OWINGS MILLS – The Baltimore Ravens aren’t giving up hope yet that offensive tackle Jared Gaither might be able to play this year with coach John Harbaugh saying there remains a chance he could return from his upper back injury in the next few weeks.
However, Gaither told Harbaugh on Friday that he’s still experiencing sharp pains in the middle of his back due to his thoracic disc injury suffered during the first week of training camp.
If Gaither can’t return in the next few weeks, the Ravens will probably have to place the 6-foot-9, 330-pounder on injured reserve.
"We’re just keeping our fingers crossed right now," Harbaugh said . "There is a chance he could get back some time in the next few weeks. If it’s longer than that, then we’ll have to make a decision.”
Gaither was carted off the field Aug. 5 and hasn’t practiced much since.
He has visited California back specialist Dr. Robert Watkins twice and hasn’t been medically cleared to resume playing football.
“Backs are tough,” Harbaugh said. “There’s not an agreement among the doctors about what exactly it is and it’s very vague with what they’re telling us, which is probably true with backs. I’m confident he is working hard to get back and I’m confident that the doctors are trying to determine what the best way to get him back is."
Ideally, the Ravens would have liked to have deployed Gaither as their starting right tackle with Marshal Yanda playing his natural right guard spot.
Instead, the Ravens have played Yanda at right tackle with Chris Chester at right guard.
The Ravens’ decision with Gaither is complicated by the fact that safety Ed Reed, special-teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo and running back Matt Lawrence are eligible to be active from the physically unable to perform list next week.
"Jared’s a really good player,” Harbaugh said. “He’s a quality offensive tackle. He can make our team better and we’re trying to get him back into the mix. I’ve said it before, but it’s even more evident to me that no one is more determined to come back and more frustrated with what’s going on than Jared."
RAVENS ATOP THE RANKINGS: The Ravens (4-1) are tied with the Atlanta Falcons and the Chicago Bears for the top record in the league.
And they’re atop the power rankings on various websites.
Are the Ravens flattered? Maybe.
Consumed with the rankings? Nope.
“We know how bogus it is,” Harbaugh said. “The same guys that have got us up there this week had us way down there two or three weeks ago. We don’t care. It’s irrelevant to us. We just think it’s all hot air. ..
“Anytime they’re saying nice things about you, we’re very wary. We like it when you don’t say nice things about us. We like to read that. That’s motivational.”
Now, the Ravens are set to square off with the New England Patriots are steamrolling them, 33-14, in the playoffs.
"The last one, those are the ones you kind of remember," Patriots coach Bill Belichick told reporters. "I think we’ve moved on from all those and now we have a chance to play that team again. It’s a new matchup, a new game, but, hopefully, we can learn from some of the things that happened in that game."
Under the direction of Belichick, the Patriots have gone 8-2 after regular-season byes.
It has been eight years since the Patriots lost a game after a bye, a credit to Belichick’s ability to devise a game plan when he has the time to plot a winning strategy.
"They have a proven track record after the bye," Harbaugh said. "That’s something we’ll be bucking up against and we’ll be looking forward to it."
The Ravens are confident, though, that they’ve got the kind of team to compete with anyone.
"We feel like we have a pretty special team here," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "We’ve got to continue to progress and do some better things out there week to week, and I think that’s what we’re really showing right now."
NOT DONE WITH NGATA: Despite Flacco getting sacked on fourth down at the Broncos’ one-yard line and Haloti Ngata nearly hurting his knee, the Ravens aren’t done experimenting with the Pro Bowl defensive tackle on offense.
“It makes you hold your breath for a second, but I don’t think it really changes the way you think because you already knew there was a risk there,” Harbaugh said. “It just kind of draws everybody’s attention to it. As a coach, you can’t get scared away by public perception. I’m not going to get intimidated by the fact that the fans are going to say, ‘Lardarius Webb got hurt on special teams. He should never play special teams.’
“Well, you can think that, but we’ve got to put 11 good players out there on every single play in order to win that play because that play might be the play that makes a difference in the game, and that’s just the way football is. ..The bottom line is, you’re trying to win every play. You balance that against the risk of injury and what he means to the other side of the ball.”
Harbaugh said it was his call to go for the touchdown instead of settling for three points on a chip-shot field goal.
“That was my decision to go for it on fourth down,” Harbaugh said. “So I blew that one as far as not getting the three.”
INJURY UPDATE: Harbaugh downplayed cornerback Josh Wilson’s hamstring injury, saying he doesn’t believe it’s a serious one.
“I hope it’s a short-term injury,” Harbaugh said. “It’s not a major hamstring pull or anything like that. So, we’ll just have to see how it goes this week.”
Meanwhile, Harbaugh explained why the Ravens inserted Wilson as the kickoff returned ahead of Jalen Parmele.
Wilson averaged 20 yards on three kickoff returns.
Parmele had averaged 23 yards a quarter-way through the season.
“It was just kind of an idea to get a spark and try something,” Harbaugh said. “Josh has looked good in practice. He’s getting a feel for the schemes. I think a lot of times, it’s less about the returner on the kickoff return than it is about the blocking because you’ve got to create some space and get a guy going. I think both of those guys have done a good job, and we’re just looking for a big play.”
NOT INTERESTED: The Ravens aren’t planning to pursue outside linebacker Antwan Barnes, who was cut over the weekend by the Philadelphia Eagles.
Barnes is a fairly one-dimensional player who’s a good pass rusher, but doesn’t excel against the run or on special teams.
“I haven’t had a conversation with him,” Harbaugh said. “We don’t really have a roster opportunity right now for that. We wouldn’t be opposed to it.
“Antwan’s a good person, a good player. Obviously, he’s done some good things here. But, right now, there’s no way roster-wise we could pull that off.”
QUICK HITS: With 11 touchbacks, Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff is tied with Indianapolis Colts kickoff specialist Pat McAfee for the most in the NFL. “It’s a big advantage,” Harbaugh said. “I think we are covering well, but the kicker has had a lot to do with that. He’s kicked them deep in the end zone. They’ve brought them out. It messes up the timing of the kick return, and we’ve had a bunch of touchbacks, which are automatically at the 20-yard line. So, I can’t say enough about what Billy has done with that. Now, as the weather gets colder, there’s going to be fewer and fewer of those, and we’re going to have to cover better and better.”… After ranking first in penalty yards last season, the Ravens have drawn the most penalties from opponents this season. "In all honesty, I think our guys understand how to play better than ever before," Harbaugh said. "I think we’re playing with composure, playing with technique and attention to detail. And the big ones, holding, defensive pass interference, I think we’ve done a good job with that and maybe some other teams haven’t. And the other thing is, I think we’ve put pressure on people. The speed of the game, the pressure you bring, sometimes they have to grab you to cover you." … Flacco has been sacked just five times, and the Ravens rank second in the NFL in fewest sacks allowed. "When you build your team, you start in the trenches," Harbaugh said. "If you can’t win in the trenches, you can’t win." .. Playing the Ravens was a costly game for the Broncos, who have ruled out five players for this week. That includes safety Brian Dawkins (knee) and linebacker Robert Ayers (foot).