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Ravens-Chargers: Five predictions for Sunday

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Ravens-Chargers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 29 November 2014 by Luke Jones

Playing their final game of November, the Ravens welcome the San Diego Chargers to M&T Bank Stadium for a meeting with critical AFC playoff ramifications.

Both teams enter Week 13 with a 7-4 record, but the Chargers face a tall order in trying to become the first West Coast team ever to beat the Ravens in Baltimore. Of course, it’s no secret that West Coast teams flying east for 1 p.m. kickoffs generally don’t fare well as the Chargers were blanked 37-0 at Miami to begin the month of November.

Who will win on Sunday?

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In addition to simply keeping pace in the very competitive AFC North where all teams in a division are three games above .500 for the first time in NFL history, the Ravens desperately need to improve a 3-4 conference record that can often be crucial in determining playoff spots at the end of the season. Of course, that record will take care of itself if Baltimore simply continues to win down the stretch.

Sunday marks the 10th time these teams have ever met with the Ravens holding a 5-4 all-time advantage and a 2-0 record in Baltimore. The Chargers will be playing in Baltimore for the first time since the 2006 season when Steve McNair threw a last-second touchdown to Todd Heap to give the Ravens a dramatic victory.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to improve to 8-4 in their quest to return to the postseason …

1. Brandon Williams will have another big game as San Diego struggles to run the ball between the tackles. The second-year nose tackle probably hasn’t gotten as much credit as he deserves in his first season as a starter and played his best game of the season in the win over New Orleans. Meanwhile, the Chargers have sent three centers to injured reserve this year and are now relying on rookie Chris Watt at the position. The third-round product from Notre Dame played well in his first start against St. Louis last week, but Williams and Haloti Ngata will make it a long day for a line that won’t be able to open running lanes for running back Ryan Mathews. San Diego will run for less than 85 yards on the day.

2. Chargers receiver Malcom Floyd will catch a touchdown pass matched up against one of the Ravens’ undersized cornerbacks. The Baltimore secondary gave up a slew of passing yards in New Orleans, but the unit was able to make plays when needed as was the case with safety Will Hill’s interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter. The 6-foot-5 Floyd presents a matchup problem without the more physical Jimmy Smith on the field. The 33-year-old has stayed healthy this year and is having one of the better seasons of his career with over 600 receiving yards. He’ll catch a touchdown in the red zone as the Chargers take advantage of his size advantage.

3. Justin Forsett will go over the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the first time in his career. San Diego’s defense is its biggest strength, but the Chargers are allowing 4.4 yards per carry, ranking 21st in the NFL. With the way the offensive line has blocked and Forsett has been able to find seams in the defense, how can you pick against the Baltimore running game at this point? The 29-year-old needs 97 yards on the ground for 1,000 on the season and he’ll reach that mark in the fourth quarter. The Ravens will establish the run early to set up play-action opportunities down the field against a strong secondary and the league’s sixth-ranked pass defense.

4. San Diego left tackle King Dunlap will not be able to stop Terrell Suggs, who will pick up two sacks on the day. It hasn’t been a poor season for the veteran linebacker, but you know he’d love to narrow the gap between his six sacks and Elvis Dumervil’s team-leading 12 1/2 in 2014. Suggs will have a great opportunity against Dunlap, who has struggled in pass protection and is much more effective as a run blocker. After crossing the 100-sack threshold for his career last week, Suggs will add two more to his total as the Chargers focus on giving right tackle D.J. Fluker more help in blocking Dumervil. The inability to run the football will leave San Diego with plenty of difficulty protecting the pocket all day.

5. Philip Rivers will throw for more yards than Joe Flacco, but the running game will control the tempo in a 26-14 win for the Ravens. The Chargers quarterback will play admirably, but the lack of a running game will have him running for his life far too often. In contrast, the Ravens’ ability to run the ball will limit Flacco’s opportunities, but the seventh-year quarterback will be efficient and cautious against a talented secondary. The Ravens will control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and have allowed just 10.6 points per home game this season. If this game were being played in San Diego, the result might be different, but the Ravens will be in command from the start on their way to a relatively comfortable win.

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Ngata’s strong year making difficult decision for Ravens

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Ngata’s strong year making difficult decision for Ravens

Posted on 13 November 2014 by Luke Jones

The future of defensive tackle Haloti Ngata beyond this season has been discussed for quite some time, but his strong play is creating quite a dilemma for the Ravens this winter.

After two underwhelming seasons for his high standards, some predicted this could be Ngata’s final year in Baltimore as he’s scheduled to carry a $16 million salary cap figure in 2015 — the final season of a five-year, $61 million contract inked in 2011 — but his excellent start may have altered that line of thinking. Last offseason, general manager Ozzie Newsome pursued a contract extension with Ngata similar in nature to what the Ravens did with veteran linebacker Terrell Suggs, but talks didn’t go anywhere.

A good finish to 2014 might further complicate discussions as the Ravens obviously won’t want to stomach a $16 million cap hit to allow Ngata to play out the final year of his current contract, but his asking price for an extension only climbs as he continues to play well. Cutting Ngata this winter would clear $8.5 million in cap space, but the Ravens wouldn’t easily replace his presence at defensive tackle.

Unlike the last few seasons, Ngata has remained healthy and has benefited from focusing on the 3-technique defensive tackle spot — lining up on the outside shoulder of the guard — instead of moving around to different positions on the defensive line. Ngata drew plenty of double teams while playing nose tackle and wasn’t quick enough to make a consistent impact when lining up at the 5-technique defensive end spot against an offensive tackle.

This has led to Ngata having “a really standout year” in defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ mind.

“We really haven’t moved him this year. It makes a whole lot of difference up front there,” said Pees, who used Ngata extensively at the nose last season. “Believe it or not, things go on really fast in that little guard-to-guard area and a little slower the farther out that you go, and there’s a lot of difference in that. When you take a guy, move him out to [5-technique] one week and then move him back in there inside the next week, it’s hard. It’s hard to do that. I really think part of it is because we’ve had the ability to leave guys in the same position and not move them all over.”

In 10 games, the 6-foot-4, 340-pound tackle has collected 29 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, and seven pass breakups. Of course, defensive line play is difficult to quantify, but Pro Football Focus has graded Ngata as the third-best 3-4 defensive end in the league behind Houston’s J.J. Watt and New York Jets lineman Muhammad Wilkerson. The Ravens defense is currently allowing 3.4 yards per carry, its best mark since 2009 and good for sixth in the NFL.

Perhaps the easiest way to measure Ngata’s impact has been the game-changing plays he’s made, which you hadn’t seen as often in the last couple years. In Week 8, it was Ngata’s sack and strip of Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton that led to Daryl Smith’s fumble return and the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. Last Sunday, Ngata forced Tennessee running back Shonn Greene to fumble at the goal line on the opening drive, a play that loomed large considering how slowly the Ravens started the game on both sides of the ball.

Of course, the overall depth along the defensive line has improved with the emergence of second-year nose tackle Brandon Williams and the recent play of rookie Timmy Jernigan, two players who figure to play major roles for the unit in the coming years. Their presence has taken pressure off Ngata, but they also force Newsome and the front office to carefully weigh how much they should pay the five-time Pro Bowl selection as he turns 31 in January.

“I think we have a little bit of depth there,” Pees said. “The other thing that goes along with that is a little bit of competition, too. You better not back off too far, or somebody is catching you. Competition is always good for everybody.”

Perhaps that competition has been good for Ngata as he’s playing his best football since 2011, but the Ravens know it’s also making their offeseason decision more difficult as the year progresses.

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Five up, five down: Ravens stock at midway point

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Five up, five down: Ravens stock at midway point

Posted on 29 October 2014 by Luke Jones

At the midway point of the season, we take a look at which Ravens players’ stock is up and down after the first eight games of 2014 …

STOCK UP

1. Justin Forsett
Skinny: What else can be said about the 29-year-old journeyman who currently ranks fourth in the NFL in rushing yards (571) and second among running backs in yards per carry (5.5). Forsett said it best last week in quipping that many people didn’t even know he was still in the NFL entering 2014, but he’s been a saving grace in the aftermath of the Ray Rice saga. For an organization that’s found plenty of diamonds in the rough over the years, Forsett has been as good of a story as any.

2. Pernell McPhee
Skinny: The rush specialist has picked the perfect time to have a career year with his rookie contract set to expire. McPhee is second on the team in sacks (four) despite playing fewer snaps than Terrell Suggs or Elvis Dumervil, a reflection of how effective he’s been in putting pressure on quarterbacks. The 2011 fifth-round pick’s improved health as well as defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ effective use of McPhee have added up to the Ravens having their best interior rusher in quite some time.

3. C.J. Mosley
Skinny: Many were obviously high on the 2014 first-round pick, but Mosley has been better than advertised in serving as the Ravens’ best inside linebacker and a top candidate for the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Mosley ranks fourth in the NFL in tackles entering Week 9 and has recorded two interceptions, six pass breakups, five quarterback hits, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. For a front seven that needed some new blood, Mosley has been a high-impact addition.

4. Rick Wagner
Skinny: Remember when right tackle was a major topic of discussion throughout the offseason? Wagner has not only quelled those concerns, but the 2013 fifth-round selection has been an above-average player at his position, a major reason why the offensive line has been one of the strengths of the 2014 Ravens. He and perennial Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda have been an impressive tandem opening lanes on the right side of the line for the league’s eighth-ranked running game.

5. Brandon Williams
Skinny: There were high hopes for the second-year nose tackle to slide into a starting role and Williams hasn’t disappointed while wreaking havoc for interior offensive linemen against the run. He is seventh on the team in tackles and has made it far more difficult for teams to focus their attention on defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. Very athletic for his size, Williams has recorded 25 tackles, 1/2 sack, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery in his first year as a starter.

Others receiving consideration: Marshal Yanda, Kelechi Osemele, Steve Smith

STOCK DOWN

1. Jacoby Jones
Skinny: His season has been nothing short of disastrous as he’s dropped more passes (five) than he’s caught (four) and has twice lost fumbles on returns. The Ravens re-signed him to a four-year, $12 million contract that included a $3.5 million signing bonus in March, which is now looking like one of the worst contracts the organization has handed out in recent memory. He’ll need a big second half just to avoid being cut after the 2014 season, but his role has all but disappeared in the offense.

2. Bernard Pierce
Skinny: It’s been a dramatic fall for the 2012 third-round pick, who began the year as the starting running back and was a healthy inactive in Sunday’s game against Cincinnati. Pierce’s 3.6 yards per carry average is nearly two yards worse than Forsett’s (5.5) and lags behind rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro (4.4), which reflects his struggles and indecisiveness running in Gary Kubiak’s zone-blocking system. Pierce hasn’t taken advantage of what was a huge chance to prove himself as a feature back.

3. Matt Elam
Skinny: It’s fair to point out that Elam has been out of position for a large portion of his career, playing free safety as a rookie and often filling in at the nickel spot often in 2014. However, it isn’t just his pass coverage that’s been unsatisfactory as the 2013 first-round pick leads the team in missed tackles with 12, according to Pro Football Focus. It’s too early to label Elam a bust, but he hasn’t consistently displayed qualities of a good strong safety, let alone the versatility the Ravens expected him to have.

4. Torrey Smith
Skinny: The fourth-year receiver has had his moments and has drawn several significant pass interference calls, but he’s gone from a wideout who produced 1,128 receiving yards a year ago to one on pace for 36 catches and 616 yards in 2014. The Steve Smith factor is obvious, but Torrey Smith has averaged just 1.22 yards per route run, which is the 14th-worst mark in the NFL among players targeted at least 20 times. A down season couldn’t have come at a worse time with his rookie contract expiring.

5. Arthur Brown
Skinny: The 2013 second-round pick has been a healthy inactive for eight straight games as the Ravens have elected to use the likes of Albert McClellan and rookie free agent Zach Orr on special teams. The re-signing of Daryl Smith and the drafting of Mosley made it pretty obvious that Brown would need to remain patient in terms of expanding his role from a year ago when he served as a nickel linebacker. But for him to not even suit up for games is pretty telling of his current status.

Others receiving consideration: Marlon Brown, Chykie Brown, Lardarius Webb

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Ravens stock watch entering Week 3

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Ravens stock watch entering Week 3

Posted on 16 September 2014 by Luke Jones

Every week, we’ll take a look at which Ravens players’ stock is rising and falling …

STOCK RISING

Justin Forsett
Skinny: Even though Bernard Pierce received most of the workload against Pittsburgh, you still get the sense that Forsett is more comfortable running in a zone-blocking system and the veteran is superior to Pierce in pass protection. His size and age make you think he’ll continue to be the complementary back in the Baltimore running game, but Forsett has already provided a nice return on a one-year contract that garnered little attention in the offseason.

Kelechi Osemele
Skinny: Any lingering concerns about the left guard’s ability to return from last season’s back surgery have been quelled after Osemele turned in an All-Pro performance against Cincinnati in Week 1. A key to offensive improvement in 2014 was better play from the interior line and Osemele, Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda, and center Jeremy Zuttah have received the highest grades of anyone on the offense, according to Pro Football Focus.

Brandon Williams
Skinny: Though limited to only nine defensive snaps against Pittsburgh because the Ravens used their nickel package for most of the game, Williams has done exactly what the Ravens have asked of him by disrupting run plays with a good push at the line of scrimmage. The second-year nose tackle has even put a little heat on the quarterback in the rare opportunities he’s had to play in passing situations. 

Jeremy Zuttah
Skinny: His pass blocking hasn’t stood out, but Zuttah’s ability to get a strong push off the line of scrimmage has been evident on inside run plays through the first two weeks of the season. Sunday will mark his first road game with the Ravens, which will be a test in terms of making the proper protection calls with crowd noise being a factor, but it’s difficult not to be pleased with the sizable upgrade Zuttah has provided over last year’s starter Gino Gradkowski. 

STOCK FALLING

Chykie Brown and Asa Jackson
Skinny: These two are grouped together, because it’s apparent there will still be significant concern at the No. 3 cornerback position when Lardarius Webb does return. Brown is still too vulnerable in coverage on the outside while Jackson has missed several tackles from the nickel spot, factors that prompted the Ravens to use safety Matt Elam at the nickel position against Pittsburgh. It remains to be seen whether Jackson will be cleared to return Sunday from last week’s concussion.

Kyle Juszczyk
Skinny: The second-year fullback looked like he would carve out a nice role in the passing game based on his preseason play, but Juszczyk has been limited to just 43 snaps in two games and has been targeted only once as a receiver out of the backfield. Even more concerning has been his vulnerability as a lead blocker as he hasn’t been able to generate much of a push to create space for Pierce or Forsett to maneuver behind him. 

Daryl Smith
Skinny: His first season in Baltimore was a pleasant surprise, but the 32-year-old veteran’s struggles against the run late last season have carried over in the first two games of 2014 as he has struggled to shed blocks to make tackles closer to the line of scrimmage. Smith’s biggest strength is in pass coverage, but you do wonder if the Ravens’ inside linebackers will wear down against the run as the year goes on with the light C.J. Mosley playing next to the veteran in the starting defense. 

Marlon Brown
Skinny: One of the few bright spots in a horrendous offense last year, the second-year receiver has all but disappeared in Gary Kubiak’s system after seeing just three offensive snaps against the Steelers a week after being targeted only once. Drop-off was to be expected with Steve Smith, Owen Daniels, and a fully-healthy Dennis Pitta now in the mix, but the 6-foot-4 receiver struggled to grasp the offense over the summer and hasn’t even been a factor in the red zone through the first two games.

 

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Ravens-Bengals: Five predictions for Sunday

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Ravens-Bengals: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 06 September 2014 by Luke Jones

The Ravens are out to prove their disappointing 2013 campaign was an aberration and not the start of a downward trend as they welcome the Cincinnati Bengals to M&T Bank Stadium to begin the 2014 season.

There is plenty of optimism that an offense ranking 29th in the NFL in total yards a year ago will be much improved with the arrival of new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and the offseason signing of five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith. However, growing concerns exist for a defense that lost defensive tackle Arthur Jones and No. 3 cornerback Corey Graham in free agency and experienced a rash of injuries to the secondary that limited practice time during the summer.

Along with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens are expected to battle the Bengals for AFC North supremacy as Cincinnati won the division going away a year ago. Predictions have been all over the place in terms of how the pundits expect this division to play out after the Bengals didn’t make any significant upgrades and lost both coordinators in the offseason.

Sunday will mark the 37th time these AFC North rivals have met with the Ravens owning a 13-5 mark in Baltimore. The Ravens have won five of the last seven games between these teams and are 7-5 against Cincinnati in the John Harbaugh era.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens look to begin their journey back to the postseason after their first non-playoff season since 2007 a year ago …

1. Nose tackle Brandon Williams will control the battle against Bengals rookie center Russell Bodine. So many AFC North meetings come down to which team better controls the line of scrimmage, making this an intriguing matchup of first-year starters in the middle. Cincinnati will try to establish the run to limit quarterback Andy Dalton’s propensity for making mistakes against the Ravens defense, but Williams will build on what was an impressive summer by consistently disrupting run plays up the middle for minimal yardage. The Bengals are excited about Bodine’s potential, but Williams will make him look exactly like a fourth-round pick playing in his first NFL game.

2. Miscommunication in the secondary will lead to a long Andy Dalton touchdown to Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green. The Ravens’ decision to cut veteran Derek Cox Saturday suggests they’re confident in the health of cornerbacks Jimmy Smith, Lardarius Webb, and Asa Jackson, but the defense was unable to practice with its starting secondary intact all summer. That reality will make a difference along with free safety Darian Stewart making his first start for the Ravens as there are bound to be some communication issues and missed assignments. The absence of No. 2 wide receiver Marvin Jones will help, but the elite Green will take advantage of a busted coverage to catch a long touchdown from Dalton.

3. Steve Smith will catch six passes for 75 yards and a touchdown in his Baltimore debut. New Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther will employ plenty of Cover 2 to attempt to neutralize the speed of Torrey Smith on the outside, which will give the 35-year-old Smith the opportunity to work the intermediate middle to move the chains. It’s fair to doubt how well Smith holds up over 16 weeks of football, but he is too fresh and motivated not to make a significant impact early in the season. A Joe Flacco touchdown pass to the former Carolina Panther will send M&T Bank Stadium into a frenzy and give the Ravens a touchdown to move ahead after a long scoring drive.

4. Bengals running back Giovani Bernard will collect 125 total yards and a touchdown, giving the Ravens fits as a receiver out of the backfield. Linebacker Daryl Smith said the key to slowing the shifty second-year back is for all 11 defensive players to fly to the ball whenever he gets it, but that’s easier said than done as he collected more than 1,200 yards from scrimmage in a part-time role as a rookie. The Ravens must be cognizant of his ability to make defenders miss when catching screens and check-downs from Dalton, but Cincinnati’s other weapons all over the field make this easier said than done. Bernard will be a tough test for Smith and rookie inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, who can’t lose him in underneath zone coverage while paying attention to tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert down the seam. 

5. The home-field advantage and a late turnover by Dalton will be enough for the Ravens to come away with a 23-21 win in the first of three AFC North games to start the season. I expect the Bengals to be the better team over the course of the 2014 season, but the Ravens’ improved offense and overall toughness playing at M&T Bank Stadium will prove to be the difference in Week 1. The revamped running game will be just effective enough to keep pressure off of Flacco, and the Ravens defense will use the emotion of the crowd to pressure Dalton and compensate for a vulnerable secondary that is sure to make coaches and fans nervous throughout the 2014 season. The Ravens need to hold serve at home in their divisional games and will do just that on Sunday.

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Ten Ravens predictions for the 2014 season

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Ten Ravens predictions for the 2014 season

Posted on 06 September 2014 by Luke Jones

As everyone else goes through the endeavor of making division-by-division forecasts that will ultimately mean very little, these predictions focus on the Ravens and their effort to bounce back from the first non-playoff season of the John Harbaugh era.

1. Joe Flacco will be the Ravens’ Most Valuable Player.

The quarterback won’t suddenly transform into a 5,000-yard passer with 35 touchdowns, but the arrival of offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak will bring the most efficient Flacco we’ve seen since the 2010 season when he completed nearly 63 percent of his passes and posted a 93.6 passer rating. A steadier running game will alleviate pressure on the seventh-year signal-caller to feel the need to do it all like he encountered last year, which will only make him more effective with better weapons to target. Flacco will throw 25 touchdown passes for the second time in his career.

2. Haloti Ngata will be playing his final season in Baltimore.

The Ravens and Ngata talked about a new contract this offseason in the same way the organization extended Terrell Suggs’ deal, but talks didn’t go anywhere with the five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle carrying a $16 million salary cap figure this year and next. The difference next year will be the ability to save $8.5 million in cap space by releasing him, which will be easier to execute with the emergence of second-round rookie Timmy Jernigan and nose tackle Brandon Williams this season. Though Ngata is still a good defensive tackle, anyone who’s closely watched him play over the last few years has seen a decline in impact and durability, making it likely this is his final season with the Ravens unless he alters his financial expectations significantly.

3. Kyle Juszczyk and Brandon Williams will be players to take a step forward.

The second-year fullback was a non-factor offensively as a rookie, but it’s clear Kubiak envisions a role for Juszczyk as a receiver out of the backfield, making it possible he catches 30 passes in the way H-back James Casey did in Kubiak’s Houston offense a few years ago. Meanwhile, Williams will need to emerge to soften the blow from the loss of defensive tackle Arthur Jones in free agency, and the 2013 third-round pick was impressive against the run in the preseason. The Ravens need more young players to emerge to offset the reality of several core players approaching the end of their careers, and Juszczyk and Williams will make a bigger impact in 2014 after very quiet rookie campaigns.

4. Marlon Brown and Elvis Dumervil will be players to take a step back.

Even though the second-year receiver had an inconsistent summer, his inclusion in this prediction has more to do with the sheer number of weapons added to the equation with a fully-healthy Dennis Pitta back and the free-agent additions of Steve Smith and Owen Daniels. Brown won’t catch 49 passes again, but he will still be a target in the red zone, which will give him a chance to make his limited opportunities count. Dumervil collected 9 1/2 sacks in his first season with the Ravens, but had only one in his final seven games. He added weight in the offseason, which sounds like a questionable strategy for a 30-year-old rush specialist dependent on speed to get around the edge.

5. Jimmy Smith will be the player who deserves to make the Pro Bowl but won’t.

Before a scary fall that caused bruising and bleeding from his lungs in the second preseason game, Smith was having the best summer of any Baltimore defensive player and appears primed for a breakout campaign after taking significant strides in his first season as a starter. The rest of the secondary is a major concern right now, but Smith could be chosen by defensive coordinator Dean Pees to shadow Cincinnati wideout A.J. Green and the other elite receivers the Ravens encounter in 2014. It may take another year for Smith to finally receive league-wide recognition after an injury-riddled start to his career, but he will play at a Pro Bowl level for an otherwise shaky secondary this season.

6. Terrence Brooks will be starting at free safety before Halloween.

If Smith and Lardarius Webb are healthy, the Ravens should be alright at cornerback even with uncertainty at the No. 3 spot, but there is no such comfort at safety where 2013 first-round pick Matt Elam and veteran newcomer Darian Stewart will start. The Ravens hope Elam playing closer to the line of scrimmage allows him to make a bigger impact, but his summer was quiet as he still struggled to cover and tackle consistently. Stewart didn’t show any signs of being an impact defender playing deep center field and the third-round rookie Brooks took major strides at the end of the summer, making it only a matter of time before the Florida State product supplants him in the starting defense.

7. Steve Smith will be the top veteran newcomer.

It’s easy to be skeptical of the impact Smith will bring at age 35 by pointing to his yards per catch average steadily decreasing over the last three seasons, but the five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver was too impressive this summer to think he won’t be a substantial upgrade to the offense. His swagger and attitude will pump life into an offense that lacked any a year ago, and he has the ability to help move the chains and provide production similar to what Anquan Boldin did in his three years with the Ravens when he averaged 882 receiving yards per season. He won’t be able to bring the same explosiveness all 16 weeks that we saw this summer, but he will still be a significant reason why the offense improves from its 29th overall ranking a year ago.

8. Owen Daniels will be the disappointing veteran newcomer.

The 31-year-old tight end revealed a few days ago that he was dealing with a hamstring injury to clarify Harbaugh’s vague “leg soreness” diagnosis that forced him out of practice for two weeks, but Daniels wasn’t impressive when he was practicing in training camp, struggling to gain separation and make plays to complement Pitta at the tight end position. The Ravens have given Daniels the benefit of the doubt because he is so familiar with Kubiak’s system, but it’s difficult not to be reminded of how little Dallas Clark had remaining in the tank last season while watching Daniels practice this summer. Rookie tight end Crockett Gillmore will need to be ready to step up if Daniels can’t provide what the Ravens need in 2014.

9. C.J. Mosley will be the top Ravens rookie.

This prediction isn’t exactly going out on a limb as he’s the only first-year player currently starting on either side of the football for the Ravens. The Alabama product could occasionally struggle to hold up against physical blockers in defending the run, but he has shown impressive ability in pass coverage, which will make him a three-down linebacker in Week 1. The selection of Mosley raised eyebrows considering the Ravens already had depth at inside linebacker and needs at a number of other positions, but he’s been as good as advertised and has the potential to be a dynamic defensive player in the years to come.

10. The Ravens will make the playoffs with a 9-7 record as a wild card, but they will exit in the first round.

The Ravens will move into the top half of the offensive rankings in 2014, but the defense will slide from last season’s 12th overall spot with an aging front seven and a shaky secondary. This adds up to only modest improvement from 2013 when Baltimore finished 8-8 and fell short of the postseason. Cincinnati will prevail in the AFC North with a 10-6 record, but the overall mediocrity of the AFC will leave the door open for the Ravens to finish 3-1 in the month of December and grab one of the two wild-card spots before bowing out in the first round of the playoffs to Indianapolis.

Bonus Super Bowl XLIX prediction no one asked for: New Orleans will beat Denver in a 30-24 final.

A defense that continues to improve under coordinator Rob Ryan will offset last year’s road struggles and put Drew Brees and the Saints in position to win their second Super Bowl title in the last six years while Peyton Manning and the Broncos fall short on the NFL’s biggest stage for the second straight year.

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Ravens-49ers preseason primer: Five players to watch

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Ravens-49ers preseason primer: Five players to watch

Posted on 06 August 2014 by Luke Jones

A brotherly reunion and Super Bowl XLVII rematch adds a little more spice to the preseason opener as the Ravens welcome the San Francisco 49ers to Baltimore on Thursday night.

As is always the case with the first preseason game, the contest will offer little more than a cameo appearance for veteran starters expected to make the biggest impact this season, but it does provide welcome change for a group of players tired of working against one another after two weeks of practices in Owings Mills. While most veteran starters figure to see little more than a series or two, younger starters figure to see more extensive action in the first half if history holds to form.

“We’re kind of on a standard plan right now, as far as that [goes],” coach John Harbaugh said. “I don’t know exactly the number of plays yet, but it won’t be anything we haven’t done in the past.”

Of course, the first preseason game won’t be the standard road trip for the 49ers as they’ll then join the Ravens at their training facility in Owings Mills for three days of practices, providing extra competition as well as opportunities to evaluate just how much improvement has been made to a team that failed to make the playoffs last season for the first time since 2007. Much will hinge on the offense under new coordinator Gary Kubiak, who is bringing his version of the West Coast attack to reinvigorate a group that finished 29th in the NFL last year.

Entering his seventh season at the helm of the Ravens offense, Joe Flacco has been all business this summer as Kubiak and quarterbacks coach Rick Dennison have focused on the veteran quarterback getting rid of the ball quickly while improving his footwork. Flacco isn’t the only one who will be under the microscope with the new offensive attack, but even he acknowledges the preseason opener carrying more significance than in past years because of the dramatic changes made this offseason.

Of course, the outcome of the opener won’t provide any definitive answers for questions facing the Ravens on both sides of the football, but the game will sharpen points of emphasis for both coaches and players after facing another team.

“Anytime you’re running a new offense and you think you’re doing it pretty well, it’s always nice to get out there and have a real test,” Flacco said. “Have people hitting you and flying around and going full speed under the lights. It’s probably a little more important.”

Thursday will mark the first ever preseason meeting between the Ravens and the 49ers, but Baltimore owns the 3-1 edge in the regular season and a 1-0 advantage in the postseason after their 34-31 win in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. The Ravens are 42-29 all-time in the preseason and have a 15-9 preseason mark in the Harbaugh era.

Unofficial (and largely speculative) injury report

The Ravens are not required to release an injury report like they do for regular-season games, but I’ve offered my best guess on what the injury report would look like if one were to be released.

Most of the players ruled to be out will come as no surprise, but the status of a few will be in question. This list, of course, will not include any veterans who may be held out of the preseason opener due to the coaching staff’s preference. Cornerback Lardarius Webb is not expected to play in either of the first two preseason games as he’s been sidelined with a lower back injury since July 25.

Again, this is not an official injury report released by the Ravens:

OUT: CB Lardarius Webb (back), G Will Rackley (head), DT Terrence Cody (hip), DE Brent Urban (knee)
DOUBTFUL: LB Daryl Smith (groin)
QUESTIONABLE: WR Michael Campanaro (ribs), CB Marrio Norman (unspecified)
PROBABLE: DT Timmy Jernigan (back), CB Jimmy Smith (back)

Five players to watch Thursday night

1. RB Ray Rice

With so much attention justifiably paid to his off-field transgressions, you almost forget the 27-year-old back is coming off the worst season of his career in which he averaged a meager 3.1 yards per carry. Rice was heavy, slow, and banged up during the 2013 season and must play well to not only hold off backup Bernard Pierce but give the Ravens confidence that they can move forward with the three-time Pro Bowl selection beyond the 2014 season. Rice will want to use the first couple preseason games to make a favorable impression on Kubiak with his two-game suspension looming at the start of the season.

“Ray has looked really good,” Harbaugh said. “Comparisons to years in the past, we’ll find all that out during the season. But he’s in tremendous shape. I’m seeing him make good lateral cuts. He has really good burst, acceleration is there, [and] vision is there. He’s been very patient with the zone runs, which is something that I believe to be an improvement over the past — even two years ago.”

2. FS Darian Stewart

Signed to a one-year, $1.3 million contract in the offseason, the former St. Louis Ram has yet to be seriously challenged at the free safety position with third-round pick Terrence Brooks struggling to grasp the playbook in his first season. Stewart isn’t spectacular, but he’s been complimented by Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Dean Pees for knowing his assignments and being in the right place, traits that shouldn’t be taken for granted considering the Baltimore defense gave up too many big plays a year ago. Stewart isn’t a long-term answer or dynamic player, but the Ravens hope he can be a value signing comparable to when they signed Corey Graham a couple years ago.

“I see a grown, mature, confident guy that I think fits really well in our room,” said secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo, who was Stewart’s head coach for two years in St. Louis. “He’s kind of slipped in there. I’ve noticed he’s taken a backseat, which you have to do when you change teams a little bit, and that was early on. Now, I see his personality coming out. I think that will happen more and more. I think he’s going to be a great leader for us. I really do.”

3. RT Rick Wagner

Perhaps the storyline received too much attention during spring workouts, but there’s been less buzz about the right tackle position than you’d expect with second-year lineman Rick Wagner continuing to be the favorite to start over fourth-year disappointment Jah Reid. The Ravens have been higher on Wagner than most of the outside world all along, but the Wisconsin product will need to prove capable against preseason opponents to put concerns to rest. Wagner doesn’t need to be a Pro Bowl tackle, but he needs to hold his own as the Ravens are too challenged offensively to be forced to constantly provide help in protection on the right side of the line.

“He is doing a lot better,” said linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who often matches up against Wagner during practice. “You’ve got to stay consistent with [offensive line coach] Juan Castillo’s scheme — his protection, his switching it up. But for the most part, he’s just doing a really good job.”

4. DT Brandon Williams

The 2013 third-round pick appeared to be emerging as a contributor in the defensive line rotation last year before wearing down and being inactive over five of the last six games, but the Ravens have shown plenty of confidence in Williams so far this summer by sliding Haloti Ngata back to the 3-technique defensive tackle position and lining up the Missouri Southern State product at the nose. His strength and athleticism have been mentioned frequently, but Williams will need to show those traits translate in taking on interior blockers and making plays in stopping the run. If Williams is not up to the challenge, the Ravens could elect to shift Ngata back to the nose and take longer looks at second-round rookie Timmy Jernigan and third-year lineman DeAngelo Tyson.

“Now, his strength is a lot more functional because he understands the technical part of the game a lot better,” defensive line coach Clarence Brooks said. “He understands how we play a lot better and how we want things done. He understands that, and he was able to take his natural strength and work it into what we want. So far, everything is on the upswing.”

5. CB Tramain Jacobs

Most eyes will inevitably fall on Chykie Brown and Asa Jackson as the Ravens try to figure out who will be lining up at the No. 3 cornerback spot in the regular-season opener, but Jacobs is on a short list of rookie free agents to watch this summer. Playing at Texas A&M, the 5-foot-11, 182-pound cornerback saw plenty of tough competition in college practices matching up against wideout Mike Evans with Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel throwing the football. Jacobs has shown good athleticism and a nose for the football to put him in the conversation for a spot on the 53-man roster. With so much concern over the lack of depth at the cornerback position, Jacobs will have opportunities to turn heads if his play carries over to preseason games.

“Everybody’s getting a good look. It’s a stiff competition right now,” said starter Jimmy Smith, who mentioned Jacobs as someone in contention for the No. 3 cornerback job. “Obviously, we don’t want Webb hurt, but that gives opportunity for [others]. It’s a stiff battle at the third cornerback position right now.”

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Five young players the Ravens need more from in 2014

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Five young players the Ravens need more from in 2014

Posted on 20 January 2014 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens coming off an 8-8 season and missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007, it’s easy to conclude that the organization needs more from everyone with a vested interest in 2014.

However, with a limited amount of cap space and only so many holes that can be filled through the draft and free agency, the Ravens will lean heavily on a handful of young players already on the roster to emerge and make a difference with another year of experience under their belts.

Here’s a look at five young players the Ravens will need more from in order to bounce back from an underwhelming 2013 campaign:

1. LB Courtney Upshaw

Veteran outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil received the most attention for their second-half slides, but Upshaw did little to establish himself as a force within the Baltimore defense in his second NFL season. The 2012 second-round pick once again battled weight and conditioning issues in the spring and summer before serving as the strong-side outside linebacker in the base defense while Dumervil took his place in passing situations. Upshaw played fewer defensive snaps — down to 650 from 762 a year earlier — with Dumervil’s arrival in 2013, but his tackle total declined from 60 as a rookie to just 30 and he continued to offer little as a pass rusher or in coverage. With Suggs’ future with the organization up in the air and Dumervil recently turning 30, the Ravens need younger players such as Upshaw and 2013 fourth-round pick John Simon to become real factors if the defense is to continue to build on the progress it made this past season.

2. RB Bernard Pierce

If someone had told you before the 2013 campaign that Ray Rice would only rush for 660 yards in a career-worst season, you would have assumed Pierce had taken his job to become the Ravens’ feature back. Instead, the second-year back was even worse in averaging 2.9 yards per carry and gaining just 436 yards for the season. In fairness, both backs dealt with nagging injuries and had an undersized and overmatched offensive line trying to block for them, but it was clear that neither Rice nor Pierce was especially effective in identifying running lanes before they quickly closed shut. Rice will receive more heat going into next season as he enters the third year of his five-year deal signed two summers ago, but Pierce’s underwhelming sophomore campaign has led many to believe the Ravens should be looking for another running back in the middle-to-late rounds of the 2014 draft. Pierce played in all 16 games in his second year, but his durability is still a question mark in terms of handling a bigger workload.

3. DT Brandon Williams

Despite missing the first three games of his rookie season while nursing a toe injury, the 2013 third-round pick appeared to be emerging as a reliable member of the defensive line rotation before winding up inactive in six of the final eight games. Coach John Harbaugh explained that Williams needed some “maturing” and was beaten out by the versatile DeAngelo Tyson for playing time, but it was still disappointing to see the Missouri Southern State product disappear completely in the second half of the season. With Arthur Jones and Terrence Cody good bets to depart via free agency, the Ravens will need Williams to live up to the high expectations they had when he impressed scouts so much at last year’s Senior Bowl. Whether it’s to play Jones’ 3-technique defensive tackle spot or to shift to nose tackle and allow veteran Haloti Ngata more flexibility to move around, the 335-pound Williams is expected to become a consistent contributor along the defensive line in his second season.

4. LB Arthur Brown

The Kansas State product immediately drew comparisons to future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis because he was undersized and very athletic, but Brown only saw 211 defensive snaps in his rookie season, with most of those coming in the nickel package. Listed at 235 pounds but playing lighter than that after being selected in the second round of the draft, Brown showed flashes in pass coverage and as a blitzer, but he must get bigger and stronger to become the three-down linebacker the Ravens envision. With Daryl Smith an unrestricted free agent and Jameel McClain a potential salary cap casualty, Brown is expected to win the Ravens’ weakside inside linebacker job. With so many other positions of need to address and only so many resources, the Ravens need Brown to put in the necessary work in the weight room and to master the defensive playbook to take care of one of the two inside linebacker positions.

5. OL Rick Wagner

It will be interesting to see how the offseason plays out in terms of where Wagner might fit along the offensive line. In a perfect world, the Ravens would probably prefer keeping the 2013 fifth-round pick in a role similar to the one he held last year as an extra tackle-eligible blocker and key reserve, but the sheer number of holes currently on the offensive line might force him into starting duty. As of now, only Marshal Yanda playing right guard appears to be a sure thing with Kelechi Osemele expected to play either left guard or right tackle. The Ravens want to re-sign left tackle Eugene Monroe and add more size to their interior offensive line, but Wagner might be needed to play either left guard or right tackle if they expend resources at center and left tackle. Offensive line coach Juan Castillo worked extensively with Wagner as a rookie, and his 6-foot-6, 310-pound frame and Wisconsin pedigree suggest he has some nice upside, making this offseason an intriguing one in terms of his development.

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Ravens-Bears: Inactives and pre-game notes

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Ravens-Bears: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 17 November 2013 by Luke Jones

(This blog brought to you by Atlantic Remodeling. Visit www.atlanticremodeling.com to learn about their Red Cent Guarantee!)

CHICAGO — Weather will play a major factor on Sunday as the Ravens travel to Soldier Field in Chicago looking to improve to 5-5 and improve their standing in the AFC playoff picture.

With intense storms, winds averaging 25-30 miles per hour with gusts upwards of 50, and a tornado watch in the forecast Sunday afternoon, both teams will likely need to lean on their respective running games with Chicago possessing the league’s 15th-ranked rush offense. Meanwhile, the Ravens’ dramatic struggles in running the ball have been well documented, but the Bears are ranked 31st against the run and have allowed 129.4 yards per game on the ground this season.

The Ravens will be without two key starters as defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and wide receiver Marlon Brown were both ruled inactive prior to kickoff. Ngata sprained his left knee in last Sunday’s win over the Bengals and missed practice all week despite suiting up and making an appearance at the beginning of Friday’s practice. Terrence Cody and Brandon Williams will be leaned upon to play a more significant role at the nose tackle position in Ngata’s absence.

Brown’s deactivation leaves the Ravens with just four active receivers for Sunday’s game, and 6-foot-5 rookie will be missed in the red zone. His absence will likely lead to more opportunities for Tandon Doss and Deonte Thompson in the passing game.

For the Bears, tight end Martellus Bennett (ankle) is active and will start, but starting defensive end Shea McClellin (hamstring) is inactive after being listed as doubtful on Chicago’s final injury report of the week.

Sunday’s referee will be Gene Steratore.

The Ravens are wearing white jerseys with black pants while Chicago is donning dark blue throwback jerseys with white pants.

The all-time series between these teams is tied 2-2 with the Ravens winning the last meeting in Baltimore back in 2009. However, the Bears are 2-0 against the Ravens at Soldier Field with victories in 1998 and 2005.

Here are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
DT Haloti Ngata
WR Marlon Brown
S Omar Brown
RB Bernard Scott
WR Brandon Stokley
OL Ryan Jensen
LB John Simon

CHICAGO
DE Shea McClellin
DT Jeremiah Ratliff
LS Pat Mannelly
OL Jonathan Scott
OL James Brown
QB Jay Cutler
LB Lance Briggs

Follow WNST on Twitter throughout the afternoon for updates and analysis as Nestor Aparicio and I bring live coverage from Chicago throughout the day.

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Rice absent from practice for second straight day

Posted on 19 September 2013 by Luke Jones

(This blog brought to you by Atlantic Remodeling. Visit www.atlanticremodeling.com to learn about their Red Cent Guarantee!)

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — A day after six players missed practice, the Ravens didn’t receive much better news on Thursday as Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice was absent once again while continuing to recover from a hip flexor strain.

Coach John Harbaugh said Monday that Rice would not need to practice to potentially play in Sunday’s game against the Houston Texans, but his continued absence makes it apparent that backup Bernard Pierce will play a bigger role in the offense even if Rice is available. Offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell acknowledged this reality prior to Thursday’s practice after Pierce carried the ball 19 times for 57 yards and a touchdown against Cleveland last Sunday.

“He’s been a guy that’s run extremely hard,” Caldwell said. “In particular, when you look at our situation right now, he’s going to have to carry a little bit more of a load, but we fully expect him to be able to step up and do the job.”

Defensive end Chris Canty (groin), linebacker Arthur Brown (pectoral strain), offensive lineman Ryan Jensen (foot), and wide receiver Jacoby Jones (knee) all missed practice for a second straight day. Jones has already been ruled out of Sunday’s game as he continues to recover from an MCL sprain suffered in the season opener two weeks ago.

Expressing optimism that he’d be able to play on Sunday prior to missing Thursday’s practice, Canty acknowledged the possibility of still being able to play on Sunday without practicing all week. The ninth-year defensive lineman exited the Week 2 win against the Browns early in the second half and didn’t return, but magnetic resonance imaging returned no indication of structural damage earlier this week.

“It feels pretty good,” Canty said. “We’ll continue to go about the process and hopefully be able to participate on Sunday. As a veteran football player, you think you can be ready. I’ve been in this situation before. I’m just trying to get in the best physical condition I can, so I can have an opportunity to help my football team win.”

Wide receiver Deonte Thompson (foot) was not present during the portion of practice open to the media, which is concerning after the second-year wideout took part in Wednesday’s workout on a limited basis. He has not played in a game since injuring his foot in the preseason opener on Aug. 9.

The good news on the injury front came in the return of cornerback Chykie Brown to the practice field after an MRI earlier this week indicated there was no structural damage to the knee he strained against Cleveland. The third-year defensive back did not participate in Wednesday’s practice.

Defensive tackle Brandon Williams (toe) was practicing for the second consecutive day after working on a limited basis on Wednesday.

For Houston, free safety Ed Reed (hip) and wide receiver Andre Johnson (concussion) were limited participants as both appear to be good candidates to play on Sunday. Left tackle Duane Brown continues to be sidelined with a turf toe injury, leaving his status in doubt for Week 3.

Here is Thursday’s official injury report:

BALTIMORE
OUT: WR Jacoby Jones (knee)
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: WR Deonte Thompson (foot), LB Arthur Brown (chest), DE Chris Canty (thigh), C Ryan Jensen (foot), RB Ray Rice (hip)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: CB Chykie Brown (knee), DT Brandon Williams (toe)

HOUSTON
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LT Duane Brown (toe), TE Garrett Graham (hip/groin)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: WR Andre Johnson (concussion), TE Owen Daniels (rest – NIR), FS Ed Reed (hip), LG Wade Smith (knee)
FULL PARTICIPATION: CB Jonathan Joseph (rest – NIR), LB Brian Cushing (knee), RB Arian Foster (calf/chest), LB Joe Mays (quad), CB Brice McCain (knee), C Chris Meyers (back), RT Derek Newton (knee/calf), WR DeVier Posey (Achilles/foot), LB Darryl Sharpton (hip), RB Ben Tate (shoulder)

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