Ravens' Birk, Reed finally reach the Super Bowl

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Ravens' Birk, Reed finally reach the Super Bowl

OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) The only reason why Matt Birk brought his aching knees and battered body to training camp for a 15th NFL season was to get to the Super Bowl.

The 36-year-old Birk was bothered by neck, elbow and knee injuries during his previous three years with the Baltimore Ravens, yet he never missed a start. During the offseason, the six-time Pro Bowl center underwent surgery to repair varicose veins in his legs.

Still, Birk knew the Ravens had a shot at a championship, and he wanted to be a part of it.

``At this stage in my career, losing takes a lot out of you,'' Birk said. ``I wouldn't have come back if I didn't think there was a legitimate chance that I could help the team.''

Birk, safety Ed Reed and guard Bobbie Williams head a list of longtime veterans who will be making their first Super Bowl appearance when the Ravens face the San Francisco 49ers on Feb. 3.

``It means a lot for all the guys to have an opportunity to be a part of that,'' coach John Harbaugh said. ``To be able to be involved with that as a leader is a huge thing. It makes you feel really good, and now you try to make the most of it.''

Birk endured 11 fruitless years in Minnesota, reaching the playoffs five times without a conference title. Then, after joining the Ravens as a free agent in 2009, he was part of three more playoff runs that ended short of the Super Bowl.

Now, Birk is poised to be part of the NFL's biggest game.

``It's great, obviously,'' he said. ``That's the goal. That's your dream. That's why you play.''

Maybe Birk deserved it, after everything he went through over his first 14 years. But Birk exudes no such feeling of entitlement.

``Nobody deserves it more than anybody else. It doesn't matter how long you play,'' he said. ``To be doing it with this team and just, I think, the closeness of this team and kind of the journey that we have been through my four years here - every year getting close and getting close - to finally break through, it's pretty special.''

Reed, 34, has earned nine Pro Bowl invitations in 11 years with Baltimore and has long been recognized as one of the finest free safeties in the game. But he never got into the Super Bowl until now, and to make it even sweeter, his first appearance will be in his home state of Louisiana.

``It's been a long time coming, but it takes time,'' Reed said. ``We've built up to this point.''

Teammate Jacoby Jones, who grew up in New Orleans, will be making his Super Bowl debut in his sixth season. After the Ravens beat New England 28-13 in the AFC championship game, Reed prepared for a trip to familiar territory with Jones in tow.

``I really don't have any words for it,'' Reed said. ``I rushed into the locker room to call my mom, because I know that my family has been going through some things, so I'm just thankful to be going home and for the whole of New Orleans to see some hometown guys. Jacoby, we talked about it. We haven't been there since (Hurricane) Katrina. We're just grateful.''

The Ravens failed to win the AFC title game in 2008 and 2012 under Harbaugh before finally breaking through.

``For everything we've been through since coach Harbaugh got here, he had a vision of working us a certain way and taking us through something to build something and to create this moment,'' Reed said. ``We believed it, but it was just something we had to go through as men and understand each other and understand the process together.''

Williams, a backup on the line, played for Philadelphia and Cincinnati before getting into the Super Bowl in his 13th NFL season. Linebacker Terrell Suggs (10th season) and former Houston Texans stars Vonta Leach (ninth) and Bernard Pollard (seventh) signed as free agents with Baltimore for the chance to perform on the sport's grandest stage.

Quarterback Joe Flacco, who needed only five years to get it done, takes delight in seeing some of his older teammates finally heading to the Super Bowl.

``No doubt about it, I am excited for everybody that has been in the league as long as those guys have been,'' he said. ``To have this opportunity is pretty cool.''

Will Matt Elam make Ravens in 2016 after fifth-year option declined?

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Will Matt Elam make Ravens in 2016 after fifth-year option declined?

It was no surprise the Ravens did not pick up the fifth-year option on safety Matt Elam by Monday’s deadline. The bigger question is whether Elam even makes the team next season.

The 32nd pick in the 2013 draft, Elam has been one of the biggest first-round busts in team history. Some of the standout players who went after Elam in that draft include Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short (44th), Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell (48th), and Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins (52nd).

Elam missed all of last season with a torn biceps, after underperforming in 2013 and 2014. Elam was a big hitter in college at Florida, but has struggled with missed tackles as a Raven, and has been even worse in pass coverage. With the Ravens acquiring safety Eric Weddle in free agency, and Lardarius Webb switching from cornerback to safety, Elam is expected to be a backup at best. He will compete with Terrence Brooks, Kendrick Lewis, and others for a backup role.

Elam is scheduled to make $1.327 million next season, before becoming a free agent in 2017.  However, Elam’s first priority is to secure his place with the Ravens in 2016.  

AFC North: Steelers LB James Harrison will return for 2016

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AFC North: Steelers LB James Harrison will return for 2016

The Ravens can expect to see Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison as an opponent again in 2016. Harrison confirmed on his Instagram account Monday that he would return for another season.

Harrison will turn 38 years old Wednesday (May 4), but he was still effective in 2015 with five sacks and 40 tackles playing in the Steelers’ linebacker rotation. With his announcement that he was returning, Harrison wrote “I’m feeling just like a fine wine. Getting better with age.”

Despite Harrison’s age, the Steelers believe they got younger and better on defense through the draft. Five of the Steelers’ seven picks were on defense – cornerback Artie Burns (first round), safety Sean Davis (second), defensive tackle Javon Hargrave (third round), outside linebacker Travis Feeney (sixth round), and inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich (seventh round).  

Clearly, there will be plenty of new names in the Ravens-Steelers rivalry, with both teams looking to get younger and faster. However, Harrison plans to be part of the mix for at least another season. The Ravens host the Steelers in Week 9, and visit the Steelers on Christmas afternoon.

MORE RAVENS: BISCIOTTI GETS HIS WISH WITH BOLSTERED PASS RUSH

Bisciotti gets his wish with draft class full of pass rushers

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Bisciotti gets his wish with draft class full of pass rushers

At the team's "State of the Ravens" end-of-season news conference, owner Steve Bisciotti made no bones about where he thought the Ravens needed to improve in 2016: rushing the passer.

So although Bisciotti didn't speak to the media after the draft, he had to be pleased with the results.

With two of their first three picks, the Ravens selected players who figure to pressure the quarterback -- Boise State linebacker Kamalei Correa and Brigham Young defensive end Bronson Kaufusi.

"They both have pass rush ability," coach John Harbaugh said. "They both get sacks, they are both high-motor players and high-energy pass rushers. These two guys are going to run to the ball. These two guys are going to run to the ball 100 miles an hour every single play. That’s really important on defense.”

The next day, the Ravens added Grand Valley State defensive end Matt Judon -- who had 20 sacks last year -- in the fifth round. Just for good measure, they also reportedly agreed to sign undrafted rookie linebacker Victor Ochi of Stony Brook, who led the Football Championship Subdivision with 13 sacks.

Harbaugh said after the draft that "I don't think it was a secret" that Bisciotti wanted the Ravens to upgrade the pass rush, "and we were able to fill (that need). I’m really fired up about that. I’m really excited about these guys getting to the quarterback.”

Bisciotti said in January that losing Terrell Suggs to a season-ending injury in Week 1 had a "domino effect" that greatly disrupted the defense. Elvis Dumervil was forced into more of a three-down role, and Courtney Upshaw never came close to replacing Suggs' sack numbers. Dumervil dropped from 17 sacks to six, and overall the Ravens dropped from 49 sacks in 2014 to 37 last season.

When the pass rush failed to pressure the quarterback, coverage linebackers or defensive backs were frequently exposed.

"I think I have a true appreciation of what pressure means, and so that’s what I think we need to do," Bisciotti had said in January. "I think we need to focus on our free agency and our draft, and I think we have to have multiple pass rushers in order to let everybody else be effective.”

Suggs turns 34 in October and is coming off his second major Achilles injury. Dumervil is 32. So the need to develop good young pass rushers is obvious. The Ravens hope they took a big step in that direction over the weekend.

MORE RAVENS: EVALUATING ALL FIVE 4TH-ROUND SELECTIONS