RAVENS INSIDE SKINNY: Next man up? Next man out?

Lombardi's Way RAVENS INSIDE SKINNY: Next man up? Next man out?

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Torrey Smith made a huge splash in his first start collecting 5 catches for 152 yards and 3 TD’s plus a 10 yard run to boot.  The Ravens coaching staff was confident that they could exploit a suspect Rams secondary even without Lee Evans. The plan couldn’t have been executed with more precision. Not only did the vertical presence of Smith open up the intermediate routes and the running game, the rookie’s performance is now on tape and that forces opposing defensive coordinators to account for him, possibly with more than one defender.

Smith is said to be one of the team’s hardest working players and his plus character is off the charts. While the team still expects the typical highs and lows of a rookie WR in the NFL, coaches are impressed with the way Smith attacks a ball in flight.

The emergence of Smith from the embers of a flame set by critical fans and media could parlay into more space for Lee Evans and that could be a difference maker this week against a stout Jets secondary. The Ravens are likely to target the coverage assignments of Antonio Cromartie and Kyle Wilson. If Evans can go on Sunday night the Jets’ secondary will be fully engaged by the Ravens 3 receiver sets and that could free up the athletic Ed Dickson who will probably draw the attention of 5’8” Jim Leonhard. We define that as a mismatch.

Some within Ravens headquarters want to rest Evans through the bye week while others believe that his presence will help create passing opportunities for QB Joe Flacco on Sunday Night Football in America. Evans’ injury isn’t one that is structurally threatening. It really just boils down to pain tolerance. The bet here is that Evans plays enough to make the Jets take notice but he’ll be limited.

Team insiders have been impressed by Joe Flacco’s developing confidence and his maturation as a leader. Word is that at least some of the big strike attempts made by the Ravens in St. Louis were Flacco’s choices while at the line of scrimmage. (I guess audibles aren’t overrated after all). This coupled with Joe’s post game comments centering upon the importance of an attack mentality in the NFL helps morph a once seemingly fearful offense into a fearless one.

That doesn’t mean that Cam Cameron’s unit is without weakness. Michael Oher continues to put the offense at a disadvantage with costly penalties. His move to right tackle was supposed to help temper the miscues. So far they haven’t although that said, Oher has played better on the right side. It will be interesting to see what the Ravens decide to do during the 2012 offseason about the left tackle position. Either way there will be questions. Will Jah Reid and Oher duke it out for the right tackle slot in ’12? Will they bring back Bryant McKinnie or will they lean on the draft for a new left tackle? Keep in mind the team needs to get younger at linebacker and they will probably need to replace Ben Grubbs who is expected to command a paycheck that the Ravens are unlikely to sign.

Criticisms have been directed towards Tom Zbikowski for what seems to be a lack of big playmaking ability. Count me among the critics. Word is though that the coaching staff trusts Zibby a bit more to stay true to his assignments than Bernard Pollard at this time and that gives defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano a little more flexibility in his play calling. While the team likes Haruki Nakamura, there is concern that his frame isn’t up to the physicality required to start at that position. Unless the play of both Zibby and Pollard falls dramatically over the next 4-5 weeks (the expected return timetable for Nakamura) look for the former Cincinnati Bearcat to be relegated to nickel and dime packages along with his important role on special teams upon his return.

And while we’re on the subject of the team’s secondary, don’t look for Domonique Foxworth to be much of a contributor any time soon. Foxworth’s knee continues to be problematic. You have to wonder how long it will be before the Ravens simply shut him down for the season. (After posting this it was announced that Foxworth was placed on IR. His roster spot has been taken by Prescott Burgess.)

The play of Lardarius Webb and the expected return of Jimmy Smith following the team’s bye in Week 5 might help motivate such a roster move. Webb has been one of the team’s surest tacklers and he’s supported the run better than any member of the secondary – by far. His technique continues to improve as well. Webb makes plays and if Cary Williams becomes a good player and Jimmy Smith is what the Ravens believe him to be, don’t be shocked to see Webb line up at safety at some point in time in certain sub packages.

A lot has been made of Sergio Kindle’s inability to be among the active players so far this season. Critics will say that he’s just not good enough while supporters will argue that he’s improving but in order to be active he has to contribute on “teams” and that has to happen on the practice field. Albert McClellan seems to be the player standing in Kindle’s way and the solid play from Paul Kruger does little for the former Longhorn’s chances as a situational pass rusher. Maybe the inactivity isn’t necessarily a knock on Kindle but a credit to the guys in front of him.

Back to Kruger for a moment, don’t be surprised if he chips away at Jarret Johnson’s playing time particularly if opponents take to the air more frequently. Kruger is a better pass rusher than JJ and has shown an ability to drop into zones in coverage. If Kruger’s development continues, JJ could be another of those Ravens favorites who move on much like Messrs. McGahee, Gregg, Heap and Mason did this past offseason.

The Ravens were not very impressed with the play of the Steelers on opening day. That’s not to say that they will take the regular AFC North Champion lightly but some insiders were surprised by how easily the Ravens pushed around both of the Steelers lines.  Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel are all players who appear to be losing the battle with Father Time and that has affected the productivity of the dangerous outside tandem of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.

On offense the men tasked with protected Ben Roethlisberger are in tatters and it calls into question their collective ability to keep their signal caller healthy and their ability to create space for RB Rashard Mendenhall. And from what I’m hearing, there are some who genuinely believe that the Steelers recovery from these decaying trends could take a couple of seasons.


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Tony Lombardi

About Tony Lombardi

Tony is 24x7 Networks, LLC's founder (the parent of EutawStreetReport.com and RussellStreetReport.com) His work has been featured on various sports websites and he is a regular guest on 105.7 The Fan and he hosts "The Fanimal" also heard on 105.7 The Fan, Saturdays from 8-9AM. Among his favorite things in life are his wife, kids, family, friends, The Beatles, Breaking Bad, Gladiator, The Godfather, Guinness, orange crushes, meatballs and Key West, not necessarily in that order. Follow Tony on Twitter @RSRLombardi. More from Tony Lombardi


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