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Bittersweet day for former Ravens linebacker Johnson in leaving for San Diego

Posted on 14 March 2012 by Luke Jones

After nine productive years in Baltimore, longtime Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson became the team’s second defensive starter to depart on Wednesday.

Johnson has signed a four-year contract with the San Diego Chargers, leaving a void at outside linebacker for the Ravens. The 30-year-old linebacker was rumored to be of interest to the Indianapolis Colts, but the Chargers were looking for help at outside linebacker in a thin market at the position.

It was a bittersweet day for Johnson, who struggled with the juxtaposition of a new opportunity with the San Diego defense while acknowledging the difficulty of leaving the only franchise he’s known in his professional career.

“It’s been a weird day and a weird process,” Johnson said in a phone interview. “On one side, you’re really excited and thrilled about a new opportunity. On the other hand, you have a lot of relationships, and it’s just [a team you’ve] been through so much with.”

Johnson would not divulge specifics of any contract talks with the Ravens or whether he gave his former team a chance to match San Diego’s offer, but given the Ravens’ limited cap space and previous comments made leading up to the start of free agency, it was apparent he knew he would not be returning to Baltimore. However, he holds no ill feelings toward the organization.

“They made it clear,” Johnson said. “They were very respectful and handled it with class like they always do, but it was clear it was my time to go.”

Johnson will now play for first-year defensive coordinator John Pagano. Previously a longtime defensive assistant in San Diego, John is the brother of former Ravens defensive coordinator and new Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano.

In making his decision to join the Chargers, Johnson said the most difficult part of the day was sending a long text message to many of his former teammates. Aside from veterans Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, no player on the current roster had a longer tenure in Baltimore than Johnson, who came into the league the same year as fellow linebacker Terrell Suggs.

“I got pretty choked up, and it was tough to send that out and say goodbye.”

Unlike the departure of defensive end Cory Redding, the loss of Johnson leaves the Ravens without a comfortable replacement currently on the roster. Pass-rush specialist Paul Kruger would be the most logical current option, but he has never shown the ability to be an every-down player in his first three seasons in Baltimore.

Linebacker Sergio Kindle was drafted in 2010 as Johnson’s eventual replacement in the starting defense, but a fall down two flights of stairs only days before the start of his rookie training camp has derailed the early part of his career. Kindle was only active in two of 16 games last season after missing the entire 2010 season with a fractured skull.

Drafted in the fourth round of the 2003 draft, Johnson began his career as a reserve defensive lineman before transitioning to linebacker and becoming a full-time starter in 2007. Always overshadowed by bigger defensive names such as Lewis, Reed, and Suggs, Johnson provided strong run support and durability as he never missed a game due to injury in his nine years with the Ravens (he was inactive for one game due to a coaches’ decision in his rookie season).

His blue-collar style on the Baltimore defense made him a fan favorite. Never one to dance or draw attention to himself on the field, Johnson said he will always remain appreciative of the overwhelming support from Ravens fans.

“I’m just really thankful for the way the fans accepted me,” Johnson said. “I was kind of my own unique personality. Nothing brings a player more pride than looking into the stands and seeing someone wearing your number.”

Johnson finishes his run in Baltimore with 382 tackles, 20 sacks, and three interceptions in nine seasons and holds the franchise record of 129 consecutive regular-season games played.

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With free agency upon us, Ravens will lean on continued growth from within in 2012

Posted on 12 March 2012 by Luke Jones

With the start of the new league year and free agency less than 24 hours away, you can already hear the cries if you listen carefully.

And you know exactly what I’m talking about if you pay attention to talk radio, internet message boards, and Twitter over the opening days of free agency every year.

When are the Ravens going to do something?

Why does Ozzie insist on sitting on his hands?

They’re definitely taking a step back this season.

Never were those exclamations louder than last season, an unprecedented period of free agency that coincided with the start of training camp after the 134-day lockout. General manager Ozzie Newsome waved goodbye to veterans Derrick Mason, Todd Heap, Kelly Gregg, and Willis McGahee in a series of cap-saving cuts, and a number of veterans including Chris Chester, Dawan Landry, and Josh Wilson found richer contracts elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the Ravens’ free-agent additions for 2011 were relatively modest over the course of the preseason, adding fullback Vonta Leach, safety Bernard Pollard, left tackle Bryant McKinnie, center Andre Gurode, and running back Ricky Williams in addition to re-signing right guard Marshal Yanda to a long-term contract. The “offseason” timetable was stunted by the lockout, but Newsome operated in the way he typically does — calculated and conservative. In fact, the most dynamic move he made — trading a fourth-round pick to the Buffalo Bills for veteran receiver Lee Evans — turned out to be the biggest failure.

The history lesson is worth repeating as the Ravens embark on free agency for the 17th time in franchise history. Projected to have approximately $14.45 million in salary cap space (before tendering restricted free agents and exclusive rights free agents), Newsome will devote much of that to retaining as many of his own free agents as he can.

Of Baltimore’s 12 unrestricted free agents, five were starters last season, meaning the Ravens could be looking at more significant roster turnover than you’d like from an AFC North championship team that was one touchdown catch from advancing to the Super Bowl.

Expecting a dramatic splash of throwing money at elite free agents such as wide receiver Vincent Jackson or outside linebacker Mario Williams is only setting yourself up for disappointment. Even in the years in which he’s had the most cap room, Newsome rarely targets the players grabbing the headlines in the opening days of free agency, instead focusing on keeping his own and laying plans for value free agents that fulfill a need without eating up precious cap room.

As was the case last season, the Ravens will look for continued growth from within to aid in their quest for Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. Entering the 2011 season, Terrence Cody, Ed Dickson, and Dennis Pitta were well-known draft picks from the previous season but had yet to emerge as starting-caliber players in the NFL. Even bigger question marks surrounded Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams before they became legitimate starting cornerbacks for one of the league’s top defenses. And fighting serious doubts after a poor preseason, wide receiver Torrey Smith set franchise rookie records for receptions, receiving yards, and touchdown catches.

Their contributions were as critical as any free-agent acquisition the Ravens made en route to a 12-4 record and their first division title in five years.

This season, the Ravens will potentially look to younger players such as defensive ends Arthur Jones and Pernell McPhee, offensive lineman Jah Reid, and linebackers Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe, and Albert McClellan to help fill potential voids left behind by free agents Cory Redding, Ben Grubbs, Matt Birk, Jarret Johnson, and Jameel McClain. Of course, the Ravens will add new pieces via free agency and next month’s draft to fill some of those needs, but it’s almost a guarantee that they’ll need to lean on some combination of the aforementioned players for expanded roles in 2012.

After tendering their restricted free agents and exclusive rights players, the Ravens will be left with somewhere between $6 million and $7 million to address their own unrestricted free agents and shop the open market. It doesn’t take an economics major to realize that money will only go so far.

But, as he usually does, Newsome will make the most of it.

As the frenzy of free agency begins on Tuesday and the big names start coming off the board — possibly even a few from the Ravens’ own backyard leaving for greener pastures — remember many of the biggest factors determining how the Ravens fare in 2012 already reside in Owings Mills.

It may get ugly, with many of their unrestricted free agents not expected to return, but Newsome and the Ravens never strive to “win” the first week of free agency. They’ll look closely for that under-the-radar talent that nobody is talking about right now. And, as always, the Ravens will plan to shine during April’s draft.

By the time July arrives, they’ll address the offensive line and the linebacker position in some form as well as add a few pieces in other areas to optimize a team that was only a few tenths of a second away from going to the Super Bowl back in January.

Just remember that when you or someone else feels the urge to panic and ask if Newsome is asleep at the wheel over the next week or so.

To borrow an expression from another era and another sport here in Baltimore, it’s “The Raven Way” of doing business.

And if history is any indication, it’s worked pretty well.

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Ranking the Ravens’ biggest defensive needs

Posted on 15 February 2012 by Luke Jones

With free agency set to begin on March 13 and the draft to follow in late April, the Ravens continue to evaluate their needs in all three phases of the game.

After evaluating the biggest offensive needs on Monday, I offer my thoughts on the defensive side of the football by ranking the biggest positions of need entering the offseason.

1. Outside linebacker

For a team as rich as any at the linebacker position over the last 15 years, it’s unusual to see the Ravens with such glaring needs within the unit. Veteran Jarret Johnson is an unrestricted free agent and will be 31 by the start of the 2012 season, suggesting he would be a necessary casualty when addressing a list of 13 unrestricted free agents.

However, there isn’t a single option on the roster with which the Ravens would feel comfortable as a starting strongside linebacker. Paul Kruger shows ability as a pass rusher but has not shown the necessary ability in pass coverage or run defense to consider him an option as a three-down player at this point.

After appearing in only two games this past season, former second-round pick Sergio Kindle is probably more likely to be cut than to find himself in the starting lineup next season. The former Texas product has struggled to learn the Baltimore defense and still feels effects of a fractured skull suffered just days before what would have been his first training camp in 2010, but the 24-year-old will benefit from a full offseason at the team’s Owings Mills facility. Along the same lines as Kindle, Michael McAdoo — who spent the 2011 season on injured reserve — is an intriguing name to monitor but shouldn’t be in the discussion for a starting position at this point.

With that in mind, the Ravens might be more inclined to re-sign Johnson than many would think. Much like they did with Ray Lewis in the winter of 2009, the Ravens will allow the veteran linebacker to explore his value in the open market and see if they can come to an agreement that makes sense for both sides. Of course, new Indianapolis head coach and former Ravens defense coordinator Chuck Pagano could try to overpay for Johnson to bring a Baltimore flavor to the Colts defense. One factor working against the Ravens is a relatively-thin market for outside linebackers, which would not only drive up the price for Johnson but also mean they’d still have to pay handsomely for a replacement.

The Ravens would love to find a young outside backer who can play the run as effectively as Johnson while showing more ability in pass coverage. They could look to a draft prospect such as North Carolina’s Zach Brown, Oklahoma’s Ronnell Lewis, or Utah State’s Bobby Wagner in the early rounds, but the Ravens have rarely shown enough confidence in rookies to step into a starting job at the linebacker position.

The dream scenario would be to find an outside linebacker with enough pass-rushing ability to alleviate attention from Terrell Suggs on the opposite side, but Kruger did an adequate job in getting after the quarterback in passing situations.

2. Inside linebacker

The talk has only grown louder regarding the need to find the heir apparent to future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis, but the Ravens first need to figure out who will be playing next to him in 2012.

Jameel McClain is an unrestricted free agent and while the Ravens have to be pleased with his development after signing him as a rookie free agent in 2008, the 26-year-old will likely command more money than Baltimore is willing to pay to retain his services. This would leave Dannell Ellerbe, Albert McClellan, and Josh Bynes as potential replacements. Ellerbe is an restricted free agent while the latter two are exclusive rights players, meaning all three are very likely to return.

Veteran Brendon Ayanbadejo is also a free agent, meaning the Ravens could be in danger of losing arguably their best linebacker in terms of pass coverage.

Ellerbe has shown impressive potential in limited doses, but his work ethic has come into question on a number of occasions to draw the ire of coach John Harbaugh. The Ravens might be content with plugging Ellerbe into the other inside linebacker spot for now, but he’s far from a safe bet to be an answer beyond the 2012 season.

The Ravens face a difficult proposition in how to handle Lewis, who still plays the run effectively but is a liability in pass coverage. The prudent answer would be to limit the veteran to action on first and second down, but explaining that to one of the greatest linebackers in NFL history is easier said than done. You also need to have a viable replacement before you tell the defensive leader he comes off the field in passing situations.

While there has been plenty of talk over the last year or two to find Lewis’ eventual replacement, this year’s draft appears to be a critical time to find an up-and-coming inside linebacker. The Ravens have been linked to both Dont’a Hightower of Alabama and Vontaze Burfict of Arizona State in various mock drafts. The problem is Hightower may be off the board by the time the 29th pick rolls around and Burfict’s character has come into question with a reputation for delivering cheap shots and reportedly sucker-punching a teammate in practice last August.

3. Safety*

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Ravens musings for Week 13

Posted on 29 November 2011 by Luke Jones

As the Ravens prepare to return to the practice field after a much-needed layoff following two games in a five-day period and ahead of a AFC North matchup in Cleveland on Sunday, here are five thoughts to ponder …

1. The Ravens will face another sub-.500 team on the road this Sunday, but this one has a different feel than their previous failures in Jacksonville and Seattle. The question has already been asked and will continue to be tossed at coaches and players as the Ravens prepare to face the Browns: Can Baltimore beat a team it’s supposed to beat on the road? The Ravens will say all the right things in Owings Mills this week, but actions speak louder than words after a 1-3 road record against teams with losing marks this season. The Ravens are more familiar with the Browns than they were the Jaguars and Seahawks since they play them twice a year in the AFC North. Baltimore has annual first-hand experience with the difficulty of playing — and winning — games in Cleveland. New head coach Pat Shurmur will have some new wrinkles for the Ravens, but the personnel remains similar as the Browns will try to run the ball with Peyton Hillis and force Joe Flacco into making mistakes against the top-ranked pass defense in the NFL. Perhaps the most significant difference between this game and the Ravens’ past troubles on the road is the run defense they’ll be facing. Cleveland is 29th against the run while Jacksonville and Seattle were far more formidable in stopping a ground attack. With no room for error in the strongly-contested AFC, it’s hard to imagine the Ravens laying another egg on the road against an inferior team. Then again, I said the same thing about their game in Jacksonville. And in Seattle.

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2. With five games remaining in the regular season, Ray Lewis would be wise to heed any medical advice he receives regarding his injured toe. The 36-year-old linebacker desperately wants to return to the field, and no one can question his tolerance for pain over the course of his 16 seasons in the NFL. But if the Ravens learned anything from their two victories over playoff-caliber teams in five days last week, it should be that they’re capable of winning football games without their defensive leader. As soon as Lewis is as close to 100 percent as he can possibly get with the toe, he’ll make his return to the field, even if it’s against Cleveland on Sunday or winless Indianapolis next week. There’s no such thing as simply holding him out for “better” opponents as some like to suggest. However, with the Ravens receiving such strong play from Jameel McClain and having competent backups in Dannell Ellerbe, Brendon Ayanbadejo, and Albert McClellan, there’s no need for Lewis to return to the field before his injured toe is ready. At some point, Lewis may need to force the issue and play at much less than 100 percent, but it might as well come in January and not against the likes of four straight opponents with sub-.500 records. By no means will I diminish Lewis’ impact on the defense and the team in general, but if the Ravens fall to the likes of the Browns or the Colts, Lewis’ potential absence won’t be the primary reason why.

3. The return of Lee Evans’ opens up more possibilities in the vertical passing game, but offensive coordinator Cam Cameron shouldn’t shy away from using two tight ends in the process. The veteran receiver saw his workload increase against the 49ers as Evans even replaced rookie Torrey Smith on a couple occasions in two-receiver sets, and the Ravens intend to use him more and more as he proves to be fully healthy. Cameron and quarterback Joe Flacco are licking their chops at the thought of Evans and Smith lining up on opposite sides as two deep threats on the outside, but the Ravens shouldn’t forget the success they’ve had in using tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta on the field at the same time. Linebackers can’t cover them while cornerbacks and many safeties can’t handle their size. The increased role for Evans would logically cut into Pitta’s opportunities, which is a slippery slope given the rapport he’s developed with Flacco, especially on third down as we saw once again against the 49ers.

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Under pressure: Ravens defense swarms Cardinals in 30-27 win

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Under pressure: Ravens defense swarms Cardinals in 30-27 win

Posted on 30 October 2011 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — While most attention fell directly on the shoulders of a Baltimore offense that couldn’t get out of its own way in the first half and couldn’t be stopped in the final 30 minutes, the 30-27 comeback victory over Arizona wouldn’t have been possible without a swarming defensive effort by the Ravens to earn the greatest comeback in franchise history.

After two turnovers and a special teams score essentially gift-wrapped 21 points to the Cardinals in the second quarter, the Baltimore defense buckled down after intermission, allowing a mere 56 total yards and minus-1 passing yards as Arizona quarterback Kevin Kolb had no answers for the pass rush. The Ravens finished the day with a season-high six sacks, including two from third-year linebacker Paul Kruger and one from Terrell Suggs, who also led the team with 13 tackles.

It continued an early-season trend of tremendous pressure and stellar defense in support of a maddeningly-inconsistent Ravens offense. Without it, the Ravens’ 24-point explosion in the second half may have been all for naught.

Five players collected sacks, giving the Ravens 25 through the first seven games of the season under new, aggressive defense coordinator Chuck Pagano. It’s a stark contrast to a year ago when the Baltimore defense produced a franchise-low 27 under former coordinator Greg Mattison.

“It was like we all had a knack to do it,” Suggs said. “The game that those guys were having, I was really flattered to be their teammate. I thought to myself, we can be special, we can be a special group. I think it’s like a confidence thing.”

That confidence didn’t waver despite just six points from the offense in the first half. Instead of buckling under the pressure of an 18-point deficit and taking unnecessary chances, the Ravens allowed only one second-half drive that was greater than 13 yards, a 38-yard, penalty-aided march that resulted in a 45-yard field goal by Jay Feely in the fourth quarter.

“Second half, what we did when we came out is we played Ravens-style football,” linebacker Ray Lewis said. “The offense got back to doing what they do. Joe [Flacco] threw the ball very efficiently. [Anquan Boldin] had a great day, and Ray [Rice] was Ray, and all the different pieces. I think, defensively, you go from the first half to the second half, I think we just turned our level up just a little bit. First half, they didn’t have that many plays on us, but they had enough to gain that lead. I just think overall as a team, we came out and did some great things.”

New offensive identity?

With the Ravens shifting to a no-huddle, shotgun attack for most of the second half, they produced 24 points and 249 yards of total offense after being held to six points and 156 yards in the first two quarters.

The Baltimore offense’s longest drive of the second half was only 3:12 despite scoring four times on their way to the comeback victory. Joe Flacco threw for 238 yards in the second half on his way to finishing the game with career highs in attempts (51) and completions (31) and his seventh career 300-yard passing game.

“I think we react well to the hurry-up,” Flacco said. “I think it can put a defene on their heels a little bit. I think it can wear them out a little bit. It’s tough to rush the passer, rush the passer, really be able to hold up in there and continue to get that good pass rush.”

It certainly appeared to help the offensive line after it turned in arguably it’s worst half of the season as Cardinals defenders were constantly in Flacco’s face prior to halftime.

Perhaps even more interesting was the Ravens’ extensive use of tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta in a pseudo four-receiver set with the two being used as slot receivers. Dickson and Pitta were targeted 17 times, finishing with a combined 12 receptions for 90 yards.

The Ravens only ran the ball 11 times in the second half while Flacco attempted 28 second-half passes. It’s not exactly the balanced attack critics are calling for, but the second half should convince offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and head coach John Harbaugh that the no-huddle offense should be a very realistic bullet in the Ravens offense.

Big day for Boldin

Though he downplayed the significance of playing his former team all week, wide receiver Anquan Boldin turned in a dominating performance against the Cardinals, producing the most receiving yards of his two-year stay in Baltimore with 145 yards on seven catches.

Boldin’s dominance was on full display with the Ravens’ second scoring drive of the third quarter when he caught four passes for 80 yards, even with defensive backs draped all over him. His 145 yards rank as the seventh-best output of his nine-year career.

The veteran receiver felt he could exploit the Cardinals’ young cornerbacks and thought he could be successful even with good coverage.

“That’s one of the reasons I was brought here,” Boldin said. “There’s a lot of times when you are covered. I mean, if a guy’s on you, in this league, that’s [still being] open. Joe was able to put the ball in the right place, and I was able to make a play on it.”

Odds & ends

The Ravens’ 21-point comeback victory was the largest in team history. The previous high was a 19-point comeback win against the Titans in Nashville on Nov. 12, 2006. … Running back Ray Rice posted a career-high three rushing touchdowns, becoming the third player in Ravens history to accomplish the feat. Jamal Lewis did it twice and Willis McGahee was the most recent back to do it. … Kicker Billy Cundiff hit the seventh game-winning field goal of his career when he connected on a 25-yarder as time expired. It was his third game-winner in his three-year career with the Ravens. … The Ravens are the only team this season that hasn’t allowed an opponent to score on a game-opening drive. … Baltimore has now started the season at 5-2 for the fourth time in team history (2000, 2006, and 2010 were the others). … There were no new injuries reported after the game, according to the Ravens.

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Ravens-Chiefs Preseason Primer: What to watch tonight

Posted on 18 August 2011 by Luke Jones

***Join us in the Purple Haze live chat beginning at 7:30 p.m. as WNST.net brings you live coverage from M&T Bank Stadium. For the quickest updates and analysis, follow WNST on Twitter and be sure to subscribe to the WNST Text Service.***

Playing their preseason home opener on Friday night, the Ravens envision a better showing against the Kansas City Chiefs after a lackluster effort in Philadelphia last week.

Coach John Harbaugh said starters will play well into the second quarter, a higher workload than you’ll typically find in the second preseason game, in an effort to accelerate the development of a young offense with question marks along the offensive line. With starting lineman Matt Birk (knee surgery) and Marshal Yanda (back spams) current sidelined, the Ravens will use Bryan Mattison at center, Oniel Cousins at right guard, and rookie Jah Reid at tackle — an uncomfortable proposition for quarterback Joe Flacco.

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Friday will also mark the preseason debuts for newly-acquired veterans Ricky Williams and Lee Evans. Williams had only practiced once prior to the opener against the Eagles, and the Ravens traded a fourth-round pick to Buffalo to bring the veteran wideout Evans to Baltimore a day after the Ravens’ 13-6 loss last week.

The Ravens will also welcome three former players back to Baltimore as defensive tackle Kelly Gregg, fullback Le’Ron McClain, and offensive tackle Jared Gaither all signed with the Chiefs after spending multiple years in Baltimore. Gregg was released to create salary cap space while McClain and Gaither departed as unrestricted free agents.

Series history

The Ravens and Kansas City have never met in the preseason, but Baltimore’s 30-7 thrashing over the Chiefs in the Wild Card round last year will be fresh on everyone’s mind.

However, the Chiefs hold a slight advantage in the regular season series, 3-2. Kansas City won the first three meetings between the two AFC teams before the Ravens earned victories in 2006 and 2009.

Kansas City connections

In addition to the three former Ravens now on the Kansas City roster, there are several other links between the two teams.

Safety Bernard Pollard began his NFL career with the Chiefs after being selected by them in the second round of the 2006 draft. He played three seasons in Kansas City, accumulating 189 tackles, three interceptions, and one sack before being released prior to the start of the 2009 season.

Chiefs receiver Terrance Copper played two games for the Ravens in the 2008 season, Harbaugh’s first season as head coach. On the flip side, Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff spent time during the 2008 offseason on the Kansas City roster.

Chiefs defensive line coach Anthony Pleasant played defensive end for the Ravens in their inaugural season of 1996 after spending the first six years of his career in Cleveland.

Kansas City tackle Branden Albert (Glen Burnie) and receivers coach Richie Anderson (Sandy Springs) are Maryland natives.

And perhaps the most interesting connection is Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli’s former role as the pro personnel coordinator for the Ravens in 1996. Pioli moved to Baltimore from Cleveland, where he worked as a personnel assistant for the Browns for four seasons.

Injury report

Yanda (back spasms) will not play after missing five straight days of practice this week, though Harbaugh is hopeful the guard can return for next week’s game against Washington. Birk has been sidelined since the first full week of camp after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery.

Cornerback Chris Carr missed practice on Tuesday and Wednesday after straining his hamstring in Monday’s workout, leaving his status against the Chiefs in doubt.

Others not expected to play include receiver James Hardy (hamstring), running back Damien Berry (leg), and defensive back Marcus Paschal.

Receiver David Reed missed practice on Wednesday after being activated from the physically-unable-to-perform list at the beginning of the week.

Veteran cornerback Domonique Foxworth has increased his workload in practice in recent days as he continues to work his way back from the ACL injury that wiped out his entire 2010 season. The former Maryland star has worked with the second team while rookie Jimmy Smith and third-year player Cary Williams took reps with the starting defense. Foxworth did not play in the preseason opener.

7 Players to Watch

1. WR Lee Evans – Friday night’s game will mark one week since the Ravens acquired Evans from the Bills. The eighth-year veteran stepped into the starting lineup on his first day of practice, but Evans still needs to develop timing with Flacco. The former Wisconsin Badger has shown impressive speed in practice, including a fly route on Monday that caused Carr to pull up lame.

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Ravens falter on third down, nearly everywhere else in preseason opener

Posted on 11 August 2011 by Luke Jones

PHILADELPHIA — While most concern lies with the changes to the Ravens’ offensive personnel through the first two weeks of training camp, the starting defense — or second and third units, for that matter — raised plenty of concerns on their own Thursday night.

In the Eagles’ 13-6 win over the Ravens, the Baltimore defense struggled to get off the field on third down, continually missing tackles and failing to force incompletions. The numbers were particularly troubling in the first half with key personnel on the field through the first 30 minutes. Philadelphia was 4-for-4 on third-down conversions in the first quarter and 5-for-7 by halftime.

“We were in position to make the tackle in the backfield, including two sacks, and we didn’t make the plays,” coach John Harbaugh said. “We have to get off the field in those third-down situations, and we didn’t in the first half.”

The only touchdown of the game came on the Eagles’ opening drive when Michael Vick threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Brent Celek with starting inside linebacker Jameel McClain covering. McClain struggled in the first quarter, allowing two completions and missing a tackle on Ronnie Brown on a beautifully-designed run blitz.

That scoring play was set up by a 42-yard pass to Riley Cooper, who slipped behind Chris Carr and Ed Reed on the long completion.

Philadelphia’s third-down success continued throughout the evening as the Eagles converted 10 of 16 for the game.

Separation anxiety

Concerns at the receiver position only grew louder as Baltimore receivers failed to get separation throughout the night.

Joe Flacco finished 3-for-6 for 60 yards in his only quarter of work and failed to complete a pass to a wide receiver. In fact, the Ravens did not have a receiver make a catch until the 6:15 mark of the second quarter when Tyrod Taylor completed a 6-yard throw to rookie Tandon Doss.

Doss finished with three catches for 26 yards to lead all Baltimore wide receivers through the first three quarters. In fact, no other wideout caught a pass until the fourth quarter when LaQuan Williams had three receptions for 46 yards and Justin Harper grabbed two catches for 17 yards.

Rookie Torrey Smith made the start opposite Anquan Boldin, but the former Maryland standout appeared hesitant in running routes against the talented Philadelphia secondary. He was targeted three times but failed to make a catch.

The only highlight of the passing game was tight end Dennis Pitta, making the start in place of the injured Ed Dickson. Pitta made a spectacular catch off the back of safety Kurt Coleman on the first play from scrimmage and finished the evening with four catches for 47 yards.

“Everything just kind of slows down in year two,” said Pitta, referring to his rookie season in which he caught just one pass for one yard. “I felt a lot more comfortable out there. Felt like I had pretty good chemistry with Joe today. We didn’t get a ton of series to work together, but the ones that we did, I felt like we were on the same page pretty well.”

Backup blues

The struggles of rookie quarterback Tyrod Taylor made it painfully obvious how badly the Ravens need to explore the market for a veteran backup quarterback.

In fairness, Taylor found himself running for his life for much of the night, but his two interceptions were costly, one coming at the goal line when Jarrad Page picked off a pass intended for Doss. The Virginia Tech product finish his night going 19-for-28 for 179 yards.

“Tyrod did some good things,” Camerson said. “He’s a young man who learns quickly, and you almost see improvement every play. I’ll say one thing: It’s not too big for him. He has poise.”

Poise or not, it’s hard to feel comfortable with the rookie as the No. 2 quarterback — even with a month to go until the start of the regular season.

Stepping up

Third-year rush specialist Paul Kruger has received rave reviews from teammates throughout training camp, and his first-half performance on Thursday night only confirmed their high praise.

Kruger led the Ravens with five tackles and collected a sack of backup Vince Young in the final minute of the first quarter. The former Utah defensive end will be heavily counted upon to boost the Ravens’ pass rush that struggled to make quarterbacks uncomfortable last season.

“It’s always nice to make plays, but overall, the goal is to win the game, and unfortunately, we came up short,” Kruger said. “Definitely take the good and run with it, and we have a couple things we need to work on. Hopefully a better outcome next week.”

Odds & ends

The Ravens did not have any injuries on Thursday night, although Taylor briefly left the game in the third quarter after taking another brutal hit from the Philadelphia defense. He returned a few plays later, however. … Of the seven combined kickoffs between the two teams, all but one were touchbacks. Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff had three touchbacks in his three kickoff attempts. … The Ravens had an apparent touchdown in the third quarter when rookie defensive end Pernell McPhee stripped Eagles quarterback Mike Kafka, and Lardarius Webb returned the fumble 93 yards for a touchdown. However, the replay assistant called for a review of the fumble ruling — all scoring plays are subject to booth reviews this season — and the play was was deemed an incomplete pass, giving the ball back to Philadelphia and erasing the defensive score.

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The ‘fall’ of the Ravens defense started many Aprils ago

Posted on 17 November 2010 by Luke Jones

If you’ve been wearing out your Greg Mattison dartboard over the last several weeks, you’re probably not alone.

After all, the current Ravens defensive coordinator is solely responsible for the fall of a once-dominant unit all the way to 10th in the NFL, right?

(As an aside, how spoiled are we to be frustrated with a unit still better — statistically — than 22 other defenses in the league?)

From eliminating the submissive three-man rush to playing tighter, press coverage in the secondary, Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan, or Rex Ryan would be coaching this defense to the elite level it enjoyed over the last decade instead of the mortal status it currently holds.

If only it were that simple.

Placing blame on a few individuals is common practice (Mattison, maligned cornerback Fabian Washington, and, until recently, “overrated” linebacker Terrell Suggs are popular targets these days), but the defensive problems run far deeper.

Personnel issues, aging stars, a key injury (anyone remember Domonique Foxworth?), and — perhaps — coaching shortcomings have left the Ravens with an above-average defense pursuing ghosts of dominance on the M&T Bank Stadium turf.

Truth be told, the current deterioration of the Baltimore defense began years ago, even while the unit was enjoying perennial elite status.

Anyone who’s followed Ozzie Newsome’s 15 years in Baltimore knows organizational success begins and ends in April. Shrewd trades and a sprinkling of free-agent signings have contributed over the years, but the Ravens have traditionally made their money with the NFL Draft, especially on the defensive side of the football.

(Photo courtesy of ESPN.com)

And herein lies the problem with the current defense.

Since the Ravens drafted Suggs with the 10th overall pick in the 2003 draft, Newsome has used only one first-round pick on a defensive player, tackle Haloti Ngata in 2006.

By no means is that an indictment of Newsome, director of player personnel Eric DeCosta, and the scouting department in Owings Mills. The Ravens had no choice but to address the offensive side of the football in hopes of reaching the pinnacle of the NFL.

If defense alone truly wins championships, the Ravens would have a showcase full of Vince Lombardi Trophies in the lobby at 1 Winning Drive, but Baltimore has fallen short with a number of elite defenses, all because of offensive units that couldn’t get out of their own way.

As a result, the team has used five of its last six first-round picks on offensive players, including quarterback Joe Flacco (2008) and current starting linemen Ben Grubbs (2007) and Michael Oher (2009). Meanwhile, the defense largely maintained the status quo, carrying the mantra of dominance for years.

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Perhaps seeing leaks last season, the front office emphasized defense in April, drafting Sergio Kindle from Texas and the mammoth Terrence Cody from Newsome’s alma mater of Alabama. Ultimately, a draft’s success cannot be gauged for a few years, but the short-term return has been negligible halfway through the 2010 season.

In fairness, if you could have predicted Kindle’s fall down two flights of stairs in late July, forget about running an NFL front office; I’m asking you for this weekend’s winning lottery numbers.

Cody, on the other hand, still has time to contribute in the short-term and has played better in the Ravens’ last two games after a slow start to his professional career.

But one draft was not going to fix a philosophical shift in recent years that focused on offense with defensive upgrades taking a backseat. A simple look at the defensive picks in the Ravens’ first three rounds since 2004 shows the underwhelming results (the round in which the player was selected is noted in parentheses):

2004: DE Dwan Edwards (2nd)
2005: LB Dan Cody (2nd)
2006: DT Haloti Ngata (1st), CB David Pittman (3rd)
2007: None
2008: LB Tavares Gooden (3rd), S Tom Zbikowski (3rd)
2009: DE Paul Kruger (2nd), CB Lardarius Webb (3rd)
2010: LB Sergio Kindle (2nd), DT Terrence Cody (2nd)

Far more alarming than the lack of first-round selections is the volume of players who failed to make an impact as higher selections. Dan Cody (injuries) and Pittman (ineffectiveness) barely made it on the field in their brief time in Baltimore, and it remains unknown whether Kindle will ever play again, let alone contribute at a high level.

Other players, such as Edwards before signing with Buffalo last offseason, Gooden, and Kruger, have been little more than role players, contributing at times but failing to make a significant impact, though recent draft picks deserve more time to develop.

In contrast, a look at the Ravens’ defensive selections in the first three rounds from 1996 to 2003 shows a much different picture:

1996: LB Ray Lewis (1st), CB DeRon Jenkins (2nd)
1997: LB Peter Boulware (1st), LB Jamie Sharper (2nd), S Kim Herring (2nd)
1998: CB Duane Starks (1st)
1999: CB Chris McAlister (1st)
2000: None
2001: CB Gary Baxter (2nd)
2002: S Ed Reed (1st), DE Anthony Weaver (2nd)
2003: LB Terrell Suggs (1st)

The number of players chosen is similar (11 defensive players chosen in eight years compared to the 10 defenders selected in the seven drafts since 2004), but every player on the latter list started multiple seasons — many of them at elite levels — except Jenkins, who was largely considered a bust in his four years with the Ravens. Of course, the six first-rounds selections paid the largest dividends, but their other picks made significant contributions as well.

Looking at their draft record since 2004 and comparing it to the franchise’s first eight years in Baltimore reveals that in addition to the front office using fewer first-round picks on defensive players, it hasn’t been nearly as successful finding defensive talent in the second and third rounds, especially at cornerback where the unit currently struggles.

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Ravens vs. Bengals  -  5 Keys To The Game

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Ravens vs. Bengals – 5 Keys To The Game

Posted on 19 September 2010 by Rex Snider

Well, after months of dissecting the New Yorks Jets, followed by an emotionally draining Monday night contest in the Meadowlands, it’s time to get back to SUNDAY football.

The Ravens travel to the Queen City, this afternoon, for a 1pm matchup against the Bengals. It should be another tough, close game …. albeit from a diiferent perspective than the struggle against the Jets. The Bengals will most certainly feature a better passing game, while offering weaker resistance than Gang Green’s defensive attack.

Here are my FIVE KEYS to today’s game …..


This was the one thing the intimidating Ravens defense could not achieve, in 2009. Benson rushed for 120 and 117 yards, respectively, in both meetings. And, he broke runs of 20+ yards both times, as well. This cannot happen today.

Cedric Benson’s success is undoubtedly tied to his large, athletic offensive line. Each lineman weighs in excess of 320 pounds and they provided a formidable shield for 100 yard gains, 8 times, in 2009. The Ravens must find a way to stop the running attack – if Benson is successful, again, it will leave the Ravens defense languishing on the field for long drives.

It would be nice to see “Mount” Cody helping to plug up the middle. Perhaps, we’ll see Paul Kruger – who runs around like his hair is on fire, as well. Regardless, they MUST stop Benson.

It’s simple, see Key #1. Just as Cedric Benson succeeded against the Ravens, in 2009, Ray Rice realized lesser success. He managed 69 and 48 yards, respectively, in both games. The second matchup, in Cincinnati, exploits some misleading numbers. Rice had only 12 touches, with an average gain of 4 yards, per carry.

While the improved Ravens passing game will be a factor in today’s game, Ray Rice figures to offer that same ability to grinding positive yardage and keeping the Bengals defense on the field. It’s going to be 86 degrees and humid, in Cincinnati, today. It will undoubtedly be tiring conditions for each team’s defense.

Chad OchoCinco and Terrell Owens will make catches in today’s game. That’s fine. I worry more about the likes of Jordan Shipley, Andre’ Caldwell (remember him?) and Jermaine Gresham. Each of these guys offer varying targets for Palmer. And, I’m suspicious of rookie Gresham’s possible success across the middle. He’s a lot BIGGER than Dustin Keller and he’s quite athletic.

With Ray Lewis nursing a sore foot, I’ll be watching the middle pretty closely.

Perhaps, today can be the DAY that Joe Flacco serves notice as the most prolific passer in the AFC-North. He now has a surrounding cast comparable to the likes of Carson Palmer. Translation – NO EXCUSES.

The additions of Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh were evident, last week. However, they can STAND OUT today. And, with Todd Heap hurting, we can rely on better backups than names like L.J. Smith and Quinn Sypniewski. Welcome to the show, Ed Dickson. We just might see some fireworks from one of the NFL’s next rockstar tight ends.

But, it rests upon the shoulders (and arm) of Joe Flacco. With Keith Rivers also nursing a sore foot and Jonathan Fanene OUT, the Ravens will likely benefit from a weakened pass rush. Flacco delivers today …..

He absolutely did it to Rex Ryan, just 6 nights ago. Today, John Harbaugh is tasked with outsmarting Marvin Lewis in the strategical side of the game. Can it happen? Heck yeah …..

Say what you want, a big part of the Bengals embarrassing performance against New England can be attributed to being OUTCOACHED. Bill Belichick was hellbent on putting the Bengals in an early hole, while removing Cedric Benson from a revamped comeback agenda. It worked perfectly.

Today, Harbaugh & Company will need to have a shrewd strategy as the team enters enemy territory for the 2nd time in as many weeks. It starts with DISCIPLINE, and there is little doubt the Ravens will have that angle covered. Now, lets be smart …..
Ravens 27 Bengals 24

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Live from Owings Mills: Webb a “game-time decision,” Cousins expected to play against Jets

Posted on 11 September 2010 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With an opening night encounter against the New York Jets only two days away, the Baltimore Ravens took the practice field on Saturday for a final tuneup before Sunday’s walk-through and train ride to East Rutherford, N.J..

Cornerback Lardarius Webb was practicing again on Saturday and is listed as probable on the official game status report released Saturday afternoon. Coach John Harbaugh,  however, labeled the second-year corner a game-time decision, which often means a player will be listed as questionable on the final injury report. Even if Webb does play, Fabian Washington and Chris Carr are expected to start against the Jets, with Josh Wilson working as the third corner.

“[Webb has] practiced 100 percent the whole week; he’s done everything,” Harbaugh said on Saturday. “We didn’t rule [him] out, and we haven’t said he was going to go. That’s kind of one we’re leaving up in the air for you.”

The Ravens are at least making it sound like Webb might play after defensive coordinator Greg Mattison claimed the second-year corner was “a lot closer” to returning following Friday’s practice. As he has said repeatedly since returning to the practice field last month, Webb will defer to the coaching staff to decide whether he plays in the opener,

“I think I can play if it came down to it,” Webb said. “I’m still leaving it up to coach  Harbaugh and [trainer Bill Tessendorf], but I am prepared and ready.”

Webb did not sound encouraged when asked about the potential chance of returning to the field for Week 1 after failing to receive any action in the team’s four preseason games. The cornerback missed training camp and the entire preseason as he rehabbed the surgically-repaired ACL in his right knee.

“It’s just all about the right timing,” Webb said following Saturday’s workout. “Me, [Harbaugh], and [Tessendorf will] come together and see what we want to do this week. We’re going to leave it to the game-time decision.”

The Ravens are keeping everyone guessing regarding the right tackle position with Jared Gaither already ruled out with the same back injury that has kept him off the practice field since early August. Oniel Cousins is listed as probable for Monday’s game and practiced on Saturday. Harbaugh’s comments following practice suggested all indications point to the young tackle being on the field against the Jets; however, it does not mean Cousins will be in the starting lineup. The third-year tackle said the symptoms from a concussion sustained in the final week of training camp have disappeared over the last few days.

“I don’t believe [Cousins] is touch-and-go,” Harbaugh said. “I would expect him to play. I shouldn’t speak for the doctors, but it looks to me like he’s ready to play.”

Cousins had made comments on Friday suggesting he may not be ready to go against the Jets. Tony Moll or starting right guard Marshal Yanda would be the most logical candidates to start should Cousins be held out. Moving Yanda to right tackle would force top reserve Chris Chester to move into the starting lineup at right guard, a position at which he split time last season with Yanda, who was still working his way back from a devastating knee injury suffered in 2008.

The preseason hype machine has been as loud as ever in Baltimore with expectations soaring for third-year quarterback Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense. The receiving trio of Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and Derrick Mason appears tremendous on paper, but the question remains whether the young quarterback can keep all three former Pro Bowlers content by spreading the ball around in the passing game. The three possess similar traits, but none have a strong ability to stretch the field, making the trade of Mark Clayton a perplexing short-term decision with speedy receiver Donte’ Stallworth out with a broken foot until at least the bye week at the end of October.

Despite Houshmandzadeh being a Raven for less than a week, Harbaugh expects the veteran wideout to receive extensive playing time against the Jets. The former Bengals and Seahawks receiver wants to play as much as possible but is realistic about his limitations after only practicing four days with the team.

“That’s what I’m used to doing is playing the entire game,” Houshmandzadeh said following Saturday’s practice. “I’m not a fool, I know that’s not going to happen. But I want to play as much as I can.

All signs point to safety Tom Zbikowski returning punts against the Jets, as he is listed as the top returner on the team’s official depth chart and was again fielding punts in the portion of practice open to the media on Saturday. Webb has also fielded punts in practice this week, but one would think the coaching staff would prefer not to use Webb in the return game before he establishes himself as fit to contribute on defense.

There were no surprises among the players absent from practice, as Gaither, Stallworth, and defensive tackle Terrence Cody (knee) were absent from practice again on Saturday. All three have already been ruled out for Monday night.

NOTES: Ed Reed celebrated his 32nd birthday on Saturday and celebrated by working out on the side field at 1 Winning Drive. Several teammates wished the free safety a happy birthday during the portion of practice open to the media. Reed will miss at least the first six weeks of the season after being placed on the reserve Physically Unable to Perform list last week. … Walt Anderson will be the referee in Monday night’s game. His crew officiated the Ravens’ Monday night loss to the Packers last season in which a total of 23 penalties for 310 yards were called between the teams.

Check out the BuyAToyota.com Audio Vault to hear from Harbaugh, Webb, Cousins, and Houshmandzadeh following Saturday’s practice in Owings Mills.

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