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How will Pitta fit into Ravens offense upon returning?

Posted on 05 December 2013 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Since being placed on injured reserve with the designation to return in early September, tight end Dennis Pitta has been imagined as the potential late-season savior for the Ravens.

With the league’s 29th-ranked offense and 19th in passing offense, the Ravens certainly can use whatever boost Pitta might offer as Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Vikings represents his first realistic chance of playing in 2013. Though the fourth-year tight end’s return in Week 14 isn’t set in stone, the meeting with the Vikings seems like a logical tuneup to work him back into live-game action before three crucial games against projected playoff teams to conclude the regular season.

But what exactly can the Ravens expect when Pitta makes his long-awaited return to the field?

“I’m sure he probably still feels a little weak, and there are probably some things he is going to have to feel himself through,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “He hasn’t run a full-speed route against defenders in a long time, so you have to allow some adjustment time for that. We’ll see how it goes.”

When healthy, Pitta’s attributes are unquestioned as his 6-foot-4 frame creates matchup problems for safeties and linebackers and his ability to find windows within zone coverage is as good as any in the league. Whether lining up as a traditional tight end or in the slot, Pitta’s chemistry with Flacco is something that should return more quickly than the typical rapport between a quarterback and pass-catcher.

But the offseason hype of Pitta stepping into the role of departed slot receiver Anquan Boldin is unlikely to be realized at this late juncture and after such a long layoff. Like many players coming off major leg injuries such as a torn ACL, his speed may not be up to par initially despite a clean bill of health to return to the field just over fourth months after dislocating and fracturing his right hip. Asking Pitta to do things on the field with which he isn’t familiar probably isn’t in the Ravens’ best interest in the final month of the regular season.

Despite fans’ daydreams of what his return might mean for a passing game that’s lacked a reliable option in the middle of the field, Pitta shouldn’t be confused for Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham after he caught 61 passes for 669 yards and seven touchdowns. Even after the promotion of Jim Caldwell to offensive coordinator last December and the increased emphasis on using the middle of the field, Pitta only played 60 to 70 percent of the Ravens’ offensive snaps in most games and isn’t known for his blocking ability.

That reality coupled with the uncertainty surrounding Pitta from a physical standpoint means tight end Ed Dickson will continue to play a significant role in the offense. Clearly a disappointment as a receiver in only making 16 catches for 211 yards this season, Dickson is the only capable blocking tight end on the 53-man roster.

“In things that you don’t see, he’s been doing a great job in terms of his blocking at the line of scrimmage and out on the perimeter as well,” said Caldwell of Dickson. “He’s doing a good job, he’s working extremely hard at it, and he continues to improve.”

What Pitta’s return means for veteran backup Dallas Clark will be more interesting as the two have fairly similar skill sets in working best while flanked out from a normal tight end position. The 34-year-old Clark only played nine snaps two weeks ago against the New York Jets and 23 against Pittsburgh on Thanksgiving, and his role only figures to diminish with Pitta back in the picture.

However, with the Ravens’ lack of consistent targets inside the red zone this season, the combination of Pitta and Clark on the field together is an intriguing possibility for Flacco. The only problem with such a look near the goal line would be further limiting the Ravens’ ability to run the football, which has already been brutally ineffective this season.

Should Pitta quickly show he is 100 percent upon his return, Clark’s presence would appear unnecessary, but Caldwell seems more than open to finding ways to keep the veteran involved in the offense.

“Dallas has made some great plays for us along the stretch,” Caldwell said. “You still flash in your head the fourth-down play in Chicago he made with one hand. The guy has made some great catches, some touchdown catches for us as well. We’ll be able to figure it out and work it out. We’ll just see what the doctors say in terms of Dennis, how much he can play or if he can play — all those kinds of things. Those are yet to be seen. Until then, we work them and give the guys the snaps that they can get. We can’t give them enough snaps in practice.”

Likely to play a limited number of snaps if he does return on Sunday, Pitta will be monitored closely as there is no way to fully simulate how he’ll respond to live-game contact during practices at this late stage of the season. If he’s holding up well, Pitta’s logical fit would be to simply fill the role that he did last year in lining up at tight end in three-wide, one-back sets and occasionally working out of the slot.

But the tight end also has the rest of his career to think about and is deserving of a nice payday as an unrestricted free agent. The Ravens desperately want him for their final playoff push and Pitta wants to show general manager Ozzie Newsome that he’s healthy and ready to resume his playing career after such a serious injury while helping the offense down the stretch.

But common sense must prevail as the Ravens will lean heavily on how Pitta is feeling, trying to resist the urge to push him too hard too fast. There’s little precedent for a player to return from this kind of an injury in such a short amount of time, meaning the Ravens, Pitta, and the medical staff have been forced to feel it out as they go along.

Any production they get will just be the icing on the cake.

“The health of the player comes first,” coach John Harbaugh said. “That’s the No. 1 thing — his ability to withstand the rigors of a game. I think we’re on track that way, but we’ll just have to see how it plays out.”

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Ravens running game trying to fight off reality check against Jets

Posted on 21 November 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 after a difficult overtime defeat in Chicago last weekend, you’d almost excuse the members of the Ravens’ running game for breathing a sigh of relief.

On pace to become the worst rushing offense in the 18-year history of the franchise, the Ravens ran for a season-high 174 yards — which included Ray Rice’s season-long run of 47 yards — in the 23-20 overtime defeat to the Bears, temporarily quieting critics who’ve doubted their ability to gain ground against anyone this season. Still, they also realize those yards came against the league’s 31st-ranked run defense and Sunday’s game against the New York Jets will present a much steeper task.

“That’s one game; the results still weren’t what we wanted in terms of the end result,” offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said. “We’ve got a real challenge ahead of us this week, [and the Jets are] maybe the finest run defense in the league.”

Ranked first in the league in allowing just 73.2 yards per game on the ground, the Jets have surrendered just 2.9 yards per carry in their first 10 games. That stingy mark puts them on pace to have the best average in the NFL since the 2007 Ravens, who gave up just 2.8 yards per rush despite an abysmal 5-11 record.

Jets head coach and former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan not only possesses a formidable group of players up front but offers some of the most exotic looks schematically in the NFL year after year. And considering the Ravens’ issues this season with Juan Castillo’s zone blocking scheme and communication at the line of scrimmage, New York will be less forgiving than the banged-up Bears defense in making Baltimore pay for missed blocking assignments.

With Muhammad Wilkerson, Damon Harrison, Sheldon Richardson, and Kenrick Ellis combining to form the best run-stopping defensive line in the league, Rice offered a realistic approach to the ground game in Sunday’s contest at M&T Bank Stadium. It resembled a plea for patience and not trying to do too much against a very talented front.

“We just need to be honest with ourselves and get a hat on a hat,” said Rice, who eclipsed the century mark on the ground for the first time all season in running for 131 yards against the Bears. “If it’s two yards, we need to take the two yards. If it’s a 20-yard gain and it happens, we need to make the 20. If they’re going to give you something where you’ve got to plow in there for two yards, [you take it]. One thing that we want to get out of is getting tackled for a loss. We always want to be on the plus side of things.”

The Ravens took advantage of the Chicago defense with more man-on-man blocking than the zone approach that’s given the running game little room this season. The offensive line also did a commendable job with combination blocks as well as identifying defenders to block at the second level, according to head coach John Harbaugh.

Even with their success, the Ravens understand one performance doesn’t erase nine weeks of severe struggles as they are still only averaging 83.2 rushing yards per game (27th in the NFL) and 3.0 yards per attempt, which ranks 31st in the league ahead of only Jacksonville.

“We took a step, but it’s still not consistent enough,” left tackle Eugene Monroe said. “We’ll continue to work on it. The mood is positive. We understand that we’ve got to continue to win, but pressing out that issue isn’t going to help that. We’ve just got to continue to stay focused.”

A step down from last week statistically is almost inevitable against the New York defense — a unit that hasn’t given up more than 90 rushing yards in a game since Week 3 — but a key to a victory on Sunday will be whether the Ravens have the ability to do just enough to keep the Jets’ back end of the defense honest. Ryan’s unit ranks 23rd against the pass and has allowed 33 passing plays of 20 or more yards this season, so even the slightest room created in the running game would go a long way in establishing play-action fakes and the ability for quarterback Joe Flacco to roll out to find open receivers.

New York, however, will try to make an offense ranked 30th in the league in total yards one-dimensional as it has been far too many times this season en route to a 4-6 start.

The Ravens are not only determined to begin a three-game homestand on a winning note — improving their AFC wild-card standing in the process — but to prove their running-game explosion last week in sloppy, windy Chicago was a sign of better days to come and not just a pleasant aberration.

As Rice professed, the Ravens can only look at one game, one drive, and one carry at a time against a stout Jets defense.

“You have to get movement to even gain a yard,” Rice said. “You can’t let them feast in one position, so we’ve got our work cut out for us. Our big guys have been working, but needless to say, we are getting prepared for a very physical football game.”

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Ravens defense aiming to reverse trend of late-game struggles

Posted on 07 November 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. — Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees recollected Thursday that his defense came under fire a year ago for being lousy statistically despite the Ravens’ 6-2 record midway through the 2012 season.

Of course, a 3-5 record this season doesn’t sit well with Pees despite his unit’s overall improvement, but problems still exist on his side of the ball. Ranked 10th overall in total yards and points per game allowed, the Ravens have forced only 10 turnovers — ranked 11th in the AFC — and have struggled to get defensive stops late in games when they’ve been trailing. And with an offense that’s struggled immensely, those defensive shortcomings have contributed to three straight losses.

“More games are lost than won in the National Football League,” defensive end Chris Canty said. “We’ve got to stop shooting ourselves in the foot, stop doing the things that cause you to lose games, and just play solid ball.”

According to Football Outsiders, the Baltimore defense ranks fifth in the NFL in average defensive drive time (2:21), making their late-game struggles even more puzzling. In losses to Green Bay, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland, the Ravens have surrendered a drive of six minutes or longer that’s been pivotal in either allowing the opposition to build on a second-half lead or to prevent the Baltimore offense from having a final opportunity to tie the game or take the lead.

Many have pondered how much the offense’s first-half struggles have tired out the defense, but the final time of possession wasn’t lopsided in any of the three losses with the Ravens having the ball for at least 28:38 in each game. In Week 9, the Browns took possession of the ball with a 21-18 lead and 6:44 remaining in the fourth quarter and remained on the field until kicking a field goal with 14 seconds remaining. On that drive in which the Browns converted a third-and-3 from their own 36 and a fourth-and-1 from the Baltimore 43 with 3:12 remaining, Pees opined that his defense played tentatively instead of aggressively in trying to make a play.

“You’ve got to feel good enough about yourself that you don’t worry about making a mistake,” Pees said. “You guys have heard me tell you the analogy before – and that’s what I told them this week – you practice that way out here and you go 100 miles an hour, because there’s really not a lot on the line. Somehow, mentally, you’ve got to make yourself play it the same way in a game. I know it’s on the line, we all know it’s on the line, but you’ve got to go. And you’ve just got to make a play.”

Regardless of the exact reasons why, the Ravens are frustrated with their growing reputation of being unable to finish defensively after generally playing well over the first three quarters of the game.

And that recent trend, coupled with the offense’s extremely slow starts all season, has led to the Ravens being as close to must-win mode as they can be against the division-leading Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.

“It’s always frustrating. You’ve got to win games,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “They’re on scholarship, too, so to say – the opposing team – and they’re making plays. It’s just one of those things. You’ve just got to get after it and do it.”

Punting problems

Sam Koch is just one of several established veterans experiencing rough seasons as the longtime punter struggled again last Sunday in Cleveland, three times failing to pin the Browns inside the 20 when kicking near midfield.

The worst of the three offenses came on his final opportunity of the day from his own 46 when he produced a 25-yarder that went out of bounds at the Cleveland 29. The shank gave the Browns solid field position that preceded their game-clinching drive that erased all but the final 14 seconds of the game.

“It’s very frustrating,” Koch said of his season. “I put all the time and work and effort into to trying to make that perfect game.”

Koch’s 37.6 yard net punting average ranks 28th in the league and would be his lowest since 2007 (36.0).

“Sam would be the first one to tell you that he’s been inconsistent,” special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. “There have been situations in games where we need a better ball; [the final punt against the Browns] was an example of it. You’ve also seen him in games where he can hit exactly what we want. We put a lot on Sam. We ask him to do things that other punters in this league aren’t asked to do in terms of direction and so forth. He has demonstrated in practice,time and time and time again that he can do all of that. We just need to do that same kind of performance in the game.”

“Ngata”-nough

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If the Ravens lose on Sunday in Cleveland, please let it be on a safety in overtime

Posted on 01 November 2013 by Drew Forrester

I know the old saying – “beggars can’t be choosers” – but if the Ravens ARE going to lose in Cleveland on Sunday, I sure as hell hope they do it the same way the Bengals did it on Thursday night in Miami.

Can you imagine what doing my job would entail next week if Paul Kruger, for example, sacks Joe Flacco in the end zone in overtime to give Cleveland a 15-13 win?

I wouldn’t have to say anything at all.  Just open the mic, sit back, and listen to it all.

“Welcome back to the D&L Window Tinting Morning Reaction, let’s go to the phones to discuss yesterday’s Ravens loss in Cleveland…Smedley’s in Perry Hall.  What’s up Smedley?”

“I can’t believe Jim Caldwell called for a pass play on 3rd and 10 from the 8 yard line…that guy needs go.  I’m telling you, we can’t win the Super Bowl with that bum calling plays.”

“Well, they did win the title last year when he was the offens –“

“That’s not the point, Drew.  We won last year, yes.  But he didn’t have much to do with the offense.  This year the whole offense is his and we can’t get the job done.  Caldwell has to go.”

“Back to the phones we go, Fred’s in Parkville.”

“Harbaugh sucks.”

“OK, anything else?”

“Not really.  That guy has to go, Drew, I’m telling you.  Did you see the start of the game?  We were completely unprepared to play from the jump.  I don’t know what everyone sees in him.”

“Phil’s in Manchester.”

“This is what the Ravens get for giving Flacco a hundred and twenty million.  He has no field vision at all.  Without Boldin, he might as well be Brady Quinn.”

“Dave in Towson, what’s up today?”

“You have to put some of this on the zone blocking scheme.”

“But, the Ravens didn’t use the zone blocking scheme in the game yesterday.”

“That’s what I mean.  They should have used it.  See, the problem is, Drew, Harbaugh has no feel at all for the offense.  One thing about Cam Cameron, he had a feel for that stuff.”

“Steve, you’re up in Towson, what’s going on?”

“Someone mentioned Harbaugh earlier.  I was thinking the same thing.  I’m going all the way back to the coin flip at the beginning of the game.  First, he sends the guys out there to call ‘heads’, which we all know is stupid.  It always comes up tails.  Then, heads comes up, he wins the coin flip, and he defers anyway.  You have to take the ball to start the game.  The whole game went downhill right away, in my opinion.  He has no feel at all for the coin flip.”

————————————————

You might be laughing, but you know what you’re reading above is true.

I don’t know what they’re talking about in Cincinnati this morning, but I can’t imagine they’re saying stupid stuff about their offensive coordinator the way we would be in Baltimore today.

Cameron Wake made one helluva play on the safety to win the game for Miami.

Andy Dalton HAS to get rid of the ball there, yes, but give some credit to Wake for making an All-Pro move to win the game.

————————————————

By the way, none of this will happen next Monday, because the Ravens aren’t going to Cleveland and losing on Sunday.

It won’t be pretty, because it rarely ever is when it comes to the Ravens.

Baltimore 20 — and the Browns 12

 

 

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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-Broncos: Five predictions for Thursday night

Posted on 04 September 2013 by Luke Jones

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

It was less than eight months ago when the Ravens met the Denver Broncos in one of the great contests in NFL playoff history as Baltimore prevailed in a 38-35 double-overtime thriller to advance to the AFC Championship game.

Now, fast-forward to the present as the Ravens return to the scene with a different look than includes 19 new players on the 53-man roster and the Broncos will see former Pro Bowl defensive end Elvis Dumervil wearing purple, creating plenty of intrigue for the NFL’s season-opening game.

It’s time to go on record as the Ravens meet Denver for the 10th time ever in the regular season and own a 5-4 advantage despite a 1-3 regular-season record in Denver. Of course, the Ravens are also 2-0 against the Broncos in postseason play as Denver stewed over its disappointing loss as the No. 1 seed in the AFC throughout the offseason.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens open their season in prime time for the third time in the last four seasons …

1. Much like last January, the Ravens will go vertical early on as Joe Flacco connects with Torrey Smith for a long touchdown in the first half. Offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell may need to rely more on the running game this season because of the uncertainty at wide receiver and tight end, but a conservative approach isn’t the way to beat Peyton Manning and an explosive Denver passing game. The Broncos will not have Pro Bowl linebacker Von Miller due to his six-game suspension, meaning the offensive line should give Flacco plenty of time to throw deep. Some deep shots will also back up the Denver safeties, opening up some intermediate space for tight ends Ed Dickson and Dallas Clark and slot receiver Brandon Stokley to work. If Flacco can find success with those throws, it will only create more room in the box to get Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce going in the running game.

2. Daryl Smith will lead the Ravens in tackles in the first game of the post-Ray Lewis era. Dumervil’s signing received the most attention this offseason, but the presence of the 31-year-old Smith has been a welcome addition to an otherwise inexperienced group of inside linebackers that includes Josh Bynes and second-round pick Arthur Brown. For what it’s worth, Smith looked like the Ravens’ best defensive player of the preseason and while you wouldn’t expect that to hold true during the season, he had the reputation for being stout against the run and serving capably in pass coverage in his nine years with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The additions of Smith and Brown will hopefully help the pass defense in the middle intermediate portion of the field, which has been a major weakness for several years now. Smith’s quiet demeanor and maturity might be the perfect fit for a guy assuming the position formerly held by the future Hall of Famer Lewis.

3. Manning will keep an improved Ravens defense on the field, causing the unit to wilt in the second half. Baltimore did an admirable job handling the altitude in a single-digit temperature last January, but Thursday’s forecast calls for temperatures in the mid-80s, presenting a different challenge in terms of conditioning. Even with the improvements to their front seven, the Ravens are still fielding a secondary with question marks ranging from the effectiveness of Lardarius Webb coming back from his second ACL surgery in four seasons to the ability of Michael Huff and James Ihedigbo to cover the middle of the field. Pressuring Manning will clearly be critical as it was last January, but the Broncos just have too much firepower to hold them down entirely. It will intriguing to see what kind of a rapport Manning has built with free-agent acquisition Wes Welker at this early stage, but the size of wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker on the outside will be a very difficult matchup.

4. Struggling to find open targets in the middle of the field, Flacco tosses a second-half interception to Broncos safety Rahim Moore. The most dynamic change that Caldwell brought to the offense when he assumed Cam Cameron’s coordinator duties last season was the willingness to use the middle of the field in the passing game, but continuing that without Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta in the mix will be the biggest challenge facing Flacco this season. The reality is no one really knows if the combination of Dickson, Stokley, and Clark will be enough to fill the void of two outstanding targets the sixth-year quarterback used in the middle of the field to the point that he could be bold in throwing passes up for grabs. In contrast, Moore has heard the criticism and jokes throughout the offseason about his gaffe of allowing Jones to get behind him on the game-tying score at the end of regulation last January. Trailing late in the game, Flacco will try to force a pass down the seam to Dickson that’s picked off by Moore, which gives the maligned safety a tiny sliver of revenge.

5. The Ravens will compete ferociously, but an incomplete offense will be the deciding factor in handing John Harbaugh the first Week 1 loss of his tenure in a 24-21 final. Baltimore is a good football team, but trying to figure out how good is anyone’s guess with so many question marks offensively and new pieces defensively. It’s a lot to ask that all to come together against such a formidable opponent in the opening game of the season. The Ravens undoubtedly feel motivated to perform well on a national stage as the defending Super Bowl champions who were also forced to open the season on the road, but the Broncos and their fans have thought about this opportunity for the entire offseason and will treat the game like it’s the Super Bowl. Not enough offense and a few too many leaks defensively against an elite opponent will lead to the Ravens coming up a little short. To beat a team like Denver, you’re often faced with a shootout and the Ravens aren’t built for that just yet.

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Decisions looming for Ravens at underwhelming receiver position

Posted on 26 August 2013 by Luke Jones

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

The Ravens are less than a week away from making final decisions for their 53-man roster with no position currently in more flux than wide receiver.

After an offseason full of discussion around a young but unproven group of wide receivers, the preseason has provided little knowledge in projecting how the Ravens plan to flourish in the passing game without 2012 key targets Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta. The decision to sign 37-year-old Brandon Stokley and 34-year-old tight end Dallas Clark after the preseason opener was all you needed to know about the level of concern general manager Ozzie Newsome and coach John Harbaugh felt after an underwhelming start to the summer for the passing game.

Just days away from the preseason finale that’s likely to feature very few starters, the Ravens have three locks to make the roster at the wide receiver position: Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones, and Stokley. Smith remains the only option at the position with which you feel comfortable while Jones’ speed and Stokley’s ability to move the chains from the slot receiver position are specialized skills that will work well in different formations.

After that? Unknown commodities and unfulfilled promise fill out the rest of the pack.

Aaron Mellette and Marlon Brown? A 2013 seventh-round pick and a rookie free agent respectively.

LaQuan Williams? A solid special-teams player but inconsistent as a wide receiver in both practices and preseason games.

Deonte Thompson? Injured since the preseason opener.

And Tandon Doss? He’s become the whipping boy of a concerned fan base after a very disappointing summer.

The discussion over who stays and who goes has heated up over the last couple weeks as fans and media alike try to predict how many receivers will make the regular-season roster.

“I’m not quite certain of what the numbers will be,” offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said. “That’s John and Ozzie — they take care of that. They look at it and determine [and] look at the entire team.”

While many fixate on a given number of receivers to make the final roster — five, six, even seven? — the Ravens look at the roster from a global view in determining which 53 players will be the best fit to win games in 2013. As unlikely as it might be, all eight receivers could make it through final cuts if Harbaugh and his staff determine they contribute enough both offensively and through special teams.

Caldwell has even suggested that strength in numbers might be the unit’s best bet while also providing more time to determine which receivers build the best rapport with quarterback Joe Flacco in the early weeks of the season. Eight receivers would certainly be a stretch, but it’s not difficult envisioning scenarios in which seven wideouts crack the 53-man roster without too much trouble.

It comes down to special-teams play, team health, and positional needs — or the lack of needs — elsewhere.

“There could be a situation where we’re using quite a few guys at the wide receiver position, which I think is a plus for us because it helps us mix up personnel packages,” Caldwell said. “We do have some versatility because we have a number of guys who can play multiple positions.”

With that in mind, it’s time to make the case for and against each of the five wide receivers projected to be on the roster bubble.

Each receiver’s career NFL regular-season numbers are noted in parentheses.

Tandon Doss (seven catches, 123 yards, 20 targets)

The case for: The Ravens typically don’t give up on their high draft picks easily and the 2011 fourth-round pick has practiced well at different points over the last three years despite a very underwhelming preseason performance of just two catches for 10 yards and a touchdown in three games this summer. He hasn’t stepped up in the manner the Ravens had hoped in filling Boldin’s shoes as the slot receiver, but the rest of the bunch hasn’t outperformed him so dramatically to make him out to be the slam-dunk cut that some critics have made him out to be over the last few days. Another factor helping Doss’ case for a roster spot is the lack of a healthy option behind Stokley as a slot receiver in the passing game with Thompson currently injured. He’s shown good hands and route-running ability in practices, which still counts for something despite magnified mistakes in preseason games.

The case against: It never speaks well for your future when two rookies appear to have leapfrogged you on the depth chart after Brown and Mellette saw playing time before Doss against Carolina in the third preseason game. His inability to recognize a blitz led to a Flacco interception against the Panthers, and the third-year wideout didn’t exactly come across as a player trying to take accountability in his explanation after the game. Doss can serve as a backup punt returner, but his ability to play special teams is very limited beyond that. Of the five players currently on the bubble at the position, he has received the greatest number of opportunities and has done very little with them, making you wonder how much patience the Ravens have left. Expectations were high for him, but he’s performed poorly in the preseason.

Marlon Brown (rookie)

The case for: The undrafted product did what no other young receiver had done all summer last Thursday when he took advantage of an opportunity to work with the starting offense by making four catches for 59 yards and a touchdown against the Panthers. You can’t teach 6-foot-5 height, and Brown has shown the potential to be the tall red-zone target the Ravens envisioned with the selection of the recently-cut Tommy Streeter in the sixth round of the 2012 draft. Brown runs solid routes and has shown consistent hands for much of the summer in both practices and games while working his way back from a torn ACL suffered last fall. His performance in a nationally-televised preseason game makes it highly unlikely that he will clear waivers to allow the Ravens to sign him to their practice squad as they may have planned a couple weeks ago.

The case against: It’s important to remember one preseason performance means very little in the big picture as the Ravens aren’t exactly sure how Brown will fit in the short-term future or whether he will pan out in the long term. Despite being a five-star recruit for the University of Georgia, he didn’t exactly live up to expectations playing in the SEC, the greatest stage college football has to offer. Brown has occasionally missed some practice time this summer while working his way back to 100 percent, so that will be something to watch in his first season in the NFL where rookies can often hit the proverbial wall late in the 16-game schedule.

Aaron Mellette (rookie)

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Without Pitta and Boldin, Flacco must take the next step as a franchise quarterback

Posted on 29 July 2013 by jeffreygilley

Like many Ravens fans, my heart sank when I heard about the injury to Dennis Pitta. Now, Flacco is without two targets that produced 7 of his eleven postseason touchdowns.

Pitta is a huge loss for the Ravens. Made worse by the lackluster supporting class which remains. We all know about Torrey Smith who has excelled as a deep threat in his short career. Smith also displayed signs of developing as an all-around receiver in 2012.

Behind Smith, there are major question marks. If the season started tomorrow (that would be awesome), Jacoby Jones would likely line up across from Torrey Smith. That could be an issue from several standpoints.

For several seasons in Houston, Jones was expected to be the second receiver across from Andre Johnson, one of the best receivers over the last ten years. Jones consistently struggled to make the type of impact the Texans desperately needed to take attention away from Andre Johnson and therefore, take the offense to another level. If Jones struggled to make an impact with a Hall of Fame receiver, how much of an impact can he make with Torrey Smith?

Jones’s impact on special teams will also come into question if he starts at receiver. Remember when the Bears tried to turn Devin Hester into a receiver? Hester has struggled as a return man ever since. Jones’s ability to return kicks and punts for touchdowns can change the momentum of a game in an instant. If Jones is counted on to make an impact at receiver, Jones might not be able to change games as a return man.

However, Jones can make an impact on the offense if the Ravens use him as a third option where he isn’t counted to make a large contribution to the offense.

Now, back to the topic at hand. What must Joe Flacco do to make the next step as a franchise quarterback? Make something out of nothing.

Name as many receivers Tom Brady has worked with as you can. It’s difficult, isn’t it? Outside of Randy Moss, Deion Branch, Troy Brown, and Wes Welker, the names are difficult to remember. For years, Brady has made household names out of receivers no one has heard of.

Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and even Phillip Rivers have done the same exact thing.

In 2013, Flacco will have to do this as well. Jacoby Jones, Tandon Doss, Deonte Thompson, Tommy Streeter, LaQuan Williams, David Reed, and Aaron Mellette are all competing for the second receiver position.

Tandon Doss was hand picked by Flacco in the 2011 draft. Doss’s size, speed, and hands perfectly compliment Torrey Smith. But, Doss has yet to translate those skills to the field. Coaches have raved about Doss’s hands but he dropped every ball thrown his way in the playoff win over the Indianapolis Colts.

Other young receivers have showcased their ability in training camp. Second year receivers Deonte Thompson and Tommy Streeter have been praised for their physical attributes. But those tangibles will only take them so far.

Flacco has the ability to make everyone around him better. The offense Jim Caldwell implemented last season is up-tempo and aggressive. Those attributes perfectly fit Joe Flacco’s mentality and rocket arm.

Yesterday, veteran tight end Visanthe Siancoe was added to the Ravens roster. Shiancoe is athletic enough to create mismatches and he catches almost everything. While Shiancoe is a nice addition, he won’t be expected to make a huge impact. But Shiancoe’s role might increase should the Ravens younger receivers struggle early in the season.

The Ravens aren’t doomed for the 2013 season. The running game is still elite and the defense will greatly improve. Flacco is perfectly positioned to take the reigns as the Ravens leader and make everyone better. After all, the Ravens are paying him like a quarterback who can do just that.

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Pitta done for season with dislocated hip

Posted on 27 July 2013 by Glenn Clark

OWINGS MILLS – The Baltimore Ravens suffered a major blow during practice Saturday.

“Dennis (Pitta) has a dislocated hip” head coach John Harbaugh announced following practice. “We’ll have to take a look at that and see exactly what it is. It’s a serious injury. He’s going to be out for awhile, he will not be in the Denver game (Week 1). We’ll just have to play it from there to see how long it goes.”

ESPN reported Saturday night that Pitta, who was transported to a local hospital and underwent surgery immediately, is expected to miss the entire season.

The injury occurred after the tight end collided with S James Ihedigbo on a pass play in the back of the end zone. Saturday’s practice was the first padded practice of this year’s Training Camp.

The injury is a major blow for the Baltimore Ravens, who traded WR Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers in the offseason. Pitta had been hoped to build on his 2012 season (61 catches, 669 yards, seven touchdowns) to help replace Boldin.

Ed Dickson, Billy Bajema and rookie Matt Furstenburg all saw snaps with the first team offense after Pitta’s departure. Free agent TE Visanthe Shiancoe (Morgan State) visited the Ravens’ facility earlier in the week but did not sign. Rookie FB Kyle Juszczek could also be asked to help out in the process, especially if the Ravens were to re-sign current free agent FB Vonta Leach as the Newark Star-Ledger reported Thursday night they are expected to do.

Offensive Coordinator Jim Caldwell suggested the Ravens would continue their “next man up” mentality.

“Somebody’s going to have to step up and we do have some capable guys. All across the flanks we do have some weapons. We’re just going to have to have some guys make some plays for us.”

Dickson-a fellow fourth year tight end-moves to the top of the tight end depth chart in Pitta’s absence. Dickson told WNST.net “it’s on me to go out there and build chemistry with (QB) Joe (Flacco) and to do the things that I do to the best of my ability.”

Dickson also told WNST.net he sent Pitta a text after practice saying “Keep your head up…the injury’s not going to hold you down. We need you. Praying for you…I’m holding down the fort for you.”

Dickson’s 2012 numbers were disappointing as he fought through injuries. The tight end played in just 13 games and caught 21 balls for 225 yards without a touchdown grab. “Ed has been playing and performing extremely well” Caldwell said. “He’s had a good camp thus far. He’s moving well, he’s catching the ball for us, he has a lot of big play potential. Ed is a very capable guy. We’re going to have to have some other guys step up as well.

According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, a dislocated hip usually takes upwards of 2-3 months for recovery and rehabilitation.

Making matters worse for the Ravens is their lack of depth at receiver as well. Without Boldin, only Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones have more than even 123 career receiving yards. Doss has those 123, David Reed 66, Deonte Thompson 51, LaQuan Williams 46. Neither Tommy Streeter nor rookie Aaron Mellette has ever played in a NFL game.

YANDA REMAINS OUT: Despite being removed from the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list Friday, OL Marshal Yanda (shoulder) was not present Saturday, but is expected to return shortly. S Anthony Levine (shoulder) was on the practice for a second straight day after being removed from the PUP list. LB Jameel McClain (back) remains on the PUP list and did not practice Saturday.

OT Bryant McKinnie (conditioning) left practice early Friday as coach John Harbaugh had concerns for how he’d hold up in the heat, he was back on the practice field Saturday afternoon. OL Kelechi Osemele (hamstring) and Ryan Jensen (leg) were not present for Saturday’s practice. WR LaQuan Williams (arm) and Marlon Brown (knee) were not present as well.

DL Kapron Lewis-Moore (knee) remains on the non-football injury list and is not expected to practice during Training Camp.

OTHER PRACTICE NOTES: S Omar Brown appears to have switched jersey numbers, going from number 38 to number 31.

K Justin Tucker stood out during Saturday’s practice, including makes from 60 yards and 65 yards out. After the make from 65, Tucker let out an exclamation of “Come on!”

LB Terrell Suggs had the quote of the day. After making a tackle on a goal line stop against the first team offense, Suggs yelled out “Where the f*ck is Vonta Leach when you need him?”

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Jacoby Jones dancing back onto field facing higher expectations

Posted on 31 May 2013 by Luke Jones

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Wrapping up his first week back with the Ravens since a third-place finish on “Dancing with the Stars,” wide receiver Jacoby Jones made it clear he’s no longer in a mood to dance.

At least until this fall.

Asked whether teammates have teased him since he returned from pairing up with the lovely Karina Smirnoff, Jones indicated his teammates were jealous of the skills he displayed on national television. Of course, Jones is ready to focus once again on the skills that made him a first-time Pro Bowl selection 2012 and doesn’t plan to share his dancing secrets with teammates.

“They’re all just trying to get me to teach them how to dance now,” Jones said. “I’m not about to teach. I’m tired of dancing.”

Looking leaner than last year but still claiming to be at his playing weight of 215 pounds, Jones said the biggest adjustment in returning to the Ravens is getting used to high outdoor temperatures compared to the air-conditioned confines of the dance studio. Jones feels his footwork for running routes is better than ever after learning a variety of new steps on the dance floor.

The sleek and speedy receiver got behind third-year cornerback Jimmy Smith for a long touchdown on Friday afternoon for the concluding day of the second week of organized team activities, which are voluntary workouts at this stage of the spring. Jones missed the first week due to his final days on the ABC hit program, but the 28-year-old feels he’s in better condition at this point than he’s ever been in his NFL career.

Upon his return, he finds a very different team from the one he remembered last February, with veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin the biggest departure to directly impact Jones. However, the New Orleans native offered a pragmatic approach to moving on from the departures of so many veteran players.

“There are guys that are gone [and] we’re going to miss them, but the spirit is the same,” Jones said. “The guys they brought in, we all have the same type of personality, the same spirits. [General manager Ozzie Newsome] knows what he’s doing when he brings those types of guys in.”

How Jones will fit into the Boldin-free passing game is one of the biggest questions the Ravens face as they inch closer to training camp. It’s all but guaranteed that the 6-foot-2 receiver will line up on the opposite side of Torrey Smith in the three-wide set as he did last season, but whether he’ll ultimately start in the two-wide base offense remains to be seen.

His playoff heroics in Denver (a 70-yard touchdown catch to force overtime) and in Super Bowl XLVII (a 56-yard touchdown shortly before halftime) have become part of franchise lore, but Jones was little more than a decoy for most of the regular season as he caught just 30 passes for 406 yards and a Week 2 touchdown while being targeted 54 times in 16 games. Even after Jim Caldwell took over as offensive coordinator in mid-December, Jones only appeared in 41 percent of the Ravens’ offensive plays (not including the regular-season finale in Cincinnati that was treated much like a preseason game).

The knock on Jones during his five seasons with the Houston Texans was his inability to catch the football consistently. In addition to looking at younger wide receivers such as Tandon Doss and Deonte Thompson to play in the slot, Caldwell will look to Jones to help fill in the production gap left behind by Boldin.

“I do think that he has the ability. There’s no question about that,” Caldwell said. “He has the ability to do it. He can catch. He can run. Obviously, he is still going to serve our special teams and serve them well in his role that he plays for them. Then obviously, we will use him as a big part of our offense as well.”

Head coach John Harbaugh acknowledged earlier in the offseason that the Ravens will need to monitor how much they use Jones as a receiver as well as a return specialist to keep him as fresh and productive as possible over the course of the season. His emergence as a bigger part of the passing game would certainly quell concerns over Newsome not adding a veteran wide receiver.

Jones doesn’t feel any additional pressure individually but views Boldin’s departure as reason for the entire group of wideouts to increase their production.

“You all know how I am, I just play my role,” Jones said. “Whatever they want me to do, I’m ready to do it. I think the whole receiving corps as a whole, we’ve all got to step up and make plays.”

The dancing star is certainly right as he’ll be under more scrutiny after missing the early portion of the offseason workout program in order to compete on “Dancing with the Stars.” The Ravens hope his big-play ability on display in the postseason is a precursor for more touchdowns to come in the regular season as he plays out the final year of a two-year contract paying him $4 million this season.

It would certainly aid in their bid to repeat as Super Bowl champs.

And why else did you think he elected to keep so busy this offseason after exercising an initial collection of touchdown dances last season?

“You think I was doing that dancing for nothing?” said Jones, drawing laughter from the gathered media. “I can’t wait to get in the end zone. I’m not going to dance until I get in the end zone.”

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