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Ravens news, notes and opinions on the running game, Jimmy Smith and more

Running back Justin Forsett of the Baltimore Ravens rushes against the St. Louis Rams while head coach John Harbaugh and linebacker Zach Orr (54) cheer on the sidelines in the first quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on Nov. 22, 2015.
Running back Justin Forsett of the Baltimore Ravens rushes against the St. Louis Rams while head coach John Harbaugh and linebacker Zach Orr (54) cheer on the sidelines in the first quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on Nov. 22, 2015. (Rob Carr / Getty Images)

Quarterback Joe Flacco's ability to bounce back from knee surgery and a disappointing year will be a storyline all season. The Ravens defense has spent months hearing about the importance of forcing more turnovers and hitting the quarterback. Those things will be keys on both sides of the ball if the Ravens want to return to the playoffs for the seventh time in nine seasons under head coach John Harbaugh.

However, other than staying healthy, I'm not sure there is a more important fix to make for the 2016 Ravens than their running game. The Ravens finished 26th in the NFL last year in rushing yards per game (92.4) and 24th in yards per carry (3.9). They also set a franchise-low with 383 rushing attempts. Offensive coordinator Marc Trestman needs to be more committed to the running game and the Ravens need to give him a reason to by not frequently falling behind early and by gaining traction on the ground. An effective running game will take some pressure off Flacco, open up things down the field and also help keep the Ravens defense off it. It certainly won't be an easy fix, especially after losing mauling left guard Kelechi Osemele in free agency, and starting a rookie left tackle. But it's imperative for the Ravens to have a productive run game next year. That's why Harbaugh, Trestman and offensive line coach Juan Castillo spent a ton of time this offseason reviewing the run schemes.

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The importance of Jimmy Smith

I couldn't agree more with my colleague Mike Preston's column today in which he discussed the importance of cornerback Jimmy Smith to the Ravens. It goes without saying that Flacco is the team's most important player. However, I'm not sure there is a more vital player on the defensive side of the ball than Smith.

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We all saw what happened to the Ravens' pass rush last year when Terrell Suggs went down, but Za'Darius Smith is a year older, Elvis Dumervil should be healthier and the Ravens added three pass rushers in the draft. The Ravens are thin at inside linebacker as it is, so losing C.J. Mosley for any length of time would be a blow. However, I still believe the Ravens could have a solid run defense without Mosley because of how stout they are along the defensive line. But with all due respect to Shareece Wright, the Ravens don't have another big and physical corner that can match up with the opponent's top receiver like Smith can.

Sure, Smith hasn't proven he can stay healthy or be a shutdown corner on a consistent basis. But he's the best the Ravens have at the position, and he has played at a high level before. The Cincinnati Bengals have A.J. Green, the Pittsburgh Steelers have Antonio Brown and the Cleveland Browns will now presumably have Josh Gordon after Week Four. The Ravens this year will also have to match up against Sammy Watkins, Allen Robinson, Amari Cooper, DeSean Jackson, Odell Beckham Jr., Brandon Marshall, Dez Bryant, Jarvis Landry, Julian Edelman and Jordan Matthews. It isn't fair to put those matchups all on Smith, but if he's not on the field or not playing like he's capable of, the Ravens are going to have a real hard time slowing any of those guys down.

Underrated Raven

In case you missed this last week, Pete Prisco, a national columnist for CBS Sports, put out his annual overrated and underrated list for each team. Not only did he select nose tackle Brandon Williams as the Ravens' most underrated player, he also billed Williams as the most underrated player in the NFL. I don't know from a league-wide perspective, but Williams would probably be my choice for the Ravens' most underrated player as well with honorable mentions going to Lawrence Guy and Kamar Aiken. As for the Ravens' most overrated player, Prisco chose Dumervil, who is coming off a six-sack season.

Should Ravens add a return man?

Wide receiver/return man Devin Hester's release today by the Atlanta Falcons has spurred another set of questions about whether the Ravens should add a more accomplished return man. I've been consistent in saying this, but I don't believe the Ravens have enough roster flexibility to be able to keep a player strictly for returns.

In the current NFL with new rules and strategies in place that have further lessened the impact a return man can have on a game, I'm not sure it even makes sense to use a precious 53-man spot on an exclusive return man. At this point, it appears the Ravens' three top choices at returner are Michael Campanaro, Keenan Reynolds and Kaelin Clay. All three, and probably a couple of other players, will get plenty of return opportunities in training camp workouts and the preseason. Ultimately, though, it might come down to what player or players the coaching staff feels can help them in not only the return game but on offense.

Bring the heat

The forecast for the Ravens' first three training camp practices in Owings Mills: 92 degrees and partly cloudy on Thursday, 88 with potential morning thunderstorm on Friday and 89 and partly cloudy on Saturday. The Ravens will start practice at 9 a.m. each day, which will allow them to avoid being on the field during the hottest part of the day, but the conditioning level of the players will surely be tested early with those temperatures.

PUP clarification

I wanted to clarify something from the other day. The six players the Ravens placed on the physically unable to perform list – Trent Richardson, Steve Smith Sr., Breshad Perriman, Suggs and Dumervil – do count toward the team's 90-man roster. The Ravens cannot temporarily replace those players on the roster until they get healthy. Still, even with those six counting toward the 90-man roster, the Ravens still have one opening they can fill before Thursday's first official full-squad practice.

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