After a strong day of practice Wednesday, rookie tight end Hayden Hurst could be ready to play a larger role Sunday in Tennessee and beyond.
Hurst made his much-anticipated NFL debut in Week 5 and had a relatively quiet showing, catching one pass for seven yards. On Monday, Head Coach John Harbaugh said Hurst did "OK, about what you'd expect probably," and added that he can certainly improve.
The first-round draft pick suffered a stress fracture in August and missed the first four games of the regular season, forcing him to play catchup since his return.
Hurst was extremely impressive before his injury, quickly emerging as the Ravens' top receiving tight end and building rapid chemistry with quarterback Joe Flacco. Tight ends Maxx Williams, Mark Andrews and Nick Boyle have all played well, but Hurst, the 25th pick in the draft, could be ready to reemerge as one of Flacco's favorite targets.
"He had a fantastic practice yesterday (Wednesday)" said Offensive Coordinator Marty Morhinweg. "So that first week, if you look at it, you have a rookie who has never played in a league game coming off of a major injury. He was knocking a little bit of rust off last week, and then, man I was excited, because he practiced really well yesterday, so I think he's on the [rise]."
Mornhinweg Solidly Supports Hardworking Michael Crabtree
Watching wide receiver Michael Crabtree put in extra work after practice this week, Morhinweg sounded confident Crabtree will overcome the dropped passes that have plagued him.
Crabtree had three drops in Cleveland, including a possible game-winner, and vowed he would catch 2,000 extra passes this week if that's what it took. After Wednesday's practice, Crabtree stayed after running routes and catching passes from Joe Flacco, then went straight to the JUGGS machine.
"When something like this happens, you better go to work," Mornhinweg said. "He has the right mentality. I would rather have nobody else on the field in those situations as we continue than Mike Crabtree – done. And, he knows that. He understands that. I think all the players and the coaches feel the same way."
Crabtree was targeted 12 times in Cleveland and still had six catches for 66 yards despite his three drops. If future opponents continue to double-team John Brown as much as the Browns did, Crabtree's role in the offense could become even more important.
Defense Wants More Takeaways, But Not At Expense of Stops
Statistically, the Ravens are ranked near the top of the NFL in defense – third in total defense, fourth against the pass and fifth against the run. The Ravens are the only team that has yet to surrender a second-half touchdown.
However, the Ravens have just six takeaways (five interceptions, one fumble recovery) so far this year, which is the 11th-fewest in the league. Last year, Baltimore led the league with 34 takeaways.
The Ravens had just one takeaway in their loss to the Browns and could have used more momentum-changing defensive plays with Baltimore's offense struggling. Safety Eric Weddle said they missed some chances for interceptions of rookie Baker Mayfield.
Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale wants his defense to create more turnovers, but with the unit playing so well, he believes the turnovers will come.
"I think turnovers will come in bunches, like when you pull the olive out of the olive jar, and then they all fall out," Martindale said. "I think that's what happens with takeaways. We're playing fundamentally sound, and we're playing tight coverages. Last week, we had eight PBUs (pass breakups). Those PBUs become picks. Like I said, I was really proud with the effort that we gave last week and the effort that we've given already in practice. They'll come in bunches. I'm not in a panic about it, if that helps."
Weddle is still looking for his first interception after leading the Ravens with six in 2017. Like Martindale, Weddle is not stressing about the lack of takeaways.
"We're playing good, solid team football," Weddle said. "We're playing well in a lot of areas. We don't want to press the issue of trying to do more than we're told to do – especially myself. The plays will happen when you're in your position and doing your job."
Special Teams Mistakes Are 'Unacceptable'
Mistakes on special teams have haunted the Ravens, most recently Sunday in Cleveland when Justin Tucker had a field goal blocked for the second time. Tim White also fumbled a punt return, and he was demoted to the practice squad Monday when the Ravens signed cornerback/punt returner Cyrus Jones to the 53-man roster.
Jones is one of several candidates who could return punts for the Ravens in Week 6 against the Tennessee Titans. But regardless of who returns punts, the overall mistakes on special teams need to be corrected. The Ravens also had a punt blocked Week 2 against the Denver Broncos.
"Any kicks that are blocked are always a concern," Rosburg said. "That's a primary focus in practice, protecting our punter and our kicker. And we've had three of them in five games. It's clearly an unacceptable number."
Rosburg credited Denzel Ward of the Browns for anticipating the snap on the blocked field goal, but said the Ravens were also at fault.
"We had an edge issue," Rosburg said. "We were a little too tight. Just a matter of inches makes a huge difference.
"All those things are very concerning – we'll continue to work on it. The guys that are doing it know what they're doing. I have full faith and confidence that we'll get it fixed."
As Rosburg and the players focus on the kick protection issues, the Ravens have not said who will handle punt returns Sunday. Jones, John Brown and Willie Snead IV have been mentioned as possibilities and White or Janarion Grant could be pulled up to the active roster at any time.
Brown volunteered for the role after returning punts for several seasons with the Arizona Cardinals. He leads the Ravens in both receiving yards (396) and touchdown receptions (three).
"He's got such a big role in our offense right now, we don't want to diminish that role," Rosburg said. "But if we need help, John's willing to help. We're not just going to throw him back there for fun. We'll have a plan for him if that should come to pass."
Jones returned punts for the Patriots as a rookie in 2016, but he also fumbled five times. For Jones to be the answer as the Ravens' punt returner, the fumbling issue will need to be fixed.
"We had scouted Cyrus extensively in college and he was a fine returner in college," Rosburg said. "When he started his pro career it wasn't so illustrious, as we all recognize. He has skills. He's a fine corner and returner. We'll see how practice goes. We're working with him."