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Five numbers behind Ravens’ 23-21 win over Cleveland

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Five numbers behind Ravens’ 23-21 win over Cleveland

Posted on 23 September 2014 by Luke Jones

After every Ravens game this season, we’ll take a look at five numbers that help explain the outcome …

2 — The number of field goals missed by former Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff
Skinny: The Ravens were fortunate to come away with a win in Cleveland, and they can thank their former kicker for another wide-left try that brought back a not-so-pleasant memory. Cundiff’s second kick was blocked by Asa Jackson, but the Ravens defensive back acknowledged after the game that the attempt came out lower than normal. Both sides made mistakes that could have cost them the game, but Cundiff’s fourth-quarter misses were pivotal in keeping the Ravens within striking distance.

3 — The number of incompletions thrown by Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer on the final two drives
Skinny: Overall, it was a brutal day for the Ravens secondary as Hoyer completed 19 of 25 passes for 290 yards and a touchdown, but three of those six incompletions came on the Browns’ final two drives of the game when they simply needed some first downs to run out the clock. Instead, the Browns went three-and-out each time and the Ravens finally cashed in on their final drive to set up a game-winning 32-yard field goal by Justin Tucker. As poorly as the defense played for long stretches of Sunday’s game, the group was able to come up with two big stops when the Ravens needed them.

3.1 — The yards per carry allowed by the Ravens defense
Skinny: Baltimore’s outside linebackers still need to do a more consistent job of setting the edge, but a stout Cleveland running game found little room to work save for a handful of plays. Even though Hoyer played well, the Browns would have likely been able to put the game away had they ran with any consistency. Over Cleveland’s final two offensive drives, the Ravens gave up six rushing yards on three carries and forced two punts to keep their hopes alive. The front seven may not be getting enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but playing the run hasn’t been too large of a problem through three weeks.

75 — The number of receiving yards produced by Steve Smith in the fourth quarter
Skinny: Through three quarters, the 35-year-old wide receiver had caught just one pass for 26 yards on three targets, but that changed when Joe Flacco began looking his way often in the final 15 minutes. Targeted four times in the fourth quarter, Smith made four receptions and was the only receiver the Ravens quarterback trusted in crunch time. With Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones struggling to get acclimated in Gary Kubiak’s offense and Dennis Pitta exiting in the second quarter, Steve Smith’s ability to beat Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden for the 32-yard reception on the final drive was obviously the biggest play of the game.

157 — The number of rushing yards reached by the Baltimore offense for the second straight week
Skinny: The Ravens finished with 160 yards on 33 attempts, but hitting the 157-yard plateau in two straight games illustrates how far the running game has come under Kubiak. Baltimore ran for that many yards in a game just once (against Chicago) all last year, but a productive running game makes Flacco that much more efficient when he goes to the air. The Cleveland rush defense has been a mess this season, but it was nice to see the Ravens commit to the run despite starter Bernard Pierce being out and they learned Lorenzo Taliaferro can be a major contributor sooner rather than later.

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Ravens WR Steve Smith to receive award for work to end homelessness

Posted on 18 September 2014 by WNST Staff

PRESS RELEASE

Washington, D.C. – On Tuesday, September 30, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (“the Law Center”) will honor Steve Smith, Sr. of the Baltimore Ravens, Senator Patty Murray, Sidley Austin LLP and Aleah Green at the 16th Annual McKinney-Vento Awards in Washington, D.C. The Law Center is honoring these exceptional people, and celebrating its 25th Anniversary of 25 years of high impact work to protect the rights of homeless people and to end homelessness in America. ABC7/News Channel 8 Senior Political Reporter Scott Thuman will serve as the emcee for the evening.

Steve Smith, Sr. will receive the Stewart B. McKinney Award and Senator Patty Murray will receive the Bruce F. Vento Award for their commitment to advancing solutions that prevent and end homelessness. Smith and his wife, Angie, established the Steve Smith Family Foundation which champions the cause of the voiceless and fearful, envisioning an end to domestic violence and a better quality of life for all. The Foundation is dedicated to providing resources and hope to those in need. Smith, Sr. has shown both leadership and commitment to homeless, poor, and disadvantaged communities and individuals in America.

Senator Patty Murray has a proven track record spanning more than two decades of fighting for Washington state families in the United States Senate. Patty has established herself as an effective leader on education, transportation, budget issues, port security, healthcare, women, and veterans issues. She has been a leader in the Senate in implementing policies and providing funding for programs to help those facing homelessness. This includes ensuring that homeless students have the rights and support they need to succeed in school. She has also fought for resources for affordable housing, services and shelters for homeless, as well as resources to prevent homelessness. She also restarted the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, providing housing and services to homeless veterans and helping to significantly reduce veteran homelessness. She believes in fighting for justice and has worked on numerous critical issues with the Law Center.

Sidley Austin LLP will receive the Pro Bono Counsel Award. Sidley lawyers devoted over 100,000 hours to pro bono service in 2013 and a critical part of Sidley’s pro bono program has been its long-term partnership with the Law Center. In collaboration with the Law Center over the last two decades, Sidley has protected the First Amendment rights of churches to feed and shelter homeless individuals, challenged voter ID laws that violated the voting rights of homeless persons, and challenged anti-camping ordinances that criminalized the mere status of being homeless.

Aleah Green will receive the Personal Achievement Award for her bravery in the face of hardship and homelessness. Despite her many accomplishments in life, as an unemployed single mom burdened by debt, Ms. Green found herself struggling. Without the financial resources to afford her own place she was forced to become one of the millions of Americans today who must endure homelessness. After her son was denied the right to go to school, Ms. Green took action and called the Law Center. Shiloh was able to return to school and receive the special education services he needed. Her story exemplifies the power of the law to change lives.

The McKinney-Vento Awards pays tribute to Congressmen Stewart B. McKinney and Bruce F. Vento, who co-authored the first major legislation addressing the national homelessness crisis. The 16th Annual McKinney-Vento Awards will be held on Tuesday, September 30, from 6 – 9 p.m., at The Liaison Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

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Ten Ravens predictions for the 2014 season

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Ten Ravens predictions for the 2014 season

Posted on 06 September 2014 by Luke Jones

As everyone else goes through the endeavor of making division-by-division forecasts that will ultimately mean very little, these predictions focus on the Ravens and their effort to bounce back from the first non-playoff season of the John Harbaugh era.

1. Joe Flacco will be the Ravens’ Most Valuable Player.

The quarterback won’t suddenly transform into a 5,000-yard passer with 35 touchdowns, but the arrival of offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak will bring the most efficient Flacco we’ve seen since the 2010 season when he completed nearly 63 percent of his passes and posted a 93.6 passer rating. A steadier running game will alleviate pressure on the seventh-year signal-caller to feel the need to do it all like he encountered last year, which will only make him more effective with better weapons to target. Flacco will throw 25 touchdown passes for the second time in his career.

2. Haloti Ngata will be playing his final season in Baltimore.

The Ravens and Ngata talked about a new contract this offseason in the same way the organization extended Terrell Suggs’ deal, but talks didn’t go anywhere with the five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle carrying a $16 million salary cap figure this year and next. The difference next year will be the ability to save $8.5 million in cap space by releasing him, which will be easier to execute with the emergence of second-round rookie Timmy Jernigan and nose tackle Brandon Williams this season. Though Ngata is still a good defensive tackle, anyone who’s closely watched him play over the last few years has seen a decline in impact and durability, making it likely this is his final season with the Ravens unless he alters his financial expectations significantly.

3. Kyle Juszczyk and Brandon Williams will be players to take a step forward.

The second-year fullback was a non-factor offensively as a rookie, but it’s clear Kubiak envisions a role for Juszczyk as a receiver out of the backfield, making it possible he catches 30 passes in the way H-back James Casey did in Kubiak’s Houston offense a few years ago. Meanwhile, Williams will need to emerge to soften the blow from the loss of defensive tackle Arthur Jones in free agency, and the 2013 third-round pick was impressive against the run in the preseason. The Ravens need more young players to emerge to offset the reality of several core players approaching the end of their careers, and Juszczyk and Williams will make a bigger impact in 2014 after very quiet rookie campaigns.

4. Marlon Brown and Elvis Dumervil will be players to take a step back.

Even though the second-year receiver had an inconsistent summer, his inclusion in this prediction has more to do with the sheer number of weapons added to the equation with a fully-healthy Dennis Pitta back and the free-agent additions of Steve Smith and Owen Daniels. Brown won’t catch 49 passes again, but he will still be a target in the red zone, which will give him a chance to make his limited opportunities count. Dumervil collected 9 1/2 sacks in his first season with the Ravens, but had only one in his final seven games. He added weight in the offseason, which sounds like a questionable strategy for a 30-year-old rush specialist dependent on speed to get around the edge.

5. Jimmy Smith will be the player who deserves to make the Pro Bowl but won’t.

Before a scary fall that caused bruising and bleeding from his lungs in the second preseason game, Smith was having the best summer of any Baltimore defensive player and appears primed for a breakout campaign after taking significant strides in his first season as a starter. The rest of the secondary is a major concern right now, but Smith could be chosen by defensive coordinator Dean Pees to shadow Cincinnati wideout A.J. Green and the other elite receivers the Ravens encounter in 2014. It may take another year for Smith to finally receive league-wide recognition after an injury-riddled start to his career, but he will play at a Pro Bowl level for an otherwise shaky secondary this season.

6. Terrence Brooks will be starting at free safety before Halloween.

If Smith and Lardarius Webb are healthy, the Ravens should be alright at cornerback even with uncertainty at the No. 3 spot, but there is no such comfort at safety where 2013 first-round pick Matt Elam and veteran newcomer Darian Stewart will start. The Ravens hope Elam playing closer to the line of scrimmage allows him to make a bigger impact, but his summer was quiet as he still struggled to cover and tackle consistently. Stewart didn’t show any signs of being an impact defender playing deep center field and the third-round rookie Brooks took major strides at the end of the summer, making it only a matter of time before the Florida State product supplants him in the starting defense.

7. Steve Smith will be the top veteran newcomer.

It’s easy to be skeptical of the impact Smith will bring at age 35 by pointing to his yards per catch average steadily decreasing over the last three seasons, but the five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver was too impressive this summer to think he won’t be a substantial upgrade to the offense. His swagger and attitude will pump life into an offense that lacked any a year ago, and he has the ability to help move the chains and provide production similar to what Anquan Boldin did in his three years with the Ravens when he averaged 882 receiving yards per season. He won’t be able to bring the same explosiveness all 16 weeks that we saw this summer, but he will still be a significant reason why the offense improves from its 29th overall ranking a year ago.

8. Owen Daniels will be the disappointing veteran newcomer.

The 31-year-old tight end revealed a few days ago that he was dealing with a hamstring injury to clarify Harbaugh’s vague “leg soreness” diagnosis that forced him out of practice for two weeks, but Daniels wasn’t impressive when he was practicing in training camp, struggling to gain separation and make plays to complement Pitta at the tight end position. The Ravens have given Daniels the benefit of the doubt because he is so familiar with Kubiak’s system, but it’s difficult not to be reminded of how little Dallas Clark had remaining in the tank last season while watching Daniels practice this summer. Rookie tight end Crockett Gillmore will need to be ready to step up if Daniels can’t provide what the Ravens need in 2014.

9. C.J. Mosley will be the top Ravens rookie.

This prediction isn’t exactly going out on a limb as he’s the only first-year player currently starting on either side of the football for the Ravens. The Alabama product could occasionally struggle to hold up against physical blockers in defending the run, but he has shown impressive ability in pass coverage, which will make him a three-down linebacker in Week 1. The selection of Mosley raised eyebrows considering the Ravens already had depth at inside linebacker and needs at a number of other positions, but he’s been as good as advertised and has the potential to be a dynamic defensive player in the years to come.

10. The Ravens will make the playoffs with a 9-7 record as a wild card, but they will exit in the first round.

The Ravens will move into the top half of the offensive rankings in 2014, but the defense will slide from last season’s 12th overall spot with an aging front seven and a shaky secondary. This adds up to only modest improvement from 2013 when Baltimore finished 8-8 and fell short of the postseason. Cincinnati will prevail in the AFC North with a 10-6 record, but the overall mediocrity of the AFC will leave the door open for the Ravens to finish 3-1 in the month of December and grab one of the two wild-card spots before bowing out in the first round of the playoffs to Indianapolis.

Bonus Super Bowl XLIX prediction no one asked for: New Orleans will beat Denver in a 30-24 final.

A defense that continues to improve under coordinator Rob Ryan will offset last year’s road struggles and put Drew Brees and the Saints in position to win their second Super Bowl title in the last six years while Peyton Manning and the Broncos fall short on the NFL’s biggest stage for the second straight year.

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Join Us Wednesday Night with #89 Steve Smith!

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Join Us Wednesday Night with #89 Steve Smith!

Posted on 01 September 2014 by WNST Staff

It’s that time of the year again!! Join WNST.net at Greenmount Station in Hampstead on Wednesday night as we prepare to give Steve Smith a rousing Baltimore welcome! Steve will be hosting several shows with us this fall and we couldn’t be happier to partner with such a respected and charismatic dude. Kickoff is at 7:30pm.

We’ll chat with Steve about his first several months in Baltimore and impressions of his new teammates. What’s the vibe heading into Opening Day vs. Cincinnati? How has his relationship developed with QB Joe Flacco? Steve is an open book and we know you’ll enjoy getting to know him. Plus, as always, you can expect delicious food and awesome service at our long-time partner Greenmount Station. Autographs and pictures are free, but due to demand, there will be a limit of one per person.

Also, There Goes My Hero will be in the house as we continue our mission of swabbing as many people as possible and adding them to the bone marrow donor database. Thus far, we’ve raised nearly $20,000 and have swabbed over 1,000 people since April. We hope to crush those numbers this fall and beyond. If you haven’t been swabbed, it’s easy and painless. Click here for more info on the swabbing process and any restrictions. THANK YOU to everyone who has donated and/or swabbed for us and #JennStrong. We can’t thank you enough and we hope you’ll continue to spread the word.

As always, each and every one of our live shows are presented by Freedmont Mortgage. If you’re looking to buy or refinance a home, don’t make a 30 year mistake by choosing the wrong lender. Visit freedmont.com to learn more. Also big thanks to Enoch Office and Ron’s Automotive in Manchester for their awesome sponsorship of these purple events!

 

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Early observations from 2014 Ravens training camp

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Early observations from 2014 Ravens training camp

Posted on 27 July 2014 by Luke Jones

With 2014 training camp officially underway and the Ravens attempting to bounce back from their first non-playoff season of the John Harbaugh era, there are a number of early (too early?) takeaways from the practice field in Owings Mills.

1. Steve Smith has looked like an elite player.

It’s fair to express doubts over a 35-year-old wide receiver whose yards per catch average has dropped in three consecutive years, but Smith has been as good as advertised going back to organized team activities in the spring, catching everything in sight and regularly beating cornerbacks during practices. On Saturday, he made an excellent catch on a deep ball defended by Chykie Brown and later made an impressive adjustment on a pass thrown behind him on a slant pattern. Of course, it’s important not to get carried away with how anyone performs in July, but if Smith can be that reliable target to help move the chains and provide a safety net for quarterback Joe Flacco, the investment in the 14th-year receiver will be well worth it.

2. The No. 3 cornerback for the 2014 Ravens may not yet be on the roster.

The organization spent plenty of time this offseason talking up the potential of Brown and Asa Jackson, but it’s difficult to find anyone on the field in which defensive coordinator Dean Pees would have confidence using in the nickel package along with Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb. Brown has bit on play-action fakes and has struggled to find the ball when he is in position while Jackson — who is an inside defender in the nickel package — has also been beaten deep on a couple occasions. To make matters worse, Dominique Franks still hasn’t passed his conditioning test after fellow veteran newcomer Aaron Ross tore his Achilles tendon taking the same test. The Ravens would prefer to use Webb inside in the nickel, but there have been no signs of anyone currently on the roster being capable of handling duties as the third cornerback.

3. Left guard Kelechi Osemele is moving well and is the biggest key for the offensive line.

The third-year lineman has moved well early in camp and will be the key in determining how effective the interior offensive line can be in 2014 after it was undersized and ineffective last season. It’s still too early to gauge whether his surgically-repaired back will be in issue, but Osemele delivered an impressive block 10 yards downfield that sent safety Darian Stewart to the ground on Saturday afternoon, a telling example of the improved mobility he simply didn’t have early last year. If the Ravens can be strong inside with Osemele and Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda flanking new center Jeremy Zuttah, it will alleviate much of the pressure on Rick Wagner or whoever mans the right tackle position.

4. Veteran newcomer Darian Stewart has impressed and is the early favorite to start at free safety.

His unfortunate encounter with Osemele aside, Stewart has displayed good athleticism at the safety position and looks to be the favorite to line up next to Matt Elam in the starting defense. The former St. Louis Rams safety is versatile with the ability to line up closer to the line of scrimmage or to play the more traditional free position, and Pees has said on a number of occasions that he’s looking to mirror his safeties more than just having a traditional strong and free one. Rookie Terrence Brooks will need to make significant strides between now and the start of the season as he appears to be thinking too much when lined up on the field and has worked primarily with the third-string defense to this early point. Secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo is familiar with Stewart going back to their days in St. Louis, so the Ravens hope they’ve found another value signing like they did with Corey Graham a couple years ago.

5. New offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak loves to move his skill players around in formations.

The Ravens are sure to experience growing pains implementing their new offensive system, but Kubiak has experimented plenty with his skill players to find strengths and weakness as well as potentially exploit vulnerabilities in a defense in a given matchup. His creative use of tight ends is a well-documented characteristic of his West Coast system, but it will be fun to watch how he uses fullback Kyle Juszczyk and big wide receiver Marlon Brown in addition to Dennis Pitta and Owen Daniels this season. Ultimately, offensive success in the NFL comes down to winning 1-on-1 matchups no matter how clever your schemes might be, but pre-snap movement has been a regular feature of what we’ve seen so far in Owings Mills.

6. Linebacker Courtney Upshaw looks too heavy for the third straight preseason.

Coach John Harbaugh was more complimentary of Upshaw’s conditioning in the spring, but the third-year linebacker looks bigger at the start of training camp than he did during OTAs, continuing a theme of the 2012 second-round pick not taking the best care of his body. In fairness to Upshaw, he hasn’t noticeably labored during his first few practices, but temperatures have also been favorable thus far. He has been solid in his first couple seasons and has flashed potential to be better than that, but it’s just difficult to project a player to improve when he spends too much time playing catchup with his weight every summer. The early expectation is that Upshaw will once again split time with Elvis Dumervil at the strongside outside linebacker position.

7. Rookie defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan has a rare combination of strength and quickness that’s fun to watch.

More attention has been paid to first-round linebacker C.J. Mosley, but Jernigan is becoming an early favorite of Pees as he’s been very active and has shown plenty of power in the trenches early in camp. Brandon Williams is the favorite to line up as the starting nose tackle, but there’s no reason Jernigan won’t be a regular member in the rotation, and his play could be a deciding factor in how the Ravens handle the final year of Haloti Ngata’s contract after the season. Pees quipped on Saturday that Jernigan doesn’t always follow his assignment, but he’ll make a big play anyway, which is pretty high praise for a rookie defensive lineman just a few days into his first training camp.

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Steve Smith’s expectations realistic in coming to Ravens

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Steve Smith’s expectations realistic in coming to Ravens

Posted on 23 July 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Steve Smith has talked plenty about motivation this offseason but is also grounded in reality as he officially begins his first training camp with the Ravens on Thursday.

Understandably having a chip on his shoulder over being released by the Carolina Panthers after spending the first 13 seasons of his career in Charlotte, the 35-year-old wide receiver is looking to prove he still has plenty left in the tank to help the Ravens, but there are no predictions of a 1,300-yard season or a return to the Pro Bowl. His motivation is shaped by perspective with an eye toward the end of his career knowing nobody wins the battle with Father Time.

“You can never perform at as high a level at 35 that you did at 25,” Smith said. “My job is to go out there and catch what’s catchable and have fun doing it. [I don’t want to] really concern myself too much on the ‘what-ifs’ and ‘Should I be here?’ or ‘Should I be there?’ The things that I’ve experienced in my career, honestly, they’re not going to get any better, and the reason why is because my perspective is different. Hopefully, I will accomplish better things statistically, but I’m living the dream.”

It’s difficult to predict what to expect from Smith in terms of production on the field as his yards per catch average has decreased from 17.6 in 2011 to 16.1 in 2012 to 11.6 last season, which was his lowest mark since 2007. The 5-foot-9, 195-pound wideout has depended on speed on the outside for much of his career, but he will need to reinvent himself as more of a possession receiver to thrive in Gary Kubiak’s offensive system while Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones provide two stronger outside options in the vertical passing game.

The University of Utah product turned in an excellent spring, catching nearly everything thrown his way and running crisp shorter routes whether working outside or in the slot. Smith downplayed how long it will take to build a rapport with quarterback Joe Flacco — simply explaining he’ll catch anything that should be caught — but also recognizes he doesn’t have to be the primary focus of the passing game like he was for more than a decade with the Panthers.

“I understand there are going to be times when I’m the premier receiver,” Smith said, “and there are times that I need to clear through for Torrey or Jacoby or Marlon [Brown]. You have to be able to be efficient in any offense; you’ve got to understand in every play what your role is.”

Of course, the Ravens’ motivation in signing Smith to a three-year, $11.5 million in March went beyond the number of passes he’ll catch as the offense lacked vocal leadership and swagger last season following the trade of veteran wideout Anquan Boldin. Smith has already shown he isn’t afraid to stir the pot as he mixed it up with cornerback Lardarius Webb during last month’s mandatory minicamp.

He’ll need to be productive on the field to authentically establish himself as a leader, but the early returns suggest both sides of the ball have benefited from his competitive fire during practices. It’s a reputation that was well known to the Ravens long before the veteran stepped foot in Owings Mills this spring.

“We get another defensive guy playing offense with Steve coming over,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “This is one guy last year [who defensive coordinator] Dean Pees told us not to anger, and it was a preseason game. The goal was to do our time and get out of there. It’s great to have him on our team.”

Smith’s ability to rebound from an underwhelming 745-yard season a year ago will go a long way in determining whether the Ravens can substantially improve their 29th-ranked offense in 2013. He doesn’t need to be a 1,000-yard receiver, but the veteran will be asked to catch shorter passes and help move the chains on third down, an area in which the Ravens ranked only 20th last season.

The longtime Panther knows his career is winding down but thinks he’s found the ideal place to fit his personality.

“I’m lucky to even be here,” Smith said. “After you hit 35, you should be with a walker and all that stuff. I’m just happy to be playing ball and have the opportunity to play in a conference where it’s smash-mouth football, and I’m going to fit in perfectly [with] that.”

Pierce, Reid ready to go

The Ravens will conduct their first full-squad workout on Thursday morning and enter the summer with a short injury report as running back Bernard Pierce and offensive lineman Jah Reid both participated fully in Tuesday’s workout.

Pierce has now been cleared after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery while Reid was sidelined with a calf injury in the spring.

“These two days they both looked good. They both looked fine; they have no problems,” coach John Harbaugh said. “There are some full-speed-type drills out there, not contact, but the speed of it, and they had no problems. We’ll work them through the first two days. Thursday and Friday are both full speed, but they’re not full contact, so that’ll be another chance for them to take the next step that way. I don’t anticipate any problems.”

Defensive tackle Terrence Cody is the only veteran with a clear injury concern entering camp as he’s still recovering from offseason hip surgery. Harbaugh said the fifth-year lineman is progressing, but there is no clear target date of when he’ll return to the practice field.

Dumervil grateful for opportunity provided by Bowlen in Denver

With Wednesday’s news of Pat Bowlen stepping down as owner of the Denver Broncos due to Alzheimer’s disease, Ravens linebacker Elvis Dumervil offered his support after spending the first seven seasons of his career in Denver.

“He helped impact my life [and] my family for generations to come,” Dumervil said. “He was a great guy. He always asked about my health, and when I was out for the year [in 2010], we talked a bit. He was always great to me, and I was always grateful for that. When I heard about the news, it was a sad day for that.”

 

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Five questions entering 2014 Ravens training camp

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Five questions entering 2014 Ravens training camp

Posted on 21 July 2014 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. What can we expect out of Ray Rice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Suggs applying tough lessons from last season to bounce back in 2014

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Suggs applying tough lessons from last season to bounce back in 2014

Posted on 18 June 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs spent a decade chasing the elusive Super Bowl glory he finally tasted at the end of the 2012 season.

But he couldn’t have imagined how difficult it was going to be defending that championship following the retirement of Ray Lewis and the free-agent departure of Ed Reed, leaving the Ravens without two Hall of Fame players and leaders who were the heart and soul of the organization. Of course, a myriad of reasons explained an 8-8 season in which the Ravens missed the playoffs, ranging from a porous offensive line and nonexistent running game to an otherwise-solid defense that struggled to create turnovers and get off the field in the fourth quarter.

Suggs and his veteran teammates said all the right things last season when asked how they’d possibly replace the leadership void created by the departures of Lewis, Reed, and other veterans, claiming there were more than enough voices ready to handle the changes. But the 31-year-old linebacker acknowledged Wednesday it was not only “very agonizing” to miss the postseason for the first time since 2007 but also draining going through his first season without two men who’d been older brothers to him for the first 10 years of his career.

“I had those older guys around to build, and it was a period of adjustment,” Suggs said. “It was weird, and it transpired onto the field — not having those guys there. But, the most [important] thing we can learn from last year about those guys not being there is those were once-in-a-lifetime guys — Ed Reed and Ray Lewis — and all we can be is ourselves. They’re not going to come walking through the door to help us win another championship. All you can be is yourself, and that should be enough.”

Even though Suggs posted double-digit sacks for the fifth time in his career in 2013, his play down the stretch didn’t help the Ravens’ push for a sixth straight trip to the postseason as he collected only one sack in the final eight games, leading many to speculate he was playing hurt. His 10 sacks were enough to earn him his sixth invitation to the Pro Bowl, but his play against both the run and pass deteriorated at an alarming rate with four games in which he posted one or no tackles.

With the Ravens needing a win over the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 17 to sneak into the playoffs, Suggs and fellow pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil combined for one tackle and zero sacks in a 34-17 loss that resulted in the Ravens staying home in January. Asked to reflect on his up-and-down season at this week’s mandatory minicamp, Suggs didn’t hide behind what could have been the convenient excuse of saying he was hurt.

“One of the things was you get a little cold and you gain a little weight,” said Suggs about the second half of the season. “I probably put on a little too much weight down the stretch there. But that was one of my big focuses going into this year. Definitely, if I keep my weight down, I can have a strong finish. I think I was pretty much healthy.”

Head coach John Harbaugh went out of his way to praise Suggs for his conditioning level upon reporting to Owings Mills earlier this week. The veteran linebacker likes the changes made to both sides of the ball, citing the positive vibe created by the hiring of new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak.

The linebacker also complimented the free-agent signing of veteran wide receiver Steve Smith, who isn’t afraid to ruffle some feathers like he did during Wednesday’s practice when he got into a scuffle with cornerback Lardarius Webb. It’s the kind of attitude that was lacking on the offensive side of the ball last season following the trade of wide receiver Anquan Boldin.

“It’s good to have that. We had it a few years ago in 81,” Suggs said. “And it’s good to have that fire back on that side of the ball, [to] have somebody who will go out there and jab back with us and compete.”

In addition to acquiring Smith and a few other veterans such as center Jeremy Zuttah and tight end Owen Daniels, the Ravens spent a large portion of their offseason re-signing their own players, including a four-year contract extension for Suggs. The deal did provide short-term relief in lowering his 2014 salary cap figure from $12.4 million to $7.8 million, but general manager Ozzie Newsome made a $16 million gamble in guaranteed money that Suggs’ second half last season was more of an aberration than a preview of what’s to come for a linebacker entering his 12th season.

So, who is the real Suggs at this stage of his career? The man who looked like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate while accumulating nine sacks in the first eight games last year or the worn-down player who failed to set the edge against the run and provided little pressure on the quarterback down the stretch?

The truth is likely somewhere in the middle, but Suggs appears determined to prove he’s closer to the player he was in the first half of the 2013 season based on what kind of shape he was in upon arriving at the team facility this week. And he made it clear he’s recommitted to just being himself after struggling to adjust to life without Lewis or Reed for the first time in his NFL career.

“You’re going to always have something to prove when you’re playing this game,” Suggs said. “You never want to hit your cruising altitude; you always want to be ascending with your game. You can always get better.”

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smith

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Nelson Cruz and Steve Smith: An Oriole and a Raven searching for redemption

Posted on 26 April 2014 by johngallo

One man wants to forget his past; the other is motivated by it.

One man is sorry for the mistake he made; the other is adamant he did nothing wrong to be sent packing.

One makes a living hitting home runs; the other earns his paycheck scoring touchdowns.

One was a strike away from winning a World Series in 2011; the other was denied a championship on a field goal with four seconds left in Super Bowl XXXVIII.

Nelson Cruz, the Orioles’ designated hitter and outfielder, and Steve Smith, who Ravens fans want to be the second coming of receiver Anquan Boldin, hope their futures in Baltimore are as bright as their pasts. Cruz made the All-Star Game twice as a Texas Ranger, while Smith was named All-Pro twice as a Carolina Panther.

Two players, two sports, two careers that took unlikely turns, yet both are connected by a single word in Baltimore: redemption.

Turbulent, yet successful pasts

Nelson Cruz is off to a strong start in Baltimore, as he led the Orioles in homers (6), runs batted-in (23), runs scored (16) and on-base percentage (.391) through 22 games. (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Cruz’s time in Texas was over following the 2013 season, when he turned down the Rangers’ one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer after serving a 50-game suspension last season for violating Major League Baseball’s drug policy in connection with the sport’s investigation of the Biogenesis of America, an anti-aging clinic in Florida.

Smith’s 13-season run in Carolina was marred by punching two teammates – receiver Anthony Bright during a film room meeting in 2002 and defensive back Ken Lucas at a training camp practice in 2008 – and highlighted by leading the squad to the franchise’s lone Super Bowl appearance in 2004. It ended in March when the Panthers felt he was no longer worth a $7 million hit to their salary cap.

Cruz, 33, is from Monte Cristi, a poor city in the baseball-rich Dominican Republic, where he worked in his uncle’s shop as a mechanic from age 10 to 16. He played professionally for three seasons in the Dominican Republic after signing as an undrafted free agent by the Mets in 1998. In 2000, he arrived in the U.S. after being traded to Oakland – not bad for a teenager who grew up idolizing Michael Jordan before falling in love with baseball.

Smith, 34, is from inner-city Los Angeles, where he never took the SAT while becoming an all-California Interscholastic Federation receiver at University High School. He took the bus to his $5.75 an hour job running the cash register and sweeping floors at Taco Bell, where worked from his junior in high school until he left nearby Santa Monica College. That’s where he and teammate and future All-Pro receiver Chad Johnson had college recruiters flocking to the junior college. Smith earned a scholarship to the University of Utah, where he dominated the Mountain West conference en route to being drafted in the third round (74th overall) by the Panthers in 2001.

Both have traversed the country en route to Baltimore, which represents where they hope to find redemption, yet could be the last place they ever play.

Think about it: What team will sign Cruz if he flops as an Oriole after putting up amazing numbers that could have been the result of using performance-enhancing drugs? What team will sign Smith if he can no longer get open as he did so effortlessly when he was among the NFL’s best receivers as a Panther?

Cruz’s road to Baltimore included stops in Oakland, Milwaukee and Texas, where he highlighted his eight years in as a Ranger by belting six homers and driving in 13 runs en route to being named the most valuable player of American League Championship Series in 2011. His six homers and 13 RBIs are major league records for a championship series. The Rangers lost the World Series to St. Louis in seven games, after being a strike away from a title-clinching win in Game 6.

“Whatever happened in the past, I look to move forward and have a great year with the Baltimore Orioles,” Cruz said at his press conference, where he was joined by eight Oriole teammates after signing a one-year, $8 million deal with February.

Smith had just one stop as a professional, Carolina, where all he did was set more than 30 career, single-season and single-game team records on offense and special teams, including becoming the franchise’s career leader in total touchdowns (75), receiving touchdowns (67), receptions (836) and receiving yards (12,197).

“Steve Smith has been one of the NFL’s finest receivers for over a decade and has been the face of the franchise for a large part of the team’s history,” Carolina General Manager Dave Gettleman told the team’s website after waiving Smith. “This was not an easy decision. As a team, we made a step forward last year; however, we are also a team in transition, which is a part of the NFL.”

Steve Smith is adjusting to life as a Raven by attending voluntary workouts, where he’s jelling with teammates, learning the playbook and developing a hatred for Baltimore’s biggest rival. (Courtesy of Baltimore Ravens)

When he was released, the five-time Pro Bowler vowed he’d make the Panthers pay, claiming they’ll be “blood and guts everywhere” when he plays them. The teams meet in Week 4 on Sept. 28 at M&T Bank Stadium.

“When you look at the Ravens, they’ve had an amount of great success with integrating older players and younger players and fusing them together and understanding the right combination,” Smith told the Ravens’ website after signing a three-year deal worth a reported $11.5 million. “That part is very intriguing to me and also brings a challenge that I’m up for….They are getting an old guy in age, but a young guy’s spirit and work ethic.”

What’s next?

Where would the Orioles be right now without Cruz? Maybe not 11-11 and in second place in the American League East following a loss to the Royals on April 25. Cruz leads the team in homers (6), runs batted-in (23), runs scored (16) and on-base percentage (.391). His .588 slugging percentage is tied with Steve Clevenger, who has played in seven games compared to Cruz’s 21.

“Nelson is a great hitter,” catcher Matt Wieters told reporters after Cruz blasted two homers during a 10-8 win over Toronto on April 23. “I always had trouble calling pitches against him so I’m glad he’s on our team. He’s a huge addition to the middle of our lineup.”

“We all know what he’s capable of,” Manager Buck Showalter said of Cruz after the game.

Meantime, Smith is adjusting to life as a Raven by attending voluntary workouts, where he’s jelling with teammates, learning the playbook and developing a hatred for Baltimore’s biggest rival.

“My dislike 4 @steelers will grow everyday I’m in the #caste,” Smith tweeted.

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Ravens pleased with early turnout for offseason program

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Ravens pleased with early turnout for offseason program

Posted on 22 April 2014 by Luke Jones

(Photo courtesy of the Baltimore Ravens)

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With players returning to Owings Mills this week to officially begin preparations for the 2014 season, the Ravens are pleased with the early turnout for the first phase of the offseason training program.

Strength and conditioning coach Bob Rogucki said attendance was “high” for the first two days of voluntary workouts with quarterback Joe Flacco, running back Ray Rice, wide receivers Steve Smith, Torrey Smith, and Jacoby Jones, tight end Owen Daniels, inside linebackers Daryl Smith and Arthur Brown, cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith, and safety Matt Elam among the many players who were present. The first two weeks of the program focus solely on strength training and conditioning four days a week, but there is less time to ease players back into the routine under the current collective bargaining agreement that pushed back the starting date for the offseason training program.

Players were given the task of completing six 300-yard runs as a baseline for their conditioning and are focusing on strengthening their necks in the early stages of the program in addition to traditional weight training.

“Anybody that comes into this program, our expectations are always going to be high for them,” said Rogucki, now in his seventh year with the organization. “If we don’t start pressing that button today then three weeks from now, they aren’t going to be ready. Our expectations are always high and, right now, we’re pleased with what they’re doing.”

Despite a tumultuous offseason that included an indictment for aggravated assault, Rice has been present for workouts and received a positive review from the Ravens training staff. Reports indicated earlier this offseason that Rice had lost weight after head coach John Harbaugh said the seventh-year running back was too heavy in a career-worst season that included a Week 2 hip injury that hampered him for much of the year.

Rice’s pending legal case may still compromise his availability for the 2014 season, but his commitment to improve on the field hasn’t gone unnoticed. The 27-year-old rushed for a career-low 660 yards and averaged just 3.1 yards per carry while weighing in the neighborhood of 225 pounds last year.

The Ravens would like him to be at least 15 pounds lighter this season.

“He’s doing some things differently as far as his diet and so forth,” Rogucki said. “He told me he has a handle on it. He looks good. Whatever he did from the end of the season until now, he’s in a good position right now.”

Starting left guard Kelechi Osemele continues to make excellent progress after undergoing back surgery last fall and is expected to participate in organized team activities and minicamp practices.

Though workouts are officially voluntary, Rogucki and the rest of the coaching staff conveyed a clear message from the point players returned to the building.

“Every time they come in, they’re going to do more weight or more reps without bells and whistles,” Rogucki said. “There’s a lot of programs out there that have bells and whistles. In order to survive in this league, you’ve got to lift and you’ve got to lift heavy. That’s the bottom line. You’ve got to run and you’ve got to run fast. You’ve got to condition and you’ve got to condition long.

“There are no other answers but that to survive. It’s a collision out there. It’s a car crash every time they hit.”

 

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