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Why the Ravens secondary has the potential to be dominant in 2019

Why the Ravens secondary has the potential to be dominant in 2019

The 2018 season for the Baltimore Ravens secondary was a successful one. Ranking in the Top 5 in both passing yards and passing touchdowns allowed, opposing offenses didn't have a ton of success in the air.

In 2019, that back portion of the defense could be even better.

Despite losing Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle during free agency, Baltimore's secondary is filled with emerging stars who have more playing time under their belt, experienced veterans, talented youngsters and a lot of depth. That combination could lead to a strong year from the last line of defense.

Expectations are high on the outside. On the inside, the feeling of something special has been recognized as well.

“I think we already know we can play at a high level, it’s already been done. So, we expect to play at that level," ninth-year cornerback Jimmy Smith said. "We have a lot of pride in that room, we have a lot of ballers and people who are striving for excellence. Our expectations are pretty high this year.”

The hype surrounding the secondary starts with the newest addition: Earl Thomas III. Signed in the offseason, the 30-year-old is one of, if not the most, physical and talented defensive backs to play the position today. A six-time Pro Bowler and three-time First-Team All-Pro, Thomas has the ability to take a talented secondary and make it even better.

While the season is still young and Thomas is just getting introduced to his new system, his impact is already being felt. 

“It’s kind of a Captain Obvious question, but Earl is a great player," defensive backs coach Chris Hewitt said. "What he brings is, he’s very intense, he’s a playmaker. He’s got all the tools that you want us to take that next level.”

“He’s a ballhawk, he has instincts, just natural instincts that have already shown up on the field," Smith added.

As Hewitt also alluded to, part of where Thomas can help the most is in one of the few areas the secondary struggled in last season: turnovers. With 12 interceptions last season, Baltimore ranked 18th in the league. Not the worst, but there is room for improvement. Thomas, who had three in just four games last season, can help increase that number.

Yet take Thomas out of the picture for a second, and Baltimore's depth in the secondary is still tremendous. In addition to Smith, Tony Jefferson, Brandon Carr and Anthony Levine Sr. bring talent and veteran experience to the group. There's no forgetting Marlon Humphrey either, the third-year cornerback is coming off of a breakout campaign in 2018 and continues to improve.

That's already a talented secondary, and Anthony Averett and Tavon Young, both players who have impressed at times and have the ability to make a jump as they get more reps in the system, haven't even been mentioned yet. 

Baltimore has so much to work with that some other talented players on the roster may just fall victim to the intense amount of competition.

“As far as depth is concerned, if I’m any kind of team out there right now I’d be looking at the Baltimore Ravens cause there’s going to be some good players that won’t make this team," Hewitt said of the wide array of NFL-worthy players on the secondary roster.

Besides the talent and depth, versatility is another aspect of the group. Specifically, 12-year veteran Brandon Carr fits that role for Baltimore, moving away from just being a cornerback for the team. He still spends time there but has also worked in other spots, including safety, during the early days of camp. As Hewitt describes it, Carr has become the secondary's "Swiss Army Knife".

Though a positional change late in a career can be daunting, Carr has welcomed it with open arms.

“It’s new, it’s a new challenge and at this point in my career, man, I’m just ready for whatever," Carr said. "Played a long time and I feel like this is an opportunity for me to go out there and show my versatility. Fill in wherever I’m needed, help out as much as I’m needed. So, I’m down for whatever challenge coach presents to me, I’m going to try and knock it out best I can.”

Spending time at different locations of the secondary not only allows Carr to get a better feel for the system and improve his skills, but it also allows him to get on the field. The veteran cornerback isn't really danger of not getting any playing time, but the competition is intense.

"We’re deep across the board and it’s tough to get on the field, so you got to find anyway you can to go out there get your name called making plays," Carr said. "I’m just part of one of these guys out here trying to get better each and every day, challenge myself but find a spot on the field. It’s challenging but it’s good for our secondary, good for our defense.”

A switch in where he lines up could also help Carr maintain his consecutive regular-season starts streak. At 176, he hasn't missed a regular-season game in his career and ranks second among active players. As impressive as that is, it's something that isn't really a priority. Carr wants to get on the field, but he also wants to do it in a way that is best for the team.

“I haven’t really thought about it. I’m just so consumed with just trying to be the best I can right now," Carr said of the streak. "I’m just all about trying to win games, man. I’ve been playing 12 years, trying to get a ring, trying to win a championship, trying to be the best defense best secondary one more year. That’s all my mind’s focused on right now.”

Who plays where may still be up in the air at this point in the year, but the Ravens seem to have all the pieces necessary to wreak havoc for opposing pass offenses in 2019.

With training camp just underway, the expectation are high. Rightfully so, everything looks positive for the secondary on paper. However, there's still work to be done in the coming weeks to turn the potential into results.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day, it’s going to take some time for us to become a great secondary. We have all the tools to become a great secondary, but it’s Day 5 of camp and it’s hard for me to say how good we’re going to be, how bad we’re going to be," Hewitt said. "But, we got high expectations to do that this year. We’ll see what happens.”

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How the Baltimore Ravens chose city history for their team name

How the Baltimore Ravens chose city history for their team name

Before they got their name in 1996, the Baltimore Ravens, wanted the city’s NFL franchise to be known, once again, as the Colts. 

When the Cleveland Browns left for Baltimore after the 1995 NFL season, there were more pressing matters on the mind of the organization before a name was constructed. Plus, with more than a dozen lawsuits from Cleveland trying to prevent the move in the first place, the public option to discuss the name wasn’t available just yet. 

So, as the franchise’s brass internally sat down to come up with options, the name “Colts” was brought up. Baltimore owner Art Modell reached out to Jim Irsay in Indianapolis about acquiring the name. Modell thought he could get the rights for a couple million dollars, so he offered $5 million. 

Irsay came back with an offer around $25 million.

“We probably had, in the original mix, 12 to 15 names as possibilities,” longtime Ravens executive vice president of public and community relations, Kevin Byrne, recalled. “We looked at variations of horse themes to go along with the Colts...(After Irsay’s offer) Art said, ‘I think we’re going to have a different name.’” 

The Colts had been the name of the city’s team from 1953 to 1984. The team had won three NFL Championships and one Super Bowl and had one of the league’s most famous quarterbacks in Johnny Unitas. 

But in the early morning hours of March 29, 1984, the Colts famously left town on Mayflower trucks for Indianapolis. The franchise, owned by Robert Irsay, kept the name.

When football returned to Baltimore, retaining — or, in this case, buying — the Colts name back wasn’t an option. Neither was keeping the name "Browns."

“(Owner) Art (Modell) had said from the very beginning, ‘I’d love to have you go with us, but we can’t be the Baltimore Browns,’” Byrne recalled. “‘I can’t do that to the people in Cleveland. They need to keep Jim Brown and Brian Sipe and Ozzie Newsome. We have no right to take that.’ (So) I knew we were going to have a new name.”

Paired with Modell’s lack of desire to keep the name, as well as commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s commitment to bring football back to Cleveland with the original “Browns” name, Baltimore searched for a new name for its new team.

Bryne, who was with the Browns organization starting in 1981, followed the team from Cleveland to Baltimore. He announced his retirement from the organization in April. 

While the team searched for a name, he said the organization wanted a unique name that worked with the city’s history. One option was to name the team the “Americans,” a name based on the railroad history of Baltimore.

“David was really enamored with that,” Byrne recalled. “He used to chuckle, ‘We will be America’s Team, we’ll be called the Americans. We’ll have American flag on the helmet.’”

Another option was the “Marauders,” a nod to the city’s football past with the Colts, as well as the country’s past.

Then, the Ravens name was introduced. 

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It was based on a poem titled “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe, who died in Baltimore in 1849 after spending the latter half of his life in the city. While the name is commonplace now, the debate raged on at the time.

“Internally, we couldn’t agree at all,” Byrne said. “One day we were discussing it and I said, ‘Why don’t we let the fans decide?’ So we went to The Baltimore Sun and asked them if they would like to be involved in a fan-vote. While we had lots of names, the three finalists we offered to the fans to vote on were Americans, Marauders and Ravens. And overwhelmingly, the fans selected Ravens.”

According to the Ravens’ website, The Sun announced a record-breaking 33,748 callers for the poll. The Ravens overwhelmingly won the poll with 22,463 votes. The Americans trailed 5,635, and Marauders 5,650.

“When we first practiced, we were the Mean Machine from ‘The Longest Yard,’” Byrne joked. “We didn’t have a logo on our helmets, we had white helmets with black jerseys. We had to kind of hurry the process.”

Once the name was chosen, colors had to be picked for the team. The pictures and descriptions the organization found of ravens showed the bird’s black figure with the look of almost purple wings. 

“In talking with the league, they told us, ‘You just can’t be black and purple, you need some white colors in there,’” Byrne said. “So we looked at the state flag which had some gold in it, had some yellow, had a little red in it, then we got those colors in to brighten up.”

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And with the name and colors decided, the Ravens were officially the NFL’s newest franchise. 

The only thing left to work out was the blending of Baltimore’s past into the future of the Ravens. Byrne credited Art Modell for making that happen. 

Former Baltimore Colt players were interested in who Art was, and many of them likened him to Robert Irsay in Indianapolis. Byrne assured them that wasn’t the case.

After Modell met with the former players and earned their trust, he set his sights on getting Unitas onboard. And with a promise to look after the NFL’s alumni from Modell, Unitas agreed to be on board with the Ravens’ organization. 

Later that year on Sept. 1 against the Oakland Raiders, the Ravens officially entered the NFL, with Baltimore Colt legends welcoming them on the field.

“John came, we had opening day with the jackets, we all lined up and Johnny presented the game ball to the referee,” Byrne said. “It was like the imprimatur from the Pope so to speak, that the Baltimore Colts were telling all the fans, ‘It’s OK to root for these guys. These guys are us.’”

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If Steelers fans are allowed into Heinz Field this season, they'll have to wear a mask

If Steelers fans are allowed into Heinz Field this season, they'll have to wear a mask

If fans are permitted to attend Pittsburgh Steelers home games this fall, there's one item they can't forget: a mask.

Steelers' director of communication, Burt Lauten, explained the decision to require fans to wear a mask in a statement on Tuesday.

"Our goal is to still have fans at Heinz Field this year with the understanding that social distancing, as well as all fans being required to wear masks, will play a role in the capacity to ensure a safe atmosphere," Lauten said, via ESPN. "We will continue to work with the NFL and public health officials to finalize plans for fans to attend our home games."

Pittsburgh was one of the first franchises to alter its ticketing plans this season, as they decided in May to trim half of their individual game ticket sales due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

The news comes just hours after their AFC North rival, the Baltimore Ravens, announced that M&T Bank Stadium will be capped at less than 14,000 fans this fall, should fans be allowed to attend games.

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In June, The Athletic reported that the NFL will not place a limit on capacity at games, allowing each individual team to make the decision themselves.

"Attendance will be a state-by-state, county-by-county thing," an anonymous NFL source told The Athletic. "It will not be a one size fits all."

Additionally, the NFL has said that the first 6-8 rows of lower bowl sections, including field-level suites, will be blocked off this fall to help slow the spread of the virus. Those sections will be covered with tarps, which teams can use to sell advertising, similarly to what the Premier League in England has done.

With training camp still a few weeks away, there are a lot of virus-related questions the NFL must answer beforehand.

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