Getting healthier during the bye was a top priority for the Ravens, and they are expected to welcome back several key players as they prepare to face the unbeaten New England Patriots.
Head Coach John Harbaugh is optimistic that wide receiver Marquise Brown (ankle), inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor (ankle) and cornerback Jimmy Smith (knee) will be on the practice field this week. Onwuasor and Brown have missed the last two games, while Smith hasn't played since Week 1.
"They're on track, we'll see how it goes this week," Harbaugh said. "I'm pretty confident that they'll be there."
Onwuasor still leads the Ravens in tackles (30) despite missing two games, and he has returned to his strongest position of weakside linebacker after starting the season at middle linebacker. Onwuasor, Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort will give the Ravens a steady and experienced three-man inside linebacker rotation.
Brown is the team's primary deep threat with 21 catches for 326 yards and three touchdowns, and his speed gives Baltimore a quick-strike dimension that has been missed. New England has the NFL's second-ranked defense yielding just 234 yards per game. Having Brown back on the field would put more stress on the Patriots' secondary.
Smith's return will give the Ravens perhaps the NFL's most-talented cornerback rotation. Marlon Humphrey has become one of the league's top corners. Brandon Carr plays at a high level whether outside or in the slot. By trading for Marcus Peters this month, Baltimore acquired the player who has the most interceptions (25) since 2015. Adding Smith to the mix will make it very difficult for opposing quarterbacks to find a mismatch they can exploit. The Patriots especially do a good job of finding cracks.
"It's exciting," Harbaugh said. "We want to have guys who can cover; that's important to us. We've got guys that can cover. Obviously adding Marcus is a big plus for us. Getting Jimmy back, it's been a long time now. He played what seven, eight nine plays in the Miami game and he's been out since. Had a really good training camp. If we can get him back, it'd be huge for us."
In other injury news, Harbaugh also said that cornerback Tavon Young, who is out of the season with a neck injury, had successful surgery.
"I was told it went well," Harbaugh said. "He's on track."
Brady's Quick Recognition Sets Him Apart
Tom Brady is masterful at recognizing where he wants to attack a defense, no matter how well that defense is disguised.
Brady gets rid of the football quickly, largely because he is rarely fooled when making his pre-snap read and can correctly anticipate which receiver gives him the best option.
"He's probably the best, he and Peyton Manning, probably the two best ever at dissecting the defense intellectually and knowing where to go with the ball," Harbaugh said. "Getting the ball out very accurately and quickly. That's what makes him who he is."
The Ravens did have some extra time during the bye to study the Patriots and try to further disguise their defense. After a through self-scouting process, Harbaugh said there was a "number of specific things just in terms of what we can do better" in all three phases.
The Ravens' pass rush has improved in recent weeks, however getting pressure on Brady that disrupts his timing will be a major challenge.
"We've actually pretty good all year as far as getting pressure," Harbaugh said. "I think we've forced the ball out very quickly. Most teams have decided to get the ball out quickly. I'm sure the Patriots will do the same, except they'll have play-action with it and they'll have their trick plays, things like that we'll have to be ready for."
Kamalu, Richards Get Ready to Face Former Team
There's been some recent shuffling of players between the Ravens and Patriots, creating another storyline heading into Sunday's game.
Former Ravens special teams ace Justin Bethel was signed by New England last week after he was released by Baltimore. The Ravens wanted to keep Bethel, but releasing him likely gives Baltimore a compensatory fourth-round pick in next year’s draft.
Meanwhile, the Ravens signed two former Patriots last week – defensive lineman Ufomba Kamala and defensive back Jordan Richards. Kamala will be given a chance to help Baltimore's interior pass rush.
"He's a big strong player," Harbaugh said. "He was a good fit in that system and he's probably a good fit in our system. He's a physical guy and he can move. He's versatile, he's played outside linebacker, the rush position that Pernell (McPhee) was playing."
Richards' ability on special teams was attractive to the Ravens after losing Bethel, one of the league's best special teams players
"He's also a safety but he was the best available special teams guy," Harbaugh said. "It's kind of ironic the way it worked out. They had to let somebody go."
Harbaugh said he it would be strange watching Bethel line up on special teams for New England.
"It's not ideal," Harbaugh said. "I'd rather see him on our side for sure. That's just the nature of the business. What are you going to do? We're just going to go play. He's on the other side now. We'll always respect him. Say hi to him before the game. That's how it works. Crazy business."
Joe Flacco Neck Injury Could Derail His Season
Last season, former Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco suffered a hip injury before the bye week that opened the door for Lamar Jackson to become the Ravens' starting quarterback.
On Sunday, Flacco suffered a neck injury with the Denver Broncos that will sideline him for at least one game, with the potential to be more serious. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter and Jeff Legwold, Flacco has a herniated disc that could send him to the injured list.
Harbaugh and Flacco developed a close relationship during his 11 years as the Ravens' quarterback, but Harbaugh said he had not heard about Flacco's injury prior to his Monday press conference.
"I didn't know that," Harbaugh said. "We always pull for our friends. Just from afar."
The New York Jets could also lose former Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley to a groin injury. He's reportedly expected to miss five to six weeks, which puts him near the end of the regular season.