LB Upshaw performs like a first-round talent

LB Upshaw performs like a first-round talent
February 13, 2013, 12:30 am
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Courtney Upshaw's rookie season didn't begin all that well.

But when it ended, the linebacker had won a Super Bowl after leading the Alabama Crimson Tide to a BCS national championship in his final season before jumping to the NFL. And Upshaw won both in the Superdome in New Orleans.

“Once we get back to football, it's going to be me just wanting to go out there and prove someone should've taken me," Upshaw said after being bypassed in the first round and dropping to the second in the 2012 NFL draft. 

While Upshaw didn't like the snub, the Ravens were fortunate in making him their top pick.

At Alabama, Upshaw led the way with a team-high 8.5 sacks en route to that 2012 title. In Baltimore, which traded out of the first round of the draft, Upshaw grew into a dependable run-stopper. 

And in a 34-31 win vs. the San Francisco 49ers to win the Super Bowl, he made a play that helped changed the course of the game.

Upshaw crashed into LaMichael James, who was being tackled by Corey Graham. The ball popped loose and was recovered by Arthur Jones on the Ravens’ 25-yard line.

Quarterback Joe Flacco responded by taking the Ravens on a 10-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a 1-yard TD pass to Dennis Pitta for a 14-3 lead. But just as importantly, it represented a 14-point swing that put the Ravens ahead by two scores as the 49ers never could take the lead.

It was widely assumed that Upshaw was going to be a starter, but he lost out to Paul Kruger when the season opened. Kruger was hampered by a back injury that forced him to sit out Week 2 but he slowly regained form to tally a career-high 9.5 sacks.

Upshaw, who was slowed by a shoulder injury in training camp, gradually improved, too. He played 746 of 1,141 defensive snaps in the regular season (65.3%), finished with 60 tackles, two fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles.

The Ravens were struggling to stop the run by Week 6, when the Dallas Cowboys amassed 227 yards on the ground. That was the most ever given up by the Ravens, who had to replace linebacker Ray Lewis (torn triceps) after that game. He'd miss 10 games.

Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe would be lost for three. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata was hampered by knee and shoulder ailments and missed time. Linebacker Terrell Suggs had just returned from an Achilles tear, then tore his biceps in Week 13 and never was 100%.

Still, the Ravens maintained because of the play of the likes of the unheralded Upshaw, who will see his role grow. Lewis is retiring after 17 seasons, Kruger is an almost certainty to bolt in free agency and Ellerbe could leave, too.

That leaves the door wide open for Upshaw to be a three-down player in his sophomore season. He'll be a starter, but will be blossom into a star? So far, so good.