The sun came out at Ravens practice Friday.
The last day had been a dark one in Owings Mills. Two cuts, two ACL tears, two starters lost for the season, all in a matter of minutes. Practice was called early, and the team that had suffered through the NFL’s worst coronavirus outbreak last season headed to the locker room, nearing the end of the NFL’s most destructive preseason.
“It was very depressing. The energy was definitely down, and deservingly so,” left tackle Ronnie Stanley said Friday. With cornerback Marcus Peters and running back Gus Edwards set to miss 2021, the Ravens were up to five season-ending injuries in 19 days. “We lost two of our brothers. To see them in pain, no one wanted to see that happen.”
“It was kind of heavy air, thick air,” safety Chuck Clark said.
“I think you mourn,” coach John Harbaugh said. “We mourn for a day, and we fight today — that’s what we do. So we were disappointed for those guys. Our hearts go out to those guys, because it’s just tough for the guys. That’s who you hurt for.”
The Ravens, diminished and dejected, returned to practice less than 24 hours after their Super Bowl hopes took another brutal blow. They had just three more days to prepare for their season opener against the Las Vegas Raiders, and if their rotten luck wasn’t beckoning them out to the field, Mother Nature tried its best — blue skies, a few wispy clouds, temperatures in the mid-70s, a cool breeze washing over fields that just a day before had been evacuated for the sake of the team’s well-being.
“It was definitely crazy to process,” Stanley said. “I think everyone took the whole day after practice yesterday and kind of reflected on it and kind of sat in. Yes, it was hard to really think about that.
“But I think everyone came back today; we had a talk with the group leaders today, and we came back with the mindset [that] we’re going to push forward, and we’re going to be even better, in memory of those guys, playing for those guys.”
On a day of remarkably bad injury luck, there was nothing remarkable about how the Ravens lost their two starters to the injured reserve. Harbaugh said Peters, the NFL’s most productive ballhawk since he entered the league in 2015, was pivoting on the practice field Thursday, “a basic turn that he makes dozens of times every single practice,” when his knee gave out.
Edwards, another projected starter and one of the league’s most efficient rushers, made a cut to his right, landed awkwardly on his ankle, “and the weight ended up going on his knee,” Harbaugh said.
“So that’s what happened,” he said. There wasn’t much else he could say. He couldn’t blame the grass in Owings Mills. “I don’t think so. I don’t believe so.”
The Ravens know who will replace Peters. Anthony Averett, who defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said has “All-Pro talent,” will start opposite Marlon Humphrey at outside cornerback. Harbaugh said he’s confident in Averett, who’s entering the final year of his rookie contract, and praised him for work in training camp.
“He’s ready to go,” Harbaugh said, before rattling off the team’s other options in the secondary. “[Cornerback] Chris Westry’s ready to go. He’s done well. [Rookie defensive back] Brandon Stephens is ready to go. He’s done well. [Rookie safety] Ar’Darius Washington had a really good camp, so we’ve got guys, and those guys will take one step up from where they were, take on a little more responsibility and go.”
Safety Chuck Clark said “the sky’s the limit for Averett,” a former fourth-round pick who’s started seven games over three injury-marred seasons. “We know what type of corner he is, what type of skill set he has. We’ve seen him in the past go out and cover top receivers in this league, and it’s been done quietly. Now it’s just time for him to go and do it all the time consistently.”
At running back, where the Ravens have lost top option J.K. Dobbins (knee), reserve Justice Hill (Achilles tendon) and now Edwards to season-ending injuries, there’s more uncertainty about who will seize the lead role. Ty’Son Williams, a training camp standout who had no carries as a rookie, is set to start Monday night in Las Vegas.
But Latavius Murray, a reliable receiver and downhill runner who signed Friday, could ultimately emerge as the Ravens’ best option. He averaged 4.5 yards per carry and 7.7 yards per catch last season for the New Orleans Saints, who released him Tuesday after he refused to take a pay cut.
“I think his style’s a great fit,” Harbaugh said. “I mean, you guys have all watched him play. You’re football fans and you cover the game, so his style fits what we do. You’ve seen our offense. I think you can picture him pretty easily in that offense.”
The Ravens could also turn to practice squad running backs Le’Veon Bell and Devonta Freeman, former All-Pros who have struggled in recent years. Harbaugh noted that Bell, who signed Wednesday after sitting out training camp, has looked good in practice but still needs “to get into football shape a little bit.” Freeman, who signed Thursday, spent camp with the New Orleans Saints before being released.
Trenton Cannon, who signed with the 53-man roster Wednesday, is considered more of a special teams contributor, though he has 48 carries for 146 yards over three NFL seasons.
“Football shape does mean something,” Harbaugh said. “Now we have to get them up to speed with the playbook. So what can they take into the game Monday night? That’s what we have to figure out in the next two practices over the next couple of days, is what different guys can handle in the game and just make a specific playbook for what they’re ready for and merge it into our plan for the game and playing the game.”
It will be an adjustment on both sides of the ball. The Ravens running backs opened practice Friday, as they do most days, by working on their handoff exchanges out of the team’s pistol and shotgun formations. Fumbles were a problem late in 2018, when Jackson took over the offense midseason, and according to Sports Info Solutions, Bell was the only Ravens running back with a carry on a read-option play last season.
Defensively, Peters’ absence — and cornerback Jimmy Smith’s limited practice availability — could hamstring the secondary. Martindale has deployed Smith against standout tight ends like Las Vegas’ Darren Waller, and Humphrey has the athleticism and mindset to take on bigger players in the box or run with them outside. With less flexibility in the defensive backfield, the Ravens could be less creative in their pressure packages.
If a silver lining was hard to find Friday, Harbaugh and the Ravens forged on anyway. At practice, as the team gathered for full-team drills, defensive end Calais Campbell bellowed, “Yes, sir!” like nothing was wrong. Like nothing had changed.
“It’s us together,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve got us; I like us. I like everything about us, and I’m excited about us going forward into this season. I can’t wait to get the season started.”
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