Ravens coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale is slowly trying to put together his defense, and there’s a major piece still not in place.
The Ravens have Terrell Suggs at rush linebacker, C.J. Mosley in the middle and Matthew Judon on the strong side. But who is going to start at the weak-side position?
Apparently, it’s a two-player race, with incumbent Patrick Onwuasor going against rookie Kenny Young. Onwuasor appears to have a slight edge, but with five preseason games, there’s still a lot of time left.
“It’s still ongoing,” Martindale said Monday. “They’ll both make strides, then they’ll both fall back. One guy will play better one day, and Kenny Young will fall back, and it’s vice versa with ‘Peanut’ [Onwuasor]. It’s going to be a great competition that’s good for our defense.”
The Ravens seem to be set nearly everywhere else. There are still battles for backup roles, but they haven’t had a top performer on the weak side in years.
Onwuasor, in his third season out of Portland State, started 13 games for the Ravens last season and was second on the team in tackles with 67, but he made a lot of mistakes, most of them mental errors.
The Ravens were satisfied with his development, but not to the point where they didn’t want an upgrade. So in the NFL draft’s fourth round, they selected Young, who was relentless in pursuit and excelled in pass coverage at UCLA.
Now it’s game on.
“That’s what he’s here for,” Onwuasor said of Young. “He’s here to keep me going. Kenny’s a great player. He’s fast and he’s physical. So he’s here to push me to be better, and that’s what’s great about competition. You want to go out here and compete.”
The Ravens certainly didn’t hide their intentions. There are a lot of rookies who are drafted, particularly after the third round, because they’re projects who can take years to develop into starters.
The Ravens were direct with Young.
“They told me, and I knew coming in, I was going to complete to start,” the 6-foot-1, 234 pound Young said. “But I just want to help the team wherever I can. My focus is on getting better and taking it one day at a time.”
Experience is a major asset to Onwuasor. He has been in the Ravens’ system the past two years and has good pursuit and lateral movement. He is surprisingly strong for a small linebacker at 6 feet, 227 pounds.
But the knock on Onwuasor is that he is slow in recognition and reaction. In the NFL, a second’s delay can mean the difference between a touchdown allowed and a game lost.
Teammates have noticed an improved Onwuasor so far in training camp. Spending last season next to Mosley and peppering him with constant questions helped.
“He’s a lot more settled,” Ravens outside linebacker Albert McClellan said of Onwuasor. “I didn’t really get the chance to play with him and watch him [last season], but he’s settled down. He’s not wasting energy out there. Before the snap, he’s not wondering, ‘Where am I going?’ He’s more honed in with his reads and his drops.
“He’s settling down and really relaxing into that position. He’s a leader. He’s showing guys the way — on special teams as well. He’s a great leader when it comes to his actions.”
Onwuasor had taken most of the repetitions with the first team until last week, when he started getting beaten by running backs and tight ends in pass coverage. Shortly afterward, Young started filling in more with the first unit.
Pass coverage has been a major problem recently for Ravens linebackers. Even Mosley, a Pro Bowl performer who’s made significant progress the past two seasons, has struggled there.
Young, though, could help the Ravens. At UCLA, he had 200 tackles during his final two seasons and 304 over his career.
“They knew I could cover, which is why Baltimore drafted me,” Young said. “But I have to be a run stopper as well, a complete player. It’s the whole 9 yards. There is nothing out here that I can’t get better at.”
“He’s open minded. He’s willing to absorb every coaching point,” McClellan said of Young. “He’s got a lot of questions, a lot of great questions that he’s asking, and he’s doing his best to help us out on the field. He’s eliminating his mistakes every day. He’s a good kid that is understanding the game very fast.”
That’s why the competition at this position is exciting. Both Young and Onwuasor are young. Both are athletic and fast. But both but still lack consistency. The one who reaches that level the fastest will start.
The other will watch and play special teams.
“I’m probably hungrier,” Onwuasor said of his changed mindset. “I’m trying to keep that starting spot. I’m just competing. You’ve got to earn everything that you bring to the table. So that’s one of my goals, just to compete and have fun.
“The coaches are going to pick whoever they’re more comfortable with out there playing at the end of the day.”