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Examining the Ravens’ 2019 class of free agents

Posted on 09 January 2019 by Luke Jones

The start of free agency is more than two months away, but the Ravens enter their most interesting offseason in recent memory after rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson helped lead them to the playoffs for the first time in four years.

The Ravens currently have an estimated 2019 salary cap commitment of roughly $163 million to 45 players (not including free agents or players recently signed to reserve-future deals), according to OverTheCap.com. The 2019 salary cap has not been set, but it is projected to rise from $177.2 million in 2018 to at least $188 million.

New general manager Eric DeCosta is likely to clear additional cap space by renegotiating or terminating the contracts of a few veteran players. Of course, that list will be headlined by former starting quarterback Joe Flacco, who will be traded or released after 11 seasons in Baltimore. A trade or pre-June 1 release will save $10.5 million in cap space while leaving $16 million in dead money on the 2019 cap, but Jackson’s $2.1 million cap number for next season makes that dead money easier to endure.

Cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr, wide receiver Michael Crabtree, and safeties Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson are other potential candidates to be cap casualties. Those decisions will depend on how drastically DeCosta wants to reshape the roster and reset the salary cap in his first year replacing Ozzie Newsome.

Below is a look at Baltimore’s 2019 class of free agents:

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

The Ravens will have the opportunity to retain any of the following unrestricted free agents before they can officially sign with any team beginning on March 13 at 4 p.m.

RB Buck Allen The former fourth-rounder went from leading Ravens backs in snaps in some early games to being a healthy scratch late in the season, but his special-teams ability helps his value.

TE Nick Boyle He doesn’t offer too much as a receiver, but Boyle’s blocking ability was a critical part of Greg Roman’s run-game schemes, making his return a bigger priority than you might think.

WR John Brown The speedy wideout says he’s open to returning, but he caught only 10 passes for 128 yards in Jackson’s eight starts, which certainly didn’t do any favors for his market value.

QB Robert Griffin III The former first-round pick was a helpful mentor to Jackson and is open to returning as his primary backup unless he receives an opportunity to potentially start elsewhere.

RB Ty Montgomery – Acquired at the trade deadline, Montgomery is good in pass protection and averaged 5.5 yards per carry in limited duty, but the Ravens may want to look elsewhere.

LB C.J. Mosley – The Ravens would certainly love to keep the four-time Pro Bowl selection, but they may need to make him the NFL’s highest-paid inside linebacker to do it, making this a tougher call.

LB Za’Darius Smith The versatile pass rusher isn’t the type of player Baltimore has typically re-signed to a big contract in the past, but other in-house options haven’t exactly stepped up.

LB Terrell Suggs The 36-year-old plans to return for a 17th NFL season and wants it to be with the Ravens, but his quiet second half of the season and asking price will be factors to consider.

DE Brent Urban The oft-injured lineman played in all 16 games and didn’t put up gaudy numbers, but a return on another cheap deal doesn’t appear out of the question.

TE Maxx Williams Though he never lived up to his second-round draft standing and makes minimal impact as a receiver, Williams developed into a useful blocker over the last two seasons.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

The following players have accrued three years of service and have expiring contracts. The Ravens can tender each with a restricted free agent offer, but other teams may then sign that player to an offer sheet. If that occurs, Baltimore has five days to match the offer and keep the aforementioned player. If the Ravens elect not to match, they would receive compensation based on which restricted tender they offered that player.

There are three different tenders — the values won’t be set until the 2019 salary cap is determined — that can be made: a first-round tender ($4.149 million in 2018) would award the competing team’s first-round selection, a second-round tender ($2.914 million in 2018) would fetch the competing team’s second-round pick, and a low tender ($1.907 million in 2018) would bring the competing team’s draft choice equal to the round in which the player was originally drafted. For example, a restricted free agent selected in the fifth round would be worth a fifth-round pick if given the low tender. If a player went undrafted originally and is given the low tender, the Ravens would only hold the right to match the competing offer sheet and would not receive any draft compensation if they chose not to.

With less-heralded restricted free agents, the Ravens frequently elect to forgo a tender and try to re-sign them at cheaper rates.

The original round in which each player was drafted is noted in parentheses:

RB Alex Collins (fifth) – Baltimore’s leading rusher in 2017, Collins once seemed like a good bet to receive a second-round tender, but a foot injury and disappointing production leave his future uncertain.

CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste (second) – The 6-foot-3 defensive back had a chance to make the team before breaking his arm late in the summer, but he could be back to compete for a spot on a cheap deal.

LB Patrick Onwuasor (undrafted) – A strong second half could prompt the Ravens to use a second-round tender on him to deter teams from pursuing him and to serve as insurance for Mosley.

DT Michael Pierce (undrafted) – Baltimore’s best defensive lineman this season, Pierce will likely receive the second-round tender and could be in line for a substantial payday after the 2019 campaign.

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS

These players have less than three years of accrued service and can be tendered a contract for the league minimum based on their length of service in the league. If tendered, these players are not free to negotiate with other teams. Typically, the Ravens tender all exclusive-rights free agents with the thought that there’s nothing assured beyond the opportunity to compete for a spot. Exclusive-rights tenders are not guaranteed, meaning a player can be cut at any point without consequence to the salary cap.

WR Quincy Adeboyejo After missing the entire 2018 season, the 6-foot-3 wideout will compete for a roster spot after flashing from time to time in his first training camp in 2017.

RB Gus Edwards One of the great stories of 2018, the 238-pound back will go into his second season trying to maintain the starting job in a run-heavy offensive attack.

OL Jermaine Eluemunor The 2017 fifth-round pick spent a few weeks on the practice squad early in the season and will again be competing for a job on the 53-man roster

C Matt Skura The former practice-squad member started all 16 games at center, but it will be interesting to see if the Ravens seek an upgrade at this important position along the offensive line.

RB De’Lance Turner It’s easy to forget Turner received a practice-squad promotion before Edwards, but he’ll be fighting for a spot after spending most of the season on injured reserve.

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Ravens-Chargers: Five predictions for AFC wild-card game

Posted on 05 January 2019 by Luke Jones

Much has changed since the Ravens last hosted a playoff game six years ago.

Ray Lewis is in the Hall of Fame, Ed Reed will join him in a few weeks, and Joe Flacco has quite possibly already played his final snap as a Raven. Baltimore had made the playoffs just once since that last home playoff win over Indianapolis, but the start of the Lamar Jackson era seven weeks ago has created an energy not seen in these parts in quite some time. Winners of six of their last seven to clinch the AFC North title, the Ravens hope that vibe carries them to victory in Sunday’s wild-card game.

Standing in their way is the Los Angeles Chargers, who finished tied for the third-best record in football and had the misfortune of being in the same division as No. 1 seed Kansas City. Despite traveling to the East Coast for a 1 p.m. game, Anthony Lynn’s team is 8-0 in contests played outside Los Angeles this season, which included wins in Seattle, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City.

It’s time to go on the record as these AFC teams meet in the postseason for the first time ever. Of course, the Ravens toppled the Chargers 22-10 in their Week 16 meeting to improve to 7-5 in the all-time regular-season series. Baltimore owns a 3-1 record against them at M&T Bank Stadium, but the teams split the last two games there in 2014 and 2015 with the outcomes decided by a combined four points.

Below are five predictions for Saturday:

1. The Chargers will speed up the pace and spread out the Baltimore defense for an early touchdown. The Ravens controlled the tempo throughout the Week 16 meeting, harassing Philip Rivers with blitzes that the Chargers rarely had answers for. This time, I expect Los Angeles to use some no-huddle and empty formations to try to slow the pass rush and keep the Ravens off-balance early on. It’s worth noting Pro Bowl wide receiver Keenan Allen is healthier this time around and will find space for an early touchdown reception after being held to a quiet five catches for 58 yards in the first meeting.

2. Gus Edwards will rush for a career-high 120 yards and a score. The Chargers use the dime package more than anyone in the NFL, which helped them hold Jackson to just 39 rushing yards in Week 16. However, a lighter front leaves Los Angeles more susceptible to the dive plays so frequently run by Edwards. To their credit, the Chargers slowed down the 238-pound rookie in the second half, but he still managed 92 yards on 14 carries two weeks ago. Making matters worse, Los Angeles nose tackle Brandon Mebane isn’t expected to play, making the front seven even more vulnerable against power runs.

3. Jackson will run for more yards than Pro Bowl running back Melvin Gordon. We’ve spent ample time talking about the Ravens’ running game, but has anyone noticed what their rush defense has done since the bye week? Opponents are averaging just 3.4 yards per carry and only two players have managed as much as 60 rushing yards against them over the last seven contests. Gordon is a dynamic player capable of leaving a huge mark in his first NFL playoff game, but he’s more likely to do that as a receiver out of the backfield. I also expect Jackson to find more daylight as the game progresses with the Chargers tweaking their front to account for the inside power runs.

4. A long Cyrus Jones punt return will set up a Ravens touchdown. The running game and a dominant defense have received most of the credit for the post-bye turnaround, but the special teams rose from a pedestrian 13th in special teams DVOA at the bye to sixth by season’s end. Football Outsiders rated Baltimore’s punt return unit second in the league while the Chargers’ punt unit was rated next to last. That disparity didn’t show up to any dramatic degree in Week 16, but Jones has offered a boost in the field-position game since becoming the punt returner and will break a long one on Sunday.

5. Another strong defensive effort will send Baltimore to the divisional round with a 20-17 win. The Chargers were my preseason pick to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, but the first meeting showed this isn’t a great matchup for them. I expect their offense to put up a better fight than it did a couple weeks ago, but Rivers isn’t mobile enough to give the blitz-heavy Ravens the same degree of trouble as Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield did. Credit Los Angeles for doing a better job against the Baltimore running game than any other team over the last two months, but absences at the wrong spots on its dime defense will lead to the Ravens staying more consistent on the ground in the second half. It will be another close game because that’s just a product of the style these current Ravens play, but another complementary effort will be enough to defeat the Chargers for the second time in three weeks. John Harbaugh will improve to 6-0 in wild-card playoff games.

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Ravens’ rematch with Chargers carries much intrigue with playoff stakes

Posted on 03 January 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens are entering unusual territory for Sunday’s wild-card tilt against the Los Angeles Chargers.

Not only will it be their first home playoff game in six years, but the opponent is a team Baltimore saw — and defeated — just two weeks ago. Teams play their divisional foes twice per season, of course, but you rarely see a return bout after just 15 days, making the second meeting between these AFC teams that much more interesting after the Ravens’ convincing 22-10 win in Carson, California on Dec. 22.

The chess match is on against a familiar opponent who is also 8-0 in games played outside Los Angeles.

“Are they going to game-plan us the same way that they did the first game, or are they going to completely change the game plan?” right guard Marshal Yanda said. “Are we going to change the game plan? You really don’t know exactly if they’re going to stick to the script or if they’re going to install a new game plan. You just have to look at their entire body of work, their entire 16-game season.”

The last time the Ravens played the same team twice in such a short period of time was in 2012 when they beat Pittsburgh at Heinz Field in Week 11 and fell to the Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium two weeks later. That same season, Denver clobbered John Harbaugh’s team in Baltimore in mid-December, but you may recall the underdog Ravens faring a little differently at Mile High four weeks later on the way to the second Super Bowl title in franchise history.

No better examples are needed to remind nothing is assured for Baltimore — even with home-field advantage — despite its convincing road victory over Philip Rivers and the Chargers in Week 16. We constantly try to jump to conclusions from what we see in this league in a given week and are frequently sent back to the drawing board, which is what makes the NFL so much fun. The truth is we’re dealing with small sample sizes and many variables in contrast to the other sports that play many more games in a season.

But that brings us to Lamar Jackson and a Ravens running game that’s taken the league by storm over the last two months. Opponents have tried their best to simulate Jackson in practices by using a mobile quarterback or even a speedy player at another position, but his speed and agility have no parallel at the position in today’s game. Teams can watch film and prepare as much as possible, but experiencing this ground attack for the first time is different as the Ravens have rushed for at least 194 yards in six of the last seven games and Jackson set a single-season record for rushing attempts (147) by a quarterback despite starting only seven games.

It’s similar to a hitter stepping to the plate against a pitcher with triple-digit heat, nasty breaking stuff, and an unorthodox delivery for the first time after poring over the scouting reports and watching video in preparation. But in the same way batters have the chance to adjust in subsequent plate appearances, the Chargers’ ninth-ranked run defense will now have the opportunity to provide a meaningful answer to the question we’ve been asking for weeks.

How sustainable is the Ravens’ high-volume running game as opposing defenses are further exposed to it and given more time to prepare?

At first glance, the Chargers surrendering 159 rushing yards and 4.5 yards per carry in Week 16 isn’t worthy of praise, but they fared better against Jackson’s legs and the NFL’s second-ranked rushing attack than any other post-bye opponent. After registering a robust 5.4 yards per carry in the first half, the Ravens managed just 21 yards on their first 10 carries of the second half, contributing to three straight three-and-outs that kept the struggling Chargers within striking distance until Tavon Young’s late fumble return for a touchdown. Jackson carried 13 times for just 39 yards on the night, easily his lowest rushing total since Joe Flacco was still the starting quarterback and the rookie was playing sparingly.

“We weren’t as efficient in the second half as we needed to be,” said tight end Mark Andrews, who caught a 68-yard touchdown in the third quarter of the Week 16 win. “That’s probably one of those things [where] they played a good game and we fell off a little bit.”

It’s not as though opposing defenses haven’t attempted to adjust during games by keeping a safety in the box more frequently, using “Bear” or heavy fronts, or even utilizing pre-snap movement with defensive linemen pinching inside like Cleveland did in the fourth quarter. But this will be the first time an opponent has been able to go back to the laboratory with a full week to prepare and adjust after facing the real thing.

A few teams have managed to slow Baltimore’s ground game — at least somewhat — as Kansas City gave up only 3.8 yards per carry after halftime compared to 6.1 yards per attempt in the first half. The Browns surrendered 4.5 yards per carry in the second half last Sunday after being gashed to the tune of an absurd 8.5 yards per carry over the first two quarters. But only the Chargers have managed to shut down the Baltimore run over the final 30 minutes as the Ravens defense was forced to win the game.

Los Angeles’ propensity for frequently using safeties like rookie sensation Derwin James in the box and more athletic linebackers matches up better with Jackson on the edges.

“We know his speed. I watched him in college as well. His speed is really good,” Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn said. “We know that you have to protect the perimeter with this guy. On the edge, one-on-one — he can win. He’s like a running back with the ball in his hands.”

Such a strategy of using lighter players in the box would seemingly leave the Chargers vulnerable against inside runs. That proved true in the first half as Gus Edwards ran for 60 yards on eight carries, but the 238-pound rookie managed just 11 yards on five carries in the second half before finally breaking off a late 21-yard gain when the game was already decided.

We’re still dealing with such a small sample size, mind you, but did the Chargers manage to finally crack the code? Will Ravens run-game guru Greg Roman cook up something new that Los Angeles coordinator Gus Bradley and his defense won’t be able to handle? Or does Jackson build on what he did through the air against the Chargers after throwing for a career-high 204 yards the first time around?

A return meeting this soon with such high stakes couldn’t be more fascinating.

“They’re skilled. They’re well-coached. They’re disciplined. They make it hard,” said offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg of the Chargers. “They’re really good on defense, and that’s the way I perceive this group that we’re playing. They’ll do a couple of things [differently] during the game — we’ll do a few things [too] — because of the last ball game.

“But every game is its own entity.”

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Ravens-Browns: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 29 December 2018 by Luke Jones

Sunday’s scenario for the Ravens appeared highly unlikely eight weeks ago.

A three-game losing streak and a hip injury to Joe Flacco made 4-5 Baltimore look like a team going nowhere fast, but a revamped run-heavy offense led by rookie Lamar Jackson and the top-ranked defense in the NFL have sparked the Ravens to five wins in their last six games. That surge and Pittsburgh’s late-season slide have put John Harbaugh’s team in position to win its first AFC North championship since 2012 with a victory over Cleveland on Sunday.

However, the Browns have also been resurrected by the strong play of their first-year quarterback. The Ravens got a glimpse of what Baker Mayfield could do in Cleveland’s 12-9 overtime win in Week 5, but the top overall pick from Oklahoma has only gotten better since Hue Jackson’s dismissal, throwing 14 touchdowns and just four interceptions with a 115.2 passer rating over the last six games — five of them wins for the Browns.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Browns meet for the 40th time in the regular season with Baltimore holding a colossal 29-10 advantage and an 18-3 mark in the John Harbaugh era. Cleveland is seeking its first season sweep since 2007, which was also the last time the Browns finished a campaign with a winning record.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Terrell Suggs will record his 20th career sack against Cleveland. Most attention has been on Flacco’s expected departure and Harbaugh’s uncertain future, but Sunday could be Suggs’ final regular-season game with the Ravens, especially if Eric DeCosta chooses to make more drastic roster changes that wouldn’t include re-signing the 36-year-old. No team has surrendered more sacks to the seven-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker in his career, and left tackle Greg Robinson has the lowest Pro Football Focus grade along a Browns offensive line that’s surrendered only three sacks over the last six games.

2. Breshad Perriman will catch a touchdown pass against his former team. No, I’m not forecasting the doomsday scenario of a last-second Mayfield-to-Perriman touchdown to knock the Ravens out of the playoffs — I’m not that rotten — but the former first-round bust has found a place as a solid contributor in Cleveland, catching 13 passes for 295 yards and a touchdown in 199 snaps. Injuries and poor hands predictably made him an unpopular figure in Baltimore, but it had become apparent after his lost 2017 season that Perriman needed a fresh start if he was going to get his career on track.

3. The rookie quarterbacks will combine for four turnovers in their first meeting. This game’s short-term consequences overshadow the big-picture possibility of this being the first of many meetings between two former Heisman Trophy winners playing in the same division, which is fun to ponder as a football fan. That said, the Browns defense ranks second in the NFL in takeaways while the Ravens have forced five turnovers over the last three weeks after lacking in that department all year. Mayfield and Jackson will both make impressive plays, but each will show their inexperience as well.

4. Gus Edwards will rush for 100 yards and a touchdown to protect a second-half lead. At first glance, Cleveland ranking 24th in rush defense bodes well for the Ravens, but the Browns have held their last three opponents — who all rank in the top 12 in yards per carry — to a combined 3.3 yards per attempt. Kansas City and the Los Angeles Chargers quietly contained the Baltimore rushing attack in the second half, but I expect Browns coach and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to sell out to contain the edges against the speedy Jackson, which will open more inside running lanes for Edwards.

5. The defense will lead the Ravens back to the playoffs for the first time since 2014 in a 23-16 win. Since Week 11, Baltimore ranks second in the NFL in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric while the Browns are fourth, which speaks to how formidable both teams have become down the stretch. In a game I expect to be close throughout, I’ll take the team that has the best overall unit on either side of the ball, and that’s the Ravens defense. Wink Martindale has this defense playing at an elite level even when the Baltimore offense has bogged down as it did in the second half of the Chargers game. The Ravens need to be ready to play against an improving team with a quarterback already moving toward folk-hero status in Cleveland. The Browns would love nothing more than to knock the original Browns out of the playoffs for the fourth straight year, but the Ravens’ narrative change that began last week against the Chargers will continue in Week 17, leading to a happy New Year in Baltimore after a few nervous moments.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 20-12 win over Tampa Bay

Posted on 18 December 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens collecting their fourth win in five games in a 20-12 final against Tampa Bay, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Marlon Humphrey turned in the best performance of his young career with an interception, four pass breakups, and a tackle for a loss. He reiterated why he’s been this defense’s best player this season and is probably deserving of being a Pro Bowl alternate.

2. Not counting the final three kneel-downs, the Ravens rushed 29 times for 168 yards in the second half with Gus Edwards carrying eight times for 60 yards in the fourth quarter. This running game has the effect of a great bullpen in baseball. If trailing late, you’re very likely done.

3. That may not have been possible if not for a fortunate first quarter. A drop by Chris Godwin could have been a Tampa Bay touchdown and Buccaneers linebacker Riley Bullough dropped a sure interception. Add those plays to the lost fumble, and the Ravens could have been trailing double digits.

4. Red-zone defense transformed two disastrous plays — Mike Evans’ 64-yard catch on third-and-20 and Cyrus Jones’ inexplicable punt muff — into little more than annoying blips on the radar. Baltimore entered the week just 25th in red-zone defense (65.7 percent) before going a critical 1-for-3.

5. Much has been made about whether Lamar Jackson can be effective in a two-minute drill, but he went 5-for-7 for 56 yards on an eight-play, 63-yard drive for a field goal to close the first half. That was encouraging after a rough start that included another fumble for the rookie.

6. Ten of Jackson’s 14 completions were to the middle of the field with only one traveling more than 20 yards through the air. It’s obvious where he’s most comfortable passing at this point, but the run-pass options and play-action plays open that portion of the field.

7. Brandon Williams has received criticism for not providing enough bang for the buck this season, but his third-and-1 stuff of Peyton Barber for a three-yard loss helped seal the win midway through the fourth quarter. He beat former teammate Ryan Jensen badly on that play.

8. Willie Snead’s 28-yard catch late in the second quarter and Edwards’ 26-yard run late in the fourth doubled the Ravens’ total number of plays of 25 or more yards since the bye. They had 13 over their first nine games. This is definitely a “grind-it-out” team now.

9. One of the more surprising parts of Sunday was Tampa Bay running for 68 yards on 15 carries in the first half. Credit the defense for limiting the Buccaneers to 17 rushing yards after intermission, but that early production from a pedestrian rushing attack in the rain was unexpected.

10. John Harbaugh confirmed Bradley Bozeman rotating with James Hurst at left guard was part of the game plan. Bozeman has improved since the preseason and is a solid bet to eventually be a starting interior lineman, especially with Alex Lewis’ inability to stay healthy.

11. I couldn’t help but wonder what Joe Flacco was thinking as Jackson struggled with the elements early, especially after the former starter threw for 513 yards and four touchdowns without a turnover in the first two rain-heavy home games of 2018 against Buffalo and Denver.

12. The Ravens are 8-6 entering Week 16 with their playoff hopes hanging in the balance for the third straight season. Even with a new quarterback and the drastic change in offensive style of play, Ravens fans can hardly be blamed if they can’t shake feelings of déjà vu.

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Ravens-Buccaneers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 15 December 2018 by Luke Jones

The more things change for the Ravens, the more they stay the same as they host Tampa Bay on Sunday.

The quarterback and offense are different, but Baltimore entered the bye week with a 4-5 record, won three straight against underwhelming competition, and then lost a heartbreaker on the road against one of the best teams in the NFL. John Harbaugh’s team hadn’t done that since … wait for it … last year.

Still sporting a chance to win the AFC North and considered the favorite in a group of flawed teams currently vying for the No. 6 seed, will the Ravens get the job done this time around?

It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet for just the sixth time ever with the Ravens enjoying a 3-2 advantage. Baltimore has won the last three contests in the series as the Buccaneers haven’t won since 2002, which was their Super Bowl-winning season.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Ex-Raven Ryan Jensen will be flagged for mixing it up with a former teammate. Ozzie Newsome was wise not to give Jensen a $42 million deal, but that doesn’t mean Baltimore hasn’t missed him as his departure was the biggest change in a sound running game from a year ago becoming inept in the first half of 2018. The Ravens liked Jensen’s fire and physicality, but he’s struggled in Tampa Bay with penalties and underwhelming play as Pro Football Focus ranks him 29th among centers. His propensity for playing through the whistle is a recipe for an altercation with someone like Matt Judon.

2. Kenneth Dixon will lead Baltimore in rushing. Last Sunday’s loss at Kansas City was easily the best Dixon has looked since his rookie season as he registered 80 total yards and a touchdown on nine touches. Meanwhile, Gus Edwards has averaged an ordinary 4.0 yards per carry over the last two games after racking up 5.8 per attempt in the previous two weeks. Edwards will remain heavily involved, but a healthy Dixon is the most versatile of the Ravens’ running backs and gives them some juice as a receiver. Now, you hold your breath that the 2016 fourth-round pick can stay on the field.

3. Tampa Bay’s James Winston will throw a critical interception to spoil a two-touchdown day. The Buccaneers haven’t won a road game since Week 1, but any team that’s beaten New Orleans and held a 14-3 halftime lead in last week’s rematch should have your attention. It’s been a turbulent year for Winston, but he’s thrown eight touchdowns and two picks while averaging 243 passing yards per game over the last four weeks. Meanwhile, Marlon Humphrey, Tony Jefferson, and Tavon Young aren’t 100 percent in the Ravens secondary. That’s a concern facing the league’s No. 1 passing attack that has one of the better receivers in football in Mike Evans.

4. Lamar Jackson will find Willie Snead for the slot receiver’s first touchdown since Week 1. It’s difficult figuring out where the rapport is between these two as Snead was Baltimore’s leading receiver in Jackson’s first start as well as in Kansas City, but the slot receiver had a total of one catch for eight yards in the wins over Oakland and Atlanta. The Ravens need to find more production out of their passing game down the stretch, and Jackson has been most successful throwing over the middle from spread formations, making Snead’s presence important. Tampa Bay ranks dead last in red-zone defense.

5. The Ravens will strengthen their playoff chances with an unspectacular 26-17 victory. My confidence level in a win remains high, but the Buccaneers are capable of giving any team problems with the way they throw the ball all over the field. Their fatal flaw has been an unthinkable 24 interceptions this season, but the Ravens rank 31st in the league with just 10 takeaways — six of them interceptions — and are banged up in the secondary. Playing another bad run defense will help, but the last four weeks have each been one-score games in the fourth quarter as the Ravens aren’t built to blow out teams without the defense or special teams contributing a touchdown or two. Harbaugh’s team won’t gain much from the eyeball-test perspective on Sunday, but a win is all that matters in mid-December.

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Time has come for Ravens to embrace the weirdness

Posted on 03 December 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens are weird.

Very weird.

There’s nothing conventional about possessing the ball for more than 24 minutes in the second half or running nearly twice as often as you pass in today’s NFL. You don’t plan for your punter to make the best throw of the day or your starting quarterback to fumble three times and pass for 125 yards in your biggest road game of the season to date.

But that all happened as the Ravens won — again.

Nothing about this is ideal, nor should it be viewed as any kind of long-term blueprint for talented rookie Lamar Jackson, who is an electric runner with a long way to go to become an all-around franchise quarterback. To be clear, that’s to be expected after only three starts, but his athleticism and upside cannot dismiss concerns about ball security, a shortage of plays in the passing game, inconsistent mechanics and accuracy, and not doing the little things such as throwing the ball away instead of taking a loss. If nothing else, we can all agree Jackson running more often than he passes is not a recipe for keeping him healthy for the long haul, a reality that shouldn’t be completely ignored in the present.

In a perfect world, a healthy Joe Flacco would be under center as the Ravens make their December push for the playoffs. The 33-year-old would have a strong running game in the conventional sense, a stout and healthy offensive line, and wide receivers who consistently gain separation and catch the football to allow him to potentially channel past postseason success.

But that’s not reality, which is why Jackson’s skill set is the better fit for what the Ravens have become over the last three weeks in which they’ve gone from a 4-5 team circling the drain to one holding the No. 6 spot in the AFC and just a half-game behind Pittsburgh in the AFC North. A healthy Flacco and a more conventional offense may have also won three straight against struggling teams, but we can’t say that for sure, making it a difficult sell to a rejuvenated locker room that you’re just going to pivot back toward the hypothetical.

Perhaps the rise of Gus Edwards and bye-week adjustments would have led to a better running game with Flacco at quarterback than what we saw with running back Alex Collins over the first half of the season, but we’ve watched the Ravens rush for a remarkable 716 yards over the last three weeks with Jackson’s speed putting incredible pressure on opposing run defenses. Baltimore ran for just 834 yards over its first nine games, and no one could objectively argue that the ground game would be as explosive with an immobile quarterback on the field these last three weeks.

That’s more of a knock on the front office and coaching staff for not being able to field a productive running game by conventional measures, but here we are going into Week 14. Giving yourself the best chance to win in December isn’t about what’s fair to any individual player — even one who won you a Super Bowl several years ago.

It’s time to embrace the weirdness and let it ride in a way similar to how Brian Billick embraced “the dark side” on the way to an eventual Super Bowl win 18 years ago. As head coach John Harbaugh said after Sunday’s 26-16 win in Atlanta, no one really knows exactly where this is going, which should make it fun.

Perhaps the best way to describe what the Ravens have become is a warped version of that 2000 team. This defense doesn’t compare to that historic unit, of course, but holding the league’s 11th-ranked scoring offense to 131 yards and nine points — Jackson’s second fumble resulted in the other Falcons touchdown — was a terrific road performance. No one is ready to confuse Edwards with a young Jamal Lewis, but the rookie free agent’s 5.0 yards per carry and physical style have been a godsend. And if Jackson can limit the turnovers, he at least represents a much more athletic version of Trent Dilfer for now.

None of that is to suggest the Ravens fit the profile of a team poised to make a deep run in January. They might lose by three touchdowns in Kansas City this Sunday, but you could have said the same about the struggling team we saw before the bye week. The Ravens’ best chance — even if still not a good one — is to play keep-away from Patrick Mahomes and the high-powered Chiefs offense while hoping their own offense becomes more efficient inside the opponent’s 30, something that remains a pressing concern.

Unforeseen circumstances have led to the Ravens discovering a nightmare-inducing running game that’s allowed them to dominate the time of possession, proving the opportunity for the defense to be fresher late in games. The Chiefs will offer the ultimate test as we continue to wonder how long this approach can be sustained. A disastrous performance could lead to reassessing — especially if Flacco is fully healthy and looks good in practice — but we said the same thing last week before Baltimore recorded only its second December road win in the last four years.

There will be plenty of time to debate what Jackson will ultimately become, but keeping him on the field does add the long-term benefit of him gaining experience while the Ravens try to “weird” their way to the playoffs for the first time in four years.

It’s time to just go with it and enjoy the ride.

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Ravens-Falcons: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 02 December 2018 by Luke Jones

With Joe Flacco inactive for the third straight week, rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson will take his show on the road for the Ravens.

The 2018 first-round pick from Louisville will make the first away start of his career as the Ravens try to extend their two-game winning streak and improve their playoff positioning with a victory in Atlanta. A win and a solid performance very well could mean Jackson keeping the starting job despite Flacco (right hip) returning to practice on a limited basis on Thursday and Friday.

As expected, running back Kenneth Dixon is active and will play for the first time since Week 1. Dixon was activated from injured reserve on Saturday as former starter Alex Collins was placed on IR with a foot injury. Despite being listed as questionable with an ankle injury, Gus Edwards will make his second straight start and is aiming for his third consecutive 100-yard rushing game, something no Baltimore running back has accomplished since Justin Forsett in 2014.

Slot cornerback Tavon Young will make his return after missing last week’s game with a groin injury. That’s a positive development for a defense trying to slow the Falcons’ fourth-ranked passing attack.

With Tony Jefferson out with an ankle injury, second-year safety Chuck Clark will make his first NFL start.

A surprising healthy scratch was fullback and defensive lineman Patrick Ricard, who had played 16 offensive snaps in each of the last two games. However, the Ravens could easily use blocking tight ends Nick Boyle and Maxx Williams to account for those fullback snaps.

The Falcons have the daunting task of slowing a Baltimore rushing attack that’s collected more than 500 rushing yards over the last two weeks, but the return of 2017 Pro Bowl linebacker Deion Jones is significant. Jones hasn’t played since injuring his foot in Week 1.

The referee for Sunday’s game is Brad Allen.

With the roof of Mercedes-Benz Stadium scheduled to be open for the 1 p.m. kickoff, the Weather.com forecast in Atlanta calls for partly cloudy skies and temperatures in the low 70 degrees with winds five to 10 miles per hour and a 20-percent chance of rain.

The Ravens are wearing white jerseys with black pants while Atlanta dons its red jerseys and white pants for Week 13.

Sunday marks the sixth all-time meeting between these teams with Baltimore holding a slight 3-2 advantage. The Falcons held a 2-1 home advantage at the Georgia Dome, but the Ravens are playing at their new stadium for the first time.

Below are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
QB Joe Flacco
S Tony Jefferson
OT James Hurst
LB Tim Williams
FB/DL Patrick Ricard
DL Zach Sieler
WR Jordan Lasley

ATLANTA
K Giorgio Tavecchio
RB Brian Hill
CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson
S Keith Tandy
S Ryan Neal
DE Steven Means
OT Matt Gono

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Ravens-Falcons: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 01 December 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens holding a 6-5 record going into December is very familiar territory.

For the third straight year, John Harbaugh’s team is a game above .500 and occupying a playoff spot going into the final month of the season. But we know how that turned out the last two seasons, and the Ravens now begin a daunting stretch of three road games over the next four weeks.

Atlanta has dropped to 4-7 after a three-game losing streak, but Baltimore’s only December road victory over the last three seasons came against winless Cleveland last year. In other words, the Ravens have no reason to feel overconfident against a team circling the drain in the NFC playoff race.

It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet for just the sixth time in the all-time regular-season series. The Ravens hold a 3-2 advantage, but they were 1-2 at the Georgia Dome, the Falcons’ former home before Mercedes-Benz Stadium opened last year.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Gus Edwards will rush for over 100 yards for the third consecutive game. Alex Collins going to injured reserve reinforces what we already knew: Edwards is the No. 1 guy. Much was made about the poor Cincinnati and Oakland defenses the last two weeks, but Edwards will now face a Falcons defense ranking 25th in rushing yards allowed and 30th in yards per carry allowed (5.1). Atlanta will sell out to limit Lamar Jackson’s rushing opportunities, which will allow Edwards to become the first Ravens running back since Justin Forsett in 2014 to eclipse the century mark in three consecutive contests.

2. Julio Jones will catch a touchdown despite being held under 100 yards for the first time since Week 5. It’ll be fascinating to see how the Ravens approach Jones and whether Marlon Humphrey or Jimmy Smith travels with him — likely with some safety help. You don’t stop a generational talent like Jones, who has registered at least six catches and 100 yards in six straight games, but the goal is preventing him from wrecking the game. The problem will be accounting for Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu in the process. Jones will find the end zone for only the fourth time this season.

3. Two turnovers will overshadow an otherwise solid day for Jackson in his first road start. There is much to like about the rookie, but a road game provides new challenges for a young quarterback that shouldn’t be taken lightly. The Ravens will again lean heavily on the run, but a better opposing offense will force Jackson into more passing spots late. Protecting the football is even more critical on the road, but Jackson has tossed three interceptions and experienced a couple hiccups at the mesh point of zone-read handoffs. Similar miscues will be costly and offset some impressive moments.

4. The Baltimore defense will surrender a late touchdown pass to Falcons tight end Austin Hooper. An opposing tight end has caught a touchdown against the Ravens in four of the last five games, and Hooper is capable enough of causing some problems as the secondary tries to slow such a talented wide receiver trio. How Ravens safeties and linebackers handle Hooper and running back Tevin Coleman as a receiver out of the backfield will be a substantial key. Chuck Clark filling in for the injured Tony Jefferson doesn’t bring a major drop-off at safety, but Matt Ryan will find Hooper in a critical spot.

5. The recent history of December struggles will continue as the Ravens fall 27-20 to Atlanta. In case you were wondering, I’d still be picking the Falcons if a healthy Joe Flacco was under center this week. I don’t expect the environment to be too big for Jackson, but lost in the hype of a revamped running game is the fact that the Ravens scored four offensive touchdowns at home against two dreadful defenses, which isn’t particularly impressive. Perhaps the Falcons have quit after three straight losses, but their offense is too talented on paper to continue to underperform, especially with extra rest after a Thanksgiving night game. On the flip side, the Baltimore defense has a total of two takeaways and six sacks over its last five games and just doesn’t make enough dynamic plays despite its impressive statistical profile. The Ravens offense is an underwhelming 4-for-8 inside the red zone the last two weeks, and Baltimore ranks 22nd in red-zone defense entering Week 13. That area of the field will be the difference in a tight game.

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Ravens place Collins on IR, activate running back Dixon

Posted on 01 December 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens have made a substantial change to their backfield depth ahead of Sunday’s game at Atlanta.

Former starting running back Alex Collins has been placed on injured reserve to make room for the activation of running back Kenneth Dixon, who had been on IR since suffering a knee injury in the Week 1 win over Buffalo. Dixon was designated to return to practice two weeks ago and is in line to play in just his second game in the last two seasons as Baltimore aims for its third straight win against the Falcons in Week 13.

Collins was listed as a full participant in Friday’s practice, but the third-year back had been dealing with a foot injury since before the bye week and was deactivated for last week’s win over Oakland. Despite rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson’s dramatic impact on the running game, Collins rushed for just 18 yards on seven carries against Cincinnati two weeks ago while rookie Gus Edwards impressively ran for 115 yards to all but officially win the starting job moving forward.

“It’s just day-to-day with Alex right now as far as I know,” head coach John Harbaugh said on Wednesday. “That’s where we’re at with that.”

One of the feel-good stories of 2017 after emerging from the practice squad to rush for 973 yards and average 4.6 yards per carry, Collins never got on track this season as he averaged 3.6 yards per carry despite a team-high eight touchdowns. He will be a restricted free agent, leaving the Ravens with an interesting decision in an offseason expected to bring substantial changes to the roster.

A 2016 fourth-round pick out of Louisiana Tech, the talented Dixon has seen the start of his NFL career derailed by injuries and off-field issues. After running for 382 yards and averaging 4.3 yards per carry in 12 games as a rookie, Dixon missed the entire 2017 season with a knee injury and also served two drug-related suspensions. He rushed for 44 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries in the 2018 opener against Buffalo before hurting his knee and being placed on IR a few days later.

With Edwards and veteran Ty Montgomery recently emerging as a formidable 1-2 punch in Baltimore’s revamped rushing attack, Dixon will need to stay healthy to provide viable depth in a running back group that also includes Buck Allen.

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