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Harbaugh expects Hoke to be Michigan coach for “long time to come”

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Harbaugh expects Hoke to be Michigan coach for “long time to come”

Posted on 29 September 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — As Baltimore fans watched the Ravens improve to 3-1 with a 38-10 thumping of the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, a report stated the University of Michigan could be targeting the services of head coach John Harbaugh.

With the Wolverines off to a disappointing 2-3 start and current head coach Brady Hoke’s status in severe doubt, the NFL Network reported that the program prefers the Ravens coach over younger brother and 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, whose future in San Francisco remains uncertain beyond this season. This isn’t the first time the Harbaugh brothers have been linked to the Michigan football program as John graduated from Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor and Jim played quarterback for the Wolverines before going on to play in the NFL.

Their father, Jack Harbaugh, served as an assistant under legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler in the 1970s.

According to The Sun, John Harbaugh is not interested in the job, but the head coach did not go out of his way to confirm or deny potential interest when asked Monday about once again being linked to Michigan. In addition to being under contract as one of the highest-paid coaches in the NFL through the 2017 season, Harbaugh has remained close with Hoke after they coached together at Western Michigan in the mid-1980s.

“It seems like it’s kind of there. I don’t really know why,” said Harbaugh about being linked to Michigan. “Brady Hoke’s a guy that we believe in. The Harbaughs believe in Brady Hoke. He’s a great coach; he’s done it anywhere he’s ever been. He believes in Michigan. I believe in what they’re doing there. I think they’re going to get it turned around.”

Former Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has served in the same capacity under Hoke since 2011, another link between the two. Rumors have also persisted that Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon could be on his way out, which would certainly complicate any potential search for a new head football coach in Ann Arbor.

On Saturday, the Wolverines fell to Minnesota for just the third time since 1967. This season marks the first time in its 135-year football history that Michigan has sustained three losses before the start of October.

“The team should be galvanized right now,” said Harbaugh, who has a 65-35 regular-season record in seven NFL seasons and guided the Ravens to a win in Super Bowl XLVII. “I would expect them to come out like a bunch of wounded lions and go to work, because they love Brady and they love those coaches. They’ve just got to [play]. I’m interested in Brady Hoke being the coach at Michigan for a long time to come.”

Webb’s status still mystery

Even though he didn’t appear on the injury report last week for the first time all season, cornerback Lardarius Webb was ruled inactive prior to the 38-10 win over the Carolina Panthers, creating even more uncertainty regarding his status.

Harbaugh acknowledged Webb’s struggles against Cleveland played a major role in deciding he still wasn’t ready to rejoin the Ravens’ starting defense. The head coach is hopeful that changes this Sunday as Baltimore travels to Indianapolis to take on the 2-2 Colts.

“I’ll probably have a pretty good idea after watching practice,” Harbaugh said about Webb’s status for Week 5. “I probably won’t let anybody know until Sunday. But it will be based on how he practices and how he looks in terms of getting his acceleration and his burst back — the things that everybody saw that weren’t quite there.”

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees continues to use strong safety Matt Elam in the nickel position, but rookie Terrence Brooks saw extensive action with 32 defensive snaps playing free safety in the nickel package against the Panthers. The 2014 third-round pick was inactive in Week 3 but fared well against Carolina, according to the head coach.

Harbaugh said the health of Webb’s back is no longer a concern after the cornerback didn’t practice from July 25 through the end of training camp.

“They tell me that he’s healthy now, and he says he feels healthy,” Harbaugh said. “But it’s just a matter of that strength and quickness and burst, which should come back fast. Anybody that has ever trained [knows] if you’ve been in great shape, you get back in shape pretty quickly, in terms of strength and burst and things like that. You just have to do it. He’s working really hard at it, and it very well could be this week.

“I’m sure hoping it’s this week. I want to see it this week, and we’ll be shooting for that.”

Two receivers going in different directions

After what was unofficially his fifth dropped pass of the season against the Panthers, struggling wide receiver Jacoby Jones finished the game having taken only seven offensive snaps, his lowest total of 2014.

Jones also made an ill-advised decision to field a punt at his own 2-yard line before returning it to the Baltimore 20. Harbaugh reiterated that the 30-year-old continues to work extremely hard in practice and is simply trying too hard to make a play.

“He catches the ball in practice. Sometimes I think he’s pressing,” Harbaugh said. “I really do. Jacoby has a lot of pride, and he’s made big, big plays in this league before, and he wants to pick up where he left off. [That] hasn’t happened for him, but the thing he has to know — just like Torrey [Smith], just like anybody – is that the key is persistence. You just keep hammering and you don’t get down on yourself, and focus on the fundamentals and the details, and it’ll work out.”

With Jones playing poorly, second-year wide receiver Marlon Brown has suddenly reemerged in the Baltimore offense after making three receptions for 31 yards and playing 31 offensive snaps, his highest total since Week 1.

The 6-foot-5 Brown gives the Ravens another appealing option in the red zone and on third down after tight end Dennis Pitta was lost for the season last week in Cleveland.

“He was in there on the first three-wide group,” Harbaugh said. “He did a good job, made a couple plays — third-down conversions that were very important. [He is a] big target, gets off press really well and blocks, and he did a good job in special teams. He played well. It kind of goes back to what we were saying as far as guys stepping up at different positions.”

Colts’ Landry suspended

The NFL announced Monday afternoon that Indianapolis safety LaRon Landry has been suspended four games without pay for violating the performance-enhancing drug policy.

His suspension begins this week as the Colts’ 21st-ranked pass defense will now be without its hard-hitting safety.

He is the younger brother of former Ravens safety Dawan Landry.

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Offensive line becoming major asset for Ravens at quarter mark

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Offensive line becoming major asset for Ravens at quarter mark

Posted on 28 September 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — On a day in which Steve Smith and Joe Flacco understandably owned the spotlight in the Ravens’ dominating 38-10 win over the Carolina Panthers, John Harbaugh was asked after the game how rookie free agent James Hurst fared in his first start at left tackle.

The head coach’s answer applied as an appropriate assessment of the entire offensive line through the first quarter of the season. After a nightmarish 2013 in which the group stood out on a weekly basis for all the wrong reasons, the Baltimore offensive line hasn’t been a major topic of discussion because of how consistently well it’s played.

Even after losing standout left tackle Eugene Monroe to knee surgery, the Ravens didn’t appear to miss a beat with Hurst, an offensive lineman many didn’t think would make the 53-man roster at this time a month ago.

“I didn’t notice him, so that must be a good thing, right?” Harbaugh said. “I can’t wait to see it on tape, but it seemed like he played well. We ran the ball well. We did a good job across the board, I think, blocking as a group. The unit has played exceptionally well. We have to keep building, but it’s nice to have some depth in there.”

It’s no secret that veteran members of the offensive line took last year’s criticism to heart after the Ravens missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007. Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda made it clear during organized team activities last spring that he had no interest in rehashing the struggles of a running game that averaged a league-worst 3.1 yards per carry in 2013.

In the eyes of the offensive line, it was a different year with a new system installed by new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. There was also new personnel, including the arrival of veteran center Jeremy Zuttah and the promotion of second-year lineman Rick Wagner to the starting right tackle spot. Of course, the improved health of left guard Kelechi Osemele and Yanda also figured to pay major dividends after both dealt with ailments last season.

And it’s led to the previously-loud criticism of offensive line coach Juan Castillo becoming all but silent at this point.

“It’s obviously going to be different with a new offense,” said Zuttah, who’s stabilized the middle of the line that struggled with Gino Gradkowski at center a year ago. “Coach Kubiak is one of the better offensive minds in this league. You watch that Houston Texans running game for years, and they were at the top of the league every year. I think guys came in with a chip on their shoulder and an attitude and a willingness to get better.”

The Ravens’ improvement with the zone-blocking system starts inside where Zuttah said he’s flanked by the “best set of guards in the NFL” in Osemele and Yanda. Through the first four weeks of the season, the two have played at a Pro Bowl level, earning the highest cumulative grades of any Baltimore offensive players, according to Pro Football Focus.

Whether opening lanes for the running back trio of Justin Forsett, Lorenzo Taliaferro, and Bernard Pierce or protecting quarterback Joe Flacco, the offensive line continues to make the 2013 season a distant memory as the Ravens are off to a 3-1 start.

Since Flacco was sacked three times in the season-opening loss to Cincinnati, the offensive line hasn’t allowed one in three straight contests. It’s the first time the Ravens have done that since the 2006 season in which they finished 13-3.

“Those guys have been holding up big time when we do the play-action, when teams come after us, and when we’re dealing with really good defensive lines,” Flacco said. “I think we’ve got a lot of good guys up front, and they’re communicating very well, and they’re being really physical. We’re allowing them to play very physical and get really confident, so it’s been a good run.”

That physicality has paid major dividends in the running game as Forsett and Taliaferro combined to run for 127 yards on 30 carries against the Carolina defense. Averaging 4.5 yards per carry through their first four games, the Ravens have followed through on the promise to return to their roots as a physical, run-first team.

That success has led to a more-efficient Flacco, who is currently on pace to throw a career-high 28 touchdowns and is completing 63.4 percent of his pass attempts. The arrival of the veteran Smith and the revamped running game have allowed Flacco to play more like the signal-caller we saw in the 2012 postseason and less like the man who had to try to do it all by himself last year.

He can thank his offensive line for not only keeping him clean but opening running lanes for whichever running back is carrying the ball. The cohesiveness has impressed the 28-year-old Forsett, who had plenty of experience running in zone-blocking systems in Seattle as well as in his one season with Kubiak in Houston.

Behind a revamped line, the Ravens have rushed for at least 125 yards in three straight games, a feat they hadn’t accomplished since the first three weeks of the 2009 season. Through four games, they’ve also collected six runs of 20 or more yards, one more than they had all last season.

“The offensive line has been gelling really fast,” Forsett said. “I’ve been in this scheme for a while now and to be doing this well this early, it’s a good sign.”

As encouraging as the start to the season has been, the Ravens will now enter a daunting stretch of four road games over the next five weeks. They’ll need that strong offensive line play we’ve seen at M&T Bank Stadium to continue against the likes of Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh in the coming weeks.

Even with the early-season success, members of the offensive line haven’t expressed any sense of satisfaction or an air of “I told you so” after hearing last year’s criticism and the doubts leading into this season.

Averaging 25.75 points per game, the Ravens still offer the impression that they can get even better upfront.

“We did pretty good today, but there were some yards we left out there,” Zuttah said. “I think we’re going to go back in there and be tough on ourselves in the film and see what we can do to get all the yards that we think we missed.”

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Ravens-Panthers: Inactives and pre-game notes

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Ravens-Panthers: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 28 September 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens hoped they were moving closer to getting their full secondary back a week ago with the season debut of Lardarius Webb, but the moments leading into Sunday’s game against the Carolina Panthers provided a different outlook.

After practicing fully all week and not even being listed on the injury report, the sixth-year cornerback was ruled inactive for Week 4 as he continues to try to improve his flexibility and quickness from a back injury that sidelined him for all of training camp. Playing only four snaps against Cleveland last week, Webb appeared slow in his backpedal and was unable to quickly change direction, prompting defensive coordinator Dean Pees to keep him on the sideline for most of the game.

Considering Webb has practiced for nearly a month, the Ravens may need to take a long look at how quickly he can get himself back to an acceptable level of play to help a struggling secondary. Third-year cornerback Asa Jackson is expected to take Webb’s place in the starting lineup once again.

Defensive end Chris Canty (knee) is active after missing practice all week and being listed as questionable on the final injury report. He was the only other Ravens player whose status appeared in doubt after left tackle Eugene Monroe (knee surgery) and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (knee) were officially ruled out on Friday.

As expected, running back Bernard Pierce (quadriceps), linebacker Terrell Suggs (groin), and cornerback Jimmy Smith (knee/ankle) are active after being listed as probable on Friday.

Meanwhile, the Panthers will be without two key players on Sunday as running back Jonathan Stewart (knee) and outside linebacker Thomas Davis (hip) were both ruled inactive after being listed as questionable on the final injury report. However, Carolina will have the services of starting running back DeAngelo Williams (thigh) after he missed the last two games.

The referee for Sunday’s game will be Craig Wrolstad. He’s a new referee this season after serving as an NFL field judge prior to the promotion.

According to Weather.com, Sunday’s forecast calls for temperatures around 80 degrees with partly cloudy skies, no chance of precipitation, and winds up to five miles per hour.

The Ravens will be wearing black jerseys and black pants for the first time this season on Sunday while the Panthers will wear all white.

Former Ravens tight end Todd Heap will be inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor at halftime of Sunday’s game, becoming the eighth Ravens player to receive the honor.

Baltimore and Carolina will be meeting for the fifth time in the all-time regular-season series with the Panthers holding a 3-1 edge. The Ravens lost the only meeting between these teams at M&T Bank Stadium with wide receiver Steve Smith having a big day against his future team in a 23-21 final on Oct. 15, 2006.

Here are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
CB Lardarius Webb
WR Michael Campanaro
LB Arthur Brown
LT Eugene Monroe
G John Urschel
DT Timmy Jernigan
DE Lawrence Guy

CAROLINA
QB Joe Webb
RB Jonathan Stewart
S Tre Boston
RB Fozzy Whittaker
LB Thomas Davis
OL Andrew Norwell
TE Brandon Williams

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Ravens-Panthers: Five predictions for Sunday

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Ravens-Panthers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 27 September 2014 by Luke Jones

The Ravens hope to hit the quarter pole of the season on a winning note when they welcome the Carolina Panthers to Baltimore on Sunday afternoon.

Most focus has understandably centered around wide receiver Steve Smith playing against his former team this week, but the Ravens will be playing their first game since losing tight end Dennis Pitta for the season and left tackle Eugene Monroe for at least the next few weeks. And they face an imposing stretch of four of their next five games on the road following Sunday’s contest at M&T Bank Stadium, making this a game the Ravens would desperately like to win.

Meanwhile, the Panthers are trying to recover from an embarrassing home loss to Pittsburgh last Sunday night while overcoming a number of injuries in their offensive backfield. Expected to have one of the more potent rushing attacks in the NFL this season, the Panthers currently rank 29th in run offense with just 72.3 rushing yards per contest.

Sunday marks the fifth meeting between these teams as Carolina holds a 3-1 edge. However, the Ravens won the only game against the Panthers of the John Harbaugh era, a 37-13 final in Charlotte in 2010.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to win their first ever home game against the Panthers …

1. Steve Smith will catch a touchdown pass and be flagged for a 15-yard penalty against his old team. The 35-year-old has tried to downplay the significance of playing the Panthers after spending the first 13 years of his career in Charlotte, but there’s no escaping the prediction of “blood and guts” he made shortly after signing a three-year contract with the Ravens in March. To say Smith will be fired up is an understatement considering how fiery he is on game days anyway, but he’ll bring a little extra passion that will draw a 15-yard penalty for either unnecessary roughness or taunting at some point. He’ll make up for it, however, with a touchdown catch to beat Panthers cornerback Antoine Cason.

2. James Hurst will struggle as a run blocker, but his pass blocking, with help from tight end Crockett Gillmore and fullback Kyle Juszczyk, will keep Joe Flacco clean. If you’re looking for the silver lining with the left tackle situation, Monroe wasn’t playing well before undergoing knee surgery this week, meaning there may not be much of a drop-off with the undrafted rookie. The overall impression of his play in the preseason was that Hurst was a capable pass blocker with good technique, but his blocking ability in the running game left much to be desired. Baltimore will use help on his side to help contain the pass rush from the likes of Charles Johnson, Mario Addison, and Wes Horton and keep Flacco safe. Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak will also call more running plays inside and to the right to stay away from Hurst’s struggles whenever possible.

3. With Jimmy Smith locked on rookie Kelvin Benjamin, veteran Jerricho Cotchery catches a touchdown from Cam Newton against the Baltimore secondary. The 6-foot-5 Benjamin will pose a problem for any Ravens cornerback other than Smith, so defensive coordinator Dean Pees will have his top defensive back mirror him as much as possible. Veteran Lardarius Webb wasn’t listed on this week’s injury report, so he’s expected to have a bigger workload than the four defensive snaps he took in Cleveland, but it’s still difficult projecting what to expect from him in terms of performance. Carolina’s weapons in the passing game aren’t imposing beyond Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen, but the savvy Cotchery is familiar with the Ravens defense from his days with Pittsburgh and will shake free against zone coverage for a red-zone touchdown.

4. Bernard Pierce will start in the backfield, but rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro will lead the Ravens in rushing for the second straight week. A national audience watched the Steelers gash the Panthers defense for 264 rushing yards in a 37-19 final in Charlotte last Sunday night, which continued the early-season trend of Carolina struggling to stop the run. Kubiak will look to run early and often to control the tempo of the game and will defer to the returning Pierce at the start of this one. However, the jury is still out whether the 2012 third-round pick is a great fit in the Ravens’ zone-blocking scheme as he’s often looked indecisive in hitting running lanes. The Ravens will lean heavily on Taliaferro in the second half to wear down the Panthers’ front and the rookie will make another emphatic statement that the starting job belongs to him.

5. The injuries to Pitta and Monroe are concerning, but the Ravens will still have enough to handle Carolina in a 26-17 final. The Panthers are still trying to find their bearings on the offensive side of the ball with Newton still not 100 percent and the backfield in disarray with the long-term injury to fullback Mike Tolbert and the uncertain status of Jonathan Stewart. On top of that, the Carolina defense hasn’t been the imposing unit it was last year without defensive end Greg Hardy in the picture. The Ravens will use an effective running game and an improved defensive effort to win in relatively comfortable fashion to begin the season 3-1 before starting what looks to be the most difficult stretch of their regular-season schedule with only one home game over the next five weeks of action.

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Ravens offense hoping other Smith gets on track after slow start

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Ravens offense hoping other Smith gets on track after slow start

Posted on 26 September 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — While all eyes will be on Steve Smith when the Ravens welcome the Carolina Panthers to Baltimore on Sunday, Torrey Smith simply hopes to get his 2014 season on track as we approach the quarter pole.

It’s been a slow start for the fourth-year wide receiver who has just six receptions for 85 yards through three games a year after setting career highs with 65 catches and 1,128 receiving yards. Targeted by quarterback Joe Flacco 19 times through three games, Smith has reined in only 31.6 percent of those attempts, which would be a career-low completion percentage for the 2011 second-round pick’s career.

Entering the final year of his rookie contract, Smith has taken the rough beginning in stride, choosing to focus on a number of close calls that could have gone for big plays. In the Ravens’ win in Cleveland last Sunday, Flacco was hit on a deep ball to Smith that was intercepted and later missed the open wideout in the end zone for what should have been a touchdown. Of course, Smith has brought some misery on himself such as when he dropped a short screen pass that would have gone for big yardage late in the fourth quarter against the Browns.

“You can’t get any closer than we already have been,” Smith said. “I have folks tweeting me how terrible I am, and I could very easily have had three touchdowns and 300 yards the past couple weeks. But that’s how the ball rolls. I’m not used to it, but we’ll get over it soon.”

Most expected Smith’s opportunities to decrease a bit simply because the Ravens added more weapons such as Steve Smith and veteran tight end Owen Daniels to go along with what was a healthy Dennis Pitta returning for the start of the 2014 season. But with Pitta suffering his second right hip injury in the last 14 months, Baltimore will need more production from others beyond Steve Smith, who leads the team with 18 receptions for 290 yards and has quickly become Flacco’s most dependable receiver.

What has been most concerning is the lack of comfort shown by Torrey Smith in new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s system, which places an emphasis on the precision and timing of short-to-intermediate throws. Smith has improved his route-running ability since his rookie season, but he is at his best when asked to use his straight-line speed and still appears too stiff when asked to quickly change direction while running shorter routes.

Even if Kubiak hasn’t found the perfect way to utilize the younger Smith’s skills just yet, he doesn’t appear discouraged with how the 25-year-old is playing.

“We had five opportunities for him to have big plays in the [Cleveland] game,” Kubiak said. “Joe gets hit one time, and [we] get a [pass interference] the next time. I felt bad for him coming out of the game because, really, he had a chance to make some big plays. We missed him in the end zone. But he’s working extremely well. Like I said, it’s going to take all of us — keep spreading around. Joe [has to get] the ball to the right guy, and that guy has to make a play.”

Of course, it’s important to remember Smith is the kind of receiver who can’t be evaluated too definitively — good or bad — based on a smaller sample of games as all it takes is a couple successful deep balls to put him back on track. In 2011, many were ready to call the rookie a bust when he went without a catch in his first two NFL games before he caught three touchdowns and collected 152 receiving yards in Week 3 that led to a respectable rookie campaign of 841 yards and seven touchdowns. Last year, Smith looked like he was on his way to an All-Pro season with 556 receiving yards through the first five games before collecting just 572 more over the final 11 games.

While it appears that Steve Smith has at least temporarily wrestled away the title of “go-to receiver” — Browns cornerback Joe Haden shadowed the veteran for large portions of the Ravens’ Week 3 win — Torrey Smith is confident he will start capitalizing on the opportunities that have been near misses thus far. And his chances would only figure to increase if opposing defense continue to focus more closely on the elder Smith.

“We were as close as you can get to touchdowns; we just have to be on the same page and get it done,” Torrey Smith said. “It’ll happen. It has no choice, but to happen. The way we’ve been practicing, it has no choice but to happen. I can’t say when. I hope it’s Sunday, but it’ll happen soon.”

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Suggs listed as probable, Canty questionable against Carolina on Sunday

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Suggs listed as probable, Canty questionable against Carolina on Sunday

Posted on 26 September 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens received good news with the return of Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs to the practice field as they made final preparations for the Carolina Panthers on Friday.

After missing practices on Wednesday and Thursday with a groin injury suffered in last Sunday’s win over Cleveland, Suggs is listed as probable for Sunday’s game after being a full participant on Friday. He appeared to be moving well as he ran the width of the field during the media viewing portion of the workout.

Defensive end Chris Canty (knee), defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (knee), and offensive tackle Eugene Monroe (knee surgery) were the only Ravens players absent from Friday’s practice. With Monroe and Jernigan already ruled out, Canty is the Ravens’ only big question mark for Sunday’s game against Carolina as he was listed as questionable on the final injury report and hasn’t practiced all week.

Wide receiver Steve Smith and tight end Owen Daniels returned to the practice field after receiving a veteran day off on Thursday. They are both listed as probable on the final game status report, but neither player is dealing with an injury.

Cornerback Jimmy Smith (knee/ankle) and running back Bernard Pierce (thigh) are probable and were both present and working after being listed as full participants on Thursday. Smith missed Wednesday’s practice after being banged up against the Browns.

Meanwhile, Carolina listed linebacker Thomas Davis (hip) and running back Jonathan Stewart (knee) as questionable. Panthers head coach Ron Rivera indicated Davis is further along in his recovery and has a better chance to play on Sunday, but both he and Stewart are considered game-time decisions.

Starting running back DeAngelo Williams (thigh) is probable after practicing fully all week.

The referee for Sunday’s game will be Craig Wrolstad. He’s a new referee for the 2014 season after serving as an NFL field judge prior to the promotion.

According to Weather.com, Sunday’s forecast calls for temperatures in the low 80s with partly cloudy skies, no chance of precipitation, and winds up to five miles per hour.

The Ravens will be wearing black jerseys and black pants for the first time this season on Sunday. They announced earlier in the week that they’d be wearing their alternate jerseys against the Panthers.

Here is the final injury report of the week:

BALTIMORE
OUT: DT Timmy Jernigan (knee), T Eugene Monroe (knee)
QUESTIONABLE: DE Chris Canty (knee)
PROBABLE: TE Owen Daniels (non-injury), RB Bernard Pierce (thigh), CB Jimmy Smith (knee/ankle), WR Steve Smith (non-injury), LB Terrell Suggs (thigh)

CAROLINA
DOUBTFUL: RB Fozzy Whittaker (thigh), T Garry Williams (back)
QUESTIONABLE: LB Thomas Davis (hip), RB Jonathan Stewart (knee)
PROBABLE: WR Jerricho Cotchery (thigh), CB Charles Godfrey (ankle), S Roman Harper (knee), RB DeAngelo Williams (thigh)

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Ravens secondary still waiting on Webb to get up to game speed

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Ravens secondary still waiting on Webb to get up to game speed

Posted on 25 September 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After much anticipation for the 2014 debut of Lardarius Webb last Sunday, the Ravens only needed to see Andrew Hawkins easily shake free from the veteran cornerback to realize the time wasn’t yet right.

The shifty receiver completely turned around Webb on a simple out route that went for 24 yards on the opening drive of the third quarter to put Cleveland in Baltimore territory, and it all but ended Webb’s day as he played only four defensive snaps in the eventual 23-21 win for the Ravens. Three weeks of full participation in practice hadn’t compensated for Webb missing nearly all of training camp after being sidelined with back spasms on July 25. Since returning to practice at the end of August, Webb has needed to knock off rust and improve his flexibility in bending for the critically-important backpedal that all cornerbacks need.

“We found out really quick,” said defensive coordinator Dean Pees about Webb’s performance in Cleveland. “And I had a great talk with him on Monday, and he understands. When I saw it [coaching] in the press box, I said, ‘He’s not there yet.’ And game speed is faster than practice speed. There’s no way to simulate it. But he has to keep practicing, and he has to feel very confident that he can do it. That’s half the battle playing the back end; you better feel confident that you can do it.”

The secondary has struggled without a healthy and effective Webb as the Ravens’ pass defense is ranked 24th in the NFL and is allowing 262.3 passing yards per game. The combination of Asa Jackson and Chykie Brown hasn’t inspired confidence when either has played opposite Jimmy Smith in the base defense, and the Ravens haven’t received good play at safety where Matt Elam and Darian Stewart have struggled.

Webb hasn’t been listed on the injury report this week as the Ravens prepare for Sunday’s meeting against the Carolina Panthers, which suggests he could see an expanded role from what we saw in Cleveland. The 6-foot-2 Smith is likely to match up with 6-foot-5 rookie Kelvin Benjamin — who leads the Panthers with 19 catches for 253 yards — but the rest of the Panthers’ group of wide receivers doesn’t inspire fear beyond tight end Greg Olsen, who has caught 16 passes for 224 yards through three games.

Pees has tinkered with various alignments in the back end of the defense including the use of Elam as a slot corner, which reflects how little depth the Ravens have had at the cornerback position. A healthy Webb, who is at his best playing inside in the nickel package, would give Pees some flexibility to show different looks since Jackson is also capable of playing the nickel position. However, the Ravens need to finally see a version of Webb ready to play 60 to 70 snaps per game at a high level before making any decisions about the makeup of the secondary.

“We would be fortunate if we had both those guys, because each one of them could play [inside],” Pees said. “The other guy would go outside. We have to make that determination once he’s back.”

Even with Webb’s absence taken into account, Pees isn’t pleased with how his pass defense has performed, even acknowledging Thursday that he needs to do a better job of mixing coverages and pressures as the Ravens have relied heavily on a mostly-ineffective four-man rush and soft zone coverage through the first three weeks of the season.

Elam and others pointed to miscommunication being a problem after Sunday’s game as Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer threw for nearly 300 yards last Sunday, but Pees bristled at the suggestion, perhaps implying that he wants to see defensive backs take more accountability for mishaps. The signature play of the secondary’s problems came in the fourth quarter when Elam was beaten by Browns wide receiver Taylor Gabriel for a 70-yard reception that included the second-year safety looking back at Jackson instead of touching the wideout down before he got up from the ground to gain extra yardage.

“‘Miscommunication’ would not be one of the words I would have used,” said Pees in evaluating the pass defense. “I would have said very poor technique in the back end. There are a couple of them [where] there wasn’t any communication [needed]. Just line up and play and play your position. We were beat on a three-deep coverage that I don’t know what communication is there other than, ‘Get your [butt] deep.’”

Three-headed monster

The Ravens have a three-headed monster shaping up at the running back position that they haven’t enjoyed since 2008 when Le’Ron McClain, Willis McGahee, and Ray Rice combined to rush for 2,027 yards in John Harbaugh’s first year as head coach.

Justin Forsett, Bernard Pierce, and Lorenzo Taliaferro have all made major contributions to the league’s eighth-ranked rushing attack in the wake of Rice’s release, so it isn’t easy predicting who will receive the biggest workload moving forward. Pierce practiced fully on Wednesday and Thursday, but the Ravens continue to monitor his improvement from a quadriceps injury that sidelined him for last Sunday’s game.

Taliaferro’s 91-yard game in Cleveland has led many to conclude he should be the starter moving forward, but the Ravens have maintained all along that they’ll go with the hot hand in the backfield. And they figure to have another good opportunity Sunday with the Carolina defense allowing 145.3 yards per game on the ground.

“I still go out there just as I did since I got here,” Taliaferro said. “Just make sure I do my job and compete. Even though it’s during the season and not so much of camp now, we’re still competing not just for each other’s job, but to make each other better.”

A rush-by-committee approach is nothing new for offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who guided a number of rushing attacks years ago in Denver where unknown names such as Mike Anderson and Olandis Gary would suddenly emerge as 1,000-yard backs.

Pierce and Taliaferro bring more power and physicality in their rushing style while Forsett is more of a change of pace on third down, but Kubiak also pointed out other differences such as ability to pass protect and the special-teams contributions made by Forsett and Taliaferro that factor into the overall distribution of playing time.

“Lorenzo and Justin are three-down players that play in pass-protection situations, nickel situations, and those types of things,” Kubiak said. “That’s where Bernard needs to keep coming as a player, in my opinion, but he’s working at it and doing that.”

Of course, the biggest reason for the dramatic improvement of the Ravens’ running game has been the offensive line where running lanes have been created consistently unlike last season when the running game averaged only 3.1 yards per carry.

And their strong performance makes the debate over who will carry the ball less significant.

“I think we’re really confident in our running game, and I definitely think that starts with our offensive line,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “They have done a great job in this system, and they really lead the way. And I think you can see that [because] we had three different backs all have big days.”

Replacing Pitta

The offseason arrivals of wide receiver Steve Smith and tight end Owen Daniels have eased the season-ending loss of Dennis Pitta a bit, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be growing pains within the Baltimore offense.

Of course, the Ravens are more equipped to handle Pitta’s hip injury than they were a year ago, but they will still depend on Daniels and rookie Crockett Gillmore to pick up the slack for one of quarterback Joe Flacco’s favorite targets. Phillip Supernaw was promoted from the practice squad to take Pitta’s place on the 53-man roster, but it remains to be seen what kind of role he can carve out for himself beyond special teams.

“It does make you stop in some of your preparation,” Kubiak said. “‘What happens in the game if this guy goes down? Now what do I go to? What personnel [groups] do I want to be in?’ Those are some things that you have to look at a little bit differently when you have these types of things happen.”

Juszczyk is another option who could see some more opportunities as the fullback has the ability to line up at tight end. He caught three passes for 54 yards and his first touchdown against the Browns last Sunday.

His emergence in the short passing game would be a welcome addition with Pitta no longer an option.

“I don’t think my role will change too much,” Juszczyk said. “I think I’ll be doing a lot of the same stuff I’ve been doing, but maybe more of it.”

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Jimmy Smith returns to practice; Suggs, Canty remain sidelined

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Jimmy Smith returns to practice; Suggs, Canty remain sidelined

Posted on 25 September 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The injury report remained troubling for the Ravens Thursday as they continued preparations for their Week 4 meeting with the Carolina Panthers.

Cornerback Jimmy Smith (knee/ankle) returned to the practice field and appeared to be moving well during the media viewing portion of the workout, but linebacker Terrell Suggs (groin), defensive end Chris Canty (knee), and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (knee) all remained sidelined with various ailments. Starting left tackle Eugene Monroe hasn’t been officially ruled out for Sunday’s game yet, but Wednesday’s knee surgery is expected to sideline him for at least a few weeks.

The Ravens claimed former San Diego Chargers defensive end Lawrence Guy off waivers on Wednesday, which could be an indication of concern for Canty’s availability against Carolina. Guy has been assigned No. 67 with his new team.

Wide receiver Steve Smith and tight end Owen Daniels were also non-participants during Thursday’s practice as they received a veteran day off. Smith was watching practice without being suited up while Daniels, who is now the starting tight end after the season-ending hip injury suffered by Dennis Pitta, was absent from the field.

Running back Bernard Pierce (thigh) was present and working fully for the second straight day after being listed as a full participant on Wednesday’s injury report.

The Ravens were practicing indoors in helmets, shells, and shorts as rain hit the Owings Mills area for most of the morning and early afternoon on Thursday.

For Carolina, starting outside linebacker Thomas Davis (hip) was upgraded to limited participation while cornerback Charles Godfrey (ankle) and safety Roman Harper (knee) were full participants a day after missing practice.

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: DE Chris Canty (knee), DT Timmy Jernigan (knee), T Eugene Monroe (knee), LB Terrell Suggs (thigh), WR Steve Smith (non-injury), TE Owen Daniels (non-injury)
FULL PARTICIPATION: CB Jimmy Smith (knee/ankle), RB Bernard Pierce (thigh)

CAROLINA
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: RB Jonathan Stewart (knee), RB Fozzy Whittaker (thigh), T Garry Williams (back)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: LB Thomas Davis (hip)
FULL PARTICIPATION: CB Charles Godfrey (ankle), S Roman Harper (knee), WR Jerricho Cotchery (thigh), RB DeAngelo Williams (thigh)

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Ravens sign former Chargers defensive end Guy

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Ravens sign former Chargers defensive end Guy

Posted on 24 September 2014 by Luke Jones

The Ravens continued tinkering with their 53-man roster Wednesday by claiming former San Diego Chargers defensive end Lawrence Guy off waivers to boost depth along a banged-up defensive line.

Having already lost young defensive linemen Brent Urban and Kapron Lewis-Moore to season-ending injuries during training camp, the Ravens were without veteran starter Chris Canty during Wednesday’s practice before signing Guy, who was let go by San Diego on Tuesday. Rookie defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan is also currently out with a meniscus injury to his knee.

Baltimore cut wide receiver Deonte Thompson for the second time in less than a week to make room for Guy on the 53-man roster.

The 24-year-old was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the seventh round of the 2011 draft and eventually caught on with Indianapolis in 2012 after spending his rookie season on injured reserve. In 24 career games with the Colts and Chargers, Guy has collected 38 tackles, one sack, and four pass breakups.

Guy had appeared in each of the Chargers’ first three games, playing 47 snaps but failing to record any tackles.

The Ravens also announced they re-signed running back Fitz Toussaint to their practice squad a day after waiving him to make room on the 53-man roster for the returning Thompson.

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Ravens left tackle Monroe sidelined after undergoing minor knee surgery

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Ravens left tackle Monroe sidelined after undergoing minor knee surgery

Posted on 24 September 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Just a few days after losing starting tight end Dennis Pitta for the rest of the season, the Ravens learned they would be without their left tackle for a few weeks after Eugene Monroe underwent minor knee surgery on Wednesday.

Head coach John Harbaugh made the announcement following practice as rookie free agent James Hurst is expected to start in Monroe’s place against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. It remains unclear how long Monroe will be sidelined after his knee limited him in practice last week and during the Week 3 win over the Cleveland Browns last Sunday, but Harbaugh said it will be “some number of weeks.”

“To not have him is going to be different, but it’s honestly something that I try not to pay too much attention to,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “I think Hurst is going to come in to fill in and do a great job. And that’s all I can really do is go back there and have confidence that we’re going to do everything in our power to play well, and he’s going to play well. I have all the confidence in the world in him.”

It had become clear that Monroe’s knee was impacting his play as he graded out poorly against the Browns. According to Pro Football Focus, Monroe received the lowest grade among the Ravens’ five starting linemen through the first three weeks of the 2014 season.

Undrafted from the University of North Carolina, Hurst saw his draft stock plummet after he suffered a broken fibula in the Tar Heels’ bowl game in late December. Prior to the leg injury, many draft pundits envisioned him as an early- to mid-round pick who had an impressive performance against eventual No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney in North Carolina’s 2013 season opener against South Carolina.

Hurst said Monroe informed him of the news on Wednesday morning and that the veteran offered to do anything he can to help him prepare in the coming weeks. Though acknowledging butterflies about making his first career NFL start, Hurst pointed to the veteran experience on the offensive line as well as position coach Juan Castillo to help him out.

“I think if you’re not nervous, you don’t realize what’s happening,” Hurst said. “It’s a big situation. I’m excited about it. There are going to be nerves. Everybody has nerves. It’s just a matter of going out there and knowing that you prepared and you’ve done everything you can for that opportunity.”

Hurst would become become the first rookie to start at left tackle for the Ravens since Michael Oher in 2009.

Asked where Monroe’s injury left the Ravens at the left tackle position, Harbaugh hesitated in answering before acknowledging Hurst as the listed backup for the spot. Instead of moving left guard Kelechi Osemele outside or flipping right tackle Rick Wagner to the opposite side, the Ravens appear content in maintaining continuity with the rest of the line and will likely offer as much help as they can to Hurst’s side.

“Next man up like it always does,” said Harbaugh about what the injury meant for the offensive line. “That’s the depth chart. It’s pretty straightforward. I mean, it’s obvious.”

Monroe signed a five-year, $37.5 million contract to remain in Baltimore this offseason after he was traded by the Jacksonville Jaguars to the Ravens for a fourth- and a fifth-round selection last October.

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