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Baltimore Ravens linebackers coach Dean Pees watches warmups before the NFL football game against the New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday, Oct. 17, 2010, won by the Patriots 23-20. (AP Photo/Robert E. Klein)

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Pees about Ravens defense: “We are our own worst enemy”

Posted on 15 October 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Four days after Cleveland accumulated more than 500 yards in its first road win over the Ravens since 2007, Dean Pees was in no mood to tip his cap to Josh McCown and the Browns offense.

In a monologue lasting nearly four minutes when responding to a simple question about the play of his safeties, the fourth-year coordinator cited the mistakes that continue to plague his entire 24th-ranked unit that’s allowing 27.4 points per game, on pace to be the second-worst mark in franchise history. It’s clear that Pees doesn’t think the opposition is causing Baltimore’s defensive woes.

“We are our own worst enemy,” Pees said. “It really, right now, is not about San Francisco, and it wasn’t about Cleveland. It’s about us. We just have to be consistent in what we do.”

Pees cited an example on Sunday in which the Ravens forced McCown to throw away a third-down pass on a specific blitz early in the game before the same player failed to run the same blitz correctly later in the game as the Browns once again failed to account for it. Such inconsistency has made it difficult for Pees to know which play calls to come back to later in games when the biggest stops need to be made.

At several points during his rant, Pees made it clear that it was the coaches’ responsibility to do a better job of making sure players are prepared, but he wasn’t absolving his defenders, either.

“We just have to keep harping on it and building on it,” Pees said. “It’s not a secret. It’s not a panic. It’s not, ‘OK, we have to change the scheme.’ It’s not [that] we have to do anything. We just have to learn to do the same things all the time.

“It’s all of our faults. It’s not just that guy’s fault. Somehow, as coaches, we just have to make it right. I know you guys can sense my frustration with it. It’s the same thing in coverage. We aren’t consistent [in the secondary]. They work well together. They’ll work well together. And then from one play [to the next] — even though they got the right call — they don’t work well together. It’s not only them, it’s everybody. It’s across the board.”

Players have repeatedly said — sometimes unprovoked — that the issues don’t stem from the overall schemes or Pees’ calls on game day, but they’ve repeatedly self-destructed at critical times, losing fourth-quarter leads in three of their four defeats this season. The Ravens are also tied for 26th in the NFL with 8.4 penalties per game while only four teams have racked up more penalty yardage.

Despite a slew of injuries and inexperienced players being asked to fill key roles, Pees doesn’t want to hear the excuses, particularly when it comes to drawing flags at the worst times. The lack of discipline has contributed to the Ravens ranking 31st in third-down defense with opponents converting 49.4 percent of the time.

“I’m tired [of] ‘young.’ We can also say, ‘This guy is out. That guy is out,'” Pees said. “I don’t care. It wasn’t that. If I thought it was that, then I’d say, ‘OK, it’s different.’ But we had so many opportunities in that game. We’re terrible on third down — because of us. If we [don’t] have a hands-to-the-face [penalty], we’re off the field in the red zone and they don’t have a touchdown [late in the third quarter], right? On third down-and-9, we get an interception [in the second quarter], and we’re setting the offense up on the 48-yard line. What do we get? Roughing the quarterback. It’s those things. We have to eliminate those things.”

Allen starting?

With starter Justin Forsett missing his second straight practice with an ankle injury on Thursday and No. 2 running back Lorenzo Taliaferro being placed on injured reserve with a foot injury, rookie Buck Allen could make his first NFL start against San Francisco on Sunday.

The fourth-round selection picked up the longest run of his career last Sunday with a 44-yard gain, an achievement on which he hopes to build if thrown into a starting role.

“It’s opportunity I’ve been waiting for,” Allen said. “I feel like my coaches did a great job preparing me for this moment. [Running backs coach Thomas Hammock] just preached being ready when your time is called.”

Allen is averaging 4.8 yards per carry, but that mark is somewhat deceiving as he has gained only 3.2 yards per carry on his 25 other attempts beyond his 44-yard scamper against the Browns.

With the only other healthy options being the newly-claimed rookie Raheem Mostert and practice-squad member Terrence Magee, the Ravens will have no choice but to give Allen the ball if Forsett can’t play in Week 6.

“He’s running the ball better in terms of how he’s finishing and seeing the holes,” said offensive coordinator Marc Trestman about Allen. “He’s taking the opportunities to make plays when he gets a chance to do that. We’ve seen his pass protection improve, and his entire focus. He is taking the opportunity to seize the moment with the opportunities that he has had.”

“Special” prediction

Asked if there’s an extra challenge getting accustomed to the kicking conditions at Levi’s Stadium since the Ravens haven’t played a game there, special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg answered with a bold proclamation — or good sense of humor? — despite Baltimore’s disappointing 1-4 start.

“We’ll take notes, and next time we go back there in February, we’ll be ready,” said Rosburg, smiling in reference to Super Bowl 50 being played there. “I said it!”

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Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, left, and defensive coordinator Dean Pees look on during an NFL football practice at the team's practice facility in Owings Mills, Md., Wednesday, June 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

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Harbaugh not considering any coaching changes

Posted on 12 October 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With the Ravens off to the first 1-4 start in franchise history, many fans are clamoring for changes in a season that began with high expectations.

Despite a slew of injuries to key players, fourth-year defensive coordinator Dean Pees has drawn much of the coaching criticism, but Harbaugh made his intentions clear Monday when asked whether he was considering any staff changes at this time.

“No, no way. No, our coaches are doing a good job,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve just got to collectively find a way to finish games and get the job done. We’ve got tough challenges that we’re facing, but we’ve got just the men for the job right here.”

After giving up 33 points and 505 total yards while allowing Cleveland quarterback Josh McCown to throw for 457 yards — the third-highest total allowed in franchise history — in Sunday’s overtime loss, the Ravens now rank 24th in points allowed per game (27.4) and 25th in pass defense (278.2 yards through the air per contest). McCown’s performance was the highest passing yardage total in the long history of the Browns.

In addition to already being without linebacker Terrell Suggs (Achilles) and defensive end Chris Canty (calf) prior to Sunday’s game, the Ravens lost linebacker Elvis Dumervil (groin) and cornerbacks Will Davis (torn ACL), Lardarius Webb (hamstring), and Kyle Arrington (concussion testing) over the course of the game.

Even with those substantial personnel losses, the Ravens allowing 24 points to Cleveland in a 25-minute span — the Browns had scored 24 in an entire game against Baltimore just once in the previous 12 meetings — is unacceptable to the standards of the organization and fans alike. But Harbaugh believes the answers still lie with the coaches and players already in the building as their four losses have come by a combined 17 points.

“We definitely believe in what we’re doing,” said Harbaugh, who also stated that he’s challenging his coaches to come up with new ideas. “We definitely have confidence in the players that we have and in the coaches that we have and in the schemes that we’re running.

“But you also look for ways to improve and get better, so we’re looking at schemes. We’re looking at things we can teach a little bit differently — the way we’re playing a technique on the defensive line or the way we’re playing a technique in the back end. More importantly, we want to play the things right all the time.”

Poor technique, poor tackling, costly penalties, and miscommunication have all plagued the defense so far in 2015. The Ravens also rank 31st out of 32 teams in third-down defense with opponents moving the chains a staggering 49.4 percent of the time.

Known as the Ravens’ biggest game-changing unit for the better part of two decades, the defense has squandered fourth-quarter leaders in three of four losses this season. It’s the kind of futility that should have everyone on alert — coaches and players.

Harbaugh knows the Ravens need to improve all the way around, but figuring out how is the challenge.

“We don’t need to play harder; we need to play better,” Harbaugh said. “We don’t need to coach harder; we need to coach better. We’ve got to find a way to make the difference. It’s making plays. It’s calling plays that give guys a chance to make plays in critical situations to get you over the hump.”

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Beaten up and bad: Ravens defense nevermore in 2015

Posted on 12 October 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The single voice of a Browns fan barking in the lower concourse of M&T Bank Stadium could be heard moments after the Ravens’ 33-30 overtime loss to Cleveland on Sunday.

It was a sound that may have signaled the official end of an era we’ve enjoyed for more than 15 years. Of course, the fall of the Ravens defense didn’t happen overnight as we’ve watched future Hall of Famers ride off into the sunset and other perennial Pro Bowl selections depart, but a unit in transition had still possessed enough talent and swagger to find ways to be more good than bad over the last couple years. Sunday’s performance eliminated any lingering optimism about a defense that had already played poorly at Oakland in Week 2 and was torched by Andy Dalton and Cincinnati in the home opener two weeks ago.

Nevermore.

If giving up 33 points, 505 yards of offense, and 457 passing yards to Josh McCown and the Cleveland Browns — yes, the AFC North doormats that hadn’t won in Baltimore since the George W. Bush administration — isn’t rock bottom, I don’t know what it is. Allowing Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or even Philip Rivers to post those kinds of numbers is one thing, but a 36-year-old journeyman shredding you in your own stadium?

Baltimore may still field a defense, but it’s no longer a group worthy of being called a “Ravens” defense.

“I put this on the defense as a whole. We didn’t come through [Sunday],” cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “We were supposed to show up, and we did not show up in the second half.”

Of course, it’d be unfair to rip the defense without acknowledging how ravaged the group was by injuries by the time the Ravens entered overtime on Sunday afternoon. Already without Terrell Suggs and Chris Canty long before Sunday’s game, the Ravens lost their only reliable pass rusher (Elvis Dumervil) and their No. 2 and No. 3 cornerbacks (Lardarius Webb and Will Davis) in the first half, injuries that caused the defense to completely unravel after a respectable “bend, but don’t break” performance over the first 30 minutes.

In overtime, another injury to No. 4 cornerback Kyle Arrington led to rookie Tray Walker playing in the base defense after he’d been a healthy inactive in Pittsburgh last week. A reflection of how little confidence they had in Walker, the Ravens used second-year safety Terrence Brooks at the nickel spot earlier in the game before having no choice but to go to the 2015 fourth-round pick in crunch time.

With the modern reality of the salary cap and other circumstances contributing to where the Ravens currently stand, they knew all along they could only take so many injuries after the offseason departures of Haloti Ngata and Pernell McPhee. Deep depth is a rarity in the NFL these days, and the Ravens are learning that painful lesson in the midst of the worst start in the 20-year history of the franchise.

“Whoever is out there has to play well. Whoever is out there has to get the job done,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “That’s what has to happen. That goes for all of us. As coaches, we have to find a way to put whoever is out there in a kind of position where they can be successful. That all goes hand-in-hand. And that was a very winnable game. We should have won.”

The phrase “next man up” has been a rallying cry in Baltimore for years, but the words have never rung more hollow. The Ravens simply aren’t talented enough with an array of issues on both sides of the ball that are haunting them in some form every week. Blame defensive coordinator Dean Pees as much as you’d like — he needs to own a mess that could ultimately cost him his job — but a defense can only survive so much attrition, whether by injuries or free-agent departures or underwhelming draft picks.

In truth, an offense consisting of receivers and tight ends who required a program to identify scoring 30 points on Sunday should have been more than enough with even an average defensive performance against the Browns, who entered Sunday’s game ranked 20th in the NFL in total offense and points scored.

The defense can’t solely blame the injuries for its demise as the Ravens racked up penalties at crucial times — veteran Jason Babin committed infractions on two different Browns’ touchdown drives in the second half — and key performers such as linebackers Daryl Smith and C.J. Mosley and safety Will Hill also played poorly. If the defense can’t even tackle or count on its known commodities to make plays, what chance does the group really have?

They may be wearing purple and black, but you certainly don’t recognize a defense allowing 27.4 points per game, just a hair better than the franchise-worst 27.6 per contest allowed in the inaugural 1996 campaign. In five games, Baltimore has already allowed 137 points, just 28 fewer than the record-setting 2000 defense surrendered in an entire regular season.

Late in the game on Sunday, which figure in the defensive huddle could players turn to for an emotional lift? Forget having a Ray Lewis or Ed Reed or Suggs; the Ravens didn’t even have a player like Dumervil to make everyone believe they could force a stop.

The Baltimore defense was a ship without a captain in the second half. And it sank hard.

“We’re disappointed, because we know what kind of team we are,” said Mosley, who struggled mightily in pass coverage throughout the game. “We know how [hard] we work, and we’re definitely better than 1-4. We’ve just got to put our foot down and prove that. We play hard, but we’ve just got to finish as a team.”

The Ravens keep talking about their need to finish games and to get off the field on third down — Cleveland went 12-for-19 in that department on Sunday — but they appear more “finished” than able to finish in 2015 with Thanksgiving still more than a month away.

They’re beaten up and bad with no relief in sight as back-to-back West Coast trips loom. Nothing is a given moving forward when you lose to the Browns at home for the first time since 2007 and only the fourth time ever in Baltimore.

Instead of fans celebrating a win with a chance to improve to .500 next week to reboot the season, all that could be heard at the end of Sunday’s game was a single Browns fan barking in the concourse.

And the “Ravens” defense was nowhere to be found.

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Ravens “all have to step up” in Steve Smith’s absence

Posted on 08 October 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With a 1-3 record to begin 2015, the Ravens can’t afford to take any opponent lightly.

Not even the Cleveland Browns.

That sentiment rings truer without veteran wideout Steve Smith, who is expected to miss Sunday’s game with microfractures in his lower back suffered in last week’s win in Pittsburgh. In two games over Cleveland a year ago, Smith caught 13 passes for 191 yards in two fourth-quarter comeback victories.

The Ravens instead will count on a quartet of receivers who have combined for 21 receptions and 264 yards so far this season, eight fewer catches and 109 fewer receiving yards than Smith in his four games.

“It’s definitely not ideal. It’s going to be a little bit challenging for us an offense, but it’s just the way it is,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “We wouldn’t want it any other way. These are the guys that are going to go out there and make plays for us, start making a name for themselves, and help us win, so I’m excited about it.”

It’s a given that Flacco will need to be sharper than he was a week ago when he turned the ball over twice in a 23-20 overtime win. With Smith, Breshad Perriman, Michael Campanaro, and tight end Crockett Gillmore all injured, the Ravens will ask their starting quarterback to elevate the level of play of his inexperienced teammates, at least enough to squeak out a win over Cleveland’s 22nd-ranked pass defense.

Baltimore wants its running game to build on what it did a week ago as the Ravens face the league’s 31st-ranked run defense on Sunday, but the passing attack will need to do enough to prevent the Browns from stacking the box.

The Ravens have said all of the right things, but how much can you reasonably expect from Flacco as he’s working with two former undrafted free agents — Kamar Aiken and Marlon Brown — as his starters, a rookie sixth-round pick (Darren Waller), and a veteran (Chris Givens) acquired just a week ago?

“Joe can only do so much. He has to do his job,” offensive coordinator Marc Trestman said. “It’s up to all of us to help all of us to get this done. It’s a team game, and it’s not one guy. Certainly, Joe expects to play at a high level and does every week. This week should be no different than any week.”

Aiken and Brown will be expected to gain separation against Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden and veteran Tramon Williams. Haden has struggled early this season while battling injuries, but the 32-year-old Williams has played at a high level in his first season with Cleveland.

It’s been a bizarre start to the season for Aiken as he has two performances of 77 or more receiving yards while combining for one catch and minus-1 yard in the other two contests. The 6-foot-5 Brown has struggled to catch the football so far in 2015, making just eight receptions for 75 yards while serving mostly as the No. 3 receiver.

The Ravens would stand to benefit from Brown channeling the success of his rookie year when he caught 49 passes for 524 yards and seven touchdowns in 2013. His role in the Baltimore offense has mostly diminished since then.

“I’ve completed a lot of passes to both of them — Kamar recently and Marlon in the past,” Flacco said. “We just have to get them rolling and have confidence that they’re going to go out there and do the job because they’re our guys right now. They have a lot of ability, and we can’t treat them any other way.”

With Smith’s injury in Pittsburgh, the comparisons have been made to the 2013 season when the Ravens were reeling from the offseason trade of Anquan Boldin and the serious hip injury to Dennis Pitta, but Flacco could at least throw to Torrey Smith then. On Sunday, the eighth-year signal-caller is projected to have just two targets at receiver or tight end — Aiken and Givens — who were even in the league when Flacco led Baltimore to a Super Bowl less than three years ago.

But that won’t deter him from showing confidence in an inexperienced group — at least on Sunday.

“I know you guys might not see him talk much or encourage much,” said Aiken about the even-keeled Flacco, “but he’s always trying to motivate us in the huddle and tell us, ‘Let’s go!’ and stuff like that. It’s great to have Joe as a quarterback, even with us going through all this. That’s why I feel so confident that we’ll be fine.”

Changes to nickel defense

An interesting personnel development from the Week 4 win at Pittsburgh was the emergence of the recently-acquired Will Davis as the No. 3 corner over veteran Kyle Arrington in the second half.

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees has previously stated his preference to use starting cornerback Lardarius Webb inside in the nickel package, but Arrington has struggled when asked to play outside as the third cornerback. In 23 snaps in his first game with the Ravens, Davis finished with a tackle and a pass breakup while Arrington played only 20 defensive snaps, most of that coming in the first half.

“I really feel like [Webb] is a really good inside player and a good nickel for us,” Pees said. “And when we play sub [packages], we would like to keep him there as opposed to outside if we can, and I just feel like that’s a great matchup for us. It’s [not] because of anything down on Kyle; it’s a little bit more of a good fit for Webby and, really, a better fit for Will because he’s really an outside guy only.”

Trestman-McCown respect

Trestman and Browns quarterback Josh McCown have expressed great admiration for each other this week after the pair worked together in Chicago in 2013.

In Trestman’s first season as head coach of the Bears, the journeyman McCown made five starts in place of an injured Jay Cutler and posted a 109.0 passer rating. That performance has led to McCown’s starting jobs with Tampa Bay and Cleveland and the pair have remained in touch, but there hasn’t been any text messaging this week, according to the Baltimore coordinator.

“We’re just doing our job this week, but I’m excited for his opportunity,” said Trestman, who added that McCown’s athleticism and mental capacity for the game are his underrated traits. “I was when he left Chicago. He had a great opportunity, and I was excited for him, excited for the career he has extended.”

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Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees listens to a reporter's question at a news conference after an NFL football training camp practice on Saturday, July 26, 2014, in Owings Mills, Md. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

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Defensive pride on line for Ravens against Cincinnati

Posted on 24 September 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — First, it was Ravens head coach John Harbaugh suggesting his defense didn’t play with the level of effort it needed in a shocking 37-33 loss in Oakland.

On Thursday, defensive coordinator Dean Pees went further in criticizing his unit’s performance as the Ravens now try to avoid the first 0-3 start in franchise history when they welcome the undefeated Cincinnati Bengals to town for the home opener. Not only are the Ravens trying to escape an early-season hole, but pride is on the line for a defense that’s been the identity of one of the most successful franchises in the NFL for the better part of two decades.

Playing their first game without Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, or Terrell Suggs since 1998, the Ravens turned in one of their worst defensive performances in recent memory against the lowly Raiders.

“We did not play with energy,” said Pees, who also hinted that his defense hadn’t practiced well in San Jose, Calif. last week. “When you don’t play with energy, you end up with six penalties, numerous missed tackles and several big plays, and that was the whole bottom line. For whatever reason, we didn’t play with energy. The players are responsible for that and so are the coaches. It’s up to us to get them to play with energy and play at a high level, and it’s up to them as players to produce at a high level.

“Sometimes, we have to take the role of leaders as coaches, and we have to do some things and just expedite the process a little bit and get them to play harder.”

The poor performance has been discussed ad nauseam, but hearing Pees question the energy and leadership of his defense lends credence to the notion that the Ravens would sorely miss Suggs after the 13th-year linebacker suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 1.

A return to M&T Bank Stadium should automatically lift the energy level for a Ravens defense that has allowed the fewest points per home game (15.3) in the NFL since Harbaugh’s arrival in 2008. Baltimore will need to build on its 45-11 home record since 2008 to remove the sour taste of the first two road games, but the Ravens will play a Bengals team that handed them a home loss in last year’s season opener.

“We don’t want to be 0-2, but it’s still early in the season and our urgency will go up,” said linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who has collected 16 of his 26 1/2 sacks with the Ravens at home. “We just have to keep stacking practices. We just have to go get a win. That’s what it’s all about. We all just have to play our ‘A’ game.”

The Ravens defense believes it more closely resembles the group that held Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos without an offensive touchdown in Week 1 than the unit that was torched by second-year quarterback Derek Carr in Oakland, but they have to prove it against a Bengals offense that has scored a total of 57 points in its first two games.

A week after stuffing the run, playing mostly-sound pass coverage, and consistently pressuring the pocket, the Ravens couldn’t get out of their own way, making everyone wonder about a defense without Suggs or offseason departures Haloti Ngata and Pernell McPhee. The Jekyll and Hyde profile of the first two weeks has led everyone to question which is the real Baltimore defense.

“It’s not a matter of, ‘OK, are we good, or are we bad?’” Pees said. “We have to improve. We have to play like we played in the first week all the time. Every day, every practice, every game — that’s the intensity we have to play with, and if we don’t, it’s our fault as coaches.”

Contrary to popular belief, the Ravens have had poor defensive performances from time to time over the years, but the head coach and the defensive coordinator both questioning the group’s effort and energy after Sunday’s loss is largely uncharted territory with such dynamic on-field leadership over the years. It’s a sentiment that only highlights the narrative of the veteran players no longer residing in the defense.

Facing their first 0-2 start in a decade, the Ravens must lean on its young defensive standouts such as cornerback Jimmy Smith, inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, and nose tackle Brandon Williams to not only make plays but to emerge as leaders.

“Losing a player like Suggs is hard, and that’s one less player someone else has to worry about,” Williams said. “But at the same time, someone else needs to step up, whether it be me or anyone else on the line to step up and just make plays.”

Of course, you’re only as good — or bad — as your last game. Asked whether Sunday’s performance against the Raiders had damaged the confidence he has in his defense, Pees recalled his tenure in New England in which the Patriots would use the 2003 season opener — a 31-0 beating they took at the hands of the Buffalo Bills — as a reminder to never take too much away from one performance.

After that embarrassing loss, the Patriots won 17 of their next 18 games to win the Super Bowl that season.

“One game never defines you — good or bad,” Pees said. “It didn’t define us after Denver. It won’t define us after Oakland.”

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Ravens trying to erase memory of last trip to Denver

Posted on 10 September 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Everyone remembers what happened the last time the Ravens visited Denver two years ago as the defending Super Bowl champions to begin the 2013 season.

A franchise record for points allowed and an NFL record-tying seven touchdown passes thrown by Peyton Manning in a 49-27 demolition. Many forget that the Ravens actually led 17-14 at the half before the 30 minutes from hell that cornerback Jimmy Smith and many of his teammates say they’ve erased from their minds.

“My memories of the last one? I forgot; I’m a corner,” said Smith while smiling. “Let me really think about this. Is that the one he put up seven on us? I did forget about that. I did.”

Of course, much has changed on both sides as players have come and gone over the last two years. The Broncos have a new head coach in Gary Kubiak after he spent last season as Baltimore’s offensive coordinator.

Even Manning quipped this week that the 2013 season opener had “passed the statute of limitations” for discussion. The likes of Julius Thomas, Eric Decker, and Wes Welker may be gone, but the Broncos have two 2014 Pro Bowl receivers — Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders — and former Ravens tight end Owen Daniels to add to the mix.

And Manning’s mind is as dangerous as ever with two more years of experience under his belt since that last meeting.

“It’s a chess match out there. You give him one look, he’s going to check to a different play,” said veteran newcomer Kyle Arrington, who faced Manning many times while playing for the New England Patriots. “Shoot, it might be a dummy check. He might run the same play that he has called, and then our ‘quarterback’ on our defense, Daryl [Smith], is out there doing the same thing. It’s going to be a good matchup.”

After finishing 23rd in pass defense and enduring a slew of injuries in the secondary in 2014, the Ravens know their secondary will be under the microscope with Smith and Lardarius Webb coming back from injuries and a new safety duo in Will Hill and veteran newcomer Kendrick Lewis on the back end of the defense. General manager Ozzie Newsome also added depth at cornerback in the offseason with the free-agent signing of Arrington and the fourth-round selection of Tray Walker.

The group will face one of its toughest tests right off the bat, with Ravens holdovers hoping for a much better showing against Manning and the Broncos this time around.

“Obviously, [there’s] a lot of eyes on our group back there,” Smith said. “But we have a sense of urgency just to be that voice on defense as a unit — as a group. Going into this game, it’s a big game for us just to make sure all our communication is down and that in our first game, we actually look like the unit we want to be.”

There’s plenty of unknown on each side.

Is Smith fully recovered from a Lisfranc injury that short-circuited what was shaping up to be a Pro Bowl campaign last October? If so, is he ready to shadow the explosive Thomas all over the field?

Will Webb be ready to play at a high level after missing the entire preseason with a nagging hamstring injury, the latest ailment to plague him over these last few years? Can the combination of Hill and Lewis stop the revolving door we saw at the safety position a year ago?

The Broncos offense might be more of a mystery with Kubiak attempting to marry his West Coast offense with his future Hall of Fame quarterback’s strengths — and obvious limitations — at age 39. The offensive line features new ingredients and is without Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady after he suffered a season-ending knee injury in May.

The last time we saw Manning in a meaningful game, he looked old and was playing with a torn quadriceps in a home playoff defeat to Indianapolis. It was a performance that made nearly everyone wonder if one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history was washed up as he struggled to push the ball down the field to even a moderate degree.

But the Ravens aren’t buying into the idea that Manning is finished after watching him this preseason.

“He’s wearing No. 18. He’s patting the ball. He’s making checks,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s under center a little more than he has been in the past, but we don’t know what we’re going to get in terms of scheme. We’ve just have to anticipate and play our game and play the way we want to play. He looks as good as ever from the reps that I’ve seen.”

Even as he enters his 18th year in the NFL, Manning still carries an aura that can grab hold of a defense trying its best not to let him deliver the knockout blow. But that thinking could prove dangerous in Kubiak’s system that always employs a strong running game.

The Ravens hold the longest active streak in the NFL by not allowing a 100-yard rusher in 26 consecutive games. It’s a stat that was even mentioned by Manning in his conference call with the Baltimore media, making you wonder if Kubiak and Broncos offensive coordinator Rick Dennison will spread the Ravens out before trying to gash them in the running game.

Denver feels so good about its ground attack led by starter C.J. Anderson and backup Ronnie Hillman that 2013 second-round pick Montee Ball was cut over the weekend. The Ravens’ front seven will carry the burden of not only putting pressure on Manning but making sure the Broncos don’t run all over them on Sunday.

“It’s always going to be Gary’s offense,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “It’s always going to be Gary’s philosophy that they’re going to have a good running team. Even [if you] forget Gary, even back when the Colts had Manning and you think clear back to when he was in Indianapolis, they still could run the ball.”

The schedule-makers did the Ravens no favors with five of their first seven games coming on the road in 2015, and they’re likely to see Manning at his best from a physical standpoint on Sunday. With his well-documented neck surgeries and struggles playing in cold weather, there’s no disputing that teams have better odds against Manning later in the season. The Ravens exploited that reality when they won in Denver in a double-overtime thriller in the 2012 divisional round en route to their Super Bowl XLVII title.

Since signing with the Broncos in 2012, Manning has thrown 47 touchdowns and just six interceptions in 14 home games played in September and October compared to only 23 touchdowns and six interceptions in 10 regular-season home games played in the second half of seasons.

But the Ravens can’t dwell on the timing of the matchup. They have too much to prove in putting the memory of two years ago behind them as well as getting the 2015 season off on the right foot.

“He’s going to be dangerous. He’s still Peyton Manning, no matter what,” Smith said. “All the hoopla about him in December compared to September, obviously, it’s real. But that’s none of my concern. I know we’ve got him Week 1, and he’s going to be ready Week 1. That’s all of our concern.”

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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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