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Forsett content surprising people on way to career season

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Forsett content surprising people on way to career season

Posted on 22 October 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The highlights were few and far between in the first half of the Ravens’ season-opening 23-16 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals last month.

With Ray Rice suspended — and about to be released the following day — and fill-in starter Bernard Pierce managing just 17 yards on six carries as the Bengals led 15-0 at halftime, the Ravens began feeding the ball to their 5-foot-8 veteran newcomer considered little more than a temporary placeholder for Rice at the time of his signing. Baltimore fell short that day but discovered one of its greatest reclamation projects in recent years as Justin Forsett finished the afternoon with a game-high 70 yards on 11 carries.

He hasn’t looked back since as he not only leads the Ravens with 503 rushing yards on 87 carries but tops the NFL with a 5.8 yards per carry average through the first seven weeks of the season. Not bad for a 29-year-old who’s played for five different teams in seven years and is entering a stage of his career when most running backs are slowing down considerably.

Forsett smiles when asked about the constant disbelief expressed by media and fans while he continues to rack up yards for the league’s seventh-ranked running game.

“I’m OK with surprising people,” said Forsett, who’s currently on pace to break the franchise’s single-season yards per carry average. “A lot of guys didn’t know I was still in the league. I just take that in stride. It’s all fun.”

Not even the Ravens could have anticipated this much from Forsett, who was signed to a one-year contract on April 4 to serve as an insurance policy for Rice’s unknown status at the time and to bring a veteran presence to help teach new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s system. Forsett had averaged 5.9 yards per carry in his only year with Kubiak in Houston in 2012 and owned previous experience working in a zone-blocking system in his four years in Seattle.

Most expected Forsett to be the odd man out once Rice returned from suspension, but that, of course, changed when the three-time Pro Bowl running back was cut on Sept. 8. Even now, there remains a feeling of how long Forsett can keep up this type of play as his 503 yards in 2014 are only 47 fewer than his rushing total from his previous three seasons combined.

Coaches love his ability to pass block — something that hasn’t been taken for granted with the injuries to left tackle Eugene Monroe and left guard Kelechi Osemele — and his 23 receptions rank third on the team behind wide receiver Steve Smith and tight end Owen Daniels.

“He gets the most out of his ability,” said Kubiak, who knew Forsett’s character was a perfect fit for head coach John Harbaugh and the Ravens. “He’s not the biggest guy in the world, but he does a great job in pass protection. He’s a three-down player, so he’s a guy that you can keep on the field all the time in what you’re doing. The thing he’s doing right now [is] he’s finding a way to make a big play every week. I think that’s the key.”

Many have been quick to point to the resurgence of the offensive line to explain Forsett’s impressive numbers after the group couldn’t open any holes last season when the Ravens ran for a franchise-worst 3.1 yards per carry. But the veteran has run with a confidence and decisiveness that Pierce and rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro haven’t shown on a consistent basis.

The younger backs are more impressive physical specimens with ideal size for interior runs, but Forsett’s average of 6.63 yards per carry running between the guards is the highest rate in the NFL for backs with at least 20 carries, according to Pro Football Focus. His yards per carry average is substantially better than that of Pierce (3.6) or Taliaferro (4.5), which also illustrates his superior vision in Kubiak’s one-cut system.

A humble man of Christian faith, Forsett is more interested in complimenting the men blocking for him than accepting praise for himself after years of less-than-ideal opportunities.

“I think it’s the offensive line,” said Forsett when asked how to attribute his success. “They’re doing a heck of a job going out there and executing, getting those guys cut backside and stretching a defense. I’m just able to find holes. I just thank God for the opportunity, and the guys are just working for me.”

The Ravens’ biggest concern at this point might be trying to keep the veteran fresh as he ran a career-high 23 times against Atlanta last Sunday and is only 31 rushing attempts shy of his highest total in any season. Listed at 197 pounds, Forsett has a good frame for a back of his stature, but his current pace would have him approaching 200 carries by the end of the season.

Forsett was incredibly durable throughout his career until turf toe and a stress fracture in his foot limited him to nine games with the Jacksonville Jaguars a year ago, making him confident that he’ll continue to hold up with an expanded workload in his seventh NFL season. He says he’s always prepared physically to be a starting back, even if the opportunity hasn’t been there for most of his career.

“I’ve always taken care of my body, because I had great veterans when I came into the league like T.J. Duckett, Maurice Morris, and Edgerrin James,” Forsett said. “They taught me early on, no matter if you’re playing special teams or running and busting the wedge, take care of your body, because that’s one thing that can get you out of the league. I stay on top of that, so it’s not that bad.”

Signing on the same day that the Ravens added Daniels, Forsett told reporters at the time that he carried a chip on his shoulder “the size of Texas” to prove he still had plenty of good football ahead of him. It was the kind of message you typically hear from a veteran cast aside by his former team, but perhaps his career 4.88 yards per carry average entering 2014 suggested he deserved a better opportunity than the ones he’d received in recent years.

In fairness, his size doesn’t scream feature back and the label of being a special-teams player is often difficult to shake. Maybe the Ravens knew they had a diamond in the rough, but even they continue to be surprised with how much Forsett has brought to an offense on pace to be one of the most productive in franchise history.

No one may have blinked when he was added in the offseason, but Forsett’s play has led many to rub their eyes in disbelief through the first two months of the 2014 season.

“He’s a heck of a ballplayer,” wide receiver Torrey Smith said. “I’m surprised that he’s even here right now. I feel like he’s a guy that could be the lead guy anywhere. I’m glad he got his shot here, and he’s able to showcase his talent.”

 

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Ravens’ blowout win over Tampa Bay more fun than educational

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Ravens’ blowout win over Tampa Bay more fun than educational

Posted on 12 October 2014 by Luke Jones

If you missed the Ravens’ 48-17 win over Tampa Bay on Sunday, don’t feel bad.

So did the Buccaneers.

Earning their largest road win since a 31-point victory in Cincinnati in 2008, the Ravens responded exactly how you’d like after a disappointing defeat at Indianapolis in Week 5. There may not be such a thing as a statement game against what looked like the worst team in the NFL, but it was encouraging seeing Baltimore win so impressively on the road after struggling so often away from M&T Bank Stadium over the last couple seasons.

The Ravens’ 48 points were the second-highest single-game total in franchise history as they moved the ball with no resistance from the league’s 30th-ranked defense, particularly in the first half. It doesn’t get much better than that.

“It’s not going to always be like that, obviously, but you chase perfection,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “It’s nice to see a reward like this for the guys.”

Beyond that, there probably isn’t anything earth-shattering to glean from Sunday’s win as the Buccaneers are now 1-5 after entering Week 6 with the second-worst point differential in the NFL. The 4-2 Ravens just reinforced the idea that they’re a good team that dominated a really bad one in sparsely-filled Raymond James Stadium.

Quarterback Joe Flacco tied Tony Banks’ single-game franchise record with five touchdown passes and did it in just over 16 minutes, the quickest to accomplish the feat in one contest since the NFL-AFL merger. But we already knew Flacco can be brilliant when his offensive line protects the pocket — even with rookies James Hurst and John Urschel blocking on the blindside — and he has sufficient weapons to throw to.

The seventh-year signal-caller continues to have one of the best seasons of his career after completing 21 of 29 passes for 306 yards and a 146.0 passer rating, which was also a personal best to go with the five touchdowns he threw. Through six games, Flacco has thrown 12 touchdowns to just three interceptions and has appeared a natural fit for Gary Kubiak’s system.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from Sunday’s performance was struggling wide receiver Torrey Smith catching two touchdown passes in the first six minutes of the game as he twice beat the Buccaneers secondary on inside routes. The fourth-year wideout said earlier in the week that he remained confident despite his slow start to the season, but it was tough not to wonder how his psyche was holding up after only 11 receptions and one touchdown through the first five games of 2014.

“That’s how I expect to play every week; it just doesn’t happen,” Smith said. “It’s important to build some positive momentum for myself to get going for our team. The better I play, the better situations our team will be put in. I understand that I have a major role on this team, which I love and embrace. It’s important for me to play at a high level all the time.”

The early lead allowed the Baltimore defense to pin its ears back as the pass rush swarmed overwhelmed Buccaneers quarterback Mike Glennon, sacking him five times and registering an incredible 15 quarterback hits. Tampa Bay managed just 101 total yards and no points in the first half as the game was over by the end of the first quarter.

Dean Pees’ unit didn’t maintain the same intensity level in the second half as the pressure waned and the secondary allowed Glennon to finish the game with 314 yards, but the Ravens didn’t need to take as many chances with such a comfortable lead.

Sunday’s win may not prove that the Ravens are a championship-caliber team just yet, but it was a fun afternoon in which Harbaugh’s team executed a game plan to perfection in the first quarter in another team’s stadium. Nothing really mattered after that, even as they continued to play well against a defeated team.

“It was nice to bounce back after a tough week,” said Flacco about his record day. “All that stuff really doesn’t matter. Really, anything we did after the first three touchdowns didn’t really mean too much at the end of the day. It was all just stats. That stuff feels good and looks good and it’s great and all that, but it really doesn’t mean anything. It’s all about winning the football game. That’s what we came here to do, and that’s what we did.”

And they had a blast doing it in convincing fashion.

 

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Ravens stock watch entering Week 6

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Ravens stock watch entering Week 6

Posted on 07 October 2014 by Luke Jones

Every week, we’ll take a look at which Ravens players’ stock is rising and falling …

STOCK RISING

C.J. Mosley
Skinny: The rookie inside linebacker was the best player on the field for the Ravens in Sunday’s loss to Indianapolis as he finished with 14 tackles, a quarterback hit, a pass breakup, and an interception. Baltimore has used plenty of high draft picks on defensive players in recent years with mixed results, so it’s encouraging to see Mosley emerging as a game-changer on that side of the ball with so many aging players around him. Veteran Daryl Smith’s strong play last year was a pleasant surprise the year after Ray Lewis’ retirement, but Mosley has been the better player of the two in 2014.

Marshal Yanda
Skinny: Coming back from offseason shoulder surgery a year ago, the Pro Bowl right guard wasn’t his usual self in 2013, but Yanda has again been one of the best players in the NFL at his position so far in 2014. According to Pro Football Focus, the eighth-year guard is the Ravens’ highest-graded offensive player this season and the running game has been particularly potent with him and second-year tackle Rick Wagner opening running lanes on the right side. The offensive line struggled against Indianapolis, but Yanda had another strong day despite the loss.

Pernell McPhee
Skinny: The Ravens have had difficulty sustaining a pass rush, but the reserve specialist has arguably been their best weapon in that department, whether lining up at end or sliding inside in passing situations. McPhee may have only picked up his first sack of the season against the Colts, but the 2011 fifth-round pick leads the Ravens in Pro Football Focus’ quarterback hurries category despite playing less than Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. The Ravens try to limit McPhee’s snaps to keep him healthy after dealing with nagging knee issues in past years, but he’s been one of their best defensive players this season.

STOCK FALLING

James Hurst
Skinny: The undrafted rookie free agent was a pleasant surprise in his first career start against the Carolina Panthers, but his second game as the starting left tackle was disastrous as Indianapolis beat him repeatedly in the process of harassing quarterback Joe Flacco. The Ravens didn’t provide Hurst with enough help on the left side, so they’ll need to adjust as they play another road game against Tampa Bay in Week 6. Veteran Eugene Monroe was noncommittal last week when asked when he anticipated returning, so the Ravens can only hope that Hurst bounces back to play like he did against Carolina.

Terrell Suggs
Skinny: The veteran linebacker hasn’t played as poorly as some have suggested while focusing on the fact that he only has 1/2 sack so far this year, but it’s apparent the nagging groin injury he’s been dealing with is taking its toll as he was a non-factor against Indianapolis. Suggs is eighth on the team in tackles and has looked more like the player he was in the second half of 2013 than the linebacker who collected nine sacks in the first eight games of last season. The soon-to-be 32-year-old is still solid against the run, but you have to wonder if his days as a consistent high-impact player are coming to an end.

Torrey Smith
Skinny: Dropping the fourth-down pass from Flacco on the Ravens’ final offensive play of the game Sunday was just the latest example of concern as Smith has just 11 catches for 176 yards and a touchdown through five games. Gary Kubiak’s West Coast offense depends on short-to-intermediate routes that Smith often struggles in running, leaving the fourth-year wideout uncomfortable and on a different page than Flacco for much of the season. Smith has been able to draw a number of pass interference penalties on deep balls, but you wonder how much his struggles are wearing on him in a contract year.

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Ravens-Colts: Five predictions for Sunday

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Ravens-Colts: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 04 October 2014 by Luke Jones

A 3-1 record through the first quarter of the season has made a statement that the Ravens are a playoff-caliber team, but a road win against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday would scream they belong among the NFL’s elite.

Despite an offense that was ranked 29th in the NFL last season, the Ravens bring a revamped unit to Lucas Oil Stadium that’s ranked sixth in total yards and tied for seventh in points per game, which could lead to a shootout against an Indianapolis offense ranking first in total yards and averaging a league-leading 34.0 points per game. Of course, the Colts’ numbers benefited from playing two woeful teams, Tennessee and Jacksonville, in their last two games while the Ravens have only played one game away from M&T Bank Stadium so far this season.

The Baltimore secondary has faced much scrutiny this season and will face its biggest test in quarterback Andrew Luck and the NFL’s top-ranked passing game. The Ravens rank 24th in pass defense, but a stout run defense has often made opponents one-dimensional and the pass rush finally showed up in a convincing 38-10 win over Carolina last Sunday.

Sunday marks the 11th all-time meeting between the Ravens and Indianapolis in the regular season with the Colts holding a 7-3 advantage. Baltimore is winless in four regular-season trips to Indianapolis. The good news for the Ravens is they got the best of the Colts in their only meeting against Luck that came in the 2012 postseason, which also served as their only playoff win against Indianapolis in three tries.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to begin a difficult stretch of four of five games on the road with a win on Sunday …

1. The Baltimore running game wins the time of possession battle as Justin Forsett is the leading rusher in an attack that goes over 125 yards on the ground again. Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak always prefers establishing the run, but it will be even more critical in a game with such a prolific offense on the opposing side. Indianapolis is allowing 4.4 yards per carry, which indicates the Ravens should be able to move the ball effectively on the ground to set up play-action passes. The recently-injured Bernard Pierce will see some action unlike last week, but Forsett will still lead the Ravens in rushing yards in what will be a three-back timeshare.

2. Indianapolis uses a no-huddle attack to keep the Ravens’ pass rush on its heels and to help a very shaky offensive line. Even with a big lead, the Colts pushed the tempo against Tennessee last week, and they’ll use a similar style to keep the Baltimore front on its heels and to protect an offensive line that’s already surrendered 13 quarterback hits and 22 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. It’s no secret that three-step drops limit any defense’s ability to get to the quarterback, but the Ravens have been especially vulnerable to this over the last couple years and a quicker tempo will make the defense too flatfooted in the second half, especially with Chris Canty unlikely to play and Terrell Suggs less than 100 percent.

3. Colts cornerback Vontae Davis and bracketed coverage finally make Steve Smith look human, but Torrey Smith catches a touchdown and posts a season-high 105 receiving yards. After collecting 429 receiving yards in four weeks, the elder Smith will finally receive consistent attention befitting a No. 1 receiver as Davis will shadow him and receive extra help whenever possible. Steve Smith will still have a presence, but it will be Torrey Smith with a dynamic performance against an Indianapolis defense ranking 21st in pass defense. The fourth-year wideout will catch a long score on an effective play-action fake that makes new starting free safety Sergio Brown — filling in for the suspended LaRon Landry — bite.

4. A secondary that’s been shaky all year finally crumbles as Luck throws for 350 yards and three touchdowns. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees stood up for the play of his pass defense this week, but the Colts have too many weapons for top cornerback Jimmy Smith to account for and no one else inspires enough confidence to slow such a passing game. Cornerback Lardarius Webb wasn’t listed on the injury report for the second straight week, but it’s impossible to have any expectations for him until he finally takes extensive snaps in live-game action. An improved pass rush against Carolina helped mask issues in coverage, but the Ravens won’t be able to do the same with Indianapolis using an up-tempo attack, which will lead to a long day for the back end of the defense.

5. Quarterback Joe Flacco has another strong afternoon, but the Baltimore offense can’t quite hang with Indianapolis in a 30-24 loss to snap a three-game winning streak. At the start of the season, I wouldn’t have given the Ravens much of a chance to win this one, but a stronger-than-expected Baltimore offense and the Colts’ less-than-impressive offensive line will make this a close one. In the same way that the Colts’ two wins have come against less-than-stellar competition, I can’t be convinced that a shaky road win over Cleveland is enough evidence that the Ravens can carry over performances on the road like what we saw against Carolina last week. Flacco will play at a high level against a very ordinary defense, but the Baltimore defense won’t force enough stops against Luck and the Colts to pull out the road upset.

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Ravens offense hoping other Smith gets on track after slow start

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Ravens offense hoping other Smith gets on track after slow start

Posted on 26 September 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — While all eyes will be on Steve Smith when the Ravens welcome the Carolina Panthers to Baltimore on Sunday, Torrey Smith simply hopes to get his 2014 season on track as we approach the quarter pole.

It’s been a slow start for the fourth-year wide receiver who has just six receptions for 85 yards through three games a year after setting career highs with 65 catches and 1,128 receiving yards. Targeted by quarterback Joe Flacco 19 times through three games, Smith has reined in only 31.6 percent of those attempts, which would be a career-low completion percentage for the 2011 second-round pick’s career.

Entering the final year of his rookie contract, Smith has taken the rough beginning in stride, choosing to focus on a number of close calls that could have gone for big plays. In the Ravens’ win in Cleveland last Sunday, Flacco was hit on a deep ball to Smith that was intercepted and later missed the open wideout in the end zone for what should have been a touchdown. Of course, Smith has brought some misery on himself such as when he dropped a short screen pass that would have gone for big yardage late in the fourth quarter against the Browns.

“You can’t get any closer than we already have been,” Smith said. “I have folks tweeting me how terrible I am, and I could very easily have had three touchdowns and 300 yards the past couple weeks. But that’s how the ball rolls. I’m not used to it, but we’ll get over it soon.”

Most expected Smith’s opportunities to decrease a bit simply because the Ravens added more weapons such as Steve Smith and veteran tight end Owen Daniels to go along with what was a healthy Dennis Pitta returning for the start of the 2014 season. But with Pitta suffering his second right hip injury in the last 14 months, Baltimore will need more production from others beyond Steve Smith, who leads the team with 18 receptions for 290 yards and has quickly become Flacco’s most dependable receiver.

What has been most concerning is the lack of comfort shown by Torrey Smith in new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s system, which places an emphasis on the precision and timing of short-to-intermediate throws. Smith has improved his route-running ability since his rookie season, but he is at his best when asked to use his straight-line speed and still appears too stiff when asked to quickly change direction while running shorter routes.

Even if Kubiak hasn’t found the perfect way to utilize the younger Smith’s skills just yet, he doesn’t appear discouraged with how the 25-year-old is playing.

“We had five opportunities for him to have big plays in the [Cleveland] game,” Kubiak said. “Joe gets hit one time, and [we] get a [pass interference] the next time. I felt bad for him coming out of the game because, really, he had a chance to make some big plays. We missed him in the end zone. But he’s working extremely well. Like I said, it’s going to take all of us — keep spreading around. Joe [has to get] the ball to the right guy, and that guy has to make a play.”

Of course, it’s important to remember Smith is the kind of receiver who can’t be evaluated too definitively — good or bad — based on a smaller sample of games as all it takes is a couple successful deep balls to put him back on track. In 2011, many were ready to call the rookie a bust when he went without a catch in his first two NFL games before he caught three touchdowns and collected 152 receiving yards in Week 3 that led to a respectable rookie campaign of 841 yards and seven touchdowns. Last year, Smith looked like he was on his way to an All-Pro season with 556 receiving yards through the first five games before collecting just 572 more over the final 11 games.

While it appears that Steve Smith has at least temporarily wrestled away the title of “go-to receiver” — Browns cornerback Joe Haden shadowed the veteran for large portions of the Ravens’ Week 3 win — Torrey Smith is confident he will start capitalizing on the opportunities that have been near misses thus far. And his chances would only figure to increase if opposing defense continue to focus more closely on the elder Smith.

“We were as close as you can get to touchdowns; we just have to be on the same page and get it done,” Torrey Smith said. “It’ll happen. It has no choice, but to happen. The way we’ve been practicing, it has no choice but to happen. I can’t say when. I hope it’s Sunday, but it’ll happen soon.”

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Old and new give Ravens exactly what they need in Cleveland

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Old and new give Ravens exactly what they need in Cleveland

Posted on 21 September 2014 by Luke Jones

There was plenty to be concerned about throughout the Ravens’ narrow 23-21 win over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.

The disheartening hip injury to tight end Dennis Pitta, the immense struggles of the pass defense, and the early inconsistency of wide receivers Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones are points of concern as the Ravens turn their attention toward next Sunday’s meeting with the Carolina Panthers. But the continued dependability of veteran Steve Smith and the emergence of two young offensive players — rookie running back Lorenzo Taliaferro and second-year fullback Kyle Juszczyk — helped Baltimore improve to 2-1 in their stretch of three consecutive AFC North games to begin the 2014 season.

Despite turning 35 and coming off two straight seasons in which his yards per catch average declined from the previous year with the Carolina Panthers, the veteran Smith has been better than advertised in his first three games with the Ravens as he caught five passes for 101 yards on Sunday. No play was bigger than his 32-yard catch on a slant-and-go route to beat Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden on the final drive of the game to set the Ravens up on the 13-yard line, leading to Justin Tucker’s game-winning 32-yard field goal moments later.

It was just the latest example of the 14-year wideout laughing in the face of Father Time and the critics who doubted how much of an impact he would bring to the Ravens’ passing game. While Joe Flacco threw a deep ball that clanked off the hands of Jones to start the fourth quarter and connected on just two of eight targets to Torrey Smith throughout the day, the quarterback looked in no other direction but Steve Smith’s on the final drive of the game when the Ravens were staring at a 1-2 start with under two minutes to go.

And with Pitta possibly done for the season after suffering a second dislocation to his right hip in the last 14 months, Flacco will need the veteran Smith to continue being a dependable target on third down and in crunch time. Through his first three games, Steve Smith has caught 18 passes for 290 yards and a touchdown and has collected at least 71 receiving yards in each contest, a benchmark he didn’t reach once in his final season with Carolina.

Of course, Steve Smith wasn’t alone in the offensive heroics Sunday as Juszczyck and Taliaferro emerged as key contributors with the former entering the day having never caught a pass in the NFL and the fourth-round rookie tailback never registering a carry. Both made their names known against the Browns on Sunday.

Juszczyk caught a 9-yard touchdown pass midway through the second quarter and finished with three receptions for 54 yards. His presence as a receiver in the flat will be even more critical now to complement tight end Owen Daniels with Pitta’s status in doubt.

Receiving his first opportunity to carry the ball with Bernard Pierce out with a thigh injury, Taliaferro took full advantage of a shaky Cleveland run defense to pick up 91 yards on 18 carries, showing impressive speed and physicality that reminded many Ravens fans of Jamal Lewis on Sunday. Of course, plenty of credit needs to go to the offensive line as veteran Justin Forsett also averaged 5.7 yards per carry, but you do wonder if Taliaferro has already begun wrestling away the starting job from Pierce, who missed his first NFL game in three seasons Sunday but has dealt with nagging injuries throughout his career.

The rookie was decisive and aggressive when carrying the ball in contrast to what we’ve seen from Pierce, who has often looked unsure of himself running in a zone-blocking system the last two seasons.

Sunday’s win was far from perfect as the Ravens face plenty of questions both on and off the field, but a 2-1 start is nothing to be unhappy about as the offense is receiving contributions from younger players as well as the big-play ability of Steve Smith.

The disappointing loss of Pitta won’t be easy to overcome, but the Ravens offense continued to move in the right direction on Sunday thanks to the old — just don’t tell that to Steve Smith — and new.

 

 

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Ravens-Browns: Five predictions for Sunday

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Ravens-Browns: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 20 September 2014 by Luke Jones

The Ravens will attempt to go 2-1 against the AFC North to begin the 2014 season, but the Cleveland Browns stand in their way while feeling good about themselves following last week’s surprising win over the New Orleans Saints.

While Baltimore has benefited from extra rest after a Thursday night win over rival Pittsburgh in Week 2, Cleveland has used a strong running game led by Towson product Terrance West while committing no turnovers through the first two weeks of the season. The Browns’ summer quarterback controversy between veteran Brian Hoyer and rookie Johnny Manziel has also subsided with the former off to an efficient start in his return from a season-ending knee injury last season.

Sunday marks the 31st all-time meeting between these AFC North rivals with the Ravens enjoying a 22-8 advantage and a 10-5 edge at FirstEnergy Stadium. Baltimore is 11-1 against the Browns since 2008 with last year’s 24-18 loss in Cleveland the first defeat over that stretch.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to win their sixth game in seven tries in Cleveland in the John Harbaugh era …

1. Torrey Smith finally gets his 2014 season going, making six catches for 95 yards and a long touchdown reception. Aside from a long touchdown to Steve Smith on a broken play in the season opener, quarterback Joe Flacco hasn’t taken many deep shots, but that could change on Sunday with the Browns looking to clean up their run defense and fully aware of Gary Kubiak’s use of Steve Smith and the tight ends in the short-to-intermediate passing game. Torrey Smith has been held to just four catches for 60 yards in his first two games, but that will change on Sunday as he catches a 40-plus-yard touchdown to beat Cleveland cornerback Buster Skrine in the first half.

2. The Browns running game picks up 130 yards on the ground to win the time of possession battle. The Ravens defense was very physical against Pittsburgh, but it’s difficult to determine how much of that was about playing their biggest rival in a prime-time game and handling an inferior offensive line. Cleveland has averaged an impressive 5.1 yards per carry and won’t match that impressive clip, but West and fellow rookie Isaiah Crowell will grind out tough yards to keep the Baltimore defense on the field too long. A key matchup will be Pro Bowl center Alex Mack going up against second-year nose tackle Brandon Williams, and the Browns will have the edge there to find some running room inside.

3. Terrell Suggs collects his first sack of the year in a difficult battle against Browns tackle Joe Thomas. The six-time Pro Bowl linebacker has more career sacks (15) against Cleveland than any opponent, but only seven have come since 2007 when the Browns drafted the seven-time Pro Bowl selection Thomas. Even though the Ravens insist Suggs has played very well and Pro Football Focus has graded Suggs as the team’s best defensive player through two weeks, the 12-year pass rusher has collected only one sack in his last 10 games dating back to last season and hasn’t been making high-impact plays since the first half of 2013. Suggs and fellow rusher Elvis Dumervil need to put heat on Hoyer, and Suggs will break through for his first sack since Week 16 of last year.

4. Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins beats a rusty Lardarius Webb for a touchdown catch from the slot. With Webb listed as probable on the final injury report, it appears the Ravens will have their full secondary at their disposal for the first time since the beginning of training camp. However, it remains to be seen how much rust the sixth-year corner will need to shake off even after practicing fully for the last three weeks. Meanwhile, the Browns are without suspended wide receiver Josh Gordon, but the shifty Hawkins has been very effective out of the slot where he has lined up more than half of the time, leading the team with 14 catches for 157 yards. He’ll catch his first touchdown on a quick out route as Webb misses the tackle on the play.

5. A fourth-quarter touchdown run by West is the difference as the Ravens’ road struggles from last season carry over to Sunday in a 20-17 loss to Cleveland. It’s easy to be encouraged by what Baltimore did playing at home last Thursday night, but the Ravens have almost always played well at home even in some of their worst seasons. A 2-6 road record in 2013 is difficult to forget, particularly because it was the Ravens defense that struggled in allowing 26.4 points per game on the road compared to 17.6 points surrendered per home contest. A typical, ugly game between the Browns and Ravens will play out once again, but the Cleveland defense bounces back from its poor start to the season while the Baltimore defense is worn down by the running game in the final quarter.

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Week 2 observations from 2014 Ravens training camp

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Week 2 observations from 2014 Ravens training camp

Posted on 05 August 2014 by Luke Jones

With two weeks of training camp in the books and the Ravens making final preparations to take on the San Francisco 49ers in their preseason opener Thursday night, there’s a new batch of takeaways from the practice field in Owings Mills.

1. We’ve witnessed a quieter Joe Flacco this summer.

This development won’t please fans and critics clamoring for a more vocal quarterback entering his seventh season as Flacco has refrained from trash talking with Terrell Suggs like we saw last summer and hasn’t been very vocal with the rest of his offensive teammates during practices open to media. Those around him have downplayed his quieter demeanor, insisting he’s focusing on fine-tuning his grasp of Gary Kubiak’s system. The new offensive coaching staff has emphasized Flacco having better footwork and getting rid of the ball quickly, two requirements in Kubiak’s West Coast offense. Flacco has been steady but unspectacular in practices to this point, but it’s all about the games that count for the signal-caller at this stage of his career.

2. Matt Elam has yet to stand out in his transition to the strong safety position.

Much attention has been paid to the free safety spot as well as the lack of cornerback depth in the Baltimore secondary, but the 2013 first-round pick hasn’t stood out after moving to the more natural position he played at the University of Florida. In fairness to Elam, there aren’t many full-contact periods in practices for him to genuinely show off his physicality, but he’s made few plays in coverage and hasn’t looked the part of a rising impact defensive player. During Monday’s practice, Elam was spelled by special-teams standout Jeromy Miles on a few occasions, but it remained unclear whether the second-year safety was dealing with a physical concern or the coaching staff was trying to create a little more urgency in Elam by throwing Miles into the mix.

3. Torrey Smith is emerging as a leader in the final year of his rookie contract.

So much focus has been placed on the leadership of Flacco, Terrell Suggs, Ray Rice, and Haloti Ngata since Ray Lewis retired and Ed Reed departed, but Smith’s quiet leadership has emerged over the last couple years. He was responsible for gathering teammates to support Rice during his recent press conference and simply carries himself with a maturity that suggests a leader by example. Assuming a contract extension isn’t reached before the start of the season, it will be interesting to see how Steve Smith and a healthy Dennis Pitta impact Smith’s production after his first 1,000-yard season. The University of Maryland product has had a strong camp, making spectacular catches and showing more consistency than in the past. General manager Ozzie Newsome shouldn’t pay Smith like an elite receiver, but his value shouldn’t be underestimated, either.

4. Owen Daniels has struggled to get separation in his first training camp with the Ravens.

The signing of Daniels to a one-year deal was an obvious move given his familiarity with Kubiak’s offensive system, but the 31-year-old hasn’t stood out in practices, struggling to gain separation against linebackers in coverage. Both Daniels and fellow tight end Dennis Pitta thrive in finding open windows in zone coverage, but the former will need to show a little more against man coverage to have the kind of impact the Ravens are looking for. The former Houston Texan was limited to five games due to a broken leg last season, but the Ravens won’t need him to play 75 snaps a game with Pitta ahead of him on the depth chart. You hope his slow start is more about pacing himself than a sign of declining skills like the Ravens saw with Dallas Clark last year.

5. After a very quiet rookie year, Kyle Juszczyk is a sleeper to watch in Gary Kubiak’s system.

A year ago at this time, the Ravens had re-signed Vonta Leach because of Juszczyk’s inability to hold up as a blocker, but his second training camp has been far more encouraging. Listed at 248 pounds, the Harvard product looks stronger and has held up better when engaged as a blocker, but Juszczyk has also shown some explosiveness as a receiver out of the backfield as he displayed in catching a touchdown matched up against Miles in Annapolis Monday night. Kubiak has compared Juszczyk’s skill set to former Texas fullback James Casey, who caught 34 passes for 330 yards and three touchdowns in 2012. It would be a stretch to expect that much production from the 2013 fourth-round pick, but he’s made some nice plays when given chances in practice.

6. Keith Wenning is beginning to look more comfortable in his first training camp.

For the most part, the Ball State quarterback has looked like any other underwhelming third-string quarterback the Ravens have invited to camp in recent summers, but he put on a show in Annapolis, throwing several beautiful deep balls for touchdowns in team drills. It would be a major stretch to expect Wenning to challenge incumbent backup Tyrod Taylor based on what we’ve seen in the first two weeks of camp, but Wenning’s preseason performance could make for a difficult decision when it comes to finalizing the roster. The Ravens haven’t carried three quarterbacks on the 53-man squad since 2009, but it might be difficult to get Wenning through waivers and to the practice squad if he has more nights like he did Monday in preseason games.

7. Barring injury, the first unofficial depth chart is unlikely to change by the start of the season.

There were few surprises on the first offensive depth chart of the summer as Rick Wagner being listed at right tackle was the only note of interest but wasn’t the least bit surprising. On the defensive side, second-year lineman Brandon Williams is listed as the starting nose tackle with Ngata sliding to the 3-technique defensive tackle spot, which should allow him to take on fewer double teams and provide more opportunities to make plays. Unsurprisingly, rookie first-round pick C.J. Mosley was listed as the starting weakside inside linebacker next to Daryl Smith while Arthur Brown is his backup. Darian Stewart being listed as the starting free safety isn’t surprising based on the struggles of third-round pick Terrence Brooks, and there’s little to suggest that’s changing anytime soon.

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Former Ravens Safety Reed: “I Know I Can Still Play”

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Former Ravens Safety Reed: “I Know I Can Still Play”

Posted on 02 June 2014 by Ryan Chell

The last time Ravens fans heard from Ed Reed in M&T Bank Stadium, they were welcomed with a less-than-stellar rendition of the popular Eddie Money song, “Two Tickets to Paradise” after the Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.

The future Hall of Famer did indeed return to Baltimore Sunday for Lardarius Webb’s 5th annual Celebrity Softball Tournament, which was the first time the event took place at M&T Bank Stadium.

And while there showing off his softball skills, Reed sent a message to Ravens fans and the rest of the NFL that he’s still looking for and is ready for a ticket to ride with an NFL team.

“I’m definitely preparing to play,” Reed told reporters during the game. “If I wasn’t, you would have heard something  by now…I learned a lot about the process last year, and I know my worth.”

Reed, the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2004 and a 9-time Pro Bowler, played 11 seasons in Baltimore before signing a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal with the Houston Texans in March 2013.

However, Reed lasted just seven games in Houston before being waived. He ultimately reunited with former defensive coordinator Rex Ryan in New York, where he played seven games for the Jets (five starts) finishing with 22 tackles and three interceptions.

Battling hip problems to start the year, Reed clearly wasn’t the Defensive Player of the Year-caliber safety he was in his earlier years in Baltimore and many signaled that decline as the end of his dozen years in the NFL.

But don’t tell that to Ed Reed.

“I know I can still play,” he said. “It’s a matter of a right fit.”

And while the Ravens returned this week for voluntary OTAs in Owings Mills, Reed has been getting ready for an NFL call by training between Georgia and Louisiana.

And with Reed waiting for that call, he knows what he wants and how to approach the season. He said he learned a lot about his desire to play football this year from his preparation going into the 2013 year-his first outside Baltimore.

“I’m not going to anybody’s training camp, ” Reed said. “I sat and watched the league last year from a different perspective, and I learned a lot, and I saw they had teams that needed safeties in the latter part of the year.”

Reed didn’t make his Texans debut till Week 3 last season-a 30-9 loss in his return to Baltimore.  During training camp with Houston, he missed workouts on the active PUP-list, and he said he needed that rest to prepare for the season.

And for those who are concerned about that level of determination from the safety, Reed said he’s not concerned with how people think about him.

“Right now, I’m just about taking care of me and getting myself back…I know you guys may question it, but I’m not worried about that. It’s about how I feel.”

The thought of a banged-up, 35-year old safety who could only be a part-time player who’s best days are behind him might not be the biggest draw for an NFL team.

However, Reed, who looked to be enjoying himself Sunday and said it was a pleasure to be back in Baltimore, is content though if this is the end of his NFL dream.

“I’m not worried about the end. I’m not under contract. I’m already at the finish line. I don’t need to sign with anybody.”

“I don’t have to put in any papers. I don’t have to sign anybody’s contract. I don’t have to go to any organization. Ed Reed and Barry Sanders…they did it their own way.”

Those following the game would imagine that if that were to happen, he would follow other elite players of his level to the coaching ranks in an effort to stay apart the game he loved for so many years.

Reed said he would be open to it and that he got a taste of it in 2013 with the Ravens, Texans and Jets.

“Being around Coach Harbaugh, being around Coach Billick, having so many defensive coordinators-I had a different perspective when I left and I definitely learned a lot…I always say I did more coaching when I was in New York because they have a bunch of young guys up there and those guys kind of gravitated to me.”

He’s just hoping that an NFL GM or Coach will gravitate to his football knowledge if it doesn’t equate to continuing his playing career-hopefully in a place he’s all too familiar with in Baltimore.

“I think I can help pretty much any organization if I’m a position coach, a consultant or whatever…I could see me working in the organization here. I could see me working for Ozzie, those guys and Mr. Bisciotti because I put so much into it, I know how they work, and they taught me so much.”

If anything, you can count on Ed Reed making one more trip to M&T Bank Stadium for his guaranteed induction into the stadium’s Ring of Honor and he knows what kind of reaction he’ll get upon that return.

“It definitely brings back memories,” Reed said. “Anytime I come into Baltimore, it brings back memories.”

“It’s always great to see Ed Reed,” wide receiver Torrey Smith said. “He’s like a big brother and anytime you’re around him, it’s a good time.”

‘It’s great to see Baltimore still loves him.”

Follow me on Twitter at @RyanChell87! WNST-We Never Stop Talking Baltimore Sports!

 

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Wide receiver LaQuan Williams returning to Ravens

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Wide receiver LaQuan Williams returning to Ravens

Posted on 24 April 2014 by Luke Jones

Former Ravens wide receiver LaQuan Williams announced on Twitter that he was coming home on Thursday afternoon.

The former University of Maryland product and Poly grad has rejoined the Ravens after being waived at the end of the 2013 preseason, agent Chad Wiestling confirmed to WNST.net. Williams spent a brief time with the New England Patriots last November but did not appear in a game during the 2013 season.

“Feels good to be back home #RavensNation,” Williams wrote on his official Twitter account.

Williams was one of the feel-good stories of the 2011 season as the Baltimore native made the 53-man roster as a rookie free agent and caught four passes for 46 yards while appearing in 12 games primarily as a special-teams contributor. The 25-year-old played in 11 games in 2012 but did not catch a pass and finished the season on injured reserve.

With the Ravens deciding last year that Williams was no longer in their plans, the former Terp faces an uphill battle to make the roster, but his special-teams ability always makes him someone to watch during the preseason.

 

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