There was Justin Madubuike registering sacks on Lamar Jackson on back-to-back plays Monday and Brent Urban swatting away a Tyler Huntley pass, then stopping rookie running back Keaton Mitchell in his tracks around the line of scrimmage. There was also plenty of Michael Pierce pushing his way into the backfield and clogging up running lanes.
“I had a blast today, man,” Pierce said following Monday’s practice.
Nearly a week into training camp, the Baltimore Ravens’ defensive line is seemingly having fun every day, but Monday may have marked its most dominant performance yet this summer. The first padded practice of camp was highlighted by penetration and playmaking from Madubuike, Pierce, Urban and the rest of the interior defensive line. It continued a trend in recent practices, where the defensive line has been the most impressive position group thus far.
When camp started, there were legitimate questions about the Ravens’ interior defensive line depth after they lost veteran Calais Campbell, who played 550 snaps last season, and didn’t definitively replace him. It will take more than five training camp practices for those questions to fade, but at the very least, the returning defensive linemen are justifying the faith of the team’s decision-makers who believed that a splashy addition along the defensive front wasn’t needed.
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Instead, they counted on Pierce coming back healthy; Madubuike and fellow fourth-year pro Broderick Washington building off their best NFL season; Travis Jones making huge strides in his sophomore campaign; and veterans Urban and Angelo Blackson providing depth.
“We obviously miss Calais — we love him — but they want to show that they can not only pick up the slack, but do more,” said assistant head coach and defensive line coach Anthony Weaver. “I’m excited about where the group is heading. I love their work ethic. I just love their attention to detail. I think it’s going to be a fun year.”
Pierce is excited just to have the opportunity to play again. The 355-pound nose tackle broke into the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2016 and played well enough to earn a nice free-agent contract from the Minnesota Vikings four years later. But he played just eight games with the Vikings over two seasons. He returned to Baltimore last offseason and sustained a season-ending, surgery-requiring torn biceps in Week 3.
The 30-year-old considered his options this offseason and opted to take a $2 million pay cut to stay with the Ravens. He also spent the offseason improving his conditioning, and it’s shown early in camp.
“Michael Pierce has really expressed himself out here the way he does, with physicality,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “Today we put the pads on, so he had a chance to do it a little more for real. He looks great doing it. I think he’s in really good shape, and excited to play some football.”
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) July 31, 2023
If Pierce stays healthy, his size and strength could be a difference-maker for the Ravens, who haven’t consistently gotten interior penetration in recent seasons. Pierce, though, is hardly the only defensive lineman motivated to provide it.
Of the six projected members of the regular-season defensive line rotation, Jones is the only one not in his contract year. Madubuike, who had 5.5 sacks last season, and Washington, who had 49 tackles and six pass deflections in 2022, are both entering the final year of their rookie contracts. Urban and Blackson are also on one-year pacts.
Predictably, the group has started training camp looking hungry and focused, and the Ravens’ offensive line has felt the brunt of it.
“It’s a standard that you have to re-establish every year, and I think we did a good job of that today,” Pierce said. “We have a long way to go. It’s just about doing that every day and making sure each and every team knows when they play us, we might not have a $100 million guy (on the defensive line) or whatever the case may be, but when they play us, it’s going to hurt.”
Now, let’s get to the practice observations:
• After Sunday’s off day, the Ravens had every player eligible to practice on the field Monday afternoon. That included rookie first-round pick Zay Flowers, who had missed the previous two practices with a stomach illness. Flowers nearly announced his return with a deep catch down the far sideline. But Jackson’s throw was just out of Flowers’ reach. Cornerback Marlon Humphrey also ran stride for stride with Flowers on the play.
• Second-year cornerback Damarion Williams made his training camp debut as he was activated from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list before Monday’s practice. Williams, who was returning from an ankle injury, participated in the individual part of the team workout and saw limited action in the team session. Williams’ return should heat up the competition for the nickel cornerback role. Brandon Stephens, Ar’Darius Washington and Arthur Maulet are all in the mix, and the Ravens know safety Kyle Hamilton can fill that role as well.
• With Williams activated, Baltimore now has three players remaining on the PUP list: running back J.K. Dobbins, fullback Patrick Ricard and wide receiver Rashod Bateman. Dobbins and Ricard watched much of the workout from the sideline, with Dobbins embracing team owner Steve Bisciotti after arriving on the field.
• Safety Geno Stone left practice early after appearing to get his left leg caught under a pile on Melvin Gordon’s run near the end zone. Stone limped off the field and grabbed his lower left leg. He walked to the training room under his own power. Harbaugh said he didn’t believe the injury was serious.
• With the pads on for the first time of camp, it was predictably a much more physical and spirited practice. Madubuike dragged running back Justice Hill to the ground while trying to force a fumble. After catching a pass in the flat, Hill was driven to the ground by inside linebacker Patrick Queen, who was involved in a few of the collisions. James Proche II was pushed to the ground by rookie inside linebacker Trenton Simpson after getting a decent gain off a Jackson rollout and throw. The offense delivered some blows, too. Tight end Mark Andrews gave Hamilton a stiff arm that generated some oohs and aahs from the offensive side of the field. Running back Gus Edwards also drove Humphrey back a couple of yards on an inside run.
• The most celebrated display of physicality, though, came when rookie edge rusher Malik Hamm extended one arm and threw rookie offensive lineman TyKeem Doss to the ground on the way to rushing the quarterback. The play ended with Sean Ryan catching a pass in the end zone, but that hardly mattered to Humphrey and Odafe Oweh, who rushed onto the field to celebrate with Hamm. Humphrey knocked the rookie from Lafayette to the ground with a flying chest bump.
• Simpson, the rookie third-round pick out of Clemson, seemed to really enjoy the pads being on. He had his most active and productive practice of camp and was noticeably running sideline to sideline. He used his speed to stop an end-around attempt by the Ravens.
• Aside from Jackson, nobody generates as much attention during training camp practices as wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. If he’s not involved in the play or participating in a drill, Beckham is working on his dance moves and acknowledging the fans chanting his name. On Monday, Beckham got the crowd fired up by effortlessly plucking two passes out of the air with one hand. Later, Beckham nearly connected with Jackson on a deep pass, but the ball bounced off his fingertips. Beckham, who had a step on Rock Ya-Sin, laid out for the ball and just missed making the highlight-reel catch. With a little luck, Beckham did make another highlight later in practice, catching a ball that appeared to deflect off both him and Humphrey before it wound up in Beckham’s arms. Humphrey was visibly miffed by the missed opportunity at an interception.
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) July 31, 2023
• Otherwise, the offensive highlight went to Nelson Agholor, who beat Stephens on a fade and scored a rare red zone touchdown for an offense that has struggled in that area early in camp. Agholor got inside position on Stephens and went up and made the play with Stephens draped all over him. Right tackle Morgan Moses rushed to the end zone to celebrate with Agholor, who had his best practice of camp.
• It hardly was a tour de force offensive performance and the defensive line made life really difficult for the first-team offense again. However, the passing game was more precise than it had been in recent practices. The ball didn’t hit the ground as much, either.
• It wasn’t just the starting edge rushers and defensive linemen who were getting into the backfield. Second-year outside linebacker Jeremiah Moon beat Daniel Faalele for a sack of Huntley in the first full-team segment.
• Huntley responded later in practice to throw arguably his best ball of camp. He hit veteran receiver Laquon Treadwell in stride for a big gain down the far sideline. Treadwell beat Jalyn Armour-Davis on the play. The eighth-year receiver dropped another potential touchdown later in practice.
• Armour-Davis, the second-year corner coming off a hip injury, had a good first week, but he struggled Monday and earned himself a pep talk from defensive backs coach Dennard Wilson after he didn’t break quickly enough on a sideline route and Shemar Bridges caught the ball right in front of him.
• Wide receiver Tarik Black had another solid day. He made a back-shoulder catch on a Josh Johnson pass. On the very next play, he lined up on the other side of the field and had another deep reception on a Johnson pass.
(Photo: Terrance Williams / Associated Press)