Tag Archive | "Joe Flacco"

Old and new give Ravens exactly what they need in Cleveland

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Old and new give Ravens exactly what they need in Cleveland

Posted on 21 September 2014 by Luke Jones

There was plenty to be concerned about throughout the Ravens’ narrow 23-21 win over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.

The disheartening hip injury to tight end Dennis Pitta, the immense struggles of the pass defense, and the early inconsistency of wide receivers Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones are points of concern as the Ravens turn their attention toward next Sunday’s meeting with the Carolina Panthers. But the continued dependability of veteran Steve Smith and the emergence of two young offensive players — rookie running back Lorenzo Taliaferro and second-year fullback Kyle Juszczyk — helped Baltimore improve to 2-1 in their stretch of three consecutive AFC North games to begin the 2014 season.

Despite turning 35 and coming off two straight seasons in which his yards per catch average declined from the previous year with the Carolina Panthers, the veteran Smith has been better than advertised in his first three games with the Ravens as he caught five passes for 101 yards on Sunday. No play was bigger than his 32-yard catch on a slant-and-go route to beat Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden on the final drive of the game to set the Ravens up on the 13-yard line, leading to Justin Tucker’s game-winning 32-yard field goal moments later.

It was just the latest example of the 14-year wideout laughing in the face of Father Time and the critics who doubted how much of an impact he would bring to the Ravens’ passing game. While Joe Flacco threw a deep ball that clanked off the hands of Jones to start the fourth quarter and connected on just two of eight targets to Torrey Smith throughout the day, the quarterback looked in no other direction but Steve Smith’s on the final drive of the game when the Ravens were staring at a 1-2 start with under two minutes to go.

And with Pitta possibly done for the season after suffering a second dislocation to his right hip in the last 14 months, Flacco will need the veteran Smith to continue being a dependable target on third down and in crunch time. Through his first three games, Steve Smith has caught 18 passes for 290 yards and a touchdown and has collected at least 71 receiving yards in each contest, a benchmark he didn’t reach once in his final season with Carolina.

Of course, Steve Smith wasn’t alone in the offensive heroics Sunday as Juszczyck and Taliaferro emerged as key contributors with the former entering the day having never caught a pass in the NFL and the fourth-round rookie tailback never registering a carry. Both made their names known against the Browns on Sunday.

Juszczyk caught a 9-yard touchdown pass midway through the second quarter and finished with three receptions for 54 yards. His presence as a receiver in the flat will be even more critical now to complement tight end Owen Daniels with Pitta’s status in doubt.

Receiving his first opportunity to carry the ball with Bernard Pierce out with a thigh injury, Taliaferro took full advantage of a shaky Cleveland run defense to pick up 91 yards on 18 carries, showing impressive speed and physicality that reminded many Ravens fans of Jamal Lewis on Sunday. Of course, plenty of credit needs to go to the offensive line as veteran Justin Forsett also averaged 5.7 yards per carry, but you do wonder if Taliaferro has already begun wrestling away the starting job from Pierce, who missed his first NFL game in three seasons Sunday but has dealt with nagging injuries throughout his career.

The rookie was decisive and aggressive when carrying the ball in contrast to what we’ve seen from Pierce, who has often looked unsure of himself running in a zone-blocking system the last two seasons.

Sunday’s win was far from perfect as the Ravens face plenty of questions both on and off the field, but a 2-1 start is nothing to be unhappy about as the offense is receiving contributions from younger players as well as the big-play ability of Steve Smith.

The disappointing loss of Pitta won’t be easy to overcome, but the Ravens offense continued to move in the right direction on Sunday thanks to the old — just don’t tell that to Steve Smith — and new.

 

 

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Ravens list Webb probable, Pierce questionable against Browns on Sunday

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Ravens list Webb probable, Pierce questionable against Browns on Sunday

Posted on 19 September 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens have listed Lardarius Webb as probable for Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns, which paints an encouraging picture for the starting cornerback to make his 2014 debut this weekend.

Webb has practiced fully for three straight weeks after missing all of training camp while dealing with a back injury. He was deemed inactive in Weeks 1 and 2 after being listed as questionable on the final injury report for each of those games.

Starting running back Bernard Pierce is listed as questionable after being added to Thursday’s injury report with a thigh injury. The third-year back practiced on a limited basis on Thursday before being upgraded to full participation on Friday.

Defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (knee) is doubtful after missing practice all week and is reportedly recovering from a meniscus injury that could keep hiim sidelined for a couple weeks.

Quarterback Joe Flacco (stomach bug), cornerback Asa Jackson (concussion), and left tackle Eugene Monroe (knee) are also listed as probable for Sunday’s game.

Meanwhile, the Browns have ruled out running back Ben Tate (knee) as expected and designated standout tight end Jordan Cameron (shoulder) and outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo (shoulder) as questionable.

Here’s the final injury report of the week:

BALTIMORE
DOUBTFUL: DT Timmy Jernigan (knee)
QUESTIONABLE: RB Bernard Pierce (thigh)
PROBABLE: QB Joe Flacco (illness), CB Asa Jackson (concussion), T Eugene Monroe (knee), CB Lardarius Webb (back)

CLEVELAND
OUT: RB Ben Tate (knee)
QUESTIONABLE: TE Jordan Cameron (shoulder), LB Barkevious Mingo (shoulder)
PROBABLE: WR Travis Benjamin (knee), DL Desmond Bryant (wrist), DL John Hughes (hamstring), P Spencer Lanning (shoulder), OL Paul McQuistan (ankle), CB Buster Skrine (thumb)

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Flacco, Monroe return to practice on Thursday

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Flacco, Monroe return to practice on Thursday

Posted on 18 September 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — A day after missing practice due to an illness, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco returned to the field on Thursday to continue preparing for Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns.

Flacco was present and working during the portion of practice open to media while left tackle Eugene Monroe (knee) also returned to practice after sitting out with a knee injury on Wednesday. The seventh-year signal-caller was dealing with a stomach bug he caught from his oldest son Stephen and didn’t want to spread germs to his teammates.

“I don’t think I have [missed practice before], so it was definitely different not being out there,” Flacco said. “It was good that we had the long week coming off the Thursday night game, so we had an extra day in here, anyway, so it kind of worked out nicely. I was able to be in the meetings and all that.”

Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak echoed the sentiment that Flacco’s absence on Wednesday wasn’t a big deal, adding that it was good for backup Tyrod Taylor to get some rare extra reps.

Monroe told reporters on Wednesday that he fully expected to play against the Browns. Both he and Flacco were full participants a day after sitting out.

There was one addition to the Thursday practice report as running back Bernard Pierce was a limited participant as he deals with what’s listed as a thigh injury.

Defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (knee) was missing for the second straight day as he is recovering from what is a meniscus injury, according to The Sun. Already thin along the defensive line, Jernigan’s injury could force Pernell McPhee and the recently-signed Christo Bilukidi into more action up front.

Cornerbacks Lardarius Webb (back) and Asa Jackson (concussion) were again present after being full participants on Wednesday. Asked whether he expected to make his season debut in Week 3, Webb is leaving it in the hands of head coach John Harbaugh.

“When he feels like I’m healthy and able to play a full game, he’ll put me out there,” Webb said. “Harbs will let me know when it’s time.”

There were no changes to the Cleveland injury report on Thursday as running back Ben Tate (knee) once again sat out and tight end Jordan Cameron (shoulder) and linebacker Barkevious Mingo (shoulder) were limited participants.

Here’s a look at Thursday’s injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: DT Timmy Jernigan (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: RB Bernard Pierce (thigh)
FULL PARTICIPATION: QB Joe Flacco (illness), CB Asa Jackson (concussion), CB Lardarius Webb (back), T Eugene Monroe (knee)

CLEVELAND
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: RB Ben Tate (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: TE Jordan Cameron (shoulder), LB Barkevious Mingo (shoulder)
FULL PARTICIPATION: WR Travis Benjamin (knee), DL Desmond Bryant (wrist), DL John Hughes (hamstring), P Spencer Lanning (shoulder), OL Paul McQuistan (ankle), CB Buster Skrine (thumb)

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Flacco absent from practice as Ravens prepare for Cleveland

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Flacco absent from practice as Ravens prepare for Cleveland

Posted on 17 September 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Starting quarterback Joe Flacco was absent from Wednesday’s practice as the Ravens continued preparations for their first road game of the season against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.

Backup Tyrod Taylor and practice-squad quarterback Keith Wenning were present and working as Flacco missed practiced due to an illness that is not expected to keep him sidelined for long. The seventh-year quarterback has never missed a game, and several teammates couldn’t even recall Flacco missing a practice to this point in his career.

Even after injuring his knee against the Detroit Lions in Week 15 last season, Flacco did not miss a practice.

“It was weird,” defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. “[Terrell Suggs] and I were thinking we’ve never actually been at a practice without Joe Flacco being out there. Whatever he has going on, I hope for all the best for him.”

Left tackle Eugene Monroe (knee) and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (knee) were also absent during the viewing portion of Wednesday’s practice. The former expects to play against the Browns on Sunday while the rookie Jernigan could reportedly miss a couple weeks with a meniscus injury.

Cornerbacks Asa Jackson (concussion) and Lardarius Webb (back) were both present and working on Wednesday. Webb has yet to play in the 2014 season despite having practiced fully over the last couple weeks while Jackson sustained his concussion in the second quarter of the win over the Steelers.

Asked by reporters about his status, Webb said he’s feeling good but will continue to defer to head coach John Harbaugh, who continued to give no injury updates on Wednesday. Webb told reporters last week that he was ready to make his season debut against the Steelers before being deactivated for the second straight game.

The Ravens were practicing in helmets, shells, and shorts in their first open practice of the week.

Meanwhile, Cleveland is expected to be without running back Ben Tate (knee), meaning Towson product Terrance West is expected to receive the start against the Ravens. Linebacker Barkevious Mingo (shoulder) and tight end Jordan Cameron (shoulder) were both limited participants in the Browns’ practice on Wednesday.

Here’s a look at Wednesday’s injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: QB Joe Flacco (illness), DT Timmy Jernigan (knee), T Eugene Monroe (knee)
FULL PARTICIPATION: CB Asa Jackson (concussion), CB Lardarius Webb (back)

CLEVELAND
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: RB Ben Tate (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: TE Jordan Cameron (shoulder), LB Barkevious Mingo (shoulder)
FULL PARTICIPATION: WR Travis Benjamin (knee), DL Desmond Bryant (wrist), DL John Hughes (hamstring), P Spencer Lanning (shoulder), OL Paul McQuistan (ankle), CB Buster Skrine (thumb)

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Monday musings on Orioles magic, Ravens, and NFL Week 2

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Monday musings on Orioles magic, Ravens, and NFL Week 2

Posted on 15 September 2014 by Luke Jones

Journeyman infielder Kelly Johnson became the latest hero for the Orioles Sunday night with his ninth-inning double to complete a dramatic 3-2 comeback win over the New York Yankees and shrink Baltimore’s magic number to only three.

Acquired just before the waiver deadline late last month, Johnson hadn’t made a big impression with his new club before stroking a double to deep right-center off Yankees closer David Robertson and sending the Orioles to victory in walk-off fashion. Having played for all five American League East teams over the last three seasons, Johnson is clearly happy to have landed with the first-place Orioles at the perfect time and now has an excellent chance to secure a postseason roster spot in wake of the Chris Davis suspension.

“I’ve bounced around a little bit now and you know, you just get a feel,” Johnson said about his new club. “Sometimes, it’s just meant to be. You find a way to win, rather than ways to lose. It’s been pretty cool. I haven’t been here long, but I’ve seen some things I haven’t seen before.”

If you’re subscribing to Johnson’s feeling of it all being “meant to be,” brace yourself for the start of a three-game series against Toronto with the Orioles needing to take two games from the Blue Jays to secure their first AL East title since 1997. If the Orioles are able to win the series opener on Monday night, they will send Ubaldo Jimenez — who will act as a sixth starter this time through the rotation due to the doubleheader on Friday — to the hill with the opportunity to clinch the division on Tuesday night.

It wouldn’t forgive what’s been a horrendous first season in Baltimore for the 30-year-old right-hander, but how ironic would it be if Jimenez — the free-agent pitcher the Orioles signed to pitch in big games as a top-half-of-the-rotation starter — pitched well enough to earn the win in the division-clinching game of the season? Exactly how Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter drew it up back in spring training, right?

Nothing would surprise me with the Orioles at this point, including Jimenez finally delivering in a big spot to officially punch their ticket to the playoffs.

> It’s difficult not to be pleased with the performance of the offensive line through the first two weeks of the season as the Ravens try to put the nightmarish line play of 2013 behind them once and for all.

New center Jeremy Zuttah has impressed, second-year right tackle Rick Wagner has held up, and Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele have looked the part of the ferocious guard tandem the organization envisioned. Even left tackle Eugene Monroe bounced back against Pittsburgh with a strong performance after a poor preseason and Week 1 showing against Cincinnati.

However, Sunday will bring another important test as the Ravens play their first road game against a talented Cleveland front. With the communication issues the offensive line faced all last season, Zuttah will need to show he can make the right calls at the line of scrimmage with crowd noise being a factor unlike when the offense operates at M&T Bank Stadium.

There’s plenty to be encouraged by with the way the unit has protected quarterback Joe Flacco and wore down the Steelers’ defensive line with the running game in the fourth quarter, but it will take another strong performance or two to convince doubters that the offensive line issues are a thing of the past.

> Speaking of Flacco, I couldn’t help but think of him in the moments that followed the gruesome ankle injury suffered by Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III against Jacksonville on Sunday.

Taken with the second overall pick of the 2012 draft to be the franchise quarterback, Griffin has now suffered two major injuries in just over two seasons of play. It just goes to show how difficult it can be to stay healthy, let alone play at an exceptional level on a yearly basis in the NFL.

Flacco will make his 98th consecutive regular-season start to begin his NFL career against the Browns on Sunday, which just shows how durable and dependable he’s been since arriving on the scene in 2008. Of course, the seventh-year quarterback’s style of play and size make him far less of an injury risk than a signal-caller like Griffin, but that shouldn’t diminish the value of having a quarterback you can count on to be under center every week.

The high number of injuries to star players on Sunday makes you appreciate Flacco’s durability while you immediately knock on wood and keep your fingers crossed that it continues.

> Though Philadelphia has an opportunity to join the ranks of the 2-0 teams with an upset win at Indianapolis Monday night, only six teams could claim such a record at the end of business on Sunday.

Who would have guessed that Buffalo and Houston would be two of them along with Denver, Cincinnati, Arizona, and Carolina? The Texans have now won two straight under new head coach Bill O’Brien after losing 14 consecutive games to close their disastrous 2013 season.

And who would have predicted New Orleans would be sitting at 0-2, even with two road games to begin the season?

You just never know with the NFL.

 

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Five numbers behind Ravens’ 26-6 win over Pittsburgh

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Five numbers behind Ravens’ 26-6 win over Pittsburgh

Posted on 12 September 2014 by Luke Jones

After every Ravens game this season, we’ll take a look at five numbers that help explain the outcome …

1 — The number of pass attempts thrown by Joe Flacco that traveled 20 or more yards
Skinny: Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s West Coast system is based on shorter throws in which the quarterback releases the ball quickly, and that’s exactly what Flacco did against the Steelers on Thursday. Knowing what kind of arm Flacco has, the Ravens will certainly mix in some deep shots, but Flacco completed 72.4 percent of his passes as the offense possessed the ball for 35:08. That kind of a game plan — along with the arrival of veteran Steve Smith — has temporarily stunted the production of speedy wide receiver Torrey Smith, but the Steelers failed to record a sack or even a quarterback hit against the Baltimore offense, which is exactly what you want every week.

3 — The number of takeaways by the Baltimore defense
Skinny: Though the Steelers were held to six points, they only produced 22 fewer total yards than the Ravens as three turnovers thwarted a couple attempts to get things going offensively. No takeaway was bigger than the one that came on the opening drive of the game when Pittsburgh had marched inside the red zone before linebacker Daryl Smith stripped the ball away from wide receiver Justin Brown to end a drive that had lasted 12 plays and gained 54 yards. Fellow inside backer C.J. Mosley forced and recovered a fumble of his own that led to a short field goal, and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata tipped a pass to himself for the third takeaway of the night, putting an exclamation point on an opportunistic performance by the defense.

4 — The number of drives lasting 10 or more plays completed by the Ravens
Skinny: You should be noticing a trend of dictating the tempo of the game as the Ravens were essentially in complete control from their first offensive drive of the night. The unusual statistic accompanying this was the Ravens only going 5-for-12 on third down, but that just shows how effective they were on first and second down. Baltimore scored on all four of these drives — totaling 20 points — while the Steelers managed only three total points on their two drives that were 10 or more plays. The biggest negative you can draw from Thursday’s game was the red-zone offense in which the Ravens only scored touchdowns on two of six trips, three times settling for short field goals after driving inside the 5.

4.39 — The number of yards per play the Ravens averaged on first down
Skinny: I mentioned this number to follow up the stat from last week’s game in which the Ravens averaged just 1.67 yards per first-down play before the final drive of the first half. We constantly talk about the importance of third-down conversions, but success or failure on first down has an overwhelming impact on the outlook of a drive in terms of what play options are reasonably at your disposal. The Ravens success on first down against the Pittsburgh defense allowed them to maintain a better semblance of balance with the opponent not knowing whether to expect the run or pass when you’re consistently avoiding second-and-long situations.

36 — The number of rushes by the Ravens
Skinny: Throwing 62 passes is almost never an acceptable outcome, but last week’s passing total stuck out even more after an offseason in which the Ravens spoke ad nauseam about returning to their roots and committing to the running game. The final rushing total of 157 yards in Week 2 was a bit deceiving when you remember the Ravens only averaged 2.7 yards per carry through the first three quarters, but they ran effectively enough early to keep it as a viable part of the game plan and to avoid becoming one-dimensional. When they reached the fourth quarter with a 17-6 lead, the Ravens were committed to simply beating up the Pittsburgh front and that’s exactly what they did to the tune of 96 yards on 13 carries to sew up the first win of the season.

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Focused Ravens do exactly what was needed after trying week

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Focused Ravens do exactly what was needed after trying week

Posted on 12 September 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — If you allowed yourself to think about football over the last few days, you couldn’t help but wonder how the Ravens would respond to the most tumultuous in-season week in franchise history.

From the release of the second Ray Rice video that led to the running back’s release Monday afternoon to the countless questions faced by the players remaining in the locker room, it seemed like a lot to ask of a team — speaking in a football sense, of course — to prepare to play the rival Pittsburgh Steelers on a short week. Scrutiny and criticism justifiably rained on the NFL, commissioner Roger Goodell, and Ravens leadership while players knew they needed to avoid an 0-2 start that would have already put Baltimore in a significant hole in the AFC North.

Those same players also absorbed the loss of a valued teammate and friend whom they care about, even if they were as disturbed as anyone watching the video of what Rice did to his then-fiancée in that elevator in Atlantic City. For as much as we admire what these professional athletes accomplish on the field, they’re human beings with emotions just like anyone else, making their convincing 26-6 win over Pittsburgh that much more impressive on Thursday night.

“Whenever you lose a brother, it’s tough,” said linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who collected the only two sacks of the game as the Ravens held Pittsburgh to just two field goals. “Obviously, understanding the situation, we have a bunch of men on our team and you know it’s a business. Things have to happen, and you just have to prepare for it.”

The performance was focused and efficient as the Ravens put together four scoring drives of 10 plays or more to bounce back from a disappointing start to the season against Cincinnati in Week 1. In fact, if you hadn’t known which team had been dealing with such off-field adversity this week, you might have guessed it was the Steelers as they committed three turnovers, nine penalties for 75 yards, and mustered only six points to fall to 1-1.

Thursday was a reasonable blueprint of what you expect to see from Gary Kubiak’s new offense as Joe Flacco completed 21 of 29 passes for 166 yards and two touchdowns — the quarterback also wasn’t sacked once — and the Ravens rushed for 157 yards on 36 carries. The numbers weren’t gaudy, but the final score reflected a convincing win over an opponent they outplayed for the better part of 60 minutes.

The tone was set on the opening drive of the game after quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh offense initially moved down the field in impressive fashion. It was looking like another shaky start for the Ravens defense before safety Darian Stewart delivered a vicious blow to temporarily knock standout receiver Antonio Brown out of the game — he was a non-factor when he returned — and linebacker Daryl Smith followed that by stripping wideout Justin Brown inside the red zone, allowing defensive end DeAngelo Tyson to recover the fumble.

It was basically all Ravens after that as Flacco and the offense marched down the field for a 12-play drive that culminated with a 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Owen Daniels. Baltimore would score six times in all before the night was over.

“That’s just the icing on the top,” said Daniels about his two touchdown catches. “We put great drives together [with] a lot of people contributing in those drives to get us down to that goal line, and I just happened to be that guy to score that touchdown. Huge team effort overall — huge offensive effort; a lot of guys contributing.”

The performance wasn’t perfect as the Ravens only went 2-for-6 inside the red zone with three fourth-quarter drives stalling inside the 5-yard line. And the impressive final rushing totals were a product of a 96-yard fourth quarter against a clearly-tired Pittsburgh defense after gaining only 61 yards on 23 carries through the first 45 minutes when the outcome remained somewhat in doubt.

But there was plenty to like on both sides of the ball as an efficient offense was complemented by a defense that offered an improved pass rush from a week ago and forced three takeaways to stall what little momentum the Steelers offense was able to create over the course of the night.

Following the game, it was clear to see the Ravens’ satisfaction in not only rising to the occasion after a difficult week but responding with a strong sense of urgency to a disappointing Week 1 loss. Thursday night’s win was one the Ravens needed badly on a variety of levels as they attempt to move past the Rice saga and turn all attention toward returning to the postseason in 2014.

“We’ve been through a lot together,” Flacco said. “No matter what it is, I think that we’re a team that tends to group together and come together through tough times. I never had a doubt that we wouldn’t be able to come out here and go get a win tonight.”

And the Ravens certainly played that way Thursday night.

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Thursday night

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Thursday night

Posted on 11 September 2014 by Luke Jones

All eyes will be on Baltimore as the Ravens welcome the hated Pittsburgh Steelers to M&T Bank Stadium on Thursday night.

However, few outside Baltimore and Pittsburgh are thinking about the game itself as the Ravens continue to deal with the fallout stemming from the release of the second Ray Rice video and the subsequent decision to terminate the running back’s contract Monday afternoon. This meeting is normally regarded as one of the best rivalries in the NFL, but you’d have to think long and hard to find another example of a Ravens-Steelers game with so little buzz surrounding the actual play on the field.

But that doesn’t make it any less important for the Ravens as they try to avoid what would be a very disheartening 0-2 start in the AFC North. According to NFL Network research, no team in NFL history has ever made the postseason after dropping two straight divisional home games to begin a season, making Thursday’s game as close to a “must-win” affair as you can have in Week 2.

Head coach John Harbaugh has earned a reputation for rallying his teams to play at their best when dealing with adversity, but the Ravens have never dealt with a situation quite like this, making you wonder how mentally and emotionally fresh they’ll be on what was already a short week.

Thursday marks the 37th time these AFC North rivals have met in the regular season with Pittsburgh holding a 20-16 advantage. The Ravens are 9-9 against the Steelers in Baltimore and have won two of the last three played at M&T Bank Stadium.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to even their record at 1-1 and bounce back from their disappointing season-opening loss to Cincinnati …

1. Running back Bernard Pierce will lead the Ravens in carries and pick up 70 yards with a touchdown. It was easy for Harbaugh to send a message to Pierce after his fumble late in the second quarter last week when he was still working under the assumption that Rice would be returning for Week 3, but the Ravens now need Pierce to be a large part of what they do with their running game all season. Veteran Justin Forsett and rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro will get their opportunities — the former was very good in pass protection last week in addition to running for 70 yards — as Harbaugh says he will go with the hot hand moving forward, but Pierce still gives the Ravens the best chance to have a successful running game in the short-term future and is a good fit on paper for Gary Kubiak’s one-cut zone stretch scheme.

2. Outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil will take turns exploiting the tackles on the Pittsburgh line to record a combined three sacks. Suggs may have provided more of an impact than the completely-invisible Dumervil did against the Bengals, but neither were able to disrupt the timing of Andy Dalton, something that can’t be repeated against Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. As always, the pass rush needs to be careful not to simply chase Roethlisberger from the pocket where he’s at his best improvising down the field, but more help needs to be provided to a secondary that should have cornerback Lardarius Webb available. Steelers tackles Kelvin Beachum and Marcus Gilbert are weak links on the offensive line, giving Suggs and Dumervil no excuse not to feast on Thursday night.

3. Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell will pick up where Cincinnati’s Giovani Bernard left off, registering 120 total yards and a touchdown while giving the Ravens problems as a receiver out of the backfield. Though much bigger than the shifty Bernard, Bell caught 45 passes for 399 yards out of the backfield in 13 games as a rookie and added six receptions for 88 yards against the Browns in Week 1. The Ravens struggled against screens and underneath throws while protecting against the deep ball last week, so Pittsburgh will test them again with those types of plays until Baltimore shows it can stop them. And with Pittsburgh being another team that likes using the no-huddle offense, you do wonder if a bigger back like Bell will start to wear down an old front seven as the game progresses.

4. The Ravens will use more up-tempo offense and quarterback Joe Flacco will go to tight ends Dennis Pitta and Owen Daniels early in this one. Just as the Steelers undoubtedly saw how the Ravens defense struggled to defend screens and other underneath throws, Kubiak had to take notice of the Browns’ success using the no-huddle attack against Pittsburgh in the second half and should use that to his advantage in hopes of getting Flacco going early. You’d never know it from the final numbers when he targeted Pitta and Daniels a combined 20 times, but Flacco threw to the tight-end duo only once before the final drive of the first half. Ravens wide receivers cannot have a case of the drops like they did last week, but look for Flacco to throw more short stuff to Pitta, Daniels, and Kyle Juszczyk to get into an earlier rhythm before taking some longer shots down the field.

5. It will be close with Pittsburgh as it always is, but the home-field edge gives the Ravens just enough to pull out a 24-21 win that they really need. Only four of the 14 Ravens-Steelers games in the Harbaugh era have been decided by more than three points and the last five meetings have all been determined by three or fewer. The Ravens have dealt with plenty of distractions away from the field this week, but they know they cannot afford to fall to 0-2 with both games against AFC North foes. The best teams are able to rise to the occasion and come together under trying circumstances like these while lesser teams fold and begin looking for excuses. You get the sense that Thursday night will tell us a lot about who the Ravens are as a football team in 2014 — good or bad.

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Will Ravens rise to occasion after tumultuous week?

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Will Ravens rise to occasion after tumultuous week?

Posted on 10 September 2014 by Luke Jones

A national audience will be hoping the Ravens fail when they take on the rival Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night.

Virtually everyone outside Baltimore will be rooting against an organization viewed in a negative light for its handling of the Ray Rice saga over the last seven months before the ultimate release of the disgraced running back earlier this week. The integrity of the organization has come into question as owner Steve Bisciotti acknowledged in a letter Tuesday that the Ravens needed to do more to investigate what happened between Rice and then-fiancée Janay Palmer instead of simply deferring to the New Jersey legal system.

Needless to say, it’s been a rocky 19 months for the Ravens since winning Super Bowl XLVII on Feb. 3, 2013. In addition to Rice, four players on the current 53-man roster were arrested this offseason while there have been other examples of questionable choices — don’t tell me you’ve forgotten the “Sweet Pea” saga — over the last 12 months or so.

The former heart and soul of the Ravens — Ray Lewis and Ed Reed — have both questioned leadership at different times over the last calendar year. The roster turnover has been clear with only 25 members of the current 53-man roster having been with the organization for Super Bowl XLVII. Veteran leaders have departed in addition to Lewis and Reed, including Anquan Boldin and Matt Birk.

And even if too much emphasis is put on the impact of leadership and off-field issues in terms of on-field results, Baltimore has gone a mediocre 8-9 in the regular season since raising the Vince Lombardi Trophy in New Orleans. However you want to explain it, the Ravens haven’t been particularly good since winning their second NFL championship.

Is it fair to ask if the Ravens, who long held an excellent reputation, have lost their way? There’s little disputing that the aura of the organization has taken a severe hit over how it handled the Rice situation over these last seven months.

“I don’t think of it that way,” said head coach John Harbaugh when asked if he’s concerned about the Ravens’ image taking a hit. “You do your best with the situations that are put before you and try to handle things the right way and do the right thing.”

Shifting their attention back to the field after a few difficult days, the Ravens are as close as you get to facing a “must-win” game in Week 2 as they’ve already lost to the Cincinnati Bengals and would fall to 0-2 with a defeat to the hated Steelers Thursday night. According to NFL Network research, no team has ever made the playoffs after dropping two divisional games at home to start a season.

Under Harbaugh, the Ravens have dealt with difficult losses before and have consistently answered the bell in the face of adversity. But Rice’s release stems from something that goes beyond football or the business of the salary cap. It isn’t the loss of a standout player because of retirement or a season-ending injury but due to his cruel actions that the entire world saw on video Monday morning.

And players have faced more questions about Rice than ones about what it will take to slow Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers this week. The focus began to shift on Tuesday when some semblance of normalcy — in the context of preparing for a football game, of course — returned to the facility in Owings Mills, but the challenge of playing on a short week is hefty enough despite the Ravens owning the home-field advantage and seeing a familiar opponent.

“We’re going to be playing really soon, so we have to get our minds right,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “But more importantly, we have to do everything we can to physically feel good by the time that whistle blows on Thursday night, and that’s what we’re doing.”

While everyone else will be talking about the individual who is no longer with the organization on Thursday night, the Ravens must focus on getting off to a much quicker start offensively while also trying to slow a Steelers offense that produced 30 points and 490 yards against what was expected to be a good Cleveland defense last week. The general consensus among the so-called experts before the season was that Baltimore and Pittsburgh were fairly evenly matched — both finished 8-8 last year — so the the Ravens will need to hold serve on their home field and put the bad taste of last week’s loss behind them.

Over the course of his seven-year run in Baltimore, Harbaugh has typically been able to rally his team in these types of games to perform at their best and secure a much-needed win. But he hasn’t dealt with a situation quite like this before.

And there is evidence of cracks in the foundation — both on and off the field — since the Ravens reached the pinnacle of the NFL less than two years ago. We saw it late last year when the Ravens were 8-6 and needed only one win to secure their sixth consecutive trip to the postseason before losing their final two games by a combined 51 points.

A win calms nerves and puts the Ravens back at .500 as they receive the extra rest that follows a Thursday night game before preparing for a third straight division game. A defeat puts the Ravens in an early-season hole in the AFC North while the rest of the world mocks their misfortune.

The best teams come together under these circumstances, even when their organization is guilty of its own mistakes as the Ravens were with Rice. The lesser ones wilt under such adversity.

The Ravens know they already face a crucial game Thursday with the season less than a week old. They’re out to prove they haven’t lost their way on the field.

“It’s everything. You don’t want to come out of an 0-2 hole, especially giving up two at home,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “Wins in the NFL are hard to come by, so that’s why you’ve got to win your home games. We unfortunately dropped one; [the Bengals] cashed in and they won one — a division game. We’ve definitely got to cover up some ground, but it all starts with this one on Thursday.”

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Too many shades of 2013 as Ravens fall flat in Week 1 loss to Bengals

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Too many shades of 2013 as Ravens fall flat in Week 1 loss to Bengals

Posted on 07 September 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — A half-smile came across the face of Terrell Suggs when asked if the Ravens’ season-opening 23-16 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday reminded him of last season.

It was clear the 12th-year linebacker didn’t feel like reminiscing about Baltimore’s first non-playoff season under head coach John Harbaugh, but the similarities were there. A poor first-half performance by the offense and a “bend-don’t-break” defense failing to finish strong doomed the Ravens on Sunday as it did so many times a season ago when they finished 8-8.

“I don’t even want to talk about last year,” Suggs said. “If you remember last year, we gave up seven touchdowns in the opener. It’s a pretty big difference. It doesn’t feel like last year. We just can’t give them the big play. Pretty much our big thing coming into this week was to not let one get over our head. We let one get over our head, but it’s the NFL. It happens.”

The Ravens spent the offseason trying to improve an offense that ranked 29th in the NFL a season ago, adding new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, pass-catching targets Steve Smith and Owen Daniels, and veteran center Jeremy Zuttah. The running game was supposed to be fixed and quarterback Joe Flacco would have more weapons to throw to, which would allow the Ravens to move the ball consistently and with balance.

A defense that lost defensive tackle Arthur Jones and cornerback Corey Graham in free agency would be helped by the improved offensive attack and would not be put in a position when they’d spend too much time on the field with little margin for error.

But Sunday’s loss to the Bengals brought the same problems from 2013 as the Ravens were held to zero points and only 97 total yards in the first 30 minutes of play. The Ravens ran for just 23 yards on nine carries, and Flacco completed only 10 of 23 passes for 78 yards while committing what he called “the stupidest play” of his career that sent his team to the locker room trailing 15-0.

With eight seconds remaining in the half and facing third-and-15 from the 15, the Ravens elected to run one more play, which needed to be a quick three-step drop and throw to the end zone — or out of the end zone — to at least save enough time for a field goal try. Instead, the seventh-year quarterback rolled to his right and allowed time to expire before being sacked by Cincinnati’s Carlos Dunlap.

Flacco’s gaffe was just one of many mistakes made by countless offensive players in the first half, but it seemed an appropriate way to end a miserable 30 minutes of football in which the Ravens had just 9:41 of possession.

“We just played about as bad as you can, in terms of just simple fundamental things,” Flacco said. “Throwing, catching, running routes, staying up, just running the ball, couple mental busts. Just fundamental things that you do every day, and it’s just part of the routine.”

Even with the offense struggling mightily, the Ravens remained in the game thanks to a defense that allowed the Bengals to consistently move the ball before finally tightening up on third down — Cincinnati went 4-for-14 in that department — and holding them to field goals on two trips inside the red zone. It reminded of last season when the defense would stretch and stretch and stretch before making plays when needed to to keep the Ravens in the game.

But the defense also followed the 2013 fourth-quarter script of allowing the big play after Flacco connected with Steve Smith on an 80-yard touchdown to put the Ravens ahead 16-15 with 5:46 remaining in the game. Less than a minute later, defensive coordinator Dean Pees sent nickel back Asa Jackson on the blitz — the defense was unable to provide much pressure throughout the game — but Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton recognized it and threw deep to wide receiver A.J. Green, who beat cornerback Chykie Brown in 1-on-1 coverage for a 77-yard touchdown.

It was the big play the Ravens surrendered too many critical times last season and another example of the defense failing to make a big fourth-quarter stop when needed. And the deciding touchdown washed away what was an acceptable — but not stellar — effort from a unit playing without starting cornerback Lardarius Webb.

“It was kind of a bend-don’t-break philosophy,” cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “We were trying to figure out the new scheme they had in. They threw a lot of new things at us, the zone read and all of that. We didn’t let them get in the end zone until the end when we let that play get away from us.”

Yes, the “half-full” outlook would point to the 16 points and 323 total yards the Ravens offense produced in the second half. The running game even got going in the final two quarters as veteran Justin Forsett — replacing the benched Bernard Pierce — rushed for 70 yards and a 13-yard score for the first touchdown of the season to put the Ravens on the board.

But the skeptic will hear the same song as last season with an offense that had little balance and took more than two quarters to finally wake up — and still dropped too many passes in the second half — and a defense that couldn’t finish the job at crunch time.

As the Ravens learned all too well in 2013, there are no moral victories in the NFL.

“It’s tough to look at it too many ways other than the fact that we lost the game,” Flacco said. “Overall, we didn’t play well. As a player, you don’t look for good things in losses. It was a bad day.”

The good news is the Ravens won’t have time to dwell on their season-opening defeat as they must immediately turn their attention to the Pittsburgh Steelers for a Thursday night game back at M&T Bank Stadium. But they know they’ll need a more complete effort to avoid an 0-2 start in the AFC North as the Bengals and Steelers are already a game ahead in the division.

Yes, the Ravens led late in the fourth quarter and were in position to win the game, but they played too poorly for too long to reasonably expect to prevail.

“We all could’ve done something better today,” Suggs said. “We dropped one. It’s a long season and hopefully this won’t prevent us from doing what we want to do later on in the year.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

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