On Monday, Ravens coach John Harbaugh was talking about the challenges defensive coordinators face in deciding play calls. It was not as simple as ordering a tuna melt off a lunch menu.
There was more to consider: Whom was the offense sending out? What were the down and distance? The time? The score?
“You've got to determine what the personnel is and what the situation is before you make your call,” Harbaugh said at his weekly news conference. “I think that's probably the biggest issue.”
Because of the Ravens’ depleted personnel this week, and their uneasy situation heading into Sunday’s home game against the Denver Broncos, two of the defense’s calls this week were not especially hard. They had only so many options to consider.
With star inside linebacker C.J. Mosley out (bone bruise), the Ravens on Monday re-signed veteran linebacker Albert McClellan, as capable and comfortable a stopgap option they could find on such short notice. And with Mosley’s defensive headset up for grabs, Harbaugh confirmed that safety Eric Weddle will remain the unit’s on-field liaison with coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale.
Harbaugh acknowledged that after Mosley was hurt on the Ravens’ first drive of their 34-23 loss Thursday to the Cincinnati Bengals, fellow starting inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor took over play-relaying responsibilities “for a short period of time.” Left unsaid was how long he was in charge; the Bengals scored touchdowns on their next four drives, too big a margin for the Ravens to overcome.
Weddle, Harbaugh said, is “who we wanted to have it in those situations.”
“There's a pecking order,” Harbaugh said of the team’s Mosley-less contingency plans. Weddle is “the No. 2 guy, and that's who we got it to. We didn't have too many communication problems as far as getting calls in. We didn't play things the way we wanted to play them all the time, but we had the calls in, for the most part. It's not too much of an issue, because the defense is still sound. As long as we're all on the same page.”
Over his four-plus years, Mosley has become more like the teammate who will take over as Martindale’s on-field mouthpiece. Indeed, there are few voices in the Ravens’ locker room as distinctive or distinguished as Weddle’s. Which is a good thing on game days.
With an intermission to regroup and Weddle on the headset, the Ravens held Cincinnati to two field goals and 144 total yards of offense after halftime Thursday at Paul Brown Stadium. A three-time Pro Bowl selection with the Chargers, Weddle had several years of experience wearing the headset in San Diego.
But even then, it was not regular. For all of his superlative knowledge of offenses, there are limitations that do not burden a linebacker.
“The biggest thing is, he's not in the middle of the defense,” Harbaugh said of Weddle. “I think it's a valid point. It's a little hard for the safety to communicate to the whole defense, but we do a good job of echoing our calls. I think Don [Martindale] does a good job of getting them in quickly, although we can always do that better. You want to get them in as quick as you can.”
That Mosley would even be unavailable for a game is surprising. He has started 64 of 66 regular-season games for the Ravens since he was taken in the first round of the draft four years ago.
That the Ravens’ patchwork attempt at covering his absence would include McClellan is less surprising. After the 32-year-old was left off the team’s opening 53-man roster, Harbaugh did not rule out the possibility of a return to Baltimore, whether it took “a couple days or a couple weeks or whatever happens.”
In fact, it was just a couple of weeks. While Harbaugh praised rookie inside linebacker Kenny Young’s development Monday — “I think he keeps building on the pluses and playmaking” — McClellan has nearly triple the total of career appearances (90) that Onwuasor, Young and undrafted rookie inside linebacker Chris Board have combined (31).
“Albert’s a veteran player,” Harbaugh said. “He’s a very good football player. He knows everything we do. He gives us a lot on special teams as well. He can play middle linebacker. ... I would say [he] kind of solidifies in there a little bit, having so many young players in the group.”
Undrafted in 2010, the former Marshall standout signed with the Ravens, spent his rookie year on their practice squad, and developed into a special teams captain and versatile linebacker beloved by teammates. After a torn ACL sidelined him for the entire 2017 season, he vowed to play every play as if it were his last.
Earlier this month, when McClellan’s return to the fold was only a possibility, special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg likened his departure to that of a child going off to college.
“He’s been a big part of my life, and I know our club has been better for him being here, both as a player and a person,” Rosburg said Sept. 6. “I’m sure I’ll see him soon.”