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Orioles include rookie Mancini on roster for AL wild-card game

Posted on 04 October 2016 by Luke Jones

The Orioles have included 10 pitches on their roster for Tuesday’s American League wild-card game against Toronto.

The roster construction for a single game is a unique exercise since the advancing club may reset its players for the Division Series, which explains why starting pitcher Kevin Gausman is not among the 25 players eligible to play against the Blue Jays. Gausman pitched 7 1/3 strong innings to earn the victory in the playoff-clinching finale against the New York Yankees on Sunday.

In addition to starter Chris Tillman, manager Buck Showalter has included right-handers Ubaldo Jimenez and Dylan Bundy on the roster, providing the Orioles ample long-relief options should Tillman run into early trouble or the game go into extra innings.

Starting pitchers Yovani Gallardo and Wade Miley are not on the wild-card game roster after pitching in New York over the weekend. Right-hander Vance Worley was the most notable reliever left off the roster.

There were no real surprises among the position players, but rookie Trey Mancini was included just over two weeks after being promoted to the majors. Having received the call when Steve Pearce was lost for the season with a forearm injury, Mancini gave the Orioles a spark against left-handed pitching with three home runs and a double in 15 plate appearances.

Below is the full AL wild-card game roster:

RH Brad Brach
LH Zach Britton
RH Dylan Bundy
LH Brian Duensing
RH Mychal Givens
LH Donnie Hart
RH Tommy Hunter
RH Ubaldo Jimenez
RH Darren O’Day
RH Chris Tillman

Caleb Joseph
Matt Wieters

Pedro Alvarez
Chris Davis
Ryan Flaherty
J.J. Hardy
Manny Machado
Trey Mancini
Jonathan Schoop

Michael Bourn
Adam Jones
Hyun Soo Kim
Nolan Reimold
Drew Stubbs
Mark Trumbo

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Orioles choose body of work over hot hand for AL wild-card game

Posted on 03 October 2016 by Luke Jones

The question would have been a terrible joke in mid-August.

Who should pitch for the Orioles in the American League wild-card game: No. 1 starter Chris Tillman or the enigmatic Ubaldo Jimenez?

Manager Buck Showalter has chosen experience over the hot hand with Tillman slated to take the ball against Toronto’s Marcus Stroman at Rogers Centre on Tuesday night. It’s not difficult to make an argument in favor of the 28-year-old who’s served as the club’s de facto ace over the last four seasons and started the opener of both playoffs series in 2014, but Jimenez was arguably the biggest reason the Orioles stayed afloat in September to qualify for the playoffs for the third time in five seasons.

Less than two months ago, Tillman was in the midst of a career year and had improved to a sparkling 15-4 with a 3.46 ERA after a win over Oakland on Aug. 11. Meanwhile, Jimenez sported an ERA just south of 7.00 and was lucky to be pitching out of the bullpen in mop-up duty once per week as questions persisted about his future with Baltimore.

Circumstances changed, however, with Tillman missing the better part of a month with a right shoulder issue that surfaced the morning after that outing against the Athletics. In his four starts since being activated from the 15-day disabled list on Sept. 11, he’s posted a 3.79 ERA with 14 strikeouts and eight walks in 19 innings.

Solid, but not great.

Meanwhile, Jimenez has experienced an improbable renaissance with his two-seam fastball and improved command of his other pitches over his last seven starts, producing a 2.45 ERA with 38 strikeouts and 13 walks over 47 2/3 innings. Over that stretch, he tossed the only complete game of the season for the Orioles and allowed three or fewer runs in all but one start.

Both performed well against the Blue Jays in Toronto last week, but Jimenez was better with 6 2/3 scoreless innings in which he allowed only one hit. Tillman gave up one earned run over 5 1/3 innings last Wednesday.

Tillman infamously pitched to an 11.72 ERA in six starts against Toronto last season, but his 3.63 mark in four starts against the Blue Jays this season has been more in line with what we’ve come to expect from the right-hander over the years. In 2016, Jimenez has a 6.43 ERA against the Blue Jays in six games — five of them starts — this season and retired only one batter against them in his worst start of the year on June 12.

And that’s where the decision likely comes down to trust for Showalter and the Orioles.

Jimenez deserves plenty of credit for turning his season around, but who do you trust more pitching in a game of this magnitude? Jimenez probably provides the greater upside right now, but Tillman still feels like the one who has the best chance to figure out a way to keep the Orioles in an elimination game if he doesn’t have his best stuff. The last thing you want is the “bad” Jimenez showing up in the biggest game of the season and not being able to even throw a strike in the bottom of the first inning.

If we’re being realistic with both teams having a specialized roster for a single game, this one is more likely to come down to the bullpens with neither Tillman nor Stroman being a great bet to hang around much longer than two times through the order. Under such a scenario, the Orioles have the edge with the better bullpen and the best closer in baseball looming at the end of the game.

Showalter told reporters that both Jimenez and rookie Dylan Bundy will be available out of the bullpen, giving the Orioles plenty of long-relief options should Tillman struggle early.

Major League Baseball announced the schedule for the first three games of the best-of-five AL Division Series (see below) as the winner of Tuesday’s game will face the top-seeded Texas Rangers with games being televised on TBS. Should the Orioles advance to the ALDS, they would host Texas for Game 3 at 7:38 p.m. on Sunday, the same day the Ravens host Washington at M&T Bank Stadium at 1 p.m., which would likely create plenty of traffic headaches in the afternoon.

2016 ALDS vs. Texas
Game 1 (at Texas): Thursday, 4:38 p.m.
Game 2 (at Texas): Friday, 1:08 p.m.
Game 3 (at Baltimore or Toronto): Sunday, 7:38 p.m.

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Penultimate play sealed fate of Ravens defense on final drive

Posted on 03 October 2016 by Luke Jones

Sunday was a strange day for the Ravens defense in the one-point loss to Oakland.

Allowing 28 points and four touchdown passes is a disappointing day by most standards, but two of those scores came on “sudden-change” drives of 29 yards or less and the Ravens allowed a mere 153 yards through three quarters.

So, what the heck happened on the final six-play, 66-yard touchdown drive that won it for the Raiders?

Baltimore had a couple problems with dropping to the right spot in coverage on the final drive, according to linebacker C.J. Mosley after the game. Oakland quarterback Derek Carr also made a few terrific throws and deserves some credit.

The pass rush certainly wasn’t there, but that was nothing new as the Ravens failed to sack or even register a quarterback hit on Carr all day. Whether sending extra blitzers — as defensive coordinator Dean Pees did twice on the last drive — or relying on a four-man rush, the Ravens rarely made the young quarterback uncomfortable in the pocket as he regularly got the ball out quickly.

In fact, the Ravens used the hated three-man rush on the penultimate play of the drive — they used four or five rushers on every other play of the drive — and nearly made the play to seal the victory. But that was the difference from the previous three weeks when the defense was able to make a critical stop in crunch time.

On first-and-10 from the Baltimore 23 with 2:25 remaining, Carr made an ill-advised deep throw over the middle intended for tight end Clive Walford, who was covered by safety Eric Weddle on the play. Weddle undercut the route just in front of the goal line and got both hands on the ball, but the veteran was unable to secure the interception that would have ended the drive and given the Ravens the chance to run out the clock with a 27-21 lead and just over two minutes left.

Making matters worse, Lardarius Webb delivered a low hit to Walford’s thigh that dislodged the safety’s helmet and prompted the training staff to remove him from the game to evaluate him for a concussion. With Webb out, reserve Kendrick Lewis entered at safety for the next play.

Already with two touchdown receptions, Raiders wide receiver Michael Crabtree got behind cornerback Shareece Wright on a double move and Lewis inexcusably allowed a receiver to get behind him in the red zone. The 23-yard touchdown was Oakland’s longest pass play of the game and led to a frustrating 28-27 defeat for a Ravens defense that had played well for much of Sunday’s game.

Perhaps Webb makes the same mistake, but Lewis too often allowed big plays over his head as a starter a year ago.

Against Cleveland and Jacksonville the previous two weeks, the Ravens came away with late interceptions to clinch one-possession victories.

On Sunday, Weddle was unable to make the play that could have won it for Baltimore. It would have been a great catch, but that’s what you sometimes need to prevail in a close game against a quality opponent.

The final touchdown spoiled an otherwise good day for the defense, but the Ravens missed their chance on the previous play.

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Ravens offense lacking direction, confidence in early going

Posted on 03 October 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The final numbers looked good for the Ravens offense despite the 28-27 loss to Oakland on Sunday.

The 27 points, 412 total yards, 130 rushing yards, and 25 first downs were season highs, but they conceal the truth through the first quarter of a season that’s still off to a promising 3-1 start for Baltimore.

This Ravens offense is lacking direction and confidence in what it does.

The decision to deactivate running back Justin Forsett in favor of Terrance West and Buck Allen was the right one, but it was a difficult choice and one that was understandably deflating to a veteran. Head coach John Harbaugh’s explanation that the Ravens were looking for a “spark” was sound in theory.

“You’ve got to try to do something,” Harbaugh said. “You try to do all the things, and then sometimes you try to do something else, too. That’s what we tried to do this week.”

So, why then did West receive only five carries in the first half? His 21-yard run with 11 minutes to go in the second quarter was Baltimore’s longest of the season, but the third-year back carried the ball on the next play and didn’t touch it again until the third quarter.

Why did offensive coordinator Marc Trestman have quarterback Joe Flacco throw 29 times in the first two quarters behind a backup left side of the offensive line that was no match for Khalil Mack and the Oakland front? Why make the bold move to bench Forsett in favor of West and not even try to run the ball until the third quarter against a rush defense that entered Week 4 ranked 29th in the NFL?

The early strategy looked even sillier as West ran for 87 yards on 16 carries after intermission. The Ravens hope that success wasn’t an aberration against a poor run defense, but the improved commitment to the run must continue moving forward.

The passing game again relied on too many short throws and hesitated to stretch the field vertically with the likes of Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman. Pass protection was unquestionably a major problem on Sunday with James Hurst at left tackle and Ryan Jensen at left guard, but Baltimore has been reluctant to throw the ball downfield for large stretches of its first four games. You can only use the two-deep safety excuse so much for not taking vertical shots, especially when you don’t attempt to establish the run early in the game to force the opposition to put a safety in the box.

Why not roll Flacco out a little more and move him away from pressure while allowing receivers to get open down the field?

Steve Smith had the standout performance with 111 receiving yards and a 52-yard touchdown, but Kyle Juszczyk was second with 56 receiving yards on Sunday. He’s a good player and certainly capable of contributing in the passing game out of the backfield, but a fullback shouldn’t be your second-leading receiver when you throw the ball 52 times in a game.

“We’re just not there,” said Flacco, who averaged only 5.7 yards per attempt on Sunday. “To come out and only put up six points in the first half and get off to that start, dig yourself a hole like that, and then you have to play a perfect game. Then you have to go out there and you have to score and you have to move the ball and you have to go, go, go, go, go. When you do that, you have to convert third downs and you have to play that perfect game. It just makes it very tough.”

The Ravens not only lacked direction with the offense in the first half, but they lacked confidence throughout the game.

Trestman’s play-calling is under scrutiny and penalties have stalled too many drives, but two second-half decisions by Harbaugh showed a lack of trust in the offense.

After Flacco scored a touchdown on a quarterback sneak with 2:41 remaining in the third quarter to make it a 14-12 deficit, Harbaugh elected to go for a two-point conversion that was unsuccessful. The decision to chase points with more than 17 minutes to play was indicative of a coach unsure that his offense would put together another scoring drive.

A few minutes later, Harbaugh accepted an unnecessary roughness penalty on a third-and-1 play in which his defense stuffed Latavius Murray for a loss of five at the Baltimore 25. Instead of conceding a 43-yard field goal attempt to Sebastian Janikowski — one of the better kickers in NFL history — the Ravens coach elected to give Oakland a third-and-17 play from the 36.

“You try to back them up and make it a tougher kick from an angle perspective,” Harbaugh said. “I wanted to keep it as a field goal game. Looking back on it, it wasn’t the right decision. I didn’t really believe — I didn’t really have a sense — that that many points were going to be scored down the stretch. It didn’t seem like it was going to be played that way.”

There’s no excusing the defense allowing a 16-yard completion and committing an offside penalty on the next two plays to give the Raiders a first down and an eventual touchdown to make it a 21-12 game, but Harbaugh’s acceptance of the penalty was another example of lacking faith in his offense. He doubted the Ravens’ ability to overcome a five-point deficit if he’d just declined the penalty and Oakland had kicked the field goal with more than 13 minutes to go.

That’s a real problem.

The good news is that the Ravens are still 3-1. They were beaten by a quality opponent on Sunday and shouldn’t panic after suffering their first loss of the season.

But the offense is a concern as the same problems have persisted week after week. The healthy returns of left tackle Ronnie Stanley and left guard Alex Lewis will help stabilize the shoddy pass protection witnessed in Week 4, but the slow starts, the penalties, the running game, and the overall philosophy remain issues.

The Ravens offense needs clear direction and more confidence if it’s ever going to take off.

“Everything that we do right now is just probably a little bit tougher than it needs to be,” said Flacco, who threw four straight incompletions when the Ravens needed 10 more yards to get into Justin Tucker’s field-goal range in the final minute on Sunday. “We need to find some ways to get some easy ones. I think our run game got some chunks today for us. I think that got going a little bit and helped us out when it did get going. Hopefully, we can find some more of that.”

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Ravens-Raiders: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 02 October 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Trying to jump-start the NFL’s 26th-ranked running game, the Ravens have shaken up their backfield for Sunday’s Week 4 meeting with Oakland.

Veteran running back Justin Forsett has been deactivated, meaning Terrance West will make his first start with the Ravens since joining the team midway through last season. Forsett was averaging just 3.2 yards per carry through three games while West gained 45 yards on 10 carries against Jacksonville last week, a sign that he was beginning to gain more trust in the running game.

Second-year running back Buck Allen is active for the first time this season and will serve as West’s backup.

Rookie running back Kenneth Dixon (knee) was inactive for the fourth straight game after returning to practice on a limited basis this week. Still wearing a brace on his left knee, the 2016 fourth-round pick worked out on the field before the game and continues moving closer to a return.

The revamped backfield will not have the services of rookie left tackle Ronnie Stanley, who was deactivated after being listed as doubtful with a lingering foot injury. The first-round pick did not practice all week and is expected to be replaced by James Hurst at left tackle, a concerning development with Pro Bowl defensive end Khalil Mack waiting across the line of scrimmage.

Rookie left guard Alex Lewis is active despite going through the concussion protocol and missing most of the week of practice, but Ryan Jensen was working as the starting left guard during pre-game warmups. Third-year interior lineman John Urschel is also active and will make his 2016 season debut after missing a significant amount of the preseason with a shoulder injury.

As expected, five-time Pro Bowl pass rusher Elvis Dumervil (foot) is active and will make his 2016 season debut. It will be interesting to see how much he plays against the Raiders after missing the entire preseason and the first three games in his return from offseason foot surgery. Rookie outside linebacker Matt Judon was deactivated with Dumervil returning to the mix.

Veteran cornerback Jerraud Powers will also make his 2016 debut after missing the first three games with an ankle injury.

There were no surprises in the list of inactives for the Raiders as safety Nate Allen (quadriceps) and offensive tackles Austin Howard (ankle) and Menelik Watson (calf) had already been ruled out on Friday.

The Ravens and Oakland are meeting for the ninth time ever in the regular season with Baltimore holding a 6-2 advantage and 5-0 mark at home. However, the Raiders won the last meeting between these teams, a 37-33 final in Oakland last season.

Baltimore will be wearing purple jerseys with white pants while the Raiders don white tops and silver pants for Sunday’s game.

Sunday’s referee is Ed Hochuli.

According to Weather.com, the Sunday forecast in Baltimore called for cloudy skies with temperatures reaching 70 degrees, calm winds up to four miles per hour, and only a slight chance of precipitation.

Below are Sunday’s inactives:

RB Justin Forsett
OT Ronnie Stanley
CB Sheldon Price
RB Kenneth Dixon
CB Will Davis
DT Willie Henry
LB Matt Judon

QB Connor Cook
S Nate Allen
RB Taiwan Jones
CB Antonio Hamilton
OT Menelik Watson
OL Matt McCants
OT Austin Howard

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Showalter’s mistake headlines costly loss for Orioles

Posted on 01 October 2016 by Luke Jones

With a chance to clinch a playoff spot with a win and some help later in the night, the Orioles instead suffered their most frustrating loss of the season on Saturday.

Beyond the obvious effects on the wild-card-standings, the 7-3 defeat to the New York Yankees was even more difficult to stomach because of Buck Showalter’s role in the late-inning collapse. As deserving of the benefit of the doubt as any manager in baseball, Showalter leaving starter Wade Miley in the game to give up the game-tying home run to Tyler Austin to start the bottom of the seventh was baffling.

The Baltimore skipper told reporters in the Bronx after the game that he believed Miley was still strong at 99 pitches and that the many left-handed hitters available to come off the New York bench — presumably against right-handed reliever Mychal Givens — prompted him to stick with the lefty starter to begin the seventh. Of course, one could dispute just how strong Miley was at that point after he’d pitched into significant jams in both the fifth and sixth innings in which the Yankees shrunk the Orioles’ lead from 3-0 to 3-2.

Miley had given the Orioles a strong performance through six innings, but that should have been all for the starter, especially considering the bullpen hadn’t been particularly taxed in the series-opening 8-1 win on Friday. This was the penultimate game of the regular season, after all, and not a game in mid-June in which you’re thinking about the long-term health of your bullpen.

The leash was long enough for that sixth inning, let alone even thinking about having him start the seventh.

But Showalter’s overthinking wasn’t the only factor working against the Orioles on Saturday if we’re being fair.

Even if Miley had been lifted after six, All-Star setup man Brad Brach was always going to factor into the late-inning equation and the right-hander just didn’t have it on Saturday, giving up four runs, two hits, and two walks while retiring only one batter in the eighth inning. Brach had rebounded nicely in the month of September, but he hasn’t been the same dominant force in the second half of the season, pitching to an underwhelming 3.94 ERA since the All-Star break.

It’s no secret that Brach carried an enormous workload with Darren O’Day missing a large portion of the season, and he hasn’t been nearly as consistent in the second half as a result.

An offense that plated three runs over the first three innings against Yankees starter Luis Severino all but went to sleep in the final six innings of the game. J.J. Hardy grounded into a 5-4-3 double play with runners on first and second with one out in the sixth, and Manny Machado was inexplicably thrown out at third after Mark Trumbo singled with two outs in the seventh. Those were the only real scoring threats for Baltimore after Machado’s opposite-field solo homer in the third inning.

There’s been far too much of that in recent weeks.

Even the defense was a question mark.

With two outs in the sixth, Machado made a nice stop of a grounder off the bat of Rob Refsnyder, but he took too much time getting up to make the throw to get him at first base to end the inning. Chase Headley then followed with a double to make it a one-run game.

There was plenty of blame to go around after Saturday’s loss as the Orioles could only watch what was transpiring in Boston and Atlanta to determine what they needed to do in the final game of the season.

It’s tough enough when players simply don’t come through, but seeing a tactician like Showalter blink in such a crucial game was disheartening. It was the kind of decision that disrupted the karma of a game in which the Orioles were winning, but we’ll never know how it might have turned out otherwise. Brach pitching in a similar fashion would have surely netted the same result of a loss.

Baltimore just wasn’t good enough on Saturday, whether talking about the players or their revered manager.

You can only hope it didn’t cost them dearly.

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Ravens-Raiders: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 01 October 2016 by Luke Jones

The Ravens continue to hear the talk about whether or not they’re for real.

Their first 3-0 start since 2009 certainly hasn’t come against the most formidable opponents, but the Oakland Raiders are a team many tabbed to take a significant step forward into the AFC playoff picture this season. The Ravens will face their biggest challenge to date on Sunday, but it represents an opportunity to silence the critics doubting just how good they really are.

A 4-0 record would give Baltimore its best start since 2006 and a significant boost in trying to get back to the postseason after missing the playoffs in two of the last three seasons since Super Bowl XLVII.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens look to remain undefeated against Oakland at home in their all-time history. Baltimore holds the 6-2 advantage in the overall regular-season series — and won the only playoff meeting at the end of the 2000 season — despite the Raiders prevailing 37-33 in a Week 2 contest in Oakland last year.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Elvis Dumervil will collect a sack and play roughly 20 snaps in his 2016 debut. Expectations should be tempered after Dumervil missed virtually the entire summer and the first three games of the season coming back from offseason foot surgery, but the Raiders are a mess at right tackle due to injuries and will likely start seventh-round rookie Vadal Alexander. Linebacker Terrell Suggs and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan will have their work cut out for them against the rest of a terrific Oakland offensive line led by ex-Raven Kelechi Osemele, but Dumervil will slip by Alexander for a sack.

2. Khalil Mack will pick up two quarterback takedowns in exploiting a vulnerable Baltimore offensive line. The Ravens are dealing with offensive line issues of their own with rookie left tackle Ronnie Stanley doubtful to play with a foot injury and rookie left guard Alex Lewis questionable after suffering a concussion. That’s bad news as Mack has yet to collect a sack in 2016, but it’s only a matter of time before the 2015 Pro Bowl selection breaks out. The Ravens will use tight ends to aid in pass protection on the left side, but Mack and outside linebacker Bruce Irvin will be a problem.

3. Terrance West will become the first Ravens running back to score a touchdown in 2016. Oakland sports the NFL’s 29th-ranked rush defense and has given up 5.1 yards per carry, leaving no excuse for offensive coordinator Marc Trestman not to get his running game going. Veteran Justin Forsett is averaging only 3.2 yards per carry, but he is the Ravens’ best back in pass protection, complicating matters for an offense leaning on the pass. West will receive the bigger load and will find the end zone, but Baltimore will still be looking ahead to Kenneth Dixon’s potential return next week.

4. Joe Flacco and Derek Carr will both throw for over 275 yards and two touchdowns. The Raiders have been successful running the football with multiple backs, but they will find more success in the air as Carr gets the ball out quickly to neutralize the Ravens’ A-gap blitzing and overall pass rush. Meanwhile, Flacco will come out throwing against a defense that improved in Tennessee Week 3 but has given up 340 yards per game through the air. The Ravens will mix in a few more deep shots while continuing to work the ball to Dennis Pitta and Steve Smith in the short-to-intermediate passing game.

5. The Ravens offense will finally break through to be the difference in a 30-27 win over Oakland. This one will be somewhat of a shootout with Baltimore being more exposed in coverage than it was over the first three weeks, but the defense will still make a few stops when needed. A passing offense that has looked quite promising at times will finally play a more complete game. The Raiders are a talented team more than capable of winning on Sunday, but they’ve lost 18 of their last 19 games played in the Eastern time zone dating back to 2009 and are playing a long-distance road game for a second straight week. The Ravens are better than many of us thought and will show it with a “style-points” win.

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Ravens, Raiders both trying to make statement on Sunday

Posted on 01 October 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens and the Oakland Raiders are both trying to prove they belong among the AFC’s contenders.

Despite a 3-0 start, the Ravens have beaten three below-average opponents by only a combined 13 points and are still trying to shake any lingering odor from a 5-11 campaign a year ago. Meanwhile, 2-1 Oakland has two road wins and was a sexy pick to make the playoffs despite lacking a winning season since 2002, but the league’s 32nd-ranked defense hasn’t inspired much confidence through three weeks.

Sunday’s featured matchup will be Baltimore’s second-ranked defense taking on the Raiders’ No. 2 offense. Something will have to give.

“You hear the numbers; there is no shying away from that,” inside linebacker Zach Orr said. “They are definitely top two or top three in the league offensively. It will be a great challenge to see where we stack up. Statistically, we are one of the top defenses in the league right now. It will be a great battle.”

The Ravens must avoid a repeat of last year when quarterback Derek Carr threw for 351 yards and three touchdowns in a 37-33 win for Oakland, but this defense looks and feels different in 2016. After collecting only six interceptions all last season, Baltimore has five in its first three games, a few coming at critical junctures of close games.

Slowing the talented receiver combination of Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree won’t be easy, but the Ravens are now faster, healthier, and smarter on defense. Welcoming back five-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil will also help a pass rush that’s been disruptive inside but could use another impact rusher off the edge opposite 14th-year veteran Terrell Suggs.

“We kind of got the deck stacked,” said Suggs, who is tied with defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan for the team lead with three sacks. “We have all our guys back. We have all our working parts. We get another guy back this week. That is going to help us out. I think everybody is just committed to getting better every week, and that is huge for us.”

Getting better will be critical for a Baltimore offense that’s managed only four touchdowns in three games and currently ranks 25th in the NFL in total yards and 24th in points per game. Quarterback Joe Flacco and the passing game have shined at times, but the aerial attack has too often been bogged down by a running game averaging a meager 3.3 yards per carry.

The anticipated absence of rookie left tackle Ronnie Stanley makes for an uncomfortable matchup with Oakland defensive end and 2015 Pro Bowl selection Khalil Mack, but the Ravens still couldn’t ask for a much better matchup to finally get their offense rolling, especially playing at home for the first time since Week 1. Knowing there’s a talented offense on the other side, Baltimore will need to score touchdowns and not settle for field goals as has often been the case over the first three weeks.

The Ravens keep saying they’re close to breaking out offensively. It needs to come against one of the worst defenses in the league so far this season.

“We feel like we are ready to burst onto the scene,” Flacco said. “We have a lot of moving parts, a lot of guys catching passes. I think if we get our run game going a little bit and clean up the little things like penalties, some drops and a couple missed throws —  stuff like that — I think we will be going.”

Sunday represents Baltimore’s greatest challenge to date as Oakland has more talent than any of the first three opponents of 2016. A win gives the Ravens their best start in the John Harbaugh era and provides further validation for a return to being a dangerous team in the AFC after a one-year hiatus.

Of course, a loss doesn’t decide anything just a quarter of the way through the season, but it would give ammunition to the critics doubting just how good the Ravens really are after a soft schedule the first three weeks.

This one should be fun as both teams have something to prove.

“It is going to be a great matchup, a great game, and physical,” safety Eric Weddle said. “You have to have your ‘big-boy’ pads on and get ready for it.”

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Bats warming, but pitching has carried Orioles over final month

Posted on 01 October 2016 by Luke Jones

The Orioles hope their highest run output in nearly three weeks on Friday night is the harbinger of an offensive awakening for October, but their pitching is what’s made that kind of talk still possible.

A six-run, three-homer fifth inning was the story in Friday’s 8-1 victory over the New York Yankees that put Baltimore in the lead for the top wild card with two games to play, but veteran starter Yovani Gallardo gave the Orioles exactly what they needed and continued a month-long trend that’s saved the season. Allowing only one run over six innings to earn the win, Gallardo lowered the starter ERA to a very respectable 3.83 for the month of September.

For a group that was the Achilles heel of a contending club for the better part of five months, the substantial improvement couldn’t have come at a better time as the Orioles’ bats entered Friday averaging just 4.0 runs per game in September, continuing the second-half frustration for a lineup increasingly dependent on home runs. The offensive struggles had been even worse over the last 12 games prior to Friday as the Orioles scored more than three runs only twice while still managing to post a 6-6 record over that stretch to stay afloat in the race.

The survival was because of the pitching, which leads the American League with a 2.90 ERA in September.

The surge has been led by Ubaldo Jimenez, who has rebounded from an appalling 7.38 ERA in the first half to pitch to a 2.31 mark over his last five starts. The recent performance may not forgive his many missteps that hurt the Orioles earlier in the season, but where would they have been without him over the last five weeks with Chris Tillman not himself for most of that time?

Jimenez hasn’t been alone as fellow maligned starters Gallardo and Wade Miley have also had their moments in recent weeks. It’s easy — and fair — to ask what took so long for this group to finally pitch better, but the Orioles are just grateful to see the necessary improvement after the rotation’s previous best ERA for a month was a mediocre 4.55 in April.

Assuming good health, Tillman and Kevin Gausman were always locks for a potential postseason rotation, but Jimenez has easily secured the No. 3 spot with Dylan Bundy, Gallardo, and Miley all vying for the fourth and final starting spot.

Though known for being the backbone of the Buck Showalter era in Baltimore, the bullpen has also rebounded from a nightmare August (6.43 ERA) to post a 1.38 mark over the final month, eclipsing the previous best month of a 2.24 ERA in April. The Orioles still don’t know if Darren O’Day — who pitched for the first time in a week on Friday night — can reclaim his status as one of the best setup men in baseball in time for the playoffs, but Brad Brach, Mychal Givens, and Donnie Hart have continued to do admirable work in bridging the gap to the impeccable Zach Britton in the ninth.

The best closer in baseball remains a perfect 47-for-47 in save opportunities with eight coming in September.

It’s no secret that the Orioles will need offensive performances similar to Friday’s if they’re to make any noise in October, but the improved pitching will need to accompany the bats into the postseason.

For now, however, the pitching staff deserves a tip of the cap for making any of this excitement possible.

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Ravens list Stanley as doubtful to play against Oakland

Posted on 30 September 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens do not expect to have their starting left tackle for Sunday’s meeting with Pro Bowl pass rusher Khalil Mack and the Oakland Raiders.

Rookie Ronnie Stanley was listed as doubtful for the Week 4 contest after missing practices all week with a lingering foot injury. Prior to the release of the final injury report, head coach John Harbaugh did not express concern that Stanley’s injury was a long-term issue even though he also missed a day of practice with the ailment last week.

“I don’t see it that way from what I’ve been told,” Harbaugh said. “I still think he has a chance for Sunday. You’ll see the [injury] report coming out later, but we’re not going to rule him out.”

Assuming Stanley does not play, it will be interesting to see how the Ravens proceed at left tackle with rookie left guard Alex Lewis (concussion) only returning to practice on a limited basis on Friday. With Lewis playing left tackle at Nebraska and seeing extensive time at that position in the preseason, many have concluded that he would serve as the true backup to Stanley at left tackle. However, Lewis’ absence during most of the practice time this week could lead to third-year tackle James Hurst receiving the start.

Lewis, a 2016 fourth-round pick, was listed as questionable on the final injury report.

Veteran outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil will make his 2016 season debut after missing the first three games while continuing to work his way back from offseason foot surgery. He was officially deemed to be questionable, but even Harbaugh acknowledged that the five-time Pro Bowl pass rusher would play against the Raiders after practicing fully all week.

“It’s going to be interesting to see how he does,” Harbaugh said. “He hasn’t played in a long time — no preseason. Who knows? Maybe he’ll come out there like gangbusters or maybe he’ll have to knock some rust of. We’re just going to have to find out.”

To no surprise, rookie running back Kenneth Dixon (knee) was listed as doubtful after only practicing on a limited basis this week. He would figure to have a good chance to make his season debut against Washington next week if his knee responds well to more practice time.

The Ravens listed defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (knee) and wide receiver Kamar Aiken (thigh) as questionable, but both were full participants in practice on Thursday and Friday. Return specialist Devin Hester (thigh) is also questionable after being listed as a limited participant all week.

The Raiders officially ruled out offensive tackles Menelik Watson (calf) and Austin Howard (calf), which likely opens the door for rookie Vadal Alexander to start at right tackle.

The referee for Sunday’s game will be Ed Hochuli.

The Weather.com forecast for Sunday calls for mostly cloudy skies, temperatures reaching the mid-70s, and only a slight chance of precipitation with light winds.

Below is the final injury report of the week:

DOUBTFUL: RB Kenneth Dixon (knee), CB Sheldon Price (thigh), OT Ronnie Stanley (foot)
QUESTIONABLE: WR Kamar Aiken (thigh), LB Elvis Dumervil (foot), RS Devin Hester (thigh), G Alex Lewis (concussion), DT Timmy Jernigan (knee), G John Urschel (shoulder)

OUT: S Nate Allen (quad), OT Austin Howard (ankle), OT Menelik Watson (calf)
QUESTIONABLE: C Rodney Hudson (knee), RB Taiwan Jones (knee), OT Matt McCants (knee)

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