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Hungry for greatness, Ravens' Courtney Upshaw working on pass-rushing skills

Standing at his locker Monday night after a practice spent chasing down running backs and quarterbacks, Courtney Upshaw brooded about a few plays that had eluded him.

Visibly tired, Upshaw shook his head.

“I’ve got to do better,” he said. “We all know I’ve got to improve. Every year, I want to get better. That’s what it’s all about.”

Quiet and introspective, Upshaw is keenly aware of his NFL reputation — but looking to burnish it. The Ravens’ burly strong-side linebacker is known as a stout run stopper whose toughness keeps running backs from scampering outside for first downs. He's anything but flashy.

Upshaw does the dirty work, sacrificing his body and statistics to shove around tight ends and offensive tackles and build a 6-foot-2, 272-pound wall at the line of scrimmage. He’s confident he’s one of the NFL’s top outside linebackers in setting the edge, freeing up his teammates to make plays. There’s little glory in that kind of blue-collar assignment, but Upshaw’s work is appreciated within the Ravens’ inner circle.

“Courtney is a very mature person on and off the field,” said Elvis Dumervil, a three-time Pro Bowl selection who shares time at strong-side linebacker with Upshaw and primarily operates as a pass rusher. “He does a lot of good things for us, a lot of things maybe not as fancy or as decorative. He’s a real valuable guy for us.”

In the Ravens’ 3-4 defensive scheme, one of Upshaw’s primary job responsibilities is to force plays inside, toward the inside linebackers. That hasn’t done much for his production, though. Since the Ravens drafted the former Alabama All-American in the second round two years ago, Upshaw has recorded 84 tackles and two fumble recoveries.

“Sometimes, when he sets the edge on a tight end, the ball may cut back immediately, and guys don’t see that,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “You see the cutback, you see the play, but you don’t really know why the guy cut back. Well, he cut back because Courtney has the tight end knocked about 2 yards back in the backfield.”

The Ravens drafted Upshaw after outside linebacker Jarret Johnson left in free agency to join the San Diego Chargers. Johnson was an immensely popular figure inside the locker room because of his hard-nosed approach to the game. When Upshaw was drafted, the comparisons to his predecessor were immediate.

“I like Courtney’s toughness,” Pro Bowl rush linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “He fits that Raven persona. I like his physicality. I just love the way the kid plays. He’s one of those guys who speaks softly but carries a big stick.”

The Ravens have used Upshaw at both outside linebacker spots, as a traditional defensive end and occasionally as an undersized, gap-shooting defensive tackle. Upshaw also helps the defense make pre-snap adjustments.

“I’m a big believer in him,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “I love the way he sets the edge. He’s physical. He’s one of our smartest players.

“He calls out a lot of defensive signals and gets us lined up, in much of the same way Jarret Johnson did when he was here. He’s a solid pass rusher, and he’s a premier run defender.”

As complimentary as his teammates and coaches have been, Upshaw is far from satisfied.

Upshaw has only three sacks in 32 games, and his career stats are a far cry from the 141 tackles, 36.5 tackles for losses, 17.5 sacks and six forced fumbles he amassed at Alabama, where he won two national championships.

“Most definitely, my job is to stop the run, because that’s why they brought me here,” Upshaw said. “I feel like I’m the best at setting that edge against the run. The pass rush is something extra the coaches ask me to do. We all know I have to improve at that aspect of the game.”

To improve his pass-rushing abilities, Upshaw traveled to Weehawken, N.J., this offseason to work with body technique coach Jay Caldwell.

Upshaw refined his skills through a strenuous regimen that combined wrestling, karate and boxing techniques. Caldwell, who trained Upshaw in preparation for the Senior Bowl all-star game and NFL draft two years ago, emphasizes hand placement, explosiveness and resistance training to build stamina and finish plays.

“Courtney is a great follower of instruction, he takes it very seriously,” Caldwell said in a telephone interview. “It’s about taking your play to another level. I was impressed with his level of focus. He didn’t go out at night. Courtney understands he can’t be 280 pounds and get in and out as fast as he thinks he can. I saw him looking a little leaner and he’s trying to stay on that.

“Courtney needs to understand that a sack is a reward for all of your hard work, and that sack comes from smart work. It’s about understanding counter moves. That takes intellect, and Courtney has that. It’s not about going out there to just be a brute and destroy guys and use your power. It’s about being precise. We went back to the fundamentals and gave him resistance to pick up his fast-twitch movement. He definitely needed that.”

Caldwell has trained several NFL players, including Oakland Raiders defensive end Justin Tuck, Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Jason Worilds, Washington Redskins outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Ziggy Hood, Green Bay Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji and Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Margus Hunt.

“Jay is a guy that’s a great pass-rush technician,” Upshaw said. “I just want to go out there and put all of that knowledge to good use.”

The biggest questions Upshaw has faced in the NFL, however, have been about his weight.

A year ago, after missing workouts while attending to family issues, Upshaw ballooned to roughly 295 pounds. He lost 20 pounds before the season, but not before Harbaugh publicly called him out, questioning his eating habits.

Caldwell said Upshaw was roughly 282 pounds this spring. Upshaw declined to say how much he currently weighs, but he appears slightly leaner.

“My weight is still a work in progress,” Upshaw said. “I’ve got to drop a few more pounds and keep my body fat down. I’ve just got to maintain and keep doing the cardio and never let up, because I’m a guy who can gain weight fast.

“I don’t need Harbs telling people, ‘He eats too much.’ I really didn’t need that motivation. I’m a self-motivator. After last year, I felt like the weight was an issue, and it prevented me from doing a lot of stuff I want to do.”

During practice, Upshaw appears to have the necessary energy. He has been more active in pass coverage than he was in spring workouts.

“He’s in great shape. I don’t really know what his weight is,” Pees said. “Whatever he is, I just want to see how he’s moving, and I think he’s moving great.”

Caldwell expressed confidence that Upshaw, who is entering the third year of a four-year, $5.3 million contract, can become an elite player if he conquers his weight issues.

“Courtney can rise to the cream of the crop if he can figure out how to defeat the food monster,” Caldwell said. “Just four or five months of eating right is going to have such a dramatic change in his anatomy. Courtney can be 265, 268 and play so much faster.

“When Coach Harbaugh talked about his weight, it definitely was embarrassing for Courtney. He actually called me. I knew he was hurt. It was almost like you put a cake in front of a kid who loves sweets and you tell him, ‘Don’t eat it.’ It’s like, ‘Oh my God, they’re punishing me for liking cake.’ No, they’re paying you to make it a business and transform yourself into the kind of player you want to become.”

awilson@baltsun.com

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