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Ravens-Saints: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 20 October 2018 by Luke Jones

Sunday isn’t just an enticing showdown between the top scoring offense and best scoring defense in the NFL, but it serves as a measuring stick for both the Ravens and New Orleans.

Allowing a minuscule 12.8 points per game and ranking at or near the top in virtually every notable category, the Baltimore defense has faced the fourth-easiest slate of offenses so far this season, according to Football Outsiders. Meanwhile, the Saints are scoring a whopping 36.0 points per game against the second-easiest schedule of defenses to this point.

Regardless of the competition, each group’s body of work is very impressive, but this matchup offers the opportunity to prove just how great they truly are.

It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet for just the seventh time with the Ravens holding a 5-1 advantage and a 3-1 record in Baltimore. As has been mentioned throughout the week, Drew Brees is 0-4 in his career against the Ravens, the only NFL team the future Hall of Fame quarterback hasn’t defeated over his 18 seasons.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Brees will throw his 500th and 501st career touchdowns as well as his first two interceptions of the year. The 39-year-old is off to a brilliant start with a 122.3 passer rating through five games, but he’s yet to face a defense quite like the Ravens, who are allowing just 6.0 yards per passing attempt. Marlon Humphrey’s status could be pivotal, but Jimmy Smith should be ready for a bigger workload with two games under his belt if the former can’t go. How nickel corner Tavon Young holds up defending Cameron Meredith or even Michael Thomas in the slot will be critical, but the Ravens will mix their coverages enough to force Brees into making a few more mistakes than usual.

2. Willie Snead will lead the Ravens in receptions and catch a touchdown against his former team. The slot receiver downplayed the significance of this one, but you know it would mean plenty to show well after his nightmare 2017 that followed 141 catches and 1,879 yards in the previous two seasons. Twenty of Snead’s 30 receptions — tied with Michael Crabtree for the team lead — have gone for first downs this season as he’s been exactly what Ozzie Newsome and John Harbaugh envisioned. The Saints have had significant problems at the slot cornerback position since the injury to Patrick Robinson, setting up Snead to gain some payback with his second score of the year.

3. Saints running back Alvin Kamara will score the first second-half touchdown of 2018 against Baltimore. Much was made about Kamara receiving only nine touches in Mark Ingram’s return to action two weeks ago, but the former is averaging 9.2 yards per reception, which is prime Ray Rice territory out of the backfield. The Ravens have covered running backs well so far this season, but Kamara presents a different kind of challenge who will offset the efforts of the pass rush at times and test tackling ability. Baltimore is bound to give up a post-halftime touchdown at some point, and Kamara will get loose for a score to put that impressive streak to an end.

4. Za’Darius Smith will collect another sack for one of three total for the Ravens. The key to slowing Brees and the New Orleans offense is disguise and deception, which is what Wink Martindale has so masterfully used to this point in his early tenure as defensive coordinator. Because Brees gets the ball away so quickly, you cannot count on edge rushers to get to him and need your interior linemen to hit him or at least make him move his feet to throw off his timing. Saints left guard Andrus Peat is out and right guard Larry Warford is questionable, which should make things easier for Smith, Brent Urban, and Willie Henry. The inside rushers will do just enough to make life difficult for Brees.

5. Joe Flacco and the passing game will be the difference in a 27-23 Ravens victory. The sexy story all week has understandably been about the Baltimore defense trying to slow the Saints offense, but New Orleans ranks 30th in the league in pass defense and the Ravens have been a top 10 passing attack so far this season. Talented Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore may contain one side of the field, but Flacco should be able to make plays against the rest of the New Orleans secondary for a productive day. Brees and Saints head coach Sean Payton having the bye week to try to crack the code that’s been the Ravens defense does make you take pause, but home-field advantage and a more balanced roster will make the difference in a game that has the potential to be a regular-season classic.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 21-0 win over Tennessee

Posted on 16 October 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens improving to 4-2 in their 21-0 win at Tennessee, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Ravens defenders said all the right things about Dean Pees last week, but the group’s post-game celebration with Wink Martindale reflected how much the record-setting shutout in front of their old defensive coordinator really meant. They wanted to prove they’re a better defense now.

2. What gives Za’Darius Smith a slight edge over Terrell Suggs as the Ravens’ best pass rusher? His ability to pressure from the inside is so crucial with today’s quarterbacks getting the ball out as quickly as possible. He continues to be on the Pernell McPhee contract year plan.

3. One of the undersold aspects of this terrific defensive start is the depth the Ravens continue to use as 20 players took defensive snaps against the Titans. Rotating defensive linemen and edge rushers have long been common practices, but the Ravens are doing this at every level of their defense.

4. Getting Michael Crabtree involved early was a prudent move to help his confidence after last week’s performance, but remember this is a veteran who caught 25 touchdowns from 2015-17. The real test will be the next time he has a chance to make a defining catch in the closing minutes.

5. Converting 10 of the first 11 third downs of the game was impressive enough, but the Ravens moved the chains on four requiring nine or more yards. You want to avoid those third-and-long situations, but being able to convert some is a mark of a good offense.

6. The running game was functional, but I roll my eyes when someone praises the final run-pass balance as the key to winning. Building a 21-0 lead was the blueprint for running that frequently. Running more effectively remains critical as Baltimore averaged 2.4 yards per carry in the first half.

7. The 14th shutout in team history was aided by the Ravens only playing 44 defensive snaps, an incredibly low number. The defense had much to do with that, of course, but credit the offense for putting together three drives of seven or more minutes each. That’s complementary football.

8. Joe Flacco had a good day, particularly on third down, but his interception on a deep throw down the middle to Willie Snead late in the first half was a little too aggressive with three timeouts and a minute remaining. Titans safety Kevin Byard’s catch also should have been reviewed.

9. Cyrus Jones recorded a 26-yard punt return in his Ravens debut, but what a day to be able to share the field with former Gilman teammate and Titans kick returner Darius Jennings. I also liked seeing Chris Moore back as the kick returner even though he received only one opportunity.

10. Plays like the unnecessary roughness penalty for pushing Titans punter Brett Kern in the back late in the first half are preventing Matt Judon from taking the step from pretty good player to really good player. It happens too often and isn’t smart football.

11. Gus Edwards wasn’t spectacular, but 42 yards on 10 carries should warrant some more opportunities. He runs well for a 238-pound back and certainly brings more physicality to this running game.

12. Remember those old Ramon Harewood-Antonio Brown comparisons from the 2010 draft? A healthy scratch in Week 6, Tyus Bowser was selected 15 spots before JuJu Smith-Schuster in the 2017 second round. The difference this time is Smith-Schuster wasn’t an unknown while playing a position of great need. I’m just saying.

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Ravens-Titans: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 13 October 2018 by Luke Jones

A stretch of three consecutive road games concludes Sunday with the Ravens having the chance to position themselves favorably in the AFC and put last week’s ugly loss in Cleveland behind them.

A win puts Baltimore at 4-2 with four of the next five games coming at home — albeit against some tough competition — but a loss creates more doubts about this year being any different from the last couple in which Baltimore fell short of the playoffs.

It’s time to go on the record as these onetime AFC Central rivals meet for the 20th time in the all-time regular-season series with Tennessee holding a 10-9 advantage. The Ravens are 2-3 against the Titans in the John Harbaugh era — counting their dramatic 13-10 road win in the 2008 postseason — and Tennessee won last year’s Week 9 meeting at Nissan Stadium, a 23-20 final.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Alex Collins will set a season high in rushing yards in a workmanlike effort. The Tennessee defense ranks eighth in the NFL in yards per play and tied for third in points per game surrendered, but the Titans are banged up at linebacker and are vulnerable to the run (4.4 yards per attempt allowed) when opponents have shown some patience. The Ravens must be more consistent getting positive yards — eight of the 20 carries split between Collins and Buck Allen went for no gain or worse last week — but Marty Mornhinweg can’t be so quick to bail on the running game.

2. Running back Dion Lewis will lead the Titans in receptions. Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota appears to be over his early-season elbow injury, but he’s averaging just 6.6 yards per attempt and will need to be selective in his attempts to push the ball down the field against a pass defense allowing an NFL-low 5.9 yards per attempt. That will lead to opportunities for Lewis, who has 21 catches on the season. The Ravens will try to counter that by frequently using Anthony Levine in the dime package, but Lewis will find some room against Baltimore linebackers underneath and in the flat.

3. The Baltimore defense will force two turnovers to frustrate Mariota and the Tennessee offense. Trying to poke too many holes in a defense that allowed only 12 points in 70 minutes of play last week is unfair, but the Ravens surprisingly have only six takeaways through their first five games after leading the league last year and only forced one against a rookie quarterback last week. Mariota will try to force some intermediate-to-deep throws to former first-round pick Corey Davis, but Jimmy Smith now having a game under his belt makes the Ravens secondary that much more dangerous.

4. Titans defensive tackle Jurrell Casey will collect a sack and be disruptive much of the day. Casey is easily Tennessee’s best defensive player and is one of the best defensive tackles in the league, meaning the Ravens better be prepared to give Alex Lewis and Matt Skura as much help as they can. Baltimore will run away from Casey and roll the pocket away from him at times, but he’s fully capable of taking over like Cincinnati defensive tackle Geno Atkins did in Week 2. Space on inside runs will certainly be at a premium, but the Ravens have had more success running to the perimeter anyway. 

5. A late Joe Flacco touchdown pass to Hayden Hurst will be the difference in a 20-13 win. What better way to win against Dean Pees than to break through in the fourth quarter against his strong Titans defense? Flacco is excited to involve the first-round tight end in the offense as he’s a fan of Hurst’s skill set, and the rookie should be more comfortable in his second NFL game. Ravens defenders said all the right things about their former defensive coordinator this week and hold no animosity, but they’re motivated to show they’re better than ever with more freedom and flexibility under Wink Martindale than they had with Pees. This is an AFC separator game the Ravens could really use, and they’ll get the job done despite it not being all that pretty at times.

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Ravens need to steady October ship, build momentum for pivotal stretch

Posted on 11 October 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco didn’t exactly go full Aaron Rodgers mode this week, but the sentiment wasn’t too far off.

Speaking on Michael Crabtree’s recent drops and how the veteran wide receiver approached the quarterback about his struggles during the plane ride home from Cleveland, Flacco passed along good advice to Crabtree — and to the rest of the Ravens and their fans for that matter.

“We’re all out there trying to do our part and make plays that are going to change the game,” Flacco said. “I think sometimes you just have to relax, and let the game come to you.”

Make no mistake, the 12-9 overtime loss to the Browns was an ugly one for the Ravens, who failed to reach double-digit scoring for the first time since back-to-back defeats to Jacksonville and Pittsburgh early last season. You couldn’t help but feel it canceled out what was thought to be a breakthrough the previous week when Baltimore beat the Steelers for its most impressive road victory in years.

But a win at Tennessee makes everything OK again.

Playing four of their first six games on the road and being one of only three teams in 2018 with a stretch of three consecutive road contests that concludes Sunday, the Ravens would have gladly taken a 4-2 start when the schedule was released back in April. Their plus-55 point differential is the best in the AFC, and they’re still tied for the third-best record in the conference after losing to a Browns team that is better than it’s been in recent years. With the top-ranked scoring defense in the NFL and an offense ranking in the top 12 in most statistical categories, the makings of a playoff team are certainly there.

A second straight loss, however, changes the mood substantially.

A 3-3 record with three straight games against 2017 playoff teams — New Orleans, Carolina, and the Steelers — before the Week 10 bye puts the Ravens in all-too-familiar and uncomfortable territory. Late-season losses to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati the last two years have been the final nail in the coffin, but poor Octobers since their last Super Bowl have regularly left the Ravens little margin for error down the stretch.

There’s no apparent rhyme or reason for a 6-15 mark in October games dating back to 2013, but it’s the kind of trend John Harbaugh’s team needs to buck to be playing in January once again. Thirteen of those games did come on the road, but a 2-6 home mark makes that a flimsier excuse. It’s why the Ravens haven’t entered their bye with a winning record since 2014, leaving them a steep climb in the second half to qualify for the postseason.

A 3-0 start to begin the 2016 season became a distant memory after an 0-4 October that featured a home defeat to an 8-7-1 Washington team and a road loss against the eventual 5-11 New York Jets. Falling 26-9 at home to the Steelers last year was bad enough, but dropping one at M&T Bank Stadium to an eventual 5-11 Chicago team two weeks later was inexcusable. Injuries in each of those stretches the last two years were a factor, but squeezing out an extra win in either case would have painted a different picture in late December. Frankly, it’s the difference between the playoffs and mediocrity.

That’s why you can’t help but feel Sunday’s game against the Titans — who won a playoff tiebreaker last year thanks in part to their Week 9 win over the Ravens — is as important as it gets for mid-October in terms of both playoff implications and Baltimore maintaining its early-season mojo. A win gives the Ravens their first 4-2 start since 2014 — the last time they made the playoffs — and leaves you thinking they’re capable of winning 10 or 11 games.

A loss makes it feel like you’re watching the “same old Ravens” of the last few years.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 12-9 overtime loss at Cleveland

Posted on 09 October 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens falling to 3-2 following the ugly 12-9 overtime loss to Cleveland, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Baltimore has had past performances like Sunday’s at FirstEnergy Stadium, but the difference was you could always count on a lousy football team to “Brown” it up at the most critical moment. The Browns were far from perfect, but Baker Mayfield clearly makes them a better team.

2. You hate criticizing a group that surrendered only 12 points, but the two-minute defense left a lot to be desired, allowing a 78-yard touchdown drive at the end of the first half, a 38-yard drive in the final minute of regulation, and the 65-yard game-ending drive in overtime.

3. Had anyone heard of Derrick Willies before his 39-yard reception on third-and-8 in overtime? The rookie free agent caught a combined 40 passes in three collegiate seasons at Texas Tech and Iowa and hadn’t caught an NFL pass before the fourth quarter.

4. Arguably worse was Duke Johnson’s 15-yard run on the next play that put the Browns at the Baltimore 28. It was a less-than-stellar showing from Tyus Bowser and C.J. Mosley on that run since Cleveland kicker Greg Joseph wasn’t inspiring any confidence that he’d make a longer kick.

5. I’ve written extensively about the running game this week, but Lamar Jackson leads the team in yards per carry (min. 15 rushes), making it understandable why the Ravens want to keep him involved. Still, bringing him on the field for an inside rush on first-and-16 in overtime made little sense.

6. The defense recorded five sacks and a total of 27 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. The Ravens allowed Mayfield to escape the pocket a few times, but the pass rush bounced back from a quiet performance in Pittsburgh. Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith were particularly good in that area.

7. Joe Flacco was among those complaining about the illegal block in the back call on Chris Moore that wiped away Alex Collins’ 17-yard run in overtime, but it was avoidable just like Matt Judon’s that canceled out a touchdown against Denver. You have to see what you’re hitting.

8. Anthony Levine continues to play terrific football after recording three pass breakups for the second straight week. He’s a good example of how using creativity with sub packages can work to your advantage. Levine isn’t a pure safety, linebacker, or cornerback, but he’s a good football player.

9. John Harbaugh acknowledged not planning to use Willie Henry for 39 defensive snaps in his return from August hernia surgery, but he played well, registering a sack and another tackle. He provides another inside pass-rushing option to rotate with Smith and Brent Urban.

10. The Ravens lead the NFL in scoring defense and rank in the top five in a number of other categories, but they’ve recorded just six takeaways in their first five games after having 10 in the first two contests last year. I suspect that’s going to change sooner than later.

11. Browns cornerback Denzel Ward was responsible for taking as many as 10 points off the board from the Ravens with his goal-line interception and field goal block. He, Mayfield, and defensive end Myles Garrett sure look poised to make Cleveland an interesting team over the next few years.

12. Watching a 9-9 contest in the final seconds of overtime brought memories of the only tie in Ravens history, which came against Philadelphia at Memorial Stadium on Nov. 16, 1997. I recall leaving that day as fans from both teams argued over which team stunk more. Both finished 6-9-1.

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Lack of quality plaguing Ravens running game more than quantity

Posted on 09 October 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens head coach John Harbaugh noted his team had run the ball 25 times when the inevitable question came about the run-pass ratio from Sunday’s 12-9 loss at Cleveland.

Baltimore had also run a season-high 84 plays, but the 11th-year coach made his position clear on Monday.

“I don’t understand the question, why it’s a topic,” Harbaugh said. “You have to do whatever you have to do to move the ball and score points. We’ve been doing a pretty good job of that up until this last game. We just need to put more points on the board. Nine points — three, three, and three — is tough to win games that way. That’s the bottom line.

“But this run-pass balance thing, I don’t understand why it’s a topic.”

He’s right about both his offense — which ranked in the top 10 in multiple categories entering Week 5 — and the overall run-pass obsession many have when spitting out stats about win-loss records and running the ball a certain number of times that confuse correlation with causation. Simply put, teams run when they win, not win because they run. You sometimes wonder if some would prefer running the ball more — no matter how effectively — to their team actually winning games, but today’s NFL is a pass-heavy league and analytics-based principles such as throwing more frequently on first down improve your chances of winning compared to the traditional three yards and a cloud of dust. Like it or not, that mindset isn’t changing anytime soon.

The difference Sunday from previous weeks, however, was that the Ravens weren’t passing the ball effectively while they averaged a season-best 4.6 yards per carry, well ahead of what they’d done in the first four games. Joe Flacco produced 2018 worsts in both yards per attempt (5.3) and completion percentage (51.8 percent) on Sunday, but Baltimore continued to chuck it anyway with the veteran quarterback recording a season-high 56 attempts, territory in which few quarterbacks consistently function well. There were certainly occasions when offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg could have worked an additional run into the mix.

Passing on 11 of 14 plays inside the red zone was particularly questionable as Flacco threw an ugly interception on a second-and-goal play from the 2 in the second quarter that proved to be one of the most critical plays of the game. Harbaugh and the Ravens frequently view the goal line to be four-down territory — which is the correct mindset — so why not try to pound the ball into the end zone again after Buck Allen was stopped on the previous down?

It’s true that only six teams have more rushing attempts than the Ravens through Week 5, but they also lead the NFL in offensive plays run and only 10 teams have rushed less frequently than their 36.3 percent. When you match that with Baltimore winning all three of its games by double digits and trailing by multiple possessions in just one game (Cincinnati), you’re probably justified if you want to roll your eyes the next time you hear Mornhinweg say they want to run the ball. The Ravens are currently a passing team, and that had worked very well until Sunday.

The warranted criticism from Week 5 aside, the problem with the Ravens running game has been quality much more so than quantity. Clamoring for more rushes doesn’t exactly make a ton of sense when you rank 30th in the league in yards per carry (3.4). That’s not to say the ground game doesn’t need to improve with Sunday’s poor passing performance being a perfect example why.

“Yes, we’re concerned. We want to run the ball well,” Harbaugh said. “We’re working as hard as we can to do it. If the question is: Are you working hard at the run game? Yes, we’re working really hard at it. We want to be a really good running team just like we want to be a great passing team and great at everything else. We work hard at what we think we can do well.”

After adding three veteran wide receivers and drafting two tight ends, the Ravens passing more frequently than they did last year when they ran 43.6 percent of the time — 12th most in the NFL — seemed inevitable, but why has the running game struggled so much?

Assistant head coach Greg Roman and offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris were viewed as miracle workers last year when the Ravens averaged 4.0 yards per carry and finished 11th in rushing yards per game despite having four new starters along the offensive line. Even with the departures of center Ryan Jensen and right tackle Austin Howard, the healthy returns of guards Marshal Yanda and Alex Lewis brought optimism that the unit would improve from a year ago.

The group has held up well in pass protection, but Lewis, center Matt Skura, and right tackle James Hurst have graded particularly poorly in run blocking, according to Pro Football Focus. As was the case on Sunday when Alex Collins ripped off a 19-yard run on the first play from scrimmage and Allen picked up 17 yards on a third-quarter run, most of their rushing success has come on the outside, which makes sense when two of your three interior linemen have been below-average run blockers.

It’s also worth noting the Ravens have been in the shotgun much more frequently this season — 63 percent compared to 48 percent last year, according to Sharp Football — which certainly impacts the dynamics of a ground attack. That’s not to say an offense can’t run effectively from the shotgun, but it’s a more passing-minded formation and the Ravens are also running a little less frequently out of the gun than they did last year (18 percent compared to 22 percent, per Sharp).

Only one of the five opponents Baltimore has faced this season is allowing fewer than 4.1 yards per carry and only Cleveland ranks in the top 10 in Football Outsiders’ run defense efficiency metric. In other words, the Ravens haven’t exactly been running against the 2000 version of themselves in the season’s first month.

Surely concerns over Collins fumbling the ball haven’t helped, but he leads all running backs in forced missed tackles per touch, which reflects a lack of running room and a need to keep giving him opportunities to break longer runs. Allen is a capable short-yardage back and better in the passing game, but his 2.8 yards per carry average compared to Collins’ 3.8 reflects less explosiveness. Neither back has the dynamic talent of a Ray Rice, but the pair did the job for the Ravens last year, making it difficult not to look at an offensive line still trying to find its footing in the running game.

Perhaps Sunday’s defeat serves as both a necessary reminder that you can’t do it all with the pass and a sign of better things to come for the ground attack, but the week-to-week volatility of the NFL makes it difficult to predict.

“You just keep working. You keep grinding,” Harbaugh said. “When we come out and run for 200 yards — which we will — it’s not going to be ‘fixed.’ The next game is going to be a new game. It’s not like you’re going to come out and run for 200 yards every week. Every week is a new week in the National Football League. You see a different defense, you see different fronts, different guys are healthy, different guys aren’t healthy, plays get made, plays don’t get made — things happen.

“I don’t think it’s as much of a trend as everybody wants to look at it. The big-picture trends just really aren’t there.”

Maybe so, but it’s difficult envisioning the Ravens getting to where they want to be by season’s end without having a better running game in their back pocket when they need it.

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Critical question comes into focus during Ravens’ ugly loss

Posted on 07 October 2018 by Luke Jones

Michael Crabtree had the chance to rewrite the story of a poor performance for both him and the Ravens offense in Cleveland on Sunday.

His third-down drop on the opening drive of the game had cost the Ravens a chance at a long field goal or a fourth-and-short situation inside the 40-yard line. On the next drive, he dropped a slant on a second-and-3 that would have put the offense inside the red zone and instead led the Ravens to settle for a field goal two plays later. Those were just two of many mistakes made by an offense that arrived at FirstEnergy Stadium flying high after a 3-1 start to 2018.

Still, with a minute to go in regulation and the Ravens trailing 9-6, Crabtree could have made it all better.

Signed to a three-year, $21 million contract in large part for the 25 touchdowns he’d caught over the previous three seasons in Oakland, Crabtree dropped a perfect pass from Joe Flacco in the back of the end zone on third-and-10 from the Cleveland 14. Instead of taking a 13-9 lead and likely stealing an ugly road win, the Ravens settled for the game-tying three points before eventually falling 12-9 on a Greg Joseph 37-yard field goal with two seconds left in overtime.

As much as last week’s win in Pittsburgh looked like a potential breakthrough for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2014, Sunday felt like an all-too-familiar story for an offense that couldn’t live up to its end of the bargain. And it brought a lingering question about the Ravens’ passing game into sharper focus.

So much had been made about the balanced production for Baltimore’s wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs with eight or more players having caught passes in each of the first four games. Entering Sunday, eight players were on pace to catch 30 or more passes after only five Ravens made 30 or more receptions a year ago. Spreading the ball around is great when you’re clicking like the Ravens did over the season’s opening month, but it won’t always be that easy as we witnessed against an improved Browns defense.

When you’re struggling as Flacco and the offense did on Sunday, you need that safety net — “old reliable” if you will — to bail everyone out at the most critical moment. Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Smith fit that description to varying degrees over the last decade, making the play no one else was able to make at the most critical times. After not having that guy last season — Mike Wallace did his best down the stretch — the Ravens tabbed Crabtree to be that go-to target on third downs and inside the red zone. He didn’t need to be a 1,000-yard receiver, but they wanted him to handle the dirty work.

Instead, he entered Week 5 tied for the league lead in drops before adding three more against the Browns. He’s caught just 24 of his 46 targets in five games, the lowest percentage of his 10-year career. The slow start comes after Crabtree caught 58 passes for 618 receiving yards last season, his lowest totals since an injury-abbreviated 2013 campaign.

That’s not to say he won’t regroup to fill that intended role, but Flacco needs someone on which to lean in crunch time of close games. The speedy John Brown has been his most productive receiver, of course, but he’s more home-run hitter than the guy you’re targeting on third-and-7, at least based on how the Ravens have used him to this point. If it isn’t Crabtree, perhaps slot receiver Willie Snead or even rookie tight end Hayden Hurst eventually becomes that guy to make contested catches and move the chains when it matters most.

Someone has to do it if the Ravens expect a different result the next time they’re fighting for their lives late in a game. It’s a position they weren’t in during their three double-digit wins, but they’re sure to be in that tight spot again sooner than later.

To be clear, the Ravens wasted other opportunities as an ugly Flacco interception at the goal line cost them points in the second quarter, a Justin Tucker field goal was blocked at the end of the first half, and a Buck Allen fumble led to a Cleveland field goal midway through the third quarter. Baltimore didn’t really deserve a win after playing so poorly on the offensive side of the ball, but no play was bigger than Crabtree’s last-minute drop that could have made all those missteps — including the veteran receiver’s own — disappear.

There was other blame to go around, but that was the exact moment for which Baltimore had signed him in March.

Instead of escaping Cleveland with a victory, the Ravens offense took a step back and left a critical question unanswered for the coming weeks.

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Ravens-Browns: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 06 October 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens aim for their first 4-1 start since 2012 when they travel to Cleveland for a Week 5 meeting with the Browns on Sunday afternoon.

That’s significant not only because it was the last time they won the Super Bowl, but the Ravens have made the playoffs and advanced to at least the divisional round every time they’ve won four of their first five games to begin a season, something they also did in 2000, 2006, 2010, and 2011. In contrast, a 3-1 start hasn’t always guaranteed January football as Baltimore missed the playoffs in 1997 and, most recently, two years ago. Coming off their biggest road victory in years in Pittsburgh last Sunday night, the Ravens have no room for complacency as they still play three of their next four away from M&T Bank Stadium — a stretch that includes three opponents that made the playoffs a year ago.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Browns meet for the 39th time in the regular season with Baltimore holding an overwhelming 29-9 edge and an 18-2 advantage in the John Harbaugh era. Cleveland hasn’t beaten the Ravens at FirstEnergy Stadium since the 2013 season.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield will be intercepted twice in his first test against a top-tier defense. Mayfield’s arrival could mean the days of automatically chalking up two annual wins against the Browns are coming to an end, but Wink Martindale labeling Mayfield “this generation’s Brett Favre or John Elway” predictably drew mocking from even coaches in Cleveland. Mayfield will want to test the returning Jimmy Smith, who will rotate with outside corners Marlon Humphrey and Brandon Carr. That will lead to a pick for Smith, who will be playing for the first time since Week 13 of last season.

2. Willie Snead will stand out in another good performance from Joe Flacco. The Cleveland defense has given up plenty of yards, but the group leads the NFL with 13 takeaways and has more talent, meaning Flacco will need to play smart. The Brown lost starting corner Terrance Mitchell to injured reserve last week and have been vulnerable at the nickel with neither T.J. Carrie nor Briean Boddy-Calhoun holding up well. To offset the pass-rushing ability of Myles Garrett, Larry Ogunjobi, and surprising rookie Genard Avery, Flacco will lean on Snead and the tight ends over the middle.

3. Browns running backs Nick Chubb and Duke Johnson will each score a touchdown to keep it close. Carlos Hyde has the most carries in the league and is averaging just 3.4 yards per carry while the rookie Chubb ran for 105 yards on three carries last week. No matter how talented Mayfield is, Cleveland will try to borrow the formula Chicago used to beat Baltimore last year when the Bears ran for over 200 yards and kept the pressure off Mitchell Trubisky. It won’t be nearly that extreme, but Chubb’s explosiveness and Johnson’s receiving ability will help keep the Ravens defense off balance.

4. The Ravens special teams’ edge will shine through at a critical moment. The likes of Mayfield and Garrett may eventually lead Cleveland to prominence, but the special teams have remained on brand as Cleveland has had kicks blocked and surrendered long returns early in the season. Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric ranks the Browns last in the NFL in special teams. The Ravens have had their own hiccups, specifically with the punt team, but Justin Tucker and Sam Koch always give them an edge. The Browns will “Brown” in a crucial spot to help the Ravens maintain a lead.

5. Baltimore will grind its way to a 24-16 win. Four of the last five meetings in Cleveland have been decided by a single possession and each of the Browns’ two losses this season — both on the road — have come by one score, meaning the Ravens have no excuse to feel too confident in their second of three straight away from home. Mayfield will be making his first home start after coming off the bench two weeks ago to lead the Browns to their first win since 2016, meaning the Cleveland crowd will be fired up more than usual for a game against the team that once played there. The Ravens will be tested, but the composure displayed at Heinz Field last Sunday will show up again in a workmanlike win.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 26-14 win over Pittsburgh

Posted on 02 October 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens earning their first road victory of the season in a 26-14 final over Pittsburgh, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. You can’t harp on the Ravens not being able to beat an elite quarterback on the road and not give proper credit when they do — without Jimmy Smith. That was their best win since the 2014 playoffs and puts them in the conversation as a legitimate contender in the AFC.

2. Despite a 96.9 season passer rating, Joe Flacco was annoyed about the offense squandering opportunities to score more points Sunday. Tell me again that his improvement is all about Lamar Jackson — which implies he didn’t care before — and not about the organization putting better talent around him.

3. John Brown already has a team-best six catches of 20 or more yards, which would have ranked second behind Mike Wallace’s 11 for the entire 2017 season. His 22.5 yards per catch average is third in the NFL. He’s fun to watch, and his chemistry with Flacco can still improve.

4. The biggest criticism of the defense in recent years has been the inability to close in critical games. Anthony Levine was responsible for ending all three of Pittsburgh’s fourth-quarter drives by breaking up a third-down pass to force a punt, intercepting another, and batting away a fourth-down attempt. Clutch.

5. Too much is usually made about halftime adjustments, but Wink Martindale’s defense has yet to allow a touchdown after intermission in four games — allowing just nine points total — and pitched a second-half shutout at Heinz Field. He’s clearly doing something right.

6. John Harbaugh wisely expressed confidence Monday that Alex Collins will improve his ball security as he did last year, but his goal-line fumble completely changed a game that was bordering on becoming a blowout. The running game remains a concern, but the Ravens must stick with Collins’ upside.

7. Kenny Young played 24 defensive snaps compared to Patrick Onwuasor’s six, signaling a shift in the competition for the inside linebacker job next to C.J. Mosley. That said, both must improve in coverage or we’ll continue to see Martindale use Levine (28 snaps) as a dime more frequently.

8. The third-and-1 completion to Maxx Williams to extend a long fourth-quarter drive drew praise — and controversy — because of his alignment. Flacco said after the game they’d practiced that play for two years, and it was the first time Williams had gotten through the line of scrimmage unscathed. Interesting stuff.


(Screen capture courtesy of NFL Game Pass)

9. My guess is the Ravens continue to carry four tight ends with the anticipated return of Hayden Hurst this week. However, with Williams and rookie Mark Andrews playing so well, you wonder if Nick Boyle would be the most vulnerable if a move needed to be made there.

10. Sunday night was an example of how to play strong defense without much of a pass rush as the Ravens faked blitzes, effectively disguised looks, and covered very well. Baltimore is tops in the NFL in yards per play allowed at just 4.4.

11. Tony Jefferson hasn’t made as many splash plays as you’d like after the Ravens gave him a four-year, $34 million contract, but his strip and recovery against Vance McDonald on Pittsburgh’s opening drive was spectacular. He fairly noted after the game how that could have been ruled an interception.

12. If you didn’t hear Harbaugh’s post-game press conference on Sunday night, take a listen at the 2:45 mark HERE. Kudos for recognizing the memory of Bobbi Engram, the daughter of wide receivers coach Bobby Engram, and giving her a game ball. Powerful stuff.

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday night

Posted on 29 September 2018 by Luke Jones

Making predictions for a Ravens-Steelers game is often a fool’s errand.

We know it’s typically close — 17 of the last 23 meetings including the playoffs have been decided by a single possession — but something crazy usually happens in the process.

Safety Eric Weddle said this week these aren’t the same old Ravens and they’ve learned from the last two heartbreaking defeats at Heinz Field in which they held double-digit fourth-quarter leads, but this is the chance to prove it and make an early statement that 2018 will be different than the last three non-playoff seasons. Sunday night marks the fifth consecutive season the Ravens’ trip to Pittsburgh will be televised before a national audience.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Steelers meet for the 45th time in the all-time regular-season series. Pittsburgh holds a 24-20 advantage and is 12-11 — including the playoffs — against Baltimore in the John Harbaugh era. The Steelers have won the last three meetings in this AFC North rivalry.

Below are five predictions for Sunday night:

1. JuJu Smith-Schuster will be the Steelers wide receiver giving the Ravens the biggest headache. It remains to be seen how defensive coordinator Wink Martindale approaches the challenge of covering Antonio Brown, but the 6-foot-1 Smith-Schuster does most of his damage from the slot, presenting a challenge for the 5-foot-9 Tavon Young. The nickel corner was exposed in Cincinnati in Week 2 and is still looking to regain his rookie form after last year’s knee injury. The Ravens will change up their coverages, but the defense needs a strong night from Young in order to get off the field.

2. John Brown and Willie Snead will each catch a touchdown against an injury-depleted Steelers secondary. Pittsburgh ranks 28th in the NFL in pass defense and is expected to be without starting safety Morgan Burnett and nickel corner Mike Hilton. It will be interesting to see how Steelers cornerback Joe Haden is used, but no one in the Pittsburgh secondary can run with the speedy Brown, who leads the Ravens with 222 receiving yards. If the protection can slow a capable Pittsburgh pass rush, Brown could be in line for a big night while Snead should find room in the middle of the field.

3. Pittsburgh tight ends and running backs will combine for 13 catches and a touchdown reception. Le’Veon Bell won’t be out there, but Steelers running backs and tight ends combined for 24 catches and two touchdown catches last December. The Ravens won’t have quite that much trouble, but C.J. Mosley will be less than 100 percent and the Steelers won’t hesitate to test Tony Jefferson and Weddle in coverage. Even with so much attention paid to Antonio Brown and Smith-Schuster, running back James Conner and tight ends Jesse James and Vance McDonald can’t be ignored.

4. Terrell Suggs will collect his first full sack against the Steelers since 2013. The personal rivalry between Suggs and Ben Roethlisberger goes back to 2004, but the seven-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker has just one-half sack in his last eight games against Pittsburgh. The Steelers will be welcoming right guard David DeCastro and right tackle Marcus Gilbert back to the lineup, which will only increase the challenge of pressuring the pocket. The Ravens finished with three sacks in the last meeting when Roethlisberger threw an absurd 66 passes. That can’t happen again if they want to win.

5. Joe Flacco and the offense will show up, but the Ravens defense falls short in a 31-27 loss. A rivalry once known for low-scoring affairs saw a whopping 77 points scored in the Week 14 contest played at Heinz Field last year. This one will follow a similar script as the Ravens offense will move the ball and score points, but the absence of Jimmy Smith once again looms large. After incorrectly picking Baltimore to win in Pittsburgh last December and watching Andy Dalton carve up the secondary in the first half of the Week 2 loss at Cincinnati, I need to see the Ravens prove they can get over the hump this time around. If it’s a different outcome, special teams could be the difference as Justin Tucker remains the best kicker in the NFL and Pittsburgh’s Chris Boswell is a total mess now.

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