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Season-opening win for Ravens brings different feeling

Posted on 11 September 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The results of the first week of the season can often be fool’s gold.

Even the mighty New England Patriots lost Week 1 contests in three of their five Super Bowl championship campaigns this century. In 2003, they were embarrassed in a 31-0 final at Buffalo before winning 17 of their next 18 games while the Bills would finish with a 6-10 record. That’s why no one with a brain is counting them out despite being beaten by Kansas City in decisive fashion at home last Thursday night.

Cincinnati will try to lean on that example after being dominated by the Ravens in a 20-0 final at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday, but Baltimore hopes its first season-opening shutout since 2006 is a sign of better things to come after missing the playoffs in three of the last four years.

Of course, it was only last year that the Ravens won their first three games before finishing with an underwhelming 8-8 mark. But Sunday’s victory over the Bengals brought a different feeling, the kind that tempts observers to want to rethink their expectations for the new season.

Having not won in Cincinnati in nearly six years, head coach John Harbaugh and his team would have taken a victory no matter how close the score. Winning ugly is always better than losing with style, but a 13-12 final probably wouldn’t have sparked much enthusiasm beyond the typical satisfaction of any victory.

We just haven’t seen the Ravens overwhelm any opponent like that on the road in quite some time. In fact, it was just the third time since Super Bowl XLVII — and first since 2014 — that they won a regular-season away game by more than one possession, a telling reflection of their struggles away from M&T Bank Stadium in recent seasons.

They earned their first shutout since 2009, a stretch of time that contained some still-formidable defenses that included future Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Perhaps a brutal offensive line will reveal the 2017 Bengals to be an outfit more closely resembling the Cleveland Browns than a playoff contender as the season progresses, but let’s not pretend the Ravens have blown out the perennial doormats of the AFC North in recent road meetings, either. Simply put, trying to make the final outcome all about the shortcomings of Andy Dalton and the Bengals sells the Ravens short for their sensational defensive work that included five sacks and five takeaways.

We know the Baltimore offense remains a significant work in progress, but the running game was effective enough Sunday to complement the superb defense as a rusty Joe Flacco didn’t even have to complete a pass in the second half. That exact formula won’t work every week, of course, but a similar model carried the 2008 Ravens to the AFC championship game when Flacco was a rookie starter.

And while it’s way too premature — and unfair — to begin making comparisons to the 2000 Ravens, that was the blueprint for the franchise’s first Super Bowl championship team. You didn’t have to squint too hard to see a Trent Dilfer-like performance from Flacco on Sunday even though the overall expectations are obviously much higher for one of the highest-paid players in football.

It could all prove to be fool’s gold, but perhaps the Ravens defense can be really special while the offense improves over the course of the season. Or maybe the Bengals are just that bad. Or it’s some of both.

Only time will tell, but Sunday brought a feeling not experienced in these parts in quite some time. And you can’t blame Ravens fans for hoping it signals a return to being a serious contender after recent years of mediocrity.

Humphrey earning playing time

Rookie first-round cornerback Marlon Humphrey didn’t receive extensive preseason action until the finale in New Orleans, but that didn’t stop defensive coordinator Dean Pees from using him in Week 1.

The Alabama product provided a bit of relief to starters Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr in a way you typically see defensive linemen and edge rushers rotated over the course of a 60-minute game. Humphrey didn’t record an official defensive statistic, but he did make a favorable impression in limited work.

“I thought Marlon played really well. He definitely earned more snaps,” Harbaugh said. “He played nine plays on defense and played really well on special teams. I would say he earned more snaps. He played well. All corners played exceptionally well.”

Smith, Carr, and nickel corner Lardarius Webb all recorded interceptions in the blowout victory.

Timeshare at inside linebacker

Starter Kamalei Correa registered a tackle for a loss and former undrafted free agent Patrick Onwuasor tipped the Dalton pass intercepted by Carr in the first quarter in what amounted to a timeshare at the weakside inside linebacker spot next to C.J. Mosley.

Correa played 27 defensive snaps compared to 20 for Onwuasor, but the lion’s share of the work at that position remains up for grabs as the defense tries to fill the void left behind by the retired Zach Orr.

“If they’re both playing at a Pro Bowl level, then you play them both,” said Harbaugh, who added that rookie Bam Bradley is also in the mix. “If one of them starts to separate from the other, then one would take the job. I’d like to see one of them playing at a Pro Bowl level. Neither of them are doing that right now. But they’re both playing well enough to win.”

Injury updates

Harbaugh provided no definitive outlook on the injuries sustained by running back Danny Woodhead and outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith in the first half of Sunday’s win as both underwent MRI exams.

Woodhead is expected to miss some time after suffering a hamstring injury — the same ailment that kept him out for much of the summer — while Smith’s announced knee sprain may not be as serious as initially feared when he was carted to the locker room.

“We know it is not a structural knee thing,” Harbaugh said. “I think I know that. We think we know that, but we will know for sure once he gets out of the MRI.”

The absence of Woodhead could prompt the Ravens to promote a running back from the practice squad as former Chicago Bears starter Jeremy Langford and former Seattle Seahawk Alex Collins joined the organization last week. Terrance West and Buck Allen are the only healthy tailbacks on the current 53-man roster.

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Ravens lose versatile linebacker McClellan for season

Posted on 28 August 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens have lost one of their best special-teams players and a versatile linebacker as veteran Albert McClellan sustained a season-ending knee injury last week.

Head coach John Harbaugh announced Monday that the 31-year-old tore his ACL in a non-contact play at practice last Wednesday. The team initially hoped the injury was not as severe before a magnetic resonance imaging exam confirmed the tear.

“He’ll be with us next year,” Harbaugh said. “It provides a great opportunity for a couple of these young linebackers who have played well on special teams.”

Originally an undrafted free agent from Marshall who spent the entire 2010 season on the practice squad, McClellan has started only 24 games in his career, but he’s been a pillar on special teams since 2011 and has played all four linebacker positions. McClellan started 11 of his 16 games last season, collecting a career-high 52 tackles and one sack.

He led the Ravens in special-teams stops in 2011, 2013, and 2014 and finished tied for second in 2015.

His versatility is valued on game days when there are only 46 active players and few backups within each positional group. The injury leaves former rookie free agent Patrick Onwuasor as the primary reserve behind projected starting inside linebackers C.J. Mosley and Kamalei Correa. It also improves the chances of an undrafted rookie such as Bam Bradley or Donald Payne to make the 53-man roster, but McClellan’s loss may prompt general manager Ozzie Newsome to seek veteran depth at the position.

The Ravens have now lost 10 players for the season since the beginning June, a list that includes cornerback Tavon Young (knee), tight ends Dennis Pitta (hip) and Crockett Gillmore (knee), running back Kenneth Dixon (knee), guards Alex Lewis (shoulder) and Nico Siragusa (knee), and wide receiver Tim White (thumb). Baltimore also lost tight end Darren Waller to a one-year drug-related suspension and fourth-year offensive lineman John Urschel to a surprising retirement at the start of training camp.

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Ravens-Bills preseason primer: Five players to watch

Posted on 25 August 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens defense enters Saturday’s preseason game against Buffalo having lived up to very lofty expectations through the first two exhibition contests.

First in the NFL in points per game allowed, rushing yards per game allowed, passing yards per game allowed, and total yards per game allowed, Baltimore knows preseason success doesn’t automatically translate to the regular season, but playing this well sure beats the alternative. Just ask the injury-riddled offense that has more questions than answers at this point.

“The whole idea of us going into this year was that we want to be a great defense and we want to finish,” said defensive coordinator Dean Pees, whose unit struggled mightily in the final month of the 2016 season. “You have to start to finish. I would rather have a good start than a bad start and be sitting there worried about a bunch of stuff. But I’m still worried about it.

“To say it doesn’t mean anything — I think coaches tell you that — I think that is crap. You want to go out there and you want to play well every day and every week no matter who is on the field.”

Viewed as the dress rehearsal for the start of the regular season, the third preseason game typically involves starters playing the entire first half. However, with the Ravens already dealing with a plethora of injuries, the plan might be different against the Bills.

Head coach John Harbaugh didn’t offer many specifics on what to expect.

“We just have a plan for this year that we are sticking with,” Harbaugh said. “It does not really compare to any other year. You never really know. Different guys have different situations. It is more individualized probably than ever before. You play guys according to their needs.”

Saturday marks the first time since 2003 that the Ravens and Buffalo have met in the preseason with the Bills having won two of the previous three exhibition contests. These teams met in the 2016 season opener with the Ravens winning 13-7 at M&T Bank Stadium.

Baltimore owns a 26-12 record in preseason games under Harbaugh.

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’s game.

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

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

OUT: QB Joe Flacco (back), WR Breshad Perriman (hamstring), OT Ronnie Stanley (undisclosed), CB Maurice Canady (knee), RB Kenneth Dixon (knee), OL Nico Siragusa (knee), CB Tavon Young (knee), OL Alex Lewis (shoulder), WR Tim White (thumb)
DOUBTFUL: CB Marlon Humphrey (hamstring), RB Danny Woodhead (hamstring), CB Brandon Boykin (undisclosed), OT Stephane Nembot (undisclosed), LB Donald Payne (undisclosed)
QUESTIONABLE: G Marshal Yanda (shoulder), CB Sheldon Price (shoulder), WR Quincy Adeboyejo (knee), LB Albert McClellan (undisclosed)

Five players to watch Thursday night

LB Tim Williams

After struggling in the preseason opener against Washington, the third-round pick from Alabama showed off his pass-rushing skills against Miami with a sack and two quarterback hits. Williams has a long way to go to be an every-down linebacker, but the Ravens need players who can get to the quarterback off the edge and he can still carve out a role as a situational pass rusher.

RB Buck Allen

The third-year back looked like he’d face an uphill battle to make the roster several weeks ago, but injuries have afforded him more chances and he’s run with more urgency this summer. Though Terrance West is still projected to be the starter, senior offensive assistant Greg Roman likes to have more than one back involved in the ground game and Allen has rushed for 61 yards on 18 carries this summer.

CB Sheldon Price

Hampered by a shoulder issue for a good portion of the summer, Price is trying to solidify a spot on the 53-man roster and his 6-foot-2, 198-pound frame is ideal for an outside corner. The current absence of 2017 first-round pick Marlon Humphrey helps Price’s case, but rookie free agent Jaylen Hill has all but locked up a job at this point, making it critical for Price to play well in the last two preseason games.

C Jeremy Zuttah

The Ravens needed depth after losing their starting left guard and two other interior options, but Zuttah must prove he can hold up in Roman’s schemes that are more downhill and physical. The fact that Zuttah was released by San Francisco five months after being traded there means he has essentially been cut twice since March and he needs to play with a chip on his shoulder if he wants to unseat Ryan Jensen.

LB Bam Bradley

The reviews for Kamalei Correa at inside linebacker have been mixed, but the Ravens don’t have many alternatives at the position. The 237-pound Bradley has more bulk than special-teams standout Patrick Onwuasor and has played well this preseason, making him one of several undrafted free agents who remain in the conversation for a spot on the 53-man roster.

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Ravens-Dolphins preseason primer: Five players to watch

Posted on 16 August 2017 by Luke Jones

At a time when many teams are in fine-tuning mode, the Ravens offense remains in flux entering the second preseason game against Miami on Thursday night.

As if the extended absence of quarterback Joe Flacco weren’t concerning enough, injuries have ravaged an offensive line that entered training camp already facing significant questions. Three interior linemen — Alex Lewis, John Urschel, and rookie Nico Siragusa — have been lost for the season since the start of training camp, and left tackle Ronnie Stanley is currently sidelined with an undisclosed ailment.

The injuries have forced Baltimore to shuffle the group on nearly a daily basis, making it difficult to assess a running game that has been revamped by senior offensive assistant Greg Roman or the pass protection that will need to be even better for a quarterback who will be returning from a back injury.

“We are just going to have to build everything around it, but you do benefit from the fact that guys are working different positions,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “There is an unintended benefit. That would be something you are trying to get guys to do. We have been forced to get guys to [work at other positions] probably more than we would like. We will make it work, and in the end, it will be for good.”

Against the Dolphins, the offense will hope to approach the high level of success enjoyed by the Ravens defense in the preseason opener. The revamped unit held Washington to 47 total yards and no points in the first half of the 23-3 victory last week. Harbaugh confirmed that 2017 first-round cornerback Marlon Humphrey will make his preseason debut against the Dolphins, adding even more intrigue to the defense.

Though the Ravens offense realistically needs to be graded on a curve with backup Ryan Mallett under center and the offensive line less than 100 percent, Harbaugh made it clear that he wants to see improvement from the 3.3 yards per play gained against the Redskins in the first half.

“It is an opportunity for young guys to go in there and play well,” Harbaugh said. “We want to be as precise as we can be with our passing game, and we want our backs to run hard.”

Thursday marks the first ever meeting between these AFC teams in the preseason, but the all-time regular-season series is tied at 6-6. Baltimore won in 38-6 blowout fashion over Miami last December and has prevailed in five of the last six clashes in the regular season. They will meet again in a Thursday night game at M&T Bank Stadium on Oct. 26.

The Ravens own a 25-12 record in preseason games under Harbaugh.

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 Thursday’s game.

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 veterans 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: QB Joe Flacco (back), WR Breshad Perriman (hamstring), WR Kenny Bell (hamstring), CB Maurice Canady (knee), RB Kenneth Dixon (knee), OL Nico Siragusa (knee), CB Tavon Young (knee), OL Alex Lewis (shoulder), WR Tim White (thumb)
DOUBTFUL: OT Ronnie Stanley (undisclosed), OT Stephane Nembot (undisclosed), LB Lamar Louis (undisclosed)
QUESTIONABLE: OT Austin Howard (shoulder), G Marshal Yanda (shoulder), CB Brandon Boykin (undisclosed), CB Sheldon Price (shoulder), WR Quincy Adeboyejo (knee)

Five players to watch Thursday night

OL James Hurst

After entering camp as the starting right tackle and moving to left guard in place of Lewis, Hurst is expected to start at left tackle with Stanley sidelined. Despite his immense struggles there in the past, he needs to show improvement protecting the blind side since Lewis was also the backup left tackle. The Ravens love Hurst’s work ethic and believe he’s improved, so the Miami front will be an important test.

LB Kamalei Correa

Lost in the terrific defensive performance last week was the quiet play of Correa, who struggled to get off blocks and made one tackle in 17 defensive snaps. He looks the part in practice, but that needs to translate to games to ease concerns about the 2016 second-round pick replacing Zach Orr. The Ravens are poised to play more dime this year, which should help spare Correa from being exposed in coverage.

TE Maxx Williams

It’s been a quiet camp for the 2015 second-round pick, who is coming off a knee cartilage surgery that’s clouded expectations. Williams has worked hard to push his way through practices on a daily basis, but he hasn’t moved well and has struggled to make plays. You want to give him more time and the benefit of the doubt coming back from such a procedure, but his 21 plays last week weren’t encouraging.

CB Jaylen Hill

Long-term injuries to Tavon Young and Maurice Canady have opened the door for Hill, who has looked the part as a nickel corner with a good chance to make the roster as a rookie free agent. He’s shown good ball skills and reminds you a bit of Young as a 5-foot-10, 178-pound corner who plays bigger than his slight stature. Lardarius Webb appears likely to play the nickel spot, but Hill is definitely in the mix.

FB Ricky Ortiz

The reviews for Lorenzo Taliaferro at fullback have been underwhelming while Ortiz quietly received more than twice as many offensive snaps in the opener. The Ravens may not have a desperate need for a traditional fullback with the way Roman often motions a tight end into that position, but the Oregon State product will try to prove himself before outside options are potentially considered.

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2017 Ravens training camp preview: Linebackers

Posted on 24 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

Projected depth chart:
RUSH – Terrell Suggs, Za’Darius Smith, Tim Williams, Randy Allen
MIKE – C.J. Mosley, Albert McClellan, Boseko Lokombo, Bam Bradley
WILL – Kamalei Correa, Patrick Onwuasor, Lamar Louis, Donald Payne
SAM – Matt Judon, Tyus Bowser, Brennen Beyer

Why to be impressed: Suggs remains the heart of the Baltimore defense, but Mosley made two Pro Bowls in his first three years and is positioned to become the long-term leader of the unit. Aiming to revamp the pass rush this offseason, Ozzie Newsome drafted Bowser and Williams to give the Ravens a total of four edge candidates under age 25 — Judon and Smith being the others — to work with Suggs.

Why to be concerned: The Ravens have not added a veteran inside linebacker to help fill the void left behind by Zach Orr and will be counting on Correa, who played a total of 48 defensive snaps as a rookie. So much youth looks great on paper, but Baltimore edge defenders not named Terrell Suggs have combined for 13 1/2 career sacks with the versatile McClellan accounting for three of those takedowns.

2017 outlook: There is plenty of intriguing upside in this group, but the Ravens need Suggs to continue fighting off Father Time in his 15th season and Judon and Smith to be productive while the likes of Bowser and Williams get their NFL feet wet. The presence of new strong safety Tony Jefferson could factor into the equation if Correa isn’t up to the challenge of being a three-down inside linebacker.

Prediction: The Ravens won’t have a single player with double-digit sacks for the third straight season, but four linebackers will record five or more in 2017.

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Correa trying to find niche with Ravens at inside linebacker

Posted on 14 June 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Expectations were high for Kamalei Correa when the Ravens selected him in the second round of the 2016 draft.

With Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil coming off respective Achilles tendon injuries and veterans Daryl Smith and Courtney Upshaw no longer on the roster, Correa looked like a good bet at this time a year ago to see meaningful action as a rookie in the Baltimore defense. Of course, that wouldn’t be the case as he would play only 48 defensive snaps and struggled to grasp the Ravens system.

In an impressive draft class that produced three first-year starters in Ronnie Stanley, Alex Lewis, and Tavon Young, Correa became an afterthought with former undrafted free agent Zach Orr emerging to take Smith’s inside linebacker position and leading the Ravens in tackles after the two had competed for the starting job in the spring and early summer. A year later, Orr’s unfortunate retirement due to a rare congenital spine condition has opened the door for Correa to win a starting spot.

“I learned a lot. The NFL is not like college football, and that was hard,” Correa said. “My playbook expanded. I didn’t really play special teams in college, so that was tough. I think it was just a huge learning year. Year 1 and Year 2 is such a big difference. I feel like in Year 2, you know what to expect, you know what is coming, you know your playbook a little more.

“In actuality, it really allows you to play faster. When you play faster, you start making plays, and when you start making plays, you are going to stay on the field.”

Correa was considered by most to be an edge defender with pass-rushing ability following his standout career at Boise State, but the Ravens elected to cross-train the rookie at all four linebacker positions. That’s hardly an uncommon practice with teams limited to 46-man rosters on game days, but Correa struggled to learn the many layers of the defense and didn’t embrace playing special teams, causing his plunge down the depth chart after initially turning heads in spring workouts.

He saw very limited action at outside linebacker last year, but the organization now views the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Correa’s best fit at inside linebacker. Despite checking off a number of other boxes with notable additions to the defense this offseason, general manager Ozzie Newsome has not added a veteran inside linebacker, a show of faith that Correa can handle Orr’s old weak-side inside linebacker job.

The reviews for the start of the 23-year-old’s second NFL season have been favorable.

“We have kind of honed him into one spot, and he is really working hard at that and really learning that spot,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “I think he’s been moving around great. You can never know about the running game too much in [organized team activities] and minicamp because you don’t have pads on. You have to be really careful and not be banging people.

“As far as where he fits and knowing his responsibilities and assignments and all that kind of stuff, I am very, very pleased with him at this point.”

Correa still leans on veterans C.J. Mosley and Albert McClellan to help refine his knowledge of coverage concepts and understanding where his help is coming from within the defense, but the young linebacker says he feels more like himself and is having more fun this season after struggling to find his way a year ago. Though acknowledging that trying to learn so many positions a year ago probably hurt his development, he placed the blame solely on his shoulders for not living up to expectations as a rookie.

And he believes the trials of his rookie season will only make him a better player in the long run.

“They picked me for a reason. I am here, I can do it. So, why not be me?” Correa said. “I just started to go to work, I put my best foot forward, I am letting the cards fall out on the table as it is, and I let them make the calls up there on who is playing. I just have to do my job and make plays.”

 

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Five questions for start of Ravens organized team activities

Posted on 23 May 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens now holding their first week of organized team activities and opening up Thursday’s workout to the media, below are five questions surrounding John Harbaugh’s team in late May:

1. What will the offensive line look like?

Many have said the Ravens are returning to their roots with such an offseason focus on improving their defense, but the accompanying thoughts of relying on the running game have come without any high-profile additions to an offensive line that no longer sports above-average right tackle Rick Wagner or center Jeremy Zuttah. Is John Urschel or Ryan Jensen even as good as Zuttah, let alone better? Is there a real solution at right tackle in a motley crew of candidates that includes James Hurst, Jermaine Eluemunor, De’Ondre Wesley, and Stephane Nembot? The biggest wild card could be where Alex Lewis ends up despite an internal belief at the end of last season that his best position was left guard. New senior offensive assistant Greg Roman and new offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris deserve the chance to leave their mark on this group, but you need a dominant offensive line to play ball-control football and the Ravens have a long way to go to prove they can have that kind of a group.

2. Are the front office and coaching staff really this confident in their wide receivers?

This offseason feels similar to 2013 when veteran Anquan Boldin was traded away for a sixth-round pick and nothing meaningful was done to replace him, leading to substantial problems for quarterback Joe Flacco and the passing game. There is no shortage of speed with Mike Wallace, Breshad Perriman, and Chris Moore, but who is going to be that short-to-intermediate receiver who moves the chains and makes tacklers miss like Steve Smith did over the last three seasons? With general manager Ozzie Newsome having not signed a free-agent wideout to this point and not taking one in last month’s draft, it’s become clear that the Ravens are counting on Perriman to live up to his first-round billing and Moore to emerge as another gem from last year’s impressive fourth-round haul. No matter how the likes of Perriman, Moore, and Michael Campanaro look practicing in shorts over the next few weeks, however, it remains almost inconceivable that the Ravens are again going down this path at this position.

3. How will new safety Tony Jefferson be used?

A four-year, $34 million contract is awfully rich for a traditional strong safety, so the bet here is that Jefferson will be deployed in a way unlike any other safety we’ve seen during defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ tenure. With the re-signing of veteran safety Lardarius Webb and the uncertainty at the weak-side inside linebacker spot due to the unfortunate retirement of Zach Orr, it makes sense for the Ravens to use the dime as their primary sub package with Jefferson essentially lining up as a hybrid linebacker in passing situations. His greatest strengths in Arizona were the ability to stop the run and to cover tight ends, which are critical responsibilities for a linebacker in a more conventional nickel alignment. Considering Webb played well in the second half of 2016 and will now be relegated to a part-time role, Jefferson needs to be a difference-making presence to justify the Ravens throwing him so much money that could have been used to address a below-average offense from a year ago.

4. Who steps into starting roles along the defensive line?

The Ravens have plenty of young options up front, but they will be replacing two starters in Timmy Jernigan and Lawrence Guy who also served as useful interior rushers in passing situations. Michael Pierce, Carl Davis, and Willie Henry will be vying for the starting 3-technique defensive tackle job previously held by Jernigan while 2017 third-round pick Chris Wormley will compete with Brent Urban and Bronson Kaufusi for Guy’s old 5-technique defensive end spot. We’ve heard a lot about these names, but Pierce is the only one who saw extensive playing time a year ago and even he is only entering his second season. There isn’t a ton to take away from the non-contact nature of these spring practices, but it will be interesting to see who will be receiving the early reps with the first-team defense. The good news is that re-signed nose tackle Brandon Williams will be there to anchor the rest of a defensive line that will look quite different than it did in 2016.

5. Will Kamalei Correa begin living up to his second-round billing?

The Ravens passed on a few highly-touted prospects such as Myles Jack and Noah Spence to take Correa with the 42nd overall pick of the 2016 draft, making his rookie season that included only 48 defensive snaps that much more disappointing. With Orr having retired, the Ravens need someone to emerge as the starter in the base defense next to C.J. Mosley with Correa appearing to be the most logical candidate on paper. Outside opinions have been split on whether the Boise State product is better off playing inside or outside, but Newsome drafting edge defenders Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams last month signals where the Ravens stand in that debate. The coaching staff acknowledged that they may have put too much on Correa’s rookie plate by having him work at both inside and outside linebacker, but the Ravens need him to make a major leap in his second season or the groans from fans and media about another failed second-round pick will grow even louder. He has to at least begin looking the part this spring.

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Revamped Ravens defense better live up to expectations

Posted on 29 April 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens stayed true to their board, but that doesn’t change reality after going defense with their first four picks of the 2017 draft.

This is an unbalanced roster with the heaviest lifting of the offseason now in the books. Yes, general manager Ozzie Newsome reminded us again Saturday that the Ravens aren’t done building this year’s team, but there are only so many viable free agents still out there to move the meter in any meaningful way. Right now, Baltimore has a below-average offense that’s going to be difficult to improve dramatically without some substantial improvement from players already on the roster.

The Ravens may still add Nick Mangold or bring back Anquan Boldin, but there’s a reason why they’re still out there. They’re not “Plan A” guys anymore.

Of the seven Ravens players selected in the first three rounds over the last two drafts, just one — left tackle Ronnie Stanley — was an offensive player. It’s difficult to improve on that side of the ball if you’re not spending free-agent dollars or investing early draft picks, which will make life more difficult for quarterback Joe Flacco and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg as they will likely lean on unproven talent at wide receiver and on the offensive line.

Asked about the state of his offense after the first wave of free agency last month that included lucrative contracts for nose tackle Brandon Williams and safety Tony Jefferson and another deal for cornerback Brandon Carr, Newsome fairly pointed to the draft as the way to build the rest of the roster. But the Ravens came away with fourth-round guard prospect Nico Siragusa and fifth-round developmental right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor as their only picks for that side of the ball.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the Ravens should have reached to draft offensive players purely out of need as they did appear to get good value with their picks, but the 2017 draft being so rich in defensive talent was a reason why the offense should have been a bigger focus in free agency. The outcome is an offense that’s lost a starting wide receiver, a starting right tackle, a starting center, and a Pro Bowl fullback and has netted only 32-year-old running back Danny Woodhead and two Day 3 offensive linemen.

Which side of the ball had its coordinator fired again last year?

Like it or not, the Ravens prioritized building a great defense above anything else this offseason. The unit collapsed down the stretch in 2016, but the primary cause of that was the absence of No. 1 cornerback Jimmy Smith as John Harbaugh’s team went 2-5 in games in which he missed meaningful time.

When Smith was on the field, the Ravens had a strong defense despite an underwhelming pass rush. And even with the resources used in both free agency and the draft to revamp the secondary and the pass rush, Smith’s availability remains arguably the biggest key for defensive success.

On paper, the Ravens defense does look better than the 2016 edition, but it will need to be great — possibly even special — to justify the use of so many resources and to make up for an offense with a ton of question marks. Taking that kind of a leap is no sure thing, especially in the modern NFL that is geared toward offense.

Will some combination of the pass-rushing group of Matt Judon, Za’Darius Smith, Tyus Bowser, and Tim Williams be ready to step up with Terrell Suggs set to turn 35 in October and Elvis Dumervil no longer on the roster? Is first-round rookie cornerback Marlon Humphrey going to be ready to play at a high level if Smith goes down again for some period of time? Can Kamalei Correa hold down the inside linebacker spot vacated by the retired Zach Orr? Will defensive coordinator Dean Pees use so many new pieces effectively and maximize their versatility?

The excitement for the defense is understandable with so much youth and potential at every level, but remember there isn’t a 25-year-old Ray Lewis leading this group before waxing nostalgic about replicating the 2000 Ravens. Even if we’re looking for a more contemporary comparison — it’s a different game than it was nearly two decades ago — the 2015 Denver Broncos had a generational talent in Von Miller and two 1,000-yard receivers on the other side of the ball.

A winning blueprint leaning so heavily on defense is very difficult to execute.

But it’s where the Ravens find themselves after free agency and the draft.

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Webb re-signing can offer more than depth to Ravens defense

Posted on 12 April 2017 by Luke Jones

The re-signing of veteran Lardarius Webb should be about more than just depth for the Ravens.

Yes, the 31-year-old is a good insurance policy behind starters Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson, but his play in his first year as a safety in 2016 was more than respectable, ranking 15th among qualified safeties by Pro Football Focus and 10th among free safeties in Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 system. Relegating him to a strict backup role and special teams would seem to be a waste of his talents, especially for a versatile player who received a three-year deal for a reported maximum value of $10.5 million.

How then might defensive coordinator Dean Pees use Webb in the Baltimore defense?

Though the former starting cornerback can no longer play an outside spot in anything but an emergency situation, his coverage skills and tackling ability still make him a decent option for the inside nickel spot. The problem is that you wouldn’t want Webb playing in place of 2016 fourth-round pick Tavon Young, who was one of the great successes of last season. It remains to be seen whether the 5-foot-9 Young can thrive as an every-down corner lining up on the outside in the base defense — a major reason why the Ravens signed veteran Brandon Carr last month — but the second-year corner showed impressive ball skills and should be a mainstay in the nickel package at the very least.

Might a little more creativity be in the works with the secondary?

It’s no secret that the Ravens value Jefferson a great deal, evident by the four-year, $34 million contract they awarded him at the start of free agency. The former Arizona Cardinal’s greatest strengths are playing the run and clamping down on opposing tight ends, which are certainly useful skills but not reminiscent of a deep center-field safety like Ed Reed. Frankly, it’s a steep financial commitment to make if the Ravens are only going to use Jefferson in a standard safety role, making you think there’s more to it.

Baltimore is in need of a three-down linebacker to fill the void left by the retired Zach Orr. Perhaps 2016 second-round pick Kamalei Correa will be ready to assume that job, but it’s easier to find a capable two-down inside linebacker than it is to find the kind of talent who can consistently hold up in pass coverage. That’s where the arrival of Jefferson and the return of Webb could come into play.

Despite rarely ever using the dime package — which consists of six defensive backs and usually one linebacker — in Pees’ five-year tenure as the defensive coordinator, the Ravens practiced it extensively in the spring and summer of 2016 before it disappeared in the regular season. Reserve defensive back and special-teams standout Anthony Levine saw the most practice time at the dime spot last year, but he saw only 109 defensive snaps last season.

Jefferson would appear to be a good fit to serve in a hybrid linebacker-safety role next to C.J. Mosley in many passing situations. It’s obvious that the Ravens have made it a priority to improve their pass defense this offseason, but Jefferson also tackles like a linebacker, which would diminish the chances of the run defense being too vulnerable in a dime look. His strength is playing closer to the line of scrimmage, and the presence of Webb at safety next to Weddle in the sub package would allow Pees to be more aggressive with Jefferson in the box and to match him up with tight ends.

Such an alignment would not only better showcase the 25-year-old safety’s skills, but it would put less pressure on Orr’s replacement in 2017. The dime would make Webb’s re-signing more impactful than simply improving conventional depth in the secondary.

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Five young players the Ravens need more from in 2017

Posted on 13 February 2017 by Luke Jones

It’s no secret that the Ravens are facing one of their most critical offseasons in franchise history.

Most focus in the coming weeks will be on the quest to find the next Steve Smith or Terrell Suggs via the draft, free agency, or trade, but a team with as many needs as the Ravens must see real improvement from within. It’s not realistic to expect general manager Ozzie Newsome to be able to address every positional concern by external channels, and the lack of contributions from several early draft picks in recent years is a big reason why the Ravens have missed the playoffs in three of the last four seasons. When you’re also picking in the middle of each round in the draft and don’t have a lucrative amount of salary-cap space, young players already on your roster must be ready to take a meaningful step forward.

Below is a look at five young players the Ravens need more from in 2017 in order to make it back to the postseason:

1. LB Matt Judon

The edge rusher topping the list is a product of need more than a reflection of his 2016 performance as Judon collected four sacks and played as well as you could expect from a fifth-round rookie hailing from a Division II program. With Suggs turning 35 in October and Elvis Dumervil potentially being a cap casualty, the Ravens view Judon as their best internal option to boost a pass rush that lacked punch. At 6-foot-3 and 275 pounds, he possesses the ideal frame to go along with a great deal of confidence to eventually step into a starting role. The Ravens should seek a real addition in this department, but improvement from Judon would go a long way in helping make opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable.

2. WR Breshad Perriman

The 2015 first-round pick would move to the top of the list if the Ravens were to cut speedy veteran Mike Wallace for cap purposes, but it’s difficult to project Perriman being anything more than a No. 2 option without dramatic improvement in his third season. Injuries have stunted his development, but he hasn’t shown the route-running ability or hands to make you believe he can be a No. 1 guy, making this a big offseason for him. Of course, this doesn’t mean he can’t become a productive vertical threat along the lines of former Raven Torrey Smith, but expecting more than that feels too ambitious at this point.

3. LB Kamalei Correa

The debate continues whether Correa is better suited to play inside or outside linebacker, but the fact that he saw only 48 defensive snaps as a rookie is eerily familiar to failed 2013 second-round pick Arthur Brown. Whether it’s replacing the retired Zach Orr inside or working as an edge defender, Correa should find ample opportunities in 2017 if he’s able to play at this level. After spending minimal time with him during the pre-draft process, the Ravens probably weren’t thrilled to run into some coachability issues with Correa, but he wouldn’t be the first to initially struggle with the maturity learning curve of the NFL.

4. LB Za’Darius Smith

Appearing on this list two years in a row is never a good sign for a player’s development, but Smith was unable to establish himself as an every-down edge defender despite receiving extensive playing time in the absence of Dumervil over the first three months of the season. The 2015 fourth-round pick managed only one sack in 494 defensive snaps and struggled to set the edge as a run defender, which led to him being a healthy scratch in three of the final six games of 2016. There’s still hope that Smith can become an effective defensive player, but regression from his rookie season was hardly an encouraging sign.

5. G Alex Lewis

Like Judon, Lewis’ inclusion on this list is a product of circumstance more than his performance as he played respectably as a rookie shifting between left guard and left tackle. The 2016 fourth-round pick fared much better at left guard, and the Ravens would love to see him become their third-best offensive lineman behind perennial Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda and first-round left tackle Ronnie Stanley. With right tackle Rick Wagner a free agent and the Ravens ideally seeking an upgrade from Jeremy Zuttah at center, Lewis needs to make left guard a spot at which the organization need not worry.

Honorable mentions: RB Kenneth Dixon, DE Bronson Kaufusi, DT Carl Davis, DT Willie Henry

Dixon possesses more upside than any other back on the roster, but the presence of the effective Terrance West and the bigger need to improve the offensive line — and overall commitment to the running game — keep him out of the top five after a solid rookie campaign. The status of free-agent defensive linemen Brandon Williams and Lawrence Guy will factor heavily into how much need the Ravens will have for the development of these three defensive linemen, but they’d still like to get some real bang for their buck with talents selected in the third and fourth rounds of the draft.

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