Ravens outside linebacker Albert McClellan looped around the Atlanta Falcons' offensive line Thursday night, powerfully redirecting his charge to crash into quarterback John Parker Wilson.
It was one of only two sacks for the entire defense during the Ravens' 31-17 preseason victory at the Georgia Dome, and McClellan was the lone member of the front seven to record one.
With Terrell Suggs out for at least the majority of the season because of a partially torn right Achilles tendon, the emergence of McClellan on defense is well-timed.
With rookie outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw slowly working his way back from a sprained right shoulder and still trying to get down to a target weight of 270 pounds, McClellan has been operating with the first-team defense at Suggs' vacated rush outside linebacker spot.
“He's competing for a starting job and he's done nothing to make you think that he couldn't be a starter [with] the way he played and the way he practiced,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “He's played really, really well. That makes it interesting.
“This program is built on competition. The best guys play, and the guys who are the best are the guys that play the best, presently. You go by what you see, not by what you remember or what you're told.”
That's what McClellan is banking on as he tries to expand his contribution after leading the Ravens' special teams with a dozen tackles last season. He contributed five tackles, two quarterback hits and one tackle for loss against the Falcons.
“I've been studying the playbook a lot more and I have a different role now,” McClellan said. “I'm playing with a lot more ease and not worrying about making mistakes, so it's helping me out a lot.
“Special teams is still the main key, the main focus. I'm trying to take on more of a bigger role and accepting more responsibility. It's time for me to step up.”
Signed two years ago by the Ravens as an undrafted free agent, McClellan was an All-Conference USA selection and Marshall's Most Valuable Player on defense. He finished his career with the Thundering Herd with 230 tackles, 39.5 tackles for loss, 19.5 sacks and seven forced fumbles.
McClellan offered a glimpse of his potential during his only NFL start last season.
With Pro Bowl inside linebacker Ray Lewis sidelined with a toe injury, McClellan started in a November victory over the San Francisco 49ers and registered a career-high four tackles.
It was a sign of progress for McClellan, who spent his rookie season toiling on the Ravens' practice squad.
“I had a decent year on special teams,” said McClellan, who, like Lewis, attended Kathleen High in Lakeland, Fla. “But we can all get a lot better.”
The Ravens allowed two punt returns for touchdowns and one kickoff return for a touchdown last season. The punt team gave up a 45-yard punt return to Domonique Franks on Thursday that would have likely gone for a touchdown if not for punter Sam Koch's sideline tackle.
“We had some mental errors last year,” McClellan said. “We've got to stay focused. Everybody's got to hone in on their main role and what we've got to do. With [safety]Sean [Considine] and [Pro Bowl special teams ace]Corey [Graham] coming in, we should be good.”
McClellan has played both inside linebacker and outside linebacker in the past, but has been concentrating on outside responsibilities throughout training camp.
“I'm kind of in between,” McClellan said. “It depends on whom I'm in there in with and what our focus is for the day. I'll play wherever they want me to — it doesn't matter to me.”
Added defensive coordinator Dean Pees: “He's still a very versatile player.”
And a dedicated one.
The 6-foot-2 McClellan haunted the Ravens' weight room this offseason, getting noticeably leaner while adding bulk to his upper body. He said he's nearly 250 pounds after playing last season at roughly 240.
“I put on a little muscle,” McClellan said. “I feel really good this way.”
It remains unclear whether McClellan will enter the season as a starter opposite strong-side outside linebacker Paul Kruger, but he seems assured of a more important role no matter where he winds up on the depth chart.
Everything McClellan has earned in the NFL so far is through his blue-collar style. He has no intention of changing his approach.
“I'm still trying to fulfill my dream,” he said. “I've got to keep fighting. Whatever I do, I want to have a good name to represent my family.”