Posted on 23 April 2014 by WNST Audio
Posted on 28 December 2013 by Luke Jones
No strangers to entering Week 17 with work to do to make it to the postseason, the Ravens have never entered the final game needing a win and help from other teams under John Harbaugh as they try to beat the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.
A win would give Baltimore its sixth straight winning season under Harbaugh, but the Ravens would also need a loss by either Miami or San Diego to extend their season into January and give them a chance to defend their Super Bowl title. Of course, Baltimore’s playoff chances wouldn’t completely vanish with a loss, but losses by Miami, San Diego, and Pittsburgh would be required to land the Ravens in the postseason with an 8-8 record.
Even though the Bengals wrapped up the AFC North championship with a win and Baltimore’s loss to New England last Sunday, the Ravens won the first meeting between these teams earlier this season by forcing three turnovers and taking advantage of 134 yards in penalties committed by Cincinnati. The Bengals have been a different team at home this year as they are 7-0 and have scored more than 40 points in each of their last four contests at Paul Brown Stadium.
It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet to conclude the regular season for the fourth straight year — the last three in Cincinnati — and for the 36th time overall in the last 18 years. The Ravens have won five of the last six against Cincinnati and lead the overall series by a 20-15 margin, but the Bengals are 10-7 against Baltimore playing at home.
Here’s what to expect as the Ravens hope to win and receive help to advance to the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season …
1. Torrey Smith eclipses 100 receiving yards for the first time since Oct. 6 to set the single-season franchise record for receiving yards. The third-year wideout looked to be on his way to the Pro Bowl after collecting at least 85 receiving yards in each of his first five games, but he’s hit that mark only once since then as he and quarterback Joe Flacco just haven’t looked to be on the same page. Teams have used plenty of single-high safeties shading him to take away the deep ball, but the Ravens haven’t been able to take advantage on the opposite side. However, the speedy Jacoby Jones has been a bigger factor recently and tight end Dennis Pitta is now in the picture, which will allow Smith to recapture his early-season success with a long catch and his first 100-yard game since Oct. 6 to break Michael Jackson’s team record of 1,201 receiving yards set in 1996.
2. Flacco will show improved mobility, but his left knee will still be an issue as the Bengals bring plenty of inside pressure to collect four sacks. Nothing went well against New England last week, but the sixth-year quarterback must play at a much higher level for the Ravens to have a good chance to beat Cincinnati on the road. Once again wearing a brace this week, Flacco showed better mobility in the second half against New England, but Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is notorious for bringing pressure up the middle, an area where the Baltimore offensive line has struggled mightily all year. Flacco played poorly against Cincinnati earlier in the year — two interceptions and only 3.9 yards per passing attempt — and will fare better than that, but he will be under duress too much against the league’s fifth-ranked defense on Sunday afternoon.
3. Giovani Bernard will run for a touchdown and catch another as a matchup problem against the Ravens defense. Trying to contain Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green is always the top priority when you play the Bengals, but defensive coordinator Dean Pees and his unit must be mindful of the rookie Bernard, who had 22 touches for 97 total yards in Week 10 and is very dangerous in open space. The Ravens have struggled against shifty running backs such as Reggie Bush, Le’Veon Bell, and Matt Forte this season and Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton will try to find Bernard underneath often with the status of tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert in doubt due to injuries. With rain potentially in the forecast for Sunday, Dalton will use Bernard in a way similar to Flacco finding running back Ray Rice earlier in his career, and the rookie will have a big day.
4. Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs combine for three sacks, but the Baltimore defense is unable to force turnovers like it did when these teams met in early November. This pass-rushing duo has failed to make the same impact down the stretch as in the first half, but Dumervil’s best game of the year came against the Bengals when he collected three sacks lining up primarily against Andre Smith and Suggs will no longer be lining up against nemesis Andrew Whitworth, who has moved inside to left guard due to injuries. The Ravens must harass Dalton as they did in November when they pressured him into throwing three interceptions, but the Bengals haven’t turned it over at home — going plus-eight in turnovers in seven home games — and the third-year quarterback will be smart with the football knowing his team is playing a below-average offense.
5. The Ravens will battle, but a tired group that’s been poor on the road all year will fall 27-19 to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2007. The history of the Harbaugh era tells you the Ravens will figure out some way to win this game against a superior team and receive the necessary help to sneak into the playoffs, but nothing lasts forever and Baltimore’s poor performance last week smelled of fatigue and being overmatched. The Ravens received some good fortune during their four-game winning streak, but the same issues were there with a below-average offense lacking a running game and a defense that plays well overall but doesn’t force turnovers or consistently finish games. They have the pride to compete with the Bengals, but a season that included too much mediocrity, a 4-6 start, and a 2-5 road record entering Sunday ends with the Ravens staying home in January.
Posted on 26 December 2013 by Luke Jones
OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens say they’ve turned the page from their embarrassing loss to New England last Sunday, but the truth is staring them right in the face.
In addition to their playoff hopes taking a hit, their pride was significantly wounded by the Patriots, who beat them up for 60 minutes at M&T Bank Stadium. The Ravens simply aren’t used to losing games of that significance in that manner under head coach John Harbaugh, making you wonder how they’ll respond in traveling to Cincinnati to take on the Bengals in a must-win game on Sunday.
This year marks the fourth consecutive time Baltimore will conclude the regular season against the Bengals, who clinched the AFC North title and their third consecutive playoff berth with a win over Minnesota in Week 16. The Ravens will finish their 16-game schedule at Paul Brown Stadium for the third straight year, but the stakes have never been quite like this.
After beating Cincinnati in a 20-17 overtime final in Baltimore earlier this season, the Ravens hope their familiarity and winning mystique will be major assets in trying to top the Bengals while hoping that either Miami or San Diego will fall to give them the No. 6 seed and a sixth consecutive trip to the postseason. However, the Bengals still have eyes on a first-round bye if they can dispose of the Ravens and receive some help from Buffalo against the Patriots.
“We’re used to these guys. They’re a good defense,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “They have been for a few years now. It’s always a good test to play a division opponent, especially in their place. They have a lot to play for; we have a lot to play for. It’s going to be a good game, a good test.”
A good test, indeed, as the Bengals are 7-0 at home on the season and have scored more than 40 points in each of their last four home games. In contrast, Baltimore has scored more than 20 points on the road just twice this season on the way to posting a 2-5 away record.
The Ravens must fight the urge to watch the scoreboard while facing the daunting task of slowing the league’s 10th-ranked offense and moving the ball against the NFL’s fifth-best defense in yards allowed. Given the Bengals’ long history of losing and the Ravens’ great success against them — winning five of the last six meetings — there are reasons to be optimistic that the Ravens will find a way as they often have with their backs against the wall, but it’s still difficult to eliminate the bad taste from last Sunday.
The hard-nosed and winning pedigree that had so many labeling the Ravens as the team no one would want to face in the AFC playoffs just a week ago now appears to be in grave doubt. Losing their grip on a direct path to the postseason, the Ravens can only focus on beating the Bengals on the road like they did two years ago to clinch a division title and first-round bye.
Nothing else really matters if they can’t handle their own business.
“The guys know the scenarios. They’re not living in a vacuum,” Harbaugh said. “They understand what else has to happen. But our job and our task as one single-minded purpose is to win the next game.”
As much as the Ravens will point to their track record in big games, that history came with more-talented teams than this year’s version. Major offensive deficiencies coupled with a good — but not elite — defense won’t breed confidence in being able to defeat one of the AFC’s best teams who has been unbeatable at home this season.
Faced with the prospects of needing a win in the final week of the season for the first time since 2009 to make the playoffs — though that team didn’t need other help that season — the Ravens hope their long-term history repeats itself and their swagger against the Bengals in a critical game will resurface. But the sting of last Sunday is difficult to shake, no matter what the Ravens tell you.
“We take pride in being battle-tested,” running back Ray Rice said. “Last week was last week. If I know this group that’s going to show up Sunday, the group is going to fight until the last whistle until it’s all over. Hopefully, it’s good enough to take care of business.”
Rice out to prove himself next year
The Ravens have rushed for 90 or more yards in three straight games for the first time all season, but their running game won’t avoid a few dubious franchise records for ineptitude.
In addition to their current 3.1 yards per carry average being on pace to shatter the franchise-worst 3.4 mark set in 2006, the Ravens would need to run for 308 yards against the Bengals just to equal the franchise-low 1,589 rushing yards gained in 1997. Running behind an ineffective offensive line all season, three-time Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice has gained 645 yards on the ground, his lowest total since his rookie year when he was part of a three-headed attack that included Le’Ron McClain and Willis McGahee.
A Week 2 hip injury has also hobbled Rice for much of the season, robbing him of his once-dangerous elusiveness. However, the sixth-year back has taken consolation in only missing one game this season despite his poor production.
“From a personal standpoint, [it's] understanding that I played through a lot this year,” Rice said. “I’m just going to get back out there and battle and not worry about what I’ve got to do statistically week-in and week-out. Statistically, I put all of that stuff aside, but personally, I’m glad I was able to overcome some things.”
Rice has heard the doubts and questions about whether he’s reached the downside of his career as he’s averaging 3.1 yards per carry and only 5.6 yards per reception — both career lows — but he’s already vowed to return in 2014 to erase those thoughts.
Averaging just under 4.1 yards per carry over the last three weeks, Rice is now battling a mild quadriceps injury he says is unrelated to the hip flexor strain suffered in Week 2.
“Everything has been great, even for some of the people who say that you lost a step,” said Rice, who reiterated he’s still focused on the remainder of this season. “It’s different when you have an injury that controls things that you’re normally good at doing. I had to battle that this year. I’ll make sure I come back in the best shape, bigger, faster, stronger — whatever you want to call it — to prove myself again that I can still be a premier running back in the NFL.”
The Bengals are allowing 99.8 yards per game on the ground and rank sixth in the NFL in rush defense.
Pees complimentary of Bengals personnel
Posted on 13 December 2013 by Luke Jones
OWINGS MILLS, Md. — As if preparing for arguably the NFL’s most explosive offensive player in Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson wasn’t enough, the Ravens must also deal with a pair of monsters in the middle of the Lions defensive line on Monday night.
And while Detroit’s defense ranks an ordinary 17th in yards allowed and 18th in points surrendered this season, tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley can wreak havoc on an offense in a variety of ways. Effective in shutting down the run as well as providing pressure up the middle, the tackles also bring an intimidation factor that walks a fine line between intimidating and dirty at times.
“Their reputation, they definitely live up to it,” running back Ray Rice said. “I don’t know if you want to call it physical or dirty. Whatever the refs see, that’s what they see. But needless to say, I’m not going to spark any fire. No. 1 is those two guys there in the middle, Ndamukong Suh and Fairley. They are great football players. We know we have our hands full with those guys.”
The Lions rank sixth against the run, which doesn’t bode well for a Baltimore running game that’s last in the league in yards per carry, but Suh’s biggest asset is his ability to put pressure on the quarterback. His 5 1/2 sacks rank second on the Lions behind defensive end Ziggy Ansah while Fairley has added 3 1/2 sacks on the season.
Guards Marshal Yanda and A.Q. Shipley along with center Gino Gradkowski will be entrusted to keep quarterback Joe Flacco upright and to give him room to step up to throw against a vulnerable Detroit secondary. Yanda’s task will be especially challenging as Suh has graded out as the second-best pass-rushing defensive tackle in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
“One of the things that you notice about them is the fact that they can push the pocket,” offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said. “They can keep you from stepping up in it, and therefore you aren’t able to get the ball down the field with the kind of precision that you like. They do that quite often to quarterbacks. They get free.”
One man on ‘Megatron?’
Plenty of discussion this week has centered around how the Ravens will try to cover Johnson with third-year cornerback Jimmy Smith being named as the most popular candidate.
As you’d expect, the Ravens aren’t giving away how they plan to defend the 6-foot-5 receiver, but Smith is their most effective defender in press coverage should they try to play a physical brand of football against him like they did earlier this season against standout receivers such as Cincinnati’s A.J. Green and Chicago’s Brandon Marshall.
“How many corners are 6-foot-2 [with] long arms, a physical guy, a strong guy and the guy can run?” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “Those are all the things you look for in a corner. Besides that, I think his confidence is growing. That’s the other side of it and the more it grows, the better you become.”
Pees would only say that fans and media would find out Monday night if the Ravens have decided to match Smith against Johnson exclusively, but the strategy isn’t as simple for a defense that plays extensive zone coverage.
In fact, the defensive coordinator provided a pretty convincing explanation for why the Ravens shouldn’t move away from their typical strategy of keeping Smith at right corner and Lardarius Webb on the left side in the base defense. Matching Smith up with the star receiver would require adjustments everywhere else and defenders to have new responsibilities if the Ravens are to show anything other than man coverage.
“You can’t go into a game, and every time I walk over with [No.81], they know you’re in man coverage, so a red flag is going to go up,” Pees said. “You’ve got to be able to play all of your coverages if you are going to play it that way. There’s a lot more involved in playing that, and all of a sudden the guy is in the slot, and he’s not an outside receiver, and you’re in sub defense, and Jimmy is in a nickel, or your guy is not a nickel. There’s a lot more involved when you try to play matchup coverage. It’s easy when you play man; go get your guy. But I wouldn’t want to be a coordinator in this league that tells the offensive coordinator every time I’m in man coverage.”
After dealing with a tornado-prompted delay in Chicago, a snowstorm in Baltimore, and high winds during a number of games over the last six weeks, the Ravens are embracing the opportunity to play indoors for the first time since Super Bowl XLVII.
It doesn’t result in any distinct advantage against an opponent that plays all home games inside, but the fast track and controlled climate of Ford Field just might be the elixir for a passing game that now possesses tight end Dennis Pitta and is looking for more consistency.
“I never make a big deal about playing outside,” Flacco said, “but every time you go into a dome and you start warming up, you realize how awesome it is to be able to throw the ball inside. It won’t have too much of an effect on the outcome of the game. As a quarterback, you always want great conditions and a dome obviously presents that.”
In addition to an easier time in the passing game, the Ravens will receive a respite in the kicking game after excellent work from kicker Justin Tucker and punter Sam Koch in some very difficult conditions.
The Ravens have even needed to adjust to the idea of not needing to prepare for harsh weather conditions.
“It’s been interesting,” special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. “I gave the players the weather report this morning in the meeting, and I said it’s going to be 72 and calm. And there was a long pause. They weren’t sure they understood. ‘Oh, yeah. That’s right!!’ So, yes, we don’t have to deal with that. I think the people that are most happy about that are the specialists.”
Posted on 04 December 2013 by Luke Jones
OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Even if they’re fortunate enough to only play him once every four years, the Ravens are fully aware of the greatness of Vikings running back Adrian Peterson.
In fact, Peterson is only the first of several of the NFL’s best the Ravens must stop over the final month of the season to advance to the postseason for the sixth consecutive season under coach John Harbaugh.
Next week, the Ravens take on Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, the undisputed best wide receiver on the planet today. The week after, it’s one of the best quarterbacks in league history in Tom Brady. And if the Ravens can get past the first three while remaining upright in terms of their postseason fate, Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green awaits in the regular-season finale.
No sweat, right?
But the Ravens can only focus on Peterson and Minnesota for now with all discussion of Sunday’s game centered around stopping the five-time Pro Bowl running back and 2012 NFL Most Valuable Player. Peterson leads the league with 1,208 rushing yards after collecting more than 2,000 on the ground last year coming off a torn ACL at the end of the 2011 season.
“What’s his nickname, ‘All Day?’” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “The man runs hard all day. It’s going to be interesting. It’s definitely a challenge for us, and we’re really looking forward to it. We’ll have to see what’s up on Sunday.”
Only a handful of defensive players remain on the roster from the last time the Ravens took on Peterson and the Vikings at the Metrodome in 2009, but the memory of the 6-foot-1, 217-yard back rushing for 143 yards on 22 carries was a difficult one for a defense that prides itself on stopping the run. Baltimore has allowed over 100 rushing yards in six of its 12 games, but only one of those contests resulted in an individual century-mark rusher as Green Bay’s Eddie Lacy ran for 120 yards in Week 6.
Aside from a four-week stretch earlier this season when the Ravens allowed 140 or more rushing yards three times — against Buffalo, the Packers, and Pittsburgh — the run defense has been strong, ranking sixth in the league by allowing 100.1 rushing yards per game. Dean Pees’ unit has allowed only 3.7 yards per carry, but the Ravens haven’t faced a back with Peterson’s incredibly rare combination of speed, size, toughness, and agility.
In addition to following gap assignments and simply staying home to protect against cutbacks, the common theme expressed by the Ravens Wednesday was the need to gang-tackle to neutralize Peterson’s ability to shed defenders. According to Pro Football Focus, he leads the league with 801 yards after contact, which is over 200 more than second-place Marshawn Lynch of Seattle.
“Everybody has to tackle. You have to have a whole defensive effort,” cornerback Lardarius Webb said. “Everybody needs to run to the ball. One guy doesn’t usually bring him down. He’s one of those backs that can change the game on any play.”
The numbers support that sentiment as Peterson is averaging 3.1 yards per attempt after contact this season; the Ravens’ struggling running game collects only 2.9 yards overall per carry.
As if his reputation for being a bruising running back that breaks tackles wasn’t enough, Peterson is also tied for second in the NFL with eight runs of 20 or more yards. Suggs recalled a 58-yard run Peterson collected in the Vikings’ 33-31 win in 2009 and how scary it can be to see him find the second and third levels of the defense.
“It’s not a good scene when you’re behind [No.] 28,” Suggs said. “You just hope you’ve got somebody fast enough on the team to catch the guy. But if you keep him in front of you, then you’ve got a good chance of containing him.”
Of course, even with Peterson, the Vikings are 3-8-1 and possess the league’s 25th-ranked passing game as the quarterbacking trio of Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel, and Josh Freeman have been unable to generate any consistency through the air. The Vikings’ passing game ineptitude has allowed teams to put eight men in the box far too often, making it likely that safeties James Ihedigbo and Matt Elam will take turns playing close to the line of scrimmage in an effort to slow the intimidating back.
Such defensive looks make it even more impressive that Peterson is leading the league in rushing for the second straight year with not much help behind him in terms of a passing game.
With Ponder not expected to start while recovering from a concussion, the Ravens will likely see Cassel under center, a signal-caller they harassed incessantly in a 2010 wild-card victory against Kansas City. Baltimore is saying all the right things about the Vikings’ talented trio of wide receivers in former Packer Greg Jennings, Jerome Simpson, and rookie Cordarrelle Patterson, but the numbers suggest that a huge day from Peterson is the Vikings’ only realistic hope for an upset on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.
“He’s a threat every time he touches the ball, so we’ll have our hands full,” Harbaugh said. “But it just can’t be that. You can’t sleep on the rest of their talent. They’ve got a number of very good tight ends that can make plays. They’ve got a number of very talented receivers that can make plays. They are a fully complemented offense talent-wise.”
The key word is containment as Peterson has only been held under 75 rushing yards four times this season. The Vikings running back is too talented not to get his yards, but the Ravens must prevent him from going off like he did last week against the Bears for over 200 rushing yards in an overtime win.
The overall Week 14 competition is underwhelming for the Ravens as they begin the final quarter of the season on Sunday, but Peterson is just the first of several big names that lie in their path to the postseason.
It doesn’t get any easier after that with Detroit, New England, and Cincinnati looming after that.
“Isn’t that everybody’s motivation? You get the chance to go up against the best,” linebacker Jameel McClain said. “We get the opportunity this week to go up against one of the best running backs, and then the week after that, we get a chance [against] one of the better receivers in the league. It’s everybody’s motivation to come and bring their ‘A’ game. We wouldn’t be in this game if we weren’t trying to compete with the best.”
Posted on 14 November 2013 by Luke Jones
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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Chicago Bears are one of the NFL’s cornerstone franchises built around a reputation of menacing defense that’s stretched across decades of professional football.
However, this year’s team under new head coach Marc Trestman centers around an explosive passing game despite injuries that have sidelined starting quarterback Jay Cutler and thrust 34-year-old journeyman Josh McCown into action for the better part of the last month. With Cutler sidelined for Sunday’s tilt against the Ravens, McCown will again serve in a starting capacity, but the number of pass-catching targets at his disposal qualifies as a new version of the “Monsters of the Midway.”
Of course, the Baltimore defense did exceptional work against Cincinnati’s talented group of receivers led by A.J. Green last Sunday, but the Bears bring a level of physicality that the tall but wiry Bengals receivers do not provide. Leading the way is the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Brandon Marshall, who is coming off back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons and ranks ninth in the NFL with 786 receiving yards and tied for sixth with eight touchdown catches.
“He catches the ball no matter where you put it,” said cornerback Lardarius Webb, who is coming off his best game of the season in Week 10. “If you put it somewhere around him, he can make the catch. That’s what makes him so dangerous. You have to know where he’s at at all times on the field. Wherever he’s lined up, we need to know because he’s a game-changer.”
What makes Marshall so dangerous is Trestman’s willingness to line him up in a variety of places on the field, making it difficult for defenses to find the best matchup consistently. Even if the Ravens are able to harness Marshall, the emergency of second-year receiver Alshon Jeffery has forced pass defenses to pick their poison when electing to bracket coverage on Marshall, leaving the 2012 second-round pick matched up in single coverage.
After an underwhelming rookie season in which he caught just 24 passes for 367 yards, the 6-foot-3 Jeffery is 13th in the league with 735 receiving yards, giving the Bears one of the best pass-catching duos in the NFL. With the Ravens possessing only one cornerback taller than six feet — starter Jimmy Smith — Webb and No. 3 cornerback Corey Graham will need to play in a physical manner similar to how they played last week against the Bengals.
“[Jeffery] catches everything. He goes up and gets the ball,” cornerback Corey Graham said. “I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen him drop a pass on film. If you’re not attacking the ball and going up and making a play, he’s going to get it.”
The news doesn’t get much better beyond that as 6-foot-6 tight end Martellus Bennett has caught four touchdowns and running back Matt Forte is regarded as one of the most dangerous receivers in the league out of the backfield. The Ravens will find size everywhere they look in the Bears passing game, making their ability to pressure McCown that much more critical in Sunday’s tilt at Soldier Field.
It remains to be seen whether defensive coordinator Dean Pees will once again use Webb inside in the nickel package, but the ability of safeties James Ihedigbo and Matt Elam to gain good position in coverage against Bennett will be a major challenge in containing the Chicago passing attack, especially inside the red zone.
Even with an array of power forward-like targets to throw to, McCown must still deal with a defense tied for third in the NFL with 32 sacks. The Ravens were able to harass Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton into throwing three interceptions and will look for similar results against the career backup, who has completed 60 percent of his passes for four touchdowns and no interceptions in three games this season.
Baltimore has talked all week about the takeaway outburst against Cincinnati being the result of preparation finally coming together and will try to prove it wasn’t simply the result of some different defensive looks mixed with good fortune against their division rivals in the 20-17 overtime win.
“You all just happened to see a byproduct of all the work that we put in,” linebacker Jameel McClain said. “We got put in the position to get those plays. I always like to say that turnovers and interceptions are an accumulation of preparation and luck. Some of those plays, [the ball] landed in the perfect position. It’s luck, but it’s preparation for being there.”
Rare chance for running game
The struggles of the Ravens’ historically-poor running game have been discussed ad nauseam, but Sunday may represent their best last chance of hope that the ground production can improve in the second half of the season.
The Bears rank 31st in the league against the run and are giving up just under 130 rushing yards per game this season. The season-ending loss of defensive tackle Henry Melton in September and the current shoulder injury sidelining outside linebacker Lance Briggs haven’t done the defense any favors as the Bears have needed to lean heavily on offense to build a 5-4 record.
It remains to be seen how offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell will handle the workload in the running game after head coach John Harbaugh suggested performance will dictate how many carries struggling starter Ray Rice and backup Bernard Pierce will receive moving forward. Rice is averaging just 2.5 yards per carry while Pierce isn’t much better at 2.8 as both have battled injuries this season.
“We’re working to get better,” Rice said. “I know I’ve worked my butt off to get back on the field to play at a high level. I’ve just got to keep myself motivated, because I know once the opportunity comes and we rip off one of those big gains, we’ll be saying, ‘Well there it goes.’ The day will come.”
If the day doesn’t come Sunday against one of the league’s worst run defenses, it may be time to close the book on any hope for improvement in the Ravens’ rushing attack.
Hester the home-run hitter
Posted on 13 November 2013 by Luke Jones
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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Growing up in a household with two younger brothers who’ve achieved fame in the athletic realm, Ravens defensive tackle Arthur Jones is finally drawing much-deserved recognition of his own.
First, it was winning Super Bowl XLVII and getting the best of younger brother Chandler Jones — a defensive end and 2012 first-round pick for the New England Patriots — along the way to championship glory. Now, he is gaining further notoriety as one of the Ravens’ best defensive players in his fourth year.
Success didn’t come immediately for Jones as a knee injury in his final season at Syracuse caused his draft status to plummet before the Ravens selected him in the fifth round of the 2010 draft. Playing behind veterans such as Haloti Ngata, Kelly Gregg, and Cory Redding on the defensive line, Jones was active for just two games as a rookie.
At the same time, his other younger brother was becoming one of the most famous mixed martial art fighters in the world while cheering on his older brother in Baltimore.
“When he first started, we’d be out there watching like, ‘Is he even playing right now?’” said UFC light heavyweight champion Jon “Bones” Jones, who visited the Ravens at their Owings Mills facility on Wednesday. “Not only has Arthur managed to be in the game full-time, but he’s becoming an impact player, and that’s amazing to see.”
Now a starting defensive tackle for the league’s eighth-ranked defense in points allowed, Jones faced the problem that many young defensive linemen encounter when entering the NFL without overwhelming size like Ngata’s 340-pound frame. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds coming out of college, Jones bounced back and forth among the different defensive line positions while learning the Ravens’ 3-4 system.
Jones became a regular member of the defensive line rotation in 2011 — appearing in 14 games and making one start — and was tabbed to compete with fellow defensive lineman Pernell McPhee last season at the 5-technique defensive end spot vacated by Redding. However, that position required more speed and didn’t allow Jones to fully utilize the strong leverage he gained from a wrestling background.
The transformation for Jones started midway through last season when the Ravens began using him more exclusively at the 3-technique defensive tackle spot that lines up on the outside shoulder of the opposing guard. Over the final six weeks of the 2012 season, Jones collected the first 4 1/2 sacks of his career and continued to be a major contributor in the Ravens’ postseason run to a title.
“The more guys play, the more they see, the more they just kind of understand what you want,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said of Jones prior to the bye week. “When you’re early on and you play on a defense that’s a multiple-type defense, you really spend a heck of a lot of time just memorizing what the heck [you’re] supposed to do rather than just playing ball. Once that kind of clicks in, it makes a difference in a player who makes more plays, because it comes natural now.”
After missing the 2013 season opener due to an irregular heartbeat that put his career at a temporary standstill this summer, Jones has become one of the best players on the Baltimore defense in collecting four sacks and 28 tackles, five of them for a loss.
He has often pointed to a critical point in his career taking place during the NFL lockout in 2011 when he spent extensive time training with his brother Jon in the mixed martial arts. The workouts not only improved his hand placement critical for defensive line play but left him in the best shape of his life, and he’s continued to train with his young brother.
“I give a lot of credit to [Jon],” Jones said. “In the offseason, I work out with him faithfully on hand fighting, wrestling, [and] leverage. Just having good pad level is a game-changer in this league, so if you can learn how to use your hands and have good leverage, you can do some good things.”
Regarded as strictly a run-stopping lineman early in his career, Jones has emerged as arguably the Ravens’ best interior line pass rusher and has graded out as the team’s third-best defensive player this season behind the pass-rushing duo of Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, according to Pro Football Focus.
Though nose tackle Haloti Ngata has been named to four Pro Bowls and receives the most recognition along the defensive line, Jones has been the Ravens’ most consistent defensive lineman as he’s progressed from a frequent game-day inactive in his rookie season to one of the better 3-technique defensive tackles in the AFC. His improvement hasn’t gone unnoticed by his teammates, who’ve seen him blossom up front.
“When you see the potential of a player and he grows, and he starts to mature into himself [and] come into his own, it’s pretty good,” Suggs said. “It’s good to see the production that he’s had with success.”
The Ravens’ biggest problem in regards to Jones might be the ability to keep him as he’s scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. Awarded the second-round tender worth $2.02 million as a restricted free agent this past offseason, the 27-year-old is in line for a good payday on the open market.
With the Ravens projected to have limited salary cap space for the second straight season and needing to address a plethora of offensive issues, Jones might follow a similar path as Paul Kruger, who turned a successful fourth season in Baltimore to a lucrative contract with the Cleveland Browns. Jones joked Wednesday that his younger brother Jon was visiting the team to help negotiate a contract extension with general manager Ozzie Newsome.
It’s true that Jones may never outshine his younger brothers, but he is finally seeing his hard work pay off and the Ravens have benefited along the way.
“He’s turned into a very solid and even excellent defensive lineman in this league, and I think it is because of his work ethic,” coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s talented, he’s quick, he’s explosive. He’s really maximized his physical potential, and he’s one of the best defensive lineman now going. We’re real proud of what he has done.”
Posted on 10 November 2013 by Luke Jones
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BALTIMORE — The Ravens defense talked extensively about its need to be more dynamic and to finish stronger late in games after narrow losses to Green Bay, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland over the last month.
A Hail Mary touchdown pass from Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton to A.J. Green on the final play of regulation certainly jeopardized that goal, but the Ravens rebounded in overtime for a 20-17 win to not only snap a three-game losing streak but — for the time being, anyway — save their season. The last-second gaffe received much of the attention following the game, but the Baltimore defense’s aggressiveness in forcing three turnovers and sacking Dalton five times was the most encouraging takeaway from Sunday’s game.
After a series of solid performances that weren’t quite good enough in recent weeks, the Ravens defense was a game-wrecking unit against the Bengals for most of the afternoon on Sunday. Meanwhile, the Ravens offense looked a lot like, well, the Ravens offense after being held scoreless in the third and fourth quarters and failing to run out the clock after a James Ihedigbo interception with 1:55 remaining in regulation.
General manager Ozzie Newsome spent most of the Ravens’ resources this offseason to upgrade the defense, and the results have been solid but unspectacular. While certainly an above-average unit that entered Week 10 ranked 10th overall in yards allowed and points surrendered, the Ravens have lacked the ability to make game-changing plays (entering Week 10 ranked 11th in the AFC with only 10 takeaways) to support an offense that’s struggled mightily all season and have surrendered long second-half drives to eliminate potential comeback attempts.
Sunday’s performance against the league’s ninth-ranked offense and seventh-ranked passing attack was exactly what the Ravens needed to not only rebound from a disappointing first half but to give hope of advancing to the postseason for the sixth consecutive year. If the Ravens are to achieve that goal, a game-changing defense would provide a major shot in the arm to an offense that looks lost more often than not.
“We have the motto that once you put it on tape, that’s what expected of you,” said Ihedigbo, who had two interceptions but inexplicably batted the ball in the air to Green on the touchdown to force overtime on the final play of regulation. “Defensively, we played lights out today. I made the reference back to the 2000 defense — they didn’t give up anything to anybody. And when you go with that mindset, it shows on the field.”
Expecting them to rise to the level of the Super Bowl XXXV defense would be too much to ask, but the Ravens showed a level of aggression not seen all season with defensive coordinator Dean Pees calling an increased number of blitzes that led to Dalton being hit nine times, contributing to his completion percentage falling below 50 percent. However, the most dynamic change to Pees’ defense was the decision to move cornerback Lardarius Webb inside in the nickel package, a position he played with great success prior to the second ACL injury of his career last season.
The change led to Webb’s best game of the season as the fifth-year cornerback collected his first interception and made six pass breakups to go along with five tackles. On a day that included strong performances across the board in the secondary, Webb was the best player on the field for the Ravens.
It remains to be seen whether the Ravens will make it a permanent move as No. 3 cornerback Corey Graham lacks the ideal size to play on the outside — Webb previously played inside when the Ravens had the bigger Cary Williams available to play outside opposite Jimmy Smith — but the 5-foot-10 Webb played more aggressively than he has all season in blitzing from the nickel spot and getting hands up in passing lanes.
“That’s my thing. I always play outside because that’s where they wanted me and that’s where they need me,” said Webb about the position change in the nickel package. “I felt like with me playing safety in college and liking to tackle and eyes roaming sometimes, that’s just my spot. I like that spot; I felt comfortable. With that position, you get to tackle, you get to blitz, you get to cover, you get to do it all. You kind of just get to play football.”
The key to beating the Bengals was providing enough harassment on all levels of the defense to entice the bad Dalton to surface as he did in Miami in Week 9. A secondary that included three players listed as questionable on the final injury report of the week rose to the occasion and limited the Bengals’ big plays other than the 51-yard prayer that was tipped into Green’s hands to force the extra period. However, the defense rebounded to make a fourth-down stop of running back Giovani Bernard in overtime to give the Ravens the ball back at their own 44 before the final game-winning drive.
Third-year cornerback Jimmy Smith had one of his best days as a pro, making five tackles and breaking up two passes of his own, and Ihedigbo and rookie Matt Elam turned in strong performances at the safety spots as the Ravens broke up 17 passes in all. Of course, they could thank a ferocious pass rush led by Elvis Dumervil’s 2 1/2 sacks for lending a hand up front.
“Our secondary played tremendously well,” coach John Harbaugh said. “Everybody is going to talk about the last play [in regulation], which is a shame in some ways. Maybe you will talk about the whole game. I thought the pressure was very good, but our secondary covered a very talented and gifted receiving corps all day.”
The Ravens offered a glimpse on Sunday of what they’ll need the rest of the way to give themselves a real shot down the stretch. The offense was again miserable beyond an ability to capitalize on good field position a couple times in the first half and to put together a 28-yard drive in overtime to set up Justin Tucker’s 48-yard field goal to win the game.
Baltimore must have the dynamic, game-changing defensive effort it got Sunday on a regular basis because the offense continues to show no signs of real improvement. It’s no secret that the Ravens lack balance and have struggled in all three phases of the game at different times this season, but Sunday’s win represented a successful attempt to augment the team’s biggest strength.
The challenge will be repeating it moving forward.
“We have to play great as a defense if we want to get back on track,” Webb said. “And today, from the [defensive] line with all the pressure [to] the turnovers, we played great as a defense as a whole. We’ve got to keep getting our hands on the ball. If we keep getting turnovers, then we can keep winning.”
Posted on 07 November 2013 by Luke Jones
OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees recollected Thursday that his defense came under fire a year ago for being lousy statistically despite the Ravens’ 6-2 record midway through the 2012 season.
Of course, a 3-5 record this season doesn’t sit well with Pees despite his unit’s overall improvement, but problems still exist on his side of the ball. Ranked 10th overall in total yards and points per game allowed, the Ravens have forced only 10 turnovers — ranked 11th in the AFC — and have struggled to get defensive stops late in games when they’ve been trailing. And with an offense that’s struggled immensely, those defensive shortcomings have contributed to three straight losses.
“More games are lost than won in the National Football League,” defensive end Chris Canty said. “We’ve got to stop shooting ourselves in the foot, stop doing the things that cause you to lose games, and just play solid ball.”
According to Football Outsiders, the Baltimore defense ranks fifth in the NFL in average defensive drive time (2:21), making their late-game struggles even more puzzling. In losses to Green Bay, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland, the Ravens have surrendered a drive of six minutes or longer that’s been pivotal in either allowing the opposition to build on a second-half lead or to prevent the Baltimore offense from having a final opportunity to tie the game or take the lead.
Many have pondered how much the offense’s first-half struggles have tired out the defense, but the final time of possession wasn’t lopsided in any of the three losses with the Ravens having the ball for at least 28:38 in each game. In Week 9, the Browns took possession of the ball with a 21-18 lead and 6:44 remaining in the fourth quarter and remained on the field until kicking a field goal with 14 seconds remaining. On that drive in which the Browns converted a third-and-3 from their own 36 and a fourth-and-1 from the Baltimore 43 with 3:12 remaining, Pees opined that his defense played tentatively instead of aggressively in trying to make a play.
“You’ve got to feel good enough about yourself that you don’t worry about making a mistake,” Pees said. “You guys have heard me tell you the analogy before – and that’s what I told them this week – you practice that way out here and you go 100 miles an hour, because there’s really not a lot on the line. Somehow, mentally, you’ve got to make yourself play it the same way in a game. I know it’s on the line, we all know it’s on the line, but you’ve got to go. And you’ve just got to make a play.”
Regardless of the exact reasons why, the Ravens are frustrated with their growing reputation of being unable to finish defensively after generally playing well over the first three quarters of the game.
And that recent trend, coupled with the offense’s extremely slow starts all season, has led to the Ravens being as close to must-win mode as they can be against the division-leading Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.
“It’s always frustrating. You’ve got to win games,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “They’re on scholarship, too, so to say – the opposing team – and they’re making plays. It’s just one of those things. You’ve just got to get after it and do it.”
Sam Koch is just one of several established veterans experiencing rough seasons as the longtime punter struggled again last Sunday in Cleveland, three times failing to pin the Browns inside the 20 when kicking near midfield.
The worst of the three offenses came on his final opportunity of the day from his own 46 when he produced a 25-yarder that went out of bounds at the Cleveland 29. The shank gave the Browns solid field position that preceded their game-clinching drive that erased all but the final 14 seconds of the game.
“It’s very frustrating,” Koch said of his season. “I put all the time and work and effort into to trying to make that perfect game.”
Koch’s 37.6 yard net punting average ranks 28th in the league and would be his lowest since 2007 (36.0).
“Sam would be the first one to tell you that he’s been inconsistent,” special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. “There have been situations in games where we need a better ball; [the final punt against the Browns] was an example of it. You’ve also seen him in games where he can hit exactly what we want. We put a lot on Sam. We ask him to do things that other punters in this league aren’t asked to do in terms of direction and so forth. He has demonstrated in practice,time and time and time again that he can do all of that. We just need to do that same kind of performance in the game.”
Posted on 03 November 2013 by Luke Jones
Coming off the Week 8 bye was supposed to be a chance for the Ravens to start anew after a rocky 3-4 start to the 2013 season.
With the division-leading Cincinnati Bengals losing on Thursday night and most of the AFC wild-card contenders looking mortal, the Ravens simply needed a win — no matter how it looked — to get back to .500 and begin the second half of the season on a positive note. A week off not only gave players a chance to rest but provided head coach John Harbaugh and his staff the time to make much-needed corrections in all phases of the game.
Instead, the Ravens responded with an ugly 24-18 loss to the Cleveland Browns, snapping an 11-game winning streak over their AFC North foe and digging an even bigger hole in their quest to advance to the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season. Expecting the bye week to provide a much-needed tuneup, the Ravens instead stalled getting out of their driveway as they’re now off to their worst start since the 2005 season.
And the question echoing over and over in the closing seconds as the Browns finished a scoring drive lasting more than six minutes was a frightening one.
A running game averaging a league-worst 2.8 yards per carry entering Sunday produced only 55 yards on 21 carries with quarterback Joe Flacco accounting for 25 of those on three scrambles. The offensive line was once again dominated at the point of attack and Ray Rice finished with 17 yards on 11 carries, not looking any more explosive or elusive despite claims that he was once again 100 percent.
Though once again plagued with a running game that was a non-factor and suspect pass protection for much of the day, Flacco played poorly through much of the first half, missing several open receivers and throwing a head-scratching interception late in the second quarter. To his credit, the sixth-year signal caller rebounded over the game’s final 30 minutes, but his poor first-half showing was disappointing coming off the bye and was a major factor in the Ravens offense once again getting off to a slow start.
The defense allowed veteran Jason Campbell to throw for 262 yards and three touchdowns and, even worse, wasn’t able to get a stop at a crucial point in the second half for the third straight game — all losses. Dean Pees’ unit hasn’t been the biggest problem this season, but the Ravens defense simply hasn’t been able to come up with a big play when it needs it late in games unlike stellar units of the past that often carried inferior offenses.
Not to be outdone by the first two phases, the special teams were a major problem as well as normally sure-handed punt returner Tandon Doss muffed a punt at his own 11-yard line, setting up the Browns’ third touchdown of the game in the third quarter and putting the Ravens behind 21-10. And punter Sam Koch continued his rough season, failing to pin the Browns inside the 20 on three separate opportunities kicking inside Cleveland territory in a game in which field position loomed large.
Hoping for the light to come on after the bye, the Ravens looked like they did in the first seven games of the season — appearing to be a below-average football team.
How does it get fixed? Can it be fixed this season?
The Ravens are as healthy as they’re going to be until the expected return of Dennis Pitta later this month, but the talented tight end isn’t going to remedy all of the team’s problems. At this rate, the Ravens may not be in a position for Pitta’s return to matter in terms of their playoff hopes for 2013.
General manager Ozzie Newsome and Harbaugh have already trimmed fat on the roster with the jettisoning of veterans Michael Huff, Marcus Spears, and Bryant McKinnie. Many are clamoring for the ax to fall on run-game coordinator Juan Castillo, but there have already been murmurs that his influence has waned since the bye week with offensive line coach Andy Moeller now having a louder voice.
If Castillo were to be fired — a move that would be very difficult to challenge at this point — do the likes of Marshal Yanda and Michael Oher suddenly start winning one-on-one battles that they’ve lost too often this season?
The answers aren’t simple when you have issues all over the place and that’s where the Ravens find themselves as they began the month of November with their third loss in the last four games. There’s a certain amount of understanding that comes with the struggles of unproven players like Gino Gradkowski and veteran newcomers who simply don’t fit, but a number of veterans who have been counted on year in and year out have been even bigger disappointments, which brings greater concern for the future.
Even with the problems along the offensive line, it’s getting more difficult every week to dispute the growing notion that Rice’s best days are behind him. He continues to struggle to break any tackles in the open field and no longer looks like the home-run hitter on which the Ravens relied for years. Rice has three years remaining on his current contract and is scheduled to account for $8.75 million on next year’s cap.
Oher and Yanda have appeared to be shells of their former selves, which might not be as problematic with the former scheduled to become a free agent, but the Pro Bowl right guard has a cap figure of $8.45 million next year and is under contract through the 2015 season.
Top cornerback Lardarius Webb was faked out of his shoes by Browns receiver Davone Bess on a 20-yard touchdown in the second quarter Sunday and has struggled to find his pre-injury form coming back from ACL surgery, but he certainly deserves some benefit of the doubt and should get stronger in the second half of the season. Still, he carries a $10.5 million cap figure in 2014 and is being paid as one of the best cornerbacks in the league.
Having arguably the worst season of his career, Koch carries a $2.8 million cap figure next year, which is a high number for a punter not getting the job done.
And perhaps the most disappointing and concerning of the group of standouts failing to deliver in 2013 is defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who holds a $16 million cap number next season and no longer looks like the game-wrecker he was before the Ravens signed him to a five-year, $61 million contract in 2011. For the third straight season, nagging injuries are limiting his impact in games.
Regardless of what happens over the final eight games in terms of the Ravens trying to rebound to extend their run of five consecutive playoff appearances to a sixth, Newsome and Harbaugh must be in evaluation mode when it comes to the aforementioned players. Some contracts have bigger cap ramifications than others, but it’s a scary proposition to be forced to reconsider your thinking on players who previously weren’t of any concern — and carry huge price tags.
The debate went on through much of the offseason whether the Ravens were rebuilding or simply reloading after a slew of personnel changes. The result to this point has been a flawed roster that will need to go 6-2 in the second half of the season just to give the Ravens a chance at 9-7.
And barring a drastic turnaround in the final eight games, the Ravens will be forced to start thinking about their offseason much sooner than anyone anticipated.
And they’ll definitely have their work cut out for them.