Maybe the most humbling game of Jaylon Ferguson’s fledgling career started with one of his most promising drives.
On the first play from scrimmage in the Ravens’ 20-17 win Sunday over the San Francisco 49ers, the rookie outside linebacker tossed aside a fullback, shed a block from a pulling lineman and helped stop a carry for no gain. Two plays later, he chased down a long catch-and-run. On two of the next three plays, he was a half-second too late and then a slippery tackle away from a sack.
The sequence showcased the promise of the third-round pick. The rest of his rain-soaked afternoon offered a reminder that there are some tough lessons best learned through experience.
There was no single culprit in a Ravens run defense that allowed 174 yards at M&T Bank Stadium, including 146 to backup Raheem Mostert (7.7 yards per carry). But Ferguson’s execution was as much to blame for the subpar performance as Mother Nature, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan’s play-calling or the Ravens’ poor tackling.
Of course, the Ravens won anyway. Their defense has turned into one of the NFL’s best over their eight-game winning streak. And with outside linebacker Pernell McPhee’s season-ending triceps injury, Ferguson has been a defensive fixture in that stretch, playing over 60% of the snaps in six straight games.
“I’ve been pleased with Jaylon Ferguson since he’s been here, and I keep telling you guys, ‘He’s on the come[-up]. He’s on the come[-up]. Watch out,’ ” defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said after the Ravens’ Week 11 win over the Houston Texans, in which Ferguson notched his first sack. “And continue to watch out, because it’s really all starting to click for him, for the rookie. I was really happy with him.”
During four years at Louisiana Tech, Ferguson finished with 67½ tackles for loss, including a Football Bowl Subdivision-record 45 sacks. But there aren’t many offenses like the 49ers’ in Conference USA, nor are there any tight ends like George Kittle.
The Ravens allowed five carries of 15-plus yards to San Francisco on Sunday, and now have given up 10 such runs since returning from their bye in Week 9. (Coincidentally, the Buffalo Bills, their Week 14 opponent and Football Outsiders’ 22nd-most efficient run defense, have surrendered as many big runs in the same span.) Ferguson’s discipline has been to blame a few times.
In Week 7, the Seattle Seahawks had their longest run of a 30-16 loss by running at Ferguson, who’d come on for extensive work in place of the injured McPhee. As Seattle’s left tackle and left guard pulled around the right side of the line, Ferguson followed. But that meant he couldn’t set the edge. Running back C.J. Prosise took a zone read from quarterback Russell Wilson the opposite direction, cut upfield and finished with a 17-yard gain.
Misdirection hurt Ferguson in the second quarter Sunday, too. Lining up on 49ers left tackle Daniel Brunskill’s outside shoulder, Ferguson saw left guard Laken Tomlinson pull away from him, seemingly to help clear a path inside for Mostert. But it was all window dressing.
As Ferguson probed inside for a running back who didn’t have the ball, wide receiver Deebo Samuel took an end-around for 20 yards. After engaging defensive tackle Brandon Williams and leaking outside, Brunskill ended up not needing to block anyone in the open field; Ferguson was that far out of position.
On the 49ers’ biggest play all day, it wasn’t scheme that troubled Ferguson; it was the NFL’s best blocking tight end. In the second quarter, the rookie was responsible for setting the edge on Mostert’s 40-yard touchdown run. To Ferguson’s credit, Mostert didn’t break outside. But he was never able to anchor against Kittle and constrict the space between him and defensive tackle Domata Peko Sr. As Mostert burst through the line of scrimmage and then past a missed tackle by cornerback Marcus Peters, Kittle had Ferguson completely walled off.
“That was probably as good of a run-blocking game in terms of how much a tight end, in the outside zone, could move the edge,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters Monday. “He dominated that game. Our edges were as good as they've almost ever been, and that's why we were able to put a fast running back in there and just stay on track and hit the numbers pretty hard.”
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But there have been more positives than negatives of late for Ferguson. As coach John Harbaugh said last week, while Ferguson “still knows he has a long way to go,” he’s improved “every single week.”
Take Ferguson’s first play Sunday. After he got his hands on Pro Bowl fullback Kyle Juszczyk, he moved him out of the way like he was a sack of flour, then bounced off a block from pulling right guard Mike Person. When running back Tevin Coleman tried to cut back, away from safety Chuck Clark, Ferguson was there to help wrap him up.
On third-and-7 about a minute later, Martindale had Ferguson drop into coverage underneath. 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo targeted wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, who beat Peters in coverage close to Ferguson’s zone and then got by the corner in the open field, too. The catch-and-run went for 30 yards, but Ferguson, in full sprint at 275 pounds, limited the damage as best he could.
Some NFL scouts questioned Ferguson’s motor heading into the draft, but it has been one of his best attributes this season. Against the Houston Texans in Week 11, he knocked quarterback Deshaun Watson off his spot, dived at him as he scrambled, got back onto his feet and recovered a fumble forced by outside linebacker Matthew Judon — all in one first-quarter play.
He earned his first sack with a similar work rate. Late in the second quarter, as the Texans were in their hurry-up offense, Ferguson was a late substitution for Judon, who was trudging off the field in some discomfort. He wasn’t set for longer than five seconds before the ball was snapped.
Fortunately for the Ravens, there was a breakdown in Houston’s protection. Just as Texans right tackle Tytus Howard realized he was responsible for Ferguson, his fellow rookie knocked him off balance with a long-arm technique. When Watson scooted out of the pocket, Ferguson was there to wrap him up and take him down.
“I think the game has slowed down for him a little bit from the standpoint that he’s seeing things better, because he’s honing in on his keys, playing the run well and playing with great effort,” defensive line coach Joe Cullen said earlier this season. “When you do that, usually good things happen.”