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From bad to worse: Ravens experience dark day in Denver

Posted on 14 September 2015 by Luke Jones

Sunday was a nightmare for the Ravens as they lost a winnable game in Denver before then learning they’d lost their defensive leader to a season-ending injury.

The embarrassment may have paled in comparison to their 49-27 loss in the 2013 opener against the Broncos, but the lingering effects could be worse for the Ravens this time around.

To be clear, it was only Week 1 and the Baltimore offense was facing one of the best defenses in the NFL from a season ago. There’s no diminishing the loss of six-time Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs on the field and in the locker room, but only a long-term injury to quarterback Joe Flacco would completely sink the Ravens’ championship hopes in a given season.

Still, those realities won’t make head coach John Harbaugh feel much better about what he saw Sunday as the Ravens failed to capitalize on a poor performance by future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning and the Broncos not scoring an offensive touchdown. In fact, the Baltimore offense was even worse in managing just 173 yards — 64 coming on the group’s final drive of the game — and six points in an inauspicious debut for new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman.

Reinforcing concerns about a lack of weapons in the passing game, no wide receiver or tight end registered more than two catches as running backs Justin Forsett and Kyle Juszczyk each made a team-high four receptions against a Broncos defense that applied relentless pressure in the pocket and tight coverage in the secondary. Ravens pass-catchers simply couldn’t get open with any level of consistency.

“We’ve got a lot to work on, obviously. We’re a lot better than that,” Flacco said. “That was a pretty poor showing, but you’ve got to keep your head on and move on quick. In this league, the next one comes up on top of you like that, so we’ve got to make sure we stay confident and bounce back as quick as possible.”

More frustrating — and unexpected — than the struggles of the young receivers and tight ends were the failures of the established commodities in the Baltimore offense.

The offensive line lost starting left tackle Eugene Monroe early and struggled to protect Flacco throughout the afternoon as tackles James Hurst and Rick Wagner couldn’t keep up with Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware coming off the edges. The Ravens also averaged just 3.2 yards per carry as running room was scarce for large stretches of Sunday’s game.

Leading 13-9 late in the third quarter, Flacco threw an awful interception returned for a touchdown by Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib. As badly as the offense was struggling to move the ball through three quarters, you were beginning to think the Ravens defense still have been able to hold on if the offense simply didn’t give the lead away. That’s exactly what Flacco did as he stared down Steve Smith and Talib undercut an inside route before returning it 51 yards for the go-ahead score.

For most of the day, Flacco was under duress and lacked open targets, but there was no excusing that ill-fated throw and he made poor throws at a few other points when he anticipated pressure in a relatively clean pocket.

Even after all those shortcomings and the otherwise-strong defense allowing a 11-minute drive that culminated with a Brandon McManus field goal with 2:55 remaining in the final quarter, the Ravens still had a chance as they scraped together their longest drive of the day to move to the Denver 16. It was the perfect time for Flacco to find Smith, his only proven playmaker.

And the five-time Pro Bowl receiver dropped the go-ahead touchdown, the football bouncing off his facemask with 42 seconds to go.

“We didn’t execute, in particular me on that last play in the corner,” said Smith, who added that second-year cornerback Bradley Roby did not tip the pass as some thought. “I’ve just got to make that play, and that really falls on me. If you’re a No. 1 receiver, you’ve got to make No. 1 plays and I didn’t.”

On the next play, Flacco threw a pass intended for Crockett Gillmore that was picked off by ex-Ravens safety Darian Stewart to end the comeback attempt. The throw probably could have been a touch higher and it would have been a superb catch by the second-year tight end, but it was one Todd Heap or Dennis Pitta probably would have made in the past.

To his credit, Gillmore said exactly what you’d like to hear from a young player and didn’t offer any excuses.

“They made a nice play on the ball. I’ve got to come down with that,” Gillmore said. “I was given the opportunity; I’ve just got to come up with the play. I’ve got to win the one-on-one part of it. The ball’s in the air, it’s got to be mine. There’s no other option.”

The Ravens may not play defensive units as good as Denver’s every week and you certainly expect the offensive line, Flacco, and Smith to bounce back from poor performances, but the loss illustrated how small the margin for error might be with an offense lacking any other playmakers in the passing game. The absence of first-round pick Breshad Perriman does hurt, but an offense so dependent on an unproven rookie has concerning issues.

Sunday’s loss was very reminiscent of the 2013 season when the Ravens failed to adequately replace veteran receiver Anquan Boldin, leaving Flacco with only Torrey Smith to trust. Two years later, the quarterback has a 36-year-old Steve Smith and a number of options behind him lacking speed and experience.

You could understand if the defense was frustrated after the game as Jimmy Smith provided the Ravens their only touchdown with an interception return at the start of the second half. Asked after the game what more the team could have done to win on Sunday, the fifth-year cornerback answered, “Score more points.”

Even if the remark was a spontaneous slip of the tongue and not meant as a sharp dig at the offense, times like these are when you lean on your veteran leadership to keep players united, making the loss of a seasoned veteran like Suggs sting more as the Ravens travel to California to prepare for a Week 2 game at Oakland. Perspective is needed after only one loss, but urgency is needed for Baltimore to avoid an 0-2 start before coming home next week.

The Ravens are a better offense and team than what they showed in the opener, but how much better is the question as they still face four of their next six games on the road.

“You win as a team, you lose as a team,” Harbaugh said. “We all know we can play better — to whatever degree it takes to win a football game. That’s what you strive to do, and that’s what we’ll keep fighting to do.”

No, the sky isn’t falling after a Week 1 loss and the injury to Suggs, but the early-season skies are darker than the Ravens would have preferred after months of hard work and anticipation.

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Ravens-Broncos: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 13 September 2015 by Luke Jones

Trying to win their first season opener since 2012, the Ravens are in Denver to take on Peyton Manning and the Broncos in Week 1 for the second time in three years.

Beginning an imposing stretch of five of the first seven games on the road, Baltimore is without a quartet of key players as defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (knee) and cornerback Rashaan Melvin (thigh) were deactivated after both were listed as doubtful on the the final injury report of the week. The Ravens offially ruled out rookie wide receiver Breshad Perriman (knee) and running back Lorenzo Taliaferro (knee) on Friday.

The absence of Jernigan means rookie Carl Davis will start at the 3-technique defensive tackle spot in the base defense. This will also impact the inside pass rush as Jernigan was effective getting after the quarterback in his rookie season.

The biggest surprise of the healthy inactives was rookie outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith, who was drafted to replace free-agent departure Pernell McPhee. This leaves the Ravens with only three outside linebackers active for Sunday’s game, but reserve inside linebacker Albert McClellan has experience playing both outside spots.

The Ravens will only have four cornerbacks active on Sunday with rookie Tray Walker backing up starters Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb and nickel corner Kyle Arrington. Reserve safeties Anthony Levine and Terrence Brooks are also capable of playing corner in a pinch.

The decision to deactivate Ryan Jensen leaves the Ravens with just two reserve offensive lineman against the Broncos — tackle James Hurst and interior lineman John Urschel.

These teams are meeting for the 11th time in the regular season are are tied 5-5 in the series. The Ravens are 2-0 against Denver in postseason history, but the Broncos have won the last two regular-season meetings with the most recent coming in 2013.

The forecast for Sunday afternoon’s game in Denver calls for sunny skies, temperatures up to 90 degrees, and winds up to 12 miles per hour, according to Weather.com.

Referee Gene Steratore and his crew will officiate Sunday’s game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

The Ravens will be wearing white jerseys with black pants while Denver will sport their orange home jerseys with white pants.

Here are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
LB Za’Darius Smith
DT Christo Bilukidi
OL Ryan Jensen
DT Timmy Jernigan
WR Breshad Perriman
CB Rashaan Melvin
RB Lorenzo Taliaferro

DENVER
QB Trevor Siemian
CB Curtis Marsh
CB Lorenzo Doss
LB Lerentee McCray
G Shelley Smith
TE Mitchell Henry
DE Kenny Anunike

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Ravens-Broncos: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 12 September 2015 by Luke Jones

Beginning their eighth season with head coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco leading the way, the Ravens once again have high expectations as they travel to Denver on Sunday.

Playing the Broncos in Week 1 for the second time in three years, Baltimore hopes to wipe out the memory of the 2013 opener in which Peyton Manning threw an NFL record-tying seven touchdown passes in a 49-27 loss. Of course, much has changed for both teams since then with players coming and going and former Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak taking over as head coach of the Broncos this season.

It’s time to go on record as the Ravens play Denver for the 11th time in the all-time regular-season series and each team owns five wins. Baltimore carries a 1-4 regular-season record in Denver, but Harbaugh’s team did win its only playoff game against the Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Ravens are 2-0 against Denver in their playoff history.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens open their 20th season and try to improve to 6-2 in season openers under Harbaugh …

1. Steve Smith catches a long touchdown pass to exploit former teammate Darian Stewart in coverage. Knowing how underwhelming the ex-Ravens safety was playing the deep ball in 2014, Baltimore would love to have rookie Breshad Perriman’s speed to stretch the field against the weak link in the Broncos secondary, but the first-round pick hasn’t even practiced since spraining his knee on July 30. The Ravens will try to go vertical using the 36-year-old Smith, who is still capable of using a double move to blow past his man and catch a long bomb from Flacco against the right coverage. He’ll do exactly that against Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib and Stewart will be late with over-the-top coverage.

2. Lardarius Webb will not be able to keep up with Emmanuel Sanders while Jimmy Smith does his best to lock down No. 1 wideout Demaryius Thomas on the opposite side. It’s fair enough to wonder what we’ll see from Smith coming off last October’s season-ending foot injury, but at least the 27-year-old was able to play in the preseason. Webb has practiced for the last couple weeks and Harbaugh said he looks like the “old” Webb after dealing with a hamstring injury in August, but you can only hope the coach meant a better version than what we witnessed a year ago. Webb has a lot to prove and Sanders was a 2014 Pro Bowl selection. He’ll be good for a touchdown catch and 85 receiving yards.

3. Terrell Suggs will collect two sacks and get the best of Denver rookie Ty Sambrailo off the edge, but pressure up the middle will be scarce. The 13th-year rush linebacker should be licking his chops going against the second-round pick, but the key to disrupting Manning is pressure up the middle, making the expected absence of Timmy Jernigan problematic. Last year, the Ravens used a combination of Pernell McPhee, Haloti Ngata, and Jernigan for their inside rush, but none of them will be on the field for Sunday’s game, putting a lot on rookie Za’Darius Smith and run-stopping nose tackle Brandon Williams. Broncos center Matt Paradis is inexperienced, but the Ravens won’t have enough to exploit him in passing situations, leaving space for Manning to get the ball away quickly.

4. Kamar Aiken and Marlon Brown will struggle to gain separation as the Broncos bring heat off the edges to disrupt Flacco’s timing. While Stewart might be a liability, the Broncos have a stout trio of cornerbacks in Talib, Harris, and the young Bradley Roby. Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips can use either Harris or Roby inside, which gives their defense the ability to show different looks in coverage. The Ravens have expressed confidence in Aiken as a starter, but I’m not convinced that he’s ready to be more than a No. 3 option, especially without a deep threat on the field. He and Brown will only combine for 50 receiving yards as the Broncos play tight man coverage and relentlessly try to bring outside linebackers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware off the edges.

5. The Denver defense will be the biggest factor as the Ravens offense struggles to move the ball consistently in a 26-16 loss to the Broncos. As much as Manning has dominated the pre-game conversation, Denver’s real strength is its defense with few weaknesses at any level. Baltimore will do a decent job establishing the run, but Flacco will be too dependent on Smith to make plays through the air, which will stall a couple promising drives. Ultimately, I see the Broncos taking a step back this season, but they’ll be too much to handle with a top 5-caliber defense and a healthy Manning early in the season. If this one were to be played later in the year, I’d like the Ravens’ chances a lot more, but Denver will score late to put a close one out of reach.

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Ravens rule out Taliaferro, Perriman; Jernigan doubtful for Sunday

Posted on 11 September 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Making final preparations for their Week 1 meeting with the Denver Broncos, the Ravens are unlikely to have four players available for Sunday’s season opener.

Baltimore has officially ruled out running back Lorenzo Taliaferro (knee) and wide receiver Breshad Perriman (knee) and declared defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (knee) and cornerback Rashaan Melvin (thigh) as doubtful to play against Denver.

After returning to practice on a limited basis Thursday, Jernigan expressed optimism that he might be able to play after hurting his knee in the third preseason game. The Ravens declaring him doubtful means he is estimated to only have a 25 percent chance of playing on Sunday.

Third-round rookie defensive tackle Carl Davis is expected to start if Jernigan cannot play.

“He’s a good rookie. He’s a big, strong guy. He has gotten better every week,” defensive corodinator Dean Pees said. “He takes coaching from [defensive line coach] Clarence Brooks every day, and Clarence is not easy on him. I love the kid. He’s going to make some rookie mistakes — they all do — but I really feel like this guy has come a long way just in the short amount of time that we’ve had him.”

Taliaferro and Melvin were limited participants in Friday’s practice. Taliaferro injured his right knee in the second preseason game against Philadelphia on Aug. 22, but he was running and working on his agility off to the side. His activity level suggested he may have a better chance to play in Week 2 than thought at the time of his injury.

Melvin did not appear to be doing much as he stood on the sideline during the special-teams portion of practice. The third-year cornerback hadn’t practiced since the third preseason game on Aug. 29 and dealt with a nagging hamstring issue for much of the summer.

With Melvin unlikely to play, the Ravens are projected to have only four healthy cornerbacks against the Broncos with one being rookie Tray Walker. Head coach John Harbaugh did not rule out the possibility of making a roster move before Sunday’s game and veteran cornerbacks Charles James and Asa Jackson are on the practice squad and have NFL experience.

Perriman was the only member of the 53-man roster not to participate in Friday’s workout. The 2015 first-round pick hasn’t practiced since spraining his knee six weeks ago. Defensive end Chris Canty and linebacker Daryl Smith both practiced fully on Friday and were listed as probable after receiving the previous day off.

The Broncos officially ruled out reserve defensive end Kenny Anunike (knee) and declared linebacker Lerentee McCray (groin) as questionable for Sunday’s game.

As they’ve done with their last two trips to Denver, the Ravens will not travel until Saturday afternoon as they subscribe to research suggesting that altitude doesn’t impact the body as dramatically in the first 24 hours of being in the new environment. In contrast, other teams have tried to travel to Denver a day or two early to try to get used to the thin air.

“We’ve done a lot of research on that, because we’ve been out there a few times,” Harbaugh said. “We have learned that the worst thing that you can do is go out two days before. That’s what the science tells us. You want to play, ideally, within 24 hours of your arrival in the altitude, and that’s what we’ll be doing with this trip. Then, it doesn’t affect you. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Of course, the on-field results in Denver have been mixed for the Ravens as they won a double-overtime playoff thriller in Denver at the end of the 2012 season and were blown out in a 49-27 final to open 2013.

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

The forecast in Denver calls for mostly sunny skies and temperatures in the high 80s with no chance of precipitation and winds up to 10 miles per hour, according to Weather.com.

Below is the final injury report for Sunday’s game:

BALTIMORE
OUT: WR Breshad Perriman (knee), RB Lorenzo Taliaferro (knee)
DOUBTFUL: DT Timmy Jernigan (knee), CB Rashaan Melvin (thigh)
PROBABLE: DE Chris Canty (non-injury), LB Daryl Smith (non-injury)

DENVER
OUT: DE Kenny Anunike (knee)
QUESTIONABLE: LB Lerentee McCray (groin)
PROBABLE: S Omar Bolden (rib cage), WR Andre Caldwell (illness), TE Mitchell Henry (finger), LB Brandon Marshall (foot)

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Ravens trying to erase memory of last trip to Denver

Posted on 10 September 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Everyone remembers what happened the last time the Ravens visited Denver two years ago as the defending Super Bowl champions to begin the 2013 season.

A franchise record for points allowed and an NFL record-tying seven touchdown passes thrown by Peyton Manning in a 49-27 demolition. Many forget that the Ravens actually led 17-14 at the half before the 30 minutes from hell that cornerback Jimmy Smith and many of his teammates say they’ve erased from their minds.

“My memories of the last one? I forgot; I’m a corner,” said Smith while smiling. “Let me really think about this. Is that the one he put up seven on us? I did forget about that. I did.”

Of course, much has changed on both sides as players have come and gone over the last two years. The Broncos have a new head coach in Gary Kubiak after he spent last season as Baltimore’s offensive coordinator.

Even Manning quipped this week that the 2013 season opener had “passed the statute of limitations” for discussion. The likes of Julius Thomas, Eric Decker, and Wes Welker may be gone, but the Broncos have two 2014 Pro Bowl receivers — Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders — and former Ravens tight end Owen Daniels to add to the mix.

And Manning’s mind is as dangerous as ever with two more years of experience under his belt since that last meeting.

“It’s a chess match out there. You give him one look, he’s going to check to a different play,” said veteran newcomer Kyle Arrington, who faced Manning many times while playing for the New England Patriots. “Shoot, it might be a dummy check. He might run the same play that he has called, and then our ‘quarterback’ on our defense, Daryl [Smith], is out there doing the same thing. It’s going to be a good matchup.”

After finishing 23rd in pass defense and enduring a slew of injuries in the secondary in 2014, the Ravens know their secondary will be under the microscope with Smith and Lardarius Webb coming back from injuries and a new safety duo in Will Hill and veteran newcomer Kendrick Lewis on the back end of the defense. General manager Ozzie Newsome also added depth at cornerback in the offseason with the free-agent signing of Arrington and the fourth-round selection of Tray Walker.

The group will face one of its toughest tests right off the bat, with Ravens holdovers hoping for a much better showing against Manning and the Broncos this time around.

“Obviously, [there’s] a lot of eyes on our group back there,” Smith said. “But we have a sense of urgency just to be that voice on defense as a unit — as a group. Going into this game, it’s a big game for us just to make sure all our communication is down and that in our first game, we actually look like the unit we want to be.”

There’s plenty of unknown on each side.

Is Smith fully recovered from a Lisfranc injury that short-circuited what was shaping up to be a Pro Bowl campaign last October? If so, is he ready to shadow the explosive Thomas all over the field?

Will Webb be ready to play at a high level after missing the entire preseason with a nagging hamstring injury, the latest ailment to plague him over these last few years? Can the combination of Hill and Lewis stop the revolving door we saw at the safety position a year ago?

The Broncos offense might be more of a mystery with Kubiak attempting to marry his West Coast offense with his future Hall of Fame quarterback’s strengths — and obvious limitations — at age 39. The offensive line features new ingredients and is without Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady after he suffered a season-ending knee injury in May.

The last time we saw Manning in a meaningful game, he looked old and was playing with a torn quadriceps in a home playoff defeat to Indianapolis. It was a performance that made nearly everyone wonder if one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history was washed up as he struggled to push the ball down the field to even a moderate degree.

But the Ravens aren’t buying into the idea that Manning is finished after watching him this preseason.

“He’s wearing No. 18. He’s patting the ball. He’s making checks,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s under center a little more than he has been in the past, but we don’t know what we’re going to get in terms of scheme. We’ve just have to anticipate and play our game and play the way we want to play. He looks as good as ever from the reps that I’ve seen.”

Even as he enters his 18th year in the NFL, Manning still carries an aura that can grab hold of a defense trying its best not to let him deliver the knockout blow. But that thinking could prove dangerous in Kubiak’s system that always employs a strong running game.

The Ravens hold the longest active streak in the NFL by not allowing a 100-yard rusher in 26 consecutive games. It’s a stat that was even mentioned by Manning in his conference call with the Baltimore media, making you wonder if Kubiak and Broncos offensive coordinator Rick Dennison will spread the Ravens out before trying to gash them in the running game.

Denver feels so good about its ground attack led by starter C.J. Anderson and backup Ronnie Hillman that 2013 second-round pick Montee Ball was cut over the weekend. The Ravens’ front seven will carry the burden of not only putting pressure on Manning but making sure the Broncos don’t run all over them on Sunday.

“It’s always going to be Gary’s offense,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “It’s always going to be Gary’s philosophy that they’re going to have a good running team. Even [if you] forget Gary, even back when the Colts had Manning and you think clear back to when he was in Indianapolis, they still could run the ball.”

The schedule-makers did the Ravens no favors with five of their first seven games coming on the road in 2015, and they’re likely to see Manning at his best from a physical standpoint on Sunday. With his well-documented neck surgeries and struggles playing in cold weather, there’s no disputing that teams have better odds against Manning later in the season. The Ravens exploited that reality when they won in Denver in a double-overtime thriller in the 2012 divisional round en route to their Super Bowl XLVII title.

Since signing with the Broncos in 2012, Manning has thrown 47 touchdowns and just six interceptions in 14 home games played in September and October compared to only 23 touchdowns and six interceptions in 10 regular-season home games played in the second half of seasons.

But the Ravens can’t dwell on the timing of the matchup. They have too much to prove in putting the memory of two years ago behind them as well as getting the 2015 season off on the right foot.

“He’s going to be dangerous. He’s still Peyton Manning, no matter what,” Smith said. “All the hoopla about him in December compared to September, obviously, it’s real. But that’s none of my concern. I know we’ve got him Week 1, and he’s going to be ready Week 1. That’s all of our concern.”

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Jan 3, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh (L) talks to Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (5) prior to the 2014 AFC Wild Card playoff football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

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Ravens need offensive stability to survive early-season peril

Posted on 09 September 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens and their fans have annually fed off a perceived lack of respect from prognosticators and pundits.

That’s what makes the start of the 2015 season — the Ravens’ 20th in Baltimore — so unique as more than one national media outlet has picked John Harbaugh’s team to win the Super Bowl. It’s not a position in which many players are used to being despite six trips to the playoffs over the last seven years.

“That’s the kiss of death to us,” veteran linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “You don’t want to start at the beginning of the season at the top. You want to finish the end of the season at the top. That really doesn’t mean anything to us.”

Many love how Baltimore looks on paper, but are things quite that rosy when you take a closer look at the roster? After twice holding a 14-point lead to New England in the divisional round last January, the Ravens are a chic Super Bowl pick to many, but they also lost a five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle, a starting wide receiver, a starting tight end, an impact pass rusher, and another offensive coordinator.

Yes, the puzzle pieces fell into place during the 2015 draft as the Ravens addressed virtually all of their positional needs on paper — there’s that phrase again — but how quickly will those young players be ready to make significant contributions, particularly on the offensive side of the ball? Relying on inexperienced players can be a dangerous proposition, especially when first-round rookie receiver Breshad Perriman missed all of training camp with a knee injury and is not expected to play in Sunday’s opener.

The preseason discussion centered around the upside of a passing game in transition, but Torrey Smith will be nowhere to be found and Owen Daniels will be lining up for the opposing side when eighth-year quarterback Joe Flacco and the Ravens take the field in Denver. Beyond the ageless Steve Smith, the Ravens don’t have a single receiver who made more than 24 catches a year ago and none of those options stand out as a vertical threat in Perriman’s absence. Their trio of young tight ends have a combined total of 10 catches in the NFL, which equals Dennis Pitta’s output in last year’s season opener.

No one can really know what to expect at the beginning of the season.

As if those realities weren’t unsettling enough, playing five of their first seven games on the road could mean a hell of a second-half climb to the postseason if the Ravens start slowly in 2015. Only six times in franchise history have the Ravens won more than four road games, but it will be critical for Harbaugh’s team to come out of those first seven with at least two victories away from M&T Bank Stadium to hold no worse than a 4-3 record.

The first two months won’t be easy, no matter how much you like the Ravens going into 2015.

“Who cares? Nobody cares. Nobody cares what our issues are,” said Harbaugh, citing how every team faces challenges with the schedule every year. “As a matter of fact, our opponents are looking and our enemies are looking very favorably upon our challenges, and they’re hoping that our challenges will bring us down. We have to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Even with a franchise quarterback they have every reason to trust, the Ravens will lean heavily on the play of their offensive line, the best unit they have on either side of the football. In addition to create running lanes for 2014 Pro Bowl running back Justin Forsett, the line will need to give Flacco — and his receivers and tight ends trying to create separation — plenty of time in the passing game.

More than any excitement about Perriman or second-year tight end Crockett Gillmore or any of the other young offensive players should be the continuity that the Ravens enjoy on their offensive line with all five starters and their top two reserves returning from last season. We saw in 2013 what happens to an offense with questionable playmakers when the offensive line doesn’t perform.

It wasn’t pretty.

Harbaugh can only hope the stability up front allows the Ravens to navigate the early-season peril while their young pass-catchers gain their bearings.

“I would always argue that football starts in the trenches,” Harbaugh said. “It probably ends with playmakers making plays to make the difference in the game, but if you’re not good upfront on both sides, it’s hard to overcome that. Your playmakers and your quarterback and your cover guys have to be so good, that it’s just hard to play that way. We’d always want to start and build our team inside-out.”

A strong offensive line will go a long way, but the questions will remain about the cast of young receivers and tight ends until they prove otherwise.

Drafted to replace Torrey Smith and to stretch the field, Perriman hasn’t shown the Ravens what he can do since spring workouts when the threat of contact wasn’t there. Kamar Aiken and Marlon Brown were nice complementary pieces in 2014, but are either ready to fill bigger shoes? Will Michael Campanaro stay healthy enough to contribute in the slot and can the 6-foot-6 Darren Waller become a much-needed threat inside the red zone?

The organization loves the potential of tight end Maxx Williams, but even the best tight ends in the NFL such as Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham didn’t break out in their rookie seasons.

The Ravens can only pray that Steve Smith fights off Father Time for a final season while Flacco develops the necessary rapport to win with the other options behind the 36-year-old wideout. If anything is certain, the Ravens should feel confident that their quarterback will help the young receivers and tight ends be as good as they can be.

It’s just unclear whether that will be good enough.

“We have guys that can do it, and it’s all about going out there and playing,” Flacco said. “That’s part of being in the NFL. Some guys are going to pop up, and you’re going to make players out of guys, and guys are going to prove that they are players. That’s just what it’s all about. It’s not about going out there and having a bunch of proven guys on your team who are all 38 years old.”

Harbaugh has reminded us on more than one occasion that Sunday is just the beginning of a long season.

The Ravens certainly look like a team that could be very dangerous in December and January, but that may not be enough in Week 1 against the Broncos, who have Super Bowl aspirations of their own. It won’t be easy on Sunday, just like it won’t be easy over the first several weeks of the season.

But Baltimore hopes it has enough offensive stability in the right places to come out of the stretch in position to make a strong second-half run.

“You put so much work into building up to the first game, the first regular season game,” Harbaugh said. “It seems like a pinnacle — it seems like an end — and you’re wondering what kind of a team you have, and you’re looking forward to seeing it. I know the fans are, and we are, too. Then, you sit back and you realize it’s just the first game. There’s going to be a whole journey after that, too, so this begins it.”

The Ravens hope that journey will end where many are predicting.

But there are plenty of questions that still need to be answered.

“You really don’t know. We can talk about how good we are all we want,” Flacco said. “That’s why I’m not really big on doing that. We have to go out there and play well.”

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Ravens trade Gradkowski to Denver for 2016 pick considerations

Posted on 01 April 2015 by Luke Jones

(Updated: 7:30 p.m.)

The Ravens have traded fourth-year center Gino Gradkowski to the Denver Broncos in a transaction that also involves 2016 draft pick considerations.

Though the specific draft choices were not disclosed by either team at the time of the announcement, the Ravens will receive the Broncos’ fourth-round pick in 2016 in exchange for Gradkowski and Baltimore’s fifth-round selection, owner Steve Bisciotti confirmed in a conference call with season-ticket holders Wednesday night.

Due to a performance escalator that raised the 2012 fourth-round pick’s base salary to $1.542 million for the 2015 season, Gradkowski was expected by many to be released to save salary cap space. Instead, general manager Ozzie Newsome clears cap room while improving a 2016 draft pick.

Gradkowski had fallen behind starting center Jeremy Zuttah and 2014 fifth-round choice John Urschel on the depth chart, making the trade a good opportunity for the University of Delaware product. He started 16 games at center for the Ravens during the 2013 season, but his struggles were a significant reason why Baltimore rushed for a league-worst 3.1 yards per carry and missed the playoffs that year.

In 2014, Gradkowski appeared in only eight games and took only 10 offensive snaps all season.

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Veteran tight end Daniels follows Kubiak to Denver

Posted on 10 March 2015 by Luke Jones

Former Ravens tight end Owen Daniels will reunite again with Gary Kubiak again after agreeing to a three-year contract with the Denver Broncos on Tuesday.

The 32-year-old veteran followed Kubiak to Baltimore last year after they had spent eight years together in Houston and will now catch passes from future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning. The deal is worth a total of $12 million, according to The Denver Post.

Daniels’ departure leaves the Ravens lacking at the tight end position with their only healthy options with experience on the current roster being 2014 third-round pick Crockett Gillmore and former practice-squad member Phillip Supernaw. The status of Dennis Pitta has yet to be determined for the 2015 season after he suffered a second serious hip injury in 14 months last September, but the Ravens cannot count on his availability.

In 15 games last season, Daniels caught 48 passes for 527 yards and four touchdowns while serving as a reliable option for quarterback Joe Flacco. Head coach John Harbaugh expressed hope last month that Daniels would return to the Ravens.

“We’ve talked to Owen, and Owen says he wants to come back,” Harbaugh said. “I’m sure that he and his agent will talk about what’s best for them financially, and every other way, but he’s very interested in coming back here.”

Of course, with the Ravens’ limited salary cap space and Daniels’ history with Kubiak, Broncos offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, and Broncos tight end coach Brian Pariani, Denver was the natural landing spot for the two-time Pro Bowl selection.

The Ravens will see Daniels in 2015 as they visit Denver during the regular season.

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Kubiak clears air on his departure from Baltimore

Posted on 20 January 2015 by Luke Jones

Former Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak was introduced as the head coach of the Denver Broncos Tuesday, but took a few moments explaining his change of heart from a week ago.

After issuing a statement on Jan. 11 about his intentions to remain with the Ravens in 2015, Kubiak confirmed that the Broncos position becoming available was the only job for which he’d change his mind.

“This is a game changer. It’s as simple as that,” Kubiak said during his introductory press conference in Denver. “Those are the same words I used to coach [John] Harbaugh when we talked. This is where I got my start. This is home for me. This means so much to me.”

The overwhelming response from the Ravens to Kubiak leaving is one that lacks any animosity as the front office, staff, and players recognized his prior 20 years spent with the Broncos as a player and assistant coach. Harbaugh wasted little time finding Kubiak’s replacement by hiring former Chicago Bears head coach Marc Trestman on Tuesday afternoon.

Kubiak began his press conference on Tuesday by thanking the Ravens for the chance to return to his roots as a coordinator after a disappointing end to his eight-year run as the head coach of the Houston Texans.

“First off, I want to thank the Baltimore Ravens,” Kubiak said. “That was extremely important to me. It’s been a heck of year for [me], and without that organization giving me an opportunity about this time last year, I probably wouldn’t be here today. I really want to thank Steve [Bisciotti], Ozzie [Newsome], John, the players, and the organization.”

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Gase interviews for Ravens offensive coordinator job

Posted on 19 January 2015 by Luke Jones

The Ravens wasted little time in officially beginning the process to replace offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak by interviewing Denver assistant Adam Gase Monday night.

Serving as the Broncos offensive coordinator in each of the last two years, Gase traveled to Baltimore to meet with head coach John Harbaugh before the Ravens staff traveled to Arizona to coach the Pro Bowl this week. Though interest has been lukewarm for Gase in trying to become a head coach this offseason, Jacksonville and several other teams have courted the 36-year-old to become their offensive coordinator.

Gase has come highly recommended by Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning as he helped orchestrate the NFL’s top-ranked offense in 2013 and No. 4 unit in 2014. However, some have questioned how much of Gase’s success should be attributed to working with a Hall of Fame quarterback who has essentially run his own offense in Denver.

After spending time as an offensive assistant with the Detroit Lions and San Francisco 49ers, Gase was hired by then-coach Josh McDaniels to join the Broncos staff in 2009 and was retained by John Fox when he was hired in 2011. As a quarterbacks coach, Gase was credited for getting enough production out of quarterback Tim Tebow to get the Broncos to the playoffs in 2011 before Manning arrived on the scene the following year.

The hiring of Gase would likely bring a shift in offensive philosophy as he is known for an up-tempo, pass-happy style that differs from Kubiak’s West Coast offense that worked so well in Baltimore this past season. However, Gase adapted to a more run-oriented attack in the second half of 2014 when Manning struggled through the final weeks of the season with a quadriceps injury, leading you to believe his system can be more balanced.

A certain amount of mystery remains over how successful Gase can be as an offensive coordinator without Manning — or his many offensive weapons in Denver — but his credentials are impressive for someone who didn’t even play college football, let alone compete in the NFL. He began his coaching career as an undergraduate at Michigan State helping out coach Nick Saban, who then took Gase with him to Louisiana State as a graduate and recruiting assistant. Given general manager Ozzie Newsome’s relationship with the current Alabama coach, you can assume the Ravens have done their homework on a man regarded as one of the finest young offensive minds in the NFL.

Should the Ravens decide Gase is the right choice to replace Kubiak, they may need to move quickly given the interest he’s drawn from other teams and the high number of offensive coordinator jobs that remain unfilled around the league.

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