Ravens defense still waiting on struggling inside linebackers to step up

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Patrick Queen knew expectations were high when he became the third inside linebacker in Ravens history to be selected in the first round of the draft nearly 18 months ago.

“I’ve got a lot to live up to,” said Queen the night he was drafted. “The bar is set high.”

You’re certainly not flying under the radar playing the same position as Pro Football Hall of Famer and 13-time Pro Bowl selection Ray Lewis. Just ask C.J. Mosley, who was frequently labeled as overrated by a sizable portion of the fan base despite being named to four Pro Bowls in his five seasons with Baltimore.

Like all NFL rookies last year, the obstacles faced by Queen and third-round pick Malik Harrison were legitimate, especially trying to learn and play in a defensive system that asks much of its inside linebackers. Both experienced growing pains, but there were also flashes of promise and reasons to expect a second-year jump in 2021 after a full and normal offseason, especially from the gifted Queen who had only one full season as a starter in college.

Instead, the Ravens find themselves struggling to a concerning degree at inside linebacker for the second time in three seasons. It wasn’t supposed to be this way after investing first- and third-round picks at the position, which is a great deal of draft capital to invest at a position not perceived as being all that valuable in today’s game. Of course, that’s relative when trying to pinpoint what’s troubling a defense entering Week 6 ranked 28th in yards allowed per play, 14th in points surrendered, and 22nd in overall efficiency despite the Ravens’ promising 4-1 start overall.

“I see a lot of things. Do you want a grade? Do you want me to go through each play? What can I say?” said head coach John Harbaugh when asked what he’s been seeing at inside linebacker. “I think they can certainly play better. There’s no doubt about that. I think that’s what you’re asking me in a nice way and I appreciate that, but we need more. There’s no doubt about that.”

Having struggled for at least large portions of four of the first five games, Wink Martindale’s defense has been far from perfect at other positions, but the most glaring numbers connect to the play of Queen and Harrison. According to Pro Football Reference, the Ravens are tied for the league lead in missed tackles with Queen among the individual NFL leaders for a second straight year. Football Outsiders ranks Baltimore’s pass coverage efficiency at 21st against tight ends and 29th against running backs, two positions inside linebackers are often tasked with defending.  

Pro Football Focus — an outlet that was pretty high on the LSU product entering the 2020 draft, mind you — has graded Queen last among 83 qualified off-ball linebackers this season after grading him 82nd of 83 as a rookie. Harrison has been better playing the run — which was his forte at Ohio State — but he doesn’t rate much better overall at 72nd in PFF’s grading system.

Suffice to say, the two haven’t taken that meaningful step hoped for under new inside linebackers coach Rob Ryan. The bigger concern is whether they’re regressing as neither appear to be playing with much confidence at this point. 

“I think it’s the full gamut of recognizing different schemes and getting downhill more than anything else and reacting faster to different types of schemes,” said Martindale of the second-year inside linebackers. “Rob has done yeoman’s work as far as trying to get them there, but when the ball is snapped and if they’re slow to it, you’re going to see the results that you see. They just have to react faster, attack, and then once they get there, they need to tackle.”

Though the Ravens want to see improvement from both young linebackers, questions about Harrison’s ability in pass coverage were a big reason why he lasted until late in the third round, a point in the draft when expectations should be more tempered. Questions existed about the 6-foot, 232-pound Queen’s ability to shed blocks playing the run, but his perceived coverage skills, athleticism, and every-down ability were traits that made him the 28th overall pick.

Since a good performance in the season-opening loss at Las Vegas that included nine tackles and a sack, however, Queen has struggled and has occasionally noted as much even after victories. Unlike last year, the plays flashing such enticing upside haven’t come as frequently, which probably isn’t helping the confidence of the 22-year-old. Too often, Queen looks tentative in coverage, struggles to shed blockers, and takes poor angles to the ball.

“It’s a young, fast player that’s trying to do everybody else’s job, and he needs to do his,” Martindale said. “He’s trying to make every play. Just make the plays that he’s supposed to make, and we’ll be good as a defense.”

Might changes be coming as the high-scoring Los Angeles Chargers come to town Sunday?

Two years ago when starters Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young were floundering through the first month of the season, general manager Eric DeCosta signed veterans Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort to all but replace them overnight, but that was demoting a former undrafted free agent and a fourth-round pick. Burying early draft picks so early in their careers would appear unwise, especially with the alternatives on the roster not being all that enticing.

We’ve already seen fourth-year inside linebacker Chris Board take a sizable portion of Harrison’s snaps over the last few games, but the special-teams standout isn’t an ideal every-down option despite faring better in pass coverage. The Ravens did re-sign Bynes at the start of the regular season to boost their depth, but the 32-year-old didn’t play particularly fast in very limited action in Weeks 3 and 4 and was a healthy scratch last Monday night.

Of Baltimore’s many preseason injures, Fort’s torn ACL in mid-August has been one of the most underrated and costly after he steadied such a young inside linebacker group last season. There’s no way of knowing if the 31-year-old would have been as effective being another year older, but Fort was the most consistent and best of the inside linebackers in 2020 and would have at least continued to push the youngsters for meaningful snaps.   

Perhaps the 31-25 overtime win over Indianapolis was a sign of things to come as Queen played a season-low 72% of defensive snaps and Martindale used more dime packages without any inside linebackers on the field in the most obvious passing situations. The Ravens deployed a similar strategy down the stretch in 2019 with a deep secondary, but using dime packages too often leaves a defense more vulnerable against the run.

Whatever happens, patience may be wearing thin, especially knowing what Chargers running back Austin Ekeler is capable of doing as both a rusher and a receiver. The Ravens defense knows it needs to be better across the board, but it’s difficult to look past the position at which the struggles have been most pronounced despite optimism entering the season

“There’s a standard of the defense and we’re not playing up to it right now, so we’ve got to do some different things and change up pictures for upcoming opponents,” Martindale said. “All eyes are ahead to the Chargers right now, and it’s going to be a tough challenge. Just so you know, it’s going to be like a Kansas City-type challenge when you say that.

“That’s one of the things about having a flexible defense like we do. It’ll help us out.”