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Baltimore Ravens

Disappearing pass rush a concern for Ravens

When at its best a season ago, the Ravens' pass rush sent an extra blitzer or two to supplement what was already an outstanding group of every-down rushers.

For the 2015 Ravens, sending extra pressure is far from the luxury that it was then, as star rush linebacker Terrell Suggs is out with a season-ending Achilles injury, Elvis Dumervil has been given more pass-blocking attention and is dealing with a groin injury, and Pernell McPhee, who rushed from all over the field, is now a Chicago Bear.

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With their replacements not as well suited to create pressure on a snap-by-snap basis, the Ravens have had to create it through scheme and smoke screens, resulting in more production on blitzes but at a higher level of risk.

"One of the things in the pass rush has been we've had to manufacture it a little bit," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "When guys are out, guys are out. You've got to find another way of doing it. We've pressured a little bit more, tried to come up with some different ways of pressuring and stuff, and we've kind of had to manufacture, in all honesty."

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At this point last season, the Ravens defense had just five of what would become 49 sacks, a total that tied for second in the NFL. They have 15 so far this year, but tallied each in a different way.

Suggs, Dumervil and McPhee combined for 36.5 sacks last year. This year, the outside linebacker group has five of the 15 sacks, showing just how reliant the Ravens are on sending extra rushers and getting pressure through scheme. And only when they're manufacturing pressure do those sacks seem to be coming from anyone else, either.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, the percentage of sacks that have come with five or more pass rushers for the Ravens this year has more than doubled, from 34.7 percent last year (17 of 49 sacks) to 73.3 percent (11 of 15 sacks). The Ravens have also sent more pressure, using at least one extra blitzer on 33 percent of dropbacks as opposed to 28.5 percent a year ago.

"Sometimes, you've got a good four-man rush. Sometimes, you don't," Pees said. "It doesn't mean you don't have a good system or a good team. It just means you've got to do it a different way. Sometimes, that's what personnel dictates, and right now, that's kind of what it's dictating."

In Suggs' absence, and with Dumervil getting extra attention from opposing linemen, the Ravens could enter Sunday's game with just Courtney Upshaw, Za'Darius Smith and Albert McClellan at outside linebacker.

McClellan called the injured star pass rushers "game-changers," and echoed Pees' sentiment that a lot of players on defense are being asked to play roles that aren't the best fits in the frame of the defense.

"Those guys did this a certain type of way," McClellan said. "This was their strength [and] some of the guys that are here, that are doing the same plays now, that's pretty much not their strength."

Perhaps nowhere is that clearer than for Upshaw, who was an edge-setter for the first three years of his career and hasn't had a full sack in two full seasons. He's already rushed the passer on nearly as many snaps as he did in 2014, and has no sacks to show for it.

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But Pees and the rest of the defense accept that pass rushing won't be limited this year to only outside linebackers. Inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, Smith and defensive end Lawrence Guy all have two-sack games so far, and the team's 15 sacks are spread among 11 players.

Mosley, especially, is rushing more often than he did in 2014. He's going after the quarterback on 14.3 percent of his passes, as opposed to 10.1 percent last year. The Ravens are also sending inside linebacker Daryl Smith and defensive backs more often, too.

But the drawback of sending them is leaving the defense thin in coverage. Opposing quarterbacks are completing nearly 62 percent of their passes for 9.3 yards per attempt when the Ravens blitz, with six of the nine touchdowns they've allowed this season coming after pressure didn't get home. Opponents had seven touchdown passes against a Ravens blitz all season last year.

But there's confidence across the defense that those blitzes will be more fruitful going forward.

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"We had a bunch of times last game where we got in the backfield, we just didn't get him down," Mosley said. "So what it comes to is when we get in the backfield, slowing down and staying in front of the quarterback and stay in our rush lanes so we don't let the guy slip out of the pocket."

The only limitation, Pees said, was the Ravens themselves. He cited a pressure that worked once against the Cleveland Browns, but didn't get home when he called it again because the free rusher didn't take the correct lane.

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"If one guy doesn't believe in the play, believe in the blitz, he may try to do his own thing and it can mess up everything," defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan said. "When it comes to blitzes, everybody's going to be on the same page. As long as everybody buys in, as long as everybody believes, I don't have no question we can get the job done."

Such belief is what coach John Harbaugh wants from his players.

"We have to be [playing with] more — I would say — more aggressiveness, play with more confidence," he said. "Play it. Go cover people. Go attack the quarterback. But we blitzed a lot in that game. ... We're a blitzing team, so we want to continue to do that."

jmeoli@baltsun.com

twitter.com/JonMeoli


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