Bolstering the pass rush a point of emphasis for Ravens

The message was loud and clear to Za'Darius Smith and Matthew Judon.

During the Ravens' final meeting to wrap up a disappointing 2016 season, coach John Harbaugh addressed several areas of need before turning his attention to the lack of a consistent pass rush.


"I know we were just in the meeting, and Coach was talking about us young guys, the first- and second-year players, and he was saying, 'You know, Matt and Z, you guys are our young rushers,'" Smith said the day after the team's season finished. "They put the pressure on us, and going into the offseason, we know what we've got to work on as young rushers."

Among the myriad problems the organization must address in the offseason, beefing up the pass rush — especially on the edge — figures to be one of the top priorities. The defense finished the season with 31 sacks, which was tied for 24th in the NFL. The 2016 average was 34.9 sacks.

The 31 sacks were the franchise's fewest since 2010. The Ravens' pass rush was graded third worst in the NFL by the website Pro Football Focus.

Since 2003, the team has relied on outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, the franchise leader in sacks with 114 ½. He led the unit again this season with eight. Lining up on the opposite side has been outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who set a team record with 17 sacks in 2014 and had two in his last three games this season.

But Suggs turned 34 in October, missed nearly the entire 2015 season because of a torn left Achilles tendon in the season opener at the Denver Broncos, and suffered a torn left biceps in a loss at the New York Giants on Oct. 16.

Dumervil turns 33 this month and sat out eight games this season after having surgery to repair an Achilles tendon.

The uneven play of the starting outside linebackers has team officials trying to find ways to upgrade the edge rush.

"The pass rush, to me, is something that always needs to improve," Harbaugh said last week. "We've got some guys that have been around for a while and are two top guys. Those guys are still playing at a very high level. But you've got to bring in young guys."

Outside of Albert McClellan, who is more of a run stopper and coverage guy, and rookie Kamalei Correa, who was a healthy scratch three times before being placed on injured reserve for the final two games, Smith and Judon would appear to be the most likely candidates to fortify the pass rush.

The 6-foot-4, 275-pound Smith had 5 ½ sacks in 2015, fourth on the franchise's rookie record for sacks behind Suggs (12), Peter Boulware (11 ½), and Pernell McPhee (six). But the fourth-round draft pick regressed severely in his sophomore year, posting just one sack and being a healthy scratch three times.

By Harbaugh's estimation, Smith could have had five sacks in his first five games. Smith said he and Judon have much to learn from Suggs and Dumervil.

"The guys still have a lot left in the tank, as far as I can see," Smith said. "But we're young, and they're older. So we've just got to feed of them and become rushers as we grow ourselves."

The 6-3, 275-pound Judon, the NCAA leader in sacks in 2015 (21 at Division II Grand Valley State), finished with four sacks, tying defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan for fifth on the franchise's rookie leaderboard. But the fifth-round selection failed to produce a sack in his last four games.

Judon declined to assess his first year as a pro.


"I don't think it's up to me to evaluate," he said. "That's where the coaches go back and look at the film, and I'll talk to [defensive line coach Joe Cullen] about it, and he'll tell me what I need to get better on and what I need to work on in the offseason. But I felt like I went out there for every game and gave it my all and I put what I had on film."

General manager Ozzie Newsome said the team is always monitoring ways to add pass rushers, but also said an emphasis is on developing Smith and Judon.

"I think it goes first to the two young guys that we have, getting them better — Matt and Za'Darius," Newsome said. "Except for last year, if you're picking in the top four or five of the draft, you can get that elite pass rusher. [Ohio State defensive end Joey] Bosa went third [to the San Diego Chargers] last year. But yes, anybody that can affect the passer, that would definitely help us on defense."

While needs at center, cornerback, free safety, and wide receiver could take precedence in the NFL draft in late April, there could be a surplus of edge rushers on the board when the Ravens pick at No. 16 overall.

Prospects such as Tennessee's Derek Barnett (12 sacks), Missouri's Charles Harris (nine), and Wisconsin's T.J. Watt (10 ½) could still be available, although the San Francisco 49ers at No. 2, the New York Jets at No. 6, the Cincinnati Bengals at No. 9 and the Indianapolis Colts at No. 14 are also in the market for outside linebackers.

The Ravens continue to say they believe Smith and Judon can develop into impact players who might one day succeed Suggs and Dumervil as the starters. But Harbaugh acknowledged that results speak louder than projections.

"We've got to get there," he said. "It's one thing to have high hopes. It's another thing to get there. So that's where we're at. So the answer is yes, we're looking for another pass rusher, certainly."

Judon is fully aware that the team will seek to recruit free agents or draft new players, and the onus is on him and Smith to prove that they represent better options.

"We just have to get better as football players," Judon said.