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Ravens get win, but gain little clarity at quarterback position

Posted on 25 November 2018 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens got the win over Oakland, and that’s all that mattered.

For Week 12 anyway.

The many hoping to gain clarity at the quarterback position entering December likely walked away from Sunday’s 34-17 victory feeling much like they did the previous week. It’s a hell of a debate, evident by the strong and differing opinions from fans and media in favor of either rookie Lamar Jackson or veteran Joe Flacco. And it’s about to become real with Flacco aiming to return to practice this week — pending medical clearance — and the 6-5 Ravens about to play three of their next four games on the road.

To no big surprise, head coach John Harbaugh wasn’t biting when asked if a healthy Flacco would regain his starting job.

“I’m not going to get into that for a number of reasons,” said Harbaugh, who labeled a CBS Sports report suggesting Flacco would resume practicing on Tuesday as premature. “Whether that decision has been made or not is not important for anyone to know but us. If I decide to do it one way or the other, I don’t want our opponent to know. I’m probably not going to announce it for obvious reasons — just to make it tough on our next opponent. That’s the way we’ll go this week.”

Truthfully, we should be grading Jackson on two different scales: for the remainder of the 2018 season and the big picture.

The first-round pick from Louisville has shown more than enough in his first two NFL starts to be encouraged about the future. The favorable comparisons made to how Flacco fared as a rookie a decade ago are irrelevant to the present, but some flashes in the passing game coupled with his electric mobility bode well for next season and beyond. Even Jackson’s harshest critics need to acknowledge he’s done everything you could have reasonably asked from a rookie backup in two must-win games, regardless of the opponent.

What that means for next week in Atlanta and the four games to follow is a different story.

Deliberate or not, the first half of Sunday’s game served as a litmus test with the Ravens running the ball just 10 times compared to 19 pass plays. The 74-yard bomb to a wide-open Mark Andrews in the second quarter was a thing of beauty, but it also propped up a 9-for-18 performance for 140 yards that included two interceptions and too much indecisiveness. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg’s play-calling really needed more balance, but the first half wasn’t a strong endorsement for putting the game on Jackson’s arm, something the Ravens will inevitably need to do at some point if he’s to remain the starter the rest of the way.

After a lackluster six offensive points through the first two quarters, the Ravens wisely reverted to last week’s strategy against the Bengals, rushing 33 times for 178 yards and possessing the ball for more than 21 minutes in the second half. Jackson went 5-for-7 for 38 yards and an 8-yard touchdown to Michael Crabtree, but his biggest contribution came from his legs as he ran nine times for 60 yards and a touchdown after intermission. Again, they did what was needed to survive a game that was too close for comfort entering the fourth quarter, but will it work on the road against opponents with much better offenses?

The Ravens have rushed for a whopping 507 yards the last two weeks, but they scored 24 points against a Bengals defense that’s surrendered 34 or more in four of its last five games. The offense was responsible for 20 of Baltimore’s 34 points Sunday against a Raiders team that had given up 29.3 per game entering Week 12. Every game situation is unique and a heavy advantage in time of possession matters, of course, but the dramatic change in style shouldn’t be confused for an offensive juggernaut just yet.

Of course, simply handing the reins back to Flacco isn’t a guaranteed upgrade.

The 33-year-old being cleared to return from a right hip injury doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be 100 percent, a worrisome thought with an offensive line dealing with its own nagging injuries. You wouldn’t expect the same lucrative yardage from the running game without Jackson on the field, but the newfound combination of Gus Edwards and Ty Montgomery that resulted in 169 yards on Sunday hasn’t been used in concert with Flacco, making it unfair to assume the running game would remain just as inept as it was before the bye week.

Still, would the boost in the passing game be offset by a diminished ground attack? And what impact might that have on a Ravens defense that’s been unspectacular for several weeks and has benefited greatly from the favorable time of possession the last two weeks? Would we see a Flacco closer to what we saw over the first four weeks of the season or the lesser version witnessed in October?

An outsider can easily argue for Jackson to remain under center since he’s the quarterback of the future and the Ravens aren’t looking close to being a Super Bowl contender anyway, but try explaining that reasoning to Harbaugh and a coaching staff likely needing to make the playoffs to survive. Even if Flacco appears unlikely to remain in Baltimore beyond this season and only marginally improves their playoff hopes, that higher percentage could be the difference in saving others’ jobs.

Regardless of what anyone tries to tell you or which way Harbaugh ultimately goes, it’s far from an easy decision.

But after back-to-back wins to move into the No. 6 spot in the AFC, the Ravens are just glad to be in a position to have to make such a tough choice for the rest of the season.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 24-21 win over Cincinnati

Posted on 20 November 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens snapping their three-game losing streak and moving into the No. 6 spot in the AFC with a 24-21 win over Cincinnati, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. I feel for Gus Edwards as the rookie free agent rushing for 115 yards would have been the big story if not for Lamar Jackson. Others have noted this, but his running style reminds of Le’Ron McClain, which was perfect against a bad defense already dealing with a mobile quarterback.

2. The Ravens defense managed only one sack and again failed to generate a turnover, but a simplified game plan that included press coverage and few blitzes did the trick to neutralize Andy Dalton’s short passes. Of course, A.J. Green not playing really helped.

3. Considering the defense had at least five defensive backs on the field for all but a few plays, holding Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard to a combined 19 rushing yards on 14 carries was very impressive and a critical development in the game.

4. Time of possession was certainly a byproduct of the run-heavy offense as the defense was on the field for just 55 snaps and less than 22 minutes. Perhaps that wasn’t as critical coming off the bye week, but it can still pay off down the stretch.

5. I’ve already written much about him, but I’m impressed with Jackson’s willingness to continue looking downfield as he scrambles like he did on the 23-yard completion to John Brown and the 19-yard dart to Mark Andrews. Those were easily his best plays of the day.

6. Justin Tucker making his 56-yard attempt at the end of the first half and Randy Bullock missing his 52-yard try late in the fourth quarter served as a reminder of how important the kicking game is in a grind-it-out affair. Tucker’s now made nine straight from 50 or more yards.

7. After giving up an acrobatic touchdown catch to John Ross despite good coverage, Marlon Humphrey atoned with a pass breakup against Cody Core to seal the win. Forcing Dalton to throw 36 times to collect 211 yards was a solid day at the office for the Ravens defense.

8. I’m not making much of Willie Snead’s blowup on the sideline that he and John Harbaugh downplayed after the game, but this is the potential risk if the Ravens stick with such a run-heavy approach. I want wide receivers who want the ball.

9. C.J. Mosley recorded his highest Pro Football Focus grade of 2018 as he recorded five tackles and a pass breakup while appearing to move better than he was before the bye. The 2014 first-round pick hasn’t had the ideal contract year as he ranks 28th among qualified linebackers, per PFF.

10. I’ve said repeatedly that coaches should go for it more on fourth down, but it felt panicky for the Ravens to try to convert the fourth-and-1 from their own 45 with 25 minutes to play in a low-scoring game. The failed challenge of the spot made it worse.

11. PFF grades Brandon Williams 69th among interior defensive linemen, which ranks behind Michael Pierce (fifth), Brent Urban (42nd), and Chris Wormley (64th). I don’t necessarily buy that, but are the Ravens getting enough value from their expensive run-stopping nose tackle in today’s pass-happy NFL? He played 24 snaps on Sunday.

12. As you could see from Harbaugh’s post-game speech, the Ravens were fired up — almost euphoric — after a much-needed victory. Jackson’s first start was fun to watch, but let’s remember they scored 24 points against an extremely poor defense in a close game that easily could have gone the other way.

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Jackson shows enough for Ravens to want to see more

Posted on 20 November 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens don’t need to apologize for Sunday’s strange 24-21 win over Cincinnati.

This is the same franchise that once won a playoff game — the 2009 wild-card round at New England — by 19 points despite completing just four passes for 34 yards. Coming off a three-game losing streak and needing a victory to preserve any realistic shot of making the playoffs, Baltimore did what it needed to do coming off the bye with an injured starting quarterback, running the ball 54 times against a Bengals defense that entered Week 11 ranked 29th in the NFL in allowing 5.0 yards per carry.

That shouldn’t be the knock on Lamar Jackson some have made it out to be after he ran for 117 of the Ravens’ 265 rushing yards, the fifth-highest total in franchise history. The rookie quarterback was far from perfect, but he was a big reason why they won the game, which is as much as you could hope for in his first NFL start coming in a virtual must-win situation. Making it more impressive was that his week of practice was interrupted by a Thursday trip to the hospital for stomach pains.

You obviously don’t need to be Sean McVay to recognize 27 rushing attempts — the most by an NFL quarterback since at least 1960 — being way too many to sustain on a weekly basis if you want Jackson to last, but his running ability is a large part of what makes him so appealing as a quarterback in the first place. He needs to learn to better protect himself, but those rushing yards still counted just the same to the Ravens’ success and shouldn’t be disqualified in assessing his play. Just ask Fran Tarkenton or Steve Young how important the ability to run was to their Hall of Fame careers.

Of course, Jackson the passer remains a major work in progress, but completing 13 of 19 throws for 150 yards is hardly an abomination at 7.9 yards per attempt. In contrast, Joe Flacco was 15 of 29 for only 129 yards in his rookie debut 10 years ago, and he turned out to be a legitimate NFL passer. Jackson throwing an interception as well as another pass that could have been picked in his 19 attempts is far from ideal, but his escape and scramble to find John Brown for 23 yards to set up a field goal in the final 20 seconds of the first half showed his ability to improvise that so many love. His inconsistent release point and footwork are problematic, but the 21-year-old completed four of five passes for 58 yards on Baltimore’s two second-half scoring drives, showing poise with the season all but hanging in the balance.

Jackson did enough for the Ravens to want to see more of him, but can he do more moving forward to create a full-blown quarterback controversy?

Head coach John Harbaugh hasn’t ruled out Flacco for Sunday’s game against Oakland, but he acknowledged it would be tough for the 33-year-old to play as he continues to recover from a hip injury sustained in Week 9. And given how Flacco has struggled when playing at less than 100 percent with  known injuries in the past, the Ravens shouldn’t hesitate to roll with the rookie against a 2-8 Raiders team sporting the league’s 30th-ranked scoring defense.

What the coaching staff asks Jackson to do this week could be telling about his chances of keeping the job for the rest of the season. Unlike the Bengals game that served as the guinea pig for a Jackson-led offense, Jon Gruden and the Raiders coaching staff will have a full game to identify his strengths and weaknesses, minimizing the element of surprise. A similar run-pass ratio would reinforce the idea of the coaching staff lacking confidence in his passing ability and would likely still work against the lowly Raiders, but you’d like to see offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg open up the game plan a little more to see how Jackson handles it. As quarterbacks coach James Urban said during the bye week, “If you put food on the plate and you eat it, then you get more food.”

Jackson showing meaningful growth in the passing department against the Raiders could create a fascinating decision for Harbaugh, who is coaching for his job. Does he show loyalty to the veteran quarterback who won him a Super Bowl and helped get him to the playoffs six times — albeit a long time ago — or go with the rookie quarterback whose development could provide a spark and potentially even save his job?

A poor performance by Jackson in his second start still resulting in a win would make an easy decision to go back to Flacco with three of the next four games coming on the road.

In a vacuum, a healthy Flacco very likely provides the Ravens a better chance to make the playoffs this year and undoubtedly gives them a better passing game, but the running game has clearly been superior with Jackson at quarterback, evident by rookie free agent Gus Edwards’ 115-yard day against the Bengals.

It’s complicated.

Will a less-than-100-percent Flacco — even when deemed healthy enough to return — playing behind the current offensive line really be an ideal fit, especially if the ground game remains so stagnant when Jackson isn’t on the field? Can the Ravens realistically hang tough on the road against Atlanta, Kansas City, and the Los Angeles Chargers using such a run-heavy approach with Jackson at quarterback? Does throwing the rookie into the fire of a playoff race provide valuable experience or potentially stunt his development and confidence if he’s just not ready to be a more consistent NFL passer?

Monday night’s epic showdown between Kansas City and the Los Angeles Rams reminded that there isn’t necessarily a wrong answer. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes certainly didn’t suffer from sitting out all but one game of his rookie season behind Alex Smith a year ago while Rams quarterback Jared Goff overcame a poor rookie year in 2016 to find much success with a new coaching staff.

In other words, we probably shouldn’t overreact to how Jackson plays or to the quarterback decision Harbaugh makes in the coming weeks — even though we undoubtedly will. No one knows what kind of NFL quarterback Jackson will ultimately become, but his debut showed enough to make it clear the Flacco era is rapidly winding down.

After watching Jackson against the Bengals, I’m looking forward to seeing more.

Whether that means next week, next month, or next year.

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Ravens-Bengals: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 18 November 2018 by Luke Jones

(Updated: 12:35 p.m.)

The Ravens come out of the bye week trying to snap a three-game losing streak and save their season against Cincinnati while starting a new quarterback.

With 11th-year starter Joe Flacco officially deactivated with a right hip injury, rookie Lamar Jackson will make his first NFL start, becoming the last of the five 2018 first-round quarterbacks to start a game this season. Jackson will also be the first quarterback other than Flacco to start a meaningful game for Baltimore since Kyle Boller midway through the 2007 season.

No pressure, right?

With Flacco on the game-day inactives list for the first time in his career — he was immediately placed on injured reserve after he tore his ACL in 2015 — veteran Robert Griffin III is active for the first time this season. How much he might play remains to be seen, but you’d expect offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg to continue to occasionally use two-quarterback formations — only this time with two mobile options on the field.

After missing the Pittsburgh game with an ankle injury, left tackle Ronnie Stanley is active, but it was Jermaine Eluemunor lining up as the starting left tackle during pre-game warmups. Stanley was talking to members of the training staff as well as head coach John Harbaugh and offensive line coach Joe D’Allesandris, making it unclear if he was always going to be the emergency backup or potentially tweaked his ankle warming up.

Offensive lineman James Hurst remains sidelined with a back injury, meaning rookie third-round pick Orlando Brown Jr. will make his fourth straight start at right tackle.

Running back Ty Montgomery will be making his Ravens debut. The former Green Bay Packer was acquired at the trade deadline late last month, but he was a healthy scratch against the Steelers in Week 9. He joins starter Alex Collins, veteran Buck Allen, and rookie Gus Edwards to form a quartet of active running backs against Cincinnati.

While the Ravens will be without their starting quarterback for Week 11, the Bengals will be without seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green (toe) as well as starting linebackers Preston Brown (knee) and Nick Vigil (knee). The impact of Green not playing speaks for itself, but the absences of Brown and Vigil will put pressure on reserves Hardy Nickerson and Vincent Rey to keep Jackson and the Baltimore running game in check. The good news for the Bengals, however, is the return of outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who missed the last two games with a hip injury.

Bengals wide receiver John Ross is also active after being limited with a groin injury this week.

Sunday’s referee is Walt Coleman.

According to Weather.com, the Sunday forecast in Baltimore calls for cloudy skies and temperatures reaching the high 40s with winds five to 10 miles per hour and no precipitation.

The Ravens are wearing their black jerseys with black pants while Cincinnati dons white tops with black pants for Week 11.

Sunday marks the 46th all-time meeting between these teams with the Bengals holding a 23-22 series advantage. Cincinnati has won eight of the last 10 against the Ravens and is seeking its third season sweep in the last five years. That is one of the more telling factoids of the post-Super Bowl XLVII era that features just one playoff appearance for Baltimore.

Below are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
QB Joe Flacco
OT James Hurst
LB Tim Williams
WR Jordan Lasley
OL Hroniss Grasu
TE Maxx Williams
DL Zach Sieler

CINCINNATI
WR A.J. Green
CB KeiVarae Russell
LB Preston Brown
LB Nick Vigil
OT Cedric Ogbuehi
WR Josh Malone
DT Adolphus Washington

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Ravens-Bengals: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 17 November 2018 by Luke Jones

Sunday could possibly mark the start of a new era for the Ravens.

Or at least the soft opening of one.

With Joe Flacco not expected to play after sustaining a hip injury two weeks ago, Baltimore will enter a meaningful game with someone else at quarterback — the 2015 team was already buried when Flacco tore his ACL — for the first time since Kyle Boller relieved an injured Steve McNair midway through a disastrous 2007 season that ended with Brian Billick’s dismissal. Eleventh-year head coach John Harbaugh hopes for a different outcome as the Ravens aim to beat Cincinnati to snap a three-game losing streak and preserve their playoff hopes.

It’s time to go on the record as these AFC North rivals meet for the 46th time in the all-time regular-season series with the Bengals holding a 23-22 advantage. The Ravens are 9-12 against Cincinnati in the Harbaugh era, and they’ve lost eight of the last 10 meetings, which includes the 34-23 defeat at Paul Brown Stadium in Week 2.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Lamar Jackson will throw for a touchdown and run for another. My expectation is the rookie first-round pick from Louisville making his first NFL start, but a stomach illness forcing him to miss Thursday’s practice wasn’t ideal, leaving open the possibility of Robert Griffin III starting. Either way, Jackson will have a larger role as Marty Mornhinweg tries to take advantage of his mobility and set him up with high-percentage throws to tight ends and running backs from big formations, especially early on. Jackson doesn’t have to be the reason the Ravens win; he just can’t be why they lose.

2. Tyler Boyd and Joe Mixon will carry the Cincinnati offense with a touchdown apiece. In 11 career games against Baltimore, A.J. Green has averaged 4.8 catches for 80.5 yards and has caught nine touchdowns, making his absence significant for a struggling Bengals offense. However, Boyd has emerged as one of the NFL’s best slot receivers — a critical factor with Baltimore’s issues covering the middle of the field — and has also made plays on the outside. Mixon ranks 11th in the league in yards per carry (4.9) while the Ravens have given up over 100 rushing yards in four of their last five games.

3. The Baltimore defense will awaken with three sacks and an interception against Andy Dalton. As I wrote this week, Wink Martindale’s group needs to step up if the Ravens want to save their season and survive this less-than-ideal quarterback situation. They have only two sacks in their last three games and just one takeaway in their last four while the Bengals offensive line surrendered three quarterback takedowns and 11 other pressures in 28 dropbacks against New Orleans last week. After repeatedly noting how many batted balls they have this season, it’s about time the Ravens catch one.

4. Alex Collins will eclipse 80 rushing yards for the first time all season. Much is made about Jackson’s presence helping the running game, but a Pro Football Weekly article illustrated it’s more than that. Collins has averaged 4.7 yards per carry on 29 attempts from “11” personnel (one running back, one tight end) and just 2.97 yards on 33 carries from “12” personnel (one running back, two tight ends). What does that mean? No matter the quarterback, the Ravens should spread defenses out more when running and scale back the heavy formations that haven’t worked as effectively as they did last season.

5. The Ravens will survive in a 20-17 final to stop the pre-bye bleeding. Even against a Cincinnati defense that’s been disastrous in recent weeks and just fired coordinator Teryl Austin, expectations need to be tempered for a rookie quarterback making his first start in a critical game for a struggling playoff-hopeful team. That doesn’t mean Jackson won’t make some plays, but anyone labeling him an instant upgrade from Flacco is both placing too much pressure on a 21-year-old and disrespecting the veteran quarterback. Baltimore needs to go old school in this one by relying on the running game and a healthier defense that should be eager to prove it’s better than the last few weeks have reflected. If you’re asking what’s underneath the hood for this team right now, the losses to Carolina and Pittsburgh weren’t encouraging going into the bye. That said, I’d like to believe the Ravens aren’t quite ready to wave their playoff hopes goodbye, and the Bengals have lost three of four and are banged up at multiple positions. Given the current adversity for both teams, my honest feeling going into this one is closer to the old ¯\(ツ)/¯ emoji, but I’ll give the home team the benefit of the doubt.

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Flacco listed as doubtful by Ravens after missing practice all week

Posted on 16 November 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After failing to practice all week while nursing a hip injury, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was officially listed as doubtful for Sunday’s meeting with Cincinnati.

With the 33-year-old expected to miss only the seventh game of his career with a hip injury, rookie first-round pick Lamar Jackson or veteran Robert Griffin III will start at quarterback as Baltimore tries to right its season against the Bengals. Jackson practiced fully after missing Thursday’s workout with an illness and assured reporters that he was “good” on Friday.

The common assumption early in the week had been Jackson making his first NFL start if Flacco were unable to play, but the former’s Thursday absence was “not ideal,” according to head coach John Harbaugh. Griffin has been inactive for each of the first nine games of the season, but the Ravens kept him on the 53-man roster to mentor Jackson and potentially serve as a short-term insurance policy as the starter in the event of a Flacco injury — at least early in the season.

“I would not name a starter,” said Harbaugh, who again wouldn’t rule out Flacco prior to Friday’s injury report being released. “There will be a quarterback starting. I can guarantee that. There will be a quarterback starting. And, every play, there will be at least one quarterback on the field.”

Short of becoming the first Raven in at least several years to play after being listed as doubtful on the final injury report, Flacco will be included on the game-day inactives list for the first time in his career. When he suffered his season-ending knee injury in the second half of the 2015 season, Flacco was placed on injured reserve and came off the 53-man roster two days later.

If Jackson starts, his performance against the Bengals could go a long way in both shaping the short-term quarterback picture and determining the long-term future of Flacco, who will carry a $26.5 million salary cap figure and $18.5 million base salary for the 2019 season. Jackson playing at a high level to spark a struggling offense after the bye would make for an interesting decision once Flacco is again healthy enough to play, but the Ravens will settle for a Week 11 win any way they can get it.

Right tackle James Hurst (back) was officially ruled out and will miss his fourth straight game, but left tackle Ronnie Stanley (ankle) was upgraded to full participation in Friday’s practice and was listed as questionable to play against the Bengals. Stanley sat out the Week 9 loss to Pittsburgh.

Safety Tony Jefferson (thigh) and cornerback Tavon Young (ankle) were also listed as questionable, but both were practicing fully by the end of the week, leaving little doubt about their status.

Running back Kenneth Dixon (knee) has returned to practice and will join cornerback Maurice Canady (thigh) as Baltimore’s two designations to return from IR. Neither will play in Week 11, but both players have now begun their 21-day practice windows before the Ravens must make a determination about their roster status. Harbaugh had previously said the team was waiting for league approval to allow Dixon to practice, which led to speculation that he was potentially facing discipline. The 2016 fourth-round pick served two drug-related suspensions while on IR last season.

“We got the word this morning that he was OK to practice for his situation,” Harbaugh said. “It was a unique situation. I can’t get into it because I’m not allowed to, but also, it would be up to him to explain whatever he would want to about that.”

Cornerback Jaylen Hill also began practicing earlier in the week, but he was unable to take part in Friday’s workout, which is cause for concern in his recovery from an ACL injury suffered last December. He is on the reserve physically unable to perform list.

The Ravens’ quarterback situation is far from ideal, but the Bengals roster is more banged up as seven-time Pro Bow wide receiver A.J. Green (toe) was listed as doubtful and five others were ruled out for Sunday’s game. That list of inactives will include starting linebackers Preston Brown (knee) and Nick Vigil (knee) as well as tight end Tyler Kroft (foot), who has been placed on season-ending IR.

Starting outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict (hip) was designated as questionable after practicing on a limited basis all week.

The Ravens will wear their alternate black jerseys for the second straight game.

The Weather.com forecast for Sunday’s game calls for cloudy skies and temperatures reaching the high 40s with winds light and variable and only a 10-percent chance of precipitation.

Below is the final injury report of the week:

BALTIMORE
OUT: OT James Hurst (back), LB Tim Williams (ankle)
DOUBTFUL: QB Joe Flacco (right hip)
QUESTIONABLE: S Tony Jefferson (thigh), OT Ronnie Stanley (ankle), CB Tavon Young (ankle)

CINCINNATI
OUT: LB Preston Brown (knee), TE Tyler Kroft (foot), WR Josh Malone (hamstring), LB Nick Vigil (knee), DT Adolphus Washington (knee)
DOUBTFUL: WR A.J. Green (toe)
QUESTIONABLE: LB Vontaze Burfict (hip), CB Dre Kirkpatrick (concussion), WR John Ross (groin)

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Coming off bye, Ravens defense as we know it could be making last stand

Posted on 15 November 2018 by Luke Jones

The focus on the Ravens has been apparent coming off the bye week.

The future of John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco has dominated the big-picture discussion. An uncertain quarterback situation for Week 11 took another turn Thursday with 2018 first-round pick Lamar Jackson missing practice with an illness, joining Flacco and his injured hip on the injury report and leaving Robert Griffin III as the only quarterback on the field in Owings Mills.

Playing a banged-up Flacco, a rookie who’s never made an NFL start, or a veteran who was out of the league in 2017 and hasn’t started a regular-season contest in nearly two years doesn’t inspire great confidence in a must-win game. The Cincinnati defense being a disaster over the last month certainly eases concerns, but that only goes so far in a division rivalry in which the Ravens have lost eight of the last 10 meetings. Say what you want about Marvin Lewis and the Bengals, but they’ve had Baltimore’s number in this post-Super Bowl XLVII era.

So, what about the Ravens defense that sported such shiny overall numbers in the first half of the season?

It’s that side of the ball to which more salary-cap dollars are tied this season — even taking into account Flacco’s $24.75 million number for the offense. The defense carries seven of the nine highest cap numbers on this year’s roster and absorbed 13 of the organization’s 17 Day 1 and 2 draft picks from 2013-17.

But it’s also surrendered 76 points over the last nine quarters of play, albeit against three scoring offenses ranked in the top 10. The Ravens have one takeaway over their last four games and haven’t intercepted a pass since Oct. 7. Since a franchise-record 11-sack performance at Tennessee in Week 6, Baltimore has a combined two sacks in three games — all of them losses.

This wasn’t a unit constructed to be just OK or only really good against bad offenses, a reality more important with an uncertain quarterback situation for Sunday’s game. The defense was able to get healthier over the bye week, and it must regroup if the Ravens want to save their season.

“Teams have been trying to keep us off-balance, whether it’s with personnel, whether it’s with tempo, and, of course, to try to attack our schemes,” said cornerback Brandon Carr about the struggles in recent weeks. “But the great thing about this league [is] we got a bye. We got a week off and an opportunity for us to self-evaluate ourselves, figure out where our weaknesses are, areas we can fix, and that’s what we’ve been doing throughout last week and carrying over to this week.”

The successful quick passing used by Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton in Week 2 served as a basic blueprint for teams to offset the pass rush and limit opportunities to create turnovers as the Ravens didn’t record a single sack or takeaway in that 34-23 Thursday night defeat. It’s not a novel approach in today’s game, but New Orleans, Carolina, and Pittsburgh were able to control the game on third down with quick throws over the middle of the field, a problem the Ravens hope to have solved over the bye.

Expected to be without seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green on Sunday, the Bengals figure to do more quick passing as Dalton is tied for the NFL’s fifth-quickest average time to throw from snap to release.

“He’s really throwing the ball well in rhythm right now, so we need to be physical with the receivers at the line of scrimmage,” defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said. “I know we’re in the top five for sure — maybe second — with batted balls. We’ve had some success in the past with knocking some of the balls that he’s thrown up in the air and we’ve come down with them. We just haven’t come down with them yet this year.”

Green’s absence is a major development for a Cincinnati offense that’s dropped to 25th in total yards and 11th in scoring per game after averaging more than 30 points per contest through Week 5. He caught three first-half touchdowns to help the Bengals jump to a 21-0 lead in the first 17 minutes of the first meeting this season.

However, the Ravens have learned the hard way about slot receiver Tyler Boyd, evident by his shocking fourth-and-12 touchdown catch to knock them out of the playoffs last December and his six catches for 91 yards and a touchdown in the Week 2 defeat. Boyd has caught 52 passes for 685 yards and five touchdowns this season, serving as a dangerous No. 2 receiver who can exploit that problematic middle portion of the field.

“The past two games, we didn’t really give him much respect, and he’s definitely shown us we should,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “The time they beat us last year, he went [and] did a lot of good things.”

Much has been said about these final seven games being the swan song for Harbaugh and Flacco in Baltimore, but an older institution could also be on the verge of change. It’s no secret that defense has been king in this town since Ozzie Newsome’s selection of Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis with the 26th overall pick of the 1996 draft, and that mindset has remained despite the current offensive revolution in the NFL.

Even after Flacco and the offense led the way to victory in Super Bowl XLVII, the Ravens remained obsessed with returning the defense to a dominant level. They invested more early draft picks and free-agent dollars on that side of the ball while asking Flacco — a quarterback who had never put up overly impressive regular-season numbers — to make it work with supporting casts that were inferior to even those of other high-paid quarterbacks. The approach has resulted in defenses that still haven’t finished a single season in the top five in total yards or points allowed, offenses that have typically ranged from inept to mediocre, and one playoff appearance — and win — since that last Super Bowl.

This April’s draft may have finally signaled the start of a philosophical shift as the Ravens used their first four picks on offensive players, something they hadn’t done since 2000. With Jackson tabbed to be the quarterback of the future and veteran defensive players like Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, Jimmy Smith, Eric Weddle, and Carr either in the final year of their contracts or carrying bloated cap figures for 2019, Eric DeCosta will have the chance to remake this roster in his first year as general manager.

Building an explosive offense around a young quarterback on a rookie contract should be the priority as defense just doesn’t carry a team like it once could.

Harbaugh and Flacco might be receiving the headlines, but Baltimore’s longtime identity is also holding on by a thread. And given the uncertainty at the quarterback position this weekend, a throwback defensive performance would certainly be appreciated — the kind in which Lewis and future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed would simply say, “We’ve got this.”

“There’s no magic potion to it; we definitely need to win,” Suggs said. “That comes by any means necessary. You’re like, ‘What do we need to do?’ We have to play winning football.”

The Ravens will try it this way one more time.

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Jackson joins Flacco as non-participant for Ravens on Thursday

Posted on 15 November 2018 by Luke Jones

An already-uncertain Ravens quarterback situation took another twist Thursday as rookie Lamar Jackson joined starter Joe Flacco as a non-participant in practice, creating more uncertainty for Sunday’s game against Cincinnati.

While Flacco sat out a second straight day with a right hip injury suffered against Pittsburgh two weeks ago, Jackson missed Thurday’s workout with an illness, leaving Robert Griffin III as the only quarterback taking part in the session. Jackson had been photographed by a member of Baltimore’s public relations staff enjoying the snow in Owings Mills a couple hours earlier.

You certainly wouldn’t expect a reported stomach bug to jeopardize Jackson’s availability for Sunday’s game, but missing practice time ahead of his potential first start isn’t ideal for a team desperate to snap a three-game losing streak and keep its playoff hopes alive. The consensus expectation has been Jackson stepping in if Flacco is out — which is appearing more likely — but could Thursday’s absence open the door for Griffin to start?

“My job is to make sure I’m always ready,” Griffin said on Wednesday. “Whether that’s during practice, after practice, maximizing the reps that I do get and making sure that, after practice, I’m getting the things that I feel like I need if I’m called upon that week to play. But that’s my job, that’s why they brought me here. They brought me here to be a pro; they brought me here to help this team if need be. I try to help the defense every week on scout team and do those things. If my number is called, I’ll be able to go out there and lead this team.”

Griffin, 28, hasn’t started an NFL regular-season game since the 2016 season finale when he was a member of the Cleveland Browns.

Safety Tony Jefferson (thigh) returned to practice as a limited participant, but offensive tackle James Hurst (back) failed to participant again, making it more likely he’ll miss his fourth consecutive game. Defensive back Anthony Levine (ankle) missed Thursday’s workout after not being listed on the injury report the previous day.

Left tackle Ronnie Stanley (ankle) was listed as a limited participant for a second straight day.

The Bengals were once again missing superstar wide receiver A.J. Green (toe), making it all but certain he’ll miss Sunday’s game — the expectation all along. Starting linebackers Preston Brown (knee) and Nick Vigil (knee) also remained sidelined from practice, which is bad news for a Cincinnati defense that’s allowed more than 500 yards in each of the last three games.

Below is Thursday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: QB Joe Flacco (right hip), OT James Hurst (back), QB Lamar Jackson (illness), DB Anthony Levine (ankle)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: S Tony Jefferson (thigh), OT Ronnie Stanley (ankle), LB Tim Williams (ankle)
FULL PARTICIPATION: CB Tavon Young (ankle)

CINCINNATI
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Preston Brown (knee), OT Jake Fisher (non-injury), WR A.J. Green (toe), TE Tyler Kroft (foot), WR Josh Malone (hamstring), LB Nick Vigil (knee), DT Adolphus Washington (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: LB Vontaze Burfict (hip), CB Darqueze Dennard (sternoclavicular), CB Dre Kirkpatrick (concussion), RB Joe Mixon (knee), G Alex Redmond (hamstring), LB Vincent Rey (groin), WR John Ross (groin)

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Flacco, Jefferson absent as Ravens return to practice field

Posted on 14 November 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Joe Flacco was nowhere to be found on the practice field, and head coach John Harbaugh wasn’t about to offer any more clarity on the Ravens’ quarterback situation on Wednesday.

The 11th-year quarterback continues to nurse a right hip injury, leaving his status uncertain for a crucial meeting with Cincinnati on Sunday. It was the first regular-season practice missed by Flacco in over two years as speculation persists about the possibility of rookie first-round pick Lamar Jackson making his first career start. On Monday, Harbaugh left open the possibility of Flacco, Jackson, or even third-string veteran Robert Griffin III playing against the Bengals, who currently occupy the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoff race.

“Rather than dip my toe in the water and start answering one question and then not answering the next one, I’m just not going to get into it and just leave it alone,” Harbaugh said before Wednesday’s practice. “I really don’t feel like we owe anybody any answers, so we’re just getting ready for the game.”

Flacco was receiving treatment while the locker room was open to reporters, leaving Jackson and Griffin to answer questions about the possibility of filling in for the veteran starter. Jackson, the 32nd overall pick in April’s draft, has played 86 offensive snaps in a hybrid role this season while Griffin has been inactive for each of the first nine games and hasn’t played in a regular-season contest since the finale of the 2016 season with Cleveland.

Griffin has been an integral part of Jackson’s development throughout the season and does provide more experience if Flacco can’t play and the Ravens deem the rookie unready to start such a pivotal game for Baltimore’s playoff hopes.

“The thing I try to preach to Lamar is he’s been doing this his whole life,” Griffin said. “It’s a new level, but the cream always rises to the top. I think he’s done a good job of adjusting his level of play as he’s gotten more and more game reps. I think even throughout the preseason you could see from his first start to the last time he played, he just continued to get better. That’s what you want to see out of a young guy.

“If he gets the nod, or if I get the nod, to go out there and lead this team, we’re all going to be there for each other.”

Flacco wasn’t the only Ravens starter absent from Wednesday’s workout as safety Tony Jefferson (thigh) and offensive lineman James Hurst (back) did not participate. Jefferson missed practice time with a hamstring injury two weeks ago prior to playing 80 of 81 defensive snaps in the loss to Pittsburgh, making his absence a concerning development after the bye week.

Hurst hasn’t practiced since Oct. 19 and has missed the last three games with rookie Orlando Brown Jr. stepping into the starting lineup at right tackle. With Brown holding his own, some have opined about the possibility of moving Hurst to left guard — where he played last season — but his absence now extending beyond the bye week isn’t encouraging.

Left tackle Ronnie Stanley (ankle) returned to practice after missing the Steelers game, but he was listed as a limited participant and wasn’t taking part in full-team drills during the portion of the workout open to media. Outside linebacker Tim Williams (ankle) was also a limited participant after missing Week 9.

In addition to firing defensive coordinator Teryl Austin on Monday and inviting former Cleveland head coach Hue Jackson to rejoin the organization, head coach Marvin Lewis and the Bengals are dealing with key injuries of their own. The list is headlined by seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green, whose status is in serious doubt as he continues to recover from a toe injury that sidelined him for last Sunday’s blowout loss to New Orleans.

The Bengals were also without starting linebackers Preston Brown (knee) and Nick Vigil (knee) while outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict (hip) was a limited participant in Wednesday’s practice. Burfict has missed the last two games while Vigil has missed the last three contests.

Cincinnati cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick also missed practice as he recovers from a concussion sustained in Week 10.

Below is Wednesday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: QB Joe Flacco (right hip), OT James Hurst (back), S Tony Jefferson (thigh)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: OT Ronnie Stanley (ankle), LB Tim Williams (ankle)
FULL PARTICIPATION: CB Tavon Young (ankle)

CINCINNATI
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Preston Brown (knee), WR A.J. Green (toe), CB Dre Kirkpatrick (concussion), TE Tyler Kroft (foot), WR Josh Malone (hamstring), LB Nick Vigil (knee), DT Adolphus Washington (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: LB Vontaze Burfict (hip), CB Darqueze Dennard (sternoclavicular), G Alex Redmond (hamstring), LB Vincent Rey (groin), WR John Ross (groin)

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Ravens still want to win, but weighing possible outcomes no easy chore

Posted on 13 November 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens want to make the playoffs and still have a reasonable chance to do so despite losing four of their last five games before their bye week.

Football Outsiders currently has their playoff chances at 32.7 percent while ESPN’s Power Football Index estimates their odds at 36.1 percent with Tennessee being the only No. 6 seed hopeful with better playoff odds (41.9 percent and 43 percent, respectively) in the AFC. The Ravens aren’t the favorites and must show improvement in multiple areas, but making it isn’t just a pipe dream, especially when sizing up the rest of the wild-card competition.

The hip injury to Joe Flacco has sparked much outside conversation about first-round pick Lamar Jackson and whether he might be the better option even if the former is healthy down the stretch, but head coach John Harbaugh expressed his stance on Monday as the Ravens returned to work to begin preparations for the Cincinnati Bengals. And it sounds as though he still believes Flacco — at least a healthy version of him — gives Baltimore its best chance to win now.

“If Joe can play, he’ll play,” Harbaugh said. “He’s rehabbing to play. Joe does not have to practice to play. He’s practiced the whole season; he’s practiced for 11 years. But he might practice, so we’ll just have to see how it goes. It’s up in the air; we’re not worried about it. We’re blessed with a good quarterback room, and that’s a good thing, that’s a positive thing.”

But let’s put Flacco’s Week 11 status and the current quarterback debate aside, at least until we have more information in the next few days.

What’s really best for the Ravens over the remainder of the 2018 season and beyond?

Let’s remove the long shot of Flacco suddenly recapturing his 2012 mojo and leading the Ravens to a Super Bowl — or even an AFC championship game appearance — from consideration. We’ll also throw out the possibility of Jackson taking over and being an instant superstar because history suggests that’s an unreasonable expectation. Either of those outcomes would alter the perception of both the quarterback position and the future of the coaching staff compared to where most opinions stand now.

The Ravens failing to make the playoffs and rolling with Flacco until falling out of the race — potentially leaving little time for Jackson to make an impression — would certainly be the path of least resistance to major changes. You’d like to see Flacco play more like he did in September to help his potential trade value, but keeping him for another year under this scenario would be a bigger indictment of Jackson’s behind-the-scenes development than a show of faith in what will be an expensive 34-year-old quarterback next season.

What if Flacco and the Ravens regroup to finish 9-7 and sneak into the playoffs for the first time since 2014? Would that be enough to call off what currently feels like the inevitable? Would a win in the wild-card round do it?

Flacco’s future would still be tied to Jackson’s readiness, but Harbaugh is only under contract through the 2019 season and you wouldn’t expect him to be receptive to another one-year extension, which could create a messy situation. Kansas City didn’t hesitate to trade 2017 Pro Bowl quarterback Alex Smith this past offseason to usher in the Patrick Mahomes era while Tennessee still fired head coach Mike Mularkey even after winning a first-round playoff game last January, leaving recent precedent to make bold changes — right or wrong — even after some modest success.

If you’re owner Steve Bisciotti, would the Ravens winning their remaining home games and squeaking out a road win over Atlanta, Kansas City, or the Los Angeles Chargers to slide into the playoffs drastically change your mind about a coach you admitted to considering firing a year ago or a quarterback whose eventual replacement was drafted this past April? Would you make a long-term commitment to keep Harbaugh if he forces your hand?

It’s a difficult call even when you remove sentimentality from the picture.

But that brings us to Jackson and how he fits into the decision-making process the rest of the way.

If the 21-year-old fills in for an injured Flacco on Sunday — or takes over in the next few weeks — and plays pretty well the rest of the way, wouldn’t you have to consider keeping a coaching staff that appears to have his development on the right track even if the Ravens fall short of the playoffs? Does it make sense to force Jackson to start over if he displays enough signs to suggest what the current staff is doing is working? Wasn’t one of the selling points of drafting the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner the fact that offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, quarterbacks coach James Urban, and assistant head coach Greg Roman had successfully worked with quarterbacks with similar skill sets in the past?

The current staff being let go at the end of 2018 is a potential scenario many pointed to when criticizing the Jackson pick in the first place.

That brings us to the possibility that Jackson really struggles while making some starts down the stretch, which wouldn’t be a shocking development for a rookie quarterback. That would mean no playoffs and easier justification for dismissing the current staff, but you’d also wonder how attractive the job might be to certain coaching candidates. Making any definitive judgments on Jackson based on a handful of games would be patently unfair, of course, but we’re also not talking about a Jared Goff, who was the first overall pick in Jeff Fisher’s final season with the Los Angeles Rams. Jackson would have fallen to the second round had Ozzie Newsome not traded up, so you do wonder how eager some candidates might be to work with him compared to an earlier pick like Baker Mayfield in Cleveland or even the opportunity to be part of the process to handpick your own quarterback elsewhere — like Harbaugh with Flacco a decade ago.

Then again, it was never a secret that Jackson would best fit a coach who embraces his unique skill set and will scheme accordingly rather than trying to fit him into a more conventional system. Those individuals are certainly out there.

Of course, this is all a big-picture look at the Ravens, something naturally done with an organization at a crossroads during its bye week. The current focus is on trying to figure out who’s going to be under center on Sunday and beating the Bengals, a team dealing with its own turmoil this week. Winning the next two games would put the long-term discussion on the back burner just like when the Ravens won in convincing fashion at Heinz Field to improve to 3-1 six weeks ago.

A lot can change in a short period of time.

“We’ll write the story of the Ravens’ 2018 season by how we play in the next seven weeks,” Harbaugh said on Monday. “That’s what our guys are juiced up for. All the other stuff is just fluff; it’s just noise; it’s just banter. It’s bar room talk.”

Maybe so, but these next seven weeks will be pivotal in determining the long-term outlook of the organization. Winning remains the priority for now, but how that relates to the future is more complicated.

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