Reporters' Notebook

Ravens' D seeking old-school flavor; Derek Carr on two-point try

As the 2016 NFL season rolls into Week 2, NFL Media's network of reporters gets you up to speed with the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:

But first, a look at a Ravens defense trying to reconstruct a juggernaut ...


The most dominant defense in the first week of the 2016 season was played not by the Denver Broncos, who deliveredrepeated body blows to Cam Newton, or even by the San Francisco 49ers, who crafted an uncommon NFL shutout of the Los Angeles Rams. It came in Baltimore, where the Ravens stifled the Buffalo Bills for just seven points, 160 yards (the fewest allowed by the Ravens since 2011) and 11 first downs, not one of them in the fourth quarter.

Sound vaguely familiar?

The Ravens famously won their first Super Bowl in the 2000 season despite fielding an offense that did not score a touchdown in five consecutive games. The franchise has produced two certain future Hall of Famers who have been, arguably, the best to ever play their positions: middle linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed. Last Sunday, Reed stood on the Buffalo sideline, watching the smackdown as a member of Rex Ryan's Bills coaching staff.

But the more recent vintage of the Ravens has shifted its power base and its reputation to Joe Flacco's offense, not always with the desired results. Last season, with Flacco, tight end Dennis Pitta and receiver Steve Smith Sr. all hurt, the offense ranked 25th in points scored. The defense, with linebacker Terrell Suggs injured, ranked 24th in points allowed. The Ravens finished 5-11, their first losing season since 2007. There were caveats: Nine of the losses were by just one score (in fact, 15 of their last 17 games have been decided by eight points or fewer), but four of the 2015 losses came after the Ravens had a fourth-quarter lead.

More surprising, though, is the fact that the defense hasn't finished a season ranked in the top five in both points and yards allowed since 2011, marking a downward trend that the current incarnation would like to reverse in returning to what the Ravens are best known for.

"We're itching for it," said third-year defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, who had a sack of Tyrod Taylor on Sunday. "We know what it takes to be a Raven. We still have guys from those good old days, when the Ravens' defense was very respected, like Suggs and Coach [John] Harbaugh. They know what it looks like. We're definitely trying to get back there."

The first impressions from last Sunday were hopeful. Suggs returned from his Achilles tear and had a sack, as the Ravens were able to keep Taylor -- who ran for 568 yards and four scores in 2015 -- in the pocket. And the defense passed the most important eyeball test: It simply looked faster. Harbaugh singled out inside linebacker Zachary Orr, making his first career start, and cornerback Shareece Wright, who led the Ravens with 11 tackles, for mention. But the Ravens' defenders credited coordinator Dean Pees with simplifying the game plan, removing some of the checks, for instance, which allowed them to play faster.

"I think cohesiveness, the game plan and just knowing what you're doing, it allows you to play fast," cornerback Jimmy Smith said. "Experience and knowledge of what you're doing allows you to go 100 percent. In the second half of last season, when we started jelling, you could see speed a little bit. But this year, the coaches simplified it, and that allowed us to play fast."

This is all bad news for the Cleveland Browns, who, just one week into the season, are already immersed in a quarterback disaster, after a shoulder injury knocked starting signal caller Robert Griffin III out for an undetermined period of time. Veteran backup Josh McCown will go against the Ravens on Sunday. If you listened to the Ravens this week, they gave the impression that they view McCown as at least as big of a threat as Griffin would have been. In his career, McCown is 2-1 against the Ravens. In Cleveland's win over Baltimore last season -- one of the games in which the Ravens blew a fourth-quarter lead, and McCown's only victory in eight starts -- he attempted 51 passes and completed 70 percent of them.

"He's been on fire against us," Harbaugh said. "He has thrown balls up in the air. A guy catches it with his feet for a touchdown last year. I remember this guy just having no conscience and just throwing the ball in there and completing passes against us. We have a lot of respect for him. We know what kind of a player he is. We know how good he is, and he's super good against us. We know we have our hands full. It will be all hands on deck to get ready for the offense led by Josh McCown."

McCown, then, could give the Ravens another early chance to show that this defense has left its recent past behind.

"With myself, I was tired of just falling short," Jernigan said. "Last year, we fell short a few times. I'm tired of it. Whatever we have to do, I'm ready to do it."

And now, the rest of this week's notes from NFL Media's reporters:

CINCINNATI BENGALS: Dalton cool under (serious) pressure. A headline after Andy Dalton's performance Sunday: He was sacked seven times by the Jets. To put that in context, the Bengals didn't allow their seventh sack last season until Week 8. (Watching from the MetLife Stadium press box midway through the second quarter, it seemed like he might be sacked 20 times on the day.)

Dalton still put up these numbers: 23 of 30 passing for 366 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a passer rating of 114.0. (Yes, throwing to A.J. Green helps.)

"He's tough, he's mature," Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "The reality is ... that's part of the game. You don't get paid a lot of money to stay pretty all the time and hit open people. Over the years, the [quarterbacks] that people love -- [Brett] Favre and all those guys -- took hits and kept throwing. Andy continues to show why he's such an important piece to our program."

This is particularly important if the Bengals reach the playoffs for the sixth consecutive year. For now, they're riding a seven-game winning streak in the month of September.

Hill feeling better -- but can't forget playoff gaffe. When Jeremy Hillran for a go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter against the Jets, it didn't exactly exorcise any demons. The Bengals running back had told me a few days before the game that his fumble in last season's playoff loss to the Steelers "will never be behind me."

But Sunday's touchdown did show how Hill can hit the hole -- it was a big one -- and run over a safety (Marcus Gilchrist) on his way to scoring from 12 yards out.

"I think it's going to be a huge confidence-builder for us," Hill said. "We're a very confident team, and [the win over the Jets] is only going to help that."

If Hill looks quicker and faster this season, that's because he is. Hill told me that, due to tendinitis in his knee last season, he "didn't really have the burst I'm used to having. This year, I'm healthy. I feel like myself."


DALLAS COWBOYS: Williams explains why he stayed in-bounds. The Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskinsare both looking to avoid starting the season 0-2. Despite a promising preseason, the Cowboysfell short of a win Sunday against the New York Giants after fourth-year pro Terrance Williamsfailed to go out of bounds on what coach Jason Garrett called a "well-practiced situation" in Dallas' crucial final drive of the game. After the game, Williams said he should have followed the rules. So why didn't he? He said with the Cowboys facing a third-and-10 on the play, he wanted to try to pick up a first down before going out -- which we all know didn't work out. Williams did, however, promise this: "I'll never do it again."

Prescott up and down after stellar preseason. Rookie fourth-round pick Dak Prescott was near perfect in the preseason. In three games, he completed 39 of 50 passes for 454 yards and five touchdowns while recording a passer rating of 137.8. But the quarterback had an up-and-down afternoon in Week 1 of the regular season. Prescott was 25 of 45 passing for 227 yards, zero touchdowns and zero picks. He finished the game with a 69.4 passer rating. On the start, Prescott told me speed and looks weren't the issue. "I was comfortable with everything that came at me," Prescott said.

Where was Bryant? Fans and analysts alike have questioned Dez Bryant's lack of productivity. The seventh-year pro saw just 5 targets for one catch and 8 yards, with one play in the end zone ruled a non-catch in the second quarter. Garrett said Bryant had at least three good chances, but unfortunately, he wasn't able to connect on them. The coach said Bryant got a lot of attention from the Giants, but added that the receiver still needs to function and make plays.

Elliott vows to be more patient. As for rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys first-round pick called his debut "average," and while he isn't beating himself up over the fact he had just 20 carries for 51 yards and a TD, he would like to have some of the plays back. He said moving forward, he will be working to be more patient and do a better job of pressing his landmarks.

Morris ready to revisit Washington. Speaking of patience, that's the word Garrett used to describe backup running back Alfred Morris. Morris had seven carries for 35 yards (5 yards per carry) on Sunday. This weekend, Morris -- who spent his first four NFL seasons with the Redskins before signing with the Cowboys this offseason -- returns to Landover, Maryland after Washington failed to re-sign the free-agent. Redskins coach Jay Gruden told me it wasn't that they didn't want to hold on to Morris, but they felt like 2015 rookie Matt Jones was coming up and could be a featured back -- and they also had Chris Thompson. Gruden said Morris was a "great human being" and "handled business like a pro." As for how Morris feels about the return to FedEx Field, he said "it's just another game."


INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: Luck learning to protect himself. Last season, Andrew Luck was lost for the year after suffering a lacerated kidney in Week 9 against the eventual Super Bowl-champion Denver Broncos. Between that game and the Colts-Broncos rematch Sunday in Denver, the Colts made Luck the highest-paid player in the history of the NFL -- an investment Indianapolis would like to protect moving forward.

In the game that kicked off the 2016 season, the Broncos hit Panthers quarterback Cam Newton in Week 1 hard, incurring fines along the way. The Colts surely do not want Luck to take such a beating on Sunday.

The mental changes the three-time Pro Bowler made in the offseason might serve him well in terms of protecting himself physically moving forward.

"The decisions that he made on Sunday led you to believe that the guy had done some work in a lot of different areas, not only the fundamental and technical area, but the decision-making part of it, too," Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said Wednesday.

Pagano went on to add that Luck's ability to now utilize checkdowns, as well as the realization that he does not need to take unnecessary hits, was obvious during Week 1's loss to the Lions. Luck himself said Wednesday he knows he needs to be more patient with his shots downfield; he needs to get the ball out of his hands more quickly and wait for his time to spring big plays.

This week, Colts players were very open about their Week 9 win over Denver last year. Many thought it was their most complete game of the season. At the time, they also saw it as a key game to build on as they tried to mount a playoff run. Then they lost Luck for the rest of 2015. Indy does not want to go through that again, especially in Week 2. Luck's newfound approach might spare them that kind of outcome for the next several seasons as Luck is paid handsomely during his prime.


KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Kelce ready for extra scrutiny.ChiefsPro Bowl tight end Travis Kelce feasted on the Texans last season, as he totaled 14 receptions for 234 yards and two touchdowns in two meetings (including a wild-card playoff win). The Kansas City coaches realize he'll face more attention against Houston this week because of that production.

"Each and every week we know he's going to get double-teamed," said Chiefs co-offensive coordinator Matt Nagy. "You can move him around and put him in different positions, but in the end, he has to win ... But the thing about our offense is that [defenses] have to pick their poison. We know he's going to get [double-teamed], so we need to have a plan for it."

Peters will be challenged by Texans' receivers. The Chiefs had their hands full with San Diego wide receiver Keenan Allenlast week, who racked up six catches for 63 yards before sustaining a torn ACL. This week, the Chiefs will see two more dangerous threats in Houston: TexansPro Bowl wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and rookie Will Fuller. That means Kansas City Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters -- the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year -- has to be on his game.

"No matter who [we put on them], those are two really good players," said Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton. "I think Marcus will be fine. He's always up for whatever challenge we have for him. Whoever gets those guys has to do a good job, because those are real guys who make real plays."


NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: McCourty speaks out about anthem gesture. A movement among some of the league's players in support of Colin Kaepernick's efforts to bring attention to social injustice and police violence is quickly gaining speed. Since the 49ers quarterback opted not to stand during the national anthem in the preseason, an increasing number of his peers has joined the cause. Last Sunday night, Patriots players Devin McCourty and Martellus Bennettboth held up their fists after the national anthem before the start of New England's game against the Arizona Cardinals.

I spoke to McCourty after the game in the Patriots' locker room, where he told me the gesture of raising his fist was his way of joining Kaepernick in taking a stand against social injustice. He says a lot of players in the NFL care deeply about the issue of social injustice, and he believes more and more will find ways to bring attention to it.

"Players around the league have been talking about different ways they can support the message," McCourty said. "It's been pretty impressive. I'm proud of the group of men we have in this league to even start it and try and get that conversation going."

Among the players making gestures, Chiefs cornerback Marcus Petersalso raised his fist during the anthem in Kansas City. His Chiefs teammates interlocked arms, as did Seahawks players in Seattle, as a way of showing support, while Dolphins players Kenny Stills, Arian Foster, Jelani Jenkins and Michael Thomasknelt. Not everyone's efforts have been public. McCourty says some players are going into their communities raising awareness, while others have met with police offices seeking to better understand both sides of the issue. McCourty says the goal now is to consolidate the message. "We are just trying to create more unity and togetherness and equality. The more we try to talk and bridge the gap, the better it is for everyone."

Garoppolo aces first real test. The Patriots' excitement was tangible on the field after New England beat Arizona Sunday night. Jimmy Garoppolo handed out high-fives and hugs as he ran into the locker room after winning his first career start. "He's got that cool demeanor," said Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman after the game. Filling in for suspended starter Tom Brady, Garoppolo was able to extend plays and convert on a critical third down.

In the stands taking it all in were his former head coach at Rolling Meadows (Illinois) High School, Doug Millsaps, and Garoppolo's quarterback coach, Jeff Christensen. The two were ecstatic after the game when I ran into them on their way out of the stadium. They told me they've been waiting a while for Garoppolo to get his chance in the NFL. Christensen recalled how Millsaps called him one day and said, "Can you come out today? I have a linebacker, a sophomore, I think he might be my next quarterback. If you like what you see, I want you to work with him." They've been working together ever since.

This Sunday, Garappolo will play one of Christensen's other students, Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Says Christensen, "If you watch Tannehill's drop pass last Sunday that should have been the game-winner and Garoppolo's first touchdown pass against Arizona, and look at their feet, knees and hips, they were basically identical."

What the Pats' Brady-less success means. McCourty on the Patriots' Week 1 win : "This is a true team. We believe in each other and play together. Our leader, our best player is suspended, and we don't blink an eye, we just go out there and keep competing."


NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: Thomas earning attention. Keep an eye on Saints rookie receiver Michael Thomas. The Ohio State product has garnered a good amount of buzz since training camp. Multiple players and people within the organization have told me they believe the Saints got a real steal with the second-round pick (No. 47 overall).

Center Max Unger went as far as to tell me they're expecting a lot from Thomas right off the bat, and most of the offense realized early in camp he's going to be a "special player." Thomas has size and the ability to make big plays all over the field -- even when the ball isn't thrown his way.

Thomas has a nose for the ball, which he showed in the Saints' Week 1 loss to the Raiders, when he recovered a loose ball after Willie Snead fumbled a 43-yard catch from Drew Brees. The rookie scooped it up at the 12 and took it to the 2-yard line, with the Saints scoring a touchdown on the very next play.


OAKLAND RAIDERS: Carr pulls back curtain on gutsy two-point conversion. With 47 seconds remaining against the Saints, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr connected with Seth Roberts for a 10-yard touchdown. It put Oakland one point behind New Orleans, 34-33. Head coach Jack Del Rio went for two instead of tying the game with an extra point. Carr told me after the game that Del Rio made the decision to go for two before the final drive even started. As Carr took the field, Del Rio told him if they scored, they'd be going for two, no matter what.

Carr found Michael Crabtree in single coverage, and Crabtree made a brilliant one-handed grab in the end zone over Saints corner Ken Crawley to take the lead by one. Carr saw Crawley looking at him and not Crabtree and right then, he knew it was over. After the game, Carr and Crabtree talked in the locker room about the trust Del Rio had in them to make that call, with Carr telling his receiver that the decision showed how much faith their coach had in them to go out and win a game under those circumstances. It was something that meant a lot to both players -- and it was an example of how the mindset has changed in Oakland.


PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Big Ben's faith in Rogers.Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger isn't always the warm and fuzzy type when it comes to young receivers. Antonio Brown jokes that he didn't talk to him when he was a rookie. Darrius Heyward-Bey very seriously said it took a year to gain the two-time Super Bowl winner's trust when he signed in Pittsburgh.

But there Roethlisberger was on Monday night, calming Eli Rogers down after the second-year undrafted receiver took the wrong angle on his route and bobbled a ball into the hands of Washington corner Bashaud Breeland.

"He just said to me, 'You're good, don't worry, it's early,' " Rogers said Thursday, from the Steelers' locker room. "Ben said, 'You catch that all the time.' "

And it wasn't just words. Roethlisberger went right back that night to Rogers, who ultimately caught six balls for 59 yards -- and an incredibly-focused touchdown on a ricochet off Sammie Coates' body and Rogers' own facemask. Heyward-Bey teased that Roethlisberger "just likes Eli more than the rest of us." Offensive coordinator Todd Haley said that even if that's not true, there's reason it could be.

"He's the kind of kid who's going to work really hard to be perfect," Haley said. "He came out and did a lot of good things."

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