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Mixed bag to be expected in Ravens’ preseason opener

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Mixed bag to be expected in Ravens’ preseason opener

Posted on 08 August 2013 by Luke Jones

(This blog brought to you by Atlantic Remodeling. Visit www.atlanticremodeling.com to learn about their Red Cent Guarantee!)

The Ravens’ preseason-opening 44-16 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers provided much of what you’d you expect to see in the first exhibition game of the summer.

Some good, some bad, and much unanswered from the starting units with almost a month of preparation remaining until the start of the regular season. We did learn that the Baltimore backups were far superior to the Buccaneers’ reserves, but that’s not the type of information that will offer much for the Ravens’ aspirations to repeat as Super Bowl champions.

A revamped defense showed versatility and strong play from veteran newcomers such as inside linebacker Daryl Smith (five tackles) and defensive end Chris Canty (a sack on the opening series) but also featured communication breakdowns in the secondary that led to a few big plays surrendered in the passing game, including a 61-yard completion to tight end Tom Crabtree to end the first quarter. With so many new pieces in place, it will take time to for Dean Pees’ unit to get on the same page, but the front seven looks quite formidable on paper, especially with healthier versions of Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata in the mix.

The addition of Smith has eased concerns over the status of Jameel McClain as the former Jacksonville Jaguar carried over a strong start in training camp to Thursday night, showing a good nose for the ball and solid ability in pass coverage. He cemented his status as the overwhelming favorite to call the signals for the Baltimore defense in Denver on Sept. 5.

Canty played exactly how the Ravens hope he will this season as a 5-technique defensive end, holding his ground against the running game and showing a good burst as a pass rusher on the opening series of the game when he sacked Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman on third down.

Offensively, the pass protection held up well enough aside from blitzing linebacker Lavonte David coming untouched to sack quarterback Joe Flacco on the Ravens’ first offensive series. Two plays later, Flacco forced a pass attempt to wide receiver Jacoby Jones that was picked off by former Baltimore defensive back Danny Gorrer.

Center Gino Gradkowski made the start over former Indianapolis Colt A.Q. Shipley and appeared to play solidly with a starting offensive line sans Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda, who continues to work his way back from offseason shoulder surgery.

It wasn’t an impressive debut for the wide receivers as Flacco turned to running backs Ray Rice, Vonta Leach, and Bernard Pierce more frequently in his two series of work. Torrey Smith was the only wide receiver to register a catch — making two receptions for 16 yards — with the starting quarterback in the game. Jones, Tandon Doss, and Deonte Thompson were targeted five times Thursday night and recorded just one combined reception with a couple drops mixed in there as well.

While those three have received the most attention in the much-discussed battle for the second and third receiver spots, the standout receiver of the night was LaQuan Williams, who made a tough 21-yard touchdown catch early in the second half after recovering two fumbles as a special-teams performer in the second quarter, one of them in the end zone for a touchdown late in the first half. A forgotten man after finishing last season on injured reserve, Williams may have earned himself a few more reps with the starting offense after Thursday’s outing and was in the mix as a wide receiver as a rookie in 2011.

Needless to say, the voids left behind by Dennis Pitta and Anquan Boldin were apparent, but the Ravens are fully aware that Flacco will need time to develop chemistry with a new batch of targets. And that doesn’t mean a veteran addition won’t become a reality at some point between now and September.

Above all, the special teams shined as Justin Tucker connected on all three of his field goal tries, Brynden Trawick blocked the punt recovered by Williams in the end zone, and Bobby Rainey had a 58-yard kickoff return. With only a handful of spots on the 53-man roster realistically up for grabs, this is where coach John Harbaugh wants to see younger players excel and Jerry Rosburg’s units did not disappoint.

Truthfully, the final score doesn’t offer an accurate picture of how the starters performed as the Ravens trailed 6-0 early in the second quarter when most key starters had already begun exiting the game. Flacco finished his night 7-for-9 for 57 yards and an interception as he couldn’t find open receivers down the field and the defense did plenty of bending without breaking after giving up some big plays in the first half.

It’s important not to overreact to any one player’s performance in one practice game, but backups such as Williams, outside linebacker Adrian Hamilton (a sack and an additional quarterback hit), and cornerback Asa Jackson (an interception) made strong statements for roster consideration with their performances Thursday night. Often criticized by portions of the fan base for not being good enough to be the backup quarterback, Tyrod Taylor threw two touchdown passes and showed an increased willingness to stay in the pocket, attempting 23 passes and just five runs in his extended period of work.

A preseason win is better than a preseason loss, of course, but we knew no questions would be resolved following Thursday’s tilt with the Buccaneers.

The wide receiver position remains a mystery, which would have been the case regardless of how Jones, Doss, and Thompson performed.

Gradkowski appears to be the current favorite to be the starting center, but Shipley will still receive his opportunities.

The inside linebacker position appears to be looking clearer with the strong play of the veteran Smith, but Josh Bynes and Arthur Brown will continue to fight it out for the starting weakside inside linebacker spot next to Smith.

Rookie Matt Elam is still chasing veteran James Ihedigbo for the starting strong safety spot but showed the same physicality that impressed scouts and coaches after watching his tape from his days at the University of Florida.

But perhaps the biggest takeaway from Thursday’s game was the aftermath of Moe Lee’s fourth-quarter interception in which the rookie foolishly tried to lateral the ball as he was going to the ground. Though former Ravens safety Ed Reed may have been smiling somewhere if he caught a glimpse of that play, the coaching staff certainly wasn’t amused.

However, it wasn’t Harbaugh or his assistants who ran to correct the rookie defensive back as the veteran Suggs calmly walked onto the field and explained to Lee why that wasn’t a smart play. It was the kind of defensive leadership the Ravens need following the retirement of Ray Lewis and the free-agent departure of Reed.

Yes, it was only one example of what you’re hoping to see from the 30-year-old linebacker and longest-tenured Raven, but a snapshot is all a preseason game is really worth in the scope of the entire summer.

And looking into the photo that was Thursday night, there was good and bad to take back to the practice field over the next week and beyond.

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Training camp observations from Owings Mills

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Training camp observations from Owings Mills

Posted on 01 August 2013 by Luke Jones

(This blog brought to you by Atlantic Remodeling. Visit www.atlanticremodeling.com to learn about their Red Cent Guarantee!)

There were no changes to the attendance report for Thursday’s practice from a day earlier, but the workout provided plenty of intrigue in terms of competition as the Ravens inch closer to next Thursday’s preseason opener at Tampa Bay.

The Baltimore public relations staff also released the first depth chart of the year, which shouldn’t be analyzed as anything but an estimate of what we’ve seen at training camp. However, it does support some of the following observations a week into full-squad workouts in Owings Mills:

1. The use of a point-based system to track practices has increased the intensity level between the offensive and defensive units and, more specifically, quarterback Joe Flacco and linebacker Terrell Suggs.

As we’ve seen with the explosion of statistically-based analysis in baseball over the last 30 years, NFL front offices and coaches are looking for more and more data to quantify what talent evaluators are seeing on the field over time. As a result, football video operations coordinator Drew Wilkins and defensive quality control coach Matt Weiss devised a point system to not only track the performance of players and units over time but also create more competition for players with a scoreboard tracking practices in Owings Mills.

The details of the system were too complicated for coach John Harbaugh to spell out Wednesday, but it seems more than coincidental to hear more chirping and gamesmanship than ever between the offense and defense — most of it being good-natured ribbing. Flacco and Suggs have been the ringleaders for their sides as the quarterback has become increasingly vocal over the last couple years and the 30-year-old linebacker is no longer in the shadow of Ray Lewis or Ed Reed as a spokesman for the defense.

During 11-on-11 drills on Thursday, the defense began chanting, “We fight!” after a reserve unit made a stop against the second-team offense. Not to stand by quietly, Flacco shouted across the field, “What are you, a little league softball team with that cheer?”

Suggs and Flacco continued jawing at each other with the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year bragging about having more “swag” before the Super Bowl XLVII MVP fired back that he made more money than his defensive contemporary.

If there were any lingering doubts, it’s quite clear who the vocal leaders are in the post-Ray Lewis era.

2. Questions remain over who will be the starting 11 for a revamped Ravens defense, but coordinator Dean Pees is thrilled with the potential versatility at his disposal.

It’s difficult to get a great read on how the Ravens will ultimately line up in their base defense, but Pees will likely view as many as 16 or 17 players as “starters” in his unit. It’s quite a change from last season when injuries all over the defense and deficiencies upfront forced Pees to simplify his play calling.

The addition of Chris Canty as a 5-technique defensive end — a position the Ravens failed to fill last season after the free-agent departure of Cory Redding — has allowed Pees to shift Haloti Ngata to the nose tackle position where he can use his strength and speed to either overpower or blow past centers and guards. The depth chart currently lists Ngata as the starting nose tackle and Canty and Arthur Jones as the starting defensive ends, but the Ravens will also have the likes of Marcus Spears, Pernell McPhee, Terrence Cody, and rookie Brandon Williams to mix and match along the line.

Regardless of whether he’s able to beat out rookie Matt Elam for the starting strong safety spot, James Ihedigbo will be another versatile piece as a dime back who can also play inside the box as an extra linebacker in certain packages.

Perhaps the most intriguing spot to watch will be the outside linebacker position where nearly everyone assumed Suggs and free-agent acquisition Elvis Dumervil would be the starters. The Ravens have listed Courtney Upshaw and Dumervil as co-starters at the strongside linebacker spot, but Upshaw has received extensive time at the starting “Sam” position in practices with Dumervil being used more in sub-packages and as the backup to Suggs at the rush linebacker spot in some 11-on-11 sessions.

Of course, these are very early observations, but Upshaw is superb at setting the edge and has a clear size advantage over Dumervil that might be more advantageous in early-down situations where running players are more likely. Make no mistake, the Ravens are very happy with Dumervil and he’s looked like a monster getting after the quarterback in practices, but he may be used more as a situational player like Paul Kruger than as an every-down linebacker like Suggs on the other side.

3. Tight end Ed Dickson has impressed in the absence of the injured Dennis Pitta, but the collective group of young wide receivers beyond Torrey Smith has been nondescript thus far.

Many forget that Dickson posted a 54-catch, five-touchdown season in 2011 before Pitta emerged later that season and the former was phased into a supporting role. In a contract year and knowing that Pitta is gone for the season, Dickson has certainly looked like a man trying to make a statement in the early days of practice, catching the football consistently and even working a little more in the slot in the way Pitta would.

Meanwhile, the wide receiver position looks as cloudy as it did before camp as no one beyond Smith looks the part of a deserving starter at this very early stage. Jacoby Jones has filled a role similar to what we saw last year as an outside receiver in three-wide sets, making you wonder if the Ravens are inclined to keep him in that limited capacity offensively to preserve him for his return duties. Tandon Doss and Deonte Thompson have received more opportunities than other young wideouts with the starting unit as each has worked primarily out of the slot but also on the outside in some two-wide sets.

In evaluating Doss, Thompson, LaQuan Williams, David Reed, Aaron Mellette, and Tommy Streeter, there has been some good, some bad, and plenty of “meh.”

Perhaps the best way to illustrate my point was the discussion I overheard Thursday between two local media members about which receivers had impressed them the most to this point. One reporter praised two young receivers before the second reporter disagreed and pointed out a series of negative plays from each. The second reporter then offered his thoughts on a couple other receivers that were predictably disputed by the other reporter.

My way-too-early observation of the entire group? The absence of Anquan Boldin sticks out like a sore thumb.

4. In position battles at center, inside linebacker, and strong safety, the coaching staff is giving veterans the early benefit of the doubt.

I still believe Gino Gradkowki has the inside track for the starting center spot, but former Indianapolis Colt A.Q. Shipley has received a large number of reps with the starting offensive line, which could just be a show of respect for his extra experience or a reflection of him pushing the second-year Gradkowski more than anticipated. Offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell praised both on Thursday and also talked about how important communication would be as the center is responsible for making the blocking calls at line of scrimmage.

Neither Gradkowski nor Shipley are very big, which does make you question if either will hold up as well physically as the retired Matt Birk, who was noticeably bigger at the center spot. As you’d expect, the preseason will loom large in determining who’s snapping the ball to Flacco in Denver on Sept. 5.

At inside linebacker, it’s apparent that Daryl Smith is a heavy favorite to be the starting “Mike” — responsible for making the defensive calls — if Jameel McClain isn’t available at the start of the year. The 31-year-old has been praised for both his leadership and play since arriving on the scene in early June.

Who lines up next to him will be more interesting as the Ravens are clearly making rookie Arthur Brown pay his dues, instead giving most of the first-team reps to Josh Bynes and even Albert McClellan on occasion. Brown may not begin the season as a starter, but at the very least, he’s a good bet to be involved as a nickel linebacker in passing downs to utilize his ability in pass coverage.

Ihedigbo is listed as the current starting strong safety on the depth chart as Elam has worked with the second unit, which is probably the best example of the Ravens deferring to veterans early in camp. It’s difficult to imagine Elam not being the starter Week 1, but Pees loves Ihedigbo’s versatility and both will likely be used creatively in various defensive packages.

Elam has made some good plays in coverage, but his 5-foot-10 frame has been an issue matching up against bigger tight ends on occasion.

 

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Without Pitta and Boldin, Flacco must take the next step as a franchise quarterback

Posted on 29 July 2013 by jeffreygilley

Like many Ravens fans, my heart sank when I heard about the injury to Dennis Pitta. Now, Flacco is without two targets that produced 7 of his eleven postseason touchdowns.

Pitta is a huge loss for the Ravens. Made worse by the lackluster supporting class which remains. We all know about Torrey Smith who has excelled as a deep threat in his short career. Smith also displayed signs of developing as an all-around receiver in 2012.

Behind Smith, there are major question marks. If the season started tomorrow (that would be awesome), Jacoby Jones would likely line up across from Torrey Smith. That could be an issue from several standpoints.

For several seasons in Houston, Jones was expected to be the second receiver across from Andre Johnson, one of the best receivers over the last ten years. Jones consistently struggled to make the type of impact the Texans desperately needed to take attention away from Andre Johnson and therefore, take the offense to another level. If Jones struggled to make an impact with a Hall of Fame receiver, how much of an impact can he make with Torrey Smith?

Jones’s impact on special teams will also come into question if he starts at receiver. Remember when the Bears tried to turn Devin Hester into a receiver? Hester has struggled as a return man ever since. Jones’s ability to return kicks and punts for touchdowns can change the momentum of a game in an instant. If Jones is counted on to make an impact at receiver, Jones might not be able to change games as a return man.

However, Jones can make an impact on the offense if the Ravens use him as a third option where he isn’t counted to make a large contribution to the offense.

Now, back to the topic at hand. What must Joe Flacco do to make the next step as a franchise quarterback? Make something out of nothing.

Name as many receivers Tom Brady has worked with as you can. It’s difficult, isn’t it? Outside of Randy Moss, Deion Branch, Troy Brown, and Wes Welker, the names are difficult to remember. For years, Brady has made household names out of receivers no one has heard of.

Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and even Phillip Rivers have done the same exact thing.

In 2013, Flacco will have to do this as well. Jacoby Jones, Tandon Doss, Deonte Thompson, Tommy Streeter, LaQuan Williams, David Reed, and Aaron Mellette are all competing for the second receiver position.

Tandon Doss was hand picked by Flacco in the 2011 draft. Doss’s size, speed, and hands perfectly compliment Torrey Smith. But, Doss has yet to translate those skills to the field. Coaches have raved about Doss’s hands but he dropped every ball thrown his way in the playoff win over the Indianapolis Colts.

Other young receivers have showcased their ability in training camp. Second year receivers Deonte Thompson and Tommy Streeter have been praised for their physical attributes. But those tangibles will only take them so far.

Flacco has the ability to make everyone around him better. The offense Jim Caldwell implemented last season is up-tempo and aggressive. Those attributes perfectly fit Joe Flacco’s mentality and rocket arm.

Yesterday, veteran tight end Visanthe Siancoe was added to the Ravens roster. Shiancoe is athletic enough to create mismatches and he catches almost everything. While Shiancoe is a nice addition, he won’t be expected to make a huge impact. But Shiancoe’s role might increase should the Ravens younger receivers struggle early in the season.

The Ravens aren’t doomed for the 2013 season. The running game is still elite and the defense will greatly improve. Flacco is perfectly positioned to take the reigns as the Ravens leader and make everyone better. After all, the Ravens are paying him like a quarterback who can do just that.

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Ravens face several question marks on offense

Posted on 26 July 2013 by jeffreygilley

In exactly two weeks, the Baltimore Ravens will play their first preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Until then, we have training camp to diagnose the Ravens. Training camp will not be without intense competitions as the team has a few holes to fill.

Let’s start with the wide receiver position.

Anquan Boldin’s departure from Baltimore to San Francisco was well documented. Boldin was a stud in the postseason. Even if he wasn’t open, he found ways to make catches in clutch moments. But, the Ravens decided to move on and traded Boldin to the 49ers for a late round draft pick.

As of now, Jacoby Jones is projected to play across from Torrey Smith, the team’s unquestioned number one receiver. Behind Jones, the Ravens don’t have many options. Tandon Doss hasn’t proven anything and Tommy Streeter and Deonte Thompson are project players. True, Deonte Thompson has great physical abilities but those will only take him so far. In addition, Jones’s impact on the offense is a question mark in itself. When faced with a larger role in Houston, Jones struggled. If Jones struggled with Andre Johnson, how productive can he be with Torrey Smith?

Replacing Boldin’s production will fall on the shoulders of Dennis Pitta. Pitta is a versatile tight end that has played out wide at times throughout his short career. I expect to see Pitta play a hybrid role this season, switching between a slot receiver and tight end. Playing in the slot will allow Ed Dickson to make more of an impact in the passing game. Don’t forget, before Pitta broke out last season, Dickson had 54 receptions for 528 yards and five touchdowns in 2011.

If that weren’t enough, the Ravens can throw rookie Kyle Juszczyk into the picture. Juszczyk won’t play the role of a traditional full in Jim Caldwell’s offense. Therefore, Caldwell could use him as a third tight end in certain packages.

Matt Birk was an unheralded piece to the Ravens postseason run. With the offensive line struggling, the Ravens made some changes. Bryant McKinnie was plugged in at left take. This forced Michael Oher to the right side and Kelechi Osemele to left guard. Matt Birk held the offensive line together and redeemed himself after a putrid performance against the Patriots and Vince Wilfork in the 2011 AFC Championship.

Replacing Birk will be just as important as replacing Boldin. Gino Gradkowski is the favorite thus far but veteran AQ Shipley could take the job.

When the Ravens line up against the Broncos, expect Gradkowski to be the starter. Gradkowski was drafted to be the eventual replacement to Birk and played well in spot duty last season.

As for Joe Flacco, many are projecting a regression. Well, I don’t buy that for a second. An average completion percentage is a common argument against Joe Flacco. Flacco’s completion percentage last season ranked 19th in the league at 59.7 percent. But, that must be taken in context. Joe’s strength is down field passing which doesn’t bode well for any quarterback’s completion percentage.

Plus, did you see Joe Flacco in Jim Caldwell’s offense? Caldwell took over in week 15 against the Broncos. While Flacco struggled against the Broncos, he heated up against the Giants and didn’t look back. Flacco only threw one interception to 15 touchdowns with Caldwell calling plays.

The Ravens offense has a lot of potential this season. Although Boldin and Birk are gone, their replacements have the ability to step in and produce. Flacco has the opportunity to make his first Pro Bowl and with him at the helm, the Ravens will always have a chance to win another Super Bowl.

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Baltimore Ravens 2013 Season Preview Part Three: Predicting the Biggest Positional Battles

Posted on 06 July 2013 by jeffreygilley

It’s no secret the Ravens are a different team. Starters that must be replaced include Carry Williams, Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, Dannell Ellerbe, Vonta Leach, and Anquan Boldin. Paul Kruger is also gone but he was more of a role player that rotated starts with rookie Courtney UpShaw.

The following are my projections for the most heated roster battles.

Receiver:

Torrey Smith is the only receiver guaranteed a starting spot. Jacoby Jones is a veteran but struggled in Houston when given a larger workload. Therefore, Jones will be competing with Tandon Doss, Deonte Thompson, Tommy Streeter, David Reed, and LaQuan Williams. So far, Thompson has made the most of offseason workouts. According to reports, he displays great hands and improved route running ability to go along with his blazing speed.

When the Ravens face the Broncos on Sept. 5, Jacoby Jones will start across from Torrey Smith. He is experienced and made plays when given the opportunity last season. The third receiver will be Danton Doss with Deonte Thompson winning the fourth receiver spot on the depth chart. Doss’s skill set translates well to the slot receiver position. His hands, physicality, and ability to get upfield after the catch will make him a nice weapon for Flacco.

Cornerback:

I am a huge Jimmy Smith fan. Smith has too much potential to be the Ravens nickel corner. If he can put everything together, he will be starting opposite Lardarius Webb. Corey Graham would then be the team’s nickel corner. Successfully defending two passes to Michael Crabtree towards the end of the Super Bowl will be positive plays for Smith to build upon.

Chykie Brown could be a sleeper to receive playing time this season. He showed promise last season and played frequently towards the end of the season.

Inside linebacker:

John Harbaugh and the Ravens have a lot of options at inside linebacker. Jameel McClain will likely start. Therefore, the competition really comes down to Arthur Brown and Darryl Smith. Brown was a second round selection in the 2013 draft and is projected to be a defensive rookie of the year candidate. But Smith brings experience and proven ability at inside linebacker. In the beginning of the season, I think Smith will start on running downs and Brown will play on passing downs. Brown has excellent coverage ability and when paired with McClain, they could make up a great duo in pass coverage.

Bryan Hall could also receive playing time pending the training camp competition. Hall played along the defensive line last season but is making the switch to inside linebacker. Hall could play in certain blitz packages but for the most part, will be a special teams player.

Nose tackle

After a solid 2011 season, many thought Mount Cody would break out in 2012. But Cody struggled. He was consistently pushed around and made little impact against teams with great running games. Ozzie Newsome has made an effort to improve the middle of the defense through the draft and free agency. Brandon Williams was drafted in the third round and Marcus Spears and Chris Canty were signed in free agency. Spears and Canty won’t play nose tackle but they will improve the middle of the defense.

I think Brandon Williams will win the starting job. Cody had hip surgery which could explain his poor play in 2012. If Cody can get healthy and play like he did in 2011, the Ravens will have a great rotation at nose tackle.

Center

Replacing Matt Birk will be difficult. Birk was a great leader and will be replaced by either Gino Gradkowski or AQ Shipley. Gradkowski was drafted out of Delaware in the fourth round of the 2012 draft. Gradkowski was projected to be the starter once Birk retired but Shipley played very well for the Colts last season. He played so well that he earned a plus 6.9 rating from Pro Football Focus.

Gradkowski is the early favorite but Shipley is a solid veteran that could start should Gradkowski struggle.

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Your Monday Reality Check: Celebration over, preparation in full force this week

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Your Monday Reality Check: Celebration over, preparation in full force this week

Posted on 10 June 2013 by Glenn Clark

As Nestor Aparicio, Luke Jones and I were sitting at the Baltimore Ravens’ facility in Owings Mills Friday night, we were discussing the finality of the Ravens’ Super Bowl XLVII season/celebration. Luke pointed out the team would still have the ability to hang a Super Bowl championship banner at M&T Bank Stadium before their home opener Week 2 against the Cleveland Browns, but that’s about all that’s left for this team.

With the White House visited and the rings handed out, the Baltimore Ravens are now-in the words of now NFL agent Jay-Z-”on to the next one.” It was nice to have Ray Lewis and Ed Reed around Charm City for a week. It was nice to reflect once more on this particular era of Ravens football.

But as of today, that’s over.

As of today, the relationship between Ed Reed and the Baltimore Ravens is once again severed. He won’t be back in the building again until his career comes to a close. As of today, Ed Reed is nothing more than a player the Ravens will have to go up against when they play the Houston Texans…if he’s healthy enough to play.

It has been remarkably fun to celebrate a Super Bowl title for Baltimore Ravens players (and coaches and staffers who also received rings Friday night) and fans alike. It’s been a wild four months of player movement, late-night talk shows, Dancing With The Stars, accolades and high-fives.

It’s all in the past now.

The Ravens open their only mandatory mini-camp of the offseason tomorrow in Owings Mills. While a number of players have taken part in voluntary OTA’s and strength programs, this will be the first gathering of what will make up the overwhelming majority of the 2013 version of this team. There will still be a few lingering injuries that will prevent players from taking part in practice, but it will most certainly be the closest thing we’ll see to the first look at the Ravens in the post Lewis/Reed era before Training Camp.

While you’re scrambling to make sure you have your copy of “Purple Reign 2″ before Father’s Day (and that isn’t a bit-you REALLY need to make sure this is the gift you’re giving), the Purple Birds will spend their week taking the best look they can at the team that will take the field this year to try to protect their Lombardi Trophy.

For the World Champs, there are a number of questions as always. None will be fully addressed in minicamp; because no NFL issue has EVER really been fully addressed during the course of a minicamp. But many will be viewed closely with the understanding that this is the best opportunity to set the tone for how the team handles both Camp and preseason games.

The Ravens will have to plan a depth chart before Training Camp gets underway. While all players will get reps, determining who gets which reps with which unit and how many are necessary is something that will happen between now and the start of Camp. At no position is that determination more difficult than wide receiver.

The Ravens know what they have at the top of the depth chart at wide receiver. Torrey Smith (or “Samson” as LB Terrell Suggs joked Friday night) is expected to lead the group and appears to be on the verge of breakout stardom. His exceptional speed was combined with better route running and improved catching consistency last season, leaving many to believe he could become a 1,000 yard type of receiver in his third year out of Maryland.

(Continued on Page 2…)

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Flacco unwavering despite changes all around him

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Flacco unwavering despite changes all around him

Posted on 22 May 2013 by Luke Jones

(This blog brought to you by Atlantic Remodeling. Visit www.atlanticremodeling.com to learn about their Red Cent Guarantee!)

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Joe Flacco has the Super Bowl ring — or at least he officially will in a couple weeks.

The Ravens quarterback has the lucrative $120.6 million contract and the long-term security it provides.

And he has a heightened level of respect, even if some of his biggest critics now want to see him replicate some semblance of his record-setting playoff run in the regular season.

But an offseason full of changes brings more questions for the franchise quarterback. The retirement of Ray Lewis and the free-agent departure of Ed Reed have left a gigantic leadership void that many expect the 28-year-old to fill as he enters his sixth season. The exits of center Matt Birk and wide receiver Anquan Boldin suddenly makes Flacco one of the elder statesmen on the offensive side of the football.

Ask anyone in the Baltimore locker room whether Flacco is treating this offseason or his style of leadership any differently and you’ll receive a similar response. The Super Bowl XLVII MVP was already the kind of leader teammates respect, even if it lacks Lewis’ camera-friendly fire or Reed’s outspoken nature.

“Joe has done a great job throughout his career in his own way,” coach John Harbaugh said. “Nothing is going to change Joe. Joe is going to be who he is. I don’t think a change in the roster is going to change Joe [and] who he is. A change in the contract isn’t going to change Joe. Joe is Joe, and that’s what you love about him.”

Flacco is also experiencing his first full offseason with offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell. While many have wondered what the former Indianapolis head coach can do with the offensive system with ample time to plan after being thrown to the fire last December, Flacco downplayed any notion that the Ravens will look dramatically different on offense in 2013.

Of course, the start of the regular season is still more than three months away, so much could happen, both from schematics and personnel standpoints. The Ravens will hope the dramatic breakthroughs made in December that carried over into their postseason run to a Super Bowl title were only scratching the surface in terms of production under Caldwell.

“We may have changed a couple things here and there, but for the most part, it’s the same,” Flacco said. “He’ll probably add some of his concepts in just because he’s the guy that is driving things for the most part now. So, we’ll have new wrinkles in there, but for the most part, it’s pretty similar.”

Perhaps the biggest change we’ll see between now and the start of the season is at the wide receiver position as the Ravens continue to adjust to life without Boldin as their most reliable receiver. To this point, general manager Ozzie Newsome hasn’t added a veteran receiver with a track record to supplement the outside threats that Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones provide.

Instead of looking at a scrap heap of free-agent receivers headlined by the productive but baggage-heavy Brandon Lloyd, the Ravens appear content with evaluating a cast of young receivers that includes Tandon Doss, Deonte Thompson, and David Reed. All three saw time working with Smith and the starting offense during Wednesday’s practice as Jones was absent on the heels of his third-place finish in ABC’s Dancing with the Stars.

Asked if outsiders have made too much of the Ravens’ need to add an established wideout to the mix, Flacco sees potential in the homegrown players who have received few opportunities to this point in their respective careers. The three young receivers who’ve been sharing time with the first unit this week have combined for 17 receptions and just 35 targets.

With tight end Dennis Pitta expected to work more from the slot, the Ravens don’t need any of the young options to match Boldin’s impressive production, but they do need at least one to become a viable target. And much of that development will fall on a veteran quarterback entering the prime years of his career. For years, it was veteran pass catchers such as Derrick Mason, Todd Heap, and Boldin nurturing Flacco’s development, but the Ravens believe Flacco can now do the same for younger receivers.

“I like the idea of having guys that we’ve had, we’ve drafted here, or we’ve picked up here and grooming them and getting those guys to become great wide receivers,” Flacco said. “They definitely have the talent to do it; I think we just need to get them some [game-time] reps and their confidence can take off.

“One of the biggest things about Anquan is that he knew he was the man. So, when he went out there, he didn’t care what happened. He was the man. You don’t realize how much that helps out your play and your team’s play. And when these young guys can get to the point where they’re out there and their attitude is that, they have all the ability in the world, and I feel very confident with those guys.”

None of the Ravens’ many youthful options are a sure thing. Doss has drawn the strongest comparisons to Boldin because of his crisp routes and strong hands shown in practices, but those skills haven’t transferred to game action in limited opportunities and he’s struggled to stay healthy. Thompson shows breakaway speed, but the biggest knock on him at the University of Florida was his inconsistent hands. Reed faces questions about both his durability and his hands.

Perhaps a receiver from a second tier of players that includes LaQuan Williams, Tommy Streeter, and Aaron Mellette will turn heads over the next few weeks and push their way into the conversation.

And there remains a very real possibility that the Ravens make that veteran addition through a trade or by simply waiting until cuts are made over the course of the preseason.

None of these uncertainties seem to faze Flacco, who views change as part of life in the NFL. He simply takes the lessons learned from the veterans before him and passes them along to newcomers. The Ravens hope the confidence Flacco holds in his own ability will hopefully rub off on an unproven group of players in which he sees much promise.

His style hasn’t changed, but his success speaks for itself in terms of how he’s viewed as a leader in the locker room and on the field. It’s a major reason why the Ravens aren’t nearly as concerned about the veteran leadership lost this offseason as everyone else seems to be.

“We’ve always had a locker room where everybody kind of shares roles,” Flacco said. “You have so many guys that are very responsible and know how to go to work, and I think that’s why we’ve been able to continuously have success even though our team has changed a lot. It’s because all of those guys that have been there before us really show us how to do it and then everybody just kind of takes that lead.

“And I think that’s where we are. I think that’s where I am.”

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Most Important Individual Matchups in Super Bowl XLVII

Posted on 28 January 2013 by jeffreygilley

Super Bowl 47 is filled with many fantastic individual matchups. In this article, I will list what I consider to be the most important matchups as well as who has the edge in that matchup.

Ed Reed VS Colin Kaepernick

Ed Reed’s legacy is on the line in this game. Even without a Super Bowl ring, you could make an argument that Reed is the best safety to ever play the game. So, with a ring, would that even become an argument? That will be discussed no matter the outcome of the Super Bowl.

Kaepernick is not a one trick pony. He can make any throw and loves to throw the ball deep to Vernon Davis. Therefore, Ed Reed should have plenty of opportunities to make plays against a young quarterback.

Ed Reed has two weeks to prepare for this offense. Therefore, I give the advantage to Reed.

Edge: Ed Reed

Ray Lewis VS Frank Gore

Ray Lewis did not play against the 49ers last season. Because of his absence, the 49ers have not played against a linebacker with Ray’s instincts and intensity. While Ray has lost a step, Gore is not the type of player that can consistently break long runs. Therefore, Ray will be able to keep up with Gore.

These two players are simply too good to give the advantage to one player or another. Frank Gore has played against the Ravens twice, once in 2007 and the other in 2011. In those games, Gore has averaged only 45.5 yards rushing. But in those games, Gore’s offensive line was not as talented as it is this season.

Edge: Even

Justin Smith VS Kelechi Osemele

From watching the 49ers postseason games with an injured Justin Smith, it’s no secret that they have struggled to apply pressure. Aldon Smith has struggled mightily since Justin Smith’s injury but when the two are healthy, the two are a terrifying combination.

Justin Smith will be moved around but for the most part, will be matched up with Kelechi Osemele. Osemele played well at tackle but at this point in his career, is better at guard. Osemele is one of the bigger guards in the league and that should help him against Smith.

Osemele will also have to watch out for Aldon Smith, who runs a lot of stunts to the interior of the offensive line.

Despite Osemele’s talent, Smith is a veteran and giving him the edge is a no-brainer.

Edge: Justin Smith.

Bryant McKinnie and Michael Oher VS Aldon Smith

On August 25, the 49ers traveled to New Orleans to play the Saints. In that game, Aldon Smith recorded 1.5 sacks, which gave him 30.5 sacks for his career. This, in turn made him the fastest player to reach 30 sacks. Who did he pass on his way to that record you ask? Reggie White.

Obviously, Smith is doing something right. The supremely athletic linebacker/defensive end seems to play better on big stages and none is bigger than the Super Bowl. Oher should be able to hold his own but the much older McKinnie will have his hands full. On passing downs, expect to see Ray Rice or Vonta Leach in pass protection to help slow down Smith. Running some screens where Rice blocks and then releases on a pass route will also help slow down Smith.

Edge when against McKinnie: Aldon Smith
Edge when against Oher: even

Vonta Leach VS Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman

Of all the matchups in the Super Bowl, this might be the best. In 2011, Leach and Willis exchanged blows and Leach embarrassed Willis on one particular play.

Willis is widely considered the best linebacker in the NFL and Bowman is not far behind him. Expect this to be a back and forth battle for the entire game.

Edge: Even

Conclusion
There are many matchups that are evenly matched. Therefore, this game will come down to lesser-known players making big plays. For the 49ers, the two most likely players to play that role are LaMichael James and Delanie Walker. For the Ravens, Jimmy Smith and Tandon Doss are the most likely candidates.

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X-Factors For Saturday’s Game

Posted on 11 January 2013 by jeffreygilley

The Ravens have quite a task on their hands. The team has won only two games since week thirteen and have never looked like a dominant team except for three wins against the Raiders, Bengals, and Giants. Now, they must face Peyton Manning with a beat up defense in harsh conditions.

While Manning has been dominant all season long, the Ravens did hold Manning to a season low 204 passing yards in week fifteen. If it were not for Flacco’s pick-six at the end of the half and the Ravens contained Knowshawn Moreno, the game would have been much different.

Here are some players that I consider to be x-factors for the game.

1. Bernard Pierce
Pierce has been a sensational rookie. He has rushed for over 100 yards in two of the last three weeks and runs with tremendous physicality and under rated speed. The Ravens have to keep Manning off the field if they want to win this game. Therefore, Pierce even though he is a backup, should get a lot of touches.

2. Chykie Brown
Brown has received much more playing time of late. He was stellar against the Giants and was praised by Ed Reed after the game. Brown was one of the few players that benefited from being on the field for eighty plus plays against the Colts. That allowed him to gain experience that he will need against the Broncos.

3. Dennis Pitta
Pitta had a career game against the Broncos in week fifteen. The Broncos struggled tackling him and he will present a match-up problem in the red zone on Saturday. Pitta is going to get a lot of attention in this game so he will have to win the one-on-one match-ups when given the opportunity.

4. Kelechi Osemeli
Osemele played well at right tackle the entire year but at this point in his career, is a better guard. He opened up a lot of holes for Rice and was good in pass blocking as well. With his inexperience at guard, I expect the Broncos to blitz up the middle in an attempt to confuse the rookie which in turn, could give Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil one-on-one match-ups.

5. Tandon Doss
Many Ravens fans have been waiting for Doss to have any sort of impact on the Ravens’ offense. He had opportunities against the Colts but dropped every pass that came his way. From everything I have heard about Doss’s hands, those should have been easy catches for him. Colder weather obviously makes it harder to catch the football so Doss must make plays when given opportunities.

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Leach probable; J. Reid, Pollard listed as questionable for Sunday

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Leach probable; J. Reid, Pollard listed as questionable for Sunday

Posted on 04 January 2013 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens head into their wild-card playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts sporting their healthiest roster in quite some time as only three players were listed more serious than probable for Sunday.

Saftey Bernard Pollard, guard Jah Reid, and wide receiver Tandon Doss were listed as questionable for Sunday’s game, but only Reid appears to be a legitimate concern as the starting left guard appeared very limited during the open portions of practice all week. The second-year lineman is listed as having a toe injury and would likely be replaced by veteran Bobbie Williams should he not be able to play against Indianapolis.

Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and right guard Marshal Yanda were listed as probable after both players sat out an entire week of practice leading into the regular-season finale, which they both missed in order to rest injuries. Fullback Vonta Leach was also listed as probable despite missing Thursday’s practice with a lingering ankle injury.

Of the 19 players listed as probable on the report, Leach was the only one to miss a practice this week but returned to the field on Friday. Coach John Harbaugh provided an optimistic outlook on the Pro Bowl fullback following the workout and even upgraded his status after initially speaking to reporters.

“Vonta is going to be listed as questionable,” said Harbaugh before Friday’s injury report was released. “It might be probable though after today’s practice. Now that I think about it, he looked pretty good today, so he might be OK.”

Harbaugh spoke about Lewis’ status in recent weeks, explaining why he was held out of the final few games of the regular season and declaring him fit to go against Indianapolis. Lewis is just over 11 weeks removed from surgery on his right triceps.

The 37-year-old linebacker is expected to start at his normal “Mike” linebacker position next to Dannell Ellerbe, but Josh Bynes will be ready to spell Lewis if necessary. Many have wondered whether the Ravens will handle Lewis’ workload like they did with a returning Terrell Suggs back in October, but Harbaugh gave no indication that Lewis would see a limited number of snaps.

“He probably could have played, but it would have been a big risk,” Harbaugh said. “We felt like we could get our positioning in the playoffs, and then bring Ray Lewis back when the injury had the best chance to be completely healed, which is 12 weeks after the injury. He’s ready to go. He’s going to play in this game. He should be full-speed.”

Meanwhile, Indianapolis has ruled out starting left guard Joe Reitz as he continues to recover from a concussion.

Former Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski is questionable with a knee injury but practiced fully on Thursday and Friday.

BALTIMORE
QUESTIONABLE: WR Tandon Doss (ankle), S Bernard Pollard (chest), G Jah Reid (toe)
PROBABLE: RB Anthony Allen (head), TE Billy Bajema (head), WR Anquan Boldin (shoulder), LB Dannell Ellerbe (ankle), LB Adrian Hamilton (illness), FB Vonta Leach (knee/ankle), CB Chris Johnson (thigh), DE Arthur Jones (thigh), LB Ray Lewis (triceps), LB Albert McClellan (shoulder/thigh), DE Pernell McPhee (thigh), DT Haloti Ngata (knee), T Kelechi Osemele (knee), RB Bernard Pierce (ankle), S Ed Reed (shoulder), CB Jimmy Smith (abdomen), WR Torrey Smith (knee), LB Terrell Suggs (biceps), G Marshal Yanda (shoulder/knee)

INDIANAPOLIS
OUT: G Joe Reitz (concussion)
QUESTIONABLE: RB Delone Carter (ankle), NT Antonio Johnson (ankle), C AQ Shipley (knee), S Tom Zbikowski (knee), T Winston Justice (shoulder)
PROBABLE: DT Kellen Heard (illness), T Bradley Sowell (illness), CB Teddy Williams (knee), LB Jerrell Freeman (thumb), QB Andrew Luck (knee), LB Pat Angerer (illness), DE Cory Redding (quad), C Samson Satele (ankle), LB Dwight Freeney (non-injury), LB Robert Mathis (non-injury)

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