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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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After breakout 2017 season, Ravens running back Alex Collins isn't getting too comfortable

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After breakout 2017 season, Ravens running back Alex Collins isn't getting too comfortable

This time last year, running back Alex Collins wasn't a part of the Baltimore Ravens.

After being released by the Seattle Seahawks at the end of the 2017 preseason, the Ravens placed the 23-year-old on their practice squad, and by Week 2, Collins was already making plays.

As the season progressed, Collins found himself as the Ravens' top running back. He finished 2017 as the team's leading rusher with 973 yards while Javorius "Buck" Allen followed behind him with 591 yards.

If the 2018 NFL season began today, Collins would likely be the Ravens' starter, which is quite ironic considering the fate of his 2017 preseason.

"I always go back to where I started and where I am now, and I use that as my motivation," Collins said after Thursday's training camp practice.

"No matter the day, no matter how tired I am, I think to myself, at this time last year, I didn’t know my position, where I was, where I’d end up. So just having that security behind it is definitely my motivation to keep it this way and keep pushing forward and keep trying to get better instead of being complacent.”

Over the course of 15 games, Collins proved he had the strength and speed to make an impact on the team after Danny Woodhead suffered a hamstring injury on the first drive of the Ravens' Week 1 game and Kenneth Dixon sat out the entire season with a torn meniscus. 

While job security is something we all strive for, Collins isn't getting too comfortable with the hierarchy. 

“I don’t want to say necessarily ‘comfortable,’ because when I use that word, it makes me feel like I’m too relaxed and lackadaisical," Collins said.

"I’m more focused. I don’t want to get comfortable. I don’t want the team or our group to get comfortable, because we just want to get better every day. So, in the position I am, it’s a great feeling, but I’m always pushing myself to be better.”

While Collins has set personal goals for himself – like a 1,000-yard season – he is equally as focused on making the Ravens backfield one of the best groups in the National Football League. 

“I expect that," Collins said on being the Ravens' starter.

"I would hope that all the other running backs expect [to be the starter] as well, and that’s what kind of drives our group – when we all know that we have that capability to be the No. 1 guy, and we’re out competing and push each other and try to be the best. No matter who’s out there during the game, you’ll see a productive play out of that person. So, I have that mindset. I want to be the guy. I have that fire in me, and I hope [that is] as well as the other running backs, as I encouraged them as well.”

Collins noted that he's coming into training camp a bit heavier. He added five pounds to his 200-pound frame "just to see how that feels," but is still maintaining the stamina and strength he's always had. 

Collins – who was one of several veterans released from practice early as the team begins to adjust their way into the extended preseason – finished his media availability with a friendly warning to fantasy football owners: "Draft me now before it’s too late, guys."

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Joe Flacco receives high praise from teammates after first training camp practice

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USA TODAY Sports

Joe Flacco receives high praise from teammates after first training camp practice

Ravens football is back and so is Joe Cool.

The team’s first training camp practice took place Thursday afternoon, and Joe Flacco’s teammates – from offensive to defensive players – mentioned how laser focused the 10-year veteran is.

"Joe always has a lot of personality,” running back Alex Collins said via SB Nation’s Baltimore Beatdown.

“He is a good guy. He’s a real funny guy, but definitely coming into this year, he has a lot of fire behind him. And it does a lot motivating us especially early when we first reported back. Just seeing him work hard and just seeing him get better every day. He’s definitely got a lot of fire behind him this year.”

Flacco is entering the final year of his contract with a lot on the line following a disappointing start to the 2017 season. But a huge factor that is different for the 33-year old coming into this preseason opposed to last is his health.

“Most definitely,” Collins said on whether he can tell if Flacco is healthier this year. “He’s a lot faster as well, by the way, guys.”

And when it comes to the “Is Joe Flacco elite” debate, linebacker C.J. Mosley knows the consensus within the Under Armour Performance Center.

“I think every year [Joe Flacco] comes in with his mindset that he wants to be great,” Mosley said.

“Mainly because everybody outside of this building does not think he is elite and inside the building, everybody does think that way. Since Joe has been here, you know he is one of those players that never gets rattled. You never see his emotions too high, too low. He’s been our quarterback that kinda stays in the middle to make sure everything goes smooth. That’s kinda how he has been this offseason too. He’s come in looking strong, body looking good.”

Flacco’s health is up to speed as well as his mentality. Flacco organized private workouts with his wide receivers and tight ends at a local park across from the Ravens’ facility last week. This is the first time he has done so since 2011. When asked if he initiated the session, Michael Crabtree gave all the credit to his new quarterback.

“No, that’s all Flac [Flacco], man,” Crabtree said. “That’s the leader. We’re just the wideouts. [We] do whatever he says. If we’ve got something we bring to the table, then we make it work.”

 

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