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High-powered Saints visit struggling Raiders

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High-powered Saints visit struggling Raiders

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) The New Orleans Saints have overcome an 0-4 start and the distractions from the bounty scandal to fight their way right back into position for a possible late-season playoff run.

First they have to get their record back to .500.

All that stands between the high-powered Saints and that modest goal is a struggling Oakland Raiders team that has allowed 97 points the past two weeks and matched a franchise-worst for points allowed in last week's 55-20 loss at Baltimore.

``Man, if Baltimore can put up 55, you don't even want to see what New Orleans can do,'' Raiders defensive tackle Tommy Kelly said.

The Saints (4-5) have done quite a bit since the 0-4 start under a cloud from the bounty allegations that led to a season-long suspension for coach Sean Payton and other punishments that have been a distraction all year. With four wins in the past five games, including a 31-27 victory last week over previously unbeaten Atlanta, New Orleans has worked its way back into contention.

But there is little margin for error. The schedule gets much tougher after Sunday's game in Oakland (3-6) with the following three games against division leaders, meaning the Saints can ill-afford a slipup against the struggling Raiders.

``When you dig yourself a hole like we have, every game you play is going to be critical,'' interim coach Joe Vitt said. ``Anything other than our best effort and we're going to have a long Sunday.''

The Saints have been close to their best in recent weeks. After uncharacteristically throwing five interceptions the first three games, Drew Brees has completed 71 percent of his passes the last two weeks with five TDs and only one interception. The running game, energized by Chris Ivory, has produced 288 yards on the ground the past two weeks.

And even the porous defense has stepped up of late, holding Philadelphia to 13 points two weeks ago and coming up with the late goal-line stand that sealed the win against the Falcons.

``They're back in the groove,'' Raiders cornerback Ron Bartell said. ``They're doing what they normally do. ... He's putting up huge numbers. They're doing a better job of protecting him. He's getting the ball out of his hands. His receivers are making plays. Basically the normal New Orleans Saints offense.''

Which is what's so scary for the Raiders.

The Raiders have been up-and-down defensively this season, getting gashed on the ground early in the season by Miami and then getting overwhelmed by Peyton Manning and Denver before a bye week.

Oakland then put together a fairly strong three-week stretch, holding down Matt Ryan and the Falcons to one offensive touchdown and beating one-win Jacksonville and Kansas City in back-to-back weeks.

But the last two weeks have been as bad as it's ever been defensively in Oakland. Tampa Bay rookie Doug Martin ran for 251 yards in a 42-32 win two weeks ago. That was followed by the drubbing in Baltimore when Joe Flacco picked the Raiders apart for 341 yards and three touchdowns as the Ravens matched the most points ever allowed by the Raiders.

``I know the team that we're going to face is not the team that gave up 55 points last week or 42 points against Tampa,'' Brees said.

``It's a play here, it's a play there, it's a big play here, a big play there that can typically affect the outcome of a game. This defense has a lot of very talented players on it. They have played very, very well at times. I know that, for us, we're going to have to play our best game and worry about our execution, and that's what we're focused on.''

That Oakland is struggling so much on defense comes as a bit of a surprise for the Saints, who know Oakland first-year coach Dennis Allen so well. Allen spent five years as a defensive assistant in New Orleans, helping the team win the Super Bowl following the 2009 season as defensive backs coach.

After spending one year as defensive coordinator in Denver the 40-year-old Allen got his first head coaching gig this year in Oakland.

``He deserves it, man,'' Saints safety Roman Harper said. ``He's a great coach. He understands everything it takes to win and I know he'll get those guys going. They've had some ups and downs but at the end of the day that's going to happen, especially when you're a new coach somewhere. He's going to have them just fine though.''

Allen coached four years in Atlanta before joining Payton's first staff on the Saints in 2006. He credited that experience with getting him to where he is now.

``I started coaching in the NFL in Atlanta, but I grew up in the NFL in New Orleans,'' he said. ``I got a lot of good memories there, and we were able to win a championship. So it was a big part of my development as a coach.''

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AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in Metairie, La., contributed to this report

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Ravens cancel Saturday's open practice at M&T Bank Stadium

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USA Today Sports

Ravens cancel Saturday's open practice at M&T Bank Stadium

The Baltimore Ravens cancelled Saturday night's free open practice at M&T Bank Stadium due to a forecast that calls for heavy rain and inclement weather.

There is no official word from the team on whether this practice will be resheduled, but it seems like Sunday may be an option, even though there's rain in the forecast then too.

Ravens fans who were looking to see first-round draft pick and potential future starting quarterback Lamar Jackson will have to wait for another day. His presence at training camp, an inevitable competition with the incumbent, Joe Flacco, and potential two-quarterback packages involving both of them are set to be some of the biggest storylines of Ravens camp this summer.

As a Heisman Trophy winner, Jackson was one of the most dynamic players in college football during his time at Louisville. If he can replicate that kind of performance in the NFL, he will be at plenty more training camp sessions for Ravens fans to watch.

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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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