"The second half of the season begins in Cincinnati, and we have to be ready to go and be our best, the best team we can be," said John Harbaugh.
Ravens inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor’s performance Sunday night against the New England Patriots mirrored many of the games he had last season, playing a part-time defensive role next to middle linebacker C.J. Mosley.
A constant around the ball. An efficient blitzer. A turnover-forcing “Peanut Punch.”
In the Ravens’ 37-20 win, Onwuasor recorded a season-high eight combined tackles, one sack and forced the fumble that led to cornerback Marlon Humphrey’s 70-yard return for a touchdown.
“[It was] probably [Onwuasor’s] best game, I would say, for the year so far,” coach John Harbaugh said after the game.
Eight games into the season, Onwuasor’s year hasn’t followed the trajectory many expected when he was viewed as next in line to take over as the defense’s starting middle linebacker.
Onwuasor was given the helmet with communication abilities and began the season at the center of the defense. However, before the team’s Week 4 game against the Cleveland Browns, the Ravens moved communication duties to safety Tony Jefferson to “[take] a little bit off [Onwuasor’s] plate,” Harbaugh said.
Defensive issues continued, as the unit allowed the longest run in franchise history, an 88-yard touchdown to Browns running back Nick Chubb.
The team soon brought in veterans Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort, allowing Onwuasor to move back to weak-side linebacker, where he and coaches have said Onwuasor is more comfortable.
The overall defensive showing improved against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but Onwuasor suffered a high-ankle sprain in a 26-23 overtime win. He would miss the team’s next two contests despite finishing the game.
“That was pretty tough for me, thinking that I could come out here Cincinnati week,” Onwuasor said. “I thought I’d be ready to go, and I wasn’t. And then going into Seattle, thinking I would be ready to go. [The ankle injury] calms down, and then when you go out there and try to go run, it’s not the same and it’s frustrating.”
Onwuasor returned Sunday in his first game to play 28 of 67 defensive snaps, similar to his workload from last season, but he left his mark in limited action.
“I think he’s just more natural at the dime spot,” linebackers coach Mike Macdonald said during the team’s bye week. “Let’s call it the dime — dime or [weak-side], whatever you want to call it. What happens is, when you’re over there, you’re a little bit more on the edge of the defense. There’s a little bit more blitzing to be involved in. He’s a great blitzer. So, you’re really asking him to do the things that he’s naturally really gifted at doing, using his length, that sort of thing.”
Onwuasor’s anticipated transition to middle linebacker came with a presumed leadership role, as the Ravens lost players such as Mosley, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and free safety Eric Weddle in the offseason.
He reflected on those past leaders and how they have prepared him for the responsibility. With veterans such as Jefferson and outside linebacker Pernell McPhee being lost for the season because of injuries, his growth as a leader has become more paramount.
“I feel like we all had to step up,” Onwuasor said. “Me, [outside linebacker Matthew] Judon, [defensive tackle Michael] Pierce. We all had to step up as being the younger guys on this defense, with [Jefferson], Pernell and [safety] DeShon [Elliott] and those guys going down. It kind of hurt us a little bit, but we knew a lot of other guys were ready to play and take over those roles.
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“I think that was one of my main goals, to be more vocal on and off the field. Just communicating more and stuff like that, because the past couple years, I didn’t really have to do that. I had C.J., Sizz [Suggs] and [Weddle] behind me. So I just kind of played my role and just played fast and played ball.”
Judon said he has noticed Onwuasor becoming more of a vocal leader — “When we’re in walk-throughs, [he talks], he keeps us fiery on the sideline,” — although Onwuasor’s reserved personality pales in comparison with his predecessors, such as Mosley and Ray Lewis.
Adapting and thriving after shifting roles, Onwuasor has become the perfect avatar for a defense that has rebuilt on the fly after surrounding over 500 yards in consecutive losses early this season.
Humphrey has been asked to perform duties of a shutdown corner, shadowing opposing offense’s No. 1 receiver. Brandon Carr is playing more snaps at safety with the defense’s replenished depth at cornerback. Second-year safety Chuck Clark has been thrust into a starting role and now relays the defensive signals as an every-down player.
And Onwuasor, after being tapped to be the team’s next middle linebacker, has moved back to his more natural position.
“There’s leadership by [being] vocal and there’s leadership by actions,” Bynes said. “Peanut definitely has been doing his thing in actions. Last game he played amazing and he’s just going to continue doing that.”