Tag Archive | "houston"

Indoor baseball doesn't have to suck. Houston has known this for 50 years...

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MLB #GiveASpit Ballpark Ranking: No. 11 Houston Astros

Posted on 30 August 2015 by Nestor Aparicio

Houston – While Minute Maid Park has a bit of an airplane hangar vibe like Arizona and Milwaukee, this is by far the best of the trio of similar buildings. Great concessions, a cool left field wall and center field hill and the place doesn’t feel so cavernous. The team is playing good baseball and there was distinct energy in the air on the night I saw Dallas Kuechel sink the Yankees. Maybe there are some big games to come and some memories yet to be made but this is an underrated building and a nice (mostly indoor) place to watch a baseball game.

I never saw a game at the Astrodome. The punchline from most Astros fans would be: “Good, that place sucked!” But I must admit that I pine away for one night of glory in the cradle of Luv Ya Blue where sunburst uniforms and Jose Cruz running around. The current setup definitely feels like the same franchise. I liked the stadium. It’s the nicest of the domed places by far.

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Davis flashes why Orioles can’t give up on him yet

Posted on 28 May 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — You can’t take too much away from Chris Davis’ two-homer performance in a 5-4 win over Houston on Wednesday night.

The Orioles hope it’s the start of a turnaround from a start that’s too closely resembled the first baseman’s nightmarish 2014 campaign. But it was just over a year ago — May 20, 2014 to be exact — that Davis hit three home runs in a win over Pittsburgh before then going 7-for-43 with one long ball and 19 strikeouts in his next 11 games.

For now, manager Buck Showalter and the Orioles will cross their fingers that it’s the start of a run similar to those we witnessed in 2012 and 2013 when Davis was capable of carrying the offense for days — sometimes weeks — at a time. A breakout now would certainly help an offense struggling to score runs as the Orioles try to move back to the .500 mark.

 

“The reason why we talk about that — or you talk about it — is because of what he’s done in the past and what his track record shows,” Showalter said. “You look at some of the ERAs of their bullpen and to do it off [Houston lefty Tony] Sipp, that’s pretty hard to do.”

As critical as Davis’ home run to the right-center bleachers was to give the Orioles a 5-4 lead in the bottom of the eighth, it merely offers a reminder of what the left-handed slugger is capable of, with no guarantees of what lies next. But it’s the reason why recent calls for Davis to be benched are based more on frustration and less in reality.

To be clear, a .216 batting average and 64 strikeouts in 174 plate appearances aren’t good enough. A 36.8 percent strikeout rate and 9.2 percent walk rate are numbers trending in the wrong direction from previous seasons, especially considering Davis is on pace to strike out a major league record 236 times.

But who do you really want to see in his place? Backup first baseman Steve Pearce is hitting .190. Prospect Christian Walker has only two home runs and sports a .656 on-base plus slugging percentage at Triple-A Norfolk this season. Former Minnesota Twins prospect Chris Parmelee has posted a strong .833 OPS for the Tides, but do you really think he’s the cure to the Orioles’ offensive woes or brings enough upside to justify starting him over a guy who hit 53 home runs two years ago?

With Davis struggling as much as he has in the month of May — along with most of the lineup — it’s perfectly reasonable to give the scuffling first baseman a day or two off, especially against a tough left-handed pitcher. It’s what Showalter did on Monday with Houston’s Dallas Keuchel on the mind. Coincidence or not, Davis has driven in four runs in his two games since then.

“As a player, I don’t think you ever want a day off,” Davis said. “You want to be in there every day, but sometimes you need it. Sometimes it’s better for them just to tell you to take a day as opposed to asking you. I think it was good. I definitely could have used the rest. It was good for me to sit back and watch the game and take a day off mentally.”

An occasional day off or a lowering in the batting order is one thing, but the Orioles need Davis’ upside in the lineup on a regular basis. It has nothing to do with his future as it appears more and more likely that Baltimore will rightly allow the frustrating slugger to depart via free agency after this season.

But the Orioles need his power potential in the lineup, because it will pay off — at least from time to time — like it did on Wednesday. Say what you want about the batting average and the strikeouts, but the 29-year-old leads the club in home runs and RBIs and is on pace to hit 37 bombs on the season.

In the same way that the Orioles did with Mark Reynolds a few years ago, you take the good with the bad. A .757 OPS is less than ideal for a first baseman and a middle-of-the-order hitter, but Davis represents the most upside that the club currently has from a power standpoint, especially after the offseason departure of Nelson Cruz.

For as long as he’s an Oriole, Davis needs to remain in the lineup. Wednesday brought a much-needed — and overdue — reminder of that.

“Any time you see that swing and he makes contact and the ball hit to right field, you know it’s going to the bleachers,” said winning pitcher Brad Brach of Davis’ two home runs that helped the Orioles hand the Astros their first road series loss of the season. “You just want to see how far it goes. That’s awesome for him. He works hard every day, and I’m glad to see it’s paying off.”

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Ravens sign veteran safety Kendrick Lewis

Posted on 14 March 2015 by Luke Jones

After watching a number of their own depart in the first week of free agency, the Ravens have made their first significant addition of the offseason by agreeing to a deal with safety Kendrick Lewis.

Baltimore agreed to a three-year contract with the 26-year-old who started 16 games for the Houston Texans last season and spent the first four years of his NFL career as a starter with the Kansas City Chiefs. Lewis collected 84 tackles, two interceptions, three forced fumbles, and six pass breakups for Houston last season, but the Texans signed safety Rahim Moore to a three-year, $12 million contract earlier this week.

With starting safety Darian Stewart signing a two-year deal with Denver on Friday, the Ravens had an obvious need at the position and Lewis is considered a strong tackler despite being unremarkable in coverage. The 2010 fifth-round pick out of Ole Miss graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 27th-ranked safety in the NFL among those who played in at least half of his team’s snaps last year. Stewart was graded 23rd by the same publication.

The Lewis signing completes a fascinating game of musical chairs as he replaces Stewart, who will replace Moore in Denver after the ex-Broncos safety signed with Houston to take Lewis’ starting job. Houston was reportedly interested in bringing back the 6-foot, 198-pound Lewis, but he viewed Baltimore as a better opportunity.

Though not an addition appearing to have a great deal of upside, Lewis gives the Ravens a veteran option in anticipation of what looks to be a weak 2015 draft class of safeties beyond Alabama’s Landon Collins. Lewis and Will Hill would appear to have the inside track as Baltimore’s starting safeties at this early stage of the offseason, but others figure to be in the mix such as disappointing 2013 first-round pick Matt Elam and 2014 third-round pick Terrence Brooks, who is currently recovering from knee surgery and isn’t expected to be ready for the start of the season.

A restricted free agent, Hill was given the $1.542 million low tender before the start of free agency, which gives the Ravens the right of first refusal should another team sign the 24-year-old to an offer sheet.

Though general manager Ozzie Newsome doesn’t typically sign unrestricted free agents due to their negative impact on the compensatory pick formula, the loss of five unrestricted free agents of their own means that the Lewis addition wouldn’t appear to impact their ability to earn the maximum number of four compensatory picks for next year’s draft.

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Slow offensive starts threatening to bring Ravens’ season to abrupt finish

Posted on 22 December 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — No one could have predicted Sunday’s offensive debacle that resulted in the Ravens losing control of their path to the playoffs, but the 25-13 loss continued a disturbing trend in the final month of the season.

Despite winning two of three December games on the way to a 9-6 record, Baltimore has needed to overcome alarmingly slow starts against Miami, Jacksonville, and, finally, Houston. Of course, those offensive woes continued throughout the day against the Texans as the Ravens managed only 64 total yards through the first three quarters, bringing the concern to the forefront.

In 21 first-quarter plays against the Dolphins, Jaguars, and Texans, the Ravens compiled just 54 yards, one first down, and seven points, which came on a punt block returned for a touchdown against Jacksonville. For an offense that entered Week 16 ranked 10th in total yards and eighth in points per game, the poor starts are difficult to explain, but Sunday illustrated how a disturbing trend will ultimately catch up with you before too long.

Head coach John Harbaugh didn’t offer much clarity on the first-quarter problems when asked about them on Monday.

“Each game has been different,” Harbaugh said. “Every play and every series is different. There are different reasons for it. We’ve also had fast starts, too.”

The better starts have been few and far between as the Ravens have only scored more than seven points in the first quarter twice all season, the 28-point explosion against Tampa Bay in Week 6 and a 10-point effort against San Diego in Week 13. In contrast, Baltimore has failed to score in the opening quarter seven times this season while being shut out in only four other 15-minute periods.

The Ravens have scored 76 points in the first quarter this season with the 28 against the Buccaneers skewing the total substantially. They’ve scored 93 in the second, 91 in the third, and 129 in the fourth quarters of play.

So, what’s been the issue?

Some observers suggest the Ravens’ preference to defer whenever they win the coin toss as a potential factor. Baltimore has kicked off to begin games 10 times this year, but the offense has scored on three of five possessions when receiving the ball at the start of the game. Like Harbaugh, many coaches prefer receiving the ball to begin the second half when a game has already taken shape, but perhaps the Ravens offense needs to be thrown into the fire to wake up more quickly.

It’s fair to note that kicking off in the first quarter will limit a team’s possessions in the opening 15 minutes, but a 15-game body of work is too big of a sample to simply dismiss the problem.

“We give thought to that every week. We consider all the ramifications of that,” said Harbaugh about the decision to receive or defer. “We do what we think is best to win the game. We generally like to start on defense. That’s generally our rule of thumb. If you look at the stats on it, that’s the way to go. You have a little better chance, maybe a percent-and-a-half better at winning, historically, if you defer and kickoff.

“We also have a very good defense, so we like doing that. But it could change next week. It’s not to say that it couldn’t change or we have any aversion to taking the ball.”

Others wonder if offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s opening script of plays is either too predictable or fails to adjust to what a defense is showing in the early stages of the game. As was the case earlier in the year against Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and even Tennessee, the Texans showed plenty of A-gap blitzing to bring pressure up the middle against quarterback Joe Flacco. The Ravens failed to handle it physically or schematically in what was the start of a very long day.

But the biggest issue with the slow starts in recent weeks has been the absence of the running game, which has paced Baltimore to its 9-6 record and entered Sunday’s game ranked fifth in the NFL. In the last three games, the Ravens have gained only 18 yards on 10 carries in the first quarter.

The lack of production in the running game has led to far too many third-and-long situations and makes Flacco and the offense too predictable. The Ravens are 0-for-6 on third down in the first quarter over the last three weeks, failing to stay on schedule in sustaining drives.

“They’ve blitzed the run game quite a bit,” Harbaugh said. “In some games, we’ve handled that and made them pay for it, and some games we haven’t, and in this game we certainly didn’t hurt them.”

A game is rarely won or lost in the first quarter — as their overall record proves — but the Ravens’ most-recent streak of slow starts offensively finally caught up with them in dramatic fashion on Sunday. And if they manage to find their way into the postseason, the trend will need to be reversed if the Ravens want any good shot of competing beyond the first weekend in January.

It’s a weakness that’s prevented a good offense from being very good for the better part of the 2014 season.

“I guess I don’t feel as somber about it as you all do,” said Harbaugh about turning the page from the disappointment of Sunday. “There is no success without failure. You don’t improve and grow [without failure]. There’s a process to it all, and you come up short sometimes, and we came up short in this game, but that’s how you improve and get better.”

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Ravens lose both offensive tackles to injury in Sunday’s loss

Posted on 21 December 2014 by Luke Jones

As if the embarrassment of their worst offensive performance of the year wasn’t enough, the Ravens lost both starting offensive tackles to injury in the 25-13 loss to the Houston Texans on Sunday.

Right tackle Rick Wagner was carted to the locker room with a foot injury sustained in the third quarter and didn’t return. The state of the offensive line turned even worse in the fourth quarter when veteran left tackle Eugene Monroe left the game and didn’t return.

It remained unclear what the extent of each player’s injury was immediately following the game, but reports from Houston indicated Wagner was wearing a protective boot on his foot and using crutches while Monroe was also wearing a protective boot on his foot.

“There’s nothing I want to share right now,” said head coach John Harbaugh about their status after the game. “We’ll just see how those guys come out of it and see where we’re at.”

Their departures caused plenty of shuffling on the starting line as the Ravens finished the game with rookie free agent James Hurst playing left tackle and Pro Bowl right guard moving out to right tackle, a position he hadn’t played since the 2010 season. Rookie John Urschel then entered the game to occupy Yanda’s normal position.

Hurst was previously filling in for Wagner at the right tackle spot before Monroe got hurt.

The Ravens were held to just 64 yards through the first three quarters of action and rushed for just 33 yards on 16 carries against the Houston defense.

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Control of playoff path slips away along with Ravens’ late-season mettle

Posted on 21 December 2014 by Luke Jones

There are tough losses and then there’s that rare defeat that forces you to reevaluate everything you thought you knew about a football team.

The Ravens experienced the latter Sunday in falling to the Houston Texans in a 25-13 final with numbers that don’t do justice to how miserable the performance was. Baltimore has experienced bigger margins of defeat in the John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco era, but most haven’t come in a spot in which the Ravens had so much to lose.

Sunday was easily the worst offensive performance of the season as the Ravens were held to an anemic 64 yards through the first three quarters. From Flacco and the running game to the offensive line and the wide receivers, no part of the performance was remotely acceptable, including a coaching staff that failed to account for the Texans’ pass rush throughout the day or to find answers to get the all-important running game on track.

For the second straight year, the Ravens entered Week 16 in complete control of their path to the playoffs, needing two wins to guarantee a trip to the postseason. And just like last year’s home defeat to New England in the penultimate game of the regular season, the Ravens were dominated while watching that playoff power slip through their fingers.

Losing big at home to the Patriots last season was bad enough, but at least it came against a team regarded as one of the NFL’s best. On Sunday, the Ravens fell on the road to a team sporting a .500 record and starting a fourth-string quarterback who was signed off another team’s practice squad earlier in the week.

Of course, Sunday’s defeat had very little to do with Texans quarterback Case Keenum and everything to do with a Houston defense that overwhelmed Flacco and the offense. The Texans deserve plenty of credit and have the best defensive player on the planet in J.J. Watt, but the Ravens offense coming up so small with the stakes so high negates much of the progress made in Gary Kubiak’s first year as coordinator.

It reeked of the ineptitude of last year.

As much scrutiny as the Ravens defense has drawn over a secondary ravaged by injuries, Dean Pees’ unit played admirably in limiting the Texans to just one touchdown in seven trips inside the red zone. You could have almost stomached a defeat in which Texans receivers Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins kept running free and Keenum caught lightning in a bottle, but the Baltimore defense was acceptable on Sunday.

The Ravens can still make the playoffs with a win over Cleveland next Sunday and either two losses by Cincinnati or a San Diego loss at Kansas City, but their loss on Sunday makes you wonder if they’ve lost the late-season mettle made famous in Harbaugh’s first five years at the helm. Maybe it’s because of certain talent deficiencies, something missing in their current DNA, or both, but the Ravens just didn’t lose games like Sunday’s in Harbaugh’s first five seasons.

After 15 games and just two wins over teams currently holding a .500 record, the 9-6 Ravens just might not be all that good. Their biggest critics have repeatedly pointed out how they’ve benefited from playing the woeful NFC South as Baltimore holds a 5-6 record against the rest of the league. Beating bad teams is well and good, but you have to rise to the occasion to put yourself in position to do something special by beating quality opponents.

Are the Ravens good enough to make the playoffs in 2014? Sure, as long as they win next week and receive some outside help from other less-than-stellar talent in the AFC. Plenty of teams have made the playoffs without looking like they “deserve” it.

But it’s difficult envisioning the Ravens going on any kind of a significant run in January, especially with the offense regressing over the last few weeks and a defense with band-aids upon band-aids in the secondary. The uncertainty after injuries to offensive tackles Eugene Monroe and Rick Wagner certainly won’t help, either.

Sunday brought reality into a nightmarish focus.

The Ravens not only lost control of their path to the postseason, but their proven late-season mettle appeared to slip away with it.

They can begin trying to find it again next week, but there’s no guarantee the ride will continue beyond that.

And they have no one to blame but themselves.

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Only one scenario remains for Ravens to clinch playoff spot in Week 16

Posted on 21 December 2014 by Luke Jones

Jim Harbaugh is likely on his way out as the head coach in San Francisco, and his team was unable to put his older brother and the Ravens in position to potentially clinch a playoff spot on Sunday afternoon.

With the 49ers’ overtime loss to the San Diego Chargers, the Ravens can only clinch an AFC wild-card berth with a win over the Houston Texans and losses by Pittsburgh to Kansas City and Cincinnati to Denver. Such a scenario would not only guarantee the Ravens no worse than a wild-card spot, but it would land Baltimore in first place in the AFC North entering Week 17.

The Ravens can win the division by running the table and Pittsburgh and Cincinnati each losing at least one more game. The Bengals host the Broncos on Monday night before traveling to Heinz Field to take on the Steelers in Week 17.

Of course, John Harbaugh and the Ravens are guaranteed a playoff berth if they win their final two games against Houston and Cleveland.

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Ravens-Texans: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 20 December 2014 by Luke Jones

Sunday represents a homecoming for a number of players and coaches as the Ravens travel to Houston to take on the Texans.

From offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and assistants Rick Dennison and Brian Pariani to tight end Owen Daniels, running back Justin Forsett, and wide receiver Jacoby Jones, plenty of Ravens will be returning to a place they called home for a number of years, but there’s little time for sentimentality when you’re in the playoff race. At 9-5, Baltimore can clinch a playoff spot in Week 16 with a win and losses by both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh or a win over the Texans coupled with defeats by both San Diego and Kansas City.

On the surface, the Ravens should feel very confident as the Texans are turning to their fourth quarterback of the season — expected to be the newly-signed Case Keenum — but Houston still possesses the best defensive player on the planet in J.J. Watt and a powerful running game that ranks fourth in the NFL. The 7-7 Texans are a long shot to sneak into the playoffs at this point, but they’d like nothing more than to spoil Baltimore’s playoff chances on Sunday.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Texans meet for the seventh time in regular-season history with the Ravens holding a 6-1 edge, which doesn’t include their 20-13 win over Houston in the 2011 postseason. Baltimore is 3-1 against Houston at NRG Stadium.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens hope to clinch a playoff spot in Week 16 …

1. Baltimore will advance its streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher to 25 games, but Arian Foster will have a season-high total against the Ravens defense. No opposing running back has even gotten close to the century mark this season as Ahmad Bradshaw of Indianapolis has the highest total of the year against the Ravens with just 68 in Week 5. However, Foster will represent the greatest test the Ravens have seen since Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata was suspended for Adderall use. Both defenses will be familiar with the opposing rushing attack as the Ravens and Texans both use the zone stretch, but Houston will be a bit too predictable relying on the run due to the uncertainty at the quarterback position. Foster will rush for more yards against the Ravens than any back this season, but his total will remain south of 100 yards.

2. Daniels will catch a touchdown and have his best game of the season against his former team. The longtime Texans tight end having a strong day against his former team would be a feel-good story, but quarterback Joe Flacco went out of his way earlier in the week to say Daniels needs to be more involved in the offense. Against Jacksonville, Daniels was targeted nine times — the most he’s been thrown to since Week 9 — and caught four passes for 62 yards and his first touchdown since Week 7. The Ravens’ 17th-ranked red-zone attack remains a weakness of a strong offensive attack, but the reemergence of Daniels would be a major factor in a potential trip to the playoffs. His familiarity with the Texans’ defensive personnel will help him produce a season-high in yards, besting the 70 he had against the Colts in Week 5.

3. Watt will collect a sack and bat down a pass, but the Ravens will throw away from him and run plenty of counters to try to minimize his impact. The Texans defensive end might go down as the most disruptive defensive force the NFL has seen since Lawrence Taylor, but the Ravens can only focus on minimizing his impact as much as possible on Sunday. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel will move Watt all over the defensive line, so the key is identifying where he lines up and running the play away from him. Flacco will throw to the opposite side of where Watt lines up to try to minimize his ability to use his 6-foot-5 frame to disrupt passing lanes, but running the counter is effective in slowing his motor as well as the rest of the Houston pass rush. Watt will see double-teams, chip blocks, and max protect as well, but play selection will be just as important.

4. Daryl Smith will pick up his second interception of the year to continue his strong finish to the season. A slow start and the emergence of rookie C.J. Mosley have led many to overlook how well the veteran linebacker has played in the second half of the season. An effective blitzer and still the Ravens’ best linebacker in pass coverage, Smith could be a key factor in trying to confuse Keenum, who proved to be an aggressive passer who couldn’t handle a pass rush in eight games for the Texans last season. It’s obvious the Baltimore defense will try to pressure the young quarterback, but Smith could prove key by showing blitz up the middle before dropping into pass coverage. The secondary will have its hands full with wide receivers Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins — if the latter plays — but Smith will come away with a pick with Keenum facing a heavy rush.

5. Baltimore’s advantage at the quarterback position will be the ultimate difference in a tight 23-16 win for the Ravens. Last week’s struggles against the Jaguars should remind everyone that nothing is guaranteed in the NFL, and the Texans remained competitive in Indianapolis last week despite veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick going down with a broken leg. Bill O’Brien’s team has talent on both sides of the ball, but it’s very difficult imagining John Harbaugh and the Ravens losing to a fourth-string quarterback under these critical circumstances. Flacco will need to stand tall against a formidable pass rush, but he’s played very well since the bye week, a trend that will continue against a mediocre secondary. It will be a tight game in Houston, but the Ravens will get some revenge for Kubiak and find a way to move to 10-5 on the season.

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Canty questionable for Sunday’s game in Houston

Posted on 19 December 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens only listed one player as much as questionable on their final injury report of the week as defensive end Chris Canty’s status remains up in the air.

The veteran did not practice all week as he continues to deal with an ankle injury. Canty told reporters Wednesday that he wasn’t concerned about his status for Sunday’s game against the Houston Texans, but the Ravens would likely use reserve Lawrence Guy in his place at the 5-technique defensive end spot should he not be able to play.

John Harbaugh acknowledged Canty has progressed while resting this week, but the head coach wouldn’t bite when asked if he’d call the defensive lineman a “game-time decision.”

“I wouldn’t call it anything,” the seventh-year head coach said.

Eight other Ravens players were listed as probable on the final injury report as linebacker Terrell Suggs was the only new name added. The 2011 Defensive Player of the Year received the day off as head coach John Harbaugh has done for several Fridays now.

Houston’s injury report was gloomier as tight end Garrett Graham was ruled out due to a high ankle sprain. Second-year wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (ankle) is questionable and considered a game-time decision to play against the Ravens after not practicing all week.

Seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Andre Johnson (concussion) has been officially cleared and is listed as probable after missing last Sunday’s game against Indianapolis.

Texans coach Bill O’Brien still hasn’t named his starting quarterback for Sunday’s game publicly, but reports from Houston indicate Case Keenum is expected to be under center instead of Thad Lewis. A member of the St. Louis Rams practice squad before being re-signed by the Texans on Monday, Keenum made eight starts last season, throwing nine touchdowns and six interceptions while failing to win a game.

Keenum spent the entire offseason and preseason learning O’Brien’s system, giving him a mental edge over Lewis, who was only signed by the Texans after Ryan Mallett suffered a season-ending pectoral injury late last month.

The University of Houston product will become the fourth quarterback to play for the Texans this season, but the Ravens shouldn’t sleep on his aggressive nature. In his first three starts against Kansas City, Indianapolis, and Arizona last year, Keenum threw for 822 yards, seven touchdowns, and no interceptions, showing he’s capable of playing well in small sample sizes.

The referee for Sunday’s game will be Walt Coleman.

It’s unclear whether the NRG Stadium roof will be open or closed for Sunday’s game, but Weather.com is calling for partly cloudy skies with temperatures in the low 60s and light winds up to five miles per hour in Houston.

Below is the final injury report of the week:

BALTIMORE
QUESTIONABLE: DE Chris Canty (ankle)
PROBABLE: TE Owen Daniels (non-injury), S Will Hill (non-injury), WR Jacoby Jones (illness), CB Anthony Levine (ankle), G Kelechi Osemele (non-injury), RB Bernard Pierce (back), LB Daryl Smith (non-injury), LB Terrell Suggs (non-injury)

HOUSTON
OUT: TE Garrett Graham (ankle), LB Mike Mohamed (concussion), QB Tom Savage (knee), G Xavier Su’a-Filo (back)
QUESTIONABLE: WR DeAndre Hopkins (ankle)
PROBABLE: T Tyson Clabo (foot), LB Brian Cushing (ankle), LB Akeem Dent (neck), RB Arian Foster (hip), CB Kareem Jackson (knee), WR Andre Johnson (concussion), CB Johnathan Joseph (ankle), LB Whitney Mercilus (back), WR DeVier Posey (calf), LB Jeff Tarpinian (knee)

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With past and future hot topics, Kubiak focused on present with Ravens

Posted on 18 December 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak quipped that he has his hands too full trying to slow All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt this Sunday to think about anything else, but you can only downplay the emotions of going home so much.

Not only is the 53-year-old assistant returning to Houston to face a Texans team he coached for eight years, but it’s the city in which Kubiak was born and raised, growing up five miles from the historic Astrodome and present-day NRG Stadium. And it’s where he feels he didn’t live up to expectations as the head coach when he was fired in early December of what amounted to a 2-14 season for the Texans a year ago.

Kubiak finished 61-64 in Houston, but his firing in 2013 came after consecutive AFC South division titles in 2011 and 2012, the only playoff appearances in the 13-year history of the franchise.

“I failed with that football team, so it’s very difficult and I understand the business and how it works,” said Kubiak, who spoke highly of the organization and Texans owner Bob McNair for giving him his first opportunity to be an NFL head coach. “But it’s funny how things work out, too. For me to have an opportunity with this organization, I’m just so appreciative of that and getting back to work. That’s the best medicine for a football coach.”

The stakes of Sunday’s game illustrate Kubiak’s focus on the present amidst questions about his past in Houston and his potential future as a head coaching candidate this offseason. The Ravens can clinch a playoff spot with a win and losses by both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh or a victory over Houston coupled with losses by Kansas City and San Diego in Week 16.

Of course, Kubiak isn’t alone in returning to Houston as tight end Owen Daniels began his NFL career with the Texans in 2006, Kubiak’s first year as the head coach, and running back Justin Forsett and wide receiver Jacoby Jones also played there. But it’s a different feeling for a former head coach than a player whose opportunities are typically more abundant when let go.

“We haven’t really talked about it too much,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “I saw [Kubiak’s wife, Rhonda, recently], and you definitely know that it means a lot. Like I said, I think he’ll probably have it in his mind, or Owen or whoever, but it’ll definitely be there in the back of some of our minds also just to make sure that we can [win for him].”

It’s hard to argue that Kubiak wound up in an enviable position directing the offense of a 9-5 team on the cusp of making the playoffs. And teams with potential head coaching openings will take notice of Flacco having the finest regular season of his career under Kubiak.

The seventh-year signal-caller has shown improved footwork and awareness in the pocket running Kubiak’s West Coast attack that focuses on more short-to-intermediate passing than what Flacco was used to in the past. Though much of Flacco’s direct communication is with quarterbacks coach Rick Dennison — Kubiak’s former offensive coordinator in Houston — the quarterback and the offensive coordinator have credited adjustments made at the bye week that have helped the 29-year-old raise his level of play down the stretch.

Flacco has completed 66.7 percent of his passes in three of the last four games to orchestrate key road wins in New Orleans and Miami. Kubiak said he looks forward to Flacco’s feedback for the game plan every week and says their relationship continues to improve with nearly a full season together under their belts.

“When he starts talking, Joe likes to talk, so he’ll let me know what he thinks,” said Kubiak as he chuckled. “Our relationship, it’s been good. I coach him hard, but I have a tremendous respect for him, and I think he knows that, and I need to listen to him. That’s my job as a coach.”

Flacco is only one part of the offensive renaissance as the Ravens are on pace to set franchise records for points scored and total yards. A running game that ranked last in the NFL in yards per carry (3.1) a year ago is averaging 4.6 yards per attempt, which would be the third-highest mark in franchise history behind only the 2003 and 2009 seasons. It was Kubiak who suggested to head coach John Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome that the Ravens bring in the journeyman Forsett, who leads all running backs with a 5.4 yards per carry average and has been one of the great stories of the 2014 season.

But Kubiak’s greatest success has been with the offensive line as his zone-blocking system has meshed better with personnel than what offensive line coach Juan Castillo tried to implement in a disastrous 2013 campaign. Left guard Kelechi Osemele and right tackle Rick Wagner have blossomed into Pro Bowl-caliber linemen this year while three-time Pro Bowl selection Marshal Yanda is having arguably the finest season of his career.

The offensive line has blocked for the league’s fifth-ranked rushing attack and has allowed Flacco to be sacked just 16 times all year, which currently ranks just ahead of the lowest single-season total allowed (17) in team history in 2006.

“The biggest thing is the way our offensive line has been playing,” Flacco said. “I think that has a lot to do with the way these guys coach it and the way their system runs. It allows them to play aggressively and play fast and really use their best assets to the fullest. They don’t have any tentativeness when they’re playing. They’re just going full-throttle and really attacking people, and I think that is why it serves us the best.”

Kubiak has been so successful that the Ravens may find themselves right back where they started last January if he receives another head coaching job after the season. Harbaugh and the organization would like nothing more than to have continuity at the offensive coordinator spot after Cam Cameron was dismissed late in the 2012 season and Jim Caldwell left to become the head coach of the Detroit Lions after last year’s 8-8 campaign.

Players such as Daniels and Forsett who remember Kubiak in Houston have said they’ve seen a more relaxed man with an obvious passion for teaching and coaching in his new role. A year away from the pressure of being the man in charge has likely helped his overall health, which came into question last year when he suffered a mini-stroke at halftime of a game in early November.

Asked if he’s thought about the possibility of another NFL team calling with the offer of a head gig this winter, Kubiak insists his focus lies solely with the Ravens.

“I don’t think about that at all; I can tell you that. I’m consumed with what I’m doing,” Kubiak said. “Every opportunity I’ve ever had in my life, hopefully it’s because I’m doing a good job and working my tail off where I’m at. I think if you worry about those things, you don’t enjoy what you’re doing at the time. Boy, am I enjoying what I’m doing right now.”

It’s human nature to take a moment from time to time to reflect on where you’ve been and where you might be going next, and Sunday will mark one of those times for Kubiak as the Ravens hope to punch their ticket to the postseason. He may not admit it openly, but you’d have to think he would like nothing more than to end what faint playoff hopes the 7-7 Texans currently have while guiding the Ravens offense to another victory.

A win may not erase the painful memory of being fired from a city he’s called home for much of his life, but Kubiak would be able to hold his head high while remembering his accomplishments in Houston.

“Last season wasn’t what we wanted when we were there,” said Daniels, who was cut by the Texans in March, “but he sure changed the culture around there in terms of everyone in that building being focused on winning. He deserves a lot of credit for that. For him to go back — and hopefully we can take care of business — that will be huge.”

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