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Ravens-Jaguars: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 14 November 2015 by Luke Jones

This isn’t a “homecoming” game for the Ravens.

Scoff as much as you’d like over the notion of the 2-6 Jacksonville Jaguars winning a road game for the first time in nearly two years and earning a victory at M&T Bank Stadium for the first time since Bill Clinton was in the White House (1999), but the 2-6 Ravens have no room to be taking any opponent lightly these days. That’s especially true when one of the Jaguars’ greatest strengths — the NFL’s 11th ranked passing game — matches up against Baltimore’s 29th-ranked pass defense.

Head coach John Harbaugh and the Ravens have spoken all week about Sunday providing the opportunity for a fresh start and the first of many steps toward climbing back into an underwhelming AFC playoff race, but they’ll first need to show they’ve put some of their first-half struggles behind them.

It’s time to go on the record as Baltimore and Jacksonville meet for the 19th time in the regular-season history and for the second consecutive year at M&T Bank Stadium. The Jaguars hold a 10-8 advantage in the all-time series, but that can be attributed to Jacksonville winning the first eight all-time meetings between the teams from 1996-1999 when they were old AFC Central foes. Dating back to 2000, the Ravens have won eight of 10 against Jacksonville.

Here’s what to expect as Baltimore tries to win consecutive games for the first time all season …

1. The team that performs better on third down will win on Sunday. This is a boring talking point often used by the unimaginative, but I only bring it up because both teams are so poor in this area, a major reason why they sport matching 2-6 records. The Ravens rank 24th in third-down offense and dead last in the NFL in third-down defense while Jacksonville is 19th in third-down offense and 29th in third-down defense. Baltimore will be challenged to find success running the ball in early-down situations against the league’s seventh-ranked rush defense while the Jaguars want to avoid putting the mistake-prone Blake Bortles in third-and-long spots. This will be critical factor in a close contest.

2. The Ravens secondary will snap Allen Hurns’ touchdown streak, but Allen Robinson will post over 100 receiving yards and a touchdown. Hurns is questionable to play with a foot injury, meaning he will be less than 100 percent if he does find his way to the field on Sunday to try to continue a streak of six consecutive games with a touchdown reception. However, the 2014 second-round pick Robinson is emerging as one of the better big-play threats in the NFL and will create problems for Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb. The Ravens should be fine if they can limit one of Jacksonville’s two impact receivers, but Robinson is just too good for the Baltimore secondary to stop at this point.

3. Kamar Aiken will have an encouraging day as the No. 1 receiver, catching six passes for 80 yards and a score. After two weeks to prepare and to talk a good game, the Ravens will now face the reality of life without Steve Smith the rest of the way. The good news for Baltimore is that Jacksonville sports the league’s 25th-ranked pass defense and has struggled to create pressure on quarterbacks this season, which should allow time for Aiken and Chris Givens to gain separation. Jacksonville’s starting cornerbacks, Davon House and Aaron Colvin, are solid, but No. 3 option Dwayne Gratz is a liability in the nickel, which will create a good matchup for Aiken on a touchdown pass.

4. Bortles will throw a costly interception midway through the fourth quarter. Counting the postseason, the Ravens have created four or more turnovers in a game 51 times in franchise history, but they have just four total takeaways in eight games in 2015. That trend just has to change at some point, right? Bortles has shown plenty of promise and has played at a high level at times this season, but he hasn’t been able to avoid critical mistakes like he made against the New York Jets last week. In a tight game, the Ravens will force their first turnover since Week 3 to end a scoring threat and preserve a narrow lead. The five-game streak without a takeaway has to end — even if it’s by accident.

5. Efficiency will be the theme of the day for Joe Flacco and the Ravens in a 28-23 win over Jacksonville. I feel for the Ravens quarterback, who has been given inferior weapons to work with in two of the last three seasons, but you never hear him complain about the factors regularly working against him. It will be interesting to see how the Ravens offense functions the rest of the way with Steve Smith out and the running game being a disappointment to this point. But Flacco will consistently make plays to move the chains and take a few deep shots to Givens in the process. The Ravens found a way to score 30 points without Smith in Week 5, and they’ll find ways to score enough against Jacksonville.

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Pitta, Ravens make difficult — and right — decision in end

Posted on 11 November 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Dennis Pitta desperately wanted to return to the football field this season.

Still loving the game and feeling a sense of obligation to the Ravens after signing a long-term contract last year, the 30-year-old tight end rehabbed rigorously to return from the second serious hip injury suffered in a 14-month period. But the skilled route-runner known for finding open windows in coverage couldn’t separate from the memory of him collapsing to the ground without being touched after making a simple catch in Cleveland on Sept. 21, 2014.

As difficult as the decision was, he and the Ravens made the right one in the end as he will remain on the reserve physically unable to perform list for the rest of the season.

“Obviously, I’m extremely disappointed that I won’t be out there this season,” Pitta said. “It’s something that I’ve been working hard to be able to do. I’ll continue to rehab and do everything I can to make sure I’m healthy and put myself in the best position that I can.”

His disappointment is understandable after playing in just seven games since dislocating and fracturing his right hip the first time in practice on July 27, 2013. Pitta returned to play in the final four games of that season, catching 20 passes for 169 yards and a touchdown.

The healthy return prompted general manager Ozzie Newsome to sign the 2010 fourth-round pick to a five-year, $32 million contract that included $16 million guaranteed. But Pitta injured his hip a second time in Week 3 of the 2014 season and hasn’t played since.

Returning to practice last month after beginning the season on the PUP list, the Brigham Young product acknowledged hearing conflicting opinions from those close to him — including his concerned wife, Mataya —  about whether he should resume his playing career. According to head coach John Harbaugh and teammates, Pitta looked like his old self making plays against the Baltimore defense in practices, but the stability of a twice-repaired hip wouldn’t allow his safe return at this time.

“It didn’t quite respond the way we had hoped,” said Pitta, who added that there were things on and off the field that weren’t “quite right” with the hip. “Sitting down with doctors over the last couple of days, we decided that it was certainly too much of a risk at this time and too unsafe to take the field. That was a decision that we made collectively.

“At the end of the day, we can’t ignore what sound medical science has to say.”

Pitta said Wednesday that he still hopes to continue his career and isn’t yet ready to announce his retirement, but it’s difficult envisioning what would change doctors’ minds next season after he’s already spent 14 months rehabbing from the second injury. Whether the Ravens will keep Pitta on the roster to find out is another story as his guaranteed $5 million salary for 2015 made it a no-brainer for both sides to explore his potential return this season.

Next year, his $5 million salary is not guaranteed and Pitta is scheduled to carry a $7.2 million salary cap figure. Cutting him in the offseason — possibly with a post-June 1 designation — would save cap space and not leave the Ravens on the hook for his 2016 salary in the event of another injury.

Having drafted two rookie tight ends — Maxx Williams and Nick Boyle — this spring after selecting Crockett Gillmore last year, the the organization prepared this offseason as though Pitta would not be able to return to the field.

Even so, the layers of frustration are apparent for both Pitta and the Ravens in the midst of a 2-6 season.

“It’s been kind of a roller-coaster ride,” said Harbaugh, recalling the memories of both injuries. “You have hopes. I was hoping that he’d be able to play. To see him come out here and perform well [in practices], that part of it was a plus. But the other thing that overrides all of that is the fact that you want what’s best for the player. His safety and going forward as far as his quality of life overrides all of it.”

In parts of five seasons in Baltimore, Pitta has caught 138 passes for 1,369 yards and 11 touchdowns. The 6-foot-4, 245-pound tight end added three more touchdown catches in the 2012 postseason run that culminated with a win in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans, a game in which he caught four passes for 26 yards and a 1-yard touchdown.

No one will ever forget Jacoby Jones’ 70-yard touchdown catch in the divisional-round game in Denver that January, but that game-tying play still may not have mattered if not for Pitta’s catch on third-and-13 from the Ravens’ own 3 in the first overtime period. Baltimore didn’t score on that drive, but the 24-yard reception flipped field position and allowed Sam Koch to eventually punt the ball deep into Denver territory instead of being forced to kick from deep in his own end zone and potentially set the Broncos offense up on a short field.

That critical conversion is easily one of the most underrated plays in franchise history and likely allowed the run to an eventual championship to continue. The spectacular pitch and catch epitomized quarterback Joe Flacco’s trust in his close friend and teammate on the field.

“It’s great to have a guy that you know you can go to and you know what he’s going to do,” Flacco said. “He’s going to be in the right spot, he’s going to win, and he’s going to catch the ball at the end of the day. To have a guy like that on the field with you, it makes your job a little bit easier. He was definitely a big part of that.”

Pitta said Wednesday that he doesn’t want his final play in the NFL to be the one in Cleveland that resulted in him being carted off the field. The Ravens didn’t want that, either.

But both made the right decision not to take the risk of that happening again.

Even if it marks the end of Pitta’s career with the Ravens.

“I’ll continue to work,” Pitta said, “and hopefully that won’t be the end of the story.”

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Clock ticking for Pitta, Perriman to help Ravens in 2015

Posted on 09 November 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Two talented pass-catchers are potentially at opposite ends of their careers with the Ravens.

Each with the clock ticking.

Sixth-year tight end Dennis Pitta faces a Wednesday deadline to determine whether he will attempt to come back this season from the second devastating hip injury of his career suffered more than 13 months ago. Meanwhile, head coach John Harbaugh acknowledged Monday that time is running out if injured first-round receiver Breshad Perriman wants to see the field in his rookie season.

Two weapons, if healthy, who could help quarterback Joe Flacco, but both are surrounded by more questions than answers as the Ravens returned from their bye to begin preparations for Sunday’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

After beginning the season on the physically unable to perform list, Pitta returned to practice on Oct. 21, triggering a 21-day window to determine whether he would return to live-game action this season. The 30-year-old hasn’t played since dislocating and fracturing his right hip for the second time in a 14-month period on Sept. 21, 2014.

“He did look good in practice. We had a tough time covering him,” said Harbaugh, who stated that an announcement would not come before Wednesday. “He was doing stuff from the ‘look’ team and made a bunch of plays out there and just kind of looked like his old self out there.

“But don’t construe that as saying that he’s ready to go, because it’s not about that. It’s going to be about he and the doctors. The doctors are going to take a hard look at that and help him decide, ‘Is this really safe?’”

Pitta’s return wouldn’t necessarily fill a positional need with the Ravens having selected three tight ends in their last two drafts, but the 2010 fourth-round pick was a favorite target of quarterback Joe Flacco, catching seven touchdowns in his last full season in 2012. Pitta caught three more touchdowns that postseason in helping the Ravens win Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.

Though he’s received positive reviews from teammates and coaches in his return to practice, Pitta acknowledged last month that there were conflicting opinions from those close to him on whether he should return to the football field after his second serious injury, which occurred without him being hit. He also said that retirement would be a distinct possibility if he would not be able to return to the field in 2015.

“Dennis is going to play if he can,” Harbaugh said. “There’s no doubt in my mind based on what I’ve talked to him. If it’s safe and he feels like he can get out there and the hip is responding well, he’s going to play. And if it’s not safe, then he’s not going to play.

“I’m sure Tuesday — it is an off-day — we’ll sit down [and] have a pow-wow on it and figure out if that’s what we’re going to do and what the doctors and he say is the best thing.”

While there isn’t as much long-term concern with Perriman, Harbaugh said Monday that he’d like to see the 26th overall pick of this year’s draft be able to play in even the final four games of the season, but he would need to return to the practice field soon in order for that to happen. The 22-year-old sprained the posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on the first day of training camp on July 30 and briefly practiced in late September before a setback prompted arthroscopic surgery and another lengthy absence.

With No. 1 receiver Steve Smith out for the rest of the season and previously intending to retire, Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome would love to take a look at what they have with the first receiver selected in the first round by the organization since Mark Clayton in 2005. The Ravens have carried Perriman on the 53-man roster all season.

“The clock is ticking if he can’t get out there and practice soon,” Harbaugh said. “I’d love to get four games out of him, just so you can see him and he can develop for four games. But that means now we need four weeks of getting him ready to play four games, and I haven’t been told that he’s going to practice this week.

“I think that’s a conversation that the doctors and Ozzie need to have, and we need to make a determination on that real soon.”

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Five Ravens predictions for rest of 2015 season

Posted on 07 November 2015 by Luke Jones

No one expected this.

Even if you wondered why the Ravens were receiving so much preseason love after enduring a number of substantial offseason departures, a 2-6 record at the midway point could haven’t been predicted based on the history of the John Harbaugh era. Now, Baltimore must simply crawl back to respectability before any thought of playoff contention can seep back into the psyche.

If you’re looking for a reason to be optimistic, the Ravens have four remaining games against opponents who entered Sunday with losing records and two others against teams with only .500 marks. After playing five of their first seven on the road to begin 2015, Harbaugh and his team will relish the opportunity to play five of their next seven contests at M&T Bank Stadium.

While inviting you to mock my preseason prophecies for the Ravens from a couple months ago, I offer five new predictions for the second half of the 2015 season …

1. Joe Flacco will remind the Ravens that reworking his contract won’t be cheap this offseason. Simply looking at the numbers won’t tell the story as you can’t expect Flacco and this group of pass-catching targets to excel with Steve Smith out for the rest of the year. That said, the eighth-year quarterback will find a way to make the offense work and play at a respectable level. With Flacco scheduled to carry a $28.55 million cap figure in 2016, both sides knew all along that his six-year, $120.6 million contract signed in 2013 would need to be reworked this offseason. Flacco will play well enough to remind Ozzie Newsome that he can lead the Ravens to the top, especially if the general manager assembles an acceptable group of talent around him unlike two of the last three seasons.

2. Jimmy Smith will start playing more like the cornerback the Ravens signed to a long-term deal last spring. Already lacking playmakers on both sides of the ball, the Ravens could hardly afford to have the fifth-year cornerback play at an underwhelming level coming off last year’s Lisfranc surgery, but Smith has at least played better of late. The surgically-repaired foot should continue to improve as the season goes on, and that will help Smith’s confidence after defensive coordinator Dean Pees recently described his play as “tentative” this season. With other recent deals such as the ones with Eugene Monroe and Dennis Pitta not working out, the Ravens need Smith to look like a No. 1 corner averaging eight figures per year. He’ll begin regaining that form in the second half.

3. Rookie Buck Allen will emerge as a viable offensive weapon coming out of the backfield. It’s easy to say that the Ravens need an inexperienced group of receivers to step up in Smith’s absence, but how much can you reasonably expect from a group of former rookie free agents and castoffs? Baltimore will lean more on its running game and Allen needs more than the 4.6 carries he’s averaged in his first eight NFL games. Justin Forsett will remain the primary ball carrier, but the 2015 fourth-round pick has more explosiveness as a receiver out of the backfield and can help an undermanned passing game. To keep Forsett fresh and to determine whether Allen can at least be a strong No. 2 option, Marc Trestman will give the rookie more opportunities and he will take full advantage.

4. Chris Givens and Terrence Brooks will become starters by the end of the season. Envisioning Givens as a starter isn’t going out on a limb since he played more snaps than Marlon Brown in the San Diego game, but the fourth-year wideout plays with a chip on his shoulder after plummeting down the depth chart in St. Louis and gives Flacco a speed option he lacked at the start of the season with Breshad Perriman sidelined. Givens isn’t a long-term starter, but he will make enough plays to warrant keeping him around as an option to use in three- and four-wide sets in 2016. Meanwhile, veteran Kendrick Lewis has disappointed at safety, and it’s time for the Ravens to see whether Brooks can be a viable starter moving forward. At the very least, he’ll wrestle away the job from Lewis.

5. The Ravens will finish with a 6-10 record to earn a top 10 pick in the 2016 draft. Predicting a dramatic second-half turnaround just isn’t realistic given Baltimore’s lack of overall talent and injuries, but a favorable remaining schedule will translate to more wins for a group that’s continued to compete every week under Harbaugh. Even with two of their three remaining away games coming against teams with losing records, the Ravens shouldn’t be considered a good bet to win on the road. A 6-10 record would have had the Ravens picking as high as eighth or as low as 10th in this spring’s draft. A return to championship contention in 2016 isn’t impossible, but hitting on a couple higher draft picks in the first and second rounds would be a heck of a shot in the arm for a roster lacking elite players.

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Luke Jones on the acquisition of Joe Morgan

Posted on 04 November 2015 by WNST Staff







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S. Smith injury makes Sunday’s win feel like loss for Ravens

Posted on 01 November 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens and their fans deserved to feel good after Sunday’s 29-26 win over the San Diego Chargers.

Only their second win overall and first at M&T Bank Stadium in 2015, the Ravens at least had a modest reason to smile and exhale going into their bye with thoughts of transforming a 2-6 record into a respectable second half with a favorable schedule that includes five home games.

That was until the official news came regarding Steve Smith.

With the 36-year-old receiver suffering a torn Achilles tendon late in the third quarter, we’re now left wondering if we’ve seen the last of Smith, who moved past Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter into 10th place on the NFL’s all-time list for receiving yards on Sunday. Despite recently reconfirming his plans to retire at the end of the 2015 season, the fierce competitor may not want to end his career in such heartbreaking fashion.

In the meantime, reality has yet set in for the Ravens as they try to enjoy their first win in a month and some much-needed rest this coming week. Already lacking playmakers on both sides of the ball, Baltimore just lost its best one as well as one of its most respected leaders on the field and in the locker room.

“I don’t think we’ve felt the full effects of it yet,” cornerback Lardarius Webb said. “I look up to the guy. It’s sad, for the moment, that he not just goes out like that [but] just for him to go down [for] the season. He’s meant so much to this team, just his leadership and the guy who he is.”

Describing any injury as crippling is difficult when you’re already 2-6 and going nowhere in terms of the playoff race, but Smith’s ability and passion are not easily replaced in the second half of the season.

As they have all year with all eight of their games decided by one possession, the Ravens will continue to compete with head coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco leading the way. But much like when they lost six-time Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs in the season opener, the Ravens can’t simply use the “next man up” mantra in response to Smith’s injury.

He’s too important.

“It’s going to be an emotional thing just to lose players like that at any point,” Flacco said. “I’m not afraid to say — when you have a guy like that — what he means to this team, this organization, myself. What he’s done and just the kind of competitor he is, it’s probably a little bit tougher when you lose a guy like that.”

How the Ravens replace Smith’s production will likely keep offensive coordinator Marc Trestman awake at night over the bye week as the 15th-year wideout entered Week 8 with more receiving yards and touchdown catches than every other Baltimore receiver combined. Kamar Aiken will become the No. 1 receiver by default — complete with all 49 of his career receptions — but finding another starter from a group including Marlon Brown, Jeremy Ross, Chris Givens, and Jeremy Butler is a sobering challenge.

The season-long absence of first-round pick Breshad Perriman now becomes even more frustrating with Smith out of the picture and the Ravens not having the opportunity to see how the rookie would fare as the No. 1 receiver, the long-term role they envisioned for him when he was chosen with the 26th overall pick this spring. Harbaugh said last week that Perriman has a “shot” to play this season, but what that means is anyone’s guess after three months of frustration stemming from the 6-foot-2 wideout’s knee injury sustained on the first day of training camp.

Flacco will do what he can to try to maximize this offense, much like he did when the Ravens managed to score 30 points against the Browns with Smith on the sideline. The running game and their trio of young tight ends will become even more important than they already were with an underwhelming group of receivers behind Smith.

With two home dates against Jacksonville and St. Louis following the bye and only two of their eight remaining games against opponents currently holding winning records, the Ravens should be able to find at least a few more wins before the season from hell comes to an end.

But losing Smith is a sickening punch to a gut already too tender from six one-score defeats in eight games and a list of other injuries.

“Obviously, it makes it a little bit tougher than we’d like,” Flacco said, “but we’ve played a game this year without him and I think our guys did a great job stepping up. We were able to put some offense up, put some points on the board. The next guy steps up.

“It’s not like we’re just going to be playing with a ghost out there.”

But it feels that way right now.

And Smith’s injury made a much-needed win feel too much like a loss on Sunday.

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Ravens-Chargers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 31 October 2015 by Luke Jones

Both the Ravens and the San Diego Chargers entered 2015 with high expectations, making their records halfway through the season among the biggest surprises in the NFL.

Now, these struggling teams meet with their playoff hopes all but gone, but the 1-6 Ravens aim for a win to feel good about as they enter next week’s bye. Meanwhile, the Chargers sport the top-ranked passing game in the NFL, but they’ve been a difficult team to figure out after losing by just seven to undefeated Green Bay at Lambeau Field two weeks ago and then falling behind 30-3 to Oakland in the first half of a home loss last Sunday.

With some time off and a chance to escape a miserable season looming, it remains to be seen how focused the Ravens will be as they’ve lost two of their last three games going into their bye week under John Harbaugh.

It’s time to go on the record as Baltimore and San Diego meet for the second consecutive year at M&T Bank Stadium. The teams have split 10 all-time meetings in the regular season with the Chargers winning two of the last three. The Ravens are 2-1 against San Diego in games played in Baltimore.

Here’s what to expect as Baltimore tries to win its first game in three tries against an AFC West opponent this season …

1. The Ravens defense will finally force a turnover after a four-game drought. It’s been more than a month since Elvis Dumervil stripped Andy Dalton of the football and C.J. Mosley picked up the fumble and ran for a touchdown in the Week 3 loss to Cincinnati, which was the last takeaway for Baltimore. Sporting just four takeaways in their first seven games, the Ravens are on pace to shatter the franchise-worst mark of 22 set in 1996 and tied last season. With 18 periods of football having passed without a Ravens takeaway, I won’t bother with specifics, but the defense will come away with one against a San Diego offense that will be throwing a lot and has had its own issues protecting the ball.

2. Chargers receiver Keenan Allen will catch 12 passes for over 130 yards and a touchdown. The 6-foot-2 wideout is off to an incredible start with a whopping 62 catches for 690 yards and three touchdowns in seven games, and there’s not a single Ravens cornerback — including Jimmy Smith — playing with the confidence to slow Allen down right now. With the Baltimore secondary so concerned with giving up the big play, Allen will feast in the short-to-intermediate portion of the field while the Ravens give him plenty of cushion. In the Chargers’ 34-33 win over the Ravens last season, Allen caught 11 passes for 121 yards and two touchdowns and he will post similar numbers on Sunday.

3. Joe Flacco will throw two touchdowns to tight ends against a banged-up San Diego defense. With Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle and starting inside linebacker Manti Te’o both out with injuries, Flacco should find room in the middle of the field for Crockett Gillmore and his two rookie tight ends to move the chains and make plays. The Chargers are allowing a league-worst 5.3 yards per carry and will stack the box trying to stop Justin Forsett, which should open the seam for Flacco to find Gillmore for a few chunk plays. With emerging second-year cornerback Jason Verrett matched against Steve Smith, the Ravens will need their tight ends to make plays in the middle of the field and they will.

4. Philip Rivers will become the second quarterback to throw for over 400 yards at M&T Bank Stadium this season. Considering journeyman Josh McCown passed for more than 450 yards against the Ravens in their last home game, there’s little reason to think a struggling defense will slow the NFL’s leading passer after Rivers nearly threw for 400 yards in last year’s win over Baltimore. With the Ravens only able to generate pressure using the blitz, Rivers will get rid of the ball quickly against a secondary reluctant to play press coverage. This will result in a long day for a Dean Pees defense that ranks dead last in the NFL in third-down defense.

5. Baltimore will not be able to overcome a short week and the league’s top-ranked passing game in a 30-24 loss. At first blush, I was inclined to pick the home team against a 2-5 opponent that was embarrassed at home by the Raiders a week ago, but coming off a short week is a bigger challenge than many think with the Ravens sporting a 3-5 record in games immediately following a Monday road game under John Harbaugh. Until the Ravens prove otherwise, I just can’t see them beating one of the top quarterbacks in the league when their own offense is so mediocre. We haven’t seen the Ravens make enough big plays on either side of the ball, and that will be the difference again in another close loss to a team that just isn’t a great matchup for them, especially with less time to prepare.

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Ravens fans should remember history on Sunday

Posted on 31 October 2015 by Luke Jones

This season hasn’t been fun.

Not for the Ravens, not for their fans, and — believe it or not — not even for reporters, who don’t particularly enjoy asking John Harbaugh and his players the same questions week after week about why they continue losing close games.

With the Ravens returning home at 1-6 and with their once-lofty expectations dashed, many have wondered what that will mean for Baltimore’s six remaining home games. Established as one of the best home-field advantages in the NFL over the last 15 years, M&T Bank Stadium has rarely hosted games at less than full capacity, but the Ravens are off to the worst start in franchise history.

Virtually all tickets were sold long ago, but will the fans still come?

“This is a great city, and I haven’t had any other experience than that while being here,” eighth-year quarterback Joe Flacco said. “Obviously, throughout the course of games when you’re not playing well and things like that, you can feel people get upset. It’s just part of how it is. But in terms of a consistent basis and a game-to-game basis, I don’t know anything else but Baltimore coming out and supporting their teams.

“I would definitely be surprised. But at the end of the day, these people and this city are entitled to good football. And when they’re not getting it, you can understand.”

Yes, you can understand fans not showing up, but one hopes there is some perspective beginning with Sunday’s game against the San Diego Chargers, the same team that recently confirmed its intentions to apply for relocation to Los Angeles next season. It will be 20 years ago this week that Art Modell announced his intentions to move the Cleveland Browns, returning the NFL to Baltimore after a 12-year absence.

Remember the feeling 20-plus years ago when the thought of having even a 1-6 NFL team sounded great?

Those in our 30s remember a childhood without the NFL and with only stories of the old Colts from our parents and grandparents. Baltimore deserves winning football, but that idea need not be defined as a God-given right to playoff football every single year or else.

The Ravens are down in 2015 and need to make improvements in a variety of ways, but the city has an opportunity to prove just how special its fan base really is. Let’s face it, earning a reputation for providing a great home-field advantage isn’t difficult when your team owns just three losing seasons in 15 years and none since 2007.

But what message would 20,000 empty seats send on Sunday? The Ravens are already aware that 1-6 is unacceptable compared to the lofty standards they’ve established over their 20 years in Baltimore, so there’s no need to “protest” to owner Steve Bisciotti. If the losing were to continue in 2016 and beyond, that would be a different story.

To be clear, this isn’t a plea for fans to willingly spend hard-earned money on a substandard product. But if you already have tickets for Sunday’s game as well as the remaining schedule, make sure they’re put to use.

Go to the games, have fun, and forget about the big picture of a disappointing 2015 season for a few hours.

Try to sell your tickets to Ravens fans who might still be willing to spend some money and don’t have season tickets.

Or just give them to a neighbor, relative, or friend if you can’t stomach the thought of watching a losing team in person. Years later, I remain grateful to family friends such as Tom Potteiger, Ed Cook, and Ken Mistovich for those times when they offered Ravens tickets to my father and me as we couldn’t always afford such luxuries when I was growing up.

Large swaths of empty purple seats on Sunday won’t make Baltimore any worse than other cities that won’t support a loser.

But the idea is to be better than that, right?

With two Super Bowl championships, four division titles, and 10 playoff appearances since 2000, the Ravens have brought plenty of joy to Baltimore over the last 15 years.

It would be heartwarming to see the city pick them up when they’re down with a loud and full house on Sunday and once again remind the NFL how great Baltimore really is.

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Avoiding finger-pointing may become Ravens’ biggest challenge

Posted on 27 October 2015 by Luke Jones

You could find excuses anywhere you looked after the Ravens fell to 1-6 on Monday night.

Substandard officiating and malfunctioning headsets are real issues the NFL needs to address, but dwelling on such factors serves no purpose when you’re in the midst of the worst start in franchise history.

An ever-growing list of injuries has stunted the ceiling of the 2015 Ravens, no matter if expectations were too high for such a playmaker-deprived roster to begin with.

Still a few days shy from Halloween, the Ravens face a cruel reality that no one could have anticipated.

The season is over — at least in the scope that football seasons have been viewed in Baltimore over the last 15 years. Even if you’re crazy enough to believe the Ravens are capable of winning eight or nine of their final nine contests in 2015, that still might not be enough as it was only last year that they needed a hand from Kansas City in Week 17 just to sneak into the playoffs with a 10-6 record.

Six losses by one score each might make the Ravens the best 1-6 team in NFL history, but that still only fetches the first overall pick in the 2016 draft if the season were to end today.

If Super Bowl XLVII was John Harbaugh’s finest hour in Baltimore, the eighth-year head coach is now entering his most critical one. With nine games to go in the season from hell, Harbaugh must steer the Ravens clear of the finger-pointing game the rest of the way.

Harbaugh has said this isn’t the first time one of his teams has faced adversity and has maintained that it will make the Ravens better in the long run, but it’s easier to hold the ship together in the midst of a losing streak when you’re still in the heart of the playoff race. Even when the Ravens stood at 0-3 or 1-4 earlier this season, there were historical examples from which to draw inspiration that they could climb back in the hunt.

But at 1-6, the Ravens have entered the territory when everyone — players, coaches, and members of the front office — begins looking over his shoulder. Even the bulletproof Ozzie Newsome has to be feeling at least the slightest bit of anxiety these days when he sees Steve Bisciotti’s name light up on his phone. They wouldn’t be the competitors that they are if that uneasiness didn’t exist right now.

That doesn’t mean Bisciotti will or should clean house, but everyone’s seat — some more than others — should feel at least a little warm over such a poor start.

The truth is that the Ravens aren’t fixing all of their problems this year, meaning not everyone is going to be around to see these dark times through. That goes for players, coaches, and the rest of the organization as change is an annual part of the NFL even when life is good. How much change remains to be seen, but that uncertainty for everyone is what Harbaugh must weather as the face of the organization over the rest of the season.

Right or wrong, it’s human nature for coaches to want to point to the front office and to players, for players to blame coaches and each other, for the front office to point to coaches for not getting the job done with the roster assembled in the offseason, and for all parties to blame injuries, officiating, and any other variable creeping into the equation in a given week. How effectively the Ravens avoid those traps over the next two months will go a long way in determining how long everyone sticks around under Bisciotti, who once fired a Super Bowl-winning coach only a year after he’d led the Ravens to the best regular-season mark in franchise history.

It was less than two years ago that the highly-competitive owner vowed to get more involved if the Ravens repeated the mistakes of a 2013 season that ended in an 8-8 record. Two years later, those problems pale in comparison to what they face now.

“I have to be patient to let people fail, but I don’t have to be patient enough to let people repeat failure,” Bisciotti said in January 2014. “I’ll be more apt to get my way next year if their solutions don’t change the problems. That’s fair, that’s where I am as owner.”

To the credit of Harbaugh, his staff, and his players, there have been few signs of the effort coming into question despite the results not being there. It would be too difficult to continue losing games by one possession if you weren’t giving it your all — or at least close to it — on a weekly basis in the NFL. So far, the Ravens have been quick not to use injuries, bad luck, or talent deficiencies in key areas as excuses and have taken accountability for all shortcomings under their control.

But will growing emphasis on the future prompt individuals to start thinking more about themselves instead of the greater good? It’s that type of thinking that becomes dangerous to a team and an organization.

Even with factors currently out of their control, everyone needs to be better.

Harbaugh and his staff need to accentuate the Ravens’ strengths — as few as there might be — and find ways to mask their weakness — as many as there are — as much as possible.

In a unique position as the franchise quarterback and highest-paid player on the team, Joe Flacco needs to find a way to make it work — at least a little better — with Marc Trestman and an underwhelming group of talent behind Steve Smith. Flacco’s comments about the final drive on Monday night seemed to allude to more than just headset issues and wouldn’t be the first time his words could be interpreted as some disenchantment with his new offensive coordinator. Likewise, a veteran coach like Trestman needs to better organize a group that’s been prone to getting completely out of sync for large portions of games like the offense was in the second half of Monday’s loss.

A poor defense that performed better against Arizona — relative to recent performances at least — has to find a way to build on that showing, starting with a Week 8 challenge against San Diego’s top-ranked passing game. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees lacks the horses to fairly compare this unit to the many great Baltimore defenses of the past, but he’s coaching for his job at this point with the league’s 28th-ranked pass defense.

Every player on the 53-man roster down to the last member on the practice squad needs to dig deep as many will be playing for their futures — in Baltimore or somewhere else — the rest of the way in 2015.

It will be Harbaugh’s responsibility to hold so many moving parts together without the familiar carrot of postseason play ahead and with everyone now looking over his shoulder and facing the temptation to point the finger elsewhere.

And even though much of their work won’t come until the offseason, Newsome and the front office need to do much better than the roster assembled for the 2015 season. An infusion of play-making, impact talent on both sides of the ball needs to occur as quickly as possible, which won’t be easy.

Excuses are all over the place if you’re willing to give in, and playing out the string won’t be pleasant.

But each member of the organization needs to remember that every time you point a finger somewhere else, there are three fingers pointing back at you.

It’s an easy lesson to remember when times are good as they have been for a long time in Baltimore, but the Ravens have never found themselves in a position quite like this before.

In the NFL’s basement and with all hope lost for the 2015 season — at least in the way they envisioned it not too long ago.

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Late first-half fumble pushes Ravens back into all-too-familiar pattern

Posted on 27 October 2015 by Luke Jones

It was beginning to feel like old times for the Ravens late in the second quarter.

Holding a 10-7 lead with just over three minutes left in the first half, the offense had just orchestrated one of its finest drives of the 2015 season and a much-maligned defense had responded by forcing a three-and-out to force the Arizona Cardinals to punt for a second straight possession. Still with two timeouts remaining, the Ravens had visions of growing their advantage before halftime.

They had temporarily made you forget the misery of a 1-5 start, and they suddenly didn’t look like the substantial underdogs that they were entering Monday night.

Of course, that all changed when punter Drew Butler kicked to return man Jeremy Ross, who was promptly stripped of the ball by Cardinals cornerback Justin Bethel. Arizona recovered the fumble on the Baltimore 25-yard line, and replay upheld the ruling on the field.

An unnecessary roughness penalty by Asa Jackson on the punt and pass interference penalties by Lardarius Webb and Brynden Trawick pushed Arizona even closer to the end zone before quarterback Carson Palmer connected with receiver Michael Floyd for a 3-yard touchdown to give the Cardinals a 14-10 lead just before halftime.

The Ravens wouldn’t lead again as neither the offense nor the defense would play as well the rest of the way.

Rinse and repeat.

The “Groundhog Day” narrative intact.

Of course, the fumble wasn’t without controversy as Ross claimed that his knee was down before the ball was jarred lose. It was a close call — one that likely wouldn’t have been overturned by replay had he originally been ruled down by contact — but it’s just the latest example of the Ravens failing to make their own breaks.

We wouldn’t have been discussing the play had Ross simply done his job by securing the ball, something he’s failed to do at previous stops in his NFL career. If we’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that teams leaving plays in the hands of officiating are going to get burned and they rarely have anyone to blame but themselves.

Yes, there were many other variables factoring into Monday’s game, ranging from suspect officiating and faulty headsets to shoddy tackling and Joe Flacco’s underthrow on what should have been a touchdown to Chris Givens early in the second quarter. But Ross’ fumble completely changed the momentum of the game and the Ravens never recovered despite Flacco and the Ravens nearly pulling off a comeback before an end-zone pass intended for Crockett Gillmore was intercepted in the final seconds.

Because of mounting injuries and a severe lack of playmakers, the Ravens simply don’t have the margin for error that they create on a weekly basis. You can complain about officiating all you want — there was plenty to gripe about on Monday night — but the Ravens were still their own worst enemy in the end.

Was the offense able to make the game-changing play — or just move the ball with any consistency at all — in the second half? The Ravens punted on their first four possessions after intermission before a blocked punt by Asa Jackson set them up on the 1-yard line, the first time the offense had been in Arizona territory in the second half.

Did the defense coax Palmer and the Cardinals offense into a critical mistake? The unit is still looking for its first takeaway since Week 3.

After the Ravens looked like their old selves for a sizable portion of the first half, the Ross fumble merely pushed John Harbaugh’s team back into an all-too-familiar pattern that resulted in another loss by a single possession. Perhaps the most sobering part of Monday’s loss was that you felt like the Ravens had played better than they have in recent weeks — they were facing one of the better teams in the NFC on the road, after all — but it still wasn’t enough to overcome their deficiencies.

Yes, the Ravens compete to make games interesting, but they continue doing just enough to keep losing every week.

And their 2015 season has spiraled out of control as a result.

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