Like many fans, Josh Bynes spent his Sunday afternoons in September sitting on the couch, watching NFL games on television. Unlike most fans, though, Bynes had a Super Bowl ring, eight years of NFL experience and the stubborn belief that he still belonged in the league.
And unlike most fans, on the first Sunday of October, Bynes was back in uniform, starting at middle linebacker for the Ravens against the Pittsburgh Steelers and intercepting a pass in the Ravens’ 26-23 overtime win against their AFC North rivals.
Bynes — who couldn’t find an NFL job for six months and hadn’t set foot in the Ravens’ facility this year until October — has emerged as a central figure in the team’s defensive overhaul after a dissatisfying 2-2 start.
In fact, other than quarterback Lamar Jackson’s ascendance to the league’s Most Valuable Player discussion, perhaps the most compelling story of the first half of the Ravens’ season was the way the defense transformed itself in midstream.
A 40-25 home loss to Cleveland in Week 4 — in which the Ravens yielded more than 500 yards for the second straight week, the first time in franchise history that happened — was a clarion call for change, and general manager Eric DeCosta didn’t hesitate.
Within two weeks, the Ravens had signed free agents Bynes, linebacker L.J. Fort and defensive end Jihad Ward and traded for cornerback Marcus Peters, sending disappointing second-year linebacker Kenny Young and a fifth-round pick to the Los Angeles Rams in the deal.
All four players paid immediate dividends, but it was Bynes who improbably took over as the starting middle linebacker just five days after a tryout with the Ravens. No OTAs, no training camp, no preseason. Talk about plug and play.
“He’s always been a good player, a very solid linebacker even though he’s bounced around,” cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “I’ve seen him do this before at a very young age, so I didn’t think it would be that big of a challenge for him.”
Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said, “Josh brought a calmness to the middle of our defense.”
Baltimore is where the NFL journey began for Bynes as an undrafted rookie out of Auburn in 2011.
After spending parts of two seasons on the Ravens’ practice squad, Bynes was on the 53-man roster for the last 10 games of the 2012 season, starting at times in place of the injured Ray Lewis. He made the final tackle in Super Bowl XLVII, taking down San Francisco 49ers kick returner Ted Ginn Jr. to secure the Ravens’ 34-31 victory.
Bynes made six starts with the Ravens in 2013 but was phased out of the Ravens’ plans after they drafted C.J. Mosley in the first round of the 2014 draft. Cut and brought back to the practice squad that fall, Bynes was ultimately signed away by the Detroit Lions and spent three seasons in Detroit, making 11 starts in 2015.
Bynes has always existed on the NFL’s fringe, rarely signing a contract that offered more than a short-term guarantee, and after an injury-marred 2016 season he was on the move again, signing a one-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals.
A solid season in 2017 earned him a three-year deal with Arizona beginning in 2018, and he responded by starting 11 games and finishing with 75 tackles — the second-highest total of his career — and a career-best two sacks. He missed the final five games with a thumb injury.
Still, that wasn’t enough to secure a job for the 2019 season. Bynes was released last spring amid the coaching turnover to Kliff Kingsbury, and as friends and former teammates reported for OTAs and training camp, Bynes watched and waited. And waited. And waited some more.
“It was always frustrating, because I knew I could still play in this league,” Bynes said. “It’s been this way every year I’ve been in this league, having to prove that I can play. … I’m used to it, and by grace of God, it’s been fortunate so far.”
While others were getting into football shape at facilities around the league, Bynes relied on self-discipline to stay ready, working out in Atlanta with longtime trainer Lilian Abdelmalek.
“I was working out in the mornings, getting after it with my trainer and spending time with my family,” Bynes said. “It was all I could do.”
There were a few workouts with teams, but there was only middling interest in a 30-year-old linebacker whose previous season was cut short by an injury.
Then the Ravens called.
Fixing The Run Defense
Throughout the summer, the Ravens insisted they were set at inside linebacker despite the massive loss of Mosley, a four-time Pro Bowl pick, via free agency. Patrick Onwuasor would slide from his weak-side linebacker spot to replace Mosley in the middle, and a pair of promising second-year players, Kenny Young and Chris Board, would compete for Onwuasor’s spot.
It took four games for the Ravens to realize they had badly miscalculated.
Onwuasor appeared out of place in the middle, and Young ultimately won the weak-side job but struggled badly, particularly against the run. The loss of Mosley, it appeared, had weakened the Ravens at both inside linebacker spots.
In Week 4, the Browns gashed the Ravens for 193 rushing yards as they handed the Ravens a 40-25 loss. That came one week after the Kansas City Chiefs rushed for 140 yards in a 33-28 win against the Ravens.
The run defense was broken, and the Ravens knew they needed to fix it fast.
So Bynes got the call to come to a tryout. Five days later, he was starting in Pittsburgh.
“I’m always looking at myself as a starter,” Bynes said. “I never looked at myself as anything less. Even in my offseason preparation, I need to train like I’m the guy. … It’s kept me in this league this long.”
With Bynes (6-foot-1, 235 pounds) anchoring the middle of the defense, with Onwuasor moving back to his more natural weak-side role, and with the return of defensive lineman Brandon Williams — whose absence against the Browns because of a knee injury was sorely felt — the Ravens’ defense righted itself.
In Bynes’ first four games with the Ravens — all wins — the Ravens allowed an average of 73 rushing yards, and their run defense improved from 10th overall to No. 2.
“When we stop the run,” safety Earl Thomas said, “we’re really, really hard to beat.”
Head coach John Harbaugh cited Bynes’ ability to defend the run as a key factor in his signing, and he also praised him for being physically conditioned to play right away.
“Josh is a good, good football player,” Harbaugh said. “He’s a [middle linebacker] by trade. He played the position all those years, so he brought a lot of experience to the table. He still has it physically. He’s really the same player that he’s always been.”
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox
Issue 259: November 2019