Ravens Key Players To Watch In Atlanta Opener
NOTES: HARBS AT REID FUNERAL; NORTH'S O-LINES; HYMES' BIG MOMENT
By Joe Platania
OWINGS MILLS -- If Ravens fans had their own injury report, it's sure to grow very long after Thursday night.
That's the evening their favorite team takes on the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome during the preseason opener (7:30 p.m.; WMAR-TV, WBAL Plus; WIYY-FM). It will be the teams' ninth August get-together -- the seventh in Atlanta -- and fifth during the last six years.
No matter what the final score is and how much the starters play -- about a quarter, at most -- there are sure to be enough knee-jerk reactions and bandwagon-jumpers to require a ton of ligament surgeries.
But because the Ravens and Falcons don't play each other much during the regular season -- they have met just four times, splitting with two wins each -- and because they have been frustrated playoff teams for the past few seasons, they have to get their own houses in order before worrying about game-planning for each other.
"We're in training-camp mode," head coach John Harbaugh said. "We're not pointing to the game, other than emotionally. We know we are playing a game Thursday, so the guys will get ready to play a game, but we're in practice mode. We are in preparation mode for the season.
"So, we're not backing off. We're not putting a game plan together. We're not looking at the Falcons' tape, nothing like that. We're just getting ready to go out and play football.”
Teams can cut, waive or release players at any time, but at this stage, they want to keep around as many players as they can to give themselves options before the first cutdown deadline on Monday, Aug. 27, when rosters must be reduced from 90 to 75 players.
So, if all the Ravens are going to do in Atlanta is "play football," then it's incumbent upon the coaching staff to closely scrutinize some players more than others, particularly in spots along the depth chart that need the most help.
With that in mind, here are five Ravens whose future could take a turn for the better -- or worse -- when things kick off against the Falcons:
1. LG BOBBIE WILLIAMS/RT KELECHI OSEMELE
We're treating these two as one, because it's important that offensive-line chemistry be achieved as soon as possible before the regular season starts. The coaching staff has shown enough confidence in the graybearded Williams and the rookie Osemele to put them out with the first units on a consistent basis. As a result, in the eyes of the coaches, the offensive-line quandry seems to have died down for the moment. Williams earned rave reviews for his toughness while with Cincinnati, and Osemele, originally thought to be in the left-guard mix, has thrown his 335-pound frame around well, and with some good, quick footwork to boot.
2. WR/RS JACOBY JONES
Because the Ravens' special-teams units received a lot of criticism in the 2011 aftermath, it's important they present a good first impression to the fans in this initial game setting against the Falcons. Ideally, the Ravens would like to have either Jones or rookie Asa Jackson take over the return duties and leave Lardarius Webb for the regular secondary corps. But Jackson has had the same kind of catching issues in practice that Jones had in Houston. Plus, even though Jones could be on the field plenty as a receiver this year, at least he has shown good reliability in training camp, both as a receiver and a return specialist.
3. LB DANNELL ELLERBE
The Ravens have a ton of inside-linebacking talent, such as the legendary Ray Lewis, the fast-rising Jameel McClain, the steady veteran presence of Brendon Ayanbadejo and eye-opening undrafted rookie Nigel Carr. So it's important for Ellerbe -- who isn't likely to play at Atlanta -- to shake off his nagging injuries and play better than he did at New England, where he often seemed a step behind receivers in coverage and not where he was supposed to be on runs. Ellerbe was an undrafted rookie star in 2009, a time when some observers were comparing him to Bart Scott. But he has not announced his presence with authority, as Scott did.
4. RB ANTHONY ALLEN
When Allen first came to the Ravens as a seventh-round draft pick, it seemed to be a good move at the time, because he came from a run-first triple-option attack at Georgia Tech and proved to be a more-than-solid blocker in that scheme. But rookie Bernard Pierce has proven to be a more flexible option in the Ravens' attempt to branch out and diversify their offense. That means Allen had to maintain his special-teams spot and get more versatile on offense, which he has done by showing good hands in catching passes out of the backfield. With Pierce nursing a hamstring injury, Allen could capitalize with a big game in his return to Atlanta.
5. K JUSTIN TUCKER
Through Monday, Tucker had missed just three field-goal tries in camp, while incumbent Billy Cundiff had missed eight. But all the misses have come from long range, so most observers are rating the kicking competition -- the Ravens' third in four years since Matt Stover was released -- dead even. The two are equally good at kickoffs, but Cundiff had a Pro Bowl year in 2010 before his slump last year; besides that, he is under contract until 2015, and sitting kickers tend to win the battles. Matt Stover beat out a solid Scott Bentley in 1999, Steven Hauschka bested Graham Gano in 2009 and Cundiff topped Shayne Graham in 2010.
INFIRMARY: Harbaugh spelled out the status of his injured players: they will not take the field in Atlanta. That means those that missed the Tuesday-afternoon practice won't be seen in uniform; also, the coach said some of the oldest veterans on the roster wouldn't play.
That list includes linebacker Terrell Suggs (Achilles, Non-Football Injury list) and the two players left on the Physically Unable To Perform sheet: wideout David Reed (knee) and tackle/guard Jah Reid (calf).
Missing the Tuesday workout were:
Wideouts Jacoby Jones and Tandon Doss (undisclosed), wideout Patrick Williams (shin), cornerback Jimmy Smith (back), running back Bernard Pierce (hamstring), linebacker Josh Bynes (chipped vertebrae), linebackers Darryl Blackstock (groin) and Dannell Ellerbe (hamstring), center Matt Birk (back), tight end Dennis Pitta (hand) and defensive lineman Arthur Jones (hip flexor).
For Smith, it was his fourth straight practice missed. Jones' absence was his fifth in a row and Williams racked his sixth consecutive non-participating day. Pierce, Bynes and Pitta have each been out for a full week, and Birk missed an eighth straight practice day.
But rookie linebacker Courtney Upshaw didn't join Birk in the latter category, as he returned to the field, even though that doesn't necessarily mean he'll play in Atlanta.
Also returning were free safety Ed Reed, running back Anthony Allen, linebacker Jameel McClain, guard Marshal Yanda, defensive end Pernell McPhee and defensive tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu.
PAYING RESPECTS: For the third time in camp, the usual 2:30 p.m. start time for practice was moved back a half-hour, and there was a good reason for it: Harbaugh traveled north to Philadelphia to attend the Garrett Reid funeral service Tuesday morning.
Making the trip with him were general manager Ozzie Newsome; Ravens safety and ex-Eagle Sean Considine; kicking coach Randy Brown; and Harbaugh's administrative assistant, Heather Matjasic, who had worked under him in Philadelphia.
Reid, 29, was found dead Sunday morning at the Eagles' training camp at Lehigh University. He is the son of Harbaugh's former employer, Eagles head coach Andy Reid. Harbaugh was a special-teams coordinator and secondary coach under Reid for 10 years.
A published report from outside the service indicated that Harbaugh said, "Andy wrapped me up in a big bear hug and told me everything was going to be all right."
It was the second time as Ravens head coach that Harbaugh had to leave camp for a funeral, having done so three years ago when Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson passed away. At the Reid funeral, Harbaugh reconnected with Johnson's widow, Vicky.
Here are a few highlights from the Ravens' Tuesday afternoon session:
- The shorts-and-shells practice was held at the Under Armour Performance Center's indoor field, but the team could easily accomodate the approximate 200 or so fans that have attended each workout.
- Logan Payne was flagged for false-starting, but caught a touchdown pass that was actually tipped in-flight by Asa Jackson.
- Jordan Mabin turned around and found the ball at the last minute, breaking up a pass intended for Dorian Graham.
- Cornerback Cary Williams broke up an end-zone pass for LaQuan Williams, landing on top of the former Terp with his hands around his neck. It looked like a scary situation, but the two were actually laughing about it while still on the ground. There have been a few close calls, but no fights or shoving matches have taken place so far in camp.
- Jackson bumped Anquan Boldin while he was running a deep downfield pattern, prompting a pass-interference flag to be thrown, much to the defense's dismay.
- Drop-prone tight end Davon Drew got a lot of footballs thrown his way, beating Brendon Ayanbadejo and making a great catch at the goal line. He also made a leaping catch at the sideline, but Sean Considine laid him out with a hard hit.
- Because the practice was indoors, it was tough to multitask on just one field. But during 7-on-7 drills, the offensive and defensive linemen were able to get in some extra technique repetitions.
- Billy Cundiff came up a little short on two long field-goal attempts, but Justin Tucker was again flawless.
- Among those seen in person at the practice were majority owner Steve Bisciotti and former majority owner and current minority owner Arthur B. Modell, who celebrated his 87th birthday earlier this summer.
- There wasn't much music piped into the practice, but a smidgen of Van Morrison could be heard before the system was shut down.
O-LINE STACK-UP: There's little doubt the Ravens and their fans would love to see the team get younger along the offensive line.
It's what the Pittsburgh Steelers are trying to do, but their plan may have hit a snag.
The Steelers were lauded for their first-round pick of Stanford's David DeCastro, who got to block for can't-miss quarterback Andrew Luck. But it appears DeCastro is struggling with the more experienced, older players he's seeing in training camp.
As a result, neither DeCastro nor rookie tackle Mike Adams have cracked the Steelers' projected lineup, even though the duo will reportedly take the field first during Thursday's preseason opener against Philadelphia. Still, Pittsburgh is making progress shedding the graybeards; its most experienced offensive lineman is eighth-year left tackle Trai Essex.
In the same vein, Cleveland's oldest trenchman is sixth-year left tackle Joe Thomas, one of the league's best at the moment, while Cincinnati could go with a right-guard rookie in Kevin Zeitler, pairing him with seventh-year right tackle Andrew Whitworth.
If all the AFC North teams' preseason projections hold, the Ravens would have the oldest offensive line in the division, with three players with 11 or more years' experience (left tackle Bryant McKinnie, left guard Bobbie Williams, center Matt Birk).
Here's how the division's offensive lines stack up right now (subject to change), going from left to right:
Baltimore: Bryant McKinnie, 11 years; Bobbie Williams, 13; Matt Birk, 15; Marshal Yanda, 6; Michael Oher, 4
Pittsburgh: Trai Essex, 8; Willie Colon, 7; Maurkice Pouncey, 3; Ramon Foster, 4; Marcus Gilbert, 2
Cincinnati: Andre Smith, 4; Travelle Wharton, 9; Kyle Cook, 5; Kevin Zeitler, rookie; Andrew Whitworth, 7
Cleveland: Joe Thomas, 6; Jason Pinkston, 2; Alex Mack, 4; Shawn Lauvao, 3; Mitchell Schwartz, rookie
HAPPY BIRTHDAY: The Ravens have had mostly bad luck at the receiver position, but one that showed plenty of promise before eventually fizzling out turns 33 years old today.
That would be Randy Hymes, a 6-foot-3, 210-pounder from Grambling University who was part of the youngest Week One roster in NFL history, as 19 rookies and first-year Ravens made the 2002 team after the salary-cap blowup that followed the previous season.
We remember Hymes for one particular moment, apropos for this time of year.
In 2005, the Ravens played the only overtime preseason game in their history. To make things worse, it was in the final August game, a combination that usually fills fans and media with dread.
But it was Hymes that provided the winning moment, capping off a five-catch, 123-yard, two-touchdown performance with a 66-yard catch-and-run score down the left sideline and into the east end zone early in the overtime period that beat the visiting Washington Redskins, 26-20, during their first-ever appearance at M&T Bank Stadium.
Not only do fans always seem to remember a win against Washington, despite its preseason status, they remember the fact that it was sixth-round draft pick Derek Anderson that threw the pass.
For several years after that one throw, fans that clamored for a replacement for Kyle Boller or a younger Joe Flacco would point to that moment and say, "We should have kept Derek Anderson around."
But for that one night, it was Anderson that was glad Hymes was here.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: When the Ravens first signed fullback Vonta Leach -- considered the best at his position in the league -- running back Ray Rice danced and sang the Pointer Sisters' "I'm So Excited" in front of the media.
A year later, Rice's opinion of Leach hasn't changed.
"He's a bruiser," Rice said. "He wants to do one thing -- destroy linebackers -- and that's all he thinks about doing.
"He's like my armed security guard. I feel like I can go anywhere with him, even if [we weren't] playing football."
JOEY P'S TRIVIA TIME ANSWER: Here's the question we asked you in our last entry:
Even though the Ravens' special-teams coverage units did not perform all that well last year, they were still filled with the same kind of young, hungry players that have to earn their keep on such units before playing on regular offense or defense.
With that as a hint, can you name the player that led the Ravens in regular-season special-teams tackles in 2011?
After spending his entire 2010 rookie season on the Ravens' practice squad, linebacker Albert McClellan came on like gangbusters last year, registering 12 special-teams tackles (10 solo) to lead the Ravens.
That represents the lowest listed total to lead the team, but it could be a combination of the units' subpar performance and the fact that last year's stats were compiled using press box numbers instead of coaches' video.
In any event, the 6-foot-2, 245-pound McClellan led by three tackles more than Brendon Ayanbadejo and Haruki Nakamura and five more than Tom Zbikowski.
McClellan's rise was so rapid, he eventually earned his first NFL start in the Thanksgiving-night "HarBowl" against the San Francisco 49ers and their head coach, Jim Harbaugh. McClellan, who can play inside or outside linebacker, recorded four tackles against the 'Niners on a night when the defense racked up a team-record-high nine sacks against quarterback Alex Smith.
McClellan was an All-State selection in Florida, having attended Kathleen High School, the same alma mater as teammate Ray Lewis and ex-Orioles reliever (and Class A Aberdeen pitching coach) Alan Mills. McClellan played collegiately at Marshall.
Posted Aug. 7, 2012