Linebacker Courtney Upshaw not content with 'being close' as a pass rusher

The closest that Ravens outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw came to recording a sack last season was having one erased by a roughing-the-passer penalty.

It was a frustrating experience for Upshaw, who finished with zero sacks for the first time in his NFL career.


Heading into the final year of a $5.306 million rookie contract, Upshaw is hoping to increase his productivity. The 25-year-old, who has three career sacks, said Monday he's not satisfied by pressures and quarterback hits.

"Everybody knows that being close is not actually getting the job done," Upshaw said at the start of the Ravens' third and final organized team activity. "In this league, sacks count. A lot of people look at the pressures. With me, it's either I get there or I don't. I don't count the pressure as actually getting the job done. They gave me plenty of opportunities to get after the quarterback. It's on me to take advantage of those opportunities."


Upshaw had hoped his big hit last September on Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which knocked the wind out of the veteran passer and left him sore for several weeks, would propel him toward sacks.

It didn't work out that way. Upshaw was fined $16,537 by the league office and while he made 42 tackles in 14 starts, fellow outside linebackers Elvis Dumervil, Terrell Suggs and Pernell McPhee combined for 361/2 sacks last year.

Upshaw has devoted his offseason to improving his flexibility so he will be able to cover ground faster and contort his body to create leverage while rushing the passer. Upshaw worked out with fellow former Alabama football players Mike McCoy and Justin Woodall at the Warehouse Performance Institute in Birmingham, Ala., to try to become more mobile and limber.

Although Upshaw remains a bulky, powerful presence at 6-feet-2, 272 pounds, he's noticeably quicker on the practice field this spring.

"I'm feeling great," said Upshaw, a former second-round NFL draft pick. "Working out with a couple of my old teammates, we worked on loosening up my hips and flexibility and footwork because I'm in coverage a lot. I see it translating to me running better and being able to move out there.

"I've come to understand that my body is just different, if you're talking about my weight. I feel like if I can just get loose in the hips and get rid of that stiffness, then I can be able to do a lot more. Basically, I was limiting myself by not doing the stretches and working on my hips in the past offseasons."

With the departure of Pernell McPhee to the Chicago Bears in March via a five-year, $39 million contract, the Ravens have a pass-rushing void they're hoping Upshaw can help fill. The Ravens drafted Kentucky outside linebacker-defensive end Za'Darius Smith in the fourth round, but it will likely require Smith and Upshaw combining to replace McPhee's 71/2 sacks last season.

"He's having a good camp here every day," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said of Upshaw. "He has always been a smart football player. That certainly hasn't changed at all, and I think he has worked a lot here in the offseason. I can see him being a part of our pass rush, no doubt."


If Upshaw affects the Ravens' defense by producing more as a pass rusher, he could also emerge as a more valuable free agent next year.

"I think Courtney is realizing that he's in his contract year," general manager Ozzie Newsome said during a conference call last month with season-ticket holders. "Getting to the quarterback only adds to his value as he moves forward."

Upshaw took notice of how McPhee cashed in with the Bears, though his preference is to remain with the Ravens.

"Of course, who wouldn't want to continue with the team that gave them a chance by drafting them?" Upshaw said. "At the end of the day, it's all about going out and showing them they brought me in here for a reason. I want to show them what I can do. ... I want to show anybody who had a part in me being here, from the owner down, it's another opportunity to show what I can do and give back to them for giving me the opportunity."

In the Ravens' 3-4 scheme, one of Upshaw's primary job responsibilities has been to force plays toward the inside linebackers as edge setter. He has 132 career tackles and a forced fumble. At Alabama, Upshaw was a consensus All-American who finished his career with 171/2 sacks, 361/2 tackles for a loss and six forced fumbles. He was part of two national championship teams.

While Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs remain the featured pass rushers on a team that was second in the league with 49 sacks last season, Upshaw will get opportunities to go after the quarterback more this year.


"My mindset is a little different, I see it changing every year," Upshaw said. "It starts in the offseason. I had to learn that being a young player. Going into my fourth year, you tend to learn things from guys like Suggs and Elvis. You see those guys out here getting pressure and translating into the season. I wanted to come out and do the same things."

Two years ago, Upshaw missed several offseason workouts while attending to family issues in Alabama and ballooned to roughly 295 pounds. He lost the weight before the season, but Ravens coach John Harbaugh questioned his eating habits. Upshaw was 282 pounds last spring and looks a bit leaner this year.

"I don't want to talk about my weight," Upshaw said. "I'll let Harbs release that and maybe he'll go out and say, 'Oh man, Courtney is eating good.' I've been working, man.

"I got to continue to work. You hear the praise and you read all the negatives, and you just got to take both and pile it all together and go out there and produce and show everybody that you can play this game at the highest level. That's what I want to do."