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Ravens-Saints: Five predictions for Monday night

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Ravens-Saints: Five predictions for Monday night

Posted on 23 November 2014 by Luke Jones

Fresh off their bye week and trying to complete a 2014 sweep of the NFC South, the Ravens return to the site of Super Bowl XLVII to take on the reeling New Orleans Saints Monday night.

Baltimore hopes that a Week 11 bye coupled with the Saints’ two-game losing streak will create enough momentum to snap New Orleans’ 14-game winning streak in prime-time home games. The 4-6 Saints are trying to find some semblance of consistency in a division in which no team has made a strong claim as a viable playoff contender.

The Ravens are 5-1 in games coming off their bye week in the John Harbaugh era and will attempt to win their third road game of the season. While they were able to find success against an underwhelming Tennessee offense in Week 10, the Baltimore secondary will have its hands full against the league’s third-ranked passing attack.

Monday marks the sixth all-time meeting between these teams with the Ravens holding a 4-1 advantage. This is the first contest between these teams at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome since the 2006 season — which resulted in a 35-22 win for Baltimore — but the Ravens are obviously familiar with the surroundings after winning the Super Bowl in New Orleans two years ago.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to improve to 7-4 to keep pace in the AFC North …

1. Will Hill will draw the bulk of the assignment against Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, who will catch a touchdown and eclipse 80 receiving yards. Much was made about Cincinnati’s physicality last week in limiting the All-Pro tight end to just three catches for 29 yards, but the Ravens haven’t exactly been imposing in the back end of the defense aside from Terrence Brooks’ big hit on Tennessee’s Delanie Walker two weeks ago. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will try to mix it up as much as possible against Graham, but Hill is the best fit with his 6-foot-1, 207-pound frame and ability in coverage. The Ravens have held tight ends in check for most of the season, but they haven’t encountered a talent like Graham and he will bounce back from a tough week against the Bengals with a strong game in Week 12.

2. Steve Smith and Marlon Brown will catch touchdowns passes against a banged-up New Orleans secondary. A week off and a meeting with an old foe he tormented year after year as a member of the Carolina Panthers are just what the doctor ordered for the 35-year-old Smith whose production has declined in recent weeks. The Saints are down to their third-string free safety and top cornerback Keenan Lewis has been dealing with a knee issue, which will lead to the veteran wideout finding the end zone for the first time since Week 6. Looking to boost their 19th-ranked red-zone offense, the Ravens will rediscover Brown as a viable option inside the 20 as the 6-foot-5 receiver will rein in a pass in the back of the end zone for his first touchdown of the 2014 season.

3. The Ravens will contain top rusher Mark Ingram, but a returning Pierre Thomas will create problems as a receiver out of the backfield. After a very slow start to his NFL career, Ingram has emerged in 2014 with a 4.5 yards per carry average to take over the feature back role for New Orleans, but the Baltimore defense has allowed only 3.4 yards per carry and won’t have an issue keeping him in check. The return of Thomas — who hasn’t played since Week 7 — will be critical for a passing game that will miss the injured Brandin Cooks, who was becoming the Saints’ second-best receiver behind Graham as a short-to-intermediate target. With the secondary providing plenty of cushion and linebackers paying close attention to wherever Graham is, the Saints will slip Thomas free out of the backfield repeatedly to move the chains.

4. C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith will both collect sacks as the Ravens use inside blitzing to try to get to Drew Brees. Pees knows his defense must create pressure in the pocket against one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, but Saints tackles Terron Armstead and Zach Strief have been the strengths of their offensive line, meaning it won’t be a given that Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs will create enough heat. The best way to pressure Brees is up the middle where center Jonathan Goodwin and guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs have struggled in pass protection. Smith and Mosley have both been effective as A-gap blitzers, making it a good bet that the Ravens will try to ambush Brees up the middle. The strategy will pay off with each inside linebacker collecting a sack on Monday night.

5. Joe Flacco and Brees will each throw for over 250 yards, but the veteran will be a little better in a 31-23 win for New Orleans. A few weeks ago, it would have been tough to give the Ravens much of a chance in this one following the injury to Jimmy Smith on top of the Saints’ reputation for playing so well at home. But New Orleans is difficult to figure out with two straight losses at home that came after blowing out mighty Green Bay less than a month ago. On the other hand, a solid performance against the Titans isn’t enough to ease concerns that the Ravens secondary will be able to prevent the Saints from passing up and down the field all night. Flacco and the offense will put together one of their better road performances of the year, but it won’t be quite enough to put the Ravens over the top on Monday night.

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High stakes return for Ravens-Steelers, even if same bite hasn’t

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High stakes return for Ravens-Steelers, even if same bite hasn’t

Posted on 31 October 2014 by Luke Jones

The infamous lyrics are piped through the speakers as the Ravens offense huddles up for its next play.

Oh, Mama, I’m in fear for my life from the long arm of the law… 

Only it’s not a critical fourth-quarter moment against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field as the Styx song is instead sounding as the Ravens go through a Wednesday practice in Owings Mills. A number of Ravens players have admitted over the last couple years to liking “Renegade” as the Steelers’ anthem has become a fixture on the playlist used at practices in Owings Mills.

It’s a sentiment that was unlikely to be uttered by Ravens players a decade ago, but perhaps it speaks to the way the Baltimore-Pittsburgh rivalry has evolved in recent years. Sunday marks the 41st overall meeting between these AFC North foes with the stakes as high as they can be in early November with the Ravens and Steelers right on the heels of first-place Cincinnati.

But you can’t help but feel something has been lacking from Ravens-Steelers recently. The games have remained close with the Ravens’ 26-6 win over Pittsburgh earlier this season being the only one of the last five to be decided by more than three points, but the same bite hasn’t quite been there.

A rivalry in which the pre-game trash talk and bulletin-board material once rivaled the car-crash play on the field from an entertainment standpoint no longer fills reporters’ notebooks in the same way as even the once-brash Terrell Suggs has been more subdued in recent years. Former players and coaches such as Ray Lewis, Hines Ward, and Bill Cowher have provided the only inflammatory commentary in recent weeks by labeling Pittsburgh “soft” on defense, but you rarely hear such critiques from either side anymore as most vocal disdain has been replaced by mutual respect, which isn’t a bad thing, mind you.

The truth is these teams are different than the longstanding idea of the Ravens-Steelers mystique that fetches words such as bloodshed and old-school football.

On top of the departure of a number of outspoken figureheads including Lewis, Ward, Ed Reed, and LaMarr Woodley, Pittsburgh hasn’t made the playoffs since 2011 and last year marked the first time since 2002 that these teams played a game in which both entered with sub-.500 records. After Pittsburgh and Baltimore were near the top of every defensive category for more than a decade, both teams now lean more on offense — the Ravens do rank second in points allowed this year — with defenses in transition and possessing vulnerabilities.

By no means is the rivalry dead — far from it — but the narrative that once centered around two soul-crushing defenses now focuses on quarterbacks Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger. And we’ll see if Sunday’s higher stakes pump new life into a Ravens-Steelers rivalry that’s seen more bizarre — journeyman quarterback Charlie Batch beating Baltimore in 2012 and Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin interfering with Jacoby Jones’ sideline return last Thanksgiving night — than instant classic over the last couple years.

It’s an opportunity for new names to be made in the same way that wide receiver Torrey Smith entered his into Baltimore-Pittsburgh lore three years ago in catching the game-winning touchdown in the closing seconds of a Sunday night game at Heinz Field. That 2011 win was the difference in the Ravens clinching the AFC North title and a first-round bye and the Steelers losing a first-round game at Denver as both teams finished 12-4 with Baltimore’s season sweep being the tiebreaker.

After more than a decade of fighting high-stakes wars and spewing venom at one another, the annual meetings may not be the hottest thing going in the NFL anymore, but Ravens-Steelers has become a legacy rivalry, which is a tribute to how long these teams have beaten the hell out of each other. Many of the Ravens’ youngest players were only in elementary school when the Pittsburgh-Baltimore rivalry first took off at the start of the new millennium, which is difficult to believe for a franchise still less than two decades old.

It may lack the history of Packers-Bears or Cowboys-Redskins, but the rivalry isn’t going anywhere with at least two games guaranteed every year and each fan base holding more disdain for the other than even the teams do. And young players on each side want to make their own mark after watching from afar and listening to veteran teammates talk about the battles of yesteryear in Pittsburgh.

“These guys all know it. They’ve watched it. They’ve grown up with it,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “C.J. Mosley and I were talking, and he said he has been watching Ravens-Steelers since he was a little kid. For him, that’s about as long as the Ravens have been around. That goes to show you his whole life has been Ravens-Steelers.

“People talk about us being a young franchise, but for that generation we’ve been around for as long as any other franchise. This rivalry dates back for those guys that play for us that are young.”

Even if the rivalry has changed, the NFL still sees it as a major attraction with both Ravens-Steelers games landing in prime-time slots this season and at least one annual game being a nationally-televised affair since 2007.

The high stakes are back on Sunday with each team sporting a 5-3 record.

It will be fun to see what they have in store for one another.

And you know the Ravens won’t blink when they hear those familiar lyrics sound through the Heinz Field speakers at some point in the fourth quarter.

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Mosley named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month

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Mosley named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month

Posted on 30 October 2014 by Luke Jones

The praise continues to come for Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley as he was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month for October on Thursday.

The 17th overall pick of May’s draft is viewed by many as a favorite to win the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award as he ranks fourth in the league in tackles and has graded out as the NFL’s best inside linebacker, according to Pro Football Focus. Mosley collected 42 tackles and two interceptions in four October games and played his best contest as a pro against the Indianapolis Colts on Oct. 5 when he compiled 15 tackles and an interception in a 20-13 defeat.

For the season, Mosley has 76 tackles (three for a loss), two interceptions, six pass breakups, five quarterback hits, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery while starting all eight games next to fellow inside linebacker Daryl Smith.

“Besides just being a good football player and a good athlete, he’s a very, very intelligent guy,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “A lot of times, rookies come in and you have to teach them how to study. And that was what was always great about having Ray [Lewis] and those guys around. They kind of followed his lead for a while. He has Daryl, [who] does a great job, but he’s kind of a guy that was like that when he came in. That’s what he is, and it’s very evident in how he plays.”

The University of Alabama product’s emergence is a major reason why the Baltimore defense currently ranks second in points allowed per game and seventh in run defense.

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Five up, five down: Ravens stock at midway point

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Five up, five down: Ravens stock at midway point

Posted on 29 October 2014 by Luke Jones

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

STOCK UP

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

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

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

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

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

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

STOCK DOWN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ravens stock watch entering Week 6

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Ravens stock watch entering Week 6

Posted on 07 October 2014 by Luke Jones

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

STOCK RISING

C.J. Mosley
Skinny: The rookie inside linebacker was the best player on the field for the Ravens in Sunday’s loss to Indianapolis as he finished with 14 tackles, a quarterback hit, a pass breakup, and an interception. Baltimore has used plenty of high draft picks on defensive players in recent years with mixed results, so it’s encouraging to see Mosley emerging as a game-changer on that side of the ball with so many aging players around him. Veteran Daryl Smith’s strong play last year was a pleasant surprise the year after Ray Lewis’ retirement, but Mosley has been the better player of the two in 2014.

Marshal Yanda
Skinny: Coming back from offseason shoulder surgery a year ago, the Pro Bowl right guard wasn’t his usual self in 2013, but Yanda has again been one of the best players in the NFL at his position so far in 2014. According to Pro Football Focus, the eighth-year guard is the Ravens’ highest-graded offensive player this season and the running game has been particularly potent with him and second-year tackle Rick Wagner opening running lanes on the right side. The offensive line struggled against Indianapolis, but Yanda had another strong day despite the loss.

Pernell McPhee
Skinny: The Ravens have had difficulty sustaining a pass rush, but the reserve specialist has arguably been their best weapon in that department, whether lining up at end or sliding inside in passing situations. McPhee may have only picked up his first sack of the season against the Colts, but the 2011 fifth-round pick leads the Ravens in Pro Football Focus’ quarterback hurries category despite playing less than Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. The Ravens try to limit McPhee’s snaps to keep him healthy after dealing with nagging knee issues in past years, but he’s been one of their best defensive players this season.

STOCK FALLING

James Hurst
Skinny: The undrafted rookie free agent was a pleasant surprise in his first career start against the Carolina Panthers, but his second game as the starting left tackle was disastrous as Indianapolis beat him repeatedly in the process of harassing quarterback Joe Flacco. The Ravens didn’t provide Hurst with enough help on the left side, so they’ll need to adjust as they play another road game against Tampa Bay in Week 6. Veteran Eugene Monroe was noncommittal last week when asked when he anticipated returning, so the Ravens can only hope that Hurst bounces back to play like he did against Carolina.

Terrell Suggs
Skinny: The veteran linebacker hasn’t played as poorly as some have suggested while focusing on the fact that he only has 1/2 sack so far this year, but it’s apparent the nagging groin injury he’s been dealing with is taking its toll as he was a non-factor against Indianapolis. Suggs is eighth on the team in tackles and has looked more like the player he was in the second half of 2013 than the linebacker who collected nine sacks in the first eight games of last season. The soon-to-be 32-year-old is still solid against the run, but you have to wonder if his days as a consistent high-impact player are coming to an end.

Torrey Smith
Skinny: Dropping the fourth-down pass from Flacco on the Ravens’ final offensive play of the game Sunday was just the latest example of concern as Smith has just 11 catches for 176 yards and a touchdown through five games. Gary Kubiak’s West Coast offense depends on short-to-intermediate routes that Smith often struggles in running, leaving the fourth-year wideout uncomfortable and on a different page than Flacco for much of the season. Smith has been able to draw a number of pass interference penalties on deep balls, but you wonder how much his struggles are wearing on him in a contract year.

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Mosley beginning to make game-changing impact for Ravens defense

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Mosley beginning to make game-changing impact for Ravens defense

Posted on 06 October 2014 by Luke Jones

The highlights were few and far between for the Ravens in Sunday’s 20-13 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, but rookie linebacker C.J. Mosley was seemingly all over the field.

Whether he was getting lower than lead blocker Jake Doyle to blow up a fourth-and-1 run by Colts running back Ahmad Bradshaw on the opening drive of the game or maneuvering through blockers to minimize the damage on several short passes, there was a certain familiarity in watching the 2014 first-round pick make plays everywhere at Lucas Oil Stadium. It was almost — almost –  reminiscent of a certain inside linebacker who famously did it better than anyone for the vaunted Baltimore defense.

Mosley has a long way to go to routinely even be mentioned in the same breath as future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis, but the sheer fact that many fans and media alike watching Sunday’s game made the comparisons spoke to how well he played in Sunday’s defeat. Finishing the game with 14 tackles, an interception, a quarterback hit, and a pass breakup, Mosley at least looked the part of the rookie version of Lewis in leading the defense in tackles and making several impressive plays throughout the afternoon.

“He had three screens out there where he made the tackles pretty much single-handedly,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “The posse was coming, but he was the guy there and weaved through blockers and made tackles. He tipped passes. He had [quarterback hits]. C.J. is playing really, really well.”

Mosley’s feel for the game has been praised from the moment the Ravens selected him with the 17th overall pick of May’s draft, but his game speed only gets better each week as he leads the team in tackles through the first five games of his NFL career. No, the University of Alabama product is not a finished product as he was beaten in coverage by tight end Dwayne Allen for a 6-yard touchdown in the third quarter, but Mosley has quickly justified why general manager Ozzie Newsome elected to draft another inside linebacker with an early-round pick after taking Arthur Brown in the second round a year ago.

For a defense in transition and in need of game-changing youth with five key members of the front seven over the age of 30, Mosley appeared to be playing at a faster speed that everyone else on the field attempting to slow the Indianapolis offense.

“It’s all about knowing what you have to do, doing your job, and watching film,” Mosley said. “When you know what you’re doing, you can play fast like that.”

The Baltimore defense is still finding its way this season, trying to get more from its aging pass rush while also dealing with health issues and deficiencies in the secondary. Investing a plethora of high draft picks on the defensive side of the ball in recent years, the Ravens have seen mixed results with only Jimmy Smith emerging as a consistent game-changing player to this point.

It appears that Mosley is on his way to joining the top cornerback in that category, which is good news with perennial Pro Bowl players Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata nearing the end of their run as standout players. Coaches and teammates view Mosley as the kind of player who will never be satisfied with reaching a certain level of play, always expecting more from himself.

It’s a mindset that sounds awfully familiar as well.

“He’s not a guy that’s going to sit there and say, ‘OK, I had a couple good games, and I’ve arrived,’” Harbaugh said. “He’s going to want to stack that success and build a body of work up behind him. And that’s probably why he’s as good as he is right now. That’s how he looks at it.”

Having already impressed veteran teammates by cracking the top of the depth chart next to fellow inside linebacker Daryl Smith early in training camp, Mosley has been everything the Ravens expected as a three-down player only getting better as he gains more experience.

The Ravens’ overall play in Indianapolis was forgettable as they dropped their first road game of the season, but it was a standout performance by the rookie that will be remembered. And his showing against the Colts had teammates feeling the urgency to step up their own game to match him.

“I think he played phenomenal. We’ve all got to catch up to him,” Suggs said after Sunday’s loss. “He was out there making a lot of plays. We knew the kid was special coming in, and that’s why we brought him in and Ozzie drafted him. He had a hell of a day [Sunday].”

 

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Ravens stock watching entering Week 4

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Ravens stock watching entering Week 4

Posted on 23 September 2014 by Luke Jones

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

STOCK RISING

Lorenzo Taliaferro
Skinny: Even if I could have run through a couple of the huge running lanes opened by the offensive line, the rookie took advantage of the Bernard Pierce injury by rushing for 91 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries against Cleveland. Taliaferro drew some comparisons to Jamal Lewis on his 31-yard run in which he showed impressive downhill speed. The starting job might not be his just yet, but there’s little debate that the fourth-round pick is firmly in the backfield equation now and the heat will be on Pierce to play at a high level. 

Kyle Juszczyk
Skinny: Just a week after appearing in the “falling” category, the second-year fullback’s strong performance against the Browns that included a 9-yard touchdown catch lands him back in the good graces of the coaching staff. The season-ending injury to Dennis Pitta will likely create more opportunities for Juszczyk to catch passes in the flat as the Ravens will need someone to complement veteran tight end Owen Daniels. His Lebron James chalk throw celebration earned him style points, but Week 3 was a step in the right direction for Juszczyk. 

Rick Wagner
Skinny: The second-year right tackle continues to be consistently solid in his first year as a starter and earned the third-highest grade among offensive players for Week 3, according to Pro Football Focus. Wagner and Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda were able to open some sizable running lanes for Taliaferro and veteran Justin Forsett against the Browns defense as they did late in the Pittsburgh game. In fact, Wagner has been more consistent than left tackle Eugene Monroe, who has struggled in two of the first three weeks of the 2014 season. 

C.J. Mosley
Skinny: Aside from two unnecessary roughness penalties in the first three weeks, it’s easy to see why the Ravens were excited to draft Mosley with the 17th overall pick of May’s draft. The Alabama product finished with six tackles (one for a loss) and registered a hit on Cleveland quarterback Brian Hoyer on Sunday. Mosley would be the first to tell you that he’s left some plays out on the field, but his aggressiveness and instincts put him on track to be an impact player as he gains experience and more strength over the next year or two. 

STOCK FALLING

Matt Elam
Skinny: Elam is only three games into his second year, but we’re still waiting to see what the Ravens saw in him as a first-round pick as he misses too many tackles for a player with a reputation for physicality and has been exposed in pass coverage too often. Sunday was probably the worst game of his career as a long reception to Taylor Gabriel was made even worse when Elam was focused on the miscommunication in the secondary instead of bothering to touch the receiver who was on the ground. In fairness, Elam was out of position at free safety last year and has had to play the nickel this year, but he hasn’t impressed.

Jacoby Jones
Skinny: Head coach John Harbaugh opined that the veteran wide receiver is pressing through the first three weeks of the season, but Jones has been a non-factor with only three catches for 20 yards and has dropped several passes, including one that could have gone for a touchdown at the beginning of the fourth quarter Sunday. Jones is a dynamic return specialist and there’s no reason not to put him on the field to run a few verticals per game, but his ability as a receiver is very limited beyond that. With Pitta out for the season, the Ravens need more production from the No. 3 receiver spot, whether it’s Jones or someone else.

Lardarius Webb
Skinny: Sunday was supposed to be a good day for the secondary with the long-awaited return of the veteran cornerback, but Webb played only four defensive snaps and looked like he was in quicksand trying to cover Andrew Hawkins on an out route. You hope it was just rust and not evidence of a lack of flexibility from the back injury, but Week 3 only raised concerns about Webb, who had practiced fully for the last three weeks leading into his season debut. It’s painfully clear that the Ravens need help in the secondary and what we saw from Webb against the Browns wasn’t close to being the tonic. 

Bernard Pierce
Skinny: Sunday was the first game Pierce had missed in his three-year career, but a thigh injury is just the latest ailment to hobble the starting running back, which led to Taliaferro making an emphatic statement in Cleveland. Pierce’s Week 2 stats (96 yards on 22 carries) were a bit deceiving as he was indecisive through three quarters before finally finding room against a tired Pittsburgh front. It’s too early to suggest Taliaferro has supplanted Pierce as the starting running back, but the 2012 third-round pick will need to play at a high level and stay healthy to hold off the rookie.

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Five numbers behind Ravens’ 26-6 win over Pittsburgh

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Five numbers behind Ravens’ 26-6 win over Pittsburgh

Posted on 12 September 2014 by Luke Jones

After every Ravens game this season, we’ll take a look at five numbers that help explain the outcome …

1 — The number of pass attempts thrown by Joe Flacco that traveled 20 or more yards
Skinny: Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s West Coast system is based on shorter throws in which the quarterback releases the ball quickly, and that’s exactly what Flacco did against the Steelers on Thursday. Knowing what kind of arm Flacco has, the Ravens will certainly mix in some deep shots, but Flacco completed 72.4 percent of his passes as the offense possessed the ball for 35:08. That kind of a game plan — along with the arrival of veteran Steve Smith — has temporarily stunted the production of speedy wide receiver Torrey Smith, but the Steelers failed to record a sack or even a quarterback hit against the Baltimore offense, which is exactly what you want every week.

3 — The number of takeaways by the Baltimore defense
Skinny: Though the Steelers were held to six points, they only produced 22 fewer total yards than the Ravens as three turnovers thwarted a couple attempts to get things going offensively. No takeaway was bigger than the one that came on the opening drive of the game when Pittsburgh had marched inside the red zone before linebacker Daryl Smith stripped the ball away from wide receiver Justin Brown to end a drive that had lasted 12 plays and gained 54 yards. Fellow inside backer C.J. Mosley forced and recovered a fumble of his own that led to a short field goal, and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata tipped a pass to himself for the third takeaway of the night, putting an exclamation point on an opportunistic performance by the defense.

4 — The number of drives lasting 10 or more plays completed by the Ravens
Skinny: You should be noticing a trend of dictating the tempo of the game as the Ravens were essentially in complete control from their first offensive drive of the night. The unusual statistic accompanying this was the Ravens only going 5-for-12 on third down, but that just shows how effective they were on first and second down. Baltimore scored on all four of these drives — totaling 20 points — while the Steelers managed only three total points on their two drives that were 10 or more plays. The biggest negative you can draw from Thursday’s game was the red-zone offense in which the Ravens only scored touchdowns on two of six trips, three times settling for short field goals after driving inside the 5.

4.39 — The number of yards per play the Ravens averaged on first down
Skinny: I mentioned this number to follow up the stat from last week’s game in which the Ravens averaged just 1.67 yards per first-down play before the final drive of the first half. We constantly talk about the importance of third-down conversions, but success or failure on first down has an overwhelming impact on the outlook of a drive in terms of what play options are reasonably at your disposal. The Ravens success on first down against the Pittsburgh defense allowed them to maintain a better semblance of balance with the opponent not knowing whether to expect the run or pass when you’re consistently avoiding second-and-long situations.

36 — The number of rushes by the Ravens
Skinny: Throwing 62 passes is almost never an acceptable outcome, but last week’s passing total stuck out even more after an offseason in which the Ravens spoke ad nauseam about returning to their roots and committing to the running game. The final rushing total of 157 yards in Week 2 was a bit deceiving when you remember the Ravens only averaged 2.7 yards per carry through the first three quarters, but they ran effectively enough early to keep it as a viable part of the game plan and to avoid becoming one-dimensional. When they reached the fourth quarter with a 17-6 lead, the Ravens were committed to simply beating up the Pittsburgh front and that’s exactly what they did to the tune of 96 yards on 13 carries to sew up the first win of the season.

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Ten Ravens predictions for the 2014 season

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Ten Ravens predictions for the 2014 season

Posted on 06 September 2014 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Steve Smith will be the top veteran newcomer.

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

8. Owen Daniels will be the disappointing veteran newcomer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ravens sign first-round linebacker Mosley to rookie contract

Posted on 27 May 2014 by Luke Jones

Less than three weeks after selecting nine players in the 2014 draft, the Ravens have all but one under contract after announcing they’ve signed first-round linebacker C.J. Mosley on Monday.

The University of Alabama product was the 17th overall selection and is expected to start at the weakside inside linebacker spot next to veteran Daryl Smith in the base 3-4 defense. Mosley was the highest selection made by the Ravens since defensive tackle Haloti Ngata was the 12th overall pick of the 2006 draft.

The 2013 Butkus Award winner made a strong impression with the coaching staff at rookie minicamp after members of the organization had been impressed with both his ability and leadership qualities throughout the pre-draft process. He totaled 320 tackles, 6 1/2 sacks, 19 pass breakups, five interceptions, and two forced fumbles in 51 career games at Alabama and is third on the Crimson Tide’s all-time tackles list.

“He seems very comfortable in a defense. He understands the game very well. He’s been really well-coached, obviously, down [at Alabama],” head coach John Harbaugh said on May 17. “It’s not like he doesn’t know what gap he is fitting in. It’s not like he doesn’t know what adjustment to make. That’s a long way ahead for a rookie. Plus, he is athletic, and he moves around really well.”

Third-round safety Terrence Brooks is the only one of the Ravens’ nine draft choices who remains unsigned.

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