The Baltimore Sun's sports team gives their predictions on the Ravens record this season. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
After a Ravens practice last month, Zachary Orr was talking about C.J. Mosley, about how easily football seems to come to his friend and fellow inside linebacker. When a reporter compared Mosley to a mathematics wonk who needs only one pass at a problem to solve it, Orr grinned knowingly. The idea seemed to animate him.
Arms shooting up from his side, Orr began to pantomime for an audience of one. It was somewhere between Russell Crowe at a chalkboard in "A Beautiful Mind" and Tom Cruise at his "Minority Report" touch screen. Hands moved back and forth like windshield wipers.
"'OK, C.J., you got this, this, this' — he calculates it in his head, goes out there — boom, boom, boom," Orr said, briefly entering the head space of the Ravens' primary defensive signal caller.
"While other guys like me and a couple other people take a couple times to actually go out there and do it and then [realize]: 'OK, now that's what you meant by it.'"
It takes no genius, of course, to realize that football is a game of constant movement, on and off the field. In the offseason, the Ravens defense parted ways with inside linebacker Daryl Smith, brought in safety Eric Weddle, and awaited the healthy return of aging outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil.
The Ravens coaches began the arduous process of self study immediately after the conclusion of a disappointing 2015 season. What coach John Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Dean Pees saw on tape didn't look a whole lot like the defense that longtime admirers have come to expect from the Ravens.
Each had a ripple effect on Mosley's role entering this, his third season in Baltimore. With Smith out, Mosley moved from weak-side linebacker to middle linebacker. With Weddle in, the Ravens had another veteran play-caller at their disposal. And with Suggs' and Dumervil's long-term viability in doubt, Mosley became the linebacker best positioned to anchor the defense in 2016 and for seasons ahead.
What comes next? Even he cannot rightly say.
"Obviously, he's one of our leaders now, even in his third year," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "The position that he plays kind of puts him in a leadership role. Mike linebackers are usually the quarterback of the defense. He's got to be the guy that's calling the stuff through the helmet and verbalizing all that out, so he's very, very important to us. He has to have a great year."
Whether he did last year is a matter of interpretation. After a Pro Bowl rookie season, Mosley finished 2015 with 16 fewer tackles (113) and one fewer pass defended (seven) for a team that won five fewer games than the year before.
The Ravens defense ranked eighth overall in the NFL last season, and still it could have been better. Mosley took some blame. He was the Ravens' highest-graded linebacker, according to analytics website Pro Football Focus, at No. 34 in the NFL. (Smith, now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was No. 58.) But among the league's top 40 linebackers, Mosley's coverage rating was third worst.
"Sometimes it's a good throw," Mosley said. "Sometimes you play good defense, the ref calls a penalty. Half the people that say you don't have good man coverage, they can't come out here and cover anybody themselves. The main thing is just playing with good technique. Nine times out of 10, if you're getting beat in man coverage, it's because you have bad eyes or bad technique."
Mosley is in better health now. The brace he wore on his surgically repaired left wrist last season is smaller. Did it bother him last year? "No, it didn't bother me," he said, and the evidence is the 1,079 defensive snaps he played, most on the team.
If every play of Mosley's can be a lesson for rookies such as linebacker Kamalei Correa, a longtime admirer of the 2014 first-round draft pick's craft, then every word he utters is worthy of similar consideration. They are often soft but hard to ignore. "When he talks and when he says something," Weddle said, "then it's meaningful and guys will listen."
Echoed Orr: "He's not a rah-rah guy, but he leads by example and he speaks up when he has to."
Sloppy opening-drive defense in the Ravens' first two preseason games met that criterion. When the team returned to practice, Mosley told the unit, in no uncertain terms: Let's get off the field. Let's not have what happened become a bad habit.
Mosley was a two-time captain at Alabama. He earned a green dot, signifying a helmet with a communication device for receiving plays from the sideline, by the start of his rookie season with the Ravens. He was the full-time liaison by the end of the year. Where he goes, teammates follow.
"Some people just lead by example," he said. "On the tough days, when it's hot, 110 degrees, everybody's not going to be talking. But if you go out there and do your work, running to the ball, making plays, people will be like: 'OK, if he's doing that, I can do it.'"
What might have been his proudest moment of the preseason happened far from the Under Armour Performance Center — in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
In mid-August, Mosley's younger brother, Jamey, who walked on to the Alabama football team as a freshman, was awarded a scholarship before his third year with the Crimson Tide.