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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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Veterans rest as Ravens continue countdown to preseason opener

Posted on 05 August 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With their first preseason game now less than a week away, the Ravens rested a number of veterans during Friday’s practice.

However, that list did not include starting quarterback Joe Flacco, who continues to ease any lingering concerns about the health of his surgically-repaired left knee. The 31-year-old has yet to miss a practice this summer despite undergoing ACL reconstruction surgery just eight months ago.

It remains to be seen whether Flacco will play in Thursday’s preseason opener against the Carolina Panthers, but the Ravens are pleased with where the ninth-year quarterback is from a football standpoint despite him missing all spring workouts and their June minicamp while rehabbing.

“It is obvious he has spent time on his own getting himself ready,” offensive coordinator Marc Trestman said. “He is certainly ready mentally. Each and every day, he is just working to try and get better, and we are seeing a lot of productivity out here. It is good stuff.”

A total of 18 players were missing from the field at the start of Friday’s practice with wide receiver Kamar Aiken, running back Justin Forsett, safety Eric Weddle, linebacker Albert McCellan, tight end Benjamin Watson, and offensive linemen Jeremy Zuttah and Marshal Yanda presumably receiving the day off as veterans with no known injury concerns.

Players absent because of injuries included tight ends Dennis Pitta (finger) and Crockett Gillmore (hamstring), defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (ribs), wide receiver Chris Moore (foot), cornerback Maurice Canady, and defensive end Bronson Kaufusi (broken ankle). Wide receivers Steve Smith (Achilles) and Breshad Perriman (knee), linebackers Terrell Suggs (Achilles) and Elvis Dumervil (foot), and running back Lorenzo Taliaferro (foot) remain on the active physically unable to perform list and have yet to practice this summer.

Safety Matt Elam was on the field for the start of practice before leaving the field and not returning. He appeared limited during Thursday’s practice with an unknown ailment.

Cornerback Jimmy Smith was having one of his best practices of camp before he began favoring his left leg toward the end of Friday’s workout. The defensive back broke up a deep ball intended for speedy receiver Mike Wallace in a 1-on-1 drill and broke up another pass later in the day.

Camp highlights

One of the top plays of the day was an impressive connection from Flacco to second-year tight end Maxx Williams with linebacker C.J. Mosley in tight coverage down the middle of the field. The quarterback threw slightly behind Williams in order to fit the ball into a tight window and the 2015 second-round pick made a strong catch.

Williams has quietly had a solid camp despite a few veterans being ahead of him in the pecking order.

Currently atop the depth chart as the Ravens’ primary return specialist, Kaelin Clay flashed skills as a receiver with a great touchdown catch on a back-shoulder throw from backup quarterback Ryan Mallett and brought in another good catch later in practice. However, he dropped an easy one during an 11-on-11 drill.

Safety Terrence Brooks has a lot to prove after an underwhelming start to his NFL career, but he had a strong day, intercepting a Mallett pass that went off the hands of tight end Darren Waller and stripping the ball from running back Terrance West as the whistle blew to conclude a non-live play.

Waller later beat coverage from linebacker Kamalei Correa to catch a touchdown pass from Flacco on a deep corner route.

Late teammate remembered

A number of Ravens players including Perriman, Forsett, Kendrick Lewis, Julian Wilson, and Anthony Levine used Twitter to remember late teammate Tray Walker, who would have celebrated his 24th birthday on Friday.

The young cornerback tragically died from injuries sustained in a motorbike accident in March.

The Ravens have not issued his No. 25 jersey this summer.

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Ravens cornerback Smith feeling “way better” than he did in 2015

Posted on 03 August 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith made it a point not to talk about his surgically-repaired right foot last season.

Despite starting all 16 games after missing the second half of 2014 with a Lisfranc injury and the subsequent surgery, Smith’s play fell off in 2015 as he ranked 77th among qualified NFL cornerbacks in Pro Football Focus’ grading system. Not wanting to make excuses last season but acknowledging he felt discomfort throughout the campaign, the 28-year-old had the surgical screws removed from his foot this spring in hopes that he will finally get back to being the player he was two years ago.

In 2015, Smith made 54 tackles, broke up 10 passes, and grabbed three interceptions — returning one for a touchdown in the 2015 season opener — but he struggled going up against the opposition’s No. 1 receiver on a weekly basis.

“I feel way better than I did last year,” said Smith, who signed a four-year, $41 million contract extension through the 2019 season last spring. “My foot is not even close to what it was last year. Now, it’s just getting back and knocking some rust off, but I feel good.”

Trying to rebound from a 5-11 season in which they set a single-season franchise low for interceptions with only six and ranked 27th in opponent passer rating, the Ravens are counting on Smith to bounce back in a major way. With pass rushers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil both on the wrong side of 30, Baltimore needs Smith as well as nose tackle Brandon Williams and inside linebacker C.J. Mosley to lead its next great defensive unit.

It’s been a quiet start to training camp for Smith, who missed spring workouts while recovering from the procedure and gave up a long touchdown to rookie Chris Moore on the second day of practice. The 2011 first-round pick has allowed some other completions here and there, but getting back to top form in time for the Sept. 11 opener is the primary goal.

Head coach John Harbaugh credited Smith’s determination in competing last season despite being at less than full strength and pointed out the unique challenge of playing the cornerback position where every mistake is magnified.

“It’s not like another position when you’re in the trenches and nobody sees it,” Harbaugh said. “For a corner not to be 100 percent — not to be as fast or as quick — is tough. That’s where we’ve got to get him to, and he’s working to get there. He’s 100 percent healthy. Now, if we can get all of the quickness, and the speed, and change of direction back to where it was, then we’ll have the Jimmy Smith that we all know.”

Harbaugh defends Richardson

The Ravens elected to move on from injured running back Trent Richardson on Tuesday, but Harbaugh went out of his way to defend the 2012 first-round pick, who has faced plenty of ridicule as his NFL career has fallen apart over the last few years.

“He’s definitely still on our radar. It’s amazing to me the vitriol and, really, the hate out there that people want to put out,” Harbaugh said. “All he’s done is come in here and work as hard as he can, and he’s got a [recovery from knee surgery], and we’re making a roster decision. He’s done nothing wrong. He’s still trying very hard. He’s just a young guy who’s trying his best to make it in this league. Because he was a top pick, I know that that definitely comes with more scrutiny.

“Certainly he understands that and he handles it really well, but he’s a good person, he wants to do well, and he’s a hard worker. There’s a possibility that sometime, someway, some fashion, he could come back here or somewhere else in the league.”

Of course, the Ravens frequently say they are leaving the door open for departed players to return in the future, but they currently have a 90-man roster with numerous individuals having no real chance of making the regular-season roster and still elected to let Richardson go.

Richardson went unclaimed off waivers on Wednesday.

Injury report

Twelve players currently on the 90-man roster did not practice on Wednesday including tight ends Dennis Pitta (finger) and Crockett Gillmore (hamstring), wide receiver Chris Moore (foot), defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (ribs), cornerbacks Will Davis (undisclosed) and Maurice Canady (undisclosed), and running back Kenneth Dixon (knee).

Wide receivers Steve Smith (Achilles) and Breshad Perriman (knee), linebackers Terrell Suggs (Achilles) and Elvis Dumervil (foot), and running back Lorenzo Taliaferro (foot) remain on the active physically unable to perform list and have yet to practice during training camp.

Roster moves

With Dixon and Taliaferro still sidelined because of injuries, the Ravens were light at the running back position and signed Stephen Houston on Wednesday. The former undrafted free agent out of Indiana spent time with New England and Pittsburgh during training camp two years ago.

The Ravens waived left-footed punter Michael Palardy to make room on the roster.

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Ten Ravens thoughts on first week of training camp

Posted on 02 August 2016 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens approaching the end of their first week of training camp, I’ve offered 10 early thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The Ravens have numerous injury questions, but Joe Flacco is looking less and less like one. Other than the brace on his left knee, you’d never know he’s eight months removed from surgery. He’s moving and throwing like he always did and says he’s not even thinking about the knee.

2. Everyone is rooting for Keenan Reynolds to make an impact after his brilliant career at Navy, but he’s a substantial work in progress. It’s still very early, but he hasn’t played with much confidence and has dropped more passes and kicks than you’d like to see even in practices.

3. With other running backs currently sidelined, Terrance West is taking advantage of the reps and has looked the part of a motivated young player vying for a significant role in the offense. West has shed 15 pounds from last season and is noticeably more explosive running the football.

4. After missing spring workouts to have the screws removed from his right foot, Jimmy Smith has had a quiet start. He hasn’t practiced poorly, but he’s still working his way back to full strength. The defense sorely needs him to return to his pre-surgery 2014 form this season.

5. An understated need in 2016 will be for Za’Darius Smith to become an impact player. He looks comfortable in pass coverage and has shown good pass-rush ability. If he can handle responsibilities formerly held by Pernell McPhee and Courtney Upshaw, less pressure falls on Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil.

6. Though Jerraud Powers remains the favorite to play slot cornerback in sub packages, rookie Tavon Young has displayed good ball skills and has shown good aggression in coverage. He also looked smooth and fast returning a kickoff at Monday’s stadium practice. He’s someone to watch in the preseason.

7. Much has been written about Kamalei Correa competing to start at inside linebacker next to C.J. Mosley, but he plays with an edge, evident by the skirmishes on Monday. The Ravens need more attitude and higher-end talent, and Correa has a chance to bring both to the defense.

8. It’s unclear how much time he’ll miss, but it was a shame to see rookie receiver Chris Moore walking with his left foot in a boot on Monday. It was only a couple practices, but his acceleration going after the deep ball reminds a little bit of Torrey Smith.

9. It was interesting to see Justin Tucker repeatedly pop kickoffs into the air that landed inside the 5-yard line on Monday. With touchbacks on kickoffs moving to the 25, John Harbaugh said this offseason that the Ravens could alter their approach instead of just booting it through the end zone.

10. Crockett Gillmore has a rare combination of size and quickness that is fun to watch, but you wonder if his physical style of play will continue hindering his durability. He’s already had quite a few injuries in two-plus years with a hamstring strain the latest ailment to sideline him.

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Ravens place six players on active PUP list to begin training camp

Posted on 23 July 2016 by Luke Jones

Set to open their 2016 training camp this coming week, the Ravens announced Saturday that six players would begin the summer on the active physically unable to perform list.

Wide receivers Steve Smith (Achilles tendon) and Breshad Perriman (knee), linebackers Terrell Suggs (Achilles tendon) and Elvis Dumervil (foot surgery), running back Trent Richardson (knee), and cornerback Jumal Rolle (Achilles tendon) were placed on the PUP list ahead of Wednesday’s report day for veterans. Rolle is expected to miss the 2016 season after suffering a torn Achilles tendon during a spring workout.

Head coach John Harbaugh indicated during last month’s mandatory minicamp that the Ravens would be careful with the workload for Smith, Suggs, and Dumervil during training camp and even in preseason games as they work their way back to full strength. After suffering a left knee injury originally feared to be a season-ending ACL tear in June, Perriman is expected to return at some point during training camp, according to Harbaugh.

Signed to compete for a roster spot with a deep group of running backs, Richardson was hampered by a hamstring issue during organized team activities and underwent knee surgery last month.

Often confused with the reserve list that requires a player to miss the first six weeks of the regular season, active PUP is used for any player who isn’t ready to begin practicing at the start of training camp. Players on active PUP may return to the field at any point, but that activation makes them ineligible for the reserve list that doesn’t count against the 53-man roster limit to begin the regular season.

It’s worth noting that quarterback Joe Flacco (knee), cornerback Jimmy Smith (foot surgery), cornerback Will Davis (knee), and wide receiver Michael Campanaro (calf) were not placed on PUP, meaning they should be ready to begin practicing immediately. Flacco said during last month’s minicamp and reiterated this past week that he would be back on the field for the first day less than eight months after undergoing ACL reconstruction surgery on his left knee.

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More questions than answers for Ravens entering training camp

Posted on 20 July 2016 by Luke Jones

We’re finally a week away from the curtain rising on the 2016 Ravens.

Sure, we caught a brief glimpse during last month’s mandatory minicamp, but how much could we really learn from non-contact practices that didn’t even include the starting quarterback, their No. 1 receiver, the starting outside linebackers, the top cornerback, and their 2015 first-round pick?

Trying to rebound from the worst season of the John Harbaugh era, the Ravens are hoping for better health after a team-record 21 players finished 2015 on injured reserve or the physically unable to perform list. They believe the free-agent additions of safety Eric Weddle, tight end Benjamin Watson, and wide receiver Mike Wallace and the continuing development of young players will provide the upside to return to the playoffs after failing to qualify in two of the last three years.

With a pedigree that includes two Super Bowl championships, four division titles, and 10 playoff appearances in the last 16 years, the Ravens bouncing back from a 5-11 campaign to once again become an AFC contender in 2016 would hardly be shocking. But there are more questions to ask than answers to offer as players report to Owings Mills over the next week.

What about this roster truly makes the Ravens brass rest easy at night?

Coming back from the first significant injury of his career, Joe Flacco is a franchise quarterback capable of playing at a championship level, even if his regular-season numbers don’t always reflect that. Coaches will need to be smart with him less than eight months removed from major knee surgery, but it’s comforting to know that the 31-year-old will be back on the field for the first day of training camp.

The Ravens offense has the best guard in football in Marshal Yanda and veteran starters at center and right tackle as well as arguably the deepest collection of tight ends in the NFL. The defense has one of the NFL’s best nose tackles, a 2015 Pro Bowl outside linebacker, a young inside linebacker who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, and a three-time Pro Bowl safety in Weddle, who should bring more leadership and order to a volatile secondary.

Baltimore has an elite trio of specialists in kicker Justin Tucker, punter Sam Koch, and long snapper Morgan Cox, who have all been to Pro Bowls and have signed long-term contracts over the last 12 months.

The talent and potential strengths don’t end there, but the serious questions begin at this point.

What can we reasonably expect from Steve Smith and Terrell Suggs coming back from Achilles tendon injuries?

It’s been a difficult recovery for the veteran receiver, who originally intended to make 2015 his last season. Doubting Smith’s heart and determination is foolish, but we know Father Time is undefeated, making it fair to question whether the 37-year-old can play close to the level he did prior to last year’s injury when he was still a No.1 option.

The little we’ve seen from Suggs since his injury last September includes a traffic-related arrest in Arizona in March and a guest appearance on HBO’s Ballers in which he played himself getting into a scrap with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s character. Set to turn 34 in October, the six-time Pro Bowl linebacker has been working out at the team’s facility in Owings Mills, but his conditioning and explosiveness will be scrutinized after his second Achilles injury in a four-year period. A substantially-diminished Suggs puts even more pressure on fellow veteran Elvis Dumervil as well as unproven options such as Za’Darius Smith and Kamalei Correa as pass rushers.

Will a second foot procedure allow Jimmy Smith to recapture his No. 1 cornerback form?

The 28-year-old had the screws removed from his surgically-repaired right foot this spring after he was still experiencing soreness from the 2014 Lisfranc procedure. The Ravens paid him handsomely last spring to be a difference-making presence in the secondary and need him to be the player he was in 2013 and 2014 if this defense is going to take a significant step forward this season.

What’s the reality with the Breshad Perriman injury?

It was great news that Dr. James Andrews didn’t recommend full ACL reconstruction surgery for Perriman in June, but the fact that he still prescribed a stem-cell injection makes you wonder about the healing process and stability of his left knee. The young receiver missed his entire rookie year with a right knee injury originally considered to be minor, so you hope this isn’t a cruel repeat of 2015.

For a team in desperate need of dynamic playmakers on both sides of the ball, Perriman may possess more upside than anyone on the roster if he can just stay on the field.

The questions go beyond players coming off injuries.

Even if 2016 first-round pick Ronnie Stanley proves to be more like Jonathan Ogden and less like the many who have tried to replace the Hall of Fame left tackle over the last decade, how confident can the organization honestly feel about a rookie and a new starter at left guard — projected to be John Urschel — protecting the blindside of a quarterback coming off a serious knee injury?

Baltimore has a collection of talented running backs, but is there truly a No. 1 guy in the bunch?

Who is going to play inside linebacker next to Mosley?

Is the rest of the defensive backfield ready to build on its second-half improvement from last year to be more of a force under new secondary coach Leslie Frazier?

Who might step forward to make a difference in the return game?

Finally and perhaps most importantly, are there at least a couple of young players ready to step forward to become special?

The Ravens have solid-to-good football players; they need more great ones.

All teams face questions this time of year, but there are more than usual for Baltimore entering 2016. It’s understandable after a 5-11 season that fell apart even before the injuries piled up at a record level.

We’ll soon get to see what’s behind the curtain.

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Ranking the Ravens’ defensive needs for 2016

Posted on 22 January 2016 by Luke Jones

The Ravens defense needs some work.

Yes, the unit finished eighth in total defense and surrendered the fewest passing yards in the NFL over the second half of the season, but five of the Ravens’ final eight games came against passing attacks ranked 19th or worse and another came against an AJ McCarron-led Cincinnati attack in the season finale.

The improvement was encouraging, but it wasn’t enough to just assume everything is fine, especially after the defense finished with just 14 takeaways, shattering the worst mark in team history. The hiring of former NFL head coach Leslie Frazier to coach the secondary highlights the Ravens’ desire to improve against the pass.

With free agency set to begin in less than two months — March 9 at 4 p.m. — and the draft set for April 28-30, the Ravens are currently evaluating their biggest needs in all three phases of the game. In the second of a three-part series — we’ve already looked at the offense and special teams will follow — I offer my thoughts on the defensive side of the football and rank the positions of greatest need.

1. Cornerback

Some will argue that improving the pass rush is a bigger need than cornerback, but with Shareece Wright scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent and Lardarius Webb moving to safety, who will start opposite top cornerback Jimmy Smith?

Even if they’re able to re-sign Wright — who shook off a nightmare debut against San Francisco to play quite well the rest of the way — the Ravens would benefit from having another high-end cornerback. In addition to hoping that Smith is finally over the effects of his 2014 foot surgery, they need another playmaker in the secondary.

That’s the biggest reason why the Ravens have been linked to top cornerback prospects such as Jalen Ramsey from Florida State or Vernon Hargreaves from Florida with the sixth overall pick in this spring’s draft.

Baltimore has some internal options such as Will Davis who carry intrigue, but none have a body of work suggesting you could pencil them into the starting lineup with any great level of confidence.

2. Outside linebacker

Owner Steve Bisciotti spoke at length at the season-ending press conference about how much the Ravens missed Terrell Suggs after he was lost for the year in the 2015 opener, but the six-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker will be 34 in October and coming off his second Achilles injury in four years.

Further complicating matters is the pending free agency of Courtney Upshaw, who lacks pass-rushing skills but is effective setting the edge against the run. The Ravens saw promising development from 2015 fourth-round pick Za’Darius Smith late in the year, but they’d love to add another outside linebacker to ease the workload of the 32-year-old Elvis Dumervil, who wore down late in the year as a three-down player.

The defense needs a young outside linebacker who can get after the quarterback, but the top options in the draft beyond Ohio State’s Joey Bosa — Myles Jack of UCLA and Leonard Floyd of Georgia — would likely be considered a reach where the Ravens are picking in the first round.

There’s a lot of uncertainty at this position for 2016 and beyond when your top two options are both well over 30.

3. Safety

Since the departure of Ed Reed, the Ravens have pumped so many resources into improving this position with very underwhelming results.

Though not quite as consistent as you’d probably like, Will Hill has emerged as a solid starter at strong safety, but the free safety position remains a different story. Kendrick Lewis just doesn’t show enough ability to make high-impact plays, and Lardarius Webb’s $9.5 million salary cap figure for 2016 will need to be addressed if he’s even to remain on the team.

Terrence Brooks has flashed his athleticism when given opportunities, but the 2014 third-round pick has battled injuries and has yet to earn the trust of the coaching staff from a mental standpoint.

Unless you draft Ramsey and move him to safety, there doesn’t appear to be a safety in this year’s draft who can bring the type of impact the Ravens are seeking. This could mean another year of hoping an internal option such as Brooks finally emerges as more of a ball-hawking threat.

4. Inside linebacker

Daryl Smith will be 34 and is no guarantee to return, meaning the Ravens should be looking for the inside linebacker of the future next to 2014 Pro Bowl selection C.J. Mosley.

Former undrafted free agent Zach Orr showed solid coverage skills while replacing Smith in the nickel package late last season, but it remains to be seen whether he can be a viable three-down linebacker. And 2013 second-round pick Arthur Brown is more likely to be cut then to suddenly become a starter after three disappointing seasons in Baltimore.

Considering Mosley has struggled in pass coverage, the Ravens would benefit greatly from having another inside linebacker who can stick with running backs or tight ends in routes.

Whether it’s for 2016 or beyond, general manager Ozzie Newsome would probably be wise to be on the lookout for an inside backer with upside in the middle rounds of the draft.

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Ravens-Bengals: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 02 January 2016 by Luke Jones

For the first time since Super Bowl XLVII, the Ravens enter a game knowing it will be their last one of a season.

Their playoff hopes may have been all but crushed by Halloween, but John Harbaugh and his team have looked toward the future and believe they’re already laying the groundwork for the 2016 season despite 20 players — eight of them starters — currently residing on injured reserve. Last Sunday’s 20-17 upset win over Pittsburgh served as their version of a Super Bowl in Baltimore’s first season with double-digit losses since 2007.

Of course, a number of Ravens could be playing their final game with the franchise on Sunday as offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele, linebacker Courtney Upshaw, and kicker Justin Tucker headline a list of pending free agents this offseason. Specifics remain cloudy, but Baltimore will undergo a number of changes this winter in an effort to bounce back from the first losing season of the Harbaugh era.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens play Cincinnati for the 40th time in franchise history and own a 20-19 mark. Baltimore has lost four straight and five of the last six to the Bengals, who are trying to clinch a first-round bye with a win and a Denver loss.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to wrap a disappointing 2015 season on a high note with back-to-back wins over Pittsburgh and Cincinnati …

1. Ryan Mallett will come back down to earth after a surprising Ravens debut. I still can’t quite believe how easy it looked for the quarterback against the Steelers as he made good decisions and commanded the huddle less than two weeks after being signed. That said, Mallett was playing at home and against a defense inferior to the one he’ll see this week. The Bengals are effective disguising their blitzes and coverages before the snap, which will result in choppier results from the Baltimore offense playing in a hostile environment. Mallett showed against Pittsburgh why the Ravens envision him as their 2016 backup to Joe Flacco, but he’ll make more mistakes and turn it over twice in his second start.

2. The Ravens secondary will not hold down A.J. Green like it did against Antonio Brown. Asked how to stop the Bengals’ five-time Pro Bowl receiver, defensive coordinator Dean Pees joked, “Make him inactive.” The Ravens threw everything but the kitchen sink at Brown in coverage last week and held him to seven catches for 61 yards, but Green is a different player because of his 6-foot-4 frame. It will be interesting to see if Jimmy Smith shadows Green, but the cornerback had one of his worst games of the season against him in Week 3. Green’s recent numbers have been stunted with AJ McCarron starting, but that will change as he goes over 100 receiving yards and catches a touchdown.

3. Maxx Williams will finish with the best game of his rookie season. It’s been a quiet year for the second-round pick, but his 26 catches for 215 yards and a touchdown have outdone the likes of Todd Heap, Dennis Pitta, and Crockett Gillmore in their respective rookie years. The 21-year-old needs to mature physically and improve his agility and quickness this offseason, but he’s been targeted 10 times over the last two games and should have an advantage when matched up against Cincinnati’s coverage-challenged linebackers. With the Bengals strong in the secondary, Mallett will look Williams’ way over the middle portion of the field and he’ll catch a touchdown and surpass 50 receiving yards.

4. Giovani Bernard and Buck Allen will each catch touchdown passes against linebackers who struggle in coverage. McCarron and Mallett will see check-downs to their backs as their best friend. Daryl Smith and C.J. Mosley have both struggled against the pass this year, so look for the Ravens to again use Zach Orr in some obvious passing situations in an effort to slow Bernard out of the backfield. Meanwhile, the Bengals’ trio of A.J. Hawk, Rey Maualuga, and Vontaze Burfict simply lack the athleticism to cover, which should create some open space for Allen. Neither quarterback will put up big-time numbers, but their running backs will help in moving the ball through the air.

5. The Ravens will conclude the 2015 season with a 24-17 loss, their 14th game decided by one possession. You couldn’t help but be impressed by the way Baltimore played against its arch rival in Week 16, but the Bengals are a more balanced team than Pittsburgh and have something to play for in the regular-season finale. The Ravens will compete despite their personnel deficiencies and misfortune, but I just can’t see Mallett playing at such a high level again on the road and against a better defense that’s given Flacco problems over the years. Ultimately, a couple crucial mistakes will be the difference as Baltimore is left wondering what might have been in the final game of a lost season.

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