Tag Archive | "Jimmy Smith"

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Even after strong draft, Ravens remain vulnerable at cornerback

Posted on 05 May 2015 by Luke Jones

As the Ravens receive much-deserved praise for addressing an extensive list of needs and wants in this year’s draft, one clear truth remained at the end of an otherwise-successful weekend.

The secondary remains vulnerable after the Ravens finished 23rd in pass defense during the 2014 season. To be clear, this isn’t meant to be a biting criticism as detractors pointing to the failures of the Ravens defense in the divisional playoff loss to New England last January are conveniently failing to mention that Baltimore needed to replace starting wide receiver Torrey Smith and starting tight end Owen Daniels before worrying about a No. 3 cornerback or help at safety, a position with few immediate solutions in this year’s draft.

Yes, the defense deserved more blame than the offense in that 35-31 defeat to the Patriots, but the Ravens weren’t going to replace two individuals responsible for 32 percent of Joe Flacco’s 2014 passing yards on hopes and dreams alone, which is why they selected Brehad Perriman and Maxx Williams with their first two picks.

Of the nine selections made by general manager Ozzie Newsome, however, fourth-round cornerback Tray Walker has raised the most eyebrows as many projected the Texas Southern product to be a late-round selection or even a priority free agent. The Ravens really like the 6-foot-2 corner’s upside and worked him out privately during the pre-draft process, but it’s fair to wonder if it was a reach to ensure they’d come away with at least one cornerback with room for grwoth. At the very least, it would be quite ambitious to assume Walker will be ready to immediately step into the No. 3 cornerback role behind starters Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb.

“Could we have taken a corner in the first round? We probably could have. In the second round? We probably could have,” Newsome said. “But at the point when we were picking, it wasn’t the best player. But we do feel good. Getting Jimmy back healthy, Lardarius having a year to train, and then some of the young guys to have a chance to play being in the system for a second year [will help].”

Newsome’s correct about the Ravens being ravaged by injuries with five cornerbacks finishing the season on injured reserve. While Rashaan Melvin wouldn’t have been filling a starting role late last season under normal circumstances, the former Tampa Bay practice-squad member played well enough to garner a look as the potential third cornerback. He, Walker, Anthony Levine, and the oft-injured Asa Jackson currently stand as the candidates for the No. 3 job, but the Ravens will also be depending on first-year cornerbacks coach Matt Weiss and first-year defensive backs coach Chris Hewitt — who served as Steve Spagnuolo’s assistant secondary coach a year ago — to oversee their development.

Finding a No. 3 cornerback is not an impossible task, but that only comes with the assumption that Smith is back to form after a season-ending Lisfranc injury and Webb can build on the improvement shown late in 2014 after a back injury cost him all of training camp and the first month of the regular season. The two have missed 33 regular-season games due to injuries in their respective careers and have only played full 16-game seasons three times between them.

It’s also worth noting that the Ravens ranked just 24th in pass defense before Smith went down for the season in Week 8, proof that all wasn’t well in the secondary before defensive coordinator Dean Pees lost his top cornerback.

With the draft complete, it’s worth noting that some teams will part ways with veteran cornerbacks in the coming days and weeks like the Patriots did with Alfonzo Dennard on Tuesday. Of course, none of those names can be regarded as a sure bet, but the Ravens could find an appealing candidate or two to throw into the current No. 3 and No. 4 mix, especially with more than $10 million in current salary cap space.

“We’re not done putting this team together right now,” Newsome said at the draft’s conclusion. “It’s still maybe four months before we have to play Denver [in the season opener]. We’re still going to be mining for players to make our roster to make us better.”

Despite everything accomplished with their nine selections this past weekend, cornerback remains a top position to try to improve between now and the start of the season.

Pondering Pitta’s future

Admittedly, I’ve been surprised by some of the reaction to the Ravens drafting two tight ends and the “new-found” conclusions many have reached about the future of veteran Dennis Pitta.

All offseason, Baltimore has expressed hope that the 2010 fourth-round pick would be able to play again after suffering two devastating right hip injuries in a 14-month span. But, like everyone else, the organization saw the manner in which Pitta innocuously caught a short pass and tried to turn upfield before crumpling to the ground without even being touched in Cleveland last September.

Knowing Pitta’s character and commitment to the game, I would never count out his potential return to the field. But I’m also rooting for a 29-year-old man to do what’s best for him and his family, whether that means trying to play football again or calling it a career with what should be plenty of financial security.

If Pitta returns, having too many tight ends is a great problem to have, but the Ravens simply can’t count on any production from him in 2015 or beyond. Even if he does resume playing, it will be difficult for the Ravens — or anyone else — to shake the fear of what happened to Pitta in Cleveland from happening again.

Return game

Another position of interest that appeared to go unaddressed in this year’s draft was return specialist as the Ravens must replace veteran Jacoby Jones.

Many have pointed to wide receiver Michael Campanaro as the top candidate to return punts, but it will be worth keeping an eye on rookie free agent DeAndre Carter from Sacramento State. Carter is only 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, but he was projected by some to be a late-round pick with potential to be a solid return man at the next level.

The Ravens have a history of finding rookie free agent returners from B.J. Sams and Cory Ross to Deonte Thompson, so an opportunity could be there for Carter despite a very crowded group of young wide receivers.

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Ravens reach contract extension with cornerback Jimmy Smith

Posted on 21 April 2015 by Luke Jones

A little over a week away from the NFL draft, the Ravens have reached a contract extension with one of their best draft picks in recent years by coming to terms with cornerback Jimmy Smith.

Originally scheduled to earn $6.898 million in the fifth-year team option of his rookie contract this season, Smith will now make up to $48 million over the next five years with $21 million fully guaranteed, according to Pro Football Talk. The extension includes a $13 million signing bonus, a guaranteed $1 million base salary for 2015, and a $7 million guaranteed base salary next season, per multiple outlets.

The 2011 first-round pick was in the midst of the best season of his career when he suffered a season-ending foot injury last October. Graded by Pro Football Focus as the ninth-best cornerback in the NFL through the first seven weeks of 2014, Smith suffered a Lisfranc injury against Cincinnati on Oct. 26 that eventually required season-ending surgery on his left foot.

“For me, it was never truly about being the highest-paid corner,” Smith said. “I know I couldn’t be that on this team and be here just because of the talent already spread around. You have to pay other people. I knew that going into this [that it] would be that with the injury and all that. All those things came to mind, but it worked out.”

Smith had collected 28 tackles, an interception, and six pass breakups prior to the injury. The 6-foot-2 corner has secured five interceptions in his career.

After two disappointing and injury-riddled seasons to begin his NFL career, Smith is a good example of exercising patience with draft picks who don’t immediately blossom into starters. To show how far the Colorado product has come in two years, he began the 2012 postseason as the No. 4 cornerback behind even Chykie Brown on the depth chart before eventually making key plays on the final defensive series to protect a 34-31 win over San Francisco in Super Bowl XLVII.

General manager Ozzie Newsome made it clear this offseason that keeping Smith in Baltimore beyond the 2015 season would be a priority. The Ravens would also like to sign guards Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele and kicker Justin Tucker to long-term deals as they enter the final year of their current contracts.

“I think that his best football is still ahead of him,” Newsome said. “If he doesn’t get hurt in the Cincinnati game last year, I don’t know where he could have ended up as a player, but he was definitely trending up. I just want to thank Jimmy for committing five more years of football to us, and I’m looking forward to it.”

The deal does not come without some risk, however, as Smith has battled a number of injuries throughout his career and missed 17 games in his first four seasons.

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Bisciotti thinks extension would be “win-win” for Flacco

Posted on 01 April 2015 by Luke Jones

The Ravens know they’ll return to the negotiating table with quarterback Joe Flacco next winter, but owner Steve Bisciotti is confident the sides will continue their relationship far beyond the 2015 season.

In signing the Super Bowl XLVII Most Valuable Player to a record-setting six-year, $120.6 million contract two years ago, the organization knew the deal was structured in a way that it would need to be adjusted after the 2015 campaign. Flacco’s salary cap figure is scheduled to rise from $14.55 million this season to a colossal $28.55 million in 2016.

Speaking with season-ticket holders in a phone forum, Bisciotti said the organization has mapped out a 2016 roster plan to account for Flacco’s gigantic number, but common sense suggests the contract must be adjusted if the Ravens are to remain competitive next season.

“I’m not real worried about it. I know he wants to stay,” Bisciotti said. “He’s obviously more appreciated in Baltimore, maybe, than he is league-wide, but I think that even the league is starting to come around. Look at a guy who has not missed a snap in seven years and has a wonderful record in fourth-quarter comebacks.”

The current deal will have paid the 30-year-old quarterback $62 million over the first three years, but its structure allowed the Ravens to keep more manageable cap figures of $6.8 million in 2013 and $14.8 million last season. But those cap numbers will skyrocket starting next year, which will prompt the sides to tack on additional years to the contract to even out the yearly cap figures to be more in line with the original annual average of $20.1 million.

Such maneuvering would allow Flacco to collect additional guaranteed money based off what he was already scheduled to make over the next few years while increasing the chances that he finishes his career in Baltimore.

“When we get into the offseason, we’re going to be looking to redo that deal and probably do it back at a six-year deal and flatten it out a little bit more than it was this first go-round,” Bisciotti said. “We were kind of in shock — I think the whole league was in shock — when the market was showing that it was $20 million a year. Quite frankly, we weren’t prepared to do that. We back-loaded them, so [the cap numbers] were more like [$14 million] and [$15 million] in the first few years and then that [$20 million] average jumps back up to over [$28 million or $27 million].”

Flacco has never thrown for 4,000 yards in a season and has never made the Pro Bowl — he would have been taken as an alternate this past year if not for the birth of his third son — but he has the most road playoff wins in NFL history and the most wins (including the postseason) of any quarterback in the league since 2008.

Despite his confidence in extending his quarterback while easing the 2015 cap crunch, Bisciotti knows he’ll need to make the deal work for Flacco, who set career highs in passing yards (3,986) and touchdown passes (27) in 2014.

His current deal also calls for cap figures of $31.15 million in 2017 and $24.75 million in 2018, further illustrating the need to find a middle ground with Flacco’s agent, Joe Linta.

“I don’t want to say untenable. It’s something we will make [work], but we can make it a win-win for Joe,” Bisciotti said. “Even though it’s only cost us $14 million or 15 million [on the cap the last couple years], because of the guarantees, I do believe he’s gotten, by the end of this year, half of that contract, somewhere around $60 million.

“I think he’ll be very amenable to a new deal. Then, it would be our job since we’ve already gotten $28 million fitted under that thing to flatten out those hits on our cap, so that they’re more consistent. I’m very confident that we’ll get it done, and Joe and his agent both acknowledged when we did the deal [in 2013] that we would be back at the negotiating table three years later. We certainly are just as interested in Joe as we were three years ago.”

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Ravens “cautiously optimistic” about Pitta returning next year

Posted on 13 January 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens head coach John Harbaugh remains hopeful that tight end Dennis Pitta will be able to resume his NFL career after suffering two serious hip injuries in the last two seasons.

Harbaugh had no new information about the future of the 29-year-old, who was lost for the season after dislocating and fracturing his right hip for the second time in 14 months in a game against the Cleveland Browns on Sept. 21. Pitta signed a five-year, $32 million last winter that includes a $4 million guaranteed salary for the 2015 season, meaning there is virtually no chance that Baltimore would consider cutting him this offseason.

“I will say that I’m cautiously optimistic because of the injury,” Harbaugh said. “I think all of us would [say], “OK, is this going to be good?’ We want to make sure he’s going to be totally healthy, totally safe — as much as is reasonable in football — to make make sure that hip is sound and everything before our doctors would ever clear him. In the end, it will be up to the doctors and Dennis to determine that.”

Pitta has expressed a clear desire to continue his playing career after being limited to just seven games in the last two seasons. The 2010 fourth-round pick was emerging as one of the better tight ends in the NFL before suffering the first hip injury on July 27.

A vigorous rehab and the timing of the injury allowed Pitta to return for the final month of the 2013 season, but the second injury led to a slower rehabilitation process in hopes of giving the hip proper time to heal and get stronger. Many have wondered whether Pitta should play again after twice suffering an injury considered so rare in football.

Harbaugh said he spoke to Pitta on Tuesday as the tight end hopes to receive an update on his hip later in the coming days.

“He’s going to see a couple specialists this week, so I’m kind of looking forward to seeing what they say,” Harbaugh said. “But he’s working out today, so that seemed to be positive to me.”

In 50 career games in Baltimore, Pitta has made 138 receptions for 1,369 yards and 11 touchdowns as one of Joe Flacco’s favorite targets.

Corners on mend

In addition to having five cornerbacks on injured reserve during the 2014 season, Harbaugh revealed Tuesday that Rashaan Melvin will undergo shoulder surgery that will keep him sidelined until organized team activities in the spring.

The former Miami Dolphins practice squad member started the final three games of the regular season and both postseason games and had played well before being torched by the Patriots for two touchdowns in Saturday’s playoff loss. However, the 6-foot-2 Melvin is regarded as an intriguing option as a depth cornerback for next season.

“If everything goes well, he should be back for OTAs and for minicamp,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t think we had any other surgeries at this time after the [magnetic resonance imaging exams] came in, so that’s good news. It’s the best we’ve probably been.”

Harbaugh revealed encouraging news about the status of No. 1 cornerback Jimmy Smith, who suffered a season-ending Lisfranc injury in late October. Smith remains in a walking boot, but it appears that he’ll be ready to go in plenty of time for spring workouts.

Smith is in line to make $6.898 million for the fifth-year option the Ravens exercised on his rookie contract.

“Jimmy will actually go into the offseason healthy,” Harbaugh said. “He’ll be running here in a couple weeks, so he’ll get a chance to get a full offseason in. Maybe four weeks might be the number off the top of my head. It’s pretty encouraging that way.”

Harbaugh, Ravens staff heading to Arizona

Harbaugh confirmed that he and his staff will coach one of the Pro Bowl teams opposed by the Dallas Cowboys staff in Arizona on Jan. 25.

The Denver Broncos staff was originally supposed to be the AFC representative before head coach John Fox parted ways with the organization on Monday, opening the door for the Ravens to receive the invitation. Harbaugh sees it as a fun event while also taking advantage of the opportunity to get to know other players, which could pay off at some point down the road.

“We get to coach a little bit more, which is nice,” said Harbaugh, who added that the Pro Bowl practices would be brief. “I mentioned a few times regarding Steve Smith and other players  — you get to know guys. I got to know Steve really well way back at his first Pro Bowl. That’s always a fun part of it in getting to know some of the players around the league.”

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In end, Ravens couldn’t overcome biggest weakness

Posted on 11 January 2015 by Luke Jones

Reflecting on Saturday’s season-ending 35-31 loss to New England, the Ravens know there were other reasons why they didn’t advance to the AFC Championship.

A last-minute interception by quarterback Joe Flacco tarnished what had been a banner day for him and a Ravens offense that produced at least 30 points for the second straight week. The decision to take the deep shot, the effort by wide receiver Torrey Smith to break it up, and the throw itself all came under scrutiny, but the offense had been more than good enough to win for the first 58 minutes of the game.

The vaunted pass rush that ranked second in the NFL with 49 sacks during the regular season managed to sack Patriots quarterback Tom Brady only twice with neither coming in the second half as the Ravens squandered a 14-point lead — their second of the night — in the third quarter. Baltimore had accumulated four or more sacks in each of its last eight wins and was 0-5 over that same stretch when failing to reach that plateau.

But it was the Ravens’ greatest weakness that ultimately led to their demise as the secondary was exposed and exploited by Brady and New England’s passing game. In giving up 408 passing yards and four touchdown passes — one thrown by Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman — the Ravens cannnot be fooled by the statistical improvement in the final month of the season that came against opposing passing games led by Blake Bortles, Case Keenum, and Connor Shaw. Baltimore ranked 31st in pass defense entering the final month of the regular season before rallying to finish 23rd.

Fixing the secondary will be a major undertaking for general manager Ozzie Newsome, who misread the Ravens’ depth at cornerback last offseason long before a rash of injuries decimated the position. There are no easy solutions as every notable member of the unit faces a significant question this offseason and secondary coach Steve Spanguolo could draw interest as a potential defensive coordinator elsewhere.

Top cornerback Jimmy Smith will be returning from a Lisfranc injury and is scheduled to make $6.898 million in the fifth-year option of his rookie contract. Emerging as one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL before the foot ailment cut his season short in October, Smith is someone the Ravens would like to keep for the long run, but it’s difficult to ignore the reality that he’s missed 17 games in four seasons when considering the significant money it will likely require to keep him.

Veteran Lardarius Webb made a team-high 11 starts at cornerback, but he carries a $12 million cap figure for the 2015 season. After once appearing on the verge of becoming a Pro Bowl player, Webb will be entering his seventh season and played like no more than average at best after returning from a back injury that cost him all of training camp and three games at the start of the season. Two surgically-repaired knees on top of the back ailment make you wonder if his 5-foot-10, 182-pound body is failing him at this stage of his career.

Cutting Webb would only save $2 million in cap space — he has three years remaining on a six-year, $50 million contract signed in 2012 — and the Ravens would need to replace him in the starting defense, but it’s difficult to justify his salary for such lackluster play for much of the 2014 campaign.

Safety Will Hill was a rare bright spot in the secondary after starting the final eight games upon coming off a six-game suspension, but can the Ravens trust him to stay out of trouble and remain committed to the game? The Ravens wouldn’t figure to have difficulty keeping the restricted free agent, but he’ll need to prove Baltimore right in giving him a second chance before a long-term commitment is even considered.

The in-house options look grim beyond that.

Even if it’s too soon to declare Matt Elam a complete bust, there’s no sugarcoating how disappointing the 2013 first-round pick has been through his first two seasons. In fairness, Elam was forced to play out of position again for much of the year, but he also led the Ravens in missed tackles, which is a problem considering his tackling was viewed as a strength of his coming out of the University of Florida.

Third-round safety Terrence Brooks offered a few glimpses of potential amidst typical struggles of a rookie, but a knee injury cut his season short and the Ravens couldn’t have seen enough to feel comfortable in moving forward with him as a guaranteed starter.

Cornerback Rashaan Melvin was a nice story in becoming a starter late in the year after being signed off the Miami Dolphins’ practice squad in early November, but the Patriots completed 15 of 19 passes for 224 yards, two touchdowns, and a 150.9 passer rating against him in coverage. He proved himself enough to be a solid option for depth, but no more than that at this point.

Injuries limited Asa Jackson to just seven games and his pass coverage wasn’t overly impressive when he played.

Safeties Darian Stewart and Jeromy Miles and cornerback Danny Gorrer are unrestricted free agents, and cornerback Anthony Levine is a restricted free agent.

The draft appears to be the most logical outlet to seek improvement for 2015 and beyond, but the Ravens won’t pick until 26th overall and rookie cornerbacks don’t often provide an immediate impact in significant roles. Baltimore can look no farther than Smith’s selection in 2011 as evidence with the 6-foot-2 University of Colorado product disappointing in his first two years before establishing himself as a starter in 2013.

The Ravens don’t need a top 10 secondary with the strength of their front seven, but it was apparent that even an average secondary might have carried them to at least an AFC Championship appearance.

It will be up to Newsome to make the necessary improvement for 2015.

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Ravens pass defense on pace to be worst in franchise history

Posted on 30 November 2014 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens entering the final quarter of the regular season following Sunday’s disappointing 34-33 loss to the San Diego Chargers, the pass defense will need to raise its level of play substantially to avoid a dubious distinction.

Giving up 376 yards in the air as San Diego’s Philip Rivers picked them apart, the 7-5 Ravens are now on pace to surrender 4,383 yards through the air in 2014, which would shatter the franchise-worst mark of 3,969 set in the inaugural 1996 season. That year, Baltimore finished 4-12 with a pass defense that finished last in the NFL.

The Ravens woke up Monday morning ranked 31st in the league in pass defense with only the Atlanta Falcons surrendering more yards through the air.

Where are Isaac Booth, Donny Brady, and Antonio Langham when you need them?

Of course, we’re in the midst of a pass-happy era in which offense reigns supreme — making the numbers difficult to compare to those of 18 years ago — but the Ravens haven’t had any answers in a secondary that was already facing questions long before significant injuries suffered by starting cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb. Smith is done for the year with a Lisfranc injury, and Webb continues to look like a shell of his former self after a back injury that took away his entire training camp and forced him out of three of the first four games of the regular season.

The Ravens have been unfortunate, but they were also poorly prepared to handle any injuries on the back end of the defense.

After former No. 3 cornerback Corey Graham departed via free agency, general manager Ozzie Newsome did not add any quality depth behind his starters in the offseason, instead counting on Asa Jackson and Chykie Brown to pick up the slack. Instead Jackson suffered a serious turf toe injury in Week 5 — he could return as soon as next Sunday’s game in Miami — and Brown struggled so mightily that Baltimore waived him in early November.

As a result, defensive coordinator Dean Pees has been forced to turn to journeyman Danny Gorrer and former safety Anthony Levine to go along with a struggling Webb. Many are inclined to blame coaching whenever a unit struggles, but you can only be so creative with schemes — the Ravens tried just about everything on Sunday — to overcome such personnel deficiencies.

The safety position has been just as problematic with 2013 first-round pick Matt Elam being a major disappointment in his second season. Pees has used a carousel of names — Darian Stewart, Jeromy Miles, Brynden Trawick, and rookie Terrence Brooks at various times — with only Will Hill looking to be a solid option at this stage of the season.

As for the record books, the Ravens will receive a respite from playing Pro Bowl quarterbacks as they’re slated to face Miami’s Ryan Tannehill, Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles, Houston’s Ryan Fitzpatrick, and either Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel — maybe both? — in the season finale against Cleveland. That said, Tannehill is in the midst of a good third season with the Dolphins and Fitzpatrick is coming off a six-touchdown performance in Week 13, so it won’t be a total cakewalk of opposing quarterbacks.

You can only hope Sunday was rock bottom for the pass defense as the Ravens will need an excellent final month to catch the first-place Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North or at least advance to the playoffs after last year’s absence.

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Timetable six months for Jimmy Smith’s recovery from Lisfranc injury

Posted on 20 November 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Breaking his silence for the first time since undergoing season-ending foot surgery two weeks ago, Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith revealed he’ll need six months to recover from what was diagnosed as a Lisfranc injury.

The injury suffered against the Cincinnati Bengals on Oct. 26 cut short what was shaping up to be a Pro Bowl season for the 2011 first-round pick as he collected 28 tackles, eight pass breakups, and an interception in eight games this year. Despite the initial disappointment of discovering the injury was worse than initially feared, Smith is confident he will bounce back strong in 2015.

Smith’s injury was originally diagnosed as a mid-foot sprain that would keep him out for a few weeks, but a followup visit determined ligaments in the middle of the foot were damaged to the point of needing surgery to repair them. He was officially placed on injured reserve on Nov. 8.

“It just makes it difficult, period, just the fact that I can’t be out here with my teammates and help contribute,” said Smith, who is currently moving around with the assistance of a small scooter. “Like I said, it’s an injury. Everybody deals with [it] in the league. I’m not too stressed. No matter how great this season was, I was happy that I got to play as along as I did this season. I’m happy that it didn’t happen the first three games or something. Like I said, you live with it; you get over it. I’ll be back.”

The 26-year-old is under contract for the 2015 season after the Ravens elected to use a fifth-year option worth $6.898 million in base salary. Considering he has a sixth-month recovery ahead of him, Smith figures to be ready to go well ahead of the start of training camp next summer.

With their top cornerback lost for the year, the Ravens have turned to former reserve safety Anthony Levine and veteran cornerback Danny Gorrer to pick up the slack opposite starter Lardarius Webb in the base defense.

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Levine works way up Ravens’ ladder to starting defensive role

Posted on 11 November 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — You’d be hard pressed to find too many Ravens fans who knew Anthony Levine’s name prior to Sunday’s 21-7 win over the Tennessee Titans.

Making his first career start for a revamped and injury-riddled secondary that was still licking its wounds from an embarrassing performance in Pittsburgh, the former safety seized the opportunity after previously playing just five defensive snaps in his entire NFL career. Levine finished with four tackles and two pass breakups while also earning Pro Football Focus’ highest single-game grade in pass coverage for any Ravens cornerback not named Jimmy Smith this season.

“I’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” Levine said after Sunday’s win. “To call myself a starting something in the NFL — whether it was safety, corner — I was happy to say that I was a starting corner today for the Baltimore Ravens.”

Of course, Levine’s success came against a rookie quarterback and a Tennessee passing game lacking bite and it remains to be seen if he’ll survive against more potent aerial attacks, but it’s difficult not to feel good for a third-year player who spent parts of three seasons on practice squads — originally with Green Bay and then Baltimore — before even getting a chance as a special-teams contributor. The Tennessee State product played all 16 games for the Ravens last season without receiving a single defensive snap, finishing second on the team in special-teams tackles and serving as the protector on the punt team.

After watching Levine serve as a core member of his units for the last two years, special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg takes pride in seeing him become the latest special-teams player to make the transition to starter. Several former Ravens have made similar jumps in recent years, including linebackers Jameel McClain and Dannell Ellerbe as well as cornerback Corey Graham.

“We hope that our players that are just playing special teams develop into players on their sides of the ball as well,” Rosburg said. “It’s my belief — perhaps it’s a slanted belief — that if you can be a good special-teams player, you should be a good player on offense and defense because it takes a lot of skill to play on special teams. It’s not a surprise to me that he’s developed skills that he can go out there and play for the Ravens in the secondary.”

To be fair, Levine’s opportunity to start wasn’t as much about improvement as it was about the Ravens’ injuries and attrition as the coaching staff didn’t anticipate throwing him into the fire this quickly until the Smith injury made the secondary’s issues even worse. After Levine practiced at safety in his first two years with the Ravens, defensive coordinator Dean Pees and secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo had moved him to cornerback in training camp when injuries to Lardarius Webb, Smith, and Asa Jackson left the secondary shorthanded.

It was a position at which Levine had worked some before, and he’s downplayed the change because of how comfortable he’s always felt backpedaling, a skill needed at both safety and corner. The 27-year-old really began turning heads a couple weeks ago while practicing with the scout team against the starting offense as Pees and Spagnuolo noticed how effectively he was competing against the likes of Steve Smith and Torrey Smith in coverage.

Meanwhile, cornerbacks higher on the depth chart such as Dominique Franks and Chykie Brown continued to struggle, culminating with Ben Roethlisberger’s six-touchdown performance in Pittsburgh on Nov. 2. Two days later, those two were cut and Levine received a text message from Spagnuolo saying to be ready to practice leading up to the Tennessee game.

“He just has run with it. He’s a confident guy that competes,” said Spagnuolo, who told Levine he was starting the morning of the Titans game. “He loves to practice and is passionate about the game. There’s not a guy out there he doesn’t think he can cover. That’s a good quality for a corner.”

Sharing time with newly-acquired veteran Danny Gorrer, the 5-foot-11, 203-pound Levine was strong in run support and did a fine job keeping receivers in front of him, allowing only one reception for 13 yards on three passes thrown his way in coverage. Despite the first-quarter struggles of the defense, Levine made his presence felt on the opening drive when he dropped running back Bishop Sankey on a stretch play for only a 1-yard gain.

The post-game locker room featured several teammates praising Levine as a hard worker who had done everything he could for the opportunity. While most media and fans expected Gorrer to be the one to start at cornerback in the buildup to the Tennessee game, Webb complimented Levine’s performance in practice without being prompted last week, a hint that the special-teams player just might be the next man up.

“We all know that Levine can make plays in practice against the top receivers, Steve and Torrey,” Webb said following the game. “That’s how he is in practice, he’s always going 110 percent on special teams — all phases of special teams — and playing defense. You have to look up to that. He did a great job doing everything. He’s a corner, he’s a playmaker.”

Those labels are different than what Levine’s used to hearing after years as a practice-squad member, special-teams contributor, and scout-team player who remained anonymous with most of the outside football world.

Though the Ravens will continue to face questions in their secondary week after week, Levine was able to provide an answer for at least one Sunday. And he earned another shot after the bye against a more imposing opponent in the New Orleans Saints to prove that he’s not just a special-teams player playing out of position.

“Sometimes you have to be careful of pigeonholing guys like that,” Pees said. “Give them an opportunity, [and] then it’s up to them to run with it. I just think that’s a credit to them when they get the opportunity to seize it.”

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Ravens-Titans: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 08 November 2014 by Luke Jones

Renewing what was once a fierce rivalry in the days of the AFC Central, the Ravens welcome the Tennessee Titans to Baltimore for their first meeting since the 2011 season.

In recent years, the Ravens and Titans have gone in opposite directions with Baltimore consistently being one of the better teams in the AFC and Tennessee not having made the playoffs since 2008. This season has been no different as the 5-4 Ravens are still in the playoff hunt despite losing two straight while the Titans have struggled to a 2-6 record under new head coach Ken Whisenhunt.

Coming off their bye, the Titans have lost six of seven and have handed the reins of their offense to a sixth-round rookie quarterback. In contrast, the Ravens hope to regain some momentum going into their bye as they try to find answers in the secondary following the season-ending loss of cornerback Jimmy Smith.

Sunday marks the 18th regular-season meeting between Baltimore and Tennessee with the Titans holding a 9-8 advantage. The series in Baltimore is tied 4-4 with Tennessee coming to M&T Bank Stadium for the first time since the 2008 season.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to improve to 6-4 and keep pace in the AFC North …

1. Lardarius Webb will record his first interception of the 2014 season. The Ravens surviving in the secondary would be easier if Webb begins playing more like he did a couple years ago when he was emerging as one of the best cornerbacks in the AFC before his second ACL injury. He acknowledged this week that he needs to step up his performance after moving back into a full-time role over the last month. The Ravens’ only interception in the secondary this year was made by Smith against Tampa Bay, but more opportunities will come against Zach Mettenberger and the rookie will be pressured into making a bad throw that Webb will take advantage of.

2. Titans defensive tackle Jurrell Casey will pick up a sack, but the Baltimore offensive line will bounce back from last week’s showing in Pittsburgh. The Ravens were poor in pass protection last week with Eugene Monroe, Jeremy Zuttah, and Kelechi Osemele all struggling against the Steelers’ rush, and Casey is one of the best 3-technique defensive linemen in the NFL. Slowing him will be a challenge, but Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda and Osemele will be ready as the Ravens will do a better job protecting Joe Flacco. The defensive front is one of the Titans’ biggest strengths, but the Ravens won’t be caught by surprise like they were with a turn-back-the-clock performance by James Harrison last week.

3. Justin Forsett will go over the century mark for the second time this year as the Ravens rush for a season-high 175 yards. Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak spoke earlier this week about the inability to run the ball as effectively against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, so expect the Ravens to try to exploit the league’s 28th-ranked run defense. Baltimore will be aggressive to establish a lead before turning it over to the running game with Forsett being the most trustworthy of the backs. In the first half of their last two games, the Ravens carried 30 times for 103 yards before needing to essentially abandon the run in the second half, but they’ll be effective running between the tackles throughout Sunday’s game.

4. Zach Mettenberger will throw two touchdowns, but the damage won’t come until the second half. Much like they did against Tampa Bay a few weeks ago, the Ravens will bring pressure and play strong defense in the first half to hold a sizable lead before loosening the reins in the final 30 minutes, which will lead to some opportunities for Mettenberger. The rookie has some decent weapons in tight end Delanie Walker and young receivers Justin Hunter and Kendall Wright, so Sunday will offer a low-pressure tuneup for the likes of Danny Gorrer and Tramain Jacobs in the secondary. A porous offensive line will make it a long first half for Mettenberger before the Ravens call off the dogs and sit back in coverage with a big lead.

5. The Ravens will feel better about themselves going into the bye week with a 31-16 win over Tennessee. This game might make you nervous if it were being played in Nashville, but the Ravens just don’t lose home games to bad football teams with rookie quarterbacks, which is what the Titans are. Playing in Baltimore will help Flacco and the offense bounce back after a couple rough weeks and the Ravens will take better care of the football. The secondary will have a respectable effort, but there won’t be much to take away from this game as the coaching staff will try to figure things out in the back end during the off-week. Their issues are obvious, but a 6-4 record still keeps the Ravens in decent position for a postseason run.

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Harbaugh expects Jimmy Smith to return “even better” next year

Posted on 07 November 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Expressing confidence that his secondary would move past the season-ending loss of Jimmy Smith, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh offered a few more details about the procedure the top cornerback underwent Thursday.

Smith visited orthopedist Dr. Robert Anderson in Charlotte, N.C. after the swelling had subsided in his left foot that was injured against the Cincinnati Bengals on Oct. 26. Further testing revealed Smith would not be able to return in 2014 as the Ravens hoped when Harbaugh initially said he’d miss a few weeks.

“Listen, I’m not a doctor. I go by what they tell me,” Harbaugh said. “A Lisfranc [injury] is a tear, I guess, in the ligament. There’s not a tear. There’s a stretch, and when the swelling went down, they did a weight-bearing exam. There’s more of a spread between the bones than they wanted, so more of a stretch than what they were hoping for. And when they put him under anesthesia and took a look at it, Dr. Anderson decided to go ahead and do the surgery.”

The loss of Smith is a major blow for a pass defense currently ranking 24th in the NFL and giving up 263 yards per game through the air. Opposing quarterbacks have posted a 94.0 passer rating against the Ravens, which is the 12th-highest in the league.

Several teammates expressed disappointment for Smith, who was blossoming into one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL this season after a strong, injury-free 2013 campaign. In eight games, the 26-year-old had registered 28 tackles, eight pass breakups, and an interception while opposing passers had completed just 20 of 39 passes for no touchdowns against him in coverage.

Fellow starter Lardarius Webb can relate to Smith’s misfortune after twice suffering season-ending knee injuries in his six-year career.

“I feel for him. I’ve been on the sideline before, looking in,” Webb said. “I know how much it hurts inside to want to be out there on the field. I just wish him luck and to get back healthy as soon as possible. And whenever he gets back, we’ll continue to be that great duo.”

Harbaugh was pleased with the work put in by the newly-acquired Danny Gorrer and recently-promoted Tramain Jacobs this week as they prepared to receive action in Sunday’s game against the Tennessee Titans.

But there’s no shying away from the loss of arguably the Ravens’ best defensive player this season and how big of a challenge it will be to compensate in the back end of the defense.

“I feel bad for Jimmy. We’ll be fine as a team. We’ll recover,” Harbaugh said. “We have good players at every position, and we’ll pick up the slack as a group and as a unit. We always do. That’s what you do. It’s happens all around the league. It’s just the way it is. It’s football. But I feel bad for Jimmy. He was having a great, great year. But he’ll bounce back, and he’ll be even better next year.”

Webb needs to step up

Webb expressed confidence that the secondary will bounce back from last Sunday’s 43-23 loss in which the Ravens surrendered six touchdown passes to Ben Roethlisberger, but he added that the improvement needs to start with himself.

After missing all of training camp and three of the first four games of the regular season, Webb is still working his way back to pre-injury form as he’s now the top healthy cornerback on the roster with Smith out. Opposing quarterbacks have posted a 105.0 passer rating against Webb in six games this year and he was burned for a long touchdown against the Steelers in Week 9.

“It’s OK, man. I’ve got to get better myself,” said Webb of his performance in 2014. “Speaking about the group, me first. I’ve got to get myself together, which I’m feeling good. We’ve just all got to get on the same page.”

Jackson on track to return

Harbaugh expressed confidence Friday that cornerback Asa Jackson is on track to return from a turf toe injury that landed the third-year defensive back on injured reserve-designated to return in early October.

Jackson is no longer in a walking boot and is eligible to return as early as Dec. 7 when the Ravens take on the Miami Dolphins. He made four starts earlier this season in the first defensive action of his career.

“I’m just doing everything to get better for that point,” said Jackson, who hasn’t played since Oct. 5. “When it gets there, we’ll see. I’m just working to get back for Week 14.”

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