Of­fense deals with an iden­tity cri­sis

Solv­ing it re­quires an iron­ing out of things

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - Ravens In­sider

The Ravens of­fense is suf­fer­ing through an iden­tity cri­sis be­cause of sev­eral is­sues, not just one ma­jor prob­lem.

A year ago, the Ravens had the best run­ning game in the his­tory of the Na­tional Foot­ball League, but now they aren’t as dom­i­nant. It was pre­dictable that some changes were go­ing to be made in the run­ning game, with some be­ing forced by other teams.

Op­po­nents are spread­ing out and tak­ing away the perime­ter from quar­ter­back La­mar Jack­son on op­tion plays. With­out Jack­son, the Ravens don’t have any run­ners who can bounce out­side quickly.

The Ravens might also be try­ing to pre­serve vet­eran run­ning back Mark In­gram II so he doesn’t wear down at the end of the sea­son like a year ago.

The rush­ing at­tempts have been spread out among In­gram, Gus Ed­wards and rookie J.K.

“I just kept stick­ing to it, work­ing hard and for­tu­nately

found a home here in Bal­ti­more, and I’m lov­ing it.”

— L.J. Fort, Ravens line­backer

all-con­fer­ence high school run­ning back and line­backer in Way­nesville, Mis­souri).

In 2016, Fort signed with the Pitts­burgh Steel­ers, with whomhe spent the next three sea­sons. While he was rel­e­gated to a spe­cial teams role in the first two years, his role on de­fense ex­panded af­ter line­backer Ryan Shazier’s ca­reer-end­ing spinal in­jury.

Fort played well when given more op­por­tu­ni­ties, and his pa­tience was re­warded in the sum­mer of 2019 when he signed a three-year, $5.5 mil­lion deal with the Ea­gles. With the fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity came the im­pres­sion that he would be an in­te­gral part of the de­fense. But af­ter four games and zero snaps played on de­fense, the Ea­gles cut Fort in a move pri­mar­ily made to pre­serve a com­pen­satory draft pick.

“I’ve al­ways liked L.J., even in the short time that we had him here,” Ea­gles coach Doug Ped­er­son said Wed­nes­day on a con­fer­ence call. “He came out of a very sim­i­lar scheme when he was with Pitts­burgh, and that’s when we signed him.

“He’s re­ally set­tled into his role and his po­si­tion at line­backer. … You see him on tape and he’s one of 11 de­fend­ers on tape that’s fly­ing around and mak­ing plays and be­ing dis­rup­tive. It’s al­ways some­thing that I knew, even when he was here fit­ting into our scheme as a four-down, three line­backer-scheme, some of the same things that I saw.

“But there, in Bal­ti­more, he’s def­i­nitely made an im­pact on that de­fense.”

The re­lease “def­i­nitely shocked” Fort, but within hours he and his agent re­ceived calls from sev­eral teams. He chose the Ravens, a team that had a pre­vi­ous in­ter­est in sign­ing him and a need for a sturdy vet­eran in the mid­dle of a strug­gling de­fense.

It didn’t take long for Fort to leave his mark. Dur­ing his first play as a Raven, he made a tackle on the kick­off cov­er­age team.

The next week, he played a ca­reer-high 55 de­fen­sive snaps, help­ing to limit Sea­hawks quar­ter­back Rus­sell Wil­son in a sea­son-defin­ing road win. Three weeks later, Fort signed a two-year ex­ten­sion through the 2021 sea­son.

Fort praised the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s au­then­tic­ity when asked why he agreed to an

ex­ten­sion so quickly.

“Ev­ery­thing is real — the coaches are real about ev­ery­thing,” Fort said at the time. “You don’t have to won­der what’s go­ing on, what peo­ple are think­ing. That’s prob­a­bly my fa­vorite part about be­ing here.”

Even as the team in April drafted two in­side lineback­ers in Pa­trick Queen and Ma­lik Har­ri­son, Fort has main­tained a con­sis­tent role. De­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Don “Wink” Martin­dale said Thurs­day that Fort’s pres­ence as­sisted in the learn­ing process of Queen, the team’s first-round pick.

While Fort’s still con­tribut­ing on spe­cial teams, he’s made his share of plays this sea­son on the league’s best de­fense. His 18 tack­les rank fifth on the team and he’s tied for the most fum­ble re­cov­er­ies with two, in­clud­ing a 22-yard scoop-and-score against the Hous­ton Tex­ans in Week 2.

“I’ve been on like seven or eight teams, and it’s been a grind,” Fort said. “And when you’re on ‘P-squad’ [prac­tice squad] and you’re get­ting cut mul­ti­ple times, there’s al­ways doubt in your mind if you’ll be able to find a home. But I just kept stick­ing to it, work­ing hard and for­tu­nately found a home here in Bal­ti­more, and I’m lov­ing it.”

JERRY JACK­SON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

La­mar Jack­son, Mark In­gram II and the Ravens are find­ing it more dif­fi­cult to pile up the rush­ing yards this sea­son than it was in 2019.

Mike Pre­ston

NICK WASS/AP

Ravens line­backer L.J. Fort (58) posses with his team­mates af­ter re­cov­er­ing a fum­ble against the Browns dur­ing the sea­son opener

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