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Ravens-Panthers: Five predictions for Sunday

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Ravens-Panthers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 27 September 2014 by Luke Jones

The Ravens hope to hit the quarter pole of the season on a winning note when they welcome the Carolina Panthers to Baltimore on Sunday afternoon.

Most focus has understandably centered around wide receiver Steve Smith playing against his former team this week, but the Ravens will be playing their first game since losing tight end Dennis Pitta for the season and left tackle Eugene Monroe for at least the next few weeks. And they face an imposing stretch of four of their next five games on the road following Sunday’s contest at M&T Bank Stadium, making this a game the Ravens would desperately like to win.

Meanwhile, the Panthers are trying to recover from an embarrassing home loss to Pittsburgh last Sunday night while overcoming a number of injuries in their offensive backfield. Expected to have one of the more potent rushing attacks in the NFL this season, the Panthers currently rank 29th in run offense with just 72.3 rushing yards per contest.

Sunday marks the fifth meeting between these teams as Carolina holds a 3-1 edge. However, the Ravens won the only game against the Panthers of the John Harbaugh era, a 37-13 final in Charlotte in 2010.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to win their first ever home game against the Panthers …

1. Steve Smith will catch a touchdown pass and be flagged for a 15-yard penalty against his old team. The 35-year-old has tried to downplay the significance of playing the Panthers after spending the first 13 years of his career in Charlotte, but there’s no escaping the prediction of “blood and guts” he made shortly after signing a three-year contract with the Ravens in March. To say Smith will be fired up is an understatement considering how fiery he is on game days anyway, but he’ll bring a little extra passion that will draw a 15-yard penalty for either unnecessary roughness or taunting at some point. He’ll make up for it, however, with a touchdown catch to beat Panthers cornerback Antoine Cason.

2. James Hurst will struggle as a run blocker, but his pass blocking, with help from tight end Crockett Gillmore and fullback Kyle Juszczyk, will keep Joe Flacco clean. If you’re looking for the silver lining with the left tackle situation, Monroe wasn’t playing well before undergoing knee surgery this week, meaning there may not be much of a drop-off with the undrafted rookie. The overall impression of his play in the preseason was that Hurst was a capable pass blocker with good technique, but his blocking ability in the running game left much to be desired. Baltimore will use help on his side to help contain the pass rush from the likes of Charles Johnson, Mario Addison, and Wes Horton and keep Flacco safe. Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak will also call more running plays inside and to the right to stay away from Hurst’s struggles whenever possible.

3. With Jimmy Smith locked on rookie Kelvin Benjamin, veteran Jerricho Cotchery catches a touchdown from Cam Newton against the Baltimore secondary. The 6-foot-5 Benjamin will pose a problem for any Ravens cornerback other than Smith, so defensive coordinator Dean Pees will have his top defensive back mirror him as much as possible. Veteran Lardarius Webb wasn’t listed on this week’s injury report, so he’s expected to have a bigger workload than the four defensive snaps he took in Cleveland, but it’s still difficult projecting what to expect from him in terms of performance. Carolina’s weapons in the passing game aren’t imposing beyond Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen, but the savvy Cotchery is familiar with the Ravens defense from his days with Pittsburgh and will shake free against zone coverage for a red-zone touchdown.

4. Bernard Pierce will start in the backfield, but rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro will lead the Ravens in rushing for the second straight week. A national audience watched the Steelers gash the Panthers defense for 264 rushing yards in a 37-19 final in Charlotte last Sunday night, which continued the early-season trend of Carolina struggling to stop the run. Kubiak will look to run early and often to control the tempo of the game and will defer to the returning Pierce at the start of this one. However, the jury is still out whether the 2012 third-round pick is a great fit in the Ravens’ zone-blocking scheme as he’s often looked indecisive in hitting running lanes. The Ravens will lean heavily on Taliaferro in the second half to wear down the Panthers’ front and the rookie will make another emphatic statement that the starting job belongs to him.

5. The injuries to Pitta and Monroe are concerning, but the Ravens will still have enough to handle Carolina in a 26-17 final. The Panthers are still trying to find their bearings on the offensive side of the ball with Newton still not 100 percent and the backfield in disarray with the long-term injury to fullback Mike Tolbert and the uncertain status of Jonathan Stewart. On top of that, the Carolina defense hasn’t been the imposing unit it was last year without defensive end Greg Hardy in the picture. The Ravens will use an effective running game and an improved defensive effort to win in relatively comfortable fashion to begin the season 3-1 before starting what looks to be the most difficult stretch of their regular-season schedule with only one home game over the next five weeks of action.

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Suggs listed as probable, Canty questionable against Carolina on Sunday

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Suggs listed as probable, Canty questionable against Carolina on Sunday

Posted on 26 September 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens received good news with the return of Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs to the practice field as they made final preparations for the Carolina Panthers on Friday.

After missing practices on Wednesday and Thursday with a groin injury suffered in last Sunday’s win over Cleveland, Suggs is listed as probable for Sunday’s game after being a full participant on Friday. He appeared to be moving well as he ran the width of the field during the media viewing portion of the workout.

Defensive end Chris Canty (knee), defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (knee), and offensive tackle Eugene Monroe (knee surgery) were the only Ravens players absent from Friday’s practice. With Monroe and Jernigan already ruled out, Canty is the Ravens’ only big question mark for Sunday’s game against Carolina as he was listed as questionable on the final injury report and hasn’t practiced all week.

Wide receiver Steve Smith and tight end Owen Daniels returned to the practice field after receiving a veteran day off on Thursday. They are both listed as probable on the final game status report, but neither player is dealing with an injury.

Cornerback Jimmy Smith (knee/ankle) and running back Bernard Pierce (thigh) are probable and were both present and working after being listed as full participants on Thursday. Smith missed Wednesday’s practice after being banged up against the Browns.

Meanwhile, Carolina listed linebacker Thomas Davis (hip) and running back Jonathan Stewart (knee) as questionable. Panthers head coach Ron Rivera indicated Davis is further along in his recovery and has a better chance to play on Sunday, but both he and Stewart are considered game-time decisions.

Starting running back DeAngelo Williams (thigh) is probable after practicing fully all week.

The referee for Sunday’s game will be Craig Wrolstad. He’s a new referee for the 2014 season after serving as an NFL field judge prior to the promotion.

According to Weather.com, Sunday’s forecast calls for temperatures in the low 80s with partly cloudy skies, no chance of precipitation, and winds up to five miles per hour.

The Ravens will be wearing black jerseys and black pants for the first time this season on Sunday. They announced earlier in the week that they’d be wearing their alternate jerseys against the Panthers.

Here is the final injury report of the week:

BALTIMORE
OUT: DT Timmy Jernigan (knee), T Eugene Monroe (knee)
QUESTIONABLE: DE Chris Canty (knee)
PROBABLE: TE Owen Daniels (non-injury), RB Bernard Pierce (thigh), CB Jimmy Smith (knee/ankle), WR Steve Smith (non-injury), LB Terrell Suggs (thigh)

CAROLINA
DOUBTFUL: RB Fozzy Whittaker (thigh), T Garry Williams (back)
QUESTIONABLE: LB Thomas Davis (hip), RB Jonathan Stewart (knee)
PROBABLE: WR Jerricho Cotchery (thigh), CB Charles Godfrey (ankle), S Roman Harper (knee), RB DeAngelo Williams (thigh)

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Jimmy Smith returns to practice; Suggs, Canty remain sidelined

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Jimmy Smith returns to practice; Suggs, Canty remain sidelined

Posted on 25 September 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The injury report remained troubling for the Ravens Thursday as they continued preparations for their Week 4 meeting with the Carolina Panthers.

Cornerback Jimmy Smith (knee/ankle) returned to the practice field and appeared to be moving well during the media viewing portion of the workout, but linebacker Terrell Suggs (groin), defensive end Chris Canty (knee), and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (knee) all remained sidelined with various ailments. Starting left tackle Eugene Monroe hasn’t been officially ruled out for Sunday’s game yet, but Wednesday’s knee surgery is expected to sideline him for at least a few weeks.

The Ravens claimed former San Diego Chargers defensive end Lawrence Guy off waivers on Wednesday, which could be an indication of concern for Canty’s availability against Carolina. Guy has been assigned No. 67 with his new team.

Wide receiver Steve Smith and tight end Owen Daniels were also non-participants during Thursday’s practice as they received a veteran day off. Smith was watching practice without being suited up while Daniels, who is now the starting tight end after the season-ending hip injury suffered by Dennis Pitta, was absent from the field.

Running back Bernard Pierce (thigh) was present and working fully for the second straight day after being listed as a full participant on Wednesday’s injury report.

The Ravens were practicing indoors in helmets, shells, and shorts as rain hit the Owings Mills area for most of the morning and early afternoon on Thursday.

For Carolina, starting outside linebacker Thomas Davis (hip) was upgraded to limited participation while cornerback Charles Godfrey (ankle) and safety Roman Harper (knee) were full participants a day after missing practice.

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: DE Chris Canty (knee), DT Timmy Jernigan (knee), T Eugene Monroe (knee), LB Terrell Suggs (thigh), WR Steve Smith (non-injury), TE Owen Daniels (non-injury)
FULL PARTICIPATION: CB Jimmy Smith (knee/ankle), RB Bernard Pierce (thigh)

CAROLINA
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: RB Jonathan Stewart (knee), RB Fozzy Whittaker (thigh), T Garry Williams (back)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: LB Thomas Davis (hip)
FULL PARTICIPATION: CB Charles Godfrey (ankle), S Roman Harper (knee), WR Jerricho Cotchery (thigh), RB DeAngelo Williams (thigh)

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Ravens left tackle Monroe sidelined after undergoing minor knee surgery

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Ravens left tackle Monroe sidelined after undergoing minor knee surgery

Posted on 24 September 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Just a few days after losing starting tight end Dennis Pitta for the rest of the season, the Ravens learned they would be without their left tackle for a few weeks after Eugene Monroe underwent minor knee surgery on Wednesday.

Head coach John Harbaugh made the announcement following practice as rookie free agent James Hurst is expected to start in Monroe’s place against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. It remains unclear how long Monroe will be sidelined after his knee limited him in practice last week and during the Week 3 win over the Cleveland Browns last Sunday, but Harbaugh said it will be “some number of weeks.”

“To not have him is going to be different, but it’s honestly something that I try not to pay too much attention to,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “I think Hurst is going to come in to fill in and do a great job. And that’s all I can really do is go back there and have confidence that we’re going to do everything in our power to play well, and he’s going to play well. I have all the confidence in the world in him.”

It had become clear that Monroe’s knee was impacting his play as he graded out poorly against the Browns. According to Pro Football Focus, Monroe received the lowest grade among the Ravens’ five starting linemen through the first three weeks of the 2014 season.

Undrafted from the University of North Carolina, Hurst saw his draft stock plummet after he suffered a broken fibula in the Tar Heels’ bowl game in late December. Prior to the leg injury, many draft pundits envisioned him as an early- to mid-round pick who had an impressive performance against eventual No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney in North Carolina’s 2013 season opener against South Carolina.

Hurst said Monroe informed him of the news on Wednesday morning and that the veteran offered to do anything he can to help him prepare in the coming weeks. Though acknowledging butterflies about making his first career NFL start, Hurst pointed to the veteran experience on the offensive line as well as position coach Juan Castillo to help him out.

“I think if you’re not nervous, you don’t realize what’s happening,” Hurst said. “It’s a big situation. I’m excited about it. There are going to be nerves. Everybody has nerves. It’s just a matter of going out there and knowing that you prepared and you’ve done everything you can for that opportunity.”

Hurst would become become the first rookie to start at left tackle for the Ravens since Michael Oher in 2009.

Asked where Monroe’s injury left the Ravens at the left tackle position, Harbaugh hesitated in answering before acknowledging Hurst as the listed backup for the spot. Instead of moving left guard Kelechi Osemele outside or flipping right tackle Rick Wagner to the opposite side, the Ravens appear content in maintaining continuity with the rest of the line and will likely offer as much help as they can to Hurst’s side.

“Next man up like it always does,” said Harbaugh about what the injury meant for the offensive line. “That’s the depth chart. It’s pretty straightforward. I mean, it’s obvious.”

Monroe signed a five-year, $37.5 million contract to remain in Baltimore this offseason after he was traded by the Jacksonville Jaguars to the Ravens for a fourth- and a fifth-round selection last October.

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Four Ravens starters missing from Wednesday’s practice

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Four Ravens starters missing from Wednesday’s practice

Posted on 24 September 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens returned to the practice field Wednesday to prepare for their first non-divisional game of the season against the Carolina Panthers without four veteran starters participating.

Cornerback Jimmy Smith (leg), linebacker Terrell Suggs (groin), left tackle Eugene Monroe (knee), and defensive end Chris Canty were absent during the portion of practice open to media. In addition to the four veterans, rookie defensive lineman Timmy Jernigan remains sidelined with a meniscus injury that forced him to miss last Sunday’s game against the Browns.

Head coach John Harbaugh revealed after practice that Monroe underwent knee surgery on Wednesday afternoon and will be sidelined for “some number of weeks.” Rookie free agent James Hurst is expected to fill in at left tackle.

Even with their 23-21 win against Cleveland, the Ravens were clearly banged up after playing their third straight game against an AFC North opponent. Suggs was clearly limited at the end of the game, but the 12-year linebacker downplayed the significance of his groin injury after the win.

The good news during Wednesday’s practice was the return of running back Bernard Pierce (thigh) after he missed last Sunday’s game.

The Ravens were practicing in full pads on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the Carolina Panthers had six players sidelined during their first practice of the week including starting linebacker Thomas Davis, starting strong safety Roman Harper, and running back Jonathan Stewart. However, the Panthers received good news with wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery and starting running back DeAngelo Williams practicing fully.

Here is the full Wednesday injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: DE Chris Canty (knee), DT Timmy Jernigan (knee), T Eugene Monroe (knee), CB Jimmy Smith (knee/ankle), LB Terrell Suggs (thigh)
FULL PARTICIPATION: RB Bernard Pierce (thigh)

CAROLINA
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Thomas Davis (hip), CB Charles Godfrey (ankle), S Roman Harper (knee), RB Jonathan Stewart (knee), RB Fozzy Whittaker (thigh), T Garry Williams (back)
FULL PARTICIPATION: WR Jerricho Cotchery (thigh), RB DeAngelo Williams (thigh)

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Ravens list Webb probable, Pierce questionable against Browns on Sunday

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Ravens list Webb probable, Pierce questionable against Browns on Sunday

Posted on 19 September 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens have listed Lardarius Webb as probable for Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns, which paints an encouraging picture for the starting cornerback to make his 2014 debut this weekend.

Webb has practiced fully for three straight weeks after missing all of training camp while dealing with a back injury. He was deemed inactive in Weeks 1 and 2 after being listed as questionable on the final injury report for each of those games.

Starting running back Bernard Pierce is listed as questionable after being added to Thursday’s injury report with a thigh injury. The third-year back practiced on a limited basis on Thursday before being upgraded to full participation on Friday.

Defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (knee) is doubtful after missing practice all week and is reportedly recovering from a meniscus injury that could keep hiim sidelined for a couple weeks.

Quarterback Joe Flacco (stomach bug), cornerback Asa Jackson (concussion), and left tackle Eugene Monroe (knee) are also listed as probable for Sunday’s game.

Meanwhile, the Browns have ruled out running back Ben Tate (knee) as expected and designated standout tight end Jordan Cameron (shoulder) and outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo (shoulder) as questionable.

Here’s the final injury report of the week:

BALTIMORE
DOUBTFUL: DT Timmy Jernigan (knee)
QUESTIONABLE: RB Bernard Pierce (thigh)
PROBABLE: QB Joe Flacco (illness), CB Asa Jackson (concussion), T Eugene Monroe (knee), CB Lardarius Webb (back)

CLEVELAND
OUT: RB Ben Tate (knee)
QUESTIONABLE: TE Jordan Cameron (shoulder), LB Barkevious Mingo (shoulder)
PROBABLE: WR Travis Benjamin (knee), DL Desmond Bryant (wrist), DL John Hughes (hamstring), P Spencer Lanning (shoulder), OL Paul McQuistan (ankle), CB Buster Skrine (thumb)

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Flacco, Monroe return to practice on Thursday

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Flacco, Monroe return to practice on Thursday

Posted on 18 September 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — A day after missing practice due to an illness, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco returned to the field on Thursday to continue preparing for Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns.

Flacco was present and working during the portion of practice open to media while left tackle Eugene Monroe (knee) also returned to practice after sitting out with a knee injury on Wednesday. The seventh-year signal-caller was dealing with a stomach bug he caught from his oldest son Stephen and didn’t want to spread germs to his teammates.

“I don’t think I have [missed practice before], so it was definitely different not being out there,” Flacco said. “It was good that we had the long week coming off the Thursday night game, so we had an extra day in here, anyway, so it kind of worked out nicely. I was able to be in the meetings and all that.”

Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak echoed the sentiment that Flacco’s absence on Wednesday wasn’t a big deal, adding that it was good for backup Tyrod Taylor to get some rare extra reps.

Monroe told reporters on Wednesday that he fully expected to play against the Browns. Both he and Flacco were full participants a day after sitting out.

There was one addition to the Thursday practice report as running back Bernard Pierce was a limited participant as he deals with what’s listed as a thigh injury.

Defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (knee) was missing for the second straight day as he is recovering from what is a meniscus injury, according to The Sun. Already thin along the defensive line, Jernigan’s injury could force Pernell McPhee and the recently-signed Christo Bilukidi into more action up front.

Cornerbacks Lardarius Webb (back) and Asa Jackson (concussion) were again present after being full participants on Wednesday. Asked whether he expected to make his season debut in Week 3, Webb is leaving it in the hands of head coach John Harbaugh.

“When he feels like I’m healthy and able to play a full game, he’ll put me out there,” Webb said. “Harbs will let me know when it’s time.”

There were no changes to the Cleveland injury report on Thursday as running back Ben Tate (knee) once again sat out and tight end Jordan Cameron (shoulder) and linebacker Barkevious Mingo (shoulder) were limited participants.

Here’s a look at Thursday’s injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: DT Timmy Jernigan (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: RB Bernard Pierce (thigh)
FULL PARTICIPATION: QB Joe Flacco (illness), CB Asa Jackson (concussion), CB Lardarius Webb (back), T Eugene Monroe (knee)

CLEVELAND
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: RB Ben Tate (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: TE Jordan Cameron (shoulder), LB Barkevious Mingo (shoulder)
FULL PARTICIPATION: WR Travis Benjamin (knee), DL Desmond Bryant (wrist), DL John Hughes (hamstring), P Spencer Lanning (shoulder), OL Paul McQuistan (ankle), CB Buster Skrine (thumb)

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Flacco absent from practice as Ravens prepare for Cleveland

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Flacco absent from practice as Ravens prepare for Cleveland

Posted on 17 September 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Starting quarterback Joe Flacco was absent from Wednesday’s practice as the Ravens continued preparations for their first road game of the season against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.

Backup Tyrod Taylor and practice-squad quarterback Keith Wenning were present and working as Flacco missed practiced due to an illness that is not expected to keep him sidelined for long. The seventh-year quarterback has never missed a game, and several teammates couldn’t even recall Flacco missing a practice to this point in his career.

Even after injuring his knee against the Detroit Lions in Week 15 last season, Flacco did not miss a practice.

“It was weird,” defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. “[Terrell Suggs] and I were thinking we’ve never actually been at a practice without Joe Flacco being out there. Whatever he has going on, I hope for all the best for him.”

Left tackle Eugene Monroe (knee) and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (knee) were also absent during the viewing portion of Wednesday’s practice. The former expects to play against the Browns on Sunday while the rookie Jernigan could reportedly miss a couple weeks with a meniscus injury.

Cornerbacks Asa Jackson (concussion) and Lardarius Webb (back) were both present and working on Wednesday. Webb has yet to play in the 2014 season despite having practiced fully over the last couple weeks while Jackson sustained his concussion in the second quarter of the win over the Steelers.

Asked by reporters about his status, Webb said he’s feeling good but will continue to defer to head coach John Harbaugh, who continued to give no injury updates on Wednesday. Webb told reporters last week that he was ready to make his season debut against the Steelers before being deactivated for the second straight game.

The Ravens were practicing in helmets, shells, and shorts in their first open practice of the week.

Meanwhile, Cleveland is expected to be without running back Ben Tate (knee), meaning Towson product Terrance West is expected to receive the start against the Ravens. Linebacker Barkevious Mingo (shoulder) and tight end Jordan Cameron (shoulder) were both limited participants in the Browns’ practice on Wednesday.

Here’s a look at Wednesday’s injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: QB Joe Flacco (illness), DT Timmy Jernigan (knee), T Eugene Monroe (knee)
FULL PARTICIPATION: CB Asa Jackson (concussion), CB Lardarius Webb (back)

CLEVELAND
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: RB Ben Tate (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: TE Jordan Cameron (shoulder), LB Barkevious Mingo (shoulder)
FULL PARTICIPATION: WR Travis Benjamin (knee), DL Desmond Bryant (wrist), DL John Hughes (hamstring), P Spencer Lanning (shoulder), OL Paul McQuistan (ankle), CB Buster Skrine (thumb)

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D. Smith, Webb remain sidelined while Monroe, J. Smith sit out Friday’s practice

Posted on 01 August 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens continued to be without a number of key veterans as left tackle Eugene Monroe and cornerback Jimmy Smith joined linebacker Daryl Smith and cornerback Lardarius Webb as non-participants during Friday’s practice.

It remains unclear whether Monroe or Jimmy Smith were dealing with injuries or were simply given a day off to rest as the Ravens worked in helmets, shells, and shorts. Webb continues to be sidelined with lower back spasms that first surfaced last Friday while Daryl Smith has been sidelined for three straight practices with a groin injury not considered to be serious.

Wide receiver Steve Smith was on the field but not taking part in practice as the Ravens appear to be holding back the 35-year-old from working too hard while he continues to impress this summer.

Offensive lineman Will Rackley (concussion) and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (back spasms) were once again absent, and defensive tackle Terrence Cody remains on the physically unable to perform list following offseason hip surgery. Defensive end Brent Urban hasn’t officially been placed on injured reserve after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on Wednesday.

Rookie wide receiver Jeremy Butler returned to the practice field after Thursday’s absence due to a groin strain. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, linebacker Terrell Suggs, and running back Justin Forsett all returned to practice after being awarded Thursday off by head coach John Harbaugh.

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Osemele biggest key to Ravens fixing offensive line

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Osemele biggest key to Ravens fixing offensive line

Posted on 04 June 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — It was a year ago when the only question about Ravens offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele was whether he would become a Pro Bowl left guard in his second season in the NFL.

The expectations were high for the 2012 second-round pick after his successful shift to left guard was part of a offensive line shuffle that helped catapult the Ravens in a run to their Super Bowl XLVII championship. Osemele had played admirably at right tackle during his rookie season, but his postseason work inside made most think he was ready to take off in his second year.

Instead, a debilitating back injury led to poor play and, eventually, season-ending surgery while the offensive line crumbled with too many question marks all over. Now recovered and participating fully during voluntary organized team activities this spring, Osemele sees no reason why the lofty goal of making the Pro Bowl should be any different as he returns from surgery to repair a herniated disk.

“That’s always going to be the expectation for me as a player,” Osemele said. “Knowing the ability that I have and my work ethic, I feel like I would be an underachiever if that wasn’t my goal.”

With uncertainty lingering at right tackle after the Ravens re-signed left tackle Eugene Monroe and acquired veteran center Jeremy Zuttah this offseason to reshape their offensive line, Osemele is the linchpin of the group as he is currently slated to be the starting left guard. However, his versatility leaves the door open for the third-year lineman to shift back to right tackle should 2013 draft picks Rick Wagner and Ryan Jensen fail to play well enough to win the job and general manager Ozzie Newsome chooses not to sign a veteran.

Putting aside the right tackle battle, the Ravens are still putting plenty of faith in Osemele regaining the form of his rookie year, even after the positive reviews and the way he’s looked during spring workouts in which players practice in helmets, jerseys, and shorts. They know the true test won’t come until training camp when players are in full pads and experiencing full contact. The organization will then see how well Osemele holds up against the likes of hefty defensive linemen Haloti Ngata, Timmy Jernigan, and Brandon Williams in practices.

“As far as explosiveness, it’s hard to gauge that for any player, because we’re not hitting out here,” coach John Harbaugh said. “I don’t think you can really evaluate the power that a guy has, but I don’t doubt that it’s in there with him if you just watch the way he moves. He looks good. He’s going to be a lot better than he was last year.”

The Ravens and Osemele hope his best play has yet to come as he initially sustained the back injury during his collegiate days at Iowa State. The combination of him and Monroe on the left side of the offensive line is formidable on paper as Monroe’s athleticism at the left tackle spot is complemented well by Osemele’s combination of power and agility from the interior.

But the recovering lineman acknowledged the changes he’s been forced to make in his training regimen after last fall’s surgery. He is no longer permitted to perform any lifting over his head or squats as he focuses more closely on core training and flexibility than he did in the past.

The preexisting back condition that he had managed for years worsened last offseason when he trained too hard with thoughts of the Pro Bowl on his mind. And it showed in his diminished performance that was limited to just seven games before he was placed on season-ending injured reserve and underwent surgery in November.

“I didn’t train very smart,” Osemele said. “It was definitely on me [and] the way that I had been training, obviously, without knowledge of how bad that it was and then throughout the season getting those multiple MRIs, and seeing the condition worsen and already being at a point where you have to [play] because you’ve been taking all the reps. I ate up all the reps and then couldn’t play to my ability.”

An offensive line that was already struggling took further lumps with Osemele sidelined as the undersized A.Q. Shipley filled in at left guard next to new starting center Gino Gradkowski, giving the Ravens major problems inside as their running game and pass protection could never get on track during a disappointing 8-8 season.

The question of what player will line up at right tackle isn’t one that figures to be resolved anytime soon, but Osemele’s return to the mix will ease the concerns of the entire organization. The Ravens saw more than enough during his rookie season to feel confident that Osemele can be an anchor of the offensive line as long as the back is no longer an issue.

He said Wednesday that he hasn’t felt this healthy and strong since his first year or two of college.

“He’s back to his usual self, running around,” Monroe said. “[He is] one of the best-conditioned guys on the field, just grinding and trying to get better. We are even having to slow him down a little bit because it has been a while since he played, and we have certain rules we have to follow right now. We’re just working together every day. I’m glad he’s right next to me, I really am.”

On Wednesday, Harbaugh reiterated the preference of Osemele staying at left guard next to Monroe while the Ravens solve the puzzle at the right tackle spot. Even if they don’t find a great answer at that position, there are plenty of ways for offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak to scheme help in protection to account for vulnerability on the right side.

One weak link on the offensive line can be overcome, but the Ravens cannot afford to be vulnerable at multiple spots like they were last season, making it critical that Osemele is once again the player that dominated defensive linemen in the 2012 postseason while helping the organization win its second Super Bowl title. He’s the most important variable in determining whether the unit makes substantial improvement or once again struggles this season.

Whether it’s ultimately at left guard or right tackle, Osemele needs to be a force.

“We can’t lock ourselves into saying one thing or another, because we just don’t know how it’s going to play out,” Harbaugh said. “[Osemele] gives us flexibility because he can move out to tackle, but I sure like the way he and Eugene look over on that left side. That’s the direction we’re heading right now and hopefully we can maintain that course.”

Wednesday OTA attendance

There were more veterans absent for Wednesday’s workout than at last week’s workout that was open to reporters as Ngata, linebackers Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and Daryl Smith, defensive end Chris Canty, and guard Marshal Yanda were not on the field.

Ngata, Suggs, and Canty were the only veterans not present last Thursday.

Defensive tackle Terrence Cody (hip surgery) and offensive lineman Jah Reid (calf strain) remained sidelined as they continue to rehab injuries. Rookie wide receiver Michael Campanaro (hamstring) returned to the practice field after he’d been sidelined since his first week with the organization.

Running back Bernard Pierce (shoulder surgery) and rookie defensive end Brent Urban (ankle surgery) were once again practicing after undergoing procedures earlier in the offseason.

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