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Too many shades of 2013 as Ravens fall flat in Week 1 loss to Bengals

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Too many shades of 2013 as Ravens fall flat in Week 1 loss to Bengals

Posted on 07 September 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — A half-smile came across the face of Terrell Suggs when asked if the Ravens’ season-opening 23-16 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday reminded him of last season.

It was clear the 12th-year linebacker didn’t feel like reminiscing about Baltimore’s first non-playoff season under head coach John Harbaugh, but the similarities were there. A poor first-half performance by the offense and a “bend-don’t-break” defense failing to finish strong doomed the Ravens on Sunday as it did so many times a season ago when they finished 8-8.

“I don’t even want to talk about last year,” Suggs said. “If you remember last year, we gave up seven touchdowns in the opener. It’s a pretty big difference. It doesn’t feel like last year. We just can’t give them the big play. Pretty much our big thing coming into this week was to not let one get over our head. We let one get over our head, but it’s the NFL. It happens.”

The Ravens spent the offseason trying to improve an offense that ranked 29th in the NFL a season ago, adding new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, pass-catching targets Steve Smith and Owen Daniels, and veteran center Jeremy Zuttah. The running game was supposed to be fixed and quarterback Joe Flacco would have more weapons to throw to, which would allow the Ravens to move the ball consistently and with balance.

A defense that lost defensive tackle Arthur Jones and cornerback Corey Graham in free agency would be helped by the improved offensive attack and would not be put in a position when they’d spend too much time on the field with little margin for error.

But Sunday’s loss to the Bengals brought the same problems from 2013 as the Ravens were held to zero points and only 97 total yards in the first 30 minutes of play. The Ravens ran for just 23 yards on nine carries, and Flacco completed only 10 of 23 passes for 78 yards while committing what he called “the stupidest play” of his career that sent his team to the locker room trailing 15-0.

With eight seconds remaining in the half and facing third-and-15 from the 15, the Ravens elected to run one more play, which needed to be a quick three-step drop and throw to the end zone — or out of the end zone — to at least save enough time for a field goal try. Instead, the seventh-year quarterback rolled to his right and allowed time to expire before being sacked by Cincinnati’s Carlos Dunlap.

Flacco’s gaffe was just one of many mistakes made by countless offensive players in the first half, but it seemed an appropriate way to end a miserable 30 minutes of football in which the Ravens had just 9:41 of possession.

“We just played about as bad as you can, in terms of just simple fundamental things,” Flacco said. “Throwing, catching, running routes, staying up, just running the ball, couple mental busts. Just fundamental things that you do every day, and it’s just part of the routine.”

Even with the offense struggling mightily, the Ravens remained in the game thanks to a defense that allowed the Bengals to consistently move the ball before finally tightening up on third down — Cincinnati went 4-for-14 in that department — and holding them to field goals on two trips inside the red zone. It reminded of last season when the defense would stretch and stretch and stretch before making plays when needed to to keep the Ravens in the game.

But the defense also followed the 2013 fourth-quarter script of allowing the big play after Flacco connected with Steve Smith on an 80-yard touchdown to put the Ravens ahead 16-15 with 5:46 remaining in the game. Less than a minute later, defensive coordinator Dean Pees sent nickel back Asa Jackson on the blitz — the defense was unable to provide much pressure throughout the game — but Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton recognized it and threw deep to wide receiver A.J. Green, who beat cornerback Chykie Brown in 1-on-1 coverage for a 77-yard touchdown.

It was the big play the Ravens surrendered too many critical times last season and another example of the defense failing to make a big fourth-quarter stop when needed. And the deciding touchdown washed away what was an acceptable — but not stellar — effort from a unit playing without starting cornerback Lardarius Webb.

“It was kind of a bend-don’t-break philosophy,” cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “We were trying to figure out the new scheme they had in. They threw a lot of new things at us, the zone read and all of that. We didn’t let them get in the end zone until the end when we let that play get away from us.”

Yes, the “half-full” outlook would point to the 16 points and 323 total yards the Ravens offense produced in the second half. The running game even got going in the final two quarters as veteran Justin Forsett — replacing the benched Bernard Pierce — rushed for 70 yards and a 13-yard score for the first touchdown of the season to put the Ravens on the board.

But the skeptic will hear the same song as last season with an offense that had little balance and took more than two quarters to finally wake up — and still dropped too many passes in the second half — and a defense that couldn’t finish the job at crunch time.

As the Ravens learned all too well in 2013, there are no moral victories in the NFL.

“It’s tough to look at it too many ways other than the fact that we lost the game,” Flacco said. “Overall, we didn’t play well. As a player, you don’t look for good things in losses. It was a bad day.”

The good news is the Ravens won’t have time to dwell on their season-opening defeat as they must immediately turn their attention to the Pittsburgh Steelers for a Thursday night game back at M&T Bank Stadium. But they know they’ll need a more complete effort to avoid an 0-2 start in the AFC North as the Bengals and Steelers are already a game ahead in the division.

Yes, the Ravens led late in the fourth quarter and were in position to win the game, but they played too poorly for too long to reasonably expect to prevail.

“We all could’ve done something better today,” Suggs said. “We dropped one. It’s a long season and hopefully this won’t prevent us from doing what we want to do later on in the year.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

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Ravens-Bengals: Inactives and pre-game notes

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Ravens-Bengals: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 07 September 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens begin their 2014 journey trying to get back to the postseason against the Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

But they’ll have to do it without starting cornerback Lardarius Webb, who was ruled inactive for the season opener.

Webb was out on the field two hours before kickoff stretching and working on lateral movement and his backpedal with secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo before ultimately being ruled out. The sixth-year defensive back was stricken with back spasms on the second day of full-squad workouts on July 25 and missed the entire preseason, making concerns more about rust than how his back feels at this point with so little time to get in playing shape.

His absence leaves the Ravens with only three true cornerbacks on the 46-man game-day roster — Jimmy Smith, Chykie Brown, and Asa Jackson. However, safety Anthony Levine also played cornerback in the preseason, and rookie safety Terrence Brooks saw extensive playing time at the inside nickel spot. The Ravens waived veteran cornerback Derek Cox on Saturday, which many interpreted as a sign that Webb would be ready to play.

Brown was working opposite Smith in the starting defense during pre-game warmups.

The only other player who appeared on the Ravens’ final injury report this week was running back Bernard Pierce (concussion), who was listed as probable and is active for Sunday’s game.

A surprising player on the inactive list was inside linebacker Arthur Brown, who was a healthy scratch and was the Ravens’ second-round pick a year ago. Offensive linemen Jah Reid and John Urschel were also healthy inactives, leaving only Gino Gradkowski and James Hurst as available reserves behind the starting line.

Meanwhile, the Bengals will be without one of their starting receivers as Marvin Jones was ruled out at the beginning of the week as he continues to recover from a broken foot suffered in the preseason. Third-year wideout Mohamed Sanu is expected to start in Jones’ place opposite Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green.

First-round cornerback Darqueze Dennard was also ruled inactive after being listed as questionable with a hip injury.

Baltimore is meeting Cincinnati for the 37th time in franchise history. The Ravens hold the 20-16 edge in the all-time series and are 13-5 against the Bengals at home.

The Ravens will be wearing white jerseys with white pants while Cincinnati sports black tops and white pants for Week 1.

The referee for Sunday’s game will be Gene Steratore.

The forecast in Baltimore calls for temperatures in the low 80s with no chance of precipation and winds below 10 miles per hour, according to Weather.com.

Here are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
CB Lardarius Webb
WR Michael Campanaro
LB Arthur Brown
OL John Urschel
OL Jah Reid
WR Deonte Thompson
RB Fitz Toussaint

CINCINNATI
CB Darqueze Dennard
RB Rex Burkhead
LB Sean Porter
OL T.J. Johnson
WR Marvin Jones
WR James Wright
DE Will Clarke

Follow WNST on Twitter throughout the afternoon for updates and analysis as Nestor Aparicio and I bring live coverage from M&T Bank Stadium.

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Ravens cut cornerback Cox, promote rookie running back Toussaint to active roster

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Ravens cut cornerback Cox, promote rookie running back Toussaint to active roster

Posted on 06 September 2014 by Luke Jones

The Ravens weren’t finished tinkering with their 53-man roster the day before their 2014 season opener in releasing veteran cornerback Derek Cox and promoting undrafted rookie running back Fitz Toussaint on Saturday afternoon.

Cox was re-signed earlier this week after initially being cut last weekend when the Ravens trimmed their roster to the league-mandated 53 players. The move can certainly be viewed as a sign that the Ravens are confident in the health of cornerbacks Lardarius Webb, Jimmy Smith, and Asa Jackson, who all participated fully in practices this week. However, an NFL Network report Saturday afternoon seemed to contradict that notion as Aditi Kinkhabwala reported Webb was unlikely to play barring a surprise.

The transaction means the Ravens will not have to guarantee Cox’s contract should they decide to re-sign him after Week 1. The sixth-year defensive back’s departure leaves Baltimore with only four true cornerbacks on the 53-man roster entering the opener against the Cincinnati Bengals, but safety Anthony Levine also saw time at the cornerback spot during the summer.

Toussaint was signed to the practice squad after being waived last weekend and provides extra depth at running back while starter Ray Rice serves his two-game suspension to begin the 2014 season. Though he didn’t stand out early in training camp, Toussaint turned in a 103-yard rushing performance in the preseason finale against the New Orleans Saints to solidify his standing as a practice-squad candidate.

 

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Ravens-Bengals: Five predictions for Sunday

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Ravens-Bengals: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 06 September 2014 by Luke Jones

The Ravens are out to prove their disappointing 2013 campaign was an aberration and not the start of a downward trend as they welcome the Cincinnati Bengals to M&T Bank Stadium to begin the 2014 season.

There is plenty of optimism that an offense ranking 29th in the NFL in total yards a year ago will be much improved with the arrival of new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and the offseason signing of five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith. However, growing concerns exist for a defense that lost defensive tackle Arthur Jones and No. 3 cornerback Corey Graham in free agency and experienced a rash of injuries to the secondary that limited practice time during the summer.

Along with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens are expected to battle the Bengals for AFC North supremacy as Cincinnati won the division going away a year ago. Predictions have been all over the place in terms of how the pundits expect this division to play out after the Bengals didn’t make any significant upgrades and lost both coordinators in the offseason.

Sunday will mark the 37th time these AFC North rivals have met with the Ravens owning a 13-5 mark in Baltimore. The Ravens have won five of the last seven games between these teams and are 7-5 against Cincinnati in the John Harbaugh era.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens look to begin their journey back to the postseason after their first non-playoff season since 2007 a year ago …

1. Nose tackle Brandon Williams will control the battle against Bengals rookie center Russell Bodine. So many AFC North meetings come down to which team better controls the line of scrimmage, making this an intriguing matchup of first-year starters in the middle. Cincinnati will try to establish the run to limit quarterback Andy Dalton’s propensity for making mistakes against the Ravens defense, but Williams will build on what was an impressive summer by consistently disrupting run plays up the middle for minimal yardage. The Bengals are excited about Bodine’s potential, but Williams will make him look exactly like a fourth-round pick playing in his first NFL game.

2. Miscommunication in the secondary will lead to a long Andy Dalton touchdown to Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green. The Ravens’ decision to cut veteran Derek Cox Saturday suggests they’re confident in the health of cornerbacks Jimmy Smith, Lardarius Webb, and Asa Jackson, but the defense was unable to practice with its starting secondary intact all summer. That reality will make a difference along with free safety Darian Stewart making his first start for the Ravens as there are bound to be some communication issues and missed assignments. The absence of No. 2 wide receiver Marvin Jones will help, but the elite Green will take advantage of a busted coverage to catch a long touchdown from Dalton.

3. Steve Smith will catch six passes for 75 yards and a touchdown in his Baltimore debut. New Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther will employ plenty of Cover 2 to attempt to neutralize the speed of Torrey Smith on the outside, which will give the 35-year-old Smith the opportunity to work the intermediate middle to move the chains. It’s fair to doubt how well Smith holds up over 16 weeks of football, but he is too fresh and motivated not to make a significant impact early in the season. A Joe Flacco touchdown pass to the former Carolina Panther will send M&T Bank Stadium into a frenzy and give the Ravens a touchdown to move ahead after a long scoring drive.

4. Bengals running back Giovani Bernard will collect 125 total yards and a touchdown, giving the Ravens fits as a receiver out of the backfield. Linebacker Daryl Smith said the key to slowing the shifty second-year back is for all 11 defensive players to fly to the ball whenever he gets it, but that’s easier said than done as he collected more than 1,200 yards from scrimmage in a part-time role as a rookie. The Ravens must be cognizant of his ability to make defenders miss when catching screens and check-downs from Dalton, but Cincinnati’s other weapons all over the field make this easier said than done. Bernard will be a tough test for Smith and rookie inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, who can’t lose him in underneath zone coverage while paying attention to tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert down the seam. 

5. The home-field advantage and a late turnover by Dalton will be enough for the Ravens to come away with a 23-21 win in the first of three AFC North games to start the season. I expect the Bengals to be the better team over the course of the 2014 season, but the Ravens’ improved offense and overall toughness playing at M&T Bank Stadium will prove to be the difference in Week 1. The revamped running game will be just effective enough to keep pressure off of Flacco, and the Ravens defense will use the emotion of the crowd to pressure Dalton and compensate for a vulnerable secondary that is sure to make coaches and fans nervous throughout the 2014 season. The Ravens need to hold serve at home in their divisional games and will do just that on Sunday.

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Ten Ravens predictions for the 2014 season

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Ten Ravens predictions for the 2014 season

Posted on 06 September 2014 by Luke Jones

As everyone else goes through the endeavor of making division-by-division forecasts that will ultimately mean very little, these predictions focus on the Ravens and their effort to bounce back from the first non-playoff season of the John Harbaugh era.

1. Joe Flacco will be the Ravens’ Most Valuable Player.

The quarterback won’t suddenly transform into a 5,000-yard passer with 35 touchdowns, but the arrival of offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak will bring the most efficient Flacco we’ve seen since the 2010 season when he completed nearly 63 percent of his passes and posted a 93.6 passer rating. A steadier running game will alleviate pressure on the seventh-year signal-caller to feel the need to do it all like he encountered last year, which will only make him more effective with better weapons to target. Flacco will throw 25 touchdown passes for the second time in his career.

2. Haloti Ngata will be playing his final season in Baltimore.

The Ravens and Ngata talked about a new contract this offseason in the same way the organization extended Terrell Suggs’ deal, but talks didn’t go anywhere with the five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle carrying a $16 million salary cap figure this year and next. The difference next year will be the ability to save $8.5 million in cap space by releasing him, which will be easier to execute with the emergence of second-round rookie Timmy Jernigan and nose tackle Brandon Williams this season. Though Ngata is still a good defensive tackle, anyone who’s closely watched him play over the last few years has seen a decline in impact and durability, making it likely this is his final season with the Ravens unless he alters his financial expectations significantly.

3. Kyle Juszczyk and Brandon Williams will be players to take a step forward.

The second-year fullback was a non-factor offensively as a rookie, but it’s clear Kubiak envisions a role for Juszczyk as a receiver out of the backfield, making it possible he catches 30 passes in the way H-back James Casey did in Kubiak’s Houston offense a few years ago. Meanwhile, Williams will need to emerge to soften the blow from the loss of defensive tackle Arthur Jones in free agency, and the 2013 third-round pick was impressive against the run in the preseason. The Ravens need more young players to emerge to offset the reality of several core players approaching the end of their careers, and Juszczyk and Williams will make a bigger impact in 2014 after very quiet rookie campaigns.

4. Marlon Brown and Elvis Dumervil will be players to take a step back.

Even though the second-year receiver had an inconsistent summer, his inclusion in this prediction has more to do with the sheer number of weapons added to the equation with a fully-healthy Dennis Pitta back and the free-agent additions of Steve Smith and Owen Daniels. Brown won’t catch 49 passes again, but he will still be a target in the red zone, which will give him a chance to make his limited opportunities count. Dumervil collected 9 1/2 sacks in his first season with the Ravens, but had only one in his final seven games. He added weight in the offseason, which sounds like a questionable strategy for a 30-year-old rush specialist dependent on speed to get around the edge.

5. Jimmy Smith will be the player who deserves to make the Pro Bowl but won’t.

Before a scary fall that caused bruising and bleeding from his lungs in the second preseason game, Smith was having the best summer of any Baltimore defensive player and appears primed for a breakout campaign after taking significant strides in his first season as a starter. The rest of the secondary is a major concern right now, but Smith could be chosen by defensive coordinator Dean Pees to shadow Cincinnati wideout A.J. Green and the other elite receivers the Ravens encounter in 2014. It may take another year for Smith to finally receive league-wide recognition after an injury-riddled start to his career, but he will play at a Pro Bowl level for an otherwise shaky secondary this season.

6. Terrence Brooks will be starting at free safety before Halloween.

If Smith and Lardarius Webb are healthy, the Ravens should be alright at cornerback even with uncertainty at the No. 3 spot, but there is no such comfort at safety where 2013 first-round pick Matt Elam and veteran newcomer Darian Stewart will start. The Ravens hope Elam playing closer to the line of scrimmage allows him to make a bigger impact, but his summer was quiet as he still struggled to cover and tackle consistently. Stewart didn’t show any signs of being an impact defender playing deep center field and the third-round rookie Brooks took major strides at the end of the summer, making it only a matter of time before the Florida State product supplants him in the starting defense.

7. Steve Smith will be the top veteran newcomer.

It’s easy to be skeptical of the impact Smith will bring at age 35 by pointing to his yards per catch average steadily decreasing over the last three seasons, but the five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver was too impressive this summer to think he won’t be a substantial upgrade to the offense. His swagger and attitude will pump life into an offense that lacked any a year ago, and he has the ability to help move the chains and provide production similar to what Anquan Boldin did in his three years with the Ravens when he averaged 882 receiving yards per season. He won’t be able to bring the same explosiveness all 16 weeks that we saw this summer, but he will still be a significant reason why the offense improves from its 29th overall ranking a year ago.

8. Owen Daniels will be the disappointing veteran newcomer.

The 31-year-old tight end revealed a few days ago that he was dealing with a hamstring injury to clarify Harbaugh’s vague “leg soreness” diagnosis that forced him out of practice for two weeks, but Daniels wasn’t impressive when he was practicing in training camp, struggling to gain separation and make plays to complement Pitta at the tight end position. The Ravens have given Daniels the benefit of the doubt because he is so familiar with Kubiak’s system, but it’s difficult not to be reminded of how little Dallas Clark had remaining in the tank last season while watching Daniels practice this summer. Rookie tight end Crockett Gillmore will need to be ready to step up if Daniels can’t provide what the Ravens need in 2014.

9. C.J. Mosley will be the top Ravens rookie.

This prediction isn’t exactly going out on a limb as he’s the only first-year player currently starting on either side of the football for the Ravens. The Alabama product could occasionally struggle to hold up against physical blockers in defending the run, but he has shown impressive ability in pass coverage, which will make him a three-down linebacker in Week 1. The selection of Mosley raised eyebrows considering the Ravens already had depth at inside linebacker and needs at a number of other positions, but he’s been as good as advertised and has the potential to be a dynamic defensive player in the years to come.

10. The Ravens will make the playoffs with a 9-7 record as a wild card, but they will exit in the first round.

The Ravens will move into the top half of the offensive rankings in 2014, but the defense will slide from last season’s 12th overall spot with an aging front seven and a shaky secondary. This adds up to only modest improvement from 2013 when Baltimore finished 8-8 and fell short of the postseason. Cincinnati will prevail in the AFC North with a 10-6 record, but the overall mediocrity of the AFC will leave the door open for the Ravens to finish 3-1 in the month of December and grab one of the two wild-card spots before bowing out in the first round of the playoffs to Indianapolis.

Bonus Super Bowl XLIX prediction no one asked for: New Orleans will beat Denver in a 30-24 final.

A defense that continues to improve under coordinator Rob Ryan will offset last year’s road struggles and put Drew Brees and the Saints in position to win their second Super Bowl title in the last six years while Peyton Manning and the Broncos fall short on the NFL’s biggest stage for the second straight year.

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Keeping eye on Orioles bullpen in September

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Keeping eye on Orioles bullpen in September

Posted on 05 September 2014 by Luke Jones

There’s little to be concerned about with the Orioles enjoying a 9 1/2 game lead in the American League East entering the weekend, but the late innings of Thursday’s 9-7 win over the Cincinnati Reds suggest there might be something worth monitoring in the short-term future.

The Orioles bullpen has been stellar all season, ranking fourth in the AL with a 3.21 ERA, but there have been a few leaks over the last week that likely grabbed the attention of manager Buck Showalter. Baltimore relievers only rank sixth in the AL in innings pitched, which doesn’t indicate overuse being a major concern, but witnessing Brian Matusz and the newly-recalled Evan Meek warm up in the eighth inning of a two-run game Thursday — the night after Miguel Gonzalez had pitched a complete-game shutout to give the entire bullpen a night off — made it clear that Showalter didn’t have his full array of arms.

Left-handed reliever Andrew Miller is currently dealing with a tweaked hamstring and hasn’t pitched since Monday when he allowed two hits and an earned run while retiring only two batters. The former Boston reliever has downplayed the significance of his injury, but it’s clear the Orioles manager was trying to avoid using him this week.

Outstanding right-hander Darren O’Day not warming up after Tommy Hunter allowed a leadoff double in the eighth inning Thursday makes you wonder if he might be dealing with a physical challenge as well. O’Day did throw 26 pitches in a rare poor appearance Tuesday when he allowed a grand slam to Jay Bruce, but the submarine-style pitcher only seeing one appearance since Saturday is a little unusual.

Right-hander Brad Brach has been one of the better stories of the 2014 season, but the 28-year-old has allowed five earned runs, nine hits, and three walks in his last three innings of work spanning five appearances. His four runs allowed Thursday allowed the Reds to come back from what was originally a 6-0 deficit in the first inning to force a 7-7 tie in the seventh.

And even though closer Zach Britton continues to do remarkable work in the ninth, he ranks eighth in the majors in innings pitched by relievers and recently completed a stretch in which he appeared in five games in seven days. The former starting pitcher is used to a heavy volume of work, but pitching so frequently is a difficult adjustment for someone in his first season pitching in relief.

By no means should these factors instill any sense of panic, but they do provide evidence for Showalter to make use of his September bullpen that currently features 11 pitchers. The manager has already said he won’t change his managerial style before the Orioles potentially clinch their first division title since 1997, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to lighten the load for the key members of his bullpen such as Britton, O’Day, and Miller while passing a few more opportunities toward the likes of Hunter, Matusz, Ryan Webb, T.J.McFarland, and even veteran Joe Saunders.

It’s a careful balancing act as relievers need regular work to remain sharp, but there’s no question that Showalter will want to do everything he can to ensure that his late-inning weapons are as close to full strength as they can be in October.

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Ravens list Webb as questionable for Sunday’s season opener

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Ravens list Webb as questionable for Sunday’s season opener

Posted on 05 September 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens listed starting cornerback Lardarius Webb as questionable on their final injury report ahead of Sunday’s season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium.

The sixth-year defensive back practiced fully all week after missing five weeks of summer practice due to back spasms first sustained on July 25. Webb is expected by most to play against the Bengals’ explosive passing attack, but it remains to be seen how effective or limited he might be after missing all of training camp.

For players such as Webb and veteran tight end Owen Daniels who missed significant practice time last month, this week was an encouraging development as all 53 players participated fully. Running back Bernard Pierce was the only other player listed and is probable after being cleared from the concussion sustained in the third preseason game against Washington.

“This week is valuable for all the players. They all have done a great job,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “I don’t care where you’re at as a player, you need to prepare. And [Webb and Daniels] prepared like everybody else. Everybody is at their own spot in terms of what they need to do to get ready to play.”

Meanwhile, the Bengals ruled out starting wide receiver Marvin Jones (foot) at the start of the week and listed rookie cornerback Darqueze Dennard (hip) as questionable for Sunday. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict (hamstring) and tight end Tyler Eifert (shoulder) were listed as probable.

Here’s the final injury report of the week:

BALTIMORE
QUESTIONABLE: CB Lardarius Webb (back)
PROBABLE: RB Bernard Pierce (concussion)

CINCINNATI
OUT: RB Rex Burkhead (knee), WR Marvin Jones (foot)
DOUBTFUL: LB Sean Porter (hamstring), WR James Wright (concussion)
QUESTIONABLE: CB Darqueze Dennard (hip)
PROBABLE: LB Vontaze Burfict (hamstring), TE Tyler Eifert (shoulder), RB Cedric Peerman (hip), G/C Mike Pollak (knee), T Andre Smith (concussion)

 

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Ravens out to prove they’re not spinning their wheels in 2014

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Ravens out to prove they’re not spinning their wheels in 2014

Posted on 05 September 2014 by Luke Jones

Figuring out what to make of the Ravens isn’t easy as they open the 2014 season against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday afternoon.

Coming off their first non-playoff season of the John Harbaugh era, the Ravens have expressed confidence that 2013 was an aberration as significant roster turnover and injuries not only derailed their chances of repeating as Super Bowl champions but led to an 8-8 season that left them sitting at home in January.

The optimists will point to the Ravens playing in a league-high nine games decided by three or fewer points and suggest they easily could have made the playoffs had they done a smidgen better than their 5-4 mark in those contests. But the critics will say that record could have been a game or two worse while reminding that the Ravens allowed 32 more points than they produced a year ago and were outscored by 51 in their final two games in which they had the opportunity to lock up a playoff berth.

After six weeks of summer practice and a 4-0 record in the preseason, it’s easy to say this year will be different until you tee it off for real as the Ravens will against the defending AFC North champions at M&T Bank Stadium. In reality, there is plenty of unknown on each side of the football.

“It’s kind of like the first hit in a game or of training camp when you come back,” Harbaugh said. “There’s anxiety and excitement, but there’s anxiety until you get that first hit, and as soon as you get the first hit, the game is on and you’re playing. It’s a little bit like that with the opener.”

Yes, even with the opportunity to play in front of their home crowd to begin their 19th season in Baltimore, the Ravens face a major challenge in taking on the Bengals, who are viewed by many as the most talented team in the division despite an underwhelming offseason and the departure of offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. Playing three straight division games to start the year gives the Ravens the opportunity to take early control of the AFC North, but it could also leave them with an immediate uphill climb if they’re slow to answer the regular-season bell.

Needless to say, the objective of the offseason was fixing the league’s 29th-ranked offense that averaged a league-worst 3.1 yards per carry and just 20.0 points per game. The hiring of coordinator Gary Kubiak and the acquisitions of five-time Pro Bowl receiver Steve Smith, veteran center Jeremy Zuttah, and tight end Owen Daniels don’t exactly make it a bold statement to suggest the offense will be better.

How much improvement we see will begin and end with an offensive line that was an utter disaster a year ago. Injured and undersized on the interior, the Ravens were manhandled at the point of attack and struggled to protect quarterback Joe Flacco. The revamped group paved the way for a successful running game in limited opportunities in the preseason but still showed too many leaks in pass protection, meaning the jury’s still out on offensive line coach Juan Castillo’s group. Guards Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele and left tackle Eugene Monroe are expected to be anchors, but how well Zuttah and second-year right tackle Rick Wagner hold up against talented fronts like Cincinnati’s will be a more telling test.

Smith and Daniels give Flacco more weapons in the passing game, but age is a legitimate variable in determining how much of an impact they’ll make. The 35-year-old Smith quelled some concerns with an outstanding summer, but it remains to be seen whether he will be able to bring that same impact over the course of 16 weeks. Meanwhile, Daniels didn’t exactly look like a difference-maker this summer before a hamstring injury sidelined him for two weeks, making you question whether Dennis Pitta will have much help behind him at the tight end position.

Kubiak’s arrival signals a clear return to the Ravens’ long-held commitment to run the football, but his variation of the West Coast offense should empower Flacco to make quicker decisions to neutralize potential issues with pass protection. Even if the offensive line is able to open running lanes for Bernard Pierce and the currently-suspended Ray Rice, the Ravens will ultimately go as far as their franchise quarterback will take them in what’s intended to be a more balanced offense.

“I don’t know how to describe it, but I think the biggest thing for us is to be good at doing the little things,” Flacco said. “The base things in this offense and coming up with little things to throw defenses off here and there. But I don’t know how to describe it. I don’t know if versatile is the word, or what not, but I can tell you that I feel very comfortable in it. I think all of our guys feel very comfortable running it.”

Will there be early-season growing pains with a new system predicated on quicker passes and good timing? Historically, those aren’t the types of routes with which Flacco has been particularly effective as he’s often been criticized for not getting rid of the football quickly enough. The Ravens are confident that Smith can at least provide another third-down option to go along with the dependable Pitta.

Yes, the offense will be improved, but how much better will it be in relation to last year’s incredibly low standard? Will they simply manage to crack the top 20, or will the Ravens find themselves in the top third of the league?

“It’s time to go find out. I wouldn’t say we’ve held anything back,” said Kubiak of his offense’s preparation for the regular season. “They’ve handled things really well, so we continue to progress forward as far as the load in what we give them. Obviously, you’re trying to put them all in position to do what they do best, but we’re starting against a great group — a team that was a Top 5 defensive team last year. We have a big, big challenge this weekend, but that’s part of this league.”

Even if you’re buying what Kubiak and the offense are selling, the bigger concern might exist on the opposite side of the ball even though the Ravens ranked 12th in total defense last season. The overall numbers were respectable, but the pass rush declined in the second half of the season and two significant pieces departed in the offseason with defensive tackle Arthur Jones and No. 3 cornerback Corey Graham finding new homes in free agency.

The front seven hopes the infusion of second-year nose tackle Brandon Williams and 2014 first-round linebacker C.J. Mosley will pay dividends — both were impressive during the preseason — but the other five starting members of that group (Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs, Chris Canty, Daryl Smith, and Elvis Dumervil) are all 30 or older. That’s not to say those core members of the defense won’t make significant contributions in 2014, but it’s easy to see some correlation with age and the defense’s fourth-quarter struggles and disappointing finish a year ago.

Of particular importance will be the pass-rushing duo of Suggs and Dumervil, who combined for 19 1/2 sacks in 2013 but collected only two in the final seven games. With a secondary that was hampered by injuries during training camp and is just now back on the practice field, the Ravens need to put heat on quarterback Andy Dalton to keep wide receiver A.J. Green and the Bengals’ other pass-catching threats from shaking free in the event of rust or miscommunication on the back end of the defense.

“The sense of urgency, it never changes if you’re a true front seven,” Suggs said. “They’re the defending division champions, and [Dalton] has shown that he can lead his team. If we already didn’t have a sense of urgency, then we’re hustling backwards, we’re not prepared to play. It didn’t heighten just because we had some guys out [during] camp.”

Yes, the Ravens finally appear healthy in the secondary as cornerbacks Lardarius Webb, Jimmy Smith, and Asa Jackson are now practicing at full strength, but the extended absence of Webb remains a concern as defensive coordinator Dean Pees was unable to determine which nickel alignment would work best for his defense this summer. Webb is better suited to defend the slot in the nickel package, but Jackson is also more of an inside corner and the other outside options — Chykie Brown and the newly-signed Derek Cox — don’t inspire confidence. In this pass-happy era of the NFL, it’s not a comforting feeling to be without a known commodity at the No. 3 cornerback spot.

Though injuries didn’t necessarily plague the safety position, it’s unclear whether the tandem of 2013 first-round pick Matt Elam and newcomer Darian Stewart are even as effective as Elam and former strong safety James Ihedigbo were a year ago, let alone whether they’ll be more dynamic. Neither played particularly well in the preseason as the Ravens hope Elam playing closer to the line of scrimmage will allow him to utilize the skill set that made him a standout at the University of Florida. It only appears to be a matter of time before third-round pick Terrence Brooks supplants Stewart at free safety, but it’s an awful lot to ask a rookie to handle that position with Baltimore’s sophisticated coverages.

Beyond the healthy tandem of Smith and Webb, the secondary appears vulnerable and could be in serious trouble if the front seven can’t make quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket.

In sizing up the Ravens entering the 2014 season, it’s fair to wonder whether they will find themselves spinning their wheels with an improved offense but a defense in apparent danger of taking a step or two in the wrong direction.

Perhaps the biggest cause for optimism is the current state of the AFC North with the Bengals not taking the necessary offseason steps to become a true Super Bowl contender, the Steelers appearing to be in a state between good and bad, and the Browns still being, well, the Browns. Barring key injuries, there’s no reason to believe the Ravens won’t be in contention for the division title along with Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, but there are too many unknowns to give them a distinct edge beyond the natural optimism existing in most cities around the NFL entering Week 1.

History suggests you don’t count out the Harbaugh-led Ravens, but it will be fascinating to see how the coach and his team respond after their first failure as it relates to making the postseason. For now, the Ravens are saying all the right things about their outlook.

“I like our team a lot. I would go so far to say I love our team,” Harbaugh said. “I love the way they work. I love the way they treat one another. I love the way they bleed with one another. I believe in this football team. There’s no question in my mind that this team is destined for some very special things. But now you have to do it.”

Sunday will be the Ravens’ initial chance to begin proving it to those who aren’t convinced.

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Orioles extend player development contracts with five affiliates

Posted on 04 September 2014 by WNST Staff

PRESS RELEASE

The Orioles announced Thursday that they have extended the working agreements with five minor league affiliates.

The club signed four-year agreements through the 2018 season with Triple-A Norfolk, Double-A Bowie, and Class-A Frederick and two-year agreements through the 2016 season with Class-A Delmarva and Short-Season Class-A Aberdeen.

“We have been very pleased with our arrangements with these clubs over the years and look forward to continuing those relationships,” said vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette. “We have a unique situation with our affiliates being so close to Baltimore, and it is important to us to maintain good relationships in those areas and allow our fans an opportunity to see the Orioles’ stars of tomorrow in their own backyard.”

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No changes to Ravens’ injury report on Thursday

Posted on 04 September 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — While questions remain over how prepared the Ravens secondary will be in the season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals, uncertainty about its healthy has dissipated as all 53 players on the active roster practiced fully for the second straight day.

Cornerback Lardarius Webb (back) and running back Bernard Pierce (concussion) were the only Ravens players listed on Thursday’s injury report, as was the case the previous day. Baltimore is hoping Webb’s experiencing entering his sixth NFL season will offset the five weeks of missed practice time due to back spasms first suffered on July 25.

Meanwhile, the Bengals are dealing with many more injury concerns after wide receiver Marvin Jones and running back Rex Burkhead were already ruled out for Sunday’s game earlier this week. The left side of the Cincinnati offensive line was sidelined Thursday, but tackle Andrew Whitworth and left guard Clint Boling were simply given a veteran day off, according to the Bengals’ report.

Linebacker Vontaze Burfict was limited in Thursday’s practice due to the heat after recently getting over a hamstring issue. Rookie cornerback Darqueze Dennard has been limited two straight days because of a hip injury.

Prior to Thursday’s practice, the Ravens announced they re-signed veteran linebacker Josh Bynes to their practice squad and released rookie defensive tackle A.J. Pataiali’i. Bynes cleared waivers on Wednesday and was eligible for the practice squad because of changes made by the NFL for the 2014 season.

Under the new 10-man practice squad rules, each team may sign a maximum of two players with no more than two accrued seasons. Previously, if a player had an accrued NFL season by being on the 53-roster for more than six games, he was ineligible for the practice squad unless he was on the active game-day roster for fewer than nine contests. Bynes has only accrued two full NFL seasons, making him eligible despite the fact that he appeared in 25 games for the Ravens over the last two seasons.

Here is Thursday’s injury report:

BALTIMORE
FULL PARTICIPATION: RB Bernard Pierce (concussion), CB Lardarius Webb (back)

CINCINNATI
OUT: RB Max Burkhead (knee), WR Marvin Jones (foot)
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Sean Porter (hamstring), WR James Wright (concussion), G Clint Boling (non-injury related – veteran day), T Andrew Whitworth (non-injury related – veteran day)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: LB Vontaze Burfict (heat-related), CB Darqueze Dennard (hip)
FULL PARTICIPATION: G/C Mike Pollak (knee), TE Tyler Eifert (shoulder), RB Cedric Peerman (hip), OT Andre Smith (concussion)

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