Tag Archive | "Joe Flacco"

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Ravens just not quite good enough when they needed to be

Posted on 26 December 2016 by Luke Jones

The Ravens and Steelers played a Christmas classic that removed any doubt about whether this rivalry is still among the best in the NFL.

Baltimore fought like hell until the bitter end and a four-point loss at Heinz Field is nothing to be ashamed of in the big picture, but this also wasn’t the AFC divisional round — as much as the one may have felt like a playoff game on Sunday. Being eliminated from postseason contention with a week to go in the regular season only reinforces a theme that’s become too familiar over the post-Super Bowl XLVII seasons under head coach John Harbaugh.

“We’re very close to being a very good football team,” Harbaugh said after the 31-27 loss. “We can be a great football team, but we’re not there yet. We haven’t gotten there this year, obviously. We’ve got to get there.”

Having now missed the playoffs in three of the last four years, the Ravens just aren’t quite good enough.

That was apparent on Sunday as a defense that had ranked in the top five all season inexplicably allowed three touchdowns in the final 12 minutes of play. There’s no excusing Dean Pees’ unit for surrendering a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in just over a minute that culminated with Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown reaching over the goal line with nine seconds remaining.

Instead of cementing its status among the better units in franchise history, this defense has crumbled down the stretch, allowing 26 or more points in three straight games. You can’t put all of that on the absence of cornerback Jimmy Smith as an underwhelming pass rush was exposed badly against the Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger rarely harassed in the pocket.

But before we put all blame on the defense for what amounted to the practical end of the Ravens’ season, let’s remember an 8-7 record is the result of a collection of missed opportunities and not just what was on display in Week 16.

An 0-4 October left very little margin for error while looking ahead to how difficult the December schedule would be. That loss to the woeful New York Jets in Week 7 is still painful and no less damaging two months later.

The Ravens offense may have come to play for the most part on Christmas, but how many times could we really say that about this below-average group in 2016? Marty Mornhinweg did little to spark the offense after the firing of coordinator Marc Trestman in October and showed no better commitment to the running game, instead allowing Joe Flacco to set a career high in passing attempts without the kind of productivity to justify the imbalance.

Even on Sunday, the Ravens entered Pittsburgh territory on all five of their drives in the first half and managed just six points by intermission. Tight end Darren Waller’s inability to secure a touchdown catch early in the fourth quarter served as a turning point as it forced Baltimore to settle for a short field goal and a 20-10 lead instead of a two-touchdown cushion.

Baltimore’s normally-superb special teams have been propped up by Pro Bowl kicker Justin Tucker, but a return game that stuck way too long with veteran Devin Hester did no favors for an offense that would have benefited from better field position all season. On Sunday, a bad snap cost the Ravens a chance for three points early in the second quarter.

Not good enough.

With the season finale in Cincinnati now a meaningless endeavor, attention shifts to the future.

Harbaugh’s not wrong in saying this team wasn’t that far away — they’re 8-7, not 3-12 — but the crucial question is whether the Ravens are moving in the right direction or falling further away. It’s difficult to say this is a better football team now than it was in September, and that’s a big concern.

The Ravens at least improved from last year’s 5-11 disaster that wasn’t all about injuries despite what many wanted to believe. That should be remembered when determining what changes need to be made this offseason.

Still, this team is depending heavily on a number of veterans who aren’t getting any younger or better at this stage of their careers. Unlike Flacco, who was relying on a 37-year-old receiver expected to retire at the end of the season and a 31-year-old tight end coming back from two major hip injuries, Roethlisberger turned to two Pro Bowl talents in their primes in Brown and Le’Veon Bell when it mattered most.

As we’ve now said for a few years, the Ravens need to find dynamic playmakers on both sides of the ball to make the difference in these close games that we see around the league on a weekly basis. The early returns from the 2016 draft have been very encouraging, but this roster is still feeling the effects of lackluster drafts in recent years.

Is this coaching staff capable of getting the most out of its players, especially younger ones who need to develop? There have been more questions about play-calling and game management this year than in the past, and the Ravens are one of the most penalized teams in the league.

Is Harbaugh willing to make changes to his staff, especially on the offensive side of the ball where the Ravens have struggled substantially in three of the last four seasons? Is the head coach’s message stale after nine seasons?

Questions that seemed silly just a couple seasons ago should now be asked with another quiet January in Baltimore. Of course, owner Steve Bisciotti has the only opinion that really matters, but both Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome have to explain why this team wasn’t good enough and how they plan to improve next year and moving forward.

Seats are getting warm now.

The Ravens weren’t quite good enough this year, but are they moving in the right direction or stuck in neutral?

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Christmas Day

Posted on 24 December 2016 by Luke Jones

It became crystal clear for the Ravens on Saturday.

Beat Pittsburgh on Christmas Day or officially be eliminated from playoff contention. Miami’s overtime victory over Buffalo wiped away any chance of a wild-card spot for Baltimore, who will now need to top the Steelers and almost certainly need to beat Cincinnati in Week 17 to take the AFC North title.

The Ravens have won five of their last seven games to rebound from a winless month of October, but they will need to win their first road game in exactly three months on Sunday. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh has rebounded from its own four-game losing streak earlier this season by winning five in a row, a stretch that included four road games.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Steelers meet for the 42nd in their regular-season history with Pittsburgh holding a 21-20 advantage. Counting the postseason, 15 of the 20 games in the John Harbaugh era have been decided by one possession. Baltimore has won four straight overall against the Steelers and has been victorious in four of the last six meetings at Heinz Field.

Here’s what to expects as the Ravens try to keep their postseason hopes alive …

1. Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell will combine for 180 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns. Since the start of 2013, the Baltimore defense has held Brown under 100 receiving yards in six of eight meetings, but the two times the All-Pro receiver eclipsed the mark were games in which cornerback Jimmy Smith did not play. The Ravens’ second-ranked run defense is likely to rebound from a brutal performance last week, but Bell’s ability as a receiver out of the backfield is a concern for linebackers who have struggled in coverage in recent weeks.

2. Mike Wallace will find the end zone once again against his former team. The speedy wideout is just 37 receiving yards shy of 1,000 for the season as he’s been everything the Ravens could have asked for when signing him to a two-year deal in March. The Steelers secondary has played better in recent weeks and has done a good job limiting big plays, but offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg will do what he can to get the ball in Wallace’s hands. It won’t be another 95-yard sprint like we saw in Week 9, but the former Steeler will catch his first touchdown at Heinz Field since 2012.

3. The Ravens will reach the century mark on the ground against a banged-up Steelers defensive line. They rarely commit to the run, but the Ravens have averaged 4.8 yards per carry over their last five games behind the same offensive line. The Steelers rank fifth in the league in run defense, but defensive end Stephon Tuitt missed practice all week and is questionable to play with a knee injury and defensive end Cam Heyward was placed on injured reserve last month. Whether it’s Terrance West or Kenneth Dixon, the Ravens will try to control the clock and keep the Pittsburgh offense off the field.

4. A clean pocket will help Ben Roethlisberger throw for 250 yards. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees faces a predicament with an undermanned secondary and a front that’s struggled to get consistent pressure without the blitz, a dangerous combination against a potent passing game. It also doesn’t help that the Steelers offensive line has allowed just three sacks over its last five games and will have a healthy Maurkice Pouncey, who played only 19 snaps in the first meeting. The Ravens will likely try to play coverage in hopes of minimizing big plays and forcing the Steelers to move methodically.

5. The Ravens will fall 24-20 to officially miss the playoffs for the third time in the last four years. Counting them out completely would be a mistake and they’ve been inside the Steelers’ heads for the last few years, but the Ravens haven’t shown the kind of road mettle this season to make you think they’ll play well enough to beat a red-hot team on the cusp of a division championship. Unless the postseason version of Joe Flacco arrives a couple games early, the Ravens offense won’t have quite enough firepower to match an offense with better weapons. The defense will contain Bell between the tackles, but the absence of Smith in the secondary will be a fatal blow in a close game.

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“January Joe” needs to arrive early for playoff-hopeful Ravens

Posted on 22 December 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — One gift tops the list of goodies that the Ravens hope to find under their Christmas tree on Sunday.

It would be the early arrival of “January Joe” for their AFC North showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers. That postseason version of Joe Flacco would go a long way in helping Baltimore secure its first AFC North division title since 2012 while also washing away much memory of a trying season.

The issues with the league’s 18th-ranked offense run deeper than the play of the ninth-year quarterback, but the near-certainty of Flacco reaching the 4,000-yard passing mark for the first time — an elusive landmark his critics have regularly used against him over the years — does not mask his struggles. Starting all 14 games in his return from last year’s ACL injury, Flacco ranks 27th in the NFL at just 6.54 yards per attempt and is 25th with an 84.8 passer rating.

Asked about the 2008 first-round pick being on the verge of setting a career high for pass attempts, head coach John Harbaugh declined to assess his quarterback’s play, instead focusing on the task of winning at Heinz Field for the third straight time.

“I respect everything about what he does and how he does it, how he competes and everything like that,” Harbaugh said. “The other stuff [and] the big-picture questions are really for another time. I’m just excited to go play the game on Sunday. I know Joe is and everybody is. We’re preparing and planning on going and playing our best football.”

With the Baltimore defense likely to be without No. 1 cornerback Jimmy Smith, Flacco will need to be at his best to trade blows with Pro Bowl quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and a dangerous Steelers passing game that ranks fifth in the NFL. It’s a story similar to what the Ravens faced in road losses at Dallas and New England earlier this year, but the stakes are much higher now.

In case you’ve forgotten what “January Joe” can do, Flacco has thrown 24 touchdowns and just four interceptions in his last 10 postseason games dating back to the 2010 season. Sunday is as close as it gets to a playoff game — especially if Miami beats Buffalo on Saturday to make it a win-or-bust proposition on Christmas Day — so why wouldn’t the Ravens hope the postseason version of Flacco comes early?

The good news is that the 31-year-old has done it before at Heinz Field, throwing for 259 yards and two touchdowns without an interception in Baltimore’s last postseason win over the Steelers two years ago. Counting that playoff victory, the Ravens have won six of their last seven games against their bitter rival with Flacco throwing nine touchdowns to three interceptions in the six contests in which he played.

Win or lose, history tells us the environment won’t be too big for him and the Ravens. The Steelers look like the better team at this point and are carrying a five-game winning streak into Sunday’s game, but you have to wonder how much Baltimore is in their heads after winning four straight in the series and backup quarterback Ryan Mallett even beating them last December.

Counting the playoffs, the Ravens hold a respectable 5-6 record at Heinz Field in the Harbaugh-Flacco era.

“You picture going into a place and playing in front of 70,000 people that hate you,” Flacco said. “That is what makes it fun. … There are not too many feelings in this world that are better than winning an NFL football game. That probably gets amplified a little bit when you get to silence a crowd.”

Of course, what’s happened in the past doesn’t guarantee success on Sunday. After all, this is a Ravens offense that’s dealt with numerous problems, ranging from play-calling issues and injuries along the offensive line to an up-and-down running game and uneven play at wide receiver and tight end. Flacco’s 13 interceptions are the second-highest total of his career, and he’s been criticized for poor footwork and checking down too frequently in lieu of looking to push the ball down the field.

The Ravens are also facing a Pittsburgh defense that’s improved since the first half of the season, allowing just 14 points per game over its last five contests. The Pittsburgh secondary is relying on a pair of rookies — first-round cornerback Artie Burns and second-round safety and University of Maryland product Sean Davis — but the two have steadily played better as the season has progressed.

This Baltimore offense does have more going for it now than it did for much of the year with a healthier offensive line that’s played better in recent weeks and a running game that produced a season-high 151 yards against Philadelphia last Sunday. Not a single offensive player has missed a practice this week for an injury-related reason, either.

A 38-point outburst and four-touchdown performance from Flacco against Miami three weeks ago showed what this offense is capable of doing when firing on all cylinders, but the peaks have been rare and the valleys all the more frustrating. The Ravens haven’t won a game away from M&T Bank Stadium in three months and their veteran quarterback has posted an ugly 75.7 passer rating on the road this season, making trips to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati to conclude the season an unsettling proposition.

“It is tough to look back at the whole thing, but we have hit our bumps here and there,” Flacco said. “But I think we are starting to hit a stride. When you come out here and watch our practices, you can tell we are starting to hit a stride. This second half of the season, it is coming together with some of the new guys and our offensive line play and myself.”

If the Ravens offense is ever truly going to come together, now is the time.

And the return of “January Joe” needs to be part of the equation.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 15 win over Philadelphia

Posted on 20 December 2016 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens surviving in a 27-26 win over Philadelphia on Sunday to remain one game behind Pittsburgh in the AFC North, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. I don’t believe hangovers and letdowns in sports are as common as we think, but the Ravens had a difficult time moving past their performance against New England. Perhaps that partially explains why the offense showed such late recklessness and the defense reacted slowly to being punched in the mouth.

2. After losing touches to Kenneth Dixon in recent weeks, Terrance West made a statement with 122 yards from scrimmage, his highest total since Week 6. The Baltimore native’s career was a mess a year ago, but he’s done a fine job reestablishing himself as a legitimate NFL running back.

3. Praised by some recently as being better than the 2000 Ravens, the run defense gave up a season-worst 169 rushing yards to the Eagles and has allowed 3.9 yards per carry over the last five games. Philadelphia did a great job getting to the second level running the zone stretch.

4. Despite this hardly being his best campaign, Joe Flacco is 212 yards away from his first 4,000-yard season. The problem is he’s also on pace to shatter his career high for passing attempts (614 in 2013) and is averaging 6.5 yards per attempt, the second-lowest mark of his career.

5. Justin Tucker improved to a remarkable 10-for-10 on field goals from 50 yards and beyond for the season. That’s more than he’d made in his last two years combined. No one can accuse him of resting on his laurels after a big payday.

6. Barring an unforeseen spike in offensive production leading to a deep playoff run, I don’t see how the Ravens can stick with Marty Mornhinweg as their offensive coordinator in 2017. The spark for which they were looking when John Harbaugh fired Marc Trestman never materialized.

7. The Ravens rushed for a season-high 151 yards against the Eagles, but they’ve gained more than 3.8 yards per carry in an away game just once this year. As Terrell Suggs likes to say, you need to pack your defense and your running game to win on the road.

8. Speaking of Suggs, I couldn’t help but wonder which Ravens veterans we were possibly seeing for the final time at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday. Because of age or contract status, Suggs, Steve Smith, Elvis Dumervil, Dennis Pitta, and Lardarius Webb are among the fair question marks.

9. His four-game absence in October put a damper on his rookie season, but Ronnie Stanley is playing more and more like the sixth overall pick that the Ravens envisioned this spring. It probably hasn’t hurt having five-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda playing next to him, either.

10. Shareece Wright showed in the second half of last season that he’s capable of playing at an acceptable level as a starting cornerback. The Ravens can only hope his solid — albeit mostly untested — performance against the Eagles puts him in the right frame of mind for Pittsburgh.

11. Under Harbaugh, the Ravens have gone at least 6-2 at home in all but one season. The problem is a 10-20 regular-season road record since Super Bowl XLVII. They’ll need to win their first road games in three months over these next two weeks.

12. I’m late with this prediction, but my Ravens picks for this year’s Pro Bowl would be Tucker, Yanda, safety Eric Weddle, and fullback Kyle Juszczyk.

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Alarming lack of offensive leadership nearly costs Ravens dearly

Posted on 19 December 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens got the 27-26 win in the end, but they still couldn’t help themselves on Sunday.

Leading 27-17 with less than seven minutes remaining, Joe Flacco had just completed a third-down pass to Mike Wallace, who sprinted all the way to the Philadelphia 11 for a 54-yard pickup that should have all but sealed a must-win game against the struggling Eagles. Facing an opponent that had relied on its ground attack all day, Baltimore needed only to run the ball to chew away more time and, at worst, kick a field goal to make it a 13-point lead.

Even novice football fans would say to run it to drain the clock or force Eagles head coach Doug Pederson to start using his timeouts early.

Yes, the Ravens defense had struggled more than expected on Sunday, but rookie quarterback Carson Wentz had shown no evidence throughout the day that he would be able to orchestrate two touchdown drives in the final few minutes. Instead of showing common football sense, head coach John Harbaugh, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, and quarterback Joe Flacco gave the Eagles new life.

According to ESPN, the Ravens’ win probability stood at 99.2 percent when they took a timeout with 6:21 remaining to contemplate their first-and-10 play from the 11. In lieu of a running game that averaged 6.3 yards per carry on Sunday, Mornhinweg called a pass play and Flacco threw an unthinkable interception to Eagles linebacker Jordan Hicks, who returned the ball to the Philadelphia 40 to spark an unlikely comeback.

“All-time worst call ever. I’ll take responsibility for it,” Harbaugh said. “I should have vetoed it right away. I like an aggressive mindset, but that was way too aggressive. It’s the worst play call we’ve had, and it’s my fault. It should have never happened. We should have never been in that situation as a result of that.”

At least Harbaugh took responsibility after the game, but how does a ninth-year head coach who’s won a Super Bowl allow that to happen? What was being discussed during that timeout?

The writing is on the wall for Mornhinweg with this latest example of lacking any feel for the game or the Ravens offense, but Harbaugh is ultimately responsible for his coaching staff. This was the kind of reckless decision that costs coaches their jobs if the final outcome goes the other way.

Saying the Baltimore defense needed to tighten up over those final two drives doesn’t excuse such a blunder in a must-win game. Opponents will sometimes get the best of you between the lines as the Eagles ran for an impressive 169 yards, but the Ravens needed much better from veteran coaches late in Sunday’s game.

And what about Flacco?

The execution was awful enough in trying to force a throw to wide receiver Steve Smith, but shouldn’t a veteran quarterback speak up if the head coach and offensive coordinator have lost their minds? Flacco’s leadership has been a hot topic throughout his career — often unfairly — but this was a time when you’d like a ninth-year quarterback to be a voice of reason and not be focused on his stat line.

“To be honest with you, my thought was, ‘Shoot, Marty is going to give me a third touchdown pass on the day,'” Flacco said. “I was kind of happy about it at that point — being selfish — but you’ve got to just to take care of the football and it’s a non-issue.”

It was a disappointing response from a veteran known for having a winning moxie.

No, Flacco doesn’t call the plays, but he isn’t just a trained robot out there, either.

Either way, that pick can’t happen.

Until C.J. Mosley deflected Wentz’s 2-point conversion pass that would have handed Harbaugh the worst defeat of his career, the defense couldn’t pick up the slack after the interception. That’s a concerning development with road games at Pittsburgh and Cincinnati to conclude the regular season and the Ravens likely needing to win both to make the playoffs.

But the blame still comes back to an offense that had a solid day before that fourth-quarter meltdown from Harbaugh, Mornhinweg, and Flacco. No matter how you want to rank them, all deserved substantial blame for what happened.

“I’ve played a lot of football, so I’ve seen a lot worse,” said Smith, who is now in the final weeks of his 16th season. “I’ve witnessed a lot worse. Whatever, I’m not getting into that.”

No matter what the Ravens try to tell you or themselves, the numbers don’t lie. They haven’t been all that interested in running the football all year — even when they’ve done it well.

They were lucky it didn’t cost them their season on Sunday.

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Ravens-Eagles: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 17 December 2016 by Luke Jones

It was a tough week for the Ravens.

After a humbling 30-23 loss to New England that never felt that close, veteran linebacker Terrell Suggs acknowledged the Ravens were “a little messed up” after oozing confidence the previous week. Of course, they had to turn the page quickly knowing they’ll likely need to win out to earn an AFC North championship and a home playoff game.

On the other side, Philadelphia has lost four straight and six of its last seven after a promising 4-2 start under first-year head coach Doug Pederson. Much like Baltimore, the Eagles have struggled on the road and haven’t won an away game since Week 2.

It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet for the fifth time in regular season history with the Eagles holding the advantage with a 2-1-1 mark. The Ravens are 1-0-1 against Philadelphia in Baltimore.

Below are five predictions for Sunday …

1. Kenneth Dixon will rush for a career-high 75 yards and a touchdown. I’m a fool for predicting prosperity for a running game in which the Ravens have shown a lack of interest for most of the season, but a rainy and windy forecast for Sunday’s game should force offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg to commit to the ground attack. Dixon was one of the few bright spots against the Patriots and continues to pry away touches from incumbent starter Terrance West. The Eagles are 15th in the NFL against the run, meaning Dixon should be able to find room to help keep the offense on schedule.

2. Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham will disrupt the pocket as Joe Flacco throws for a touchdown and an interception. The offensive line has improved its play in recent weeks, but right guard Vlad Ducasse and right tackle Rick Wagner will have their hands full against Cox and Graham, who have combined for 10 1/2 sacks this year. Their pressure will prevent Flacco from exploiting cornerbacks Nolan Carroll and Leodis McKelvin and will force him to check down often. The passing game will be better than it was against New England, but it will be another up-and-down performance.

3. Eagles receiver Jordan Matthews will rack up 90 receiving yards and a score. The absence of Jimmy Smith spells problems for the Ravens, but that will be minimized against rookie quarterback Carson Wentz and a mediocre group of receivers. Matthews does present an issue while working primarily out of the slot and is capable of putting up good numbers if he’s finally over a lingering ankle injury. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees would be wise to have rookie Tavon Young travel with Matthews, but the third-year wideout is more likely to have success against slot corner Jerraud Powers.

4. Elvis Dumervil will collect 1 1/2 sacks against Philadelphia’s fifth right tackle of the season. The Eagles have had significant issues at the position since Lane Johnson began serving a 10-game ban, and the Ravens should be aggressive in going after Wentz instead of allowing him to stand in the pocket. If rookie Isaac Seumalo gets the nod at right tackle, Dumervil needs to exploit him while fellow veteran Terrell Suggs is matched up against tough left tackle Jason Peters. Knowing the secondary is missing its top corner, the Ravens must get Dumervil and the rush cranked up for the final stretch.

5. The Ravens will prevail in a 21-17 final over the Eagles. It’s always tricky bouncing back from a Monday night road game, but Philadelphia is playing out the string and the Ravens have proven to be a good team at M&T Bank Stadium with a 5-2 home record. The weather makes this one a little more unpredictable and it’s still difficult to trust the Baltimore offense, which will make this a closer game that some might expect. Even without Smith in the secondary, the defense will rise to the occasion to protect a late lead and put the Ravens in position for their showdown with Pittsburgh next week.

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Ravens not showing what it takes to win games on road

Posted on 13 December 2016 by Luke Jones

The final score alone was nothing to be ashamed of.

Many thought the Ravens could win in New England on Monday, but fewer expected them to really pull off the upset. The end result technically only means that John Harbaugh’s team has no realistic path to an AFC North title that doesn’t involve winning at Pittsburgh in Week 16.

So, why then does this one sting that much more than last month’s defeat at Dallas?

It’s because the Ravens showed that they still don’t have what it takes to win a big game on the road and haven’t displayed that moxie in quite some time. The 38-6 thumping of Miami last week was supposed to be the offensive breakthrough that would propel them down a final stretch that included three of four away games, but we instead saw the same offense we witnessed over the first 11 games of the season.

Instead of giving the Patriots everything they could handle to show they were back among the AFC’s top tier of contenders, the Ravens looked like the mediocre team their 7-6 record says they are.

Removing their injury-riddled October from the equation, they’re just not noticeably better than they were at the beginning of the season when they produced their only two road wins. Those victories came after erasing a 20-point deficit to lowly Cleveland in Week 2 and edging Jacksonville with a 54-yard field goal in the final minute of a Week 3 tilt. Yes, Baltimore’s only road victories of the season were nail-biters against the two worst teams in the AFC back in September.

Former offensive coordinator Marc Trestman was still two weeks away from being fired when the Ravens last won outside Baltimore, and it will have been exactly three months since that last road win when the Ravens take the field against the Steelers on Christmas Day.

They have been a good team at M&T Bank Stadium with a 5-2 mark in 2016, but also a pretty bad one on the road. We know winning at Heinz Field will be a tough task, but nothing about the Ravens’ current profile suggests their Week 17 trip to Cincinnati — where they haven’t won in five years — should be considered a sure thing, especially if five-time Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green is playing.

The Ravens struggled in every phase of the game on Monday, ranging from the offense and defense to special teams and coaching. If we’re being truthful about what we watched and are weary of moral victories in which they “battled” and “fought” back, the Ravens were very fortunate to even be in the game over the final 20 minutes. Winning the turnover battle by a 3-1 margin normally results in a victory, but that doesn’t happen when you stink up the joint for the first 2 1/2 quarters against arguably the best head coach and quarterback in NFL history.

The defense was torched by Tom Brady and the special teams — specifically former return specialist Devin Hester — also played a big part in the loss, but the Ravens offense was its usual self after the one-week aberration against the Dolphins that prompted many observers to buy into the newfound hype.

Passing the ball all day — running game be damned — and checking down all night while being completely perplexed by zone coverage. Not one touchdown drive beyond the two early Christmas gifts provided by New England’s special teams in the third quarter. A way-too-lethargic pace when trailing by two scores late in the fourth quarter.

It wasn’t good enough from Marty Mornhinweg, Joe Flacco, and company. Even the defense has looked mortal on the road as it’s allowed 24 or more points in each of the last four contests and may once again be without top cornerback Jimmy Smith, who injured his ankle on Monday night.

The Ravens are now 10-20 in regular-season road games since Super Bowl XLVII. The old formula of dominating at home and playing .500 ball away from M&T Bank Stadium brought much success in Harbaugh’s first five seasons — a 21-19 record on the road over that time — but the Ravens have fallen off the away cliff over the last four years, which helps explain their absence from January football.

If they don’t quickly find a way to play better in opposing cities, another New Year’s end to a season will be in order.

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Ravens-Patriots: Five predictions for Monday night

Posted on 11 December 2016 by Luke Jones

The Ravens can make a statement to a national audience on Monday night.

A 38-6 home thrashing of Miami was their most impressive victory of the season last week, but besting the New England Patriots in Foxborough would emphatically announce their return to the upper tier of contenders in the AFC. A loss wouldn’t cripple their playoff hopes, but it would give Pittsburgh a one-game lead in the AFC North with a Christmas Day showdown looming in less than two weeks.

Baltimore has the upper hand from a health standpoint with not a single defensive player listed on the final injury report and no significant offensive players expected to miss the game. Having already lost All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski to season-ending back surgery last week, the Patriots will be without  wide receiver Danny Amendola (ankle) and listed improving cornerback Eric Rowe (hamstring) as questionable to play.

It’s time to go on the record as these teams play for the ninth time in their regular-season history. The Patriots own a 7-1 advantage in the regular season, but the Ravens have won two of their four postseason games played at Gillette Stadium since 2009. Baltimore hasn’t beaten New England since the 2012 AFC Championship.

Below are five predictions for Monday night:

1. Patriots running backs will score two touchdowns. LeGarrette Blount is on the verge of his first 1,000-yard rushing season since 2010, but he could be the least of the Ravens’ problems on Monday night. The Ravens sport the best run defense in the NFL and are allowing just 3.4 yards per carry, but James White and Dion Lewis are strong receivers out of the backfield capable of running the entire route tree, which could spell problems for linebackers already trying to slow tight end Martellus Bennett. Baltimore will slow Blount between the tackles, but White and Lewis will be problems underneath.

2. Eric Weddle will collect only the second interception of the year from Tom Brady. You’d never know Brady is 39 years old by watching him play this season, but Baltimore has given him as much trouble as virtually anyone in his impeccable career, picking him off 11 times in 10 career games. Expecting the Ravens to shut down the league’s sixth-ranked offense would be unfair, but forcing a turnover or two to set up the offense on a short field at some point would go a long way in giving them a chance. Their ability to contain Blount early will force Brady to take risks, and Weddle will be waiting.

3. Steve Smith will catch a touchdown as Joe Flacco is forced to work the sidelines. Even if the Ravens are able to match their production from the Miami game, it’s difficult to fathom Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia giving Flacco the same windows in the middle of the field, likely forcing the quarterback to work the sidelines. Dennis Pitta also won’t see the same free releases off the line, prompting Flacco to look to Smith more often on short-to-intermediate throws. A more methodical approach is not what the Ravens prefer, but the 37-year-old receiver will be eager to shine in prime time.

4. Terrell Suggs will collect his ninth sack of the year, but pressure on Brady will be scarce. The ball comes out so quickly that you have to pick your poison in attacking Brady. Suggs continues to play at a high level despite a biceps injury and will best left tackle Nate Solder for a sack, but the Ravens would be wise to use the 6-foot-7 Brent Urban and even the 6-foot-4 Za’Darius Smith as sub-package rushers to try to get hands up in passing lanes. New England’s offensive line is vulnerable inside, but Timmy Jernigan’s play has cooled considerably since a strong start.

5. The Patriots will win the fourth quarter to prevail 26-23 over the Ravens. This will be a close game, but I’m just not convinced that the Baltimore offense is ready to do everything it takes to beat one of the NFL’s best teams on the road after a single great performance at home against a mediocre Miami defense. The Ravens defense will get some stops to keep Flacco and the offense in it, but New England will dictate the tempo in the final period, mixing enough runs into a game plan centered around Brady’s passing to protect a tight lead and run out the clock. This one will be similar to last month’s loss to Dallas, but the offense will show more this time around, which bodes well for the final three games.

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Ravens will go as far as offense can take them down stretch

Posted on 09 December 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Cornerback Jimmy Smith may have offered the defining statement for the remainder of the season for the Ravens this week.

Asked if his healthy return from a back injury as well as pass rusher Elvis Dumervil’s presence provided optimism that the NFL’s top-ranked defense could get even better down the stretch, the sixth-year defensive back provided an interesting answer. It may have been slightly off-topic and reflective of some yearlong frustration with the opposite side of the ball, but Smith wasn’t wrong in his assessment as the Ravens prepare for their toughest game of the season at New England on Monday night.

“Our defense is going to look even better if — and when — our offense goes out and puts up points,” Smith said. “We can start playing the defense where we can get after a lot of guys, pin our ears back, get sacks and a lot more turnovers. How our offense goes for the next four weeks will [determine] how even more great our defense can be.”

The Ravens are in position to make the playoffs mostly because of their exceptional defense, but it was only this past Sunday when you began feeling they might have a chance to make real noise down the stretch and into January. A season-high 38-point explosion and Joe Flacco’s best performance in two years will bring that kind of optimism for an offense that’s been below average all year.

Of course, going on the road to face a Patriots defense ranking in the top 10 in most statistical categories is a much different challenge than blowing out Miami at M&T Bank Stadium in Week 13. Whether they’re ready or not, the Ravens couldn’t ask for a better test to see if last week was more aberration or transformation.

There’s also the matter of knowing that future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady looms on the opposing side. Expecting the Baltimore defense to shut down the New England offense would be unfair, which is why the Ravens need to start fast and keep the foot on the accelerator like they finally did against the Dolphins.

Even with an elite defense, Flacco doesn’t want to be conservative against anyone, let alone the Patriots.

“You don’t want to wait for them. You do not want to just wait and hope that they do not come back,” Flacco said. “You still have to take your chances and rely on you playing sound football. Understand that if you do make a mistake in the moment, it is still going to pay off in the long run more so than it might hurt you in that one specific play. Yes, you might turn the ball over and they might get a touchdown — a quick touchdown. But if you keep it going, it usually pays dividends in the long run.”

At this point, we know the Ravens are going to throw the ball and throw it a lot. Despite averaging 4.6 yards per carry over their last three games with the same starting offensive line, Flacco is still averaging just under 40 pass attempts per game over that time and ranked behind only Drew Brees in total pass attempts entering Week 14.

The Ravens continued to use the no-huddle offense and exploited the middle of the Dolphins’ pass defense over and over, but will the Patriots allow the same free releases off the line of scrimmage? Will their secondary allow similar cushion for the crossing routes and slants run so effectively by Mike Wallace, Steve Smith, and Breshad Perriman? Will Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia have a better plan to confuse Flacco, who made it look so easy against Miami?

Asked what finally clicked against the Dolphins after weeks of frustration, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg wasn’t interested in taking credit — or divulging any secrets.

“The players did a heck of a job,” Mornhinweg said. “The position coaches who are involved in the game plan did an outstanding job. It’s just that simple.”

Monday will reveal if it really is that simple and whether the newfound optimism for the Ravens is warranted. Only then will we know if Baltimore can forget about the first three months of offensive frustration and turn the page toward an exciting finish to the season.

And we also might be able to see if this defense can reach another level as Smith suggested.

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Ravens trying to turn back clock against New England

Posted on 09 December 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — You can sense the confidence in the Ravens locker room this week.

Winners of four of their last five games and coming off their most impressive performance of the season, the Ravens are suddenly being discussed as a viable threat in the AFC. And while a trip to Gillette Stadium to take on New England won’t be easy, they’re hardly walking into uncharted territory on Monday night.

Few teams have approached the kind of success the Ravens have enjoyed against the Patriots in the John Harbaugh-Joe Flacco era. Of their four postseason meetings in Foxborough, the Ravens own two  victories and their two losses came by a combined seven points.

This marks the first regular-season meeting between these teams in New England since 2010.

“When you have not experienced it much, I think they are a team that can intimidate some people,” Flacco said. “But I don’t think that is us. I think that we have done it enough that we feel good about doing it. We have had good teams. We have always had good teams going up there and a bunch of guys that feel that way and have felt that we can win the game. I think that always helps.”

But how much weight does the past carry?

Only 11 players on the current team were with the organization when the Ravens last beat New England in the 2012 AFC championship game. That group includes Flacco, six-time Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs, five-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda, cornerback Jimmy Smith, and tight end Dennis Pitta.

Of course, players have come and gone on the New England side as well, but future Hall of Fame coach Bill Belichick and future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady have just continued winning.

The last meeting between these teams took place in the 2014 divisional round when Baltimore squandered two different 14-point leads in a 35-31 defeat. Since then, the Patriots have won a Super Bowl and appeared in another conference championship game while the Ravens have gone 12-16 and are trying to avoid missing the playoffs for the second straight year.

This game is not only an opportunity for the Ravens to improve their playoff standing, but it’s a chance to show the football world that they’re back among the serious contenders. Young players such as receiver Breshad Perriman and left tackle Ronnie Stanley will also have their first opportunity to make names for themselves against the Patriots.

“You can’t really transfer experience,” Harbaugh said. “We try to prepare them for what’s going to happen in the next game and prepare them for that as best we can. The past games aren’t a part of this game. It’s the next game, and it’s the one we’re focusing on.”

Win or lose, the Ravens need to show they can compete with a heavyweight like New England on the road as they haven’t won away from M&T Bank Stadium since September 25. With another road showdown looming at Heinz Field against Pittsburgh on Christmas Day, an offense that’s been below average this year must prove last week’s explosion against Miami was more than just a pleasant aberration.

The last time these teams met in the regular season was in 2013 when the Ravens were riding a four-game winning streak and trying to recover from a rough start not terribly different from this year’s. Like we’ve seen this week, the hype was growing before the Patriots came to Baltimore and won by 34 points. The Ravens lost again the following week and missed the playoffs.

Baltimore is the healthier team now without a single defensive player on this week’s injury report while All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski is gone for the season and wide receiver Danny Amendola is not expected to play for the Patriots on Monday. The Ravens also sport their best defense since future Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed were still playing at a high level.

This may not be a must-win game for Baltimore, but it’s an opportunity to send a warning to the rest of the AFC. And it’s a chance to reestablish one of the league’s best rivalries despite the Ravens getting sidetracked over the better part of the last 15 months.

“You’re a fan of football,” safety Eric Weddle said. “Being in San Diego the last few years and not being in the playoffs, you watch those games from afar and are envious of wanting to play in them. Now is my opportunity. It should be a great game.”

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