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Ravens-Bills: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 10 September 2016 by Luke Jones

A fast start is always welcomed in a new season, but it’s especially critical for the Ravens coming off a 5-11 campaign.

A win in Week 1 allows for a deep breath and thoughts that this year will be different. A home defeat at the hands of the Buffalo Bills will only make John Harbaugh and his players think, “Here we go again.”

It’s time to go on the record as Baltimore and Buffalo meet for the seventh time in the all-time regular-season series with both teams previously winning three apiece. The Ravens are 3-1 against the Bills at M&T Bank Stadium and 3-0 in games against Buffalo head coach Rex Ryan, who spent a decade as an assistant in Baltimore before serving as the head coach of the New York Jets for six years.

1. A suspect Buffalo pass rush will allow Joe Flacco to go vertical to Mike Wallace for a long first-half touchdown. You can expect a Ryan defense to throw the kitchen sink at rookie offensive linemen Ronnie Stanley and Alex Lewis, but the Bills had just 21 sacks a season ago and are without suspended defensive tackle Marcell Dareus for the first four games. The Ravens will want to try out their revamped vertical passing game against the league’s 19th-ranked pass defense from a year ago, and Flacco will get enough time to throw a strike to Wallace, whom he praised over the summer.

2. Tyrod Taylor will run for 60 yards and a touchdown as the Baltimore front struggles to keep him in the pocket. The Ravens are fully aware of Taylor’s athleticism, but the absence of Elvis Dumervil will leave an inexperienced rusher such as Za’Darius Smith or Matt Judon opposite Terrell Suggs on the other side. Pressuring a mobile quarterback is tricky because you don’t want him to flush him from the pocket, meaning you must stay disciplined in rush lanes and not get too wide or crash inside. This will be a problem for overzealous young rushers and will lead to scrambling opportunities.

3. As Jimmy Smith tries to lock down Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods and Charles Clay will catch touchdowns. After Dean Pees said Watkins reminded him a bit of Randy Moss, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Smith mirror him with safety help whenever possible. However, Woods and Clay are capable of making plays and this pass defense didn’t play at a high level in the preseason. In trying to prevent Watkins from going off, the Ravens will give up passing yards to other targets while primarily staying in their base defense to account for the league’s top-ranked running game from a year ago.

4. Terrance West will score a touchdown in an otherwise so-so day for the running game. It will be interesting to see how many opportunities the Ravens give veteran starter Justin Forsett early before West begins to get his touches. Buffalo ranked 16th in run defense a year ago and the Ravens have made it clear that they want to be better on the ground, but it will be a work in progress with a new left side of the offensive line in place. There won’t be a ton of running room, but West looks like the best candidate to get goal-line carries and he’ll push one into the end zone.

5. Flacco will throw for 240 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Ravens to a 27-21 win over the Bills. If Baltimore wants to be taken seriously as a playoff contender, this is a game you must win playing at home. The Bills defense doesn’t pose a big threat, but Flacco will want to get rid of the ball quickly as he did in his only preseason action last month. Look for lots of underneath passing to the likes of Steve Smith, Kamar Aiken, and Dennis Pitta while mixing in deep shots to Wallace and Breshad Perriman. It will be enough for a solid Week 1 win and Baltimore’s first victory in an opener since 2012.

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Will committee approach work for Ravens running backs?

Posted on 09 September 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The dynamics of the running game have certainly changed in the pass-happy NFL in recent years.

Look no further than the Ravens a year ago when they rushed only 383 times, a franchise single-season low and four fewer attempts than Jamal Lewis had by himself in a historic 2003 season. In 2015, only one running back in the NFL — Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson — carried the ball more than 300 times and just 15 backs had as many as 200 carries.

Those realities coupled with the Ravens’ depth at running back have everyone wondering if we’ll see a timeshare approach in 2016. Veteran Justin Forsett is expected to begin the season as the starter, but general manager Ozzie Newsome’s willingness to potentially lose him in the unorthodox roster shuffling this past week reflected confidence in the young trio of Terrance West, Kenneth Dixon, and Buck Allen.

“We are very deep. This is probably the most talented group that we have had since I have been here,” said Forsett, entering his third year with Baltimore. “We push each other, and it is going to take all of us anyway at the end of the day to go out there and perform. I’m confident with all of us.”

But how feasible is the committee approach?

Head coach John Harbaugh used the strategy to perfection in his first season as Le’Ron McClain, Willis McGahee, and Ray Rice each had over 100 carries and combined to run for over 2,000 yards, but Rice quickly emerged as a Pro Bowl running back the following season.

We’ve heard more and more about the committee approach in today’s NFL, but a look at the top 10 rushing offenses in the league last year showed little evidence of that strategy being employed as a feature back on each team averaged at least 15 carries per game at any given stretch in the season with only injuries significantly impacting the carry distribution. The only team in the top 10 that appeared to use more of a timeshare was sixth-ranked Kansas City and that was toward the end of the season after the Chiefs had already lost four-time Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charles in October.

The Ravens certainly hope to be more productive on the ground than they were a year ago when they finished 26th in rushing offense, but at least one of their backs will need to emerge to be better than a complementary option. If you only have four No. 2 running backs from an ability standpoint, that’s unlikely to get the job done.

According to offensive coordinator Marc Trestman, the workload will largely be determined by third-year running backs coach Thomas Hammock.

“I think our guys expect to be moved around,” Trestman said. “Thomas has a great feel for that, and he really handles that with John and my approval, so to speak. He did a great job with that last year, and I expect that [this year]. He has a good feel for when these guys need to come out, when they need a break, and if there is a play that they need to be in on. And if he feels like [a certain back] can get it done, he will get them in there.”

There’s a delicate balance between wanting to give opportunities to multiple back and making sure the most productive ones have the chance to get into the flow of the game. It’s a challenge that the Ravens could have throughout the season, especially after the talented rookie Dixon returns from a knee injury in a few weeks.

Coaches have downplayed that peril while acknowledging that the proof will be in the results, but at least one member of the Baltimore backfield provided an honest assessment about the difficulty of playing in a committee.

“I’m not going to sit here and lie to you, it’s tough getting in a rhythm as a running back,” said West, who carried the ball over 400 times in his final collegiate season at Towson in 2013. “A running back’s got to have a good feeling and feel the game out. Right now, I’m just taking advantage of opportunity. When my number’s called, I’m going to make the best of that one play or the three plays I have — however many plays I have.”

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Plenty of questions stemming from Ravens cutting Forsett

Posted on 04 September 2016 by Luke Jones

With several hours to process the surprise of the Ravens cutting running back Justin Forsett, below are a plethora of questions related to the decision:

1. The possibility of this outcome crossed my mind at a few points during Forsett’s underwhelming summer, but did the Ravens really cut their starting running back who made the Pro Bowl two years ago?

2. Will Baltimore bring him back after Week 1 when vested veteran salaries are no longer guaranteed for the whole season?

3. Would Forsett even want to return under such an arrangement?

4. After holding him out of two preseason games entirely and giving him a total of seven carries this summer, did the Ravens give the 30-year-old a fair chance to keep his job?

5. Given Forsett’s past success in Gary Kubiak’s offensive system, will the Denver Broncos come calling for his services?

6. With just two healthy tailbacks entering the season opener next Sunday, do the Ravens have enough depth at the position?

7. Terrance West shed weight and clearly impressed this summer, but can the Ravens really trust him as their starter with a history that resulted in two bad teams dumping him over the last calendar year?

8. Has Buck Allen shown enough to be a reliable No. 2 running back after his own unimpressive preseason that prompted many to question his job security?

9. Are the Ravens too confident that exciting rookie Kenneth Dixon will come back from a torn MCL in his left knee to pick up where he left off this summer?

10. Why didn’t general manager Ozzie Newsome or head coach John Harbaugh issue statements recognizing Forsett’s important contributions on and off the field in the same way they have for virtually any notable veteran to be released over the years?

11. Am I the only one who thought it was strange that Ravens players weren’t tweeting farewells or their support to Forsett, who has been a popular teammate over the last two years?

12. Was there any cryptic meaning in the tweet Forsett posted shortly after the news broke on Saturday afternoon?

13. Given the veteran’s reputation for having good field vision, are the Ravens really that comfortable with a revamped offensive line and a running game that averaged 3.6 yards per carry this preseason?

14. The Ravens are saving $3 million by cutting Forsett, but will the salary cap space be worth it?

15. Are the young backs ready to pick up the slack in pass protection, an area where Forsett excelled?

16. Will fullback Kyle Juszczyk have a more meaningful role in the offense this year?

17. How much will the backfield miss Forsett’s leadership on the field and in the classroom?

18. Will a trio of tailbacks totaling only 152 more career rushing yards than Forsett had in his 2014 Pro Bowl season alone make Ravens fans forget all about the veteran?

19. Did the Ravens get too wrapped up in summer performance from younger players that can frequently turn out to be a mirage?

20. Will this long-winded list of questions look silly in the next couple days, weeks, or months, or did the Ravens just make a big mistake?

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Breaking down the 2016 Ravens’ initial 53-man roster

Posted on 03 September 2016 by Luke Jones

Former Pro Bowl running back Justin Forsett was easily the biggest surprise among several notable cuts on Saturday as the Ravens constructed their initial 53-man roster for the start of the 2016 season.

More changes are inevitable in the coming days as Baltimore has no clear-cut return specialist with third-year receiver Michael Campanaro being placed on injured reserve and rookie Keenan Reynolds being waived on Saturday. It remains to be seen whether general manager Ozzie Newsome will sign four-time Pro Bowl returner Devin Hester, who worked out and took a physical on Saturday morning.

The Ravens will certainly scan the open market for potential additions to enhance the roster that’s already been assembled. Beginning Sunday, they will also put together a 10-man practice squad with a number of Baltimore players who were cut over the weekend potentially returning to the organization.

Below is a look at the 53-man roster as it stood on Saturday evening with some early impressions:

QUARTERBACKS (2) — Joe Flacco, Ryan Mallett
Analysis: With Flacco practicing fully all summer, the Ravens will go with only two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster for the seventh consecutive year. Journeyman Josh Johnson provided more competition for the backup job than anyone expected, but the distribution of playing time in the preseason never indicated that Mallett was in real danger of losing the No. 2 job.

RUNNING BACKS & FULLBACKS (4) — Terrance West, Buck Allen, Kenneth Dixon, Kyle Juszczyk
Analysis: Whether the Ravens ultimately bring back Forsett or not, his release signals a changing of the guard as West is now in line to receive the bulk of the work to begin the season after a very strong summer. For now, the Ravens have only two healthy tailbacks as Dixon will need at least couple more weeks to recover from a torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee.

WIDE RECEIVERS (5) — Steve Smith, Mike Wallace, Kamar Aiken, Breshad Perriman, Chris Moore
Analysis: After so much discussion this summer about carrying six or seven receivers, the Ravens kept only five as preseason standout Jeremy Butler did not make the team and Campanaro and Chris Matthews were both placed on IR. On paper, this is one of the most talented receiver groups in franchise history, but health concerns with Smith and Perriman are legitimate until proven otherwise.

TIGHT ENDS (3) — Crockett Gillmore, Dennis Pitta, Maxx Williams
Analysis: The season-ending injury suffered by veteran Benjamin Watson took some of the shine off this once-deep group, but Pitta and Williams did return to the practice field on Saturday. Suspended tight ends Darren Waller (four games) and Nick Boyle (10 games) are options later in the season, but it is unsettling that all three tight ends on the roster have had their share of injuries in recent years.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (8) — Ronnie Stanley, Alex Lewis, Jeremy Zuttah, Marshal Yanda, Rick Wagner, John Urschel, James Hurst, Ryan Jensen
Analysis: The biggest surprise in this group was the decision to retain Hurst after he struggled mightily in place of the injured Eugene Monroe last year and was driven back into the left knee of Flacco to cause the season-ending injury. The left guard spot remains under the microscope as Lewis and Urschel are the top candidates to start there following the offseason departure of Kelechi Osemele.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (7) — Brandon Williams, Timmy Jernigan, Lawrence Guy, Carl Davis, Brent Urban, Willie Henry, Michael Pierce
Analysis: An undrafted rookie from Samford, Pierce earned a spot on the team with a strong training camp and a terrific preseason that culminated with a sack-strip and fumble recovery for a touchdown in New Orleans on Thursday night. Even after the season-ending injury to rookie third-rounder Bronson Kaufusi, the talent in this young group runs deep.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS (6) — Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Albert McClellan, Za’Darius Smith, Matt Judon, Chris Carter
Analysis: The Ravens are counting heavily on Suggs and Dumervil to fight off Father Time, but the impressive preseason from Judon leads you to believe that he could be a real factor in the pass-rushing rotation as a rookie. Despite the overall depth, this group has some health concerns at the moment with Dumervil not 100 percent after offseason foot surgery and Smith out with an ankle injury.

INSIDE LINEBACKERS (3) — C.J. Mosley, Zachary Orr, Kamalei Correa
Analysis: As many predicted, the Ravens finally parted ways with failed 2013 second-round pick Arthur Brown, who saw a total of just 10 defensive snaps after his rookie season. The small number of players at this position is deceiving as both McClellan and Carter have experience at inside linebacker and defensive back Anthony Levine practiced extensively as a hybrid linebacker this summer.

CORNERBACKS (7) — Jimmy Smith, Shareece Wright, Jerraud Powers, Tavon Young, Will Davis, Maurice Canady, Sheldon Price
Analysis: The Ravens hope to have strength in numbers at this position, but Wright and Powers both struggled in the preseason and could be pushed by younger options as the season progresses. Price is the biggest surprise to make it among the youngsters, but the 6-foot-2 UCLA product practiced well in the spring and summer and has appealing size as an outside option.

SAFETIES (5) — Eric Weddle, Lardarius Webb, Kendrick Lewis, Anthony Levine, Matt Elam
Analysis: Terrence Brooks didn’t have a stellar summer, but the 2014 third-round pick’s departure was surprising from a depth standpoint. With his return from knee surgery not believed to be close, Elam could still be placed on injured reserve with the thought of potentially designating him to return later in the season, but he needed to be on the initial 53-man roster to be eligible for that possibility.

SPECIALISTS (3) — Sam Koch, Morgan Cox, Justin Tucker
Analysis: This will mark five straight years in which these three have been together, a rare example of long-term stability in the NFL. Special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg may rest easy with this trio, but the Ravens enter a season without a true return specialist for a second straight year, an obvious concern that’s prompted them to work out the 33-year-old Hester.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts on preseason win over Carolina

Posted on 12 August 2016 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens kicking off the preseason with a 22-19 win over Carolina, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Terrance West and Buck Allen combined for three touchdowns, but I was most impressed with the quickness of Kenneth Dixon, who ran for a game-high 44 yards on nine carries. He has the potential to be a home-run hitter as a change-of-pace back, which is something the Ravens need.

2. With Jerraud Powers and Kyle Arrington both struggling, I’d like to see Tavon Young and Terrence Brooks get more opportunities at the nickel. Young played sparingly, but he has shown good ball skills in practices. Brooks’ size is an intriguing option there, especially since Baltimore’s starting safeties are undersized.

3. First-round rookie Ronnie Stanley performed well in his first start, and Harbaugh made a point to praise the young left tackle’s strong desire to play despite suffering a recent injury. I wonder if that was a coincidence after ex-Raven Eugene Monroe started just 17 games over the last two years.

4. The Kaelin Clay muffed punt and John Harbaugh’s post-game comments lead you to believe the 2016 punt returner may not be on the current roster. The Ravens were right to cut Jacoby Jones two offseasons ago, but they’ve surely had their problems replacing him.

5. After a fast start to camp, Kamalei Correa had a relatively quiet night, failing to record a statistic in 21 defensive snaps. He appeared to play exclusively as an edge defender, making you wonder if Zach Orr has a bigger lead in the inside linebacker competition than we thought.

6. Entering his sixth year, linebacker Chris Carter was facing second- and third-team offensive linemen, but he showed impressive quickness off the edge and also made plays at inside linebacker. Versatility and his special-teams ability will help in his bid to win a job.

7. Speaking of edge defenders, Victor Ochi has flashed potential on more than one occasion during camp, but the rookie free agent only saw the field for seven snaps. That makes you wonder if the Ravens are trying to hide him in an effort to sneak him onto the practice squad.

8. Starting in place of Marshal Yanda, Vlad Ducasse may have been the Ravens’ most impressive offensive lineman, making terrific blocks on Dixon’s 19-yard run and Allen’s 19-yard touchdown catch. He’s not a sure bet to make the roster, but he has made 22 starts in six NFL seasons.

9. The Ravens only suited up five receivers, making it concerning that Keenan Reynolds wasn’t targeted once despite playing 29 offensive snaps. Everyone is rooting for the former Navy standout, but he remains a work in progress with a long way to go as both a punt returner and receiver.

10. Built similarly to Brandon Williams, rookie nose tackle Michael Pierce showed impressive push inside to collect three tackles and split a sack with Carter. Making the 53-man roster might appear to be a tall order, but the Samford product has definitely turned some heads.

11. After calling plays from the upstairs booth the last few seasons, defensive coordinator Dean Pees was on the sideline during Thursday’s game. It will be interesting to hear his rationale for the change and whether it will carry over to the regular season.

12. The fans’ reaction to Michael Phelps winning his 22nd Olympic gold medal on Thursday night was hardly surprising, but the enthusiasm shown by players watching the replay of the race on the video board was a memorable moment late in a pedestrian preseason game.

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Young Ravens flash some potential in mundane preseason opener

Posted on 12 August 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — With so many key veterans not even suited up, there wasn’t much to take away from the Ravens’ 22-19 win over Carolina to begin the preseason.

There was some good, some bad, and plenty of “meh” over the course of the night, which is what you expect in the first preseason game when starters might not make as much as a cameo appearance. But head coach John Harbaugh made it clear earlier in the week that he wanted to see something from his younger players after a 5-11 season in which nine different losses were decided by one possession.

He was looking for some game-changing plays.

“You just don’t know until you see something happen,” Harbaugh said. “Now [that] we have this game behind us, we can watch the tape and have a sense of, ‘OK, this is kind of our beginning, this is where we start.’ Some of these young guys, we drafted them for a reason, and I think they showed up tonight. But they have to keep getting better if they’re going to win games in the National Football League against top-flight guys.”

A few players flashed that ability despite the Ravens having just one play of 20 or more yards, a 29-yard completion from No. 3 quarterback Josh Johnson to tight end Nick Boyle in the third quarter.

Starting at rush linebacker in place of Terrell Suggs, Za’Darius Smith provided the first game-changing play of the night when he blew past reserve tackle Daryl Williams to sack and strip Panthers backup quarterback Derek Anderson, allowing defensive tackle Carl Davis to recover the fumble deep in Carolina territory. The Ravens offense would give the ball right back to Carolina a few plays later, but creating turnovers has been a bigger point of emphasis than normal this year after the defense had just 14 takeaways in 2015, the lowest single-season total in franchise history.

With Suggs and Elvis Dumervil each on the wrong side of 30, Smith developing into an impact pass rusher would go a long way in helping the Baltimore defense. It was also encouraging to see draft picks Matt Judon and Willie Henry be disruptive in their first preseason action.

On the offensive side of the ball, a trio of young running backs showcased their potential with Terrance West rushing for two touchdowns, Buck Allen catching a 19-yard score, and lightning-quick rookie Kenneth Dixon carrying nine times for 44 yards and picking up the longest run of the night, a 19-yard sprint behind superb blocks from John Urschel and Vlad Ducasse. West’s 25 yards on nine carries didn’t look like much on paper, but the jump cut he displayed to move the chains on a third-and-2 run in the first quarter and his acceleration while changing direction on a 2-yard touchdown in the third quarter reinforced the improvement he’s shown in practices this summer.

Those offerings were probably enough to make starter Justin Forsett eager to get back on the field after he was among the veterans to receive the night off on Thursday. With the Ravens coming off the most disappointing season of the Harbaugh era, that kind of competition is a good thing.

“I’m just trying to win [over] every guy in that building and show the Ravens [organization] that they can count on me,” West said. “Accountability. I am just trying to come out here and work hard and show these guys that they can depend on me.”

Of course, there was much not to like on Thursday, ranging from the lackluster performance of the secondary to shaky special teams. Veterans Jerraud Powers and Kyle Arrington did nothing to quell concerns about the nickel cornerback job while Kaelin Clay’s muffed punt reflected how unimpressive the return specialist competition has been.

The Ravens remain a work in progress, but a team needing some young players to step forward saw a few flashes of promise in an otherwise mundane preseason game.

“Those are the plays that win you games, the game-changing-type plays,” said safety Eric Weddle of Smith’s strip sack in the opening quarter. “You can watch the film. There’s 60, 70 snaps, [and] there will be four or five plays. You either make them and you win the game or you don’t and the other team does and they win. We want to be on the right side of that and win a bunch of games.”

After being on the wrong side all last year, Baltimore is hoping to flip the script in 2016.

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Ravens-Panthers preseason primer: Five players to watch

Posted on 10 August 2016 by Luke Jones

Thursday will feel familiar as the Ravens begin the preseason against the defending NFC champion Carolina Panthers.

With Joe Flacco and other veterans not expected to play, the game will resemble the end of last season with backup quarterback Ryan Mallett and other young players factoring heavily into the action immediately. Of course, the Ravens don’t mind that reality as much right now with the start of the regular season still a month away.

“It’s going to be the young guys,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “It’s going to be the guys that need to play in this game that we want to find out about. Anybody that has a health issue or anything like that is not even going to be thinking about playing. It’s just going to be one of those kinds of camp games that we learn about our young guys.”

Coming off a 5-11 season and their worst campaign in nearly a decade, the Ravens are feeling more urgency in this year’s preseason for obvious reasons. Wins and losses in the summer may not have a strong bearing on how a team will fare in the regular season, but a 1-3 preseason last year was a reflection of how little depth the Ravens had in 2015, a weakness that was painfully exposed as injuries piled up.

With the likes of Steve Smith, Terrell Suggs, and Elvis Dumervil still working their way back to full health, the Ravens want to see young players seize opportunities and make names for themselves on a roster clearly in transition. As much as the discussion has centered around older players on this roster, young play-makers must emerge to help facilitate Baltimore’s return to contender status in 2016 and beyond.

“I can’t wait to see how this shakes out on Thursday, but also for the next three weeks seeing who the guys are,” Harbaugh said. “I’m looking for the guys to make plays. Who is going to make the plays? That’s it. We have a bunch of guys with potential who are definitely talented enough to do it.

“The best guy is going to make it. The roster is way too tight for anybody to be a project right now; it’s going to be [about] guys making plays.”

Thursday marks the seventh time these teams have met in the preseason with the Ravens holding the 4-2 edge over the Panthers. Baltimore has compiled a 20-12 record in preseason games under Harbaugh.

Unofficial (and largely speculative) injury report

The Ravens are not required to release an injury report like they do for regular-season games, but I’ve offered my best guess on what the injury report would look like if one were to be released ahead of Thursday night’s game against Carolina.

Most of the players ruled to be out will come as no surprise, but the status of a few will remain in question. Of course, this list does not consider any veteran players — like Flacco — who will be held out of the preseason opener due to the coaching staff’s preference.

Again, this is not an official injury report released by the Ravens:

OUT: WR Steve Smith (Achilles), LB Terrell Suggs (Achilles), LB Elvis Dumervil (foot), WR Breshad Perriman (knee), RB Lorenzo Taliaferro (foot), WR Chris Moore (foot), TE Crockett Gillmore (hamstring), DE Bronson Kaufusi (ankle)
DOUBTFUL: TE Dennis Pitta (finger/hip), WR Chris Matthews (“soft tissue” injury), CB Maurice Canady (undisclosed)
QUESTIONABLE: DT Timmy Jernigan (ribs), OT Ronnie Stanley (“soft tissue” injury), WR Michael Campanaro (unspecified strains), TE Maxx Williams (undisclosed)
PROBABLE: QB Joe Flacco (knee), RB Kenneth Dixon (knee), TE Daniel Brown (jaw), CB Jimmy Smith (foot)

Five players to watch Thursday night

RB Terrance West

Much focus has been placed on the number of absences in the first two weeks of training camp, but West has arguably been the early star of the summer, looking lighter and more explosive than he did last season when he rushed for 180 yards on 46 carries in six games with the Ravens. Coaches have been pleased with West’s work ethic as he’s shown improved field vision and is better in pass protection. His performance to this point has likely dismissed pre-camp predictions that he would be on the roster bubble, but carrying over that success to preseason games would put West in the conversation to start.

LB Kamalei Correa

The rookie second-round pick has brought athleticism and an edge to a group of Ravens linebackers that’s been practicing without Suggs and Dumervil. Until recently, he looked like the clear favorite to start at the weak-side inside linebacker spot next to C.J. Mosley, but third-year linebacker Zach Orr is also competing for the job and has taken more starter reps over the last few practices. Regardless of how that battle shakes out, Correa will see plenty of action inside and as an edge defender in sub packages. If his practice performance translates to the preseason, his No. 51 will be called frequently on Thursday.

OT Alex Lewis

With first-round pick Ronnie Stanley’s status for Thursday in question after he suffered a minor injury last weekend, the Ravens may start Lewis at left tackle after selecting him in the fourth round of April’s draft. Baltimore appears comfortable with Stanley handling the job as a rookie, but it’s clear that an upgrade is needed from top reserve James Hurst, who has been practicing more extensively at guard in recent practices. If Lewis can hold up to some reasonable degree against a tough Carolina front, the Ravens would feel a lot better about the prospects of him being Stanley’s primary backup in 2016.

LB Za’Darius Smith

He hasn’t received a ton of press, but Smith could be one of the biggest keys for the Ravens defense in 2016. With Suggs turning 34 in October and coming off an Achilles injury and Dumervil better suited for a situational role, the 6-foot-4, 275-pound Smith becoming an impact player would quell the many concerns about the pass rush. He’s primarily been working at Suggs’ rush linebacker spot, but he has improved at setting the edge, making you wonder if he could step into a hybrid role with responsibilities formerly held by Courtney Upshaw and Pernell McPhee. This defense would be a lot better if he can.

WR Jeremy Butler

Butler is rarely mentioned while other young receivers are frequently discussed, but he has stacked quality practices after catching 31 passes for 363 yards in eight games last year. Though more of a possession receiver, the 6-foot-2 Butler makes catches in traffic and has managed to stay on the field while the likes of Michael Campanaro, Chris Moore, Chris Matthews, and Breshad Perriman have missed time with injuries. Butler may lack the upside of some of the aforementioned names, but there’s something to be said about being able to stay on the field and produce when jobs are clearly up for grabs.

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Eyes on Ravens running backs as preseason opener looms

Posted on 07 August 2016 by Luke Jones

Asked at the start of training camp about the possibility of the Ravens using a committee approach at running back this season, veteran Justin Forsett pretended not to understand what the concept meant.

Despite a collection of young and talented backs behind him on the depth chart, the 30-year-old isn’t ready to relinquish the starting role he worked so hard to secure two years ago when he gained a career-high 1,266 yards after years as an NFL journeyman. But he has his hands full this summer.

“Everybody wants to be on the field all the time,” said Forsett, who missed the final six games with a broken arm last season after a career year in 2014. “I want to put myself in a position where they can’t take me off the field. That is my mentality. At the end of the day, everybody has their role, and I’ll let [the coaches] decide that.”

Plenty of questions remain on both sides of the ball, but we’re unlikely to learn too much in the first preseason game about the wide receiver, tight end, and outside linebacker positions where multiple players remain sidelined with injuries. But running back is a different story with four healthy options vying for meaningful playing time while 2014 fourth-round pick Lorenzo Taliaferro remains on the physically unable to perform list.

Projected to be on the bubble this summer, Baltimore native Terrance West has been the most impressive running back in camp, which isn’t as much a knock on Forsett, Buck Allen, or Kenneth Dixon as it is a compliment to the urgency with which the Towson product has played. Fifteen pounds lighter than last year and showing improved vision and quickness, West is looking like the back the Cleveland Browns thought they were getting when they selected him in the third round of the 2014 draft.

Of course, it’s generally unwise to draw too many conclusions from training camp as veterans assured of roles are often pacing themselves while getting ready for the fall and unproven players are maximizing every rep to etch out a spot on the 53-man roster. At the very least, West has made himself arguably the most intriguing player to watch in Thursday’s preseason opener against the Carolina Panthers.

“He is just out there working hard and trying to get better,” offensive coordinator Marc Trestman said. “He is running hard. He is running aggressively. He has been much improved in terms of his understanding of pass protection, which is critical to getting him on the field. I feel a lot more comfortable with that. He has had a tremendous attitude in the classroom and on the field.”

West isn’t the only young back trying to push Forsett for playing time as Allen wants to build on a solid rookie season in which he rushed for 514 yards and collected an additional 353 yards as a receiver. A fourth-round selection in 2015, Allen has looked the part of a good change-of-pace receiver out of the backfield.

But he’s aiming for a bigger role in his second season after focusing on becoming more explosive this offseason. One of the questions about Allen as a rookie was his ability to consistently run between the tackles to be a productive every-down back.

He averaged 3.8 yards per carry in a season in which he started the final six games.

“Just be more physical. Run like you’re 220 [pounds], not 212,” Allen said. “That’s something I really took personal. Making that jump cut look clean, that’s something I worked on. Only time will tell.”

Until the last few days, it had largely been a three-man competition in the Baltimore backfield since Dixon, a fourth-round rookie from Louisiana Tech, suffered a minor knee injury on the first day of camp. However, he returned to the field late last week and turned in his best practice of the summer at M&T Bank Stadium on Saturday night, flashing his skills as a receiver and some impressive moves in the open field.

Regarded by some as the second-best running back in this year’s draft behind fourth overall pick Ezekiel Elliott, Dixon averaged 11.1 yards per reception to go along with a stout 5.6 yards per carry over four collegiate seasons. His 87 career touchdowns briefly gave him the NCAA Division I record last December before it was quickly eclipsed by fellow Ravens draft pick Keenan Reynolds.

“He looked quick and sharp; he made good cuts,” head coach John Harbaugh said after Saturday’s practice. “I feel like he did a pretty good job of pass protection. We will have to see. That last third-down run was really a special run. It was good to see him out there. He has been chomping at the bit.”

The question all along has been whether Forsett will recapture his success from two years ago to cement his status as the starter or if a younger back will seize the job, but the Ravens hope a clear-cut No. 1 back will emerge to provide the offense a much-needed play-maker.

In the meantime, it’s hard to argue with Forsett’s impeccable character leading the young group as his willingness to help younger players is a trait he picked up from those who helped him early in his career when he was simply trying to survive in the NFL.

“I feel like me being here is greater than football,” Forsett said. “Anytime I can help and serve my teammates [and] allow them to be better, I’m all for it. When I got into the league, it was guys like T.J. Duckett, Maurice Morris, and Julius Jones that helped me along the way. Edgerrin James, those guys helped me be a pro and showed me the way.

“It is my duty to pass that on.”

He’s just not ready to pass on the starter’s workload yet.

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Ravens unveil first depth chart ahead of preseason opener

Posted on 05 August 2016 by Luke Jones

The Ravens unveiled their first depth chart of the summer with very few surprises in relation to what we’ve witnessed in training camp so far.

The depth chart reflects players currently on the physically unable to perform list, which explains why the likes of Steve Smith, Terrell Suggs, and Elvis Dumervil are listed at the end of their position groups. In most cases, reserve players behind the projected starters are listed by seniority.

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The listed starting offensive line is exactly what we’ve seen at most practices in the spring and summer with rookie first-round tackle Ronnie Stanley set to protect Joe Flacco’s blindside and third-year lineman John Urschel still the favorite to take Kelechi Osemele’s old left guard spot.

Of course, the wide receiver position is difficult to project with Smith and 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman still on the PUP list, but Michael Campanaro has practiced well while staying healthy so far, making a strong case to see time in the slot. Maxx Williams being listed fourth among the tight ends reflects how deep that position is.

Buck Allen is listed as the primary backup to Justin Forsett at running back, but Terrance West can further improve his case for a bigger role if he can build on an impressive training camp with good showings in the preseason.

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With Suggs and Dumervil still absent, Za’Darius Smith and Albert McClellan have handled starting outside linebacker duties in training camp. It will be interesting to see if McClellan remains at the “Sam” linebacker spot when Dumervil and Suggs return or whether Smith will slide over to that spot. The Ravens would like to see Dumervil return to his previous role as a situational pass rusher, but it’s unclear if Suggs will still be a three-down linebacker coming back from his second Achilles injury in four years.

The Ravens are listing veteran Zach Orr ahead of rookie Kamalei Correa as the starting weak-side inside linebacker, but the 2016 second-round pick has received more reps with the base defense during training camp. The nickel package has featured Orr entering at inside linebacker with Correa shifting to the edge.

Veteran Kyle Arrington is currently ahead of Will Davis and rookie Tavon Young on the depth chart, but that appears to be a nod to the veteran more than a reflection of what we’ve seen during camp.

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As for special teams, Kaelin Clay is the early leader to be the return specialist, but Campanaro remains in the mix as the Ravens try to keep him healthy. Former Navy star and sixth-round pick Keenan Reynolds has struggled to consistently catch punts and has a lot of ground to make up over the next few weeks. Young has shown impressive speed as a potential kick returner.

It’s important not to read too much into the first depth chart, especially once moving past the first and second units. The depth chart is composed by the Ravens’ public relations staff, but it is based on practice and game reps, giving fans and media a worthwhile snapshot.

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Ten Ravens thoughts on first week of training camp

Posted on 02 August 2016 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens approaching the end of their first week of training camp, I’ve offered 10 early thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The Ravens have numerous injury questions, but Joe Flacco is looking less and less like one. Other than the brace on his left knee, you’d never know he’s eight months removed from surgery. He’s moving and throwing like he always did and says he’s not even thinking about the knee.

2. Everyone is rooting for Keenan Reynolds to make an impact after his brilliant career at Navy, but he’s a substantial work in progress. It’s still very early, but he hasn’t played with much confidence and has dropped more passes and kicks than you’d like to see even in practices.

3. With other running backs currently sidelined, Terrance West is taking advantage of the reps and has looked the part of a motivated young player vying for a significant role in the offense. West has shed 15 pounds from last season and is noticeably more explosive running the football.

4. After missing spring workouts to have the screws removed from his right foot, Jimmy Smith has had a quiet start. He hasn’t practiced poorly, but he’s still working his way back to full strength. The defense sorely needs him to return to his pre-surgery 2014 form this season.

5. An understated need in 2016 will be for Za’Darius Smith to become an impact player. He looks comfortable in pass coverage and has shown good pass-rush ability. If he can handle responsibilities formerly held by Pernell McPhee and Courtney Upshaw, less pressure falls on Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil.

6. Though Jerraud Powers remains the favorite to play slot cornerback in sub packages, rookie Tavon Young has displayed good ball skills and has shown good aggression in coverage. He also looked smooth and fast returning a kickoff at Monday’s stadium practice. He’s someone to watch in the preseason.

7. Much has been written about Kamalei Correa competing to start at inside linebacker next to C.J. Mosley, but he plays with an edge, evident by the skirmishes on Monday. The Ravens need more attitude and higher-end talent, and Correa has a chance to bring both to the defense.

8. It’s unclear how much time he’ll miss, but it was a shame to see rookie receiver Chris Moore walking with his left foot in a boot on Monday. It was only a couple practices, but his acceleration going after the deep ball reminds a little bit of Torrey Smith.

9. It was interesting to see Justin Tucker repeatedly pop kickoffs into the air that landed inside the 5-yard line on Monday. With touchbacks on kickoffs moving to the 25, John Harbaugh said this offseason that the Ravens could alter their approach instead of just booting it through the end zone.

10. Crockett Gillmore has a rare combination of size and quickness that is fun to watch, but you wonder if his physical style of play will continue hindering his durability. He’s already had quite a few injuries in two-plus years with a hamstring strain the latest ailment to sideline him.

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