McKinnie's 'strange journey' ends in Super Bowl

201301272135777030960-p2.jpeg

McKinnie's 'strange journey' ends in Super Bowl

NEW ORLEANS (AP) Bryant McKinnie stood in the middle of the Superdome and marveled at the spectacle that surrounded him.

Behind the Baltimore Ravens giant left tackle, several of the team's most notable stars were seated individually at raised tables. Each space featured huge name plates and was surrounded by a blockade designed to keep the throng of interviewers at a reasonable distance. It was, after all, media day at the Super Bowl.

McKinnie looked over his shoulder in amusement. His assignment Tuesday was to simply to stand among the masses and field questions from people who crowded in with microphones held high to catch a few words from the 6-foot-8, 354-pounder.

Those who kept their arms raised long enough to hear McKinnie tell the story of his season were rewarded with quite a tale, one that began with a pay cut and ended with a starting role in his first NFL championship game.

``It's been a long, strange journey, but I like the way it's ending so far,'' McKinnie said. ``One step farther, I can complete it with a ring.''

Before starting his 11th training camp in the NFL, McKinnie was asked to accept less money because the Ravens needed to clear some salary-cap space. After a good bit of grumbling, he was OK with an incentive-laden contract.

But McKinnie's run of 60 straight starts ended in the opener, when coach John Harbaugh opted to start Michael Oher at left tackle and use McKinnie solely as a backup.

In his unaccustomed role off the bench, McKinnie hurt his hip in a game against Dallas on Oct. 14. When right tackle Kelechi Osemele got hurt the following week in Houston, McKinnie got the chance to steal away a starting spot. But he aggravated his hip injury and ended up back on the bench. One week after another went by without the opportunity to start.

Finally, before the season finale against Cincinnati, McKinnie was told by Harbaugh to prove he was healthy.

``The coach was like, `Show me that you're healed. Show me that you can move,''' McKinnie recalled. ``In the Cincinnati game, he said, `I'm going to let you play, show me you're back healthy.'''

McKinnie came off the bench and played well. In that game, left guard Jah Reid hurt his toe and was subsequently placed on injured reserve. So, in the playoff opener against Indianapolis, the Ravens put McKinnie back at his old left tackle spot, moved Oher to right tackle and plugged Osemele into Reid's spot.

It proved to be a winning combination. Now 3-0 with McKinnie as a starter, the Ravens look to complete their run Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers.

``This is a great reward,'' McKinnie said. ``I waited for my time and was able to step in there and help the team go to where it wants to be.''

Funny how things work in the NFL.

``What's Bryant been through can't be overstated,'' Ravens center Matt Birk said. ``All year, to sit and wait and wait. To his credit, he kept himself ready, kept himself in shape. He kept himself mentally ready to go. He didn't play all year, and here's (Indianapolis end) Dwight Freeney. The next week, here's (Denver's) Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller. The man's done a great job. It's a tribute to his attitude and work ethic.''

Maybe it's because of Reid's toe, or perhaps it was just McKinnie's time. Whatever the reason, Baltimore's offensive front is better than it's been all season.

``McKinnie has played well for them, and it had a domino effect,'' San Francisco defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. ``They put Oher at right tackle, who's playing right tackle better than the guy they had in there. They moved (Osemele) to left guard and he's playing that position better than the guy they had in there.''

The 33-year-old McKinnie, meanwhile, is feeling the benefit of limited playing time from September through December.

``I'm fresher than anybody else,'' he said.

His task in the Super Bowl will be to help neutralize 49ers right tackle Justin Smith, a 12-year veteran playing with a partially torn left triceps.

``McKinnie has been a good player in this league for a long time,'' Smith said. ``I think the run they've been on, he's out there playing real good football. The mix of their offensive line right now is really working for them. They're playing the best football when they need it.''

Ravens excited about increased speed at wide receiver

healthyperrimanravensrefframe_1.jpg

Ravens excited about increased speed at wide receiver

Will the Ravens’ increased speed at wide receiver force opponents to defend them differently?

The Ravens hope so.

They were without Breshad Perriman (knee injury) all of last season, and without Steve Smith Sr. (Achilles injury) the final two months.

That gave opponents license to put a safety closer to the line of scrimmage, and to crowd Ravens receivers with press coverage – unafraid that the Ravens could throw deep with success.

However, Perriman is healthy again, and the Ravens added two speed receivers by signing Mike Wallace during free agency and drafting Chris Moore in the fourth round.

The Ravens believe that speed will lead to more big plays, help their running game, and give Smith and other receivers more operating room.

“We’ve had years when we couldn’t back anybody up,” said Ravens coach John Harbaugh. “The ability to back people up, it’s huge – to quote a famous politician not to be named here. It’s hard for me to see the speed all of the time in some of these drills. I’m like,`How fast are they really moving?’ Then I go ask the (defensive backs) and they say, ‘They’re moving really fast.’ And that makes me feel good about it.”

Perriman averaged 19.5 yards per catch at Central Florida, Moore averaged 19.3 yards per catch at Cincinnati, and Wallace has averaged 15.2 yards per catch over a seven-year NFL career.

The Ravens believe their speed will make opponents think twice about crowding the line of scrimmage. And when opponents do crowd the line of scrimmage, the Ravens plan to make them pay with big plays.

RELATED: FREE AGENT WEDDLE ALREADY MAKING AN IMPACT

Ravens quickly convinced Weddle will be difference maker for secondary

healthyperrimanravensrefframe_1.jpg

Ravens quickly convinced Weddle will be difference maker for secondary

Veteran safety Eric Weddle is quickly making a strong impression with the Ravens.

After the first week of OTA’s, both coach Johh Harbaugh and defensive back Lardarius Webb mentioned Weddle as being a difference maker, after being acquired in free agency from the Chargers.

Weddle’s experience as a three-time Pro Bowler should be vital for a Ravens secondary that surrendered too many big plays last season.

Webb sees Weddle seamlessly taking command of the secondary, calling out coverages and making sure teammates are lined up properly.

“If he has anything to tell me I’m always listening,” Webb said. “He’s going to be big for this defense – for this team. He speaks up. I told him, `We want Eric Weddle. Don’t hold back. Don’t be quiet. We want you. If you yelled when you were with the Chargers, I want you coming out here yelling. Just be yourself. Grow the beard back, because we want the beard. If that’s who you were, grow the beard. He’s growing it back. He’s being himself and we’re loving it. It was a great move.”

Weddle has been offering advice to Webb on making the transition from cornerback to safety. Weddle can also lead by example, helping the development of young safeties like Terrence Brooks and Matt Elam.

At age 31, Weddle wants to show he can still play at a Pro Bowl level, and he desperately wants to make the playoffs. Harbaugh seems to have no doubt Weddle will make the Ravens’ defense better.

“I just really appreciate his attitude,” Harbaugh said. “He’s got an enthusiasm for the work day. He loves football. He loves every part of the work day. He loves every part of being in here and being a football player. There’s never something that you look at him and he’s not excited to do. That is infectious. That’s something that makes us all better, and to me, that’s one of the things that a great leader does and he’s got those qualities.

“He fits in with how we do things around here perfectly. I give (general manager) Ozzie (Newsome) all the credit in the world. That was a great signing.”

RELATED: CONDITIONING REMAINS AN ISSUE FOR RB RICHARDSON

Will lack of conditioning lead to Richardson's downfall with Ravens?

healthyperrimanravensrefframe_1.jpg

Will lack of conditioning lead to Richardson's downfall with Ravens?

Will running back Trent Richardson’s lack of conditioning be his downfall with the Ravens?

Richardson missed the first week of OTA’s with a hamstring issue, which was not the kind of early impression he wanted to make. Some injuries are unavoidable. But conditioning has been an issue for Richardson throughout his brief and so far undistinguished NFL career.

Entering the NFL as the No. 3 overall pick with the Browns in 2012, Richardson has disappointed in Cleveland and Indianapolis, and spent 2015 out of the league after the Raiders cut him before the season. When the Ravens signed Richardson in April, he knew it might be his last NFL chance. However, Ravens coach John Harbaugh wants to see even more commitment from Richardson when it comes to staying in shape.

RELATED: IN LATEST COMEBACK BID, RAVENS TE DENNIS PITTA'S CONFIDENCE NOT A PROBLEM

“Trent just needs to get healthy,” Harbaugh said after the first week of OTA’s. “I think the workload and the amount of work it takes to be a world class conditioned athlete is something that he’s working on right now. That’s what he needs to understand and that’s where he needs to get himself. When he gets himself there, he’s got talent. It will be fun. I’m very certain he’ll get there and when he does we’ll be able to evaluate him.”

The Ravens don’t have to wait on Richardson. Their running back competition is already intense, with Justin Forsett, Buck Allen, Kenneth Dixon, Lorenzo Taliaferro, and Terrance West all fighting for carries and roles.

Whether Richardson even threatens to make the team remains to be seen. His bigger priority is improving his conditioning, and getting back on the field.

MORE RAVENS: MIKE TOMLIN, ANTONIO BROWN GO TO PENGUINS PLAYOFF GAME