As they looked around the defensive line room back in late July, they knew there were eight legitimate NFL players in there. They just didn’t figure that all of them would still be Ravens when the season began.
NFL teams rarely keep eight defensive linemen. Some teams don’t even carry seven. With injuries littering their roster – the offensive line was hit particularly hard – the Ravens didn’t appear to have the luxury of holding onto eight players at a position where they’d only dress five or six on game days. Ravens coach John Harbaugh acknowledged as much on a couple of occasions during training camp.
Yet, three weeks into the season, all eight defensive linemen are still Ravens even as the team juggles its 53-man roster on a near-daily basis. The team’s deepest and most competitive position will be tested over the next three weeks, starting Sunday at Wembley Stadium against a Jacksonville Jaguars team that features a downhill running attack led by first-round rookie Leonard Fournette and veteran Chris Ivory.
After Sunday, matchups against the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell and the Oakland Raiders’ Marshawn Lynch loom over the following two weeks.
Complicating the present challenge is that defensive tackle Brandon Williams, the leader of the interior group, will miss at least Sunday’s game with a foot injury sustained in the Week Two victory over the Cleveland Browns. Third-year player Carl Davis is expected to start for the third time in his career and second-year defensive tackle Willie Henry could be active for just the second time in his young career.
“I don’t think it really impacts us a lot,” Ravens nose tackle Michael Pierce said on Thursday of Williams’ absence. “We plan on playing Carl if Brandon can’t go or Willie will play if Brandon can’t go. But our scheme is our scheme. There’s definitely going to be a lot more of a load on my back being that bell cow now, making sure that I’m in charge of the line and making sure that I’m the most physical guy upfront. So if he can’t go, I’ll definitely pick up that load.”
The defensive front has done its job so far in the team’s 2-0 start as inside pressure from Williams, Pierce and defensive end Brent Urban has factored prominently in a few of the Ravens’ franchise-record 10 forced turnovers. The group, however, has yet to really be tested against the run.
Both the Cincinnati Bengals and Browns were forced to abandon their ground game because they trailed the Ravens by two scores early in the second half. Opponents have only 43 rushing attempts against the Ravens for 170 yards, an average of 4.0 yards per carry. That’s a bit higher than the Ravens would like, but the sample size is nowhere near big enough for defensive coordinator Dean Pees to be concerned. Pees, in fact, is pleased with how his defensive interior is coming together.
“They’ve improved a lot. They still have a lot to improve on, but I really feel good about those guys,” Pees said. “They’re coming in the right direction, they’re working hard. I’ve seen a lot of improvement since two-a-day camp and all that kind of stuff. So I think the more they’re comfortable with the system, the more they’re around it, the more they play it, the more they practice it, just like anything, the better you’re going to get.”
The Jaguars will be a good measuring stick. According to Andy Benoit, an analyst for Sports Illustrated and Monday Morning Quarterback, no team has had more A-gap runs, which means carries between the center and guards, than the Jaguars.
Jacksonville ranks ninth in the league with an average of 127 rushing yards per game and eighth with 64 rushing attempts. Fournette, the rookie out of Louisiana State, enters the weekend with the sixth most rushing yards (140). The Ravens spent just as much time this week praising Ivory, the backup, as they did Fournette.
Doug Marrone’s team has simplified its offense in an effort to take some heat off mistake-prone quarterback Blake Bortles. That means a lot of short passes and a lot of runs, although Marrone understands that could be a difficult proposition this week.
“I think the Ravens up front, they’ve always been big, tough, strong,” Marrone said in a conference call with Baltimore-area reporters this week. “It’s always a challenge trying to run the ball against their defense.”
Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome has always emphasized being stout of front and building the team from the inside out. One of the foremost strengths of the organization has been its ability to draft, sign and develop quality defensive linemen.
The gold standard group was on the record-setting and Super Bowl-winning 2000 defense, which started Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams inside and Michael McCrary and Rob Burnett at the end spots. Lional Dalton and Larry Webster provided quality depth behind them.
This year’s defensive line corps is a diverse crew that is short on experience but long on size and promise. Williams, whom the Ravens made one of the highest paid interior defensive linemen in the sport this offseason, is the headliner. Pierce, an undrafted rookie find out of Samford last season, is quickly becoming one of the top young nose tackles in the league.
Urban appears to be coming into his own after two injury-plagued seasons and an inconsistent one. The rest of the group includes third-round picks from each of the past three drafts (Davis, Bronson Kaufusi and Chris Wormley), a 2016 fourth-rounder in Henry and undrafted rookie Patrick Ricard, who is also being used as a part-time fullback.
“Everybody is basically trying to get in where they can fit in,” said Davis. “Whether that’s one play or 20 plays, we’re going to make the most of our snaps. I think that’s better for us because, as a team, when guys get the opportunity, they are full steam ahead and ready to make some plays.”
Davis started three games in 2015, but as the season wore on, he found himself struggling to crack a deep defensive line rotation. After missing all of last season, he is now counseling Henry and Wormley about staying ready and not getting down on themselves because they’re not playing.
Henry was active for just one game as a rookie and he didn’t play in that contest. He, Kaufusi, who is still awaiting his regular-season NFL debut after missing all of last season with a broken ankle, and Wormley have been healthy scratches for the first two games.
“Everybody has the mindset that we’re going to go out and work and get better,” Kaufusi said. “No matter where you line up or who you line up with, everybody is going to make every single rep count. That way, when our number is called, we can go out and perform for the guy next to us.”
For several of the Ravens’ defensive linemen, their biggest competition is not on Sundays. It comes all week in practice as they try to convince the coaching staff that they should be active on the day of the game.
It’s a hard sell given that all eight defensive linemen can make that claim.
“The competition at D-line is heated. It is tremendous,” Harbaugh said. “Those guys want to play, and they are fighting like crazy in practice. It makes our practices better. We have young players that need to get better, and when they get their chance, they need to play well. Carl stepped up and played well last game. We will see what happens.”