AFC North: Michael Huff

Free agency begins in 13 days, and the Baltimore Ravens need to do better with their signings next month than they did in the first wave of free agency last year. Half of the free agents signed by the Ravens from other teams didn't finish the season in Baltimore. This is one of the reasons why the Ravens went from Super Bowl champions in 2012 to an 8-8 team last year.

Let's grade the Ravens' free-agent signings from last March:


Position: Defensive end

Former team: New York Giants

Contract: Signed a three-year, $8 million contract. The deal contained $2.84 million guaranteed.

How it turned out: Canty was solid but not spectacular. He started off fast with a sack in two of his first three games. But Canty didn't have another one in his final 12 games. He showed his athleticism by batting down four passes. The Ravens were just expecting more of an impact from Canty.

Grade: C-plus.


Position: Outside linebacker

Former team: Denver Broncos

Contract: Signed a five-year, $26 million contract. The deal contained $8.5 million guaranteed.

How it turned out: The Ravens brought in Dumervil to get after quarterbacks, and he finished with 9.5 sacks, which was second-most on the team. But he faded in the final two months of the season. Dumervil recorded nine tackles and one sack in his final six games. He never made more than three tackles in a game and had three games without a tackle.

Grade: B.


Position: Quarterback

Contract: Signed a six-year, $120.6 million contract. The deal contained $52 million guaranteed.

How it turned out: It's easy to criticize signing Flacco to an NFL record deal after he threw a career-worst 22 interceptions last season. But Flacco didn't get much help from the worst rushing attack in team history and poor pass protection. This doesn't take all of the blame off Flacco, who forced too many passes. Still, Flacco delivered four game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, which accounted for half of the Ravens' wins. He also threw for a career-high 3,912 yards.

Grade: C.


Position: Safety

Former team: Oakland Raiders

Contract: Signed a three-year, $6 million contract. The deal contained $1.5 million guaranteed.

How it turned out: Huff was the Ravens' most disappointing signing. He was supposed to replace Ed Reed, but he was benched after the season-opening 49-27 loss at Denver. Huff went through the motions on special teams. The Ravens cut Huff midway through the season after he made the glaring mistake of losing outside containment on a 44-yard kickoff return, which jump started the Pittsburgh Steelers' game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. He pocketed $2.35 million (when you include signing bonus) for a half a season of work.

Grade: F.


Position: Safety

Contract: Signed a one-year, $780,000 contract. The deal contained $65,000 guaranteed.

How it turned out: Ihedigbo was one of the bigger surprises on the Ravens' defense. A special teams player for most of his career, Ihedigbo finished second on the Ravens with 101 tackles and provided much-needed leadership. He was named the strong safety on the All-AFC North team. But, with the Ravens moving first-round pick Matt Elam to strong safety, Ihedigbo is expected to play elsewhere in 2014.

Grade: B.


Position: Defensive tackle

Former team: Dallas Cowboys

Contract: Signed a two-year, $2.75 million contract. The deal contained $600,000 guaranteed.

How it turned out: Just like Huff, Spears was a bust. He never got in great shape and was outplayed by younger players like Brandon Williams and DeAngelo Tyson. The Ravens cut him after seven games. The impact of Spears in the defensive line rotation was never felt in an underachieving run defense, which ranked No. 13 at the time of his release.

Grade: F.

Note: Middle linebacker Daryl Smith, one of the Ravens' top free-agent signings last year, was signed in the second wave of free agency in June.
Not everyone believes Gary Kubiak is the right offensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens. Doug Gottlieb, of CBS Sports, thinks quarterback Joe Flacco doesn't fit with Kubiak's scheme.

“You need a really athletic quarterback because you’re running a lot of bootlegs, and that’s not really Joe Flacco,” Gottlieb said. “It’s not that Joe Flacco isn’t a good athlete, he’s actually a really good athlete, but he’s not somebody you want to roll out, plant his feet and throw the ball. He’s a downfield thrower."

I agree that Flacco is at his best when he can throw in a clean pocket. But he showed his athleticism last year when he scrambled (or ran for his life) to repeatedly avoid the pass rush.

I don't see a Todd Haley-Ben Roethlisberger relationship developing here. Gottlieb believes otherwise.

“This to me strikes me as a guy who is a really good offensive coordinator with a really good quarterback with a really bad fit for each other," Gottlieb said. "I don’t see them getting better. I see them fighting over the play calling and the set up and the depth of the drops.”

Here's the rest of your wake-up caw:
  • The Baltimore Sun's Matt Vensel doesn't rule out a reunion between Kubiak and fullback Vonta Leach based on their mutual respect from the time they spent together with the Houston Texans. What works against Leach is the Ravens can create $1.75 million in salary-cap room by cutting him and they need to get Kyle Juszczyk on the field more.
  • After being turned down for the Ravens' offensive coordinator job, Kyle Shanahan spoke with the Cleveland Browns on Tuesday morning about their offensive coordinator position, sources told's John Keim. This might explain why Shanahan didn't take the Ravens' quarterbacks coach job.
  • Safety Michael Huff has gone from getting cut by the Ravens in the middle of the season to playing in a Super Bowl with the Denver Broncos. Huff told Comcast SportsNet that there are no hard feelings with the Ravens. “I didn’t play well enough. I didn’t live up to my end of the bargain," Huff said. "When they cut me, I understood. They needed some guys on special teams, and I wasn’t getting the job done.”
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- A day after Terrell Suggs declared the Baltimore Ravens are in a "state of emergency," coach John Harbaugh made it clear that he is in a state of unrest entering the bye.

The Ravens (3-4) have lost three of their past four games, and this marks the first time they've had a losing record this late in the season in Harbaugh's six seasons.


"We'll do whatever it takes," Harbaugh said in the aftermath of Sunday's 19-16 loss at the Pittsburgh Steelers. "We'll trade guys, we'll cut guys, we'll sign guys, we'll coach guys, we'll change schemes. It doesn't matter."

This isn't a hollow message from Harbaugh, especially when you consider the Ravens' history. The Ravens traded offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie on Monday for a conditional late-round pick after they replaced him with Eugene Monroe. Baltimore also changed its scheme Sunday, going with three wide receivers in a spread formation.

Don't forget Harbaugh is the coach who fired his offensive coordinator in the final month of the regular season, so he isn't afraid to make changes.

Who could be the next player on the way out of Baltimore? I don't see any radical roster moves, but here are the top candidates to get released:

Safety Michael Huff. He played only five snaps (all special teams) and made the glaring mistake of losing outside containment on Emmanuel Sanders' 44-yard kickoff return, which jumpstarted the Steelers' game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. Huff ranks among the most disappointing offseason signings for the Ravens after getting benched as a starting safety in the season opener. He is making $2.35 million this season when including the signing bonus.

Safety Jeromy Miles. The former Cincinnati Bengal was flagged for being offside on the onside kick, even though he was running next to kicker Justin Tucker. Harbaugh called the error the "unforgivable part" of the play. The Ravens picked up his $1.3 million contract when they claimed him on waivers, meaning he makes $77,824 per game. That's a hefty price for a special teams player who makes such a critical mental miscue.

Safety Anthony Levine. I don't see the Ravens cutting Levine, because he has value as a special teams player. He led Baltimore with 20 special teams snaps on Sunday. But he did take the blame for the Ravens' second blocked punt.

The Ravens have options when it comes to special teams. They could bring back wide receiver LaQuan Williams or a running back like Anthony Allen. The Ravens reached an injury settlement with Williams and could re-sign him if he's fully recovered from a hamstring injury. Cornerback Asa Jackson, who is serving an eight-game suspension, will be reinstated after the Ravens' Nov. 3 game at Cleveland.
Ed Reed, Ray RiceGetty ImagesEd Reed returns to Baltimore for the first time as a Texan, while Ray Rice looks to improve from his slow start.
Sunday's AFC showdown between the Houston Texans and Baltimore Ravens features the return of safety Ed Reed to Baltimore. Reed went to nine Pro Bowls during his 11 seasons with the Ravens and was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2004. He has missed the first two games of the season because of his surgically repaired hip and would make his Texans debut if he plays.

While there will be plenty of attention placed on the reunion with Reed, this game will factor into how the balance of power in the AFC shakes out. The Texans (2-0), one of five undefeated teams in the AFC, are the first team since the merger in 1970 to win each of their first two games of a season on the final play of the game. The Ravens (1-1), the defending Super Bowl champions, are trying to get back on track after getting routed by the Denver Broncos and struggling to beat the Cleveland Browns.

Texans team reporter Tania Ganguli and Ravens team reporter Jamison Hensley discuss how this emotional and pivotal game will unfold.

Hensley: The big storyline heading into this game is whether Reed will play. Like Ravens coach John Harbaugh, I would be surprised if Reed sat out this reunion game. But it was only three years ago when Reed underwent a procedure on his hip while with the Ravens and missed the first six games of the season. When Reed returned, he picked off two passes in his first game and eventually led the NFL in interceptions despite playing just 10 games. If Reed plays, how much of an impact can he make in his first game with a new team and a new defense?

Ganguli: Anything can happen when Reed plays. He’ll have a lot of free rein when he returns, as he’s helped not just his teammates but also given coaches advice. The Texans are being cautious with him. He had a blood-spinning procedure done three weeks ago that has a range of results in patients. Reed said it helped his hip feel better. He also said this hip injury feels more mild than the surgery he had three years ago. He practiced more last week than he did before the Texans’ season opener against the San Diego Chargers, so he is progressing toward playing.

Texans coach Gary Kubiak said last week that if Reed does play, the Texans don’t plan on starting him in his first game back. They’ll use him in certain defensive packages and continue to start Shiloh Keo. Asked about it this week, though, Kubiak said he would listen to Reed’s evaluation of his health.

Reed isn’t the only legacy gone from the Ravens’ defensive roster. How has that changed Baltimore’s defense?

Hensley: The two longtime faces of the Ravens defense will be there at M&T Bank Stadium, but both won't be wearing purple. Reed is on the other sideline, and Ray Lewis will be inducted into the Ring of Honor at halftime. The Ravens have seven different starters from the defense that lined up against -- and got beaten up by -- the Texans last October.

The biggest improvement has been the Ravens' run defense, especially with Daryl Smith in the middle. This is key because the Ravens gave up 98 yards and two touchdowns to Arian Foster in the last meeting.

Baltimore also upgraded its pass rush with Elvis Dumervil, but there are questions in the secondary. The Ravens have already benched cornerback Corey Graham and safety Michael Huff and replaced them with cornerback Jimmy Smith and safety Matt Elam.

Talking about new looks, how much has rookie receiver DeAndre Hopkins -- whom the Ravens liked in the draft -- helped the Texans passing game?

Ganguli: Hopkins had a breakout game in Week 2, catching seven passes for 117 yards and scoring the game-winning touchdown. He wears size 3X gloves, only one size smaller than J.J. Watt, who is four inches taller and 70 pounds heavier than Hopkins. Those big hands give him the confidence to catch with his hands and not worry about bringing the ball into his body. Because of that, Hopkins is excellent on contested catches.

Getting to the heart of your question, though, Hopkins’ impact will be big this season. He finally gives the Texans a complementary threat to Andre Johnson. Quarterback Matt Schaub became more confident in Hopkins through the game, especially when Johnson left with a concussion and he had to. That trend will continue during the season. The Texans threw to Johnson more than all their other wide receivers combined last year, and that will surely change this season.

Sticking with offense, what would be the impact of not having Ray Rice if his injury prevents him from playing?

Hensley: Rice injured his hip toward the end of the Ravens' not-so-thrilling win over the Browns. He will likely be questionable for Sunday's game against the Texans. He's always been a big factor in the Ravens offense. Rice was one of three running backs last year (with Doug Martin and C.J. Spiller) to produce more than 1,000 yards rushing and 400 yards receiving. The Ravens are 37-6 when Rice gets at least 15 carries.

The problem is the offensive line hasn't opened many holes for Rice, who is averaging 2.9 yards per carry. Backup running back Bernard Pierce has been the more physical back and has broken more tackles than Rice this season. The Ravens need to establish the run because they've lost too many weapons -- wide receiver Anquan Boldin was traded, tight end Dennis Pitta is on injured reserve and wide receiver Jacoby Jones is sidelined -- to rely solely on the passing game. Any chance the Ravens' ground game can come to life against the Houston front seven?

Ganguli: The Texans’ front seven has played inspired football in spurts this season, especially inside linebacker Brian Cushing, whose play is showing just how much he missed being out there for most of last season. The Texans gave up an 80-yard touchdown drive to start the third quarter against the San Diego Chargers but contributed to the biggest comeback in franchise history by allowing just 10 yards the rest of the game. In Week 2, Chris Johnson had only five rushing yards in the third quarter and 19 in the second half.

On one hand, the Texans defense hasn’t put together a complete game yet. On the other hand, it's been excellent with halftime adjustments. Even if the Ravens get going early, there’s a strong chance that won’t last.

A big part of that is Cushing, who has resumed his position as a leader on the defense. We talked about the on-field differences on the Ravens defense, but has anyone filled the leadership void?

Hensley: The Ravens' leadership in the past came from the veterans, like Lewis, Reed and Boldin. This team is going to rely on the likes of Terrell Suggs, Dumervil and Lardarius Webb. Suggs has taken over Lewis' role as the vocal leader, and I can see Webb becoming a more behind-the-scenes influence like his mentor Reed. The Ravens offense has strong character players such as Rice and wide receiver Torrey Smith.

Suggs and Dumervil have made a similar impact on the field. Last year against the Texans, Suggs played his first game since tearing his Achilles. Now, fully recovered, Suggs looks even better than before because he is in the best shape of his career. Dumervil has been just as disruptive and destroyed right tackle Mitchell Schwartz last week. They've each had a sack in the first two games. How are the Texans tackles going to hold up against these Ravens' edge rushers?

Ganguli: That will be an interesting thing to watch in this game. Derek Newton is new as the Texans’ starting right tackle this year, and left tackle Duane Brown thinks he could be a game-time decision after suffering a turf toe injury against the Tennessee Titans. Losing Brown would be damaging to the Texans, who rely on him to win one-on-one matchups. Another matchup to watch is the kicking game.

Hensley: One of the biggest surprises last season was the consistent kicking from Justin Tucker, who hit 30 of 33 field goals. The biggest surprise Sunday was Tucker's inconsistency, missing twice wide right after only missing once in Baltimore as a rookie. Tucker isn't worried, and a short but strong body of work doesn't have the Ravens panicking either. But given all the injuries on the Ravens offense, they can't afford for Tucker to be off his game. It seems like the Ravens aren't the only team having a problem with a kicker.

Ganguli: Randy Bullock has struggled in his first two games, making only one of five attempts. They haven’t been easy attempts, none shorter than 40 yards and three longer than 50, but the Texans know he has the leg for making those. It might help his confidence if he was put in the position to kick shorter field goals. Though fans are upset, the Texans aren’t giving up on him. Why would they? He’s only two games into his NFL career, having spent his rookie season on injured reserve.

Upon Further Review: Ravens Week 1

September, 6, 2013
An examination of four hot issues from the Baltimore Ravens' 49-27 loss at the Denver Broncos:

[+] EnlargeMichael Oher
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesAfter right tackle Michael Oher left the game, the Ravens' passing attack suffered.
The Oher effect: There's a new appreciation for right tackle Michael Oher. After he left the game in the middle of the second quarter with a sprained ankle, quarterback Joe Flacco and the passing attack weren't the same. Rookie fifth-round pick Rick Wagner couldn't keep the right side from collapsing against a Denver defense that was without its best pass-rusher in Von Miller. With Oher in the lineup, Flacco started the game strong, completing 12 of 19 passes (63 percent) with only three off-target passes. Without Oher, Flacco connected on 22 of 43 passes (51 percent) with eight off-target passes, all of which were overthrown. Late in the third quarter, wide receiver Torrey Smith was uncovered on the right side of the field, but Flacco couldn't find him because he was pressured on that side.

Poor tackling and pursuit: It was more than Peyton Manning's passes that hurt the Ravens. Baltimore's secondary, namely safety Michael Huff and cornerback Jimmy Smith, took bad pursuit angles when the Broncos caught the ball and failed to bring them down once they got there. It played a factor in the Broncos' three longest plays of the game. On Demaryius Thomas' 78-yard touchdown, Huff and Smith were the only Ravens in front of Thomas but couldn't shed blocks. On Julius Thomas' 44-yard catch, Huff missed the tackle. And on Demaryius Thomas' 34-yard catch, Smith took the wrong angle and ran into linebacker Josh Bynes instead of getting to Thomas. The Ravens defense allowed 259 yards after the catch (120 of which came from Demaryius Thomas), more than any defense had allowed in a game during the previous two seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That accounted for 56 percent of Manning's 462 passing yards.

Youth got served on special teams: Pro Bowl returner Jacoby Jones left the game with a sprained right knee because undrafted rookie Brynden Trawick didn't look to see where Jones was on the field. Trawick's eyes were on his blocking assignment, Mike Adams, and he plowed into Jones, who was looking up as he signaled for a fair catch. The Ravens then had their first punt blocked in four seasons because rookie second-round pick Arthur Brown couldn't block David Bruton. The Ravens no longer have veteran special-teams players like Brendon Ayanbadejo, Sean Considine and David Reed. Baltimore's inexperience surfaced at two critical times.

Undisciplined play: Penalties were a problem last season for the Ravens, who finished with a league-high 70.4 penalty yards per game. Judging by the season opener, not much has changed for Baltimore. The Ravens committed seven penalties for 53 yards in Denver, and nearly half of those flags were personal fouls. Jimmy Smith, Albert McClellan and Gino Gradkowski were all flagged for unnecessary roughness. McClellan hit punt returner Trindon Holliday when he was clearly out of bounds, and Smith shoved Andre Caldwell right in front of punt returner Lardarius Webb, who had just caught the ball. The Ravens have to play smarter, especially against the better teams in the NFL.

Locker Room Buzz: Baltimore Ravens

September, 6, 2013
DENVER -- Observed in the locker room after the Baltimore Ravens' 49-27 loss to the Denver Broncos.

Sobering loss: The atmosphere in the Ravens' locker room was more disappointment than anger. "Any time you lose like this in front of the whole world, it's definitely humbling," safety Michael Huff said.

Not much reflection: Tight end Dallas Clark had a rough debut for the Ravens, dropping multiple passes, including one near the goal line. He didn't give much of an explanation other than to say: "It's disappointing, and you got to get the next one." He described the defeat as a "team loss."

Oher limping: Right tackle Michael Oher has never missed a game, so you know it's serious when he didn't return after injuring his ankle in the second quarter. When approached in the locker room, Oher declined comment, saying, "I've got to get treatment." As he walked across the locker room, Oher was noticeably limping.

Flacco in awe: Joe Flacco was certainly impressed with Peyton Manning's seven-touchdown performance, which tied an NFL record. "It's a sweet way to start a season and get ahead," he said. "He's almost halfway to 20 already. There's not too much to say. It's kind of self-explanatory."

DENVER -- My thoughts on the Baltimore Ravens' 49-27 loss to the Denver Broncos:

What it means: The Ravens' title defense -- as well as life without Ray Lewis and Ed Reed -- opened with a dud. This is the first season-opening loss for coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco in their six years together, and it wasn't even close. An interception by Flacco in his own territory, a blocked punt and a drop near the goal line all led to the worst loss by a defending Super Bowl champion in a season opener, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The 49 points are the most allowed by the Ravens in their history.

Stock watch: Falling -- Ravens secondary. The Ravens gave up an NFL-record-tying seven touchdown passes, and everyone took turns getting roughed up. Safety Michael Huff couldn't keep up with tight end Julius Thomas (two touchdowns), cornerback Corey Graham struggled covering Wes Welker (two touchdowns) and cornerback Jimmy Smith watched a good game turn bad when he was beaten by Andre Caldwell (one touchdown). The Ravens allowed Peyton Manning to throw three touchdowns in a disastrous third quarter, which turned Baltimore's 17-14 lead into a 35-17 deficit.

Why not challenge?: With the Ravens ahead 17-14 early in the third quarter, Welker trapped a ball that was ruled a completion, which converted a third down. If Harbaugh had challenged, the drive would've ended. Instead, Manning rushed to the line to snap the ball, and three plays later, Caldwell scored a 28-yard touchdown. The Broncos took a lead they would never relinquish.

Too many drops: The loss of tight end Dennis Pitta (hip injury) was felt right away. Dallas Clark and Ed Dickson dropped at least five passes. The devastating one was Clark failing to hold onto a third-down pass inside the 5-yard line. The Ravens had to settle for a field goal and a 17-14 lead at halftime.

Self-inflicted: Two Ravens starters were hurt in the second quarter by their own teammates. On a punt return, Jacoby Jones was leveled by rookie Brynden Trawick and suffered a sprained knee. Then, on Ray Rice's one-yard touchdown run, right tackle Michael Oher sprained his ankle when guard Marshal Yanda rolled into him. Two rookies, wide receiver Marlon Brown and offensive tackle Rick Wagner, replaced the veterans in the starting lineup.

What's next: The Ravens (0-1) get nine days before playing the Cleveland Browns at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium on Sept. 15. Baltimore has a 10-game winning streak over Cleveland.

It was 236 days ago when Joe Flacco threw that fateful, 70-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones, leading the Baltimore Ravens to a double-overtime playoff win at the Denver Broncos. The Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl, and the Broncos were left to think of what might have been. Flacco and the Ravens return to Denver's Sports Authority Stadium on Thursday night to kick off the 2013 season in a rematch of two of the top teams in the AFC.

The stakes are different, and so are the teams. Gone are Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Anquan Boldin from the Ravens. Baltimore is expected to have 10 different starters from the team that hoisted up the Lombardi trophy, and that doesn't include former Broncos defensive standout Elvis Dumervil, who is expected to play in passing situations.

The Broncos won't have Dumervil or Von Miller, who has been suspended for six games, rushing after Flacco this time. But Peyton Manning is back, along with the addition of Wes Welker to an already dangerous wide receiver group.

Broncos team reporter Jeff Legwold and Ravens team reporter Jamison Hensley discuss whether the opener will be a repeat of that memorable AFC divisional playoff game.

Hensley: Much has been made of the 50-foot Flacco banner hanging at the Broncos' stadium. Flacco has embraced the hate, saying it's not a bad thing for opposing fans to dislike you. The Ravens' focus, as it has been all offseason, has been to move forward. It's the start of a different era in many ways for the Ravens in their first game without Lewis and Reed. But it's easier to move forward when you're the ones sitting on top of the football world. How much will the "revenge factor" play into this game for the Broncos?

Legwold: Broncos coach John Fox, much like John Harbaugh with his "What's Important Now" mantra to leave the championship season behind, has tried to leave the past in the past. But questions about the kneel-down in the waning seconds despite Manning at quarterback and two timeouts in hand, as well as a third-and-7 running play late in the game, have trailed him all through the offseason. A lot of the Broncos players are willing to say memories of the playoff loss pushed them through the tedium of May and June. But over the past two weeks, they've stuck to the script -- that it's a new year, a new team -- but deep down they all know they let a potential Super Bowl trip, home-field advantage and a seven-point lead with less than a minute to play get away. And Dumervil's departure does add a little spice as well. How has Dumervil fit in and what kind of year do you think he'll have?

Hensley: Terrell Suggs has talked about Dumervil having the right mentality to play for the Ravens, and Harbaugh commented how Dumervil is already taking a leadership role. He really is a perfect fit for the Ravens on the field, too, where they have never had an elite pass-rusher to pair with Suggs. Over the past six seasons, Suggs has had only one teammate record more than seven sacks in a season. And being a pass-rusher is Dumervil's primary role. The Ravens will use Courtney Upshaw on early downs to set the edge against the run, which should keep Dumervil's legs fresh in pass-rushing situations. The Ravens have a familiarity with Dumervil because inside linebackers coach Don Martindale was Denver's defensive coordinator in 2010 and was Dumervil's position coach in 2009, when the linebacker-end led the NFL with 17 sacks. Baltimore is catching a break Thursday night with Dumervil now wearing purple and Miller serving his suspension. How are the Broncos going to generate a pass rush on Flacco?

[+] EnlargeElvis Dumervil
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyPass-rusher Elvis Dumervil was one of the Ravens' high-profile offseason acquisitions, and has become a leader on the field and off for Baltimore.
Legwold: That is the $380,687.50 question, which is how much of Miller's base salary he'll surrender during the six-game suspension. But without Miller (18.5 sacks in '12) and Dumervil (11.0 last season), the Broncos will mix and match on a variety of down-and-distances. Derek Wolfe is a key player, because of his ability to play inside and outside along the defensive line and still create matchup problems. Jack Del Rio believes Wolfe is ready to take an enormous step in his development, and among the defensive linemen only Dumervil played more snaps up front than Wolfe did as a rookie last year. The Broncos will ask Shaun Phillips, who they think has plenty left to give after 9.5 sacks for the struggling Chargers last season, to be a spot rusher. And Robert Ayers, who was a first-round pick in 2009, has always said he could put up the sack numbers if given the chance. He's played through four different coordinators -- Del Rio is his first to be on the job for two consecutive seasons -- but has just 6.5 career sacks. Now is his time. On Flacco, how has he dealt with all that comes with a Lombardi trophy and a nine-digit contract?

Hensley: The money and increased notoriety haven't really affected Flacco. If anything, he's become more vocal. There was a playful trash-talking exchange during training camp between Flacco and Suggs, who told his quarterback that the defense's "swag is on a thousand million." Flacco responded: "Then what's my swag at? I get paid more than you. A lot more!" What has really changed is the wide receiver group around Flacco. This unfamiliarity led to four interceptions in six quarters of work this preseason. His top two receivers from a year ago won't be there Thursday. Boldin was traded to San Francisco, and tight end Dennis Pitta is out indefinitely with a dislocated hip. They accounted for 36 receptions in the postseason, which was nearly half of Flacco's completions. That being said, it was Torrey Smith and Jones who did the most damage in the playoff game in Denver. The Ravens are hoping wide receiver Brandon Stokley can move the chains on third downs and tight end Ed Dickson (hamstring) can contribute in the season opener. There has to be more confidence in the Broncos' passing attack with Manning and his bunch of talented receivers.

Legwold: There is plenty of confidence in what the potential can be with Welker in the mix. The Broncos loved Stokley as a slot receiver, but Welker is younger and offers a bigger upside in terms of production. Welker will also have the best receivers to his outside shoulders in Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, the best combo he's had since the Patriots decided they didn't want Randy Moss around any longer. The 229-pound Thomas and the 214-pound Decker make the Broncos a tough matchup for any secondary. In the preseason, teams simply backed off into coverage and took their chances they could allow the catch and make the tackle before too much damage was done. The pace, especially at altitude, is a little something new as well. The Broncos ran 49 plays, excluding penalties, in the first half alone against the Rams in the preseason. They won't always go that fast, but if they get the look they want from a defense, they'll put the pedal to the floor and not allow a substitution. The key issue will be protection: Left tackle Ryan Clady missed plenty of the preseason after offseason surgery, and Denver has surrendered pressure in the middle of the field at times. The three-wide look is what the Broncos want their base formation to be on offense, but they can't do it if they can't protect Manning. It has to be a strange thing for a Baltimore defense that has been the franchise's signature for so long to have so many changes.

Hensley: There were a lot of changes to the Ravens' defense, but there were necessary changes. The Ravens weren't a top-10 defense for the first time since 2002. This defense had slumped to No. 17 in the NFL. It's never easy to part ways with the likes of Lewis and Reed. But the Ravens aren't replacing two Hall of Fame players in their prime. Baltimore had to replace two aging players who weren't the same playmakers from a few years ago. The additions of Dumervil, defensive lineman Chris Canty, linebacker Daryl Smith and safety Michael Huff have made this a stronger and more athletic defense. The Ravens' defense is going to be significantly better in two areas: stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback. The biggest concern, especially when you're starting two new safeties, is the communication in the secondary. One mistake there and Manning will burn you for a touchdown. How is the Broncos' secondary holding up this summer?

Legwold: The Broncos would feel better if Bailey felt better. Bailey did not practice Sunday or Monday because of a left foot injury he suffered in the preseason loss in Seattle and is still a major question mark for Thursday's game. Bailey has been on the field for practice, but has not participated in any of the drills. The end result means Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie would likely line up much of the time in Bailey's left cornerback spot. Rodgers-Cromartie is one of the more athletic sidekicks the Broncos have had for Bailey since Bailey arrived in 2004. Chris Harris and Tony Carter, the player who gave Jones a free release off the line of scrimmage on the game-tying bomb last January, will play in the nickel and dime as well. But overall the Broncos kept 11 defensive backs -- six corners, five safeties -- and can mix and match for almost every situation. They have flexibility and use it, so every defensive back in uniform Thursday night could see some action in the defense.

Links: Richardson to be 'full-go' for camp

July, 17, 2013
Baltimore Ravens

Garrett Downing of previews the training camp competition between tight ends Dennis Pitta, Ed Dickson, Billy Bajema, Alex Silvestro and rookie Matt Furstenburg.

Safety Michael Huff has been training with four-time Olympic track and field gold medalist Michael Johnson, reports's Ryan Mink.

Could kicker Justin Tucker go the entire season without missing a kick? Tucker believes it’s possible, writes Clifton Brown of

John Harbaugh came in at No. 3 on Pete Prisco's ranking of NFL head coaches.

Cincinnati Bengals

No one may have been more surprised about Carlos Dunlap's six-year, $40 million contract extension than Dunlap, writes the Cincinnati Enquirer's Joe Reedy. "It definitely came as a surprise," Dunlap said. "We’ve been talking for a few months now, but it didn’t get to crunch time until yesterday. Drew [Rosenhaus] came up there and pulled me over to the side and was like, 'Hey bud, we need to sit down and seriously look at this.'"

Marvis Lewis was ranked No. 13 on Prisco's list rating head coaches.

Cleveland Browns

Running back Trent Richardson says he's 100 percent healthy, reports The Plain Dealer's Mary Kay Cabot. "I have no pain at all in the leg,' Richardson said. "I'll be ready for camp and I'll be ready to go for the season."

Josh Gordon's two-game suspension at the start of the season will "either be a wake-up call or the beginning of the end for him," writes's Tony Grossi in his training camp preview of wide receivers.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Running back Jonathan Dwyer gives fans a glimpse into his life off the field in a video featuring his family, his childhood home, and watching his brother play college baseball.

Ramon Foster is in London promoting the Steelers' Week 4 game with the Minnesota Vikings in Wembley Stadium this season. The guard said he welcomes the overseas trip but that some of his teammates are "dreading" it, reports Steelers Depot.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How does each AFC North team look in the secondary, and what still needs to be done?

Baltimore Ravens: I expect the Ravens’ secondary, like the rest of their defense, to be vastly improved from a year ago. Of course I realize that nine-time Pro Bowler Ed Reed is gone, along with fellow starting safety Bernard Pollard and starting cornerback Cary Williams. I felt Williams’ value was overblown during the Ravens’ Super Bowl run, and, while he is an enforcer, Pollard is a liability in coverage. As for Reed, well, he isn’t what he once was, but of course his ability to quarterback the secondary and make plays on the ball is still very valuable. Reed and Pollard were replaced by veteran Michael Huff and Matt Elam, the 32nd overall pick of the draft. Expect Huff to more often than not play the Reed role, as a deep middle player, but Huff also has cornerback skills and can play man coverage against wide receivers. Elam is a great hitter like Pollard, but is much younger and has tons more upside. Baltimore’s safeties are better in 2013. But the key here is the return of Lardarius Webb, one of the best corners in football who no one seems to know. Corey Graham was very solid for the Ravens last year, but it is Jimmy Smith who needs to step up. If that happens, this secondary should be among the league’s best, but depth here overall isn’t great.

Cincinnati Bengals: Overall, this looks like a fine group, with a lot of able bodies and depth. The safety spot next to Reggie Nelson, who has played at a Pro Bowl level since arriving in Cincinnati, might have been the Bengals’ worst starter in 2012, but the drafting of Shawn Williams in the third round should improve that situation. Expect Williams to unseat Taylor Mays before long. At corner, Leon Hall is the top guy, but the Bengals also get 2012 first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick back from injury, so this will more or less be his rookie season. Terence Newman should start if Kirkpatrick isn’t ready; Newman proved to have quite a bit left in the tank during the 2012 season. Adam Jones obviously entered the NFL with a ton of physical ability. At this stage of his tumultuous career, Jones has established himself as one of the top No. 3 cornerbacks in the league. There might not be a true star on the back end of Cincinnati’s defense, but overall it is a quality, well-coached unit with a good blend of veterans and youth. If Kirkpatrick hits big, this secondary could be exceptional.

Cleveland Browns: Joe Haden is the star here. He is a top-five-type corner and is capable of shutting down the opponent’s No. 1 wideout -- and could get better. The only other top-flight member of Cleveland’s secondary is T.J. Ward, a very capable two-way safety who could be on the verge of a true breakout in 2013. Beyond Haden and Ward, the Browns’ secondary has a lot of question marks. Third-round cornerback Leon McFadden is a good-looking prospect, and Cleveland picked up Chris Owens on the cheap for cornerback depth. Is McFadden ready for a starting role that will be sure to attract attention from every quarterback the Browns face? Also in the mix is Buster Skrine, who is best suited as a third corner. Several players will be fighting for playing time at safety alongside Ward, with sixth-round pick Jamoris Slaughter possessing the most long-term upside of that group of relative unknowns. Overall, the Browns’ secondary might be a major priority for upgrade after the 2013 season, but at least Cleveland looks to have significantly improved its pass rush, which could mask some coverage problems.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Keenan Lewis emerged at cornerback for the Steelers last season, but he is now playing for the Saints. Pittsburgh also allowed its depth safeties, Ryan Mundy and Will Allen, to depart via free agency. The only prominent secondary signing was former Steeler William Gay, who is obviously familiar with the system. Gay isn’t starting caliber, but he can play outside or in the slot as a third or fourth cornerback. Ike Taylor often shadows the opponent’s top wideout and overall has done a very good job. He rarely secures the interception, but Taylor is a high-end coverage player. The Steelers are counting on Cortez Allen to replace Lewis opposite Taylor. From what we saw from Allen in 2012, he should be ready for full-time action. Lewis, Gay, Taylor and Allen were all Pittsburgh mid-round picks that the Steelers developed. This past draft they again used a mid-round pick on the position with Terry Hawthorne. They did the same in 2011 with Curtis Brown. As most of these mid-rounders do, Hawthorne will likely "redshirt" during his rookie season, but Brown’s role could increase. At safety, the Steelers have one of the best starting pairs in the league -- when Troy Polamalu is healthy. Still a superb player, Polamalu just has to stay on the field. The Steelers’ defense with and without Polamalu is remarkably different. Ryan Clark has been Polamalu’s partner in crime for some time and has somewhat quietly put together a very impressive career, including an excellent 2012 season. Wisely, the Steelers drafted Shamarko Thomas, who could be Polamalu’s successor -- or his injury replacement. In the meantime, expect this young heat-seeking missile to be a dominant special-teams player.
CINCINNATI -- The mandatory minicamps for the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers all begin Tuesday. I'm here in Southern Ohio to get my first look at the 2013 Bengals. Media availability is later in the morning, and practice is in the afternoon. I plan to have my first post from here early in the afternoon. I'm guessing coach Marvin Lewis will be asked about a certain cornerback who is in trouble yet again.

Here's the wake-up call ...

RAVENS: A week after President Barack Obama called Joe Flacco "elite," the Ravens quarterback received praise from one of his newest teammates. “He’s a lot better [than I thought],” Michael Huff said, via the team's official website. “I knew he was good before, but just seeing him every day in practice, just seeing him put the balls here in certain places; I’ll think I have great coverage and somehow he’ll find a way to squeeze it in there.”

BENGALS: Among the standouts in the spring offseason workouts has been cornerback Brandon Ghee, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer's Joe Reedy. Ghee, a third-round pick in 2010, missed all of last season with a broken wrist. "He has the speed and athleticism to stay with the top receivers and looks more fundamentally sound in coverages," Reedy wrote. Ghee has been getting plenty of work with all of the injuries to the Bengals' cornerbacks this offseason. His role could increase more if Adam Jones is disciplined by the NFL for his latest off-the-field incident.

STEELERS: Fullback Will Johnson believes he will be used more in the passing game, especially if tight end Heath Miller hasn't recovered from knee surgery by the start of the regular season. “We are doing a lot more; that's been evident [during OTAs],” Johnson told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “In the red zone, they put some angle routes in there for me. We are doing a lot of things. If they are impressed, they will show me by adding plays where I can get out in some routes, particularly in space. That's how I will know if they are interested in using my hands.” Johnson had 15 catches last year for 137 yards and one touchdown.

BROWNS: John Greco made 11 starts at guard for the Browns last season after Jason Pinkston was lost for the year with a blood clot. With Pinkston back, Greco knows he won't be handed the job. "I'm going to have to earn a spot again," Greco told The Plain Dealer. "We're happy to have (Pinkston) back, he's a really good player. It will be good competition for everyone." Greco, Pinkston and Shaun Lauvao have rotated with the starting offense throughout the spring offseason workouts.
The AFC North blog is wrapping up its rankings for the positions on defense. This is a projection on how the group will fare this season. It's not an evaluation based on last year. For Wednesday, let's look at the secondary.

1. Pittsburgh Steelers: This defensive backfield is old, but it's still got one good year left as a group. Pittsburgh has the best safety tandem in the division with Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark. The key, as always, is the health of Polamalu. He's a playmaker when he's in the lineup. Ike Taylor is streaky because he goes through stretches where he lacks confidence. He's still one of the top four corners in the AFC North. There's a level of uncertainty with Cortez Allen, who is replacing Keenan Lewis in the starting lineup, and nickel back William Gay.

2. Baltimore Ravens: If Lardarius Webb can return from a season-ending knee injury, this will be a significant boost to the secondary. He's the best cornerback on the team. There's a chance that Jimmy Smith will beat out Corey Graham for the other starting job. If that happens, Baltimore will have four different starters from the secondary that started the Super Bowl. At safety, Michael Huff and Matt Elam will replace Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard. What the Ravens lost in experience, they made up for in speed and athleticism.

3. Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals have a proven cornerback in Leon Hall, who finished last season strong, and a top free safety in Reggie Nelson. The other cornerback spot will go to either veteran Terence Newman or Dre Kirkpatrick, a first-round pick from a year ago. Adam Jones provides quality depth at corner. The question mark is at strong safety, which has been the weak spot on the defense for two years. Rookie third-round pick Shawn Williams will have a shot to start but he'll have to beat out Taylor Mays, Jeromy Miles and George Iloka.

4. Cleveland Browns: Joe Haden will be the top cornerback in the AFC North, and T.J. Ward could end up being the best strong safety in the division. So why are the Browns last? There's too many questions surrounding them. Rookie third-round pick Leon McFadden is the favorite to start opposite Haden, but he may split time with Chris Owens. Buster Skrine, who committed nine penalties last year, is expected to be the nickel back. The Browns have to decide whether Tashaun Gipson or Eric Hagg will start at free safety. Neither are great options.
Matt ElamAP Photo/Patrick Semansky

The Baltimore Ravens will officially start the defense of their Super Bowl championship in about four months. This week, however, the next chapter for the Ravens' defense truly began.

In the same offseason Baltimore said goodbye to two future Hall of Fame players in linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed, the Ravens used their first two draft picks on Florida safety Matt Elam and Kansas State inside linebacker Arthur Brown.

Coincidence? Not exactly. Four days after the Ravens hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, general manager Ozzie Newsome told reporters that it was a priority to fortify the middle of the defense.

That was the focus of free agency when Baltimore signed defensive linemen Chris Canty and Marcus Spears, along with safety Michael Huff. And that was the focus of this year's draft, in which Baltimore took a playmaking safety in the first round and an instinctive, yet undersized, inside linebacker in the second. This will sound eerily familiar, but the Ravens aren't expecting Elam and Brown to be the next Reed and Lewis.

Let's be honest, the Ravens' defense wasn't the same dominating and disruptive group even with Reed and Lewis last season. The unit ranked 17th in yards allowed (350.9 per game) in 2012, its lowest ranking since 2002 when it was 22nd. Teams ran at will at times against the Ravens. Baltimore lost games in December to backup quarterbacks Charlie Batch and Kirk Cousins. Yes, the Ravens finished as a championship defense, but no one would call it an elite one, or even a consistent one.

It was time for the Ravens to make major changes on a defense steeped in tradition and pride. There is already an established foundation in linebacker Terrell Suggs, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and cornerback Lardarius Webb. This week, Baltimore welcomed the next generation in Elam and Brown.

These aren't two prospects that the Ravens had to settle on at the bottom of the round. These are two players the Ravens coveted, and those are their words and not mine. That's a major statement coming from an organization that has found 15 Pro Bowl players in 17 drafts.

When Newsome called Elam to tell him that the Ravens were picking him, he gave him a quick history test, asking Elam about the player the Ravens lost to the Houston Texans. It was, of course, Reed.

“Now, what player is going to be able to come in and line up in our secondary and play the game like an All-Pro player?" Newsome asked Elam, according to the team's official website. “Matt Elam? OK, that’s what I wanted to hear.”

Elam is the first safety selected by the Ravens in the first round since they took Reed in 2002. The significance was not lost on Elam, whose knack for making clutch plays is reminiscent of Reed coming out of college.

"After a great player like Ed Reed was back there before, that’s a lot of big shoes to fill," Elam said, "but I am just coming in and trying to do all I can and help win championships.”

The Ravens chose Elam over inside linebackers Manti Te'o and Kevin Minter because he was the higher-rated player on their board. That led to the Ravens making an aggressive move, trading three picks -- ones in the second (62nd overall), fifth (165th) and sixth rounds (199th) -- to slide up six spots in the second round.

Brown, who is expected to compete against Rolando McClain for a starting job, is considered one of the best read-and-react linebackers in this draft. He has the instincts to diagnose a play as soon as the ball is snapped. The biggest knock on Brown is his size. He's listed at 228 pounds, which is just eight pounds heavier than the weight of an equally undersized linebacker named Ray Lewis was drafted by Baltimore in 1996.

"It’s an honor to be even mentioned in the same sentence with him," Brown said after being drafted Friday night. "I have a lot of respect for Ray, not only the player that he is, but the person of which he projects himself to be. He’s truly had an impact on the game and also many people throughout the game. That’s what I was thinking what I appreciate about him the most.”

While the timing of this draft will lead many to countless comparisons to Lewis and Reed, it's unfair to put that weight on two rookies. There is no one who is going to fill the shoes of Lewis and Reed. The Ravens just hope Elam and Brown can help the franchise along the same successful path. The next chapter of the Ravens' defense has begun.
The Baltimore Ravens made history when they parted ways with seven starters from their Super Bowl-winning team (and that number could grow to nine if offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie and nose tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu aren't re-signed). Just don't say "the Ravens are history," at least not when general manager Ozzie Newsome is in the room.

In what is typically an uneventful pre-draft news conference, Newsome showed his competitive side when asked about the major overhaul of his team.

"We like our football team this year," Newsome said in his first comments since losing the likes of safety Ed Reed, wide receiver Anquan Boldin and inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe last month. "To say that where this team is going to end, I’d like for someone to be able to tell me that we aren’t good enough to go to the playoffs right now. Can anyone say that? OK then."

Since I was the blogger who predicted the Ravens wouldn't make the playoffs last season, I thought it was wise that I kept quiet this time. In fairness, the Ravens didn't look like a playoff team after linebacker Ray Lewis retired, Boldin was traded, Reed signed with the Texans, safety Bernard Pollard was cut and young players like Ellerbe, cornerback Cary Williams and linebacker Paul Kruger got big deals elsewhere.

But the Ravens were rewarded for their patience. They got lucky in picking up pass rusher Elvis Dumervil after a fax debacle unexpectedly made him a free agent. They got great value in adding a couple of veteran starters in safety Michael Huff and inside linebacker Rolando McClain. And they addressed a weak defensive line by signing Chris Canty and Marcus Spears.

The unspoken theme for the Ravens was not to overextend themselves. Baltimore could've re-signed Reed and matched the contracts for Ellerbe, Kruger and Williams. But it would've come at a cost that the Ravens were unwilling to make.

"I think what we did is we just wanted to make sure that when we look downstream that we were able to keep the Torreys [Smith], the [Dennis] Pittas -- guys that we wanted to keep," Newsome said. "If you don’t make tough decisions this year, then it will be tougher to keep those guys in years to come.”



Sunday, 11/23
Monday, 11/24