Underrated Veteran Can Help Ravens Offset Major Loss

Ravens DT Michael Pierce


Ravens DT Michael Pierce could help replace the pass rush presence of Calais Campbell.

One of the biggest voids and literally the biggest shoes that Baltimore Ravens have to fill on defense for the 2023 season is the loss of six-time Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell.

They had to release the future Hall of Famer in order to get under the salary cap ahead of the start of the new league year after placing the nonexclusive franchise tag on quarterback Lamar Jackson.

“I don’t think you look at it like we’re trying to replace him,” defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald said. “There’s things that he does that not a lot of people can do on the field.”

At 6-foot-8 and 300 pounds with 35.75-inch arms, Campbell is one the most uniquely built defensive linemen in the entire league. Nevertheless, the onus of replacing his pass-rush production could potentially be offset by the return of another massive interior presence that plays a different position with a different skill set but can still be a disruptive force.

“I think Michael Pierce is an underrated interior rusher,” Macdonald said. “When the time comes, I think you’ll see what he can do in pass-downs as well.”

The seven-year veteran had his first season back in Baltimore cut short by a torn biceps injury after the first three games of the year but in that short sample size, he was off to arguably the best season of his career to date, in particular as a pass rusher.

According to Pro Football Focus, he was the second-highest-graded Raven through the first two weeks of the season and despite leaving the Week 3 matchup with the New England Patriots in the first half, he was still their fifth-highest-graded interior defensive lineman in the entire league through three weeks.

Pierce was originally an undrafted gem by the Ravens out of Samford in 2016 and went from establishing himself as an elite run defender during the first four years of his career to being one of what he called the ‘last of a dying breed’ ahead of last season.

Macdonald was impressed with how much of a dominant space-eater in the run defense and consistent pocket pusher he was before going down and is glad to have him back as the anchor in their defensive trenches.

“It was disappointing to lose him,” he said. “Having Mike back in the middle of the defense will definitely be a big point of contention for us moving forward. I’m excited to see what he does.”

Macdonald was getting creative with how he was using both Pierce and Campbell at the beginning of the 2022 season including dropping them into coverage and bringing more pressure off the edge with defensive backs.

In three starts, Pierce recorded six total tackles including four solos, a quarterback hit, a forced fumble, two pressures, a hurry, and a quarterback knockdown according to Pro Football Reference. The 30-year-old agreed to take a pay cut this offseason in order to stay with the team so he could prove to be a massive bargain if he stays healthy and produces at the level the team knows and hopes he can.

Ravens Excited About Young Defensive Line Options As Well

When Pierce went down last year, it provided some of the team’s younger defensive linemen playing on rookie deals the chance to play even more snaps than they were slated to have coming into the year.

“It was an opportunity for the other guys to step in and do a good job for us in the middle,” Macdonald said.

They all flashed enough difference-making potential throughout the season to inspire confidence in their ability to step up again now that Campbell is gone.

“We have a great young core of D-lineman,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for [Justin] Madubuike, for ‘Broady’ [Broderick Washington] to really step up their interior pass rush game. Travis Jones, second year, I mean he’s looking really good out there. [It’s] just an opportunity.”

Madubuike took the biggest leap and showed the most promise of all the young defensive linemen. He tied Campbell for the second-most sacks on the team with a career-high 5.5 and set career highs in total (42), solo (26), and tackles for loss (eight) as well as quarterback hits (nine) and pass deflections (three) per PFR.

Washington also took significant strides in his development and set career highs with 46 total tackles, four quarterback hits, five pressures, and six pass deflections, and added a sack in 17 games that included nine starts per PFR.

Jones was generating a lot of hype and buzz during the preseason with some dominant performances but had his rookie debut delayed by a hyperextended knee injury. Once he recovered, the 2022 third-rounder helped fill the void left by Pierce at nose tackle and flashed game-wrecking potential at times. He finished with 24 total tackles including one for a loss, a sack, a pass deflection, two quarterback hits, and two pressures per PFR.

Ravens Remain ‘Flexible’ With Different Personnel Packages

As much confidence as they have in their young interior defensive linemen, the team won’t only be leaning on them alone to generate pressure and collapse the pocket up the middle.

“We’re flexible with personnel groups,” Macdonald said. “We could sub it out, put another outside ‘backer body in there. [We] could put a DB body on the game inside ‘backer, so it’s flexible at this point.”

The Ravens have a pair of outside linebackers in 2021 first rounder Odafe Oweh and rookie fourth-rounder Tavius Robinson who possess the versatility to line up on the edge as well as inside at Campbell’s five-technique spot and rush the passer.

Their starting inside linebackers combined for seven sacks last season with 2020 first-rounder Patrick Queen finishing fourth on the team in sacks with a career-high five. First-Team All-Pro Roquan Smith finished with a 4.5 on the year with his totals from the Ravens and Chicago Bears combined.

They like to blitz their defensive backs off the edge as well as from depth and got 6.5 sacks from their secondary led by three-time Pro Bowler Marlon Humphrey with a career-high three.

The Ravens were one of the league’s best and most frequent users of three safety personnel packages last season. With veterans Chuck Clark and Marcus Williams manning two starting spots, it freed up 2022 first-rounder Kyle Hamilton to play primarily in the slot during the second half of the year when he really began to take off and become a consistent difference-maker.

According to Macdonald, those personnel packages were a reflection of their tremendous depth at the position last season and also “ended up being just a function of who we felt like gave us the best chance to win.”

“Moving forward, that’s what this process is all about – figuring out who has earned a job and who earns a right to be out there and play for us,” he said. “How many safeties we have out there, that’ll depend on the situation. Could we do three safeties again? Absolutely. You could have more of a nickel body in there this year, I think, depending on who ends up earning that spot.”

With Clark no longer in the fold after being traded to the New York Jets this offseason, the Ravens could turn to 2021 third-rounder Brandon Stephens to fill Hamilton’s hybrid nickel role since head coach John Harbaugh said that he will be focusing more on safety this upcoming season after playing cornerback exclusively last year. They also have a pool of young recently drafted cornerbacks that will be in contention for slot snaps as well.

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