Tag Archive | "Joe Flacco"

Control of playoff path slips away along with Ravens’ late-season mettle

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Control of playoff path slips away along with Ravens’ late-season mettle

Posted on 21 December 2014 by Luke Jones

There are tough losses and then there’s that rare defeat that forces you to reevaluate everything you thought you knew about a football team.

The Ravens experienced the latter Sunday in falling to the Houston Texans in a 25-13 final with numbers that don’t do justice to how miserable the performance was. Baltimore has experienced bigger margins of defeat in the John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco era, but most haven’t come in a spot in which the Ravens had so much to lose.

Sunday was easily the worst offensive performance of the season as the Ravens were held to an anemic 64 yards through the first three quarters. From Flacco and the running game to the offensive line and the wide receivers, no part of the performance was remotely acceptable, including a coaching staff that failed to account for the Texans’ pass rush throughout the day or to find answers to get the all-important running game on track.

For the second straight year, the Ravens entered Week 16 in complete control of their path to the playoffs, needing two wins to guarantee a trip to the postseason. And just like last year’s home defeat to New England in the penultimate game of the regular season, the Ravens were dominated while watching that playoff power slip through their fingers.

Losing big at home to the Patriots last season was bad enough, but at least it came against a team regarded as one of the NFL’s best. On Sunday, the Ravens fell on the road to a team sporting a .500 record and starting a fourth-string quarterback who was signed off another team’s practice squad earlier in the week.

Of course, Sunday’s defeat had very little to do with Texans quarterback Case Keenum and everything to do with a Houston defense that overwhelmed Flacco and the offense. The Texans deserve plenty of credit and have the best defensive player on the planet in J.J. Watt, but the Ravens offense coming up so small with the stakes so high negates much of the progress made in Gary Kubiak’s first year as coordinator.

It reeked of the ineptitude of last year.

As much scrutiny as the Ravens defense has drawn over a secondary ravaged by injuries, Dean Pees’ unit played admirably in limiting the Texans to just one touchdown in seven trips inside the red zone. You could have almost stomached a defeat in which Texans receivers Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins kept running free and Keenum caught lightning in a bottle, but the Baltimore defense was acceptable on Sunday.

The Ravens can still make the playoffs with a win over Cleveland next Sunday and either two losses by Cincinnati or a San Diego loss at Kansas City, but their loss on Sunday makes you wonder if they’ve lost the late-season mettle made famous in Harbaugh’s first five years at the helm. Maybe it’s because of certain talent deficiencies, something missing in their current DNA, or both, but the Ravens just didn’t lose games like Sunday’s in Harbaugh’s first five seasons.

After 15 games and just two wins over teams currently holding a .500 record, the 9-6 Ravens just might not be all that good. Their biggest critics have repeatedly pointed out how they’ve benefited from playing the woeful NFC South as Baltimore holds a 5-6 record against the rest of the league. Beating bad teams is well and good, but you have to rise to the occasion to put yourself in position to do something special by beating quality opponents.

Are the Ravens good enough to make the playoffs in 2014? Sure, as long as they win next week and receive some outside help from other less-than-stellar talent in the AFC. Plenty of teams have made the playoffs without looking like they “deserve” it.

But it’s difficult envisioning the Ravens going on any kind of a significant run in January, especially with the offense regressing over the last few weeks and a defense with band-aids upon band-aids in the secondary. The uncertainty after injuries to offensive tackles Eugene Monroe and Rick Wagner certainly won’t help, either.

Sunday brought reality into a nightmarish focus.

The Ravens not only lost control of their path to the postseason, but their proven late-season mettle appeared to slip away with it.

They can begin trying to find it again next week, but there’s no guarantee the ride will continue beyond that.

And they have no one to blame but themselves.

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Ravens-Texans: Five predictions for Sunday

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Ravens-Texans: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 20 December 2014 by Luke Jones

Sunday represents a homecoming for a number of players and coaches as the Ravens travel to Houston to take on the Texans.

From offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and assistants Rick Dennison and Brian Pariani to tight end Owen Daniels, running back Justin Forsett, and wide receiver Jacoby Jones, plenty of Ravens will be returning to a place they called home for a number of years, but there’s little time for sentimentality when you’re in the playoff race. At 9-5, Baltimore can clinch a playoff spot in Week 16 with a win and losses by both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh or a win over the Texans coupled with defeats by both San Diego and Kansas City.

On the surface, the Ravens should feel very confident as the Texans are turning to their fourth quarterback of the season — expected to be the newly-signed Case Keenum — but Houston still possesses the best defensive player on the planet in J.J. Watt and a powerful running game that ranks fourth in the NFL. The 7-7 Texans are a long shot to sneak into the playoffs at this point, but they’d like nothing more than to spoil Baltimore’s playoff chances on Sunday.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Texans meet for the seventh time in regular-season history with the Ravens holding a 6-1 edge, which doesn’t include their 20-13 win over Houston in the 2011 postseason. Baltimore is 3-1 against Houston at NRG Stadium.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens hope to clinch a playoff spot in Week 16 …

1. Baltimore will advance its streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher to 25 games, but Arian Foster will have a season-high total against the Ravens defense. No opposing running back has even gotten close to the century mark this season as Ahmad Bradshaw of Indianapolis has the highest total of the year against the Ravens with just 68 in Week 5. However, Foster will represent the greatest test the Ravens have seen since Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata was suspended for Adderall use. Both defenses will be familiar with the opposing rushing attack as the Ravens and Texans both use the zone stretch, but Houston will be a bit too predictable relying on the run due to the uncertainty at the quarterback position. Foster will rush for more yards against the Ravens than any back this season, but his total will remain south of 100 yards.

2. Daniels will catch a touchdown and have his best game of the season against his former team. The longtime Texans tight end having a strong day against his former team would be a feel-good story, but quarterback Joe Flacco went out of his way earlier in the week to say Daniels needs to be more involved in the offense. Against Jacksonville, Daniels was targeted nine times — the most he’s been thrown to since Week 9 — and caught four passes for 62 yards and his first touchdown since Week 7. The Ravens’ 17th-ranked red-zone attack remains a weakness of a strong offensive attack, but the reemergence of Daniels would be a major factor in a potential trip to the playoffs. His familiarity with the Texans’ defensive personnel will help him produce a season-high in yards, besting the 70 he had against the Colts in Week 5.

3. Watt will collect a sack and bat down a pass, but the Ravens will throw away from him and run plenty of counters to try to minimize his impact. The Texans defensive end might go down as the most disruptive defensive force the NFL has seen since Lawrence Taylor, but the Ravens can only focus on minimizing his impact as much as possible on Sunday. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel will move Watt all over the defensive line, so the key is identifying where he lines up and running the play away from him. Flacco will throw to the opposite side of where Watt lines up to try to minimize his ability to use his 6-foot-5 frame to disrupt passing lanes, but running the counter is effective in slowing his motor as well as the rest of the Houston pass rush. Watt will see double-teams, chip blocks, and max protect as well, but play selection will be just as important.

4. Daryl Smith will pick up his second interception of the year to continue his strong finish to the season. A slow start and the emergence of rookie C.J. Mosley have led many to overlook how well the veteran linebacker has played in the second half of the season. An effective blitzer and still the Ravens’ best linebacker in pass coverage, Smith could be a key factor in trying to confuse Keenum, who proved to be an aggressive passer who couldn’t handle a pass rush in eight games for the Texans last season. It’s obvious the Baltimore defense will try to pressure the young quarterback, but Smith could prove key by showing blitz up the middle before dropping into pass coverage. The secondary will have its hands full with wide receivers Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins — if the latter plays — but Smith will come away with a pick with Keenum facing a heavy rush.

5. Baltimore’s advantage at the quarterback position will be the ultimate difference in a tight 23-16 win for the Ravens. Last week’s struggles against the Jaguars should remind everyone that nothing is guaranteed in the NFL, and the Texans remained competitive in Indianapolis last week despite veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick going down with a broken leg. Bill O’Brien’s team has talent on both sides of the ball, but it’s very difficult imagining John Harbaugh and the Ravens losing to a fourth-string quarterback under these critical circumstances. Flacco will need to stand tall against a formidable pass rush, but he’s played very well since the bye week, a trend that will continue against a mediocre secondary. It will be a tight game in Houston, but the Ravens will get some revenge for Kubiak and find a way to move to 10-5 on the season.

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Sports world amused by President Obama’s “Flacco” goof

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Sports world amused by President Obama’s “Flacco” goof

Posted on 19 December 2014 by Luke Jones

The debate continues over where Joe Flacco ranks in the NFL quarterbacking hierarchy, but the Ravens signal-caller was apparently on the mind of the most powerful man in the world on Friday.

Addressing the hack of Sony and the cancelled release of “The Interview” on Friday afternoon, President Barack Obama intended to mention the stars of the movie — Seth Rogen and James Franco — but instead uttered the name “James Flacco” to set off a social media frenzy of laughter.

The slip of the tongue prompted a swift response from the seventh-year quarterback’s official Twitter account:

 

Of course, this meant the rest of the Twitter world needed a piece of the action and didn’t disappoint as a “James Flacco” account quickly offered this gem:

 

Never change, Internet.

But the most important question has yet to be answered.

Is James Flacco elite?

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

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

Posted on 18 December 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak quipped that he has his hands too full trying to slow All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt this Sunday to think about anything else, but you can only downplay the emotions of going home so much.

Not only is the 53-year-old assistant returning to Houston to face a Texans team he coached for eight years, but it’s the city in which Kubiak was born and raised, growing up five miles from the historic Astrodome and present-day NRG Stadium. And it’s where he feels he didn’t live up to expectations as the head coach when he was fired in early December of what amounted to a 2-14 season for the Texans a year ago.

Kubiak finished 61-64 in Houston, but his firing in 2013 came after consecutive AFC South division titles in 2011 and 2012, the only playoff appearances in the 13-year history of the franchise.

“I failed with that football team, so it’s very difficult and I understand the business and how it works,” said Kubiak, who spoke highly of the organization and Texans owner Bob McNair for giving him his first opportunity to be an NFL head coach. “But it’s funny how things work out, too. For me to have an opportunity with this organization, I’m just so appreciative of that and getting back to work. That’s the best medicine for a football coach.”

The stakes of Sunday’s game illustrate Kubiak’s focus on the present amidst questions about his past in Houston and his potential future as a head coaching candidate this offseason. The Ravens can clinch a playoff spot with a win and losses by both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh or a victory over Houston coupled with losses by Kansas City and San Diego in Week 16.

Of course, Kubiak isn’t alone in returning to Houston as tight end Owen Daniels began his NFL career with the Texans in 2006, Kubiak’s first year as the head coach, and running back Justin Forsett and wide receiver Jacoby Jones also played there. But it’s a different feeling for a former head coach than a player whose opportunities are typically more abundant when let go.

“We haven’t really talked about it too much,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “I saw [Kubiak’s wife, Rhonda, recently], and you definitely know that it means a lot. Like I said, I think he’ll probably have it in his mind, or Owen or whoever, but it’ll definitely be there in the back of some of our minds also just to make sure that we can [win for him].”

It’s hard to argue that Kubiak wound up in an enviable position directing the offense of a 9-5 team on the cusp of making the playoffs. And teams with potential head coaching openings will take notice of Flacco having the finest regular season of his career under Kubiak.

The seventh-year signal-caller has shown improved footwork and awareness in the pocket running Kubiak’s West Coast attack that focuses on more short-to-intermediate passing than what Flacco was used to in the past. Though much of Flacco’s direct communication is with quarterbacks coach Rick Dennison — Kubiak’s former offensive coordinator in Houston — the quarterback and the offensive coordinator have credited adjustments made at the bye week that have helped the 29-year-old raise his level of play down the stretch.

Flacco has completed 66.7 percent of his passes in three of the last four games to orchestrate key road wins in New Orleans and Miami. Kubiak said he looks forward to Flacco’s feedback for the game plan every week and says their relationship continues to improve with nearly a full season together under their belts.

“When he starts talking, Joe likes to talk, so he’ll let me know what he thinks,” said Kubiak as he chuckled. “Our relationship, it’s been good. I coach him hard, but I have a tremendous respect for him, and I think he knows that, and I need to listen to him. That’s my job as a coach.”

Flacco is only one part of the offensive renaissance as the Ravens are on pace to set franchise records for points scored and total yards. A running game that ranked last in the NFL in yards per carry (3.1) a year ago is averaging 4.6 yards per attempt, which would be the third-highest mark in franchise history behind only the 2003 and 2009 seasons. It was Kubiak who suggested to head coach John Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome that the Ravens bring in the journeyman Forsett, who leads all running backs with a 5.4 yards per carry average and has been one of the great stories of the 2014 season.

But Kubiak’s greatest success has been with the offensive line as his zone-blocking system has meshed better with personnel than what offensive line coach Juan Castillo tried to implement in a disastrous 2013 campaign. Left guard Kelechi Osemele and right tackle Rick Wagner have blossomed into Pro Bowl-caliber linemen this year while three-time Pro Bowl selection Marshal Yanda is having arguably the finest season of his career.

The offensive line has blocked for the league’s fifth-ranked rushing attack and has allowed Flacco to be sacked just 16 times all year, which currently ranks just ahead of the lowest single-season total allowed (17) in team history in 2006.

“The biggest thing is the way our offensive line has been playing,” Flacco said. “I think that has a lot to do with the way these guys coach it and the way their system runs. It allows them to play aggressively and play fast and really use their best assets to the fullest. They don’t have any tentativeness when they’re playing. They’re just going full-throttle and really attacking people, and I think that is why it serves us the best.”

Kubiak has been so successful that the Ravens may find themselves right back where they started last January if he receives another head coaching job after the season. Harbaugh and the organization would like nothing more than to have continuity at the offensive coordinator spot after Cam Cameron was dismissed late in the 2012 season and Jim Caldwell left to become the head coach of the Detroit Lions after last year’s 8-8 campaign.

Players such as Daniels and Forsett who remember Kubiak in Houston have said they’ve seen a more relaxed man with an obvious passion for teaching and coaching in his new role. A year away from the pressure of being the man in charge has likely helped his overall health, which came into question last year when he suffered a mini-stroke at halftime of a game in early November.

Asked if he’s thought about the possibility of another NFL team calling with the offer of a head gig this winter, Kubiak insists his focus lies solely with the Ravens.

“I don’t think about that at all; I can tell you that. I’m consumed with what I’m doing,” Kubiak said. “Every opportunity I’ve ever had in my life, hopefully it’s because I’m doing a good job and working my tail off where I’m at. I think if you worry about those things, you don’t enjoy what you’re doing at the time. Boy, am I enjoying what I’m doing right now.”

It’s human nature to take a moment from time to time to reflect on where you’ve been and where you might be going next, and Sunday will mark one of those times for Kubiak as the Ravens hope to punch their ticket to the postseason. He may not admit it openly, but you’d have to think he would like nothing more than to end what faint playoff hopes the 7-7 Texans currently have while guiding the Ravens offense to another victory.

A win may not erase the painful memory of being fired from a city he’s called home for much of his life, but Kubiak would be able to hold his head high while remembering his accomplishments in Houston.

“Last season wasn’t what we wanted when we were there,” said Daniels, who was cut by the Texans in March, “but he sure changed the culture around there in terms of everyone in that building being focused on winning. He deserves a lot of credit for that. For him to go back — and hopefully we can take care of business — that will be huge.”

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Ravens hoping best yet to come for veteran tight end Daniels

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Ravens hoping best yet to come for veteran tight end Daniels

Posted on 17 December 2014 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Flacco quietly continuing finest regular season of career

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Flacco quietly continuing finest regular season of career

Posted on 16 December 2014 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On rough day, Ravens lean on biggest strength to pull through

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On rough day, Ravens lean on biggest strength to pull through

Posted on 14 December 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens were predictably complimentary of the Jacksonville Jaguars following an uncomfortable 20-12 victory on Sunday.

Head coach John Harbaugh and his players spent plenty of time after the game praising the Jaguars despite their 2-12 record, but Terrell Suggs said it best after the Ravens struggled throughout the day against one of the NFL’s worst teams.

“It would have sucked if we lost,” said Suggs, who admitted to having flashbacks to the last-second home loss to San Diego two weeks ago. “It would have been very unfortunate. But you’ve got to commend this whole team — offense and defense alike — for putting it away this time.”

Nothing felt quite right on Sunday for the Ravens, from the sparser-than-normal crowd at M&T Bank Stadium with little to cheer for throughout the day to an uninspiring performance from a team in the midst of a tight playoff race. But there are no style points for winning pretty in the NFL as the Ravens prevailed in throwback fashion, relying on a dominating front seven that sacked Blake Bortles eight times and registered 15 hits on the Jacksonville quarterback.

Suggs finished with 2 1/2 sacks, rookie defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan added two, Pernell McPhee had 1 1/2, and C.J. Mosley and Elvis Dumervil added one apiece.

The pass rush once again masked a secondary further decimated by injuries in Week 15 as rookie safety Terrence Brooks and third-year cornerback Asa Jackson both left the game with serious knee injuries. To his credit, the previously unknown Rashaan Melvin was thrown into starting duty in his first action of the season for the Ravens and finished with five tackles — one for a loss — and a pass breakup.

The strong defensive effort was needed as the Ravens’ stout running game was nowhere to be found for much of the game and was held to just 31 yards on 13 carries before finally finding more room in the fourth quarter. Baltimore finished with 93 yards on 26 carries, averaging an underwhelming 3.6 yards per attempt.

And a special-teams group that’s been one of the finest in the NFL — and started the game with a blocked punt returned for a touchdown — had its worst game of the year as the Ravens fell for an onside kick and a fake punt, missed two field goals, and committed several key penalties and coaching gaffes.

If nothing else, the uneven performance was a group effort, but the Ravens still found a way to walk away with a victory to improve to 9-5 on the season. There isn’t much to take away beyond that.

“We didn’t play smart all the time,” Harbaugh said. “We had too many mistakes, too many errors that kept us off the field or put our defense back on the field — those kind of things. But I’ll tell you what, Jacksonville did a great job. It’s December football. You take every win you can get, and we’re proud of the victory.”

Yes, the Ravens would have been in serious trouble with a similar effort against many other teams in the NFL on Sunday, but the Jaguars were the opponent and no one else. And despite a valiant effort with nothing to play for, the Jaguars self-destructed just enough in crucial spots.

The good news is the Baltimore pass rush was at its best once again, illustrating how much a team can overcome with an ability to collapse the pocket. It’s the reason why the Ravens shouldn’t be counted out if they make the playoffs in spite of the NFL’s 31st-ranked pass defense.

We didn’t learn much about the Ravens on Sunday that we didn’t already know as they’ve struggled offensively when unable to run the football and the issues in the secondary aren’t going away. After a close call, they can only exhale before moving on to Week 16.

While remembering to thank a ferocious pass rush once again.

“We can’t really worry about too much other than going out and winning next week,” said quarterback Joe Flacco, who tossed a third-quarter touchdown to Owen Daniels and finished with an efficient 221 yards against the Jaguars. “We know what’s in front of us, and we’ve just got to make sure we take care of one piece at a time. Nothing is really new this week than last week. We know what we have to do. We’ve just got to go do it.”

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Ravens-Jaguars: Five predictions for Sunday

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Ravens-Jaguars: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 13 December 2014 by Luke Jones

There’s no big secret to Sunday’s game between the Ravens and the Jacksonville Jaguars.

If the Ravens are the playoff-caliber team they’ve shown themselves to be for much of the 2014 season, there won’t be any drama as they try to improve to 9-5. It’s difficult to call this one a trap game when 2-11 Jacksonville hasn’t won a game on the road all year and the Ravens win the games they’re supposed to — especially at home — in the John Harbaugh era.

The Ravens know they’re guaranteed a playoff spot by winning their final three games, but Sunday is the closest they’ll get to a sure thing the rest of the way with a challenging trip to Houston next week and a season-finale against Cleveland that will likely carry plenty of pressure. Meanwhile, the struggling Jaguars are now dealing with the season-ending loss of starting running back Denard Robinson due to a sprained foot.

It’s time to go on the record as these old AFC Central foes meet for the 18th time in regular-season history with the Jaguars holding a 10-7 edge. However, the Ravens are 5-4 in Baltimore and have won seven of the last nine meetings. Jacksonville won the last regular-season game between these teams, a 12-7 final on Oct. 24, 2011.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to move a step closer toward securing a playoff spot …

1. Terrell Suggs will pick up 2 1/2 sacks working against Jacksonville tackle Luke Joeckel. Opposing offensive lines haven’t been able to slide protection because of the pressure the Ravens have created from both edges this season, but you wonder if the Jaguars will pay more attention to Elvis Dumervil, who last week set the single-season franchise record in pushing his sack total to 16. Despite being the second overall pick of the 2013 draft, Joeckel has struggled mightily in his sophomore season and Suggs will take advantage to try to close the gap in the sack department. The Ravens shouldn’t have any trouble making rookie quarterback Blake Bortles uncomfortable with the 12th-year linebacker leading the effort.

2. With Torrey Smith limited, Marlon Brown will catch his first touchdown of the season. The Ravens surprisingly listed Smith as probable on their final injury report, but they’ll try to limit throwing him into the fire as much as possible on Sunday to rest his sprained knee, which will mean more opportunities for Brown and Kamar Aiken. It’s been a disappointing season for Brown after a surprising rookie year, but he’s been more involved with the offense since the bye week, a trend that will continue against the league’s 18th-ranked pass defense. Justin Forsett and the running game figures to be featured heavily, but quarterback Joe Flacco will find Brown in the red zone for a score.

3. Wide receiver Cecil Shorts will rein in a score in a rare highlight for the Jaguars on Sunday. If Jacksonville can find even a little time for Bortles in the pocket, it’s no secret that the Baltimore pass defense is vulnerable and ranked 31st in the NFL. The Jaguars figure to be throwing the ball a lot if they fall behind like most would expect, and defensive coordinator Dean Pees will play soft coverage in the back end as the game goes on. Bortles has shown flashes of promise when he hasn’t been annihilated in the pocket — Jacksonville has allowed an incredible 54 sacks this season — and he’ll orchestrate a nice scoring drive finished off with a short touchdown to Shorts.

4. Lardarius Webb will secure his first interception in what’s been a difficult season. The sixth-year cornerback is healthier now than he was earlier in the season, but it’s been a disappointing year for Webb as his future with the Ravens is in question due to his $12 million cap figure in 2015. However, the Jaguars don’t have any receivers that should scare the Ravens, and Bortles has thrown 16 interceptions in 379 pass attempts. The Ravens secondary hasn’t been able to create many turnovers this season, but the Jaguars are tied for 26th in the NFL with a minus-8 turnover margin. Webb will pick off his first pass of the season to set the Ravens up on a short field.

5. The Ravens will emphatically handle a team they’re supposed to beat in a 31-13 final. Nothing is guaranteed in the NFL, but this one is as close as it gets with an opponent having nothing to play for coming to M&T Bank Stadium to face the Ravens, who have very little margin for error as they try to make it back to the playoffs after a one-year absence. Short of something catastrophic such as a multiple-turnover performance or an injury to Flacco, the Ravens just aren’t going to let the lowly Jaguars beat them. It won’t be a flawless performance — the Ravens never seem to make it quite as easy as they should in these spots — but the home crowd will ultimately go home happy after the win.

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Harbaugh’s bold move sets attitude for Ravens’ season-saving win

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Harbaugh’s bold move sets attitude for Ravens’ season-saving win

Posted on 07 December 2014 by Luke Jones

John Harbaugh may not be a prophet, but he offered a glimpse into a head coach’s mindset for making difficult in-game choices six days prior to the Ravens’ season-saving 28-13 win over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday.

That decision-making process played out again early in the third quarter Sunday as the Ravens trailed 10-7 and faced fourth-and-1 at their own 35-yard line. Instead of sending his punting unit onto the field as most coaches would do in such a spot, Harbaugh decided the Ravens would go for it and threw caution to the wind.

And that’s where his response last Monday when questioned about using a timeout before kicking a late field goal in the disappointing loss to San Diego rang loud and clear.

“‘In retrospect,’ you’d always like to do something different if it doesn’t work out,” Harbaugh said. “But in the heat of battle, you do the best you can, you make the decision that you make — the one that you think is best at the time.

“We did the best we could; it wasn’t good enough. I didn’t do well enough making those decisions enough to win the game in the end. And that’s the reality — just take responsibility for it and move on.”

There’s no doubt that Harbaugh would have been facing a mountain of criticism had quarterback Joe Flacco been stuffed at the line of scrimmage and the Ravens not moved down the field to score the go-ahead touchdown and eventually win the game. Numbers-savvy fans and statistical analysts will tell you going for it in such a situation isn’t the risk it seems, but they’re not the ones on the sideline and potentially facing the wrath of the owner, general manager, media, and fans if the decision blows up in their face.

It’s a risk many wouldn’t have taken — especially when Baltimore was stuffed on two short-yardage situations in the first half — but no one knows the Ravens’ pulse in Week 14 better than Harbaugh following a difficult defeat to the Chargers last Sunday and this week’s news of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata being suspended for the rest of the regular season. After weathering a miserable start in the first half and his Ravens only trailing by three, Harbaugh’s bold move made it clear he didn’t want to surrender the momentum gained with a touchdown late in the second quarter and the Dolphins punting on the opening possession of the third quarter.

In a game the Ravens described all week as a must-win affair, Harbaugh’s decision illustrated the desperation of the day. And perhaps it was the lift his team needed to put a trying first half in the rear-view mirror.

The fourth-down conversion to continue the drive that culminated with Flacco’s 13-yard touchdown pass to Kamar Aiken set the attitude for a dominating finish and a crucial victory in Miami.

Of course, the Ravens had begun to awaken before Harbaugh’s fourth-down gamble as Flacco bounced back from throwing one of his worst interceptions of the season to lead the Ravens down the field for a 97-yard drive that culminated with a 1-yard touchdown to Steve Smith with two seconds left in the first half. That connection came after Smith had dropped a perfectly-thrown pass in the end zone a play before Flacco’s ugly turnover.

The Baltimore signal-caller was superb after his end-zone miscue midway through the second quarter, completing 18 of 23 passes for 200 yards and two touchdown passes the rest of the way as he finished with 269 yards.

But Flacco wasn’t alone as a running game playing with a hobbled Justin Forsett came alive in the fourth quarter, rushing 14 times for 107 yards in the final 15 minutes. Forsett finished with 71 yards, Bernard Pierce chipped in three carries for 50 yards in the fourth quarter, and rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro added 35 more yards on the day.

A Baltimore defense that surrendered 10 points in its first two series settled down and began swarming Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill in the pocket to the tune of six sacks and nine quarterback hits, much of that pressure coming in the second half when Miami managed just three points. Elvis Dumervil collected 3 1/2 sacks to set the Ravens’ single-season record with 16 through 13 games, eclipsing Peter Boulware’s mark set in 2001.

Despite some leaky run defense early, the Ravens hardly seemed to miss Ngata as the Dolphins ran for only 63 yards on 16 carries.

A secondary that lost reserve cornerbacks Anthony Levine and Danny Gorrer to injuries will remain a concern for the rest of the season, but the unit wasn’t nearly the same liability with the Ravens consistently collapsing the pocket and harassing Tannehill.

The Ravens answered the bell without the services of a healthy Torrey Smith, who was held without a catch in limited action. With the fourth-year wideout’s knee swelling up during pre-game warmups, Aiken contributed six receptions for 65 yards, Marlon Brown caught three passes for 30 yards, and even the recently-promoted tight end Phillip Supernaw added a 29-yard reception to set up a Forsett touchdown run in the fourth quarter.

It was a team effort as the Ravens awoke from a painfully slow start to dispose of the Dolphins and move just a half-game behind first-place Cincinnati in the AFC North.

There’s no way of knowing whether the Ravens would have won had Harbaugh elected to punt early in the third quarter or if they’d failed to convert on fourth-and-1, but Baltimore didn’t look back from the point Flacco surged forward to move the chains.

Whether you viewed it as the prudent choice or a foolish risk, Harbaugh’s bold move worked out and set the tone for the remainder of the game.

The Ravens responded by dominating the rest of the way to earn a critical win in the AFC playoff landscape.

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Ravens-Dolphins: Five predictions for Sunday

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Ravens-Dolphins: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 06 December 2014 by Luke Jones

Critical.

No word better describes what’s at stake as the Ravens travel to Sun Life Stadium to take on the Miami Dolphins.

The winner of Sunday’s game isn’t guaranteed a playoff spot in a crowded AFC wild-card picture, but losing in Miami would be a critical blow to either team. After the Ravens lost to the current No. 5 seed San Diego last Sunday, they can hardly afford to be on the wrong end of another head-to-head tiebreaker should they lose to the Dolphins.

In addition to having the NFL’s 31st-ranked pass defense, the Ravens took a major blow up front with Thursday’s announcement of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata being suspended for the remainder of the regular season due to a performance-enhancing drug violation. It’s just the latest trial for a 7-5 Ravens team that’s faced much adversity on and off the field.

Sunday will mark the 10th time these AFC teams have played in the regular season with the Dolphins holding a 5-4 edge and a 4-2 record in Miami. However, the Ravens are 4-0 against the Dolphins in the John Harbaugh era, which includes a 27-9 wild-card round win at the end of the 2008 season.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to improve to 8-5 in their quest to return to the playoffs …

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1. Miami defensive end Cameron Wake will pick up a sack, but Rick Wagner will hold his own against the talented pass rusher. The second-year right tackle will face one of his biggest challenges of the season in trying to hold his own against the three-time Pro Bowl selection, but Wagner shouldn’t be counted out as he is the highest-graded pass-blocking — and highest-graded overall — right tackle in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus. Miami possesses a formidable pass rush, but the Ravens have held up very well in pass protection this year with quarterback Joe Flacco only being sacked 15 times. They’ll need another strong performance Sunday, and it will start with Wagner on the right side.

2. Justin Forsett will not run for 100 yards, but the Ravens will still gain 150 on the ground against the Dolphins defense. The 29-year-old and the team have downplayed the significance of his knee injury, but it has to be a concern that his limited participation in Friday’s practice was his only on-field work of the week. The good news is the Dolphins’ run defense has dropped to 21st in the NFL and has given up 478 yards on the ground in the last two games against Denver and the New York Jets. We’ll see more of a committee approach than the Ravens have used in weeks as backups Bernard Pierce and Lorenzo Taliaferro will pick up some slack, but Forsett will still finish as the leading rusher on Sunday.

3. Dolphins slot receiver Jarvis Landry will catch a touchdown and lead his team in receiving yards on Sunday. The Ravens hope the return of cornerback Asa Jackson will help a struggling secondary, but Miami has too many weapons in the passing game to not be concerned. We’ll see Jackson line up inside in the nickel package, but he won’t have much luck slowing Landry, who has been very impressive in his rookie season with 57 catches for 518 yards and five touchdowns. Ryan Tannehill will try to get rid of the ball quickly in the face of an imposing Baltimore pass rush, which means quick outs and slants to Landry will be in order throughout the day and he’ll be the go-to target for Miami.

4. Jacoby Jones returns a kick deep into Miami territory to swing the momentum of the game in the second half. There’s no disputing how disappointing this year has been for the wide receiver and return specialist, but you hope Week 13 was a preview of bigger things to come down the stretch for Jones. His two catches for 35 yards as a receiver were nice, but his 72-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter set the Ravens up at the San Diego 30 before the offense had to settle for a field goal. Miami ranks 28th in the NFL in kick return coverage and 24th in punt return coverage, which should have Jones and special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg licking their chops. A big return will set up a touchdown in the second half.

5. On a day when both quarterbacks have strong days, the Ravens find a way to secure their biggest win of the season in a 24-20 final. It’s tough to get a read on this one considering how up and down both teams have been throughout the year. You wonder if the Ravens will get off the mat after a tough loss to the Chargers and the suspension of Ngata while the Dolphins aren’t experienced in these kinds of high-stakes games. Flacco and Tannehill will both throw for over 200 yards, but the Dolphins are coming off a short week following a Monday night road win and that run defense is already wearing down significantly. That will be the difference as the Ravens pick up a crucial win in keeping their playoff hopes alive.

 

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