Pass Rush Preview: Can the Ravens Get to the Quarterback in 2021?

Ravens Calais Campbell

Getty Ravens DE Calais Campbell rushes Browns QB Baker Mayfield.

The Baltimore Ravens have high hopes heading into the 2021 season following four consecutive seasons of disappointing playoff losses, and fans and players alike are hungry for a Super Bowl run. Following a tumultuous offseason that featured key departures and exciting additions, the Ravens roster is beginning to take shape heading into training camp and the preseason. One key area of need for the Ravens is the pass rush. 

The Ravens lost their 2020 season leader in sacks and QB pressures, with OLB Matthew Judon signing a four-year, $56 million deal with the New England Patriots, as first reported by NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero. The Ravens’ other top edge rusher, DE Yannick Ngakoue, signed with the Las Vegas Raiders for $26 million over two years, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter

They will look to replace that production with contributions from veterans, breakout candidates and rookies in 2021. 

The Veterans

At the height of his career, DE Calais Campbell was a game-wrecker who single-handedly blew through opposing offensive lines, totaling double-digit sacks in 2017 and 2018. Entering his 14th season, the Ravens hope Campbell can regain his form and earn his massive salary after missing four games last season. The six-time Pro Bowler showed he could still produce at a high level, recording 31.5 sacks in three seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars from 2017 through 2019. His veteran leadership and interior presence will be crucial to Baltimore’s pass rush this season.

OLB Pernell McPhee, who was a part of the Ravens’ 2013 Super Bowl victory, produced 19 QB pressures last season with consistent play against the run, earning him a new contract to extend his stay in Baltimore, according to Schefter. The 10-year vet will provide solid, if unspectacular, play setting the edge. If his playmaking savvy rubs off on some of the younger OLBs on the team, his contributions off the field may eclipse his stats on the field.

Ten-year veteran DE Justin Houston signed with Baltimore on July 31, bringing a decade of consistent production to the Ravens’ defense. He looks to continue his pass-rushing excellence while mentoring the Ravens’ stable of young edge rushers. With 97.5 career sacks, including at least eight in each of the last four seasons, Houston may be the piece to complete the Ravens’ pass-rushing puzzle.

The Breakout Candidates

OLB Tyus Bowser had a coming-out party with a solid 2020, totaling a career-high 22 QB pressures, 3 interceptions and 5 passes defended. That production only translated into 2 sacks, however, down from 5 the season before. He enters the season as the Ravens’ top OLB after signing a four-year, $22 million contract in the offseason, according to Sirius XM’s Adam Caplan. With the departures of Judon and Ngakoue, Bowser will have to step up in a big way against increased attention from opposing offensive lines. If he can improve his pass-rushing production and maintain his ability to drop back into coverage, Bowser could make a huge impact for the Ravens this season.

NCAA single-season sack record-holder OLB Jaylon Ferguson is entering a “prove it” year following two disappointing seasons in which he totaled just 5.5 sacks. The Louisiana Tech product has earned praise for his fitness and leadership from coaches heading into the season, according to Todd Karpovich of Sports Illustrated, and the Ravens hope that will translate into improved play rushing the passer. In a crowded OLB room, Ferguson could break out as a potential starter or be relegated to a role as a depth piece.

Second-year tackle DT Justin Madubuike injured his knee in the preseason last year, keeping him off the field until Week 5 of the 2020 season. Despite weighing in at almost 300 pounds, Madubuike possesses elite athletic traits for a defensive lineman. While Aaron Donald is in a class of his own, players like Fletcher Cox, Chris Jones and Kenny Clark have shown just how effective an interior wrecking ball can be against the pass. With the explosiveness to burst through the offensive line and lateral agility to maneuver himself into the backfield, Madubuike could be poised for a huge year if he manages to put it all together. 

The Rookies

OLB Odafe Oweh, the 31st pick in the 2021 NFL draft, enters the league as a physical freak with lackluster college production. The Penn State product tested off the charts at the NFL Combine but failed to record a single sack during the 2020 NCAA season. Nonetheless, both the team’s front office and NFL analysts were enamored with the pick, raving about Oweh’s disruptiveness and high motor. He has impressed thus far in OTAs with his explosive first step and ability to bend around opposing tackles. His speed should figure well into the Ravens’ defensive scheme that opens lanes to the quarterback.

OLB Daelin Hayes, the 5th-round pick out of Notre Dame, will look to earn snaps by leveraging his high football IQ and playmaking ability. He stood out during OTAs with some impressive sacks, according to Bleacher Report’s Maurice Moton. While he will be a rotational piece to start, he could earn more playing time if he carves out a role for himself, not unlike Bowser did last season. Bowser even remarked that Hayes reminded him of himself early in his career last month. 

What to Watch for in the Preseason

While Ravens defensive coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale is among the best in the league at dialing up creative blitzes to get to the quarterback, Baltimore will still need its pass rushers to produce. 

While McPhee, Campbell and Houston are all known quantities, Bowser’s ability to slide into a bigger role and Oweh’s adjustment to the pros remain to be seen. Pay special attention to the Ravens’ first preseason game against the New Orleans Saints, who boast one of the best offensive tackle tandems in the NFL with Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramcyk, to see how Bowser and Oweh stack up against top competition. 

Hayes, Ferguson and Madubuike will see more time against opposing second-string linemen, but if they win those matchups, that could indicate that they are ready to take on more snaps with the first-team defense. 

If the Ravens want to make a deep playoff run, they’ll need their edge rushers to consistently disrupt the rhythm of the AFC’s best quarterbacks.