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Ravens inside linebacker group presents a new, and potentially defense-altering, dynamic

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh talks about injuries and music during training camp.

For as relentless and suffocating as the 2019 Ravens defense was, it might have been as unconventional as any unit, too.

Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale unleashed blitzes at a rate higher than any defense last season. No unit operated out of its base package at a lower rate and the Ravens defense was among the top of the league in its usage of dime packages, which features six defensive backs on the field.

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The propensity for the team to use several defensive backs was a twofold byproduct of the strength in the secondary and the team’s early-season struggles at middle linebacker.

Just a month into the season, the team brought in two free agents, LJ Fort and Josh Bynes, to solidify the linebacker group. By midseason, safety Chuck Clark was a de facto middle linebacker in defensive back-heavy packages.

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After investing two of their early draft picks on inside linebackers, and bringing back Fort for his first full season in the scheme, the Ravens boast a position group that could relieve the ails of January’s season-ending playoff loss to the Tenessee Titans.

The loss to the Titans exposed concerning problems along the defensive line but also unmasked issues at inside linebacker that were concealed over the course of the team’s 14-game winning streak.

The investment of draft capital in Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison, first- and third-round picks, respectively, showed the desire of a team seeking to resolve a key issue that derailed a promising season. Queen projects as a smaller, new-age linebacker who has the speed to cover sideline to sideline, while Harrison is a larger player who also runs well.

“I feel like I’ve progressed in every part of my game, just from [a] run standpoint to [a] pass standpoint, just trying to level the playing field that I’m on now going from college to the NFL,” Queen said Friday. “[I’m] trying to get adjusted to the game tempo. [The] offense has been giving a great look and the coaches on defense have been coaching me very well. I’m looking forward to the next few days and getting into the season.”

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Coach John Harbaugh has spoken positively of the rookies’ progression through the first week of padded practices, and Queen appears destined to start in the team’s season opener on Sept. 13 against the Cleveland Browns.

“I think he’s right on schedule,” Harbaugh said Wednesday. “He wants to be right, he really studies, he’s very conscientious, and he’s a rookie at the same time without reps in the offseason. So, I would say he’s doing really well, better than anticipated, but he’s not there yet.

“He has a lot to learn, and that’s going to be the case all year. Throughout the course of the season, for rookies, every day is a new day. There is not going to be one day from now until the end of the season that will be something that they’ve seen before, not until the second year. [If] you talk to the second-year guys, they’ll tell you that. They feel so much more in-tune because they know what to expect. So, that’ll be part of it, but I also think he’s going to be a real, major contributor this year, right where he’s at.”

As Queen and Harrison continue through training camp, they have Fort in a veteran presence to guide them. It’s an unusual position for the 30-year-old, who bounced around with multiple teams before catching on with the Ravens last season as a disciplined player and reliable special-teams contributor. Less than two months after signing with the team, he agreed to a multi-year extension through the 2021 season.

“I’m a lot more comfortable with the defense and the scheme and everything this year,” Fort said Friday. “Getting those Zoom meetings in OTAs and actually getting the full install of the plays and everything, it’s been great. So, [there’s] definitely a lot less thinking on the field and just flying around and playing.”

The trio of Queen, Harrison and Fort gives the Ravens reason to believe there will be a noticeable improvement from last season when early struggles with run fits and pass coverage played a role in shoddy defensive showings. With the evolution of NFL defenses and the rate at which they play in nickel and dime packages, it seems increasingly likely that responsibility will fall on Queen, the 28th overall pick.

It’ll be a process for the 21-year-old, who’s still settling into the reality of the NFL, from relaying calls from the defense’s helmet mic to gushing over the sight of his image in the latest release of Madden. But the early returns from training camp have looked promising.

“With Patrick Queen, he’s what you want in a first-round pick,” Fort said. “He has the talent, he understands defensive concepts, he has some dog in him, so he’s going to be as good as he wants to be.”

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