Tag Archive | "Brandon Williams"

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Ngata trade proved to be winner for Ravens

Posted on 26 January 2016 by Luke Jones

There is plenty to question about the offseason that preceded a disappointing 5-11 campaign for the Ravens in 2015.

But the decision to trade five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata proved to be a good one.

Of course, general manager Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens were never going to allow Ngata to carry a $16 million salary cap figure in the final season of a five-year, $61 million contract, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t try to keep him. The organization attempted to work out an extension like it did with Terrell Suggs a year earlier, but the sides didn’t come to an agreement before the 2006 first-round pick was traded to Detroit in the final moments before free agency began on March 10.

It turns out that the Ravens were probably fortunate not to extend Ngata. As Hall of Fame baseball executive Branch Rickey used to say, “Trade a player a year too early rather than a year too late.”

The trade was praised by many at the time, but the possibility of Ngata producing another Pro Bowl season and the Ravens struggling mightily up front was still there.

Ngata wasn’t awful in Detroit, but he hardly played at a Pro Bowl level as he registered a career-low 24 tackles in 14 games and dealt with hamstring and calf injuries. Pro Football Focus graded him as the league’s 39th-best interior defender in 2015 while Brandon Williams was 21st and Timmy Jernigan 49th. The production certainly didn’t warrant the $8.5 million base salary he was paid by the Lions, who were desperate to fill the void left behind by four-time Pro Bowl selection Ndamukong Suh.

Meanwhile, the Ravens drafted outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith with the fourth-round pick they received from Detroit and used their new fifth-round selection to trade up a few spots in the second round to take tight end Maxx Williams. Time will tell whether these players will make major contributions after mostly-quiet rookie seasons that did finish on high notes, but the potential value alone trumps what Baltimore might have gotten from Ngata in 2015.

If we’re being honest, the Ravens probably missed the 345-pounder to some degree as the run defense ranked 12th in the NFL and allowed 4.0 yards per carry after finishing fourth and surrendering just 3.6 per attempt in 2014. His primary replacement Jernigan shook off a slow start to play well in the second half of 2015, but he was stronger as a pass rusher than as a run-stopping defender at Ngata’s old 3-technique spot.

Ngata would have made the defensive line more stout, but his expensive presence hardly would have transformed the Ravens from a 5-11 team into a 10-6 playoff contender. If the Ravens had signed him to an extension last winter, we’d also be wondering how much football he has left in the way we’re now asking about his longtime teammate Suggs, who will be coming off his second Achilles tendon tear in four years and carries a $7.45 million cap figure for 2016.

The 32-year-old Ngata has expressed desire to re-sign with Detroit, but he is not committed to playing beyond 2016, which should make Ravens fans feel even better about the organization not signing him last winter. Given the issues Baltimore has with its salary cap, the fewer contracts awarded to aging players near the end of their careers, the better.

It became apparent over the course of the 2015 season that the Ravens need to get younger at several key spots, something they’ve done along the defensive line without significant drop-off. Ngata was one of the best players in the 20-year history of the franchise, but parting ways with an aging defensive tackle was the right call with only minimal short-term fallout.

Little went right for the Ravens in one of the most disappointing seasons in team history, but the Ngata trade has already proven to be a winner without even knowing what Smith and Maxx Williams will offer in the future.

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Was Brandon Williams a Pro Bowl snub?

Posted on 24 December 2015 by Luke Jones

When the NFL announced its Pro Bowl selections on Tuesday, many Ravens fans were unhappy to see third-year nose tackle Brandon Williams left out.

In fact, the 2013 third-round pick wasn’t even announced as a Pro Bowl alternate despite being graded by Pro Football Focus as the NFL’s top run-stopping interior defender this season. In 14 games, Williams has collected 47 tackles, two sacks, and a forced fumble to lead the league’s 11th-ranked run defense.

(For the record, Williams received my vote as the team’s MVP in a forgettable 2015.)

“I would say he’s very deserving of an opportunity,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “I was a little surprised. But, hey, you know what? That should serve as motivation. Obviously, the rest of the players and the coaches and the fans don’t see it the way we see it. I’m quite sure it’ll motivate Brandon to play even better.”

So, was Williams truly a Pro Bowl snub? It’s easy to argue in favor of a player you’ve watched all season, but it’s difficult to evaluate 3-4 defensive linemen considering it’s not a front where statistics are easily collected. Williams has been the Ravens’ best defensive player in 2015, but that doesn’t mean he’s automatically one of the top defensive tackles in the league.

No one would dispute that Williams has been an exceptional performer in an otherwise lousy season for the Ravens, but how does he stack up to the defensive tackles — Geno Atkins, Calais Campbell, Fletcher Cox, Aaron Donald, Gerald McCoy, and Kawann Short — who were invited to Honolulu?

These six all have more quarterback sacks and played more passing snaps than Williams, who is often taken off the field for passing situations and hasn’t distinguished himself as a consistent rusher in his first three seasons. As outstanding as he is against the run, Williams being more of a one-dimensional player than other defensive tackles doesn’t help his cause in the Pro Bowl discussion.

All except McCoy had a better overall PFF grade than Williams among interior defenders this season as the Ravens nose tackle grades 16th overall when combining both run defense and pass-rush ability. Graded by PFF as the 65th overall interior defender, McCoy made his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl and appears to fit the description of a player who was chosen based solely on reputation this year as he dealt with a rotator cuff injury for much of the season.

But Minnesota’s Linval Joseph, Green Bay’s Mike Daniels, and Miami’s Ndamukong Suh could also make strong cases as snubs, and all three were graded higher than Williams by PFF. Of course, all methods of evaluation — including Pro Football Focus — beyond basic statistics are imperfect, but Williams’ case doesn’t appear to be markedly better than others who were left on the outside looking in.

“I can’t control any of that,” Williams said. “I’m just going to control what I can control, and that’s helping my team right now. Obviously, you want to prove that you’re one of the best, and you want to go. But as of right now, I’m worried about the Steelers.”

Defensive linemen playing in 3-4 systems always struggle to receive recognition because of what they’re asked to do on the field. Even former Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata had to wait until his fourth season before making five consecutive Pro Bowls in Baltimore.

As arguably the best run-stopping nose tackle in the NFL, Williams would have been deserving had he been selected.

But was it a severe injustice that he won’t join guard Marshal Yanda and punter Sam Koch in Hawaii?

Probably not.

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Koch, Yanda only Ravens players named to Pro Bowl

Posted on 22 December 2015 by Luke Jones

In his 10th year with the Ravens, punter Sam Koch is finally going to his first Pro Bowl.

Though the Ravens are in the midst of the most disappointing season in franchise history, Koch and right guard Marshal Yanda were named to the Pro Bowl on Tuesday night. The two Pro Bowl selections are the fewest Baltimore has had since left tackle Jonathan Ogden was the lone representative in the 2005 season.

Having led the NFL in net punting average each of the last two seasons, Koch is finally receiving credit as one of the best punters in the NFL. The 2006 sixth-round pick is averaging 43.0 net yards per punt and has just three touchbacks all season.

“This has definitely been a long time in the making,” Koch said in a statement released by the Ravens. “A lot of hard work and practice have gone into this. … This is a very surreal and exciting moment for my family and me. I can’t wait to represent the Ravens in Hawaii.”

Having signed a five-year extension before the season, Koch has never missed a game in his 10-year career and has played in a team-record 158 consecutive games. The 6-foot-1, 219-pound punter is the fifth special-teams player under John Harbaugh to make a Pro Bowl, joining Brendon Ayanbadejo, Billy Cundiff, Jacoby Jones, and Justin Tucker.

With six-time Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs spending the season on injured reserve, Koch is the longest-tenured Ravens player currently on the active roster. The next-longest-tenured player on the roster is Yanda, who was named to his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl.

Yanda is the sixth player in franchise history to make five Pro Bowls while playing for the Ravens, joining Ray Lewis, Ogden, Ed Reed, Suggs, and Haloti Ngata. With the Ravens celebrating their 20th season in Baltimore, Yanda was voted by fans as one of the 10 best players in franchise history earlier this year.

Pro Football Focus has graded Yanda as the top overall guard in the NFL this season as he’s graded third in run block and third in pass blocking. The 6-foot-3, 305-pound lineman signed a four-year extension earlier this season and is quietly building a case as one of the best players in franchise history.

Yanda has missed only two offensive snaps all year and has missed only two games over the last seven seasons.

“Football is the ultimate team sport, and you don’t do anything in this league on your own,” said Yanda, Baltimore’s third-round selection in the 2007 draft. “I want to thank the coaches and my teammates for helping me along the way. We all grind together with the goal of achieving greatness.”

Linebacker C.J. Mosley and fullback Kyle Juszczyk were named third alternates at their positions, meaning they could be invited to play in the game should other players not be able to attend due to injury or because they’re competing in the Super Bowl.

Many teammates, fans, and media were clamoring for nose tackle Brandon Williams to make the Pro Bowl as he’s emerged as arguably the best run-stopping defensive tackle in the NFL, but players at positions with few statistics often have to wait their turn to finally receive Pro Bowl recognition. Though he became one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL from the time he was drafted by the Ravens in 2006, Ngata did not make his first Pro Bowl until his fourth NFL season and went on to make it five consecutive years.

The Pro Bowl will take place at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu on Jan. 31.

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Ravens thoughts on Aiken, Pittsburgh, injuries, Pro Bowl

Posted on 22 December 2015 by Luke Jones

Kamar Aiken is one of the last men standing in the Ravens offense.

In a lost season on so many levels, the Central Florida product has established himself as a productive NFL receiver and an important piece moving forward. His 62 catches for 802 yards — already the 24th-highest single-season receiving yardage total in franchise history — and five touchdowns would make for a good season without accounting for the two games he still has to add to those totals.

In the six games since Steve Smith suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 8, Aiken has caught 37 passes for 469 yards and three touchdowns. Those numbers put the 6-foot-2 receiver on pace for a 98-catch, 1,250-yard season over a full 16 games. Of course, the Ravens currently don’t have a whole lot besides Aiken in terms of viable pass-catching targets — Torrey Smith’s production similarly ballooned in 2013 — but he’s also played with three different quarterbacks including the last two games with Jimmy Clausen, who’s been with Baltimore for all of a month.

It’s been impressive work from the former practice-squad receiver who had never made an NFL reception before last season. But Aiken’s emergence shouldn’t make general manager Ozzie Newsome feel he’s set at wide receiver this offseason.

Reports persist that Steve Smith is likely to return if his rehabilitation goes well, but he will also be 37 next year and coming off a serious injury that impacts explosiveness. It’d be foolish to doubt such a fierce competitor’s desire to return and be productive in 2016, but expecting him to come back as a No. 1 option like nothing ever happened would be unrealistic — and unfair.

Breshad Perriman will be back, but the Ravens haven’t seen their 2015 first-round pick play as much as a snap in a preseason game. He will need to prove his knee is healthy and that he can contribute as an NFL wide receiver before anyone signs off on him as the No. 1 receiver of the future.

With a plethora of needs on both sides of the ball, the Ravens may not need to draft a receiver in the first round this spring, but another wideout should firmly be on Newsome’s radar in the first few rounds of the draft. Otherwise, Baltimore will once again enter a season with too many questions at a position that’s been an Achilles heel for much of the 20-year history of the franchise.

At the very least, Aiken is shaping up to be a dependable possession receiver — a poor man’s Anquan Boldin — and the one commodity at the position that the Ravens can really trust while shaping their 2016 roster this offseason.

Bracing for Pittsburgh

Based on the number of Seattle and Kansas City fans that made their way to M&T Bank Stadium over the last two weeks, Steelers fans may make Sunday’s game feel like it’s being played at Heinz Field, which would be a disheartening conclusion to a home schedule that has already included five losses — most in franchise history.

I’ll never judge fans for selling their tickets — personal seat licenses and season tickets are a heck of a financial commitment for mere entertainment — but you’d like to see Ravens fans protect their home turf against their biggest rival if at all possible. I wrote about this topic earlier this season, but I also won’t fault fans trying to make some money around the holiday season as the injury-ravaged hometown team is barely recognizable at this point.

To add insult to injury, the Steelers can clinch a playoff spot with a win and a New York Jets loss against New England on Sunday. And, oh yeah, Pittsburgh has scored 30 or more points in six straight games and will be facing a pass defense that has offered little resistance all season.

Optimists will call it a rivalry game in which anything can happen, but it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea for Ravens fans to brace themselves for it to get ugly two days after Christmas.

Injury excuse

With the preseason feel of recent games that have followed the loss of quarterback Joe Flacco, the narrative surrounding the 2015 Ravens — particularly from a national perspective — now centers around their numerous injuries.

Tight end Crockett Gillmore became the 21st Ravens player to officially be lost to a season-ending injury when he was placed on injured reserve with a back ailment on Monday, but many of the significant names on that list went down after the season was already in the dumpster. Below is a look at the Ravens’ Week 8 starting lineup when they sported a 1-6 record and welcomed San Diego to Baltimore:

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My point?

Injuries are certainly part of the story — particularly the early losses of Terrell Suggs and Perriman — but don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that’s the only — or even the most — significant explanation for the team’s failures this year. It was apparent early in the season that a number of problems unrelated to injuries contributed to this nightmare season.

The loss of players like Flacco, Smith, and Justin Forsett merely turned a lost year into a punchline with players now on the field whom fans have needed to google on a weekly basis.

Pro Bowl picks

The NFL will announce its Pro Bowl selections Tuesday night and while no Ravens players won the fan vote, coaches and players account for two-thirds of the voting.

My picks would be guard Marshal Yanda, defensive tackle Brandon Williams, and punter Sam Koch.

Yanda has shown no signs of slowing down as he should be in line for his fifth straight Pro Bowl invitation. Meanwhile, Williams has proven himself as the top run-stopping nose tackle in the NFL and has steadily received more praise around the league this season, leading you to believe he has a solid chance to have his name called. But even as Haloti Ngata learned several years ago, players are sometimes deserving of the Pro Bowl a year or two before they are finally recognized to go.

I’m pulling for Koch to finally earn a trip to the Pro Bowl as he is leading the NFL in net punting for the second straight year and is the longest-tenured Ravens player behind only Suggs. Now in his 10th season in Baltimore, Koch has routinely been one of the better punters in the NFL and has brought innovation to the position that should be recognized with a trip to Honolulu.

Interception perspective

Not only do the Ravens rank last in the NFL with just four interceptions, but 10 players around the league have more than four this season. The previous franchise low for interceptions in a season was 11 set in 2005 and matched last season.

Future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed collected more than four picks in a season seven different times in his career.

Baltimore has just one interception in its last 11 games.

Where have you gone, Ravens defense of old?

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Ravens-49ers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 17 October 2015 by Luke Jones

If we’re being honest, this space has become a punchline so far in 2015.

Incorrectly picking the final outcome of four of the Ravens’ first five games — including the last four in a row — doesn’t inspire confidence when trying to forecast Sunday’s meeting with the San Francisco 49ers. Of course, no one predicted Baltimore to be 1-4 for the first time in franchise history, either.

Only six of the 121 teams to begin a season with a 1-4 record have gone on to make the playoffs since 1990. For now, the Ravens are simply trying to win a game despite an extensive list of key players dealing with injuries.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens meet the 49ers in a meaningful game for the first time since Super Bowl XLVII, which feels much longer than just three years ago for both teams. Counting the 34-31 win in New Orleans, Baltimore holds a 4-1 edge against the 49ers and the teams are tied 1-1 playing in San Francisco. Sunday will mark the Ravens’ first trip to Levi’s Stadium, the site of Super Bowl 50 in February.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens attempt to win their seventh consecutive game against an NFC opponent …

1. Torrey Smith will draw a long pass interference penalty and catch a touchdown against his former team. The 49ers have struggled in the passing game due to the inconsistency of Colin Kaepernick, but the Ravens don’t have a cornerback who can run with the fifth-year wideout since Jimmy Smith is still trying to regain his pre-surgery form with his foot. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will try to provide as much safety help as possible, but the University of Maryland product will catch a touchdown to exact some revenge after the Ravens made little effort to re-sign him in the offseason. The league’s 25th-ranked pass defense will also draw a flag trying to keep up with the speedster.

2. New Ravens cornerback Shareece Wright will see extensive time in the nickel package. With Lardarius Webb doubtful and Will Davis out for the year, Baltimore was trying to bring Wright up to speed as quickly as possible this week. Simplifying schemes might be the best idea for all members of the secondary considering how inconsistent the group has been with technique and coverage assignments. Unlike Kyle Arrington and Asa Jackson, Wright is viewed as more of an outside cornerback, which is something the Ravens need right now. Expectations shouldn’t be very high for Jimmy Smith’s high school teammate, but that’s no different than the rest of the group at this point.

3. Rookie Buck Allen will score his first NFL touchdown as he leads the Ravens in rushing. Even if Justin Forsett does play on Sunday, Baltimore promoting practice-squad member Terrence Magee doesn’t instill confidence that the veteran will have a full workload. Allen had struggled before breaking a 44-yard run against Cleveland, but the Ravens hope that’s the start of the fourth-rounder finding a groove. With No. 2 back Lorenzo Taliaferro done for the season, the Ravens need Allen to step up immediately and he will do that to some degree on Sunday. Against the league’s 17th-ranked run defense, the offensive line will open running lanes and Allen will build on what he did in Week 5.

4. Brandon Williams will collect another sack and three tackles for a loss. The third-year nose tackle has been Baltimore’s best defensive player by a wide margin in 2015 and will be going up against 49ers center Marcus Martin and right guard Jordan Devey, who have been liabilities in 2015. San Francisco wants to feed the ball to running back Carlos Hyde as much as possible, but Williams presence in the middle of the defensive line will make that a difficult proposition. If Ravens outside linebackers can contain the edges and prevent Kaepernick from taking off, Williams will provide plenty of heat in early-down situations and pick up his second sack of the season at some point.

5. Joe Flacco will bounce back from his 2015 fourth-quarter struggles to give the Ravens the edge in a 24-21 win. It’s easy to pick on the eighth-year quarterback for having the worst fourth-quarter passer rating in the NFL this season, but who has he been able to trust to throw to beyond Steve Smith, who hasn’t been out there for the fourth quarter the last two games? Flacco does need to be better in the final quarter, but he can’t do it by himself. The Ravens will take advantage going up against the league’s 31st-ranked defense to make enough plays late in the game to secure a victory. Am I confident in that prediction? You never are when you’re 1-4, but the 49ers are 1-4 and have looked much worse than the Ravens with three of their four losses being by double digits.

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Ravens-Browns: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 10 October 2015 by Luke Jones

Hosting Cleveland has been the Ravens’ closest experience to a homecoming game for more than 15 years.

Owning a 13-3 all-time mark over the Browns in Baltimore and winning 13 of the last 14 meetings overall, the Ravens have appeared to barely break a sweat if you only look at the win-loss record. But the narrative has changed ever so slightly with five of the last seven games being decided by one possession.

In the 2014 regular-season finale at M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens trailed Cleveland in the fourth quarter before scoring 17 points to send them to victory and their sixth trip to the playoffs in seven years. Now, both teams are fighting for their 2015 lives with matching 1-3 records and plenty of question marks on both sides of the ball.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens try to overcome injuries to Steve Smith and Crockett Gillmore to improve their all-time record to 25-8 over the Browns and climb back into the early AFC playoff race.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens look to win their first game in Baltimore this season …

1. Justin Forsett will eclipse the 100-yard rushing mark for the second consecutive week. There’s a danger here of offensive coordinator Marc Trestman trying to outsmart himself as one could argue that the Ravens should come out throwing while Cleveland stacks the box trying to stop the run with Smith out. But why mess around when the Browns ranked last in the NFL in run defense last year and are 31st so far in 2015? Baltimore will use play-action fakes and Flacco will take shots here and there, but the Browns need to prove they can stop the run first and the Ravens will pound the ball until that happens. The offensive line play will pick up where it left off in Pittsburgh last week.

2. Browns running back Duke Johnson and tight end Gary Barnidge will combine to make 10 catches for 120 yards and a touchdown. Cleveland has allowed 14 sacks in four games this year and will be focused on stopping Elvis Dumervil coming off the edge, leading to lots of chips by Barnidge before quarterback Josh McCown checks down to him with short passes. The rookie Johnson has also proven to be an effective target out of the backfield, which could create issues for C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith. With the Ravens devoting safety attention to the big-play capability of Travis Benjamin, Browns tight ends and running backs will have more success in the passing game.

3. Darren Waller will catch the first touchdown of his NFL career. Anyone telling you they have a good idea how the passing game is going to shake out on Sunday is only guessing as you just don’t remove a talent like Smith from the equation without major adjustments needing to be made. Kamar Aiken will receive opportunities as the No. 1 guy, but his performances against Denver (one catch for minus-1 yard) and Cincinnati (zero catches) make it difficult to trust him. After making his first NFL reception on the Ravens’ game-tying drive at the end of regulation a week ago, the 6-foot-6 Waller will catch his first touchdown as Flacco throws him a pretty fade inside the red zone in the first half.

4. Brandon Williams and Timmy Jernigan will each collect their first sack of the 2015 season. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will try his best to move Dumervil away from Joe Thomas, but the Ravens need to continue to get inside pressure to minimize the glaring void left behind by Terrell Suggs. Za’Darius Smith provided the boost last week, but it will be Williams and Jernigan stepping up on Sunday. More of a run-stopping tackle, Williams has had a Pro Bowl-caliber season and has been the Ravens’ best defensive player in 2015. Meanwhile, Jernigan’s second season has been a disappointment so far as he’s fallen behind rookie Carl Davis and needs a strong performance against the Browns.

5. The better quarterback and the team with the home-field advantage will do enough to earn a 20-13 win. It’s unfair to expect too much from Joe Flacco when you look at the group of pass-catchers he’ll be throwing to on Sunday, but he needs to limit his mistakes, something he didn’t do in Pittsburgh last week. He won’t post gaudy numbers, but Flacco will play smarter football than McCown and the Baltimore defense will clamp down on a Cleveland offense short on playmakers in a sometimes-ugly, points-challenged contest. Neither team has shown many signs of being a good football team so far, but the Ravens own the edge playing at home in Week 5 and they’ll take advantage of it.

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Thursday night

Posted on 30 September 2015 by Luke Jones

The Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers appeared to be two teams moving in opposite directions, but a single injury altered that thinking on Sunday.

A knee injury to Ben Roethlisberger not only puts the Steelers (2-1) in a holding pattern for at least the next few weeks while trying to survive with backup Michael Vick at the helm, but it gives the winless Ravens hope that they can go to Heinz Field on a short week and potentially steal their first victory of 2015. Of course, it won’t be easy for Baltimore with starting tight end Crockett Gillmore, starting left tackle Eugene Monroe, starting defensive end Chris Canty, and rookie wide receiver Breshad Perriman all ruled out for Thursday night.

Searching for answers and knowing only three NFL teams have rebounded from an 0-3 start to make the NFL playoffs since 1990, the Ravens’ biggest enemy at this point might be themselves as a season full of high expectations has instead started in nightmare fashion for John Harbaugh’s team. It’s officially uncharted territory for a team that had never started 0-3 in franchise history and has made the playoffs in six of the last seven years.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens play Pittsburgh for the 39th time in their regular-season history as they own a 17-21 mark. The teams split a pair of games at Heinz Field last season, but Baltimore prevailed 30-17 over the Steelers in a wild-card playoff game last January.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to improve to 5-2 in Thursday night primetime games under Harbaugh …

1. Pittsburgh will control the tempo of the game by handing the ball to Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams a combined 35 times. Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley isn’t going to allow Vick to take many chances, leaving plenty of opportunities for these running backs. The Ravens rank fourth in the league allowing just 3.4 yards per carry, but the Steelers will spread out the defense to create just enough room for Bell and Williams to keep Vick in manageable down-and-distance situations.

2. Maxx Williams will catch his first touchdown and provide the Ravens with another threat behind Steve Smith. Considering how many issues the Pittsburgh defense has had with tight ends so far, Gillmore’s absence couldn’t have come at a worse time, but Williams will find room against linebackers who are poor in pass coverage. The bigger question will be how he and fellow rookie Nick Boyle fare as blockers with the Ravens desperately needing to get their struggling running game in order.

3. Brandon Williams will pick up his first sack of the season and create problems in the Pittsburgh backfield. There have been few bright spots on the Ravens’ 26th-ranked scoring defense, but Williams has been a force and the unit’s best player. With Pittsburgh center Maurkice Pouncey out, the third-year nose tackle should dominate Cody Wallace by collecting his first quarterback takedown as well as a few other tackles for a loss to force more Pittsburgh runs to the perimeter on Thursday night.

4. Antonio Brown will still collect 100 yards receiving and a touchdown without Roethlisberger throwing to him. The Steelers likely won’t have Brown running as many downfield routes, but they will use bubble screens and other ways to get the ball to the playmaker in open space to put pressure on tacklers. It will be interesting to see if Dean Pees elects to have Jimmy Smith shadow Brown, but the Ravens better be ready to give him help against one of the top wide receivers in the NFL.

5. Vick will manage the game effectively while the Ravens lack the “it” factor to do what it takes in a 24-16 loss. I fully expect a Harbaugh-coached team to compete in this one and I’m tempted to pick the Ravens to win with Roethlisberger out, but last week was the game in which they needed to pull themselves off the mat and they still couldn’t do it. Many have cited Baltimore’s 5-1 record against Pittsburgh when Roethlisberger hasn’t played, but two active defensive players — Courtney Upshaw and Albert McClellan — took part in that last win in 2012, a game Brown also missed. The defense will be a little better than the last two weeks and the offense will find ways to move the ball, but the recurring theme of not being good enough in the fourth quarter will cost Baltimore again in a close one.

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Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees listens to a reporter's question at a news conference after an NFL football training camp practice on Saturday, July 26, 2014, in Owings Mills, Md. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

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Defensive pride on line for Ravens against Cincinnati

Posted on 24 September 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — First, it was Ravens head coach John Harbaugh suggesting his defense didn’t play with the level of effort it needed in a shocking 37-33 loss in Oakland.

On Thursday, defensive coordinator Dean Pees went further in criticizing his unit’s performance as the Ravens now try to avoid the first 0-3 start in franchise history when they welcome the undefeated Cincinnati Bengals to town for the home opener. Not only are the Ravens trying to escape an early-season hole, but pride is on the line for a defense that’s been the identity of one of the most successful franchises in the NFL for the better part of two decades.

Playing their first game without Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, or Terrell Suggs since 1998, the Ravens turned in one of their worst defensive performances in recent memory against the lowly Raiders.

“We did not play with energy,” said Pees, who also hinted that his defense hadn’t practiced well in San Jose, Calif. last week. “When you don’t play with energy, you end up with six penalties, numerous missed tackles and several big plays, and that was the whole bottom line. For whatever reason, we didn’t play with energy. The players are responsible for that and so are the coaches. It’s up to us to get them to play with energy and play at a high level, and it’s up to them as players to produce at a high level.

“Sometimes, we have to take the role of leaders as coaches, and we have to do some things and just expedite the process a little bit and get them to play harder.”

The poor performance has been discussed ad nauseam, but hearing Pees question the energy and leadership of his defense lends credence to the notion that the Ravens would sorely miss Suggs after the 13th-year linebacker suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 1.

A return to M&T Bank Stadium should automatically lift the energy level for a Ravens defense that has allowed the fewest points per home game (15.3) in the NFL since Harbaugh’s arrival in 2008. Baltimore will need to build on its 45-11 home record since 2008 to remove the sour taste of the first two road games, but the Ravens will play a Bengals team that handed them a home loss in last year’s season opener.

“We don’t want to be 0-2, but it’s still early in the season and our urgency will go up,” said linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who has collected 16 of his 26 1/2 sacks with the Ravens at home. “We just have to keep stacking practices. We just have to go get a win. That’s what it’s all about. We all just have to play our ‘A’ game.”

The Ravens defense believes it more closely resembles the group that held Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos without an offensive touchdown in Week 1 than the unit that was torched by second-year quarterback Derek Carr in Oakland, but they have to prove it against a Bengals offense that has scored a total of 57 points in its first two games.

A week after stuffing the run, playing mostly-sound pass coverage, and consistently pressuring the pocket, the Ravens couldn’t get out of their own way, making everyone wonder about a defense without Suggs or offseason departures Haloti Ngata and Pernell McPhee. The Jekyll and Hyde profile of the first two weeks has led everyone to question which is the real Baltimore defense.

“It’s not a matter of, ‘OK, are we good, or are we bad?’” Pees said. “We have to improve. We have to play like we played in the first week all the time. Every day, every practice, every game — that’s the intensity we have to play with, and if we don’t, it’s our fault as coaches.”

Contrary to popular belief, the Ravens have had poor defensive performances from time to time over the years, but the head coach and the defensive coordinator both questioning the group’s effort and energy after Sunday’s loss is largely uncharted territory with such dynamic on-field leadership over the years. It’s a sentiment that only highlights the narrative of the veteran players no longer residing in the defense.

Facing their first 0-2 start in a decade, the Ravens must lean on its young defensive standouts such as cornerback Jimmy Smith, inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, and nose tackle Brandon Williams to not only make plays but to emerge as leaders.

“Losing a player like Suggs is hard, and that’s one less player someone else has to worry about,” Williams said. “But at the same time, someone else needs to step up, whether it be me or anyone else on the line to step up and just make plays.”

Of course, you’re only as good — or bad — as your last game. Asked whether Sunday’s performance against the Raiders had damaged the confidence he has in his defense, Pees recalled his tenure in New England in which the Patriots would use the 2003 season opener — a 31-0 beating they took at the hands of the Buffalo Bills — as a reminder to never take too much away from one performance.

After that embarrassing loss, the Patriots won 17 of their next 18 games to win the Super Bowl that season.

“One game never defines you — good or bad,” Pees said. “It didn’t define us after Denver. It won’t define us after Oakland.”

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Five numbers behind Ravens’ 37-33 loss in Oakland

Posted on 22 September 2015 by Luke Jones

Every week, we’ll examine five numbers stemming from the Ravens’ latest game, this one being the surprising 37-33 loss at Oakland in Week 2 …

1 — Combined tackles from Brandon Williams, Timmy Jernigan, and Carl Davis
Skinny: With issues at outside linebacker due to the season-ending injury to Terrell Suggs, the Ravens need the early-round draft investments they’ve made on the defensive line to come up big and they didn’t in Oakland. The lack of a pass rush and poor coverage in the secondary were bad enough, but the Ravens also allowed 5.1 yards per carry, much of that due to the ineffectiveness of the defensive line.

10 — Years it’s been since the Ravens started a season 0-2
Skinny: Maybe the Ravens should refrain from wearing the commemorative jersey patches for their 20th season in Baltimore. They also wore a jersey patch in 2005 for their 10th season in Charm City when they last started 0-2. It’s certainly been a credit to the organization that 0-2 starts have been few and far between, but the timing of the last two are a strange coincidence.

11 — Missed tackles by the Ravens counted by Pro Football Focus
Skinny: Truthfully, you might have expected the number to be even higher as Baltimore posted its highest total of tackling miscues since last season’s Week 9 debacle in Pittsburgh. Much attention has been paid to the lack of a pass rush on Sunday, but the poor tackling on short passes was even more detrimental since the ball was coming out quickly quite often.

62 — Snaps played by Elvis Dumervil
Skinny: This was Dumervil’s highest single-game total in his three seasons with the Ravens and is a concern as the defense tries to account for Suggs’ absence on the field. Baltimore needs to have the fresh Dumervil who collected the franchise’s single-season record with 17 sacks a year ago. A worn-down version of him trying to be Suggs will only make the pass rush worse over the course of the season.

351 — Net passing yards for Derek Carr and the Raiders offense
Skinny: Why is this number significant? It’s the highest total allowed by a Baltimore defense against a non-Pro Bowl quarterback since rookie Andy Dalton and Cincinnati finished with 364 net passing yards on Nov. 20, 2011. If you want to eliminate Dalton since he made his first Pro Bowl later that season, Ryan Fitzpatrick would be the last signal-caller never to make a Pro Bowl to post that many net passing yards against the Ravens when he finished with 382 as Buffalo’s quarterback on Oct. 24, 2010.

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Ten Ravens prophecies for the 2015 season

Posted on 13 September 2015 by Luke Jones

As many go through the endeavor of making division-by-division forecasts, these predictions focus on the Ravens and their quest to advance to the playoffs for the seventh time in eight years and to possibly win their third Super Bowl title in their 20th season in Baltimore.

A look back at last year’s predictions show a mixed bag — predicting Elvis Dumervil would take a step back before he went on to set the Ravens’ single-season sack record was particularly embarrassing — but it’s fun to envision how the next four months or so will play out.

Below is a new forecast to tear apart:

1. Joe Flacco will finally be named the team’s Most Valuable Player in his eighth season.

The fact that the quarterback hasn’t won a team MVP award from local media — for what it’s worth, I voted for him over winner Justin Forsett last year — illustrates how much he is taken for granted. After having arguably his best statistical season a year ago, Flacco will post similar numbers despite having a slew of inexperienced weapons behind 36-year-old Steve Smith, a testament to his ability.

2. Brandon Williams will play at a Pro Bowl level, but he will not receive that recognition.

The third-year nose tackle is one of the NFL’s best-kept secrets and the Ravens will need him to anchor the defensive line with Haloti Ngata now a member of the Detroit Lions. Williams will be Baltimore’s best defensive lineman by a wide margin, but playing a position where statistics don’t jump out will force him to wait another year to receive a Pro Bowl nod.

3. Rashaan Melvin will be starting over Lardarius Webb by the end of the year.

Even if you can forgive Webb’s play in 2014 because of a back injury, how much can he really bounce back as he turns 30 in October? A hamstring issue prevented the seventh-year cornerback from playing in the preseason, creating more questions about Webb’s durability. Though Melvin’s play in last year’s playoff loss to New England was brutal, the Ravens think they have something with the 6-foot-2 corner.

4. Will Hill and Crockett Gillmore will be players to take a step forward.

His troubled history is no secret, but Hill has done everything that Ozzie Newsome asked of him when he came to Baltimore last summer and the Ravens rewarded the 25-year-old safety with an extension through 2016. Gillmore is probably receiving too much hype after a quiet rookie year, but the Ravens would be very pleased if he can match Owen Daniels’ 2014 production (48 catches for 527 yards).

5. Marlon Brown and Chris Canty will be players to take a step back.

It seems unfair to pick Brown for this again, but he had a quiet summer and just never seems to play as big as his frame while the Ravens drafted the 6-foot-6 Darren Waller in May. The 32-year-old Canty was re-signed after being cut this offseason, but Brent Urban receiving the designation to return reflects the Ravens’ vision of him taking over the 5-technique defensive end spot sooner rather than later.

6. Third-round pick Carl Davis will be the Ravens’ most impressive rookie.

Without knowing what injured first-round pick Breshad Perriman can bring to the table after missing the entire preseason, Davis looks to be the most NFL-ready rookie that the Ravens have as he will receive plenty of time in the defensive line rotation and could push Timmy Jernigan to start. At 6-foot-5 and 320 pounds, Davis brings impressive size that could eventually make him a poor man’s Haloti Ngata.

7. Free safety Kendrick Lewis will be the disappointing veteran newcomer.

The 27-year-old has received positive reviews from coaches and teammates, but Lewis did not have a good preseason and was merely an average starting safety in Houston and Kansas City. He will be a better free-agent acquisition than monumental bust Michael Huff, but I’m not convinced that he’ll be a noticeable upgrade from Darian Stewart at the free safety spot.

8. Marshal Yanda, C.J. Mosley, Jimmy Smith, and Kelechi Osemele will be Baltimore’s Pro Bowl selections.

The choices of Yanda and Mosley would hardly be surprising, but Smith and Osemele will receive recognition that they deserve. This will be especially meaningful for Osemele in the final year of his rookie deal as he’ll position himself for a payday that’s unlikely to come from the Ravens. Yanda will earn his fifth straight trip to the Pro Bowl to cement his status as one of the top players in franchise history.

9. This will be Terrell Suggs’ final season.

This is a shot in the dark and not at all an indictment of how I anticipate Suggs playing this year, but the soon-to-be 33-year-old admitted this spring that he pondered his football future and didn’t work out in the same way that he would in past offseasons. The six-time Pro Bowl selection knows he’s the last man standing from the old Baltimore guard, so it wouldn’t be stunning to see him call it a career after 2015.

10. The Ravens will qualify for the postseason as a wild card with a 10-6 record and will exit in the second round.

Too many questions on the offensive side of the ball will stunt the Ravens’ growth just enough to prevent them from winning the AFC North. With their questions in the passing game and Pittsburgh’s defensive problems, Cincinnati quietly has the most stability in the division and is built to be a strong regular-season team. That said, Baltimore will top the Bengals in a wild-card round meeting to extend the playoff misery of Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton. The Ravens will then lose a close one at Indianapolis in the divisional round before the Colts go on to win the AFC championship.

Bonus Super Bowl pick that no one asked for: Green Bay will prevail over Indianapolis as Aaron Rodgers wins his second championship in a 34-24 final in Santa Clara.

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