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Pees hoping two recovering stars give Ravens defense boost down final stretch

Posted on 20 December 2012 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ranked 26th in yards allowed and ravaged by injuries, the Ravens defense is heading in the wrong direction after allowing 65 points over its last two games.

But could the late-season returns of linebackers Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis provide the emotional spark and improvement the defense needs to put the Ravens in better position for a postseason run? The pair could be on the field together for the first time all season against the New York Giants on Sunday afternoon, which would certainly provide a spiritual boost for a team in the midst of a three-game losing streak.

Of course, Suggs returned to action this past Sunday against Denver — two weeks removed from a torn right biceps — but it was difficult to recognize his presence aside from his familiar No. 55 jersey lining up at the rush linebacker spot. Clearly laboring as he employed a four-point stance to keep his body weight off his upper right arm, Suggs appeared tentative at several points and removed himself from the game on a few occasions while appearing to be in pain on the sideline.

He finished with only one tackle, and the performance has left more questions than answers about his impact for the rest of the season.

“He’s coming back. He’s not back full, but he’s back, and he’s playing hard,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “I think if you ask him, I don’t think he would tell you that he’s playing at 100 percent like he has, but he certainly is giving us a great effort and giving us what we need in there.”

Even before the biceps injury, Suggs wasn’t making his normal impact after a remarkable recovery from a partially-torn Achilles tendon in less than six months. In seven games this season, Suggs has 20 tackles and only two sacks.

Meanwhile, it was just a few weeks ago when many were wondering if Lewis truly deserved to be an every-down linebacker whenever he’d make his return from triceps surgery, but a season-ending injury to Jameel McClain and an ankle injury to Dannell Ellerbe has left the Ravens bare at the inside linebacker position as Josh Bynes, Brendon Ayanbadejo, and Albert McClellan have manned the “Mike” and “Will” positions in the last two weeks.

The Ravens are not only hoping for the pick-me-up of Lewis’ impeccable on-field leadership, but they’re now desperate for him to bring an improved level of play to the middle of the field. With Baltimore electing to wait to place McClain on season-ending injured reserve, it’s apparent the organization is hoping to place Lewis on the 53-man roster by Saturday’s 4 p.m. deadline.

Lewis is just nine weeks removed from surgery, an incredible fact considering the normal recovery time for such an injury is a minimum of four months.

“I’d love to have him. I think it would be a great emotional lift, but more than that, we could use some bodies in there at linebacker,” said Pees with a chuckle. “We’ll just have to wait and see whatever they say is a go. We’d love to have him back.”

The Ravens hope to get back Ellerbe and strong safety Bernard Pollard from injuries this week, but the latter’s status appears to be in doubt after missing practice on Wednesday and Thursday. Pollard aggravated a rib injury in the Ravens’ Week 14 loss against Washington and hasn’t practiced ever since.

Only two defensive starters from Week 1 have played in every game this season — cornerback Cary Williams and safety Ed Reed.

“I think if anybody can be fully healthy throughout a season, it’s going to be a great team,” defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. “And with us, we definitely had an injury bug this year, but we had guys step up and make some plays for us. And hopefully, we can get some guys back and see what we can do there.”

As is the case with Suggs, it remains to be seen how well Lewis can hold up physically after such an abbreviated recovery time following surgery. Amazingly, Lewis ranks fifth on the team with 57 tackles despite playing in only six games this season.

The coaching staff isn’t exactly sure where Lewis is at physically due to the light nature of practices, but Lewis’ mental prowess has kept him as sharp while he continues to rebuild the strength in his right upper arm. Whether that can translate to success on the field is the question as Lewis struggled to shed blockers early in the season and has shown declining ability in pass coverage over the last few seasons.

“At this time in the year, I don’t think there are very many teams out there hitting like you do in training camp,” Pees said. “So, you don’t necessarily see the physical part, but the mental part, it’s not going to leave you after 17 years [with] missing a couple of weeks.”

Third corner carousel

With 2011 first-round pick Jimmy Smith making his return from sports hernia surgery this past Sunday, it was assumed the Ravens had solidified their nickel package with the second-year defensive back playing on the outside opposite Cary Williams while Corey Graham slid inside to the nickel spot to cover slot receivers.

Instead, Pees used a combination of Smith, veteran Chris Johnson, and special-teams standout Chykie Brown as the extra cornerback against the Broncos. Coach John Harbaugh acknowledged on Monday that Smith didn’t show as much speed as they anticipated he would. Smith is just over a month removed from the surgical procedure.

As a result, Smith took only 12 defensive snaps. Johnson took part in 20 defensive plays and Brown was on the field for nine defensive snaps. It’s not a good problem to have with the Giants’ ninth-ranked passing game coming to Baltimore on Sunday, and Pees would like to sure up the role sooner rather than later.

“I’d just like to see someone take the bull by the horns and take the job,” Pees said. “We are just going to have to make that decision at game time on who that is going to be, and who that’s going to be during the course of the game. The good news is that you do have two or three guys there, but yes I would like to see someone step up and take it.”


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Ravens preparing to face returning foe Polamalu

Posted on 29 November 2012 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens will enter Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers having not lost a contest at M&T Bank Stadium in 727 days, possessing the longest active home winning streak in the NFL with 15 straight regular-season victories.

But ask anyone with ties to the organization and they’ll tell you the streak should be even longer, as it was the Steelers who last beat the Ravens in Baltimore on Dec. 5, 2010. A run of 23 wins in 24 tries at home is still an incredible feat in the parity-driven NFL, but the efforts of Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu helped prevent the Ravens from holding a flawless home record for well over three years.

As the 31-year-old defensive back prepares to make his long-awaited return from a calf injury on Sunday, the image of his sack-and-strip of quarterback Joe Flacco with just over three minutes remaining to set up the game-winning touchdown for the Steelers two years ago will undoubtedly be on the Ravens’ minds. Instead of collecting a couple first downs to run out the clock and collect a 10-6 victory, Baltimore fell victim once again to a big play by Polamalu and lost hold of the 2010 AFC North title and a first-round bye in the process.

“Everybody watching TV at home, everybody in the stadium, you all know you see 43 at the line, four-minute offense, he’s coming,” said linebacker Terrell Suggs in the moments following that 13-10 loss. “It was just like, I hope we have a plan. It just didn’t feel good when I saw that hair at the line.”

Two years later, the circumstances are dramatically different as the Ravens enjoy a three-game lead in the division and can eliminate the Steelers from AFC North contention and put their playoff hopes in serious peril with a win. Polamalu hasn’t played since Oct. 7 and has appeared in only two games this season while the Pittsburgh defense has still managed to remain first in the league in yards allowed.

But with a healthy Polamalu on the field, the Ravens know they face a unique challenge in addition to the already-stout defense that held them to no offensive touchdowns and just 200 total yards despite a 13-10 win at Heinz Field two weeks ago. Dropping into coverage or lining up to blitz at the line of scrimmage, Polamalu must be identified by Flacco and the Baltimore offense on every play.

“With Troy, you have to be aware of him at all times,” coach John Harbaugh said. “They’ve done a great job of playing defense back there without Troy. So, you add a guy like that in the mix, obviously, what a factor that can be.”

With it looking more unlikely that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will play on Sunday, it’s difficult to imagine many scenarios in which the Pittsburgh offense can provide enough punch with third-string quarterback Charlie Batch in line to receive the start. The Ravens offense must be smart with the football despite their preference for playing aggressively at home, and that’s where Polamalu’s return could be a factor.

Much like Ravens safety Ed Reed, health concerns have taken a toll on Polamalu’s play-making ability, but his presence on the field alone gives Flacco a significant headache he didn’t face two weeks ago when he struggled to make plays against Pittsburgh’s top-ranked secondary. Protecting the football will be paramount, and it was a failure to identify Polamalu late in the game two years ago that netted the Ravens their only loss at M&T Bank Stadium since Nov. 22, 2009.

“He just has a good knack for the game of football,” Flacco said. “He usually can figure out where the ball is going. He just has a feel for the game. While you try to combat that and account for him, there is always a certain amount that you really can’t account for what he is going to do. You just have to go out there, play your game, and take care of him by playing sound, fundamental football.”

Pees with good problem on hands

With linebacker Ray Lewis’ anticipated return before the end of the regular season, the questions have already been raised over how the Ravens should handle his workload with fourth-year player Dannell Ellerbe playing so well in the starting lineup.

A few have taken the extreme position that the Baltimore defense is better off without the 37-year-old, but most would at least agree it’s worth discussing the possibility of Lewis not playing every snap with the thought of keeping him fresh and hiding his suspect coverage in obvious passing situations. It’s not an easy discussion to have should coach John Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome decide on that course of action, but now might be the time to do it with Lewis making a quicker-than-expected recovery from a torn triceps.

It’s too early to speculate how the Ravens will act with Lewis not yet practicing, but it’s a good dilemma to have with Ellerbe and fellow inside linebacker Jameel McClain doing an admirable job filling in for the middle of the defense. The reality is they’d like to have all three on the field as much as possible to enhance their strengths and compensate for potential shortcomings.

“I’d rather have that problem than to try to figure out who the heck is going to be playing because we have a bunch of injuries, which we’ve had to do,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “It’s always a good thing for a coach. It may not be a good thing for the players, but it’s always a good thing for the coaches.”

The better question might be whether the Ravens elect to keep Ellerbe at the “Will” linebacker spot over McClain, who has filled in at Lewis’ “Mike” backer position in the veteran’s absence. Ellerbe is stronger in pass coverage and has had the better overall season, but McClain has raised his level of play in recent weeks as well.

In the mean time, Pees appreciates having Lewis back at the team’s Owings Mills facility this week as he continues to rehab his right arm before returning to the practice field in the not-too-distant future.

“I’ve told you guys before that going in and coaching him and watching him in the meetings sit back there and take notes like a rookie, that’s why he is who he is,” Pees sad. “Really for the younger guys, but really for us older guys — to me — he’s a perfect pro.”

Jones continues to receive accolades


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Pees entrusted with slowing former team’s offense

Posted on 20 September 2012 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Dean Pees spent 25 years in coaching before Bill Belichick gave him his first opportunity in the NFL.

So, you’ll forgive the new Ravens defensive coordinator if this Sunday’s meeting with the New England Patriots means a lot more than just a rematch of last January’s AFC Championship game. After spending six years working under Belichick, it’s always special for Pees to go up against his old team.

“It’s always an emotional day,” Pees said. “I’m not going to lie about that and act like it’s just another game. It’s a big game for me. It’s kind of like when you go out and you play golf against somebody and you want to win, but when you play your brothers, you really want to win. There’s a lot of friends over there on the other sideline, a lot of old colleagues, a lot of players that I coached.”

Sunday night’s game marks the first time that Pees faces the Patriots as a defensive coordinator, which is the post he held with New England from 2006 through 2009. His defenses ranked in the top 11 in total yards allowed in all four of those seasons and ranked no worse than eighth in points surrendered.

His departure from the Patriots still remains a mystery as Pees cited “personal reasons” for electing not to return upon having his contract expire after the 2009 season. It was widely speculated that Pees chose to leave the organization for health reasons as he experienced shortness of breath and was taken to the hospital in the regular-season finale of that season.

Others believe the Patriots weren’t completely enamored with his work as the defensive coordinator and privately didn’t want him to return. Regardless of what caused his departure, Pees immediately joined the Baltimore staff to coach the linebackers and became the defensive coordinator this offseason when Chuck Pagano was hired as the new coach of the Indianapolis Colts.

“Dean’s a very experienced coach,” Belichick said. “He’s done very well at a lot of different levels. [He] did a good job for us here — coached the linebackers, coached the secondary, was the defensive coordinator — and had a great experience on that side of the ball.”

Now Pees will be asked to slow one of the best offenses in the NFL over the last decade. Having already employed extensive use of the nickel package in the team’s first two games, Pees will likely copy the formula used by the Arizona Cardinals in Week 2 — they played the nickel for nearly the entire game — to slow quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots passing game.

Unfortunately for the 63-year-old coordinator, he won’t have one of his sounding boards to offer ideas for this week. Pees remains close with his former boss in New England, who is regarded as one of the best defensive minds in NFL history.

“We still speak on occasion when we’re playing a team that’s a common opponent and we aren’t playing each other,” Pees said. “In certain years, we’ll discuss things. It’s a great relationship.”

Special teams improvement

After being ranked 30th in the league in special teams efficiency by FootballOutsiders.com last season, the Ravens have shown much improvement through the first two weeks of the regular season.

In addition to rookie kicker Justin Tucker going 6-for-6 on field goals — with 2 beyond 50 yards — and Sam Koch punting effectively, the coverage units have shown marked improvement after allowing three return touchdowns last season. After finishing 31st in kickoff coverage last season, the Ravens are sixth in the league with opponents averaging only 18.8 yards per return. Baltimore is tied for 15th in punt return coverage as opponents have gained 10.4 yards per return attempt.

Improving the special teams units was an offseason priority as the Ravens added a few veterans with special teams experience and re-signed three-time Pro Bowl special teams standout Brendon Ayanbadejo.

“Our players that we look to make plays on special teams and coverage aspect – and in blocking – really played well,” Rosburg said. “Brendon had an excellent game; he had three tackles. Sean Considine had a couple of tackles. Corey Graham had a couple tackles. Sam [Koch] punted the ball very well. So, our players were making plays, and that was encouraging.”

Ayanbadejo has been honest in his assessment of the Ravens’ special teams units last season, citing a lack of commitment from younger players more interested in improving their standing on offense or defense and the lack of an offseason to fine-tune the coverage units.

“We took turns making mistakes,” Ayanbadejo said. “This year, the main thing is just consistency, not making those mistakes. And if we do, just make it one time and don’t have everybody rotate making mistakes because one breakdown can lead to a touchdown. That’s kind of what you saw last year.”

On Sunday, the Ravens even attempted to run a fake punt on a fourth-and-4 play from their own 43 in the first series of the second quarter. Considine appeared to have daylight in front of him after taking the snap but tripped over teammate James Ihedigbo, stopping him short of the first down. Rosburg took the blame Wednesday when asked what went wrong with the trick play.

The special teams coach went as far as to suggest it could have gone for a touchdown.

“I didn’t coach the timing of that play well enough,” Rosburg said. “If we had the timing down, it wouldn’t have mattered what happened. He probably would have stopped somewhere out there by General Washington’s encampment.”

McClain on outside looking in

The Ravens spent plenty of time in the nickel package against the Eagles in Week 2, meaning inside linebacker Jameel McClain was often replaced by fourth-year linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who is regarded to be stronger in pass coverage.

This left the Ravens with more flexibility to experiment with McClain at outside linebacker since Paul Kruger missed Sunday’s game with a back injury. A former defensive end at Syracuse, the fifth-year linebacker hadn’t played on the outside since his rookie season in which he mostly played special teams and saw limited action in passing situations.

Pees has struggled to generate a consistent pass rush without the use of blitzes, so it was an interesting choice to see McClain line up at rush linebacker on a few occasions.

“It’s something that I did in college. It’s a learning curve,” McClain said. “It’s something I’ve got to get back used to if I ever get the opportunity again. But, I got the chance and I hope the coaches believe I made the best out of it. With more opportunity, [there are] a lot more things I can do.”


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Defensive coordinator Pees tired of Kruger being compared to Suggs

Posted on 07 September 2012 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ever since the revelation in early May of linebacker Terrell Suggs suffering a partial tear of his Achilles tendon, the Ravens have been peppered with questions about what it means for their pass rush and overall defense in 2012.

On the Friday before the season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals, it appeared defensive coordinator Dean Pees had heard enough when asked how critical it would be for linebacker Paul Kruger to accumulate more sacks with Suggs expected to be out of the lineup until at least November. Pees reiterated the common theme of multiple players needing to step up in the star pass-rusher’s absence.

Only he didn’t sound nearly as cordial in expressing that this time in comparison to previous statements.

“It has nothing to do with Sizzle. It has to do with playing outside linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens,” Pees said. “You guys keep comparing; you can never compare two people. It has nothing to do with another guy. There’s no comparison; I never compare them.

“It’s playing outside linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens. Period. Whether it’s the Sam, the rush, the Mike, the Will, when Ray [Lewis] was out, it has nothing to do with a guy having to take another guy’s position. It has to do with that guy playing his position.”

The Ravens’ pass rush will receive its first test against a Cincinnati offensive line with three new starters inside, meaning defensive end Pernell McPhee and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata may have opportunities to pressure second-year quarterback Andy Dalton.

Uncertainty remains at both outside linebacker positions with Paul Kruger and Albert McClellan both unproven as three-down players, so Pees will need to be more creative in generating heat on the passer until the Ravens can accurately assess where they’re at in that department. Baltimore is still hoping rookie Courtney Upshaw can also provide a bigger impact than what he showed in an injury-plagued preseason.

No one player has the ability to replace Suggs, but the Ravens hope a combination of rushers along with a deep group of cornerbacks will minimize the damage in the Pro Bowl linebacker’s absence.

“Terrell is a big part of our team, a big part of what we do, and guys are going to have to step up,” safety Ed Reed said. “Not just one player, every guy that’s on offense, defense, and special teams. We’ve all got to pick up that slack, because we know what Terrell brings to the table.”

Suggs was held to one sack in two games against Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth, which could mean Kruger and McClellan will have their hands full generating any pressure on Dalton. The question is nothing new as the loss of the Pro Bowl linebacker may knock the Ravens defense from the elite status it enjoys annually.

Pees is right that Kruger shouldn’t be held in comparison to Suggs, but asking whether the sum of the parts can not only match the 14 sacks accumulated by Suggs a season ago but also force teams to game-plan and account for pressure in the same way they’ve done in the past is a relevant and fair query.

“I don’t want to come across stirred up about it,” Pees said. “I’m not, it’s just when you compare players, you take everything so far out of context. It’s not about that; it’s about how he fits in the defense, how does he do his part. He’s one of 11 of this defense and so is Sizzle when he’s in there — he’s one of 11. Whether you game plan certain ways or whatever, that’s what they are. They all have one-eleventh stock in this defense.”

Needless to say, if the Ravens are unable to make Dalton uncomfortable in the pocket Monday, the questions and concerns will only grow louder.

Cameron confident in tight ends getting up to speed

With Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta practicing fully on Thursday and Friday, any notion of the tight ends being game-time decisions was clearly gamesmanship on the part of coach John Harbaugh.

However, with Pitta missing nearly all of training camp and Dickson injuring his shoulder in the first preseason game, it remains to be seen how quickly the pair can become acclimated in a Baltimore offense that focused exclusively on the no-huddle attack this summer. The Ravens relied on both tight ends heavily last season and you’d expect to see the same in 2012, but it will be interesting to gauge how the coaching staff handles their workload after the offense primarily went with three-wide sets in August.

“Both guys – it’s a tribute to both of them – even though they’ve missed practices, they’re not missing meetings, they’re not missing any walk-throughs, they’re not missing any rehab or strength and conditioning,” Cameron said. “[Quarterback Joe Flacco] has such a great rapport with those guys. Not only are they together on the field, they’re around Joe all the time. So I’m thrilled to have them back, and I think they’ll pick up right where they left off with no concerns at all.”

The Ravens used plenty of single-back looks in August, which makes you think we could see Dickson lining up at tight end with Pitta moving to a slot position on a semi-regular basis, but the offense also wants to have more speed on the outside with Jacoby Jones as the No. 3 receiver and possession wideout Anquan Boldin sliding to the slot.

Regardless of how the rotation plays out this season, Monday might be too soon to draw conclusions based on how the playing time is split up against the Bengals as the tight ends are still working their way back into football shape.

Tucker letting it rip on kickoffs

One question asked by fans throughout the preseason has been about rookie kicker Justin Tucker’s unimpressive performance on kickoffs.

Special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg reminded everyone Thursday that the rookie was directed not to send kickoffs as far as he could in order for the staff to evaluate its the kickoff coverage, which struggled a year ago. Tucker was only allowed to take five steps in approaching the ball instead of the ability to take a longer approach to the tee.

With the regular season now upon us, Tucker will be allowed to put his full foot — with full steps included — into each and every kickoff in hopes that the rest of the unit won’t receive as many opportunities to cover.

“He’s certainly going to try,” said Rosburg in describing how Tucker will simply boot it as far as he can. “That is the way we kick off; we try to kick it as far as we can, and we’ll give him that opportunity. You may have seen in the St. Louis game, I believe he did it twice if I’m not mistaken, and one they brought out [of the end zone] and the other one was [kicked] out of the end zone.”

Organization supports Ayanbadejo’s stance on marriage equality

The bizarre story of Maryland House of Delegates member Emmett C. Burns Jr. writing a letter to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti stating his opposition to linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo’s public support of marriage equality created quite a stir this week.

But the Ravens are standing by the veteran’s side.

Ayanbadejo has spoken openly in support of gay marriage countless times, which promoted Burns to write a letter expressing how “appalled and aghast” he was over the public stance and imploring Bisciotti to silence his player. In response, team president Dick Cass issued a statement supporting Ayanbadejo’s right to free speech and even delivered a message directly to the player regarding the matter.

“He said, ‘We’re in support of you, and it’s good that you’re able to voice your opinion and say how you feel,’” Ayanbadejo said. “But Dick personally told me that we’re not an organization that discriminates and he was telling me how he was on Pro Football Talk and he was reading all the comments that people have said and he was overwhelmingly surprised and happy to see that football fans were supporting me and what I said. He told me that I should go there and I should read it.”

Ayanbadejo believes we’ve seen a dramatic shift in support over the last four or five years, with more people beginning to support marriage equality. Cass also offered him a take on the state of NFL locker rooms as it relates to the issue of equality.

“He believes the culture in locker rooms is changing as well,” Ayanbadejo said. “He believes there are gay players in the NFL — they’re just not publicly gay. He thinks that, for the most part, players just want to play with good players. They don’t care who your mother, your father, who you are, what color or creed you are as long as you can play football at this level.”

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Young players to see extensive action in preseason finale

Posted on 28 August 2012 by Luke Jones

While the third preseason game is viewed as the dress rehearsal for the regular season, the preseason finale fails to register a pulse in terms of excitement for most observers.

But don’t tell the Ravens it holds no significance, even if most starters aren’t expected to play against the St. Louis Rams on Thursday night. Of the 75 players remaining on the preseason roster, upwards of 20 players are legitimately fighting for roughly 10 spots on the 53-man roster.

For those individuals, an otherwise innocuous preseason game becomes the most significant contest of their lives.

“This is really an important game to the majority of the team, not the minority of the team, because this is a chance for everybody to really get extended time playing — playing very competitively,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “It’s going to be on film for everybody to see, and it’s down to crunch time where everybody is making their team and making their final cuts and their final roster decisions.”

The Ravens haven’t revealed their plans for the first units on Thursday, but history suggests most starters will be standing on the sideline the entire night. Quarterback Joe Flacco hasn’t played in a preseason finale since his rookie season in 2008, and coach John Harbaugh has only played a few starters here and there in the fourth preseason game over the last few years.

Their absence leaves 60 minutes for rookies and fringe players to show the coaching staff why they should be part of the 2012 Ravens.

Entering the preseason as unknowns, rookie free agents such as wide receiver Deonte Thompson, running back Bobby Rainey, and safety Omar Brown have earned consideration for roster spots with strong performances this month. Bubble players will have one more opportunity to leave an impression, which could help them land with the Ravens or one of the other 31 NFL teams when final cuts are made by 9 p.m. on Friday night.

Many debate the number of players teams will keep at each position, but the Ravens don’t construct their roster with the idea of having a set number of receivers, offensive linemen, or cornerbacks. Instead, they are examining how individuals can help them in as many ways as possible.

“Numbers? I’ve never gotten caught up in the numbers game,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. “We believe you just keep your best 53. You [also] have to see how you are going to carve out your [eight-man] practice squad.”

A critical factor in awarding the final spots on the roster is identifying players with a unique ability to play special teams. While Thompson and Rainey have stood out at their respective positions, their ability to contribute in the return game and other special teams units has transformed them from strictly bubble players to ones all but assured to earn spots on Friday.

Players with similar abilities at their regular positions who fail to distinguish themselves on special teams often find themselves on the outside looking in if they don’t earn a starting job.

“I think it’s always the case in any team where you get to the point where you are picking your final 53 and you’re not necessarily picking your starters,” special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. “Special teams must always factor in that, because you want to be strong up and down your lineup.”

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Ravens facing interesting decisions at wide receiver

Posted on 15 August 2012 by Luke Jones

The impressive performance of rookie wide receiver Deonte Thompson during training camp has raised questions about how the Ravens will handle roster decisions at what’s considered to be a deep position.

The top of the depth chart is essentially set with starters Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith and veteran Jacoby Jones locked into the No. 3 spot, but the questions begin after that. Second-year wideout LaQuan Williams appears to have a strong hold on the No. 4 overall spot on the depth chart after an impressive camp while 2011 fourth-round pick Tandon Doss has dealt with a hamstring injury.

Despite being sidelined for much of the summer, Doss’ pedigree and offseason work suggest he’s still a safe bet to make the 53-man roster, pushing the Ravens’ total to five receivers before you consider the surprising Thompson or 2012 sixth-round draft choice Tommy Streeter. Thompson has performed at a higher level overall with his exceptional speed and better-than-advertised hands in practices, but Streeter’s 6-foot-5 height and straight-line speed make him the player with the higher upside despite his limited route-running ability and inconsistent hands.

However, the question of whether the Ravens can keep six — or even seven — receivers involves much more than the passing tree and reining in passes from quarterback Joe Flacco. Many will try to project a number of players at each position that are ultimately kept on the 53-man roster, but those decisions are determined by versatility and what type of contributions players can make on special teams. In that sense, a wide receiver is suddenly viewed as an all-around football player and not an individual with a specific skill set at a given position.

“The best players will be kept on the roster,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. “And you may be heavy at a position, but I know John [Harbaugh] believes that, and Ozzie [Newsome] believes that we are going to keep our best players, and if you have a bunch of receivers that are your best players, that will dictate that. If you have receivers that aren’t, than you probably will not have a lot. I’m confident that we have a really good group of receivers on this offense. How many? We are probably going to have more than maybe we can keep, so we’ll see.”

Thompson may gain the edge over Streeter when it comes to his ability on special teams where he’s working in a number of areas. Though only listed as the fourth kick returner on the team’s most recent depth chart, Thompson has also worked as a gunner on the punt team and is learning multiple jobs on the special teams units.

It can only help his cause when the Ravens trim their roster to 53 on Aug. 31 for the regular season.

“He’s working at a variety of different positions,” special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. “He’s one of those guys that we like to cross-train, and we have this expression: ‘The more you can do.’ So, for example, on kickoff coverage, he’s worked as an inside player, he’s worked as an outside player. And on punt return team, we’ve had him work at the end where he’s rushing punts. We’ve had him work at the vice, where he’s holding up gunners. And so, he’s got enough skill where he can play a variety of positions, so we’re trying to expose him to all those different opportunities.

“Depending on how the roster all works out, and depending on where the opening is, we can insert him there and see what he can do. So yes, his speed and his agility – and he’s a football player – you watch him play offense and you can see that, because he has the ability to get open. He’s got good hands, he’s got good spatial awareness and a football sense, and it shows up in special teams as well.”

Even if Thompson or Streeter — or neither — find their way onto the 53-man roster, both would be ideal candidates for the eight-man practice squad.

Whether they’d make it that far before being snatched up by any of the other 31 NFL teams, however, remains in doubt.

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New CB and special teams ace Corey Graham on Ravens: “It’s something I want to be a part of”

Posted on 27 March 2012 by Ryan Chell

New Ravens corner back Corey Graham has always been comfortable being called a special-teamer.

It’s difficult to not know him as anything else.

Graham, a 2011 Pro-Bowler in that facet of the game for the Chicago Bears-was brought in by the Ravens over the weekend to aid in that area of expertise.

But this year with the  Ravens-who brought the 26-year old corner back out of New Hampshire in on a two-year contract Friday-said he’s wanting to prove to the coaching staff that he can do more to help this Ravens defense as well.

Corey Graham

He joined Glenn Clark Monday on ‘The Reality Check”, and said he can’t wait to contribute for John Harbaugh, special teams coach Jerry Rosburg and his new Ravens teammates.

“I think they’ve done a great job this off-season with bringing in guys like myself,” Graham said humbly. “I think we got a great group now with the guys we added.”

Graham joins fellow safety Sean Considine and ex-Ravens Brendon Ayanbadejo and Jameel McClain as additions in this 2012 off-season, and Graham feels like the plan is in place to fix the teams issue from a year ago.

“I think we got a group now with the guys we added,” Graham told Clark. “The pieces add up and the more guys you get, it definitely helps.”

The Ravens-who came within one catch of going to the Super Bowl last season-didn’t have a lot of fundamental issues, but if there was one glaring weakness on the team, special .

They ranked near the bottom of the league in that category, and Graham said Harbaugh-a former special teams coach-reached out to him in the hopes of solving some of those woes.

“The Ravens did really well last year, but I think the special teams hurt them in certain aspects,” Graham said. “I just want to go out there and play the game.”

“I’m happy Baltimore saw what they saw in me, so that I can go out there and help.”

And Graham can help. Anywhere on special teams.

“I’m the gunner on punt and safety on punt return. I’ve played the “two” on kickoffs, and the right tackle on kick returns. I’ve done it all.”

“I’m a four-phase guy. I was always on the field and trying to get out there and help as much as I could.”

But what drove Graham to move on from the only team he’s known in his short NFL career?

He said the passion for the game on the part of his new Ravens teammates is well-known around the NFL.

“When you see the tradition of the Baltimore Ravens and the way they go out there and play, they play so much with so much emotion. That’s one of the things that drew me to this team.”

He mentioned the reputation of Ed Reed and Ray Lewis in the Ravens locker room, and he said that their approach and preparation for the game speak for themselves.

So much so-that he hopes to offer his Pro-Bowl skills in more than just special teams-he wants and desires to contribute on defense as well.

He saw considerable playing time in 2011 in Chicago as a nickel-back, and he wants to continue to have those opportunities with a defense in Baltimore.

Graham said he hopes to follow the model set last year from his former teammate with the Bears in Brendon Ayanbadejo in taking snaps in more than just kick and punt coverage.

“At the beginning of my second year, I started a lot of my games at corner. In my third year, I was able to play a few games at nickel and this past season, I was also fortunate enough to start three games at that nickel position, and make some plays on defense.”

In 16 games last year, Graham registered 13 tackles and grabbed three interceptions.

He says he can fit right in with what Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, and Dean Pees have in store for the 2012 Ravens defense.

“I love the way this defense plays,” Graham said with excitement. “There is a lot of disguising. Ed Reed and Ray Lewis are doing a lot of things out there.”

“I think those guys have a lot of fun, and it’s something I want to be a part of.”

WNST thanks Corey Graham for joining us Monday and welcome him to Baltimore! Check the BuyaToyota.com Audio Vault for the entire conversation with your newest Raven! WNST-We Never Stop Talking Baltimore Sports!

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Ayanbadejo questions young players’ effort on special teams last season

Posted on 24 March 2012 by Luke Jones

The Ravens sent a clear message on Friday of their intentions to improve their special teams from a season ago.

In addition to re-signing three-time Pro Bowl selection Brendon Ayanbadejo, general manager Ozzie Newsome added 2011 Pro Bowl special teams player Corey Graham and veteran Sean Considine to improve depth in the secondary as well as add more experience to the special teams units.

According to FootballOutsiders.com, the Ravens finished 30th in overall special teams last season. And given head coach John Harbaugh’s background as the longtime special teams coordinator for the Philadelpia Eagles, you knew addressing that facet of the game would be a priority this offseason.

“It’s certainly something that we felt, coming out of the season, that we really needed to do,” coach John Harbaugh said. “We weren’t as good there as we needed to be. We needed to be more explosive; we need to cover kicks better.”

While the struggles of kicker Billy Cundiff received much of the attention, the Ravens stumbled elsewhere, finishing 31st in kickoff coverage and 24th in punt coverage while allowing three returns for touchdowns in 2011. Adding a return specialist will also be a priority as Baltimore too often settled for touchbacks on its kickoff returns and would also like to replace top cornerback Lardarius Webb as the punt returner.

Special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg has come under fire because of his group’s struggles last season, but Ayanbadejo was quick to deflect the blame from the coaching staff when asked about it during Friday’s conference call.

“I think the biggest failure is that the players failed the coaches,” Ayanbadejo said. “The coaches did the same thing they’ve done every year.”

With special teams units comprised mostly of younger players, Ayanbadejo pointed to the absence of an offseason as a major factor that contributed to the Ravens’ struggles in kick coverage.

However, the 35-year-old linebacker went on to question the motives of last year’s rookies when it came to their commitment to special teams. Without naming names, Ayanbadejo clearly had at least a couple individuals in mind who were more interested in working their way into the starting lineup than contributing in the third facet of the game.

“When these young guys come in, they have to understand that they’re going to cover a kick before they go out there and cover a receiver,” Ayanbadejo said. “They’re going to cover a kick before they go out there and run a route. I don’t think last year’s group got that. They felt like they were going to come in and surpass special teams and go play defense. Their priorities were in the wrong place.”

Ayanbadejo finished with nine tackles on special teams, second to linebacker Albert McClellan’s 12 last season. The veteran went on to explain how experience players also needed to have more accountability in the group’s performance in hopes of improving in 2012.

“It’s not just on the young guys,” Ayanbadejo said. “It’s on guys like myself; I missed some tackles and I did some things wrong as well. As a group, we have to focus and put that time in and dedication and understand that there is an order to how football is played.”

If any player has the authority to speak critically about the team’s performance on special teams, it’s Ayanbadejo, who has been to three Pro Bowls as a special teams player with the Bears and the Ravens over his nine-year career.

I have my suspicions about which players Ayanbadejo might be referencing — particularly with him twice mentioning young players wanting to play defense — but it will be interesting to see if those individuals were paying attention to the veteran’s comments.

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Ranking the Ravens’ biggest special teams needs

Posted on 17 February 2012 by Luke Jones

As the start of free agency moves closer and teams prepare for April’s draft, the Ravens continue to evaluate their needs in all three phases of the game.

Earlier in the week, I looked at Baltimore’s biggest needs on offense as well as essentials for the defense. In the conclusion of a three-part series, we finally take a long at the often-forgotten but always-important phase of the game: special teams.

Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron undoubtedly receives the most criticism among the coaches on the Ravens staff, but special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg may deserve the most heat after a disappointing 2011 season. According to footballoutsiders.com, the Ravens’ special teams ranked 30th in the league in a percentage contrived from efficiency in field goals, kickoffs, kickoff returns, punts, and punt returns.

Looking from a more simplistic stance, Rosburg’s units struggled in both kickoff coverage (31st) and punt coverage (24th) and allowed three returns for touchdowns. In the return game, the Ravens ranked ninth in kickoff return average and 19th in punt return average, rarely getting a significant spark from either group as injuries and ineffectiveness forced them to shuffle returners in and out of the lineup.

Kicker Billy Cundiff converted only 75.7 percent of his field goal attempts, ranking 28th in the league. The 2010 Pro Bowl kicker made only one of six attempts from 50 or more yards and was only 11-for-20 away from M&T Bank Stadium — where he was perfect on 17 attempts. And that’s not even taking into account his heartbreaking 32-yard miss in the closing seconds of the AFC championship game that would have sent the Ravens into overtime against New England.

If you’re looking for a bright spot, punter Sam Koch ranked 10th in punt average (46.5 yards) but 19th in net average, which was affected by the Ravens’ suspect coverage.

While it’s difficult to target a laundry list of special teams’ needs from a position-by-position standpoint — the units simply need to improve across the board — but two positions stand out this offseason.

1. Kicker

Before you get carried away, this isn’t the pitchfork mentality we’re talking about here. Cundiff isn’t going anywhere for now. However, his disappointing season topped off by the most devastating moment in the 16-year history of the franchise can’t be forgotten as the Ravens assess their special teams.

To their credit, the organization and Cundiff have handled the miss with as much dignity as can be expected, with no one publicly questioning whether the Ravens should have kept veteran Shayne Graham to kick in the postseason. It’s been a credit to coach John Harbaugh and the family atmosphere in the locker room.

But what everyone is thinking privately is a different story. In his defense, Cundiff battled a left calf injury late in the season, but it doesn’t excuse what was a very inconsistent year after signing a five-year contract last January. For a kicker without a proven track record beyond his Pro Bowl season a year ago, Cundiff may have reverted back to the inconsistent performer seen early in his career.

The Ravens need to bring in another kicker to seriously compete against Cundiff during the preseason. The organization will keep Cundiff for now in hopes of avoiding the situation in which they found themselves in 2009 after parting company with Matt Stover. Neither Steve Hauschka nor Graham Gano were fit for the job, forcing the Ravens to scramble during the regular season until they settled on Cundiff.

It needs to be a serious competition, whether the Ravens elect to find a rookie coming out of college such as Randy Bullock of Texas A&M or a veteran on the open market. Graham wasn’t good enough to win the competition against Cundiff two years ago and has struggled with long-distance kicks in recent years, so it makes little sense to bring him back for the competition.

Even if Cundiff performs admirably in the preseason and wins the battle, the Ravens and their fans simply won’t know whether he’s recovered from the disappointment in Foxborough until he finds himself in another late-game situation. It’s difficult to envision the Ravens ever fully trusting Cundiff again, but they’ll at least give him a chance in the preseason before moving on for good.

2. Kickoff-Punt Returner

The Ravens had 10 different players return kickoffs — three of those only returned squibs or pooch kicks —  in 2011 and never found stability at the position. Second-year return specialist David Reed was demoted after two fumbles on returns against the Seattle Seahawks and then tore his ACL when he finally earned another opportunity to handle kickoffs.

While Reed will certainly find himself in the mix if he proves healthy in recovering from the knee injury this offseason, the Ravens must look to add an impact returner, preferably someone who can handle both kickoffs and punts to allow Lardarius Webb to focus solely on his duties at cornerback. Field position is critical, and the return units rarely aided the Ravens offense in setting it up on a shorter field.

Of course, the new kickoff rule limited many returners across the league, but the Ravens cannot settle for a returner downing the ball in the end zone constantly as they did down the stretch with reserve safety Tom Zbikowski this past season.

The Ravens could look to the draft for a returner such as Arkansas receiver Joe Adams in the middle rounds, who could add depth in both areas. One name to keep an eye on in the preseason is receiver Phillip Livas, who was signed to the practice squad in the final weeks of the season. Though only 5-foot-8, Livas was a record-setting return man at Louisiana Tech and could be a sleeper to watch in the preseason.

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Your Monday Reality Check-Cameron Future Only Part of Postseason Agenda

Posted on 23 January 2012 by Glenn Clark

I’ve had the opportunity to make a number of radio appearances throughout the country during the last few weeks while the Baltimore Ravens marched along in the National Football League playoffs.

In virtually every conversation, I was asked a question about how the outcome of the next game could alter the future of Offensive Coordinator Cam Cameron in Charm City.

It always felt a little strange to be asked about Cam Cameron. Usually I only hear Cam Cameron’s name when a listener/caller screams at me about him. It’s never in the form of a question.

After the Ravens’ 23-20 loss to the New England Patriots Sunday in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium, it didn’t take 30 minutes for the screaming to start again. It was a bit odd considering there was really no way Cameron could be blamed for the loss in Foxborough.

The reality is that as the team’s offseason officially got underway, Cameron sits at the forefront. His future can only be labeled as “to be determined”, as his contract expires with the end of the season.

Head coach John Harbaugh and the Ravens’ coaching staff are headed to Mobile, AL this week for scouting at the annual Senior Bowl. It would seem as though the team wouldn’t want the situation with Cameron to linger far into the offseason, especially if they ultimately decide not to retain Cameron after four playoff trips in four seasons and have to find a new coordinator without a likely replacement on staff.

(That’s not an endorsement for either decision. It’s just a fact. I’m actually indifferent towards the situation, as I believe any coordinator in 2012 would need more offensive talent to work with.)

The next pressing situation remains on offense. The team’s Most Valuable Player in 2012 (RB Ray Rice) becomes an Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA) at a time where NFL teams have been particularly unwilling to invest in long term deals for running backs. Also hitting unrestricted free agency is LG Ben Grubbs, who has never reached a Pro Bowl but has certainly played at a Pro Bowl level. (Monday update: Grubbs will in fact be making his first trip to Hawaii this season as a replacement for Patriots G Logan Mankins.)

There is a likelihood that the Franchise tag will come into play with one of the above players, as it did with DT Haloti Ngata last season before a long-term deal was reached.

DE Cory Redding, LB’s Jarret Johnson & Jameel McClain and S’s Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura highlight other Ravens who become Unrestricted Free Agents. LB Brendon Ayanbadejo (who has publicly stated he would like to play another season) is also on the UFA list, as are OL Andre Gurode, TE Kris Wilson, DT Brandon McKinney and LB Edgar Jones.

(CB’s Cary Williams & Lardarius Webb as well as LB Dannell Ellerbe are restricted free agents, all are expected to return.)

Also on the list of Unrestricted Free Agents is C Matt Birk, who denied a CBS report earlier this month that he had already decided to retire at the end of the season. With no “center of the future” clearly on the roster, it may behoove the team to bring the big man from Harvard back for one more season if he’s interested.

While we await Birk’s decision about his future, future Hall of Fame LB Ray Lewis told reporters in New England he intends to return to Baltimore for a 17th season. S Ed Reed’s future isn’t quite as defined, as he did not speak to reporters after suffering his second AFC title game defeat. Nagging back and neck issues appeared to affect Reed’s play at the end of the season, but he came with big plays in both playoff games.

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