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Twelve Ravens thoughts on quiet start to offseason

Posted on 19 January 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens still not having set a date for their season review press conference, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The brass never reveals every detail of its offseason game plan, but perhaps we can anticipate more candor than usual at the annual “State of the Ravens” since the summit at Steve Bisciotti’s Florida home will have already taken place. Fighting fan apathy has to be a major concern.

2. There’s little to take away from an introductory press conference, but Wink Martindale passed the test by citing his aggressive personality when calling a game. It’s unfair to judge him too harshly for his poor 2010 results in Denver, but the proof will be in the results this coming fall.

3. I’m sure no one in Cleveland will be shedding any tears, but only six NFL teams now have a longer playoff appearance drought than the Ravens. That really speaks to the parity of the league and should also tick some people off in Owings Mills.

4. John Harbaugh acknowledged the possibility of drafting a quarterback, but taking one any earlier than the third or fourth round would clash with the goal of getting back to the postseason in 2018. Aim to upgrade from Ryan Mallett and if you discover the successor to Joe Flacco, that’s perfect.

5. Marlon Humphrey looked the part of a budding No. 1 cornerback down the stretch. If he continues blossoming and Smith struggles in his return from a torn Achilles tendon next season, you’d have to think the latter could be a cap casualty in 2019 with a $16.175 million number scheduled.

6. Ryan Jensen won’t be easy to re-sign, but you’d hate losing someone who stabilized an important position that had been an issue since Matt Birk’s retirement. Just handing the job to Matt Skura and assuming everything will be OK is a risk. Jensen graded as PFF’s ninth-best center this season.

7. There’s no guarantee Smith will be ready for the start of 2018, but I’m inclined to move on from Brandon Carr to save $4 million in cap space if Tavon Young is cleared for spring workouts. There are too many holes on the opposite side of the ball to address.

8. Breshad Perriman finished 119th out of 119 qualified wide receivers in PFF’s grading system and regressed dramatically from a 2016 season in which he was at least a functional contributor with 499 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Doesn’t someone have to be accountable for this besides the player?

9. The thought of a healthy Kenneth Dixon teaming with starter Alex Collins next season is intriguing, but Dixon has a lot to prove after a major knee injury and two suspensions. Much like tight end Darren Waller, the Ravens shouldn’t count on him until he proves otherwise.

10. Much has been made of the offense’s post-bye improvement, but the Ravens scored only three offensive touchdowns in the first quarter all season and had none after Week 8. In the same way the defense must learn how to finish, this offense has to start faster.

11. I’m not ready to compare Jacksonville to the 2000 Ravens, but the swagger of its defense reminds me of old teams here. The Jaguars benefited from early draft picks and much cap space, but they’re a better version of what Baltimore tried to build this year.

12. I have interest and work responsibilities in other sports, but I’m still amazed how quickly many dive into draft discussion. I prefer waiting for at least the Senior Bowl and the combine for more context before discussing the same names for the next three months, but to each his own.

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Examining the Ravens’ 2018 class of free agents

Posted on 03 January 2018 by Luke Jones

Free agency won’t begin until March 14, but the Ravens face arguably the most pivotal offseason in team history after missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five years and seeing fan support dwindle in 2017.

As has become Baltimore’s annual story, salary cap space will be a problem as the Ravens currently hold an estimated 2018 Rule of 51 commitment of just under $170 million, according to Spotrac.com. The 2018 salary cap won’t be set until March, but it is projected to rise from $167 million in 2017 to somewhere between $174 million and $178 million. Since the aforementioned commitment doesn’t include any of their pending free agents, the Ravens will clearly have difficult decisions to make with some cap analysts already painting a very gloomy picture about their lack of cap space and their limited flexibility.

This comes with the reality that the Ravens have substantial work to do to their roster — especially on the offensive side of the ball — if they want to escape the land of mediocrity in which they’ve resided since Super Bowl XLVII.

Of course, the Ravens can create cap space by renegotiating, extending, or terminating veteran contracts and will surely do some combination of that. Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, cornerback Brandon Carr, running back Danny Woodhead, right tackle Austin Howard, defensive back Lardarius Webb, and linebacker Albert McClellan stand out as veteran candidates who could become cap casualties this winter.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

The Ravens will have the opportunity to retain any of the following 12 unrestricted free agents before they can officially sign with any other team beginning on March 14 at 4 p.m.

CB Brandon Boykin: Once considered one of the better slot corners in the league, Boykin was placed on injured reserve in early September and is not expected to return.

OL Luke Bowanko: The veteran saw action in all 16 games and made one start, but the returns of guards Marshal Yanda, Alex Lewis, and Nico Siragusa from injuries make him expendable.

WR Michael Campanaro: The River Hill product played in a career-high 13 games and did nice work as a punt returner, making him a candidate to be re-signed at a cheap price.

TE Crockett Gillmore: The 6-foot-6, 266-pound Gillmore showed intriguing potential in 2015, but he’s missed 29 of Baltimore’s last 36 games due to injury, making his return highly questionable.

OL James Hurst: The once-maligned reserve offensive tackle found a niche as a serviceable starting left guard in 2017, but the aforementioned returning depth inside probably makes him expendable.

C Ryan Jensen: His emergence as a formidable starting center was a godsend with two backups handling the guard spots all year, but did the rest of the NFL also take notice in the process?

LB Steven Johnson: The veteran journeyman did a solid job on special teams in 10 games, but his spot and opportunity will likely go to a younger and cheaper player in 2018.

QB Ryan Mallett: With Joe Flacco turning 33 later this month and battling inconsistency and some health concerns in recent years, the Ravens should be looking to draft a backup with more upside.

DE Brent Urban: The 6-foot-7 specimen looked poised for a strong year during the preseason, but he’s missed 39 games in four seasons, making him a poor candidate in which to invest any real money.

WR Mike Wallace: Market demand will be a major factor here, but the Ravens will be looking at needing to add two to three impactful receivers if Wallace exits and the disappointing Maclin is cut.

TE Benjamin Watson: The 37-year-old was a good story coming back from last year’s torn Achilles tendon to lead the team in catches, but the Ravens really need more of a play-maker at this position. 

RB Terrance West: The Baltimore native and Towson product turned his career around with the Ravens, but he will likely be seeking a better opportunity elsewhere in 2018.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS – none in 2018

EXCLUSIVE-RIGHTS FREE AGENTS

These seven players have less than three years of accrued service and can be tendered a contract for the league minimum based on their length of service in the league. If tendered, these players are not free to negotiate with other teams. The Ravens usually tender all exclusive-rights free agents with the thought that there’s nothing assured beyond the opportunity to compete for a spot. Exclusive-rights tenders are not guaranteed, meaning a player can be cut at any point without consequence to the salary cap.

WR Quincy Adeboyejo: The rookie turned some heads early in training camp and received a Week 17 promotion from the practice squad, but he’ll need to earn his way onto the 2018 roster.

RB Alex Collins: Given the present challenges with the cap, Collins falling into the Ravens’ laps was a major development of the season as he’ll be the clear favorite to be the 2018 starter at a cheap cost.

CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste: Promoted to the active roster after Jimmy Smith tore his Achilles tendon in early December, Jean-Baptiste will be in the mix next summer to try to make the roster.

TE Vince Mayle: Though not a factor as an offensive player, Mayle was a consistent special-teams contributor and has a chance to reprise that role next season.

LB Patrick Onwuasor: With the disappointing development of Kamalei Correa, Onwuasor started 12 games at the weak-side inside spot, but the Ravens could use some more competition here.

OL Maurquice Shakir: Promoted from the practice squad at the end of October, Shakir was inactive for eight games and will have the chance to compete for a job next summer.

G Matt Skura: The former undrafted free agent and practice-squad member did a respectable job filling in for the injured Yanda and could be in the mix at center if Jensen departs via free agency.

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Wallace eliminates any doubt about status for Cleveland game

Posted on 14 December 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Before reporters could even ask him the question in the Ravens locker room on Thursday, wide receiver Mike Wallace made it clear that he expects to play against Cleveland.

Absent from two straight workouts with a minor right ankle sprain sustained in the first quarter of last week’s loss to Pittsburgh, Wallace said he will practice Friday and downplayed any possibility of him not being able to play against the Browns. The speedy wideout missed only one series against the Steelers before returning early in the second quarter.

“I don’t think anybody’s at 100 percent, but I’ll be at about 99.9,” said Wallace as he laughed. “I’m going to be good; we’re going to be alright. Tape it up and go to work like Kobe [Bryant] at the end of the day. No matter what it’s going to be, we’re going to be out there. Come Sunday when we run out of the tunnel, I’m going to be out there.”

Wallace has caught 17 passes for 292 yards and a touchdown in four games since the Week 10 bye.

Center Ryan Jensen (ankle), wide receiver Chris Moore (hip), and outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith (shoulder) were upgraded to full participation, leaving the Ravens with very little drama from a health standpoint entering Week 15. Cornerback Maurice Canady (knee) was the only player to practice on a limited basis on Thursday.

Meanwhile, the Browns were without three cornerbacks during their Thursday practice as starter Jamar Taylor (foot) and reserves Briean Boddy-Calhoun (knee) and Darius Hillary (knee) sat out. Defensive tackle Danny Shelton (chest/ribs) was a limited participant for the second straight day.

Below is Thursday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: WR Mike Wallace (ankle)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: CB Maurice Canady (knee)
FULL PARTICIPATION: OL Jermaine Eluemunor (shoulder), C Ryan Jensen (ankle), WR Chris Moore (hip), LB Za’Darius Smith (shoulder)

CLEVELAND
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: CB Briean Boddy-Calhoun (knee), CB Darius Hillary (knee), CB Jamar Taylor (foot)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: RT Shon Coleman (shoulder/thumb), WR Matt Hazel (hamstring), TE David Njoku (foot/wrist), S Jabrill Peppers (knee), DT Danny Shelton (chest/ribs), C JC Tretter (knee)
FULL PARTICIPATION: LB Josh Keyes (wrist)

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Ravens wide receiver Wallace sits out Wednesday’s practice

Posted on 13 December 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Several Ravens players are still feeling the effects from the physical battle in Pittsburgh while shifting their attention toward the Week 15 trip to Cleveland.

Wide receiver Mike Wallace was the only player on the 53-man roster to miss Wednesday’s indoor practice, but four others were limited participants during the workout. Wallace turned his right ankle in the first quarter of Sunday’s game, but he returned on the next drive after having it taped and finished with three catches for 72 yards.

Wallace was not in the locker room to talk with reporters after practice, but he was on the field for the team’s walk-through earlier in the day.

Cornerback Maurice Canady (knee), center Ryan Jensen (ankle), and wide receiver Chris Moore (hip) were all listed as limited. Moore left Sunday’s game with the injury in the second half, but his presence at practice this early in the week bodes well for his availability. The 2016 fourth-round pick is steadily emerging as an offensive contributor, catching a 30-yard touchdown pass and finishing with three receptions for a career-high 48 yards against the Steelers.

“He really made some plays,” head coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “Chris came up, obviously, with a touchdown pass, which was big. The sideline catch — the diving catch — was big. He’s coming on. That’s exciting for us, and hopefully he’s out there next Sunday.”

Outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith (shoulder) returned to practice as a limited participant after missing Sunday’s game against the Steelers.

Meanwhile, the winless Browns were without cornerbacks Jamar Taylor (foot) and Briean Boddy-Calhoun (knee) for a walk-through practice. Defensive tackle Danny Shelton (chest/ribs) and rookie safety Jabrill Peppers (knee) were estimated as limited participants.

Below is Wednesday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: WR Mike Wallace (ankle)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: CB Maurice Canady (knee), C Ryan Jensen (ankle), WR Chris Moore (hip), LB Za’Darius Smith (shoulder)
FULL PARTICIPATION: OL Jermaine Eluemunor (shoulder)

CLEVELAND
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: CB Briean Boddy-Calhoun (knee), CB Jamar Taylor (foot)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: RT Shon Coleman (shoulder/thumb), WR Matt Hazel (hamstring), TE David Njoku (foot/wrist), S Jabrill Peppers (knee), DT Danny Shelton (chest/ribs), C JC Tretter (knee)
FULL PARTICIPATION: LB Josh Keyes (wrist)

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 23-0 win over Green Bay

Posted on 21 November 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens getting back to the .500 mark with a 23-0 victory at Green Bay, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Sunday marked the third time in 2017 that the Ravens defense has forced five turnovers in a game. That’s quite a change from two years ago when the group ranked 30th in the NFL with 14 takeaways for the entire season.

2. Jimmy Smith intercepting a pass in the end zone on the opening drive was the latest example why the cornerback has been the team MVP. You wonder how different this one might have been if the Packers finished that drive with a touchdown or at least a field goal.

3. The offense coming away with a total of three points off three turnovers on the Packers’ first three possessions sure doesn’t say much for the work put in by Marty Mornhinweg’s side of the ball during the bye week.

4. Brett Hundley was awful for Green Bay, but credit the Ravens defense for confusing the inexperienced quarterback with an abundance of looks. Eight different defensive backs played 18 or more snaps as defensive coordinator Dean Pees employed various sub packages.

5. Whether rushing the passer, setting the edge, or dropping into coverage, Matt Judon is steadily improving and was arguably the best player on the field with two sacks and a forced fumble. His development is encouraging with the still-dependable Terrell Suggs now 35.

6. Joe Flacco had an OK day despite being under duress, but his interception on a pass intended for Danny Woodhead was baffling. He wasn’t pressured on the throw, and at no point did Woodhead separate from Pro Bowl safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. That can’t happen when approaching the red zone.

7. It was refreshing to see Mike Wallace grab a one-handed touchdown for a quarterback who hasn’t gotten enough help from his receivers. This isn’t the Big 12 where you can expect to get open with no one within 10 yards in coverage. Contested catches are a must to be successful.

8. Willie Henry is rapidly becoming a big part of sub packages as an interior rusher and even dropped into zone coverage on at least one occasion against the Packers. It’s crazy to think how important he’s become to the rotation when many wondered if he’d even make the 53-man roster.

9. Yes, Flacco should have been granted a timeout on the play, but Ryan Jensen still can’t snap the ball three feet over the quarterback’s head to torpedo a promising drive. The center has enjoyed a breakout season, but his shotgun snapping was also shaky in Tennessee.

10. We may have witnessed the changing of the guard as Marlon Humphrey replaced Brandon Carr as a starting cornerback in the first half. It’s a good problem to have as Carr has played admirably, but it grows more difficult every week to keep the rookie first-round pick off the field.

11. Much focus was on James Hurst’s problems replacing Ronnie Stanley, but Austin Howard also had real difficulty against the Packers. He isn’t listed on the injury report, but he’s recently been wearing a harness on his left shoulder and hasn’t looked 100 percent. That’s something to monitor.

12. Anyone dismissing the defense’s accomplishments because of the poor quarterbacks they’ve faced this season should note that the 2000 Ravens’ four shutouts came against Kent Graham, Scott Mitchell, Tim Couch, and a broken-down Troy Aikman in his final season. Regardless of the opponent, give this 2017 unit credit.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 23-20 loss to Tennessee

Posted on 07 November 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens suffering their fifth defeat in seven games in a 23-20 final at Tennessee, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Many are mocking John Harbaugh’s claim that the Ravens remain in the playoff race, but he isn’t wrong when you see the remaining schedule and mediocrity of the wild-card candidates. Still, I can’t help but think Sunday’s loss tipped the scales in the wrong direction, especially from a tiebreaker standpoint.

2. It’s becoming very difficult to justify Breshad Perriman being on the field. His inability to effectively use his size and speed reflects an utter lack of confidence, and he doesn’t contribute on special teams. He wants to do well, but the 2015 first-round pick looks completely lost.

3. Jeremy Maclin had his best game as a Raven, catching eight passes on nine targets for 98 yards. He’s had his problems staying healthy, but there’s no reason he shouldn’t be targeted more frequently with so many others underperforming in this passing game.

4. I didn’t have a problem with the decision to go for it on fourth down to begin the final quarter, but how do you fail to even try to block inside linebacker Wesley Woodyard, who didn’t do anything out of the ordinary on the play? That’s elementary football right there.

5. Delanie Walker was the latest tight end to give the Baltimore pass defense problems. He caught all five passes thrown his way, and his 25-yard reception was a key plays of the Titans’ final touchdown drive. Per Football Outsiders, the Ravens entered Week 9 ranked dead last covering tight ends.

6. Nick Boyle’s absence was a big loss for the running game as Harbaugh even labeled him a “centerpiece” for what they do from a blocking standpoint. It was just the third time this season the Ravens have been held under 100 yards rushing.

7. The run defense held the formidable duo of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry to a combined 45 yards on 17 carries. Since surrendering the 21-yard run to Jay Ajayi on the second play from scrimmage in Week 8, the Ravens have given up 97 rushing yards on 39 attempts. That’s more like it.

8. Whether it’s his back or Father Time, Joe Flacco isn’t showing enough mobility in the pocket to consistently be successful. On third-and-4 early in the third quarter, he needed to step up and to the right against a three-man rush, but he instead retreated backwards and was flagged for grounding.

9. I groaned seeing Flacco — with plenty of time — throw a 1-yard pass to Benjamin Watson on third-and-10 at the Tennessee 13 on Baltimore’s opening drive. You certainly don’t want to do anything foolish to jeopardize a field goal, but that’s not even trying, whether by design or execution.

10. On the principle of his superb special-teams play alone, Chris Moore should be receiving opportunities over Perriman at this point. I’m not convinced he can do a serviceable job, either, but he has one fewer catch in 162 fewer offensive snaps this season.

11. I liked the option look employed by the Ravens with Buck Allen and Alex Collins on the fourth-and-2 run in the second quarter. With Marty Mornhinweg remaining the offensive coordinator, you can only pray much more creativity is in the works over the bye week.

12. No play better epitomized the Baltimore offense than when Ryan Jensen snapped the ball wildly, Flacco threw behind the receiver, and Watson bobbled the catch for a 1-yard loss late in the third quarter. As CBS analyst Rich Gannon described it perfectly, “They make the easy things look difficult.”

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 40-0 win over Miami

Posted on 29 October 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens earning the third-largest margin of victory in franchise history and their second shutout of the season in a 40-0 win over Miami, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Will the real Ravens stand up? After close games were the theme of the last few seasons, all but two of eight contests have been decided by multiple scores and one of those came on a garbage-time touchdown in Minnesota on the game’s final play. It’s more volatility than mediocrity.

2. The Baltimore defense gave up a 21-yard run to Jay Ajayi on the second play of the game and surrendered 24 more yards on 18 carries the rest of the way. Dean Pees effectively used run blitzes, and players tackled better than they had in weeks. It was about time.

3. I’d be more willing to listen to the argument that Joe Flacco started his slide late if Kiko Alonso had shown any semblance of an effort to divert his path to the quarterback. The hit was reckless at best and malicious at worst.

4. Ryan Jensen earned quite a few fans after coming to the defense of his quarterback by immediately going after Alonso. I’m not big on retaliation in most instances, but an offensive lineman has to stick up for the most important player on the team after a hit like that.

5. You never want your quarterback sustaining a concussion, but you wonder if something like this galvanizes John Harbaugh’s team moving forward. The Ravens haven’t played with nearly the same edge in recent years as they used to, and being ticked off can be a good thing if properly channeled.

6. The secondary showed several looks, but my favorite was Marlon Humphrey entering the game as an outside corner in the nickel with Brandon Carr moving to the slot. The rookie first-rounder played 37 of 66 snaps and needs to remain heavily involved no matter the status of the veteran starters.

7. I had to smile seeing C.J. Mosley protect the ball with both arms as he crossed the goal line on his interception return. He wasn’t going to repeat what happened against Washington last year. You have to appreciate someone learning from a mistake.

8. Not that the offense was lighting it up before Flacco’s exit, but the previous two weeks showed how critical it is for Jeremy Maclin to be on the field for the passing game to even be functional. His 34-yard touchdown reception came on Flacco’s prettiest throw of the season.

9. Breshad Perriman didn’t have a catch despite playing 49 offensive snaps. He has four receptions on 19 targets — one more catch than Danny Woodhead — despite ranking fifth in snaps among all Ravens skill players. His dramatic regression from 2016 when he was at least a contributor is impossible to ignore.

10. Despite dealing with Achilles tendinitis, Jimmy Smith is playing his best football since at least the first half of the 2014 season and entered Sunday as Pro Football Focus’ seventh-highest graded cornerback. Even if you take away his two defensive touchdowns this season, he’s still been terrific.

11. The Dolphins have won 13 of their last 18 regular-season games, but that stretch includes two losses to the Ravens by a combined 78-6 margin. Talk about having a team’s number. Counting the playoffs, Baltimore is now 7-1 against Miami in the Harbaugh era.

12. Compared to other teams’ editions of “Color Rush” uniforms, the all-purple look is relatively easy on the eyes. I’d even be curious to see how the purple pants look with the white and black jerseys.

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Ravens finally unleash best playmaker against Miami

Posted on 27 October 2017 by Luke Jones

From the very first time he carried the ball for 16 yards against Cleveland in Week 2, Alex Collins rapidly began showing he was the best running back on the Ravens roster.

Using quick, choppy steps to cut — thanks in large part to Irish dance — and displaying physicality exceeding his 210-pound frame, Collins has run with urgency and anger from the moment he arrived in Owings Mills less than two months ago. And despite concerns about ball security and his ability to pass block, the Arkansas product was making it increasingly difficult for a struggling Ravens offense to keep him off the field as he averaged no worse than 4.6 yards per carry in any of his first five games.

He was finally unleashed Thursday night to the tune of 113 yards on 18 carries — both career highs — in the 40-0 demolition of the Miami Dolphins, who entered Week 8 sporting the NFL’s fifth-ranked run defense. Collins was responsible for five of the Ravens’ seven longest plays of the night that weren’t aided by a penalty, a continuing trend for an offense in need of more explosiveness. According to Pro Football Focus, nearly half of his yards came after first contact, showing off his impressive ability to collect yards even when the blocking isn’t there.

“He’s a vicious runner. That’s how I describe him,” center Ryan Jensen said. “He’s elusive, but he’ll hit it downhill and run some guys over and break tackles.”

Collins currently leads the NFL at 6.0 yards per carry and enters the weekend seventh in rushing yards (478) despite ranking only 23rd in attempts (80). His 10 runs of 15 or more yards are tied for the league lead with Kansas City’s rookie sensation Kareem Hunt, who’s had 44 more carries. Collins has been the optimal fit for Greg Roman’s new blocking schemes as the other Baltimore running backs have combined for only 20 more rushing yards on 59 more carries.

No one could have predicted such a breakout for Collins after he was waived by Seattle at the end of the preseason. Going unclaimed by the Ravens and 30 other NFL teams, the 2016 fifth-round pick from Arkansas was signed to the Baltimore practice squad days before the season opener. A week later when Danny Woodhead was placed on injured reserve, the Ravens even promoted practice-squad running back Jeremy Langford ahead of Collins before ultimately bringing up the latter to the 53-man roster two days later.

In other words, general manager Ozzie Newsome and head coach John Harbaugh didn’t exactly proceed as though they knew exactly what they had on their hands after the Seahawks decided to let Collins go at the end of an underwhelming summer. But in a season in which the offense has been nothing short of disastrous for significant stretches, Collins is quickly emerging as the closest thing to a playmaker for the Ravens.

Fumbles were a concern early as he coughed up the ball twice in his first 21 carries of the season, but he’s since had 61 touches without putting it on the ground, the product of a heavy emphasis on ball security with running backs coach Thomas Hammock during practices. His confidence in that department appears to be  growing along with the number of carries.

“I just give a lot of credit to the staff and the head coach and everybody for giving me that opportunity coming in and trusting and believing in me,” said Collins, who was awarded a game ball for the first 100-yard rushing performance of his career. “I had a few mishaps earlier in the season and just sticking with me. It’s a great feeling.

“I feel the family atmosphere. Everybody’s got your back, and I love it here.”

Making Collins’ performance more impressive is the fact that he’s received 82 touches on only 121 offensive snaps, meaning opposing defenses should be on alert by now to expect him to get the ball when he enters the game. That makes it all the more important for him to improve in pass protection and as a receiver out of the backfield to make the offense less predictable in the coming weeks. He made his first two receptions of the season for 30 yards to add to his impressive Thursday performance.

With quarterback Joe Flacco’s status for Week 9 up in the air and the passing game ranking last in the NFL, Collins is looking more and more like a key to the Ravens being able to make a meaningful playoff run in the second half of the season. Questions about how he’ll hold up are fair since many feature backs in the league exceed his listed weight by 15 or 20 pounds. As is the case with any player seemingly coming out of nowhere, the 23-year-old will need to sustain success, but he’s certainly come along at the opportune time for an offense desperately in need of a jolt.

He provided that and then some in a much-needed win for the Ravens over Miami.

“Just keep working and keep trying to improve,” Collins said. “This was the first 100-yard game, but I guarantee you I’ll go back and watch film [and see] there’s a few plays that I’m wishing I would have [done] something different. That’s definitely the main focus — celebrating the win, but moving forward quickly.”

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Amid Ravens’ offensive line trials, Jensen emerging as answer at center

Posted on 12 October 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ask any Ravens player which teammate is most likely to get into a scuffle in training camp, and the answer would be unanimous.

It’s the man who’s helped stabilize the middle of an offensive line that’s endured more than its share of injuries this season. And after years of competing and scrapping in relative obscurity, center Ryan Jensen has been one of the Ravens’ biggest surprises in his first full season as a starter.

“He gets a little feisty; he’ll throw a helmet here and there,” inside linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “He’s a great competitor, and you want that kind of play with all your players, especially on the o-line. He’s not going to let anyone [bully] him. He’s always going to get the better end of it. Playing against him in practice, that keeps you aware.

“Even though you think he’s being a butthole, he’s actually making you better because you’re protecting yourself.”

Jensen says he takes such a description from a teammate as a compliment and quips that his red hair explains why he’s so “ornery” on the field, but such a temperament can be a challenge for a young player trying to establish himself among veteran teammates. A 2013 sixth-round pick out of Division II Colorado State-Pueblo, Jensen didn’t appear in a game as a rookie after breaking his foot early in his first training camp and was then waived at the end of the 2014 preseason, which led to him spending most of that campaign on Baltimore’s practice squad.

If those setbacks weren’t enough to make Jensen wonder if he would ever become a full-time NFL starter, the 6-foot-4, 319-pound lineman was a healthy scratch for the final nine weeks of 2016 after he’d made three fill-in starts early in the season. He’d also started six games because of injuries late in 2015, but the Ravens always seemed to end up going in a different direction whenever he’d receive a look as a starter.

“My second year when I got released, there is always a little doubt that gets put in the back of your mind,” Jensen said. “Working through that is big.”

Despite appearing to fall out of favor last season, Jensen received a $1.797 million tender as a restricted free agent in March. And after incumbent starting center Jeremy Zuttah was traded to San Francisco later that month, head coach John Harbaugh and his staff liked that Jensen had gotten bigger and stronger in the offseason. Senior offensive assistant Greg Roman and new offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris wanted more size and physicality at the center position in the transition from an outside-zone blocking system to a multiple approach that would include more man blocking and downhill running.

As many continued to clamor for former New York Jets center Eric Mangold and the focus on the in-house competition remained on John Urschel before his abrupt retirement in late July, Jensen lined up as the starting center on the first day of training camp and never relinquished the job. In fact, he was the only constant on the field throughout the summer as projected starters at every other position battled injuries or were working their way back from offseason surgeries.

Jensen’s first career start at center was uneven as he helped the Ravens run for a season-high 157 yards in the season-opening win at Cincinnati, but he also committed three holding penalties, prompting critics to wonder if he could channel his aggressiveness to play with enough discipline. Since then, however, he hasn’t committed a penalty and is coming off arguably the best game of his career last Sunday in Oakland as he was graded out higher than any center in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.

“I feel good about my performance. I feel good about the offensive line performance,” said Jensen, who currently ranks third among centers in PFF’s grading system for 2017. “We have been meshing together really well. We have injuries and stuff like that, but we are plowing forward and we are getting there.”

Making Jensen’s emergence even more impressive has been the disruption at both guard positions. Second-year left guard Alex Lewis underwent season-ending shoulder surgery in August — and has since been replaced by James Hurst — and six-time Pro Bowl selection Marshal Yanda was lost for the year due to a broken ankle in Week 2, leaving Jensen to work with three different players at right guard since then. With Matt Skura now expected to miss action with a knee injury, the Ravens will be on their third different starting right guard in the season’s first six weeks.

Yanda’s absence in particular has forced Jensen to grow up quickly as he’s responsible for assessing the defense’s pre-snap alignment and making protection calls at the line of scrimmage.

“He is a great communicator. He’s a fine player. He’s a tough guy,” offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. “You guys know how up front that stuff happens fast and furious. It is wicked fast, so the communication has to be there. We have been through several guys [at guard], and he has done a great job of sort of running the show there.”

An offense still trying to find its footing is also benefiting from his attitude. With so many of his offensive teammates having more reserved personalities, Jensen isn’t afraid to get in the face of an opponent, something the Ravens had lost in the offseason with the retirement of wide receiver Steve Smith.

Jensen has managed to harness his temper that was so often on display during those practice-field scuffles in Owings Mills over the last few years and is forcing the rest of the league to take notice of his play.

“Ryan is a confident person. I think he has always been that way,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “The thing that you see with him the most is how nasty he is on Sunday and the style that he plays with. We play football, so that’s what it’s all about.

“You need that kind of player. You love to have those guys on your side.”

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How Zuttah fits in return to Ravens offensive line remains unclear

Posted on 19 August 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Veteran center Jeremy Zuttah is back with the Ravens, but determining how he’ll fit into a revamped offensive line isn’t easy.

After starting all 16 games and being invited to play in the Pro Bowl as an alternate last season, the 31-year-old was traded to San Francisco in March as the Ravens wanted to get bigger and stronger at the position. But after season-ending injuries to Alex Lewis and Nico Siragusa and the surprising retirement of John Urschel, the Ravens found themselves extremely thin on the interior line, prompting general manager Ozzie Newsome to re-sign his former starting center a week after he was cut by the 49ers.

No assurances have been made that Zuttah will automatically move back into the starting job he held over the last three seasons.

“The role for right now is to come out, work hard and earn playing time,” Zuttah said after his first practice back with Baltimore. “They said to go out there, compete, and we’ll see where we’re at. That’s honestly where we are.”

Head coach John Harbaugh isn’t tipping his hand, either, but he did say Zuttah would work primarily at center and probably wouldn’t be viewed as an option to start at guard beyond an “emergency” scenario. Fourth-year lineman James Hurst was listed on the latest depth chart as the first-team left guard after the news broke about Lewis undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery, but he’s played left tackle in recent days with starter Ronnie Stanley sidelined with an undisclosed ailment.

With Hurst also serving as the primary backup at both tackle spots, some have speculated that the Ravens could shift Jensen to left guard to help stabilize that position and to allow Hurst to focus on left and right tackle responsibilities in practice. Former practice-squad member Matt Skura started at left guard in Thursday’s preseason win over Miami.

The third preseason game against Buffalo next Saturday will offer more clarity, but Harbaugh was content to declare a center competition between Zuttah and Jensen for now.

“They are both in play. We will do whatever is best for the Ravens,” Harbaugh said. “The best players play, and the best players are the guys who play the best. That is how we do it — always have, always will. We will see how it plays out. I love competition, and I’m sure that all of those guys in there want to start.

“They have to earn it, so that is what they will try to do.”

Listed to be 19 pounds heavier than Zuttah, Jensen better fits the profile of what the Ravens wanted at the position with senior offensive assistant Greg Roman implementing a more downhill and physical brand of run-blocking schemes. Zuttah was originally acquired by the Ravens in 2014 when former offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak was bringing his stretch-zone blocking scheme to Baltimore.

There’s also something to be said about Jensen’s durability and performance at center this summer, which has been steady despite a carousel of players at every other position on the line.

“Even when he has had [physical issues], he has fought through them and gone out and practiced,” Harbaugh said. “He has played well in the games. He played better in this [past] game than the first game. I thought he played well in this game. He’s a motivated guy. We will see what happens.”

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