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Twelve Ravens thoughts on Week 3 win in Jacksonville

Posted on 27 September 2016 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens improving to 3-0 for the first time since 2009 with a 19-17 victory at Jacksonville on Sunday, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Much praise has already been offered to the fourth-quarter performance of the Ravens defense, but the numbers were just sensational. Jacksonville ran 17 plays for four net yards while Baltimore collected four sacks, two interceptions, and two batted passes. That’s how you finish games.

2. Mentioning last week how methodical the Jacksonville defense has forced the Ravens to be, Joe Flacco threw 40 times with only completions of 20 or more yards. The Jaguars used deep safeties and an underwhelming running game didn’t help matters, but the Ravens must take more vertical shots.

3. Speaking of the running game, many want Terrance West to receive the bulk of the carries, but the Ravens don’t trust him as much in pass protection, which can’t be overlooked in a pass-happy offense. Still, you hope rookie Kenneth Dixon can eventually give a sputtering ground attack a spark.

4. John Harbaugh quipped that rookie linebacker Kamalei Correa needs extra work on the JUGS machine after dropping an interception that could have been a touchdown, but it was good to see the second-rounder make on impact with his first defensive action. Now he needs to build on that.

5. I had concerns after his Week 1 performance in which he had only 19 receiving yards on eight targets, but Steve Smith looked like his old self against Jacksonville, gaining yards after the catch and making four receptions in the fourth quarter. Maybe Jalen Ramsey did him a favor?

6. Many have criticized Shareece Wright after two rough games in a row, but shouldn’t Jimmy Smith be traveling with a receiver as talented as Jacksonville’s Allen Robinson? Wright does need to be better in coverage, but the Ravens gave Smith a big contract for those types of matchups.

7. Just 8-for-19 on tries from at least 50 yards in the previous two seasons, Justin Tucker is living up to a fat contract by nailing all three tries from that range so far, including the game-winning 54-yarder in Jacksonville. He’s easy to take for granted, but he shouldn’t be.

8. It’s ironic that Flacco’s franchise record of 21 consecutive completions ended on his best throw of the day that was dropped in the end zone by Mike Wallace. It wasn’t the best day for the veteran receiver or Breshad Perriman, who also dropped a couple of passes.

9. One of the big differences in the defense has been the improved pass coverage from the inside linebackers. C.J. Mosley and Zach Orr are getting better depth in their drops, and both came away with interceptions on Sunday.

10. Brent Urban gave the Ravens’ their 10th blocked kick since 2014, which proved to be the difference in the game. Special teams can be a great equalizer in overcoming deficiencies on offense or defense, and blocks have swung momentum two weeks in a row.

11. Alex Lewis did leave Sunday’s game with a concussion, but the Ravens listing the same seven inactives for the third straight week illustrates how healthy they’ve remained since the start of the regular season. They need Elvis Dumervil and Dixon to return, but they should feel fortunate otherwise.

12. Harbaugh says he isn’t superstitious, but his gray T-shirt worn on the sideline two weeks in a row will apparently be donned again against Oakland. It’s a more relaxed look for the ninth-year coach than we’re used to seeing, and it reminds a bit of Bill Belichick with the hoodie.

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No matter how it’s looked, Ravens in great position early in 2016

Posted on 25 September 2016 by Luke Jones

You don’t have to buy into the 3-0 Ravens after a sloppy 19-17 win over Jacksonville on Sunday.

They’ve defeated three teams that are a combined 1-8 so far this season. Baltimore has won each of those games by a single possession and trailed in the fourth quarter of the last two.

Quarterback Joe Flacco spoke the truth after the game despite the Ravens being off to their best start since 2009 and standing alone in first place in the AFC North.

“You don’t want to have to be winning these games the way we are,” said Flacco, who threw two fourth-quarter interceptions after a whopping 21 straight completions earlier in the game. “I think it makes us tougher as a football team. At the same time, you’re not going to be able to get away with this when you’re playing really, really good teams in January.”

The mere fact that Flacco could mention January says it all, however. That possibility was already looking bleak after an 0-3 start last year.

The Ravens may not be a great team, but they’re in a great position with a perfect record through the first three weeks. Since 1990, teams starting 3-0 have made the playoffs 75.6 percent of the time.

The odds look even better with the Ravens now playing consecutive home games against Oakland and Washington. A 5-0 start hardly appears out of the question, and that would be welcomed when you consider what the rest of the schedule looks like after that.

The offense has managed only four touchdowns in three games. The running game has largely been a non-factor at a meager 3.3 yards per carry. The passing game has impressed at times, but then there are moments such as Mike Wallace’s drop in the end zone on the opening drive of the third quarter on Sunday that throw the rhythm out of whack for an extended period of time.

Still, you see plenty of reason for optimism with Steve Smith and Dennis Pitta looking more and more like their old selves, Wallace providing a needed vertical presence, and young receivers such as Breshad Perriman and Chris Moore flashing potential. The offensive line has been an obvious concern, but there were always going to be growing pains with two rookies starting on the left side.

In other words, there’s reason to think the group can improve markedly. That’s why a 3-0 record feels that much better, regardless of the quality of opponents.

“I think we’re a team that’s kind of growing as we’re moving along here,” Flacco said. “We have a lot of moving parts and a lot of guys who haven’t played with us before. At some point, we might see that we’re building up, building up, building up and all of a sudden it turns over very quickly. That’s kind of what I’m looking for — for it to turn over very quickly and for us to explode as an offense and really take off.”

The most impressive part of the Ravens through the first three weeks, however, has been a defense that’s allowed only 14.7 points per game. That’s including a 20-point nightmare of a first quarter in Cleveland, meaning the defense has been even stingier in its other 11 quarters of action.

The pass rush hasn’t been as consistent as defensive coordinator Dean Pees would like, but it has stepped up when needed, sacking Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles four times in the fourth quarter after failing to register one in the first three quarters on Sunday. You’d like to see more pressure off the edge, but veteran Terrell Suggs came alive with two quarterback takedowns in the final period and the Ravens will hope to welcome back Elvis Dumervil in Week 4. The interior rush has been more consistently disruptive with Timmy Jernigan leading the way with three sacks in the first three games.

But the biggest difference from last year’s defense has been the ability to force turnovers. The Ravens intercepted three passes against the Jaguars to give them five for the season, just one shy of their franchise-worst 2015 total.

On Sunday, Baltimore picked off Bortles twice in the final five minutes. Last week, it was a C.J. Mosley interception in the final minute that preserved a 25-20 victory. These were the game-changing plays that were largely absent against both good teams and bad teams a year ago.

Despite their imperfections on Sunday, the Ravens had two distinct advantages over the Jaguars that Suggs identified after the game. And they’re huge reasons why Baltimore should feel even more optimistic about a 3-0 start.

“You want a quarterback with ice in his veins,” Suggs said, “and you damn sure want a kicker with ice in his veins as well.”

Justin Tucker proved the latter with a 54-yard field goal with 1:02 remaining to complete a 4-for-4 day. He has now connected on all three of his tries from at least 50 yards, an area where he struggled last season.

The Ravens may not be the best 3-0 team in the NFL, but they’ll take that over being called the best 2-1 team like Pittsburgh or a good 1-2 squad like Cincinnati. Sure, you can argue that the Ravens haven’t beaten anybody, but they haven’t lost to anybody, either.

A 3-0 start leaves less work to do later and more leeway to figure things out in the coming weeks as the Ravens will hope to be ready to step up their play against the better teams looming later in the year.

Maybe even in January.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts on Week 2 win in Cleveland

Posted on 19 September 2016 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens completing the second-largest comeback in franchise history with a 25-20 victory at Cleveland on Sunday, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. After a quiet performance in the opener, C.J. Mosley came up with the game-saving interception in the closing seconds, but he also added six tackles — two for losses — and a quarterback knockdown. This was the kind of high-impact performance we didn’t see from Mosley last season.

2. You had to feel good for Dennis Pitta having that kind of game in his return to the place where he suffered his second career-threatening hip injury. He took full advantage of the defense respecting the Ravens’ speed and effectively worked underneath against Cleveland.

3. It will be interesting to see how Kenneth Dixon fares when he returns, because the running game hasn’t been getting it done. Averaging 3.0 yards per carry, the Ravens need better blocking from their offensive line, but neither Justin Forsett nor Terrance West looks like a true No. 1 back.

4. His return for a defensive two-point conversion grabbed the attention, but Tavon Young is quietly playing at a high level for a rookie fourth-rounder. Sharing time with Anthony Levine as the slot cornerback, Young made two key open-field tackles on the final defensive series of the game.

5. Never one to shy away from being aggressive, John Harbaugh forgoing a 45-yard field goal try to go for a fourth-and-2 to start the second quarter was a panic move, especially with a running game that’s been abysmal in those spots. Take the points from your high-paid kicker that early.

6. Others have played well, but Timmy Jernigan has been Baltimore’s best defensive player through two games. The 2014 second-round pick leads the team with two sacks, four tackles for a loss, and five quarterback hits and has provided a much-needed interior rush presence.

7. The presence of veterans Steve Smith and Mike Wallace figured to impact the production of Kamar Aiken, but the leading receiver last season has been an afterthought so far with just two receptions on three targets. The Ravens would certainly like to get him more involved.

8. I was impressed with Browns rookie Corey Coleman, who caught two touchdowns and went over 100 receiving yards. With Josh Gordon coming off suspension, Cleveland could have had a fun little passing game if not for the left shoulder injury to Josh McCown that’s believed to be serious.

9. For a team that regularly says it takes pride in being physical, the Ravens sure like to use shotgun formations and run outside in short-yardage situations.

10. It’s no secret that third-down defense was an issue on Sunday, but Dean Pees’ unit deserves credit for settling down midway through the second quarter. After the Browns converted six of their first seven third downs, the Ravens made stops on six of the final eight.

11. Not lost in victory was poor clock management late. First, Forsett ran out of bounds with 3:00 left. The Ravens proceeded to take their final timeout, throw an incompletion, and kick a field goal with 2:53 remaining instead of forcing Cleveland’s final timeout or taking it to the two-minute warning.

12. We always talk about Joe Flacco having an even-keeled personality, but you could tell how fired up he was after the win, complimenting his teammates for being a “bunch of freaking men” in coming back. No matter their deficiencies, the Ravens always have a chance with him at the helm.

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Game-changing plays, good fortune lead to comeback win for Ravens

Posted on 19 September 2016 by Luke Jones

The final score alone wouldn’t have been surprising with the Ravens often making things difficult on themselves over the years, especially when playing on the road.

But falling behind 20-0 to the lowly Cleveland Browns less than 11 minutes into the game?

That’s the kind of nightmare start that makes everyone take pause as you ponder how many teams against which the Ravens could have afforded to do that and still come away with a win. The 25-20 victory was the second-largest comeback in franchise history, but the overall performance still leaves observers asking how good the Ravens truly are despite starting 2-0 for the first time since 2009.

In the end, you’d much rather apologize for an ugly win than pump your chest out about a pretty loss or moral victory any day of the week. John Harbaugh’s team knows it has a lot of work to do, regardless of what the record indicates.

But Sunday represented another example of how 2016 might be different than last year’s 5-11 nightmare.

How many times did fans lament the Ravens’ inability to make game-changing plays to swing the momentum in the opposite direction last year?

That’s exactly what Lawrence Guy provided by blocking Cleveland kicker Patrick Murray’s extra point, leading to rookie Tavon Young’s return for a defensive two-point score that transformed an expected 21-0 deficit into a 20-2 score in the first quarter. The three-point swing not only stopped the first-quarter hemorrhaging, but it provided the pep in the step that the Ravens desperately needed after an emotional Saturday mourning the death of beloved defensive assistant Clarence Brooks.

Wide receiver Mike Wallace has provided the ingredient that the passing game had sorely lacked since the departure of Torrey Smith. The veteran newcomer caught two more touchdowns from quarterback Joe Flacco on Sunday and is providing the speed to open up the short-to-intermediate portion of the field for Dennis Pitta, who led the way with nine receptions for 102 yards.

Even the defense brushed itself off from a nightmare first quarter to make the game-saving play as inside linebacker C.J. Mosley picked off a Josh McCown pass at the 1-yard line with 13 seconds to go. How many times was the Ravens defense unable to make a play in a critical spot last year?

The Ravens were also fortunate on Sunday, which isn’t a bad thing. Both Super Bowl runs in franchise history were accompanied by some good luck along the way. Baltimore had little of that last season, ranging from the many injuries to a questionable holding call against Will Hill in Oakland’s final drive and a missed false start call that gave Jacksonville the chance to make the game-winning field goal on the final play of the game.

Harbaugh and the Ravens were the beneficiaries of an absurd taunting call against Terrelle Pryor after the Browns receiver had made a terrific 20-yard reception to put the ball on the Baltimore 10 with 20 seconds remaining. With an official right behind Lardarius Webb when Pryor harmlessly flipped the ball in that direction after the catch, how could anyone consciously throw such a flag in that critical moment?

You can only imagine the outrage in Baltimore had such a call come against Wallace or Steve Smith in that spot. The penalty wiped away the 20-yard gain as McCown threw the pick to Mosley on the next play.

It tainted an exciting finish to a close game, but the Ravens shouldn’t care as long as they and their fans remember this one the next time Baltimore comes up on the short end of an all-too-common officiating gaffe in the NFL. You know it will happen sooner or later.

Like their close season-opening win against a Buffalo team that’s already in disarray, the Ravens didn’t earn style points for such an uneven performance against a Cleveland team with 17 rookies on the roster. But they are exhibiting positive traits that just weren’t there last season.

On Sunday, they made big plays when they needed to and had a little bit of luck at the end.

That’s good enough for now.

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Ravens list Z. Smith as questionable, rule out Dumervil again

Posted on 16 September 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Having already ruled out Pro Bowl pass rusher Elvis Dumervil for the second straight week, the Ravens could be without another outside linebacker in Cleveland on Sunday.

After missing his third straight practice with an ankle injury, Za’Darius Smith was listed as questionable to play in Week 2. Despite not starting in the opener against Buffalo, the 2015 fourth-round pick played 36 snaps in the Week 1 win, the most of any active outside linebacker.

Smith was not listed on the injury report last week after missing the final two preseason games with an ankle sprain. It remains unclear whether he aggravated the previous injury or hurt the opposite ankle against the Bills.

“I really don’t know,” head coach John Harbaugh said early Friday afternoon. “I don’t remember. The injury report will be out later.”

Dumervil hasn’t practiced since suffering a setback in his return from offseason foot surgery last month. The 32-year-old said Thursday that he’s improving and getting closer to a return, but he still offered no timetable for when he might be ready to play.

With Dumervil out and Smith in danger of missing Sunday’s game, the Ravens may need to lean more heavily on rookie linebackers Matt Judon and Kamalei Correa. Judon saw only 13 defensive snaps against Buffalo while Correa, the team’s second-round pick, only played on special teams in the season opener.

“They’ve both done a tremendous job and have demonstrated that they can play in this league,” Harbaugh said. “That’s an ongoing process, and whatever opportunities they get, we’ll be expecting them to make the most of it. We’re going out there as a team to go win the football game.”

The Ravens also listed wide receiver Breshad Perriman (calf), inside linebacker C.J. Mosley (thigh), cornerback Jerraud Powers (ankle), and guard John Urschel (shoulder) as questionable. All four were full participants in practice on Thursday and Friday, leading you to believe they should all be healthy enough to play against the Browns.

Perriman missed Wednesday’s practice, but he returned the following day and told reporters that he was feeling good and expecting to play in Week 2.

As expected, rookie running back Kenneth Dixon was ruled out as he continues to recover from a torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee sustained in the third preseason game on Aug. 27. At the time of the injury, he was expected to miss roughly four weeks of action.

Meanwhile, the Browns did not have a single player absent from practice on Thursday or Friday and didn’t list anyone on their final game status injury report. Defensive backs Marcus Burley (groin) and Derrick Kindred (ankle) were limited in practices early in the week, but the NFL eliminated the “probable” label on the injury report, likely explaining why they weren’t listed in the game status report.

The referee for Sunday’s game will be John Hussey.

According to Weather.com, Sunday’s forecast in Cleveland is calling for a 50 percent chance of scattered thunderstorms, temperatures reaching the mid-70s, and winds up to 10 miles per hour.

Below is the final injury report for Sunday’s game:

BALTIMORE
OUT: RB Kenneth Dixon (knee), LB Elvis Dumervil (foot)
QUESTIONABLE: LB C.J. Mosley (thigh), WR Breshad Perriman (calf), CB Jerraud Powers (ankle), LB Za’Darius Smith (ankle), G John Urschel (shoulder)

CLEVELAND
No one listed

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Mosley, Perriman return to Ravens practice after one-day absence

Posted on 15 September 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After missing Wednesday’s practice with a calf injury, Ravens wide receiver Breshad Perriman returned to the field a day later as fans breathed a sigh of relief.

The 2015 first-round pick did not appear to be working at full speed during the portion of practice open to reporters, but he was listed as a full participant on Thursday’s injury report. Though unwilling to discuss specifics related to the injury, he said after practice that he felt good and expected to play in Sunday’s game against Cleveland.

Inside linebacker C.J. Mosley (thigh) also returned to practice as a full participant after a one-day absence. The 2014 Pro Bowl selection downplayed the significance of the ailment on Wednesday.

Linebackers Elvis Dumervil (foot) and Za’Darius Smith (ankle) and running back Kenneth Dixon (knee) remained sidelined with their respective ailments. Though he hasn’t been officially ruled out yet, Dumervil is not expected to play in Week 2 as he continues to work his way back to full strength after suffering a setback in his return from offseason foot surgery.

Smith’s status is also a concern after he had previously dealt with an ankle injury over the final two weeks of the preseason. Should he not be able to play, the Ravens would be light at the outside linebacker position behind starters Terrell Suggs and Albert McClellan.

Rookie Matt Judon would once again be in the mix as a situational pass rusher, but defensive coordinator Dean Pees would likely need to turn to at least one more option such as veteran Chris Carter or rookie Kamalei Correa. Those two were core special-teams players against Buffalo, but neither played a defensive snap in the 13-7 win.

Suggs and five-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda received the day off from practice on Thursday, which happened to be the latter’s 32nd birthday.

Center Jeremy Zuttah was back at practice on Thursday after receiving the previous day off.

Meanwhile, Browns left tackle Joe Thomas returned to practice after receiving the previous day off.

Below is Thursday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: RB Kenneth Dixon (knee), LB Elvis Dumervil (foot), LB Za’Darius Smith (ankle), LB Terrell Suggs (non-injury), G Marshal Yanda (non-injury)
FULL PARTICIPATION: LB C.J. Mosley (thigh), WR Breshad Perriman (calf), CB Jerraud Powers (ankle) OL John Urschel (shoulder), C Jeremy Zuttah (non-injury)

CLEVELAND
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: DB Marcus Burley (groin), DB Derrick Kindred (ankle)
FULL PARTICIPATION: G John Greco (back), WR Terrelle Pryor (shoulder), OT Joe Thomas (non-injury)

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Perriman sidelined from Ravens practice with calf injury

Posted on 14 September 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens receiver Breshad Perriman made his long-awaited NFL debut on Sunday, but the 2015 first-round pick was one of six players missing from Wednesday’s practice.

The 23-year-old was listed with a calf issue on the first injury report of the week after head coach John Harbaugh declined to comment on his absence. The injury is considered minor, according to an ESPN report.

Perriman played 21 snaps and made a 35-yard reception in the 13-7 win over Buffalo and appeared to be fine in the post-game locker room, but his absence reignites the questions about his ability to stay on the field. After missing his entire rookie season with a right knee injury, the second-year wideout missed most of summer training camp with a partially-torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee sustained in June and only returned to play in the preseason finale.

Other players sidelined as the Ravens continued preparations for this weekend’s trip to Cleveland included linebackers Elvis Dumervil (foot), C.J. Mosley (thigh), and Za’Darius Smith (ankle), center Jeremy Zuttah (non-injury), and running back Kenneth Dixon (knee). Considering how much time he missed throughout the summer after undergoing offseason foot surgery, Dumervil appears to be in real jeopardy of missing his second straight game to start the regular season.

Smith missed the final two weeks of the preseason with an ankle injury, but it remains unclear whether he suffered a setback. He was not listed on the injury report last week and played 36 snaps against Buffalo.

Mosley downplayed the significance of his thigh injury and isn’t considered a question mark for Sunday’s game.

“I’m feeling pretty good,” Mosley said. “I just have to make sure I don’t go out there and make anything worse. I’ll be out there [Thursday].”

Third-year offensive lineman John Urschel was a full participant on Wednesday after being inactive for the season opener. He practiced fully all last week after missing a large portion of the preseason with a shoulder injury.

Veteran cornerback Jerraud Powers made his return to practice on a limited basis after missing the opening game. He had been sidelined since suffering an ankle injury on Aug. 20.

Meanwhile, the Browns only had one player missing from their Wednesday workout as nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas was given the day off.

Below is the full Wednesday injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: RB Kenneth Dixon (knee), LB Elvis Dumervil (foot), LB C.J. Mosley (thigh), WR Breshad Perriman (calf), LB Za’Darius Smith (ankle), C Jeremy Zuttah (non-injury)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: CB Jerraud Powers (ankle)
FULL PARTICIPATION: OL John Urschel (shoulder)

CLEVELAND
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: OT Joe Thomas (non-injury)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: DB Marcus Burley (groin), DB Derrick Kindred (ankle)
FULL PARTICIPATION: G John Greco (back), WR Terrelle Pryor (shoulder)

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Ravens need youth movement for 2016 and beyond

Posted on 09 September 2016 by Luke Jones

Your outlook on the Ravens this season likely depends on how you viewed a forgettable 2015 in which they finished 5-11.

If you point to more than 20 players suffering season-ending injuries — the most in the John Harbaugh era — and nine losses decided by one possession, a dramatic turnaround feels inevitable with any reasonable shift in luck.

Or, you remember the myriad of reasons that contributed to a 1-6 start long before the losses of Steve Smith, Joe Flacco, and Justin Forsett transformed a lost season into one more conveniently excused by injuries. From that perspective, those failures were less about bad fortune and more the culmination of a series of missteps over the previous few years.

No matter where your assessment of last season lies, the 2016 Ravens are relying on a slew of older players at key positions, which is a slippery slope. According to Jimmy Kempski of PhillyVoice.com, Baltimore had the sixth-oldest 53-man roster in the NFL on final cut-down day. That was before general manager Ozzie Newsome re-signed the 30-year-old Justin Forsett and added 33-year-old return specialist Devin Hester at the beginning of the week.

Fifteen players on the active roster are 30 or older. Of their 12 former Pro Bowl selections, only two — linebacker C.J. Mosley and kicker Justin Tucker — are currently in their 20s.

Their projected starting outside linebackers, wide receivers, safeties, and running back are all 30 or older. Experience is certainly valuable, but those are positions where you don’t want to be sparring too frequently with Father Time.

The Ravens have obvious exceptions to the rule — a few of them will eventually be in the discussion for the Hall of Fame — but this is largely a young man’s game.

And that brings us to the biggest key for the Ravens in 2016 and certainly beyond.

The youth movement needs to start now.

Seeing the likes of Smith and Terrell Suggs return from injuries to lead the Ravens back into postseason contention would be fun, but it would be in vain if several younger players don’t take significant steps forward. At 31, Flacco should have several more productive seasons ahead of him at quarterback, but this is an otherwise aging core of difference-makers, which was true even before pass rusher Elvis Dumervil suffered a setback from offseason foot surgery that will keep him sidelined for the start of the season.

It’s time for the next wave of great Ravens to emerge. In fact, it’s overdue, which is a significant reason why 2015 was such a disappointment.

Excluding players yet to take an NFL snap like rookie left tackle Ronnie Stanley and wide receiver Breshad Perriman, who are the under-30 talents on this roster that other teams truly covet?

Brandon Williams might be the best run-stopping nose tackle in the league and Tucker is arguably the NFL’s top kicker, but who else?

Mosley and cornerback Jimmy Smith? Maybe in 2014, but not based on the way they performed a year ago.

Others have potential, but the Ravens thought the same about failed draft picks such as Matt Elam, Arthur Brown, and Terrence Brooks not long ago. The proof will be in the results on the field.

Za’Darius Smith, Matt Judon, or Kamalei Correa needs to become as a significant pass-rushing threat to complement Suggs and Dumervil. The defense will be even more dangerous if more than one can do it.

As their earliest first-round pick in 16 years, Stanley must make fans forget every left tackle the Ravens have had since Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden.

Perriman needs to stay healthy and show why he was the first receiver the organization drafted in the first round in a decade.

Jimmy Smith and Mosley have to look more like the players they were in 2014.

If others step up along the way, the Ravens will really be in business — not just for this season but for the future.

If young players fail to develop, they will once again be depending too heavily on aging talent trying to stay healthy enough to play at a high level for another year.

Baltimore can bounce back with the combination of veterans returning and young play-makers emerging.

But it’s difficult to imagine it happening to any meaningful degree without the latter.

The Ravens need their youth to take the baton and step to the forefront.

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More questions than answers for Ravens entering training camp

Posted on 20 July 2016 by Luke Jones

We’re finally a week away from the curtain rising on the 2016 Ravens.

Sure, we caught a brief glimpse during last month’s mandatory minicamp, but how much could we really learn from non-contact practices that didn’t even include the starting quarterback, their No. 1 receiver, the starting outside linebackers, the top cornerback, and their 2015 first-round pick?

Trying to rebound from the worst season of the John Harbaugh era, the Ravens are hoping for better health after a team-record 21 players finished 2015 on injured reserve or the physically unable to perform list. They believe the free-agent additions of safety Eric Weddle, tight end Benjamin Watson, and wide receiver Mike Wallace and the continuing development of young players will provide the upside to return to the playoffs after failing to qualify in two of the last three years.

With a pedigree that includes two Super Bowl championships, four division titles, and 10 playoff appearances in the last 16 years, the Ravens bouncing back from a 5-11 campaign to once again become an AFC contender in 2016 would hardly be shocking. But there are more questions to ask than answers to offer as players report to Owings Mills over the next week.

What about this roster truly makes the Ravens brass rest easy at night?

Coming back from the first significant injury of his career, Joe Flacco is a franchise quarterback capable of playing at a championship level, even if his regular-season numbers don’t always reflect that. Coaches will need to be smart with him less than eight months removed from major knee surgery, but it’s comforting to know that the 31-year-old will be back on the field for the first day of training camp.

The Ravens offense has the best guard in football in Marshal Yanda and veteran starters at center and right tackle as well as arguably the deepest collection of tight ends in the NFL. The defense has one of the NFL’s best nose tackles, a 2015 Pro Bowl outside linebacker, a young inside linebacker who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, and a three-time Pro Bowl safety in Weddle, who should bring more leadership and order to a volatile secondary.

Baltimore has an elite trio of specialists in kicker Justin Tucker, punter Sam Koch, and long snapper Morgan Cox, who have all been to Pro Bowls and have signed long-term contracts over the last 12 months.

The talent and potential strengths don’t end there, but the serious questions begin at this point.

What can we reasonably expect from Steve Smith and Terrell Suggs coming back from Achilles tendon injuries?

It’s been a difficult recovery for the veteran receiver, who originally intended to make 2015 his last season. Doubting Smith’s heart and determination is foolish, but we know Father Time is undefeated, making it fair to question whether the 37-year-old can play close to the level he did prior to last year’s injury when he was still a No.1 option.

The little we’ve seen from Suggs since his injury last September includes a traffic-related arrest in Arizona in March and a guest appearance on HBO’s Ballers in which he played himself getting into a scrap with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s character. Set to turn 34 in October, the six-time Pro Bowl linebacker has been working out at the team’s facility in Owings Mills, but his conditioning and explosiveness will be scrutinized after his second Achilles injury in a four-year period. A substantially-diminished Suggs puts even more pressure on fellow veteran Elvis Dumervil as well as unproven options such as Za’Darius Smith and Kamalei Correa as pass rushers.

Will a second foot procedure allow Jimmy Smith to recapture his No. 1 cornerback form?

The 28-year-old had the screws removed from his surgically-repaired right foot this spring after he was still experiencing soreness from the 2014 Lisfranc procedure. The Ravens paid him handsomely last spring to be a difference-making presence in the secondary and need him to be the player he was in 2013 and 2014 if this defense is going to take a significant step forward this season.

What’s the reality with the Breshad Perriman injury?

It was great news that Dr. James Andrews didn’t recommend full ACL reconstruction surgery for Perriman in June, but the fact that he still prescribed a stem-cell injection makes you wonder about the healing process and stability of his left knee. The young receiver missed his entire rookie year with a right knee injury originally considered to be minor, so you hope this isn’t a cruel repeat of 2015.

For a team in desperate need of dynamic playmakers on both sides of the ball, Perriman may possess more upside than anyone on the roster if he can just stay on the field.

The questions go beyond players coming off injuries.

Even if 2016 first-round pick Ronnie Stanley proves to be more like Jonathan Ogden and less like the many who have tried to replace the Hall of Fame left tackle over the last decade, how confident can the organization honestly feel about a rookie and a new starter at left guard — projected to be John Urschel — protecting the blindside of a quarterback coming off a serious knee injury?

Baltimore has a collection of talented running backs, but is there truly a No. 1 guy in the bunch?

Who is going to play inside linebacker next to Mosley?

Is the rest of the defensive backfield ready to build on its second-half improvement from last year to be more of a force under new secondary coach Leslie Frazier?

Who might step forward to make a difference in the return game?

Finally and perhaps most importantly, are there at least a couple of young players ready to step forward to become special?

The Ravens have solid-to-good football players; they need more great ones.

All teams face questions this time of year, but there are more than usual for Baltimore entering 2016. It’s understandable after a 5-11 season that fell apart even before the injuries piled up at a record level.

We’ll soon get to see what’s behind the curtain.

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Ravens-related thoughts from divisional round

Posted on 18 January 2016 by Luke Jones

Ravens fans undoubtedly took satisfaction from watching Pittsburgh lose to Denver in the divisional round on Sunday, but you couldn’t help but be in awe of the Steelers’ speed at the wide receiver position.

Playing without arguably the best receiver in the NFL in Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger still threw for over 300 yards against the Broncos’ top-ranked pass defense thanks to a 154-yard receiving day from Martavis Bryant as well as contributions from the speedy trio of Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Markus Wheaton. Having caught just one pass in the regular season, the rookie Coates caught two passes for 61 yards to show off the speed that Pittsburgh barely even used in 2015 after taking him in the third round out of Auburn.

That collection of speed nearly overcame a depleted running game that was without DeAngelo Williams as Bryant’s 40-yard run in the first quarter helped set up the Steelers’ lone touchdown of the game. Of course, speed isn’t everything — just ask Pittsburgh’s colossal 2014 third-round bust Dri Archer — but you could easily understand why Joe Flacco cited the AFC North rival’s offense when asked at the end of the season whether he believes the Ravens need to add more speed to the passing game.

“You see what speed does. It does a lot for football teams,” Flacco said. “You see what the Steelers are doing with the speed that they’ve added over the last couple years. It definitely makes a difference out there. I’m not saying that it’s something that we need, but when we’ve had it here, it’s definitely made a little bit of a difference. It helps.”

If the Ravens want to close the gap with Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in the AFC North, they must find more speed at the receiver position in addition to hoping that 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman is fully recovered from the partially-torn posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee that cost him his entire rookie season. Watching the Steelers on Sunday was just a reminder that Baltimore was playing a different game in 2015 with receivers incapable of consistently gaining separation or running away from anyone.

The combination of Kamar Aiken and a returning Steve Smith — Jeremy Butler also showed some promise late in the season — should leave the Ravens in good shape in terms of possession receivers, but general manager Ozzie Newsome needs to find another high-end speed guy to go with the unproven Perriman, whether that player comes via free agency or the draft.

When asked at the season-ending press conference, Newsome made it very clear that he would like to add another receiver or two this offseason. Fans will just hope one will make a substantial impact unlike the late-round picks over the last several drafts who’ve been nothing more than roster filler.

The Ravens have an abundance of No. 5 and No. 6 options, but they need to aim higher when looking for a wide receiver this offseason.

Up-and-down Sunday for ex-Ravens

While former Ravens such as Michael Oher, Ed Dickson, Dwan Edwards, Darian Stewart, and Owen Daniels helped their respective teams move closer to Super Bowl 50 on Sunday, ex-Raven Fitz Toussaint wore the goat horns for the Steelers.

The running back’s fumble with 10 minutes to play not only ended a potential scoring drive, but it was the catalyst for Denver’s only touchdown drive of the game in a 23-16 final. Even as Ravens fans took delight in watching Pittsburgh lose, you couldn’t help but feel for the 2014 rookie free agent from Michigan who was very emotional after the game.

Toussaint has received more postseason carries (31) than regular-season rushing attempts (24) in his first two NFL seasons and had 118 total yards in Pittsburgh’s win over Cincinnati, but Sunday is a day he’ll surely want to forget despite scoring his first NFL touchdown in the first quarter.

Coverage linebackers

It’s almost unfair to compare most linebackers to Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis in Carolina, but the Ravens need to find a way to improve their pass coverage with that positional group.

Still one of the better coverage linebackers in the league when the Ravens signed him three years ago, Daryl Smith clearly floundered in that department to the point that second-year linebacker Zach Orr was replacing him in the nickel package late in the season. More concerning, however, were the continued struggles of C.J. Mosley in pass coverage in his second season.

After Mosley became the first rookie to make the Pro Bowl in franchise history, many concluded he would be the next great Ravens defensive player, but 2015 didn’t go as smoothly for him. To his credit, the Alabama product overcame a slow start to play better as the season progressed, but he must improve in pass coverage if he’s to take his game from good to great.

Nod to Manning

This item isn’t related to the Ravens, but I find myself becoming an unabashed supporter for Peyton Manning at this late stage of his career.

You don’t have to be an NFL scout to recognize he’s a shell of his former self physically, but he also wasn’t responsible for a number of dropped passes from Broncos receivers that would have made for a very respectable day against Pittsburgh if some had been secured.

We all break down in various ways as we get older — the man underwent multiple neck surgeries in 2011 and still threw an NFL-record 55 touchdown passes and won the MVP two years later at age 37 — but instead of laughing over Manning’s decline, I appreciate seeing one of the greatest players in NFL history trying to use his incomparable football intellect and years of experience to overcome a once-powerful arm that won’t cooperate anymore. After years at the top of the mountain, Manning has strangely become the underdog trying to hold on at the end of his career.

Even if you’re not rooting for him, that fight still deserves respect.

Manning and the Broncos look like the least likely of the four remaining teams to raise the Vince Lombardi Trophy in Santa Clara next month, but I’ll be happy for him if he’s somehow still standing in the end — even if everyone will obnoxiously remind you over and over that it was more about Denver’s stout defense than him.

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