Ravens Notebook

Ravens' offensive line improving--Rewards could be awaiting the Baltimore Ravens' offensive line, and not only the extra financial incentives triggered by advancing in the playoffs.

There's also the gift variety from appreciative quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice, the beneficiaries of their blocking.

Flacco has been sacked only 24 times this season after being decked 40 times a year ago. And Rice has rushed for 1,029 yards with three games remaining in the regular season. "Joe does a pretty good job taking care of us, getting us a gift," offensive guard Ben Grubbs said. "One year he gave us an iPad. Another year, he gave us about 500-600 dollars. Ray has some big shoes to fill.

"He could get us a car, a free trip maybe. He could invite us to the Pro Bowl, all expenses paid. We're offensive linemen, we have no expectations."

In particular, Flacco has been provided outstanding protection from harm lately. He has been sacked only five times in the past four games.

"Those guys are doing a really good job," Flacco said. "They're really starting to work really well together. To be honest with you, teams haven't really brought a lot of pressure on us other than their front four. Our guys have done a great job."

During a 24-10 victory over the Indianapolis Colts, defensive end Dwight Freeney sacked Flacco twice.

Freeney and Robert Mathis comprise one of the most dangerous pass rushing tandems in the game. "Last week we had two of the best guys in the game on the end, and our guys did a great job," Flacco said. "Freeney got to me a couple times. Hey, sometimes you've just got to take those sacks and move on. Our guys did a great job all game, and I think we did a good job of taking advantage of them in other ways also." Flacco was sacked 19 times during the first eight games, but that pace has slowed down considerably. There are 15 quarterbacks that have been sacked more than Flacco.

Some of that is attributable to him getting the football out of his hand.

"You don't want to be back there taking sacks when you've got guys open downfield," Flacco said. "Sometimes, there is nothing down there and it is at the point of the game where you can't really do anything stupid. So taking one here and there is not a bad thing.

"You find yourself running off the field sometimes, but it's a lot better than having the defense run out onto the field and not the punt team. So there are times that it's advantageous for us, as a team, to take those sacks. You don't want to get into a habit of doing that." Flacco has yet to be sacked in the first quarter. That's another reason why the Ravens have outscored opponents by a 75-33 margin in the first quarter.

"I hadn't realized that, but, yeah, to get in a rhythm as an offense and get your confidence going and get everybody's confidence going can be important," Flacco said. "I think we just play well when we do get off to a good start and can get in that rhythm early. So, it definitely helps us out."

Once regarded as a makeshift offensive line since Bryant McKinnie was signed before the start of the season to play left tackle and Matt Birk and Grubbs missed time with injuries, the Ravens' improved continuity since the preseason is paying dividends.

"We're running the ball, passing the ball well, able to protect Joe," said Grubbs, who missed several games with a turf toe injury. "Whenever we give Joe enough time he's able to do his thing back there. I'm thankful to be back and be healthy enough to contribute to the team."

Notebook: Ray Lewis, Lardarius Webb listed as questionable

OWINGS MILLS – Although officially listed as questionable on the injury report, Baltimore Ravens All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis is expected to make his return Sunday night against the San Diego Chargers. Lewis practiced all week on a limited basis after missing the past four games with a right turf toe injury.

Cornerback Lardarius Webb is regarded as a question mark after hurting his left toe against the Indianapolis Colts and not practicing all week. There's considered an outside chance he could play depending on how he responds to pain medication before kickoff.

Webb is listed as questionable along with five other players: defensive end Cory Redding (ankle), kicker Billy Cundiff (left calf), defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (back), offensive guard Ben Grubbs (right toe) and cornerback Chris Carr (back).

Harbaugh was brusque in his remarks and declined to make any predictions.

"You know who's playing anyway so just report what you know," Harbaugh said. "You know, you report all the time. Sometimes, you're right. Sometimes, you're wrong. You're about 50-50 right now, maybe 60-40, give you the benefit of the doubt. You really don't know.

"I could give you something and it's not right and you think I'm not giving you right information. You really don't know for sure. It depends on how guys improve how it responds to practice, how they feel the day of the game. It's just the reality of it. Why sit up here and try to speculate? We'll know Sunday night." Harbaugh said that he didn't want to disclose anything that could provide the Chargers with more knowledge about his players' status. "Why am I going to try to give information out that's going to help our opponent?" Harbaugh said. "You can keep asking questions about it and I'm going to keep giving you the same answer. It's OK. It doesn't bother me. It shouldn't bother you when I don't answer it. So, you shouldn't have to ask it four times."

When asked if injury information does help teams generally, Harbaugh replied: "Sure it does, of course it does. How could it not? We're looking all the time. We read what their guys write all the time to see if we can get something out of them. Every piece of information is valuable." The Ravens are undefeated in the four games that Lewis has missed.

With the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year potentially returning to the lineup, it could bolster the NFL's third-ranked defense.

"You've watched us for a lot of years, you know the answer to that," Harbaugh said. "We would love having Ray Lewis out there. A Ravens defense will definitely take the field. We'll be wearing black helmets with a Ravens logo on the side and we'll be in our purple and our white." Webb and kicker Billy Cundiff (left calf) didn't practice Friday, but Redding returned to practice on a limited basis.

"I'm playing," Redding said. "Nobody's 100 percent. We're fighting for something over here, and I'm playing. The biggest thing with any kind of injury, whether it be big or small, the biggest thing is rest. As long as you let it calm down and let the body heal itself, you'll be all right."

Rookie running back Anthony Allen (hamstring) is probable.

For the Chargers, defensive end Jacques Cesaire (ankle), linebackers Takeo Spikes (back) and Donald Butler (foot) and center Colin Baxter (ankle) are questionable. Safety Darrell Stuckey (groin) is probable. Carr said he feels vastly better after missing the past three games with a bulging disc in his back.

"It feels good," Carr said. "It's been a frustrating year, injuries-wise, especially when you've never had to deal with them before. It's been trying, but you just feel good being out there practicing and for my back to hold up. Having a bulging disc hurts pretty badly, so it held up well. So, I'm pretty fortunate right now. "With the pain that I had in my back, it was something that I'd never felt before, so it was definitely one of those things where I couldn't risk it, especially this late in the season. I want to be able to be on this team through this playoff run. I just want to be healthy, and it's held up great so far."

After missing the past three games, Carr is expected to contribute in the nickel package and possibly as a punt returner.

"I feel like I'm a versatile player, so whatever they want me to do, I can do," Carr said. "If they want me to go do returns or run down kickoff or play nickel or corner, it doesn't matter to me. I always prepare myself to make sure that I'm in shape and ready to go out there and whatever they ask me to do.

"I'm out there and prepared. I learned that early in my career, always be ready for whatever because you never know what's going to happen on game day, so make sure you're sharp on everything."

ACCOUNTING FOR GATES: The Ravens' defensive preparations have included plenty of time spent on ultra-productive Chargers tight end Antonio Gates.

He's tied for the team lead with 53 receptions for 601 yards and six touchdowns. "He's a tough guy to try to cover," Harbaugh said. "You can't really match up a particular guy if you play defense the way we do. We don't just come out and play man coverage the whole game. There will be different guys matching up on different defenses.

"Sometimes it'll be double, sometimes it'll be one guy. Sometimes it'll be a safety, corner or linebacker. It just depends on the defensive call. Whoever covers him is going to have to do a great job."

Gates has 582 career receptions to rank second in franchise history and needs five more catches to overtake Charlie Joiner.

With 75 career touchdown catches, he's six shy of tying Lance Alworth's team record.

"Antonio's a great player, he's been a great player for a long time," Ravens strong safety Bernard Pollard said. "He knows how to use his basketball game that he's played and knows how to use it on the field. At the end of the day we've got equipment on and we're hitting.

"That's going to be fun playing him. I had a blast playing him when I was at Kansas City and once when I was with Houston. To be able to go there to play that team is going to be fun."

Having gone through his own sibling rivalry earlier this season when the Ravens defeated Jim Harbaugh's San Francisco 49ers, Harbaugh referenced defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano squaring off against his brother: Chargers linebackers coach John Pagano. "He's done it a lot more than we have,

" Harbaugh said. "The Pagano Bowl, exactly. The pressure is on. So, we expect a victory, absolutely." …

Former Ravens outside linebacker Antwan Barnes is playing his best football this season with the Chargers. Traded last year to the Philadelphia Eagles and then released and signed by the Chargers, Barnes leads his defense with seven sacks. "He's looked good on tape, good player obviously," Harbaugh said. "He's played well for them, especially rushing the passer, so no surprise there. We've always had respect for Antwan as a player and a person. He's done a nice job since he's gotten out there." … The Ravens' charter flight to San Diego was delayed a few hours for mechanical reasons, but got underway at roughly 6:30 p.m.

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