There are certain expectations when a player signs the franchise tag, and Matthew Judon has found that out.
The 28-year-old signed a one-year offer with the Ravens in April worth $16.808 million after earning his first Pro Bowl selection. Then, through the first three games of the season, he had 13 tackles and no sacks.
As the team’s top pass rusher a year ago, he was getting criticized in print and on call-in radio shows.
Then it finally happened.
Judon had two sacks and five quarterback hits in the Ravens’ 31-17 victory against the Washington Football Team on Sunday. Though it came against one of the worst teams in the NFL, maybe that performance can be a launching point.
“Coming off that last game [against the Kansas City Chiefs], everybody was kind of looking themselves in the mirror here and there, and Judon was like, ‘Man, I just have to do more. I just have to do more,’ and he was very critical of himself to me,” Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey said, referring to the Ravens’ 34-20 loss to the defending Super Bowl champions last Monday night.
“It was no surprise to see him come and look like his typical self [Sunday]. I think he’s been playing decent all year, but this game, he took it up a notch, and he kind of told himself, ‘This is how I have to play every game to get back to who I am.’”
The Ravens need Judon to ignite the pass rush. They acquired defensive ends Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe in the offseason to generate more pressure on the quarterback, but that didn’t materialize in the first three games.
Some of the criticism of Judon was justified because of his contract, but not his past performance.
Despite leading the team in sacks last season with 9½, Judon wasn’t considered one of the top 10 outside linebackers in the league. However, throughout his previous four years with the club, he showed steady improvement.
The Ravens were caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. They desperately needed a pass rusher and didn’t want to risk losing Judon and watch him become another Za’Darius Smith. The Ravens drafted Smith in the fourth round in 2015 and he had 45 tackles in 2018, including 8½ sacks. He signed a four-year, $66 million deal with the Green Bay Packers as a free agent last offseason and recorded a career high 13½ sacks in 2019.
The Ravens are overpaying Judon, but the system worked for him. He has 17 tackles this season and has been solid in run support. Now, he might take his game to another level.
“I’ve had a lot of good rushes if you go back and watch the film. Y’all really only care about stats, but it was a good team win,” Judon said about the victory in Washington.
That’s a typical Judon response, one he probably learned from his mentor and former teammate, Terrell Suggs. He isn’t as boisterous as Suggs, the Ravens’ all-time sack leader, but has a similar sense of humor and can be just as snide. He also learned how to gamble during a game the way Suggs did. There have been times this season in which Judon dipped inside instead of holding the edge.
Maybe he was pressing to get sacks.
He got two Sunday against Washington and provided a pass-rushing presence off the edge. Reserve outside linebacker Tyus Bowser has two sacks in four games, and maybe he and Judon can give the Ravens some type of 1-2 punch in the final three quarters of the season.
“The biggest thing is he stayed true to the scheme. He really just let it come to him a little bit more,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of Judon. “One thing I love about Matt is it really matters to him. He really cares, and he wants to be the difference-maker at all times. Sometimes it just works out for you; other times, sometimes, less is more a little bit.”
“So, I felt like he was playing hard. He always plays very hard. He was in the right spot, and of course, he was able to get the quarterback down. So, yes, he had a great game, and I don’t think it’s a lot different than other games. It just kind of worked out a little bit better, and he was in a little better position a couple of times.”
It was clear after Sunday’s game that Judon had moved on and escaped the nightmare of the Kansas City debacle. As that game was ending, Judon stood on the sideline with fellow outside linebacker Pernell McPhee wondering how the Chiefs had put up more than 500 yards of total offense.
“It was just, ‘Next game, next play’ type of mentality,” Judon said. “We watched what we did wrong, and then we came out here in a short week to prepare for the Football Team. That’s what we did, and we came out with the win. It was just a good team win.
“The season is young. This was a good team win. We just have to peak at the right time.”