Archive for August, 2011

Preseason Game 1: Ravens @ Eagles – What to Watch For

August 10, 2011

Aaaaaaaaaaaah.

Smell that?

That’s right, it’s football. Another season ended in heartbreak for our Ravens in 2010, as the team choked away a 21-7 halftime lead at Heinz Field on their way to losing to the Steelers 31-24 in the divisional round of the AFC Playoffs at Heinz Field (fortunately, the season also ended in heartbreak for those shithead Yinzers as well.)

Well, after seven long months, we finally get to watch the purple and black take the field again. While it’s just “practice” for this and the next three weeks, with the Orioles again pushing the limits of suck, we’re more than thrilled to have the other team in town back in action.

This will be the debut of the “new look” Ravens. You all know the names by now – no Todd Heap…no Derrick Mason…no Willis McGahee…and no Kelly “Buddy Lee” Gregg. Instead, Ravens fans will have to get used to watching guys like Ed Dickson, Dennis Pitta, Torrey Smith, Tandon Doss, Ricky Williams, and others fight the good fight against the evil forces of the AFC North.

This first game of the 2011 preseason finds B’More traveling just a short distance up Interstate 95 to take on the NFL’s newest “dream team,” the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles were far and away the “offseason winners,” adding such big-name free agents as Nnamdi Asomugha, Jason Babin, Vince Young, and others, as well as trading for the likes of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. With game 1 of the preseason typically being the second-most useless of the four “scrimmage” games (only number 4 has historically been more lackluster), we aren’t likely to see many of those big names for any significant amount of time, which is actually probably not a bad thing. The Ravens’ mostly unproven group of wideouts running around trying to get open against Asomugha, DRC, and Asante Samuel? Not fun. And likely not exactly what the doctor ordered for a very jittery at the moment Ravens nation.

Still, there is plenty of reason to pay close attention on Thursday night. So what should Ravens fans be on the lookout for?

I thought you’d never ask….

Offensive Line


One of the Ravens’ biggest weaknesses in 2010 was their offensive line play. Their yards-per-attempt when rushing the ball was down near the bottom of the NFL, and Joe Flacco was sacked 40 times, the most in his three-year career. Moving newly resigned Marshal Yanda back to guard from tackle gives the team an instant upgrade, as does adding free agent fullback Vonta Leach. Still, questions remain.

  • Will Michael Oher rebound from his disappointing 2010 campaign and start to become the elite left tackle the Ravens thought they were getting when they chose him in the first round of the 2009 draft? Oher will, first and foremost, need to learn to stop jumping the snap count and killing his team five false start penalty yards at a time.

 

  • How much tread is left on Matt Birk’s tires? The center will miss this game and most – if not all – of the preseason after having an operation on his injured knee. The Ravens’ lost their go-to backup center when Chris Chester took off for Washington a few weeks back, and they have yet to find an adequate replacement. Filling in Thursday will be rookie Ryan Bartholomew. An undrafted rookie center going up against the AFC North’s nose guards? No thank you.
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  • Who will play right tackle? Third round draft pick Jah Reid has been taking most of the snaps with the first team offense in training camp, but Oneil Cousins and Ramon Harewood will also be in the mix. Reid looks like an absolute monster on the field. Let’s hope that translates to being a serviceable right tackle in his rookie season. Look for the coaching staff to try to get Reid as many snaps as possible this preseason, so they can judge whether or not he is at all ready to stare across the line at LaMarr Woodley on September 11. Reid will probably play the majority of the first half, with Cousins taking over thereafter. John Harbaugh, it should be noted, has stated that Cousins “has the edge” currently.

Wide Receiver/Passing Game


With Joe Flacco scheduled to play a full quarter, we should get at least a few chances to see what, if any, kind of rapport he has been able to develop with his new receiving corps over the past few weeks. At the moment, rookie Torrey Smith seems to have a tenuous hold on the #2 WR position lining up opposite Anquan Boldin, but fellow rookie Tandon Doss has been all the rave of late. Doss is more of an underneath/intermediate receiver along the lines of Boldin or the departed Derrick Mason. With Mason absent from the offense this season, Flacco will have to learn to look for somebody else for his “sure thing” routes. When the Ravens went to Boldin in 2010, he delivered. Unfortunately, he seemed like the forgotten man in the offense much too often. That won’t be the case in 2011 – either from his own team or from opposing defenses. While Boldin will undoubtedly be a focal point of every offensive game plan, the increased attention on him as the only established pass catcher on the team will put all the pressure on the young guys to step up.

It will be very interesting to watch this preseason as Smith, Doss, tight ends Ed Dickson (will not play Thursday) and Dennis Pitta, and receivers further down the depth chart like LaQuan Williams attempt to prove that they can be productive NFL players.

Will the young guys be able to get separation from the Eagles’ very impressive cornerback trio? Will they be able to get off the line against press coverage?

How will Flacco react when his favorite two security blankets from years past – Mason and Todd Heap – are no longer out there for him to throw to? Will we see even MORE check downs to Ray Rice, or will he use that shoulder-cannon that he was blessed with to start putting the ball into his receivers’ chests, even when they appear to be “covered?”

Backup QB


The Ravens appear – at least for the moment – to be serious about this whole “Tyrod Taylor can be our backup” thing.

Ugh.

Ok, Tyrod, let’s see what you can do. The rookie sixth-round pick out of Virginia Tech is scheduled to play around 2.5 quarters in Philly, so he should get PLENTY of time to showcase his talents. Granted, it will be against fellow second- and third-stringers, but Taylor will nonetheless have a golden opportunity to start locking down his position as Joe Flacco’s emergency stand-in/clipboard holder.

Personally, my comfort level of having a rookie sixth-rounder as my team’s insurance policy is a solid -14 on a scale of 1-10.

Don’t turn the game off once the starters go out, Ravens fans. While Flacco is one of only four quarterbacks – along with Phillip Rivers and the Manning brothers – to play in every one of his team’s games since 2008, this is the NFL…and injuries are only a matter of time. Should Flacco go down for a series, a quarter, or – perish the thought – a game or more in 2011, Tyrod Taylor could very well be the one leading the team. Starting Thursday, get a good look at him.

Sergio Kindle


Perhaps the guy I am most excited to watch on Thursday is linebacker Sergio Kindle. The Ravens first overall draft pick (second round) in 2010 missed his entire rookie season after falling down a flight of stairs and fracturing his skull. For a while, it was uncertain whether we would EVER see Kindle wear the purple and black, or any NFL colors for that matter. However, the former Texas Longhorn has apparently healed to his doctors’ satisfaction, and has been participating unhampered in training camp workouts. Now, for the first time in his life, Kindle will step foot on an NFL field, and for the first time nearly two calendar years, he will take the field in a competitive environment.

By all accounts, the second-year pass rush specialist has been a man-child in Owings Mills, impressing his coaches, teammates, and media members alike. Should Kindle start to fulfill some of the promise he showed coming out of Texas, the Ravens’ woes as far as finding a compliment to Terrell Suggs on the other side could very well be a thing of the past. Kindle will not be limited in this first preseason game, and new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano says he wants to “get him out there, get him on the edge, and let him go.”

We can’t wait to see that either.

Billy Cundiff


While it isn’t nearly as exciting as anything listed above, I’m actually eager to see what Billy Cundiff looks like this year. He tied the modern record for touchbacks last season, and was a HUGE weapon for the Ravens on special teams. This year, however, the rules have changed on him – instead of kicking off from the 30-yard line, kickoffs will now be spotted at the 35.

So, will Cundiff have no problem putting nearly every single one of his kickoffs into the end zone? Or, will former special teams coach John Harbaugh have other plans in mind, such as Cundiff using that strong leg of his to get more hang time on his kickoffs as opposed to distance, so the coverage team can get downfield and tackle the returner at the 10 or 15 yard line?

In the preseason, as the Ravens try to evaluate their roster and find guys who can contribute on special teams, it’s also possible that Harbaugh will have Cundiff purposefully put his kickoffs short, just so the young players have a chance to cover the kicks in game situations.

I’m interested to watch a kicker. Sue me.

Ok, that’s about enough to keep an eye on for me.

How about you, Ravens fans? What are you most interested to see on Thursday night? Anything I missed?

Goob's Two Favorite Things, 311 and the Ravens, Come Together

August 10, 2011

In this interview promoting their new album, rock/ska band 311’s drummer Chad Sexton is sporting a Haloti Ngata Ravens jersey.

Sexton gives no explanation – in fact he says absolutely nothing during the interview at all – but no matter. I haven’t heard from Goob since this video was posted, so I am assuming that when he saw it his head spontaneously combusted out of happiness. He’s been to damn near as many 311 concerts in his life as he has Ravens games, so he can probably die a happy man after seeing this.

One thing though: Chad….CHAD. Dude. You can afford an authentic jersey, or at least one of the rip-off authentic ones. Nobody wears screen printed jerseys any more man. Come on. Haloti deserves better.

Running Back Ricky Williams Joins Ravens

August 8, 2011

According to ProFootballTalk, the Ravens have agreed on a two-year contract with veteran running back Ricky Williams.

With Willis McGahee and Le’Ron McClain gone, the Ravens needed a veteran presence at tailback.

They’ve gotten it with the addition of Ricky Williams.

Per a league source, Williams signed a two-year deal.  It’s worth up to $4 million.

Personally, I really like this move. I was just telling some friends who were with me at Ravens practice on Saturday that I would like to see the team sign the veteran runner. Though he is, at 34, a grandfather as far as NFL running backs go, Williams has proven over the past few seasons in Miami that he can be very effective in a platoon situation. Which is, of course, exactly what he will be entering here in Baltimore with Ray Rice. In addition, he missed all of 2006 and all but one game of 2007 for various…personal reasons.

Williams averaged 4.7 and 4.2 yards per carry in 2009 and 2010, respectively, with the Dolphins. The 4.2 was better than any of Rice (4.0), Willis McGahee (3.8), or Le’Ron McClain (3.0) put up last season. Running behind Vonta Leach is also likely to extend the tread on Williams’ tires a bit.

Ricky, of course, is as well known for his off-the-field eccentricity as he is for his play on the field. Featured in one of my favorite of the ESPN “30 for 30” documentaries, “Run Ricky Run,” Williams nonetheless seems to be at a point in his life and career where all that silliness is behind him.

Now we’re all just waiting to see him in a wedding dress next to John Harbaugh.

Ray Rice and Ricky Williams give the Ravens a formidable 1-2 punch in the backfield. With those two handling the majority of the workload, it will be interesting to see, however, which of the rookie running backs steps up and becomes a viable 3rd-down back this season. If you remember in 2008, McClain and McGahee received the bulk of the carries, while Rice was the change-of-pace/3rd-down guy. Who will be 2011’s version of the 2008 Ray Rice? Anthony Allen? D.J. Berry? Another, as-of-yet-unsigned runner?

Should the unthinkable happen and Ray Rice get seriously injured, Williams will not be able to handle the load of a featured running back, and the Ravens will still be forced to scramble for another option. Regardless, the team’s offense is in a better position today than it was yesterday – or last season for that matter.

The Rice, Williams, Leach combination is an upgrade from Rice, McGahee, McClain.

Let’s hope the next priority is doing something about the center position.

Ravens Add Safety Bernard Pollard

August 4, 2011

It was widely assumed that with Ravens’ strong safety Dawan Landry parting town to join the Jacksonville Jaguars that the competition to replace him would be between Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura. Zbikowski filled in adequately for Ed Reed last season, and Nakamura has improved steadily throughout his tenure in B’More. It seemed like the natural next step was for one of them to take over a starting role in Chuck Pagano’s defense.

The Ravens, though, apparently had other ideas.

In a somewhat surprising move, the team has agreed to terms with their second former Houston Texan in a week, adding safety Bernard Pollard to go along with fullback Vonta Leach.

Pollard is entering his sixth season, having spent the past two in Houston after being drafted by Kansas City in the second round of the 2006 NFL draft. Pollard is most widely known for being the guy who shredded Tom Brady’s knee back in 2008, destroying millions of fantasy football teams in the process. He has a reputation for being more of a thumper in the secondary than a strong cover safety, racking up 4.5 sacks and 4 forced fumbles last season. He did have four interceptions (one returned for TD) in 2009, so he’s not a complete stone-hands back there.

Some YouTube clips of Pollard, for those unfamiliar with the safety:

Bernard, it would seem, is not too big a fan of Reggie Wayne. (caution: language) I can get behind this kind of thing.

“Wait, I have to play Peyton Hillis twice a year? I might want to reconsider this…..”

And finally, the infamous “Brady kill shot”

The team hasn’t given Pollard the job outright, rather saying that he is being brought in to compete with Zibby and Haruki.

Marc Bulger Retires

August 3, 2011

As first reported by our partners over at Ravens 24×7 on Sunday, Marc Bulger has retired from the NFL. A few days later, the news is all over town, and the Ravens are left with a huge question mark at backup quarterback.

If Tony Lombardi is right, and Bulger did retire back in March, you have to assume that Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens front office knew about it while they were mapping out their offseason strategy during the lockout. Futhermore, they probably were also aware of Bulger’s intentions in April when they drafted QB Tyrod Taylor out of Virginia Tech in the sixth round.

Cam Cameron was quoted yesterday as saying that Taylor is “special” and that they are “getting him ready to play.” In addition to that, Peter King of Sports Illustrated tweeted that Taylor is “better than you think.”

I, for one, am less than enthusiastic about the prospect of a rookie sixth-round draft pick serving as the backup quarterback on a team that has been to the postseason three years running. Unfortunately, the free agent quarterback roster is less than inspiring: Brodie Croyle, Jake Delhomme, J.P. Losman, J.T. O’Sullivan, Patrick Ramsey, Todd Bouman, Chris Simms…ugh.

With teams being forced to comply with the salary cap in the coming days, there could be some surprise cuts that could potentially help fill the Ravens’ void at backup quarterback. While we all hope that Joe Flacco is Peyton Manning-like in his durability – Joe hasn’t missed a game in three seasons in the NFL, Peyton has missed zero in 13 – it sure was comforting having Bulger as an insurance policy in 2010. The flip side, of course, is that we had to listen to certain morons calling for Bulger to start all season. Still, the droning of nonsense from a small group of fans was worth putting up with for the security of a proven veteran backup QB.

If it is indeed the Ravens’ plan to move forward with Taylor as the backup, the team’s four preseason games just got a lot more interesting. Let’s see how Taylor handles facing even the second- and third-string defenses of NFL teams before we get either too high or too low on the kid.

Joe Flacco Unveils New Attitude at Press Conference

August 2, 2011

In this installment of GOOBVISION, we take a closer look at Joe Flacco’s press conference from the beginning of training camp last week. The media didn’t report the WHOLE story, as you’ll see.

So Long, Todd Heap. Remembering #86.

August 1, 2011

While I am all for the team getting younger and faster, and thus am not nearly as upset to see Todd Heap leave at this point in his career as many of my fellow Ravens fans seem to be, I still feel that the franchise’s #2 all-time leading receiver deserves a post of his own here as he departs Charm City to finish out his career in his home state of Arizona.

We were first introduced to big #86 on NFL Draft day 2001. Fresh off their Super Bowl victory, the Baltimore Ravens selected the tight end from Arizona State with the final pick in the first round. Interestingly, the very next player off the board was a quarterback who you may have heard of – Drew Brees was chosen 32nd overall, the first pick of the second round, by the San Diego Chargers. The “what ifs” are an exercise in futility, obviously, but are fun nonetheless.

The team had been solid at tight end the previous season with future Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe, but Sharpe was approaching the end of his career and Heap’s selection cemented him as the heir apparent. We then got a glimpse into Todd Heap’s personal life before we ever saw him catch a pass, thanks to the HBO series “Hard Knocks” which featured the 2001 Ravens in its very first season. We watched as Todd and his new bride Ashley transitioned from their college lives to the lives of an NFL player and and NFL wife, shopping for a home in Owings Mills and struggling to put together their new furniture in the same way that however many millions of young couples do every day in America.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons that many fans feel such a strong emotional connection to Heap. We were, thanks to HBO’s cameras, literally in the Heaps’ living room as they started their lives in Baltimore.

Ravens fans witnessed as Heap blossomed from Sharpe’s understudy to star in his own right, making the Pro Bowl in both his second and third seasons. He was a favorite target of Brian Billick’s famous “jump ball” pass patterns, and back in 2002 and 2003, we were shocked if Heap didn’t come down with those ugly lobs from the likes of Chris Redman, Jeff Blake, and Kyle Boller. Boller, it should be noted, likely took a few years off of Heap’s career, hanging him out to dry and leading him directly into waiting linebackers and safeties more times than Todd likely cares to remember. Still, Heap absorbed the hits and held onto the ball, fumbling just twice total through his first four years in the league.

From 2002-2006, Heap played in all 16 of the teams games four times. His 2004 and 2007 campaigns were both cut down to just six games each due to injury, though, and it was around this time that Heap developed – however undeservedly – a reputation among some Ravens fans as being injury-prone. This sentiment is generally misguided though, as the numbers simply do not support it. In Heap’s 10 seasons in Baltimore, he played in at least 13 games seven times, and all 16 games six times. To compare with one of his contemporaries, Jeremy Shockey has missed at least one game in EVERY SINGLE ONE of his nine NFL seasons. From 2008-2010, Heap played in 45 of the Ravens’ 48 games.

Despite his statistical lack of fumbles, Heap does have one of the most painful fumbles in team history. After the team’s 13-3 run in 2006, they had earned the AFC’s #2 seed and the first-round playoff bye and second-round home game that go along with it. The Indianapolis Colts were coming to town, and the entire city was ready to exorcise the Colts demon once and for all. On the team’s second drive, already trailing 3-0, Heap caught a 3-yard pass from Steve McNair at the Ravens’ 26, was popped by Nick Harper, and coughed it up. The play was ruled down, but the Colts challenged it and it was overturned. Four plays later, the Colts took a 6-0 lead…which unfortunately would prove to be plenty on that day.

Earlier that season though, Heap had produced what may be his most memorable play in purple. In Week 4, the San Diego Chargers had brought their 2-0 record to Baltimore to face the 3-0 Ravens. The two teams that would finish the season atop the AFC produced a spectacular battle for 60 minutes, and it was Heap who had the last word. Putting the final touches on what proved to be a game-winning 60-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes, with the team trailing 13-9, Heap caught a Steve McNair pass at the two yard line, turned and dove for the end zone, dragging Chargers’ All-Pro linebacker Shawne Merriman with him. Heap crossed the goal line with 10 seconds remaining. That play produced one of the iconic images in Ravens’ lore, a picture that every Ravens fan immediately recognizes.

Heap was, along with Ed Reed, the Raven you most felt for following the playoff losses these past three seasons. While it seems like they’ve both been with the team since the inception, the unfortunate fact is that these guys got here a year (two, in Ed’s case) after the franchise’s lone Lombardi Trophy to date. We’ve cheered our heads off for Heap for a full decade, and we wished so much for him to experience the thrill of a Super Bowl victory. If only he’d been just a year older…

Obviously, not every great player will reach the nadir of his or her sport, and many lesser players do get to take part in championship celebrations. That’s just the way sports work. We wanted to watch “The Stormin’ Mormon” ride down Pratt Street in a victory parade. Damn, did we want to see that. Alas, it was not to be. And at this point, it looks very much like it never will be. Should the Ravens hoist the Lombardi again in the years to come, Heap won’t be in Baltimore taking place in the celebration. But his contributions to this team and this city will have nonetheless paved the way for what we hope are those future successes.

Ten years, 467 receptions, 5,492 yards, 41 touchdowns, countless jaw-dropping grabs, and hundreds of HEEEEEEEEEEEEEAP chants later, Todd has been released by the Ravens and has decided to finish up his NFL career for his home town team, the Arizona Cardinals. Heap was born in Mesa, Arizona, and is still loved there from his days as a Sun Devil. While he will likely never win a Super Bowl ring out there in the desert, it’s obvious that going home was more important to him than the chance to get to Indianapolis in February. He was being heavily courted by the New York Jets on Sunday – a team that is sure to be a Super Bowl favorite yet again – and the Ravens had reportedly offered him a new, lesser deal. Still, Heap chose a team that finished 2010 with a 5-11 mark, good for last place in the worst division in football, the NFC West. Sure, they acquired quarterback Kevin Kolb from Philadelphia, but the Cards still seem like quite a long shot to even sniff the postseason any time soon.

I can’t help but chuckle thinking of Heap interrupting Rex Ryan’s long-winded bombastic blubbering about how great the Jets are going to be with his soft-spoken declaration of “Sorry Coach, I’m going to the Cardinals.” I’d imagine Rex’s jaw dropped like it does every time he gets ready to down a triple whopper snake-style.

Ravens fans will undoubtedly struggle to get used to watching our team without Todd Heap on the field. His absence at M&T Bank Stadium this fall will linger in the air like so many Joe Flacco back-foot floaters. However, in a bit of a serendipitous scheduling quirk, the Arizona Cardinals – despite coming to Baltimore the last time the teams played in 2007 – again come to Baltimore in 2011. Todd Heap will play in B’More for what is likely to be the last time on October 30. He’ll be wearing a red and white uniform instead of a purple and black one, but that won’t stop the familiar HEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEAP chorus from Ravens fans from echoing just as loud as it ever has.

Farewell, Tood Heap. Thanks for the memories, and best of luck with the Cards. After October 30, we’ll see you in a few years for your Ring of Honor induction.


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