It will be interesting to see this week if the Ravens make any changes along the offensive line, a group that for the most part has struggled the past couple of weeks and will be under fire again come Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The position to watch, mainly because it's been unsettled all season, would be left guard. The Ravens have now given three different players a trial run with Ramon Harewood getting five starts, Bobbie Williams getting four and Jah Reid starting the past two games. While coaches have praised Reid, I'm not sure that he's stood out in a positive way any more than Harewood and Williams did. Like the other two, there has been some good and some bad. Reid was a third-round pick last year so the Ravens probably have the most invested in him, but head coach John Harbaugh has been clear all season that he's going to play his five best guys. It will be interesting to see if the coaches deem Reid one of those five for a third straight week. The Ravens could insert Harewood or Williams back in or they could plug in Bryant McKinnie at left tackle, move Michael Oher to right tackle and then shift Kelechi Osemele to left guard. That would be a pretty drastic transformation for a 9-2 team, especially when there have been no indications that McKinnie is forcing their hands with his play in practice.
It's becoming an annual occurrence this time of year. General managers from around the NFL are either fired or rumored to be getting fired and Ravens Assistant GM Eric DeCosta's name is one of the first to come up as a potential replacement. That happened last week when DeCosta's name was floated in connection with the Carolina Panthers' opening. The Ravens do not publicly discuss contract terms and DeCosta, despite all the interest he has received the past couple of years, makes it a point to not publicly address the rumors either. But all indications were last offseason when the Ravens agreed to a contract extension with DeCosta and gave him a title change after he was being courted by the Chicago Bears and Oakland Raiders among others, that they did so with the knowledge that the DeCosta would be staying around for a while. Consider what owner Steve Bisciotti told The Baltimore Sun in March: "There is no doubt that our main plan for life without Ozzie [Newsome] would be Eric DeCosta as the GM," Bisciotti said. "It's impossible to guarantee that, but we did again restructure Eric's contract in a way where I think he's off the market for a few years." Again, Bisciotti didn't make any guarantees but it certainly appears that the it will take one heck of an opportunity to lure DeCosta away from Baltimore.
This is taking absolutely nothing away from Ray Rice who showed the whole package (balance, power, elusiveness, speed, vision, grit) of what makes him one of the NFL's top running backs on that 29-yard catch-and run against the San Diego Chargers that will undoubtedly be talked about around these parts for a long time. However, the part of the play that still strikes me other than the total ineptitude of the Chargers' defense was the thunderous block that wide receiver Anquan Boldin threw on Eric Weddle. I'm not celebrating the fact that Weddle, who is a really good player, sustained a concussion on the play but Rice simply doesn't get that first down without Boldin. It was a crushing block, probably the hardest hit all game. A couple of opponents this season, including the Cleveland Browns, complained about late Ravens' blocks down the field and after the play. Boldin was hit with a 15-yard penalty for one earlier in the fourth quarter. The opponents haven't mentioned Boldin by name, but it's pretty clear that he is who they are talking about. Regardless, it's pretty clear that the veteran wide receiver brings a much-needed toughness, mean streak and edge to the Ravens' offense.
Speaking of late hits and penalties, Ravens safety Bernard Pollard got flagged for another unnecessary roughness penalty and could be facing another fine from the league after his hit along the sideline on wide receiver Danario Alexander late in the third quarter. I'm not sure the hit was necessary because the ball had already fallen incomplete but I think the penalty, which was announced as a helmet-to-helmet hit on a defenseless receiver and led to a Nick Novak field goal, was ridiculous. Replays showed that Pollard led with his shoulder and he didn't appear to make contact to Alexander's head-and-neck area. I would be surprised if the NFL fined Pollard for that infraction. However, the call is probably an indication of the scrutiny that Pollard and fellow safety Ed Reed, who has been labeled by the NFL a repeat offender of the rules preventing hits to the head and neck of defenseless receivers, are going to be dealing with the rest of the season.
Remember when the Ravens struggled to cover punts and kickoffs? You should because it was just last year. It seems like everybody they are putting out there on special teams nowadays is getting the job done. With Corey Graham no longer occupying the gunner role because he's become a starting cornerback, the Ravens have used a couple of different players and they've all made plays. On Sunday, Anthony Levine, who was on the practice squad for most of the year and is now on injured reserve, and rookie Asa Jackson, who had been inactive for the first 10 games, made key special teams tackles. Not only have injuries affected the defense, but the special teams groups feel it, too. Guys are thrust into roles they aren't used to playing. You have to give the Ravens coach John Harbaugh, assistant head coach and special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg and his assistant Chris Hewitt credit here because there's been no drop off whatsoever with the coverage groups despite the turnover.
There were a lot of smiles on the Ravens' sideline when defensive end Arthur Jones got the first two sacks of his NFL career in the third quarter Sunday after going his first 26 games without a quarterback takedown. Jones is one of the nicest and hardest-working guys on the team and being held without a sack for his first two-plus seasons was obviously a source of great frustration for him. Reed actually called him over at practice last week and urged him to step up his game. But beyond just giving Jones some more confidence and reward for the work that he's put in, I'm sure the Ravens are hoping that his performance creates a little urgency and motivation for Pernell McPhee who had been the starter at that defensive end spot. McPhee has been inactive for four consecutive games with knee and thigh injuries and he really hasn't been right health-wise all season. There is probably a pretty good chance that McPhee returns Sunday against the Steelers. Even if it's just as a pass-rush specialist, the role McPhee performed so well in last year, the Ravens need to get some contributions out of McPhee.
My colleague, Matt Vensel, brought this up and blogged about it last week and it's probably worth revisiting with the knee injury to tight end Ed Dickson that puts his status in question for Sunday. While the defense has been hit hard by injuries, the Ravens' offense has been remarkably healthy. In fact, they have yet to lose one of their starters for a game because of injuries. I don't know that Dickson qualifies because he's been passed on the depth chart by Dennis Pitta, but it does qualify as the first key injury to an offensive player. If Dickson is out for any length of time, the Ravens will probably have to sign another tight end.