Jadeveon Clowney had two sacks last season, and the best one happened almost by accident.
In Week 2, on a third-and-long opportunity against New York Jets rookie right tackle Max Mitchell, Clowney’s outside rush took him past Joe Flacco. He was 2 yards behind his target, still being shoved out of the way by Mitchell, when the quarterback wound up for a throw. Clowney reached out his arm. Flacco’s ball met the flailing limb. Fumble. Turnover.
When the Ravens announced Clowney’s signing Friday, 2023 hype was easier to find than 2022 highlights. In his second season with the Cleveland Browns, Clowney had just four quarterback hits and four tackles for loss in 12 games. He was one of the best run defenders on one of the NFL’s worst run defenses. His season had ended early after complaints about his role in the Browns’ system.
In Baltimore, though, Clowney filled a need. The Ravens had the roster space and salary cap space for another outside linebacker. Anthony Weaver, the team’s assistant head coach and a former Texans assistant, had vouched for Clowney, 30, a three-time Pro Bowl selection under him in Houston.
“We have a really high comfort and confidence level with how he’s going to fit in,” coach John Harbaugh said after Clowney agreed to a one-year deal worth up to $6 million.
It might be a different role than he’s used to. Here’s a look at how Clowney can help the Ravens’ defense.
Clowney had an enviable role in Cleveland: Rush the passer opposite Myles Garrett, one of the NFL’s most double-teamed edge defenders. He didn’t do much with the opportunity. Over Clowney’s two seasons with the Browns, he had an 8.1% pressure rate when he lined up as an edge defender or outside linebacker, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. That ranked 98th among qualifying pass rushers in that span.
Clowney can still show flashes of dominance. Even last season, he recorded six hurries against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 14, according to Pro Football Focus, regularly working over right tackle La’el Collins. But Clowney’s stiff lower body kept him from converting pressures into sacks, as it has throughout his career. His struggle to flatten his rush path left him looping around quarterbacks.
In Baltimore, Clowney’s role in the edge-rushing pecking order is unclear. The Ravens do not have an All-Pro like Garrett atop the depth chart, but outside linebacker Odafe Oweh was more productive than Clowney last year and has elevated his game this summer. David Ojabo, a second-round pick in 2022, has the best bend of any Ravens outside linebacker. Tyus Bowser, who’s yet to be cleared for practice as he recovers from a knee injury, finished last season impressively and has a good mix of speed and power.
Harbaugh said Friday that Clowney’s signing “gives us the chance to get four pass rushers on the field on third-down situations.” A day later, he acknowledged that that could mean moving Clowney inside on obvious passing downs, hunting for favorable matchups against guards and centers.
It’s not unfamiliar territory for Clowney. In the twilight of his career, it might actually be his best role. Two years ago, his pressure rate as an interior pass rusher (19.4%) for Cleveland was more than double his pressure rate as an edge defender and outside linebacker (8.7%). He didn’t have a sack in those 31 snaps, but he recorded hurries faster, on average (2.55 seconds), than he did from the outside (3.2 seconds), according to NGS.
Against shorter-armed interior linemen, Clowney does not have to worry about turning the corner. He just has to win with his first move. After that, physics tends to take over. A 6-foot-5, 266-pound “power rusher,” as Harbaugh called him, Clowney can be hard to uproot.
The Ravens can also use Clowney as a piece in their pass-rush games. The Browns rarely featured Clowney and Garrett in stunts and twists; whatever gap they started from was usually where they ended up. Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald’s schemes are more exotic. He’ll blitz an inside linebacker to take out a guard, drop a 330-pound defensive tackle into coverage, show a “Cover 0″ look before the snap and transition into a conventional zone coverage — whatever it might take to unbalance an offense.
The Browns finished with the NFL’s No. 28 rushing defense last season, according to Football Outsiders, but Clowney wasn’t to blame. On PFF, he graded out as the league’s No. 19 run-stopping edge defender among qualifying players.
The Ravens will need his edge-setting ability. Oweh, who was dealing with nagging injuries in 2022, and Bowser, still working back to full strength from a torn Achilles tendon, ranked outside PFF’s top 90 edge defenders in run defense last year. Ojabo was not a stout run defender in college, though his improved strength should help him hold up in his second year. Tavius Robinson is only a rookie.
Clowney, with his impressive wingspan and power, can hold off tackles and control guards at the point of attack. Blocking him with a tight end is almost always a bad idea.
The Ravens’ run defense, one of the NFL’s stingiest last season, will be tested inside the division. The Bengals and Browns finished fourth and sixth, respectively, in rushing offense efficiency last year, according to Football Outsiders, and the Pittsburgh Steelers ranked in the top 10 over the season’s second half.
By adding Clowney, the Ravens can reduce the wear and tear on their already established outside linebackers. “We want enough guys,” Harbaugh said Saturday. “You want to have enough guys. There are a lot of snaps. You’re getting about 1,200 snaps in the season [at each position on the field]. You need all of those guys.”
Clowney’s biggest adjustment in Macdonald’s defense could come in coverage. Over his first nine NFL seasons, he’s rarely played behind the line of scrimmage. Clowney’s career high for coverage snaps came in 2018, with Houston, when he had 29 in 15 games, according to PFF.
Last year, he had just four coverage snaps. His responsibilities were seldom complicated. Typically, they amounted to: “Get in the quarterback’s eye line around the goal line.”
In Macdonald’s system, which values interchangeable skill sets, Clowney could be on the move more. Even Justin Houston last year, at age 33, dropped into coverage on nearly 6% of his defensive snaps, his highest rate since his age-29 season with the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Ravens figure to be cautious with how they use Clowney in pass defense. Historically, he’s struggled with missed tackles, a vulnerability that could be exposed in space. But Clowney’s intelligence as a player has also stood out to Ravens coaches. Over his career, he’s shown an ability to sniff out screens.
On Saturday, with training camp winding down, Clowney took the field for his first practice with the Ravens’ defense. Harbaugh was impressed. The former No. 1 overall pick moved well in team drills. He appeared to be in good shape.
“I thought he fit right in,” Harbaugh said. “He’s learning the defense, but how much defense is there? It’s fronts and a little bit of coverage, and then he’s got to learn the blitz patterns.”
Then Harbaugh caught himself: “Oh, then we drop into coverage a lot.” There was more on Clowney’s plate than he remembered. “But he’s up to it. He’s played a lot of football. He’s a very smart player. Very excited to have him.”