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Five questions for Ravens defense entering organized team activities

Posted on 23 May 2018 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 13: The Legend of 4th and 29

Posted on 24 January 2018 by Nestor Aparicio

 

 

 

 

“It’s the greatest play I have ever seen.”

– John Harbaugh (November 25, 2012)

 

 

FIVE DAYS AWAY FROM FOOTBALL was just what the doctor ordered as far as everyone in the building was concerned. The bye week couldn’t have come at a better time, almost exactly in the middle of the season. As much as the players use the down time to get away, see their families, go “home” – wherever that might be in 53 directions – the coaches used the final three weekdays of the week without a game to do what they call “self scouting.”

The NFL schedule is meat grinder, where the games happen Sunday; Monday and Tuesday are game-planning installment days; Wednesday, Thursday and Friday are practices days; and Saturday means walk-through and a plane ride every other weekend. There are no off days for NFL coaches once training camp begins in late July. The fan in Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti always marvels at the level of commitment of football coaches, who he’s said work more than any other category of business he’s ever seen.

And although the Ravens began the season 5-2, there was plenty of “self scouting” to be done and bad habits that they’d like to see their team break especially in light of the meltdown in Houston.

Cam Cameron’s offense had been sputtering week to week, depending on location and opponent. What worked so flawlessly against Cincinnati, New England, and Dallas – the “sugar huddle” tempo, spreading the ball around, creating holes for Rice and time for Flacco to throw – seemed like a distant memory in light of the poor Kansas City and Houston footage. After five years of trying to find more consistency, the Ravens still didn’t know what they were getting on any given Sunday, especially on the road when Mr. Hyde showed up far too often.

On defense, Pees was trying to evaluate combinations and schemes that would serve the personnel he currently had at his disposal, which was far different than the unit that stifled the Bengals eight, long weeks ago. Frankly, the Ravens didn’t have much to be proud of in regard to defensive statistics or categories. They weren’t stopping the run at all. They weren’t rushing the passer. They weren’t tacking particularly well. And without a pass rush and with Webb out and Reed gambling and guessing even more than usual, Romo and Schaub – a pair of legitimate top-shelf NFL quarterbacks – picked the secondary apart, especially running across the middle of the field where the Ravens’ linebackers were sub-par in coverage.

As the Ravens prepared to convene on Monday, October 29th, a monster storm was threatening the East Coast, which would impact millions of people over the next few days and weeks. Hurricane Sandy also took its toll on the organization that week as players scrambled to get back to Baltimore amidst altered flights, long drives, and chaos. Special teamer Sean Considine got stuck at the Chicago airport with his four small children. He and his wife had triplets who were toddlers and a 4-year old. Arthur Jones got stranded in Dallas. Terrell Suggs re-routed a flight into Raleigh and drove seven hours on Sunday night in the driving rain to make it back to Monday’s practice. Harbaugh was giving the team the usual Tuesday off in preparation for the game in Cleveland on Sunday, and the brunt of the storm spared most of Maryland, but created a state of emergency just 150 miles away as parts of New Jersey and New York were devastated and destroyed. The storm that eventually helped elect a President was wreaking havoc.

By Wednesday, it became a normal week and once again the Ravens had the thankless task of trying to find a way to sneak in and out of Cleveland with their 10th straight victory over the AFC North-rival Browns. The history of the Ravens and Browns and Art Modell was all written two decades ago. Now, it was simply a matter of a great franchise coming to a city with a poor franchise and continuing to rub more purple salt in the festering wounds. The fans of Cleveland still have incredible disdain for anything related to Art Modell’s Baltimore Ravens and probably always will.

“Everything we’ve done since our last game is geared towards going to Cleveland and being the best team we can be,” said Harbaugh, the sting of the Houston beating now in the rearview mirror. “We have everything we need – players and schemes – to play well. We have to organize it in a way that gives our players the opportunity to play their fastest and best under pressure, on the road and at home. We’ve had the chance with the bye to go into deep study and into the laboratory to figure out what we do best, and we want to take that into this game – and the other eight after that. We think we’ve learned a lot, and we’ll continue to push the envelope to be the best we can be. Our players are definitely good enough to get the job done.”

“There were some very real concerns. There are things that we need to do a lot better, not just from [Houston], but through the whole seven-game period that we felt like we needed to take a hard look at and we did, and I did feel good about it. I felt like our coaches, our players, the communication, we really went to work, and we really had some great conversations. We had some great discussions. We had some great study watching the tape. Guys did some great studies looking at numbers and things like that. In the end, what you try to do is make good counsel then make wise solid judgments about what makes us our best as we move forward. I am really excited about that – I really am. The proof will be in the pudding. So, if I say I am excited about it

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Can Martindale take Ravens defense to another level?

Posted on 18 January 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — New Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale is no stranger to feeling pressure.

Try having one of the best defensive minds in NFL history looking over your shoulder while coaching in an NCAA Division-IAA playoff game. Having worked with both Rex and Rob Ryan, Martindale called their father, the late Buddy Ryan, a “big influence” on his coaching career on Thursday. The two-time Super Bowl champion assistant and former NFL head coach spent his later years in the state of Kentucky where Martindale made his final collegiate coaching stop.

“I called a game at Western Kentucky, and he was standing next to me on the sideline at a playoff game,” said Martindale, who worked for former Hilltoppers head coach Jack Harbaugh from 2001-02 and finished his stint there a year later. “You want to talk about pressure? That was a little bit of pressure — not blitzing when he wanted to blitz.”

With the Ravens coming off a second straight season in which the defense’s failure to get a late stop left them short of the playoffs, the former linebackers coach steps into a role surrounded by high expectations. And with most of the offseason focus expected to be on the other side of the ball — though we’ve made that incorrect assumption in the past — Martindale will be asked to reach another level with a defense that’s received a plethora of resources in recent years.

Upon being promoted last week, the 54-year-old received congratulatory messages from many of the greatest defensive players in franchise history, ranging from Ray Lewis and Ed Reed to Haloti Ngata and current 16th-year outside linebacker Terrell Suggs. Martindale also received strong endorsements from other current players such as Pro Bowl inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, showing he has plenty of support in the locker room despite not being a sexy choice for fans who were intrigued by the possibility of Chuck Pagano returning to Baltimore.

This will be Martindale’s second stint as an NFL defensive coordinator after serving in that capacity with Denver in 2010. Having lost All-Pro defensive end Elvis Dumervil to a season-ending pectoral injury that summer, Martindale didn’t have much talent with which to work as the Broncos finished last in the league in total yards and points allowed and head coach Josh McDaniels was fired in December.

“I know it didn’t work out the way we wanted it to work out,” said Martindale, who was dismissed at season’s end and hired as Ravens inside linebackers coach a year later. “Not at the time, but eight years later, I’m glad I went through that process because I think that makes me a better coach today. It’s like I tell my guys — you either win or you learn.”

Martindale now inherits a talented defense that impressively pitched three shutouts and led the NFL in takeaways this season, but the unit finished sixth in points allowed, 10th in passing yards allowed, 15th in rushing yards allowed, and 12th in total yards surrendered and saw its performance slip over the final month when Baltimore blew late leads against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. The stunning home loss to the Bengals on New Year’s Eve resulted in John Harbaugh’s team missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five years.

The Ravens are already devoting more cap space to their defense than the other side of the ball and have used 13 of their last 17 Day 1 and Day 2 draft picks on defensive players. In other words, Martindale needs to find more consistency than retired defensive coordinator Dean Pees did with the current group and probably shouldn’t be expecting major additions this offseason.

“We’re close. Obviously, the last two years it has been the last play that’s knocked us out of it,” Martindale said. “We are going to work diligently — all of us — with our package and situational football. That’s going to be the next step I think that’ll skyrocket us. That is the big thing that I see.

“We are going to take our ‘good’ and make it great. We were really good. Let’s make it great.”

With numerous holes on offense and a limited amount of projected salary-cap space for 2018, Martindale could be the X factor for the defense. Of course, some recent draft picks will need to step up in a way similar to how Matthew Judon progressed this past season with Pro Bowl veterans such as Suggs and safety Eric Weddle not getting any younger and high-priced cornerback Jimmy Smith returning from a torn Achilles tendon.

But many will be eager to see how Martindale’s fingerprints compare to Pees, who was criticized for too many late-game collapses and not being more aggressive in certain situations. The new defensive coordinator emphasized that success is ultimately about the players and putting them in the right positions to succeed.

Without being disrespectful when asked how he’d compare to his predecessor, Martindale made his intentions clear.

“I think personality-wise and just calls, there’s going to be some things that are the same,” Martindale said. “And then there’s going to be some times where I’m going to pressure more. I think I have a more aggressive personality in calling a game. Sometimes, too aggressive. That’s some of the things I’ve learned from the past, so there’s that fine line — what quarterback you’re playing and things of that nature.”

Finding that fine line could be the difference for a good defense striving to be great.

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Ravens still sounding too comfortable until they prove otherwise

Posted on 04 January 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — A few summers ago, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh walked to the interview podium wearing a shirt with an appropriate slogan for a sweltering training camp practice.

Get comfortable being uncomfortable.

Many are wondering if the Ravens are just plain comfortable these days despite having missed the playoffs in four of the last five seasons. Harbaugh’s decision to retain offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg certainly doesn’t do anything to debunk that perception. We may never know if the Ravens might have even retained defensive coordinator Dean Pees had he not chosen to retire.

Having just finished his first decade in Baltimore, Harbaugh began Thursday’s press conference not by lamenting his team not being good enough in 2017, but he instead expressed deep pride in his players’ hard work to be the best they could be. That’s a noble sentiment and not necessarily untrue, but it’s not the opening message your fan base wants to hear four days after one of the biggest collapses and worst home losses in team history. This is a results-driven business in which praise for hard work and doing your best rings hollow when you fail in such a crucial situation.

Announcing he was retaining Mornhinweg made it even worse.

“I believe in these coaches. I understand the job that they did this year because I see it close up,” said Harbaugh, who cited the the Ravens being the second-highest scoring team in the NFL after their bye week. “I think our offense made a heck of a lot of progress, especially considering the adversity that we faced and the challenges we were up against this year. That’s why we are rolling.”

Of course, the passing game being the worst in the NFL through the first three months of the season was a major reason why the Ravens needed to win six of their last seven games to make the playoffs. Let’s also not overlook the first half of Sunday’s game when the offense had seven straight three-and-outs and managed only two first downs to contribute to a double-digit deficit against Cincinnati. It’s no secret the Ravens didn’t exactly play a whopper of a schedule after the bye week either. Even as Joe Flacco showed much-needed improvement down the stretch, there were still plenty of head-scratching calls to point to.

Mornhinweg certainly dealt with difficult circumstances, ranging from the front office’s lack of commitment to improving the offense in the offseason to Flacco’s summer back injury and Marshal Yanda’s season-ending ankle fracture in Week 3. But does the December improvement and his overall body of work that began as the quarterbacks coach in 2015 — the first of three straight seasons in which Flacco’s yards per attempt rate has dropped — provide enough justification to retain him for another season?

Making matters more unsettling, the Ravens could lose senior offensive assistant and run-game guru Greg Roman, who is not under contract for 2018 and could garner consideration as an offensive coordinator elsewhere. His departure would renew fears about a ground attack that improved markedly this season after being woefully inadequate the previous two seasons under Marc Trestman and then Mornhinweg. A fair argument could be made to promote Roman and hire an outsider to work with Flacco and oversee the passing game, but the status quo will instead remain at the coordinator spot.

Is it continuity or complacency?

Let’s not forget this is the same head coach and organization that fired their offensive coordinator when the Ravens were 9-4 and already a safe bet to make the playoffs in mid-December of 2012. If you’re not going to shake things up after missing the postseason for the third straight year, when will you again?

Regardless of who’s calling the plays as the offensive coordinator, Harbaugh knows the Ravens must add playmakers at the wide receiver and tight end positions. Criticize Mornhinweg all you want, but having to count on the likes of Michael Campanaro and Quincy Adeboyejo with your season on the line isn’t exactly giving a coach a great chance to succeed.

“I think if anyone looks at the needs on our team, that’s where we’re going to be looking to fill our roster,” Harbaugh said. “I’m not giving away any secret there. Everybody in the league knows that. We have to do that.”

The problem is you could have pulled that same quote from 2013 or 2014 or 2015 or last year. That’s where the front office and scouting department come into the picture and must own their shortcomings.

After again pumping most of their resources into the defense last offseason, will general manager Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens finally change up their post-Super Bowl XLVII approach or offer more of the same? Will this organization do something to finally address its blind spot at the wide receiver position? Or will they stick with what’s comfortable?

You’d think jobs are depending on it, but many assumed that to be the case a year ago.

Those fans demanding a pound of flesh were likely always going to be disappointed short of owner Steve Bisciotti waking up on New Year’s Day and electing to clean house, but there’s still little evidence of a renewed sense of urgency after another January that will be spent watching the playoffs at home. The Ravens can’t keep using the “one play away” argument and expect their fans to buy it, evident by the thousands of empty seats at M&T Bank Stadium down the stretch.

Now 40-40 with only one playoff win since raising the Lombardi Trophy in New Orleans 59 months ago, Harbaugh still looked and sounded quite comfortable at the podium on Thursday, evident by the lack of changes to his staff.

It will now be up to the front office to change the Ravens’ perception to offer fans more hope for 2018 and beyond.

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Flacco expects Mornhinweg to return as Ravens offensive coordinator

Posted on 01 January 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens will have a new defensive coordinator in 2018, but it remains to be seen whether other changes are coming to the coaching staff.

Head coach John Harbaugh hasn’t addressed the status of his staff beyond issuing a statement on Dean Pees’ retirement on Monday, but Joe Flacco said he expects offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg to return next season. The veteran quarterback was asked about the importance of building continuity with the coordinator and play-caller, who took over for Marc Trestman in October of 2016.

“It’s always huge. Our relationship is growing,” Flacco said. “It’s always evolving. It’ll definitely be a big thing moving forward.”

Of course, Flacco doesn’t make the coaching staff decisions, but it’s worth noting he had just met extensively with Harbaugh before speaking with reporters in the locker room Monday afternoon. You wouldn’t think the veteran signal-caller would have wanted to comment on his offensive coordinator’s status if he was aware a change was coming, but that doesn’t mean any decision has been made.

The Ravens finished ninth in the NFL in points per game and ranked second in points scored after their Week 10 bye, but the offense reaped the benefits of a defense that led the league in takeaways and was easily among the worst in the NFL over the first three months of the season. Baltimore finished just 27th in total yards, 29th in passing offense, and 11th in rush offense.

Even with Flacco’s uptick in performance in December, he finished last among qualified quarterbacks in yards per passing attempt (5.72) and posted his lowest passer rating (80.4) and QBR (46.0) since 2013.

“We were dealing with a lot to be honest with you,” said Flacco, pretty clearly alluding to his summer back ailment and the slew of other injuries the offense sustained over the summer and early in the season. “We were trying to do our best to play winning football and put ourselves in position to win the football games the best that we could [and] the way that set up for our football team.

“I think that we had to win football games in certain ways in the early part of the year due to a lot of things. We were trying to play to that style and do those things. We just weren’t good enough at it.”

The status of senior offensive assistant and tight ends coach Greg Roman could also impact Mornhinweg’s future if the Ravens do not want to lose the man who coordinated an improved ground attack in 2017. If Roman draws interest as a potential offensive coordinator elsewhere, might Harbaugh and the Ravens consider promoting him and parting ways with the current offensive coordinator?

Retaining Mornhinweg this past year wasn’t a popular decision among fans, so maintaining the status quo would be a tough sell despite the improvement shown over the final month or so. Regardless of the offensive coordinator, the Ravens must upgrade the talent level at the skill positions after pumping few resources into the offense last offseason.

Wide receivers Mike Wallace and Michael Campanaro as well as tight end Benjamin Watson are set to become unrestricted free agents. Starting center Ryan Jensen and offensive lineman James Hurst — who filled in for the injured Alex Lewis at left guard all season — are also scheduled to hit the open market in March.

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New Year’s Eve brings new low for Ravens in stunning defeat

Posted on 01 January 2018 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens entered Sunday with roughly a 97-percent chance of making the playoffs, needing a win over Cincinnati or help from Miami or Jacksonville to punch their ticket.

An assist never came.

According to ESPN, their win probability still stood at 93.4 percent when Cincinnati burned its final timeout, facing a fourth-and-12 at the Baltimore 49 with 53 seconds to go. We know what happened next, and there’s no kind way to put it.

The Ravens choked. Once again, they couldn’t finish, an all-too-common theme of the post-Super Bowl XLVII era.

But this wasn’t arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history erasing two 14-point deficits against an undermanned Baltimore secondary in the 2014 playoffs. Or even Ben Roethlisberger finding Antonio Brown in the final seconds of a heartbreaking loss at Heinz Field last Christmas.

Those disappointments came on the road to superior teams, making them at least semi-tolerable after some time had passed. This one came in their own stadium where they’ve enjoyed one of the best home-field advantages in the NFL for nearly two decades.

Yes, the Ravens let Andy Dalton and Tyler Boyd — who entered the day with 17 receptions on the season — beat them on a 49-yard touchdown pass in the final minute. The Bengals, a losing team out of the playoffs and with nothing to play for on Sunday, ended Baltimore’s season this time.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. If owner Steve Bisciotti was full of “bewilderment” at the end of last season, how might he react to the Ravens missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five years despite a schedule that couldn’t have set up any better down the stretch? Would major changes really shock you after the most stunning home loss in team history and an abysmal first half from a team that came out flat and unprepared?

Head coach John Harbaugh needs to answer for that second part, especially on the heels of an uninspiring performance against Indianapolis last week.

It’s easy — and completely fair — to point blame at defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who reportedly plans to retire anyway. Few could argue that a defense that’s received so many resources over the last few years wouldn’t benefit from some new blood in the coaching department. Even if Pees changes his mind, it’s difficult to envision him coming back from something like this for a second year in a row.

Frankly, this organization needs to take a long look in the mirror and realize it’s about more than just another late defensive collapse. The truth is the overall vision has been flawed since raising the Lombardi Trophy in New Orleans five years ago. Ever since being led to a Super Bowl championship by Joe Flacco and their offense, the Ravens have been trying to chase the ghost of the 2000 defense, almost as if they were ashamed to have won their second championship in the manner they did.

General manager Ozzie Newsome signed Flacco to a big contract like any team would have in that position and has proceeded to pump virtually all meaningful resources into the other side of the ball while expecting the quarterback to be something he’s not. And please don’t say it’s all because of the quarterback’s salary cap number either as the Ravens have selected 13 defensive players with their 17 Day 1 and Day 2 picks over the last five drafts, the best avenue for finding inexpensive talent.

Even with all those picks as well as free-agent dollars exhausted, we’re still talking about the same defensive shortcomings while the offensive holes are mostly filled at the dollar store in hopes of being average if everything goes perfectly. The unbalanced approach has repeatedly netted a below-average offense and a good — but not great — defense with one playoff appearance in five years.

The Ravens can’t allow the finish to this season to fool them like it did a year ago when they went all in on defense in the offseason and barely touched the offense after the collapse against Pittsburgh. It was a commendable finish to 2017 by Flacco despite how little he had to work with and his own health concerns, but this offense was woeful over the first three months of the season and was inept in the first half of Sunday’s game, a big reason why the Ravens trailed by 14 midway through the third quarter.

The offense needs more skill-position talent and more innovative coaching.

This model of repeatedly trying to build a super defense while asking Flacco to do more with less just isn’t working. The truth is it’s really, really difficult to build a historic defense in today’s NFL, no matter how many resources you continue to pump into it.

Meanwhile, the Super Bowl XLVII Most Valuable Player will be turning 33 later this month and isn’t getting any younger. Flacco has his obvious flaws, but he’s proven to be good enough to win if this organization would make more than a halfhearted effort to build around him. Maybe the defense wouldn’t then find itself in quite as many of these late-game situations with little margin for error.

Frankly, I’ll still take my chances with Flacco and a better supporting cast around him over a defense that doesn’t have a 25-year-old Ray Lewis or Ed Reed walking through the door.

To be clear, this isn’t a call for Bisciotti to completely blow it up top to bottom. From Newsome to Harbaugh and others behind the scenes, there is a track record of past success that shouldn’t just be thrown away in haste.

But the same old practices aren’t working and haven’t for a while.

An embarrassing loss to the Bengals to ruin a trip to the playoffs should spark change, but it remains to be seen whether the Ravens will recognize that or just go down the same old path again.

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Ravens defensive coordinator Pees reportedly plans to retire after season

Posted on 31 December 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens could be looking for a new defensive coordinator in 2018.

According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Dean Pees is expected to retire at the end of the season after leading the Baltimore defense for the last six years. The news would hardly be a shocking development as the 68-year-old has pondered retirement in the past, but he has yet to let his players know of his plans beyond this season.

Pees is in his 14th season coaching in the NFL, but he’s spent more than four decades in the profession overall and was even the defensive coordinator at Miami of Ohio when current Ravens head coach John Harbaugh played there. He was hired by Harbaugh to be the Ravens linebackers coach in 2010 and replaced Chuck Pagano as defensive coordinator in 2012.

Tasked with coordinating the first defenses in team history without future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis at middle linebacker, Pees has led the 2017 Ravens to a top-10 ranking in most major categories including takeaways (first), interceptions (first), total defense (ninth), pass defense (10th), points allowed per game (fourth), third-down defense (ninth), and red-zone defense (ninth). Baltimore has also recorded three shutouts, the second-biggest single-season total in franchise history.

Pees is one of eight defensive coordinators in NFL history to coach in a Super Bowl with two different teams after serving in that capacity with New England in 2007 and with the Ravens in 2012.

Many are already speculating about the likes of Pagano, Marvin Lewis, and even Rex Ryan returning to reprise the role of defensive coordinator, but the Ravens have filled the job from within every time since Lewis was hired away from Pittsburgh to be the defensive coordinator for the inaugural Ravens in 1996. Should that trend continue, linebackers coach Don “Wink” Martindale would be the strongest internal candidate to become the seventh defensive coordinator in team history. Martindale spent one year as Denver’s defensive coordinator in 2010 and has been on the Baltimore staff since 2012.

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Suggs was fitting choice for Ravens MVP in grind-it-out season

Posted on 29 December 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Identifying a team MVP wasn’t a slam-dunk proposition in a grind-it-out season for the Ravens.

There were a number of reasonable candidates, ranging from surprising running back Alex Collins to Pro Bowl selections Eric Weddle and C.J. Mosley, but none jumped off the page as the obvious choice. If not for injuries that cost them substantial portions of the season, defensive tackle Brandon Williams and cornerback Jimmy Smith would have garnered stronger consideration. And when you consider how dependent the Ravens have been on field position, even punter Sam Koch deserved mention for his strong campaign.

But the strong play, mental prowess, and veteran leadership of outside linebacker Terrell Suggs made him a fitting choice to receive the local media’s award. Amazingly, it’s the first time the 35-year-old has received the honor, but his mere candidacy in his 15th season — along with his seventh trip to the Pro Bowl — may have helped cement his eventual place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Looking and sounding genuinely touched and surprised to be named team MVP, Suggs says his primary focus is on the Ravens clinching their first trip to the playoffs since 2014.

“This is flattering. I’m speechless. I didn’t know this was this award,” said Suggs, who initially thought he was receiving the local media’s “Good Guy” award on Friday. “This is awesome. It would be a sour note if we don’t win on Sunday, so that is pretty much my big focus right now. This is great among the achievements that we all have achieved this year, but we want to be having a football game next week.”

After changing up his offseason routine by training at the team’s Owings Mills facility rather than in his home state of Arizona, Suggs has enjoyed his finest season in a few years, recording a team-leading 11 sacks and forcing four fumbles. The 2003 first-round pick will play in all 16 regular-season games for the first time since 2014 and has played just over 76 percent of the Ravens’ defensive snaps, dismissing any notions about him becoming more of a situational player this season.

It’s an outcome few would have predicted after he suffered the second torn Achilles tendon of his career just two years ago.

Suggs has credited the revamped offseason regimen for improved health and conditioning, helping him record double-digit sacks for the seventh time in his career. His veteran teammates have also pointed to his presence at spring workouts and meetings as a positive influence on younger players as the Ravens were coming off their second straight season without a playoff berth.

His on-field production and colorful personality have been givens for years, but his underrated cerebral approach to the game has allowed him to continue playing at a high level despite his advancing age. Over the years, opponents have repeatedly noted Suggs’ ability to sometimes call out their offensive plays before the snap, a product of his rigid preparation.

“You see how much fun he is and how much energy he brings to practice,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “I don’t think you fully understand what he’s like off the field studying. He is from the book of Ed Reed and Ray Lewis and those guys.”

In a season in which the Ravens rebounded from a rash of early injuries and a 4-5 start, a healthy and productive Suggs receiving the MVP nod was an appropriate outcome as he moves closer to his eventual place in Canton.

Weddle receives “Good Guy” honor

The local media named Weddle the 2017 recipient of the “Good Guy” award, an honor bestowed upon the player deemed most helpful to reporters.

In his second season with the Ravens, the veteran safety has regularly been available after losses and during tough times when it isn’t as easy to talk to the media.

“The media out here is great. It’s always an obligation for us and for myself,” said Weddle, who was named to his fifth Pro Bowl earlier this month. “I’ve always said that I will always be honest and upfront — good, bad, or indifferent. I’m a man of my word and respect everyone’s jobs. It’s pretty sweet that you guys think that highly of me.”

As a token of their appreciation for Weddle’s cooperation this season, the local media will make a donation in his name to the Ed Block Courage Award Foundation.

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Ravens-Colts: Five predictions for Saturday

Posted on 22 December 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens have no need for an out-of-town scoreboard for Christmas.

Two wins will punch their ticket to the playoffs for the first time since the 2014 season. Those two contests come against opponents with a combined one win since Thanksgiving, leaving no need for John Harbaugh’s team to pay attention to what other teams are doing this weekend.

Indianapolis comes to town Saturday riding a five-game losing streak and is winding down a lost season without injured franchise quarterback Andrew Luck. The Colts’ struggles are likely to cost former Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano his job after six years as head coach.

Of course, Baltimore has dealt with its own trials this season with 14 players on injured reserve, many of those coming on the offensive side of the ball. However, a post-bye surge has many viewing the Ravens as an intriguing threat come January.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens try to win for the fifth time in six games and improve their all-time regular-season mark against Indianapolis to 4-8. Including the postseason, Baltimore is 4-4 against the Colts at M&T Bank Stadium with the last meeting coming in the 2012 playoffs, a 24-9 victory in Ray Lewis’ final game in front of the home crowd.

Below are five predictions for Saturday:

1. Joe Flacco will continue his late-season surge with two touchdown passes. There are many reasons why the Ravens have averaged 36.3 points per game over the last three weeks, but the improved play of the quarterback is the biggest as Flacco has thrown five touchdowns and one interception with a 94.5 passer rating during that time. Making that more impressive has been those performances coinciding with Jeremy Maclin mostly being a non-factor. With Maclin not expected to play, look for Flacco to try to go to tight end Benjamin Watson over the middle with Mike Wallace continuing to make plays on the outside against the NFL’s 30th-ranked pass defense. Each will have a touchdown reception.

2. The Baltimore defense will sack Indianapolis quarterback Jacoby Brissett five times. The second-year signal-caller has been intercepted just seven times all year, but that’s come at a price with Indianapolis surrendering a league-high 53 sacks, often a result of Brissett holding the ball too long. Making matters worse, the Colts just placed starting center Ryan Kelly on injured reserve and have ruled out starting right tackle Denzelle Good for Saturday’s game. Terrell Suggs will have the toughest matchup going up against above-average left tackle Anthony Castonzo, but Dean Pees shouldn’t hesitate to bring A-gap blitzes inside and various pressures against a shuffled right side of the Colts line.

3. Jack Doyle will catch the lone touchdown of the day for the Colts. Ravens linebackers and safeties rebounded nicely last week from their poor showing against Pittsburgh’s tight ends, but that position has still been a problem at various times and Doyle leads Indianapolis in receptions with 71. The secondary will be concerned with containing big-play wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, so the Ravens will concede some space underneath for Doyle to operate from time to time and Brissett will attempt to get rid of the ball quickly against an active pass rush. The Colts will have great difficulty moving the ball with any consistency, but they’ll put together a decent drive or two with Doyle in the middle of it.

4. Buck Allen will lead the way in a 135-yard effort for the running game. Starter Alex Collins isn’t listed on the injury report, but anyone who watched the Week 15 win at Cleveland saw the second-year running back was laboring on multiple occasions. With the playoffs looming, the Ravens would be wise to try to ease Collins’ workload by giving more carries to Allen, who has done a trustworthy job as the backup this season. Indianapolis ranks an unimpressive 29th in rushing yards allowed per game, but its 4.1 yards per carry surrendered ranks a solid 12th in the NFL. Collins will make his mark early in this game, but it will be Allen carrying it more in the second half as the Ravens protect a double-digit lead.

5. The Ravens will take care of business in a 27-10 win. Many fans felt some level of angst about Baltimore playing at the winless Browns last week, but it’s much more difficult envisioning a scenario in which Harbaugh’s team lays a home egg on Saturday. Indianapolis has played hard for the most part and would be a bigger threat in its own stadium, but an undermanned roster doesn’t have the horses to stick with an improved team smelling the playoffs. As was the case against the hapless Browns, the Ravens aren’t going to earn any style points by beating a three-win team, but they’ll clinch their first winning season since 2014 and give their fans a happier Christmas than last year’s crushing loss in Pittsburgh.

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Humphrey’s time arrives for playoff-hopeful Ravens

Posted on 06 December 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey will be playing at Heinz Field for the first time Sunday night, but he has an idea of what to expect against Pittsburgh.

Facing the NFL’s fourth-ranked passing attack in his first start in place of the injured Jimmy Smith, the first-round rookie knows he’ll have a bullseye on his back as Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger surveys a Baltimore secondary now without its top corner. Humphrey acknowledges this in a matter-of-fact way without a hint of intimidation or even all that much excitement in his voice.

It’s not the first time he’s been under the microscope on a big stage, of course, as it was just two years ago that he was a redshirt freshman starting for a national championship Alabama team.

“I’m sure if there’s a weak link they have to pick out, it would definitely be me,” said Humphrey, referencing the big plays he gave up against Detroit last Sunday. “Big Ben likes to throw it up. He’s a great quarterback, so I’m sure if he has to take those shots, it’ll probably be at me.”

The six-foot, 197-pound cornerback struggled as Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford targeted him frequently after Smith suffered a torn Achilles tendon late in the second quarter, but it’s not as though Humphrey hadn’t already shown enough for the Ravens to be confident in him. It was just a couple weeks ago when many began wondering if Humphrey was on the cusp of earning a starting position before a thigh issue limited him to seven defensive snaps in Week 12.

His talent was evident from the first day of organized team activities when he was still two months shy of his 21st birthday. Humphrey didn’t look much like a rookie in the spring and summer as he practiced press coverage and displayed the kind of polish you expect from a cornerback with at least a couple seasons under his belt.

This past Sunday was arguably the first time the moment has looked too big for him since he was selected with the 16th overall pick in April’s draft, and he still recovered in the fourth quarter to intercept a Stafford pass to help preserve the win.

“He has good composure on the field. He has God-given speed,” 10th-year cornerback Brandon Carr said. “The ability he has, he can make up for a lot of things that he hasn’t learned yet as far as technique and the ins and outs of the receivers. But he has a knack for just going out there and making plays.”

The Ravens would surely prefer having Smith on the field against the likes of All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown and deep threat Martavis Bryant in a nationally-televised prime-time game, but it’s not as though they’re throwing Humphrey to the wolves as an untested commodity. He’s already logged more than 300 defensive snaps this season — including 55 against an Oakland offense that included wide receivers Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper — after frequently spelling a banged-up Smith and replacing Carr when he struggled to slow down Green Bay’s speedy receivers late last month.

According to Pro Football Focus, Humphrey has graded a respectable 41st among qualified cornerbacks and is allowing a passer rating of just 52.3 when targeted. He has collected 25 tackles and two interceptions to go along with eight pass breakups. The latter stat ranks second on the team and reflects how quarterbacks had already tried to test the rookie with little success before Stafford’s last Sunday.

Prior to Smith’s injury, coaches had boasted that they had three starting corners on the league’s third-ranked pass defense, and the numbers support that idea as Humphrey has played 18 or more snaps seven times this season.

“I think it’ll help a lot,” Humphrey said. “Coaches have given me a lot of time to play for me [being] a backup corner. It’ll definitely help that I’ve got some game experience.”

Of course, the apprenticeship is now over as Humphrey will start opposite of Carr and the Ravens will try to avoid their second straight late-season collapse following an injury to Smith. There’s no safety net as the next men up on the depth chart are also inexperienced in Maurice Canady, Jaylen Hill, and Stanley Jean-Baptiste.

Frankly, this exact scenario with the oft-injured Smith is why general manager Ozzie Newsome passed on prospects at other positions of need to select Humphrey. Some growing pains are likely or even inevitable down the stretch, but his talent and even-keeled personality are major reasons why the Ravens believe they can endure Smith’s absence this time around after it was their fatal flaw last December.

“If a ball is completed on him, it’s not ‘sulk and go in the tank’ like some rookies can do,” said defensive coordinator Dean Pees about Humphrey early last month. “Every defensive back that is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame has gotten beat — every one of them. It is just a matter of the ones that are really in there are the ones that could forget that and go play the next play.

“I’m certainly not putting him in that category yet, but he has that quality.”

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