After fielding a few questions about whether Terrell Suggs is playing better than he ever has and another about the effect that Elvis Dumervil has had on his pass rush, defensive coordinator Dean Pees wanted to make sure Baltimore media and Ravens fans knew about the dirty work being done by Courtney Upshaw.
The second-year strong-side linebacker has made just 10 tackles in five games and recorded his first sack of the season last weekend against the Miami Dolphins. But Pees said Upshaw “does a lot of little things behind the scenes,” like picking offensive linemen to free up his teammates to sack the quarterback.
“Football makes sense to him,” Pees said Thursday afternoon. “I just can’t say enough good things about him. I think this guy is kind of unheralded in some ways because some other guys overshadow him -- and that’s OK because those guys deserve it, too -- but Courtney Upshaw does a lot for our defense.”
Upshaw has split time with Dumervil at strong-side linebacker, usually manning the position on early downs when opponents are more likely to run. He has also played a little bit of defensive end in the team’s sub package, joining Suggs and Dumervil as they rush the quarterback. Upshaw has played 60 percent of the defensive snaps.
“He’s our rock,” Dumervil said of Upshaw. “He’s the guy who anchors as far as setting the edge, and he’s a guy who can go inside and sub, and be inside and outside.”
On his sack, Upshaw lined up between the left tackle and left guard and looped around the center to get to Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill. On two of Suggs’ sacks, he rushed from the outside shoulder of the right tackle. And on Dumervil’s key late-game sack, he lined up in the “A” gap between the right tackle and right guard.
Pees said that not all players are savvy enough to handle the mental challenge of playing multiple positions. But Upshaw reminds Pees of Jarret Johnson, Upshaw’s strong-side predecessor, in the way he understands why coaches are asking him to do certain things or play certain roles, instead of going through the motions like a robot.
“Great player. Typical Alabama guy. I’m going to give coach [Nick] Saban some kudos,” Pees said. “He’s smart. You can put him anywhere and you can play him anywhere. [It may not be] the best thing for him physically to play at a position, but you can move him all over the place. Sometimes you can’t do that with guys. Double-J, Jarret Johnson, was that way. You could just do some things with him because he is such an intelligent football player.”
The sack was a nice bonus for Upshaw, but his true value has come in the running game. His work doesn’t show up on the stat sheet, but Dumervil says Upshaw is one of the NFL’s best at setting the edge and funneling running backs to the middle of the defense, where one of the inside linebackers or another defender can make the tackle.
“He does the dirty work as you would put it,” Dumervil said. “He knocks the tight ends around, he sets the edges for us and that’s important. Whenever you want to be a good run defense, you have to be able to set the edge and allow the runners to stay within the confines of the defense. He’s one of the best in the league who does it.”
Yet, Pees feels Upshaw isn’t getting enough attention. It makes sense. Without a keen eye and the benefit of coaches tape, it can be hard to see who is doing what in the trenches. But when a guy brings down the quarterback, like Suggs and Dumervil are doing frequently, it’s much easier to single them out for praise. That’s why Pees was pleased that Upshaw was able to record a sack Sunday.
“He’s such a team player, so it’s always gratifying to see those guys get a little bit of stats, too,” Pees said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun