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After post-bye clunker, “What now?” becomes Ravens’ biggest question

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After post-bye clunker, “What now?” becomes Ravens’ biggest question

Posted on 03 November 2013 by Luke Jones

(This blog brought to you by Atlantic Remodeling. Visit www.atlanticremodeling.com to learn about their Red Cent Guarantee!)

Coming off the Week 8 bye was supposed to be a chance for the Ravens to start anew after a rocky 3-4 start to the 2013 season.

With the division-leading Cincinnati Bengals losing on Thursday night and most of the AFC wild-card contenders looking mortal, the Ravens simply needed a win — no matter how it looked — to get back to .500 and begin the second half of the season on a positive note. A week off not only gave players a chance to rest but provided head coach John Harbaugh and his staff the time to make much-needed corrections in all phases of the game.

Instead, the Ravens responded with an ugly 24-18 loss to the Cleveland Browns, snapping an 11-game winning streak over their AFC North foe and digging an even bigger hole in their quest to advance to the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season. Expecting the bye week to provide a much-needed tuneup, the Ravens instead stalled getting out of their driveway as they’re now off to their worst start since the 2005 season.

And the question echoing over and over in the closing seconds as the Browns finished a scoring drive lasting more than six minutes was a frightening one.

What now?

A running game averaging a league-worst 2.8 yards per carry entering Sunday produced only 55 yards on 21 carries with quarterback Joe Flacco accounting for 25 of those on three scrambles. The offensive line was once again dominated at the point of attack and Ray Rice finished with 17 yards on 11 carries, not looking any more explosive or elusive despite claims that he was once again 100 percent.

Though once again plagued with a running game that was a non-factor and suspect pass protection for much of the day, Flacco played poorly through much of the first half, missing several open receivers and throwing a head-scratching interception late in the second quarter. To his credit, the sixth-year signal caller rebounded over the game’s final 30 minutes, but his poor first-half showing was disappointing coming off the bye and was a major factor in the Ravens offense once again getting off to a slow start.

The defense allowed veteran Jason Campbell to throw for 262 yards and three touchdowns and, even worse, wasn’t able to get a stop at a crucial point in the second half for the third straight game — all losses. Dean Pees’ unit hasn’t been the biggest problem this season, but the Ravens defense simply hasn’t been able to come up with a big play when it needs it late in games unlike stellar units of the past that often carried inferior offenses.

Not to be outdone by the first two phases, the special teams were a major problem as well as normally sure-handed punt returner Tandon Doss muffed a punt at his own 11-yard line, setting up the Browns’ third touchdown of the game in the third quarter and putting the Ravens behind 21-10. And punter Sam Koch continued his rough season, failing to pin the Browns inside the 20 on three separate opportunities kicking inside Cleveland territory in a game in which field position loomed large.

Hoping for the light to come on after the bye, the Ravens looked like they did in the first seven games of the season — appearing to be a below-average football team.

How does it get fixed? Can it be fixed this season?

The Ravens are as healthy as they’re going to be until the expected return of Dennis Pitta later this month, but the talented tight end isn’t going to remedy all of the team’s problems. At this rate, the Ravens may not be in a position for Pitta’s return to matter in terms of their playoff hopes for 2013.

General manager Ozzie Newsome and Harbaugh have already trimmed fat on the roster with the jettisoning of veterans Michael Huff, Marcus Spears, and Bryant McKinnie. Many are clamoring for the ax to fall on run-game coordinator Juan Castillo, but there have already been murmurs that his influence has waned since the bye week with offensive line coach Andy Moeller now having a louder voice.

If Castillo were to be fired — a move that would be very difficult to challenge at this point — do the likes of Marshal Yanda and Michael Oher suddenly start winning one-on-one battles that they’ve lost too often this season?

The answers aren’t simple when you have issues all over the place and that’s where the Ravens find themselves as they began the month of November with their third loss in the last four games. There’s a certain amount of understanding that comes with the struggles of unproven players like Gino Gradkowski and veteran newcomers who simply don’t fit, but a number of veterans who have been counted on year in and year out have been even bigger disappointments, which brings greater concern for the future.

Even with the problems along the offensive line, it’s getting more difficult every week to dispute the growing notion that Rice’s best days are behind him. He continues to struggle to break any tackles in the open field and no longer looks like the home-run hitter on which the Ravens relied for years. Rice has three years remaining on his current contract and is scheduled to account for $8.75 million on next year’s cap.

Oher and Yanda have appeared to be shells of their former selves, which might not be as problematic with the former scheduled to become a free agent, but the Pro Bowl right guard has a cap figure of $8.45 million next year and is under contract through the 2015 season.

Top cornerback Lardarius Webb was faked out of his shoes by Browns receiver Davone Bess on a 20-yard touchdown in the second quarter Sunday and has struggled to find his pre-injury form coming back from ACL surgery, but he certainly deserves some benefit of the doubt and should get stronger in the second half of the season. Still, he carries a $10.5 million cap figure in 2014 and is being paid as one of the best cornerbacks in the league.

Having arguably the worst season of his career, Koch carries a $2.8 million cap figure next year, which is a high number for a punter not getting the job done.

And perhaps the most disappointing and concerning of the group of standouts failing to deliver in 2013 is defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who holds a $16 million cap number next season and no longer looks like the game-wrecker he was before the Ravens signed him to a five-year, $61 million contract in 2011. For the third straight season, nagging injuries are limiting his impact in games.

Regardless of what happens over the final eight games in terms of the Ravens trying to rebound to extend their run of five consecutive playoff appearances to a sixth, Newsome and Harbaugh must be in evaluation mode when it comes to the aforementioned players. Some contracts have bigger cap ramifications than others, but it’s a scary proposition to be forced to reconsider your thinking on players who previously weren’t of any concern — and carry huge price tags.

The debate went on through much of the offseason whether the Ravens were rebuilding or simply reloading after a slew of personnel changes. The result to this point has been a flawed roster that will need to go 6-2 in the second half of the season just to give the Ravens a chance at 9-7.

And barring a drastic turnaround in the final eight games, the Ravens will be forced to start thinking about their offseason much sooner than anyone anticipated.

And they’ll definitely have their work cut out for them.

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Ravens defense slow to stop the run in recent weeks

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Ravens defense slow to stop the run in recent weeks

Posted on 22 October 2013 by Luke Jones

(This blog brought to you by Atlantic Remodeling. Visit www.atlanticremodeling.com to learn about their Red Cent Guarantee!)

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After revamping their front seven in an offseason filled with changes on both sides of the ball, the Ravens expected their run defense to be one of their biggest strengths in 2013.

With veterans such as Chris Canty, Daryl Smith, and Marcus Spears joining a nucleus that already included Pro Bowl mainstays Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata, the Ravens were all but assured to improve substantially from a year ago when they fielded the league’s 20th-ranked run defense and gave up 122.8 yards per game on the ground. All appeared to be going to plan early in the season as Baltimore entered its Week 4 meeting with the Buffalo Bills ranked fourth against the run.

Instead, an unexpected loss to the Bills on Sept. 29 started a disturbing trend as the Ravens have now allowed 140 or more yards on the ground in three of their last four games. That stretch continued in humbling fashion this past Sunday as the Steelers’ running game — ranked 31st out of 32 teams entering Week 7 — bullied the Ravens to the tune of 141 yards on 29 carries in a 19-16 defeat to their AFC North rivals.

“They did some new things that we haven’t seen from them,” Suggs said. “Not just this year, but ever. Pittsburgh has never come out and run the Wildcat on us. They’ve never come out with extra linemen. You just have to be able to adjust on the fly. They were able to get some runs off of that early on.”

Entering their bye week with the NFL’s 16th-ranked rush defense at 104.3 yards given up per game, the Ravens have been slow to adjust to the opponents’ running game on more than one occasion this year. In preparing for the Bills, the Ravens spent extensive time focusing on the read-option attack that had been used by quarterback EJ Manuel before Buffalo used more of a conventional approach in gaining 203 yards on 55 carries with 116 coming in the first half. Instructed to use patience in letting the play come to them when facing the read option, the Ravens were instead on their heels as Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller had huge days on the ground for the Bills.

By the time defensive coordinator Dean Pees made the necessary adjustments at halftime, the Ravens were already behind on a day in which quarterback Joe Flacco threw a career-worst five interceptions and the Bills were able to use a conservative ground approach in the second half.

Against the Steelers, the Ravens couldn’t have been expecting such a run-heavy approach, but Pittsburgh used gadget plays as well as a steady diet of rookie Le’Veon Bell to exploit the aggressive tendencies of the front seven. It wasn’t a matter of being unable to shed blocks but a failure to play individual assignments and to read blocks longer in protecting cutbacks, according to Pees.

Other times, the defensive line was simply controlled at the line of scrimmage by a Pittsburgh line that included three backup starters due to injuries.

“The first run of the game, we got the guy stuffed in the hole, and then we just kind of jump off a block a little too quick,” Pees said. “We’re a little too impatient, and [Le’Veon] Bell is a patient runner, and he ended up cutting it all the way back on us right into a blitz. And everything was good until we just jumped off the block, and then he found the crease. That happened to us about three or four times during the course of the game that we got off blocks actually too quick.”

The 141 rushing yards surrendered against Pittsburgh followed the 140 given up the previous week in a home loss to the Green Bay Packers, who sport the league’s sixth-ranked rushing attack. Unlike the Steelers who were able to consistently grind out yards to extend drives, the Packers collected a sizable portion of their production on just a few runs when rookie Eddie Lacy ran for 47 yards on the first two plays of the game and then collected another 17-yard run in the fourth quarter.

Aside from the Steelers’ final march to kick the game-winning field goal on Sunday, no drive was more painful than the 13-play, 70-yard sequence that resulted in a 28-yard field goal and took over eight minutes off the clock in the third quarter. The Steelers gained 41 yards on the ground during that possession alone as their running game was a major factor in controlling the clock and limiting Baltimore to just seven possessions over the entire game.

“[The Pittsburgh game] wasn’t as much big plays as just as kind of bleeding us,” Pees said. “Six, seven, eight yards, which really created a second problem, and that’s third down, which we’ve been very good at. But I’ve said it before: It’s hard to be good on third down when it’s third-and-one and third-and-two.”

The defense has been far from the Ravens’ biggest problem in a disappointing 3-4 start, but Sunday marked the second straight week in which failing to stop the run was a major contributor in the opponent’s ability to put together a long drive in the second half. Against the Packers, the Ravens surrendered 36 rushing yards on a 72-yard fourth-quarter drive that lasted 7:35 and gave Green Bay a nine-point lead with just over four minutes to go. The Ravens would quickly score a touchdown to pull within two but would not get the ball back as the Packers then ran out the clock.

With an offense that’s largely struggled to simply move the ball consistently let alone score touchdowns instead of field goals, limiting its total number of possessions is a recipe for failure more often than not. And a run defense failing to meet high expectations is another reason why the Ravens have lost three of four to fall below the .500 mark for the first time this late in a season in the John Harbaugh era.

No matter what the reason in a given week, the leaky run defense is just one of several issues plaguing the Ravens as they approach the midway point of the season.

“The yardage is the same, which is not good, which we’ve got to get corrected,” Pees said. “If we’re going to be a good defense, we can’t let anybody run the ball on us.”

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Webb trying to regain pre-injury form in Ravens secondary

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Webb trying to regain pre-injury form in Ravens secondary

Posted on 17 October 2013 by Luke Jones

(This blog brought to you by Atlantic Remodeling. Visit www.atlanticremodeling.com to learn about their Red Cent Guarantee!)

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — It was a year ago earlier this week that Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb suffered the second season-ending knee injury of his five-year career.

In the midst of what appeared to be a Pro Bowl season, Webb was instead sidelined for the remainder of the 2012 season and could only watch the Ravens win the second Super Bowl championship in the history of the franchise. Twelve months later, Webb is back on the field and has already equaled the number of games he played last year prior to the injury, but the fifth-year defensive back is still chasing his high standard of play that was rewarded with a six-year, $50 million contract in 2012.

Through six games, Webb has collected 28 tackles and five pass breakups but has yet to record an interception.

“I’m kind of pleased,” Webb said. “It’s all an uphill battle, but I’ve got to get better. I have to get better each day. I’ve got to get better before Sunday, so I’m just ready to take the challenge.”

Thus far, opponents have challenged Webb more this season than prior to the injury as he’s been thrown at 40 times, according to Pro Football Focus. Of those targets, 25 have been completed for 384 yards, including the 64-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to Jordy Nelson in Green Bay’s 19-17 win last Sunday. It was the first touchdown pass allowed by Webb since 2010 as opposing quarters have a 102.5 passer rating against him this season.

Last season, Webb was thrown at just 24 times for 11 receptions totaling 111 yards in his six games as teams had received the memo on Webb’s cover prowess after a 2011 breakout campaign that established him as one of the best cornerbacks in the AFC. Given the fact that Webb is coming off the second ACL reconstruction surgery of his five-year career, it’s understandable that the 28-year-old has returned to pre-injury form just yet.

Webb said his eyes were caught in the backfield as he lost Nelson in quarters coverage on the long touchdown pass that gave the Packers a 16-3 lead in the third quarter. Injured players devote so much time to recovering physically that the idiosyncrasies of once again being on the field in live action don’t always return overnight, according to defensive coordinator Dean Pees.

“I think he’s alright, ” Pees said. “He’s just getting back into playing mode, which sometimes takes a little while on stuff. When you’re playing all the time, your eyes are right [and] it’s not so physical [with him]. It’s sometimes more your eyes and just that kind of thing. I think that will be true.

“He’s just got to keep playing, and I think the more he plays and the more he gets back into it, I think the better we’re going to be. I have the utmost confidence in him.”

Webb is also adjusting to playing on the outside exclusively compared to past seasons when the Ravens would slide him to the nickel spot when using three-cornerback sub packages. That move was made after the free-agent departure of Cary Williams and the emergence of Corey Graham in Webb’s absence last season.

The argument can be made that the change has kept Webb out of harm’s way a bit more than in the past, but it’s also limited his ability to be a bigger factor with stopping the run, one of his biggest strengths prior to the knee injury. Playing more on the outside has also presented consistent matchups against bigger wide receivers, which doesn’t make life easy for the 5-foot-10 cornerback as he works his way back to full strength.

Still, Webb is taking the early-season attention from opposing quarterbacks in stride and doesn’t seem to be lacking in confidence through the first six weeks of the season. His next test will come in the form of slowing Steelers wide receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throwing the ball as much as ever this season.

And while Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and his 2,000 rushing yards last season forever changed the expectations on recovery time from an ACL injury, it’s fair to remember Webb is just 12 months removed from surgery and plays a position where lateral movement and rapid changes in direction are critical to success.

“They’re testing me a little bit more,” Webb said. “I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I’m coming off the ACL or maybe they’re seeing me play with a little something. But they are coming, they are coming. Just keep coming. In a while, they’ll learn.

“I’m baiting them to come. I guess they see a couple games where some guys are getting some catches, so continue to come. I’m ready to take the challenge.”

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Monroe trying to overcome learning curve as quickly as possible

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Monroe trying to overcome learning curve as quickly as possible

Posted on 03 October 2013 by Luke Jones

(This blog brought to you by Atlantic Remodeling. Visit www.atlanticremodeling.com to learn about their Red Cent Guarantee!)

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Even with all the concerns surrounding the Ravens as they take a 2-2 record to Miami on Sunday, they’ve still matched the total number of wins new left tackle Eugene Monroe experienced in Jacksonville over the last two seasons combined.

To nobody’s surprise, the fifth-year lineman and eighth overall pick of the 2009 draft feels like a new man in joining the defending Super Bowl champions after five years in football purgatory. Monroe said all the right things about his former team on Thursday, but he couldn’t hide his excitement over receiving a fresh start.

“To come into a situation like this with a culture of winning is unique,” Monroe said. “It’s something that I really haven’t been around, so it’s exciting to experience this.”

The Ravens made the trade for Monroe official on Thursday, releasing veteran tight end Billy Bajema to clear a spot on their 53-man roster. To ease concerns about the tackle’s 2013 base salary, the Jaguars agreed to pay all but $547,000 of his remaining salary, leaving the Ravens with enough room to fit Monroe underneath the salary cap.

With all the business details out of the way, the Ravens were noncommittal about Monroe’s status for Sunday’s game with only a couple days of practice time to get him up to speed on the Baltimore playbook, but offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell knows how much potential the lineman holds. As the former head coach of Indianapolis, Caldwell saw Monroe twice a year in AFC South meetings and claimed that Colts pass rushers Dwight Freeney — now with San Diego — and Robert Mathis often had difficulty against the University of Virginia product.

“The two pass rushers we had down there certainly respected him quite a bit because of the fact that he did such a tremendous job against them,” said Caldwell, who acknowledged it would be conceivable for Monroe to at least play a limited role on Sunday. “We’re happy to have him. He’s a great young man with an abundance of talent.”

It’s simply a matter of when, not if, Monroe will take veteran Bryant McKinnie’s place with the starting offensive line, but the newcomer appeared to be in a strict learning and observing mode during the portion of practice open to media on Thursday. Monroe told reporters he feels great physically after playing in Jacksonville’s first four games of the season, but the mental challenge of absorbing the Ravens’ playbook so quickly won’t be easy.

The Ravens find themselves in a difficult spot in deciding between an understandably-disgruntled McKinnie and an underprepared Monroe facing a talented Miami front that could include a returning Cameron Wake, who is regarded as one of the league’s best pass rushers after collecting 15 sacks last season.

“When you’re speaking a different language, you have to be on page with the other guys or it’s not going to be a good outcome,” said Monroe, who acknowledged that some of the Ravens’ techniques and assignments share similarities with what he used in Jacksonville. “Overcoming the learning curve and getting acclimated with how things are done around here is going to be the big challenge.”

Once Monroe grasps the playbook, the Ravens are not only hoping to have a clear upgrade at left tackle in the present but also a long-term option at the position that they’ve lacked since the retirement of Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden following the 2007 season.

Monroe is scheduled to become a free agent after this season, but even he acknowledged the Ravens’ willingness to surrender fourth- and fifth-round picks is a good indication that he could fit into their future plans.

“It doesn’t look like they brought me here the way they did to not have me here for a long time,” Monroe said. “But again, I have to do my thing on the field, prove that I deserve this opportunity, which I’m fully confident that I will.”

Caldwell’s take on running game

Coach John Harbaugh stood by the Ravens rushing a franchise-low nine times during their 23-20 loss to Buffalo in Week 4, but Caldwell didn’t echo that exact sentiment with a few more days to think about the offensive attack.

The Ravens dropped back to pass on 31 straight plays at one point and did not record a rushing attempt in the third quarter against the Bills. Harbaugh said it was his call to abandon the run game because he didn’t feel the rushing attack was working well enough to help them win the game.

“If you had a chance to do it all over again, perhaps we’d have to consider and look at running that ball a little bit more,” Caldwell said. “I don’t think we ran it quite enough [against Buffalo]. Oftentimes, you just try to look at how the game is going, how you are faring in terms of blocking them up front, and then make a determination on how you’re going to go win it.”

The Ravens are averaging just 2.6 yards per carry, which ranks 30th in the league.

First-down woes defensively

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees clearly wasn’t played with his unit’s performance against the run in Week 4 after the Ravens surrendered 203 yards on 55 carries to the Bills.

After crediting Buffalo’s game plan that caught Baltimore coaches and players off guard, Pees offered an explanation of what exactly led to the Ravens nearly giving up as many yards on the ground against the Bills as they had in their first three games combined (224 on 66 carries).

“We’re doing OK on third down. We’re doing well on third-and-short, which we didn’t do well a year ago,” Pees said. “We’re doing well in the red area. And up until this game, we were doing well on the run. But the run was primarily first-down run. That’s where we got in trouble. It’s hard when it’s second down-and-four and second down-and-three. All of a sudden, now you’ve got to really try to tighten it down to get to third.”

Not counting Bills quarterback EJ Manuel’s kneel-downs at the end of the game, the Ravens gave up 143 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries on first-down plays. For the season, Baltimore has surrendered 253 rushing yards on 64 first-down attempts.

Jones back in return mix

Wide receiver Jacoby Jones was practicing for the second straight day Thursday and could provide a much-needed boost to the passing game should his knee be deemed ready to go against the Dolphins.

Fellow wide receiver Tandon Doss has down an admirable job as a punt returner, but the Ravens would love to have Jones’ explosiveness back in the return game as soon as possible. Ideally, they’d like to take it slow with Jones, but the current injury situations for rookie Marlon Brown (hamstring) and Deonte Thompson (knee) could make Jones’ availability a necessity in Miami.

“He’s catching balls, he’s doing what he can in practice,” special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. “We look forward to having him back.”

Jones injured the medial collateral ligament in his right knee in the season opener on Sept. 5 and has been sidelined ever since.

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Ravens prepared to contain Bills’ Manuel, read option

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Ravens prepared to contain Bills’ Manuel, read option

Posted on 26 September 2013 by Luke Jones

(This blog brought to you by Atlantic Remodeling. Visit www.atlanticremodeling.com to learn about their Red Cent Guarantee!)

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens spent time throughout the offseason preparing to stop the read option after the offensive attack took the league by storm during the 2012 season.

According to defensive coordinator Dean Pees, the Ravens spent every other day during organized team activities and training camp completing a read-option period during practices to prepare themselves for matchups like Sunday when they travel to Buffalo to take on rookie quarterback EJ Manuel and standout running back C.J. Spiller. Under new head coach Doug Marrone, the Bills’ have used the read option at points during their first three games, giving the Ravens their first look at the wide-open rushing attack since facing San Francisco in Super Bowl XLVII last February.

“You enjoy a challenge. If you’re a football player, you don’t want the same thing every week,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “You want a little different [offense], and we love that we get the opportunity again to play against one of these up-and-coming quarterbacks [and] dual threat like EJ Manuel. It’s going to be a challenge.”

The Bills’ version of the read option appears to be working well on the surface with their rushing attack ranked fifth in the NFL, but the transition has been a work in progress as Manuel and Spiller haven’t always made proper reads and the offensive line’s blocking has been suspect. Of particular concern is Spilller, who is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry after averaging an astonishing 6.0 yards per rushing attempt a year ago.

Fortunately for Buffalo, backup Fred Jackson has picked up the slack by running for 169 yards on 32 carries, making him another dangerous weapon to watch for when the Bills try to run the read option. Patience and following one’s assignment is the key to slowing the novelty offense that hasn’t found the same success this season around the league as it did last year.

“Have good eyes,” said Pees, who credited mobile backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor for giving the Ravens a good look in practices. “That’s the No. 1 thing. When you’re playing any kind of option team, when you start looking at things you shouldn’t look at, that’s when you get beat. If I’ve got the quarterback, my eyes have got to be on the quarterback. It’s a little bit like in coverage. Most of the time when a guy gets beat in coverage, it’s because of the eyes.”

Manuel was sacked an astonishing eight times in the Bills’ loss to the Jets last Sunday, so the Ravens will be licking their chops to make life miserable for the rookie quarterback. However, pocket containment will be vitally important as Manuel is a bigger threat to take off and run compared to the three starting quarterbacks the Ravens have faced so far this season.

The Florida State product has carried 13 times for 76 yards in three games, but the Ravens rank sixth in the league with 11 sacks.

“You just definitely have to make sure we can contain him every time,” linebacker Daryl Smith said. “If whoever is coming off the edge, whether it’s an end or linebacker, if they take the inside move, the quarterback definitely can escape and has the speed to get out and get the first down or do whatever he wants to do. We’ve been talking about it this week and definitely have a plan to make sure we always have edges on the defense.”

Looking for improvement from McKinnie

After appearing to be laboring during Wednesday’s practice, left tackle Bryant McKinnie appeared more active and mobile a day later as the Ravens hope to see improvement from the 34-year-old veteran.

The entire offensive line has struggled to block in the running game — an area that’s never been McKinnie’s biggest strength — but the left tackle has struggled in pass protection the last two weeks and was flagged for two facemask penalties in the first half of the win over the Texans.

“There’s always a work in progress in that area, and I think he’s working at it, trying to get better at what he does,” said offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, who emphasized a need for everyone — including him — to improve. “He’s a professional and he’s trying to improve every single day. [Run-game coordinator Juan Castillo] does a great job with those guys. They work and they work extremely hard. I think Juan is getting him to the point where he’s moving in the right direction.”

McKinnie’s three-year tenure in Baltimore has been bumpy to say the least as he didn’t start a game in the regular season last year and reported to training camp overweight this summer and was held out of the first day of practice for veterans.

Thompson in mix as kick returner

With Pro Bowl return specialist Jacoby Jones still sidelined with an MCL injury in his right knee and No. 3 running back Shaun Draughn dealing with a high ankle sprain, the Ravens could have a new face in the return game in Buffalo.

Wide receiver Deonte Thompson has practiced on a limited basis for two straight days and is listed as the Ravens’ backup kickoff returner behind Jones on the depth chart. In his rookie season, the speedy wideout served as the kick returner before a critical fumble against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 5.

“Deonte demonstrated a year ago that he has the skills to do that,” said Rosburg, referring to Thompson’s 25.9 yard per return average in 15 attempts. “He’s had success, too, and he understands it. He’d probably be pretty excited about that opportunity should it come his way.”

Should Draughn be inactive, the Ravens would likely turn to either Thompson or fellow wide receiver Tandon Doss, who returned a punt 82 yards for a touchdown last week.

Ravens glad Miles now on their side

Special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg smiled when asked about the acquisition of former Cincinnati safety Jeromy Miles off waivers earlier this week.

A rookie free agent from the University of Massachusetts in 2010, the fourth-year safety can play in all phases of special teams and would figure to play a prominent role considering rookie safety Brynden Trawick was active for all of the Ravens’ first three games. With Miles serving as a prominent special-teams player in the Bengals’ units, the Ravens were very familiar with him.

“We’ve had to block Jeromy Miles for the last few years,” Rosburg said. “We’ve had him blocking us the last few years. We’re excited he’s on our team doing those things for us, because he’s been a force in our division. We’re really happy he’s on our team.”

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Our Ravens/Texans “Pats on the Ass”

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Our Ravens/Texans “Pats on the Ass”

Posted on 22 September 2013 by Glenn Clark

After every Baltimore Ravens victory, Ryan Chell and I take to the airwaves on “The Creative Deck Designs Postgame Show” on AM1570 WNST.net to offer “Pats on the Ass” to players who have done something to deserve the honor.

We give pats to two defensive players, two offensive players and one “Wild Card”-either another offensive or defensive player, a Special Teams player or a coach. We offer a “Pat on Both Cheeks” to someone who stands out, our version of a “Player of the Game.” Ryan and I select five different players/coaches each (Tim Horsey played the role of Ryan Chell for Week 4.)

Here are our “Pats on the Ass” following the Ravens’ 30-9 win over the Houston Texans at M&T Bank Stadium Sunday…

Glenn’s Pats…

5. Gino Gradkowski

 

4. Dean Pees

 

3. Haloti Ngata

 

2. Torrey Smith

 

1. Daryl Smith (Pat on Both Cheeks)

(Continued on Page 2…)

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Ravens defense desperate to bounce back from Week 1 embarrassment

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Ravens defense desperate to bounce back from Week 1 embarrassment

Posted on 12 September 2013 by Luke Jones

(This blog brought to you by Atlantic Remodeling. Visit www.atlanticremodeling.com to learn about their Red Cent Guarantee!)

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens defense has heard the snickering and the mocking over the last week since their 49-27 loss to the Denver Broncos.

As if setting team records for points allowed and touchdown passes surrendered in their first game without future Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed wasn’t enough, the Ravens also witnessed former teammate Anquan Boldin catch 13 passes for 208 yards. Of course, it was general manager Ozzie Newsome who famously said in a Sports Illustrated interview this summer that the veteran receiver’s $6 million salary for 2013 was used to bolster the Baltimore defense.

Surrendering 510 yards of total offense to quarterback Peyton Manning and the Broncos offense clearly wasn’t part of the plan for a defense many expected to be markedly better than last year’s unit.

“It was definitely tough being the punch line for a lot of jokes on the countdown shows and the morning shows opening weekend in the NFL,” said defensive end Chris Canty, who collected a sack and three quarterback hits in his Baltimore debut. “We’re definitely excited about having the opportunity to change the perception of what people think about us.”

No one wore his emotion on his sleeve more than defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who met with the local media for more than 13 minutes on Thursday. The frustration was apparent in his voice, reflecting that his expectations were much higher than the end result in Week 1.

It’s easy to forget after the 35-point second-half debacle, but the defense held the Broncos to a respectable 14 points and 174 yards in the first half at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Of the 510 yards Pees’ unit surrendered, 307 came on the nine plays of 20 yards or more given up — six of which came in the second half.

“This has been a hard week, because I’m disappointed in the outcome,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “I’m disappointed in the statistics, which look terrible. I’m not disappointed in the total defensive effort that we gave. I’m disappointed in nine plays.”

So, what exactly did the Week 1 performance mean aside from contributing to the first season-opening loss of the John Harbaugh era? Was the early hype surrounding the new-look defense undeserved with apparent vulnerability in the secondary?

Is enough credit being given to Manning and a Broncos team that treated the opener like their Super Bowl following January’s heartbreaking divisional round defeat at the hands of the eventual world champion Ravens? As much as we discussed the potential of Pees’ unit in 2013, the Ravens featured six new starters from last year and such change doesn’t always come together as quickly as you expect on paper.

The Ravens should view their first-half performance and the 59 defensive snaps in which they held Denver to 203 yards as positives on which to build, but those nine plays were critical in transforming a competitive game into one of the worst defeats in the Harbaugh era.

You can’t sugarcoat the reality of what happened.

“Big plays in this business will kill you,” Canty said. “Offenses are too good. You’ve got to limit the opportunities to drive the ball down the football field. Dean talks a lot about making people go the long, hard way [to score]. We just didn’t do that enough last Thursday and we paid the price for it.”

Much of the frustration expressed by Pees on Thursday stemmed from the fact that he felt so many of the mishaps were either avoidable and correctable. From missed tackles to blown coverages, there wasn’t much to like with the pass defense as Manning threw five touchdowns in the second half.

Should it be chalked up to miscommunications, the infamous Denver altitude, or simply the brilliance of Manning and his ability to exploit any imperfection in technique or positioning?

“Your guess is just as good as mine,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “Not every week [do] you get to practice or play against a team that’s explosive like they were. They were a good football team, but that was last week. We’re here to focus on the Cleveland Browns.”

As much as fans and media continue to dwell on last week, the Ravens have turned the page in focusing on Cleveland and an offense lacking the explosiveness of their Week 1 opponent. Second-year quarterback Brandon Weeden is a far cry from Manning and the Browns lack the array of receiving weapons on display in Denver.

The Browns make no secret about their desire to pound the football with bruising running back Trent Richardson, which should play right into the Ravens’ hands. While there were some questions about a secondary featuring new starting safeties Michael Huff and James Ihedigbo entering the season, most agree the strength of the Baltimore defense is its front seven, which didn’t play poorly against the Broncos.

Even with the catastrophic breakdowns in the secondary, the Ravens held the pass-happy Broncos to 2.9 yards per carry on 23 attempts while collecting three sacks and hitting Manning seven times. Much of that came with Baltimore using an extra defensive back, leaving the box more vulnerable against the run. You’d expect the Ravens to play more of their base defense on Sunday, with Courtney Upshaw seeing more than the 37 snaps he played against Denver and defensive tackle Arthur Jones possibly returning to action after a three-week layoff due to an irregular heartbeat.

“To ask our line to play a six-man box all game against their running game and hold them to [65] yards?” Pees said. “Best we’ve ever done. To hit Manning that many times? [That’s the] best we’ve ever done. But it all negates because of the other. That’s why it is personal. It bothers me, and the only thing that’s going to take the stink off of it is you know what.”

The most intriguing aspect of Sunday’s game might be potential adjustments made in the secondary from Week 1. After Corey Graham struggled playing the nickel against veteran slot receiver Wes Welker, Pees moved Lardarius Webb to the inside when the Ravens used three cornerbacks.

As he did prior to last year’s ACL injury, Webb can lock down the slot receiver while serving a more active role in stopping the run, which wouldn’t be a bad idea with the Browns more committed to the ground attack than most teams. However, it will be interesting to see how Pees handles the nickel this year considering neither Webb nor Graham has the size of former cornerback Cary Williams to play on the outside opposite Jimmy Smith in the nickel package, leaving the secondary potentially vulnerable against taller wideouts.

Cleveland offensive coordinator Norv Turner is surely aware of the Ravens’ struggles against Broncos tight end Julius Thomas, who caught five passes for 110 yards and two touchdown while abusing linebackers and safeties. Browns tight end Jordan Cameron was one of the lone highlights of his team’s Week 1 loss to Miami as he caught nine passes for 108 yards and a touchdown.

Rookie inside linebacker Arthur Brown saw only six defensive snaps and could be an option to spell Josh Bynes in the nickel package — as he did through much of the preseason — and first-round safety Matt Elam could be called upon if either Huff or Ihedigbo falter in pass coverage. Elam replaced Huff late in the game in Denver and figures to be a major factor defensively sooner rather than later.

Even with potential personnel and scheme adjustments made by Pees moving forward, the most improvement will need to come from within as the Ravens are convinced the season opener was more aberration than reality against one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. Lewis and Reed may no longer be in the defensive huddle, but their high defensive standard still remains as holdovers and newcomers always reference it.

But talking about it and actually showing it are two different things, a lesson the Ravens learned in embarrassing fashion last week.

“We know we have some things we need to work on, so this week, we go back to work, because we want to be better,” Webb said. “[It was] kind of an embarrassment. Raven football, we don’t play that way.”

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Even with questions, it’s easy to root for new Ravens safety Elam

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Even with questions, it’s easy to root for new Ravens safety Elam

Posted on 26 April 2013 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens appear absolutely thrilled with their first-round selection Matt Elam of Florida.

The 21-year-old safety was a player the Ravens had been targeting all along to add to their defense, but Elam’s addition doesn’t come without questions. His 5-foot-10 height isn’t ideal for matching up with the monstrous tight ends taking over the NFL and his brutally-physical style of play will make some wonder if he’s a young version of Bernard Pollard — complete with the propensity for drawing flags — but a deeper look into his history and motivation for landing where he is today makes him easy to root for.

Dealing with the murder of his 12-year-old sister when he was 8 and then coping with an older brother facing the same fate less than a decade later would have been enough to send just about anyone down the wrong path. Instead, Elam channeled that emotion to work even harder to realize his dream of playing in the NFL.

“It was just me understanding that I’m tired of the frowns and the tears and the funerals and things like that,” said Elam, who grew up in a rough neighborhood in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.. “I was like, ‘I’m going to turn this around. I’m going to do this the right way. I’m going to turn the frowns into smiles. I’m going to make sure my family is happy. I’m going to make sure the happiness overcomes all the tragedy and adversity.”

A decision by his mother to send Elam to another school — he attended William T. Dwyer High in West Palm Beach — to avoid getting in trouble also aided as he eventually enjoyed a standout career with the Gators and was selected with the 32nd overall pick of the NFL Draft on Thursday night. The positive influence of his older brother and current NFL player Abe also kept Elam focused on improving his life and bringing that joy to his family.

It makes his slight stature and questions about his pass coverage seem a little less important as no one really knows how Elam’s skill set in the SEC will translate to Sundays in the NFL. The Ravens seem convinced that it will.

Elam seems to hope you’ll doubt him after he admits having a chip on his shoulder after two safeties — Kenny Vaccaro of Texas and Eric Reid of LSU — were taken before him in the first round. His background makes it easy to see how he might use such perceived slights as motivation.

“A lot of kids my age that have been through the same thing lost siblings and took it negatively and didn’t use it as motivation [or] make it positive,” Elam said. “I used it as positive energy and things like that. I feel like it helped me, growing through that thing helped me.”

His heartfelt story aside, it’s fair to ask questions about Elam’s height as he’ll occasionally be matched up with receivers or tight ends more than a half-foot taller than him. Elam displayed good ball skills in college and appeared competent in coverage when he wasn’t playing in the box to stop the run.

It remains to be seen how the Ravens will use him as defensive coordinator Dean Pees said Elam will be asked to learn both safety positions as well as the nickel spot for certain packages. He could emerge as a Swiss army knife that the Ravens can use all over the field, but it’s clear his physicality stands out, evident by the highlight-reel hits he turned in on a weekly basis in Gainesville.

“The guy can run, the guy can cover, and — most of all — he can hit,” Pees said. “What I like most about him watching him on film is there is a dying art in college football in the secondary, and it’s called tackling. This guy has that heart.”

That description will immediately make Ravens fans think of Pollard, who was popular for his violent collisions but also guilty of infractions with the NFL’s commitment to cracking down on blows to the head of defenseless receivers. Pro football is a changing game and there is at least some question whether Elam’s wild-man approach will sit well with officials and commissioner Roger Goodell.

However, the Ravens don’t seem too concerned and Elam believes he is fundamentally sound with his approach to attacking would-be receivers and ball carriers.

“I feel like I won’t let up a bit. I’ll just rely on my technique,” Elam said. “Like I said, I’ll improve every day in practice, and I feel like it won’t be a problem. I’ll rely on my technique. It won’t slow me down a bit.”

The truth is no one really knows whether Elam will emerge as the next great safety in the Baltimore secondary or simply become a solid defensive back with limitations due to height and a reputation for going overboard in the same way Pollard did. His cover skills looked strong enough in small doses at Florida, but will he be able to hang with tight ends and wide receivers that look like power forwards at the next level?

That remains to be seen, but the simple fact that Elam sat in front of media and answered questions about his NFL career was a victory in and of itself after everything he’s been through.

It would have been easy to take his life in a darker direction, but Elam elected to push past tragedy and attack his goals in the same way he does the opposition. With that in mind, the questions he faces seem quite trivial.

But Elam is taking nothing for granted with his opportunity to join the defending Super Bowl champions.

“Growing up, I had to work through things,” Elam said. “My parents and my brother always made me work at it – made me earn things. Like I said, I don’t want anything given, because if it’s given, it’s not earned.”

 

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Ed Reed resolution coming at this week’s league meetings?

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Ed Reed resolution coming at this week’s league meetings?

Posted on 17 March 2013 by Luke Jones

It looked to be a foregone conclusion last week that Ed Reed would be walking away from the Ravens after 11 years, but the free-agent safety never shies away from keeping everyone guessing.

Leaving Houston without a contract agreement after a two-day visit, Reed may determine his 2013 destination this week at the league meetings in Arizona as the Ravens and Texans are reportedly scheduled to meet with his agent David Dunn. It remains unclear how much the Ravens are willing to offer the 34-year-old, but general manager Ozzie Newsome has remained in touch with Reed’s representation since a meeting with the safety before the start of free agency.

It’s similar to how the Ravens handled the free agency of Ray Lewis — who was also represented by Dunn — following the 2008 season when the linebacker briefly flirted with the idea of joining another team before learning his value wasn’t as high as he hoped and he re-signed with Baltimore. Reed is believed to be seeking a salary approaching the $7.2 million base salary he earned last season, but his decision to leave Houston without a contract is an obvious sign the Texans’ offer wasn’t where he wanted it to be.

Or, he’s simply not ready to pull the trigger in leaving the Ravens behind just yet.

“Four years ago, we went down this same road with Ray,” Newsome told USA Today. “Dave always does a very good job of keeping us in the loop. That doesn’t mean that Ed will come back, and it doesn’t mean that he will leave.”

While some have opined that the Ravens are suddenly jumping back into the Reed sweepstakes, it’s unlikely that Newsome would enter into a bidding war for the nine-time Pro Bowl safety. The Ravens determine a value for each and every player on their roster and rarely deviate from that price, evident by their hardline approach in wanting to slash Anquan Boldin’s 2013 $6 million base salary by $2 million before ultimately dealing him to the San Francisco 49ers for a sixth-round pick.

A potential Reed return will be far more about him wanting to finish his career with the Ravens and realizing the money may not be dramatically better somewhere else. It just doesn’t seem likely that Newsome would offer him a sexy contract because other teams are potentially in the mix and such a move wouldn’t jive with how the Ravens have handled their offseason in essentially sending the message that they’re starting over on defense after the departure of five starters from the Super Bowl XLVII team.

But as Newsome told USA Today, the Ravens want to be careful in how quickly they make the transition with their defense and Reed’s return — at Baltimore’s price, of course — would provide much-needed leadership as well as an opportunity for the future Hall of Fame safety to mentor an understudy to eventually take his place.

Dumervil in Ravens’ price range?

The unexpected availability of Broncos free-agent defensive end Elvis Dumervil was sure to spark interest from any team looking to improve its pass rush and there is “serious interest” from the Ravens, according to The Baltimore Sun.

Dumervil played outside linebacker in a 3-4 system under former Denver head coach Josh McDaniels and would certainly more than fill the void left behind by Paul Kruger, but it’s difficult to imagine the Ravens having the financial means to be serious players for the 29-year-old with several other areas to address including wide receiver, left tackle, inside linebacker, and safety.

In addition to Denver being interested in bringing back Dumervil since their renegotiated deal fell through after a fax machine fiasco on Friday — that resulted in the termination of agent Marty Magid — the Patriots and the Titans have also been named as teams with potential interest in the defensive end’s services. The reality is Dumervil’s new representation — reported to be Tom Condon and Ben Dogra — will not only be looking to recover the $8 million per year the pass rusher had agreed to accept from the Broncos but also to make their mark by fetching more money for their client if possible.

Those realities wouldn’t suggest the Ravens are a realistic candidate to sign Dumervil, who collected 20 1/2 sacks over the last two seasons.

What about the nose?

In an otherwise disappointing start to free agency with the Ravens seeing their roster gutted, Newsome has fulfilled his promise to address the defensive line by adding veteran defensive ends Chris Canty and Marcus Spears this past week.

Those signings leave the Ravens stacked at defensive end as the veterans join Arthur Jones and Pernell McPhee, but nose tackle remains an area of concern after Terrence Cody and veteran Ma’ake Kemoeatu struggled to control the line of scrimmage as opposing teams had plenty of success running up the middle in 2012. Kemoeatu is an unrestricted free agent not expected to return and Cody has one year remaining on his rookie contract, leaving many to believe Baltimore will be looking for help in April’s draft.

One option the Ravens might consider is to move All-Pro defensive tackle Haloti Ngata to the nose tackle spot, a position he’s played in the past. Canty, Spears, and Jones are all defensive ends perfectly suited to play in a 3-4 front, but the Ravens would appear to have a surplus if Ngata is to continue playing the 3-technique tackle spot in which he lines up on the outside shoulder of the guard.

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will use multiple fronts and the Ravens love to rotate linemen into the lineup to keep everyone fresh, but you have to think the Ravens have something up their sleeve for their defensive line or they wouldn’t have signed two veteran defensive ends after designating Jones with a second-round tender. Spears also dabbled at the nose tackle spot occasionally for the Dallas Cowboys, but Ngata would appear to be the best candidate to move.

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Pees depending on outside guys against 49ers’ running game

Posted on 31 January 2013 by WNST Staff

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR DEAN PEES

(on what he sees in San Francisco that is special) “The option pistol stuff that they’re running, I know Washington runs it some, but it’s a little different. Everyone talks about No. 7 (Colin Kaepernick), but 21 (Frank Gore) can beat you just as easy as 7 can and he’s still, to me, the main focus.”

 

(on the threat of the passing game and on how well Colin Kaepernick can throw the ball deep) “He’s very good, he’s very accurate, but again, I think he’s done a great job and they’ve done a great job with putting him into a system and building a system to make him successful, but to be able to throw the ball deep you have to have guys that can run deep. (Michael) Crabtree and Vernon Davis and Randy Moss can run deep. You can have a guy that can throw a deep ball, but if you don’t have anybody that can actually get to it then it doesn’t make any difference. The difference is, they can really spread the field on you.”

 

(on preparing for the Super Bowl compared to the season) “Every week the quarterback has less and less ability to run. First of all, we had (Andrew) Luck, (Peyton) Manning a little less, (Tom) Brady a whole lot less, and now all of the sudden we’ve got this guy. It’s as different as it could be in the last four weeks.”

 

(on comparing Washington’s offense and San Francisco’s) “There’s a difference in the running game. Really Washington, for the most part, went to the zone read and the option. The difference with San Francisco is that they’ll line up in the pistol and run all the zone options, but they’ll run their whole offense out of that same look, where Washington didn’t necessarily do that. The passing game is a lot different.”

 

(on who will be in the main stress points defensively when the pistol is being run) “Whoever is playing five-technique or six-technique. It’s whoever is over the tackle or at the end of the line of scrimmage. Those are the guys, not that the inside guys aren’t very accountable to it, but the guys that he’s really trying to option are always the guys that are at the end of the line of scrimmage. That could be an outside backer or a five- technique defensive end, either or.”

 

(on how much of a level of discipline and reaction has to be employed) “You’ve got to be a football player. It’s this simple, just like in all defenses, you have an assignment, but they bottom line is we are to tackle the guy who has the football.  That’s the main thing. Going in and blowing up No. 7 (Colin Kaepernick) when you know he doesn’t have the ball really serves no purpose. We need to tackle the guy with the football. If you think 7 has the football, then tackle him. If you know he’s handed it off, then go play football. That’s still the bottom line of defense.”

 

(on the big stage this will be for Colin Kaepernick) “I have no idea of his mental makeup. I don’t have any idea if this is going to be a big stage for him. Obviously it’s a big stage, but he handled the NFC game pretty well, away and in a hostile environment. The way we approach it is that he won’t have any problems handling it and we wouldn’t ever want to handle it any other way.”

 

(on what he sees on the 49er’s tape) “They’ve got a lot of plays. If you chart all their plays, they’ve got a little bit of everything”

 

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