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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens spent time throughout the offseason preparing to stop the read option after the offensive attack took the league by storm during the 2012 season.
According to defensive coordinator Dean Pees, the Ravens spent every other day during organized team activities and training camp completing a read-option period during practices to prepare themselves for matchups like Sunday when they travel to Buffalo to take on rookie quarterback EJ Manuel and standout running back C.J. Spiller. Under new head coach Doug Marrone, the Bills’ have used the read option at points during their first three games, giving the Ravens their first look at the wide-open rushing attack since facing San Francisco in Super Bowl XLVII last February.
“You enjoy a challenge. If you’re a football player, you don’t want the same thing every week,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “You want a little different [offense], and we love that we get the opportunity again to play against one of these up-and-coming quarterbacks [and] dual threat like EJ Manuel. It’s going to be a challenge.”
The Bills’ version of the read option appears to be working well on the surface with their rushing attack ranked fifth in the NFL, but the transition has been a work in progress as Manuel and Spiller haven’t always made proper reads and the offensive line’s blocking has been suspect. Of particular concern is Spilller, who is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry after averaging an astonishing 6.0 yards per rushing attempt a year ago.
Fortunately for Buffalo, backup Fred Jackson has picked up the slack by running for 169 yards on 32 carries, making him another dangerous weapon to watch for when the Bills try to run the read option. Patience and following one’s assignment is the key to slowing the novelty offense that hasn’t found the same success this season around the league as it did last year.
“Have good eyes,” said Pees, who credited mobile backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor for giving the Ravens a good look in practices. “That’s the No. 1 thing. When you’re playing any kind of option team, when you start looking at things you shouldn’t look at, that’s when you get beat. If I’ve got the quarterback, my eyes have got to be on the quarterback. It’s a little bit like in coverage. Most of the time when a guy gets beat in coverage, it’s because of the eyes.”
Manuel was sacked an astonishing eight times in the Bills’ loss to the Jets last Sunday, so the Ravens will be licking their chops to make life miserable for the rookie quarterback. However, pocket containment will be vitally important as Manuel is a bigger threat to take off and run compared to the three starting quarterbacks the Ravens have faced so far this season.
The Florida State product has carried 13 times for 76 yards in three games, but the Ravens rank sixth in the league with 11 sacks.
“You just definitely have to make sure we can contain him every time,” linebacker Daryl Smith said. “If whoever is coming off the edge, whether it’s an end or linebacker, if they take the inside move, the quarterback definitely can escape and has the speed to get out and get the first down or do whatever he wants to do. We’ve been talking about it this week and definitely have a plan to make sure we always have edges on the defense.”
Looking for improvement from McKinnie
After appearing to be laboring during Wednesday’s practice, left tackle Bryant McKinnie appeared more active and mobile a day later as the Ravens hope to see improvement from the 34-year-old veteran.
The entire offensive line has struggled to block in the running game — an area that’s never been McKinnie’s biggest strength — but the left tackle has struggled in pass protection the last two weeks and was flagged for two facemask penalties in the first half of the win over the Texans.
“There’s always a work in progress in that area, and I think he’s working at it, trying to get better at what he does,” said offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, who emphasized a need for everyone — including him — to improve. “He’s a professional and he’s trying to improve every single day. [Run-game coordinator Juan Castillo] does a great job with those guys. They work and they work extremely hard. I think Juan is getting him to the point where he’s moving in the right direction.”
McKinnie’s three-year tenure in Baltimore has been bumpy to say the least as he didn’t start a game in the regular season last year and reported to training camp overweight this summer and was held out of the first day of practice for veterans.
Thompson in mix as kick returner
With Pro Bowl return specialist Jacoby Jones still sidelined with an MCL injury in his right knee and No. 3 running back Shaun Draughn dealing with a high ankle sprain, the Ravens could have a new face in the return game in Buffalo.
Wide receiver Deonte Thompson has practiced on a limited basis for two straight days and is listed as the Ravens’ backup kickoff returner behind Jones on the depth chart. In his rookie season, the speedy wideout served as the kick returner before a critical fumble against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 5.
“Deonte demonstrated a year ago that he has the skills to do that,” said Rosburg, referring to Thompson’s 25.9 yard per return average in 15 attempts. “He’s had success, too, and he understands it. He’d probably be pretty excited about that opportunity should it come his way.”
Should Draughn be inactive, the Ravens would likely turn to either Thompson or fellow wide receiver Tandon Doss, who returned a punt 82 yards for a touchdown last week.
Ravens glad Miles now on their side
Special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg smiled when asked about the acquisition of former Cincinnati safety Jeromy Miles off waivers earlier this week.
A rookie free agent from the University of Massachusetts in 2010, the fourth-year safety can play in all phases of special teams and would figure to play a prominent role considering rookie safety Brynden Trawick was active for all of the Ravens’ first three games. With Miles serving as a prominent special-teams player in the Bengals’ units, the Ravens were very familiar with him.
“We’ve had to block Jeromy Miles for the last few years,” Rosburg said. “We’ve had him blocking us the last few years. We’re excited he’s on our team doing those things for us, because he’s been a force in our division. We’re really happy he’s on our team.”