NFL Nation: Elvis Dumervil

A realization hit defensive coordinator Dean Pees when he talked to coach John Harbaugh about the Baltimore Ravens' depth chart this offseason: Only two starters remain from the defense that helped the Ravens win the Super Bowl 17 months ago.

"When you have the [roster] turnover, there’s always a little bit of time for those guys to develop," said Pees, whose only championship holdovers are Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata."But also, just like every team goes through it, you can’t keep the same guys forever."

Change often leads to a transition period especially when you're dealing with the loss of two future Hall of Fame players in Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. But change was a necessity for the Ravens. For the first time in 15 years, the Ravens went consecutive seasons without having a top-10 defense. The once-feared group suddenly had become average.

[+] EnlargeHaloti Ngata
Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesHaloti Ngata is one of only two defensive holdovers from the starting unit that won the Super Bowl following the 2012 season.
The Ravens needed to get younger, faster and, if their projections are correct, significantly better. A major investment in defense -- their top three draft picks in 2013 and 2014 came on that side of the ball -- has brought an infusion of talent. Four of these players (strong safety Matt Elam, nose tackle Brandon Williams, linebacker C.J. Mosley and free safety Terrence Brooks) have a shot at starting this season.

The Ravens are mixing this youth with two of the best pass-rushers in the league in Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, a couple of emerging cornerbacks in Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith and a "game-wrecker" in the middle with Ngata.

"The expectation for our defense is to be top-five, at the worst," Harbaugh said. "It has always been that way and always will be."

Long before the Seattle Seahawks won a Super Bowl with defense, the Ravens did so in 2000. Then, from 2003 to 2011, the Ravens boasted a top-10 defense. Dominating defenses became as synonymous with Baltimore as "The Wire."

That streak ended in 2012, when the Ravens defense finished 17th in yards allowed and 12th in points given up. The defense played a integral role in beating the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl, especially that final stand in the red zone, but that doesn't erase the fact that the Ravens gave up the second-most yards in team history that year.

The lapses continued last season, when the Ravens ranked No. 12 on defense. If not for the offense finishing near the bottom of the league and Joe Flacco's career-worst 22 interceptions, there would've been more complaining about the defense allowing the most fourth-quarter points in team history.

"Last year, at times, we showed flashes of being a good defense, but then we'd have breakdowns," defensive end Chris Canty said. "We'd have mistakes, we'd have mental errors and those are the things that just can't happen if you want to be successful in the National Football League. ... We have to make sure that we're on top of our game every single play."

Some may suggest the Ravens made mistakes in this year's draft. Based on how the offense struggled last year, it was more of a priority to add a right tackle, wide receiver or running back early in the draft.

After the Ravens chose three defensive players with their first three picks, owner Steve Bisciotti reportedly turned to new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and said: “That’s what we do here. We ask you for your opinion, but then Ozzie [Newsome, general manager] always takes defensive players.”

Although some bemoan what the Ravens didn't address in the draft, the focus should be on the talent they brought in. They have a future Pro Bowl centerpiece in Mosley, an eventual replacement to Ngata in Timmy Jernigan and a speedy free safety in Brooks.

"A young defense is a good thing. I'm excited about it," Harbaugh said. "When we won the Super Bowl, we definitely weren't the fastest defense in the NFL but we had a lot of savvy and had guys who made plays when it counted. What we're lacking in experience, we're going to have to make up for in youthful vigor and speed."

When the Ravens won the Super Bowl, the average age of the starting defense was 29.5 years old. This year's projected starters on defense are nearly 3 years younger.

Now they have to prove they're better.

"We can be really good," Dumervil said. "I think we have the speed and athleticism. We're very versatile. We just have to continue to grind and continue to work, and the sky is the limit."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There is the meal and there is the parsley that simply rides along on the plate.

Whatever becomes of the 2014 season for the Denver Broncos, the team's offense, coming off the highest-scoring season in the league's history, will fuel much of the discussion as well as the team's fortunes along the way.

But as the Broncos get down to some of their offseason business this week, the team's defensive players have decided they don't want to just be ornamental. They want to have an impact.

"We just don't want to be that defense that does enough to get by and the offense is putting up 40 points," said Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. "We just want to be that defense that goes out there and dominates and be talked about."

[+] EnlargeDenver's Terrance Knighton
Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)"We just don't want to be that defense that does enough to get by and the offense is putting up 40 points," said Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton.
On the way to their second 13-3 season in a row, their third consecutive AFC West title and a Super Bowl appearance, the Broncos offense scored a record 606 points and quarterback Peyton Manning set NFL single-season records for touchdowns (55) and passing yards (5,477). And the defense? Well, five starters finished the year on injured reserve as the unit finished 19th in the league in yards allowed per game (356.0) and 22nd in points allowed per game (24.9).

When all was said and done, 10 opponents scored at least 21 points and the Broncos surrendered 61 pass plays of at least 20 yards.

"I think last year we made a mistake of just having the guys we had thinking that was enough and not putting in the effort to be great," Knighton said. "That's something we're not talking about this year, the talent we have. We just want to go out there and put out the work. Like I said, just be a top defense and not be dominant in certain spots."

The Broncos lost three defensive starters in free agency -- linebacker Wesley Woodyard, cornerback Champ Bailey and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie -- but they responded with urgency, signing cornerback Aqib Talib, defensive end DeMarcus Ware and safety T.J. Ward. They used a first-round pick on cornerback Bradley Roby. And the players themselves, the new arrivals and the holdovers, have kicked around the idea of being more than some high-profile passengers on the Broncos express.

So much so that when the Broncos' strength and conditioning coach, Luke Richesson, gave the players a day off Tuesday from the usual conditioning sessions, the defensive players all showed up for work any way.

"Everybody has that mindset," said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. "We thought we had better talent than how we played sometimes last season and we think we have a lot of talent this year."

"It's always exciting to start over," said defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. "When you have a collection of guys coming back like we do -- a very talented group returning from injury, we also have a very talented group that we brought in -- free agency and draft picks. So getting all of those guys back out on the field, it's an exciting time of year."

When the Broncos sifted through what went wrong with the defense, the injuries to linebacker Von Miller, Harris, Rahim Moore, Kevin Vickerson and Derek Wolfe certainly played a part. But executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has also consistently referenced a hole in last year's roster-building.

"We never really replaced Elvis [Dumervil]," Elway said.

Dumervil, who led the NFL in sacks in 2009 with 17 and had 63.5 sacks in six seasons with the Broncos, signed with the Baltimore Ravens last season after a fax fiasco forced the Broncos to release him to avoid paying him a bonus. It's why the Broncos were so persistent in their pursuit of Ware, who got a three-year deal worth $30 million, because they wanted the same kind of pressure package Dumervil and Miller provided when the Broncos were a top-five defense -- second in yards allowed per game and third in scoring defense.

They believe a nickel package with Ware and Miller rushing the passer -- in which offenses have to decide where and how to slide their protection plans -- with Talib, Harris and Roby at cornerback is faster and more athletic than last season's defense. The defensive players have already shown more edge as they work through the non-contact portions of the offseason program.

"The biggest way is as coaches, we provide a blueprint, we provide kind of a map for them," Del Rio said. "But then [the players] have to take it and make it their own. So the interaction they have, the time they spend lifting weights and running, different guys emerge. Guys earn the respect of their peers and I think as you play and you're here and as you show you're a guy that can be counted on, then your voice becomes a little more important. So that's how I think you kind of grow into it. Very rarely does a guy just plug himself and say, 'Hey I'm the leader.' So as coaches that's something that we encourage obviously, for guys to step up and take charge and be accountable and take responsibility for each other ... I feel good about our group."
The Denver Broncos' decisions on how to repair last season's defense essentially come down to a faith in healing, a calendar and a stopwatch.

Because the Broncos are certainly hoping for the best when it comes to the return of cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and linebacker Von Miller, two of the Broncos' six defensive starters who finished the 2013 season on injured reserve, from their ACL surgeries. And when they opened owner Pat Bowlen's checkbook in free agency they had a clear goal in mind.

"We were aging some," head coach John Fox said this week. "We wanted to get younger, we wanted to get faster -- you know, like you do every year. We're a much younger defense at this point. We needed to retool that side of the ball."

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware
AP Photo/Kevin TerrellThe Broncos are counting on DeMarcus Ware to give them the pass-rushing presence they missed at times last season.
The Broncos took at least some salary-cap risk with DeMarcus Ware's three-year, $30 million deal, but he was also the only 30-something free agent they added. Cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward, their other high-profile signings on defense, are 28 and 27 years old, respectively.

The Broncos will also take a long look at defensive backs in the draft, and perhaps edge rushers and inside linebackers as well. Speed and youth are priorities, so their depth chart should have a decidedly younger feel when they finish training camp this season.

But Ware fills an important role in the blueprint. Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway put Ware in the same category as quarterback Peyton Manning in terms of why the team believed signing him was good business.

"I like getting Hall of Fame players with chips on their shoulders," Elway said, which was the same thing he said when the Broncos signed Manning in 2012 after the quarterback had had four neck surgeries and missed the 2011 season.

Ware missed the only three games of his career this past season when he tried to play through elbow and leg injuries. He had surgery to repair the elbow immediately following the season and pronounced himself healthy upon his arrival in Denver.

"I am ready to go," Ware said. "It was something I took care of. I'm healthy, my body feels great."

"He was the most veteran guy that we signed in free agency," Fox said. "He has a lot of skins on the wall -- one of the highest sack guys currently. I remember when he came out [of college]. He played injured. That says something about a guy. He had surgery the minute the season was over. It was something he did in training camp."

Fox also sees Ware as the solution to the question the Broncos' defense simply could not answer last season. Though Shaun Phillips did finish with 10 sacks after signing a one-year deal on draft weekend last April.

But it was still not everything the Broncos needed or wanted on defense after Elvis Dumervil was released following the fax fiasco and he elected to spurn the Broncos' attempt to re-sign him and join the Baltimore Ravens.

"And we put a guy in there, but we never really replaced [Dumervil], we didn't rejuvenate so to speak," Fox said.

Fox said when the Broncos evaluated Ware and took into account his elbow is now repaired, they saw potential for Ware to regain the form he has shown for much of his nine previous seasons. He had 19.5 sacks just three seasons ago and 11.5 sacks two seasons ago.

"It's hard to play this game with one arm," Fox said. " … We looked at it a little more glass half full."

Asked if he thought Ware could be an every-down player in 2014, Fox added: "I got asked that the other day. I don't try to define guys. I tell them, ‘Don't let me define you. Don't let any coach define you.' A lot of that stuff is different. Each year is new whether you're an old player or a young player. He'll determine that by his performance in practice and during the evaluation process … But when we see what he's done we expect there is more of the same there."
Free agency begins in 13 days, and the Baltimore Ravens need to do better with their signings next month than they did in the first wave of free agency last year. Half of the free agents signed by the Ravens from other teams didn't finish the season in Baltimore. This is one of the reasons why the Ravens went from Super Bowl champions in 2012 to an 8-8 team last year.

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


Position: Defensive end

Former team: New York Giants

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

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

Grade: C-plus.


Position: Outside linebacker

Former team: Denver Broncos

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

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

Grade: B.


Position: Quarterback

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

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

Grade: C.


Position: Safety

Former team: Oakland Raiders

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

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

Grade: F.


Position: Safety

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

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

Grade: B.


Position: Defensive tackle

Former team: Dallas Cowboys

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

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

Grade: F.

Note: Middle linebacker Daryl Smith, one of the Ravens' top free-agent signings last year, was signed in the second wave of free agency in June.

Haslett on OLBs: We'll turn them loose

February, 14, 2014
Feb 14
Washington Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has two desires for next season: More sacks and more turnovers. If that happens, he knows what the result will be: more wins.

Haslett, speaking on ESPN980 Thursday for the first time since he was retained by the Redskins, also told Doc Walker and Brian Mitchell that improving the pass rush is a primary goal.

Haslett said that is one reason he hired Brian Baker to coach the outside linebackers (where the bulk of the pressure comes from in a 3-4 defense). Haslett sounded like a coach anticipating Brian Orakpo's return, too. Orakpo can be a free agent next month.

[+] EnlargeBrian Orakpo
AP Photo/Nick WassDefensive coordinator Jim Haslett is expecting an improved pass rush next season, led by pending free agent Brian Orakpo.
“Can we get better? No doubt about it. I think Rak can get much better, and I know Ryan [Kerrigan] can get a lot better,” Haslett said. “That’s why we hired a coach to coach them on the rush element. We’ll try to turn them loose more this year, do more with them game-wise. Don’t worry so much if they lose contain, because they’ll lose frickin contain half the time. Let’s roll and make sure the tackles cover for them. Different things like that.”

Orakpo and Kerrigan combined for 18.5 sacks this past season, which he pointed out was one less than Baltimore’s duo of Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, and 3.5 less than Kansas City’s tandem of Tamba Hali and Justin Houston.

Coaches often talk about pressures more than sacks (especially when the sack totals are low), but constant pressure also leads to more sacks. In 2011, with a healthy Orakpo, Stephen Bowen and Adam Carriker, the Redskins tied for 10th in the NFL with 41 sacks.

But in 2012 they finished tied for 23rd with 32, and this past season they were tied for 21st with 36.

Haslett pointed to turnovers as an area that must change. The Redskins only caused five fewer than they did in 2012 (going from 31 to 26 this past season). He dismissed yardage as a stat to measure a defense -- “That’s kind of for losers,” he said. (As an aside, I’ll say this: Every coach I’ve covered will point to this stat when it suits them; every single coach. But I do agree that other stats matter, like points allowed and turnovers. They impact the game more. Yardage totals can be inflated by game situations).

“The object is to get the ball back from the offense and let them score points,” Haslett said. “The offense has to control the ball and keep us off the field. Don’t turn the ball over so we’re on the field for 15-18 possessions like the last game of the year. And you win games. That’s what we did down the stretch the year before; that’s why we won seven in a row. That’s our goal, we want to create more turnovers.”

Haslett also said that “you’ll see more of what we want to do from the standpoint of coverage.”

He did not expand on that statement, but it stemmed from being asked how much more his personality would be revealed in the defense now that he’s working for a coach who will stick to offense. Clearly, there was a difference of opinion in what previous head coach Mike Shanahan wanted and what Haslett wanted at times, whether it came from coverages or play calls.

“You’ve got to get these guys doing the same thing over and over and over to where they get good at what they do,” Haslett said. “We bounced around early in the season. We had a heck of a preseason. We thought we were good, but that’s preseason. It got your hopes up a little bit, but it wasn’t really what we wanted to do.

“I think you’ll see more of something we’ll be good at. Whatever we do, we’ll be good at. It doesn’t make a difference what you’re running ... We were in a four-man line 62 percent of the time last year anyway. But we’re going to be good at what we do, and we’re going to do it over and over and over until we get good at it.”
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In the end, the Denver Broncos and Shaun Phillips find themselves in a need-need situation.

Now, more than ever.

The defense continues to be a question mark, sometimes a small one, sometimes not so small, in any outside assessment of the team’s Super Bowl chances. Now, the players on that side of the ball, in a season that has been filled with varying “narratives," about the team are certainly sick of that one.

But the three other teams that remain in the AFC’s playoff field accounted for the Broncos’ three losses this season, and they did it, in large part, by finding a way to slow the Broncos’ next-level offense. And they did it by rushing for at least 118 yards in each of those games (including 177 by the Chargers on Dec. 12), and they did it with three-touchdown outings by quarterbacks Tom Brady (Patriots) and Andrew Luck (Colts).

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesWith Von Miller out of the lineup, the Broncos need Shaun Phillips, 90, to regain the pass-rushing form he showed early in the season.
“We’re just looking forward to playing good football," said Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. “What was, and whether it was good or bad really doesn’t matter going forward. We need to play well and help our football team win, that’s all it comes down to.”

With the list of marquee quarterbacks left in the postseason -- Brady, Luck and Philip Rivers in the AFC, and Drew Brees, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick in the NFC -- the Broncos have to find a way to make the opposing uber-thrower uncomfortable.

Enter Phillips, who led the Broncos in sacks this season after the team’s original plans up front on defense took a few hits along the way. There was the fax fiasco with Elvis Dumervil, there was Von Miller's six-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy to open the season, and there was Miller’s season-ending right knee injury in Houston last month.

Phillips closed out the regular season with 10 sacks, the third time he has hit the double-digit mark. He certainly delivered every bit the Broncos could have hoped for when they signed him to a one-year, $1 million deal during draft weekend last April.

Phillips facing his former team, the Chargers, adds a little spice for him in the Broncos’ playoff opener, and Denver needs him to regain his early season pace no matter what team is in front of him if their pass rush is going to be what they need it to be.

“For me, it doesn’t matter what team it is, it just happens that it’s the Chargers on the schedule," Phillips said. “But of course I’m excited -- it’s your old team. You always want to play against them. And they’re playing good football right now, so it’s going to be a great challenge for us, and it’s going to be a great challenge for them.”

Phillips, with an average of 48.3 snaps per game over the season’s first 10 games, had nine sacks in those games, including 2.5 in the season opener against the Baltimore Ravens and two in the win in Dallas. But the sacks didn’t come in the stretch drive, even with Miller in the lineup some of the time.

Phillips averaged 47.8 snaps per game over the final six games, and Phillips had one sack, against Rivers Dec. 12, in those six games.

Without Miller the Broncos might have to be a little more creative in their rush schemes, add a cornerback here, a safety there as they often choose to rush out of six- and seven-defensive back looks. And they certainly need players like Robert Ayers (5.5 sacks for the season, 4.5 of those in the first five games) and Malik Jackson (6.0 sacks) to be in the mix.

But many personnel executives believe Phillips will be the key moving forward, especially if the Broncos do move on past Phillips' former team.

“Yeah, it’s definitely a chip on my shoulder,’’ Phillips said. “I think I’ve had good games both times we played them. I always want to play well every game. Again, for me, it’s no hard feelings, because they’re a great organization. They brought me in, they drafted me and they treated me well. So I’m not saying anything negative at all. But of course, anytime you play against your old team, you always have a little chip on your shoulder, a little extra edge to get after them. And that is what’s going to happen .. It’s all about who wins now, who plays better now. We’re up for the challenge. We’re looking forward to it.”

Stat bonuses at stake for many players

December, 29, 2013
Multiple teams have plenty of incentives on the final Sunday of the regular season, but so do many players.

Seattle Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril needs two sacks to get to 10 on the season and collect $350,000.

Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett needs 2.5 sacks to get to 10 on the season and collect $200,000.

Green Bay Packers kicker Mason Crosby receives $800,000 if he makes 85 percent of his regular-season field goals. Heading into Sunday's game in Chicago, he sits at 88.6 percent.

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Elvis Dumervil needs 2.5 sacks to get to 12 and earn an additional $1 million.

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Ted Ginn needs six receptions to get to 40 this season and earn a $100,000 bonus.

Denver Broncos linebacker Shaun Phillips already has earned an $800,000 bonus for 10 sacks; if he gets two more Sunday, the bonus will jump to $1.2 million, and if he gets four sacks Sunday, the bonus will be $2 million.

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith needs to throw for 187 yards on Sunday to reach 3,500 for the season and achieve a $500,000 bonus. If he throws two touchdown passes on Sunday to get to 25 for the season, he’ll also earn another $500,000.

Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles needs 113 rushing yards Sunday to increase his salary by $300,000 for next season. He already earned a $300,000 increase because the Chiefs have qualified for the playoffs. But he can raise his bonus money to $600,000 by raising his season total to 1,400 rushing yards against the Chargers.
BALTIMORE -- As expected, quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice are both active for the Baltimore Ravens in Sunday's game against the New England Patriots.

Flacco (knee) and Rice (thigh) were listed as questionable on the injury report and were limited in Friday's practice.

This marks Flacco's 95th straight regular-season start, the third-longest current streak in the NFL behind Eli Manning (150) and Philip Rivers (128). Flacco, who reportedly sprained the MCL in his left knee, will wear a brace for the game.

Also, outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil is active after being added to the injury report Friday with an ankle injury. He leads the Ravens with 9.5 sacks.

Here's the Ravens' official inactive list: CB Asa Jackson, S Omar Brown, LB Albert McClellan, C Ryan Jensen, WR Deonte Thompson, DT Brandon Williams and TE Dallas Clark.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice were both listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the New England Patriots. Flacco (left knee) and Rice (thigh) were both limited in Friday's practice.

Flacco, injured Monday night, will wear a brace for Sunday's game. He hasn't missed a game in his six-year NFL career.

“He looked good," Harbaugh said of Flacco. "[He] got through all the practices, took his reps and did well.”

Rice missed Wednesday's practice, but he participated Thursday and Friday. He was sidelined earlier this year with a hip injury.

Asked if Rice's thigh injury is related to the hip one, Harbaugh said, “You know I’m not going to get into all of that. He’s on the injury report -- that’s what it is. What the injury report says it is, it is.”

Outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil was added to the injury report Friday after being limited in practice. He was listed with an ankle injury, which forced him to miss a game two weeks ago.

Here is the complete injury report for the Ravens:

Doubtful: CB Asa Jackson (thigh, did not practice Friday).

Questionable: QB Joe Flacco (knee, limited in practice); RB Ray Rice (thigh, limited); LB Elvis Dumervil (ankle, limited); and LB Albert McClellan (neck, did not practice).

Probable: TE Dallas Clark (illness, full participation); S Brynden Trawick (ankle, full participation).
Tom Brady  and Joe Flacco AP PhotoSunday's matchup between the Patriots and Ravens has playoff implications for both teams.
Whenever the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens meet, there is always something at stake. Sunday's clash at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium, a rematch of the past two AFC Championship Games, is no different.

The Patriots (10-4), winners of three of their past four games, can clinch their fifth straight AFC East title with a win or a tie. The Ravens (8-6) can move one step closer to earning their sixth straight playoff berth with a victory, or they could watch their postseason hopes take a severe hit with a loss.

New England is the NFL's best team in December, winning 17 of its past 19 games in that month. The Ravens, however, are one of the best teams at home, posting a 39-8 record (.830) at M&T Bank Stadium since 2008. NFL reporters Mike Reiss (Patriots) and Jamison Hensley (Ravens) break down the showdown between these AFC powers:

Jamison Hensley: Mike, everyone knows the impact the loss of Rob Gronkowski has had on the Patriots' red zone offense. How will Tom Brady and the Patriots turn it around inside the 20-yard line?

Mike Reiss: Jamison, they were 1-for-4 in the red zone against the Dolphins, and now they go up against one of the NFL's best red zone defenses. That's not a great formula. One way to look at it is that if rookie receiver Josh Boyce holds on to one makeable catch in the end zone on third down in the first quarter, and the Patriots cap off the comeback like they had in prior weeks with Danny Amendola making a tough catch in the end zone on the final drive, we wouldn't even be talking about this. Instead, we'd be talking about their late-game magic. Then again, if tight end Michael Hoomanawanui didn't make a remarkable one-handed grab in the end zone for a 13-yard score, they might have been 0-for-4. So it's just a reminder that the margin for error is thin, which is also what the red zone is all about.

As for the Ravens, how are they doing it? To go from possibly out of the playoffs to a chance to win the AFC North with two wins to close out the season? Give us a feel for how this has happened.

Hensley: The Ravens have been riding a strong defense, kicker Justin Tucker and Joe Flacco's late-game heroics to get back into the playoff race. To be honest, I had written off the Ravens after they lost at Cleveland in the beginning of November. But this team has fought back to win four straight and are playing with more confidence than at any point this season. There has been a lot of criticism that Flacco hasn't lived up to his $120.6 million contract. While he'll never put up the elite quarterback numbers, he finds ways to win. His four game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime this season is second only to Brady. And Flacco has led a game-winning drive the past two games. He is banged up right now after taking a hit to his knee in Detroit on "Monday Night Football."

This could lead the Ravens to run the ball more with Ray Rice. He has struggled all season but has shown some signs of being more productive over the past two games. The Ravens might want to try to attack the NFL's 31st-ranked run defense as well. What's been the biggest problem for the Patriots in stopping the run this year?

Reiss: A strong run defense is usually a staple of a Bill Belichick-coached team, but this year is different. A significant factor has been season-ending injuries to starting defensive tackles Vince Wilfork (Sept. 29, Achilles) and Tommy Kelly (Oct. 6, knee) and every-down linebacker Jerod Mayo (Oct. 13, pectoral muscle). That's a direct hit at the heart of a run defense, right up the middle, sort of like a baseball team losing its top pitcher, catcher and shortstop. Since that point, they've had to scheme around things; this staff has been coaching its tails off and the players have been doing their best while sometimes being asked to do things outside of their comfort zone. The other part of it is situational. For example, against Peyton Manning and the Broncos on Nov. 24, they played a sub defense the entire game and Denver was content to run against it and put up big numbers. That was a case where the Patriots gave up something (run defense) to gain something (better pass defense), which is what they've had to do this year because of the key losses.

Let's get back to Tucker a little bit, because I think it's a fascinating story. Patriots fans obviously remember Billy Cundiff from the AFC Championship in the 2011 season. Tell us more about Tucker and what he's done to become such an integral part of the team in replacing Cundiff the last two years. His postgame interview on "Monday Night Football" was one of the classics.

Hensley: Tucker has been the Ravens' Most Valuable Player. When you're saying a kicker is the MVP, you're usually not talking about a team contending for the playoffs. And the Ravens wouldn't have the hottest kicker in the NFL right now if not for that memorable -- or is that forgettable? -- miss by Cundiff in the AFC Championship Game. That led the Ravens to have an open competition at training camp the following year. Tucker clearly won the battle and hasn't tailed off since. What separates Tucker from other young kickers is his ability to convert in the clutch. He has six game-winning kicks in 30 career games. His confidence borders on being cocky, and he isn't afraid to show off swagger. Not too many kickers dance after making field goals. But that confidence has been big for the Ravens. Before that 61-yarder on "Monday Night Football," he went up to coach John Harbaugh and said: "I got this."

Speaking of confidence, what's the state of mind for these Patriots compared to past Pats teams at this time of the year? The Patriots are still fighting for a top seed, but there seems to be a lot of doubt nationally because of the close calls with Houston and Cleveland in addition to the loss at Miami.

Reiss: This Patriots team isn't short on confidence, but as Brady said, it's a club that doesn't have a lot of margin for error. They can beat anyone in the NFL, but also lose to any team in the NFL. To sum it up, this is a resilient team that has been hit hard by injuries to key players, and they fight and claw for 60 minutes, so if a team is going to beat them it's going to have to be a knockout. With two weeks remaining in the season, the Patriots are still in play for a first-round bye but also could face a Week 17 scenario where they need to win to even qualify for the playoffs. That's reflective of how this season has unfolded for them -- a lot of close calls that could have gone either way.

With the amount of turnover on defense, how have the Ravens been able to sustain on that side of the ball?

Hensley: The defense has been very good this season, ranking in the top 10 in yards allowed (ninth), points given up (seventh), third downs (third) and red zone (fourth). Without Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, this is a different defense but not an inexperienced one. Daryl Smith has played better than Lewis did last season, making an impact against the pass as well as the run. Outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil has been an upgrade over Paul Kruger. Cornerback Jimmy Smith has gone from a first-round disappointment to the team's best defensive back. If this defense wants to be great, it has to find a way to finish better. Over the past three games, the Ravens have allowed four touchdowns in the final three minutes. That challenge is heightened when going against Brady, one of the NFL's best comeback kings.

Elvis Dumervil is active for Ravens

December, 16, 2013
DETROIT -- Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil is active after being listed as questionable with an ankle injury.

Dumervil was inactive last week, ending his streak of 44 games played. He leads the Ravens with 9.5 sacks.

Tight end Dallas Clark is also active after being scratched last week. Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson are also active, which means the Ravens are going with three tight ends for one of the few times in recent months.

Here's the Ravens' complete inactive list: RB Bernard Scott, WR Deonte Thompson, C Ryan Jensen, LB John SImon, DT Brandon Williams, S Brynden Trawick and S Omar Brown.

Ravens look to end sack drought

December, 16, 2013
DETROIT -- The Baltimore Ravens are looking to end a two-game sack drought Monday night against the Detroit Lions.

Not being able to bring down the quarterback is surprising for the Ravens, who had posted at least one sack in the previous 22 games. That tied a franchise record.

Now, the Ravens haven't recorded a sack since Elvis Dumervil ended the 19-3 win over the New York Jets with a sack of Geno Smith. It's a drought of 82 pass attempts without one. It's been a longer stretch for linebacker Terrell Suggs, who has gone five games without a sack.

But defensive coordinator Dean Pees believes the pass rush is making an impact.

"I think you’d be surprised how many times we actually hit the quarterback," Pees said. "When you watch the film, we may not be getting a sack if the ball is coming out quick, and there’s no way a guy can do that. If he can’t get there in time, he can’t get there in time if the ball is coming out quick. But you’re also getting what you want by the ball coming out quick. We’re getting quite a few hits."

There have been other factors in the Ravens' lack of sacks recently. The Ravens had trouble bringing down Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger two games ago and had difficulty getting to Minnesota's Matt Cassel last week because of the snowy field.

It's going to be another challenge for the Ravens to get a sack Monday night, based on the Lions' statistics. Matthew Stafford has been sacked just 15 times in 13 games. It's the fewest sacks on a quarterback who has thrown at least 300 passes this season.

Elvis Dumervil returns to practice

December, 13, 2013
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil returned to practice Friday for the first time since injuring his ankle Nov. 28.

Dumervil, the Ravens' leader in sacks, was limited in practice along with cornerback Lardarius Webb (abs) and safety Brynden Trawick (ankle). Everyone else on the Ravens had full participation in practice.

The Ravens, who play the Detroit Lions on Monday night, will give their official designations (doubtful, questionable and probable) Saturday. Dumervil, Webb and Trawick are expected to be listed as questionable.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil hopes to return to practice Friday after being sidelined again Thursday with an ankle injury.

"I’m going to try and go out with the guys, get some work in," Dumervil said. "We’ve got a good team in Detroit, so I have to make sure I’m ready."

Dumervil, the team's leader in sacks, missed his first game last Sunday, ending a streak of 44 straight games played. He didn't practice all of last week, and was the only Ravens player not to suit up Thursday.

"It's definitely gotten better," Dumervil said. "The strength is getting there. Just working man, trying to continue to work on my conditioning and really strengthen that ankle to get me to a point where I can tolerate it."

Dumervil injured his ankle Nov. 28 in a win against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but returned to finish the game. He described it as "an unusual ankle sprain."

"It's sort of a bruise [and] strain," Dumervil said. "That's why it's kind of awkward. You feel things from different areas, but I'm getting better."

Here's the complete injury report for the Ravens:

Did not practice: LB Elvis Dumervil (ankle)

Limited participation: S Brynden Trawick (ankle), CB Lardarius Webb (abs).
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, 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.

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.