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Mixed bag to be expected in Ravens’ preseason opener

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Mixed bag to be expected in Ravens’ preseason opener

Posted on 08 August 2013 by Luke Jones

(This blog brought to you by Atlantic Remodeling. Visit www.atlanticremodeling.com to learn about their Red Cent Guarantee!)

The Ravens’ preseason-opening 44-16 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers provided much of what you’d you expect to see in the first exhibition game of the summer.

Some good, some bad, and much unanswered from the starting units with almost a month of preparation remaining until the start of the regular season. We did learn that the Baltimore backups were far superior to the Buccaneers’ reserves, but that’s not the type of information that will offer much for the Ravens’ aspirations to repeat as Super Bowl champions.

A revamped defense showed versatility and strong play from veteran newcomers such as inside linebacker Daryl Smith (five tackles) and defensive end Chris Canty (a sack on the opening series) but also featured communication breakdowns in the secondary that led to a few big plays surrendered in the passing game, including a 61-yard completion to tight end Tom Crabtree to end the first quarter. With so many new pieces in place, it will take time to for Dean Pees’ unit to get on the same page, but the front seven looks quite formidable on paper, especially with healthier versions of Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata in the mix.

The addition of Smith has eased concerns over the status of Jameel McClain as the former Jacksonville Jaguar carried over a strong start in training camp to Thursday night, showing a good nose for the ball and solid ability in pass coverage. He cemented his status as the overwhelming favorite to call the signals for the Baltimore defense in Denver on Sept. 5.

Canty played exactly how the Ravens hope he will this season as a 5-technique defensive end, holding his ground against the running game and showing a good burst as a pass rusher on the opening series of the game when he sacked Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman on third down.

Offensively, the pass protection held up well enough aside from blitzing linebacker Lavonte David coming untouched to sack quarterback Joe Flacco on the Ravens’ first offensive series. Two plays later, Flacco forced a pass attempt to wide receiver Jacoby Jones that was picked off by former Baltimore defensive back Danny Gorrer.

Center Gino Gradkowski made the start over former Indianapolis Colt A.Q. Shipley and appeared to play solidly with a starting offensive line sans Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda, who continues to work his way back from offseason shoulder surgery.

It wasn’t an impressive debut for the wide receivers as Flacco turned to running backs Ray Rice, Vonta Leach, and Bernard Pierce more frequently in his two series of work. Torrey Smith was the only wide receiver to register a catch — making two receptions for 16 yards — with the starting quarterback in the game. Jones, Tandon Doss, and Deonte Thompson were targeted five times Thursday night and recorded just one combined reception with a couple drops mixed in there as well.

While those three have received the most attention in the much-discussed battle for the second and third receiver spots, the standout receiver of the night was LaQuan Williams, who made a tough 21-yard touchdown catch early in the second half after recovering two fumbles as a special-teams performer in the second quarter, one of them in the end zone for a touchdown late in the first half. A forgotten man after finishing last season on injured reserve, Williams may have earned himself a few more reps with the starting offense after Thursday’s outing and was in the mix as a wide receiver as a rookie in 2011.

Needless to say, the voids left behind by Dennis Pitta and Anquan Boldin were apparent, but the Ravens are fully aware that Flacco will need time to develop chemistry with a new batch of targets. And that doesn’t mean a veteran addition won’t become a reality at some point between now and September.

Above all, the special teams shined as Justin Tucker connected on all three of his field goal tries, Brynden Trawick blocked the punt recovered by Williams in the end zone, and Bobby Rainey had a 58-yard kickoff return. With only a handful of spots on the 53-man roster realistically up for grabs, this is where coach John Harbaugh wants to see younger players excel and Jerry Rosburg’s units did not disappoint.

Truthfully, the final score doesn’t offer an accurate picture of how the starters performed as the Ravens trailed 6-0 early in the second quarter when most key starters had already begun exiting the game. Flacco finished his night 7-for-9 for 57 yards and an interception as he couldn’t find open receivers down the field and the defense did plenty of bending without breaking after giving up some big plays in the first half.

It’s important not to overreact to any one player’s performance in one practice game, but backups such as Williams, outside linebacker Adrian Hamilton (a sack and an additional quarterback hit), and cornerback Asa Jackson (an interception) made strong statements for roster consideration with their performances Thursday night. Often criticized by portions of the fan base for not being good enough to be the backup quarterback, Tyrod Taylor threw two touchdown passes and showed an increased willingness to stay in the pocket, attempting 23 passes and just five runs in his extended period of work.

A preseason win is better than a preseason loss, of course, but we knew no questions would be resolved following Thursday’s tilt with the Buccaneers.

The wide receiver position remains a mystery, which would have been the case regardless of how Jones, Doss, and Thompson performed.

Gradkowski appears to be the current favorite to be the starting center, but Shipley will still receive his opportunities.

The inside linebacker position appears to be looking clearer with the strong play of the veteran Smith, but Josh Bynes and Arthur Brown will continue to fight it out for the starting weakside inside linebacker spot next to Smith.

Rookie Matt Elam is still chasing veteran James Ihedigbo for the starting strong safety spot but showed the same physicality that impressed scouts and coaches after watching his tape from his days at the University of Florida.

But perhaps the biggest takeaway from Thursday’s game was the aftermath of Moe Lee’s fourth-quarter interception in which the rookie foolishly tried to lateral the ball as he was going to the ground. Though former Ravens safety Ed Reed may have been smiling somewhere if he caught a glimpse of that play, the coaching staff certainly wasn’t amused.

However, it wasn’t Harbaugh or his assistants who ran to correct the rookie defensive back as the veteran Suggs calmly walked onto the field and explained to Lee why that wasn’t a smart play. It was the kind of defensive leadership the Ravens need following the retirement of Ray Lewis and the free-agent departure of Reed.

Yes, it was only one example of what you’re hoping to see from the 30-year-old linebacker and longest-tenured Raven, but a snapshot is all a preseason game is really worth in the scope of the entire summer.

And looking into the photo that was Thursday night, there was good and bad to take back to the practice field over the next week and beyond.

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Ravens-Buccaneers preseason primer: Five players to watch

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Ravens-Buccaneers preseason primer: Five players to watch

Posted on 07 August 2013 by Luke Jones

(This blog brought to you by Atlantic Remodeling. Visit www.atlanticremodeling.com to learn about their Red Cent Guarantee!)

After undergoing more change than any Super Bowl champion in recent memory, the Ravens will offer a glimpse of their revamped roster in their preseason opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday.

The contest will offer little more than a cameo appearance for players expected to make the biggest impact in the 2013 season but will also provide welcome change for a group of players tired of working against one another after two weeks of practices in Owings Mills. Sunday’s practice at the Naval Academy in Annapolis provided a much-needed change of scenery, but a trip to Tampa will bring live-game action to a team with high expectations but also a number of veteran newcomers and rookies expected to contribute immediately.

The outcome of the preseason opener won’t determine answers for any of a number of questions facing the Ravens on both sides of the football, but the game will sharpen the focus of preparation for both coaches and players after facing competition in another uniform.

“They really are tired of seeing each other,” said coach John Harbaugh about the monotony of the first couple weeks of camp. “You can’t tackle to the ground, and you have to take care of one another. The game is a little bit different. The game is the game, and we’ll learn a lot. We’ll have a chance to move forward from there because there will be some things we’re expecting to see that we’ll see. But there will be other things that we’ll be surprised about – good and bad – and we’ll have to build off those things.”

Thursday will mark the first preseason meeting between Baltimore and Tampa Bay, but the teams have split the regular-season series, 2-2. Their last meeting came at M&T Bank Stadium in 2010 when the Ravens won 17-10 en route to a 12-4 season that resulted in the third straight trip to the playoffs for a Harbaugh-coached team. The Ravens haven’t played a game at Raymond James Stadium since the 2006 season opener and, of course, won the first of their two Super Bowl titles in Tampa on Jan. 28, 2001.

The Ravens are 40-27 all-time in the preseason and 13-7 in the Harbaugh era. Baltimore has also won 12 of its last 16 preseason games and is 19-14 in preseason road games.

Unofficial (and largely speculative) injury report

The Ravens are not required to release an injury report like they do for regular-season games, but I’ve offered my best guess on what the injury report would look like if one were to be released.

Most of the players ruled to be out will come as no surprise, but the status of a few will be in question. This list, of course, will not include any veterans who may be held out of the preseason opener due to the coaching staff’s preference. Cornerback Lardarius Webb is not expected to play as he continues to be held out of most 11-on-11 sessions during practices while working his way back to 100 percent following last October’s ACL injury.

Again, this is not an official injury report released by the Ravens:

OUT: TE Ed Dickson (hamstring), G Marshal Yanda (shoulder), LB Jameel McClain (neck), OL Ryan Jensen (foot), DE Kapron Lewis-Moore (knee), TE Dennis Pitta (hip)
DOUBTFUL: WR David Reed (groin), CB Lardarius Webb (knee)
QUESTIONABLE: OL Ramon Harewood (knee), S Omar Brown (undisclosed), CB Chris Johnson (undisclosed)
PROBABLE: RB Ray Rice (ankle), S James Ihedigbo (neck), DT Terrence Cody (hip/elbow)

Five players to watch Thursday night

1. WR Deonte Thompson

I’ve been as skeptical as anyone about the offseason praise bestowed on the second-year Florida product, but Thompson has looked increasingly comfortable working in the Ravens’ starting offense over the last week, whether it’s lining up in the slot or on the outside while Tandon Doss works inside in certain three-wide sets. Quarterback Joe Flacco complimented Thompson’s ability to work inside while also possessing unique speed for the slot position.

It will be interesting to see how offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell uses Thompson in the slot as he provides a speed element that neither Anquan Boldin nor Dennis Pitta possessed, but the biggest questions will be whether the former rookie free agent can catch the football consistently — the knock on him during his collegiate career — and whether he’s strong enough to create separation against press coverage. However, Thompson has performed well enough in the spring and summer to warrant extended looks in the preseason.

2. DE Chris Canty

The signings of pash-rush specialist Elvis Dumervil and free safety Michael Huff garnered more attention in the offseason, but Canty will provide the Ravens with a prototypical 5-technique defensive end (lining up over the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle), an asset they sorely lacked last season following the free-agent departure of Cory Redding. Arthur Jones was better suited to play inside and Pernell McPhee battled injuries throughout the year, forcing a banged-up Haloti Ngata to move away from his ideal spot and play outside more often. As a result, the defensive line suffered mightily against the run and getting after the quarterback.

Canty’s unique combination of size, power, and arm length — he’s listed at 6-foot-7 and 317 pounds — is exactly what you’re looking for to hold up against offensive tackles at the point of attack in the running game as well as to get after the quarterback a bit and put hands up to disrupt passing lanes. If Canty can remain healthy, his dirty work upfront won’t always show up in the box score but will be as valuable as Dumervil’s ability to bring down the quarterback and Huff’s work in the secondary.

3. LB Josh Bynes

Veteran Daryl Smith appears to be the overwhelming favorite to man the Mike inside linebacker position, but Bynes is battling Albert McClellan and second-round rookie Arthur Brown for the Will spot with most attention being paid to the Kansas State product for obvious reasons. However, Bynes has taken a large majority of the reps with the starting defense while Brown has primarily worked in sub packages and with the second-team unit.

Bynes missed nearly all of last year’s training camp with a back injury but eventually worked his way back to become a valuable special-teams contributor and filled in admirably after a number of injuries at the inside linebacker position late in the season. He has been complimented by coaches for having a good mind for the game and is strong against the run, making him the early favorite to start over the undersized and inexperienced Brown, who will likely replacing Bynes in passing situations to utilize his pass-coverage ability.

4. C A.Q. Shipley

Shipley’s 6-foot-1, 308-pound frame doesn’t impress you, but his work at the center position has earned him plenty of reps with the starting offense in a close battle with 2012 fourth-round pick Gino Gradkowski. I’ve maintained all spring and summer that Gradkowski was the favorite, but it appears that Shipley has closed the gap over the first couple weeks of training camp.

The Penn State product graded out well in his first real opportunity to play in the NFL last year with Indianapolis, but neither Shipley nor Gradkowski has great size, making you wonder if either will hold up physically against bigger opposing defensive tackles during the regular season. This might be the closest position battle of any for the Ravens this summer.

5. WR Marlon Brown

If you’re looking for this year’s rookie free agent to come out of nowhere in the way that past individuals such as Thompson or LaQuan Williams or Dannell Ellerbe did, Brown is an intriguing candidate because of his 6-foot-4 frame. His final season at the University of Georgia was cut short due to a torn ACL, which limited his ability to work out for teams during the draft process and contributed to him going undrafted.

Brown doesn’t possess overwhelming speed, but he’s shown a consistent ability to catch the football in practices unlike 2012 sixth-round pick and fellow big target Tommy Streeter, who is clearly behind Brown and seventh-round rookie Aaron Mellette on the depth chart. If Brown can shine while working with Tyrod Taylor and the second-team offense over the first couple preseason games, he could find himself at least in the conversation for a roster spot, especially with the Ravens desperately looking for red-zone targets in the passing game following the season-ending injury to Pitta.

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Ravens acquire center A.Q. Shipley from Indianapolis

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Ravens acquire center A.Q. Shipley from Indianapolis

Posted on 09 May 2013 by Luke Jones

Needing to fill their void at center, the Ravens have acquired A.Q. Shipley from the Indianapolis Colts to compete with second-year lineman Gino Gradkowski for the 2013 starting job.

General manager Ozzie Newsome will send a conditional pick in next year’s draft to the Colts in exchange for Shipley, who made five starts and appeared in 14 games during the 2012 season. The 6-foot-1, 309-pound lineman was a seventh-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2009 and spent time on practice squads in Pittsburgh (2009) and Philadelphia (2010) before signing with Indianapolis last year.

Considering the Ravens invested a 2012 fourth-round pick in selecting Gradkowski, you’d expect him to have the inside track in emerging as the retired Matt Birk’s replacement. He appeared in 16 games during his rookie season, serving primarily on special teams and saw limited time at center.

Shipley would be the ideal fit for a role similar to the one held by veteran Andre Gurode in 2011 when he served as Birk’s backup and filled in at both guard positions as well.

According to Pro Football Focus, Shipley earned a +6.9 grade in 476 offensive snaps last season. The Ravens drafted Colorado State-Pueblo lineman Ryan Jensen in the sixth round of last month’s draft to presumably offer some competition to Gradkowski, but the addition of Shipley diminishes the rookie’s chances of making the 53-man roster.

Shipley was a four-year letterman at Penn State and was an All-America selection, Rimington Trophy winner, and Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year as a senior. He is a native of Moon Township, Pa. and attended Moon Area High School in Pittsburgh. 

The Ravens also announced Thursday morning that they’ve released rookie guard Jeff Braun, who played at West Virginia and attended Winters Mill High School in Westminster.

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