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Ten Ravens prophecies for the 2016 season

Posted on 10 September 2016 by Luke Jones

As many go through the exercise of making division-by-division forecasts, these predictions focus on the Ravens and their goal to return to the playoffs after the worst season in the John Harbaugh era.

A look back at last year’s predictions shows some were accurate (Kendrick Lewis didn’t make the impact the Ravens anticipated) and a few were embarrassing (predicted future starter Rashaan Melvin was cut before Halloween) as an overrated roster and a plethora of injuries contributed to a 5-11 season that no one truly anticipated. Regardless of the lack of accuracy, it’s fun to envision how the next four months could play out.

Below is a new forecast to mock and tear apart:

1. Seriously, Joe Flacco will finally be voted team MVP by the local media after reaching the 4,000-yard passing mark for the first time in his career.

I’ve predicted this three years in a row now, but a return from a serious left knee injury coupled with better weapons in the passing game will remind everyone how good Flacco can be. Questions remain about the running game and a revamped offensive line, but there is enough talent diversity in the passing game to expect the Ravens to be able to move the ball effectively through the air. Entering his ninth season, Flacco isn’t the type of quarterback you want to be throwing 45 times per game, but offensive coordinator Marc Trestman will give him more than enough opportunities to exceed 4,000 yards.

2. Steve Smith and Terrell Suggs will not match their 2014 levels of production, but both will augment their legacies with respectable comebacks.

Knowing exactly what to expect from a 37-year-old receiver coming off a horrendous Achilles injury and a 33-year-old pass rusher returning from his second Achilles tear in four years is impossible, but dismissing two players worthy of Hall of Fame consideration would be unwise. Baltimore doesn’t need Smith to be a 1,000-yard receiver, but he’ll contribute at least three or four catches every week while providing leadership to the young receivers. The defense is depending on Suggs at the rush linebacker spot, and he’ll play the run well and will be able to disrupt some quarterbacks with seven or eight sacks.

3. No Raven will reach the 10-sack mark for the second straight season.

The pass rush will be better than it was a year ago when it collected 37 sacks, but there’s still too much reliance on Suggs and Elvis Dumervil and a learning curve for younger options to completely fill that gap this year. This will be an important season for second-year outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith, but rookie fifth-round pick Matt Judon will show better production with seven sacks to create some optimism for the future. The overall depth of this group is improved from last season, but there won’t be that one guy who completely changes the complexion of a game.

4. Kenneth Dixon and Will Davis will become starters by the midway point of the season.

I’m concerned with the committee approach at running back and the run blocking off the offensive line under Trestman, but Dixon is their most talented back and should receive the most touches after he returns from a knee injury. The only concern is his health as the fourth-round rookie has missed time with three different injuries since being drafted. Davis elevated his play as the summer progressed and will be the first in line to replace the up-and-down veteran Shareece Wright. However, he is coming off ACL injuries to each knee over the last two seasons, making his health another question mark.

5. Eric Weddle will improve the communication in the secondary, but the pass defense will remain a weakness.

To say the Ravens have struggled at safety since the departure of Ed Reed would be an understatement. The organization has wasted early draft picks and free-agent dollars, but Weddle will stabilize the communication in the secondary. He would be the perfect addition to turn a good defensive backfield into a great one, but the talent level is suspect here with even doubts about top cornerback Jimmy Smith, who didn’t play well last year while feeling the effects of foot surgery. With only three interceptions over the last three years, Weddle isn’t a dynamic play-maker, but he will help minimize the big plays.

6. Ronnie Stanley will have one of the best rookie seasons in franchise history that no one will talk about.

Did you notice how little discussion there was about Baltimore’s first-round pick this summer? That’s an encouraging development for an offensive lineman, who’s only noticed by the masses when committing a penalty or giving up a sack. Stanley is bound to have a bump or two in the road over the course of his first season, but the Ravens are very pleased with the way the Notre Dame product has performed. It remains to be seen how the likes of Laremy Tunsil and Jalen Ramsey fare in their pro careers elsewhere, but Stanley has given general manager Ozzie Newsome no reason to think he didn’t make a strong choice.

7. Breshad Perriman and Zach Orr will be players to take a step forward.

The 2015 first-round pick won’t match Torrey Smith’s rookie production of 841 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, but he will average 17 yards per catch with five scores to give Flacco a young deep-ball threat to open up the intermediate portion of the field for possession receivers and tight ends. Orr is the latest former rookie free agent to become a starting inside linebacker for Baltimore, joining Bart Scott, Jameel McClain, and Dannell Ellerbe. He will do particularly well in coverage, which is what prompted the Ravens to use Orr in place of veteran Daryl Smith in the nickel defense late last season.

8. Kamar Aiken and Elvis Dumervil will be players to take a step back.

This isn’t at all a knock on Aiken’s ability, but it will be a result of diminished opportunity. Aiken really excelled when playing Smith’s position and running his routes in the second half last year, so you wonder how he’ll fit into the equation with the veteran returning to the field. There’s been mystery surrounding Dumervil’s offseason foot surgery and subsequent setback, but the Ravens need him to return sooner rather than later. After Dumervil handled a heavier workload out of necessity in 2015, the Ravens need to limit his early-down action to get the most out of the 32-year-old’s pass-rushing ability.

9. Marshal Yanda and Brandon Williams will be Baltimore’s Pro Bowl selections.

Yanda remained the best guard in the NFL last season and has quietly become one of the top players in the history of the franchise. His leadership and knowledge on the field and in the meeting room will be vital as the Ravens begin the season with a brand new left side of the offensive line. Meanwhile, Williams will finally receive the recognition he deserves as the best run-stopping nose tackle in the NFL. Of course, such an achievement will only increase his value approaching free agency as the Ravens will face the dilemma of how much to pay a defensive tackle who hasn’t shown great ability as a pass rusher.

10. A brutal final month will leave the Ravens with an 8-8 record that results in missing the playoffs for the third time in four years.

I never bought into the narrative of last season being all about the injuries, so it would be disingenuous to predict a dramatic turnaround in 2016. The Ravens are relying heavily on aging players at a few key positions and possess a young core that needs further additions and time to develop. This will be a better football team that will remain in the playoff hunt entering December, but road games against New England, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati over the final four weeks will be too much to overcome. Despite the optics of missing the playoffs for the third time in four seasons, the Ravens would be in good shape for 2017 if young players like Stanley, Perriman, and Dixon prove to be the real deal.

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Pitta set to play in first game for Ravens in nearly two years

Posted on 09 September 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens will welcome several players back to action on Sunday from season-ending injuries suffered last year, but no one’s return appeared as improbable as that of Dennis Pitta.

Having suffered a second dislocation and fracture of his right hip on Sept. 21, 2014 in Cleveland, the tight end’s career appeared to be over. But after two long years of rigorous rehabilitation and difficult decision-making, the 31-year-old will take the field against Buffalo for only his eighth game since Super Bowl XLVII.

Even the stoic Pitta anticipates some emotion as he takes the field at M&T Bank Stadium.

“I’m sure it will be,” Pitta said. “There was definitely a point in all of this that I had to accept the fact that I probably wouldn’t run out of that tunnel ever again. Being able to do that this Sunday will be emotional but very exciting for me.”

It was a strange summer for Pitta, who broke a finger in a camp scuffle with rookie linebacker Kamalei Correa on Aug. 1 and missed more than a month of action. The 2010 fourth-round pick looked good in spring practices and over the first few days of training camp, but it remains how unclear just how extensively offensive coordinator Marc Trestman plans to use him in the offense.

A strong rapport with close friend and quarterback Joe Flacco should minimize the challenge of Pitta’s extended training camp absence, but head coach John Harbaugh expressed disappointment late last month about the veteran missing valuable reps to regain his timing.

Pitta was listed as questionable on the final injury report of the week, but he was a full participant in practices this week.

“I’m feeling pretty fresh, actually. I’ve been through training camp a lot,” said Pitta, who returned to practice on Sept. 3. “Obviously, it’s tough to miss that amount of time, especially when I haven’t played in a while. I’ve gotten a week or so under my belt and I feel comfortable with everything that I’m doing. I feel good with where I’m at.”

Considering the nature of his second hip dislocation and fracture on an innocuous non-contact play in which he caught a short pass and collapsed simply trying to turn up the field, everyone will be holding their breath as Pitta admitted his wife, Mataya, and his parents remain nervous about him playing again.

Even a few weeks ago, his potential return was still considered more of a bonus with so much depth at the position, but veteran Benjamin Watson suffered a season-ending Achilles injury on Aug. 27 and young tight ends Crockett Gillmore and Maxx Williams have also dealt with ailments in their brief careers, creating more of an interest in Pitta’s presence. Flacco and the Baltimore passing game would certainly welcome his ability to work the middle portion of the field once again.

It’s quite a change from the general tone of much of the last two years.

Was there a particular moment that stood out along the way when Pitta thought his career was over?

“I think the second time I dislocated my hip was one of those instances where I thought, ‘Man, I don’t think I’ll be back out there,’” said Pitta, smiling and proving he still has his dry sense of humor. “For a long time after, I didn’t know how I would recover having done that twice. I didn’t know even if I would get to the point where I felt good enough to play again. It took a long time. Fortunately, now I’m in that position.”

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Ravens offense trying to turn potential into production in 2016

Posted on 07 September 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — This Ravens offense looks promising on paper.

Some observers have even dared to say this is the most talented collection of skill players in the history of the franchise. Of course, we know that bar isn’t all that high with Baltimore being much more known for its defense over the last two decades.

But that doesn’t mean ninth-year quarterback Joe Flacco is ready to call this the deepest group he’s had around him, either.

“I think that has yet to be seen,” Flacco said. “We have to go out there and prove that we’re weapons and that we can do it in live games on Sundays. I think it’s a very promising group and I’m very excited about it, but we have to go out there and prove it.”

It’s easy to be excited about the healthy returns of Steve Smith, Breshad Perriman, and Dennis Pitta as well as the additions of veteran free agent Mike Wallace and rookie fourth-rounder Chris Moore, but the most critical factor will be how well the offensive line performs with two new pieces on Flacco’s blindside. From the moment he arrived in Owings Mills this spring, first-round pick Ronnie Stanley has looked the part of a starting left tackle, but the regular season brings an even faster speed to which he’ll need to adjust.

Fellow rookie Alex Lewis may join him in the starting lineup after third-year guard John Urschel missed much of the summer with a shoulder injury. For either option at left guard, replacing the accomplished Kelechi Osemele won’t be easy and will make life for Stanley even more challenging.

That left side of the offensive line is sure to be tested right away by a Buffalo defense that looks undermanned but will try to throw the kitchen sink at inexperienced linemen. Bills head coach and former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan was very complimentary of both Stanley and Lewis on Wednesday, but he’s also aware of their inexperience and will try to exploit it.

“I’ve never seen it before where two [rookies] start on the offensive line because that is tough,” Ryan said in a conference call with the Baltimore media. “There’s so much to it. But those two guys I’m sure have done a great job studying and things. But it’s not easy, that’s for sure.”

The offensive line protecting Flacco in the pocket is a nonnegotiable prerequisite for success, but opening holes in the running game proved to be a problem last season as the Ravens rushed for an underwhelming 3.9 yards per carry. An offense regularly trailing in most of its games a year ago was predictably going to lean more on the pass, but offensive coordinator Marc Trestman struggled to commit to the ground attack even when opportunities were there.

We know Flacco is at his best as a passer when he has the support of a strong running game, and head coach John Harbaugh has made it clear that improving in that area is a must.

Trying to figure out how the carries will be distributed will be interesting as veteran Justin Forsett is still expected to begin the year as the starter, but both Terrance West and the presently-injured Kenneth Dixon figure to factor more heavily into the equation as the season progresses. It sounds fine to say you’ll use a by-committee approach, but there’s a fine line between giving multiple backs opportunities and allowing the right one to get into a rhythm.

That trio of backs along with 2014 fourth-round pick Buck Allen all have their strengths and weaknesses, but at least one will need to prove capable of being a No. 1 kind of talent when it matters most.

“In the end, wisdom is in the results,” Harbaugh said. “We will all be judged how well we run the ball as a group. My goal is for all those guys to have success running the ball. I think they all bring something different to the table, style-wise [and] ability-wise.”

The same general thought process applies at wide receiver and tight end where health is clearly a factor for the 37-year-old Smith coming off an awful Achilles injury last November and for the 31-year-old Pitta, who hasn’t played in a game in nearly two years and missed most of training camp with a broken finger this summer. Even if those two stay healthy to go along with the rest of the bunch, the challenge is there for Trestman and Flacco to spread the ball around in a way that’s most productive for the overall offense.

More options in the vertical passing game will ideally open up the short-to-intermediate portion of the field for Smith, Pitta, Kamar Aiken, and Crockett Gillmore, but that comes with the understanding that there will be times when the Ravens want to best utilize that speed with certain substitution packages.

Whether you’re a talented first-year player or a 16th-year receiver with Hall of Fame credentials, there’s no room for ego when trying to bounce back from a 5-11 season.

“You know you are going to get your plays, but you are also ecstatic to be able to clear it out and open it up for other guys,” Smith said. “[If] I go down and run a route to open it up for Mike and Mike catches it, then I’m on the hunt. I get to peel back on somebody and knock the s–t out of them. That is what I am excited about, so I can play my role for Mike and Mike can play his role.

“Anyone can catch the ball, but can you be a team player to clear it out and understand the integrity of the play and what you are supposed to be doing for the other guy? That is the ultimate team player right there.”

The Ravens signed Wallace to provide an established speed presence on the outside that the offense sorely lacked a year ago, but the wild card for the aerial attack is Perriman, who is finally healthy after two different knee injuries and flashed his ability in the preseason finale last week.

With a 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame and blinding speed, Perriman is the type of talent at the wide receiver position that the Ravens have lacked throughout their history. We still have no idea whether his talent and size will translate to NFL success, but general manager Ozzie Newsome selected him in the first round last year to help take this offense to a different level.

Patience will be key, but the Ravens hope Perriman can eventually be a major factor in transforming a solid offense into a great one.

“We haven’t had a ton of work together, but [we] just have to keep it simple,” Flacco said. “Hit him in the chest and give him the chance to make plays. I think the more plays that he’s given the chance to make, the more he’s going the make and the more his confidence is going to go up.”

It all sounds great and looks promising a few days out from the season opener, but the Bills will be the first team to give the Ravens offense a real idea of how good it is. Potential is there, but questions exist wherever you look, including with Flacco as he comes back from the first serious injury of his entire career.

The schedule sets up for a potential fast start with only one playoff team from last year on the docket before the Ravens hit their bye in Week 8. But how quickly will it all come together for an offense with several new pieces as well as familiar faces returning from injury?

“I think I know what to expect from these guys,” Flacco said. “I’m really just excited about getting out there and doing it and making sure that we do it — not just go out there and play around. I want to go out there and I want to play well. That’s what I expect from our guys, and I think that’s what everybody else expects, too.”

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Twelve Ravens thoughts on preseason win over Detroit

Posted on 28 August 2016 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens winding down the preseason with a 30-9 win over Detroit, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Solid in his preseason debut, Joe Flacco got rid of the ball quickly, which did disrupt the timing on a few throws. Such a strategy was hardly surprising in his first game back from a major knee injury, but it’s worth keeping an eye on this going into the season.

2. In 10 plays, Terrell Suggs registered two tackles and the Baltimore defense just had a different look and feel with him on the field. I’m not sure if that says more about the 33-year-old linebacker or the rest of the defensive personnel at this point.

3. He may not be ready for an every-down role, but rookie Matt Judon reinforced why he’s deserving of being a situational pass rusher in sub packages. He did impressive work against starting right tackle Riley Reiff and collected a sack, five tackles, and a pass defense.

4. Considered a threat to win the starting job entering the summer, Buck Allen was the last of the Ravens’ top four running backs to receive action and ran for just 15 yards on eight carries. Averaging only 1.9 yards per carry this preseason, he hasn’t impressed running between the tackles.

5. Injuries at safety gave Terrence Brooks the chance to go the distance on Saturday, but he dropped an easy interception and missed a couple tackles leading to big gains. He still hasn’t been able to put it all together despite looking the part on paper.

6. We’re now three games into the preseason and there are no signs that rookie Ronnie Stanley can’t handle protecting Flacco’s blindside after he more than held his own against Pro Bowl defensive end Ezekiel Ansah. It wasn’t a sexy pick, but Stanley is already looking like a gem.

7. A year ago at this time, Carl Davis looked like the early star of the 2015 draft class, but he continues to have a quiet preseason and failed to register a statistic in 18 snaps. His performance is especially concerning after he hit the rookie wall last year.

8. With the season-ending injury to Benjamin Watson, the coaching staff has to be watching Darren Waller and wishing he hadn’t drawn himself a four-game suspension. Other than a drop that led to an interception in the preseason opener, he’s flashed appealing upside at his new position.

9. Remembering his special-teams prowess, I never thought Anthony Levine was in real danger of not making the roster, but he added an interception and a sack on Saturday to go along with his late-game heroics in Indianapolis. Seeing him work as a dime back will be interesting.

10. The Ravens were wise not to risk playing Lardarius Webb due to back tightness since he’s had his healthiest summer in a few years. If he’s right physically, his tackling ability cannot be overlooked at the safety position and the Ravens can move him around a bit.

11. You couldn’t ask for more from Jeremy Butler in his quest to earn a roster spot, but it was interesting to note that he only participated in two plays on special teams. If he’s going to be active on game days, he’ll need to be a part of those units.

12. It was hardly surprising, but seeing Haloti Ngata recognized in the second half of Saturday’s game was still a special moment. Despite an unceremonious departure after nine years in Baltimore, the five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle and future Ring of Honor member deserved a big ovation.

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Depth being tested for Ravens before season even begins

Posted on 28 August 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The returns of Joe Flacco and Terrell Suggs and a 30-9 win over Detroit should have made Saturday a great night for the Ravens.

Instead, they were left with the familiar sting from the injury bug that bit them too many times in 2015.

Nothing really compares to the losses of a franchise quarterback and one of the top defensive players in franchise history — who both looked good in their first live-game action since last season — but injuries to veteran tight end Benjamin Watson and rookie running back Kenneth Dixon soiled what should have been a good feeling for the Ravens in the final real tuneup before the start of the 2016 season. Fortunately, the injuries come at positions where Baltimore has good depth, but you hate to lose play-making depth and potential before the season even kicks off, especially when coming off a 5-11 season in which there was a shortage of difference-makers on either side of the ball.

Watson suffered the more catastrophic injury as he suffered a torn right Achilles tendon on the first offensive play of the night, ending his first season with the Ravens before it even began. No one realistically expected him to duplicate his career season from a year ago in which he caught 74 passes for 825 yards and six touchdowns, but the Ravens thought Watson would bring veteran leadership and dependability to the position after he had missed a total of four games in his last seven seasons.

“He’s been a great teammate and was really developing into a weapon for us,” said Flacco, who’s often leaned on tight ends in the passing game throughout his career. “I was really excited about getting to play with him this year. That’s going to be really tough on us.”

Without Watson, a once-deep tight end group looks more uncertain with Crockett Gillmore, Maxx Williams, and Dennis Pitta all having struggled to stay on the field to varying degrees and second-year options Darren Waller and Nick Boyle facing suspensions to begin the regular season. With Williams and Pitta currently sidelined, you wonder if converted wide receiver and former practice-squad member Daniel Brown will now find his way onto the 53-man roster to begin the year.

Fortunately, head coach John Harbaugh said Dixon’s left knee injury does not look “overly serious,” but that doesn’t mean the 2016 fourth-round pick won’t miss some valuable time. It certainly didn’t look good when ex-Raven and Detroit defensive tackle Haloti Ngata buckled Dixon’s left knee making a tackle at the 1-yard line late in the first half, but a magnetic resonance imaging exam on Sunday will hopefully confirm the optimism expressed by the Ravens after the game.

Terrance West has received much of the attention for his improvement this summer, but the rookie Dixon looks like the running back most capable of hitting a home run whenever he touches the ball, a trait the Ravens have consistently lacked in the backfield since Ray Rice was in his prime. Dixon was the first young back to see action behind veteran starter Justin Forsett on Saturday, gaining 41 yards on six carries and catching one pass for nine yards before leaving the game just before halftime.

Dixon leads all Ravens running backs with 107 yards on 22 carries in the preseason and has displayed a different level of explosiveness from West, Forsett, or Buck Allen and shows surprising physicality for a 5-foot-10, 212-pound back, making his injury all the more disappointing for a team needing to get off to a fast start in 2016.

“It hurts seeing him go down because he’s in our room every day,” said West, who also had a good night with 43 rushing yards on seven carries against the Lions. “Everybody wants to play, but at the same time we care about each other. To see him go down, it hurts all of us.”

To be clear, these injuries won’t ruin the season as there are other options at each position to help pick up the slack.

But on a night when the Ravens were celebrating the much-anticipated returns of Flacco and Suggs, things just got more difficult again.

And, deep down, Harbaugh probably couldn’t help but think, “Here we go again.”

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Ravens-Lions preseason primer: Five players to watch

Posted on 26 August 2016 by Luke Jones

Our longest look at Ravens starters in the preseason will be our only look at some in Saturday’s game against Detroit on Saturday night.

The much-awaited return of starting quarterback Joe Flacco will be the dominating story in the “dress rehearsal” for the regular season, but head coach John Harbaugh would like to see a good showing from his starting units that likely will still be without the likes of Steve Smith, Breshad Perriman, and Elvis Dumervil. For a team that did more minor tweaking than overhauling after a 5-11 season, many questions remains.

“Either we’re going to be good or we’re not,” Harbaugh said. “It’s what we do, not what we say. We can talk about it all we want. I have reasons for optimism, and I have reasons for pessimism. It’s just going to matter how well we coach, how well we play.

“You have to do your part. Your part is to get better. Your part is not to stay the same. If you stay the same, you’re getting worse. If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse. You never stay the same. Your goal has to be to come out here and get better, and it’s hard to do.”

Most starters are expected to play the entire first half before giving way to younger players and fringe veterans fighting for roster spots. It will be a good opportunity for Flacco to get his first live-game reps with veteran newcomers Benjamin Watson and Mike Wallace, who have played very little in the preseason and have yet to register as much as a catch between them.

The Ravens will see a number of old friends across the field on Saturday night. Not only will five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata be making his return to M&T Bank Stadium, but fellow Super Bowl XLVII champions Anquan Boldin and Josh Bynes and former assistant coaches Jim Caldwell and Teryl Austin will be on the opposing side.

Flacco was asked whether he’d ask the 345-pound Ngata before the game to take care of him should the two meet in the pocket during Saturday’s game.

“I don’t think so,” said the 31-year-old quarterback as he laughed. “It will be interesting to see him. I’m used to seeing him over there [on defense during practices], but it will be interesting seeing him in some other colors for sure.”

Saturday marks the fourth time that these teams have met in the preseason with the Ravens holding a 2-1 edge to go with their 3-1 advantage in all-time regular-season meetings. Baltimore has built a 22-12 record in preseason games during the Harbaugh era.

Unofficial (and largely speculative) injury report

The Ravens are not required to release an injury report like they do for regular-season games, but I’ve offered my best guess on what the injury report would look like if one were to be released ahead of Saturday night’s game against Detroit.

Most of the players ruled to be out will come as no surprise, but the status of a few will remain in question. Of course, this list does not consider any veteran players who could be held out of the preseason opener due to the coaching staff’s preference.

Again, this is not an official injury report released by the Ravens:

OUT: WR Steve Smith (Achilles), WR Breshad Perriman (knee), TE Dennis Pitta (finger/hip), RB Lorenzo Taliaferro (foot), S Matt Elam (knee), DE Bronson Kaufusi (ankle)
DOUBTFUL: LB Elvis Dumervil (foot), LB Za’Darius Smith (ankle), CB Kyle Arrington (head), S Kendrick Lewis (undisclosed), TE Maxx Williams (undisclosed), G John Urschel (contusion)
QUESTIONABLE: LB Terrell Suggs (Achilles), DT Brandon Williams (undisclosed), WR Chris Matthews (soft tissue injury), CB Maurice Canady (hamstring), TE Darren Waller (jaw), CB Jerraud Powers (undisclosed)

Five players to watch Saturday night

LB Matt Judon

With other edge defenders expected to be sidelined against the Lions, the rookie fifth-round pick has a great opportunity to etch out a role as a rotational pass rusher if he can build on what he’s done in the first two preseason games against tougher competition on Saturday. Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Dean Pees have spoken highly of Judon’s combination of size and quickness, so it will be interesting to see how he fares against first-team blockers. The Ravens need someone to emerge as an impact pass rusher behind Suggs and Dumervil, and Judon has propelled himself into that conversation.

RB Buck Allen

The second-year back had a 19-yard touchdown reception in the preseason opener, but he’s carried the ball 10 times for only 20 yards and has no other receiving yards beyond that score. Allen has clear ability as a receiver out of the backfield, but you’d like to see him show more as a runner between the tackles after he averaged an unspectacular 3.8 yards per carry as a rookie. With Terrance West showing improvement as a rusher and rookie Kenneth Dixon looking like a potential change-of-pace back, the 2015 fourth-round pick is still waiting to make a statement of his own this summer.

CB Will Davis

While Shareece Wright and Jerraud Powers have struggled in the preseason, Davis is trending upward as he has looked healthier and quicker since struggling early in camp. The Ravens knew he had the ability to play on the outside, but he held up surprisingly well playing some slot cornerback against Indianapolis, which is something worth monitoring moving forward. The organization obviously thought enough of Davis to send a seventh-round pick to Miami last year, so it will be interesting to see if the 2013 third-round pick will climb the depth chart as he moves further away from knee surgery.

G Vlad Ducasse

The seventh-year veteran isn’t a lock to make the team, but the other options in the competition at left guard lack experience while he’s started 22 games over his career. His performance against the Colts wasn’t quite as stellar as it was against Carolina, but Ducasse figures to improve his chances with a strong showing against the Lions while third-year guard John Urschel is expected to be sidelined again. The Ravens don’t have great depth at tackle, but Marshal Yanda and Alex Lewis have the ability to play outside, meaning a guard like Ducasse could receive the nod over a reserve tackle like De’Ondre Wesley.

CB Tavon Young

A hamstring injury sustained in the preseason opener slowed a fast start to his first training camp, but Young figures to have a chance to show what he can do at the nickel spot while veterans such as Powers and Kyle Arrington are likely to be sidelined against the Lions. Despite only being 5-foot-9, Young has shown a nose for the football and impressive confidence for a rookie cornerback. At the very least, the Ravens are looking for him to be a major contributor on kickoff and punt coverage units and potentially as a kick returner, which remains an unsettled position on this current roster.

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Flacco ready to take final step toward football normalcy

Posted on 25 August 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — You can tell Joe Flacco is tired of talking about his left knee.

The Ravens quarterback understands the many questions, cordially answering each one. But he also hasn’t missed a practice rep all summer despite sitting out the first two preseason games as a precaution.

The 31-year-old downplayed Saturday’s game against Detroit carrying more significance than the many preseason games in which he’s participated over his nine-year career. Still, this is the longest Flacco has gone without playing in a competitive game since his collegiate days.

“I’m excited about it. It has been a while,” said Flacco, who expects to play most of the first half against the Lions. “Obviously, I had to go through a little bit to get here to this point to where I can go back out there and play with my guys. That is really what I’m looking forward to — just getting back out there in live action and being in a real huddle and just seeing everybody’s eyes and how excited they are to get after it.”

It will be Flacco’s final step toward football normalcy as the next time he’ll take the field will presumably be the season opener against Buffalo on Sept. 11. By then, many of the questions about his knee will likely be replaced with ones about how to beat Rex Ryan’s defense to get off to a 1-0 start in 2016.

Understandably, the Ravens will hold their breath to some degree until Flacco gets hit the first time — and gets back up. The last ninth months have been strange territory with a quarterback who’d never missed a game in his career until last November, but there was little upside to exposing Flacco in the first two preseason games, especially before knowing how rookie left tackle Ronnie Stanley would fare in his first live-game action.

The time is now to get the 31-year-old back out there.

“There’s really no doubt that he’s ready to play,” Harbaugh said. “But football is risky for everybody. That’s just the way it works. You have to weigh the benefits with the risk and put them out there. Joe is a quarterback. He’s not going to break. He’s going to play.”

The Ravens will surely be looking for signs of anxiousness from Flacco playing in his first fully-live pocket. Unlike training camp practices, he won’t be wearing a red non-contact jersey and the defensive front will be trying to hit him and hit him hard.

He’ll be entering new territory in his post-surgery world.

Will Flacco subconsciously pull away from under center too soon? Does he throw the football a split-second earlier than he should while standing in an imperfect pocket? Will he throw off his back foot — something he was already guilty of doing from time to time in his career?

These questions explain why Flacco needs to get his game legs back under him before Week 1.  The veteran may not view getting hit again as a desired rite of passage, but he knows it’s an inevitable part of the game.

“It would be great not to get hit,” said Flacco while cracking a smile. “I don’t need to get hit. But if I do, it is not a bad thing, either.”

Of course, Saturday isn’t just about getting Flacco back on the field. An offense with several new pieces needs time to gel and to build some momentum ahead of the season opener.

The Ravens not only need a healthy Flacco in 2016, but they need a better one than they saw last year when he threw 12 interceptions in 10 games before the injury. Saturday doesn’t need to be perfect, but a couple of crisp scoring drives would make Baltimore feel better going into the start of the season.

“Results are always important,” Harbaugh said. “If it’s important enough to go out there and put the guys in that situation, it’s important enough to do well. That’s the idea. We want to do as well we can.”

With plenty of questions on both sides of the ball yet to be answered, the Ravens will only thrive in 2016 with Flacco healthy and at the top of his game.

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For Ravens left tackle Stanley, not being noticed is good thing

Posted on 24 August 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Most teams would have trepidation starting a rookie at left tackle to block for a franchise quarterback coming back from a major knee injury.

But that fear doesn’t seem to resonate with the Ravens as Ronnie Stanley continues to go about his business in his first summer protecting Joe Flacco’s blindside. In fact, the 2016 first-round pick is hardly being discussed when coaches are grading the tape from daily practices.

The Ravens hope that continues with Flacco making his preseason debut against Detroit on Saturday night, his first start since tearing two ligaments in his left knee on Nov. 22, 2015. The organization wouldn’t have made Stanley their earliest draft pick in 16 years — or released veteran Eugene Monroe this summer — if they didn’t think he was up to the challenge.

“He has just really quietly gone about his business each and every day at practice,” said offensive coordinator Marc Trestman, who quipped that the only help he’s given Stanley was to suggest buying bonds. “He is very focused. There is not a lot of stuff going on outside of him just trying to do his job, and it is a really good sign. He has a good, quiet demeanor. He is working extremely hard.”

Questions remain as to who will ultimately replace free-agent departure Kelechi Osemele at left guard — with veteran John Urschel and rookie Alex Lewis being the top candidates — but Stanley has silenced any lingering questions about his readiness with a strong preseason. According to Pro Football Focus, the 6-foot-6, 320-pound lineman has graded as the best rookie tackle in the NFL and has yet to allow a pressure in the preseason.

Trestman gives much credit to offensive line coach Juan Castillo for getting Stanley to this point, but the Ravens made it clear early on that they felt the polished young tackle was a perfect fit for their outside zone scheme after he played in a pro-style offense at Notre Dame.

“There is nothing that tells you he can’t do this, and the game is not going to be too big for him and the spot is not going to be too big for him,” Trestman said. “That is an important spot, obviously. That is what we are seeing each and every day. We have to assess it and grade it each day and each game. We think he is going to grow into being an outstanding football player.”

Tougher test for Judon

Much of Saturday’s focus will be on veteran players seeing their most extensive action of the preseason, but the coaching staff wants to take a closer look at rookie outside linebacker Matt Judon.

Leading the Ravens in tackles (nine) and sacks (two) in the preseason, Judon has mostly faced second- and third-team offensive players, but head coach John Harbaugh said after Saturday’s win in Indianapolis that they want to put him against some starting-caliber competition. Standing at 6-foot-3 and 275 pounds, Judon plays with a style that reminds at least one member of the coaching staff a little bit of Terrell Suggs.

“He’s got pretty good burst coming off the edge for being big and physical,” said defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who also praised Judon’s mental preparation. “I think he’s going to grow into a big guy, kind of like ‘Sizz’ is. I wouldn’t compare him to [Suggs] in any way, shape, or form right now, but I think he’s that style of guy.”

Roster preview on Saturday

With final roster cuts less than two weeks away, the third preseason game often provides good insight into which fringe players are on the right side of the bubble.

Special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg mixes and matches quite a bit on coverage and return units to evaluate young players in the first two preseason games, but we’ll see the real groups — or close to them — in the first half on Saturday. Bubble players appearing on those units figure to have a better chance than those who are absent early on.

“What you will see is the player rotation will be different,” Rosburg said. “We will have guys like Albert McClellan, [who] hasn’t played a rep on special teams so far, and he is one of our best players. He is one of the best in the league. Zach Orr has not played a rep on special teams this preseason. Kyle Juszczyk [hasn’t played a special-teams rep. I could go on and on. The first two preseason games, we are trying to develop players. The third preseason game starts out more like a real game.”

Injury report

Twelve players remained absent from Wednesday’s practice, a group including nose tackle Brandon Williams, left guard John Urschel (contusion), tight ends Dennis Pitta (broken finger), Maxx Williams, and Darren Waller, safeties Kendrick Lewis and Matt Elam (knee), cornerbacks Kyle Arrington (concussion), Jerraud Powers, and Maurice Canady (hamstring), running back Lorenzo Taliaferro (foot), and defensive end Bronson Kaufusi (broken ankle).

Brandon Williams hasn’t practiced since playing in Saturday’s preseason game, but head coach John Harbaugh downplayed his unspecified ailment on Tuesday.

“He has a nick or a bruise,” Harbaugh said. “All of the guys that were out today — with the exception of Matt Elam — have non-season-threatening-type issues they’re dealing with. Brandon has one of those, so he’s out because he couldn’t practice.”

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Harbaugh frustrated by Pitta’s extended absence with broken finger

Posted on 22 August 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Three weeks have passed since Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta suffered what was originally deemed a minor finger sprain from a scuffle with rookie linebacker Kamalei Correa.

In fact, the injury was treated with humor by both Pitta and close friend and quarterback Joe Flacco.

It turned out to be much more serious, however, which explains the lengthy absence. Head coach John Harbaugh said Monday that a magnetic resonance imaging exam revealed that Pitta suffered a break in the finger, and he is still unable to catch passes or take part in practices. The training staff fears that another hit to the finger might require doctors to insert a screw in it, keeping him sidelined even longer.

The ninth-year coach said it was “absurd” that the Aug. 1 injury occurred in the first place.

“We want to get him out here running and in the [walk-throughs],” Harbaugh said. “I want to get him timed up with Joe, but he really can’t catch right now and he definitely can’t get his finger banged up. It’s ridiculous, it’s sad, and I’m disappointed about it.”

Harbaugh tried to find a positive by noting that the broken finger may have kept Pitta out of harm’s way from a more serious injury during training camp. The 31-year-old is trying to come back from two catastrophic injuries to his right hip and has appeared in just seven games since Super Bowl XLVII.

Already with a deep collection of tight ends on the roster, the Ravens need to see what Pitta can offer at this stage of his career after not playing in a game in 23 months. He appeared to be moving well in spring workouts and over the first few days of the summer, telling reporters that his surgically-repaired hip felt great.

“We have to get him and Joe timed up. That was really coming early on,” Harbaugh said. “It was really exciting to see, so we need to get him back as soon as we can. It’s not going to be this week. A bone has to heal before they can put him out there.”

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Twelve Ravens thoughts on preseason win over Indianapolis

Posted on 21 August 2016 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens continuing the preseason with a 19-18 win over Indianapolis, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The Ravens didn’t give up any first-half touchdowns, but the starting defense struggling again against the opposing first unit was disappointing as Andrew Luck completed all eight of his passes. The group tightened up in the red zone, but surrendered three long drives and missed too many tackles.

2. The second of those long drives was halted thanks to a forced fumble by Albert McClellan, who continues to make a good case to be Baltimore’s strong-side outside linebacker in early-down situations. He set the edge well and finished with three tackles.

3. John Harbaugh was displeased with 11 penalties for 91 yards, including three defensive pre-snap penalties in the first half that resulted in first downs. When you have a shortage of play-makers, it’s even more critical to play smart and disciplined football, something the Ravens failed to do last year.

4. After a terrible first quarter, the offense came alive with Kamar Aiken drawing a 41-yard pass interference flag and catching a 14-yard touchdown on a beautiful crossing route. I’m interested to see what Aiken’s role looks like with Steve Smith’s return, but he deserves his share of targets.

5. The Ravens re-signed Shareece Wright this offseason to be a starting cornerback and he was solid down the stretch of a lost 2015 season, but he remains shaky in coverage — even against the Colts’ second offense — and is the logical target for opponents to test in this secondary.

6. He has plenty of stickers on his suitcase as a journeyman, but Josh Johnson has performed better than anyone expected and has outplayed Ryan Mallett for much of the summer. Harbaugh acknowledged it now being a competition for the backup job, but I’d still be surprised if Mallett is unseated.

7. It was interesting to see Will Davis play quite a bit at slot cornerback in the nickel, especially after Jerraud Powers struggled for the second straight week. Normally an outside corner, Davis made some plays inside and finished the game with five tackles and a sack.

8. Despite being a versatile backup, center Ryan Jensen had arguably the most embarrassing play of the evening when he was completely pancaked back into running back Kenneth Dixon on a third-and-goal play from the 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter. Not a good look.

9. Rookie edge rusher Matt Judon impressed for the second straight week, collecting another sack and showing a promising combination of strength and quickness. The Grand Valley State product is still raw, but you can see why the Ravens were so happy to land him in the fifth round.

10. Known for his deep-threat ability at Cincinnati, Chris Moore ran crisp routes and showed strong hands in catching three passes for 20 yards after missing the preseason opener with a foot injury. With Breshad Perriman’s Week 1 status remaining in doubt, Moore becomes more interesting in this offense.

11. Credit the NFL last year for adopting the college rule allowing the defense to run back a conversion try for two as Anthony Levine did to win the game. It’s a rare play that might occur only once or twice a year around the league, but what excitement it brings.

12. Sitting Joe Flacco again was probably the right move, but the third preseason game now carries more importance than normal for the Ravens. With so many starters playing so little this summer, it’s hard to get a feel for just how good this team will be in 2016.

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