Matthew Judon spent a lot of time in the Ravens’ locker room at M&T Bank Stadium after last season’s final game, most of it silent as he sat in his dressing stall contemplating the self-destruction that led to a playoff-dashing 31-27 defeat to the Cincinnati Bengals.
It was clear to the then-second year outside linebacker what he and the Ravens had to do coming into the 2018 season.
“Every year you want to come back with a new move or a new something,” Judon said after practice Friday at the Under Armour Performance Center. “You’re either getting better or getting worse. You’re never staying the same. I’ll try to do better.”
Three years after leading the NCAA with 21 sacks at Division II Grand Valley State, Judon said during organized team activities in late May that his personal goal this season is to lead the NFL in sacks.
While that seems unlikely with 35-year-old Terrell Suggs still considered the team’s premier pass rusher, the 6-foot-3, 275-pound Judon showed last season that he can become even more of a factor on the defense.
After getting four sacks in a limited role as a rookie, the 2016 fifth-round draft pick doubled that total to eight last season. He also more than doubled the number of tackles he made, from 27 to 60.
According to Pro Football Focus, Judon was one of the league’s most efficient pass rushers, ranking fourth overall by sacking quarterbacks on 27.3 percent of the plays where he got close enough.
It didn’t satisfy Judon.
Asked Friday what he worked on during the offseason, Judon said: “Everything. I wasn’t a Pro Bowl [player], I wasn’t an All-Pro, so the whole game. My conditioning, my hands, my feet. Everything I do.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh believes Judon has carried out his pledge.
“One thing that jumps out at me right away, if you watch at practice, watch how hard he’s practicing, watch him run to the football,” Harbaugh said Friday. “To me, running to the football is what defense is. If you run to the football, you can cover up a lot of issues. He’s not only doing it, but he’s setting the tone for the rest of the guys. To me, that’s what leaders do.”
Judon said there is a reason why he goes so hard in practice.
“I just try to make the games easy,” he said. “Wear myself out in practice, so hopefully we don’t get as many plays in a game so I’m fresher longer.
“I can’t get tired. I can’t tired on third down, in the third quarter or the fourth quarter when we know it’s passing situations. I can’t get tired. I’ve got to get off the ball. Got go after it.”
Ravens undrafted rookie tight end Nick Keizer has seen this before. Keizer spent his first two seasons at Grand Valley State lined up against Judon. It was not easy then as college teammates, or now as training camp teammates.
“When we were out there at Grand Valley, he was always dominant,” Keizer said Friday. “He was always the biggest guy on the field and the hardest working. I see that carry over here. When he lines up across me, I see what I saw then — a guy who works hard and is dominant and takes pride in his craft every play."
Keizer is grateful for what Judon did his first two years with the Ravens.
“I’m not sure that’s a coincidence or what, but it couldn’t have hurt for him to show up here from a Division II school — my school specifically — and perform as well as he has,” Keizer said. “I’m sure that gave them a little more confidence in some D-II guys like me. I’m sure that played a small role.”
Judon, who was joined last season by the school’s most celebrated alumnus, veteran cornerback Brandon Carr, has carried that Division II chip with him ever since he was snubbed by Big Ten and Mid-American Conference programs coming out of high school in West Bloomfield, Mich.
“Always, you have to,” Judon said after being drafted. “I’m always trying to learn. When you stop trying to learn, you stop progressing. I don’t care who didn’t draft me or who didn’t give me a scholarship. I care about the people I’m playing next to.”
Judon knows the defense, which often had trouble getting off the field on third downs last season, will be heavily scrutinized, starting Thursday when the Ravens play in their first preseason game against the Chicago Bears in the annual Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio.
“It’s going to be as good as we want it to be and as hard as we work,” Judon said Friday. “We’ve just got to go out there and play defense. The object of the game is to stop the opposing offense from getting in the end zone and do it as many times as possible.
“Just to help your team win the game. We’re going to play defense. It doesn’t matter who’s the defensive coordinator, it doesn’t matter who’s on the field, if it’s young guys or old guys, if it’s preseason or it’s postseason. We’re going to play our defense.”
Judon also knows more is expected from him this season.
“I know they've got a lot more confidence in me,” Judon said. “Every year I’m just trying to get better and better.”