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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 27-24 loss to Chicago

Posted on 17 October 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens suffering their first home defeat to a rookie quarterback in 20 years in the 27-24 loss to Chicago, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. After earning a stop-the-bleeding win last week, the putrid Ravens offense resurfaced and was responsible for just 11 of the team’s 24 points. Marty Mornhinweg may not deserve all blame, but he should take a cue from Chicago’s playbook that included a halfback pass. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

2. Forgive the baseball comparison, but we were reminded that the Ravens are to wide receivers what the Orioles are to starting pitching. This is a major weakness, but the organization never commits to fixing the issue for the long haul. Sunday was an embarrassing performance from that group.

3. Matthew Judon followed a strong Week 5 with the best game of his career by leading the defense with 12 tackles, two sacks, and two other tackles for a loss. With Terrell Suggs having just turned 35, the Ravens need their young edge rushers to grow up sooner than later.

4. In the first 21 seasons in Baltimore, the Ravens defense never finished worse than 23rd in rushing yards per game and only once (1996) finished worse than 10th in rushing yards per attempt. They currently rank 30th and 21st in those categories. Is this really only about Brandon Williams’ absence?

5. Supporters who refuse to find fault in Joe Flacco are as tiresome as those who want to blame him for everything, but I don’t know how anyone who actually watched the game can criticize him above everything else. He certainly made some mistakes, but did you see those receivers play?

6. Tony Jefferson was beaten for two touchdown passes and ranks 60th among safeties in Pro Football Focus’ grading system after finishing fifth last year. Fellow safety Eric Weddle has also struggled, but the Ravens need to start seeing a better return on the $19 million guaranteed to Jefferson in March.

7. I felt good for Bobby Rainey returning a kickoff for a touchdown after being hit by his own man and alertly getting up. Five years after signing with Baltimore as a rookie free agent and playing for three other teams, Rainey finally appeared in a game for the Ravens.

8. John Harbaugh didn’t offer a glowing endorsement of Bronson Kaufusi after the rest of the defensive line was overworked and he barely played Sunday. Ronnie Stanley certainly hasn’t disappointed, but remember the Ravens could have traded the pick used on Kaufusi to move up for cornerback Jalen Ramsey in 2016.

9. The rushing attack had another strong day, but is the ceiling high enough for it to all but single-handedly win games in a fashion similar to what the Bears did? Considering how inept the passing offense has been across the board, that’s what it might take to be successful.

10. Harbaugh isn’t the only coach with this problem and this isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned this, but it’s maddening how wasteful the Ravens are with timeouts. Burning one when you’re trailing by 11 points and about to attempt a 50-yard field goal with three minutes left is indefensible.

11. We’ll never know if Ozzie Newsome would have made another deal before the start of the season, but how delusional were the Ravens to even suggest they were confident at wide receiver before Maclin fell into their laps in mid-June? And, yes, I know I’m belaboring the point now.

12. The good news is the NFL reeks of mediocrity more than ever and the Ravens’ schedule appears even more favorable after the Aaron Rodgers injury. The bad news is that Sunday’s loss confirms that Baltimore could also lose any of its remaining 10 games. Yes, even the one in Cleveland.

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Ravens-Bears: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 15 October 2017 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens embark on a four-game stretch that could dramatically improve their playoff outlook by the time their Week 10 bye arrives next month.

The Chicago Bears are the first of four straight opponents currently dealing with concerns at quarterback as rookie first-round pick Mitchell Trubisky will make his first road start at M&T Bank Stadium, a place that’s been cruel to first-year quarterbacks over the years. In fact, the only rookie signal-caller to ever beat the Ravens in Baltimore was Arizona’s Jake Plummer at Memorial Stadium in 1997, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

In what comes as a surprise after he practiced all week on a limited basis, wide receiver Jeremy Maclin (shoulder) is inactive. The veteran wideout went through an on-field workout shortly before the inactive list was released Sunday morning, but overnight reports from ESPN and NFL Network indicated there was legitimate concern about his status for Week 6.

Maclin’s absence puts more pressure on Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman to produce against the league’s eighth-ranked pass defense. It could also trigger a greater workload for slot receiver Michael Campanaro, who would offer quarterback Joe Flacco more of a possession receiver option in the slot to go with Wallace and Perriman.

Cornerback Jimmy Smith (Achilles tendon) is active and will play despite missing two practices this week and playing only seven snaps in Oakland last Sunday. Smith told reporters Friday that he intended to play while continuing to manage the tendinitis that’s bothered him for a few weeks now.

Defensive tackle Carl Davis (hamstring) and cornerback Jaylen Hill (hamstring) are both inactive after being listed as questionable on the injury report. Tight end Maxx Williams (ankle) will make his return, however, after a three-game absence, which could lead to offensive coordinator featuring the tight ends more against Chicago.

As expected, defensive tackle Brandon Williams (foot) and outside linebacker Tim Williams (thigh) are inactive after being listed as doubtful on the final injury report. The good news is that the former practiced Friday for the first time since injuring his foot on Sept. 17, an encouraging sign for his availability at Minnesota next Sunday.

Running back Terrance West (calf) and right guard Matt Skura (knee) were officially declared out on Friday. Rookie Jermaine Eluemunor is expected to start in Skura’s place while Buck Allen and Alex Collins will share an increased workload in the backfield with West sidelined.

This marks the first time all year that the Ravens did not have a single healthy scratch among their seven inactive players as the injury bug continues to bite them hard.

There were no real surprises among Chicago’s inactives as wide receiver Markus Wheaton (groin) was officially ruled out on Friday. Starting inside linebacker Danny Trevathan is active and will play after serving a suspension last week.

Former Ravens running back Taquan Mizzell was a healthy scratch for the Bears.

Sunday’s referee is Ed Hochuli.

According to Weather.com, the Sunday forecast in Baltimore calls for mostly sunny skies and temperatures reaching the high 70s with winds up to 10 miles per hour and no chance of precipitation.

The Ravens are wearing purple jerseys with white pants while Chicago dons white tops with blue pants.

Sunday marks the sixth all-time meeting between these teams with the Bears enjoying a 3-2 advantage. However, the Ravens have won each of the two games played in Baltimore

Below are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
WR Jeremy Maclin
RB Terrance West
CB Jaylen Hill
OLB Tim Williams
G Matt Skura
DT Carl Davis
DT Brandon Williams

CHICAGO
OL Hroniss Grasu
DL John Jenkins
LB Nick Kwiatkoski
RB Taquan Mizzell
QB Mark Sanchez
LB John Timu
WR Markus Wheaton

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Ravens-Bears: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 14 October 2017 by Luke Jones

A week after the season appeared on the verge of crashing downward, the Ravens picked up one of their better road wins in recent years to move back into a tie for first place in the AFC North.

Now they begin a four-game stretch that could propel them into an enviable position within the conference playoff picture by the time their Week 10 bye arrives. Of course, Chicago will have other intentions in rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky’s first career road start for a team off to a disappointing 1-4 start.

The Ravens are once again banged up as starting right guard Matt Skura and running back Terrance West won’t play and defensive tackle Brandon Williams and rookie outside linebacker Tim Williams are expected to sit out against the Bears. Cornerback Jimmy Smith is also questionable for the second straight week as he continues to deal with Achilles tendinitis.

It’s time to go on the record as the Bears play the Ravens in Baltimore for just the third time ever. Chicago leads the all-time series by a 3-2 margin and won the last meeting played at Soldier Field in 2013, but Baltimore has won both games at M&T Bank Stadium.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Tony Jefferson will grab his first interception as a Raven. The free-agent newcomer is second on the team in tackles, but we’ve yet to see Jefferson make a dynamic impact, which might be a product of how he’s been used as much as anything else. He collected a sack against Oakland blitzing in the dime, and that’s a package the Ravens should use more often considering how strong he is playing close to the line of scrimmage. Baltimore linebackers have had problems covering tight ends, so look for Jefferson to match up with Zach Miller, who figures to be a popular target for a rookie quarterback on the road.

2. Bears rookie Tarik Cohen will finish with more total yards than starter Jordan Howard. The latter was one of the surprise rookies of last season, but he’s off to a rather ordinary start this season with a 4.0 yards per carry average. Meanwhile, the 5-foot-6 Cohen has done quite a Darren Sproles impression by averaging 5.4 yards per carry and catching 25 passes in his first five games. Regardless of which back is touching the ball, the Ravens need to tighten up their run defense, which ranks an unimpressive 23rd in yards allowed per game and 20th in yards surrendered per rush attempt at 4.3.

3. Breshad Perriman will catch his first touchdown of the season. It speaks volumes about how disappointing the 2015 first-round pick has been with the way such a big deal was made over his 13-yard reception on a third down late in the third quarter against Oakland. Perriman ranks eighth on the team in receptions and receiving yards despite averaging just over 41 offensive snaps per game. John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco have both spoken about the need to get Perriman more involved in the passing game, so look for the Ravens to try that as they did successfully last week with Mike Wallace.

4. A plus-three turnover advantage will allow Baltimore to lean on its running game in the second half. Trubisky has a strong arm and can move around, which will lead to him having his moments if the Ravens’ pass rush loses containment like it did on a few occasions against EJ Manuel. However, the rookie lacks enough talent at the wide receiver position to consistently be able to push the ball down the field and will make mistakes due to impatience. The Ravens defense has forced only two turnovers over the last three games after forcing 10 in their first two games. That changes on Sunday.

5. The Ravens will improve to 12-0 at home against rookie quarterbacks in the Harbaugh era with a 23-10 victory. Chicago sports a solid defense that will give Flacco and the offense some problems, but the Bears haven’t been dynamic enough to create turnovers, which is the only realistic path I envision for them to pull off an upset on Sunday. On the flip side, John Fox’s team would like to be able to lean on its running game, but the Ravens will make yards tough to come by in that department and do enough offensively to force the Bears to put the ball in Trubisky’s hands in the second half. This one will have a similar feel to the Week 2 home victory over Cleveland with a score almost identical.

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Amid Ravens’ offensive line trials, Jensen emerging as answer at center

Posted on 12 October 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ask any Ravens player which teammate is most likely to get into a scuffle in training camp, and the answer would be unanimous.

It’s the man who’s helped stabilize the middle of an offensive line that’s endured more than its share of injuries this season. And after years of competing and scrapping in relative obscurity, center Ryan Jensen has been one of the Ravens’ biggest surprises in his first full season as a starter.

“He gets a little feisty; he’ll throw a helmet here and there,” inside linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “He’s a great competitor, and you want that kind of play with all your players, especially on the o-line. He’s not going to let anyone [bully] him. He’s always going to get the better end of it. Playing against him in practice, that keeps you aware.

“Even though you think he’s being a butthole, he’s actually making you better because you’re protecting yourself.”

Jensen says he takes such a description from a teammate as a compliment and quips that his red hair explains why he’s so “ornery” on the field, but such a temperament can be a challenge for a young player trying to establish himself among veteran teammates. A 2013 sixth-round pick out of Division II Colorado State-Pueblo, Jensen didn’t appear in a game as a rookie after breaking his foot early in his first training camp and was then waived at the end of the 2014 preseason, which led to him spending most of that campaign on Baltimore’s practice squad.

If those setbacks weren’t enough to make Jensen wonder if he would ever become a full-time NFL starter, the 6-foot-4, 319-pound lineman was a healthy scratch for the final nine weeks of 2016 after he’d made three fill-in starts early in the season. He’d also started six games because of injuries late in 2015, but the Ravens always seemed to end up going in a different direction whenever he’d receive a look as a starter.

“My second year when I got released, there is always a little doubt that gets put in the back of your mind,” Jensen said. “Working through that is big.”

Despite appearing to fall out of favor last season, Jensen received a $1.797 million tender as a restricted free agent in March. And after incumbent starting center Jeremy Zuttah was traded to San Francisco later that month, head coach John Harbaugh and his staff liked that Jensen had gotten bigger and stronger in the offseason. Senior offensive assistant Greg Roman and new offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris wanted more size and physicality at the center position in the transition from an outside-zone blocking system to a multiple approach that would include more man blocking and downhill running.

As many continued to clamor for former New York Jets center Eric Mangold and the focus on the in-house competition remained on John Urschel before his abrupt retirement in late July, Jensen lined up as the starting center on the first day of training camp and never relinquished the job. In fact, he was the only constant on the field throughout the summer as projected starters at every other position battled injuries or were working their way back from offseason surgeries.

Jensen’s first career start at center was uneven as he helped the Ravens run for a season-high 157 yards in the season-opening win at Cincinnati, but he also committed three holding penalties, prompting critics to wonder if he could channel his aggressiveness to play with enough discipline. Since then, however, he hasn’t committed a penalty and is coming off arguably the best game of his career last Sunday in Oakland as he was graded out higher than any center in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.

“I feel good about my performance. I feel good about the offensive line performance,” said Jensen, who currently ranks third among centers in PFF’s grading system for 2017. “We have been meshing together really well. We have injuries and stuff like that, but we are plowing forward and we are getting there.”

Making Jensen’s emergence even more impressive has been the disruption at both guard positions. Second-year left guard Alex Lewis underwent season-ending shoulder surgery in August — and has since been replaced by James Hurst — and six-time Pro Bowl selection Marshal Yanda was lost for the year due to a broken ankle in Week 2, leaving Jensen to work with three different players at right guard since then. With Matt Skura now expected to miss action with a knee injury, the Ravens will be on their third different starting right guard in the season’s first six weeks.

Yanda’s absence in particular has forced Jensen to grow up quickly as he’s responsible for assessing the defense’s pre-snap alignment and making protection calls at the line of scrimmage.

“He is a great communicator. He’s a fine player. He’s a tough guy,” offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. “You guys know how up front that stuff happens fast and furious. It is wicked fast, so the communication has to be there. We have been through several guys [at guard], and he has done a great job of sort of running the show there.”

An offense still trying to find its footing is also benefiting from his attitude. With so many of his offensive teammates having more reserved personalities, Jensen isn’t afraid to get in the face of an opponent, something the Ravens had lost in the offseason with the retirement of wide receiver Steve Smith.

Jensen has managed to harness his temper that was so often on display during those practice-field scuffles in Owings Mills over the last few years and is forcing the rest of the league to take notice of his play.

“Ryan is a confident person. I think he has always been that way,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “The thing that you see with him the most is how nasty he is on Sunday and the style that he plays with. We play football, so that’s what it’s all about.

“You need that kind of player. You love to have those guys on your side.”

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Ravens stop bleeding, reboot season with win at Oakland

Posted on 09 October 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens stopped the bleeding and rebooted their season with a 30-17 win at Oakland on Sunday.

A road defeat wouldn’t have doomed them for the remainder of 2017, but one wonders what the ramifications might have been for a third straight loss, this one against a backup quarterback in a league having nowhere close to even 32 quality starters. The Raiders were also without two of their top three cornerbacks in a rare instance in which the opposition’s game-day injury woes could actually compete with Baltimore’s.

It was nearly a year to the day that the Ravens fired Marc Trestman, and another poor performance might have led offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg to a similar fate with critics pointing to senior offensive assistant Greg Roman as a logical alternative. But such talk was halted — at least for one week — when Joe Flacco delivered a pretty 52-yard strike to the speedy Mike Wallace on the first play from scrimmage.

That early aggressiveness coupled with the superb play of the offensive line proved to be the biggest keys in the victory as the Ravens jumped out to an early lead and produced a season-high 30 points. Their four plays of 25 or more yards eclipsed their total over their first four games (three) and deflated a struggling Raiders team also in need of a win Sunday.

It was easily Flacco’s best performance of the season as he completed 19 of 26 passes for 222 yards and ended his streak of 10 consecutive games with an interception. Entering Week 5 ranked last in the NFL among qualified quarterbacks with a career-worst 5.1 yards per attempt, the 10th-year quarterback averaged 8.54 yards per throw, his best single-game mark in nearly two years.

Not one to exaggerate or put much stock into any single win or loss over the course of his career, Flacco said Sunday’s win brought extra significance after admitting last week that the confidence of the entire offense wasn’t where it needed to be. The performance also reminded us what Flacco is capable of doing when the other variables are in proper place to help him succeed.

The running game and pass protection were strong despite the offensive line suffering its latest injury with right guard Matt Skura leaving with a knee injury early in the second half. Flacco also demonstrated better footwork, moving forward or sidestepping in the pocket to make several throws and to successfully avoid what little pressure Oakland was able to muster on Sunday. A Raiders front led by All-Pro defensive end Khalil Mack failed to register a sack and recorded only two quarterback hits all day.

At least for one week, the Baltimore offense was capable of playing at a level high enough to win a game in which the defense didn’t play at an incredible level. Jimmy Smith’s fumble recovery for a touchdown certainly provided extra cushion in the first quarter, but the unit’s overall play was a far cry from the first two weeks of the season when it forced a whopping 10 turnovers and the offense needed only not to screw up.

The Ravens offense even responded to adversity after the the defense allowed a Marshawn Lynch touchdown late in the third quarter to make it a one-possession game for the first time since the opening minutes. Without as much as a first down in their first two drives of the second half, Flacco and the offense orchestrated a 72-yard drive of more than five minutes that included critical third-down conversions to Breshad Perriman and Wallace. Justin Tucker’s short field goal put Baltimore ahead by 10 with just over 13 minutes to go and all but ended Oakland’s real hopes for a comeback.

As John Harbaugh noted in his post-game press conference, this is a week-to-week league with results frequently lacking rhyme or reason. The offense isn’t close to being out of the woods yet as a lackluster performance at home against Chicago next week will prompt the return of the same doubts and questions.

But the Ravens managed to escape a challenging and travel-filled five-week stretch to open the season with a 3-2 record, once again tied with Pittsburgh atop the AFC North. They now face a reasonable run of alternating home and away games over the next four weeks that should keep them in the playoff hunt with any semblance of steady play going into their Week 10 bye.

To say the win at Oakland saved their season would be an exaggeration, but it did stop the substantial bleeding from the last two weeks. And there’s no telling what chain of events a third straight ugly loss might have triggered for a team in search of its first postseason berth in three years.

The Ravens instead came home with a winning record and newfound positive vibes.

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Ravens-Raiders: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 07 October 2017 by Luke Jones

The details may differ, but the Ravens and the Oakland Raiders find themselves in a very similar position.

Both have lost two straight and are in danger of losing ground to the leaders in their respective divisions. The Baltimore defense and the Raiders offense were expected to be elite units, but each has underperformed so far this season, contributing to the overall struggles for both teams.

The most intriguing story entering Sunday might be the status of Oakland starting quarterback Derek Carr, who surprisingly practiced on Thursday and Friday and was listed as questionable on the final injury report despite having suffered a fracture in his lower back last week. It’s still assumed that backup EJ Manuel will start in his place, but Carr was reportedly taking Friday practice reps ahead of No. 3 quarterback Connor Cook, perhaps an indication that he could at least serve as the backup in Week 5.

His availability would certainly change expectations in this contest as Carr has thrown for 550 yards and seven touchdowns in his two games against the Ravens.

It’s time to go on the record as these AFC teams meet for the third consecutive season with the Raiders having won the last two meetings including a last-minute 28-27 win at M&T Bank Stadium last October. Baltimore holds a 6-3 advantage in the all-time regular-season series and won the only playoff encounter in the 2000 AFC championship game. The Ravens’ last win at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum came in Week 17 of the 2009 season when they clinched a trip to the playoffs.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Joe Flacco will throw an interception for the 11th consecutive game. What we’re seeing from the 10th-year quarterback is his own regression magnified by a lack of commitment to improve the variables around him for years. Not only as he tossed picks in 10 straight games, but he’s thrown at least one in 13 of 15 games with Marty Mornhinweg as offensive coordinator and 23 of 30 with him as the quarterbacks coach, a stretch that followed the best regular season of his career in 2014. Suspect coaching, an injury-ravaged offensive line that wasn’t very good to begin with, average skill-position players, and Flacco’s own weaknesses result in a broken offense.

2. Raiders receiver Michael Crabtree will continue his recent success against the Ravens with a touchdown catch. Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb are both expected to play despite missing practice time this week, but the secondary will need to be ready as Crabtree has produced four touchdowns and 199 receiving yards in his last two games against Baltimore. The Ravens front must generate more pressure than it has the last two weeks to force Manuel into mistakes in the pocket as he’ll likely be looking for Crabtree and tight end Jared Cook as his security blankets. With former first-round pick Amari Cooper struggling to catch the ball consistently, Crabtree is a big key to the Raiders’ success.

3. Alex Collins will run for a season-high 85 yards and a touchdown — without a fumble. It speaks volumes about the Ravens that a street free agent signed to the practice squad in early September has been their best offensive playmaker, but that doesn’t mean that Collins hasn’t impressed with an 8.2 yards per carry average. Head coach John Harbaugh has bristled over his two fumbles on 25 carries, but this struggling offense has little choice but to continue giving him the ball while hoping that running backs coach Thomas Hammock can help rectify the issue. The Ravens offensive line has done a solid job in run blocking and should find room against an Oakland front allowing 4.3 yards per carry.

4. Oakland defensive end Khalil Mack will collect two sacks and force a fumble. After having a brutal day against Jacksonville edge rusher Dante Fowler in London two weeks ago, right tackle Austin Howard is really going to have his hands full with his former teammate, who is one of the NFL’s best defensive players. Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. likes to move Mack around to create matchup problems, meaning left tackle Ronnie Stanley will also need to be ready. As if Mack weren’t enough, defensive end Mario Edwards also creates problems as an interior rusher on passing downs and it’s no secret that the Ravens have struggled mightily at the guard position without Marshal Yanda.

5. The Ravens offense fails to score 14 points for the third straight game in a 19-13 loss. I fully expect the run defense to bounce back after a poor performance last week, but the Ravens will have trouble generating pressure against Pro Football Focus’ most efficient pass-blocking line in the league, which will limit their opportunities for takeaways to put the offense on a short field. Since a 48-yard touchdown pass to Jeremy Maclin in the season opener, Flacco hasn’t completed a single pass for even half as much yardage as that in 105 attempts. That’s simply not a winning formula, especially on the West Coast where Baltimore hasn’t fared well in recent years. Until this offense shows otherwise, the Ravens aren’t a good bet to win any road game — even one against a backup quarterback.

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Ravens offense not even talking a good game at this point

Posted on 06 October 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Joe Flacco acknowledged this week that the Ravens offense isn’t playing with as much confidence as it needs to.

It was an honest assessment considering the quarterback and the unit rank near the bottom of the NFL in numerous categories, but how do you go about raising that confidence level in hopes of it carrying over to Sundays? Do coaches add new wrinkles to the playbook, invite more player input during meetings, or even try something as simple as having a little more fun during practices to put minds at ease?

Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg was posed that simple question on Thursday.

“Just a little juice, you know? Hey, we’ve got proud men here,” Mornhinweg said. “We talked about this the other day. We’ve got a lot of proud men and a lot of confident guys. When you go through a couple weeks like this, confidence is a great weapon. I think it’s the best weapon known to mankind. Confidence is at an all-time high.”

Not only does Mornhinweg not answer the original question, but he contradicts the starting quarterback’s opinion by saying the group’s confidence is greater than ever. That’s not exactly a good look when media and fans are demanding answers from one of the worst offenses in the league through the first month of the season.

Now in his third season as the quarterbacks coach, Mornhinweg is doubly responsible for Flacco ranking 32nd in passing yards, last among qualified quarterbacks with a career-worst 5.1 yards per attempt, and 31st of 32 qualified quarterbacks with a 65.0 passer rating. So, what is he having the 10th-year veteran work on during practices?

“There’s a lot of specific things, and that goes with every position,” Mornhinweg said. “These more than a handful of plays last ballgame — details. It’s really every position, you know? Details, and then you end up getting those four, five, six, seven plays in a game that may make a little bit of a difference.”

Again, what?

To be clear, talking to the media is far from Mornhinweg’s primary job responsibility and he’s never been an eloquent speaker, something the team’s official website has even had fun with on occasion. However, failing to answer fair questions with any substance isn’t amusing when many fans are calling for a coordinator change and already weren’t thrilled with John Harbaugh’s decision to retain him in January.

Is there any sign the offensive coordinator is seeing that a breakout could be coming?

“We’ll see, we’ll see,” Mornhinweg said. “You keep working hard, you keep preparing, good things tend to happen.”

You can only hope he’s a better communicator with his players than he is with the media or there truly is no hope for an offensive turnaround.

Pees blames himself for run defense issues

A week after suggesting the Ravens’ problems in London stemmed from a lack of intensity, defensive coordinator Dean Pees took the blame for Pittsburgh gaining 173 rushing yards on 42 carries in Week 4.

The Ravens’ outside linebackers did a poor job setting the edge, but Pees said he didn’t have his defense prepared for the type of pulling the Steelers employed with their interior linemen on outside runs.

“It’s not the players fault. It’s my fault,” Pees said. “The Steelers — I give them credit — [offensive line coach Mike Munchak] and those guys did a different scheme on some of their pullers than what we had ever seen. They did. It was different than what I’ve seen the Steelers run. But it’s my job to get it adapted and fixed and corrected and put the guys in a better position than what they were put in.”

Pees did try to cherry-pick the final numbers by saying that the Ravens held the Steelers to 2.3 yards per carry on 36 of their 42 attempts — any defense is going to look much better when you remove the top six plays — but at least he took responsibility for a run defense needing to be better than it’s shown so far. The Ravens currently rank 26th in rushing yards allowed per game (127.3) and 20th in yards per carry allowed (4.2).

Secondary shuffling

We’re unlikely to see any notable changes if cornerback Jimmy Smith misses Sunday’s game in Oakland, but the Ravens secondary could stand to benefit from a facelift in the near future.

With nickel corner Lardarius Webb struggling in coverage and 2017 first-round pick Marlon Humphrey looking like the real deal, the Ravens should look to move the latter into the starting lineup and continue experimenting with Brandon Carr at the nickel spot as they’ve done on a few occasions this year. Impressive rookie free agent Jaylen Hill could also be in the nickel mix once he gets back into football shape from the hamstring injury that sidelined him for over a month.

Webb’s best role at this point is at the safety position, which gives the Ravens an opportunity to be more creative with their sub packages while also keeping the veteran involved in the defense.

Safety Tony Jefferson hasn’t made a major impact so far, but one could question whether he’s being used properly. His strength is playing closer to the line of scrimmage against the run and in pass coverage against tight ends, but Pees has used him as more of a traditional safety so far. Sliding Jefferson down to a hybrid dime position in many passing situations would allow the Ravens to take the weak-side inside linebacker off the field — a position that’s been an issue — and to move Webb to the back end of the defense where he played next to Eric Weddle last year.

Anything that maximizes their $34 million investment in Jefferson and gets Humphrey on the field should be on the table.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 26-9 loss to Pittsburgh

Posted on 03 October 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens suffering their first home defeat to Pittsburgh since 2012 in a 26-7 loss, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. From being shut out in the first half and Mike Wallace’s drop of a possible touchdown to the poor offensive line play and the all-too-slow tempo of the no-huddle attack in the fourth quarter, this Ravens offense is broken. And it’s tough to trust Marty Mornhinweg to fix it.

2. Even acknowledging the injuries and the poor offense, Dean Pees’ defense ranks 14th in points allowed per game, 21st in total yards per game, 16th in passing yards per game, and 20th in yards per carry allowed. That’s not nearly good enough considering the many resources used on this defense.

3. The running game has been the offense’s only redeeming quality, but 73 of the 82 rushing yards came on two plays while the other 13 carries produced a total of nine yards. It’s difficult staying on schedule without gaining at least a few yards each on those other plays.

4. Those wondering if the Ravens were wise to spend so much to re-sign Brandon Williams have seen a defensive line lacking a consistent push. Even in those short-yardage situations where the Ravens front appeared to make a stop, the Steelers were still able to get enough to move the chains.

5. It’s difficult to recall too many games when Ravens outside linebackers were so abysmal against the run. Pittsburgh gained most of its big yards on outside runs while Baltimore consistently failed to set the edge.

6. Alex Collins has lost two fumbles on just 25 carries, but the Ravens have no choice right now but to give him opportunities when he’s been their best offensive playmaker. He clearly needs to protect the football, but the risk-reward ratio remains in his favor — for now.

7. Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward might as well have changed his address to the Ravens backfield on Sunday. He absolutely dominated an undermanned and inexperienced offensive line.

8. John Harbaugh has received plenty of fair criticism for his use of challenges over the years, but give him credit for being on top of the Eric Weddle interception that followed a non-catch from Antonio Brown. If only the whistle hadn’t blown before an easy return for a touchdown.

9. Marlon Humphrey was immediately challenged upon entering the game and ran right with Brown on a long incompletion in the second quarter. I’m surprised that he’s mostly subbed in for Jimmy Smith, but the rookie continues to make a strong argument for a starting role opposite Smith.

10. He had a rough game against Jacksonville, but I didn’t quite get Tyus Bowser playing only eight defensive snaps against the Steelers. It’s not as though the other young outside linebackers have established themselves as consistent options and he was very good against Cleveland in Week 2.

11. I couldn’t help but think Harbaugh’s expressed frustration over Jaylen Hill’s slow-healing hamstring injury Monday had something to do with the struggles of Lardarius Webb at the nickel spot. There’s certainly a role for Webb in this defense, but he’s being exposed in pass coverage.

12. The poor throw from high-priced quarterback Joe Flacco and the inability of former first-round receiver Breshad Perriman to corral it in the third quarter epitomized how inept this offense has been. Even when the Ravens had a golden opportunity for a touchdown, they wasted it.

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Even with injuries, Ravens brass deserves blame for offensive mess

Posted on 02 October 2017 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — There’s much blame to go around for this absolute mess of a Ravens offense.

Those pointing to injuries, the current state of the offensive line, quarterback Joe Flacco’s poor play, and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg’s play-calling are all correct to some degree or another. But the buck really needs to stop with the Ravens brass.

While many gushed over a defense-focused offseason and were waxing nostalgic about recreating the 2000 Ravens, others waited for significant work to be done to a below-average offense in 2016 that lost four starters to free agency or retirement. Instead of making significant improvements to that side of the ball, general manager Ozzie Newsome and head coach John Harbaugh seemingly settled for a ceiling of mediocrity, and that was long before the injuries that have put this offense in full-blown crisis mode before Columbus Day.

The offseason began with Harbaugh’s decision to retain Mornhinweg as coordinator despite the offense showing no meaningful improvement from the time he took over for the fired Marc Trestman last October. Harbaugh did hire Greg Roman to reboot the running game — a move that has produced positive results through four games — but one of the prevailing themes of the season-ending press conference in January was the need to get more out of Flacco, whose play had regressed in the two seasons since the departure of offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and quarterbacks coach Rick Dennison. Those two were sticklers about Flacco’s footwork and fundamentals and helped guide the Super Bowl XLVII Most Valuable Player to arguably his best regular season in 2014.

The hiring of a new quarterbacks coach at the very least was a no-brainer, but Mornhinweg also retained that role after serving in that capacity over Flacco’s last two lackluster campaigns. Instead of seizing the chance to bring in a new mind and a different pair of eyes, the Ravens maintained the status quo in the coaching department for their high-priced quarterback.

What about improving the offensive personnel that has been lacking playmakers and consistent offensive line play for years?

Newsome’s free-agent splash in March consisted of giving sizable contracts to defensive tackle Brandon Williams and free-agent defensive backs Tony Jefferson and Brandon Carr. Meanwhile, the only offensive addition in the first, second, and third waves of free agency was the oft-injured 32-year-old running back Danny Woodhead, who had missed 27 games the previous three seasons and — to no surprise — would suffer a long-term hamstring injury in the season opener.

Surely the Ravens would address their offense with four Day 1 and Day 2 picks in April’s draft then, right? Newsome selected four defensive players with those choices before finally taking a pair of developmental offensive linemen on the final day. The plan going into spring workouts would be to replace above-average right tackle Rick Wagner and three-year starting center Jeremy Zuttah with in-house options, players who hadn’t previously been good enough to crack the lineup of an already-shaky offensive line.

To be fair, Baltimore did eventually sign veteran wide receiver Jeremy Maclin in mid-June after he was cut by Kansas City and inked veteran right tackle Austin Howard in early August. But did these moves really represent a significant net gain compared to the retired Steve Smith and Wagner on an offense that was barely functional a year ago?

Was the goal to merely be as good as last year’s unit that ranked 17th in total yards and 21st in points per game?

To be clear, there’s no diminishing the absence of six-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda, and the loss of promising left guard Alex Lewis was another tough blow. The Ravens also hoped that running back Kenneth Dixon would take a major step forward in his second season, but a four-game suspension had already stunted that optimism before he sustained a season-ending knee injury in July.

The many injuries they’ve endured do tell a large part of the story, but the offense was constructed to be no better than average based on the way the Ravens used their cap dollars and draft picks and made their coaching decisions this offseason. That ceiling is too low when planning for at least a few inevitable injuries over the course of a season.

Perhaps the current state of affairs wouldn’t be as frustrating if the Ravens wouldn’t continue to neglect their offense on an annual basis, a pattern that began with the decision to trade away wide receiver Anquan Boldin weeks after the Super Bowl in 2013 and has continued with the selection of just four offensive players with their 17 combined Day 1 and Day 2 draft picks since then. It’s one thing to point to Flacco’s huge contract as justification not to spend as much free-agent money on the offense, but Newsome’s drafting reinforces the lack of interest in putting better talent around the quarterback.

Instead, the Ravens continue to expect him to do more with less than he had in that historic 2012 postseason and wonder why they’ve only been back to the playoffs once since then.

Flacco has obvious flaws and is what he is in his 10th season, but the Ravens keep beating their heads against a brick wall trying to do the bare minimum with their offense and expecting a different result. You get what you pay for, and that isn’t very much with mediocre talent and an uninspiring offensive coordinator.

Making matters worse, the use of all those resources on defense in recent years has yet to net a special group on that side of the ball.

Yes, you can continue to blame the offensive woes all on the injuries and keep beating up a quarterback who certainly needs to take his share of the responsibility for his poor performance, but offseason decisions stunted this offense’s ceiling before the injuries began over the summer. The truth is the focus should have been on that side of the ball from the start while looking to tweak a defense that finished in the top 10 in most major categories a year ago.

Sadly, what we’re now witnessing isn’t all that surprising.

And it’s difficult imagining this broken offense being fixed in the near future.

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 30 September 2017 by Luke Jones

Coming off one of the worst losses in team history and remembering what happened last Christmas Day, the Ravens should have no shortage of motivation against Pittsburgh on Sunday.

But it’s difficult knowing what to expect after such a shockingly poor performance in London and with the injuries continuing to mount. A Week 4 tilt is hardly a must-win game, but the Ravens surely would like to hold serve at home and escape the next two games with no worse than a 3-2 record going into the middle portion of the regular season.

The Steelers are coming off a disappointing loss of their own as their high-octane offense has been largely stuck in neutral through the first three weeks of the season. However, Pittsburgh does find itself in better shape than the Ravens from a health standpoint, a key factor in what’s always a very physical ballgame.

It’s time to go on the record as these AFC North foes meet for the 43rd time in the regular season with the Steelers holding a slight 22-20 edge as well as a 3-1 advantage in postseason encounters. Pittsburgh prevailed in dramatic fashion to clinch the division title last Dec. 25, but the Ravens have won six of the last eight meetings, a stretch that includes their only postseason victory since Super Bowl XLVII. Including the playoffs, 16 of the 21 showdowns with the Steelers in the John Harbaugh era have been decided by a single possession.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Alex Collins will lead the Ravens in rushing and will score his first touchdown. I’m not sure how real his 7.8 yards per attempt average is since he’s rarely carried the ball with a game’s outcome in doubt, but this sputtering offense is in desperate need of a spark and there’s no denying the urgency with which Collins has run. The Ravens have averaged 4.6 yards per carry since Marshal Yanda’s season-ending injury in Week 2, but most of that has come with a multi-score second-half lead over Cleveland and a huge deficit against Jacksonville and the Steelers are getting healthy with defensive end Stephon Tuitt returning. If the Baltimore passing game can’t get going again, Pittsburgh is likely to stack the box.

2. Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell will crack 100 yards of offense for the first time this season. It’s been a slow start to 2017 for the Steelers’ Pro Bowl running back, but the Ravens will be without standout defensive tackle Brandon Williams and defensive end Brent Urban, putting pressure on young linemen lacking experience against a rock-solid Pittsburgh offensive line. Baltimore linebackers were undisciplined in pass coverage against Jacksonville, which is another reason for concern with Bell’s ability as a receiver out of the backfield. The Ravens may need to take some chances with their linebackers to boost their pass rush, but that will leave them vulnerable on underneath throws.

3. Terrell Suggs will break a six-game drought against the Steelers with a sack against Ben Roethlisberger. No defender has more career takedowns of the Pittsburgh quarterback than Suggs, but the Ravens’ pass rush was nonexistent against Jacksonville while trying to rely mostly on a four-man rush. Not only do they need another edge rusher to consistently emerge opposite Suggs, but the inside pass rush is a big question mark since Urban was a major part of that equation. It isn’t enough to merely make Roethlisberger uncomfortable as Baltimore also needs to keep him in the pocket to prevent the downfield improvisation with his receivers that so often gets a secondary in trouble.

4. Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown will catch a touchdown despite being held to a season low for yards. The pain of last December’s game-winning score notwithstanding, the Ravens have generally done a respectable job against Brown while rarely having top cornerback Jimmy Smith travel with the All-Pro receiver. It will be interesting to see how much rookie cornerback Marlon Humphrey plays — especially with 6-foot-5 receiver Martavis Bryant back in the fold — but the Ravens are better equipped to handle the Pittsburgh passing game than they were in the fourth-quarter collapse in Week 16 last year. Brown will inevitably get touches, but he won’t be the difference in the game.

5. The Pittsburgh defense will be too much for the Ravens in a 17-14 loss. This will be a close one as it almost always is in this rivalry. I fully expect the Baltimore defense to rebound from last week’s embarrassment and play well despite being banged up on the defensive line, but it’s difficult having faith in the Ravens to score points considering the current state of the offensive line and how uncomfortable Joe Flacco has looked trying to throw the football down the field. They’re also facing a Steelers defense that’s improved from recent years despite its clear issues against the run in Chicago. Roethlisberger hasn’t won a game at M&T Bank Stadium since 2010 and the Steelers haven’t won in Baltimore since Charlie Batch pulled off an upset in 2012, but the Ravens are the inferior team on paper because of their many injuries and haven’t shown enough on offense to make me believe they’re going to win this one.

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