Despite facing third-and-14, the Los Angeles Chargers were on the verge of making it a one-score game against the Ravens early in the fourth quarter last Sunday night.
But outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney had other ideas, beating Chargers right tackle Trey Pipkins to rip the ball away from quarterback Justin Herbert and recover it at Baltimore’s 23-yard line. Instead of concluding a 19-play, 61-yard drive lasting nearly nine minutes with points, Los Angeles came away with nothing and the Ravens maintained their 13-3 lead.
There’s no telling how the rest of the game might have played out had the Chargers at least kicked a field goal there, but the significance of Clowney’s strip-sack wasn’t lost on head coach John Harbaugh in the wake of the 20-10 victory.
“That might’ve been the play of the game,” Harbaugh said. “That rush, that sack, that recovery, the whole thing was just a Hall of Fame-type play.”
If you ask outside linebackers coach Chuck Smith, such a play was years in the making for the 30-year-old Clowney, who’s already turning out to be one of the best free-agent signings in franchise history. Even the biggest fans of the one-year, $2.505 million base deal — plus incentives — signed in mid-August couldn’t have envisioned it paying such dividends with the three-time Pro Bowl selection collecting 7 1/2 sacks and Pro Football Focus crediting him with a team-high 55 pressures, which is seventh in the NFL and on pace to exceed his career high of 64 set with Houston in 2017. Clowney also has a strong chance to register the first double-digit sack season of his career with PFF grading him 18th overall out of 106 qualified edge defenders in 2023.
In truth, this was the kind of season that was supposed to be the norm for Clowney, who was the top overall pick of the 2014 draft and regarded as a generational talent coming out of the University of South Carolina. As Smith noted, Clowney “always had the physical presence” and “violent hands” to help him carve out a still-rock-solid career, but the veteran hadn’t fully mastered the cross chop, the pass-rush move that led to his defining play in Sunday night’s game.
“There’s nobody in this building probably except Lamar Jackson who’s had as much pressure as Jadeveon Clowney,” said Smith, who worked as a private pass-rush coach for years before being hired by Baltimore this past offseason. “When you look at him, the first thing I’ll say is I was training Clowney years ago. The bottom line is he was trying to learn how to do the cross chop — as simple as that. It’s his go-to move.
“He’s always had power. What you see is the difference in Jadeveon Clowney in Tennessee, the difference in Jadeveon Clowney in other places is that he’s developed a skill move.”
Good health has also helped as Clowney has appeared in all 12 contests after stating in August that his primary goal was to play in every game this season to help Baltimore try to win a Super Bowl. The 6-foot-5, 255-pound edge rusher has played in every contest in a season just once, which was the 2017 campaign in which he registered a career-high 9 1/2 sacks.
Given his extensive injury history that included microfracture knee surgery as a rookie and has led to three or more missed games in a season six times, the Ravens must resist the urge to push Clowney too hard down the stretch, especially with the anticipated playoff run to follow. The veteran has logged no more than 49 defensive snaps in a game this season and is averaging just under 39 per contest.
Clowney’s impact has been greater than anticipated for a defense first in the NFL in sacks and leading the AFC in points allowed per game entering Week 13, but one other individual familiar with Clowney prior to his arrival in Owings Mills hasn’t been shocked.
“He plays the game violently. Sometimes, that doesn’t always show up on the stat sheet, but it doesn’t mean he’s not being impactful,” said defensive line coach Anthony Weaver, who also coached Clowney with the Texans from 2016-18. “To have him come out here and play the way he’s playing right now in Year 10, it’s funny from my aspect just seeing him as really this old, grizzled vet now. When I got him, he was this young buck.
“It’s really not surprising at all because what you see from him every Sunday so far this year is what I’ve seen from him for a number of years now.”
Only he’s perfected that game-changing pass-rush move.
Ojabo out for season, Bowser still hoping for return
Clowney and fellow veteran Kyle Van Noy have certainly picked up the slack and then some for an outside linebacker room that was expected to look much different back in July.
Harbaugh confirmed earlier this week that 2022 second-round pick David Ojabo would miss the rest of the season after undergoing surgery to repair a partially torn ACL. The Michigan product appeared in just three games before landing on injured reserve in late September with knee and ankle injuries and has now missed all but five games over his first two seasons.
“He wanted to play. Even I told him, I said, ‘Man, you have to get that right for the rest of your career because it’s a clean type of a surgery,’” Harbaugh said. “He’ll be rolling again at training camp at the latest.”
Ojabo missed most of his rookie year with a torn Achilles tendon suffered the month before the draft, an injury that caused him to fall to the 45th overall pick. Few doubt the 23-year-old’s potential, but he was also regarded as a raw prospect coming out of college and has missed out on a ton of developmental time over the last two years.
While Ojabo is done for the season, Harbaugh provided an all-too-familiar update on veteran outside linebacker Tyus Bowser, who remains on the non-football injury list with a knee issue that’s sidelined him since spring workouts.
“Tyus is just trying to get the knee where it can basically handle the load [with] the swelling and stuff like that,” Harbaugh said. “It’s just an angry knee I guess. I really haven’t been told exactly. I think it’s a hard one to decipher. It’s why we haven’t been very clear with it, but when it calms down enough, he’s going to be back playing.
“I know he’s working toward that, and if and when we get him back, it’d be a huge bonus for us.”