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Ngata’s strong year making difficult decision for Ravens

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Ngata’s strong year making difficult decision for Ravens

Posted on 13 November 2014 by Luke Jones

The future of defensive tackle Haloti Ngata beyond this season has been discussed for quite some time, but his strong play is creating quite a dilemma for the Ravens this winter.

After two underwhelming seasons for his high standards, some predicted this could be Ngata’s final year in Baltimore as he’s scheduled to carry a $16 million salary cap figure in 2015 — the final season of a five-year, $61 million contract inked in 2011 — but his excellent start may have altered that line of thinking. Last offseason, general manager Ozzie Newsome pursued a contract extension with Ngata similar in nature to what the Ravens did with veteran linebacker Terrell Suggs, but talks didn’t go anywhere.

A good finish to 2014 might further complicate discussions as the Ravens obviously won’t want to stomach a $16 million cap hit to allow Ngata to play out the final year of his current contract, but his asking price for an extension only climbs as he continues to play well. Cutting Ngata this winter would clear $8.5 million in cap space, but the Ravens wouldn’t easily replace his presence at defensive tackle.

Unlike the last few seasons, Ngata has remained healthy and has benefited from focusing on the 3-technique defensive tackle spot — lining up on the outside shoulder of the guard — instead of moving around to different positions on the defensive line. Ngata drew plenty of double teams while playing nose tackle and wasn’t quick enough to make a consistent impact when lining up at the 5-technique defensive end spot against an offensive tackle.

This has led to Ngata having “a really standout year” in defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ mind.

“We really haven’t moved him this year. It makes a whole lot of difference up front there,” said Pees, who used Ngata extensively at the nose last season. “Believe it or not, things go on really fast in that little guard-to-guard area and a little slower the farther out that you go, and there’s a lot of difference in that. When you take a guy, move him out to [5-technique] one week and then move him back in there inside the next week, it’s hard. It’s hard to do that. I really think part of it is because we’ve had the ability to leave guys in the same position and not move them all over.”

In 10 games, the 6-foot-4, 340-pound tackle has collected 29 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, and seven pass breakups. Of course, defensive line play is difficult to quantify, but Pro Football Focus has graded Ngata as the third-best 3-4 defensive end in the league behind Houston’s J.J. Watt and New York Jets lineman Muhammad Wilkerson. The Ravens defense is currently allowing 3.4 yards per carry, its best mark since 2009 and good for sixth in the NFL.

Perhaps the easiest way to measure Ngata’s impact has been the game-changing plays he’s made, which you hadn’t seen as often in the last couple years. In Week 8, it was Ngata’s sack and strip of Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton that led to Daryl Smith’s fumble return and the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. Last Sunday, Ngata forced Tennessee running back Shonn Greene to fumble at the goal line on the opening drive, a play that loomed large considering how slowly the Ravens started the game on both sides of the ball.

Of course, the overall depth along the defensive line has improved with the emergence of second-year nose tackle Brandon Williams and the recent play of rookie Timmy Jernigan, two players who figure to play major roles for the unit in the coming years. Their presence has taken pressure off Ngata, but they also force Newsome and the front office to carefully weigh how much they should pay the five-time Pro Bowl selection as he turns 31 in January.

“I think we have a little bit of depth there,” Pees said. “The other thing that goes along with that is a little bit of competition, too. You better not back off too far, or somebody is catching you. Competition is always good for everybody.”

Perhaps that competition has been good for Ngata as he’s playing his best football since 2011, but the Ravens know it’s also making their offeseason decision more difficult as the year progresses.

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Levine works way up Ravens’ ladder to starting defensive role

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Levine works way up Ravens’ ladder to starting defensive role

Posted on 11 November 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — You’d be hard pressed to find too many Ravens fans who knew Anthony Levine’s name prior to Sunday’s 21-7 win over the Tennessee Titans.

Making his first career start for a revamped and injury-riddled secondary that was still licking its wounds from an embarrassing performance in Pittsburgh, the former safety seized the opportunity after previously playing just five defensive snaps in his entire NFL career. Levine finished with four tackles and two pass breakups while also earning Pro Football Focus’ highest single-game grade in pass coverage for any Ravens cornerback not named Jimmy Smith this season.

“I’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” Levine said after Sunday’s win. “To call myself a starting something in the NFL — whether it was safety, corner — I was happy to say that I was a starting corner today for the Baltimore Ravens.”

Of course, Levine’s success came against a rookie quarterback and a Tennessee passing game lacking bite and it remains to be seen if he’ll survive against more potent aerial attacks, but it’s difficult not to feel good for a third-year player who spent parts of three seasons on practice squads — originally with Green Bay and then Baltimore — before even getting a chance as a special-teams contributor. The Tennessee State product played all 16 games for the Ravens last season without receiving a single defensive snap, finishing second on the team in special-teams tackles and serving as the protector on the punt team.

After watching Levine serve as a core member of his units for the last two years, special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg takes pride in seeing him become the latest special-teams player to make the transition to starter. Several former Ravens have made similar jumps in recent years, including linebackers Jameel McClain and Dannell Ellerbe as well as cornerback Corey Graham.

“We hope that our players that are just playing special teams develop into players on their sides of the ball as well,” Rosburg said. “It’s my belief — perhaps it’s a slanted belief — that if you can be a good special-teams player, you should be a good player on offense and defense because it takes a lot of skill to play on special teams. It’s not a surprise to me that he’s developed skills that he can go out there and play for the Ravens in the secondary.”

To be fair, Levine’s opportunity to start wasn’t as much about improvement as it was about the Ravens’ injuries and attrition as the coaching staff didn’t anticipate throwing him into the fire this quickly until the Smith injury made the secondary’s issues even worse. After Levine practiced at safety in his first two years with the Ravens, defensive coordinator Dean Pees and secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo had moved him to cornerback in training camp when injuries to Lardarius Webb, Smith, and Asa Jackson left the secondary shorthanded.

It was a position at which Levine had worked some before, and he’s downplayed the change because of how comfortable he’s always felt backpedaling, a skill needed at both safety and corner. The 27-year-old really began turning heads a couple weeks ago while practicing with the scout team against the starting offense as Pees and Spagnuolo noticed how effectively he was competing against the likes of Steve Smith and Torrey Smith in coverage.

Meanwhile, cornerbacks higher on the depth chart such as Dominique Franks and Chykie Brown continued to struggle, culminating with Ben Roethlisberger’s six-touchdown performance in Pittsburgh on Nov. 2. Two days later, those two were cut and Levine received a text message from Spagnuolo saying to be ready to practice leading up to the Tennessee game.

“He just has run with it. He’s a confident guy that competes,” said Spagnuolo, who told Levine he was starting the morning of the Titans game. “He loves to practice and is passionate about the game. There’s not a guy out there he doesn’t think he can cover. That’s a good quality for a corner.”

Sharing time with newly-acquired veteran Danny Gorrer, the 5-foot-11, 203-pound Levine was strong in run support and did a fine job keeping receivers in front of him, allowing only one reception for 13 yards on three passes thrown his way in coverage. Despite the first-quarter struggles of the defense, Levine made his presence felt on the opening drive when he dropped running back Bishop Sankey on a stretch play for only a 1-yard gain.

The post-game locker room featured several teammates praising Levine as a hard worker who had done everything he could for the opportunity. While most media and fans expected Gorrer to be the one to start at cornerback in the buildup to the Tennessee game, Webb complimented Levine’s performance in practice without being prompted last week, a hint that the special-teams player just might be the next man up.

“We all know that Levine can make plays in practice against the top receivers, Steve and Torrey,” Webb said following the game. “That’s how he is in practice, he’s always going 110 percent on special teams — all phases of special teams — and playing defense. You have to look up to that. He did a great job doing everything. He’s a corner, he’s a playmaker.”

Those labels are different than what Levine’s used to hearing after years as a practice-squad member, special-teams contributor, and scout-team player who remained anonymous with most of the outside football world.

Though the Ravens will continue to face questions in their secondary week after week, Levine was able to provide an answer for at least one Sunday. And he earned another shot after the bye against a more imposing opponent in the New Orleans Saints to prove that he’s not just a special-teams player playing out of position.

“Sometimes you have to be careful of pigeonholing guys like that,” Pees said. “Give them an opportunity, [and] then it’s up to them to run with it. I just think that’s a credit to them when they get the opportunity to seize it.”

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Revamped Ravens secondary passes first test against inexperienced Titans

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Revamped Ravens secondary passes first test against inexperienced Titans

Posted on 09 November 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — On the same day the Ravens shook up their secondary by cutting Chykie Brown and Dominique Franks, backup Anthony Levine received a text message from secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo telling him to be ready.

You’d forgive the reserve safety and special-teams player if he didn’t know exactly what his position coach meant on Tuesday night after he had played all of five defensive snaps through the first nine games of the season, but months of practicing at cornerback finally paid off Sunday with Levine making his first career start in the Ravens’ 21-7 win over the Tennessee Titans. The 27-year-old finished the game with four tackles and two pass breakups while splitting time with the newly-acquired Danny Gorrer at cornerback opposite starter Lardarius Webb.

“It’s something that we’ve kind of been watching for a number of weeks and months, I guess,” said head coach John Harbaugh about Levine’s play. “And he gets better every single week. I guess we’re not going to call him a safety anymore. He deserves to be called a corner, and he deserves it. He has played really well throughout the year, but he showed it in this game.”

After allowing the Titans to march down the field on their first two drives to start the game, the Ravens finally dialed up pressure and the secondary settled down to hold rookie quarterback Zach Mettenberger to just 179 passing yards on 27 attempts. Five sacks and eight quarterback hits allowed the defensive backfield to play with some cushion as the Titans completed only one play greater than 17 yards, a 20-yard completion to Kendall Wright that came late in the fourth quarter when the game was already decided.

A play later, Gorrer made his second career interception in his first game with the Ravens since the 2011 season. It was only the second pick made by a Baltimore defensive back all season, but it was an encouraging sign for a secondary trying to fill the void left by top cornerback Jimmy Smith in the final six games of the season.

Of course, Mettenberger and the Titans’ 24th-ranked passing offense aren’t exactly intimidating threats, but many wondered this week if the Ravens’ current secondary was capable of stopping anybody, making Sunday’s performance something on which to build. If anything, the win was a nice confidence boost before the reality sets in that the Ravens will be facing Pro Bowl quarterbacks Drew Brees and Philip Rivers in consecutive weeks after the bye.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” said Gorrer, who began the week as a member of the Detroit Lions before being waived last Monday and rejoining Baltimore a day later. “This is our profession, so no matter how it goes, you always have to be ready to step in. With Jimmy going down, it was time for me to step in and for the secondary to come together well and play decent.”

Levine and Gorrer weren’t the only ones with strong days in the secondary as rookie safety Terrence Brooks returned to action after being a healthy scratch in the Week 9 loss at Pittsburgh. Entering to play free safety in place of Darian Stewart in obvious passing situations, Brooks delivered what several defensive players called the game-changing play of the day with a vicious — but legal — hit to Delanie Walker that forced an incompletion and knocked the Titans tight end out of the game with a concussion late in the first half.

The Tennessee offense never threatened again and would gain only four more first downs the rest of the way and 45 total yards in the second half.

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees once again used a committee approach to his pass defense with Webb, Gorrer, and Levine playing in the traditional nickel defense, safety Matt Elam serving as a big nickel for extra run support at times, and Will Hill making his second straight start at the safety position, registering three tackles and a pass breakup.

The questions will remain in the secondary, but Sunday provided a glimmer of hope that the secondary — supported with a consistent pass rush — might be able to hold up enough to keep the Ravens within striking distance of their sixth playoff appearance in the last seven years.

“We won, so I feel like we played well,” Levine said. “That was the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal was to win, and not get beat deep — and I don’t think they had any big plays today. I think we did a good job.”

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Ravens moving forward with Hill as starting safety

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Ravens moving forward with Hill as starting safety

Posted on 06 November 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After receiving his first start in last Sunday’s loss in Pittsburgh, Ravens safety Will Hill will continue to be featured in the base defense for the foreseeable future.

Starting next to Darian Stewart in the secondary, Hill played 60 of 69 defensive snaps in the 43-23 loss to the Steelers after being eased into the rotation in his first two games coming off a six-week suspension to begin the season. Even though Hill missed a tackle on Antonio Brown’s 54-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter, the Ravens deemed his performance in Week 9 strong enough to move forward with him in a starting role.

“I’m planning on him being the safety,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “The first week we thought, ‘It’s his first week back’ [and] played him a little bit. Our plan was to get him in there and get him playing, and [that's] the only way he’s going to get better.”

The Ravens were impressed with what they saw from Hill throughout training camp even though they knew he wouldn’t be available for their first six games. Hill had played well in his 10 starts with the New York Giants last season, but the organization cut him in the spring after the ban was announced for a violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy, his third suspension in his first three years in the NFL.

At 6-foot-1 and 207 pounds, Hill is a better fit to cover imposing tight ends in the passing game than the Ravens’ other options in the defensive backfield. The Ravens have given extensive playing time to Stewart, 2013 first-round pick Matt Elam, and third-round rookie Terrence Brooks with disappointing results so far this season.

Baltimore hopes Hill will finally bring some level of stability after getting acclimated over the last three games.

“He’s a physical presence,” Pees said. “I really do think that when he gets a little more comfortable, I think you’re going to see some range in the deep part of the field, which is really what we need at safety. We need some guys that can go hawk the ball from back there deep and go make plays on the ball. I think he has that ability.”

With Thursday’s news of cornerback Jimmy Smith undergoing season-ending foot surgery, the Ravens need a play-maker to emerge in the back end and Hill’s on-field reputation in New York suggests he could provide a boost to a struggling pass defense as he gets more comfortable.

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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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Personnel diversity providing improved results for Ravens offense

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Personnel diversity providing improved results for Ravens offense

Posted on 16 October 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — New faces, new injuries, and a new system would be more than enough for the Ravens offense to be struggling through the first six weeks of the 2014 season.

Except it hasn’t.

In fact, a year after searching up and down the roster — and outside of it — for solutions to cure the offensive woes, the eighth-ranked unit in the NFL now finds itself with plenty of diversity that’s provided different results as the Ravens are off to a 4-2 record. Tied for fifth in points per game, Baltimore has transformed its offense from a liability to a strength in less than a year’s time as they’ve already scored 26 or more points three times compared to last year’s total of four games reaching that barrier.

Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak is still chasing consistency with his unit — the Ravens have two games in which they’ve scored fewer than 17 points — but the overall results have been impressive in his first season on John Harbaugh’s staff.

“We just have to stay focused on us. That’s what I told the guys,” Kubiak said. “Let’s not get too consumed with who’re playing or those types of things. If we play the way we’re capable of playing and do our jobs, we’re probably going to move the football.”

While it’s obvious the offseason additions of Steve Smith, Jeremy Zuttah, Owen Daniels, and Justin Forsett have paid significant dividends, the Ravens have faced plenty of adversity on the offensive side of the ball that could have led to their demise. The abrupt release of Ray Rice and the season-ending injury to Dennis Pitta took away a large portion of production from past seasons, but Baltimore has thrived without them.

Three running backs — Forsett, Bernard Pierce, and Lorenzo Taliaferro — have received at least 40 carries each and the Ravens are averaging 4.7 yards per carry, good for sixth in the NFL. Viewed as little more than a depth signing in the offseason, Forsett has averaged a league-best 6.4 yards per carry, which is more than twice as productive as the Ravens’ league-worst 3.1 yards per attempt in 2013.

“He gets the most out of his ability,” said Kubiak about the 29-year-old Forsett, who’s already rushed for more yards in 2014 than his two previous seasons combined. “He’s not the biggest guy in the world, but he does a great job in pass protection. He’s a three-down player, so he’s a guy that you can keep on the field all the time in what you’re doing. The thing he’s doing right now [is] he’s finding a way to make a big play every week.”

The Ravens’ three-headed monster at running back has been discussed at length, but they continue to use an extensive collection of pass catchers for quarterback Joe Flacco to throw to. The 35-year-old Smith has clearly led the way with 35 catches for 573 yards and four touchdowns, but 13 different players have already caught passes this season with rookie Michael Campanaro and former practice-squad member Kamar Aiken catching their first career scores last week.

The different personnel groupings at the receiver position have allowed Kubiak to keep the veteran Smith as well as Torrey Smith fresh during games, but they’ve also created problems for opposing defenses. It’s been a pleasant change from last season when the Ravens did see 15 different players catch passes, but Flacco struggled to find any he could consistently rely on to make plays beyond Torrey Smith and Marlon Brown.

Those weapons have made it easier for Flacco, who’s posted a career-high 97.8 passer rating and is on pace to throw a personal-best 32 touchdowns compared to just eight interceptions.

“The one thing as an offense you never want to be is predictable,” Steve Smith said. “A lot of times people may think when these [younger] guys come in, it’s not a pass play — it’s not a play where they’re getting the ball. So, that just shows you that we do have guys that may not be starters but have the big-play ability [against] other teams and in the game. That just shows that those guys can play.”

Perhaps no other position group has benefited from improved depth more than the offensive line, which has become arguably the Ravens’ biggest strength in 2014 after it was nothing short of a disaster last year.

Zuttah and Rick Wagner have solidified the center and right tackle positions, respectively, but the Ravens have remained successful even with injuries to left tackle Eugene Monroe and left guard Kelechi Osemele. The Ravens have won two of the three games in which rookie free agent James Hurst has started at left tackle for Monroe and are 1-0 with rookie John Urschel playing in place of Osemele.

Those were the kinds of injuries the Ravens couldn’t overcome last year, but the offensive line has continued to thrive in Kubiak’s system.

“It’s not just us,” said right guard Marhal Yanda about the improvement. “It’s the backs, it’s Joe [Flacco], it’s the tight ends, it’s Gary — it’s everybody. We’re in this thing together, and it’s definitely going well for us. We’ve had a couple of hiccups, but we’re just trying to continue to be consistent and get after them.”

It’s been a “strength in numbers” mindset with results that couldn’t be much better. And the struggles of last year become more and more faint.

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Monroe returns to practice as Ravens continue to get healthier

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Monroe returns to practice as Ravens continue to get healthier

Posted on 16 October 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — It remains unclear whether Eugene Monroe will play in Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Falcons, but the Ravens left tackle took a significant step in his recovery from arthroscopic knee surgery by returning to practice on Thursday.

The 27-year-old worked on a limited basis for the first time since undergoing surgery on Sept. 24. In his absence, the Ravens have turned to rookie free agent James Hurst to handle a starting role with Baltimore going 2-1 over that stretch.

It would be ambitious to assume Monroe will be ready to play against Atlanta after a three-week layoff, but his return to the practice field bodes well for his status in next week’s key AFC North road meeting with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Four players on the 53-man roster did not participate Thursday as defensive tackle Christo Bilukidi (ankle), defensive end Chris Canty (wrist surgery), tight end Owen Daniels, and linebacker Daryl Smith were listed on the official injury report. Daniels and Smith each received a veteran day off after practicing without incident on Wednesday.

Starting left guard Kelechi Osemele (knee) practiced on a limited basis for the second straight day, an encouraging sign for his availability against the Falcons. The third-year lineman missed last Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay after hyperextending his knee in the Week 5 loss to Indianapolis.

The Ravens used Hurst and fifth-round rookie John Urschel on the left side of their line in the 48-17 win over the Buccaneers. Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak couldn’t recall every playing a game in which two rookies were starting and entrusted to protect the quarterback’s blindside.

“Never been around that. That was something else,” Kubiak said. “But, boy, you have to be proud of them. They worked really hard, and I think the guys around them played hard. Usually when you have a young guy step in, it’s about everybody else playing a little bit better, so you have to give the whole group credit for the way they stepped up.”

Defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (meniscus surgery) practiced fully for the second straight day and could make his return to game action since injuring his knee in the win over Pittsburgh on Sept. 11.

Safety Will Hill and defensive tackle Terrence Cody continued practicing after making their respective returns to the field Wednesday. The Ravens have a one-week exemption to decide Hill’s status after his six-game suspension expired this past Sunday, and many have pondered whether he’ll eventually emerge as the starting free safety in the secondary.

“We expect him to be a very, very good player back there,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “I think he’s very smart. He’s really kept up on everything. I think he’s done a good job the few days he’s been back practicing. It’ll be interesting to see how he progresses, but we think he’s the real deal.”

Meanwhile, the Falcons continue to be banged up at the wide receiver position as Harry Douglas remains sidelined with a foot injury and wideouts Julio Jones (ankle) and Devin Hester (hamstring) were limited participants for the second consecutive practice. Douglas has missed Atlanta’s last three games with a deep bruise.

Here is Thursday’s official injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: DT Christo Bilukidi (ankle), DE Chris Canty (wrist), TE Owen Daniels (non-injury), LB Daryl Smith (non-injury)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: WR Kamar Aiken (concussion), T Eugene Monroe (knee), G Kelechi Osemele (knee)
FULL PARTICIPATION: WR Marlon Brown (pelvis), DT Timmy Jernigan (knee)

ATLANTA
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: WR Harry Douglas (foot)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: WR Devin Hester (hamstring), WR Julio Jones (ankle), LB Prince Shembo (knee)
FULL PARTICIPATION: DT Jonathan Babineaux (knee), G Justin Blalock (back), LB Nate Stupar (knee)

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Ravens secondary still waiting on Webb to get up to game speed

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Ravens secondary still waiting on Webb to get up to game speed

Posted on 25 September 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After much anticipation for the 2014 debut of Lardarius Webb last Sunday, the Ravens only needed to see Andrew Hawkins easily shake free from the veteran cornerback to realize the time wasn’t yet right.

The shifty receiver completely turned around Webb on a simple out route that went for 24 yards on the opening drive of the third quarter to put Cleveland in Baltimore territory, and it all but ended Webb’s day as he played only four defensive snaps in the eventual 23-21 win for the Ravens. Three weeks of full participation in practice hadn’t compensated for Webb missing nearly all of training camp after being sidelined with back spasms on July 25. Since returning to practice at the end of August, Webb has needed to knock off rust and improve his flexibility in bending for the critically-important backpedal that all cornerbacks need.

“We found out really quick,” said defensive coordinator Dean Pees about Webb’s performance in Cleveland. “And I had a great talk with him on Monday, and he understands. When I saw it [coaching] in the press box, I said, ‘He’s not there yet.’ And game speed is faster than practice speed. There’s no way to simulate it. But he has to keep practicing, and he has to feel very confident that he can do it. That’s half the battle playing the back end; you better feel confident that you can do it.”

The secondary has struggled without a healthy and effective Webb as the Ravens’ pass defense is ranked 24th in the NFL and is allowing 262.3 passing yards per game. The combination of Asa Jackson and Chykie Brown hasn’t inspired confidence when either has played opposite Jimmy Smith in the base defense, and the Ravens haven’t received good play at safety where Matt Elam and Darian Stewart have struggled.

Webb hasn’t been listed on the injury report this week as the Ravens prepare for Sunday’s meeting against the Carolina Panthers, which suggests he could see an expanded role from what we saw in Cleveland. The 6-foot-2 Smith is likely to match up with 6-foot-5 rookie Kelvin Benjamin — who leads the Panthers with 19 catches for 253 yards — but the rest of the Panthers’ group of wide receivers doesn’t inspire fear beyond tight end Greg Olsen, who has caught 16 passes for 224 yards through three games.

Pees has tinkered with various alignments in the back end of the defense including the use of Elam as a slot corner, which reflects how little depth the Ravens have had at the cornerback position. A healthy Webb, who is at his best playing inside in the nickel package, would give Pees some flexibility to show different looks since Jackson is also capable of playing the nickel position. However, the Ravens need to finally see a version of Webb ready to play 60 to 70 snaps per game at a high level before making any decisions about the makeup of the secondary.

“We would be fortunate if we had both those guys, because each one of them could play [inside],” Pees said. “The other guy would go outside. We have to make that determination once he’s back.”

Even with Webb’s absence taken into account, Pees isn’t pleased with how his pass defense has performed, even acknowledging Thursday that he needs to do a better job of mixing coverages and pressures as the Ravens have relied heavily on a mostly-ineffective four-man rush and soft zone coverage through the first three weeks of the season.

Elam and others pointed to miscommunication being a problem after Sunday’s game as Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer threw for nearly 300 yards last Sunday, but Pees bristled at the suggestion, perhaps implying that he wants to see defensive backs take more accountability for mishaps. The signature play of the secondary’s problems came in the fourth quarter when Elam was beaten by Browns wide receiver Taylor Gabriel for a 70-yard reception that included the second-year safety looking back at Jackson instead of touching the wideout down before he got up from the ground to gain extra yardage.

“‘Miscommunication’ would not be one of the words I would have used,” said Pees in evaluating the pass defense. “I would have said very poor technique in the back end. There are a couple of them [where] there wasn’t any communication [needed]. Just line up and play and play your position. We were beat on a three-deep coverage that I don’t know what communication is there other than, ‘Get your [butt] deep.’”

Three-headed monster

The Ravens have a three-headed monster shaping up at the running back position that they haven’t enjoyed since 2008 when Le’Ron McClain, Willis McGahee, and Ray Rice combined to rush for 2,027 yards in John Harbaugh’s first year as head coach.

Justin Forsett, Bernard Pierce, and Lorenzo Taliaferro have all made major contributions to the league’s eighth-ranked rushing attack in the wake of Rice’s release, so it isn’t easy predicting who will receive the biggest workload moving forward. Pierce practiced fully on Wednesday and Thursday, but the Ravens continue to monitor his improvement from a quadriceps injury that sidelined him for last Sunday’s game.

Taliaferro’s 91-yard game in Cleveland has led many to conclude he should be the starter moving forward, but the Ravens have maintained all along that they’ll go with the hot hand in the backfield. And they figure to have another good opportunity Sunday with the Carolina defense allowing 145.3 yards per game on the ground.

“I still go out there just as I did since I got here,” Taliaferro said. “Just make sure I do my job and compete. Even though it’s during the season and not so much of camp now, we’re still competing not just for each other’s job, but to make each other better.”

A rush-by-committee approach is nothing new for offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who guided a number of rushing attacks years ago in Denver where unknown names such as Mike Anderson and Olandis Gary would suddenly emerge as 1,000-yard backs.

Pierce and Taliaferro bring more power and physicality in their rushing style while Forsett is more of a change of pace on third down, but Kubiak also pointed out other differences such as ability to pass protect and the special-teams contributions made by Forsett and Taliaferro that factor into the overall distribution of playing time.

“Lorenzo and Justin are three-down players that play in pass-protection situations, nickel situations, and those types of things,” Kubiak said. “That’s where Bernard needs to keep coming as a player, in my opinion, but he’s working at it and doing that.”

Of course, the biggest reason for the dramatic improvement of the Ravens’ running game has been the offensive line where running lanes have been created consistently unlike last season when the running game averaged only 3.1 yards per carry.

And their strong performance makes the debate over who will carry the ball less significant.

“I think we’re really confident in our running game, and I definitely think that starts with our offensive line,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “They have done a great job in this system, and they really lead the way. And I think you can see that [because] we had three different backs all have big days.”

Replacing Pitta

The offseason arrivals of wide receiver Steve Smith and tight end Owen Daniels have eased the season-ending loss of Dennis Pitta a bit, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be growing pains within the Baltimore offense.

Of course, the Ravens are more equipped to handle Pitta’s hip injury than they were a year ago, but they will still depend on Daniels and rookie Crockett Gillmore to pick up the slack for one of quarterback Joe Flacco’s favorite targets. Phillip Supernaw was promoted from the practice squad to take Pitta’s place on the 53-man roster, but it remains to be seen what kind of role he can carve out for himself beyond special teams.

“It does make you stop in some of your preparation,” Kubiak said. “‘What happens in the game if this guy goes down? Now what do I go to? What personnel [groups] do I want to be in?’ Those are some things that you have to look at a little bit differently when you have these types of things happen.”

Juszczyk is another option who could see some more opportunities as the fullback has the ability to line up at tight end. He caught three passes for 54 yards and his first touchdown against the Browns last Sunday.

His emergence in the short passing game would be a welcome addition with Pitta no longer an option.

“I don’t think my role will change too much,” Juszczyk said. “I think I’ll be doing a lot of the same stuff I’ve been doing, but maybe more of it.”

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Ravens out to prove they’re not spinning their wheels in 2014

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Ravens out to prove they’re not spinning their wheels in 2014

Posted on 05 September 2014 by Luke Jones

Figuring out what to make of the Ravens isn’t easy as they open the 2014 season against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday afternoon.

Coming off their first non-playoff season of the John Harbaugh era, the Ravens have expressed confidence that 2013 was an aberration as significant roster turnover and injuries not only derailed their chances of repeating as Super Bowl champions but led to an 8-8 season that left them sitting at home in January.

The optimists will point to the Ravens playing in a league-high nine games decided by three or fewer points and suggest they easily could have made the playoffs had they done a smidgen better than their 5-4 mark in those contests. But the critics will say that record could have been a game or two worse while reminding that the Ravens allowed 32 more points than they produced a year ago and were outscored by 51 in their final two games in which they had the opportunity to lock up a playoff berth.

After six weeks of summer practice and a 4-0 record in the preseason, it’s easy to say this year will be different until you tee it off for real as the Ravens will against the defending AFC North champions at M&T Bank Stadium. In reality, there is plenty of unknown on each side of the football.

“It’s kind of like the first hit in a game or of training camp when you come back,” Harbaugh said. “There’s anxiety and excitement, but there’s anxiety until you get that first hit, and as soon as you get the first hit, the game is on and you’re playing. It’s a little bit like that with the opener.”

Yes, even with the opportunity to play in front of their home crowd to begin their 19th season in Baltimore, the Ravens face a major challenge in taking on the Bengals, who are viewed by many as the most talented team in the division despite an underwhelming offseason and the departure of offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. Playing three straight division games to start the year gives the Ravens the opportunity to take early control of the AFC North, but it could also leave them with an immediate uphill climb if they’re slow to answer the regular-season bell.

Needless to say, the objective of the offseason was fixing the league’s 29th-ranked offense that averaged a league-worst 3.1 yards per carry and just 20.0 points per game. The hiring of coordinator Gary Kubiak and the acquisitions of five-time Pro Bowl receiver Steve Smith, veteran center Jeremy Zuttah, and tight end Owen Daniels don’t exactly make it a bold statement to suggest the offense will be better.

How much improvement we see will begin and end with an offensive line that was an utter disaster a year ago. Injured and undersized on the interior, the Ravens were manhandled at the point of attack and struggled to protect quarterback Joe Flacco. The revamped group paved the way for a successful running game in limited opportunities in the preseason but still showed too many leaks in pass protection, meaning the jury’s still out on offensive line coach Juan Castillo’s group. Guards Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele and left tackle Eugene Monroe are expected to be anchors, but how well Zuttah and second-year right tackle Rick Wagner hold up against talented fronts like Cincinnati’s will be a more telling test.

Smith and Daniels give Flacco more weapons in the passing game, but age is a legitimate variable in determining how much of an impact they’ll make. The 35-year-old Smith quelled some concerns with an outstanding summer, but it remains to be seen whether he will be able to bring that same impact over the course of 16 weeks. Meanwhile, Daniels didn’t exactly look like a difference-maker this summer before a hamstring injury sidelined him for two weeks, making you question whether Dennis Pitta will have much help behind him at the tight end position.

Kubiak’s arrival signals a clear return to the Ravens’ long-held commitment to run the football, but his variation of the West Coast offense should empower Flacco to make quicker decisions to neutralize potential issues with pass protection. Even if the offensive line is able to open running lanes for Bernard Pierce and the currently-suspended Ray Rice, the Ravens will ultimately go as far as their franchise quarterback will take them in what’s intended to be a more balanced offense.

“I don’t know how to describe it, but I think the biggest thing for us is to be good at doing the little things,” Flacco said. “The base things in this offense and coming up with little things to throw defenses off here and there. But I don’t know how to describe it. I don’t know if versatile is the word, or what not, but I can tell you that I feel very comfortable in it. I think all of our guys feel very comfortable running it.”

Will there be early-season growing pains with a new system predicated on quicker passes and good timing? Historically, those aren’t the types of routes with which Flacco has been particularly effective as he’s often been criticized for not getting rid of the football quickly enough. The Ravens are confident that Smith can at least provide another third-down option to go along with the dependable Pitta.

Yes, the offense will be improved, but how much better will it be in relation to last year’s incredibly low standard? Will they simply manage to crack the top 20, or will the Ravens find themselves in the top third of the league?

“It’s time to go find out. I wouldn’t say we’ve held anything back,” said Kubiak of his offense’s preparation for the regular season. “They’ve handled things really well, so we continue to progress forward as far as the load in what we give them. Obviously, you’re trying to put them all in position to do what they do best, but we’re starting against a great group — a team that was a Top 5 defensive team last year. We have a big, big challenge this weekend, but that’s part of this league.”

Even if you’re buying what Kubiak and the offense are selling, the bigger concern might exist on the opposite side of the ball even though the Ravens ranked 12th in total defense last season. The overall numbers were respectable, but the pass rush declined in the second half of the season and two significant pieces departed in the offseason with defensive tackle Arthur Jones and No. 3 cornerback Corey Graham finding new homes in free agency.

The front seven hopes the infusion of second-year nose tackle Brandon Williams and 2014 first-round linebacker C.J. Mosley will pay dividends — both were impressive during the preseason — but the other five starting members of that group (Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs, Chris Canty, Daryl Smith, and Elvis Dumervil) are all 30 or older. That’s not to say those core members of the defense won’t make significant contributions in 2014, but it’s easy to see some correlation with age and the defense’s fourth-quarter struggles and disappointing finish a year ago.

Of particular importance will be the pass-rushing duo of Suggs and Dumervil, who combined for 19 1/2 sacks in 2013 but collected only two in the final seven games. With a secondary that was hampered by injuries during training camp and is just now back on the practice field, the Ravens need to put heat on quarterback Andy Dalton to keep wide receiver A.J. Green and the Bengals’ other pass-catching threats from shaking free in the event of rust or miscommunication on the back end of the defense.

“The sense of urgency, it never changes if you’re a true front seven,” Suggs said. “They’re the defending division champions, and [Dalton] has shown that he can lead his team. If we already didn’t have a sense of urgency, then we’re hustling backwards, we’re not prepared to play. It didn’t heighten just because we had some guys out [during] camp.”

Yes, the Ravens finally appear healthy in the secondary as cornerbacks Lardarius Webb, Jimmy Smith, and Asa Jackson are now practicing at full strength, but the extended absence of Webb remains a concern as defensive coordinator Dean Pees was unable to determine which nickel alignment would work best for his defense this summer. Webb is better suited to defend the slot in the nickel package, but Jackson is also more of an inside corner and the other outside options — Chykie Brown and the newly-signed Derek Cox — don’t inspire confidence. In this pass-happy era of the NFL, it’s not a comforting feeling to be without a known commodity at the No. 3 cornerback spot.

Though injuries didn’t necessarily plague the safety position, it’s unclear whether the tandem of 2013 first-round pick Matt Elam and newcomer Darian Stewart are even as effective as Elam and former strong safety James Ihedigbo were a year ago, let alone whether they’ll be more dynamic. Neither played particularly well in the preseason as the Ravens hope Elam playing closer to the line of scrimmage will allow him to utilize the skill set that made him a standout at the University of Florida. It only appears to be a matter of time before third-round pick Terrence Brooks supplants Stewart at free safety, but it’s an awful lot to ask a rookie to handle that position with Baltimore’s sophisticated coverages.

Beyond the healthy tandem of Smith and Webb, the secondary appears vulnerable and could be in serious trouble if the front seven can’t make quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket.

In sizing up the Ravens entering the 2014 season, it’s fair to wonder whether they will find themselves spinning their wheels with an improved offense but a defense in apparent danger of taking a step or two in the wrong direction.

Perhaps the biggest cause for optimism is the current state of the AFC North with the Bengals not taking the necessary offseason steps to become a true Super Bowl contender, the Steelers appearing to be in a state between good and bad, and the Browns still being, well, the Browns. Barring key injuries, there’s no reason to believe the Ravens won’t be in contention for the division title along with Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, but there are too many unknowns to give them a distinct edge beyond the natural optimism existing in most cities around the NFL entering Week 1.

History suggests you don’t count out the Harbaugh-led Ravens, but it will be fascinating to see how the coach and his team respond after their first failure as it relates to making the postseason. For now, the Ravens are saying all the right things about their outlook.

“I like our team a lot. I would go so far to say I love our team,” Harbaugh said. “I love the way they work. I love the way they treat one another. I love the way they bleed with one another. I believe in this football team. There’s no question in my mind that this team is destined for some very special things. But now you have to do it.”

Sunday will be the Ravens’ initial chance to begin proving it to those who aren’t convinced.

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