Tag Archive | "Jimmy Smith"

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Slowing Pittsburgh play-makers tops priority list for Ravens

Posted on 04 November 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The biggest difference between the Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers comes down to two players.

Baltimore has the better defense while the Steelers possess a more stable offensive line. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is better than Joe Flacco, but we know the latter is capable of playing at a high level with enough good pieces around him.

Pieces more like Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, who are the biggest obstacles in Baltimore’s attempt to snap a four-game losing streak and pull even with the Steelers in the AFC North. Counting the 2014 postseason, the Ravens have won their last three games against Pittsburgh, but one of Roethlisberger, Brown, and Bell missed each one of those games.

The last time the dynamic trio played against the Ravens resulted in a 43-23 blowout at Heinz Field on Nov. 2, 2014 in which Roethlisberger threw six touchdown passes with Brown and Bell each catching one. It was a rare occasion in which Brown went off against the Ravens, catching 11 passes for 144 yards and a 54-yard touchdown.

Despite averaging an incredible 102.2 receiving yards per game in 55 contests since the start of the 2013 season, the four-time Pro Bowl receiver has eclipsed the century mark in only two of his last seven contests — one in the playoffs — against the Ravens and has only one touchdown reception in his career against Baltimore.

“It is a rivalry game. We know each other,” said cornerback Jimmy Smith about the Baltimore defense keep Brown in check on so many occasions. “We know what they are trying to do to us. They know what we are trying to do to them. It is one of those games that, fortunately, at times, we come out on the better side or get going against them. Some of the game plan is obviously directed towards him, so we are doing what we are supposed to do if we keep him with minimal yards and catches.”

Conventional wisdom suggests Smith — the Ravens’ top cornerback — would match up with Brown wherever the 5-foot-10 receiver lines up, but defensive coordinator Dean Pees has employed different strategies in recent meetings. In Week 2 of the 2014 season, Smith traveled with Brown and held him to seven catches for 90 yards on 12 targets, but the sixth-year defensive back stayed on one side of the field in two meetings last year as the Ravens held the Pittsburgh receiver to a total of 103 receiving yards and no touchdowns.

In a conference call with the Baltimore media this week, Brown said he prefers when the opposition matches one cornerback against him because it leads to more 1-on-1 opportunities. The star wideout has faced plenty of press coverage with safety help over the top in recent games.

“There are so many factors you take into account and your defensive calls [such as] if you’re going to play more zone or you’re going to play more man,” said defensive coordinator Dean Pees about the decision to have a cornerback travel with a specific receiver. “All of a sudden, you’re going to try to teach a defensive back that’s in the slot how to play zone in the slot as opposed to [playing outside]. It’s easier [to travel in man coverage], because you have the man. Every time I line a guy up there and that same DB lines up there, they look at it and say, ‘If that guy lines up in the slot, they’re in man coverage.’

“You have to be able to mix and match zones and mans. There’s a lot more to it than just easily stating, ‘Let’s put our best DB on their best receiver.'”

Bell could serve as an even bigger factor on Sunday with Roethlisberger still not 100 percent less than three weeks after knee surgery. The Ravens rank fourth in the NFL in run defense, but Pittsburgh would love to unleash the star running back early to ease pressure on the hobbled quarterback.

In 2016, the 24-year-old Bell is averaging 5.0 yards per carry and 7.5 receptions per game since returning from a three-game suspension.

“I tell him before every game that I’m excited to see what he is going to do,” Brown said. “You know what he brings in the running game; you know what he brings in the passing game. That is the type of guy you want to have on your team — a guy who comes to work every day, displays a good work ethic, and is a big-time player.”

The biggest key in trying to slow Bell will be the anticipated return of inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, who has missed the last two games with a hamstring injury. Besides being the leader of a defense that gave up too many big plays in the middle of the field in his absence, Mosley is the Ravens’ best linebacker in pass coverage and leads the team with three interceptions.

In 39 career games, Bell has caught 182 passes for 1,634 yards and three touchdowns.

Injuries and off-field issues have hindered the start of his career, but Bell possesses a rare combination of patience and downhill ability that makes him dangerous every time he touches the ball.

“Guys can’t guess. If you have a gap to control, you have to control that gap,” said Pees, who labeled Bell one of the best running backs he’s faced in his long coaching career. “You have to stay on your blocker and be patient. When you get a runner like that, you have to be very disciplined on defense, too. Like I tell everybody, when he gets the ball, everybody on defense is at the point of attack because he could go anywhere at any time.”

These dynamic play-makers are the reason why the Steelers are considered the favorite to win a division consumed with mediocrity in 2016. They’re the type of special players Baltimore lacks right now.

If the Ravens want to begin turning their season around on Sunday, they can’t allow Brown and Bell to explode.

“He is one of the biggest challenges in the NFL,” said Smith about the Pittsburgh receiver. “You know what he does. We all know. It is going to take a lot to contain him and No. 26.”

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Ravens not buying uncertainty surrounding Roethlisberger’s status

Posted on 02 November 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Longtime Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs says he’s seen this Ben Roethlisberger movie before.

Cornerback Jimmy Smith quipped that he has “no question” in his mind that the Pittsburgh quarterback will play unless his leg literally isn’t intact.

Despite undergoing surgery on the torn meniscus in his left knee less than three weeks ago, the 34-year-old Roethlisberger has returned to practice on a limited basis and the early reviews of how he’s looked have been favorable. Since an early Sunday morning report casting doubt about his status for Week 9, more signs are pointing to what the Ravens believe to be the obvious outcome after witnessing him overcome past injuries to return to action sooner than anticipated.

“He’s going to act like, ‘I am not playing; I don’t know. I did individuals today; I threw a little bit. I still don’t know,'” said Suggs, who has sacked Roethlisberger 16 1/2 times over more than a decade of competition. “Then he’s going to walk his big ass on out there. I’ll be like, ‘How you doing, Benjamin?’ He’ll be like, ‘What’s up, Sizzle?’ Then, it’s on. Don’t fall for that.”

Ironically, Roethlisberger has missed more games against the Ravens (seven) in his career than he has against fellow AFC North foes Cincinnati and Cleveland combined (two). The Steelers are just 1-6 against Baltimore without their franchise quarterback under center since he became their starter early in the 2004 season. The Ravens are 7-9 in regular-season games started by Roethlisberger and 1-2 in the playoffs.

Both teams have plenty at stake at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday with just a game separating them in the division standings. Desperate for a win after an 0-for-October that crushed the good vibes of a 3-0 start, the Ravens are playing a 4-3 Steelers team that’s dropped two straight games and is struggling defensively despite being in first place in an underwhelming AFC North race.

“This is not an ideal situation to go into, especially against a team like this,” said Smith, referencing the Ravens still carrying a four-game losing streak out of the bye. “It’s not going to make or break our season, but we obviously have to have this win.”

The pre-game narrative centers around the status of Roethlisberger and the overall health of both teams, but the aura of this longstanding rivalry often supersedes what can appear to be a mismatch on paper. Last December, it was the recently-signed Ryan Mallett leading an injury-ravaged Ravens team to an upset win over the playoff-bound Steelers. In 2012, 37-year-old backup Charlie Batch led Pittsburgh to a comeback victory that snapped the 15-game home winning streak of the Ravens, who would then win Super Bowl XLVII two months later.

Whether Roethlisberger plays or not, you can expect a close game with 13 of the 16 regular-season games played between these teams in the John Harbaugh era decided by a single possession. That seems appropriate with the Ravens’ current stretch of 21 of their last 23 regular-season games being decided by eight or fewer points.

It’s no secret that Baltimore is below .500 and has just one playoff appearance since its last championship four years ago, making it all the more interesting that the Ravens have won five of the last six overall meetings with the Steelers.

“I’m talking to our young guys like, ‘These games will define you — hate or not,'” said Suggs, who missed both games with Pittsburgh last season due to a torn Achilles tendon and will attempt to play with a torn biceps on Sunday. “There was a time here where we couldn’t get over that Steeler hump, and you had to become a different kind of player when you played them. I love this game.”

The Ravens are searching for that killer instinct to which Suggs referenced as they try to stop the bleeding from October and avoid missing the playoffs for the third time in the last four years. They hope to welcome some of their own reinforcements back to the field, a list including Suggs, wide receiver Steve Smith, linebacker C.J. Mosley, and offensive linemen Marshal Yanda and Ronnie Stanley.

And despite the uncertainty expressed by the Steelers and the outside world, the Ravens’ minds are made up that Roethlisberger will be out there trying to continue their 2016 misery.

“I am telling my boys that ‘7’ is playing,” Suggs said. “Not only that, he’s going to try and light our ass up, so prepare.”

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Five Ravens predictions for rest of 2016 season

Posted on 29 October 2016 by Luke Jones

It’s been a tale of two months for the Ravens.

A 3-0 September brought much optimism before an 0-4 October littered with injuries dramatically changed the tone of the season. All seven games were decided by a single possession, but offensive struggles, costly penalties, and questionable decision-making should have everyone — the front office, coaches, and players — feeling the heat as the Ravens face the prospects of missing the playoffs for the third time in the last four years, which hasn’t happened since Brian Billick was fired at the end of 2007.

There is reason for optimism, however, with the Ravens trailing first-place Pittsburgh by just one game in the AFC North and still having five division games ahead. On the flip side, five of their final nine games come against teams currently sporting winning records and only one — their Week 10 meeting with Cleveland — is against a team with a worst record than their own 3-4 mark entering the weekend.

While inviting you to laugh at my preseason prophecies for the 2016 Ravens, I offer five updated predictions for the second half of the 2016 season …

1. Joe Flacco will throw for 4,000 yards for the first time in his career and bounce back somewhat from a rough first half. It’s no secret that Flacco has struggled behind an injury-riddled offensive line and without top receiver Steve Smith, but some help should come after the bye. A more consistent running game is a must as Flacco is on pace to finish with a career-high 704 passing attempts and is averaging a career-worst 5.96 yards per attempt. If the Ravens offense can keep their starting line on the field, Flacco should be able to improve his efficiency with fewer attempts and more runs. That said, it will be ironic that he’ll finally eclipse the 4,000-yard mark in one of his worst seasons.

2. Darren Waller will emerge as a surprise offensive weapon in the second half. Many have discussed Kenneth Dixon taking on a bigger role, but Terrance West has done all he can to cement his status as the starter for now, which may limit the rookie’s opportunities until he can show the explosiveness he had in the summer. This offense is in need of presenting tougher matchup problems, and Waller seems to be a solid candidate as a former receiver with good size and athleticism at the tight end position. Dennis Pitta’s comeback has been a great story, but Waller has more big-play upside at this point and could be an intriguing weapon inside the red zone, an area where Baltimore has struggled.

3. The Ravens will snap their drought against Cincinnati, but road woes will cost them the rest of the way. It’s been nearly three full calendar years since Baltimore beat the Bengals, but Marvin Lewis’ team has had its own issues this season and is in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2010. In a few weeks, the Ravens will snap their five-game losing streak against a Bengals team not sporting as much talent as in recent years. However, road games against Dallas, New England, and Pittsburgh spell bad news for a team with little margin for error despite starting 2-0 on the road. The Ravens have shown little evidence this season of being capable of beating a good team on the road.

4. Jimmy Smith will continue to recapture his 2013-14 form with a strong second half. Lost in the disappointment of the losing streak has been the recent improvement of Smith, who played well against Odell Beckham Jr. — who exploded only after Smith sustained a concussion — and Brandon Marshall in the last two games. This might be the best the 2011 first-round pick has looked since before his 2014 foot surgery. No matter how the Ravens fare the rest of the way, Smith needs to play at a high level as he is slated to carry the second-highest salary cap figure on the team in 2017. This organization can’t afford to have another high-priced contract fail them like others have over the last few years.

5. The Ravens will lament their winless October as they finish with a 7-9 record. Baltimore isn’t as bad as its four-game losing streak reflects, but that doesn’t mean the Ravens will improve enough to qualify for the playoffs as they try to stay healthy after the bye. Yes, they’re in every game with 21 of their last 23 contests decided by only one score, but isn’t that a textbook profile of a .500 team? This roster is too dependent on aging players now struggling to stay healthy and doesn’t have enough high-impact young players ready to be a part of the next great Ravens team. The current team isn’t special and doesn’t show much evidence of being on the verge of something special, which is a frustrating place for a proud organization to be.

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Elam thankful to have another opportunity with Ravens

Posted on 25 October 2016 by Luke Jones

OWING MILLS, Md. — Matt Elam’s return to the practice field on Tuesday might have gone unnoticed by observers if not for a copy of the Ravens roster being handy.

Sporting a new jersey — No. 33 — and suiting up for his first full-team workout since undergoing knee surgery in August, the 2013 first-round pick knows there are no guarantees in the final season of his rookie contract. Drafted just three months after Super Bowl XLVII and several weeks after the departure of future Hall of Famer Ed Reed, Elam was supposed to take the torch as the next great Baltimore safety.

Instead, he’s come to symbolize frustration with recent drafts and the scarcity of young impact players on the Baltimore roster since that championship. Needing more depth at the safety position and with no other logical candidates, the Ravens have designated Elam to return from injured reserve, meaning he can now practice for up to 21 days and is eligible to play as soon as the Nov. 10 game against Cleveland.

“That means they believe in me a little bit and it means a lot for me, giving me a little confidence and things like that,” said Elam, who missed the entire 2015 season with a torn biceps. “It’s a great feeling. I’m happy to have the opportunity and I’m thankful for it. I’m just trying to take advantage of the opportunity I have.”

Expectations won’t be that high for a player who failed to prove himself as a starter over his first two seasons and was eventually demoted to a nickel role in 2014. In 32 career games (26 starts), the 25-year-old Elam has collected 127 tackles, one interception, a forced fumble, and seven pass breakups.

Often lost in coverage and guilty of missing too many tackles despite a reputation for being a hard hitter at the University of Florida, Elam earned praise for being in better shape and practicing well in the spring and summer. Of course, similar sentiments were shared by coaches in previous years, but Elam made a strong impression with new secondary coach Leslie Frazier, who had no previous investment in his development as a player.

“He was really having a good camp for us. He did a good job in OTAs and everything we had done in the offseason,” Frazier said. “As a coaching staff, we were really looking forward to watching him progress over the course of the preseason. Then, the injury occurred. Now, we will have to wait and see how he progresses over these next few weeks as we are trying to make a determination whether to get him back up again. But his ball skills, his toughness, his athletic ability — it was showing up.”

The Ravens can only hope it’s better late than never for one of the most disappointing first-round picks in franchise history.

Still confident in Hester

Veteran return specialist Devin Hester hasn’t made near the impact the Ravens envisioned when they signed the 33-year-old to a one-year contract in early September.

With Hester having already fumbled four times in six games — twice in Sunday’s loss to the New York Jets — and not looking explosive returning kicks, many have wondered how many more opportunities the Ravens will give the future Hall of Famer. For now, special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg remains confident in the man with the most kick and punt return touchdowns in NFL history, citing a lingering thigh injury as the biggest challenge.

“It’s affecting him in two ways: one is just his ability to move and the other is his ability to practice,” said Rosburg, who added that Hester’s technique trying to catch the ball hasn’t been the issue. “It’s a tough skill, and he needs to practice. The practice he’s been getting is in pre-game warm-ups, and that’s not enough. I’m hopeful these next two weeks he’ll be able to get healthy and be able to be out there next time and do better in the ball-security areas.”

Hester also underwent offseason toe surgery, which prompted Atlanta to release him over the summer. Head coach John Harbaugh expressed confidence in Hester on Monday before acknowledging the possibility of his age preventing him from getting and staying healthy.

Under the radar

After a frustrating 2015 season coming back from Lisfranc surgery on his left foot, cornerback Jimmy Smith is coming on for an improved Ravens defense in a major way.

Smith held Odell Beckham Jr. to just one catch for six yards before exiting the Week 6 contest with a concussion, which allowed the Giants wide receiver to go nuts against the rest of the Baltimore secondary in the second half. Against the Jets, the 2011 first-round pick primarily traveled with No. 1 receiver Brandon Marshall, who caught only three passes for 39 yards in the game.

“Jimmy is an underrated guy in a lot of ways,” said Frazier, who first met Smith before the 2011 draft when he was the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings. “He can tackle. He can match up on top receivers. He is having an under-the-radar outstanding season, and hopefully he can stay healthy and it continues. He allows us to do a lot of things.

“One of the reasons we were leading the league through five games with the least amount of big plays had a lot to do with the play of Jimmy Smith. As soon as he goes out for a period of time, we [gave up] some explosive plays. Getting him back was a big plus, and hopefully, he will stay healthy.”

The 28-year-old Smith has 18 tackles and one pass breakup this season.

Missing the man in the middle

It’s no secret that the Ravens have struggled in pass coverage in the middle of the field over the last two weeks, which coincides with the absence of inside linebacker C.J. Mosley.

Mosley not only leads the team with three interceptions, but he has made a smooth transition to the “Mike” linebacker spot after veteran Daryl Smith was released in the offseason. Zach Orr and Albert McClellan have handled the inside linebacker spots with Mosley out.

“Anytime you have your leader in the middle of the defense and he’s missing — not a knock to any second-string quarterbacks in the league — it’s like having a second-string quarterback out there,” linebackers coach Don Martindale said. “It is different. Sure, you would like to have C.J. out there all of the time.”

Mosley did not practice on Tuesday as he continues to recover from a hamstring injury suffered in the Week 5 loss to Washington.

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Injury report not looking much better for Ravens on Thursday

Posted on 20 October 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Thursday brought little good news for the Ravens on the injury front as starting quarterback Joe Flacco again headlined a list of eight players absent from practice.

Flacco missed his second straight practice while nursing a right shoulder injury, creating more concern about his status for Sunday’s meeting with the New York Jets. Not counting the season-ending knee injury he sustained last November, the ninth-year quarterback hadn’t missed consecutive regular-season practices in recent memory.

Outside linebackers Terrell Suggs (biceps) and Elvis Dumervil (foot), inside linebacker C.J. Mosley (hamstring), right guard Marshal Yanda (shoulder), wide receivers Steve Smith (ankle) and Devin Hester (thigh), and cornerback Shareece Wright (thigh) were also absent for the second consecutive day.

Reserve cornerback Jerraud Powers (groin) was the only player to return on Wednesday after missing the previous day’s workout. However, wide receiver Kamar Aiken (thigh) and safety Kendrick Lewis (thigh) were added to the reporter as limited participants on Thursday.

Top cornerback Jimmy Smith (concussion) was practicing for the second straight day, but he was once again sport a red non-contact vest over his jersey, indicating he has not yet been fully cleared in the concussion protocol. Wide receiver Breshad Perriman is not on the injury report, but he continues to wear a red vest as well.

Left tackle Ronnie Stanley (foot) and right tackle Rick Wagner were practicing for the second straight day as they both appear poised to return to action in Week 7.

The Jets were without five players during their Thursday practice as head coach Todd Bowles ruled out linebacker Darron Lee (ankle) for Sunday’s game.

Below is Thursday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Elvis Dumervil (foot), QB Joe Flacco (right shoulder), RS Devin Hester (thigh), LB C.J. Mosley (thigh), WR Steve Smith Sr. (ankle), LB Terrell Suggs (biceps), CB Shareece Wright (thigh), G Marshal Yanda (shoulder)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: WR Kamar Aiken (thigh), S Kendrick Lewis (thigh), CB Jerraud Powers (thigh), CB Jimmy Smith (concussion)
FULL PARTICIPATION: OT Ronnie Stanley (foot)

NEW YORK
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: TE Braeden Bowman (knee), LB Darron Lee (ankle), OL Brent Qvale (neck), DL Sheldon Richardson (non-injury), TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins (ankle)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: OL Ryan Clady (shoulder), OL Nick Mangold (knee), DL Muhammad Wilkerson (ankle)
FULL PARTICIPATION: LB Bruce Carter (foot), RB Matt Forte (knee), LB David Harris (hamstring), DT Steve McLendon (back), DB Darryl Roberts (shoulder), CB Buster Skrine (non-injury), OL Brian Winters (knee)

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Ravens open the season one and oh!

Posted on 12 September 2016 by Dennis Koulatsos

 

It was far from pretty and even farther from perfect, but is sure was nice.  After last season’s brutal opening road schedule and dismal 5-11 record, it was indeed downloadvery nice for the Ravens to come out of the gate with a win.

Rex Ryan’s team had a very difficult time moving the ball on the Ravens’ defense, particularly in the opening and final quarter. Shareece Wright was downright amazing, as he finished with 9 tackles, three of them behind the line of scrimmage.  He was also solid in pass coverage.

The communication seemed to be much better for the back end of the defense, in stark comparison to a  year ago.  Eric Weddle, Lardarius Webb, Jimmy Smith and Wright seemed to be on the same page for the bulk of the game.

According to our friends at Pro Football Focus, Weddle had the highest overall grade on the team, followed by Wright.  On the offensive side of the ball the standouts were QB Joe Flacco, RG Marshall Yanda (penalties aside he was lights out), and Mike Wallace.

The offense looked out of sync at times, but that was to be expected, as this was the first time a lot of the players were on the field at the same time.  Their pace and rhythm should improve as the season matures.

Standouts for the Bills were primarily on the defensive side as LB Preston Brown and rush end Jerry Hughes were generally disruptive and presented the Ravens offensive line with all kinds of problems.  It is also noteworthy that the Ravens started two rookies on the left side, tackle Ronnie Stanley and guard Alex Lewis.

The Bills’ offense struggled and their highest graded offensive player was TE Charles Clay.  Tyrod Taylor struggled to find open receivers down field, and was held in check by the Ravens’ defense. Shady McCoy got around the edge a couple of times, but he was also held under wraps without inflicting any significant damage.

The Bills’ coaching staff is getting some criticism this morning by their fan base as well as the media. The narrative is that they got schooled by the Ravens’ coaching staff, pointing out that the Ravens have been in the playoffs 6 out of the last 8 years under coach Harbaugh. Their clock management and untimely personal foul penalties are particularly coming under scrutiny. The undisciplined tag that’s been following Rex Ryan around has reared it’s ugly head once again.

As for the Ravens, for me the biggest red flag was Marc Trestman and his play calling. It was downright maddening to see the team come out time and again on third and short with Flacco in a shotgun formation. For a team that vowed to commit to the run this year, they sure did pass a lot.  The team ran the ball 45% of the time as there were 28 running plays against 34 pass plays.  When you take into account the 4 “runs” that Joe Flacco was given credit for (including game ending kneel-downs in the victory formation) the ratio drops to 41%.

For a team that has a lead blocker and thumper in Kyle Juszczyk, and a back who has displayed great heart and determination in short yardage situations in Terrance West, it defies logic to see both of them on the bench while Flacco is in the gun formation.  Given Flacco’s knee situation, it is crystal clear and understandable that the Ravens have taken the QB sneak out of their playbook.  But there are so many solid and creative things they can do on short yardage situations.  That was evident as I watched the Sunday Night scrum between the Cardinals and the Patriots.  Both offensive coordinators showed multiple looks and formations, and the Ravens would be wise to roll the tape and “borrow” a few things here and there.

For a while there I had to check to make sure that Cam Cameron was still at LSU vs. the Ravens’ sideline. Trestman was run out of Chicago and overwhelmingly the primary gripe from players and fans alike was that his offense was too pass happy. I sure hope coach John Harbaugh intervenes and makes sure that the Ravens game plan is run heavy this week as the team travels to Cleveland.

In a memorable loss to Jacksonville years ago, when Ray Rice carried the ball something like 8 times, I’ll never forget a quote by Terrell Suggs that has stuck with me through the years. After that loss he said that “when you go on the road, you pack your defense and your running game.”  I think that is great advice, and the Ravens need to pay attention here.

Turnovers are hard to overcome in the NFL, particularly on the road when you’re also facing significant crowd noise. Running the ball tends to be easier for an offense to execute.  The Ravens need to force turnovers by Cleveland QBs, whether it’s RGIII (he has a shoulder injury) or Josh McCown, run the ball, play solid defense, and let the game come to them.  Control the ball, control the clock, take the crowd out of the game, and come home two and oh.

 

 

 

 

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Ravens simply play faster than Buffalo in grind-it-out win

Posted on 12 September 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Maybe the Ravens just have Rex Ryan’s number.

The 13-7 home win over Buffalo wasn’t a performance that will propel them up the NFL power rankings in the eyes of observers, but it was the kind of game the Ravens found ways to lose time and time again a year ago. That alone was promising enough to begin the 2016 season.

A 1-0 start shouldn’t be taken for granted as Baltimore won its first season opener since 2012. Even if it came against Ryan, who is now 0-4 against the team with which he spent a decade as a defensive assistant.

“Our guys will go to work and will continue to get better,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “But the point of emphasis is [that] they did what they had to do today to get the job done and make the plays that needed to be made in this game. I’m proud of them for that.”

The encouraging takeaway from Sunday’s win was the speed the Ravens displayed on defense and on the two biggest offensive plays of the game that led to 10 first-half points. More often than not, they simply looked faster than the Bills in the season opener.

The defensive personnel isn’t dramatically different from last year — Pro Bowl outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil didn’t even play on Sunday — but Baltimore played with more confidence and urgency to post the kind of numbers we hadn’t seen since Ray Lewis and Ed Reed were leading the way. Buffalo’s 160 total yards were the fewest allowed by the Ravens since giving up 150 to Ryan’s New York Jets on Oct. 2, 2011.

The defense started and finished sensationally, giving up a total of 12 yards in the first and fourth quarters combined. Buffalo’s top-ranked rushing offense from a year ago averaged just 2.7 yards per carry while Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor threw for only 111 yards on 22 pass attempts.

The Ravens consistently flew to the ball to register eight tackles for a loss with cornerback Shareece Wright leading the way with three of them and 11 total tackles. New starters such as safety Eric Weddle and inside linebacker Zach Orr have improved the speed of the defense, but multiple players also complimented defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ play-calling on Sunday.

“The staff simplified the defense a little bit more, so we were able to go out there and have checks and play fast,” said cornerback Jimmy Smith, who held top Buffalo receiver Sammy Watkins to just four catches for 43 yards. “I think that was evident today. Coach switched it up a lot today and he likes to play certain things sometimes, [but] I think he did a really good job of switching up the defense. It kept them on their heels and not knowing what we were going to do.”

The Ravens offense couldn’t beat its chest like the defense after a Jekyll-and-Hyde performance, but a pair of plays in the first half proved to be the difference in a low-scoring defensive struggle.

Speed was once again the difference.

Quarterback Joe Flacco’s sensational 35-yard completion to Breshad Perriman not only welcomed the 2015 first-round pick to the NFL, but it was the biggest chunk of yardage leading to a 50-yard field goal late in the first quarter for a 3-0 lead. It was the only pass that Perriman caught on Sunday, but he showed off his speed and size with the leaping sideline grab.

The home run came in the second quarter when veteran newcomer Mike Wallace reminded Ravens fans of the receiver who once tormented them as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Matched up against backup safety Duke Williams, Wallace caught a 66-yard touchdown on a post route after Flacco changed out of a third-and-1 play at the line of scrimmage.

“It was extremely big, just because I probably haven’t had a 50-yard-plus touchdown in three years,” said Wallace, whose longest reception with Minnesota last season was just 34 yards. “It felt good just to get back to that, just to let them know that we’re not dead. A lot of people wrote me off. They think I don’t have it, but I’ve got something for them.”

Those two plays aside, the offense struggled for large stretches of Sunday’s game, which wasn’t shocking after the extended absences of several skill players from the practice field this summer. It was ugly for most of the second half as the Ravens managed just 83 total yards over the final 30 minutes, but the offense did just enough and was able to run out the final 4:29 of the game with an eight-play drive.

The pass protection was subpar, the running game inconsistent, and the passing attack out of sync after a good first half, but that element of speed once again brought optimism that wasn’t there a year ago when the Ravens lacked the necessary weapons to stretch the field.

The offense remains a work in progress, but Wallace and Perriman alone provide much room for growth against vulnerable pass defenses.

“I’d like to find a couple more ways to get them involved even a little bit more,” Flacco said. “They didn’t have a ton of catches, but it was a good start. You can see what Mike can do there. They played ‘cover zero’ a handful of times and they really probably got the best of us. We didn’t really do too much damage to it except for that one play.

“That’s what happens when you have guys who can run like that.”

Sunday’s win wasn’t pretty, but improved speed on both sides of the ball is a step in the right direction from last year.

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Ravens-Bills: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 10 September 2016 by Luke Jones

A fast start is always welcomed in a new season, but it’s especially critical for the Ravens coming off a 5-11 campaign.

A win in Week 1 allows for a deep breath and thoughts that this year will be different. A home defeat at the hands of the Buffalo Bills will only make John Harbaugh and his players think, “Here we go again.”

It’s time to go on the record as Baltimore and Buffalo meet for the seventh time in the all-time regular-season series with both teams previously winning three apiece. The Ravens are 3-1 against the Bills at M&T Bank Stadium and 3-0 in games against Buffalo head coach Rex Ryan, who spent a decade as an assistant in Baltimore before serving as the head coach of the New York Jets for six years.

1. A suspect Buffalo pass rush will allow Joe Flacco to go vertical to Mike Wallace for a long first-half touchdown. You can expect a Ryan defense to throw the kitchen sink at rookie offensive linemen Ronnie Stanley and Alex Lewis, but the Bills had just 21 sacks a season ago and are without suspended defensive tackle Marcell Dareus for the first four games. The Ravens will want to try out their revamped vertical passing game against the league’s 19th-ranked pass defense from a year ago, and Flacco will get enough time to throw a strike to Wallace, whom he praised over the summer.

2. Tyrod Taylor will run for 60 yards and a touchdown as the Baltimore front struggles to keep him in the pocket. The Ravens are fully aware of Taylor’s athleticism, but the absence of Elvis Dumervil will leave an inexperienced rusher such as Za’Darius Smith or Matt Judon opposite Terrell Suggs on the other side. Pressuring a mobile quarterback is tricky because you don’t want him to flush him from the pocket, meaning you must stay disciplined in rush lanes and not get too wide or crash inside. This will be a problem for overzealous young rushers and will lead to scrambling opportunities.

3. As Jimmy Smith tries to lock down Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods and Charles Clay will catch touchdowns. After Dean Pees said Watkins reminded him a bit of Randy Moss, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Smith mirror him with safety help whenever possible. However, Woods and Clay are capable of making plays and this pass defense didn’t play at a high level in the preseason. In trying to prevent Watkins from going off, the Ravens will give up passing yards to other targets while primarily staying in their base defense to account for the league’s top-ranked running game from a year ago.

4. Terrance West will score a touchdown in an otherwise so-so day for the running game. It will be interesting to see how many opportunities the Ravens give veteran starter Justin Forsett early before West begins to get his touches. Buffalo ranked 16th in run defense a year ago and the Ravens have made it clear that they want to be better on the ground, but it will be a work in progress with a new left side of the offensive line in place. There won’t be a ton of running room, but West looks like the best candidate to get goal-line carries and he’ll push one into the end zone.

5. Flacco will throw for 240 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Ravens to a 27-21 win over the Bills. If Baltimore wants to be taken seriously as a playoff contender, this is a game you must win playing at home. The Bills defense doesn’t pose a big threat, but Flacco will want to get rid of the ball quickly as he did in his only preseason action last month. Look for lots of underneath passing to the likes of Steve Smith, Kamar Aiken, and Dennis Pitta while mixing in deep shots to Wallace and Breshad Perriman. It will be enough for a solid Week 1 win and Baltimore’s first victory in an opener since 2012.

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Ravens need youth movement for 2016 and beyond

Posted on 09 September 2016 by Luke Jones

Your outlook on the Ravens this season likely depends on how you viewed a forgettable 2015 in which they finished 5-11.

If you point to more than 20 players suffering season-ending injuries — the most in the John Harbaugh era — and nine losses decided by one possession, a dramatic turnaround feels inevitable with any reasonable shift in luck.

Or, you remember the myriad of reasons that contributed to a 1-6 start long before the losses of Steve Smith, Joe Flacco, and Justin Forsett transformed a lost season into one more conveniently excused by injuries. From that perspective, those failures were less about bad fortune and more the culmination of a series of missteps over the previous few years.

No matter where your assessment of last season lies, the 2016 Ravens are relying on a slew of older players at key positions, which is a slippery slope. According to Jimmy Kempski of PhillyVoice.com, Baltimore had the sixth-oldest 53-man roster in the NFL on final cut-down day. That was before general manager Ozzie Newsome re-signed the 30-year-old Justin Forsett and added 33-year-old return specialist Devin Hester at the beginning of the week.

Fifteen players on the active roster are 30 or older. Of their 12 former Pro Bowl selections, only two — linebacker C.J. Mosley and kicker Justin Tucker — are currently in their 20s.

Their projected starting outside linebackers, wide receivers, safeties, and running back are all 30 or older. Experience is certainly valuable, but those are positions where you don’t want to be sparring too frequently with Father Time.

The Ravens have obvious exceptions to the rule — a few of them will eventually be in the discussion for the Hall of Fame — but this is largely a young man’s game.

And that brings us to the biggest key for the Ravens in 2016 and certainly beyond.

The youth movement needs to start now.

Seeing the likes of Smith and Terrell Suggs return from injuries to lead the Ravens back into postseason contention would be fun, but it would be in vain if several younger players don’t take significant steps forward. At 31, Flacco should have several more productive seasons ahead of him at quarterback, but this is an otherwise aging core of difference-makers, which was true even before pass rusher Elvis Dumervil suffered a setback from offseason foot surgery that will keep him sidelined for the start of the season.

It’s time for the next wave of great Ravens to emerge. In fact, it’s overdue, which is a significant reason why 2015 was such a disappointment.

Excluding players yet to take an NFL snap like rookie left tackle Ronnie Stanley and wide receiver Breshad Perriman, who are the under-30 talents on this roster that other teams truly covet?

Brandon Williams might be the best run-stopping nose tackle in the league and Tucker is arguably the NFL’s top kicker, but who else?

Mosley and cornerback Jimmy Smith? Maybe in 2014, but not based on the way they performed a year ago.

Others have potential, but the Ravens thought the same about failed draft picks such as Matt Elam, Arthur Brown, and Terrence Brooks not long ago. The proof will be in the results on the field.

Za’Darius Smith, Matt Judon, or Kamalei Correa needs to become as a significant pass-rushing threat to complement Suggs and Dumervil. The defense will be even more dangerous if more than one can do it.

As their earliest first-round pick in 16 years, Stanley must make fans forget every left tackle the Ravens have had since Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden.

Perriman needs to stay healthy and show why he was the first receiver the organization drafted in the first round in a decade.

Jimmy Smith and Mosley have to look more like the players they were in 2014.

If others step up along the way, the Ravens will really be in business — not just for this season but for the future.

If young players fail to develop, they will once again be depending too heavily on aging talent trying to stay healthy enough to play at a high level for another year.

Baltimore can bounce back with the combination of veterans returning and young play-makers emerging.

But it’s difficult to imagine it happening to any meaningful degree without the latter.

The Ravens need their youth to take the baton and step to the forefront.

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Ravens-Colts preseason primer: Five players to watch

Posted on 19 August 2016 by Luke Jones

The Ravens are moving closer to looking like a complete team.

Saturday’s preseason game against the Indianapolis Colts probably won’t reflect that, but both Terrell Suggs and Steve Smith returned to the practice field this week and are on track to be ready for the season opener against Buffalo on Sept. 11.

After resting a number of healthy veterans against Carolina, head coach John Harbaugh isn’t sharing his plans for playing time on Saturday night. In the past, Harbaugh had played most of his starters into the second quarter of the second preseason game, but the Ravens are merely following a league-wide trend of trying to keep veteran players out of harm’s way as much as possible while maximizing the opportunity to evaluate unknown commodities.

“You want to see the young guys play in game situations when the tackling is live,” said Harbaugh, who acknowledged the artificial surface at Lucas Oil Stadium being one of many factors to consider in determining which veterans will play. “There’s not quite as much practice as there was before — certainly not even close to as much as it was way before. We practice really well, and we see a lot from our guys in practice. The game is a confirmation. Or, sometimes, guys that don’t practice as well play well in games. Sometimes guys practice great and don’t show up in games. That’s something you really need to know.”

Joe Flacco continues to practice every day while only experiencing mild soreness in his surgically-repaired left knee, but Harbaugh may rest his franchise quarterback for a second straight game and wait until next week’s “dress rehearsal” for his first preseason action. Such a timetable would be concerning if not for the fact that Flacco has yet to miss a single rep during training camp.

The 31-year-old hasn’t been in a live pocket since last November, but he sees no need to play extensively in the preseason ahead of his ninth NFL season.

“I’m not worried about it; I’ve played plenty of games,” Flacco said. “I think the biggest reason to get back out there is to get back in live action and see what it feels like again. But it doesn’t really take too long to do that, so whatever we do is going to be for a reason. Whatever happens, happens, and I’m going to be comfortable either way.”

Thursday marks the first time these AFC teams have met in the preseason, but Indianapolis holds an 8-3 edge in regular-season matchups and a 2-1 lead in the postseason. Baltimore has compiled a 21-12 record in preseason games under Harbaugh.

Unofficial (and largely speculative) injury report

The Ravens are not required to release an injury report like they do for regular-season games, but I’ve offered my best guess on what the injury report would look like if one were to be released ahead of Saturday night’s game against Indianapolis.

Most of the players ruled to be out will come as no surprise, but the status of a few will remain in question. Of course, this list does not consider any veteran players — like Flacco — who could be held out of the preseason opener due to the coaching staff’s preference.

Again, this is not an official injury report released by the Ravens:

OUT: WR Steve Smith (Achilles), LB Elvis Dumervil (foot), WR Breshad Perriman (knee), RB Lorenzo Taliaferro (foot), DE Bronson Kaufusi (ankle)
DOUBTFUL: LB Terrell Suggs (Achilles), TE Dennis Pitta (finger/hip), WR Chris Matthews (soft tissue injury), CB Kyle Arrington (head), S Kendrick Lewis (undisclosed), TE Maxx Williams (undisclosed)
QUESTIONABLE: G John Urschel (contusion), WR Chris Moore (foot), CB Tavon Young (hamstring), TE Crockett Gillmore (hamstring), WR Michael Campanaro (unspecified strains), CB Maurice Canady (undisclosed), TE Daniel Brown (undisclosed), CB Sheldon Price (undisclosed)
PROBABLE: QB Joe Flacco (knee)

Five players to watch Thursday night

RB Justin Forsett

The performance of Terrance West, Buck Allen, and Kenneth Dixon this summer certainly should have the attention of Forsett, who didn’t play in the preseason opener. I’m not buying any sentiment that the 30-year-old is in danger of being pushed off the roster, but he’ll certainly want to present himself well in what game action he sees between now and the start of the season. He’s still the best pass-blocking tailback on the roster and breaks more tackles than you’d expect with a 5-foot-8, 195-pound frame. The young backs might be closing the gap, but Forsett’s experience is still invaluable to the backfield.

CB Jimmy Smith

It was clear that the No. 1 cornerback wasn’t 100 percent last year coming off foot surgery, but the Ravens need much more from the man in which they invested a huge contract. Smith got off to a quiet start in camp after having the surgical screws removed from his right foot this spring, but he’s looked much better in recent practices. If the Baltimore defense is to return to a high level, the 28-year-old needs to be a Pro Bowl-caliber kind of cornerback as he looked to be before suffering the Lisfranc injury. Seeing him stack some quality live-game reps would be encouraging going into the regular season.

OT Ronnie Stanley

The rookie left tackle played 22 snaps and graded out well against Carolina despite having suffered a minor injury less than a week earlier. The Ravens just want to see him continue that in more extensive action against the Indianapolis front. The best compliment you can pay an offensive lineman is that you don’t notice him that much, a description that fits the first-round pick in his first training camp. The Ravens were impressed with his pedigree coming out of Notre Dame, and he’s done everything so far to make you think he can handle a very demanding position in his first NFL season.

LB Albert McClellan

Not many would have predicted McClellan to be atop the depth chart at the strong-side outside linebacker position, but the Ravens need a replacement for Courtney Upshaw and McClellan is more consistent setting the edge on run plays than second-year linebacker Za’Darius Smith at this point. It’s critical that someone — McClellan, Smith, or even rookie Kamalei Correa — emerges to handle the “Sam” spot in order to allow Elvis Dumervil to return to more of a situational role in 2016. A special-teams standout for a number of years, McClellan has more trust with the coaching staff than many would think.

WR Chris Moore

With Breshad Perriman’s status for the start of the regular season looking in doubt, more attention will fall on the rookie fourth-round pick to be a decent complement to veteran Mike Wallace in the vertical passing game. Moore was arguably the biggest star over the first couple days of camp before a foot injury sidelined him until this week. The Ravens have had other receivers in and out of practice, but Moore has received plenty of second-team reps as well as some work with the first team. It’s not a guarantee that Moore will play so soon after a two-week absence, but his explosiveness is worth watching.

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