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Examining the Ravens’ top 10 cap numbers for 2018

Posted on 09 January 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens face an all-too-familiar offseason after missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five years, but concerns about the 2018 salary cap have already surfaced with free agency still two months away.

It’s no secret that the draft is the lifeblood of any organization wanting to create and sustain long-term success, but teams need to receive appropriate production from their highest-paid veterans to maintain a balanced roster capable of competing for championships. As things stand now, the Ravens will devote $109.503 million in 2018 cap space to their 10 players with the highest cap numbers. The 2018 salary cap hasn’t yet been set, but it’s believed to fall somewhere between $174 million and $178 million.

Below is a look at those 10 players:

1. QB Joe Flacco
2018 Week 1 age: 33
2018 cap number: $24.75 million
Synopsis: This is hardly a new topic of discussion with most opinions formulated over the last five years unlikely to budge. Flacco certainly needs to play at a much higher level, but consider just two other members of the top 10 are offensive players and $17.625 million of the remaining $84.753 million in 2018 cap dollars for spots No. 2 through No. 10 are devoted to offensive talent. On top of that, only four offensive players have been taken with Baltimore’s 17 Day 1 and Day 2 draft picks since Super Bowl XLVII. Is this a recipe for a balanced roster setting up its quarterback for success? The results don’t lie.

2. CB Jimmy Smith
2018 Week 1 age: 30
2018 cap number: $15.675 million
Synopsis: Smith is a great example of the dangers of restructuring contracts as adjustments made the last two years to create cap relief have added more than $4 million to his original 2018 cap number from when he signed his big extension in 2015. Smith will be coming back from a torn Achilles tendon and has played more than 12 games in a season just twice in his career, but cutting him would create more than $13 million in dead money for 2018. He was having the best season of his career before the early-December injury, but the organization is now stuck and can only hope he makes a successful comeback.

3. DT Brandon Williams
2018 Week 1 age: 29
2018 cap number: $11.545 million
Synopsis: There was a fair argument to be made whether re-signing Williams was the best use of cap resources last offseason, but the Ravens allowing more rushing yards than anyone in the NFL during his four-game absence in September and October made a very strong case in support of the decision. You’d like to see more productivity from Williams as a pass rusher at that salary, but he’s as good as interior defensive linemen come at stopping the run. His age makes you nervous from a long-term standpoint, but his cap figures remain relatively flat over the duration of his deal that runs through 2021.

4. G Marshal Yanda
2018 Week 1 age: 33
2018 cap number: $10.125 million
Synopsis: There’s no underselling how much the Ravens missed the man regarded by many as the best guard in football over the last six or seven years, but the six-time Pro Bowl selection will be coming off a serious ankle injury and is entering his 12th NFL campaign, making his cap number something to monitor next season. If he returns to his previous level of play, his eight-digit cap cost remains well worth it, but it’s fair to worry if this is when Father Time begins catching up with Yanda, who will turn 34 in the first month of the new season.

5. S Tony Jefferson
2018 Week 1 age: 26
2018 cap number: $8.99 million
Synopsis: I never understood the organization’s infatuation with giving a box safety — accomplished as he may have been in Arizona — a four-year, $34 million contract, and nothing about Jefferson’s play in his first season refuted that notion as he often struggled in pass coverage. In fairness to him, the coaching staff needs to be more creative to better utilize his skills as a blitzer and run defender, but there was little evidence of him making the kind of splash plays that justify this price tag. This signing might be the poster child of the Ravens’ obsession with defense while neglecting the other side of the ball.

6. LB C.J. Mosley
2018 Week 1 age: 26
2018 cap number: $8.718 million
Synopsis: The 2014 first-round pick made his third Pro Bowl in four years, but nagging injuries took their toll at times and his pass coverage wasn’t as strong as you’d like to see from a player on the verge of a massive pay day. Signing Mosley to an extension this spring would lower his 2018 cap figure and keep him in Baltimore for the long haul, but he ranked an underwhelming 37th among qualified linebackers in Pro Football Focus’ grading system in 2017. Mosley will always be judged unfairly against the memory of future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis, but he’s certainly lived up to his first-round billing.

7. S Eric Weddle
2018 Week 1 age: 33
2018 cap number: $8.25 million
Synopsis: It doesn’t appear to be a coincidence that a once-turnover-starved defense recorded more takeaways than anyone in the NFL over the last two seasons upon Weddle’s arrival. He shook off a shaky start to 2017 to finish tied for second in the league with six interceptions and serves as the quarterback of a secondary that has had fewer communication breakdowns over the last two years. Weddle has made the Pro Bowl in each of the last two years, but his increasing cap number does make you a bit nervous about his advancing age as he enters his 12th season. Two years in, this has been a very good signing.

8. WR Jeremy Maclin
2018 Week 1 age: 30
2018 cap number: $7.5 million
Synopsis: The Ravens hoped they were getting their next Anquan Boldin or Steve Smith as Maclin was envisioned as the next just-past-his-prime wide receiver to save the day in Baltimore, but Flacco’s back injury as well as Maclin’s various ailments never allowed the two to get on the same page, making this a very disappointing signing. Whether those realities will be enough to earn Maclin a second chance with the Ravens remains to be seen, but he’s never really felt like a good fit and you’d have to think both sides are probably better off moving on. Cutting him would save the Ravens $5 million in 2018 cap space.

9. CB Brandon Carr
2018 Week 1 age: 32
2018 cap number: $7 million
Synopsis: The veteran served his purpose as an acceptable No. 2 cornerback and would have been a likely cut before Jimmy Smith’s Achilles injury that now makes it unclear whether the top corner will be ready for the start of next season. The Ravens may need to roll the dice on the promising trio of Marlon Humphrey, Tavon Young, and Maurice Canady holding down the fort if Smith isn’t quite ready to go by Week 1. Electing to keep Carr around would be understandable, but that’s an expensive insurance policy when the roster has so many other needs. Cutting him would save $4 million in space this offseason.

10. LB Terrell Suggs
2018 Week 1 age: 35
2018 cap number: $6.95 million
Synopsis: While Suggs is approaching the end of a brilliant career, I haven’t quite understood some of the speculation out there about him being a potential cap casualty as he comes off an 11-sack season and his first Pro Bowl invitation since 2013. Of the Ravens’ young edge defenders, only Matthew Judon has emerged to look the part of a rock-solid starter while the likes of Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams still have much to prove. New defensive coordinator Wink Martindale would be wise to limit Suggs’ snaps more to keep him fresh next year, but he’s still a good value compared to some other names in the top 10.

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Ravens, Green Bay providing interesting contrast to start of offseason

Posted on 05 January 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens are again preaching continuity after missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five years, but a contemporary with an even better track record over the last decade is proceeding quite differently.

If any team had an excuse for missing the playoffs in 2017, it was probably Green Bay after six-time Pro Bowl quarterback Aaron Rodgers missed over half of the season with a broken collarbone. The Packers fared exactly how you’d expect with backup Brett Hundley under center as the Ravens even contributed to that misery with a 23-0 shutout victory at Lambeau Field in Week 11. But that hasn’t stopped Green Bay from making substantial changes after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

In place as the general manager since 2005, Ted Thompson has stepped aside and will now serve in an advisory role. Head coach Mike McCarthy has fired both his offensive and defensive coordinators as well as his defensive line and inside linebackers coaches. The Packers also allowed their quarterbacks coach’s contract to expire after Hundley wasn’t up to the task of filling in for Rodgers.

Of course, every situation is unique and can be driven by factors other than the results on the field, but it’s a substantial shakeup for the Packers, who had been tied with New England for the longest active playoff appearance streak in the NFL at eight consecutive seasons. This is a team coming off an appearance in last year’s NFC Championship, so it’s more than fair to argue this being an overreaction when you lose one of the best quarterbacks in the league.

Regardless, it’s an interesting contrast from Ravens head coach John Harbaugh defending offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and the rest of his offensive staff by citing quarterback Joe Flacco missing all of training camp with a back injury and starting guards Alex Lewis and Marshal Yanda being lost for the season. No one would compare Flacco’s impact to that of a future Hall of Fame quarterback, but the Ravens did have their franchise signal-caller available for all 16 games — even at less than 100 percent. And while there’s no understating the Week 2 loss of a six-time Pro Bowl right guard for the remainder of the year, Green Bay also dealt with a number of injuries on its offensive line this season.

One approach isn’t necessarily more correct than the other as time will tell whether these teams who have both won a Super Bowl in the last eight years will get back on track, but the Packers are certainly being aggressive trying to address their 2017 failures after a 7-9 finish while the Ravens have so far only been tasked with replacing their defensive coordinator after Dean Pees’ retirement. The juxtaposition of those two reactions to missing the playoffs will be interesting to monitor in 2018.

Jimmy Smith ready for start of next season?

It’s been just over a month since veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith suffered a torn Achilles tendon, leaving his status for the start of the 2018 season up in the air.

In the midst of the best campaign of his career at the time of the injury, Smith missed the final four contests and also served a four-game ban for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. It marked the fifth time in seven years that the 2011 first-round pick played no more than 12 games, making many understandably skeptical that he’ll be ready for Week 1 in September.

“You saw how fast [Terrell Suggs] came back from his,” said Harbaugh, referencing his remarkable 2012 return from an Achilles tear in under six months. “Then, there’s always a building back to your skill set, too, so we understand that. If you do the math, eight months [to recover would] be September for Jimmy. That’s conservative; it’s really a little more than that.

“We’ll see where he’s at. I’m hopeful, but we’ll have a bunch of corners here, too, to make sure that we have enough corners.”

Smith’s injury could open the door for veteran Brandon Carr to remain in Baltimore. The 31-year-old struggled down the stretch, but he has never missed a game in his career and cutting him would leave the youthful trio of Marlon Humphrey, Tavon Young, and Maurice Canady atop the depth chart until Smith is ready to return.

Releasing Carr would save $4 million in salary cap space for the 2018 season.

Infirmary report

Harbaugh said he will likely hold Yanda out until training camp, but the 33-year-old will be ready to go before then and is “already moving and doing some things” after suffering a season-ending ankle injury on Sept. 17.

According to the coach, Lewis (shoulder), Young (knee), and running back Kenneth Dixon (knee) will be ready for the start of the offseason conditioning program in April while linebacker Albert McClellan (knee) should be ready to return by the start of training camp. Rookie wide receiver Tim White has been 100 percent for roughly the last six weeks after suffering a serious thumb injury in the first preseason game. Defensive end Brent Urban (foot) will also be ready by the spring, but he is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March.

Harbaugh said he hasn’t had any contact with tight end Darren Waller, who was suspended for a year for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy in June.

Young backup for Flacco

Harbaugh acknowledged the possibility of the Ravens drafting a young quarterback this spring.

Flacco will turn 33 later this month and has been hampered by knee and back injuries over the last three seasons and sustained a concussion in Week 8. He is under contract through the 2021 season, but the Super Bowl XLVII MVP is coming off one of the more trying seasons of his 10-year career. Backup Ryan Mallett has served as his backup for the last two seasons and struggled this past preseason, leading many to clamor for the Ravens to draft a quarterback with some long-term upside.

“It’s something that we will talking about for sure,” Harbaugh said. “Every position, certain positions are going to be more important than others, but when you have a veteran quarterback at this stage, that is the time you are always looking for a young backup. I don’t think that jeopardizes Joe at all. He is our guy, and I am excited about our chances next year having a great season, and Joe is too.

“If we draft a quarterback, if it turns out to be the thing we do, it is only going to make our team stronger.”

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 39-38 loss to Pittsburgh

Posted on 12 December 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens falling in heartbreaking fashion in a 39-38 loss at Pittsburgh, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The final outcome hurt, but the highest-scoring Ravens-Steelers game we’ve ever seen was as entertaining as it gets and again cemented this rivalry as the best in the NFL. There’s no reason for John Harbaugh’s team to fear a third meeting if that’s how it plays out.

2. Yes, you must vary coverage looks, but leaving Brandon Carr on an island against arguably the league’s MVP with the game on the line while deep safety Tony Jefferson was more concerned with Martavis Bryant down the seam is indefensible. It was bad play-calling, bad execution, or both.

3. Ben Roethlisberger dropped back to pass 69 times and was sacked only three times and not picked once despite a couple of interceptable throws. The failure to generate pressure with a four-man rush and shortcomings in man coverage make for a deadly combination against an elite passing game.

4. Alex Collins gained 95 of his 120 rushing yards after contact, according to Pro Football Focus. He’s been a godsend and won’t even become a restricted free agent until after next season, which is great news for an offense needing more skill-position talent. Keep feeding him the ball.

5. The interception that likely took three points off the board on the opening drive was brutal, but Joe Flacco followed his best performance of the season last week with another solid outing. I’ll take my chances if he can play more like this the rest of the way.

6. C.J. Mosley has had challenges in coverage in the past, but he was eaten alive and showed no explosiveness as Pittsburgh’s pedestrian tight ends feasted in the middle of the field. Injuries are taking their toll on him, and that has to be a concern the rest of the way.

7. On the flip side, Baltimore tight ends combined for one catch for one yard despite Benjamin Watson, Nick Boyle, and Maxx Williams playing a combined 107 snaps. The Ravens desperately need to find some speed at this position in the offseason.

8. The absence of Za’Darius Smith hasn’t been discussed much, but he’s normally part of the interior-rush rotation in sub packages and Chris Wormley was trusted to play just two snaps, leaving Brandon Williams and Willie Henry to play over 60 each. No wonder there wasn’t any inside pressure.

9. Jeremy Maclin has eight catches on 24 targets over the last three games as his rapport with Flacco has gone the wrong way since the bye. Harbaugh’s lack of an answer when asked about this was telling. Maclin has been much more T.J. Houshmandzadeh than Steve Smith, a clear disappointment.

10. The emergence of Chris Moore has been encouraging as the special-teams standout had his best game as a pro with an impressive concentration catch for a 30-yard touchdown. You hope a hip injury doesn’t halt that momentum since the Ravens need all the help they can get at wide receiver.

11. Anthony Levine being able to tackle Bryant in the end zone on a third-quarter kickoff sure would have been an interesting variable to throw into the mix of a classic one-point game. It was just one of several plays after which the Ravens had to be asking, “What if?”

12. We know rules are catered toward offense, but some of the pass interference flags on both sides couldn’t have been more ticky-tack calls. That offers some context to these teams combining for 77 points and 747 net passing yards.

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday night

Posted on 09 December 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens don’t really need to beat Pittsburgh on Sunday night.

A one-game lead for the final wild-card spot, a strong tiebreaker profile, and three remaining games — two at home — against teams that are a combined 20 games below .500 make Baltimore’s chances to make it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2014 very strong already. But a victory would bring the elusive signature win that would make the doubters — and perhaps John Harbaugh’s team itself — start to believe the Ravens are capable of being a legitimate threat in January.

Meanwhile, the Steelers hope to extend their seven-game winning streak, but a defeat would still leave them within striking distance of New England, who will visit Heinz Field next week with the upper hand for the No. 1 seed in the AFC on the line. The immediate incentive for Pittsburgh to win Sunday would be to clinch the AFC North title, but its three-game advantage with four weeks to go leaves quite a margin for error in the division race.

In other words, the renewal of this intense rivalry lacks the same stakes as last year’s Christmas Day affair that essentially served as a division championship game.

Last week’s serious back injury suffered by Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier has been on the minds of both teams as the former Pro Bowl selection’s future on and off the field remains unclear. With many Pittsburgh players planning to wear cleats paying tribute to their injured teammate, how the Steelers respond emotionally playing at home could certainly be a factor for at least the beginning of Sunday night’s game.

It’s time to go on the record as these AFC North rivals meet for the 44th time in the regular-season series with the Steelers holding a slight 23-20 advantage to go with a 3-1 edge in postseason encounters. Pittsburgh has won the last two meetings and is in search of its first regular-season sweep of the Ravens since 2008. Including the playoffs, 16 of the 22 showdowns with the Steelers in the John Harbaugh era have been decided by a single possession.

Below are five predictions for Sunday night:

1. Danny Woodhead will have his best game as a Raven with 60 receiving yards and a touchdown. The focus on Shazier’s injury has rightly been on his health and not on football, but the Steelers will miss his presence in pass coverage as he recorded an interception and four breakups against Baltimore’s underneath passing game in Week 4. With Cam Heyward and a strong Pittsburgh front dominating the line of scrimmage in that first meeting, Joe Flacco may have to rely on more short passing and less of Alex Collins and the running game. With outside linebacker Arthur Moats filling in on the inside, this is the game Woodhead and the Ravens need to exploit an advantageous matchup.

2. Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell will finish with 115 total yards of offense. It’s no secret the run defense has been superb since Brandon Williams’ return in late October, but Bell’s huge game in Week 4 was more about the inability to set the edge on outside runs and to handle the Steelers’ pulling interior linemen on counters than struggles inside as he averaged just 2.2 yards per carry between the tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. The Ravens will be hellbent to slow Bell as a runner, but linebackers C.J. Mosley and Patrick Onwuasor have been vulnerable in pass coverage and this is where Bell will find more of his success. He’ll extend a streak of 57 or more receiving yards to four straight games.

3. Mike Wallace and Martavis Bryant will catch long touchdowns for their respective teams. With Steelers cornerback Joe Haden still out and their safeties inclined to play a little closer to the line of scrimmage to help the inside linebackers in coverage, there should be some opportunities for the Ravens to take deep shots and Wallace has been playing his best football of the year since the bye. On the flip side, Baltimore will do whatever it can schematically to prevent Antonio Brown from killing a secondary without Jimmy Smith, but that will leave Marlon Humphrey or Brandon Carr occasionally on an island matched up with Bryant, who is still dangerous despite a disappointing season.

4. Joe Flacco will be efficient and play turnover-free football for the third straight week. The 10th-year quarterback is coming off his best game of the year and needs to play more like that down the stretch if the Ravens are to become a realistic threat in the AFC. Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler will do more to try to confuse Flacco and mix up coverages than Detroit did a week ago, but his fourth-ranked defense ranks a pedestrian 14th in the NFL in takeaways. Pass protection needs to hold up better than it did in the first meeting between these teams, but Flacco will effectively find Woodhead and Jeremy Maclin in the short-to-intermediate area of the field.

5. The Ravens will pull off the upset for their first signature win of the season in a 23-20 final. Perhaps I’m drinking too much purple Kool-Aid, but the Steelers are coming off a short and emotional week following a Monday night road game and have trailed in the second half of four of their last five games, illustrating how vulnerable they’ve looked at times despite a terrific 10-2 record. Baltimore has one last chance to earn a signature win and needs to build on its strong performance from a week ago to build confidence that the offense can be productive enough moving forward to have a real chance in the playoffs. The Steelers are the better team overall, but this week’s circumstances set up favorably for the Ravens to steal a road win in Pittsburgh and further improve their playoff positioning.

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Humphrey’s time arrives for playoff-hopeful Ravens

Posted on 06 December 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey will be playing at Heinz Field for the first time Sunday night, but he has an idea of what to expect against Pittsburgh.

Facing the NFL’s fourth-ranked passing attack in his first start in place of the injured Jimmy Smith, the first-round rookie knows he’ll have a bullseye on his back as Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger surveys a Baltimore secondary now without its top corner. Humphrey acknowledges this in a matter-of-fact way without a hint of intimidation or even all that much excitement in his voice.

It’s not the first time he’s been under the microscope on a big stage, of course, as it was just two years ago that he was a redshirt freshman starting for a national championship Alabama team.

“I’m sure if there’s a weak link they have to pick out, it would definitely be me,” said Humphrey, referencing the big plays he gave up against Detroit last Sunday. “Big Ben likes to throw it up. He’s a great quarterback, so I’m sure if he has to take those shots, it’ll probably be at me.”

The six-foot, 197-pound cornerback struggled as Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford targeted him frequently after Smith suffered a torn Achilles tendon late in the second quarter, but it’s not as though Humphrey hadn’t already shown enough for the Ravens to be confident in him. It was just a couple weeks ago when many began wondering if Humphrey was on the cusp of earning a starting position before a thigh issue limited him to seven defensive snaps in Week 12.

His talent was evident from the first day of organized team activities when he was still two months shy of his 21st birthday. Humphrey didn’t look much like a rookie in the spring and summer as he practiced press coverage and displayed the kind of polish you expect from a cornerback with at least a couple seasons under his belt.

This past Sunday was arguably the first time the moment has looked too big for him since he was selected with the 16th overall pick in April’s draft, and he still recovered in the fourth quarter to intercept a Stafford pass to help preserve the win.

“He has good composure on the field. He has God-given speed,” 10th-year cornerback Brandon Carr said. “The ability he has, he can make up for a lot of things that he hasn’t learned yet as far as technique and the ins and outs of the receivers. But he has a knack for just going out there and making plays.”

The Ravens would surely prefer having Smith on the field against the likes of All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown and deep threat Martavis Bryant in a nationally-televised prime-time game, but it’s not as though they’re throwing Humphrey to the wolves as an untested commodity. He’s already logged more than 300 defensive snaps this season — including 55 against an Oakland offense that included wide receivers Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper — after frequently spelling a banged-up Smith and replacing Carr when he struggled to slow down Green Bay’s speedy receivers late last month.

According to Pro Football Focus, Humphrey has graded a respectable 41st among qualified cornerbacks and is allowing a passer rating of just 52.3 when targeted. He has collected 25 tackles and two interceptions to go along with eight pass breakups. The latter stat ranks second on the team and reflects how quarterbacks had already tried to test the rookie with little success before Stafford’s last Sunday.

Prior to Smith’s injury, coaches had boasted that they had three starting corners on the league’s third-ranked pass defense, and the numbers support that idea as Humphrey has played 18 or more snaps seven times this season.

“I think it’ll help a lot,” Humphrey said. “Coaches have given me a lot of time to play for me [being] a backup corner. It’ll definitely help that I’ve got some game experience.”

Of course, the apprenticeship is now over as Humphrey will start opposite of Carr and the Ravens will try to avoid their second straight late-season collapse following an injury to Smith. There’s no safety net as the next men up on the depth chart are also inexperienced in Maurice Canady, Jaylen Hill, and Stanley Jean-Baptiste.

Frankly, this exact scenario with the oft-injured Smith is why general manager Ozzie Newsome passed on prospects at other positions of need to select Humphrey. Some growing pains are likely or even inevitable down the stretch, but his talent and even-keeled personality are major reasons why the Ravens believe they can endure Smith’s absence this time around after it was their fatal flaw last December.

“If a ball is completed on him, it’s not ‘sulk and go in the tank’ like some rookies can do,” said defensive coordinator Dean Pees about Humphrey early last month. “Every defensive back that is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame has gotten beat — every one of them. It is just a matter of the ones that are really in there are the ones that could forget that and go play the next play.

“I’m certainly not putting him in that category yet, but he has that quality.”

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Smith’s injury reiterates Ravens need more of what they did Sunday

Posted on 03 December 2017 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Sunday’s performance by the Ravens felt very familiar.

Joe Flacco and the offense turned in their best performance of the season against Detroit nearly a year to the day after they blew out Miami, a playoff contender turned away at M&T Bank Stadium to begin the final month of 2016. The 44-20 win over the Lions lifted the Ravens to 7-5, the same record they owned after their 38-6 victory over the Dolphins last Dec. 4.

Unfortunately, history repeated itself again when cornerback Jimmy Smith tore his Achilles tendon late in the first half, ending the best season of his career and leaving the defense without arguably its best player. It was Week 14 last year when the Ravens lost Smith to a high ankle sprain, an injury that torpedoed what had been the league’s top-ranked defense at the time.

That injury preceded three losses in the final four weeks as the Ravens missed the playoffs for the third time in four seasons. The schedule is certainly more favorable this time around with just one game remaining against a winning team — next Sunday in Pittsburgh — and the final two contests coming at home.

Still, there’s no underselling the loss of Smith, especially for a team that’s relied so heavily on its defense all season.

“It’s different than it’s been before,” said head coach John Harbaugh, citing his defense’s struggles without its top corner in 2014 and last year. “We have a lot of depth. We have a lot of good, young players. We’ll step up, and we’ll still play at a really high level in the secondary. I’m very confident of that.”

The Ravens are better equipped to carry on without Smith after signing reliable veteran Brandon Carr — who’s amazingly never missed a game in his 10-year career — and drafting the talented Marlon Humphrey in the first round this past spring. Turning over a starting job to Humphrey is quite an improvement from a year ago when Shareece Wright stepped in for Smith opposite rookie Tavon Young.

But there will still be some drop-off, evident by Humphrey’s difficulties in coverage against speedy Lions receiver Marvin Jones. The Alabama product may eventually be as good as Smith — or even better — but expecting that immediately would be unfair and unrealistic.

That makes it even more critical for this Ravens offense to look more like it did Sunday the rest of the way.

Veterans Terrell Suggs and Eric Weddle admitted after the game that the defense was feeling deflated after officially learning of Smith’s fate at halftime. Two touchdown drives orchestrated by Lions quarterback Mathew Stafford in the third quarter transformed a comfortable 20-0 lead into a one-possession game, but Flacco and the offense fought right back with a nine-play, 74-yard drive ending with a 7-yard touchdown run by Alex Collins to make it a 27-13 lead early in the final quarter.

Given the importance of the game and the way it was trending, that touchdown drive may have been the offense’s best and most important of the year to this point. The Ravens then answered a Stafford touchdown pass with another drive resulting in a field goal to put them up by multiple scores for good with 6:54 remaining.

“Well, we have to do our part at some point, right?” said wide receiver Mike Wallace, who finished with 116 yards on five catches. “The offense, we have to come up. Our defense has been incredible. Our special teams have been incredible. The offense, not so much.

“Today, we made strides. This game is about peaking at the right time, so hopefully we can do that.”

The convincing win tightened the Ravens’ grip on the No. 6 seed as they own a one-game lead as well as tiebreakers over the top three teams chasing them in the AFC wild-card race, but building on this performance will be of the utmost importance. Baltimore will be an underdog against the Steelers next Sunday night, but a good showing from Flacco and the offense for a second straight week would create more optimism about this team being able to make noise in January.

The defense should still be more than good enough that the Ravens won’t need to put 44 points on the board every week like they did Sunday, but any expectation of this unit continuing to carry an inept offense likely vanished as Smith collapsed to the ground with 4:21 to go in the second quarter. That unbalanced formula may still be good enough against a soft remaining regular-season schedule, but it certainly won’t fly in the playoffs.

Many saw that as the Ravens’ reality anyway, but losing an elite defensive talent brings it into sharper focus.

The offense stepped up to do the heavy lifting when the defense suddenly found itself on the ropes Sunday.

The coming weeks will determine whether that was merely an aberration or the start of the offense more consistently pulling its own weight.

The latter would make for a more interesting January.

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Ravens defense preparing for rare quarterback test with Stafford

Posted on 29 November 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens have heard the same story over and over this season.

The NFL’s second-ranked pass defense has faced a backup or rookie quarterback in seven of its 11 games and in six of the last seven. The best quarterback Baltimore has beaten all year was Andy Dalton, whose offensive coordinator was fired just five days after that season-opening shutout in Cincinnati.

The underwhelming slate of signal-callers has been both a blessing and a curse as no team would turn down such good fortune over the course of a season, but it’s led many to question just how great this pass defense truly is. That changes this Sunday with Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Lions coming to town.

“He’s one of the best, so we’ve got to defend that,” cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “People are giving us all kinds of flak like it’s our fault we had to play against the second-string quarterbacks, but we’ll get to go out and play against a really good one and hopefully show you what we’re capable of doing.”

The Ravens can’t control their schedule or who’s been under center for the opposition and shouldn’t apologize for it. Regardless of the opponent, Baltimore leading the league in both interceptions and takeaways and posting three shutouts are superb feats and reflect the improved talent and good health in the secondary this season. But it is fair to wonder how that translates against upper-tier quarterbacks, especially with the playoff-hopeful Ravens receiving so little help from one of the worst offenses in the league.

Seven members of the secondary have played at least 150 defensive snaps this season with second-year cornerback Maurice Canady also averaging 24 snaps per game since being activated from injured reserve earlier this month. Such a distribution of playing time is usually a product of injuries, but Canady is the only meaningful contributor in the secondary to miss any games if you exclude Tavon Young, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the spring. Smith has missed practice time and some snaps within games due to lingering Achilles tendinitis, but he’s avoided missing a single game, an enormous development for the Pro Bowl-caliber corner and a secondary that’s too often slipped because of his absence in the past.

That depth has allowed defensive coordinator Dean Pees to be creative with his personnel as he’s rotated three outside cornerbacks in the base defense and used three others in nickel and dime packages in addition to Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson manning the starting safety spots. The ability to employ various sub packages and to disguise coverages has frequently overwhelmed lesser quarterbacks, but the Ravens hope those same traits can make a long day for Stafford, who is fourth in the NFL with 21 touchdown passes and ranks eighth in yards per attempt this season.

With the 6-5 Lions ranking 30th in rushing yards per game, there’s no secret to how they try to win.

“[Stafford] has the keys to the offense. He runs the show,” cornerback Brandon Carr said. “He has a lot of confidence in his throws, a lot of confidence in his receivers. He throws the ball around the yard. All those guys are capable of making big plays and great catches.”

Stafford may lack the monstrous target he enjoyed throwing to for years after the retirement of future Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson two winters ago, but wide receivers Marvin Jones and Golden Tate both rank in the NFL’s top 20 in receiving yards with Jones ranking ninth in yards per catch (16.6) and Tate fifth in yards after the catch (398). Even No. 3 receiver TJ Jones has only three fewer receiving yards than Jeremy Maclin, which probably says much more more about the state of the Baltimore offense than the Lions’ top-10 passing game.

Detroit ranks sixth in the league in pass plays of 20 or more yards and second with 10 completions of 40 or more yards. That’s a different ballgame than facing the likes of Matt Moore, Brett Hundley, and Tom Savage in recent weeks.

A defense priding itself on forcing quarterbacks into making mistakes will face one who’s thrown only six interceptions despite ranking fourth in the NFL in pass attempts.

“It’s going to be a tough challenge. We are excited about it, obviously,” safety Eric Weddle said. “Every week presents challenges, offensively, schematics, players, etc. But Stafford is one of the best. He can make all the throws. He commands the offense, checks at the line, presents different challenges that we’ve seen in the past.”

The defense is the overwhelming reason why the Ravens have improved to 6-5 and currently hold the No. 6 spot in the mediocre AFC, but that doesn’t mean it’s been perfect. Baltimore hadn’t allowed a 100-yard receiver all season before Green Bay’s Davante Adams and Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins reached that benchmark catching passes from backup quarterbacks the last two weeks, which could be viewed as at least a mild sign of caution with matchups against Stafford and then Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger looming.

If there’s been one area to attack the pass defense this season, it’s been the middle of the field, which could spell trouble with Tate’s ability working from the slot.

Make no mistake, the Ravens defense deserves a ton of credit for putting the offense on its back and working with such a small margin for error all season. Sunday presents a substantial test and an opportunity to quiet those who’ve scoffed at the list of opposing quarterbacks faced.

A strong performance and a win over Stafford and the Lions would both fortify the Ravens’ playoff chances and further validate what the flashy numbers already suggest about this defense.

“It’s going to be a good challenge for us in the back end,” Carr said. “This is why we play the game. It’s a great opportunity to play some December football at home again against a high-powered pass attack and see what we can do.”

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 23-16 win over Houston

Posted on 28 November 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens moving back over .500 and into the No. 6 spot in the AFC playoff race with a 23-16 win over Houston, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. It was ugly, but Monday was the first time the Ravens have won a game in which they trailed all season. After wilting in some late-game situations earlier this season, the defense forced Tom Savage turnovers on Houston’s final two possessions. That’s how you finish off a close game.

2. Compliments for Terrell Suggs are regularly attached to some acknowledgement of him not being the player he once was, but it’s time to recognize this being the best he’s played in years. He was the best player on the field and is now quite possibly cementing his spot in Canton.

3. I’m running out of ways to describe this passing game that was facing a bottom-10 pass defense entering Week 12. Awful. Joe Flacco needs more help, but I struggle more each week to recognize what he’s bringing to the table. He committed no turnovers, but he misfired on countless throws.

4. What does it say for the offense that the punter turned in the best pass of the night? Sam Koch and Chris Moore executed nicely on the fake punt that swung the momentum, but credit Jerry Rosburg. His special teams units are exceptional every year and make a real difference.

5. Running the ball and stopping the run is this team’s formula for success. Baltimore averaged 4.5 yards per carry to bounce back from some recent lackluster performances and allowed only 2.6 yards per carry. The defense ranks third in the NFL in fewest yards per carry allowed since Week 8.

6. A mere look at his torn jersey said all you needed to know about the fits DeAndre Hopkins gave Ravens cornerbacks. Jimmy Smith has played at an All-Pro level this season, but Hopkins made even him look bad several times.

7. Marlon Humphrey played just seven snaps because of a leg injury, which meant Smith saw his highest volume of snaps since Week 6. That’s something to monitor with the Ravens getting ready for Detroit on a short week and the veteran already missing practice time every week.

8. Give the coaching staff and the offensive line credit for making adjustments against Jadeveon Clowney, who dominated in the opening quarter. He had a quiet second half and wasn’t nearly as disruptive as the Ravens effectively used double teams and chip blocks.

9. Penalties were a problem with seven — all but one against the defense — for 89 yards, but that was only the fourth time this year the Ravens have had more than 60 yards in penalties. That’s a major improvement from where they’ve been in recent years.

10. The two-minute offense at the end of the first half was hardly a thing of beauty, but the drive resulting in a 53-yard field goal was probably one of the better ones we’ve seen this season. That’s not saying very much, but at least Justin Tucker continues to be money.

11. After Flacco broke his second knee brace in two seasons, he admitted that he’s thought about not wearing one. Seeing him move around without it makes me think it could be worth the risk for improved mobility within the pocket if nothing else.

12. Speaking as someone who doesn’t pay to attend games and wouldn’t tell others how to spend their money, it was still sad seeing thousands of empty seats for the first Monday night home game in over five years. Games like that used to be a big deal in this town.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 23-0 win over Green Bay

Posted on 21 November 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens getting back to the .500 mark with a 23-0 victory at Green Bay, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Sunday marked the third time in 2017 that the Ravens defense has forced five turnovers in a game. That’s quite a change from two years ago when the group ranked 30th in the NFL with 14 takeaways for the entire season.

2. Jimmy Smith intercepting a pass in the end zone on the opening drive was the latest example why the cornerback has been the team MVP. You wonder how different this one might have been if the Packers finished that drive with a touchdown or at least a field goal.

3. The offense coming away with a total of three points off three turnovers on the Packers’ first three possessions sure doesn’t say much for the work put in by Marty Mornhinweg’s side of the ball during the bye week.

4. Brett Hundley was awful for Green Bay, but credit the Ravens defense for confusing the inexperienced quarterback with an abundance of looks. Eight different defensive backs played 18 or more snaps as defensive coordinator Dean Pees employed various sub packages.

5. Whether rushing the passer, setting the edge, or dropping into coverage, Matt Judon is steadily improving and was arguably the best player on the field with two sacks and a forced fumble. His development is encouraging with the still-dependable Terrell Suggs now 35.

6. Joe Flacco had an OK day despite being under duress, but his interception on a pass intended for Danny Woodhead was baffling. He wasn’t pressured on the throw, and at no point did Woodhead separate from Pro Bowl safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. That can’t happen when approaching the red zone.

7. It was refreshing to see Mike Wallace grab a one-handed touchdown for a quarterback who hasn’t gotten enough help from his receivers. This isn’t the Big 12 where you can expect to get open with no one within 10 yards in coverage. Contested catches are a must to be successful.

8. Willie Henry is rapidly becoming a big part of sub packages as an interior rusher and even dropped into zone coverage on at least one occasion against the Packers. It’s crazy to think how important he’s become to the rotation when many wondered if he’d even make the 53-man roster.

9. Yes, Flacco should have been granted a timeout on the play, but Ryan Jensen still can’t snap the ball three feet over the quarterback’s head to torpedo a promising drive. The center has enjoyed a breakout season, but his shotgun snapping was also shaky in Tennessee.

10. We may have witnessed the changing of the guard as Marlon Humphrey replaced Brandon Carr as a starting cornerback in the first half. It’s a good problem to have as Carr has played admirably, but it grows more difficult every week to keep the rookie first-round pick off the field.

11. Much focus was on James Hurst’s problems replacing Ronnie Stanley, but Austin Howard also had real difficulty against the Packers. He isn’t listed on the injury report, but he’s recently been wearing a harness on his left shoulder and hasn’t looked 100 percent. That’s something to monitor.

12. Anyone dismissing the defense’s accomplishments because of the poor quarterbacks they’ve faced this season should note that the 2000 Ravens’ four shutouts came against Kent Graham, Scott Mitchell, Tim Couch, and a broken-down Troy Aikman in his final season. Regardless of the opponent, give this 2017 unit credit.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 40-0 win over Miami

Posted on 29 October 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens earning the third-largest margin of victory in franchise history and their second shutout of the season in a 40-0 win over Miami, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Will the real Ravens stand up? After close games were the theme of the last few seasons, all but two of eight contests have been decided by multiple scores and one of those came on a garbage-time touchdown in Minnesota on the game’s final play. It’s more volatility than mediocrity.

2. The Baltimore defense gave up a 21-yard run to Jay Ajayi on the second play of the game and surrendered 24 more yards on 18 carries the rest of the way. Dean Pees effectively used run blitzes, and players tackled better than they had in weeks. It was about time.

3. I’d be more willing to listen to the argument that Joe Flacco started his slide late if Kiko Alonso had shown any semblance of an effort to divert his path to the quarterback. The hit was reckless at best and malicious at worst.

4. Ryan Jensen earned quite a few fans after coming to the defense of his quarterback by immediately going after Alonso. I’m not big on retaliation in most instances, but an offensive lineman has to stick up for the most important player on the team after a hit like that.

5. You never want your quarterback sustaining a concussion, but you wonder if something like this galvanizes John Harbaugh’s team moving forward. The Ravens haven’t played with nearly the same edge in recent years as they used to, and being ticked off can be a good thing if properly channeled.

6. The secondary showed several looks, but my favorite was Marlon Humphrey entering the game as an outside corner in the nickel with Brandon Carr moving to the slot. The rookie first-rounder played 37 of 66 snaps and needs to remain heavily involved no matter the status of the veteran starters.

7. I had to smile seeing C.J. Mosley protect the ball with both arms as he crossed the goal line on his interception return. He wasn’t going to repeat what happened against Washington last year. You have to appreciate someone learning from a mistake.

8. Not that the offense was lighting it up before Flacco’s exit, but the previous two weeks showed how critical it is for Jeremy Maclin to be on the field for the passing game to even be functional. His 34-yard touchdown reception came on Flacco’s prettiest throw of the season.

9. Breshad Perriman didn’t have a catch despite playing 49 offensive snaps. He has four receptions on 19 targets — one more catch than Danny Woodhead — despite ranking fifth in snaps among all Ravens skill players. His dramatic regression from 2016 when he was at least a contributor is impossible to ignore.

10. Despite dealing with Achilles tendinitis, Jimmy Smith is playing his best football since at least the first half of the 2014 season and entered Sunday as Pro Football Focus’ seventh-highest graded cornerback. Even if you take away his two defensive touchdowns this season, he’s still been terrific.

11. The Dolphins have won 13 of their last 18 regular-season games, but that stretch includes two losses to the Ravens by a combined 78-6 margin. Talk about having a team’s number. Counting the playoffs, Baltimore is now 7-1 against Miami in the Harbaugh era.

12. Compared to other teams’ editions of “Color Rush” uniforms, the all-purple look is relatively easy on the eyes. I’d even be curious to see how the purple pants look with the white and black jerseys.

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