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Ravens expect 'shot in the arm' from Danny Woodhead — if he can return healthy

Running back Danny Woodhead makes a catch during the Ravens' last practice before their first preseason game in August. Woodhead injured his hamstring on the Ravens' first drive of the regular-season and has been out ever since, but is practicing again.
Running back Danny Woodhead makes a catch during the Ravens' last practice before their first preseason game in August. Woodhead injured his hamstring on the Ravens' first drive of the regular-season and has been out ever since, but is practicing again.(Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Six snaps.

It’s a blink in the expanse of an NFL season. But the 2017 Ravens offense has rarely looked better than it did on the first drive of the season, when running back Danny Woodhead caught each of the three passes Joe Flacco threw his way in those six plays.

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That Woodhead pulled up with an injured hamstring at the end of the drive seemed cruel, even by NFL standards. He had worked for nearly a year to return from a torn ACL that cost him the bulk of the 2016 season. He was giving his new team exactly what it needed. And then all the promise suggested by those three catches went on hold.

Now, Woodhead might be close to returning to an offense that has struggled desperately in his absence. The Ravens are rested and reasonably healthy after playing just one game in the past three weeks. But of all the elements in their post-bye mix, Woodhead might be the most tantalizing.

“That’s probably a great word for it,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday. “We’ll have to see how it plays out, but that’s why Danny’s here. That’s why Ben [Watson] is here. Those are veteran guys that know how to do those kinds of things. It’s speculation at this point, but we anticipate that having him out there would really help us.”

Ravens running back Danny Woodhead is taken off the field on a cart after a hamstring injury in Week 1 against the Bengals in Cincinnati on Sept. 10.
Ravens running back Danny Woodhead is taken off the field on a cart after a hamstring injury in Week 1 against the Bengals in Cincinnati on Sept. 10.(Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

I don’t know the odds. I stay in my lane, and I work hard. … We’ll see where it takes us.


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Teammates had a good old time with Woodhead on Wednesday as reporters crowded around to ask how he was feeling. Wide receiver Mike Wallace asked him how a 5-foot-2 running back (Woodhead is actually 5-8) could possibly thrive in the NFL. Flacco pelted him with a practice-used wristband.

The subtext to all of this was that they’re as eager to see him back as anyone.

Woodhead resumed practice Oct. 31 and was on the field Wednesday, but Harbaugh and his teammates still speak guardedly about his possible return to games. The Ravens have until 4 p.m. Saturday to activate Woodhead for Sunday’s game against the Green Bay Packers. If they don’t activate him the following week for the game against the Houston Texans on Nov. 27, he would have to remain on injured reserved the rest of the year.

“I feel good, I do. I’m taking it a day at a time, though,” he said. “I don’t know the odds. I stay in my lane, and I work hard. … We’ll see where it takes us.”

Woodhead’s career has become a two-pronged drama in recent seasons — his exquisite craft in the passing game undermined by the increasing vulnerability of his body.

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He missed 13 games because of a fractured fibula and high-ankle sprain in 2014, then 14 with the torn ACL in 2016. The season in between, he caught 80 passes for 755 yards and six touchdowns for the San Diego Chargers.

The Ravens were well aware of the health risk when they signed Woodhead for $8.8 million over three years, with $4.25 million guaranteed. But they bet on getting the 2015 version, at least for a stretch.

Woodhead, 32, still looks the part, with 200 pounds of muscle packed onto his squat frame. And teammates say there’s no question he’ll make a significant impact if his sore hamstring, which also cost him much of the preseason, cooperates.

Ravens safety Eric Weddle defended Woodhead when he was catching Tom Brady’s passes for the New England Patriots, and then they were teammates in San Diego. He said Woodhead would unlock all manner of possibilities for the Ravens offense.

“He gives us shot in the arm,” Weddle said. “He’s a guy who creates [favorable] matchups, not just in the run game but obviously in the pass game. He gives Joe another weapon when things may not be open.”

Weddle practiced against Woodhead and watched him closely in games.

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“The thing with Woody is there are not many linebackers and safeties in this league who can cover him,” he said. “He knows the nuances of offense. He knows route running. He’s explosive in and out of his breaks. He catches everything. He’s hard to bring down. He runs routes like a wideout.”

Because Woodhead demands attention, Weddle added, he creates opportunities for other receivers.

“It’s tough in general to guard running backs out of the backfield, because they have so much space and room to work,” he said. “It presents challenges, and it opens things up. You can’t just think as defense that you’re going to single him up with your middle linebacker. It’ll be a long day.”

Flacco did not dispute his close friend’s perspective about the offense and said, “It’s really on us to get that better.”

Perhaps no one would benefit from Woodhead’s return more than Flacco, who has lacked mid-range targets for most of the season. Woodhead is more than a check-down option. He’s a nightmare to cover in the 10-yard range, a skill none of the other Ravens running backs have displayed consistently.

“You got a little taste of Danny the first week, just what he can do,” Flacco said. “He’s also a guy who knows what he’s doing in protection. He can give you a lot of things, obviously. I think we all know that.”

Teammates all tend to use similar language when describing the possibilities for Woodhead, like he’s a Swiss Army knife for an NFL offense.

Brady once termed him “the ultimate team player and teammate.”

“He’s a versatile player. He’s been that his whole career,” Watson said. “He’s a guy who can obviously run between the tackles. He can help in the passing game. He’s great at pass protection. … Whenever he’s able to return, we’re going to be excited to have another weapon on offense back.”

Woodhead acknowledged feeling like he’s been away forever. In his teams’ past 23 games, he’s played just that one drive. He doesn’t put too much stock in such a short stretch, but at least it was something.

“Obviously, I was excited, until I was on the ground,” he said with a self-deprecating grin. “You always look into that a little bit, but that was Week 1. Whenever my opportunity is, I’m going to do what I can to help the team. But yeah, it was pretty good drive.”

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