Out of the shadows: The time is now for Ravens LB Tyus Bowser

Mahomes? Allen? To take the AFC, Baltimore needs a new star to emerge on defense. That player could be Bowser. He's been patiently waiting.

The Baltimore Ravens know who they are. There’s no identity crisis here. And, truthfully, they’ve had the same identity since the franchise was conceived 25 years ago.  

This is a team that prefers to sock you directly in the jaw, then leave you bloodied and beaten in the street.

There’s no razzle, no dazzle here. The Ravens choose violence. Especially on defense. Some of the best defensive players of this generation have cycled through this system which means it’s awfully difficult for anyone new to get their shot at stardom. So for four years, a player who epitomizes everything the Ravens are about has had no choice but to patiently wait for his turn.

Tyus Bowser — 6 feet, 3 inches, 242 pounds of bad intentions — has changed games whenever asked.

He ragdolls Baker Mayfield to the ground for a sack.

He fools Ryan Tannehill, pretending to rush before dropping into a zone for an interception.

He smacks Ben Roethlisberger in the sternum on a blitz up the middle.

He isn’t a household name… yet. This season, Bowser plans to change that.

“I’ve been in the shadows of a lot of great guys,” Bowser says. “It’s hard to put yourself out there. Just doing the little things that a lot of people don’t see, whether it’s special teams or whether it’s making the sacrifice to drop instead of rush. I’ll do the little things that will help the team in any type of way.”

He is now out of the shadows after inking a four-year, $22 million deal that can rise to $27 million. Bowser is expected to start at strong-side linebacker in Don “Wink” Martindale’s exotic 3-4 scheme. What does that mean? In short: Everything. He’ll rush the QB, he’ll drop into coverage, he’ll throw his body into the run game. Possibly no position on the front seven is more important when the X’s and O’s are mashed up here.

So even though we aren’t talking about Tyus Bowser much right this second when it comes to the balance of powers in the cutthroat AFC, we absolutely should. He could be the key to the Ravens punching through because, of course, this is a defense that must deal with the likes of Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen for the foreseeable future. Obviously, Lamar Jackson must do more as a passer — in January — if Baltimore hopes to elevate. But this is also a team that plans on winning with defense, with making the other team’s quarterback’s life a living hell.

Bowser can be that ultimate chess piece.

Knocking off these offenses that score at will takes a perfect balance of brain and brawn and this is a linebacker who was both excellent in coverage as this graph shows and had 14 QB hits in his back-up role last season. A 47th overall pick in 2017, Bowser sounds like a man dying for this moment, this chance to be the face of a proud defense. Bowser first reels off name after name, saying he’s been mentored by vets like corner Brandon Carr, safety Eric Weddle and edge rushers Terrell Suggs, Za’Darius Smith and Matt Judon. Now, all of the above are long gone.

Suggs (and his 139 career sacks) has ridden off into the sunset.

Smith is the best player on Green Bay’s defense, with 60 QB hits the last two seasons.

Judon cashed in with New England.

Sitting behind stars has been mentally taxing. Up to this point, Bowser’s been pouring his energy into special teams and a part-time role on defense. While he has managed to total 80 tackles (52 solo), 29 QB hits, 10.5 sacks and four interceptions along the way, hell yeah, he wanted more.

“Yeah, I can honestly say it’s been taxing,” Bowser says. “It was definitely a process. I’m definitely appreciative of it because it helped me become a better player and a better man overall. And I just feel like things happen for a reason and it was a time for me to learn the game from the vets. Learn how to play. Learn how to practice. What they go through as big-time players to fall in that position and know how to handle criticism and fight through playing so many plays and being tired. Overall, it’s been a great learning experience for me. Now, I’m going into my fifth year — being that guy — who can lead the team in the right direction.

“It was tough to be on the bench, see them play and it’s like ‘Man…’ Whether it was a good play or a bad play, I was like, ‘Man, I could’ve done better.’ At the same time, you grab things out of those certain moments that you learn from that helps you. So whenever my time comes? I knew how to approach it. I knew if he did mess up on this play, I see what he did wrong and how he fixed it. I see what he did here and say, ‘Maybe I should add this to my game.’ … Being on the bench, looking at those guys, it was tough, it was frustrating to not be on the field because I take pride in my game and I want to be on that field as much as anybody.”

This is a scheme that can twist any player’s brain into knots, too.

Martindale may be the smartest (and ballsiest) coordinator in the sport, a coach who’s constantly keeping the quarterback guessing. That’s never easy. It’s hard to mentally stay one move ahead of a QB, like Mahomes, who’s processing at warp speed and logging every pressure into their brain. But vs. Martindale’s unit, you typically do not know who is blitzing from where. Baltimore annually blitzes more than anyone in the NFL.

The pressure’s both omnipresent, unpredictable and Baltimore stymied two MVP candidates in the postseason.

First, this defense completely shut down 2,027-yard back Derrick Henry in the wild card round. His 2.2 yards per carry was his worst outing since October 2019. The next round, Baltimore then made Allen look human. The do-it-all QB mustered only a 51.2 passer rating and rushed for all of three yards. The only problem in 2020 was that all of the blitzing didn’t always get home. Despite again pressuring more than anybody else, the Ravens actually affected the QB only 29.3 percent of the time, per PFF, which ranked 18th.

As a new starter, it’s on Bowser to change this. He doesn’t get as many free runs at the quarterback as the linebacker screaming off the weak side but, into Year 5, he’ll be an extension of Martindale on the field.

He’ll get his chance to take over.

“We’ve got any and everybody coming,” Bowser says. “It’s taking advantage of the time, if they do let you go free, you’ve got to go and make it. Or if you do have the chance to rush the edge, you’ve got to do everything you can to get there. Because of how great and diverse and complicated it is for offenses to track our blitzes, our defense, it opens up so much for you.”

Of course it wasn’t the defense that ended the Ravens’ season — not at all. A feeble offense that suffered a back-breaking, red-zone Pick 6 was to blame that night in Orchard Park, NY. Lamar Jackson did not look good up to a concussion that knocked him out of the 17-3 loss. Still, Bowser points the finger at himself. Bowser knows he missed multiple sacks that night. Wrangle Allen to the turf once and he’s certain this is a completely different game.

Here, over the phone, he replays an alternative universe if he sacks Allen in the second half.

Buffalo punts. Baltimore seizes the momentum. Baltimore scores.

Baltimore wins.

He’s been thinking about that game. Often. But, to him, the key to breaking through and becoming a force to be reckoned with in the AFC is attacking his job the same way he did in college — with a “1-0” mindset. All that matters is that given play, that given rep. Since then, that’s how Bowser has approached his profession.

And he wasn’t alone at the University of Houston. From 2013 to 2016, Bowser was part of a crew that put this program on the national map.

The mentality instituted then, he knows, absolutely matters now.

“It was guys who weren’t five-star guys that went to Alabama or Florida, all these big-time schools,” Bowser says. “It was guys who just wanted it more than the other person. You see how competitive they are. You see the chip on their shoulder. That’s what helped me feed off of moving into college and into the league. You’ve got all these big-name guys. I’m a small guy, people don’t know much about me. One thing I know for sure is that I’ll always keep a chip on my shoulder.

“I’m going to work hard to make myself known and beat this other guy. That competitiveness helped mold my game.”

Many times, the difference between “very good” and “great” in the NFL is not anyone you add in the draft or free agency. Nobody new. It’s not making the quarterback an assistant GM because his feelings are hurt. It’s a running back, like Devin Singletary, morphing himself into a beast. It’s a slot corner, like Kenny Moore, trying to redefine his position. It’s a receiver, like Marquez Valdes-Scantling, bringing a life-and-death perspective.

It’s a player like Bowser.

A player who’s been taking bits ‘n pieces from everyone’s game in Baltimore, Suggs to Weddle to Smith. One thing he’s learned? The NFL is 80 percent “mindset,” he says, and 20 percent “talent.” Bowser knows that learning from all those vets for so long will give him the confidence to pull that trigger with a game, a season at stake.

“You can have talent,” he says, “but the whole NFL has talent. What separates the men from the boys is the mindset that you have to take over a game or make the team. Simple as that. Not giving up.”

He thinks back to his rookie year. Week Two. Bowser had a sack and a pick and vividly remembers having a suspicion that a receiver would run a crossing route. Since he didn’t have anyone on his side, he cheated the route.

He thinks of that pick vs. the Titans. He knew Tannehill thought his tight end would be open upon getting smacked by linebacker Patrick Queen on a blitz, so Bowser cut that tight end off. It looked easy but it was not. It took smarts.

And he thinks of that epic 47-42 win in Cleveland on Monday Night Football, when he knew Mayfield would try to hit Rashard Higgins quick in the flat.

He baited that throw with just enough hesitation.

“You see the quarterback literally staring over there,” Bowser says, “so you might want to take a flat break and see if you can get in front of that passing lane. And I’m right there. So those little things take a mindset. Your skills will take over the rest.”

Skills, as in pick that ball off with one hand.

This season, Bowser wants Martindale throwing every possible assignment his way.

“That’s what it’s all about,” he says. “You get paid to do that. If not, you’re wasting your time.”

And Bowser wants the pressure of this being his defense.

“Definitely. You want to be one of those guys. With being the guy comes a huge responsibility. I feel like I worked hard. I stayed patient. I did whatever I could.”

The best way he can put this is with a motto he heard recently and posted on Instagram: The vision too clear, there’s no traffic when you’re in your own lane. That’s the only way he plans to live as his role expands and he knows that’s exactly how his quarterback is living.

Good thing, too.

Bowser may become the face of this Ravens defense but Jackson is, unquestionably, the face of the team… and the pressure will be cranked to 500 degrees in 2021. Jackson has been dominant for stretches. His 2019 MVP season was unprecedented. His raw speed and escapability as a runner completely changes how all 11 defensive players have to think play to play. And yet, there’s no denying the three straight postseason duds. For Baltimore to get over the hump, he’ll need to beat a defense from the pocket.

The Bills forced him to be a traditional QB. He fell short.

Not surprisingly, Bowser pounds the table for his quarterback. First, he starts with the leadership.

“He’s a guy everybody feeds off of — his energy,” Bowser says. “He comes into work every day with great energy from the time he walks in to the time he walks out. He’s always been a great guy everybody can talk to. Whether you’re talking outside of meetings or just chilling, he’s a good guy to be around. And that’s what you want in your quarterback, your face of the team. A guy that treats you the same as everybody else. A guy who doesn’t treat you differently. Despite all the accolades he has, he’s still the same dude regardless.”

The Ravens are banking on new weapons getting Jackson to that next stratosphere.

That was the Bills’ big bet, and it paid off.

That’s the Giants’ big bet, and you all know we’re all in here.

Who deserves blame for Baltimore’s 32nd-ranked passing game? That’s up for debate. Multiple wide receivers have not been shy in criticizing OC Greg Roman and his scheme on the other side of the ball here. Willie Snead, especially, let it rip this offseason through a series of tweets. And then there was Steve Smith Sr. throwing a series of grenades on national TV. Smith said Roman has his receivers run “elementary” and “cracker jack-like” routes that are easy to defend.

Smith said, point blank, that Roman should’ve been fired.

We shouldn’t forget that Colin Kaepernick, with Roman, never progressed as a passer, too.

Or, possibly, it’s all on Jackson himself.

For now, the front office targeted the supporting cast. The Ravens did not fire Roman and there’s a good chance they will soon give Jackson a massive contact. They’re counting on rookie wideout Rashod Bateman and veteran Sammy Watkins being the difference through the air. Granted, this will also remain an offense that seeks to punish on the ground with Jackson as the tip of that spear.

That’s not a bad thing, either. If anyone can appreciate Jackson’s Barry Sanders-at-QB, highlight-reel game, it’s Bowser. It’s a linebacker asked to both get inside the mind of QBs and chase them down.

He doesn’t believe the sport’s ever seen anyone close to this threat.

“Nobody, nobody,” Bowser says. “And it’s crazy. He doesn’t get the respect he deserves. Even though he shows it on the field, he doesn’t. It could be anything. They want to say he’s a running quarterback or he doesn’t throw the ball enough. Or he doesn’t show up during the playoffs. All this stuff that everybody’s talking about, man, they don’t know the work and the talent and the potential that he has to be one of the greatest. Easily.”

There’s certainly a formula to win it all here.

It’s high time for another Ravens defense to be special.

In 2000, Baltimore held offenses to 10.3 ppg. Seven times, they held a team to a field goal or less. There were zero weaknesses. Ray Lewis was at his peak.

In 2012, Baltimore knocked off Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in the postseason to reach the Super Bowl. Ed Reed was at his peak.

In 2021, another star must emerge. The secondary’s loaded but could use a playmaker up front.

If Bowser takes the leap he knows he can? The Ravens just may throw a wrench into everything we think about the AFC.

One thing’s for certain: They’re talking Super Bowl in Baltimore.

“The mindset is always to win the Super Bowl. That’s how it’s always been. That’s how it always will be. Anything less than that is unacceptable in that organization because we came up short. We had the players. We had the organization. Everything. The mindset to be a Super Bowl contender. That’s what we live on, making it to the Super Bowl and winning it all. That’s always been a talk for us.”

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