When Anthony Weaver was asked about his confidence in the Ravens being able to mount an interior pass rush, he flashed his boyish grin and then nodded his head in approval.
We’ll see if that optimism becomes reality.
Weaver, the team’s assistant head coach and defensive line coach, has one of the top position groups on the roster when it comes to talent, experience and youth. He has to piece it all together while trying to provide the Ravens with one of their biggest offseason needs: pressure up the middle. A year ago, the Ravens (8-9) allowed 57 sacks and collected only 34.
“I’m extremely comfortable in it because of the players we have,” Weaver said of the Ravens’ pass rush. “There are guys like, shoot, Calais Campbell — he’s got 90-something [93 1/2] career sacks — Justin Houston, Odafe Oweh — I think you’re going to see the best version of him this year — and then you’ve got other guys that are on the come [up], like Justin Madubuike, Broderick Washington.
“So, I feel extremely confident in our ability to get there; we’ve practiced that way and I think you’ve seen it so far in the preseason, and you’ll see the dividends of that work come game day.”
The Ravens appear to have more versatile linemen as opposed to the one-dimensional pass rushers or basic run-stoppers of the past. The team has traditionally been strong against the run — they were ranked No. 1 in the NFL last season, allowing an average of 84.5 rushing yards per game — but it was almost meaningless when they allowed a league-high 278.9 passing yards per game. Injuries can be blamed for some of that. So can a lack of pressure on the quarterback.
Maybe that has changed. The Ravens now have two nose tackles who can rush the passer. Veteran Michael Pierce is strong and powerful enough to collapse the pocket, while rookie Travis Jones has quick feet, strong hands and loads of potential. Like Pierce, he should be able to force quarterbacks to move or step up in the pocket.
The key is getting both of those players in game shape. Jones weighs 334 pounds and is expected to miss several weeks with a sprained ankle. Pierce weighs 355 pounds and doesn’t appear to be in top game shape yet.
“That kid is incredible,” Weaver said of Jones, “so the same youthful enthusiasm you see out here on the football field, he attacks the training room the same way. So, I wouldn’t be shocked to see him defy the odds of the timetable they’ve given him. He’s not a kid I’m counting out.”
As for Pierce?
“I think he is 100% right now,” Weaver said. “If you put on the practice tape, he’s all over the film, just constantly around the quarterback, in the backfield and keeping our guys clean. So, it’s just a matter of us letting him loose now to the rest of the public.”
Right now, let’s just say Weaver is a wishful thinker. Pierce struggled with his weight during his last year in Baltimore in 2019 and was once told to leave practice because coach John Harbaugh thought he wasn’t in shape to play. In July 2020, Pierce opted out of the season with the Minnesota Vikings because of COVID-19 concerns. In 2021, he played in only six games and suffered an elbow injury that eventually put him on injured reserve.
With Jones missing some time, it will probably take another week or two for the third-round pick to improve his conditioning.
It’s great to be confident, but even better when the talent is proven.
Madubuike has done everything well in his first two seasons to earn a starting job at tackle. He reshaped his body — no more baby fat — and his exceptional quickness can disrupt running plays and allow him to gain a step on offensive linemen in pass protection. This should be Madubuike’s breakout season.
Campbell is the on-the-field teacher, almost a requirement in every position group. He is still good enough to win one-on-one matchups and disrupt passing lanes with those outstretched arms rising from his 6-foot-8, 307-pound frame.
Now in his 15th season, Campbell has become a valuable sounding board for Weaver. However, he’s missed five games in the past two seasons because of COVID and various injuries. The Ravens might have to put him on a snap count, especially early in the season.
“He can take in everything from a presnap perspective and use it to his advantage, where a lot of younger players can’t,” Weaver said of Campbell. “So, some of that disruption that you see is certainly his talent, but it’s also just his ‘FBI’ [football intelligence] and knowing when to take those moves.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Calais, so guys like him, whether it was the J.J. Watts I’ve been around, the Kyle Williams’, I’m going to let them do their thing. I’m always going to refine and tweak and make sure that everything is right. You’re always making sure the car is in alignment and it’s going straight, but they have the things that will work for them, and I’m just trying to make sure I can mold what we do around that.”
The Ravens kept five defensive linemen on their initial 53-man roster Tuesday, including Washington, and later re-signed veteran end Brent Urban. They also signed Isaiah Mack, a preseason standout, to the practice squad.
During training camp, the defensive line appeared to have the right chemistry.
“Those guys that are all in their third year, they feel the kinship, that they all want to go out there and prove themselves, and they’ve had some incredible leadership that they’ve taken bits and nuggets from — all of them,” Weaver said. “And now to see it kind of all come together, I think you’re going to see the absolute best version of them all.”