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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 31-27 loss to Cincinnati

Posted on 02 January 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five years in a 31-27 loss to Cincinnati, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. I initially called it the most devastating home loss in team history and was quickly reminded by several folks on Twitter of the crushing 2006 playoff defeat to Indianapolis. They were right, but I’ll still say this was the most stunning home defeat in 22 seasons of Ravens football.

2. Andy Dalton’s 49-yard touchdown to Tyler Boyd will be remembered, but don’t forget the horrendous first half that put the Ravens in a hole. His team looking flat and unprepared with the season on the line was a poor reflection on John Harbaugh, especially after a shaky performance against Indianapolis.

3. Maurice Canady was a Week 16 hero, but he was picked on during the final drive and was out of position to make a play on the ball or the tackle on Boyd’s touchdown. Eric Weddle was also in no man’s land in zone after showing blitz before the snap.

4. Remember the talk about the Ravens not letting A.J. Green beat them? The seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver finished with two catches for 17 yards. Feel any better that the “Tylers” — Boyd and Kroft — did it instead? Yeah, didn’t think so.

5. We certainly saw a less-accurate Joe Flacco than we’d seen in recent weeks and his third-down throwaway before Cincinnati’s final drive was terrible — Mike Wallace was wide open underneath to at least attempt to keep the clock moving — but five drops from his receivers did him no favors.

6. Wallace had a few and is no better than a No. 2 wideout, but letting him walk would feel similar to Torrey Smith’s exit. I also have doubts about Jeremy Maclin’s future, so do you trust the Ravens to add at least two impactful receivers this offseason? I certainly don’t.

7. The defense allowed a whopping 126 rushing yards in the first half and surrendered over 4.0 yards per carry in a season for the first time in team history. Brandon Williams’ four-game absence explains much of that, but the run defense was still quite disappointing relative to expectations.

8. After all the discussion about the impact of Danny Woodhead returning, the 32-year-old caught 30 passes for 167 yards after the bye and eclipsed 40 yards from scrimmage in a game twice. The Ravens touted his signing as their major offensive addition last offseason before Maclin fell into their laps.

9. Breshad Perriman was a healthy scratch in favor of an undrafted rookie receiver who was making his NFL debut in Quincy Adeboyejo. What else is there to say about the 2015 first-round pick?

10. Speaking of underwhelming draft choices, Kamalei Correa, Bronson Kaufusi, Tyus Bowser, Chris Wormley, and Tim Williams combined for seven defensive snaps Sunday. The last three are rookies and absolutely deserve more time before judgment, but that’s not much of an early return from Day 2 of the last two drafts.

11. Flacco throwing well short of the chains on fourth-and-14 was a fitting way to close the book on the 2017 Ravens, but there were only two healthy wide receivers on the field and one was a rookie who had been on the practice squad all year. Not ideal.

12. This had to be one of the weirdest games I’ve ever seen in terms of time of possession. The Ravens held the ball for barely more than nine minutes in the first half while Cincinnati possessed it for less than eight minutes after intermission. Strange.

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New Year’s Eve brings new low for Ravens in stunning defeat

Posted on 01 January 2018 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens entered Sunday with roughly a 97-percent chance of making the playoffs, needing a win over Cincinnati or help from Miami or Jacksonville to punch their ticket.

An assist never came.

According to ESPN, their win probability still stood at 93.4 percent when Cincinnati burned its final timeout, facing a fourth-and-12 at the Baltimore 49 with 53 seconds to go. We know what happened next, and there’s no kind way to put it.

The Ravens choked. Once again, they couldn’t finish, an all-too-common theme of the post-Super Bowl XLVII era.

But this wasn’t arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history erasing two 14-point deficits against an undermanned Baltimore secondary in the 2014 playoffs. Or even Ben Roethlisberger finding Antonio Brown in the final seconds of a heartbreaking loss at Heinz Field last Christmas.

Those disappointments came on the road to superior teams, making them at least semi-tolerable after some time had passed. This one came in their own stadium where they’ve enjoyed one of the best home-field advantages in the NFL for nearly two decades.

Yes, the Ravens let Andy Dalton and Tyler Boyd — who entered the day with 17 receptions on the season — beat them on a 49-yard touchdown pass in the final minute. The Bengals, a losing team out of the playoffs and with nothing to play for on Sunday, ended Baltimore’s season this time.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. If owner Steve Bisciotti was full of “bewilderment” at the end of last season, how might he react to the Ravens missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five years despite a schedule that couldn’t have set up any better down the stretch? Would major changes really shock you after the most stunning home loss in team history and an abysmal first half from a team that came out flat and unprepared?

Head coach John Harbaugh needs to answer for that second part, especially on the heels of an uninspiring performance against Indianapolis last week.

It’s easy — and completely fair — to point blame at defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who reportedly plans to retire anyway. Few could argue that a defense that’s received so many resources over the last few years wouldn’t benefit from some new blood in the coaching department. Even if Pees changes his mind, it’s difficult to envision him coming back from something like this for a second year in a row.

Frankly, this organization needs to take a long look in the mirror and realize it’s about more than just another late defensive collapse. The truth is the overall vision has been flawed since raising the Lombardi Trophy in New Orleans five years ago. Ever since being led to a Super Bowl championship by Joe Flacco and their offense, the Ravens have been trying to chase the ghost of the 2000 defense, almost as if they were ashamed to have won their second championship in the manner they did.

General manager Ozzie Newsome signed Flacco to a big contract like any team would have in that position and has proceeded to pump virtually all meaningful resources into the other side of the ball while expecting the quarterback to be something he’s not. And please don’t say it’s all because of the quarterback’s salary cap number either as the Ravens have selected 13 defensive players with their 17 Day 1 and Day 2 picks over the last five drafts, the best avenue for finding inexpensive talent.

Even with all those picks as well as free-agent dollars exhausted, we’re still talking about the same defensive shortcomings while the offensive holes are mostly filled at the dollar store in hopes of being average if everything goes perfectly. The unbalanced approach has repeatedly netted a below-average offense and a good — but not great — defense with one playoff appearance in five years.

The Ravens can’t allow the finish to this season to fool them like it did a year ago when they went all in on defense in the offseason and barely touched the offense after the collapse against Pittsburgh. It was a commendable finish to 2017 by Flacco despite how little he had to work with and his own health concerns, but this offense was woeful over the first three months of the season and was inept in the first half of Sunday’s game, a big reason why the Ravens trailed by 14 midway through the third quarter.

The offense needs more skill-position talent and more innovative coaching.

This model of repeatedly trying to build a super defense while asking Flacco to do more with less just isn’t working. The truth is it’s really, really difficult to build a historic defense in today’s NFL, no matter how many resources you continue to pump into it.

Meanwhile, the Super Bowl XLVII Most Valuable Player will be turning 33 later this month and isn’t getting any younger. Flacco has his obvious flaws, but he’s proven to be good enough to win if this organization would make more than a halfhearted effort to build around him. Maybe the defense wouldn’t then find itself in quite as many of these late-game situations with little margin for error.

Frankly, I’ll still take my chances with Flacco and a better supporting cast around him over a defense that doesn’t have a 25-year-old Ray Lewis or Ed Reed walking through the door.

To be clear, this isn’t a call for Bisciotti to completely blow it up top to bottom. From Newsome to Harbaugh and others behind the scenes, there is a track record of past success that shouldn’t just be thrown away in haste.

But the same old practices aren’t working and haven’t for a while.

An embarrassing loss to the Bengals to ruin a trip to the playoffs should spark change, but it remains to be seen whether the Ravens will recognize that or just go down the same old path again.

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Ravens-Bengals: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 31 December 2017 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Win and they’re in.

The task is that clear for the Ravens, who would clinch the AFC’s No. 5 seed and play at Kansas City in the wild-card round next weekend with a win over Cincinnati. However, an upset defeat would leave Baltimore to hope for a loss by either Buffalo or Tennessee to secure a postseason bid.

The Ravens will have to do it without one of their starting wide receivers as Jeremy Maclin is out for the second straight week with a left knee injury. Second-year wideout Chris Moore is expected to start in his place with Michael Campanaro and the recently-promoted Quincy Adeboyejo also in the mix.

Wide receiver Breshad Perriman is a healthy scratch for the fourth time in seven games since the bye as the Ravens elected to go with an undrafted rookie in Adeboyejo over their 2015 first-round pick on Sunday.

As expected, veteran wide receiver Mike Wallace (knee) is active and will start despite being limited in practice with a knee issue early in the week. Defensive tackle Brandon Williams (back), right tackle Austin Howard (knee), and fullback Patrick Ricard (neck) are also active after being designated as questionable on the final injury report.

Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste is active and will make his Ravens debut in a special-teams role. Rookie third-round defensive end Chris Wormley is also active for just the second time since the bye week.

Running back Terrance West is again a healthy scratch after not playing in Week 16, the first time he’d been active on game day since Week 5.

The Ravens will be playing a disappointing Cincinnati team that won’t be at full strength on defense as standout linebacker Vontaze Burfict (shoulder) was downgraded to out on Saturday. However, cornerback William Jackson (knee) and running back Joe Mixon (ankle) are active after being listed as questionable for Week 17.

The Bengals are very likely playing their final game with head coach Marvin Lewis, who is expected to part ways with the organization after 15 years at the helm in Cincinnati. Of course, Lewis served as Ravens defensive coordinator from 1996-2001.

Sunday’s referee is Ron Torbert.

According to Weather.com, the Sunday forecast in Baltimore calls for partly cloudy skies and temperatures in the low 20s with winds 10 to 15 miles per hour and only a small chance of precipitation. Showing off his Minnesota roots, tight end Maxx Williams spent part of the pre-game warmup without a shirt.

The Ravens are wearing their purple  jerseys with white pants while Cincinnati dons white tops with black pants for its season finale.

Sunday marks the 44th all-time meeting between these AFC North rivals with the Ravens enjoying the slight 22-21 advantage. Despite a 20-0 shutout victory at Paul Brown Stadium to open the season, Baltimore has lost six of the last eight to the Bengals and is just 9-10 against them in the John Harbaugh era.

The Ravens are aiming for their 14th win in their last 15 home finales with the only blemish coming against New England in Week 16 of the 2013 campaign.

Below are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
WR Jeremy Maclin
WR Breshad Perriman
RB Terrance West
LB Tim Williams
OL Jermaine Eluemunor
OL Maurquice Shakir
DE Bronson Kaufusi

CINCINNATI
WR Cody Core
DB KeiVarae Russell
RB Jarveon Williams
LB Vontaze Burfict
DL Josh Tupou
OL Cedric Ogbuehi
OL Justin Murray

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Ravens-Bengals: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 30 December 2017 by Luke Jones

One more win.

That’s what the Ravens need to secure their first trip to the playoffs since 2014. Of course, a loss by either Buffalo or Tennessee would also send Baltimore to the postseason, but relying on the out-of-town scoreboard for help is an unsettling proposition in Week 17.

The Ravens will be facing a disappointing Cincinnati team playing out the string and quite possibly preparing to bid farewell to longtime head coach Marvin Lewis. The Bengals secured a 26-17 win over playoff-hopeful Detroit last week, but they’d lost their previous two games by a combined 53 points, which isn’t exactly indicative of a team playing all that hard for its coach down the stretch.

Still, Cincinnati has given the Ravens as many problems as anyone over the last few years, winning six of the last eight meetings with two of those coming at M&T Bank Stadium. And after being embarrassed in a 20-0 shutout by Baltimore to open the 2017 season, the Bengals would like nothing more than to wreck an AFC North rival’s postseason hopes.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens lead the all-time regular-season series by a 22-21 margin and own a 14-7 advantage in Baltimore. However, 10th-year head coach John Harbaugh is just 9-10 against the Bengals, who will miss the postseason for the second straight year.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Terrell Suggs will record 1 1/2 sacks against an overwhelmed Cincinnati offensive line. The Bengals will be without left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi and are likely to again move left guard Clint Boling outside, which will spell trouble. Suggs was quiet against Indianapolis last week, but he was just named team MVP for the first time in his outstanding career and can taste a trip to the postseason. These are the types of games in which Suggs rises up to make a big play such as a strip-sack or batted pass, especially when playing at home. The 35-year-old had two sacks in the Week 1 meeting with the Bengals.

2. Cincinnati’s A.J. Green will catch his first touchdown since Week 13. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees has occasionally used rookie cornerback Marlon Humphrey to match up over the last two weeks, and I’d expect that trend to continue going up against Green, who is the biggest threat to the Ravens winning this game. Humphrey has played very well since his rough outing against Detroit in Week 13, so the stakes of this contest shouldn’t be too big for him. Like T.Y. Hilton last week, Green will make plays, but the Baltimore secondary will prevent him from being a game-wrecker.

3. Mike Wallace and Nick Boyle will make touchdown receptions for Baltimore. Since the bye, Wallace is averaging 73.5 receiving yards per game, which translates to 1,176 yards over a full season and is quite a contrast from earlier in the year. The uncertain status of Bengals cornerback William Jackson could lead to a big day for Wallace. Cincinnati ranks 31st against tight ends in Football Outsiders’ rankings, which is good news for Benjamin Watson and Boyle. The Bengals’ run defense is poor, but a big key to Baltimore’s offensive surge has been more aggressive passing on first down.

4. The Ravens defense will not duplicate its Week 1 output, but four sacks and two takeaways will do the trick. The Bengals were a mess at the beginning of the season and fired their offense coordinator after Week 2, but things haven’t gotten all that much better since. Andy Dalton isn’t going to throw four interceptions again, but the Cincinnati quarterback will be under some duress and repeatedly check down to running back Giovani Bernard. Unlike the Colts, the Bengals haven’t taken very good care of the ball this year and will make a mistake or two to stall promising drives.

5. Justin Tucker’s late field goal will allow the Ravens to exhale in a 23-13 win over the Bengals. Last week should have provided a good lesson as a three-win Indianapolis team gave the Ravens everything they could handle in a must-win situation. The Bengals’ recent success against Harbaugh’s team should provide more than enough motivation to not take them lightly, but that doesn’t mean it will be a cakewalk as Ravens fans will be biting their nails in the second half. Tucker hasn’t had the chance to make many big fourth-quarter kicks this season, but he’ll convert a long one with a few minutes left to make it a two-possession game and send the Ravens back to the playoffs.

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Ravens designate Maclin as doubtful to play against Cincinnati

Posted on 29 December 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens are expected to again be shorthanded at the wide receiver position Sunday as Jeremy Maclin is listed as doubtful to play against Cincinnati.

The veteran hasn’t practiced or played since injuring his left knee in the first quarter of the Week 15 win at Cleveland on Dec. 17. With Maclin unlikely to suit up, second-year wide receiver Chris Moore is expected to start opposite Mike Wallace for the second straight week.

Wide receiver Mike Wallace (knee), right tackle Austin Howard (knee), and defensive tackle Brandon Williams (back) were all listed as questionable on the final injury report, but all were full participants in Friday’s workout, leaving very little doubt about their availability against the Bengals. Fullback and defensive lineman Patrick Ricard (neck) was limited in practices all week — wearing a red non-contact vest over his jersey — and is also questionable for Sunday’s game.

The Bengals will be without starting left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi (shoulder), who will miss his second straight contest. Standout linebacker Vontaze Burfict (shoulder) is listed as doubtful to play after sitting out practices all week.

Rookie running back Joe Mixon (ankle) and cornerback Williams Jackson (knee) are questionable for Cincinnati.

According to Weather.com, the Sunday forecast in Baltimore calls for partly cloudy skies and temperatures in the 20s and falling after the 4:25 p.m. kickoff. Winds will be 10 to 20 miles per hour with no chance of precipitation.

Below is the final injury report of the week:

BALTIMORE
DOUBTFUL: WR Jeremy Maclin (knee)
QUESTIONABLE: OL Jermaine Eluemunor (shoulder), OT Austin Howard (knee), DL/FB Patrick Ricard (neck), WR Mike Wallace (knee), DT Brandon Williams (back)

CINCINNATI
OUT: OT Cedric Ogbuehi (shoulder)
DOUBTFUL: LB Vontaze Burfict (shoulder)
QUESTIONABLE: CB William Jackson (knee), RB Joe Mixon (ankle)

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Maclin only Ravens player still absent from practice

Posted on 28 December 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin is the only Ravens player still sidelined from practice as Sunday’s critical Week 17 meeting with Cincinnati approaches.

A win would clinch Baltimore’s first playoff appearance since 2014, but the starting wide receiver could miss his second straight game since injuring his left knee in the first quarter of the 27-10 win over Cleveland on Dec. 17. Second-year wideout Chris Moore would likely start in Maclin’s place opposite Mike Wallace if the veteran is unable to play.

The Ravens were able to welcome right tackle Austin Howard back to the practice field a day after he sat out with a knee issue. Howard hyperextended his left knee in last Saturday’s win over Indianapolis, but he missed only a few snaps before returning to action. The 30-year-old was wearing a brace on his left knee and was officially listed as a limited participant during Thursday’s indoor workout.

Fullback Patrick Ricard (neck) was once again wearing a red non-contact vest over his practice jersey and was limited for a second straight day.

Wide receiver Mike Wallace (knee) was upgraded to full participation on Thursday.

Meanwhile, the Bengals welcomed rookie running back Joe Mixon (ankle) and starting cornerback William Jackson (knee) back to the practice field.

Below is Thursday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: WR Jeremy Maclin (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: OL Jermaine Eluemunor (shoulder), OT Austin Howard (knee), DL/FB Patrick Ricard (neck), DT Brandon Williams (back)
FULL PARTICIPATION: WR Mike Wallace (knee)

CINCINNATI
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Vontaze Burfict (shoulder), OT Cedric Ogbuehi (shoulder)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: RB Giovani Bernard (ankle), CB Darqueze Dennard (knee), WR Alex Erickson (ankle), CB William Jackson (knee), RB Joe Mixon (ankle)
FULL PARTICIPATION: LB Jordan Evans (concussion), TE Ryan Hewitt (knee), S Shawn Williams (concussion)

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Maclin, Howard absent from Wednesday’s Ravens practice

Posted on 27 December 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens were without two offensive starters during Wednesday’s practice as wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and right tackle Austin Howard are dealing with knee injuries.

Maclin’s status is in greater doubt as he hasn’t practiced or played since injuring his left knee in the first quarter of the Week 15 win at Cleveland. Head coach John Harbaugh offered few specifics about the veteran wideout’s progress during his Tuesday press conference as the Ravens look to clinch a playoff spot with a win over Cincinnati this weekend.

“It’s just a rehab thing. I don’t think there’s going to be any major update,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a healing issue. Jeremy has always been a quick healer, so that’s a good thing. It will be maybe this game [against the Bengals]. I think he has a chance. We will just have to see as it gets closer to game time.”

Howard briefly left Saturday’s win over Indianapolis with a hyperextended left knee, but he was able to return after missing only four snaps.

Defensive tackle Brandon Williams (back), wide receiver Mike Wallace (knee), and fullback Patrick Ricard (neck) were listed as limited participants in Wednesday’s practice.

The Bengals were without linebacker Vontaze Burfict (shoulder), running back Joe Mixon (ankle), and cornerback Williams Jackson (knee) during their Wednesday workout.

Below is Wednesday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: OT Austin Howard (knee), WR Jeremy Maclin (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: OL Jermaine Eluemunor (shoulder), DL/FB Patrick Ricard (neck), WR Mike Wallace (knee), DT Brandon Williams (back)

CINCINNATI
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Vontaze Burfict (shoulder), WR Alex Erickson (ankle), CB William Jackson (knee), RB Joe Mixon (ankle), OT Cedric Ogbuehi (shoulder)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: RB Giovani Bernard (ankle), CB Darqueze Dennard (knee), LB Jordan Evans (concussion), TE Ryan Hewitt (knee), S Shawn Williams (concussion)

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 20-0 win over Cincinnati

Posted on 12 September 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens posting their first shutout since 2009 in a 20-0 win over Cincinnati to begin the 2017 season, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. C.J. Mosley’s end-zone interception in the second quarter was the turning point. Between that red-zone turnover and Andy Dalton’s poor throw to a wide-open Cody Core streaking down the sideline on the next drive, the Bengals could have led 10-3 late in the half. Instead, the Ravens dominated after that.

2. If that Mosley pick was the turning point, the 17-play drive lasting nearly 10 minutes in the third quarter killed what was left of Cincinnati’s spirit. The Ravens converted three times with runs on third-and-short on that long march. How many times has that happened in recent years?

3. I had to laugh at hearing some take exception with Joe Flacco’s quip that it wasn’t that fun for the offense while overlooking him saying winning was what mattered. So many complain about athletes being disingenuous in interviews, but then we never like what they have to say when honest.

4. Watching Terrell Suggs play at this stage of his career reminds me of Ray Lewis in his final few seasons. What he might lack physically compared to his younger self he makes up for with his impeccable mental preparation and instincts. He took Bengals left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi to school.

5. Other than a few exceptions, the Ravens generated most of their pocket pressure without using blitzes against the Bengals. Sending an extra defender or two in the right spot is great, but the special defenses can wreak havoc on the quarterback with a four-man rush.

6. It didn’t show up on the stat sheet, but Brandon Williams had one of the better games of his career as a pass rusher. His pressure on Dalton impacted the aforementioned poor pass that could have easily been a touchdown, and Pro Football Focus credited him with four quarterback pressures.

7. You can only hope Danny Woodhead is able to return sooner than later as you could see what kind of weapon he can be as a receiver out of the backfield and in the slot. Alas, the Ravens were aware of his injury history when they signed him in March.

8. Za’Darius Smith silenced critics with a strong preseason and looked like one of the best players on the field before injuring his left leg in the second quarter. Losing him would hurt Baltimore’s versatility as he can be used as an interior rusher in sub packages.

9. Buck Allen handled the No. 2 running back duties as his 21 carries more than doubled the nine total he received in his disappointing 2016 season. The running game wasn’t overwhelming, but it was up to the task of controlling the clock and protecting a sizable lead.

10. Between Marvin Lewis’ white-flag-waving punt from the Baltimore 43 with less than 10 minutes to go and trailing by 20 and Dalton throwing the ball away on fourth down inside the red zone on the following drive, the reaction is summed up nicely here:

11. Perhaps they haven’t yet realized, but it sure looks like the Bengals’ window with the current regime slammed shut after their colossal meltdown against Pittsburgh in the wild-card playoffs two years ago. Cincinnati’s offensive line made the Ravens’ questionable group look like the Dallas Cowboys.

12. I enjoyed seeing Zach Orr on the sideline and celebrating with Mosley after the latter’s key interception. You know Sunday had to be a bittersweet day for the retired linebacker, but he’ll have every opportunity to learn what it takes to be a coach or a scout this season.

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Season-opening win for Ravens brings different feeling

Posted on 11 September 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The results of the first week of the season can often be fool’s gold.

Even the mighty New England Patriots lost Week 1 contests in three of their five Super Bowl championship campaigns this century. In 2003, they were embarrassed in a 31-0 final at Buffalo before winning 17 of their next 18 games while the Bills would finish with a 6-10 record. That’s why no one with a brain is counting them out despite being beaten by Kansas City in decisive fashion at home last Thursday night.

Cincinnati will try to lean on that example after being dominated by the Ravens in a 20-0 final at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday, but Baltimore hopes its first season-opening shutout since 2006 is a sign of better things to come after missing the playoffs in three of the last four years.

Of course, it was only last year that the Ravens won their first three games before finishing with an underwhelming 8-8 mark. But Sunday’s victory over the Bengals brought a different feeling, the kind that tempts observers to want to rethink their expectations for the new season.

Having not won in Cincinnati in nearly six years, head coach John Harbaugh and his team would have taken a victory no matter how close the score. Winning ugly is always better than losing with style, but a 13-12 final probably wouldn’t have sparked much enthusiasm beyond the typical satisfaction of any victory.

We just haven’t seen the Ravens overwhelm any opponent like that on the road in quite some time. In fact, it was just the third time since Super Bowl XLVII — and first since 2014 — that they won a regular-season away game by more than one possession, a telling reflection of their struggles away from M&T Bank Stadium in recent seasons.

They earned their first shutout since 2009, a stretch of time that contained some still-formidable defenses that included future Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Perhaps a brutal offensive line will reveal the 2017 Bengals to be an outfit more closely resembling the Cleveland Browns than a playoff contender as the season progresses, but let’s not pretend the Ravens have blown out the perennial doormats of the AFC North in recent road meetings, either. Simply put, trying to make the final outcome all about the shortcomings of Andy Dalton and the Bengals sells the Ravens short for their sensational defensive work that included five sacks and five takeaways.

We know the Baltimore offense remains a significant work in progress, but the running game was effective enough Sunday to complement the superb defense as a rusty Joe Flacco didn’t even have to complete a pass in the second half. That exact formula won’t work every week, of course, but a similar model carried the 2008 Ravens to the AFC championship game when Flacco was a rookie starter.

And while it’s way too premature — and unfair — to begin making comparisons to the 2000 Ravens, that was the blueprint for the franchise’s first Super Bowl championship team. You didn’t have to squint too hard to see a Trent Dilfer-like performance from Flacco on Sunday even though the overall expectations are obviously much higher for one of the highest-paid players in football.

It could all prove to be fool’s gold, but perhaps the Ravens defense can be really special while the offense improves over the course of the season. Or maybe the Bengals are just that bad. Or it’s some of both.

Only time will tell, but Sunday brought a feeling not experienced in these parts in quite some time. And you can’t blame Ravens fans for hoping it signals a return to being a serious contender after recent years of mediocrity.

Humphrey earning playing time

Rookie first-round cornerback Marlon Humphrey didn’t receive extensive preseason action until the finale in New Orleans, but that didn’t stop defensive coordinator Dean Pees from using him in Week 1.

The Alabama product provided a bit of relief to starters Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr in a way you typically see defensive linemen and edge rushers rotated over the course of a 60-minute game. Humphrey didn’t record an official defensive statistic, but he did make a favorable impression in limited work.

“I thought Marlon played really well. He definitely earned more snaps,” Harbaugh said. “He played nine plays on defense and played really well on special teams. I would say he earned more snaps. He played well. All corners played exceptionally well.”

Smith, Carr, and nickel corner Lardarius Webb all recorded interceptions in the blowout victory.

Timeshare at inside linebacker

Starter Kamalei Correa registered a tackle for a loss and former undrafted free agent Patrick Onwuasor tipped the Dalton pass intercepted by Carr in the first quarter in what amounted to a timeshare at the weakside inside linebacker spot next to C.J. Mosley.

Correa played 27 defensive snaps compared to 20 for Onwuasor, but the lion’s share of the work at that position remains up for grabs as the defense tries to fill the void left behind by the retired Zach Orr.

“If they’re both playing at a Pro Bowl level, then you play them both,” said Harbaugh, who added that rookie Bam Bradley is also in the mix. “If one of them starts to separate from the other, then one would take the job. I’d like to see one of them playing at a Pro Bowl level. Neither of them are doing that right now. But they’re both playing well enough to win.”

Injury updates

Harbaugh provided no definitive outlook on the injuries sustained by running back Danny Woodhead and outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith in the first half of Sunday’s win as both underwent MRI exams.

Woodhead is expected to miss some time after suffering a hamstring injury — the same ailment that kept him out for much of the summer — while Smith’s announced knee sprain may not be as serious as initially feared when he was carted to the locker room.

“We know it is not a structural knee thing,” Harbaugh said. “I think I know that. We think we know that, but we will know for sure once he gets out of the MRI.”

The absence of Woodhead could prompt the Ravens to promote a running back from the practice squad as former Chicago Bears starter Jeremy Langford and former Seattle Seahawk Alex Collins joined the organization last week. Terrance West and Buck Allen are the only healthy tailbacks on the current 53-man roster.

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Opportunistic Ravens defense pitches shutout in the season opener

Posted on 11 September 2017 by Dennis Koulatsos

This was a vintage Baltimore Ravens defensive performance, one that may have even been worthy of applause by their 2000 record setting counter parts.  That version kept 5 teams from scoring on them that season, and held teams to an average of 10 points a game.

For all of the talk about the plethora of great players at skill positions on the Cincinnati Bengals, their offensive line was exposed, particularly by the fierce Ravens pass rush.  Andy Dalton never got comfortable, never found a rhythm, as time and time again his throws were hurried.

Dalton was sacked a total of 5 times, and threw 4 interceptions.  Defensive tackle Brandon Williams was stout against the run, and continuously collapsed the pocket, creating space for his teammates to break through.  Edger rusher Terrell Suggs mocked father time as he came up with 2 sacks.  C.J. Mosley showed why he may very well be the best inside linebacker in the league in defending the pass, as he came up with a huge interception in the Ravens’ end zone.  That was the turning point in the game.

The Ravens offense was efficient, tough and resilient.  The offensive line did a great job overall, creating holes for running backs Terrance West and Buck Allen.  They combined for 40 carries and over 150 yards rushing, while giving Baltimore a 9 minute advantage in time of possession.

Our own Peter DiLutis texted me during the game “MVP Greg Roman,” and he couldn’t have been more right.  Although his official title may be “senior offensive assistant and tight ends coach” you could clearly see his fingerprints all over this offense.  It was refreshing to watch, particularly after two seasons of abandoning the run.

Quarterback Joe Flacco may wish to “sling the pill” all over the field, but that’s made the Ravens spectators the last two post-seasons versus participants.  We all know that he’d much rather throw the ball 4o times per game rather than hand it off – and as a competitor I guess that’s a good thing.  But that’s not what wins ball games.

Somehow Flacco needs to understand this.  Someone needs to sit him down and frame a conversation in a way that he will understand, in a way that he will buy in.  Maybe it will sink in that he has to do what’s in the best interest for the overall greater good of the team….versus himself.  In the red zone he threw into triple coverage.  He made poor choices.

That’s part of the problem with these canon armed quarterbacks.  They fall in love with their arms, thinking the can put the ball in the smallest of windows. That is why an Alex Smith can have great success in the NFL.  What he lacks in arm power he makes up for with intellect, unselfishness and in being a field general.

Of course Flacco – as he said – would rather win 42-0.  What he needs to understand is that as this offensive line jells together, and the running game grows, he will have a chance to put up some big numbers.  When the running game is going strong, the safeties will have to come up in the box.  The cornerbacks will have to play closer to the line of scrimmage.  This will give him ample downfield opportunities via the play action pass.

I absolutely loved the offensive line play.  It looked to me that all of the linemen were firing off of the ball, as the new blocking scheme made an obvious positive difference.  The misdirection plays and counters were particularly enjoyable to watch.  Terrance West said the offense “ran like the same 5 plays all day,” but it didn’t matter.  They ran them from different formations, gave the Bengals defense different looks, and most importantly they executed well.

And now for the negatives. Center Ryan Jensen is tough, but he has to clean up the penalties that were called on him.  For that matter the entire team does.  Running back Danny Woodhead reinjured his hamstring and was carted to the locker room.  His status is unknown at this time, but it doesn’t look good. Edge rusher Za’Darius Smith sprained his knee, and his status is also up in the air at this time.  Both players stood out as Woodhead had great chemistry with Flacco and was a difference maker in the Ravens’ opening drive, while Smith had a sack prior to leaving the game.

Going forward the team needs to stick to this same formula that got them the shutout yesterday. They need to run the ball, or at least try to run the ball without abandoning it too quickly.  They need Joe Flacco to take care of the ball, not turn it over. They need to save him from himself.

Looking ahead the Cleveland Browns come to town this Sunday for the Ravens home opener, after losing a tough one to the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Their quarterback is DeShone Kiser, who I think has a very high ceiling.  However he is a rookie and M&T Stadium is no place to start your second NFL game and first one away from the friendly confines of your home field.

It will be loud, as I expect the Ravens’ 12th man to show up.  This fan base is used to being energized by an aggressive, nasty and opportunistic defense.  Kiser is tough, but for now he holds the ball too long.  That’s a recipe for disaster against the Ravens defense.  I’m not taking the Browns lightly, and I am not overconfident, certainly not after one game in.  But it would not surprise me if the Browns – like the Bengals – do not put up any points on the board this Sunday.

If the Ravens execute the same script against the Browns as the Bengals, if they take care of the ball and do not turn it over, there is no reason that they won’t start the season with a 2-0 record.

 

 

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