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Suggs, four other Ravens listed as questionable for Cleveland game

Posted on 28 December 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Despite listing five players as questionable for the Week 17 meeting with Cleveland, the Ravens are as healthy as they could hope to be entering their regular-season finale.

Needing a win or a Pittsburgh loss to Cincinnati to clinch its first AFC North championship since 2012, Baltimore had its entire 53-man roster on the field and participating fully in Friday’s walk-through. That included 16th-year outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who missed practices the previous two days with a hamstring issue. On Sunday, the 36-year-old will pass Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis for the most regular-season games played in franchise history, but the day could also mark his final contest as a Raven as he is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent.

“There’s a lot of things that’s always a possibility, but you can’t really harp on the negative,” said Suggs, who reiterated he has no plans to retire after the season. “It possibly could [be my last Ravens game], but it hasn’t crossed my mind like, ‘Oh my God!’

“We have business to handle, and we’ll handle that. We’ll cross every bridge when it’s time to come there.”

This will mark the 12th time in the seven-time Pro Bowl selection’s career he’s played in all 16 regular-season games.

In addition to Suggs, wide receiver John Brown (hamstring), cornerback Tavon Young (groin), defensive back Anthony Levine (toe/ankle), and guard Alex Lewis (shoulder) were listed as questionable, but all four are expected to be healthy enough to play. Lewis, a full participant all week, would be making his return from a three-game absence, but it’s unclear whether he will be the starting left guard with veteran James Hurst and rookie Bradley Bozeman having rotated there in recent weeks.

Aiming to both ruin the Ravens’ playoff plans and clinch their first winning season in over a decade, the Browns will be without top cornerback Denzel Ward, who is out with a concussion. The rookie sensation played a significant role in Cleveland’s Week 5 overtime win over the Ravens, intercepting a Joe Flacco pass at the goal line and blocking a Justin Tucker field goal try.

Browns center JC Tretter was listed as questionable after being limited all week with an ankle injury.

According to Weather.com, the Sunday forecast in Baltimore calls for partly cloudy skies and temperatures in the mid-40s with winds light and variable and a 10-percent chance of precipitation.

Below is the final injury report of the week:

BALTIMORE
QUESTIONABLE: WR John Brown (hamstring), DB Anthony Levine (toe/ankle), G Alex Lewis (shoulder), LB Terrell Suggs (hamstring), CB Tavon Young (groin)

CLEVELAND
OUT: DB Denzel Ward (concussion)
QUESTIONABLE: C JC Tretter (ankle)

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Suggs, J. Brown nursing hamstring issues as Ravens prepare for Cleveland

Posted on 26 December 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Preparing for the chance to clinch their first AFC North championship since 2012, the Ravens are dealing with some minor ailments ahead of Sunday’s meeting with the Cleveland Browns.

Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and wide receiver John Brown missed Wednesday’s practice with hamstring injuries while slot cornerback Tavon Young was absent due to a lingering groin issue. Suggs spoke to the media earlier in the day while Brown was walking around the locker room without any noticeable issue, leading one to believe neither injury is a big concern.

Guard Alex Lewis was a full participant in practice after missing his third straight game with a shoulder injury.

Meanwhile, the Browns’ injury list was headline by rookie cornerback Denzel Ward, who is in concussion protocol after leaving the Week 16 win over Cincinnati.

Below is Wednesday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: WR John Brown (hamstring), LB Terrell Suggs (hamstring), G Marshal Yanda (non-injury), CB Tavon Young (groin)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: DB Anthony Levine (toe/ankle)
FULL PARTICIPATION: G Alex Lewis (shoulder)

CLEVELAND
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: DT Larry Ogunjobi (biceps), C JC Tretter (ankle), LB Tanner Vallejo (hamstring), DB Denzel Ward (concussion)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: TE David Njoku (knee), LB Xavier Woodson-Luster (neck)
FULL PARTICIPATION: CB Juston Burris (shoulder), LB Jamie Collins (shoulder), DB Phillip Gaines (knee), DB Tavierre Thomas (abdomen)

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Ravens list four players as questionable for Chargers game

Posted on 20 December 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens are as healthy as they could reasonably hope to be going into Week 16 and their biggest game of the season.

Outside linebacker Matt Judon (knee), tight end Nick Boyle (concussion), defensive back Anthony Levine (toe/ankle), and guard Alex Lewis (shoulder) are all listed as questionable for Saturday’s contest against the Los Angeles Chargers, but Lewis was the only player not to practice fully on Thursday. After being cleared from the concussion protocol, Boyle appears likely to play, which is a positive development with his significant blocking role in Baltimore’s rush-heavy offense.

“He’s progressing well, and we’ll just have to see,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “I think it’ll be a little bit of a decision on Saturday — maybe today — to see how he gets through the practice and everything [and] see how he feels.”

Levine was a full participant after missing practice on Tuesday and Wednesday as he’s nursed a nagging ankle issue for several weeks.

The Chargers are also getting healthy at the right time as Pro Bowl running back Melvin Gordon (knee) wasn’t included in the final game status report after practicing fully all week. Gordon will be making his return after a three-game absence and could present a matchup problem as a receiver out of the backfield as he’s caught 44 passes for 453 yards and four touchdowns in 10 games this season. The fourth-year back has rushed for nine touchdowns and has averaged 5.2 yards per carry in 2018.

Los Angeles hopes to have Pro Bowl wide receiver Keenan Allen back on the field, another significant development for Saturday’s game. The 6-foot-2 target suffered a hip pointer in last week’s win at Kansas City, but he was able to practice on a limited basis on Wednesday and Thursday and was designated as questionable. According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Allen is expected to play and has caught 88 passes for 1,074 yards and six touchdowns once again serving as Philip Rivers’ favorite target.

According to Weather.com, the Saturday night forecast in Carson, California calls for partly cloudy skies and temperatures in the low 60s with winds five to 10 miles per hour and only a slight chance of precipitation.

Below is the final injury report of the week:

BALTIMORE
QUESTIONABLE: TE Nick Boyle (concussion), LB Matthew Judon (knee), DB Anthony Levine (toe/ankle), G Alex Lewis (shoulder)

LOS ANGELES
OUT: TE Sean Culkin (back)
DOUBTFUL: RB Austin Ekeler (neck)
QUESTIONABLE: WR Keenan Allen (hip)

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Ravens looking healthy while Chargers receiver Allen returns to practice

Posted on 19 December 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Only one Ravens player missed Wednesday’s practice for a health-related reason, but a significant injury-related development came on the other side of their Week 16 showdown.

Just a day after Los Angeles Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn said wide receiver Keenan Allen could be a game-time decision on Saturday, the Pro Bowl selection returned to the practice field. Allen suffered a hip pointer in the Week 15 win over Kansas City, but his limited participation in the middle of the week would indicate him having a good chance to play against Baltimore. The 26-year-old has caught 88 passes for 1,074 yards and six touchdowns this season.

Chargers running back Melvin Gordon (knee) practiced fully for the second straight day as he prepares to return to action for the first time since Week 12. Meanwhile, backup running back Austin Ekeler remains sidelined with a neck injury and concussion.

Ravens defensive back Anthony Levine missed practice for the second straight day with toe and ankle ailments, but the veteran was spotted running and doing agility work on the side field with a member of the training staff during the portion of practice open to media. Outside linebacker Matt Judon (knee) and tight end Nick Boyle (concussion) returned to practice on a limited basis on Wednesday.

Guard Alex Lewis (shoulder) was a limited participant for the second straight day.

Below is Wednesday’s injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: DB Anthony Levine (toe/ankle), G Marshal Yanda (non-injury)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: TE Nick Boyle (concussion), LB Matthew Judon (knee), G Alex Lewis (shoulder)
FULL PARTICIPATION: CB Jimmy Smith (non-injury), LB Terrell Suggs (non-injury), S Eric Weddle (non-injury)

LOS ANGELES
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: TE Sean Culkin (back), RB Austin Ekeler (neck)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: WR Keenan Allen (hip)
FULL PARTICIPATION: RB Melvin Gordon (knee), NT Brandon Mebane (non-injury)

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Judon, Boyle absent from Ravens practice on Tuesday

Posted on 18 December 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens were without two starters as they returned to the practice field ahead of Saturday night’s critical tilt with the red-hot Los Angeles Chargers.

Outside linebacker Matt Judon (left knee) and tight end Nick Boyle (concussion) did not participate in Tuesday’s indoor walk-through session. Both players sustained their injuries during Sunday’s win over Tampa Bay, but Judon was able to return to action.

It remains unclear when exactly Boyle sustained the concussion, but he didn’t play in the second half as fellow third-year tight end Maxx Williams and rookies Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst picked up the slack. Boyle is regarded as a key cog in Baltimore’s run-blocking schemes that have helped produce 190 or more rushing yards in five straight games, the first time an NFL team has done that since 1976.

“I can’t give Maxx enough credit,” head coach John Harbaugh said on Monday. “For Maxx to step in and not have any drop-off, and then Hayden and Mark came in and blocked really well. You obviously saw that. To me, it’s one of those unsung things that people don’t see. Those two guys stepped it up; they really did. We have a lot of depth.”

Defensive back Anthony Levine was also absent from Tuesday’s walk-through as he is now nursing a toe ailment in addition to the ankle issue that’s limited him in practices for several weeks.

Left guard Alex Lewis (shoulder) returned to practice on a limited basis and is trying to avoid missing a third consecutive game.

The Chargers don’t yet know whether Pro Bowl wide receiver Keenan Allen will play on Saturday after he suffered a hip pointer in the Week 15 win over Kansas City last Thursday. However, Pro Bowl running back Melvin Gordon was a full participant on Tuesday and is expected to return after a three-game absence with a knee injury.

“Keenan could be a game-time decision,” Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn said in a conference call with Baltimore reporters. “It just depends on how sore his hip is.”

Below is Tuesday’s injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: TE Nick Boyle (concussion), LB Matthew Judon (knee), DB Anthony Levine (toe/ankle), CB Jimmy Smith (non-injury), LB Terrell Suggs (non-injury), S Eric Weddle (non-injury)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: G Alex Lewis (shoulder)

LOS ANGELES
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: WR Keenan Allen (hip), TE Sean Culkin (back), RB Austin Ekeler (neck)
FULL PARTICIPATION: RB Melvin Gordon (knee), NT Brandon Mebane (non-injury)

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FILE - In this Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017, file photo, Baltimore Ravens defensive back Marlon Humphrey (29) celebrates his interception with teammate Tony Jefferson in the second half of an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions in Baltimore. As a member of the Alabama football, Marlon Humphrey knew what to expect against non-league foes such as Mercer and Kent State. Now a rookie starting cornerback with the Ravens, he finds himself in a similar situation entering Sunday’s game against the winless Cleveland Browns. (AP Photo/Gail Burton, File)

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Ravens without Humphrey, T. Young for Wednesday’s practice

Posted on 12 December 2018 by Luke Jones

While fully healthy at the quarterback position for the first time since early November, the Ravens are dealing with several injury concerns in the secondary ahead of their Week 15 meeting with Tampa Bay.

Cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey (groin) and Tavon Young (groin) and safeties Tony Jefferson (ankle) and Anthony Levine (ankle) all missed practice on Wednesday as Baltimore prepares for an offense ranking first in the NFL in passing yards per game. Humphrey and Young both exited last Sunday’s loss at Kansas City with lingering groin injuries while Jefferson is trying to avoid missing his third straight contest.

“He’s close,” said head coach John Harbaugh of Jefferson’s status. “He tells me he’s going to play, and [the training staff] says we need to see him run full speed, so we’ll be looking for that this week. He told me he was going to play last week. He told me he was going to play the week before that, so that’s Tony. But I have my fingers crossed.”

Offensive lineman Alex Lewis (shoulder) returned to practice after missing last week’s game, but it remains to be seen whether he or veteran James Hurst will receive the starting nod at left guard. Hurst returned to action after a six-game absence to start in place of Lewis against the Chiefs. Harbaugh confirmed rookie Orlando Brown would remain the starting right tackle, the position Hurst held over the first six games of the season before being sidelined with a back injury.

Quarterbacks Lamar Jackson (ankle) and Joe Flacco (hip) were full participants in practice after Harbaugh announced Jackson will remain Baltimore’s starter moving forward. Jackson confirmed his ankle was “100 percent” after exiting late in the overtime loss to the Chiefs.

The Buccaneers were without veteran wide receiver DeSean Jackson (thumb) and starting safety Justin Evans (toe) for Wednesday’s workout. Both have missed recent games with their respective injuries.

Below is Wednesday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: CB Marlon Humphrey (groin), S Tony Jefferson (ankle), DB Anthony Levine (ankle), S Eric Weddle (non-injury), G Marshal Yanda (non-injury), CB Tavon Young (groin)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: G Alex Lewis (shoulder)
FULL PARTICIPATION: QB Joe Flacco (right hip), QB Lamar Jackson (ankle), LB Tim Williams (ankle)

TAMPA BAY
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: S Justin Evans (toe), WR DeSean Jackson (thumb), S Isaiah Johnson (concussion)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: CB Carlton Davis (knee), OT Demar Dotson (knee), DT Gerald McCoy (shoulder), DE Jason Pierre-Paul (knee/hip)

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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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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 34-17 win over Oakland

Posted on 27 November 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens moving back over the .500 mark with the 34-17 win over Oakland, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The first half was an example why I can’t really trust this Ravens offense, regardless of who the quarterback is. Marty Mornhinweg calling nearly twice as many pass plays as runs after compiling 267 rushing yards the previous week is the kind of thing we’ve seen too often.

2. No moment better epitomized the second-half philosophical shift than Ronnie Stanley gesturing to the sideline for more runs after a nine-yard rush on the third play of the second half. The left tackle easily had one of the best run-blocking games of his career on Sunday.

3. If the Ravens stick with Lamar Jackson and a run-heavy approach to try to limit the number of possessions of explosive opposing offenses, they’ll need to do better than going 4-for-8 inside the red zone over the last two games. That percentage would rank 27th in the NFL for 2018.

4. My favorite part of the 74-yard strike to Mark Andrews wasn’t the perfect throw, but it was Jackson dipping his shoulders to really sell the play-fake, which kept Raiders cornerback Rashaan Melvin’s eyes in the backfield a moment too long as Andrews blew right past him.

5. Matt Judon’s three sacks on three straight defensive snaps not only sealed the victory, but they put Derek Carr in historic — and familiar — company. The last time a quarterback was sacked by the same player on three straight plays was in 2002, per NFL Research. That quarterback? David Carr. Remarkable.

6. Judon’s strip-sack led to Baltimore registering its first takeaway since Week 7, but the defense is still looking for its first interception since the first quarter of the Week 5 loss at Cleveland. Rookie sensation Gus Edwards was still on the practice squad at that point.

7. Cyrus Jones returning a punt 70 yards for a touchdown was a cool moment, but the former Gilman star should thank Anthony Levine and Patrick Onwuasor for their early blocks and Chris Moore and Judon for springing him all the way. That return was executed beautifully all the way around.

8. Per Sharp Football, the offense used two running backs and two tight ends 20 percent of the time — the league average is three percent — and used the shotgun 93 percent of the time on Sunday. Scoring four offensive touchdowns in two games is pedestrian, but it’s looked anything but that.

9. Remember how the Ravens didn’t allow a second-half touchdown in their first six games? Sunday marked the third straight contest in which they’ve allowed a touchdown on the first drive of the second half. Credit Wink Martindale’s group for clamping down after that, however.

10. The previous Mornhinweg criticism aside, one of my favorite calls of the game was Ty Montgomery’s third-and-5 run out of a three-wide set that moved the chains late in the third quarter. Teams should spread out and run on third downs of short-to-medium distance more often.

11. Joe Flacco wasn’t the only one who had Ed Reed on his mind as Terrell Suggs looked to lateral the ball on his 43-yard fumble return for a touchdown. I’m sure Reed was smiling as he watched, but not as much as John Harbaugh after Suggs decided to keep it.

12. Kudos to the Ravens for recognizing Colts Hall of Famer Lenny Moore on his 85th birthday and Orioles great Adam Jones, who raised $125,000 for the Living Classrooms Foundation and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Baltimore with his annual tailgate on Sunday. What blessings both men are.

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Flacco officially out as Ravens “counting on” Jackson for second start

Posted on 23 November 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson will make his second straight start after Joe Flacco was officially ruled out for Sunday’s game against Oakland.

Friday’s news was the expectation throughout the week after head coach John Harbaugh acknowledged last Sunday it would be difficult for Flacco to return against the Raiders. The 33-year-old veteran hasn’t practiced since injuring his right hip early in the Nov. 4 loss to Pittsburgh.

“I’m counting on Lamar being the starter in this game,” said Harbaugh before Flacco was declared out on the final injury report. “I think that’s pretty straightforward. And Joe, at this point now, he would’ve had to practice to be ready to go, and he was not able to practice this week.”

Jackson hopes to build off a successful first start in which he ran for 119 yards on 26 carries and completed 13 of 19 passes for 150 yards and an interception in the 24-21 win over Cincinnati.

The Ravens are considered a heavy favorite against the Raiders, but many are clamoring for offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg to open up the passing game to see how Jackson fares against the NFL’s 17th-ranked pass defense. Oakland has allowed a league-worst 8.9 yards per passing attempt and ranks 30th with an opponent passer rating of 110.4.

It’s been a smooth week for Jackson in contrast to last week when he missed a practice due to a stomach issue, and coaches and teammates have complimented his demeanor while preparing for his second start.

“He’s no different. He’s always confident and into it and upbeat,” Harbaugh said. “I haven’t really noticed a difference that way — kind of the same.  It’s interesting, it’s just kind of Lamar, you know? He’s a joy to be around.”

After sitting out another full week of practice, right tackle James Hurst will miss his fifth consecutive game with a back injury that’s lingered longer than anyone anticipated when he was a late-week addition to the injury report in Week 7. Rookie Orlando Brown Jr. has played well in his place, but Hurst’s versatility has been missed with other starters such as left tackle Ronnie Stanley and left guard Alex Lewis also missing time with injuries in recent weeks.

With Lewis listed as questionable for Sunday’s game after missing Friday’s practice with a shoulder injury, the Ravens don’t have the luxury of shifting Hurst to left guard, a possible move pundits had discussed during the bye week.

“He had a disc issue and that’s all cleared up now, but he’s still feeling a little bit down in his calf,” said Harbaugh about Hurst’s extended absence. “It has to do with the nerve root, and it’s just unpredictable time-wise. We thought he’d be back two, three weeks ago. I’m as frustrated as anybody, [but] I’m not as frustrated as James. He’s the most frustrated.”

Defensive backs Tavon Young (groin) and Anthony Levine (ankle) are also questionable to play after missing practice on Wednesday and Thursday and working on a limited basis on Friday. Running back Alex Collins (foot) is expected to play after practicing fully on Friday.

Meanwhile, the Raiders officially ruled out wide receiver Martavis Bryant with a knee injury and listed wide receiver Jordy Nelson (knee) as questionable. Oakland has been decimated at the wide receiver position with starter Brandon LaFell being placed on injured reserve earlier this week and former No. 1 wideout Amari Cooper being traded to Dallas last month.

The Weather.com forecast for Sunday in Baltimore calls for sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-50s with winds five to 10 miles per hour.

Below is the final injury report of the week:

BALTIMORE
OUT: QB Joe Flacco (right hip), OT James Hurst (back)
QUESTIONABLE: RB Alex Collins (foot), DB Anthony Levine (ankle), G Alex Lewis (shoulder), LB Tim Williams (ankle), CB Tavon Young (groin)

OAKLAND
OUT: WR Martavis Bryant (knee)
QUESTIONABLE: CB Leon Hall (back), WR Jordy Nelson (knee)

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Takeaways largely absent as Ravens try to get back on track

Posted on 02 November 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Anthony Levine’s interception undoubtedly brought a sigh of relief to the Ravens sideline at Pittsburgh in Week 4.

Though already leading 23-14 with under four minutes remaining, Baltimore had blown double-digit fourth-quarter leads at Heinz Field in each of the previous two seasons. But Levine picking off Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger ended any thought of history repeating itself again.

That takeaway was the exclamation point on a 26-14 victory that propelled the Ravens to a 3-1 start. Since then, however, John Harbaugh’s team has lost three of four games while forcing only two turnovers: a Tavon Young interception at Cleveland and a Michael Pierce fumble recovery against New Orleans. Those takeaways occurred in the opening quarter and didn’t dramatically move the meter in eventual one-score defeats for a team now standing at 4-4 and entering a critical rematch with the Steelers on Sunday.

Despite the last five quarters in which the Ravens have allowed an unseemly 53 points, the defense remains at or near the top of many statistical categories. But after collecting a league-leading 34 takeaways last season and tying for the NFL lead in interceptions in 2016, Baltimore has forced just seven turnovers in its first eight games, which is tied for 21st in a league in which 13 teams have played seven games compared to the Ravens’ eight.

It’s as much surprising as it is concerning for a defense needing to get back on track against Pittsburgh. In a rivalry in which 17 of the last 24 games — counting the playoffs — have been decided by a single possession, turnovers become even more important than they already are in any given week.

“They’ve been a little more conservative in some ways,” said Harbaugh about how opponents have approached a defense with a reputation for taking the ball away so far this season. “Some of it’s on us — we haven’t made plays on the ball all the time like we need to. Sometimes the ball hasn’t gone our way. But we haven’t caused very many fumbles, and we haven’t gotten our hands on as many balls as we did last year, for sure. We have to find a way to do that. I’m disappointed in that for sure. That’s something that we need to do better.”

The Ravens have forced only four fumbles — falling on two — in their first eight games this season after forcing 17 and recovering 12 last year, a dramatic decline for a defense that regularly practices stripping the ball away from the opposition. Their five interceptions are tied for 19th in the league after finishing first with 22 last season. And though Baltimore’s 41 passes defended are on a comparable pace to last season’s total of 80 for 16 games, opponents are passing more frequently than they did through the first eight games of 2017.

The turnover decline isn’t easy to explain since so much of the defensive personnel is identical to last season, and the few changes — Brent Urban and Tavon Young being healthy — are viewed as upgrades. Truthfully, the defense continuing to rank so highly while playing so much “straight-up” football is a testament to the unit, but it’s also difficult to sustain.

“We’re conscious of that. We run [to] the ball. We’re doing the same things as we’ve always done,” safety Eric Weddle said. “The opportunities are there. We dropped a couple picks early on this season. We’ve got forced fumbles, and they’ve bounced the other way. They’re going to start coming, and when they do, it’s going to make our defense even stronger and our team better. We’ve had about six quarters of not-very-good football, and everything else has been solid.”

To be clear, the Ravens defense hasn’t been completely devoid of big plays. Baltimore leads the league with 27 sacks — including a team-record 11 in the 21-0 shutout at Tennessee on Oct. 14 — but 22 of those came in three games against the Titans, the Browns, and Buffalo, meaning the defense has just five total in its other five games.

Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale hasn’t hesitated to dial up more blitzes this year than predecessor Dean Pees and remains confident that the turnovers will arrive in bunches if his group remains true to itself, quipping Thursday how it’s difficult to pick off a screen pass on second-and-long.

The Ravens know they must remain disciplined in their effort to force turnovers, but you also wonder how a fourth-quarter turnover against the Browns or the Saints could have made the difference in one-score defeats. An interception or forced fumble can also be so critical in sparking a comeback, something that never materialized in Cincinnati or Carolina. The absence of starting cornerback Marlon Humphrey certainly didn’t help against the Saints and Panthers these last two weeks.

“They’re going to come. There’s no doubt,” cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “It’s not like we’re doing something so much more crazy on defense that we’re not trying to get those. As corners, me, Brandon [Carr] and Marlon, we have to get our hands on the ball more, create some plays ourselves, and then some tips and overthrows, hopefully, a couple of lucky passes.

“It’s good to be lucky as well.”

Yes, any number of football studies will tell you luck is a bigger element in forcing turnovers than coaches, players, media, and fans want to admit. But studies also confirm just how critical prevailing in the turnover battle is with teams coming out on top winning almost 80 percent of the time.

That element of chance is an unsettling reality as the Ravens try to avoid a third straight loss and recalibrate their quest to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

“We’re minus-four. You can put it right on that if you want,” said Harbaugh, referencing his team’s turnover differential through eight games. “If we’re not minus-four, what’s our record? If we’re even? If we’re plus-four, what’s our record? It’s probably completely flipped. It’s a big part of it.”

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