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Ravens defense passes first test facing familiar problem

Posted on 09 October 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Jimmy Smith’s 47-yard fumble return for a touchdown in Sunday’s 30-17 win over Oakland came at a price for the Ravens.

The veteran cornerback felt his tender Achilles tendon flare up toward the end of the run, putting the defense in an all-too-familiar position as he played just four defensive snaps in third-down situations the rest of the way. But unlike past instances when the secondary all but collapsed without its best talent on the field, the Ravens persevered to hold Raiders quarterback EJ Manuel to 159 yards and a single touchdown pass for the game.

Perhaps it would have played out differently had two-time Pro Bowl selection Derek Carr been under center, but the Ravens passed their first test in the exact situation for which they’d prepared this offseason. It’s unknown whether the lack of drop-off in Smith’s absence will prompt the Ravens to sit him down for some period of time in hopes of his Achilles improving for the second half of the season.

“We just have guys that we can play. We are very good with the guys that we have,” Harbaugh said. “We want Jimmy out there. He is a topnotch corner. I think he is one of the best corners in football. I am a big Jimmy Smith fan.”

But the organization also knows injuries have plagued the talented defensive back throughout his career. It was just last year when the Ravens went 2-5 in games in which Smith missed significant time, a major reason why they missed the postseason for the third time in four seasons.

General manager Ozzie Newsome addressed that reality by signing free-agent veteran Brandon Carr and drafting Marlon Humphrey in the first round, the first time he’d taken a cornerback on the opening day of the draft since picking Smith in 2011. And while Humphrey’s selection with the 16th overall pick raised a few eyebrows with the roster having more pressing needs, the Alabama product again looked the part in Week 5 as he frequently faced Raiders wide receiver Michael Crabtree.

The Oakland veteran entered Sunday having produced four touchdown receptions and 199 receiving yards in his last two contests against the Ravens, but Humphrey mostly held his own playing man-to-man coverage. Crabtree’s 41-yard touchdown grab in the second quarter came against Carr in coverage after Manuel escaped the pocket to extend the play. The No. 1 receiver finished with six catches for 82 yards overall.

“Crabtree is pretty special. We have had some experience with him, haven’t we, in Baltimore?” Harbaugh said. “He is a great one. Marlon didn’t back down. Marlon is confident. They got him on the three-stop nines or hitch [routes], if you want to call them that, versus press. Marlon played him a certain way. That was really the plan.

“Hindsight being 20-20, I think we might have played that with a little different technique than we did and helped Marlon out a little bit. Those are great learning experiences.”

Not only is Humphrey continuing to learn on the job, but he’s affording the Ravens the luxury of being able to rest their top corner without the fear of a collapse coming.

Injury report grows

Smith wasn’t the only injury concern emerging on Sunday as running back Terrance West (left calf), right guard Matt Skura (knee), and defensive tackle Carl Davis (hamstring) left the game and didn’t return.

On Monday, Harbaugh deferred to an NFL Network report indicating West would not be a long-term absence, but he didn’t offer any details on a timeline for his return or about a contingency plan at running back. Buck Allen and Alex Collins are the only healthy running backs currently on the roster, meaning Baltimore will likely look to add depth in the short term.

“We have to see if we can execute it right now in terms of what we’re going to do, who we’re going to look at,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll just wait until we know. I don’t want to start putting the plans out there until we know if we can pull it off.”

According to The Sun, Skura could miss two to four weeks with a medial collateral ligament sprain in his knee. That means rookie Jermaine Eluemunor will likely be the next man up at the position, and the offensive line will need to adjust to another starting combination.

“It just doesn’t matter,” Harbaugh said. “It is not something we think about. It is not something we quantify. We don’t waste any energy thinking about that. You just go and get ready for the next game.”

Monday night scouting

Harbaugh and the Ravens had the rare opportunity to scout their next two opponents — Chicago and Minnesota — by merely turning on ESPN’s Monday Night Football.

Rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky was making his first NFL start for the Bears and is expected to start his first road contest at M&T Bank Stadium this Sunday.

“Normally on these Monday nights, I get home maybe at halftime and decide if I want to stay awake or not. Usually the answer is no,” said Harbaugh as he laughed. “Sometimes if it’s an AFC North team, you have to do it, or the Patriots or somebody like that.

“But this game we’ll be watching. I will get home in time to watch this one.”

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Ravens offensive line shuffle continues during Sunday’s practice

Posted on 13 August 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens continue to shuffle their offensive line as they count down to their second preseason game at Miami later this week.

Two days after the organization announced second-year left guard Alex Lewis would undergo season-ending shoulder surgery, starting left tackle Ronnie Stanley was absent from practice. It’s unclear why Stanley wasn’t practicing after working without any visible issue Saturday morning, but recently-converted left guard James Hurst moved out to left tackle during the workout.

With designs of improving the running game after below-average production the last two seasons, the Ravens have lost three key interior linemen — Lewis, injured fourth-round rookie Nico Siragusa, and the retired John Urschel — since the start of training camp. During Sunday’s practice, Hurst, Matt Skura, Ryan Jensen, Marshal Yanda, and Austin Howard lined up from left to right as the first-team offensive line.

Stanley wasn’t the only notable new absence on Sunday as veteran wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and rookie outside linebacker Tyus Bowser were also missing. Head coach John Harbaugh did not speak to reporters after practice to potentially provide any clarity on their status.

Quarterback Joe Flacco (back), wide receivers Breshad Perriman (hamstring) and Kenny Bell (hamstring), offensive tackle Stephane Nembot (undisclosed), cornerbacks Brandon Boykin (undisclosed) and Maurice Canady (knee), and inside linebacker Lamar Louis were also absent from Sunday’s practice.

Rookie offensive lineman Jermaine Eluemunor left the field in the first half of Sunday’s session and didn’t return, adding even more concern to a decimated offensive line. Safety Eric Weddle also exited practice in the final 20 minutes, but it did not appear to be a serious issue.

Rookie wide receiver Quincy Adeboyejo appeared to tweak his knee while making a sliding catch during a 7-on-7 passing drill, but he remained on the field for the duration of practice.

The highlight of the day occurred during 1-on-1 battles between the offensive line group and front-7 personnel with the former surprisingly getting the better of Baltimore’s younger defensive linemen and linebackers. The period concluded with an intense battle between Jensen and outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith. The center was flagged as he threw Smith to the ground, which touched off a pileup of multiple players. Cooler heads quickly prevailed as the fight turned more playful than nasty in nature and nose tackle Michael Pierce provided the comic relief by throwing a penalty flag up in the air.

During a red-zone session, veteran cornerback Brandon Carr picked off a Ryan Mallett pass intended for tight end Nick Boyle, a turnover that likely would have resulted in a touchdown going the other way.

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Revamped Ravens defense better live up to expectations

Posted on 29 April 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens stayed true to their board, but that doesn’t change reality after going defense with their first four picks of the 2017 draft.

This is an unbalanced roster with the heaviest lifting of the offseason now in the books. Yes, general manager Ozzie Newsome reminded us again Saturday that the Ravens aren’t done building this year’s team, but there are only so many viable free agents still out there to move the meter in any meaningful way. Right now, Baltimore has a below-average offense that’s going to be difficult to improve dramatically without some substantial improvement from players already on the roster.

The Ravens may still add Nick Mangold or bring back Anquan Boldin, but there’s a reason why they’re still out there. They’re not “Plan A” guys anymore.

Of the seven Ravens players selected in the first three rounds over the last two drafts, just one — left tackle Ronnie Stanley — was an offensive player. It’s difficult to improve on that side of the ball if you’re not spending free-agent dollars or investing early draft picks, which will make life more difficult for quarterback Joe Flacco and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg as they will likely lean on unproven talent at wide receiver and on the offensive line.

Asked about the state of his offense after the first wave of free agency last month that included lucrative contracts for nose tackle Brandon Williams and safety Tony Jefferson and another deal for cornerback Brandon Carr, Newsome fairly pointed to the draft as the way to build the rest of the roster. But the Ravens came away with fourth-round guard prospect Nico Siragusa and fifth-round developmental right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor as their only picks for that side of the ball.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the Ravens should have reached to draft offensive players purely out of need as they did appear to get good value with their picks, but the 2017 draft being so rich in defensive talent was a reason why the offense should have been a bigger focus in free agency. The outcome is an offense that’s lost a starting wide receiver, a starting right tackle, a starting center, and a Pro Bowl fullback and has netted only 32-year-old running back Danny Woodhead and two Day 3 offensive linemen.

Which side of the ball had its coordinator fired again last year?

Like it or not, the Ravens prioritized building a great defense above anything else this offseason. The unit collapsed down the stretch in 2016, but the primary cause of that was the absence of No. 1 cornerback Jimmy Smith as John Harbaugh’s team went 2-5 in games in which he missed meaningful time.

When Smith was on the field, the Ravens had a strong defense despite an underwhelming pass rush. And even with the resources used in both free agency and the draft to revamp the secondary and the pass rush, Smith’s availability remains arguably the biggest key for defensive success.

On paper, the Ravens defense does look better than the 2016 edition, but it will need to be great — possibly even special — to justify the use of so many resources and to make up for an offense with a ton of question marks. Taking that kind of a leap is no sure thing, especially in the modern NFL that is geared toward offense.

Will some combination of the pass-rushing group of Matt Judon, Za’Darius Smith, Tyus Bowser, and Tim Williams be ready to step up with Terrell Suggs set to turn 35 in October and Elvis Dumervil no longer on the roster? Is first-round rookie cornerback Marlon Humphrey going to be ready to play at a high level if Smith goes down again for some period of time? Can Kamalei Correa hold down the inside linebacker spot vacated by the retired Zach Orr? Will defensive coordinator Dean Pees use so many new pieces effectively and maximize their versatility?

The excitement for the defense is understandable with so much youth and potential at every level, but remember there isn’t a 25-year-old Ray Lewis leading this group before waxing nostalgic about replicating the 2000 Ravens. Even if we’re looking for a more contemporary comparison — it’s a different game than it was nearly two decades ago — the 2015 Denver Broncos had a generational talent in Von Miller and two 1,000-yard receivers on the other side of the ball.

A winning blueprint leaning so heavily on defense is very difficult to execute.

But it’s where the Ravens find themselves after free agency and the draft.

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Carr’s reliability made him easy choice for Ravens

Posted on 21 March 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — You can hardly blame the Ravens for being drawn to cornerback Brandon Carr.

After starting no fewer than four different players at cornerback in each of the last three seasons — including a whopping seven in 2014 — the Ravens needed more dependability at a position high in demand and limited in quality. The 30-year-old Carr may not have lived up to the high expectations that accompanied a $50 million contract with Dallas five years ago, but he’s been a reliable cornerback who’s started all 16 games in each of his nine NFL seasons.

Carr needs to show he can still play at a high level in 2017, but just being there means more than you might think for a team that’s started the likes of Rashaan Melvin and Shareece Wright in meaningful games over the last few years. Perhaps that’s why the Ravens signed Carr over former Dallas teammate Morris Claiborne, a talented former first-round pick who’s missed more than 40 percent of games in his career.

“There were different guys that had different histories,” said head coach John Harbaugh about the durability of others on the free-agent market. “You know you cannot do any better than Brandon has done. There’s a reason for that. Sure, luck comes into it and you do knock on wood and laugh about those kind of things.”

That durability is something the Ravens hope will continue with No. 1 cornerback Jimmy Smith missing 22 games over his six-year career and most of last December when their once-mighty defense fell apart. Some drop-off is inevitable whenever a team loses one of its best players, but performance can’t fall off a cliff in the way the Baltimore defense’s did at the end of last season without addressing the problem.

The Ravens feel confident about the trio of Smith, Carr, and 2016 fourth-round pick Tavon Young to go along with starting safeties Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson, but Harbaugh said they will continue to look for more secondary depth with this year’s draft deep in cornerback talent.

How has Carr been able to stay on the field at a position involving so much lateral movement and speed?

“I do not even know how I do it myself with the injuries that I won’t even talk about,” said Carr, who cited his work with outside trainers and his focus on nutrition as factors that have kept him healthy. “I just keep playing through them. Sometimes it is just the luck of the draw, and sometimes it is just being stupid and playing through whatever is going on.

“Alongside of that, my preparation throughout the offseason taking care of my body [and] just keeping a balance in my life with family, friends, football, and my faith. I just try to stay on top of injuries.”

Holding the longest active streak for consecutive games (144) started by a cornerback, Carr isn’t guaranteed to continue being an iron man who’s never missed a game as he turns 31 in May. But the Ravens figured they would take their chances.

“I think the biggest indicator of future behavior and success is past behavior and success,” Harbaugh said. “He has proven that already.”

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Ravens add veteran cornerback Brandon Carr to secondary

Posted on 16 March 2017 by Luke Jones

Having stated the goal of improving their secondary this offseason, the Ravens have made their second significant addition to that group by agreeing to a four-year deal with cornerback Brandon Carr.

The former Dallas Cowboy and Kansas City Chief has started every game of his nine-year career and has never missed a contest, a level of durability that the Ravens likely value after countless injuries in the secondary in recent years. The six-foot, 210-pound cornerback will turn 31 in May and is likely to serve as an outside corner opposite Jimmy Smith with Tavon Young defending the slot in the nickel package.

According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Carr will be signing a one-year contract with a subsequent options that could make the deal worth $24 million over four seasons. Such a structure makes sense when signing a player entering his 10th year in the NFL.

The 2008 fifth-round pick out of Grand Valley State collected 61 tackles, one interception, and nine pass breakups for the Cowboys last season. He has intercepted 15 passes in his career.

“This is a good football player,” general manager Ozzie Newsome said in a statement released by the team. “We got better today.”

The move comes after the Ravens had shown interest in Carr’s former teammate, Morris Claiborne, who agreed to terms with the New York Jets on Thursday. A disappointing former first-round pick from LSU, the 27-year-old Claiborne appeared to finally put it together from a performance standpoint last season, but he has never been able to stay healthy and has missed 33 games in five professional seasons. Claiborne is four years younger and has a higher ceiling, but Carr has the higher floor with his dependability over the years.

Carr was graded by Pro Football Focus as the 51st-best cornerback in the NFL and ranked 44th in Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 system last season. He’s never made the Pro Bowl in his long career, but Carr had the reputation for being a great teammate and a solid player in Dallas.

With his signing, the Ravens continue to make defense their top priority this offseason after signing Arizona safety Tony Jefferson to a four-year, $34 million contract and re-signing nose tackle Brandon Williams to a five-year, $52.5 million deal last week.

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