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Ravens “all have to step up” in Steve Smith’s absence

Posted on 08 October 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With a 1-3 record to begin 2015, the Ravens can’t afford to take any opponent lightly.

Not even the Cleveland Browns.

That sentiment rings truer without veteran wideout Steve Smith, who is expected to miss Sunday’s game with microfractures in his lower back suffered in last week’s win in Pittsburgh. In two games over Cleveland a year ago, Smith caught 13 passes for 191 yards in two fourth-quarter comeback victories.

The Ravens instead will count on a quartet of receivers who have combined for 21 receptions and 264 yards so far this season, eight fewer catches and 109 fewer receiving yards than Smith in his four games.

“It’s definitely not ideal. It’s going to be a little bit challenging for us an offense, but it’s just the way it is,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “We wouldn’t want it any other way. These are the guys that are going to go out there and make plays for us, start making a name for themselves, and help us win, so I’m excited about it.”

It’s a given that Flacco will need to be sharper than he was a week ago when he turned the ball over twice in a 23-20 overtime win. With Smith, Breshad Perriman, Michael Campanaro, and tight end Crockett Gillmore all injured, the Ravens will ask their starting quarterback to elevate the level of play of his inexperienced teammates, at least enough to squeak out a win over Cleveland’s 22nd-ranked pass defense.

Baltimore wants its running game to build on what it did a week ago as the Ravens face the league’s 31st-ranked run defense on Sunday, but the passing attack will need to do enough to prevent the Browns from stacking the box.

The Ravens have said all of the right things, but how much can you reasonably expect from Flacco as he’s working with two former undrafted free agents — Kamar Aiken and Marlon Brown — as his starters, a rookie sixth-round pick (Darren Waller), and a veteran (Chris Givens) acquired just a week ago?

“Joe can only do so much. He has to do his job,” offensive coordinator Marc Trestman said. “It’s up to all of us to help all of us to get this done. It’s a team game, and it’s not one guy. Certainly, Joe expects to play at a high level and does every week. This week should be no different than any week.”

Aiken and Brown will be expected to gain separation against Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden and veteran Tramon Williams. Haden has struggled early this season while battling injuries, but the 32-year-old Williams has played at a high level in his first season with Cleveland.

It’s been a bizarre start to the season for Aiken as he has two performances of 77 or more receiving yards while combining for one catch and minus-1 yard in the other two contests. The 6-foot-5 Brown has struggled to catch the football so far in 2015, making just eight receptions for 75 yards while serving mostly as the No. 3 receiver.

The Ravens would stand to benefit from Brown channeling the success of his rookie year when he caught 49 passes for 524 yards and seven touchdowns in 2013. His role in the Baltimore offense has mostly diminished since then.

“I’ve completed a lot of passes to both of them — Kamar recently and Marlon in the past,” Flacco said. “We just have to get them rolling and have confidence that they’re going to go out there and do the job because they’re our guys right now. They have a lot of ability, and we can’t treat them any other way.”

With Smith’s injury in Pittsburgh, the comparisons have been made to the 2013 season when the Ravens were reeling from the offseason trade of Anquan Boldin and the serious hip injury to Dennis Pitta, but Flacco could at least throw to Torrey Smith then. On Sunday, the eighth-year signal-caller is projected to have just two targets at receiver or tight end — Aiken and Givens — who were even in the league when Flacco led Baltimore to a Super Bowl less than three years ago.

But that won’t deter him from showing confidence in an inexperienced group — at least on Sunday.

“I know you guys might not see him talk much or encourage much,” said Aiken about the even-keeled Flacco, “but he’s always trying to motivate us in the huddle and tell us, ‘Let’s go!’ and stuff like that. It’s great to have Joe as a quarterback, even with us going through all this. That’s why I feel so confident that we’ll be fine.”

Changes to nickel defense

An interesting personnel development from the Week 4 win at Pittsburgh was the emergence of the recently-acquired Will Davis as the No. 3 corner over veteran Kyle Arrington in the second half.

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees has previously stated his preference to use starting cornerback Lardarius Webb inside in the nickel package, but Arrington has struggled when asked to play outside as the third cornerback. In 23 snaps in his first game with the Ravens, Davis finished with a tackle and a pass breakup while Arrington played only 20 defensive snaps, most of that coming in the first half.

“I really feel like [Webb] is a really good inside player and a good nickel for us,” Pees said. “And when we play sub [packages], we would like to keep him there as opposed to outside if we can, and I just feel like that’s a great matchup for us. It’s [not] because of anything down on Kyle; it’s a little bit more of a good fit for Webby and, really, a better fit for Will because he’s really an outside guy only.”

Trestman-McCown respect

Trestman and Browns quarterback Josh McCown have expressed great admiration for each other this week after the pair worked together in Chicago in 2013.

In Trestman’s first season as head coach of the Bears, the journeyman McCown made five starts in place of an injured Jay Cutler and posted a 109.0 passer rating. That performance has led to McCown’s starting jobs with Tampa Bay and Cleveland and the pair have remained in touch, but there hasn’t been any text messaging this week, according to the Baltimore coordinator.

“We’re just doing our job this week, but I’m excited for his opportunity,” said Trestman, who added that McCown’s athleticism and mental capacity for the game are his underrated traits. “I was when he left Chicago. He had a great opportunity, and I was excited for him, excited for the career he has extended.”

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Gillmore, S. Smith remain sidelined from Thursday’s practice

Posted on 08 October 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — While the wide receiver position remains in flux due to injuries, the Ravens are once again facing the possibility of being without their starting tight end against Cleveland on Sunday.

Crockett Gillmore missed practice again on Thursday as he continues to recover from a calf injury suffered in the Week 3 loss to Cincinnati. Rookies Maxx Williams and Nick Boyle would fill bigger roles in the offense for a second straight week if Gillmore is unable to play.

Williams and Boyle combined to make five catches for 29 yards in the 23-20 overtime win at Pittsburgh.

Wide receivers Steve Smith (back) and Breshad Perriman (knee), defensive end Chris Canty (calf), and linebackers Albert McClellan (abdomen) and Daryl Smith were also absent from Thursday’s practice. McClellan was a new addition to the injury report while Daryl Smith received a veteran day off as he often does during Thursday practices.

After being listed as a limited participant with an ankle issue on Wednesday, Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda was a full participant, removing any concern regarding his status against the Browns. Left tackle Eugene Monroe remains on track to receive his first game action on Sunday since suffering a concussion on the first series of the season opener on Sept. 13.

Backup running back Lorenzo Taliaferro returned to practice on a limited basis after resting a lingering foot issue.

Meanwhile, the Browns were without starting free safety Tashaun Gipson (ankle) for a second straight day and starting wide receiver Brian Hartline was a new addition to the injury report after sitting out Thursday’s workout with rib and thigh injuries.

Below is Thursday’s full injury report:

DID NOT PARTICIPATION: DE Chris Canty (calf), TE Crockett Gillmore (calf), LB Albert McClellan (abdomen), WR Breshad Perriman (knee), LB Daryl Smith (non-injury), WR Steve Smith (back)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: RB Lorenzo Taliaferro (foot)
FULL PARTICIPATION: OT Eugene Monroe (concussion), G Marshal Yanda (ankle)

DID NOT PARTICIPATION: RB Shaun Draughn (back), S Tashaun Gipson (ankle), WR Brian Hartline (ribs/thigh), LB Craig Robertson (ankle)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: DE Desmond Bryant (shoulder), LB Karlos Dansby (ankle), CB Joe Haden (ribs/finger), LB Scott Solomon (ankle), RB Robert Turbin (ankle)
FULL PARTICIPATION: DB Johnson Bademosi (elbow), RB Duke Johnson (ankle), QB Johnny Manziel (right elbow), T Mitchell Schwartz (thumb), DE Randy Starks (non-injury), OT Joe Thomas (non-injury), S Donte Whitner (illness), CB K’Waun Williams (concussion)

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Monroe practices fully; S. Smith, Gillmore absent on Wednesday

Posted on 07 October 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After very limited participating in abbreviated workouts last week, starting left tackle Eugene Monroe practiced fully on Wednesday as the Ravens continued preparations for Sunday’s game against Cleveland.

Sidelined since suffering a concussion on the first series of the season opener in Denver, Monroe was working in full pads with the rest of the offensive line and appears set to make his return. Second-year tackle James Hurst struggled mightily in the first quarter of the 2015 season.

“I’m healthy now and preparing for this game,” said Monroe, who missed one game due to a concussion in 2010 with Jacksonville. “That’s all that matters. I feel back to normal. I feel good to go. I’m just excited for Sunday. That’s really all I’m focused on is this game.”

Wide receivers Steve Smith (back) and Breshad Perriman (knee), tight end Crockett Gillmore (calf), defensive end Chris Canty (calf), and running back Lorenzo Taliaferro (foot) did not participate in Wednesday’s practice. Though Smith and Perriman are not expected to play against the Browns, head coach John Harbaugh said earlier this week that Gillmore and Canty have “a chance” to return this week.

Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda was a limited participant due to an ankle issue on Wednesday.

The Ravens will face some interesting decisions at the return spots this week with Michael Campanaro now on injured reserve and Smith sidelined with lower back fractures. Veteran cornerback Lardarius Webb and the newly-acquired Chris Givens both have return experience, but Baltimore could choose to promote wide receiver Jeremy Ross or cornerback Asa Jackson from the practice squad to help out in the return game.

Meanwhile, several Browns players missed Wednesday’s practice including safeties Tashaun Gipson (ankle) and Donte Whitner (illness). Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden (ribs/finger) was a limited participant after missing Sunday’s loss at San Diego.

Below is Wednesday’s full injury report:

DID NOT PARTICIPATION: DE Chris Canty (calf), TE Crockett Gillmore (calf), WR Breshad Perriman (knee), WR Steve Smith (back), RB Lorenzo Taliaferro (foot)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: G Marshal Yanda (ankle)
FULL PARTICIPATION: OT Eugene Monroe (concussion)

DID NOT PARTICIPATION: RB Shaun Draughn (back), S Tashaun Gipson (ankle), LB Craig Robertson (ankle), DE Randy Starks (non-injury), OT Joe Thomas (non-injury), S Donte Whitner (illness)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: DE Desmond Bryant (shoulder), LB Karlos Dansby (ankle), CB Joe Haden (ribs/finger), LB Scott Solomon (ankle), RB Robert Turbin (ankle), CB K’Waun Williams (concussion)
FULL PARTICIPATION: DB Johnson Bademosi (elbow), RB Duke Johnson (ankle), QB Johnny Manziel (right elbow), T Mitchell Schwartz (thumb)

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With pains at receiver, Ravens facing Cleveland at perfect time

Posted on 06 October 2015 by Luke Jones

Expecting to take the field without the services of Steve Smith on Sunday, the Ravens are hurting at the wide receiver position entering Week 5.

Their projected No. 1 receiver against the Browns, Kamar Aiken, has just 11 receptions for 165 yards and a touchdown through the first four games of the season. Those numbers don’t even match what the 36-year-old Smith did in Week 3 against Cincinnati alone.

That’s why the Ravens’ 191-yard rushing performance in last Thursday’s win at Pittsburgh couldn’t have come at a better time. Prior to Week 4, Baltimore had averaged just 3.3 yards per carry in its 0-3 start, perhaps the most surprising development of the early season.

Now, head coach John Harbaugh hopes the ground performance against the Steelers is a sign of better things to come.

“Sometimes you have to keep pounding that rock,” Harbaugh said. “They made a lot of plays against the run — especially early — and finally it kind of opened up toward the end there a little bit more. But it’s always important for us. It’s something that we count on doing well, and we need to continue to improve. I don’t think we’re where we need to be with the run game, yet. That’s something we need to continue to work on really hard.”

With Smith sidelined and starting tight end Crockett Gillmore still recovering from a calf injury, the Ravens are playing the 1-3 Browns at a perfect time. Cleveland brings the league’s 32nd-ranked defense in total yards and its rush defense ranks 31st in giving up 141.5 yards per game.

The Browns rank 29th in allowing 4.8 yards per carry, which comes a year after their defense surrendered more rushing yards than any team in the NFL. Those 2014 struggles prompted the selection of defensive tackle Danny Shelton with the 12th overall pick of this spring’s draft, but the 339-pounder’s presence has yet to make a major difference for the Browns’ front.

Of course, quarterback Joe Flacco and the Ravens will need to do enough through the air to prevent the Cleveland defense from consistently stacking the box, but there appears to be little reason why Justin Forsett, Lorenzo Taliaferro, and Buck Allen won’t find running room to move the chains and take pressure off an undermanned group of pass-catchers. The Ravens will need a produtive running game moving forward, especially until Smith is ready to return to action.

Even if they’re playing at M&T Bank Stadium where the Browns haven’t won since 2007, Harbaugh made it clear that the Ravens are in no position to take Cleveland lightly.

“I mean, hey, we’re 1-3, too,” Harbaugh said. “We have two 1-3 teams going at it here. We’re battling to be third place in the division right now. That’s where we stand, and that’s a tall order and we have work to do. But they have a heck of a front seven. They have good pass rushers on both edges. They have some of the most talented secondary players in the league, and we’ve seen them up close and personal every time we play them.”

Pass-rushing reinforcements

The Ravens enter Week 5 tied for sixth in the NFL with 11 sacks, but the pass rush remains a topic of concern for the league’s 16th-ranked pass defense.

The good news was the boost defensive coordinator Dean Pees received from Za’Darius Smith, who collected the first two sacks of his NFL career in the third quarter of the win at Pittsburgh. In 19 snaps, the rookie collected two other tackles in addition to his takedowns of Mike Vick, flashing the skills he showed at Kentucky that prompted the Ravens to draft him in the fourth round.

“I think he has really been ramping up his intensity level,” Harbaugh said, “how he plays from one play to the next, understanding at this level the edge that you have to play on to be successful, and how hard you have to play. He applied that in that Pittsburgh game better than he has at any point in time. He has always been good, but not really good enough to make a difference until this game, and that was really good to see.”

With Elvis Dumervil and Courtney Upshaw taking on heavier workloads since the season-ending injury to Terrell Suggs, the Ravens need Za’Darius Smith and veteran Jason Babin to be productive when asked to spell the starters.

Making his Ravens debut after being inactive for two games, Babin only played seven snaps and did not record any official statistics, but Pro Football Focus credited him with a quarterback hurry.

“He was really disciplined with his pass rush,” Harbaugh said. “The thing we asked our guys to do in this game was be very disciplined with their pass rush and treat it almost like run defense, because you have  a guy back there who can throw and can run and can really hurt you with him arm and with his legs.”

Challenging Jernigan

One of the quieter stories of the early season has been the demotion of second-year defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, who has been replaced by rookie Carl Davis in the base defense in each of the last two games.

The 2014 second-round pick missed the season opener with a knee injury and started against Oakland in Week 2, but a foolish roughing-the-passer penalty on the Raiders’ game-winning drive landed him behind Davis on the depth chart. Jernigan played just 17 of 63 defensive snaps against the Steelers, but the Ravens will need him to be a major part of their inside pass rush as the season progresses.

“Timmy is getting better and better,” Harbaugh said. “He really stepped it up the last week or so — in practice and in games. He’s very capable of being a real factor inside there, and it’s especially true when he plays a certain way, when he really gets after it, when he cuts it loose. That’s what we’re trying to get him to do — get off the ball, get off blocks, run to the football, be a physical force in there, and play fast.

“Sometimes, too much thinking is not good. He knows the defense now, and we expect him to play with a real high motor. And when he does that, he’s very effective.”

Returning questions in return game

With Michael Campanaro now out for the season with a back injury, the Ravens have gone back to the drawing board with their return game.

The latest depth chart lists veteran Lardarius Webb as the No. 1 punt returner, but the kick returner is listed as “to be determined.” Newly-acquired Chris Givens has experience returning kicks in St. Louis while Taliaferro and Allen also practiced handling kickoffs over the summer.

However, the Ravens’ best option might be on their practice squad where receiver Jeremy Ross currently resides. Ross returned kicks and punts in Detroit for two years and scored a touchdown doing each during the 2013 season.

“We’ll look at all our options. We have guys on the roster that can do it,” Harbaugh said. “Chris is a guy that can do it, too, as far as the kick return stuff. We’ll just see where we’re at come Sunday on that, but it could be someone here. Obviously, it could be somebody outside, too.”

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Harbaugh says Perriman has one of “slowest-healing PCL sprains ever”

Posted on 05 October 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Though downplaying the notion that Breshad Perriman suffered a recent setback, Ravens coach John Harbaugh said the rookie receiver has one of the slowest-healing knee injuries they’ve encountered.

Upon seeing renowned orthopedist Dr. James Andrews last Thursday, the 2015 first-round pick underwent arthroscopic surgery as he continues to recover from a sprained posterior cruciate ligament suffered on the first day of training camp in late July. Perriman had returned to practice on a limited basis two weeks ago before appearing to aggravate his right knee during a pre-game workout a couple hours before the Ravens’ Week 3 loss to Cincinnati on Sept. 27.

Last Tuesday, Harbaugh said he was unaware of any setback before the news surfaced about his surgery two days later.

“It’s just a slow-healing deal,” Harbaugh said on Monday. “He’s had probably one of the all-time slowest-healing PCL sprains ever. That’s nothing against him; that’s just the way it is. It’s just tough. It’s one-in-some number — whatever Dr. Andrews said it was.”

Initially diagnosed with a bruise that was expected to keep him out for only a day or two, the Central Florida product was supposed to be the replacement for Torrey Smith in the vertical passing game this season. Through the first quarter of the season, the Ravens have been unable to consistently stretch the field with quarterback Joe Flacco completing just three passes of 30 or more yards.

In addition to the scope, Perriman received a platelet-rich plasma injection to try to accelerate the healing process, a practice that has become more common in recent years. It remains unclear when the 6-foot-2, 218-pound receiver will return to the practice field as general manager Ozzie Newsome acquired speed receiver Chris Givens from St. Louis in exchange for a 2016 seventh-round pick over the weekend.

“Hopefully, [the PRP injection] will have a good impact on it,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll see how he comes along this week. I’m looking forward to it and seeing how fast that we can get some recovery going on it.

“I think when we get him out there full-speed in practice running routes and actually practicing with the units, that’s when you’ll know he’s got a chance to come back and play. When he’s doing the walk-throughs or just individual [parts], that’s a little different. That’s what he was doing before [the surgery].”

Steve Smith in pain tolerance “Hall of Fame”

Making Perriman’s continued absence even worse was the lower back injury suffered by No. 1 receiver Steve Smith in the Thursday night win at Pittsburgh.

Sustaining multiple microfractures in his back, Smith is expected to miss Sunday’s game with Cleveland, but Harbaugh is optimistic about his status after that as the issue will be more about pain tolerance than risking further injury.

“We’re never going to put him out there if he’s not able to really function and protect himself and play hard and fast and all those kinds of things,” Harbaugh said. “Now, knowing Steve, he’ll want to be out there. He has probably one of the all-time high pain tolerances that you’re ever going to see. He’s in the Hall of Fame of pain tolerance. That’s what our doctors told me.”

Asked about Smith’s status on Saturday at the Maryland-Michigan game, Harbaugh told Comcast SportsNet that the medical staff already “ruled him out for the Cleveland game,” but the Ravens coach tried to back away from that proclamation when asked again on Monday.

“The injury report rules people out; that’s how it works,” Harbaugh said. “There’s a process to that, so we’ll just follow the process on that. I have my own thoughts on it as I stated.”

Demon Deacon influence

Placed on season-ending injured reserve with a herniated disc in his back on Saturday, second-year receiver Michael Campanaro gave the Ravens some inside information on the newly-acquired Givens, the man taking his place on the 53-man roster.

Campanaro and Givens were once teammates at Wake Forest before the latter was drafted in the fourth round of the 2012 draft.

“Michael gave us a nice report on him as far as his character and work ethic,” Harbaugh said. “He’s a fast receiver, down-the-field threat, and does a lot of good things. He’s a good player. It turned out he was available due to the circumstances in St. Louis, and Ozzie made the trade, so we’re excited.”

Gillmore, Canty have “chance” to play against Cleveland

Harbaugh said tight end Crockett Gillmore is improving and could make his return against the Browns.

“Week-to-week. He has a chance this week — same thing with Chris Canty,” Harbaugh said. “They’ve both had very similar calf strains.”

Gillmore injured his calf in the first half of the Week 3 loss to Cincinnati while the veteran defensive end hurt his calf early in the Week 2 loss at Oakland.

Left tackle Eugene Monroe practiced on a limited basis last week as he’s remained in the concussion protocol since injuring his head on the opening series of the 2015 season.

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Ravens acquire St. Louis receiver Givens, place Campanaro on IR

Posted on 03 October 2015 by Luke Jones

Reeling from injuries at the wide receiver position, the Ravens acquired Chris Givens from the St. Louis Rams in exchange for a 2017 seventh-round pick on Saturday morning.

To make room on the 53-man roster, second-year wide receiver Michael Campanaro was placed on season-ending injured reserve with a back injury suffered in Week 4. The 2014 seventh-round pick scored a touchdown in the 23-20 win over Pittsburgh and has shown promise, but injuries have continued to limit his ability to make an impact as a receiver and return specialist.

Givens was a 2012 fourth-round pick out of Wake Forest and had fallen out of favor in St. Louis, registering just 12 catches for 166 yards and a touchdown over his last 17 games. The speedy six-foot receiver adds speed that the Ravens have lacked with rookie Breshad Perriman sidelined with a knee injury since the start of training camp, but Campanaro’s absence once again creates major questions in the return game as Givens only has experience as a kick returner in his career.

Averaging 16.3 yards per reception in his four-year career, Givens caught 42 passes for 698 yards and three touchdowns in 2012, but his numbers have declined every season since his rookie campaign.

In addition to losing Campanaro for the year, Baltimore confirmed Saturday morning that Steve Smith is “week-to-week” with a lower back injury suffered against the Steelers. Multiple reports have said that the 36-year-old suffered four broken ribs late in the third quarter of the Thursday night win.

Givens has 88 catches for 1,433 yards and four touchdowns in his career.

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Steve Smith to miss Cleveland game with back injury

Posted on 03 October 2015 by Luke Jones

(Updated: 8:00 p.m.)

After leaving Thursday’s game in Pittsburgh with a lower back injury, Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith is “week-to-week” as reports are saying he suffered four broken ribs in the 23-20 win.

The 36-year-old was injured on the penultimate play of the third quarter when he caught a pass on a short out route and was tackled by Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons and cornerback Antwon Blake in front of the Pittsburgh bench. Timmons appeared to spear Smith in the lower back as the veteran receiver was slow to get up.

Smith tried to return to the Baltimore huddle before falling to the ground in pain. He did not return to the game as members of the training staff walked him to the Ravens bench.

Watching his brother Jim lead the University of Michigan against Maryland in College Park on Saturday, Ravens coach John Harbaugh told Comcast SportsNet that Smith will be held out of the Week 5 game against Cleveland next Sunday. Harbaugh described the injury as “microfractures” in Smith’s lower back.

Ravens vice president of public and community relations Kevin Byrne issued the following statement Saturday morning:

“While the Ravens do not give specifics about injuries out of respect to the men on our team and HIPAA laws, we want to dispel rumors and stories currently being reported about Steve Smith Sr.’s injury. He does have a back injury. It is not a surgical issue. His status is currently week-to-week.”

Trying to determine what “week-to-week” means will be interesting as the Ravens cannot afford to be without their top receiver and only established threat in the passing game. News of Smith’s injury came after the Ravens acquired St. Louis Rams receiver Chris Givens for a 2017 seventh-round pick and placed second-year receiver Michael Campanaro (back) on season-ending injured reserve.

Given his incomparable toughness as well as his plans to retire at the end of 2015, Smith will likely try to play through the injury, but the news certainly isn’t encouraging for a Ravens team trying to rebound from the first 0-3 start in franchise history.

In four games this season, Smith has caught 29 passes for 373 yards and two touchdowns.

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Thursday night

Posted on 30 September 2015 by Luke Jones

The Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers appeared to be two teams moving in opposite directions, but a single injury altered that thinking on Sunday.

A knee injury to Ben Roethlisberger not only puts the Steelers (2-1) in a holding pattern for at least the next few weeks while trying to survive with backup Michael Vick at the helm, but it gives the winless Ravens hope that they can go to Heinz Field on a short week and potentially steal their first victory of 2015. Of course, it won’t be easy for Baltimore with starting tight end Crockett Gillmore, starting left tackle Eugene Monroe, starting defensive end Chris Canty, and rookie wide receiver Breshad Perriman all ruled out for Thursday night.

Searching for answers and knowing only three NFL teams have rebounded from an 0-3 start to make the NFL playoffs since 1990, the Ravens’ biggest enemy at this point might be themselves as a season full of high expectations has instead started in nightmare fashion for John Harbaugh’s team. It’s officially uncharted territory for a team that had never started 0-3 in franchise history and has made the playoffs in six of the last seven years.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens play Pittsburgh for the 39th time in their regular-season history as they own a 17-21 mark. The teams split a pair of games at Heinz Field last season, but Baltimore prevailed 30-17 over the Steelers in a wild-card playoff game last January.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to improve to 5-2 in Thursday night primetime games under Harbaugh …

1. Pittsburgh will control the tempo of the game by handing the ball to Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams a combined 35 times. Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley isn’t going to allow Vick to take many chances, leaving plenty of opportunities for these running backs. The Ravens rank fourth in the league allowing just 3.4 yards per carry, but the Steelers will spread out the defense to create just enough room for Bell and Williams to keep Vick in manageable down-and-distance situations.

2. Maxx Williams will catch his first touchdown and provide the Ravens with another threat behind Steve Smith. Considering how many issues the Pittsburgh defense has had with tight ends so far, Gillmore’s absence couldn’t have come at a worse time, but Williams will find room against linebackers who are poor in pass coverage. The bigger question will be how he and fellow rookie Nick Boyle fare as blockers with the Ravens desperately needing to get their struggling running game in order.

3. Brandon Williams will pick up his first sack of the season and create problems in the Pittsburgh backfield. There have been few bright spots on the Ravens’ 26th-ranked scoring defense, but Williams has been a force and the unit’s best player. With Pittsburgh center Maurkice Pouncey out, the third-year nose tackle should dominate Cody Wallace by collecting his first quarterback takedown as well as a few other tackles for a loss to force more Pittsburgh runs to the perimeter on Thursday night.

4. Antonio Brown will still collect 100 yards receiving and a touchdown without Roethlisberger throwing to him. The Steelers likely won’t have Brown running as many downfield routes, but they will use bubble screens and other ways to get the ball to the playmaker in open space to put pressure on tacklers. It will be interesting to see if Dean Pees elects to have Jimmy Smith shadow Brown, but the Ravens better be ready to give him help against one of the top wide receivers in the NFL.

5. Vick will manage the game effectively while the Ravens lack the “it” factor to do what it takes in a 24-16 loss. I fully expect a Harbaugh-coached team to compete in this one and I’m tempted to pick the Ravens to win with Roethlisberger out, but last week was the game in which they needed to pull themselves off the mat and they still couldn’t do it. Many have cited Baltimore’s 5-1 record against Pittsburgh when Roethlisberger hasn’t played, but two active defensive players — Courtney Upshaw and Albert McClellan — took part in that last win in 2012, a game Brown also missed. The defense will be a little better than the last two weeks and the offense will find ways to move the ball, but the recurring theme of not being good enough in the fourth quarter will cost Baltimore again in a close one.

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Too many issues for winless Ravens to hide from truth

Posted on 28 September 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens had chances to win in the fourth quarter of each of their first three games, but that doesn’t hide the truth after a 28-24 loss to Cincinnati on Sunday.

This is a bad football team at 0-3.

At least right now.

A loss in Denver wasn’t unexpected despite it being a winnable game. Falling to Oakland was surprising, but the Ravens have laid the occasional egg on the road in the John Harbaugh era. But failing to prevail in a must-win game at M&T Bank Stadium when they owned two separate leads late in the game?

The difference between most good teams and most bad teams in the NFL isn’t that much, but the Ravens have shown it through the first three weeks of the 2015 season. They’re not bad in the same sense as an 0-3 Chicago Bears team that’s been outscored by 59 points this season, but that’s no consolation for a franchise so used to success over the last 15 years.

“Very disappointing,” said Harbaugh after the Ravens fell to 0-3 for the first time in franchise history. “We had the lead twice in the fourth quarter and couldn’t hold onto it. It’s happened too much lately. It’s on us.”

The sad thing is that the Ravens of old flashed at a few different points in the second half, making you think they would find a way to steal one that they really had no business winning after being dominated in the first half. The defense was even the catalyst as Elvis Dumervil stripped Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton of the football and C.J. Mosley picked up the fumble and ran 41 yards for the go-ahead touchdown with 6:49 remaining in the fourth quarter.

The narrative was there for an ugly — but season-saving — win around which the Ravens could rally and remove the bad taste of the first two losses from their palates.

But then four-time Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green took over, catching an 80-yard touchdown against a confused and poor-tackling secondary. And he did it again after the Ravens had punched back with a Joe Flacco touchdown to Steve Smith that put them back in front with just under four minutes remaining.

After fourth-quarter failures against the Broncos and Raiders in the previous two weeks, the defense once again melted down when the Ravens needed it to make just one last stop.

“Once we had the lead in the fourth quarter, we’re supposed to keep it,” cornerback Lardarius Webb said. “With this defense, we’re supposed to get off the field. We haven’t been getting off the field this whole year, and that’s what you get when you don’t get off the field on third down.”

Even with the healthy returns of Jimmy Smith and Webb and the free-agent additions of Kendrick Lewis and Kyle Arrington, we knew the Ravens secondary might still be an issue, but the defense has allowed 291 passing yards per game and six touchdowns so far in 2015. Two of those performances came against Oakland’s second-year quarterback Derek Carr and then Dalton, who has been the quarterback punchline of playoff failures over the last four years.

Is it the talent, the execution, or the coaching? When a team is 0-3, it’s all of the above.

The pass rush without Terrell Suggs, Pernell McPhee, and Haloti Ngata is a shell of its former self, leading to quite a predicament for defensive coordinator Dean Pees. When you need to blitz to pressure the pocket, you make shaky defensive backs even more vulnerable to giving up the big play, but rushing three or four while dropping extra defenders in coverage hasn’t worked either.

There’s been too much miscommunication on the back end of the defense — seeing Lewis trying to cover Green on his 80-yard score in a three-deep zone was a perfect example on Sunday — not to question Pees’ calls while also holding players accountable for their performance. You could certainly interpret Harbaugh’s thoughts on Green’s final touchdown as a critique of both.

“You take responsibility across the board,” Harbaugh said. “It’s execution, it’s finding a better way to play. There are options that you have on that last play down there in the red zone on the [7]-yard line besides man coverage, but we decided to blitz them and get after them and they beat us. We have an option there, we can check to a zone coverage. We didn’t have that on, but there are always options.”

Understandably, the defense is receiving most of the blame for Sunday’s loss, but let’s not pretend all is well with the offense, either. Not only did the group sleepwalk through the entire first half, but the passing game remains too dependent on Steve Smith as he was targeted 17 times on his way to 13 catches for 186 yards and two touchdowns. Other than maybe second-year tight end Crockett Gillmore — who sat out the second half with an undisclosed injury — Flacco doesn’t have a single pass-catcher he can trust beyond the 36-year-old wideout, who was terrific on Sunday but can’t be expected to repeat this every week.

Perhaps the biggest — and easily the most surprising — concern on either side of the ball for the Ravens has been their running game, which was a non-factor against the Cincinnati defense on Sunday. After running for just 35 yards on 13 carries in the first half, the Ravens gained only one yard on five second-half carries.

For a team that pledged to maintain the blocking principles introduced by Gary Kubiak a year ago, the running game under Marc Trestman has more closely resembled the disastrous 2013 ground attack so far, averaging just 3.3 yards per carry in three games. That spells trouble for a team lacking play-makers through the air and a pass defense that needs to be protected as much as possible.

With concerns on both sides of the ball, the 0-3 Ravens can only push forward while trying to resolve at least some of the problems.

“If [those losses are] in your head, then you’re just going to be constantly trying to crawl out of a hole that you can’t get out of right away,” said Flacco, who thought the offense “wasted” the entire first half not taking advantage of the Bengals playing “conservative” defensive looks. “It’s going to take time. We’ve had opportunities to win each one of these three games, and we’re just not good enough to be good in crunch-time situations and it’s getting us beat.”

Numerous players spoke about getting their heads right as the talented Steelers — even without Ben Roethlisberger — loom on Thursday night. There was plenty of talk about accountability and being better than their record indicates, but actions speak louder than words and the Ravens know that.

Players and coaches need to be better, including Harbaugh after he burned a precious timeout on a spot challenge he had no chance of winning early in the fourth quarter.

There are just too many problems to go around for the Ravens to hide from the truth that they’ve been a bad football team through three weeks. And if they want to have any visions of becoming the fourth 0-3 team since 1990 to make the playoffs, much needs to change in a hurry.

“We’ve got to get going,” Dumervil said. “We have a short turnaround against a good team [on the road]. We’ve got to have a short memory and get going.”

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An 0-2 start all that matters for hodge-podge Ravens

Posted on 21 September 2015 by Luke Jones

All we really know about the Ravens right now is that they’re 0-2 and in last place in the AFC North and that’s what matters.

The defense isn’t as bad as it played in Sunday’s 37-33 loss to Oakland, but it’s probably not as strong as it looked in Denver, either.

The offense isn’t as poor as it looked in Week 1 — really, it couldn’t have been much worse — but scoring 33 points against a bad Raiders defense isn’t the best barometer to conclude that all is fine with Marc Trestman’s unit.

Optimists will say John Harbaugh’s team was two plays away from being 2-0 in two road games out west despite playing poorly. They’ll maintain that the Ravens will be fine if the Week 1 defense and the Week 2 offense can simply show up at the same time.

Pessimists will tell you Baltimore couldn’t win against a Peyton Manning-led offense that was completely out of sync in the opener or even beat one of the worst teams in the NFL in Week 2. And they’ll remind you again that just 24 of the 205 teams that have started a season 0-2 since 1990 have made the playoffs — roughly one team per year.

Contrary to the sentiments shared by much of a frustrated fan base, the season isn’t over as the aforementioned statistic includes plenty of bad teams that never had a good chance to make the playoffs long before the season began. Indianapolis started 0-2 a year ago before advancing to the conference championship game and Steve Smith’s old team — the Carolina Panthers — lost its first two games of 2013 before making it to the divisional round that January.

Even the two-time defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks are in the same boat as the Ravens right now.

But the Ravens are in danger of having the season spiral out of control before Columbus Day if they don’t get to work immediately. On Sunday, they return home to play an undefeated Cincinnati Bengals team that’s won three of their last four meetings and then travel to Pittsburgh four days later to play the Steelers on a short week.

If you think 0-2 is quite a hole to escape, an 0-4 start would be the Grand Canyon.

Two weeks in, we just don’t know what to make of this Ravens team other than the clear stigma of an 0-2 record. Is it the offense, the defense, or both? Is this just another Harbaugh-led team that struggles on the road and wreaks havoc on opponents at M&T Bank Stadium to ultimately land in the playoffs like six of the last seven years?

A defense that carried much promise a week ago looked every bit the part of a unit playing its first game without Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis, or Ed Reed — the trinity of Ravens defensive excellence — since 1998. The pass rush was nonexistent, the coverage in the secondary was abysmal, the tackling was even worse, and Dean Pees’ coaching adjustments didn’t work.

Some media and fans tried to argue that the loss of Suggs would not be that severe, but the Ravens defense looked like a group sorely missing his play and leadership in Oakland. Even so, the outside linebacker’s absence alone can’t explain — or excuse — the poor performance throughout the defense.

The lack of the pass rush coupled with a 2014-like performance from the secondary will create much concern about the Ravens’ ability to stop opposing offenses, especially after second-year quarterback Derek Carr and the lowly Raiders picked them apart to the tune of 351 passing yards and three touchdown passes.

It didn’t help that untimely penalties doomed the defense on Oakland’s final scoring drive as a senseless roughing-the-passer foul by Timmy Jernigan put the Raiders in field goal position and a defensive holding penalty on Will Hill wiped out what would have been the game-clinching interception. Those types of mistakes, particularly the Jernigan penalty, aren’t indicative of winning teams.

If you’re looking for the silver lining, the offense made strides on Sunday with tight end Crockett Gillmore catching two touchdowns and wide receiver Kamar Aiken bouncing back from an early fumble to help back up Smith’s 10 catches and 150 receiving yards. Yes, an otherwise-strong Joe Flacco misfired on a few throws that could have led to more points — including one to a wide-open Steve Smith that would have meant a touchdown instead of a field goal on their penultimate drive — but you should beat the Raiders 100 times out of 100 when you score 33 points.

Trestman’s decision to throw on second-and-8 from the Oakland 13 on the play before Flacco’s errant throw to Smith was baffling as an incompletion stopped the clock with 2:19 remaining, but we knew all along that the offense would be a work in progress and the group did its job for the most part on Sunday.

Everything we’ve witnessed in the Harbaugh era suggests the Ravens are better than their 0-2 record indicates, but they’ve hit uncharted territory under the eighth-year coach as the franchise has lost its first two games for the first time since 2005. It’s in rough patches when Harbaugh is generally at his best, but he sees exactly what we’ve all witnessed over the first two weeks and can’t feel good about it.

A horrendous performance by the offense and a strong defensive effort in Week 1 followed by a good offensive showing and a nightmarish game from the defense in Week 2. You just don’t know what to expect at this point from either side of the ball.

Will the real Ravens step forward? They’re better than their 0-2 record, right?

Or, maybe they are a hodpe-podge group with the latest offseason of substantial changes finally catching up with them.

If they really are this bad, we’ll find out quickly with their two biggest divisional foes looming over the next 10 days.

If the Ravens are better than this, they have no choice but to start proving it immediately.

Because 0-2 tells you all that matters.

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