Birk making smooth transition

WESTMINSTER -- There were a few primary reasons why Matt Birk signed with the Baltimore Ravens, and they weren't confined to monetary inducements. The six-time Pro Bowl center was swayed by more than a three-year, $12 million contract that included $6 million in guaranteed money.

For Birk, a Harvard man who likes to roll up his sleeves, get dirty and roughhouse with the biggest, meanest nose guards in the league, his decision to leave the Minnesota Vikings after 11 seasons was triggered by two major factors.

One, he identified a kindred spirit in the AFC North squad because of its collective work ethic and intensity.

Two, he felt like the Ravens were built to contend behind an intimidating defense and a rising quarterback in Joe Flacco after making it to the AFC championship game last season.

"It just seems like it's a blue-collar, lunch-pail group of guys," Birk said. "Football is one of those games where there are really no shortcuts. You have to get out here and you have to work. I love the way this group embraces that challenge every day."

The 33-year-old is regularly granted the opportunity to take a day off every three days as a member of the Ravens' 30-and-over club. However, he opts to skip the creature comforts of his hotel room to sweat it out on the practice field and get a few mental reps.

He's traditionally the lone veteran who shows up for work even when he's excused, showing up to run and lift weights before the morning practice.

"I think it says that he is really trying to tie that offensive line together," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He wants them to be a unit. If he's out there working calls and talking in the background, he can do that. .. He's obviously a smart guy, so he's taking charge of the offensive line."

And part of the impetus for Birk's sterling attendance is self-motivated. He has to familiarize himself with an entirely new offense and absorb offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's intricate playbook.

It's his responsibility to make the line calls and get the rest of the offensive line accustomed to how he reads blitz packages and changes blocking schemes on the fly. Communication is paramount.

"It's just like being a rookie again," Birk said. "For years, to be quite honest, I never really had to crack my playbook. And now I go after lunch, after dinner, at night, all those things. It's kind of nice to be, in a way, starting over again."

Birk has started 123 career games and once generated a consecutive game streak of 67 games. The concept of being strong up the middle hasn't escaped the Ravens' attention. They envision Birk operating as a building block to solidify the offense with every snap.

It starts with Matt Birk," general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "To have an experienced guy like that, the technician that he is, the guy that will be able to direct the traffic on the offensive line, I think is huge. They have a guy in the room that they can look to and say, ‘If this is a seven- or eight-time Pro Bowler, and this is the way he works, then I want to be like him.'"

Praised for his leadership and tenacity at the line of scrimmage, Birk has assumed a leadership role on offense even though he's only been on the team for a few months after replacing stalwart center Jason Brown after Brown signed with the St. Louis Rams.

It hasn't taken Birk long to make a big impression on his teammates.

"He's what we need on this offense," running back Ray Rice said. "He's a guy who's going to demand perfection from the other guys. He's making calls, he's helping Joe out. And he definitely helps the running backs, because when we know what the line is doing, it makes it easier to run the ball."

One pivotal aspect of Birk's game that hasn't gone perfectly has been the center-quarterback exchange. During one practice, there were three muffed snaps between Birk and Flacco.

"We're working on that timing," Birk said. "To be delicate, I have to get used to where Joe puts his hands."

While that might be a work in progress, Birk isn't.

The former sixth-round draft pick with the Ivy League degre e hasn't missed a start since being sidelined for the entire 2005 season with a hip injury that required surgery. So far, he has made a smooth transition to his new environment.

"It's going great," Flacco said. "Matt knows what it takes to have a good offense, and he knows how much work he's going to have put in to get to learn a new offense. I feel very comfortable with him."

Birk has created a lot of confidence already as Brown's replacement, which is a major statement considering how highly regarded Brown was in the locker room.

And Birk's easygoing manner has served him well since his arrival. In an unassuming manner, he has worked hard to earn his teammates' faith as a viable blocker and through his low-key, friendly personality.

"I think of myself as a new guy trying to fit in," Birk said. "Obviously, as a center, you have to learn the offense and you have to make the calls. So kind of by default, you're going to be in a leadership position.

"Everyone thinks because I'm older, more experienced, automatically that makes me a leader. You know, I don't think so. I don't think you're anointed as leader, I think it's something you earn. I'm just trying to earn the trust of the group."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

Ravens notebook: Figurs in a hurry to get healthy, contribute

By Aaron Wilson

Baltimore Ravens wide receiver and kick returner Yamon Figurs is arguably one of the fastest players in the league

He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds at the NFL scouting combine entering the 2007 draft and was selected in the third round by Baltimore.

Now, the former Florida prep track star is running a different kind of race.

Following Figurs' shaky season last year, the Ravens acquired return man Chris Carr during free agency by signing him to a two-year, $5 million contract.

So, Figurs, who's recovering from a broken foot that required surgery this offseason, needs to accelerate his recovery in order to earn a roster spot.

"Every year, you've got to fight for your spot," Figurs said. "Right now, I'm getting my foot right so I can get out there and battle with everybody."

After beginning training camp on the physically unable to perform list, Figurs is practicing again and caught a pair of touchdown passes Sunday from quarterback Troy Smith.

"This was the best that it's felt," said Figurs, who caught a 43-yard touchdown pass for the first aerial score of his career last season against the Houston Texans. "I have the same confidence that I always had. It's all about making some plays."

For his=2 0career, Figurs has averaged 23.3 yards per kickoff return with one 94-yard return for a touchdown. He has averaged 7.9 yards per punt return, including a 75-yard return for a score.

Last season, though, Figurs drew criticism from NFL Network analyst Deion Sanders during the Ravens' victory over the Dallas Cowboys with Sanders accusing the former Kansas State standout of "running scared."

Figurs wound up averaging 21.0 yards per kickoff return and six yards per punt return last year.

He's determined to prove himself all over again, and remains hopeful that he'll see action Thursday night in the Ravens' preseason opener against the Washington Redskins.

"I've been working hard and doing everything I can," Figurs said. "Right now, I'm not even on the depth chart because of the foot. I've got to wait and see. It's up to the doctors."

INJURY UPDATE: Offensive tackle Stefan Rodgers was carted off the field after getting his leg stepped on. Plus, he has been dealing with heel problems.

"He had three nice cleat marks on his calf there," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "I think he's OK."

Offensive tackles Michael Oher (calf sprain) and Oniel Cousins (sprained ankle) both returned to practice.

And offensive guard Ben Grubbs increased his activity level as he works his way back from an ankle injury, practicing for the first time in a few days.

"I'm feeling better," Grubbs said. "I'm just working hard trying to get 100 percent healthy. Sometimes, your body won't allow you do some of the things that you want to do, but that's when you have to put your nose to the ground and work harder."

Free safety Ed Reed practiced for the first time without a red jersey, which signifies he's off-limits to contact. However, the Ravens were practicing in shorts and jerseys. So, it's unclear if his nerve impingement in Reed's neck and shoulder has improved.

"You'll have to ask him," Harbaugh said. "I'm not sure. I didn't have a conversation with him before practice."

The Ravens rested cornerback Domonique Foxworth at the end of practice due to him experiencing tightness in his leg in the sweltering heat

"He was just starting to feel it grab a little bit, cramp a little bit, so we pulled him out," Harbaugh said.

Not practicing: linebacker Terrell Suggs (Achilles' tendon, heel), cornerback Samari Rolle (neck), wide receivers Mark Clayton (left hamstring), Biren Ealy (groin) and Thomas White (hamstring) and defensive tackle Lamar Divens (hip flexor).

Special-teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo (sprained toe) was in uniform, but didn't seem to do much.

Inside linebacker Tavares Gooden (sports hernia), offensive tackle Jared Gaither (trapezius) and tight end Edgar Jones (leg) practiced without incident.

The heat seemed to be a factor as wide receiver Derrick Mason had a cold, wet towel wrapped around his neck and poured several cups of water on his face.

"The good thing was we didn't have a lot of humidity as far as the weather," Harbaugh said. "It was hot. We needed that. I guess we're going to get a couple of days in a row here of heat, so that will be a plus for us. You know whatever comes, we like. Our guys handled it pretty well."

QUICK HITS: Quarterback Joe Flacco's fumble was returned 50 yards for a touchdown by a blitzing Reed. Flacco was also intercepted by safeties K.J. Gerard and Dawan Landry. Flacco's best throw was a 30-yard reception to Demetrius Williams. ... Today's practice is closed to the general public. ... Undrafted rookie linebacker Dannell Ellerbe saw action with the first-team defense again. ... Harbaugh denied that he was limping after several days of participating in kickoff coverage. "No, absolutely not," he said. "No, it's a smooth stride, probably about a 4.43 running down there. You didn't have a clock, did you? ... The coaches from the Naval Academy 175-pound team attended practice and they covered a few kickoffs at the end of practice. "Those guys are 175 pounds or less, right? So they play pretty aggressive, fast football, and they were here studying football, so that was good," Harbaugh sa id. "Then, we had them earn their meals. They had to run down on the kickoff team, just to hono r really what they're doing. We appreciate having them here." ... Harbaugh said that it meant a lot to him to attend the memorial service for the late Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, his old friend and mentor. "It was really neat," he said. "It's just amazing how that whole thing works. Every moment of the whole afternoon was hugging somebody that cared about Jim as much as we did."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

It's not Joe Flacco's house

By Aaron Wilson

WESTMINSTER --Contrary to popular belief, rampant rumors and local urban legend, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco isn't building a shiny new castle in Westminster.

That 20,000-square foot home in the vicinity of Route 27 and Kate Wagner Road that has been the subject of so much speculation actually isn't Flacco's humble abode.

In fact, it belongs to local developer Tom Green.

Green has been alternately amused and flattered by all of the attention the residence receives, and Green is moving in to the house soon now that construction has been nearly completed.

"It was kind of neat at first, but it's strange when people are stopping by to take pictures," sa id Green, the owner of Green Development in Westminster. "It is funny and flattering, but you don't want peop le camping out in your yard. We want to clear this thing up right now."

Green attended practice Sunday afternoon at McDaniel College along with his family and requested that a few local reporters pass on the information that it's not the home of the Ravens' franchise quarterback.

Following Sunday's practice, Green and his family met Flacco and related to him all of the attention they've been receiving. They were surprised to learn that Flacco was already aware of the rumors connecting him to the residence throughout this offseason.

"Joe drove up there on Saturday to check it out," Green said. "He asked me how big it was. He said, 'Man, you guys are lucky.' He said, 'I've been hearing about this house since the end of the season.' I told him he could come by any time to watch film with me in my man cave. He laughed."

Just to clear up any further rumors, Flacco lives in Baltimore County in a residence that's a short drive from the Ravens' training complex.

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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