OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Coming off their best performance of the season in which two takeaways were returned for touchdowns, the Ravens still can’t catch a break on defense.
After leaving the game early in the second quarter of Sunday’s 30-16 win over Seattle, veteran outside linebacker Pernell McPhee is expected to miss the remainder of the season with what’s believed to be a torn triceps, according to head coach John Harbaugh. It’s a major blow to a pass rush that has recorded just 12 sacks over the first seven games of the season and has struggled to consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks.
The 30-year-old had collected three sacks and started all seven games after signing a one-year, $1.03 million contract in May to return to Baltimore to help fill the void left by free-agent departures Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith and rejuvenate a career plagued by injuries in recent years. Expected to be more of a situational rusher before younger edge defenders struggled in the preseason, McPhee was averaging a career-high 42.5 defensive snaps per game through the first six weeks, serving both as an edge defender and as an interior rusher in obvious passing situations.
“He wanted to prove himself. He wanted to get back on track and demonstrate that he still could play,” Harbaugh said. “And to do it here, to be the leader that he was, he’s been instrumental. He’s been instrumental with the young guys. He’s been a very good player for us.
“I see no reason why he can’t recover from a triceps injury and be back next year stronger than ever.”
McPhee’s injury creates even more urgency for general manager Eric DeCosta to add pass-rushing help by the Oct. 29 trade deadline, but the Ravens started Monday with just $1.933 million in 2019 salary cap space, according to the NFL Players Association. With McPhee playing only 12 defensive snaps against Seattle, rookie Jaylon Ferguson played 46 defensive snaps, third-year outside linebacker Tyus Bowser played 22, and situational rusher Jihad Ward saw 39.
With limited resources available and not knowing how much other teams might ask for an impact pass rusher in a potential trade, the Ravens’ best bet for meaningful improvement might be the continued development of Ferguson, who was drafted in the third round out of Louisiana Tech in April and holds the NCAA Division I career sacks record previously set by Suggs. The 6-foot-5, 270-pound Ferguson finished with three tackles (one for a loss) and a quarterback hit against the Seahawks.
“He played his best game, a very physical game and against a couple of really big, grabby tackles to say the least,” Harbaugh said. “He was strong at the point of attack and applied pressure, ran to the ball. He played really well.”
Sunday marked the third straight game in which a Baltimore defensive player was lost to a season-ending injury after starting strong safety Tony Jefferson sustained a torn ACL in Week 5 and reserve safety DeShon Elliott hurt his knee in Week 6.
Business decision with Bethel
The Ravens signing unrestricted free-agent cornerback Justin Bethel in the opening week of free agency was always surprising because of the negative impact on the compensatory pick formula, but it spoke to how they valued the three-time Pro Bowl special-teams player.
Their hand was forced over the weekend, however, when Tennessee released former Baltimore defensive end Brent Urban, a move that would have stripped the Ravens of a projected 2020 fourth-round compensatory pick had Bethel remained on the roster through Week 10. Despite the 29-year-old leading Baltimore with four special-teams tackles this season, DeCosta simply couldn’t justify passing on an early Day 3 draft pick to keep someone who’s played only 16 defensive snaps this season.
Bethel was released Monday, giving the coaching staff time over the bye week to account for his departure.
“That’s tough for us because he’s playing [so well],” Harbaugh said. “I told him I think he’s the best special-teams player in the NFL, and he’s playing that way. That’s going to be a blow, and we’re going to have to find a way to overcome that.”
Full strength after bye week?
Despite the McPhee injury, Harbaugh expressed optimism about his team’s health coming out of the Week 8 bye with an exciting Nov. 3 showdown with New England looming.
Wide receiver Marquise Brown (ankle) and inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor (ankle) have missed the last two games while cornerback Jimmy Smith (knee) has been out since the season opener, but all are on track to return against the Patriots, according to Harbaugh. Reserve cornerback Maurice Canady also missed Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury suffered against Cincinnati in Week 6.
“We feel very confident we should have all those guys back barring a setback, so to speak, and I can’t even imagine what that would be right now,” Harbaugh said. “Very optimistic that we’ll be full strength coming out of the bye.”
Smith worked out on a limited basis last week before missing his sixth straight game, but neither Brown nor Onwuasor have seen the practice field since being injured in the Week 5 win at Pittsburgh.