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High expectations replace distractions for this year’s Ravens

Posted on 30 July 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — A year ago at this time, the Ravens were in the midst of the most trying season in the 20-year history of the franchise with the dark cloud of the Ray Rice saga and four other player arrests hanging over their heads.

So you’ll forgive them for relishing the relative peace since three former players — Terrence Cody, Bernard Pierce, and Victor Hampton — were arrested and promptly released early this offseason. The focus was solely on football Thursday as the Ravens officially began training camp with their first full-squad practice.

“We’re happy with it, because last year, it was very uncomfortable,” veteran linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “A lot of us [haven’t] been in that type of situation like that before, but it’s good to come into camp with no major negative storyline concerning us. We’re just ready to get after it. We’re ready to capitalize on things we did great last year and definitively get rid of some of the things we didn’t do so [well].”

This summer, the distractions have been replaced by higher-than-usual expectations for the Ravens despite parting ways with five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, starting receiver Torrey Smith, rush specialist Pernell McPhee, starting tight end Owen Daniels, and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. Those losses would have many teams rebuilding and being forced to look toward the future, but general manager Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens are equipped to deal with change immediately after consecutive draft classes that they feel really good about.

The rest of the football world has taken notice with many praising the Ravens’ deep roster and considering them a top contender to win the Super Bowl despite significant personnel changes.

“They do a great job of bringing good guys in and continuing to build the team every year,” said four-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda about the front office. “We try to get better and better. That’s what the Ravens do, and it seems like it this year again. We’re all excited to be out here.”

Of course, many questions must be answered as the Ravens try to replace the aforementioned names with players primarily in their first or second year in the NFL.

How will defensive coordinator Dean Pees mix and match to fill the massive void left behind by Ngata?

Is rookie first-round pick Breshad Perriman ready to become Joe Flacco’s new deep threat?

Can new offensive coordinator Marc Tresetman pick up where Kubiak left off a year ago?

Those are just to name a few.

Head coach John Harbaugh’s team will be tested early with five of their first seven regular-season games on the road, the kind of stretch where success could put them in prime position to secure a home playoff game — or better — and failure could create a treacherous climb in the second half of the season to simply make the playoffs.

Why are the Ravens so confident in their rookies and veteran newcomers to pick up the slack left behind by departing players on an annual basis?

Six playoff appearances in the last seven years goes a long way in setting expectations for anyone walking into the building.

“They know what’s expected, because they’ve watched this team in January so much,” Harbaugh said. “I mentioned to [former Ravens linebacker and current scouting intern] Jarret Johnson last night that we’ve had some bad-ass teams around here. That’s what these guys have to understand — what the standard is.”

Even if thankful not to be dealing with the turmoil of last season, returning players — particularly the ones not involved in any off-field transgressions — can take pride in the way they handled the adversity to still go 10-6 and win a playoff game before falling to the eventual Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. Perhaps that memory is one veterans will share with newcomers joining an organization with championship aspirations every year.

But for now, the Ravens are just glad to be back to the business of football with little else entering the conversation.

“When you’re in training camp, it’s tough to think about too many other things,” Flacco said. “I know we had a little bit of a distraction last year, but I thought we did a good job of putting that behind us and taking it for what it was. I guess it’s nice, but I think that [football] was our main concern last year, too.”

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Suggs down to “fighting” weight as he reports for training camp

Posted on 29 July 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — One of the topics of discussion in an otherwise quiet mandatory minicamp for the Ravens last month was the weight and conditioning of veteran linebacker Terrell Suggs.

Acknowledging at the time that he hadn’t worked out as rigorously as in past offseasons, Suggs still has work to do to get down to his listed weight of 265 pounds, but the six-time Pro Bowl selection didn’t sound concerned about his conditioning upon reporting to Owings Mills on Wednesday. He took part in all three minicamp practices in June, but he says he feels a lot better after working out in Arizona over the last five weeks.

“I totally feel a lot different from the last time I was up here,” Suggs said on the eve of the first full-squad training camp practice. “I can be totally honest with you. I feel great, and we’re ready to get out here and work at camp.”

Entering his 13th season, Suggs already holds the franchise’s all-time sacks record and his 106 1/2 quarterback takedowns rank 24th on the all-time NFL list.

Suggs’ weight has been a topic of discussion in the past, but a player with his impressive list of credentials deserves the benefit of the doubt at this stage of his career. Unlike a month ago when he acknowledged having plenty of work to do for another NFL season, Suggs says his weight is under better control with an eye on shedding more pounds during the sweltering days of camp.

“We’ve shed some [pounds] — a lot,” said Suggs, who added that he passed the team’s conditioning test “convincingly” after reporting. “But I’m not quite at the weight [I want]. We’re at a good fighting weight. That’s what we’re here for and we’ll use this time to shed some more. It’s going to be hot out here, so we’re going to be looking forward to it.”

Unusually reflective last month about his career in Baltimore and uncertain about his future beyond this season, Suggs is more concerned with winning another Super Bowl rather than boosting an individual legacy that could put him in impressive company by the time his career concludes.

Despite a number of free-agent departures this offseason, the Ravens have clear championship aspirations, the kind of territory with which Suggs has been familiar over his long career.

“We all kind of know the expectations,” Suggs said. “We know what we did do great last year, and we know where we finished at. We fell short, and we don’t want to fall short anymore. You want to keep progressing. You want to keep getting better, and it all starts with today and going out there tomorrow.”

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2015 Ravens training camp preview: Linebackers

Posted on 23 July 2015 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens beginning their 20th training camp in franchise history this month, expectations are high for John Harbaugh’s team as they eye their seventh trip to the postseason in eight years.

As veterans report to Owings Mills on July 29th and the first full-squad workout takes place the following day, we’ll examine each position group entering the summer.

July 20: Quarterbacks
July 21: Defensive line
July 22: Running backs
July 23: Linebackers
July 24: Wide receivers
July 25: Tight ends
July 26: Cornerbacks
July 27: Offensive line
July 28: Safeties
July 29: Specialists

Below is a look at the Baltimore linebackers:

LINEBACKERS 
LOCK: Daryl Smith, C.J. Mosley, Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Courtney Upshaw, Za’Darius Smith
BUBBLE: Arthur Brown, Albert McClellan, Zachary Orr, Steven Means, Brennen Beyer, Zach Thompson
LONG SHOT: Andrew Bose

Synopsis: The Ravens’ top four of Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, C.J. Mosley, and Daryl Smith are as good as any linebacker quartet you’ll find around the league, but depth is certainly a question mark for this unit as free-agent-to-be Courtney Upshaw is the only other linebacker on the roster who played more than 42 defensive snaps last season. This may not be a major factor for 2015, but general manager Ozzie Newsome has to be thinking about the need to get younger at the position with Suggs, Dumervil, and Smith all on the wrong side of 30. The good news is that it appears the Ravens found the anchor of their defense for years to come with Mosley becoming the first player in franchise history to make the Pro Bowl in his rookie season. If the 2014 first-round pick can improve in pass coverage, he could quickly solidify his standing as one of the best inside linebackers in the NFL.

One to watch: Saddled with the burden of needing to replace situational pass rusher Pernell McPhee this offseason, the Ravens selected Za’Darius Smith from Kentucky in the fourth round of this year’s draft. Besides wearing No. 90 and sporting dreadlocks, Smith plays with a similar style and reminded the organization of McPhee during the pre-draft evaluation process. Considering Upshaw has never shown consistent ability to get after the quarterback, it will be of the utmost importance for Smith to be able to step in for Suggs and Dumervil and to apply some pressure in the pocket on a part-time basis.

One on notice: There’s no way to sugarcoat how disappointing Arthur Brown has been after he didn’t take a defensive snap last season, meaning this summer could be make-or-break time for the 2013 second-round pick. Brown was active for just four games in his second season, meaning Baltimore didn’t even see enough value in him as a special-teams player. No one would suggest at this point that he needs to overtake Mosley or Daryl Smith for a starting job, but Brown must show a better understanding of the defense and improved ability on special teams or it might be time to cut bait.

Sleeper: Zach Orr was one of the surprises to make the 53-man roster out of training camp last year, but it will be interesting to see if the former undrafted free agent becomes a bigger factor as a defensive player in his second season. With Brown disappointing and special-teams standout Albert McClellan scheduled to carry a $1.2 million cap figure, Orr has a golden opportunity to step forward as the primary backup at the inside linebacker position and to further solidify his standing on the roster. With Mosley sidelined in the spring due to wrist surgery, Orr received quite a few of the defensive reps before Brown.

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Suggs adjusting to life as last man standing from old Ravens defense

Posted on 17 June 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Terrell Suggs was all smiles on Tuesday, but the longtime Ravens linebacker is adjusting to major change as he moves toward his 13th NFL season.

Reporting to the team’s Owings Mills training facility for a three-day mandatory minicamp, Suggs was reminded of the offseason departure of five-time defensive tackle Haloti Ngata simply by looking to the locker next to his. The 32-year-old laughed while describing the funny look he offered second-year offensive tackle James Hurst, who now occupies the quarters previously used by Suggs’ close friend and teammate of nine years.

Admitting surprise upon learning Ngata had been traded to the Detroit Lions on March 10, Suggs said the right things on Tuesday, but you could tell it’s something he’s not yet gotten over more than three months later.

“Me and Haloti are very close, so it definitely was kind of weird coming back and him not being here,” Suggs said. “But the show must go on. We wish Haloti the most tremendous success until they play us. He’ll always be a Raven in spirit, but I’m just trying to cope with it for right now.”

Of course, this isn’t the first time Suggs has faced seismic change to the Baltimore defense. Two years ago, he was answering questions about the retirement of linebacker Ray Lewis and the free-agent departure of safety Ed Reed, two future Hall of Famers who had led Suggs on the field and in the locker room throughout the first decade of his career.

But that transition was made easier by having Ngata next to him as the two Pro Bowl players walked out to the practice field together on a daily basis to lead the first defense in team history not to feature Lewis.

Now, Suggs is hardly alone with the likes of fellow Pro Bowl linebackers Elvis Dumervil and C.J. Mosley and young cornerback Jimmy Smith serving as impact players and leaders in a very talented group, but he can’t help but feel like the last man standing from the old guard of Ravens defense that dominated year after year.

“It’s [season] 13, so it’s weird. It’s a whole new look, a whole new team,” Suggs said. “Like I said, I’m just trying to enjoy it. It’s a whole new feel. But it’s definitely weird having everybody kind of just go on.”

Never one to take himself too seriously, Suggs was as reflective as we’ve ever seen him in discussing his career on Tuesday, repeatedly making mention of this being his 13th season and how long he’s been around.

Last year, the Arizona State product eclipsed the 100-sack mark for his career and matched his second-highest single-season sack total with 12, but Suggs sounds more like a man reaching the light at the end of the tunnel than one obsessed with moving up the list of career sacks from the 24th spot he currently occupies. Asked about his individual goals for 2015, Suggs simply stated he hopes to be better than he was last year while shifting the focus to his hopes for the Ravens building on last year’s playoff run that ended in the divisional round.

Carrying some extra weight for this week’s mandatory minicamp, Suggs acknowledged treating this offseason differently from past years. He said he’s now more concerned with keeping himself fresh for the latter stages of the season rather than being in optimal shape by June.

“I can participate in practice without getting hurt and without getting tired, but I’m definitely not at my ‘fighting’ weight,” Suggs said. “I’m pretty much at my ‘walking around’ weight. Like I said, this is year 13 for me. I can’t really be stressing. I used to always [say], ‘I need to be ready by minicamp,’ and it used to weigh on me; it used to bother me. I didn’t want to let it bother me this year. I just figured at the 13th year, I owe it to myself to sit, pace yourself.”

To be clear, Suggs never said on Tuesday that 2015 would be his final year, but he made it clear that he’s thinking more about his football mortality and isn’t taking anything for granted. Though proclaiming himself to be a “young” 32 — he’ll turn 33 in October — the 2003 first-round pick acknowledged being on the “back nine” of a career that includes the 2011 AP Defensive Player of the Year award and six Pro Bowl selections.

Suggs is under contract through the 2018 season after signing a four-year extension last offseason, but you have to wonder if he’ll even come close to playing that out at this point. Witnessing longtime teammates depart over the last couple years would make anyone contemplate his own end.

He sees no reason to change his leadership style with Ngata no longer around and repeatedly expressed confidence in the likes of Brandon Williams and Timmy Jernigan picking up the slack with the 340-pound veteran no longer anchoring the defensive line. But Suggs is keeping his focus on this season alone as he’s the last remaining member of the old guard leading a Ravens defense in transition.

“I’m really looking forward to this year,” Suggs said “At the end of this year, we’ll talk, but you just kind of take it year by year and see what you can do.”

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Ravens conclude spring preparations with mandatory minicamp

Posted on 16 June 2015 by Luke Jones

The Ravens conclude nearly two months of spring preparations for the 2015 season this week with their three-day mandatory minicamp.

With training camp roughly six weeks away, head coach John Harbaugh will get his first look at his full 90-man training camp roster this week as veterans who have not attended voluntary organized team activities will be back in Owings Mills. That list includes the likes of linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil as well as four-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda.

On Tuesday, Suggs is scheduled to meet with the media for the first time since longtime teammate and five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata was traded to the Detroit Lions at the start of free agency in March. It will be interesting to hear what the 32-year-old has to say about being the last man standing of the old guard of Baltimore defense that also included future Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.

Yanda is also scheduled to answer questions at the podium and will surely be asked about his future as the 30-year-old enters the final season of a five-year contract signed in 2011.

The Ravens will practice on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday before players enjoy their final weeks of downtime before the first full-squad training camp practice is held on July 30. Rookies will begin reporting to Owings Mills on July 22 as Baltimore seeks its seventh postseason berth in eight seasons under Harbaugh.

All three minicamp practices will be open to the media.

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Five Ravens questions for start of 2015 OTAs

Posted on 27 May 2015 by Luke Jones

As the Ravens officially begin their organized team activities on Wednesday, below are five questions for this still-early stage of 2015:

1. How is Joe Flacco adjusting to his fourth offensive coordinator in four seasons?

The franchise quarterback’s early reviews of Marc Trestman have been positive, but it has to be frustrating to now be working with a different coordinator for a fourth straight season. Fortunately, Trestman has a good reputation for working with quarterbacks and intends to maintain many of the principles used in Gary Kubiak’s system, which allowed Flacco to have arguably the best regular season of his career. If the veteran weren’t entering his eighth season, this would be a bigger concern, but the 2008 first-round pick has proven he can work with just about anyone over the years.

2. Which players will be healthy enough to participate?

There is an extensive list of players coming off season-ending injuries or offseason surgeries including tight end Dennis Pitta (hip), cornerbacks Jimmy Smith (foot) and Asa Jackson (knee), linebacker C.J. Mosley (wrist surgery), right tackle Rick Wagner (foot), center Jeremy Zuttah (hip surgery), running back Lorenzo Taliaferro (foot), and safety Terrence Brooks (knee). Many of these players figure to at least be limited during OTAs. Not counting the uncertainty surrounding Pitta, Brooks appears to be the furthest away as the Ravens have said he’ll likely begin the year on the physically unable to perform list.

3. Will promising slot receiver Michael Campanaro stay healthy?

There has been plenty of offseason hype about the potential of the 2014 seventh-round pick, but head coach John Harbaugh has said over and over that Campanaro needs to prove he can consistently stay on the field and that will begin this spring. Catching seven passes for 102 yards and a touchdown in four games, Campanaro shows promises as both a slot receiver and a punt returner, but hamstring issues plagued him throughout his rookie season. If he wants to make his mark in a crowded group of wide receivers, the 5-foot-9 Campanaro simply staying healthy this spring would be a good start.

4. What will Terrell Suggs have to say about Haloti Ngata being traded?

The silence from the 13th-year linebacker has been deafening as it relates to the departure of longtime teammate Haloti Ngata, whose locker was next to Suggs’ at the Ravens’ Owings Mills training complex. This isn’t to suggest that Suggs and the organization are on poor terms, but you do wonder how it went over in his mind to see Ozzie Newsome deal one of the best players in team history for two mid-round picks. Of course, the 32-year-old understands it’s a business after signing a team-friendly extension a year ago, but it will still be interesting to hear what he has to say about Ngata no longer being in purple.

5. Which veterans will not participate?

We’ll likely have to wait until next month’s mandatory minicamp to hear from Suggs as the Ravens generally have a handful of veterans who skip the voluntary OTAs. The most interesting name to monitor will be four-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda, who is entering the final year of a five-year contract. The Ravens want to sign him to an extension, but no deal was close as of a couple weeks ago. Some fans and media will take exception to any veterans skipping OTAs, but their attendance simply doesn’t mean that much to the overall outcome of the 2015 season when it’s all said and done.

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Suggs restructure puts band-aid on Ravens’ cap woes

Posted on 10 March 2015 by Luke Jones

Needing to be under the 2015 salary cap by 4 p.m. Tuesday, the Ravens found a temporary band-aid by restructuring the contract of veteran linebacker Terrell Suggs.

According to The Sun, Baltimore has converted $3 million of Suggs’ scheduled $4 million base salary for 2015 into a bonus, which will create an additional $2.25 million in cap space for this season. The move also adds an extra $750,000 to Suggs’ cap figures for 2016, 2017, and 2018, which isn’t substantial but is still something the Ravens try to avoid doing.

Last offseason, Suggs signed a four-year extension that gives the six-time Pro Bowl selection an excellent chance to finish his career in Baltimore.

The move was necessary to get the Ravens below the salary cap after they had tendered their restricted and exclusive-rights free agents on Monday. However, it still leaves them with work to do if they want to re-sign any of their unrestricted free agents or explore other players available on the open market.

General manager Ozzie Newsome would still like to get something done with defensive tackle Haloti Ngata to provide relief from his current $16 million cap figure in the final year of his contract. However, the NFL Network reported Tuesday morning that the “status quo” is likely remain between the Ravens and Ngata, which would do the organization no favors in trying to add other players to the current roster this offseason.

The restructuring of Suggs’ deal is a sign that the Ravens are trying to buy more time to work something out with Ngata, but it’s difficult to imagine this offseason being a productive one without movement on the five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle’s contract.

The Ravens are also trying to restructure the contract of veteran cornerback Lardarius Webb, who currently carries a $12 million cap figure for the 2015 season.

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Monroe remains limited participant for Thursday’s practice

Posted on 08 January 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — There were no significant changes to Thursday’s injury report as the Ravens completed their final full practice of the week in preparation for their divisional-round meeting with the New England Patriots.

Starting left tackle Eugene Monroe (ankle) remained a limited participant as he hopes to make his return to action for the first time since Dec. 21. Head coach John Harbaugh acknowledged Monroe is “progressing well” but wouldn’t elaborate beyond that when asked by reporters.

Rookie Timmy Jernigan (foot/ankle) was a full participant for the second straight day and appears on track to be back in the defensive line rotation after missing last week’s playoff win in Pittsburgh.

Veteran linebacker Terrell Suggs received a day off from the final practice of the week as he regularly has late in the season.

Meanwhile, the Patriots removed running back LeGarrette Blount (illness) from their injury report a day after he was listed as a limited participant.

Below is Thursday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Terrell Suggs (non-injury)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: OT Eugene Monroe (ankle)
FULL PARTICIPATION: DT Timmy Jernigan (foot/ankle), TE Owen Daniels (non-injury), LB Daryl Smith (non-injury)

NEW ENGLAND
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: WR Julian Edelman (concussion), RB Jonas Gray (ankle), WR Brandon LaFell (shoulder/toe)
FULL PARTICIPATION: QB Tom Brady (ankle)

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Snap Counts

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Baltimore Ravens – Snap Counts vs Steelers

Posted on 08 January 2015 by Dennis Koulatsos

Here is a break down of the snap count of every offensive and defensive player, in the Ravens’ win against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Offense:

57 – LT James Hurst – he played the whole game, and struggled mightily vs James Harrison

57 – LG Kelechi Osemele – had some problems in pass protection, but was an absolute mauler in the run game

57 – C Jeremy Zuttah – got pushed back in to Joe Flacco time and time again. He has to do better against the Patriots

57 – RG John Urshel – graded out well overall. Had a better night pass blocking than run blocking

57 – RT Marshal Yanda – best offensive lineman in the league. Pass blocked well and was a road grader in the run game

57 – QB Joe Flacco – threw 2 TDs, managed the offense well, and didn’t turn the ball over. “January Joe.”

54 – TE Owen Daniels – struggled with pass blocking, but was a factor in the passing game; caught 4 for 70 yards

50 – RB Justin Forsett – didn’t have a great running night running the ball, lost a fumble, but capably blocked blitzing LBs from the A gaps

40 – WR Torrey Smith – caught an 11 yard TD pass from Flacco; missed a certain TD when he didn’t drag his foot in the end zone

39 – TE Crockett Gillmore – caught a 21 yard TD from Flacco; blocked whistle to whistle

35 – WR Steve Smith – made a couple of tough catches in traffic; caught 5 for 101 yards

25 – WR Kamar Aiken – caught just 1 pass for 4 yards

20 – FB Kyle Juszczyk – caught 2 for 16 yards

13 – WR Marlon Brown – caught 1 for 9 yards

5 – WR Jacoby Jones – caught 1 for 9 yards

4 – RB Bernard Pierce – just 1 rushing attempt but it was good for a 5 yard TD

Defense:

76 – ILB Daryl Smith – save for the TD pass given up to Antonio Brown, he was stout vs the pass as well as the run

75 – CB Lardarius Webb – he was targeted a lot by Roethlisberger, and had an ok game overall

74 – ILB CJ Mosley – was solid vs the run but struggled in pass coverage

72 – FS Will Hill – was solid vs the run and even better vs the pass; defended well all night long

66 – CB  Rashaan Melvin – did a really good job in pass coverage, came up in run support

56 – OLB Terrell Suggs – stopped the run, pressured the QB, didn’t get a sack, but got a sick interception

52 – DT Haloti Ngata – looked fresh all game long, collapsed the pocket and applied pressure up the middle, got one sack

49 – SS – Darian Stewart – played one of his best games all season; got the game ending pick

47 – OLB Elvis Dumervil – applied great pressure from the edge consistently; ended up with 2 sacks

46 – OLB Pernell McPhee – had an outstanding game overall; was a force vs the run, and hit the QB a few times

39 – OLB Courtney Upshaw – did a great job setting the edge as usual; defended the pass well

31 – NT Brandon Williams – no one is going to move him backwards; applied consistent pressure through the A gaps; 1 sack

31 – DE Chris Canty – stopped the run and pressured the QB on numerous occassions

31 – CB Anthony Levine – the converted safety struggled in pass coverage; it was clear Roethlisberger was looking for him

29 – FS Jeromy Miles – solid game overall, but had a couple of lapses in pass coverage

29 – CB Matt Elam – yes, the SS played corner most of the night, and played the position well overall; was strong in pass coverage

13 – DE DeAngelo Tyson – was brought in on obvious passing downs; did not have a good night, did not apply pressure

11 – DE Lawrence Guy – did a solid job defending the run in his limited action on the field

6 – CB Antone Cason – came is when Melvin was shaken up; let up a catch during Melvin’s short absence

2 – ILB Albert McClellan – was only in for two plays; obviously not enough field time to analyze performance

1- SS Brynden Trawick – same as McClellan

Special Team notes – Justin Tucker was lights out as usual. The 52 yarder was particularly special, as you don’t see too many successful field goals at Heinz Field over 50 yards. Sam Koch had a good night – save for the blocked punt which was due to blocking assignment breakdowns. He was also directionally kicking it away from Antonio Brown, and that factored in as well. Jacoby Jones did not have a good night. He lost his footing and slipped during his first kick off return, and seemed tentative after that. Michael Campanaro had a couple of fair catches on punt returns. Hope his hamstring has healed to the point where he could be a factor vs the Patriots

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Ravens pass rush in race against quick-release Brady on Saturday

Posted on 05 January 2015 by Luke Jones

The Ravens have come to expect strong play from quarterback Joe Flacco in the postseason like they witnessed in the wild-card win in Pittsburgh, but the biggest key in beating the New England Patriots on Saturday may lie on the opposite side of the ball.

Future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady presents a great challenge to the NFL’s 24th-ranked pass defense, but Baltimore possesses the single-best weapon you can have to potentially slow the league’s No. 9 passing attack.

A dominating pass rush.

How significant has it been to Baltimore’s success during the 2014 season? The Ravens have collected four or more sacks in each of their last eight wins, including the 30-17 victory over the Steelers in which they sacked Ben Roethlisberger five times. Over that same time, they are 0-4 when failing to reach the four-sack plateau.

A quick look at the numbers suggests pass protection isn’t a concern for the Patriots as Brady was sacked only 21 times in the regular season — backup Jimmy Garoppolo was also dropped five times — but that is more a reflection of the 37-year-old getting the ball out more quickly that just about any quarterback in the league. Per Pro Football Focus, Brady’s average time of 2.39 seconds before throwing, being sacked, or scrambling is the third quickest in the league behind only Denver’s Peyton Manning and Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton.

The Patriots received the fourth-worst pass-blocking grade in the league from PFF, suggesting Baltimore shouldn’t be overly concerned with New England’s offensive line. Only right tackle Sebastian Vollmer received a positive cumulative grade in pass blocking among the Patriots’ starters during the regular season.

New England is particularly vulnerable inside with starting guards — Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell — who are much stronger as run blockers than in pass protection. This could spell trouble with defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and situational rusher Pernell McPhee primed to bring inside heat while Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil come off the edges.

But how do you reach Brady when he’s so adept at getting rid of the ball quickly?

The Ravens have made no secret about their attempts to jump the opposition’s snap count to get to the quarterback this season. This leads to some pre-snap penalties, which head coach John Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Dean Pees don’t condone but acknowledge as an occasional “cost of doing business.” They view them in a similar manner to how many great power hitters in baseball are also prone to striking out.

Of course, Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Brady will be aware of Baltimore’s aggression up front, making you believe they’ll throw some hard counts and cadence variations into the mix Saturday to keep the pass rush at bay.

Baltimore could also mix in some press coverage from defensive backs to temporarily hold up receivers in hopes that the rush gets to Brady after an extra split-second or two of holding the ball. In doing so, the Ravens do run the risk of giving up a big play if the pressure doesn’t get there, but they made it clear against the Steelers that they weren’t afraid to be aggressive on either side of the ball.

The Ravens’ biggest problem will be All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, whose 6-foot-6, 265-pound frame doesn’t make it feasible to jam him at the line of scrimmage. Will Hill did a commendable job against New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham during the regular season, and you’d expect the safety to receive a bulk of the coverage duties against Gronkowski on Saturday.

The defense showed once again that it can make up for an injury-plagued secondary by consistently pressuring the Steelers in the wild-card round, and the Ravens will need to do it again Saturday to be in position to continue their playoff run.

 

 

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