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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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Webb injury makes cornerback no secondary concern for Ravens

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Webb injury makes cornerback no secondary concern for Ravens

Posted on 02 August 2014 by Luke Jones

The Ravens entered training camp with cornerback depth high on the list of concerns following the free-agent departure of Corey Graham and the lack of a significant offseason addition through free agency or the draft.

The anxiety has only grown with a lingering back injury for starter Lardarius Webb that is likely to keep him sidelined for most of the preseason, according to head coach John Harbaugh. Webb “probably” won’t play in the first two preseason games and could even miss the all-important third game of the summer despite tests revealing no structural damage to the sixth-year defensive back.

“He has some things going on in there that aren’t long-term things,” Harbaugh said. “I’m not going to get into it and give you the exact diagnosis of it. It’s probably as much me as anything. This early part of camp –- I just don’t want to put him through this on his back. He’s had sports hernia surgery [earlier in the offseason], also. There’s still some scar tissue in there. I just would rather keep him out of this first part of training camp, and we’ll just see how it feels more toward the end of camp.”

As anyone could tell you, back injuries are tricky, and there’s no guarantee that Webb will be in the clear even when he returns to action. The Ravens are taking the prudent approach considering the regular-season opener against Cincinnati is still more than a month away, but that will only quell concerns so much in a day and age when the NFL is all about defending the passing game.

Entering the summer, the competition was already wide open for the No. 3 cornerback spot with young defensive backs Chykie Brown and Asa Jackson expected to be pushed by veterans Aaron Ross and Dominique Franks, who were both signed following June’s mandatory minicamp. Instead, Ross tore his Achilles tendon taking the conditioning test at the start of camp and Franks took several days to pass the test to even get on the field. The former Atlanta Falcons cornerback has done very little to distinguish himself while working with the second- and third-string defenses in practice.

Rookie free agents Tramain Jacobs, Deji Olatoye, and Sammy Seamster have all flashed ability and are intriguing candidates to potentially make the 53-man roster, but none can reasonably be counted on to handle a significant defensive role in Week 1.

The only certainty right now is 2011 first-round pick Jimmy Smith handling one of the starting spots.

“Somebody has to rise to the top,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “The cream has to come to the top and somebody has to take the job, and I don’t know right now who that is. I feel pretty good about Jimmy Smith on the one side, and then there’s a lot of competition over on the other side. Right now, I couldn’t tell you who that is. Those guys just have to keep competing.”

Through the early stages of camp, Jackson has played better than Brown, but neither has shown enough consistency to feel comfortable about penciling one into the nickel defense. When it comes to experience, Brown has the edge as he’s filled in as an outside corner in the nickel due to injuries while Jackson has yet to play a defensive snap as he enters his third season.

Pees and secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo prefer to slide Webb inside in the nickel package where his ability to play the run and blitz can be better utilized, and Brown is better suited to play outside, but the 2011 fifth-round pick consistently struggles to find the football in coverage. Meanwhile, Jackson is more of an inside corner with a height listed at 5-foot-10.

“That’s something that I went into this latest break trying to really work on and really working on my technique on the outside,” Jackson told AM 1570 WNST.net last week. “Being a smaller guy, it gets a little hairy out there sometimes, but I’ve put in a lot of good work this offseason. I’m excited to keep trying to improve and play on the outside.”

The Ravens have experimented with a variety of different looks including moving strong safety Matt Elam to the nickel spot, but it’s fair to wonder whether the defense’s No. 3 cornerback isn’t currently on the roster. General manager Ozzie Newsome has found contributors who have become available at the end of the preseason in the past, but there’s no guarantee a quality cornerback will shake free with the pass-happy nature of the league and the premium placed on coverage.

Newsome spoke highly of Brown and Jackson throughout the offseason, but the inability to add an impact cornerback this offseason is even more concerning with the absence of Webb.

“We may do some things that I may not normally do in a game just to put those guys out there and see what they can do,” Pees said. “This is the time to experiment and see if they can do it — not when the season starts.”

Of course, the Ravens are expressing confidence that Webb will be ready to go by the end of the summer, but they’ll need to find a comfort level with their No. 3 cornerback before they can even begin thinking about how to align the defense should Webb’s absence linger into the regular season.

It’s not a comfortable place to be with a group of unproven and unheralded cornerbacks competing for what has essentially become a starting position in the NFL. And that discomfort becomes a nightmare if the Ravens aren’t being completely transparent about Webb’s injured back.

For now, Harbaugh and his coaching staff can only hope one of the young cornerbacks answers the bell while Newsome keeps his eyes peeled for what might become available through trade or free agency.

“There is a lot of competition out here for that third spot,” Jackson said. “I think we’re all kind of raising each other’s level of play. Hopefully, we can keep doing that and then once the games get here, it’ll sort out how it will.”

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Ravens LB Brown impressed by DC Pees’ off-field leadership

Posted on 23 April 2014 by WNST Audio

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Ravens-Bengals: Five predictions for Sunday

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Ravens-Bengals: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 28 December 2013 by Luke Jones

No strangers to entering Week 17 with work to do to make it to the postseason, the Ravens have never entered the final game needing a win and help from other teams under John Harbaugh as they try to beat the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.

A win would give Baltimore its sixth straight winning season under Harbaugh, but the Ravens would also need a loss by either Miami or San Diego to extend their season into January and give them a chance to defend their Super Bowl title. Of course, Baltimore’s playoff chances wouldn’t completely vanish with a loss, but losses by Miami, San Diego, and Pittsburgh would be required to land the Ravens in the postseason with an 8-8 record.

Even though the Bengals wrapped up the AFC North championship with a win and Baltimore’s loss to New England last Sunday, the Ravens won the first meeting between these teams earlier this season by forcing three turnovers and taking advantage of 134 yards in penalties committed by Cincinnati. The Bengals have been a different team at home this year as they are 7-0 and have scored more than 40 points in each of their last four contests at Paul Brown Stadium.

It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet to conclude the regular season for the fourth straight year — the last three in Cincinnati — and for the 36th time overall in the last 18 years. The Ravens have won five of the last six against Cincinnati and lead the overall series by a 20-15 margin, but the Bengals are 10-7 against Baltimore playing at home.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens hope to win and receive help to advance to the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season …

1. Torrey Smith eclipses 100 receiving yards for the first time since Oct. 6 to set the single-season franchise record for receiving yards. The third-year wideout looked to be on his way to the Pro Bowl after collecting at least 85 receiving yards in each of his first five games, but he’s hit that mark only once since then as he and quarterback Joe Flacco just haven’t looked to be on the same page. Teams have used plenty of single-high safeties shading him to take away the deep ball, but the Ravens haven’t been able to take advantage on the opposite side. However, the speedy Jacoby Jones has been a bigger factor recently and tight end Dennis Pitta is now in the picture, which will allow Smith to recapture his early-season success with a long catch and his first 100-yard game since Oct. 6 to break Michael Jackson’s team record of 1,201 receiving yards set in 1996.

2. Flacco will show improved mobility, but his left knee will still be an issue as the Bengals bring plenty of inside pressure to collect four sacks. Nothing went well against New England last week, but the sixth-year quarterback must play at a much higher level for the Ravens to have a good chance to beat Cincinnati on the road. Once again wearing a brace this week, Flacco showed better mobility in the second half against New England, but Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is notorious for bringing pressure up the middle, an area where the Baltimore offensive line has struggled mightily all year. Flacco played poorly against Cincinnati earlier in the year — two interceptions and only 3.9 yards per passing attempt — and will fare better than that, but he will be under duress too much against the league’s fifth-ranked defense on Sunday afternoon.

3. Giovani Bernard will run for a touchdown and catch another as a matchup problem against the Ravens defense. Trying to contain Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green is always the top priority when you play the Bengals, but defensive coordinator Dean Pees and his unit must be mindful of the rookie Bernard, who had 22 touches for 97 total yards in Week 10 and is very dangerous in open space. The Ravens have struggled against shifty running backs such as Reggie Bush, Le’Veon Bell, and Matt Forte this season and Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton will try to find Bernard underneath often with the status of tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert in doubt due to injuries. With rain potentially in the forecast for Sunday, Dalton will use Bernard in a way similar to Flacco finding running back Ray Rice earlier in his career, and the rookie will have a big day.

4. Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs combine for three sacks, but the Baltimore defense is unable to force turnovers like it did when these teams met in early November. This pass-rushing duo has failed to make the same impact down the stretch as in the first half, but Dumervil’s best game of the year came against the Bengals when he collected three sacks lining up primarily against Andre Smith and Suggs will no longer be lining up against nemesis Andrew Whitworth, who has moved inside to left guard due to injuries. The Ravens must harass Dalton as they did in November when they pressured him into throwing three interceptions, but the Bengals haven’t turned it over at home — going plus-eight in turnovers in seven home games — and the third-year quarterback will be smart with the football knowing his team is playing a below-average offense.

5. The Ravens will battle, but a tired group that’s been poor on the road all year will fall 27-19 to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2007. The history of the Harbaugh era tells you the Ravens will figure out some way to win this game against a superior team and receive the necessary help to sneak into the playoffs, but nothing lasts forever and Baltimore’s poor performance last week smelled of fatigue and being overmatched. The Ravens received some good fortune during their four-game winning streak, but the same issues were there with a below-average offense lacking a running game and a defense that plays well overall but doesn’t force turnovers or consistently finish games. They have the pride to compete with the Bengals, but a season that included too much mediocrity, a 4-6 start, and a 2-5 road record entering Sunday ends with the Ravens staying home in January.

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Ravens hoping tough mystique resurfaces in Cincinnati

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Ravens hoping tough mystique resurfaces in Cincinnati

Posted on 26 December 2013 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens say they’ve turned the page from their embarrassing loss to New England last Sunday, but the truth is staring them right in the face.

In addition to their playoff hopes taking a hit, their pride was significantly wounded by the Patriots, who beat them up for 60 minutes at M&T Bank Stadium. The Ravens simply aren’t used to losing games of that significance in that manner under head coach John Harbaugh, making you wonder how they’ll respond in traveling to Cincinnati to take on the Bengals in a must-win game on Sunday.

This year marks the fourth consecutive time Baltimore will conclude the regular season against the Bengals, who clinched the AFC North title and their third consecutive playoff berth with a win over Minnesota in Week 16. The Ravens will finish their 16-game schedule at Paul Brown Stadium for the third straight year, but the stakes have never been quite like this.

After beating Cincinnati in a 20-17 overtime final in Baltimore earlier this season, the Ravens hope their familiarity and winning mystique will be major assets in trying to top the Bengals while hoping that either Miami or San Diego will fall to give them the No. 6 seed and a sixth consecutive trip to the postseason. However, the Bengals still have eyes on a first-round bye if they can dispose of the Ravens and receive some help from Buffalo against the Patriots.

“We’re used to these guys. They’re a good defense,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “They have been for a few years now. It’s always a good test to play a division opponent, especially in their place. They have a lot to play for; we have a lot to play for. It’s going to be a good game, a good test.”

A good test, indeed, as the Bengals are 7-0 at home on the season and have scored more than 40 points in each of their last four home games. In contrast, Baltimore has scored more than 20 points on the road just twice this season on the way to posting a 2-5 away record.

The Ravens must fight the urge to watch the scoreboard while facing the daunting task of slowing the league’s 10th-ranked offense and moving the ball against the NFL’s fifth-best defense in yards allowed. Given the Bengals’ long history of losing and the Ravens’ great success against them — winning five of the last six meetings — there are reasons to be optimistic that the Ravens will find a way as they often have with their backs against the wall, but it’s still difficult to eliminate the bad taste from last Sunday.

The hard-nosed and winning pedigree that had so many labeling the Ravens as the team no one would want to face in the AFC playoffs just a week ago now appears to be in grave doubt. Losing their grip on a direct path to the postseason, the Ravens can only focus on beating the Bengals on the road like they did two years ago to clinch a division title and first-round bye.

Nothing else really matters if they can’t handle their own business.

“The guys know the scenarios. They’re not living in a vacuum,” Harbaugh said. “They understand what else has to happen. But our job and our task as one single-minded purpose is to win the next game.”

As much as the Ravens will point to their track record in big games, that history came with more-talented teams than this year’s version. Major offensive deficiencies coupled with a good — but not elite — defense won’t breed confidence in being able to defeat one of the AFC’s best teams who has been unbeatable at home this season.

Faced with the prospects of needing a win in the final week of the season for the first time since 2009 to make the playoffs — though that team didn’t need other help that season — the Ravens hope their long-term history repeats itself and their swagger against the Bengals in a critical game will resurface. But the sting of last Sunday is difficult to shake, no matter what the Ravens tell you.

“We take pride in being battle-tested,” running back Ray Rice said. “Last week was last week. If I know this group that’s going to show up Sunday, the group is going to fight until the last whistle until it’s all over. Hopefully, it’s good enough to take care of business.”

Rice out to prove himself next year

The Ravens have rushed for 90 or more yards in three straight games for the first time all season, but their running game won’t avoid a few dubious franchise records for ineptitude.

In addition to their current 3.1 yards per carry average being on pace to shatter the franchise-worst 3.4 mark set in 2006, the Ravens would need to run for 308 yards against the Bengals just to equal the franchise-low 1,589 rushing yards gained in 1997. Running behind an ineffective offensive line all season, three-time Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice has gained 645 yards on the ground, his lowest total since his rookie year when he was part of a three-headed attack that included Le’Ron McClain and Willis McGahee.

A Week 2 hip injury has also hobbled Rice for much of the season, robbing him of his once-dangerous elusiveness. However, the sixth-year back has taken consolation in only missing one game this season despite his poor production.

“From a personal standpoint, [it's] understanding that I played through a lot this year,” Rice said. “I’m just going to get back out there and battle and not worry about what I’ve got to do statistically week-in and week-out. Statistically, I put all of that stuff aside, but personally, I’m glad I was able to overcome some things.”

Rice has heard the doubts and questions about whether he’s reached the downside of his career as he’s averaging 3.1 yards per carry and only 5.6 yards per reception — both career lows — but he’s already vowed to return in 2014 to erase those thoughts.

Averaging just under 4.1 yards per carry over the last three weeks, Rice is now battling a mild quadriceps injury he says is unrelated to the hip flexor strain suffered in Week 2.

“Everything has been great, even for some of the people who say that you lost a step,” said Rice, who reiterated he’s still focused on the remainder of this season. “It’s different when you have an injury that controls things that you’re normally good at doing. I had to battle that this year. I’ll make sure I come back in the best shape, bigger, faster, stronger — whatever you want to call it — to prove myself again that I can still be a premier running back in the NFL.”

The Bengals are allowing 99.8 yards per game on the ground and rank sixth in the NFL in rush defense.

Pees complimentary of Bengals personnel

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