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Time has come for Ravens to embrace the weirdness

Posted on 03 December 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens are weird.

Very weird.

There’s nothing conventional about possessing the ball for more than 24 minutes in the second half or running nearly twice as often as you pass in today’s NFL. You don’t plan for your punter to make the best throw of the day or your starting quarterback to fumble three times and pass for 125 yards in your biggest road game of the season to date.

But that all happened as the Ravens won — again.

Nothing about this is ideal, nor should it be viewed as any kind of long-term blueprint for talented rookie Lamar Jackson, who is an electric runner with a long way to go to become an all-around franchise quarterback. To be clear, that’s to be expected after only three starts, but his athleticism and upside cannot dismiss concerns about ball security, a shortage of plays in the passing game, inconsistent mechanics and accuracy, and not doing the little things such as throwing the ball away instead of taking a loss. If nothing else, we can all agree Jackson running more often than he passes is not a recipe for keeping him healthy for the long haul, a reality that shouldn’t be completely ignored in the present.

In a perfect world, a healthy Joe Flacco would be under center as the Ravens make their December push for the playoffs. The 33-year-old would have a strong running game in the conventional sense, a stout and healthy offensive line, and wide receivers who consistently gain separation and catch the football to allow him to potentially channel past postseason success.

But that’s not reality, which is why Jackson’s skill set is the better fit for what the Ravens have become over the last three weeks in which they’ve gone from a 4-5 team circling the drain to one holding the No. 6 spot in the AFC and just a half-game behind Pittsburgh in the AFC North. A healthy Flacco and a more conventional offense may have also won three straight against struggling teams, but we can’t say that for sure, making it a difficult sell to a rejuvenated locker room that you’re just going to pivot back toward the hypothetical.

Perhaps the rise of Gus Edwards and bye-week adjustments would have led to a better running game with Flacco at quarterback than what we saw with running back Alex Collins over the first half of the season, but we’ve watched the Ravens rush for a remarkable 716 yards over the last three weeks with Jackson’s speed putting incredible pressure on opposing run defenses. Baltimore ran for just 834 yards over its first nine games, and no one could objectively argue that the ground game would be as explosive with an immobile quarterback on the field these last three weeks.

That’s more of a knock on the front office and coaching staff for not being able to field a productive running game by conventional measures, but here we are going into Week 14. Giving yourself the best chance to win in December isn’t about what’s fair to any individual player — even one who won you a Super Bowl several years ago.

It’s time to embrace the weirdness and let it ride in a way similar to how Brian Billick embraced “the dark side” on the way to an eventual Super Bowl win 18 years ago. As head coach John Harbaugh said after Sunday’s 26-16 win in Atlanta, no one really knows exactly where this is going, which should make it fun.

Perhaps the best way to describe what the Ravens have become is a warped version of that 2000 team. This defense doesn’t compare to that historic unit, of course, but holding the league’s 11th-ranked scoring offense to 131 yards and nine points — Jackson’s second fumble resulted in the other Falcons touchdown — was a terrific road performance. No one is ready to confuse Edwards with a young Jamal Lewis, but the rookie free agent’s 5.0 yards per carry and physical style have been a godsend. And if Jackson can limit the turnovers, he at least represents a much more athletic version of Trent Dilfer for now.

None of that is to suggest the Ravens fit the profile of a team poised to make a deep run in January. They might lose by three touchdowns in Kansas City this Sunday, but you could have said the same about the struggling team we saw before the bye week. The Ravens’ best chance — even if still not a good one — is to play keep-away from Patrick Mahomes and the high-powered Chiefs offense while hoping their own offense becomes more efficient inside the opponent’s 30, something that remains a pressing concern.

Unforeseen circumstances have led to the Ravens discovering a nightmare-inducing running game that’s allowed them to dominate the time of possession, proving the opportunity for the defense to be fresher late in games. The Chiefs will offer the ultimate test as we continue to wonder how long this approach can be sustained. A disastrous performance could lead to reassessing — especially if Flacco is fully healthy and looks good in practice — but we said the same thing last week before Baltimore recorded only its second December road win in the last four years.

There will be plenty of time to debate what Jackson will ultimately become, but keeping him on the field does add the long-term benefit of him gaining experience while the Ravens try to “weird” their way to the playoffs for the first time in four years.

It’s time to just go with it and enjoy the ride.

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Ravens place Collins on IR, activate running back Dixon

Posted on 01 December 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens have made a substantial change to their backfield depth ahead of Sunday’s game at Atlanta.

Former starting running back Alex Collins has been placed on injured reserve to make room for the activation of running back Kenneth Dixon, who had been on IR since suffering a knee injury in the Week 1 win over Buffalo. Dixon was designated to return to practice two weeks ago and is in line to play in just his second game in the last two seasons as Baltimore aims for its third straight win against the Falcons in Week 13.

Collins was listed as a full participant in Friday’s practice, but the third-year back had been dealing with a foot injury since before the bye week and was deactivated for last week’s win over Oakland. Despite rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson’s dramatic impact on the running game, Collins rushed for just 18 yards on seven carries against Cincinnati two weeks ago while rookie Gus Edwards impressively ran for 115 yards to all but officially win the starting job moving forward.

“It’s just day-to-day with Alex right now as far as I know,” head coach John Harbaugh said on Wednesday. “That’s where we’re at with that.”

One of the feel-good stories of 2017 after emerging from the practice squad to rush for 973 yards and average 4.6 yards per carry, Collins never got on track this season as he averaged 3.6 yards per carry despite a team-high eight touchdowns. He will be a restricted free agent, leaving the Ravens with an interesting decision in an offseason expected to bring substantial changes to the roster.

A 2016 fourth-round pick out of Louisiana Tech, the talented Dixon has seen the start of his NFL career derailed by injuries and off-field issues. After running for 382 yards and averaging 4.3 yards per carry in 12 games as a rookie, Dixon missed the entire 2017 season with a knee injury and also served two drug-related suspensions. He rushed for 44 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries in the 2018 opener against Buffalo before hurting his knee and being placed on IR a few days later.

With Edwards and veteran Ty Montgomery recently emerging as a formidable 1-2 punch in Baltimore’s revamped rushing attack, Dixon will need to stay healthy to provide viable depth in a running back group that also includes Buck Allen.

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Flacco doubtful, Jefferson out for Ravens game in Atlanta

Posted on 30 November 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Despite returning to practice this week, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is expected to miss his third straight game against Atlanta on Sunday.

The 11th-year veteran was officially listed as doubtful after being a limited participant in workouts on Thursday and Friday, meaning rookie Lamar Jackson is poised to make his third straight start and first on the road. When asked if Flacco was an option for Week 13 before the final injury report was released, head coach John Harbaugh provided an interesting assessment of Baltimore’s quarterback situation moving forward.

“I’d say yes, he’s an option. There are still doctors involved at this point,” said Harbaugh, who added that Flacco is progressing well and looked better on Friday than he did Thursday. “I think the biggest thing … I was thinking of the best way to describe this because it’s not simple. It’s never as simple as one rule or one cliché as we’ve talked about before, but there’s a formula involved. I think the biggest things with situations like this are the two biggest factors, [which] are time and circumstances. Those are things we just don’t know. Time in terms of the medical aspect of it. Circumstances in terms of our team and where we’re at and how guys are playing, including the players involved.

“To me, it’s like any other position that way. It just gets more attention because it’s the quarterback. We’ll see where we’re at as we go.”

A strong performance from Jackson against the Falcons could very well mean Flacco not regaining the job he’s held for more than a decade in Baltimore.

Starting safety Tony Jefferson was officially ruled out with a left ankle injury, meaning second-year safety Chuck Clark will make his first NFL start. Jefferson left last Sunday’s win over Oakland and missed practices all week. It will be the first game he’s missed since joining the Ravens last year.

Despite returning to practice on a limited basis this week, veteran offensive lineman James Hurst was listed as doubtful and will miss his sixth consecutive game with a back injury as rookie Orlando Brown Jr. will continue to man the right tackle spot. Hurst hasn’t played since the Week 6 win over Tennessee, but the Ravens are hopeful that he could play against Kansas City in Week 14.

“James has looked good. He will not be ready to play in the game,” Harbaugh said. “He just needs more time on task in terms of practice and getting back in the weight room and all those things, but I’d say next week would be a legitimate chance for him. We’ll keep our fingers crossed for that.”

Slot cornerback Tavon Young is questionable to play after missing last week’s game and practicing only on a limited basis all week. His potential absence would mean more inside opportunities for veteran Brandon Carr, who handled the bulk of the nickel snaps against the Raiders.

Running backs Gus Edwards (ankle) and Alex Collins (foot) were both listed as questionable after practicing fully, leaving questions about the possibility of Kenneth Dixon being activated to shore up the backfield depth for Week 13. The third-year running back has been on injured reserve since hurt his knee in Week 1 and was designated to return to practice two weeks ago.

Baltimore is already carrying four running backs on the roster with Edwards, Collins, Ty Montgomery, and Buck Allen and isn’t required to make a decision on Dixon’s roster status for another week.

“Just being ready to go and being healthy and ready to go and knowing the offense — all things that go into being ready to go,” Harbaugh said. “He’s real close. We’ll see. I think he’s also an option for Sunday, and we’ll see if he’s out there or not. We’d have to make the roster work as well.”

Atlanta did not list anyone on its final game status report as kicker Matt Bryant (back) returned to practice on a limited basis after a two-day absence and 2017 Pro Bow linebacker Deion Jones practiced fully. Jones is expected to play for the first time since injuring his foot in the 2018 season opener.

Below is the final injury report of the week:

BALTIMORE
OUT: S Tony Jefferson (ankle)
DOUBTFUL: QB Joe Flacco (right hip), OT James Hurst (back)
QUESTIONABLE: RB Alex Collins (foot), RB Gus Edwards (ankle), DB Anthony Levine (ankle), LB Tim Williams (illness), CB Tavon Young (groin)

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Ravens-Raiders: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 25 November 2018 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens will have a new starting running back for Sunday’s matchup with the Oakland Raiders.

Despite practicing fully on Friday and initially being expected to play with a lingering foot injury, Alex Collins was deactivated, paving the way for rookie Gus Edwards to make his first NFL start. Of course, the undrafted free agent starred in last week’s win over Cincinnati, surprisingly rushing for 115 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. That production led to a more complementary role for Collins, who ran for just 18 yards and a touchdown on seven carries against the Bengals.

Collins’ absence should also open the door for veteran Ty Montgomery to see more touches after the former Green Bay Packer touched the ball only once for five yards in his Ravens debut last week.

Baltimore will be without slot cornerback Tavon Young, who missed practice time this week with a groin injury. His absence coincides with the return of cornerback Maurice Canady, who spent much of last season as the nickel corner and hadn’t played since injuring his hamstring in the 2018 season opener. Canady was activated from injured reserve on Saturday afternoon.

Left guard Alex Lewis is active despite missing Friday’s practice with a shoulder injury and being listed as questionable on the final injury report. His availability is important with veteran offensive lineman James Hurst missing his fifth consecutive game with a back injury.

Rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson will make his second straight start as veteran starter Joe Flacco remains sidelined with a right hip injury. Flacco was officially ruled out on Friday, paving the way for Jackson to create a full-blown quarterback controversy in December with a strong showing against the Raiders.

Outside linebacker Tim Williams (ankle) will miss his third straight game.

The Raiders will be without wide receiver Martavis Bryant (knee), but fellow starting wideout Jordy Nelson (knee) is active for Week 12. Veteran cornerback Leon Hall is out with a back injury.

Sunday’s referee is Clay Martin.

The Ravens are wearing their all-purple “Color Rush” uniforms while Oakland dons white tops and silver pants for Week 12.

Sunday marks the 11th all-time meeting between these teams with the Ravens holding a 7-3 series edge and 5-1 record at home. Baltimore has won five of the last seven going back to the 2006 season.

Below are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
QB Joe Flacco
WR Jordan Lasley
LB Tim Williams
CB Tavon Young
OT James Hurst
RB Alex Collins
DL Zach Sieler

OAKLAND
DE Fadol Brown
WR Martavis Bryant
CB Leon Hall
OL Denver Kirkland
LB Emmanuel Lamur
OT Justin Murray
OL Ian Silberman

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Ravens-Raiders: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 24 November 2018 by Luke Jones

Sunday brings the final calm before a December storm that could impact the Ravens for years to come.

John Harbaugh’s team would move back above the .500 mark with a win over Oakland, but three of the next four on the road after that will determine whether the Ravens return to the playoffs for the first time in four years. Failing to do so will likely spark substantial changes to both the coaching staff and the roster.

Simply put, a victory over the 2-8 Raiders is both expected and necessary.

It’s time to go on the record as these AFC teams meet for the fourth consecutive season. Baltimore holds a 7-3 advantage in the all-time regular-season series and won the only postseason encounter in the 2000 AFC Championship. The Ravens have won five of the past seven games against Oakland dating back to the 2006 season.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Lamar Jackson will have fewer than 15 carries, but he will pass for 185 yards and a touchdown. With the Raiders having a full game tape and 26 carries being unsustainable on a weekly basis, Jackson won’t be setting records with his legs, but he’ll remain a big part of the ground attack. What will be more interesting is how much the coaching staff allows him to do as a passer against an Oakland defense that’s been poor in most areas. Jackson will have another up-and-down passing day, but he’ll make more throws in his second start and find ex-Raider Michael Crabtree for a touchdown.

2. Tight end Jared Cook will catch the Raiders’ lone touchdown of the game. Oakland has been gutted at the wide receiver position, but Cook has been a standout performer, leading the team with 577 receiving yards and four touchdown receptions and grading as Pro Football Focus’ sixth-best tight end. It’s no secret the Ravens defense has had issues covering tight ends — and the middle of the field in general — so look for Raiders quarterback Derek Carr to lean heavily on Cook for what modest success they’ll find moving the ball on Sunday.

3. There will be no takeaways, but Baltimore will collect four sacks. It’s been seven calendar weeks since the Ravens intercepted a pass and five weeks since they recovered a fumble. The Raiders have been average in the giveaway department despite their record. In other words, I’m not predicting another Ravens takeaway until it actually happens again. That said, Oakland has given up 33 sacks and will struggle to gain separation in pass routes, which will force Carr to hold the ball at times. This will allow the Ravens defense to break a slump that’s consisted of only three sacks over the last four games.

4. Three Ravens players will rush for 50 or more yards. Last week’s combination of Jackson and Gus Edwards was a terrific story, but I don’t believe it signals the end for Alex Collins, who has been successful in three-wide sets and with Jackson on the field despite his disappointing overall numbers. In an effort to protect their rookie quarterback from taking too many hits, the Ravens will give the ball to Collins more often while Edwards maintains a workload similar to last week. The rushing total won’t be as lucrative as last week (267), but Jackson, Edwards, and Collins will have strong days on the ground.

5. The Ravens will remain in relatively comfortable control throughout a 23-13 win over Oakland. It was easy to get carried away with the understandable excitement over Jackson’s first start, but Baltimore scored 24 points against a defense giving up 32.1 per game this season and surrendered 21 points to an offense that was without its best player. I’m intrigued with Jackson’s potential for the future, but the Ravens continuing last week’s playing style isn’t going to lead to many blowouts, which leads me to believe this one will stay a little closer than many are anticipating. I expect Jackson to neither struggle mightily nor play unbelievable football in his second start, which won’t do Harbaugh any favors in deciding how to handle the quarterback position in the month of December. That debate remains on hold, however, as the Ravens take care of business against an inferior opponent to improve to 6-5.

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Ravens-Bengals: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 17 November 2018 by Luke Jones

Sunday could possibly mark the start of a new era for the Ravens.

Or at least the soft opening of one.

With Joe Flacco not expected to play after sustaining a hip injury two weeks ago, Baltimore will enter a meaningful game with someone else at quarterback — the 2015 team was already buried when Flacco tore his ACL — for the first time since Kyle Boller relieved an injured Steve McNair midway through a disastrous 2007 season that ended with Brian Billick’s dismissal. Eleventh-year head coach John Harbaugh hopes for a different outcome as the Ravens aim to beat Cincinnati to snap a three-game losing streak and preserve their playoff hopes.

It’s time to go on the record as these AFC North rivals meet for the 46th time in the all-time regular-season series with the Bengals holding a 23-22 advantage. The Ravens are 9-12 against Cincinnati in the Harbaugh era, and they’ve lost eight of the last 10 meetings, which includes the 34-23 defeat at Paul Brown Stadium in Week 2.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Lamar Jackson will throw for a touchdown and run for another. My expectation is the rookie first-round pick from Louisville making his first NFL start, but a stomach illness forcing him to miss Thursday’s practice wasn’t ideal, leaving open the possibility of Robert Griffin III starting. Either way, Jackson will have a larger role as Marty Mornhinweg tries to take advantage of his mobility and set him up with high-percentage throws to tight ends and running backs from big formations, especially early on. Jackson doesn’t have to be the reason the Ravens win; he just can’t be why they lose.

2. Tyler Boyd and Joe Mixon will carry the Cincinnati offense with a touchdown apiece. In 11 career games against Baltimore, A.J. Green has averaged 4.8 catches for 80.5 yards and has caught nine touchdowns, making his absence significant for a struggling Bengals offense. However, Boyd has emerged as one of the NFL’s best slot receivers — a critical factor with Baltimore’s issues covering the middle of the field — and has also made plays on the outside. Mixon ranks 11th in the league in yards per carry (4.9) while the Ravens have given up over 100 rushing yards in four of their last five games.

3. The Baltimore defense will awaken with three sacks and an interception against Andy Dalton. As I wrote this week, Wink Martindale’s group needs to step up if the Ravens want to save their season and survive this less-than-ideal quarterback situation. They have only two sacks in their last three games and just one takeaway in their last four while the Bengals offensive line surrendered three quarterback takedowns and 11 other pressures in 28 dropbacks against New Orleans last week. After repeatedly noting how many batted balls they have this season, it’s about time the Ravens catch one.

4. Alex Collins will eclipse 80 rushing yards for the first time all season. Much is made about Jackson’s presence helping the running game, but a Pro Football Weekly article illustrated it’s more than that. Collins has averaged 4.7 yards per carry on 29 attempts from “11” personnel (one running back, one tight end) and just 2.97 yards on 33 carries from “12” personnel (one running back, two tight ends). What does that mean? No matter the quarterback, the Ravens should spread defenses out more when running and scale back the heavy formations that haven’t worked as effectively as they did last season.

5. The Ravens will survive in a 20-17 final to stop the pre-bye bleeding. Even against a Cincinnati defense that’s been disastrous in recent weeks and just fired coordinator Teryl Austin, expectations need to be tempered for a rookie quarterback making his first start in a critical game for a struggling playoff-hopeful team. That doesn’t mean Jackson won’t make some plays, but anyone labeling him an instant upgrade from Flacco is both placing too much pressure on a 21-year-old and disrespecting the veteran quarterback. Baltimore needs to go old school in this one by relying on the running game and a healthier defense that should be eager to prove it’s better than the last few weeks have reflected. If you’re asking what’s underneath the hood for this team right now, the losses to Carolina and Pittsburgh weren’t encouraging going into the bye. That said, I’d like to believe the Ravens aren’t quite ready to wave their playoff hopes goodbye, and the Bengals have lost three of four and are banged up at multiple positions. Given the current adversity for both teams, my honest feeling going into this one is closer to the old ¯\(ツ)/¯ emoji, but I’ll give the home team the benefit of the doubt.

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Five Ravens predictions for rest of 2018 season

Posted on 09 November 2018 by Luke Jones

(Editor’s note: This post was completed before news broke about Joe Flacco’s hip injury Friday afternoon.)

The story is all too familiar with the Ravens.

An encouraging start followed by a dreadful October leaving Baltimore too little margin for error down the stretch. Only this time around feels like the final stand for 11th-year head coach John Harbaugh and a number of aging veterans with high salary-cap numbers.

A look back at my preseason predictions brings mixed reviews at best as I envisioned the Ravens having their best year since 2014, but a return to the playoffs isn’t yet out of the question with a seemingly pedestrian field competing for the second AFC wild card. At the same time, this hasn’t been the ideal year to face a very strong NFC South after the 2014 Ravens went undefeated against that same division, the difference in them making the playoffs.

Will the Ravens miss out on the postseason for the fourth straight year and fifth time in six tries since their victory in Super Bowl XLVII that feels like a long time ago?

Below are five predictions for the remainder of the 2018 season:

1. Lamar Jackson will see increased snaps and even throw a couple touchdown passes. This one isn’t exactly going out on a limb based on Harbaugh’s recent comments, but how it looks is key. I don’t expect the rookie to become the starter — then again, I also didn’t expect the organization to draft a first-round quarterback this year — as long as the Ravens are in the hunt, but Marty Mornhinweg needs to be willing to call for Jackson to throw the ball more frequently if he’s going to be taking upwards of 10 to 12 snaps per game. The current offense is too predictable, so why not mix it up and allow Jackson to take a deep shot to John Brown? If it means he’s the only quarterback on the field at times, so be it.

2. The running game will perform at a league-average rate the rest of the way. The Ravens have quietly improved running the ball by averaging just under 4.1 yards per carry over the last five games, but that’s coincided with four losses. Baltimore must find a way to run effectively from its “traditional” offense because it’s becoming too obvious that Joe Flacco is passing the ball when he’s at quarterback and the Ravens are running when Jackson lines up there. The recently-acquired Ty Montgomery will provide some help to go with Alex Collins while the Ravens will keep Orlando Brown Jr. at right tackle and move James Hurst to left guard. Those changes will bring steadier production.

3. More takeaways and sacks will finally come — at home. I’ve written at length about these subjects recently, but I still believe this defense is too talented and has also been unlucky to have only five interceptions — despite ranking second in the NFL in passes defended and first in batted balls at the line of scrimmage — and two fumble recoveries in nine games. Opportunities will come at home with Oakland, Tampa Bay, and Cleveland ranking in the top 11 in giveaways, but the problem is their three road opponents (Atlanta, Kansas City, and the Los Angeles Chargers) have committed a total of just 19 turnovers. My confidence in the pass rush isn’t as high as 22 of their 28 sacks came against Buffalo, the Browns, and Tennessee, whose lines rank in the bottom five in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate.

4. Flacco will not just lose his job lying down. His future in Baltimore largely depends on what the organization is seeing with Jackson’s development, but I don’t expect the 33-year-old to play out his potential final weeks with the Ravens without a fight. Flacco has historically performed better in the second half of most seasons, and his next five opponents rank in the bottom 10 in Football Outsiders’ weighted defense metric, meaning there’s little excuse not to improve after averaging just 5.8 yards per passing attempt over the last five games. Flacco won’t get to 25 touchdown passes as I originally predicted, but he’ll play well enough to keep the door open for his 2019 return or create optimism about his offseason trade value.

5. History will repeat itself as the Ravens finish 8-8 and miss the playoffs, prompting substantial changes. Didn’t I sound so optimistic in the previous points? Baltimore is 16-29 on the road since the start of the 2013 season after going 21-19 in away games from 2008-12. Since 2013, Pittsburgh is 27-16-1, New England 31-13, Kansas City 28-17, and Cincinnati 21-23 on the road, a sampling that illustrates how this franchise has fallen behind even the Bengals in terms of AFC relevance. I expect the Ravens to take care of business in their remaining home games and to play hard as they almost always have under Harbaugh, but they own a total of five road wins against opponents finishing a season with a record of .500 or better since 2013. They’ll need at least one against the Falcons, Chiefs, or Chargers just to get to 9-7, and that’s needing a perfect 4-0 home mark. I just don’t see it, which is why I thought the Ravens needed to be 6-3 at the bye to finish 10-6. We’ll look back at the Week 5 road loss to the Browns as the dagger sparking Steve Bisciotti to begin a reboot.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 23-16 loss to Pittsburgh

Posted on 06 November 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens suffering their third straight loss and fourth in their last five games in a 23-16 final against Pittsburgh, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Baltimore will never take the next step by settling for 23-yard field goals against a high-scoring offense. The analytics did support those decisions to kick, but I would have considered going for the fourth-and-3 from the 5 in the second quarter. “Take the points” isn’t always the best strategy.

2. As I’ve written other times, Joe Flacco is far from the only reason for the recent offensive struggles, but he hasn’t been a big enough part of the solution either. He was under duress quite a bit Sunday, but he easily missed a half-dozen throws working from a satisfactory pocket.

3. Insinuating Flacco didn’t throw to Lamar Jackson out of spite is taking quite a leap to trash the character of someone who’s never done anything to warrant such treatment. It’s not like his ability to see the field or go through progressions has never been criticized, so why get personal?

4. How the middle of the field continues to be such a problematic area for the pass defense when C.J. Mosley, Eric Weddle, and Tony Jefferson account for $22.625 million on the 2018 salary cap is a tough pill to swallow.

5. Orlando Brown Jr. continues to be a bright spot. According to Pro Football Focus, he didn’t allow a pressure against Pittsburgh and has yet to allow a sack or quarterback hit this season. The right tackle spot should be his with James Hurst potentially moving to left guard when healthy.

6. Matthew Judon hasn’t taken the leap many predicted this season, but he registered Baltimore’s lone sack as well as two hits and two hurries against the Steelers, according to PFF. The Ravens need to see more of that with Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith scheduled to hit free agency.

7. Like Drew Brees’ third-down completion while in the grasp of Jefferson in Week 7, I thought the defense forcing a three-and-out right after Alex Collins’ touchdown might be the turning point. Instead, a holding penalty, a sack, two passes short of the chains, and a punt quickly dashed that thought.

8. I don’t believe it was a coincidence that Jimmy Smith played better with Marlon Humphrey back in action and Wink Martindale once again rotating those two and Brandon Carr on the outside. The defense has certainly had its recent issues, but that luxury should still pay off down the stretch.

9. Those saying Jackson’s use is disrupting offensive rhythm received ammunition when he entered for a run of no gain immediately following Flacco strikes to Michael Crabtree and Chris Moore. If you want to run there, why not hand to Collins on an uptempo play instead of broadcasting what you’re doing?

10. Brandon Williams noted after the game that teams are approaching the Ravens defense differently and aren’t playing “actual football” by running so many sweeps and screens to take interior players like him out of the equation. There’s that whole “needing to adapt” theme popping up again.

11. Don’t look now, but the Ravens are on track to lead the NFL in passing attempts for the third time in the last four years. They also rank in the bottom five in yards per passing attempt for the fourth straight season. Jamal Lewis weeps.

12. Regardless of what happens over these next two months, I’ll maintain that John Harbaugh is a good football coach. However, he doesn’t do himself any favors with a rookie mistake like not using his timeouts ahead of the two-minute warning to conserve more clock.

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Struggling Ravens staring at present and future entering their bye week

Posted on 05 November 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti wasn’t going to fire John Harbaugh on Monday.

That was the emotional reaction for which some were clamoring, but what purpose would it have served right now? The Ravens are surely reeling after losing their third straight game and fourth of their last five, but this isn’t a 1-8 team with a fractured locker room that’s quit on its head coach either. Say what you want about how mediocre they’ve been since winning Super Bowl XLVII six years ago, but Harbaugh’s teams have continued to play hard — even in 2015 when a lousy start and an unthinkable run of injuries left them with a 5-11 record. And it’s not as though there’s a Sean McVay or Kyle Shanahan on the coaching staff waiting to take over.

The only team to fire its Super Bowl-winning coach in the middle of a season was the Baltimore Colts in 1972 when Don McCafferty was let go after refusing to bench Johnny Unitas. Do you really think Bisciotti wants to join a club frequented only by the late Robert Irsay? It’s just not a move a good owner makes with an individual who’s meant so much to the organization over the last decade.

But changes are likely coming at the end of the season without a dramatic turnaround — a kind of run not seen in these parts since 2012. The Ravens remain in the AFC wild-card race among a group of underwhelming teams, but aspiring to sneak in as the No. 6 seed with a 9-7 record — essentially the Buffalo Bills last season — shouldn’t alter anyone’s thoughts about the future short of a deep run in January.

The clock is ticking loudly on Harbaugh, Joe Flacco, and other veterans with high salary cap numbers, which is what makes these final seven weeks of the season so awkward. Is there a way for the Ravens to find an identity and right the ship while also hedging their bets for the future?

Truthfully, there isn’t much to say about a defense that still ranks very favorably statistically despite allowing 76 points over its last nine quarters of play against high-octane offenses. Forcing a few more turnovers would certainly help the cause, but the last three weeks are proof that good defense just doesn’t mean what it used to against top competition. None of the consensus top four teams in the NFL this year — the Los Angeles Rams, Kansas City, New Orleans, and New England — rank in the top 12 in total defense or the top nine in scoring defense. Minnesota’s top-ranked defense a year ago gave up 62 points in two playoff contests, including 38 to backup quarterback Nick Foles and Philadelphia in the NFC championship game.

Today’s game played at the highest level is more about scoring points than trying to prevent them. The best offenses are innovative and explosive with the rules only augmenting those qualities. Defense may win championships again one day, but not in the present.

That brings us to a Ravens offense that’s averaged 17.8 points per game since the Week 4 win over Pittsburgh. After an impressive September, Joe Flacco is averaging 5.8 yards per attempt and has a 73.7 passer rating over the last five games. The running game continues to rank 31st of 32 teams in yards per carry (3.6). Wide receivers have struggled to beat man coverage and consistently catch the football. And an offensive line that was already having its problems has been hampered by injuries over the last few weeks.

It’s enough to question whether an immediate change is in order at offensive coordinator, but Harbaugh has pretty clearly tied himself to Marty Mornhinweg — for better or worse. If he didn’t replace him at the end of the 2016 season or midway through last year, you probably shouldn’t expect it now. Running game guru Greg Roman or even quarterbacks coach James Urban could be argued as a potential replacement, but it’s not as though the Ravens have thrived so much in their respective areas either.

Improvement should come with the healthy returns of left tackle Ronnie Stanley and the versatile James Hurst, who could shift inside with rookie Orlando Brown Jr. holding up at the right tackle spot. The bye week should allow Ty Montgomery to further acclimate himself to the playbook and potentially bring more versatility to the running back position down the stretch.

The most interesting dynamic, however, will involve Flacco and Lamar Jackson as Harbaugh reiterated his desire Monday to see even more of the rookie quarterback after the bye week. The Ravens have run the ball more effectively with Jackson in the game than they have with their “traditional” offense this season, but his usage has also been criticized for occasionally upsetting the overall rhythm of the offense and making it too predictable. In Sunday’s loss to the Steelers, nine of Baltimore’s 16 total rushes came on Jackson’s 13 snaps, which reflects how little the Ravens ran on their other 48 offensive snaps.

The Ravens need to be able to run the ball more effectively when Flacco is the only quarterback on the field, and the coaching staff must be willing to let Jackson throw the ball more frequently if he’s going to be out there. Otherwise, it all becomes too predictable and makes life difficult for both quarterbacks.

It’s a delicate balance trying to get the most out of Flacco — who’s always been a rhythm quarterback at his best — while keeping Jackson involved. The Ravens want to use Jackson’s skills to try to win in the present, but his long-term development becomes more relevant each week. Perhaps that’s why Harbaugh didn’t shoot down the possibility of Jackson playing entire series — even more — down the stretch.

A few more losses will make that choice elementary as evaluating Jackson for the future will become paramount if the playoffs are out of reach. Until then, the Ravens won’t give up on their diminishing postseason chances, hoping a week off to recuperate and regroup will put them in position to make a final run with this coaching staff and this group of veteran players.

It’s likely Harbaugh’s last stand, but it’s one he deserves to have.

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Humphrey returns, Collins misses Thursday’s Ravens practice

Posted on 01 November 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Thursday brought good and bad news for the Ravens as they count down to their critical Week 9 meeting with Pittsburgh.

Cornerback Marlon Humphrey (thigh) and left guard Alex Lewis (neck) returned to practice after missing their second straight game in Carolina last Sunday, but a new injury concern arose with running back Alex Collins missing the session with a foot issue. Collins was listed on Wednesday’s injury report as a limited participant, making it unclear whether he sustained an injury during practice or if Baltimore is exercising caution for a lingering ailment. His status could complicate plans in the backfield as recently-acquired running back Ty Montgomery is still getting up to speed with a new playbook this week.

For what it’s worth, Collins was present in the locker room for media availability prior to missing Thursday’s practice, a rare occurrence when a player’s status is thought to be in serious doubt.

Humphrey appeared to be moving well during the portion of practice open to reporters, taking part in drills with the rest of the defensive backs. The 2017 first-round pick’s absence has been felt in back-to-back losses to New Orleans and Carolina as the Ravens defense has surrendered 53 points in the last five quarters of action. Combating Pittsburgh’s second-ranked passing attack would certainly be easier with a healthy Humphrey in the secondary.

Already struggling to defend the middle of the field in the passing game, the Ravens were again without inside linebacker C.J. Mosley (thigh) and safety Tony Jefferson (hamstring) during Thursday’s practice. Should Mosley not be able to play, Baltimore would turn to the combination of Patrick Onwuasor and rookie Kenny Young — who have shared first-team reps this season — at the two inside linebacker spots. Jefferson’s potential absence would mean increased snaps for dime back Anthony Levine and second-year safety Chuck Clark.

Left tackle Ronnie Stanley (ankle) and right tackle James Hurst (back) missed practice once again, creating greater concern about the Ravens’ ability to hold up against a talented Pittsburgh front on Sunday. In addition to the returning Lewis, rookie guard Bradley Bozeman (calf) practiced on a limited basis on Thursday.

Rookie wide receiver Jordan Lasley was added to Thursday’s injury report as a limited participant due to a hamstring issue. Lasley has yet to be active for a regular-season game, so even a moderate injury could lead to him being placed on injured reserve as the Ravens try to deal with so many health concerns. Head coach John Harbaugh expressed optimism Wednesday that the organization would be able to re-sign veteran linebacker Albert McClellan to the 53-man roster in the coming days after he was released to make room for Montgomery.

Pittsburgh did not have a single player on its 53-man roster sit out Thursday’s practice for an injury-related reason. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was a full participant as he deals with a fractured left index finger.

Below is Thursday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: RB Alex Collins (foot), OT James Hurst (back), S Tony Jefferson (hamstring), LB C.J. Mosley (thigh), OT Ronnie Stanley (ankle), LB Tim Williams (ankle)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: G Bradley Bozeman (calf), CB Marlon Humphrey (thigh), WR Jordan Lasley (hamstring), G Alex Lewis (neck)
FULL PARTICIPATION: CB Brandon Carr (non-injury)

PITTSBURGH
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: G Ramon Foster (coaches’ decision)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: OT Marcus Gilbert (knee), CB Coty Sensabaugh (toe)
FULL PARTICIPATION: LB Bud Dupree (illness), C Maurkice Pouncey (non-injury), QB Ben Roethlisberger (left finger)

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