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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 23-16 loss to Pittsburgh

Posted on 06 November 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens suffering their third straight loss and fourth in their last five games in a 23-16 final against Pittsburgh, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Baltimore will never take the next step by settling for 23-yard field goals against a high-scoring offense. The analytics did support those decisions to kick, but I would have considered going for the fourth-and-3 from the 5 in the second quarter. “Take the points” isn’t always the best strategy.

2. As I’ve written other times, Joe Flacco is far from the only reason for the recent offensive struggles, but he hasn’t been a big enough part of the solution either. He was under duress quite a bit Sunday, but he easily missed a half-dozen throws working from a satisfactory pocket.

3. Insinuating Flacco didn’t throw to Lamar Jackson out of spite is taking quite a leap to trash the character of someone who’s never done anything to warrant such treatment. It’s not like his ability to see the field or go through progressions has never been criticized, so why get personal?

4. How the middle of the field continues to be such a problematic area for the pass defense when C.J. Mosley, Eric Weddle, and Tony Jefferson account for $22.625 million on the 2018 salary cap is a tough pill to swallow.

5. Orlando Brown Jr. continues to be a bright spot. According to Pro Football Focus, he didn’t allow a pressure against Pittsburgh and has yet to allow a sack or quarterback hit this season. The right tackle spot should be his with James Hurst potentially moving to left guard when healthy.

6. Matthew Judon hasn’t taken the leap many predicted this season, but he registered Baltimore’s lone sack as well as two hits and two hurries against the Steelers, according to PFF. The Ravens need to see more of that with Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith scheduled to hit free agency.

7. Like Drew Brees’ third-down completion while in the grasp of Jefferson in Week 7, I thought the defense forcing a three-and-out right after Alex Collins’ touchdown might be the turning point. Instead, a holding penalty, a sack, two passes short of the chains, and a punt quickly dashed that thought.

8. I don’t believe it was a coincidence that Jimmy Smith played better with Marlon Humphrey back in action and Wink Martindale once again rotating those two and Brandon Carr on the outside. The defense has certainly had its recent issues, but that luxury should still pay off down the stretch.

9. Those saying Jackson’s use is disrupting offensive rhythm received ammunition when he entered for a run of no gain immediately following Flacco strikes to Michael Crabtree and Chris Moore. If you want to run there, why not hand to Collins on an uptempo play instead of broadcasting what you’re doing?

10. Brandon Williams noted after the game that teams are approaching the Ravens defense differently and aren’t playing “actual football” by running so many sweeps and screens to take interior players like him out of the equation. There’s that whole “needing to adapt” theme popping up again.

11. Don’t look now, but the Ravens are on track to lead the NFL in passing attempts for the third time in the last four years. They also rank in the bottom five in yards per passing attempt for the fourth straight season. Jamal Lewis weeps.

12. Regardless of what happens over these next two months, I’ll maintain that John Harbaugh is a good football coach. However, he doesn’t do himself any favors with a rookie mistake like not using his timeouts ahead of the two-minute warning to conserve more clock.

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Takeaways largely absent as Ravens try to get back on track

Posted on 02 November 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Anthony Levine’s interception undoubtedly brought a sigh of relief to the Ravens sideline at Pittsburgh in Week 4.

Though already leading 23-14 with under four minutes remaining, Baltimore had blown double-digit fourth-quarter leads at Heinz Field in each of the previous two seasons. But Levine picking off Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger ended any thought of history repeating itself again.

That takeaway was the exclamation point on a 26-14 victory that propelled the Ravens to a 3-1 start. Since then, however, John Harbaugh’s team has lost three of four games while forcing only two turnovers: a Tavon Young interception at Cleveland and a Michael Pierce fumble recovery against New Orleans. Those takeaways occurred in the opening quarter and didn’t dramatically move the meter in eventual one-score defeats for a team now standing at 4-4 and entering a critical rematch with the Steelers on Sunday.

Despite the last five quarters in which the Ravens have allowed an unseemly 53 points, the defense remains at or near the top of many statistical categories. But after collecting a league-leading 34 takeaways last season and tying for the NFL lead in interceptions in 2016, Baltimore has forced just seven turnovers in its first eight games, which is tied for 21st in a league in which 13 teams have played seven games compared to the Ravens’ eight.

It’s as much surprising as it is concerning for a defense needing to get back on track against Pittsburgh. In a rivalry in which 17 of the last 24 games — counting the playoffs — have been decided by a single possession, turnovers become even more important than they already are in any given week.

“They’ve been a little more conservative in some ways,” said Harbaugh about how opponents have approached a defense with a reputation for taking the ball away so far this season. “Some of it’s on us — we haven’t made plays on the ball all the time like we need to. Sometimes the ball hasn’t gone our way. But we haven’t caused very many fumbles, and we haven’t gotten our hands on as many balls as we did last year, for sure. We have to find a way to do that. I’m disappointed in that for sure. That’s something that we need to do better.”

The Ravens have forced only four fumbles — falling on two — in their first eight games this season after forcing 17 and recovering 12 last year, a dramatic decline for a defense that regularly practices stripping the ball away from the opposition. Their five interceptions are tied for 19th in the league after finishing first with 22 last season. And though Baltimore’s 41 passes defended are on a comparable pace to last season’s total of 80 for 16 games, opponents are passing more frequently than they did through the first eight games of 2017.

The turnover decline isn’t easy to explain since so much of the defensive personnel is identical to last season, and the few changes — Brent Urban and Tavon Young being healthy — are viewed as upgrades. Truthfully, the defense continuing to rank so highly while playing so much “straight-up” football is a testament to the unit, but it’s also difficult to sustain.

“We’re conscious of that. We run [to] the ball. We’re doing the same things as we’ve always done,” safety Eric Weddle said. “The opportunities are there. We dropped a couple picks early on this season. We’ve got forced fumbles, and they’ve bounced the other way. They’re going to start coming, and when they do, it’s going to make our defense even stronger and our team better. We’ve had about six quarters of not-very-good football, and everything else has been solid.”

To be clear, the Ravens defense hasn’t been completely devoid of big plays. Baltimore leads the league with 27 sacks — including a team-record 11 in the 21-0 shutout at Tennessee on Oct. 14 — but 22 of those came in three games against the Titans, the Browns, and Buffalo, meaning the defense has just five total in its other five games.

Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale hasn’t hesitated to dial up more blitzes this year than predecessor Dean Pees and remains confident that the turnovers will arrive in bunches if his group remains true to itself, quipping Thursday how it’s difficult to pick off a screen pass on second-and-long.

The Ravens know they must remain disciplined in their effort to force turnovers, but you also wonder how a fourth-quarter turnover against the Browns or the Saints could have made the difference in one-score defeats. An interception or forced fumble can also be so critical in sparking a comeback, something that never materialized in Cincinnati or Carolina. The absence of starting cornerback Marlon Humphrey certainly didn’t help against the Saints and Panthers these last two weeks.

“They’re going to come. There’s no doubt,” cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “It’s not like we’re doing something so much more crazy on defense that we’re not trying to get those. As corners, me, Brandon [Carr] and Marlon, we have to get our hands on the ball more, create some plays ourselves, and then some tips and overthrows, hopefully, a couple of lucky passes.

“It’s good to be lucky as well.”

Yes, any number of football studies will tell you luck is a bigger element in forcing turnovers than coaches, players, media, and fans want to admit. But studies also confirm just how critical prevailing in the turnover battle is with teams coming out on top winning almost 80 percent of the time.

That element of chance is an unsettling reality as the Ravens try to avoid a third straight loss and recalibrate their quest to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

“We’re minus-four. You can put it right on that if you want,” said Harbaugh, referencing his team’s turnover differential through eight games. “If we’re not minus-four, what’s our record? If we’re even? If we’re plus-four, what’s our record? It’s probably completely flipped. It’s a big part of it.”

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Ravens no longer convincing anyone this season’s going to be different

Posted on 28 October 2018 by Luke Jones

Keep reciting the Ravens’ numbers and resume to try to convince yourself.

A top-ranked defense, an improved offense, a convincing victory at Pittsburgh, and a record-setting performance at Tennessee. Baltimore still has the NFL’s third-best point different (plus-60), which is supposed to be an indicator of future results. Even after last week’s tough loss to New Orleans, many still believed the Ravens were markedly better than last year.

But after Sunday’s listless 36-21 defeat at Carolina to finish off a 1-3 October — which follows last season’s 2-3 October and a winless October the year before that — the Ravens have returned to their post-Super Bowl XLVII home. John Harbaugh’s team is 4-4 at the midway point for the third straight season. It’s the fifth time in six years the Ravens have failed to have a winning record through eight games, and you know how those campaigns turned out.

“Overall, when you look at us, you would think that we are pretty good,” said quarterback Joe Flacco, who threw two interceptions in what was arguably his worst game of the season. “But when you look at each individual game for what it is and each individual situation and the reasons why we lost some of those games, then it is what it is.

“There is no lying in this league. You are what your record says you are, and that’s the bottom line.”

There’s no sense belaboring what happened against the Panthers when there’s so much blame to go around. From the moment rookie Lamar Jackson threw a wounded duck short of a wide-open Willie Snead on a third-and-1 gadget play on the second offensive drive, the Ravens fell apart in all three phases of the game. Baltimore was thoroughly outplayed and outcoached as Carolina would score 27 straight points from late in the first quarter until the final seconds of the third period, transforming a 7-0 lead into a 20-point deficit.

Flacco struggled behind a makeshift offensive line missing two starters, his receivers dropped passes, and the offense committed too many costly penalties. A poor running game finished with flashy numbers for once, but Panthers defensive tackle Kyle Love came untouched as he blew up an Alex Collins run and forced a fumble in the second quarter, leading to a touchdown. After such a promising September, the Ravens averaged just 18.5 points per game and Flacco only 5.9 yards per passing attempt in October, signs that being so one-dimensional is really beginning to catch up with the offense.

Three turnovers did the defense no favors on Sunday, but the group allowed a 99-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter and an 85-yard touchdown drive after the deficit was trimmed to 13 at the end of the third quarter. Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale had no answers for quarterback Cam Newton, who had his way with the Ravens both through the air and with his legs as the Panthers finished 4-for-5 inside the red zone.

In addition to failing to record a single sack, the defense had no takeaways and has only one since Tavon Young’s first-quarter interception in the loss at Cleveland in Week 5. No matter how shiny the rest of the numbers might be, the last two weeks have reflected how difficult it is to win a close game or spark a comeback without a game-changing play from your defense.

After so much was made of Justin Tucker’s stunning missed extra point last week, perhaps the pep talks needed to go to everyone else.

“We just didn’t have it,” Harbaugh said. “We weren’t there in terms of what we needed to do — coaching, playing. It starts with me. It’s on my shoulders completely. I’ll take responsibility for it.”

You hoped the Week 7 defeat to the Saints would serve as a lesson about the need to finish in the fourth quarter, but the Ravens instead responded with their worst performance of the year. It was hardly the worst loss of the Harbaugh era, but it was the kind that makes you question what’s underneath the hood of this football team.

Where was the energy and urgency?

As was the case right around this time last season and the year before that, the season is far from ruined. The Ravens won’t play on the road again until December and play their next two games against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, the two teams they’re chasing in the AFC North. Consecutive wins would put them back on track and leave them feeling better about their playoff chances at 6-4.

But another slip-up ahead of December road games at Atlanta, Kansas City, and the Los Angeles Chargers would leave anyone doubting this team’s ability to go on the kind of run needed to make it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2014. You’d certainly expect them to need plenty of help from other teams under that scenario.

“Always more, never less” is the 2018 team slogan, but it doesn’t apply to the Ravens’ annual margin for error down the stretch. It’s all-too-familiar territory, but Baltimore stills hope for a different outcome this time around.

Those prospects have become less convincing over the last two weeks as these sure look like the “same old Ravens” after all.

“We’re an average team at this point, but everything’s still right there,” safety Eric Weddle said. “We’ve got eight games, divisional games coming up, a lot of home games. It’s there for us to go get it if we want to go get it. If we get it done, it will be on us. If not, then we weren’t good enough.”

The Ravens certainly weren’t on Sunday.

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Ravens-Panthers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 27 October 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens need to finish.

If losing a 10-point fourth-quarter lead to New Orleans last week weren’t enough, Carolina erasing a 17-0 deficit at Philadelphia should have Baltimore’s full attention for Sunday’s tilt in Charlotte. The Ravens are the superior team in most statistical categories, but the Panthers found a way last week while John Harbaugh’s team wilted too much in the fourth quarter. It’s a razor-thin margin that’s the difference between a 6-1 start and the current 4-3 mark, but the Ravens are still trying to graduate from good to really good.

It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet for just the six time in the all-time regular-season series with the Panthers holding a 3-2 advantage. Baltimore has won the last two meetings, the most recent being a 38-10 blowout at M&T Bank Stadium on Sept. 28, 2014.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Justin Tucker will connect on a field goal from beyond 50 yards. His missed extra point understandably remained a big story throughout the week, so the two-time Pro Bowl kicker’s next opportunity can’t come soon enough after much support from teammates, coaches, and Ravens fans. According to special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg, 272 extra points have been missed by 54 kickers since Tucker entered the league in 2012, which is appropriate perspective on an individual who’s won the Ravens a slew of games. That said, the tiniest bit of unknown remains until he makes his next kick.

2. Cam Newton will run for a touchdown and throw for another. Between the playful comments of Eric Weddle and Wink Martindale, the Panthers quarterback is apparently like a … fast, middle-school-aged dinosaur with a beard? All kidding aside, Newton is having one of the best seasons of his career so far and will be a big problem if the Ravens aren’t disciplined in their pass-rushing lanes. He’s dealing with a sore right shoulder, however, and hasn’t been throwing the deep ball that frequently as it is. A key will be the effectiveness of Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, who was quiet last week.

3. John Brown and Michael Crabtree will each make a touchdown catch on the outside. Joe Flacco has lived in the short middle portion of the field — going there with a third of his attempts — but that’s where Panthers linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis loom, which will likely mean a quiet day for tight ends and running backs that haven’t been all that impactful in recent weeks anyway. The good news is Brown and Crabtree should find some room on the outside against cornerbacks James Bradberry and Donte Jackson. If not, the Ravens will likely struggle to move the ball.

4. Christian McCaffrey will lead all players in yards from scrimmage. The Panthers running back is dynamic, averaging 4.9 yards per carry and making 40 receptions in six games. What makes him even more effective is Newton’s threat to run, which allows Carolina coordinator Norv Turner to use motion and misdirection to set up chunk runs. The Ravens rank fifth in the NFL in yards per carry allowed (3.8) — the Panthers average 5.2 yards per attempt — but their heavy use of the dime package occasionally leaves them vulnerable against an offense unafraid to run in some unorthodox spots.

5. A fourth-quarter takeaway will help the Ravens secure a much-needed 20-17 victory. Last week was an example of how difficult it is for a defense to sustain greatness for 60 minutes without a game-changing turnover — not counting Alvin Kamara’s opening-drive fumble on a fourth-down run that was already blown up — or a collection of sacks. The Ravens are tied for 21st in the league with just seven takeaways, which borders on shocking considering their other impressive numbers and the fact that they led the NFL in that category a year ago. Something has to give eventually, right? The Panthers do remind you of a better version of Tennessee in terms of their style of play, which should still bode well as Baltimore tries to bounce back from last week’s disappointment. Injuries along the offensive line and to starting cornerback Marlon Humphrey aren’t ideal, but Flacco and the Ravens offense will do just enough and the defense will finally get a clutch turnover to secure a really important win.

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Ravens corners Humphrey, Smith absent from Wednesday’s practice

Posted on 24 October 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Coming off one of the worst performances of his career, Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith is now dealing with a physical concern ahead of Sunday’s trip to Carolina.

Smith (groin) and second-year cornerback Marlon Humphrey (thigh) were absent from Wednesday’s practice, leaving their status against the Panthers in question. Humphrey missed the first game of his NFL career against New Orleans this past Sunday, and head coach John Harbaugh was tight-lipped when asked about his status for Week 8.

It remains unclear whether Smith’s absence was more of a precautionary measure early in the week, but he was present in the locker room prior to practice. Matching up extensively against Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas, Smith surrendered five receptions and a touchdown on the six times he was targeted in coverage and also committed two pass interference penalties in the 24-23 loss.

“We’ve all had games like that. I’ve had horrible games. You never hope you do, but it happens,” safety Eric Weddle said. “You just get back on the horse and look at what you did, get back to technique and working hard in practice. Practice takes a lot of the areas that you may not have been very good at in the game — that can make up for a lot — and get you back playing the way you want to.

“Jimmy is a pro; he’s going to work hard.”

Cornerback Brandon Carr (knee) was also absent from practice, but this was the fifth straight Wednesday he’s sat, making it more of a rest day despite the injury description. Weddle and wide receivers John Brown and Michael Crabtree also received a veteran rest day.

The return of left guard Alex Lewis to practice was an encouraging sign less than two weeks after he was stretchered off the field with a neck injury in Tennessee. The third-year lineman was listed as a limited participant on Wednesday and has a “good chance” to play against Carolina, according to head coach John Harbaugh.

“I had some numbness, but that was scary,” said Lewis of the pinched nerve he suffered on Oct. 14. “Once I got into the ambulance on the way to the hospital, it started to go away. I’m just thankful now that I can be walking around here and be back on the team.”

Right tackle James Hurst (back) and rookie interior lineman Bradley Bozeman (calf) did not take part in Wednesday’s workout as the Ravens remain thin along the offensive line. Harbaugh expressed optimism about Hurst’s chances of playing this Sunday after his back flared up late last week, forcing him out of the Saints game. Making his first NFL start in place of Lewis in Week 7, Bozeman was in and out of Sunday’s game after sustaining a calf injury.

Harbaugh revealed defensive tackle Willie Henry was placed on injured reserve Tuesday after suffering a herniated disc in his back. The third-year defensive lineman does have a chance to return to play this season, but he would not be eligible to be activated until late December. The injury is a blow to Baltimore’s sub package as Henry was one of the defense’s best interior rushers last season.

“It’s going to fall on our shoulders to get more pressure on the quarterback,” defensive tackle Michael Pierce said. “We’re going to have to take up some of the slack he had in those dime packages and stuff like that. We’ve got our work cut out for us, and we’ve got to get to the passer.”

The Panthers held out former Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith (knee) and starting defensive end Mario Addison (back) from Wednesday’s practice. Quarterback Cam Newton (right shoulder) and tight end Greg Olsen (foot) were limited participants.

Below is Wednesday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: G Bradley Bozeman (calf), WR John Brown (non-injury), CB Brandon Carr (knee), WR Michael Crabtree (non-injury), CB Marlon Humphrey (thigh), OT James Hurst (back), CB Jimmy Smith (groin), S Eric Weddle (non-injury)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: CB Anthony Averett (hamstring), DB Anthony Levine (hamstring), G Alex Lewis (neck)

CAROLINA
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: S Mike Adams (non-injury), DE Mario Addison (back), DE Julius Peppers (non-injury), LB Andre Smith (hamstring), WR Torrey Smith (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: TE Greg Olsen (foot), QB Cam Newton (right shoulder)

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Signs there, but Ravens still learning how to become really good team

Posted on 22 October 2018 by Luke Jones

Nothing really changed about the Ravens with their 24-23 loss to New Orleans.

The defense remains at or near the top of most statistical categories after holding the high-powered Saints — with an extra week to prepare coming off a bye, mind you — to 12 points below their season average, a number many fans would have taken going into Sunday’s game. Even while struggling to run the football, the offense ranks in the top half of the league, which is substantial improvement from the last few years.

We did learn Justin Tucker is human after all, but he remains the best kicker in the NFL and has won a slew of games over the years, earning him plenty of slack for missing the game-tying extra point.

To be clear, there’s no shame in losing to the Saints, who might be the second-best team in the NFC and are viewed by many as a serious Super Bowl contender. Perhaps you expected John Harbaugh’s team to go undefeated at M&T Bank Stadium, but New Orleans was easily one of the season’s two most difficult home games on paper — the other being Pittsburgh — entering the season. This loss hardly breaks them.

Sunday’s defeat was a missed opportunity, however, and a reminder that the Ravens are still learning how to truly become a very good team. The components are there for a return to the playoffs and to perhaps make some noise if they get there, but just 13 players remain from Baltimore’s last playoff team in 2014, meaning a number of key individuals — including the last four draft classes — are still seeking what it takes to make it to January.

You have to finish when owning a 17-7 lead entering the fourth quarter, something the Ravens have struggled to do against top-flight teams these last few seasons. Yes, they went toe to toe with the Saints in an intense game and were only an extra point from likely forcing overtime, but let’s not pretend the last couple non-playoff teams were always blown out in such affairs either. The truth is this one hurt because the Ravens have had more than their share of “moral victories” as some have tried to label this one to be.

Holding future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints offense to a single touchdown through three quarters is a very impressive feat, but surrendering 17 points in the final three drives — not counting Brees’ final kneel-down — left the defense licking its wounds. The turning point really came late in the third quarter when Brees converted a third-and-8 pass to wide receiver Michael Thomas as safety Tony Jefferson was bringing the 39-year-old quarterback to the ground. From there, the run began in a way not unlike an NBA team erasing a double-digit fourth-quarter deficit in the blink of an eye.

Just like when playing Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, or Peyton Manning several years back, the best defense is only going to hold down Brees for so long. That’s just reality in today’s offense-driven game, especially without a game-changing turnover or a few more sacks to help get you off the field in crunch time. You’re only going to make so many stops straight up when facing an explosive offense, and the Ravens defense just couldn’t make a big play when the momentum shifted.

More to blame than the defense was a Ravens offense that sleepwalked through most of the fourth quarter and didn’t awaken until a 10-point lead had turned into a seven-point deficit with just over two minutes remaining. Injuries along the offensive line and a shortage of possessions in the first half didn’t help the overall output, but responding to two long touchdown drives in the fourth quarter with a three-and-out and a turnover on downs against a below-average New Orleans defense isn’t a winning formula against a great opponent. Games against Brees have been rare for the Ravens, but they’ve played Brady and Ben Roethlisberger too many times not to know how a low-scoring affair can morph into a shootout at a moment’s notice. The offense wasn’t prepared to counter-punch until it proved too late with Tucker’s rare misfire.

Asked after the game about his 14-yard touchdown pass to John Brown that looked like it would tie the game with 24 seconds remaining, quarterback Joe Flacco regretted the offense not coming away with some points on the previous two drives. A poor running game didn’t help as the Ravens offense neither provided rest nor scoring reinforcements for its defense after the Saints came alive. Scoring 23 points usually isn’t going to get the job done against an elite offense.

How the Ravens respond over these next two weeks will go a long way in determining whether they’re closer to becoming a really good team. Rebounding from Sunday’s loss to top a tough Carolina team on the road and to beat Pittsburgh at home would give them a 6-3 record entering the bye week and put them in really good shape to contend for their first AFC North championship since 2012. Anything less feels too much like the last couple years and leaves a tiny margin for error down the stretch with road games still to be played at Atlanta, Kansas City, and the Los Angeles Chargers.

If the Ravens want to make it back to the playoffs, they’ll need to get on a roll at some point. It looked like they might have graduated after their huge road victory at Pittsburgh, but they produced a dud in Cleveland the next week. Their dominating shutout at Tennessee was followed by a potential win slipping through their fingers on Sunday.

At some point, they’ll have to break the pattern of one step forward and one step back to get to the next level.

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Ravens-Saints showdown capable of giving both sides “nightmares”

Posted on 17 October 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — A meeting between the NFL’s top scoring offense and best scoring defense feels like a heavyweight fight, but Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs didn’t offer the anticipated bravado.

Not when you’re facing a quarterback who just broke the career passing yardage record and is still going strong at age 39 in an offense averaging 36.0 points per game.

“They’re the kind of explosive offense that gives you nightmares,” said Suggs about Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. “It’s going to be a good, fun game. We get to play football against one of the premier quarterbacks, the premier offenses with explosive pieces.”

At the same time, Brees spent his bye week watching the Ravens defense collect a franchise-record 11 sacks in a 21-0 road shutout against Tennessee. Baltimore’s 12.8 points per game allowed this season looks like something out of 1978 rather than in 2018 when offense reigns supreme.

He’s faced them only four times, but Brees is fully aware the Ravens are the only team he’s never defeated in his 18-year career. Suggs — a rookie when Baltimore beat Brees for the first time when he was the quarterback of the San Diego Chargers in 2003 — tried to chalk up that past success to “luck” on Wednesday, but the future Hall of Fame quarterback has fallen prey to an abundance of defensive standouts from Ray Lewis and Ed Reed to Haloti Ngata and Elvis Dumervil over the years.

Now Brees will meet a deep and unpredictable defense that leads the league in sacks and has allowed only eight touchdowns in six games — none after halftime.

“They’re all over the place, and I think that’s just something we have to be aware of,” Brees said in a conference call with Baltimore media. “Making sure that we’re spot-on with our scheme and what we’re doing, making sure that the ball gets out on time, making sure we’re doing good things in the back end in regards to getting open. But yes, it’s a formidable defense. It’s a formidable pass rush.”

“All over the place” is an appropriate description as new defensive coordinator Wink Martindale has employed extensive depth and more pre- and in-snap flexibility to keep opposing offenses guessing as to what the Ravens are doing. Whether disguising coverage and blitzes or even using “amoeba” looks (see below) with upwards of seven or eight players at the line of scrimmage before the snap, the Ravens have confused quarterbacks, forcing them into mistakes or holding the ball too long as the pass rush gets home.


(Screen shot courtesy of NFL Game Pass)

Of course, the Ravens are unlikely to confuse the veteran Brees to the same degree they baffled Nathan Peterman, Case Keenum, or Marcus Mariota, but their style of play is already the blueprint for trying to slow down a quarterback who processes information quickly and makes plenty of pre-snap adjustments. The concern is Brees and Saints head coach Sean Payton have had an extra week to study the Baltimore defense, adding another layer to an already-intriguing chess match.

“If he knows what you’re doing or what you’re going to do, you’re going to have a long day,” said Ravens slot receiver Willie Snead, who spent the last three seasons with the Saints. “I think disguise is going to be huge with the [defense] because they do have a great offense. Drew Brees is one of the best. You guys know that.

“But I think the way you get him off his game is you have to bring pressure. You have to mix it up, and you have to make sure that he doesn’t know what you’re doing. I think that’s the biggest thing.”

Knowing you have to pressure Brees and doing it are two different things as he’s been sacked just eight times in five games this season and has been dropped just 28 times since the start of 2017. The New Orleans offensive line ranks fifth in Pro Football Focus’ most recent rankings with offensive tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk grading particularly well.

The challenge of pressuring Brees is compounded by how quickly he gets rid of the football, another obstacle for rushers trying to come off the edge. According to Next Gen Stats, Brees’ average time to throw of 2.52 seconds from snap to release is tied for second fastest in the league and is 0.04 seconds quicker than Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton, whose quick throws frustrated the Ravens in a Week 2 loss in which they didn’t record a single sack.

Those variables are why it’s critical for the inside pass rush to get Brees off his spot and keep him out of rhythm. That effort will be led by the surging Za’Darius Smith, who is coming off a career-best three-sack performance against the Titans. Smith estimated Wednesday that the coverage in the Ravens secondary just needs to give the front “three to four seconds” to get after Brees.

Easier said than done, but the Ravens don’t have to try to be something they’re not, which is good news when playing such an explosive offense. Ultimately, they’re hoping to give Brees some nightmares of his own while continuing their undefeated streak against one of the best quarterbacks of all time.

“We’ve got to do our best to not let him know what we’re in before the snap because we’re going to be dead if he does know,” safety Eric Weddle said. “It’s a fun challenge. The great ones always bring out the best in you, and they can bring out the worst in you too. If you make a mistake, it’s a touchdown. That’s the pressure you like.”

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Getting over Pittsburgh road hump would help push Ravens to next level

Posted on 28 September 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — We know what the Ravens-Steelers rivalry is all about.

It’s physical, intense, and ultra competitive with all but six of the 23 games played in the John Harbaugh era — including the postseason — decided by one possession. Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said this week that you don’t earn your “badge of honor” as a Raven until you’ve played in a Pittsburgh game. In an evolving NFL catering more to the offense, this game still evokes that old-school feeling, even as the teams combined to score a whopping 77 points in their most recent showdown last December.

But putting those recycled narratives aside and acknowledging there’s much football to be played after Week 4, the Ravens could really use a win on Sunday night. “Need” is an overused word in the sports realm and doesn’t really apply this week, but a victory at Heinz Field would be as beneficial psychologically as it would be in the standings for a team with some key veterans running out of time and young players needing to grow up quickly.

Despite the predictable claims of every game being important, this one carries more gravity than a another notch in the win or loss column. There’s been too much disappointment in recent years for the Ravens to suggest otherwise.

The Steelers have won three straight over Baltimore for the first time since Harbaugh’s debut season as head coach, and we all witnessed what happened at Heinz Field in each of the last two Decembers. Still, the significance of Sunday’s game goes beyond trying to beat the Steelers, who appear as vulnerable as they’ve been in a while without All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell or much evidence of an effective defense.

There’s the Jimmy Smith narrative that Ravens defensive players are sick of hearing about, but what better way to welcome back their top cornerback from suspension next week than by beating an elite passing attack on the road without him?

It’s much more than just playing without Smith, however. The Ravens need to make a winning statement on the road against an accomplished quarterback at some point if they want to get over the hump and back to the postseason for the first time since 2014. If it isn’t against the Steelers this week, Baltimore is scheduled to deal with the likes of Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, the upstart Patrick Mahomes, and Philip Rivers in away games later this season.

Since their 2014 playoff win over Roethlisberger and the Steelers — only 10 players from that 53-man roster are still with the team (see below) — the Ravens have won just eight away games. The most accomplished quarterback they’ve beaten on the road is Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton, who’s 3-1 against them at Paul Brown Stadium over that time.

The remaining quarterbacks the Ravens have defeated away from M&T Bank Stadium since 2014 are Mike Vick (in his final NFL season), Blake Bortles, EJ Manuel, Brett Hundley, Josh McCown (twice), and DeShone Kizer. Only one of them is currently a starter, and Bortles wasn’t exactly setting the league on fire when the Ravens beat Jacksonville early in the 2016 season.

To be fair, you can’t control your schedule of opponents and blame falls on both sides of the ball in compiling an 8-17 road record over the last three-plus seasons, but no one is taking you seriously as a contender if you can’t beat a top-flight quarterback outside your home stadium from time to time. That’s not too much to ask as we’re talking about a team that won road games over Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in back-to-back weeks on the way to winning a Super Bowl six years ago.

Players have tried to say the right things publicly this week, acknowledging the rivalry while maintaining this one holds no more significance than any other game. Losing on Sunday hardly derails the young season in the same way that winning guarantees nothing, but flying back from western Pennsylvania early Monday morning with another defeat would only extend doubts about the Ravens’ road pedigree with three of the next four away from home still to come.

The Ravens don’t want to find themselves in a similar position to the last two seasons when they’ve needed to play lights out down the stretch to make the playoffs. We know how that turned out.

With better health and improved offensive weapons, Baltimore hopes the balance of power could finally be shifting in the AFC North this season. After a tough loss at Cincinnati on a short week earlier this month, the next litmus test has arrived.

“I look at it as it’s been a great learning experience for us as players and coaches and this organization,” said safety Eric Weddle about the last two heartbreaking losses in Pittsburgh. “As bad as we wanted to win those games, things have come up in those situations and throughout those games that we’ve gotten better from.”

Maybe so, but the Ravens have to prove it at some point.

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Ravens put out crowded injury report to start Pittsburgh week

Posted on 26 September 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Preparing to renew a rivalry long known for its brutal physicality, the Ravens are already dealing with a number of ailments ahead of Sunday’s trip to Pittsburgh.

Baltimore did welcome inside linebacker C.J. Mosley (knee), defensive tackle Michael Pierce (foot), and rookie tight end Hayden Hurst (foot) back to the practice field on Wednesday, but six players did not participate in the workout for health-related reasons. The absentees included linebacker Terrell Suggs (knee), cornerbacks Brandon Carr (knee) and Anthony Averett (hamstring), left tackle Ronnie Stanley (foot), quarterback Lamar Jackson (illness), and defensive tackle Willie Henry (hernia surgery). Suggs, Carr, and Stanley finished Sunday’s game against Denver without any noticeable incident while Averett and Henry didn’t play against the Broncos.

Mosley’s return to practice was an encouraging sign for the Ravens defense after he sat out in Week 3, marking only the third missed game of his five-year career. Veteran Albert McClellan started in place of Mosley and shared inside linebacker snaps with weak-side starter Patrick Onwuasor and rookie Kenny Young. Mosley, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, described himself as “day by day” before Wednesday’s practice and is trying to avoid a setback with the bone bruise in his left knee.

“I was pretty close [to playing], but I didn’t want any uncertainty,” said Mosley about missing Sunday’s game. “That was really the main reason. And I felt comfortable with Kenny, Bert, and ‘Peanut’ out there without me. They practiced all week without me. I prepared like I was going to play if I did play. I was comfortable with that, but as far as my knee, I just didn’t feel comfortable.”

Hurst was practicing for the first time since having a screw inserted in his foot for a stress fracture on Aug. 24. It remains unclear how much practice time the first-round pick will need to be ready for live-game action again, but the Ravens are eager to have both Hurst and fellow rookie Mark Andrews on the field at the same time. Andrews, a third-round pick, has been a pleasant surprise with eight catches for 107 yards and a touchdown in the first three games.

The Steelers appear to be getting healthier as safety Morgan Burnett (groin), right guard David DeCastro (hand), and right tackle Marcus Gilbert (hamstring) all practiced fully on Wednesday. Those three starters sat out Pittsburgh’s win at Tampa Bay on Monday night.

Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster sat out Wednesday’s practice with an abdomen injury.

Below is Wednesday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: CB Anthony Averett (hamstring), WR John Brown (non-injury), CB Brandon Carr (knee), DT Willie Henry (abdomen), QB Lamar Jackson (illness), OT Ronnie Stanley (foot), LB Terrell Suggs (knee), S Eric Weddle (non-injury)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: TE Hayden Hurst (foot), DB Anthony Levine (hamstring), LB C.J. Mosley (knee), DT Michael Pierce (foot)

PITTSBURGH
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: OT Ramon Foster (non-injury), CB Mike Hilton (elbow), QB Ben Roethlisberger (non-injury), WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (abdomen)
FULL PARTICIPATION: S Morgan Burnett (groin), G David DeCastro (hand), OT Marcus Gilbert (hamstring)

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Ravens take care of business with tough stretch looming

Posted on 24 September 2018 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Beating Denver was hardly a headline-grabbing win, but it wasn’t difficult picturing Sunday’s game falling into that dreaded “bad loss” department if the Ravens weren’t careful.

Despite coming off extra rest and facing a 2-0 team that was probably more paper tiger than strong contender — no one really knows in today’s NFL — Baltimore was missing two of its best defensive players (C.J. Mosley and Jimmy Smith) as well as two key defensive linemen (Michael Pierce and Willie Henry) against one of the league’s strongest rushing attacks. No team stays fully healthy all season, of course, but missing that many chess pieces on one side of the ball is going to be problematic against any opponent with talent and a competitive pulse, which the Broncos certainly had.

A blocked punt leading to a 7-0 deficit right off the bat and a blocked field goal later in the first half — even if illegal — provided the weirdness typically witnessed in recent years when a banged-up Ravens team has dropped a home game to an underwhelming opponent such as Washington two years ago (Jamison Crowder’s 85-yard punt return) or Chicago last year (Adrian Amos’ 90-yard interception return). It’s easy to remember the 2016 Christmas loss to Pittsburgh and “fourth-and-12″ last season, but the aforementioned early-season home defeats were nearly as damaging to their playoff hopes.

There was no panic after Sunday’s nightmare start as the defense pressured Broncos quarterback Case Keenum in the pocket and pitched a shutout after the opening quarter and the offense finished the day with 20 unanswered points and was a perfect 3-for-3 inside the red zone.

“It’s early. You have 58 1/2 minutes to get back in the game, and it’s 7-0,” said quarterback Joe Flacco, who completed 25 of 40 passes for 277 yards and a touchdown. “At some point during the course of the 16-game season — obviously we’ve already lost one and we’ve already [been] behind a little bit — there’s nothing you can do about it. You’ve just got to go out there and continue to execute and just let the game come to you, and that’s what we were able to do.”

Perhaps what was so encouraging about Sunday’s 27-14 win was that the Ravens overcame both injuries and some shortcomings to improve to 2-1 in relatively comfortable fashion.

Having two kicks blocked in the same game is often a recipe for disaster and out of character for a special-teams group that’s normally superb. Impressive rookie inside linebacker Kenny Young led the Ravens defense in tackles (10) and Patrick Onwuasor collected a critical interception when Denver was threatening to make it a one-score game with nine minutes remaining, but the Ravens did struggle to stop the run without Mosley and Pierce up the middle, allowing 5.0 yards per carry even as speedy rookie Phillip Lindsay was ejected in the first half. And despite a two-score lead for most of the second half, the offense again struggled to run the ball, averaging only 2.8 yards per carry.

There’s reason to anticipate improvement in each of those areas, however, based on track record and reasonable health. If the offensive line rebounded from its Week 2 struggles in pass protection to hold the Broncos’ vaunted pass rush to just two sacks — none by Von Miller — the Ravens can still figure on improving on the ground in the coming weeks as this group gels.

Improvement in those areas will be needed as the Ravens play four of their next five games on the road with four of those opponents having qualified for the playoffs a year ago. It isn’t difficult envisioning John Harbaugh’s team winning or losing any of these next five games with even a Week 5 trip to Cleveland looking more uncertain than usual after the standout debut of No. 1 pick Baker Mayfield. Anything less than a 3-2 record over this stretch would put the Ravens in the all-too-familiar position of having little margin for error in the second half of the season, which is why stubbing their toe against the Broncos just wasn’t an option for a team desperate to get back to the playoffs after a three-year absence.

No, Sunday won’t be remembered as the season’s biggest win, but it won’t be that bad loss that helps keep the Ravens out of the playoffs, either.

“I’m sure the outside looking in were like, ‘Uh-oh, the same old Ravens,’ right?” said safety Eric Weddle about the rough first quarter. “It ain’t the same Ravens. I’m telling you that right now.”

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