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How did Ravens defense stack up at each position in 2016?

Posted on 12 January 2017 by Luke Jones

We know the sum of their parts didn’t add up to a trip to the postseason for the Ravens, but where exactly did their defensive players stack up at each position across the NFL in 2016?

Whether it’s discussing the Pro Bowl or picking postseason awards, media and fans spend much time debating where players rank at each position, but few realistically have the time — or want to make the effort — to watch every player on every team extensively enough to develop an informed opinion.

How many times did you closely watch the offensive line of the Tennessee Titans this season?

What about the Los Angeles Rams linebackers or the San Diego Chargers cornerbacks?

That’s why I appreciate projects such as Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 and the grading efforts of Pro Football Focus. Of course, neither the NFL1000 nor PFF should be viewed as the gospel truth of evaluation and they have their limitations, but I respect the exhaustive effort to grade players across the league when so many of us watch only one team or one division on any kind of a consistent basis.

Earlier this week, we looked at the rankings for Baltimore’s offensive players.

Below is a look at where Ravens defensive players rank at their respective positions, according to those outlets:

DE Timmy Jernigan
NFL1000 ranking: 17th among 3-4 defensive ends
PFF ranking: 41st among interior defensive linemen
Skinny: The 2014 second-round pick appeared on his way to a breakout year, but he had only one sack after Week 7 and recorded one tackle over his last four games combined.

DE Lawrence Guy
NFL1000 ranking: 42nd among 3-4 defensive ends
PFF ranking: 36th among interior defensive linemen
Skinny: The 6-foot-4 lineman doesn’t offer much as a pass rusher, but he’s good against the run and was a solid contributor in his first full year as a starter.

DE Brent Urban
NFL1000 ranking: 40th among 3-4 defensive ends
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The 2014 fourth-round pick saw only 150 defensive snaps this season, but his ratings suggest that more playing time should be in order in 2017.

DT Brandon Williams
NFL1000 ranking: 18th among defensive tackles
PFF ranking: 38th among interior defensive linemen
Skinny: The fourth-year nose tackle saw more double teams and wasn’t as dominant as he was in 2015, but he is still on track to receive a strong payday as a free agent.

DT Michael Pierce
NFL1000 ranking: 31st among defensive tackles
PFF ranking: 26th among interior defensive linemen
Skinny: The rookie free agent from Samford was one of the good stories of 2016 and will likely step into a starting role if Williams signs elsewhere this offseason.

OLB Terrell Suggs
NFL1000 ranking: 17th among 3-4 outside linebackers
PFF ranking: 40th among edge defenders
Skinny: The 34-year-old played with a torn biceps for much of the season and is nearing the end of his career, but he still plays the run at a high level and remained Baltimore’s best pass rusher.

OLB Za’Darius Smith
NFL1000 ranking: 36th among 3-4 outside linebackers
PFF ranking: 93rd among edge defenders
Skinny: Instead of building on an encouraging rookie campaign, Smith struggled mightily against the run and managed only one sack in a disappointing season.

OLB Elvis Dumervil
NFL1000 ranking: 41st among 3-4 outside linebackers
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The five-time Pro Bowl pass rusher was limited to just three sacks in eight games after undergoing offseason Achilles surgery and could be a salary-cap casualty this offseason.

OLB Matt Judon
NFL1000 ranking: 42nd among 3-4 outside linebackers
PFF ranking: 83rd among edge defenders
Skinny: The Grand Valley State product flashed promise with four sacks in 308 defensive snaps, but the Ravens will be counting on him to show more consistency in 2017.

OLB Albert McClellan
NFL1000 ranking: 45th among 3-4 outside linebackers
PFF ranking: 99th among edge defenders
Skinny: McClellan sets the edge better than Smith or Judon, but the veteran is very limited as a pass rusher and in coverage and is better suited for his standout special-teams role of past years.

ILB C.J. Mosley
NFL1000 ranking: 11th
PFF ranking: 11th
Skinny: Selected to his second Pro Bowl in three years, Mosley bounced back from a shaky 2015 season and is rapidly establishing himself as one of the best inside linebackers in the NFL.

ILB Zachary Orr
NFL1000 ranking: 20th
PFF ranking: 82nd
Skinny: Orr had some tackling issues from time to time and isn’t an effective blitzer, but PFF’s ranking appears to be way too low for the man who led the Ravens in tackles this season.

CB Jimmy Smith
NFL1000 ranking: seventh
PFF ranking: 48th
Skinny: The Ravens experienced dramatic drop-off without their top corner, but he’s now missed 22 games in his career and the injury bug always seems to bite when he’s playing his best football.

CB Tavon Young
NFL1000 ranking: 72nd
PFF ranking: 30th
Skinny: The truth probably lies somewhere in between these rankings, but the rookie fourth-rounder was a pleasant surprise and looks to be no worse than a quality slot cornerback moving forward.

CB Jerraud Powers
NFL1000 ranking: 90th
PFF ranking: 70th
Skinny: Powers wilted down the stretch in coverage and against the run, which will likely prompt the Ravens to look elsewhere for depth in 2017.

CB Shareece Wright
NFL1000 ranking: 116th
PFF ranking: 80th
Skinny: After arguably being the best Ravens defensive player on the field in Week 1, Wright lost all confidence and became a frustrating liability as the season progressed.

S Eric Weddle
NFL1000 ranking: sixth among strong safeties
PFF ranking: first among all safeties
Skinny: After three years of cycling safeties in and out of the lineup, the Ravens finally found high-quality stability in the back end of the defense with Weddle’s arrival in 2016.

S Lardarius Webb
NFL1000 ranking: 10th among free safeties
PFF ranking: 16th among all safeties
Skinny: His switch from cornerback made him one of the highest-paid safeties in the league, but Webb grew into his new position after a slow start and played well in the second half of the season.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following season-ending press conference

Posted on 11 January 2017 by Luke Jones

With the annual “State of the Ravens” press conference having taken place on Tuesday, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Steve Bisciotti acknowledged the “pitchforks” from the outside world and expects improvement, but he spent a great deal of time defending both Ozzie Newsome and John Harbaugh. The Ravens owner may not be happy, but he still trusts his guys — at least for now.

2. I’m nitpicking over semantics, but Newsome saying the Ravens need a “complementary” receiver is interesting when they don’t have a clear-cut primary one. I suppose they could technically label Mike Wallace as the No. 1 guy after a 1,000-yard season, but they need a very good “1a” then.

3. I fully agree with the Ravens’ desire to keep Terrell Suggs for the 2017 season. His $6.95 million salary cap figure isn’t outrageous, and the 34-year-old is still an above-average player who brings valuable leadership. The challenge will be providing him enough help at the position.

4. I wasn’t surprised to hear Elvis Dumervil’s uncertain status mentioned, but Shareece Wright can’t be feeling good about his future in Baltimore. You never want the owner mentioning you by name in saying you “set us back.” Ouch.

5. Asked about fans’ disenchantment with Harbaugh’s decision to retain Marty Mornhinweg, Bisciotti bluntly stated that his quarterback “seems happy with it.” That’s a fine endorsement, but Mornhinweg didn’t exactly net good results as Flacco’s quarterbacks coach the last two years, either.

6. The Ravens brass rightly pointed to the 2016 rookie class as reason for optimism. Another return similar to that in the 2017 draft will leave the roster in much better shape moving forward.

7. I didn’t think anyone could still defend the Anquan Boldin trade four years later, but Bisciotti went out of his way to mention it, saying the 2013 Ravens were no worse off with the players they were able to acquire as a result. Just admit you screwed up, guys.

8. I understand that the Ravens have made stadium improvements and haven’t raised ticket prices in four years, but Dick Cass couldn’t have felt good delivering the news of a likely increase for 2017 after missing the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time in over a decade.

9. Bisciotti downplayed the notion that the Ravens need to get younger, but the proof will be in how many veterans become cap casualties this offseason. Dumervil, Dennis Pitta, and Lardarius Webb are still useful players, but they’re on the wrong side of 30 and expensive at their current salaries.

10. The Ravens owner using the word “bewilderment” to describe his feelings watching a once-strong defense falter late in the season was spot on. Bisciotti expressed confidence moving forward, but that’s an honest expression that should stick in the backs of the minds of Dean Pees and the defensive staff.

11. As it is the case every year, adding depth in the secondary is a priority, but the Ravens haven’t selected a cornerback in the first three rounds of the draft since 2011 and try to band-aid the problem with cheap veteran castoffs. You get what you pay for.

12. There’s a fine line between continuity and complacency. I respect Bisciotti’s conviction in believing in his guys, but much needs go right this offseason to convince me that this football team is truly moving in the right direction.

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Revamping pass rush big priority for Ravens this offseason

Posted on 04 January 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — There wasn’t much to like about the Ravens defense over the final four weeks of the 2016 season.

Allowing 26 or more points in each of the last four contests and 127 or more rushing yards in the final three games, a unit that entered Week 14 ranked first in total defense was anything but special down the stretch. The late struggles of the run defense garnered much attention, but the season-long ineffectiveness of the pass rush was magnified when the Ravens needed it the most as top cornerback Jimmy Smith was sidelined.

Baltimore collected a total of three sacks over those final four games with two coming from veteran rush specialist Elvis Dumervil, who was limited to eight games while recovering from offseason Achilles tendon surgery. Turning 33 later this month, Dumervil is entering the final season of a five-year contract and is scheduled for a $6 million salary and an $8.375 million salary cap figure for 2017.

“I was able to — the last five or six games of the season — come out and be a little productive, so I’m looking forward to next season,” said Dumervil, who estimated being at 85 percent from where he was before the injury. “I’ve got one year left on the deal, so that’s where I’m at right now. Me personally, I’m trying to get my body back to where I need to be, so that’s the most important thing for me.”

His price tag and age make Dumervil a prime candidate to be a cap casualty, but the Ravens must first construct a plan to boost their pass rush in 2017 after finishing tied for 24th with 31 sacks. Though still a productive all-around player while leading the Ravens with eight sacks, six-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs will turn 35 next season and did not record a single quarterback takedown in the final five games.

It’s obvious that the Ravens’ need youthful options who can get after the quarterback, but 2015 fourth-round pick Za’Darius Smith failed to pop in his second season like the organization had hoped and managed just one sack in 494 defensive snaps. Fifth-round rookie Matt Judon flashed potential with four sacks, but Smith had also shown promising signs with 5 1/2 sacks in his rookie season before disappointing in 2016.

“We have to get there,” said head coach John Harbaugh, who believes Judon has the potential to become a premier player. “It is one thing to have high hopes; it is another thing to get there. We are looking for another pass rusher certainly.”

Of course, the Ravens could have selected edge rusher Noah Spence in the second round of last year’s draft, but general manager Ozzie Newsome instead traded back and eventually took Boise State linebacker Kamalei Correa, who profiles more as an inside option and played sparingly as a rookie. Spence was selected by Tampa Bay in the second round and finished with 5 1/2 sacks in 2016.

Whether a prospect such as Alabama’s Tim Williams or Carl Lawson of Auburn is the right fit with the 16th pick in this spring’s draft remains to be seen, but the Ravens can no longer count on Suggs continuing to fight off Father Time and must do more to address what was a clear weakness in 2016.

At the end of the season, the Ravens were unable to get to the quarterback with a four-man rush and were too vulnerable in the secondary. You can scheme ways to overcome one or the other, but a defense will almost always break when enduring both of those deficiencies.

And that’s exactly what happened to a group that had played admirably for most of the season.

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Ravens’ season-ending dud only reconfirms issues for offseason

Posted on 01 January 2017 by Luke Jones

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

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

It was a meaningless game, remember?

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s unacceptable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 15 win over Philadelphia

Posted on 20 December 2016 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens surviving in a 27-26 win over Philadelphia on Sunday to remain one game behind Pittsburgh in the AFC North, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. I don’t believe hangovers and letdowns in sports are as common as we think, but the Ravens had a difficult time moving past their performance against New England. Perhaps that partially explains why the offense showed such late recklessness and the defense reacted slowly to being punched in the mouth.

2. After losing touches to Kenneth Dixon in recent weeks, Terrance West made a statement with 122 yards from scrimmage, his highest total since Week 6. The Baltimore native’s career was a mess a year ago, but he’s done a fine job reestablishing himself as a legitimate NFL running back.

3. Praised by some recently as being better than the 2000 Ravens, the run defense gave up a season-worst 169 rushing yards to the Eagles and has allowed 3.9 yards per carry over the last five games. Philadelphia did a great job getting to the second level running the zone stretch.

4. Despite this hardly being his best campaign, Joe Flacco is 212 yards away from his first 4,000-yard season. The problem is he’s also on pace to shatter his career high for passing attempts (614 in 2013) and is averaging 6.5 yards per attempt, the second-lowest mark of his career.

5. Justin Tucker improved to a remarkable 10-for-10 on field goals from 50 yards and beyond for the season. That’s more than he’d made in his last two years combined. No one can accuse him of resting on his laurels after a big payday.

6. Barring an unforeseen spike in offensive production leading to a deep playoff run, I don’t see how the Ravens can stick with Marty Mornhinweg as their offensive coordinator in 2017. The spark for which they were looking when John Harbaugh fired Marc Trestman never materialized.

7. The Ravens rushed for a season-high 151 yards against the Eagles, but they’ve gained more than 3.8 yards per carry in an away game just once this year. As Terrell Suggs likes to say, you need to pack your defense and your running game to win on the road.

8. Speaking of Suggs, I couldn’t help but wonder which Ravens veterans we were possibly seeing for the final time at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday. Because of age or contract status, Suggs, Steve Smith, Elvis Dumervil, Dennis Pitta, and Lardarius Webb are among the fair question marks.

9. His four-game absence in October put a damper on his rookie season, but Ronnie Stanley is playing more and more like the sixth overall pick that the Ravens envisioned this spring. It probably hasn’t hurt having five-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda playing next to him, either.

10. Shareece Wright showed in the second half of last season that he’s capable of playing at an acceptable level as a starting cornerback. The Ravens can only hope his solid — albeit mostly untested — performance against the Eagles puts him in the right frame of mind for Pittsburgh.

11. Under Harbaugh, the Ravens have gone at least 6-2 at home in all but one season. The problem is a 10-20 regular-season road record since Super Bowl XLVII. They’ll need to win their first road games in three months over these next two weeks.

12. I’m late with this prediction, but my Ravens picks for this year’s Pro Bowl would be Tucker, Yanda, safety Eric Weddle, and fullback Kyle Juszczyk.

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Ravens-Eagles: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 17 December 2016 by Luke Jones

It was a tough week for the Ravens.

After a humbling 30-23 loss to New England that never felt that close, veteran linebacker Terrell Suggs acknowledged the Ravens were “a little messed up” after oozing confidence the previous week. Of course, they had to turn the page quickly knowing they’ll likely need to win out to earn an AFC North championship and a home playoff game.

On the other side, Philadelphia has lost four straight and six of its last seven after a promising 4-2 start under first-year head coach Doug Pederson. Much like Baltimore, the Eagles have struggled on the road and haven’t won an away game since Week 2.

It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet for the fifth time in regular season history with the Eagles holding the advantage with a 2-1-1 mark. The Ravens are 1-0-1 against Philadelphia in Baltimore.

Below are five predictions for Sunday …

1. Kenneth Dixon will rush for a career-high 75 yards and a touchdown. I’m a fool for predicting prosperity for a running game in which the Ravens have shown a lack of interest for most of the season, but a rainy and windy forecast for Sunday’s game should force offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg to commit to the ground attack. Dixon was one of the few bright spots against the Patriots and continues to pry away touches from incumbent starter Terrance West. The Eagles are 15th in the NFL against the run, meaning Dixon should be able to find room to help keep the offense on schedule.

2. Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham will disrupt the pocket as Joe Flacco throws for a touchdown and an interception. The offensive line has improved its play in recent weeks, but right guard Vlad Ducasse and right tackle Rick Wagner will have their hands full against Cox and Graham, who have combined for 10 1/2 sacks this year. Their pressure will prevent Flacco from exploiting cornerbacks Nolan Carroll and Leodis McKelvin and will force him to check down often. The passing game will be better than it was against New England, but it will be another up-and-down performance.

3. Eagles receiver Jordan Matthews will rack up 90 receiving yards and a score. The absence of Jimmy Smith spells problems for the Ravens, but that will be minimized against rookie quarterback Carson Wentz and a mediocre group of receivers. Matthews does present an issue while working primarily out of the slot and is capable of putting up good numbers if he’s finally over a lingering ankle injury. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees would be wise to have rookie Tavon Young travel with Matthews, but the third-year wideout is more likely to have success against slot corner Jerraud Powers.

4. Elvis Dumervil will collect 1 1/2 sacks against Philadelphia’s fifth right tackle of the season. The Eagles have had significant issues at the position since Lane Johnson began serving a 10-game ban, and the Ravens should be aggressive in going after Wentz instead of allowing him to stand in the pocket. If rookie Isaac Seumalo gets the nod at right tackle, Dumervil needs to exploit him while fellow veteran Terrell Suggs is matched up against tough left tackle Jason Peters. Knowing the secondary is missing its top corner, the Ravens must get Dumervil and the rush cranked up for the final stretch.

5. The Ravens will prevail in a 21-17 final over the Eagles. It’s always tricky bouncing back from a Monday night road game, but Philadelphia is playing out the string and the Ravens have proven to be a good team at M&T Bank Stadium with a 5-2 home record. The weather makes this one a little more unpredictable and it’s still difficult to trust the Baltimore offense, which will make this a closer game that some might expect. Even without Smith in the secondary, the defense will rise to the occasion to protect a late lead and put the Ravens in position for their showdown with Pittsburgh next week.

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Ravens healthy going into Monday showdown with New England

Posted on 08 December 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens face their biggest challenge of the year on Monday night and will do it with a healthy roster for this late stage of the season.

Just four players were missing from their first full practice in preparation for the Week 14 showdown with the New England Patriots. Left guard Marshal Yanda (shoulder) was the most notable absence on Thursday, but the Ravens have given him a practice off per week since his return to action last month. He also participated in Wednesday’s walk-through, leaving little concern about his status.

Yanda’s move from right guard to the left side that was facilitated by his left shoulder injury has worked out well for an offensive line that’s found more consistency in both its performance and alignment in recent weeks. It’s a stark contrast from a few weeks ago when the group was in disarray and it appeared the Ravens’ best offensive lineman was on the verge of undergoing season-ending surgery.

“He’s a valuable man to our football team,” offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. “I can go through many, many strengths, and he has very few weaknesses. For him to be able to do that, both physically and mentally, it is quite a tribute to him.”

Offensive lineman Alex Lewis (ankle), tight end Crockett Gillmore (hamstring), and running back Lorenzo Taliaferro (hamstring) were also absent. Lewis will miss his fourth consecutive game on Monday night while Gillmore could miss his sixth straight contest. Taliaferro hasn’t played since Week 10.

Outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil continues to be a full participant in practice and was even removed from the injury report last week after missing eight of Baltimore’s first 10 games while recovering from offseason foot surgery. The 32-year-old previously attempted to play in Weeks 4 and 5 and lacked the explosiveness and strength indicative of a five-time Pro Bowl pass rusher.

Dumervil registered the game-saving strip-sack against Cincinnati and registered a tackle and a quarterback hit in the blowout win over Miami last Sunday. The Ravens hope he can help the league’s top-ranked defense apply pressure on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady on Monday night.

“I kind of knew this time was going to look a lot different just because he knew he wasn’t ready after he went out there the first time,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “He was not going to come back until he knew that he really could produce something on the field. To see him go out and play the way he’s played has been great.”

Cornerback Jimmy Smith is no longer included on the injury report after making his return against Miami. The sixth-year defensive back missed two games while dealing with a lingering back issue.

Meanwhile, New England was without wide receiver Danny Amendola (ankle) and safety Jordan Richards (knee) on Thursday. Amendola is not expected to play against the Ravens.

Tight end Martellus Bennett (ankle/shoulder) and cornerback Eric Rowe (hamstring) were limited participants.

The Patriots did not include Brady on their injury report after he’d been dealing with a sore knee in recent weeks.

Below is Thursday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: TE Crockett Gillmore (thigh), G Alex Lewis (ankle), RB Lorenzo Taliaferro (thigh), G Marshal Yanda (shoulder)

NEW ENGLAND
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: WR Danny Amendola (ankle), S Jordan Richards (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: TE Martellus Bennett (ankle/shoulder), LB Elandon Roberts (hamstring), CB Eric Rowe (hamstring), WR Matt Slater (foot)

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Ravens-Dolphins: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 04 December 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens defense is as close to full strength as it’s been in quite some time.

That’s good news for a team tied for first place in the AFC North and vying for a return to the playoffs, but the red-hot Miami Dolphins are in town trying to extend their conference-best six-game winning streak on Sunday afternoon. Both teams entered Week 13 with a tenuous hold on postseason berths.

As expected, No. 1 cornerback Jimmy Smith is active and will start after missing the last two games with a back injury. His return coupled with the presence of outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil will give the league’s second-ranked defense its full assortment of starting players for the first time since Week 5.

There were no other surprises among the Ravens’ inactives as tight end Crockett Gillmore (hamstring), guard Alex Lewis, and running back Lorenzo Taliaferro were officially declared out on Friday. Running back Buck Allen is also inactive after being listed as doubtful with a non-football injury.

After being a healthy scratch last week, second-year outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith is active for Sunday’s game. However, rookie linebacker Kamalei Correa was deactivated for the second straight week, continuing a quiet season for the second-round pick.

The Ravens will use the same starting offensive line for the third straight game, the first time they’ve done that since the first three games of the 2016 season.

Despite early-morning reports that Dolphins wide receiver DeVante Parker would not play, the 2015 first-round pick is active. He tested out his back in an extensive pre-game workout around 10:30 a.m. and was deemed good to go by the Miami medical staff. His 6-foot-3 frame could lead to some interesting coverage decisions in the Ravens secondary.

Miami will welcome back left tackle Branden Albert (wrist) and left guard Laremy Tunsil (shoulder) to the starting lineup after both missed last week’s game against San Francisco. Veteran center Mike Pouncey (hip) was officially ruled out on Friday and hasn’t played since Week 10.

The Dolphins will also be without starting outside linebacker Jelani Jenkins, who is out with knee and hand injuries.

The Ravens and Dolphins will be meeting for the 12th time in the regular season with Miami holding a 6-5 advantage but Baltimore owning a 2-0 postseason edge. In the John Harbaugh era, the Ravens are 5-1 — including one playoff win — against the Dolphins. Miami seeks its first win in Baltimore since prevailing in a 24-13 final at Memorial Stadium on Oct. 19, 1997.

The forecast for Sunday’s game calls for mostly cloudy skies with temperatures reaching the high 40s and a calm breeze, according to Weather.com.

Though there is no precipitation in the forecast, the Ravens have re-sodded the middle portion of the field at M&T Bank Stadium from end zone to end zone. It will be interesting to see how the field holds up as the game progresses.

The referee for Sunday’s game will be Carl Cheffers.

The Ravens will be wearing purple jerseys with black pants while Miami dons its white tops with aqua pants.

Below are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
CB Chris Lewis-Harris
RB Lorenzo Taliaferro
RB Buck Allen
LB Kamalei Correa
OL Ryan Jensen
G Alex Lewis
TE Crockett Gillmore

MIAMI
LB Jelani Jenkins
OT Bryce Harris
TE Thomas Duarte
WR Rashawn Scott
C Mike Pouncey
CB Jordan Lucas
CB Xavien Howard

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Pressuring Tannehill hidden key for Ravens against Miami

Posted on 01 December 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The matchup isn’t as imposing, but it’s a familiar one for the Ravens.

Two weeks after facing the best rushing attack in the NFL in a road loss to Dallas, Baltimore welcomes upstart running back Jay Ajayi and Miami to town on Sunday. The Dolphins have won six in a row behind the league’s sixth-ranked run offense and Ajayi’s 5.3 yards per carry, but the Ravens have allowed the fewest rushing yards in the NFL this season.

The Cowboys were the better team in that 27-17 final on Nov. 20, but they needed 30 carries to finish with 118 rushing yards, their third-lowest ground total of the season and fewest since Week 2. In other words, there’s little reason to think Ajayi is going to find a ton of running room against a defense that’s surrendered just 3.4 yards per carry, its best mark since 2009.

“That is Raven football,” outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “You do not want teams to run the ball on you. We take a lot of pride in that. We take a lot of pride in playing defense.”

The biggest key for the Ravens in Sunday’s tilt will likely be their ability to pressure Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who is in the midst of arguably his best season and one of the best stretches of his career over the last six weeks. Averaging a career-high 7.82 yards per attempt, Tannehill is completing 66 percent of his passes and has thrown nine touchdowns to just one interception over the last six contests.

The decision by first-year head coach Adam Gase to employ more of a power running attack since Miami’s 1-4 start has led to the emergence of Ajayi as well as a renaissance for Tannehill. Attempting a career-low 29.9 passing attempts per game this season, the 6-foot-4 Texas A&M product has been more efficient and productive than previous seasons.

Tannehill has received Pro Football Focus’ top quarterback grade in two of the last three weeks and has graded as the website’s 10th-best quarterback this season. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees credits Gase for taking pressure off the fifth-year signal-caller and making a more “quarterback-friendly” offense.

“When you’re running the football, you’re setting up the play-action, the quick game, all those kinds of things,” Pees said. “The other thing is you’re not in as many third-and-longs a lot of times as you are if your team is just throwing the ball all the time.

“The guy is a very, very accurate thrower. When he gets out of the pocket and runs with the ball and scrambles with the ball or even on a roll-out or [bootleg], he’s one of the most accurate quarterbacks I’ve seen throwing on the run. He is really, really good.”

Tannehill has especially thrived when working in a clean pocket this season, posting a 115.5 passer rating when not facing pressure. That’s good for fourth in the NFL and just a spot below rookie sensation Dak Prescott of the Cowboys.

Of course, it was Baltimore’s inability to pressure Prescott that led to him throwing for over 300 yards and three touchdown passes in Week 11. The Ravens are tied for 11th in the league with 26 sacks, but their pass rush has been more timely than consistent this season with long stretches of games in which opposing quarterbacks have gone largely untouched.

The Dolphins are hoping to welcome back left tackle Branden Albert and left guard Laremy Tunsil to their starting lineup after missing last week’s game, but Tannehill isn’t afraid to move out of the pocket. And that’s where the Ravens know he can become even more dangerous with the respectable trio of Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker, and Kenny Stills catching passes.

“Tannehill’s not making mistakes and is throwing the ball all over the place off the play-action,” safety Eric Weddle said. “He’s getting his feet out and extends plays, which kills the defense. And he’s extending [plays] to throw.”

The expected return of top cornerback Jimmy Smith should help a secondary that’s played remarkably well despite the lack of a consistent pass rush for much of the year. Five-time Pro Bowl pass rusher Elvis Dumervil will also be playing in his second straight game after coming up with the game-saving strip-sack against Cincinnati last week in his first action since early October.

The Ravens figure to be able to contain Ajayi and force the Dolphins into more throws than they’d prefer, but Pees and the defense need to be aggressive against Tannehill and cannot allow him to get comfortable behind his offensive line on Sunday. And that’s where Dumervil and Suggs have spoken openly this week about needing a raucous crowd at M&T Bank Stadium to make life even more difficult for the Miami quarterback.

The Ravens believe the loud closing minutes of Sunday’s game against Cincinnati helped lead to four batted passes and the strip-sack to preserve the victory. They want more noise against the Dolphins.

“It limits the checks. It eliminates a lot of the things the quarterback can do at the line of scrimmage,” Dumervil said. “That’s what happened toward the last series. They had to go with the plays. Once the guys on defense are locked and ready, we’re all moving at the same ball. That’s when we feel the crowd advantage. We need that 12th man stronger than ever this week.”

The Ravens need their pass rush to be right there with the fans in a game they need to win.

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Ravens take care of business using same flawed formula

Posted on 28 November 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens did what they needed to do to snap their five-game losing streak against Cincinnati.

No matter how depleted the current Bengals might be, you don’t take a victory for granted when you haven’t beaten the division rival in over three years and you need to win. The 19-14 final drew Baltimore even with Pittsburgh for first place with the calendar turning to December this week.

The Ravens couldn’t ask to be in better position, especially when you recall where they were a month ago.

But several offensive starters lamented the inability to build off a fast start that included a Joe Flacco 14-yard touchdown pass to Breshad Perriman and a field goal on their first two drives of the game. Leading 16-3 at halftime, the Ravens went 0-for-6 on third down and managed only one field goal the rest of the way, which gave the Bengals a chance to tie the game before Elvis Dumervil’s strip-sack and Lawrence Guy’s recovery with just over a minute remaining.

Yet again, a good defensive performance and a perfect Justin Tucker played the leading roles in the win while the offense spun its wheels after some early success.

“I’m confident in my ability to play games like this and win down the stretch and do the right thing with the football,” said Flacco, who was a relatively efficient 25 of 36 for 234 yards and an interception to go with the opening-drive score. “But in order for us to take that next step and be the kind of team that we want to be and be a championship football team, we’re not going to survive week in and week out doing things like this. We’ve got to keep the foot on the gas and learn how to put teams away.”

The ninth-year quarterback offered the same sentiment after the Week 3 win in Jacksonville two months ago. Fortunately, the offense has recovered from its miserable — and injury-plagued — October, but Flacco’s words reflect the lack of overall improvement from the opening month of the season until now.

The Ravens have scored just 19 touchdowns this season, ranking 31st of 32 teams in the NFL. The offense certainly deserves credit for the work required to put Justin Tucker in position to go a league-best 27-for-27 on field goal tries, but 18 were from 40 yards or longer, meaning the Ravens haven’t exactly been all that close to the end zone on most of those drives.

Baltimore has managed more than one offensive touchdown in just five of 11 games and has scored fewer than 20 points six times. The Ravens have scored 25 or more in just three games with two coming against winless Cleveland.

It’s scary to think where they might be without Tucker, who is rapidly cementing himself as the league’s best kicker and is an impressive 7-for-7 from 50 yards and beyond after converting three from that range in the first half on Sunday. He’s been to the Ravens what All-Star closer Zach Britton was to the Orioles this past season, the difference in making them a playoff contender despite other flaws.

For now, the offense can only continue working to improve, pointing to the recent stabilization of the offensive line and the steady emergence of rookie running back Kenneth Dixon as reasons for optimism.

“I know that we’re getting better on offense,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “I think we’re doing a good job, but we’re striving for more than that. Our guys are going to tell you, we want to put a lot more points up than that. That’s what we’re working towards.”

The most encouraging development from Sunday’s game may have come on the opposite side of the ball with the return of Dumervil, who was rusty in his first action in seven weeks until the final defensive play when he blew past Bengals right tackle Eric Winston to strip quarterback Andy Dalton of the football inside the red zone. The turnover sealed the victory for the Ravens defense, who buckled but didn’t break against a Cincinnati offense lacking its best player in wide receiver A.J. Green.

The Ravens need top cornerback Jimmy Smith to return from a back injury that’s sidelined him for the last two games, but a healthy Dumervil could work wonders for an edge pass rush that’s relied heavily on fellow veteran Terrell Suggs, who collected two strip-sacks of his own on Sunday. It was just the third game of the season for Dumervil, who’s dealt with a frustrating rehab from offseason foot surgery.

“You get a guy and add that to the defense that we already have, it just opens up the possibilities of being even better than what we are right now,” safety Eric Weddle said. “It was huge. He practiced outstanding the last two weeks. We knew it was going to give us a boost, and adding him across from [Suggs] and our other rushers and [to] our game plans, we’re going to be a tough team to stop.”

The Ravens keep hoping for their offense to improve, but maybe the current formula can be enough. After all, it’s earned them a 6-5 mark to this point, which is good enough for a first-place tie with a Steelers team sporting a very good offense but a below-average defense.

Baltimore plays two of the next three at home against Miami and Philadelphia, who are formidable teams but hardly juggernauts. The surprising Dolphins have won six straight, but the last five have been by a single possession and they rely heavily on their running game, a favorable matchup for the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.

Whether the Ravens will find enough wins over the final five games to make the playoffs remains to be seen, but Sunday was another reminder that it will probably look the way it has all season — a good defense, a frustrating and below-average offense, and the best kicker in football.

“If it ain’t tough, it ain’t the Raven way,” Suggs said. “I really wish we could have got off the field instead of scaring everybody and having Elvis make a fantastic play. But that’s the Raven way. It ain’t pretty, but we’ll take it.”

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