On one frenetic day in March, the Ravens lost their most productive pass rusher from 2018 and the greatest pass rusher in the history of the franchise.

Za’Darius Smith and Terrell Suggs accounted for 15 ½ of the team’s 43 sacks last season, and they both left town about as quickly as an outside linebacker whips around a sluggish left tackle.


Could the Ravens fill that void with a collection of cheap veterans and previously disappointing youngsters? It was one of the greatest uncertainties they faced going into training camp.

And with the regular season less than two weeks away, the Ravens still face predictions that their defense will tumble from its league-best perch, in large part because of lost pass-rushing punch.

“I think that’s a fair question,” defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said Sunday.

The Ravens hope they can make up for lost talent with Martindale’s creative blitzes, which feature multiple players rushing from disguised sets. They haven’t deployed such trickery in their preseason games.

“We’ll see on these Sundays how good it really is,” Martindale said. “We’ve been very vanilla in our fronts, and we’ve been very vanilla in our pressures. Come the season, we’ll have some things schemed up. I can’t wait to move ‘Phee’ [Pernell McPhee] around. Same thing with [Matt] Judon, same thing with Tyus [Bowser]. All those guys that … You saw us in our packages last year. We’ll do some different packages and turn guys loose at the quarterback.”

But the fact remains that the Ravens are hoping to compensate with scheme for what they might lack in one-on-one talent. For years, they’ve regarded pass rushers as overvalued assets and have resisted using first-round picks or lucrative free-agent deals to acquire them. They leaned on Suggs to make up for their lack of spending.

Now, analysts say their cupboard is understocked at one of the NFL’s most prized positions; Pro Football Focus ranked their pass rush eighth-worst in the league in June.

With cuts coming Saturday, Judon and McPhee seem locked in as starters at outside linebacker with Bowser coming on strong and rookie Jaylon Ferguson looking to resume his progress after a concussion kept him out of the third preseason game. That leaves third-year linebacker Tim Williams and veteran Shane Ray competing for what might be just one roster spot.

At times this summer, Williams has flashed his unteachable quickness coming off the edge. But he’s touched the opposing quarterback just once in the past two preseason games, reinforcing his reputation for inconsistency.

Ray has been even less productive, accumulating no tackles and one quarterback hit over the past two games despite the fact that he rushed against second- and third-string blockers. Ravens coaches, and even owner Steve Bisciotti, predicted the former first-round pick might flourish in a new city, but Ray might need a breakout performance in Thursday’s preseason finale against the Washington Redskins just to contend for a job.

Regardless of the exact mix at outside linebacker, the Ravens will ask players with slight track records to stand in for two of their most important defenders from 2018. Their top six edge rushers combined for 10 ½ NFL sacks last year, five fewer than Suggs and Smith.

Bowser, the third-year linebacker who responded to make-or-break ultimatums from coaches with his best training camp as a Raven, said he relishes the task.

“I definitely feel like it’s a reloading type of year — just … having guys who are hungry to go out there and get to the quarterback,” he said. “You always want to prove others wrong when they feel like they’re not confident in what you can do or within the group. It’s like a chip on your shoulder to go out there and show those guys wrong.”

Bowser played 162 defensive snaps in his second season and managed just half a sack. But coach John Harbaugh praised his explosiveness off the edge after he made two tackles for loss in the team’s 26-15 preseason win over the Philadelphia Eagles.


Bowser said he hasn’t paid much attention to the perceived competition at outside linebacker, which Martindale described as a “dead heat” after the Ravens’ preseason opener.

“Really, my mindset overall has just been focusing on me,” he said. “There’s going to be competition every year, and all you can do is control what you can control. That’s what I’ve been doing — staying in the playbook, going out there practicing hard, fixing whatever mistakes I’ve made.”

Bowser actually credited his progress in part to the very players he’ll try to replace. From Suggs and Smith, he picked up subtleties of pass-rushing technique. From departed safety Eric Weddle, he learned how to care for his body.

Though he remains soft-spoken, Bowser scoffed Thursday night when Eagles running back Corey Clement tried to block him one-on-one, a sign of his mounting confidence.

“Being a pass rusher, you should never have a running back being able to block you, simple as that,” he said. “It don’t matter who it is; you’re supposed to go out and beat whoever’s in front of you.”

Not exactly peak Suggsian bravado, but the Ravens will take it.

They hope Bowser will take several steps forward and that McPhee, who went sackless in 13 games for the Redskins last season, has plenty left in his tank to supplement Judon, the most productive pass rusher left from the 2018 team.

Martindale cited Judon as one of several veterans who’ve consistently stood out this preseason, and the fourth-year linebacker will face more scrutiny than at any point in his career. He’ll be expected to shoulder the legacy passed down by Suggs while he strives to earn his own free-agent pay day.

The Ravens need Judon to fulfill the star potential he showed in spurts the last two seasons, because it’s not clear they have anywhere else to turn.

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