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First-round pick Smith ready to shine against San Diego receivers

Posted on 15 December 2011 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — His first NFL season hasn’t gone exactly to plan, but cornerback Jimmy Smith is ready to prove to everyone why the Ravens used their 27th overall pick to select him in April’s draft.

With Lardarius Webb suffering from a turf toe injury and unlikely to play against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday night, Smith is in line to receive his first assignment as a starting cornerback. And a challenging one it will be as a pair of 6-foot-5 receivers, Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd, will try to get the best of Smith and Cary Williams.

However, at 6-foot-2, Smith is better-equipped to go up against taller receivers than most cornerbacks in the NFL. Not only are Jackson and Floyd challenges in terms of height, but their speed is deceptive, according to Smith.

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“These are really big dudes,” Smith said. “I’m considered a big corner, so these dudes have to be considered huge as far as receivers. They can run as well. When you watch them on film, they’re big and they can move pretty well.”

With Smith injuring his ankle early in the season opener against Pittsburgh, his development was stunted after a six-week layoff forcing him to miss four games. While the Colorado product needed time to re-adjust to the speed of the NFL, his preparation in meetings and watching films kept him sharp mentally as his ankle healed in the first half of the season.

That mental preparation has enabled Smith to begin playing at a higher level in recent weeks, as he’s intercepted two passes while playing at cornerback in the Ravens’ nickel package on third down and other passing situations.

“You can see how fast he’s coming back and now the plays that he’s starting to make,” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “That’s only going to continue to go up. From a schematics standpoint, he’s not out there thinking about what his job is anymore. He understands, he knows what to do, and now he’s being able to diagnose and recognize formations and down-and-distance and things like that and just be able to go out and play and make plays.”

From the first day he arrived at the team’s practice facility in Owings Mills after the Ravens selected him in the first round of April’s draft, Smith hasn’t lacked confidence and feels comfortable if called upon to step in for Webb’s starting spot on the defense. He’ll need that swagger matching up against two of the biggest receivers in the NFL.

“I feel confident, I always feel confident,” Smith said. “A corner with no confidence is a corner who’s getting beat. I feel very confident that I can step in and do a good job.”

Pagano Bowl?

Though it lacks the luster of the much-anticipated Harbaugh Bowl that took place on Thanksgiving night, the Ravens defensive coordinator will meet his younger brother John Pagano on Sunday night. John is the linebackers coach for the Chargers as the two will meet on opposite sides for the eighth time.

“We don’t talk this week,” the Baltimore coordinator said. “One text after [last] Sunday’s game — ‘Good job’ — and then we kind of shut it down and then wait till the game’s over and then we visit.”

However, the elder Pagano is looking to improve his lifetime record against his younger brother, who had the upper hand when Pagano was an assistant with the Oakland Raiders and Cleveland Browns before joining the Baltimore staff in 2008. The younger brother is the longest-tenured assistant on the San Diego coaching staff after 10 years with the organization.

“I’m 1-6 [against my brother], so the first six were JV teams that we took in there,” Chuck said. “I took a varsity team (the Ravens) there in 2009 and won. We’re taking a varsity team out there again. So, I’m 1-6 against him. It’s always fun to do it, but when that ball’s kicked off, it’s football, so you forget all about that stuff.”

Backfield awareness

The Ravens lead the NFL with 45 sacks, and they’ll try to collect a few more against San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers on Sunday night. However, the manner in which they go about doing it will have to be carefully designed.

Running backs Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert have combined for 90 catches and 790 yards this season as the Chargers will try to discourage the Ravens from blitzing heavily by releasing their backs in open space. Baltimore will need to create pressure with its front four on passing situations to avoid the problems created by the duo of running backs.

“When we do pressure, if we do pressure them, we have to do a great job of making sure we know exactly where they are, because they will free-release them,” Pagano said. “They will get [the running back] out in a heartbeat, so they are not afraid to do that.”

When asked about the Chargers’ tendency to get the ball to their running backs in the passing game, Pagano said it’s no different than quarterback Joe Flacco finding Ray Rice in open space as vertical threats such as Torrey Smith and Lee Evans stretch the field.

“What you see from our offense, it’s the same thing,” Pagano said. “It’s the same exact offense. That’s why people have to do such a great job with handling Ray Rice. They are throwing balls vertically down the field, and everybody is dropping in coverage. Then, you dump it off to him in space.”

Weddle waiting

Flacco will have to deal with the NFL’s seventh-best pass defense in San Diego that is led by fifth-year safety Eric Weddle.

A second-round pick in the 2007 draft out of Utah, Weddle is tied for the league lead in interceptions with seven this season.

“He’s smart, he’s tough,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. “Everybody that watched him coming out of college, you can see why they traded up to get him. He kind of quarterbacks the defense and is having a solid year.”

Punt return problem

With Webb’s status remaining unknown, not only will the Ravens be lacking a starting cornerback but also an impact player in the return game.

After Webb returned a punt 68 yards for a touchdown two weeks ago in Cleveland, the Ravens must now scramble to potentially find a replacement for the third-year cornerback. The most likely candidate would be veteran defensive back Chris Carr, who has handled those duties in the past, and rookie wide receiver LaQuan Williams.

“We really don’t know yet,” special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg. “Honestly, we have to wait and see how he’s going to be on Sunday, and we’ll make a decision on Sunday.”

The use of Williams at the punt return spot would be a welcome change for the Maryland product after being inactive the last two weeks. The Baltimore native had played in the Ravens’ first 11 games before finding himself on the sidelines against Cleveland and Indianapolis.

“We have high hopes for LaQuan; I think he’s got a very bright future here,” Rosburg said. “I think that as we go forward the rest of the season, his practice reps have been good, and he’s going to be a very good special teams player, I think. The Ravens have a lot of plans for LaQuan.”

Visit the BuyAToyota.com Audio Vault right here to hear more from Chuck Pagano, Cam Cameron, Jerry Rosburg, and Haloti Ngata, who was named to USA Football’s All-Fundamentals Team for the third straight year.

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Ravens hope to avoid losing formula against underwhelming Browns offense

Posted on 02 December 2011 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — There’s no big secret to beating the Baltimore Ravens despite how difficult it might be to actually carry out the plan.

Create turnovers, build an early lead, and control the tempo with the running game to wear down the defense and keep the offense on the sideline.

The Jaguars did it when they built a 9-0 lead behind a dominating defensive effort and rode the back of Maurice Jones-Drew in the second half to a 12-7 victory in October.

Three turnovers gave Seattle a 22-7 lead early in the second half as Marshawn Lynch’s 109 yards on 32 carries wore out the Baltimore defense, and the Seahawks controlled the ball for the final six minutes of the fourth quarter in a 22-17 final. The rushing totals by each team were eerily similar: 42 carries for 132 yards by Jacksonville and 42 carries for 119 yards by Seattle.

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The Cleveland Browns will try to find a similar formula to hand the Ravens their fourth loss to a sub-.500 team this season and put a dent in their goal for the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage in the AFC. They fit the same profile with an offense that won’t strike fear in anyone. Cleveland ranks 28th in total offense and averages just 15.0 points per game this season.

Colt McCoy is more game manager and less quarterback in his second NFL season, as Browns head coach Pat Shurmur preaches efficiency and high-percentage pass plays for the second-round pick who starred at Texas. Though clearly a bigger threat than Blaine Gabbert, who the Jaguars won in spite of in their meeting with the Ravens, McCoy isn’t going to strike fear into Ravens defenders’ hearts.

“You look at the breakdown, there’s a bunch of [third-and-short situations],” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “He’s doing a great job managing the game. They’re making it simple for him. He’s getting the ball out, simple reads, and then he’s athletic and he’s scrambling.

In fairness, McCoy doesn’t exactly have a plethora of weapons to which to throw, with his leading receiver being rookie Greg Little, a second-round pick from North Carolina, who caught his first career touchdown against the Bengals last Sunday. He also soiled the day with four big drops in the Browns’ 23-20 loss in Cincinnati.

Much like their meetings with Jacksonville and Seattle, the Ravens won’t be facing a prolific offense that can light up the scoreboard. However, if the sixth-ranked Cleveland defense can force turnovers and set up the offense on a short field to score some early points, the Browns might be well-equipped to copy the second-half strategy used by the Jaguars and Seahawks.

Big, bruising running back Peyton Hillis is finally healthy and can wear down a defense in the same way Jones-Drew and Lynch were able to do in the Ravens’ last two losses. If the Ravens fall behind early in Cleveland on Sunday, they can expect plenty of Hillis, who’s rushed for only 276 yards on 79 carries this year after off-season accolades that included being on the cover of the Madden NFL 12 video game.

“I think I can make a huge difference,” Hillis said. “Including last game, I’ve only played [five] games all year, so I haven’t been out there too much, but I feel like when I get out there I can produce and help the team win.”

Of course, Hillis’ breakout performance came against the Ravens last season when he rushed for 144 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries in a 24-17 loss in Baltimore. The big day put the 250-pound back on the map and put the Ravens on notice that Hillis was no one to take lightly.

After an injury-riddled season in which he’s dealt with a hamstring injury and even a bout of strep throat, Hillis might be the great equalizer should the Browns be able to build an early lead against the Ravens on Sunday.

“He’s a downhill guy, so it’s a huge challenge,” Pagano said. “I think our guys fully understand and they know what they’re up against. They’ve got a good offensive line, and they’re blocking well. We’ve got respect for them. We understand what style of game he plays.”

With Hillis unavailable for most of the season, the Browns rank 29th in run offense with backup Montario Hardesty unable to stay healthy and previous unknown Chris Ogbonnaya receiving a bulk of the carries. But a healthy Hillis might just be enough to move the chains and keep the Browns in control if the Ravens shoot themselves in the foot as they did in their previous losses.

If the Ravens are their own worst enemy for a third straight time on the road against a team with a losing record, Hillis just might turn in a performance reminiscent of what he did in Baltimore last season.

“That was the first time we played them last season,” defensive end Cory Redding said. “It was early in the year. We played them later on in the year, and we stopped him. And, we put that behind us. Of course, you will go back and look at those games and see what hurt us – this, that and the other – just to get refreshed about how he runs and the blocking schemes, all that kind of stuff. But, for the most part, this is a new day and a new era. [He is] the same guy, same team, and you just go out there and do it one more time.”

The Ravens are hoping for a new day, indeed.

One that involves them taking care of an inferior opponent in the way they’re expected to.

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Ravens musings for Week 13

Posted on 29 November 2011 by Luke Jones

As the Ravens prepare to return to the practice field after a much-needed layoff following two games in a five-day period and ahead of a AFC North matchup in Cleveland on Sunday, here are five thoughts to ponder …

1. The Ravens will face another sub-.500 team on the road this Sunday, but this one has a different feel than their previous failures in Jacksonville and Seattle. The question has already been asked and will continue to be tossed at coaches and players as the Ravens prepare to face the Browns: Can Baltimore beat a team it’s supposed to beat on the road? The Ravens will say all the right things in Owings Mills this week, but actions speak louder than words after a 1-3 road record against teams with losing marks this season. The Ravens are more familiar with the Browns than they were the Jaguars and Seahawks since they play them twice a year in the AFC North. Baltimore has annual first-hand experience with the difficulty of playing — and winning — games in Cleveland. New head coach Pat Shurmur will have some new wrinkles for the Ravens, but the personnel remains similar as the Browns will try to run the ball with Peyton Hillis and force Joe Flacco into making mistakes against the top-ranked pass defense in the NFL. Perhaps the most significant difference between this game and the Ravens’ past troubles on the road is the run defense they’ll be facing. Cleveland is 29th against the run while Jacksonville and Seattle were far more formidable in stopping a ground attack. With no room for error in the strongly-contested AFC, it’s hard to imagine the Ravens laying another egg on the road against an inferior team. Then again, I said the same thing about their game in Jacksonville. And in Seattle.

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2. With five games remaining in the regular season, Ray Lewis would be wise to heed any medical advice he receives regarding his injured toe. The 36-year-old linebacker desperately wants to return to the field, and no one can question his tolerance for pain over the course of his 16 seasons in the NFL. But if the Ravens learned anything from their two victories over playoff-caliber teams in five days last week, it should be that they’re capable of winning football games without their defensive leader. As soon as Lewis is as close to 100 percent as he can possibly get with the toe, he’ll make his return to the field, even if it’s against Cleveland on Sunday or winless Indianapolis next week. There’s no such thing as simply holding him out for “better” opponents as some like to suggest. However, with the Ravens receiving such strong play from Jameel McClain and having competent backups in Dannell Ellerbe, Brendon Ayanbadejo, and Albert McClellan, there’s no need for Lewis to return to the field before his injured toe is ready. At some point, Lewis may need to force the issue and play at much less than 100 percent, but it might as well come in January and not against the likes of four straight opponents with sub-.500 records. By no means will I diminish Lewis’ impact on the defense and the team in general, but if the Ravens fall to the likes of the Browns or the Colts, Lewis’ potential absence won’t be the primary reason why.

3. The return of Lee Evans’ opens up more possibilities in the vertical passing game, but offensive coordinator Cam Cameron shouldn’t shy away from using two tight ends in the process. The veteran receiver saw his workload increase against the 49ers as Evans even replaced rookie Torrey Smith on a couple occasions in two-receiver sets, and the Ravens intend to use him more and more as he proves to be fully healthy. Cameron and quarterback Joe Flacco are licking their chops at the thought of Evans and Smith lining up on opposite sides as two deep threats on the outside, but the Ravens shouldn’t forget the success they’ve had in using tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta on the field at the same time. Linebackers can’t cover them while cornerbacks and many safeties can’t handle their size. The increased role for Evans would logically cut into Pitta’s opportunities, which is a slippery slope given the rapport he’s developed with Flacco, especially on third down as we saw once again against the 49ers.

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Gloomy prognosis for Ray Lewis and injured toe for Sunday

Posted on 17 November 2011 by Luke Jones

(Updated: 6:00 a.m.)

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — As the Ravens inch closer to an AFC North showdown with the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, doubts began to grow surrounding linebacker Ray Lewis, who was absent from practice for the second straight day on Thursday.

Reports late Thursday night indicated Lewis will miss Sunday’s game and possibly more after suffering a toe injury in the loss to the Seattle Seahawks last Sunday.

Lewis saw a specialist in Florida on Thursday, according to a report from the Carroll County Times.

Listed on the injury report with a foot injury, Lewis did not appear to be favoring anything as he walked to the podium to meet reporters on Wednesday afternoon. The injury could prevent Lewis from playing on Sunday afternoon and a second missed practice in as many days cultivated concern after he struggled in last Sunday’s loss to the Seahawks.

The 16-year linebacker has not missed a game since sitting out the final two games of the 2007 season with a hand injury. The 36-year-old has made 57 straight starts for the Ravens.

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Defensive tackle Arthur Jones (concussion) and running back Anthony Allen (hamstring) were also missing from practice for the second straight day. Wide receiver Lee Evans was practicing again, the fifth straight workout in which he’s participated.

Kick returner search

The Ravens conducted their search for a new kickoff returner on Thursday and confirmed that incumbent David Reed will not be back there on Sunday. The news was hardly surprised after Reed fumbled two kickoffs and was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct in the 22-17 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

Special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg would not rule out Reed as a future consideration for the job, but the Ravens believe the second-year receiver needs to prove he can take care of the football before they put him back deep again.

“He’s looking forward for the next opportunity,” Rosburg said. “Now, we don’t know when that is, and I’m certain when he does get in there again, everybody’s going to be watching him with that in mind. David’s a competitive guy, and he understands what he’s got to do to get that job back. He’s got to earn the trust of everybody on this football team that he’s going to hang onto the ball when he gets it.”

Rosburg said the Ravens will consider every possibility in finding a new returner. Candidates include Lardarius Webb, LaQuan Williams, Torrey Smith, Tandon Doss, Chris Carr, and Tom Zbikowski. Webb is listed as the backup kick returner — behind Reed — on the team’s most recent depth chart while the rookie Williams is listed as the third-string return man.

“We’re going to have a good kickoff return practice, and we’re going to find out who our kickoff returner is going to be for Sunday,” Rosburg said.

Head coach John Harbaugh said on Monday he believes Webb to be the best kick returner on the team, but his current roles as a starting cornerback and the punt returner may cause the Ravens to look elsewhere. However, they could elect to slide Webb to the kick return spot and to use Carr as the punt returner.

First-round pick ready

With rookie Jimmy Smith now having four games under his belt since returning from an ankle injury last month, many have been asking when the first-round pick can expect to see an increase role on the defense.

Since Webb and Cary Williams have played so well in starting roles, the Baltimore defense hasn’t forced the issue with Smith’s development, allowing him to readjust to the speed of the NFL after a six-week layoff. However, with Carr struggling at the nickelback position on Sunday — allowing a critical 24-yard completion to Seattle receiver Golden Tate on the final drive of the game — the Ravens may be ready to expand Smith’s role. The Colorado product saw limited reps in the dime package against the Seahawks.

“He’ll see a considerable amount of time,” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano. “We’ve got to get him out there and get him going. He’s ready.”

Though not really suited to play inside at the nickel position, the Ravens could elect to slide Webb inside to the nickel spot, allowing Smith to line up on the outside.

Evans fitting into game plan

Optimism continues to grow around Evans, who took part in his fifth straight practice on Thursday afternoon.

Evans’ imminent return — whether it’s this week or soon thereafter — has sparked plenty of debate on where he will fit within the offense. Though the rookie Smith has displayed late-game heroics, his inconsistent hands have also hurt the Baltimore offense at critical points throughout the season.

After being acquired in a trade with the Buffalo Bills after the first preseason game in August, Evans appeared to be developing quite a rapport with quarterback Joe Flacco in a short amount of time prior to being stricken with the ankle injury. With Evans missing so much time on the field, it remains to be seen what kind of effect it will have on his comfort level with Flacco.

“That doesn’t really affect Joe a lot,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. “He’s one of those unique guys that if a guy can get open, he can hit him whether he’s been with him for a week or a month. It’s really going to be predicated in how he practices. He probably needs a week or two of good practice. I think that will help.”

The improved play of Smith as well as the Ravens’ increasing reliance on tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta appears to have bought some time for Evans to work his way back into the flow of the offense, but his addition would provide a major boost in the final stretch of the regular season.

“Some of our other guys are playing really well, and we’ve got some other options until he comes back,” Cameron said. “We’ll see how the practices go, if he’s practicing at a level that [Harbaugh] feels and we feel he can help us win a game, then I’m sure he’ll be active. That may take a week or two.”

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Ravens looking to turn page against struggling Cardinals

Posted on 28 October 2011 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Contrary to popular belief, the Ravens aren’t wallowing in misery following a nightmarish performance in Jacksonville with fallout that’s lingered deep into the week on internet message boards and talk radio.

While the cliches about moving on and putting the loss behind them have been tossed around like cornhole bags flying through the Ravens locker room, Monday’s loss won’t officially be put behind them until they take the turf at M&T Bank Stadium against the struggling Arizona Cardinals. For a Ravens offense that needed nearly 40 minutes to collect its first first down of the night in Jacksonville, Arizona’s 26th-ranked defense is the right prescription to begin feeling good about itself again.

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“To be honest, it’s tough not to think about [a loss] a little bit all week until you go out there and beat the next opponent,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “It’s always in the back of your mind a little bit. But, I think good teams put it past them and do the best they can to go out there and forget about it very quickly.”

The Ravens have done a good job of that over the last two seasons, having won nine straight games that followed a loss. Baltimore is 12-4 in games following a loss in the four-year tenure of John Harbaugh.

Of course, a five-game losing streak for the Cardinals helps the matter and could very well help the Ravens offense get back on track after such a poor showing against the Jaguars. Averaging just under 33 points per game in their three home contests, the Ravens will meet an Arizona defense in transition while adjusting to new coordinator — and former Pittsburgh defensive backs coach — Ray Horton’s 3-4 scheme.

The Cardinals have two former Steelers, a currently-injured Joey Porter and Clark Haggans, at outside linebacker, but they lack the overall personnel to strongly remind anyone of the imposing Pittsburgh defenses with which Horton previously worked.

“[Horton] really has done a great job, considering no offseason, to get that package in, having two outside linebackers that have been in the system and some things,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. “You guys will see it. You are going to see a good defense, and you are going to see that looks [similar] — personnel obviously different — but schemes are almost identical.”

Offensively, the Cardinals haven’t been much better, which doesn’t speak well for their chances traveling east to M&T Bank Stadium where the Ravens have allowed just 38 points in three games. However, the Cardinals possess one of the best receivers in the NFL in Larry Fitzgerald, who will pose the biggest challenge to Baltimore’s young cornerbacks through the first seven games of the season.

“We have to bring our A-game,” cornerback Lardarius Webb said. “We have to have eyes on him all the time. He’s Larry Fitzgerald. That explains a lot.”

So, how do the Ravens go about covering the five-time Pro Bowl wideout?

“Make sure, No. 1, you know where he’s lined up at all times,” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “Don’t cover the decoys; cover the guys they’re throwing to. And they’re probably going to be throwing to him a lot. You’ve got to be smart. You’ve got to study extra tape on him. You’ve seen the tape. I mean, he’ll go up — and we could have three guys on him — and he’ll go up and pluck the ball out of the air.”

As has been the case all season, the biggest key to stopping a passing attack will be to pressure the quarterback, something the Ravens have been able to do all season by collecting 19 sacks in their first six games. In contrast, Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb has been sacked 18 times this season, a major reason why he’s struggled at the start of his career in Arizona.

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Pagano says rookie CB Smith "starting over" after injury layoff

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Pagano says rookie CB Smith “starting over” after injury layoff

Posted on 21 October 2011 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The return of cornerback Jimmy Smith to the practice field on Thursday was a welcome sight for the Ravens after selecting the rookie with the 27th overall pick in April’s draft.

However, those expecting Smith to step right into the lineup and replace Lardarius Webb or Cary Williams as one of the starting cornerbacks might be setting unrealistic expectations. After injuring his left ankle early in the first quarter against Pittsburgh in the regular-season opener on Sept. 11, the progress Smith had made during the preseason in adjusting to the speed of the game has been stunted after a five-week layoff.

Smith appeared on his way to earning a starting position in the secondary early in the season before he was injured covering a kickoff in the first quarter against the Steelers.

“It’ll be tough again,” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano. “It’s like starting all over again with him. Throw him out there and see where he’s at and see how he continues to progress throughout the weekend and see Monday night where he’s at. He’ll be OK. He’ll do a good job.”

Smith practiced on a limited basis on Thursday, and conventional wisdom says the Ravens would prefer giving him more practice time before sending him back on the field in game action. The Jaguars’ passing offense is ranked last in the NFL with rookie Blaine Gabbert earning on-the-job experience.

However, Pagano was impressed with the Colorado product’s maturity in handling the high ankle sprain — the first significant injury of his athletic career — and preparation he spent on weekly opponents even though he knew he would be out for an extended period of time.

“The mental part of it, he did a great job,” Pagano said. “He was in every meeting taking notes and prepared as if he was going to play. He looks pretty good. Like anything, it’s like starting over; you’ve got to knock the rust off a little bit and trust the ankle that it is healed. Playing the position that he plays, there’s a lot of starting and stopping and those types of things. He looks good.”

With veteran Chris Carr joining Smith in returning to the practice field on Thursday, the Ravens finally appear to be getting healthy in the secondary after a plethora of early-season injuries. The ideal target for having both players ready to play without limitation would be two weeks from now, when the Ravens travel to Pittsburgh for a rematch with the Steelers on Nov. 6.

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Rookie quarterback Gabbert in Ravens' defensive crosshairs

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Rookie quarterback Gabbert in Ravens’ defensive crosshairs

Posted on 19 October 2011 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Not only will Jacksonville quarterback Blaine Gabbert find himself in the national spotlight of Monday night for the first time, but the vaunted Ravens defense will be staring at him across the line of scrimmage.

It’s the scariest of propositions for a rookie quarterback, comparable to being thrown into the lion’s den in ancient times.

And while Ravens defensive players weren’t exactly giving away bulletin board material on Wednesday, they have to be licking their chops going against Gabbert and the 32nd-ranked passing offense in the NFL. The Jaguars have scored just 72 points in six games this season, losing five straight after a season-opening win over Tennessee in which current backup Luke McCown received the start.

Gabbert has started the Jaguars’ last four games, throwing four touchdowns and two interceptions while completing only 48.8 percent of his passes after Jacksonville selected the former Missouri quarterback with the 10th overall pick in April’s draft. However, the Ravens say they won’t deviate from their usual game plan just because a rookie is under center.

“It’s not going to be any different for us [in terms of] preparation week-to-week,” safety Ed Reed said. “Yes, there can be some things that you cause some difficulties for any quarterback. You have to see how mature he is and how the guys around him are working also. It all plays a part.”

With the Jaguars struggling to move the ball through the air, they’ve relied even more on star running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who ranks third in the NFL in rushing (572 yards) and second in rushing attempts (118) this season.

The Ravens’ third-ranked rush defense knows the priority will be to stop the 5-foot-7 running back, who has rushed for 84 or more yards in each of the Jaguars’ six games this season. In fact, he is the only player in the league to accomplish that feat and ran for a season-high 122 yards at Carolina in Week 3.

“[He’s] as good a back as there is in the league,” linebacker Jarret Johnson said. “As good a back as I’ve ever played against, so he can make you look bad in a hurry. They’ve got a lot of weapons. They’ve got some young talent, so you can’t let them get started.”

However, the Ravens defense has faced the likes of Rashard Mendenhall, Chris Johnson, Steven Jackson, and, most recently, Arian Foster, who was held to just 49 yards on 15 carries in the 29-14 win over the Texans last Sunday. Baltimore’s third-ranked rush defense has turned away each one, with tackles Haloti Ngata and Terrence Cody forming a brick wall up front and Ray Lewis and the linebackers finishing plays for minimal gains.

If the Ravens continue the trend against the Jacksonville running game, Gabbert may find himself in even more trouble than he was last weekend in Pittsburgh when the Steelers sacked him five times. The Baltimore defense has held opposing quarterbacks to the league’s second-worst rating at 65.9 while Gabbert’s 71.1 is 31st among the NFL’s 33 qualified quarterbacks.

Stopping the run is the clear objective before the Ravens can start having fun at the rookie’s expense.

“Once you do that, then you can kind of pin your ears back and kind of mess with him a little bit,” defensive end Cory Redding said. “Disguise, give a little bit, take a little bit there, have him think we’re coming one way and go the other. Just do what we do — play football.”

It’s something the Ravens have been doing plenty of this season after collecting 15 sacks through their first five games, a sizable jump from the franchise-low 27 they amassed in 2010. A season after the defense came under fire for blowing nine fourth-quarter leads, including their heartbreaking divisional round loss in Pittsburgh, the Baltimore defense is stepping on the accelerator instead of pumping the brakes.

Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano has received plenty of credit for the improved pass rush, calling for a more aggressive game plan than his predecessor Greg Mattison, but Johnson has an additional theory to help explain the vastly-improved pass rush.

“We’ve had leads,” Johnson said. “They’re throwing the ball, so you get more opportunity to rush the passer. When you’ve got big leads and start putting teams away and not letting them back in, you’re getting more opportunities to get more sacks.”

Given the Jaguars’ struggles offensively and their 19th-ranked run defense, it’s difficult to envision any scenario in which the Ravens aren’t playing with a lead in the second half.

And that will likely spell doom for the talented rookie Gabbert as he tries to crack the third-ranked defense and No. 1 scoring unit in the NFL.

He wouldn’t be the first rookie to wilt under the pressure of the Ravens defense — and he certainly wouldn’t be the last, either.

“He’s going to be a great player down the road,” Redding said, “but, right now, he’s got to deal with us.”

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Ravens wear out Texans early, run them over late

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Ravens wear out Texans early, run them over late

Posted on 16 October 2011 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — In his post-game comments following the Ravens’ 29-14 win over the Houston Texans, coach John Harbaugh offered a mission statement of what his football team tries to do to the opponent every week.

And it certainly applied on Sunday despite an uneven performance by the offense in the second and third quarters.

“What you want to do is to wear people out early, and then you want to run them over late,” coach John Harbaugh said. “That’s kind of the philosophy that we have.”

The Ravens started fast against the Texans with a 16-play, 97-yard touchdown drive that shaved 8:47 off the clock in the first quarter before Joe Flacco bulled into the end zone from the 1 to give Baltimore a 7-0 lead. It was the first touchdown allowed by Houston in the first quarter all season.

However, despite 310 total yards through the game’s first three quarters, the Ravens entered the final 15 minutes only leading by two as the offense continued to sputter inside the 35, settling for three Billy Cundiff field goals after the touchdown on their opening drive. That changed in the fourth quarter as the Ravens began running over the Texans just as Harbaugh as they like to do in the closing minutes of the game.

A lackluster 22 rushing yards in the first half prompted running back Ray Rice to approach running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron about adjusting to a more inside-focused zone-blocking scheme after struggling to get outside against the Texans defense. The change prompted Rice to run for 62 yards in the fourth quarter to finish with 101 on 23 carries. The Ravens rushed for 91 yards in the second half.

“I wasn’t doubting that they would defend that well,” Rice said, “but getting Vonta [Leach] downhill and getting me downhill kind of had the linebackers going over the top a little bit. We were getting the backdoor cut; it was just poise.”

The change led to the Ravens finally reaching the end zone again when backup Ricky Williams scored from the 4 to put the Ravens ahead 26-14 and eliminate any potential late-game heroics from Houston quarterback Matt Schaub.

The Ravens defense was tough throughout the game, but reiterated the notion of finishing strong by holding Houston to just three first downs and 58 yards while pitching a shutout in the fourth quarter.

“To be considered a great defense, those moments, you’ve got to close out,” linebacker Ray Lewis said. “You’ve got to go back on the field; you know the offense is going to keep coming. You’ve got to take your hats off to those guys. They’re going to play for 60 minutes.”

The Ravens — on both sides of the ball — followed Harbaugh’s advice verbatim.

Getting off the field

All week, defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano and the Ravens defense lamented their inability to get off the field on third down against the Texans last year in a 34-28 overtime victory in Houston where the Ravens squandered a 21-point lead in the second half.

Sunday began with a similar story as the Texans were 5-for-6 on third-down plays in the first 17 minutes of the game, but the Ravens buckled down after that as Houston converted just one of their last 10 third-down opportunities to complete a 6-for-16 effort against the Baltimore defense.

“We just buckled down,” safety Ed Reed said. “We knew what we had to do. It was all about execution. Like I said, those guys have an awesome offense. Even without Andre Johnson, they were making plays. You put Andre in there and they’re awesome.”

Perhaps no third-down stop was bigger than safety Bernard Pollard breaking up a third-and-9 pass intended for running back Arian Foster from the Baltimore 38. The play may or may not have given the Texans a first down, but it would have certainly prompted them to go for it on fourth down with the Ravens leading 19-14 with just over 11 minutes to play.

Instead, Texans coach Gary Kubiak sent out the punt team to give the ball back to the Ravens.

“It’s just about playing the ball,” Pollard said. “You play fast and good things happen. We all did that. It wasn’t pretty at all times. I don’t think you guys saw the mistakes. At the end of the day, if you play fast, it makes up for them”

The Texans followed that near-miss by failing to even pick up a first down on their final three offensive series of the game.

Big day for Boldin

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Cameron with a vertical vision for Ravens passing game

Posted on 13 October 2011 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With the Ravens enjoying their bye last week, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron spent time evaluating every aspect of the offense through four weeks of the season.

His verdict was predictable, saying the Ravens aren’t really doing anything consistently great on the offensive side of the football, but he did make an interesting observation regarding opposing defenses. Despite Lee Evans playing only two games and the Ravens relying on rookie Torrey Smith as a starting receiver opposite Anquan Boldin, Cameron believes opposing defenses are respecting the potential of the Baltimore passing game despite only being ranked 18th in the NFL.

“What I do really like is the fact [that] I sense that people feel like they better back up,” Cameron said. “And I think that fits our style as a team. We want to be a vertical passing team — that’s the first thing we talk about — and secondly, a high (completion) percentage team”

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Of course, potential is one thing and production is another as Joe Flacco’s 49.3 percent completion percentage must improve if the Ravens are to consistently move the chains and register enough points every week. Evans’ health will also play a major factor as the 30-year-old veteran did not practice on Thursday after returning to the field earlier in the week.

The Ravens have attempted 25 passes that traveled longer than 20 yards in the air (completing five) after four games. In 2010, Baltimore threw only 73 passes greater than 20 yards in the air (connecting on 26).

Stretching the field makes sense with the speedy Smith already producing a three-touchdown effort against the St. Louis Rams, but having sufficient time will be a challenge on Sunday as the Texans’ 3-4 defense likes to get after the quarterback. That pressure is a major reason why Houston has improved from 30th overall in pass defense last season to sixth in 2011.

Though coping with the loss of top pass rusher Mario Williams for the season, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips won’t relent in trying to make Flacco uncomfortable in the pocket. Defensive end Antonio Smith has 4 1/2 sacks, and talented 2011 second-round pick Brooks Reed will take Williams’ spot in the lineup.

Having coached with Phillips when the two served as coordinators with the San Diego Chargers from 2004 through 2006, Cameron knows exactly what to expect on Sunday — at least from a philosophical standpoint.

“It’s going to be pressure,” Cameron said. “His answer has always been, ‘If they are not having success with pressure, more pressure.’ I think that is going to be the key for us, just making sure that we handle the pressure they bring. They have gotten to every quarter that they have played so far.”

Swatting Schaub

The Oakland Raiders battered and bruised Texans quarterback Matt Schaub throughout the game last Sunday, but a surprising statistic from the Raiders’ win in Houston was the number of passes knocked down at the line of scrimmage.

Despite the 6-foot-5 Schaub towering over a majority of defensive linemen he encounters, the Raiders batted down six passes, collected three sacks, and recorded 12 hits on the quarterback in their 25-20 victory.

It’s the same blueprint the Ravens will attempt to follow after registering 11 sacks in their first four games. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata is known for his ability to bat down passes at the line of scrimmage if he doesn’t get to the quarterback.

“You want to get [Schaub] off the spot,” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “You want to get pressure up the middle, and if the ball’s coming out and you’re not going to get the sack, we always talk to our guys about getting their hands up. So, we’re looking to try to get some of the same production.”

Concern for Schaub’s health grew on Wednesday as the veteran did not participate in the Texans’ practice with what was listed as a right shoulder injury. However, Pagano and the Ravens fully expect the talented passer to play on Sunday. Schaub was a limited participant in Thursday’s workout in Houston.

“[The Raiders] beat him up pretty good, but he’s a tough kid,” Pagano said. “He’s a great competitor. Even though I guess he didn’t go [Wednesday], it’s probably just a precautionary thing. He’s going to be there [on Sunday].”

Returning returners

After shuffling a variety of return options in and out of the lineup through the season’s first four weeks, the Ravens may be finding some stability with the return of wide receiver David Reed. The kick return specialist practiced fully on Thursday and appears to be ready to return to action after suffering a shoulder injury in Week 2 against Tennessee.

Reed set a franchise record with a 103-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to begin the second half against the Texans last year to give the Ravens a 28-7 lead. The second-year Utah product also had a 77-yard return in the 26-13 loss to the Titans on Sept. 18.

Despite playing in only one game this season, Reed leads the team in kick return yardage (125 yards on three returns) over rookie LaQuan Williams (109 yards on five run-backs). Reed is confident he will quickly become a factor for the kickoff return unit despite a near-month layoff.

“It’s tough, and I have to get my body back into it,” said Reed, who stated his shoulder has held up well in practice this week. “It’s just a couple days of practice; that ought to do.”

With Reed being a full participant on Thursday, all indications point to him regaining his spot as the kick returner, but the Ravens aren’t revealing any plans yet.

“We’ll wait and see until Sunday,” special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. “But, it’s good to see him out there running around. He’s got a lot of energy. He’s excited to play. I hope he does.”

Cornerback Bryan McCann will also play a large role in special teams after being signed to a two-year contract by the Ravens during the bye week. McCann brings experience as both a punt and kick returner after handling both jobs for the Cowboys last season.

Considering the Ravens would like to avoid using safety Ed Reed as their primary punt returner, McCann might find himself returning punts even though he’s listed fourth on the team’s official depth chart updated earlier this week. The reason why is No. 1 returner Lardarius Webb is heavily relied upon as a starting cornerback and the next two on the depth chart, Chris Carr and Tom Zbikowski, are currently injured.

“He brought experience in the defense and experience in the return game,” Rosburg said of McCann. “Of course, when we’re covering kicks, he’s got to be able to do that, too. We’ve given him a lot of reps this week. We’re excited to see what he can do.”

Oher’s brother follows him to Baltimore

Ravens right tackle Michael Oher will have a familiar face right here in Baltimore as his step-brother, Sean Tuohy Jr., has accepted a scholarship to play basketball at Loyola University.

Fans will be familiar with Tuohy as the kid step-brother of Oher — known to friends and family as SJ — that was depicted in the movie “The Blind Side” as a spirited confidante instrumental in Oher’s college recruitment. That part of the movie was portrayed accurately, but the Ravens’ third-year lineman did not play a similar role in Tuohy’s recruitment.

“I thought he would go to Ole Miss (where Oher and Tuohy’s parents attended college), but he has his own mind,” Oher said. “I’m going to enjoy having him up here.”

At 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, Tuohy will play point guard for Jimmy Patsos’ Greyhounds.

“He’s a smart player,” Oher said. “He can find the open guy. He knows how to play the game. I enjoy watching him.”

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Comparisons to 2000 Ravens premature, but this year’s defense could be exceptional

Posted on 06 October 2011 by Luke Jones

We just can’t help ourselves, can we?

After more than a decade of defensive excellence in Baltimore, we always compare the latest eye-popping Ravens defense to the platinum standard of that 2000 unit. It was that group, of course, that lifted a caretaker offense — rookie running back Jamal Lewis being the lone exception — to the franchise’s lone Super Bowl championship.

It was a once-in-a-generation defense, yet we refuse to acknowledge that type of group won’t come along again — even if we say otherwise.

We did it in 2003 when Ray Lewis led a young group of budding defensive stars to the No. 3 overall defensive ranking and an AFC North title.

It happened again in 2006 as the Ravens finished 13-3 and first overall in both points and yardage allowed, something the 2000 group wasn’t able to do.

And the similarities were examined between that championship group and the 2008 defense – ranked second overall behind only the Steelers — coached by Rex Ryan in his final year in Baltimore before taking his antics to the Big Apple.

It sure feels a lot like 2000, doesn’t it?

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It’s not surprising the whispers have already started about the 2011 edition of Ray Lewis and company after a 3-1 start in which the Ravens rank third overall in total defense, third against the run, tied for seventh against the pass, and first in the NFL with 14 takeaways. The pass rush is improved with 11 sacks already after posting a franchise-low 27 in 2010. The Baltimore defense has already set single-game franchise records when it forced seven turnovers against Pittsburgh in Week 1 and scored three defensive touchdowns against the Jets last Sunday night.

But, are we really going to start talking about comparisons to 2000 after only four games?

For the sake of the argument, comparing the two units through the first four games of the season — one small sample deserves another if we’re going to be fair — shows the championship group with the upper hand. The 2000 Ravens allowed fewer yards (996 to 1,138), gave up fewer points (55 to 57), and recorded two shutouts while this year’s defense has yet to post a goose egg for 60 minutes. However, this year’s 14 takeaways trumps the 10 forced by the 2000 group.

Those first four games in 2000 included two of the four largest point totals surrendered by that defense in the regular season, including the 36 scored by Jacksonville in a thrilling 39-36 shootout win in Week 2. This year’s Ravens have faced only one offense currently ranking in the top half of the league (Pittsburgh is ranked 13th), but the 2000 group faced only one top-10 offense (Jacksonville was seventh overall in 2000) through four games.

As fun as it is to draw comparisons between the known and the unknown, the reality is it’s too early to determine where the 2011 defense will even rank among the many good defenses in the 16-year history of the franchise, let alone talk about any potential similarity with one of the greatest units in NFL history. The only link between the two defenses is Ray Lewis, who depends far more on his intellect as a 36-year-old than he had to as a 25-year-old wrecking machine.

Moving beyond the statistics, Chuck Pagano’s 3-4 hybrid defense is far more similar to a Ryan-coached unit than Marvin Lewis’ record-setting defense from 11 years ago. The current unit relies on deception and blitzing to create pressure, disguising its intentions until the last possible minute. Lewis, on the other hand, largely played his 4-3 defense straight up, using a dominating front four that created pressure on the quarterback and a brick wall impenetrable for running backs.

And here is where we get to the largest discrepancy that should end any real discussion between the championship group and this year’s edition.

The secondaries.

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