Tag Archive | "Lardarius Webb"

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In end, Ravens couldn’t overcome biggest weakness

Posted on 11 January 2015 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The in-house options look grim beyond that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Snap Counts

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Baltimore Ravens – Snap Counts vs Steelers

Posted on 08 January 2015 by Dennis Koulatsos

Here is a break down of the snap count of every offensive and defensive player, in the Ravens’ win against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Offense:

57 – LT James Hurst – he played the whole game, and struggled mightily vs James Harrison

57 – LG Kelechi Osemele – had some problems in pass protection, but was an absolute mauler in the run game

57 – C Jeremy Zuttah – got pushed back in to Joe Flacco time and time again. He has to do better against the Patriots

57 – RG John Urshel – graded out well overall. Had a better night pass blocking than run blocking

57 – RT Marshal Yanda – best offensive lineman in the league. Pass blocked well and was a road grader in the run game

57 – QB Joe Flacco – threw 2 TDs, managed the offense well, and didn’t turn the ball over. “January Joe.”

54 – TE Owen Daniels – struggled with pass blocking, but was a factor in the passing game; caught 4 for 70 yards

50 – RB Justin Forsett – didn’t have a great running night running the ball, lost a fumble, but capably blocked blitzing LBs from the A gaps

40 – WR Torrey Smith – caught an 11 yard TD pass from Flacco; missed a certain TD when he didn’t drag his foot in the end zone

39 – TE Crockett Gillmore – caught a 21 yard TD from Flacco; blocked whistle to whistle

35 – WR Steve Smith – made a couple of tough catches in traffic; caught 5 for 101 yards

25 – WR Kamar Aiken – caught just 1 pass for 4 yards

20 – FB Kyle Juszczyk – caught 2 for 16 yards

13 – WR Marlon Brown – caught 1 for 9 yards

5 – WR Jacoby Jones – caught 1 for 9 yards

4 – RB Bernard Pierce – just 1 rushing attempt but it was good for a 5 yard TD

Defense:

76 – ILB Daryl Smith – save for the TD pass given up to Antonio Brown, he was stout vs the pass as well as the run

75 – CB Lardarius Webb – he was targeted a lot by Roethlisberger, and had an ok game overall

74 – ILB CJ Mosley – was solid vs the run but struggled in pass coverage

72 – FS Will Hill – was solid vs the run and even better vs the pass; defended well all night long

66 – CB  Rashaan Melvin – did a really good job in pass coverage, came up in run support

56 – OLB Terrell Suggs – stopped the run, pressured the QB, didn’t get a sack, but got a sick interception

52 – DT Haloti Ngata – looked fresh all game long, collapsed the pocket and applied pressure up the middle, got one sack

49 – SS – Darian Stewart – played one of his best games all season; got the game ending pick

47 – OLB Elvis Dumervil – applied great pressure from the edge consistently; ended up with 2 sacks

46 – OLB Pernell McPhee – had an outstanding game overall; was a force vs the run, and hit the QB a few times

39 – OLB Courtney Upshaw – did a great job setting the edge as usual; defended the pass well

31 – NT Brandon Williams – no one is going to move him backwards; applied consistent pressure through the A gaps; 1 sack

31 – DE Chris Canty – stopped the run and pressured the QB on numerous occassions

31 – CB Anthony Levine – the converted safety struggled in pass coverage; it was clear Roethlisberger was looking for him

29 – FS Jeromy Miles – solid game overall, but had a couple of lapses in pass coverage

29 – CB Matt Elam – yes, the SS played corner most of the night, and played the position well overall; was strong in pass coverage

13 – DE DeAngelo Tyson – was brought in on obvious passing downs; did not have a good night, did not apply pressure

11 – DE Lawrence Guy – did a solid job defending the run in his limited action on the field

6 – CB Antone Cason – came is when Melvin was shaken up; let up a catch during Melvin’s short absence

2 – ILB Albert McClellan – was only in for two plays; obviously not enough field time to analyze performance

1- SS Brynden Trawick – same as McClellan

Special Team notes – Justin Tucker was lights out as usual. The 52 yarder was particularly special, as you don’t see too many successful field goals at Heinz Field over 50 yards. Sam Koch had a good night – save for the blocked punt which was due to blocking assignment breakdowns. He was also directionally kicking it away from Antonio Brown, and that factored in as well. Jacoby Jones did not have a good night. He lost his footing and slipped during his first kick off return, and seemed tentative after that. Michael Campanaro had a couple of fair catches on punt returns. Hope his hamstring has healed to the point where he could be a factor vs the Patriots

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Slowing Antonio Brown critical to Ravens continuing playoff run

Posted on 31 December 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — As many focus on the status of Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell for Saturday’s playoff game in Pittsburgh, the Ravens know an ability to contain Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown would go a long way in trying to advance to the divisional round.

The 5-foot-10 Brown continues to defy the odds as a former sixth-round pick who led the NFL with 129 receptions and 1,698 receiving yards while catching a career-high 13 touchdown passes in 2014. And he presents the biggest challenge to a Ravens pass defense that’s played better in recent weeks but still ranked 24th in pass defense during the regular season.

“A lot of guys when they [discuss] who the best receiver in the game is, they want to look at the big, tall, dominant guys like Calvin [Johnson] and Dez [Bryant],” said cornerback Lardarius Webb, who labeled Brown as an elite receiver a few years ago when he was still playing in the shadow of former Steeler Mike Wallace. “With Antonio, he can do it all. He’s not the biggest guy, so a lot of guys might not want to say he’s the best receiver in the game because of his size. He can do a lot of things on that field to say, ‘Man, why not be the best receiver in the game?’”

After Jimmy Smith shadowed Brown in holding him to a quiet seven catches for 90 yards in a 26-6 win over the Steelers in Week 2, the Ravens faced Brown’s wrath in the regular-season rematch in Pittsburgh — a week after their top cornerback was lost for the season — in which he caught 11 passes for 144 yards and a 54-yard touchdown in a 43-23 final on Nov. 2. It remains to be seen whether Webb will draw the exclusive assignment of following Brown, but the Ravens haven’t done any mirroring of receivers since Smith was injured, instead keeping each starting cornerback on the same sides of the field.

Baltimore will obviously try to roll safety help to Brown’s side as much as possible, but Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley likes moving the speedy receiver all over the field. In addition to being targeted 25 times on passes 20 or more yards down field in the regular season, Brown also lines up in the slot at least a handful of times per game, which would create a significant problem if the Ravens are to use Matt Elam in certain nickel situations.

If a defense shows its hand too drastically in trying to bracket Brown, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t been afraid to go elsewhere in throwing for a career-high 4,952 yards in 2014. But Brown remains his most dangerous weapon with his 615 yards after the catch rank third in the NFL.

“He’s all over. They can screen him, they can stack,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “But the thing of it is I think Ben also sees what the coverage is, and all of a sudden, you’re rolling it. He’s not afraid to go to [Martavis Bryant or Markus Wheaton]. [Tight end Heath Miller] has always been a security blanket for him, and the guy has always made a clutch catch in clutch times.”

A Ravens secondary that’s been ravaged by injuries throughout the season is feeling better about itself heading into the postseason, but Roethlisberger and Brown present a far more imposing quarterback-receiver duo than anything seen over the final quarter of the season. Baltimore’s ability to slow the Steelers offense will once again come down to the pass rush, but Roethlisberger has shown an ability to get rid of the ball quickly in averaging just 2.5 seconds in the pocket before throwing, which Pro Football Focus ranked sixth in the NFL.

The faces have changed in the secondary since the Week 9 blowout in Pittsburgh as Dominique Franks and Chykie Brown were both cut and current starting cornerback Rashaan Melvin wasn’t even on the team at the time. Pees and several members of the secondary have credited continuity in recent weeks as a reason for the improvement.

“The last couple games we’ve been playing good ball all over the field,” Melvin said. “That confidence going into the playoffs is going to help us a lot. We just want to go in and play the best ball we can play as a second and as a defense in general and to go in there and do our assignments.”

Even if the Ravens are able to limit Brown’s opportunities as a receiver, they’ll need to watch out for him as a punt returner as Cincinnati found out last week when he returned a punt 71 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter. He ranked eighth in the NFL in punt return average this season and tied for sixth in return attempts, showing he isn’t conservative as a returner despite being valued as one of the best wide receivers in football.

His expansive skill set not only makes him one of the best receivers in the NFL but one of the best players overall. And the Ravens will have their hands full in trying to slow him enough to be able to continue playing beyond Saturday night.

“The same thing that makes him dangerous as a receiver makes him dangerous as a returner,” special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. “He’s very aggressive. He’s highly talented. He has a competitive spirit about him. He wants to make plays, and he has done it. He’s a very good player. We have to be at our best.”

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Ravens cornerback Jackson to miss rest of season with knee injury

Posted on 15 December 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — An unfortunate year at the cornerback position only got worse Monday with the news that Ravens cornerback Asa Jackson will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury.

Head coach John Harbaugh confirmed that Jackson suffered a posterior cruciate ligament injury to his right knee in the third quarter of Sunday’s win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Harbaugh ruled out safety Terrence Brooks (knee) for the rest of the season immediately after Sunday’s game as the rookie suffered a PCL injury on the opening kickoff against the Jaguars.

Jackson’s injury doesn’t sound as serious as Brooks’ ailment, but the timetable would not allow him to return quickly enough to justify carrying him on the roster for the final weeks of the season.

“He’s got a PCL [injury]. It’s like a five-week injury,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll be ruling him out the rest of the way.”

With Jackson becoming the fifth Ravens cornerback to be placed on injured reserve this season, four cornerbacks remain on the 53-man roster — Lardarius Webb, Rashaan Melvin, Anthony Levine, and the recently-signed veteran Antoine Cason. Jackson spent two months on IR-designated to return with a turf toe injury earlier this season and had just been activated in Week 14.

The Ravens have yet to officially place Jackson and Brooks on IR, but they will take another peek at what’s available on the free-agent market, something general manager Ozzie Newsome should be used to doing this season.

“I don’t think you ever feel like you have enough depth to get you through, so we’ll be looking at all of our options,” Harbaugh said. “It’s one thing to hope to have a guy, and it’s another thing to find a guy. We’re just looking at our options right now as we speak, and we’ll have some answers probably over the next two days on that.”

Melvin received the bulk of the opportunities when Jackson exited on Sunday, making five tackles and a pass breakup in his first NFL game. The sixth-year veteran Cason

Meanwhile, the Houston Texans are in even worse shape at the quarterback position as they’re set to welcome the Ravens to NRG Stadium in Week 16.

Head coach Bill O’Brien announced rookie quarterback Tom Savage will miss this Sunday’s game with a knee injury after he replaced Ryan Fitzpatrick in their Sunday loss to Indianapolis after the veteran suffered a broken leg. Those injuries coupled with Ryan Mallett previously going down for the season with a shoulder injury mean the Texans will be turning to their fourth quarterback of the 2014 seson.

Who that will be remains to be seen as O’Brien will choose between Thad Lewis and Case Keenum, who was waived by the Texans at the end of the preseason and spent most of the year with the St. Louis Rams before being signed off their practice squad by Houston on Monday morning.

“We’ll try to anticipate as best we can how we think they’ll attack us — scheme-wise and philosophically how they’ll approach the game — and try to gear our game plan and our reps accordingly as best we can,” Harbaugh said. “Who plays quarterback is definitely a part of that. We’ll be looking at that, and we’ll have to prepare for both of those two [quarterbacks].”

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Ravens-Jaguars: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 13 December 2014 by Luke Jones

There’s no big secret to Sunday’s game between the Ravens and the Jacksonville Jaguars.

If the Ravens are the playoff-caliber team they’ve shown themselves to be for much of the 2014 season, there won’t be any drama as they try to improve to 9-5. It’s difficult to call this one a trap game when 2-11 Jacksonville hasn’t won a game on the road all year and the Ravens win the games they’re supposed to — especially at home — in the John Harbaugh era.

The Ravens know they’re guaranteed a playoff spot by winning their final three games, but Sunday is the closest they’ll get to a sure thing the rest of the way with a challenging trip to Houston next week and a season-finale against Cleveland that will likely carry plenty of pressure. Meanwhile, the struggling Jaguars are now dealing with the season-ending loss of starting running back Denard Robinson due to a sprained foot.

It’s time to go on the record as these old AFC Central foes meet for the 18th time in regular-season history with the Jaguars holding a 10-7 edge. However, the Ravens are 5-4 in Baltimore and have won seven of the last nine meetings. Jacksonville won the last regular-season game between these teams, a 12-7 final on Oct. 24, 2011.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to move a step closer toward securing a playoff spot …

1. Terrell Suggs will pick up 2 1/2 sacks working against Jacksonville tackle Luke Joeckel. Opposing offensive lines haven’t been able to slide protection because of the pressure the Ravens have created from both edges this season, but you wonder if the Jaguars will pay more attention to Elvis Dumervil, who last week set the single-season franchise record in pushing his sack total to 16. Despite being the second overall pick of the 2013 draft, Joeckel has struggled mightily in his sophomore season and Suggs will take advantage to try to close the gap in the sack department. The Ravens shouldn’t have any trouble making rookie quarterback Blake Bortles uncomfortable with the 12th-year linebacker leading the effort.

2. With Torrey Smith limited, Marlon Brown will catch his first touchdown of the season. The Ravens surprisingly listed Smith as probable on their final injury report, but they’ll try to limit throwing him into the fire as much as possible on Sunday to rest his sprained knee, which will mean more opportunities for Brown and Kamar Aiken. It’s been a disappointing season for Brown after a surprising rookie year, but he’s been more involved with the offense since the bye week, a trend that will continue against the league’s 18th-ranked pass defense. Justin Forsett and the running game figures to be featured heavily, but quarterback Joe Flacco will find Brown in the red zone for a score.

3. Wide receiver Cecil Shorts will rein in a score in a rare highlight for the Jaguars on Sunday. If Jacksonville can find even a little time for Bortles in the pocket, it’s no secret that the Baltimore pass defense is vulnerable and ranked 31st in the NFL. The Jaguars figure to be throwing the ball a lot if they fall behind like most would expect, and defensive coordinator Dean Pees will play soft coverage in the back end as the game goes on. Bortles has shown flashes of promise when he hasn’t been annihilated in the pocket — Jacksonville has allowed an incredible 54 sacks this season — and he’ll orchestrate a nice scoring drive finished off with a short touchdown to Shorts.

4. Lardarius Webb will secure his first interception in what’s been a difficult season. The sixth-year cornerback is healthier now than he was earlier in the season, but it’s been a disappointing year for Webb as his future with the Ravens is in question due to his $12 million cap figure in 2015. However, the Jaguars don’t have any receivers that should scare the Ravens, and Bortles has thrown 16 interceptions in 379 pass attempts. The Ravens secondary hasn’t been able to create many turnovers this season, but the Jaguars are tied for 26th in the NFL with a minus-8 turnover margin. Webb will pick off his first pass of the season to set the Ravens up on a short field.

5. The Ravens will emphatically handle a team they’re supposed to beat in a 31-13 final. Nothing is guaranteed in the NFL, but this one is as close as it gets with an opponent having nothing to play for coming to M&T Bank Stadium to face the Ravens, who have very little margin for error as they try to make it back to the playoffs after a one-year absence. Short of something catastrophic such as a multiple-turnover performance or an injury to Flacco, the Ravens just aren’t going to let the lowly Jaguars beat them. It won’t be a flawless performance — the Ravens never seem to make it quite as easy as they should in these spots — but the home crowd will ultimately go home happy after the win.

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Ravens pass defense on pace to be worst in franchise history

Posted on 30 November 2014 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Webb named Ravens’ Ed Block Courage Award winner

Posted on 22 November 2014 by Luke Jones

In the midst of a difficult season that started with a debilitating back injury in training camp, Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb has been recognized for not giving up.

The 29-year-old was named this year’s recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award winner, which was voted on by his Ravens teammates. Webb missed all of training camp and three of the first four games of the season after going down with lower back spams on the second day of summer practices.

In seven games, Webb has made 29 tackles and six pass breakups while trying to work his way back to pre-injury form. Unfortunately, the 2009 third-round pick is no stranger to injuries in his career as he has suffered torn anterior cruciate ligament tears in both knees, one in his rookie season and the other in 2012.

In six NFL seasons, the Nicholls State product has collected 284 tackles, 69 pass breakups, 10 interceptions, and two forced fumbles.

Last year’s winner was former Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain, who overcame a serious neck injury in 2012 to resume his playing career.

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Levine works way up Ravens’ ladder to starting defensive role

Posted on 11 November 2014 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ravens-Titans: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 08 November 2014 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on 07 November 2014 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Webb needs to step up

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

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

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

Jackson on track to return

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

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

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

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