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Five pressing questions for the 2012 season

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Five pressing questions for the 2012 season

Posted on 09 September 2012 by Luke Jones

As the Ravens begin defense of their AFC North division crown against the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday night and hope to embark on a journey to Super Bowl XLVII in John Harbaugh’s fifth year as head coach, they play the fourth-toughest schedule in the league statistically as their opponents held a .523 winning percentage (134-122) last season.

Expectations remain sky-high in Baltimore, even after a trying offseason than included key injuries and significant departures due to limited salary cap room.

Here are the five biggest questions weighing on my mind for the Ravens’ 2012 season:

1. Is the starting line good enough for the offense to take the next step?

Deemed a priority to upgrade at the beginning of the season, the offensive line remains a major question mark as the Ravens tinkered with various alignments throughout the preseason. Even determining which starting five will line up has been quite a challenge considering the circumstances the organization has dealt with since last January.

The Ravens knew Pro Bowl left guard Ben Grubbs — now with New Orleans — would be difficult to replace as they eventually settled on former Bengals guard Bobbie Williams. Playing with a surgically-repaired right ankle, the 35-year-old has dealt with swelling as scar tissue is still breaking up in the ankle, making you wonder if Williams will hold up over the course of a 16-game regular season.

The bigger surprise has been the uncertainty at the tackle position as the Ravens weren’t satisfied with Bryant McKinnie’s weight and conditioning this offseason and the tackle reported late to training camp, opening the door to the idea of Michael Oher returning to left tackle. All seemed to be straightened out when McKinnie started at left tackle and Oher shifted back to the right side in the third preseason game, but the Ravens surprisingly played hardball with McKinnie by cutting his pay last week, a tactic that nearly led to his departure.

In another twist, rookie Kelechi Osemele revealed Saturday that he expected to start at right tackle against the Bengals, meaning Michael Oher will play on the left side and McKinnie will hold a backup role for now. Osemele played well at the position in the preseason and is the most pleasant surprise of the 2012 draft class to this point, but his insertion in the starting lineup creates the question whether Oher can handle protecting quarterback Joe Flacco’s blind side, which led to the Ravens signing McKinnie in the first place last August.

The Ravens’ handling of their line is unsettling considering the offense is expected to take a significant step forward this season. The combination of Oher and Osemele is more athletic and better conditioned, factors worth remembering when you consider how much they expect to run a no-huddle offense, but much doubt remains about their ability as pass blockers. Though McKinnie is considered a below-average run blocker, he is still the best pass blocker among the Baltimore tackles, which should be the most important factor in trying to protect the most important player on the field.

It’s clear the Ravens have grown tired of McKinnie’s act, but they also didn’t have enough confidence in life without him or they would have pulled the trigger in releasing him last week when he balked at their original pay-cut demand. They appear set to try the younger duo against Cincinnati, but you have to wonder if it will work week in and week out, especially when considering Williams’ health and age at left guard and the fact that there’s no viable option behind him other than Osemele on the 53-man roster.

Even when finally appearing to settle on a starting five moving forward, the Ravens will need to show improvement in short-yardage run situations, an area in which they struggled immensely last season.

Regardless of the factors working against them, the Ravens deemed upgrading the offensive line a major priority in the offseason and even the optimistic takes on the current group couldn’t possibly feel more confident about it than last season’s group.

2. How will the defense find a consistent pass rush without Terrell Suggs?

No one knows if and when the Pro Bowl linebacker will return this season and whether he’ll display the same explosiveness he displayed last season on his way to the 2011 AP Defensive Player of the Year award. His absence has created a gigantic black cloud over a defense ranking among the NFL’s elite annually for over a decade.

The Ravens have used their “next man up” mantra since the news broke about the injury in early May, but they appear no closer to answering their pass-rush question than they were when first learning about Suggs’ partially-torn Achilles tendon. And it’s a sobering thought when you remember the defense will encounter 11 quarterbacks who have made at least one Pro Bowl this season.

Fourth-year linebacker Paul Kruger is being asked to play the strongside linebacker position in place of the departed Jarret Johnson and struggled setting the edge against the run in the preseason. However, an even more disappointing outcome of the summer was the slow development of rookie Courtney Upshaw, who dealt with a shoulder injury for much of training camp. Upshaw appeared overweight and lacked explosiveness coming off the edge and was beaten out by former practice squad member Albert McClellan for the rush linebacker spot.

While no one should have expected Upshaw to immediately enter the league as a poor man’s version of Suggs, the fact that he was unable to show any tangible signs of being a threat as a pass rusher in the preseason is disheartening after he was selected with the 35th overall pick in late April. To suggest Upshaw is a draft bust is absurdly premature, but the Ravens hope the light comes on quickly for the rookie from Alabama to be a bigger factor on passing downs.

In terms of maximizing their pass rush, the Ravens might be better served by scrapping the idea of Kruger at the “Sam” position and allowing him to move back to the rush linebacker spot where he can focus more often than not on simply getting after the quarterback. His 5 1/2 sacks in limited time last season showed he can put heat on the quarterback, but those also came with a healthy Suggs on the opposite side of the defensive line.

Defensive end Pernell McPhee will also be critical to the pass rush as his six sacks last year were a major surprise. The Ravens will elect to use him more extensively on first and second down given his pass-rushing ability, but McPhee also bulked up to 290 pounds to aid in playing the run. The second-year defensive lineman made positive plays in run support in the preseason, but you also wonder how the extra weight will affect the combination of strength and quickness he displayed as a pass rusher last year.

There’s simply no replacing the loss of Suggs and the secondary will be challenged in coverage much more without him tormenting quarterbacks for at least the bulk of the regular season. It’s difficult envisioning the defense maintaining the same level of excellence we’ve come to expect over the years, meaning the offense will be asked to be more productive if the Ravens are to remain a legitimate Super Bowl threat.

3. With the no-huddle attack expected to become a prominent part of the offense, how will it affect Ray Rice’s touches?

CONTINUE >>>

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Four Questions for the Ravens Season

Posted on 04 September 2012 by jeffreygilley

Personally, I have high hopes and expectations for the Ravens this season.  But then again, when are expectations not high in Baltimore?  The success the Ravens have had in their short existence is truly unbelievable.  As I said, this season is no different and the Ravens are hoping to make the Super Bowl after reaching the AFC Championship in two of the last four years.  But, no team enters a season without question marks.

Can the Ravens young linebackers replace the production of Suggs?  

As we all know, Terrell Suggs tore his ACL in the off-season.  Because of his injury, linebackers Paul Kruger, Courtney UpShaw, Sergio Kindle, and Albert McClellan must step up.  Kruger had a nice season in 2011 but that was when he had Terrell Suggs on the field commanding double teams.  Kruger is not alone though.  He has the help of some young players but young is the key word.  Kindle, UpShaw, and McClellan are all young and unexperienced.

If the Ravens can not produce any pressure, the team will struggle.  Pernell McPhee is a defensive lineman to keep an eye on.  He was most effective last season when he lined up against guards.  Pernell McPhee and Haloti Ngata will be a deadly combination this season and can occupy blockers which will help the Ravens young linebackers.

Can Torrey Smith have a break out season? 

Another way the Ravens can make up for the loss of Terrell Suggs is for the offense to be more productive and the pre-season has looked promising for the offense.  Joe Flacco looks much different.  He seems more composed and is scanning the field more effectively.  His favorite target seems to be Torrey Smith.  Smith also looks better.  His route running is more polished and he is now more than a down field threat.

If Torrey Smith had an 800-yard season in 2011 by being a down field threat only, immagine what he can do now that he is more polished?

How will the Ravens use Bobby Rainey and Deonte Thompson?

Bobby Rainey and Deonte Thompson were both stars of the pre-season.  They were brought into Ravens camp with little expectations but once they got to camp, they did nothing but perform at a high level.  Rainey, a running back out of Western Kentucky has shown a vast skill set throughout the preseason.  Rainey can run the ball effectively, catch the ball out of the backfield, he can block, and he can even return punts and kicks.  I think Rainey will play a role very similar to how Darren Sproles is used in New Orleans.  He is a play maker and the Ravens need as many of them as possible.

Deonte Thompson has also been very impressive in the preseason.  Like Raney, Thompson has been effective in multiple areas.  He has been explosive at wide receiver and as a kick returner.  Thompson has an opportunity to climb the depth chart even more.  Players like LaQuan Williams and Tandon Doss are ahead of him but Thompson has been more impressive in the preseason.  I expect Thompson to be used in multiple situations this season.

Will the special teams improve? 

The Ravens are stacked with options to return punts and kicks.  Jacoby Jones, Asa Jackson, Deonte Thompson, and Bobby Rainey have all shown flashes of brilliance in the return game but returning punts and kicks is not the problem.  The coverage was dreadful last season.  To improve the kickoff and punt coverage, the Ravens made several moves in the offseason.  Cory Graham, a special teams ace from the Bears is expected to play a big role on special teams this year and possibly on defense.  Sean Considine was also signed and is expected to contribute in a big way on special teams.

The special teams coverage did not look good in the preseason but it’s only the preseason.  I expect the special teams to be greatly improved from last season.

 

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Your Tuesday Reality Check: Let’s bust Upshaw talk

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Your Tuesday Reality Check: Let’s bust Upshaw talk

Posted on 04 September 2012 by Glenn Clark

I love the word “bust.”

Honest to God, it’s one of my favorite words in the English language.  If you check Dicitionary.com, there are 18 different uses of the word “bust” including seven verbs, five nouns, an adjective, a verb phrase and three idioms.

Coincidentally, “Three Idioms” was also a rejected name I suggested for a cover band I briefly joined in college. I thought it would have played better with the journalism school crowd. Shows what I know.

Think of the many ways you use the term “bust.” Perhaps you’ve used it to describe a sculpture. Perhaps you’re like me and only discovered one particular use of the word when you were first introduced to Pamela Anderson. Perhaps (again like me) you’re used the word quite a bit because you’re absolutely terrible at poker. Heck, perhaps you’ve even taken a cue from the worst college sports “pump up” video of all time and suggested you were “busting in” something or other.

I really hope it’s not the last scenario. God I hope it’s not the last scenario.

My interest today is in a different form of the word “bust”, the same form we heard Baltimore Ravens fans (and a few analysts covering the team) using to describe WR Torrey Smith just about 12 months ago.

Did that form of the word “bust” hit home because sheepishly you thought to yourself “oh no…I was one of those people. He’s talking about me!”?

It’s fine. You’re not alone. This is a safe place. You’re among friends here.

You probably described the former University of Maryland star as a “bust” because during the preseason he had only four catches total for just 20 yards. His hands appeared to be such an issue that only a few weeks into the preseason the team decided to trade for then Buffalo Bills WR Lee Evans in hopes to push Smith back to being the team’s third receiver instead of a starter.

You probably said something along the lines of “I can see why this guy fell to the bottom of the second round when some people thought he had first round talent.” You might have even called my show (you know who you are) to say “this guy is just the second coming of (fellow former Terps WR) Darrius Heyward-Bey.”

It was weird because after he caught the game winning touchdown at Heinz Field to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, I didn’t get too many of the same calls.

Go ahead. If you considered Torrey Smith a “bust” during the preseason or the beginning of last year’s regular season, please raise your hand. I just hope you have the fortitude to make the admission. I wouldn’t want to think that you were the type that made such proclamations and then later stated “I knew all along.”

I did not make such proclamations, personally. I also didn’t proclaim Smith to be ready to be a Rookie of the Year candidate either. The only things I really said were along the lines of “he hasn’t even played an actual NFL game” and “I have absolutely no idea how Smith is going to perform when the lights come on. We’ll have to wait and see.”

(Continued on Page 2…

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Ravens-Jaguars preseason primer: Five position battles to watch

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Ravens-Jaguars preseason primer: Five position battles to watch

Posted on 22 August 2012 by Luke Jones

Moving ever closer to games that actually count, the Ravens will play their third preseason contest of the summer Thursday as they welcome the Jacksonville Jaguars to M&T Bank Stadium.

Coach John Harbaugh is planning to play his starters well into the third quarter as Baltimore meets Jacksonville in the preseason for the first time ever. Traditionally, the third preseason game is considered the final real test for the regular season as starters see their most extensive action before barely making a cameo — if they even do that — in the final preseason game.

The Ravens will try to find more rhythm on both sides of the football, but the vanilla looks we saw in each of the first two preseason games will remain as the coaching staff does not game-plan for opponents in the preseason. For this reason, some downplay the significance placed on the “dress rehearsal” of the preseason.

“I guess that’s the way we’re trained to kind of look at it, just because that is the game [the starters] play the most in,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “We want to go out there and put good work forward and good footage that we can look at and learn from. This week is kind of the same. We want to go out there and we want to play well, but at the same time, we need to clean some things up and see what we’re getting better at and see what we still need to work on maybe even a little bit more.”

As is always the case, the preseason holds the most significance for players competing for starting positions or spots on the 53-man roster, but the coaching staff wants to see rhythm and communication improve as some starters will be playing together in a game for the final time before the season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 10.

Issues facing the Ravens in the offseason such as becoming more efficient in the red-zone offense and establishing a pass rush without Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs have carried into the preseason, and Harbaugh would like to see glimpses of optimism in those areas with the season set to kick off in less than three weeks.

“The performances of certain players are a really big part of it, but the performances of groups and units together is probably more important, because that’s how the game is played,” Harbaugh said. “We would expect that to be the case – guys working together better, fewer communication mistakes, being more synchronized.”

Even for longtime veterans such as 17-year linebacker Ray Lewis, the third preseason game provides a nice tuneup to not only be on the field for an extended period but to provide the emotional charge they’ll experience in beginning their quest to return to the AFC Championship game — and try to advance a step further — in 2012.

And while it’s not on the list of priorities for Thursday’s game, the Ravens’ embarrassing 12-7 loss to Jacksonville last season was on the mind of at least one Baltimore defensive player. The Jaguars ran for 132 yards against the Ravens on Oct. 24 of last season, but 105 came from the legs of running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who is currently holding out over a contract dispute.

“This is a good test for us,” Lewis said. “These guys run the ball pretty well, and for us to come in and have this type of test right now, being our third preseason game, yeah, I’m a little ready.”

Unofficially (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 at what the injury report would look like if there were one.

Though not dealing with an injury, defensive end Pernell McPhee’s status for Thursday remains unknown as he’s been away from the team since the weekend due to the death of a family member.

Again, this is not meant to be an official injury report:

OUT: OT Jah Reid (calf), LB Josh Bynes (back), TE Dennis Pitta (hand), TE Ed Dickson (shoulder), LB Terrell Suggs (Achilles tendon), WR David Reed (knee), DL Ryan McBean (ankle)
QUESTIONABLE: G Marshal Yanda (leg), LB Sergio Kindle (shoulder), S Sean Considine (head), LB Darryl Blackstock (groin)
PROBABLE: WR Torrey Smith (ankle), G Bobbie Williams (ankle)

Five positions to watch Thursday night

1. Left guard – Bobbie Williams and Kelechi Osemele

Should starting right guard Marshal Yanda be held out Thursday after accidentally being undercut by linebacker Chavis Williams during Monday’s practice, it will be more difficult to get a read on where the Ravens stand with their left guard position. It appears the coaching staff has finally settled on veteran Bryant McKinnie at left tackle and Michael Oher on the right side — the two have practiced in those spots exclusively since the second preseason game — but Osemele has begun working at guard more extensively with the 35-year-old Williams still dealing with scar tissue breaking up in his surgically-repaired ankle.

Interestingly enough, Williams was working at right guard in Yanda’s place, which seemed odd for the lineman expected to start on the left side, but it was the position the veteran primarily played in his years with the Cincinnati Bengals. Osemele has been very impressive this summer, making you wonder if he could eventually unseat Williams in the starting lineup. His ankle makes you question whether Williams will hold up over a 16-game schedule, but the Ravens feel confident that Osemele can be a contributor as a rookie if necessary.

My gut choice if the season started today: Williams gets the nod due to experience, but the Ravens won’t hesitate to go with Osemele if the veteran struggles as the season progresses.

2. Defensive end – Arthur Jones and Pernell McPhee

Thursday would be a golden opportunity for Jones to make up ground if McPhee remains away from the team due to a death in the family. A hip flexor injury cost Jones valuable practice time, allowing McPhee to receive the bulk of the reps and take the lead in the push for the starting job. A 2011 fifth-round pick out of Mississippi State, McPhee had the reputation of being stronger against the run prior to a surprising rookie season that included six sacks, and he played well against the run in the Ravens’ first two preseason games.

Jones has a strong lower body that translates well in run-stopping situations, but he doesn’t stand out when asked to get after the quarterback, which led many to believe he would see time on first and second downs with McPhee spelling him in passing situations. However, it now appears McPhee can handle the duties of a three-down lineman, and Jones could find himself as more of a situational player like he was last season. Regardless of which player the Ravens anoint as the starter, both will factor heavily into the defensive line rotation.

My gut choice if the season started today: McPhee has stood out on the defensive line as a more complete player and would be the choice as the starter even though Jones will still see plenty of opportunities.

3. Rush linebacker – Albert McClellan and Courtney Upshaw

CONTINUE >>>

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What to Look for on Thursday Night

Posted on 22 August 2012 by jeffreygilley

Come thursday night, the Ravens will be looking to exercise some demons against the Jacksonville Jaguars.  In week seven of last season, the Ravens suffered an embarrassing loss to the Jaguars on national television.  Joe Flacco and the offense could not move the ball as the Ravens fell 12-7.

Even though this is the preseason, the Ravens still want to win the game.  More importantly, the first team offense and defense must show improvement.

In the preseason, the offensive and defensive schemes are very vanilla.  Defenses dont give away their exotic blitzes for other teams to study.  Because of this, there is usually a three to four man rush which means a lot of one on one match-ups on the offensive and defensive line.  That said, the Ravens defensive line has not generated any pressure this entire preseason.

The loss of Terrell Suggs might prove to be more of a predicament than first expected.  Courtney UpShaw had a disappointing performance in his debut against the Lions but I think he will get his act together and perform well throughout the season.  UpShaw wont be handed the job but he will be expected to play a lot and make a sizable impact.

In addition to UpShaw, the Ravens have many other young and unproven linebackers.  Albert McClellan, Paul Kruger, and Sergio Kindle will be asked to take the place of Suggs.  I am not so optimistic that they can do that.  Kruger had a good year in 2011 but Suggs was a big part of his performance.  Suggs was able to command double teams which would in turn, leave Kruger one-on-one with an offensive lineman.  Even with Suggs’s help, Kruger only amassed 5.5 sacks.

Hopefully, I am wrong and Kruger can play well this season but I just dont see it.  If the front seven cant put pressure on the quarterback, expect the Ravens secondary to struggle.

Joe Flacco needs to have a good game this thursday.  He has looked solid but not great this preseason.  Torrey Smith should be back which will help Flacco tremendously.  The Jaguars will be a good test for Flacco seeing as the Jaguars had a top ten defense last season.  But, I think Flacco will have a very good game against the Jaguars.  He seems to be more confident and decisive after the AFC Championship game where he outperformed Tom Brady.

Jim Caldwell has also had an impact on the growth of Joe Flacco.  In the first two games, Flacco seems to be surveying the field more rather than just checking the ball down to Ray Rice.  He has also gotten better at looking off safeties to make plays.

Also keep an eye on rookies Omar Brown, Bobby Rainey, Deonte Thompson, and Asa Jackson.  All four of these players have performed very well and if the preseason ended today, I think they would be on the team.  Thompson, Rainey, and Jackson have all showed their potential on special teams as return men and on coverage.  Jackson and Thompson have performed extremely well returning kicks and both had long returns against the Lions which were both called back on penalties.

Omar Brown on the other hand, is making play after play.  Brown is a turnover machine and seems to have a future on the team if he continues to perform at a high level.

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Flacco embracing increased focus on no-huddle offense

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Flacco embracing increased focus on no-huddle offense

Posted on 13 August 2012 by Luke Jones

The Ravens appear primed to use the no-huddle attack more this season than they have at any point during the John Harbaugh era, and that’s perfectly fine with Joe Flacco.

In fact, the fifth-year quarterback wouldn’t have it any other way if given the choice.

“I love the no-huddle,” Flacco said. “We’ve got to get quicker and quicker at it. I like to go up there and run a play, run a play, run play. That’s what we’re going to be, and I think we have to make sure we get it as fast as we can.”

The Baltimore offense operated almost exclusively without a huddle in the preseason opener against the Atlanta Falcons, running 82 plays over the course of the game. Of course, that number becomes even more astonishing when you consider the first-quarter struggles that led the Ravens to only run nine plays for nine total yards in the first 15 minutes.

Running 73 plays in the final three quarters, the Ravens won’t always use the strategy, but Harbaugh stated Saturday that it’s been a major point of focus during organized team activities in the spring and over the first three weeks of training camp.

“That’s something that we have been practicing from the beginning, so obviously, that’s going to be a big part of what we do. We just have to pick our spots and all that.”

What can’t happen when using the no-huddle attack is to go three-and-out as the Ravens did for three consecutive series against the Falcons in the first quarter. Not only does it force a punt back to the opposition, but it leaves the defense even more fatigued than usual and will often result in the opposition controlling the tempo.

“It works really well when you convert; it doesn’t look so good when you don’t convert,” Harbaugh said. “When we have situations during the season, if we are out there, if we chose to go that tempo, that we don’t convert, our defense is going to have to get stops. When we do convert, we are going to build some momentum on our opponents. You have to understand how that goes.”

Veteran defensive lineman pushing Cody

Perhaps the most surprising sight from Sunday’s practice in Annapolis was seeing veteran defensive tackle Ma’ake Kemoeatu lining up with the starting defensive line during several periods while starter Terrence Cody worked with the second-team defense.

Cody is still listed as the starting nose tackle on the team’s most recent depth chart released Saturday, but the 33-year-old Kemoeatu has appeared to not only lock down a spot on the 53-man roster but is now pushing for serious playing time after not even playing in the NFL last season.

“I would say Kemo is pushing for a starting job,” Harbaugh said. “He has done that the last couple of [weeks], really since training camp has started. He’s in great shape, and he’s played extremely well.”

Kemoeatu has battled Achilles tendon and shoulder injuries in recent years and has played in only 14 games over the last three NFL seasons. The veteran played in Baltimore from 2002 through 2005 before signing a long-term contract with the Carolina Panthers.

He signed a one-year contract with the Ravens in early May after being released by the Washington Redskins last July and sitting out the 2011 season.

Upshaw working way back slowly

Rookie linebacker Courtney Upshaw worked in his third straight practice on Sunday after he sat out the preseason opener in Atlanta while still recovering from a right shoulder sprain.

The 22-year-old continues to be very limited and has his right shoulder heavily wrapped. He missed seven straight practices after sustaining the injury in a collision with rookie running back Bernard Pierce on July 28.

Upshaw is stilled listed as the Ravens’ starting rush linebacker on the official depth chart, but Albert McClellan and Sergio Kindle have received the reps in the rookie’s absent. McClellan has played well and is vying to win the starting job, according to Harbaugh.

“I’m not really feeling any pressure,” Upshaw said. “It’s just all these guys are here fighting, and I knew that coming in after they drafted me. But they just want me to get back to fight with them. Honestly, I just want to get back on the field. It’s not even about competing with [McClellan]. I just love the game so much, and I want to be out there playing the game of football.”

Expressing confidence that he would play in the Ravens’ second preseason game this Friday, Upshaw acknowledged that he still feels soreness in the shoulder and would have to be cleared to play by the training staff to compete against the Detroit Lions.

Reed sets record straight

CONTINUE >>>

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Ugly first half brings Ravens’ offseason concerns to light

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Ugly first half brings Ravens’ offseason concerns to light

Posted on 09 August 2012 by Luke Jones

The look on coach John Harbaugh’s face through most of the first half said it all in regards to the Ravens’ performance in what turned out to be a 31-17 win over the Atlanta Falcons after a strong second-half performance by the second and third-teamers on Thursday night.

You never want to take too much away from the first preseason game, but there was no sugarcoating how ugly the performance was over the first 30 minutes of action.

The Baltimore offense was held to just nine total yards on nine plays as it failed to collect a first down in the first quarter. Playing without linebacker Ray Lewis and rookie linebacker Courtney Upshaw, the defense was carved up by Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense for 191 yards in the first 15 minutes and allowed 17 points in the first half.

The effort was sluggish, but the major story was the Ravens’ biggest offseason concerns coming to fruition in the first snapshot of a live-game situation this summer. To panic would be much too premature, but to ignore the lack of a pass rush and concerns along the offensive line means you haven’t been paying attention to the events of the last seven months.

The Ravens received their first dose of reality without linebacker Terrell Suggs as they were unable to generate any pressure on Ryan, who picked on cornerback Cary Williams and the rest of the secondary as wide receiver Julio Jones caught six passes for 109 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter. Matching up against Jones and fellow wideout Roddy White is challenging enough, but the Ravens’ front seven were barely able to breathe on Ryan, let alone bring him to the turf.

Upshaw’s absence certainly didn’t help, but outside linebackers Paul Kruger and Sergio Kindle made little impact and Albert McClellan didn’t find success until Atlanta’s reserves began entering the game in the second quarter. As we’ve said all along, the Ravens will need a collective effort from multiple players to make up for the absence of Suggs, but what they showed against the Atlanta offense simply won’t get it done.

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees still has plenty of time to continue to find ways to generate consistent pressure, but he won’t see very much to like when he looks at the tape of the first half against the Falcons. In addition to the struggles with the pass rush, the Ravens displayed poor tackling and appeared to lack energy on the defensive side of the ball in the first half.

Despite finally waking up to march down the field for an 11-play, 77-yard drive that finished with a Joe Flacco touchdown pass to tight end Ed Dickson in the second quarter, the offense was anemic as the middle of the offensive line struggled to open running lanes and protect the pocket. Rookie Gino Gradkowski started at center for the injured Matt Birk while Michael Oher started at left tackle and rookie tackle Kelechi Osemele played on the right side.

Most alarming about the offensive line was a renewed concern at the left guard position, which was a major topic of discussion all offseason after the free-agent departure of 2011 Pro Bowl selection Ben Grubbs in March. After a strong showing through the first two weeks of training camp that had quelled most concerns at the spot, veteran left guard Bobbie Williams struggled mightily as he was consistently pushed backwards in pass coverage and had a breakdown in communication with Gradkowski that led to another sack.

On a high note for the offensive line, tackle Bryant McKinnie held up well with the second unit as he took reps into the third quarter. Though matched up against lesser defenders, his pass blocking appeared strong and his conditioning didn’t appear to be an issue, making you wonder if he showed the coaching staff enough for him to be reinserted at the left tackle position with the starting offensive line this coming week.

Despite being under duress for most of the time he was in the game, Flacco was 9 for 12 for 88 yards and a touchdown pass while operation out of quick-tempo offense over his four series of work, but the offensive line allowed him to be hit hard a few times.

With a 36-year-old center and a 35-year-old left guard projected to start, the Ravens need as much time as possible to build continuity along the offensive line. Questions will remain about how well Williams and Birk will hold up, but the options are thin behind them as Gradkowski showed flashes but often appeared to be overpowered at the line of scrimmage.

The good news for the Ravens is they still have a month to address these issues in trying to inject life in their Suggs-less pass rush and gain stability along the offensive line. The first half of Thursday night’s game is nothing more than 30 minutes of meaningless football in the scope of the 2012 season.

But it was visual evidence that the prevailing concerns of the offseason are very real and still need to be addressed before the Ravens welcome the Cincinnati Bengals to town on Sept. 10.

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Ravens-Falcons preseason primer: Five players to watch

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Ravens-Falcons preseason primer: Five players to watch

Posted on 08 August 2012 by Luke Jones

The Ravens ramp up their summer preparations for the 2012 season by traveling to Atlanta to take on the Falcons in their preseason opener Thursday night.

Meeting the Falcons for the ninth time ever in the preseason, the Ravens are 5-3 all-time and defeated Atlanta by a 21-7 margin in their preseason finale last season. The two teams have met four times in the regular season, with the series tied 2-2.

Baltimore has won 10 of its last 12 preseason games, but the Ravens will naturally only play their starters a brief time as coach John Harbaugh labeled it a “standard” plan for the opening preseason contest. Most starters will play roughly a quarter and the Ravens have not game-planned in any way for the Falcons specifically.

Even with the brief cameo, quarterback Joe Flacco and the starting offense hope to play efficiently before calling it a night roughly midway through the first half.

“It’s all about timing and execution,” Harbaugh said. “How crisp do we play? How do we execute under pressure? How do the guys take that execution from a practice environment and take it to a game environment against another team in a live-type situation? It’s all about executing our offense.”

A story that may go overlooked by most fans Thursday night will be who is officiating the game at the Georgia Dome. The National Football League is currently using replacement officials after locking out its regular officials when labor negotiations were going nowhere in early June. Reports suggest the league is prepared to begin the season with replacement officials.

Some concerns have been raised over the competency of replacement officials and how it might impact player safety, but most players have had little to say about the labor dispute and the Baltimore coach took the high road when asked about the situation earlier this week.

The league has put the replacement officials through extensive training and candidates have officiated at the collegiate level or for other professional leagues.

“We don’t even think about that,” Harbaugh said. “The refs will be fine. They will be what they are. Everybody is going to try to do their best. Our guys have plenty of things to worry about besides the officiating.”

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 at what the injury report would look like if there were one.

Harbaugh revealed that any player who didn’t practice Tuesday would not play in the game and players who have recently been held out of extensive practice due to injury may not play either. Older veterans may also be included in the list of inactives, which could mean linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed sit out the preseason opener.

Again, this is not meant to be an official injury report:

OUT: C Matt Birk (back), DE Arthur Jones (hip), CB Jimmy Smith (back), LB Josh Bynes (back), RB Bernard Pierce (hamstring), LB Dannell Ellerbe (hamstring), LB Darryl Blackstock (groin), WR Patrick Williams (leg), TE Dennis Pitta (hand), OL Jah Reid (calf), LB Terrell Suggs (Achilles tendon), WR David Reed (knee)
DOUBTFUL: LB Courtney Upshaw (shoulder), WR Tandon Doss (hamstring)
QUESTIONABLE: WR Jacoby Jones (undisclosed), DE Pernell McPhee (knee), DT Haloti Ngata (hamstring), OT Bryant McKinnie (back)
PROBABLE: G Marshal Yanda (limited Monday and Tuesday)

Five players to watch Thursday night

1. LT Bryant McKinnie

The 32-year-old lineman told WNST.net Wednesday morning that he will not only play but receive more reps than usual in the preseason opener in an effort to get into better football shape after missing the start of training camp with a lower back injury. McKinnie has worked mostly with the second-team offensive line as Michael Oher continues to receive most of the first-unit reps on the left side.

If McKinnie has a good showing against the Falcons, he’ll likely find his way back into his starting spot sooner rather than later as the Ravens will want to build some continuity with the offensive line. However, if he struggles, this competition could play out a little longer, especially if rookie right tackle Kelechi Osemele continues to impress as he has during training camp.

2. LB Albert McClellan

With Upshaw unlikely to play, McClellan could find himself making the start at outside linebacker along with Paul Kruger. Last season, the former practice squad member established himself as one of the team’s best special teams players and even filled in admirably at inside linebacker when Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe were sidelined late in the season.

McClellan could at least put himself in the conversation with Upshaw for a starting spot if he can take advantage of his opportunities to work with the starting defense. Upshaw’s weight is still higher than it should be, and he’s just coming back from a sprained shoulder that sidelined him for over a week.

Upshaw clearly has the higher upside, but McClellan has had a strong start to training camp and his versatility could earn him some significant time defensively this season.

3. LB Nigel Carr

The rookie from Alabama State has earned plenty of publicity early in training camp, but he needs to turn in a strong performance on Thursday with Ellerbe unlikely to play with a hamstring injury.

Much like Ellerbe, Carr is considered a “thumper” and has drawn praise from the coaching staff and media alike, but he will need to show more discipline and the ability to drop into pass coverage to earn stronger consideration for a roster spot. Ellerbe figures to see action in the nickel package and is a good backup despite questions about his work ethic and durability.

If Lewis is also held out of Thursday’s game, Carr may even see some time with the starting defense, and you can’t ask for more than that as an undrafted rookie. The 6-foot-2, 247-pound linebacker will need to prove he belongs, however.

4. RB Anthony Allen

Expected to battle the rookie Pierce for the backup running back job behind Ray Rice, Allen has found plenty of reps with the 2012 third-round pick sidelined for much of camp with a hamstring injury. Instead, Allen has seen more competition from diminutive rookie free agent Bobby Rainey at running back.

Allen is a physical runner and impressed as a seventh-round rookie last preseason, but he doesn’t possess great vision, which may limit him to short-yardage and goal-line situations. However, he can gain separation from Pierce in their competition with a strong performance against the Falcons.

Rice will likely play no more than a series or two, meaning Allen will receive touches with the first-string offense as well as the second unit. The Georgia Tech product must secure the football and recognize running lanes in the Ravens’ zone blocking schemes.

5. K Justin Tucker

Tucker has impressed over and over again during the first two weeks of training camp, with a 62-yard field goal at M&T Bank Stadium being the highlight in front of 20,000 fans. As good as incumbent kicker Billy Cundiff has been during training camp, Tucker has created a serious competition by being even better.

It will be interesting to see if Tucker brings the same swagger and consistent leg to the Georgia Dome turf with the knowledge that kicks in preseason games will undoubtedly hold more weight in the eyes of Harbaugh and special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg. Considering the Ravens have now had a kicking competition in three of their last four seasons, it’s important to remember kicks in practice only mean so much.

The Ravens will likely alternate quarters or halves for the two kickers, so you’d expect the veteran Cundiff to handle duties in the first quarter, but many eyes will be on the rookie from Texas when he gets an opportunity to line up against the Falcons.

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Ravens training camp mailbag

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Ravens training camp mailbag

Posted on 05 August 2012 by Luke Jones

Two weeks into training camp, I’ve decided to clean out the inbox and answer your Ravens questions to this point. I plan to make this a Sunday feature during the remainder of the preseason, so send your first name/location and questions to luke@wnst.net to be included next week.

Here’s the first edition of the training camp mailbag:

How does undrafted rookie linebacker Nigel Carr look to you and could he be the next Bart Scott and Jameel McClain? — John in Towson

I hesitate to draw conclusions before I see rookies compete in an actual preseason game, but Carr’s physicality and athleticism are impressive as an undrafted free agent from Alabama State. Carr has definitely caught the attention of the coaching staff after John Harbaugh said the 6-foot-2, 247-pound linebacker “runs around and hits everything he sees” on the practice field. Considering how much Baltimore linebackers have struggled against the pass in recent years, Carr’s ability to drop in coverage — albeit against second and third-team offenses — hasn’t gone unnoticed, either.

His troubled past, which included five felony charges that led to his dismissal from the Florida State football team two years ago, caused many teams to shy away from the linebacker this spring, but the Ravens have provided Carr an opportunity that he’s taken advantage of to this point. For what it’s worth, Carr is listed fourth at the Mike linebacker position on the team’s depth chart released late last week.

It’s way too premature to suggest Carr will be the next diamond in the rough for the Ravens at the linebacker position or that he will even make the 53-man roster, but a strong preseason will definitely put him in the conversation for a spot. As is the case with any young player, how Carr fares on special teams will factor heavily in his chances to make the team.

Considering the Ravens have made little — or no — real improvement with the offensive line to give Joe Flacco and Co. time, how much do you see the play-calling changing to compensate for that? — Scott in New Zealand

Until we actually know what the offensive line will look like in early September, this question remains difficult to answer, but I don’t expect offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to dramatically change his approach to play-calling. The key will be how much more efficient the Ravens can be in the passing game and in short-yardage situations.

Assuming Bryant McKinnie regains his job at left tackle and Michael Oher moves back to the right side, the question will be how effective the Ravens can be running the ball to the left behind McKinnie and new left guard Bobbie Williams. Baltimore struggled to run effectively to that side last season when Ben Grubbs was sidelined and veteran Andre Gurode filled in at left guard, and McKinnie was never regarded to be an exceptional run blocker even in the prime of his career.

The Ravens will attempt to go vertical often as they did last season, but they hope to be more effective with a more experienced Torrey Smith and the addition of speedy veteran Jacoby Jones. However, the offensive line must give Flacco enough time for these vertical plays to develop.

Regardless of how the line looks, the Baltimore offense will still thrive with the contributions of Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice and the use of tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta. Improving their efficiency in the down-field passing game will be the biggest challenge in this offense taking it to the next level.

Among the injured Ravens players to miss extensive time at the start of camp, who is hurting himself the most? — Justin in Cockeysville

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Friday notes from training camp

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Friday notes from training camp

Posted on 03 August 2012 by Luke Jones

Trying to figure out exactly how the Ravens plan to handle their starting outside linebacker positions has been challenging with conflicting information out there since the start of organized team activities.

While fourth-year linebacker Paul Kruger and rookie Courney Upshaw are still listed as the projected starters on the first depth chart released earlier this week, Kruger is listed as the strongside — or “Sam” — linebacker while Upshaw is at the rush linebacker spot, which contradicts what Kruger told reporters during OTAs. Further complicating the situation is the shoulder injury that’s sidelined Upshaw since Monday.

Kruger and the combination of Sergio Kindle and Albert McClellan — with Kindle getting first-team reps while McClellan worked with the second unit Friday — have manned the outside linebacker spots for the starting defense this week, but defensive coordinator Dean Pees is keeping everyone guessing as Kruger has lined up at the strongside position as well as the rush linebacker spot.

When the starting defense came out in its nickel alignment Friday, Kruger and Kindle lined up as defensive ends with Ryan McBean and Bryan Hall lining up at the tackle positions as Haloti Ngata and Pernell McPhee are still being brought back slowly after injuries.

Regardless of who ultimately lines up at each outside linebacker position at the start of the regular season, there are question marks over the ability of both Kruger and Upshaw to drop into pass coverage, making it understandable that the Ravens are playing around with as many looks as they can to see what will work best without the services of Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs.

Return game

Special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg hasn’t offered much in revealing what the Ravens’ plans are in the return game, but veteran wide receiver Jacoby Jones has a strong hold on the punt return job and is listed in the No. 1 spot on the depth chart. Jones has taken the majority of reps as the punt returner even though former punt returner Lardarius Webb may occasionally find himself back deep.

However, the kick returner job appears to be more wide open with no definitive player emerging to receive more reps during practices. Jones is listed as the No. 1 kick returner on the depth chart, but backup running backs Anthony Allen and Damien Berry as well as rookie wide receiver Deonte Thompson received reps returning kickoffs on Friday.

Jones has the clear edge in experience, but you have to wonder if the Ravens will want him to handle return duties for both punts and kickoffs when he is expected to be the team’s No. 3 receiver this season.

We will begin to gain more clarity when the Ravens take on the Atlanta Falcons in the preseason opener on Thursday.

Highlights from practice

Tight end Ed Dickson continues to have an impressive camp as he caught a touchdown pass from quarterback Joe Flacco in an 11-on-11 portion of practice.

Matched up across from Kruger at the line of scrimmage, Dickson found a tiny window as Kruger dropped into zone coverage and Flacco threw a beautiful pass into the end zone for the score.

Though Flacco seemed to develop a better rapport with Dennis Pitta over the course of last season, he appears to be on the same page with Dickson during camp, which is good news after Pitta broke his hand earlier this week.

Flacco also delivered a bullet to wide receiver Torrey Smith on a slant pattern that beat cornerback Danny Gorrer and likely would have gone for a touchdown had the whistle not blown shortly after the reception. Smith has looked more comfortable with the entire passing tree through the early portion of camp and appears to be catching the ball more often with his hands instead of his body as he would tend to do last season.

After receiving Thursday off, rookie kicker Justin Tucker was 5-for-6 on field goal attempts as he connected on tries from 46 and 53 yards before coming up just short on a kick from 60 yards away.

Veteran kicker Billy Cundiff was given Friday off as Rosburg told media a day earlier that he would.

Roster move

With Bryant McKinnie returning to the practice field on Friday, the Ravens waived offensive lineman Paul Madsen after they had signed him in early June.

The rookie from Colorado State had previously been with the Buffalo Bills before being claimed off waivers by Baltimore.

He is the brother of former NBA player Mark Madsen.

 

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