot of the intangible qualities valued by the Ravens. His high motor and work ethic suggest that he could improve a lot in the right situation, and it’s hard to find a better fit than Baltimore. He can learn from veterans like Houston and McPhee and play without high expectations given his position on the depth chart.
Who Rounds Out the Secondary?
The Ravens’ secondary, ranked by PFF as second-best in the NFL, does not have any question marks about its starters, despite the recent injury of veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith. Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters will start as outside cornerbacks, with Tavon Young in the slot, and Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott will start at safety. But defensive back depth, especially at corner, is vital to Super Bowl hopefuls like the Ravens, so the preseason will be an excellent opportunity to see who will fill out the depth of the secondary.
Chris Westry has been impressing observers in training camp, stacking solid practices with tight coverage and pass breakups. His six-foot-four frame and physical play never goes out of style in the NFL. If he plays as well against the Saints as he has in practice, he could earn consideration for a roster spot.
Rookie Shaun Wade drew acclaim as a nickel corner at Ohio State, but struggled on the outside in 2020. If the former Buckeye can play as well in the slot as he did in college, he will be a top-tier backup for Tavon Young and could eventually start at the position. But if he improves in outside coverage, his selection in the fifth round will look like highway robbery. Watch him on Saturday to see how he performs in different situations.
The Ravens have a few safeties competing for roster spots and playing time as well.
Brandon Stephens has completed his transition from cornerback to safety, where he is listed on the depth chart. The third-round pick out of SMU offers playmaking ability at multiple positions, especially in the Ravens’ blitz-happy defense. The Saints will test how well Stephens has adjusted to safety.
Ar’Darius Washington will look to be the latest undrafted free agent to make the Ravens’ roster after he slipped out of the 2021 NFL Draft despite high ratings from evaluators. His size (five-foot-eight, 176 pounds) scared away several teams, but his versatility and playmaking could merit his inclusion on the final 53-man roster.