Some thought the Ravens' pass rush would be a major problem, and it has been - for their opponents.
Baltimore has pressured quarterbacks in 2022 far more effectively than most people anticipated, tied for fifth in the NFL with 35 sacks heading into Sunday's game against the Broncos. The Ravens have registered at least three sacks in seven straight games, the longest current streak in the league.
Head Coach John Harbaugh knows it will be paramount for the Ravens to keep the heat on opposing quarterbacks in December and January as they prepare for Sunday's game against the Broncos.
"The pass rush is important, as you guys have written so often over the years here.It's a narrative that has been flipped; that's a good thing," Harbaugh said.
"I like these guys. You've got to throw the timing of the quarterback off, you have to move him off the spot, you have to disguise, you have to change the picture on him. All those things are really important in this league. Then, above all, you have to earn the right to rush the passer. What does that mean? You have to stop the run. You have to put them in passing situations. So, our guys have done a good job of that, but we can get better."
Impressively, the Ravens have put up their sack numbers largely without Tyus Bowser, who missed the first eight games of the season. They've done it despite Odafe Oweh having just one sack.
Four different Ravens have at least 3 ½ sacks - Houston (9.0), Calais Campbell (5.5), Patrick Queen (4.0) and Justin Madubuike (3.5). They're getting more pass rush from their defensive line, they've added a veteran pass rusher in Jason Pierre-Paul (two sacks) who has strengthened the edge rotation, and Houston is having one of his best seasons at age 33.
Baltimore is rushing the quarterback differently under new Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald, who isn't bringing the house nearly as often as his predecessor Wink Martindale. Now with the Giants, Martindale is still blitzing like no other coordinator, and has them leading the NFL in blitz percentage (42.3%) heading into Week 13.
Meanwhile, the Ravens are ranked just 22nd in blitz percentage (21.6), but already have more sacks than last season (34). Campbell almost had a game-winning sack in Week 12, forcing Lawrence to fumble on the first play of Jacksonville's final drive. However, the Jaguars recovered the loose football and proceeded to march down the field for the game-winning score.
After watching that disappointing outcome, Macdonald still views the pass rush and the overall defense as a work in progress.
"Sacks, it's a great stat. It's great to get sacks; obviously you want to affect the quarterback, but I think it's misleading at times as well," Macdonald said. "When we're rushing the passer the best, are the sack numbers going to be there? I don't know; I can't tell you that.
"I think it's a play-by-play basis. Are we pleased with where our pass rush is at right now? Yes, I'd say so, but you watch the last game's tape, and there were situations where we made the quarterback hold the ball, and we didn't get home. There were situations where we won clean, and the ball was out. So, the thing that we're trying to do is marry that together so we're a little bit more consistent."
Bowser's first sack of the season against Jacksonville typified the collaborative pressure that Baltimore is getting from many contributors. Bowser roared into the backfield from Trevor Lawrence's blindside, forcing the Jaguars quarterback to step up, where he was immediately encountered by Houston bringing pressure from the opposite side. Houston didn't get the sack, but he made Lawrence detour, which allowed Bowser to crush Lawrence from his blindside and force a fumble.
"We're going out there and playing fast," Bowser said. "For that play to happen, it motivates me and continues to boost my confidence going into each and every week."
Baltimore's pass rush will be bearing down Sunday on Russell Wilson, who has been sacked more than any quarterback this season (35) except Justin Fields of the Bears (40). Houston believes the Ravens' pass rush will be a major factor in how far they can go this season.
"It's a passing league now, even with the run-pass options, that's what it's become," Houston said. "When you impact the quarterback, you impact the game.
"We just need to keep being relentless. That's the mindset we should have whenever we step on the field. You want the guy who's blocking you to tap-out before you do. That's the good thing about being a pass-rusher. The guy blocking me has to be perfect the whole game. I've only got to beat him once or twice."
Campbell has 99 career sacks and hopes to get his milestone 100th sack against Wilson on Sunday. However, Campbell's ultimate goal is winning a Super Bowl, and he believes the Ravens have the kind of pass rush that can help them reach the playoffs and make noise once they get there.
"You've seen so many Super Bowls and playoff games determined by a sack, a strip sack, or pressure forcing a quarterback into a mistake," Campbell said. "That's the kind of pass rush we have. We have a lot of guys who can make a key play at the right time. Hopefully that gets us where we want to go."