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Ravens need to ramp up rushing attack in third preseason game

Posted on 24 August 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ideally, the Ravens would be putting the finishing touches on their 2017 preparations against Buffalo on Saturday night.

The third preseason game is typically the final tuneup for the starting units before they turn their sights toward the season opener in a couple weeks. The Baltimore offense instead remains in a concerning state of flux with several key players out once again against the Bills.

In fact, the Ravens could field an entire offense (see below) with players currently sidelined with injuries or already lost for the season, which tells you how difficult the last couple months have been for a group that already sustained some substantial losses in the offseason.

QB Joe Flacco
RB Kenneth Dixon
WR Breshad Perriman
TE Crockett Gillmore
LT Ronnie Stanley
LG Alex Lewis
C John Urschel
RG Nico Siragusa
RT Stephane Nembot
TE Dennis Pitta
WR Tim White

Of course, Flacco is expected to return to practice as soon as the beginning of next week, but his absence again makes it extremely difficult to evaluate the passing game. Even if backup Ryan Mallett improves from his uninspiring performance over the first two preseason contests, the Ravens will hope it’s the final time he’s seeing any meaningful playing time with the starters this season.

The focus should be on the running game. After hiring senior offensive assistant Greg Roman and new offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris to rebuild a ground attack that ranked 28th in rushing yards per game and 21st in yards per carry in the NFL last season, the Ravens need to see meaningful progress with four of their five projected offensive line starters expected to be on the field Saturday.

“Our run game, Joe D has done a great job, fantastic job,” said offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, who also praised Roman’s efforts to install a more downhill, physical attack. “You look at what that line has been through here recently — nobody has blinked. That’s big. We’ve got guys that have played multiple spots and continue to do that, and [they’re] playing pretty well there. That’ll be a big, big part of our football team if we can run the football against a really good defense.”

Despite positive remarks from Mornhinweg and head coach John Harbaugh this week, the Ravens have averaged just 3.5 yards per carry in the first half of their first two preseason games when starters and key backups have played. Considering six-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda has yet to see any preseason action and Stanley missed the Miami game, we can’t take much away from the first two games, but those numbers are all we have to go on so far and the running game wasn’t finding much room against a stout defensive front in training camp practices open to media.

Projected starter Terrance West has carried just 11 times on 21 yards in the preseason while backup Buck Allen has gained 61 yards on 18 rushing attempts. In addition to getting West into a flow ahead of the regular season, the Ravens must still figure out their fullback picture, which has included Lorenzo Taliaferro, rookie free agent Ricky Ortiz, and even defensive tackle Patrick Ricard.

On the offensive line, new right tackle Austin Howard needs to show improvement from his unimpressive preseason debut in Miami while Ryan Jensen must continue his solid work to hold off former starter Jeremy Zuttah for the center job. Unfortunately, the left side of the line is more complicated to judge with projected left guard James Hurst filling in at left tackle with Stanley still out.

The expected presence of Yanda on Saturday night hopefully allows the group to begin finding much-needed cohesion.

The Ravens made no secret in the offseason about their desire to revitalize a running game that’s been substandard in three of the last four seasons. That goal has become even more important with Flacco missing the entire summer and likely to be rusty going into the regular season.

Attempting more passes than any team in the NFL over the last two years hasn’t worked and will not be the winning formula for 2017.

“The history of the Ravens shows that you play great defense, you run the ball, you don’t turn the ball over, [then] you win and you’ll have a chance at the Super Bowl,” safety Eric Weddle said. “We’re going to show that and see where it takes us.”

With a defense showing great potential in 2017, the offense likely just needs to be average for the Ravens to have a good chance to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

We won’t learn much about the passing attack on Saturday, but the ground game making strides would make the Ravens feel much better with Flacco hopefully returning to the practice field next week.

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yanda

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2017 Ravens training camp preview: Offensive line

Posted on 26 July 2017 by Luke Jones

With training camp beginning this week, we’ll take a look at a position group for the 2017 Ravens every day as they aim to return to the postseason for the first time since 2014.

Quarterbacks
Defensive line
Running backs
Cornerbacks
Wide receivers
Linebackers
Tight ends
Safeties

OFFENSIVE LINE

Projected depth chart:
LT – Ronnie Stanley, De’Ondre Wesley, Roubbens Joseph
LG – Alex Lewis, Nico Siragusa, Jarell Broxton, Maurquice Shakir
C – John Urschel, Ryan Jensen, Matt Skura, Brandon Kublanow
RG – Marshal Yanda, Jermaine Eluemunor, Jarrod Pughsley
RT – James Hurst, Stephane Nembot

Why to be impressed: Even with a shoulder injury that forced him to move to the opposite side last season, the 32-year-old Yanda remained the standard at the guard position in today’s NFL and is Baltimore’s best offensive player. Stanley graded as Pro Football Focus’ most efficient pass blocker among rookie offensive tackles and is poised to be even better in his second year.

Why to be concerned: The Ravens lost above-average right tackle Rick Wagner in free agency and traded starting center Jeremy Zuttah without adding a veteran at either position or selecting an offensive lineman before Day 3 of April’s draft. As promising as Stanley and Lewis are, the pair missed a total of 10 games as rookies and are now being counted as the surest things the Ravens have beyond Yanda.

2017 outlook: The hiring of senior offensive assistant Greg Roman and new offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris shouldn’t be overlooked, but the three options who worked at center this spring were all behind the maligned Zuttah on the depth chart last year and Hurst has never come close to proving himself as an acceptable NFL starter. This is easily the Ravens’ biggest concern entering training camp.

Prediction: Yanda will make his seventh consecutive Pro Bowl, but at least one of Baltimore’s Week 1 starters on the offensive line isn’t currently on the roster.

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mornhinweg

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Ravens offense waits as defense receives substantial facelift

Posted on 23 March 2017 by Luke Jones

During Brandon Carr’s press conference this week, Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees was recalling how he’d sent a text message to John Harbaugh after the latest defensive signing was made when the head coach interjected.

“I got a text from Marty [Mornhinweg], too, by the way,” said Harbaugh about his offensive coordinator. “He thought it was a good signing, too — just for the record. We’ve got some work to do over there, too.”

That’s an understatement as general manager Ozzie Newsome has spent lucrative dollars and most of his salary-cap space to revamp a defense that still finished in the top 10 of most significant statistical categories last season despite its well-documented problems down the stretch. Meanwhile, an offense that ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in virtually everything in 2016 has last four starters and has added only 32-year-old running back Danny Woodhead, who is an intriguing talent but coming off a major knee injury.

Some have attempted to skew the 2016 narrative by pointing to a 27-point scoring output and the late defensive collapse in Pittsburgh on Christmas Day as justification for focusing on the defense this offseason, but that anecdotal evidence clouds the truth. The offense played at a high level only a few times all year while the defense — flawed as it was when cornerback Jimmy Smith wasn’t on the field — was the bigger reason why the Ravens were still in contention in Week 16. That’s not to say that improvements weren’t warranted on the defensive side — which still could use another edge rusher — but the offense was summarily broken all year and has only gotten worse since the season finale in Cincinnati. You can certainly be excited about the re-signing of nose tackle Brandon Williams and the additions of safety Tony Jefferson and Carr, but it’s fair to ask if some of those resources might have been better served addressing the offense.

To be clear, we know the start of the season is more than five months away, and Newsome and the Ravens are aware that they still have much work to do on that side of the ball. But with the first and second waves of free agency now in the books, Baltimore has fewer remaining channels — with the draft being the biggest one — to not only replace departed starters but find ways to markedly improve the offense. Of course, the margin for error is smaller without a dynamic offensive playmaker on which to lean.

Harbaugh sent a loud signal that the Ravens want to get back to running the ball at a high level by hiring senior offensive assistant and ground-game guru Greg Roman, but they need the horses in the trenches to do it. Otherwise, the offense will inevitably revert to Joe Flacco throwing more than 40 times per game, and we’ve seen how that’s worked out since Super Bowl XLVII.

The biggest objective must be to address the offensive line after the departure of right tackle Rick Wagner and the trade of center Jeremy Zuttah to San Francisco. Whether you believe Detroit overpaid for Wagner or not, replacing an above-average right tackle without meaningful drop-off will be very difficult unless new offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris has a trick up his sleeve.

Moving on from the underwhelming Zuttah wasn’t shocking, but they have to replace him with someone better or at least as good. There’s been little chatter about former New York Jet Nick Mangold to this point, and even if the Ravens eye a draft prospect such as Ethan Pocic from LSU, there are no guarantees of landing him in the second or third round. The Ravens could consider an internal candidate, but neither John Urschel nor Ryan Jensen inspire much confidence after their respective 2016 campaigns.

Finding a fullback to replace 2016 Pro Bowl selection Kyle Juszczyk shouldn’t be too difficult, but — like with Wagner — it may not be easy to do it without some drop-off.

Then, there’s wide receiver, that position we’ve discussed this time of year on an annual basis.

Baltimore lost its top two possessions receivers in Steve Smith and Kamar Aiken and elected not to sign any free-agent wideouts from a top tier that included Alshon Jeffery and Terrelle Pryor. Perhaps the next Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, or Smith will be acquired in the coming weeks, but one can only look to 2013 and 2015 as recent examples of the Ravens being underprepared at that position and it hurting them substantially. Even looking past the organization’s poor track record with drafting receivers, relying heavily on a rookie wideout is a risky proposition for any team.

You might be willing to give the Ravens the benefit of the doubt along the offensive line — after all, Wagner was mostly an unknown three years ago — but skepticism at wide receiver is justified, whether it’s March or September.

It’s been interesting to see how the offseason has played out to this point, starting with Harbaugh’s decision to retain Mornhinweg as his offensive coordinator despite showing little improvement taking over for the fired Marc Trestman. The team’s brass spoke at length at the season-ending press conference about needing to do whatever it takes to help Flacco play better in 2017, but a below-average offense from a year ago is currently standing at a net loss, putting heavy pressure on the front office and scouting department to nail next month’s draft and to find an under-the-radar free agent or two while also hoping that internal options take significant steps forward.

Otherwise, the Ravens will be needing a 2000-like performance from its revamped defense to have a real shot at getting back to the playoffs in 2017.

Yes, there’s plenty of time left, but many boxes remain unchecked.

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Ravens trade veteran center Jeremy Zuttah to San Francisco

Posted on 15 March 2017 by Luke Jones

(Updated: 5:05 p.m.)

Vowing to improve their offensive line after an 8-8 season, the Ravens have opened up another starting job a week after starting right tackle Rick Wagner departed via free agency.

After NFL Network reported earlier in the day that he would be released, center Jeremy Zuttah was traded to San Francisco after three seasons and 41 starts with Baltimore. The teams will swap their 2017 sixth-round picks, meaning the Ravens move up 12 spots from 198th to 186th overall on the final day of April’s draft instead of receiving nothing in what would have been a release. The trade came a few hours after former Ravens fullback Kyle Juszczyk lamented his teammate’s reported release on Twitter and suggested he would be a good fit with the 49ers.

Zuttah was chosen to play in the Pro Bowl as an alternate this past year, but the Ravens are aiming to have a more physical presence for the middle of their offensive line. His trade saves $2.4 million in salary cap space, but Zuttah becomes the fourth Week 1 offensive starter to exit since the end of 2016, joining Wagner, Juszczyk, and retired wide receiver Steve Smith.

The 6-foot-4, 300-pound Zuttah was graded by Pro Football Focus as the 13th-best center in the NFL and was ranked 26th in Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 system. Seeking an upgrade is an understandable goal, but it remains unclear how the Ravens will proceed as young linemen John Urschel and Ryan Jensen are the only internal candidates to replace Zuttah on the current roster.

Urschel started seven games in place of an injured Zuttah in 2015, but he played just 265 offensive snaps in 2016 despite plenty of unrest at the guard spots. Jensen made three starts at guard in 2016, but he appeared to fall out of favor as the season progressed. Of course, new offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris and new senior offensive assistant — and running game guru — Greg Roman may have higher opinions of these players than former offensive line coach Juan Castillo apparently did.

Many have speculated about the possibility of the Ravens pursuing seven-time Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold, but there has been little chatter linking the 33-year-old to any team after an injury-riddled season. The New York Jets released Mangold late last month, ending their 11-year union.

The 2017 draft isn’t considered to be rich in center talent, either, but among the top center prospects are LSU’s Ethan Pocic and Ohio State’s Pat Elflein.

General manager Ozzie Newsome has received praise for the re-signing of nose tackle Brandon Williams and the addition of safety Tony Jefferson on lucrative deals to help the Baltimore defense, but the league’s 21st-ranked scoring offense has endured several losses while 32-year-old running back Danny Woodhead has been the only addition to this point. And with the first wave of free agency over, the Ravens will likely be depending on the draft as the primary way to address most of their remaining needs on either side of the ball.

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DAlessandris

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Ravens hire D’Alessandris to coach offensive line

Posted on 19 January 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens have taken another step toward completing their coaching staff for the 2017 season.

On Thursday morning, head coach John Harbaugh announced the hiring of Joe D’Alessandris to coach the offensive line. He replaces Juan Castillo, who departed after four seasons last week to become Buffalo’s offensive line coach and run-game coordinator.

D’Alessandris is entering his 40th season in coaching and ninth in the NFL. This will mark the 38th season in which he has helped guide an offensive line.

“We had a number of very good, qualified candidates for this position, and we have the right fit with Joe,” said Harbaugh, who hired senior offensive assistant Greg Roman earlier this month to revamp the league’s 28th-ranked rushing attack. “He’s a hard-nosed, experienced coach, who is an excellent teacher. He’ll be able to work with our veterans to get the best out of them, and he’ll take our young linemen to higher levels.”

D’Alessandris last worked as the offensive line coach of the San Diego Chargers under former head coach Mike McCoy from 2013-2015. After spending the first 30 years of his career coaching at various colleges with two brief stints in the Canadian Football League, he was brought to the NFL by Chan Gailey, who initially hired D’Alessandris as his offensive line coach at Georgia Tech in 2002.

After spending two years as Kansas City’s assistant offensive line coach (2008-2009), D’Alessandris then served as Buffalo’s offensive line coach from 2010-2012.

In his first season with San Diego, the Chargers allowed the NFL’s fourth-fewest sacks and produced more than 100 rushing yards in 12 of 16 regular-season games. He was one of six coaches fired by McCoy at the end of the 2015 season.

“I feel very privileged and honored to come work with such a tremendous organization,” D’Alessandris said. “I very much look forward to the great opportunity of working for John Harbaugh and [general manager] Ozzie Newsome on an incredible staff.”

The Ravens have yet to officially fill their quarterbacks coach and secondary coach positions, but either of those jobs could still be addressed internally.

Below is a look at D’Alessandris’ coaching timeline:

Years College/Pro Team Position
1977-78 Western Carolina Graduate Assistant
1979-82 Livingston University Offensive Line
1983 Livingston University Offensive Coordinator & Offensive Line
1984-85 Memphis Offensive Line
1986-87 Tennessee-Chattanooga Offensive Coordinator & Offensive Line
1988-89 Tennessee-Chattanooga Offensive Line
1990 Ottawa (Canadian Football League) Offensive Line
1991-92 Birmingham (World League) Offensive Line
1993 Samford Offensive Line & Asst. Head Coach
1994 Texas A&M Offensive Line
1995 Memphis (Canadian Football League) Offensive Line
1996 University of Pittsburgh Offensive Line
1997-01 Duke Offensive Line
2002-07 Georgia Tech Offensive Line
2008-09 Kansas City Chiefs Assistant Offensive Line
2010-12 Buffalo Bills Offensive Line
2013-15 San Diego Chargers Offensive Line
2017 Baltimore Ravens Offensive Line

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