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Wild-card weekend drives home key points for Ravens

Posted on 09 January 2017 by Luke Jones

Watching wild-card weekend from home for the third time in the last four years, the Ravens had to be thinking what might have been.

They have no one to blame but themselves after losing three of their last four games to finish a mediocre 8-8, but a survey of the wild-card round field only reinforced the lack of high-quality teams in the NFL this year and in most seasons. As Bill Parcells famously said, you are what your record says you are, but you could argue that Baltimore was better than a few of the playoff teams if going off the eyeball test.

Oakland deserves a pass with the unfortunate injury to Derek Carr, but the Ravens would have certainly put up a better fight against Brock Osweiler and a Houston offense that was abysmal all season. The Texans finished minus-49 in point differential this season — Baltimore was plus-22 — and took advantage of a lousy AFC South with a 5-1 division record.

No one should have been surprised to see the Pittsburgh offense steamroll Miami after the Ravens scored 38 points against that same group last month. The Dolphins deserve credit for beating the teams they were supposed to under first-year head coach Adam Gase, but they registered only one victory against a team that finished with a winning record this season.

The Detroit Lions were a good story with so many exciting finishes, but they lost three straight to close the regular season, beat only one team that finished with a winning record, and finished with a minus-12 point differential.

The Ravens might have been an Antonio Brown tackle away from entering Week 17 atop the AFC North, but the defining stretch of the season was their winless October in which they lost to a non-playoff team at home (Washington) and dropped a 24-16 road contest to the woeful New York Jets. A single victory over that 0-4 stretch would have changed the dynamics of the final two weeks of the season.

Of course, being able to measure up to a few playoff squads doesn’t mean John Harbaugh’s team is close to being back at a championship level. Looking beyond the Texans’ lottery-winning draw of a Carr-less Raiders team on Saturday, the other three winners of the weekend — Seattle, Pittsburgh, and Green Bay — each possess dynamic playmakers, a truly special quarterback, or both.

The Ravens have a respectable collection of quality players — including the league’s best kicker and the top guard in the NFL — but they have nothing that measures closely to the impact provided by five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown and two-time Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell, who combined for four touchdowns and just under 300 yards from scrimmage in the Steelers’ 30-12 victory over Miami. And Joe Flacco didn’t come close to playing at a special level this year, either.

With Flacco arguably having more job security than anyone in the entire organization after signing a contract extension last year, general manager Ozzie Newsome better find him a playmaker or two if the Ravens’ fortunes are to markedly change for the better any time soon. It’s been a talking point for a few years now, but that makes it no less true after another non-playoff campaign.

** The four games had an average margin of victory of 19.0 points, making it the most lopsided wild-card weekend since 1981. Most expected all four home teams to prevail, but it was quite a contrast between Super Bowl contenders and pretenders this weekend.

** I couldn’t help but feel for the Raiders as they played in their first playoff game in 14 years without the benefit of their young franchise quarterback under center. Oakland should be back with such a talented group of young players on which to build, but return trips to the postseason can’t be taken for granted.

** It’s great to see Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney finally showing off the ability that warranted him being selected first overall in the 2014 draft after two disappointing seasons. He finished with an interception, two batted passes, and four quarterback pressures in a terrific performance against overwhelmed rookie quarterback Connor Cook.

** Even if Ben Roethlisberger wearing a walking boot after Sunday’s win was much ado about nothing, why in the world was the Pittsburgh quarterback and several other key starters still in the game so late in the fourth quarter?

** Can you imagine how long their fans would have been screaming about the Packers’ failed fourth-down run from the their own 42-yard line in the third quarter if it had resulted in the turning point of a New York Giants win at Lambeau Field? I suppose having a future Hall of Fame quarterback helps to cover up a bad coaching decision as Rodgers was sensational on Sunday.

** No, I don’t believe the Monday trip to Miami made by Odell Beckham Jr. — and several of his teammates — was the reason why the Giants lost to Green Bay, but it did fairly call his focus and priorities into question just days before the biggest game of his young NFL career.

Ravens tight end Benjamin Watson is highly respected around the league and summed it up nicely via his Twitter account. Just because you have the right to do something doesn’t mean you should, and Beckham certainly fueled the flames of the story by turning in a lousy performance.

Maybe he should have asked Tony Romo if a pre-playoff vacation is worth the potential backlash.

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Christmas Day

Posted on 24 December 2016 by Luke Jones

It became crystal clear for the Ravens on Saturday.

Beat Pittsburgh on Christmas Day or officially be eliminated from playoff contention. Miami’s overtime victory over Buffalo wiped away any chance of a wild-card spot for Baltimore, who will now need to top the Steelers and almost certainly need to beat Cincinnati in Week 17 to take the AFC North title.

The Ravens have won five of their last seven games to rebound from a winless month of October, but they will need to win their first road game in exactly three months on Sunday. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh has rebounded from its own four-game losing streak earlier this season by winning five in a row, a stretch that included four road games.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Steelers meet for the 42nd in their regular-season history with Pittsburgh holding a 21-20 advantage. Counting the postseason, 15 of the 20 games in the John Harbaugh era have been decided by one possession. Baltimore has won four straight overall against the Steelers and has been victorious in four of the last six meetings at Heinz Field.

Here’s what to expects as the Ravens try to keep their postseason hopes alive …

1. Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell will combine for 180 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns. Since the start of 2013, the Baltimore defense has held Brown under 100 receiving yards in six of eight meetings, but the two times the All-Pro receiver eclipsed the mark were games in which cornerback Jimmy Smith did not play. The Ravens’ second-ranked run defense is likely to rebound from a brutal performance last week, but Bell’s ability as a receiver out of the backfield is a concern for linebackers who have struggled in coverage in recent weeks.

2. Mike Wallace will find the end zone once again against his former team. The speedy wideout is just 37 receiving yards shy of 1,000 for the season as he’s been everything the Ravens could have asked for when signing him to a two-year deal in March. The Steelers secondary has played better in recent weeks and has done a good job limiting big plays, but offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg will do what he can to get the ball in Wallace’s hands. It won’t be another 95-yard sprint like we saw in Week 9, but the former Steeler will catch his first touchdown at Heinz Field since 2012.

3. The Ravens will reach the century mark on the ground against a banged-up Steelers defensive line. They rarely commit to the run, but the Ravens have averaged 4.8 yards per carry over their last five games behind the same offensive line. The Steelers rank fifth in the league in run defense, but defensive end Stephon Tuitt missed practice all week and is questionable to play with a knee injury and defensive end Cam Heyward was placed on injured reserve last month. Whether it’s Terrance West or Kenneth Dixon, the Ravens will try to control the clock and keep the Pittsburgh offense off the field.

4. A clean pocket will help Ben Roethlisberger throw for 250 yards. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees faces a predicament with an undermanned secondary and a front that’s struggled to get consistent pressure without the blitz, a dangerous combination against a potent passing game. It also doesn’t help that the Steelers offensive line has allowed just three sacks over its last five games and will have a healthy Maurkice Pouncey, who played only 19 snaps in the first meeting. The Ravens will likely try to play coverage in hopes of minimizing big plays and forcing the Steelers to move methodically.

5. The Ravens will fall 24-20 to officially miss the playoffs for the third time in the last four years. Counting them out completely would be a mistake and they’ve been inside the Steelers’ heads for the last few years, but the Ravens haven’t shown the kind of road mettle this season to make you think they’ll play well enough to beat a red-hot team on the cusp of a division championship. Unless the postseason version of Joe Flacco arrives a couple games early, the Ravens offense won’t have quite enough firepower to match an offense with better weapons. The defense will contain Bell between the tackles, but the absence of Smith in the secondary will be a fatal blow in a close game.

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Ravens rule out cornerback Jimmy Smith for Pittsburgh

Posted on 23 December 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — If the Ravens are to extend their franchise-best four-game winning streak against their bitter rival and move closer to a division title, they’ll have to do it without their top cornerback on Christmas Day.

Jimmy Smith was officially declared out for Sunday’s AFC North showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers as he continues to recover from a sprained right ankle. The 28-year-old hasn’t practiced since injuring the ankle in the Week 14 loss at New England on Dec. 12 and missed last Sunday’s win over Philadelphia.

On Friday, Smith declined an interview request and was wearing a walking boot on his right foot as he left the Ravens locker room. His absence spells trouble against All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown and a Pittsburgh passing game ranking fifth in the NFL.

Though Baltimore has rarely used Smith to travel with Brown exclusively in past meetings, defensive coordinator Dean Pees will now be counting on the cornerback trio of rookie Tavon Young and veterans Shareece Wright and Jerraud Powers to contain one of the best receivers in the league.

“Jimmy is a different kind of mover than Antonio Brown, so it wouldn’t necessarily be the guy that you would match up with [him],” head coach John Harbaugh said. “You could in certain places and wherever you run certain routes, you would have to be really diligent about the details of that. We play a lot of zone coverage and man coverage. We mix our coverages up, so whether we did that or not would depend on the call and the situation.”

Brown recorded seven catches for 85 yards and a touchdown in Pittsburgh’s 21-14 loss to the Ravens on Nov. 6, but the 5-foot-10 receiver had just two receptions for nine yards until the fourth quarter when the Steelers already trailed 21-0. Baltimore has typically held him in check compared to his impressive success over the last five years, but most of those meetings included a healthy Smith in the defensive backfield.

In the two meetings with Pittsburgh that followed Smith’s season-ending foot injury in 2014, the Ravens allowed Brown to record a combined 20 catches for 261 yards and a touchdown.

Veteran wide receiver Steve Smith (thigh) was listed as questionable after being added to the injury report as a limited participant in Thursday’s practice, but he participated fully in Friday’s walk-through, leaving little doubt about his status for Sunday’s game.

The Ravens ruled out rookie linebacker Kamalei Correa (ribs) and listed defensive back Anthony Levine (toe), defensive end Brent Urban, and guard Alex Lewis (ankle) as questionable. Levine practiced on a limited basis all week while Lewis was a full participant in every practice.

The Steelers are dealing with several key injuries of their own as they officially listed tight end Ladarius Green (concussion) and wide receiver Sammie Coates (hamsring) as doubtful and designated starting defensive end Stephon Tuitt (knee) as questionable to play on Sunday. Tuitt did not practice all week after injuring his knee in last week’s win at Cincinnati.

Steelers safety Sharmarko Thomas was officially ruled out with a concussion.

The referee for Sunday’s game will be John Parry.

According to Weather.com, the Christmas Day forecast for Pittsburgh calls for partly cloudy skies with a high of 44 degrees and light winds reaching five miles per hour.

The Ravens will be wearing white jerseys with white pants for the first time this season while Pittsburgh dons its all-black “Color Rush” uniforms for the nationally-televised game on NFL Network.

Below is the final full injury report for the week:

BALTIMORE
OUT: LB Kamalei Correa (ribs), CB Jimmy Smith (ankle)
QUESTIONABLE: DB Anthony Levine (toe), G Alex Lewis (ankle), WR Steve Smith (thigh), DT Brent Urban (illness)

PITTSBURGH
OUT: S Shamarko Thomas (concussion)
DOUBTFUL: WR Sammie Coates (hamstring), TE Ladarius Green (concussion)
QUESTIONABLE: LB Anthony Chickillo (ankle), WR Darrius Heyward-Bey (foot), DE Ricardo Mathews (ankle), DE Stephon Tuitt (knee)

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 05 November 2016 by Luke Jones

Two rivals coming off their bye week and needing a win on Sunday.

The stakes are clear for both the Ravens and Pittsburgh when they meet for the 41st time in their regular-season history. Having lost four straight games in October, Baltimore is trying to turn its season around and pull even in the AFC North with the Steelers, who have dropped two consecutive games themselves.

Health is a hot topic for both teams as the Ravens expect to welcome back several key starters, a list including linebackers Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley and offensive linemen Marshal Yanda and Ronnie Stanley. Meanwhile, the Steelers appear likely to have starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger back under center less than three weeks after knee surgery.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens attempt to win their fourth straight game against Pittsburgh, which includes their victory in the 2014 postseason. The Steelers lead the regular-season series by a 21-19 edge, but Mike Tomlin’s team hasn’t won a game at M&T Bank Stadium since 2012. Counting the playoffs, Baltimore has won five of the last six meetings with its biggest rival.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Dennis Pitta will catch his first touchdown of the season while Darren Waller will make his first catches of 2016. Who would have guessed with the well-documented depth entering training camp that Pitta would be the only tight end to play in all of the Ravens’ first eight games? His production has slowed since surpassing the 100-yard receiving mark in Week 2, but he poses a problem for Pittsburgh linebackers who are weak in coverage. With Crockett Gillmore out, Waller is now the No. 2 option and is an imposing physical specimen offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg should utilize.

2. Le’Veon Bell will not do much against the Ravens on the ground, but the Pittsburgh running back will burn them in the passing game. The Baltimore run defense is for real and allowing just 3.5 yards per game, but a returning Mosley — and his hamstring — will face a heck of a test in coverage with Bell’s ability to separate as a pass catcher. With the way Matt Forte had success as a receiver against the Ravens in Week 7, Roethlisberger won’t hesitate to look for the explosive Bell out of the backfield to help keep the Steelers on schedule despite little production in the running game.

3. Suggs will collect a sack to add to an impressive mark, but Baltimore won’t get enough heat on a hobbled quarterback otherwise. Suggs poked fun earlier this week at the injury drama often surrounding Roethlisberger, the kind of trash talk bringing back memories of the prime of this rivalry. The six-time Pro Bowl linebacker has backed up the talk over the years with 16 1/2 career sacks against the Pittsburgh quarterback. However, an improved Steelers offensive line won’t have too many issues against a pass rush that’s been largely unproductive without Elvis Dumervil this season.

4. The Ravens secondary will fare respectably against Antonio Brown, but the big-play receiver will still catch a second-half touchdown. As tremendous as Brown has been for several seasons, Baltimore has surprisingly done a commendable job against him, holding him to just one touchdown reception. It will be interesting to see how the Ravens defense approaches Brown as Jimmy Smith has traveled with him at times in past meetings. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will likely mix up coverages against Brown, but the Steelers wideout will still find a way to the end zone on Sunday.

5. Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense will show some signs of improvement, but it won’t be enough in a 24-20 loss. The Steelers are the better football team, but the Ravens winning wouldn’t be surprising after Ryan Mallett’s heroics in the most recent meeting between these teams last December. You never truly know with this rivalry. Improved health on the offensive line should help the offense, but John Harbaugh’s team just isn’t inspiring enough confidence and Pittsburgh is also feeling plenty of urgency with higher expectations for the season. The Steelers have better play-makers, and that will be the difference in a narrow defeat for the Ravens that will only add to the frustration level in Baltimore.

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Slowing Pittsburgh play-makers tops priority list for Ravens

Posted on 04 November 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The biggest difference between the Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers comes down to two players.

Baltimore has the better defense while the Steelers possess a more stable offensive line. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is better than Joe Flacco, but we know the latter is capable of playing at a high level with enough good pieces around him.

Pieces more like Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, who are the biggest obstacles in Baltimore’s attempt to snap a four-game losing streak and pull even with the Steelers in the AFC North. Counting the 2014 postseason, the Ravens have won their last three games against Pittsburgh, but one of Roethlisberger, Brown, and Bell missed each one of those games.

The last time the dynamic trio played against the Ravens resulted in a 43-23 blowout at Heinz Field on Nov. 2, 2014 in which Roethlisberger threw six touchdown passes with Brown and Bell each catching one. It was a rare occasion in which Brown went off against the Ravens, catching 11 passes for 144 yards and a 54-yard touchdown.

Despite averaging an incredible 102.2 receiving yards per game in 55 contests since the start of the 2013 season, the four-time Pro Bowl receiver has eclipsed the century mark in only two of his last seven contests — one in the playoffs — against the Ravens and has only one touchdown reception in his career against Baltimore.

“It is a rivalry game. We know each other,” said cornerback Jimmy Smith about the Baltimore defense keep Brown in check on so many occasions. “We know what they are trying to do to us. They know what we are trying to do to them. It is one of those games that, fortunately, at times, we come out on the better side or get going against them. Some of the game plan is obviously directed towards him, so we are doing what we are supposed to do if we keep him with minimal yards and catches.”

Conventional wisdom suggests Smith — the Ravens’ top cornerback — would match up with Brown wherever the 5-foot-10 receiver lines up, but defensive coordinator Dean Pees has employed different strategies in recent meetings. In Week 2 of the 2014 season, Smith traveled with Brown and held him to seven catches for 90 yards on 12 targets, but the sixth-year defensive back stayed on one side of the field in two meetings last year as the Ravens held the Pittsburgh receiver to a total of 103 receiving yards and no touchdowns.

In a conference call with the Baltimore media this week, Brown said he prefers when the opposition matches one cornerback against him because it leads to more 1-on-1 opportunities. The star wideout has faced plenty of press coverage with safety help over the top in recent games.

“There are so many factors you take into account and your defensive calls [such as] if you’re going to play more zone or you’re going to play more man,” said defensive coordinator Dean Pees about the decision to have a cornerback travel with a specific receiver. “All of a sudden, you’re going to try to teach a defensive back that’s in the slot how to play zone in the slot as opposed to [playing outside]. It’s easier [to travel in man coverage], because you have the man. Every time I line a guy up there and that same DB lines up there, they look at it and say, ‘If that guy lines up in the slot, they’re in man coverage.’

“You have to be able to mix and match zones and mans. There’s a lot more to it than just easily stating, ‘Let’s put our best DB on their best receiver.'”

Bell could serve as an even bigger factor on Sunday with Roethlisberger still not 100 percent less than three weeks after knee surgery. The Ravens rank fourth in the NFL in run defense, but Pittsburgh would love to unleash the star running back early to ease pressure on the hobbled quarterback.

In 2016, the 24-year-old Bell is averaging 5.0 yards per carry and 7.5 receptions per game since returning from a three-game suspension.

“I tell him before every game that I’m excited to see what he is going to do,” Brown said. “You know what he brings in the running game; you know what he brings in the passing game. That is the type of guy you want to have on your team — a guy who comes to work every day, displays a good work ethic, and is a big-time player.”

The biggest key in trying to slow Bell will be the anticipated return of inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, who has missed the last two games with a hamstring injury. Besides being the leader of a defense that gave up too many big plays in the middle of the field in his absence, Mosley is the Ravens’ best linebacker in pass coverage and leads the team with three interceptions.

In 39 career games, Bell has caught 182 passes for 1,634 yards and three touchdowns.

Injuries and off-field issues have hindered the start of his career, but Bell possesses a rare combination of patience and downhill ability that makes him dangerous every time he touches the ball.

“Guys can’t guess. If you have a gap to control, you have to control that gap,” said Pees, who labeled Bell one of the best running backs he’s faced in his long coaching career. “You have to stay on your blocker and be patient. When you get a runner like that, you have to be very disciplined on defense, too. Like I tell everybody, when he gets the ball, everybody on defense is at the point of attack because he could go anywhere at any time.”

These dynamic play-makers are the reason why the Steelers are considered the favorite to win a division consumed with mediocrity in 2016. They’re the type of special players Baltimore lacks right now.

If the Ravens want to begin turning their season around on Sunday, they can’t allow Brown and Bell to explode.

“He is one of the biggest challenges in the NFL,” said Smith about the Pittsburgh receiver. “You know what he does. We all know. It is going to take a lot to contain him and No. 26.”

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 26 December 2015 by Luke Jones

“The night is darkest just before the dawn.”

Recently adding to Harvey Dent’s sentiment expressed in “The Dark Knight” movie was injured Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, who told the team’s official website that watching this season is like “being in Bane’s prison with your back broken, watching the city in turmoil.”

That dawn — or an escape — doesn’t figure to come Sunday as the 4-10 Ravens welcome their hated AFC North rivals to town. Not only do the Pittsburgh Steelers have an opportunity to clinch a playoff spot with a win and a New York Jets loss, but their fans could take over M&T Bank Stadium in a manner we haven’t seen in Baltimore in a long time. Based on the higher-than-normal volume of visiting fans in town over the last two weeks, that scenario appears likely for the final home game of the 2015 season.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said this week that he couldn’t care less about the possibility of punching a ticket to the playoffs in Baltimore, but you know there’s little Pittsburgh would like more than to further embarrass their rivals when they’re down.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Steelers meet for the 40th in their regular-season history with Pittsburgh holding a 21-18 advantage, but 13 of the 18 games — including the postseason — in the John Harbaugh era have been decided by one possession, which includes the Ravens’ 23-20 overtime win at Heinz Field in Week 4. The Ravens are 10-9 against the Steelers in Baltimore.

Here’s what to expects as the Ravens try to win just their third home game of 2015 …

(Editor’s note: A report early Sunday morning indicated that Ryan Mallett will start against the Steelers, allowing the reader to skip to the No. 2 prediction.)

1. Jimmy Clausen will start and play respectably against one of the league’s worst pass defenses. Harbaugh and Marc Trestman have left the door open for Ryan Mallett to make his first start, but it’s difficult imagining him truly being ready with less than two weeks to learn the system and it makes little sense throwing him into such a difficult setting. Meanwhile, Clausen has played well enough in his first two starts to make you think he can make some plays against Pittsburgh’s 31st-ranked pass defense. The Ravens offense lacks the pieces to score many points, but Clausen’s developing chemistry with Kamar Aiken will allow them to at least move the chains on Sunday.

2. Jimmy Smith will intercept a pass, but Antonio Brown will catch a touchdown and post over 100 receiving yards. The fifth-year cornerback being listed as probable is good news, but it’s not as though the pass defense has thrived with Smith, who has disappointed coming off last year’s Lisfranc injury. The Ravens have one interception in the last three months — Lardarius Webb picked off Blake Bortles on Nov. 15 — and Smith will intercept Ben Roethlisberger in the first half. However, he’ll be no match for Brown as he eclipses the century mark in receiving yards for the fifth time in seven games. There are just too many weapons for Pittsburgh and not enough talent in the Ravens secondary.

3. Buck Allen will redeem himself from Week 15 with 115 yards from scrimmage. I wasn’t a fan of Harbaugh’s treatment of the rookie running back after his first-quarter fumble, but the coach indicated that Allen’s bench won’t carry over. The Steelers remain stout against the run, but their linebackers are poor in pass coverage, which should open up opportunities for Allen to catch passes out of the backfield. With Pittsburgh expected to score plenty of points and the Ravens likely playing from behind, Clausen will find Allen as a nice safety valve out of the backfield to help move the chains and the 2015 fourth-round pick will put the memory of the last two weeks behind him with a strong day.

4. Ben Roethlisberger will throw for over 300 yards for the sixth time in the last seven games. It’s hard to believe there was a time when the Pittsburgh quarterback was considered much more of a game manager, but the only thing to consistently stop him in 2015 has been injuries as Roethlisberger continues to put up big numbers. The Ravens will try to exploit Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, but the pass rush just isn’t good enough and the veteran signal-caller will be more than willing to roll out to his right and wait for his receivers to get open down the field. It will be a far cry from Week 4 when the Ravens were able to bottle up Mike Vick for most of the evening.

5. The Ravens will keep it close in the first half before Pittsburgh pulls away in a 31-13 final. Baltimore was competitive early against Seattle and Kansas City, but the resiliency and talent just aren’t there to overcome a turnover, a big penalty, or a gut-wrenching play by the opposition at this point. The Steelers have won three straight and have reached the 30-point mark in their last six contests, making them arguably the biggest AFC threat to New England should they reach the postseason. It’s easy to say it’s a Ravens-Steelers game and anything could happen, but do we really even recognize this Baltimore team at this point? Considering what’s at stake for Pittsburgh, the Ravens winning on Sunday would be one of the biggest upsets in the 20-year history of the franchise.

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Saturday night

Posted on 02 January 2015 by Luke Jones

Here we go again.

Regarded by many as the best rivalry in the NFL, the Ravens and Steelers meet for the third time this season and the fourth time ever in the postseason at Heinz Field on Saturday night. Baltimore and Pittsburgh split a pair of 20-point finals during the regular season with each team winning on its home field.

The weather figures to be a significant storyline as the forecast continues to call for a 90 to 100 percent chance of rain with temperatures in the mid-40s and winds that could reach 20 miles per hour.

Both teams will be dealing with significant injuries as the Steelers will be without Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell while the Ravens are missing left tackle Eugene Monroe for the second straight game, meaning rookie free agent James Hurst will start in his place. Pittsburgh will rely on rookies Josh Harris and Dri Archer as well as newly-signed veteran Ben Tate to pick up the slack in Bell’s absence.

In more positive news, the Ravens will welcome back five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata from suspension, which will more than offset the loss of rookie Timmy Jernigan (foot) in Week 17.

Of course, both team will lean heavily on Super Bowl winning quarterbacks to lead the way as Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger both know what it takes to make a meaningful run in January. Roethlisberger owns a 10-4 postseason record while Flacco owns a 9-4 mark in the playoffs.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Steelers meet for the fourth time in postseason history with Pittsburgh holding a 3-0 mark with all previous playoff games being played at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh also leads the all-time regular-season series 21-17, but 13 of the 16 games — including the postseason — played between the Ravens and Steelers in the John Harbaugh era have been decided by one possession.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to beat Pittsburgh for the first time ever in the postseason …

1. Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil will each collect a sack, but a sloppy field will neutralize some of their ability to wreak havoc. Bell’s absence will put plenty of attention on the Pittsburgh passing game, which will have the Ravens’ rush licking its chops over the possibility of being able to tee off on Roethlisberger. However, the Steelers offensive line is much better than it’s been in several years and the wet surface at Heinz Field will slow the rush for both teams. Suggs and Dumervil often try to jump snap counts to utilize their speed off the edge, but hard counts and a chewed-up field will make things easier for tackles Kelvin Beachum and Marcus Gilbert.

2. With the Ravens focused on slowing Pittsburgh receiver Antonio Brown, rookie Martavis Bryant will beat Rashaan Melvin for a long touchdown. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees knows Brown is the Steelers’ most dangerous weapon, which will make it even more important to focus on him in coverage with Bell unavailable. The Ravens will shade safety help to where Brown lines up as much as possible, but that could leave Melvin matched up against the 6-foot-4 Bryant. Melvin has played well since being thrown into the mix last month, but this will be his first NFL game against an elite quarterback and he’ll bite on a double move by Bryant for a score.

3. Justin Forsett will be the only running back from either team to find modest success on Saturday night with 70 yards and a touchdown. Considering few have run with any success against the Ravens this season, the Steelers won’t be able to do much without Bell, who will also be missed as a receiver and in pass protection. However, Baltimore has struggled to run consistently in recent weeks and will face the league’s sixth-ranked run defense. The Ravens will run wide and use counters to get the Steelers’ front seven moving laterally — something they also want to do with play-action plays to neutralize the pass rush — and Forsett will do enough to keep the Pittsburgh defense on its toes with the rain falling.

4. Both Flacco and Roethlisberger will throw more than 35 times despite a forecast conducive to running the ball. In the old days of this rivalry, Saturday’s forecast would have meant both sides grinding it out with the rushing attack, but the run defenses are too stout and the secondaries too vulnerable for the game not to be put in the hands of these franchise quarterbacks. The Ravens will mix in more runs than the Steelers, but Roethlisberger has better weapons to throw to in the passing game. As Harbaugh pointed out earlier in the week, both Flacco and Roethlisberger are used to playing in poor weather and the rain won’t prevent them from making some plays through the air.

5. The weather will contribute to another low-scoring tight one, but the Steelers will find a way to prevail in a 20-17 final. The loss of Bell is a major blow to Pittsburgh and could be enough to tip the scale in Baltimore’s favor, but the Ravens haven’t risen to the occasion against good teams, sporting only one win all season against a team that finished with a winning record. Many are pointing to 2012 as enough reason for the Ravens to be able to make a run, but even in the midst of losing four of their last five to close that regular season, there was the Week 16 demolition of the New York Giants that flashed what the offense would be able to do in the postseason. Despite a strong fourth quarter to beat Cleveland in Week 17, the Ravens have failed to inspire on offense for almost a month now, making it too difficult to believe the unit suddenly clicks in January with a banged-up offensive line. And after an admirable run against pedestrian passing games in December, a patchwork secondary isn’t going to hold up as well against the NFL’s second-ranked passing attack. Harbaugh’s group will give a one-dimensional Pittsburgh offense everything it can handle, but Roethlisberger has played the best football of his career this season and will do just enough at home to get by the Ravens yet again in the postseason.

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Slowing Antonio Brown critical to Ravens continuing playoff run

Posted on 31 December 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — As many focus on the status of Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell for Saturday’s playoff game in Pittsburgh, the Ravens know an ability to contain Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown would go a long way in trying to advance to the divisional round.

The 5-foot-10 Brown continues to defy the odds as a former sixth-round pick who led the NFL with 129 receptions and 1,698 receiving yards while catching a career-high 13 touchdown passes in 2014. And he presents the biggest challenge to a Ravens pass defense that’s played better in recent weeks but still ranked 24th in pass defense during the regular season.

“A lot of guys when they [discuss] who the best receiver in the game is, they want to look at the big, tall, dominant guys like Calvin [Johnson] and Dez [Bryant],” said cornerback Lardarius Webb, who labeled Brown as an elite receiver a few years ago when he was still playing in the shadow of former Steeler Mike Wallace. “With Antonio, he can do it all. He’s not the biggest guy, so a lot of guys might not want to say he’s the best receiver in the game because of his size. He can do a lot of things on that field to say, ‘Man, why not be the best receiver in the game?’”

After Jimmy Smith shadowed Brown in holding him to a quiet seven catches for 90 yards in a 26-6 win over the Steelers in Week 2, the Ravens faced Brown’s wrath in the regular-season rematch in Pittsburgh — a week after their top cornerback was lost for the season — in which he caught 11 passes for 144 yards and a 54-yard touchdown in a 43-23 final on Nov. 2. It remains to be seen whether Webb will draw the exclusive assignment of following Brown, but the Ravens haven’t done any mirroring of receivers since Smith was injured, instead keeping each starting cornerback on the same sides of the field.

Baltimore will obviously try to roll safety help to Brown’s side as much as possible, but Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley likes moving the speedy receiver all over the field. In addition to being targeted 25 times on passes 20 or more yards down field in the regular season, Brown also lines up in the slot at least a handful of times per game, which would create a significant problem if the Ravens are to use Matt Elam in certain nickel situations.

If a defense shows its hand too drastically in trying to bracket Brown, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t been afraid to go elsewhere in throwing for a career-high 4,952 yards in 2014. But Brown remains his most dangerous weapon with his 615 yards after the catch rank third in the NFL.

“He’s all over. They can screen him, they can stack,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “But the thing of it is I think Ben also sees what the coverage is, and all of a sudden, you’re rolling it. He’s not afraid to go to [Martavis Bryant or Markus Wheaton]. [Tight end Heath Miller] has always been a security blanket for him, and the guy has always made a clutch catch in clutch times.”

A Ravens secondary that’s been ravaged by injuries throughout the season is feeling better about itself heading into the postseason, but Roethlisberger and Brown present a far more imposing quarterback-receiver duo than anything seen over the final quarter of the season. Baltimore’s ability to slow the Steelers offense will once again come down to the pass rush, but Roethlisberger has shown an ability to get rid of the ball quickly in averaging just 2.5 seconds in the pocket before throwing, which Pro Football Focus ranked sixth in the NFL.

The faces have changed in the secondary since the Week 9 blowout in Pittsburgh as Dominique Franks and Chykie Brown were both cut and current starting cornerback Rashaan Melvin wasn’t even on the team at the time. Pees and several members of the secondary have credited continuity in recent weeks as a reason for the improvement.

“The last couple games we’ve been playing good ball all over the field,” Melvin said. “That confidence going into the playoffs is going to help us a lot. We just want to go in and play the best ball we can play as a second and as a defense in general and to go in there and do our assignments.”

Even if the Ravens are able to limit Brown’s opportunities as a receiver, they’ll need to watch out for him as a punt returner as Cincinnati found out last week when he returned a punt 71 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter. He ranked eighth in the NFL in punt return average this season and tied for sixth in return attempts, showing he isn’t conservative as a returner despite being valued as one of the best wide receivers in football.

His expansive skill set not only makes him one of the best receivers in the NFL but one of the best players overall. And the Ravens will have their hands full in trying to slow him enough to be able to continue playing beyond Saturday night.

“The same thing that makes him dangerous as a receiver makes him dangerous as a returner,” special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. “He’s very aggressive. He’s highly talented. He has a competitive spirit about him. He wants to make plays, and he has done it. He’s a very good player. We have to be at our best.”

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday night

Posted on 01 November 2014 by Luke Jones

No strangers to meeting in the national spotlight, the Ravens and Steelers will meet in prime time for the 13th time in the series history on Sunday night.

Baltimore will be looking for its first regular-season sweep of Pittsburgh since 2011 while the Steelers aim for their third straight win overall. Both teams enter the weekend right on the heels of the first-place Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North.

Sunday marks the 38th time these teams have met in the regular season with the Steelers owning a 20-17 advantage. The Ravens are 7-11 in regular-season games played in Pittsburgh, but they’ve won three of the last four played at Heinz Field.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to improve to 6-3 in a very competitive AFC North …

1. Steelers wideout Antonio Brown will catch a long touchdown in the first quarter as a reshuffled secondary tries to get its bearings. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will need to be creative with coverages as top cornerback Jimmy Smith is out. The timing couldn’t be much worse as Brown has been arguably the best receiver in the NFL this season and is tied for the league lead with 10 catches of 25 or more yards. Pees will likely entrust Lardarius Webb to cover Brown, which is a daunting task for a cornerback working his way back to top form after a lengthy absence due to a back injury. A miscommunication will allow Brown to break free for a long score as the Ravens defense tries to get in sync.

2. Rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro will score a touchdown for a second straight game and lead the Ravens in rushing. Baltimore ran for 157 yards in the first meeting against the Steelers in Week 2, but it wasn’t until the fourth quarter that the running game really wore down a tired Pittsburgh front. This defense is softer than the typical Steelers unit and ranks 11th against the run, and the physicality of Taliaferro will be a strong change of pace from shifty starter Justin Forsett. With concerns in their own secondary, the Ravens will want to control the clock and limit the Steelers’ opportunities for possessions and Taliaferro will get plenty of carries in the second half with Bernard Pierce now third on the depth chart.

3. The Baltimore defense will limit Le’Veon Bell’s production on the ground, but the Pittsburgh running back will lead his team in receptions. The Ravens are allowing only 3.7 yards per carry and rank seventh in the NFL in run defense as they’ve slowed opposing running backs all season. However, the Steelers are finding more and more ways to get the ball to the 244-pound back as a receiver as he’s second on the team in receiving yards. With the Ravens trying to account for not having Smith, they’re going to be content with giving cushion and allowing throws underneath to prevent the big play. Pittsburgh will use this to its advantage by getting the ball to Bell in the passing game.

4. Terrell Suggs will collect two sacks to pick up 100 for his career. There’s no downplaying how crucial it will be for the Ravens to generate pressure as they’ll be depending on the pair of Dominique Franks — who was on the street at this time a month ago — and Chykie Brown — who spent the last two weeks on the inactive list — at the cornerback position opposite Webb. Much like he’ll mix and disguise coverages in the back end, Pees will move Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and Pernell McPhee around to confuse an improving offensive line and harass Roethlisberger. Suggs needs two sacks for 100 in his career, and nothing would be more fitting than doing it against the quarterback he’s sacked more than any other rusher has.

5. Pittsburgh will win a 26-23 game that goes back and forth for much of the night. Admittedly, when trying to break down Ravens-Steelers, it’s probably best to put aside the numbers and simply remember that 11 of the 15 total meetings in the John Harbaugh era — counting the postseason — have been decided by four or fewer points. However, the loss of Smith hurts more than any player on the current roster beyond quarterback Joe Flacco and the Steelers offense is playing at a high level at the wrong time for Baltimore. Both offenses will move the ball effectively, but the Steelers will do a little too much damage in the passing game for the Ravens to overcome.

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Thursday night

Posted on 28 November 2013 by Luke Jones

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Though each team carries an underwhelming 5-6 record, playoff ramifications are high on Thanksgiving as the Ravens and Steelers meet for the 36th time in the regular season but the first time ever on a Thursday night.

A win pushes the Ravens closer toward the No. 6 spot in the AFC while a loss all but ends their season as they would likely need to win their remaining four games to have any chance of advancing to the postseason for the sixth straight time under head coach John Harbaugh.

The Ravens are healthier than they’ve been at any point this season as defensive end Chris Canty was the only starter on the injury report — listed as probable — while the Steelers will be without starting nose tackle Steve McLendon and are unlikely to have outside linebacker and sack leader LaMarr Woodley, who is doubtful with a calf injury. However, it appears Baltimore will likely need to wait at least one more week for the return of tight end Dennis Pitta.

It’s time to go on the record as the Steelers look for their first season sweep over Baltimore since the 2008 season and hold the 20-15 edge all-time in the regular season while also owning a 3-0 advantage in the postseason. The Ravens are 8-9 against Pittsburgh in Baltimore and have lost two of the last three played at M&T Bank Stadium. The last four meetings and nine of the last 11 regular-season contests between the Ravens and Steelers have each been decided by just three points.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens look to move to the .500 mark for the first time since mid-October …

1. Tyrod Taylor will see a few offensive snaps but will not line up under center as the wildcat discussion will calm considerably. Should the Ravens continue using the gimmick offense after Joe Flacco said Tuesday that he didn’t expect to see it much moving forward, the doubts of whether the quarterback and the coaching staff are on the same page will only get stronger. The truth is the wildcat attack isn’t going to be the difference-maker the Ravens need as opponents see it more and more, but there’s no reason Taylor can’t be used lining up as a wide receiver or even at running back on occasion. If the Steelers were forced to even spend as much as 20 or 30 minutes in a short week preparing for the possibility of the Ravens using the novelty offense, I suppose that’s an advantage for Baltimore, but it won’t dramatically alter the outcome of the game.

2. Neither team will run for more than 80 yards as Le’Veon Bell won’t duplicate his strong Week 7 performance. Pittsburgh used its own version of the wildcat in the first meeting of the season, which led to a season-high 141 yards on the ground for the league’s 30th-ranked running game. Meanwhile, the Ravens haven’t run effectively against anyone except Miami in Week 5 and the Bears two weeks ago, so it’s difficult to expect them to do much against even the Steelers’ 23rd-ranked run defense. After years of these rivals thriving on dominating defense and the running game, it’s clear that the 2013 versions of the Ravens and Steelers simply do not fit that profile. You’re much more likely to see 300-yard performances from either of the starting quarterbacks than to see a 100-yard day from either Bell or Ray Rice as the defenses will control the line of scrimmage.

3. Justin Tucker will miss his first field goal since Week 2. Anyone recall when the second-year kicker missed two tries in the home opener against Cleveland and was outperformed by former Raven Billy Cundiff? So much for any concerns of a sophomore slump as Tucker hasn’t missed a kick since, earning AFC Special Teams Player of the Month for November and also the weekly honor after booting four field goals in last Sunday’s win over the Jets. Tucker’s streak of 22 consecutive field goals is tied for the second-longest streak in franchise history — Matt Stover’s 36 straight is the record mark — and he has been the Ravens’ most reliable player this season. Now, after heaping all that praise on the unflappable 24-year-old, Thursday seems like the time when he’ll finally miss a kick while booting two others successfully.

4. Flacco will throw for 230 yards and a touchdown, but the Ravens’ red-zone struggles will carry over from last week. What was lost through all the comments Flacco made about the wildcat and his disdain for lining up at the wide receiver position was the fact that the sixth-year quarterback played his best game since before the bye week this past Sunday. The Ravens will have a tougher time against Pittsburgh’s 10th-ranked pass defense than they did against the Jets’ vulnerable secondary, but the most encouraging development from their Week 12 win was the vertical connections to Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones. Flacco will need to make big plays with his arm to best Ben Roethlisberger, and he will have a strong performance as he typically does in big games. However, the Ravens’ lack of consistent weapons will once again hurt in the red zone despite a touchdown to Smith.

5. The same movie will play out once again as the Ravens come up short in a big game against Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers in a 17-13 final. Baltimore has the advantage at home playing on a short week, but the Ravens have always failed against Pittsburgh when the stakes are high, and Thursday certainly qualifies in that regard. The Ravens are arguably playing their best football of the year after winning two of their last three games, but Pittsburgh has been even better in winning five of seven and Roethlisberger has outplayed Flacco over the last six weeks of the season. The Ravens hold the edge defensively over Pittsburgh’s aging defense, but the Steelers offense is markedly better than Baltimore’s, which will be the difference in this one. It will be a close game as it typically is between these AFC North rivals, but a late drive culminating with a Roethlisberger touchdown pass to Antonio Brown will be the difference as the Ravens’ playoff hopes are dealt a fatal blow.

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