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

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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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Ravens hoping best yet to come for veteran tight end Daniels

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Ravens hoping best yet to come for veteran tight end Daniels

Posted on 17 December 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens tight end Owen Daniels still makes his home in Houston and says he holds no “ill will” toward the Texans, but he won’t be feeling too sentimental playing his former team for the first time on Sunday.

Of course, the 9-5 Ravens have plenty to play for in trying to punch their ticket to the postseason, but the 32-year-old will also remember the place he called home for eight years telling him last March he was no longer wanted.

“When you work somewhere for so long and then they say that you’re not good enough to play there anymore and you get a chance to play them that following season, you definitely want to prove to them that they made a mistake,” Daniels said. “But I’ve been trying to do that all season with my play — not just in this one game.

“It will be cool going back there, and hopefully I’ll get a chance to make some plays. I don’t care if I don’t get one catch [and] block the whole game. As long as we come out there with a [win], that’s the best thing that can happen.”

The Ravens hope Daniels’ resurgence in the Week 15 win over Jacksonville is a sign of better things to come the rest of the way. In the 20-12 win, he caught four passes for 62 yards and a touchdown, his first score since the Week 7 win over Atlanta.

The strong performance broke a four-game stretch of Daniels catching only two passes per contest as he was targeted nine times by quarterback Joe Flacco against the Jaguars. Considering Daniels was signed to serve as the No. 2 tight end behind Dennis Pitta, the Ravens should be satisfied with the 45 catches, 474 receiving yards, and four touchdown receptions he’s provided after signing a one-year, $1 million contract in early April.

His solid play proves he still had something left in the tank despite a broken leg that limited him to five games in his final year with the Texans and concerns over a hamstring injury that slowed him during his first training camp with the Ravens.

“He’s having a lot of success up there this year,” said former Texans teammate and fellow University of Wisconsin product J.J. Watt, who played with Daniels for three seasons in Houston. “You’re happy for him, obviously being a Badger. It’s good to see him having success having played with him a little while here.”

His numbers aren’t eye-popping, but the leadership he’s provided rookie Crockett Gillmore and fellow youngster Phillip Supernaw has been invaluable in addition to filling the void left behind by the injured Pitta, who was lost for the season after dislocating and fracturing his hip for the second time in 14 months back in Week 3.

Despite undergoing a knee cleanup procedure days before the Week 8 loss at Cincinnati, Daniels returned the following week to make six catches for 53 yards in a losing effort at Pittsburgh. The procedure has allowed Daniels to feel fresh late in the season, a trait head coach John Harbaugh noticed recently while watching old film of Daniels when he was still playing as a member of the Texans.

“He said, ‘You are moving a lot better than you were last year,’” said Daniels of the coach’s remarks. “I’m not sure why. The knee feels good this year, especially since getting it cleaned out. It hasn’t been an issue, and hopefully it won’t be.”

Needing wins in their final two games to be guaranteed a trip to the playoffs, the Ravens know Daniels becoming a bigger part of the offense could be a significant factor in improving their chances in January. Both Daniels and Flacco acknowledged their chemistry is better while still having room to improve, but the Baltimore quarterback was outspoken in his desire to get the veteran tight end more involved in the passing game.

The Ravens rank only 17th in the NFL in red-zone offense, but it was Daniels’ 3-yard touchdown catch that gave them the lead for good against the Jaguars in the third quarter last Sunday.

“I’d like to get him even more involved, more catches,” Flacco said. “We had some opportunities in the game Sunday to make more plays, and we were just a little off. Each week’s getting better and better, but I want to get him involved because I think he’s a good player and he makes us go when we get him involved.”

 

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Torrey Smith not listed on Wednesday’s injury report

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Torrey Smith not listed on Wednesday’s injury report

Posted on 17 December 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After improvement in his sprained right knee allowed him to play against Jacksonville last Sunday, wide receiver Torrey Smith wasn’t even listed on the first injury report ahead of the Ravens’ Week 16 clash with Houston.

Smith was one of the first players to hit the practice field Wednesday as the 9-5 Ravens have a chance to clinch a playoff spot as early as Sunday against the Texans. He and running back Justin Forsett were not included on the injury report after both were dealing with knee issues over the last couple weeks.

Defensive end Chris Canty (ankle) and wide receiver Jacoby Jones (illness) were the only Ravens players to miss Wednesday’s workout due to health-related concerns. Safety Will Hill and left guard Kelechi Osemele were listed as sitting out for non-injury reasons, which typically indicates they were given the day off by head coach John Harbaugh.

Cornerback Anthony Levine (ankle) and running back Bernard Pierce (back) were both limited participants on Wednesday.

The Texans were dealing with a slew of absences at their first practice of the week as linebacker Brian Cushing (ankle), tight end Garrett Graham (ankle), running back Arian Foster (hip), wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (ankle), cornerback Johnathan Joseph (ankle) were among the players who didn’t participate. All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt was given the day off.

Seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Andre Johnson (concussion) was a limited participant on Wednesday after he missed this past Sunday’s game against Indianapolis. Texans head coach Bill O’Brien said Monday that they expect to have the veteran wideout back this week against the Ravens.

O’Brien also said in his conference call with the Baltimore media that he would not reveal his starting quarterback ahead of Sunday’s game. Either journeyman Thad Lewis or the recently-signed Case Keenum will start after Ryan Fitzpatrick and rookie Tom Savage both sustained leg injuries against the Colts.

Below is Wednesday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: DE Chris Canty (ankle), S Will Hill (non-injury), WR Jacoby Jones (illness), G Kelechi Osemele (non-injury)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: CB Anthony Levine (ankle), RB Bernard Pierce (back)

HOUSTON
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Brian Cushing (ankle), TE Garrett Graham (ankle), RB Arian Foster (hip), WR DeAndre Hopkins (ankle), CB Johnathan Joseph (ankle), LB Mike Mohamed (concussion), QB Tom Savage (knee), G Xavier Su’a-Filo (back), DE J.J. Watt (non-injury)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: T Tyson Clabo (foot), LB Akeem Dent (neck), CB Kareem Jackson (knee), WR Andre Johnson (concussion), LB Whitney Mercilus (back), LB Jeff Tarpinian (knee)

 

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Flacco quietly continuing finest regular season of career

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Flacco quietly continuing finest regular season of career

Posted on 16 December 2014 by Luke Jones

As the Houston Texans face the prospects of using their fourth quarterback of the year on Sunday, the Ravens haven’t even carried three quarterbacks on their active roster since 2009 due to Joe Flacco never missing an NFL game.

It’s been a peculiar season for Flacco under new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak as a revamped rushing attack ranks fifth in the NFL and has taken much of the attention away from the veteran quarterback. But that hasn’t stopped the 29-year-old from quietly having the best season of his career with the Ravens in position to secure their sixth trip to the postseason in seven years as early as this Sunday in Houston.

Set to make his 111th consecutive regular-season start on Sunday — he’ll be opposed by Thad Lewis or Case Keenum — the durable Flacco is on pace to set career highs in a number of categories including completion percentage (64.2 percent), passing yards, touchdown passes, and passer rating (94.8). He’ll set a career low in interceptions if he can refrain from throwing one in his final two games, and his 7.4 yards per attempt average would match his career-best mark set in 2010.

Flacco set a career high with five touchdown passes in a 48-17 win over Tampa Bay in Week 6, setting an NFL record by throwing those five scores in the first 16:03 of the game.

Even the chic ESPN Total Quarterback Rating metric lands Flacco fifth in the NFL for the 2014 season, behind only Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Tony Romo, and Tom Brady and ahead of the likes of Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, and Matt Ryan.

His critics will point to his poor performance in consecutive road losses against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh — he threw two touchdowns and three interceptions in those games — as a reason why Baltimore is currently not in position to win the AFC North, but the 2008 first-round pick has found more consistency than in the past and is on the verge of guiding the Ravens back to the postseason after a one-year absence.

The differences in his game have been noticeable in Kubiak’s West Coast attack as his six completions of 40 or more yards would be the lowest single-season total of his career with the Ravens relying on more short-to-intermediate passing this year. But Flacco has been as efficient as ever, especially since the bye week as he’s completed 66.7 percent of his passes in three of four games.

His weapons are better than they were a year ago with the free-agent arrivals of Steve Smith and Owen Daniels, but the season-ending injury to tight end Dennis Pitta in Week 3 has negated some of their impact and you still wouldn’t hold the Ravens’ pass-catching targets in the same regard as other top offenses in the league. Of course, the emergence of Justin Forsett in the running game has provided much more balance than the Ravens had with their disastrous ground game last season.

And that’s where we acknowledge arguably the biggest factor in Flacco’s strong season — the offensive line.

In addition to opening running lanes for the NFL’s No. 1 running back in yards per carry, the unit has protected Flacco better than ever as he’s been sacked just 16 times all season. His previous career low for being sacked occurred in 2011 when he was dropped 31 times.

Kubiak’s tutelage includes making quick decisions and getting rid of the ball, factors also reflecting the low sack total. Flacco owns a 110.2 passer rating when dropping back in the pocket for 2.5 seconds or less, which Pro Football Focus says is the fourth-best mark in the NFL. In contrast, his 72.5 passer rating when standing in the pocket 2.6 seconds or longer ranks 20th in the NFL.

Flacco is at his best with an effective running game and with a simple approach that allows him to make swift choices, two variables that have been in place all year.

It’s largely gone unnoticed with the black cloud of the Ray Rice saga still hanging over the organization and other headlines such as the improved running game and the struggling secondary garnering more attention, but Flacco has bounced back nicely from the most difficult season of his career.

And it’s a major reason why the Ravens are once again on the cusp of an invitation to play in January.

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Ravens cornerback Jackson to miss rest of season with knee injury

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Ravens cornerback Jackson to miss rest of season with knee injury

Posted on 15 December 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — An unfortunate year at the cornerback position only got worse Monday with the news that Ravens cornerback Asa Jackson will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury.

Head coach John Harbaugh confirmed that Jackson suffered a posterior cruciate ligament injury to his right knee in the third quarter of Sunday’s win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Harbaugh ruled out safety Terrence Brooks (knee) for the rest of the season immediately after Sunday’s game as the rookie suffered a PCL injury on the opening kickoff against the Jaguars.

Jackson’s injury doesn’t sound as serious as Brooks’ ailment, but the timetable would not allow him to return quickly enough to justify carrying him on the roster for the final weeks of the season.

“He’s got a PCL [injury]. It’s like a five-week injury,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll be ruling him out the rest of the way.”

With Jackson becoming the fifth Ravens cornerback to be placed on injured reserve this season, four cornerbacks remain on the 53-man roster — Lardarius Webb, Rashaan Melvin, Anthony Levine, and the recently-signed veteran Antoine Cason. Jackson spent two months on IR-designated to return with a turf toe injury earlier this season and had just been activated in Week 14.

The Ravens have yet to officially place Jackson and Brooks on IR, but they will take another peek at what’s available on the free-agent market, something general manager Ozzie Newsome should be used to doing this season.

“I don’t think you ever feel like you have enough depth to get you through, so we’ll be looking at all of our options,” Harbaugh said. “It’s one thing to hope to have a guy, and it’s another thing to find a guy. We’re just looking at our options right now as we speak, and we’ll have some answers probably over the next two days on that.”

Melvin received the bulk of the opportunities when Jackson exited on Sunday, making five tackles and a pass breakup in his first NFL game. The sixth-year veteran Cason

Meanwhile, the Houston Texans are in even worse shape at the quarterback position as they’re set to welcome the Ravens to NRG Stadium in Week 16.

Head coach Bill O’Brien announced rookie quarterback Tom Savage will miss this Sunday’s game with a knee injury after he replaced Ryan Fitzpatrick in their Sunday loss to Indianapolis after the veteran suffered a broken leg. Those injuries coupled with Ryan Mallett previously going down for the season with a shoulder injury mean the Texans will be turning to their fourth quarterback of the 2014 seson.

Who that will be remains to be seen as O’Brien will choose between Thad Lewis and Case Keenum, who was waived by the Texans at the end of the preseason and spent most of the year with the St. Louis Rams before being signed off their practice squad by Houston on Monday morning.

“We’ll try to anticipate as best we can how we think they’ll attack us — scheme-wise and philosophically how they’ll approach the game — and try to gear our game plan and our reps accordingly as best we can,” Harbaugh said. “Who plays quarterback is definitely a part of that. We’ll be looking at that, and we’ll have to prepare for both of those two [quarterbacks].”

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Contender or pretender: Sizing up the 2014 AFC wild-card race

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Contender or pretender: Sizing up the 2014 AFC wild-card race

Posted on 02 December 2014 by Luke Jones

Even as the Ravens and their fans continue to seethe over a surprising 34-33 loss to the San Diego Chargers in Week 13, head coach John Harbaugh took a more pragmatic approach when addressing reporters on Monday afternoon.

The loss certainly didn’t help, but defeats suffered by several other AFC teams left six teams with a 7-5 record as we enter the final quarter of the regular season. It won’t be easy for Baltimore as it tries to survive with the NFL’s 31st-ranked pass defense, but a reasonable schedule down the stretch leaves the Ravens in good shape if — and that’s a big if — they handle their own business.

“We wake up this morning, we look at the standings and we are right in the thick of it,” Harbaugh said. “It’s going to go down to the wire. And we have a huge game down in Miami this week, and it’ll be a lot on the line. They’ll be ready, and they’re good. We’ll have a great opportunity to make a move.”

There’s no understating how important Sunday’s game against the Dolphins will be as it represents another head-to-head tiebreaker scenario after the Ravens dropped one to San Diego this past week. A win pushes Baltimore to 8-5 and knocks Miami down a peg in the standings while a defeat all but guarantees the need to win out and to hope for assistance from other teams in the playoff race.

The Ravens still hold out hope for a chance to win the AFC North, but Cincinnati currently leads by 1 1/2 games over the other three teams in the division. With the Bengals playing the Steelers twice and the Browns once in the final month, the division race is far from over, but Cincinnati has firm control of its path as we enter Week 14.

Below is a look at the current wild-card field — with numbers indicating each team’s current place in the conference — as we determine who the contenders and the pretenders are:

5. SAN DIEGO (8-4) – CONTENDER
Conference record: 6-3
Remaining schedule: New England, Denver, at San Francisco, at Kansas City
Skinny: How big was Sunday’s win in Baltimore for Mike McCoy’s team? All you have to do is take a look at the Chargers’ remaining schedule and realize you wouldn’t have liked their chances at all had they fallen to 7-5. Instead, they own a one-game lead over the 7-5 teams in the AFC and remain in excellent shape if they can go 2-2 in their final four. A year ago at this time, the Chargers were 5-7 and looked all but dead before running the table — including wins over Denver and Kansas City — and receiving lots of help to sneak into the postseason. They’ll need another good finish, but they have some margin for error this year.

6. MIAMI (7-5) – CONTENDER
Conference record: 6-3
Remaining schedule: Baltimore, at New England, Minnesota, New York Jets
Skinny: It wasn’t pretty, but the Dolphins’ Monday night win over the Jets kept them in prime position to secure a playoff spot with a strong finish in the final month. A Week 15 trip to Foxborough won’t be easy, but their final two home games are very winnable against two teams with a combined seven wins. Anything can happen considering the Ravens and the Dolphins both lost their final two games in 2013, but it certainly looks like Sunday’s game in Miami could go a long way in determining who secures a wild-card spot in the AFC playoff race.

7. KANSAS CITY (7-5) – PRETENDER
Conference record: 5-4
Remaining schedule: at Arizona, Oakland, at Pittsburgh, San Diego
Skinny: The Chiefs were feeling really good about themselves a few weeks ago, but consecutive losses to woeful Oakland and powerful Denver have brought them back to the rest of the pack. Kansas City can’t throw the ball and the run defense has been gashed in recent weeks, which doesn’t make for a good combination entering the season’s final month. With three games remaining on the schedule against teams with winning records — two of them on the road — it’s hard to envision the Chiefs playing well enough down the stretch to secure one of the two wild-card spots.

8. BUFFALO (7-5) – PRETENDER
Conference record: 4-5
Remaining schedule: at Denver, Green Bay, at Oakland, at New England
Skinny: The Bills continue to hang tough in the AFC playoff race after a nice win over the Browns on Sunday. However, remaining games against the Broncos, the Packers, and the Patriots should end any serious discussion about Buffalo qualifying for the postseason. With their other game being a cross-country trip to Oakland, the Bills might be fortunate just to win one more game in the final month of the regular season. It’d be interesting to see what the Bills could do with a real quarterback even if veteran Kyle Orton has done a respectable job since taking over for E.J. Manuel. Injuries at running back haven’t helped, either.

9. BALTIMORE (7-5) – CONTENDER
Conference record: 3-5
Remaining schedule: at Miami, Jacksonville, at Houston, Cleveland
Skinny: Sunday’s loss to San Diego was brutal as it gives the Ravens little wiggle room the rest of the way as they really need to beat the Dolphins on the road. The remaining schedule is reasonable, but how do you trust a secondary that continues to be toasted by any opposing passing games with a pulse? Even a road trip against the Texans is concerning with talented receivers Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins waiting. A lousy 3-5 conference mark doesn’t help matters for the Ravens, but we’ll see what Harbaugh’s team is made of in the next three weeks. The running game and the offense will need to come up huge.

10. PITTSBURGH (7-5) – CONTENDER
Conference record: 6-3
Remaining schedule: at Cincinnati, at Atlanta, Kansas City, Cincinnati
Skinny: The Steelers continue to be one of the most bipolar teams in the NFL as they stubbed their toe Sunday against New Orleans, who was coming off three straight losses. When at their best, the Steelers have one of the most balanced offenses in the league, but the defense doesn’t scare anyone and could easily be exploited down the stretch. The biggest factors working in the Steelers’ favor are a 6-3 conference record and two games with the Bengals, which could catapult them into the AFC North lead. Given how unpredictable they’ve been, the Steelers could win out or lose out and no one should be surprised with either outcome.

11. CLEVELAND (7-5) – PRETENDER
Conference record: 4-5
Remaining schedule: Indianapolis, Cincinnati, at Carolina, at Baltimore
Skinny: Quarterback Brian Hoyer has really struggled in recent weeks, but a change at quarterback isn’t exactly what you’re looking for while in the playoff hunt and that’s exactly where the Browns find themselves. Maybe rookie Johnny Manziel is the spark to light the fire for Cleveland down the stretch, but nothing else about the Browns’ final month of the schedule makes you think they’re going to do enough to sneak into the playoffs. They’ll need to beat either the Colts or the Bengals at home to give themselves any decent chance at all in the final two weeks.

12. HOUSTON (6-6) – PRETENDER
Conference record: 5-3
Remaining schedule: at Jacksonville, at Indianapolis, Baltimore, Jacksonville
Skinny: Why even include the Texans on the list considering they have the worst record of the bunch? Two of four remaining games coming against Jacksonville certainly helps, and a home game against the Ravens looks more and more reasonable given Baltimore’s pass defense woes. Of course, Houston isn’t a real contender, but no one thought the Chargers were at this time last year, either. If you’re looking for that deep sleeper to finish strong — three out of four wouldn’t be out of the question — and take advantage of a slew of other teams being mediocre down the stretch, Houston is your team. A good conference record also helps.

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Five Ravens predictions for the rest of the season

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Five Ravens predictions for the rest of the season

Posted on 15 November 2014 by Luke Jones

The Ravens are a good football team.

But trying to figure out just how good they are in 2014 hasn’t been easy through the first 10 games of the regular season. Their plus-80 point differential ranks fourth in the NFL, but a 3-0 mark and plus-81 margin against Carolina, Tampa Bay, and Atlanta say more about the woeful NFC South than about 6-4 Baltimore being a dominant team.

All four teams in the AFC North are separated by a half game in what’s shaping up to be the most competitive division in the NFL down the stretch. To put themselves in position to make it back to the postseason after last year’s absence, the Ravens will likely need to manage at least one victory in their final three road games against New Orleans, Miami, and Houston if they’re able to run the table at home against San Diego, Jacksonville, and Cleveland.

Over their final six games, the Ravens will prove whether they’re a contender or a pretender. They’ve done a fine job beating the teams they’re supposed to in 2014 (4-0 against teams currently with losing records), but a 2-4 mark against squads currently above .500 creates doubt.

Below are five things I see happening between now and the end of the season …

1. Marlon Brown will catch three touchdowns after finally emerging as a red-zone threat. This is a bold prediction as the second-year receiver has been a total afterthought this season with just 10 total catches for 93 yards. However, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak needs to improve the league’s 22nd-ranked red-zone offense as the Ravens are scoring touchdowns on just 54 percent of trips inside the 20. The 6-foot-5 Brown seems like a logical choice to fill some of the void left behind by the injured Dennis Pitta. Many predicted Brown would see fewer opportunities this year after the offseason acquisitions of Steve Smith and Owen Daniels, but there’s no reason not to utilize his height when approaching the end zone.

2. Will Hill and Terrence Brooks will be the starting safeties at the end of the season. Hill has emerged as the only true starter at safety with what’s become a committee approach. Darian Stewart has remained a starter next to Hill in the base defense, but the Ravens are using the rookie Brooks as a single-high safety in obvious passing spots. The third-round choice has been up and down, serving as a healthy inactive in Pittsburgh two weeks ago, but he and Hill best fit the profile of the interchangeable safeties the Ravens want. Stewart and disappointing 2013 first-round pick Matt Elam will continue to be used in the platoon for now, but Brooks will eventually supplant Stewart, who is rarely around the ball in pass coverage.

3. Steve Smith and Justin Forsett will eclipse the 1,100-yard marks in receiving and rushing, respectively. The 35-year-old Smith has slowed in recent games, but his competitive drive — as well as the benefit of the bye week — will revitalize his production for at least a couple big games down the stretch. Meanwhile, Forsett continues to be one of the best stories in the NFL this season as he’s already set a career high with 721 rushing yards and leads all running backs with a 5.4 yards per carry average. You’d be concerned with most 29-year-old backs wearing down late in the season, but Forsett has plenty of tread left on the tires after years of being underutilized in his other career stops.

4. The Houston game will be tougher than anticipated while the San Diego game will be easier than expected. A month ago, the Chargers looked like one of the NFL’s best teams, but a so-so defense, a league-worst 3.1 yards per carry average, and a 1 p.m. East Coast start time will put a lot on Philip Rivers’ shoulders against a Baltimore defense that raises its play at home. The Week 16 meeting with the Texans could turn into a heck of a challenge if new starting quarterback Ryan Mallett finds his bearings and No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney can stay in the lineup to complement J.J. Watt, the best defensive player on the planet. This one could be a must-win game for the Ravens, but Houston might be a much scarier team by then.

5. The Ravens will return to the playoffs with a 10-6 record. Without giving away the game-by-game predictions, Baltimore will answer the bell to play at a level high enough to advance to the postseason for the sixth time in the last seven years under John Harbaugh. Questions remain about the secondary, but the front seven and the offense will play at above-average levels for the Ravens to win four of their last six contests. I have doubts whether this team is talented enough at key spots to make a serious run against the likes of New England, Denver, and Indianapolis, but as we’ve learned again and again in the modern NFL, the postseason is all about who gets hot at the right time. The Ravens will get the chance to roll the dice.

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Dorsey’s Dugout – NBA Free Agency Frenzy

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Dorsey’s Dugout – NBA Free Agency Frenzy

Posted on 18 July 2014 by Nick Dorsey

 

LeBron James

In one of the better sports stories in years, LeBron James returned back to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers where it all began. The King left Miami after four seasons, winning two out of four NBA Final appearances during that stretch.

The return of the King to Cleveland shocked many because there are still plenty of lingering images of destruction that come up when talking about James departure for Miami. Fans crying, burning jerseys and an owners hateful letter calling out the Akron native for his lack of loyalty. LeBron James made the best decision to go back to Cleveland for many reasons.

When the dominoes began to fall, the four-time MVP’s former team Miami looked to be dismantling with key pieces looking to move on elsewhere. With uncertainty of the quality of players that would surround him on the floor, James made the right move to leave.

Cleveland has some nice pieces on the roster as it stands, including NBA All Star MVP Kyrie Irving running the point. There are other players as well, but the future is uncertain for some of the other young Cavaliers.

There have been rumors swirling around that Cleveland might deal Dion Waiters, Andrew Wiggins and a first rounder to acquire Kevin Love from Minnesota. General manager of the Cavs, David Griffin, should make the trade for Love because it would make them a title favorite out of the Eastern Conference.

Trading a young player like Andrew Wiggins with the kind of potential he has seems like a bizarre idea, but it would be the better move for the Cavs. Wiggins is not a sure thing, but with acquiring Kevin Love you know your getting an All Star player. The former Bruin is a three-time All Star who has a great post presence with the ability to shoot from the outside as well.

As the roster currently stands, Cleveland has Wiggins playing the shooting guard position. The Jayhawk standout played the small forward position at KU and was not known as a great jump shooter. He better suits playing the three spot in the NBA, but on Cleveland that’s the spot that the King currently occupies.

If Griffin makes the trade for Kevin Love, the Cavs become the instant favorite to represent the East in the Finals. With a new big three that consists of Irving, Love and James they would be difficult to defeat in a seven game series. It is a win-win move for Griffin, especially since Love has expressed interest in signing a long-term deal in Cleveland.

Carmelo Anthony

The choices were narrowed down to either the Windy City or returning back to the Big Apple and Anthony chose to return back to the Knicks. Melo decided to sign the big deal and put his faith in Phil Jackson to build a winner in New York.

While Phil Jackson certainly knows what he is doing when it comes to winning in the NBA, Melo should have chose the Bulls as his next destination. Chicago is in a much better position to win now and is a better fit than the New York Knicks.

Chicago is a playoff team already without Anthony and his skills could have elevated the Bulls to another level in the East. The Bulls have a proven coach in Tom Thibodeau whereas the Knicks are going with Derek Fisher, who is about to coach his first team ever. Not only does Chicago have the better coach, they also have the better team by far.

The Bulls are a defensive powerhouse in the NBA and their most glaring need is a player that can close. That need was definitive in their first round exit against the Washington Wizards. Some of those games in that series were close down the stretch in the fourth quarter, but Chicago was unable to find a consistent scoring threat that could close out a game.

Adding Carmelo to the mix would fill their need of a closer and help bolster their lackluster offense. One of the criticisms of Anthony throughout his career is he is not a good defensive player. The Bulls already have great defense throughout the lineup so Anthony would not of been as much of a liability on the floor for the Bulls.

Carmelo put his trust in Phil Jackson to build a winner and maybe one day his faith will be rewarded. In the short term, Chicago would have been the better opportunity for Carmelo Anthony to win a ring.

Heat Rebuild

Once LeBron bolted for his hometown, it was almost certain that Chris Bosh would take the max deal he was offered from Houston. Instead of joining Howard and Harden, Bosh made a surprising decision to stay with the Miami Heat.

A franchise that seemed as if it was going to be completely dismantled, had hope restored once Bosh re-signed. Pat Riley has built contending teams several times in Miami before and did an excellent job once the King left. Retaining Bosh was huge for the Heat and they also managed to bring back Dwayne Wade.

Two pieces of the big three remain in Miami and although Wade is not at the level he once was, it’s a nice start to retooling. Danny Granger and Josh McRoberts were not sexy enough names to woo LeBron, but they do provide solid depth for the Heat.

Miami added Shabazz Napier through the draft and brought back point guard Mario Chalmers. The pieces were coming back together and Riley did the best he possibly could at filling the James void by signing Luol Deng.

The former Duke star has been a Bull for the majority of his career until last years short stint as a Cavalier. Deng is superb defensively, but injury is a concern with Deng. Since the start of the 2011 season, Deng has missed 54 games due to injury. If Deng can stay on the floor, the Heat will be contending for the Southeast division title.

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Cruz leaves Sunday’s game after being hit on left hand

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Cruz leaves Sunday’s game after being hit on left hand

Posted on 01 June 2014 by Luke Jones

The month of June got off to a scary start for Orioles outfielder Nelson Cruz as he left Sunday’s game against the Houston Astros after being hit on the hand with a pitch.

Former Orioles starting pitcher Scott Feldman hit Cruz on the left hand with a fastball clocked at 87 miles per hour in the top of the third inning, causing the 33-year-old slugger to fall to the ground in pain. After being examined by head athletic trainer Richie Bancells, Cruz temporarily stayed in the game before manager Buck Showalter replaced him with Delmon Young in field in the bottom of the third.

A club official announced in the Minute Maid Park press box late during Sunday’s 9-4 win over the Astros that X-rays came back negative and Cruz is listed as day-to-day. The Orioles are off on Monday before beginning a three-game set with the Texas Rangers in Arlington on Tuesday night.

Cruz entered Sunday’s game leading the major leagues in home runs (20) and runs batted in (52) as he set a franchise record for RBIs through the month of May, eclipsing Chris Davis’ 50 from a year ago. He had a 12-game hitting streak entering Sunday and was 20-for-42 during the streak with eight homers, nine walks, six doubles, 15 RBI, and 14 runs scored, making his departure a scary development for the Orioles and their fan base.

The Orioles have been without starting catcher Matt Wieters for the last three weeks as he continues to recover from right elbow soreness, making Cruz’s exit on Sunday alarming for an offense already struggling more than expected so far in the 2014 season.

 

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Orioles, Astros to don Negro League unis for Civil Rights Game

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Orioles, Astros to don Negro League unis for Civil Rights Game

Posted on 07 May 2014 by WNST Staff

MLB and the Houston Astros announce details of the 2014 Civil Rights Game and ancillary activities

The Houston Astros and Baltimore Orioles to Wear Negro Leagues Uniforms of the Houston Eagles and Baltimore Elite Giants, Respectively. Additional Details Include Ballpark Giveaway, Musical Performances, Roundtable Participants, Event Sponsor and More. 

Major League Baseball and the Houston Astros today announced details for the 2014 Civil Rights Game at Minute Maid Park and ancillary activities, which include the MLB Beacon Awards Luncheon and the Baseball & Civil Rights Movement Roundtable Discussion. Tickets and information for each event and the Civil Rights Game are available at MLB.com/civilrightsgame and Astros.com/civilrightsgame.

The 2014 Civil Rights Game will be played between the Houston Astros and the Baltimore Orioles at Minute Maid Park on Friday, May 30th, airing nationally on MLB Network and called by MLB Network’s Matt Vasgersian, Harold Reynolds and Sam Ryan.

Houston & Baltimore Negro Leagues Uniforms to be Worn During the Civil Rights Game

  1. Houston Eagles - The Astros will wear the uniforms of the “Houston Eagles,” which played for only two years (1949-1950) and was the only team from Texas in Negro Leagues history.
  2. Baltimore Elite Giants - The Orioles will wear the uniforms of the “Baltimore Elite Giants,” which played from 1938 through 1950.
    1. NOTES: The uniforms and caps were produced by Majestic and New Era, respectively. Both designs were approved by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

Civil Rights Game Cap Giveaway, Ballpark Fireworks

  1. Cap Giveaway - 15,000 fans to enter Minute Maid Park for the Civil Rights Game will receive a special commemorative “Civil Rights Game” cap.
  2. “Motown Fireworks” - Following the Civil Rights Game, the Astros will host a special fireworks show, presented by Marathon Oil Corporation, that will have a “Motown” theme.

Musical Performances

  1. Aloe Blacc - The chart-topping singer/songwriter will perform his hit songs “Wake Me Up” and “The Man” on-field at Minute Maid Park prior to the Civil Rights Game, with the “The Man” airing LIVE on MLB Network. Additionally, he will perform “Eyes of a Child” earlier in the day at the MLB Beacon Awards Luncheon at Hilton Americas Houston.
  2. Miri Ben-Ari - The Grammy Award-winning violinist and UN Goodwill Ambassador will perform her song, “Symphony of Brotherhood,” featuring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech, at the MLB Beacon Awards Luncheon.
  3. “National Anthem” - Actress, dancer and singer, Jadagrace, will perform the National Anthem prior to the Civil Rights Game.
  4. “America The Beautiful” - Grammy nominee and platinum recording artist Jeffrey Osborne will perform “America the Beautiful” during the 7th inning stretch.

Baseball & Civil Rights Movement Roundtable Discussion – Thursday, May 29th at 12:30 p.m. (CT), Union Station at Minute Maid Park

A panel of prominent individuals will discuss the pivotal role Baseball played in the civil rights movement and the game’s continued presence as a social institution, as well as present-day social issues affecting the country and the world. The Baseball & Civil Rights Movement Roundtable Discussion, which will be moderated by Harvard Law School Professor Dr. Charles Ogletree, will be streamed on MLB.com and Astros.com prior to the Civil Rights Game. The following are the participants scheduled for this year’s Roundtable Discussion:

  1. Ernest Green - Member of the “Little Rock Nine”
  2. Linda Alvarado - Member of the Colorado Rockies Ownership Group; Chief Executive Officer of Alvarado Construction
  3. Bob Kendrick - President, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
  4. J.R. Richard - Houston Astros Legend
  5. Harold Reynolds - MLB Network Analyst; two-time MLB All-Star

MLB Beacon Awards Luncheon – Friday, May 30th at Noon (CT), Hilton Americas Houston

Baseball Commissioner Allan H. (Bud) Selig will speak at the 2014 MLB Beacon Awards Luncheon, which will be held at Noon on Friday, May 30th at the Hilton Americas Houston. At the event, MLB will honor best-selling author and poet Dr. Maya Angelou, founder of Motown and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Berry Gordy and Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Brown. The triumvirate will each receive an MLB Beacon Award, which recognizes individuals whose lives and actions have been emblematic of the spirit of the civil rights movement, and will be recognized on the field prior to the Civil Rights Game. Additionally, Robin Roberts, co-anchor of ABC’s “Good Morning America,” will be the keynote speaker. Two Houston-based charities, the Houston Area Urban League and Change Happens!, will be the charitable beneficiaries of the MLB Beacon Awards Luncheon.

  1. NOTE: MLB and the Astros will pay special tribute to the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education at the MLB Beacon Awards Luncheon.

Principal Sponsor of the Civil Rights Game and Ancillary Activities

Houston-based law firm Andrews Kurth LLP will serve as the principal sponsor of the 2014 Civil Rights Game and ancillary activities. Recently, the firm was named a local recipient of the 8th Annual Jackie Robinson Day “Most Valuable Diverse Business Partner” Award from MLB, acknowledging the firm’s ongoing commitment to excellence and diversity.

Since 1902, Andrews Kurth has built its practice on the belief that “straight talk is good business.” Real answers, clear vision and mutual respect define the firm’s relationships with clients, colleagues, communities and employees. With more than 400 lawyers across 10 offices worldwide, Andrews Kurth represents a wide array of clients in multiple industries. For more information about Andrews Kurth, please visit andrewskurth.com.

 

ABOUT THE CIVIL RIGHTS GAME

The Civil Rights Game and its ancillary activities are a series of events developed by MLB to pay tribute to those who fought on and off the field for equal rights for all Ameri­cans. This year’s event is another example of the Houston Astros supporting MLB initiatives geared toward high­lighting diversity throughout baseball.

The 2014 Civil Rights Game is the eighth installation of an annual event that began in Memphis in 2007, centering on an exhibition game between the St. Louis Cardinals and Cleveland Indians. After another exhibition game in Memphis in 2008, the Civil Rights Game moved to Cincinnati (2009-2010), then Atlanta (2011-2012) as regular season contests, and last year was hosted in Chicago by the White Sox. While much of the south was deeply affected during the civil rights movement with violence threatening the well-being of many, Houston played a vital role in achieving peaceful desegregation, making it a crucial part of the overall civil rights effort.

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