The Ravens’ defensive line is big, and big on nicknames. There’s Wolfey (Derek Wolfe), Big Baby (Brandon Williams), Jelly (Justin Ellis) and Madubeeks (Justin Madubuike). There’s a Calais, too, in case anyone forgot about the towering Mr. Campbell.
By any name, they are a group unafraid of throwing around their size. In the Ravens’ first playoff win in six years in January, the team’s defensive front helped hold Tennessee Titans star Derrick Henry to a season-low 40 yards on 18 attempts. The week after, the Buffalo Bills didn’t bother to run the ball unless they had to. In a 17-3 divisional-round win over the Ravens, they finished with 16 rushes for just 32 yards.
In an era of whiz-bang passing attacks and college-style spread offenses, the Ravens have not strayed far from their throwback ethos up front. More than anything else, their defensive line has to stop the run.
“You still have to earn the right to rush the passer in this league,” first-year run game coordinator and defensive line coach Anthony Weaver, a former Ravens defensive lineman himself, said Friday.
A week and a half into training camp, the Ravens’ line looks capable of straddling the old school and the new school: a front that can gum up the works on second-and-1 runs and get after the quarterback on third-and-long drop-backs.
There is less room for improvement on run defense. While the Ravens finished just 12th in efficiency there last season, according to Football Outsiders, they finished second in the NFL in defending “power” scenarios. Only the Philadelphia Eagles were better at denying touchdowns or first downs in short-yardage scenarios on third or fourth down.
It’s not hard to see why. According to Football Outsiders, Wolfe’s 38 tackles short of a first down ranked 17th in the NFL last season. Williams recorded 28 “stops” against the run on just 341 snaps, the highest figure for any defensive lineman with fewer than 400 snaps. Madubuike emerged late in the year as a destructive force on outside-zone runs. Campbell, even in an up-and-down 2020, was difficult to uproot as an edge-setting run defender.
But after an offseason of hand-wringing over the Ravens’ overhaul at outside linebacker, the defensive line’s biggest impact might have to come in the pass rush. Too often last season, the Ravens’ biggest players offered little threat. In back-to-back regular-season losses to the Titans and Pittsburgh Steelers, Ravens interior pass rushers combined for just one pressure, according to Sports Info Solutions.
It was a boom-or-bust kind of season. After finishing with 61 pressures and 31 hits in 2019, the Ravens’ interior pass rush had 63 and 35 last season, respectively, according to SIS. In the AFC North, that trailed the Cleveland Browns (76 pressures and 39 hits) and was miles behind the Pittsburgh Steelers (129 pressures and 78 hits). Los Angeles Rams superstar Aaron Donald alone finished 2020 with 60 pressures and 29 hits.
A week out from the Ravens’ preseason opener, there’s reason to hope for more. Campbell, Madubuike and Wolfe have all had disruptive practices against the Ravens’ offensive line in camp, and Wolfe on Friday called Weaver “one of the best coaches I’ve been around.”
“Certainly, in this league, you’ve got to put pressure on the passer, and you’ve got to affect the quarterback,” said Weaver, who served as the Houston Texans’ defensive line coach and defensive coordinator last season. “We know that, and nobody does that better than they’ve done here, under Wink’s [defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s] tutelage, especially. ...
“I get it. We’ve got to affect the passer, and we could do that in multiple ways. We have a bunch of guys that can get there in one-on-one, and we can do it schematically. But at the end of the day, if you don’t stop the run, that shows. … There’s a physical element to the game where you’ve got to do that and shut that down in order to rush the passer.”
Campbell led the Ravens with 23 interior pressures last season, according to SIS, followed by Wolfe (nine), Madubuike (seven) and Williams (seven). But with Martindale’s mix of twists and stunts, and his big menu of blitzes, the Ravens’ interior pass rush dispenses outside help as much as it welcomes it.
On some plays, Madubuike might be asked to slip a guard and center and get into the backfield. On others, it might be Tyus Bowser looping in from the edge, or Pernell McPhee taking Campbell’s spot as a down lineman. Ravens rookie Daelin Hayes, yet another outside linebacker, occasionally lined up over interior linemen in college on pass-rush downs. And Martindale has even teased the “fun” flexibility of new arrival Justin Houston.
“When you talk about the defensive line, everybody’s got to work on one accord to get to the quarterback; it can’t just be one specific person,” Bowser said before camp started. “Everybody’s not an Aaron Donald. ...
“We’ve got to communicate, and that’s part of getting to the quarterback. [In the] interior, we have great guys who can get to the quarterback, that can push the pocket, and we have guys on the outside that can bend around the edge. And once you figure that out, you get everybody on one accord, that’s when you start putting in stats. That’s when the numbers start coming around.”