OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Earl Thomas has played Tom Brady and undefeated New England on the NFL’s grandest stage and wasn’t about to miss Sunday night’s showdown because of a minor knee issue.
The Ravens safety returned to practice on a limited basis after sitting out Wednesday’s workout, but he removed any doubt about his availability against the team that edged him and the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX nearly five years ago. Thomas is expecting an electric atmosphere with Baltimore hosting its first Sunday night game since beating the Patriots back in 2012, and it’s an opportunity for the Ravens to make another major statement after the road win over Thomas’ old team two weeks ago.
“That’s why you prepare, so that you can go out there and have fun and dominate,” said Thomas, who added how this is the kind of matchup a player tells his kids about one day. “Hopefully, that’s what happens. The black-on-black [uniforms] are going to be fire. The fans are going to be fired up. It’s going to be at night at 8:30. I’m very excited about it. Everybody in this locker room is excited about it.”
The Ravens defense has endured its share of season-ending injuries since training camp, but Sunday could mark the healthiest it’s been since Week 1 as veteran Jimmy Smith (right knee) is expected to make his return after a six-game absence. Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale will now have no shortage of flexibility at cornerback with Smith joining the trio of Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, and Brandon Carr.
Inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor is also expected to be back in action after missing the final two games before the bye week due to a high ankle sprain. With veteran Josh Bynes stepping into the “Mike” linebacker role at which Onwuasor struggled early in the season, the Ravens will use Onwuasor at the weak-side spot. It’s the position at which Onwuasor excelled last season, collecting 5 1/2 sacks, two forced fumbles, and an interception.
“I’m looking forward to seeing ‘Peanut’ get back out there,” Martindale said. “That’s going to help us. That strengthens our defense. There will be roles for everybody that dresses, especially for this game because they do such a good job of showing you something they haven’t shown or things like that.”
Entering Week 9 just 16th in total offense, the New England offense has benefited from playing with the AFC’s best unit on the other side of the ball, but the Ravens are still aware of Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ ability to game-plan and Brady’s awareness to expose an opponent’s weakness. Thanks to a combined six touchdowns scored on defense and special teams, New England is averaging an NFL-best 31.3 points per game, just ahead of the Ravens’ 30.6 scored per contest.
Since ranking 27th in total defense and 23rd in points allowed after the Week 4 loss to Cleveland, the Ravens have made personnel changes and have improved to 16th in both yards and points allowed per game. The defense is coming off its best performance of the season in the 30-16 win over the Seahawks that included an interception return for a touchdown from Peters and a fumbled return for a score by Humphrey.
“I really like the direction that we’re going,” Martindale said. “We’re playing with a lot better fundamentals, knock-back at the line of scrimmage. Our eyes are in the right place in coverage. Our leverages and angles of the football have improved immensely, and most importantly, our tackling has.
“Obviously, we had a rough stretch there, and there’s a focus on making sure we do everything right. I’m excited where that’s going.”
Reserve safety Bennett Jackson (ankle) was the only Baltimore player not to practice Thursday, but reserve offensive lineman Patrick Mekari (back) left the field with head athletic trainer Ron Medlin during the portion of practice open to reporters. Rookie wide receiver Marquise Brown (right ankle) was a limited participant for the second straight day.
The Patriots removed Brady from the injury report after the 42-year-old quarterback was limited with right shoulder soreness on Wednesday.
Below is Thursday’s full injury report:
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: S Bennett Jackson (ankle)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: WR Marquise Brown (ankle), CB Maurice Canady (thigh), G Patrick Mekari (back) , LB Patrick Onwuasor (ankle), CB Jimmy Smith (knee), S Earl Thomas (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: RB Rex Burkhead (foot), S Patrick Chung (heel/chest), WR Julian Edelman (chest/shoulder), TE Ryan Izzo (concussion), TE Matt LaCosse (knee), G Shaq Mason (ankle), WR Gunner Olszewski (ankle/hamstring)