NFL Nation: Brandon Stokley

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- How good do the voters in ESPN’s #NFLRank feel about Green Bay Packers receiver Randall Cobb?

How's this for a sign: He missed 10 games last season yet slipped only two spots from last year. In our second annual rankings, Cobb checked in at No. 66 among all NFL offensive players when Nos. 61-70 were revealed on Thursday.

Perhaps the lingering memory of Cobb was his game-winning, NFC North-winning 48-yard touchdown catch on fourth down with 46 seconds left in the regular-season finale against the Chicago Bears. It came in Cobb's first game back after breaking his tibia and landing on the temporary injured reserve list.

Cobb was on his way to a big season before his injury.

He has become one of Aaron Rodgers' most reliable receivers. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Cobb caught 78 percent of his targets in 2012, second best among wide receivers (Brandon Stokley, 79 percent) that season.

Cobb is the fourth Packers player to make one of the lists. Nos. 51-60 will be revealed on Friday, followed by the rest next week.

Here's a look at the Packers in the rankings so far:

No. 95: CB Sam Shields
No. 81: DT B.J. Raji

No. 77: G Josh Sitton
No. 66: WR Randall Cobb
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning gets asked a lot about a lot of things.

He gets asked about his arm strength – he won’t go there, really -- but folks ask anyway. He gets asked about his neck, wobbly passes, touchdowns, all-time records, legacy, guys on his team, guys who used to be on his team, guys on other teams, guys who used to be on other teams, his brother(s), his dad, his family, New Orleans and if he considers himself a rapper.

And he’s asked about chemistry a lot. Not so much the carbon and life kind, but football. So when folks wonder where the Broncos can go on offense from the single-season record of 606 point the team set last year. The answer for Manning, at least in part, is in chemistry.

[+] EnlargeManning
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsPeyton Manning is working on developing chemistry with the Broncos' new receivers in training camp.
“I think there is two kinds," Manning said. “I think there is after-the-snap chemistry where you’re understanding where (tight end) Julius (Thomas) is going to be on a certain route, and then there is before the snap, being sure that everybody knows the signals, knows the code words and all the pre-snap changes that we constantly make."

Those who know him say this is why people have never really heard Manning publicly bemoan practice, criticize the time spent in an offseason workout or rarely fail to stay after practices in this, his 17th NFL season. Because his deal, as the Broncos continue to plow through training camp with Manning having thrown in every practice, is chemistry.

“You want to be able to make adjustments as quickly as you can, have everybody be on the same page, because your main advantage on offense is you know where you’re going," Manning said. “So, it’s always going to be better if everybody knows where they’re going … I tell the story, but with Marvin (Harrison) we got to a point where we could change something when he came by me in motion and we could run it the way we had practiced it. That’s the chemistry that makes you productive because the goal is to score touchdowns and win games."

So while many personnel executives in the league look at a Broncos offense that could be more explosive, with Montee Ball at running back and Emmanuel Sanders to go with rookie Cody Latimer in the rotation at wide receiver, Manning sees chemistry as what will make the difference.

It’s why Latimer and Sanders have spent so much time with the quarterback after training camp practices, when most of the other players have already gone to the locker room. It’s why at times Ball will find himself standing next to Manning during practice and Manning will be diagramming some part of a play with his hands slicing through the air.

The Broncos work fast on offense, don’t huddle all that much and Manning has complete freedom to change plays, or parts of plays, as often as the play clock allows before the snap, often with a simple code word.

“That’s the part you adjust to," Ball said. “The football part -- running, catching -- you can do that. But with Peyton, in this offense, you have to be ready to adjust and you have to be where you’re supposed to be to make it work."

It’s also why, at times, folks on the outside might look at who’s playing and who isn’t and wonder why if the football trinity of height, weight and speed are the only considerations.

“It is not an easy offense to learn if you’re a receiver and for a young player or a veteran free agent, like Emmanuel here," Manning said. “ … It is not easy to learn, so the more we can rep it out here in practice, I think the better it gives them chances to see … let’s face it, the cerebral part of the game, to me, is just as important as the physical part of the game. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it is hard to put you in there.”

Last season Knowshon Moreno went from shaky roster spot to starting running back in a matter of weeks because he knew what he was doing more consistently than the other guys. When Ball showed he too could consistently make the adjustments and be where he was supposed to be down the stretch last season, the Broncos promoted him to the starter in offseason workouts and did not attempt to sign Moreno in free agency.

When the Broncos scouted receivers for this past May’s draft, they wanted size, speed and the ability to make a contested catch, but they also needed a receiver who could handle being a receiver in their offense, a player who could handle what Manning and the offense throw at him. The Broncos believe Latimer was that guy, so they took him in the second round.

“I know there is a time when their heads are swimming, I mean, mine was swimming right after I signed when I got the playbook," Manning said. “Nobody really wants to keep hearing it, but it takes time and repetition, and the payoff is having success in games. You get to see the work you did pay off and if it you didn’t put in the work, put in the time, you see that, too."

Or as former Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley put it; “It’s not always the fastest, the strongest, or whatever -- it’s the guys who get themselves in the right place. You have to be athletic enough to play in the league, but to be everything you can be with Peyton, you have to be in the right spot every time. You do that and you’ll get the ball and do things everybody in this league wants to do."
It really should be no surprise that former Broncos/Colts/Ravens/Giants/Seahawks wide receiver Brandon Stokley might have said it best, might have hit the available nail squarely on the head.

After all, Stokley spent five seasons in his highly productive career with Peyton Manning at quarterback. They are long-time friends, and Stokley has always been able to offer plenty of insight into what makes Peyton tick with a football in his hands.

Said Stokley: "I don’t think it’s an accident guys do more when they're with Peyton than they did before they played with Peyton, or what they do after they played with Peyton. If you’re involved, do the work and get yourself where you need to be every time, you get the ball in a position to do something with it. It’s that simple."

[+] EnlargeEmmanuel Sanders
Jason Bridge/USA TODAY SportsNew Denver receiver Emmanuel Sanders is excited about catching passes from Peyton Manning.
So, the early returns for the Broncos, from Manning’s recent workouts at Duke with the team’s pass-catchers, are that Emmanuel Sanders should be poised for a bump in production if he holds up his end of the bargain in the coming offseason work. Certainly, Sanders wasn't stuck in passing purgatory before his arrival in Denver.

He has played the past four seasons with a two-time Super Bowl winner in Ben Roethlisberger in a Steelers’ offense the team has gradually opened up for Roethlisberger. Sanders had a career-best 67 catches last season, his fourth in the league.

But the Broncos have spliced two words into conversations about potential tweaks to their high-octane offense this offseason -- efficient and explosive.

Efficient, as in get more of it in the run game. Denver was 11th in the league rushing attempts last season, at 28.8 per game.

So, as their attempts to pump up the run game continue this offseason, that doesn’t mean adding much to the quantity of runs, but rather improving the quality. The optimism of spring and summer are always nice, but the true test will always come in the regular season against some physical defenses. The Broncos believe some adjustments, including moving Orlando Franklin to guard and making Montee Ball the full-time tailback, will help them get a little more return on those carries.

Then there is the explosive part of the equation. That is where Sanders comes in.

The Broncos set the scoring bar last season with a record 606 points as Manning set single-season records for touchdowns (55) and passing yards (5,477). They have receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas as front-line players at their respective positions, but wanted even more pop.

They want to be able to shock defenses more, attack more places on the field, do more with the ball once the completion is made. They think Sanders is the guy to help do that.

After the workouts at Duke, Manning said he likes what he has seen.

"He is explosive," Manning said of Sanders. "You can’t hold the ball very long when he is running a route, I learned that. He is excited about being here. Obviously, it is fun to play with guys who are excited about being here with the Denver Broncos. In the studies that I kind of did on him, I saw that he led their team in tackles on kickoff team one year. That tells you the guy likes football. That is more than just being a receiver; that is being a football player ... I look forward to playing with a guy like that."

Sanders has called playing in an offense with Manning at quarterback “wide receiver heaven." And there is plenty of precedent to what Stokley is talking about.

Jerome Pathon had not one, but two 50-catch seasons with Manning throwing him the ball, and that was Manning as a rookie and a third-year quarterback. Stokley played 15 seasons in the league, but his five seasons with Manning included his single-season career bests in catches (68), receiving yards (1,077) and touchdowns (10) -- all in 2004.

Anthony Gonzalez was a 57-catch receiver in 2008 with Manning.

Sanders is replacing Eric Decker in the Broncos' offense after Decker had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons following Manning’s arrival. Decker had 13 touchdown catches in 2012 and 11 this past season.

So, if Sanders and perhaps a rookie to be named later in the coming draft figure out where they are supposed to be, they should reap the rewards and take care of another "e" word.


Ravens place Brandon Stokley on IR

December, 10, 2013
The Baltimore Ravens placed wide receiver Brandon Stokley on injured reserve after he suffered a concussion in Sunday's 29-26 win over the Minnesota Vikings.

Stokley has dealt with injuries throughout the season, including issues with his knee and groin. He finished the season with 13 catches for 115 yards and no touchdowns.

It's unknown whether this is the end of Stokley's 15-year NFL career.

The Ravens signed Stokley during training camp because they needed a sure-handed receiver to play the slot on third downs after tight end Dennis Pitta dislocated his hip. With Pitta returning Sunday, Stokley's role was expected to decrease.

Stokley returned to the Ravens after playing his first four NFL seasons in Baltimore. Drafted in the fourth round in 1999, he will be remembered for scoring the Ravens' first touchdown in the 2001 Super Bowl.

The Ravens have depth and speed at receiver with Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones, Marlon Brown, Tandon Doss and Deonte Thompson.

Baltimore re-signed running back Bernard Scott, who was released Saturday when the team activated Pitta.

No surprises with Ravens' inactives

November, 28, 2013
BALTIMORE -- There were no surprises with the inactives for the Baltimore Ravens, who play host to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night (8:30 ET, NBC).

Defensive end Chris Canty, who was probable with a shoulder injury, is active and will start. For the second straight week, the Ravens decided to go with wide receiver Brandon Stokley and defensive lineman DeAngelo Tyson, and they made wide receiver Deonte Thompson and defensive lineman Brandon Williams inactive.

Here are the Ravens' official inactives: safety Brynden Trawick, linebacker John Simon, defensive lineman Brandon Williams, wide receiver Deonte Thompson, running back Bernard Scott, safety Omar Brown and center Ryan Jensen.
CLEVELAND -- There were no surprises on the Baltimore Ravens' inactive list at the Cleveland Browns.

Starting left guard Kelechi Osemele (back) and wide receiver Brandon Stokley (groin) were the only injured scratches. Osemele had been ruled out Friday and is likely done for the season.

It's the first time Osemele has missed a game after starting the first 27 of his career. Stokley has been sidelined with a groin injury since Week 3.

Here are some notes ...

OL Jah Reid: It's second time the backup has been active this season, and the first since Week 3.

DL Terrence Cody: It's first time he's suited up since missing past four games with knee injury.

S Omar Brown: He's active after spending all season on the practice squad.

RB Bernard Scott: The former Cincinnati Bengals back is inactive after being sidelined Monday.

Here is the Ravens' complete inactive list: G Kelechi Osemele, WR Brandon Stokley, DL DeAngelo Tyson, LB John Simon, RB Bernard Scott, S Brynden Trawick and C Ryan Jensen.
Baltimore Ravens starting defensive lineman Chris Canty returned to have a full practice Thursday after sitting out the day before. He is dealing with a groin injury.

That means inside linebacker Josh Bynes (finger, thigh) was the only starter who didn't practice Thursday. Wide receiver Brandon Stokley (groin) missed practice after having a full participation the previous day.

Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (elbow) and cornerback Lardarius Webb (hamstring) were limited for a second straight day.

Inside linebacker Jameel McClain, who remains on the physically unable to perform list, had his second full practice. Before this week, he hadn't practiced for the Ravens since suffering a spinal-cord contusion 10 months ago.

Is there a possibility McClain could play Sunday?

“I’d hate to speculate, because again, I don’t want to say yes, don’t want to say no, and then I’m wrong," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "So, I don’t know. We’ll take it day-to-day. We’ll see how it goes. That’s a decision for better minds to make than me.”

Here's the Ravens' complete injury report:

Did not practice: LB Josh Bynes (thigh, finger), WR Brandon Stokley (groin) and LB Albert McClellan (shoulder).

Limited participation: CB Chykie Brown (thigh), DT Terrence Cody (knee), C Ryan Jensen (foot), DT Haloti Ngata (elbow), LB Courtney Upshaw (foot), CB Lardarius Webb (hamstring).

Full participation: DL Chris Canty (groin), LB Jameel McClain (neck), DT Marcus Spears (knee).
The Baltimore Ravens cut wide receiver Brandon Stokley on Saturday and re-signed tight end Billy Bajema.

Parting ways with Stokley shows the Ravens are more confident in their young receivers like Marlon Brown and Deonte Thompson. In fact, Thompson's strong showing in Buffalo (four catches for 50 yards) likely prompted the move.

The Ravens signed Stokley during training camp because they wanted a sure-handed veteran who could move the chains on third down. But the Ravens are now going with more speed and big-play ability by opting for Thompson over Stokley. Cutting Stokley is also an indication that Thompson was cleared to play Sunday after suffering a concussion last week.

Even though four wide receivers are listed as questionable, the Ravens are getting healthier at that position. Thompson made his 2013 debut last week after missing the first three games with a foot injury. Jacoby Jones has a chance of playing Sunday after sitting out the past three games with a sprained knee.

Stokley had been banged up recently. He was inactive last Sunday because of a groin injury and didn't practice Friday. Stokley caught nine passes for 79 yards for the Ravens in three games.
Victor Cruz AP Photo/LM OteroThe Broncos will likely deploy more defensive backs when taking on the Giants and Victor Cruz.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Fresh off the feel-good season opener the Denver Broncos' secondary will get an entirely different kind of test Sunday against the New York Giants.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had limited options on the outside -- once Jacoby Jones left with a knee injury on a second-quarter punt return. Brandon Stokley is 37 years old and was signed after training camp opened; Dallas Clark is 34, has struggled with injuries in recent seasons and was signed after training camp open; Marlon Brown is a rookie; and Ed Dickson struggled mightily in a receiving role last Thursday night. So, despite not having either Champ Bailey (left foot injury) or Von Miller (suspension) in the lineup, the Broncos did not surrender a pass play longer than 34 yards in the game.

The Giants, however, present a different set of troubles. In their turnover-marred loss in Dallas, New York still had three wide receivers finish with at least 100 yards in the game -- Victor Cruz with 118 yards on five catches, Hakeem Nicks with 115 yards on five catches and Rueben Randle with 101 yards on, yes, five catches. Cruz finished with three touchdowns in the game.

“Their receivers are dynamic,'' said Broncos safety Rahim Moore. “ … They have so many targets.''

“Honestly, Cruz is getting the bulk of the attention, but they have weapons all over the place,'' said safety Duke Ihenacho.

The challenge will be how the Broncos matchup with the size the Giants have on the outside, especially if Bailey isn't ready to return to the lineup this week. Randle is 6-foot-2, Nicks is 6-foot-1 and Cruz comes in at 6-0. The Broncos can counter with 6-2 Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and the 6-0 Bailey, if the 12-time Pro Bowl selection is ready to return to the lineup.

Cornerback Chris Harris, an aggressive player who consistently fends off the challenges, is 5-foot-10 and cornerback Tony Carter, who has routinely come in when the Broncos go to the nickel in games Bailey doesn't play and the dime when Bailey is in the lineup, is 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds. When Carter plays in the nickel, he lines up in one of the outside positions and Harris goes inside to the slot.

Flacco sought Carter out in coverage on several occasions in last January's playoff win as well as last Thursday night. This is especially true if Carter allows the receiver to get a free release off the line of scrimmage, and Eli Manning would likely do the same.

The Broncos will also use rookie cornerback Kayvon Webster at times in some of their specialty looks and if they get into some of the longer down-and-distance situations, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio will use a seven defensive back package. The Broncos used it for two snaps against the Ravens, but figure to use it more against the Giants' attack.

  • Giants coach Tom Coughlin's peers in the league have long considered him one of the more aggressive coaches in the NFL, whether it be during his tenure in Jacksonville or now with the Giants. He signs players who once worked for an upcoming opponent in the days before his team plays that opponent. And if things go well for former Broncos running back Willis McGahee Tuesday, he could join the list. Per ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, McGahee will be one of three backs -- Brandon Jacobs and Joe McKnight are the others, who will work out for the Giants Tuesday. The Broncos released McGahee in June after McGahee had skipped the majority of the team's offseason workouts. The running back cited “family reasons.'' McGahee will turn 32 next month and hasn't played in a game since tearing an MCL on Nov. 18 against the Chargers on a hit from now-Broncos cornerback Quentin Jammer. McGahee had two years left on his deal when the Broncos let him go with a scheduled $2.5 million base salary this season and $2 million base salary in 2014. But with the Broncos having used a third-round pick on Ronnie Hillman in the 2012 draft to go with the second-round pick they used on Montee Ball in April's draft, the combination of McGahee's injury and contract pushed the Broncos toward the young guys at the position. So much so, the Broncos were willing to take a $1 million dead money hit against the salary cap to release McGahee. The Broncos had some concern about McGahee's ability to stay healthy over the long term and after he took part in the team's mandatory minicamp in mid-June, they released him. The Giants benched running back David Wilson Sunday after two fumbles and some bobbles in pass protection.
  • Wide receiver/kick return Trindon Holliday (left lower leg), cornerback Omar Bolden (left shoulder) and linebacker Wesley Woodyard (right ankle) were not on the field for the Broncos' workout Monday. The practice was essentially an extra opportunity for some on-field work for the Broncos -- what coach John Fox calls “a Broncos on Broncos practice.'' Wide receiver Eric Decker, who suffered a right shoulder injury in last Thursday's game, did participate in the practice. Bailey (left foot) did not take part. Tight end Joel Dreessen, who had two arthroscopic surgeries on his left knee since May, is closing in on returning to practice on at least a limited basis. Dreessen worked with strength and conditioning coach Luke Richesson. Rookie running back C.J. Anderson also did drills alongside Dreessen, work that included some short sprints.
  • The final Manning tally for the season's opening week: 912 passing yards -- both finished 27-of-42 passing in their respective games -- and 11 touchdowns. Peyton Manning was 27-of-42 for 462 yards with seven touchdowns without an interception in the Broncos' 49-27 victory over the Ravens on Thursday night. Eli Manning was 27-of-42 for 450 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions in the Giants' loss to Dallas Sunday. The two brothers will face each other Sunday at MetLife Stadium -- it's the third time they have played each other in the NFL.

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.

Observation deck: Ravens-Panthers

August, 22, 2013

BALTIMORE -- The Baltimore Ravens' starting offense began with a crisp touchdown drive and finished its night with another touchdown. It was what happened in between where things went terribly wrong for quarterback Joe Flacco & Co.

Three turnovers, including two critical interceptions by Flacco, were the lowlights in another sloppy preseason effort by the Ravens, who lost to the Carolina Panthers 34-27 on Thursday night at M&T Bank Stadium.

You can argue the Ravens were running a watered-down version of their offense. But there's no excuse for the continued lack of execution of it in the preseason. The Ravens have some work to do before kicking off the season at Denver in 14 days.

"We obviously turned the ball over, and you lose more games than you win in this league when you do that," Flacco said. "With what we did tonight, we're not going to win a lot of football games doing that."

Here's the good: Flacco was 8-of-8 for 82 yards on the two touchdown drives. Here's the bad: The Super Bowl MVP was 10-of-16 for 87 yards and two interceptions on the six other drives.

Flacco can't shoulder all the blame, especially with an offensive line that struggled to protect him. His first interception, which was returned 71 yards for a touchdown, was the result of Tandon Doss running the wrong route. A visibly upset Flacco yelled at Doss after the turnover.

The second interception was Flacco's fault. After Bernard Pierce's fumble led to another Carolina touchdown, Flacco drove the Ravens down the field before throwing a pass that was picked off by middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who watched Flacco's eyes and jumped on the route over the middle. It was a bad decision and bad read by Flacco.

"It was just a lot of miscommunication, and I felt like we did a lot of good things, too," Flacco said. "In the regular season, we're not going to be able to say that. We'll have to come out here and continue to get back in games. Tonight was one of those games that we did a lot of good things, but we had some miscommunication and turned the ball over too much."

The Ravens got some of the bad taste out on the first-team offense's final drive. Flacco completed all three of his throws and finished it off with a 24-yard touchdown to Marlon Brown.

Here are some other thoughts on the Ravens' third preseason game:
  • Nearly every year, the Ravens uncover an undrafted rookie gem. This year, that would be Brown. He has too good of a timing with Flacco to be a rookie. He looks too polished to be an undrafted rookie. Here's the most remarkable part: Brown is eight months removed from knee surgery at Georgia. Now, after catching four passes for 59 yards and one touchdown from Flacco on Thursday night, Brown has to be a favorite to land either the No. 2 or No. 3 receiver jobs.
  • The Ravens got their first extensive look at wide receiver Brandon Stokley and tight end Dallas Clark this preseason. Even though they have had nearly the same amount of practice time, Stokley looked much more comfortable in the offense than Clark. Stokley picked up a couple of third downs, which is why the Ravens signed him. Clark, on the other hand, didn't extend for one pass over the middle and dropped another pass, which was negated by a penalty.
  • One of the bright spots for the Ravens was the return of guard Marshal Yanda (shoulder) and cornerback Lardarius Webb (knee). The Ravens' offensive line looked dominant with Yanda and awful without him. It shows how valuable a Pro Bowl guard can be. Webb made three tackles and dove to break up a pass. Not sure if he's ready to handle a starting job right now, but he will make an impact on the team's nickel defense at the start of the season. Asked if he feels ready for the regular season, Webb said, "I'm just going to leave it up to the coaches. I'll be ready for his decision and do whatever the coaches want."
  • As for the other receivers battling for a job, Doss put himself on the bubble after another disappointing effort. When the Ravens asked Flacco what receiver he wanted in the 2011 draft, he selected Doss. But they have no connection on the field. Rookie seventh-round pick Aaron Mellette had one catch from Flacco but couldn't convert a third-and-2. He needs to have more strength to push upfield to convert in that situation.
  • In one of the more bizarre preseason games of the year, the Ravens allowed 34 points but only six were scored on the defense. All four touchdowns for Carolina were scored off returns: two interceptions (off Flacco and Tyrod Taylor), one fumble and one punt return. The defense held the Panthers' starting offense to 104 yards through three quarters. Defensive tackle Marcus Spears blew up a third-and-short early in the game, and nose tackle Terrence Cody made a nice stop as well. Middle linebacker Daryl Smith continues to be the Ravens' preseason defensive MVP, recording three tackles and a third-down sack of Cam Newton.

What to watch: Panthers-Ravens

August, 22, 2013
Here are three storylines for Thursday night's game between the Carolina Panthers and the Baltimore Ravens. Kickoff is at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN.

1. Time for Joe Flacco and the starting offense to get on track: None of the concerns about the Ravens' starting offense have been alleviated so far this summer. Even though the Ravens have kept the play calling basic, Flacco and the Ravens have been awful in their execution over two preseason games, showing a lack of rhythm without their top two tight ends (Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson are injured) and no proven No. 2 receiver. In three quarters this preseason (eight drives), the Ravens' starting offense has produced one touchdown, two turnovers (both interceptions) and three three-and-outs.

Baltimore is far from panicking over the lack of production, and Flacco isn't worried about his efficient but far from electric numbers (14-of-18 for 175 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions). The Ravens, though, would feel a lot better about themselves if they gain some momentum in what should be the last extensive playing time for the starters this preseason. This is the Ravens' best chance for a good showing. Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda (shoulder) is scheduled to make his preseason debut, tight end Dallas Clark will take the field for the first time for the Ravens, and wide receiver Brandon Stokley should get an increased number of snaps.

2. The No. 2 wide receiver battle: It's been more of a quandary than a competition. Jacoby Jones was the favorite to win the job and he is still listed as the starter opposite Torrey Smith on this week's depth chart, but Jones can't get separation in this battle if he can't get separation from cornerbacks. In the four passes thrown his way this preseason, defenders have caught more passes (two interceptions) than Jones (one catch for 4 yards).

Jones' disappointing preseason has created an opening for Stokley and a handful of young receivers to earn more playing time. Tandon Doss, Deonte Thompson (who isn't expected to play because of a foot injury), Aaron Mellette and Marlon Brown are all vying for a spot behind Smith. I thought Doss and Thompson would be fighting for the No. 2 job at this point, but neither has shown much this preseason. The only receiver who can been ruled out is David Reed, who was traded to the Indianapolis Colts on Wednesday.

3. Rebound time for Jimmy Smith: There was a sense that the Ravens wanted Smith, a 2011 first-round pick, to assert himself and take a starting job this summer. That hasn't happened. Smith struggled against Atlanta last week, when quarterback Matt Ryan relentlessly targeted him. Although Smith didn't get the inside help that he expected, the coaching staff pointed out that Smith didn't play well and needed to work on his technique.

Smith may have not won a starting job even if he played better. Corey Graham has played extremely well and isn't about to lose his starting job after working so hard to prove he's more than a Pro Bowl special-teams player. Lardarius Webb has a chance to play in his first game since tearing his anterior cruciate ligament 10 months ago. If Webb can show he's healthy enough to start, Smith will likely be the Ravens' No. 3 corner.
[+] EnlargeJim Caldwell
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyJim Caldwell's familiarity with the Ravens' newest additions at wideout should help out the offense.
From Joe Flacco's $120.6 million contract to his unreal postseason performance, this is clearly going to be his offense this year and the foreseeable future. But when the Ravens announced the additions of tight end Dallas Clark and wide receiver Brandon Stokley, the first person that came to mind was offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell.

Clark and Stokley are much-needed touches in Caldwell's game plan and it starts with their past history that goes back to their days with the Indianapolis Colts. Clark spent nine years there when Caldwell was the quarterbacks coach and eventually head coach. Stokley lined up in the slot for the Colts for four seasons.

While Caldwell wasn't calling the plays for the Colts, he understands what each player can do for an offense from the years watching them work. In Caldwell's first full season as offensive coordinator, there appears to be a Caldwell influence occurring with the passing attack. And familiarity goes a long way for the Ravens.

"The previous relationships are always positive with players," Ravens coach John Harbaugh told reporters Sunday. "It gives you a good insight into what kind of a guy you’re getting. So it’s always a plus.”

The Ravens, though, wouldn't have brought in Clark and Stokley purely on their ties with Caldwell. They fit what Caldwell wants to do offensively. The biggest change when Caldwell took over for Cam Cameron in December was using the middle of the field. Cameron preferred not throwing in between the numbers because it increased the chances of interceptions. Clark and Stokley have made careers by running crossing and underneath routes.

What Caldwell and the Ravens have to figure out now is what Clark and Stokley have left in the tank.

On Ryan Swope's continued absence

June, 12, 2013
The concussion-related symptoms that kept Cardinals rookie receiver Ryan Swope from practicing last month continue to sideline him, ESPN's Adam Schefter notes.

Coach Bruce Arians suggested nine days ago that Swope would be fine.

General manager Steve Keim compared Swope to Brandon Stokley when assessing Swope on draft day. The comparison seemed to emphasize their playing styles. Stokley has also had a significant concussion history.

Swope, who had two documented concussions at Texas A&M, was a sixth-round draft choice.

Keim acknowledged Swope's concussion history while noting that Swope had not missed much playing time, a positive in the Cardinals' assessment.

"Then to couple that with the amount of production he had, and then going into the combine, the guy has answered every test," Keim said. "His times at Indy were remarkable. He ran in the high 4.3s. His three-cone, which is one of my favorite drills, which judges a lot of the change-of-direction and movement skills, he ran a high 6.5, low 6.6 three-cone, which was easily one of the best times at Indy this year."
The target percentages posted earlier are open to interpretation. Drop percentages are a little more straightforward.

Six current or former NFC West players ranked among the NFL's top 20 qualifying wide receivers and tight ends last season in lowest drop percentage, defined as drops divided by targets.

Percy Harvin and Mario Manningham went without a drop. Neither played a full season, but each had enough targets to qualify for inclusion in the chart below.

You might recall some of these players suffering more drops than we've listed in the chart. ESPN's standard for drops could be stricter than the ones our uncles apply when deciding which objects to throw at the television following frustrating plays. Our game charters count drops as "incomplete passes where the receiver SHOULD have caught the pass with ORDINARY effort" and only when the receiver is "100 percent at fault" for the incompletion.

The first chart shows where NFC West teams' wide receivers and tight ends ranked in the league in drop rate. The Seattle Seahawks ranked third. However, their running backs ranked only 29th in drop rate (9.3 percent), one spot ahead of running backs for the San Francisco 49ers (9.4 percent). The Arizona Cardinals' backs were fourth at 2.7 percent. The totals for running backs affected the overall team percentages, which we can check out separately another time.

I've singled out wide receivers and tight ends because we've been looking at players from those positions while discussing potential changes to the 49ers following Michael Crabtree's recent injury. Getting Manningham back to health could help the 49ers.


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