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Injuries to Benjamin Watson, Kenneth Dixon muddle Ravens' roster picture

Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh talked about the injuries to TE Ben Watson and RB Kenneth Dixon in the teams 30-9 win over the Detroit Lions. Harbaugh also suggested that he would prefers no preseason games. (Kevin Richardson)

When training camp began over a month ago, the Ravens were said to have an excess of options at running back and tight end.

In a 90-minute span Saturday night, they lost a potential key performer at each position, a development that complicates their upcoming roster decisions and leaves them with two roles to immediately fill.

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Projected starting tight end Benjamin Watson tore his right Achilles tendon on the first play from scrimmage in the Ravens' 30-9 victory over the visiting Detroit Lions and will be lost for the season.

An MRI taken today showed that rookie running back Kenneth Dixon suffered MCL damage in his left knee when he was hit by former Raven Haloti Ngata on a goal-line carry late in the second quarter. Dixon won't require surgery but is expected to miss around four weeks.

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The Ravens' regular-season opener against the Buffalo Bills is two weeks away. Given how Dixon was helped off the field, unable to put any weight on his left leg, and how his leg bent awkwardly, today's development qualifies as good news for the Ravens.

The Detroit Lions ran a lot of players at Ravens rookie left offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley on Saturday night. First there was Pro Bowl defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, and then end Wallace Gilberry. The Lions also added Kerry Hyder and Brandon Copeland to the mix as well as Devin Taylor. Stanley not only held his own; he played well.

"It's really tough. Ken, we'll see what goes on. I hope we'd have him back. Ben, he's been a great teammate, and I think was really developing into a weapon for us," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said after making his preseason debut Saturday. "I was really excited about getting to play with him this year. That's going to be really tough on us. You can imagine how tough it is for him right now, what he's probably going through with his family."

Watson, who signed a two-year deal with the Ravens this offseason after a career-best season with the New Orleans Saints, turns 36 in December, and now faces a long rehabilitation process. Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who twice has had to come back from Achilles tendon tears, called Watson's injury "heartbreaking."

The Ravens, meanwhile, are left with some significant questions at tight end, initially considered a position of strength.

Dennis Pitta (finger) and Maxx Williams (undisclosed) are both sidelined with injuries. Nick Boyle (10 games) and Darren Waller (four games) will start the regular season on the reserve-suspended list. That leaves Crockett Gillmore, who has dealt with numerous physical problems over the past two years, and Daniel Brown, who converted from wide receiver this offseason, as the only other tight ends.

"This is an organization that has dealt with those kinds of things since I've been here, and we've always had guys step up," Gillmore said Saturday night. "Darren and Dan and Nick and all of those guys stepped up, and me and Dennis and Maxx are back, so it's not like we're sweating bullets around here. We've got a lot of guys that can play."

If Gillmore can stay healthy and Pitta and Williams return to the practice field relatively soon — and that is the team's hope — the Ravens should be fine. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk, a player offensive coordinator Marc Trestman would like to get more involved in the passing game, also could be used in certain situations. Waller and Boyle are potential reinforcements down the road.

But for now, the Ravens, who frequently use multiple-tight-end sets, are largely dependent on Gillmore, Williams and Pitta getting and staying healthy. That's been tough for all three players.

"We were here before [Watson] was, so I don't know what added pressure there would be," Gillmore said when asked about Watson's injury. "We've done this before."

Ravens rookie Kenneth Dixon sustained some MCL damage in his left knee and could miss around four weeks, which isn't the worst news given the circumstances.

The Ravens will have to cut their roster from 90 to 75 before 4 p.m. Tuesday, two days before their preseason finale against the New Orleans Saints — a game in which few, if any, starters are expected to play. They'll then have to get down to the requisite 53-man roster by Saturday afternoon.

One of their biggest roster questions was whether they could afford to carry four tight ends, which might have left them thin at another position. Watson's injury could make that a moot point — or the uncertainty around Williams and Pitta could prompt the team to carry four tight ends anyway.

There is still the matter of how many running backs the Ravens will keep. In seven of John Harbaugh's eight seasons at the helm, they have kept three tailbacks and a fullback. This preseason, four running backs have seen some playing time with the starting offense. Even Juszczyk was used as the lone man in the backfield on occasion Saturday night.

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Dixon's injury could complicate the Ravens' decision at running back, both in terms of how many the Ravens keep and who gets the bulk of the carries. But having only three tight ends would make it easier to carry five backs.

It seems like Terrell Suggs and Joe Flacco were reborn after missing so much time last season.

Dixon and Terrance West (Towson University, Northwestern High) have been the team's most explosive and effective backs so far. Dixon leads the team this preseason with 107 rushing yards on 22 carries, to go along with two catches for 21 yards. West has 25 carries for 101 yards and two touchdowns and three catches for 25 yards.

Justin Forsett and Buck Allen, who currently head the depth chart, have done little in the preseason. Forsett has 11 yards on seven rushes and 14 yards on two receptions, and Allen has 35 yards on 18 carries and 36 yards and a touchdown on seven receptions.

It appears the Ravens will stick to their stated philosophy of going with the hot hand, which West insists could be anybody.

"The backups here are good," West said. "Our offense is stacked. In this locker room, we are making the decisions for coaches to make hard. The backups are good, the third-stringers are good — that's what winning teams are about in this league."

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