Tag Archive | "Jimmy Smith"

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Twelve Ravens thoughts on quiet start to offseason

Posted on 19 January 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens still not having set a date for their season review press conference, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The brass never reveals every detail of its offseason game plan, but perhaps we can anticipate more candor than usual at the annual “State of the Ravens” since the summit at Steve Bisciotti’s Florida home will have already taken place. Fighting fan apathy has to be a major concern.

2. There’s little to take away from an introductory press conference, but Wink Martindale passed the test by citing his aggressive personality when calling a game. It’s unfair to judge him too harshly for his poor 2010 results in Denver, but the proof will be in the results this coming fall.

3. I’m sure no one in Cleveland will be shedding any tears, but only six NFL teams now have a longer playoff appearance drought than the Ravens. That really speaks to the parity of the league and should also tick some people off in Owings Mills.

4. John Harbaugh acknowledged the possibility of drafting a quarterback, but taking one any earlier than the third or fourth round would clash with the goal of getting back to the postseason in 2018. Aim to upgrade from Ryan Mallett and if you discover the successor to Joe Flacco, that’s perfect.

5. Marlon Humphrey looked the part of a budding No. 1 cornerback down the stretch. If he continues blossoming and Smith struggles in his return from a torn Achilles tendon next season, you’d have to think the latter could be a cap casualty in 2019 with a $16.175 million number scheduled.

6. Ryan Jensen won’t be easy to re-sign, but you’d hate losing someone who stabilized an important position that had been an issue since Matt Birk’s retirement. Just handing the job to Matt Skura and assuming everything will be OK is a risk. Jensen graded as PFF’s ninth-best center this season.

7. There’s no guarantee Smith will be ready for the start of 2018, but I’m inclined to move on from Brandon Carr to save $4 million in cap space if Tavon Young is cleared for spring workouts. There are too many holes on the opposite side of the ball to address.

8. Breshad Perriman finished 119th out of 119 qualified wide receivers in PFF’s grading system and regressed dramatically from a 2016 season in which he was at least a functional contributor with 499 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Doesn’t someone have to be accountable for this besides the player?

9. The thought of a healthy Kenneth Dixon teaming with starter Alex Collins next season is intriguing, but Dixon has a lot to prove after a major knee injury and two suspensions. Much like tight end Darren Waller, the Ravens shouldn’t count on him until he proves otherwise.

10. Much has been made of the offense’s post-bye improvement, but the Ravens scored only three offensive touchdowns in the first quarter all season and had none after Week 8. In the same way the defense must learn how to finish, this offense has to start faster.

11. I’m not ready to compare Jacksonville to the 2000 Ravens, but the swagger of its defense reminds me of old teams here. The Jaguars benefited from early draft picks and much cap space, but they’re a better version of what Baltimore tried to build this year.

12. I have interest and work responsibilities in other sports, but I’m still amazed how quickly many dive into draft discussion. I prefer waiting for at least the Senior Bowl and the combine for more context before discussing the same names for the next three months, but to each his own.

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Can Martindale take Ravens defense to another level?

Posted on 18 January 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — New Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale is no stranger to feeling pressure.

Try having one of the best defensive minds in NFL history looking over your shoulder while coaching in an NCAA Division-IAA playoff game. Having worked with both Rex and Rob Ryan, Martindale called their father, the late Buddy Ryan, a “big influence” on his coaching career on Thursday. The two-time Super Bowl champion assistant and former NFL head coach spent his later years in the state of Kentucky where Martindale made his final collegiate coaching stop.

“I called a game at Western Kentucky, and he was standing next to me on the sideline at a playoff game,” said Martindale, who worked for former Hilltoppers head coach Jack Harbaugh from 2001-02 and finished his stint there a year later. “You want to talk about pressure? That was a little bit of pressure — not blitzing when he wanted to blitz.”

With the Ravens coming off a second straight season in which the defense’s failure to get a late stop left them short of the playoffs, the former linebackers coach steps into a role surrounded by high expectations. And with most of the offseason focus expected to be on the other side of the ball — though we’ve made that incorrect assumption in the past — Martindale will be asked to reach another level with a defense that’s received a plethora of resources in recent years.

Upon being promoted last week, the 54-year-old received congratulatory messages from many of the greatest defensive players in franchise history, ranging from Ray Lewis and Ed Reed to Haloti Ngata and current 16th-year outside linebacker Terrell Suggs. Martindale also received strong endorsements from other current players such as Pro Bowl inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, showing he has plenty of support in the locker room despite not being a sexy choice for fans who were intrigued by the possibility of Chuck Pagano returning to Baltimore.

This will be Martindale’s second stint as an NFL defensive coordinator after serving in that capacity with Denver in 2010. Having lost All-Pro defensive end Elvis Dumervil to a season-ending pectoral injury that summer, Martindale didn’t have much talent with which to work as the Broncos finished last in the league in total yards and points allowed and head coach Josh McDaniels was fired in December.

“I know it didn’t work out the way we wanted it to work out,” said Martindale, who was dismissed at season’s end and hired as Ravens inside linebackers coach a year later. “Not at the time, but eight years later, I’m glad I went through that process because I think that makes me a better coach today. It’s like I tell my guys — you either win or you learn.”

Martindale now inherits a talented defense that impressively pitched three shutouts and led the NFL in takeaways this season, but the unit finished sixth in points allowed, 10th in passing yards allowed, 15th in rushing yards allowed, and 12th in total yards surrendered and saw its performance slip over the final month when Baltimore blew late leads against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. The stunning home loss to the Bengals on New Year’s Eve resulted in John Harbaugh’s team missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five years.

The Ravens are already devoting more cap space to their defense than the other side of the ball and have used 13 of their last 17 Day 1 and Day 2 draft picks on defensive players. In other words, Martindale needs to find more consistency than retired defensive coordinator Dean Pees did with the current group and probably shouldn’t be expecting major additions this offseason.

“We’re close. Obviously, the last two years it has been the last play that’s knocked us out of it,” Martindale said. “We are going to work diligently — all of us — with our package and situational football. That’s going to be the next step I think that’ll skyrocket us. That is the big thing that I see.

“We are going to take our ‘good’ and make it great. We were really good. Let’s make it great.”

With numerous holes on offense and a limited amount of projected salary-cap space for 2018, Martindale could be the X factor for the defense. Of course, some recent draft picks will need to step up in a way similar to how Matthew Judon progressed this past season with Pro Bowl veterans such as Suggs and safety Eric Weddle not getting any younger and high-priced cornerback Jimmy Smith returning from a torn Achilles tendon.

But many will be eager to see how Martindale’s fingerprints compare to Pees, who was criticized for too many late-game collapses and not being more aggressive in certain situations. The new defensive coordinator emphasized that success is ultimately about the players and putting them in the right positions to succeed.

Without being disrespectful when asked how he’d compare to his predecessor, Martindale made his intentions clear.

“I think personality-wise and just calls, there’s going to be some things that are the same,” Martindale said. “And then there’s going to be some times where I’m going to pressure more. I think I have a more aggressive personality in calling a game. Sometimes, too aggressive. That’s some of the things I’ve learned from the past, so there’s that fine line — what quarterback you’re playing and things of that nature.”

Finding that fine line could be the difference for a good defense striving to be great.

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Examining the Ravens’ top 10 cap numbers for 2018

Posted on 09 January 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens face an all-too-familiar offseason after missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five years, but concerns about the 2018 salary cap have already surfaced with free agency still two months away.

It’s no secret that the draft is the lifeblood of any organization wanting to create and sustain long-term success, but teams need to receive appropriate production from their highest-paid veterans to maintain a balanced roster capable of competing for championships. As things stand now, the Ravens will devote $109.503 million in 2018 cap space to their 10 players with the highest cap numbers. The 2018 salary cap hasn’t yet been set, but it’s believed to fall somewhere between $174 million and $178 million.

Below is a look at those 10 players:

1. QB Joe Flacco
2018 Week 1 age: 33
2018 cap number: $24.75 million
Synopsis: This is hardly a new topic of discussion with most opinions formulated over the last five years unlikely to budge. Flacco certainly needs to play at a much higher level, but consider just two other members of the top 10 are offensive players and $17.625 million of the remaining $84.753 million in 2018 cap dollars for spots No. 2 through No. 10 are devoted to offensive talent. On top of that, only four offensive players have been taken with Baltimore’s 17 Day 1 and Day 2 draft picks since Super Bowl XLVII. Is this a recipe for a balanced roster setting up its quarterback for success? The results don’t lie.

2. CB Jimmy Smith
2018 Week 1 age: 30
2018 cap number: $15.675 million
Synopsis: Smith is a great example of the dangers of restructuring contracts as adjustments made the last two years to create cap relief have added more than $4 million to his original 2018 cap number from when he signed his big extension in 2015. Smith will be coming back from a torn Achilles tendon and has played more than 12 games in a season just twice in his career, but cutting him would create more than $13 million in dead money for 2018. He was having the best season of his career before the early-December injury, but the organization is now stuck and can only hope he makes a successful comeback.

3. DT Brandon Williams
2018 Week 1 age: 29
2018 cap number: $11.545 million
Synopsis: There was a fair argument to be made whether re-signing Williams was the best use of cap resources last offseason, but the Ravens allowing more rushing yards than anyone in the NFL during his four-game absence in September and October made a very strong case in support of the decision. You’d like to see more productivity from Williams as a pass rusher at that salary, but he’s as good as interior defensive linemen come at stopping the run. His age makes you nervous from a long-term standpoint, but his cap figures remain relatively flat over the duration of his deal that runs through 2021.

4. G Marshal Yanda
2018 Week 1 age: 33
2018 cap number: $10.125 million
Synopsis: There’s no underselling how much the Ravens missed the man regarded by many as the best guard in football over the last six or seven years, but the six-time Pro Bowl selection will be coming off a serious ankle injury and is entering his 12th NFL campaign, making his cap number something to monitor next season. If he returns to his previous level of play, his eight-digit cap cost remains well worth it, but it’s fair to worry if this is when Father Time begins catching up with Yanda, who will turn 34 in the first month of the new season.

5. S Tony Jefferson
2018 Week 1 age: 26
2018 cap number: $8.99 million
Synopsis: I never understood the organization’s infatuation with giving a box safety — accomplished as he may have been in Arizona — a four-year, $34 million contract, and nothing about Jefferson’s play in his first season refuted that notion as he often struggled in pass coverage. In fairness to him, the coaching staff needs to be more creative to better utilize his skills as a blitzer and run defender, but there was little evidence of him making the kind of splash plays that justify this price tag. This signing might be the poster child of the Ravens’ obsession with defense while neglecting the other side of the ball.

6. LB C.J. Mosley
2018 Week 1 age: 26
2018 cap number: $8.718 million
Synopsis: The 2014 first-round pick made his third Pro Bowl in four years, but nagging injuries took their toll at times and his pass coverage wasn’t as strong as you’d like to see from a player on the verge of a massive pay day. Signing Mosley to an extension this spring would lower his 2018 cap figure and keep him in Baltimore for the long haul, but he ranked an underwhelming 37th among qualified linebackers in Pro Football Focus’ grading system in 2017. Mosley will always be judged unfairly against the memory of future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis, but he’s certainly lived up to his first-round billing.

7. S Eric Weddle
2018 Week 1 age: 33
2018 cap number: $8.25 million
Synopsis: It doesn’t appear to be a coincidence that a once-turnover-starved defense recorded more takeaways than anyone in the NFL over the last two seasons upon Weddle’s arrival. He shook off a shaky start to 2017 to finish tied for second in the league with six interceptions and serves as the quarterback of a secondary that has had fewer communication breakdowns over the last two years. Weddle has made the Pro Bowl in each of the last two years, but his increasing cap number does make you a bit nervous about his advancing age as he enters his 12th season. Two years in, this has been a very good signing.

8. WR Jeremy Maclin
2018 Week 1 age: 30
2018 cap number: $7.5 million
Synopsis: The Ravens hoped they were getting their next Anquan Boldin or Steve Smith as Maclin was envisioned as the next just-past-his-prime wide receiver to save the day in Baltimore, but Flacco’s back injury as well as Maclin’s various ailments never allowed the two to get on the same page, making this a very disappointing signing. Whether those realities will be enough to earn Maclin a second chance with the Ravens remains to be seen, but he’s never really felt like a good fit and you’d have to think both sides are probably better off moving on. Cutting him would save the Ravens $5 million in 2018 cap space.

9. CB Brandon Carr
2018 Week 1 age: 32
2018 cap number: $7 million
Synopsis: The veteran served his purpose as an acceptable No. 2 cornerback and would have been a likely cut before Jimmy Smith’s Achilles injury that now makes it unclear whether the top corner will be ready for the start of next season. The Ravens may need to roll the dice on the promising trio of Marlon Humphrey, Tavon Young, and Maurice Canady holding down the fort if Smith isn’t quite ready to go by Week 1. Electing to keep Carr around would be understandable, but that’s an expensive insurance policy when the roster has so many other needs. Cutting him would save $4 million in space this offseason.

10. LB Terrell Suggs
2018 Week 1 age: 35
2018 cap number: $6.95 million
Synopsis: While Suggs is approaching the end of a brilliant career, I haven’t quite understood some of the speculation out there about him being a potential cap casualty as he comes off an 11-sack season and his first Pro Bowl invitation since 2013. Of the Ravens’ young edge defenders, only Matthew Judon has emerged to look the part of a rock-solid starter while the likes of Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams still have much to prove. New defensive coordinator Wink Martindale would be wise to limit Suggs’ snaps more to keep him fresh next year, but he’s still a good value compared to some other names in the top 10.

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Ravens, Green Bay providing interesting contrast to start of offseason

Posted on 05 January 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens are again preaching continuity after missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five years, but a contemporary with an even better track record over the last decade is proceeding quite differently.

If any team had an excuse for missing the playoffs in 2017, it was probably Green Bay after six-time Pro Bowl quarterback Aaron Rodgers missed over half of the season with a broken collarbone. The Packers fared exactly how you’d expect with backup Brett Hundley under center as the Ravens even contributed to that misery with a 23-0 shutout victory at Lambeau Field in Week 11. But that hasn’t stopped Green Bay from making substantial changes after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

In place as the general manager since 2005, Ted Thompson has stepped aside and will now serve in an advisory role. Head coach Mike McCarthy has fired both his offensive and defensive coordinators as well as his defensive line and inside linebackers coaches. The Packers also allowed their quarterbacks coach’s contract to expire after Hundley wasn’t up to the task of filling in for Rodgers.

Of course, every situation is unique and can be driven by factors other than the results on the field, but it’s a substantial shakeup for the Packers, who had been tied with New England for the longest active playoff appearance streak in the NFL at eight consecutive seasons. This is a team coming off an appearance in last year’s NFC Championship, so it’s more than fair to argue this being an overreaction when you lose one of the best quarterbacks in the league.

Regardless, it’s an interesting contrast from Ravens head coach John Harbaugh defending offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and the rest of his offensive staff by citing quarterback Joe Flacco missing all of training camp with a back injury and starting guards Alex Lewis and Marshal Yanda being lost for the season. No one would compare Flacco’s impact to that of a future Hall of Fame quarterback, but the Ravens did have their franchise signal-caller available for all 16 games — even at less than 100 percent. And while there’s no understating the Week 2 loss of a six-time Pro Bowl right guard for the remainder of the year, Green Bay also dealt with a number of injuries on its offensive line this season.

One approach isn’t necessarily more correct than the other as time will tell whether these teams who have both won a Super Bowl in the last eight years will get back on track, but the Packers are certainly being aggressive trying to address their 2017 failures after a 7-9 finish while the Ravens have so far only been tasked with replacing their defensive coordinator after Dean Pees’ retirement. The juxtaposition of those two reactions to missing the playoffs will be interesting to monitor in 2018.

Jimmy Smith ready for start of next season?

It’s been just over a month since veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith suffered a torn Achilles tendon, leaving his status for the start of the 2018 season up in the air.

In the midst of the best campaign of his career at the time of the injury, Smith missed the final four contests and also served a four-game ban for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. It marked the fifth time in seven years that the 2011 first-round pick played no more than 12 games, making many understandably skeptical that he’ll be ready for Week 1 in September.

“You saw how fast [Terrell Suggs] came back from his,” said Harbaugh, referencing his remarkable 2012 return from an Achilles tear in under six months. “Then, there’s always a building back to your skill set, too, so we understand that. If you do the math, eight months [to recover would] be September for Jimmy. That’s conservative; it’s really a little more than that.

“We’ll see where he’s at. I’m hopeful, but we’ll have a bunch of corners here, too, to make sure that we have enough corners.”

Smith’s injury could open the door for veteran Brandon Carr to remain in Baltimore. The 31-year-old struggled down the stretch, but he has never missed a game in his career and cutting him would leave the youthful trio of Marlon Humphrey, Tavon Young, and Maurice Canady atop the depth chart until Smith is ready to return.

Releasing Carr would save $4 million in salary cap space for the 2018 season.

Infirmary report

Harbaugh said he will likely hold Yanda out until training camp, but the 33-year-old will be ready to go before then and is “already moving and doing some things” after suffering a season-ending ankle injury on Sept. 17.

According to the coach, Lewis (shoulder), Young (knee), and running back Kenneth Dixon (knee) will be ready for the start of the offseason conditioning program in April while linebacker Albert McClellan (knee) should be ready to return by the start of training camp. Rookie wide receiver Tim White has been 100 percent for roughly the last six weeks after suffering a serious thumb injury in the first preseason game. Defensive end Brent Urban (foot) will also be ready by the spring, but he is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March.

Harbaugh said he hasn’t had any contact with tight end Darren Waller, who was suspended for a year for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy in June.

Young backup for Flacco

Harbaugh acknowledged the possibility of the Ravens drafting a young quarterback this spring.

Flacco will turn 33 later this month and has been hampered by knee and back injuries over the last three seasons and sustained a concussion in Week 8. He is under contract through the 2021 season, but the Super Bowl XLVII MVP is coming off one of the more trying seasons of his 10-year career. Backup Ryan Mallett has served as his backup for the last two seasons and struggled this past preseason, leading many to clamor for the Ravens to draft a quarterback with some long-term upside.

“It’s something that we will talking about for sure,” Harbaugh said. “Every position, certain positions are going to be more important than others, but when you have a veteran quarterback at this stage, that is the time you are always looking for a young backup. I don’t think that jeopardizes Joe at all. He is our guy, and I am excited about our chances next year having a great season, and Joe is too.

“If we draft a quarterback, if it turns out to be the thing we do, it is only going to make our team stronger.”

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Suggs was fitting choice for Ravens MVP in grind-it-out season

Posted on 29 December 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Identifying a team MVP wasn’t a slam-dunk proposition in a grind-it-out season for the Ravens.

There were a number of reasonable candidates, ranging from surprising running back Alex Collins to Pro Bowl selections Eric Weddle and C.J. Mosley, but none jumped off the page as the obvious choice. If not for injuries that cost them substantial portions of the season, defensive tackle Brandon Williams and cornerback Jimmy Smith would have garnered stronger consideration. And when you consider how dependent the Ravens have been on field position, even punter Sam Koch deserved mention for his strong campaign.

But the strong play, mental prowess, and veteran leadership of outside linebacker Terrell Suggs made him a fitting choice to receive the local media’s award. Amazingly, it’s the first time the 35-year-old has received the honor, but his mere candidacy in his 15th season — along with his seventh trip to the Pro Bowl — may have helped cement his eventual place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Looking and sounding genuinely touched and surprised to be named team MVP, Suggs says his primary focus is on the Ravens clinching their first trip to the playoffs since 2014.

“This is flattering. I’m speechless. I didn’t know this was this award,” said Suggs, who initially thought he was receiving the local media’s “Good Guy” award on Friday. “This is awesome. It would be a sour note if we don’t win on Sunday, so that is pretty much my big focus right now. This is great among the achievements that we all have achieved this year, but we want to be having a football game next week.”

After changing up his offseason routine by training at the team’s Owings Mills facility rather than in his home state of Arizona, Suggs has enjoyed his finest season in a few years, recording a team-leading 11 sacks and forcing four fumbles. The 2003 first-round pick will play in all 16 regular-season games for the first time since 2014 and has played just over 76 percent of the Ravens’ defensive snaps, dismissing any notions about him becoming more of a situational player this season.

It’s an outcome few would have predicted after he suffered the second torn Achilles tendon of his career just two years ago.

Suggs has credited the revamped offseason regimen for improved health and conditioning, helping him record double-digit sacks for the seventh time in his career. His veteran teammates have also pointed to his presence at spring workouts and meetings as a positive influence on younger players as the Ravens were coming off their second straight season without a playoff berth.

His on-field production and colorful personality have been givens for years, but his underrated cerebral approach to the game has allowed him to continue playing at a high level despite his advancing age. Over the years, opponents have repeatedly noted Suggs’ ability to sometimes call out their offensive plays before the snap, a product of his rigid preparation.

“You see how much fun he is and how much energy he brings to practice,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “I don’t think you fully understand what he’s like off the field studying. He is from the book of Ed Reed and Ray Lewis and those guys.”

In a season in which the Ravens rebounded from a rash of early injuries and a 4-5 start, a healthy and productive Suggs receiving the MVP nod was an appropriate outcome as he moves closer to his eventual place in Canton.

Weddle receives “Good Guy” honor

The local media named Weddle the 2017 recipient of the “Good Guy” award, an honor bestowed upon the player deemed most helpful to reporters.

In his second season with the Ravens, the veteran safety has regularly been available after losses and during tough times when it isn’t as easy to talk to the media.

“The media out here is great. It’s always an obligation for us and for myself,” said Weddle, who was named to his fifth Pro Bowl earlier this month. “I’ve always said that I will always be honest and upfront — good, bad, or indifferent. I’m a man of my word and respect everyone’s jobs. It’s pretty sweet that you guys think that highly of me.”

As a token of their appreciation for Weddle’s cooperation this season, the local media will make a donation in his name to the Ed Block Courage Award Foundation.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 23-16 win over Indianapolis

Posted on 26 December 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens clinching their first winning season since 2014 after a 23-16 victory over Indianapolis, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Critics say this defense hasn’t been very good when it hasn’t forced turnovers, but isn’t that true of many units? Sure, there’s been some variance in the overall performance, but give me the group more dynamic taking the ball away over a more “consistent” unit that’s ordinary in that department.

2. The offense continues to play at a higher level in December, but the Ravens have scored just three touchdowns in seven trips inside the red zone the last two weeks since going 4-for-4 against Pittsburgh. Justin Tucker field goals in that area aren’t going to cut it in January.

3. Both Alex Collins and Michael Campanaro put the ball on the ground against the Colts, but the Ravens have committed only two turnovers in the last six games since the bye. That’s strong evidence supporting the notion that this offense was way too conservative through the first three months.

4. Maurice Canady saved the day with his fourth-down pass breakup to preserve a one-score lead, and his emergence sure gives the Ravens some good cornerback depth moving forward. Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr, Marlon Humphrey, Tavon Young, and Canady are all under contract for 2018.

5. Jack Doyle didn’t put up monster numbers, but he was the latest tight end to give the Ravens issues in coverage. It’s tough not to be nervous about that deficiency with a potential matchup with Kansas City’s three-time Pro Bowl selection Travis Kelce looming in the wild-card round.

6. I understand frustration and even boos when a player isn’t performing, but the Bronx cheers for Breshad Perriman’s 8-yard reception in the third quarter felt a little too mean-spirited for my taste, especially since the guy has barely played since the bye anyway.

7. Speaking of disappointing early picks, Maxx Williams caught his first touchdown in over two years. He’s done a solid job as a blocker this year, but that’s not exactly what Ozzie Newsome had in mind when he traded up in the second round of the 2015 draft to take him.

8. Buck Allen has averaged an ordinary 3.7 yards per carry overall, but he’s done a solid job in short-yardage situations despite not being a bruising back. He was initially stuffed on fourth-and-1 on the opening drive and reached for the first down with second effort.

9. Remember when some wondered if Kamar Aiken might eventually develop into a poor man’s version of Anquan Boldin after leading the Ravens with 75 receptions in 2015? He has 14 catches on 42 targets with Indianapolis this season and a combined 43 catches in 30 games since that campaign.

10. Frank Gore was never viewed as the best running back in the NFL at any point, but the 34-year-old is closing in on 14,000 career rushing yards in an era when backs increasingly have a shorter shelf life. Longevity is an underrated quality, especially in this sport.

11. The Ravens could end up making a January run, but their strength of victory ranks 13th of 16 AFC teams and would still be 10th if you remove the two wins over 0-15 Cleveland. Even after their early injuries, not making the playoffs with this schedule would be extremely disappointing.

12. Baltimore surprisingly broke out its black jerseys despite having already worn the alternate tops two other times this year. The black-on-white look — the Ravens’ seventh different uniform combination of the season — is an underrated one.

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Painful loss to Pittsburgh should still bring hope for Ravens

Posted on 11 December 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — No matter the circumstances or stakes, losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers is about as painful as it gets for the Ravens.

That’s the burden of a tremendous rivalry as the sting of Sunday’s heartbreaking 39-38 defeat will linger throughout the week and possibly a little longer. Suffering their first regular-season sweep at the hands of the Steelers since 2008, many players were despondent in the locker room after squandering a two-score lead in the fourth quarter, conjuring memories of last year’s defensive collapse on Christmas.

Baltimore was one stop or one drive away from a huge victory at Heinz Field, but we know close only counts in horseshoes, right? Terrell Suggs was among those who didn’t want to hear about any moral victory of the Ravens giving Pittsburgh everything it could handle and then some as they led by nine points with less than seven minutes to go.

Coaches, players, media, and fans alike understand giving up 19 points in the final 13 minutes is inexcusable as Ben Roethlisberger threw for 506 yards — 228 in the fourth quarter — and Antonio Brown caught 11 passes for 213 yards, but there’s a critical difference with this one compared to last season’s Week 16 collapse. That loss left the Ravens to think all offseason about how close they came before Brown extended the ball over the goal line and eliminated them from playoff contention with that dramatic last-second touchdown.

Sunday certainly hurt, but the loss only narrowed the margin for error the rest of the way as they try to secure a wild-card spot and their first trip to the playoffs since 2014. A division title would have remained a long shot even with a win, so the task is clear for the Ravens as three wins against three sub-.500 opponents will still guarantee them some January football.

A narrow loss to Pittsburgh — the expected outcome in the eyes of most observers entering Week 14 — shouldn’t meaningfully alter anyone’s outlook for the final three weeks. If you don’t believe in the Ravens’ ability to beat Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Cincinnati, were you honestly expecting a competitive game against the Steelers in the first place?

A deep breath and 24 hours bring some needed perspective for the long-term outlook.

Had Chris Boswell missed the 46-yard field goal in the final minute or the Ravens simply made one more game-changing play down the stretch, euphoria undoubtedly would have replaced disgust and the focus would have been on a strong offensive showing for the second straight week rather than the terrible defensive performance. Concerns about the defense still would have been warranted had the Ravens figured out a way to escape western Pennsylvania with a win, but that wouldn’t have been the primary topic of discussion.

A signature win would have helped the eyeball test, but it wouldn’t have suddenly made Baltimore the new favorite in the AFC. A return trip to Heinz Field next month would have still labeled the Ravens as the underdog against the Steelers. This remains a flawed team, and a win wouldn’t have changed that if we’re being honest.

The silver lining from Sunday is that the offense was able to duplicate last week’s impressive production against Detroit. It’s no secret that this group has been the Ravens’ biggest weakness, but scoring a combined 82 points the last two games brings more optimism down the stretch. Alex Collins continues to look like a difference-maker while Joe Flacco has thrown for 538 yards and four touchdowns the last two weeks, marked improvement from what we’ve seen most of this season.

We knew this offense needed to improve if the Ravens were going to pose any threat in a potential trip to the postseason, and it’s finally showing signs of progress.

On the other hand, the defense is fairly being criticized after being carved up by Roethlisberger and giving up 59 points in its last six quarters of action, but the Ravens will now play three bottom-10 offenses to try to make necessary corrections and better adjust to life without top cornerback Jimmy Smith. Sunday certainly brought validation to the criticism regarding the lack of elite offenses on the schedule and the group’s ability without Smith on the field, but this defense has been good enough over the course of the season to at least envision better results on that side of the ball if the teams were to meet a third time.

It was only three years ago that the Ravens were blown out by the Steelers in their first full game without Smith and returned to Heinz Field two months later to win in the opening round of the playoffs. Regardless of how it ended Sunday night, a one-point road loss to an 11-2 team shouldn’t prompt any fear if given the chance to roll the dice again, and there isn’t much more you can ask for beyond that.

It’s fair to be ticked off about such a frustrating loss for the Ravens. Harbaugh and his team certainly are.

But it didn’t end their season this time around, and there was enough good to take away from the performance to ponder the possibilities of a third meeting sometime next month.

That is, if the Ravens handle their business between now and then.

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday night

Posted on 09 December 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens don’t really need to beat Pittsburgh on Sunday night.

A one-game lead for the final wild-card spot, a strong tiebreaker profile, and three remaining games — two at home — against teams that are a combined 20 games below .500 make Baltimore’s chances to make it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2014 very strong already. But a victory would bring the elusive signature win that would make the doubters — and perhaps John Harbaugh’s team itself — start to believe the Ravens are capable of being a legitimate threat in January.

Meanwhile, the Steelers hope to extend their seven-game winning streak, but a defeat would still leave them within striking distance of New England, who will visit Heinz Field next week with the upper hand for the No. 1 seed in the AFC on the line. The immediate incentive for Pittsburgh to win Sunday would be to clinch the AFC North title, but its three-game advantage with four weeks to go leaves quite a margin for error in the division race.

In other words, the renewal of this intense rivalry lacks the same stakes as last year’s Christmas Day affair that essentially served as a division championship game.

Last week’s serious back injury suffered by Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier has been on the minds of both teams as the former Pro Bowl selection’s future on and off the field remains unclear. With many Pittsburgh players planning to wear cleats paying tribute to their injured teammate, how the Steelers respond emotionally playing at home could certainly be a factor for at least the beginning of Sunday night’s game.

It’s time to go on the record as these AFC North rivals meet for the 44th time in the regular-season series with the Steelers holding a slight 23-20 advantage to go with a 3-1 edge in postseason encounters. Pittsburgh has won the last two meetings and is in search of its first regular-season sweep of the Ravens since 2008. Including the playoffs, 16 of the 22 showdowns with the Steelers in the John Harbaugh era have been decided by a single possession.

Below are five predictions for Sunday night:

1. Danny Woodhead will have his best game as a Raven with 60 receiving yards and a touchdown. The focus on Shazier’s injury has rightly been on his health and not on football, but the Steelers will miss his presence in pass coverage as he recorded an interception and four breakups against Baltimore’s underneath passing game in Week 4. With Cam Heyward and a strong Pittsburgh front dominating the line of scrimmage in that first meeting, Joe Flacco may have to rely on more short passing and less of Alex Collins and the running game. With outside linebacker Arthur Moats filling in on the inside, this is the game Woodhead and the Ravens need to exploit an advantageous matchup.

2. Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell will finish with 115 total yards of offense. It’s no secret the run defense has been superb since Brandon Williams’ return in late October, but Bell’s huge game in Week 4 was more about the inability to set the edge on outside runs and to handle the Steelers’ pulling interior linemen on counters than struggles inside as he averaged just 2.2 yards per carry between the tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. The Ravens will be hellbent to slow Bell as a runner, but linebackers C.J. Mosley and Patrick Onwuasor have been vulnerable in pass coverage and this is where Bell will find more of his success. He’ll extend a streak of 57 or more receiving yards to four straight games.

3. Mike Wallace and Martavis Bryant will catch long touchdowns for their respective teams. With Steelers cornerback Joe Haden still out and their safeties inclined to play a little closer to the line of scrimmage to help the inside linebackers in coverage, there should be some opportunities for the Ravens to take deep shots and Wallace has been playing his best football of the year since the bye. On the flip side, Baltimore will do whatever it can schematically to prevent Antonio Brown from killing a secondary without Jimmy Smith, but that will leave Marlon Humphrey or Brandon Carr occasionally on an island matched up with Bryant, who is still dangerous despite a disappointing season.

4. Joe Flacco will be efficient and play turnover-free football for the third straight week. The 10th-year quarterback is coming off his best game of the year and needs to play more like that down the stretch if the Ravens are to become a realistic threat in the AFC. Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler will do more to try to confuse Flacco and mix up coverages than Detroit did a week ago, but his fourth-ranked defense ranks a pedestrian 14th in the NFL in takeaways. Pass protection needs to hold up better than it did in the first meeting between these teams, but Flacco will effectively find Woodhead and Jeremy Maclin in the short-to-intermediate area of the field.

5. The Ravens will pull off the upset for their first signature win of the season in a 23-20 final. Perhaps I’m drinking too much purple Kool-Aid, but the Steelers are coming off a short and emotional week following a Monday night road game and have trailed in the second half of four of their last five games, illustrating how vulnerable they’ve looked at times despite a terrific 10-2 record. Baltimore has one last chance to earn a signature win and needs to build on its strong performance from a week ago to build confidence that the offense can be productive enough moving forward to have a real chance in the playoffs. The Steelers are the better team overall, but this week’s circumstances set up favorably for the Ravens to steal a road win in Pittsburgh and further improve their playoff positioning.

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Humphrey’s time arrives for playoff-hopeful Ravens

Posted on 06 December 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey will be playing at Heinz Field for the first time Sunday night, but he has an idea of what to expect against Pittsburgh.

Facing the NFL’s fourth-ranked passing attack in his first start in place of the injured Jimmy Smith, the first-round rookie knows he’ll have a bullseye on his back as Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger surveys a Baltimore secondary now without its top corner. Humphrey acknowledges this in a matter-of-fact way without a hint of intimidation or even all that much excitement in his voice.

It’s not the first time he’s been under the microscope on a big stage, of course, as it was just two years ago that he was a redshirt freshman starting for a national championship Alabama team.

“I’m sure if there’s a weak link they have to pick out, it would definitely be me,” said Humphrey, referencing the big plays he gave up against Detroit last Sunday. “Big Ben likes to throw it up. He’s a great quarterback, so I’m sure if he has to take those shots, it’ll probably be at me.”

The six-foot, 197-pound cornerback struggled as Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford targeted him frequently after Smith suffered a torn Achilles tendon late in the second quarter, but it’s not as though Humphrey hadn’t already shown enough for the Ravens to be confident in him. It was just a couple weeks ago when many began wondering if Humphrey was on the cusp of earning a starting position before a thigh issue limited him to seven defensive snaps in Week 12.

His talent was evident from the first day of organized team activities when he was still two months shy of his 21st birthday. Humphrey didn’t look much like a rookie in the spring and summer as he practiced press coverage and displayed the kind of polish you expect from a cornerback with at least a couple seasons under his belt.

This past Sunday was arguably the first time the moment has looked too big for him since he was selected with the 16th overall pick in April’s draft, and he still recovered in the fourth quarter to intercept a Stafford pass to help preserve the win.

“He has good composure on the field. He has God-given speed,” 10th-year cornerback Brandon Carr said. “The ability he has, he can make up for a lot of things that he hasn’t learned yet as far as technique and the ins and outs of the receivers. But he has a knack for just going out there and making plays.”

The Ravens would surely prefer having Smith on the field against the likes of All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown and deep threat Martavis Bryant in a nationally-televised prime-time game, but it’s not as though they’re throwing Humphrey to the wolves as an untested commodity. He’s already logged more than 300 defensive snaps this season — including 55 against an Oakland offense that included wide receivers Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper — after frequently spelling a banged-up Smith and replacing Carr when he struggled to slow down Green Bay’s speedy receivers late last month.

According to Pro Football Focus, Humphrey has graded a respectable 41st among qualified cornerbacks and is allowing a passer rating of just 52.3 when targeted. He has collected 25 tackles and two interceptions to go along with eight pass breakups. The latter stat ranks second on the team and reflects how quarterbacks had already tried to test the rookie with little success before Stafford’s last Sunday.

Prior to Smith’s injury, coaches had boasted that they had three starting corners on the league’s third-ranked pass defense, and the numbers support that idea as Humphrey has played 18 or more snaps seven times this season.

“I think it’ll help a lot,” Humphrey said. “Coaches have given me a lot of time to play for me [being] a backup corner. It’ll definitely help that I’ve got some game experience.”

Of course, the apprenticeship is now over as Humphrey will start opposite of Carr and the Ravens will try to avoid their second straight late-season collapse following an injury to Smith. There’s no safety net as the next men up on the depth chart are also inexperienced in Maurice Canady, Jaylen Hill, and Stanley Jean-Baptiste.

Frankly, this exact scenario with the oft-injured Smith is why general manager Ozzie Newsome passed on prospects at other positions of need to select Humphrey. Some growing pains are likely or even inevitable down the stretch, but his talent and even-keeled personality are major reasons why the Ravens believe they can endure Smith’s absence this time around after it was their fatal flaw last December.

“If a ball is completed on him, it’s not ‘sulk and go in the tank’ like some rookies can do,” said defensive coordinator Dean Pees about Humphrey early last month. “Every defensive back that is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame has gotten beat — every one of them. It is just a matter of the ones that are really in there are the ones that could forget that and go play the next play.

“I’m certainly not putting him in that category yet, but he has that quality.”

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 44-20 win over Detroit

Posted on 05 December 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens securing their first three-game winning streak since the start of last season with a 44-20 victory over Detroit, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Where has this offense been all year? While recording season highs in points and yards while committing no turnovers, the Ravens were aggressive and effectively used play fakes. The group’s response after Detroit made it a one-score game late in the third quarter was the best drive of the season.

2. Joe Flacco was superb with active feet in the pocket and his most accurate passing of the season. His best throw was the 23-yard back-shoulder connection to Mike Wallace as he was being hit. Flacco would have eclipsed 300 yards if not for four drops by receivers.

3. The key to the offensive success was first-down productivity as Baltimore averaged 7.7 yards on first down and still came in at 5.8 if you want to take away the outlier of Wallace’s 66-yard catch. Marty Mornhinweg deserves credit for mixing up tendencies to help keep the offense on schedule.

4. Eric Weddle got off to a rough start this season, but his strip-sack led to excellent field position for a touchdown in the second quarter and his interception returned for a touchdown capped a dominant fourth. The secondary needs his leadership more than ever with the Jimmy Smith injury.

5. There’s no overlooking his rough performance against the Lions, but Marlon Humphrey had already done enough as a rookie to inspire confidence moving forward. Offenses will be looking to attack him now, but he has a good demeanor and all the talent he needs to contribute in Smith’s place.

6. Wallace was in the slot on the 66-yard bomb from Flacco, an example of personnel shuffling within a formation to create a favorable matchup against a safety. Mornhinweg also used a trips bunch formation to get Jeremy Maclin free on a crossing route. The Ravens need more of this.

7. Seeing Willie Henry scoop up a fumble and run 16 yards was amusing enough, but the second-year defensive tackle diagnosed a screen to make a tackle for a loss and registered a quarterback hit. “Big Earl” continues to be a significant contributor in the rotation.

8. Patrick Ricard registered his first touchdown since high school Sunday, but the converted defensive lineman also delivered several impressive blocks and matched a season high with 18 offensive snaps. The rookie is making more of an impact at fullback recently.

9. Maurice Canady appears to have overtaken Lardarius Webb as the primary nickel. In addition to five tackles and the hit on Jake Rudock’s interception to Weddle, Canady recovered Michael Campanaro’s fumble. He plays with much confidence and aggression for someone with such little NFL experience.

10. I’ve been clamoring for Tyus Bowser to receive more opportunities in this defense, but the rookie whiffing when he had a straight path to Matthew Stafford in the second quarter isn’t going to help his cause in the short term.

11. He only missed a couple plays after passing concussion screening, but C.J. Mosley suffered a stinger for the second straight week. You hope there’s no underlying cause for those because the Ravens can’t afford to be without him.

12. The Lions had nine players on the field for Flacco’s key third-down throw to a wide-open Chris Moore on the touchdown drive early in the fourth. That summed up the uninspiring football Detroit played for large stretches of a game they needed to have in a crowded NFC playoff race.

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