John Harbaugh recognized the change immediately, and it went beyond the tipped pass or the lunging tackle for a 2-yard loss.
“It just kind of settled everybody into a good place where they could take a deep breath and just play football,” the Ravens coach said. “The tackling was better. The assignments were better. The fits were better. Everything was just more settled down.”
Harbaugh was talking about the presence of 32-year-old linebacker Josh Bynes in the middle of his defense, which, coincidentally or not, played its best game of the season Sunday in a 34-6 win over the previously high-flying Los Angeles Chargers.
The veteran’s clutch performance added another layer of intrigue to one of the most fascinating positional subplots of the Ravens’ season, one that also encompasses the team’s uncertain efforts to mine the potential of 2020 first-round pick Patrick Queen.
Bynes, whom the Ravens signed to their practice squad in early September, had played just 18 defensive snaps going into the Chargers game. He was regarded as insurance behind a pair of second-year linebackers, Queen and Malik Harrison, who were expected to take significant leaps forward.
That all changed in the span of six days as the Ravens scrambled to fix a defense that had been shredded on “Monday Night Football” by the Indianapolis Colts. They decided they could no longer count on Queen to be an every-down fulcrum. So they turned to Bynes, in his third stint with the franchise, to bring stability at the middle or “MIKE” linebacker spot. He played every down that was not an obvious passing situation as the Ravens defense regained its footing against the Chargers.
This created quite the sense of déjà vu. Two years ago, the Ravens fell to 2-2 after giving up a combined 73 points to the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns in Weeks 3 and 4. They signed Bynes off his couch and threw him into the breach in place of another young linebacker, Patrick Onwuasor, who seemed overwhelmed by his duties in the middle. Bynes started six of the next seven games, and the Ravens did not lose for the rest of the regular season.
“His story is just incredible,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve had some young linebackers in here ever since C.J. [Mosley] left. There’s a process going on there. We’ve had to be bailed out a couple times, quite honestly, [by] Josh and L.J. [Fort], and then Josh again.”
Bynes spent last season with the Cincinnati Bengals, the divisional foe the Ravens will play Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium. He was on the field (making 10 tackles) when the Ravens rolled up 404 rushing yards against Cincinnati in Week 17. But to hear him tell it, he never felt far from Baltimore, where he began his career studying Ray Lewis at middle linebacker.
“My heart is through-and-through purple,” Bynes said. “And no matter where I was at, I always tried to take things I learned here and take it to every place I’ve been because the core values and the things that this organization brings to the table are unmatched everywhere.”
The question now is what lies ahead as the Ravens balance their immediate needs at middle linebacker with their efforts to develop Queen and Harrison. The two shared time beside Bynes in the weak-side, or “WILL,” linebacker role against the Chargers, and it’s possible the Ravens will keep this alignment for the time being in hopes of nurturing their 2020 draft picks.
“It takes pressure off them,” defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said.
Ravens coaches could not have spoken more bullishly about Queen and Harrison going into the season. They saw players who seemed fitter and more confident in Year 2. “I feel like I’m going two steps faster now,” Queen said after one preseason game. He only added to this sense in Week 1 when he piled up nine tackles and a sack against the Las Vegas Raiders.
From there, however, Queen reverted to the uneven play that marked his rookie season, when he led the team in tackles but graded as one of the most mistake-prone inside linebackers in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.
He struggled to escape blockers, took poor angles to would-be tackles and lost his bearings in pass coverage. Harbaugh avoids criticizing his players publicly, so it was striking last week when he said of his inside linebackers, “we need more, there’s no doubt about that.”
Martindale saw in Queen a gifted 22-year-old athlete “trying to do everybody else’s job, and he needs to do his.” The criticisms lobbed at him, from a fan base used to watching Lewis and Mosley at middle linebacker, grew increasingly vicious. So the Ravens opted to take him out of the spotlight and turn to old reliable: Bynes.
“It was just what fit for that game,” Martindale said. “I talk about the NBA and how the NFL has become a matchup league, like the NBA. Josh is like our Udonis Haslem down in Miami, the guy that Pat Riley has with him for years. He is a Raven; you know he’s a Raven. I love the guy and he did — he brought a calmness to the middle of the defense and settled everyone down.”
Bynes made stellar individual plays against the Chargers, but he also directed teammates to the correct spots and offered comforting words when appropriate. Harbaugh said he’s talked to Bynes about coaching one day precisely because of such work.
In the WILL role, Queen played a season-low 19 snaps, partly because he hurt his thigh early in the game. But he made several sharp tackles to cut off potential long gains and received his best grade of the season from Pro Football Focus.
Nevada linebackers coach Ronnie Wheat, who worked with Queen when both were at LSU, said the position could be a good fit because the WILL linebacker generally operates in clearer space. “What I would say is that the WILL linebacker, a lot of times, is going to have a chance to make a few more plays than the MIKE, depending on scheme, and I mean offensive scheme and defensive scheme,” he explained.
“The pressure was off [Queen] just a little bit with some of the calls that have to be made in there, and it freed him up a little bit,” Harbaugh said. “But OK, next week is a new week. Let’s keep improving.”
The puzzle at inside linebacker also includes Chris Board, who has become the team’s go-to choice on obvious passing downs.
“I think for the same reason that he’s such a great special teams player is why he’s a great defensive player,” Martindale said of Board. “He tackles well in space, he has really good speed and he knows how to cover people.”
Add in Kristian Welch, who’s an essential special-teams contributor, and the Ravens have five inside linebackers they would like to play every week. That could create a roster crunch on Sundays, leaving them with less depth at outside linebacker and along the defensive line. Harbaugh acknowledged this issue without seeming troubled by it.
“The good thing is those guys can pretty much all play special teams,” he said. “So, what we’ll do is just spread their duties out on special teams, because they’re kind of spread out on defense now, and just try to balance it out that way.”
Martindale said, “week to week, we’ll play guys in different spots.”
No matter how the Ravens shuffle their linebackers, he and Harbaugh will sleep easier knowing they can turn to Bynes in a crisis.
Baltimore Sun reporter Jonas Shaffer contributed to this article.
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