Ravens Update

The football would routinely glance off the hands of Torrey Smith, and he would look down as if they had betrayed him.



Ravens: Torrey Smith emerged as deep threat after rough start

OWINGS MILLS – The football would routinely glance off the hands of Torrey Smith, and he would look down as if they had betrayed him. Back in August in training camp and occasionally during the regular season, the Baltimore Ravens' rookie wide receiver was battling with his confidence and his catching technique. He would take his eyes off the path of the ball instead of looking it into his hands the way he had been taught, a fundamental gaffe that threatened to become a troubling trend at one point.

Eventually, Smith figured it out and emerged as the Ravens' deep threat. And the former University of Maryland star finished the season by hauling in 50 catches for 841 yards and seven touchdowns, setting franchise rookie records for catches, receiving yards and touchdowns.

"I've grown a lot," Smith said. "Everything has slowed down. I'm not really a rookie anymore. I made a lot of rookie mistakes and I was able to learn from them. I'm still trying to continue to get better and be the best that I can for us." Smith caught three touchdowns in his first NFL start against the St. Louis Rams, finishing with five receptions for 152 yards as he averaged 30.4 yards per reception.

And it was Smith who caught the game-winning touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers in a November game at Heinz Field after dropping previous chances to put the game away. He's not entirely satisfied, though, with his first season in the NFL.

"I did all right," Smith said. "There's a lot of plays I left on the field. I could have easily had well over 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns if I had executed on a few plays. It's something when I look back on I'll see how to get better. I know what I can do and it sets the bar that much higher."

Only two rookie wide receivers ranked ahead of Smith for yards and catches. Cincinnati Bengals Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green caught 65 passes for 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns, and Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones finished with 54 catches for 959 yards and eight touchdowns.

Smith averaged 16.8 yards per reception with five of his seven touchdowns going for at least 75 yards with scores from 75, 41, 38, 36, 28, 18 and eight yards. He averaged 34.4 yards per touchdown catch.

And Smith became the third rookie, joining Ken Burrow and Randy Moss, to have two games with 150-plus receiving yards and at least one touchdown in the same season since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.

Smith also caught six passes for 165 yards and a touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals earlier this season.

All season, Smith gained separation. By the end of the year, he was routinely catching intermediate and short routes by improving his concentration and hand placement.

"Just fundamentals, really," Smith said. "I've been able to catch the football since I was yay-high. It's about being consistent with my technique and route placement and not turning your head away from the ball. It's just a bunch of little things I've been able to focus on every day."

During the first meeting with the Houston Texans, Sunday's AFC divisional round opponent, Smith caught three passes for 84 yards despite the presence of Pro Bowl cornerback Johnathan Joseph. "Watching them the other day, we were able to get some separation," Smith said. "It was a tough challenge. It wasn't easy. We're going to have our hands full. Johnathan Joseph is real good. He's a Pro Bowler. I voted for him. He's another great one.

"They look very comfortable up front and in the back end. It's going to be a very tough challenge for us. They have a very good secondary with some athletic guys. We're going to have to bring out A game."

Having the bye week gave several injured players time to recuperate and rest up. However, the time off wasn't necessarily what Smith was looking for.

Smith is eager to get back to work and he says he won't be nervous by the heightened stakes of the postseason.

"I'm ready to get back on the football field," Smith said. "I'm just approaching it as another football game. I know there's a lot on the line. I'm looking forward to it. I won't get caught up in all the hype."

Notebook: Tough task for Yates

OWINGS MILLS — The Baltimore Ravens don't make a habit out of losing to rookie quarterbacks. Fifteen years ago, they lost to Arizona Cardinals rookie passer Jake Plummer.

And the Ravens' stingy defense has no intentions of being defeated by Houston Texans rookie quarterback T.J. Yates during Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium. A fifth-round draft pick from North Carolina, Yates began the season as the Texans' third-stringer behind starter Matt Schaub and backup Matt Leinart and was forced into action when they went down with season-ending injuries.

Since then, he has won four of seven starts. And that includes the Texans' first playoff victory in franchise history over the Cincinnati Bengals when Yates passed for 159 yards and a touchdown pass to Andre Johnson on 11 of 20 accuracy. "He's not a rookie anymore," Ravens free safety Ed Reed said. "It's time to play. This guy is doing exactly what the coaches need him to do." Yates, 23, completed 82 of 134 passes for 949 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions for an 80.7quarterback rating during the regular season

"He's a very young player and this is a tall task for him, but we've tried to kind of build our team a little differently here over the course of those last two months so that hopefully we could continue to be successful and find ways to win games," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "In the process, he has grown, and he's gotten better. He's making mistakes, but he finds a way to correct them. We've grown as a team and tried to figure out how we win with a young quarterback. "He is very smart, he can handle a big load, he can handle a big game plan. He handles the group well. He has a lot of poise, doesn't rattle. The biggest thing probably is the fact that he doesn't make a lot of mistakes twice. He has a good, short memory, which you have to have if you're going to succeed in this league."In the past three games, Yates hasn't thrown an interception. He looked much more comfortable against the Bengals.

"I think the biggest thing with T.J. is his confidence," Johnson said. "He has a lot of confidence in what he can do. I think his confidence never wavers, whether something good or bad happens. He just kind of stays the same. I think it's something you don't really see in a rookie.

"I think that's what has carried him to where he is today. He's very confident in what he can do. If something is bothering him, he does a great job of hiding it. He doesn't show it. He doesn't show when he's frustrated or anything. He just stays calm."

The offense still runs through star running back Arian Foster.

"They're running their offense, it's the same package that they ran early," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "T.J. Yates has got his imprint on it, but he looks very similar to the two other guys running it."

Yates has been sacked times, often holding the football too long.

The Ravens recorded 48 sacks, ranking third in the NFL.

"Schaub is out, and Yates is in, and he is doing a phenomenal job right now," defensive end Cory Redding said. "So, we just have to get after the passer. When it's time to pin our ears back and go, we're going to hunt." And Redding expects a loud, rude greeting for Yates upon his arrival in Baltimore.

"When ‘The Bank' is going to be rocking, everybody out there is going to screaming loud," Redding said. "It's going to be crazy. He's going to be having a hard trying to make his checks. He is going to have hard times really trying to let the guys know when a blitz is coming, because it is going to be noisy, and we want that.

"The defense really feeds on that energy, but for a young quarterback coming into a hostile environment and really having troubles with communicating, it's going to play into our hands. We are just going to sit back and let the crowd do their thing and do our job."

MCCLAIN, AYANBADEJO QUESTIONABLE: Ravens inside linebackers Jameel McClain and Brendon Ayanbadejo are questionable for Sunday and are expected to be game-time decisions, according to coach John Harbaugh.

McClain has a sprained medial collateral ligament and Ayanbadejo has a strained right quadriceps. Both were limited in practice this week. "From an injury standpoint, nothing has really changed," Harbaugh said. "Jameel and Brendon, it's going to come down to a game-day decision. They both practiced to different degrees. We'll see how they feel on Sunday. We are optimistic."A defensive starter, McClain expressed confidence that he will be able to play despite the injury. "Yeah, of course I feel confident to play," McClain said. "You can't play this game and doubt yourself. I'm ready to go out there and play and I'm preparing myself to the fullest of my capacity. My knee feels better, of course. Look at me, I'm bouncing around with y'all. I'm good. "Time off helps everybody. Everybody gets a chance to heal up on their little nicks and wounds."

The following players are probable for Baltimore: wide receiver Anquan Boldin (knee), linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, cornerback Jimmy Smith and safety Tom Zbikowski (concussions) and offensive guard Marshal Yanda (bruised ribs). "The guys with concussions will play," Harbaugh said.

Eighteen players are probable for the Texans. That includes linebacker Mister Alexander (shoulder), cornerback Jason Allen (thumb), linebacker Bryan Braman (neck), defensive end Tim Bulman (calf), fullback James Casey (knee, foot), nose guard Shaun Cody (knee), tight end Owen Daniels (hand, knee), tight end Joel Dreesen (knee), wide receiver Andre Johnson (knee), cornerback Johnathan Joseph (hip), cornerback Sherrick McManis (ankle), center Chris Myers (knee), safety Troy Nolan (ankle), linebacker Brooks Reed (knee), running back Ben Tate (shoulder), offensive tackle Eric Winston (calf) and Yates (left shoulder).

BIRK HONORED: Ravens center Matt Birk was voted the Walter Payton Man of the Year for his involvement with the community and excellent play on the field.

A six-time Pro Bowl selection, Birk was presented the award Friday by Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who attended practice.

"Congratulations to Matt Birk and thanks to Governor O'Malley for coming out and sharing that with us, and also for being with our team at practice," coach John Harbaugh said. "We most definitely appreciate it. It's good to have his support and everybody in the state's support." A local nominee from each team is named and a panel of judges that includes NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Connie Payton, the widow of Payton, picks the national winner.

A father of six, Birk was a seven-time Man of the Year recipient with the Minnesota Vikings and a finalist for the award three years ago. Birk founded the Matt Birk HIKE Foundation, standing for hope, inspiration, knowledge and education, launching a "Ready, Set, Read!" initiative in Baltimore public schools to encourage more than 50,000 students to read. Birk extended his program to Carroll County last fall to include 50,000 more students.

Birk will be given $1,000 toward his foundation. The top three finalists for the award get $5,000 more with the national winner picking up $25,000 for their chosen charity.

MESHING TOGETHER: The Ravens' offensive line had to build chemistry in a hurry after signing left offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie and center Andre Gurode just prior to the regular season. Plus, Birk was sidelined for the majority of the preseason after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery.

The Ravens wound up allowing only 33 sacks and rushed for 1,996 yards

"Well, from where we were a week before the start of the season, we've come a long way," Birk said. "A couple pieces missing there during training camp, but I feel like we've gotten better as the season has gone on. Certainly just the comfort level, chemistry, cohesion, whatever you want to call it. I think the biggest thing is we have five guys, really six guys, that have played a lot of football, kind of understand the game and have played long enough to where things have slowed down a little bit for them.

"So, when they go into a game or go into practice or go into a meeting, it's about detailing their assignment instead of learning their assignment. And then we're able to develop some chemistry pretty quickly, but it's always a work in progress. Every week is a new challenge. You're playing different defenses with different guys that like to do different things, different moves. So every week is a work in progress. It's never, ever a finished product, and I think we understand that upfront. We're not the prettiest group of guys, but the one thing we do is we work hard."

QUICK HITS: The Texans have a fast, aggressive linebacker corps headlined by Brian Cushing, Connor Barwin and DeMeco Ryans and Brooks Reed. "They play more of an under front, more of a 4-3 type front, but they can morph into a 3-4 configuration," Harbaugh said. "Both guys can rush the pass on the outside. Both inside ‘backers can play outside. They play in the middle, they move them around, they are very versatile with what they do, they are young, they run, and they hit. They are a very aggressive group."

A Houston television reporter asked Harbaugh what the Texans' fans who make the trip to Baltimore can expect from the Ravens fans. "Are there going to be some Texans fans here?" Harbaugh said. "Is that right? I'm hoping I don't hear them. The Texans fans can expect hospitality, no question. Our fans are great. Our fans do a great job of doing it with class, doing it the right way. They're not going to be heard, so hopefully they'll understand that. But we welcome them." Harbaugh said the atmosphere is nothing like the Oakland Raiders' rowdy home games. "No, it's nothing like that," Harbaugh said. "Baltimore is a great town, good people. It's a first-class operation." ... Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs believes the Ravens are built for a Super Bowl run, referencing the improvement on offense. "You look around, and there are just so many special people in so many special places," Suggs said

"And what's really unusual, for us, is that we have a lot of those special guys on offense. We had Jamal Lewis, Todd Heap, and then you'd stop, but now, you've got the Ray Rices, you've got the Vonta Leaches, you've got the Michael Ohers, Dennis Pitta, Anquan Boldin. The offensive side kind of matches the defensive side. We've definitely got the potential to be special and do something special."

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