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Ravens-Steelers: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 01 October 2015 by Luke Jones

If the Ravens were desperate before their Week 3 loss to Cincinnati, how do you define their state of mind after the first 0-3 start in the 20-year history of the franchise?

Traveling to Pittsburgh on a short week is always challenging, but the Ravens are fighting themselves as much as anything else as they enter October without a win under their belts. However, the absence of Ben Roethlisberger on the enemy side offers hope as Baltimore tries to earn a road win on a Thursday night playing against veteran backup Mike Vick.

With four players — tight end Crockett Gillmore, left tackle Eugene Monroe, defensive end Chris Canty, and wide receiver Breshad Perriman — already declared out on Wednesday, the Ravens didn’t have too many decisions to make for their inactive list, but cornerback Rashaan Melvin was deactivated after struggling mightily in his season debut against the Bengals last week. The recently-acquired Will Davis will see his first action with the Ravens after being acquired from Miami for a 2016 seventh-round pick on Sept. 21.

Veteran outside linebacker Jason Babin will also make his 2015 debut after being inactive for his first two games with the Ravens. Baltimore hopes the 35-year-old rush specialist can boost a pass rush that hasn’t found consistency since the season-ending injury to Terrell Suggs in the season opener.

In addition to being without Roethlisberger, the Steelers are missing second-year inside linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Cortez Allen, two absences that will hurt the NFL’s 19th-ranked pass defense.

These teams are meeting for the 39th time in the regular season with the Ravens trailing 17-21 and 7-12 in Pittsburgh. However, the Ravens have won two of the three contests against the Steelers last season, culminating with a 30-17 win at Heinz Field in the first round of the playoffs.

The forecast in Pittsburgh calls for mostly cloudy skies and temperatures in the high 50s with a very tiny chance for precipitation and winds up to 10 miles per hour, according to Weather.com.

Referee Clete Blakeman and his crew will officiate Sunday’s game.

The Ravens are wearing white jerseys with white pants while Pittsburgh dons its black tops with yellow pants.

Here are Thursday’s inactives:

WR Breshad Perriman
CB Tray Walker
CB Rashaan Melvin
OT Eugene Monroe
DT Christo Bilukidi
TE Crockett Gillmore
DE Chris Canty

QB Ben Roethlisberger
LB Ryan Shazier
NT Daniel McCullers
TE Matt Spaeth
CB Cortez Allen
TE Jesse James
LB Anthony Chickillo

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Thursday night

Posted on 30 September 2015 by Luke Jones

The Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers appeared to be two teams moving in opposite directions, but a single injury altered that thinking on Sunday.

A knee injury to Ben Roethlisberger not only puts the Steelers (2-1) in a holding pattern for at least the next few weeks while trying to survive with backup Michael Vick at the helm, but it gives the winless Ravens hope that they can go to Heinz Field on a short week and potentially steal their first victory of 2015. Of course, it won’t be easy for Baltimore with starting tight end Crockett Gillmore, starting left tackle Eugene Monroe, starting defensive end Chris Canty, and rookie wide receiver Breshad Perriman all ruled out for Thursday night.

Searching for answers and knowing only three NFL teams have rebounded from an 0-3 start to make the NFL playoffs since 1990, the Ravens’ biggest enemy at this point might be themselves as a season full of high expectations has instead started in nightmare fashion for John Harbaugh’s team. It’s officially uncharted territory for a team that had never started 0-3 in franchise history and has made the playoffs in six of the last seven years.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens play Pittsburgh for the 39th time in their regular-season history as they own a 17-21 mark. The teams split a pair of games at Heinz Field last season, but Baltimore prevailed 30-17 over the Steelers in a wild-card playoff game last January.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to improve to 5-2 in Thursday night primetime games under Harbaugh …

1. Pittsburgh will control the tempo of the game by handing the ball to Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams a combined 35 times. Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley isn’t going to allow Vick to take many chances, leaving plenty of opportunities for these running backs. The Ravens rank fourth in the league allowing just 3.4 yards per carry, but the Steelers will spread out the defense to create just enough room for Bell and Williams to keep Vick in manageable down-and-distance situations.

2. Maxx Williams will catch his first touchdown and provide the Ravens with another threat behind Steve Smith. Considering how many issues the Pittsburgh defense has had with tight ends so far, Gillmore’s absence couldn’t have come at a worse time, but Williams will find room against linebackers who are poor in pass coverage. The bigger question will be how he and fellow rookie Nick Boyle fare as blockers with the Ravens desperately needing to get their struggling running game in order.

3. Brandon Williams will pick up his first sack of the season and create problems in the Pittsburgh backfield. There have been few bright spots on the Ravens’ 26th-ranked scoring defense, but Williams has been a force and the unit’s best player. With Pittsburgh center Maurkice Pouncey out, the third-year nose tackle should dominate Cody Wallace by collecting his first quarterback takedown as well as a few other tackles for a loss to force more Pittsburgh runs to the perimeter on Thursday night.

4. Antonio Brown will still collect 100 yards receiving and a touchdown without Roethlisberger throwing to him. The Steelers likely won’t have Brown running as many downfield routes, but they will use bubble screens and other ways to get the ball to the playmaker in open space to put pressure on tacklers. It will be interesting to see if Dean Pees elects to have Jimmy Smith shadow Brown, but the Ravens better be ready to give him help against one of the top wide receivers in the NFL.

5. Vick will manage the game effectively while the Ravens lack the “it” factor to do what it takes in a 24-16 loss. I fully expect a Harbaugh-coached team to compete in this one and I’m tempted to pick the Ravens to win with Roethlisberger out, but last week was the game in which they needed to pull themselves off the mat and they still couldn’t do it. Many have cited Baltimore’s 5-1 record against Pittsburgh when Roethlisberger hasn’t played, but two active defensive players — Courtney Upshaw and Albert McClellan — took part in that last win in 2012, a game Brown also missed. The defense will be a little better than the last two weeks and the offense will find ways to move the ball, but the recurring theme of not being good enough in the fourth quarter will cost Baltimore again in a close one.

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Ravens rule out Gillmore, three others for Thursday night

Posted on 30 September 2015 by Luke Jones

(Updated: 2:30 p.m.)

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Desperate for their first win of the 2015 season as they face a daunting trip to Pittsburgh on Thursday night, the Ravens will be be without their No. 2 option in the passing game.

Second-year tight end Crockett Gillmore (calf), left tackle Eugene Monroe (concussion), defensive end Chris Canty (calf), and wide receiver Breshad Perriman all were officially ruled out on Wednesday afternoon. Even before the official designation, the Ravens weren’t exactly giving a strong impression that Gillmore would be ready to return against the Steelers.

“With Crockett being out, we have some young tight ends that we really love to coach,” offensive coordinator Marc Trestman said on Tuesday. “We love the development that they’re going through right now. We expect them to step up and play well for us.”

After registering three catches for 40 yards in the first two quarters of Sunday’s loss to Cincinnati, Gillmore did not play an offensive snap after halftime as the combination of Maxx Williams and Nick Boyle took his place. The rookies combined to register five receptions for 63 yards on nine targets in the 28-24 loss to the Bengals.

A passing game struggling to find reliable answers beyond No. 1 wideout Steve Smith can hardly afford to be without Gillmore, but head coach John Harbaugh expressed much confidence in Williams and Boyle to be able to pick up the slack.

“I thought they both played really well. I thought they both did a really good job,” Harbaugh said. “These two guys are not two guys that it’s too big for [them]. They love being out there, and they just want to make plays. They’re tough, competitive. They’re physical. They kind of remind me of Crockett a year ago.”

After being listed as a limited participant in light practices on Monday and Tuesday, Monroe was listed as a non-participant on Wednesday as he continues to go through the league’s concussion protocol. James Hurst is expected to make his third straight start.

The second-year lineman has struggled mightily this season, ranking as the worst offensive tackle in the NFL in Pro Football Focus’ grading system.

“Eugene’s been a starter for us, but James has played a lot of football as well,” Trestman said. “Right now — today — it’s James and we’ll see. Certainly, we need everybody. You always need everybody. Eugene is a big part of what we do here, so we’re looking forward to getting him back as well when that time comes.”

Pittsburgh officially ruled out starting inside linebacker Ryan Shazier after he missed practices all week with a shoulder injury. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (knee) already had been declared out on Monday as veteran backup Michael Vick will make the start for Pittsburgh.

Steelers center Cody Wallace was listed as probable for Thursday’s game after missing practice on Wednesday due to an illness. Already replacing Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, Wallace will have his hands full with Ravens nose tackle Brandon Williams, and lingering effects from an illness certainly wouldn’t help in that task.

The referee for Thursday night’s game will be Clete Blakeman.

The Thursday night forecast in Pittsburgh calls for mostly cloudy skies and temperatures in the high 50s with a very small chance for precipitation and winds up to 10 miles per hour, according to Weather.com.

Below is the final injury report for Thursday:

OUT: DE Chris Canty (calf), TE Crockett Gillmore (calf), OT Eugene Monroe (concussion), WR Breshad Perriman (knee)

OUT: DT Daniel McCullers (knee), QB Ben Roethlisberger (knee), LB Ryan Shazier (shoulder), TE Matt Spaeth (hand)
QUESTIONABLE: CB Cortez Allen (knee)
PROBABLE: LB James Harrison (thumb), C Cody Wallace (illness)

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Gillmore, Perriman sit out light practice on Monday

Posted on 29 September 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Needing to regroup quickly after a third straight loss to begin the 2015 season, the Ravens returned to practice with a trip to Pittsburgh rapidly approaching on Thursday night.

Conducting little more than a walk-through practice on Monday evening, Baltimore was without tight end Crockett Gillmore (calf), wide receiver Breshad Perriman (knee), and defensive end Chris Canty (calf). After making three catches for 40 yards in the first two quarters of Sunday’s 28-24 loss to Cincinnati, Gillmore did not play an offensive snap in the second half, leaving rookies Maxx Williams and Nick Boyle to pick up the slack at the tight end position.

It remains unclear whether Gillmore will be able to play on Thursday, but his absence would spell trouble for a passing game struggling to find any consistent production beyond the 36-year-old Steve Smith. Williams and Boyle combined to make five catches for 63 yards against the Bengals.

“The biggest thing those guys have to do is just go in and play within themselves,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “They can’t try to do too much. They just have to catch the ball, run block — do the simple things. When you’re a young player — even when you’re a veteran player — it’s all about doing the fundamental, simple things right. If they can concentrate on those little things, then they’ll do just fine.”

Perriman’s lack of participation on Monday indicated he was still feeling the effects of tweaking his knee during a pre-game workout on Sunday, the latest frustration in a long recovery from a sprained knee suffered on the first day of training camp in late July. The 2015 first-round pick had practiced on a limited basis late last week, but his status against the Steelers was still up in the air before he pulled up on his knee Sunday morning.

Now it appears all but certain that Perriman won’t play against Pittsburgh. Even before the setback, the rookie wideout didn’t do any real work with his starting quarterback during his limited time on the practice field last Thursday and Friday.

“I honestly didn’t get to do too much with him last week,” Flacco said. “I know he was out here going through a little bit of stuff, but I have no idea how he feels and what’s actually going on. I didn’t get to throw to him. It’s not something that I’m going to worry about until I know for sure that he’s coming back.

“Just tell me when he’s coming back. Other than that, don’t really bother me with it, because it’s not something we can worry about at this point.”

In positive news, left tackle Eugene Monroe took part in his first practice since suffering a concussion on the opening drive of the 2015 season opener in Denver. Listed as a limited participant in the light practice, Monroe has been in the league-mandated concussion protocol, but it remains unclear whether he’s been cleared to return to live action.

Meanwhile, the Steelers officially ruled out Ben Roethlisberger for Thursday’s game after he suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament and bone bruise in his left knee in Week 3. The Pittsburgh quarterback is expected to miss at least four weeks while veteran Michael Vick takes the reins of one of the best offenses in the NFL.

Steelers linebackers James Harrison (thumb) and Ryan Shazier (shoulder) also sat out the first practice of the abbreviated week.

Below is Monday’s full injury report:

DID NOT PARTICIPATE: DE Chris Canty (calf), TE Crockett Gillmore (calf), WR Breshad Perriman (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: OT Eugene Monroe (concussion)

OUT: QB Ben Roethlisberger (knee)
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: CB Cortez Allen (knee), LB James Harrison (thumb), DT Daniel McCullers (knee), LB Ryan Shazier (shoulder), TE Matt Spaeth (hand)

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An 0-2 start all that matters for hodge-podge Ravens

Posted on 21 September 2015 by Luke Jones

All we really know about the Ravens right now is that they’re 0-2 and in last place in the AFC North and that’s what matters.

The defense isn’t as bad as it played in Sunday’s 37-33 loss to Oakland, but it’s probably not as strong as it looked in Denver, either.

The offense isn’t as poor as it looked in Week 1 — really, it couldn’t have been much worse — but scoring 33 points against a bad Raiders defense isn’t the best barometer to conclude that all is fine with Marc Trestman’s unit.

Optimists will say John Harbaugh’s team was two plays away from being 2-0 in two road games out west despite playing poorly. They’ll maintain that the Ravens will be fine if the Week 1 defense and the Week 2 offense can simply show up at the same time.

Pessimists will tell you Baltimore couldn’t win against a Peyton Manning-led offense that was completely out of sync in the opener or even beat one of the worst teams in the NFL in Week 2. And they’ll remind you again that just 24 of the 205 teams that have started a season 0-2 since 1990 have made the playoffs — roughly one team per year.

Contrary to the sentiments shared by much of a frustrated fan base, the season isn’t over as the aforementioned statistic includes plenty of bad teams that never had a good chance to make the playoffs long before the season began. Indianapolis started 0-2 a year ago before advancing to the conference championship game and Steve Smith’s old team — the Carolina Panthers — lost its first two games of 2013 before making it to the divisional round that January.

Even the two-time defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks are in the same boat as the Ravens right now.

But the Ravens are in danger of having the season spiral out of control before Columbus Day if they don’t get to work immediately. On Sunday, they return home to play an undefeated Cincinnati Bengals team that’s won three of their last four meetings and then travel to Pittsburgh four days later to play the Steelers on a short week.

If you think 0-2 is quite a hole to escape, an 0-4 start would be the Grand Canyon.

Two weeks in, we just don’t know what to make of this Ravens team other than the clear stigma of an 0-2 record. Is it the offense, the defense, or both? Is this just another Harbaugh-led team that struggles on the road and wreaks havoc on opponents at M&T Bank Stadium to ultimately land in the playoffs like six of the last seven years?

A defense that carried much promise a week ago looked every bit the part of a unit playing its first game without Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis, or Ed Reed — the trinity of Ravens defensive excellence — since 1998. The pass rush was nonexistent, the coverage in the secondary was abysmal, the tackling was even worse, and Dean Pees’ coaching adjustments didn’t work.

Some media and fans tried to argue that the loss of Suggs would not be that severe, but the Ravens defense looked like a group sorely missing his play and leadership in Oakland. Even so, the outside linebacker’s absence alone can’t explain — or excuse — the poor performance throughout the defense.

The lack of the pass rush coupled with a 2014-like performance from the secondary will create much concern about the Ravens’ ability to stop opposing offenses, especially after second-year quarterback Derek Carr and the lowly Raiders picked them apart to the tune of 351 passing yards and three touchdown passes.

It didn’t help that untimely penalties doomed the defense on Oakland’s final scoring drive as a senseless roughing-the-passer foul by Timmy Jernigan put the Raiders in field goal position and a defensive holding penalty on Will Hill wiped out what would have been the game-clinching interception. Those types of mistakes, particularly the Jernigan penalty, aren’t indicative of winning teams.

If you’re looking for the silver lining, the offense made strides on Sunday with tight end Crockett Gillmore catching two touchdowns and wide receiver Kamar Aiken bouncing back from an early fumble to help back up Smith’s 10 catches and 150 receiving yards. Yes, an otherwise-strong Joe Flacco misfired on a few throws that could have led to more points — including one to a wide-open Steve Smith that would have meant a touchdown instead of a field goal on their penultimate drive — but you should beat the Raiders 100 times out of 100 when you score 33 points.

Trestman’s decision to throw on second-and-8 from the Oakland 13 on the play before Flacco’s errant throw to Smith was baffling as an incompletion stopped the clock with 2:19 remaining, but we knew all along that the offense would be a work in progress and the group did its job for the most part on Sunday.

Everything we’ve witnessed in the Harbaugh era suggests the Ravens are better than their 0-2 record indicates, but they’ve hit uncharted territory under the eighth-year coach as the franchise has lost its first two games for the first time since 2005. It’s in rough patches when Harbaugh is generally at his best, but he sees exactly what we’ve all witnessed over the first two weeks and can’t feel good about it.

A horrendous performance by the offense and a strong defensive effort in Week 1 followed by a good offensive showing and a nightmarish game from the defense in Week 2. You just don’t know what to expect at this point from either side of the ball.

Will the real Ravens step forward? They’re better than their 0-2 record, right?

Or, maybe they are a hodpe-podge group with the latest offseason of substantial changes finally catching up with them.

If they really are this bad, we’ll find out quickly with their two biggest divisional foes looming over the next 10 days.

If the Ravens are better than this, they have no choice but to start proving it immediately.

Because 0-2 tells you all that matters.

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Ravens-Raiders: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 19 September 2015 by Luke Jones

Ted Marchibroda was their head coach, Eric Zeier their quarterback, and Bill Clinton was the president of the United States the last time the Ravens played a game without any of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, or Terrell Suggs on the field.

Sunday will mark the first game since Oct. 11, 1998 that the Ravens will compete without any of the three greatest defensive players in franchise history, signaling a new era for a Baltimore defense that still possesses much talent. More importantly, Baltimore is trying to avoid its first 0-2 start since 2005 after a disappointing showing in Denver last week. Since 1990, only 24 of 205 teams to begin a season 0-2 have made the playoffs.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens play Oakland for the eighth time in the all-time regular-season series as they own a 6-1 record. Baltimore carries a 1-1 regular-season record in Oakland, but the Ravens won their only playoff game at O.co Coliseum in topping the Raiders in the 2000 AFC championship game. The Ravens have won four straight over the Raiders with their only loss coming in 2003.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to improve to 29-10 in games immediately following a loss under John Harbaugh, the second best mark in the NFL since 2008 …

1. Steve Smith and Crockett Gillmore will catch touchdown passes against a banged-up Oakland secondary that won’t be up to the task. The Raiders pass defense isn’t very good anyway, but the unit will be without safety Nate Allen and fellow safety Charles Woodson’s status is in question with a shoulder injury. Oakland cornerbacks won’t be able to hang with Smith, who will use a double move to catch a long touchdown. Gillmore will split the safeties down the seam to catch a touchdown on the same route we saw in the third preseason game before the score was negated by a penalty. It won’t be a record-setting day for the passing game, but Joe Flacco and his pass-catchers will make progress.

2. The Baltimore offensive line will provide more room in the running game, but pass protection will remain a concern. This unit can’t be any worse than it was last week, and they’ll pave the way for 100-plus rushing yards. But the absence of left tackle Eugene Monroe will still present a problem as James Hurst will be overmatched against the likes of Justin Tuck, Khalil Mack, and Aldon Smith coming off the edge. Unlike last week, Marc Trestman will use more max protect to help Hurst — or right tackle Rick Wagner — and to avoid Flacco being pressured on every two of three snaps like last week. However, the Raiders will still harass Flacco too often and will sack him three times.

3. Jason Babin will collect a sack in his debut with the Ravens. It will be fascinating to see how Dean Pees goes about replacing Suggs’ snaps and production, but the 35-year-old Babin is in good shape and will get on the board early with a quarterback takedown in the first half. The biggest overall concern will be how an increased workload impacts Elvis Dumervil, who has been terrific as a situational player but isn’t as effective against the run as Suggs. The front seven is too good against the run to allow the Raiders to exploit the transition on Sunday, but creativity will be a must to maintain an effective pass rush and to set the edge, the latter being an underrated part of Suggs’ weekly contributions.

4. Derek Carr will find Michael Crabtree for a touchdown pass, but the Raiders quarterback will struggle to consistently move the ball. The Baltimore secondary was quite impressive a week ago, but I’m not convinced that their problems from 2014 are long gone either and Oakland will find some gaps in the pass defense from time to time despite little room to run. Rookie Amari Cooper has all the tools to be an impact receiver, but Crabtree also has something to prove this year after lukewarm interest from teams in free agency. He’ll slip by veteran cornerback Lardarius Webb in the red zone for Oakland’s only touchdown of the afternoon.

5. The Ravens will make more plays to maintain control in a 24-16 win over the Raiders. Oakland has more talent at the top end of its roster than it’s had in quite a while, but Baltimore is a much better football team. That being said, the Ravens rarely dominate on the road and own a total of three wins by more than one possession away from M&T Bank Stadium over the previous three seasons. The Ravens offense will be better, but they have a lot of work to do to become the kind of unit that can dominate a team on the road. The Ravens will lead the entire way, but the offense will lack the consistency to pull away as some fans will grumble about an underwhelming win.

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Ten Ravens prophecies for the 2015 season

Posted on 13 September 2015 by Luke Jones

As many go through the endeavor of making division-by-division forecasts, these predictions focus on the Ravens and their quest to advance to the playoffs for the seventh time in eight years and to possibly win their third Super Bowl title in their 20th season in Baltimore.

A look back at last year’s predictions show a mixed bag — predicting Elvis Dumervil would take a step back before he went on to set the Ravens’ single-season sack record was particularly embarrassing — but it’s fun to envision how the next four months or so will play out.

Below is a new forecast to tear apart:

1. Joe Flacco will finally be named the team’s Most Valuable Player in his eighth season.

The fact that the quarterback hasn’t won a team MVP award from local media — for what it’s worth, I voted for him over winner Justin Forsett last year — illustrates how much he is taken for granted. After having arguably his best statistical season a year ago, Flacco will post similar numbers despite having a slew of inexperienced weapons behind 36-year-old Steve Smith, a testament to his ability.

2. Brandon Williams will play at a Pro Bowl level, but he will not receive that recognition.

The third-year nose tackle is one of the NFL’s best-kept secrets and the Ravens will need him to anchor the defensive line with Haloti Ngata now a member of the Detroit Lions. Williams will be Baltimore’s best defensive lineman by a wide margin, but playing a position where statistics don’t jump out will force him to wait another year to receive a Pro Bowl nod.

3. Rashaan Melvin will be starting over Lardarius Webb by the end of the year.

Even if you can forgive Webb’s play in 2014 because of a back injury, how much can he really bounce back as he turns 30 in October? A hamstring issue prevented the seventh-year cornerback from playing in the preseason, creating more questions about Webb’s durability. Though Melvin’s play in last year’s playoff loss to New England was brutal, the Ravens think they have something with the 6-foot-2 corner.

4. Will Hill and Crockett Gillmore will be players to take a step forward.

His troubled history is no secret, but Hill has done everything that Ozzie Newsome asked of him when he came to Baltimore last summer and the Ravens rewarded the 25-year-old safety with an extension through 2016. Gillmore is probably receiving too much hype after a quiet rookie year, but the Ravens would be very pleased if he can match Owen Daniels’ 2014 production (48 catches for 527 yards).

5. Marlon Brown and Chris Canty will be players to take a step back.

It seems unfair to pick Brown for this again, but he had a quiet summer and just never seems to play as big as his frame while the Ravens drafted the 6-foot-6 Darren Waller in May. The 32-year-old Canty was re-signed after being cut this offseason, but Brent Urban receiving the designation to return reflects the Ravens’ vision of him taking over the 5-technique defensive end spot sooner rather than later.

6. Third-round pick Carl Davis will be the Ravens’ most impressive rookie.

Without knowing what injured first-round pick Breshad Perriman can bring to the table after missing the entire preseason, Davis looks to be the most NFL-ready rookie that the Ravens have as he will receive plenty of time in the defensive line rotation and could push Timmy Jernigan to start. At 6-foot-5 and 320 pounds, Davis brings impressive size that could eventually make him a poor man’s Haloti Ngata.

7. Free safety Kendrick Lewis will be the disappointing veteran newcomer.

The 27-year-old has received positive reviews from coaches and teammates, but Lewis did not have a good preseason and was merely an average starting safety in Houston and Kansas City. He will be a better free-agent acquisition than monumental bust Michael Huff, but I’m not convinced that he’ll be a noticeable upgrade from Darian Stewart at the free safety spot.

8. Marshal Yanda, C.J. Mosley, Jimmy Smith, and Kelechi Osemele will be Baltimore’s Pro Bowl selections.

The choices of Yanda and Mosley would hardly be surprising, but Smith and Osemele will receive recognition that they deserve. This will be especially meaningful for Osemele in the final year of his rookie deal as he’ll position himself for a payday that’s unlikely to come from the Ravens. Yanda will earn his fifth straight trip to the Pro Bowl to cement his status as one of the top players in franchise history.

9. This will be Terrell Suggs’ final season.

This is a shot in the dark and not at all an indictment of how I anticipate Suggs playing this year, but the soon-to-be 33-year-old admitted this spring that he pondered his football future and didn’t work out in the same way that he would in past offseasons. The six-time Pro Bowl selection knows he’s the last man standing from the old Baltimore guard, so it wouldn’t be stunning to see him call it a career after 2015.

10. The Ravens will qualify for the postseason as a wild card with a 10-6 record and will exit in the second round.

Too many questions on the offensive side of the ball will stunt the Ravens’ growth just enough to prevent them from winning the AFC North. With their questions in the passing game and Pittsburgh’s defensive problems, Cincinnati quietly has the most stability in the division and is built to be a strong regular-season team. That said, Baltimore will top the Bengals in a wild-card round meeting to extend the playoff misery of Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton. The Ravens will then lose a close one at Indianapolis in the divisional round before the Colts go on to win the AFC championship.

Bonus Super Bowl pick that no one asked for: Green Bay will prevail over Indianapolis as Aaron Rodgers wins his second championship in a 34-24 final in Santa Clara.

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Five questions pondering Machado, Ravens tight ends, Pittsburgh’s woes

Posted on 28 August 2015 by Luke Jones

Every Friday, I’ll ponder five topics related to the Ravens or Orioles (or a mix of both).

Five questions …

1. Is it just me or is it almost impossible to believe Manny Machado is the active “iron man” in the majors? As the Orioles prepare to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played record next week, how is it possible that someone who doesn’t yet have the 131 in “2131” owns the longest active streak with 127 consecutive games played entering Friday night? Credit Machado for being the only player in the majors to appear in each of his club’s games so far this season — especially after he underwent season-ending knee surgeries in the two previous years — but the 23-year-old would have to continue for nearly 15 1/2 seasons to catch Ripken’s 2,632 consecutive games. We’ll see you in 2031 when Machado is 39 years old? I suppose we should never say never when no one thought Gehrig’s record would ever be broken, but the juxtaposition of Machado and Ripken 20 years later shows how remarkable “The Streak” really was.

2. Is it just me or does the tight end position become even more important with the Ravens’ current injuries at wide receiver? The long-term absence of Breshad Perriman and recent Michael Campanaro injury have taken attention away from the tight end position, but the Ravens have to be nervous at the thought of needing to count on their tight ends more than expected. Baltimore still has the incomparable Steve Smith as well as Kamar Aiken and Marlon Brown at wideout, but none of them are field-stretchers, meaning the Ravens will need more precision in the short-to-intermediate passing game if Perriman isn’t ready to make an early impact. Young tight ends Crockett Gillmore, Maxx Williams, and Nick Boyle have much upside, but they have 10 career receptions and one year of professional experience among them. In Saturday’s dress rehearsal for the season, offensive coordinator Marc Trestman will want to see his tight ends have a good showing to quell concerns.

3. Is it just me or is it embarrassing to look back at the Orioles’ corner outfield “crunch” of a couple months ago? It wasn’t long ago that we were discussing the Orioles’ difficulty in trying to make room for Delmon Young, Steve Pearce, Nolan Reimold, David Lough, Travis Snider, and Chris Parmelee. Two months later, only Pearce remains on the 25-man roster as the Orioles released Young and Snider and outrighted Parmelee, Lough, and Reimold to Triple-A Norfolk. Allowing both Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis to part via free agency was one thing, but the plan for trying to replace them was a colossal failure when there were better moves that could have been made that even wouldn’t have wreaked havoc on the payroll. Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette has done good things since arriving four years ago, but it’s difficult to recall a worse offseason for an individual that immediately followed an Executive of the Year campaign.

4. Is it just me or are the Pittsburgh Steelers in pretty rough shape early in the season? The Ravens have dealt with their share of injuries and face the daunting task of playing five of their first seven games on the road to begin the 2015 season. However, I’m still not sure it tops what Pittsburgh will face early on, especially with Thursday’s news that wide receiver Martavis Bryant will be suspended for the first four games. This comes after Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell was already serving a two-game ban, Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey suffered a long-term ankle injury, and reliable kicker Shaun Suisham was lost for the year in the Hall of Fame Game. Of course, none of this should make the Ravens or their fans feel sorry for their hated rival, but it’s a simple reminder of just how much every team goes through over the course of a season. Taking nothing away from the team ultimately holding the Vince Lombardi Trophy at season’s end, but the NFL really is a war of attrition and involves plenty of luck.

5. Is it just me or are there some significant positives to take away from an otherwise disappointing campaign for the Orioles? It’s easy — and fair — to deem 2015 a failure if the Orioles do not qualify for the postseason for the third time in four years, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been some important developments for the future. The organization and fan base will collectively knock on wood, but Machado has remained healthy while also blossoming into an MVP-caliber player as he’s already set career highs in home runs, stolen bases, and walks and is on track to finish with personal bests in average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, RBIs, and runs scored. Despite missing nearly three months, second baseman Jonathan Schoop had an .845 on-base plus slugging percentage entering the weekend and would be on pace for 30 homers and 90 RBIs over a full season. The Orioles face an uncertain offseason, but two All-Star-caliber infielders under age 24 are golden pieces to build around.


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Ravens-Saints preseason primer: Five players to watch

Posted on 12 August 2015 by Luke Jones

The Ravens move a step closer to beginning their 20th season in Baltimore by welcoming the New Orleans Saints to M&T Bank Stadium in their preseason opener on Thursday night.

Most starters figure to receive little more than a cameo of one or two series as head coach John Harbaugh traditionally removes most starters by the end of the first quarter. Select veterans will play less — or not at all — while younger starters could see playing time into the start of the second quarter.

“It’ll be similar. We have a way that we like to do it here,” Harbaugh said. “It’s individualized to a great extent, but it’ll be similar to what you’ve seen in the past.”

Thursday may not mean much for the likes of Joe Flacco, Steve Smith, and Terrell Suggs, but the preseason presents a critical opportunity for young players to establish themselves as trustworthy contributors and for relative unknowns to leave impressions garnering roster consideration.

With heavy competition at a number of positions, many players will be looking to shine on Thursday, but Harbaugh warns that he and his coaching staff are looking for consistency in both practices and games. There are typically few surprises in their eyes despite fans and media still trying to become familiar with the 90-man preseason roster.

“The games are big, because that’s when the lights are on,” Harbaugh said. “Rarely do you see a guy that doesn’t do anything in practice and all of a sudden it comes out, and [he] lights it up in the game. If you had a guy who did that, you’d be suspicious of that. Is this guy for real? Was it a fluke situation? It’s the guy that does it every day in practice and then goes out and does it again in the game, that’s the guy who really gets your interest.”

Thursday marks the second straight year in which the Ravens will play the Saints in the preseason after they traveled to New Orleans for the 2014 preseason finale. The teams then met again at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in the regular season with Baltimore prevailing in a 34-27 final on Nov. 24, 2014.

The Ravens are 2-0 against the Saints in the all-time preseason series and 5-1 against them in their regular-season history.

Unofficial (and largely speculative) injury report

The Ravens are not required to release an injury report like they do for regular-season games, but I’ve offered my best guess on what the injury report would look like if one were to be released ahead of Thursday night’s game against New Orleans.

Most of the players ruled to be out will come as no surprise, but the status of a few will be in question. This list, of course, will not include any veterans who may be held out of the preseason opener due to the coaching staff’s preference. The Ravens could also elect to hold out select veterans such as No. 1 cornerback Jimmy Smith and starting offensive linemen Jeremy Zuttah and Rick Wagner, who have not missed practice time this summer but are coming off health concerns that sidelined them in the offseason.

Again, this is not an official injury report released by the Ravens:

OUT: WR Breshad Perriman (knee), TE Dennis Pitta (hip), S Terrence Brooks (knee), S Matt Elam (biceps), DE Brent Urban (biceps)
DOUBTFUL: G John Urschel (concussion), G Robert Myers (concussion), DE DeAngelo Tyson (unspecified strain)
QUESTIONABLE: DT Timmy Jernigan (foot), WR Marlon Brown (back), DE Christo Bilukidi (undisclosed)
PROBABLE: CB Lardarius Webb (hamstring), S Kendrick Lewis (leg)

Five players to watch Thursday night

CB Lardarius Webb

It’s been a rocky start to training camp for the veteran cornerback after he failed his conditioning test upon reporting to Owings Mills. The 29-year-old passed the next day and missed only the first practice, but he has looked slower in coverage and doesn’t have the same explosiveness in changing direction as he once showed. The Ravens will be patient with Webb, but the memories of the Pro Bowl-caliber player he was in 2011 continue to fade, making you wonder if Rashaan Melvin and Kyle Arrington could push for his starting job as the season progresses.

“He has to go out and play and play well and make plays and get back to that level,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “Then he’ll feel good about himself. If anybody has played any kind of ball at all, the only way to feel good about yourself is if you do something right. There’s nothing anybody can dream up for you.”

TE Crockett Gillmore

With there still being no real sign that Dennis Pitta will play this season and Maxx Williams developing slowly as most rookie tight ends do, the Ravens are going to need Gillmore to step up quickly. The organization is quietly expecting a good season from the 2014 third-round pick after he caught only 10 passes as a rookie. The 6-foot-6, 270-pound target has clearly established himself as the leader in a very young group of tight ends, but offensive coordinator Marc Trestman would rest easier if Gillmore can be productive in the passing game during the preseason.

“I have high hopes for Crockett Gillmore,” Harbaugh said. “I really don’t want to shy away from that. I believe in him. I believe he’s going to be a really special player in this league. Now, it’s up to him to go do it.”

LB Za’Darius Smith

The comparisons to Pernell McPhee began immediately after Smith was selected in the fourth round of this spring’s draft, but the Ravens need him to be able to lend a hand as a pass rusher to fill that void. Whether he lines up on the edge or is moved around in sub packages, Smith figures to pick up many of McPhee’s valuable reps in passing situations and in spelling Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. The Kentucky product still has room to improve, but he’s flashed strength and impressive quickness in his first NFL training camp and will be someone to watch throughout the month.

“He’s so gifted, he’s talented. I think he’ll do it all, honestly,” Dumervil said. “He can play the run some inside, so I don’t want to cap him. The sky is the limit for him. Whatever he can retain as a rookie, I’m sure the coaches will do a great job using him.”

WR Jeremy Butler

Fans have heard coaches, players, and media sing the praises of Butler since the spring when he seemingly caught everything thrown his way and he’s carried that over with a good start to camp. The 6-foot-2, 213-pound Butler originally turned heads last summer before the Ravens took advantage of his shoulder injury to give him a “redshirt” season. With Perriman and Brown missing extensive time, Butler has received a nice share of first-team reps when the Ravens use three- or four-wide sets and he’s held his own, but now you want to see him carry over that performance against outside competition.

“Jeremy has done well. He shows some great body control going up and making plays on the sideline,” Harbaugh said. “You always look for that in a receiver. Guys that can do that are very valuable — for him and for everybody else. Other guys are making plays, too. It’s just, can you sustain it? Can you stack it from one day to the next? I know he’s going to be determined to do that.”

QB Matt Schaub

Outside observers have seen the new Ravens veteran backup struggle in the spring and summer, but Harbaugh and his coaching staff have gone out of their way to stick up for the 34-year-old whenever asked. To no surprise, there’s a dramatic drop-off in watching Schaub throw compared to Flacco, but the Ravens were drawn to his similar style of play and felt the former Houston Texans quarterback would give them a better shot to win in the event of an injury than former backup Tyrod Taylor did. Needless to say, that assessment remains up for debate based on how he’s practiced.

“There’s no concern about that,” said quarterbacks coach Marty Mornhinweg about Schaub’s ability to fill in for Flacco if necessary. “He had the one [tough year] in Houston, and then last year in Oakland, things didn’t go quite the way [he hoped]. He’s a very good quarterback, he has an awful lot of strengths, he’s very consistent and he knows much of this offense already. He’s just an excellent leader.”



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Ravens’ depth equipped to endure disappointing Urban injury

Posted on 09 August 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens were intrigued with defensive end Brent Urban’s upside for 2015, but a deep defensive line appears equipped to overcome his second serious injury in a little over a year.

As was the case last summer prior to Urban tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, the Ravens anticipated the 2014 fourth-round pick being an important part of the rotation with the potential to eventually move into the starting lineup. However, the presence of veterans Chris Canty, Lawrence Guy, and DeAngelo Tyson makes the injury easier to stomach despite the disappointment for the talented 6-foot-7 defensive end.

“That’s why coaches [always talk about] the next person to come up and execute and step up,” nose tackle Brandon Williams said. “We’re ready to go. We definitely wish him the best going in with his biceps and all, but the show must go on.”

A pair of offseason decisions now carry more significance in the aftermath of the Urban injury as the Ravens elected to re-sign both Canty and Guy after they hit the open market. After starting 24 games for Baltimore over the last two seasons, Canty was cut to save salary cap space this offseason before eventually being re-signed at a cheaper rate.

Some had believed the Ravens were prepared to get younger at the position before deciding to reunite with the 32-year-old. Now, they’ll need Canty to hold off Father Time a little longer after he contemplated retirement over the winter.

“Chris Canty is playing like a kid. He’s running around out there,” Harbaugh said. “I saw him chasing down a crack toss. He came under a block and was picking up his knees and chasing the thing down the line of scrimmage like he was 23 years old again. He looks good.”

Defensive line coach Clarence Brooks stresses the importance of his players being versatile enough to line up at multiple positions, but the Ravens’ biggest strength will be their sheer numbers in the trenches as there are eight linemen who project to have a reasonable chance to make the 53-man roster. The likes of Tyson, Kapron Lewis-Moore, and Christo Bilukidi now see their roster chances likely improve with Urban’s injury.

Harbaugh didn’t give any indication that the Ravens would actively seek defensive line help after losing Urban, who has yet to play in even a preseason game in an injury-riddled start to his career. The group’s ceiling is likely lower without Urban, but the Ravens defensive line remains in good shape.

“We’re really deep in the [defensive] line, so I like the guys we have,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a deep group, and I’m really confident those guys will step up.”

Receiver concerns continue

The Ravens could be inching closer to getting rookie Breshad Perriman and the 6-foot-5 Marlon Brown back from injuries, but they continue to be hamstrung at the wide receiver position in the meantime.

In addition to the pair being sidelined, veteran starter Steve Smith was excused from Saturday’s practice due to a family matter and Kamar Aiken was given the day off due to being “fatigued,” according to Harbaugh.

With Baltimore’s top four receivers missing from the workout, Jeremy Butler, Michael Campanaro, and Darren Waller took most of the reps with the starting offense. Overall, the trio struggled to get consistent separation when competing against the starting defense.

The receiver absences created an opportunity for under-the-radar wideouts to make a statement, and rookie free agent DeAndre Carter caught a touchdown pass from backup Matt Schaub with cornerback Cassius Vaughn in coverage. Meanwhile, former Washington Redskin Aldrick Robinson was the opposite of impressive, dropping several passes over the course of the afternoon.

Harbaugh wouldn’t rule out Perriman for the preseason opener just yet, but it appears highly unlikely that the first-round pick will be ready to play on Thursday with only one partial practice under his belt to this point in the summer.

Meanwhile, Brown appears closer to returning as Harbaugh said his back is feeling better, but the Ravens are still waiting for his hamstring to improve, meaning he is unlikely to play against New Orleans, either.

Mosley in coverage

One of the more encouraging developments early in the summer has been the improved pass coverage from second-year inside linebacker C.J. Mosley.

In what was an otherwise standout Pro Bowl season as a rookie, Mosley struggled in pass coverage a year ago, but he’s been much sharper covering tight ends and running backs so far in training camp.

Early in Saturday’s practice, Mosley broke perfectly on a Joe Flacco throw to Crockett Gillmore in the flat, intercepting the pass from the starting quarterback. However, the starting tight end got the best of Mosley later in practice, catching a touchdown during an 11-on-11 red-zone period.

Injury report

In addition to their top four receivers being absent, the Ravens were without offensive linemen John Urschel (concussion) and Robert Myers (concussion), cornerback Tray Walker (hamstring), and linebacker Zach Thompson (undisclosed) due to injuries on Saturday. Tight end Dennis Pitta (hip) and safety Terrence Brooks (knee) both observed parts of practice while remaining on the physically unable to perform list.

Tyson missed his second straight practice, but Harbaugh said he was unsure of there being an injury, adding that “something must have cropped up.”

Cornerback Jimmy Smith and right guard Marshal Yanda were given the day off, according to Harbaugh.

Left guard Kelechi Osemele (foot) suited up to practice before leaving the field early in the session. He missed two days of practice after being stepped on during Wednesday’s workout. Tight end Maxx Williams practiced for a brief time after sitting out Friday, but he was still feeling the effects of being poked in the eye on Thursday.

With Yanda and Osemele both absent, Ryan Jense and Jah Reid worked as the first-team guards.

Free safety Kendrick Lewis tweaked his leg early on Saturday and observed the rest of practice from the sideline, an indication that the injury was unlikely to be serious.

Cornerback Chris Greenwood (hamstring) returned to practice.

Suggs on Schaub

Saturday was another difficult day for Schaub, who was repeatedly off-target with a number of throws.

At one point in practice, veteran outside linebacker Terrell Suggs took notice of Schaub’s errant passing before finally yelling, “Hey, Matt, your guys are the guys in purple!”

The offense dons purple jerseys while defensive players wear white during practices.

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