Four years ago, when Jameel McClain was in his rookie season with the Ravens, the undrafted free agent out of Syracuse first made his presence felt as a situational pass rusher. The gritty linebacker only had 16 tackles in 2008, but he recorded 2.5 sacks and a pair of safeties -- one more than Ray Lewis has in his long career.
In his second season, McClain moved to inside linebacker and eventually become a starter alongside Lewis in the middle in 2010. He has since started 36 out of a possible 38 games, including postseason, at the position.
But backup linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Brendon Ayanbadejo -- it has exclusively been Ellerbe so far this season -- have often been subbed in for McClain in passing situations, which are becoming more and more prevalent in today’s NFL. McClain got the start in the 44-13 win over the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 1, but Ellerbe actually played 16 more snaps than McClain, who was in for just 31 of the team’s 70 defensive plays.
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There was a subtle change of (game) plans last weekend.
In a 24-23 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Ravens asked McClain to line up at outside linebacker for a handful of snaps in passing situations. With Lewis and Ellerbe manning the middle, McClain was able to blitz off the edge. He didn’t sack Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, but he hit him twice during the game, according to Pro Football Focus. And McClain is willing to take on that role again if the coaching staff asks him to do so.
"It's something I did in college,” he said. “It's a learning curve. It's something I've got to get back used to if I ever get the opportunity again. But I got the chance and I hope the coaches believe I made the best out of it. With more opportunity, it's a lot more things I can do. At the end of the day, you've got to believe in yourself."
McClain, who was listed at 6-foot-1 and 256 pounds on Syracuse's website, got experience playing defensive end for the Orange. In his junior season, he led the Big East with nine sacks and also recorded 14.5 tackles for loss. He split time between defensive end and inside linebacker during his senior season, recording a career-high 74 tackles but just one sack. Being a man without a clear position might have affected McClain’s draft stock.
“He originally was an outside linebacker and he could have played the position, but the coaches thought it was a better fit, as to what we needed, at defensive end,” said Ravens defensive end Arthur Jones, who was a teammate of McClain’s for two seasons at Syracuse. “It worked for him. Once he got to defensive end, he balled out. He definitely has great rush ability to get after it. That’s why they kept him around. That’s why they paid him.”
Jones, of course, is referring to the three-year, $10.5 million dollar contract the Ravens awarded McClain with this offseason after they let him dip his toes into the lukewarm waters of free agency. (McClain has said he was frustrated by the market for inside linebackers developing so slowly.) The Ravens had a dozen unrestricted free agents, including Jarret Johnson and Cory Redding, but McClain was one of the few they brought back.
The Ravens have turned to Albert McClellan, Paul Kruger and Courtney Upshaw, a 2012 second-round draft pick, to replace Johnson and the injured Terrell Suggs. Sergio Kindle is the only other outside linebacker on the roster, but he was inactive in Week 1 and played just 12 defensive snaps against the Eagles.
Maybe the Ravens saw it as an opportunity to take advantage of McClain’s versatility and get him on the field more often. Or McClain moonlighting over at outside linebacker might have just been a one-time deal. Ravens coach John Harbaugh said the decision to give McClain snaps at outside linebacker was a byproduct of having just three outside linebackers up last weekend (Kruger was inactive for the game in Philadelphia due to a back injury).
"I think it would speak to our depth," Harbaugh said. "You want to make sure you have your answers in case you get injuries."
Whatever Harbaugh’s motivation was, giving McClain him a few snaps here and there as a situational rusher will help them get a little more return on their investment. And who knows, it might even give them a much-needed return on their sluggish pass rush, too.