Joe Flacco zeroed in on his intended target, confident that he could rifle the football into the waiting hands of wide receiver Tandon Doss. The Baltimore Ravens' quarterback was mistaken, though.
Veteran cornerback Corey Graham anticipated the pass, instinctively bursting in front of Doss for the interception last week. And Graham punctuated the turnover by racing into the end zone, having a bit of fun by taunting Flacco as he pursued him in vain.
It wasn't an aberration for the Pro Bowl special-teams ace.
It's practically been the rule for Graham, who has arguably made more big plays and intercepted more passes than any other defensive back since the launch of training camp.
Although Graham isn't in line for a starting job and the Ravens primarily signed him to a two-year, $3.7 million deal to upgrade their struggling kick coverage units, he also came here because the defending AFC North champions promised him an honest opportunity to play in the secondary.
That wasn't the case when he played for the Chicago Bears, according to Graham.
"That was definitely a big reason why I signed here," said Graham, who received a $1.2 million signing bonus in March. "It meant a lot to me. I didn't think I would get an opportunity in Chicago. It wasn't going my way. I wanted to go somewhere else, get a fresh start, let some new eyes see me and hopefully get an opportunity if I play well to get a chance to play."
Graham did his homework before joining the Ravens, speaking with former Bears Pro Bowl special-teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo about how the Ravens coaching staff expanded his role to include a role at linebacker that didn't exist for him in Chicago.
"I didn't just wing it, I talked to B.A," Graham said. "I've seen B.A. go from just playing only on special teams to playing on defense. When he was in Chicago I remember them saying he would never play on defense. It's all about the situation. That's why when you make these decisions you try to make what's best for you, and I think I've made a great decision so far."
Graham intercepted a career-high three passes during his final season in Chicago last year, tying for second on the team.
He also led the Bears with 22 special-teams tackles and has 104 special-teams tackles for his career.
In four of the past five seasons, Graham has at least 20 special-teams tackles.
Graham said his prowess on special teams took precedence over his defensive abilities with Bears coach Lovie Smith.
"That's just how it was," Graham said. "It didn't really matter what I did. I could go out there in training camp and lead the team in interceptions. I could go out there every day and make plays. What it came down to in Chicago I was just going to be a special-teams guy. That's just what Lovie wanted from me.
"Even in meetings, that's all he talked about: ‘Corey is our guy on special teams.' No matter if I go out there and get six picks in practice, he would say something about special teams. That's just how it is. It's not like I don't want to do special teams. I've done it my whole life. I enjoy it, but some situations are better than others."
The Ravens are counting on Graham, 27, being more than just a special-teams guy. They have lined him up all over the field, and he's been producing.
Graham has intercepted passes in almost every practice. On Thursday, a drop by wide receiver Jacoby Jones ricocheted into Graham's hands in a red-zone drill.
"We are really pleased with him," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "Again, there is a type of guy that is versatile. He has come in and played some corner. We knew he was a real good special-teams player. We put him in at nickel. Very smart, very intelligent, love guys like that. Hard worker, doesn't say, ‘Boo.' Just goes to work.
"Told him to learn a little safety, you never know what might happen. We always want to try to have all our bases covered. He does it. So, just really, really pleased with where he is right now."
That goes double for Graham, a former New Hampshire all-purpose standout who spent the first five seasons of his career with the Bears.
Graham said signing with the Ravens is the best decision he's ever made in his life short of marrying his wife, Alison.
"I love it," he said. "Before I signed here, they said if you show you deserve to be on the field, then you'll be on the field. That's all you can ask for. I was used to a situation that no matter what I did I wasn't getting on the field. It was going to take an injury, no matter what. No matter if I had 50 interceptions, it didn't matter.
"I just wanted to get an opportunity to get with a coach who stays to his word. If you show you deserve to be out there, you'll be out there. I'm not asking to be a starter. I just want to play."
Graham has 117 career tackles, four interceptions, 10 pass deflections, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
His self-scouting report is modest.
"I make plays," Graham said. "I got good ball skills. I make plays. I know the game. I know what's happening. I read routes pretty well. I'm all right. I can hold my own."
Soaking up Pees' complex scheme, Graham feels challenged creatively.
He noted a stark contrast to his old Bears playbook.
"It's amazing, man," Graham said. "It's a lot of stuff going on. You never know where you're going to be at or what's going to happen. It's not predictable. It's night and day from everything I played in Chicago.
"So, it's something I'm definitely getting used to. It's something I really like. I've never seen anything like it. Just learning all the different defenses and the different things you can do it's like a kid in a candy store every day."
Five years of playing special teams is how Graham built his reputation and earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl last season.
Instinctive, tough and durable, Graham is extremely difficult to deal with on the outside as a gunner.
"A lot of heart, man," Graham said. "Most of the time, you're going against two guys. Guys are going to get their hands on you. It's a fight. When it comes down to it, the toughest guy is going to win most of the time. You just got to be tougher.
"It's the hardest position in football, to me. I think playing gunner is harder than playing corner in this league. It's definitely a fight. You're going to win some, you're going to lose some. The key is you have to win more than you lose."
Earlier this week, special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg drew up a play specifically intended to neutralize Graham.
It didn't work.
"The whole design of the play was to beat Jerrhim and he didn't fall for it," Rosburg said. "And he called me out right afterwards. So, yeah, he's very crafty. He's good to have in the room, too, because he can help a lot of the young players."
Graham laughed when told that Rosburg had described him as crafty.
"Crafty's all right," Graham said. "Sometimes, it can be good. Sometimes, it can be bad. Sometimes, they call the mediocre receiver that finds a way to catch the ball crafty. On special teams, it's all right, but I don't want to be a crafty cornerback, I'll tell you that."
What does it take to be an effective gunner?
There's a strategy to what Graham does, but it's centered on one critical goal: being the first man down the field and making the tackle.
"To be honest with you there's more to it than people think," Graham said. "It's a lot of film study, a lot of watching. You have to know who you're going against and know what they go for. I'm not just out there freestyling. If I'm going against a double-team, I know the safety's the weak link and will go for an inside fake every time, then I might fake him inside and come back outside.
"There's an art to it, there's a skill to it. There's a lot of studying to it and a lot of toughness to it." if I can get in a system where they allow me to play football I can make a lot of good football plays. Just like on kickoff when I'm a gunner, I'm not just running out there. When I see something, I know how to play it."
Ravens: McKinnie, Ngata activated, practice for the first time of camp
OWINGS MILLS — With the conditioning test finally conquered Friday morning, Baltimore Ravens Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie were activated and practiced for the first time since arriving at training camp.
Ngata had been sidelined with a hamstring injury sustained when he first attempted the conditioning test, a series of timed running intervals. He's now off the physically unable to perform list.
McKinnie told the Times when he reported last Sunday that he injured his lower back prior to the veteran reporting date last Wednesday. He was initially placed on the reserve/did not report list and then shifted to the non-football injury list.
McKinnie passed the conditoning test narrowly with a diving effort at the end, according to coach John Harbaugh.
"It's a tough test," Harbaugh said. "You have to be in shape to pass that test, so congratulations to those guys."
The 6-foot-8, 354-pound McKinnie was limited to individual drills Friday, the same workload that Ngata participated in as the coaching staff eased them back into practice.
Harbaugh said after two days of getting acclimated both players are expected to take part in a full practice Monday.
The Ravens picked up a $500,000 roster bonus for McKinnie in March after he promised general manager Ozzie Newsome that he would get into shape.
McKinnie, who started every game last season for Baltimore after being cut by the Minnesota Vikings last year when he reported at 387 pounds, was held out of a mandatory minicamp in June due to conditioning issues.
"It means a lot," Harbaugh said when asked about the significance of getting back two starters. "Of course, Bryant is a guy that has played a lot of football for his career, but also for us last year. He is competing right in there with the rest of the guys. He can be a big part of us, and has been."
McKinnie said he bulked up during his convalescence from the lower back injury, which he said occurred when he slipped on a wet surface at his South Florida home.
Of the back injury McKinnie reported to team officials through his chiropractor, Harbaugh said: "Yes, the back is cleared up."
When he arrived at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, McKinnie said he wants to put the focus surrounding him back on football, not on his weight or other issues that have included a $4.5 million lawsuit for a loan he took out during the NFL lockout last year.
"Yeah, I don't want everybody talking about me," said McKinnie, who's due a $3.2 million base salary this season. "I had an accident. I'm over it. I'm here to play football. I'm ready to have a good season. I'm in some of my best shape ever, so lets get to work."
A three-time Pro Bowl selection who recorded 65 tackles and five sacks last season, Ngata appears significantly heavier than he was last season when he got down to 335 pounds.
He's listed at 6-foot-4, 340 pounds on the roster, but looks bigger than that.
Ngata appeared to have dropped some weight since minicamp when he had bulked up quite a bit, something he said he did by design to not wear down as he did last year when a bruised thigh slowed him down toward the end of the season.
"Of course, Haloti Ngata, his presence speaks for itself," Harbaugh said.
Ngata had no sacks following his two-sack game on Thanksgiving against the San Francisco 49ers, and he recorded just three tackles in the Ravens' two playoff games.
"I had a couple of problems, but I just didn't feel probably just as powerful at the end of the season as what I usually feel," Ngata said in June. "I just didn't feel that strong. So, I think a little bit this year I'm going to probably try to get up on the weight a little bit just to help me with some of that power.
"I think being a little bit lighter kind of made me lose some of that power. I still feel the same. That's the thing, though. I felt more, not as winded, but I'm so used to playing at this weight anyway. So, it shouldn't be a problem."
Ravens notebook: Birk expected to miss first preseason game due to back spasms
Six-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk missed his fifth consecutive practice Friday due to back spasms, an ailment expected to keep him out until after the Baltimore Ravens' first preseason game next week.
Birk underwent surgery during the offseason to address varicose veins in his legs.
Now, the 36-year-old is dealing with a back problem as the Ravens prepare for next Thursday's preseason opener against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome.
"Matt is resting," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He had some back spasms, too. It's probably both me and Matt. Matt has had the back spasms, but I'm going to probably slow him down a little bit more, especially this week. Maybe next week after the game, we will get him back a little bit more."
Birk has a history of injuries in recent seasons, including issues with his knee, neck and elbow.
The Harvard graduate is durable, though, never missing a start since initially signing with the Ravens three seasons ago. Birk underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee last year during training camp, but was ready in time for the opening game against the Pittsburgh Steelers despite an abbreviated preseason.
The Ravens have been pleased with the work of rookie center Gino Gradkowski, a fifth-round draft pick from Delaware slated to back up Birk.
"He's a young guy, physically," Harbaugh said. "He's very smart. He's very tough. He's very competitive, kind of a tough, mean nasty type of guy. We like his style."
SMITH SIDELINED: Cornerback Jimmy Smith missed practice due to a back injury suffered during an indoor practice Thursday afternoon.
"Jimmy's back locked up," Harbaugh said. "It's all muscular. It's something that happened to him in college. It takes a couple of days usually for that to loosen up."
Defensive end Arthur Jones was out the past two practices with a hip flexor injury. He had a magnetic resonance imaging exam, which revealed no tear and that it's only a strained muscle.
"He had a hip flexor issue that he's been fighting through for the last couple of days, so we decided to get it looked at," Harbaugh said. "Don't expect it to be serious, but we wanted to check it out and make sure."
Offensive guard Bobbie Williams (right ankle) returned after missing one day of practice.
Several other players didn't practice Friday, though. That included Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach, who was given a day off due to a tight back. Leach is also the only fullback on the roster.
"I held him out," Harbaugh said. "His back started to tighten up, too, so I held him out a little bit. That's part of the camp deal, especially those guys who are a little bit older."
Also not practicing: linebackers Courtney Upshaw (right shoulder), Terrell Suggs (partially torn Achilles tendon), Josh Bynes (undisclosed) and Dannell Ellerbe (undisclosed), cornerbacks Cary Williams (hip) and Asa Jackson (undisclosed), tight end Dennis Pitta (broken right hand), offensive lineman Jah Reid (strained right calf), wide receivers Tandon Doss (hamstring), David Reed (ACL surgery) and Patrick Williams (undisclosed), and running back Bernard Pierce (strained hamstring).
M&T TODAY: The Ravens have an open practice today at M&T Bank Stadium at 5 p.m. with gates opening at 3:30 p.m.
"It's a practice, yes, but it's a ramped-up environment," Harbaugh said. "Last year, some of our young guys went into that stadium atmosphere, who had been practicing well, and didn't practice so well. The environment got them. So, it's a chance for them to get into that different kind of setting.
"It's a little bit bigger than the practice field out here and perform in that kind of a setting, be able to just take the whole thing, internalize it back to your own performance, cut that crowd out of it and play football."
QUICK HITS: Former Pro Bowl kicker Billy Cundiff was given the day off. Rookie kicker Justin Tucker made 5 of 6 field goals, coming up just short on a 60-yard attempt. ..
The Ravens list receiver Jacoby Jones as their top punt returner and kick returner on their official depth chart. ... Bryant McKinnie is listed as the starting left tackle and Michael Oher as the starting right tackle. ... Special Olympics of Maryland athletes attended the practice. ... Pro Bowl offensive guard Marshal Yanda delivered a message to the team. " His words were, ‘Embrace the grind,'"
Harbaugh said. "Perfect for training camp, right? He talked about ‘physical' being the foundation of being a football player and what this football team is all about, and he talked about having fun. It's a game that we should love. It's a great game, and we all love it, so even though it's 105 degrees, or whatever it is, make the most of it and enjoy yourself."
Ravens Insider Top Stories
What was Vikings’ ‘business principle?’The Minnesota Vikings signed three big contracts with unrestricted free agents, but the way they structured them seems to hint at their “business principle.”
Viking UpdateYesterday at 7:04 AM
Tom Herman's PSA to UT StudentsIn another attempt to bring pride and tradition back to Texas football, head coach Tom Herman is expanding the Longhorns' spring practice competition to the student ranks -…
Denver Broncos 2017 Free Agency TrackerKeep tabs on who the Broncos have interest in as Free Agency approaches.
Mile High Huddle03/13/2017
Free Agent Frenzy: Who's Left For Denver?We're only a few days into free agency and the Broncos have made some moves. They still have cap space and could look to add in a few more areas. MHH Senior Analyst Erick Trickel…
Mile High Huddle03/12/2017