OWINGS MILLS, Md. — One of the stories leading into the 2016 season was the Ravens’ need to find young pass rushers to complement two perennial Pro Bowl selections on the wrong side of 30.
Early expectations have understandably been tempered for 33-year-old linebacker Terrell Suggs as he returns from last season’s Achilles tendon injury, but Baltimore was never expecting to be without fellow outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who is in line to miss his second straight game on Sunday in Cleveland. The 32-year-old underwent foot surgery in the offseason and hit the practice field on Aug. 22 before suffering a setback only a few days later.
His absence is putting early strain on a pass rush trying to improve from last year when the Ravens accumulated 37 sacks, 12 fewer than their 2014 total. It remains unclear when Dumervil will make his season debut as he continues to strengthen the foot and work out at the team’s training facility.
“I feel like I’m getting close, but I don’t know what close means yet,” Dumervil said Thursday. “We’re working hard, working with the guys here. I’m really getting better, so looking forward to really soon.”
Entering Week 2, the absence of Dumervil has been compounded by the uncertain status of Za’Darius Smith, who has been absent from practices this week with a lingering ankle injury sustained in late August. The second-year linebacker played in Week 1 without making a major impact, registering one tackle in 36 snaps.
Despite a matchup in the opener in which the Ravens did not want to flush mobile quarterback Tyrod Taylor from the pocket, defensive coordinator Dean Pees did use the blitz to disrupt at critical points. Baltimore registered two sacks and six quarterback hits while holding the Bills to 160 total yards in the 13-7 win.
“We didn’t want to let the cat out of the bag with our game plan,” said Suggs, who will now face nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas in Week 2. “We didn’t want him to change the game with explosive plays, and he still got out a couple times. He got away from us, he broke out of some sacks, and he was still able to make some plays. You had to be disciplined in your rush.”
Taking over for the injured Robert Griffin III, Browns quarterback Josh McCown is the more traditional pocket passer, and the Ravens will not want him to get comfortable in the pocket to repeat anything resembling his recent performances against them.
With Smith in the mix on Sunday, the Ravens were already using rookie fifth-round pick Matt Judon as part of the rotation. Rookie second-rounder Kamalei Correa could now be in line to receive some snaps on defense after seeing special-teams action only against Buffalo.
Pees wasn’t overwhelmed by the performance of the pass rush when he didn’t send extra blitzers, but there isn’t much experience on which to rely beyond Suggs and veteran Albert McClellan, who is much more of a run-stopping linebacker.
“We can do better. We’re OK,” said Pees about the Week 1 pass rush. “We have to get a lot better with just a straight four-man rush. We don’t want to rely every time that we can only get pressure when we [use the] extended pressure package. We just have to keep working on it. I’m happy with where they are — especially the young guys — but we just have to keep building on it and getting better.”
Of course, Suggs returning to his pre-injury form would go a long way in helping the cause, but the Ravens must exercise caution with a player in his 14th season and coming off his second Achilles injury in a four-year period.
Pees will largely lean on the six-time Pro Bowl selection and 2011 AP Defensive Player of the Year to determine his workload on a week-by-week basis.
“He’s always going to put the team first,” Pees said. “This guy has a Hall of Fame career and could sit there and say, ‘I want it to be about me,’ and he’s not. He and I talked and said, ‘Here’s probably about how many reps we have to get.’ I said, ‘Look, there are going to be certain situations where I have to have you and I can’t have you tired.’ He said, ‘Absolutely.’ That’s just the ultimate pro right there.”
After spending all of last season leaning heavily on Dumervil, the Ravens can’t wait to have their veteran pass rushers back on the field together for the first time since 2014 when they combined for an imposing 29 sacks.
Pees will try to find a silver lining in giving early opportunities to young pass rushers in hopes of speeding up their development, but the man who piled up 32 1/2 sacks in his first three seasons with Baltimore is itching to return.
And the Ravens need him sooner rather than later.
“You definitely want to go out and contribute the best you can,” Dumervil said. “In due time — when the time is right — I’ll be ready. I’m definitely learning more patience. The good thing is it’s coming, so it’s exciting.”