Tag Archive | "vonta leach"

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Newsome says Ravens could bring back McClain or Leach

Posted on 27 February 2014 by WNST Staff

PRESS RELEASE

The Baltimore Ravens have terminated the contracts of vested veterans FB Vonta Leach and LB Jameel McClain, general manager/executive vice president Ozzie Newsome announced Thursday.

“Vonta and Jameel are two of our most important players over the last few seasons, helping us to the playoffs and giving the Ravens the Super Bowl win after the 2012 season,” Newsome stated. “Vonta proved to be one of the best fullbacks in the league, plus he added leadership and toughness to our offense. Jameel is a Ravens’ success story who came to us as a rookie free agent. He changed positions from playing on the defensive line and outside to becoming a good inside linebacker and starter. People close to our team understand his commitment to being the best he can be and the leadership he gave on and off the field.

“There could come a point later on when we would consider bringing back Vonta and Jameel. They are our types of players.”

A 10-year NFL veteran and three-time Pro Bowl selection, Leach spent the past three seasons with the Ravens, earning All-Star honors twice (2011-12). Seeing action in 146 career games (79 starts), Leach originally entered the NFL as a rookie free agent with the Green Bay Packers in 2004. In his three seasons with the Ravens, he played in all 48 games (36 starts) and served as the lead blocker for RB Ray Rice, who was tabbed as a Pro Bowler during the 2011 and 2012 campaigns.

“He’s the big, physical fullback you like to have when you pound the ball and are on special teams,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “And, who doesn’t like Vonta? He’s fun to be around, and his personality helped lift the energy at a lot of practices. People know we like to be physically dominating, and when we did that in recent years, Vonta was a big part of that.”

McClain, a six-year NFL veteran, originally signed with the Ravens as a rookie free agent in 2008. Seeing action in 87 career games (55 starts), he recorded 338 tackles (214 solo), 4.5 sacks (-33.5 yards), one interception, 10 passes defensed, three fumble recoveries (one returned for a touchdown) and one forced fumble. McClain’s 338 stops rank 17th on the Ravens’ all-time tackles chart, while he also registered a franchise-record two safeties (both during his 2008 rookie season).

“There is so much to like about Jameel, the player and the person,” Harbaugh added. “He’s a true leader, and his story from rookie free agent to NFL starter is one of the best in the league. You give him so much credit for finding a way to become the player he is. He’s one of those guys who gets the most out of his ability. He has a lot of football left, and maybe, that could be with the Ravens down the line.

“Both of these men helped the Ravens win a lot of games and the Super Bowl Championship. We are thankful for all they gave us.”

McClain earned the team’s 2013 Ed Block Courage Award after returning from a spinal cord contusion injury he sustained in 2012. Missing the final three regular season games and each playoff contest in 2012, McClain then sat out the first six games of the 2013 campaign before returning for its final 10 contests (all starts). He totaled 50 tackles (27 solo) and one forced fumble last season.

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Ravens release McClain, Leach in cap-saving maneuvers

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Ravens release McClain, Leach in cap-saving maneuvers

Posted on 27 February 2014 by Luke Jones

Even with an estimated $20 million of salary cap space at their disposal with free agency approaching next month, the Ravens parted ways with two veteran starters to free up more resources on Thursday.

Baltimore announced that inside linebacker Jameel McClain and fullback Vonta Leach were being released in cap-saving maneuvers. By doing so, the Ravens save a total of $4.95 million in room as free agency is set to begin on March 11.

“There could come a point later on when we would consider bringing back Vonta and Jameel,” general manager Ozzie Newsome said in a team statement. “They are our types of players.”

McClain told WNST.net that the Ravens would like to have him back at a reduced rate and that “the story’s not finished.” The seventh-year linebacker agreed to a pay cut from $3 million to $1.5 million in base salary this past season as he started the year on the physically unable to perform list while recovering from a spinal cord contusion suffered on Dec. 9, 2012.

Meanwhile, the 32-year-old Leach posted a message of thanks on his official Twitter account that included a collage of photos from his three-year run with the organization. The veteran fullback made it clear at the end of the season that he saw the writing on the wall for his future with the Ravens after he played a total of just 12 offensive snaps in the final three games of the season. Of course, Leach was previously cut last summer before re-signing with the Ravens at a reduced rate and seeing his role in the offense diminish as the running game set franchise-worst marks.

“Obviously, I wasn’t in the offense a whole lot this year,” Leach said the day after the season end in late December. “If they had a role for me, ideally, I’d want to come back here. I understand that this is a business.”

Baltimore drafted fullback Kyle Juszczyk in the fourth round last season and could add more of a blocking fullback via the draft or free agency if new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak deems it necessary. Leach is entering his 11th season and is a three-time Pro Bowl selection, two of those honors received while playing for the Ravens and blocking for fellow Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice.

The 28-year-old McClain represents one of the better stories in franchise history of an undrafted rookie not only making the 53-man roster in 2008 but carving out a significant role in the defense, starting in 55 games and collecting 316 tackles over the last five years. Told by some he’d never play football again after injuring his neck in 2012, McClain played 10 games last season and made 52 tackles.

“He’s a true leader, and his story from rookie free agent to NFL starter is one of the best in the league,” coach John Harbaugh said in a team release. “You give him so much credit for finding a way to become the player he is. He’s one of those guys who gets the most out of his ability. He has a lot of football left, and maybe, that could be with the Ravens down the line.”

With the Ravens drafting inside linebacker Arthur Brown in the second round of the 2013 draft and already engaging in talks with pending free agent Daryl Smith, McClain’s price tag was deemed too high for a team with a plethora of needs this offseason.

Neither move is surprising as McClain and Leach topped the list of possible cap casualties as the Ravens attempt to bounce back from their first non-playoff season of the Harbaugh era. Also thought to be a potential cut at the start of the offseason, punter Sam Koch — set to count for $2.8 million against the cap in 2014 — told WNST.net Thursday afternoon that he hadn’t heard anything in terms of his roster standing

Newsome and the front office remain in negotiations with tight end Dennis Pitta and left tackle Eugene Monroe as both are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents. Reports indicate the Ravens are making progress with Pitta before Monday’s deadline to use the franchise tag while they remain far apart in their discussions with Monroe.

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Examining the Ravens’ possible 2014 salary cap cuts

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Examining the Ravens’ possible 2014 salary cap cuts

Posted on 06 January 2014 by Luke Jones

The Ravens don’t enter the winter in quite as dire straights with their salary cap as they did a year ago, but that won’t protect them from facing difficult decisions in trying to rebound from their first non-playoff season since 2007.

Entering the offseason with 37 players under contract and roughly $14 million in cap space — they’ve since signed nine players to reserve-future deals — the Ravens must take a long look at a number of potential veteran cuts that would bring needed room to not only re-sign some of their own free agents but allow them to explore outside possibilities to improve a roster that finished 8-8 in 2013.

The biggest and most intriguing name on the list will be Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs, who is entering the final year of a six-year, $62.5 million contract and has spent 11 years with the organization that selected him in the first round of the 2003 draft. Deciding his status will be at the top of general manager Ozzie Newsome’s list of internal priorities before turning his efforts toward augmenting the roster for 2014.

A name that won’t be on the list of possible cap casualties is running back Ray Rice, who is coming off the worst season of his career and has often been mentioned by fans as someone the Ravens shouldn’t bring back. Though Rice’s 2014 cap figure of $8.75 million is way too high for a running back who averaged only 3.1 yards per carry and gained just 660 yards, his release prior to June 1 would cost $14.25 million in dead money toward the 2014 cap. In other words, cutting Rice would actually be more expensive to the Ravens’ 2014 cap than keeping him for another season.

The three-time Pro Bowl running back isn’t going anywhere in 2014.

It’s important to remember the rule of 51 as the top 51 cap numbers on the roster count against the salary cap. The savings from any released player is offset in part by an additional player jumping into the top 51 from the bottom of the list. For example, if a released player carrying a $3 million cap number is replaced in the top 51 by another player carrying a $405,000 cap number, the end result is a $2.595 million savings on the salary cap.

Here’s how I’d rank the list of possible candidates to be cut for cap purposes (with the pre-June 1 cap savings noted in parentheses), in order from most likely to least likely:

1. FB Vonta Leach ($1.75 million)
Skinny: The fate of the three-time Pro Bowl fullback is the easiest to predict as this move is about football as much as it is finances. The Ravens abandoned the two-back system early in the season as their running game struggled and wouldn’t figure to be willing to pay Leach his $1.75 million base salary in 2014 after he rarely played more than a handful of offensive snaps per game in the final 2 1/2 months of 2013. Even if the Ravens elect to emphasize the fullback more often in their offensive approach for 2014, Kyle Juszczyk or another cheaper option will be preferred to Leach, who sees the writing on the wall in terms of his future in Baltimore.

2. LB Jameel McClain ($3.2 million)
Skinny: The Ravens cut McClain’s 2013 base salary in half while he worked his way back from a spinal cord contusion, so you wonder how willing he would be to accept another pay cut to remain in Baltimore. The free-agent status of veteran Daryl Smith makes this decision more compelling as the Ravens could use the money saved on McClain toward a new contract for Smith, who played well at Mike linebacker in Dean Pees’ system. With younger and cheaper options such as 2013 second-round pick Arthur Brown and Josh Bynes on the roster, it only makes sense for the Ravens to look into lowering McClain’s salary if not deciding to cut him altogether as he enters the final season of a three-year contract.

3. P Sam Koch ($1.6 million)
Skinny: Serving as Baltimore’s punter since 2006, Koch is one of the longest-tenured players on the team, but his $2.8 million cap figure for 2014 is the 10th-highest among players currently under contract for 2014. He did rebound down the stretch after a subpar start to the season, but the Ravens have to think they can go younger and cheaper than the league’s 22nd-ranked net punter in 2013. Of course, cutting Koch wouldn’t make it impossible to bring him back at a reduced rate if he was agreeable to doing so, but finding an effective punter in the latter stages of the draft or in rookie free agency shouldn’t be too impossible of a task.

4. LB Terrell Suggs ($7.8 million)
Skinny: The only reason that Suggs isn’t higher on the list is the likelihood of the Ravens exploring a short-term extension to lower his projected $12.4 million cap figure for 2014. Suggs’ poor second half in 2013 raises concerns about giving more money to a player who will be 32 in October, and the Ravens need to think carefully about making commitments to players for past accomplishments instead of future production. It’s difficult to say whether Suggs’ disappointing second half — only one sack in the final eight games — was the result of an injury or simply wearing down, but the Ravens might be wise to part with him a year early instead of possibly a season too late. It would be hard to walk away from a franchise player and a pass rusher with 94 1/2 career sacks if you think he has plenty left, but $7.8 million in extra space can help accomplish much in an offseason. Whether they ultimately work out an extension, cut him, or somehow manage to get Suggs to agree to a straight pay cut, the Ravens aren’t expected to allow his huge cap number to go untouched.

5. DE Chris Canty ($1.83 million)
Skinny: Considering Canty is their best 5-technique defensive end and fellow defensive lineman Arthur Jones could depart via free agency, the Ravens are likely to keep the 31-year-old veteran after a solid but unspectacular first year in Baltimore. He only counts for $3.16 million on the 2014 cap and the Ravens will already be depending on younger players such as Brandon Williams and DeAngelo Tyson to fill bigger defensive roles, so Canty represents a solid option to plug into the starting lineup for at least one more season. Canty is owed a $500,000 roster bonus on the fourth day of the new league year that begins in March, so a decision on his fate would have to come before then if the Ravens are contemplating cutting him.

6. DT Haloti Ngata ($1 million)
Skinny: The five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle’s name has come up often over the last two winters, but the $1 million in savings from a potential release is dwarfed by the $15 million in dead space the Ravens would need to absorb on the 2014 cap if he were to be cut prior to June 1. It’s virtually impossible to argue that his production no longer matches the $16 million cap figure he’ll carry for 2014, but Ngata is still an above-average player that would be difficult for the Ravens to adequately replace after taking such a big cap hit. The only reason the Ravens would really consider cutting Ngata would be to save the $8.5 million in base salary he’s owed next season, but that would be a decision of saving cash over clearing cap space and not one that would help the team on the field in the coming season. It wouldn’t be impossible, but the Ravens appear very unlikely to cut Ngata this offseason.

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Veterans, free agents ponder future with Ravens in 2014

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Veterans, free agents ponder future with Ravens in 2014

Posted on 30 December 2013 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — If Sunday’s season-ending loss left the Ravens shocked over missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007, cleaning out their lockers brought a sense of finality to the 2013 season less than 24 hours later.

Players gathered at the team’s training facility in Owings Mills Monday for a meeting before collecting their belongings from the locker room in a scene that felt like the last day of school. However, the mood was more sobering for the Ravens after finishing 8-8 and failing to reach the postseason despite winning Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans less than 11 months ago.

For aging veterans with larger cap numbers and impending free agents, Monday also marked the potential end of their run with the organization. The Ravens have 14 players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents — though veteran Brandon Stokley has already announced his retirement — and a number of others who may not be retained for salary-cap purposes.

One of those veterans is fullback Vonta Leach, who can see the writing being on the wall in terms of his future with the organization. With a season remaining on the two-year, $3.75 million he signed with Baltimore in August after being cut earlier in the summer, Leach is unlikely to return after being phased out of the three-wide, single-back offense the Ravens used more prevalently in 2013.

“I’m going to sit down with them in the next couple days,” said Leach, who played a total of 12 offensive snaps in the final three games of the season. “Obviously, I wasn’t in the offense a whole lot this year. If they had a role for me, ideally, I’d want to come back here. I understand that this is a business.”

For free agents such as defensive tackle Arthur Jones, inside linebacker Daryl Smith, and left tackle Eugene Monroe, the Ravens will be interested in retaining their services but will only have so many resources with $70.9 million in cap space already tied to just six players — Haloti Ngata, Joe Flacco, Terrell Suggs, Lardarius Webb, Ray Rice, and Marshal Yanda — for the 2014 season. Of the Ravens’ 14 unrestricted free agents, tight end Dennis Pitta, Monroe, and Smith figure to be at the top of the wish list to re-sign while Jones has likely priced himself out of the Ravens’ plans after a strong 2013 campaign.

In his first season in Baltimore, Smith led the Ravens in tackles and provided a strong veteran presence at the inside linebacker spot vacated by the retired Ray Lewis.

“I think they want me back, but we’ll see,” said Smith, who signed a one-year, $1.125 million deal last June after nine years in Jacksonville. “Only time will tell. I know they’ve got a lot of stuff to do this year, and a lot of guys up [with expiring contracts]. We’ll see.”

Others such as wide receiver Jacoby Jones, strong safety James Ihedigbo, and cornerback Corey Graham figure to be too pricey for general manager Ozzie Newsome, who will look for younger and cheaper options — or upgrades — to fill their roles. The door isn’t completely closed to their returns, of course, but the potential of needing to move elsewhere crosses any free agent’s mind at this time of the year.

Known primarily as a special-teams player before signing with the Ravens in 2012, Graham was a starting cornerback for the Super Bowl XLVII championship team and remained a dependable nickelback for Dean Pees’ defense this season, meaning he could draw some interest as a starter with other teams this offseason.

“I would like to be here,” said Graham, who led the Ravens with four interceptions this year. “When you win a Super Bowl somewhere, you get the opportunity to play somewhere, and things start to go well for you, you want to be in the place where they gave you opportunities. It’s a good organization; they gave me a chance to play. When I first came here, all I said was that I wanted an opportunity — they did that. I’m grateful for every opportunity I’ve gotten here.”

Free agency will begin on March 11, the same date on which teams must be under the 2014 salary cap.

Here’s a list of the Ravens’ 14 unrestricted free agents:

TE Dallas Clark
DT Terrence Cody
TE Ed Dickson
CB Corey Graham
DT Arthur Jones
WR Jacoby Jones
S James Ihedigbo
S Jeromy Miles
OT Eugene Monroe
OT Michael Oher
TE Dennis Pitta
RB Bernard Scott
LB Daryl Smith
WR Brandon Stokley (intends to retire)

Osemele progressing well after back surgery

Left guard Kelechi Osemele told reporters his recovery from November back surgery is going well and he expects to be fully cleared to begin offseason workouts in roughly a month.

The second-year lineman had been dealing with a herniated disc since his rookie year and missed the final nine games of the 2013 season. However, Osemele said his back hasn’t felt this good since his college days at Iowa State and he’s looking forward to being back on the field in 2014.

Where Osemele might line up for the Ravens next year remains to be seen as both of their starting tackles are unrestricted free agents. The 2012 second-round pick played right tackle in his rookie year before he was shifted inside to left guard for the 2012 postseason and played at an exceptional level in helping the Ravens win the Super Bowl.

“To be honest with you, it really doesn’t matter,” said Osemele when asked if he preferred playing guard or tackle. “I’m going to play wherever they put me. Whether I play guard or play tackle really doesn’t matter, especially off an injury. I just want to get back on the field.”

Most believe Osemele is better suited for guard, but his versatility does provide Newsome and the front office more flexibility in trying to revamp an offensive line that played poorly this season.

Ravens sign eight to reserve-future deals

In a procedural move following the conclusion of the 2013 regular season, the Ravens signed eight members of their practice squad to reserve-future deals on Monday.

Headlining the list was former Maryland tight end Matt Furstenburg, who is currently recovering from sports hernia surgery and spent the entire year on the Ravens’ developmental squad. With all three tight ends on the 53-man roster scheduled to become unrestricted free agents and only Pitta being a strong bet to be retained, Furstenburg figures to have a good chance of making the active roster in 2014.

The Ravens also signed wide receivers Gerrard Sheppard and Kamar Aiken, defensive tackle Cody Larsen, offensive tackle David Mims, tight end Nathan Overbay, quarterback Nick Stephens, and center Reggie Stephens to offseason deals.

Baltimore did not announce a reserve-future deal for running back Jonas Gray on Monday, the only member of the practice squad to finish the season who hadn’t been signed as of Monday afternoon.

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The Five Plays That Determined The Game: Ravens/Bears

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The Five Plays That Determined The Game: Ravens/Bears

Posted on 19 November 2013 by Glenn Clark

Following every Baltimore Ravens game this season, Ryan Chell and I will take to the airwaves Tuesdays on “The Reality Check” on AM1570 WNST.net with a segment known as “The Five Plays That Determined The Game.”

It’s a simple concept. We’ll select five plays from each game that determined the outcome. These five plays will best represent why the Ravens won or lost each game.

This will be our final analysis of the previous game before switching gears towards the next game on the schedule.

Here are the five plays that determined the Ravens’ 23-20 (OT) loss to the Chicago Bears Sunday at Soldier Field…

(Note: not all pictures are always of actual play)

Glenn Clark’s Plays…

5. Joe Flacco pass intended for Tandon Doss on 3rd & 5 incomplete (Overtime)

In Chicago territory, a tough catch but one that has to be made.

4. Martellus Bennett 44 yard catch from Josh McCown to Ravens’ 22 (Overtime)

This was the “ender”.

3. Alshon Jeffery 14 yard catch from Josh McCown on 3rd & 9 (Overtime)

The Ravens’ 3rd down defense was pretty good during the game. But not here.

2. Joe Flacco pass intended for Torrey Smith on 3rd and goal incomplete after Gino Gradkowski fumble (4th quarter)

Bad plus bad usually equals bad. Ravens had a great chance to win.

1. David Bass 24 yard return TD of Joe Flacco interception intended for Vonta Leach (2nd quarter)

The obvious turning point of the entire game.

(Continued on Page 2…)

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Pain plaguing Ravens offense starts with running game

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Pain plaguing Ravens offense starts with running game

Posted on 24 September 2013 by Luke Jones

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

To see the Ravens offense struggle through the first three weeks of the 2013 season isn’t surprising — or at least it shouldn’t have been.

There’s no underselling the losses of tight end Dennis Pitta and wide receiver Anquan Boldin — the pillars on which quarterback Joe Flacco relied last season — and how they would impact the passing game in the early stages of the season. Growing pains were expected as Flacco is still developing chemistry with every pass-catching target not named Torrey Smith, but the Ravens figured they could rely on their running game more heavily, especially in the early stages of the season.

But the results haven’t been there. In fact, the Ravens have one of the worst running games in the NFL through the first three weeks of the season in averaging just 2.6 yards per carry, ranking 31st in the league and only ahead of 0-3 Jacksonville. With Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice, highly-regarded backup Bernard Pierce, and Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach in tow, there’s simply no excuse for the overall lack of production.

“It’s going to be important, and we have the people to do it,” coach John Harbaugh said. “We’ve got some big, strong, tough offensive lineman, and we have really good backs. Our fullback [Vonta Leach] is the best blocking fullback in the league. The run game is something that has to happen for us.”

But it hasn’t and there have been a number of factors working against the Ravens through the early stages of the season. It would be unfair to overlook the fronts the Ravens have played as Denver, Cleveland, and Houston all rank in the top 5 in rushing yards per attempt surrendered. Expecting Baltimore to be gashing opponents in the running game would be unreasonable, but it still doesn’t excuse such an ineffective ground attack.

The absence of reliable targets in the passing game has prompted opposing defense to often play an extra defender in the box, creating problems when it comes to the simple number of blockers against defenders. Whether attempting to run to set up the pass or to throw to open up the running game, the Ravens have been spinning their wheels more often than not with an offense ranking 30th in total yards and 20th in passing yards. It’s the old chicken-or-the-egg question in which the Ravens are trying to figure out whether their passing game can breathe life into the running game or vice versa.

The Ravens are working with a new center in second-year lineman Gino Gradkowski, who replaced the retired Matt Birk and is responsible for making the calls for blocking assignments at the line of scrimmage. Besides the void in leadership, the Ravens have also been challenged up the middle by beefier defensive linemen against the undersized Gradkowski.

And Baltimore is even dealing with a new voice on the coaching staff as run-game coordinator Juan Castillo is running the show for the offensive line and the implementation of his inside zone blocking schemes appears to be a mixed bag at best thus far.

But the Ravens’ problems in the running game run deeper than the aforementioned variables as even reliable run blockers such as Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda and right tackle Michael Oher have struggled more than you’d typically expect so far.

“We do feel like we understand it and we’re working on it,” Harbaugh said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that it can be corrected. We’re not getting the production from the run game that we should, but we also feel like we’re on our way to getting that done. We just have to do it; you just have to go out there and get it done.”

A look back at the Ravens’ performance in the running game against Houston makes it difficult to pinpoint one specific problem above the rest. All five starting linemen missed assignments at different points, Pierce missed several running lanes, the Texans stacked eight men in the box on occasion, and backside pursuit was even a problem as defenders dragged down ball carriers from behind on a few occasions. Whether it was running to the strong side or the weak side of the line, it didn’t seem to matter as Pierce’s run off right tackle for 25 yards to end the third quarter was the only real bright spot for the ground attack.

Again, the Ravens have played talented defenses this season, but the sum of their talented parts hasn’t added up to even marginal success in most cases. Even in the fourth quarter when many credited the Ravens for wearing down Houston, they managed only 28 yards on 13 carries and needed to rely on Flacco’s arm for third-down conversions.

“One guy here, one miss there, one bad target in another place, each time that’s what holds you back,” Harbaugh said. “Their safeties do a great job of tackling, so they limit you from the big runs. Our run game is not where it needs to be. We’re going to go to work on that — we have been working on it. We’ll continue to do so, and we need to make that important. One thing we’ve seen that, philosophically, we’re going to stick with it.”

Of all the factors working against the Ravens in the running game, perhaps the most surprising has been the play of the left side of the offensive line. While veteran left tackle Bryant McKinnie has never been known as a strong run blocker, left guard Kelechi Osemele has looked nothing like the blocker we saw in last year’s postseason when many thought he had the potential to be a Pro Bowl lineman.

Harbaugh wasn’t willing to place blame on any one player or unit in explaining the running game struggles Monday, but it’s apparent the offensive line hasn’t been on the same page. And even when it has been, running backs haven’t made the proper zone reads.

“All of our guys are going to point the finger right back at themselves,” Harbaugh said. “That’s the kind of guys we have. I would characterize it more of being in sync, more in terms of working together more efficiently – combination blocks going to the right guy with the right technique at the right time. Those things – it’s not just a matter of just one-on-one knocking somebody off the ball. That’s not the way it works. It’s way more complicated than that up front.

“There’s a precision to the run game, too. It’s something that we don’t quite have ironed out yet against good fronts, and we’ve got to get there. That’s what we’re working on.”

Whether it’s a matter of still adjusting to Castillo or simply getting used to Gradkowski over the veteran Birk, the Ravens must improve with their ground attack to alleviate the pressure on Flacco and an undermanned passing game. On paper, the personnel is simply too good to be so unproductive — even against talented front sevens.

The real gauge for how severe the run problems are will come on Sunday when the Ravens travel to Buffalo to take on a Bills defense that’s surrendering 4.3 yards per carry and 155 yards per game on the ground. Even if Rice misses his second straight game with a left hip flexor strain, there’s no excuse for the Ravens not to make substantial progress with their running game against an underwhelming opponent.

To their credit, the Ravens haven’t abandoned their commitment to run — their 88 rushing attempts rank 10th in the league — but that only goes so far when you’re gaining minimal yardage on first and second down and putting Flacco and the passing game in difficult third-down situations. They know it needs to be an important part of their identity in 2013, but the production on the field hasn’t backed that up.

“It’s something that we think is important,” Harbaugh said. “We’re going to be able to run the ball here. It is a part of our DNA, and it is part of who we are as a football team.”

And it’s a side of the Ravens they need to start showing if their offense is to make strides as the season progresses.

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Even with Clark’s addition, Ravens not closing door on Pitta return yet

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Even with Clark’s addition, Ravens not closing door on Pitta return yet

Posted on 13 August 2013 by Luke Jones

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

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Even as the newly-signed Dallas Clark made the highlight play of Tuesday’s practice with a one-handed catch on a pass thrown behind him in the end zone, Terrell Suggs screamed out, “Calm down, there’s still only one white tight end!”

The 30-year-old linebacker was not only teasing the former Indianapolis Colt but making it clear that the Ravens haven’t forgotten their starting tight end. The injured Dennis Pitta was clearly on Suggs’ mind as he watched the 34-year-old Clark haul in Joe Flacco’s errant pass.

And while the Ravens are pleased with the addition of Clark to boost their depth at a banged-up tight end position, it was an interesting coincidence that coach John Harbaugh revealed after Tuesday’s practice that the Ravens haven’t placed Pitta on season-ending injured reserve yet because they’re unsure that he’ll definitely miss the entire season.

“We’ll put him on IR when we’re certain that he’s out for the year,” Harbaugh said. “We know it’s a serious injury, but when it came back that there was no ligament or cartilage damage, then that maybe gave us some hope. We’re going to wait and see how that bone heals over the first five weeks of the injury and see where we’re at.”

Sidelined since July 27 when he dislocated his hip trying to make a touchdown catch during practice, Pitta still has a difficult rehabilitation process of an estimated four months ahead but has at least a slightly better chance of returning by the end of the 2013 season due to positive MRI results. The Ravens initially said Pitta would be out for the rest of the season and wasn’t even a  candidate for the possibility to return.

Starting last year, the NFL began allowing teams to place one player on IR with a designation to return later in the season. This would likely be the course of action with Pitta if no other long-term injuries arise between now and Sept. 3, the earliest date a team can place one player on the reserve-injured list as “designated to return.” With this label, a player must miss a minimum of eight weeks of games but can begin practicing after six weeks, stipulations unlikely to be much of a factor for Pitta’s expected length of time needed to recover.

While it’s tempting to give Pitta the same treatment offered to linebacker Ray Lewis after he tore his right triceps last October, the designation can only be used for one player whether the individual would be able to return or not, meaning the Ravens could be dealing with a short-handed roster if they were to have another key player go down with a long-term injury early in the season. General manager Ozzie Newsome and Harbaugh must weigh the best-case scenarios for Pitta against the realistic expectations in determining whether he has a good chance to not just return to action but perform at a high level.

Shipley getting starting nod

If any more evidence were needed to determine how close the battle for the starting center job is at this stage in the preseason, run-game coordinator Juan Castillo announced Tuesday that A.Q. Shipley would receive the start in Thursday’s preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons.

Second-year lineman Gino Gradkowski started in the preseason opener last week and appears to hold the slightest of edges over the newcomer Shipley, who spent last season in Indianapolis. Gradkowski is listed as the starter on the most recent depth chart released by the Ravens public relations staff, but the pair have split reps with the starting offensive line throughout the summer.

“We need to have some separation,” Castillo said. “Somebody has to come to the top. The problem is that they’re both playing really well right now.”

Whoever prevails in the competition will be filling the large shoes of Matt Birk, who retired this offseason after 15 seasons in the NFL and winning his first Super Bowl championship.

Clark sporting No. 87

Clark had worn No. 44 in his nine seasons in Indianapolis and one season in Tampa Bay, but the veteran tight end didn’t even bother asking fullback Vonta Leach if he wanted to work out a deal.

Expressing much respect for the three-time Pro Bowl fullback, Clark instead elected to take No. 87 in what is a tribute to former teammate and good friend Reggie Wayne. The two played together for nine years in Indianapolis with Clark crediting Wayne for helping him a great deal in his career.

“One of my favorite teammates I’ve ever played with, so I told him last night that I got his number and he was pretty pumped about that,” said Clark, who joked that he’ll pretend to wear No. 44 as long as he doesn’t look down at his jersey. “I learned a lot from that guy, so I felt good about having 87.”

Practice attendance

Three players returned to the practice field on Tuesday as offensive lineman Ramon Harewood (knee) and cornerback Chykie Brown (undisclosed) each returned from ailments and linebacker Courtney Upshaw was back with the team after being excused for the last two days for the birth of his son.

Players not practicing included defensive tackle Marcus Spears (hamstring), wide receivers Deonte Thompson (foot) and Marlon Brown (undisclosed), tight ends Ed Dickson (hamstring) and Pitta, cornerback Chris Johnson (undisclosed), linebacker Jameel McClain (neck), offensive lineman Ryan Jensen (foot), and defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore (knee).

Harbaugh revealed that Spears has been dealing with a minor hamstring injury that’s kept him out of action since the first preseason game, but the coach expects Spears to return soon but wouldn’t specify a timetable, making it unlikely he’ll play Thursday against the Falcons.

Odds & ends

The Ravens practiced in helmets, shells, and shorts in what amounted to an extended walk-through without any contact on Tuesday. … Clark made it clear that he has plenty of work to do — studying his playbook and working on the field — in order to pick up the Baltimore offense, regardless of his familiarity with offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell from their days together in Indianapolis. “You do your best learning out here, making the mistakes and looking like an idiot and just causing a whole big ruckus and just being in the wrong position. That’s the only way you can truly learn how to play football.” … Veteran wide receiver Brandon Stokley received some first-team reps in his second practice since signing a one-year deal with the Ravens, executing a nice double move faking an inside slant before catching a touchdown pass during an 11-on-11 session. … Baltimore will have a walk-through on Wednesday that will be closed to media in preparation for their second preseason game.

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Leach’s return provides insurance for uncertain offensive identity

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Leach’s return provides insurance for uncertain offensive identity

Posted on 31 July 2013 by Luke Jones

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

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Believe it or not, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome didn’t immediately get on the phone with fullback Vonta Leach to grovel and beg for him to return after the disappointing season-ending injury to tight end Dennis Pitta last weekend.

As was the case with newly-signed veteran tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, the Ravens were already having discussions about bringing Leach back after releasing the three-time Pro Bowl selection less than two months ago. Newsome simply never panics, regardless of how troubling the loss of Pitta was to a passing game already facing major question marks at wide receiver with the offseason departure of veteran Anquan Boldin.

But the bruising blocker Leach’s return on a two-year deal is a critical insurance policy to have when you don’t know what your passing game is going to look like or whether it will be effective enough to win games consistently. The Ravens undoubtedly have a franchise quarterback who proved his worth with one of the finest postseason runs in NFL history, but Joe Flacco needs someone to catch the ball, too.

The combination of Pitta’s injury and the re-signing of Leach to a two-year deal have prompted many to suspect that the Ravens will lean more heavily on their running game, which features Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice and impressive backup Bernard Pearce. On paper, it’s difficult to disagree that the running game appears to be more of a sure thing than a passing attack that features Flacco and speedy third-year wideout Torrey Smith but not many proven commodities after that.

In the Flacco era, the Ravens have gradually moved away from a run-first mentality to open up a passing game that remained stagnant for more than a decade before the University of Delaware product arrived in Baltimore in 2008. The Ravens ran the ball 57.76 percentage of the time in Flacco’s rookie season, 47.85 percent in 2009, and 49.80 percent in 2010.

Since those first three seasons, their running play percentage has dropped out of the league’s top 10 with 45.76 percent in 2011 (13th in the NFL) and just 44.22 percent of their 2012 offensive plays (15th in the league).

With Boldin and Pitta now out of the picture, are the Ravens poised to return to their once-familiar profile of relying heavily on their running game and a revamped defense to lead them to victories?

“We don’t know,” Leach said. “Like I said, we never know what our identity is going to be until after training camp. We’ve got a lot of guys that can make plays. People are going to have to step up – that’s just always been the motto around here. ‘Next man up.’”

That motto has been uttered repeatedly over the years, most recently last season when the likes of Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis, and Lardarius Webb went down with long-term injuries but were replaced admirably by Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe, and Corey Graham. But Pitta’s loss reaches beyond backup tight end Ed Dickson because of an underwhelming group of wide receivers that include only two known commodities in Smith and a deep-ball threat in Jacoby Jones.

Pitta was being groomed to replace Boldin in the slot, serving as Flacco’s go-to target on third down and an excellent red-zone option as he was over the last two seasons. It wasn’t unreasonable to predict a Pro Bowl season for Pitta playing a hybrid role of wide receiver and tight end in a contract year

Yes, Newsome, coach John Harbaugh, and the front office have spoken glowingly all offseason about the potential of Tandon Doss, Deonte Thompson, David Reed, LaQuan Williams, Tommy Streeter, and seventh-round wide receiver Aaron Mellette, but anyone fully confident in that group of players is taking a significant leap of faith based on a handful of cameo appearances in regular-season games for a few and only practice and preseason reps for the rest of the bunch.

The truth is no one really knows exactly what the offense is going to look like in coordinator Jim Caldwell’s first full season in charge. Make no mistake, the Ravens won’t be conjuring Woody Hayes’ “three yards and a cloud of dust” philosophy with Flacco under center, but the sixth-year quarterback may not receive his wish to throw the ball at will with so few targets to trust.

The question would then become whether the current offensive line that includes four starters from Super Bowl XLVII — the center spot is up for grabs with Gino Gradkowski the favorite over A.Q. Shipley — is up to the challenge of more run blocking and the physicality it involves.

Even the Ravens admit the offense is a work in progress, not knowing exactly who will be most involved. Newsome is always monitoring the market for potential trades and signings, but the prevailing thought is that it’s unclear whether there’s anyone available that’s undoubtedly better than what they already have and fits their need for a receiver who can work the middle of the field. As a result, Baltimore is content with continuing to evaluate their young wide receivers with the option of adding a veteran pass-catching target before the season opener on Sept. 5.

“We haven’t made any determination three or four days into training camp what our offensive personality is going to be,” Harbaugh said. “You always have to build your offense around your players. And you have to see how your players work together and what they do well individually and who emerges. The fact that [the Pitta injury] happened this early is probably something that makes it a little bit less difficult in that sense.”

In the days following Pitta’s injury, Dickson has impressed lining up at tight end and occasionally in the slot, making several long receptions and catching nearly everything thrown his way. However, the fourth-year tight end has struggled with catching the football consistently at different points in his young career, which is one reason why Pitta eventually supplanted him as the primary tight end in the second half of the 2011 season.

Just as they viewed Boldin’s departure, the Ravens won’t lean too heavily on Dickson alone to replace Pitta’s production, but the 126 receptions, 1,590 receiving yards, and 11 touchdowns that Pitta and Boldin combined to provide last year will have to come from somewhere.

Finding that right combination won’t be easy and the Ravens understand that while reminding everyone that the month of August is just beginning. This is the time to see exactly what you have in Dickson and their young receivers while understanding they have Leach and a heavier reliance on the running game as a fallback plan.

“You have to prove out here in practice each and every day that you’re the guy, and you can get the job done,” Dickson said. “It was high expectations for the whole group, and that’s just the standard.”

But there’s no guarantee that individuals from a group of unproven candidates will ultimately emerge.

And that’s what makes Leach’s return just a bit more comforting this week.

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Pro Bowl fullback Leach returns to Ravens on two-year deal

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Pro Bowl fullback Leach returns to Ravens on two-year deal

Posted on 29 July 2013 by Luke Jones

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

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After more than a month on the open market, veteran fullback Vonta Leach realized his best bet was to stay with the Ravens after all.

The three-time Pro Bowl selection agreed to a two-year deal to return for a third season in Baltimore. Leach received some interest from Miami, Houston, and the New York Giants, but the Ravens ultimately offered the best deal and opportunity for the 31-year-old.

He went through his physical and passed his conditioning test on Monday at the Ravens’ Owings Mills facility before signing the deal. Coach John Harbaugh announced after Monday’s practice that the contract was being finalized .

“Having Vonta back gives you a physical presence for sure with your offense, short yardage, goal line,” Harbaugh said. “Also, it’s a leadership presence. Obviously, we’ve been hopeful that this would happen all along.”

Leach was originally slated to make a $3 million base salary in the final season of a three-year contract he signed in the summer of 2011 before general manager Ozzie Newsome tried to cut his salary. It was believed that the Ravens would include incentives in their new deal with the bruising fullback.

Newsome deemed Leach expendable after the Ravens drafted Harvard fullback Kyle Juszczyk in the fourth round of April’s draft. However, Baltimore made it clear that Leach could be an option to return if he found a lukewarm free-agent market for his services. Juszczyk has also struggled to block in short-yardage situations in a handful of training camp practices.

With Leach now in the fold, Juszczyk could be shifted to more of an H-back tight end role to help offset the void of Pitta in the passing game.

“It’s good to have two fullbacks,” Harbaugh said. “It will be valuable to us. There will be plenty of reps for both of those guys. We’ll find ways to get them on the field.”

Entering his 10th season, Leach played in all 16 games in each of his two seasons with the Ravens and has earned a trip to the Pro Bowl in three straight seasons. He’s received only 21 total carries in those two seasons but made 36 receptions for 212 yards over that stretch.

With the loss of tight end Dennis Pitta for the entire season that further depletes an inexperienced group of wide receivers and tight ends, the Ravens could lean more heavily on their running game, making Leach an even better fit for a return as the punishing blocker to open running lanes for Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice and top backup Bernard Pierce.

Leach is expected to return to the practice field on Wednesday with players off on Tuesday.

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Reports: Leach expected to re-sign with Ravens

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Reports: Leach expected to re-sign with Ravens

Posted on 26 July 2013 by Luke Jones

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

(Updated: 12:25 p.m.)

Free-agent fullback Vonta Leach has weighed his options on the open market and is apparently leaning toward a return to the Ravens.

A report from the Newark Star-Ledger says the 31-year-old will make a decision on his 2013 destination Friday and is expected to accept Baltimore’s offer to rejoin the defending Super Bowl champions. Leach was released in early June in a cap-related move after he was scheduled to make a $3 million base salary in the final season of a three-year contract he signed in the summer of 2011. It is likely the Ravens would include incentives in any agreement reached with the bruising fullback.

Several media reports, however, have since disputed the notion that Leach would make a decision by Friday but confirmed that all signs point to him returning to Baltimore.

General manager Ozzie Newsome deemed Leach expendable after the Ravens drafted Harvard fullback Kyle Juszczyk in the fourth round of April’s draft. However, Baltimore made it clear that Leach could be an option to return if he found a lukewarm free-agent market for his services.

“He added to our toughness and will to win, plus he provided leadership,” Newsome said on June 11. “He’s a good football player. There could be an opportunity for him to return to the Ravens once he explores the free-agent market, and we could revisit this before or during training camp.”

Other teams to show interest in the three-time Pro Bowl fullback include the New York Giants, Miami Dolphins, and Houston Texans, but it’s believed that none of those teams have trumped Newsome’s offer.

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