Tag Archive | "darian stewart"

Former Ravens safety Stewart finds home in Denver

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Former Ravens safety Stewart finds home in Denver

Posted on 13 March 2015 by Luke Jones

The Ravens’ free-agent exodus continued Friday with safety Darian Stewart becoming the latest to depart by signing a two-year contract with the Denver Broncos.

Stewart started 14 of 16 games last season after signing a one-year, $1.3 million contract with Baltimore last season. The 26-year-old was drawn to the Ravens because of his relationship with former secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo, who worked with Stewart when he was the head coach of the St. Louis Rams.

Stewart collected 53 tackles, an interception, a forced fumble, and three pass breakups during the regular season and secured an interception and a key pass breakup in the wild-card win over Pittsburgh. He joins defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (Detroit), wide receiver Torrey Smith (San Francisco), linebacker Pernell McPhee (Chicago), tight end Owen Daniels (Denver), and quarterback Tyrod Taylor (Buffalo) as Ravens players to depart this past week.

Though considered one of the more reliable in a group of safeties that saw playing time in 2014, Stewart’s loss isn’t considered a major one with the Ravens needing to improve at the position next to starter Will Hill. The problem will be finding that upgrade as this year’s draft class is not impressive beyond Alabama safety Landon Collins, who most expect to long be off the board by the time the Ravens pick 26th overall in the first round.

Free-agent safeties remaining on the board include Ron Parker of Kansas City, Louis Delmas of Miami, and Seattle’s Jeron Johnson.

With the Broncos losing free-agent safety Rahim Moore to Houston, head coach Gary Kubiak targeted Stewart after watching him play in Baltimore this past season.

In other free agency news from Friday, former Buffalo tight end Scott Chandler elected to sign a contract with the New England Patriots despite some interest from the Ravens.

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In end, Ravens couldn’t overcome biggest weakness

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In end, Ravens couldn’t overcome biggest weakness

Posted on 11 January 2015 by Luke Jones

Reflecting on Saturday’s season-ending 35-31 loss to New England, the Ravens know there were other reasons why they didn’t advance to the AFC Championship.

A last-minute interception by quarterback Joe Flacco tarnished what had been a banner day for him and a Ravens offense that produced at least 30 points for the second straight week. The decision to take the deep shot, the effort by wide receiver Torrey Smith to break it up, and the throw itself all came under scrutiny, but the offense had been more than good enough to win for the first 58 minutes of the game.

The vaunted pass rush that ranked second in the NFL with 49 sacks during the regular season managed to sack Patriots quarterback Tom Brady only twice with neither coming in the second half as the Ravens squandered a 14-point lead — their second of the night — in the third quarter. Baltimore had accumulated four or more sacks in each of its last eight wins and was 0-5 over that same stretch when failing to reach that plateau.

But it was the Ravens’ greatest weakness that ultimately led to their demise as the secondary was exposed and exploited by Brady and New England’s passing game. In giving up 408 passing yards and four touchdown passes — one thrown by Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman — the Ravens cannnot be fooled by the statistical improvement in the final month of the season that came against opposing passing games led by Blake Bortles, Case Keenum, and Connor Shaw. Baltimore ranked 31st in pass defense entering the final month of the regular season before rallying to finish 23rd.

Fixing the secondary will be a major undertaking for general manager Ozzie Newsome, who misread the Ravens’ depth at cornerback last offseason long before a rash of injuries decimated the position. There are no easy solutions as every notable member of the unit faces a significant question this offseason and secondary coach Steve Spanguolo could draw interest as a potential defensive coordinator elsewhere.

Top cornerback Jimmy Smith will be returning from a Lisfranc injury and is scheduled to make $6.898 million in the fifth-year option of his rookie contract. Emerging as one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL before the foot ailment cut his season short in October, Smith is someone the Ravens would like to keep for the long run, but it’s difficult to ignore the reality that he’s missed 17 games in four seasons when considering the significant money it will likely require to keep him.

Veteran Lardarius Webb made a team-high 11 starts at cornerback, but he carries a $12 million cap figure for the 2015 season. After once appearing on the verge of becoming a Pro Bowl player, Webb will be entering his seventh season and played like no more than average at best after returning from a back injury that cost him all of training camp and three games at the start of the season. Two surgically-repaired knees on top of the back ailment make you wonder if his 5-foot-10, 182-pound body is failing him at this stage of his career.

Cutting Webb would only save $2 million in cap space — he has three years remaining on a six-year, $50 million contract signed in 2012 — and the Ravens would need to replace him in the starting defense, but it’s difficult to justify his salary for such lackluster play for much of the 2014 campaign.

Safety Will Hill was a rare bright spot in the secondary after starting the final eight games upon coming off a six-game suspension, but can the Ravens trust him to stay out of trouble and remain committed to the game? The Ravens wouldn’t figure to have difficulty keeping the restricted free agent, but he’ll need to prove Baltimore right in giving him a second chance before a long-term commitment is even considered.

The in-house options look grim beyond that.

Even if it’s too soon to declare Matt Elam a complete bust, there’s no sugarcoating how disappointing the 2013 first-round pick has been through his first two seasons. In fairness, Elam was forced to play out of position again for much of the year, but he also led the Ravens in missed tackles, which is a problem considering his tackling was viewed as a strength of his coming out of the University of Florida.

Third-round safety Terrence Brooks offered a few glimpses of potential amidst typical struggles of a rookie, but a knee injury cut his season short and the Ravens couldn’t have seen enough to feel comfortable in moving forward with him as a guaranteed starter.

Cornerback Rashaan Melvin was a nice story in becoming a starter late in the year after being signed off the Miami Dolphins’ practice squad in early November, but the Patriots completed 15 of 19 passes for 224 yards, two touchdowns, and a 150.9 passer rating against him in coverage. He proved himself enough to be a solid option for depth, but no more than that at this point.

Injuries limited Asa Jackson to just seven games and his pass coverage wasn’t overly impressive when he played.

Safeties Darian Stewart and Jeromy Miles and cornerback Danny Gorrer are unrestricted free agents, and cornerback Anthony Levine is a restricted free agent.

The draft appears to be the most logical outlet to seek improvement for 2015 and beyond, but the Ravens won’t pick until 26th overall and rookie cornerbacks don’t often provide an immediate impact in significant roles. Baltimore can look no farther than Smith’s selection in 2011 as evidence with the 6-foot-2 University of Colorado product disappointing in his first two years before establishing himself as a starter in 2013.

The Ravens don’t need a top 10 secondary with the strength of their front seven, but it was apparent that even an average secondary might have carried them to at least an AFC Championship appearance.

It will be up to Newsome to make the necessary improvement for 2015.

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Snap Counts

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Baltimore Ravens – Snap Counts vs Steelers

Posted on 08 January 2015 by Dennis Koulatsos

Here is a break down of the snap count of every offensive and defensive player, in the Ravens’ win against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Offense:

57 – LT James Hurst – he played the whole game, and struggled mightily vs James Harrison

57 – LG Kelechi Osemele – had some problems in pass protection, but was an absolute mauler in the run game

57 – C Jeremy Zuttah – got pushed back in to Joe Flacco time and time again. He has to do better against the Patriots

57 – RG John Urshel – graded out well overall. Had a better night pass blocking than run blocking

57 – RT Marshal Yanda – best offensive lineman in the league. Pass blocked well and was a road grader in the run game

57 – QB Joe Flacco – threw 2 TDs, managed the offense well, and didn’t turn the ball over. “January Joe.”

54 – TE Owen Daniels – struggled with pass blocking, but was a factor in the passing game; caught 4 for 70 yards

50 – RB Justin Forsett – didn’t have a great running night running the ball, lost a fumble, but capably blocked blitzing LBs from the A gaps

40 – WR Torrey Smith – caught an 11 yard TD pass from Flacco; missed a certain TD when he didn’t drag his foot in the end zone

39 – TE Crockett Gillmore – caught a 21 yard TD from Flacco; blocked whistle to whistle

35 – WR Steve Smith – made a couple of tough catches in traffic; caught 5 for 101 yards

25 – WR Kamar Aiken – caught just 1 pass for 4 yards

20 – FB Kyle Juszczyk – caught 2 for 16 yards

13 – WR Marlon Brown – caught 1 for 9 yards

5 – WR Jacoby Jones – caught 1 for 9 yards

4 – RB Bernard Pierce – just 1 rushing attempt but it was good for a 5 yard TD

Defense:

76 – ILB Daryl Smith – save for the TD pass given up to Antonio Brown, he was stout vs the pass as well as the run

75 – CB Lardarius Webb – he was targeted a lot by Roethlisberger, and had an ok game overall

74 – ILB CJ Mosley – was solid vs the run but struggled in pass coverage

72 – FS Will Hill – was solid vs the run and even better vs the pass; defended well all night long

66 – CB  Rashaan Melvin – did a really good job in pass coverage, came up in run support

56 – OLB Terrell Suggs – stopped the run, pressured the QB, didn’t get a sack, but got a sick interception

52 – DT Haloti Ngata – looked fresh all game long, collapsed the pocket and applied pressure up the middle, got one sack

49 – SS – Darian Stewart – played one of his best games all season; got the game ending pick

47 – OLB Elvis Dumervil – applied great pressure from the edge consistently; ended up with 2 sacks

46 – OLB Pernell McPhee – had an outstanding game overall; was a force vs the run, and hit the QB a few times

39 – OLB Courtney Upshaw – did a great job setting the edge as usual; defended the pass well

31 – NT Brandon Williams – no one is going to move him backwards; applied consistent pressure through the A gaps; 1 sack

31 – DE Chris Canty – stopped the run and pressured the QB on numerous occassions

31 – CB Anthony Levine – the converted safety struggled in pass coverage; it was clear Roethlisberger was looking for him

29 – FS Jeromy Miles – solid game overall, but had a couple of lapses in pass coverage

29 – CB Matt Elam – yes, the SS played corner most of the night, and played the position well overall; was strong in pass coverage

13 – DE DeAngelo Tyson – was brought in on obvious passing downs; did not have a good night, did not apply pressure

11 – DE Lawrence Guy – did a solid job defending the run in his limited action on the field

6 – CB Antone Cason – came is when Melvin was shaken up; let up a catch during Melvin’s short absence

2 – ILB Albert McClellan – was only in for two plays; obviously not enough field time to analyze performance

1- SS Brynden Trawick – same as McClellan

Special Team notes – Justin Tucker was lights out as usual. The 52 yarder was particularly special, as you don’t see too many successful field goals at Heinz Field over 50 yards. Sam Koch had a good night – save for the blocked punt which was due to blocking assignment breakdowns. He was also directionally kicking it away from Antonio Brown, and that factored in as well. Jacoby Jones did not have a good night. He lost his footing and slipped during his first kick off return, and seemed tentative after that. Michael Campanaro had a couple of fair catches on punt returns. Hope his hamstring has healed to the point where he could be a factor vs the Patriots

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Ravens show their toughness in exorcising Pittsburgh demons

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Ravens show their toughness in exorcising Pittsburgh demons

Posted on 04 January 2015 by Luke Jones

PITTSBURGH — The Ravens surely didn’t need validation before their 30-17 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Saturday night.

Beating their fiercest rival in the playoffs for the first time doesn’t trump two Super Bowl titles and a wild-card win wouldn’t appear to register as more than a footnote for a franchise that’s made the postseason 10 times in the last 15 years, but the fans of Baltimore know the truth. After watching Pittsburgh get the best of the Charm City in postseason battles for the better part of four decades, the Ravens exacted a little revenge and it felt good.

It may not have erased the pain of the Ravens’ three prior postseason defeats at Heinz Field, the disappointment of back-to-back playoff losses suffered by the Colts to the Steelers in 1975 and 1976, or the agony of the Orioles’ two Game 7 World Series losses to the Pirates in 1971 and 1979, but Baltimore is entitled to bask in the satisfaction of ending the Steelers’ season.

“This is a very special victory for us, not just because it’s a playoff win,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “But because of who it comes against, which is our most respected rival.”

You know how important it was to the Ravens for Harbaugh, a man who loathes making comparisons because it diminishes someone or something in the process, to acknowledge this one meant a little bit more that the typical playoff victory. And it allowed the likes of Elvis Grbac, Daren Stone, and T.J. Houshmandzadeh to rest easy knowing the Ravens finally came through against Pittsburgh when it really mattered.

A look at the final statistics won’t overwhelm you as the Ravens failed to reach 300 yards of total offense and averaged just 2.0 yards per carry. Harbaugh labeled Saturday his team’s best game of the season, but the Ravens have scored more and allowed fewer points in other games this season.

More than anything, the performance was the perfect display of the toughness some doubted the Ravens had after an underwhelming month of December. Baltimore was aggressive on both sides of the ball and proved themselves as the more physical team despite the final numbers not blowing you away. A banged-up offensive line allowed only one sack while the pass rush continued to be ferocious in sacking Ben Roethlisberger five times, making life in the shaky secondary much easier as the Steelers were made one-dimensional by the absence of Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell.

But no one showed that toughness more than quarterback Joe Flacco, who picked up where he left off in his historic 2012 postseason by throwing for 259 yards and two touchdowns while posting a 114.0 passer rating. He’s now undefeated in his last five playoffs games and has tossed 13 touchdowns without throwing an interception in that span. In his last seven postseason contests, the 29-year-old has 17 touchdown passes and only one pick.

What is it about the postseason that makes Flacco so great?

“I really don’t know. I say that a lot, but it’s a tough question to answer,” Flacco said. “I come out here and do the same thing all the time. The biggest thing is to come out here and play a consistent football game.”

Of course, Flacco would be the first to tell you he wasn’t alone in disposing of the Steelers as the Ravens received spectacular plays such as Steve Smith’s 40-yard reception midway through the third quarter and Terrell Suggs’ legs-aided interception in the fourth that set up a quick score. But there were also a number of under-the-radar contributions that proved critical such as safety Darian Stewart driving Pro Bowl receiver Antonio Brown out of bounds to prevent a 29-yard touchdown in the second quarter and left guard Kelechi Osemele stymieing rush specialist James Harrison from a potential sack-strip of Flacco on the 11-yard touchdown strike to Torrey Smith that put the Ravens up 20-9 late in the third quarter.

The Ravens weathered adversity after Justin Forsett’s fumble and a quick Steelers touchdown — the kind of sequence that doomed them in previous playoff experiences against Pittsburgh — by responding with 10 points on their next two possessions to put the game away.

Baltimore was simply better than Pittsburgh on Saturday, and it’s been a long time coming for fans who’ve endured plenty of disappointment at the hands of the Steel City over the years. Flacco said earlier in the week that the Ravens weren’t brooding over previous playoff failures in Pittsburgh in the same way that they couldn’t dwell on the struggles of the final month of the regular season.

January brings a new season, and the Ravens certainly responded in the best way possible.

“You have to play these games to win,” Flacco said. “You can’t play not to lose. You have to go out there and you have to let everything go. You can’t worry about the outcome.”

And in not worrying, the Ravens were able to finally exorcise those old Pittsburgh demons.

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Harbaugh looking for members of Ravens secondary to step up

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Harbaugh looking for members of Ravens secondary to step up

Posted on 03 November 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — There was plenty of blame to go around on both sides of the ball in the Ravens’ forgettable 43-23 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night.

Turnovers, penalties, poor pass protection, and the lack of a consistent pass rush all contributed to the humbling defeat, but it was the play in the secondary that conjured memories of the likes of Corey Ivy, David Pittman, Ronnie Prude, Derrick Martin, and the Ravens’ nightmarish Monday night defeat in Pittsburgh in 2007 in which Ben Roethlisberger threw five touchdown passes in the first half of a 38-7 final. It’s no surprise that the absence of top cornerback Jimmy Smith hurt what’s already been a vulnerable secondary in 2014, but allowing six touchdown passes to Roethlisberger and the Steelers signaled a complete collapse in the back end not seen against Pittsburgh in the John Harbaugh era.

The head coach discussed the secondary’s struggles on Monday after defensive coordinator Dean Pees used seven different players at cornerback and safety against Pittsburgh, but they’re finding no answers at the moment as they shuffle options on and off the field. Perhaps the best example of how uncertain the Ravens are with the state of the defensive backfield was the decision to deactivate rookie safety Terrence Brooks against the Steelers after he appeared to be on the verge of securing a starting job in playing 67 percent of the team’s snaps against Atlanta only two weeks ago.

“When some player expresses himself as being the best player by how he plays, he’ll be out there permanently,” said Harbaugh about the secondary rotation. “Until that happens, nobody’s given anything. I think guys have played OK at times, well at other times, and there have been a few bad plays back there.”

Though there have been far more than a few bad plays in the secondary, Harbaugh wasn’t far off in saying the secondary had held up enough when Smith was still in the fold — the Ravens had allowed only seven touchdown passes in their first eight games — even though they’d had their fair share of lapses and had surrendered plenty of yards. But the “bend, but don’t break” philosophy officially shattered at Heinz Field.

Veteran cornerback Lardarius Webb hasn’t been the same — quarterbacks have posted a 105.0 passer rating against him this season, according to Pro Football Focus — since coming back from the back injury that cost him the entire summer and the first few weeks of the regular season. Dominique Franks and Chykie Brown simply aren’t good enough to play meaningful defensive snaps, and the Ravens originally agreed as Franks was on the free-agent market a month ago and Brown was relegated to the inactive list due to his immense struggles that started in training camp.

The play at safety hasn’t been any better as the Ravens now rank 26th in the NFL in pass defense. The Baltimore defense has faced the third-most pass attempts in the league while ranking 22nd in the NFL with only five interceptions. To make matters worse, only one of those picks has been secured by a defensive back — defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and linebacker C.J. Mosley each have two — when Smith intercepted a pass from Tampa Bay quarterback Mike Glennon in Week 6.

Many aspects of Sunday’s game were ugly, but unlike other areas in which the Ravens have players with proven track records where you can expect improvement, there doesn’t appear to be much they can do in the secondary beyond hoping that Smith is ready to return after the Week 11 bye with upcoming games against New Orleans and San Diego. And the disappearance of the pass rush following a sequence in which they sacked Roethlisberger on three straight plays in the second quarter did the pass defense no favors as the game progressed.

It’s become painfully clear that the Ravens need more from their front seven if their secondary is to survive against any formidable passing attacks over the final two months of the season.

“We’re not disciplined back there in technique like we need to be,” said Harbaugh, who spent 2007 as the Philadelphia Eagles defensive backs coach before becoming the head man in Baltimore a year later. “Our eyes aren’t in the right spot all the time like they need to be. When you’re in the back end – just like on the offensive line – your footwork’s got to be right, your eyes have to be right, your leverage has to be right, and then you’ve got to play the ball well.”

There’s only so much coaching you can do when you don’t have the proper talent.

To no surprise, Harbaugh indicated that the Ravens had several busts in coverage as well as plays in which defensive backs were beaten physically. And even when defenders were in position to make a stop, they often misplayed the ball or missed tackles. Particularly at the safety spot where the Ravens used Will Hill, Darian Stewart, Jeromy Miles, and Matt Elam at different times on Sunday night, one could argue the lack of continuity has hurt performance, but the head coach downplayed that being an issue.

Without throwing his secondary under the bus entirely, Harbaugh didn’t shy away from the need for someone — anyone — to start making plays in pass defense. It’s clear the Ravens have plenty of areas to improve following their humbling loss to the Steelers, but you wonder if the secondary is something that they’re going to be able to fix this year.

“We’re looking for the right combination, but I think that’s a little overrated,” Harbaugh said. “I think it’s the best players. If you want to play in that secondary, step up in practice and play well and step up in the game and makes plays and be in the right spot. That’s what we’re looking for guys to do.”

The Ravens can keep looking, but it’s becoming more and more apparent that they’re not going to like what they see.

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Ravens casting wide net for solutions at safety position

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Ravens casting wide net for solutions at safety position

Posted on 20 October 2014 by Luke Jones

NFL teams are no strangers to using different personnel up front, but it was the Ravens’ frequent substituting at the safety position that garnered attention in their 29-7 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.

Injuries at the cornerback position earlier this season sparked plenty of shuffling in the secondary, but the return of Lardarius Webb and the emergence of veteran Dominique Franks have helped stabilize the position. In contrast, safety became a mix and match with starters Matt Elam and Darian Stewart and reserves Terrence Brooks and Will Hill all playing extensive snaps against Atlanta’s high-powered passing game.

“Everybody’s got a role,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “Everybody has something they do a little bit better, so I’m trying to put them in those roles. They’re starting to understand how we’re trying to play it. They keep practicing the same stuff and getting after it.”

The strategy helped contribute to a convincing win in which the Baltimore defense limited quarterback Matt Ryan to 228 passing yards on 44 attempts as the Falcons didn’t score until midway through the fourth quarter.

Stewart and Brooks received the most playing time as they each participated in 44 of 66 total defensive snaps while Elam and Hill played 22 each. Despite using such an unconventional platoon system, the Ravens appeared relatively seamless in their communication with the rookie Brooks and the just-activated Hill on the field for long stretches of time.

“We were on the same page for the most part,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “There were three or four things. There are going to be things that we have to anticipate going forward, because people watch you, they attack you, they cause problems for every unit. The technique, the fundamentals, the eyes, the communication were all very good in the back end.”

After being moved to the 53-man roster on Saturday, the 24-year-old Hill made his 2014 debut and collected two tackles while mainly playing close to the line of scrimmage. The University of Florida product made a tackle for a loss and registered one of the Ravens’ nine quarterback hits on Sunday.

Despite his off-field transgressions that have included three suspensions in his first three years, Hill earned a reputation with the New York Giants as a safety with range and the ability to excel in coverage, skills most Ravens safeties haven’t displayed to this point in the year. Pees has spoken glowingly of Hill’s potential, so it wasn’t surprising to see him receive extensive playing time.

“I know they have a great deal of confidence in me now,” Hill said. “My coaches kept coming to me after every drive I was in there and let me know if I did something wrong. They were pretty satisfied with my play.”

Perhaps the most interesting takeaway from the division of playing time was Elam playing only 22 snaps against the Falcons. The 2013 first-round pick has struggled in pass coverage in his brief career, but it’s been difficult to evaluate him since he played out of position at free safety last year and was forced into nickel duties due to injuries at cornerback earlier this season.

With Brooks appearing to be gaining confidence as a deep safety in obvious passing situations and Hill quickly being thrown into action after such a long layoff, Elam may suddenly find himself competing with Stewart just to remain on the field on a consistent basis.

For now, both coaches and players appear to be on board as the Ravens were able to stop an offense that ranked third in the NFL in total yards entering Sunday’s game. Opponents will adapt and look for patterns, so it remains to be seen how long the safety platoon lasts.

But it’s difficult to argue with the results of a convincing win.

“It’s going to be great,” Elam said. “With the help up front and keeping guys fresh in the back end, we can run around and knock people off [the ball]. We feel like the sky’s the limit.”

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Ravens staking claim as one of NFL’s best with fast start

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Ravens staking claim as one of NFL’s best with fast start

Posted on 19 October 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens staked their claim as the best team in the AFC North with a 29-7 win over the Atlanta Falcons Sunday to move into first place ahead of Cincinnati.

With their fourth 5-2 start in the last five years, the Ravens have put themselves in prime position to return to the playoffs as they approach the midway point of the 2014 season. But how much does that mean as we approach the final week of October?

“Meaningful in Week 7, so, it’s good to be there in that situation at this time,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “But you have to build on it, you have to keep getting better. We’re not a good enough team to do the things that we want to do right now, so we have to keep improving.”

Baltimore may not be a flawless team — there’s no such thing in the modern NFL — but it’s difficult to look at the numbers and not be impressed with what Harbaugh’s group has done through the first seven weeks of 2014. Even with 14 teams having played only six games at the end of business on Sunday, the Ravens have allowed the fewest points (104) and own the best point differential (plus 89) in the NFL.

Yes, they appear to have drawn the right year to play the woeful NFC South — a division where 3-3-1 Carolina currently sits in first place — but you can’t control which teams are on the schedule. The Ravens are not only beating the teams they’re supposed to beat, but they’re throttling them, which doesn’t often happen in the parity-driven NFL.

Already securing four wins of 20 or more points, the improved Ravens offense has received much of the attention, but the defense is taking major strides with its second straight game collecting five sacks, the first time that’s happened since the 2006 season. It was no surprising feat to limit the hapless Tampa Bay offense last week, but holding Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ third-ranked unit to just seven points was an impressive task.

With the pass rush coming alive and the play of the secondary stabilizing, the confidence on the defensive side of the ball is growing. Several defensive players spoke after the game about the speech linebackers coach Ted Monachino offered Saturday night, challenging a talented group of outside linebackers to raise its level of play to where it belongs.

It’s safe to say the message was received on Sunday as Ryan was hit nine times a week after Buccaneers quarterback Mike Glennon was hit 15 times.

“We’re dangerous, and we’re real serious. We’re coming out playing with an attitude,” said rush specialist Pernell McPhee, who added two more sacks on Sunday to continue his strong season. “Our [secondary] needs us, and I know we need them. I think [defensive coordinator] Dean Pees is doing a great job of calling the plays and setting us up to get the sacks. We’re just focusing in and trying to play ball.”

Much credit should go to Pees, who has shown various looks up front by moving around Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and McPhee to cause confusion while using a safety-by-committee approach in the secondary. Matt Elam and Darian Stewart started the game, but rookie Terrence Brooks and the returning Will Hill also saw extensive action at the safety position.

Former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan was known for bringing “organized chaos,” but Pees’ decision to substitute so frequently in the secondary reminded the 65-year-old coordinator of his college coaching days at Miami of Ohio when he used various personnel looks in a 1986 upset win over a top 10 LSU team in Baton Rouge. Of course, Baltimore didn’t face that kind of a talent disadvantage Sunday, but it illustrates the creative lengths used to help mask what’s been a deficiency of the defense to this point in the season.

Time will tell whether the safety rotation will continue, but the best weapon to neutralize a shaky secondary has been the major heat in the pocket. It’s also created more opportunities for turnovers as defensive backs got their hands on several Ryan passes despite not coming away with any interceptions.

“Those dudes are our best friends,” said cornerback Jimmy Smith about the pass rush. “They get in there, they disrupt things, they cause havoc, they make quarterbacks panic and throw the ball in the air. And on our end, we have to do a better job of coming up with some more turnovers. We’ve had a lot of opportunities, and we have a lot of drops.”

Unlike last season’s 8-8 team that remained static with issues on each side of the ball showing up on a weekly basis, these Ravens appear to be improving as the year progresses. Their only loss since Week 1 came on the road two weeks ago against Indianapolis, a team that’s won five straight games and only beat them by seven points at Lucas Oil Stadium.

It’s true that no one should confuse Tampa Bay or Atlanta for juggernauts, but the Ravens have a tremendous opportunity to not only seize commanding control of the AFC North but to make an emphatic claim as one of the best teams in the NFL if they can take care of business in trips to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh the next two weeks. It won’t be easy playing on the road against their two biggest rivals, but the Ravens have looked like the class of the division through seven weeks while the Bengals have gone 0-2-1 since their bye with two road losses of 26 or more points.

The Ravens continue to show improvement on both sides of the ball while stacking wins as they now have a chance to pay back Cincinnati for its Week 1 win in Baltimore.

“We have everything that we want to do right in front of us,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “We just have to go out there and continue to play well. We have a tough opponent next week that we didn’t play necessarily good against, at least for a half, in the first game. We have to come back out there and prove ourselves. They’re a good football team, and they’re going to be hungry, and we’re [playing] there. It’s going to be a tough test; I can’t wait for it.”

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Ravens stock watch entering Week 5

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Ravens stock watch entering Week 5

Posted on 30 September 2014 by Luke Jones

Every week, we’ll take a look at which Ravens players’ stock is rising and falling …

STOCK RISING

Steve Smith
Skinny: The former Carolina Panthers wide receiver has impressed since the first day he arrived in Baltimore, but he became the oldest player in NFL history with more than 400 receiving yards in his first four games of a season last Sunday. It’s apparent that Smith has become Joe Flacco’s most-trusted target as the second touchdown the pair connected on against the Panthers came after the quarterback dropped a snap and threw the ball up for grabs in Smith’s direction. He’s unlikely to continue a 1,600-yard pace, but it’s difficult envisioning Smith not blowing past 1,000 receiving yards, assuming he stays healthy.

Joe Flacco
Skinny: Any lingering doubts about the seventh-year quarterback’s ability to thrive in Gary Kubiak’s system are all but gone after Flacco posted a franchise-record 137.4 passer rating in the 38-10 win over Carolina. As if 327 passing yards and three touchdown passes weren’t enough, Flacco was particularly deadly when the Panthers tried to blitz, going 7-for-9 with two scores and 149 yards. After feeling like he had to do it all by himself a year ago, Flacco is once again showing what he’s capable of accomplishing with a good offensive line and strong running game supporting him. 

Terrence Brooks
Skinny: After being inactive in the Ravens’ Week 3 win in Cleveland, the 2014 third-round pick saw the first defensive action of his career against the Panthers, playing 32 snaps and finishing with two tackles while serving as a safety in the nickel package. With the entire secondary in flux beyond No. 1 cornerback Jimmy Smith, Brooks has an opportunity to carve out a role and was complimented by head coach John Harbaugh on Monday. Starting free safety Darian Stewart has struggled in coverage through four games and could be pushed by Brooks or Will Hill when he returns from suspension next month.

STOCK FALLING

Jacoby Jones
Skinny: The veteran wide receiver was mentioned on this list a couple weeks ago, but his struggles are now impacting his playing time as Jones saw just seven offensive snaps while Marlon Brown played 31 and Kamar Aiken saw 14 against Carolina. In addition to another drop, Jones fielded a punt from his own 2-yard line, which is rarely ever a wise choice. It’s painfully obvious that Jones is pressing and his struggles are in his head, so you wonder how much patience Harbaugh and Kubiak will have and if his limited number of snaps against the Panthers is a sign of things to come.

Darian Stewart
Skinny: The veteran had another rough game against Carolina as he was late reacting in Cover 2 to prevent rookie Kelvin Benjamin from catching a 28-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter. You can understand strong safety Matt Elam’s struggles when realizing he’s being asked to play the nickel corner spot, but it’s become apparent that Stewart is not the center-field option the Ravens need in the back end of the defense. It will be interesting to see if defensive coordinator Dean Pees awards Brooks more opportunities at safety whenever Lardarius Webb returns and Elam can remain at strong safety.

Jeromy Miles
Skinny: After serving as the free safety in the nickel package in consecutive games, the special-teams standout didn’t receive a single snap with the defense in Week 4 as it appears the coaching staff has seen enough of him in the secondary. The Ravens have struggled to find answers for their pass defense, so you never know when Miles’ name might be called again, but he didn’t do anything to make a noticeable impact. At this point, you get the impression that the Ravens are trying to throw anything they can against the wall in hopes of something sticking.

 

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Ravens-49ers preseason primer: Five players to watch

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Ravens-49ers preseason primer: Five players to watch

Posted on 06 August 2014 by Luke Jones

A brotherly reunion and Super Bowl XLVII rematch adds a little more spice to the preseason opener as the Ravens welcome the San Francisco 49ers to Baltimore on Thursday night.

As is always the case with the first preseason game, the contest will offer little more than a cameo appearance for veteran starters expected to make the biggest impact this season, but it does provide welcome change for a group of players tired of working against one another after two weeks of practices in Owings Mills. While most veteran starters figure to see little more than a series or two, younger starters figure to see more extensive action in the first half if history holds to form.

“We’re kind of on a standard plan right now, as far as that [goes],” coach John Harbaugh said. “I don’t know exactly the number of plays yet, but it won’t be anything we haven’t done in the past.”

Of course, the first preseason game won’t be the standard road trip for the 49ers as they’ll then join the Ravens at their training facility in Owings Mills for three days of practices, providing extra competition as well as opportunities to evaluate just how much improvement has been made to a team that failed to make the playoffs last season for the first time since 2007. Much will hinge on the offense under new coordinator Gary Kubiak, who is bringing his version of the West Coast attack to reinvigorate a group that finished 29th in the NFL last year.

Entering his seventh season at the helm of the Ravens offense, Joe Flacco has been all business this summer as Kubiak and quarterbacks coach Rick Dennison have focused on the veteran quarterback getting rid of the ball quickly while improving his footwork. Flacco isn’t the only one who will be under the microscope with the new offensive attack, but even he acknowledges the preseason opener carrying more significance than in past years because of the dramatic changes made this offseason.

Of course, the outcome of the opener won’t provide any definitive answers for questions facing the Ravens on both sides of the football, but the game will sharpen points of emphasis for both coaches and players after facing another team.

“Anytime you’re running a new offense and you think you’re doing it pretty well, it’s always nice to get out there and have a real test,” Flacco said. “Have people hitting you and flying around and going full speed under the lights. It’s probably a little more important.”

Thursday will mark the first ever preseason meeting between the Ravens and the 49ers, but Baltimore owns the 3-1 edge in the regular season and a 1-0 advantage in the postseason after their 34-31 win in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. The Ravens are 42-29 all-time in the preseason and have a 15-9 preseason mark in the Harbaugh era.

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.

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. Cornerback Lardarius Webb is not expected to play in either of the first two preseason games as he’s been sidelined with a lower back injury since July 25.

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

OUT: CB Lardarius Webb (back), G Will Rackley (head), DT Terrence Cody (hip), DE Brent Urban (knee)
DOUBTFUL: LB Daryl Smith (groin)
QUESTIONABLE: WR Michael Campanaro (ribs), CB Marrio Norman (unspecified)
PROBABLE: DT Timmy Jernigan (back), CB Jimmy Smith (back)

Five players to watch Thursday night

1. RB Ray Rice

With so much attention justifiably paid to his off-field transgressions, you almost forget the 27-year-old back is coming off the worst season of his career in which he averaged a meager 3.1 yards per carry. Rice was heavy, slow, and banged up during the 2013 season and must play well to not only hold off backup Bernard Pierce but give the Ravens confidence that they can move forward with the three-time Pro Bowl selection beyond the 2014 season. Rice will want to use the first couple preseason games to make a favorable impression on Kubiak with his two-game suspension looming at the start of the season.

“Ray has looked really good,” Harbaugh said. “Comparisons to years in the past, we’ll find all that out during the season. But he’s in tremendous shape. I’m seeing him make good lateral cuts. He has really good burst, acceleration is there, [and] vision is there. He’s been very patient with the zone runs, which is something that I believe to be an improvement over the past — even two years ago.”

2. FS Darian Stewart

Signed to a one-year, $1.3 million contract in the offseason, the former St. Louis Ram has yet to be seriously challenged at the free safety position with third-round pick Terrence Brooks struggling to grasp the playbook in his first season. Stewart isn’t spectacular, but he’s been complimented by Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Dean Pees for knowing his assignments and being in the right place, traits that shouldn’t be taken for granted considering the Baltimore defense gave up too many big plays a year ago. Stewart isn’t a long-term answer or dynamic player, but the Ravens hope he can be a value signing comparable to when they signed Corey Graham a couple years ago.

“I see a grown, mature, confident guy that I think fits really well in our room,” said secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo, who was Stewart’s head coach for two years in St. Louis. “He’s kind of slipped in there. I’ve noticed he’s taken a backseat, which you have to do when you change teams a little bit, and that was early on. Now, I see his personality coming out. I think that will happen more and more. I think he’s going to be a great leader for us. I really do.”

3. RT Rick Wagner

Perhaps the storyline received too much attention during spring workouts, but there’s been less buzz about the right tackle position than you’d expect with second-year lineman Rick Wagner continuing to be the favorite to start over fourth-year disappointment Jah Reid. The Ravens have been higher on Wagner than most of the outside world all along, but the Wisconsin product will need to prove capable against preseason opponents to put concerns to rest. Wagner doesn’t need to be a Pro Bowl tackle, but he needs to hold his own as the Ravens are too challenged offensively to be forced to constantly provide help in protection on the right side of the line.

“He is doing a lot better,” said linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who often matches up against Wagner during practice. “You’ve got to stay consistent with [offensive line coach] Juan Castillo’s scheme — his protection, his switching it up. But for the most part, he’s just doing a really good job.”

4. DT Brandon Williams

The 2013 third-round pick appeared to be emerging as a contributor in the defensive line rotation last year before wearing down and being inactive over five of the last six games, but the Ravens have shown plenty of confidence in Williams so far this summer by sliding Haloti Ngata back to the 3-technique defensive tackle position and lining up the Missouri Southern State product at the nose. His strength and athleticism have been mentioned frequently, but Williams will need to show those traits translate in taking on interior blockers and making plays in stopping the run. If Williams is not up to the challenge, the Ravens could elect to shift Ngata back to the nose and take longer looks at second-round rookie Timmy Jernigan and third-year lineman DeAngelo Tyson.

“Now, his strength is a lot more functional because he understands the technical part of the game a lot better,” defensive line coach Clarence Brooks said. “He understands how we play a lot better and how we want things done. He understands that, and he was able to take his natural strength and work it into what we want. So far, everything is on the upswing.”

5. CB Tramain Jacobs

Most eyes will inevitably fall on Chykie Brown and Asa Jackson as the Ravens try to figure out who will be lining up at the No. 3 cornerback spot in the regular-season opener, but Jacobs is on a short list of rookie free agents to watch this summer. Playing at Texas A&M, the 5-foot-11, 182-pound cornerback saw plenty of tough competition in college practices matching up against wideout Mike Evans with Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel throwing the football. Jacobs has shown good athleticism and a nose for the football to put him in the conversation for a spot on the 53-man roster. With so much concern over the lack of depth at the cornerback position, Jacobs will have opportunities to turn heads if his play carries over to preseason games.

“Everybody’s getting a good look. It’s a stiff competition right now,” said starter Jimmy Smith, who mentioned Jacobs as someone in contention for the No. 3 cornerback job. “Obviously, we don’t want Webb hurt, but that gives opportunity for [others]. It’s a stiff battle at the third cornerback position right now.”

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Early observations from 2014 Ravens training camp

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Early observations from 2014 Ravens training camp

Posted on 27 July 2014 by Luke Jones

With 2014 training camp officially underway and the Ravens attempting to bounce back from their first non-playoff season of the John Harbaugh era, there are a number of early (too early?) takeaways from the practice field in Owings Mills.

1. Steve Smith has looked like an elite player.

It’s fair to express doubts over a 35-year-old wide receiver whose yards per catch average has dropped in three consecutive years, but Smith has been as good as advertised going back to organized team activities in the spring, catching everything in sight and regularly beating cornerbacks during practices. On Saturday, he made an excellent catch on a deep ball defended by Chykie Brown and later made an impressive adjustment on a pass thrown behind him on a slant pattern. Of course, it’s important not to get carried away with how anyone performs in July, but if Smith can be that reliable target to help move the chains and provide a safety net for quarterback Joe Flacco, the investment in the 14th-year receiver will be well worth it.

2. The No. 3 cornerback for the 2014 Ravens may not yet be on the roster.

The organization spent plenty of time this offseason talking up the potential of Brown and Asa Jackson, but it’s difficult to find anyone on the field in which defensive coordinator Dean Pees would have confidence using in the nickel package along with Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb. Brown has bit on play-action fakes and has struggled to find the ball when he is in position while Jackson — who is an inside defender in the nickel package — has also been beaten deep on a couple occasions. To make matters worse, Dominique Franks still hasn’t passed his conditioning test after fellow veteran newcomer Aaron Ross tore his Achilles tendon taking the same test. The Ravens would prefer to use Webb inside in the nickel, but there have been no signs of anyone currently on the roster being capable of handling duties as the third cornerback.

3. Left guard Kelechi Osemele is moving well and is the biggest key for the offensive line.

The third-year lineman has moved well early in camp and will be the key in determining how effective the interior offensive line can be in 2014 after it was undersized and ineffective last season. It’s still too early to gauge whether his surgically-repaired back will be in issue, but Osemele delivered an impressive block 10 yards downfield that sent safety Darian Stewart to the ground on Saturday afternoon, a telling example of the improved mobility he simply didn’t have early last year. If the Ravens can be strong inside with Osemele and Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda flanking new center Jeremy Zuttah, it will alleviate much of the pressure on Rick Wagner or whoever mans the right tackle position.

4. Veteran newcomer Darian Stewart has impressed and is the early favorite to start at free safety.

His unfortunate encounter with Osemele aside, Stewart has displayed good athleticism at the safety position and looks to be the favorite to line up next to Matt Elam in the starting defense. The former St. Louis Rams safety is versatile with the ability to line up closer to the line of scrimmage or to play the more traditional free position, and Pees has said on a number of occasions that he’s looking to mirror his safeties more than just having a traditional strong and free one. Rookie Terrence Brooks will need to make significant strides between now and the start of the season as he appears to be thinking too much when lined up on the field and has worked primarily with the third-string defense to this early point. Secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo is familiar with Stewart going back to their days in St. Louis, so the Ravens hope they’ve found another value signing like they did with Corey Graham a couple years ago.

5. New offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak loves to move his skill players around in formations.

The Ravens are sure to experience growing pains implementing their new offensive system, but Kubiak has experimented plenty with his skill players to find strengths and weakness as well as potentially exploit vulnerabilities in a defense in a given matchup. His creative use of tight ends is a well-documented characteristic of his West Coast system, but it will be fun to watch how he uses fullback Kyle Juszczyk and big wide receiver Marlon Brown in addition to Dennis Pitta and Owen Daniels this season. Ultimately, offensive success in the NFL comes down to winning 1-on-1 matchups no matter how clever your schemes might be, but pre-snap movement has been a regular feature of what we’ve seen so far in Owings Mills.

6. Linebacker Courtney Upshaw looks too heavy for the third straight preseason.

Coach John Harbaugh was more complimentary of Upshaw’s conditioning in the spring, but the third-year linebacker looks bigger at the start of training camp than he did during OTAs, continuing a theme of the 2012 second-round pick not taking the best care of his body. In fairness to Upshaw, he hasn’t noticeably labored during his first few practices, but temperatures have also been favorable thus far. He has been solid in his first couple seasons and has flashed potential to be better than that, but it’s just difficult to project a player to improve when he spends too much time playing catchup with his weight every summer. The early expectation is that Upshaw will once again split time with Elvis Dumervil at the strongside outside linebacker position.

7. Rookie defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan has a rare combination of strength and quickness that’s fun to watch.

More attention has been paid to first-round linebacker C.J. Mosley, but Jernigan is becoming an early favorite of Pees as he’s been very active and has shown plenty of power in the trenches early in camp. Brandon Williams is the favorite to line up as the starting nose tackle, but there’s no reason Jernigan won’t be a regular member in the rotation, and his play could be a deciding factor in how the Ravens handle the final year of Haloti Ngata’s contract after the season. Pees quipped on Saturday that Jernigan doesn’t always follow his assignment, but he’ll make a big play anyway, which is pretty high praise for a rookie defensive lineman just a few days into his first training camp.

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