Tag Archive | "Baltimore"

Who will prevail in the AFC North?

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Who will prevail in the AFC North?

Posted on 14 November 2014 by Luke Jones

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

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

Wide open indeed.

But who will prevail?

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

Who will win the AFC North?

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

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

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

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

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

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Ravens sign former Cardinal Gibbons product to practice squad

Posted on 13 November 2014 by Luke Jones

The bye week hasn’t slowed the Ravens from making changes to their practice squad as they signed former Cleveland Browns fullback and Cardinal Gibbons product Kiero Small on Thursday.

The move comes a day after they signed tight end Konrad Reuland to the practice squad to replace Phillip Supernaw after he was signed to the Kansas City Chiefs’ active roster. To make room for Small, the Ravens cut rookie wide receiver Jace Davis from their practice squad.

Small had started three games for Cleveland and was blocking for fellow Baltimore native Terrance West before being waived earlier this week. After being drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in the seventh round of the 2014 draft, Small was released at the end of the preseason and eventually caught on with the Browns.

The 5-foot-8, 244-pound fullback played his college football at the University of Arkansas.

Reuland played in 16 games for the New York Jets during the 2012 season, making 11 catches for 83 yards, but he made only one catch in 10 games for New York last season before being placed on injured reserve. After failing to make the Jets’ 53-man roster this preseason, the Stanford product was signed to the Indianapolis Colts’ practice squad in October but was later released.

 

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Orioles rumblings from general managers’ meetings

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Orioles rumblings from general managers’ meetings

Posted on 13 November 2014 by Luke Jones

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

No, we’re not talking about the upcoming holiday season, but rather the Orioles’ annual interest in veteran pitcher A.J. Burnett. Yahoo Sports reported Thursday from the general managers’ meetings in Arizona that Baltimore has offered the right-hander a contract, but the sides are not close. Several conflicting reports have since said the Orioles haven’t offered Burnett a deal.

(Editor’s note: The Pittsburgh Pirates agreed to a one-year deal with Burnett on Friday afternoon.)

The Monkton resident’s name has regularly come up in recent years, but it’s unclear why the Orioles would still be interested in a soon-to-be 38-year-old pitcher who posted a 4.59 ERA with Philadelphia last season. His performance more closely resembled that of Ubaldo Jimenez than the rest of the Baltimore rotation in 2014 as Burnett’s 4.0 walks per nine innings rate was his worst since 2009. His 8.0 strikeouts per nine innings would have some appeal, but a 1.409 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) wouldn’t figure to improve shifting back to the American League for his 17th major league season.

It makes sense for executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette to seek starting pitching depth as it’d be a stretch to project five starters each posting an ERA below 4.00 for the second straight year, but Burnett would be pricey and doesn’t represent a clear upgrade over any starter the Orioles currently have. With the Orioles already having six projected starters including the disappointing Jimenez and his albatross contract, adding Burnett would only make sense if they were packaging someone like Miguel Gonzalez or Bud Norris in a trade for a piece to significantly improve another area of the club.

Burnett declined a $12.75 million option to remain with the Phillies and if he’s looking for anything even approaching that, the Orioles shouldn’t be wasting time considering him, let alone making an offer.

* Speaking of Jimenez, the reports of the Orioles being open to trading the right-hander are a nice thought, but who is willingly inheriting the remaining three years of a $50 million contract to take him off the club’s hands?

I feel confident in predicting Jimenez will improve on his 4.81 ERA and horrendous 5.5 walks per nine innings rate from 2014, but the Orioles aren’t finding a suitor without paying a sizable portion of the roughly $39 million he’s still owed or taking on an equally-terrible contract of another player.

* The Orioles continue working on a contract extension with right fielder Nick Markakis with Yahoo Sports reporting the sides are closing in on a four-year deal worth $10 million to $12 million per season that could be done soon.

I recently examined how far the Orioles should go to keep the longtime right fielder and the reported price per season isn’t shocking, but offering four years is a lot for a player who’s shown marked decline in power and range over the last three to four seasons. Kudos to Duquette and the organization should they finish a deal to keep a lifelong Oriole whose value extends beyond the statistics, but the final year or two on a contract of that nature is likely to be cringe-worthy come 2017 and 2018.

* It will be interesting to see what impact the Victor Martinez extension has on free-agent slugger Nelson Cruz.

The soon-to-be 36-year-old Martinez agreed to a four-year, $68 million to remain with the Tigers while the 34-year-old Cruz reportedly wants a five-year deal from potential free-agent suitors. Martinez had the superior year with a .335 average and a league-leading .974 on-base plus slugging percentage and is a better overall hitter, but his re-signing makes Cruz the most attractive designated hitter remaining on the market.

To this point, the Orioles are unwilling to go beyond three years to keep Cruz, who led the majors with 40 home runs, so his demands will need to come down to remain in Baltimore unless there is a change of heart.

* The Orioles have repeatedly shot down a rumor that they’ve offered free agent Billy Butler a three-year, $30 million contract, which is good news.

Not only is the right-handed DH coming off a poor season in which he posted a .702 OPS, but he cannot play defense, which wouldn’t be appealing as manager Buck Showalter likes flexibility with the DH spot to provide some rest to his veteran position players. You’d gladly live with a potent bat from a guy like Martinez in that permanent role, but Butler’s slugging percentage has dropped from .510 in 2012 to .412 in 2013 to a career-low .379 this season.

On top of the declining numbers, the 28-year-old Butler has a reputation for being a malcontent, which makes him even less appealing to a club like the Orioles with such a positive clubhouse culture.

* Reports indicate left-handed reliever Andrew Miller is seeking a lucrative four-year deal.

“There’s an awful lot of interest in him, I’m hearing, down here,” Duquette said on MLB Network Wednesday. “He likes Baltimore, too. We heard from his family. His wife liked it there. She was very comfortable, so we’re going to try on that one as well.”

It remains highly unlikely that the tall southpaw returns to the Orioles.

 

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Ngata’s strong year making difficult decision for Ravens

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Ngata’s strong year making difficult decision for Ravens

Posted on 13 November 2014 by Luke Jones

The future of defensive tackle Haloti Ngata beyond this season has been discussed for quite some time, but his strong play is creating quite a dilemma for the Ravens this winter.

After two underwhelming seasons for his high standards, some predicted this could be Ngata’s final year in Baltimore as he’s scheduled to carry a $16 million salary cap figure in 2015 — the final season of a five-year, $61 million contract inked in 2011 — but his excellent start may have altered that line of thinking. Last offseason, general manager Ozzie Newsome pursued a contract extension with Ngata similar in nature to what the Ravens did with veteran linebacker Terrell Suggs, but talks didn’t go anywhere.

A good finish to 2014 might further complicate discussions as the Ravens obviously won’t want to stomach a $16 million cap hit to allow Ngata to play out the final year of his current contract, but his asking price for an extension only climbs as he continues to play well. Cutting Ngata this winter would clear $8.5 million in cap space, but the Ravens wouldn’t easily replace his presence at defensive tackle.

Unlike the last few seasons, Ngata has remained healthy and has benefited from focusing on the 3-technique defensive tackle spot — lining up on the outside shoulder of the guard — instead of moving around to different positions on the defensive line. Ngata drew plenty of double teams while playing nose tackle and wasn’t quick enough to make a consistent impact when lining up at the 5-technique defensive end spot against an offensive tackle.

This has led to Ngata having “a really standout year” in defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ mind.

“We really haven’t moved him this year. It makes a whole lot of difference up front there,” said Pees, who used Ngata extensively at the nose last season. “Believe it or not, things go on really fast in that little guard-to-guard area and a little slower the farther out that you go, and there’s a lot of difference in that. When you take a guy, move him out to [5-technique] one week and then move him back in there inside the next week, it’s hard. It’s hard to do that. I really think part of it is because we’ve had the ability to leave guys in the same position and not move them all over.”

In 10 games, the 6-foot-4, 340-pound tackle has collected 29 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, and seven pass breakups. Of course, defensive line play is difficult to quantify, but Pro Football Focus has graded Ngata as the third-best 3-4 defensive end in the league behind Houston’s J.J. Watt and New York Jets lineman Muhammad Wilkerson. The Ravens defense is currently allowing 3.4 yards per carry, its best mark since 2009 and good for sixth in the NFL.

Perhaps the easiest way to measure Ngata’s impact has been the game-changing plays he’s made, which you hadn’t seen as often in the last couple years. In Week 8, it was Ngata’s sack and strip of Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton that led to Daryl Smith’s fumble return and the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. Last Sunday, Ngata forced Tennessee running back Shonn Greene to fumble at the goal line on the opening drive, a play that loomed large considering how slowly the Ravens started the game on both sides of the ball.

Of course, the overall depth along the defensive line has improved with the emergence of second-year nose tackle Brandon Williams and the recent play of rookie Timmy Jernigan, two players who figure to play major roles for the unit in the coming years. Their presence has taken pressure off Ngata, but they also force Newsome and the front office to carefully weigh how much they should pay the five-time Pro Bowl selection as he turns 31 in January.

“I think we have a little bit of depth there,” Pees said. “The other thing that goes along with that is a little bit of competition, too. You better not back off too far, or somebody is catching you. Competition is always good for everybody.”

Perhaps that competition has been good for Ngata as he’s playing his best football since 2011, but the Ravens know it’s also making their offeseason decision more difficult as the year progresses.

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Kubiak examining Flacco’s recent uneven play during bye

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Kubiak examining Flacco’s recent uneven play during bye

Posted on 12 November 2014 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Mosley second among NFL inside linebackers in Pro Bowl voting

Posted on 12 November 2014 by WNST Staff

PRESS RELEASE

Denver Broncos quarterback PEYTON MANNING, with 359,598 votes, leads all NFL players in balloting for the 2015 Pro Bowl, NFL.com announced today.

Fan voting for the 2015 Pro Bowl, presented by McDonald’s, will continue online and on web-enabled mobile phones by going to www.NFL.com/probowl/ballot until Monday, December 15.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback ANDREW LUCK (284,575 votes) ranks second overall, while Green Bay Packers quarterback AARON RODGERS (280,394 votes), Dallas Cowboys running back

DE MARCO MURRAY (263,097 votes) and New England Patriots quarterback TOM BRADY (254,807 votes) round out the top five on NFL.com.

Balloting will conclude on Monday, December 15. The Pro Bowl players will be announced on Tuesday, December 23.

Players will later be assigned to teams through the Pro Bowl Draft during the week leading up to the game, which will also air on NFL Network.

The 2015 Pro Bowl will be played on Sunday, January 25, 2015 and televised live on ESPN at 8:00 PM ET from University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, site of Super Bowl XLIX.

The Pro Bowl will be “unconferenced” for the second consecutive year.

Last season, the familiar AFC vs. NFC match-up that had existed since 1971 was eliminated. Instead, players are selected without regard to conference in voting by fans, coaches and players. For example, the top six quarterbacks following voting will earn distinction as All-Stars, regardless of how many are from AFC or NFC teams.

Then, the NFL’s All-Stars will be realigned through a fantasy football-style draft.

The Pro Bowl players are determined by the consensus votes of fans, players and coaches. Each group’s vote counts one-third toward determining the 88 All-Star players who will be eligible for the Pro Bowl Draft.

NFL players and coaches will cast their votes on December 19. The NFL is the only sports league that combines voting by fans, coaches and players to determine its all-star teams. It was the first professional sports league to offer online all-star voting in 1995.

Fans interested in purchasing Pro Bowl game tickets may go to NFL.com/probowl for more information.

NFL ALL-STAR TOP-TEN VOTE-GETTERS

 

POS.

NAME, TEAM

VOTES

QB

Peyton Manning, Denver

359,598

QB

Andrew Luck, Indianapolis

284,575

QB

Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay

280,394

RB

DeMarco Murray, Dallas

263,097

QB

Tom Brady, New England

254,807

RB

Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh

210,331

WR

Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh

200,230

QB

Philip Rivers, San Diego

199,720

RB

Arian Foster, Houston

196,306

RB

Matt Forte, Chicago

182,940

 

NFL LEADING VOTE-GETTERS BY POSITION

 

POS.

NAME, TEAM

VOTES

POS.

NAME, TEAM

VOTES

QB

Peyton Manning, Denver

359,598

DE

J.J. Watt, Houston

155,819

QB

Andrew Luck, Indianapolis

284,575

DE

DeMarcus Ware, Denver

134,126

RB

DeMarco Murray, Dallas

263,097

DT

Marcell Dareus, Buffalo

104,416

RB

Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh

210,331

DT

Muhammad Wilkerson, NYJ

91,610

FB

John Kuhn, Green Bay

78,995

OLB

Von Miller, Denver

101,875

FB

Darrel Young, Washington   78,138

OLB

Justin Houston, Kansas City

71,063

WR

Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh

200,230

ILB

Luke Kuechly, Carolina

105,730

WR

Demaryius Thomas, Denver

182,922

ILB

C.J. Mosley, Baltimore

71,246

TE

Rob Gronkowski, New England

166,066

CB

Kyle Fuller, Chicago

83,363

TE

Julius Thomas, Denver

148,461

CB

Aqib Talib, Denver

83,223

T

Tyron Smith, Dallas

77,959

SS

Kam Chancellor, Seattle

47,667

T

Ryan Clady, Denver

77,442

SS

Antrel Rolle, NYG

36,979

G

Zack Martin, Dallas

68,896

FS

Tashaun Gipson, Cleveland

48,674

G

Josh Sitton, Green Bay

55,333

FS

Earl Thomas, Seattle

40,246

C

Travis Frederick, Dallas

79,612

P

Tress Way, Washington

34,520

C

Maurkice Pouncey, Pittsburgh

72,836

P

Pat McAfee, Indianapolis

27,015

K

Stephen Gostkowski, New England

67,814

ST

Matt Slater, New England

36,679

K

Dan Bailey, Dallas

57,618

ST

Jarrett Bush, Green Bay

25,224

RS

Devin Hester, Atlanta

50,897

 

RS

Adam Jones, Cincinnati

33,157

 

 

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Forsett named AFC Offensive Player of the Week

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Forsett named AFC Offensive Player of the Week

Posted on 12 November 2014 by Luke Jones

A dream season continues for Ravens running back Justin Forsett as he was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week on Wednesday.

The 29-year-old rushed for a season-high 112 yards on 20 carries and scored two touchdowns in the Ravens’ 21-7 win over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday. Forsett has already run for a career-high 721 yards — a total good for fourth in the NFL — and leads all running backs with a 5.4 yards per carry average. His five rushing touchdowns are more than he ran for in his previous four seasons combined (four).

His performance has left fellow running backs Bernard Pierce — who began the year as the starter — and rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro to fight over the backup job. It’s quite a story for a player whose signing in early April was an afterthought as many originally predicted he’d be the odd man out once Ray Rice returned from his suspension.

Of course, things changed dramatically for the former Ravens running back and Forsett has since seized the best opportunity of his seven-year career.

“We know who our No. 1 is,” offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said. “Our ‘one’ is playing really well. No. 29 has played extremely well.”

His two touchdowns against Tennessee epitomized how effective he’s been running behind an improved offensive line and fullback Kyle Juszczyk. On a fourth-and-1 play from the Titans’ 9, Forsett beat linebacker Kamerion Wimbley 1-on-1 on a pitch to the left to give the Ravens their first score of the game in the second quarter. In the third quarter, the veteran showed terrific patience and vision in waiting for a seam to develop between right guard Marshal Yanda and right tackle Rick Wagner before sprinting for an 11-yard touchdown.

With the Ravens holding a fourth-quarter lead, Forsett played the role of a strong finisher by rushing eight times for 67 yards in the final 15 minutes of the game.

After Sunday’s game, Forsett was thankful to be upon the bye week as he has plans for bigger and better things over the season’s final six games.

“It’s definitely going to be able to get a chance to rest,” Forsett said. “I want to be able to do more of this next half. There are always going to be doubters. There’s always going to be people that want to limit me and put me in boxes. It’s my job to go out and try to break them.”

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Showalter named 2014 AL Manager of the Year

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Showalter named 2014 AL Manager of the Year

Posted on 11 November 2014 by Luke Jones

After guiding the Orioles to 96 wins and their first American League East division title in 17 years, Buck Showalter was officially named 2014 AL Manager of the Year Tuesday night.

Receiving 25 of 30 first-place votes from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, Showalter finished ahead of fellow finalists Mike Scioscia and Ned Yost to win the third Manager of the Year award of his career. The 58-year-old also won in 1994 with the New York Yankees and 2004 while managing the Texas Rangers, but some regarded 2014 as possibly Showalter’s finest managerial job.

Losing All-Star catcher Matt Wieters and All-Star third baseman Manny Machado to season-ending injuries and 2013 home run king Chris Davis to a 25-game suspension for amphetamine use, Showalter and the Orioles didn’t blink as they pulled away from the rest of the division in August to win the AL East by 12 games. An expert at manipulating his roster, Showalter received meaningful contributions from career journeymen such as Steve Pearce as well as longtime minor leaguers like rookie catcher Caleb Joseph.

Though voting was completed at the end of the regular season, Showalter also guided the Orioles to their first postseason series win since 1997 before they were swept by the Kansas City Royals in the AL Championship Series. This was the fourth different club he’d taken to the playoffs and second time he’d made it with the Orioles.

Showalter has 1,259 career wins in 16 seasons as a major league manager, third on the active list. He is 377-328 in five seasons as the Baltimore skipper since being named the 19th manager in club history on Aug. 2, 2010. From the day he arrived in Baltimore, Showalter began changing a losing culture that had persisted for more than a decade and led the 2012 Orioles to the AL wild card, ending a stretch of 14 consecutive losing seasons. The Orioles have now posted three consecutive winning season for the first time since 1992 through 1994.

He becomes the third manager in franchise history to be named AL Manager of the Year, joining Frank Robinson in 1989 and Davey Johnson in 1997.

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Levine works way up Ravens’ ladder to starting defensive role

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Levine works way up Ravens’ ladder to starting defensive role

Posted on 11 November 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — You’d be hard pressed to find too many Ravens fans who knew Anthony Levine’s name prior to Sunday’s 21-7 win over the Tennessee Titans.

Making his first career start for a revamped and injury-riddled secondary that was still licking its wounds from an embarrassing performance in Pittsburgh, the former safety seized the opportunity after previously playing just five defensive snaps in his entire NFL career. Levine finished with four tackles and two pass breakups while also earning Pro Football Focus’ highest single-game grade in pass coverage for any Ravens cornerback not named Jimmy Smith this season.

“I’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” Levine said after Sunday’s win. “To call myself a starting something in the NFL — whether it was safety, corner — I was happy to say that I was a starting corner today for the Baltimore Ravens.”

Of course, Levine’s success came against a rookie quarterback and a Tennessee passing game lacking bite and it remains to be seen if he’ll survive against more potent aerial attacks, but it’s difficult not to feel good for a third-year player who spent parts of three seasons on practice squads — originally with Green Bay and then Baltimore — before even getting a chance as a special-teams contributor. The Tennessee State product played all 16 games for the Ravens last season without receiving a single defensive snap, finishing second on the team in special-teams tackles and serving as the protector on the punt team.

After watching Levine serve as a core member of his units for the last two years, special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg takes pride in seeing him become the latest special-teams player to make the transition to starter. Several former Ravens have made similar jumps in recent years, including linebackers Jameel McClain and Dannell Ellerbe as well as cornerback Corey Graham.

“We hope that our players that are just playing special teams develop into players on their sides of the ball as well,” Rosburg said. “It’s my belief — perhaps it’s a slanted belief — that if you can be a good special-teams player, you should be a good player on offense and defense because it takes a lot of skill to play on special teams. It’s not a surprise to me that he’s developed skills that he can go out there and play for the Ravens in the secondary.”

To be fair, Levine’s opportunity to start wasn’t as much about improvement as it was about the Ravens’ injuries and attrition as the coaching staff didn’t anticipate throwing him into the fire this quickly until the Smith injury made the secondary’s issues even worse. After Levine practiced at safety in his first two years with the Ravens, defensive coordinator Dean Pees and secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo had moved him to cornerback in training camp when injuries to Lardarius Webb, Smith, and Asa Jackson left the secondary shorthanded.

It was a position at which Levine had worked some before, and he’s downplayed the change because of how comfortable he’s always felt backpedaling, a skill needed at both safety and corner. The 27-year-old really began turning heads a couple weeks ago while practicing with the scout team against the starting offense as Pees and Spagnuolo noticed how effectively he was competing against the likes of Steve Smith and Torrey Smith in coverage.

Meanwhile, cornerbacks higher on the depth chart such as Dominique Franks and Chykie Brown continued to struggle, culminating with Ben Roethlisberger’s six-touchdown performance in Pittsburgh on Nov. 2. Two days later, those two were cut and Levine received a text message from Spagnuolo saying to be ready to practice leading up to the Tennessee game.

“He just has run with it. He’s a confident guy that competes,” said Spagnuolo, who told Levine he was starting the morning of the Titans game. “He loves to practice and is passionate about the game. There’s not a guy out there he doesn’t think he can cover. That’s a good quality for a corner.”

Sharing time with newly-acquired veteran Danny Gorrer, the 5-foot-11, 203-pound Levine was strong in run support and did a fine job keeping receivers in front of him, allowing only one reception for 13 yards on three passes thrown his way in coverage. Despite the first-quarter struggles of the defense, Levine made his presence felt on the opening drive when he dropped running back Bishop Sankey on a stretch play for only a 1-yard gain.

The post-game locker room featured several teammates praising Levine as a hard worker who had done everything he could for the opportunity. While most media and fans expected Gorrer to be the one to start at cornerback in the buildup to the Tennessee game, Webb complimented Levine’s performance in practice without being prompted last week, a hint that the special-teams player just might be the next man up.

“We all know that Levine can make plays in practice against the top receivers, Steve and Torrey,” Webb said following the game. “That’s how he is in practice, he’s always going 110 percent on special teams — all phases of special teams — and playing defense. You have to look up to that. He did a great job doing everything. He’s a corner, he’s a playmaker.”

Those labels are different than what Levine’s used to hearing after years as a practice-squad member, special-teams contributor, and scout-team player who remained anonymous with most of the outside football world.

Though the Ravens will continue to face questions in their secondary week after week, Levine was able to provide an answer for at least one Sunday. And he earned another shot after the bye against a more imposing opponent in the New Orleans Saints to prove that he’s not just a special-teams player playing out of position.

“Sometimes you have to be careful of pigeonholing guys like that,” Pees said. “Give them an opportunity, [and] then it’s up to them to run with it. I just think that’s a credit to them when they get the opportunity to seize it.”

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Duquette named Sporting News Executive of the Year

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Duquette named Sporting News Executive of the Year

Posted on 11 November 2014 by Luke Jones

Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette was named Sporting News Executive of the Year Monday night after guiding the Orioles to their first American League East title since 1997.

Duquette received the award from a panel of 33 major league executives who voted before the start of the 2014 postseason. This is the second time the 56-year-old has received the honor after previously winning with the Montreal Expos in 1992.

It’s not often that an executive receives the honor in the same year his most expensive acquisition — right-handed pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez — was an utter failure, but Duquette made plenty of savvy moves including signing slugger Nelson Cruz to a one-year, $8 million contract. His best work, however, may have come during the season when he acquired left-handed reliever Andrew Miller at the non-waiver trade deadline and outfielder Alejandro De Aza before the waiver trade deadline in late August.

Other below-the-radar moves that paid major dividends for the Orioles in 2014 included Duquette being able to persuade Steve Pearce to re-sign after he was designated for assignment in April as well as adding right-hander Brad Brach, who blossomed into a reliable member of the Baltimore bullpen, and pinch-hitter extraordinaire Delmon Young last winter.

Duquette edged Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore by one vote to receive the honor.

The Baseball Writers’ Association of America will name its American League Manager of the Year Tuesday night with Orioles manager Buck Showalter one of three finalists.

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