"Obviously, as a competitor, you want to play every play," Elvis Dumervil said. "But I do know you have to listen to your body. It works out." (Kevin Richardson/BSMG)
Elvis Dumervil was in a new city, getting to know new teammates and coaches and learning a new defense. Yet, his biggest challenge of all was coming to grips with a new role.
For the better part of six seasons with the Denver Broncos, Dumervil was an every-down player. He played the run and rushed the quarterback, a job he did well enough to be selected to three AFC Pro Bowl teams. But in his first season with the Ravens, the strong-side linebacker found himself on the sideline nearly 50 percent of the time while the defense was on the field.
"Obviously, as a competitor you want to play every play," Dumervil said Wednesday. "But I do know that you have to listen to your body and it works out. At first, it was a bit of an adjustment last year, but you have to take care of [being selfish] and put it aside for the team. I think it really helps the Ravens that we can rotate four guys."
Dumervil has not only accepted a reduced role but he's learned to thrive in it, re-establishing himself as one of the top pass rushers in the NFL. Heading into the Ravens' Monday Night matchup with the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Dumervil has seven sacks over his past five games.
His 10½ sacks for the season tie him with the Philadelphia Eagles' Connor Barwin for second place in the NFL, behind only the Kansas City Chiefs' Justin Houston, who has 12. However, Dumervil has his eyes on an even bigger number: 15. That's how many sacks former Raven Peter Boulware had in 2001, setting a franchise single-season record that still stands.
"It's definitely in sight," Dumervil said when asked if that is a goal. "I'll be looking toward it."
The 30-year-old has 83½ sacks for his career and his best season was in 2009 when he had 17. It's not that Dumervil, who signed a five-year, $26 million deal with the Ravens in March 2013 after the infamous fax machine fiasco led to his release from Denver, had a poor year in 2013. He had 9½ sacks, just behind Terrell Suggs' team-high of 10, and forced two fumbles. But he never felt 100 percent comfortable on the field.
He had played mostly as a defensive end in a 4-3 defense during his time with the Broncos, and he was on the field for pretty much every snap. In 2012, his final season with Denver, he played 921 total snaps, meaning he was on the field 86.2 percent of the time.
But last season with the Ravens, he was down to 557 snaps, amounting to 51.7 percent of all defensive plays. He's played 386 snaps this year, or just under 56 percent of the defensive snaps. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees has rotated Dumervil, Suggs, Pernell McPhee and Courtney Upshaw on the outside, and those four have accounted for 19½ half of the Ravens' 25 sacks.
"It's not that I don't feel I can play every down. It's just when you have a lot of talent that we have, you can just stay fresh throughout the year," Dumervil said. "It just makes sense. It's a fortunate situation we have in Baltimore. Not every team has the luxury to do that. We have this type of talent and it helps to keep guys fresh."
To teammates, Dumervil's improved comfort level is noticeable. It was obvious to offensive guard Kelechi Osemele, who has to block him on occasion in practice, as early as training camp.
"He's a lot more comfortable, it seems, with the defense," Osemele said. "And just watching him out there when he's rushing, it doesn't look like he has to think of anything. He's starting to really come off the ball and anticipate the snap count and everything like that. His intensity and his speed and his quickness of realizing things and adjusting during practice seem to be a step up from the previous year."
Dumervil acknowledged that learning the Ravens' 3-4 hybrid defense posed a challenge.
"Obviously, the snaps reduced and learning the system — it's very complex here — and obviously playing a new position. There were a lot of new things going on and getting acclimated just with the off the field [stuff]," he said. "You have to get a whole new regime and get comfortable in a whole new system. It was a whole different challenge in that area."
But it wasn't just a one-sided challenge. As much as Dumervil had to learn about the Ravens, they had to learn about him, too.
"It was a big transition for him," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We're not a straight 4-3 defense. He was in that defense for one year when [Ravens inside linebackers coach Don Martindale] was the defensive coordinator in Denver. I think he's become accustomed to it and we've probably become really understanding of his unique abilities and have been able to set up the system around him a little bit, too."
As a strong-side linebacker, Dumervil occasionally has some coverage responsibilities, but on most plays, he can be found rushing toward the quarterback on the edge rather than dropping back in coverage.
"I think we're calling more things that kind of get him going the way he likes to go rather than him dropping backward," Suggs said. "He's gotten accustomed to the system and he's playing great football right now."
Dumervil's play has justified his offseason decision to put about 10 pounds on his 5-foot-11, 255-pound frame. He felt after his first season with the Ravens that the extra bulk would help in the AFC North, which he deemed a more physical division.
The increased weight has added more power to his game. In the Ravens' Week 2 victory over the Steelers, Dumervil bull-rushed Marcus Gilbert and knocked the 6-foot-6 and 330-pound tackle on his back en route to sacking Ben Roethlisberger.
It also hasn't robbed him of his explosiveness. He beat former teammate Michael Oher around the edge on a speed move for one of his 2½ sacks against the Tennessee Titans two weeks ago.
His challenge Monday will be to get to Drew Brees, who Dumervil called a "top quarterback — maybe all time." With his quick release and ability to move around the pocket, Brees has been sacked just 13 times this season. Only the Cincinnati Bengals' Andy Dalton (12) and the Broncos' Peyton Manning (11) have been sacked fewer times among starters.
It's exactly the challenge that Dumervil relishes.
"We're built for this type of situation," he said. "We have a lot of guys on this team who are tough mentally, so we're excited for that challenge."