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Ravens better hope losing doesn’t stick with continuity

Posted on 07 January 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Owner Steve Bisciotti’s description of his reaction to the 2015 season best summarizes the reaction to Thursday’s “State of the Ravens” press conference.

“Disappointed, yes. Mad, no.”

Any Ravens fan demanding a pound of flesh was probably going to be unhappy. Successful organizations don’t panic, and it would have been wrong for Bisciotti to do anything drastic in response to eighth-year coach John Harbaugh’s first losing season and the organization’s first since 2007.

But that doesn’t mean the Ravens are only a couple minor tweaks away from being back in the playoffs a year from now, either, and that’s where the tone of the decision-makers fell a little flat after a nightmare season that began with lofty expectations.

“I don’t really think that a lot has to be done,” Bisciotti said. “One thing that I’m proud of is that we all view continuity as a strength. Continuity doesn’t stem from laziness. It comes from confidence, and I believe in these guys. I have a lot of faith that we’ll get it straightened out. I hope we don’t have as many injuries, and I hope we have a whole lot more turnovers. I think those kind of differences would get us back to where we want to be.”

Going 8-8 is one thing, but seasons of double-digit losses don’t just happen without some issues stretching beyond injuries and that shortage of takeaways that has been a trend for several seasons now. The Ravens lacked play-makers at key positions long before an absurd run of injuries midway through the season cost them quarterback Joe Flacco, wide receiver Steve Smith, running back Justin Forsett, and others. Baltimore was 1-6 at a time when the only missing players of great significance were linebacker Terrell Suggs and rookie wide receiver Breshad Perriman.

Those injuries certainly hurt, but they shouldn’t bring a free fall in the standings for a balanced and talented football team.

Harbaugh said Thursday that he does not plan to make any changes to his coaching staff beyond the departure of linebackers coach Ted Monachino to Indianapolis. Of course, some tweaks could always be made in the coming weeks, but it was fair to wonder whether some different voices needed to be injected after a disappointing 5-11 season.

Instead, the status quo will prevail.

Asked about his secondary, general manager Ozzie Newsome spoke about the impact the move of Lardarius Webb to safety could have without mentioning his $9.5 million salary cap figure next year, which would make him one of the most expensive — and unproven — safeties in the game. The lack of  play-making safeties has been one of the organization’s biggest weaknesses since the departure of Ed Reed three years ago, and pointing to Webb as the answer seems shaky at best.

Bisciotti discussed the dramatic impact of Suggs’ absence on the defense, but the 2011 AP Defensive Player of the Year will be 34 in October and is coming off his second Achilles injury in less than four years. The collapse of the unit without him is a compliment to his talents over the years, but the Ravens banking on him to be the Suggs of old would be unwise, if not reckless.

Left tackle, cornerback, pass rusher, and wide receiver were all mentioned as positions to address, but the Ravens’ cap situation will hinge on the potential reworking of Flacco’s contract and there are only so many high draft picks to go around.

Those four positions are arguably the most critical ones on the field after the quarterback in today’s NFL, and the Ravens are either lacking options or have substantial question marks at all of them.

That sounds like a lot that needs to be done.

“We need to augment our team, but John and his staff do a very good job of developing players, and we depend on that,” Newsome said. “You need to have some players that when the game is on the line, they have the ability to make a play. We will be trying to add some of that to our team, but a lot of that can be done through development.”

Harbaugh’s decision to keep his coaching staff intact reflects that confidence, but it will be up to Newsome to find high-impact talent starting with the sixth overall choice of the draft, Baltimore’s earliest pick since 2000. The Ravens will see special play-makers like Antonio Brown and A.J. Green on display when AFC North rivals Pittsburgh and Cincinnati face off in the postseason while they watch the playoffs from home for the second time in three years.

The Bengals in particular have been a problem as they’ve won five straight over the Ravens.

“If we get all of our players back, I think we’ll close that gap,” Bisciotti said. “If we have a good draft, if we do well in free agency, we can compete with them. But that’s a stain — Cincinnati beating us as frequently as they have recently.”

Plenty of ifs.

No, Bisciotti, Newsome, and Harbaugh didn’t flinch or show panic on Thursday, but you hope that there’s more urgency beneath the surface than they expressed publicly after a 5-11 campaign.

There’s a fine line between confidence and complacency in what you do.

Their actions in the coming months and the results in 2016 will determine which one it was for the Ravens brass on Thursday.

After all, success on the field is far more important than winning a press conference.

Even if the message wasn’t all that inspiring on Thursday.

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What’s going on with Terrell Suggs?

Posted on 05 January 2016 by Luke Jones

Among the many interesting topics expected to be covered when the Ravens’ brass gathers for Thursday’s season-ending press conference will be the status of Terrell Suggs.

Lost for the year after tearing his left Achilles tendon in the Sept. 13 opener, the six-time Pro Bowl linebacker spent very little time at the team’s Owings Mills training facility this season and was still wearing a walking boot as he watched the Week 16 upset victory over Pittsburgh from the sideline. In contrast, Suggs was out of a boot a little over two months after tearing his right Achilles tendon in the spring of 2012 — he amazingly returned to action in less than six months to play that season — and 36-year-old wide receiver Steve Smith shed his walking boot on Monday and suffered his Achilles injury seven weeks after the 33-year-old linebacker did.

Asked on Monday if he sought advice from his teammate who has been through a similar rehabilitation process twice, Smith made a cryptic remark that could be taken any number of ways.

“Suggs is a little vulnerable right now, so I’m not going to talk to Suggs about it,” said Smith, who announced last week that he would return for another season after previously planning to retire. “He’s not a ray of sunshine like he usually is.”

It’s worth noting that Smith’s comments were made as he smiled, but the veteran receiver can occasionally be sly with the media, making one wonder if there was more to it than Suggs simply having a bad day.

Suggs hasn’t spoken with reporters since suffering the injury in Denver.

Head coach John Harbaugh said in early November that the 2011 AP Defensive Player of the Year told him at the time of the injury that he intended to return in 2016, but Suggs was more reflective than usual about his career this past spring and struggled to cope with the departure of his longtime teammate and friend Haloti Ngata, who was traded to the Detroit Lions last March. Suggs wore a hat with No. 92 on it — Ngata’s jersey number for nine years in Baltimore that isn’t currently worn by a Ravens player — as he cheered on his teammates during the Steelers game on Dec. 27.

General manager Ozzie Newsome holds a unique relationship with the 2003 first-round pick, so it will be interesting to hear where the veteran stands in terms of his health and status for next season.

Suggs is under contract through 2018 and is scheduled to carry a $7.45 million salary cap figure for next season.

Hindsight with Osemele

With much discussion centering around the left tackle position, it’s fair to wonder why the Ravens didn’t try Kelechi Osemele at left tackle before the acquisition of Eugene Monroe a few years ago.

Following the win in Super Bowl XLVII, Baltimore considered the possibility of moving Osemele to left tackle as Bryant McKinnie hit the free-agent market, but Newsome ultimately re-signed the veteran later that spring. Of course, McKinnie did not perform well and the Ravens traded fourth- and fifth-round draft picks to Jacksonville in exchange for Monroe in early October of 2013.

Had Osemele not been dealing with a chronic back issue at the time that eventually required season-ending surgery, he could have been a real option to move outside, but it’s difficult to fault the Ravens for not wanting to try it when he was already struggling just to perform at his regular left guard position. Instead, Monroe arrived and played so well over the remainder of the season that the Ravens rewarded him with a five-year, $37.5 million contract.

If the 2012 second-round pick had been healthy, perhaps he would have gotten his chance then and become Baltimore’s long-term left tackle a few years ago.

Complicated Webb

Following the season-ending loss to Cincinnati, veteran cornerback Lardarius Webb told reporters he viewed himself as a safety moving forward, but how the Ravens elect to handle that remains to be seen.

Webb and the Ravens already reworked his contract last offseason, but he is still scheduled to carry a $9.5 million salary cap number for 2016, which would put him among the highest-paid safeties in the NFL. Of course, that would come with a very limited sample of Webb playing the position.

The 30-year-old may very well be an upgrade from recent options such as Kendrick Lewis and Darian Stewart, but the Ravens would need Pro Bowl-quality play to justify that price tag. There’s just no way of knowing he can do that, making it likely that Webb will be cut if he isn’t willing to further adjust his contract that expires after the 2017 season.

Need for speed

Asked whether the passing game needs more speed next season, quarterback Joe Flacco didn’t answer with a definitive yes, but he was quick to point out how much it helps an AFC North rival.

“It does a lot for football teams,” said Flacco, who discussed the need to be able to push the ball down the field more at different times this past season. “You see what the Steelers are doing with the speed that they’ve added over the last couple years. It definitely makes a difference out there. I’m not saying that it’s something that we need, but when we’ve had it here, it’s definitely made a little bit of a difference.”

Should the Ravens re-sign restricted free-agent receiver Kamar Aiken, they would have the trio of Aiken, Smith, and 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman, but the latter two have questions about their health and only Perriman brings impact speed. The roster would benefit greatly from another speed option with upside.

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Harbaugh says Smith hasn’t revealed 2016 plans to him

Posted on 02 November 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — It’s unclear whether we’ve seen the last of Steve Smith in the NFL, but Ravens coach John Harbaugh says the injured receiver hasn’t yet revealed his 2016 plans to him in the aftermath of a season-ending Achilles injury sustained on Sunday.

The 36-year-old is scheduled to undergo surgery next week in Charlotte, N.C. with Dr. Robert Anderson handling the procedure to repair the torn Achilles tendon. Despite saying after the Ravens’ 29-26 win that he thought Smith would be back, Harbaugh reiterated Monday that the veteran wideout hasn’t indicated any decision about his football future.

“He didn’t express any decisions to me, one way or the other,” Harbaugh said. “Probably, it’s too emotional of a time right now to make any decision like that. But he will make those decisions in due time, I’m sure.

“I’ll respect him, and we’ll see where it goes.”

Smith announced his intentions to retire at the end of the season back in August, but speculation had persisted in recent weeks that the fiery competitor could reconsider with the Ravens off to the worst start in franchise history. The organization repeatedly shot down trade rumors regarding Smith, another indication that general manager Ozzie Newsome was optimistic about the chances of him returning for a 16th NFL season.

While Smith has plenty of time to make a decision about his future, the Ravens now face the prospects of moving forward without their leading receiver. Kamar Aiken will become Joe Flacco’s new primary receiver by default, but other unproven options will be asked to step up, including the recently-promoted Jeremy Butler.

The Ravens are also expected to work out free-agent receivers this week.

“I wouldn’t rule out that we would bring another receiver in from somewhere,” Harbaugh said. “Obviously, we’re looking real hard right now to figure out what we’re going to do.”

Silent Suggs

With Smith becoming the second prominent veteran player to suffer a season-ending Achilles tear in 2015, many have asked what injured linebacker Terrell Suggs has been up to.

Harbaugh acknowledged not having much communication with the six-time Pro Bowl selection in the aftermath of the Week 1 injury.

“If you know Terrell, that’s just how he operates,” Harbaugh said. “That’s kind of between him and Ozzie right now as far as where the rehab is at and what he’s doing. I trust him, and I trust he’s doing everything he has to do to get himself back.”

Harbaugh added that he would anticipate Suggs rejoining the team in Owings Mills when his rehabilitation is to a point where he’s moving around with few restrictions. Many have opined that Suggs’ leadership would be helpful for a Ravens team in the midst of a difficult season.

As for the 33-year-old’s future, Harbaugh expects the 2011 AP Defensive Player of the Year to return for his 14th season in 2016 despite the lack of recent communication.

“I assume he will. I never thought that he wouldn’t,” Harbaugh said. “I talked to him right after [the injury] happened, and he told me that this is just another challenge for him to overcome — something along those lines. So, I felt very good about it at that time.”

Injury updates

Defensive end Brent Urban (biceps) is expected to return to practice in the near future and is on track to play again in 2016. The second-year defensive lineman suffered a torn biceps in training camp and was placed on injured reserve with the designation to return at the start of the regular season.

“He’s soon to be up,” said Harbaugh, who is eager to finally see the 2014 fourth-round pick get on the field after two injury-marred seasons. “I anticipate that as soon as he’s able to practice, he will practice, because he’s healthy. He looks pretty good in there right now. I’m not saying 100 percent healthy, but he’s right there, and he’s really excited to get going.”

Harbaugh also said that left tackle Eugene Monroe (shoulder) expects to be ready to return after the bye week, but the head coach wasn’t sure of a timetable for Jeremy Zuttah after he left Sunday’s game with a shoulder injury.

Elam suspension not surprising

Though not delving into the specifics that led to injured safety Matt Elam being suspended one game for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, Harbaugh said that the ban stemmed from an incident occurring more than a year ago and even praised the 2013 first-round pick for taking accountability.

“Matt self-reported that,” Harbaugh said. “That was a situation he got involved in down there in Florida or whatever. I don’t even know the details of it, but what I do know is that he brought that to the league’s attention through the Ravens and went to the league and let them know that, and this was the result of doing that.

“But I give him credit for stepping up and talking about the situation, whatever it was, and taking responsibility for it.”

 

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Jimmy Smith trying to shake off disappointing start to 2015

Posted on 29 September 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Asked how he shakes off one of the most difficult games of his NFL career, Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith demonstrated by literally shaking his arms and shoulders while smiling.

Even when dealing with an 0-3 start, it’s important to have a sense of humor — and a short memory — when competing in an NFL secondary. That’s not to say that Smith didn’t take his poor performance hard on Sunday, declining to speak to the media after giving up the game-winning touchdown pass to four-time Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green in the 28-24 loss to Cincinnati.

“I took the loss as a loss,” said Smith, who apologized Monday for being “too emotional” to talk after the defeat. “It wasn’t so much that I was just so down on myself, it was just a loss. I didn’t play as well as I wanted to, so all of that affected it.”

Signed in the offseason to a four-year, $41 million contract extension through 2019, Smith appeared ready to pick up where he left off last season, returning a Peyton Manning interception for the Ravens’ only touchdown in a 19-13 season-opening loss to Denver. However, the 27-year-old cornerback has struggled since then, allowing a long touchdown to Amari Cooper in the Week 2 loss at Oakland before being torched by Green in Week 3.

In three games, Smith has been thrown at 28 times and has allowed 18 receptions for 275 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions, according to Pro Football Focus. It’s a stark contrast from a year ago when the 2011 first-round pick was targeted just 39 times in eight games and allowed 20 receptions for 163 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception. A Lisfranc injury that required season-ending surgery last November short-circuited a Pro Bowl-caliber campaign and forced Smith to spend much of the offseason rehabbing, but he was mostly a full participant in training camp and played in two preseason games.

The early-season woes have led many to wonder if his left foot is still an issue 11 months after the injury. A problem to the foot area can be debilitating at a position requiring backpedaling and such frequent changes in direction, but Smith wouldn’t comment on the possibility of any lingering effects.

“People come back from injuries; they play,” said Smith, who’s missed 17 games due to injuries in his young career. “Until this season is over, I’ll never talk about my foot.”

Identified as one of the leaders of a defense trying to fill the void of the injured Terrell Suggs, Smith said he isn’t lacking confidence despite allowing Green to make seven catches for 126 yards and a touchdown when they were matched on Sunday. He cited his preparation and film study as the biggest reasons why his recent play won’t shake his confidence moving forward.

Of course, the proof lies on the field where he’s appeared hesitant to engage in press coverage such as when he was beaten badly by Cooper on the 2015 first-round pick’s touchdown in Week 2. His early third-quarter interception of Andy Dalton on Sunday was a flash of what he’s capable of doing, but Smith hasn’t carried the same swagger on the field that he did a year ago when he had appeared to finally arrive as one of the best cornerbacks in the AFC.

The struggles have been across the board in the secondary as the Ravens currently rank 29th in pass defense. Miscommunication, technique flaws, and poor tackling have plagued Baltimore in each of the last two weeks, but Smith views these issues as correctable with better preparation as well as “effort and will” to bring down ball-carriers.

“There are times when we’re playing at a high level; it’s just we’ve got to be way more consistent,” Smith said. “Even though they’re huge plays, it’s a minor technique that we’re missing or that we’re not completing. So, it’s not even the calls; it’s things we have to fix and clean up, and we’ll get that done.”

Trying to rebound from the first 0-3 start in team history to save their season, the Ravens need Smith playing at his highest level in order to do so. Other than the passing combination of quarterback Joe Flacco and wide receiver Steve Smith, there may not be a more important player to the Ravens’ success than Smith when he’s playing at his best.

For what it’s worth, teammates and coaches haven’t lost faith in him despite the last two weeks.

“Jimmy is one of our best corners,” linebacker Elvis Dumervil said. “He’s one of the good players on our team — great guy, great teammate. Some days you give up plays; some days you make plays. That’s just the National Football League, and I wouldn’t want to take any other corner but him.”

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What brought the 2015 Ravens to this point?

Posted on 28 September 2015 by Luke Jones

An 0-3 record has brought many questions for the Baltimore Ravens.

Who’s to blame? Is it a lack of talent, poor execution, or the coaching?

A week after head coach John Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Dean Pees questioned the effort and energy of their defense, the Ravens were gashed to the tune of 28 points and 458 total yards by Cincinnati to fall to 0-3 for the first time in franchise history. Meanwhile, an offense too reliant on Steve Smith in the passing game has lost its way on the ground, ranking 28th in the NFL at just 3.3 yards per carry.

While fans and media try to hand out blame to coaches and players or point to a tough schedule for the poor start, below are seven realities that have contributed to the predicament of the Ravens being the only winless team in the AFC. Some were the result of bad decisions while others were out of their control.

These factors are in no particular order and some clearly hold more weight than others.

Dead cap money

Dead cap space is a reality for every NFL team from year to year, but the Ravens are carrying an incredible $17 million in dead money for two former Pro Bowl players no longer on the roster: Ray Rice and Haloti Ngata. With the cap set at $143.28 million for the 2015 season, general manager Ozzie Newsome was without nearly 12 percent of his cap because of those two alone. When you combine that with the rest of their dead money, the Ravens were unable to utilize more than $21 million (just under 15 percent) of the salary cap for 2015. Baltimore rarely spends big in free agency, but they might have been able to make an impact signing or two with those resources tied to star players who aren’t even on the roster anymore.

Recent draft history

To be clear, not even the great Newsome can be expected to bat 1.000 in the draft, but C.J. Mosley was the first Pro Bowl player the Ravens had drafted since Rice in 2008. The 2013 draft is particularly glaring with the top two draft picks — Matt Elam and Arthur Brown — being non-factors, but the later selections of Brandon Williams and Rick Wagner prevented that class from being a total disaster. Of course, the Ravens’ recent draft issues are only relative to their high standards, but they have selected just one player in the first or second round since 2009 — Jimmy Smith — whom they’ve signed to a second long-term contract at this point. They’ve still found talent, but Newsome must find new game-changers to be pillars of the roster moving forward. And when you miss badly on high picks like Elam and Brown, those positions have to be accounted for with additional resources that could have gone to other areas of need.

Departure of assistant coaches 

Not only did the Ravens begin 2015 with their fourth offensive coordinator in four years, but the absence of Gary Kubiak has been even more pronounced with the running game looking very 2013-esque so far. Of course, it remains to be seen whether Marc Trestman is a fit in Baltimore, but it’s difficult to continue enduring annual coaching changes without a few hiccups at some point. Another oft-overlooked coaching departure from two years ago was secondary coach and current Detroit defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. Highly respected by the likes of Ed Reed, Lardarius Webb, and Jimmy Smith, Austin was succeeded by Steve Spagnuolo for a year and the combination of Chris Hewitt and Matt Weiss are now coaching the secondary. It’s not an excuse for the poor performance, but that’s a lot of coaching turnover in what’s been the biggest weakness on the field for the Ravens dating back to last season.

Veteran exits

It’s been a testament to the Ravens to seemingly be able to replace departing veterans with cheaper, younger replacements every year, but the exit of Ngata, starting wide receiver Torrey Smith, rush specialist Pernell McPhee, and starting tight end Owen Daniels was a large group to replace in one offseason, especially when you factor in the dead cap space working against Newsome. At some point, you can only lose so many established players and not have the well run dry — at least temporarily — as young players are still maturing.

Excessive reliance on rookies and inexperienced players

This goes hand in hand with the veteran departures, but the Ravens are relying on more young players at key spots than they have in quite some time. Ideally, even your first-rounders can be worked in slowly like the Ravens did with the likes of Terrell Suggs (one start in 2003) and Todd Heap (six starts in 2001). The 2015 draft class looked great on paper in addressing so many positional needs, but that never meant those rookies would be ready to contribute immediately. So far, third-round defensive tackle Carl Davis is the only pick to make a significant contribution, but the Ravens will hope to see others come on sooner rather than later to prove they can be part of the future. The presence of so many inexperienced wideouts beyond Steve Smith has hindered the offense so far in 2015.

Injuries to Terrell Suggs and Breshad Perriman

All teams endure injuries, but these two have been difficult to overcome in the early stages of 2015 with Suggs being the emotional leader of the defense and an important part of the pass rush and Perriman representing offensive upside. When you consider the exits of Ray Lewis, Reed, and Ngata over the last few years, Suggs’ season-ending injury brought the end of the old guard of Baltimore defense. Meanwhile, it was no secret that Perriman would be the replacement for Torrey Smith as the vertical threat in the passing game. The Ravens hope their 2015 first-round pick will still contribute in his rookie season at some point, but the passing game has been too dependent on Steve Smith with only a collection of late-round picks and former rookie free agents behind him in the receiver pecking order.

Big contracts not paying off

No, Joe Flacco’s record-setting deal is not part of this discussion, regardless of arguments that some fans and media have tried to make over the last couple years. But the Ravens haven’t had an impressive run with other long-term deals over the last few years for various reasons, some out of their control. Starting in 2012, Newsome has rewarded the likes of Rice, cornerback Lardarius Webb, tight end Dennis Pitta, and left tackle Eugene Monroe with big contracts that have produced disappointing results. Other deals such as the ones given to Pro Bowl outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil and four-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda have worked out, but the overall return hasn’t been what the organization anticipated with most of these big-money contracts. It’s too early to judge Jimmy Smith’s contract despite a rough 2015 start, but he’s certainly the next one under the microscope.

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Ravens practice in San Jose with Monroe sidelined

Posted on 17 September 2015 by Luke Jones

Practicing in San Jose, Calif. ahead of their Week 2 meeting with the Oakland Raiders, the Ravens were without starting left tackle Eugene Monroe for Wednesday’s workout.

Monroe suffered a concussion in the first quarter of the season-opening loss last Sunday and remains sidelined as he goes through the league-mandated protocol. Second-year tackle James Hurst replaced him in Denver and struggled mightily against Broncos outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware all afternoon.

Wide receiver Breshad Perriman also remains out of practice as he continues to recover from a sprained knee suffered on the first day of training camp on July 30. The 2015 first-round pick is not expected to play against Oakland as his return isn’t imminent until he can at least begin accumulating some practice time.

The good news for the Ravens on Wednesday was the full participation of both defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (knee) and running back Lorenzo Taliaferro (knee). Both appear to be good bets to return to action on Sunday after suffering their respective injuries in the preseason and practicing on a limited basis last week.

Cornerback Rashaan Melvin (thigh) and running back Justin Forsett (shoulder) were limited participants during Wednesday’s workout.

Meanwhile, the Raiders received good news with Derek Carr (right hand) practicing fully, which reinforced head coach Jack Del Rio’s expressed optimism earlier in the day that the second-year quarterback would play this week.

In addition to officially announcing the signing of veteran outside linebacker Jason Babin — who will wear No. 56 — and the placement of injured linebacker Terrell Suggs on season-ending injured reserve, the Ravens terminated the practice-squad contract of quarterback Bryn Renner and signed offensive tackle Tony Hills to the 10-man unit. The 30-year-old has played in 13 career NFL games and joins De’Ondre Wesley as the second offensive tackle on the practice squad, perhaps a reflection of the uncertainty surrounding Monroe’s status for Sunday.

Below is Wednesday’s official injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: T Eugene Monroe (concussion), WR Breshad Perriman (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: RB Justin Forsett (shoulder), CB Rashaan Melvin (thigh)
FULL PARTICIPATION: DT Timmy Jernigan (knee), RB Lorenzo Taliaferro (knee)

OAKLAND
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: DT Justin Ellis (ankle), DE Benson Mayowa (knee), RB Jamize Olawale (ankle), S Charles Woodson (shoulder)
FULL PARTICIPATION: QB Derek Carr (right hand)

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Replacing Suggs against run understated challenge for Ravens

Posted on 16 September 2015 by Luke Jones

While discussion has centered around replacing the injured Terrell Suggs’ pass-rush ability and emotional leadership, that doesn’t tell the whole story of the challenges lying ahead for the Ravens defense.

The addition of veteran Jason Babin should help the pass rush, but the 35-year-old isn’t known for being stout against the run, though he played well in that capacity for the New York Jets last season. Head coach John Harbaugh has already confirmed that Elvis Dumervil will assume duties as the rush linebacker on first and second down, meaning the 31-year-old will have a much larger role than he did in his first two seasons in Baltimore. With Suggs and the run-stopping Courtney Upshaw playing the outside linebacker spots in the base defense, Dumervil rarely saw action on early downs against most teams.

Dumervil may not be a major liability against the run, but he will be replacing a player who’s been one of the NFL’s best at setting the edge for over a decade. Even with his advancing age, Suggs graded as Baltimore’s second-best player against the run last season and was first in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus.

His pass-rushing counterpart the last two years will now see his most extensive action since his days with the Denver Broncos when he was primarily a three-down player.

“I’m not going to toot my own horn, but I’ve played in the league — I’ve started on first and second down,” Dumervil said. ” I have experiences; [it is not] like something new for me. But I am excited for the opportunity, especially in this defense. I think that’s a really good position to play, and I get to rush more. That’s kind of what I love to do.”

It’s that ability to wreak havoc on the quarterback that may be compromised with the need for Dumervil to play more extensively. One of the biggest reasons for the success of the pass rush over the last couple years was defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ ability to rotate Suggs, Dumervil, Upshaw, and former Raven Pernell McPhee to keep them all fresh and to mask their weaknesses.

Once the Ravens have a better idea of how much Babin and rookie Za’Darius Smith can offer as part of the rotation, managing reps should become easier with the hope of keeping Dumervil — and everyone else — fresh for the duration of the season. Baltimore can’t afford to have Dumervil’s pass-rushing ability diminish, but replacing Suggs against the run is easier said than done.

“I think you take that all into consideration. It will all be part of the consideration,” Harbaugh said. “He is definitely capable of playing on first and second down, and he’ll be out there on first and second down. But there will be some kind of a rotation like we always do, and it’ll be geared toward the guys we have.”

Babin baffled by Jets release

Meeting with media in San Jose following his first practice with his new team, Babin said he couldn’t have asked for a better situation than joining the Ravens.

But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t miffed by the Jets’ decision to release him at the end of the preseason. Babin was set to make $1.5 million with New York and was not a special-teams contributor, factors that can make any veteran backup vulnerable when final cuts are made.

“I don’t worry about what I don’t control,” Babin said. “But yes, obviously, it was a surprise. Looking at it, I think the coach said they want to win, but then in hindsight, the general manager talked about building. Who knows what exactly is going on? But that’s in the past and I’m here now, and I’m ready to play some ball.”

Pressure remains on Ravens offensive tackles

After being completely overwhelmed by Denver’s edge rushers in Week 1, the Ravens’ offensive tackles won’t find their job against Oakland on Sunday to be much easier.

The Raiders’ outside trio of Justin Tuck, Khalil Mack, and newcomer Aldon Smith will present another major challenge, and left tackle Eugene Monroe missed Wednesday’s practice as he continues to recover from a concussion. Monroe’s potential absence would leave James Hurst to start on the left side as both he and right tackle Rick Wagner try to bounce back from a nightmarish showing against the Broncos.

“Obviously, their outside guys, you have three really good players out there that rotate,” said Harbaugh about the Raiders’ trio. “I’m sure [Smith] is going to be in the game even more and more as we go forward; we would expect that. They’re a very formidable front seven.”

Signed just a couple days before the start of the regular season, the troubled Smith wore out his welcome with the 49ers after countless off-field issues, but no one can dispute his ability to impact a game. Smith made the Pro Bowl in 2012 before concerns over substance abuse and legal issues limited him to just 18 games over the last two seasons, but the 25-year-old already has 44 career sacks entering his fifth season.

Flacco not becoming “hype man”

With Suggs officially being placed on injured reserve on Wednesday, Joe Flacco was asked who would be firing up the team with a speech at the end of pre-game warmups, the veteran linebacker’s chore ever since future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis retired.

The even-keeled quarterback quickly shot down any notion that he would be the new “hype man” while pointing out that Lewis and Suggs were such naturals doing it and how it needs to be something that isn’t forced.

“Don’t worry, we’ll be ready to play, and we’ll be juiced up come Sunday at 1 o’clock, 4:30, 8 o’clock, whenever it’s going to be,” Flacco said. “We don’t necessarily need a hype man, and I don’t think I’d be doing such a great job of that anyway. I’m sure somebody will come up and feel excited about themselves, and we’ll let them go at it.”

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Nov 24, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; New York Jets outside linebacker Jason Babin (58) against the Buffalo Bills at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

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Harbaugh on Babin: “We like the way he plays”

Posted on 15 September 2015 by Luke Jones

(Updated: Wednesday 5:30 p.m.)

Aiming to fill the void left behind by injured six-time Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs, the Ravens agreed to a one-year deal with veteran pass rusher Jason Babin on Tuesday.

The team officially announced the deal on Wednesday afternoon while sending Suggs to season-ending injured reserve. The 35-year-old outside linebacker was on the practice field in San Jose on Wednesday as the Ravens continued preparations for their Week 2 game in Oakland.

Babin spent 2014 and this year’s preseason with the New York Jets before being released earlier this month. The 6-foot-3, 267-pound edge rusher accumulated just two sacks in 16 games (two starts) last season, but he received the third-highest overall grade from Pro Football Focus among Jets defensive players, receiving positive marks against the run and as a pass rusher.

“He’ll provide us another player at that position who’s a very good player,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “We like the way he plays, like his style, like his mentality — tough, smart, hard-playing guy. I think he said it best — his résumé is the tape. He was playing for the Jets in the preseason, and we watched that very carefully, and he looked like he’d fit us well.”

The 2004 first-round pick has accumulated 64 1/2 sacks in his career while also spending time with Houston, Seattle, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Tennessee, and Jacksonville. Named to Pro Bowls in 2010 and 2011, Babin collected 12 1/2 sacks with the Titans in 2010 to earn his first invitation to Hawaii before signing with the Eagles and racking up a career-high 18 sacks the following season.

Of course, the Ravens aren’t expecting Babin to fully replace Suggs as Elvis Dumervil is slated to assume the rush linebacker spot while Courtney Upshaw will remain at the strong-side backer position. However, Baltimore wanted to add a veteran to the rotational mix with rookie fourth-rounder Za’Darius Smith, who was inactive for the season opener.

The Ravens would likely be happy if Babin could give them 25 to 30 snaps per game as a situational pass rusher to help ease the burden on their incumbent linebackers. He averaged roughly 30 snaps per game with the Jets a year ago, but that included four starts in which he played more extensively.

“You’re not going to change everything you do, obviously,” said Harbaugh when asked about making adjustments to the defense without Suggs. “You try to get a player that fits what you do, and to me, that’s the smartest way to do it. It makes for the least amount of changes, and Jason fits us really well.”

The Ravens worked out Babin as well as 34-year-old outside linebacker Shaun Phillips on Tuesday in San Jose, Calif., where they are preparing for Sunday’s Week 2 matchup with the Oakland Raiders. Unlike other veteran pass rushers such as Phillips and Dwight Freeney, Babin being with another team during the preseason likely brought more confidence that he was in good football shape.

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Five numbers behind Ravens’ 19-13 loss in Denver

Posted on 15 September 2015 by Luke Jones

Every week, we’ll ponder five numbers stemming from the Ravens’ latest game, this one being the ugly 19-13 loss to Denver to begin the 2015 season …

3.66 — Joe Flacco’s yards per attempt
Skinny: The pass protection was awful and his pass-catching targets were unable to create separation, making it no surprise that the eighth-year quarterback couldn’t throw the ball down the field. This was Flacco’s worst yards per attempt average since a loss in Houston on Oct. 21, 2012 (3.42) and the third-worst mark of his NFL regular-season career. His worst overall came in the 2009 playoff win over New England when a banged-up Flacco went 4-for-10 for 34 yards, a 3.40 average.

9 — Total catches made by Ravens receivers and tight ends
Skinny: Many expressed concerns over Flacco’s group of young receivers and tight ends, and Sunday proved to be a nightmare as even Steve Smith managed just two catches for 13 yards and couldn’t bring in the potential game-winning touchdown on the Ravens’ penultimate play of the game. Fellow starter Kamar Aiken was even worse as he lost a yard on his only reception. With or without rookie Breshad Perriman, this group needs to be markedly better for Baltimore to make any real noise this year.

27 — Consecutive games in which the Ravens defense hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher
Skinny: It was an impressive effort on the other side of the ball as the Ravens continued the longest active streak in the NFL of not allowing an opposing player to eclipse the century mark on the ground. With Brandon Williams dominating the line of scrimmage and C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith at the inside linebacker spots, the Ravens have to like their chances to keep this streak going. Meanwhile, the Broncos will need to average much better than 2.8 yards per carry to help Peyton Manning’s deteriorating arm.

56 — Yards of offense from Justin Forsett
Skinny: The 2014 Pro Bowl running back didn’t have much of a chance behind a less-than-stellar performance from the offensive line, but his output was lower than all but two of his regular-season games a year ago. Forsett’s numbers would have been even worse if not for his 20-yard run on the final drive of the game. With Buck Allen showing some promise in limited opportunities and Lorenzo Taliaferro possibly returning this Sunday, it will be interesting to see how the carries are distributed.

291 — Consecutive games (counting the postseason) in which Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, or Terrell Suggs has been on the field for Baltimore
Skinny: The 2015 opener brought the unfortunate end of a remarkable run in franchise history with Suggs suffering a season-ending Achilles injury in the fourth quarter. This Sunday will mark the first time that the Ravens will play a game without any of the three best defensive players in their history since Oct. 11, 1998 when Eric Zeier was the quarterback and they lost 12-8 to the Tennessee Oilers as Lewis sat out with a dislocated elbow. Nothing lasts forever, but it’s strange thinking about the old guard of Baltimore defense that also included Haloti Ngata being no more — at least until next year.

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Harbaugh on offensive tackles: “They’ve got to do a better job”

Posted on 14 September 2015 by Luke Jones

Of all the Ravens’ problems on the offensive side of the ball leading to Sunday’s season-opening loss in Denver, none were more surprising than the horrendous play of the offensive line.

Not only was the Baltimore offense held to six points — Jimmy Smith’s interception return provided the other seven in the 19-13 loss — and 173 total yards, but quarterback Joe Flacco was harassed throughout the afternoon. The Broncos may have only collected two sacks, but Flacco was pressured on 64.7 percent of his dropbacks, an astonishing rate for an offensive line regarded as one of the best in the NFL entering the season.

On Monday in San Jose, Calif. where the Ravens are preparing for their Week 2 meeting in Oakland, John Harbaugh expressed his disappointment with the play of his offensive line. The Baltimore coach acknowledged the challenge of competing against a superb defense, but he added that they didn’t see any strategic surprises from Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips during Sunday’s game.

Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda was the only member of the offensive line to receive a positive grade from Pro Football Focus, but it was the play of tackles Rick Wagner, James Hurst, and Eugene Monroe that was particularly problematic. The Broncos’ four outside linebackers — DeMarcus Ware, Von Miller, Shaquil Barrett, and Shane Ray — combined for 19 total pressures on Flacco. 

“Our tackles, they’ve got to do a better job,” said Harbaugh, who added that the Ravens should have provided extra help in pass protection. “They have to set square, and they have to punch on time. And when they do that, they’ll do well against anybody, and when you don’t do that, you’re not going to do well against anybody. That was really an issue for us in the course of the game.”

Monroe exited the game after the opening series with a concussion and didn’t return, leaving second-year tackle James Hurst to be eaten alive by Ware. Rick Wagner wasn’t any better on the opposite side as he struggled against Miller and didn’t look like the Pro Bowl-caliber right tackle he was last season, a possible indication that he’s still knocking off rust from last December’s Lisfranc injury. The 2013 fifth-round pick was sidelined for spring workouts before he began practicing at the start of training camp in late July.

Of course, the offensive line also failed to establish the running game, gaining just 73 yards on 23 attempts. This allowed the Broncos’ pass rushers to pin their ears back and tee off on Flacco in the pocket.

“We stuck with the run game,” Harbaugh said. “We were patient with it, but we need to get more out of it than 3.2 yards a carry. There’s no doubt about it. It’s the offensive line, it’s the running backs, it’s the scheme, it’s the formations — it’s all of it. We all take responsibility for that.”

Because of an exceptional 2014 season, the Ravens’ offensive line deserves the benefit of the doubt after just one poor performance, but the group needs to play much better moving forward.

Replacing Suggs

Much has already been written about the Ravens’ challenge in replacing injured linebacker Terrell Suggs, and Harbaugh predictably expressed confidence that their internal options would rise to the occasion. However, he didn’t rule out the possibility of adding a veteran free agent to help fill the void left behind by the franchise’s all-time sacks leader.

“We still believe we have the pass rushers that can get the job done, but we’re still in the process of evaluating our options, personnel-wise,” Harbaugh said. “There’s a chance we can bring somebody in. We’ll look at all those options over the next couple days.”

Harbaugh said that Elvis Dumervil will assume Suggs’ rush linebacker position on first and second downs with Courtney Upshaw remaining as the strong-side outside linebacker. Rookie Za’Darius Smith and veteran Albert McClellan will also be part of the equation.

Smith returning punts

At age 36 and serving as the Ravens’ No. 1 receiver, Steve Smith didn’t appear to be a likely answer as the primary punt returner, but that’s exactly what he was on Sunday against the Broncos.

Smith returned two punts for 32 yards and could continue to serve in that capacity, according to Harbaugh. Michael Campanaro was listed as the primary punt returner on the Week 1 depth chart, but the second-year wideout missed the last couple weeks of the summer due to injury.

“If ‘Camp’ gets more reps, he can go back there and do it,” Harbaugh said. “We have [Lardarius Webb], who practices all the time. He can go back there and do it. I think we have guys that can do it and be effective. But I kind of like Steve back there. He looks good to me back there.”

Recuperating Raiders

While the Ravens dealt with the loss of Suggs and the concussion to Monroe on Sunday, the Raiders did not escape the injury bug in their season-opening loss to Cincinnati as starting quarterback Derek Carr (thumb) and starting safeties Charles Woodson (shoulder) and Nate Allen (knee) all went down.

A magnetic resonance imaging exam on Carr’s thumb was reportedly encouraging, but it remains to be seen whether he can return for Sunday’s game. A Monday ESPN report said the Raiders fear Allen suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament while Woodson would undergo an MRI on his shoulder.

Taliaferro on Twitter

It’s no secret that injured running back Lorenzo Taliaferro (knee) is moving closer to a return after he practiced on a limited basis late last week, but the 2014 fourth-round pick shared that sentiment on his official Twitter account following Sunday’s game. That didn’t sit well with Harbaugh when he was asked about it on Monday afternoon.

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“I’m going to have to talk to him about that,” Harbaugh said. “Taliaferro, [Timmy] Jernigan — way too much chatter out there on social media. Maybe, Kevin [Byrne], make a note of that.”

The aforementioned tweet was deleted on Monday evening.

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