Ravens’ depth, versatility paying off at outside linebacker

September 17, 2013 | Luke Jones

Ravens’ depth, versatility paying off at outside linebacker

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Though the Ravens’ 1-1 start has been anything but seamless, the hype surrounding the pass-rushing combination of Terrell Suggs and free-agent acquisition Elvis Dumervil has been justified for the Baltimore defense.

Entering the 2013 season with eight Pro Bowl selections and 148 quarterback sacks between them, Suggs and Dumervil have collected a combined four sacks and 10 quarterback hits in their first two weeks together. Considering the money and resources invested by general manager Ozzie Newsome at the outside linebacker position, you expect that kind of production, but another reason to feel optimistic about Suggs, who will turn 31 next month, and the 29-year-old Dumervil being productive over the entire 16-game regular season is the depth and versatility behind them in the Baltimore defense.

With younger players such as Courtney Upshaw and Pernell McPhee spelling the veterans in certain situations, it decreases their total number of opportunities to rack up sacks and pressures but provides an ability to maximize their production when they are on the field. Both Suggs and Dumervil have welcomed younger players receiving opportunities defensively.

“That’s a good thing. You want guys getting after it,” Suggs said following Sunday’s win. “Everybody’s fighting for it.”

With Cleveland expected to establish the running game as opposed to Denver’s wide-open passing attack from Week 1, it was no surprise to see Upshaw start the game at the strong-side linebacker position with Dumervil on the sideline. Ideally, Dumervil is better suited for Suggs’ rush linebacker position than the Sam linebacker spot responsible for setting the edge and focusing more on stopping the run.

Upshaw played 42 of the Ravens’ 63 defensive snaps against the Browns while Dumervil was on the field for 39 plays. This didn’t prevent Dumervil from being a major thorn in the side of Cleveland quarterback Brandon Weeden as he collected a sack, three quarterback hits, and two hurries in 28 pass-rush situations, according to Pro Football Focus. Meanwhile, Upshaw was a major part of a run defense that limited the Browns to just 3.3 yards per carry and 65 yards on the ground.

“Upshaw is a hell of a player, and he’s only [in] year two, so the sky is the limit for him,” Dumervil said prior to the start of the season. “I think the staff does a great job of putting guys where it’s suited best for them, and as a player, you have to be respectful towards what is trying to be accomplished.”

Dumervil wasn’t the only standout linebacker to receive some rest over the course of the game as Suggs took 49 defensive snaps and third-year pass-rush specialist Pernell McPhee participated in 20, often spelling Suggs at his rush linebacker spot. McPhee was converted to outside linebacker in the offseason and while he lacks the skill set of Suggs against the run and in pass coverage, the position change allowed him to shed some weight to take some pressure off his problematic knees and to help keep the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year fresh over the course of games when possible.

Of course, there will be occasions against tougher competition in which the Ravens will lean more heavily on Suggs and Dumervil, but the ability for defensive coordinator Dean Pees to lighten the workload of his veteran outside linebackers will keep them more productive down the stretch when the Ravens will need them at their best.

Dead end with tight ends

The tight end position has been a hot topic for discussion ever since starter Dennis Pitta went down with a serious hip injury in the first week of training camp, and there are no indications that the problem is being fixed until his potential return late this season.

The Ravens showed their level of concern by working out free-agent tight ends Jake Ballard and Matt Mulligan after the season opener, but it’s difficult to expect any addition off the street to make a significant impact. Ed Dickson has struggled mightily to catch the football while 34-year-old Dallas Clark has looked slow running routes and dropped a sure touchdown right before halftime in the Week 1 loss at Denver.

“Those guys need to be a big part of what we are doing,” coach John Harbaugh said. “They are fully capable of making catches. Ed should be a big-play guy up the seam, over routes, and all those kinds of things. We need to get Ed going.”

On paper and in practices, Dickson looks like the prototypical tight end with size, good speed, and strong blocking ability, but trying to cure the mental issue of having a case of the drops isn’t easy. After Dickson dropped a Joe Flacco pass that would have been a nice gain over the middle of the field on the first play of the game on Sunday, the quarterback didn’t target him again.

It spoke volumes for both Dickson and Clark that No. 3 tight end Billy Bajema — known mostly for his blocking — turned in the best performance of the day by making an 18-yard reception. Whether we see more of him, versatile fullback Kyle Juszczyk, or the eventual promotion of Matt Furstenburg from the practice squad, the Ravens need to see improvement from the tight end spot considering the similar questions facing the wide receiver position.

In two games this season, Ravens tight ends have combined for 10 catches and 126 yards. In comparison, New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham had eight catches for 156 yards and a touchdown in the first half of the Saints’ win against Tampa Bay on Sunday.

That type of production from their tight ends in two games just simply isn’t enough in the modern NFL.

Running game concerns

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