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Jacksonville possesses exactly what Ravens lack at receiver

Posted on 12 November 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — It’s been a long time since the Jacksonville Jaguars had much of anything that the Ravens coveted.

But with nothing but question marks at the wide receiver position after the season-ending injury to Steve Smith in Week 8, the Ravens will find it difficult not to look across the field on Sunday and wish they were the ones who had the most talented receiving duo in the NFL that no one knows about. Second-year wide receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns are quietly blossoming into standout performers in one of the least-heralded markets in the NFL.

“The ‘Allens’ — you don’t hear about them on ESPN SportsCenter every day,” cornerback Lardarius Webb said. “But whenever you pull out the numbers, their names start coming up and you’re wondering like, ‘Who are these guys?’ You pop on film and you’re like, ‘These are the guys. They can play ball.’ They just hide them because they’re in Jacksonville, so a lot of people don’t really pay attention to them.”

The Ravens’ 29th-ranked pass defense cannot lose sight of Robinson — a 2014 second-round pick from Penn State — or Hurns — a surpising undrafted free agent from Miami a year ago — who enter Week 10 ranked eighth and 18th in NFL receiving yards, respectively. The pair have combined to make 76 catches for 1,342 yards and 12 touchdowns in Jacksonville’s eight games in 2015.

Jacksonville has been without its other 2014 second-round receiver, Marquise Lee, for most of the season, but that hasn’t mattered with Robinson and Hurns emerging as dangerous weapons for young quarterback Blake Bortles, also in his second NFL season. Despite a 2-6 start, Jacksonville finally has hope for the future with such talent at the offensive skills positions.

“I think it’s super special,” Bortles said in a conference call with Baltimore media. “To be able to come in with those guys as rookies and to able to go through and grow and watch those guys grow [is special]. We got our first offseason together and did some work there and then continued to carry that over into the season.”

The debate continues in Jacksonville over which receiver is better as Robinson is considered the “home-run hitter” — 17 catches of 20 or more yards — while Hurns is steadier in catching a higher percentage of passes thrown his way with 36 receptions on just 59 targets.

Opposing defenses have generally matched their No. 1 cornerbacks against the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Robinson, but Hurns has now caught a touchdown in six consecutive games. Against a talented New York Jets secondary featuring Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, and Buster Skrine last Sunday, Robinson and Hurns each posted over 120 receiving yards in a narrow defeat.

“I think the biggest thing that I really noticed about them is their catch radius,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “They do a great job — when the ball is in the air — of finding the ball, locating the ball, and then catching it. That’s a good feeling for a quarterback when you can throw one up even when he’s covered and think the guy has a good chance of coming down with it.”

Coming off their bye and trying to win consecutive games for the first time all season, the Ravens know they face a below-average football team on Sunday, but Jacksonville has the ability to exploit Baltimore’s biggest weakness with the league’s 11th-ranked passing game. The Jaguars are an opponent that can’t be taken lightly or the Ravens could find themselves in a position similar to Week 5 when Cleveland won at M&T Bank Stadium for the first time since 2007.

The Jaguars haven’t won in Baltimore since 1999 when Mark Brunell was their quarterback and the teams were part of the old AFC Central division. With the Ravens also holding a 2-6 record, they’re in no position to be taking any opponent lightly, and Robinson and Hurns will be ready to take full advantage if they do.

“A lot of people don’t really pay attention to them, but they’re making big plays,” Webb said. “They together are a great duo in the NFL. Our corners — me and Jimmy [Smith] — have to be on point with these guys and knowing where they are on the field. We have to make some disruptive plays to get this victory.”

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Criticism not sitting well with Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith

Posted on 12 November 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — By nearly all accounts, 2015 has been a difficult season for Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith.

Coming back from last November’s season-ending Lisfranc surgery on his left foot was already challenging, but the pressure accompanying a four-year, $41 million contract extension has put the fifth-year defensive under a microscope. The results haven’t been pretty over the first eight games as teams frequently targeted the No. 1 cornerback and even defensive coordinator Dean Pees described Smith’s play as “tentative” late last month.

Asked about that criticism with the Ravens now back from their bye, Smith didn’t give the impression that he agreed with his coach’s assessment.

“Honestly, I don’t even want to … I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know,” said Smith, who was then asked if he believes he needs to play more aggressively. “I feel like I’ve just got to keep getting better, keep playing my game.”

Has the criticism been too harsh for Smith? There’s no disputing that he’s given up several big plays in the first half of the season from Amari Cooper’s 68-yard touchdown catch in Week 2 to a long fourth-quarter reception to Anquan Boldin in a Week 6 defeat.

Of cornerbacks playing at least 300 defensive snaps in 2015, Smith ranks 71st in Pro Football Focus’ grading system for the position. However, the 2011 first-round pick leads the Ravens with two interceptions, accounting for half of the team’s takeaways through the first eight games of the season.

Last week, defensive backs coach Chris Hewitt downplayed Smith’s struggles, saying that he’s “doing a great job” and making “dominating plays” despite the need for more consistency.

With Smith typically preferring to play more press coverage, you could argue that he hasn’t been used effectively, but no one could reasonably argue that he’s played like one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, which is what the Ravens are paying him to be. He appeared on track to reaching that lofty territory last year when he was emerging as a Pro Bowl-caliber player before the unfortunate foot injury.

“I’ve just got to keep improving, getting better, just getting back to myself, pretty much,” Smith said. “You guys write one thing; I feel totally different than how you guys feel. I’m not going to get into that, but I’ve just got to keep playing ball.”

The good news is that Smith has stayed healthy after missing a total of 17 games in his first four NFL seasons. It’s reasonable to expect improvement over the second half of 2015 as he grows more confident with his surgically-repaired foot that he hasn’t wanted to discuss since training camp, leading many to wonder if he isn’t 100 percent physically.

The Ravens need much better from Smith than what they’ve seen so far in 2015.

Whether he agrees or not.

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Ravens coordinator says Jimmy Smith’s play too “tentative” in 2015

Posted on 29 October 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — This was supposed to be Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith’s year.

Returning from last season’s Lisfranc injury and receiving a four-year, $41 million contract extension that included a $13 million signing bonus this spring, the 2011 first-round pick was to finally take his place among the best cornerbacks in the NFL. An interception returned for a touchdown against Peyton Manning in the season opener made it look like Smith was picking up right where he left off before last year’s injury.

But the season hasn’t gone that way.

Despite Pro Football Focus rating him as the ninth-best cornerback in the league at the time of his foot injury last October, Smith has found himself targeted frequently this season, beginning with a 68-yard touchdown he surrendered to rookie Amari Cooper in a Week 2 loss to Oakland and continuing on a near-weekly basis. Smith says he isn’t surprised by opponents going after a cornerback coming off a serious foot injury, but that expectation hasn’t prevented the 6-foot-2 defensive back from being beaten on crucial plays, whether it was by A.J. Green for the game-deciding touchdown in Week 3 or by Anquan Boldin for a long fourth-quarter reception two weeks ago.

“I think he has been tentative and not really letting it go,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “Whether that’s the injury, whether it’s not, I don’t [know] — only he can tell you that. I just haven’t seen him quite be the [same] productive player. It’s more [having] a lot of confidence and go up there and really be aggressive. It’s basically at the line of scrimmage, because he’s a big guy. When he gets his hands on you, he does a great job. I think sometimes he has been a little tentative, and I think he’ll say that, too.”

Dating back to the summer, Smith has said several times that he doesn’t want to talk about his surgically-repaired foot, leading many to believe that it’s remained an issue for the talented cornerback. Though he missed little practice time in the spring and summer, there have been occasions when Smith has appeared to be in discomfort or at least hasn’t trusted the foot.

Among 61 NFL cornerbacks who’ve played 200 or more snaps on passing plays this season, Smith ranks 53rd in PFF’s overall grades at the position. It’s a significant reason why a pass defense that already faced questions entering the season has ranked 28th in the NFL through the first seven weeks of the season.

Smith was paid handsomely to be the most reliable member of the secondary — and arguably the Ravens’ best defensive player — but he has instead joined his teammates in the struggles. The Colorado product is taking the difficult start in stride, but the Ravens can only hope that he regains his pre-injury form sooner rather than later.

“It’s probably just like anyone else coming off of [an injury],” Smith said. “Some things are going to happen that may not go your way, but you just keep fighting. It’s not like I’m out there just getting killed, so I’m not depressed or anything like that. The balls are going to come, I expect them to come, and I’ve got to make plays.”

At a position already dependent on confidence as well as sudden changes in direction, any lingering doubt or effect from the foot surgery would undoubtedly be detrimental to performance. Of course, health has been a concern in his career as Smith missed a total of 17 games in his first four seasons in Baltimore.

With a 1-6 record and playoff hopes all but lost, the Ravens are viewing the rest of the season through a long-term scope and they need Smith to begin playing like the difference-maker he was by the end of his first full season as a starter in 2013 as well as the first eight games of 2014. Facing a shortage of playmakers on both sides of the ball, the Ravens have more long-term money invested in Smith than any other defensive player currently on the roster to provide a game-changing return.

How does that happen?

“Keep playing. You have to go out there, and you have to practice it the same way,” said Pees, who added that it’s not a question of work ethic. “You can’t be tentative in practice no matter who you’re going up against on the scout team over there. You have to do it. I really do think it’s like anything else. The only way you build confidence is you have good things happen to you in a football game. Once that happens, it’s a lot easier.”

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Avoiding finger-pointing may become Ravens’ biggest challenge

Posted on 27 October 2015 by Luke Jones

You could find excuses anywhere you looked after the Ravens fell to 1-6 on Monday night.

Substandard officiating and malfunctioning headsets are real issues the NFL needs to address, but dwelling on such factors serves no purpose when you’re in the midst of the worst start in franchise history.

An ever-growing list of injuries has stunted the ceiling of the 2015 Ravens, no matter if expectations were too high for such a playmaker-deprived roster to begin with.

Still a few days shy from Halloween, the Ravens face a cruel reality that no one could have anticipated.

The season is over — at least in the scope that football seasons have been viewed in Baltimore over the last 15 years. Even if you’re crazy enough to believe the Ravens are capable of winning eight or nine of their final nine contests in 2015, that still might not be enough as it was only last year that they needed a hand from Kansas City in Week 17 just to sneak into the playoffs with a 10-6 record.

Six losses by one score each might make the Ravens the best 1-6 team in NFL history, but that still only fetches the first overall pick in the 2016 draft if the season were to end today.

If Super Bowl XLVII was John Harbaugh’s finest hour in Baltimore, the eighth-year head coach is now entering his most critical one. With nine games to go in the season from hell, Harbaugh must steer the Ravens clear of the finger-pointing game the rest of the way.

Harbaugh has said this isn’t the first time one of his teams has faced adversity and has maintained that it will make the Ravens better in the long run, but it’s easier to hold the ship together in the midst of a losing streak when you’re still in the heart of the playoff race. Even when the Ravens stood at 0-3 or 1-4 earlier this season, there were historical examples from which to draw inspiration that they could climb back in the hunt.

But at 1-6, the Ravens have entered the territory when everyone — players, coaches, and members of the front office — begins looking over his shoulder. Even the bulletproof Ozzie Newsome has to be feeling at least the slightest bit of anxiety these days when he sees Steve Bisciotti’s name light up on his phone. They wouldn’t be the competitors that they are if that uneasiness didn’t exist right now.

That doesn’t mean Bisciotti will or should clean house, but everyone’s seat — some more than others — should feel at least a little warm over such a poor start.

The truth is that the Ravens aren’t fixing all of their problems this year, meaning not everyone is going to be around to see these dark times through. That goes for players, coaches, and the rest of the organization as change is an annual part of the NFL even when life is good. How much change remains to be seen, but that uncertainty for everyone is what Harbaugh must weather as the face of the organization over the rest of the season.

Right or wrong, it’s human nature for coaches to want to point to the front office and to players, for players to blame coaches and each other, for the front office to point to coaches for not getting the job done with the roster assembled in the offseason, and for all parties to blame injuries, officiating, and any other variable creeping into the equation in a given week. How effectively the Ravens avoid those traps over the next two months will go a long way in determining how long everyone sticks around under Bisciotti, who once fired a Super Bowl-winning coach only a year after he’d led the Ravens to the best regular-season mark in franchise history.

It was less than two years ago that the highly-competitive owner vowed to get more involved if the Ravens repeated the mistakes of a 2013 season that ended in an 8-8 record. Two years later, those problems pale in comparison to what they face now.

“I have to be patient to let people fail, but I don’t have to be patient enough to let people repeat failure,” Bisciotti said in January 2014. “I’ll be more apt to get my way next year if their solutions don’t change the problems. That’s fair, that’s where I am as owner.”

To the credit of Harbaugh, his staff, and his players, there have been few signs of the effort coming into question despite the results not being there. It would be too difficult to continue losing games by one possession if you weren’t giving it your all — or at least close to it — on a weekly basis in the NFL. So far, the Ravens have been quick not to use injuries, bad luck, or talent deficiencies in key areas as excuses and have taken accountability for all shortcomings under their control.

But will growing emphasis on the future prompt individuals to start thinking more about themselves instead of the greater good? It’s that type of thinking that becomes dangerous to a team and an organization.

Even with factors currently out of their control, everyone needs to be better.

Harbaugh and his staff need to accentuate the Ravens’ strengths — as few as there might be — and find ways to mask their weakness — as many as there are — as much as possible.

In a unique position as the franchise quarterback and highest-paid player on the team, Joe Flacco needs to find a way to make it work — at least a little better — with Marc Trestman and an underwhelming group of talent behind Steve Smith. Flacco’s comments about the final drive on Monday night seemed to allude to more than just headset issues and wouldn’t be the first time his words could be interpreted as some disenchantment with his new offensive coordinator. Likewise, a veteran coach like Trestman needs to better organize a group that’s been prone to getting completely out of sync for large portions of games like the offense was in the second half of Monday’s loss.

A poor defense that performed better against Arizona — relative to recent performances at least — has to find a way to build on that showing, starting with a Week 8 challenge against San Diego’s top-ranked passing game. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees lacks the horses to fairly compare this unit to the many great Baltimore defenses of the past, but he’s coaching for his job at this point with the league’s 28th-ranked pass defense.

Every player on the 53-man roster down to the last member on the practice squad needs to dig deep as many will be playing for their futures — in Baltimore or somewhere else — the rest of the way in 2015.

It will be Harbaugh’s responsibility to hold so many moving parts together without the familiar carrot of postseason play ahead and with everyone now looking over his shoulder and facing the temptation to point the finger elsewhere.

And even though much of their work won’t come until the offseason, Newsome and the front office need to do much better than the roster assembled for the 2015 season. An infusion of play-making, impact talent on both sides of the ball needs to occur as quickly as possible, which won’t be easy.

Excuses are all over the place if you’re willing to give in, and playing out the string won’t be pleasant.

But each member of the organization needs to remember that every time you point a finger somewhere else, there are three fingers pointing back at you.

It’s an easy lesson to remember when times are good as they have been for a long time in Baltimore, but the Ravens have never found themselves in a position quite like this before.

In the NFL’s basement and with all hope lost for the 2015 season — at least in the way they envisioned it not too long ago.

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Arizona possesses what Ravens lack in 2015

Posted on 22 October 2015 by Luke Jones

The Ravens will look across the field on Monday night and see exactly what they’re lacking in 2015.

Playmakers on both sides of the ball have led the Arizona Cardinals to a 4-2 record atop the NFC West as well as the best point differential (plus-88) in the NFL. Baltimore’s shortage of playmakers has contributed to the worst start in franchise history and five defeats all decided by six points or fewer.

Offensively, Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer has a trio of talented receivers — future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald, second-year speedster John Brown, and former first-round pick Michael Floyd — on which to rely. That combination of experience, speed, and height has helped Arizona produce the league’s seventh-ranked passing game and 33.8 points per game.

In contrast, Joe Flacco has a 36-year-old Steve Smith playing at a high level and a group of unheralded receivers behind him who have struggled to make a meaningful impact. Making matters worse, the Ravens offense will be facing the league’s ninth-ranked pass defense than includes Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson and hybrid safety Tyrann Mathieu in the secondary.

The Cardinals often-explosive offense has lacked consistency — evident by a Week 4 home loss to St. Louis and last week’s 25-13 defeat in Pittsburgh — but it’s not easy envisioning Baltimore’s 27th-ranked pass defense being able to keep up with Arizona’s speed. Even pedestrian offenses have picked apart the Ravens secondary this season, so what will a top 10 unit be able to do?

And given how slowly the Ravens offense has started most games this season, Monday night could get ugly if we see a similar opening act.

Return game progress

One of the few bright spots from the Week 6 loss to San Francisco was another good performance by returner Jeremy Ross, who broke a 41-yard kick return late in the first quarter.

A second look at the return, however, indicated that Ross could have made it even better had he cut behind a block from rookie Nick Boyle toward the right sideline instead of shifting inside where three tacklers were waiting. His special teams coordinator agreed with that sentiment on Thursday.

“We honestly should’ve gotten more out of it than we did,” Jerry Rosburg said. “We didn’t finish it very well, but at least we got it set up. So, we’re making progress. I like what he has done. He has been working really hard on the reads and ball security. He has gotten a lot better.”

In addition to averaging 29.5 yards per kick return and 10.0 yards per punt return, Ross has caught five passes for 58 yards in limited action as a receiver in two games. Given the lack of big-play ability the Ravens have shown on either side of the ball, would Rosburg encourage the speedy Ross to be more aggressive taking kicks out of the end zone like Jacoby Jones was in his three years in Baltimore?

“It depends on what kind of deep kick it is,” Rosburg said. “There are different kinds of deep kicks — high-hanging deep kicks. Even Jacoby didn’t have a green light. Sometimes, he ran the red light.”

Wright bouncing back?

Head coach John Harbaugh didn’t mince words in criticizing the newly-acquired Shareece Wright after he was burned for two touchdowns in the 25-20 loss to the 49ers, but the Ravens will likely be counting on him again this week.

Starter Lardarius Webb is expected to return from a hamstring injury, but defensive coordinator Dean Pees prefers using Webb inside in the nickel package. This leaves the Ravens with Wright or Kyle Arrington to play on the outside opposite Jimmy Smith, and Arrington has also struggled when asked to play on the outside this season

“I really liked the way he responded this week,” said Pees of Wright. “It was going to be interesting to come out here and go through the film with him and come back out here and watch and see how he responded this week. So far, he has responded great. Now, I’ll tell you again Monday night after we get done [playing].

“Sometimes it takes [failure]. We all learn by mistakes, and hopefully that will be his case.”

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Baltimore Ravens linebackers coach Dean Pees watches warmups before the NFL football game against the New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday, Oct. 17, 2010, won by the Patriots 23-20. (AP Photo/Robert E. Klein)

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Pees about Ravens defense: “We are our own worst enemy”

Posted on 15 October 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Four days after Cleveland accumulated more than 500 yards in its first road win over the Ravens since 2007, Dean Pees was in no mood to tip his cap to Josh McCown and the Browns offense.

In a monologue lasting nearly four minutes when responding to a simple question about the play of his safeties, the fourth-year coordinator cited the mistakes that continue to plague his entire 24th-ranked unit that’s allowing 27.4 points per game, on pace to be the second-worst mark in franchise history. It’s clear that Pees doesn’t think the opposition is causing Baltimore’s defensive woes.

“We are our own worst enemy,” Pees said. “It really, right now, is not about San Francisco, and it wasn’t about Cleveland. It’s about us. We just have to be consistent in what we do.”

Pees cited an example on Sunday in which the Ravens forced McCown to throw away a third-down pass on a specific blitz early in the game before the same player failed to run the same blitz correctly later in the game as the Browns once again failed to account for it. Such inconsistency has made it difficult for Pees to know which play calls to come back to later in games when the biggest stops need to be made.

At several points during his rant, Pees made it clear that it was the coaches’ responsibility to do a better job of making sure players are prepared, but he wasn’t absolving his defenders, either.

“We just have to keep harping on it and building on it,” Pees said. “It’s not a secret. It’s not a panic. It’s not, ‘OK, we have to change the scheme.’ It’s not [that] we have to do anything. We just have to learn to do the same things all the time.

“It’s all of our faults. It’s not just that guy’s fault. Somehow, as coaches, we just have to make it right. I know you guys can sense my frustration with it. It’s the same thing in coverage. We aren’t consistent [in the secondary]. They work well together. They’ll work well together. And then from one play [to the next] — even though they got the right call — they don’t work well together. It’s not only them, it’s everybody. It’s across the board.”

Players have repeatedly said — sometimes unprovoked — that the issues don’t stem from the overall schemes or Pees’ calls on game day, but they’ve repeatedly self-destructed at critical times, losing fourth-quarter leads in three of their four defeats this season. The Ravens are also tied for 26th in the NFL with 8.4 penalties per game while only four teams have racked up more penalty yardage.

Despite a slew of injuries and inexperienced players being asked to fill key roles, Pees doesn’t want to hear the excuses, particularly when it comes to drawing flags at the worst times. The lack of discipline has contributed to the Ravens ranking 31st in third-down defense with opponents converting 49.4 percent of the time.

“I’m tired [of] ‘young.’ We can also say, ‘This guy is out. That guy is out,'” Pees said. “I don’t care. It wasn’t that. If I thought it was that, then I’d say, ‘OK, it’s different.’ But we had so many opportunities in that game. We’re terrible on third down — because of us. If we [don’t] have a hands-to-the-face [penalty], we’re off the field in the red zone and they don’t have a touchdown [late in the third quarter], right? On third down-and-9, we get an interception [in the second quarter], and we’re setting the offense up on the 48-yard line. What do we get? Roughing the quarterback. It’s those things. We have to eliminate those things.”

Allen starting?

With starter Justin Forsett missing his second straight practice with an ankle injury on Thursday and No. 2 running back Lorenzo Taliaferro being placed on injured reserve with a foot injury, rookie Buck Allen could make his first NFL start against San Francisco on Sunday.

The fourth-round selection picked up the longest run of his career last Sunday with a 44-yard gain, an achievement on which he hopes to build if thrown into a starting role.

“It’s opportunity I’ve been waiting for,” Allen said. “I feel like my coaches did a great job preparing me for this moment. [Running backs coach Thomas Hammock] just preached being ready when your time is called.”

Allen is averaging 4.8 yards per carry, but that mark is somewhat deceiving as he has gained only 3.2 yards per carry on his 25 other attempts beyond his 44-yard scamper against the Browns.

With the only other healthy options being the newly-claimed rookie Raheem Mostert and practice-squad member Terrence Magee, the Ravens will have no choice but to give Allen the ball if Forsett can’t play in Week 6.

“He’s running the ball better in terms of how he’s finishing and seeing the holes,” said offensive coordinator Marc Trestman about Allen. “He’s taking the opportunities to make plays when he gets a chance to do that. We’ve seen his pass protection improve, and his entire focus. He is taking the opportunity to seize the moment with the opportunities that he has had.”

“Special” prediction

Asked if there’s an extra challenge getting accustomed to the kicking conditions at Levi’s Stadium since the Ravens haven’t played a game there, special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg answered with a bold proclamation — or good sense of humor? — despite Baltimore’s disappointing 1-4 start.

“We’ll take notes, and next time we go back there in February, we’ll be ready,” said Rosburg, smiling in reference to Super Bowl 50 being played there. “I said it!”

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Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, left, and defensive coordinator Dean Pees look on during an NFL football practice at the team's practice facility in Owings Mills, Md., Wednesday, June 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

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Harbaugh not considering any coaching changes

Posted on 12 October 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With the Ravens off to the first 1-4 start in franchise history, many fans are clamoring for changes in a season that began with high expectations.

Despite a slew of injuries to key players, fourth-year defensive coordinator Dean Pees has drawn much of the coaching criticism, but Harbaugh made his intentions clear Monday when asked whether he was considering any staff changes at this time.

“No, no way. No, our coaches are doing a good job,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve just got to collectively find a way to finish games and get the job done. We’ve got tough challenges that we’re facing, but we’ve got just the men for the job right here.”

After giving up 33 points and 505 total yards while allowing Cleveland quarterback Josh McCown to throw for 457 yards — the third-highest total allowed in franchise history — in Sunday’s overtime loss, the Ravens now rank 24th in points allowed per game (27.4) and 25th in pass defense (278.2 yards through the air per contest). McCown’s performance was the highest passing yardage total in the long history of the Browns.

In addition to already being without linebacker Terrell Suggs (Achilles) and defensive end Chris Canty (calf) prior to Sunday’s game, the Ravens lost linebacker Elvis Dumervil (groin) and cornerbacks Will Davis (torn ACL), Lardarius Webb (hamstring), and Kyle Arrington (concussion testing) over the course of the game.

Even with those substantial personnel losses, the Ravens allowing 24 points to Cleveland in a 25-minute span — the Browns had scored 24 in an entire game against Baltimore just once in the previous 12 meetings — is unacceptable to the standards of the organization and fans alike. But Harbaugh believes the answers still lie with the coaches and players already in the building as their four losses have come by a combined 17 points.

“We definitely believe in what we’re doing,” said Harbaugh, who also stated that he’s challenging his coaches to come up with new ideas. “We definitely have confidence in the players that we have and in the coaches that we have and in the schemes that we’re running.

“But you also look for ways to improve and get better, so we’re looking at schemes. We’re looking at things we can teach a little bit differently — the way we’re playing a technique on the defensive line or the way we’re playing a technique in the back end. More importantly, we want to play the things right all the time.”

Poor technique, poor tackling, costly penalties, and miscommunication have all plagued the defense so far in 2015. The Ravens also rank 31st out of 32 teams in third-down defense with opponents moving the chains a staggering 49.4 percent of the time.

Known as the Ravens’ biggest game-changing unit for the better part of two decades, the defense has squandered fourth-quarter leaders in three of four losses this season. It’s the kind of futility that should have everyone on alert — coaches and players.

Harbaugh knows the Ravens need to improve all the way around, but figuring out how is the challenge.

“We don’t need to play harder; we need to play better,” Harbaugh said. “We don’t need to coach harder; we need to coach better. We’ve got to find a way to make the difference. It’s making plays. It’s calling plays that give guys a chance to make plays in critical situations to get you over the hump.”

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Beaten up and bad: Ravens defense nevermore in 2015

Posted on 12 October 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The single voice of a Browns fan barking in the lower concourse of M&T Bank Stadium could be heard moments after the Ravens’ 33-30 overtime loss to Cleveland on Sunday.

It was a sound that may have signaled the official end of an era we’ve enjoyed for more than 15 years. Of course, the fall of the Ravens defense didn’t happen overnight as we’ve watched future Hall of Famers ride off into the sunset and other perennial Pro Bowl selections depart, but a unit in transition had still possessed enough talent and swagger to find ways to be more good than bad over the last couple years. Sunday’s performance eliminated any lingering optimism about a defense that had already played poorly at Oakland in Week 2 and was torched by Andy Dalton and Cincinnati in the home opener two weeks ago.


If giving up 33 points, 505 yards of offense, and 457 passing yards to Josh McCown and the Cleveland Browns — yes, the AFC North doormats that hadn’t won in Baltimore since the George W. Bush administration — isn’t rock bottom, I don’t know what it is. Allowing Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or even Philip Rivers to post those kinds of numbers is one thing, but a 36-year-old journeyman shredding you in your own stadium?

Baltimore may still field a defense, but it’s no longer a group worthy of being called a “Ravens” defense.

“I put this on the defense as a whole. We didn’t come through [Sunday],” cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “We were supposed to show up, and we did not show up in the second half.”

Of course, it’d be unfair to rip the defense without acknowledging how ravaged the group was by injuries by the time the Ravens entered overtime on Sunday afternoon. Already without Terrell Suggs and Chris Canty long before Sunday’s game, the Ravens lost their only reliable pass rusher (Elvis Dumervil) and their No. 2 and No. 3 cornerbacks (Lardarius Webb and Will Davis) in the first half, injuries that caused the defense to completely unravel after a respectable “bend, but don’t break” performance over the first 30 minutes.

In overtime, another injury to No. 4 cornerback Kyle Arrington led to rookie Tray Walker playing in the base defense after he’d been a healthy inactive in Pittsburgh last week. A reflection of how little confidence they had in Walker, the Ravens used second-year safety Terrence Brooks at the nickel spot earlier in the game before having no choice but to go to the 2015 fourth-round pick in crunch time.

With the modern reality of the salary cap and other circumstances contributing to where the Ravens currently stand, they knew all along they could only take so many injuries after the offseason departures of Haloti Ngata and Pernell McPhee. Deep depth is a rarity in the NFL these days, and the Ravens are learning that painful lesson in the midst of the worst start in the 20-year history of the franchise.

“Whoever is out there has to play well. Whoever is out there has to get the job done,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “That’s what has to happen. That goes for all of us. As coaches, we have to find a way to put whoever is out there in a kind of position where they can be successful. That all goes hand-in-hand. And that was a very winnable game. We should have won.”

The phrase “next man up” has been a rallying cry in Baltimore for years, but the words have never rung more hollow. The Ravens simply aren’t talented enough with an array of issues on both sides of the ball that are haunting them in some form every week. Blame defensive coordinator Dean Pees as much as you’d like — he needs to own a mess that could ultimately cost him his job — but a defense can only survive so much attrition, whether by injuries or free-agent departures or underwhelming draft picks.

In truth, an offense consisting of receivers and tight ends who required a program to identify scoring 30 points on Sunday should have been more than enough with even an average defensive performance against the Browns, who entered Sunday’s game ranked 20th in the NFL in total offense and points scored.

The defense can’t solely blame the injuries for its demise as the Ravens racked up penalties at crucial times — veteran Jason Babin committed infractions on two different Browns’ touchdown drives in the second half — and key performers such as linebackers Daryl Smith and C.J. Mosley and safety Will Hill also played poorly. If the defense can’t even tackle or count on its known commodities to make plays, what chance does the group really have?

They may be wearing purple and black, but you certainly don’t recognize a defense allowing 27.4 points per game, just a hair better than the franchise-worst 27.6 per contest allowed in the inaugural 1996 campaign. In five games, Baltimore has already allowed 137 points, just 28 fewer than the record-setting 2000 defense surrendered in an entire regular season.

Late in the game on Sunday, which figure in the defensive huddle could players turn to for an emotional lift? Forget having a Ray Lewis or Ed Reed or Suggs; the Ravens didn’t even have a player like Dumervil to make everyone believe they could force a stop.

The Baltimore defense was a ship without a captain in the second half. And it sank hard.

“We’re disappointed, because we know what kind of team we are,” said Mosley, who struggled mightily in pass coverage throughout the game. “We know how [hard] we work, and we’re definitely better than 1-4. We’ve just got to put our foot down and prove that. We play hard, but we’ve just got to finish as a team.”

The Ravens keep talking about their need to finish games and to get off the field on third down — Cleveland went 12-for-19 in that department on Sunday — but they appear more “finished” than able to finish in 2015 with Thanksgiving still more than a month away.

They’re beaten up and bad with no relief in sight as back-to-back West Coast trips loom. Nothing is a given moving forward when you lose to the Browns at home for the first time since 2007 and only the fourth time ever in Baltimore.

Instead of fans celebrating a win with a chance to improve to .500 next week to reboot the season, all that could be heard at the end of Sunday’s game was a single Browns fan barking in the concourse.

And the “Ravens” defense was nowhere to be found.

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Ravens “all have to step up” in Steve Smith’s absence

Posted on 08 October 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With a 1-3 record to begin 2015, the Ravens can’t afford to take any opponent lightly.

Not even the Cleveland Browns.

That sentiment rings truer without veteran wideout Steve Smith, who is expected to miss Sunday’s game with microfractures in his lower back suffered in last week’s win in Pittsburgh. In two games over Cleveland a year ago, Smith caught 13 passes for 191 yards in two fourth-quarter comeback victories.

The Ravens instead will count on a quartet of receivers who have combined for 21 receptions and 264 yards so far this season, eight fewer catches and 109 fewer receiving yards than Smith in his four games.

“It’s definitely not ideal. It’s going to be a little bit challenging for us an offense, but it’s just the way it is,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “We wouldn’t want it any other way. These are the guys that are going to go out there and make plays for us, start making a name for themselves, and help us win, so I’m excited about it.”

It’s a given that Flacco will need to be sharper than he was a week ago when he turned the ball over twice in a 23-20 overtime win. With Smith, Breshad Perriman, Michael Campanaro, and tight end Crockett Gillmore all injured, the Ravens will ask their starting quarterback to elevate the level of play of his inexperienced teammates, at least enough to squeak out a win over Cleveland’s 22nd-ranked pass defense.

Baltimore wants its running game to build on what it did a week ago as the Ravens face the league’s 31st-ranked run defense on Sunday, but the passing attack will need to do enough to prevent the Browns from stacking the box.

The Ravens have said all of the right things, but how much can you reasonably expect from Flacco as he’s working with two former undrafted free agents — Kamar Aiken and Marlon Brown — as his starters, a rookie sixth-round pick (Darren Waller), and a veteran (Chris Givens) acquired just a week ago?

“Joe can only do so much. He has to do his job,” offensive coordinator Marc Trestman said. “It’s up to all of us to help all of us to get this done. It’s a team game, and it’s not one guy. Certainly, Joe expects to play at a high level and does every week. This week should be no different than any week.”

Aiken and Brown will be expected to gain separation against Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden and veteran Tramon Williams. Haden has struggled early this season while battling injuries, but the 32-year-old Williams has played at a high level in his first season with Cleveland.

It’s been a bizarre start to the season for Aiken as he has two performances of 77 or more receiving yards while combining for one catch and minus-1 yard in the other two contests. The 6-foot-5 Brown has struggled to catch the football so far in 2015, making just eight receptions for 75 yards while serving mostly as the No. 3 receiver.

The Ravens would stand to benefit from Brown channeling the success of his rookie year when he caught 49 passes for 524 yards and seven touchdowns in 2013. His role in the Baltimore offense has mostly diminished since then.

“I’ve completed a lot of passes to both of them — Kamar recently and Marlon in the past,” Flacco said. “We just have to get them rolling and have confidence that they’re going to go out there and do the job because they’re our guys right now. They have a lot of ability, and we can’t treat them any other way.”

With Smith’s injury in Pittsburgh, the comparisons have been made to the 2013 season when the Ravens were reeling from the offseason trade of Anquan Boldin and the serious hip injury to Dennis Pitta, but Flacco could at least throw to Torrey Smith then. On Sunday, the eighth-year signal-caller is projected to have just two targets at receiver or tight end — Aiken and Givens — who were even in the league when Flacco led Baltimore to a Super Bowl less than three years ago.

But that won’t deter him from showing confidence in an inexperienced group — at least on Sunday.

“I know you guys might not see him talk much or encourage much,” said Aiken about the even-keeled Flacco, “but he’s always trying to motivate us in the huddle and tell us, ‘Let’s go!’ and stuff like that. It’s great to have Joe as a quarterback, even with us going through all this. That’s why I feel so confident that we’ll be fine.”

Changes to nickel defense

An interesting personnel development from the Week 4 win at Pittsburgh was the emergence of the recently-acquired Will Davis as the No. 3 corner over veteran Kyle Arrington in the second half.

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees has previously stated his preference to use starting cornerback Lardarius Webb inside in the nickel package, but Arrington has struggled when asked to play outside as the third cornerback. In 23 snaps in his first game with the Ravens, Davis finished with a tackle and a pass breakup while Arrington played only 20 defensive snaps, most of that coming in the first half.

“I really feel like [Webb] is a really good inside player and a good nickel for us,” Pees said. “And when we play sub [packages], we would like to keep him there as opposed to outside if we can, and I just feel like that’s a great matchup for us. It’s [not] because of anything down on Kyle; it’s a little bit more of a good fit for Webby and, really, a better fit for Will because he’s really an outside guy only.”

Trestman-McCown respect

Trestman and Browns quarterback Josh McCown have expressed great admiration for each other this week after the pair worked together in Chicago in 2013.

In Trestman’s first season as head coach of the Bears, the journeyman McCown made five starts in place of an injured Jay Cutler and posted a 109.0 passer rating. That performance has led to McCown’s starting jobs with Tampa Bay and Cleveland and the pair have remained in touch, but there hasn’t been any text messaging this week, according to the Baltimore coordinator.

“We’re just doing our job this week, but I’m excited for his opportunity,” said Trestman, who added that McCown’s athleticism and mental capacity for the game are his underrated traits. “I was when he left Chicago. He had a great opportunity, and I was excited for him, excited for the career he has extended.”

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Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees listens to a reporter's question at a news conference after an NFL football training camp practice on Saturday, July 26, 2014, in Owings Mills, Md. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

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Defensive pride on line for Ravens against Cincinnati

Posted on 24 September 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — First, it was Ravens head coach John Harbaugh suggesting his defense didn’t play with the level of effort it needed in a shocking 37-33 loss in Oakland.

On Thursday, defensive coordinator Dean Pees went further in criticizing his unit’s performance as the Ravens now try to avoid the first 0-3 start in franchise history when they welcome the undefeated Cincinnati Bengals to town for the home opener. Not only are the Ravens trying to escape an early-season hole, but pride is on the line for a defense that’s been the identity of one of the most successful franchises in the NFL for the better part of two decades.

Playing their first game without Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, or Terrell Suggs since 1998, the Ravens turned in one of their worst defensive performances in recent memory against the lowly Raiders.

“We did not play with energy,” said Pees, who also hinted that his defense hadn’t practiced well in San Jose, Calif. last week. “When you don’t play with energy, you end up with six penalties, numerous missed tackles and several big plays, and that was the whole bottom line. For whatever reason, we didn’t play with energy. The players are responsible for that and so are the coaches. It’s up to us to get them to play with energy and play at a high level, and it’s up to them as players to produce at a high level.

“Sometimes, we have to take the role of leaders as coaches, and we have to do some things and just expedite the process a little bit and get them to play harder.”

The poor performance has been discussed ad nauseam, but hearing Pees question the energy and leadership of his defense lends credence to the notion that the Ravens would sorely miss Suggs after the 13th-year linebacker suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 1.

A return to M&T Bank Stadium should automatically lift the energy level for a Ravens defense that has allowed the fewest points per home game (15.3) in the NFL since Harbaugh’s arrival in 2008. Baltimore will need to build on its 45-11 home record since 2008 to remove the sour taste of the first two road games, but the Ravens will play a Bengals team that handed them a home loss in last year’s season opener.

“We don’t want to be 0-2, but it’s still early in the season and our urgency will go up,” said linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who has collected 16 of his 26 1/2 sacks with the Ravens at home. “We just have to keep stacking practices. We just have to go get a win. That’s what it’s all about. We all just have to play our ‘A’ game.”

The Ravens defense believes it more closely resembles the group that held Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos without an offensive touchdown in Week 1 than the unit that was torched by second-year quarterback Derek Carr in Oakland, but they have to prove it against a Bengals offense that has scored a total of 57 points in its first two games.

A week after stuffing the run, playing mostly-sound pass coverage, and consistently pressuring the pocket, the Ravens couldn’t get out of their own way, making everyone wonder about a defense without Suggs or offseason departures Haloti Ngata and Pernell McPhee. The Jekyll and Hyde profile of the first two weeks has led everyone to question which is the real Baltimore defense.

“It’s not a matter of, ‘OK, are we good, or are we bad?’” Pees said. “We have to improve. We have to play like we played in the first week all the time. Every day, every practice, every game — that’s the intensity we have to play with, and if we don’t, it’s our fault as coaches.”

Contrary to popular belief, the Ravens have had poor defensive performances from time to time over the years, but the head coach and the defensive coordinator both questioning the group’s effort and energy after Sunday’s loss is largely uncharted territory with such dynamic on-field leadership over the years. It’s a sentiment that only highlights the narrative of the veteran players no longer residing in the defense.

Facing their first 0-2 start in a decade, the Ravens must lean on its young defensive standouts such as cornerback Jimmy Smith, inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, and nose tackle Brandon Williams to not only make plays but to emerge as leaders.

“Losing a player like Suggs is hard, and that’s one less player someone else has to worry about,” Williams said. “But at the same time, someone else needs to step up, whether it be me or anyone else on the line to step up and just make plays.”

Of course, you’re only as good — or bad — as your last game. Asked whether Sunday’s performance against the Raiders had damaged the confidence he has in his defense, Pees recalled his tenure in New England in which the Patriots would use the 2003 season opener — a 31-0 beating they took at the hands of the Buffalo Bills — as a reminder to never take too much away from one performance.

After that embarrassing loss, the Patriots won 17 of their next 18 games to win the Super Bowl that season.

“One game never defines you — good or bad,” Pees said. “It didn’t define us after Denver. It won’t define us after Oakland.”

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