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Suggs remains strong presence in new era for Ravens defense

Posted on 16 June 2017 by Luke Jones

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

First-round cornerback Marlon Humphrey was 6.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ravens narrowly avoided Atlanta’s fate four years ago

Posted on 06 February 2017 by Luke Jones

The Atlanta Falcons are predictably the butt of many jokes after surrendering the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history on Sunday night.

Coughing up a 25-point lead in the second half will do that to you, but Ravens fans should pause a moment or two before piling on Matt Ryan and company with too much enthusiasm. After all, Baltimore nearly suffered a similar fate in Super Bowl XLVII four years ago.

No one will forget the image of Joe Flacco raising the first Vince Lombardi Trophy or Ray Lewis celebrating the euphoric conclusion of his “last ride” in New Orleans, but the Ravens came dangerously close to squandering a 22-point lead in the second half. Such a notion felt impossible after Jacoby Jones’ 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to begin the third quarter, but San Francisco finally found its offense while the Ravens offense couldn’t run and managed only two field goals in the second half.

It didn’t take long for a comfortable 28-6 lead to become a heart-stopping affair.

You can blame the Superdome blackout if you’d like, but a defense led by Lewis and Ed Reed at the end of their careers gave up three second-half touchdowns and a field goal, which is exactly what the Falcons did before the Patriots marched down the field for the winning touchdown in overtime.

Just imagine how differently we’d view Super Bowl XLVII had Jimmy Smith been flagged on fourth-and-goal from the 5 or the 49ers hadn’t forgotten over their final four plays inside the 10 that Frank Gore was gashing a Baltimore front playing without the injured Haloti Ngata. Of course, unlike the Falcons, the Ravens were able to make a few plays to protect their narrow lead in the end, and that’s all that matters.

Super Bowl LI reminded us that you should never count out the New England Patriots and that the margin between winning and losing can be so razor thin. It also might help to run the ball when you’re protecting a 28-20 lead and are comfortably in field-goal range with under five minutes remaining.

But before mocking Atlanta too much, remember that the Ravens nearly became the Falcons four years ago and breathe a quick sigh of relief that a storybook ending didn’t turn into a nightmare.

** Many Ravens fans predictably went to social media to use Sunday’s result as validation for Flacco being better than Ryan — a tired debate that needs to end — but I’d hardly pin that loss on the quarterback as much as I would on the offensive play-calling of Kyle Shanahan and a defense that couldn’t stop a nosebleed in the second half.

Regardless, Flacco and the Ravens have a lot of work to do to give fans something more current to brag about. Even with the fallout of a devastating Super Bowl defeat, Ryan and the Falcons have a lot more going for them right now.

** After watching his limitations as a pass rusher with just five total sacks in his four seasons in Baltimore, Courtney Upshaw collecting the first quarterback takedown of Super Bowl LI wasn’t what I expected to see.

The former Ravens linebacker added weight to play on the Falcons defensive line this year, and that sack was his only tackle of the postseason.

** Every organization and fan base would love to be the Patriots, but Ravens director of public relations Patrick Gleason offered some perspective hours before Sunday’s kickoff in Houston.

It’s understandable to be discouraged by the Ravens missing the playoffs in three of the last four years and improvements certainly need to be made from top to bottom, but this organization has built up a ton of equity over the last two decades and is still just four years removed from winning the ultimate prize. Relative to most teams around the NFL, the Ravens have spoiled their fans for a long time, which isn’t easy to do.

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Webb leaning on plenty of experience moving to safety

Posted on 02 June 2016 by Luke Jones

Lardarius Webb is reinventing himself entering his eighth season with the Ravens by turning back the clock on his football career.

After playing cornerback for his first seven years, the 30-year-old was moved to safety last December as it became apparent that he could no longer cover the speedier receivers on the outside. But the transition hasn’t been as dramatic as it can be for other players moving to a new position late in their careers.

“I feel like I’ve always been a safety anyway,” said Webb, who hasn’t trained any differently for the position change this offseason but acknowledged needing to study the playbook as much as he did in his first couple years in Baltimore. “I was a safety in high school and in college. I really never played corner until I got to the league. It was a pride thing. I liked playing the position; it’s a competitive edge. I like being out there playing on-on-one and competing with some of the best wide receivers throughout the game.

“But I love the safety [position]. It’s a great transition, I’m loving it. I have more control of the defense.”

He also has plenty of experience to lean on in not only new teammate and three-time Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle but in ex-teammate and mentor Ed Reed. From the moment he was drafted out of Nicholls State in the third round of the 2009 draft, Webb made it no secret that he idolized the future Hall of Fame safety, who is now an assistant defensive backs coach for the Buffalo Bills.

Webb quipped that he hasn’t wanted to tell Reed too much about the Ravens’ revamped secondary since the teams meet in the season opener on Sept. 11, but he remains in touch with the nine-time Pro Bowl safety and 2004 AP Defensive Player of the Year, who has advised him to prepare as much as he can mentally before anything else related to moving to safety.

“I always talk to him and watch his old film,” Webb said. “He was a different type of player — one of the greats. He was just a smart player. Me, I just want to get the hang of it first. I don’t want to be jumping stuff I shouldn’t be jumping — things that he used to do to make great plays. I just want to learn the position.”

Moving Webb to safety doesn’t come without risk as his $9.5 million salary cap figure is second to only Joe Flacco among Ravens players in 2016. Many outsiders assumed Webb would either be asked to take another pay cut from his $5.5 million base salary for 2016 or be released with one of the highest cap figures at his position in the NFL.

He’s also dealt with a number of injuries in his career, ranging from two ACL tears to a back injury that sidelined him for the better part of two months in 2014.

Questions remain about how the Ravens will cover the bigger tight ends around the league with Webb listed at just 5-foot-10 and 182 pounds and Weddle only 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds, two frames better fitting the mold of the free safety position. However, new secondary coach Leslie Frazier and defensive coordinator Dean Pees are expected to show plenty of disguised looks in the secondary with Webb also sliding down to play the nickel with Kendrick Lewis then entering the game next to Weddle.

Webb has also instructed Weddle not to hold back in correcting any of his mistakes at his new position or in leading a defense that finished last in the NFL with just six interceptions and 30th in turnovers (14) last season. Still a couple weeks away from mandatory minicamp, it’s apparent that the Ravens are pleased with their top free-agent acquisition and only think he will make Webb better.

“He’s going to be big for this team. He speaks up,” Webb said. “I told him, ‘We want Eric Weddle. Don’t hold back. Don’t be quiet. We want you. If you yelled when you were with the Chargers, I want you coming out here yelling. Just be yourself. Grow the beard back, because we want the beard. If that’s who you were, grow the beard.’

“He’s growing it back. He’s being himself and we’re loving it. It was a great move.”

The Ravens hope Webb’s transition will make it two great moves at a position that’s struggled mightily since Reed’s departure after Super Bowl XLVII.

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Ravens must hit home run in this year’s draft

Posted on 06 April 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — When you draft two future Hall of Fame players with the first two picks in franchise history, the standard is going to be impossible to live up to.

But that didn’t stop general manager Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens from coming very close for the better part of the next decade. After Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis in that franchise-defining 1996 draft came Peter Boulware, Chris McAlister, Jamal Lewis, Todd Heap, Ed Reed (another future Hall of Famer), Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, and Ben Grubbs in first rounds over the next 11 years, all of them Pro Bowl selections.

Sure, there were a couple misses along the way, but you simply expected the Ravens to find a Pro Bowl player in the first round of the draft every year. Those emphatic early hits began to dissipate, however, and Baltimore has seen just one first-round pick — C.J. Mosley in 2014 — make the Pro Bowl since 2008.

The previous home runs and triples have been replaced by more singles and doubles — and a few more strikeouts — in recent years, which are still better than other teams in the NFL, but that decline came into focus this past year when a lack of playmakers and a rash of injuries led to a 5-11 season.

“If you look at [recent] drafts compared to ’96 to 2004, I would say that they didn’t measure up to those drafts,” Newsome said. “From ’96 to 2004, we drafted three Hall of Famers, but I will also say that during that time early on when you’re picking in the top 10 of the draft, you have a chance to be a lot more successful than it is when you’re picking anywhere from 20 to 32, which [are] the positions that we’ve been in.

“But I would say it was not up to my standards.”

Newsome’s point is fair as the Ravens have been a victim of their own success in that way after making the postseason 10 times in the last 16 years. They haven’t picked in even the first half of the first round in a decade and the sixth overall pick in this month’s draft will be the organization’s earliest since 2000.

As much as the Ravens were blessed to be able to land Hall of Fame talent when they took Ray Lewis 26th overall in 1996 and Reed 24th in 2002, the final 10 picks of the first round and the early second round typically aren’t littered with All-Pro talent everywhere you look. As if Lewis and Reed weren’t enough, the Ravens also found future Pro Bowl selections in Heap and Grubbs very late in the first round, but such success shouldn’t fool anyone into assuming you should find a Pro Bowl player that late every single year.

Yes, there have been some ugly first- and second-round picks in recent drafts as Sergio Kindle, Terrence Cody, Matt Elam, and Arthur Brown immediately come to mind, but other maligned choices such as Michael Oher and Courtney Upshaw were still more positive than not — even if they weren’t Pro Bowl players.

The drafts haven’t been all bad as Pernell McPhee, Brandon Williams, Crockett Gillmore, and Rick Wagner have been impressive middle-round finds over the last five years, but they just need to be better, especially in the early rounds. Recent drafts have been solid — for the most part — but rarely special.

“Have we drafted a ton of Pro Bowlers? No, we haven’t, but I’m proud of the players we’ve drafted,” said assistant general manager Eric DeCosta, who cited the big free-agent money other teams have spent on Ravens picks such as McPhee, Torrey Smith, Arthur Jones, and Kelechi Osemele in the last few offseasons. “I think we’ll get back to being a really good team soon. I’m not going to stress out about it.

“Can we do better in certain instances? Of course we can. You’re dealing with human emotion people, but I think our scouts and coaches have done a really good job. I think we’ll get back to prominence.”

If serious contention is in the cards for 2016, the Ravens need to hit a couple long balls and triples, not just with the sixth overall pick but with their six other selections in the top 134 spots. A successful draft isn’t only about the first round as Newsome has shown in finding Pro Bowl-caliber players and starters in the middle and late rounds over the years.

Expecting the Ravens to find their next future Hall of Famer later this month would be unfair, but they do need to find the next pillar around which to build. If it isn’t a Ray Lewis, Ogden, or Reed, drafting the next Suggs, Ngata, or Jamal Lewis is a reasonable expectation when picking so early.

DeCosta acknowledged Tuesday that the money in Vegas would be on the Ravens taking a defensive player with the sixth pick as there are five or six “elite” ones in his mind, but the executive also said there are three or four offensive players who might be the best fit depending on how the first five picks play out in a few weeks.

Whether it’s a player like Jalen Ramsey of Florida State unexpectedly falling into their laps or a regular mock-draft target such as Ohio State’s Joey Bosa, UCLA’s Myles Jack, Oregon’s DeForest Buckner, or Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley or even another name being discussed less frequently such as running back Ezekiel Elliott of Ohio State, the Ravens must come away with a special talent.

They need to find the next player who will one day be in the Ring of Honor at M&T Bank Stadium.

That would go a long way in not only helping them bounce back from a 5-11 season, but such a player would be a good step in preventing the Ravens from being back in this position for another 16 years.

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What’s next at safety after Ravens bring on Weddle?

Posted on 15 March 2016 by Luke Jones

The Ravens already had a crowded safety group before agreeing to a four-year deal with three-time Pro Bowl selection Eric Weddle on Monday.

The 31-year-old should bring the stability, high-impact play, and leadership that the Ravens have lacked at the position since the days of Ed Reed, but what Weddle’s arrival means for the other safeties on the roster remains to be seen. There was already a prevailing thought that the organization would part ways with at least one safety from a group that includes Lardarius Webb, Will Hill, Kendrick Lewis, and Matt Elam, and the arrival of the longtime San Diego Charger would appear to make that a certainty.

But who would be the likeliest candidate to go?

The Ravens would save $3.5 million in salary cap space by cutting Webb, who only converted from cornerback to safety late last season and is scheduled to carry a $9.5 million cap figure for the 2016 season. However, general manager Ozzie Newsome and head coach John Harbaugh have both talked up the veteran’s potential at his new position and have spoken with conviction about him being a starter. Of course, that all came before the Ravens gave $13 million in guaranteed money to their new safety, and Weddle and Webb would be a smaller duo compared to most safety tandems around the league.

It’s worth noting that a pre-June 1 release of Webb would leave $6 million in dead money, but a post-June 1 designation would leave his heavy commitment on the salary cap until most offseason activity has already concluded.

Releasing Hill would save $3 million in cap space, but he was the NFL’s 17th-highest-graded safety in Pro Football Focus’ rankings and his 6-foot-1, 228-pound frame would appear to be the perfect complement to the undersized Weddle (5-foot-11 and 200 pounds). The Ravens love having interchangeable safeties capable of playing the free or strong spot, and the combination of Weddle and Hill would appear to fit that vision perfectly.

There wouldn’t appear to be much use for Lewis in the base defense anymore, but releasing him would save just $933,000, which is very little when you account for the player taking his place in the “Rule of 51” list that counts against the salary cap. He would appear to be a reasonable backup option with just a $1.867 million cap figure for 2016.

Elam might be the most interesting name as the Ravens have never given up on a first-round pick prior to the conclusion of his rookie deal, but he carries a $2.14 million cap figure for 2016 and his release would save $1.33 million in space. Coaches said last summer that the University of Florida product had a strong offseason prior to tearing his biceps in training camp, but Elam didn’t show enough in his first two seasons to make you believe he’s a long-term fit.

The Ravens aren’t in a position where they need to make a decision immediately as Weddle’s signing leaves them with roughly $8 million in cap space for 2016, but this position group has become too crowded and too expensive to not make an adjustment as the offseason progresses.

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Better for Reed to get coaching feet wet elsewhere

Posted on 14 January 2016 by Luke Jones

Former Ravens great Ed Reed may become a “phenomenal” coach as Rex Ryan predicted upon hiring him to join the Buffalo Bills staff as his assistant defensive backs coach on Wednesday.

But a Hall of Fame playing career doesn’t guarantee that he’ll be a successful coach as players in multiple sports have learned. That’s why it’s better for Reed to get his coaching feet wet elsewhere before potentially joining the Ravens staff down the line.

Even if many Ravens fans don’t like it.

Coincidentally, Reed is indirectly replacing Buffalo assistant Donnie Henderson, who was his first defensive backs coach in Baltimore and has been with eight different teams since then. It’s a reminder of the frequent turnover in the profession with many coaching changes coming in the form of termination.

It would be an awkward position for the Ravens to fire one of the best players in franchise history should he not have what it takes to be a coach. In Buffalo, fans won’t be sentimental about an assistant coach who had a Hall of Fame career in Baltimore if Ryan would need to let him go in a year or two.

Reed will be able to fly under the radar more with the Bills as he learns the craft.

How would Ravens fans react if Reed were their secondary coach and the group struggled mightily? Many fans couldn’t name Baltimore’s secondary coaches right now — Chris Hewitt and Matt Weiss — but everyone would know one of the best players in franchise history would hold the job.

The 37-year-old gaining valuable experience elsewhere first is a better plan for success.

There are also still some remnants of Reed’s playing career in Baltimore as coaches and remaining players remember the mercurial safety who wasn’t always the most coachable talent and even skipped mandatory minicamp in his final season with the Ravens. As unpredictable as he could be on the field, that same trait followed him off the field as well.

It may just be too soon.

This isn’t to suggest there’s a rift — many fans immediately concluded that Reed must be on poor terms with John Harbaugh if he’s going to work for Ryan instead — but the memories of Reed as a player are still fresh, which could have made for an awkward transition in the present. That said, Reed’s affinity for Ryan makes it unsurprising that the nine-time Pro Bowl selection would want to work with his former defensive coordinator, who was also the final head coach of his playing career with the New York Jets in 2013.

Every great player who transitions to coaching faces the challenge of relating to players who will lack the same talents and desire to be great. Reed has exceptional football intellect and has rightly been praised for mentoring younger teammates late in his career, but he was ultimately still the one in control on the field come Sunday.

The chances that Reed took — some wiser than others — because of his incredible range and ball skills will not be in play for the less-talented defensive backs he will coach. Ultimately, he’ll be the one accountable for getting them ready to play, but those players simply won’t be able to do things the same way that Reed did and he’ll need to recognize and embrace that reality to succeed.

If Reed proves capable and enjoys the extensive commitment needed to be an NFL coach — he only coached flag football for kids this past year — the Ravens should welcome the future Hall of Fame safety with open arms.

But it’s better for everyone that he begins his coaching career elsewhere.

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Ravens legend Ed Reed becoming NFL assistant coach

Posted on 13 January 2016 by Luke Jones

Future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed has mentioned a desire to coach on more than one occasion, and a former Ravens defensive coordinator is giving him the opportunity.

The Buffalo Bills announced Wednesday that the longtime Ravens safety will join Rex Ryan’s staff as the assistant defensive backs coach. Ryan served as Reed’s defensive coordinator from 2005-2008 and was his final head coach when the safety joined the New York Jets midway through the 2013 season, his final year in the NFL.

Reed officially announced his retirement last year and was inducted into the Ravens’ Ring of Honor at M&T Bank Stadium in November. He is eligible for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame after the 2018 season.

“Ed Reed is going to be such a great asset to our team,” Ryan said in a statement released by the Bills. “Obviously, he’s played in this system and been an MVP-caliber guy in this system. He’s going to be such a great asset for players. He’s a real student of the game as well and he’s going to be a phenomenal coach.”

The 37-year-old has never coached before and didn’t always have the smoothest relationship with his many coaches through the years, but he took on more of a mentoring role with young Ravens teammates late in his playing career, drawing praise from the likes of Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams for making them better players. Reed will try to help improve a Buffalo pass defense that ranked 19th in the NFL in 2015.

The nine-time Pro Bowl selection was famous for his ability to study opponents and dissect plays, traits that were cultivated by longtime teammate and future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis when Reed entered the league in 2002.

“Having spent time with Ed in Baltimore and then New York, I can attest to the incredibly high level of professionalism he is going to bring with him to Buffalo,” Ryan said. “He’s going to teach guys how he studies film, bring the guys along, and add so much in that way.”

Reed will have the chance to coach one of his former teammates in the Baltimore secondary as Corey Graham will be entering his third year with Buffalo.

With Ryan already hiring twin brother Rob to be his new assistant head coach earlier this month, you would think HBO would be salivating at the prospects of featuring the Bills in their annual “Hard Knocks” series this summer. Buffalo is among the teams eligible to be selected this year.

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Ravens thoughts on Aiken, Pittsburgh, injuries, Pro Bowl

Posted on 22 December 2015 by Luke Jones

Kamar Aiken is one of the last men standing in the Ravens offense.

In a lost season on so many levels, the Central Florida product has established himself as a productive NFL receiver and an important piece moving forward. His 62 catches for 802 yards — already the 24th-highest single-season receiving yardage total in franchise history — and five touchdowns would make for a good season without accounting for the two games he still has to add to those totals.

In the six games since Steve Smith suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 8, Aiken has caught 37 passes for 469 yards and three touchdowns. Those numbers put the 6-foot-2 receiver on pace for a 98-catch, 1,250-yard season over a full 16 games. Of course, the Ravens currently don’t have a whole lot besides Aiken in terms of viable pass-catching targets — Torrey Smith’s production similarly ballooned in 2013 — but he’s also played with three different quarterbacks including the last two games with Jimmy Clausen, who’s been with Baltimore for all of a month.

It’s been impressive work from the former practice-squad receiver who had never made an NFL reception before last season. But Aiken’s emergence shouldn’t make general manager Ozzie Newsome feel he’s set at wide receiver this offseason.

Reports persist that Steve Smith is likely to return if his rehabilitation goes well, but he will also be 37 next year and coming off a serious injury that impacts explosiveness. It’d be foolish to doubt such a fierce competitor’s desire to return and be productive in 2016, but expecting him to come back as a No. 1 option like nothing ever happened would be unrealistic — and unfair.

Breshad Perriman will be back, but the Ravens haven’t seen their 2015 first-round pick play as much as a snap in a preseason game. He will need to prove his knee is healthy and that he can contribute as an NFL wide receiver before anyone signs off on him as the No. 1 receiver of the future.

With a plethora of needs on both sides of the ball, the Ravens may not need to draft a receiver in the first round this spring, but another wideout should firmly be on Newsome’s radar in the first few rounds of the draft. Otherwise, Baltimore will once again enter a season with too many questions at a position that’s been an Achilles heel for much of the 20-year history of the franchise.

At the very least, Aiken is shaping up to be a dependable possession receiver — a poor man’s Anquan Boldin — and the one commodity at the position that the Ravens can really trust while shaping their 2016 roster this offseason.

Bracing for Pittsburgh

Based on the number of Seattle and Kansas City fans that made their way to M&T Bank Stadium over the last two weeks, Steelers fans may make Sunday’s game feel like it’s being played at Heinz Field, which would be a disheartening conclusion to a home schedule that has already included five losses — most in franchise history.

I’ll never judge fans for selling their tickets — personal seat licenses and season tickets are a heck of a financial commitment for mere entertainment — but you’d like to see Ravens fans protect their home turf against their biggest rival if at all possible. I wrote about this topic earlier this season, but I also won’t fault fans trying to make some money around the holiday season as the injury-ravaged hometown team is barely recognizable at this point.

To add insult to injury, the Steelers can clinch a playoff spot with a win and a New York Jets loss against New England on Sunday. And, oh yeah, Pittsburgh has scored 30 or more points in six straight games and will be facing a pass defense that has offered little resistance all season.

Optimists will call it a rivalry game in which anything can happen, but it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea for Ravens fans to brace themselves for it to get ugly two days after Christmas.

Injury excuse

With the preseason feel of recent games that have followed the loss of quarterback Joe Flacco, the narrative surrounding the 2015 Ravens — particularly from a national perspective — now centers around their numerous injuries.

Tight end Crockett Gillmore became the 21st Ravens player to officially be lost to a season-ending injury when he was placed on injured reserve with a back ailment on Monday, but many of the significant names on that list went down after the season was already in the dumpster. Below is a look at the Ravens’ Week 8 starting lineup when they sported a 1-6 record and welcomed San Diego to Baltimore:

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My point?

Injuries are certainly part of the story — particularly the early losses of Terrell Suggs and Perriman — but don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that’s the only — or even the most — significant explanation for the team’s failures this year. It was apparent early in the season that a number of problems unrelated to injuries contributed to this nightmare season.

The loss of players like Flacco, Smith, and Justin Forsett merely turned a lost year into a punchline with players now on the field whom fans have needed to google on a weekly basis.

Pro Bowl picks

The NFL will announce its Pro Bowl selections Tuesday night and while no Ravens players won the fan vote, coaches and players account for two-thirds of the voting.

My picks would be guard Marshal Yanda, defensive tackle Brandon Williams, and punter Sam Koch.

Yanda has shown no signs of slowing down as he should be in line for his fifth straight Pro Bowl invitation. Meanwhile, Williams has proven himself as the top run-stopping nose tackle in the NFL and has steadily received more praise around the league this season, leading you to believe he has a solid chance to have his name called. But even as Haloti Ngata learned several years ago, players are sometimes deserving of the Pro Bowl a year or two before they are finally recognized to go.

I’m pulling for Koch to finally earn a trip to the Pro Bowl as he is leading the NFL in net punting for the second straight year and is the longest-tenured Ravens player behind only Suggs. Now in his 10th season in Baltimore, Koch has routinely been one of the better punters in the NFL and has brought innovation to the position that should be recognized with a trip to Honolulu.

Interception perspective

Not only do the Ravens rank last in the NFL with just four interceptions, but 10 players around the league have more than four this season. The previous franchise low for interceptions in a season was 11 set in 2005 and matched last season.

Future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed collected more than four picks in a season seven different times in his career.

Baltimore has just one interception in its last 11 games.

Where have you gone, Ravens defense of old?

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Five numbers behind Ravens’ 19-13 loss in Denver

Posted on 15 September 2015 by Luke Jones

Every week, we’ll ponder five numbers stemming from the Ravens’ latest game, this one being the ugly 19-13 loss to Denver to begin the 2015 season …

3.66 — Joe Flacco’s yards per attempt
Skinny: The pass protection was awful and his pass-catching targets were unable to create separation, making it no surprise that the eighth-year quarterback couldn’t throw the ball down the field. This was Flacco’s worst yards per attempt average since a loss in Houston on Oct. 21, 2012 (3.42) and the third-worst mark of his NFL regular-season career. His worst overall came in the 2009 playoff win over New England when a banged-up Flacco went 4-for-10 for 34 yards, a 3.40 average.

9 — Total catches made by Ravens receivers and tight ends
Skinny: Many expressed concerns over Flacco’s group of young receivers and tight ends, and Sunday proved to be a nightmare as even Steve Smith managed just two catches for 13 yards and couldn’t bring in the potential game-winning touchdown on the Ravens’ penultimate play of the game. Fellow starter Kamar Aiken was even worse as he lost a yard on his only reception. With or without rookie Breshad Perriman, this group needs to be markedly better for Baltimore to make any real noise this year.

27 — Consecutive games in which the Ravens defense hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher
Skinny: It was an impressive effort on the other side of the ball as the Ravens continued the longest active streak in the NFL of not allowing an opposing player to eclipse the century mark on the ground. With Brandon Williams dominating the line of scrimmage and C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith at the inside linebacker spots, the Ravens have to like their chances to keep this streak going. Meanwhile, the Broncos will need to average much better than 2.8 yards per carry to help Peyton Manning’s deteriorating arm.

56 — Yards of offense from Justin Forsett
Skinny: The 2014 Pro Bowl running back didn’t have much of a chance behind a less-than-stellar performance from the offensive line, but his output was lower than all but two of his regular-season games a year ago. Forsett’s numbers would have been even worse if not for his 20-yard run on the final drive of the game. With Buck Allen showing some promise in limited opportunities and Lorenzo Taliaferro possibly returning this Sunday, it will be interesting to see how the carries are distributed.

291 — Consecutive games (counting the postseason) in which Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, or Terrell Suggs has been on the field for Baltimore
Skinny: The 2015 opener brought the unfortunate end of a remarkable run in franchise history with Suggs suffering a season-ending Achilles injury in the fourth quarter. This Sunday will mark the first time that the Ravens will play a game without any of the three best defensive players in their history since Oct. 11, 1998 when Eric Zeier was the quarterback and they lost 12-8 to the Tennessee Oilers as Lewis sat out with a dislocated elbow. Nothing lasts forever, but it’s strange thinking about the old guard of Baltimore defense that also included Haloti Ngata being no more — at least until next year.

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From Griese to Tannehill: Ed Reed’s career of interceptions

Posted on 08 May 2015 by Luke Jones

Nine-time Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed did it all, but the interception is what he’ll most be remembered for in his 12-year NFL career.

He walks away ranked sixth on the all-time list with 64 interceptions in the regular season. His nine postseason picks are tied for first with three others — Charlie Waters, Bill Simpson, and Ronnie Lott — on the career list.

He led the NFL in interceptions three times (2004, 2008, and 2010) and twice led the league in interception return yards (2004 and 2010).

His 1,590 interception yards in the regular season are the most in NFL history while he added 168 more in the playoffs. Putting those together, Reed fell just two yards shy of a full mile in interception return yardage for his career.

In total, 46 passers — a full active roster on game day — were intercepted by the 2002 first-round pick from the University of Miami. Of that group, half went to a Pro Bowl at least once in their careers and six were starting quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl.

Only Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay, Minnesota, and New Orleans avoided throwing an interception against Reed. He never played a game against the Bears — he was injured for contests against them in 2005 and 2009 — and all of those teams except the Ravens played in the NFC.

Reed was right in expressing his love for Cleveland quarterbacks during his retirement press conference as his 12 interceptions against the Browns were his highest total against any team, but he also plagued Cincinnati 10 times. Pittsburgh came in third, but only three of those six interceptions came against Ben Roethlisberger despite nearly a decade of battles between the Steelers quarterback and the Ravens safety.

Brian Griese was the first interception victim when Reed was 24 and Ryan Tannehill was the last in the 35-year-old Reed’s final game in 2013.

Reed’s final interception in a Ravens uniform came against Colin Kaepernick in Super Bowl XLVII, the night he’d raise the Vince Lombardi Trophy for the only time in his career.

A 41-year-old Vinny Testaverde was the oldest quarterback on which the intercepting Reed preyed.

Brian St. Pierre was the most obscure to be victimized as he was picked off by Reed in his only NFL start.

Former New York Jets running back LaMont Jordan was the only non-quarterback to be intercepted by the ball-hawking free safety. It came during Reed’s 2004 Defensive Player of the Year season, and a holding penalty wiped out what would have been a 104-yard return for a touchdown on the play.

Carson Palmer threw the most interceptions (six) against Reed, but the future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning tossed the highest number (three) in the playoffs. It was a family affair for the Manning brothers as Eli was intercepted once by Reed in 2004.

Three quarterbacks — Roethlisberger, Charlie Batch, and Jason Campbell — went five years in between throwing interceptions to Reed.

Campbell and Griese were Reed’s only victims to throw interceptions playing for two different teams. Campbell was the only quarterback that Reed intercepted both as a Raven and as a Jet.

Derek Anderson was the only passer to be intercepted by Reed in three straight seasons.

And even though they once played together in Philadelphia, Jeff Garcia and Kevin Kolb will forever be linked for throwing record-setting interceptions to the incomparable safety. Reed returned a Garcia interception 106 yards for a touchdown in 2004 and ran one back 107 yards for a score against Kolb in 2008. They are the two longest interception returns in NFL history.

In all, 73 interceptions and a Hall of Fame career no one in Baltimore will ever forget.

Passers who threw interceptions to Reed (including postseason)
1) Carson Palmer – 6
2) Peyton Manning – 4 (three in postseason)
3) Kelly Holcomb – 3
4) Derek Anderson – 3
5) Ben Roethlisberger – 3
6) Jason Campbell – 3
7) Tom Brady – 2 (one in postseason)
8) Chad Pennington – 2 (both in postseason)
9) Brian Griese – 2
10) Jon Kitna – 2
11) Ryan Fitzpatrick – 2
12) Andy Dalton – 2
13) Colt McCoy – 2
14) David Garrard – 2
15) Trent Green – 2
16) Charlie Batch – 2
17) Tony Romo – 2
18) Steve McNair – 1 (postseason)
19) T.J. Yates – 1 (postseason)
20) Jeff Garcia – 1
21) Kevin Kolb – 1
22) Trent Dilfer – 1
23) Colin Kaepernick – 1 (postseason)
24) Gus Frerotte – 1
25) Donovan McNabb – 1
26) Michael Vick – 1
27) Matt Hasselbeck – 1
28) Kellen Clemens – 1
29) David Carr – 1
30) Drew Brees – 1
31) Chad Henne – 1
32) Ryan Tannehill – 1
33) Brandon Weeden – 1
34) Matt McGloin – 1
35) Jeff Blake – 1
36) Marc Bulger – 1
37) Vince Young – 1
38) Brian St. Pierre – 1
39) Tommy Maddox – 1
40) Drew Bledsoe – 1
41) Vinny Testaverde – 1
42) Chris Simms – 1
43) Charlie Frye – 1
44) Eli Manning – 1
45) Sage Rosenfels – 1
46) LaMont Jordan – 1

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