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Deep thoughts: Long ball could carry Ravens to win

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Deep thoughts: Long ball could carry Ravens to win

NEW ORLEANS (AP) Fear the dreadlocks, San Francisco.

Torrey Smith just might be the difference in a Super Bowl that will hinge on the 49ers' ability to prevent the Baltimore Ravens from scoring with the long ball.

You might remember Smith from that playoff game in Denver on Jan. 12. Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey sure does. Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowl star, watched the dreadlocks flapping from the back of Smith's helmet as he chased the speedy wide receiver into the end zone on touchdown catches of 59 and 32 yards.

Oh, and let's not forget that Baltimore forced overtime in that game on a 70-yard touchdown pass from Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones with 31 seconds left.

The Ravens have 17 pass completions of at least 40 yards this season, six of them involving Smith. Sometimes, Smith runs deep just to free up wideout Anquan Boldin or tight end Dennis Pitta or running back Ray Rice underneath, leaving Flacco a variety of viable targets.

``It all depends,'' said Smith, the speedy receiver from Maryland. ``It's not like they say, `Hey Torrey, just run straight down the field' all the time. Some of it is scheme-wise to open other guys up. Against certain coverages, I have certain responsibilities. We do attack vertically. That's a strength of ours, and I'm one of the guys that they definitely use to do that.''

Combine all that with a San Francisco defense that gave up 396 yards passing to Atlanta's Matt Ryan in the NFC title game, and it could add up to a very long night for the 49ers.

``Joe Flacco, he's playing excellent football right now,'' former 49ers star receiver Jerry Rice said. ``You've got Torrey Smith and also Anquan Boldin on the outside, and passes over 18 yards. They targeted Torrey Smith 109 times. So they're not afraid to throw the ball deep. The secondary of the San Francisco 49ers, they have had problems with the deep ball, so they can't let these guys run free.''

The 49ers know this. Whether they can prevent Smith & Co. from breaking loose is another story. Rice is also a threat - he caught 61 passes for 478 yards during the regular season.

``I think No. 1, you've got one (receiver) that's got track speed that will take the top off your defense, so he's going to draw some attention,'' San Francisco cornerback Carlos Rogers said. ``Anquan is a very physical guy. He doesn't go deep as much as Torrey, but he's got the ability to. He's just got that connection, strong arm guy, physical guy, so it's going to be a challenge with him, too.

``We're challenged at every position. The tight end in the red zone, he's got a connection, too. Ray Rice out of the backfield, people don't look at that, but when you break down film, he continues to make linebackers look silly and break yards. ... So everybody on our side of the ball has their hands full with those guys.''

On the other side of the ball, the Ravens' defense will be poised to hitch their emotions to middle linebacker Ray Lewis for the final stage of his last ride into retirement. The 37-year-old announced before Baltimore's first playoff game that he would quit when the Ravens ended their run, and since that time they've been played their best football of the year.

So has Lewis. He has a team-high 44 tackles during the playoffs after missing the previous 10 games with a torn right triceps.

``They're going to be up,'' San Francisco running back Frank Gore said. ``Ray Lewis means a lot to that organization. He's been playing the game for a long time, he's probably the best at his position and guys love him.''

Sure, the Ravens would love to win it for Lewis. But only one player on the roster owns a Super Bowl ring (Lewis), and the rest of the players are in it for themselves.

``There's no way in the world that you can imagine Torrey blocking better down the field because Ray is quitting,'' Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said. ``There's no way in the world that (fullback) Vonta Leach is going to give that much more, knocking that linebacker in the hole. I believe if Ray was saying he was going to play another year, these guys would give us the same thing.''

Ravens offensive linebacker Bobby Williams was asked why the Ravens are going to win.

``The spirit of the team is something special,'' he said. ``Everybody works hard around the league. The 49ers work hard. But the spirit of this team is different.''

After thumping Indianapolis at home and outlasting the top-seeded Broncos in double overtime, Baltimore disposed of host New England. Flacco, in succession, outplayed Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Now he goes up against second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who is fleet of foot but short on experience.

Unless Kaepernick runs wild or connects repeatedly with Randy Moss, the self-proclaimed ``greatest receiver ever to play this game,'' then big brother John Harbaugh will be the one smiling when shaking hands with little brother Jim, San Francisco's coach, as purple and black confetti falls from the roof of the Superdome.

PREDICTION: Ravens 24, 49ers 20.

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In addition to Flacco's return, five things to watch when Ravens host Lions

In addition to Flacco's return, five things to watch when Ravens host Lions

The return of Joe Flacco is the obvious storyline Saturday night (7 o’clock), when the Ravens host the Lions at M&T Bank Stadium. While the Ravens’ quarterback will be watched closely, here are five other questions to ask:

1. Will rookie pass rusher Matt Judon continue to shine?

Judon leads the Ravens with nine preseason tackles, along with two sacks. With Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and Za’Darius Smith not expected to play, the Ravens want to see Judon against the Lions’ starters.

“We need to put him in that position,” said defensive coordinator Dean Pees. “What better time? I don’t want to wait until Buffalo (Week 1) to find out.”

Judon led the nation in sacks last season (21) at Grand Valley State.  If he keeps getting to quarterbacks, the fifth-round pick will get playing time during the season.

RELATED: PLAYING FLACCO IN PRESEASON COMES WITH RISK

2.  Is rookie Alex Smith ready to start Week 1 at left guard?

Nobody has said John Urschel has lost the job. But he has been out since the preseason opener (contusion) and Smith has looked solid. Another strong performance by Smith could sway the coaching staff is his direction.

3. Will we get a clue about the Ravens’ running back rotation?

How will carries be divided among Justin Forsett, Buck Allen Kenneth Dixon, and Terrance West? We still don’t know, but Week 1 is getting closer. Any back that looks good against the Lions will strengthen his case for getting more touches.

4. Can the Ravens’ run defense make a statement?

Ravens coach John Harbaugh didn’t like the Colts getting consistent yardage on the ground last week. The Ravens face Bills running back Le’Sean McCoy in Week 1. Another poor Ravens performance against the run would be a bad sign.

5.Will the Ravens avoid taking needless penalties?

If you think the Ravens are good enough make the playoffs if they are among the NFL leaders in penalties, think again. Avoiding pre-snap penalties and personal fouls will continue to be a preseason priority.

MORE RAVENS: HOW BIG IS RAVENS ROSTER BUBBLE?

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Playing Flacco in preseason makes sense, but still a risk

Playing Flacco in preseason makes sense, but still a risk

The Ravens feel good about their decision to play Joe Flacco on Saturday night. However, watching Tony Romo of the Cowboys grimacing in pain Thursday night was another reminder why teams have become more cautious about playing franchise quarterbacks during the preseason.

The Cowboys got a scare Thursday night against the Seahawks, when Romo went down holding his back after taking a hit just three plays into the game. Romo did not return, but he never left the sidelines and said he was fine after the game.

The hit on Romo was a reminder that Saturday’s preseason game against the Lions (7 p.m.) will have some angst for the Ravens, with Flacco playing his first game since a serious knee injury last November. Should the Ravens have elected to keep Flacco out the entire preseason? They could have, but coach John Harbaugh decided against it.

RELATED: HOW BIG IS RAVENS ROSTER BUBBLE?

“There’s really no doubt that he’s ready to play,” Harbaugh said Thursday. “But football is risky for everybody. That’s just the way it works. You have to weigh the benefits with the risks and put them out there. Joe is a quarterback. He’s not going to break. He’s going to play. We’re planning on him playing well, just like he has in practice. It will be his first game action in a long time. I’m sure that’s going to be a factor, but I’d rather have it be in this game than in two weeks from now against the Bills.”

Flacco said he could have been ready for Week 1 without playing in the preseason. But he wanted to get some live action before the real season began. Saturday night’s third preseason game, playing with most of the starters, represents the best time to do it.

Flacco is anything but a fragile quarterback. Until last year, he had gone more than seven seasons without missing a start.

Sooner or later, Flacco has to play. But that doesn’t mean Ravens fans won’t hold their breath Saturday night if Flacco gets hit.

MORE RAVENS: WILL LEWIS WIN STARTING LEFT GUARD SPOT OVER URSCHEL?

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How big is the Ravens' roster bubble?

How big is the Ravens' roster bubble?

With two preseason games left and a little more than a week until the 53-man roster has to be set -- the first cut from 90 to 75 players must be done by Tuesday, with the final cut to 53 by Saturday, Sept. 3 -- the bubble is about to burst for many Ravens.

There has been speculation all camp about players landing on the right side or the wrong side of the roster bubble, but how big, exactly, is that bubble?

The hard truth is it's not very big at all. This isn't the case of 90 people competing for 53 jobs. By our count, 47 spots on the team can be considered locks, which leaves just six open spots. And one of those is at quarterback.

Here's how my colleague Clifton Brown and I view the Ravens roster bubble with two games left, although an injury could send one of these locks to IR and make the bubble just a bit larger.

RELATED: WILL LEWIS WIN STARTING LEFT GUARD SPOT OVER URSCHEL?

QUARTERBACK:

Locks (1): Joe Flacco

Bubble: Ryan Mallett, Josh Johnson

The Ravens will keep just two quarterbacks, but Johnson has done enough to warrant consideration for the job and put Ryan Mallett on the bubble.

RUNNING BACK:

Lock (5): Justin Forsett, Buck Allen, Kenneth Dixon, Terrance West, Kyle Juszczyk

Bubble: Lorenzo Taliaferro

With an outstanding camp West moves to the 'lock' category, and Taliaferro could begin the year on the PUP list, which will buy him some time to get healthy. But that doesn't guarantee Taliaferro will play for the Ravens again.

TIGHT END:

Lock (4): Dennis Pitta, Ben Watson, Crockett Gillmore, Maxx Williams

Bubble: Daniel Brown

Pitta is still out with a broken finger but he will be on the active roster, something few expected four months ago. Maxx Williams has also missed time recently, so this group at the moment isn't nearly as deep as once thought. Darren Waller (four games) and Nick Boyle (10 games) will begin the season on the suspended list but could be heard from later in the year.

WIDE RECEIVER:

Lock (6): Steve Smith Sr., Kamar Aiken, Mike Wallace, Breshad Perriman, Michael Campanaro, Chris Moore.

Bubble: Jeremy Butler, Chris Matthews, Keenan Reynolds

This group is deep but also loaded with injury concerns. If healthy, the top six will all make the 53-man roster. Given the injury questions surrounding Perriman, Campanaro, Moore and Smith, it makes sense to keep a seventh receiver, and Butler is well ahead of the other two.

OFFENSIVE LINE:

Locks (7): Rick Wagner, Marshal Yanda, Jeremy Zuttah, John Urschel, Ronnie Stanley, Alex Lewis, Ryan Jensen.

Bubble: Vladimir Ducasse, James Hurst, De'Ondre Wesley

Lewis could be the starter at left guard if Urschel remains sidelined, giving the Ravens an all-rookie look on Joe Flacco's blind side. Jensen had a rough night at Indianapolis but can play anywhere on the line. They love that versatility. The Ravens will likely keep an eighth lineman, and they usually stash a couple of others on the practice squad.

DEFENSIVE LINE:

Locks (5): Brandon Williams, Timmy Jernigan, Lawrence Guy, Carl Davis, Brent Urban

Bubble: Willie Henry, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Michael Pierce

Henry earned coach John Harbaugh's ire with a penalty that gave the Colts a chance to attempt a potential game-winning field goal last week, but the Ravens rarely cut draft picks, let alone fourth-rounders. He is pretty close to a lock. The season-ending injury to Bronson Kaufusi opens the door for someone.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER:

Locks (5): Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Za'Darius Smith, Albert McClellan, Matt Judon

Bubble: Chris Carter, Victor Ochi

With Kamalei Correa also playing outside, the Ravens probably keep only the top five.

INSIDE LINEBACKER:

Locks (4): C.J. Mosley, Zach Orr, Kamalei Correa, Anthony Levine

Bubble: Arthur Brown, Patrick Onwuasor

Levine remains one of the Ravens top special teamers and can play safety in a pinch. His move to linebacker spells trouble for Brown.

CORNERBACK:

Locks (4): Jimmy Smith, Shareece Wright, Jerraud Powers, Tavon Young

Bubble: Sheldon Price, Will Davis, Kyle Arrington, Maurice Canady

Rookie sixth-rounder Canady has missed time with an injury but returned to practice this week. Arrington remains out and his spot on the 53-man roster is looking more tenuous by the day. Ozzie Newsome likes to say that "you can never have too many corners," but it remains to be seen how many the Ravens will keep.

SAFETY:

Locks (3): Eric Weddle, Lardarius Webb, Kendrick Lewis

Bubble: Terrence Brooks, Matt Elam

Elam is sidelined by arthroscopic knee surgery, which could open the door for Brooks. Levine's ability to play safety could factor here. Don't rule out the Ravens signing a veteran safety once other teams make cuts; that's when they landed James Ihedigbo a few years ago.

SPECIALISTS:

Locks (3): Justin Tucker, Sam Koch, Morgan Cox

Bubble: None

All have been to the Pro Bowl and all are back. No questions here.

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