The Ravens had been relatively fortunate on the injury front early in training camp, but their outlook — and their options at arguably their deepest position — were altered on one play Wednesday.
During an 11-on-11 drill about an hour into practice, a seemingly routine running play left two rookie defensive linemen on the ground and needing help to get up.
Second-round draft pick Timmy Jernigan ultimately walked gingerly toward the locker room with a trainer supporting his back. Fourth-round selection Brent Urban, who was blocked to the ground by tackle Jah Reid, was helped off the field unable to put any weight on his right leg. He was later taken by motorized cart back to the team building.
Coach John Harbaugh said Jernigan "looks fine," but he conceded that there was significant concern about Urban's right knee.
"We're going to have to see," Harbaugh said. "He's going to get [an MRI] later tonight, and we'll have more on that for you later. We'll just hope and pray for the best on that."
Both Jernigan and Urban had stood out early in training camp and appeared to be well on their way to earning a spot in the Ravens' defensive line rotation, which was shaping up to be one of the team's strengths.
"I'm really happy with the defensive line," Harbaugh said. "You're going to practice hard, you're going to have some things. You're not going to practice hard and you're still going to have some things. If you look around the league, that's what happens. We're somewhat fortunate there because we do have a lot of good players in there. We'll just move forward if we have to. I'm still hopeful that [Urban will] be back. We'll have to see."
Ravens officials were extremely excited about Urban's potential, believing that the 6-foot-8, 295-pound defensive end was solid insurance behind 31-year-old Chris Canty and could contribute immediately.
But if there is any position where the Ravens can withstand a significant injury, it's probably the defensive line. In back-to-back offseasons, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome has prioritized getting bigger and younger along the defensive front, as well as help for Haloti Ngata, regarded as one of the top defensive interior linemen in the NFL.
Last offseason, they signed Canty and then selected two defensive linemen in the draft — Brandon Williams in the third round and defensive Kapron Lewis-Moore in the sixth. This offseason, they didn't have the salary cap space to re-sign Arthur Jones, but they brought back nose tackle Terrence Cody and used two of their first five draft picks on Jernigan and Urban. They then added four undrafted free-agent defensive linemen.
Ngata said he is healthy and in better shape than he's been in during recent seasons, and the way he's moved in practice supports that claim. Coaches have raved about the improvements made by Williams and third-year defensive lineman DeAngelo Tyson, who was on the field in the fourth quarter as the Ravens fended off the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII in February 2013. After sitting out last season to rehab a knee injury, Lewis-Moore has shown glimpses while working off the rust. And before the injury, Jernigan was becoming a regular visitor in the Ravens' backfield.
"I've been very impressed with what our young guys have been able to do," Canty said. "All have a little bit different skill sets, but all are tremendously talented. It's just a really impressive group; it's one of the best young defensive fronts that I have ever been around in the game, or I've ever seen or heard of. So, I'm excited about what they're going to be able to do."
Last week, defensive coordinator Dean Pees said the defensive line was the Ravens' best group since he joined Harbaugh's staff in 2010.
Ngata has been working primarily in the three-technique defensive tackle spot that Jones occupied last season prior to signing a $33 million deal with the Indianapolis Colts in late March. Williams has been playing nose tackle, and Canty is entrenched at defensive end. Both Urban and Lewis-Moore have been working behind Canty, with Jernigan playing defensive tackle and Tyson rotating between several spots. Even with Cody, who had hip surgery this offseason, still on the physically-unable-to-perform list and not practicing, the Ravens have shown various combinations and alignments.
"Everybody has to fight for a job, even the veterans," Tyson said. "Competition is good. If you want to be a great defense, you have to have a great defensive line. I feel like the competition that we have is going to bring out the depth that we need to have a great defense."
Stout defensive line play has long been one of the staples of the Ravens' defense. However, the group has slipped somewhat the past two years; from 2006 to 2011, the defensive line helped the team finish with a top-five run defense every year.
But the Ravens slipped to 20th against the run in 2013 and 11th last year, allowing 105.4 rushing yards per game. Aside from Jones, last year's Ravens also struggled to consistently generate an interior pass rush.
It wasn't a poor performance by the group, by any means. It just wasn't up to the Ravens' normally high standards.
"There are a lot of ways we can improve off of last year," defensive line coach Clarence Brooks said. "Putting it quite simply, last year wasn't good enough. Whatever is more than what we did is where we want to go. Last year was not where we wanted to leave things, so if you have to measure it by that, we say, 'Hey, anything north of those numbers is where we want to be.' [The coaching staff] believes we have the ability to be a top-five defense. That's certainly where we're going to try to head."
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