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Rice voted winner of 2012 Ravens’ MVP award

Posted on 28 December 2012 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Many have questioned how effectively he’s been used over the course of the 2012 season, but running back Ray Rice was recognized once again as the Ravens’ best player after being voted team MVP by the local media on Friday.

Rice won the award for the third time in the last four seasons as he accumulated his fourth straight 1,000 yard rushing season. The 25-year-old has run for 1,138 yards — 11th in the NFL — on 254 carries, which projects to be his lowest number of rushing attempts since the 2009 season. He ranks sixth in the league in yards from scrimmage with an average of 107.7 per game.

“Football being such a team sport, it really is a special honor,” Rice said. “Obviously, I look forward to going out there every Sunday — maybe it’s Monday or Thursday — and give it my best.”

In addition to his success as a rusher, Rice has caught 61 passes for 478 yards and a touchdown reception out of the backfield this season.

The fifth-year running back was elected to his third Pro Bowl earlier this week after receiving a new five-year, $40 million contract that included $24 million guaranteed over the summer.

Always a professional, Rice has taken the high road when many would have questioned their workload at times over the last couple seasons and always credits teammates for the successes he’s enjoyed throughout his professional career.

“I give all the credit to my teammates – offensive line, Vonta [Leach], Joe [Flacco] — for everybody being able to push through this season,” Rice said. “[The season is] still going for us. I’m going to make the season a special one, but I’ll take this one. With all the other accolades, I can put them up right now and focus on this week.”

A. Jones wins Good Guy award

In addition to awarding Rice the team MVP, the local media tabbed defensive lineman Arthur Jones as the annual Good Guy winner, which is given to the player considered to be most cooperative with reporters during the season.

Always willing to provide a sound byte or quote about an array of topics, Jones began receiving more media attention with an increased workload this season. The third-year defensive end has collected 4 1/2 sacks and 42 tackles this season.

“I appreciate you guys doing a good job, such a great job on showing the brighter side of me off the field and on the field,” Jones said. “I just appreciate all that you guys do for us. I know that sometimes guys can give you hard times – not do an interview. I just see myself as being a reflection of my parents and [to] treat everyone with respect.”

Jones was a fifth-round pick in the 2010 draft.

Harbaugh responds to Reed fine

Asked to react to the $55,000 fine levied on safety Ed Reed for a penalized hit on New York’s Victor Cruz in Week 16, coach John Harbaugh took a diplomatic approach that was careful not to alienate the league or his Pro Bowl defensive back.

Harbaugh had choice words for the NFL following a $20,000 fine for the Ravens’ failure to include Reed on the injury report earlier this season, but the Baltimore coach elected to take a kinder approach this time around.

“The system is not perfect although the motivation is correct and the idea is right,” Harbaugh said. “It’s still a work in progress. Like I said before, our guys are doing everything they can.  I’m really proud of our guys [with] the way that they’ve responded to try to play within the rules and respect player safety. Sometimes it’s easier said than done, but they are doing their best.”

Odds & ends

Ron Winter will be Sunday’s referee in Cincinnati. He and his crew worked the Ravens’ Week 10 game against Oakland earlier this season. … The game-day forecast in Cincinnati will be mostly sunny with temperatures in the high 20s, according to Weather.com. … In addition to Reed’s fine, offensive tackle Michael Oher was fined $10,000 for a chop block on Giants linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka. … The Ravens have won six consecutive regular-season finales and 10 of their last 12. … Despite firing offensive coordinator Cam Cameron prior to Week 15, the Ravens are 10 points shy of their single-season record of 391 points scored. The mark was set in 2003 and matched in 2009.

 

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Ravens-Giants: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 22 December 2012 by Luke Jones

Two teams each going in the wrong direction in recent weeks will clash at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday as the Ravens take on the New York Giants for the fourth time in their regular-season history.

Mired in a three-game losing streak and needing a win to clinch their second straight AFC North title, Baltimore takes on the 8-6 Giants, who are in need of two wins in their final two games to have the opportunity to defend their Super Bowl title in January. Having lost four of the last six games it’s played, New York has been even more inconsistent than the Ravens this season, looking like arguably the best team in the NFL in dominating wins over San Francisco and Green Bay and turning in terrible road performances at Cincinnati and Atlanta.

The Ravens hold a 2-1 all-time record over New York in the regular season and, of course, own a victory in the only postseason meeting between the teams, which occurred in Super Bowl XXXV on Jan. 28, 2001.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens will look to finally lock up the division title and secure a home playoff game after failing to do so the last few weeks …

1. Ray Lewis will not play against the Giants, but the returning Dannell Ellerbe will pay dividends for the Baltimore run defense, which will hold New York to less than 110 rushing yards. Maligned all season despite allowing the ninth-lowest yards per carry average (4.1) in the NFL, the rush defense has struggled immensely in the last two weeks as Washington and Denver have run all over the Ravens. The Giants rank 15th in rush offense, but the shifty Ahmad Bradshaw has been hampered by knee and foot injuries. Ellerbe is expected to be a game-time decision, but he practiced all week on a limited basis and the Ravens didn’t promote inside linebacker Nigel Carr from the practice squad to take injured Jameel McClain’s place on the 53-man roster, an indication that they may feel confident in Ellerbe’s status against the Giants. The fourth-year linebacker ranks third on the team with 78 tackles despite beginning the season in a reserve role and missing the last three games with an ankle injury. His presence will help in slowing the Giants’ rushing attack.

2. Giants tight end Martellus Bennett will catch a touchdown and produce 75 receiving yards against the Baltimore pass defense. The Ravens’ struggles against tight ends have been overblown this season as Brent Celek, Jason Witten, and Heath Miller are the only three opponents to have more than 60 receiving yards in a game from that position. However, the middle of the field has been vulnerable and the Giants have been happy with their return for Bennett, who has 50 receptions for 584 yards and five touchdowns in his first season in New York. Ellerbe is regarded as the Ravens’ best linebacker in pass coverage, but he would be playing at less than 100 percent and has struggled to use the backpedal. Baltimore linebackers take too many false steps to account for the run and don’t get enough depth in coverage, which will lead to the talented Bennett getting open in the intermediate portion of the field as the Ravens secondary is focused on stopping Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, and Domenik Hixon in the passing game.

3. Ray Rice will collect only his fourth 100-yard rushing game of the season. With Joe Flacco and the offense sputtering in recent weeks, new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell must rely on his unit’s biggest strength and that’s Rice. Though on pace for his lowest rushing total since his rookie year, Rice’s 4.5 yards per carry average doesn’t reflect a poor season, but his 263 projected carries would be his lowest amount since 2009. Marshal Yanda’s expected return will allow the Ravens to run effectively to the right side as they normally like to do, and the Giants have allowed 4.6 yards per carry, which is 26th in the NFL. New York’s front seven is filled with plenty of big names, but the group hasn’t performed well this season and Rice will receive plenty of opportunities as the Ravens try to control the tempo of the game. The uncertain status of rookie Bernard Pierce will likely force the Ravens to rely more heavily on Rice than normal, which won’t necessarily be a bad thing as they need production from their best offensive player.

4. The Giants’ play action coupled with the the Ravens’ ineffective pass rush and undisciplined secondary will lead to a long touchdown to Victor Cruz. Paul Kruger and Arthur Jones have been the only consistent contributors to the pass rush in recent weeks, but the biceps injury to Terrell Suggs now makes you wonder if teams will begin turning more attention toward Kruger as they did early in the season when he rarely was able to make an impact. New York has allowed just 16 sacks all season, so it’s difficult to envision the Ravens putting much heat on Eli Manning. The Giants quarterback loves using play-action passing, and the Ravens secondary has been burned all season due to miscommunication and biting on double moves. Cruz leads the Giants with 79 catches, 1,019 receiving yards, and nine touchdowns. He’ll add a 10th to those totals on Sunday to bounce back from his poor performance in Atlanta last week.

5. I trust Manning more than Flacco and the Ravens offense, and it will be the difference in a 27-21 win for the Giants. Both teams have flaws on each side of the football, but it’s difficult to overlook Flacco’s six turnovers in the last three games. Manning has been inconsistent as well and has similar season totals to the Baltimore quarterback, but his pedigree and track record for playing well when his back is against the wall should give the Giants confidence in these final two games. Flacco was playing exceptionally well at home this season until the last two contests at M&T Bank Stadium when he posted absolute duds. The Giants will be a desperate football team after being thoroughly embarrassed in Atlanta last week, and I can’t bet against a two-time Super Bowl Most Valuable Player. It will be the difference in Sunday’s game as I just can’t put any faith in Flacco, Caldwell, and the Ravens offense at this point. The group lacks confidence and won’t do enough to overcome a banged-up defense and an opponent needing a win even more than they do.

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Report: Lewis not expected to return prior to playoffs

Posted on 22 December 2012 by Luke Jones

Less than 10 weeks after undergoing surgery to repair the torn triceps in his right arm, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis appeared poised to make his improbable return to the field against the New York Giants on Sunday.

Instead, his comeback will apparently be delayed for a couple more weeks.

Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported early Saturday afternoon that Lewis is not expected to return until the playoffs despite growing optimism this week that the 37-year-old linebacker would play in the regular-season home finale.

Baltimore would have needed to activate Lewis from the injured reserve-designated to return list on Saturday afternoon for him to  play in his first game since Oct. 14 when he suffered the injury to his right upper arm against the Dallas Cowboys. Originally declared to be lost for the season by coach John Harbaugh, Lewis was placed on IR with this season’s new designation to return after a minimum of eight weeks.

At the time, many assumed the Ravens were simply granting Lewis a courtesy as most medical experts declared a minimum of four months for a recovery from such a serious procedure. However, the 13-time Pro Bowl selection returned to practice on Dec. 5, which was far ahead of even the most optimistic timetables suggesting Lewis could return for a postseason run.

With three weeks of practice now under his belt and fellow inside linebacker Jameel McClain sidelined for the rest of the season to open up a spot on the 53-man roster, Lewis hoped to come out of the tunnel to do his famous dance Sunday afternoon as the Ravens introduced the starting defense. The veteran’s spirits appeared to be higher this week and he spent more time in the locker room, two

“The guy’s still in great shape. The guy doesn’t look like he missed a day of practice,” said defensive lineman Arthur Jones, who added that Lewis has spent extra time with him to help him with his conditioning and the mental aspects of the game. “This is a guy who’s a great leader and is passionate and is an emotional leader. We love having him out there.”

With Lewis already practicing, the Ravens will face a decision this week with the 21-day window after his beginning practice date closing. They would have to place him on the 53-man roster or he’d remain on IR for the remainder of the year.

Ravaged by injuries at linebacker, the Ravens have relied on the combination of former practice squad members Josh Bynes and Albert McClellan as well as special-teams standout Brendon Ayanbadejo in recent weeks to hold down the inside linebacker positions in the absence of Lewis, McClain, and Dannell Ellerbe. The Baltimore run defense ranks 26th in the league, and opposing offenses have had success throwing over the middle of the field as linebackers have struggled in coverage.

Even as his eventual return will be celebrated by many longtime Ravens fans, the question remains how effective Lewis can be in the postseason as he continues to build strength in his right upper arm, which understandably experienced atrophy after the surgical procedure.

“Ray’s looked great. It’s his triceps, so he’s going to be able to move around and look like Ray Lewis,” said Ellerbe following Friday’s practice. “We haven’t had any full-speed practices, so you can’t tell how his arm is when tackling and getting off blocks. But shape-wise, he’s in shape. If he could go right now, I feel he would go.”

Though only playing in six games, Lewis ranks fifth on the team with 57 tackles. However, he struggled to shed blockers early in the season and has shown declining ability in pass coverage over the last few seasons, making his accelerated return an uncertain one in terms of what exactly the Ravens will be getting from the future Hall of Fame linebacker when he’s back on the field.

With the Ravens needing a win to clinch the AFC North and a home playoff game, there’s no guarantee that Lewis will play another game in Baltimore since his future with the organization remains in some doubt.

Plenty of rumors have circulated about whether Lewis will retire after the season and he carries a $7.2 million salary cap number in 2013, which is a hefty figure for what would be a 38-year-old linebacker. The team would be forgiven from paying his $5.4 million base salary in 2013 should they release him and would save approximately $4.35 million on their 2013 cap when subtracting the accelerated bonus money that would count as dead weight against the cap.

Regardless of what happens after this season, Lewis’ return — whenever it occurs — will be a welcome sight for a team suffering a three-game losing streak late in the season and needing a spark. The defensive help wouldn’t hurt, either.

“I’d love to have him,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “I think it would be a great emotional lift, but more than that, we could use some bodies in there at linebacker.”

It appears the Ravens will need to wait a couple more weeks for that to become a possibility.

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Suggs participates fully during Thursday’s practice

Posted on 13 December 2012 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — An extensive list of injury concerns appeared to improve for the Ravens on Thursday as Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs practiced full for the first time since suffering a torn biceps on Dec. 2.

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees expressed optimism over how Suggs has looked in practices but did not address whether the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year would be returning to game action this week after he sat out the Ravens’ 31-28 loss to Washington last Sunday. Suggs suffered the right arm injury in the home loss to Pittsburgh two weeks ago.

The five-time Pro Bowl linebacker cited the wet conditions at FedEx Field and the option running game as reasons why he and coach John Harbaugh decided he wouldn’t play last week.

“It was a must-win game. There was just too much on the line to chance it, especially with my arm,” said Suggs, who described himself as a game-time decision for the second straight week. “I thought I would hinder the team by playing last week. It feels good this week, and we’ll just have to see come Sunday.”

Linebackers Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe and defensive lineman Arthur Jones were all present and participating during Thursday’s workout.

Jones (shoulder) and Ellerbe (ankle) did not participate in Wednesday’s practice while Lewis wasn’t present during the portion of practice viewed by media members. Because he is not on the 53-man roster and remains on injured reserve with the designation to return, Lewis is not required to be listed on the injury report.

Ellerbe hasn’t played in the Ravens’ last two games since suffering an ankle injury in Week 12 while Lewis has been sidelined since tearing his right triceps against the Dallas Cowboys on Oct. 14. The 37-year-old Lewis is eligible to play in Sunday’s game against the Denver Broncos, and several reports have said Lewis is targeting a return this week, which would be just over eight weeks removed from surgery.

“That’s totally up to the trainers, John [Harbaugh], and the organization,” Pees said. “Whoever is out there is who we coach up. Whoever shows up on Sunday is who we’re going to coach up. As coaches, we’re out of the loop.”

The Ravens were still without right guard Marshal Yanda (ankle), fullback Vonta Leach (ankle), defensive end Pernell McPhee (chest), and safety Bernard Pollard (chest), who were all absent from practice for the second straight day.

Tight end Ed Dickson (knee) was again practicing on Thursday after working on a limited basis a day earlier. Dickson injured his knee against the San Diego Chargers and has been sidelined for each of the last two games.

Cornerback Jimmy Smith was practicing again on Thursday and was listed as a full participant for the second straight day, which is a good indication that he’s on track to make his return after missing the last five games. The 2011 first-round pick underwent sports hernia surgery on Nov. 15.

Linebacker Jameel McClain (neck) wasn’t present for Thursday’s workout and has already been ruled out for Sunday’s game.

In stark contrast to the Ravens’ infirmary list, the Broncos once again had a favorable injury report as no players from their 53-man roster were listed as non-participants.

BALTIMORE
OUT: LB Jameel McClain (neck)
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: FB Vonta Leach (ankle), DE Pernell McPhee (thigh), S Bernard Pollard (chest), G Marshal Yanda (ankle)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: LB Dannell Ellerbe (ankle), DT Arthur Jones (shoulder), TE Ed Dickson (knee), RB Bernard Pierce (back), RB Ray Rice (hip)
FULL PARTICIPATION: CB Chykie Brown (knee), WR Jacoby Jones (ankle), S Ed Reed (shoulder), CB Jimmy Smith (abdomen), WR Deonte Thompson (thigh), LB Terrell Suggs (biceps), WR LaQuan Williams (thigh)

DENVER
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: G Chris Kuper (ankle), LB Wesley Woodyard (ankle)
FULL PARTICIPATION: WR Trindon Holliday (knee), WR Demaryius Thomas (shoulder), WR Matthew Willis (knee)

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McClain out for Sunday’s game against Broncos

Posted on 12 December 2012 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Entering the week with optimism over the chance of linebacker Ray Lewis possibly returning to play against the Denver Broncos, the Ravens will be without fellow inside linebacker Jameel McClain for Sunday’s game.

McClain suffered a neck injury in the third quarter of the 31-28 loss to the Washington Redskins and didn’t return. Coach John Harbaugh said McClain would be OK during his Monday press conference but said the fifth-year linebacker would not be ready in time to play this Sunday. He was officially ruled out for Sunday’s game on Wednesday’s injury report.

“Jameel McClain will not make it to the game,” Harbaugh said. “We’re talking a look at the neck [and] back. There’s nothing major there, but he will not make it to this game. We’re going to do some more tests and things like that just to see down the road where he’ll be.”

With McClain out and Dannell Ellerbe’s status in question against the Broncos, the possibility of Lewis returning becomes more of a necessity, but the 37-year-old linebacker was absent from the portion of practice open to media on Wednesday, joining Ellerbe (ankle) and McClain as non-participants. Lewis is eligible to come off the injured reserve list this week, and it has been reported by several outlets over the last few weeks that he was targeting a Week 15 return against Peyton Manning and Denver. He wasn’t listed on Wednesday’s injury report, because the team is not required to include him since he isn’t part of the active roster.

Lewis hasn’t played since suffering a right torn triceps against the Dallas Cowboys on Oct. 14 and has spent the last eight weeks on IR with the designation to return. Should the Ravens be without Lewis and Ellerbe for Sunday’s game, they would be faced with the combination of Brendon Ayanbadejo, Albert McClellan, and Josh Bynes playing the inside linebacker spots.

In addition to the trio of linebackers, the Ravens were also without right guard Marshal Yanda (ankle), fullback Vonta Leach (ankle), safety Bernard Pollard (ribs), and defensive linemen Pernell McPhee (groin) and Arthur Jones (right shoulder bruise) during Wednesday’s workout.

Of those players, Yanda’s status is the most concerning after he suffered a “somewhat serious” ankle sprain in overtime against Washington that left him in a walking boot and on crutches following the game. He was noncommittal when asked about his status against the Broncos.

“There’s nothing to announce on any other guys today,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll know more by the end of the week in terms of how much they are going to be able to practice and stuff like that. I’d say that they all have a chance to get there. Some have a higher chance than others, but I’m not going to get into those percentages today.”

On a positive note, tight end Ed Dickson (knee) returned to the practice field on a limited basis for the first time since being injured against the San Diego Chargers in Week 12. Linebacker Terrell Suggs (torn right biceps) was also practicing on Wednesday after missing Sunday’s game against the Redskins.

Dickson described himself as “day to day” after missing the last two games with a hyperextended knee.

“I’m living in the treatment center getting it ready,” Dickson said. “I don’t want to be out there at 50 percent. That’s not going to help the team. They need a 100-percent me.”

Cornerback Jimmy Smith practiced full for the first time since undergoing sports hernia surgery last month. He practiced on a limited basis all last week before sitting out against Washington.

To replace suspended rookie cornerback Asa Jackson on the 53-man roster, the Ravens promoted safety Omar Brown from the practice squad and signed outside linebacker D.J. Bryant to take Brown’s place on the developmental unit.

Bryant played his college football at James Madison and graduated from Randallstown High School.

Here is Wednesday’s full injury report, which doesn’t include Lewis since he has yet to be placed back on the 53-man roster …

BALTIMORE
OUT: LB Jameel McClain (neck)
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Dannell Ellerbe (ankle), DT Arthur Jones (shoulder), FB Vonta Leach (ankle), DE Pernell McPhee (thigh), S Bernard Pollard (chest), G Marshal Yanda (ankle)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: TE Ed Dickson (knee), RB Bernard Pierce (back), RB Ray Rice (hip), LB Terrell Suggs (biceps)
FULL PARTICIPATION: WR Jacoby Jones (ankle), S Ed Reed (shoulder), CB Jimmy Smith (abdomen), WR Deonte Thompson (thigh), WR LaQuan Williams (thigh)

DENVER
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: G Chris Kuper (ankle), LB Wesley Woodyard (ankle)
FULL PARTICIPATION: WR Trindon Holliday (knee), WR Demaryius Thomas (shoulder), WR Matthew Willis (knee)

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Rarefied air of Steelers Week for Ravens is to be savored not soured

Posted on 26 November 2012 by Nestor Aparicio

With five games left in the 2012 campaign, the Baltimore Ravens’ 9-2 record is a textbook testament to never quitting and having some special, battle-tested leaders who stare down adversity undaunted — and never, ever become unnerved.

Somehow, someway – even on 4th & 29 – Joe Flacco can manage to walk into a huddle, call nothing but go routes and still throw a check down and the other 10 guys in the huddle including Ray Rice can buy in on saving the game with some kind of miracle. Once you’ve seen that play work, there’s a little part of you that believes that all things are possible for this beleaguered group of purple warriors.

Eleven games into this journey, there’s still a legitimate debate about the merits and quality of this year’s team. And on a play-by-play, drive-by-drive basis it’s almost inexplicable that this team could be 9-2 and holding an almost insurmountable three-game lead in the AFC North. Almost every facet of the Ravens’ production on the field has come under scrutiny or provided some inefficiency, ineffectiveness or failure at some point.

But there they are at 9-2 and still in the throes of possibility regarding home field advantage throughout the postseason.

Week after week the Ravens seem to be on the ropes. And week after week I enter the post-game press conference watching John Harbaugh try to explain how the team won another game when the previous 60 minutes of football looked like a sloppy box of chocolates in the sun.

You never know what you’re doing to get.

Clearly, no one wants to play the Ravens in Baltimore. The home field advantage in The Purple Crabcake is now the best in the football. Is that the noise of the fans? Is it home cooking? Is it the comfort level of Joe Flacco and the offense for play calling? Is it the visiting team(s) coming into M&T Bank Stadium knowing the odds are long simply on reputation?

We don’t have the answers to this Jekyll & Hyde act. We merely witness it and remain alternately flustered and floored after yet another unlikely victory.

It’s almost like watching the Baltimore Orioles this summer – you don’t question how it gets done, you simply enjoy the result. Just smile and hold on…

Other than knowing that over the history of the NFL home teams have always dominated and are always given three points in Las Vegas just for walking out of the home locker rooms, the Ravens’ bi-polar domination at home and sleepwalking on the road remains an unsolved mystery in progress.

On the road, the Ravens are an ugly bunch – a scuffling, stumbling, punting and yet more-times-than-not still victorious bunch. From Cleveland to San Diego, from Pittsburgh to Kansas City, the Ravens have been on the ropes and could’ve easily perished in the 4th quarter of all four games.

And 5-6 would look, smell and taste a whole lot different than 9-2.

But what we saw on Sunday was an all-timer.

The Ray Rice “Hey Diddle Diddle” 4th & 29 in San Diego will go down in history as one of the most amazing plays of this generation. (And we’re still not even sure if it really was a first down? And we’re pretty sure Anquan Boldin could’ve been flagged for a block to the back and unnecessary roughness. He still might hear from Park Avenue after that one.)

But when Flacco, Rice and Torrey Smith aren’t create miracles, they’re walking off the field far too often on the road frustrated after another failed 3rd and something. Or going 130 minutes at a clip without scoring a road touchdown.

The same offense and personnel that is so fluid in Baltimore routinely sputters on the road.

The defense, which over the years has earned a legendary status led by Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs, has been hit hard this season by a myriad

SEE PAGE 2

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Rice’s miracle play grabs headline, but Ravens defense made comeback possible

Posted on 25 November 2012 by Luke Jones

Ray Rice’s miraculous catch and run on fourth-and-29 will go down as one of the greatest regular-season plays in the 17-year history of the Ravens and will be remembered in the years to come.

A late awakening by quarterback Joe Flacco and the offense completed an improbable 16-13 comeback victory over the San Diego Chargers and pushed the Ravens to 9-2, matching their best start in franchise history.

But none of it would have been possible if not for the stout performance of an undermanned, banged-up Baltimore defense at Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday. As much grief as he received early in the season, first-year defensive coordinator Dean Pees deserves a pat on the back after the last two weeks in which the Ravens have held opponents to a combined 23 points in two road victories.

The injuries are well-documented and the struggles have been scrutinized throughout the season, but the defense came to play in what appeared to be a difficult matchup against a Chargers attack that’s struggled all season but still possesses the weapons to be dangerous on any given Sunday. The Ravens held San Diego to 13 points, surrendered 280 yards, and sacked quarterback Philip Rivers a season-high six times in their most impressive defensive performance of the year.

San Diego was just 3-for-15 on third down and 0-for-1 in the red zone as the Ravens continued an incredible streak of four straight games without allowing a red-zone touchdown. Baltimore has kept opponents out of the end zone in their last 10 trips inside the 20-yard line.

The numbers barely make you blink in the context of what’s been one of the greatest defenses in the NFL for more than a decade, but a simple look around the field reminds you just how impressive the group has been recently. A 10-point effort against Pittsburgh was brushed off because backup Byron Leftwich was at the helm for the Steelers, but to hold Rivers and the Chargers to 13 points in nearly 75 minutes of play Sunday is worthy of recognition.

That is, if you can recognize who’s making the plays. By no means have they become a no-name defense — Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, and Ed Reed are still on the field, even if less than 100 percent in each case — but the Ravens continued to receive contributions from unlikely sources.

Replacing inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who left the game with an ankle injury, 36-year-old special-teams standout Brendon Ayanbadejo was a factor in pass coverage, making four tackles and defending a pass in extensive action. Filling in for the man who was already replacing the injured Ray Lewis and has arguably been the Ravens’ best defender this season, Ayanbadejo made several key tackles in the second half to help stall San Diego drives.

Another special-teams player, cornerback Corey Graham, continued his strong play in the secondary by making five tackles and defending two passes as he continues to fill in effectively for the injured Jimmy Smith. He and Cary Williams held up well against taller wide receivers Malcom Floyd and Danario Alexander in what looked like a mismatch on paper heading into Sunday’s game.

More impressive than anyone, however, was third-year defensive end Arthur Jones, who collected the first two sacks of his career and added another tackle for a loss as he manhandled the Chargers up front. Largely considered a disappointment in increased action this season, Jones has played his best games of the season the last two weeks, making the extended absence of Pernell McPhee little more than an afterthought at this point.

The key to the defensive prosperity on Sunday was the Ravens’ pass rush as Suggs, Ellerbe, Paul Kruger, and rookie Courtney Upshaw collected sacks in addition to the two secured by Jones. Baltimore took advantage of a poor San Diego offensive line and made Rivers uncomfortable in the pocket, allowing the secondary to tighten its coverage.

Aside from a lone drive for a field goal surrendered in the game’s final 41 minutes, the defense was exceptional, forcing four three-and-outs in the second half and keeping the Baltimore offense within striking distance when it finally awoke from its game-long slumber midway through the fourth quarter.

The numbers won’t blow you away and the defensive stars aren’t playing at the same level they did in the past, but Pees has seemingly cracked the code to repair the crisis this defense was facing during its bye week. In the four games played since the break, the Ravens have allowed a total of 58 points after giving up 43 alone against Houston on Oct. 21.

Maybe it was Pees’ decision to move upstairs to the coaches’ booth. Perhaps unheralded players are finally living up to the mantra of “next man up” that’s constantly uttered in the Ravens locker room.

Whatever the case, the defense is figuring it out and it makes the 9-2 Ravens that much more dangerous down the stretch — even with their many flaws that will once again be discussed this week.

It’s not the Ravens’ dominating defense of old, but the unit saved the day on Sunday.

Even if the late-game heroics of Rice and the offense will be what everyone remembers.

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Trying to fix Ravens defense starts up front

Posted on 24 October 2012 by Luke Jones

The problems exist all over the field for a Ravens defense stewing during its bye week.

Ranked 26th in total yards allowed and tied for 17th in points surrendered, the Ravens no longer face questions of whether they can regain their long-enjoyed status as one of the elite defenses in the NFL. Truthfully, just improving enough to be a middle-of-the-pack unit would be a welcome change after allowing more than 180 rushing yards in each of the last three games and surrendering 43 points in Sunday’s loss to the Texans, the most allowed by the Ravens since 2007.

Frustrated fans are calling for wholesale changes, seeking new signings, trades, or even a new defensive coordinator. The Ravens aren’t pulling the plug on Dean Pees, who has had to adapt to significant personnel losses in his first year in the position, and the likelihood of bringing in any new players to make a significant impact is remote at this point in the season.

To improve upon a defense on pace to be one of the worst seen in Baltimore since the franchise’s inception in 1996, Ravens coaches and players alike will need to look from within for the answers.

“Personnel-wise, there’s not a whole lot you can do, really,” coach John Harbaugh said. “I like our players. Our players are most definitely good enough to get the job done, and we’ll just continue to improve there. Does that mean young guys? We’re going to keep developing the young guys, and as those guys emerge, sure, they are going to get an opportunity.”

The blame for the struggles belongs to everyone invested, but the root of the Ravens’ biggest problems — the poor run defense and inability to sustain a consistent pass rush — starts up front where the Baltimore defense has been thoroughly controlled at the line of scrimmage. And that’s where Harbaugh’s suggestion of relying on young players grows more unsettling.

Aside from All-Pro defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who is now struggling with nagging knee and shoulder injuries, the Ravens haven’t seen any of their other defensive linemen emerge to fill the void left behind by veterans who’ve departed in recent years. Terrence Cody, Pernell McPhee, and Arthur Jones have made little impact after being entrusted to assume bigger roles this season. Paul Kruger and Courtney Upshaw weren’t able to consistently get after the quarterback in the absence of five-time Pro Bowl pass-rusher Terrell Suggs. And a returning Ma’ake Kemoeatu has faded after a strong preseason to supplant Cody as the starting nose tackle.

Those shortcomings have led to the Baltimore defensive line being dominated at the line of scrimmage, failing to maintain gap control and allowing offensive linemen to get to the second level to block linebackers. The front four hasn’t made life difficult for opposing quarterbacks, who have then been able to pick on struggling cornerbacks.

The linebackers and secondary haven’t played well either, but their best chance for improvement starts with the defensive line, whose play impacts every level of the defense.

“[It’s] a work in progress. We’re not where we’ve been in the past, obviously,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve been a dominant run front. We’ve been able to play the run with seven in the box and pretty much dominate the run. We’re not there right now. So, that’s what we’ve got to work towards.”

Figuring out how to fix it is the biggest problem as Pees has already employed a rotation of defensive linemen, with none making a consistent impact other than a healthy Ngata.

Cody has regressed so significantly since a strong start last season that he’d taken only roughly 30 percent of the team’s defensive snaps this season prior to Sunday when Kemoeatu was inactive due to a knee injury. The 2010 second-round pick has made only 12 tackles after collecting 34 in 2011 and doesn’t command the double teams you’d like to see to free up inside linebackers to make plays. Neither he nor Kemoeatu have handled the nose tackle position with any level of consistent effectiveness.

The combination of McPhee and Jones hasn’t made anyone forget about veteran defensive end Cory Redding, who left in free agency in the offseason. Emerging as the steal of the 2011 draft for the Ravens with six sacks during his rookie season, McPhee added weight to become a three-down defensive end and has dealt with the effects of arthroscopic knee surgery in the spring. Lacking the explosiveness he displayed as a rookie, he has only 16 tackles and 1/2 sack and saw his playing time drastically reduced on Sunday, taking part in only 20 percent of the defensive snaps after playing in roughly 70 percent of the defensive plays through the first six weeks of the season.

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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

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Birk, J. Smith, three others return to practice Saturday

Posted on 11 August 2012 by Luke Jones

(Updated: 5:40 p.m.)

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Returning to the practice field after their 31-17 win in the preseason opener over Atlanta, the Ravens saw five players return to action but were also dealing with several news absences from injuries sustained against the Falcons.

Center Matt Birk (back), cornerback Jimmy Smith (back), defensive end Arthur Jones (hip), running back Bernard Pierce (hamstring), and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe all returned to practice on Saturday as the Ravens begin a new week of practice leading into their first preseason home game against Detroit on Friday.

Birk hadn’t practiced since July 28 after dealing with back spasms.

“It’s good to get those guys back,” coach John Harbaugh said. “It’s very important. Those guys were out here practicing, and we need to have those guys.”

Despite the good news of several key players returning, the Ravens also faced the fallout from Thursday’s game as tight end Ed Dickson (sprained right shoulder), defensive lineman Ryan McBean (broken left ankle), wide receivers Torrey Smith (sprained ankle) and Logan Payne (hip), and cornerbacks Asa Jackson (hamstring) and Chykie Brown (hamstring) did not practice.

All aforementioned players were injured against the Falcons, with McBean’s injury potentially sidelining him for the rest of the season. Dickson — who came out to watch practice in street clothes with his right arm in a sling — is expected to miss a few weeks but will be ready in time for the Ravens’ season opener on Sept. 10. Smith’s injury is not considered to be serious.

Harbaugh would not disclose any updates on the severity of McBean’s fracture or confirm whether it would be a season-ending injury.

“It’s already been reported, so there’s no reason for me to comment any further,” Harbaugh said. “You guys already got what you need.”

Others not practicing included linebackers Josh Bynes (back) and Darryl Blackstock (groin), and wide receivers Tandon Doss (hamstring) and Patrick Williams (leg). Wide receiver David Reed (knee) and offensive lineman Jah Reid (calf) remain on the active physically unable to perform list while linebacker Terrell Suggs continues to rehab his surgically-repaired Achilles tendon while on the non-football injury list.

Rookie linebacker Courtney Upshaw (shoulder) was practicing again after sitting out Thursday’s game. He practiced for the first time since July 28 on Tuesday but was held out of the game due to a lack of practice reps.

 

 

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