AFC North: Albert McClellan

Is Ravens' doughnut defense temporary?

June, 1, 2013
6/01/13
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OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- For their 17 years in Baltimore, this was Ray Lewis' defense. Now, as the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens completed the second week of offseason workouts, this has become a doughnut defense. That is, one with a hole in the middle of it.

Rolando McClain retired before he even practiced for the Ravens. Second-round pick Arthur Brown is sidelined but hopes to return by training camp after undergoing sports-hernia surgery. Jameel McClain has yet to be cleared for full-team drills after a spinal-cord contusion caused him to miss the final three regular-season games of 2012 and all of the playoffs. And Albert McClellan didn't practice Friday because of an undisclosed injury.

Who's left at inside linebacker for the Ravens? Josh Bynes, Nigel Carr, Bryan Hall and Brandon Copeland. All four were undrafted and two of them (Hall and Copeland) are converting from defensive linemen.

The Ravens, though, know they have time to get healthy. There are still three full months before they kick off the regular season at Denver.

[+] EnlargeJameel McClain
Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsJameel McClain aims to be back at linebacker come the Ravens' Sept. 5 opener at Denver.
"You can go back 50 years, no matter who the linebacker was -- whether it was [Dick] Butkus or whether it’s Ray Lewis -- no matter who it is, someone always ends up stepping up and has to step up to be the next guy in that situation," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said.

This isn't like last season, when Pees and the Ravens knew they would open the season without Terrell Suggs. The hope is that Brown and Jameel McClain will be manning the middle for Baltimore by training camp.

Brown told reporters Friday that he's "making progress daily" and is taking mental reps. Not being on the field during offseason workouts will hurt Brown, who is making the transition from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 scheme.

McClain has been optimistic about his chances of returning this season. He's been participating in individual drills and there are no restrictions to his training regimen.

"We definitely want Jameel out there," Pees said. "It’s very critical from the standpoint of he’s our leadership out there. He’s kind of the only veteran inside guy that we really have in there."

Despite the injuries, there are high expectations for the Ravens defense. The additions of linebacker Elvis Dumervil, safety Michael Huff, defensive lineman Chris Canty along with the return of cornerback Lardarius Webb from a season-ending knee injury should boost a defense that finished No. 17 in the NFL last season, the Ravens' worst defensive ranking since 2002.

Pees was asked if this year's defense will be better than the one that helped Baltimore win a Super Bowl.

"It’s really always unfair to say ahead of time what the defense is going to be," Pees said. "We have to be better than we were last year. We were good in the playoffs -- good enough -- but we weren’t good enough during the season for us to be the kind of defense that we want to be. We have to be better than we were a year ago, I’ll put it that way. I don’t know whether we will be, but we need to be.”

AFC North's best bargains

September, 5, 2012
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On Monday, the AFC North blog addressed who got paid the most in the division. Now, let's look at the other end of the salary spectrum. This blog entry is all about the starters (and specialists) who average less than $1 million per season over the life of their contract.

Here's a look at the lowest-paid projected starters (and specialists) in the AFC North in terms of average per year:

BENGALS

WR Armon Binns: $415,000

P Kevin Huber: $486,350

DT Geno Atkins: $565,613

WR Brandon Tate: $631,920

DE Carlos Dunlap: $754,500

S Taylor Mays: $824,500

DE Michael Johnson: $875,255

BROWNS

S Eric Hagg: $520,100

G Jason Pinkston: $577,00

FB Owen Marecic: $612,000

G Shawn Lauvao: $672,630

WR Greg Little: $831,875

WR Mohamed Massaquoi: $908,931

S T.J. Ward: $966,250

RAVENS

DE Arthur Jones: $449,527

OLB Albert McClellan: $465,000

K Justin Tucker: $480,000

TE Ed Dickson: $625,833

OLB Paul Kruger: $687,500

NT Terrence Cody: $727,500

WR Torrey Smith: $847,308

STEELERS

P Drew Butler: $481,667

RB Isaac Redman: $540,000

NT Steve McLendon: $540,000

OT Marcus Gilbert: $806,854

OT Max Starks: $825,000
Nearly all the AFC North teams played it safe in Thursday night's preseason finales. Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco and Brandon Weeden all sat out and watched the backup quarterbacks play.

The only starter who played, the Bengals' Andy Dalton, left in the first quarter with an injury but it's not considered serious. Dalton said his hand went "a little numb" after getting hit in the arm but it's "no problem at all." Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said, "Andy’s fine. He’ll be fine for Baltimore. He would have gone right back in this game if it had been the regular season.” So, crisis averted.

If you couldn't watch all four division teams play simultaneously, you're in luck. I had my eye on each one and here are some observations:

BENGALS AT COLTS

In the 20-16 loss at Indianapolis, Dalton was hurt on the opening drive after getting sandwiched. Offensive tackles Andrew Whitworth and Dennis Roland both got beaten for sacks on the play. It hasn't been a great preseason for Whitworth, who is the second-best left tackle in the division.

The Bengals didn't play their top two running backs, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Bernard Scott, because both are recovering from injuries and are getting ready for the regular-season opener. For once, Cincinnati's run game didn't suffer. Brian Leonard ran hard and broke tackles for 27 yards on three carries. Cedric Peerman, who makes more of an impact on special teams, looked good on a 13-yard run up the middle.

No one wants to see Dalton hurt. The Bengals, though, have to feel comfortable with backup Bruce Gradkowski. He finished 12 of 19 for 95 yards and led his fourth touchdown drive of the preseason.

Rookie wide receiver Marvin Jones displayed some resiliency in the second quarter. On the same drive in which he dropped a touchdown pass, he came back to catch a back-shoulder throw from Gradkowski and ran into the end zone. Jones is making a push for some playing time this year.

BEARS AT BROWNS

In the 28-20 loss to Chicago, Colt McCoy watched his strong preseason take a nosedive. In his first start this summer, McCoy was 2 of 5 for 16 yards for a 9.1 quarterback rating. That's going to put a dent into McCoy's 119.1 rating from the first three games. McCoy was also intercepted on a high pass that was thrown with no pressure around him. The Browns will let everyone know what they plan to do with McCoy on Friday.

The Browns have a concern at linebacker after rookie James-Michael Johnson left with an oblique injury. With Chris Gocong out for the season with an Achilles injury and Scott Fujita facing a three-game suspension from the NFL, Cleveland planned to depend on Johnson and Kaluka Maiava. The Browns might need Fujita to win his appeal to avoid going deeper on the depth chart. Johnson was having a strong performance before getting injured on an open-field tackle.

Backup running back Montario Hardesty had trouble getting back to the line of scrimmage because he got little help from his blockers. He finished with 24 yards on six carries and he didn't fumble for the first time since the preseason opener. Brandon Jackson fared much better, gaining 48 yards on seven carries.

Cornerback James Dockery was flagged twice for pass interference in the second quarter. The second one eventually led to a touchdown. Rookie cornerback Trevin Wade was physical and had good coverage in allowing the first touchdown of the game.

As if the Browns needed something else to worry about, they have to iron some things out on special teams. Reggie Hodges got his second punt blocked this preseason.

RAVENS AT RAMS

In a 31-17 loss at St. Louis, Sergio Kindle hurt his chances of surviving Friday's cutdown. He hit quarterback Sam Bradford a full second late, drawing a roughing-the-passer penalty to help the Rams convert third-and-22. Kindle, a 2010 second-round pick, was on the bubble entering this game.

Continuing Thursday night's trend of rookies getting hurt, second-round pick Courtney Upshaw will have an MRI for his strained shoulder, according to coach John Harbaugh. Upshaw has been backing up Albert McClellan at outside linebacker.

Veteran linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo had his worst game with the Ravens. Working with the first-team defense because most of the starters sat, Ayanbadejo struggled against the run and got lost in coverage. It was so bad that he apologized for his performance on Twitter.

What I like the most about Tyrod Taylor, who started in place of Flacco, is his ability to make plays with his legs. Even though he focused more on being a pocket passer, Taylor wasn't hesitant to take off for a 22-yard scramble. He did get stripped from behind earlier in the game, but it was the result of a third-string lineman (Cord Howard) getting beat by a former first-round pick (Robert Quinn).

Looking at Curtis Painter's up-and-down performance, I'm not sure he convinced the Ravens to keep three quarterbacks. He threw two touchdowns and was intercepted three times. One interception was returned 76 yards for a touchdown.

Justin Tucker missed his first kick of the preseason, but it's difficult to be critical of him. It was a 57-yard attempt. He later hit a 49-yarder in the third quarter.

PANTHERS AT STEELERS

If this was Charlie Batch's last game with the Steelers, he made it a memorable one, or at least as memorable as the preseason gets. In the 17-16 victory over Carolina, he completed 11 of 14 passes for 102 yards. Batch showed great touch in leading Emmauel Sanders out of double coverage for a 37-yard touchdown. The new rule regarding injured reserve helps Batch's chances of sticking around Pittsburgh for an 11th season, but there's no guarantee that he'll make the cut.

For the second consecutive week, a Steelers draft pick went down with a serious knee injury. With two minutes left in the third quarter, linebacker Sean Spence hyperextended his knee while chasing quarterback Jimmy Clausen. Spence's knee bent awkwardly underneath him, and the third-round pick needed to be carted off the field. Spence was expected to make an impact on special teams this season and could have received playing time if there were injuries at inside linebacker. Unlike David DeCastro's knee injury, this one happened on the natural grass of Heinz Field.

This isn't a newsflash, but rookie running back-receiver-returner Chris Rainey is a game-changer. He twice scored on punt returns in one quarter, only to have both brought back because of penalties. This would've given him the touchdown trifecta. The fifth-round pick had scored on a 41-yard run and a 57-yard catch this summer.

Nose tackle Casey Hampton made his preseason debut after having ACL surgery in January. His presence was felt immediately as he got off a block from guard Mike Pollak and made a tackle. Hampton's return was good to see for the Steelers, even though Steve McLendon has played well enough to start.

Jonathan Dwyer solidfied himself as the primary backup to Isaac Redman, and the Steelers could need him based on Redman's durability. Dwyer was physical (even delivered a stiff-arm) and showed good feet to elude tacklers. He finished with 63 yards on 13 carries, a 4.8-yard average.
There's a chance that Steelers first-round pick David DeCastro is done for the season after suffering a right knee injury in Saturday night's 38-7 preseason win at Buffalo. "It's potentially severe," coach Mike Tomlin said after the game. "We'll see what the MRI says."

The rest of the division says: Welcome to the club, Steelers.

With DeCastro getting hurt, the top pick for each AFC North team has now been injured for an extended period. Browns running back Trent Richardson (knee), Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (knee) and Ravens outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw (shoulder) all missed a large chunk of training camp and have yet to start a game in the preseason.

Richardson, the third overall pick who had his knee scoped Aug. 9, is expected to play in the regular-season opener, albeit in a limited role. Kirkpatrick, the 17th pick of the 2012 draft, hurt himself before reporting to camp and just began practicing a week ago. Upshaw, a second-round pick, was out for seven days in camp and has yet to unseat Albert McClellan for the rush linebacker job since his return.

The difference with DeCastro is that his injury might leave him sidelined for his entire rookie season. After having a rough start to camp, DeCastro has looked more than solid in the preseason. Now, after watching his right knee bent awkwardly, the Steelers will have to wait for the MRI to see if they'll get him back this season.

While this continues the bad luck for the top picks in the division, it also could extend the Steelers' rough streak with knee injuries. Since the regular-season finale on Jan. 1, Pittsburgh has seen four starters (running back Rashard Mendenhall, offensive tackle Max Starks, nose tackle Casey Hampton and fullback David Johnson) suffer torn anterior cruciate ligaments.

Observation deck: Jaguars-Ravens

August, 23, 2012
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BALTIMORE -- Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has been showing more command of the offense this preseason. In the 48-17 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Flacco looked to be in total control.

Orchestrating the team's new no-huddle attack, Flacco completed 27 of 36 passes for 266 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. These numbers are even more impressive considering he didn't play three full quarters.

Flacco continually looked downfield, completing five passes of more than 15 yards. He also connected with nine different receivers.

This isn't to say Flacco was perfect. He could have been picked off on the team's first trip in the red zone, where he forced a pass in between two defenders to get to Anquan Boldin. Flacco also misfired on two deep passes, putting too much air to an open Torrey Smith and not putting any air to Jacoby Jones.

But Flacco came up big in the critical situations. He hit Boldin on third-and-goal for a 5-yard touchdown and sidestepped a pass-rusher to find Vonta Leach for an 8-yard touchdown.

Here are other observations from the Ravens' third preseason game:
  • In a move that will cause many to jump to conclusions, the Ravens allowed undrafted rookie Justin Tucker to handle all the kicking duties and gave Billy Cundiff the night off. Tucker took advantage by hitting a 53-yard field goal in the second quarter.
  • Ravens cornerbacks Lardarius Webb (team-leading six tackles) and Jimmy Smith played much more physical than the first two preseason games. That's not a surprise since this game was against quarterback Blaine Gabbert and not Matt Ryan or Matthew Stafford. Smith was too aggressive at times and got flagged for pass interference in the third quarter. It was not a particularly good night for cornerback Cary Williams, who got beat on a 27-yard pass to rookie Justin Blackmon.
  • A big focus for Baltimore this offseason has been improving special teams after allowing three touchdowns off returns last season. The Ravens, though, have a lot of work to do in that area. Former Ravens running back Jalen Parmele returned the first two kickoffs of the second half for 42 and 47 yards.
  • Wide receiver Torrey Smith is showing no lingering effects from an ankle injury that sidelined him last game. He caught eight passes for 103 yards, continuing what has been an impressive summer for the 2011 second-round pick.
  • Bryant McKinnie made his first start at left tackle, but Baltimore didn't really have a choice. With Marshal Yanda being held out with an leg injury (not considered serious), the Ravens moved Bobbie Williams from left to right guard and put Kelechi Osemele from right tackle to left guard. That shifted Michael Oher from left to right tackle. Hope you got all of that because there will be a quiz later.
  • Undrafted rookie running back Bobby Rainey (Western Kentucky) should have secured a spot as the team's third running back. He caught three passes for 73 yards and showed great burst on a 48-yard touchdown. Backup running back Bernard Pierce had a productive night with 10 carries for 35 yards, which included a 20-yard run. He wowed the home crowd by hurdling a defender.
  • Albert McClellan started at outside linebacker for the third straight preseason game, but rookie second-round pick Courtney Upshaw saw a lot of time with the starters. The Ravens obviously wanted to get an extended look at Upshaw, who recorded his first sack in the second half.
  • The Ravens put together five touchdown drives of at least 80 yards against Jacksonville. The 48 points are the most the Ravens have ever scored in a preseason.
Good morning, AFC North family. Wednesdays are always a fun day for the division blog. This is the day for my weekly column (it will be posted at 10 a.m.), weekly poll and the weekly chat (which starts at 2 p.m.). It's a lot of weekly stuff, if you get the gist. Hey, that reminds me, here's the daily wake-up call:

BENGALS: No one cares about the preseason, right? Well, it sounds like new Packers running back Cedric Benson has a little riding on Thursday's preseason game at Paul Brown Stadium, where he ran the ball for the Bengals the past four seasons. "It's going to be fun, to say the least," Benson told reporters, via the Cincinnati Enquirer. It'll be good just to go against that defense. I've seen all those guys coming in, I've seen them work together, so it'll be fun to put a licking on them." No one should take Benson's comments too seriously. He actually left the Bengals on good terms. In other alumni news, the Patriots released former Bengals defensive tackle Jonathan Fanene after giving him a $3.85 million bonus five months ago, according to ESPN's John Clayton.

BROWNS: My apologies that this is a day late, but I wanted to pass along this anyway: coach Pat Shumur indicated that he'll keep Thad Lewis as this third quarterback, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. That means either Colt McCoy or Seneca Wallace will be gone before the start of the regular season. "There's something to Thad that I think is worth developing,'' said Shurmur, whose connection with Lewis goes back to 2010 when both were with the Rams. No one expected McCoy and Wallace to both make the final cutdown, but the team kept insisting that they could co-exist. One thing to remember: McCoy makes $540,000 this season and Wallace is scheduled to earn $2.4 million.

RAVENS: Albert McClellan seems to have the edge to start the season at outside linebacker over Courtney Upshaw, according to the Baltimore Sun. Upshaw, the team's top pick in the 2012 draft, is listed as the starter on the team's unofficial depth chart but McClellan has started the past two games. The Ravens have made it clear that the job wouldn't be given to Upshaw. “You’ve got to earn your stripes. You’ve got to earn your position, no matter what,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t know why a lot of people would think that. It’s pretty presumptuous. The best guys play.” McClellan is another one of the Ravens' undrafted success stories, but the team would be disappointed if Upshaw doesn't overtake him at some point this season.

STEELERS: You kind of get the feeling that Max Starks has the edge at left tackle. In his first full practice since being activated off the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, Starks was immediately plugged into the starting lineup, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Starks, who had knee surgery in January, is expected to compete with rookie second-round pick Mike Adams for the job. “There’s a comfort level, I’m used to being around these guys,” Starks said. “Maurkice (Pouncey), Marcus, Willie (Colon), we’ve played together for a long time. The communication is a lot cleaner, and I think that helped out.” In other news, Isaac Redman returned to practice after missing time last week with a hip injury.
As far as the game plan for this week, I will be making the final stop in the AFC North training camp tour Wednesday, when I head up to see the Steelers. I've been spending the past couple of days out at Ravens camp and will post the award-winning camp confidential on Joe Flacco and the gang on Friday. Don't worry, Steelers Nation. The camp confidential on the Black and Gold will run Sunday. As for today, here's the wake-up call:

BENGALS: Safety Taylor Mays returned to practice with a new helmet that has increased padding inside after suffering a head injury in practice. Mays, who said he's only had one concussion over the past five years, injured his head when he collided with cornerback Terence Newman instead of wide receiver Stephen Hill. On the play, Mays was trying to follow the advice of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. "Coach Zim has been in my head pretty tough about lowering my strike zone and not go in for a big hit. To do the right thing," Mays told the team's official website. "That's something I need to work on. Don’t hit him in the head and try to get my head of out of there as much as I can." Hensley's slant: Mays remains in a closely contested battle at strong safety with Jeromy Miles. I'm still wondering whether veteran cornerback Nate Clements is still in the plans at this spot. He was splitting reps there during my training camp stop last week.

BROWNS: Josh Cribbs didn't exactly like it when coach Pat Shurmur referred to him as "a special teams player who plays receiver." And he hasn't enjoyed watching his playing time on offense getting cut down after being the team's second-leading receiver last season. "I'm not OK with that," Cribbs told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "My reps being depleted, I'm not OK with it. I have no problem playing my role at a high level and doing what they ask of me, but I'm not complacent at all." Cribbs has been working with the first-team offense in three-receiver sets because of injuries to Mohamed Massaquoi (concussion) and rookie Travis Benjamin (undisclosed). Hensley's slant: Shurmur isn't one of the more popular guys with the wide receivers these days. Massaquoi recently disputed Shurmur's assessment that he had a concussion, and now Cribbs is irked at the coach's assessment of his role on the team. I'm just not sure how you can get Cribbs on the field as a receiver because rookies Benjamin and Josh Gordon are a bigger part of the future plans.

RAVENS: Outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw, the team's top pick in the 2012 draft, has returned from a shoulder injury but he has been limited in team drills. He isn't sure whether he'll be cleared for Friday's preseason game, which could lead to more playing time for Albert McClellan. “[McClellan’s] done nothing to make you think that he couldn't be a starter, the way he played and the way he practiced,” coach John Harbaugh said, via the team's official website. “He's played really, really well. That makes it interesting.” Hensley's slant: McClellan is not one of the Ravens' big-name players, but he's among their most versatile. He caught the team's eye as a pass-rusher and then filled in for Ray Lewis last season at inside linebacker. Now, McClellan is trying to win a starting job at outside linebacker.

STEELERS: Offensive coordinator Todd Haley isn't revealing much of the game plan in the preseason. So, no one should draw conclusions from the lack of downfield throws and the increased screen passes in the preseason opener at Philadelphia. "Not a lot of game planning will go into these games," Haley told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "We've decided we're going to stay in training-camp mode because you need every day you can get with some of the [practice] limitations you have these days. We'll be focusing and emphasizing certain things in these games and trying to get better at them. We were pretty limited with our formations, but out of those formations we had multiple things we were doing or trying to do. There will be little more to it than that, generally speaking." Hensley's slant: The bigger question is whether the offense changes without their intended starting fullback, David Johnson, who was injury-waived Monday after tearing his ACL. Pittsburgh signed veteran tight end Justin Peelle, who has played fullback in the past. But the Steelers are expected to start Will Johnson, who was out of football last year.

Upon Further Review: Ravens

November, 25, 2011
11/25/11
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Revisiting the Baltimore Ravens' 16-6 victory over the visiting San Francisco 49ers:

The Ravens defense put together another dominant performance, holding the 49ers to 170 total yards.

It's an impressive performance because the Ravens did this without Ray Lewis, who was out with a toe injury. It's even more impressive considering the Ravens did this with two undrafted players at inside linebacker.

Albert McClellan (four tackles) went from playing at Marshall two years ago to starting for Lewis on Thanksgiving night. Jameel McClain (eight tackles) took over Lewis' job of relaying the calls to the defense three years removed from being the only rookie free agent to make the Ravens in 2008.

McClellan and McClain helped limit running back Frank Gore to 39 yards on 14 carries, a 2.8-yard average. By making the 49ers one-dimensional, the Ravens were able to tie a franchise record with nine sacks.

"It's Thanksgiving man, there's a lot of turkey," said defensive end Cory Redding, who set a career-high with 2.5 sacks. "We had to go out there and eat. And that's the beauty of stopping the run. When you do that, you can pin your ears back and rush the passer."

STAT THAT STICKS: 84 -- Joe Flacco's passing yards on third downs against the 49ers. Flacco completed 7 of 10 passes on third downs and threw his only touchdown on third-and-goal.

OVERHEARD: "Just running across the field, I felt really humble. Really humble, just thankful. It's Thanksgiving, and we told our guys there is so much to be thankful for. Running across the field to my brother, he's my best friend, along with Mom and Dad and my wife. You don't put yourself in many other coaches' shoes, but you can put yourself in your brother's shoes. I'm really proud of him ... I just can't say it enough, the job that he's done building that football team. That's a good football team." -- Ravens coach John Harbaugh after winning The Harbaugh Bowl

WHAT'S NEXT: The Ravens play at Cleveland on Dec. 4. Baltimore is 2-3 on the road this season.

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