Having already eclipsed 100 sacks in an impressive NFL career, Justin Houston admittedly wasn’t sure about playing a 12th season before returning to the Ravens on a one-year deal back in July.
One wonders if the 33-year-old was having second thoughts after a lack of depth on the edge forced him to play more than 100 snaps over the season’s first two weeks — even if he’d registered a sack in each game. A Week 3 groin injury didn’t help as Houston watched the Ravens blow double-digit leads in two of the next three games to fall to an underwhelming 3-3.
But returning to a defense with growing confidence and improving depth at outside linebacker, a healthy Houston is wreaking havoc like the younger version of himself who made four straight Pro Bowls for Kansas City from 2012-15. The veteran edge defender has collected 6 1/2 sacks in just 73 snaps over the last three games with Next Gen Stats ranking him as the NFL’s most efficient pass rusher by pressure rate and sack rate through Week 9. It’s a reflection of a growing rotation that should help veterans like Houston and Jason Pierre-Paul and even younger options remain productive and fresh over a long season.
With his 2 1/2 sacks and interception in Monday’s 27-13 win at New Orleans, Houston became the first player in Ravens history to register multiple sacks in three straight games, which is quite an accomplishment playing for a franchise built on a tradition of defensive dominance. Baltimore is certainly happy Houston didn’t retire this summer.
“He just has a knack, but also, he’s still talented,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s still explosive. He’s still strong. He works really hard to keep himself in great shape and all that. He said it to the team [that it’s] not just him. All those other guys are setting [it] up.”
The dominance was certainly a team effort as the Ravens held the Saints to a season-low 243 yards and their second-lowest point total of the season. The defensive front harassed veteran quarterback Andy Dalton, the linebackers neutralized five-time Pro Bowl running back Alvin Kamara, and the secondary didn’t give up much of anything until the game was already decided in the fourth quarter.
That’s right, the Ravens were able to finish — beyond a lapse in judgment from safety Chuck Clark that led to the Saints’ lone touchdown of the night with just over four minutes to go. And with All-Pro tight end Mark Andrews and other skill players sidelined with injuries in Week 9, it was the perfect time for Baltimore’s best defensive performance of the year.
Houston was simply the headliner.
“We had a lot of growing pains at the beginning of the season, and we are still growing,” said Houston, who’s already collected the most sacks in a whole season by a Raven since Matthew Judon’s 9 1/2 in 2019. “We still left a lot of plays out there tonight. The thing is what we have in mind as a defense is that it is every man in that room — it’s not just one or two guys. It’s the whole defense.
“When you’ve got a bunch of hungry dogs and they really want it and come together as one, the sky is the limit. I think that’s what we have.”
Whether it was the arrival of standout inside linebacker Roquan Smith, the return of Tyus Bowser, an increasing level of swagger, or a combination of those factors, the Ravens played with a degree of physicality and intensity over 60 minutes that we simply hadn’t seen this season. And when you factor in the anticipated post-bye debut of rookie David Ojabo and the expected return of free safety Marcus Williams in December, the potential of this Ravens defense has washed away most of those early-season concerns.
Even the lack of an established No. 3 corner hasn’t felt as concerning with rookie first-round safety Kyle Hamilton becoming a bigger factor in sub packages in recent weeks. And while facing his share of criticism in his first year as defensive coordinator, Mike Macdonald deserves plenty of credit for pushing all the right buttons in Monday night’s effort.
That last point wasn’t lost on the newcomer Smith, who immediately made his presence felt with five tackles and back-to-back stuffs of Kamara to conclude the Saints’ second drive of the evening. Imagine what the former Chicago Bear might do once he gets comfortable playing next to the improving Patrick Queen and the rest of a defense with no shortage of talent.
“I’m going to get accustomed, and it’s going to be scary after I get it all down pat, so I’m excited,” Smith said. “I love the way Mike calls the game, so I think there’s going to be so many great things in store for us.”
That certainly appeared to be the case Monday night as the first-place Ravens won their third straight game to enter the bye week more confident than they’ve looked all season.