The first Ravens player downfield on the team’s first punt coverage unit Saturday night was the biggest player on the field. Probably the fastest, too. Definitely the only special teams player wearing a jersey in the 90s.
When the Ravens took Odafe Oweh in the first round of the NFL draft, team officials talked excitedly about all the things the Penn State edge rusher could do on defense. His special teams potential, though, went mostly ignored, if it was discussed at all.
But a year after the Ravens limited their newest athletic marvel to defensive responsibilities — inside linebacker Patrick Queen played just 18 special teams snaps as a rookie — Oweh appears on track to double-dip in Year 1. He’s spent training camp learning not only how he fits in Don “Wink” Martindale’s defense, but also how his 6-foot-5, 251-pound frame can be a weapon on Chris Horton’s special teams units.
In the first quarter of their preseason opener Saturday night, the Ravens unleashed Oweh as a gunner. Lined up over New Orleans Saints cornerbacks Prince Amukamura (6-0, 206 pounds) and Grant Haley (5-9, 191 pounds), Oweh took an outside path upfield, toward the sideline, and could not be diverted. He accelerated, and once he got even with Amukamara, he made a beeline for punt returner Easop Winston Jr.
Amukamura kept within touching distance, but it was not a fair fight; he looked like a point guard trying to keep LeBron James out of the lane. Winston signaled for a fair catch when Oweh was still over 10 yards away. He did not want to take any chances, not with No. 99 fast approaching.
“I think it’s just an opportunity to show my athleticism, show my speed and physicality,” Oweh said. “It was fun. Just running down the field and forcing them into a fair catch and everything, I just hope the next time, I get an opportunity to make a play. That was definitely fun, though. I love doing it.”
If Oweh’s role carries over into Week 1, he wouldn’t be the first Ravens gunner to break the mold. Adalius Thomas was one of the NFL’s best and biggest to line up there in the early 2000s, a 6-2, 270-pound missile who drew double teams on punt coverage units. More recently, the Carolina Panthers and Minnesota Vikings have deployed pass rushers Brian Burns and Everson Griffen, respectively, as jumbo-sized gunners.
Whatever Oweh can contribute on special teams this season, it’s unlikely to overshadow his defensive production. He was active throughout the Ravens’ win Saturday, finishing with 20 snaps on defense and three on special teams.
In the first quarter, he shed tackle Ethan Greenidge easily to help stop running back Devonta Freeman for no gain. In the second quarter, he beat Greenidge on an outside pass-rush move, forcing quarterback Jameis Winston to run into defensive lineman Chris Smith and rookie defensive back Brandon Stephens for a sack. Later in the quarter, Oweh dropped deep into coverage on a third-down completion to running back-receiver Ty Montgomery.
“It felt good,” he said of his preseason debut. “It was a big moment. I had to get the jitters out in the first few plays, but after that, it was just football. I was just trying to be active and play hard. I love it. It was a really good experience.”
Queen had a trio of rotating partners at inside linebacker last season. While the first-round pick played over 80% of the team’s defensive snaps in 2020, no other Ravens inside linebacker played more than L.J. Fort’s 35.7%. Chris Board, a special teams standout, played 24.7%, as did third-round pick Malik Harrison. The trio’s roles changed from game to game, sometimes from series to series.
If Saturday was any indication, though, the Ravens could enter Week 1 with a clear partnership at the position. Queen played 20 defensive snaps in the first half before getting the rest of the night off. And whenever the Ravens used a two-inside-linebacker formation, it was Harrison who was next to him.
Their situational usage was unsurprising. On first and second down, both were typically on the field. But on third down, Queen remained, while the more physical Harrison came off for more speed — usually a defensive back like rookie Brandon Stephens or veteran Anthony Levine Sr.
Even in limited action, the second-year players offered a glimpse at a promising linebacker foundation. Queen (four tackles) followed up a first-quarter tackle for loss on a screen pass with a sack of quarterback Taysom Hill. Harrison (four tackles) appeared to force a fumble that ended a potential scoring drive — defensive lineman Broderick Washington was credited with the turnover — and nearly fell on the ball that defensive lineman Justin Madubuike punched out later in the first quarter.
“It’s going to be a great season,” Queen said. “Malik is my guy. We’re always talking. We’re always communicating on the field. So I know what type of player he is, I know what type of player he can be. He expects the same out of me, so it’s going to be a nice season for us two.”
- Jaylon Ferguson, the Football Bowl Subdivision’s career sack leader, arrived in the NFL with a nickname that’s proved hard to live up to. A month out from his third season, “Sack Daddy” might have to make the Ravens’ 53-man roster as a stout, much-improved run defender. He set the edge well Saturday and finished with four tackles, the most among Ravens outside linebackers. Ferguson also split a fourth-quarter sack with Fort that showed his limitations and growth. After getting stonewalled by Saints tackle Derrick Kelly II on a bull rush, he kept chasing after quarterback Ian Book. When outside linebacker Daelin Hayes funneled him back into the middle of the field, Ferguson and Fort finished off the play for an 11-yard loss.
- Asked about Hayes after an impressive practice last week, Harbaugh told SiriusXM NFL Radio that the fifth-round pick has a talent for avoiding blocks. That was clear against New Orleans, which twice had linemen whiff against Hayes on play-action drop-backs. First, Hayes dipped past a pulling J.R. Sweezy to wrap up Winston with defensive lineman Broderick Washington on an eventual incompletion. Later, he ducked out of the reach of Landon Young on his way to pressure Book and force a throwaway.
- Maybe just as impressive as Jake Verity’s two field goals Saturday — he nailed kicks from 42 and 53 yards — were his kickoffs. The undrafted rookie from East Carolina averaged 4.3 seconds of hang time on his three kickoffs, according to Pro Football Focus, and landed them at the 1-yard line and 2 and 5 yards deep in the end zone. No kicker who attempted more than 20 kickoffs last season averaged a hang time of longer than 4.13 seconds. If Verity keeps booming kicks — ideally, for general manager Eric DeCosta, through the uprights — he could become a Kaare Vedvik-esque trade piece for kicker-needy teams.
- The Ravens ran more plays from under center than they have in previous seasons, as offensive coordinator Greg Roman suggested in the offseason that they might. When the Ravens are lined up in the shotgun or pistol formation, Roman’s play-calling seemed to follow a binary: Either they were running the ball, or they were faking the run to set up the pass.
Preseason, Week 2
Saturday, 7 p.m.
TV: Chs. 11, 7
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