Changes effective for Ravens in season debut
OWINGS MILLS – The Baltimore Ravens' roster construction project got a test run Sunday, the first formal unveiling of their personnel changes.
Considering how their new players fared and that the competition was the defending AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens are encouraged about their outlook after an overhaul.
During a 35-7 shellacking of the Steelers, several newcomers and first-time starters contributed heavily as the Ravens (1-0) broke in 20 new players and eight new starters.
"We expect to get better, that's the plan," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. "We're only going to get better, and we've got the kind of guys in the room that are going to do nothing but get better. That's what we have to do. If I was going to be surprised, then I would have had to have an expectation or said, ‘Hey, this is what I think we're going to be,' and I didn't know.
"I don't think you ever know how you're going to go out and play in the first game, especially with all of the things that you're talking about. We expected to win the game. We felt we had a chance to play really well, but you never know until you go do it. So, that's what you're proud of as a coach."
Most notably, newly-acquired left offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie plowed through outside linebacker James Harrison.
A former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Harrison didn't record a sack against McKinnie. Baltimore rushed for 170 yards.
It was a thorough butt-kicking.
"The way they beat us is embarrassing," Steelers nose guard Casey Hampton said. "Since I've been here, nobody has beaten us like that on both sides of the ball for the entire game."
The Ravens' starting offensive line didn't play a single snap together during the preseason, and only left offensive guard Ben Grubbs and center Matt Birk lined up at their same positions from last year.
The Ravens also signed five-time Pro Bowl center Andre Gurode to back up Birk, shifting Marshal Yanda back to his right guard and Michael Oher over to right tackle.
"That's not a surprise to us, I'm surprised how surprising it is to everybody else," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "Bryant McKinnie is a proven player. We get Michael Oher back on the right side where he's more comfortable. We never missed a beat. These guys are the real deal."
Signed to a three-year, $11 million contract days into free agency, All-Pro fullback Vonta Leach knocked down several linebackers to open holes for running back Ray Rice to roam through. And Rice rushed for 107 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries.
"Vonta's blocking did stand out," Harbaugh said. "He's an all-around player."
In relief of Rice, new backup running back Ricky Williams gained 63 yards on 12 carries.
The Ravens piled up 385 yards of total offense, averaging 6.3 yards per offensive play.
"This is just a start," wide receiver Anquan Boldin said. "We wanted to come out and make a statement, but we think we can only get better from here."
Landed in a trade from the Buffalo Bills to become the Ravens' deep threat, wide receiver Lee Evans didn't catch a pass in his regular-season debut with the Ravens.
He was targeted four times and appeared to be out of sync with quarterback Joe Flacco as he returned from a left ankle injury.
Evans did draw the attention of the Steelers' secondary with their top cornerback, Ike Taylor, guarding him. It seemed to open things up for Boldin, who caught four passes for 74 yards and a score, and tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta. The replacements for tight end Todd Heap combined for seven receptions for 104 yards and a touchdown.
"Lee opened up a couple of crossing routes for us,"Harbaugh said. "He takes the top off the coverage, and if they don't run with him, Joe is going to throw it to him. He cleared out some of the deep crossing routes that you saw. Dennis Pitta's play is one that comes to mind right away, going down into the red zone.
"So, he had that kind of impact. People don't think this is a big deal, but he had some big blocks for us downfield on some of those runs. He played well. He was a factor, no doubt."
Before training camp, the Ravens cut Heap, wide receiver Derrick Mason, nose guard Kelly Gregg and running back Willis McGahee to clear salary-cap space.
Now, they have eight new starters. That includes McKinnie, Evans, Dickson and Leach and nose guard Terrence Cody, cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams and strong safety Tom Zbikowski.
They also have a 6-foot-1, 228-pound bruiser backing up Zbikowski in Bernard Pollard, a former Houston Texans starter who signed a two-year contract.
"He added a physical presence, no doubt," Harbaugh said of Pollard. "He's very smart, he's talented in coverage. He's a complete football player, and he's a big addition for us."
Judging by first impressions, the changes seem to be working.
"That's a very rewarding thing for coaches and for players, but the challenge now is to build on it and improve," Harbaugh said. "That's what you have to do because everybody else is going to improve. We have to continue to get better."
Notebook: Jimmy Smith sidelined with high-ankle sprain
OWINGS MILLS – Baltimore Ravens rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith suffered a high left ankle sprain that will sideline him for at least a few weeks, according to coach John Harbaugh.
Although X-rays revealed no structural damage, the first-round draft pick could still be out for an undetermined amount of games.
"Jimmy is the one guy that had an injury that was something a little more serious," Harbaugh said Monday. "He's in a boot, he's on crutches. He had an MRI. He does have a high-ankle sprain, so that's going to be a few weeks. We'll just have to see how it plays out. Hopefully, he's a quick healer."
A former All-American selection from Colorado, Smith got hurt covering the opening kickoff of the Ravens' 35-7 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.
"That was a tough one," Harbaugh said. "The first kickoff, he runs down there, is fighting like crazy and gets caught up in a pile."
Losing Smith further thins the Ravens' depth at cornerback, which is suddenly not a very deep position.
That's because veteran cornerback Chris Carr aggravated his left hamstring injury that affected him for the entire preseason shortly after signing his $14 million contract.
Carr left the game in the second quarter and didn't return, but Harbaugh emphasized it's not serious.
"The good news is it's not a tear," Harbaugh said. "It's grabbing on him at times. One of these times, he's going to get through and it's not going to grab on him. The thing we do want to avoid is we don't want it to tear. We don't' want a hamstring tear. That's why we've shut him down pretty quick whenever he starts to have an issue."
Due to Carr and Smith's injuries and starting cornerback Cary Williams leaving the game momentarily with muscle cramps, the Ravens were down to starting cornerback Lardarius Webb and backup Domonique Foxworth at one point.
So, the Ravens put reserve safety Haruki Nakamura in as a nickel back.
"He jumped into the nickel there, and the other two guys played outside," Harbaugh said. "Having that kind of versatility, I think that's really a credit to our players and to our coaches. Most of those guys on the back end can play every position. The younger guys are still learning how to do that.
"When you've got guys that can play inside and outside, high or low as safeties, that kind of versatility is huge in a game like that when you start losing guys. And it seems like you lose guys at the same position at times in games. For those guys to step up and do what they did is pretty important."
NO DEAL FOR NGATA: The Ravens remain in contract talks with Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, but no deal is imminent for the franchise player.
Ngata registered four tackles, a pass deflection that was intercepted, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries against the Steelers.
Under NFL rules, teams have until Sept. 20 to sign franchise players to long-term contracts. Otherwise, Ngata will play this season under a one-year, $12.476 million franchise tender.
"I'm on record; I've already done as much as I could do," Harbaugh said when asked if he'll lobby general manager Ozzie Newsome to accelerate contract talks."I said we want Haloti way back when. I happen to be very good friends with Haloti's agent [former Philadelphia Eagles scouting executive Mike McCartney] and very good friends with Ozzie and [owner] Steve [Bisciotti]. So, I'm pulling for both sides."
KINDLE INACTIVE: One year removed from missing his entire rookie season with a fractured skull, outside linebacker Sergio Kindle remains on the sidelines.
He was a healthy scratch for the Ravens' season-opener despite the expansion of gameday rosters to 46 players.
Former practice squad linebacker Albert McClellan was utilized on special teams instead of Kindle, who predicted last week that he would be on the punt and kickoff teams and possible in a situational pass –rushing role.
"He prepared well last week," Harbaugh said. "You get 46, and you start doing the math. Sergio Kindle is a very good player. He can help us, there's no doubt about it. We'd like to have him up, but right now we just don't have the spot. He's got to continue to improve and grow as a player. I'm certain he'll have an impact before long."
Down the road, Harbaugh predicted that Kindle would contribute to the team.
Kindle nearly blocked a couple of punts during the preseason, but lacked the proper technique.
"He can do a good job on special teams, he's an excellent punt rusher," Harbaugh said. "We saw it in the preseason. He'll be up there. We want to stay healthy, but we want to keep developing all our players. We need them all."
D. REED RETURNS: Wide receiver and kick returner David Reed has finished serving his one-game suspension for violating the NFL substance-abuse policy, rejoining his teammates Monday.
The Ravens have to cut a player from the roster to create a spot for Reed.
Harbaugh had previously said the team planned to cut rookie outside linebacker Michael McAdoo with the intention of passing him through waivers before signing him to the practice squad.
"We'll make a roster move, and I think it will involve Michael," Harbaugh said. "That'll be the plan. "We'll have to see. There's some issues going on right now that I'm not at liberty to divulge, but there will be some sort of move. My guess is it will be a little anticlimactic."
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