Matthew Judon looked askance at the question.
“Man, I got confidence in myself,” he said. “Every time I go out there, I think I’m getting a sack. When y’all ask, ‘Do you think you can do that?’ I think I can do that.”
Here’s the thing you have to understand about Judon, the Ravens’ gifted but unpredictable third-year linebacker: He doesn’t view himself as some no-name from Division II Grand Valley State.
“In my head,” he said, “I could have gone to LSU and played, or Oregon. In my head, I was a first-round draft pick.”
In fact, on many days, Judon believes he’s the best outside pass rusher in the world, whether he has the resume to prove it or not.
“That’s where I live, in my head,” he said. “And that’s what I believe in my heart.”
Ravens coaches have also seen that potential since the team picked Judon in the fifth round of the 2016 draft. When he lifted the Baltimore defense out of its big-play drought with his strip sack of Carr, he reminded everyone what an essential place he holds in the team’s future plans.
At 6-foot-3, 261 pounds, Judon is a natural pass rusher but also an all-around linebacker who can stay on the field in running situations and stick to receivers in open space.
“He can be a dominant pass rusher according to his style — a very physical, explosive, leverage-type of a pass-rusher, great quickness — but also, really good run edge-setter, and that’s the combination you really want,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “That’s what Terrell Suggs has been over the years. I’m not making that comparison just yet, but he’s watched ‘Sizz’ [Suggs] play and kind of patterned himself a little bit after that. And to me, he’s a very similar kind of player.”
Which makes it hard to explain why Judon vanishes from the box score for weeks at a time. In the first four games of this season, for example, he produced a grand total of four solo tackles and a half-sack. That after he finished 2017 on a roll and established himself as one of the Ravens’ key defensive players of the future.
Safety Eric Weddle theorized that Judon was pressing too hard to meet heightened expectations.
“I went through it,” Weddle said after the Raiders game. “You have a really good second year, and you’re like, ‘Aw, I’m about to take off. And I’m going to make after play after play.’ Sometimes it doesn’t happen that way, and then you start doing too much, you think too much. You don’t do your job. And like him and some other guys, he just needed to settle down.”
Judon, 26, didn’t see it that way.
“No, man. I think that I just wasn’t making those plays as I was last year — coming off of last year — and was trying to ride that wave and things were going differently for me at that time,” he said. “For them, they might think that I was pressing, and it might look like I was pressing — maybe I was. Maybe I was trying to make those plays and just not being me. But I feel like now I’m making those plays, and I’m being me. Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, he’s not pressing anymore! He’s just making those plays.’”
He didn’t change his routine to break out of his month-long slump. Instead, he trusted that if he kept toiling, the results would come.
Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale didn’t read much into Judon’s unimpressive start. He said any pass rusher can be shut out for several weeks, given the quick-release attacks that dominate the modern NFL.
“It just happened to be Judon,” Martindale said. “What I like to credit Matt for is the past month, he’s practiced really well and his attention to detail.”
Over the last seven games, Judon has piled up 19 solo tackles, 10 quarterback hits and seven tackles for loss. His play has mitigated recent dips in production by Suggs and Za’Darius Smith.
As a further sign of his commitment, Judon continues to block on punt returns (including Cyrus Jones’ 70-yard touchdown against the Raiders) and defend field goals for special-teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg. He’s averaged about seven special-teams snaps a game.
“He sits right there in every meeting and is involved in every meeting at a high level,” Rosburg said. “He made this impact early, when he arrived as a rookie. You could tell he had a lot of understanding of football. He had a lot of answers, a lot of questions. He studies intensely. … He likes being out there [on special teams]. He told me after the game he wants to stay out there. He wants no relief, and we’re happy about that.”
If Judon was unwilling to take on the less glamorous aspects of the job, he never would have built himself from a lanky Division II recruit — not to mention the sixth of 10 kids in a loving but crowded house — to a serious NFL prospect.
There’s a self-acknowledged edge to him that can manifest as hair-trigger frustration on a bad day and goofy ebullience on a good day. Fans saw it when he sprinted down the tunnel after his third sack against Carr, embraced a couple of security guards and re-emerged to rapturous applause.
Suggs laughed when asked if Judon is like a younger version of him. “I’ve said it before that, yes, there are some similarities there,” he said.
He’s mentored the younger linebacker, so the comparison is natural.
“I feel like walking in here with that guy, and everything he’s done for me throughout the years that you see on the field, and a lot of stuff that you don’t see, is just guidance and somebody that approaches the game every day as it could be his last,” Judon said.
Would he like to be in the same position someday — an institution against whom young Ravens are measured?
“That would be putting the cart before the horse,” Judon said. “I have to come out here and I have to continue to make plays and continue to prepare well and continue to do all of that stuff, because you’re here today, gone tomorrow.”
There’s a wisdom in that answer you might not anticipate from a guy who’s so nakedly self-confident at other moments.
But that’s Judon.