It seemingly happens every season. A Ravens defensive player has a career year heading into free agency and suddenly prices himself out of the team's market. Last year, it was defensive lineman Arthur Jones. The year before that, it was linebackers Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe. This season, outside linebacker-defensive end Pernell McPhee is in the process of following in their footsteps. He might not be the most valuable Ravens defensive player through seven games, but he’s arguably their most versatile. McPhee has four sacks while pretty much rushing from every position along the defensive line. With injuries to Chris Canty, Timmy Jernigan, Kapron Lewis-Moore and Brent Urban, McPhee’s ability to bounce around and create havoc from wherever he has lined up has been vital for a defense that has gotten better each week. During our weekly conference calls with opposing coaches and players, they never fail to mention McPhee when discussing the talent on the Ravens’ defense. Assuming he stays healthy -- and that, not getting to the quarterback, has been the biggest challenge during his career -- McPhee will have his share of suitors, and I’m sure the Ravens will want him back as well.
Jacoby Jones bounced back well from his muffed point late in the second quarter Sunday, but how long coach John Harbaugh will stick with Jones as his primary returner will remain a weekly question, as will Jones’ role going forward. If the coaching staff benches Jones from returning punts in favor of Lardarius Webb or rookie Michael Campanaro (River Hill), it’s fair to question whether the veteran will even be active on game days. Jones played a season-low four offensive snaps against the Atlanta Falcons as both Campanaro and Kamar Aiken continue to get more opportunities on offense. If Jones isn’t playing much on offense and isn’t returning punts, it will be interesting to see where he factors on game day. Jones is obviously an electric kick returner, one of the best in the NFL. But most teams have kickers who boot the ball through the back of the end zone these days, which has limited Jones’ chances. That could change, however, when the weather gets colder and the ball isn’t traveling as far.
Speaking of special teams, give assistant head coach and special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg credit this week for his unit’s work in completely shutting down the Falcons’ Devin Hester, the all-time leader in return touchdowns. I know some eyebrows were raised last Thursday when Rosburg expressed confidence in the Ravens’ coverage teams and essentially said that the goal was to contain, not avoid, Hester. Well, the Ravens had success doing just that, making Hester a nonfactor. Two of Justin Tucker’s five kickoffs went for touchbacks. On the other three, Hester got 55 total yards, an average of 18.3. On his three returns, Hester got back to the Falcons’ 10-, 13- and 29-yard lines. His best return came when it was a 29-7 game and there were less than two minutes to play. Hester also gained 6 total yards on four punts by Sam Koch.
The ongoing consistency issues of safety Matt Elam, and linebacker Arthur Brown’s inability to see the field on game day, has led to some grumbling about the Ravens’ 2013 draft class. There have been no such complaints, however, about this year’s draft class. Seven of the nine picks -- C.J. Mosley, Jernigan, Terrence Brooks, Crockett Gillmore, Lorenzo Taliaferro, John Urschel and Campanaro -- are seeing action and have contributed to the Ravens’ 5-2 start. And Mosley might be the midseason favorite for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. The only picks who haven’t contributed immediately are Urban, who is out with a season-ending injury sustained in training camp, and quarterback Keith Wenning, who is on the practice squad. Either way, pretty impressive early returns.
Justin Forsett is doing a nice job as the primary back, but at some point, the Ravens need to get Bernard Pierce going. Pierce has rushing touchdowns in consecutive weeks, but he only has gained 53 yards on 23 carries during that span and doesn’t appear to be running with the authority or the vision that he usually has. Perhaps, he’s still not 100 percent healthy as he has battled myriad injuries this season. At some point, and now would be a good time with consecutive road games against AFC North teams looming, the Ravens need to see if Pierce can get into a better rhythm. And if not, perhaps Taliaferro assumes a bigger role.
According to Pro Football Focus, former Ravens and current Tennessee Titans right tackle Michael Oher has allowed three sacks, 15 quarterback hurries and been called for four penalties. In comparison, Ravens right tackle Rick Wagner, who was elevated into the starting lineup when Oher signed with Tennessee, has given up one sack -- and that was in Week 1 -- and nine hurries. He also has yet to be called for a penalty. Center Jeremy Zuttah is an upgrade over Gino Gradkowski, and right guard Marshal Yanda is back to being his dominant self. But Wagner’s emergence is as big of a reason as any for the Ravens’ improved offensive line play.
The Ravens have performed probably as well as you can expect offensively, given the need to learn Gary Kubiak’s system and the injuries to tight end Dennis Pitta and offensive linemen Eugene Monroe and Kelechi Osemele. However, it’s worth mentioning that they haven’t exactly been playing dominant defenses. Of their seven games, five have been against defenses ranked in the bottom seven in the league in yards allowed per game. Carolina ranks 26th, Cleveland is 28th and Atlanta, Cincinnati and Tampa Bay are 30th, 31st and 32nd, respectively. Their other two opponents -- the Indianapolis Colts and the Pittsburgh Steelers -- rank third and 13th respectively. Joe Flacco and company will be tested more in the days ahead.