AFC North: Tandon Doss

Rapid Reaction: Baltimore Ravens

November, 3, 2013
11/03/13
7:38
PM ET

CLEVELAND -- A few thoughts on the Baltimore Ravens' 24-18 loss to the Cleveland Browns.

What it means: The Ravens (3-5) fell into third place in the AFC North and 21/2 games back of Cincinnati. This continues a downward spiral for the Ravens, who lost for the fourth time in five games. It ended the Ravens' 11-game win streak over the Browns, who hadn't beaten Baltimore in 2,177 days (November 2007). The Ravens also lost for the first time after the bye in coach John Harbaugh's six seasons. The Browns (4-5) moved into second place in the division.

Collapsing on Flacco: Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was off his game, and it could have been the result of the hits inflicted on him. He was sacked five times (tying a season high) and hit a total of eight times. It was rough going for Flacco from the start, when he missed on 10 of his first 15 passes. He finished 24-of-41 for 250 yards and two touchdowns, with one interception.

Stock watch: Rising: Marlon Brown. The rookie wide receiver accounted for 14 points with two touchdowns and a two-point conversion. Undrafted coming out of Georgia, Brown has a team-leading five touchdowns this season.

Major breakdowns: The Ravens gave up three touchdown passes to Jason Campbell after allowing four of them the past six games. Cornerback Lardarius Webb got faked out badly in the open field on Davone Bess' 20-yard touchdown in the second quarter, and no one covered tight end Gary Barnidge on a 4-yard touchdown pass. The secondary couldn't get the opponent off the field late in the fourth quarter for a third straight game.

Costly drop: With the Ravens trailing 14-10 in the third quarter, Tandon Doss let a punt go through his arms, giving the ball to the Browns at the Baltimore 11-yard line. The Browns needed only two plays and a bad penalty by the Ravens (12 men on the field) to get into the end zone. Doss was the NFL's second-best punt returner entering this game.

What's next: The Ravens play their first home game since Oct. 13 when they host the AFC North-leading Bengals. Baltimore has beaten Cincinnati the past three times at M&T Bank Stadium, but streaks don't seem to matter much when it comes to the Ravens this season.
A day after coach John Harbaugh made no comment on the possibility of a trade, the Baltimore Ravens made no move on Tuesday's deadline. The Ravens followed suit with most of the league, which saw just two teams make a deal: The Philadelphia Eagles sent defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga and a sixth-round pick to New England in exchange for the Patriots' fifth-round pick.

But Baltimore has been active in the trade market this year. As The Baltimore Sun and the team's official website pointed out, the Ravens already made three deals since the draft: trading for offensive tackle Eugene Monroe (fourth- and fifth-round picks) and center/guard A.Q. Shipley (seventh-round pick) and trading offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie (conditional late-round pick).

Here's the rest of your wake-up caw ...
  • John Eisenberg, of the team's official website, sees creating more turnovers as one of the keys to the second half of the season. "Although the Ravens defense has been pretty solid, it has not been opportunistic, forcing just nine turnovers in seven games," Eisenberg wrote. "The secondary has just four interceptions despite being supported by one of the league’s best pass rushes. Only seven other teams have fewer overall takeaways." The Ravens are on pace to force 20 turnovers this season, or five fewer than their total in last year's championship season.
  • The Baltimore Sun's Matt Vensel made an interesting comparison between Anquan Boldin and Tandon Doss. Over the past four games, Boldin has 14 catches for 179 yards receiving and Doss has 13 receptions for 239 yards. There is another similarity -- the Ravens had parted ways with both Boldin and Doss before the season. But Baltimore re-signed Doss after Jacoby Jones injured his knee in the season opener.
  • Clifton Brown, of Comcast SportsNet, points out that the Browns have a new quarterback (Jason Campbell), running back (Willis McGahee) and punt returner (Davone Bess) since the Ravens faced them seven weeks ago. "It would not be surprising to see another defensive battle Sunday," Brown wrote. "The Browns have an outstanding nose tackle in Phil Taylor, Joe Haden is one of the league’s best corners, and the Browns rank seventh overall in total defense."
  • Left tackle Eugene Monroe is feeling comfortable now after playing two games for the Ravens. "I've had enough time to learn what I need to," he told the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. "Every now and then, there may be something that in the archives I need to dig up, but I'm good." Monroe has received a positive grade from Pro Football Focus in his two starts with the Ravens.
  • The Ravens have $1.645 million in salary-cap space after signing veteran running back Bernard Scott, according to The Baltimore Sun.

Upon Further Review: Ravens Week 5

October, 7, 2013
10/07/13
12:30
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An examination of four hot issues from the Baltimore Ravens' 26-23 win over the Miami Dolphins:

[+] EnlargeRay Rice
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesThe numbers show that getting Ray Rice the ball often spells victory for the Ravens.
Feed Rice the ball: It's important to get the ball to running back Ray Rice, whether handing it off or throwing it to him in space. If you don't believe me, look at the numbers. In Rice’s career, the Ravens are 23-3 when Rice has at least 25 touches and 30-24 when he is active and does not, according to ESPN Stats & Information. When you factor in Rice's 102 yards on 33 touches Sunday, Baltimore has won 20 straight games when he has at least 25 touches. The Ravens have to be careful not to wear down Rice because he's dealing with a hip injury. But you've seen flashes of Rice bouncing back into form, especially in the red zone. He reached the end zone twice Sunday, and if you needed another number favoring him, the Ravens are 22-5 when he scores a rushing touchdown.

Showstoppers: The Ravens' defense is becoming one of the game's top finishers. That is, when it comes to stopping drives or closing out games. On Sunday, the Ravens allowed yards on just three of the Dolphins' pass plays in the fourth quarter. They sacked Ryan Tannehill on four of those 15 dropbacks, including three by linebacker Terrell Suggs, and all four came while rushing just four linemen, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Entering the game the Ravens were tied for sixth on third-down defense, and they were even better against the Dolphins, allowing Miami to convert just 3 of 16 third downs (a season-best 19 percent).

Unexpected contribution: With only three healthy wide receivers, the Ravens needed someone to step up. No one believed it was going to be tight end Ed Dickson and wide receiver Tandon Doss. Both had more receiving yards Sunday than in the first four weeks combined. Dickson caught both passes thrown his way for 51 yards, which is 26 more total yards than he had in the first four games. Doss had three receptions for 58 yards, which was 11 more yards than he'd had.

Going to the extreme: Much of the talk was about the Ravens' commitment to the running game. But it shouldn't be overlooked that Baltimore's defense was committed to stopping the run. Baltimore held the Dolphins to 22 yards rushing, the fourth-fewest ever allowed in Ravens history and the fewest in seven years. The Dolphins basically gave up on trying to run the ball. Miami attempted two runs in the second half -- sound familiar, Ravens? -- and finished with 11 rush attempts. This is quite a turnaround for the Ravens, who gave up 203 yards to Buffalo a week ago.

Rapid Reaction: Ravens 30, Texans 9

September, 22, 2013
9/22/13
4:11
PM ET

BALTIMORE -- A few thoughts on the Baltimore Ravens' 30-9 win against the Houston Texans:

What it means: The Ravens reasserted themselves as a team to watch in the AFC just two weeks after being embarrassed in Denver. On the strength of defense and special teams, the Ravens handed the Texans their first loss of the season and avenged a 30-point loss in Houston from a year ago. The Ravens remain in first place in the AFC North by improving to 2-1 this season.

Stock Watch:

Rising: James Ihedigbo. He was the best safety on the field on the day Ed Reed returned to Baltimore. Ihedigbo had nine tackles, including two for losses, two passes defensed (including one on fourth down) and one quarterback hit. Ihedigbo was supposed to be holding the starting spot until rookie Matt Elam was ready, but he has been one of the pleasant surprises for this defense.

Falling: Discipline in the first half. The Ravens were flagged eight times in the first 22 1/2 minutes of the game. The Ravens had too many players on the field on a field-goal attempt, which gave the Texans a first down, and left tackle Bryant McKinnie was called for a facemask penalty twice. But, to the Ravens' credit, they finished with nine.

Replacing Ray: On the day the Ravens inducted Ray Lewis into the Ring of Honor, his replacement made the game-changing play of the game. Daryl Smith jumped a pass to Owen Daniels to pick off Matt Schaub and ran it back 37 yards for the score. Smith's first career interception return for a touchdown put the Ravens, who had struggled on offense, ahead 10-6 late in the second quarter.

Birthday boy: Less than two minutes after Smith's score, Tandon Doss celebrated his 24th birthday with a 82-yard punt return for a touchdown. It was the fifth-longest punt return in Ravens history. Not bad for a player who was cut three weeks ago and was only re-signed when returner Jacoby Jones injured his knee. This capped a spurt in which the Ravens scored 17 points in three minutes, 26 seconds.

What's next: The Ravens (2-1) go on the road with a couple of AFC East trips, at Buffalo on Sunday and at Miami the next week.

Why Ravens like Doss returning punts

September, 14, 2013
9/14/13
1:00
PM ET
Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Tandon Doss has four punt returns for the Ravens in 20 regular-season games. He averaged 2.3 yards per return this preseason.

Doss
Why are the Ravens considering Doss as a replacement for Jacoby Jones on punt returns Sunday? It starts with his hands.

"He’s an excellent catcher of the ball, he makes really good decisions; it’s almost too easy for him," special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. "Some guys underneath the ball, they move around and they stutter their feet, and for him, he’s very relaxed and balanced under the ball. He’s got excellent hands, so that’s the first thing with any punt returner."

Doss' best moment as a returner came last December, when he brought back a punt 40 yards against Denver.

"He had an excellent punt return, because he can put his foot in the ground and he’s a big guy," Rosburg said of the 6-foot-2, 207-pound Doss. "He’s got strength, and he can knock guys off of him. So, we look at him as a possibility, certainly. He’s had experience; that’s always good.”

With only four healthy wide receivers, Doss will certainly be active for Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns. One way for him to justify being the No. 4 receiver is handling punt returns.

But Rosburg indicated there is another possibility for punt returner. Lardarius Webb took over that role after Jones was hurt in Denver in the season opener.

Webb is a more explosive returner than Doss. Still, I would be surprised if the Ravens used Webb as a returner because he's the team's best cover corner and he's 11 months removed from knee surgery. My guess is they'll use Doss for most of the returns and go with Webb if it's at a point in the game where they need a big return.

"He’s demonstrated for the Ravens in the past that he can be an effective punt returner, and he likes doing it, and we like having him do it because he’s good at it," Rosburg said. "We got a 13-yard return the other day from him, and there’s possibility for more. We’ll see how it goes. You never know how the game plays out. We have other options, but he’s certainly one of the options.”

Report: Tandon Doss rejoining Ravens

September, 9, 2013
9/09/13
11:15
AM ET
The Baltimore Ravens needed to add a wide receiver with Jacoby Jones expected to be out at least a month with a knee injury.

Doss
Doss
Is it going to be Brandon Lloyd? Austin Collie? What about Josh Cribbs?

No, it looks like Tandon Doss is coming back to the Ravens, according to The Baltimore Sun. Please tone down your excitement.

Doss, the team's disappointing fourth-round pick, has seven catches in 20 career regular-season games. He didn't do much in the first three preseason games before making five catches for 75 yards.

The Ravens are obviously looking for someone who has knowledge of the offense and provides depth. They weren't looking for someone to leapfrog either Marlon Brown or Brandon Stokley as one of the team's top three receivers.

Baltimore is carrying six wide receivers, but only four are healthy. Deonte Thompson has been sidelined with a foot injury since the preseason opener. Let's see how many opportunities Doss gets in his second chance with the Ravens.
Most significant move. The Baltimore Ravens kept seven wide receivers but Tandon Doss still didn't make it. Doss, a fourth-round pick in 2011, went from battling for the No. 2 wide receiver job at the start of training camp to not having a job by the end of the preseason. He never had the same chemistry with quarterback Joe Flacco that rookies Marlon Brown and Aaron Mellette did. Doss' stock with the Ravens plummeted in the third preseason game, when Flacco threw an interception because Doss ran the wrong route. The Ravens chose to keep both promising young receivers (Brown, an undrafted rookie; and Mellette, a seventh-round pick) and two receivers dealing with injuries (LaQuan Williams and Deonte Thompson).

The most surprising move was waiving running back Bobby Rainey, who scored two touchdowns in the preseason finale. It looked like Rainey was going to make the team after the Ravens waived Anthony Allen and Delone Carter. That leaves the Ravens with two tailbacks, Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. Rainey likely will go on the practice squad.

Potential return. When Dennis Pitta dislocated his hip in the first contact practice of training camp, coach John Harbaugh ruled out the starting tight end for the season. Harbaugh later said there was a chance that Pitta could return, and it looks like the Ravens are going to give him a chance to do so. The Ravens decided not to put Pitta on injured reserve, which indicates that the team will put him on the injured reserve-designated to return list. But the Ravens can't use that designation, which can only be placed on one player, on Tuesday.

The Ravens currently have one healthy tight end on the roster: Dallas Clark. The hope is Ed Dickson, who has been sidelined with a hamstring injury, will be ready for the season opener. The Ravens cut veteran Billy Bajema and undrafted rookie Matt Furstenburg on Saturday. Baltimore will likely bring back Bajema when Pitta is put on IR-designated to return and sign Furstenburg to the practice squad once he clears waivers.

What's next. General manager Ozzie Newsome says a team can't have enough cornerbacks and he has a history of adding offensive linemen after the final major cutdown. At this point, the Ravens have four cornerbacks on the active roster: Lardarius Webb, Corey Graham, Jimmy Smith and Chykie Brown. The fifth cornerback, Asa Jackson, is suspended for five games. The Ravens could use another cornerback, especially one who can make an impact on special teams.

Baltimore is carrying eight offensive linemen on the roster, but that could change. Center Ryan Jensen, who had foot surgery, could go on injured reserve. The Ravens need to upgrade with a backup offensive lineman who has the versatility of playing multiple positions.

Here are the Ravens' moves to get down to the league limit of 53:

Waived: S Omar Brown, WR Tandon Doss, TE Matt Furstenburg, DT Cody Larsen, G Antoine McClain, RB Bobby Rainey, J.J. Unga, RB Anthony Allen, CB Marc Anthony, ILB Nigel Carr, RB Delone Carter, ILB Brandon Copeland, QB Dayne Crist, OT Jordan Devey, OT Rogers Gaines, TE Alex Silvestro, C Reggie Stephens.

Contract terminated: TE Billy Bajema, QB Caleb Hanie.

Injured reserve: D.J. Bryant (knee).

Observation deck: Ravens-Rams

August, 29, 2013
8/29/13
11:26
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Running back Bobby Rainey made the strongest case for one of the final roster spots in the Baltimore Ravens' 24-21 loss at St. Louis in Thursday's preseason finale.

Rainey showed great determination in two first-half touchdowns, which could give him the edge over Anthony Allen and Delone Carter for the third tailback spot. In a busy night for the undrafted player out of Western Kentucky, he finished with 13 carries for 39 yards, one punt return for 16 yards, two kickoff returns for 25 yards and one special-teams tackle.

Those numbers didn't accurately reflect Rainey's toughness or the countless tackles he broke. On the first touchdown, he was stopped by the pile at the goal line but got the ball across on a second effort. On his second score, Rainey was bottled up at the 5-yard line and bounced to his left to reach the end zone.

Last season, Rainey spent the first six weeks on the practice squad before being promoted to the active roster. He was inactive for three games before going on injured reserve with a knee injury.

His scores were magnified when Allen and Carter failed to punch the ball in the end zone with carries inside the 10-yard line; Allen made it worse by fumbling at the 1. Allen and Carter combined for 3 yards on 13 carries. This will be a tough roster decision because Allen does so much on special teams, especially as the lead blocker on kickoffs.

Here are my other thoughts on the final preseason game for the Ravens, who finished 2-2:
  • The Ravens' top two draft picks were impressive. Safety Matt Elam, the first-round pick, made four first-quarter tackles and punched the ball out of Tavon Austin's grasp for a forced fumble. Linebacker Arthur Brown, the second-round pick, hit Kellen Clemens so hard that he made the Rams' backup quarterback's nose bleed and made a nice open-field tackle. The rookies both won't start right away, but these performances provide glimpses of the future.
  • There was a Tandon Doss sighting. For the first time this preseason, Doss did what the Ravens had envisioned, catching passes over the middle and beating defenders straight down the field out of the slot. He had five catches for 75 yards. But Marlon Brown didn't give up any ground in the wide receiver battle. The undrafted rookie scored on a 50-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. I will provide more thoughts on the wide receiver situation on Friday.
  • Omar Brown made the roster last year because he made big plays in the preseason. He came up big Thursday night as he looks to become the team's fourth safety. Brown forced a fumble over the middle of the field in the first quarter and nearly picked off a pass in the third quarter. The Ravens' top three safety spots are set with Elam, Michael Huff and James Ihedigbo.
  • The center battle appears to be over. Gino Gradkowski didn't play in the finale, which suggests that the Ravens didn't need to see any more from him. A.Q. Shipley started, but he hasn't done enough in the preseason to push Gradkowski for the job.
  • Joe Flacco didn't play, and Tyrod Taylor received the night off after suffering a head injury in the last preseason game. Third-stringer Caleb Hanie got to play the entire game, and it wasn't pretty. He was 20-of-39 for 272 yards, and he didn't receive much support. Hanie was pressured repeatedly and was charged with a fumble after Reggie Stephens (who also had a critical false start late in the fourth quarter) delivered a shotgun snap wide right. Hanie's final pass was intercepted in the final minute of the game.
In watching the Baltimore Ravens' last preseason game, Marlon Brown didn't look like an undrafted rookie and Tandon Doss did.

There was some clarity achieved in the pecking order for the Ravens' receivers. The top three are locks: Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones and Brandon Stokley. Brown was the big winner from Week 3 and became the front-runner for the No. 4 spot. Doss, a former fourth-round pick, is squarely on the bubble heading into the preseason finale. He is likely battling LaQuan Williams, Aaron Mellette and Deonte Thompson for the final one or two spots (depending on how many receivers the Ravens keep).

It really comes down to being on the same page with Joe Flacco. There's an instant rapport with Stokley, who picked up a couple of third downs. There's a building chemistry with Brown, who ranks first on the Ravens in catches (six) this preseason and second in receiving yards (90).

"Just the fact that I went in the first quarter with the ones [starters] meant the guys upstairs have confidence in me," Brown said.

But that rhythm hasn't surfaced with Doss. It was only two years ago when Flacco endorsed Doss after watching film of him at Indiana, which led the Ravens to take him with the 123rd overall pick. Then, last Thursday, Doss extended a disappointing summer by running the wrong route, which led to an interception.

Williams may have an edge because he's an impact special-teams player. Mellette could be kept on the practice squad to develop. The toughest decision may be what to do with Thompson, who hasn't played since hurting his foot in the preseason opener. The Ravens have to figure out when Thompson can return and whether they want to hold a roster spot until he gets healthy. Another potential option is putting him on injured reserve.

The final major cutdown is Saturday, when teams must reach the league limit of 53 players by 6 p.m.
For a full transcript of the AFC North weekly chat, you can click here. For some highlights, simply continue reading ...

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Zack (Baltimore): Do you see Arthur Brown competing for a starting linebacker spot this year?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): Right now, Brown is going to see time on the nickel defense. His speed and athleticism suits coverage. He'll work his way up to playing early downs and stopping the run. Josh Bynes has the starting job for right now.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Bob (Dayton, Ohio): Do you think the Bengals are a bit overrated considering seven of their 10 wins were against the Browns, Jags, Chargers, Raiders, Chiefs, Eagles and a gimme against the Ravens at the end of the season? Doesn't playing teams like these inflate statistics like defensive and offensive rankings. Just tempering expectations.

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): If the Bengals surprisingly struggle, this point becomes more valid. This was also the team that won at Pittsburgh in a must-win situation and won at the Redskins, who won the NFC East. That's why I don't consider the Bengals to be overrated. They're one of the top 10 teams in the NFL this year.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Harry (North Carolina): Do the Cleveland Browns have a serious shot at going .500 this season?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): That should be the goal. With their schedule, I'm skeptical of them finishing with a winning record even if the team has improved. And, with how the past five seasons have gone, reaching .500 would be considered a success. I would be interested if the Browns stick with quarterback Brandon Weeden if he gets the team to eight wins.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Bernard (Philly): Given the injury to tight end Heath Miller, the offseason loss of Mike Wallace and the inconsistent play of the offense in the preseason, would the Steelers have been better served drafting tight end Tyler Eifert in the first round rather than linebacker Jarvis Jones?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): The Steelers couldn't have gone wrong with either Eifert or Jarvis Jones. You can make the case that the Steelers' biggest need on defense was improving the pass rush and generating more turnovers, which is what Jones did in college. In the Steelers' mind, Miller should be back by October and the team can get by with David Paulson.
One of the biggest questions still facing the Baltimore Ravens is figuring out who will be the team's No. 2 wide receiver. While no one has stood out in the first two preseason games, the defending Super Bowl champions are hoping for some clarity in Thursday's preseason game against the Carolina Panthers (which, on a side note, you can watch on ESPN).

Asked about the Ravens' position battles in general, coach John Harbaugh told reporters on Sunday, "I think it’s starting to clear up and there’s going to be a lot of things determined this week, not just in the game but also in practice. We’d like to have those battles decided by the time we finish this next game and then we’ll probably have a few roster decisions to make after the last game.”

Based on the Ravens' first two preseason games, the Ravens haven't learned much other than Jacoby Jones hasn't stepped up to win the job. Jones is a Pro Bowl returner but he is not a natural receiver. Jones has one catch on four passes thrown his way, and both of Joe Flacco's interceptions have come when targeting Jones. In the preseason opener, Flacco was picked off on a pass thrown late to the sideline, but Jones didn't fight to break it up. Last week, Flacco threw the ball to the open space in tight coverage and Jones didn't adjust, which led to the other interception.

The Ravens have a tough decision because none of the other receivers competing against Jones have stood out. Tandon Doss hasn't been targeted once by Flacco, and Deonte Thompson could miss his second straight preseason game with a foot injury. Recently signed Brandon Stokley may also see increased playing time in Thursday's preseason game. And, in Sunday's practice, rookie seventh-round pick Aaron Mellette and undrafted rookie Marlon Brown received reps with the first-team offense over Doss.

Halfway through the preseason, all that the Ravens have learned about their receivers is Torrey Smith is their top target and they knew that before they reported to training camp. Smith has caught all four passes thrown in his direction and has accounted for 70 percent of Flacco's receiving yards (101 of 144). The Ravens have to find someone who can take some of the pressure, and attention from defenses, off of Smith.
For a full transcript of this week's AFC North chat, you can click right here. For some highlights, just read on ...

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Sebastian (Baltimore): Do you think the Ravens will make the playoffs?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): While some will accuse me of drinking the purple Kool-Aid, I still believe the Ravens are a playoff team. There's no question that the loss of Dennis Pitta (hip) for the season hurts the Ravens. But this isn't like 2001, when the Ravens lost running back Jamal Lewis. The defense will be better than last year, especially against the run, and the Ravens will still be able to run the ball with [Ray] Rice, [Bernard] Pierce and [Vonta] Leach.

Brad (Baltimore): In your guess how do you see the Ravens WR depth chart unfolding?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): My projection is this: Torrey Smith, Tandon Doss, Jacoby Jones, Deonte Thompson and either David Reed or LaQuan Williams for that last spot (which is really a special-teams spot). I feel Doss complements Smith more than Jones. Plus, Jones can be the full-time returner if he's the No. 3 receiver like last year.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Ricky (Cincinnati): What are the odds that George Iloka actually starts opposite Reggie Nelson this year for the Bengals?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): My pecking order for the Bengals' strong safety spot is Shawn Williams, Taylor Mays and George Iloka. I like Iloka and the Bengals do as well. His style of play is better suited for free safety. Williams is smart and has good instincts. He could start as a rookie.

Michael (Canton, OH): Living in Canton and all the festivities that have been happening, I've been wondering if any player from the Bengals will join Anthony Munoz in the Hall of Fame?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): As long as the Bengals can figure out a way to keep him there long term, A.J. Green will be a Hall of Fame receiver if he continues on this path. He is clearly the best player on the Bengals' team. But he's only in his third season. There's a lot of football to be played by Green.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Browns Fan (Living in Cincy): I am very curious who you think will be lining up at CB across from Joe Haden and who will lining up at the other saftey position next to Ward? Thanks.

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): I'm pretty confident in saying Tashaun Gipson will be the free safety lining up next to T.J. Ward. The cornerback position is more up in the air. The Browns want rookie third-round pick Leon McFadden to win the job. But, if the season began today, the Browns would start Chris Owens.

Charles (Columbus, OH): Look into your crystal ball for me. Is Barkevious Mingo be a boom or bust in Cleveland?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): I believe Mingo will be a very effective pass-rusher. I still have questions on whether he will hold up against the run.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Luke (Carlisle, Pa.): Any news or updates on the Sean Spence front?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): Spence is on the PUP [physically unable to perform] list and can't practice in training camp. It's going to be a long road back from that devastating knee injury. But Spence has tested it out cutting and has gained some of his speed back.

Greg (Williamsport, PA): Any updates on Heath Miller? When do you expect him back this year?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): Miller told the team's website that he can run and make cuts, but he gave no timetable on his return from ACL surgery. If the Steelers believe he can play in October, they will take him off PUP. If they see him out for a longer period, the Steelers will keep him on PUP, which sidelines him for at least the first six weeks.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh didn't waste any time to set the theme for the defending Super Bowl champions' training camp.

"First post-practice press conference of the 2013 season," Harbaugh told reporters last week, "so I guess that means that 2012 is behind us, right?"

No one in the organization is wearing a Super Bowl ring. The two Lombardi trophies won by the Ravens aren't sitting in the lobby of the team's headquarters. Even two of the most prominent players in franchise history -- Ray Lewis and Ed Reed -- are gone.

This is more than distancing themselves from a Super Bowl hangover. The Ravens have undergone a Super Bowl team makeover. This is a new team with new challenges. In many ways, this is a new era.

When you factor in the season-ending injury to tight end Dennis Pitta, the Ravens will take the field in 2013 with 10 different starters from the team that beat the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl in February; six on defense, four on offense. How drastic is this change? No previous Super Bowl champion has lost more than five starters the following year.

The Ravens can't say this was part of some grand scheme to be revolutionary. A salary-cap crunch forced some tough decisions and even tougher divorces. Many have counted out the possibility of a Ravens repeat because of these losses. The Ravens, though, believe they remain a title contender because of the players who will replace them, such as pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil, defensive lineman Chris Canty, safety Michael Huff and first-round pick Matt Elam.

“Every move we’ve made is what’s best for our football team to be the best team we can. Period. ... We’ll just see where that takes us,” Harbaugh said. “I’m pretty excited about it. I think we can be a very good football team. But we have to prove it.”

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Figuring out the No. 2 wide receiver. The one move that the Ravens will second-guess is trading wide receiver Anquan Boldin to the 49ers for a sixth-round draft pick because he refused to reduce his $6 million salary. This leaves the Ravens with Torrey Smith as the No. 1 wide receiver and a bunch of question marks.

The favorite at this point is Jacoby Jones, but team officials won't just hand the job over to him. Jones will have to win it. You get a feeling that the team would like one of its young receivers to take over the No. 2 spot, which would allow Jones to focus on his true strengths. Jones was a difference-maker in the playoffs as a field-stretching No. 3 receiver and a returner. But there's no proven experience beyond Smith and Jones, the only two wide receivers on the Ravens' roster who have caught more than seven passes in a season.

"I will play whatever role they want me to play," Jones said. "If they want me to hand out the water, I will be the best water boy there is."

The other receivers are making an impression early in camp. Tandon Doss, who is considered more of a possession receiver since being a fourth-round pick in 2011, looks more explosive. Deonte Thompson, who went undrafted a year ago, has the talent to develop into a starting receiver in this league, but he has to be more consistent. And David Reed, who has been an afterthought in this competition, has bulked up.

[+] EnlargeJacoby Jones
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyJacoby Jones looks to move up the depth chart following the departure of Anquan Boldin.
All four receivers have rotated into the starting lineup in the first week of camp. “That’s exactly the plan,” Harbaugh said. “We’re rotating those guys by period usually, and we’re giving them all a chance to work with the first group and work with Joe [Flacco].”

2. The state of the offensive line. Most of the players blocking for Flacco right now likely will not do so in the regular-season opener in Denver. Right guard Marshal Yanda (offseason shoulder surgery) is on the physically unable to perform list. Left guard Kelechi Osemele is sitting out some practices after tweaking his hamstring. And left tackle Bryant McKinnie is working himself back into shape.

The only starters in front of Flacco right now are right tackle Michael Oher and first-year starting center Gino Gradkowski, who has to prove he's strong enough to be a center at this level. As a result, Flacco isn't getting much time in the pocket, not even on his three-step drops. Although none of these injuries is serious, the Ravens need to get this group together as quickly as possible to get their chemistry back.

The reason the Ravens believe this offensive line will be better than last year's group is Juan Castillo. His title is run game coordinator, but make no mistake, he's running this offensive line. Castillo is a respected offensive line coach from his days with the Philadelphia Eagles, and he's also one of the more motivated coaches in the league after being fired following two tumultuous seasons as the Eagles' defensive coordinator. Several teams were interested in adding Castillo to their staff, but Harbaugh had an edge. He's known Castillo since he was in fifth grade.

3. Availability of inside linebacker Jameel McClain. The original prognosis was that McClain would be sidelined for six months after suffering a spinal cord contusion. Nine months later, McClain still hasn't been cleared for football activities. This is a big deal for the Ravens, even though McClain is hardly a big name around the league. While the spotlight has been on Lewis for years, McClain has been an underrated force in the middle for Baltimore.

McClain's slower-than-expected recovery hasn't put the Ravens in a vulnerable position. Already knowing the team had to replace the retired Lewis, Baltimore drafted Arthur Brown in the second round, and the team has been impressed with his ability to run sideline to sideline. Then, after the team's first choice at inside linebacker, Rolando McClain, abruptly retired, the Ravens signed Daryl Smith, a free agent from the Jacksonville Jaguars, on June 5.

If McClain is unable to return for the regular season, Smith would start at inside linebacker with Brown. The Ravens had been monitoring Smith throughout the offseason, but they wanted to wait until June to sign him so he wouldn't count against them getting an additional compensatory pick next year.

“Daryl is a very intelligent player,” Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “You can tell he’s a veteran. He plays smooth. He’s got heavy hands. He’s a tough guy. I really love his personality -- fits right in with our room."

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeElvis Dumervil
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyPass-rusher Elvis Dumervil is one of the Ravens' high-profile offseason acquisitions.
On paper, the Ravens have a better defense than a year ago. That's not saying much. A franchise known for stopping the run and picking off quarterbacks, the Ravens finished 17th in the NFL in yards allowed (5,615) last season. Baltimore improved its pass rush by replacing Paul Kruger with Dumervil. The Ravens upgraded their defensive line with Canty. They also added two well-rounded safeties in Elam and Huff to fill the void left by Reed, who struggled with tackling, and Pollard, who struggled in pass coverage. Plus, the Ravens get back their best cornerback in Lardarius Webb, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in October.

Offensively, the Ravens have the potential to improve if Flacco has truly turned the corner. Last season, after Jim Caldwell took over as offensive coordinator, Flacco averaged 283.8 yards per game with 15 touchdowns and one interception. If Flacco can carry this over in 2013, the Ravens will have a top-10 offense.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

There are always going to be doubts about Flacco because he hasn't been able to play at a high level for 16 games in the regular season. The pressure will be on Flacco to produce after he signed a $120.6 million contract this offseason. He'll have to validate that contract with not much of a supporting cast this season. He lost his top two targets from a year ago in Boldin and Pitta. They accounted for 36 receptions in the postseason, which was nearly half of Flacco's completions.

Where Flacco will miss Boldin and Pitta the most is in the red zone. The Ravens will be vulnerable if they are scoring field goals instead of touchdowns. There will be little room for error for the Ravens, who have to hold off the upstart Bengals to win the AFC North for a third straight season.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • One apparent change since Caldwell took over as offensive coordinator was moving Flacco out of the pocket more. It was more of the same in the first couple of practices in camp. Flacco, though, doesn't want to be the next RG III. "You hope that you have some room in there to move around and look for guys," Flacco said. "But I’m not going to make a living doing it. And if I was to do that, I’d probably be out of the game after like four of them and on the sideline for the rest of the season."
  • Terrell Suggs has never been a workout warrior, but he took his training to another level this offseason. He reported to training camp in the best shape of his 11-year career. Some of the motivation comes from the fact that he wants to reclaim his title as best defender in the league after an Achilles injury slowed him down in 2012. He also wants to prove his worth to the Ravens considering his base salary in 2014 jumps to $7.8 million.
  • Another veteran who is in much better shape than a year ago is Haloti Ngata, who is working at a new position at nose tackle. The addition of Canty allowed Ngata to move inside, where Ngata is more comfortable and effective. It's clear Ngata is carrying fewer pounds when you see him run down the line and disrupt the stretch running plays.
  • Let's not write off Ray Rice too quickly. There's been a clamoring in the Ravens' fan base for backup running back Bernard Pierce to get more carries because he had a stronger finish to last season than Rice. Although the Ravens are wise not to overload Rice, he's still the best playmaker at running back. Look at fourth-and-29 in San Diego if you need a reminder. Pierce has shown the ability to get yards on defenses after the Ravens have worn them down. He's not in the same league as Rice yet.
  • Rookie fullback Kyle Juszczyk has to prove himself as a lead blocker, especially in short-yardage situations. Some have already been calling for the Ravens to re-sign Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach. But Juszczyk has been effective as a receiver. One local reporter nicknamed him "Little Pitta."
  • The natural assumption is that the signing of Dumervil will reduce playing time for outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw. That may not be true. The Ravens like Upshaw's impact on run defense and his ability to set the edge. It wouldn't surprise me if Upshaw played a majority of the early downs, which would keep Dumervil fresh as a pass-rusher.
  • It was last year at this time when the Ravens were deciding between Justin Tucker and Billy Cundiff at kicker. Harbaugh made the right move in going with Tucker, but it was far from a no-brainer. Tucker was an undrafted rookie and Cundiff was a year removed from being a Pro Bowl kicker. Tucker didn't convincingly win the battle, but it was enough to beat out Cundiff, who had that painful miss in the AFC Championship Game the previous postseason. Tucker converted 30 of 33 field goals (90.9 percent), the second-best success rate for a rookie in NFL history. He made a 58-yard field goal in training camp this year. Cundiff, meanwhile, is with the New York Jets, his third team since getting cut by the Ravens in August 2012.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

One key positional battle for each AFC North team as training camps get underway.

Baltimore Ravens: No. 2 wide receiver. The Ravens are hoping Jacoby Jones steps up and wins this job. Baltimore named him the No. 2 receiver going into training camp, but there's no guarantee he will remain there. Jones is the most experienced option in a battle that includes Tandon Doss, Deonte Thompson, David Reed, LaQuan Williams and Tommy Streeter. But Jones has never produced more than 562 receiving yards in any of his six NFL seasons. The Ravens believe Thompson has the talent to develop into a productive receiver at this level, and Doss looks much improved from last season. Thompson is a speed receiver like Jones, but Doss is a better route-runner. David Reed is also in the mix, too.

Cincinnati Bengals: Strong safety. While there will be competition at the cornerback spot opposite Leon Hall, the strong safety position is the most unsettled area on what could be one of the top defenses in the NFL. It's been a trouble spot for years, and the Bengals didn't address it in free agency or in the first two rounds of the draft. Shawn Williams, a third-round pick, is considered the early favorite. The Bengals have been impressed with his ability to pick up the defense and feel he has the physical presence needed to excel at this position. George Iloka is the dark horse in the competition after having a strong offseason. But he might be a better fit at free safety, where the Bengals already have Reggie Nelson. Taylor Mays failed to win the job last season, so it's difficult to project him winning it this year.

Cleveland Browns: Cornerback. The Browns have one of the top young cornerbacks in the NFL in Joe Haden on one side and a major question mark on the other. It will come down to rookie Leon McFadden, Chris Owens and Buster Skrine. McFadden, a third-round pick, has been running primarily with the second team during offseason workouts, but he is the most talented defender in this battle. Even though he lacks size, he is extremely confident and competitive. Owens has been getting time with the starters despite struggling with consistency for most of his career. He was benched at times last season, when he was the nickel back for the Atlanta Falcons. Skrine has the speed you want at this position. He just doesn't have the technique down. Skrine continually put himself in bad situations last season, committing nine penalties.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Running back. While the Steelers have yet to name a starter, there's a feeling that this is rookie Le'Veon Bell's job to lose. The Steelers used a second-round pick on Bell because they felt Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman failed to get the job done last season. Bell was a workhorse in college and brings more big-play ability than Dwyer and Redman. His strength is generating yards after contact. This could end up being more of a competition for the backup job. Dwyer and Redman are both similar running backs, and the Steelers likely will only keep one. LaRod Stephens-Howling, a free-agent pickup from the Arizona Cardinals, will factor in as a third-down back and a returner. He essentially replaces Chris Rainey, who was released in January after getting arrested for a second time on a domestic violence incident.

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