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Five questions entering 2014 Ravens training camp

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Five questions entering 2014 Ravens training camp

Posted on 21 July 2014 by Luke Jones

John Harbaugh enters new territory this summer in trying to guide the Ravens to a bounce-back season after missing the playoffs for the first time in his tenure a year ago.

The seventh-year head coach is coming off his most difficult offseason in not only revamping his offensive coaching staff but dealing with the arrests of five different players, painting the organization in a more negative and embarrassing light than it’s faced in quite some time. Of course, the Ravens are hopeful they’ve made the necessary changes to rebound from an 8-8 season and return to the postseason playing in what appears to be a wide-open AFC North.

As rookies, quarterbacks, and select veterans coming off injuries officially take the practice field in Owings Mills on Tuesday, here are five questions — of many others, quite frankly — to ponder:

1. Will different automatically translate to better for the Ravens offense? If so, how much better?

The easy answer is the 29th-ranked offense in 2013 couldn’t be much worse, so it’s no profound statement to say the unit will be improved under new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who will bring a stronger emphasis on running the football. The real question is how much better the Ravens will be after averaging a league-worst and franchise-worst 3.1 yards per carry.

Kubiak has an excellent reputation dating back to his days with Mike Shanahan in Denver, but quarterback Joe Flacco’s adjustment to a West Coast offense centered around timing, excellent footwork, and shorter throws — not regarded as his biggest strengths — will be interesting to watch after he showed encouraging improvements as spring workouts progressed. Of course, the Ravens hope the free-agent signings of wide receiver Steve Smith and tight end Owen Daniels in addition to a fully-recovered Dennis Pitta will provide the quarterback with consistent weapons he sorely lacked beyond wideout Torrey Smith last season.

Steve Smith was the standout acquisition of the offseason and has been praised for the leadership and swagger he’s already brought to the offense, but he has plenty to prove as a 35-year-old receiver whose yards per catch average has dropped in three straight years. Daniels figures to be a clear upgrade as the No. 2 tight end behind Pitta, but he played in only five games last season and must prove he can still gain separation entering his ninth NFL season.

The ultimate factor in determining how high the offense can climb will be the improvement of the offensive line with new center Jeremy Zuttah and the return of left guard Kelechi Osemele from season-ending back surgery. Zuttah will be an improvement over Gino Gradkowski with his physical style of play and will be a leader by example in the trenches, but you wonder if there will be some growing pains in making line calls with the veteran having spent more time at guard during his career. Osemele was impressive during spring workouts, but the Ravens need to see his surgically-repaired back hold up during the daily rigors of camp and the third-year lineman had to alter his workout practices as a result of the procedure.

And, of course, the Ravens still aren’t sure who will line up at right tackle, with Rick Wagner the favorite entering camp.

The offense will look quite different, but will there be enough improvement for the Ravens to climb back among the AFC’s elite?

2. How does maligned offensive line coach Juan Castillo fit with the Kubiak system?

After all the hand-wringing over Castillo and calls for him to be dismissed after the offensive line’s woeful 2013 campaign, the hiring of Kubiak all but eliminated that chatter. However, his seat will heat up again very quickly if his unit doesn’t produce immediately in 2014.

Players have dismissed any notion of growing pains last season, but it was clear the coexistence of Castillo and former offensive line coach Andy Moeller wasn’t a good fit. The bigger question this year will be how effectively Castillo implements Kubiak’s brand of stretch outside zone blocking that has produced a plethora of 1,000-yard running backs over the years.

Castillo demands a lot from his his unit before, during, and after practices, which made him a favorite in Philadelphia for so many years, but Harbaugh will have a difficult time sticking with his longtime colleague if the offensive line gets off to another slow start in 2014.

3. How many younger players are ready to make the jump to become standouts?

It’s no secret that the Ravens have undergone quite a transformation since winning Super Bowl XLVII, but a major key in rebounding from last year’s 8-8 finish will be the emergence of younger impact players, something there wasn’t enough of in 2013.

Torrey Smith and cornerback Jimmy Smith took sizable leaps last season, but others such as Osemele, safety Matt Elam, linebacker Courtney Upshaw, running back Bernard Pierce, and defensive tackle Brandon Williams must become more dynamic players if the Ravens are going to bounce back in a significant way.

Entering 2014, how many great players — not good or solid ones — do the Ravens currently have? Linebacker Terrell Suggs and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata might still be considered great around the league but are on the wrong side of 30 and not as dominant as they were a few years ago.

Yes, the Ravens will lean on the likes of veterans Steve Smith, Daniels, and Zuttah to upgrade their respective positions, but substantial improvement in 2014 will only come if the draft classes of 2012 and 2013 are ready to make a larger impact than they did a year ago. And if the likes of linebacker C.J. Mosley and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan can bring immediate impact as rookies, Baltimore will be that much more dangerous.

Simply put, the core of this roster needs younger and more dynamic talent to emerge.

4. What can we expect out of Ray Rice?

Even putting aside the ongoing saga of when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will finally make a ruling on a suspension for the embattled running back, it’s difficult to project what kind of player Rice will be entering his seventh season and coming off the worst year of his career.

The 27-year-old was noticeably leaner and faster during spring practices, but it’s difficult to measure elusiveness — or any ability to break tackles — when players aren’t participating in full-contact drills. Much like we ponder about the entire offense, it’s not difficult to envision Rice being better at a lighter weight and with a better offensive line in front of him, but it’s fair to ask if his days as a game-changing back are over.

It will also be fascinating to see if Kubiak views Rice as an every-down back or is more eager to continue to hand opportunities to the likes of Pierce, veteran newcomer Justin Forsett, or rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro even after the sixth-year back returns from his anticipated suspension. Rice split time with Forsett working with the starters this spring — Pierce was still limited returning from offseason shoulder surgery — but it’s difficult to gauge how much of that was Forsett’s experience in Kubiak’s system as well as the Ravens preparing for the suspension.

5. Is the commitment to winning strong enough top to bottom on the roster?

You never like to make generalizations about what’s currently a 90-man roster when referencing five specific players being arrested during the offseason, but it’s fair to question the overall commitment when your players make up more than 25 percent of the NFL’s total number of reported arrests since last season.

Most already expected Harbaugh to have a tougher training camp following the first non-playoff season of his tenure in Baltimore, but the poor off-field behavior lends even more credence to the head coach working his players harder than in past summers.

Make no mistake, there are countless individuals on the roster who are fully dedicated to winning, but a chain is only as strong as its weakest link and the Ravens will be under the microscope in not only how they conduct themselves off the field but how they perform on it this season. The poor choices of several individuals unfortunately drew that scrutiny for the entire roster as critics question the organization’s leadership and overall character.

“We have good, really good guys,” Harbaugh said on the final day of mandatory minicamp last month. “Football matters to them. The more it matters to you, the less inclined you are to do anything to jeopardize that.”

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Ravens agree to one-year deal with former Texans tight end Daniels

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Ravens agree to one-year deal with former Texans tight end Daniels

Posted on 03 April 2014 by Luke Jones

After weeks of discussions, the Ravens agreed to a one-year deal with free-agent tight end Owen Daniels on Thursday.

The 31-year-old reunites with new Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, quarterbacks coach Rick Dennison, and tight ends coach Brian Pariani after working with them during his eight-year run with the Houston Texans. Daniels was a salary-cap casualty last month and told WNST.net that the Ravens immediately showed interest in his services.

Daniels is eager for a fresh start after the Texans finished 2-14 last season with Kubiak being fired in December.

“It was definitely an experience this past season for it to go the way it went,” Daniels told AM 1570 WNST.net on Thursday. “But I’m happy to have a new start. I have a ton of respect for the [Ravens]. It’s always been a tough battle.”

The deal is pending a physical scheduled to be completed on Friday.

A fourth-round pick out of Wisconsin in the 2006 draft — the same year Kubiak was hired as the head coach in Houston — the two-time Pro Bowl selection joins Dennis Pitta to form an impressive tight-end duo for quarterback Joe Flacco. Daniels was limited to five games due to a leg injury last season but has caught 385 passes for 4,617 yards and 29 touchdowns in his career.

Kubiak has always been praised for his use of tight ends in his West Coast offense, moving them around in various formations and substitution packages and frequently using two-tight sets.

“Baltimore was always on my radar after Kubiak signed up over there,” Daniels said. “They’re a good team, obviously. Who wouldn’t want to play for them? It just came down to them being the right fit for me. I’m super excited to get out there.”

Daniels’ best season came in 2008 when he caught 70 passes for 862 yards and two touchdowns to earn his first trip to the Pro Bowl. He was again invited to Honolulu in 2012 when he caught 62 passes for 716 yards and six touchdowns.

Since 2006, the 6-3, 249-pound Daniels has produced the eighth-most catches and the seventh-most receiving yards among NFL tight ends. He ranks second in career receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns in Texans franchise history.

The Ravens are likely to continue looking to add a blocking tight end behind Pitta and Daniels on the depth chart as both are known for their pass-catching ability but neither is considered a strong blocker.

Visit the BuyAToyota.com Audio Vault to hear new Ravens tight end Owen Daniels’ conversation with WNST.net host Nestor Aparicio HERE.

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What’s still out there for the Ravens in free agency?

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What’s still out there for the Ravens in free agency?

Posted on 17 March 2014 by Luke Jones

Almost a week into free agency, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome has been busy retaining his own free agents while also enticing veteran wide receiver Steve Smith to bring his impressive pedigree to the league’s 29th-ranked offense from a year ago.

Needs remain along the offensive line and at free safety, but the options are dwindling as is the team’s salary cap space with roughly $9 million available. That’s not to say those resources can’t be helpful to further augment the roster as preparations continue for the start of the NFL draft on May 8, but this is when teams often look for the best value in not only identifying players who truly represent upgrades from what they already have but signing them for the right price.

Secondary needs to the offensive line and free safety include a No. 3 cornerback, a blocking tight end, and another running back, but those are all areas in which the Ravens can likely use the draft to find quality depth.

Here’s a sampling of the better remaining options to address their needs:

S Ryan Clark
Skinny: The 34-year-old safety has played the last eight seasons in Pittsburgh, which would make his potential defection to Baltimore compelling if he has anything left on the field. In addition to the Ravens, Washington and the New York Jets are reportedly interested in Clark, who would give 2013 first-round pick Matt Elam a mentor in the defensive backfield. A 2011 Pro Bowl selection, Clark is nearing the end of his career and struggled in 2013 but isn’t that far removed from playing at a high level. The hard-hitting veteran doesn’t really fit the profile of the ball-hawking safety Newsome described at the start of the offseason, but he’s generally been strong in coverge in his career and collected 104 tackles and two interceptions last year.

S Thomas DeCoud
Skinny: The 28-year-old started all but two games for Atlanta over the last five seasons but has been plagued with inconsistency and is coming off a poor 2013 campaign in which he recorded 65 tackles, no interceptions, and only two pass breakups. The 2012 Pro Bowl safety had 14 interceptions from 2009 through 2012 but probably reminds Newsome and the front office too much of Michael Huff, who was one of the biggest free-agent busts in franchise history last year. DeCoud was cut by the Falcons earlier this month, meaning he wouldn’t count against the compensatory pick formula if the Ravens were to sign him.

S Chris Clemons
Skinny: Starting 32 games for the Miami Dolphins over the last two seasons, the 28-year-old has been solid but unspectacular in his five-year career. Clemons made 93 tackles and intercepted one pass last season with many observers wondering if the Dolphins downgraded in deciding to sign Louis Delmas to replace Clemons earlier this month. Much like Clark and DeCoud, Clemons doesn’t fit the part of what Newsome described in January, but the Ravens are unlikely to find a playmaking safety unless they draft one such as Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix or Calvin Pryor of Louisville.

C Kyle Cook
Skinny: Cook started 66 games for the Bengals over the last five years and would represent a solid veteran option to compete with incumbent starter Gino Gradkowski and 2013 sixth-round pick Ryan Jensen at the center position this summer. The 30-year-old was the 24th-ranked center in the NFL last year, according to Pro Football Focus, but he was released by the Bengals at the start of free agency and wouldn’t cost the Ravens a compensatory pick. His experience in the AFC North is also something that could be of value in the front office’s eyes.

C Brian de la Puente
Skinny: Though New Orleans reportedly remains interested in re-signing the starting center, the 28-year-old would be more appealing than Cook and would likely find a similar market to Evan Dietrich-Smith, who signed a four-year, $14.25 million contract with Tampa Bay last week. Pro Football Focus graded De la Puente as the 16th-ranked center in the league last year, but he graded second in 2012 and would represent a clear upgrade to Gradkowski in the starting lineup. The Ravens have yet to be linked to de la Puente, but the New York Giants reportedly showed interest last week.

G Travelle Wharton
Skinny: He’ll be 33 in May, but Wharton graded out as the fifth-best guard in the NFL by Pro Football Focus this past season after missing the entire 2012 campaign with a knee injury. Entering his 11th season, Wharton played with Steve Smith in Carolina for nearly a decade, so it will be interesting to see if the Ravens ask their new wide receiver what he thinks of his former teammate, who recently reiterated that he has no intentions of retiring. Should the Ravens sign the left guard, they could move Kelechi Osemele to right tackle to address the departure of Michael Oher.

RT Eric Winston
Skinny: The 30-year-old spent six years with Gary Kubiak in Houston, which would make him an enticing fit if not for the fact that he didn’t play well in Arizona this past season. Winston was the 69th-ranked tackle this season, which was one spot below Oher in Pro Football Focus’ grading system. Still, his experience with the zone blocking scheme in Kubiak’s offense would be very attractive at the right price. The acquisition of a right tackle would also allow the Ravens to keep Osemele at left guard, the position where some think he can blossom into a Pro Bowl player if he proves to be healthy after last year’s back surgery.

TE Owen Daniels
Skinny: He doesn’t really fit the mold of what the Ravens are looking for in terms of a blocking-minded tight end, but his close relationship with Kubiak is too much to overlook in wondering if the 31-year-old would be an attractive addition to the passing game. Daniels was limited to five games last year but knows the intricacies of Kubiak’s system and is a two-time Pro Bowl selection who has caught 54 or more passes four times in his career. With so many remaining needs, the Ravens would need to get excellent value in terms of price to make Daniels worth it and there hasn’t appeared to be much concrete interest beyond the initial reaction when he was released by the Texans last week.

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The Five Plays That Determined The Game: Ravens/Texans

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The Five Plays That Determined The Game: Ravens/Texans

Posted on 24 September 2013 by Glenn Clark

Following every Baltimore Ravens game this season, Ryan Chell and I will take to the airwaves Tuesdays on “The Reality Check” on AM1570 WNST.net with a segment known as “The Five Plays That Determined The Game.”

It’s a simple concept. We’ll select five plays from each game that determined the outcome. These five plays will best represent why the Ravens won or lost each game.

This will be our final analysis of the previous game before switching gears towards the next game on the schedule.

Here are the five plays that determined the Ravens’ 30-9 win over the Houston Texans Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium…

(Note: not all pictures are always of actual play)

Glenn Clark’s Plays…

5. Lardarius Webb tackles Andre Johnson after -1 yard catch on 3rd & 3 at Baltimore 11 (1st quarter)

4. Torrey Smith 24 yard catch from Joe Flacco on 3rd & 7 (3rd quarter)

3. Torrey Smith 48 yard catch from Joe Flacco on 3rd & 13 (3rd quarter)

2. Daryl Smith intercepts Matt Schaub pass intended for Owen Daniels, returns 37 yards for TD (2nd quarter)

1. Tandon Doss returns Shane Lechler punt 82 yards for TD (2nd quarter)

(Continued on Page 2…)

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Ravens-Texans: Five predictions for Sunday

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Ravens-Texans: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 21 September 2013 by Luke Jones

(This blog brought to you by Atlantic Remodeling. Visit www.atlanticremodeling.com to learn about their Red Cent Guarantee!)

The memory of last year’s 43-13 thrashing is still on the Ravens’ minds as they welcome the Houston Texans to Baltimore for an important early-season showdown in the AFC and an opportunity to exact revenge.

The Ravens are still trying to find their identity on each side of the football while Houston feels fortunate to be 2-0 after earning victories on the final play of each game, including an overtime win over the Tennessee Titans last week.

Sunday will be an emotional day at M&T Bank Stadium as future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis will be inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor while longtime safety Ed Reed returns to Baltimore as a member of the Houston Texans after departing via free agency in the offseason.

It’s time to go on record as Baltimore and Houston meet for the seventh time in the regular-season series with the Ravens holding a 5-1 edge. These teams met in the 2011 postseason with the Ravens winning a 20-13 final as the No. 2 seed in the AFC.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens play the Texans for the fourth straight year in the regular season …

1. Bernard Pierce will grind out 75 tough yards on the ground against a physical Texans front seven and find the end zone once. The expected absence of running back Ray Rice hurts the Ravens offense with his ability to catch passes out of the backfield not at their disposal, but Pierce’s physical running style is better suited against a physical Houston defense that surprisingly ranks 18th against the run (99.5 yards allowed per game) through two games. However, the Ravens’ ability to run the ball will be much more about their offensive line as Baltimore is averaging just 2.8 yards per carry so far this season. Offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell saw the need to stick with the run in the second half against Cleveland and will use a similar approach against the Texans, but Pierce’s yards per carry average won’t be much better than last week’s 3.0 on 19 carries.

2. The Ravens defense will struggle to cover tight ends for the third straight week as Owen Daniels catches a touchdown from Matt Schaub. Houston wide receivers Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins will keep cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith busy on the outside, but Texans tight ends have caught five touchdown passes in two games this season. It’s no secret that Ravens linebackers and safeties have struggled immensely to cover the middle of the field and Broncos offensive coordinator Rick Dennison and Schaub will be aware of the deficiency. The expected absence of rookie linebacker Arthur Brown — who played in the nickel last week before suffering a pectoral strain — only hurts the Ravens’ ability in that department as Daniels finds the end zone. Backup tight end Garrett Graham is questionable with a groin injury, but he will need to be watched carefully as well if he plays.

3. With Texans left tackle Duane Brown unlikely to play and the right side of the Houston offensive line suspect, Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil will each collect a sack. Brown is listed as questionable, but all indications from Houston indicate he will not be able to play on Sunday, giving the Ravens an opportunity to put significant heat on Schaub. The Baltimore pass rush and front seven overall will compete nicely against the Texans upfront, keeping the Ravens in the game throughout the day against a unit that will try to run the football with Arian Foster and Ben Tate and move the chains with the intermediate passing game. Suggs matching up against backup left tackle Ryan Harris and Dumervil going against right tackle Derek Newton will add up to another big day for the pass-rushing duo and the third straight game in which they’ve each collected a sack.

4. Reed won’t make a significant impact, but the Houston defense will be in Joe Flacco’s face too much on Sunday. I’d be surprised if Reed didn’t play on Sunday, but a 35-year-old safety coming off his second major hip surgery in four years and acknowledging that he’s not 100 percent shouldn’t create much fear in Flacco’s mind as long as the quarterback doesn’t sleep on Reed’s cerebral presence in the secondary. However, the Ravens need their offensive line to begin playing like it did in last year’s postseason with the shortage of offensive weapons at Flacco’s disposal. Left tackle Bryant McKinnie and left guard Kelechi Osemele both struggled in Week 2, and the challenge is only greater for the line this week against the likes of left defensive end and 2012 Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt — who will also move around on the defensive line — as well as other pass rushers all over the place in Wade Phillips’ defense. The Texans were just too fast for Flacco and the Ravens offense in last year’s blowout and the offensive line will have a major challenge once again on Sunday. Pressure upfront will only help a Houston pass defense that’s thrived early this season against underwhelming offenses.

5. With Rice and Jacoby Jones sidelined, the Ravens will simply lack enough offensive firepower to overcome a balanced Texans team in a 21-16 loss. As difficult as it is to bet against the Ravens in Baltimore, nothing about their offense through two weeks suggests they’re ready to beat one of the big boys in the conference and the absence of Rice and Jones significantly hurts their speed on offense. A strength last season, the vertical passing game has been nonexistent with Torrey Smith facing bracketed coverage, and rookie Marlon Brown won’t find life as easy against the cornerback duo of Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson. The defense is certainly good enough to make some stops and limit the Texans’ scoring opportunities to keep the Ravens in the game, but the offense just won’t produce enough big plays with Flacco facing pressure and unable to rely on enough targets in the passing game.

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The Five Plays That Determined The Game-Ravens/Texans

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The Five Plays That Determined The Game-Ravens/Texans

Posted on 23 October 2012 by Glenn Clark

Following every Baltimore Ravens game this season, Ryan Chell and I will take to the airwaves Tuesdays on “The Reality Check” on AM1570 WNST.net with a segment known as “The Five Plays That Determined The Game.”

It’s a simple concept. We’ll select five plays from each game that determined the outcome. These five plays will best represent why the Ravens won or lost each game.

This will be our final analysis of the previous game before switching gears towards the next game on the schedule.

Here are the five plays that determined the Ravens’ 43-13 loss to the Houston Texans Sunday at Reliant Stadium…

(Note: not all pictures are always of actual play)

Glenn Clark’s Plays…

5. Glover Quin intercepts Joe Flacco after Whitney Mercilus tip (2nd quarter)

4. Whitney Mercilus downs Donnie Jones punt at Ravens’ 3 yard line (1st quarter)

3. Joe Flacco pass intended for Anquan Boldin incomplete on 3rd & 5 (2nd down)

2. Connor Barwin sacks Joe Flacco in endzone for safety (1st quarter)

1. Jonathan Joseph 52 yard TD return of Joe Flacco interception after JJ Watt tip (2nd quarter)

(Ryan’s Plays on Page 2…)

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