The more the Ravens struggled on offense last winter, the more it became obvious just how much they missed their biggest missing piece. With quarterback Lamar Jackson active, they were dynamic, well-rounded, productive. Without him, they were … not that.
The more the Ravens excelled on defense last winter, however, the harder it became to see they were missing a piece, too. Not quite a quarterback of the unit but a star at a premium position. Few defenses were better by the end of the regular season, an accomplishment all the more remarkable considering just how much they’d spent at edge rusher (quite a lot) and just how much pass-rush production the group could muster (only a little).
Over their last nine regular-season games, Ravens outside linebackers combined for just 10 1/2 sacks, not even half of the team’s 25 total takedowns. It mattered only so much. Justin Houston had a team-high 3 1/2 sacks over the season’s final two months, and still the Ravens ranked third in the NFL in defensive efficiency during that span, according to Football Outsiders.
The only two defenses that rated better? The 49ers and Patriots. Their star pass rushers? Nick Bosa, who had 10 sacks for San Francisco from Week 9 on, and Josh Uche, who had 10 1/2 sacks for New England in that period.
The hope in Baltimore is that this offseason marks an inflection point in the Ravens’ investment at the position. Their top assets are no longer as distressed as they were a year ago. Odafe Oweh, a first-round pick in 2021, is past the shoulder rehabilitation that disrupted his 2022 offseason. David Ojabo, a second-round pick in 2022, is “110%” healthy after overcoming a torn Achilles tendon. Tyus Bowser, a 2017 second-round pick and for now the group’s most experienced and productive player, should enter training camp without any limitations, his own return from an Achilles injury long since completed.
“This is the first year I didn’t have a surgery or something like that,” Oweh said after a workout Wednesday. “David is coming off the Achilles. Tyus is coming off the Achilles. We’re all just, I want to say, 100%, and we’ve had a lot of time [to] just [home] in on our skills, and trying to get our bodies back to where we want to be. So that’s really going to help. And for me, it’s helped me as well, because I can [home] in on getting stronger. I can [home] in on getting better in the playbook and stuff like that. So it should be good for all three of us.”
Oweh and Ojabo were mum on their personal goals for 2023, but they’d probably prefer to avoid having Marlon Humphrey as a pass-rush peer. Oweh had three sacks in 17 games last season, as many as the Ravens’ star cornerback did. Ojabo had one sack in two appearances and was inactive for seven other games, a victim of a numbers crunch at outside linebacker. Bowser matched inside linebacker Roquan Smith and safety Kyle Hamilton with two sacks in his nine games.
Houston, who remains unsigned, finished with a team-high 9 1/2 sacks last season but had just one after the Ravens’ Week 10 bye. Behind him were two defensive linemen — Justin Madubuike (5 1/2 sacks) and Calais Campbell (5 1/2), now with the Atlanta Falcons — and an inside linebacker, Patrick Queen (five). Oweh tied with outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul and Humphrey for fifth on the team.
Overall, the Ravens finished sixth in the NFL in total sacks (48) despite ranking just 17th in ESPN’s pass-rush win rate and 25th in Pro Football Reference’s pressure rate. Part of the credit goes to their elite run defense, which set up countless second- and third-and-longs. Part of the credit goes to second-level defenders like Queen and Hamilton, who graded out as two of the team’s best pass rushers. Part of the credit goes to defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, whose varied mix of “creepers” and simulated pressures toyed with quarterbacks and pass protections.
Next season, though, the Ravens will need more from their edge rushers. Oweh seemed primed for a breakout 2022 after a dominant training camp, but he struggled in the regular season, recording one sack in his first 11 games. Ojabo played just 21 defensive snaps in the regular season. Bowser appeared in nine games, the first time in his career he’s missed more than one in a season. All three ranked among the NFL’s top 61 edge rushers in win rate, according to Pro Football Focus, but none ranked higher than No. 38.
“It’s about always trying to push the envelope forward and keep improving,” Macdonald said Wednesday. “A lot of the credit for that was from our improvement throughout the course of last year — again, really looking forward to this year — but it’s just the guys’ mentality of trying to improve and trying to keep getting better until we find a sweet spot of where we kind of live schematically, and we’re comfortable with that. This year, really, the mentality is, we want to just keep taking our game to the next level, whatever the situation is.”
Their offseason is off to a promising start. In March, the Ravens hired Chuck Smith as outside linebackers coach; Oweh called the pass-rush specialist a “guru” and said he’s getting “little tidbits that I wouldn’t have necessarily gotten from the past years and everything.”
Macdonald said Ojabo has put on some “good weight” — up to about 255 pounds, his projected playing weight — without losing any burst; the former Michigan star, who played for Macdonald in 2021, said he feels more explosive than he did before his injury.
And the more that Macdonald and Ravens coaches watched of Oweh’s 2022 film, the more they liked what they saw. Not all of it showed up in the box score, but it pointed toward a brighter 2023, toward a potentially elite defense with one fewer hole to fill.
“I don’t forget [last year],” Oweh said. “I use it as kind of motivation, but obviously, it’s like you want to switch. But I didn’t really take a lot of offseason. I went straight to the gym, just trying to get strong, because I know there’s no real offseason. Obviously, you’ve got to switch your mode to, ‘All right, it’s the next page. What are we going to do this year?’ As a competitor, you remember things that you’ve got to work on. You remember the things you missed on, so you can bounce back for the next year.”