Tag Archive | "Ben Roethlisberger"

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Ravens-Steelers: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 01 October 2017 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — It’s been 1,763 days since Pittsburgh beat the Ravens in Baltimore.

Add two more years for the last time longtime Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was at the helm for a win at M&T Bank Stadium.

The Ravens hope to continue their home dominance over the Steelers Sunday while trying to move past the embarrassment of last week’s debacle in London. The 37-point loss to Jacksonville tied the franchise record for largest margin of defeat, but Pittsburgh is coming off its own ugly performance in an overtime loss at lowly Chicago last Sunday.

Injuries continue to take their toll on the Ravens as starting defensive end Brent Urban was lost for the season last week with a foot injury while defensive tackle Brandon Williams was ruled out for the second straight week with a foot injury sustained in Week 2. Those absences will put much pressure on a young defensive line lacking experience.

Second-year defensive end and 2016 third-round pick Bronson Kaufusi is active for the first time in his NFL career and figures to be a part of the game-day rotation. During pre-game warmups, he was lining up at the starting 5-technique defensive end spot while Carl Davis was at the 3-technique defensive tackle position in place of Williams.

After returning to practice as a full participant on Friday, veteran tight end Benjamin Watson (calf) is indeed active for Sunday’s game after successfully going through a morning workout at the stadium.

Second-year wide receiver Chris Moore is a healthy scratch as running back Alex Collins has recently assumed the kick return duties. Recently-signed veteran linebacker Jonathan Freeny is active and expected to fill an expanded role on special-teams units.

Meanwhile, the Steelers have three notable inactives as starting safety Mike Mitchell (hamstring), starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert (hamstring), and outside linebacker James Harrison (illness) will not play. All three were listed as questionable on the final injury report of the week, but it’s worth noting that Harrison’s role has diminished substantially due to the emergence of rookie T.J. Watt.

J.J. Wilcox is expected to start in place of Mitchell while Chris Hubbard will play right tackle for Pittsburgh.

Sunday’s referee is Walt Anderson.

According to Weather.com, the Sunday forecast in Baltimore calls for sunny skies and temperatures reaching the high 60s with calm winds around four miles per hour and no chance of precipitation.

The Ravens are wearing their alternate black jerseys with black pants while Pittsburgh dons white tops with gold pants.

Sunday marks the 43rd all-time meeting between these AFC North rivals in the regular season with the Steelers enjoying a slight 22-20 advantage. However, the Ravens have won six of the last eight overall meetings — including a road victory in the 2014 postseason — and own a 12-9 all-time record in Baltimore.

Below are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
DT Brandon Williams
TE Maxx Williams
CB Jaylen Hill
WR Chris Moore
OL Tony Bergstrom
OL Dieugot Joseph
DE Chris Wormley

PITTSBURGH
QB Joshua Dobbs
WR Eli Rogers
S Mike Mitchell
OT Jerald Hawkins
OT Marcus Gilbert
LB James Harrison
DT Daniel McCullers

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 30 September 2017 by Luke Jones

Coming off one of the worst losses in team history and remembering what happened last Christmas Day, the Ravens should have no shortage of motivation against Pittsburgh on Sunday.

But it’s difficult knowing what to expect after such a shockingly poor performance in London and with the injuries continuing to mount. A Week 4 tilt is hardly a must-win game, but the Ravens surely would like to hold serve at home and escape the next two games with no worse than a 3-2 record going into the middle portion of the regular season.

The Steelers are coming off a disappointing loss of their own as their high-octane offense has been largely stuck in neutral through the first three weeks of the season. However, Pittsburgh does find itself in better shape than the Ravens from a health standpoint, a key factor in what’s always a very physical ballgame.

It’s time to go on the record as these AFC North foes meet for the 43rd time in the regular season with the Steelers holding a slight 22-20 edge as well as a 3-1 advantage in postseason encounters. Pittsburgh prevailed in dramatic fashion to clinch the division title last Dec. 25, but the Ravens have won six of the last eight meetings, a stretch that includes their only postseason victory since Super Bowl XLVII. Including the playoffs, 16 of the 21 showdowns with the Steelers in the John Harbaugh era have been decided by a single possession.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Alex Collins will lead the Ravens in rushing and will score his first touchdown. I’m not sure how real his 7.8 yards per attempt average is since he’s rarely carried the ball with a game’s outcome in doubt, but this sputtering offense is in desperate need of a spark and there’s no denying the urgency with which Collins has run. The Ravens have averaged 4.6 yards per carry since Marshal Yanda’s season-ending injury in Week 2, but most of that has come with a multi-score second-half lead over Cleveland and a huge deficit against Jacksonville and the Steelers are getting healthy with defensive end Stephon Tuitt returning. If the Baltimore passing game can’t get going again, Pittsburgh is likely to stack the box.

2. Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell will crack 100 yards of offense for the first time this season. It’s been a slow start to 2017 for the Steelers’ Pro Bowl running back, but the Ravens will be without standout defensive tackle Brandon Williams and defensive end Brent Urban, putting pressure on young linemen lacking experience against a rock-solid Pittsburgh offensive line. Baltimore linebackers were undisciplined in pass coverage against Jacksonville, which is another reason for concern with Bell’s ability as a receiver out of the backfield. The Ravens may need to take some chances with their linebackers to boost their pass rush, but that will leave them vulnerable on underneath throws.

3. Terrell Suggs will break a six-game drought against the Steelers with a sack against Ben Roethlisberger. No defender has more career takedowns of the Pittsburgh quarterback than Suggs, but the Ravens’ pass rush was nonexistent against Jacksonville while trying to rely mostly on a four-man rush. Not only do they need another edge rusher to consistently emerge opposite Suggs, but the inside pass rush is a big question mark since Urban was a major part of that equation. It isn’t enough to merely make Roethlisberger uncomfortable as Baltimore also needs to keep him in the pocket to prevent the downfield improvisation with his receivers that so often gets a secondary in trouble.

4. Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown will catch a touchdown despite being held to a season low for yards. The pain of last December’s game-winning score notwithstanding, the Ravens have generally done a respectable job against Brown while rarely having top cornerback Jimmy Smith travel with the All-Pro receiver. It will be interesting to see how much rookie cornerback Marlon Humphrey plays — especially with 6-foot-5 receiver Martavis Bryant back in the fold — but the Ravens are better equipped to handle the Pittsburgh passing game than they were in the fourth-quarter collapse in Week 16 last year. Brown will inevitably get touches, but he won’t be the difference in the game.

5. The Pittsburgh defense will be too much for the Ravens in a 17-14 loss. This will be a close one as it almost always is in this rivalry. I fully expect the Baltimore defense to rebound from last week’s embarrassment and play well despite being banged up on the defensive line, but it’s difficult having faith in the Ravens to score points considering the current state of the offensive line and how uncomfortable Joe Flacco has looked trying to throw the football down the field. They’re also facing a Steelers defense that’s improved from recent years despite its clear issues against the run in Chicago. Roethlisberger hasn’t won a game at M&T Bank Stadium since 2010 and the Steelers haven’t won in Baltimore since Charlie Batch pulled off an upset in 2012, but the Ravens are the inferior team on paper because of their many injuries and haven’t shown enough on offense to make me believe they’re going to win this one.

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Ravens defense aiming to regroup without waking sleeping giant

Posted on 29 September 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Terrell Suggs and other veterans on the Ravens defense vow it won’t happen again.

After forcing a whopping 10 turnovers and allowing a total of 10 points in the first two games of the season, the Baltimore defense collapsed in London in an embarrassing 44-7 defeat. An inept offensive performance that included three turnovers certainly didn’t help, but the 44 points were the most allowed by the Ravens since the 2013 season opener in Denver.

No matter the explanation, the defense fell painfully short of the expectations set for the 2017 campaign after general manager Ozzie Newsome used extensive resources on that side of the ball this offseason.

“There has been a standard in this locker room and with this team and these colors,” Suggs said. “You definitely won’t see a performance like that [again].”

The feelings from that type of loss can linger, making it critical for players to regroup to focus on Sunday’s AFC North showdown with Pittsburgh. There’s also the reality of readjusting from the five-hour time change in London, leading some to believe the Ravens are essentially playing on a short week while the Steelers made only a short trip to Chicago last Sunday.

As ugly as the loss to Jacksonville was, the Ravens know a strong defensive performance and a win over their biggest rival would wipe away any lingering disappointment. The Steelers didn’t exactly fare well against the Bears, who ran for 222 yards against them in an overtime win. The optics may have been brutal, but the Ravens lost only the opportunity to move ahead of Pittsburgh in the AFC North standings when the emotions began to calm.

And if you’re even looking for some historical perspective, the vaunted 2000 Baltimore defense gave up 36 points to the Jaguars — at home, no less — in Week 2 while the 2012 Ravens were throttled by Houston in a 43-13 loss in Week 7. Both of those teams would go on to win the Super Bowl that season, reminding that even the best teams can have nightmare performances.

“A lot of guys were just distraught after the game — which you love to see,” safety Eric Weddle said. “Everyone deals with losses differently. Some guys, they are who they are. Some guys don’t want to talk; some guys are mad and mad for days. That’s good, but you also have to understand that it’s one game.

“We win and lose together. It’s never one guy that makes you lose.”

The defense knows there is work to be done, however, especially after losing defensive end Brent Urban for the season due to a foot injury. Standout defensive tackle Brandon Williams will also miss his second straight game with a foot ailment, putting further strain on a young defensive line lacking experience.

Missed tackles, a lack of pressure on Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles, and poor linebacker play were evident at Wembley Stadium, but defensive coordinator Dean Pees insisted Thursday there were fewer assignment mistakes against Jacksonville than in the first two games of the season. That’s difficult to fathom when a defense gives up over 400 yards of offense and five touchdowns, but it lends credence to the belief that the Ravens were flat because of the time change, the emotions stemming from President Donald Trump’s harsh comments about protesting NFL players last weekend, or both.

Whatever the reason, the Ravens were sleepwalking and failed to force a single turnover after coming away with five each against Cincinnati and Cleveland.

“We did not disappear on third down, we did not disappear in the running game, and it kind of offends me that that comment was made,” Pees said. “What we did disappear in is the intensity. It was the difference in that game and the other two games — turnovers. When you play intense and you are really flying around 100 miles per hour, you create turnovers. We didn’t create turnovers. We did not create those kinds of opportunities that we created in the other two games.”

On Sunday, there should be no excuse for the intensity to be lacking with the Steelers coming to M&T Bank Stadium, a place where they haven’t won since 2012. The Ravens will even be wearing their alternate black jerseys, a popular look with both players and fans.

But there’s a sleeping giant looming if the Ravens aren’t ready. Despite possessing some of the best skill-position talent in the NFL as well as a well-regarded offensive line, the Steelers have struggled offensively, ranking just 22nd in total offense and tied for 16th in points per game. After holding out during the preseason, Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell is averaging just 3.5 yards per carry so far and has yet to accumulate 100 yards of offense in any of his first three games.

The lone bright spot of the offense has been All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown, who has twice as many receptions (26) as Baltimore wide receivers combined (13). The memory of him stretching across the goal line to eliminate the Ravens from postseason contention last Christmas Day should provide more than enough motivation to want to keep him in check, but that’s still easier said than done.

Longtime quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has accepted the blame this week, saying Pittsburgh’s offensive struggles can be traced back to his own play. That’s an admirable stance from a team leader, but it’s one the Ravens aren’t buying for a minute.

“He is setting us up. Tell Ben I am on to his tricks,” said Suggs, who has sacked Roethlisberger more times than any other player. “I know what he is doing. I am not going to let him fool me with trickery and Jedi mind tricks.”

After enduring one of the worst losses in franchise history last week, the Ravens better have their minds right if they want to make good on their promise and keep the giant snoozing for another week.

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Wild-card weekend drives home key points for Ravens

Posted on 09 January 2017 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Christmas Day

Posted on 24 December 2016 by Luke Jones

It became crystal clear for the Ravens on Saturday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“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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Underrated defense keeping Ravens competitive in mediocre AFC North

Posted on 07 November 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Eric Weddle was honest about the Ravens following their 21-14 win over Pittsburgh to snap a four-game losing streak on Sunday.

The veteran safety wasn’t trying to knock the offense, but he was stating the obvious eight games into the 2016 season. Tied with the Steelers for first place in the AFC North with a 4-4 record, Baltimore is leaning on an underrated defense to carry an offense that was again ineffective beyond Mike Wallace’s 95-yard touchdown on a short slant pass from Joe Flacco late in the first quarter.

The Ravens hope the offense will improve in the coming weeks, but the bye week and the return of three starters on that side of the ball once again brought disappointing results against a mediocre Pittsburgh defense.

It’s clear where Baltimore’s strength lies.

“Where we’re at as a team, we have to play great week in and week out to give ourselves a chance to win,” said Weddle about a defense that shut out the Steelers through the first three quarters. “When we limit teams’ big plays and we don’t let the ball go over our heads, you see what we can do and what were capable of.”

The standard for defense is unsurprisingly high in this town after watching the likes of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Terrell Suggs over the years, but the Ravens have quietly ranked in the top 10 in most major defensive categories, an improvement from the last few seasons. The 2016 defense might be a far cry from some of the elite units of yesteryear, but today’s NFL is also a different game with more rules catered toward scoring.

Allowing under 20 points per game says a lot more now than it used to.

Of course, the Ravens weren’t happy with allowing touchdowns on two of their final three defensive series, but those hiccups came only after Ben Roethlisberger and Pittsburgh had gained a total of 69 yards and two first downs through three quarters. The Baltimore offense didn’t help matters in that final period by failing to pick up a single first down to run more clock.

Still, it’s no surprise that the elder statesman of the defense was quick to note the imperfections in a win that brought more relief than excitement in the locker room. He helped set those high standards, after all.

“We gave up some plays down the stretch, and I don’t like that,” Suggs said. “You don’t ever want to have to win the game with your ‘hands’ team, especially when you have a 21-point lead in the fourth quarter. We’ve definitely got to finish better. We’ve got to get better. We’re going to take the win, but we’re not satisfied.”

Some good fortune was at work on Sunday with Roethlisberger clearly not himself less than three weeks removed from knee surgery, but the Ravens did an impeccable job keeping Pittsburgh’s two biggest play-makers — wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell — in check for much of the game. It wasn’t until the fourth quarter that Brown finally hit double-digit receiving yards while Bell finished with an underwhelming 70 yards from scrimmage on 20 touches.

With Suggs and inside linebacker C.J. Mosley returning to action and the defense controlling the line of scrimmage, the Ravens allowed just 2.0 yards per carry despite the Steelers’ clear desire to run the ball to take pressure off their hobbled quarterback. Mosley’s presence also tightened up pass coverage in the middle of the field, which had been a problem for Baltimore during his two-game absence.

Brown caught his second career touchdown against the Ravens on Sunday, but he found space only after the deficit had already grown to 21-0 with a punt block returned for a touchdown by rookie Chris Moore early in the fourth quarter. The four-time Pro Bowl receiver finished with seven catches for 85 yards, which included his 23-yard score with 8:38 remaining.

“It was really a team effort and a lot of credit goes to Dean Pees for his game plan,” said cornerback Jimmy Smith, who continues to play at a high level in the secondary. “We mixed some things up and kept Pittsburgh on their heels. They got some things late, which no one likes. But we’re real happy with our performance.”

The Ravens should be even happier with the current state of the AFC North. A 4-4 record typically doesn’t land a team in first place, but Pittsburgh has proven to be as mediocre as everyone else in the division with its current three-game losing streak. A 9-7 mark might win this underwhelming division, giving Baltimore a chance despite having a more challenging second-half schedule than the Steelers or Cincinnati.

The offense continues to be a major concern after gaining just 110 yards on 49 plays over the final three quarters, but it’s time to start giving more credit to this Ravens defense, especially with five-time Pro Bowl pass rusher Elvis Dumervil missing all but two games this season. It’s not an elite group, but the numbers shouldn’t be ignored.

Baltimore has allowed only 3.4 yards per carry with rookie free agent Michael Pierce serving as an impressive complement to Brandon Williams and Timmy Jernigan on the defensive line. The secondary has been better than expected with the free-agent arrival of Weddle and the surprising contributions of fourth-round rookie Tavon Young as a starting cornerback opposite Smith.

The defense did as much as you could have asked for against a talented Pittsburgh offense, but time will tell if the strong play will continue late into the season. Of course, it may not matter if the offense doesn’t start pulling its own weight.

“It’s all in how you finish. If you miss the playoffs, who cares where your defense ranked?” Suggs said. “This is about winning games, going to the playoffs, winning division championships, winning championships. At the end of the year, you can [say], ‘Oh, they had a top-10 defense, whatever.’

“But if you don’t win, it doesn’t matter.”

The strong defense certainly mattered on Sunday as the Ravens were able to stop the bleeding from last month and climb back into first place of a forgiving division.

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Ravens-Steelers: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 06 November 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens hope improved health brings better fortune after an injury-riddled and winless October to forget.

Welcoming back five key players to the starting lineup on Sunday, Baltimore aims to snap its four-game losing streak against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who come to town sporting a two-game slide of their own. Of course, first place in the AFC North is on the line as the 3-4 Ravens trail their biggest rival by just one game entering Week 9.

Despite conflicting reports throughout the week, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is active and will start less than three weeks after undergoing surgery on his left knee. The Ravens prepared all along for the veteran signal caller to play and weren’t buying the possibility of him sitting out after practicing on a limited all week.

After returning to practice late this week, veteran wide receiver Steve Smith (ankle) is active and will make his return after a two-game absence. The 37-year-old hinted on social media Sunday morning that he intended to play and went through pre-game warmups without any apparent issues.

Smith’s return is good news for quarterback Joe Flacco, who has thrown just two touchdown passes in his last five games.

As expected, linebackers C.J. Mosley (hamstring) and Terrell Suggs (biceps) and offensive linemen Marshal Yanda (shoulder) and Ronnie Stanley (foot) are active and will start after missing action last month. Stanley had missed four straight games, putting plenty of strain on an offensive line that entered the season in transition.

The Ravens will have all five members of their starting offensive line on the field for the first time since Week 3.

As expected, cornerback Shareece Wright (hamstring) is inactive, joining the trio of Elvis Dumervil (foot), Kamalei Correa (thigh), and Crockett Gillmore (thigh) who were officially ruled out on Friday. Elevated to the 53-man roster on Saturday, safety Matt Elam is active and will appear in his first game for the Ravens since the 2014 postseason.

With both Yanda and Stanley returning to the starting lineup, offensive lineman Ryan Jensen is a healthy scratch after starting three of the last four games.

Pittsburgh running back DeAngelo Williams (knee) is also active and will back up starter Le’Veon Bell after being listed as questionable on the final injury report of the week.

These teams are meeting for the 41st time in the regular season with the Steelers leading 21-19 and holding a 9-11 record in Baltimore. Counting the postseason, the Ravens are looking for their fourth straight win over Pittsburgh, which would be a franchise best against their biggest rival.

The forecast in Baltimore calls for partly cloudy skies and temperatures reaching 65 degrees with winds up to 14 miles per hour, according to Weather.com.

Referee John Hussey and his crew will officiate Sunday’s game.

The Ravens are wearing purple jerseys with black pants while Pittsburgh dons its white tops with yellow pants.

Here are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
CB Shareece Wright
LB Kamalei Correa
LB Elvis Dumervil
G Vlad Ducasse
OL Ryan Jensen
DT Willie Henry
TE Crockett Gillmore

PITTSBURGH
WR Markus Wheaton
QB Zach Mettenberger
FB Roosevelt Nix
LB L.J. Fort
OT Brian Mihalik
CB Justin Gilbert
DE L.T. Walton

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 05 November 2016 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

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

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

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

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

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

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Slowing Pittsburgh play-makers tops priority list for Ravens

Posted on 04 November 2016 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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