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Webb’s continued absence “certainly a concern” for Ravens

Posted on 25 August 2015 by Luke Jones

Photo courtesy of the Baltimore Ravens

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb finds himself in a place all too familiar at this time of the year.

The sideline.

Dealing with a hamstring injury suffered more than two weeks ago, the 29-year-old has missed Baltimore’s first two preseason games and hasn’t participated in a preseason game since Aug. 22, 2013. And with Webb coming off a less-than-impressive 2014 campaign hindered in part by a back injury, defensive coordinator Dean Pees wants to see the veteran on the field this summer.

“It is not his fault. He’s trying to do what he can to rehab and get ready to go, but it is certainly a concern,” Pees said. “I’d be fooling you to tell you I didn’t think it was a concern. I want guys out there practicing so we can see where they are and know where they are. The conditioning thing — all those kind of things — yes, it’s a concern. I hope we still can get him out here in the next week or so, but at this point, I wish he was out there.”

This marks the third straight summer in which Webb has been limited for injury reasons. In 2013, he was returning from the second ACL injury of his career suffered the previous fall. Last year, Webb went down with a back injury on the first day of full-squad workouts and didn’t return until a few weeks into the regular season.

The summer had already started in humbling fashion for Webb when he failed the conditioning test upon reporting to Owings Mills. Acknowledging it wasn’t a good look after a disappointing 2014, he passed the test the following day, but his play was uneven over the first two weeks of practice before he pulled up lame covering rookie Darren Waller on a deep sideline route on Aug. 10.

Webb’s absence has created more opportunities for third-year cornerback Rashaan Melvin, who started and performed well in Saturday’s 40-17 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. While many remember the 6-foot-2 defensive back’s poor showing against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the playoffs, Melvin played well in two regular-season starts and in the playoff win at Pittsburgh last January.

After a slow start this spring due to offseason shoulder surgery, Melvin continues to improve and is garnering more and more attention as a potential starter down the road, especially if Webb doesn’t bounce back from the difficulties of last season.

“This guy did a lot for us late in the year,” Pees said. “I really give him a lot of credit coming over from Tampa Bay and coming in and all of the sudden getting thrown into the mix and having to play — in the playoffs of all things. I thought he started slow a little bit in [organized team activities] — maybe a little bit because of the surgery and the injury — and I think he has gotten better and better and better.

“I know sometimes it is hard to find bright spots in a game that you lose, but I thought he and [rookie Tray] Walker both were bright spots for us at the corner position [on Saturday].”

Jackson in lead for return job

Special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg still hasn’t come to a decision on the primary return specialist job, but reserve cornerback Asa Jackson remains the leader in the clubhouse.

The fourth-year defensive back has returned two punts for 17 yards and two kickoffs for 41 yards in two preseason games.

“We’ll see what happens this week, but it’s a work in progress,” Rosburg said. “We’re working a lot of different guys in practice, and we have to come to some decisions soon, because it’s going to happen quickly. This week, Asa is going to start off for us on punt return and he’s going to start off for us on kick return, and then we’re going to go from there.”

Trying to replace former Pro Bowl return specialist Jacoby Jones, Rosburg has been frustrated by the opposition’s reluctance to provide evaluation opportunities with kickoffs as many have instead sailed through the end zone and some opposing returners have downed kicks in the end zone over the first two preseason games.

“We let them play. We try to see who can cover kicks,” Rosburg said. “That’s what we do. But again, I can’t control what other coaches are doing. It makes no sense to me, either, why you’d down a ball two yards into the end zone. That makes no sense to me either. Take it out. Let’s go. That’s why we’re here.”

Rookie ready to fill in for Taliaferro

Though disappointed to see the opportunity come at the expensive of the injured Lorenzo Taliaferro, fourth-round rookie running back Buck Allen is confident that he’s ready to step up as the primary backup to Justin Forsett.

“It’s times like this where you prove yourself,” Allen said. “Can you step in and be that guy and provide for your team and have your team believe in you? It’s a great opportunity for me to go out here and show my teammates and coaches that I’ve been studying my game and in my playbook.”

Allen has carried 17 times for 54 yards and says his ability to pick up blitzes has been his biggest improvement since being drafted out of USC this spring. It’s an attribute he’s likely gained from Forsett, who is regarded as an excellent blocker in the backfield.

The 6-foot, 220-pound rookie back says there are plenty of lessons to learn from Forsett in the classroom as well as on the practice field.

“He’s been through it all from fourth-string guy to being No. 1,” Allen said. “If I follow his lead, I can go down the right path. Justin does a great job of motivating guys in the room and making sure we’re on track and doing the right thing.”

 

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Ravens hoping they’ve finally found stability at safety

Posted on 05 August 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — In the 30 months since the Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII, no position has experienced more change than safety.

Free agents like Michael Huff and Darian Stewart have come and gone and draft picks such as Matt Elam and Terrence Brooks haven’t worked out exactly as planned — at least not yet — as the only constant in the back end of the defense over the last few years has been flux.

This was never more evident than a year ago when five safeties played at least 245 defensive snaps, leaving a weekly guessing game of who would line up for defensive coordinator Dean Pees on a given Sunday. More attention fell on the list of cornerbacks going down with injuries in 2014, but the constant rotating and unrest at the safety position was a major factor contributing to the Baltimore pass defense finishing 23rd in the NFL.

“We rotated because we had to rotate. It wasn’t because I sometimes wanted to,” Pees said. “I don’t really care, but I really do think that if you have two guys that establish themselves, they get used to playing together, they get used to communicating together, and guys get used to hearing the communication from them. When that’s a rotation all the time, guys communicate differently.”

The Ravens are hoping they’ve finally solved that problem with the free-agent signing of Kendrick Lewis in March. The former Houston Texan and Kansas City Chief doesn’t carry overwhelming credentials, but the 27-year-old started 66 games in his first five seasons and has been praised for his intelligence in both the meeting room and the field.

Communication was a major problem in 2014, often leading to long pass plays over safeties’ heads. Lewis is viewed as a better center-field defender than the ex-Raven Stewart or any of the safeties still on the roster, which should allow cornerbacks and linebackers to play more aggressively in coverage.

The Ravens secondary has spoken at length this spring and summer about developing more trust than the group had a year ago when a new combination of cornerbacks and safeties was lining up almost every week and there was often more finger-pointing than plays being made.

“Those are the things we talk about when we’re watching film,” Lewis said, “whether we see something, [we’re] communicating, ‘Hey, listen, I’m jumping this one. Protect me here.’ That’s the type of chemistry we’re building in the secondary when we’re in meetings going over the [film], preparing and transferring it to the practice field.”

While the Ravens hope Lewis will bring stability to a free safety position they haven’t been able to fill adequately since the free-agent departure of Ed Reed, strong safety Will Hill might be the bigger factor in determining how much the secondary can improve. A year ago at this time, Hill was just learning his way around the Ravens’ Owings Mills training facility while waiting to serve a six-game suspension, but a full and trouble-free offseason has the 25-year-old primed for a breakout season.

Even before the season-ending biceps injury suffered by Elam on the third day of training camp, most expected Hill to win the competition for the starting strong safety job based on his solid play in eight starts last season.

Hill’s talent has never come into question as the New York Giants only parted ways with the University of Florida product after he drew the third suspension of his young career, so the Ravens are eager to see what the 6-foot-1, 228-pound safety can accomplish with a full year in Baltimore under his belt. His combination of size, speed, physicality, and ball skills is a recipe to become an impact player in the secondary as long as he keeps himself on the field.

“Last year, I just came in and had to hurry up and learn quick, quick, quick,” Hill said. “I had a whole offseason to learn the plays. In training camp, it’s just picking up as we go along. I’m just trying to be that assertive guy out there that they need and [to] produce.”

With so much turnover at the safety position over the last couple years, the Ravens have often relied on players lacking experience or the necessary credentials to lead the secondary. But they hope Lewis’ experience and Hill’s upside will finally bring stability for the foreseeable future while younger players such as Elam and Brooks recover from injuries.

After being spoiled by having a future Hall of Famer at free safety for the first five years of his tenure in Baltimore, head coach John Harbaugh likes what he’s seen from Lewis’ leadership.

“You don’t hear him talk too much,” Harbaugh said. “You see him, and the thing that strikes me is I see him on tape, and he knows what he’s doing, and he has been in this defense for just a couple of months now. He and Will are really taking charge in the back end. I love our communication back there. We’re a lot better than we were last year with that, and we just have to keep building on it.”

It remains to be seen how well this latest safety combination works as the Ravens seek their seventh trip to the postseason in eight years, but the secondary isn’t shying away from its stated goal of creating more turnovers after it came way with just 11 interceptions in 2014. Illustrating how little impact the defensive backfield had in making game-changing plays, the 350-pound Haloti Ngata and rookie inside linebacker C.J. Mosley led the team with two interceptions apiece while no defensive back had more than one.

Lewis has made it clear to the rest of the secondary in his short time in Baltimore that interceptions must become a part of what the Ravens defense creates again. And there can be no excuse for missed opportunities.

“‘You’re dropping that money. You’re leaving that money on the field,'” said Lewis about the urgency to pick off passes during practice. “We feel like there’s money in [those] balls. Those are money balls — that’s what we call them. You drop one, you owe us 10 pushups, and that’s money you left out there on the grass.”

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Nov 10, 2013; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens safety Matt Elam (26) in action against the Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

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Elam having “best camp yet” in defensive coordinator’s mind

Posted on 09 June 2015 by Luke Jones

The Ravens have made it clear this season is critical for Matt Elam and the third-year safety has responded favorably in at least one coach’s mind.

After general manager Ozzie Newsome stated earlier this offseason that the organization has “not been satisfied” with the performance of the 2013 first-round pick, defensive coordinator Dean Pees said he’s seeing plenty of progress with Elam, who has been splitting time with Will Hill at strong safety in the starting defense during voluntary organized team activities.

“Best camp he has had — bar none, not even close. I expect big things out of Matt,” Pees said on Monday. “I really do. I know there are some critics out there, but I’m just telling you I think No. 26 is going to be a good football player. I think he’s having a great camp.”

Of course, coaches will rarely go out of their way to be negative about a player publicly, but Pees’ comments contrast the tone the organization’s brass has offered when asked about the safety this offseason. The Ravens are still hoping that Elam will begin providing a better return after looking like one of the worst first-round picks in franchise history through two seasons.

The 23-year-old reported to the Ravens’ training complex in better shape this spring after losing eight pounds, according to head coach John Harbaugh. Baltimore hopes that will translate to better performance in the secondary where Elam has struggled in pass coverage and as a tackler despite a reputation for being a punishing hitter at the University of Florida.

According to Pro Football Focus, Elam graded out 78th among all safeties to have played at least 25 percent of his team’s snaps in 2014 and led the Ravens defense with 16 missed tackles. Injuries in the secondary forced Elam into nickel duty too often — a problem that should be avoided with better cornerback depth this season — but that doesn’t excuse his inconsistency in bringing down ball carriers in 2014.

So, what specific improvement is Pees seeing from Elam that suggests this season will be different?

“Communication-wise, running to the ball wise, and every aspect,” Pees said. “Now, the thing that we can’t tell right now is tackling from anybody [in non-contact practices]. It wouldn’t be just him, [but] it would be anybody. We don’t know that. But as far as just communication, knowing the defense, being in the right spot, doing all those things, [it’s the] best camp he has had.”

In two seasons, Elam has totaled 127 tackles, one interception, seven pass breakups, and a forced fumble.

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Slowing Antonio Brown critical to Ravens continuing playoff run

Posted on 31 December 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — As many focus on the status of Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell for Saturday’s playoff game in Pittsburgh, the Ravens know an ability to contain Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown would go a long way in trying to advance to the divisional round.

The 5-foot-10 Brown continues to defy the odds as a former sixth-round pick who led the NFL with 129 receptions and 1,698 receiving yards while catching a career-high 13 touchdown passes in 2014. And he presents the biggest challenge to a Ravens pass defense that’s played better in recent weeks but still ranked 24th in pass defense during the regular season.

“A lot of guys when they [discuss] who the best receiver in the game is, they want to look at the big, tall, dominant guys like Calvin [Johnson] and Dez [Bryant],” said cornerback Lardarius Webb, who labeled Brown as an elite receiver a few years ago when he was still playing in the shadow of former Steeler Mike Wallace. “With Antonio, he can do it all. He’s not the biggest guy, so a lot of guys might not want to say he’s the best receiver in the game because of his size. He can do a lot of things on that field to say, ‘Man, why not be the best receiver in the game?’”

After Jimmy Smith shadowed Brown in holding him to a quiet seven catches for 90 yards in a 26-6 win over the Steelers in Week 2, the Ravens faced Brown’s wrath in the regular-season rematch in Pittsburgh — a week after their top cornerback was lost for the season — in which he caught 11 passes for 144 yards and a 54-yard touchdown in a 43-23 final on Nov. 2. It remains to be seen whether Webb will draw the exclusive assignment of following Brown, but the Ravens haven’t done any mirroring of receivers since Smith was injured, instead keeping each starting cornerback on the same sides of the field.

Baltimore will obviously try to roll safety help to Brown’s side as much as possible, but Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley likes moving the speedy receiver all over the field. In addition to being targeted 25 times on passes 20 or more yards down field in the regular season, Brown also lines up in the slot at least a handful of times per game, which would create a significant problem if the Ravens are to use Matt Elam in certain nickel situations.

If a defense shows its hand too drastically in trying to bracket Brown, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t been afraid to go elsewhere in throwing for a career-high 4,952 yards in 2014. But Brown remains his most dangerous weapon with his 615 yards after the catch rank third in the NFL.

“He’s all over. They can screen him, they can stack,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “But the thing of it is I think Ben also sees what the coverage is, and all of a sudden, you’re rolling it. He’s not afraid to go to [Martavis Bryant or Markus Wheaton]. [Tight end Heath Miller] has always been a security blanket for him, and the guy has always made a clutch catch in clutch times.”

A Ravens secondary that’s been ravaged by injuries throughout the season is feeling better about itself heading into the postseason, but Roethlisberger and Brown present a far more imposing quarterback-receiver duo than anything seen over the final quarter of the season. Baltimore’s ability to slow the Steelers offense will once again come down to the pass rush, but Roethlisberger has shown an ability to get rid of the ball quickly in averaging just 2.5 seconds in the pocket before throwing, which Pro Football Focus ranked sixth in the NFL.

The faces have changed in the secondary since the Week 9 blowout in Pittsburgh as Dominique Franks and Chykie Brown were both cut and current starting cornerback Rashaan Melvin wasn’t even on the team at the time. Pees and several members of the secondary have credited continuity in recent weeks as a reason for the improvement.

“The last couple games we’ve been playing good ball all over the field,” Melvin said. “That confidence going into the playoffs is going to help us a lot. We just want to go in and play the best ball we can play as a second and as a defense in general and to go in there and do our assignments.”

Even if the Ravens are able to limit Brown’s opportunities as a receiver, they’ll need to watch out for him as a punt returner as Cincinnati found out last week when he returned a punt 71 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter. He ranked eighth in the NFL in punt return average this season and tied for sixth in return attempts, showing he isn’t conservative as a returner despite being valued as one of the best wide receivers in football.

His expansive skill set not only makes him one of the best receivers in the NFL but one of the best players overall. And the Ravens will have their hands full in trying to slow him enough to be able to continue playing beyond Saturday night.

“The same thing that makes him dangerous as a receiver makes him dangerous as a returner,” special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. “He’s very aggressive. He’s highly talented. He has a competitive spirit about him. He wants to make plays, and he has done it. He’s a very good player. We have to be at our best.”

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Ravens pass defense on pace to be worst in franchise history

Posted on 30 November 2014 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens entering the final quarter of the regular season following Sunday’s disappointing 34-33 loss to the San Diego Chargers, the pass defense will need to raise its level of play substantially to avoid a dubious distinction.

Giving up 376 yards in the air as San Diego’s Philip Rivers picked them apart, the 7-5 Ravens are now on pace to surrender 4,383 yards through the air in 2014, which would shatter the franchise-worst mark of 3,969 set in the inaugural 1996 season. That year, Baltimore finished 4-12 with a pass defense that finished last in the NFL.

The Ravens woke up Monday morning ranked 31st in the league in pass defense with only the Atlanta Falcons surrendering more yards through the air.

Where are Isaac Booth, Donny Brady, and Antonio Langham when you need them?

Of course, we’re in the midst of a pass-happy era in which offense reigns supreme — making the numbers difficult to compare to those of 18 years ago — but the Ravens haven’t had any answers in a secondary that was already facing questions long before significant injuries suffered by starting cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb. Smith is done for the year with a Lisfranc injury, and Webb continues to look like a shell of his former self after a back injury that took away his entire training camp and forced him out of three of the first four games of the regular season.

The Ravens have been unfortunate, but they were also poorly prepared to handle any injuries on the back end of the defense.

After former No. 3 cornerback Corey Graham departed via free agency, general manager Ozzie Newsome did not add any quality depth behind his starters in the offseason, instead counting on Asa Jackson and Chykie Brown to pick up the slack. Instead Jackson suffered a serious turf toe injury in Week 5 — he could return as soon as next Sunday’s game in Miami — and Brown struggled so mightily that Baltimore waived him in early November.

As a result, defensive coordinator Dean Pees has been forced to turn to journeyman Danny Gorrer and former safety Anthony Levine to go along with a struggling Webb. Many are inclined to blame coaching whenever a unit struggles, but you can only be so creative with schemes — the Ravens tried just about everything on Sunday — to overcome such personnel deficiencies.

The safety position has been just as problematic with 2013 first-round pick Matt Elam being a major disappointment in his second season. Pees has used a carousel of names — Darian Stewart, Jeromy Miles, Brynden Trawick, and rookie Terrence Brooks at various times — with only Will Hill looking to be a solid option at this stage of the season.

As for the record books, the Ravens will receive a respite from playing Pro Bowl quarterbacks as they’re slated to face Miami’s Ryan Tannehill, Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles, Houston’s Ryan Fitzpatrick, and either Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel — maybe both? — in the season finale against Cleveland. That said, Tannehill is in the midst of a good third season with the Dolphins and Fitzpatrick is coming off a six-touchdown performance in Week 13, so it won’t be a total cakewalk of opposing quarterbacks.

You can only hope Sunday was rock bottom for the pass defense as the Ravens will need an excellent final month to catch the first-place Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North or at least advance to the playoffs after last year’s absence.

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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

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

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

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

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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