Life after C.J. Mosley figured to be a difficult road for the Ravens to maneuver. The middle linebacker was a linchpin on defense for five seasons, manning the center of units that consistently ranked among the league’s best.
So when Mosley, a first-round draft pick in 2014, left in free agency this past spring, signing a five-year, $85 million contract with the New York Jets, a transitional period was expected.
Mosley won’t make his return to face his former team when the Ravens host the Jets on “Thursday Night Football.” He suffered a groin injury in the season opener and later aggravated the injury. The Jets placed the 27-year-old on injured reserve in November, ending a season in which Mosley will miss more games in New York (14) than he did in five seasons with the Ravens (three).
When asked if he was disappointed with not being able to reunite with his ex-teammate, cornerback Jimmy Smith on Wednesday playfully said, “Not really.”
“He’s a good player, great player for us, but stay on the sideline,” Smith said of the four-time Pro Bowl selection.
After struggling to fill Mosley’s void early in the season, the Ravens have adjusted, using a three-man rotation at the center of a surging defense.
Instead of drafting an inside linebacker or signing one in free agency, the Ravens hoped Patrick Onwuasor, fresh off a breakout season playing next to Mosley, and a combination of second-year players Kenny Young and Chris Board would suffice.
Onwuasor was next in line to fill Mosley’s role in the middle of the defense and received communication duties to start the season. But after Onwuasor and Young — who beat out Board in training camp for the weak-side linebacker position — struggled to defend the run in the team’s only two losses to date, the position group received a shakeup.
In the following weeks, veterans Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort were signed, and Young was sent to the Los Angeles Rams in the trade that brought in cornerback Marcus Peters.
Bynes entered with a level of comfort in the defensive system, spending his first four seasons in the league with the Ravens. Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, then serving as linebackers coach, oversaw the development of Bynes, who delivered the game-sealing tackle in Super Bowl XLVII.
While Bynes didn’t spend time in any team’s training camp over the summer, he made an immediate impact four days after his signing, intercepting a pass in a victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers that kick-started the Ravens’ nine-game winning streak.
Since his arrival, Bynes has played the most defensive snaps of any inside linebacker on the team.
“It was really easy,” Martindale said of inserting Bynes into the lineup. “He came right in and really didn’t skip a beat. I knew from before when he played how he good he was and how smart he is, how instinctive he is, and all those things that go with it. Right away, he calmed down the middle of the defense with his communication and experience.”
The Ravens had targeted Fort in free agency, but he opted to sign with the Philadelphia Eagles. After roster maneuvering forced Philadelphia to release Fort, the Ravens fortuitously landed the eight-year pro days later.
“It’s really playing catch-up, first couple days you’re here,” Fort said. “It’s straight football. You can’t do anything else but study. After that, it’s just learning the little nuances because you can’t learn it all at one time. There are so many different ways to play different schemes and stuff like that. Over the course of the year, I’ve been picking up all the little details and getting better and more comfortable with it.”
According to analytics website Pro Football Focus, Bynes (39 tackles) has performed well defending the run, while Fort (two sacks) has stood out as an inside pass rusher.
Onwuasor, who isn’t as highly regarded by the website, has made an impact as well, recording two sacks and a key forced fumble against the New England Patriots since his return from a midseason high-ankle sprain.
Week-to-week defensive snaps have fluctuated for the three linebackers depending on matchups, with Martindale saying he prefers to have them all playing about 30 snaps per game. At times, Martindale has used personnel without a true inside linebacker, deciding to place safety Chuck Clark as a dime linebacker.
The combination of Onwuasor, Bynes and Fort — Onwuasor and Fort providing speed, Bynes bringing a veteran savviness — have helped negate the loss of Mosley.
The team’s long-term outlook at the position remains bleak. Weeks after signing a one-year contract with the team, Fort was rewarded with a modest two-year extension through the 2021 season. Both Bynes, 30, and Onwuasor, 27, are unrestricted free agents at the end of the season.
But for the time being, the ever-changing defense is adjusting on the fly, slotting pieces where they work best.
“Our philosophy is to put the best 11 on the field for whatever situation it is,” Martindale said.
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