NFL Nation: Dallas Clark

INDIANAPOLIS -- Tight end Dallas Clark, a fixture with the Indianapolis Colts for nine seasons, will retire with the team on Wednesday.

Clark, the 24th overall pick by the Colts in 2003, set franchise records for receptions (427) and receiving touchdowns (46) by a tight end. He’s retiring with 505 receptions for 5,665 yards and 53 touchdowns in 143 games in his 11-year career. Clark played for Tampa Bay and Baltimore after leaving the Colts following the 2011 season.

Here’s what fans had to say about Clark via Twitter:

 
The Baltimore Ravens have 13 unrestricted free agents, if you count wide receiver Brandon Stokley as retired. The Ravens are expected to make more cuts before the start of free agency (March 11), but I will focus my ranking on the 13 who are currently not under contract with the team. Let's start with No. 13 ...

No. 13: DALLAS CLARK

Position: Tight end

Clark
The good: Clark gave the Ravens what they expected. When they signed Clark to help soften the loss of Dennis Pitta, I made the comment that 40 catches out of Clark would make it a positive signing. He finished with 31 catches and didn't play the final four games. Clark did come up big at times in the fourth quarter, tying the game in Pittsburgh with a touchdown catch and converting a fourth down in Chicago.

The bad: The Ravens thought they would get more out of Clark in the red zone. He only managed three touchdowns. Also, if you take away his season-opening performance (seven catches for 87 yards), he had 24 catches for 256 yards in his final 11 games. By the end of the season, he looked like a player who had nothing left.

The bottom line: There's a good chance that Clark will follow Stokley's path and retire. He turns 35 before the season starts and his 31 catches were his fewest since 2006. The Ravens are going to need tight ends, but they'll likely re-sign or tag Pitta and add another in the draft. Clark was inactive for the four games Pitta played last season. There's no chance he's returning to the Ravens.
BALTIMORE -- Baltimore Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta will play his first game since the Super Bowl, and outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil will miss his first game since 2011.

Pitta
Pitta, the team's second-leading receiver last season, was activated off the injured reserve-designated for return list Saturday. He dislocated his hip on July 27 and practiced for the first time Nov. 20.

With Pitta active, the Ravens scratched Dallas Clark, who is third on the team with 31 catches and three touchdowns.

Dumervil, the Ravens' sacks leader, will not play after not practicing all week with an injured ankle. He was listed as doubtful on Friday's injury report.

Dumervil
This marks the first time he will be sidelined since September 2011. He wasn't expected to play a lot against the run-first Minnesota Vikings.

Here's the complete injury report for the Ravens and Vikings:

VIKINGS: CB Josh Robinson, DT Chase Baker, G Jeff Baca, TE Kyle Rudolph, QB Christian Ponder, T Mike Remmers, WR Rodney Smith.

RAVENS: OLB Elvis Dumervil, TE Dallas Clark, DT Brandon Williams, WR/RS Deonte Thompson, S Omar Brown, S Brynden Trawick, C Ryan Jensen.

Defense may have to carry Packers

October, 13, 2013
10/13/13
8:45
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PackersDoug Kapustin/Getty ImagesThe Packers' defense clamped down on Ray Rice and the Ravens' running game on Sunday.
BALTIMORE -- With 12 seconds left in the first half of Sunday's game against the Baltimore Ravens, Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Nick Perry sacked quarterback Joe Flacco and knocked the ball loose.

Rookie defensive end Datone Jones scooped up the fumble and returned it 20 yards to the Ravens' 13-yard line to set up Mason Crosby's 31-yard field goal on the final play of the first half.

It was exactly the kind of play that, according to Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk, great defenses make.

"We're definitely not a great defense yet," Hawk said after the Packers' 19-17 victory over the defending Super Bowl champs. "But we're trying to get there."

The Packers defense might have to get there -- and fast.

If the Packers (3-2) are going to be without receivers Randall Cobb and James Jones, both of whom left Sunday's game with injuries in the first half, then they're going to need their defense to pick up where it left off on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.

Among its noteworthy accomplishments in helping secure Green Bay's first road win of the season, the defense came through with:

  • A stop on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line in the second quarter after a special teams gaffe by John Kuhn, who touched a blocked punt that the Ravens recovered to keep a drive alive.
  • A stop on third-and-goal from the 5 in the third quarter that forced the Ravens to settle for a field goal.
  • Five sacks, including three by Hawk (who had that many all of last season).
  • A near complete shutdown of the Ravens' once-prolific running game.

"Today was good, I think, with those goal-line stands," Hawk said. "But you can't call yourself great until you're holding teams consistently under 13, 14 points, I think. We played pretty well, but it's a long season, that's for sure. We're only 3-2."

Perhaps most encouraging for the Packers was that they did it all without their best defensive player, outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who six days earlier underwent surgery to repair his broken right thumb, and without their defensive signal-caller, inside linebacker Brad Jones, who sustained a hamstring injury a week earlier against the Detroit Lions.

It all began with the goal-line stand.

On fourth-down from the Packers' 1-yard line, the Ravens called running back Bernard Pierce's number. Defensive tackle Mike Daniels and cornerback Micah Hyde were credited for stopping Pierce, but in reality it was a group effort that included Hawk and defensive tackles B.J. Raji and Mike Daniels.

"We pride ourselves on not giving up any rushing touchdowns," Raji said. "We stood up that play, and hopefully we can continue to do that."

[+] EnlargeRodgers
Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsAaron Rodgers threw for 315 yards, but he also lost two receivers to injuries.
Just as important was the stop on third-and-goal from the 5 in the third quarter, when the Packers forced an incompletion by Flacco to receiver Marlon Brown. Linebacker Jamari Lattimore, the replacement for Jones, had tight coverage on the play. The Ravens settled for a field goal, cutting the Packers' lead to 9-3 with 4:34 left in the third quarter, and then on the next possession quarterback Aaron Rodgers finally hit on a big play -- a deep shot to receiver Jordy Nelson for a 64-yard touchdown.

"Like I tell Dom after a game like this on Monday, if you give up 17 points, we're going to win most of those games," said Rodgers, who was pressured often but still managed to throw for 315 yards on 17-of-32 passing with one touchdown and one interception.

To be sure, the Packers weren't facing an offensive juggernaut. The Ravens came into the game ranked 21st in total offense, and they haven't been able to protect Flacco. Even their usually reliable ground game with running back Ray Rice was just 27th in the league in yards per game coming in.

The Packers shut down Rice, who rushed 14 times for 34 yards, 11 of which came on one carry. They will almost certainly climb from their No. 5 ranking last week in rushing defense.

"The defense, I felt, carried us pretty much most of the game," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.

That's not to say the Packers were perfect on that side of the ball. They had a major breakdown when the Ravens went for it on fourth-and-21 from their own 19-yard line with 2:40 left in the game. Safety Jerron McMillian fell down in coverage, which allowed Flacco to hit receiver Tandon Doss for a 63-yard completion. That set up an 18-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dallas Clark over McMillian on the next play, when McMillian said he did not hear the defensive call.

With the Ravens within two, the Packers needed their offense to burn off the final 2 minutes, 4 seconds. The combination of Eddie Lacy (who rushed for a career-high 120 yards on 23 carries) and a key third-down conversion to tight end Jermichael Finley (who should have stayed in bounds to keep the clock running after his 52-yard catch and run) did just that.

But with Cobb on crutches after the game and Jones having trouble walking, the fate of the Packers might rest on the defense.

"We're going to need them big," Finley said of the defense. "But at the same time, if Randall and James are out, it's called the next man up."

.

Ravens miss Pitta more than Boldin

October, 1, 2013
10/01/13
10:30
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The uproar after Week 1 was how much the Baltimore Ravens missed wide receiver Anquan Boldin, and the Ravens certainly would benefit from his toughness and clutch plays. But the Ravens miss tight end Dennis Pitta much more than Boldin.

Pitta, who is on the injured reserve-designated for return list after injuring his hip in training camp, may have been the Ravens' leading receiver at this point. Now the tight end position is one of the biggest weaknesses for the defending Super Bowl champions.

Pitta
Boldin
The Ravens have gotten little production out of Dallas Clark, Ed Dickson and Billy Bajema. Joe Flacco has connected on a little more than half of his passes to them (20 completions on 39 targets). Compare that to last year with Pitta, who caught 65.5 percent of the passes thrown his way (61 of 93).

The Ravens' tight ends have scored no touchdowns and have produced no catches more than 20 yards. Pitta had seven touchdowns and eight receptions greater than 20 yards.

Entering the season, the Ravens looked like they were in better position to handle the loss of Pitta more than the void left by the trade of Boldin. But undrafted wide receiver Marlon Brown, who has filled Boldin's spot in the starting lineup, leads the team with three touchdowns.

The biggest disappointment for the Ravens is Dickson. He has dropped four of the nine passes thrown in his direction, according to Pro Football Focus. One pass in Buffalo went off Dickson's hands and resulted in an interception.

The Ravens are clearly losing patience with Dickson.

“Ed just needs to go catch the ball,” coach John Harbaugh said. “He needs to run fast, get open and catch the football, put it away and get up field. That’s all he needs to do. And if he’s thinking about anything besides that, he’s doing himself a disservice.

The pressure is on Dickson, who will be a free agent after the season. Through four games, he has more drops than catches (three).

"Mentally, it seems like a bad dream," Dickson said.

The Ravens' tight ends have produced the fewest receiving yards in the AFC North. Even the Pittsburgh Steelers, who didn't have Heath Miller for two games, have gotten 230 yards out of their tight ends, which is 12 more than the Ravens. Cleveland Browns tight end Jordan Cameron has more catches, yards and touchdowns than the entire tight end group in Baltimore.

The statistics would look different if the Ravens had gotten the projected production out of Dickson. A third-round draft pick in 2010, Dickson caught 54 passes and scored five touchdowns in 2011.

“The stats kind of speak for themselves that you’re alluding to,” Harbaugh said. “He’s not the same player right now that he was then, obviously.”
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.

Locker Room Buzz: Baltimore Ravens

September, 6, 2013
9/06/13
2:11
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DENVER -- Observed in the locker room after the Baltimore Ravens' 49-27 loss to the Denver Broncos.

Clark
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.

Observation deck: Ravens-Panthers

August, 22, 2013
8/22/13
11:09
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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
8/22/13
11:00
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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.
After a run of injuries that elevated concerns for the defending Super Bowl champions, they are getting healthy at the right time.

Tight end Ed Dickson is the latest starter to return, practicing for the first time since injuring his hamstring two weeks ago. This comes a day after coach John Harbaugh said there’s a “good chance” that cornerback Lardarius Webb (knee) and Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda (shoulder) will play in Thursday's preseason game against the Carolina Panthers.

Dickson doesn't expect to play in this week's preseason game, but he sounded optimistic about his chances of being ready for the season-opener at Denver, which is 16 days away.

"I always feel good about my chances," Dickson said, via The Baltimore Sun. "When you're dealing with an injury, it's tough because dealing with a muscle pull you don't want to come back too soon and aggravate it."

Well, actually, Dickson hasn't always felt good about his chances. It was just eight days ago when Dickson said he was unsure whether he would play Week 1. Soon after Dickson's comments, the Ravens signed free agent Dallas Clark, which increased speculation that Dickson wasn't going to be available for the Denver game.

But Dickson has certainly changed his outlook.

"I feel like I'm ready to get out there and do the things I need to do," Dickson said. "Practice is just as hard as the game. If I can get to where I practice fully, I feel like I'll be able to go."

Dickson was expected to replace Dennis Pitta (hip injury) before he got hurt. While he has the athleticism to fill that role, he has battled drops and inconsistency over his career. This is a big year for Dickson, who is a free agent after the season, to prove he can step up in a starting role.
TAMPA, Fla. -- There’s a perception out there that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can’t wait to let quarterback Josh Freeman walk away after this season.

Trace it to coach Greg Schiano’s hesitance to firmly endorse Freeman at the end of last season or chalk it up to the quarterback’s lack of consistency or look at the fact that the Bucs are letting Freeman go into the last year of his contract without an extension. But nothing could be further from the truth.

“I have a lot of confidence in Josh," general manager Mark Dominik said. “I know Coach has a lot of confidence. That position is the position in the National Football League. Win or lose, regardless of if you get too much blame or not enough kudos when you do win and people take it for granted, the more time you have to evaluate that player at that position, the more of a chance you have to be correct. I think Josh is looking at it with a confidence and saying he believes in himself and there were some parts of last year he wasn’t happy with, but there were good parts last year. We’ve talked to Josh and his agent, and we feel like we’re at a good spot. Everybody feels comfortable with where we’re at."

Even though they used a third-round draft pick on Mike Glennon, the Bucs desperately want Freeman to succeed. If he plays well, that probably means the team will be in the playoffs for the first time since the 2007 season. That would give Dominik and Schiano job security.

It also would give Freeman job security, because the Bucs probably would turn around and reward him with a big contract before free agency starts. That would fit the team’s plan of building from within. (If things go as expected, 18 of Tampa Bay’s 22 starters this year will have come through the draft, off the practice squad or through free agency.)

But it will all come down to Freeman’s performance. He needs to avoid slumps like the three-game stretch late last season when he threw 10 interceptions. He needs to play the way he did when the Bucs got off to a 6-4 start.

“He knows it," Dominik said. “We know it. But I think the thing that’s kind of been lost is some of the great things he did last year. Some of the big games where he played really well and showed he can do it. I think what he’s doing in camp right now is playing really smart with the football. You can’t underestimate the second year in a system. Continuity is so important. If you keep it together, that gives you a chance to have more success."

If Freeman plays well the Bucs will wrap him up, and they’ll have continuity at quarterback. If consistency continues to be an issue, the Bucs will have to start from scratch next year and Freeman will be playing for another team.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeDashon Goldson
Mike Carlson/AP PhotoVeteran Dashon Goldson, who was signed as a free agent this offseason, should provide some depth at safety for the Bucs.
1. Secondary matters. The Bucs poured a ton of resources into their secondary in the offseason. They traded for cornerback Darrelle Revis, signed safety Dashon Goldson as a free agent and used a second-round draft pick on cornerback Johnthan Banks. Those are the types of things you have to do when you’re coming off a season in which your pass defense ranked last in the league.

That should be enough to bring about some dramatic changes. All indications are that Revis is healthy and, if he is, he’s the best cornerback in the league. Banks could start immediately and, if he doesn’t, will be the third cornerback. Goldson’s arrival at free safety means strong safety Mark Barron, last year’s top draft pick, should be able to concentrate on playing more in the box -- where he’s at his best.

The Bucs believe in building from within. But they went outside to patch up the team’s biggest weakness.

2. The pass rush. This goes hand in hand with the secondary. If the defensive backfield really is going to shine, it’s going to need some help from the pass rush.

The Bucs let defensive end Michael Bennett, last year’s leading sacker, walk away in free agency. But that was a calculated move. The Bucs believed Bennett already had hit his full upside. But the team thinks third-year pros Da’Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn are ready to blossom to heights that Bennett never approached.

That’s a leap of faith, because Clayborn is coming off a knee injury and Bowers wasn’t a full-time player in his first two seasons. However, if the Bucs are right about Bowers and Clayborn, the pass defense is going to rank a lot better than No. 32 in the league.

3. The tight ends have to come through. The Bucs have done a nice job of surrounding Freeman with plenty of talent at running back, receiver and offensive line. But at tight end, the cupboard looks close to bare. The team didn’t re-sign last year’s starter, Dallas Clark. Luke Stocker, who seemed to have the inside track to the starting job, has missed a lot of camp with a calf injury.

But the Bucs are quietly optimistic about Tom Crabtree, whom they brought in from Green Bay. The Bucs aren’t going to throw to their tight ends as much as Atlanta and New Orleans do, but they need Stocker or Crabtree to be a threat in the passing game to take some coverage away from the wide receivers.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeDoug Martin
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsThe Bucs have done well stockpiling young talent such as running back Doug Martin.
The team has a surprising amount of individual talent. Revis, Goldson, guard Carl Nicks, guard Davin Joseph, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, running back Doug Martin and receiver Vincent Jackson have been to the Pro Bowl. Plus, the Bucs have plenty of other young talent -- guys like Freeman, Barron, linebackers Lavonte David and Mason Foster, and receiver Mike Williams.

Tampa Bay has been rebuilding ever since coach Jon Gruden was fired following the 2008 season. There’s no such thing as a finished product, because you’re always looking to upgrade your roster. But the Bucs no longer are in rebuilding mode.

They have enough talent to get to the playoffs.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Schiano still is somewhat new to the NFL and to his players. His hard-edged approach drew all sorts of attention last year, and he has said he’s relaxing things a bit now that he has changed the culture of the locker room.

But this team isn’t completely past the culture shock that came with Schiano. That’s why it’s critical for the Bucs to get off to a fast start. If they do, the players will fully embrace Schiano’s ways.

If the Bucs start poorly, players won’t buy into Schiano and things could fall apart in a hurry.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The Bucs are ecstatic with what they’ve seen from McCoy this offseason. He earned a Pro Bowl trip last year, and that seems to have taken his motivation to another level. He worked out harder than ever and came to camp about 10 pounds lighter than last season. He’s emerging as a leader of the defense, and the Bucs think he can become one of the league’s most dominant interior linemen.
  • When the Bucs brought in Gabe Carimi, some fans thought he might end up starting ahead of Demar Dotson at right tackle. That’s not going to happen. Carimi is being looked at as an insurance policy behind Dotson and Penn at left tackle. Dotson is having one of the best camps of any Tampa Bay player, and the Bucs believe he’s only starting to scratch the surface of his potential.
  • Martin had a phenomenal rookie season, but I’m expecting him to be even better this year. Martin rushed for 1,454 yards with Joseph missing the entire season and Nicks missing half of it. With the two guards back, Martin should be an even better runner. Martin also caught 49 passes as a rookie, and I can see that number going up because the Bucs have been throwing to him a lot in camp.
  • The Bucs brought in veteran Peyton Hillis as insurance behind Martin. But Hillis, who hasn’t done much the past two seasons, isn’t a lock to make the roster. Veteran Brian Leonard looked good in the preseason opener, and the Bucs believe sixth-round draft pick Mike James has the potential to be an all-around back.
  • Strongside linebacker was expected to be one of the more competitive spots in camp. But veteran Dekoda Watson has taken the mystery out of that battle. He started off ahead of free-agent pickup Jonathan Casillas and has widened the gap with a strong performance in camp.
  • Kevin Ogletree appears to have the lead over Tiquan Underwood and Chris Owusu in the competition for the third receiver spot. But Underwood and Owusu have had strong showings that could earn them some playing time. Without a lot of certainty at tight end, the Bucs could resort to some four-receiver sets.
  • The addition of veteran Spencer Larsen made me wonder if fullback Erik Lorig's job was in jeopardy. But that’s not the case. Lorig is safe as the starter. The Bucs were very impressed with Larsen’s workout and view him as a quality backup and special-teams player.
[+] 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.

Does the addition of Dallas Clark show the Baltimore Ravens are desperate at tight end? Yes. Are the Ravens now second-guessing themselves for not holding on to wide receiver Anquan Boldin? Absolutely.

That being said, the Ravens improved themselves at tight end by bringing in Clark rather than not making any move at all. The Ravens are under no illusion that this is the Clark from 2009, when he caught 100 passes and scored 10 touchdowns. But look at the Ravens' current situation at tight end: Dennis Pitta is out for the season with a dislocated hip and Ed Dickson is currently sidelined with a slight hamstring tear.

The Ravens had to do something and the recent signing of Visanthe Schiancoe, who hasn't had a reception since Dec. 11, 2011, wasn't going to be the answer in the passing game. I wrote two weeks ago that I was surprised that the Ravens didn't make a move for Clark. The hope is Dickson will be ready for the season opener, but Clark is an experienced insurance policy if Dickson can't play.

The knock on 34-year-old Clark is that he has lost his speed. His 9.3 yards per catch last season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was a career low. The Ravens, though, don't need Clark to stretch defenses down the seam. That is going to be Dickson's role.

The Ravens are looking for a proven pass-catcher who can run those crossing routes and pick up first downs, which is a major void without Boldin and Pitta. Baltimore took a step in the right direction when it signed slot receiver Brandon Stokley early Sunday, and Joe Flacco now has another dependable target over the middle. Clark had two drops last season, and only three other tight ends with at last 40 catches had fewer (Benjamin Watson, Jacob Tamme and Anthony Fasano).

"He can play in early downs," coach John Harbaugh told reporters Sunday. "He’s a great seam and seven-route runner, but he’s also a great stop-option, crossing-route guy. That’s the type of routes that move the chains. He’s got a great catch radius. Those are the things that Dennis [Pitta] excels at, so those are the things that he excels at.”

If the Ravens can get 40 receptions and 20 first downs out of Clark, this will go down as a productive move. The demise of Clark may be a little exaggerated, too. He caught 47 passes last season, but he got better as the season progressed. He had 27 receptions in a six-game stretch in November and December.

Before training camp started, the Ravens probably envisioned Pitta being like Clark from a few years ago, using him more as a slot receiver than a traditional tight end. Now, the Ravens are calling on Clark because Pitta is done for the season. It's not an ideal situation. But the Ravens are doing the best they can in patching up the holes in the passing attack.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

One key positional battle for each NFC South team as training camps get underway.

Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons are pretty well set at the offensive skill positions, but one guy to keep an eye on in training camp and the preseason is running back Jacquizz Rodgers. With the arrival of Steven Jackson, will Rodgers have a role as the third-down back? Jackson has a strong history of catching passes out of the backfield, but the coaching staff likes Rodgers and believes he has home run potential every time he touches the ball.

Carolina Panthers. From a fantasy standpoint, the issue is whether DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart will be the primary ball carrier. If both are healthy, they’ll split carries to some degree. But Stewart’s health remains a big question. He’s coming off surgery on both ankles and has had an assortment of injuries throughout his career. Williams had a strong finish last season and that may put him in the good graces of the coaching staff.

New Orleans Saints. The departure of Devery Henderson leaves the Saints looking for a third receiver after Marques Colston and Lance Moore. This position is critical because the Saints use so many three-receiver sets. Joe Morgan and Nick Toon appear to be the leading candidates for this job. Morgan seemed to have the advantage in minicamp, but the competition likely will go through camp and the preseason. Morgan is a long strider who has shown an ability to make some big plays. Toon, who missed his rookie year with an injury, is more of a possession receiver.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Veteran tight end Dallas Clark wasn’t re-signed and that means there will be a preseason battle for playing time at tight end. Luke Stocker and Tom Crabtree appear to be the front-runners, but neither has produced much yet. The Bucs believe Stocker can do a little bit of everything and could blossom. But they also think that Crabtree, who was brought in from Green Bay, can be a productive pass catcher. Still, from a fantasy standpoint, drafting a Tampa Bay tight end probably isn’t a great idea.

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