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Playoff-bound Ravens must get healthy and improve

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Playoff-bound Ravens must get healthy and improve

OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) The Baltimore Ravens are playoff bound, and that's about the best thing that can be said about them.

They've lost three in a row and have more than a half-dozen key players sidelined with injuries. Still, Baltimore (9-5) backed into the postseason late Sunday when Pittsburgh lost to Dallas.

The Steelers' loss assured the Ravens of at least wild-card berth, although their excitement over the accomplishment has been blunted by their longest losing streak since 2009 and the knowledge that they must improve to mount a serious postseason run.

The Ravens entered December with a three-game lead in the AFC North. The margin has shrunk to one game (over Cincinnati) with two to play.

``We've got work to do,'' coach John Harbaugh said Monday. ``We're going to fight like crazy to become the team we're capable of becoming. We're not that team yet. It's a long season, but all of our goals and all of our dreams are squarely in front of us.''

That Ravens have the longest current run of consecutive playoff appearances in the NFL. They failed to reach the Super Bowl in any of their previous four forays into the postseason, and that unfortunate string will continue if Baltimore plays as it did the past three weeks.

After losing to Pittsburgh at home and at Washington, the Ravens were dominated from the start Sunday in a 34-17 home loss to Denver. After getting off to a fine 9-2 start, Baltimore is backpedaling in very untimely fashion.

``We've owned the last three losses. We also own the nine wins,'' Harbaugh said. ``We are what we are, we are what our record says we are and we're in contention. We're proud of that. But we know we have to get better and we have to get healthy.''

The injury list is expanding rather than shrinking. Linebacker Terrell Suggs (torn right biceps) and cornerback Jimmy Smith (abdomen) returned Sunday, but Ray Lewis remains sidelined with a torn right triceps and Harbaugh said Monday that inside linebacker Jameel McClain will miss the remainder of the season with a bruised spinal cord.

Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe has missed three straight games with a sprained ankle, and Harbaugh acknowledged that the team ``might need to see who's available'' outside the organization.

The Ravens finished Sunday's game without wide receiver Torrey Smith and running back Bernard Pierce, both of whom had concussions. Their status, along with that of guard Marshal Yanda (ankle), safety Bernard Pollard (chest) and tight end Ed Dickson (knee), remains uncertain heading into Sunday's home game against the New York Giants (8-6).

Injuries are only part of the problem. The Ravens simply haven't played well this month, and although they remain in control of the division their uneven play has created a genuine cause for concern.

``Right now I am embarrassed as a player to come out and perform the way we have,'' safety Ed Reed said. ``...It hits you in your heart when you lose three straight and you had an opportunity to close out your division the last three weeks. It's terrible.''

Asked to assess the frustration level of the team, cornerback Corey Graham replied, ``"It's at a max. I don't know about everybody else, but I know I'm frustrated. I know we've got to get better, I know we've got to make plays, and we've got to find a way to finish and get it done. We're not doing that as a team, and when you're not doing that you're not going to win games.''

Harbaugh attempted to shake things up last week by firing offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and handing the job to quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell. Unfortunately, the offense was miserable against the Broncos. Baltimore failed to get a first down until deep into the second quarter, quarterback Joe Flacco had two turnovers by halftime and the Ravens scored their only touchdowns after Denver built a 31-3 fourth-quarter lead.

Ray Rice was limited to 38 yards on 12 carries and Pierce gained 20 yards on five tries before leaving. In all, Baltimore could muster only 56 yards on the ground.

``We'd like to run the ball better than we did. I was a little disappointed in that,'' Harbaugh conceded. ``We tried to get that going and there just wasn't much happening there. We need to sustain. We need to be a little more consistent, make a few more plays and get first downs.

``It's really been the same issue all year and we understand that. We're struggling with inconsistency and that's something we have to find between now and when the playoffs start. We're going to work hard to do that. I don't think we're that far away.''

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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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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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