When thinking about Ravens linebacker Patrick Queen, two moments from Sunday night’s win over the Kansas City Chiefs come to mind.
Late in the second quarter, Chiefs running back Jerick McKinnon caught a short pass and ran 11 yards to the Ravens’ 5-yard line, where he met Queen. McKinnon drove the second-year linebacker back 3 yards just short of the goal line. On the next play, running back Darrel Williams took a handoff to the right, and Queen came through the offensive line untouched. Williams ran through Queen’s arm tackle and scored with 51 seconds remaining to put Kansas City up 21-14.
Those two plays expose the missing ingredient in Queen’s game. He isn’t physical upon first contact and lacks that type of intimidating presence.
How can McKinnon, a 5-foot-9, 205-pound running back, move the 6-foot, 235-pound Queen?
Granted, it’s only Queen’s second season. He hasn’t played more than 20 games in his NFL career, but middle linebackers are expected to be tough, physical and explosive. Queen has the speed to get where he needs to be but has to play with more aggression.
“I feel like in the [Las Vegas] game, I played good; I felt pretty good about it,” Queen said. “I feel like [against] Kansas City, I played well but could have played better. I feel like it wasn’t the standard that we require, so I feel like I can improve this game. Just no missed tackles. I feel like I missed too many tackles. I missed two tackles that I shouldn’t have missed. Just wrapping up — that’s all I’ve got to do.”
The game has changed enough through the years that a full-time “thumper,” a linebacker who can shock and shed offensive linemen, isn’t always needed in the middle of the defense. The NFL has gone pass-happy, and more teams prefer middle linebackers who can run sideline-to-sideline and cover tight ends or running backs in the flats and downfield.
But the good middle linebackers can do that and still be physical. Intimidation is a big part of football. It creates fear, which Queen doesn’t.
He can run. Oh, can he run. He led the team in tackles as a rookie last season with 106 and is at the top again this year with 17 in two games, four ahead of cornerback Marlon Humphrey. Thirteen of Queen’s tackles have been unassisted this season, but only one has been for a loss. He has one sack but only one other hit on the quarterback.
The statistics show that Queen is usually around the ball, but a lot of those tackles are downfield and not near the line of scrimmage. He’ll get better just based off sheer work ethic. The 2020 first-round draft pick out of LSU spent a lot of time during the offseason breaking down film, spotting weaknesses and working to improve. There are few on the roster who will put in as much time as Queen.
Last year he was a liability in coverage but showed significant improvement during the preseason. Against Kansas City, he struggled. The Ravens have faced two high-powered offenses in the Las Vegas Raiders and the Chiefs. The Raiders have one of the top tight ends in the AFC in Darren Waller, and the Chiefs have perhaps the best in the NFL in Travis Kelce.
They can make any linebacker or safety look bad. Detroit has a good one, too, in T.J. Hockenson, and quarterback Jared Goff throws a lot of passes out of the backfield to running back D’Andre Swift.
“I feel like I’m pretty good. I could be way better, though,” Queen said of his pass defense. “I’m always looking to improve; I’m always looking to grind it out and try to be the best that I can be. So, I feel like right now, it’s good. I’m probably at 85% confidence that it looks good to other people and looks good to my coaches and stuff, but I feel like there’s still a lot more that I can do and make plays on.”
In theory, it might be better putting weak-side linebacker Malik Harrison in the middle and forcing Queen to the outside. Because of a lack of speed, Harrison struggles in coverage, but the second-year pro is a good tackler. Queen has the speed but needs to play with more power.
That scenario will probably never happen. In a sense, all young players, whether they are first-round picks or undrafted free agents, deserve time to mature. The Ravens have always been patient, giving most rookies four years to settle in — and in some cases, five.
With Queen, he’s got all the physical tools, the speed and a knack for finding the ball. Now, he just has to deliver at the point of attack and develop more of a physical presence.
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“I think he’s done some things exceptionally well,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “He plays super hard, making plays. [There are] things that he needs to work on, as he knows. Young linebacker things that he continues to work on.”