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Ravens’ opponents now set for 2015 season

Posted on 28 December 2014 by Luke Jones

While the Ravens are now focused on their sixth trip to the postseason in seven years, their slate of 2015 opponents was finalized with the conclusion of the regular season on Sunday.

Finishing third in the AFC North with a 10-6 record, Baltimore will now face the third-place finishers in the AFC East and AFC South — the Miami Dolphins and the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Ravens were already slated to face the AFC West and NFC West next season in addition to their usual six games against their three AFC North rivals.

2015 will be the Ravens’ 20th season in Baltimore.

Dates and times will be announced when the full NFL schedule is released in the spring.

Below is the full slate of 2015 opponents:

HOME: Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, San Diego, St. Louis, Seattle, Jacksonville

AWAY: Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Denver, Oakland, Arizona, San Francisco, Miami

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Even with long odds, Ravens still rolling shiny dice in January

Posted on 28 December 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — It had been a forgettable seven quarters of football for Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense.

Coming off one of the worst games of his career in the offensive meltdown in Houston, Flacco and the Ravens weren’t faring much better Sunday as they trailed 10-3 to the Cleveland Browns entering the fourth quarter. Knowing they were getting the necessary help from Kansas City to make the playoffs as the No. 6 seed, the Ravens needed to break through the thick fog that was threatening to wreck their season.

Even if it took an extra quarter to take effect, the message came loud and clear from their franchise quarterback at halftime.

“Joe stepped up at halftime when he talked to the team briefly,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “He just made a point, kept it simple and said, ‘Let’s just go win a game.’ That kind of summed it all up for us. Let’s go do what we have to do to win a football game.”

Win is what the Ravens did in a 20-10 final to punch their ticket to the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years. The performance wasn’t pretty and does little to quell concerns about an offense that continues to start games at a glacial pace.

But with it also came a reminder why Baltimore can’t be counted out in the postseason despite a banged-up offensive line, a recently-inconsistent running game, and a patchwork secondary. Few expect a long playoff run for the Ravens as they face the prospects of three straight road games just to make it to Super Bowl XLIX, but don’t tell that to their seventh-year quarterback.

After completing just 14 of 27 passes for 151 yards and a 68.6 passer rating through the first three quarters Sunday, Flacco went 8-for-9 for 161 yards, two touchdown passes, and a perfect 158.3 rating in the final 15 minutes as the Ravens scored 17 unanswered points to finish off the Browns. It was the kind of performance that reminds you how dangerous Flacco can be when he heats up, just like he did in his historic 2012 postseason that resulted in a Super Bowl title.

“Anything can happen once you get into the playoffs, but I don’t necessarily want to approach it [with that mindset] with us,” Flacco said. “I’m not going to be surprised if, three weeks from now, we’re sitting here and still playing. I think when I say anything can happen — or if I was to say that — that’s implying we don’t deserve to win any games in the playoffs.”

Of course, Flacco wasn’t alone in stepping up in the fourth quarter as Torrey Smith beat Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden to make a spectacular 53-yard reception to swing the momentum with just over eight minutes to go. The fourth-year wideout then reined in a 16-yard touchdown catch on the next play as the Ravens took a 13-10 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

The Ravens know they’ll need to rediscover their running game for a full four quarters and to lean on a potent pass rush when potentially facing the AFC’s top quarterbacks in January — starting with Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger on Saturday night — but any chance of a meaningful playoff run will begin and end with Flacco, who had the best regular season of his career despite the poor showing in Houston and the shaky beginning to Sunday’s game. The 29-year-old threw for 3,986 yards and 27 touchdowns this season, which were both career highs.

Even with long odds as the No. 6 seed, the Ravens know Flacco can be the lucky dice at the playoff table.

“When Joe is hot, he’s tough to handle,” Smith said. “And that’s on us at times to get him hot and our offensive line to do a great job protecting him. When you get him hot, we’ve seen what he can do. Hopefully, that last quarter, or whatever amount it was he got hot, hopefully that continues on.”

The comparisons to 2012 will be made by optimists this week as the 10-6 Ravens return to the playoffs after a one-year absence, but they won’t be afforded the luxury of a wild-card round home game like they enjoyed two years ago. Baltimore only won consecutive road contests once this season in topping New Orleans and Miami over a three-week stretch and would need three straight to make it to Arizona.

Only one of the Ravens’ 10 wins this season came against an opponent that finished the year with a winning record — Pittsburgh in Week 2. They were 1-6 against teams that finished the season above .500.

The health of left tackle Eugene Monroe will be closely monitored after he missed Sunday’s game with an ankle injury. It’s difficult envisioning the Ravens surviving very long without either starting tackle as Rick Wagner was lost for the season last week.

A band-aid secondary has played admirably over the last four weeks, but too much optimism would be fool’s gold after the Ravens faced the likes of Blake Bortles, Case Keenum, and Connor Shaw in December. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata’s return from suspension will provide a boost to an already-imposing defensive line, but the foot injury suffered by improving rookie Timmy Jernigan on Sunday could neutralize the overall impact.

On top of it all, the Ravens will travel to Pittsburgh, a place where they’re winless in three previous playoff trips with the most recent coming at the end of the 2010 season.

There are plenty of reasons not to like the Ravens’ chances in the 2014 postseason, but could Flacco’s awakening in the fourth quarter on Sunday be a sign of what’s to come in January?

“I have no idea. If we go win the Super Bowl, I guess it will be,” Flacco said. “The goal is not to make the playoffs. That’s the first part. That has to happen in order to achieve your goal. That’s really not the goal. I’ve been here through plenty of wins in the playoffs and then losses in the AFC championship game, losses in the division round, and believe me, people aren’t any happier just because you made the playoffs. It’s not a good feeling.

“Like I said, I think if we go do what we’re capable of doing then a game like this will mean something.”

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Ravens moving closer to clinching playoff spot entering Week 16

Posted on 15 December 2014 by Luke Jones

Even after a sloppy performance in their 20-12 win over Jacksonville in Week 15, the Ravens now see the light at the end of the tunnel in securing a return to the playoffs after a one-year absence.

The Ravens knew last week that a trip to the postseason would be guaranteed with three straight wins to close out the month of December, but they now enter Week 16 with the opportunity to clinch a playoff berth with some help. At the conclusion of Week 15, Baltimore holds the No. 6 spot in the AFC playoff race thanks to San Diego’s loss to Denver.

Three scenarios exist that would allow the Ravens to officially punch their ticket to the playoffs in Week 16:

1) A win at Houston + a Pittsburgh loss to Kansas City + a Cincinnati loss to Denver

2) A win at Houston + a Kansas City loss or tie at Pittsburgh + a San Diego loss or tie at San Francisco

3) A tie at Houston + a Kansas City loss at Pittsburgh + a San Diego loss at San Francisco + a Buffalo loss or tie at Oakland

Of course, the Ravens still have visions of winning the AFC North, which will happen if they win their final two games and both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh lose at least one more game.

However, Week 16 could also bring an end to the Ravens’ hopes of a division title if both the Steelers and the Bengals are able to secure wins. If that were to happen, the winner of the Cincinnati-Pittsburgh game at Heinz Field the following week would be the AFC North champion.

Both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh clinch postseason berths with wins in Week 16.

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Ravens control own path in returning to playoffs

Posted on 08 December 2014 by Luke Jones

After securing their biggest win of the season to prevent their playoff hopes from becoming a faint dream, the Ravens now have their path to the postseason staring them directly in the face.

The 28-13 win over the Miami Dolphins puts Baltimore in a position where three consecutive wins to close the regular season will guarantee a return to the playoffs after a one-year absence. The Ravens currently stand seventh in the AFC playoff hunt, but the Week 17 rematch between current No. 4 seed Cincinnati and No. 5 seed Pittsburgh — who owns a better division record than the Ravens — guarantees they would leapfrog one of their AFC North foes should they handle their own business over the final three weeks of December.

“We’re pleased with the fact we’re in the hunt, that we control our own destiny,” head coach John Harbaugh said Monday afternoon. “You can ask for more, but boy, it’s a great accomplishment to be in that position right now. It’s just our job to make the most of it, and our guys are very aware of that. They really are. Our guys are really tuned into the fact that it’s in their hands, and it’s our responsibility to get the job done.”

Of course, the Ravens still have a chance to take the division if they win out and both the Bengals and the Steelers lose at least one game down the stretch. So, how realistic is that outcome?

It’s very difficult envisioning 2-11 Jacksonville giving the Ravens too much trouble in Baltimore this Sunday, but a Week 16 trip to Houston won’t be easy as the Texans are currently in the best shape of the 7-6 teams due to a superior conference record and have won three of their last four games. Should Baltimore get by Houston, a Week 17 meeting with the Browns is never one to overlook, but the game will be played at M&T Bank Stadium, giving the Ravens a distinct edge.

As for the Bengals, a road trip to Cleveland on Sunday and a Monday night home game against Denver in Week 16 will be dangerous to navigate before their regular-season finale in Pittsburgh. The Steelers travel to Atlanta — who will be coming off a short week following a Monday night road game — this Sunday and host Kansas City in Week 16 before welcoming the Bengals to Heinz Field for the season finale. Pittsburgh would win the division by winning its final three games.

It’s nearly impossible trying to predict the fate of these three AFC North teams who have been up and down at various times this season, but the Ravens’ ability to take care of business in Miami makes their objective clear.

Win out and they’re in the playoffs.

Another loss and they again find themselves looking around to see how others are faring.

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Contender or pretender: Sizing up the 2014 AFC wild-card race

Posted on 02 December 2014 by Luke Jones

Even as the Ravens and their fans continue to seethe over a surprising 34-33 loss to the San Diego Chargers in Week 13, head coach John Harbaugh took a more pragmatic approach when addressing reporters on Monday afternoon.

The loss certainly didn’t help, but defeats suffered by several other AFC teams left six teams with a 7-5 record as we enter the final quarter of the regular season. It won’t be easy for Baltimore as it tries to survive with the NFL’s 31st-ranked pass defense, but a reasonable schedule down the stretch leaves the Ravens in good shape if — and that’s a big if — they handle their own business.

“We wake up this morning, we look at the standings and we are right in the thick of it,” Harbaugh said. “It’s going to go down to the wire. And we have a huge game down in Miami this week, and it’ll be a lot on the line. They’ll be ready, and they’re good. We’ll have a great opportunity to make a move.”

There’s no understating how important Sunday’s game against the Dolphins will be as it represents another head-to-head tiebreaker scenario after the Ravens dropped one to San Diego this past week. A win pushes Baltimore to 8-5 and knocks Miami down a peg in the standings while a defeat all but guarantees the need to win out and to hope for assistance from other teams in the playoff race.

The Ravens still hold out hope for a chance to win the AFC North, but Cincinnati currently leads by 1 1/2 games over the other three teams in the division. With the Bengals playing the Steelers twice and the Browns once in the final month, the division race is far from over, but Cincinnati has firm control of its path as we enter Week 14.

Below is a look at the current wild-card field — with numbers indicating each team’s current place in the conference — as we determine who the contenders and the pretenders are:

5. SAN DIEGO (8-4) – CONTENDER
Conference record: 6-3
Remaining schedule: New England, Denver, at San Francisco, at Kansas City
Skinny: How big was Sunday’s win in Baltimore for Mike McCoy’s team? All you have to do is take a look at the Chargers’ remaining schedule and realize you wouldn’t have liked their chances at all had they fallen to 7-5. Instead, they own a one-game lead over the 7-5 teams in the AFC and remain in excellent shape if they can go 2-2 in their final four. A year ago at this time, the Chargers were 5-7 and looked all but dead before running the table — including wins over Denver and Kansas City — and receiving lots of help to sneak into the postseason. They’ll need another good finish, but they have some margin for error this year.

6. MIAMI (7-5) – CONTENDER
Conference record: 6-3
Remaining schedule: Baltimore, at New England, Minnesota, New York Jets
Skinny: It wasn’t pretty, but the Dolphins’ Monday night win over the Jets kept them in prime position to secure a playoff spot with a strong finish in the final month. A Week 15 trip to Foxborough won’t be easy, but their final two home games are very winnable against two teams with a combined seven wins. Anything can happen considering the Ravens and the Dolphins both lost their final two games in 2013, but it certainly looks like Sunday’s game in Miami could go a long way in determining who secures a wild-card spot in the AFC playoff race.

7. KANSAS CITY (7-5) – PRETENDER
Conference record: 5-4
Remaining schedule: at Arizona, Oakland, at Pittsburgh, San Diego
Skinny: The Chiefs were feeling really good about themselves a few weeks ago, but consecutive losses to woeful Oakland and powerful Denver have brought them back to the rest of the pack. Kansas City can’t throw the ball and the run defense has been gashed in recent weeks, which doesn’t make for a good combination entering the season’s final month. With three games remaining on the schedule against teams with winning records — two of them on the road — it’s hard to envision the Chiefs playing well enough down the stretch to secure one of the two wild-card spots.

8. BUFFALO (7-5) – PRETENDER
Conference record: 4-5
Remaining schedule: at Denver, Green Bay, at Oakland, at New England
Skinny: The Bills continue to hang tough in the AFC playoff race after a nice win over the Browns on Sunday. However, remaining games against the Broncos, the Packers, and the Patriots should end any serious discussion about Buffalo qualifying for the postseason. With their other game being a cross-country trip to Oakland, the Bills might be fortunate just to win one more game in the final month of the regular season. It’d be interesting to see what the Bills could do with a real quarterback even if veteran Kyle Orton has done a respectable job since taking over for E.J. Manuel. Injuries at running back haven’t helped, either.

9. BALTIMORE (7-5) – CONTENDER
Conference record: 3-5
Remaining schedule: at Miami, Jacksonville, at Houston, Cleveland
Skinny: Sunday’s loss to San Diego was brutal as it gives the Ravens little wiggle room the rest of the way as they really need to beat the Dolphins on the road. The remaining schedule is reasonable, but how do you trust a secondary that continues to be toasted by any opposing passing games with a pulse? Even a road trip against the Texans is concerning with talented receivers Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins waiting. A lousy 3-5 conference mark doesn’t help matters for the Ravens, but we’ll see what Harbaugh’s team is made of in the next three weeks. The running game and the offense will need to come up huge.

10. PITTSBURGH (7-5) – CONTENDER
Conference record: 6-3
Remaining schedule: at Cincinnati, at Atlanta, Kansas City, Cincinnati
Skinny: The Steelers continue to be one of the most bipolar teams in the NFL as they stubbed their toe Sunday against New Orleans, who was coming off three straight losses. When at their best, the Steelers have one of the most balanced offenses in the league, but the defense doesn’t scare anyone and could easily be exploited down the stretch. The biggest factors working in the Steelers’ favor are a 6-3 conference record and two games with the Bengals, which could catapult them into the AFC North lead. Given how unpredictable they’ve been, the Steelers could win out or lose out and no one should be surprised with either outcome.

11. CLEVELAND (7-5) – PRETENDER
Conference record: 4-5
Remaining schedule: Indianapolis, Cincinnati, at Carolina, at Baltimore
Skinny: Quarterback Brian Hoyer has really struggled in recent weeks, but a change at quarterback isn’t exactly what you’re looking for while in the playoff hunt and that’s exactly where the Browns find themselves. Maybe rookie Johnny Manziel is the spark to light the fire for Cleveland down the stretch, but nothing else about the Browns’ final month of the schedule makes you think they’re going to do enough to sneak into the playoffs. They’ll need to beat either the Colts or the Bengals at home to give themselves any decent chance at all in the final two weeks.

12. HOUSTON (6-6) – PRETENDER
Conference record: 5-3
Remaining schedule: at Jacksonville, at Indianapolis, Baltimore, Jacksonville
Skinny: Why even include the Texans on the list considering they have the worst record of the bunch? Two of four remaining games coming against Jacksonville certainly helps, and a home game against the Ravens looks more and more reasonable given Baltimore’s pass defense woes. Of course, Houston isn’t a real contender, but no one thought the Chargers were at this time last year, either. If you’re looking for that deep sleeper to finish strong — three out of four wouldn’t be out of the question — and take advantage of a slew of other teams being mediocre down the stretch, Houston is your team. A good conference record also helps.

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Issues with Tate, Blount show how lucky Ravens got with Forsett

Posted on 18 November 2014 by Luke Jones

(Updated: 1:30 p.m.)

A look at the current AFC North is a great reminder of how volatile the running back position can be and just how lucky the Ravens were signing veteran running back Justin Forsett to a one-year deal back in April.

The Cleveland Browns parted ways with Ben Tate Tuesday as he was growing increasingly unhappy splitting carries with rookies Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell. After signing a two-year deal worth up to $6.2 million in a market particularly cool on running backs, Tate averaged just 3.1 yards per attempt and received only two carries in Sunday’s loss to Houston.

Tate’s recent remarks questioning his role followed by Browns head coach Mike Pettine’s response saying the two rookies had more pop and explosiveness made it clear that the relationship was rapidly deteriorating before the Browns officially waived the 26-year-old Tuesday morning.

Things weren’t much better in Pittsburgh for backup running back LeGarrette Blount, who was released a day after embarrassing himself on Monday night by turning his back on his team and going to the locker room before the Steelers had finished off their 27-24 win over Tennessee. Blount didn’t receive a carry against the Titans while surging starter Le’Veon Bell rushed for 204 yards on 33 carries.

Blount signed a two-year, $3.85 million contract with the Steelers this offseason, but he and Bell were arrested for marijuana possession in August and Blount was seeing his role diminish with Bell emerging as one of the top running backs in the NFL. The 27-year-old was averaging 4.1 yards per carry but has just 23 yards on 15 rushing attempts over his last three games.

Meanwhile, the Ravens keep chugging along with Forsett, who signed a one-year, $730,000 contract as an addition viewed strictly as an insurance policy for the troubled Ray Rice at the time. The 29-year-old now ranks seventh in the NFL in rushing and leads all running backs with a 5.4 yards per carry average.

“The role he has played is exactly the one I envisioned for him when he came in here. Saw it all along,” said Harbaugh as he chuckled following the Week 10 win over Tennessee in which Forsett ran for 112 yards and two touchdowns. “But he’s the kind of guy that deserves it. He’s the kind of guy that has had a really good career. When you watch him on tape, he has always been a playmaker, and now he’s getting an opportunity to prove that.”

By all accounts, Forsett has been a great teammate who was just thankful for the opportunity when it looked like his NFL career may have been circling the drain after an injury-riddled season in Jacksonville a year ago. Instead, he’s having a career season in helping the Ravens pick up the pieces left behind by the Rice saga and his positive attitude has made him easy to root for.

Tate and Blount were two talented backs many wanted the Ravens to sign last offseason and there’s no way of knowing if either would have worked out better in Baltimore, but it’s difficult to argue with the production Forsett has provided at a reduced rate.

Even if the Ravens couldn’t have expected anything close to it at the time.

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Ravens get some help in AFC North during bye week

Posted on 16 November 2014 by Luke Jones

As the Ravens were enjoying their bye this weekend, they could thank J.J. Watt for providing some help in their quest for an AFC North title.

Watt’s impressive performance on both sides of the ball led the Houston Texans to an impressive road win over the Cleveland Browns. The All-Pro defensive end and 2012 Defensive Player of the Year recorded a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, five tackles, and a first-quarter touchdown catch in the 23-7 final.

The loss knocked the 6-4 Browns out of first place as they’re now tied for second with Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Of course, the Steelers travel to Nashville to take on the Tennessee Titans Monday night.

While the Texans helped out the idle Ravens, the New Orleans Saints laid an egg at home in a 27-10 loss to Cincinnati, which propelled the 6-3-1 Bengals back into first place in the division. Dominated at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, the Saints lost their second straight home game after previously winning 20 in a row at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Considering how unpredictable the 4-6 Saints have been this year, it’s difficult trying to figure out which team will show up against the Ravens next Monday night. But you can bet head coach John Harbaugh will remind his team throughout the coming week that the Saints are no longer invincible at home as they had looked the last few years.

As for the rest of the AFC playoff landscape, the Kansas City Chiefs beat Seattle for their fifth straight victory, which leaves them tied with Denver for first place in the AFC West after the Broncos were beaten in St. Louis. At 7-3, the Chiefs are making a loud statement for a playoff spot for the second straight season as they currently hold the top wild-card spot in the conference.

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Who will prevail in the AFC North?

Posted on 14 November 2014 by Luke Jones

Halloween has come and gone, but that hasn’t prevented the AFC North from looking like something out of the twilight zone as the Ravens enjoy their bye this weekend.

Every team in the division is at least two games above .500, the first time that’s happened in the NFL since 1935. The Cleveland Browns — yes, those Cleveland Browns — are in first place in a year in which many talked about Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh battling for the top spot in a wide-open division.

Wide open indeed.

But who will prevail?

And just how strong is this division that’s gone 7-1-1 against the woeful NFC South but sports just one win — Pittsburgh’s 51-34 thrashing of Indianapolis — against winning teams outside the division?

Who will win the AFC North?

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Below is a look at each of the four teams and what lies ahead over the final seven weeks of the regular season:

CLEVELAND (6-3)
Division record: 2-2
Remaining schedule: Houston, at Atlanta, at Buffalo, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, at Carolina, at Baltimore
Skinny: On paper, this schedule doesn’t look too intimidating with four games against teams currently sporting non-winning records, but it also includes four out of seven on the road. The Browns deserve credit for the way they beat up the Bengals on the road in Week 10, but old habits die hard and it’s still difficult to believe they’re going to be the team left standing at the end of the season. These next three weeks are critical to the Browns’ chances as they face three very beatable opponents despite two coming on the road. If the Browns win at least two, they’re in decent shape entering a tough final month. Winning all three of those likely makes Cleveland the favorite to win the division entering the last four weeks.

CINCINNATI (5-3-1)
Division record: 2-1
Remaining schedule: at New Orleans, at Houston, at Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, at Cleveland, Denver, at Pittsburgh
Skinny: If it weren’t for their season sweep of the Ravens, the Bengals wouldn’t even be discussed as a playoff contender as their other three wins have come at home against Atlanta, Tennessee, and Jacksonville. If you’re head coach Marvin Lewis, the hope is that a healthy A.J. Green will provide the spark because Cincinnati has gone 2-3-1 since the first month of the season. Even if the Bengals have the most talented roster in the division, five of their remaining seven games are on the road and four come against teams sporting winning records. You never know in the unpredictable NFL where things can change quickly from week to week, but Cincinnati looks like the team least equipped to make a run to win the AFC North.

PITTSBURGH (6-4)
Division record: 2-2
Remaining schedule: at Tennessee, Bye, New Orleans, at Cincinnati, at Atlanta, Kansas City, Cincinnati
Skinny: There may not be a more bipolar team in the entire league as the Steelers own the best win (Indianapolis) and two of the three worst losses (Tampa Bay and the New York Jets) of any team in the division. Like the Ravens, they will benefit from having a late-season bye and the balance of three home and three away games over their final six. If Pittsburgh survives a trap game at Tennessee on Monday night, three of the remaining five games come against teams with winning records and two of those will be played at Heinz Field. Based on the remaining schedule, you might be inclined to label the Steelers the favorite of the four teams, but how can you fully trust a team that’s lost games to the 1-8 Buccaneers and the 2-8 Jets?

BALTIMORE (6-4)
Division record: 2-3
Remaining schedule: Bye, at New Orleans, San Diego, at Miami, Jacksonville, at Houston, Cleveland
Skinny: The Ravens should feel good about their remaining home schedule — even with two games against teams with winning records — but their road games against the Saints, the Dolphins, and the Texans won’t be easy for a team sporting just two wins away from M&T Bank Stadium. The Miami game on Dec. 7 might be the biggest of the year if Baltimore wants to be in good position to win the division or at least clinch a playoff spot when it hosts the Browns in the regular-season finale. Winning one of their three road games and winning out at home would get the Ravens to 10 wins, but John Harbaugh would feel a lot better with a 10-5 mark going into the finale against Cleveland than a 9-6 record with so-so division and conference records.

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Kubiak examining Flacco’s recent uneven play during bye

Posted on 12 November 2014 by Luke Jones

After players departed the Owings Mills facility for their bye earlier this week, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak was asked to assess the recent play of quarterback Joe Flacco with the Ravens standing at 6-4 in the AFC North.

Such questions about individual players are typically met with generic responses stating the individual is playing well or making a lot of progress, but Kubiak didn’t shy away from addressing the recent struggles of his quarterback. Since throwing 14 touchdowns and five interceptions while posting a 97.3 passer rating through the first seven games, Flacco has thrown three touchdowns and three interceptions with a 75.5 rating over the last three contests with the Ravens losing to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh before rebounding at home to beat lowly Tennessee last Sunday.

“That’s kind of what I’m looking at right now,” Kubiak said. “You go through phases throughout the course of a season. Joe went through a really hot stage [for] about three or four weeks. Then, we went through a stage here where we turned the ball over. We calmed that down last weekend, which is a big reason why we were able to be successful.”

Of course, the performance of the Ravens quarterback is always a polarizing topic as his biggest detractors blame him for all of the team’s failures while inevitably reminding everyone of his hefty contract. This then prompts a segment of Flacco’s strongest supporters pointing out all other offensive issues out of his hands while seemingly giving the seventh-year signal-caller a pass for how he’s played. As is typically the case, the reason for his recent decline in performance lies somewhere in between.

It’s no secret that the Ravens’ offensive line struggled to handle the pass rush of both the Bengals and the Steelers as Flacco was often harassed with pressure up the middle. Center Jeremy Zuttah was repeatedly pushed back in the pocket in both games and Steelers linebacker James Harrison suddenly looked like the 2008 version of himself in Week 9, but the quarterback can’t be completely absolved from criticism as he made some poor decisions that led to critical interceptions and often appeared rattled, which affected his accuracy and decision-making at times in both games.

The recent struggles with interior pressure carried over to the start of the Tennessee game as the quarterback continued the recent habit of throwing off his back foot, even when pressure wasn’t coming. And this is where some blame lies with the quarterback as Kubiak preaches good footwork and Flacco has often been quick to move when he hasn’t needed to or he has failed to step up in the pocket when pressure is coming off the edge.

There’s also been the issue of how effectively the Ravens are adjusting to blitzes with many questioning Flacco’s ability to audible at the line of scrimmage and Kubiak’s route concepts when opposing defenses are consistently pinning their ears back. If adjustments aren’t made on both fronts, opposing defenses will continue to copy the blueprint of Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

“We have to clean up some of our decision-making,” Kubiak said, “and I think I can help him with that by how I call plays, too. So, that’s what I’m kind of trying to really check myself probably first before I go to Joe and say, ‘OK, this is what we’re going to do.’ That’s kind of what I’m trying to do right now.”

The truth is Flacco is having a good year overall as he’s on pace to throw a career-high 27 touchdowns and eclipse the 4,000-yard mark for the first time in his career. His 62.4 percent completion rate is his best since 2010, but the Ravens will need him to elevate his play down the stretch considering the defensive concerns in the secondary.

It is worth noting that Flacco has thrown 10 of his 17 touchdowns in three games against the lowly NFC South as Carolina, Tampa Bay, and Atlanta all currently rank in the bottom eight in the NFL in total defense. In his other seven games this season — five against the AFC North — Flacco has thrown seven touchdowns and six interceptions for a 77.2 passer rating.

Overall, the offensive line has done a good job protecting Flacco as he’s only been pressured on 30 percent of his dropbacks — the 10th-best mark in the league, per Pro Football Focus — but his 61 percent accuracy rate (passes completed including drops) under pressure ranks only 16th in the NFL. Flacco’s receivers have often let him down this year as they’re tied for third in the NFL with 23 dropped passes, according to PFF, and questions will remain about how many consistent playmakers the quarterback really has to throw to.

Kubiak’s comments shouldn’t be interpreted as sounding the alarm over how Flacco has played, but the Ravens offense must be better down the stretch in all phases. The season-ending loss of Dennis Pitta has limited Baltimore’s options over the middle portion of the field, but the return of Michael Campanaro could provide a complement to Owen Daniels in that area of the field as the rookie was slowly beginning to emerge as a short-to-intermediate target prior to his hamstring injury in Week 8.

More than anything, the last three weeks have shown the offense under Kubiak remains a work in progress with more room to grow down the stretch. And Kubiak trying to bring out the best in Flacco will be critical in determining the Ravens’ fate at the end of the season as they’ll likely need to win at least one or two of their last three road games (New Orleans, Miami, and Houston) to put themselves in position to return to the playoffs.

“I’m trying to go back and really look at the things that he’s very comfortable with and doing very well, and maybe some of the things I’ve asked him to do here over the course of a few weeks that maybe got him out of that comfort zone,” Kubiak said. “I’m trying to find that as a coach as we get into these last six weeks [and] get him as comfortable as I can. But Joe is working really hard.”

 

 

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Ravens staking claim as one of NFL’s best with fast start

Posted on 19 October 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens staked their claim as the best team in the AFC North with a 29-7 win over the Atlanta Falcons Sunday to move into first place ahead of Cincinnati.

With their fourth 5-2 start in the last five years, the Ravens have put themselves in prime position to return to the playoffs as they approach the midway point of the 2014 season. But how much does that mean as we approach the final week of October?

“Meaningful in Week 7, so, it’s good to be there in that situation at this time,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “But you have to build on it, you have to keep getting better. We’re not a good enough team to do the things that we want to do right now, so we have to keep improving.”

Baltimore may not be a flawless team — there’s no such thing in the modern NFL — but it’s difficult to look at the numbers and not be impressed with what Harbaugh’s group has done through the first seven weeks of 2014. Even with 14 teams having played only six games at the end of business on Sunday, the Ravens have allowed the fewest points (104) and own the best point differential (plus 89) in the NFL.

Yes, they appear to have drawn the right year to play the woeful NFC South — a division where 3-3-1 Carolina currently sits in first place — but you can’t control which teams are on the schedule. The Ravens are not only beating the teams they’re supposed to beat, but they’re throttling them, which doesn’t often happen in the parity-driven NFL.

Already securing four wins of 20 or more points, the improved Ravens offense has received much of the attention, but the defense is taking major strides with its second straight game collecting five sacks, the first time that’s happened since the 2006 season. It was no surprising feat to limit the hapless Tampa Bay offense last week, but holding Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ third-ranked unit to just seven points was an impressive task.

With the pass rush coming alive and the play of the secondary stabilizing, the confidence on the defensive side of the ball is growing. Several defensive players spoke after the game about the speech linebackers coach Ted Monachino offered Saturday night, challenging a talented group of outside linebackers to raise its level of play to where it belongs.

It’s safe to say the message was received on Sunday as Ryan was hit nine times a week after Buccaneers quarterback Mike Glennon was hit 15 times.

“We’re dangerous, and we’re real serious. We’re coming out playing with an attitude,” said rush specialist Pernell McPhee, who added two more sacks on Sunday to continue his strong season. “Our [secondary] needs us, and I know we need them. I think [defensive coordinator] Dean Pees is doing a great job of calling the plays and setting us up to get the sacks. We’re just focusing in and trying to play ball.”

Much credit should go to Pees, who has shown various looks up front by moving around Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and McPhee to cause confusion while using a safety-by-committee approach in the secondary. Matt Elam and Darian Stewart started the game, but rookie Terrence Brooks and the returning Will Hill also saw extensive action at the safety position.

Former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan was known for bringing “organized chaos,” but Pees’ decision to substitute so frequently in the secondary reminded the 65-year-old coordinator of his college coaching days at Miami of Ohio when he used various personnel looks in a 1986 upset win over a top 10 LSU team in Baton Rouge. Of course, Baltimore didn’t face that kind of a talent disadvantage Sunday, but it illustrates the creative lengths used to help mask what’s been a deficiency of the defense to this point in the season.

Time will tell whether the safety rotation will continue, but the best weapon to neutralize a shaky secondary has been the major heat in the pocket. It’s also created more opportunities for turnovers as defensive backs got their hands on several Ryan passes despite not coming away with any interceptions.

“Those dudes are our best friends,” said cornerback Jimmy Smith about the pass rush. “They get in there, they disrupt things, they cause havoc, they make quarterbacks panic and throw the ball in the air. And on our end, we have to do a better job of coming up with some more turnovers. We’ve had a lot of opportunities, and we have a lot of drops.”

Unlike last season’s 8-8 team that remained static with issues on each side of the ball showing up on a weekly basis, these Ravens appear to be improving as the year progresses. Their only loss since Week 1 came on the road two weeks ago against Indianapolis, a team that’s won five straight games and only beat them by seven points at Lucas Oil Stadium.

It’s true that no one should confuse Tampa Bay or Atlanta for juggernauts, but the Ravens have a tremendous opportunity to not only seize commanding control of the AFC North but to make an emphatic claim as one of the best teams in the NFL if they can take care of business in trips to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh the next two weeks. It won’t be easy playing on the road against their two biggest rivals, but the Ravens have looked like the class of the division through seven weeks while the Bengals have gone 0-2-1 since their bye with two road losses of 26 or more points.

The Ravens continue to show improvement on both sides of the ball while stacking wins as they now have a chance to pay back Cincinnati for its Week 1 win in Baltimore.

“We have everything that we want to do right in front of us,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “We just have to go out there and continue to play well. We have a tough opponent next week that we didn’t play necessarily good against, at least for a half, in the first game. We have to come back out there and prove ourselves. They’re a good football team, and they’re going to be hungry, and we’re [playing] there. It’s going to be a tough test; I can’t wait for it.”

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