Traditional Ravens Run-Stuffing D Actually A Concern
NOTEBOOK: SECONDARY TO BE PRIMARY; HOMECOMING LIONS
By Joe Platania
OWINGS MILLS -- Usually, a phrase such as "questionable run defense" would be seen as an oxymoron, such as "government assistance," "jumbo shrimp" or "working press."
The Ravens have taken pride in stopping the run, holding opponents to an average of less than 4 yards per rush for each and every one of its 16 years of existence, setting a league record in the process.
Most casual fans nationwide got introduced to the Ravens' run-stuffing ways during their Super Bowl XXXV-winning year in general, and via Ray Lewis' sideline rush to take down the New York Giants' Tiki Barber in particular.
But for years, opposing ball carriers have been diving into piles at the point of attack and have not been seen until the mass of human carnage was removed from the spot where the run terminated.
But during this year's training camp, smallish scatbacks such as Ray Rice and Bobby Rainey have wiggled their way through holes in the defense and bigger backs such as Anthony Allen and Damien Berry have occasionally busted through tackles inside.
That could mean one of two things: either the defense has been told to ease off a bit during a non-live period, or the backs are truly finding cracks in a run-defense armor that no longer has Cory Redding, Jarret Johnson or, temporarily, Terrell Suggs to hold down the fort.
Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata is not only brutish, but brutally honest, and he said he thought the concern was real.
"I think we still have some work to do," Ngata said. "But we have a lot of young guys trying to learn, especially the guys with the edges and with ... all the other guys behind them.
"... I don't think we really play well together yet, just because it's so new and young. Once we get those things together, I think we'll be really good and up there again."
Despite the Ravens' overall per-rush average allowed, they yielded more than 100 yards to eight of the 16 teams on last year's regular-season schedule, limping down the December stretch with three such games against San Diego (145), Cleveland (117) and Cincinnati (105).
The Houston Texans, a team the Ravens will play this year on Oct. 21, then put up 131 rushing yards during the Divisional Playoff round at M&T Bank Stadium.
Last Thursday, during the preseason opener, the Atlanta Falcons could manage only 71 yards on 21 rushes against the Ravens' starters and reserves. But for the most part, they didn't need to run the ball well with quarterback Matt Ryan carving up Baltimore's first string and getting his team out to an early lead.
This Friday, the Detroit Lions come to town, with a squad that won't put Kevin Smith on the field often and doesn't have two fine reserve backs, Mikel Leshoure and Jahvid Best, healthy at all.
In today's pass-happy NFL era, it seems as if not only is it not as important for offenses to run, it's not that big a deal if teams can't stop the run.
But you won't hear that from the Ravens, a team eager to groom run-stopping reinforcements such as Terrence Cody, Pernell McPhee, DeAngelo Tyson and Bryan Hall, among others, to replace those they have lost.
"These [young] guys ... know what's at stake," defensive line coach Clarence Brooks said. "They know what we have to do in the run game first, because if we don't do that, you don't have to worry about rushing the passer, we don't have to worry about it.
"[Teams] will just run the ball down our throat, and we cannot let that happen."
Hall, a first-year player who spent last year on the practice squad, has particularly stood out during camp. He is slightly undersized (6 feet, 291 pounds), but has shown great presence in the trenches in both run and pass defense.
"You'd love his personality," head coach John Harbaugh said of Hall. "You love being around him. ... He's quick. He's athletic. He plays hard and he's smart.
"[Hall and seventh-round pick Tyson] are doing very well. Those are two guys that have stood out in the last couple of days."
It's been well-documented how tough this year's Ravens' schedule is, what with eight games against teams that made last year's playoffs, including dates against the other five teams that accompanied Baltimore into the AFC playoff field.
But it bears noting that there are only three games on the itinerary -- two of them at home -- against squads that had top 10 rushing offenses in 2011. The only road contest is against second-ranked Houston and big, fast back Arian Foster.
Visiting the Ravens will be Oakland -- the seventh-best rush team that got a good performance from the rejuvenated Darren McFadden during its preseason opener against the Dallas Cowboys on Monday night -- and top-ranked Denver, which could be putting the ball in the air more this year with Peyton Manning at the helm.
There is a good crop of young running backs on the Ravens' schedule, such as Pittsburgh's Rashard Mendenhall, Cincinnati's BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Cleveland's Trent Richardson, Dallas' DeMarco Murray, San Diego's Ryan Mathews, Kansas City's Jamaal Charles, Washington's Roy Helu and others.
But Brooks said such a lineup of backs wouldn't faze him.
"I feel very good," Brooks said. "I feel very, very good about the guys we have. We have some guys, in addition to Haloti, [Cody] has played a lot, Arthur [Jones] has played a lot, and then we are going to kind of fill in whoever else.
"We have [Ma'ake Kemoeatu] back, and that's a big deal. ... Like I said, people come and go. We just have to continue to develop them and put them out there and make sure they play like Ravens."
If they do, "questionable run defense" will again become the oxymoron it has been in these parts.
INFIRMARY: The injury list got a little shorter when defensive end Pernell McPhee, who has been off-and-on with minor post-knee surgery problems, and cornerback/returner Asa Jackson (hamstring) returned to practice.
Not participating was free safety Ed Reed, who nevertheless did appear on the field in partial uniform about three-quarters of the way through practice.
Harbaugh had a two-day absence planned for starting left guard Bobbie Williams, who has a swollen knee. Tuesday was the second of those days, but Williams seemed to be energetic and jogging without much difficulty, even though he was not wearing pads.
In his place, rookie second-round guard/tackle Kelechi Osemele played at left guard with Michael Oher back at right tackle and Bryant McKinnie anchoring at left for a second straight day. Center Matt Birk, who has been rested for most of the training-camp period, took most of the repetitions at his position.
Three wideouts were not at practice: Jacoby Jones (leg), Torrey Smith (ankle) -- who had left the Monday practice early at the coaches' request -- and rookie undrafted signee Devin Goda (unknown).
Also missing out on the session were linebackers Darryl Blackstock (groin, five straight practices missed), Josh Bynes (chipped vertebrae, 10 straight), defensive tackle Ryan McBean (broken ankle), and tight ends Dennis Pitta (broken hand) and Ed Dickson (sprained shoulder).
Wideout David Reed (knee) is the only Raven remaining on the Physically Unable To Perform list after guard/tackle Jah Reid's return to the field Monday.
Linebacker Terrell Suggs (Achilles surgery) remains on the Reserve/Non-Football Injury sheet.
PRACTICE REPORT: If the Ravens still practiced at McDaniel College in Westminster, today would be the day the players would begin packing their bags for the trip home.
That's because the team's training-camp mode will end Wednesday, as per Harbaugh's usual schedule, just before the second preseason game.
Practice times and press-conference schedules will change and the daily 200-strong fan crowds will no longer be permitted to be on site.
As for Tuesday's practice, more clouds, some light rain and a shorter on-field schedule -- the session began at 3 p.m. and was scheduled to end at 4:45 -- made for more bearable conditions.
Here are a few highlights from the Tuesday afternoon padded practice:
- The team's top two backup quarterbacks unleashed several nicely thrown balls. Tyrod Taylor lofted a pass to tight end Matt Balasavage, which was just over the reach of safety Emanuel Cook, and Curtis Painter's pass to Tommy Streeter barely eluded Ricky Brown's coverage.
- Undrafted inside linebacker Nigel Carr continues to have a love of contact and a nose for the ball. Wideout LaQuan Williams fumbled away a reception thanks to Jimmy Smith's strip, and Carr recovered the ball.
- Earlier, Smith had the taller Tommy Streeter covered so well on the sideline, he forced him out of bounds before the ball arrived, making Streeter an ineligible receiver.
- Penalties -- particularly pre-snap violations, coming from both sides of the ball -- were way too numerous for Harbaugh's taste, so he made the players repeat an early team period. A couple of other violations went uncalled, such as Ramon Harewood holding pass-rusher Arthur Jones, and Davon Drew's false start during the 7-on-7 period.
- Cornerback Chykie Brown leapt high to try to intercept a pass intended for Deonte Thompson, but couldn't come up with it. To the delight of the crowd, he then dropped down and did push-ups.
- Quarterback Joe Flacco showed great mobility on a rollout play when he hot-footed it to his right and found Thompson for a touchdown.
- Anthony Allen went into the hole as the lead blocker for a running play, but physical safety Sean Considine stopped him in his tracks.
- McKinnie showed good, smooth form on a pull play to the left, but the problem was that Jones had gotten behind him to stop the ball carrier.
- After a catch, as wideout Dorian Graham slowed up by the sideline, linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo came up from behind him and knock the ball loose, earning kudos from his teammates.
- Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata continues to show the agility that wowed observers during his rookie year, knocking down a Flacco pass at the line of scrimmage.
- Billy Cundiff was 3-for-4 during the early kicking period, missing wide left from 41 yards, but successful from 47 and 52 yards. Punter Sam Koch stepped up to make a surprise appearance, and hit one of two tries, missing wide right from 41.
- New additions to the music playlist included Nelly, Big & Rich, Run-DMC, Young Jeezy, Jimi Hendrix, Journey, James Brown and Rush.
BEING THERE: Our lead item this afternoon dealt with the Ravens' run defense, and another reason it has been so good through the years is that its players have been so durable.
In 2011, the Baltimore pass defense allowed a league-low 11 touchdown passes, and the secondary can claim the same trait.
Not only that, even though many defensive backs were constantly on the field, they didn't have to make many tackles, because opponents directed plenty of action away from them.
For instance, free safety Ed Reed was on the field for 1,194 snaps last year, or 99.6 percent of all possible snaps. Yet, he was ninth on the team in total tackles, with 52.
In fact, defensive backs made up four of the top five on-field presences last year, with Terrell Suggs second on the team in snaps (1,139), followed by cornerback Lardarius Webb (1,123), cornerback Cary Williams (1,110) and safety Bernard Pollard (1,035).
Among that group, Williams had the most tackles, but his total of 77 was third on the team, trailing only Ray Lewis (95) and Jameel McClain (81).
All this data leads to several conclusions.
First of all, Suggs' mere presence, stats notwithstanding, will be sorely missed for at least the first half of the season. Secondly, once a secondary unit was assembled that could work together and stay healthy on a consistent basis, it turned out to be the best position group on the entire team.
Finally, it appears that the secondary is going to have a lot more to do this year, what with the league's pass-happy nature and the opposing quarterbacks on this year's schedule that have combined for eight Super Bowl titles and more than 20 Pro Bowl berths.
HOMECOMINGS: We've certainly mentioned this before, but many Ravens fans might remember third-round pick Bernard Pierce as the one that ran for more than 140 yards and three touchdowns for Temple against Maryland last year.
When the Detroit Lions visit the Ravens at 8 p.m. Friday (WBFF-TV; WIYY-FM), Pierce will have a reunion with one of those that blocked for him that day and throughout his career, Lions rookie backup guard Pat Boyle, a Calvert Hall graduate.
Boyle (6-foot-5, 301 pounds) signed with the Lions as an undrafted free agent and is currently third on the team's right-guard depth chart, behind starter Stephen Peterman -- who started all 16 games last year -- and second-year man Jacques McClendon.
Another Baltimore native, 6-foot-2, 210-pound strong safety Ricardo Silva, will also be suiting up for the Lions.
Silva played at Bowie State before transferring to Hampton for his final two collegiate seasons. He spent most of last season on the Lions' practice squad, making him a first-year player this year.
But Silva was promoted to the active roster in December, making a couple of tackles during the Lions' road comeback win against the Oakland Raiders and another stop in a game against San Diego the following week.
Like Boyle, Silva is third on the Lions' depth chart at his position, behind starter Amari Spievey and a nine-year player, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Sean Jones.
But the Baltimore reunions won't stop there: Mount Saint Joseph's grad Jim Schwartz, a former Maryland and Ravens assistant, is the Lions' head coach and ex-Ravens mentor Brian Billick will be working the game for Fox with his usual play-by-play partner Thom Brennaman.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: This may not bode well for Friday night's Lions-Ravens game, but it will be worked by replacement referee Jerry Hughes, whose crew mishandled several calls last week during the New York Giants-Jacksonville game.
That prompted this assessment from St. Augustine.com columnist Austen Gregerson:
"Mistakes made by humans are to be expected. We're a flawed species, but I'd rather have a pack of feral cats in pinstriped shirts officiating next week's games than the crew that worked on Friday."
JOEY P'S TRIVIA TIME ANSWER: Here's the question we asked you in our previous entry:
Even though the relevance of preseason results is questionable, the Ravens can at least say for the most part that they know how to get their fans excited in August.
Including the win in Atlanta last week, the Ravens are 39-25 lifetime during preseason games and have gone unbeaten four times during their previous 16 preseasons.
But on the other hand, have the Ravens ever had a winless August?
In 1997, the Ravens' second year of existence, the team was coming off a 4-12 debut season.
But the team had a stellar draft, during which it drafted four eventual Super Bowl starters (linebackers Jamie Sharper and Peter Boulware, center Jeff Mitchell, safety Kim Herring), a promising backup linebacker (Cornell Brown), a big running back (Jay Graham) and a backup quarterback (Wally Richardson).
But none of that translated into a successful preseason, the only winless August in team history. In this case, the results had relevance as the Ravens faltered to a 6-9-1 season, its last in Memorial Stadium.
The preseason opened with a narrow 21-20 loss to the New York Giants on 33rd Street and continued with a bizarre 39-29 defeat at the hands of the Jets at Giants Stadium.
During the Jets game, a squirrel somehow got onto the field and ran the entire length of the field twice before being caught. A witty Jets employee, who was working the scoreboard, put up a message that read: "Squirrel ... one carry, 220 yards."
Another strange night followed at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium the following week. Before the team's 24-13 loss to the Eagles, Boulware suddenly ended his holdout and announced his signing in a press conference held in a dingy basement room at the Vet.
The preseason ended back home with a 31-28 loss to Buffalo thanks to a botched snap on a game-tying field-goal try during the closing seconds.
Posted Aug. 14, 2012