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Dumervil, Yanda tabbed as first-team All-Pro selections

Posted on 02 January 2015 by Luke Jones

Ravens linebacker Elvis Dumervil and right guard Marshal Yanda were both named first-team All-Pro selections by the Associated Press on Friday.

Voting was completed by a panel of 50 voters that regularly cover the NFL with Yanda receiving 38 votes and Dumervil receiving 13 behind fellow outside linebacker Justin Houston of Kansas City, who grabbed 47 of 50 possible votes at the position. Both Yanda and Dumervil were selected to play in the Pro Bowl last month.

Dumervil also received three votes as a defensive end after leading the Ravens with 17 sacks to set a franchise record. Yanda earned more votes than any other offensive lineman.

Rookie linebacker C.J. Mosley was a second-team All Pro selection after receiving nine votes and is also on his way to the Pro Bowl.

Other Ravens players to receive votes included punter Sam Koch (eight), return specialist Jacoby Jones (three), right tackle Rick Wagner (two), fullback Kyle Juszczyk (one), kicker Justin Tucker (one), and linebacker Terrell Suggs (one).

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Monroe, Jernigan, two other Ravens missing from Tuesday’s practice

Posted on 30 December 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — On the same day five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata returned to the practice field, the Ravens were missing four others as they prepared for Saturday’s playoff game with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Working inside their field house for a late Tuesday afternoon practice, the Ravens were without starting left tackle Eugene Monroe (ankle), defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (foot), and linebackers Arthur Brown (hamstring) and Daryl Smith during the portion of practice open to reporters. It remained unclear whether Smith was receiving a day off or dealing with an ailment as the first injury report of the week won’t be released until Wednesday.

Head coach John Harbaugh left the door open for both Monroe and Jernigan to play against the Steelers, but their status will remain unclear throughout the week. Brown is considered a prime candidate to be placed on injured reserve to make room for the returning Ngata on the 53-man roster.

Defensive end Chris Canty (ankle/thigh) returned to practice after missing the regular-season finale against Cleveland. Linebacker Terrell Suggs (back/thigh) was also present and working despite missing three practices last week and being listed as questionable to play against the Browns before ultimately playing.

Of course, Pittsburgh is dealing with a significant injury of its own as Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell is recovering from a hyperextended knee suffered in the regular-season finale. There is plenty of doubt surrounding his availability for Saturday, which seemed to be confirmed by the Steelers signing veteran running back Ben Tate on Tuesday.

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Ravens-Browns: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 27 December 2014 by Luke Jones

(Editor’s note: The Browns announced that wide receiver Josh Gordon was suspended for a team violation after this post was published.)

Needing help in Week 17 is never a comfortable feeling, but it’s reality for the Ravens as they welcome the Cleveland Browns to town for the regular-season finale on Sunday.

Baltimore needs a win coupled with a Kansas City victory over San Diego to advance to the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years under head coach John Harbaugh. Should the Ravens win and not receive help from the Chiefs — who will be starting backup Chase Daniel in place of injured quarterback Alex Smith — it would be the first time in franchise history that they’d finish a year with double-digit wins and not make the postseason.

Of course, the Ravens wouldn’t trade their current predicament with the Browns, who are losers of four straight and are forced to start rookie free agent Connor Shaw due to Week 16 injuries suffered by Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel. While many in Baltimore are displeased by the possibility of the Ravens missing the playoffs for a second straight year, Cleveland needs a win just to complete its third non-losing season since 1999.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Browns meet for the 32nd time in regular-season history. Baltimore is 12-3 against Cleveland at M&T Bank Stadium and has won 12 of the last 13 over the Browns under Harbaugh. The Browns haven’t beaten the Ravens in Baltimore since 2007.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens hope to extend their season beyond Week 17 …

1. Torrey Smith will catch a touchdown in what could be his final game with the Ravens. The Browns own the league’s seventh-ranked pass defense, but top cornerback Joe Haden is questionable with a shoulder injury that limited him in practice all week. Meanwhile, Smith is facing the possibility of Sunday being his last game with Baltimore. It will be interesting to see what kind of market potentially develops for the 2011 second-round pick as he’s proven himself as a solid — and occasionally spectacular — No. 2 receiver, but the Ravens cannot and should not pay him as anything more than that. Regardless of what happens this offseason, Smith will catch his team-leading 11th touchdown of the 2014 campaign.

2. Browns wideout Josh Gordon will have his best game since his 2014 season debut in Week 12. Draw whatever conclusion you’d like, but Cleveland’s once-promising season crashed right around the time that the talented receiver returned from a lengthy suspension. There’s no doubting Gordon’s immense talent, but he hasn’t provided the shot in the arm the Browns needed as they’ve lost four of the five games in which he’s played. Gordon will have a chance to finish the season on a high note against the league’s 28th-ranked pass defense and even with Shaw under center, the 6-foot-3 receiver will eclipse 75 receiving yards and catch his first touchdown of the year, beating Rashaan Melvin in coverage.

3. Timmy Jernigan and Pernell McPhee will combine for three sacks against a vulnerable Browns interior line. All eyes will be on Elvis Dumervil and his quest to lead the league in sacks, but the Ravens should have few problems exploiting the interior portion of the Cleveland line as Nick McDonald is expected to start at center for the injured Ryan Seymour. The Browns have struggled inside since the loss of Pro Bowl center Alex Mack earlier in the year, and McPhee and Jernigan have had plenty of success as interior rushers in passing situations. While Cleveland will do whatever it can to contain Dumervil and Terrell Suggs off the edges, the Ravens will wreak havoc on the rookie Shaw with pressure right up the middle.

4. Justin Forsett will crack the century mark to complete one of the most surprising seasons in franchise history. The running game has suddenly become a concern over the last couple weeks, but the Browns are dead last in the NFL against the run, which will soften the blow of neither Eugene Monroe or Rick Wagner playing on Sunday. Even without his starting tackles to block for him, Forsett will take advantage of a front seven that will struggle to set the edge and will fail to protect cutback lanes, leading to a couple long runs. Forsett will join Jamal Lewis, Willis McGahee, and Ray Rice as the only running backs in franchise history to post a 1,200-yard season.

5. The Ravens will win 24-13 before learning they will miss the postseason after not receiving the necessary help from Kansas City. Sunday’s game will be one of those contests that’s closer than it should be, but the Browns’ inability to consistently move the ball will allow the Ravens to stay ahead until they put together a fourth-quarter drive to make it a two-score game. Unfortunately, the Chargers will continue their late-season mojo with a win over the Chiefs to clinch the No. 6 spot. Considering the adversity and injuries the Ravens experienced in 2014, a 10-win season looks good on paper, but the memory of late-season losses to San Diego and Houston will lead to the most offseason pressure Harbaugh has felt since coming to Baltimore.

 

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Mosley becomes first Ravens rookie to make Pro Bowl

Posted on 23 December 2014 by Luke Jones

After drawing comparisons to Ray Lewis in his short time with the Ravens, inside linebacker C.J. Mosley has accomplished something the future Hall of Famer didn’t in his rookie season.

The 17th overall pick of this year’s draft was selected to the Pro Bowl on Tuesday, joining outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil and right guard Marshal Yanda as the Ravens’ selections in 2014.

Mosley is the first rookie in franchise history to be named to the Pro Bowl, which is an impressive accomplishment considering the long list of standout defensive players to play for the Ravens over the last 19 years. The Alabama product is the only player in the NFL with at least 115 tackles, three sacks, and two interceptions this season. His 122 tackles ranks seven in the league and is first among rookies.

He was named the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Month for October and is considered a top candidate to become the league’s Defensive Rookie of the Year.

“First of all, I thank God for the position I am in,” Mosley said in a statement released by the team. “I also give many thanks to the Ravens organization, especially Mr. Ozzie Newsome and Mr. [Steve] Bisciotti for trusting me and bringing me here to play for such a great team. I wouldn’t be in this position without [inside linebackers coach Don Martindale], Daryl [Smith], Albert [McClellan] and Arthur [Brown], who have all taken me under their wing and helped me get where I am. With Daryl specifically, it’s meant so much having a person and player of his caliber next to me throughout my first NFL season.

“Also, a huge ‘thank you’ goes out to Ravens nation for welcoming me. I am honored and humbled.”

After setting the single-season franchise record with 17 sacks in his second year with Baltimore, Dumervil will go to the Pro Bowl for the fourth time but his first with the Ravens. The nine-year veteran has 90 career sacks, putting him third among active players since 2006. His seven multi-sack performances in 2014 bring his career total to 29 games, which is tied for second in the league since 2006.

Dumervil and fellow outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who was named a first alternate for the Pro Bowl, have formed the best pass-rush duo in the NFL this season as they’ve combined for 28 sacks.

“I also credit Terrell Suggs for helping me this season,” said Dumervil, who thanked his coaches, other teammates, and Ravens fans. “A lot of what I’ve been able to do is a result of the attention he garners on the opposite side. He’s an incredible player who is having another outstanding year, and it’s an honor to play with him.”

Often overlooked because he doesn’t play a glamorous position, Yanda is quietly becoming one of the most decorated players in franchise history after being selected to his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl. The eighth-year veteran graded out as the best guard in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.

Yanda has led the way for the league’s seventh-ranked rushing attack and has allowed only one sack all season.

Running back Justin Forsett is probably the Ravens’ toughest snub as he leads all running backs with a 5.3 yards per carry average in a surprising season that began with him at the bottom of the depth chart. The 29-year-old has rushed for a career-high 1,147 yards, ranking sixth in the NFL.

As it currently stands now, this is the first time since 2005 that Baltimore failed to earn at least four selections, but Suggs, Forsett, punter Sam Koch, return specialist Jacoby Jones, and fullback Kyle Juszczyk were all named first alternates and could receive the call as replacements due to injury or other Pro Bowl selections appearing in Super Bowl XLIX.

Koch was the only Ravens player to win the fan vote, which accounts for one-third of the voting with votes from coaches and players accounting for the rest.

Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata saw his streak of five consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl come to an end. Of course, Ngata’s four-game suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy played a role in the veteran defensive lineman not receiving an invitation.

For the second straight year, participants were chosen without conference affiliation. Selected players will be assigned to two teams picked by Hall of Famers Cris Carter and Michael Irvin in a Pro Bowl draft that will take place on Jan. 21, 2015.

The game will be played on Jan. 25 in Glendale, Ariz.

 

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On rough day, Ravens lean on biggest strength to pull through

Posted on 14 December 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens were predictably complimentary of the Jacksonville Jaguars following an uncomfortable 20-12 victory on Sunday.

Head coach John Harbaugh and his players spent plenty of time after the game praising the Jaguars despite their 2-12 record, but Terrell Suggs said it best after the Ravens struggled throughout the day against one of the NFL’s worst teams.

“It would have sucked if we lost,” said Suggs, who admitted to having flashbacks to the last-second home loss to San Diego two weeks ago. “It would have been very unfortunate. But you’ve got to commend this whole team — offense and defense alike — for putting it away this time.”

Nothing felt quite right on Sunday for the Ravens, from the sparser-than-normal crowd at M&T Bank Stadium with little to cheer for throughout the day to an uninspiring performance from a team in the midst of a tight playoff race. But there are no style points for winning pretty in the NFL as the Ravens prevailed in throwback fashion, relying on a dominating front seven that sacked Blake Bortles eight times and registered 15 hits on the Jacksonville quarterback.

Suggs finished with 2 1/2 sacks, rookie defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan added two, Pernell McPhee had 1 1/2, and C.J. Mosley and Elvis Dumervil added one apiece.

The pass rush once again masked a secondary further decimated by injuries in Week 15 as rookie safety Terrence Brooks and third-year cornerback Asa Jackson both left the game with serious knee injuries. To his credit, the previously unknown Rashaan Melvin was thrown into starting duty in his first action of the season for the Ravens and finished with five tackles — one for a loss — and a pass breakup.

The strong defensive effort was needed as the Ravens’ stout running game was nowhere to be found for much of the game and was held to just 31 yards on 13 carries before finally finding more room in the fourth quarter. Baltimore finished with 93 yards on 26 carries, averaging an underwhelming 3.6 yards per attempt.

And a special-teams group that’s been one of the finest in the NFL — and started the game with a blocked punt returned for a touchdown — had its worst game of the year as the Ravens fell for an onside kick and a fake punt, missed two field goals, and committed several key penalties and coaching gaffes.

If nothing else, the uneven performance was a group effort, but the Ravens still found a way to walk away with a victory to improve to 9-5 on the season. There isn’t much to take away beyond that.

“We didn’t play smart all the time,” Harbaugh said. “We had too many mistakes, too many errors that kept us off the field or put our defense back on the field — those kind of things. But I’ll tell you what, Jacksonville did a great job. It’s December football. You take every win you can get, and we’re proud of the victory.”

Yes, the Ravens would have been in serious trouble with a similar effort against many other teams in the NFL on Sunday, but the Jaguars were the opponent and no one else. And despite a valiant effort with nothing to play for, the Jaguars self-destructed just enough in crucial spots.

The good news is the Baltimore pass rush was at its best once again, illustrating how much a team can overcome with an ability to collapse the pocket. It’s the reason why the Ravens shouldn’t be counted out if they make the playoffs in spite of the NFL’s 31st-ranked pass defense.

We didn’t learn much about the Ravens on Sunday that we didn’t already know as they’ve struggled offensively when unable to run the football and the issues in the secondary aren’t going away. After a close call, they can only exhale before moving on to Week 16.

While remembering to thank a ferocious pass rush once again.

“We can’t really worry about too much other than going out and winning next week,” said quarterback Joe Flacco, who tossed a third-quarter touchdown to Owen Daniels and finished with an efficient 221 yards against the Jaguars. “We know what’s in front of us, and we’ve just got to make sure we take care of one piece at a time. Nothing is really new this week than last week. We know what we have to do. We’ve just got to go do it.”

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Ravens-Jaguars: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 13 December 2014 by Luke Jones

There’s no big secret to Sunday’s game between the Ravens and the Jacksonville Jaguars.

If the Ravens are the playoff-caliber team they’ve shown themselves to be for much of the 2014 season, there won’t be any drama as they try to improve to 9-5. It’s difficult to call this one a trap game when 2-11 Jacksonville hasn’t won a game on the road all year and the Ravens win the games they’re supposed to — especially at home — in the John Harbaugh era.

The Ravens know they’re guaranteed a playoff spot by winning their final three games, but Sunday is the closest they’ll get to a sure thing the rest of the way with a challenging trip to Houston next week and a season-finale against Cleveland that will likely carry plenty of pressure. Meanwhile, the struggling Jaguars are now dealing with the season-ending loss of starting running back Denard Robinson due to a sprained foot.

It’s time to go on the record as these old AFC Central foes meet for the 18th time in regular-season history with the Jaguars holding a 10-7 edge. However, the Ravens are 5-4 in Baltimore and have won seven of the last nine meetings. Jacksonville won the last regular-season game between these teams, a 12-7 final on Oct. 24, 2011.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to move a step closer toward securing a playoff spot …

1. Terrell Suggs will pick up 2 1/2 sacks working against Jacksonville tackle Luke Joeckel. Opposing offensive lines haven’t been able to slide protection because of the pressure the Ravens have created from both edges this season, but you wonder if the Jaguars will pay more attention to Elvis Dumervil, who last week set the single-season franchise record in pushing his sack total to 16. Despite being the second overall pick of the 2013 draft, Joeckel has struggled mightily in his sophomore season and Suggs will take advantage to try to close the gap in the sack department. The Ravens shouldn’t have any trouble making rookie quarterback Blake Bortles uncomfortable with the 12th-year linebacker leading the effort.

2. With Torrey Smith limited, Marlon Brown will catch his first touchdown of the season. The Ravens surprisingly listed Smith as probable on their final injury report, but they’ll try to limit throwing him into the fire as much as possible on Sunday to rest his sprained knee, which will mean more opportunities for Brown and Kamar Aiken. It’s been a disappointing season for Brown after a surprising rookie year, but he’s been more involved with the offense since the bye week, a trend that will continue against the league’s 18th-ranked pass defense. Justin Forsett and the running game figures to be featured heavily, but quarterback Joe Flacco will find Brown in the red zone for a score.

3. Wide receiver Cecil Shorts will rein in a score in a rare highlight for the Jaguars on Sunday. If Jacksonville can find even a little time for Bortles in the pocket, it’s no secret that the Baltimore pass defense is vulnerable and ranked 31st in the NFL. The Jaguars figure to be throwing the ball a lot if they fall behind like most would expect, and defensive coordinator Dean Pees will play soft coverage in the back end as the game goes on. Bortles has shown flashes of promise when he hasn’t been annihilated in the pocket — Jacksonville has allowed an incredible 54 sacks this season — and he’ll orchestrate a nice scoring drive finished off with a short touchdown to Shorts.

4. Lardarius Webb will secure his first interception in what’s been a difficult season. The sixth-year cornerback is healthier now than he was earlier in the season, but it’s been a disappointing year for Webb as his future with the Ravens is in question due to his $12 million cap figure in 2015. However, the Jaguars don’t have any receivers that should scare the Ravens, and Bortles has thrown 16 interceptions in 379 pass attempts. The Ravens secondary hasn’t been able to create many turnovers this season, but the Jaguars are tied for 26th in the NFL with a minus-8 turnover margin. Webb will pick off his first pass of the season to set the Ravens up on a short field.

5. The Ravens will emphatically handle a team they’re supposed to beat in a 31-13 final. Nothing is guaranteed in the NFL, but this one is as close as it gets with an opponent having nothing to play for coming to M&T Bank Stadium to face the Ravens, who have very little margin for error as they try to make it back to the playoffs after a one-year absence. Short of something catastrophic such as a multiple-turnover performance or an injury to Flacco, the Ravens just aren’t going to let the lowly Jaguars beat them. It won’t be a flawless performance — the Ravens never seem to make it quite as easy as they should in these spots — but the home crowd will ultimately go home happy after the win.

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Dumervil named AFC Defensive Player of the Week

Posted on 10 December 2014 by Luke Jones

Ravens linebacker Elvis Dumervil was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week for his record-setting performance in the 28-13 win over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday.

His 3 1/2 sacks pushed his 2014 total to 16, giving him the franchise’s single-season record that had been held by Peter Boulware since 2001. The 30-year-old is currently tied with Kansas City’s Justin Houston for the NFL lead in sacks and is one shy of his career high of 17 set in 2009.

“It was one of the reasons I wanted to come here because of the proud defensive [tradition] that has been here – Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Peter Boulware, those guys,” Dumervil said. “To be a part of something like that, it’s humbling. It’s been very special, and I’m truly grateful for that.”

Not only is Dumervil turning in one of the finest defensive seasons in the 19-year history of the franchise, but his performance in 2014 has catapulted him into the Defensive Player of the Year discussion. With the Ravens ranked 31st in pass defense, there’s no understating how critical the pass rush has been to Baltimore’s success and Dumervil has been one of the biggest reasons why.

Dumervil is the first Raven to take home Defensive Player of the Week honors this season, but running back Justin Forsett (twice) and quarterback Joe Flacco have receive AFC Offensive Player of the Week recognition and kicker Justin Tucker has received AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors. Linebacker C.J. Mosley was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month for October while Tucker was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Month for November.

Signed two offseasons ago after being released by the Denver Broncos, Dumervil has collected 25 1/2 sacks in 28 games with Baltimore.

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Campanaro, Suggs practice for Ravens on Thanksgiving

Posted on 27 November 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With the Ravens reporting early to work on Thanksgiving, linebacker Terrell Suggs returned to the practice field after sitting out with a foot injury.

The 12th-year linebacker was the only player to miss Wednesday’s workout as rookie wide receiver Michael Campanaro (hamstring) and offensive lineman Jah Reid (broken hand) have returned to the practice field this week. Campanaro hasn’t played since injuring his hamstring in the Oct. 26 loss at Cincinnati, but it’s possible the Ravens will continue to ease him back into action this week with thoughts of a return against Miami on Dec. 7.

Campanaro was once again a limited participant on Thursday while Reid was a full participant for the second straight day. The latter is practicing with a protective club on his right hand after he injured it a few days before the Week 10 win over Tennessee.

The Ravens reported to their Owings Mills facility at 7:15 a.m. for an early meeting and were practicing earlier than usual as head coach John Harbaugh planned to give them most of the afternoon off to enjoy Thanksgiving with their families. The Ravens brass were not taking a day off, however, as owner Steve Bisciotti, team president Dick Cass, and general manager Ozzie Newsome were all watching practice.

Below is Thursday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: WR Michael Campanaro (thigh), LB Pernell McPhee (shoulder)
FULL PARTICIPATION: G Jah Reid (hand), LB Terrell Suggs (foot)

SAN DIEGO
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: NT Ryan Carrethers (elbow), LB Andrew Gachkar (knee), DT Tenny Palepoi (non-injury)
FULL PARTICIPATION: S Jahleel Addae (concussion), LB Dwight Freeney (non-injury), RB Ryan Mathews (shoulder), WR Eddie Royal (toe)

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McPhee continues doing dirty work for Ravens defense

Posted on 25 November 2014 by Luke Jones

The Ravens had a number of huge performances in the 34-27 win over the New Orleans Saints, but one of their better ones came from a defensive player who didn’t even make a tackle Monday night.

While Elvis Dumervil (two), Terrell Suggs, and C.J. Mosley combined for four sacks, it was situational rush specialist Pernell McPhee who brought the most pressure against Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Playing 28 defensive snaps, McPhee produced four hurries and three quarterback hits, according to Pro Football Focus.

Regularly credited for doing the dirty work up front while Dumervil and Suggs produce higher sack totals, McPhee has been effective as either an edge rusher spelling one of the veterans or as an interior lineman in obvious passing situations. The 280-pounder’s combination of strength and quickness has made him arguably the Ravens’ best inside rusher since Trevor Pryce, so it only made sense that he’d exploit a suspect interior part of the New Orleans offensive line.

McPhee doesn’t produce as many sacks because it’s generally easier for quarterbacks to recognize pressure and get rid of the ball when it’s right in front of them — he primarily lines up inside in sub packages — instead of dealing with rushers coming off the edge, but the 2011 fifth-round pick effectively collapses the pocket and is a key cog in helping to run stunts for others to pick up sacks. Playing fewer snaps than Suggs or Dumervil this season, McPhee leads all Ravens defensive players with 14 quarterback hits and 26 quarterback hurries, per PFF.

The Ravens knew they had something with McPhee in his rookie season when he collected six sacks as a situational rusher, but an array of nagging injuries limited his performance over the last two seasons. McPhee has stayed healthy in 2014 and has proven himself as a productive rusher in defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ rotation.

Keeping McPhee on a pitch count with his playing time appears to have maximized his production while also allowing Suggs and Dumervil to remain fresh, but it will be interesting to see how much interest the Mississippi State product draws this offseason when he becomes a free agent for the first time. In that regard, McPhee collecting only four sacks to this point in the year might be a blessing when trying to quantify his value on the open market.

Despite a suspect secondary that’s dealt with a number of injuries, the Ravens rank fifth in points allowed and 15th in total defense because of the strong play of their front seven with McPhee playing a vital part.

Even if it’s gone unnoticed for large stretches of time like it did Monday night.

 

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Ravens staking claim as one of NFL’s best with fast start

Posted on 19 October 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens staked their claim as the best team in the AFC North with a 29-7 win over the Atlanta Falcons Sunday to move into first place ahead of Cincinnati.

With their fourth 5-2 start in the last five years, the Ravens have put themselves in prime position to return to the playoffs as they approach the midway point of the 2014 season. But how much does that mean as we approach the final week of October?

“Meaningful in Week 7, so, it’s good to be there in that situation at this time,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “But you have to build on it, you have to keep getting better. We’re not a good enough team to do the things that we want to do right now, so we have to keep improving.”

Baltimore may not be a flawless team — there’s no such thing in the modern NFL — but it’s difficult to look at the numbers and not be impressed with what Harbaugh’s group has done through the first seven weeks of 2014. Even with 14 teams having played only six games at the end of business on Sunday, the Ravens have allowed the fewest points (104) and own the best point differential (plus 89) in the NFL.

Yes, they appear to have drawn the right year to play the woeful NFC South — a division where 3-3-1 Carolina currently sits in first place — but you can’t control which teams are on the schedule. The Ravens are not only beating the teams they’re supposed to beat, but they’re throttling them, which doesn’t often happen in the parity-driven NFL.

Already securing four wins of 20 or more points, the improved Ravens offense has received much of the attention, but the defense is taking major strides with its second straight game collecting five sacks, the first time that’s happened since the 2006 season. It was no surprising feat to limit the hapless Tampa Bay offense last week, but holding Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ third-ranked unit to just seven points was an impressive task.

With the pass rush coming alive and the play of the secondary stabilizing, the confidence on the defensive side of the ball is growing. Several defensive players spoke after the game about the speech linebackers coach Ted Monachino offered Saturday night, challenging a talented group of outside linebackers to raise its level of play to where it belongs.

It’s safe to say the message was received on Sunday as Ryan was hit nine times a week after Buccaneers quarterback Mike Glennon was hit 15 times.

“We’re dangerous, and we’re real serious. We’re coming out playing with an attitude,” said rush specialist Pernell McPhee, who added two more sacks on Sunday to continue his strong season. “Our [secondary] needs us, and I know we need them. I think [defensive coordinator] Dean Pees is doing a great job of calling the plays and setting us up to get the sacks. We’re just focusing in and trying to play ball.”

Much credit should go to Pees, who has shown various looks up front by moving around Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and McPhee to cause confusion while using a safety-by-committee approach in the secondary. Matt Elam and Darian Stewart started the game, but rookie Terrence Brooks and the returning Will Hill also saw extensive action at the safety position.

Former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan was known for bringing “organized chaos,” but Pees’ decision to substitute so frequently in the secondary reminded the 65-year-old coordinator of his college coaching days at Miami of Ohio when he used various personnel looks in a 1986 upset win over a top 10 LSU team in Baton Rouge. Of course, Baltimore didn’t face that kind of a talent disadvantage Sunday, but it illustrates the creative lengths used to help mask what’s been a deficiency of the defense to this point in the season.

Time will tell whether the safety rotation will continue, but the best weapon to neutralize a shaky secondary has been the major heat in the pocket. It’s also created more opportunities for turnovers as defensive backs got their hands on several Ryan passes despite not coming away with any interceptions.

“Those dudes are our best friends,” said cornerback Jimmy Smith about the pass rush. “They get in there, they disrupt things, they cause havoc, they make quarterbacks panic and throw the ball in the air. And on our end, we have to do a better job of coming up with some more turnovers. We’ve had a lot of opportunities, and we have a lot of drops.”

Unlike last season’s 8-8 team that remained static with issues on each side of the ball showing up on a weekly basis, these Ravens appear to be improving as the year progresses. Their only loss since Week 1 came on the road two weeks ago against Indianapolis, a team that’s won five straight games and only beat them by seven points at Lucas Oil Stadium.

It’s true that no one should confuse Tampa Bay or Atlanta for juggernauts, but the Ravens have a tremendous opportunity to not only seize commanding control of the AFC North but to make an emphatic claim as one of the best teams in the NFL if they can take care of business in trips to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh the next two weeks. It won’t be easy playing on the road against their two biggest rivals, but the Ravens have looked like the class of the division through seven weeks while the Bengals have gone 0-2-1 since their bye with two road losses of 26 or more points.

The Ravens continue to show improvement on both sides of the ball while stacking wins as they now have a chance to pay back Cincinnati for its Week 1 win in Baltimore.

“We have everything that we want to do right in front of us,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “We just have to go out there and continue to play well. We have a tough opponent next week that we didn’t play necessarily good against, at least for a half, in the first game. We have to come back out there and prove ourselves. They’re a good football team, and they’re going to be hungry, and we’re [playing] there. It’s going to be a tough test; I can’t wait for it.”

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