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Still without a sack, Courtney Upshaw adjusting to expanded role

Still without a sack, Courtney Upshaw adjusting to expanded role
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton throws a incomplete pass and is hit by Baltimore Ravens linebacker Courtney Upshaw in the second quarter at M&T Bank Stadium. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

While preparing for the Ravens' Week 2 game against the Oakland Raiders in San Jose, Calif., their first without star pass rusher Terrell Suggs, outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw got ready for an increased role that many hoped would replicate at least some of Suggs' 12 sacks from a year ago.

Both publicly and privately from Upshaw, the mindset was the same: "I've got to do more."

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But the Ravens have played six games without Suggs this season, and seven overall. A dozen Ravens have quarterback sacks, and Upshaw isn't one of them. He enters Sunday's game with only one sack — in last year's wild-card playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers — since the beginning of 2014. His last regular-season sack came on Dec. 22, 2013, a half-sack against the New England Patriots.

Last year, 402 NFL players registered at least a half-sack in the regular season. This year, 275 have a half-sack or more through seven weeks.

Upshaw is not among either group, something teammates and coaches say isn't a total indictment of his play, considering how he has continued to handle his run-defense responsibilities in addition to rushing the passer more.

"We're asking him to do a lot of things," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "I think the other thing is it's hard to live up to Suggs' production and reputation. … Yes, we'd like to have more production. He'd like to have more production. But I'm not disappointed at all in the way Courtney Upshaw is playing."

Upshaw has long been credited as an unsung hero on the Ravens defense, setting the edge and funneling opposing runners back to the inside. But since Suggs' injury, he has been playing more snaps and rushing the passer more, without an increase in production.

Last year, Upshaw rushed the passer on 127 of his 542 snaps (23 percent). This season, he's already gone after the quarterback 152 times in 408 snaps, a 60 percent increase, with just two quarterback hits and five hurries to show for it, according to Pro Football Focus.

Pees conceded they knew they didn't have a Suggs replica in Upshaw when they drafted him out of Alabama in the second round in 2012. For three seasons, that worked out fine. Upshaw rushed more during Suggs' absence in 2012 while he rehabbed his torn Achilles that year, but settled into an edge-setting role after. When the Ravens had four diverse outside linebackers, including Upshaw, Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and Pernell McPhee, each could play a role that suited him well.

"Now all of a sudden that role has changed, and he has had to do it for us," Pees said. "But [it is] not necessarily, maybe, the best role that I could really put him in if we had Suggs still here. In this defense, he has had to do some things and play a lot more snaps."

Dumervil said "it's definitely a difference" having your responsibilities change after so long in one role.

"You're so used to doing it one way," he said. " You've just got to get into that rhythm. … I think he can rush the passer. I think he's a really good player. Sometimes, for the opportunity to present itself more, you've just got to keep getting that repetition, and you'll be OK."

The Ravens still rotate at the position as they did in the past, with Albert McClellan and rookie Za'Darius Smith also in the mix. But Upshaw gained the most the earliest, playing more snaps and having more responsibility.

Upshaw spent the first few weeks in his new role trying to duplicate Suggs' production in the pass rush. But the Ravens' scheme has shifted since then — they can't get pressure sending four the way they did last year, so blitzes come from every direction.

Upshaw is still a part of that, and has come close to notching that elusive sack a few times. He had two near-sacks of San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick in Week 6, and was close to Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer on Zachary Orr's fourth-quarter sack Monday.

But his run defense suffered a bit with the expanded responsibilities early on, to the point where Upshaw is back to focusing primarily on them so as to give the team as much value as he can.

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"With that being said, now I go into these games knowing that we're 1-6, trying to just dominate the guy in front of me," he said. "At the end of the day, you've just got to do your job first and we'll affect the quarterback anyway. The sacks aren't there [for me], but we try to get to the quarterback as a whole."

Dumervil says the team's film sessions are littered with examples of Upshaw impacting plays and thriving in his role on run defense. No one, including Pees, expected him to stop being that kind of player and transform into Suggs in his fourth season with the team, but it wouldn't have been unprecedented.

Former Ravens pass rushers Paul Kruger and Pernell McPhee had nine sacks and 7.5 sacks, respectively, in the fourth and final years of their rookie contracts. They used their opportunities in the Ravens defense to have a career year the season before they entered free agency.

Upshaw recognizes his 2015 won't go down as one of those seasons, at least when it comes to sack production.

"I looked up to Pernell when he was here," Upshaw said. "That was my guy. To see him, even in Chicago, doing his thing, I'm happy for him. I'm happy for Kruger and those guys, but we're six, seven games in and I haven't registered my first one yet. I'm still fighting to get my first one. But at the end of the year, we'll see how things go. I'm a Raven. I'm going to be a Raven. That's all I'll say on that."

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