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Twelve Orioles thoughts following series split with Detroit

Posted on 06 August 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles winning two straight to salvage a four-game split with Detroit, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. A series split is an underwhelming result on the heels of the five-game winning streak, but the Orioles bouncing back from Friday’s brutal defeat with two victories was encouraging. A 7-3 West Coast trip would sure make you start thinking differently about their wild-card chances.

2. Manny Machado had a five-RBI game Sunday and is hitting .352 since the All-Star break. With an improved approach and better luck, he’s raised his average from .215 on July 6 to .257 a month later. He’s so dangerous when he isn’t trying to pull the ball exclusively.

3. Despite allowing 12 batters to reach over 5 2/3 innings, Ubaldo Jimenez was serviceable and made big pitches when necessary to protect a sizable lead. That’s three straight respectable outings for the maddening right-hander.

4. The optics were cringeworthy, but the Orioles received competitive starts from Wade Miley and Jimenez over the final two games of the series. Yes, the bar is very low for both, but Buck Showalter’s club has a chance when they’re able to turn in results like that.

5. Tim Beckham continues to be a spark plug as he’s gone 14-for-24 with seven extra-base hits in six games with Baltimore. J.J. Hardy has deep respect within the organization, but Beckham would have to fall off a cliff — perhaps literally — to justify the former returning to the starting role.

6. Beckham hit the 10,000th regular-season home run in club history Saturday and the 2,505th for the Orioles in 26 seasons at Camden Yards. They hit only 2,490 long balls over 38 seasons at Memorial Stadium. Yes, the current park is a homer haven, but the game has sure changed.

7. Jonathan Schoop tied his career high with his 25th home run of the season Sunday, matching his total from 2016 in nearly 200 fewer plate appearances. He continues to amaze in a breakout 2017.

8. The bullpen let him down, but Kevin Gausman pitched another gem on Friday and has posted a 0.65 ERA over his last 27 2/3 innings since his disastrous July 14 start to begin the second half. This is the pitcher we saw over the final two months of 2016.

9. Caleb Joseph caught all four of those Gausman starts and the staff ERA is 4.12 when he catches compared to 5.75 with Welington Castillo this season. The improvement with the bat stands out, but his work behind the plate is why the playing time is virtually even since the break.

10. Sending Chris Tillman to the bullpen wasn’t an easy conversation, but the Orioles had no other choice. It will be interesting to see how often he pitches and how a relief role will impact his nightmarish 8.10 ERA in 66 2/3 innings.

11. With his fifth-inning blast Saturday, Adam Jones reached the 20-homer mark for the seventh straight season, a streak that ranks third in Orioles history behind only Cal Ripken (10) and Eddie Murray (nine). He won’t be a Hall of Famer, but few have been more important over this club’s history.

12. Thanks to Justin Upton’s grand slam off the typically-superb Mychal Givens, the Orioles suffered their ninth straight Friday loss with a few of those occurring in gut-wrenching fashion. Maybe it’s time to retire the Friday “O’s” cap that’s an inferior look to the regular home and away caps anyway.

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Gilman grad remains invested in Baltimore despite NFL success elsewhere

Posted on 26 June 2017 by Luke Jones

(Photo courtesy of Brandon Copeland)

At a time when NFL players often go off the grid to relax and prepare for the start of training camp next month, Brandon Copeland is counting tables in a cafeteria at the Gilman School on a hot June afternoon.

The Detroit Lions defensive end has enlisted more than 130 volunteers to help with his second annual Beyond the Basics camp being held at his alma mater on Saturday, July 8, but that doesn’t mean the self-described micromanager isn’t doing much of the heavy lifting before the big day — even down to making sure there are enough tables for campers to eat lunch. It isn’t surprising considering what Copeland has already accomplished, whether going from struggling undrafted free agent to playing in all 32 games for Detroit over the last two years or finding success in the investment world in the offseason.

When it comes to trying to master an NFL defensive playbook or evaluating stocks and companies, the details matter.

Copeland, a graduate of the prestigious Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, doesn’t want to be known solely as a football player. That’s a message he wants to convey at his free camp that uses football as its hook while introducing young people ages 12 through 17 to individuals from many walks of life and different career paths.

“They genuinely look up to these people because they’re good people,” said Copeland, who was originally signed by the Ravens in 2013 and also spent time with Tennessee before eventually finding his NFL footing with the Lions. “Then, [campers] find out that, ‘Oh, this guy’s an engineer, this guy’s a doctor, this guy’s in law school right now.’

“It makes them say, ‘OK, I’d love to be Torrey Smith [or] Haloti Ngata, but if not, let me pursue this because I can be cool and down to earth and work on becoming an investment banker or whatever.’”

Having spent only a few months with the Ravens before being waived from the practice squad in Week 4 of the 2013 regular season, Copeland knows he’s not a household NFL name in Baltimore, but he draws inspiration from others such as the late Keion Carpenter who have made an indelible mark on the city over the years despite finding football success elsewhere.

At least 18 current and former NFL players — many with deep roots in Baltimore – are scheduled to appear at the camp, a list that includes the former Raven and University of Maryland standout Smith, a few of Copeland’s Lions teammates, former Gilman teammate and Tennesee wide receiver Darius Jennings, and his grandfather and former Baltimore Colts defensive end Roy Hilton. The 25-year-old dreams of one day holding camps in additional cities, but he says giving back to the place that helped shape him is of the utmost importance.

“Guys like Keion, they definitely had a huge influence on me and what I want to do and the imprint I want to leave on the city,” Copeland said. “When I was planning the camp last year, the one thing I thought was I’m not the biggest name in the world — I’m not any name if you ask me. I don’t have that at all, but I’ve been good to people throughout my life and I can get good people — great people — to come here and help. People like him make you want to have an imprint on this city.”

In addition to the on-field activities and fun one would expect from a football camp, Copeland is pleased to be able to give away some laptops, tablets, and headphones to attendees. However, he’s even more excited to pass along the lesson of helping others to the campers themselves, who will put together 500 book bags and hygiene kits to be distributed through the Franciscan Center in Baltimore.

“It teaches the kids a lesson that it took me longer than I would have liked to learn in terms of you can give back at any age,” said Copeland, who credits his fiancée, Taylor, as his greatest inspiration for being so active in helping others. “While climbing up your own respective ladder, you can pull other people up as well. I’m hoping that by us instilling this in the kids young, that trickles throughout their life.”

Copeland is hardly satisfied with his accomplishments to this point as he faces the challenge of making the Lions’ 53-man roster as a special-teams standout and defensive contributor for the third straight summer. His lofty goals include having a lengthy NFL career and using his investment prowess to make even more money off the field than on it through a variety of channels, whether using traditional means like real estate or perhaps even diving into the movie industry.

He wants to continue helping others and even has designs of sharing his investment strategies along the way, quipping that others can join him in becoming rich or going broke 10 or 15 years from now. Of course, Copeland cautions to be smart and to save — evident from his plan to live off just 10 to 15 percent of his current NFL salary — but he doesn’t intend to shy away from taking measured risks after coming this far in life.

The details of his journey haven’t always gone according to plan and he’s excited to see what the future holds both on and off the field, but being able to return to where it started to give back next month is a humbling opportunity.

“Whether it’s the Detroit Lions or the NFL or no NFL, I’m going to find a way to provide for myself and my family,” Copeland said. “But to be able to literally come back to Gilman and to see my former teachers, coaches, kids that are working out the way I used to back in the day, this is a dream come true.”

Register online for the second annual Beyond the Basics camp at www.bcopeland.com/camp

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 5-4 loss to Detroit

Posted on 18 May 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles losing for the fifth time in six games in a 5-4 final to the Detroit Tigers, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Needing to give his club a deep outing after Tuesday’s 13-inning affair, Ubaldo Jimenez instead threw 95 pitches over five innings and gave up five runs. I never question the veteran’s desire, but he’s simply not getting the job done.

2. You’d probably never heard of Tyler Collins before this series and understandably so as he entered the night mired in an 0-for-30 slump. Jimenez proved to be the cure to his struggles by surrendering two home runs to the 26-year-old center fielder.

3. Scoring four times over seven innings against 2016 AL Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer is a respectable output, but — as I wrote earlier on Wednesday — this offense probably needs to score at least five or six runs per night to win games right now.

4. How much of a struggle was Wednesday’s outing for Jimenez? He allowed at least two baserunners in all but one of his five frames. Orioles starters are rapidly making 20-pitch innings the norm.

5. Orioles pitching is seemingly allergic to having a lead. As if Tuesday weren’t bad enough, Jimenez quickly squandered a 1-0 lead in the second and a 5-2 lead in the fifth. There’s no sugarcoating how excruciating it is watching this staff at the moment.

6. If every other starter not named Dylan Bundy were pitching better and there were more interesting alternatives, time would almost be up for Jimenez, who is in the final year of his disappointing contract. That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t still be looking over his shoulder, however.

7. Think Welington Castillo paid attention to what Caleb Joseph and Francisco Pena were doing at the plate in his absence? He’s 6-for-10 since being activated from the disabled list and had a particularly impressive at-bat in the fourth that resulted in an RBI single.

8. After a few rough outings earlier in the season, Stefan Crichton fared well in his 1 2/3 scoreless innings to keep the score at a one-run deficit. The Orioles need to find another effective middle reliever, and he took advantage of the opportunity.

9. Miguel Castro needed 25 pitches to register a scoreless eighth inning, but a 22-year-old sitting comfortably in the mid-90s with his fastball? He’s raw, but there’s some intrigue there.

10. In regards to his brutal call on Manny Machado’s check swing to end the game, I suppose first base umpire C.B. Bucknor just wanted to go home.

11. Donnie Hart being sent to Norfolk was mildly surprising, but he’s not an established major league reliever yet and you can’t pitch that poorly with a three-run lead in the 12th inning. He’ll be back, and the Orioles need him to get back on track after a brutal May.

12. I’m no doctor and am not privy to the rehabilitation plan, but I’m surely not the only one wondering if it’s too soon for Zach Britton to be throwing for the first time in Sarasota on Thursday. Everyone in the organization will have their fingers crossed.

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Wild-card weekend drives home key points for Ravens

Posted on 09 January 2017 by Luke Jones

Watching wild-card weekend from home for the third time in the last four years, the Ravens had to be thinking what might have been.

They have no one to blame but themselves after losing three of their last four games to finish a mediocre 8-8, but a survey of the wild-card round field only reinforced the lack of high-quality teams in the NFL this year and in most seasons. As Bill Parcells famously said, you are what your record says you are, but you could argue that Baltimore was better than a few of the playoff teams if going off the eyeball test.

Oakland deserves a pass with the unfortunate injury to Derek Carr, but the Ravens would have certainly put up a better fight against Brock Osweiler and a Houston offense that was abysmal all season. The Texans finished minus-49 in point differential this season — Baltimore was plus-22 — and took advantage of a lousy AFC South with a 5-1 division record.

No one should have been surprised to see the Pittsburgh offense steamroll Miami after the Ravens scored 38 points against that same group last month. The Dolphins deserve credit for beating the teams they were supposed to under first-year head coach Adam Gase, but they registered only one victory against a team that finished with a winning record this season.

The Detroit Lions were a good story with so many exciting finishes, but they lost three straight to close the regular season, beat only one team that finished with a winning record, and finished with a minus-12 point differential.

The Ravens might have been an Antonio Brown tackle away from entering Week 17 atop the AFC North, but the defining stretch of the season was their winless October in which they lost to a non-playoff team at home (Washington) and dropped a 24-16 road contest to the woeful New York Jets. A single victory over that 0-4 stretch would have changed the dynamics of the final two weeks of the season.

Of course, being able to measure up to a few playoff squads doesn’t mean John Harbaugh’s team is close to being back at a championship level. Looking beyond the Texans’ lottery-winning draw of a Carr-less Raiders team on Saturday, the other three winners of the weekend — Seattle, Pittsburgh, and Green Bay — each possess dynamic playmakers, a truly special quarterback, or both.

The Ravens have a respectable collection of quality players — including the league’s best kicker and the top guard in the NFL — but they have nothing that measures closely to the impact provided by five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown and two-time Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell, who combined for four touchdowns and just under 300 yards from scrimmage in the Steelers’ 30-12 victory over Miami. And Joe Flacco didn’t come close to playing at a special level this year, either.

With Flacco arguably having more job security than anyone in the entire organization after signing a contract extension last year, general manager Ozzie Newsome better find him a playmaker or two if the Ravens’ fortunes are to markedly change for the better any time soon. It’s been a talking point for a few years now, but that makes it no less true after another non-playoff campaign.

** The four games had an average margin of victory of 19.0 points, making it the most lopsided wild-card weekend since 1981. Most expected all four home teams to prevail, but it was quite a contrast between Super Bowl contenders and pretenders this weekend.

** I couldn’t help but feel for the Raiders as they played in their first playoff game in 14 years without the benefit of their young franchise quarterback under center. Oakland should be back with such a talented group of young players on which to build, but return trips to the postseason can’t be taken for granted.

** It’s great to see Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney finally showing off the ability that warranted him being selected first overall in the 2014 draft after two disappointing seasons. He finished with an interception, two batted passes, and four quarterback pressures in a terrific performance against overwhelmed rookie quarterback Connor Cook.

** Even if Ben Roethlisberger wearing a walking boot after Sunday’s win was much ado about nothing, why in the world was the Pittsburgh quarterback and several other key starters still in the game so late in the fourth quarter?

** Can you imagine how long their fans would have been screaming about the Packers’ failed fourth-down run from the their own 42-yard line in the third quarter if it had resulted in the turning point of a New York Giants win at Lambeau Field? I suppose having a future Hall of Fame quarterback helps to cover up a bad coaching decision as Rodgers was sensational on Sunday.

** No, I don’t believe the Monday trip to Miami made by Odell Beckham Jr. — and several of his teammates — was the reason why the Giants lost to Green Bay, but it did fairly call his focus and priorities into question just days before the biggest game of his young NFL career.

Ravens tight end Benjamin Watson is highly respected around the league and summed it up nicely via his Twitter account. Just because you have the right to do something doesn’t mean you should, and Beckham certainly fueled the flames of the story by turning in a lousy performance.

Maybe he should have asked Tony Romo if a pre-playoff vacation is worth the potential backlash.

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Holtby Helps the Depleted Caps Blank Detroit, 1-0

Posted on 18 November 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Braden Holtby made 25 saves and Jay Beagle scored on a rebound with 5:11 left to break a scoreless tie as a depleted Washington Capitals squad knocked off the Detroit Red Wings, 1-0, at the Verizon Center on Friday night.

Lars Eller, T.J. Oshie, and Andre Burakovsky all suffered upper body injuries in the first period and did not return. Eller played one shift, Oshie three, and Burakovsky just seven, meaning that Coach Barry Trotz’ crew had to go with just three lines for over 40 minutes of action. Oshie was clearly the biggest loss since he is the team’s number one right wing and is not replaceable in the organization. T.J. appeared to hurt his left shoulder on a neutral zone hit he was putting on Detroit’s Riley Sheahan. Oshie stuck his tongue out after the hit and then skated to the bench. He then went down the tunnel favoring his left arm. He, Eller, and Burakovsky will be re-evaluated on Saturday, but it sure looks like a call up or perhaps two from an injury riddled Hershey Bears team will be needed. Daniel Winnik, the lone forward scratch on Friday, will be back in the lineup on Sunday against Columbus, and there’s a chance we could see the NHL debut of Jakub Vrana? RW Christian Thomas, who had a strong preseason, LW Paul Carey (previous NHL experience), or center Chandler Stephenson (three assists on Friday for the Bears) are also possibilities to be in the show against John Tortorella’s squad at the Verizon Center (12:30 pm start), depending on the extent of the injuries.

Back to Friday’s game, it was a physical affair from the get go. Burakovsky hit the post early and then the Capitals received a five minute power play when Danny DeKeyser received five minutes for boarding Tom Wilson at the 8:29 mark. Willy went awkwardly into the boards, but luckily avoided a head, neck or shoulder injury.

Without Oshie, the Caps power play at five on four continued to sputter and they really didn’t get many good looks over the first four plus minutes. Justin Williams took a hooking minor with just 30 seconds left in the major and that put the Wings on the man advantage. Washington would kill off that penalty, with the Holtbeast being the primary reason. Detroit would have three morer power plays on this night for a total of 7:02 of man advantage time, but Braden was a wall in net for the Caps.

The Caps, down three forwards, played a smart game the rest of the way by doing what assistant coach Lane Lambert asked of them, which was to get pucks deep and make the Red Wings do the work in their own zone. Washington did a nice job of forechecking and brought a strong effort, but Jimmy Howard was solid in the cage for Detroit and this game took on the “first goal wins” mantra.

Fortunately for the Capitals, they found a way to manufacture a goal. Zach Sanford and Wilson did some great work down low and forced a Detroit turnover. As a result of the strong forward work, Dmitry Orlov was able to slide up to the top of the left wing circle and he one timed a shot on Howard. Jay Beagle and Sanford were in front and the rebound fell prone in the slot where #83 pounced on it and put the biscuit in the basket. From there the Caps kept the Wings to the outside and any rubber that made its way through was snatched or thwarted by Holtby.

Marcus Johansson drew a late penalty and the Caps skated away with a gritty victory after their thrashing of the Pens on Wednesday night.

This was going to be a tough one for the Caps after an intense affair with the despised Penguins on Wednesday. A let down was a possibility, but give credit to the coaching staff and team leadership since there was none of that. The bad news was the injuries up front, but the rest of the crew stepped up and played a solid game. Detroit didn’t have a ton of chances, but there were a few grade “A” ones and the Holtbeast was a major reason the Capitals were able to scrape out a victory.

The victory improves the Caps to 11-4-2 and they are now just two points behind the first place Rangers, who lost to Columbus on Friday night, with a game in hand. Pittsburgh is also tied with Washington. The Blue Jackets, who defeated the Capitals on Tuesday, are just four points behind Alex Ovechkin and company and they have two games in hand. Somehow Coach Trotz’ club needs to find a way to get themselves up for that game and they’ll likely need to do it with a player or so from Chocolatetown in the lineup.

Notes: Shots on goal were 28-25 for the Caps, who also led in shot attempts, 56-48…Ovechkin had four shots on goal and nine shot attempts. He also had four hits…the Caps had 31 hits in this contest while Detroit had just 18. Sneaky Nicklas Backstrom led the way with five. Brett Connolly, who has been strong on the fore check when in the lineup, had four hits…Washington plays better when they are physical since they are a big team and can wear their opponents out more effectively…the Caps lost the face-off battle, 31-23, but Beagle was 11-7…Beagle logged a season high 20:01…Matt Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 25:29…former Capital Mike Green led all skaters with 26:10 of ice time.

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It’s now or never for road-challenged Orioles

Posted on 05 September 2016 by Luke Jones

The Orioles have one winning road trip all season.

One.

It was an abbreviated two-game sweep of the Minnesota Twins in mid-May that was sandwiched between two longer homestands. In other words, that’s not a real road trip in the way we typically view a multi-city one lasting the better part of a week or two.

Buck Showalter’s club has avoided disastrous road trips of the 1-9 or 2-8 variety, but a 29-37 mark away from Oriole Park at Camden Yards speaks for itself. While holding the third-best home record in the American League this season, the Orioles have been a bad team on the road.

Entering Labor Day three games behind first-place Toronto in the AL East and tied with Detroit for the second wild-card spot, Baltimore is aware of what’s ahead. A nine-game, three-city road trip precedes the final 11-game homestand of the year and then six more on the road to conclude the regular season.

It’s now or never.

“We’ve got to win games. It’s real simple,” Showalter said. “We have to win games, regardless of how we get there. I don’t care how it looks or how it happens, but we need to have more runs than them after nine innings or 10 or 11 or 12 or so on. It’s a pretty simple equation right now.”

But that been the equation all year on the road. Camden Yards is certainly a ballpark suited for an Orioles lineup constructed to win via the long ball, but that doesn’t fully explain the chasm between home and road performance this season.

At home, the Orioles have hit .266 with a .331 on-base percentage and a .470 slugging percentage. They’ve batted .254 with a .309 OBP and a .431 slugging percentage on the road.

The difference in pitching is even more dramatic with Baltimore pitching to a respectable 3.94 ERA at home compared to an alarming 4.93 away mark. If the Orioles can pitch effectively at hitter-friendly Camden Yards, there’s just no explaining being a full run worse on the road.

Overall, the Orioles aren’t as good as their sparkling 45-25 home record, but they’re also not the poor quality of a 91-loss team as their road record would suggest. They have lost nine of their last 15 home games, so the Orioles can only hope that the worm finally turns on the road.

They need it to.

After three-game sets at Tampa Bay, Detroit, and Boston, the Orioles will return to Baltimore on Sept. 15 with a good idea of where they stand in the playoff picture. If they follow their season-long road profile with no better than a 4-5 trip, the chances of a division title would likely be bleak and they’d be scratching and crawling the rest of the way to secure a wild card. A good road trip — say 6-3 or better — keeps them within striking distance of the division with games remaining against both the Red Sox and the Blue Jays in the final two weeks.

“One at a time,” first baseman Chris Davis said. “That’s got to be the mentality this time of year. You can’t win them all at once; you’ve got to go one at a time.”

That sounds good, but the Orioles haven’t been able to consistently stack wins on the road all year.

It’s now or never.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts on preseason win over Detroit

Posted on 28 August 2016 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens winding down the preseason with a 30-9 win over Detroit, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Solid in his preseason debut, Joe Flacco got rid of the ball quickly, which did disrupt the timing on a few throws. Such a strategy was hardly surprising in his first game back from a major knee injury, but it’s worth keeping an eye on this going into the season.

2. In 10 plays, Terrell Suggs registered two tackles and the Baltimore defense just had a different look and feel with him on the field. I’m not sure if that says more about the 33-year-old linebacker or the rest of the defensive personnel at this point.

3. He may not be ready for an every-down role, but rookie Matt Judon reinforced why he’s deserving of being a situational pass rusher in sub packages. He did impressive work against starting right tackle Riley Reiff and collected a sack, five tackles, and a pass defense.

4. Considered a threat to win the starting job entering the summer, Buck Allen was the last of the Ravens’ top four running backs to receive action and ran for just 15 yards on eight carries. Averaging only 1.9 yards per carry this preseason, he hasn’t impressed running between the tackles.

5. Injuries at safety gave Terrence Brooks the chance to go the distance on Saturday, but he dropped an easy interception and missed a couple tackles leading to big gains. He still hasn’t been able to put it all together despite looking the part on paper.

6. We’re now three games into the preseason and there are no signs that rookie Ronnie Stanley can’t handle protecting Flacco’s blindside after he more than held his own against Pro Bowl defensive end Ezekiel Ansah. It wasn’t a sexy pick, but Stanley is already looking like a gem.

7. A year ago at this time, Carl Davis looked like the early star of the 2015 draft class, but he continues to have a quiet preseason and failed to register a statistic in 18 snaps. His performance is especially concerning after he hit the rookie wall last year.

8. With the season-ending injury to Benjamin Watson, the coaching staff has to be watching Darren Waller and wishing he hadn’t drawn himself a four-game suspension. Other than a drop that led to an interception in the preseason opener, he’s flashed appealing upside at his new position.

9. Remembering his special-teams prowess, I never thought Anthony Levine was in real danger of not making the roster, but he added an interception and a sack on Saturday to go along with his late-game heroics in Indianapolis. Seeing him work as a dime back will be interesting.

10. The Ravens were wise not to risk playing Lardarius Webb due to back tightness since he’s had his healthiest summer in a few years. If he’s right physically, his tackling ability cannot be overlooked at the safety position and the Ravens can move him around a bit.

11. You couldn’t ask for more from Jeremy Butler in his quest to earn a roster spot, but it was interesting to note that he only participated in two plays on special teams. If he’s going to be active on game days, he’ll need to be a part of those units.

12. It was hardly surprising, but seeing Haloti Ngata recognized in the second half of Saturday’s game was still a special moment. Despite an unceremonious departure after nine years in Baltimore, the five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle and future Ring of Honor member deserved a big ovation.

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Depth being tested for Ravens before season even begins

Posted on 28 August 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The returns of Joe Flacco and Terrell Suggs and a 30-9 win over Detroit should have made Saturday a great night for the Ravens.

Instead, they were left with the familiar sting from the injury bug that bit them too many times in 2015.

Nothing really compares to the losses of a franchise quarterback and one of the top defensive players in franchise history — who both looked good in their first live-game action since last season — but injuries to veteran tight end Benjamin Watson and rookie running back Kenneth Dixon soiled what should have been a good feeling for the Ravens in the final real tuneup before the start of the 2016 season. Fortunately, the injuries come at positions where Baltimore has good depth, but you hate to lose play-making depth and potential before the season even kicks off, especially when coming off a 5-11 season in which there was a shortage of difference-makers on either side of the ball.

Watson suffered the more catastrophic injury as he suffered a torn right Achilles tendon on the first offensive play of the night, ending his first season with the Ravens before it even began. No one realistically expected him to duplicate his career season from a year ago in which he caught 74 passes for 825 yards and six touchdowns, but the Ravens thought Watson would bring veteran leadership and dependability to the position after he had missed a total of four games in his last seven seasons.

“He’s been a great teammate and was really developing into a weapon for us,” said Flacco, who’s often leaned on tight ends in the passing game throughout his career. “I was really excited about getting to play with him this year. That’s going to be really tough on us.”

Without Watson, a once-deep tight end group looks more uncertain with Crockett Gillmore, Maxx Williams, and Dennis Pitta all having struggled to stay on the field to varying degrees and second-year options Darren Waller and Nick Boyle facing suspensions to begin the regular season. With Williams and Pitta currently sidelined, you wonder if converted wide receiver and former practice-squad member Daniel Brown will now find his way onto the 53-man roster to begin the year.

Fortunately, head coach John Harbaugh said Dixon’s left knee injury does not look “overly serious,” but that doesn’t mean the 2016 fourth-round pick won’t miss some valuable time. It certainly didn’t look good when ex-Raven and Detroit defensive tackle Haloti Ngata buckled Dixon’s left knee making a tackle at the 1-yard line late in the first half, but a magnetic resonance imaging exam on Sunday will hopefully confirm the optimism expressed by the Ravens after the game.

Terrance West has received much of the attention for his improvement this summer, but the rookie Dixon looks like the running back most capable of hitting a home run whenever he touches the ball, a trait the Ravens have consistently lacked in the backfield since Ray Rice was in his prime. Dixon was the first young back to see action behind veteran starter Justin Forsett on Saturday, gaining 41 yards on six carries and catching one pass for nine yards before leaving the game just before halftime.

Dixon leads all Ravens running backs with 107 yards on 22 carries in the preseason and has displayed a different level of explosiveness from West, Forsett, or Buck Allen and shows surprising physicality for a 5-foot-10, 212-pound back, making his injury all the more disappointing for a team needing to get off to a fast start in 2016.

“It hurts seeing him go down because he’s in our room every day,” said West, who also had a good night with 43 rushing yards on seven carries against the Lions. “Everybody wants to play, but at the same time we care about each other. To see him go down, it hurts all of us.”

To be clear, these injuries won’t ruin the season as there are other options at each position to help pick up the slack.

But on a night when the Ravens were celebrating the much-anticipated returns of Flacco and Suggs, things just got more difficult again.

And, deep down, Harbaugh probably couldn’t help but think, “Here we go again.”

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Ravens-Lions preseason primer: Five players to watch

Posted on 26 August 2016 by Luke Jones

Our longest look at Ravens starters in the preseason will be our only look at some in Saturday’s game against Detroit on Saturday night.

The much-awaited return of starting quarterback Joe Flacco will be the dominating story in the “dress rehearsal” for the regular season, but head coach John Harbaugh would like to see a good showing from his starting units that likely will still be without the likes of Steve Smith, Breshad Perriman, and Elvis Dumervil. For a team that did more minor tweaking than overhauling after a 5-11 season, many questions remains.

“Either we’re going to be good or we’re not,” Harbaugh said. “It’s what we do, not what we say. We can talk about it all we want. I have reasons for optimism, and I have reasons for pessimism. It’s just going to matter how well we coach, how well we play.

“You have to do your part. Your part is to get better. Your part is not to stay the same. If you stay the same, you’re getting worse. If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse. You never stay the same. Your goal has to be to come out here and get better, and it’s hard to do.”

Most starters are expected to play the entire first half before giving way to younger players and fringe veterans fighting for roster spots. It will be a good opportunity for Flacco to get his first live-game reps with veteran newcomers Benjamin Watson and Mike Wallace, who have played very little in the preseason and have yet to register as much as a catch between them.

The Ravens will see a number of old friends across the field on Saturday night. Not only will five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata be making his return to M&T Bank Stadium, but fellow Super Bowl XLVII champions Anquan Boldin and Josh Bynes and former assistant coaches Jim Caldwell and Teryl Austin will be on the opposing side.

Flacco was asked whether he’d ask the 345-pound Ngata before the game to take care of him should the two meet in the pocket during Saturday’s game.

“I don’t think so,” said the 31-year-old quarterback as he laughed. “It will be interesting to see him. I’m used to seeing him over there [on defense during practices], but it will be interesting seeing him in some other colors for sure.”

Saturday marks the fourth time that these teams have met in the preseason with the Ravens holding a 2-1 edge to go with their 3-1 advantage in all-time regular-season meetings. Baltimore has built a 22-12 record in preseason games during the Harbaugh era.

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 night’s game against Detroit.

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

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

OUT: WR Steve Smith (Achilles), WR Breshad Perriman (knee), TE Dennis Pitta (finger/hip), RB Lorenzo Taliaferro (foot), S Matt Elam (knee), DE Bronson Kaufusi (ankle)
DOUBTFUL: LB Elvis Dumervil (foot), LB Za’Darius Smith (ankle), CB Kyle Arrington (head), S Kendrick Lewis (undisclosed), TE Maxx Williams (undisclosed), G John Urschel (contusion)
QUESTIONABLE: LB Terrell Suggs (Achilles), DT Brandon Williams (undisclosed), WR Chris Matthews (soft tissue injury), CB Maurice Canady (hamstring), TE Darren Waller (jaw), CB Jerraud Powers (undisclosed)

Five players to watch Saturday night

LB Matt Judon

With other edge defenders expected to be sidelined against the Lions, the rookie fifth-round pick has a great opportunity to etch out a role as a rotational pass rusher if he can build on what he’s done in the first two preseason games against tougher competition on Saturday. Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Dean Pees have spoken highly of Judon’s combination of size and quickness, so it will be interesting to see how he fares against first-team blockers. The Ravens need someone to emerge as an impact pass rusher behind Suggs and Dumervil, and Judon has propelled himself into that conversation.

RB Buck Allen

The second-year back had a 19-yard touchdown reception in the preseason opener, but he’s carried the ball 10 times for only 20 yards and has no other receiving yards beyond that score. Allen has clear ability as a receiver out of the backfield, but you’d like to see him show more as a runner between the tackles after he averaged an unspectacular 3.8 yards per carry as a rookie. With Terrance West showing improvement as a rusher and rookie Kenneth Dixon looking like a potential change-of-pace back, the 2015 fourth-round pick is still waiting to make a statement of his own this summer.

CB Will Davis

While Shareece Wright and Jerraud Powers have struggled in the preseason, Davis is trending upward as he has looked healthier and quicker since struggling early in camp. The Ravens knew he had the ability to play on the outside, but he held up surprisingly well playing some slot cornerback against Indianapolis, which is something worth monitoring moving forward. The organization obviously thought enough of Davis to send a seventh-round pick to Miami last year, so it will be interesting to see if the 2013 third-round pick will climb the depth chart as he moves further away from knee surgery.

G Vlad Ducasse

The seventh-year veteran isn’t a lock to make the team, but the other options in the competition at left guard lack experience while he’s started 22 games over his career. His performance against the Colts wasn’t quite as stellar as it was against Carolina, but Ducasse figures to improve his chances with a strong showing against the Lions while third-year guard John Urschel is expected to be sidelined again. The Ravens don’t have great depth at tackle, but Marshal Yanda and Alex Lewis have the ability to play outside, meaning a guard like Ducasse could receive the nod over a reserve tackle like De’Ondre Wesley.

CB Tavon Young

A hamstring injury sustained in the preseason opener slowed a fast start to his first training camp, but Young figures to have a chance to show what he can do at the nickel spot while veterans such as Powers and Kyle Arrington are likely to be sidelined against the Lions. Despite only being 5-foot-9, Young has shown a nose for the football and impressive confidence for a rookie cornerback. At the very least, the Ravens are looking for him to be a major contributor on kickoff and punt coverage units and potentially as a kick returner, which remains an unsettled position on this current roster.

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Za’Darius Smith, Steve Smith not expected to play for Ravens on Saturday

Posted on 25 August 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Quarterback Joe Flacco will make his much-anticipated return to the field against Detroit on Saturday, but the Ravens are expecting to be without several key figures for the “dress rehearsal” before the start of the 2016 season.

Veterans recently returning from injury such as wide receiver Steve Smith and linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil were never considered sure bets to play against Detroit, but second-year outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith was absent from Thursday’s walk-through with a sprained ankle.

“Za’Darius has a little ankle issue that he had yesterday in practice,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “It’s not a major thing. I doubt he’ll play. There’s no sense putting him out there with a sprained ankle.”

Harbaugh said Suggs was “fine” despite not being present for Thursday’s light practice, but his absence leads one to believe his status could be in doubt for the third preseason game. The 33-year-old rush linebacker returned to the practice field on Aug. 15 after an 11-month absence due to a torn left Achilles tendon and expressed interest last week in getting some live-game reps in the preseason.

Dumervil and Steve Smith were both present for Thursday’s walk-through, but they only returned to the practice field in the last few days.

“He’s not playing in this game, at least that I know of,” said Harbaugh about the 37-year-old Smith, who tore his right Achilles tendon less than 10 months ago. “We’ll see. Maybe he’ll decide [he wants to play] tomorrow.”

The potential absences of Za’Darius Smith, Suggs, and Dumervil would open the door for rookie edge defender Matt Judon to receive action against Detroit’s first-team offense. Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Dean Pees said this week that they’d like to evaluate the fifth-round pick against tougher competition after he collected two sacks and nine tackles over the first two preseason games against second- and third-team offenses.

Harbaugh wouldn’t officially rule out second-year receiver Breshad Perriman from Saturday’s game, but he’s all but guaranteed to sit out against Detroit after only returning to practice on Tuesday.

“We’ll see. It’s up to the doctors,” Harbaugh said. “They’ll let me know. We’ll meet on that this afternoon — docs and trainers — and see where he’s at with that. He hasn’t gone full speed in practice, as you know, but today’s not a full-speed practice for anybody, so we’ll just have to see.”

Others unlikely to play on Saturday after extended absences from practice include nose tackle Brandon Williams (undisclosed), guard John Urschel (contusion), tight ends Dennis Pitta (broken finger) and Maxx Williams (undisclosed), cornerbacks Kyle Arrington (concussion) and Jerraud Powers (undisclosed), and safety Kendrick Lewis (undisclosed).

Players definitely out for Saturday’s game include running back Lorenzo Taliaferro (foot), safety Matt Elam (knee), and defensive end Bronson Kaufusi (broken ankle). Taliaferro remains on the physically unable to perform list while Elam and Kaufusi are candidates to be placed on injured reserve at the end of the summer.

Tight end Darren Waller (jaw) and cornerback Maurice Canady (hamstring) both returned to the field to participate in Thursday’s walk-through after exiting the second preseason game early with injuries.

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