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Five questions for Ravens defense entering organized team activities

Posted on 23 May 2018 by Luke Jones

Contrary to what you might conclude from this offseason, the Ravens do have another side of the ball.

While spending most attention and resources on revamping the NFL’s 29th-ranked passing game, general manager Ozzie Newsome parted ways with only one player — defensive back Lardarius Webb — who played defensive snaps in 2017. That’s a remarkable level of continuity in this era, but will it pay off?

The Ravens defense was exceptional at times in 2017, leading the league in takeaways and pitching three shutouts. The group ranked in the top 10 in most significant statistical categories until late in the season and still finished fifth overall in Football Outsiders’ weighted defense rankings.

But the defense struggled down the stretch, blowing a late lead in Pittsburgh for the second year in a row and suffering one of the bigger collapses in team history when Cincinnati scored on a fourth-and-12 play from the Baltimore 49 with under a minute left in Week 17 to knock the Ravens out of the playoffs. No matter what the numbers said, the defense came up small in some of the biggest moments of the season.

Below are five pressing questions for the Ravens defense as organized team activities are now underway:

1. How much will change under new defensive coordinator Wink Martindale?

Players have provided glowing endorsements of Martindale and anticipate more flexible and aggressive schemes than those employed by Dean Pees. Criticisms of the former defensive coordinator are fair — leaving Brandon Carr on an island with Antonio Brown late in the Week 14 loss to the Steelers was just one example — but these types of sentiments about new coaches are commonplace whenever teams fall short the previous season. It’s easy to subtly point fingers at individuals no longer in the picture, but Martindale’s roots with the Ryan family are definitely intriguing from a schematic standpoint. On the flip side, the former linebackers coach must prove his failed stint in Denver eight years ago was mostly due to the Broncos’ lack of talent since this defense has the talent to be a good-to-great unit.

2. Who will man the inside linebacker position next to C.J. Mosley?

This is likely a multi-pronged answer since former rookie free agent Patrick Onwuasor started 13 games at the weak-side spot and the dime package was frequently used in passing situations with an extra safety playing in the box last season. The Ravens should continue to be creative with sub packages, but they need more consistency at this position in the base defense, whether it’s Onwuasor taking the next step in his development or fourth-round rookie Kenny Young seizing the opportunity to get on the field. You’d expect Martindale to continue to use the likes of Anthony Levine and Chuck Clark in the dime package when appropriate, but Baltimore identifying another inside linebacker who can hold up in pass coverage will be vital to the overall success and flexibility of the defense.

3. Will the Ravens get more out of safety Tony Jefferson?

The prize free-agent acquisition of 2017 was ordinary in his first year with the Ravens, providing ammunition for critics who wondered why Newsome invested a four-year $34 million contract in a box safety when there were clear needs on the other side of the ball a year ago. Many point to Pees too frequently using Jefferson away from the line of scrimmage — a valid claim, especially in the first half of the 2017 season — but there were also examples of him being beaten in coverage by tight ends and not being as strong against the run as advertised. Martindale should continue using Jefferson in the box as much as possible, but Eric Weddle will need to be able to hold up in back-end coverage. Even after a restructure, Jefferson has the team’s ninth-highest cap number and must bring more to the table.

4. What will the 5-technique defensive end spot look like?

The season-ending loss of Brent Urban in Week 3 last season was unfortunate after the 6-foot-7, 300-pound lineman appeared on his way to becoming an impact player, and the Ravens struggled to fill this position for much of the season, another factor that hurt their run defense in addition to the four-game absence of Brandon Williams. Re-signing Urban to a cheap one-year deal was a prudent move, but counting on a player who’s missed 39 games in a four-year career is problematic at best. Carl Davis shifted outside to do a respectable job in the second half of last season, but he’s also entering the final year of his contract, making it critical for either 2017 third-round pick Chris Wormley or 2016 third-round pick Bronson Kaufusi to step up to become a real contributor at this spot.

5. How will a deep group of cornerbacks be handled?

On paper, this is one of the deepest cornerback groups the Ravens have ever had with young talents still pursuing their ceiling. Jimmy Smith’s health is the major question as he recovers from last December’s torn Achilles tendon, but Marlon Humphrey looked the part of a future shutdown corner as a rookie and the solid veteran Carr was retained as a pricey insurance policy. Beyond that, Tavon Young is back in the fold after serving as a strong slot defender as a rookie two years ago, and Maurice Canady will try to build on his late success at the nickel last season. Those numbers don’t even take into account fourth-round rookie Anthony Averett or Jaylen Hill, who showed potential last summer before being stricken with injuries. If all are healthy — a major if — Martindale will have a good problem on his hands.

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Ravens re-sign defensive end Urban to one-year deal

Posted on 06 March 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens have re-signed defensive end Brent Urban to a one-year contract.

The 2014 fourth-round pick was set to become an unrestricted free agent next week, but Baltimore will instead retain its only defensive starter from last season who had been scheduled to hit the open market. After missing 26 games due to injuries over his first three seasons, the 6-foot-7, 300-pound Urban had finally moved into a starting role in 2017 before suffering a season-ending Lisfranc foot injury in Week 3.

The Ravens struggled to replace Urban at the 5-technique defensive end spot, eventually deciding on Carl Davis midway through the season. However, with Davis undergoing offseason shoulder surgery and recent third-round picks Bronson Kaufusi and Chris Wormley not developing as rapidly as the organization had hoped, retaining Urban became a distinct possibility with general manager Ozzie Newsome mentioning it in Indianapolis last week.

“Beyond thankful to be given the opportunity to do what I love with the organization that gave me my start,” Urban posted on his Twitter account shortly after the deal was announced. “2018 is going to be so real.”

After also dealing with injuries at the University of Virginia that hurt his draft stock, Urban missed his entire rookie season after tearing his ACL early in training camp and then missed 10 games in 2015 with a torn biceps sustained that summer. The organization has always been high on his size and ability and were excited about his potential as an interior pass rusher last year before he went down in the blowout loss to Jacksonville.

In 25 career games with Baltimore, Urban has collected 25 tackles, three sacks, and three batted passes.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts from 2018 NFL combine

Posted on 04 March 2018 by Luke Jones

With the 2018 NFL scouting combine winding down, I’ve offered a dozen Ravens thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Ozzie Newsome didn’t drop any bombshells speaking at his final combine as general manager, but he was accountable and expressed much urgency to get back to the playoffs and finally get it right at wide receiver. The latter would be a fine demon to exorcise to complete his brilliant run.

2. Newsome’s job title and responsibilities after 2018 remain unclear, but Steve Bisciotti telling him he wants his golf game to improve should ease concerns about his “significant” position potentially clashing with the transfer of power to Eric DeCosta. It needs to be the latter’s show to run.

3. Jeremy Maclin remains on the roster for now, but Newsome only saying that no decision has been made on his future should be pretty telling. The general manager’s desire to “change that room” wouldn’t seem to bode well for free agent Mike Wallace’s chances of returning either.

4. On the other hand, Newsome’s praise for the play and leadership of Brandon Carr leads you to believe he’ll remain on the roster. Jimmy Smith is apparently progressing well with his Achilles tendon rehabilitation, but there’s no way to know yet if he’ll be ready for Week 1.

5. Some balked at Newsome saying Breshad Perriman would be part of spring workouts, but this shouldn’t be a surprise with the lack of bodies at receiver and the organization’s desire to salvage any bit of value from a first-round pick. This hardly guarantees he’ll be part of the 2018 team.

6. Only preliminary talks have been held with the agent of C.J. Mosley about a contract extension beyond 2018, but that’s not a major surprise as it wasn’t until late April of 2015 that Jimmy Smith signed his deal, the last time Baltimore extended a first-round pick.

7. Newsome predictably praised the emergence of Alex Collins, but adding a running back to be a dangerous factor as a receiver out of the backfield should still be a goal this offseason. I don’t believe Danny Woodhead, Buck Allen, or Kenneth Dixon is that guy.

8. Maryland wide receiver DJ Moore made a statement to be in the conversation as a first-round pick with his strong showing in Indianapolis. His workout numbers mesh very well with his production for the Terps despite never benefiting from consistent quarterback play.

9. Penn State’s Mike Gesicki is another prospect the Ravens should covet. He isn’t a blocker, but he checks the boxes you want in a pass-catching tight end and was very impressive at the combine. Gesicki also caught 14 touchdowns and had almost 1,500 receiving yards over the last two seasons.

10. Re-signing Brent Urban to a cheap contract with incentives is fine, but injuries have plagued him throughout his football career. It would be unwise to give him any real money or envision him as a “Plan A” guy.

11. Oklahoma offensive tackle Orlando Brown, the son of the late former Ravens lineman, was impressive during his press conference, but his disastrous workout numbers will be difficult to overcome. Talk of him being a first-round pick became a distant memory in a matter of hours.

12. Newsome has never basked in the spotlight — Friday was the first time he’d answered questions at a press conference since last April — but he deserves the farewell recognition he’ll receive from peers, fans, and media over the next calendar year. Where would the Ravens have been without him?

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How did Ravens defensive linemen stack up to rest of NFL in 2017?

Posted on 25 January 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens failed to make the postseason for the fourth time in five years, but where exactly did their players stack up across the NFL in 2017?

Whether it’s discussing the Pro Bowl or picking postseason awards, media and fans spend much time debating where players rank at each position, but few put in the necessary time and effort to watch every player on every team extensively enough to develop any kind of an authoritative opinion.

Truthfully, how many times did you closely watch the offensive line of the Los Angeles Chargers this season? What about the Detroit Lions linebackers or the Miami Dolphins cornerbacks?

That’s why I can appreciate projects such as Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 and the grading efforts of Pro Football Focus. Of course, neither should be viewed as the gospel of evaluation and each is subjective, but I respect the exhaustive effort to grade players across the league when so many of us watch only one team or one division on any kind of a consistent basis. It’s important to note that the following PFF rankings are where the player stood at the conclusion of the regular season.

Below is a look at where Ravens defensive linemen ranked across the league, according to those outlets:

Running backs

Brandon Williams
2017 defensive snap count: 475
NFL1000 ranking: 23rd among defensive tackles
PFF ranking: 19th among interior defenders
Skinny: Those who were reluctant to see the Ravens give Williams a monster contract saw the defense give up the most rushing yards in the NFL during his four-game absence in September and October. The 28-year-old isn’t a pass rusher, but PFF ranked him fifth among interior linemen against the run.

Michael Pierce
2017 defensive snap count: 595
NFL1000 ranking: 20th among defensive tackles
PFF ranking: 22nd among interior defenders
Skinny: The second-year nose tackle built on his successful rookie season with plenty of success as a starter, finishing with 49 tackles and one sack while playing all 16 games. Like Williams, Pierce doesn’t offer much rushing the passer, but he’s been a heck of a find as a former undrafted free agent.

Willie Henry
2017 defensive snap count: 598
NFL1000 ranking: 50th among defensive tackles
PFF ranking: 45th among interior defenders
Skinny: After not playing a snap as a rookie and being a healthy scratch for the first two weeks of 2017, Henry rapidly emerged as Baltimore’s best pass-rushing defensive lineman, finishing with 3 1/2 sacks and five batted passes. His improvement was critical as others dealt with injuries at various points.

Carl Davis
2017 defensive snap count: 302
NFL1000 ranking: 19th among 3-4 defensive ends
PFF ranking: 78th among interior defenders
Skinny: The 2015 third-round pick’s career hasn’t gone as planned thus far, but Davis helped solidify the 5-technique spot after Brent Urban was lost for the season and younger options Chris Wormley and Bronson Kaufusi weren’t up to the task. He finished with 17 tackles, one-half sack, and one batted pass.

Brent Urban
2017 defensive snap count: 123
NFL1000 ranking: 27th among 3-4 defensive ends
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The 6-foot-7 free agent looked poised for a strong 2017 after an impressive preseason, but the injury bug bit him again as he suffered a season-ending Lisfranc injury in Week 3. Re-signing Urban on the cheap isn’t out of the question, but he’s missed 39 games in his four seasons.

Chris Wormley
2017 defensive snap count: 120
NFL1000 ranking: n/a
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The Ravens would’ve liked to see the third-round rookie from Michigan make more of an impact after Urban went down early in the season, but it’s not unusual to see a 5-technique defensive end need more seasoning. This will be a critical offseason for Wormley to show he’s ready for a bigger role.

Bronson Kaufusi
2017 defensive snap count: 33
NFL1000 ranking: n/a
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: Kaufusi had the chance to be the next man up when he received a Week 4 start, but he was ineffective and then inactive for 10 of the final 12 games. The clock’s ticking for the 2016 third-round pick to prove he’s not a bust, but the circumstances were there for him to get on the field this past season.

2018 positional outlook

The interior defensive line remains in very good shape with Williams and Pierce serving as strong anchors, but the 5-technique defensive end spot remains an uncertain position, especially with the recent news of Davis undergoing shoulder surgery. Using third-round picks on Kaufusi and Wormley the last two years should have more than taken care of that position, but the former may not be a sure thing to even make the 53-man roster after being a total non-factor in his second season and the jury is still out on Wormley after a quiet rookie campaign. Questions about these two could prompt the Ravens to have more interest in re-signing Urban, but he’s not dependable — even at a cheap price. The departure of Lawrence Guy last March turned out to be a bigger loss than anticipated, so it’s possible general manager Ozzie Newsome could be on the hunt for a veteran bargain to stabilize the depth at defensive end.

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Ravens, Green Bay providing interesting contrast to start of offseason

Posted on 05 January 2018 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jimmy Smith ready for start of next season?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Infirmary report

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

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

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

Young backup for Flacco

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

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

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

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

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Examining the Ravens’ 2018 class of free agents

Posted on 03 January 2018 by Luke Jones

Free agency won’t begin until March 14, but the Ravens face arguably the most pivotal offseason in team history after missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five years and seeing fan support dwindle in 2017.

As has become Baltimore’s annual story, salary cap space will be a problem as the Ravens currently hold an estimated 2018 Rule of 51 commitment of just under $170 million, according to Spotrac.com. The 2018 salary cap won’t be set until March, but it is projected to rise from $167 million in 2017 to somewhere between $174 million and $178 million. Since the aforementioned commitment doesn’t include any of their pending free agents, the Ravens will clearly have difficult decisions to make with some cap analysts already painting a very gloomy picture about their lack of cap space and their limited flexibility.

This comes with the reality that the Ravens have substantial work to do to their roster — especially on the offensive side of the ball — if they want to escape the land of mediocrity in which they’ve resided since Super Bowl XLVII.

Of course, the Ravens can create cap space by renegotiating, extending, or terminating veteran contracts and will surely do some combination of that. Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, cornerback Brandon Carr, running back Danny Woodhead, right tackle Austin Howard, defensive back Lardarius Webb, and linebacker Albert McClellan stand out as veteran candidates who could become cap casualties this winter.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

The Ravens will have the opportunity to retain any of the following 12 unrestricted free agents before they can officially sign with any other team beginning on March 14 at 4 p.m.

CB Brandon Boykin: Once considered one of the better slot corners in the league, Boykin was placed on injured reserve in early September and is not expected to return.

OL Luke Bowanko: The veteran saw action in all 16 games and made one start, but the returns of guards Marshal Yanda, Alex Lewis, and Nico Siragusa from injuries make him expendable.

WR Michael Campanaro: The River Hill product played in a career-high 13 games and did nice work as a punt returner, making him a candidate to be re-signed at a cheap price.

TE Crockett Gillmore: The 6-foot-6, 266-pound Gillmore showed intriguing potential in 2015, but he’s missed 29 of Baltimore’s last 36 games due to injury, making his return highly questionable.

OL James Hurst: The once-maligned reserve offensive tackle found a niche as a serviceable starting left guard in 2017, but the aforementioned returning depth inside probably makes him expendable.

C Ryan Jensen: His emergence as a formidable starting center was a godsend with two backups handling the guard spots all year, but did the rest of the NFL also take notice in the process?

LB Steven Johnson: The veteran journeyman did a solid job on special teams in 10 games, but his spot and opportunity will likely go to a younger and cheaper player in 2018.

QB Ryan Mallett: With Joe Flacco turning 33 later this month and battling inconsistency and some health concerns in recent years, the Ravens should be looking to draft a backup with more upside.

DE Brent Urban: The 6-foot-7 specimen looked poised for a strong year during the preseason, but he’s missed 39 games in four seasons, making him a poor candidate in which to invest any real money.

WR Mike Wallace: Market demand will be a major factor here, but the Ravens will be looking at needing to add two to three impactful receivers if Wallace exits and the disappointing Maclin is cut.

TE Benjamin Watson: The 37-year-old was a good story coming back from last year’s torn Achilles tendon to lead the team in catches, but the Ravens really need more of a play-maker at this position. 

RB Terrance West: The Baltimore native and Towson product turned his career around with the Ravens, but he will likely be seeking a better opportunity elsewhere in 2018.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS – none in 2018

EXCLUSIVE-RIGHTS FREE AGENTS

These seven players have less than three years of accrued service and can be tendered a contract for the league minimum based on their length of service in the league. If tendered, these players are not free to negotiate with other teams. The Ravens usually tender all exclusive-rights free agents with the thought that there’s nothing assured beyond the opportunity to compete for a spot. Exclusive-rights tenders are not guaranteed, meaning a player can be cut at any point without consequence to the salary cap.

WR Quincy Adeboyejo: The rookie turned some heads early in training camp and received a Week 17 promotion from the practice squad, but he’ll need to earn his way onto the 2018 roster.

RB Alex Collins: Given the present challenges with the cap, Collins falling into the Ravens’ laps was a major development of the season as he’ll be the clear favorite to be the 2018 starter at a cheap cost.

CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste: Promoted to the active roster after Jimmy Smith tore his Achilles tendon in early December, Jean-Baptiste will be in the mix next summer to try to make the roster.

TE Vince Mayle: Though not a factor as an offensive player, Mayle was a consistent special-teams contributor and has a chance to reprise that role next season.

LB Patrick Onwuasor: With the disappointing development of Kamalei Correa, Onwuasor started 12 games at the weak-side inside spot, but the Ravens could use some more competition here.

OL Maurquice Shakir: Promoted from the practice squad at the end of October, Shakir was inactive for eight games and will have the chance to compete for a job next summer.

G Matt Skura: The former undrafted free agent and practice-squad member did a respectable job filling in for the injured Yanda and could be in the mix at center if Jensen departs via free agency.

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With wounded pride, Ravens defense trying to regroup quickly

Posted on 25 October 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens defense would like to consider itself a wounded animal.

Desperate, but still dangerous.

And with an offense that wasn’t particularly good to begin with and hopelessly decimated by injuries, this defense needs to do the heavy lifting if the Ravens are to be relevant in the second half of the season. Of course, that kind of consistent performance hasn’t been there with Baltimore ranking a disappointing 18th in total defense and 13th in points allowed per game.

It’s a far cry from the offseason chatter from fans, media, and even some players suggesting this would be a special defense that could ultimately rival the finest units in franchise history.

“We still can be historic. We still can be magical,” said outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who was a member of some of those great defenses of yesteryear. “So, [forget] hype — you know what I’m saying? We know who we are, and we know what we’re about.”

For the better part of two decades, the Ravens have been about stopping the run above anything else, making their 32nd-ranked rush defense entering Week 8 all the more shocking. They’re allowing 145.3 rushing yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry, marks that would easily shatter team records for futility.

A year ago, Baltimore carried the best run defense in the NFL into Week 15 before some late-season struggles dropped the unit to fifth. That defense allowed only four runs of 20 or more yards all season, but this year’s Ravens have already relinquished seven rushes greater than 20 yards, including two in last Sunday’s 24-16 loss to Minnesota. The current group has forfeited 160 or more yards on the ground in four of the last five games after giving up that many in a contest only once in 2016.

No matter how pitiful the other side of the ball has been, it’s an embarrassing development for a franchise that hasn’t finished outside the top 10 in yards per carry allowed since its inaugural season in 1996.

“It’s a yucky taste in our mouth right now,” cornerback Brandon Carr said. “All hands are on deck right now. All 11 guys, back end and the front seven, we’re going to iron this thing out. It’s a long season. We’re halfway there, and we’ve got a lot of great football to play still.”

Players and coaches — at least openly — have struggled to pinpoint the root of the problems stopping the run while the pass defense has quietly been a strength after being the Achilles heel of that side of the ball for years.

Most would still point to the four-game absence of standout defensive tackle Brandon Williams as the biggest reason for the struggles of the run defense, but the Ravens gave up 5.6 yards per carry — their second-worst mark of the year — with him returning to action against the Vikings in Week 7. The season-ending injury to 5-technique defensive end Brent Urban hasn’t helped, but he entered 2017 with all of 372 career defensive snaps under his belt and the Ravens had drafted 5-technique players — Bronson Kaufusi and Chris Wormley — in the third round in each of the last two drafts.

Outside linebackers haven’t consistently set the edge, but tackling at every level of the defense has also been suspect. Regarded by many as the defense’s biggest strength entering the season, high-priced safeties Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson have each missed a critical tackle in Baltimore’s last two losses.

Long runs have come against sub packages sporting a lighter front and against the base defense with more bulk at the line of scrimmage.

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees has echoed the need to stop giving up big plays that are wiping away otherwise-respectable work, but those continue to happen for one reason or another.

“We’re struggling a little bit right now. I think we are pressing a little bit,” Pees said. “We have to get back to just letting it go and playing football and playing defense. I think we’re all pressing — me included — sometimes. That is usually not a good thing.”

If a turnaround is in the cards, you’d think it has to start Thursday against Miami, who owns the league’s last-ranked offense and is averaging just 3.3 yards per carry. One could argue backup quarterback Matt Moore gives the Dolphins a better chance to win than Jay Cutler, but head coach Adam Gase will still want to limit his opportunities to make mistakes against a pass defense tied for the league lead with 10 interceptions.

With the Ravens looking completely inept on offense and with little visible hope for marked improvement there, opponents would be foolish to not try to grind out yards on the ground and diminish the chances of turning the ball over. That’s what has made the last few weeks so maddening with Baltimore clearly knowing what the opposing offense is going to do and still not being able to shut down the run.

If this wounded defense is ever going to fight back, facing one of the worst offenses in the NFL at home on a short week seems like the logical time to start.

“You want to be good. You want to dominate everywhere, every facet of the game,” Suggs said. “Now, we’ve just got to tighten the screws a little bit. We just have to stop the leakage. But like I said, we’re not hitting the panic button just yet. We’re going to be alright.”

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 30 September 2017 by Luke Jones

Coming off one of the worst losses in team history and remembering what happened last Christmas Day, the Ravens should have no shortage of motivation against Pittsburgh on Sunday.

But it’s difficult knowing what to expect after such a shockingly poor performance in London and with the injuries continuing to mount. A Week 4 tilt is hardly a must-win game, but the Ravens surely would like to hold serve at home and escape the next two games with no worse than a 3-2 record going into the middle portion of the regular season.

The Steelers are coming off a disappointing loss of their own as their high-octane offense has been largely stuck in neutral through the first three weeks of the season. However, Pittsburgh does find itself in better shape than the Ravens from a health standpoint, a key factor in what’s always a very physical ballgame.

It’s time to go on the record as these AFC North foes meet for the 43rd time in the regular season with the Steelers holding a slight 22-20 edge as well as a 3-1 advantage in postseason encounters. Pittsburgh prevailed in dramatic fashion to clinch the division title last Dec. 25, but the Ravens have won six of the last eight meetings, a stretch that includes their only postseason victory since Super Bowl XLVII. Including the playoffs, 16 of the 21 showdowns with the Steelers in the John Harbaugh era have been decided by a single possession.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Alex Collins will lead the Ravens in rushing and will score his first touchdown. I’m not sure how real his 7.8 yards per attempt average is since he’s rarely carried the ball with a game’s outcome in doubt, but this sputtering offense is in desperate need of a spark and there’s no denying the urgency with which Collins has run. The Ravens have averaged 4.6 yards per carry since Marshal Yanda’s season-ending injury in Week 2, but most of that has come with a multi-score second-half lead over Cleveland and a huge deficit against Jacksonville and the Steelers are getting healthy with defensive end Stephon Tuitt returning. If the Baltimore passing game can’t get going again, Pittsburgh is likely to stack the box.

2. Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell will crack 100 yards of offense for the first time this season. It’s been a slow start to 2017 for the Steelers’ Pro Bowl running back, but the Ravens will be without standout defensive tackle Brandon Williams and defensive end Brent Urban, putting pressure on young linemen lacking experience against a rock-solid Pittsburgh offensive line. Baltimore linebackers were undisciplined in pass coverage against Jacksonville, which is another reason for concern with Bell’s ability as a receiver out of the backfield. The Ravens may need to take some chances with their linebackers to boost their pass rush, but that will leave them vulnerable on underneath throws.

3. Terrell Suggs will break a six-game drought against the Steelers with a sack against Ben Roethlisberger. No defender has more career takedowns of the Pittsburgh quarterback than Suggs, but the Ravens’ pass rush was nonexistent against Jacksonville while trying to rely mostly on a four-man rush. Not only do they need another edge rusher to consistently emerge opposite Suggs, but the inside pass rush is a big question mark since Urban was a major part of that equation. It isn’t enough to merely make Roethlisberger uncomfortable as Baltimore also needs to keep him in the pocket to prevent the downfield improvisation with his receivers that so often gets a secondary in trouble.

4. Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown will catch a touchdown despite being held to a season low for yards. The pain of last December’s game-winning score notwithstanding, the Ravens have generally done a respectable job against Brown while rarely having top cornerback Jimmy Smith travel with the All-Pro receiver. It will be interesting to see how much rookie cornerback Marlon Humphrey plays — especially with 6-foot-5 receiver Martavis Bryant back in the fold — but the Ravens are better equipped to handle the Pittsburgh passing game than they were in the fourth-quarter collapse in Week 16 last year. Brown will inevitably get touches, but he won’t be the difference in the game.

5. The Pittsburgh defense will be too much for the Ravens in a 17-14 loss. This will be a close one as it almost always is in this rivalry. I fully expect the Baltimore defense to rebound from last week’s embarrassment and play well despite being banged up on the defensive line, but it’s difficult having faith in the Ravens to score points considering the current state of the offensive line and how uncomfortable Joe Flacco has looked trying to throw the football down the field. They’re also facing a Steelers defense that’s improved from recent years despite its clear issues against the run in Chicago. Roethlisberger hasn’t won a game at M&T Bank Stadium since 2010 and the Steelers haven’t won in Baltimore since Charlie Batch pulled off an upset in 2012, but the Ravens are the inferior team on paper because of their many injuries and haven’t shown enough on offense to make me believe they’re going to win this one.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 44-7 loss to Jacksonville

Posted on 26 September 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens matching the team record for biggest margin of defeat in a 44-7 loss to Jacksonville in London, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. We always try to determine blame after any loss, but you’ll rarely find a performance with such universal guilt to go around as Sunday’s. Even a couple days later, the stench remains overwhelming, but the Ravens can take solace in knowing it only counts as one loss in the standings.

2. It’s difficult finding reasons to be optimistic about an offensive line that started a former sixth-round pick and three former undrafted free agents against the Jaguars. You hope left tackle Ronnie Stanley becomes the group’s anchor, but the absence of Marshal Yanda was as nightmarish as feared.

3. The Ravens defense showed no ability to create pressure with a four-man rush, meaning defensive coordinator Dean Pees needs to be much more creative with stunts and blitzes. The loss of defensive end Brent Urban will hurt the inside pass rush in sub packages, too.

4. Yes, the offensive line is a major problem, but Joe Flacco is showing the same flaws with poor footwork, anticipating pressure even when he has the time and space, and not pushing the ball down the field. Everything about this offense needs to be better, and that includes the quarterback.

5. Ravens wide receivers have combined for 13 catches this season. There are currently 35 players in the NFL with more. Relative to other position groups, the trio of Jeremy Maclin, Mike Wallace, and Breshad Perriman should be an offensive strength, so there’s no excuse for such anemic production.

6. The fruits of Greg Roman’s work at least showed in the first two weeks, but I’m still waiting for a sign that the Ravens made the right call sticking with Marty Mornhinweg as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. The passing game largely remains a mess with no downfield push.

7. Jimmy Smith played well and a couple others had their moments, but the defense sure looked like it was believing its hype before making Blake Bortles look like Ben Roethlisberger. Given the resources used, this defense must be special for Baltimore to win, but that’s still easier said than done.

8. I’m hesitant to read too much into garbage time, but Alex Collins looked the part for the second straight week and runs with urgency. That should have Terrance West and Buck Allen looking over their shoulders in a muddled offensive backfield.

9. I laughed at the outrage expressed by some over Jacksonville’s fake punt with a 37-point lead. I do find it unwise to burn a gadget play in a blowout, but John Harbaugh and the Ravens have done that same thing multiple times on the winning end of past lopsided affairs.

10. It’s a shame Jermaine Eluemunor’s debut in his native country didn’t come with a better result. His first activation was fueled by last week’s season-ending injury to Yanda, but that’s still a pretty amazing story for a London native to play his first NFL game at Wembley Stadium.

11. Those expecting a victory in Week 3 were reminded how volatile this league is — and how underwhelming the Ravens have been on the road in recent years — but I feel for the thousands who made the trip. Losing happens, but they deserved better than an uncompetitive showing.

12. We’ll see whether Baltimore was wise to request not having its bye after the London trip. How the Ravens fare at home against Pittsburgh and at Oakland could go a long way in determining if they’re serious contenders or pretenders who feasted on two bad teams the first two weeks.

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Ravens lose Urban to Lisfranc injury in foot that will require surgery

Posted on 26 September 2017 by Luke Jones

As if suffering one of the worst losses in team history weren’t enough, the Ravens lost another starter to a long-term injury during Sunday’s game.

Defensive end Brent Urban has been diagnosed with a Lisfranc injury in his foot and will undergo surgery, according to head coach John Harbaugh. The 2014 fourth-round pick was injured on the second play of the second quarter in the 44-7 loss to Jacksonville in London and didn’t return.

It’s an ailment that typically sidelines a player for months, meaning Urban will likely become the 16th Baltimore player to land on injured reserve before the calendar even turns to October. This marks the third time in four seasons he’s been sidelined with a long-term injury after he tore his ACL early in his first training camp as a rookie in 2014 and tore his biceps in his second training camp a year later.

He’s appeared in just 25 games over four seasons since being drafted from the University of Virginia.

With Urban out indefinitely, the Ravens will turn to the combination of Bronson Kaufusi and rookie Chris Wormley to pick up the slack at the 5-technique defensive end spot. Replacing free-agent departure Lawrence Guy, Urban had a big preseason and was a major part of the inside pass rush in sub packages as he entered the final year of his rookie contract.

A pair of third-round picks, Kaufusi and Wormley have been inactive for each of the first three games of the season and have yet to play a single NFL snap between them.

“Those guys are ready to go. Kaufusi and Wormley are ready to go,” Harbaugh said. “I am looking forward to seeing them play. We have some depth there. That is the good news about that particular situation. We have a lot of depth in our defensive line; I have been saying it all along. Those guys will be there trying to step up.

“We have had a lot of practice this year of guys stepping up. We are getting good at it now.”

Urban’s injury left the Ravens without two of their three starting defensive linemen Sunday as Brandon Williams was inactive with a foot injury sustained in Week 2. It remains unclear whether Williams will be able to return against Pittsburgh on Sunday.

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