AFC North: Gary Kubiak

Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak was asked how he felt a little over a year removed from suffering a mini-stroke.

Kubiak
"I think I’m all right. Do I look all right?," Kubiak responded. "This league will give you some health issues."

It was last Nov. 3 when Kubiak collapsed on the field as the head coach of the Houston Texans. He missed one game and returned to work eight days later on a modified schedule.

Now, more than halfway into his season as the Baltimore Ravens' offensive coordinator, Kubiak looks like he's had some long days but he said he feels fine.

"It’s Week 10 in the NFL. I think everybody is a little tired right now," Kubiak said. "We have the bye week this week, so I know I’m looking forward to it just like everybody else, getting a little rest and getting fresh for these last six weeks. But I’ve really enjoyed myself."

Even though the Ravens haven't been as productive lately in moving the ball, the offense ranks No. 11 in total yards and No. 8 in scoring (26.1). This is a major upgrade from last season, when the Ravens were No. 29 in yards and No. 25 in points scored.

"I’ve been very challenged, trying to put in a new offense and do it really quickly," Kubiak said. "I told the players [on Monday], I know I’m asking a lot of them and a lot of the coaches for the first time around, but I’m in a hurry to get there, and I know they are, too. But I’ve enjoyed myself. I’m really looking forward to this run we have coming. [We have] some big games to play in and we need to play well.”
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak is using part of his bye week to figure out why quarterback Joe Flacco has regressed this season.

In the first weeks of the season, Flacco completed 66.7 percent of his throws and averaged 266 yards passing per game. He threw 12 touchdowns and three interceptions for a 97.8 passer rating (10th-best in the league).

Flacco
Over the last four games -- since throwing five touchdowns in Tampa -- he has connected on 60.3 percent of his passes and averaged 231.1 yards passing. He has thrown five touchdowns and five interceptions for a 78.6 rating (No. 25 over that span).

In his first year in Kubiak's offense, Flacco should be getting better at this time of the year and not worse.

"That's what I'm studying right now," Kubiak said. "You go through phases throughout the course of the season. I'm trying to go back and look at the things that he's very comfortable with and maybe some of the things I've asked him to do here over the course of a few weeks that maybe got him out of that comfort zone. So, I'm trying to find that as a coach, and as we go into these last six weeks, get him as comfortable as I can."

Flacco has looked anything but confident in recent weeks. He has missed open receivers and he is not following through on his throws. There has been increased pass pressure, but Flacco is hurting himself with his lack of pocket awareness. At the end of the first half Sunday, right tackle Rick Wagner got bull-rushed into Flacco, who just needed to step up in the pocket to avoid the sack.

He's still on pace for his first 4,000-yard season and a career high in touchdowns, but the past four games have shown that the passing game remains a work in progress.

"We've got to clean up some of our decision-making and I think I can help him with that by how I call plays, too," Kubiak said. "That's what I'm trying to really check myself first before I go to Joe."

The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers renew one of the NFL’s fiercest rivalries on Sunday night at Heinz Field. Both teams are 5-3 and a half-game out of first place in the AFC North. The Ravens beat the Steelers, 26-6, when the teams met in early September and they will try to sweep their bitter rival for the first time since 2011.

ESPN Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley and ESPN Steelers reporter Scott Brown take a closer look at the 8:30 p.m. ET game.

Brown: Jamison, how will the Ravens compensate for the loss of Jimmy Smith at cornerback and how bad is the timing for the Ravens to face Ben Roethlisberger when they are so thin at cornerback?

Hensley: To characterize losing Smith as “bad timing” is an understatement. It’s atrocious. Smith, who is sidelined with a foot injury, is not only the Ravens’ best cornerback but he’s also among the top five cornerbacks in the NFL. The Ravens have no one who can replace his combination of size, speed, aggressiveness and intelligence. Even the most optimistic supporter of the Ravens couldn’t think Dominique Franks, who was out of football for the first five weeks, can fill the void left by Smith.

The only way the Ravens can lessen the blow is with their pass rush. When Roethlisberger threw 522 yards and six touchdowns, he was hit twice by the Colts. The Ravens’ top three pass-rushers -- Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil and Pernell McPhee -- have combined for 14.5 sacks and 23 quarterback hits. Over the last five meetings with Roethlisberger, the Ravens have sacked him 10 times. If they can put that pressure on Roethlisberger, it will give him less time to find the open receiver.

While a lot of the focus has been on Roethlisberger, how have his weapons improved in the passing game? With the Ravens being without their top cornerback, will it be tough for them to match up with the Steelers?

Brown: The Steelers and Roethlisberger have to be salivating over the prospect of attacking the Ravens’ secondary. No Smith and a defense that is thin at cornerback has to reckon with a receiving corps that has changed considerably since the Ravens soundly beat the Steelers in Baltimore. Justin Brown, who lost a fumble inside the Ravens’ 20-yard line early in the teams’ Sept. 11 game, isn’t even in the picture at wide receiver right now.

Rookie Martavis Bryant, who has been a revelation in his first two NFL games, and reliable veteran Lance Moore will play against the Ravens after not dressing the first time the two AFC North rivals played. Those two along with Markus Wheaton should make the Ravens pay if they focus too much attention to two-time Pro Bowler Antonio Brown. Brown, meanwhile, opens things up for the other receivers, including tight end Heath Miller, who is coming off his third career 100-yard receiving game.

Baltimore ran the ball effectively against the Steelers on Sept. 11 and it looks like Justin Forsett has really emerged for the Ravens. Has he been one of the NFL’s biggest surprises this season and how are the roles defined in the Ravens’ backfield?

Hensley: It would’ve been difficult for anyone to predict this type of production from Forsett. In training camp, he was the No. 4 running back behind Ray Rice, Bernard Pierce and rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro. Halfway through the Ravens’ season, Forsett is fourth in the NFL with 571 rushing yards. The Ravens needed Forsett to step up after Rice was cut and Pierce struggled to stay healthy. What stands out about Forsett is his vision to find the running lanes in the zone blocking scheme and determination to break tackles. The reason the Ravens signed Forsett was his familiarity with Gary Kubiak’s offense after playing in Houston two years ago. He has remained atop the depth chart by averaging 5.5 yards per carry, the third-best average in the league.

Forsett is the primary ball carrier and gets about 70 percent of the snaps. His work could be affected this week by a knee injury that kept him out of Wednesday’s practice. Pierce had been the Ravens’ back when they get in the red zone. But he was a healthy scratch last Sunday after averaging less than three yards per carry in three of five games. So, Taliaferro has become the top backup and scored two red zone touchdowns in Cincinnati.

The run game has been one of the most improved areas on offense, along with the Ravens’ line. Joe Flacco wasn't sacked in the first meeting, but the Steelers were able to get a lot of pressure Sunday on Andrew Luck. Should the Ravens expect a significantly better pass rush on Sunday night?

Brown: That depends on whether the Steelers can get a big lead early against the Ravens. The Steelers’ defense fed off the offense’s fast start Sunday and an early 21-3 lead forced the Colts to throw, throw and throw some more. Indianapolis had just 10 rushes in its 51-34 loss to Pittsburgh and two of those were scrambles by Luck. Making the Colts one-dimensional on offense allowed the Steelers to really go after Luck and they hit him a lot.

The Steelers probably won’t be as fortunate against the Ravens. They struggled to stop the run when the two rivals played earlier this season and teams with zone-blocking schemes have given the Steelers fits. Unless the Steelers jump out to a big lead early for the second consecutive game they will get a steady dose of Forsett and Taliaferro. That alone should temper the pressure they are able to put on Flacco.

Coach John Harbaugh made a comment earlier this week about how the Ravens are comfortable playing at Heinz Field. What did you make of that comment and can it be traced to the Ravens winning in Pittsburgh in 2010, 2011 and 2012?

Hensley: That’s exactly what Harbaugh meant by that comment. He was saying that the Ravens know what it takes to win in Pittsburgh. You can’t blame Harbaugh for taking a confident stance, especially considering the circumstances. It was just a week ago when the Ravens sat atop the AFC North after winning five of their previous six games. Now, after losing in dramatic fashion in Cincinnati, the Ravens could potentially drop to last place with a loss in Pittsburgh. By saying the Ravens are comfortable at Heinz, Harbaugh is telling his players that they can win in Pittsburgh because they’ve done it before.

The Ravens beat the Steelers earlier this season by keeping them out of the end zone. While the Ravens rank second in the league in fewest points allowed, the Steelers defense uncharacteristically ranks 16th in yards allowed and 21st in points given up. Do these numbers truly reflect how the defense is playing?

Brown: Unfortunately for the Steelers, they do. There were questions about the defense, and that was before the Steelers lost starting outside linebacker Jarvis Jones and cornerback Ike Taylor to significant injuries. Cornerback Cortez Allen, whom the Steelers signed to a five-year, $25 million contract right before the start of the regular season, has struggled so much that the fourth-year veteran has been demoted twice in the past two weeks.

The Steelers have also had issues stopping the run and an offense that can stay balanced is going to give them problems. The defense has shown signs of improvement and it has generated consistent pressure on the quarterback as well as takeaways during the Steelers’ two-game winning streak. If that continues against the Ravens the Steelers have a great chance of improving to 7-4 with games against the lowly Jets and the two-win Titans next up on the schedule.

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens have turned the ball over five times the past two weeks, but you probably shouldn't bring that up to offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak.

Kubiak
"You know it's interesting," Kubiak said. "It seems like sometimes, I told [head coach] John [Harbaugh] the other day, you talk about it so much and they don't go away. Sometimes you've got to maybe just not say anything."

In the past two games, the Ravens have watched quarterback Joe Flacco throw four interceptions and Jacoby Jones fumble a punt return. There are only two teams that have turned the ball over more: the New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars (six turnovers each).

Overall, the Ravens have turned the ball over 12 times this season, which falls in the middle of the pack. Where the Ravens have excelled is the defense has not allowed teams to convert those mistakes into points. The Ravens have given up 23 points off turnovers, which is the eighth-fewest in the NFL.

When the Ravens win the turnover battle, they are 93-10 (.902) under Harbaugh.

"We've got too good of a football team. If we're protecting the ball, I think we're going to play really well," Kubiak said. "So, it's something that [quarterbacks coach] Rick [Dennison], Joe and I have to do a better job of because we've turned it over four times via the air the last two weeks. That's something we have to get fixed."

Flacco hasn't been intercepted by the Steelers since December 2012. It's a streak that has spanned 14 quarters and 112 pass attempts.
Gary Kubiak is on his way to becoming a hot head coaching candidate this offseason after what he's done in turning around one of the worst offenses in the league.

In Kubiak's first season as their offensive coordinator, the Ravens have gone from the 29th-ranked offense last year to the No. 8 one through six games this year. The Ravens are on pace to shattering team records for points (27.3 per game), total yards (389.8) and passing yards (257) despite losing running back Ray Rice and tight end Dennis Pitta.

Joe Flacco has never played better. The running game has been the most explosive in the NFL. The offensive line has gone from the league's worst to one of the best.

[+] EnlargeBaltimore's Gary Kubiak
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesUnder offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak the Ravens are averaging 27.3 points, 389.8 yards and 257 passing yards per game.
How have the Ravens done it? Kubiak's fingerprints are all over the new-look offense. His emphasis on more efficient passing and his style of zone blocking has the Ravens on track to ending a stretch of 16 straight seasons without a top-10 offense. That's tied for the fifth-longest streak in NFL history.

It's even more remarkable when you consider the quarterback threw the second-most interceptions in the NFL last year, the leading receiver is a 35-year-old salary-cap cut (Steve Smith) and the top running back is a journeyman on his fourth team in four seasons (Justin Forsett).

Asked if he was surprised by how quickly the Ravens have adjusted to Kubiak's system, coach John Harbaugh said, "I don’t know if I can say if I’m surprised or not -- I’m sure happy with it."

Kubiak, 53, came to the Ravens after losing his last 11 games as head coach of the Houston Texans (including an NFL record with seven straight losses by seven points or less) and enduring criticism that his offense had become too predictable. His impact on the Ravens' offense has certainly begun repairing his reputation to the point where no one should be surprised if he is a head coach again in 2015.

Here are the three biggest improvements to the Ravens' offense:

Flacco's efficiency: Flacco has produced the two best passer ratings of his career in the past three games. He's completed over 70 percent of his passes in three games after only doing it once in his previous 23 games. Flacco's three interceptions are the fourth-fewest among quarterbacks with at least 120 attempts (only Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers and Tom Brady have fewer). He's also on pace for his first 4,000-yard passing season. It has the makings of a career year for the former Super Bowl Most Valuable Player.

Explosiveness in ground game: The Ravens' nine runs of 20 yards or longer is the most in the NFL. That's nearly double the number of what the Ravens produced all of last season (five). Forsett has had a run of 20 yards or longer in his past five games. Not bad for a running back who had six carries last season for four-win Jacksonville Jaguars team. Forsett's 56-yard run on Sunday was the Ravens' longest in 21 games. The Ravens are averaging 4.7 yards per carry (No. 6 in the NFL) after managing a league-worst 3.1 yards per carry a year ago.

Blocking by offensive line: The Ravens have not allowed a sack in four of six games this season, and they are averaging 3.1 yards before contact (sixth-best in the NFL). That's a reflection of the job being done by the offensive line. Flacco is barely getting hit, and running backs aren't getting touched at the line of scrimmage. This is much different from a year ago, when Flacco was sacked a career-worst 48 times and running backs averaged two yards before contact (30th in the NFL).
PITTSBURGH -- Fallout from the Ravens' release of running back Ray Rice on Monday -- and his indefinite banishment from the NFL for domestic abuse -- has prompted questions of whether it will distract Baltimore as it prepares for the first of its two games with Pittsburgh.

Rice
Rice
And on a short week no less.

But Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward said the siege mentality that has probably taken root at the Ravens' practice facility could actually bring Baltimore's players closer together -- and sharpen their focus on the 8:30 p.m. ET game Thursday night at M&T Bank Stadium.

"It's probably chaotic over there," Heyward said, "but you've just got to stay together as a team, focus on the task at hand and just continue to grow."

The Steelers did that a season before Heyward joined the team.

They played the first four games in 2010 without Ben Roethlisberger and closed ranks when the four-game suspension of the Steelers quarterback added TV cameras at the team's practice facility.

The Steelers went 3-1 without Roethlisberger, and only a late touchdown drive that Joe Flacco engineered at Heinz Field prevented them from winning all four games.

One reason the Steelers were able to play so well at the beginning of 2010 is they had ample time to prepare for the opening stretch without Roethlisberger. A dominant defense that took it upon itself to carry the team while Roethlisberger was out didn't hurt either.

The same holds true for the Ravens -- at least the part about preparing for the first part of the season without Rice.

"The simple fact (is) nothing changes because we knew he wasn't going to be able to play this week," Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said.

Indeed, Rice had been suspended for the first two games of the season before this week's video surfaced. It's not like his release has led to even longer hours this week for coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak.

The Rice saga will only bring the Ravens closer together, as counterintuitive as it seems that a distraction could actually galvanize a team.

If the Ravens lose Thursday night, it won't be because of Rice.

"It definitely kind of blindsided us," Suggs said. "Ray is our brother and we're not going to abandon him internally now. We still have a job to do. The season must go on and we're getting ready to play the Pittsburgh Steelers."
If the Baltimore Ravens want to add a quarterback who is familiar with Gary Kubiak's offense, they will likely have a chance to do so very soon.

Keenum
Keenum
Taylor
Case Keenum, who started eight games for Kubiak last season in Houston, has been informed that he will be waived by the Houston Texans, according to ESPN's Adam Caplan. Keenum became expendable after the Texans traded for Ryan Mallett.

The Ravens may see Keenum as a better fit in Kubiak's system than current backup Tyrod Taylor. Keenum's familiarity comes from spending two years with Kubiak, who is now in his first season as the Ravens' offensive coordinator.

How much did Kubiak like Keenum? In Week 7 last season, Kubiak went with Keenum as his starter over backup T.J. Yates when Matt Schaub was injured.

In eight starts, Keenum completed 54 percent of his passes for 1,760 yards (average of 220 yards). He threw nine touchdowns and six interceptions for a 78.2 passer rating.

The Ravens are currently going with Taylor as their backup for a fourth straight season, and they are expected to sign rookie sixth-round pick Keith Wenning to the practice squad.

Taylor had a solid preseason, producing points on 12 (four touchdowns, eight field goals) of 21 drives. But he's considered more of a scrambler than a pocket passer. His lack of patience in the pocket and questionable decision-making has frustrated the Ravens in the past.

In the spring, coach John Harbaugh expressed disappointment with Taylor's recent performances. This may have been the reason the Ravens tried to sign Brandon Weeden in free agency. The Ravens then presumably drafted Wenning as the eventual No. 2 quarterback because Taylor is entering the final year of his contract.

How comfortable are the Ravens with Taylor as their backup now? The Ravens' level of interest in Keenum will let everyone know.

Ravens Camp Report: Day 13

August, 10, 2014
Aug 10
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OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Baltimore Ravens training camp:
  • Joe Flacco had one of his roughest days of camp, throwing late and high on many of his passes. It got so bad that Flacco cursed at himself. Flacco later was picked off by 49ers' rookie fourth-round pick Dontae Johnson, who returned the interception for a touchdown.
  • Wide receiver Michael Campanaro stood out with his shifty route-running over the middle. The rookie seventh-round pick even earned a handshake from coach John Harbaugh after one catch. Campanaro continues to show flashes as slot receiver. The question is whether he can stay healthy.
  • Another rookie who drew attention was third-round pick Terrence Brooks. Buried on the depth chart for most of camp, Brooks received time with the first-team defense. Injuries to Lardarius Webb (back) and Asa Jackson (ankle) prompted the Ravens to move safety Darian Stewart to nickelback and promote Brooks to starting free safety. Brooks also got a few snaps at nickelback. He is fast but he's still learning the defense.
  • Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak was criticized in Houston for not throwing to the end zone when the Texans reached the red zone. That trend has carried over to the Ravens. It's hard to remember a time in camp when the Ravens haven't throw underneath during red zone drills.
  • The Ravens didn't fare well in one-on-one pass blocking drills between their running backs and tight ends against the 49ers linebackers. Kyle Juszczyk, Lorenzo Taliaferro and Owen Daniels were the only ones to hold their own for the Ravens. Bernard Pierce got beat on his first two tries and then was briefly shaken up after his third attempt to block.
  • Ravens left tackle Eugene Monroe did a solid job against 49ers pass-rusher Aldon Smith. Monroe had struggled at times in going against Terrell Suggs during camp.
  • Schedule: The Ravens hold their third and final joint practice with the San Francisco 49ers at 10:30 a.m. ET Monday. The players get a day off Tuesday.
  • Injury wire: Defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore (Achilles) likely suffered a season-ending injury during practice. ... Cornerback Asa Jackson had to be helped off the field with a "minor" ankle injury, according to Harbaugh. ... Tight end Dennis Pitta missed practice but did come out on the field to watch. "He had a little tweak, and I decided to hold him back and get with a trainer," Harbaugh said. ... Cornerback Lardarius Webb (back) missed his 11th straight practice. He last practiced July 25. ... Guard Will Rackley (head), guard Ryan Jensen (ankle) and safety Brynden Trawick (back) also didn't practice. ... Nose tackle Terrence Cody (hip) is on the physically unable to perform list. ... Defensive end Brent Urban (torn ACL) is out for the season.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- As the new offensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens, Gary Kubiak is envisioning shorter passes, quicker releases from his quarterbacks and a play that has been used infrequently in team history.

"I was telling John [Harbaugh] the other night: ‘You know, I think we’ve got a chance to be a pretty good screen team,'" Kubiak said. "Our guards not only are big and physical, but they can get out and run."

Screen passes can be an effective weapon. It's a high-percentage short pass to a running back that can generate yards if the offense gets downfield blocking and the defense is caught blitzing.

But the Ravens have rarely called this play, throwing 123 screen passes since 2001 -- the fourth fewest in the NFL over that span. Only the Dallas Cowboys, Cleveland Browns and Tampa Bay Buccaneers have called it fewer times.

Kubiak feels that can change this season with left guard Kelechi Osemele and right guard Marshal Yanda. They're two of the most physical guards in the league, but they have athleticism for their size. For a screen pass to work, offensive linemen have to run and get in front of the running back in the flat.

It's interesting to note that Kubiak isn't known for using the screen pass often. During Kubiak's eight seasons in Houston, the Texans had 163 screen passes, which ranked 20th in the NFL.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens are banking on a different offensive coordinator and a new big-name target in the passing game to change their fortunes in 2014, but the jury is out because the offense has been up and down so far in camp.

The biggest reason the Ravens didn't defend their Super Bowl title and failed to reach the playoffs for the first time in coach John Harbaugh's six seasons is because of the fourth-worst offense in the league. Quarterback Joe Flacco threw the second-most interceptions in the league, running back Ray Rice averaged a career-low 3.1 yards per carry and the Ravens scored 20 or fewer points in all but one of the team's losses.

Flacco has looked inconsistent so far in camp while Rice appears to have regained his explosiveness after shedding 15 pounds.

The Ravens' offense will have a different look this season after hiring Gary Kubiak as offensive coordinator and signing wide receiver Steve Smith in free agency. In Kubiak's system, Flacco will have to get the ball out his hands quicker, make shorter throws and run more bootlegs. The emphasis has been noticeable in drills as Flacco has tried to get rid of the ball after 3-5 steps.

How much improvement Flacco makes in Kubiak's system will likely determine how much improvement the Ravens make this season.

"The thing I like about what Coach Kubiak is doing, it’s a very straightforward offense. It’s very clear-cut," Harbaugh said. "That helps maybe get guys up to speed as quick as possible. But yes, there are always nuances, and you have to experience things sometimes. I’d like to think that we’ll be better at it a year from now than where we are this year, but we can’t be thinking about it that way. We’ve got to get great at it right now, because we’re going to be playing a football game very soon. It happens to be the Cincinnati Bengals, who won our division last year, so that’s what we’re looking at and that’s what we've got to be ready for.”

The football world hasn't been focused on the Ravens' new-look offense. The center of attention has been Rice, who was suspended two games by the NFL for his alleged domestic violence incident.

The Ravens want to get back to their roots of running the football again, and the key is getting Rice back on track. Can Rice have a productive season after such a tumultuous offseason? He certainly thinks so.

"The football field is my safe haven," Rice said. "Honestly, just coming here being a part of the offseason program, getting in shape, working and doing the things that I’ve always been doing on the football field, [I’m] feeling like my old self again. It’s given me some inspiration to go out there and not only just go out there and play football. It’s giving me inspiration to go out there and be the best football player I can be."

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeJoe Flacco and Gary Kubiak
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyOffensive coordinator Gary Kubiak has a proven record of success.
1. Gary Kubiak's track record. Kubiak brings a proven system and an impressive résumé. As head coach of the Houston Texans, the team ranked in the top 10 in offense in six of his last eight seasons. To put that in perspective, the Ravens’ offense hasn't ranked in the top 10 since 1997, when Flacco was 12 years old. From 2009 to 2012, the Texans ranked No. 7 in points scored (23.2). Over that same period, the Texans were one of three teams to rank in the top 10 in rushing and passing (the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles were the others). The players have praised Kubiak during camp for his direct approach which doesn't leave much gray area.

2. Aggressiveness on defense. The Ravens' offensive struggles last season overshadowed the shortcomings of their defense. In the second half of the season, the Ravens managed a paltry 12 sacks in eight games. Only the Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys and Cleveland Browns had fewer. The relentlessly attacking style had disappeared. Based on what the Ravens have shown so far in camp, they want to get back to "in your face" defense. The Ravens certainly have personnel to get after the quarterback with Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil crashing the edges. Expect more blitzes and more press coverage out a Ravens defense that has its sights on becoming a top-five unit in the NFL again, and so far in camp a re-energzied Suggs has been leading the way.

3. Improved targets in passing game. Flacco has taken heavy criticism for the worst season in his six-year NFL career, and rightfully so. He made poor decisions that cost the Ravens some games. Let's just not put all of the blame on the former Super Bowl MVP's shoulders. By Week 2 last year, his No. 2 receiver was undrafted rookie Marlon Brown and his top tight end was Dallas Clark, who has since retired. This year, Flacco has two new experienced targets in Smith and tight end Owen Daniels. While Daniels hasn't looked explosive in training camp, Smith has quickly developed a rapport with Flacco. Don't forget about tight end Dennis Pitta, who is fully recovered after missing 12 games last season with a dislocated hip. This could turn out to be Flacco's strongest and deepest supporting cast.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. Lack of depth at cornerback. The Ravens have one of the best starting cornerback tandems in the league with Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith, both of whom are Pro Bowl-caliber defenders. The problem is neither has a history of staying healthy. Webb, who is already expected to miss two preseason games with a back injury, has torn two knee ligaments during his five-year NFL career and has started 16 games in a season only once. Smith has missed nine games in his three NFL seasons. After Aaron Ross suffered a season-ending Achilles injury before camp officially began, the Ravens have been left with inexperienced and unproven backups. Chykie Brown played 3 percent of the defensive snaps last season, Asa Jackson has never played a defensive snap in a regular-season game and Tramain Jacobs and Deji Olatoye are undrafted rookies. This is the Ravens' soft spot. Brown has struggled the most of any defender in camp and Jackson has had his share of struggles as well.

2. The progression of the offensive line. There's no doubt that the Ravens will have a better offensive line than last year. To be honest, it couldn't be worse. The line opened few holes in the running game and allowed too much pressure on Flacco. The biggest question on offense is whether this line has improved enough to the point where the Ravens can be effective. Through almost a dozen practices at camp, the line hasn't provided too many definitive answers. Guards Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele have been dominant. But left tackle Eugene Monroe has had struggles and right tackle Rick Wagner has been adequate. Center Jeremy Zuttah is athletic but he's not going to be considered among the top half at his position. The Ravens will learn more about their offensive line when the preseason begins.

[+] EnlargeBaltimore's Terrell Suggs
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyAn energized Terrell Suggs has looked like the best defender in Ravens' camp.
3. Age of key players. The Ravens are much younger than when they won the Super Bowl two seasons ago. That being said, the Ravens' hopes rest on aging veterans to rebound from disappointing seasons. Suggs, 31, failed to record a sack in seven of his final eight games in 2013. Steve Smith, 35, caught his fewest passes (64) since 2010. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, 30, hasn't reached 60 tackles in consecutive seasons. Defensive end Chris Canty, 31, finished last season with 30 tackles, the fewest for a full season in his career. Daniels, 31, was limited to five games last season due to a broken leg. The Ravens need to get more than leadership out of their older players this season. While Suggs and Smith have been among the top performers in camp, Canty and Daniels haven’t stood out.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • As camp reaches its midway point, Flacco gets a "C" grade. He's made his share of good passes, and there have been some throws that have made coaches cringe. His biggest improvements has been his play-action fakes and his cadence, which he has used to draw more defenders offside than any previous training camp.
  • It's hard to overlook Suggs because he's always trash-talking with players on offense. But he has stood out in this camp as the most impressive player on the defensive side of the ball. There have been times when he's been dominant. Offensive tackles Monroe and Wagner probably can't wait for the preseason to start, so they get a break from seeing an energized Suggs in front of them.
  • The Ravens have to feel like they got two first-round picks this year in inside linebacker C.J. Mosley and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan. Mosley is continually around the ball, and Jernigan is constantly in the backfield. If Mosley makes the same types of plays in the regular season, the Ravens' top pick has a shot at being the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Jernigan, a second-round pick, has been sidelined recently with a back injury. But it's not expected to be long term, which is a big relief for the Ravens.
  • Bernard Pierce has been the best running back in camp. He played in a similar running scheme in college, and he has had the best transition to Kubiak's stretch, zone-blocking runs.
  • Fulback Kyle Juszczyk has a chance to have a breakout season. While he isn't the typical physical blocker that the Ravens have at fullback, Juszczyk will make a much bigger impact in the passing game.
  • Will Hill looks to be the most talented safety on the roster. He's suspended for the first six games of the season, so the former New York Giants defender won't provide immediate help. Don't be surprised if Hill is a starter at some point this year for the Ravens.
  • The biggest surprise of camp has been wide receiver Kamar Aiken. He started camp as a long shot, and he has quickly worked himself into the conversation for one of the last spots at receiver. Aiken, who has been cut by three teams in his career, rarely drops a pass because of his strong hands.

Throughout the entire offseason, the Baltimore Ravens have talked about how they believe quarterback Joe Flacco will succeed in Gary Kubiak's offense.

"It’s a timing offense, and to me, Joe is really built for that," coach John Harbaugh said.

In Kubiak's new system, Flacco likely will be asked to get the ball out quicker. Kubiak is teaching him to throw when he hits the ball of his foot on the three-step drop. The West Coast offense is predicated on rhythm and quick releases.

[+] EnlargeJoe Flacco
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyThe Ravens are hoping quarterback Joe Flacco will be better off with a quicker release.
Based on last season's numbers, the Ravens may be on to something. Flacco was better when he had less time in the pocket, according to Pro Football Focus.

It came as a surprise to see that Flacco had put up better statistics with less time in the pocket. With his big arm, it was assumed he would've performed better when he had more time to look downfield. That wasn't the case in 2013.

With less than 2 seconds in the pocket, Flacco completed 68.3 percent of his passes for eight touchdowns and six interceptions. His passer rating was 80.5.

With more than 3 seconds to throw, he connected on 46.2 percent of his passes for two touchdown and four interceptions. His rating was 61.1.

Getting Flacco to throw the ball quicker also will help with his longevity. He was sacked a career-high 48 times last season, and he was limping in the final two games because of a knee sprain. During the past six seasons, Flacco hasn't missed a start, but he has been sacked 222 times. Only the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger (240) and the Packers' Aaron Rodgers (223) have been sacked more.

There also will be more targets for his short-to-intermediate throws this season. He can hit wide receiver Steve Smith on a comeback route or find tight ends Dennis Pitta and Owen Daniels over the middle. This should increase the efficiency for Flacco, whose 6.94 yards per attempt ranks 21st in the NFL since 2008.

Asked if Kubiak's offense is catered to what he does best as a quarterback, Flacco said: "I feel like I fit well into any offense. It’s just a matter of learning it and doing what I can do to the best of my ability and making sure that what I’m doing well is what the offensive coordinator wants, and what the quarterback coach wants. I want to run the offense the way it is supposed to be run and make some plays here and there when they need to be made.

"But the biggest thing is doing what you’re supposed to do, going to the right place with the ball with the right coverages. That’s just learning the offense and listening to your coach and making sure you get comfortable doing it that way.”
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- When you play a Gary Kubiak offense, you know you'll have to prepare for bootlegs, play-action passes and a zone-blocking running scheme.

What you don't know is what formation you'll line up against.

Kubiak
In his first season as the Ravens' offensive coordinator, Kubiak brings much-needed unpredictability to an offense that was the NFL's most predictable last season. He'll go three-wide on one play, use two tight ends on the next and then change it up again with two running backs lining up in I-formation.

Asked how different the Ravens offense looks this year from his vantage point, defensive coordinator Dean Pees said, "A lot. A lot. It’s a very multiple. ... He’s given us a lot of headaches and a lot of things for us to talk about as a defensive staff, which is good."

You didn't have to be Bill Belichick to know how the Ravens were going to line up last season. The Ravens went with three wide receivers, one tight end and one running back on 806 snaps, which was the most of any NFL team last season.

Some of it had to do with the Ravens' personnel last season, and part of the reason was the team's ineffectiveness in its usual two-back alignment. As a result, the Ravens lined up in that formation 74 percent of the time.

Compare that to formations run by Kubiak when he was the Houston Texans head coach from 2006 to 2013:
  • 3WR, 1 TE, 1 RB: 28 percent
  • 2WR, 1 TE, 2 RB: 26 percent
  • 2WR, 2TE, 1 RB: 26 percent

It's difficult to get more balanced than Kubiak's offense over the previous eight seasons. If he continues to use these multiple formations as frequently this year, Owen Daniels (No. 2 tight end), Marlon Brown (No. 3 wide receiver) and Kyle Juszczyk (fullback) all will play significant roles.

The balancing act for Kubiak this offseason has been installing all of these different looks while trying to establish a comfort level for the players.

"That’s my challenge right now," Kubiak said. "It really is -- finding out what we do best and making sure I don’t overload them. But I did think it was very important that we challenge them mentally as well as physically, especially throughout the course of OTAs [organized training activities]. I told them that. I said, ‘Guys, I’m going to throw a lot at you. We need to go make some mistakes, but let’s go make them hard. We’ll figure it out and make sure on opening day we’re doing what we do best.’ I think that’s been important, and they’ve responded to that.”

Change was in order for a Ravens offense that finished No. 29 in total yards (307.4) and No. 25 in scoring (20.0). Kubiak has been working with the Ravens for three weeks of offseason practices, and he'll have a mandatory minicamp next week before training camp begins in late July.

The transition has been helped by having someone in nearly every position group who has a familiarity with Kubiak's system. Daniels can teach the tight ends about the different nuances, and wide receiver Jacoby Jones and running back Justin Forsett can do the same, too.

"I’m throwing the kitchen sink at them, and then I have to kind of watch and see what sticks and what they do best," Kubiak said. "When we come back for camp, I’ll probably have to cut some things down. We have plenty of time from a teaching standpoint, plenty of time on the field. I’m just taking it a day at a time, but I think we’re building something."
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- If you couldn't guess by Jacoby Jones' "I Love Bmore" hat that he wanted to stay with the Ravens, the electric Pro Bowl returner proved it by abruptly ending his visit with the New York Giants on Wednesday and taking less money to remain in Baltimore.

"I'm in the [Giants] facility walking around and I think I came to my senses really that this is probably the only place that will let me be myself," Jones said Thursday.

Jones
Jones was getting in a car to go to downtown New York for a dinner with the Giants before he officially pulled a reverse.

"I told the driver, head toward Newark. Take me to the airport," Jones said. "I told my agent that I knew I was coming home."

Jones signed a four-year, $12 million deal that includes $4.5 million guaranteed. How much less was the Ravens' offer compared the one from the Giants?

"I don't know," Jones said with a smile. "I'm not good at math."

One incentive to stay was the addition of Gary Kubiak as the Ravens' offensive coordinator. Kubiak was Jones' head coach for five seasons (2007-11) when both were with the Houston Texans.

Jones referred to Kubiak as his "biological father" because he never knew his own father. He remembered a conversation during his time in Houston when Kubiak sat him down after he was a self-described "knucklehead."

"He told me when you slow down and mature, you're going to have a chance to make a lot of money," Jones said.

Jones was cut by the Texans in May 2012 after he mishandled a punt that led to Houston's playoff loss at Baltimore. He joined the Ravens and redefined himself as one of the top playmakers in the league.

In two seasons, Jones has scored 10 touchdowns in 28 games. Since 2012, his 29.8-yard kickoff return average ranks third in the NFL and his four returns for touchdowns (three kickoff and one punt) is tied for the most in the league over that span.

Coach John Harbaugh insisted that the Ravens brought back Jones to be more than a returner, even though he has caught 67 passes in two seasons in Baltimore.

"He's also a quality receiver," Harbaugh said. "He's a special-teams player, but he's also a guy that can do the things that you need to do to move the chains when you need to move them. It's something that he's probably grown into over the last three or four years as a football player. Without question, we believe his best football is in front of him."
Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice spoke to coach John Harbaugh on Monday to explain his arrest in Atlantic City, according to The Baltimore Sun.

Rice
Rice
Why did it take three days for the sides to communicate? Rice was arrested and charged in an incident involving his fiancee on Friday night. As soon as Rice was allowed to go home, his first call should have been to the team. If the Ravens hadn't heard from him, they should have been on the phone to find out what happened.

This isn't the third-string cornerback. This is the most important player on offense, according to offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. "I think as he goes, we'll go," Kubiak told the team's official website in an article that was posted hours before Rice's arrest.

Newsome told reporters Monday afternoon that neither he nor Harbaugh had talked with Rice. He said Rice is currently "a big part" of the Ravens' plans in 2014 but he said a decision wouldn't be made until he gets all of the answers. Maybe Rice's talk with Harbaugh clarified the situation. Rice's lawyers insist it was a "little more than a misunderstanding."

As I pointed out previously, Rice isn't in danger of being cut. Releasing him would cause the Ravens to lose salary-cap space instead of gain it, based on the way Rice's contract is structured. But Rice could get cut next season. Maybe the Ravens need to communicate that to him as well.

Here's the rest of your wake-up caw ...
  • Kubiak told the team's official website that he's confident quarterback Joe Flacco can run the bootleg. On that same topic, he clarified a perception of his offense. "Yeah [the bootleg] is a big part of what we do, but we've got to be able to do everything," Kubiak said. "It's funny how you get labeled with certain things. I hope that people would look at us and say we're going to have to do whatever have to do to win."
  • Rice's image could get tarnished by the assault charge, according to The Baltimore Sun. "It doesn't look good for him," said Howe Burch, a top executive with Baltimore-based TBC Advertising. "I think it clearly undermines the image he has crafted with the Ravens as one who gives back to the community. It's clearly a blemish on him and something he'll have to overcome."
  • The Ravens will keep their eyes on running backs at the NFL combine, according to Comcast SportsNet.

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