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Ravens-Bills: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 10 September 2016 by Luke Jones

A fast start is always welcomed in a new season, but it’s especially critical for the Ravens coming off a 5-11 campaign.

A win in Week 1 allows for a deep breath and thoughts that this year will be different. A home defeat at the hands of the Buffalo Bills will only make John Harbaugh and his players think, “Here we go again.”

It’s time to go on the record as Baltimore and Buffalo meet for the seventh time in the all-time regular-season series with both teams previously winning three apiece. The Ravens are 3-1 against the Bills at M&T Bank Stadium and 3-0 in games against Buffalo head coach Rex Ryan, who spent a decade as an assistant in Baltimore before serving as the head coach of the New York Jets for six years.

1. A suspect Buffalo pass rush will allow Joe Flacco to go vertical to Mike Wallace for a long first-half touchdown. You can expect a Ryan defense to throw the kitchen sink at rookie offensive linemen Ronnie Stanley and Alex Lewis, but the Bills had just 21 sacks a season ago and are without suspended defensive tackle Marcell Dareus for the first four games. The Ravens will want to try out their revamped vertical passing game against the league’s 19th-ranked pass defense from a year ago, and Flacco will get enough time to throw a strike to Wallace, whom he praised over the summer.

2. Tyrod Taylor will run for 60 yards and a touchdown as the Baltimore front struggles to keep him in the pocket. The Ravens are fully aware of Taylor’s athleticism, but the absence of Elvis Dumervil will leave an inexperienced rusher such as Za’Darius Smith or Matt Judon opposite Terrell Suggs on the other side. Pressuring a mobile quarterback is tricky because you don’t want him to flush him from the pocket, meaning you must stay disciplined in rush lanes and not get too wide or crash inside. This will be a problem for overzealous young rushers and will lead to scrambling opportunities.

3. As Jimmy Smith tries to lock down Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods and Charles Clay will catch touchdowns. After Dean Pees said Watkins reminded him a bit of Randy Moss, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Smith mirror him with safety help whenever possible. However, Woods and Clay are capable of making plays and this pass defense didn’t play at a high level in the preseason. In trying to prevent Watkins from going off, the Ravens will give up passing yards to other targets while primarily staying in their base defense to account for the league’s top-ranked running game from a year ago.

4. Terrance West will score a touchdown in an otherwise so-so day for the running game. It will be interesting to see how many opportunities the Ravens give veteran starter Justin Forsett early before West begins to get his touches. Buffalo ranked 16th in run defense a year ago and the Ravens have made it clear that they want to be better on the ground, but it will be a work in progress with a new left side of the offensive line in place. There won’t be a ton of running room, but West looks like the best candidate to get goal-line carries and he’ll push one into the end zone.

5. Flacco will throw for 240 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Ravens to a 27-21 win over the Bills. If Baltimore wants to be taken seriously as a playoff contender, this is a game you must win playing at home. The Bills defense doesn’t pose a big threat, but Flacco will want to get rid of the ball quickly as he did in his only preseason action last month. Look for lots of underneath passing to the likes of Steve Smith, Kamar Aiken, and Dennis Pitta while mixing in deep shots to Wallace and Breshad Perriman. It will be enough for a solid Week 1 win and Baltimore’s first victory in an opener since 2012.

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Ten Ravens prophecies for the 2016 season

Posted on 10 September 2016 by Luke Jones

As many go through the exercise of making division-by-division forecasts, these predictions focus on the Ravens and their goal to return to the playoffs after the worst season in the John Harbaugh era.

A look back at last year’s predictions shows some were accurate (Kendrick Lewis didn’t make the impact the Ravens anticipated) and a few were embarrassing (predicted future starter Rashaan Melvin was cut before Halloween) as an overrated roster and a plethora of injuries contributed to a 5-11 season that no one truly anticipated. Regardless of the lack of accuracy, it’s fun to envision how the next four months could play out.

Below is a new forecast to mock and tear apart:

1. Seriously, Joe Flacco will finally be voted team MVP by the local media after reaching the 4,000-yard passing mark for the first time in his career.

I’ve predicted this three years in a row now, but a return from a serious left knee injury coupled with better weapons in the passing game will remind everyone how good Flacco can be. Questions remain about the running game and a revamped offensive line, but there is enough talent diversity in the passing game to expect the Ravens to be able to move the ball effectively through the air. Entering his ninth season, Flacco isn’t the type of quarterback you want to be throwing 45 times per game, but offensive coordinator Marc Trestman will give him more than enough opportunities to exceed 4,000 yards.

2. Steve Smith and Terrell Suggs will not match their 2014 levels of production, but both will augment their legacies with respectable comebacks.

Knowing exactly what to expect from a 37-year-old receiver coming off a horrendous Achilles injury and a 33-year-old pass rusher returning from his second Achilles tear in four years is impossible, but dismissing two players worthy of Hall of Fame consideration would be unwise. Baltimore doesn’t need Smith to be a 1,000-yard receiver, but he’ll contribute at least three or four catches every week while providing leadership to the young receivers. The defense is depending on Suggs at the rush linebacker spot, and he’ll play the run well and will be able to disrupt some quarterbacks with seven or eight sacks.

3. No Raven will reach the 10-sack mark for the second straight season.

The pass rush will be better than it was a year ago when it collected 37 sacks, but there’s still too much reliance on Suggs and Elvis Dumervil and a learning curve for younger options to completely fill that gap this year. This will be an important season for second-year outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith, but rookie fifth-round pick Matt Judon will show better production with seven sacks to create some optimism for the future. The overall depth of this group is improved from last season, but there won’t be that one guy who completely changes the complexion of a game.

4. Kenneth Dixon and Will Davis will become starters by the midway point of the season.

I’m concerned with the committee approach at running back and the run blocking off the offensive line under Trestman, but Dixon is their most talented back and should receive the most touches after he returns from a knee injury. The only concern is his health as the fourth-round rookie has missed time with three different injuries since being drafted. Davis elevated his play as the summer progressed and will be the first in line to replace the up-and-down veteran Shareece Wright. However, he is coming off ACL injuries to each knee over the last two seasons, making his health another question mark.

5. Eric Weddle will improve the communication in the secondary, but the pass defense will remain a weakness.

To say the Ravens have struggled at safety since the departure of Ed Reed would be an understatement. The organization has wasted early draft picks and free-agent dollars, but Weddle will stabilize the communication in the secondary. He would be the perfect addition to turn a good defensive backfield into a great one, but the talent level is suspect here with even doubts about top cornerback Jimmy Smith, who didn’t play well last year while feeling the effects of foot surgery. With only three interceptions over the last three years, Weddle isn’t a dynamic play-maker, but he will help minimize the big plays.

6. Ronnie Stanley will have one of the best rookie seasons in franchise history that no one will talk about.

Did you notice how little discussion there was about Baltimore’s first-round pick this summer? That’s an encouraging development for an offensive lineman, who’s only noticed by the masses when committing a penalty or giving up a sack. Stanley is bound to have a bump or two in the road over the course of his first season, but the Ravens are very pleased with the way the Notre Dame product has performed. It remains to be seen how the likes of Laremy Tunsil and Jalen Ramsey fare in their pro careers elsewhere, but Stanley has given general manager Ozzie Newsome no reason to think he didn’t make a strong choice.

7. Breshad Perriman and Zach Orr will be players to take a step forward.

The 2015 first-round pick won’t match Torrey Smith’s rookie production of 841 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, but he will average 17 yards per catch with five scores to give Flacco a young deep-ball threat to open up the intermediate portion of the field for possession receivers and tight ends. Orr is the latest former rookie free agent to become a starting inside linebacker for Baltimore, joining Bart Scott, Jameel McClain, and Dannell Ellerbe. He will do particularly well in coverage, which is what prompted the Ravens to use Orr in place of veteran Daryl Smith in the nickel defense late last season.

8. Kamar Aiken and Elvis Dumervil will be players to take a step back.

This isn’t at all a knock on Aiken’s ability, but it will be a result of diminished opportunity. Aiken really excelled when playing Smith’s position and running his routes in the second half last year, so you wonder how he’ll fit into the equation with the veteran returning to the field. There’s been mystery surrounding Dumervil’s offseason foot surgery and subsequent setback, but the Ravens need him to return sooner rather than later. After Dumervil handled a heavier workload out of necessity in 2015, the Ravens need to limit his early-down action to get the most out of the 32-year-old’s pass-rushing ability.

9. Marshal Yanda and Brandon Williams will be Baltimore’s Pro Bowl selections.

Yanda remained the best guard in the NFL last season and has quietly become one of the top players in the history of the franchise. His leadership and knowledge on the field and in the meeting room will be vital as the Ravens begin the season with a brand new left side of the offensive line. Meanwhile, Williams will finally receive the recognition he deserves as the best run-stopping nose tackle in the NFL. Of course, such an achievement will only increase his value approaching free agency as the Ravens will face the dilemma of how much to pay a defensive tackle who hasn’t shown great ability as a pass rusher.

10. A brutal final month will leave the Ravens with an 8-8 record that results in missing the playoffs for the third time in four years.

I never bought into the narrative of last season being all about the injuries, so it would be disingenuous to predict a dramatic turnaround in 2016. The Ravens are relying heavily on aging players at a few key positions and possess a young core that needs further additions and time to develop. This will be a better football team that will remain in the playoff hunt entering December, but road games against New England, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati over the final four weeks will be too much to overcome. Despite the optics of missing the playoffs for the third time in four seasons, the Ravens would be in good shape for 2017 if young players like Stanley, Perriman, and Dixon prove to be the real deal.

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Ravens need youth movement for 2016 and beyond

Posted on 09 September 2016 by Luke Jones

Your outlook on the Ravens this season likely depends on how you viewed a forgettable 2015 in which they finished 5-11.

If you point to more than 20 players suffering season-ending injuries — the most in the John Harbaugh era — and nine losses decided by one possession, a dramatic turnaround feels inevitable with any reasonable shift in luck.

Or, you remember the myriad of reasons that contributed to a 1-6 start long before the losses of Steve Smith, Joe Flacco, and Justin Forsett transformed a lost season into one more conveniently excused by injuries. From that perspective, those failures were less about bad fortune and more the culmination of a series of missteps over the previous few years.

No matter where your assessment of last season lies, the 2016 Ravens are relying on a slew of older players at key positions, which is a slippery slope. According to Jimmy Kempski of PhillyVoice.com, Baltimore had the sixth-oldest 53-man roster in the NFL on final cut-down day. That was before general manager Ozzie Newsome re-signed the 30-year-old Justin Forsett and added 33-year-old return specialist Devin Hester at the beginning of the week.

Fifteen players on the active roster are 30 or older. Of their 12 former Pro Bowl selections, only two — linebacker C.J. Mosley and kicker Justin Tucker — are currently in their 20s.

Their projected starting outside linebackers, wide receivers, safeties, and running back are all 30 or older. Experience is certainly valuable, but those are positions where you don’t want to be sparring too frequently with Father Time.

The Ravens have obvious exceptions to the rule — a few of them will eventually be in the discussion for the Hall of Fame — but this is largely a young man’s game.

And that brings us to the biggest key for the Ravens in 2016 and certainly beyond.

The youth movement needs to start now.

Seeing the likes of Smith and Terrell Suggs return from injuries to lead the Ravens back into postseason contention would be fun, but it would be in vain if several younger players don’t take significant steps forward. At 31, Flacco should have several more productive seasons ahead of him at quarterback, but this is an otherwise aging core of difference-makers, which was true even before pass rusher Elvis Dumervil suffered a setback from offseason foot surgery that will keep him sidelined for the start of the season.

It’s time for the next wave of great Ravens to emerge. In fact, it’s overdue, which is a significant reason why 2015 was such a disappointment.

Excluding players yet to take an NFL snap like rookie left tackle Ronnie Stanley and wide receiver Breshad Perriman, who are the under-30 talents on this roster that other teams truly covet?

Brandon Williams might be the best run-stopping nose tackle in the league and Tucker is arguably the NFL’s top kicker, but who else?

Mosley and cornerback Jimmy Smith? Maybe in 2014, but not based on the way they performed a year ago.

Others have potential, but the Ravens thought the same about failed draft picks such as Matt Elam, Arthur Brown, and Terrence Brooks not long ago. The proof will be in the results on the field.

Za’Darius Smith, Matt Judon, or Kamalei Correa needs to become as a significant pass-rushing threat to complement Suggs and Dumervil. The defense will be even more dangerous if more than one can do it.

As their earliest first-round pick in 16 years, Stanley must make fans forget every left tackle the Ravens have had since Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden.

Perriman needs to stay healthy and show why he was the first receiver the organization drafted in the first round in a decade.

Jimmy Smith and Mosley have to look more like the players they were in 2014.

If others step up along the way, the Ravens will really be in business — not just for this season but for the future.

If young players fail to develop, they will once again be depending too heavily on aging talent trying to stay healthy enough to play at a high level for another year.

Baltimore can bounce back with the combination of veterans returning and young play-makers emerging.

But it’s difficult to imagine it happening to any meaningful degree without the latter.

The Ravens need their youth to take the baton and step to the forefront.

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Dumervil officially declared out, Pitta questionable for Sunday

Posted on 09 September 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The effects of the new injury report rules for 2016 were evident on the final update released by the Ravens ahead of Sunday’s season opener against Buffalo.

As expected, linebacker Elvis Dumervil, cornerback Jerraud Powers, and running back Kenneth Dixon were declared out for Week 1, but tight end Dennis Pitta, guard John Urschel, tight end Maxx Williams, and cornerback Shareece Wright were all listed as questionable despite participating fully in practices all week. The NFL has eliminated the “probable” designation, which used to mean a player had a 75 percent or better chance of playing.

Teams will now use the “questionable” label — previously used for “50-50” situations — for any player who is uncertain to play in the game and “doubtful” for anyone considered unlikely to participate.

“Usually, you figure out who’s going to play and who’s not going to play pretty much,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “If you don’t know, you’ll see when they give you the report an hour-and-a-half before game time, you see who is actually going to play. I think it’s much ado about not much.”

Dumervil had already ruled himself out of the opener on Wednesday, but the Pro Bowl edge rusher’s absence opens the door for younger options such as Za’Darius Smith and Matt Judon to see more pass-rushing opportunities. Albert McClellan will start at the strong-side outside linebacker spot in the base defense while Terrell Suggs will make his long-awaited return to the rush linebacker spot.

Despite missing more than a month of training camp with a broken finger, Pitta is set to make his return to live-game action for the first time in two years. The 31-year-old is attempting to come back from two catastrophic injuries to his right hip.

“He’s put in a lot of work. It’s been a long road for him,” Harbaugh said. “It will be great to see him come out of that tunnel with the smoke going. I’m sure it will be a big moment for him, too, and I’m looking forward to seeing him play. I’m glad he’s on our side.”

Buffalo officially ruled out two backup players: safety Colt Anderson and cornerback Kevon Seymour. Rookie third-string quarterback Cardale Jones was listed as questionable with a shoulder issue.

The Bills learned Friday that right tackle Seantrel Henderson dropped his appeal of a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. Henderson’s agent has said his client was using marijuana to relieve the effects of Crohn’s disease.

The referee for Sunday’s game will be Brad Allen.

According to Weather.com, the Sunday forecast calls for partly cloudy skies with temperatures in the mid-80s and only a 10 percent chance of precipitation.

Below is the final injury report of the week:

BALTIMORE
OUT: RB Kenneth Dixon (knee), LB Elvis Dumervil (foot), CB Jerraud Powers (ankle)
QUESTIONABLE: TE Dennis Pitta (finger), G/C John Urschel (shoulder), TE Maxx Williams (knee), CB Shareece Wright (foot)

BUFFALO
OUT: S Colt Anderson (foot), CB Kevon Seymour (hamstring)
QUESTIONABLE: OL Ryan Groy (ribs), QB Cardale Jones (right shoulder), RB Jonathan Williams (ribs)

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Pitta set to play in first game for Ravens in nearly two years

Posted on 09 September 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens will welcome several players back to action on Sunday from season-ending injuries suffered last year, but no one’s return appeared as improbable as that of Dennis Pitta.

Having suffered a second dislocation and fracture of his right hip on Sept. 21, 2014 in Cleveland, the tight end’s career appeared to be over. But after two long years of rigorous rehabilitation and difficult decision-making, the 31-year-old will take the field against Buffalo for only his eighth game since Super Bowl XLVII.

Even the stoic Pitta anticipates some emotion as he takes the field at M&T Bank Stadium.

“I’m sure it will be,” Pitta said. “There was definitely a point in all of this that I had to accept the fact that I probably wouldn’t run out of that tunnel ever again. Being able to do that this Sunday will be emotional but very exciting for me.”

It was a strange summer for Pitta, who broke a finger in a camp scuffle with rookie linebacker Kamalei Correa on Aug. 1 and missed more than a month of action. The 2010 fourth-round pick looked good in spring practices and over the first few days of training camp, but it remains how unclear just how extensively offensive coordinator Marc Trestman plans to use him in the offense.

A strong rapport with close friend and quarterback Joe Flacco should minimize the challenge of Pitta’s extended training camp absence, but head coach John Harbaugh expressed disappointment late last month about the veteran missing valuable reps to regain his timing.

Pitta was listed as questionable on the final injury report of the week, but he was a full participant in practices this week.

“I’m feeling pretty fresh, actually. I’ve been through training camp a lot,” said Pitta, who returned to practice on Sept. 3. “Obviously, it’s tough to miss that amount of time, especially when I haven’t played in a while. I’ve gotten a week or so under my belt and I feel comfortable with everything that I’m doing. I feel good with where I’m at.”

Considering the nature of his second hip dislocation and fracture on an innocuous non-contact play in which he caught a short pass and collapsed simply trying to turn up the field, everyone will be holding their breath as Pitta admitted his wife, Mataya, and his parents remain nervous about him playing again.

Even a few weeks ago, his potential return was still considered more of a bonus with so much depth at the position, but veteran Benjamin Watson suffered a season-ending Achilles injury on Aug. 27 and young tight ends Crockett Gillmore and Maxx Williams have also dealt with ailments in their brief careers, creating more of an interest in Pitta’s presence. Flacco and the Baltimore passing game would certainly welcome his ability to work the middle portion of the field once again.

It’s quite a change from the general tone of much of the last two years.

Was there a particular moment that stood out along the way when Pitta thought his career was over?

“I think the second time I dislocated my hip was one of those instances where I thought, ‘Man, I don’t think I’ll be back out there,’” said Pitta, smiling and proving he still has his dry sense of humor. “For a long time after, I didn’t know how I would recover having done that twice. I didn’t know even if I would get to the point where I felt good enough to play again. It took a long time. Fortunately, now I’m in that position.”

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Will committee approach work for Ravens running backs?

Posted on 09 September 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The dynamics of the running game have certainly changed in the pass-happy NFL in recent years.

Look no further than the Ravens a year ago when they rushed only 383 times, a franchise single-season low and four fewer attempts than Jamal Lewis had by himself in a historic 2003 season. In 2015, only one running back in the NFL — Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson — carried the ball more than 300 times and just 15 backs had as many as 200 carries.

Those realities coupled with the Ravens’ depth at running back have everyone wondering if we’ll see a timeshare approach in 2016. Veteran Justin Forsett is expected to begin the season as the starter, but general manager Ozzie Newsome’s willingness to potentially lose him in the unorthodox roster shuffling this past week reflected confidence in the young trio of Terrance West, Kenneth Dixon, and Buck Allen.

“We are very deep. This is probably the most talented group that we have had since I have been here,” said Forsett, entering his third year with Baltimore. “We push each other, and it is going to take all of us anyway at the end of the day to go out there and perform. I’m confident with all of us.”

But how feasible is the committee approach?

Head coach John Harbaugh used the strategy to perfection in his first season as Le’Ron McClain, Willis McGahee, and Ray Rice each had over 100 carries and combined to run for over 2,000 yards, but Rice quickly emerged as a Pro Bowl running back the following season.

We’ve heard more and more about the committee approach in today’s NFL, but a look at the top 10 rushing offenses in the league last year showed little evidence of that strategy being employed as a feature back on each team averaged at least 15 carries per game at any given stretch in the season with only injuries significantly impacting the carry distribution. The only team in the top 10 that appeared to use more of a timeshare was sixth-ranked Kansas City and that was toward the end of the season after the Chiefs had already lost four-time Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charles in October.

The Ravens certainly hope to be more productive on the ground than they were a year ago when they finished 26th in rushing offense, but at least one of their backs will need to emerge to be better than a complementary option. If you only have four No. 2 running backs from an ability standpoint, that’s unlikely to get the job done.

According to offensive coordinator Marc Trestman, the workload will largely be determined by third-year running backs coach Thomas Hammock.

“I think our guys expect to be moved around,” Trestman said. “Thomas has a great feel for that, and he really handles that with John and my approval, so to speak. He did a great job with that last year, and I expect that [this year]. He has a good feel for when these guys need to come out, when they need a break, and if there is a play that they need to be in on. And if he feels like [a certain back] can get it done, he will get them in there.”

There’s a delicate balance between wanting to give opportunities to multiple back and making sure the most productive ones have the chance to get into the flow of the game. It’s a challenge that the Ravens could have throughout the season, especially after the talented rookie Dixon returns from a knee injury in a few weeks.

Coaches have downplayed that peril while acknowledging that the proof will be in the results, but at least one member of the Baltimore backfield provided an honest assessment about the difficulty of playing in a committee.

“I’m not going to sit here and lie to you, it’s tough getting in a rhythm as a running back,” said West, who carried the ball over 400 times in his final collegiate season at Towson in 2013. “A running back’s got to have a good feeling and feel the game out. Right now, I’m just taking advantage of opportunity. When my number’s called, I’m going to make the best of that one play or the three plays I have — however many plays I have.”

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Ravens defense prepared to play without Dumervil, Powers

Posted on 08 September 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Aiming to win their season-opening game for the first time since 2012, the Ravens are preparing to be without two members of their nickel defense against the Buffalo Bills.

Pro Bowl outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil has already ruled himself out for Week 1 while slot cornerback Jerraud Powers is also not expected to play on Sunday. Those developments could leave the Baltimore defense vulnerable, especially at the pass rush after Dumervil contributed 32 1/2 sacks in his last three seasons with the Ravens.

His absence opens the door for young outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith, Kamalei Correa, and Matt Judon to receive more snaps opposite veteran Terrell Suggs in passing situations. Judon, a fifth-round rookie from Grand Valley State, was particularly impressive in the preseason, leading the team with three sacks and 17 tackles.

“I feel good about it,” said defensive coordinator Dean Pees about the young trio. “Would we like to have Elvis? Sure, because Elvis is a special guy, but we also have some other special guys out there, and I think it’s an opportunity for these young guys to step up, get the adrenaline flowing in the first game of their career, and get after it. They’ve shown some things in preseason that I think we’ll have the ability to do that. Hopefully, we’ll be able to show that on Sunday.”

Powers wasn’t a lock to serve as the nickel back before injuring his ankle in the second preseason game against Indianapolis, but the Ravens are looking at the combination of Anthony Levine, Will Davis, and rookie Tavon Young to fill the slot corner role. Baltimore also used the dime package quite a bit in training camp, a new wrinkle to watch for early in the regular season.

With Buffalo ranking first in the NFL in rushing offense last season, the Ravens may not deviate too much from their base defense in Week 1, but there was a point of emphasis this summer for the unit to vary its looks and personnel in pass coverage.

“We have some guys that I think are very capable of doing that,” Pees said. “Whether we play one guy at one time or whether we substitute and play different guys at different times, we might have different packages. You never know.”

In addition to Dumervil and Powers, rookie running back Kenneth Dixon was again absent from Thursday’s practice with every other member of the 53-man roster participating fully.

Meanwhile, the Bills were hit hard by the injury bug this summer, but there are no ailments of significant consequence on their current 53-man roster.

The Ravens jersey number swapping continued in full force on Thursday, particularly in the secondary with four players changing digits. Starting cornerback Shareece Wright is now wearing No. 24, Will Davis has switched to No. 31, rookie Maurice Canady has taken No. 39, and Powers will don No. 26.

Backup quarterback Ryan Mallett has also changed from No. 7 to No. 15, the number he wore at previous NFL stops and at the University of Arkansas.

Though they’re all currently on injured reserve, safety Matt Elam now has No. 33, cornerback Kyle Arrington was assigned No. 35, and wide receiver Michael Campanaro is now listed as No. 12.

At the very least, the equipment staff is staying busy just days before the season opener.

Below is Thursday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: RB Kenneth Dixon (knee), LB Elvis Dumervil (foot), CB Jerraud Powers (ankle)
FULL PARTICIPATION: TE Dennis Pitta (finger), G John Urschel (shoulder), TE Maxx Williams (knee), CB Shareece Wright (foot)

BUFFALO
FULL PARTICIPATION: S Colt Anderson (foot), CB Kevon Seymour (hamstring), QB Cardale Jones (right shoulder)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: OL Ryan Groy (ribs)
FULL PARTICIPATION: RB Jonathan Williams (ribs)

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Ravens offense trying to turn potential into production in 2016

Posted on 07 September 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — This Ravens offense looks promising on paper.

Some observers have even dared to say this is the most talented collection of skill players in the history of the franchise. Of course, we know that bar isn’t all that high with Baltimore being much more known for its defense over the last two decades.

But that doesn’t mean ninth-year quarterback Joe Flacco is ready to call this the deepest group he’s had around him, either.

“I think that has yet to be seen,” Flacco said. “We have to go out there and prove that we’re weapons and that we can do it in live games on Sundays. I think it’s a very promising group and I’m very excited about it, but we have to go out there and prove it.”

It’s easy to be excited about the healthy returns of Steve Smith, Breshad Perriman, and Dennis Pitta as well as the additions of veteran free agent Mike Wallace and rookie fourth-rounder Chris Moore, but the most critical factor will be how well the offensive line performs with two new pieces on Flacco’s blindside. From the moment he arrived in Owings Mills this spring, first-round pick Ronnie Stanley has looked the part of a starting left tackle, but the regular season brings an even faster speed to which he’ll need to adjust.

Fellow rookie Alex Lewis may join him in the starting lineup after third-year guard John Urschel missed much of the summer with a shoulder injury. For either option at left guard, replacing the accomplished Kelechi Osemele won’t be easy and will make life for Stanley even more challenging.

That left side of the offensive line is sure to be tested right away by a Buffalo defense that looks undermanned but will try to throw the kitchen sink at inexperienced linemen. Bills head coach and former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan was very complimentary of both Stanley and Lewis on Wednesday, but he’s also aware of their inexperience and will try to exploit it.

“I’ve never seen it before where two [rookies] start on the offensive line because that is tough,” Ryan said in a conference call with the Baltimore media. “There’s so much to it. But those two guys I’m sure have done a great job studying and things. But it’s not easy, that’s for sure.”

The offensive line protecting Flacco in the pocket is a nonnegotiable prerequisite for success, but opening holes in the running game proved to be a problem last season as the Ravens rushed for an underwhelming 3.9 yards per carry. An offense regularly trailing in most of its games a year ago was predictably going to lean more on the pass, but offensive coordinator Marc Trestman struggled to commit to the ground attack even when opportunities were there.

We know Flacco is at his best as a passer when he has the support of a strong running game, and head coach John Harbaugh has made it clear that improving in that area is a must.

Trying to figure out how the carries will be distributed will be interesting as veteran Justin Forsett is still expected to begin the year as the starter, but both Terrance West and the presently-injured Kenneth Dixon figure to factor more heavily into the equation as the season progresses. It sounds fine to say you’ll use a by-committee approach, but there’s a fine line between giving multiple backs opportunities and allowing the right one to get into a rhythm.

That trio of backs along with 2014 fourth-round pick Buck Allen all have their strengths and weaknesses, but at least one will need to prove capable of being a No. 1 kind of talent when it matters most.

“In the end, wisdom is in the results,” Harbaugh said. “We will all be judged how well we run the ball as a group. My goal is for all those guys to have success running the ball. I think they all bring something different to the table, style-wise [and] ability-wise.”

The same general thought process applies at wide receiver and tight end where health is clearly a factor for the 37-year-old Smith coming off an awful Achilles injury last November and for the 31-year-old Pitta, who hasn’t played in a game in nearly two years and missed most of training camp with a broken finger this summer. Even if those two stay healthy to go along with the rest of the bunch, the challenge is there for Trestman and Flacco to spread the ball around in a way that’s most productive for the overall offense.

More options in the vertical passing game will ideally open up the short-to-intermediate portion of the field for Smith, Pitta, Kamar Aiken, and Crockett Gillmore, but that comes with the understanding that there will be times when the Ravens want to best utilize that speed with certain substitution packages.

Whether you’re a talented first-year player or a 16th-year receiver with Hall of Fame credentials, there’s no room for ego when trying to bounce back from a 5-11 season.

“You know you are going to get your plays, but you are also ecstatic to be able to clear it out and open it up for other guys,” Smith said. “[If] I go down and run a route to open it up for Mike and Mike catches it, then I’m on the hunt. I get to peel back on somebody and knock the s–t out of them. That is what I am excited about, so I can play my role for Mike and Mike can play his role.

“Anyone can catch the ball, but can you be a team player to clear it out and understand the integrity of the play and what you are supposed to be doing for the other guy? That is the ultimate team player right there.”

The Ravens signed Wallace to provide an established speed presence on the outside that the offense sorely lacked a year ago, but the wild card for the aerial attack is Perriman, who is finally healthy after two different knee injuries and flashed his ability in the preseason finale last week.

With a 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame and blinding speed, Perriman is the type of talent at the wide receiver position that the Ravens have lacked throughout their history. We still have no idea whether his talent and size will translate to NFL success, but general manager Ozzie Newsome selected him in the first round last year to help take this offense to a different level.

Patience will be key, but the Ravens hope Perriman can eventually be a major factor in transforming a solid offense into a great one.

“We haven’t had a ton of work together, but [we] just have to keep it simple,” Flacco said. “Hit him in the chest and give him the chance to make plays. I think the more plays that he’s given the chance to make, the more he’s going the make and the more his confidence is going to go up.”

It all sounds great and looks promising a few days out from the season opener, but the Bills will be the first team to give the Ravens offense a real idea of how good it is. Potential is there, but questions exist wherever you look, including with Flacco as he comes back from the first serious injury of his entire career.

The schedule sets up for a potential fast start with only one playoff team from last year on the docket before the Ravens hit their bye in Week 8. But how quickly will it all come together for an offense with several new pieces as well as familiar faces returning from injury?

“I think I know what to expect from these guys,” Flacco said. “I’m really just excited about getting out there and doing it and making sure that we do it — not just go out there and play around. I want to go out there and I want to play well. That’s what I expect from our guys, and I think that’s what everybody else expects, too.”

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dumervil

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Dumervil says he won’t be able to play in Ravens opener

Posted on 07 September 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After suffering a setback in his recent return from offseason foot surgery, Ravens linebacker Elvis Dumervil said Wednesday that he won’t be able to play in the season opener against Buffalo.

The 32-year-old was activated from the physically unable to perform list on Aug. 22 and had practiced on a limited basis only a handful of days before being sidelined again, which had led to doubt about his Week 1 status. Dumervil described the setback as “minor” on Wednesday, but the five-time Pro Bowl selection declined to say when he’ll be ready to play.

“I won’t be able to go this week,” Dumervil said. “We’re just working at it in the training room, just getting ready. It’s a little disappointing, but sometimes you’ve just got to wait your turn and when the opportunity presents itself, take full advantage.”

Dumervil’s absence puts more pressure on returning veteran Terrell Suggs while thrusting young outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Matt Judon into more significant pass-rushing snaps. Veteran Albert McClellan is expected to serve as the strong-side outside linebacker in the base defense, which will allow Dumervil to return in the situational role he filled during his first two years with the Ravens.

Smith returned to practice on Wednesday after missing the final two preseason games with an ankle injury and deemed himself ready to play against the Bills on Sunday.

“No problem. A small ankle injury,” Smith said. “They kept me in the training room and got me better with that, so I’m happy to be back.”

Cornerback Jerraud Powers (ankle) and running back Kenneth Dixon (knee) were the only other players on the 53-man roster who were not present for Wednesday’s practice open to reporters. On Tuesday, Harbaugh labeled Powers “day-to-day” with an ankle injury that’s sidelined him since Aug. 20 while Dixon is expected to miss at least the first couple of weeks of the season with a torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee.

Cornerback Shareece Wright was present and working after missing a few days of practice with what was listed as a knee injury.

As is often the case at the end of the preseason, a few Ravens players have changed their jersey numbers as veteran receiver Mike Wallace has switched from No. 12 to No. 17, taking the number previously worn by Jeremy Butler. Cornerback Tavon Young is now wearing No. 36 while fellow rookie defensive back Maurice Canady will now don No. 33 in Wednesday’s workout. Powers will now wear No. 31, which was previously owned by safety Terrence Brooks.

Below is Wednesday’s injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: RB Kenneth Dixon (knee), LB Elvis Dumervil (foot), CB Jerraud Powers (ankle)
FULL PARTICIPATION: TE Dennis Pitta (finger), G John Urschel (shoulder), TE Maxx Williams (knee), CB Shareece Wright (foot)

BUFFALO
FULL PARTICIPATION: S Colt Anderson (foot), CB Kevon Seymour (hamstring)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: OL Ryan Groy (ribs), QB Cardale Jones (right shoulder)
FULL PARTICIPATION: RB Jonathan Williams (ribs)

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forsett

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Ravens were prepared to lose Forsett in unorthodox roster shuffling

Posted on 06 September 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens head coach John Harbaugh didn’t try to spin the narrative when asked about the unusual weekend that played out with running back Justin Forsett, who was cut and re-signed two days later.

Harbaugh said it was “self-explanatory” that the organization wanted to temporarily open roster spots for safety Matt Elam and defensive tackle Carl Davis before placing them on injured reserve and keeping them eligible to potentially return later in the season. But the move did not come without a real danger of losing Forsett if another team had been willing to make a superior offer to the $3 million salary he will still make with Baltimore in 2016.

“We understood that. You have to take risks,” Harbaugh said. “No guts, no glory. You can’t achieve anything unless you are willing to take some risks, but certainly you take calculated, smart risks. That is what we did there.”

According to NFL Network, the Ravens reinstated the exact terms of his previous deal that runs through next year, but the 30-year-old can now earn an additional $100,000 if he eclipses his 2015 rushing total (641 yards) this season.

All along, there was a trust between the two sides that facilitated such an unorthodox move that grabbed the attention of the football world. Harbaugh expressed his admiration for Forsett, who has been a valuable asset both on and off the field in the post-Ray Rice era.

“I thought Justin handled it exceptionally well,” Harbaugh said. “It was a team move on his part, and it didn’t hurt him in any way, financially or otherwise. We knew what the plan was all along. I thought it was well-executed. Hopefully, it helps us in the end. It is a small thing, but it is not a small thing to those two guys that have a chance to come back on the roster.”

Hester ready for Week 1

It remains to be seen how much four-time Pro Bowl return specialist Devin Hester has left after undergoing toe surgery in January, but the 33-year-old declared himself fully healthy on Tuesday.

Despite only hitting the practice field for the first time with the Ravens on Tuesday, Hester is expected to be the return man against Buffalo to open the season. How much he’ll be involved in the offense — if at all — remains to be seen.

“He seems like he is actually in very good shape,” Harbaugh said. “He looks like he is ready to play. I’m not worried about him being able to handle the job at all. We are excited about him, and we are anticipating him being out there handling kicks and punts for us — at least — on Sunday.”

Powers still in plans

Veteran cornerback Jerraud Powers has been absent since suffering an injury in the second preseason game on Aug. 20, but he remains in the Ravens’ plans despite outside speculation about his future.

“We respect his ability and what he brings to the table for us,” Harbaugh said. “As soon as he’s healthy, which is probably day-to-day right now with an ankle sprain, we’ll see where he goes from there. I’m excited to get him out there, too.”

Should Powers not be able to play against the Bills, rookie Tavon Young or fourth-year cornerback Will Davis could be asked to defend the slot in the nickel package.

Tough conversation

The decision to cut wide receiver Jeremy Butler was one of the more unpopular moves of the weekend after he led the team in receptions during the preseason.

Harbaugh said that Butler “deserved” to make the 53-man roster, but there was a big need to address that made the young wideout the odd man out in the end.

“We needed a returner,” Harbaugh said. “When you looked at who would have to go and stay and to make sure we had enough players at different positions, he was a guy that there wasn’t a chair left for him at the end. That was probably the most — one of the most — two or three [difficult conversations].”

Tampa Bay signed Butler to its practice squad on Sunday after he declined an invitation to be on Baltimore’s for a second straight year.

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