Inside the Ravens with Aaron Wilson

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Key Ravens ailing, Mason steps up for Harbaugh

OWINGS MILLS — Nose guard Kelly Gregg and tight end L.J. Smith will be sidelined at least for the Baltimore Ravens’ preseason game Saturday against the Carolina Panthers due to injuries suffered Monday night against the New York Jets. Gregg has suffered a shoulder injury that isn’t regarded as serious, but it triggered some initial concern from the team. His work may be limited for the remainder of the preseason as a precautionary measure.Gregg underwent a magnetic resonance imaging exam Tuesday, and the imaging didn’t reveal any significant damage. The Ravens are confident that Gregg will definitely be back in time for the season-opener against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sept. 13.

"We had a little bit of a scare with Kelly because we weren’t sure exactly what it was, and it turned out to be just kind of a nagging deal," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "As you get older, those things get a little sore. So, he’s going to be OK. He’s going to be fine.

“We’re going to be smart with him through the rest of the preseason. He’s probably had plenty of reps. So, we’ll just kind of tune him up and get him ready for the regular season."

Meanwhile, the outlook isn’t as encouraging for Smith. He pulled his left hamstring.Smith was already dealing with an upper hamstring pull and a hip flexor problem, as well as the effects of a sports hernia procedure from earlier this offseason.Smith may not be back until the season opener, but is a question mark to play in any more preseason games. That includes the team’s preseason finale against the Atlanta Falcons on Sept. 3.

"It’s a concern," Harbaugh said. "It’s a hamstring pull. It’s going to take him a little while. I don’t know how long. You never know with those things. It’s in a different spot from the other one. What probably happened was, he had the hip flexor, the groin, the sports hernia, the upper hamstring. These things kind of compensate and tie into one another.

"He’s been working incredibly hard to try to get it right, and he’s going to have to continue to do that. He’s down about it. I told him, ‘Don’t get down about it.’ It’s a long season, and we’re going to need him to be a really good player for us, and we’ve got to get him ready hopefully for Atlanta. And, if not Atlanta, Kansas City."

Meanwhile, wide receiver Mark Clayton unexpectedly returned to practice after working out on his own during training camp to rehabilitate his strained left hamstring. It’s unknown whether Clayton will play Saturday.At the time of the injury, Harbaugh said that it had significant internal bleeding. Clayton has said he expects to be back possibly for the last preseason game, and definitely for the Chiefs game.

Depth is thin at offensive tackle with Oniel Cousins wearing a protective boot after spraining his right ankle Monday. However, Cousins insisted that he’s going to play against Carolina."I was blocking somebody and I just kind of went the wrong way, and it got twisted," Cousins said. "Hopefully, I’ll be ready by game time."

Cornerback Samari Rolle, who underwent neck surgery last season, remains on the physically unable to perform list."I’ve heard nothing," Harbaugh said. "Hopefully, he’ll be able to play."Not practicing in addition to Gregg, Smith, Cousins and Rolle: right offensive guard Chris Chester (strained right calf), linebackers Terrell Suggs (heel, strained left Achilles’ tendon) and Dannell Ellerbe (sprained right medial collateral ligament), offensive tackle Stefan Rodgers (sprained right foot) and wide receiver Biren Ealy (groin).Ellerbe is no longer wearing a brace and has increased his agility drills.

Offensive tackle Adam Terry proclaimed his recent microfracture surgery on his right knee as a success, indicating that he’s on schedule to play next season."It feels pretty good," he said. "It’s a little different protocol from what Kelly Gregg had. I can bend my leg, and I have pretty good range of motion. I just can’t put any weight on it."Terry is on crutches.Offensive guard Marshal Yanda, who tore three knee ligaments last season, saw his first playing time since the injury. He participated in seven snaps without incident."It was good to get back out there and get a feel for it," Yanda said. "It felt normal. It felt great, no pain, just like practice has been gong. Just knocking the rust off and getting back out there."Offensive lineman David Hale (bruised shoulder) said he’ll play this weekend

TAKING THE HIGH ROAD: Two days after former Ravens linebacker Bart Scott declared that Jets coach and former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan was really the head coach in Baltimore last season, Harbaugh didn’t add fuel to the fire.

"We don’t have any rearview mirrors in our car," Harbaugh said.

Scott doesn’t sound like he was much of a Harbaugh fan.

"Rex was the head coach of that football team last year, whether you guys know it or not," Scott said. "He kept that team together. The defense leads that team over there, and he controls the defense."

Wide receiver Derrick Mason seemed amused by Scott’s remarks, and denied that Ryan was running the team.

"You can never tell what’s going to come out of Bart’s mouth," Mason said. "They give the head coaching tag to one coach and that was coach Harbaugh. We respect Rex when he was here and he did a tremendous job with the defense."I’m pretty sure he had some input with what was going on, but there is only one captain that can control the ship and that was Harbaugh. If he was the head coach, he surprised me. I should have been going to him instead of going to Harbaugh."

QUICK HITS: Harbaugh indicated that the Ravens haven’t ruled out the possibility of veteran kicker Matt Stover, but the team seems to prefer that either Steve Hauschka or Graham Gano claim the job so that they don’t have to use a roster spot for a kickoff specialist. "We’re hopeful and I think everyone that is a Ravens fan should be hopeful that one of these two guys can do it because if one of these two guys can do it, that’s one more player we get to keep," Harbaugh said. ... Director of player development O.J. Brigance, who is bravely battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, will be saluted during a fundraiser at M&T Bank Stadium on Sept. 29 during his 40th birthday. The benefit is called "Two Rings for O.J," and signup information is available at ... Offensive guard Bryan Mattison, who played defensive end at Iowa and on the practice squad last season, played on the defensive line during the fourth quarter Monday. "It was fun," he said. "I’m glad I had a chance to do that, but I’m an offensive player now. I’m a little bit rusty." ... Mason wore the No. 9 again in practice to honor the memory of the late former Ravens and Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair, his close friend and former teammate.

Photo by Sabina Moran

Hot competition brewing between young Ravens LB's

OWINGS MILLS -- Baltimore Ravens inside linebacker Jameel McClain was trailing the play Monday night, and he was clearly caught off guard as the spiral from Mark Sanchez sailed over his helmet into the hands of speedy New York Jets running back Leon Washington.

Disgusted with himself after allowing the 19-yard touchdown pass, McClain was counseled by All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis to keep his head in the game.

Minutes after surrendering the touchdown, McClain redeemed himself by jumping in front of wide receiver Brad Smith to intercept a Kellen Clemens pass and scoot 16 yards into the end zone for a touchdown.

Just like Tavares Gooden, who's slated to replace Bart Scott as the inside linebacker next to Lewis, McClain atones quickly for any mistakes of youthful inexperience.

Any reactions on the field from the second-year linebackers, good or bad, tend to be aggressive and fast.

"They're both pretty good," veteran defensive end Trevor Pryce said. "They're good young players, fast and strong. They're Ravens’ linebackers."

Although there appeared to be significant confusion on the coverage as there was a lot of pointing fingers prior to the snap about where to line up, McClain refused to make excuses about giving up the score.

"It was definitely something going on, but, at the end of the day, it's my fault," McClain said. "I've got to be a leader and get everything done. It doesn't matter who's at fault. It's my job to stay on it. It doesn't matter what happened communication-wise.

"My mindset is, he scored. I'm like, 'Dang, you don't want no one to score on the Ravens.’ I don't want to be a weak link, so that went out of my head. Definitely, some good things jumped out on film. Obviously, there's that one play. Other than that, I liked what I saw."

A short memory is an admirable trait that should serve McClain well as he makes his bid to push Gooden for playing time on the first-string defense one year after making the team as an undrafted free agent and recording a franchise-record two safeties.

McClain didn't dwell on the miscue or hang his head on the sidelines. Instead, he was intent on exacting some revenge on the Jets' offense.

"It was good to put the six points back on the board," McClain said. "I got a chance to redeem myself. It's not often that you get that opportunity."

McClain wound up finishing with a game-high eight tackles, including six solo stops. He also led the team with two special-teams tackles.

Meanwhile, Gooden was equally impressive.

Gooden dashed into the backfield untouched to corral Sanchez for his first NFL sack in the second quarter, wrapping him up as whistles blew for a six-yard loss.

The former third-round draft pick from the University of Miami also recorded five tackles.

Gooden flashed his 4.5 speed in the 40-yard dash on the sack, rapidly gaining ground to overtake Sanchez before he could get the football out of his hands.

"I wanted to get a big hit on him, but he was running backwards," Gooden said. "I had to grab onto him. It felt great to make plays. It felt like college again. It's all timing.

"Without the defensive line, the sack wouldn't be possible Those guys do a great job of opening up space for fast guys to penetrate. It felt good to make a big play out here and do it on Monday night and get my first NFL sack."

Between Gooden and McClain, the Ravens seem to be fortified inside in the wake of Bart Scott signing a $48 million contract this offseason with the Jets after spending seven seasons in Baltimore.

"I think what we’re finding out is we have a good, young linebacking group, no doubt about it," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said when asked about Gooden and McClain. "The guys you mentioned are both quality players, and there are some other guys that are playing well, too.

"You can go right down the line in our linebacking group and look at, I don’t know what the number is, 10 guys that could make our team, that could make anybody’s team. So, that’s a deep group.”

The Ravens haven't officially declared that Gooden has won the job, but he has started both preseason games.

McClain is expected to get playing time behind Gooden, but it appears that Gooden will enter the season as the starter.

“It’s just two guys practicing hard and trying to make a contribution to this team," McClain said. “I don’t look at it as a battle or a competition. We're just out there having fun. We let other people worry about that stuff."

Gooden is an athletic former Florida state prep champion in the discus who also excelled in the long jump and high jump growing up in Fort Lauderdale.

Lean and muscular, Gooden spent the majority of last season on injured reserve after undergoing hip flexor and sports hernia surgeries.

Healthy again and down to 238 pounds at the coaches' request after bulking up to 247 pounds by May minicamps, Gooden is eager to prove himself.

Remaining injury-free is a paramount concern for Gooden.

"For me, it's all about durability," Gooden said. "They want to see me play and finish out this preseason strong."

Scott was an ultra-productive linebacker for the Ravens who was selected to one Pro Bowl after entering the league as an unheralded free agent from Southern Illinois.

There are extremely high expectations for Gooden to uphold the Ravens' rich linebacker tradition.

"I've never competed against Bart Scott," Gooden said. "He's Bart Scott. I'm Tavares Gooden. We're two different linebackers, two different players. I was never contesting or trying to be better than him.

"If people say I'm better than him, then that's up to them. Bart is a good friend of mine. I would never say I'm better than anybody else. All I want to do is live up to my potential and be the best I can be. If I can do that, then I'll be happy."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

Photo by Sabina Moran.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

RAVENS NOTEBOOK: Smith lost for season, Beck ok and more...

Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Marcus Smith is out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, a prognosis confirmed by a magnetic resonance imaging exam conducted Friday.

Smith is going to seek a second opinion, but is slated to eventually have season-ending surgery to repair the damage to his right knee with Dr. James Andrews expected to perform the procedure.

"It's a bummer," Kevin Omell, Smith's agent, said in a telephone interview. "Marcus is down about it, but he'll be back. It's a setback. It's just bad luck. He was really looking forward to getting an opportunity to step up and be productive. He figured this would be his year."

Smith injured his right knee while making a tackle on a punt return during the Ravens' 23 -0 preseason win over the Washington Redskins on Thursday night at M&T Bank Stadium.

Smith, a fourth-round pick from New Mexico last year, didn't catch a pass as a rookie. He was competing with Kelley Washington and Justin Harper for playing time behind Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams.

His absence will likely be felt on special teams as he was expected to contribute heavily on kick coverage.

"It's so unfortunate," Omell said. "Marcus' mom died during his senior year of college from an aneurysm. It was very sudden out of the blue. That was really tough on him.

"Marcus is a quiet guy who has been through a tremendous amount of adversity growing up in San Diego. The injury is a tough situation, but it doesn't amount to the other struggles he’s been through. Right now, he's just down because he worked very hard in the offseason."

With the loss of Smith and having cut Thomas White earlier this week, the Ravens are likely to seek some depth at wide receiver to fill out the roster.

Meanwhile, reserve quarterback John Beck received much more encouraging news about his injured throwing shoulder.

His MRI results revealed no torn ligaments or broken bones. At this point, the Ravens are planning to rest Beck for the next week or two to allow the shoulder muscles and ligaments to calm down.

Initially, Beck was concerned that he might have a torn labrum, a broken collarbone or an AC joint sprain. However, that's apparently not the case. Further tests may be performed.

"I don't think it's anything serious," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Thursday night.

WELCOME BACK: Wide receiver Derrick Mason got a warm greeting from the fans and Harbaugh during his first game since ending his brief retirement.

"Hey, if I forgot to mention to you, Mase, glad to have you back," Harbaugh told Mason following the second play of the game.

For Mason, it was a fun night all-around.

"It meant a whole bunch to hear it from the fans," Mason said. "It was more than a warm reception. They could have held it against me that I did retire. But I think they understand and appreciate what I do and they were happy to have me back.”

Mason reported no trouble with his dislocated middle index finger or his surgically-repaired labrum and scapula in his shoulder.

"The finger was fine, if it was a real game I would have just cut it off like Ronnie Lott," he said. "It didn't bother me at all. You hurt your finger and you wrap it up."

GETTING A LEG UP: The initial edge in the kicking competition went to Steve Hauschka.

He converted field goals from 21 and 37 yards.

Meanwhile, rookie Graham Gano missed a 28-yarder that struck the right upright as time expired after converting a 39-yarder earlier in the game. The snap was high on the final kick, throwing off the timing.

"Yeah, I should have made the kick regardless," said Gano, a Lou Groza Award winner from Florida State. "It was a short kick. If I had stayed down all the way through, it would have went in."

"I've already forgotten about that kick and I'll learn from it. It's better to have that miss now than in the future. I felt so calm. I just have to focus better and make the next one."

QUICK HITS: Tight end L.J. Smith caught a 35-yard pass during his first game in a Ravens uniform and didn't have any trouble with a nagging hamstring injury. "I didn't reaggravate it, but I still don't feel like I'm 100 percent," he said. "It felt great to catch a ball in a Ravens uniform and have the fans embrace me. I'm capable of doing a lot more. If they put me out there, I'm going to cause some problems for people." … Reacting to quarterback Michael Vick signing with the Philadelphia Eagles, running back Willis McGahee said: "I'm happy for him. He's got a lot of talent. You don't want to let it go to waste." ... Offensive tackle Jared Gaither sat out, but reported no setbacks to his left trapezius injury. "Just being careful with it," he said. "I could have played, but it's only the first preseason game." .. Derrick Martin intercepted a Colt Brennan pass during his first game at safety since his freshman year at Wyoming. "I was coming down to a tight end and I was able to just jump his route," Martin said. "We were in a good coverage for us." ... Rookie running back Cedric Peerman scored his first NFL touchdown on a seven-yard run in the fourth quarter. ... Backup strong safety Tom Zbikowski recorded a sack, a forced fumble and four tackles. "It feels good," he said. "It shows you what kind of depth we have on both sides of the ball, the kind of team that we have."

Friday, August 7, 2009

Army vet hopes combat experiences translates to battles on the field with Ravens

The bursts of ammunition fire, the explosions of bombs, the smoke and the extreme danger of a sand-strewn battlefield are no longer Tony Fein's daily reality.

Fein was a recon scout in the Army, an infantry man who was traditionally the first one to check out potential areas to attack or avoid before reporting back his findings to his commander. He was the eyes, ears and first line of defense for his unit.Shortly after graduating from high school, Fein's existence was defined by the mortal danger of combat. And he was entrusted with the grave importance of being responsible for his fellow soldiers' lives.

Now, the Iraq veteran is a 27-year-old undrafted rookie linebacker trying to make the Baltimore Ravens' roster."Being in the military really was a life-changing experience," Fein said. "It makes you grow up fast. It teaches you a lot about teamwork and doing your job. "It's kind of similar to football. Everyone has to do their exact job. It's the same thing in the military. The Army is the ultimate team, and that falls right in line with football."

The aggressive mentality and the rare awareness of playing linebacker come naturally to Fein, but the opportunity to step onto an NFL practice field certainly didn't.His road to the NFL has been an arduous, winding path filled with twists and turns.Fein enlisted in the Army at age 19 after graduating from high school in Port Orchard, Wash. He served in the Persian Gulf primarily as a Delta scout before being honorably discharged after a three-year enlistment.His goal was to earn some money to attend college after a short stint as a roofer.

In Iraq, Fein witnessed destruction as well as hungry people without the necessities most take for granted like electricity, food and running water."I thought the military would allow me to serve my country and see the world," Fein said. "It's been tough, but I wouldn't trade it for anything else. I love what the experience did for me.

“It means a lot to me. It really puts things in perspective. You take nothing for granted. It's part of my life that I'm very proud of."After his Army stint, Fein attended Scottsdale Community College (Ariz.), and emerged as a junior-college All-American selection.

Ranked second nationally at his position, Fein chose Ole Miss over Michigan State.The former high school quarterback finished second on the team in tackles as a junior, but was benched for a short period. Then, Fein was nearly booted off the team by new Rebels coach Houston Nutt before eventually winning over the coaching staff with his work ethic.

It was Fein who recorded a pivotal tackle in the Rebels' upset victory over then top-ranked Florida prior to a Cotton Bowl win over Texas Tech last season. Fein also won the Pat Tillman award, which is presented to a college athlete who has fought on a battlefield like the late Arizona Cardinals safety who was accidentally killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan.

However, Fein went undrafted after not being invited to the NFL scouting combine. At Ole Miss' campus Pro Day, Fein opened some eyes when he bench pressed 225 pounds 29 times, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.65 seconds and registered a vertical leap of 37 1/2 inches and a 10-1 broad jump.

"I think my Pro Day helped me to get my foot in the door here," Fein said. "Physically, I know I can compete at this level, but it's all about the mental game. I'm doing good, but I'm a little behind some of the other guys."

Fein was the only one from a group of 10 tryout players to be signed by the Ravens in June. Now, he faces an uphill climb to make the roster. Tough and physical, he has to harness his aggressiveness by honing his understanding of the game and instincts.

"We got him late in the offseason, so he was behind mentally," linebackers coach Vic Fangio said. "He's been behind mentally compared to the other guys because he hasn't had as many reps. "We've got him playing Mike and Will, and he's doing a good job of picking up the system. I think as he gets more comfortable in his assignments, he'll do even better. He's a very tough kid."

With heavily tattooed arms, the ink tells Fein's story.One has the words, "One life, one love, one shot," surrounding a picture of a football. Another has the saying, "Until I'm the best, until I know I'm the best, then and only then can I become civil again."

"They're just mottos that I live by," Fein said. "They're all meaningful to me."Very few of his teammates are aware of Fein's military experience except for offensive tackle Michael Oher and fullback Jason Cook, his former Ole Miss teammates and fellow Baltimore rookies."No one has really asked me to relive the Army stuff,” he said. “I'm just glad to be here.”

The rigors of training camp are a grind, but Fein views it all as a prime opportunity.

There’s nowhere else he would rather be than using his body as a battering ram on the practice fields at McDaniel College.

For Fein, playing in the NFL is yet another battle to be won.

"Football is a game, an important game," Fein said. "The military is life and death, but there are parallels. You work hard, you sweat, you get dirty. I have never forgotten that mentality because that's what got me here. "Being in the military let me know how important football was in my life. I want to make this time count, I want to make it last."

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Q&A: Ravens CB Domonique Foxworth

WESTMINSTER -- Baltimore Ravens starting cornerback Domonique Foxworth is one of the youngest NFL players to ever be voted onto the NFL Players Association executive committee and was instrumental in the election of new NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith.

The former University of Maryland standout also serves on the NFL’s player conduct advisory committee.

Signed to a four-year, $27.2 million contract that included $16.5 million in guaranteed money this offseason, Foxworth is a Randallstown native.

With NFL owners opting out of the collective bargaining agreement and a potential uncapped year in 2010 looming as well as a possible lockout in 2011, Foxworth discussed several league issues and his involvement in pending labor talks between the NFL management council and the players’ union with me in a recent interview:
A.W.: What was the initial meeting like that you attended in New York between DeMaurice Smith and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Foxworth: “I think it was productive. It’s very early. Obviously, no one knows what’s going to happen, but it’s clear that it’s to everybody’s benefit to have an open dialogue and talk about the issues.”

A.W.: In your opinion, what are some of the top issues?

Foxworth: “I think getting a deal is obviously our top goal and we’re exploring as many avenues as possible to make it easier to come to an agreement. Having the finances of the teams out in the open would be a much more fair way to negotiate. There aren’t many negotiations where some people have more information than others, so it’s rather unfair in that way.”

A.W.: How did you get involved in NFLPA business?

Foxworth: My first year in the league I hung around Rod Smith, who was the longtime players’ rep with the Denver Broncos. The next year, he made sure that I was the alternate rep and I got to go to all the meetings my second year and I got really involved and it progressed from that point to being on the executive committee.”

A.W.: What was your motivation in joining the committee?

Foxworth: “Obviously, I’m involved in this league and it’s important to me and my fellow players that I know what’s going on and I’m involved in the decisions that are in the best interests of the players and the league. There’s no other way to do that than to get involved rather than to be on the sideline and complain or be on the sidelines and try to take credit. This is the only way I know how to do something.”

A.W.: How much did the Harvard educational program for NFL players enrich you?

Foxworth: “It always helps when you get around smart people. In that type of environment and experience, there wasn’t one golden nugget that I took away to my life. But being a part of that helped me tremendously.”

A.W.: Did you meet your girlfriend, a Harvard Law School student, at that time?
Foxworth: “I knew her from my rookie year when she was a senior at Maryland. She is a super nerd. I am just a regular nerd. I try to be a closet nerd. I don’t want people to know that I know anything. The vast majority of the guys are pretty intelligent.

“People underestimate football players. Everybody on this team has other interests and other dimensions. It’s a detriment to kids to think that we’re only associated with and interested in football. That’s one of the drawbacks of being an athlete, but I can try to dispel that stereotype by being involved in education.”

A.W.: Are you optimistic that there will be football in 2011 or do you expect a lockout?

Foxworth: “That’s a tough question. I think it’s dangerous to be too optimistic. I think it’s important that we all prepare for the worst. We want football. I’m going to do everything in my power, and I know everyone in the union will do everything they can to have football for us and for the fans. The biggest thing I can say is I’m hopeful.”