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Ravens-Bills preseason primer: Five players to watch

Posted on 25 August 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens defense enters Saturday’s preseason game against Buffalo having lived up to very lofty expectations through the first two exhibition contests.

First in the NFL in points per game allowed, rushing yards per game allowed, passing yards per game allowed, and total yards per game allowed, Baltimore knows preseason success doesn’t automatically translate to the regular season, but playing this well sure beats the alternative. Just ask the injury-riddled offense that has more questions than answers at this point.

“The whole idea of us going into this year was that we want to be a great defense and we want to finish,” said defensive coordinator Dean Pees, whose unit struggled mightily in the final month of the 2016 season. “You have to start to finish. I would rather have a good start than a bad start and be sitting there worried about a bunch of stuff. But I’m still worried about it.

“To say it doesn’t mean anything — I think coaches tell you that — I think that is crap. You want to go out there and you want to play well every day and every week no matter who is on the field.”

Viewed as the dress rehearsal for the start of the regular season, the third preseason game typically involves starters playing the entire first half. However, with the Ravens already dealing with a plethora of injuries, the plan might be different against the Bills.

Head coach John Harbaugh didn’t offer many specifics on what to expect.

“We just have a plan for this year that we are sticking with,” Harbaugh said. “It does not really compare to any other year. You never really know. Different guys have different situations. It is more individualized probably than ever before. You play guys according to their needs.”

Saturday marks the first time since 2003 that the Ravens and Buffalo have met in the preseason with the Bills having won two of the previous three exhibition contests. These teams met in the 2016 season opener with the Ravens winning 13-7 at M&T Bank Stadium.

Baltimore owns a 26-12 record in preseason games under Harbaugh.

Unofficial (and largely speculative) injury report

The Ravens are not required to release an injury report like they do for regular-season games, but I’ve offered my best guess on what the injury report would look like if one were to be released ahead of Saturday’s game.

Most of the players ruled out will come as no surprise, but the status of a few will remain in question. Of course, this list does not consider any veterans who could be held out due to the coaching staff’s preference.

Again, this is not an official injury report released by the Ravens:

OUT: QB Joe Flacco (back), WR Breshad Perriman (hamstring), OT Ronnie Stanley (undisclosed), CB Maurice Canady (knee), RB Kenneth Dixon (knee), OL Nico Siragusa (knee), CB Tavon Young (knee), OL Alex Lewis (shoulder), WR Tim White (thumb)
DOUBTFUL: CB Marlon Humphrey (hamstring), RB Danny Woodhead (hamstring), CB Brandon Boykin (undisclosed), OT Stephane Nembot (undisclosed), LB Donald Payne (undisclosed)
QUESTIONABLE: G Marshal Yanda (shoulder), CB Sheldon Price (shoulder), WR Quincy Adeboyejo (knee), LB Albert McClellan (undisclosed)

Five players to watch Thursday night

LB Tim Williams

After struggling in the preseason opener against Washington, the third-round pick from Alabama showed off his pass-rushing skills against Miami with a sack and two quarterback hits. Williams has a long way to go to be an every-down linebacker, but the Ravens need players who can get to the quarterback off the edge and he can still carve out a role as a situational pass rusher.

RB Buck Allen

The third-year back looked like he’d face an uphill battle to make the roster several weeks ago, but injuries have afforded him more chances and he’s run with more urgency this summer. Though Terrance West is still projected to be the starter, senior offensive assistant Greg Roman likes to have more than one back involved in the ground game and Allen has rushed for 61 yards on 18 carries this summer.

CB Sheldon Price

Hampered by a shoulder issue for a good portion of the summer, Price is trying to solidify a spot on the 53-man roster and his 6-foot-2, 198-pound frame is ideal for an outside corner. The current absence of 2017 first-round pick Marlon Humphrey helps Price’s case, but rookie free agent Jaylen Hill has all but locked up a job at this point, making it critical for Price to play well in the last two preseason games.

C Jeremy Zuttah

The Ravens needed depth after losing their starting left guard and two other interior options, but Zuttah must prove he can hold up in Roman’s schemes that are more downhill and physical. The fact that Zuttah was released by San Francisco five months after being traded there means he has essentially been cut twice since March and he needs to play with a chip on his shoulder if he wants to unseat Ryan Jensen.

LB Bam Bradley

The reviews for Kamalei Correa at inside linebacker have been mixed, but the Ravens don’t have many alternatives at the position. The 237-pound Bradley has more bulk than special-teams standout Patrick Onwuasor and has played well this preseason, making him one of several undrafted free agents who remain in the conversation for a spot on the 53-man roster.

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Suggs remains strong presence in new era for Ravens defense

Posted on 16 June 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Rookie second-round outside linebacker Tyus Bowser was 7 years old when the Ravens selected Terrell Suggs with the 10th overall pick of the 2003 draft.

First-round cornerback Marlon Humphrey was 6.

Having years ago referred to former teammate and soon-to-be Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis as Mufasa — a reference to the sage leader of the Pride Lands in “The Lion King” — Suggs understands he’s the last of his kind and he’s embraced that, even referring to himself as the Darth Vader of a new era.

“I like having fun with the younger guys,” said the 34-year-old, now entering his 15th season in the NFL. “They tell me how old they are, and I’m like, ‘Holy s–t.’ It’s weird, but I like it. It feels good.”

This spring was different for Suggs, who had always skipped the voluntary offseason workout program in the past and would work out on his own before showing up for mandatory minicamp in June. His weight and conditioning levels varied from year to year, sometimes sparking criticism when he wasn’t in the best of shape.

But after hearing rave reviews from those teammates who worked with Ravens director of performance Steve Saunders last offseason, the six-time Pro Bowl selection elected to give it a try. Having gone through spring workouts in Owings Mills — head coach John Harbaugh chose to hold him out of the voluntary spring practices open to the media — Suggs says he hasn’t felt this good in June in many years.

“It’s funny seeing him die in workouts and doing the running, lifting,” said safety Eric Weddle, who was one of the first to embrace Saunders’ rigorous methods. “It’s great for him. I think he knows that at this point in his career, he needs to be in the best shape of his life. He needs to be as strong as he can so he can get through the season. We need him.”

Suggs enjoyed a fine 2016 in his return from the second Achilles tendon tear of his career — especially considering he played with a torn biceps for much of the season — but his eight sacks marked his lowest total in a year not substantially abbreviated by injuries since 2009. He may no longer stand among the elite defensive players in the NFL, but the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year is still an above-average starting linebacker who plays the run very well and can conjure up a big play in a critical spot.

His boisterous behavior is evident at practices when he’s hooting and hollering at someone or taking owner Steve Bisciotti’s golf cart for a joyride on his way out to the back fields at the team facility, but Suggs does much more than keep the mood light in the locker room and in the huddle. Having learned from obsessive students of the game like Lewis and nine-time Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed early in his career, Suggs is constantly praised by those who know him best for his football intellect.

The Ravens hope he continues passing down those lessons to young players such as Bowser, 2016 fifth-round pick Matt Judon, and fourth-round rookie Tim Williams to rebuild a pass rush that had markedly declined over the last couple years.

“You can really tell a difference in our types of practice when he is here and when he is not here,” said defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who added that Suggs looks like he’s 25 years old again. “It’s more fun for me when he is here, too. But when it is time to be serious, there’s nobody more serious. There is really nobody smarter on this defensive football team than Terrell Suggs.”

Suggs was noncommittal when asked how much longer he hopes to play or whether he has any visions of trying to match Lewis’ 17 years with the Ravens, but he made it clear that he doesn’t feel like it’s his time to “cross that bridge” to retirement yet. His contract runs through 2018 and is scheduled to pay him $4 million in base salary for each of the next two years.

His commitment to be in the building this spring hasn’t gone unnoticed as the Ravens made a conscious effort to get younger this offseason after missing the playoffs for the third time in four years. Seeing general manager Ozzie Newsome show the door to five-time Pro Bowl pass rusher Elvis Dumervil likely served a reminder to Suggs about his own football mortality as he turns 35 in October.

“What I am so impressed with is the leadership by example that he has demonstrated in this offseason,” Harbaugh said. “He is out there doing it, and he is out there competing with the guys every day in the conditioning program. It is impressive to watch, and that is a great way to get guys attention if you want to be a leader.”

Fun and camaraderie aside, Suggs wants to win. He hasn’t gone through a down period like this from a team standpoint since the end of the Brian Billick era and is counting on an extensive batch of defensive additions to help him get back to the playoffs.

Suggs may not have expressed any clear intention of trying to surpass Lewis for most years spent with the Ravens, but he did mention the way his former leader was able to go out on top with a championship.

“We can’t fall short anymore,” Suggs said. “It’s a terrible thing when you don’t capitalize on your potential. We’ve always had a capable team; we’ve just haven’t always capitalized on it. I think it’s time to cash in and don’t be one of the odd teams looking in when it becomes the second season in January.”

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Correa trying to find niche with Ravens at inside linebacker

Posted on 14 June 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Expectations were high for Kamalei Correa when the Ravens selected him in the second round of the 2016 draft.

With Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil coming off respective Achilles tendon injuries and veterans Daryl Smith and Courtney Upshaw no longer on the roster, Correa looked like a good bet at this time a year ago to see meaningful action as a rookie in the Baltimore defense. Of course, that wouldn’t be the case as he would play only 48 defensive snaps and struggled to grasp the Ravens system.

In an impressive draft class that produced three first-year starters in Ronnie Stanley, Alex Lewis, and Tavon Young, Correa became an afterthought with former undrafted free agent Zach Orr emerging to take Smith’s inside linebacker position and leading the Ravens in tackles after the two had competed for the starting job in the spring and early summer. A year later, Orr’s unfortunate retirement due to a rare congenital spine condition has opened the door for Correa to win a starting spot.

“I learned a lot. The NFL is not like college football, and that was hard,” Correa said. “My playbook expanded. I didn’t really play special teams in college, so that was tough. I think it was just a huge learning year. Year 1 and Year 2 is such a big difference. I feel like in Year 2, you know what to expect, you know what is coming, you know your playbook a little more.

“In actuality, it really allows you to play faster. When you play faster, you start making plays, and when you start making plays, you are going to stay on the field.”

Correa was considered by most to be an edge defender with pass-rushing ability following his standout career at Boise State, but the Ravens elected to cross-train the rookie at all four linebacker positions. That’s hardly an uncommon practice with teams limited to 46-man rosters on game days, but Correa struggled to learn the many layers of the defense and didn’t embrace playing special teams, causing his plunge down the depth chart after initially turning heads in spring workouts.

He saw very limited action at outside linebacker last year, but the organization now views the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Correa’s best fit at inside linebacker. Despite checking off a number of other boxes with notable additions to the defense this offseason, general manager Ozzie Newsome has not added a veteran inside linebacker, a show of faith that Correa can handle Orr’s old weak-side inside linebacker job.

The reviews for the start of the 23-year-old’s second NFL season have been favorable.

“We have kind of honed him into one spot, and he is really working hard at that and really learning that spot,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “I think he’s been moving around great. You can never know about the running game too much in [organized team activities] and minicamp because you don’t have pads on. You have to be really careful and not be banging people.

“As far as where he fits and knowing his responsibilities and assignments and all that kind of stuff, I am very, very pleased with him at this point.”

Correa still leans on veterans C.J. Mosley and Albert McClellan to help refine his knowledge of coverage concepts and understanding where his help is coming from within the defense, but the young linebacker says he feels more like himself and is having more fun this season after struggling to find his way a year ago. Though acknowledging that trying to learn so many positions a year ago probably hurt his development, he placed the blame solely on his shoulders for not living up to expectations as a rookie.

And he believes the trials of his rookie season will only make him a better player in the long run.

“They picked me for a reason. I am here, I can do it. So, why not be me?” Correa said. “I just started to go to work, I put my best foot forward, I am letting the cards fall out on the table as it is, and I let them make the calls up there on who is playing. I just have to do my job and make plays.”

 

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Webb re-signing can offer more than depth to Ravens defense

Posted on 12 April 2017 by Luke Jones

The re-signing of veteran Lardarius Webb should be about more than just depth for the Ravens.

Yes, the 31-year-old is a good insurance policy behind starters Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson, but his play in his first year as a safety in 2016 was more than respectable, ranking 15th among qualified safeties by Pro Football Focus and 10th among free safeties in Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 system. Relegating him to a strict backup role and special teams would seem to be a waste of his talents, especially for a versatile player who received a three-year deal for a reported maximum value of $10.5 million.

How then might defensive coordinator Dean Pees use Webb in the Baltimore defense?

Though the former starting cornerback can no longer play an outside spot in anything but an emergency situation, his coverage skills and tackling ability still make him a decent option for the inside nickel spot. The problem is that you wouldn’t want Webb playing in place of 2016 fourth-round pick Tavon Young, who was one of the great successes of last season. It remains to be seen whether the 5-foot-9 Young can thrive as an every-down corner lining up on the outside in the base defense — a major reason why the Ravens signed veteran Brandon Carr last month — but the second-year corner showed impressive ball skills and should be a mainstay in the nickel package at the very least.

Might a little more creativity be in the works with the secondary?

It’s no secret that the Ravens value Jefferson a great deal, evident by the four-year, $34 million contract they awarded him at the start of free agency. The former Arizona Cardinal’s greatest strengths are playing the run and clamping down on opposing tight ends, which are certainly useful skills but not reminiscent of a deep center-field safety like Ed Reed. Frankly, it’s a steep financial commitment to make if the Ravens are only going to use Jefferson in a standard safety role, making you think there’s more to it.

Baltimore is in need of a three-down linebacker to fill the void left by the retired Zach Orr. Perhaps 2016 second-round pick Kamalei Correa will be ready to assume that job, but it’s easier to find a capable two-down inside linebacker than it is to find the kind of talent who can consistently hold up in pass coverage. That’s where the arrival of Jefferson and the return of Webb could come into play.

Despite rarely ever using the dime package — which consists of six defensive backs and usually one linebacker — in Pees’ five-year tenure as the defensive coordinator, the Ravens practiced it extensively in the spring and summer of 2016 before it disappeared in the regular season. Reserve defensive back and special-teams standout Anthony Levine saw the most practice time at the dime spot last year, but he saw only 109 defensive snaps last season.

Jefferson would appear to be a good fit to serve in a hybrid linebacker-safety role next to C.J. Mosley in many passing situations. It’s obvious that the Ravens have made it a priority to improve their pass defense this offseason, but Jefferson also tackles like a linebacker, which would diminish the chances of the run defense being too vulnerable in a dime look. His strength is playing closer to the line of scrimmage, and the presence of Webb at safety next to Weddle in the sub package would allow Pees to be more aggressive with Jefferson in the box and to match him up with tight ends.

Such an alignment would not only better showcase the 25-year-old safety’s skills, but it would put less pressure on Orr’s replacement in 2017. The dime would make Webb’s re-signing more impactful than simply improving conventional depth in the secondary.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts after first wave of free agency

Posted on 14 March 2017 by Luke Jones

With the first wave of NFL free agency in the rear-view mirror, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts on the Ravens, each in 50 words or less:

1. Some may scoff at the emotion shown by Brandon Williams after signing a five-year, $52.5 million contract, but his right to maximize his earnings doesn’t mean staying in Baltimore wasn’t important to him. You could also see how happy general manager Ozzie Newsome was during Monday’s press conference.

2. Kudos to Williams for paying tribute to the late Clarence Brooks for his impact on the nose tackle’s career. The 28-year-old said the longtime defensive line coach saw everything that he could be and envisioned this happening for him one day. Brooks is definitely missed.

3. The addition of Tony Jefferson could really help in trying to replace linebacker Zach Orr. If the Ravens add a complementary third safety, defensive coordinator Dean Pees could use Jefferson as a dime in passing situations and minimize the need for a three-down linebacker, which is more difficult to find.

4. Major investments have been made in the defense, but you hope Newsome has more than couch change to address a Ravens offense that was summarily broken in 2016 and has lost key pieces. The hiring of Greg Roman will help the running game, but that only goes so far.

5. I’ll give the Ravens the benefit of the doubt at right tackle, but color me skeptical about wide receiver with free-agent options dwindling and prices having not been all that outrageous. Being underprepared at the position doomed Baltimore in 2013 and 2015, and you hope that odd-year trend doesn’t continue.

6. The Anthony Levine re-signing didn’t receive much attention, but losing the likes of Orr and fullback Kyle Juszczyk hurt the special teams and Levine has been a core contributor to Jerry Rosburg’s units.

7. I’m intrigued by the addition of the diminutive Danny Woodhead, who can do some of the things Juszczyk provided despite the obvious difference in size. The Ravens view Woodhead as a potential playmaker, but he’s also 32 and coming off major knee surgery, leaving some substantial unknown.

8. The fascination with free-agent cornerback Morris Claiborne is baffling with the former Dallas Cowboy missing 41 percent of games over his five-year career and having underperformed until 2016. Barring a cheap price tag — multiple teams are interested — this feels like a fool’s gold signing.

9. The Ravens loudly reconfirmed their longtime philosophy of being strong up the middle defensively with the financial commitments made to Williams and Jefferson, but I still wonder if that thinking needs to be adjusted in today’s NFL. Fortunately, this year’s draft is rich with edge rushers and cornerbacks.

10. He’s not a No. 1 receiver, but teams are sleeping on Kamar Aiken compared to some other receivers who’ve already signed. He wasn’t keen on returning to Baltimore at the end of 2016 after being underutilized, but the Ravens could do worse than bringing back their leading receiver from 2015.

11. The Ravens have had some players recruit free agents in the past, but you have to be impressed with the efforts of Eric Weddle after just one year with the organization. He’s one of those rare veterans whom you wish could have been a Raven for his entire career.

12. Lardarius Webb is a prime example of some of the tough luck the Ravens have experienced in recent years. He was Baltimore’s best defensive player in 2012 before suffering the second ACL injury of his career six months after signing a six-year, $50 million contract. He was never the same.

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Ravens linebacker Orr retiring due to neck injury

Posted on 20 January 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After emerging as the Ravens’ leading tackler in his first season as a starter, inside linebacker Zachary Orr is walking away from football due to a congenital spinal condition.

The 24-year-old announced his retirement after only three seasons, leaving a hole in the middle of a Baltimore defense that ranked seventh in total yards and fifth against the run in 2016. Orr suffered a herniated disc in the Christmas Day loss to Pittsburgh and missed the season finale against Cincinnati, but further testing and a CAT scan revealed that the top of his spinal column never fully developed, a condition he was told less than one percent of the world have.

Orr said he was unaware of the condition that doesn’t show up in an X-ray or magnetic resonance imaging exam, making it difficult to detect unless someone is having more extensive testing for a neck injury. He would not have been able to pass a physical to continue his career and was running a great risk of catastrophic injury by playing.

“I’ve been playing since I was nine years old,” said Orr, who also underwent shoulder surgery for an injury that was unrelated to the spinal condition. “It’s been a blessing that I’ve been able to play the game so long without any major injury happening. When I first found out the news, it was shocking. I was sad, disappointed, upset because football is something I’ve been doing my whole life.”

An undrafted free agent from North Texas in 2014, Orr initially made the 53-man roster as a special-teams player and earned a role in sub packages late in his second season. His arrival was an important development for the Ravens after 2013 second-round pick Arthur Brown failed to pan out as a meaningful contributor.

Following the release of veteran linebacker Daryl Smith last offseason, Orr won the starting job next to C.J. Mosley and became one of the Ravens’ most dependable defensive players, ranking 10th in the NFL with 130 tackles in 2016. He also intercepted three passes and forced a fumble on his way to becoming a second-team All-Pro selection by the Associated Press.

“You guys see him on Sunday flying around. This guy is one of the smartest football players I’ve ever been around,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “It makes the job easy for coaches, for position coaches and for coordinators when you have guys like this that you can do so many things with.

“You can tell him on the sideline to make a little adjustment, and this guy can go right out there and get it done. That’s what makes the difference between great football players and football players. This guy right here is a great football player, and I can’t tell you how much we’re going to miss him.”

Orr was the recipient of the local media’s “Good Guy” award last month for his cooperation with reporters and is in the midst of starting the Orr Family Kids and Youth Foundation, an endeavor to which he now plans to devote more time. He now plans to go home to Texas to spend more time with family, which includes two younger brothers in college with NFL aspirations of their own.

Mosley, safety Eric Weddle, and linebacker Albert McClellan as well as linebackers coach Don Martindale attended the press conference as Orr sat with general manager Ozzie Newsome, head coach John Harbaugh, and Pees. Other players used social media to offer their support for a teammate who was popular in the locker room and active in the community.

“I never expected to hear something like that,” said Newsome of Orr’s unfortunate retirement. “Having had the opportunity to sit with a number of players at a press conference like this that have had longer careers, I don’t think there has been any player that has been more inspirational to me over the last three years than Zach.”

Orr’s unexpected departure leaves the Ravens with another need to address after inside linebacker had appeared to be one of their most stable position groups with both starters under age 25. One internal option to replace him could be 2016 second-round pick Kamalei Correa, who practiced at both inside and outside linebacker as a rookie but saw just 48 defensive snaps in nine games.

Signed to a three-year, $1.533 million contract as a rookie, Orr was scheduled to become a restricted free agent this offseason. He was projected to receive the second-round tender — which was worth $2.553 million last season — and likely would have been in line for a nice free-agent payday next offseason with the Ravens or another team.

“I always take a positive outlook in everything,” said Orr, who is interested in coaching in the future. “It’s something I can’t control what happened. I feel like my best football years on the field were ahead of me. I was excited about that, but when I found out the news and how serious it is, it was something I looked at as a blessing.”

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Ravens’ season-ending dud only reconfirms issues for offseason

Posted on 01 January 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens played exactly like a team whose season had come to an end in Pittsburgh a week earlier.

Despite practically taking offense at the notion that their season-ending trip to Cincinnati was meaningless throughout the week, Baltimore’s performance against the Bengals was nothing short of offensive on Sunday, particularly in the first half of the 27-10 defeat. But it shouldn’t change anything once you move past the New Year’s Day sting and take consolation in a better draft pick a few months from now.

It was a meaningless game, remember?

We weren’t going to learn anything about the Ravens that we didn’t already know, even if you were surprised to see them sleepwalk against a Bengals team that had been out of the playoff race for weeks.

We’d already seen this offense make it look incredibly difficult to move the ball throughout the season with few exceptions. This group once again made it look like the Ravens were playing 11-on-15 football for much of the afternoon.

Joe Flacco threw more than 40 passes for the 11th time this season, and the ninth-year quarterback failed to eclipse the 300-yard mark for the seventh of those performances, illustrating how inefficient this pass-heavy attack has been all year.

This offense needs to be blown up and rebuilt with the top objective of getting Flacco playing at a higher level in a more balanced attack. Other than a couple decent performances late in the season, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg showed little evidence of being able to do the job after replacing Marc Trestman in October. Sunday just reiterated that point when he called for a pass on first-and-goal at the Cincinnati 2 that resulted in a Flacco interception and later made the silly call to throw to offensive lineman Alex Lewis on a third-and-2 inside the Bengals’ 10.

The Ravens offense needs better coaching and more talent, especially with veteran wide receiver Steve Smith retiring.

More alarming than the season-long offensive ineptitude, however, has been the collapse of a defense that ranked first overall just a few weeks ago. The Ravens did nothing to bounce back from the ugliness of last week’s fourth quarter, allowing a Bengals offense without A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Jeremy Hill, and Giovani Bernard to score on each of its first four possessions.

That’s unacceptable.

After arguably doing the finest coaching job of his time in Baltimore through the first 12 games of the season, defensive coordinator Dean Pees is fairly under fire with the Ravens allowing 26 or more points in each of their final four games. The absence of No. 1 cornerback Jimmy Smith was significant, but that can’t excuse an undermanned Cincinnati offense moving against them with little resistance.

Was the defense tired down the stretch from carrying the offense for most of the season? What happened to a run defense that looked impenetrable just a few weeks ago?

The Ravens defense did an admirable job holding up without a consistent pass rush for much of the year, but that ability vanished down the stretch. Until Elvis Dumervil sacked Andy Dalton to conclude the third quarter on Sunday, Baltimore had gone almost 10 full quarters without a quarterback takedown.

Coaching changes or not, general manager Ozzie Newsome must address the pass rush with Terrell Suggs turning 35 next season and the 32-year-old Dumervil a possible salary-cap casualty. The secondary also needs more depth with injuries continuing to be a problem for Jimmy Smith.

Yes, it was alarming to see the Ravens go through the motions on Sunday, especially after head coach John Harbaugh was praised last season for the way his injury-depleted team continued to play hard down the stretch of a 5-11 campaign. But those players hadn’t experienced anything resembling the kind of gut-punch they took from the Steelers on Christmas.

The Ravens were ready to go home long before they took the field on Sunday, and what resulted wasn’t pretty. It was a bad look for both the coaching staff and the players — plain and simple.

But we’d already seen all there was to see from a team that wasn’t good enough in 2016.

How the Ravens performed in a meaningless game — good or bad — wasn’t going to change that.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 16 loss to Pittsburgh

Posted on 27 December 2016 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens falling 31-27 to Pittsburgh on Christmas Day to be eliminated from postseason contention, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The sting of a Ravens loss shouldn’t discount appreciation for what was a classic between these AFC North adversaries. This rivalry has lost some juice in recent years, but both teams deserve praise for one that was as good as it gets without being a playoff game.

2. That sentiment aside, the fourth-quarter defense must be addressed. I’ve been a supporter of defensive coordinator Dean Pees and believe he has done a good overall job with a unit lacking star power, but the Ravens have allowed 102 of their 294 total points in the final period this season.

3. If this is it for Steve Smith, Sunday was a strong final performance in the national spotlight as he caught seven passes for 79 yards and a touchdown. He’s 35 yards shy of an 800-yard season, which is exceptional for a 37-year-old coming off a serious Achilles injury.

4. It looked like 2016 was going to be a breakout year for Timmy Jernigan after he collected a sack in each of the first three games, but he’s recorded just one quarterback takedown since the Week 8 bye and hasn’t even registered a tackle over the last three games.

5. Breshad Perriman had a bad drop on the Ravens’ final touchdown drive, but I liked seeing Joe Flacco go right back to him on the next play for a 15-yard completion on third-and-10. This is going to be a huge offseason for the 2015 first-round pick to improve.

6. Counting the postseason, Baltimore is 11-22 on the road since Super Bowl XLVII with two wins against teams that finished with a winning record. The first was the 2014 wild-card victory over Pittsburgh and the other against the Steelers last year when Mike Vick started in place of Ben Roethlisberger.

7. The toughness with which he runs is impressive, but Kenneth Dixon won’t become a three-down back until he improves in pass protection. That has to be a goal for both him and Terrance West to work on this offseason.

8. The Ravens masked it well this season, but their pass rush ultimately cost them. According to Pro Football Focus, Roethlisberger was pressured on just four of his 33 dropbacks. It’s tough trying to blitz with Jimmy Smith out, but the defense needs more disruption from a four-man rush.

9. Terrell Suggs deserves praise for how he played this year, but the 34-year-old has gone without a sack in his last four games and had a combined one tackle against New England and Pittsburgh this month. Ozzie Newsome needs to find high-impact help at the position to help him out.

10. We all know health is the major concern with Michael Campanaro, but watching him these last two weeks makes you wonder why the Ravens didn’t part ways with Devin Hester a month sooner. Campanaro, Perriman, and Chris Moore are young players who should play more against Cincinnati.

11. I understand it’s in a coach’s fiber to do everything he can to win, but the organization should consider the dangers of exposing its most important players to injury in a meaningless road game against the Bengals. Does anyone sincerely care about finishing 9-7 compared to 8-8?

12. The seat is warm for John Harbaugh after missing the playoffs in three of four years, but firing him would be harsh after only one truly lousy season (2015). A once-proud franchise, Buffalo has had six head coaches since Harbaugh’s hiring. Finding someone even as good is hardly a given.

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Ravens just not quite good enough when they needed to be

Posted on 26 December 2016 by Luke Jones

The Ravens and Steelers played a Christmas classic that removed any doubt about whether this rivalry is still among the best in the NFL.

Baltimore fought like hell until the bitter end and a four-point loss at Heinz Field is nothing to be ashamed of in the big picture, but this also wasn’t the AFC divisional round — as much as the one may have felt like a playoff game on Sunday. Being eliminated from postseason contention with a week to go in the regular season only reinforces a theme that’s become too familiar over the post-Super Bowl XLVII seasons under head coach John Harbaugh.

“We’re very close to being a very good football team,” Harbaugh said after the 31-27 loss. “We can be a great football team, but we’re not there yet. We haven’t gotten there this year, obviously. We’ve got to get there.”

Having now missed the playoffs in three of the last four years, the Ravens just aren’t quite good enough.

That was apparent on Sunday as a defense that had ranked in the top five all season inexplicably allowed three touchdowns in the final 12 minutes of play. There’s no excusing Dean Pees’ unit for surrendering a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in just over a minute that culminated with Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown reaching over the goal line with nine seconds remaining.

Instead of cementing its status among the better units in franchise history, this defense has crumbled down the stretch, allowing 26 or more points in three straight games. You can’t put all of that on the absence of cornerback Jimmy Smith as an underwhelming pass rush was exposed badly against the Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger rarely harassed in the pocket.

But before we put all blame on the defense for what amounted to the practical end of the Ravens’ season, let’s remember an 8-7 record is the result of a collection of missed opportunities and not just what was on display in Week 16.

An 0-4 October left very little margin for error while looking ahead to how difficult the December schedule would be. That loss to the woeful New York Jets in Week 7 is still painful and no less damaging two months later.

The Ravens offense may have come to play for the most part on Christmas, but how many times could we really say that about this below-average group in 2016? Marty Mornhinweg did little to spark the offense after the firing of coordinator Marc Trestman in October and showed no better commitment to the running game, instead allowing Joe Flacco to set a career high in passing attempts without the kind of productivity to justify the imbalance.

Even on Sunday, the Ravens entered Pittsburgh territory on all five of their drives in the first half and managed just six points by intermission. Tight end Darren Waller’s inability to secure a touchdown catch early in the fourth quarter served as a turning point as it forced Baltimore to settle for a short field goal and a 20-10 lead instead of a two-touchdown cushion.

Baltimore’s normally-superb special teams have been propped up by Pro Bowl kicker Justin Tucker, but a return game that stuck way too long with veteran Devin Hester did no favors for an offense that would have benefited from better field position all season. On Sunday, a bad snap cost the Ravens a chance for three points early in the second quarter.

Not good enough.

With the season finale in Cincinnati now a meaningless endeavor, attention shifts to the future.

Harbaugh’s not wrong in saying this team wasn’t that far away — they’re 8-7, not 3-12 — but the crucial question is whether the Ravens are moving in the right direction or falling further away. It’s difficult to say this is a better football team now than it was in September, and that’s a big concern.

The Ravens at least improved from last year’s 5-11 disaster that wasn’t all about injuries despite what many wanted to believe. That should be remembered when determining what changes need to be made this offseason.

Still, this team is depending heavily on a number of veterans who aren’t getting any younger or better at this stage of their careers. Unlike Flacco, who was relying on a 37-year-old receiver expected to retire at the end of the season and a 31-year-old tight end coming back from two major hip injuries, Roethlisberger turned to two Pro Bowl talents in their primes in Brown and Le’Veon Bell when it mattered most.

As we’ve now said for a few years, the Ravens need to find dynamic playmakers on both sides of the ball to make the difference in these close games that we see around the league on a weekly basis. The early returns from the 2016 draft have been very encouraging, but this roster is still feeling the effects of lackluster drafts in recent years.

Is this coaching staff capable of getting the most out of its players, especially younger ones who need to develop? There have been more questions about play-calling and game management this year than in the past, and the Ravens are one of the most penalized teams in the league.

Is Harbaugh willing to make changes to his staff, especially on the offensive side of the ball where the Ravens have struggled substantially in three of the last four seasons? Is the head coach’s message stale after nine seasons?

Questions that seemed silly just a couple seasons ago should now be asked with another quiet January in Baltimore. Of course, owner Steve Bisciotti has the only opinion that really matters, but both Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome have to explain why this team wasn’t good enough and how they plan to improve next year and moving forward.

Seats are getting warm now.

The Ravens weren’t quite good enough this year, but are they moving in the right direction or stuck in neutral?

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 12 win over Cincinnati

Posted on 29 November 2016 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens topping Cincinnati in a 19-14 final on Sunday to remain tied for first place in the AFC North, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. I don’t know what else there is to say about the excellence of Justin Tucker, but I sure hope he receives an opportunity one of these days to attempt a 65-yard field goal to set the NFL record. And then gets another chance to kick an even longer one.

2. The Ravens have more field goals (27) than anyone in the NFL, but they rank ahead of only Houston and Los Angeles with 19 touchdowns. That combination has earned them a 6-5 record, but it’s not a formula that will work against upper-tier teams.

3. Coming off his second Achilles injury in a four-year period and currently playing with a torn biceps, Terrell Suggs played a season-high 61 snaps and had two strip-sacks. Though not the consistent force he was in his prime, he’s earned even more respect as a player this season.

4. Don’t forget that Sam Koch’s safety went down as a run for minus-23 yards in the final statistics. Otherwise, the Baltimore running game gained 115 yards on 29 carries, a respectable average of just under 4.0 yards per attempt compared to the official 3.1 mark.

5. It’s difficult to recall a defensive line batting down four passes on a single drive, let alone doing it on the final series of a one-score game. It was a brilliant way to offset an inconsistent pass rush for much of the afternoon.

6. Nothing illustrated the up-and-down nature of the offense more than its third-down conversion rate against the Bengals. After going a strong 5-for-10 in a 16-point first half, the Ravens were 0-for-6 after intermission. Baltimore ranks last in the NFL with a 33.3 percent conversion rate on the season.

7. The decision to call an end-around hand-off to Mike Wallace on the final drive was questionable at best, but I applaud any extra attempts to get him the football otherwise. His explosive speed needs to be utilized as much as possible.

8. It came down to the numbers game with Elvis Dumervil returning, but Za’Darius Smith being a healthy inactive illustrates how much finding an edge pass rusher remains a priority this offseason. Rookie Matt Judon flashes potential, but Smith’s second season has been a disappointment.

9. Kamar Aiken caught a pass to move the chains on a key third down on each of the first two scoring drives and wasn’t targeted again after that. No one expected him to be Baltimore’s leading receiver again this season, but he shouldn’t have fewer receptions than Kyle Juszczyk.

10. I’m still surprised how reluctant some have been to embrace this defense. It may lack much star power, but this has been a top 5 unit all year. If your standard is the 2000 Ravens or you’re waiting for the next Ray Lewis to appear, you’ll never be satisfied.

11. Many are clamoring for the Ravens to use the no-huddle offense even more, but it bogged down after a fast start against Cincinnati. This group hasn’t shown the kind of precision or communication required to run it exclusively, but it can still be used plenty.

12. Coaches always receive criticism when teams lose, but John Harbaugh deserves praise for the way he handled the game-ending safety. He said all teams have that strategy in their special-teams playbook, but I highly doubt that.

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