Ravens linebacker Matthew Judon hopes to answer the critics about the team's pass rush against the Dolphins.
Around the Ravens’ locker room, their pass rush has become a joke. So has their “revolutionary” offense. Ask the same team the same question enough times, maybe tweaking an angle here, a word or two there, and the answers become meta before long, a sarcastic commentary on the lines of inquiry themselves.
So it was Wednesday, when a reporter broached the topic of the Ravens’ pass rush to outside linebacker Matthew Judon. With Sunday’s season opener against the Miami Dolphins just a few days away, he was asked: How did he feel about the unit’s progress? Judon, the team’s top returning sack producer, sucked his teeth with some resignation before answering.
“Man, y'all got to do your jobs, so whatever y'all are going to report on our pass rush, it doesn't count until everybody's —”
“Is the pass rush good or not, bro?”
“Huh?” Judon asked, glancing to his right, the source of the question. It was safety Earl Thomas III, hanging at his locker, on the fringes of the media scrum. He was in on the joke.
“Hey, we got to teach Earl how to answer questions,” Judon said, grinning. “We push our own agenda around here, so y’all ask me whatever, but y’all are going to see.”
Four preseason games revealed only so much. The defense was stout, but the only starting quarterbacks the Ravens faced were in joint practices. The offense was effective, but it showed only a “little gist” of what the real thing will look like, running back Mark Ingram II said Wednesday. About the only element of the team that doesn’t require much imagination is special teams.
Of course, there are teams with bigger issues. The Dolphins, for one. Miami is starting 36-year-old journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback, and the team’s options at left tackle, after dealing away starter Laremy Tunsil for draft picks, are uninspiring. Starting linebacker Kiko Alonso requested a trade and got one. A local columnist wrote Saturday that “There’s only one question about these Dolphins and it’s not if they’ll lose every game this year. That’s a given.”
The Ravens’ big-picture questions are not so apocalyptic. And why would they be? The team won the AFC North last season. It has the NFL’s reigning top-ranked defense and a quarterback primed for a breakthrough season. The challenge for both is expectations.
With a well-stocked secondary returning on defense, the preseason pressure there has fallen on the pass rush. Last season, the Ravens finished third in the NFL in pressure rate, according to analytics website Football Outsiders. But Za’Darius Smith (8½ sacks in 2018) and Terrell Suggs (seven sacks) are gone. Even if Ravens coach John Harbaugh wanted to forget that, he couldn’t. Their departures have driven the narrative.
“I'm certainly not as worried about it as you all are,” he said. “What little I read, it's all I read about. So I appreciate your concerns. We'll see what happens.”
On offense, though, Harbaugh has been less player shield, more hype man. He’s spoken to players about the Ravens’ pending “revolution.” He’s told reporters that the offense will look unlike any ever seen in the NFL. Hopes are higher than they’ve probably ever been for an offense that finished the previous season ranked No. 26 in yards per play.
The Ravens can guarantee only so much. On one end Wednesday was quarterback Lamar Jackson, who said he hopes fans leave Sunday’s game at Hard Rock Stadium thinking that “it’s the best offense they’ve ever seen.” On the other was guard Marshal Yanda. He chuckled softly at the mention of the team’s “revolutionary” potential.
“I don't get into making lofty expectations,” he said. “That's not me. We're going to go to work every single day, put the game plan in and be ready to go on Sunday. So today, we're worried about having a good practice. All the lofty stuff, I'll leave that to Coach, and we'll just grind every single day.”
The catch-22 of the Ravens’ Week 1 test is that success might be less predictive of the season’s direction than any other game. They are seven-point road favorites for a reason.
At left tackle, the Dolphins could start newcomer Julién Davenport, who was among the league’s least effective starters there last season. Or they could move Jesse Davis from right tackle, where he’s rarely started, to left tackle, where he’s never started. Either way, a rare and golden pass-rush opportunity awaits Judon, Pernell McPhee, Tyus Bowser, Tim Williams and Jaylon Ferguson.
It will be just as tempting to draw conclusions about Jackson and Co. if the Ravens light up the scoreboard Sunday. But in the Dolphins’ final seven games last season, they allowed at least 31 points four times, including 41 and 42 in their third-to-last game and finale, respectively. There is young talent in Miami — safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, cornerback Xavien Howard, rookie defensive lineman Christian Wilkins — but few expect the defense to be even average this season.
All of which could be a mixed blessing for the Ravens. Meaningful takeaways about the team’s potential and problems might still be another week away. Harbaugh said openers are “always the toughest game to prepare for” because of the information deficit. Until Week 1, it’s hard to tell just where a team stands. Maybe even your own.
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