Tag Archive | "Anquan Boldin"


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Forsett expected to be ready for offseason workouts

Posted on 23 November 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Overshadowed by the season-ending knee injury suffered by Joe Flacco, Ravens running back Justin Forsett underwent surgery to repair a broken right forearm on Monday.

The 30-year-old suffered fractures to the radius and ulna in the first quarter of Sunday’s 16-13 win over St. Louis, but head coach John Harbaugh doesn’t expect the injury to be a major disruption to Forsett’s preparations for the 2016 season.

“My assumption is that bones heal pretty quickly, so I’m sure he’ll be back in the offseason lifting weights and training,” Harbaugh said. “I would expect Justin back next year full-speed, ready to go. He’s under contract and a big part of what we’re doing going forward.”

Signed through the 2017 season, Forsett is scheduled to make a $3 million base salary and carry a $3.7 million cap figure next season. A reserve journeyman when he was signed by the Ravens, Forsett rushed for a career-high 1,266 yards and eight touchdowns to earn his first trip to the Pro Bowl last season.

In Forsett’s absence, rookie Buck Allen is expected to assume the starting role for the remainder of the season. The fourth-round pick from USC ran for 67 yards on 22 carries and caught five passes for 48 yards against the Rams on Sunday.

Another interesting option in the backfield will be second-year running back and former Towson standout Terrance West, who was initially signed to the practice squad and elevated to the 53-man roster last week. The 2014 third-round pick wore out his welcome in both Cleveland and Tennessee earlier this year, but his decorated career at the FCS level makes him a viable back to evaluate over the final six games of 2015 if he’s willing to put in the work.

“He’ll definitely get an opportunity,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll see as far as activation and depth charts and things like that as we go throughout the course of the week. But he’s practiced well for us since he has been here and is learning the offense. He doesn’t have it all probably 100 percent down right now, but he’s working hard at it. We’ve been impressed with what we’ve seen so far.”

Receiver shuffling

As all attention now falls on the new man who will be delivering the football, the Ravens again shuffled the deck at the wide receiver position  by promoting Chuck Jacobs from the practice squad and waiving veteran Joe Morgan on Monday.

“He has been practicing with us and done a really nice job, so we’re excited to add him,” said Harbaugh about Jacobs, who played for Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco. “We let Joe Morgan go to make room on the [roster]. Joe did a good job for us. It just wasn’t working in the plans there for us fit-wise.”

Baltimore also signed Seattle wide receiver Chris Matthews to the practice squad. The 6-foot-5 target has just four career regular-season catches, but he made a name for himself with four receptions for 109 yards and a touchdown in Super Bowl XLIX.

Koch short-lived backup

The Ravens were working on signing another quarterback on Monday to back up new starter Matt Schaub, which means punter Sam Koch’s time as the primary backup won’t last long.

When asked if Koch had received any reps as Baltimore’s emergency No. 3 quarterback this season, Harbaugh laughed and insisted he had not. Before the veteran punter, ex-Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin served as the emergency signal-caller from 2010-2012, but he began his college career at Florida State as a quarterback.

“I guess it’s by default like they have the line and everybody steps back,” Harbaugh said. “And Sam was still standing there. That’s how Anquan got it. Anquan actually played in college at least, but Sam can throw.”

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Big plays — or lack thereof — hurting Ravens in 2015

Posted on 19 October 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Big plays — or the lack thereof — have plagued the Ravens in their nightmarish 1-5 start to 2015.

The league’s 27th-ranked pass defense allowed three pass plays of 50 or more yards in Sunday’s 25-20 loss to San Francisco, bringing the total surrendered for the season to six. In all, Baltimore has given up 12 pass plays of 30 or more yards despite facing a relatively pedestrian list of quarterbacks through the first six weeks of the regular season.

Head coach John Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Dean Pees are beginning to sound like a broken record when discussing the pass defense, but there’s been no apparent improvement as the Ravens are in the midst of the worst start in the 20-year history of the franchise.

“If we stop giving up big plays, we’re playing very good defense,” Harbaugh said. “But that’s how it always works when you give up big plays. That’s where all the yards are. That’s how most of the yards are made in this league — by big plays.

“It’s hard to methodically go down the field every single series and execute perfectly. There’s no margin for error with that, so you have to be able to make big plays. If you can stop big plays, then you’re going to stop an offense.”

After saying only three of Pees’ calls in a total of 90 defensive snaps in last week’s loss to Cleveland were bad decisions, Harbaugh acknowledged a “scheme issue” that resulted in 49ers fullback Bruce Miller’s 52-yard catch late in the first quarter that led to a field goal. The Ravens were in a heavy run defense for a third-and-1 play when Colin Kaepernick connected with a wide-open Miller, a play Harbaugh credited as good scheming on the 49ers’ part.

The Baltimore coach said San Francisco’s other long pass plays — the 76-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith and the 51-yard completion to Anquan Boldin — were results of poor coverage technique from cornerbacks Shareece Wright and Jimmy Smith, respectively.

“I didn’t have any problem with any of the [other] calls yesterday,” Harbaugh said, “but there are always calls that you’re going to look at and you’re going to say, ‘Hey, we could be better.’ You’re going to always try to find things that you could do better. There were no major issues with that yesterday.”

Opponents making big plays has been a theme in their five losses, but the Ravens have made very few big plays of their own, failing to recover a fumbled punt or to come away with two potential interceptions against San Francisco on Sunday. Baltimore ranks 30th in the NFL with just four takeaways in 2015 and hasn’t come away with one since the Week 3 loss to Cincinnati.

In the 20-year history of the franchise, the Ravens have had six or more takeaways in a single game seven times.

Meanwhile, the Ravens offense continued to struggle to push the ball down the field with only one pass play of 30 or more yards on Sunday — the 34-yard touchdown from Joe Flacco to Steve Smith in the third quarter. Through six games, Flacco has completed seven passes of 30 or more yards and only one of 50 or more.

“Offensively, we need to start making some big plays,” Harbaugh said. “We need to scheme some big plays in. We need to attack some weaknesses in coverages a little bit better, and we need to make some of those plays. We need to make some catches, need to make some throws, need to make some runs, some run blocks. And we have to do a better job of finding those things for our guys, as well as a coaching staff.”

Timeout questions

Facing criticism for the use of two of his second-half timeouts in Sunday’s loss, Harbaugh defended his decisions a day later.

After a 17-yard completion to fullback Kyle Juszczyk to open the second half, the Ravens burned a timeout less than a minute into the third quarter because of a play call that was “going to be a disaster” on a first-and-10 at their own 37-yard line with San Francisco leading 16-6.

“We wanted to get a good play off there,” said Harbaugh, who did not consider taking a delay-of-game penalty in that situation. “A timeout is not always the most important thing, especially when you’re behind. Sometimes we want to keep drives alive. [When] you start backing yourself up with penalties, I think you’d be asking me that question.”

With the 49ers leading 19-13 early in the fourth quarter, Harbaugh elected to challenge the 51-yard completion to Boldin to the Baltimore 25.

Despite no visual evidence from camera replays that the play had a chance to be reversed, Harbaugh rolled the dice and ultimately lost his second timeout of the half when referee John Parry ruled the catch to stand. The 49ers scored a touchdown three plays later.

“I took a shot there, because it was a big play,” Harbaugh said. “You couldn’t get it on the [stadium video board]. We really didn’t have it on TV [in the booth]. I took a shot there, because it was a big play in the game. We thought we had a chance to win it, and we were hoping we could get it. We had nothing definitive, because we didn’t get much on TV, and we got nothing on the screen.”

No update on Lewis

Harbaugh had no news on starting safety Kendrick Lewis, who injured his left knee in the third quarter of Sunday’s game and didn’t return. Lewis exited the post-game locker room on crutches and was scheduled to undergo a magnetic resonance imaging exam on Monday.

“I don’t have any updates on injuries, I apologize,” Harbaugh said. “I have been grinding away on [game] tape. I haven’t had a chance to get to that yet.”

James back to Houston

After being waived over the weekend to make room on the 53-man roster for running back Terrence Magee, cornerback Charles James was claimed by Houston on Monday.

The Ravens signed James to their practice squad in early September after he was waived by the Texans at the end of the preseason. The 5-foot-9 defensive back was promoted to the 53-man roster last week after spending more than a month on the practice squad.

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Ravens-49ers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 17 October 2015 by Luke Jones

If we’re being honest, this space has become a punchline so far in 2015.

Incorrectly picking the final outcome of four of the Ravens’ first five games — including the last four in a row — doesn’t inspire confidence when trying to forecast Sunday’s meeting with the San Francisco 49ers. Of course, no one predicted Baltimore to be 1-4 for the first time in franchise history, either.

Only six of the 121 teams to begin a season with a 1-4 record have gone on to make the playoffs since 1990. For now, the Ravens are simply trying to win a game despite an extensive list of key players dealing with injuries.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens meet the 49ers in a meaningful game for the first time since Super Bowl XLVII, which feels much longer than just three years ago for both teams. Counting the 34-31 win in New Orleans, Baltimore holds a 4-1 edge against the 49ers and the teams are tied 1-1 playing in San Francisco. Sunday will mark the Ravens’ first trip to Levi’s Stadium, the site of Super Bowl 50 in February.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens attempt to win their seventh consecutive game against an NFC opponent …

1. Torrey Smith will draw a long pass interference penalty and catch a touchdown against his former team. The 49ers have struggled in the passing game due to the inconsistency of Colin Kaepernick, but the Ravens don’t have a cornerback who can run with the fifth-year wideout since Jimmy Smith is still trying to regain his pre-surgery form with his foot. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will try to provide as much safety help as possible, but the University of Maryland product will catch a touchdown to exact some revenge after the Ravens made little effort to re-sign him in the offseason. The league’s 25th-ranked pass defense will also draw a flag trying to keep up with the speedster.

2. New Ravens cornerback Shareece Wright will see extensive time in the nickel package. With Lardarius Webb doubtful and Will Davis out for the year, Baltimore was trying to bring Wright up to speed as quickly as possible this week. Simplifying schemes might be the best idea for all members of the secondary considering how inconsistent the group has been with technique and coverage assignments. Unlike Kyle Arrington and Asa Jackson, Wright is viewed as more of an outside cornerback, which is something the Ravens need right now. Expectations shouldn’t be very high for Jimmy Smith’s high school teammate, but that’s no different than the rest of the group at this point.

3. Rookie Buck Allen will score his first NFL touchdown as he leads the Ravens in rushing. Even if Justin Forsett does play on Sunday, Baltimore promoting practice-squad member Terrence Magee doesn’t instill confidence that the veteran will have a full workload. Allen had struggled before breaking a 44-yard run against Cleveland, but the Ravens hope that’s the start of the fourth-rounder finding a groove. With No. 2 back Lorenzo Taliaferro done for the season, the Ravens need Allen to step up immediately and he will do that to some degree on Sunday. Against the league’s 17th-ranked run defense, the offensive line will open running lanes and Allen will build on what he did in Week 5.

4. Brandon Williams will collect another sack and three tackles for a loss. The third-year nose tackle has been Baltimore’s best defensive player by a wide margin in 2015 and will be going up against 49ers center Marcus Martin and right guard Jordan Devey, who have been liabilities in 2015. San Francisco wants to feed the ball to running back Carlos Hyde as much as possible, but Williams presence in the middle of the defensive line will make that a difficult proposition. If Ravens outside linebackers can contain the edges and prevent Kaepernick from taking off, Williams will provide plenty of heat in early-down situations and pick up his second sack of the season at some point.

5. Joe Flacco will bounce back from his 2015 fourth-quarter struggles to give the Ravens the edge in a 24-21 win. It’s easy to pick on the eighth-year quarterback for having the worst fourth-quarter passer rating in the NFL this season, but who has he been able to trust to throw to beyond Steve Smith, who hasn’t been out there for the fourth quarter the last two games? Flacco does need to be better in the final quarter, but he can’t do it by himself. The Ravens will take advantage going up against the league’s 31st-ranked defense to make enough plays late in the game to secure a victory. Am I confident in that prediction? You never are when you’re 1-4, but the 49ers are 1-4 and have looked much worse than the Ravens with three of their four losses being by double digits.

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Super Bowl memories couldn’t feel more distant for Ravens, 49ers

Posted on 15 October 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Walking through the Ravens’ training facility in Owings Mills on Wednesday, Joe Flacco noticed a televised replay of Super Bowl XLVII on NFL Network.

But the eighth-year quarterback and Most Valuable Player of that game says he doesn’t reminisce about the pinnacle of his career that night in New Orleans less than three years ago. These days, he and the Ravens are simply trying to turn around the worst start in the 20-year history of the franchise.

Sunday’s regular-season meeting with their opponent in that championship game, the San Francisco 49ers, isn’t creating much nostalgia, mostly because of the dramatic roster turnover since then. Just nine of the 46 Baltimore players active for Super Bowl XLVII are currently on the 53-man roster and only four were Super Bowl starters. In total, only 14 players remain who were with the organization then.

“It feels like so long ago,” Flacco said. “It’s disrespectful to even talk about it, because you have so many guys on this team that weren’t a part of it, and they’re trying to be a part of something great in the moment. I am, too. It doesn’t really cross my mind too often, and I think I like it that way.”

Of course, the dominant narrative leading into that Super Bowl was the meeting between John and Jim Harbaugh, but the latter is no longer in San Francisco despite leading the 49ers to three NFC championship games in his first three seasons. Jim Harbaugh now roams the sideline coaching the University of Michigan as the 49ers have slipped into a 1-4 hole under new head coach Jim Tomsula.

The Ravens coach dismissed any notion of it being personal against San Francisco and said he doesn’t have time to think back. Harbaugh and his staff are more consumed with trying to overcome a slew of injuries while also fixing the league’s 25th-ranked pass defense.

“It really doesn’t cross your mind,” said Harbaugh, who added that he hasn’t talked much with his brother as Jim prepares for his own big game against Michigan State this Saturday. “It’s a new challenge, new team, new year. That’s what you focus on.”

This season has also been a great challenge for the 1-4 49ers as they’ve looked even worse than the Ravens, owning the worst point differential (minus-65) in the NFL and losing three games by double-digit margins. Unlike the Ravens who have remained consistent at the top, the 49ers changed their infrastructure with Jim Harbaugh’s departure while experiencing a mass exodus of players this offseason that included abrupt retirements as well as free-agent departures.

Those wholesale changes have resulted in San Francisco having the league’s 29th-ranked offense and 31st-ranked defense through the first five weeks.

The most familiarity from Super Bowl XLVII that the Ravens will experience with the opposing side will be the two who used to be their own: wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith. For a passing game lacking weapons and desperately hoping that the 36-year-old Steve Smith is ready to return, the former Ravens wideouts would sure look good in purple now.

But life goes on and the Ravens can at least take solace in knowing they came out on top on that memorable day.

“We had a lot of vets on both teams, too, so you’re always going to have to deal with [change] as well,” said Smith, who admitted he “cried like a baby” leaving the Ravens this past offseason. “I’m not surprised. Being on the other side, the other team, it’s different. It’s weird. We were walking out for the walk-through and they were playing the Super Bowl on the TV. And [49ers left tackle] Joe Staley, we were in the huddle, and he looks at me and was like, ‘You didn’t deserve that.’ We kind of talk trash about it every once in a while, but it’s definitely a sensitive subject.

“I’m still glad that I was on the winning side of that. But I think that change happens, and it’s about what you do next.”

“What’s next?” is the question for the Ravens as only six of the 121 NFL teams — just under five percent — to start 1-4 since 1990 have rebounded to make the playoffs. Regardless of how the next 11 regular-season games play out, Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome must identify which players will be key pieces moving forward.

The results haven’t been there in 2015, but the process of building the next championship team never stops. The Ravens made a difficult task look so easy over the first seven years of Harbaugh’s tenure, making the start of this season so surprising.

Stability at the top gives Baltimore the edge in rebounding more quickly than the team they’ll be playing Sunday as the 49ers were a laughingstock for much of the offseason. For now, both teams appear to be chasing ghosts.

“It’s tough to stay at that level. I think you see that consistently across the board,” Flacco said. “It’s just tough from year to year to keep that same team together and keep injuries down and all those things. It’s unfortunate that we’re both in the same situation right now, because I think we feel as though we have a better team. I’m sure they feel the same way.”

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Torrey Smith joins ex-Raven Boldin in San Francisco

Posted on 10 March 2015 by Luke Jones

After teaming together to beat San Francisco in Super Bowl XLVII, former Ravens wide receivers Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin have reunited as members of the 49ers.

As expected, the 26-year-old Smith agreed to a reported five-year, $40 million contract that includes $22 million guaranteed after announcing Sunday that he would not be returning to the Ravens. Apparently, it was his former teammate who helped recruit Smith to San Francisco as the pair remained friends after Boldin was traded to the 49ers two years ago. Smith also has a relationship with 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, a fellow University of Maryland alum.

After reportedly turning down a five-year, $35 million offer from the Ravens before the 2014 campaign, Smith made out well in free agency despite a down season in which he caught only 49 passes for 767 yards. It remains unclear whether a similar offer from the Ravens was still on the table considering the organization’s significant salary cap problems stemming in part from the release of Ray Rice last September.

Smith will provide the 49ers the deep threat in the passing game they’ve sorely lacked for a number of years.

Meanwhile, the Ravens will need to replace their biggest draft success at the wide receiver position in franchise history after selecting Smith in the second round of the 2011 draft. He finished his run in Baltimore ranking second in franchise history in touchdown receptions and third in receiving yards.

Baltimore is scheduled to visit Smith, Boldin, and the 49ers during the 2015 regular season.

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Ravens welcome Boldin, 49ers to practice fields in Owings Mills

Posted on 09 August 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Taking part in joint practices for the first time in the 19-year history of the franchise, the Ravens welcomed the San Francisco 49ers to their training facility Saturday for the first of three practices following their 23-3 win in the preseason opener.

Both head coaches preached the need to take care of the other team in terms of practicing smart and not wanting to cause injuries while putting in the necessary work. The Ravens escaped the preseason opener in great shape from a health standpoint as cornerback Lardarius Webb (back), guard Will Rackley (back), and defensive tackle Terrence Cody (active physically unable to perform list – hip) were the only players not taking part in Saturday’s practice, meaning no players missed practice time due to injuries sustained in Thursday’s game.

Safety Brynden Trawick left the field while appearing to be favoring his back and didn’t return before the conclusion of practice. Offensive lineman Ryan Jensen also appeared to be banged up at one point but remained on the field.

“It definitely makes things a little different,” said quarterback Joe Flacco prior to the first joint practice. “I’m sure when we first go out there, we’ll be feeling each other out a little bit and seeing what kind of tempo there is and all that.”

The 49ers offense appeared to get the best of the Baltimore defense in 11-on-11 team work with former Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin making several catches in a red-zone period and fellow wideout Stevie Johnson making an acrobatic sideline grab with Jimmy Smith in tight coverage. Veteran receiver Kassim Osgood also lost safety Matt Elam and cornerback Chykie Brown in coverage for a long completion.

Linebacker Terrell Suggs appeared to struggle to create pressure off the edge while matched up against Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley.

Meanwhile, Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith continued his impressive summer with a number of challenging catches against the 49ers secondary, including an over-the-shoulder grab on a deep ball down the seam.

Head coach John Harbaugh said the teams intend to practice in full pads all three days, but they will not conduct live drills in which they tackle to the ground.

“We want to take care of the Ravens,” 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said. “We want to be safe out here, and we need them to do the same for us. That’s the kind of environment where iron sharpens iron. That’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking for good practice work. These aren’t games out here.”

Harbaugh brothers call out media

The Ravens and 49ers made it out of Saturday’s workout without any fights of note as outside linebacker Pernell McPhee and 49ers fullback Will Tukuafu appeared to get heated at one point before order was quickly restored.

Each Harbaugh brother preached to their respective teams about the importance of remaining focused during practices and the consequences of getting into scuffles with the opposition. However, both spoke about the media’s tendency to focus on fights and skirmishes in practices instead of the football side of things.

“What’s interesting to me — and what’s a real indictment on you as the media — is the fact that Jimmy Smith was asked about it, and he said when he sees these things on TV, all he ever sees is fights,” John Harbaugh said. “What does that tell you? How about a little self-check?

“We’re probably going to have 99 percent all great, positive things, but if there is a little shoving match out here, I’m quite sure that that’s what will be on these cameras, and it’ll be countrywide, and that’ll be everybody’s take on how it went, right? Because that’s how it is all the time. We’re going to look for the positive; you all can look for the negative — as usual.”

Flacco sees preseason opener as “good foundation”

After an opportunity to view the film from the strong opening drive on Thursday in which the starting offense traveled 80 yards on 10 plays to score a touchdown, Flacco echoed how encouraged he was to see the offensive line perform at a high level.

The challenge now will be continuing to progress as the first unit receives more extensive snaps in the second and third preseason games. Flacco completed four of five passes for 52 yards before most of the starting offense was pulled after running back Bernard Pierce plunged into the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown.

“We ran the ball really well and protected really well,” Flacco said. “There is a lot to build on. I think we built a good foundation there. I think each week from here on out, we have to keep showing that improvement and building off what we did.”

Boldin not dwelling on past

Making his return to the Ravens’ training facility in Owings Mills, Boldin seemed at peace with his former team’s decision to trade him to San Francisco last offseason and spent the early portion of practice greeting old teammates and staff members.

John Harbaugh quipped that he still blames general manager Ozzie Newsome for dealing Boldin away for a sixth-round pick before acknowledging it was a difficult business decision stemming from a tight salary cap. The 33-year-old receiver enjoyed the opportunity to visit his old neighborhood on Friday and has been appreciative for continued support from Ravens fans following the trade.

“I got a chance to see a lot of people I haven’t seen since the trade,” Boldin said. “It’s always good to see those people. I built a lot of relationships in my three years here.”

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Steve Smith not looking to be Boldin, Andre Johnson in Kubiak’s system

Posted on 15 March 2014 by Luke Jones

The Ravens hope that much of what new wide receiver Steve Smith brings to the field won’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet every week.

That’s not to say Baltimore won’t take advantage of the remnants of the 14th-year receiver’s ability in a career that includes five Pro Bowl selections, 12,197 receiving yards, and 67 touchdown receptions, but Smith’s intangibles were equally attractive to an offense that lacked a vocal leader willing to ruffle some feathers when needed last year. Smith has occasionally come under fire for his willingness to speak his mind and tell others what they might not want to hear, but coach John Harbaugh told the veteran during his free-agent visit that the Ravens want him to be himself.

The Ravens signed Smith to a three-year, $11 million contract on Friday afternoon.

“We’ve added one of the top competitors in the NFL to the Ravens,” general manager Ozzie Newsome said in a released statement. “Steve is a proven player who has performed his best in big games and on the biggest stages like the playoffs and Super Bowl. He adds toughness to our offense, big-play ability, and leadership to our team.”

Those intangibles aside, what should the Ravens expect from a wide receiver set to turn 35 in May?

From the start of the offseason when Newsome and Harbaugh spoke about the Ravens’ need to add a wide receiver who can move the chains and pick up the tough yards after a catch, it sounded as though they were envisioning Anquan Boldin’s replacement as someone who can line up in the slot and make difficult catches over the short-to-intermediate middle portion of the field. The similarities in attitude between Boldin and Smith are clear, but the 5-foot-9 Smith has relied more on his speed on the outside throughout his career while Boldin is bigger and slower but has always made catches in traffic.

You can hardly blame Smith for not wanting to be compared to someone else after being one of the better receivers in the NFL over the last decade.

“I’m not Anquan Boldin,” said Smith when asked if he can fill the void of the former’s departure from a year ago. “I respect the heck out of ‘Q,’ and what ‘Q’ brings to the table is what ‘Q’ brings to the table. I’m Steve Smith, and what I bring to the table as a Baltimore Raven, I have to earn that, and my time on the field will display what I bring to the table.

“We play similar games; we want to win and we go all-out. But we’re also individuals, and I’m not here to replace anyone. I’m here to be myself.”

Determining what role Smith will play isn’t easy as many believe he’s lost a step after recording only 64 receptions for 745 yards last season, his lowest totals since 2010 when the Carolina Panthers were the worst team in the NFL with a 2-14 record. And the Ravens offense will clearly present a different look under new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak.

Smith met with Kubiak to discuss what his role would be in the Baltimore offense, using the coach’s offenses in Houston as a point of reference. The former Texans coach really didn’t have any player in Houston who compared to Smith in terms of physical makeup, but the veteran made it clear he’s not expecting to have the extensive role of No. 1 wide receiver Andre Johnson during all those years he played with Kubiak.

This is good news for an offense that can’t put all its hopes in a veteran receiver whose best days are behind him. Until proving otherwise, Smith should be a complementary option to fourth-year receiver Torrey Smith and tight end Dennis Pitta as the featured parts of the passing game while Pitta and 6-foot-4 wideout Marlon Brown profile as better red-zone threats.

Quarterback Joe Flacco certainly doesn’t need a veteran nearing the end of his career demanding to be the focal point of the passing attack, so Smith’s position had to be a breath of fresh air for Harbaugh and his coaching staff.

“I know his system. I’ve seen his system,” Smith said about his discussion with Kubiak. “I’ve seen the very creative ways they’ve gotten other guys the ball. I want to be a part of that. One of the things I’ve seen for myself — I don’t see myself in coach Kubiak’s system like Andre Johnson. I see the complementary dude of Kevin Walter. I see how he contributed and how he was instrumental in getting Andre the ball but also getting his own opportunities.”

Smith said new teammate Torrey Smith is going to be a “fantastic” player, but it was interesting that the former Panther went out of his way to compare himself to Walter, who never recorded more than 900 yards in Kubiak’s offense. Walter’s run with the Texans came to an end in 2012, but he served as Houston’s No. 2 wideout behind the Pro Bowl receiver Johnson for several years and averaged 732.8 receiving yards per season as a possession receiver from 2007 through 2010.

Kubiak’s use of Walter in the slot fluctuated from year to year as he ran 45.8 percent of his routes from that spot in 2012 but ran less than 20 percent of his routes there in 2009 and 2010, two seasons in which he eclipsed 600 receiving yards. In contrast, Smith was rarely used in the slot under current Panthers coach Ron Rivera the last three seasons — only 15.5 percent of his routes last season and less than 10 percent of the time in 2011 and 2012 —  and was only used in the slot about a third of the time from 2007 through 2010.

Given the perception of his declining speed and lack of previous work in the slot, Smith compares favorably to former Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason, who didn’t work very often in the slot after 2008 and caught 73 passes for 1,028 yards and seven touchdowns at age 35 in 2009. The Ravens would be thrilled if Smith can post numbers even remotely approaching those of the 5-foot-10 Mason that season. He isn’t the deep-ball threat that he was in his prime, but Smith doesn’t need to be with Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones as available vertical threats on the outside.

Perhaps the Ravens will simply need to rely on Kubiak’s creativity to maximize Smith’s ability at this stage of his career, but there’s no questioning how pleased they are to acquire a player with his pedigree to add to an offense that finished 29th in the league last season. And they hope his addition will be part of the solution to put Baltimore back among the elite in the AFC, even if there’s more work to be done on the offensive side of the ball.

“I believe and the Baltimore Ravens believe that I can help increase the chances of us being successful,” Smith said. “So that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to swing for the fence, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

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Ravens now look to future after not being good enough in 2013

Posted on 29 December 2013 by Luke Jones

Head coach John Harbaugh said it all in the aftermath of a 34-17 loss to Cincinnati on Sunday that resulted in the Ravens missing the postseason for the first time since 2007.

Despite reaching the pinnacle of the NFL last February in winning their second Super Bowl title in franchise history, the Ravens simply weren’t good enough a year later.

“We’re not ever going to be content with not making the playoffs,” Harbaugh said. “That’s just not something that’s going to be OK with any of us.”

Harbaugh is right, and it’s the Ravens’ vast success over the last five years that’s cultivated such an appropriate mindset. It’s easy and fair to be disappointed, but the Ravens gave this city a terrific run that included five straight playoff appearances, three AFC Championship appearances, and a Super Bowl title. History has proven over and over that you can’t be great every year and no run of success will last forever.

General manager Ozzie Newsome, Harbaugh, quarterback Joe Flacco, and others have built a great deal of equity for fans to remain confident that the Ravens will be back in 2014 and beyond, but this winter brings a critical offseason with many issues to address. A proven track record is invaluable, but the NFL is a results-driven endeavor and Baltimore didn’t meet its own high standards laid out in recent years.

Season-long issues once again reared their head Sunday as a poor offense doomed the Ravens in Cincinnati. An overwhelmed offensive line was unable to handle the Bengals’ pressure, the running game was a non-factor, wide receivers were unable to gain separation, and a hobbled Flacco made poor decisions and couldn’t connect on deep balls throughout the day.

Defensively, the Ravens were able to force four turnovers but also allowed nearly 400 yards of offense and 27 points — the Bengals’ final touchdown came on an interception returned for a touchdown. The Baltimore defense was an above-average unit this season but gave up big plays and long drives at critical junctures, failing to be the game-changing unit Newsome envisioned when he allocated most of his available cap space to upgrading that side of the ball this past offseason.

So, what do the Ravens need to change, improve, and address this winter?

The heavy lifting will be done by Newsome, who didn’t have a good offseason this past winter in trading away veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin and failing to improve the offense around Flacco. The injury to tight end Dennis Pitta couldn’t be predicted, but the failure to address the receiver position in the wake of Boldin’s departure was a mistake. Philosophically, the Ravens turned away from what won them a Super Bowl last February in sacrificing offense for defense and the former suffered dramatically because of it.

Newsome will also be dealing with a tight salary cap that includes a projected $70.9 million in space devoted to just six players: defensive tackle Haloti Ngata ($16 million), Flacco ($14.8 million), linebacker Terrell Suggs ($12.4 million), cornerback Lardarius Webb ($10.5 million), running back Ray Rice ($8.75 million), and right guard Marshal Yanda ($8.45 million). Barring any restructuring of the other contracts, only the release of Suggs would provide substantial cap relief as he’s scheduled to receive a $7.8 million base salary in the final year of his current deal.

That could spell the end of Suggs’ 11-year run in Baltimore unless Newsome and the Ravens try to work out a short-term extension that gives the veteran some upfront money and a lower cap figure for 2014. Suggs finished the year with 10 sacks but collected only one in his final eight games and made very little impact down the stretch.

The Ravens must address an offensive line that includes two free-agent tackles (Eugene Monroe and Michael Oher) and second-year center Gino Gradkowski, who struggled immensely in his first year as a starter. It’s unlikely that Oher will return, but Baltimore would surely like to retain Monroe after giving up two 2014 draft picks to acquire him from Jacksonville earlier in the season. They could then look to the draft to address the right tackle position or consider moving Kelechi Osemele back to the position where he played during most of his rookie year and look at guard prospects.

Improving the offensive line would go a long way in fixing a running game that was the worst in franchise history, though questions will remain about Rice’s future as a feature back.

Tight end Dennis Pitta will be an unrestricted free agent and gauging his value in the open market will be difficult after he missed most of the season with a serious hip injury, making the franchise tag a possibility to keep him in Baltimore for another season. Jacoby Jones will also hit the open market, and the Ravens must decide whether the value of his big-play ability as a returner is worth a new contract despite his shortcomings as a wideout.

The Ravens need more offensive play-makers as Torrey Smith wasn’t as productive in the second half of the season and Rice battled through injuries and ineffectiveness in the worst campaign of his career. Flacco’s underwhelming 2013 performance suggests he isn’t the rare quarterback who can dramatically elevate the play of lesser talent around him.

On the other side of the ball, defensive tackle Arthur Jones, linebacker Daryl Smith, strong safety James Ihedigbo, and cornerback Corey Graham are all scheduled to become free agents. Each is a capable player that makes a defense better, but younger and cheaper alternatives will be preferred in most cases with much work to do on the other side of the ball and little available cap space.

The Ravens will need to take a look at a pass rush that was ineffective down the stretch as well as the safety position where defensive coordinator Dean Pees was essentially forced to play two strong safeties — Ihedigbo and rookie Matt Elam — in the starting secondary. However, Newsome and the Ravens can’t make the same mistake they did this past year in focusing too much on the defense while allowing the offense to suffer.

As for coaching, Harbaugh has his flaws when it comes to time management and in-game decisions that must be assessed internally, but his track record speaks for itself after missing the playoffs for the first time in his six-year run with the Ravens. The addition of run-game coordinator Juan Castillo did not work with the Ravens finishing last in the NFL in yards per carry, so it will be interesting to see if the former Eagles offensive line coach quietly parts ways with the organization this winter.

Offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell deserves plenty of credit for his role in jump-starting the Ravens offense when he took over for Cam Cameron last December, but his calls this season too often lacked imagination in trying to overcome personnel deficiencies and the red-zone offense was another major deficiency. It’s worth noting that Caldwell had never been an offensive coordinator prior to his late-season promotion in 2012, so you wonder if the Ravens will — and should — at least take a look at the possibility of adding another strong offensive mind to the equation if not making a change at coordinator altogether.

It won’t be an easy offseason as Harbaugh, Flacco, and a number of others face the reality of not being good enough to play in January for the first time. It’s uncharted territory for the head coach and quarterback, and it will be interesting to see how the pair responds in overcoming that failure.

Sunday marked the official end of the Ravens’ reign as Super Bowl champions as well as a five-year run of success that may never be seen again in Baltimore. They battled all season, but the Ravens just weren’t good enough to overcome their many weaknesses and ran out of gas in their final two games against better opponents.

Nothing lasts forever, but a strong nucleus is in place to rebound in 2014 and beyond.

And Ravens fans can take satisfaction in that simple truth while coping with the unfamiliar disappointment of a quiet January and an uncertain offseason to follow.

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Pitta’s impact slow to be felt in Ravens offense

Posted on 24 December 2013 by Luke Jones

The mere sight of Dennis Pitta returning to the field less than four months after a horrific hip injury was a victory itself, but the Ravens had visions of the tight end providing their underwhelming offense a major boost.

Pitta provided exactly that in his 2013 debut against Minnesota on Dec. 8, catching six passes for 48 yards and a touchdown, but his impact hasn’t been felt in the two games since in which the Ravens have been held to just one touchdown. The fourth-year tight end has caught only six passes for 58 yards over the last two contests when Baltimore failed to score a touchdown in the win over Detroit and only produced seven points in the 41-7 loss to New England.

It’s fair to assume that Pitta is still working his way back into the flow of the offense after such a long layoff, but opponents aren’t taking much pity as he faced bracketed coverage against the Lions and a physical brand of play from the Patriots. Often being held up at the line of scrimmage, Pitta managed just four receptions for 34 yards on seven targets against the New England defense and saw a slighly-errant Flacco pass go through his hands for an interception in the third quarter.

“Whenever he was aligned within striking range of the box, the defensive ends came out and took shots at him,” coach John Harbaugh said. “I think they were hitting him pretty much every opportunity within five yards on crossing routes and things like that. They did quite a bit to keep him under control.”

Entering training camp with expectations of an increased role following the offseason trade of Anquan Boldin, Pitta has been missed by quarterback Joe Flacco in the league’s 19th-ranked passing game. However, it’s clear the Ravens have tried to bring him along slowly as he’s played in just over 42 percent of the Ravens’ offensive snaps in his three games, down from last year when he took part in roughly 60 percent of plays.

When he has been on the field, Pitta has seen more extensive time in the slot than in the past with 67 of his 79 total routes run from that position, according to Pro Football Focus. It’s a dramatic increase from last season when the pass-catching tight end ran only 64.6 percent of his routes from the slot position when Boldin was still a major presence at that spot.

Perhaps the biggest issue facing the Ravens with using Pitta so far this season has been too much predictability as a pass play has been called on 88 percent of his snaps. Pitta is certainly not known for his ability as a run blocker, but calling such a high number of passing plays eliminates the anticipated advantage of defenses not stacking the box against the run because of the need to account for him in the middle intermediate portion of the passing game.

Pitta is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent this offseason, which further complicates the aftermath of his hip injury. The 28-year-old has alleviated concerns about being healthy enough to resume his NFL career, but the Ravens haven’t been able to truly gauge whether he can be a bigger slot threat in a way similar to what Boldin provided. And Pitta certainly hasn’t been able to use this season to show he belongs among the elite tight ends and cash in with a hefty contract.

It will be interesting to see how the offseason plays out as the Ravens clearly want Pitta back but will be working with limited cap resources and will have other positions of need to address. Should general manager Ozzie Newsome and Pitta’s agent Justin Schulman not be able to reach a long-term agreement, the Ravens could use the franchise tag, which is projected to be a reasonable $6.8 million for tight ends in 2014.

Players and their agents are often unhappy to receive the tag, but this situation might be unique with Pitta not having much of an opportunity to create a big market for himself after his 2012 season in which he caught 61 passes for 669 yards and seven touchdowns. A one-year contract might be the perfect way for the Ravens to assess the tight end’s true worth and for Pitta to have another year to try to elevate his value for next offseason.

For now, however, the Ravens will continue to work Pitta back into the offense in hopes of winning Sunday’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals and advancing to the postseason for a sixth consecutive season.

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Ravens, Patriots both hope red zone doesn’t mean “stop” on Sunday

Posted on 19 December 2013 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — It’s the dirty little secret that can’t be overlooked despite a four-game winning streak that’s put the Ravens in control of their path to a sixth consecutive playoff appearance as they welcome the New England Patriots to Baltimore on Sunday.

While improving on a 4-6 start to move two games above .500 with their Monday win over the Detroit Lions, the Ravens have gone 4-for-14 inside the red zone over their last four games. Finishing drives inside the 20 with a touchdown just 42.9 percent of the time, coach John Harbaugh and his team know they can’t continue to depend on good fortune and 61-yard field goals to overcome the league’s 29th-ranked red-zone offense.

But fixing the problem is easier said than done at this late stage in the season.

“There are things that we’ve come up with that we’ve noticed that we have addressed and will continue to work on,” Harbaugh said. “That’s as much as I would like to share with you at this time.”

Of course, the Ravens coach doesn’t feel like broadcasting the details, but a simple look at the offensive personnel makes it easier to explain. A strong running game is clearly ideal once you push closer to the goal line, but the Ravens’ struggles in that department are nothing new by now.

The Ravens’ passing game largely depends on the speed of receivers Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones, but the red zone is constricted and depends more on size and precision, two areas in which there have been deficiencies this season. Until the recent return of tight end Dennis Pitta, the Ravens have lacked a big receiving target inside the 20 beyond rookie Marlon Brown, who has made plays but needs to run more precise routes to be a consistent threat.

And while veterans Dallas Clark and Brandon Stokley — the latter now on injured reserve — earned reputations as brilliant route-runners earlier in their career, their declining speed neutralized their ability to find windows in coverage near the goal line this season.

Those shortcomings along with some untimely penalties have added up to a small margin for error that quarterback Joe Flacco has often been unable to overcome, forcing the Ravens to depend on the right leg of kicker Justin Tucker to convert field goals. In their 18-16 win over the Lions, the Ravens were 0-for-3 on trips inside the 20 and needed a franchise-record six field goals to pull off the victory.

“Just little things, one thing here and one thing there,” Flacco said. “When you don’t take advantage of the one play that you get down there to score a touchdown or if you are giving yourself one play to do it, if you have one little slip up, then you are putting yourselves in a tough situation to really convert and put the ball in the end zone. That is kind of what happened to us the other night. We didn’t take advantage of some of the good opportunities we had and left ourselves in bad situations and then didn’t convert.”

The Ravens hope that Pitta’s return will boost their shoddy red-zone play over the final two weeks of the regular season and beyond, but the play-making tight end wasn’t targeted once in their three red-zone trips against the Lions and finished the game with only two catches for 24 yards.

His 6-foot-4, 245-pound frame and reputation for running exceptional routes should help considerably on both third down and near the goal line, but Pitta acknowledged that Detroit used some bracketed coverage to neutralize his dangerous abilities.

The book is certainly out by now on his reputation as Flacco’s favorite target on the current roster.

“It just depends on who is open, what coverages they deploy, and how we respond to them,” offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said. “That could change up. Some guys are going to have big games; some guys are not going to have a great game. We usually have somebody that shows up week after week.”

Of course, Sunday’s game will provide a major test in future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady, but the Patriots have been dealing with their own offensive struggles with the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski to an ACL injury and the recent absences of rookie wide receivers Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson.

Entering Week 16 ranked 16th in the league in red-zone offense, the Patriots were 1-for-4 inside the 20 in their loss to Miami last Sunday — their first game since Gronkowski’s season-ending knee injury — as Brady was forced to throw to 5-foot-10 Julian Edelman and 5-foot-11 Danny Amendola inside the 20. The two are talented route-runners and productive receivers, but they are targets unable to go up and get the ball in traffic like the Pro Bowl tight end Gronkowski.

With the 6-foot-3 Dobson back at practice this week, he and talented receiving back Shane Vereen are likely to see opportunities when New England moves inside the red zone, but neither should be considered an easy fix to the Patriots’ offensive problems.

That said, the 10-4 Patriots have found success throughout the year despite Gronkowski missing all but seven games this season. Much like Flacco adjusting to life without Pitta and departed wide receiver Anquan Boldin, Brady has continued to succeed without the likes of Gronkowski, former slot receiver Wes Welker, and tight end Aaron Hernandez this season.

“When they haven’t been full-strength, they have found ways to win football games,” Flacco said. “I think we’ve had a lot of those same situations, and we’re just now starting to capitalize on them and win them. Earlier in the year, we probably weren’t able to win quite as much, and these guys have.

The casts have noticeably changed on each side of the ball, but Sunday’s contest is still likely to come down to which quarterback makes more plays as Flacco has gotten the best of Brady over the last few meetings between the teams, including last January’s AFC Championship game.

It’s apparent that neither offense is clicking on all cylinders with the end of the season quickly approaching, putting more expectations on each signal-caller to carry his team on his back. The Ravens have essentially been in must-win mode for the better part of a month while New England still needs one more win to lock up its fifth consecutive AFC East championship.

The battle inside the 20 will be critical like always, but the Ravens will be facing the league’s 21st-ranked red-zone defense while the Patriots must deal with the fourth-ranked unit in those situations and Brady has often struggled against Baltimore’s defensive schemes throughout his career.

Both Flacco and Brady will need to be at their best to give their flawed units a chance to succeed in what figures to be another classic matchup between the Ravens and Patriots. But with so many changes everywhere you look on these rosters, the spotlight will be even brighter on the quarterbacks than usual.

“Being able to execute under pressure, being smart, knowing the situation, keeping their poise, knowing how to handle [adversity],” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “[It’s] all the things — the play, the defense, clock management — [and] just good situational football. Each situation is a little bit different, no matter how much you practice it or how many situations you practice. [It’s about] being able to adjust and have that gamesmanship, poise and intelligence on the field to make good decisions at critical times.”

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