Tag Archive | "Baltimore"

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Three Ravens starters still sidelined ahead of season finale

Posted on 29 December 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Three Ravens starters remain sidelined with injuries ahead of Sunday’s season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Right tackle Rick Wagner (concussion), inside linebacker Zach Orr (neck), and cornerback Jimmy Smith (ankle) all missed practice for the second straight day on Thursday. Head coach John Harbaugh said Monday that Smith is expected to miss his third straight game with a high ankle sprain.

It remains to be seen whether rookie Alex Lewis or veteran James Hurst would start at right tackle if Wagner cannot play while rookie Patrick Onwuasor could receive the start in place of Orr.

Center Jeremy Zuttah received a veteran day off on Thursday.

The Bengals continued to be without running back Jeremy Hill (knee), linebacker Vontaze Burfict (concussion/knee), and tight end Tyler Kroft (knee/ankle) for Thursday’s practice.

Below is Thursday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Zach Orr (neck), CB Jimmy Smith (ankle), OT Rick Wagner (concussion), C Jeremy Zuttah (non-injury)
FULL PARTICIPATION: G Alex Lewis (ankle), G Marshal Yanda (non-injury)

CINCINNATI
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Vontaze Burfict (knee/concussion), WR A.J. Green (hamstring), RB Jeremy Hill (knee), TE Tyler Kroft (knee/ankle), CB Josh Shaw (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: DE Will Clarke (ribs), CB Adam Jones (ankle), OT Cedric Ogbuehi (shoulder), LB Vincent Rey (hamstring), OT Andrew Whitworth (biceps), S Shawn Williams (ribs)

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Tucker living up to big contract and then some for Ravens

Posted on 29 December 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Kickers are a volatile bunch, making a long-term investment in one a risky proposition.

Former Pro Bowl selection Blair Walsh lost his job earlier this season just 16 months after Minnesota made him one of the highest-paid kickers in the NFL. Former Raven Billy Cundiff’s infamous miss in the 2011 AFC Championship came one day shy of exactly a year after he’d signed a five-year extension on the heels of a Pro Bowl campaign.

It’s safe to say Ravens kicker Justin Tucker has lived up to his record-setting contract and then some in the first season of a four-year, $16.8 million that included a record $10.8 million guaranteed for a kicker. His near-perfect season was recognized Thursday when the local media voted him the Ravens’ Most Valuable Player for the 2016 season.

Tucker was named to his second Pro Bowl last week and has missed just one field goal in his last 19 games dating back to last December. He’s quite a weapon for an offense that struggled frequently in 2016.

“It is not only his volume of work; it is the kicks he has made in circumstances and yardage,” special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. “He has had a lot of long range kicks, a lot of wind and things to deal with in the stadiums we have played in. He has been spot-on. He has been excellent.”

An MVP honor being given to a kicker is viewed by many as an indictment on the rest of the 53-man roster — especially when it happens twice in four years — but that sentiment shouldn’t diminish Tucker’s greatness in 2016. Despite being tied for 26th in touchdowns scored this season, the Ravens could thank their kicker’s incredible consistency for keeping them in the playoff hunt until Pittsburgh eliminated them last Sunday.

Tucker has gone an exceptional 37-for-38 on field goal attempts with his only blemish a 34-yard attempt that was blocked on an impressive display of athleticism from New England’s Shea McClellin in Week 14. Twenty-four of those successful field goals have been from 40 yards or longer as he regularly turned drives stalling short of the red zone into valuable points.

He’s one of only five qualified kickers not to have missed an extra point this season, and he and Dan Bailey of Dallas are the only full-time kickers not to have missed one since the extra point became a 33-yard try last season.

Of the Ravens’ six wins by a single possession in 2016, Tucker hit three or more field goals three times and at least two field goals in all six. He’s also hit two game-winning field goals in the fourth quarter this season, extending his reputation for delivering in clutch situations. And after receiving some criticism for going just 8-for-19 on tries from 50 yards and beyond in the previous two seasons, Tucker has gone an amazing 10-for-10 on attempts from that long range in 2016.

In other words, Baltimore having no more than an average kicker this season would have likely resulted in a losing season and elimination from playoff contention a couple weeks sooner.

Upon being named team MVP, Tucker was sure to credit long snapper Morgan Cox and holder Sam Koch as well as Rosburg and kicking consultant Randy Brown for their parts in his success, but the most accurate kicker in NFL history deserves the praise he’s received and then some.

“We have a great group around here, and I can’t brag on them enough,” Tucker said. “To be able to turn our hard work into accolades is very cool, but at the same time, we know we still have work to do.”

Tucker hasn’t done it alone, but he’s the one making the big bucks.

And he was worth every penny in 2016 as other teams around the league experienced headaches at the kicker position.

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Ravens back in familiar position with Smith’s expected retirement

Posted on 28 December 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The free-agent signing of Steve Smith more than two years ago helped rectify one of the biggest mistakes in Ravens history.

But his “89 percent” likely retirement following Sunday’s season finale in Cincinnati puts the franchise back in an all-too-familiar position.

Even at age 37 and coming off a horrific Achilles injury, Smith still served as quarterback Joe Flacco’s most reliable weapon in a trying season. He may not have enjoyed the same team success in his three seasons in purple, but Smith put up similar numbers to those produced by Anquan Boldin, the man he eventually replaced after a post-Super Bowl XLVII trade blew up in the Ravens’ faces in the 2013 season.

“I feel very fortunate to be with him,” Flacco said. “His competitive nature and the way he plays his game and the talent that he has, he’s definitely unique and a rare breed. Anytime you get a chance to play with a guy that’s really a legend in this game is, count yourself lucky.”

Once the Ravens sort out their offensive coaching staff for next season, replacing Smith will be one of the top priorities of the offseason.

The cupboard isn’t completely bare at wide receiver with Mike Wallace under contract for 2017 and on the cusp of completing a 1,000-yard season, but the speedy veteran fits better as the No. 2 wideout to stretch the field vertically with explosive plays. Expecting him to be the well-rounded top guy would likely fetch similar results to what happened in 2013 when Torrey Smith was miscast as a No. 1 receiver.

There’s also 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman, but injuries and inconsistency have made it difficult for the Ravens to plan for him to be anything more than a No. 3 option with upside entering next season. It’s much too soon to declare Perriman a bust, but he has a lot of work to do to become a integral cog.

Kamar Aiken led the Ravens with 944 receiving yards in 2015 and has shown physicality that you like to see in a possession receiver, but he’s also scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent and has been unhappy with his diminished role this season. That leads you to believe he’ll be looking to move on this winter.

Whether general manager Ozzie Newsome pursues an accomplished veteran such as Pierre Garcon in free agency or once again dips his toes into draft waters that have been unkind in the past, the Ravens will need a receiver to aggressively work the intermediate portion of the field and to gain yards after the catch. Even with his speed not being what it was in his early days with Carolina, Smith always played bigger and tougher than his 5-foot-9, 195-pound frame suggested.

“He’s powerful. He’s not very big, but he’s so explosive, so powerful, can change directions like that,” Flacco said. “He’s just so strong for his size — not even just for his size. He’s just a strong dude. The ferociousness that he runs with the ball, how he runs with the ball, so many things. I think that comes out in people saying ‘competitiveness.’ He’s just got a lot of ability, and he’s not afraid.”

Of course, Smith brought much more to the table than what showed up in the box score.

Like Boldin, he provided attitude to an offense led by the even-keeled Flacco. His intensity occasionally ruffled feathers — including when he got into a fight with veteran defensive back Lardarius Webb during his first minicamp in Owings Mills — but teammates on both sides of the ball respected that fire.

Smith brought the kind of swagger to the offense that was typically found on many Ravens defenses of yesteryear. Of course, performance on the field is paramount, but that ferocity is something Baltimore frankly needs more of after missing the playoffs in three of the last four seasons.

The intangibles will be difficult to replace, no matter how the Ravens go about replacing Smith’s production.

“Whether it is walking around the locker room yelling at someone or on the field [during] one-on-ones, he is definitely one of a kind,” said safety Eric Weddle, who shared a close friendship with Smith long before he signed with Baltimore this past offseason. “You have to get adjusted to that, just his personality and how big it is and to know this is who he is. This is what drives him. This is what makes him special.”

And with Smith’s decision to walk away, the Ravens are back in a familiar spot looking for someone special at wide receiver.

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Orr, Wagner among Ravens players absent from Wednesday’s practice

Posted on 28 December 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Taking the field for the final Wednesday practice of the season, the Ravens were without four starting players from their 53-man roster.

Linebacker Zach Orr (neck), right tackle Rick Wagner (concussion), cornerback Jimmy Smith (ankle), and left guard Marshal Yanda (non-injury) were not present during the portion of practice open to media. Orr has been dealing with a sore shoulder in recent weeks and played 52 of 58 defensive snaps in Sunday’s loss to Pittsburgh, but he was listed on Wednesday’s injury report as dealing with a neck ailment.

Smith is not expected to play in the season finale at Cincinnati after spraining his right ankle early in the Week 14 loss to New England. The Ravens are 2-4 in games in which Smith has missed substantial time this season.

“It is a high-ankle [sprain]. He probably will not be able to make it for this week,” head coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “We were hoping for the playoffs.”

Wagner suffered a concussion in the second half of the 31-27 loss to the Steelers while Yanda has regularly been given Wednesday practices off since injuring his left shoulder in October. Harbaugh confirmed that rookie Alex Lewis or third-year lineman James Hurst would start at right tackle if Wagner isn’t cleared in time for Sunday’s game.

Wide receiver Steve Smith was present for his final week of practice as he’s expected to retire from the NFL after 16 seasons.

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis confirmed Wednesday that six-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green will not play against the Ravens on Sunday. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict remains in the concussion protocol.

Below is Wednesday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Zach Orr (neck), CB Jimmy Smith (ankle), OT Rick Wagner (concussion), G Marshal Yanda (non-injury)
FULL PARTICIPATION: G Alex Lewis (ankle)

CINCINNATI
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Vontaze Burfict (knee/concussion), WR A.J. Green (hamstring), RB Jeremy Hill (knee), TE Tyler Kroft (knee/ankle)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: DE Will Clarke (ribs), CB Adam Jones (ankle), LB Vincent Rey (hamstring), OT Andrew Whitworth (biceps)

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 16 loss to Pittsburgh

Posted on 27 December 2016 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens falling 31-27 to Pittsburgh on Christmas Day to be eliminated from postseason contention, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The sting of a Ravens loss shouldn’t discount appreciation for what was a classic between these AFC North adversaries. This rivalry has lost some juice in recent years, but both teams deserve praise for one that was as good as it gets without being a playoff game.

2. That sentiment aside, the fourth-quarter defense must be addressed. I’ve been a supporter of defensive coordinator Dean Pees and believe he has done a good overall job with a unit lacking star power, but the Ravens have allowed 102 of their 294 total points in the final period this season.

3. If this is it for Steve Smith, Sunday was a strong final performance in the national spotlight as he caught seven passes for 79 yards and a touchdown. He’s 35 yards shy of an 800-yard season, which is exceptional for a 37-year-old coming off a serious Achilles injury.

4. It looked like 2016 was going to be a breakout year for Timmy Jernigan after he collected a sack in each of the first three games, but he’s recorded just one quarterback takedown since the Week 8 bye and hasn’t even registered a tackle over the last three games.

5. Breshad Perriman had a bad drop on the Ravens’ final touchdown drive, but I liked seeing Joe Flacco go right back to him on the next play for a 15-yard completion on third-and-10. This is going to be a huge offseason for the 2015 first-round pick to improve.

6. Counting the postseason, Baltimore is 11-22 on the road since Super Bowl XLVII with two wins against teams that finished with a winning record. The first was the 2014 wild-card victory over Pittsburgh and the other against the Steelers last year when Mike Vick started in place of Ben Roethlisberger.

7. The toughness with which he runs is impressive, but Kenneth Dixon won’t become a three-down back until he improves in pass protection. That has to be a goal for both him and Terrance West to work on this offseason.

8. The Ravens masked it well this season, but their pass rush ultimately cost them. According to Pro Football Focus, Roethlisberger was pressured on just four of his 33 dropbacks. It’s tough trying to blitz with Jimmy Smith out, but the defense needs more disruption from a four-man rush.

9. Terrell Suggs deserves praise for how he played this year, but the 34-year-old has gone without a sack in his last four games and had a combined one tackle against New England and Pittsburgh this month. Ozzie Newsome needs to find high-impact help at the position to help him out.

10. We all know health is the major concern with Michael Campanaro, but watching him these last two weeks makes you wonder why the Ravens didn’t part ways with Devin Hester a month sooner. Campanaro, Perriman, and Chris Moore are young players who should play more against Cincinnati.

11. I understand it’s in a coach’s fiber to do everything he can to win, but the organization should consider the dangers of exposing its most important players to injury in a meaningless road game against the Bengals. Does anyone sincerely care about finishing 9-7 compared to 8-8?

12. The seat is warm for John Harbaugh after missing the playoffs in three of four years, but firing him would be harsh after only one truly lousy season (2015). A once-proud franchise, Buffalo has had six head coaches since Harbaugh’s hiring. Finding someone even as good is hardly a given.

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Harbaugh says Ravens will play all healthy players against Cincinnati

Posted on 26 December 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — John Harbaugh says it will be business as usual for the Ravens as they conclude their season at Cincinnati on Sunday afternoon.

Despite being eliminated from postseason contention with their 31-27 defeat at Pittsburgh on Sunday, the ninth-year head coach expressed no intention of resting veterans in favor of younger players against the Bengals. A win would give the Ravens only their second winning season since Super Bowl XLVII.

“We’re going [there] to win the game,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll play our guys, and everybody that is healthy will go play. That’s the plan. I wouldn’t look at it any other way.”

With the Ravens having nothing to play before beyond the possibility of finishing with a winning record, a sound argument could be made for resting established veterans, especially those who’ve played with long-term injuries such as guard Marshal Yanda and linebacker Terrell Suggs. There’s always the risk of a key player suffering a serious injury that could hinder his status for the start of next season, but the limitations of a 53-man roster make it difficult to treat Sunday’s game like a preseason affair.

Still, young players such as wide receivers Breshad Perriman, Michael Campanaro, and Chris Moore, offensive linemen Alex Lewis and John Urschel, defensive end Brent Urban, and outside linebacker Matt Judon would benefit from more live-game reps after serving in limited roles this season. And observers who are focused on the big picture would also point to such a strategy increasing the likelihood of a loss to improve the Ravens’ standing for the 2017 draft.

Harbaugh shared no such sentiment on Monday.

“You try to win. We talked about it in the locker room after the game,” Harbaugh said. “That’s what I pointed towards is the next game. We want to go win it. We do want to be 9-7. That is important. It’s important to have one more win than we potentially could have. I don’t care what the record is.”

Harbaugh did say that No. 1 cornerback Jimmy Smith is likely to miss his third straight game with a high ankle sprain suffered against New England on Dec. 12. The Ravens were hoping at the time of the injury that he might be able to return for the playoffs.

The Bengals officially placed tight end Tyler Eifert (back) and guard Clint Boling (shoulder) on season-ending injured reserve on Monday and do not intend to play wide receiver A.J. Green (hamstring) on Sunday despite his return to practice two weeks ago.

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Ravens just not quite good enough when they needed to be

Posted on 26 December 2016 by Luke Jones

The Ravens and Steelers played a Christmas classic that removed any doubt about whether this rivalry is still among the best in the NFL.

Baltimore fought like hell until the bitter end and a four-point loss at Heinz Field is nothing to be ashamed of in the big picture, but this also wasn’t the AFC divisional round — as much as the one may have felt like a playoff game on Sunday. Being eliminated from postseason contention with a week to go in the regular season only reinforces a theme that’s become too familiar over the post-Super Bowl XLVII seasons under head coach John Harbaugh.

“We’re very close to being a very good football team,” Harbaugh said after the 31-27 loss. “We can be a great football team, but we’re not there yet. We haven’t gotten there this year, obviously. We’ve got to get there.”

Having now missed the playoffs in three of the last four years, the Ravens just aren’t quite good enough.

That was apparent on Sunday as a defense that had ranked in the top five all season inexplicably allowed three touchdowns in the final 12 minutes of play. There’s no excusing Dean Pees’ unit for surrendering a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in just over a minute that culminated with Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown reaching over the goal line with nine seconds remaining.

Instead of cementing its status among the better units in franchise history, this defense has crumbled down the stretch, allowing 26 or more points in three straight games. You can’t put all of that on the absence of cornerback Jimmy Smith as an underwhelming pass rush was exposed badly against the Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger rarely harassed in the pocket.

But before we put all blame on the defense for what amounted to the practical end of the Ravens’ season, let’s remember an 8-7 record is the result of a collection of missed opportunities and not just what was on display in Week 16.

An 0-4 October left very little margin for error while looking ahead to how difficult the December schedule would be. That loss to the woeful New York Jets in Week 7 is still painful and no less damaging two months later.

The Ravens offense may have come to play for the most part on Christmas, but how many times could we really say that about this below-average group in 2016? Marty Mornhinweg did little to spark the offense after the firing of coordinator Marc Trestman in October and showed no better commitment to the running game, instead allowing Joe Flacco to set a career high in passing attempts without the kind of productivity to justify the imbalance.

Even on Sunday, the Ravens entered Pittsburgh territory on all five of their drives in the first half and managed just six points by intermission. Tight end Darren Waller’s inability to secure a touchdown catch early in the fourth quarter served as a turning point as it forced Baltimore to settle for a short field goal and a 20-10 lead instead of a two-touchdown cushion.

Baltimore’s normally-superb special teams have been propped up by Pro Bowl kicker Justin Tucker, but a return game that stuck way too long with veteran Devin Hester did no favors for an offense that would have benefited from better field position all season. On Sunday, a bad snap cost the Ravens a chance for three points early in the second quarter.

Not good enough.

With the season finale in Cincinnati now a meaningless endeavor, attention shifts to the future.

Harbaugh’s not wrong in saying this team wasn’t that far away — they’re 8-7, not 3-12 — but the crucial question is whether the Ravens are moving in the right direction or falling further away. It’s difficult to say this is a better football team now than it was in September, and that’s a big concern.

The Ravens at least improved from last year’s 5-11 disaster that wasn’t all about injuries despite what many wanted to believe. That should be remembered when determining what changes need to be made this offseason.

Still, this team is depending heavily on a number of veterans who aren’t getting any younger or better at this stage of their careers. Unlike Flacco, who was relying on a 37-year-old receiver expected to retire at the end of the season and a 31-year-old tight end coming back from two major hip injuries, Roethlisberger turned to two Pro Bowl talents in their primes in Brown and Le’Veon Bell when it mattered most.

As we’ve now said for a few years, the Ravens need to find dynamic playmakers on both sides of the ball to make the difference in these close games that we see around the league on a weekly basis. The early returns from the 2016 draft have been very encouraging, but this roster is still feeling the effects of lackluster drafts in recent years.

Is this coaching staff capable of getting the most out of its players, especially younger ones who need to develop? There have been more questions about play-calling and game management this year than in the past, and the Ravens are one of the most penalized teams in the league.

Is Harbaugh willing to make changes to his staff, especially on the offensive side of the ball where the Ravens have struggled substantially in three of the last four seasons? Is the head coach’s message stale after nine seasons?

Questions that seemed silly just a couple seasons ago should now be asked with another quiet January in Baltimore. Of course, owner Steve Bisciotti has the only opinion that really matters, but both Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome have to explain why this team wasn’t good enough and how they plan to improve next year and moving forward.

Seats are getting warm now.

The Ravens weren’t quite good enough this year, but are they moving in the right direction or stuck in neutral?

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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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“January Joe” needs to arrive early for playoff-hopeful Ravens

Posted on 22 December 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — One gift tops the list of goodies that the Ravens hope to find under their Christmas tree on Sunday.

It would be the early arrival of “January Joe” for their AFC North showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers. That postseason version of Joe Flacco would go a long way in helping Baltimore secure its first AFC North division title since 2012 while also washing away much memory of a trying season.

The issues with the league’s 18th-ranked offense run deeper than the play of the ninth-year quarterback, but the near-certainty of Flacco reaching the 4,000-yard passing mark for the first time — an elusive landmark his critics have regularly used against him over the years — does not mask his struggles. Starting all 14 games in his return from last year’s ACL injury, Flacco ranks 27th in the NFL at just 6.54 yards per attempt and is 25th with an 84.8 passer rating.

Asked about the 2008 first-round pick being on the verge of setting a career high for pass attempts, head coach John Harbaugh declined to assess his quarterback’s play, instead focusing on the task of winning at Heinz Field for the third straight time.

“I respect everything about what he does and how he does it, how he competes and everything like that,” Harbaugh said. “The other stuff [and] the big-picture questions are really for another time. I’m just excited to go play the game on Sunday. I know Joe is and everybody is. We’re preparing and planning on going and playing our best football.”

With the Baltimore defense likely to be without No. 1 cornerback Jimmy Smith, Flacco will need to be at his best to trade blows with Pro Bowl quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and a dangerous Steelers passing game that ranks fifth in the NFL. It’s a story similar to what the Ravens faced in road losses at Dallas and New England earlier this year, but the stakes are much higher now.

In case you’ve forgotten what “January Joe” can do, Flacco has thrown 24 touchdowns and just four interceptions in his last 10 postseason games dating back to the 2010 season. Sunday is as close as it gets to a playoff game — especially if Miami beats Buffalo on Saturday to make it a win-or-bust proposition on Christmas Day — so why wouldn’t the Ravens hope the postseason version of Flacco comes early?

The good news is that the 31-year-old has done it before at Heinz Field, throwing for 259 yards and two touchdowns without an interception in Baltimore’s last postseason win over the Steelers two years ago. Counting that playoff victory, the Ravens have won six of their last seven games against their bitter rival with Flacco throwing nine touchdowns to three interceptions in the six contests in which he played.

Win or lose, history tells us the environment won’t be too big for him and the Ravens. The Steelers look like the better team at this point and are carrying a five-game winning streak into Sunday’s game, but you have to wonder how much Baltimore is in their heads after winning four straight in the series and backup quarterback Ryan Mallett even beating them last December.

Counting the playoffs, the Ravens hold a respectable 5-6 record at Heinz Field in the Harbaugh-Flacco era.

“You picture going into a place and playing in front of 70,000 people that hate you,” Flacco said. “That is what makes it fun. … There are not too many feelings in this world that are better than winning an NFL football game. That probably gets amplified a little bit when you get to silence a crowd.”

Of course, what’s happened in the past doesn’t guarantee success on Sunday. After all, this is a Ravens offense that’s dealt with numerous problems, ranging from play-calling issues and injuries along the offensive line to an up-and-down running game and uneven play at wide receiver and tight end. Flacco’s 13 interceptions are the second-highest total of his career, and he’s been criticized for poor footwork and checking down too frequently in lieu of looking to push the ball down the field.

The Ravens are also facing a Pittsburgh defense that’s improved since the first half of the season, allowing just 14 points per game over its last five contests. The Pittsburgh secondary is relying on a pair of rookies — first-round cornerback Artie Burns and second-round safety and University of Maryland product Sean Davis — but the two have steadily played better as the season has progressed.

This Baltimore offense does have more going for it now than it did for much of the year with a healthier offensive line that’s played better in recent weeks and a running game that produced a season-high 151 yards against Philadelphia last Sunday. Not a single offensive player has missed a practice this week for an injury-related reason, either.

A 38-point outburst and four-touchdown performance from Flacco against Miami three weeks ago showed what this offense is capable of doing when firing on all cylinders, but the peaks have been rare and the valleys all the more frustrating. The Ravens haven’t won a game away from M&T Bank Stadium in three months and their veteran quarterback has posted an ugly 75.7 passer rating on the road this season, making trips to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati to conclude the season an unsettling proposition.

“It is tough to look back at the whole thing, but we have hit our bumps here and there,” Flacco said. “But I think we are starting to hit a stride. When you come out here and watch our practices, you can tell we are starting to hit a stride. This second half of the season, it is coming together with some of the new guys and our offensive line play and myself.”

If the Ravens offense is ever truly going to come together, now is the time.

And the return of “January Joe” needs to be part of the equation.

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