No Terrell Suggs. No CJ Mosely. Where does the Ravens defense go from here?
As the 2019 season began, that was one of the biggest question marks surrounding Baltimore's tenacious front. Not only did Suggs move to Arizona and Mosley's signing with the Jets mean the Ravens were losing two talented players, but they also were losing vocal leaders as well.
On defense, having someone who can rally, inspire and communicate with the unit is sometimes just as important as having guys that can make the tackles. So with two of those key guys gone, who was going to step up in 2019?
The answer lied within a pair of players from the 2016 class: Patrick Onwuasor and Matt Judon.
When Onwuasor, who is referred to often as "Peanut" broke into the league that year, it was hard for even him to imagine being in the position he now finds himself in. An undrafted safety from Portland State, Onwuasor had never even planned on being a linebacker, much less the guy who was going to take over for CJ Mosely.
“No," Onwuasor said when asked if he ever pictured being in this spot. "I just know I had a role and whatever my role was, I was going to get the job done, and now this is my role and I’m going to try and get it done.”
His new role revolves around the No. 1 inside linebacker position on the defense. With that comes being the mic, meaning he'll be the main communicator on the defense. As someone who has only has three seasons under his belt and has never started all 16 games, he's quickly transformed into the veteran everyone is looking to.
If that's not intimidating enough, he's got some big shoes to fill. The four-time Pro Bowler CJ Mosley was a constant force in the middle of the Ravens' defense during his five years in Baltimore. Recording at least 100 tackles in four of the five campaigns and providing a steady voice in the huddle, doing what Mosley didn't is by no means an easy task.
However, even if Onwuasor could have never predicted he'd be that guy for the Ravens, he spent his first three years preparing like it. Because of that, the moment isn't too big for him.
“Me coming here my rookie year, it could have been at any time. I followed CJ’s role, I learned," Onwuasor said.
“That was our goal. Kind of be quiet and listen and learn for this moment in case it ever happened. And it did happen, so I feel like we were prepared for that," he added.
That attitude and confidence to jump into a crucial spot on the defense have his teammates believing in him as well.
“Peanut my guy, man," Judon said. "We roomed together when we first got here. He’s going to be a great leader for us. He knows how to make plays, big plays, and he’s been doing since he’s been here. I got all the confidence in Peanut, and I’m right there behind him.”
Technically, Judon will be in front of Peanut when they take the field together, but the outside linebacker will be another fourth-year player stepping into a larger leadership role.
Much like Onwausor, who he shared a bunk within 2016, the fifth-round pick never really pictured himself being a role model for others on the defense to look up to. But, as he's working hard and establishing himself as a vital part of the pass rush, he's become just that.
“You really can’t imagine this," Judon said. "You just put the work in every day, and it just compounds on each other, and you get here.”
For Judon, being a leader doesn't mean changing who he is. A fun-loving, quick-witted player who loves to troll with his teammates, he's taken advice from past leader Suggs on how to thrive in the role. It all stems from continuing to be himself.
“I’m going to lead by example, and if we need a vocal leader I can be that too," Judon said. "But I’m just going to be me."
Together, the two are ready to take their place on the defense. While they understand that it is up to them to lead, they'll also be working to instill the same type of characteristics in the younger players.
To help the team in the present and the future, they want everyone to be someone to look toward in their own way.
“What we’re trying to do is build more leadership. If we could count on each other, I feel like that could get us going instead of like one person trying to fire everybody up," Onwuasor said. "If everybody is motivated, I feel like we could catch a quick spark like that as well.”
With that, Judon, Onwauasor and the rest of the defense will look to continue on the tradition and mentality that has been instilled on that side of the ball. Even as the names change on the defense, they're ready to make sure the stigma never does.
“It’s a reputation that we gotta standby. Being tough, mean. When you step on that grass, you want to put fear in the opponent's eyes and let them know we’re not the ones to play with," Onwuasor said. "I think we gotta keep that legacy going and just being tough and physical.”
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