Patrick Queen’s rookie season has been hard to explain. On Thursday, he volunteered a summary as good as any.
“I’m there,” the Ravens’ first-round pick said. “I’m just not there at the same time.”
Queen was talking about his struggles in coverage; the sentiment captured Queen’s disjointed season just as concisely. He is an NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year contender, and also among the league’s worst-rated players at his position by Pro Football Focus. He leads all rookie linebackers in tackles, and ranks second among all defenders in missed tackles. He can look like a cornerstone piece on one drive, a worthy successor to Ray Lewis and C.J. Mosley, and then, on the next, like the head-spinning prospect who didn’t start regularly at LSU until last October.
Queen has played, for better or for worse, as his circumstances might suggest — like a 21-year-old with all the potential in the world but few of the privileges typically afforded players his age. No grizzled veteran to learn from. No preseason games to study. No choice but to dive in headfirst as a starter on one of the NFL’s best and most demanding defenses.
“It comes with being a rookie,” Queen said in a video conference call. “Every day I’m going to come in, keep trying to improve on the stuff that I’m getting tested on.”
The good news for Queen is that this Sunday’s test against the Tennessee Titans should look a lot like last Sunday’s against the Patriots. The bad news: His play in a 23-17 loss to New England wasn’t anything you’d brag to your parents about.
As a run stopper, Queen was pushed around at times by the Patriots’ power sets. In coverage, he allowed five catches on seven targets for 52 yards, according to PFF. He was there and he was not there, as he said: reliable enough to see the field on all but two defensive snaps and make a team-high nine tackles, inconsistent enough to allow a 24-yard, trick-play touchdown pass to running back Rex Burkhead.
“It was a different-style game for him,” defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said Thursday. “It was his first time of really old-school football in the National Football League that he’s seen so far this year. He’ll make the adjustments. He’ll get his eyes right. He’ll do all those little things that’s going to help him. I told him, ‘Hey, you either win or you learn in this league.’ And obviously Sunday, he did a lot of learning.”
Some experimenting, too. On a handful of plays, Queen lined up 6 or 7 yards off the line of scrimmage, noticeably deeper than the Ravens’ other inside linebackers and second-level defenders. He explained Thursday that the tweak was to help him better diagnose the Patriots offense, which coach John Harbaugh said Monday has different angles, motions and formations than a typical NFL scheme.
But with space-eating defensive end Calais Campbell unavailable and defensive tackle Brandon Williams injured in the first quarter, the alignment also made Queen more liable to get driven off the ball. He made five stops in the first half, all on runs; the shortest gain was 5 yards, and the rest ranged from 6 to 13 yards. (In the fourth quarter, when the Ravens finally slowed the Patriots’ rushing attack, he had a tackle for loss and nearly helped stuff a third-and-1 run short of the marker.)
Queen said playing with more physicality would “take care of everything else.” That’s perhaps too simple a solution, though. Harris’ longest run Sunday came not because Queen was shying away from contact but because he was perhaps too eager to take it on. On one carry early in the third quarter, instead of keeping watch over his center-guard gap, Queen abandoned it to cut off the path fullback Jakob Johnson hoped to clear for Harris.
A 2-yard relocation cost the Ravens at least 20 yards. Harris, finding no space behind Johnson, cut back toward the gap Queen had vacated, slipped past safety DeShon Elliott and was caught only by a backtracking Marlon Humphrey. Harris’ carry went for 25 yards, a game high. Titans All-Pro Derrick Henry might’ve taken it the full 59 yards.
“A lot of that was new [for Queen], in terms of the offense that we were playing,” Harbaugh said. “The Patriots do a great job with that. They’re very physical; we knew that. They didn’t do anything different than they’ve been doing, generally speaking. It was good, what they did, and that’s tough on linebackers. So he’ll learn from that, for sure.”
Queen’s path to a starting role in Baltimore, if not a starring role, was obvious since April. After the Ravens parted ways last offseason with Josh Bynes and Patrick Onwuasor, they were linked to Day 1 and Day 2 linebacker prospects before the NFL draft. By the No. 28 pick, three traditional inside linebackers had been taken, but not the defensive Most Valuable Player of the College Football Playoff national championship.
Queen filled a need. “He can cover, he can blitz, he can do a lot of different things with the pass,” Ravens director of player personnel Joe Hortiz said after he was taken. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, Queen couldn’t have a regular offseason, couldn’t get live practice repetitions until August and couldn’t face another team’s offense until Week 1, when he became the Ravens’ youngest-ever defensive starter (21 years and one month).
In the two-plus months since, Queen has become a bellwether for the team’s defense, his highlights and lowlights often inextricable from the Ravens’ own. In his first start, despite struggling against the Cleveland Browns’ ground game, he had a sack and a forced fumble. Against the Washington Football Team, he had a career-high 12 tackles, including a one-armed goal-line stop. A week later, he had a strip-sack of Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow and returned a fumble for a touchdown.
His missteps had been easier to overlook until recently, when Queen too often found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was one thing for the Kansas City Chiefs to pick on him in Week 3; Queen’s third game in a Ravens uniform should’ve been a late-August warmup against the Carolina Panthers.
“This year, so far, my coverage has been a little bit shaky,” said Queen, whose running back speed and production in LSU’s pass defense had helped catapult him to the first round. “So it’s something that I need to improve on; I know that teams are going to keep trying me on it.”
Throughout the offseason, Ravens teammates and coaches praised Queen’s intelligence. They hailed his alpha-dog mentality. But even Harbaugh noted in mid-August that the team’s top pick “has a lot to learn, and that’s going to be the case all year.” Entering Week 11, Queen is first on the Ravens in tackles (61) and, according to Pro-Football-Reference, tied for second in the NFL in missed tackles (12). He’s a potential All-Rookie team selection who rates No. 81 among PFF’s 83 qualifying linebackers.
It’s a rookie season that’s been hard to pin down. Really, the most predictable part about it might be Queen’s role in game-changing plays. Against Tennessee, the Ravens will need more of the good kind.
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“I have the utmost trust that he’ll bounce back,” Martindale said, adding: “We’ll get him right. We’ll have him going.”