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Mike Preston: In make-or-break year for Ravens’ pass rush, it all comes down to a rookie and a veteran | COMMENTARY

After nearly six weeks of training camp and three preseason games, there are as many questions about the Ravens’ pass rush as there are about the passing game.

You can’t believe all the fluff and puff coming from the coaches about their pressure packages and personnel. With a little more than a week until the season opener against the Las Vegas Raiders, it’s build-up time. They’ll pump up some veteran as if he is the next Joe Greene or some rookie as if this kid could be as sensational as Washington defensive end Chase Young.

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In all honesty, the Ravens are working hard, keeping their fingers crossed and hoping for the best because their pass rush has come down to whether veteran outside linebacker Justin Houston can still play at a high level and rookie outside linebacker Odafe Oweh can develop quicker than expected.

Of course, they have coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, who can create some effective blitz and pressure packages. But if you look back at some of the great defenses in NFL history, they could all get pressure with their front four, from the Los Angeles Rams’ Fearsome Foursome in the 1960′s to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their rout of the Kansas City Chiefs in last season’s Super Bowl.

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“It’s about getting to the football, in any situation [and] playing with that max effort,” Ravens outside linebackers coach Drew Wilkins said. “Those sacks are going to come, and they are going to come in bunches for guys. But it’s about … if we execute the defense, we believe strongly that what we’re doing on defense is going to get the job done. So, you’ve got to be selfless to play in this defense, [and] you’ve got to play as hard as anyone in the league is going to play, but those results speak for themselves.”

Ravens outside linebacker Justin Houston, right, wipes sweat from his face as he takes a break with teammate Pernell McPhee during practice Aug. 12. Both veterans will be counted on to help lead the Ravens' pass rush this season.
Ravens outside linebacker Justin Houston, right, wipes sweat from his face as he takes a break with teammate Pernell McPhee during practice Aug. 12. Both veterans will be counted on to help lead the Ravens' pass rush this season. (Kenneth K. Lam)

The Ravens had 39 sacks last season, which is good enough to beat most teams in the NFL. But they’ve struggled to get to the quarterback in the playoffs because good teams can figure out some of those pressure schemes and the Ravens aren’t good enough to win one-on-one matchups.

That’s one of main reasons they signed Houston, the former Chiefs and Indianapolis Colts star, to a one-year contract and drafted Oweh with the No. 31 overall pick in the first round in April. In Houston, the Ravens are hoping the 11-year veteran still has something left after collecting 97 1/2 career sacks, with 37 1/2 of those coming in the past four years.

The addition of Houston, 32, is interesting because the Ravens didn’t sign him until July 31. The Ravens also had a major disappointment with defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, who spent less than a full season in Baltimore after being acquired from the Minnesota Vikings. It’s been hard to evaluate Houston because he didn’t play much in the preseason and team officials let him take it easy during training camp.

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Houston, though, has spent a lot of time after practices working with younger players, and that’s an encouraging sign.

“So, from Day One, he knew what he was doing at that position, as well, and it’s just great to see. He leads by example, first,” Wilkins said of Houston. “So, you see that first — that he’s a dominant player; he’s a dominant pass rusher — but then the other great part about it is he wants those other guys to really come along, so he’s helped them tremendously. He has so much knowledge, but he also is generous with that knowledge and his time, and he wants those guys to come along. As a coach, you appreciate that, too.”

Oweh needs the additional attention. Wilkins says he isn’t a project, but the title fits. When the Ravens drafted Peter Boulware in 1997 and Terrell Suggs in 2003, both outside linebackers already prolific rushers. Boulware had speed and surprising strength in his hands, while Suggs had both and the ability to change directions quickly.

Oweh is athletic and a physical specimen, but raw.

“We couldn’t be more pleased with where he’s at right now,” Wilkins said of Oweh. “And the thing that he has that not a lot of rookies do is he’s got that sense of urgency. He understands [that] we have big expectations for him, from Week One. This isn’t a project. This is a guy who’s going to come in and play for us right away. So, whether it’s the run game, whether it’s executing the defense, whether it’s his one-on-one pass rush, whether it’s two-on-two games, whether it’s anything that he needs to do to execute highly in our defense, he needs to be there now, and we feel great about where he’s at. [With] that sense of urgency, every rep matters every day.”

"He understands [that] we have big expectations for him, from Week One. This isn’t a project. This is a guy who’s going to come in and play for us right away," Ravens outside linebackers coach Drew Wilkins said of rookie Odafe Oweh.
"He understands [that] we have big expectations for him, from Week One. This isn’t a project. This is a guy who’s going to come in and play for us right away," Ravens outside linebackers coach Drew Wilkins said of rookie Odafe Oweh. (Daniel Kucin Jr./AP)

The positive vibes are understandable. But unlike Suggs and Boulware, who played right away, Oweh will be used more as a situational player, especially early. The Ravens have several veterans who will be used like that, but they have to step up and play better.

Fifth-year player Tyus Bowser, a strong-side linebacker ahead of Oweh and rookie Daelin Hayes, had his best training camp and can make plays, but the Ravens need him to deliver more. Can he? Will he? He should be entering the peak of his career, but is that good enough? Hayes has shown discipline and desire, but is more of an edge-setter than a pass rusher.

Veteran Pernell McPhee has been multidimensional throughout most of his 11-year career, but also might be more of an edge setter than a pass rusher at age 32. He is listed ahead of Houston on the depth chart, but that will change depending on the opposition. Regardless, the Ravens might have to put McPhee on a snap count to keep him healthy throughout the season.

Third-year player Jaylon Ferguson is behind both McPhee and Houston. He played well in preseason games and can stop the run. At Louisiana Tech, he was known as an outstanding pass rusher, but has been one-dimensional in his first two seasons in Baltimore, relying strictly on power.

But Wilkins saw a different Ferguson when the Ravens practiced and scrimmaged against the Carolina Panthers.

[When] you get to Year Three, a guy like Jaylon, that’s sink or swim, and when we went down to Carolina, he looked like Michael Phelps,” said Wilkins. “He was swimming all over the place, so that was exciting to see. He’s taken that next step.”

That’s probably the best way to describe the Ravens’ pass rush this season. It’s time for these guys to sink or swim because they’ve sunk the past three years. The goal of any defense is to keep the opposition out of the endzone, but the bottom line is to win.

In order to do that, the Ravens need to be able to pressure the quarterback. They’ve added some talent, but it’s good to keep your fingers crossed if you’re a Ravens fan.

Season opener

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RAVENS@RAIDERS

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Sept. 13, 8:15 p.m.

TV: ESPN, Chs. 2, 7

Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Ravens by 4 1/2

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