Ravens outside linebackers continue to improve

September 28, 2012|Mike Preston

Buried under the Ravens allowing 357 yards of total offense to the Cleveland Browns, including 320 yards passing by rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden, was a bright spot.

No, we're not talking about cornerback Cary Williams' 63-yard interception return for a touchdown. When teams throw at you 40 times in four games, you should pick off at least one.

But how about those outside linebackers?

That was a major area of concern going into the season and it appears as a group they have gotten better each game. After Thursday night's win over the Browns, the Ravens might have settled on a rotation using rookie Courtney Upshaw and second-year player Albert McClellan against the run, and bringing in fourth-year player Paul Kruger in passing situations.

Both Upshaw and McClellan have been able to set the edge on running plays and Kruger got some pressure on Weeden. The Ravens' defense is a work in progress, and the team might have found some answers.

Also, fourth-year inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe might be the best linebacker on the team right now. He provides good coverage in passing situations and has gotten pressure when blitzing.

In the future, it wouldn't be surprising to see Ellerbe in on more first-down plays.

Defensive needs

I've been mentioning this for several years, but maybe general manager Ozzie Newsome now will pay more attention.

Instead of drafting or signing defensive linemen who specialize in stopping the run, the Ravens need to get linemen who can play against both the run and the pass. It's hard to find those players, of course, but the New York Giants always do.

If the NFL has become a passing league, then it would make sense to get long, lean linemen who can get up field instead of one-dimensional players in the mold of Tony Siragusa.

After watching the first four games, tackle Haloti Ngata appears to be the only complete lineman on the team. Second-year player Pernell McPhee has potential.

For the rest of the season, the Ravens' only hope for a consistent pass rush is through defensive coordinator Dean Pees' creative schemes and blitzes.

Pierce plays well

The Browns weren't ready for the style of rookie running back Bernard Pierce. They were used to seeing starter Ray Rice, who is shiftier than Pierce.

Pierce would be the perfect back for the downhill running style of the Denver Broncos. It's one cut, hit the hole and go. Pierce had 48 yards on six carries against the Browns, while Rice carried 18 times for 49 yards.

"He had a great night, he came in and gave me a spell and found the holes," Rice said about Pierce. "They opened the defense up and he found the holes that I couldn't find when I was in there. He did a great job of running the ball. We didn't get the total yardage we wanted as running backs. But when he was in there he gave me a nice blow, and gave us a nice burst to get the ball down the field."

Pollard not 100 percent

Ravens safety Bernard Pollard hasn't had much of a physical presence since bruising his rib in the second game against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Before the injury, Pollard was one of the Ravens' hardest hitters, and he frequently stayed near the line of scrimmage on running plays.

Pollard appears to have backed off since the injury, but he had four tackles against the Browns.

Offensive line weaknesses

When the Ravens face teams with speed rushers on the outside, the offensive line will struggle. Rookie right tackle Kelechi Osemele doesn't have enough foot speed to be effective, and Michael Oher lacks the proper physique (long torso and long arms) to offset the speed.

Both the Browns and Eagles gave the Ravens problems, and left guard Ramon Harewood got schooled by the Browns on a stunt or two.

Penalty problem

Harbaugh said he couldn't tell if his team was a little tired from playing four games in 18 days, but they had 11 penalties for 100 yards.

To me, that's a focus problem, the result of fatigue.

Learning from mistakes

Kruger said Browns left tackle Joe Thomas flopped near the end of the game during their confrontation, which allowed the Browns one more play.

I don't think Harbaugh made a big deal out of the situation with Kruger on Friday morning, but I bet he got his point across.

"That's always something, as a football coach, I think you have to look at," Harbaugh said. "Sometimes, the smallest thing is going to be misinterpreted, maybe in your eyes, and you just have to walk away from everything. You walk away from everything in that kind of situation. He knows that."

He knows now.

Recognizing his role

Receiver Torrey Smith is emerging as a star in the offense, but he knows his place. Despite two strong efforts in the past two games, he gave respect to veteran Anquan Boldin, who had nine catches for 131 yards against Cleveland. Smith had six catches for 97 yards.

"Oh, yeah, I love watching Anquan play," Smith said. "He's a dominant player and a great mentor, so I look up to him as a person and a player. It's a pleasure just playing beside him. He's our top receiver and we all feed off of him, and I think that helps us out a lot when he's touching the ball."

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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