When Pro Bowl linebacker Roquan Smith takes the day off, there are massive shoes to fill. Nobody quite delivers the fire-and-brimstone pregame speeches like he does.
On Saturday, it fell to 32-year-old Kyle Van Noy to fill in, addressing the Ravens through sheets of cold rain. It was an admirable attempt.
“He did all right,” linebacker Patrick Queen said. “He’s kind of like on the more calm side. He doesn’t curse. He doesn’t try to get extremely hype. He try to do the little bouncing around stuff like we’re in high school. But, out of 10, I would probably say like a three out of 10.”
The pregame speech is the only area where the Ravens’ 30-and-over pass-rushing and defensive line corps hasn’t delivered this season. With Van Noy, Jadeveon Clowney, Michael Pierce and Brent Urban’s career performances throughout the campaign, a theme has emerged:
Old guys rule.
Amid a tedious 17-10 loss that meant very little in the grand scheme of things, the best moment for the Ravens came in the second quarter, when Clowney plowed through Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph for a strip sack. Though Clowney, who will turn 31 next month, was slow to realize it, the play meant for the first time in his career he had reached 9.5 sacks, triggering a $750,000 incentive in his contract.
For two weeks, Clowney had been telling his Ravens teammates how close he had come to that money. Though he got one sack in San Francisco on Christmas, he felt he had missed two others. Against Miami last week, he missed a sack of Tua Tagovailoa that would have pushed him over the top.
So it was his Baltimore compatriots who were the first to tell him, Yes, Jadeveon, you did it. Clowney celebrated by waving his hands in fitful circles and dancing while the Steelers were still in the huddle.
“That was a very long celebration,” Pierce remarked. “That might be a record for longest celebration.”
Clowney’s elation had plenty of merit. Aside from the money, which Clowney joked isn’t going far — “I got three kids; I gotta continue to look after them,” he said — setting a career high in sacks in his 10th season is a huge bounce-back for the outside linebacker after a disappointing end to his tenure in Cleveland (three sacks in 2022).
The Ravens scooped him up close to the start of the season with relatively modest expectations. Clowney blew them out of the water, helping Baltimore lead the NFL in sacks. Though he narrowly missed his goal of reaching double-digit sacks for the first time, he credited his offseason regimen with preparing him to have one of the best seasons of his career.
“We stayed consistent, stayed doing workouts — even when I didn’t want to,” he said. “Even going to the clubs. After the clubs, wake up the next morning, go in. Work hard, play hard, baby.”
Clowney wasn’t the only Raven who cashed in Saturday. Before kickoff, ESPN reported that Pierce, who has played six of his seven NFL seasons in Baltimore, agreed to a two-year, $7.5 million extension to keep him in purple and black through 2025. After being plagued by injuries the past two seasons, “the Juggernaut” has played in every regular-season game this year and set career highs in snaps and QB pressures.
Pierce seemed surprised by the opportunity to continue playing in Baltimore, the place he’s come to think of as his NFL home. While his stats will never stand out among his peers, Pierce thinks of himself along the lines of Albert McClellan or Anthony Levine – the “glue guys” who keep the Ravens’ defensive machine humming.
“Those were guys who took a liking to me when I was undrafted and kinda showed me the way,” Pierce said. “So it’s an honor to them that I’m still playing and I kinda know what’s going on. And I just try to follow in that kinda mold.”
Though Saturday’s game was entirely forgettable, the Ravens vets kept tacking on to their substantial seasons. Van Noy added a sack to come to nine for the year, a career high despite not being signed until Week 4. The two-time Super Bowl champ may not be the speech specialist, but he’s helped stoke a sense of calm. “Some of the higher-stakes games that KV has been in, he’s been giving a lot, a lot of good advice, just keeping guys mentally focused throughout the whole season,” Pierce said.
Pierce added six tackles and helped keep the pressure on Mason Rudolph, who was sacked three times. Brent Urban had to leave the game to be checked for a concussion, but that doesn’t change that he also had a career high in sacks (three) this season while filling a key role, especially in run-stopping.
Alongside sack leader Justin Madubuike (13 sacks), the veteran group has set a tone for the defense that has been greater than the sum of its parts. Coach John Harbaugh said particularly of Van Noy and Clowney, “they followed through with everything they said they wanted to do and more.”
Even though they may not have the same invigorating speeches as Smith — and who does? — their confidence and calm have been a guiding force for the Ravens, who’ll need even more of both in the games to come.
“When you have guys like that, that know the game so well, that have been in the game for a long time, they find ways to still do their job but try to weave their way through and do something else on their own,” Queen said. “Those guys help every single person in our room. Hats off to those guys for being the guys that they are, because they didn’t have to come in trying to help anybody, but they did.”