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Personnel diversity providing improved results for Ravens offense

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Personnel diversity providing improved results for Ravens offense

Posted on 16 October 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — New faces, new injuries, and a new system would be more than enough for the Ravens offense to be struggling through the first six weeks of the 2014 season.

Except it hasn’t.

In fact, a year after searching up and down the roster — and outside of it — for solutions to cure the offensive woes, the eighth-ranked unit in the NFL now finds itself with plenty of diversity that’s provided different results as the Ravens are off to a 4-2 record. Tied for fifth in points per game, Baltimore has transformed its offense from a liability to a strength in less than a year’s time as they’ve already scored 26 or more points three times compared to last year’s total of four games reaching that barrier.

Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak is still chasing consistency with his unit — the Ravens have two games in which they’ve scored fewer than 17 points — but the overall results have been impressive in his first season on John Harbaugh’s staff.

“We just have to stay focused on us. That’s what I told the guys,” Kubiak said. “Let’s not get too consumed with who’re playing or those types of things. If we play the way we’re capable of playing and do our jobs, we’re probably going to move the football.”

While it’s obvious the offseason additions of Steve Smith, Jeremy Zuttah, Owen Daniels, and Justin Forsett have paid significant dividends, the Ravens have faced plenty of adversity on the offensive side of the ball that could have led to their demise. The abrupt release of Ray Rice and the season-ending injury to Dennis Pitta took away a large portion of production from past seasons, but Baltimore has thrived without them.

Three running backs — Forsett, Bernard Pierce, and Lorenzo Taliaferro — have received at least 40 carries each and the Ravens are averaging 4.7 yards per carry, good for sixth in the NFL. Viewed as little more than a depth signing in the offseason, Forsett has averaged a league-best 6.4 yards per carry, which is more than twice as productive as the Ravens’ league-worst 3.1 yards per attempt in 2013.

“He gets the most out of his ability,” said Kubiak about the 29-year-old Forsett, who’s already rushed for more yards in 2014 than his two previous seasons combined. “He’s not the biggest guy in the world, but he does a great job in pass protection. He’s a three-down player, so he’s a guy that you can keep on the field all the time in what you’re doing. The thing he’s doing right now [is] he’s finding a way to make a big play every week.”

The Ravens’ three-headed monster at running back has been discussed at length, but they continue to use an extensive collection of pass catchers for quarterback Joe Flacco to throw to. The 35-year-old Smith has clearly led the way with 35 catches for 573 yards and four touchdowns, but 13 different players have already caught passes this season with rookie Michael Campanaro and former practice-squad member Kamar Aiken catching their first career scores last week.

The different personnel groupings at the receiver position have allowed Kubiak to keep the veteran Smith as well as Torrey Smith fresh during games, but they’ve also created problems for opposing defenses. It’s been a pleasant change from last season when the Ravens did see 15 different players catch passes, but Flacco struggled to find any he could consistently rely on to make plays beyond Torrey Smith and Marlon Brown.

Those weapons have made it easier for Flacco, who’s posted a career-high 97.8 passer rating and is on pace to throw a personal-best 32 touchdowns compared to just eight interceptions.

“The one thing as an offense you never want to be is predictable,” Steve Smith said. “A lot of times people may think when these [younger] guys come in, it’s not a pass play — it’s not a play where they’re getting the ball. So, that just shows you that we do have guys that may not be starters but have the big-play ability [against] other teams and in the game. That just shows that those guys can play.”

Perhaps no other position group has benefited from improved depth more than the offensive line, which has become arguably the Ravens’ biggest strength in 2014 after it was nothing short of a disaster last year.

Zuttah and Rick Wagner have solidified the center and right tackle positions, respectively, but the Ravens have remained successful even with injuries to left tackle Eugene Monroe and left guard Kelechi Osemele. The Ravens have won two of the three games in which rookie free agent James Hurst has started at left tackle for Monroe and are 1-0 with rookie John Urschel playing in place of Osemele.

Those were the kinds of injuries the Ravens couldn’t overcome last year, but the offensive line has continued to thrive in Kubiak’s system.

“It’s not just us,” said right guard Marhal Yanda about the improvement. “It’s the backs, it’s Joe [Flacco], it’s the tight ends, it’s Gary — it’s everybody. We’re in this thing together, and it’s definitely going well for us. We’ve had a couple of hiccups, but we’re just trying to continue to be consistent and get after them.”

It’s been a “strength in numbers” mindset with results that couldn’t be much better. And the struggles of last year become more and more faint.

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Monroe returns to practice as Ravens continue to get healthier

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Monroe returns to practice as Ravens continue to get healthier

Posted on 16 October 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — It remains unclear whether Eugene Monroe will play in Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Falcons, but the Ravens left tackle took a significant step in his recovery from arthroscopic knee surgery by returning to practice on Thursday.

The 27-year-old worked on a limited basis for the first time since undergoing surgery on Sept. 24. In his absence, the Ravens have turned to rookie free agent James Hurst to handle a starting role with Baltimore going 2-1 over that stretch.

It would be ambitious to assume Monroe will be ready to play against Atlanta after a three-week layoff, but his return to the practice field bodes well for his status in next week’s key AFC North road meeting with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Four players on the 53-man roster did not participate Thursday as defensive tackle Christo Bilukidi (ankle), defensive end Chris Canty (wrist surgery), tight end Owen Daniels, and linebacker Daryl Smith were listed on the official injury report. Daniels and Smith each received a veteran day off after practicing without incident on Wednesday.

Starting left guard Kelechi Osemele (knee) practiced on a limited basis for the second straight day, an encouraging sign for his availability against the Falcons. The third-year lineman missed last Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay after hyperextending his knee in the Week 5 loss to Indianapolis.

The Ravens used Hurst and fifth-round rookie John Urschel on the left side of their line in the 48-17 win over the Buccaneers. Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak couldn’t recall every playing a game in which two rookies were starting and entrusted to protect the quarterback’s blindside.

“Never been around that. That was something else,” Kubiak said. “But, boy, you have to be proud of them. They worked really hard, and I think the guys around them played hard. Usually when you have a young guy step in, it’s about everybody else playing a little bit better, so you have to give the whole group credit for the way they stepped up.”

Defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (meniscus surgery) practiced fully for the second straight day and could make his return to game action since injuring his knee in the win over Pittsburgh on Sept. 11.

Safety Will Hill and defensive tackle Terrence Cody continued practicing after making their respective returns to the field Wednesday. The Ravens have a one-week exemption to decide Hill’s status after his six-game suspension expired this past Sunday, and many have pondered whether he’ll eventually emerge as the starting free safety in the secondary.

“We expect him to be a very, very good player back there,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “I think he’s very smart. He’s really kept up on everything. I think he’s done a good job the few days he’s been back practicing. It’ll be interesting to see how he progresses, but we think he’s the real deal.”

Meanwhile, the Falcons continue to be banged up at the wide receiver position as Harry Douglas remains sidelined with a foot injury and wideouts Julio Jones (ankle) and Devin Hester (hamstring) were limited participants for the second consecutive practice. Douglas has missed Atlanta’s last three games with a deep bruise.

Here is Thursday’s official injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: DT Christo Bilukidi (ankle), DE Chris Canty (wrist), TE Owen Daniels (non-injury), LB Daryl Smith (non-injury)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: WR Kamar Aiken (concussion), T Eugene Monroe (knee), G Kelechi Osemele (knee)
FULL PARTICIPATION: WR Marlon Brown (pelvis), DT Timmy Jernigan (knee)

ATLANTA
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: WR Harry Douglas (foot)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: WR Devin Hester (hamstring), WR Julio Jones (ankle), LB Prince Shembo (knee)
FULL PARTICIPATION: DT Jonathan Babineaux (knee), G Justin Blalock (back), LB Nate Stupar (knee)

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Ravens-Colts: Five predictions for Sunday

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Ravens-Colts: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 04 October 2014 by Luke Jones

A 3-1 record through the first quarter of the season has made a statement that the Ravens are a playoff-caliber team, but a road win against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday would scream they belong among the NFL’s elite.

Despite an offense that was ranked 29th in the NFL last season, the Ravens bring a revamped unit to Lucas Oil Stadium that’s ranked sixth in total yards and tied for seventh in points per game, which could lead to a shootout against an Indianapolis offense ranking first in total yards and averaging a league-leading 34.0 points per game. Of course, the Colts’ numbers benefited from playing two woeful teams, Tennessee and Jacksonville, in their last two games while the Ravens have only played one game away from M&T Bank Stadium so far this season.

The Baltimore secondary has faced much scrutiny this season and will face its biggest test in quarterback Andrew Luck and the NFL’s top-ranked passing game. The Ravens rank 24th in pass defense, but a stout run defense has often made opponents one-dimensional and the pass rush finally showed up in a convincing 38-10 win over Carolina last Sunday.

Sunday marks the 11th all-time meeting between the Ravens and Indianapolis in the regular season with the Colts holding a 7-3 advantage. Baltimore is winless in four regular-season trips to Indianapolis. The good news for the Ravens is they got the best of the Colts in their only meeting against Luck that came in the 2012 postseason, which also served as their only playoff win against Indianapolis in three tries.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to begin a difficult stretch of four of five games on the road with a win on Sunday …

1. The Baltimore running game wins the time of possession battle as Justin Forsett is the leading rusher in an attack that goes over 125 yards on the ground again. Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak always prefers establishing the run, but it will be even more critical in a game with such a prolific offense on the opposing side. Indianapolis is allowing 4.4 yards per carry, which indicates the Ravens should be able to move the ball effectively on the ground to set up play-action passes. The recently-injured Bernard Pierce will see some action unlike last week, but Forsett will still lead the Ravens in rushing yards in what will be a three-back timeshare.

2. Indianapolis uses a no-huddle attack to keep the Ravens’ pass rush on its heels and to help a very shaky offensive line. Even with a big lead, the Colts pushed the tempo against Tennessee last week, and they’ll use a similar style to keep the Baltimore front on its heels and to protect an offensive line that’s already surrendered 13 quarterback hits and 22 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. It’s no secret that three-step drops limit any defense’s ability to get to the quarterback, but the Ravens have been especially vulnerable to this over the last couple years and a quicker tempo will make the defense too flatfooted in the second half, especially with Chris Canty unlikely to play and Terrell Suggs less than 100 percent.

3. Colts cornerback Vontae Davis and bracketed coverage finally make Steve Smith look human, but Torrey Smith catches a touchdown and posts a season-high 105 receiving yards. After collecting 429 receiving yards in four weeks, the elder Smith will finally receive consistent attention befitting a No. 1 receiver as Davis will shadow him and receive extra help whenever possible. Steve Smith will still have a presence, but it will be Torrey Smith with a dynamic performance against an Indianapolis defense ranking 21st in pass defense. The fourth-year wideout will catch a long score on an effective play-action fake that makes new starting free safety Sergio Brown — filling in for the suspended LaRon Landry — bite.

4. A secondary that’s been shaky all year finally crumbles as Luck throws for 350 yards and three touchdowns. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees stood up for the play of his pass defense this week, but the Colts have too many weapons for top cornerback Jimmy Smith to account for and no one else inspires enough confidence to slow such a passing game. Cornerback Lardarius Webb wasn’t listed on the injury report for the second straight week, but it’s impossible to have any expectations for him until he finally takes extensive snaps in live-game action. An improved pass rush against Carolina helped mask issues in coverage, but the Ravens won’t be able to do the same with Indianapolis using an up-tempo attack, which will lead to a long day for the back end of the defense.

5. Quarterback Joe Flacco has another strong afternoon, but the Baltimore offense can’t quite hang with Indianapolis in a 30-24 loss to snap a three-game winning streak. At the start of the season, I wouldn’t have given the Ravens much of a chance to win this one, but a stronger-than-expected Baltimore offense and the Colts’ less-than-impressive offensive line will make this a close one. In the same way that the Colts’ two wins have come against less-than-stellar competition, I can’t be convinced that a shaky road win over Cleveland is enough evidence that the Ravens can carry over performances on the road like what we saw against Carolina last week. Flacco will play at a high level against a very ordinary defense, but the Baltimore defense won’t force enough stops against Luck and the Colts to pull out the road upset.

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Ravens offense hoping other Smith gets on track after slow start

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Ravens offense hoping other Smith gets on track after slow start

Posted on 26 September 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — While all eyes will be on Steve Smith when the Ravens welcome the Carolina Panthers to Baltimore on Sunday, Torrey Smith simply hopes to get his 2014 season on track as we approach the quarter pole.

It’s been a slow start for the fourth-year wide receiver who has just six receptions for 85 yards through three games a year after setting career highs with 65 catches and 1,128 receiving yards. Targeted by quarterback Joe Flacco 19 times through three games, Smith has reined in only 31.6 percent of those attempts, which would be a career-low completion percentage for the 2011 second-round pick’s career.

Entering the final year of his rookie contract, Smith has taken the rough beginning in stride, choosing to focus on a number of close calls that could have gone for big plays. In the Ravens’ win in Cleveland last Sunday, Flacco was hit on a deep ball to Smith that was intercepted and later missed the open wideout in the end zone for what should have been a touchdown. Of course, Smith has brought some misery on himself such as when he dropped a short screen pass that would have gone for big yardage late in the fourth quarter against the Browns.

“You can’t get any closer than we already have been,” Smith said. “I have folks tweeting me how terrible I am, and I could very easily have had three touchdowns and 300 yards the past couple weeks. But that’s how the ball rolls. I’m not used to it, but we’ll get over it soon.”

Most expected Smith’s opportunities to decrease a bit simply because the Ravens added more weapons such as Steve Smith and veteran tight end Owen Daniels to go along with what was a healthy Dennis Pitta returning for the start of the 2014 season. But with Pitta suffering his second right hip injury in the last 14 months, Baltimore will need more production from others beyond Steve Smith, who leads the team with 18 receptions for 290 yards and has quickly become Flacco’s most dependable receiver.

What has been most concerning is the lack of comfort shown by Torrey Smith in new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s system, which places an emphasis on the precision and timing of short-to-intermediate throws. Smith has improved his route-running ability since his rookie season, but he is at his best when asked to use his straight-line speed and still appears too stiff when asked to quickly change direction while running shorter routes.

Even if Kubiak hasn’t found the perfect way to utilize the younger Smith’s skills just yet, he doesn’t appear discouraged with how the 25-year-old is playing.

“We had five opportunities for him to have big plays in the [Cleveland] game,” Kubiak said. “Joe gets hit one time, and [we] get a [pass interference] the next time. I felt bad for him coming out of the game because, really, he had a chance to make some big plays. We missed him in the end zone. But he’s working extremely well. Like I said, it’s going to take all of us — keep spreading around. Joe [has to get] the ball to the right guy, and that guy has to make a play.”

Of course, it’s important to remember Smith is the kind of receiver who can’t be evaluated too definitively — good or bad — based on a smaller sample of games as all it takes is a couple successful deep balls to put him back on track. In 2011, many were ready to call the rookie a bust when he went without a catch in his first two NFL games before he caught three touchdowns and collected 152 receiving yards in Week 3 that led to a respectable rookie campaign of 841 yards and seven touchdowns. Last year, Smith looked like he was on his way to an All-Pro season with 556 receiving yards through the first five games before collecting just 572 more over the final 11 games.

While it appears that Steve Smith has at least temporarily wrestled away the title of “go-to receiver” — Browns cornerback Joe Haden shadowed the veteran for large portions of the Ravens’ Week 3 win — Torrey Smith is confident he will start capitalizing on the opportunities that have been near misses thus far. And his chances would only figure to increase if opposing defense continue to focus more closely on the elder Smith.

“We were as close as you can get to touchdowns; we just have to be on the same page and get it done,” Torrey Smith said. “It’ll happen. It has no choice, but to happen. The way we’ve been practicing, it has no choice but to happen. I can’t say when. I hope it’s Sunday, but it’ll happen soon.”

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Ravens secondary still waiting on Webb to get up to game speed

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Ravens secondary still waiting on Webb to get up to game speed

Posted on 25 September 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After much anticipation for the 2014 debut of Lardarius Webb last Sunday, the Ravens only needed to see Andrew Hawkins easily shake free from the veteran cornerback to realize the time wasn’t yet right.

The shifty receiver completely turned around Webb on a simple out route that went for 24 yards on the opening drive of the third quarter to put Cleveland in Baltimore territory, and it all but ended Webb’s day as he played only four defensive snaps in the eventual 23-21 win for the Ravens. Three weeks of full participation in practice hadn’t compensated for Webb missing nearly all of training camp after being sidelined with back spasms on July 25. Since returning to practice at the end of August, Webb has needed to knock off rust and improve his flexibility in bending for the critically-important backpedal that all cornerbacks need.

“We found out really quick,” said defensive coordinator Dean Pees about Webb’s performance in Cleveland. “And I had a great talk with him on Monday, and he understands. When I saw it [coaching] in the press box, I said, ‘He’s not there yet.’ And game speed is faster than practice speed. There’s no way to simulate it. But he has to keep practicing, and he has to feel very confident that he can do it. That’s half the battle playing the back end; you better feel confident that you can do it.”

The secondary has struggled without a healthy and effective Webb as the Ravens’ pass defense is ranked 24th in the NFL and is allowing 262.3 passing yards per game. The combination of Asa Jackson and Chykie Brown hasn’t inspired confidence when either has played opposite Jimmy Smith in the base defense, and the Ravens haven’t received good play at safety where Matt Elam and Darian Stewart have struggled.

Webb hasn’t been listed on the injury report this week as the Ravens prepare for Sunday’s meeting against the Carolina Panthers, which suggests he could see an expanded role from what we saw in Cleveland. The 6-foot-2 Smith is likely to match up with 6-foot-5 rookie Kelvin Benjamin — who leads the Panthers with 19 catches for 253 yards — but the rest of the Panthers’ group of wide receivers doesn’t inspire fear beyond tight end Greg Olsen, who has caught 16 passes for 224 yards through three games.

Pees has tinkered with various alignments in the back end of the defense including the use of Elam as a slot corner, which reflects how little depth the Ravens have had at the cornerback position. A healthy Webb, who is at his best playing inside in the nickel package, would give Pees some flexibility to show different looks since Jackson is also capable of playing the nickel position. However, the Ravens need to finally see a version of Webb ready to play 60 to 70 snaps per game at a high level before making any decisions about the makeup of the secondary.

“We would be fortunate if we had both those guys, because each one of them could play [inside],” Pees said. “The other guy would go outside. We have to make that determination once he’s back.”

Even with Webb’s absence taken into account, Pees isn’t pleased with how his pass defense has performed, even acknowledging Thursday that he needs to do a better job of mixing coverages and pressures as the Ravens have relied heavily on a mostly-ineffective four-man rush and soft zone coverage through the first three weeks of the season.

Elam and others pointed to miscommunication being a problem after Sunday’s game as Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer threw for nearly 300 yards last Sunday, but Pees bristled at the suggestion, perhaps implying that he wants to see defensive backs take more accountability for mishaps. The signature play of the secondary’s problems came in the fourth quarter when Elam was beaten by Browns wide receiver Taylor Gabriel for a 70-yard reception that included the second-year safety looking back at Jackson instead of touching the wideout down before he got up from the ground to gain extra yardage.

“‘Miscommunication’ would not be one of the words I would have used,” said Pees in evaluating the pass defense. “I would have said very poor technique in the back end. There are a couple of them [where] there wasn’t any communication [needed]. Just line up and play and play your position. We were beat on a three-deep coverage that I don’t know what communication is there other than, ‘Get your [butt] deep.’”

Three-headed monster

The Ravens have a three-headed monster shaping up at the running back position that they haven’t enjoyed since 2008 when Le’Ron McClain, Willis McGahee, and Ray Rice combined to rush for 2,027 yards in John Harbaugh’s first year as head coach.

Justin Forsett, Bernard Pierce, and Lorenzo Taliaferro have all made major contributions to the league’s eighth-ranked rushing attack in the wake of Rice’s release, so it isn’t easy predicting who will receive the biggest workload moving forward. Pierce practiced fully on Wednesday and Thursday, but the Ravens continue to monitor his improvement from a quadriceps injury that sidelined him for last Sunday’s game.

Taliaferro’s 91-yard game in Cleveland has led many to conclude he should be the starter moving forward, but the Ravens have maintained all along that they’ll go with the hot hand in the backfield. And they figure to have another good opportunity Sunday with the Carolina defense allowing 145.3 yards per game on the ground.

“I still go out there just as I did since I got here,” Taliaferro said. “Just make sure I do my job and compete. Even though it’s during the season and not so much of camp now, we’re still competing not just for each other’s job, but to make each other better.”

A rush-by-committee approach is nothing new for offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who guided a number of rushing attacks years ago in Denver where unknown names such as Mike Anderson and Olandis Gary would suddenly emerge as 1,000-yard backs.

Pierce and Taliaferro bring more power and physicality in their rushing style while Forsett is more of a change of pace on third down, but Kubiak also pointed out other differences such as ability to pass protect and the special-teams contributions made by Forsett and Taliaferro that factor into the overall distribution of playing time.

“Lorenzo and Justin are three-down players that play in pass-protection situations, nickel situations, and those types of things,” Kubiak said. “That’s where Bernard needs to keep coming as a player, in my opinion, but he’s working at it and doing that.”

Of course, the biggest reason for the dramatic improvement of the Ravens’ running game has been the offensive line where running lanes have been created consistently unlike last season when the running game averaged only 3.1 yards per carry.

And their strong performance makes the debate over who will carry the ball less significant.

“I think we’re really confident in our running game, and I definitely think that starts with our offensive line,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “They have done a great job in this system, and they really lead the way. And I think you can see that [because] we had three different backs all have big days.”

Replacing Pitta

The offseason arrivals of wide receiver Steve Smith and tight end Owen Daniels have eased the season-ending loss of Dennis Pitta a bit, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be growing pains within the Baltimore offense.

Of course, the Ravens are more equipped to handle Pitta’s hip injury than they were a year ago, but they will still depend on Daniels and rookie Crockett Gillmore to pick up the slack for one of quarterback Joe Flacco’s favorite targets. Phillip Supernaw was promoted from the practice squad to take Pitta’s place on the 53-man roster, but it remains to be seen what kind of role he can carve out for himself beyond special teams.

“It does make you stop in some of your preparation,” Kubiak said. “‘What happens in the game if this guy goes down? Now what do I go to? What personnel [groups] do I want to be in?’ Those are some things that you have to look at a little bit differently when you have these types of things happen.”

Juszczyk is another option who could see some more opportunities as the fullback has the ability to line up at tight end. He caught three passes for 54 yards and his first touchdown against the Browns last Sunday.

His emergence in the short passing game would be a welcome addition with Pitta no longer an option.

“I don’t think my role will change too much,” Juszczyk said. “I think I’ll be doing a lot of the same stuff I’ve been doing, but maybe more of it.”

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Five numbers behind Ravens’ 26-6 win over Pittsburgh

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Five numbers behind Ravens’ 26-6 win over Pittsburgh

Posted on 12 September 2014 by Luke Jones

After every Ravens game this season, we’ll take a look at five numbers that help explain the outcome …

1 — The number of pass attempts thrown by Joe Flacco that traveled 20 or more yards
Skinny: Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s West Coast system is based on shorter throws in which the quarterback releases the ball quickly, and that’s exactly what Flacco did against the Steelers on Thursday. Knowing what kind of arm Flacco has, the Ravens will certainly mix in some deep shots, but Flacco completed 72.4 percent of his passes as the offense possessed the ball for 35:08. That kind of a game plan — along with the arrival of veteran Steve Smith — has temporarily stunted the production of speedy wide receiver Torrey Smith, but the Steelers failed to record a sack or even a quarterback hit against the Baltimore offense, which is exactly what you want every week.

3 — The number of takeaways by the Baltimore defense
Skinny: Though the Steelers were held to six points, they only produced 22 fewer total yards than the Ravens as three turnovers thwarted a couple attempts to get things going offensively. No takeaway was bigger than the one that came on the opening drive of the game when Pittsburgh had marched inside the red zone before linebacker Daryl Smith stripped the ball away from wide receiver Justin Brown to end a drive that had lasted 12 plays and gained 54 yards. Fellow inside backer C.J. Mosley forced and recovered a fumble of his own that led to a short field goal, and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata tipped a pass to himself for the third takeaway of the night, putting an exclamation point on an opportunistic performance by the defense.

4 — The number of drives lasting 10 or more plays completed by the Ravens
Skinny: You should be noticing a trend of dictating the tempo of the game as the Ravens were essentially in complete control from their first offensive drive of the night. The unusual statistic accompanying this was the Ravens only going 5-for-12 on third down, but that just shows how effective they were on first and second down. Baltimore scored on all four of these drives — totaling 20 points — while the Steelers managed only three total points on their two drives that were 10 or more plays. The biggest negative you can draw from Thursday’s game was the red-zone offense in which the Ravens only scored touchdowns on two of six trips, three times settling for short field goals after driving inside the 5.

4.39 — The number of yards per play the Ravens averaged on first down
Skinny: I mentioned this number to follow up the stat from last week’s game in which the Ravens averaged just 1.67 yards per first-down play before the final drive of the first half. We constantly talk about the importance of third-down conversions, but success or failure on first down has an overwhelming impact on the outlook of a drive in terms of what play options are reasonably at your disposal. The Ravens success on first down against the Pittsburgh defense allowed them to maintain a better semblance of balance with the opponent not knowing whether to expect the run or pass when you’re consistently avoiding second-and-long situations.

36 — The number of rushes by the Ravens
Skinny: Throwing 62 passes is almost never an acceptable outcome, but last week’s passing total stuck out even more after an offseason in which the Ravens spoke ad nauseam about returning to their roots and committing to the running game. The final rushing total of 157 yards in Week 2 was a bit deceiving when you remember the Ravens only averaged 2.7 yards per carry through the first three quarters, but they ran effectively enough early to keep it as a viable part of the game plan and to avoid becoming one-dimensional. When they reached the fourth quarter with a 17-6 lead, the Ravens were committed to simply beating up the Pittsburgh front and that’s exactly what they did to the tune of 96 yards on 13 carries to sew up the first win of the season.

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Too many shades of 2013 as Ravens fall flat in Week 1 loss to Bengals

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Too many shades of 2013 as Ravens fall flat in Week 1 loss to Bengals

Posted on 07 September 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — A half-smile came across the face of Terrell Suggs when asked if the Ravens’ season-opening 23-16 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday reminded him of last season.

It was clear the 12th-year linebacker didn’t feel like reminiscing about Baltimore’s first non-playoff season under head coach John Harbaugh, but the similarities were there. A poor first-half performance by the offense and a “bend-don’t-break” defense failing to finish strong doomed the Ravens on Sunday as it did so many times a season ago when they finished 8-8.

“I don’t even want to talk about last year,” Suggs said. “If you remember last year, we gave up seven touchdowns in the opener. It’s a pretty big difference. It doesn’t feel like last year. We just can’t give them the big play. Pretty much our big thing coming into this week was to not let one get over our head. We let one get over our head, but it’s the NFL. It happens.”

The Ravens spent the offseason trying to improve an offense that ranked 29th in the NFL a season ago, adding new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, pass-catching targets Steve Smith and Owen Daniels, and veteran center Jeremy Zuttah. The running game was supposed to be fixed and quarterback Joe Flacco would have more weapons to throw to, which would allow the Ravens to move the ball consistently and with balance.

A defense that lost defensive tackle Arthur Jones and cornerback Corey Graham in free agency would be helped by the improved offensive attack and would not be put in a position when they’d spend too much time on the field with little margin for error.

But Sunday’s loss to the Bengals brought the same problems from 2013 as the Ravens were held to zero points and only 97 total yards in the first 30 minutes of play. The Ravens ran for just 23 yards on nine carries, and Flacco completed only 10 of 23 passes for 78 yards while committing what he called “the stupidest play” of his career that sent his team to the locker room trailing 15-0.

With eight seconds remaining in the half and facing third-and-15 from the 15, the Ravens elected to run one more play, which needed to be a quick three-step drop and throw to the end zone — or out of the end zone — to at least save enough time for a field goal try. Instead, the seventh-year quarterback rolled to his right and allowed time to expire before being sacked by Cincinnati’s Carlos Dunlap.

Flacco’s gaffe was just one of many mistakes made by countless offensive players in the first half, but it seemed an appropriate way to end a miserable 30 minutes of football in which the Ravens had just 9:41 of possession.

“We just played about as bad as you can, in terms of just simple fundamental things,” Flacco said. “Throwing, catching, running routes, staying up, just running the ball, couple mental busts. Just fundamental things that you do every day, and it’s just part of the routine.”

Even with the offense struggling mightily, the Ravens remained in the game thanks to a defense that allowed the Bengals to consistently move the ball before finally tightening up on third down — Cincinnati went 4-for-14 in that department — and holding them to field goals on two trips inside the red zone. It reminded of last season when the defense would stretch and stretch and stretch before making plays when needed to to keep the Ravens in the game.

But the defense also followed the 2013 fourth-quarter script of allowing the big play after Flacco connected with Steve Smith on an 80-yard touchdown to put the Ravens ahead 16-15 with 5:46 remaining in the game. Less than a minute later, defensive coordinator Dean Pees sent nickel back Asa Jackson on the blitz — the defense was unable to provide much pressure throughout the game — but Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton recognized it and threw deep to wide receiver A.J. Green, who beat cornerback Chykie Brown in 1-on-1 coverage for a 77-yard touchdown.

It was the big play the Ravens surrendered too many critical times last season and another example of the defense failing to make a big fourth-quarter stop when needed. And the deciding touchdown washed away what was an acceptable — but not stellar — effort from a unit playing without starting cornerback Lardarius Webb.

“It was kind of a bend-don’t-break philosophy,” cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “We were trying to figure out the new scheme they had in. They threw a lot of new things at us, the zone read and all of that. We didn’t let them get in the end zone until the end when we let that play get away from us.”

Yes, the “half-full” outlook would point to the 16 points and 323 total yards the Ravens offense produced in the second half. The running game even got going in the final two quarters as veteran Justin Forsett — replacing the benched Bernard Pierce — rushed for 70 yards and a 13-yard score for the first touchdown of the season to put the Ravens on the board.

But the skeptic will hear the same song as last season with an offense that had little balance and took more than two quarters to finally wake up — and still dropped too many passes in the second half — and a defense that couldn’t finish the job at crunch time.

As the Ravens learned all too well in 2013, there are no moral victories in the NFL.

“It’s tough to look at it too many ways other than the fact that we lost the game,” Flacco said. “Overall, we didn’t play well. As a player, you don’t look for good things in losses. It was a bad day.”

The good news is the Ravens won’t have time to dwell on their season-opening defeat as they must immediately turn their attention to the Pittsburgh Steelers for a Thursday night game back at M&T Bank Stadium. But they know they’ll need a more complete effort to avoid an 0-2 start in the AFC North as the Bengals and Steelers are already a game ahead in the division.

Yes, the Ravens led late in the fourth quarter and were in position to win the game, but they played too poorly for too long to reasonably expect to prevail.

“We all could’ve done something better today,” Suggs said. “We dropped one. It’s a long season and hopefully this won’t prevent us from doing what we want to do later on in the year.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

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Ten Ravens predictions for the 2014 season

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Ten Ravens predictions for the 2014 season

Posted on 06 September 2014 by Luke Jones

As everyone else goes through the endeavor of making division-by-division forecasts that will ultimately mean very little, these predictions focus on the Ravens and their effort to bounce back from the first non-playoff season of the John Harbaugh era.

1. Joe Flacco will be the Ravens’ Most Valuable Player.

The quarterback won’t suddenly transform into a 5,000-yard passer with 35 touchdowns, but the arrival of offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak will bring the most efficient Flacco we’ve seen since the 2010 season when he completed nearly 63 percent of his passes and posted a 93.6 passer rating. A steadier running game will alleviate pressure on the seventh-year signal-caller to feel the need to do it all like he encountered last year, which will only make him more effective with better weapons to target. Flacco will throw 25 touchdown passes for the second time in his career.

2. Haloti Ngata will be playing his final season in Baltimore.

The Ravens and Ngata talked about a new contract this offseason in the same way the organization extended Terrell Suggs’ deal, but talks didn’t go anywhere with the five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle carrying a $16 million salary cap figure this year and next. The difference next year will be the ability to save $8.5 million in cap space by releasing him, which will be easier to execute with the emergence of second-round rookie Timmy Jernigan and nose tackle Brandon Williams this season. Though Ngata is still a good defensive tackle, anyone who’s closely watched him play over the last few years has seen a decline in impact and durability, making it likely this is his final season with the Ravens unless he alters his financial expectations significantly.

3. Kyle Juszczyk and Brandon Williams will be players to take a step forward.

The second-year fullback was a non-factor offensively as a rookie, but it’s clear Kubiak envisions a role for Juszczyk as a receiver out of the backfield, making it possible he catches 30 passes in the way H-back James Casey did in Kubiak’s Houston offense a few years ago. Meanwhile, Williams will need to emerge to soften the blow from the loss of defensive tackle Arthur Jones in free agency, and the 2013 third-round pick was impressive against the run in the preseason. The Ravens need more young players to emerge to offset the reality of several core players approaching the end of their careers, and Juszczyk and Williams will make a bigger impact in 2014 after very quiet rookie campaigns.

4. Marlon Brown and Elvis Dumervil will be players to take a step back.

Even though the second-year receiver had an inconsistent summer, his inclusion in this prediction has more to do with the sheer number of weapons added to the equation with a fully-healthy Dennis Pitta back and the free-agent additions of Steve Smith and Owen Daniels. Brown won’t catch 49 passes again, but he will still be a target in the red zone, which will give him a chance to make his limited opportunities count. Dumervil collected 9 1/2 sacks in his first season with the Ravens, but had only one in his final seven games. He added weight in the offseason, which sounds like a questionable strategy for a 30-year-old rush specialist dependent on speed to get around the edge.

5. Jimmy Smith will be the player who deserves to make the Pro Bowl but won’t.

Before a scary fall that caused bruising and bleeding from his lungs in the second preseason game, Smith was having the best summer of any Baltimore defensive player and appears primed for a breakout campaign after taking significant strides in his first season as a starter. The rest of the secondary is a major concern right now, but Smith could be chosen by defensive coordinator Dean Pees to shadow Cincinnati wideout A.J. Green and the other elite receivers the Ravens encounter in 2014. It may take another year for Smith to finally receive league-wide recognition after an injury-riddled start to his career, but he will play at a Pro Bowl level for an otherwise shaky secondary this season.

6. Terrence Brooks will be starting at free safety before Halloween.

If Smith and Lardarius Webb are healthy, the Ravens should be alright at cornerback even with uncertainty at the No. 3 spot, but there is no such comfort at safety where 2013 first-round pick Matt Elam and veteran newcomer Darian Stewart will start. The Ravens hope Elam playing closer to the line of scrimmage allows him to make a bigger impact, but his summer was quiet as he still struggled to cover and tackle consistently. Stewart didn’t show any signs of being an impact defender playing deep center field and the third-round rookie Brooks took major strides at the end of the summer, making it only a matter of time before the Florida State product supplants him in the starting defense.

7. Steve Smith will be the top veteran newcomer.

It’s easy to be skeptical of the impact Smith will bring at age 35 by pointing to his yards per catch average steadily decreasing over the last three seasons, but the five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver was too impressive this summer to think he won’t be a substantial upgrade to the offense. His swagger and attitude will pump life into an offense that lacked any a year ago, and he has the ability to help move the chains and provide production similar to what Anquan Boldin did in his three years with the Ravens when he averaged 882 receiving yards per season. He won’t be able to bring the same explosiveness all 16 weeks that we saw this summer, but he will still be a significant reason why the offense improves from its 29th overall ranking a year ago.

8. Owen Daniels will be the disappointing veteran newcomer.

The 31-year-old tight end revealed a few days ago that he was dealing with a hamstring injury to clarify Harbaugh’s vague “leg soreness” diagnosis that forced him out of practice for two weeks, but Daniels wasn’t impressive when he was practicing in training camp, struggling to gain separation and make plays to complement Pitta at the tight end position. The Ravens have given Daniels the benefit of the doubt because he is so familiar with Kubiak’s system, but it’s difficult not to be reminded of how little Dallas Clark had remaining in the tank last season while watching Daniels practice this summer. Rookie tight end Crockett Gillmore will need to be ready to step up if Daniels can’t provide what the Ravens need in 2014.

9. C.J. Mosley will be the top Ravens rookie.

This prediction isn’t exactly going out on a limb as he’s the only first-year player currently starting on either side of the football for the Ravens. The Alabama product could occasionally struggle to hold up against physical blockers in defending the run, but he has shown impressive ability in pass coverage, which will make him a three-down linebacker in Week 1. The selection of Mosley raised eyebrows considering the Ravens already had depth at inside linebacker and needs at a number of other positions, but he’s been as good as advertised and has the potential to be a dynamic defensive player in the years to come.

10. The Ravens will make the playoffs with a 9-7 record as a wild card, but they will exit in the first round.

The Ravens will move into the top half of the offensive rankings in 2014, but the defense will slide from last season’s 12th overall spot with an aging front seven and a shaky secondary. This adds up to only modest improvement from 2013 when Baltimore finished 8-8 and fell short of the postseason. Cincinnati will prevail in the AFC North with a 10-6 record, but the overall mediocrity of the AFC will leave the door open for the Ravens to finish 3-1 in the month of December and grab one of the two wild-card spots before bowing out in the first round of the playoffs to Indianapolis.

Bonus Super Bowl XLIX prediction no one asked for: New Orleans will beat Denver in a 30-24 final.

A defense that continues to improve under coordinator Rob Ryan will offset last year’s road struggles and put Drew Brees and the Saints in position to win their second Super Bowl title in the last six years while Peyton Manning and the Broncos fall short on the NFL’s biggest stage for the second straight year.

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Ravens out to prove they’re not spinning their wheels in 2014

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Ravens out to prove they’re not spinning their wheels in 2014

Posted on 05 September 2014 by Luke Jones

Figuring out what to make of the Ravens isn’t easy as they open the 2014 season against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday afternoon.

Coming off their first non-playoff season of the John Harbaugh era, the Ravens have expressed confidence that 2013 was an aberration as significant roster turnover and injuries not only derailed their chances of repeating as Super Bowl champions but led to an 8-8 season that left them sitting at home in January.

The optimists will point to the Ravens playing in a league-high nine games decided by three or fewer points and suggest they easily could have made the playoffs had they done a smidgen better than their 5-4 mark in those contests. But the critics will say that record could have been a game or two worse while reminding that the Ravens allowed 32 more points than they produced a year ago and were outscored by 51 in their final two games in which they had the opportunity to lock up a playoff berth.

After six weeks of summer practice and a 4-0 record in the preseason, it’s easy to say this year will be different until you tee it off for real as the Ravens will against the defending AFC North champions at M&T Bank Stadium. In reality, there is plenty of unknown on each side of the football.

“It’s kind of like the first hit in a game or of training camp when you come back,” Harbaugh said. “There’s anxiety and excitement, but there’s anxiety until you get that first hit, and as soon as you get the first hit, the game is on and you’re playing. It’s a little bit like that with the opener.”

Yes, even with the opportunity to play in front of their home crowd to begin their 19th season in Baltimore, the Ravens face a major challenge in taking on the Bengals, who are viewed by many as the most talented team in the division despite an underwhelming offseason and the departure of offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. Playing three straight division games to start the year gives the Ravens the opportunity to take early control of the AFC North, but it could also leave them with an immediate uphill climb if they’re slow to answer the regular-season bell.

Needless to say, the objective of the offseason was fixing the league’s 29th-ranked offense that averaged a league-worst 3.1 yards per carry and just 20.0 points per game. The hiring of coordinator Gary Kubiak and the acquisitions of five-time Pro Bowl receiver Steve Smith, veteran center Jeremy Zuttah, and tight end Owen Daniels don’t exactly make it a bold statement to suggest the offense will be better.

How much improvement we see will begin and end with an offensive line that was an utter disaster a year ago. Injured and undersized on the interior, the Ravens were manhandled at the point of attack and struggled to protect quarterback Joe Flacco. The revamped group paved the way for a successful running game in limited opportunities in the preseason but still showed too many leaks in pass protection, meaning the jury’s still out on offensive line coach Juan Castillo’s group. Guards Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele and left tackle Eugene Monroe are expected to be anchors, but how well Zuttah and second-year right tackle Rick Wagner hold up against talented fronts like Cincinnati’s will be a more telling test.

Smith and Daniels give Flacco more weapons in the passing game, but age is a legitimate variable in determining how much of an impact they’ll make. The 35-year-old Smith quelled some concerns with an outstanding summer, but it remains to be seen whether he will be able to bring that same impact over the course of 16 weeks. Meanwhile, Daniels didn’t exactly look like a difference-maker this summer before a hamstring injury sidelined him for two weeks, making you question whether Dennis Pitta will have much help behind him at the tight end position.

Kubiak’s arrival signals a clear return to the Ravens’ long-held commitment to run the football, but his variation of the West Coast offense should empower Flacco to make quicker decisions to neutralize potential issues with pass protection. Even if the offensive line is able to open running lanes for Bernard Pierce and the currently-suspended Ray Rice, the Ravens will ultimately go as far as their franchise quarterback will take them in what’s intended to be a more balanced offense.

“I don’t know how to describe it, but I think the biggest thing for us is to be good at doing the little things,” Flacco said. “The base things in this offense and coming up with little things to throw defenses off here and there. But I don’t know how to describe it. I don’t know if versatile is the word, or what not, but I can tell you that I feel very comfortable in it. I think all of our guys feel very comfortable running it.”

Will there be early-season growing pains with a new system predicated on quicker passes and good timing? Historically, those aren’t the types of routes with which Flacco has been particularly effective as he’s often been criticized for not getting rid of the football quickly enough. The Ravens are confident that Smith can at least provide another third-down option to go along with the dependable Pitta.

Yes, the offense will be improved, but how much better will it be in relation to last year’s incredibly low standard? Will they simply manage to crack the top 20, or will the Ravens find themselves in the top third of the league?

“It’s time to go find out. I wouldn’t say we’ve held anything back,” said Kubiak of his offense’s preparation for the regular season. “They’ve handled things really well, so we continue to progress forward as far as the load in what we give them. Obviously, you’re trying to put them all in position to do what they do best, but we’re starting against a great group — a team that was a Top 5 defensive team last year. We have a big, big challenge this weekend, but that’s part of this league.”

Even if you’re buying what Kubiak and the offense are selling, the bigger concern might exist on the opposite side of the ball even though the Ravens ranked 12th in total defense last season. The overall numbers were respectable, but the pass rush declined in the second half of the season and two significant pieces departed in the offseason with defensive tackle Arthur Jones and No. 3 cornerback Corey Graham finding new homes in free agency.

The front seven hopes the infusion of second-year nose tackle Brandon Williams and 2014 first-round linebacker C.J. Mosley will pay dividends — both were impressive during the preseason — but the other five starting members of that group (Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs, Chris Canty, Daryl Smith, and Elvis Dumervil) are all 30 or older. That’s not to say those core members of the defense won’t make significant contributions in 2014, but it’s easy to see some correlation with age and the defense’s fourth-quarter struggles and disappointing finish a year ago.

Of particular importance will be the pass-rushing duo of Suggs and Dumervil, who combined for 19 1/2 sacks in 2013 but collected only two in the final seven games. With a secondary that was hampered by injuries during training camp and is just now back on the practice field, the Ravens need to put heat on quarterback Andy Dalton to keep wide receiver A.J. Green and the Bengals’ other pass-catching threats from shaking free in the event of rust or miscommunication on the back end of the defense.

“The sense of urgency, it never changes if you’re a true front seven,” Suggs said. “They’re the defending division champions, and [Dalton] has shown that he can lead his team. If we already didn’t have a sense of urgency, then we’re hustling backwards, we’re not prepared to play. It didn’t heighten just because we had some guys out [during] camp.”

Yes, the Ravens finally appear healthy in the secondary as cornerbacks Lardarius Webb, Jimmy Smith, and Asa Jackson are now practicing at full strength, but the extended absence of Webb remains a concern as defensive coordinator Dean Pees was unable to determine which nickel alignment would work best for his defense this summer. Webb is better suited to defend the slot in the nickel package, but Jackson is also more of an inside corner and the other outside options — Chykie Brown and the newly-signed Derek Cox — don’t inspire confidence. In this pass-happy era of the NFL, it’s not a comforting feeling to be without a known commodity at the No. 3 cornerback spot.

Though injuries didn’t necessarily plague the safety position, it’s unclear whether the tandem of 2013 first-round pick Matt Elam and newcomer Darian Stewart are even as effective as Elam and former strong safety James Ihedigbo were a year ago, let alone whether they’ll be more dynamic. Neither played particularly well in the preseason as the Ravens hope Elam playing closer to the line of scrimmage will allow him to utilize the skill set that made him a standout at the University of Florida. It only appears to be a matter of time before third-round pick Terrence Brooks supplants Stewart at free safety, but it’s an awful lot to ask a rookie to handle that position with Baltimore’s sophisticated coverages.

Beyond the healthy tandem of Smith and Webb, the secondary appears vulnerable and could be in serious trouble if the front seven can’t make quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket.

In sizing up the Ravens entering the 2014 season, it’s fair to wonder whether they will find themselves spinning their wheels with an improved offense but a defense in apparent danger of taking a step or two in the wrong direction.

Perhaps the biggest cause for optimism is the current state of the AFC North with the Bengals not taking the necessary offseason steps to become a true Super Bowl contender, the Steelers appearing to be in a state between good and bad, and the Browns still being, well, the Browns. Barring key injuries, there’s no reason to believe the Ravens won’t be in contention for the division title along with Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, but there are too many unknowns to give them a distinct edge beyond the natural optimism existing in most cities around the NFL entering Week 1.

History suggests you don’t count out the Harbaugh-led Ravens, but it will be fascinating to see how the coach and his team respond after their first failure as it relates to making the postseason. For now, the Ravens are saying all the right things about their outlook.

“I like our team a lot. I would go so far to say I love our team,” Harbaugh said. “I love the way they work. I love the way they treat one another. I love the way they bleed with one another. I believe in this football team. There’s no question in my mind that this team is destined for some very special things. But now you have to do it.”

Sunday will be the Ravens’ initial chance to begin proving it to those who aren’t convinced.

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Like, ERMAGERD, did you SEE the Ravens’ first possession?!?!?!?!?

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Like, ERMAGERD, did you SEE the Ravens’ first possession?!?!?!?!?

Posted on 08 August 2014 by Glenn Clark

BALTIMORE — I had the-umm-we’ll call it “opportunity” to check out some Diet Football from the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers Thursday night at M&T Bank Stadium.

It was neat. It looked kinda like football, it sounded almost like football, it even smelled a little like football.

Of course, we all know better. (We DO all know better, right?) That’s what makes the excitement of the team’s first offensive possession so frustrating.

I mean, just going back and READING the first possession is fun.

“Ray Rice six yard run. Joe Flacco to Dennis Pitta for 14 yards. Joe Flacco incomplete. Rice for five yards. Flacco to Jacoby Jones on a slant for 12 on 3rd and 5. Flacco to Kyle Juszczyk over the middle for 17. Bernard Pierce seven yard run. Flacco to Steve Smith underneath for nine yards. Rice off left tackle for six more. 49ers offsides. Pierce two yards for a touchdown.”

It’s like play-by-play porn. It was a 10 play, 80 yard, 4:59 box of magic goodness. For a second you kinda didn’t even care that it was the preseason. You just wanted to high five the person closest to you and say “DUDE I TOLD YOU GARY KUBIAK WAS GOING TO COME IN HERE AND FIX EVERYTHING! LET’S DO SOME JELLO SHOTS, BRAH!”

Just me? Sorry. I get carried away some times.

“It was nice”, Flacco said at halftime. “It felt good to get out here in a game-type situation and feel the nerves of a real game. I enjoyed being out there and doing it for real, and I thought we did pretty well. We moved the ball methodically, with precision and got it in the end zone.”

Nice? NICE? I’m going to need a little more enthusiasm out of you, Joe. It was a damn masterpiece! My snarky friends and I are going over to Steelers message boards tonight with the hashtag “LarryBrownMustDie” and start saying things like “You guys…I’m starting to wonder if maybe we should be worried about the Ravens. Did you see how well their first offensive series went now that they have Gary Kubiak?”

We’ll be doing it ironically, of course.

Things couldn’t possibly have gone better in the first view we had of the Gary Kubiak offense. There have been a multitude of opinions about the impact the former Houston Texans head coach could have on this team. Some have believed that Kubiak would be the perfect fit for a team that has historically been built on the running the ball. Some of wondered whether or not the Ravens have the offensive line and running backs to make his system work. Flacco’s role in a Kubiak offense has been hotly debated and we still didn’t know if the team had enough quality skill position players to make it work.

For a handful of plays, it all looked perfect. The O-Line blocked and the running backs ran (en route to over 200 yards rushing as a team for the night), Flacco was crisp in finding multiple targets, the receivers ran all sorts of routes using all parts of the field. It was as if Kubiak himself had walked up and whispered sweetly into your ear “it’s going to be okay.”

Every time we’ve wanted to believe this organization has turned a corner offensively things have seemingly blown up quickly. When we’ve thought a new quarterback, new receiver, new tackle or new coordinator would stabilize the unit we’ve instead been met with inconsistently a season, month, week or even a play later.

Ravens fans WANT to believe in that first drive desperately, and understandably so.

But alas, preseason. It doesn’t mean the offense won’t be adequate-or even quite good. It doesn’t mean the team hasn’t made great strides already in Kubiak’s system. It just means we don’t know. You simply can’t read much into ANYTHING you see in the preseason because it’s truly “diet football”. Nothing that happens is a real indication of what’s exactly going to happen when the football becomes real, but it’s not a guarantee it can’t be either.

Head coach John Harbaugh offered the best possible perspective at the end of the game.

“It was a good start for the offense” Harbaugh said after besting his younger brother Jim again. “To come back and answer and move the ball and execute like that, it’s a good first drive of the preseason.”

BUT….?

“But, you know what, don’t read too much into it. We’ve got lots of work to do…”

And against our wishes, we’ll have to do just that.

-G

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