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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 2-1 loss to Cleveland

Posted on 23 April 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles’ misery continuing in a 2-1 loss to Cleveland, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Baltimore is scoring 3.17 runs per game — worst in the majors — and has plated one or zero runs in five of 10 games at Camden Yards and three or fewer in nine of those. Seven of the 11 Orioles players to bat Monday are hitting .200 or worse. Uncle.

2. Upon intentionally walking Manny Machado in the third, Carlos Carrasco needed 22 pitches to retire the next eight batters before walking Machado in the sixth. That’s one more pitch than the 21 Brandon Belt saw in one at-bat Sunday to set a major league record. Is there even a plan?

3. Speaking of that Machado intentional walk, the Orioles should expect much more of that if the lineup is going to continue being a one-man band.

4. It’s a shame a strong start from Kevin Gausman was wasted as he made one mistake on a two-run homer by Yonder Alonso in the second. The Indians had some other hard contact, but Gausman recorded his third straight quality start and gave his team a good chance to win.

5. Gausman retired 21 of the 23 final batters he faced, finishing his night by striking out Jason Kipnis on a 96.4 mph fastball to end the top of the eighth. Did I mention he deserved better?

6. An “immaculate” inning occurs when a pitcher strikes out the side on the minimum nine pitches. Gausman accomplished that impressive feat in the seventh. According to statistician Ryan Spaeder, he was the first Oriole to do that since B.J. Ryan in 1999.

7. Gausman’s average fastball velocity of 93.9 mph was easily his best of the season as he repeatedly hit 95 and 96 and even touched 97. That should quell concerns about him lacking his typical fastball early this season.

8. In contrast to Gausman’s “immaculate” inning, Danny Valencia struck out three times on a total of nine pitches, swinging and missing three straight times on the first one and looking at three straight in his next at-bat. He did mix in a double in the seventh inning.

9. Adam Jones’ frustration was apparent after he grounded out to end a threat in the eighth inning, throwing his bat, helmet, batting gloves, and shin guard. The center fielder is hitting just .240 with a .396 slugging percentage.

10. Chance Sisco struck out three times, but he delivered the only Orioles run of the night with an RBI single in the second. Monitoring his development is one of the few interesting aspects of this last-place club right now.

11. Trey Mancini coming off the bench to face Andrew Miller certainly wasn’t the easiest matchup, but it bodes well for his potential return to the starting lineup on Tuesday. He took batting practice and was feeling optimistic about his knee prior to Monday’s game.

12. Tim Beckham could be replacing Mancini on the sideline after he left the game with a groin issue and has also been dealing with a sore Achilles. Beckham is batting just .179, but the Orioles were already lacking the infield depth to handle the absence of Jonathan Schoop. What’s next?

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 7-3 loss to Cleveland

Posted on 22 April 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles continuing their struggles in a 7-3 loss to Cleveland, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. After a 3-for-4 performance that included two home runs, Manny Machado is slugging .713, which is higher than the on-base plus slugging percentage of every other member of Sunday’s lineup except for Pedro Alvarez. He’s doing his best to try to carry an inept offense so far.

2. It’s difficult to recall the Orioles starting a less impressive bottom third of the batting order than Anthony Santander, Caleb Joseph, and Luis Sardinas. Of course, the fifth and sixth spots — Chris Davis and Tim Beckham — haven’t been much better.

3. Opponents entered Sunday 0-for-18 with runners in scoring position against Andrew Cashner, but we witnessed a market correction as he allowed four runs on eight hits and two walks over six innings. I’ll still gladly take his 3.60 ERA through his first five starts.

4. Cashner was strong through his first three innings before laboring mightily the second and third times through the order. However, his strikeout numbers continue to be surprising as he recorded seven over his six frames.

5. He received an assist from the strategy to have Rajai Davis bunt with runners on first and second and no outs in the third after Sardinas had just made an error. I understand Cleveland has struggled offensively, but that helped short-circuit a major threat so early in the game.

6. The Orioles struck out only once through the first six innings against two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, but that allowed him to keep his pitch count at a reasonable 74. They weren’t hitting the ball particularly hard despite him lacking his typical swing-and-miss stuff.

7. Normally you’d admire Santander forcing Kluber to throw 12 pitches in a seventh-inning strikeout that drove up his pitch count, but that merely paved the way for Andrew Miller to enter in the eighth. Pick your poison.

8. Speaking of Miller, Sardinas striking out on four pitches in the eighth was as predictable as it gets. I suppose that’s the joy of having a two-man bench over the weekend with Trey Mancini temporarily sidelined.

9. Brad Brach needed to keep the deficit at one and give Manny Machado a chance to tie it in the ninth, but he was tagged for three runs. His 5.19 ERA and Mychal Givens’ 5.91 mark haven’t given the bullpen a chance to stay afloat without Zach Britton.

10. The Orioles entered Sunday last in the majors at minus-14 defensive runs saved. The defense may not have factored too heavily into this loss, but it continues to be difficult to watch.

11. Mark Trumbo will resume his minor-league rehab assignment Monday, but he’ll need to stack some at-bats after missing so much action dating back to early March. Meanwhile, Pedro Alvarez has seen his average fall to .214 after going 0-for-11 over the first three games of the Indians series.

12. This is the fifth-fastest Orioles club to fall 10 games below .500 and is tied for the third-worst start in franchise history after 22 games with only the 1988 Orioles (1-21) and the 2010 team (4-18) being worse. At least they have 140 games to turn it around, right? Right?

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 4-0 loss to Cleveland

Posted on 21 April 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles being shut out at home for the second time this season in a 4-0 loss to Cleveland, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The absence of Trey Mancini didn’t bode well for an offense that was already struggling and without Jonathan Schoop, so the end result wasn’t exactly shocking. Baltimore has now been held to three or fewer runs in 14 of 21 games this season.

2. Indians starter Mike Clevinger had a good 2017 campaign, but he had logged seven or more innings in just three of his 34 career starts before his first career shutout. Give the 27-year-old credit, but this has been an all-too-familiar pattern for the 2018 Orioles.

3. The bar is extremely low, but Chris Tillman showed some improvement in giving the Orioles a chance to win by completing six innings for the first time since July 17 of last season. He managed only four swinging strikes, but he threw some decent breaking pitches and struck out five.

4. Despite a low pitch count, Tillman’s stamina came into question beginning in the fourth inning as his velocity dipped. He gave up solo home runs on poorly-located fastballs clocked at 86, 86, and 87 miles per hour. That’s just not going to get the job done.

5. With the middle of the Cleveland order coming up a third time, Buck Showalter could have gone to the bullpen after five and allowed Tillman to leave on a high note. That said, he had just recorded his first 1-2-3 frame and was at only 63 pitches. I understand it.

6. I’m sure Saturday’s performance bought Tillman another start, but I’ve said before the problem is this feels close to his ceiling at this point. Allowing four earned runs over six innings — a 6.00 ERA — lowered his season mark by more than two full runs.

7. Many have questioned Chance Sisco’s throwing ability at the major league level, but he became the first Orioles catcher since Matt Wieters in 2012 to gun down three runners attempting to steal in a game. He’s now thrown out seven of 11 trying to swipe a bag this season.

8. Tanner Scott allowed one hit and struck out one in two scoreless frames. Despite little experience above the Double-A level and well-documented control issues, the hard-throwing lefty has presented himself well in two major league appearances this season.

9. Saturday was the fifth time in eight games at Camden Yards in which the Orioles have failed to record a hit through the first three innings. They’re begging to put themselves in an early hole with that formula.

10. I’m guessing Showalter wasn’t daydreaming about an April 21 lineup featuring Craig Gentry, Pedro Alvarez, Luis Sardinas, and Anthony Santander over the winter. Then again, established bats aren’t producing either.

11. Santander has shown some promise, but he’s batting .170 and his on-base plus slugging percentage has dipped to .497. His Rule 5 requirement will be satisfied next month, which will allow him to return to the minors. The right field problem will remain, however.

12. The Indians offense has been nearly as bad as the Orioles so far, but Cleveland is allowing nearly half as many runs per game. Elite pitching always gives you a chance.

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Ravens to play two prime-time road games as part of 2018 schedule

Posted on 19 April 2018 by Luke Jones

Barring a flex scheduling change during the season, the Ravens will not host any prime-time games in 2018.

Baltimore opens the season at home against the Buffalo Bills for the second time in three years, but John Harbaugh’s team will face the challenge of playing four of its first six games away from M&T Bank Stadium, a stretch that includes two prime-time road games against AFC North rivals in the opening month and three straight road contests. The Ravens travel to Cincinnati for a Thursday game in Week 2 and will then try to exorcise their recent demons at Heinz Field for Sunday Night Football in Week 4.

For the first time since 2003, the Ravens will not play a Monday night game in the regular season.

In a peculiar twist, all three divisional road games will be completed by Week 5, the earliest the Ravens will have done this in franchise history. They will play just one AFC North team in the season’s final six weeks when Cleveland comes to Baltimore for Week 17.

After playing five of their first eight games on the road, the Ravens will stay home for the entire month of November, a period that includes their Week 10 bye.

The Ravens will play eight games against playoff teams from last season: Pittsburgh (twice), Buffalo, Kansas City, Tennessee, New Orleans, Atlanta, and Carolina. They have seven games against opponents who finished below .500 in 2017: Cincinnati (twice), Cleveland (twice), Denver, Tampa Bay, and Oakland.

For now, 11 of the Ravens’ 16 regular-season games are scheduled for 1 p.m. Sunday starts, but many of those games are subject to flexible scheduling (see below).

2018 SCHEDULE

Sunday, Sept. 9 vs. Buffalo Bills — 1:00 p.m.
Skinny: The Bills ended their 17-year playoff drought thanks to the Ravens’ Week 17 collapse last December, but this is a team in transition with A.J. McCarron at the helm — for now.

Thursday, Sept. 13 at Cincinnati Bengals — 8:20 p.m.
Skinny: The Bengals knocked the Ravens out of the playoffs in one of the more stunning defeats in franchise history, an outcome that likely saved Marvin Lewis’ job.

Sunday, Sept. 23 vs. Denver Broncos — 1:00 p.m.
Skinny: Case Keenum was one of the feel-good stories of the 2017 season, but the Broncos have fallen on hard times since their Super Bowl victory a couple years ago.

Sunday, Sept. 30 at Pittsburgh Steelers — 8:20 p.m.
Skinny: Will the Ravens avoid losing a last-second heartbreaker at Heinz Field for the third straight year? This marks the fifth straight year the trip to Pittsburgh will be televised nationally.

Sunday, Oct. 7 at Cleveland Browns — 1:00 p.m.
Skinny: Hue Jackson has already declared Tyrod Taylor his quarterback for the 2018 season, which means the Browns’ first-round pick will likely be at the helm by Week 5.

Sunday, Oct. 14 at Tennessee Titans — 4:25 p.m.
Skinny: The Week 9 loss in Nashville last year proved to be the difference between the Titans making the playoffs and the Ravens being left out for the third straight year.

Sunday, Oct. 21 vs. New Orleans Saints — 4:05 p.m.
Skinny: The Saints are very talented and Drew Brees will be enshrined in Canton one day, but he’s a surprising 0-4 in his career against the Ravens.

Sunday, Oct. 28 at Carolina Panthers — 1:00 p.m.
Skinny: The hype for this one will pale in comparison to the 2014 meeting as Steve Smith now enjoys retirement, but the Panthers did add Torrey Smith to their receiver group this offseason.

Sunday, Nov. 4 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers — 1:00 p.m.
Skinny: There’s something not right about these rivals wrapping up the season series three weeks before Thanksgiving, but the Steelers snapped their four-game losing streak in Baltimore last year.

Sunday, Nov. 11 BYE
Skinny: The bye will be in Week 10 for the second straight year and has fallen no earlier than Week 8 in seven straight seasons.

Sunday, Nov. 18 vs. Cincinnati Bengals — 1:00 p.m.
Skinny: You’re telling me it’s not part of the NFL bylaws for the Ravens to play the Bengals in Week 17? This will be only the second time in nine years that hasn’t happened.

Sunday, Nov. 25 vs. Oakland Raiders — 1:00 p.m.
Skinny: Michael Crabtree put up huge numbers against Baltimore as a Raider, so we’ll see if he has a similar impact playing against his former team.

Sunday, Dec. 2 at Atlanta Falcons — 1:00 p.m.
Skinny: Who else is looking forward to reigniting those tired Matt Ryan-Joe Flacco debates stemming from the 2008 draft?

Sunday, Dec. 9 at Kansas City Chiefs — 1:00 p.m.
Skinny: Patrick Mahomes has big shoes to fill after the Chiefs traded Alex Smith, who led them to the playoffs in four of the last five seasons.

Sunday, Dec. 16 vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers — 1:00 p.m.
Skinny: Ryan Jensen returns to Baltimore after the Buccaneers made him the highest-paid center in the NFL last month.

*Saturday, Dec. 22 or Sunday, Dec. 23 at Los Angeles Chargers
Skinny: I suppose the NFL is taking flexible scheduling to a new level this year as the Ravens will be making their first ever trip to Los Angeles.

Sunday, Dec. 30 vs. Cleveland Browns — 1:00 p.m.
Skinny: If the Ravens again need to win their season finale to secure a playoff berth and still can’t do it this time around, I really don’t know what to tell you.

* = The NFL will determine by Week 8 whether the Ravens-Chargers game will be played on Dec. 22 or Dec. 23.  If the game is played Saturday, it will kick off at either 4:30 p.m. or 8:20 p.m.on the NFL Network. Should the game be selected for Sunday, it will begin at 4:25 p.m. on CBS.

Notes: Flexible scheduling can be applied in Weeks 5 through 17. A flex scheduling change would be announced at least 12 days before the game except for the final week of the season. For Week 17, the Sunday night game is announced no later than six days prior to Dec. 30.

Another wrinkle implemented in recent years is a select number of games being “cross-flexed,” moving between CBS and FOX to bring certain games to wider audiences.

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Nasty shares a smile with Art Modell 1998

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Chapter 10: The sad loss of a great work of Art

Posted on 21 January 2018 by Nestor Aparicio

 

“It’s a son talking to a father, that’s the way I looked at it. It’s hard talking about someone who loved you that much. It’s not as easy as you think it is. Everything I said in his ear came from my heart and I loved him dearly,”

— Ray Lewis (September 2012)

 

 

THE PAINTING HANGS OVER THE majestic fireplace at The Castle in Owings Mills and exudes the warmth of the man himself. Arthur Bertrand Modell. Founder. Baltimore Ravens.

Like several others in this purple tale of civic sports personalities who are more worthy of a book than a chapter, one could write tomes outlining the full color and complexity of the life and times of Arthur B. Modell. After nearly a lifetime of working the football business on the banks of Lake Erie beginning in March 1961 in his adopted homeland of Cleveland, the native New Yorker brought his beloved Browns franchise to Baltimore in November 1995 amidst national scorn. He was forever reviled in Ohio and beloved in Maryland. The economic reasons for the move are well documented. And Modell was clear that there were no other motives except for self-preservation, abandoning a decrepit stadium un-affectionately known as “The Mistake On The Lake” that was built in 1930. Coming to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in an attempt to finally win a Super Bowl and create equity and a trust fund for his family in the only business he owned or cared about during his life was his only motivation.

Or as he once famously said regarding Baltimore, “I didn’t come here for the crab cakes!”

Five years later, on a team with four Hall of Famers, the Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV and forever changed the Baltimore sports landscape. The Ravens went from being a carpet-bagged sports franchise to a civic institution.

The unique part of the Ravens, being such a young franchise, is the amazing institutional memory that exists within a relatively new building and a teenage organization that has become the model for the NFL. Modell understood football’s value to a local community. He understood the allure of sports, and he recognized the partnership that a franchise needed to have with all elements of the fan base – men and women, children, and adults, rich and poor, black and white, blue collar and white collar, Jew, Gentile and non-believers. Art believed that a sports team could galvanize all parts of a community in a way that no other entity could muster.

And who would know more than Modell? He truly was one of a handful of pioneers who helped build the National Football League from a third-rate sport on the fringe of society in the early 1960s into the centerpiece of the American sports landscape during his 42 years of ownership.

Modell will be remembered for owning a football team in Cleveland and moving it to Baltimore, but he lived a very full life before he even arrived in Ohio as a well-heeled New York ad man who gave up his East Coast life and moved to the friendly heart of the Midwest. There, he sold football and lived football like his contemporaries Pete Rozelle, Al Davis, Lamar Hunt, and the other forefathers of modern football

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Chapter 3: The Wizard of Oz and The Process

Posted on 14 January 2018 by Nestor Aparicio

 

“In a highly-charged, competitive business, I tend to want answers right away, and Ozzie has to sleep on it. I have learned that Ozzie’s insistence that we talk about it tomorrow has been beneficial to both John [Harbaugh] and myself. I like his skill set, and I think it works in our favor that he does tend to like to think things over, and we usually come up with better decisions because of it.”

– Steve Bisciotti (January 2012)

 

 

 

THERE’S AN ALMOST MYSTICAL WAY Ozzie Newsome has about him, and it’s apparent when you talk to his peers, colleagues, and anyone who has ever worked closely with him. You always get the same picture of a dedicated, happy football savant.

Ozzie Newsome doesn’t talk much publicly, but when he does just about everyone in the Baltimore Ravens organization listens. And in some cases, he says nothing at all and simply allows his decisions and the 17 years of success to speak for itself on game days and at the end of more playoff runs.

Newsome doesn’t hold court with anyone in the media, shuns virtually all of the public spotlight that comes with running the Ravens as the team’s only-ever general manager, and quietly sits in his office and does his job. Chances are he’s watching film right now. He evaluates talent. He evaluates situations. He puts together a strategy for every scenario and every aspect of the Ravens personnel puzzle that makes it to the field on Sundays.

He works in the shadows as the most humble Hall of Fame football player in the room. He doesn’t intimidate. He doesn’t raise his voice. His wisdom is Yoda-like throughout the NFL. No one outside of owner Steve Bisciotti knows his contract situation and it hasn’t been reported in years although every time a major job opens at the University of Alabama his name is whispered. In every other NFL city, the general manager’s contract reads like sands running through an hourglass, but not for Newsome and the Ravens.

A popular phrase in the Ravens building is “Ozzie transcends us all” and that doesn’t mean he’s “General Manager for Life” – but his post is among the most secure in professional sports as he approaches his third decade as the only man who has ever made a draft pick for the Baltimore Ravens.

Draft the right guys. Get the right coaches. Chase and sign the right free agents: right player, right price. Define a path and a strategy. And always follow “The Process,” a term Newsome has used repeatedly when describing the way his organization prepares for the NFL’s draft each April.

Perhaps it’s hard to believe that Newsome’s first draft choice in Baltimore on April 19, 1996 – the selection of left tackle Jonathan Ogden as the No. 4 overall selection from UCLA – was roundly booed by the fans at the Ravens’ inaugural draft party in downtown Baltimore. The crowd wanted troubled Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips. So did Ravens owner Art Modell. Newsome said “the process” indicated that Ogden was the right choice, and he always stays true to the draft board set up by his organization and scouts. Newsome will be rewarded for the courage of his convictions from 1996 once again in the summer of 2013 as “J.O.” will be enshrined in Canton alongside Newsome in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

And Newsome’s second-ever draft pick for the Ravens less than three hours later? An undersized kid from the University of Miami by the name of Ray Lewis, another selection whose bronze bust will reside in the same room in Canton in 2018.

So what is the brilliance of Newsome and the key to his staying power while other franchises hire and fire at the top of their decision-making tree?

“Let’s start with the fact that he’s the best listener I’ve ever seen — not just in the NFL, but anywhere in life,” former head coach Brian Billick said about his football counterpart for nine years in Baltimore. “He has the patience of Job. And most importantly, he’s completely egoless. He doesn’t care about who gets the credit as long as the right decision is made.”

Traditionally, in most NFL organizations, the head of personnel would be hopping on planes, trains and automobiles, constantly on the road in the fall going to scout college players for the April draft. But that’s not the system in Baltimore. Newsome remains glued to Owings Mills for the balance of the regular season so he can constantly evaluate his own talent in the organization.

“Whenever I had to make a move on the 53-man roster or explain why we were using someone on the game day 46 (roster), I’d never have to explain it to Ozzie because he watched everything that happened all week,” Billick said. “In the beginning, I thought he was checking up on me, but then I came to realize I wouldn’t want it any other way. We were both seeing the same things all week, and it made both of our jobs easier.”

Instead, while he’s in Baltimore and continuing to evaluate his own players in purple, Newsome trusts his scouting corps to scour the nation with an eye for talent and unending amount of research, reports and evaluations long before the Senior Bowl or any of the combines and individual workouts at season’s end.

It’s the fire of the competition that fuels Newsome. He loves football. He loves watching players play. He loves the strategy of how to assemble a football team. And after 17 years of doing it what he calls “The Ravens Way,” he’s not about to change.

The brilliance and difference between Newsome and other scouts and personnel evaluators is that he has no inferiority complex and nothing to

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 27-10 win over Cleveland

Posted on 18 December 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens moving a step closer to securing a postseason berth in a 27-10 win over Cleveland, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The defense took advantage of rookie DeShone Kizer and the NFL’s most turnover-prone offense by forcing four turnovers that led to 14 points. Much of the damage hasn’t come against the stiffest competition, but a league-best 33 takeaways is impressive. Two years ago, the Ravens had only 14.

2. The offense didn’t light up the scoreboard like the previous two weeks, but still moving the ball despite the running game being a non-factor through the first three quarters is an encouraging sign. The Ravens were able to finish with 63 rushing yards on 11 carries in the final period.

3. This wasn’t the first time Matthew Judon was arguably the top player for the defense. He totaled a sack, two other tackles for a loss, and two more quarterback hits. His versatile play in all phases has been one of the most encouraging big-picture developments of the season.

4. Remember how completely helpless the passing game looked without Jeremy Maclin in two games earlier this season? He played only five snaps because of a left knee injury, but Joe Flacco still threw for a season-high 288 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions.

5. A major reason for that was Mike Wallace, who caught six passes for 89 yards with four of those going for first downs. Since the bye, Wallace is averaging 76.2 receiving yards per contest and 16.6 yards per catch. That equates to a 1,200-yard season over 16 games.

6. Terrell Suggs finished with an ordinary two tackles if you only looked at the standard box score, but he was consistently putting heat on Kizer and was credited with nine hurries by Pro Football Focus. He played a significant part in several good things that happened for the defense.

7. A read-option keeper for Flacco shouldn’t be called unless it’s the fourth quarter of a playoff game, but that play and the draw for a touchdown reflect the greater confidence in the quarterback’s health. Flacco also has a 94.5 passer rating with five touchdown passes over the last three games.

8. C.J. Mosley rebounded from a poor outing in Pittsburgh as he batted down a couple passes, was stronger in pass coverage, and delivered the crushing hit on the Duke Johnson fumble. Sending Mosley after the quarterback a few times was a needed changeup after his recent struggles in coverage.

9. John Harbaugh was wise to mostly keep Alex Collins out of harm’s way in the second half as he was visibly laboring several times. As tough and physical as Collins is, we sometimes forget he’s only 210 pounds, which is much lighter than many of the league’s bruising-style backs.

10. For the second straight year, the Ravens surrendered Isaiah Crowell’s longest run from scrimmage for the season. The run defense has mostly been terrific since late October, but allowing a 96-yard touchdown drive exclusively via the ground in the second quarter was mystifying.

11. I didn’t like Marty Mornhinweg’s outside run call on fourth-and-goal from the 1, but credit Cleveland defensive end Carl Nassib for blowing up an attempted double team from Matt Skura and Austin Howard. He was more disruptive than top overall pick Myles Garrett throughout the day.

12. I understand reluctance to embrace the 2017 Ravens because of the early-season inconsistency, but some of the fear expressed about the Browns this week was over the top. Their horrendous minus-25 turnover difference says it all while Baltimore leads the NFL at plus-17. Taking care of the football really matters.

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Ravens use effective road formula to stay in playoff position

Posted on 17 December 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens beating 0-14 Cleveland was never going to bring any earth-shattering developments beyond the possibility of a serious injury to a key player.

Only an unthinkable loss jeopardizing their playoff chances would have spawned a major headline.

The Browns again showed Sunday why they’re the worst team in the NFL, but Baltimore did what was necessary to remain in the driver’s seat for an AFC wild-card spot with two games remaining. In the 27-10 victory, the Ravens forced four turnovers, played superb special teams, and turned in another solid offensive performance to continue that encouraging late-season trend.

Despite some angst from fans reluctant to embrace a team with just one win against opponents currently holding a winning record, Baltimore didn’t come close to becoming the first team to lose to the hapless Browns, after all. And two home wins against opponents with a combined 8-20 record will result in the first trip to the playoffs since 2014.

Rebounding from last week’s awful performance in Pittsburgh, the Ravens defense intercepted two passes and forced and recovered two fumbles to take the NFL lead from Jacksonville with 33 total takeaways. Questions understandably will persist about this unit’s performance against better offenses and better quarterbacks, but forcing turnovers on the road will be a key part of the formula for any potential run in January. Baltimore had a whopping 15 takeaways in its four road wins this season.

Nearly as important as those turnovers was the offense’s ability to protect the football on the road yet again. The Ravens committed no turnovers Sunday and had no more than one in six of their eight away games this season. Baltimore also has just one giveaway over the current three-game offensive surge.

It’s no secret that Joe Flacco and the passing game have been more aggressive — and productive — in recent weeks, but that change in mindset does little good if accompanied by carelessness with the football. Flacco threw for a season-high 288 yards against the Browns and has now been intercepted only once over the last four games.

An offense scoring points is paramount, but taking care of the ball gives you a chance, especially when lacking an abundance of playmakers.

Sunday also offered a reminder of how brilliant punter Sam Koch has been this season — and for a long time — as he dropped three punts inside the 5-yard line and two on back-to-back drives in the third quarter. That field position led to Za’Darius Smith’s strip-sack of DeShone Kizer and Brandon Williams’ recovery for a touchdown that gave the Ravens a 24-10 lead that wouldn’t be challenged again.

Punting is an underappreciated skill because of its direct association with offensive failure, but Koch has been an incredible asset for a team that’s so frequently depended on field position and the success of its defense this season. The 12th-year veteran may never be viewed as the biggest reason for any single victory, but the cumulative value he brings over the course of 16 games shouldn’t be dismissed.

The victory over the Browns netted the Ravens a 4-4 road record for the season, and that’s nothing to take for granted if you’ve been paying attention the last few years. John Harbaugh’s best teams were never particularly great away from M&T Bank Stadium, but a .500 away mark has often served as a benchmark for a postseason berth.

Bad road losses have contributed to the Ravens missing the playoffs in recent years, but they’ve managed to avoid those this year. In 2013, upset defeats at Buffalo and Cleveland contributed to a 2-6 road record and an 8-8 finish. Last year, it was an ugly loss to an eventual 5-11 New York Jets team in October that contributed to the Ravens having no margin for error while facing a brutal December schedule.

Say what you want about a team lacking a signature win against a projected playoff team, but the Ravens have only one bad loss — the Week 6 tilt against Chicago — on their résumé. Since mid-October, they’ve beaten the teams they were supposed to beat.

And that’s all they have to do at home these final two weeks, thanks to another clean road performance on Sunday.

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Ravens-Browns: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 17 December 2017 by Luke Jones

It was 10 years ago Saturday that the Ravens lost to an 0-13 team, an embarrassing defeat that led to the dismissal of longtime head coach Brian Billick a few weeks later.

Baltimore hopes history will not repeat against the winless Cleveland Browns on Sunday, but the difference this time around is John Harbaugh’s team having much more to play for than that 2007 team that was in the midst of a nine-game winning streak and merely playing out the string. These Ravens are almost guaranteed a trip to the playoffs if they win their final three games against teams with a combined 8-32 record entering the weekend, so there should be no excuse for a letdown.

As expected, wide receiver Mike Wallace (ankle) is active and will start despite missing two days of practice this week. Wallace turned his right ankle in the first quarter of last Sunday’s loss to Pittsburgh, but he was able to return for the next series and played the rest of the game.

Third-year wide receiver Breshad Perriman is also active for just the second time in five games since the bye week. With both Wallace and Chris Moore (hip) less than 100 percent, the 2015 first-round pick will likely serve as an insurance policy more than anything else on Sunday.

Rookie outside linebacker Tim Williams is a healthy scratch after being active for the last four games. The third-round pick from Alabama struggled last week and was put on skates as Pittsburgh running back Le’Veon Bell scored his 11-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter.

Outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith is active and returns to the defensive rotation after sitting out last week’s game with a shoulder injury.

Browns cornerback Jamar Taylor will play after being listed as questionable on the final injury report. The starting defensive back missed practices all week with a foot injury, but he is expected to start opposite Jason McCourty.

Sunday’s referee is Clete Blakeman.

According to Weather.com, the Sunday forecast in Cleveland calls for mostly cloudy skies and temperatures reaching the high 30s with winds five to 10 miles per hour and only a 20 percent chance of precipitation.

The Ravens are wearing purple jerseys with black pants while the Browns don white tops with white pants for their final home game of the 2017 season.

Sunday marks the 38th all-time meeting between these AFC North teams with Baltimore enjoying an incredible 28-9 advantage dating back to 1999. The Ravens are 17-2 against Cleveland in the John Harbaugh era, but the last four games at FirstEnergy Stadium have resulted in one-score finals.

Below are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
RB Terrance West
CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste
LB Tim Williams
OL Jermaine Eluemunor
OL Maurquice Shakir
DE Bronson Kaufusi
DE Chris Wormley

CLEVELAND
QB Cody Kessler
CB Briean Boddy-Calhoun
S Justin Currie
OL Marcus Martin
OL Geoff Gray
WR Matt Hazel
TE Matt Lengel

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Ravens-Browns: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 16 December 2017 by Luke Jones

The task is clear for the Ravens after last Sunday’s heartbreaking loss in Pittsburgh.

Three wins will very likely assure them of their first trip to the playoffs since 2014. Anything less leaves them at the mercy of how other AFC playoff contenders such as Buffalo, Tennessee, Kansas City, and Los Angeles will fare. Their focus must remain on beating a Cleveland team desperate for its first win, but the Ravens will naturally be taking a peek at the out-of-town scoreboard on Sunday.

“I always look. It is always interesting to see what the scores are,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “I’m sure we’ll be interested in that, but really, it doesn’t matter. We need to win. We need to win. We don’t need to be [dealing with] any tiebreakers or anything like that. We just need to win.”

Regardless of what other teams do, there are no excuses for the Ravens the rest of the way with such a reasonable schedule. Losing to the winless Browns, the Luck-less Colts, or the listless Bengals could send shock waves through the organization after Steve Bisciotti exercised much patience the previous two offseasons. Blowing a fourth-quarter lead at Heinz Field for the second straight year didn’t sit well with the owner last week, so you can only imagine how he’d react if the Ravens were to drop the ball at any point before the ball drops on New Year’s Eve.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens meet Cleveland for the 38th time in the all-time series and hold a 28-9 advantage after their 24-10 win at M&T Bank Stadium in Week 2. Despite the overall perception, the last four contests played at FirstEnergy Stadium have been decided by one possession.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Browns rookie edge rusher Myles Garrett will collect 1 1/2 sacks in the first of many encounters with Ronnie Stanley. The first overall pick of this year’s draft has missed five games due to injuries, but he has five sacks and has consistently caused problems in the pocket. Meanwhile, Stanley has had a solid season, but the 2016 first-round pick hasn’t yet taken his game to the next level from his encouraging rookie campaign. This is a matchup that will be worth watching over the next few years, but you’d expect Ravens tight ends to help out by chipping the talented 272-pound defensive end on Sunday.

2. Alex Collins will eclipse 75 rushing yards while finding the end zone for the fifth straight game. The Browns have allowed an NFL-best 3.3 yards per carry and will present a tough challenge for a running game that’s been terrific over the last two weeks. Collins continues to pick up plenty of yardage after contact and will need to do that once again against a tough front. Joe Flacco and the passing game has been much better recently, but much of that stems from play-action calls and Collins will have plenty of opportunities to control the tempo of the game, especially with a lead.

3. Marlon Humphrey will match up with Josh Gordon and allow a touchdown reception in an otherwise strong performance. Much has been made about Dean Pees’ play-calling in the Pittsburgh game, but the biggest takeaway was Brandon Carr struggling much more in coverage than the coaching staff anticipated. The Ravens have rarely even used Jimmy Smith to travel with a specific wide receiver over the years, but Humphrey could earn that very assignment against the supremely-talented Gordon, who’s shown little rust in his first action in three years. This will be a fun matchup to watch.

4. Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer will commit two turnovers in Baltimore territory. According to ESPN, the rookie is the NFL’s lowest-rated passer inside the red zone, the main reason why his team is 26th in red-zone offense. Cleveland has also had predictable problems with pass protection since left tackle Joe Thomas was lost for the season, so that should open the door for Terrell Suggs to put heat on Kizer and force him into rushing throws. A plus-13 turnover difference has left the 7-6 Ravens in the playoff race while a league-worst minus-21 turnover ratio largely explains why the Browns are 0-13.

5. The Ravens will overcome a lethargic start to prevail in a 23-13 final. A slow beginning wouldn’t be a shock after an emotionally-draining loss to the Steelers while the Browns should be energized and motivated playing in their last home game. Cleveland would like nothing more than to put Baltimore’s playoff hopes in jeopardy, but there’s a reason why this team hasn’t won a game all season and the Ravens have won three of their last four and have been better on the road than in recent campaigns. It won’t be the kind of win that will improve the eyeball test for Harbaugh’s team, but a steady performance is all that’s needed for the first of three wins to help wrap up a postseason berth.

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