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Ravens-Chargers: Five predictions for Sunday

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Ravens-Chargers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 29 November 2014 by Luke Jones

Playing their final game of November, the Ravens welcome the San Diego Chargers to M&T Bank Stadium for a meeting with critical AFC playoff ramifications.

Both teams enter Week 13 with a 7-4 record, but the Chargers face a tall order in trying to become the first West Coast team ever to beat the Ravens in Baltimore. Of course, it’s no secret that West Coast teams flying east for 1 p.m. kickoffs generally don’t fare well as the Chargers were blanked 37-0 at Miami to begin the month of November.

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In addition to simply keeping pace in the very competitive AFC North where all teams in a division are three games above .500 for the first time in NFL history, the Ravens desperately need to improve a 3-4 conference record that can often be crucial in determining playoff spots at the end of the season. Of course, that record will take care of itself if Baltimore simply continues to win down the stretch.

Sunday marks the 10th time these teams have ever met with the Ravens holding a 5-4 all-time advantage and a 2-0 record in Baltimore. The Chargers will be playing in Baltimore for the first time since the 2006 season when Steve McNair threw a last-second touchdown to Todd Heap to give the Ravens a dramatic victory.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to improve to 8-4 in their quest to return to the postseason …

1. Brandon Williams will have another big game as San Diego struggles to run the ball between the tackles. The second-year nose tackle probably hasn’t gotten as much credit as he deserves in his first season as a starter and played his best game of the season in the win over New Orleans. Meanwhile, the Chargers have sent three centers to injured reserve this year and are now relying on rookie Chris Watt at the position. The third-round product from Notre Dame played well in his first start against St. Louis last week, but Williams and Haloti Ngata will make it a long day for a line that won’t be able to open running lanes for running back Ryan Mathews. San Diego will run for less than 85 yards on the day.

2. Chargers receiver Malcom Floyd will catch a touchdown pass matched up against one of the Ravens’ undersized cornerbacks. The Baltimore secondary gave up a slew of passing yards in New Orleans, but the unit was able to make plays when needed as was the case with safety Will Hill’s interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter. The 6-foot-5 Floyd presents a matchup problem without the more physical Jimmy Smith on the field. The 33-year-old has stayed healthy this year and is having one of the better seasons of his career with over 600 receiving yards. He’ll catch a touchdown in the red zone as the Chargers take advantage of his size advantage.

3. Justin Forsett will go over the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the first time in his career. San Diego’s defense is its biggest strength, but the Chargers are allowing 4.4 yards per carry, ranking 21st in the NFL. With the way the offensive line has blocked and Forsett has been able to find seams in the defense, how can you pick against the Baltimore running game at this point? The 29-year-old needs 97 yards on the ground for 1,000 on the season and he’ll reach that mark in the fourth quarter. The Ravens will establish the run early to set up play-action opportunities down the field against a strong secondary and the league’s sixth-ranked pass defense.

4. San Diego left tackle King Dunlap will not be able to stop Terrell Suggs, who will pick up two sacks on the day. It hasn’t been a poor season for the veteran linebacker, but you know he’d love to narrow the gap between his six sacks and Elvis Dumervil’s team-leading 12 1/2 in 2014. Suggs will have a great opportunity against Dunlap, who has struggled in pass protection and is much more effective as a run blocker. After crossing the 100-sack threshold for his career last week, Suggs will add two more to his total as the Chargers focus on giving right tackle D.J. Fluker more help in blocking Dumervil. The inability to run the football will leave San Diego with plenty of difficulty protecting the pocket all day.

5. Philip Rivers will throw for more yards than Joe Flacco, but the running game will control the tempo in a 26-14 win for the Ravens. The Chargers quarterback will play admirably, but the lack of a running game will have him running for his life far too often. In contrast, the Ravens’ ability to run the ball will limit Flacco’s opportunities, but the seventh-year quarterback will be efficient and cautious against a talented secondary. The Ravens will control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and have allowed just 10.6 points per home game this season. If this game were being played in San Diego, the result might be different, but the Ravens will be in command from the start on their way to a relatively comfortable win.

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Ravens built for strong finish in tight AFC playoff picture

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Ravens built for strong finish in tight AFC playoff picture

Posted on 25 November 2014 by Luke Jones

NEW ORLEANS — The Ravens spent much of the spring and summer insisting they weren’t going to entertain thoughts of last season when they missed the playoffs for the first time under head coach John Harbaugh.

But linebacker Terrell Suggs wanted his teammates to remember exactly what happened a year ago as they returned from their bye this past week with a crucial road game at New Orleans staring them in the eye. It’s safe to say the Ravens responded to the veteran’s message with a crucial 34-27 win over the Saints to improve to 7-4, keeping pace in a combative and tight AFC North.

“Down this stretch, this is important,” said Suggs, who pressured quarterback Drew Brees into throwing an interception returned for a touchdown by safety Will Hill to give Baltimore the lead for good in the third quarter. “Last year, this is where we kind of lost ourselves, we kind of lost our way. Unfortunately, we were left out of the playoffs on the outside looking in. We don’t want to feel like that this year.”

Over the years, the Ravens have taken pride in saying they’re built for December and January, but the label didn’t fit last season as they couldn’t run the ball and struggled to pressure opposing quarterbacks down the stretch. Needing only one win in their final two weeks to secure a playoff spot, the Ravens lost their final two games by a combined 51 points.

If Monday night’s win was any indicator, the Ravens are primed to finish strong and make it back to the postseason — even with a very tight playoff picture. And it begins with Justin Forsett and the improved play of the offensive line under new coordinator Gary Kubiak.

Rushing for a career-high 182 yards and two touchdowns, Forsett continues to be one of the best stories of the 2014 season as his 5.8 yards per carry average leads all NFL running backs by a sizable margin. The offensive line consistently opens running lanes and the 29-year-old keeps finding daylight as he did repeatedly against New Orleans Monday night.

It’s the kind of style that should hold up nicely down the stretch for three more cold-weather games in Baltimore and whatever January could bring.

“Justin — awesome job, obviously, all year,” said quarterback Joe Flacco, who was very efficient in completing 18 of 24 passes for 243 yards and a touchdown. “The work he’s putting in, the results he’s getting and what he’s doing for this team was huge. Our offensive line’s doing a good job, and they’re creating those seams. He’s got good vision. He’s not letting the guy tackle him in the hole with his arms or anything like that. He’s breaking those little things.”

Defensively, the numbers looked ugly Monday as the Ravens surrendered 525 total yards, but the eyeball test was far more acceptable. Aside from Joseph Morgan’s 67-yard run on the second play from scrimmage, the Saints only ran for 59 yards on 20 carries.

The Ravens put plenty of heat on Brees as Elvis Dumervil collected two of four sacks total and the pass rush recorded eight quarterback hits in all. The secondary continues to be an area of concern and will likely remain that way for the rest of the season, but the emergence of Hill gives coordinator Dean Pees at least one defensive back with some playmaking ability and a consistent pass rush goes a long way in hiding vulnerabilities on the back end.

Much of the success of a 7-4 start can be attributed to the Ravens’ ability to win at the line of scrimmage, whether talking about their offensive line or the front seven’s ability to stop the run and wreak havoc on quarterbacks. It’s cliched to talk about dominating the trenches, but Baltimore has a great chance to punch its ticket to the playoffs by continuing to do just that.

How would the Ravens stack up against the likes of high-powered offenses like New England or Denver in the playoffs? They have to worry about getting to January first playing in a division where all teams are three games above .500 — the first time that’s happened in NFL history, per the Elias Sports Bureau.

“You’re going to have to win a lot of games to win the division,” Harbaugh said. “You’re going to have win a lot of games to make the playoffs in our conference. It’s just a fact. You’re going to need every win you can get.”

The Ravens appear well equipped to play into January with a strong running game and one of the best front sevens in football. It’s a profile that holds up well against most opponents, home or away.

And it allows them to overcome their weaknesses, something they were able to do Monday night in one of their biggest road wins in recent memory.

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Ravens-Saints: Five predictions for Monday night

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Ravens-Saints: Five predictions for Monday night

Posted on 23 November 2014 by Luke Jones

Fresh off their bye week and trying to complete a 2014 sweep of the NFC South, the Ravens return to the site of Super Bowl XLVII to take on the reeling New Orleans Saints Monday night.

Baltimore hopes that a Week 11 bye coupled with the Saints’ two-game losing streak will create enough momentum to snap New Orleans’ 14-game winning streak in prime-time home games. The 4-6 Saints are trying to find some semblance of consistency in a division in which no team has made a strong claim as a viable playoff contender.

The Ravens are 5-1 in games coming off their bye week in the John Harbaugh era and will attempt to win their third road game of the season. While they were able to find success against an underwhelming Tennessee offense in Week 10, the Baltimore secondary will have its hands full against the league’s third-ranked passing attack.

Monday marks the sixth all-time meeting between these teams with the Ravens holding a 4-1 advantage. This is the first contest between these teams at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome since the 2006 season — which resulted in a 35-22 win for Baltimore — but the Ravens are obviously familiar with the surroundings after winning the Super Bowl in New Orleans two years ago.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to improve to 7-4 to keep pace in the AFC North …

1. Will Hill will draw the bulk of the assignment against Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, who will catch a touchdown and eclipse 80 receiving yards. Much was made about Cincinnati’s physicality last week in limiting the All-Pro tight end to just three catches for 29 yards, but the Ravens haven’t exactly been imposing in the back end of the defense aside from Terrence Brooks’ big hit on Tennessee’s Delanie Walker two weeks ago. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will try to mix it up as much as possible against Graham, but Hill is the best fit with his 6-foot-1, 207-pound frame and ability in coverage. The Ravens have held tight ends in check for most of the season, but they haven’t encountered a talent like Graham and he will bounce back from a tough week against the Bengals with a strong game in Week 12.

2. Steve Smith and Marlon Brown will catch touchdowns passes against a banged-up New Orleans secondary. A week off and a meeting with an old foe he tormented year after year as a member of the Carolina Panthers are just what the doctor ordered for the 35-year-old Smith whose production has declined in recent weeks. The Saints are down to their third-string free safety and top cornerback Keenan Lewis has been dealing with a knee issue, which will lead to the veteran wideout finding the end zone for the first time since Week 6. Looking to boost their 19th-ranked red-zone offense, the Ravens will rediscover Brown as a viable option inside the 20 as the 6-foot-5 receiver will rein in a pass in the back of the end zone for his first touchdown of the 2014 season.

3. The Ravens will contain top rusher Mark Ingram, but a returning Pierre Thomas will create problems as a receiver out of the backfield. After a very slow start to his NFL career, Ingram has emerged in 2014 with a 4.5 yards per carry average to take over the feature back role for New Orleans, but the Baltimore defense has allowed only 3.4 yards per carry and won’t have an issue keeping him in check. The return of Thomas — who hasn’t played since Week 7 — will be critical for a passing game that will miss the injured Brandin Cooks, who was becoming the Saints’ second-best receiver behind Graham as a short-to-intermediate target. With the secondary providing plenty of cushion and linebackers paying close attention to wherever Graham is, the Saints will slip Thomas free out of the backfield repeatedly to move the chains.

4. C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith will both collect sacks as the Ravens use inside blitzing to try to get to Drew Brees. Pees knows his defense must create pressure in the pocket against one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, but Saints tackles Terron Armstead and Zach Strief have been the strengths of their offensive line, meaning it won’t be a given that Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs will create enough heat. The best way to pressure Brees is up the middle where center Jonathan Goodwin and guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs have struggled in pass protection. Smith and Mosley have both been effective as A-gap blitzers, making it a good bet that the Ravens will try to ambush Brees up the middle. The strategy will pay off with each inside linebacker collecting a sack on Monday night.

5. Joe Flacco and Brees will each throw for over 250 yards, but the veteran will be a little better in a 31-23 win for New Orleans. A few weeks ago, it would have been tough to give the Ravens much of a chance in this one following the injury to Jimmy Smith on top of the Saints’ reputation for playing so well at home. But New Orleans is difficult to figure out with two straight losses at home that came after blowing out mighty Green Bay less than a month ago. On the other hand, a solid performance against the Titans isn’t enough to ease concerns that the Ravens secondary will be able to prevent the Saints from passing up and down the field all night. Flacco and the offense will put together one of their better road performances of the year, but it won’t be quite enough to put the Ravens over the top on Monday night.

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Flacco, wife expecting third child in January

Posted on 21 November 2014 by Luke Jones

The Ravens hope to return to the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years, but quarterback Joe Flacco will have something else on his mind right around then should it happen.

According to the team’s official website, Flacco and wife Dana are expecting their third child in January and the quarterback hopes they won’t be stopping at three. Their first son Stephen is 2 years old while Daniel was born last season.

“I’d be satisfied with five,” Flacco said. “Kids are a lot of fun. It would be cooler to have more, but if we got to five and that was it, I’d be cool with that. I’m satisfied now, but I want as many as I could have.”

If not for the circumstances of their second son being born the morning of last year’s home opener against Cleveland, many would wonder if Flacco’s availability could come into question should the Ravens advance to the playoffs, but the quarterback started on that day and led the Ravens to a win. He did skip a minicamp practice to be present for the birth of his first child in 2012.

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Marlon Brown key to Ravens unlocking more red-zone production?

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Marlon Brown key to Ravens unlocking more red-zone production?

Posted on 20 November 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Some expected wide receiver Marlon Brown’s production to dip this year after a 2013 campaign in which he caught 49 passes for 524 yards as the Ravens’ most surprising rookie.

The free-agent acquisitions of Steven Smith and Owen Daniels as well as the expected presence of a healthy Dennis Pitta meant the 6-foot-5 undrafted free agent from the University of Georgia would likely fall down at least a couple pegs in the receiving hierarchy, but Brown has been an afterthought through the first 10 weeks of the 2014 season. Catching only 10 passes for 93 yards in eight games — he missed two games with a pelvic injury — Brown keeps waiting and working for his opportunity while learning from seasoned veterans who weren’t on the roster when he was a rookie.

“I’m a competitor and I love to make plays and make the team [better],” said Brown, who has seen more playing time recently and has caught five passes for 45 yards over the Ravens’ last two games. “Obviously, I would like to be able to make more plays and be put in that position. At the end of the day, I tip my hat to Owen Daniels and Steve Smith. Those are the vets. I’m learning every day from these two greats, so I can’t complain about anything.”

Anyone who watched Brown play as a rookie knew his extensive playing time was as much about attrition at the wide receiver position as any other factor, but it was difficult not to be impressed with his size and potential as a target inside the 20. The Ravens ranked 31st in the red zone in 2013, but Brown was often their only option in that area of the field as he made all seven of his touchdown receptions on plays starting inside the opponent’s 20.

A year later, the Baltimore offense is much better under new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, ranking 12th in total yards and tied for seventh in points per game. But the red zone remains an area in which the Ravens could improve as they’re eighth in the NFL in trips inside the 20, but they’ve scored touchdowns on only 54.1 percent of those drives, ranking 19th in the league.

“We need to be more efficient down there. We had some bad games early,” said Kubiak, pointing to the Week 2 win over Pittsburgh when the Ravens were only 2-for-6 inside the 20. “That puts you behind the eight ball pretty quick. But the red zone is an interesting stat, because sometimes you may come out of a game 2-for-2 and you didn’t win the game. It’s about the importance of when you’re down there, in my opinion, and it’s fixing to get very important here over the next six weeks. Usually, we’re at our best when we run the ball pretty well.”

The dramatic improvement with the offense this year has largely been the result of a consistent ground game, but the question lingers over who quarterback Joe Flacco can really depend on inside the red zone after Pitta was lost for the season in Week 3.

Smith has been Baltimore’s leading receiver this year, but his 5-foot-9 frame and ability to work in space is neutralized in a constricted area as he’s caught only four passes for 22 yards inside the 20 this season. Torrey Smith caught two touchdowns inside the red zone against Tampa Bay in Week 6, but he’s generally not the receiver who’s going to attack the ball when it’s up for grabs.

All three of Daniels’ touchdown receptions this season have come inside the red zone, but opposing defenses have keyed on him in the middle portion of the field as the Ravens move closer to the goal line, meaning someone else needs to emerge.

Despite his encouraging work inside the red zone during his rookie year, Brown has yet to be targeted inside the 20 in 2014. He’s an option Kubiak would be wise to consider as the Ravens have rarely used the jump ball in the end zone. Brown’s frame makes him the perfect candidate for occasionally featuring that strategy close to the goal line.

“He’s much more involved right now,” Kubiak said. “He has a big body, a chance to make some plays. So, it’s going to take all of us, and I’m sure Marlon will get his opportunities.”

At this point, Brown shouldn’t be mistaken for a starting-caliber receiver or a player on which you can rely to run precise routes all over the field, but his size is something the Ravens should try to utilize. And even if the offense has more overall talent than it did a year ago, Brown made plays against NFL defenses inside the red zone last season, proving he has the ability to contribute in an area that needs more efficiency.

It’s worth giving him a look as the Ravens try to make it back to the postseason in their final six games.

“I’m definitely trying to improve as a player, as a receiver in all the routes,” said Brown, who downplayed any difficulty he had learning Kubiak’s system as some have speculated. “I don’t want to be a guy who just runs red-zone routes or just runs [certain] routes. I want to run all the routes. I’m just trying to learn as much as I can from all these guys while they’re here. I’m just trying to take advantage and soak in anything.”

Brown soaking in a few touchdowns inside the red zone would be an encouraging development for the Ravens down the stretch.

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Ravens hoping old foe brings out best in Steve Smith

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Ravens hoping old foe brings out best in Steve Smith

Posted on 19 November 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Steve Smith wasn’t hiding his enthusiasm for playing on Monday Night Football as the Ravens are preparing to travel to the Big Easy this weekend to take on the New Orleans Saints.

He knows the entire country will be watching as this was the platform last year in which Smith uttered his now famous post-game phrase, “Ice up, son.”

“You get real excited,” Smith said on Wednesday. “Family members get to see you play. Ex-girlfriends that wished they wouldn’t have dumped you, they’re questioning themselves right now. It’s fun.”

The Ravens hope their top wide receiver will break a few more hearts Monday as he faces an opponent he’s very familiar with going back to his days playing in the NFC South. Entering 2014, his 99 catches, 1,493 receiving yards, and 10 touchdown receptions in 23 career games against New Orleans were more than he had produced against any other team. The Saints’ 24th-ranked pass defense could certainly lend a hand in a happy reunion as well.

The longtime Carolina Panther has continued his success against his old division this season, catching 15 passes for 316 yards and three touchdowns in three games against Carolina, Tampa Bay, and Atlanta. Baltimore would benefit from another huge game in trying to hand New Orleans a third consecutive home loss.

And it would be a comforting rebound for the veteran considering he caught only 11 passes for 88 yards and no touchdowns in the last three games prior to the bye — two of them losses to AFC North rivals.

“If we’re playing the way we want to, then he and everybody are going to be a big part of it,” said quarterback Joe Flacco, who downplayed Smith’s recent decline in production. “He’s had some pretty good games against these guys. Obviously, he’s played these guys for a long time, so hopefully when we get there, he feels comfortable and we get him another big game against these guys.”

After recharging from a physical standpoint last week, Smith has been all business returning to Owings Mills this week as he spent more than an hour with wide receivers coach Bobby Engram on Tuesday. The pair watched more than 100 plays together as Smith evaluated his own performance over the first 10 games of the season after posting four 100-yard games to tie a single-season franchise record.

Acknowledging he walked into the film room “kind of down” as he prepared to jot down his critique in a notebook, Smith said he felt encouraged after seeing so much positive while also identifying what he needs to do better. In the midst of his 14th NFL season, Smith leads the Ravens with 49 catches and 728 receiving yards.

“I need to be more dependable in certain areas,” Smith said. “And that falls on me. That doesn’t fall on Joe, doesn’t fall on [offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak], it doesn’t fall on [head coach John Harbaugh], or anybody. That falls directly on me. I’m a professional. I’ve been in this game for a long time. And if you can’t hold yourself accountable, you can’t expect anybody else to do it for you.

“I can’t expect Joe to believe in me that I’m going to win on a route if I haven’t done the proper technique, lined up, and run a route the way it’s suppose to be run for him to depend on me. That falls on me first. And that’s what I did in my bye week — enjoy my family — but I sat back and took some time and said, ‘What am I not bringing to the table, and why am I not doing it?’”

One of those areas to which Smith was referring could have been inside the red zone as the veteran has made just four receptions for 22 yards inside the opponent’s 20 this season. Of course, his 5-foot-9, 195-pound frame doesn’t make him the prototypical target for that area of the field, but one doesn’t accumulate 71 career touchdown receptions without at least some production near the goal line.

Despite Smith’s concerns and self-evaluation, the Ravens don’t appear overly concerned as Kubiak acknowledged last week that it falls on his shoulders to keep various weapons involved in the offseason while taking Smith’s recent production in stride with the overall ebb and flow of a 16-game schedule.

Needless to say, Smith and the Ravens are hoping he finishes the season with the same explosiveness in which he started, but some doubts will naturally linger about a 35-year-old receiver.

“I have to always find ways to get guys the ball,” Kubiak said. “I wish I could get them all the perfect amount every week, but those things usually don’t work that way. You have to get all of your play-makers the ball. Steve is doing a good job, and hopefully we get him back on the track that he was on earlier in the year. But he’s playing hard, working hard.”

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Kubiak examining Flacco’s recent uneven play during bye

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Kubiak examining Flacco’s recent uneven play during bye

Posted on 12 November 2014 by Luke Jones

After players departed the Owings Mills facility for their bye earlier this week, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak was asked to assess the recent play of quarterback Joe Flacco with the Ravens standing at 6-4 in the AFC North.

Such questions about individual players are typically met with generic responses stating the individual is playing well or making a lot of progress, but Kubiak didn’t shy away from addressing the recent struggles of his quarterback. Since throwing 14 touchdowns and five interceptions while posting a 97.3 passer rating through the first seven games, Flacco has thrown three touchdowns and three interceptions with a 75.5 rating over the last three contests with the Ravens losing to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh before rebounding at home to beat lowly Tennessee last Sunday.

“That’s kind of what I’m looking at right now,” Kubiak said. “You go through phases throughout the course of a season. Joe went through a really hot stage [for] about three or four weeks. Then, we went through a stage here where we turned the ball over. We calmed that down last weekend, which is a big reason why we were able to be successful.”

Of course, the performance of the Ravens quarterback is always a polarizing topic as his biggest detractors blame him for all of the team’s failures while inevitably reminding everyone of his hefty contract. This then prompts a segment of Flacco’s strongest supporters pointing out all other offensive issues out of his hands while seemingly giving the seventh-year signal-caller a pass for how he’s played. As is typically the case, the reason for his recent decline in performance lies somewhere in between.

It’s no secret that the Ravens’ offensive line struggled to handle the pass rush of both the Bengals and the Steelers as Flacco was often harassed with pressure up the middle. Center Jeremy Zuttah was repeatedly pushed back in the pocket in both games and Steelers linebacker James Harrison suddenly looked like the 2008 version of himself in Week 9, but the quarterback can’t be completely absolved from criticism as he made some poor decisions that led to critical interceptions and often appeared rattled, which affected his accuracy and decision-making at times in both games.

The recent struggles with interior pressure carried over to the start of the Tennessee game as the quarterback continued the recent habit of throwing off his back foot, even when pressure wasn’t coming. And this is where some blame lies with the quarterback as Kubiak preaches good footwork and Flacco has often been quick to move when he hasn’t needed to or he has failed to step up in the pocket when pressure is coming off the edge.

There’s also been the issue of how effectively the Ravens are adjusting to blitzes with many questioning Flacco’s ability to audible at the line of scrimmage and Kubiak’s route concepts when opposing defenses are consistently pinning their ears back. If adjustments aren’t made on both fronts, opposing defenses will continue to copy the blueprint of Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

“We have to clean up some of our decision-making,” Kubiak said, “and I think I can help him with that by how I call plays, too. So, that’s what I’m kind of trying to really check myself probably first before I go to Joe and say, ‘OK, this is what we’re going to do.’ That’s kind of what I’m trying to do right now.”

The truth is Flacco is having a good year overall as he’s on pace to throw a career-high 27 touchdowns and eclipse the 4,000-yard mark for the first time in his career. His 62.4 percent completion rate is his best since 2010, but the Ravens will need him to elevate his play down the stretch considering the defensive concerns in the secondary.

It is worth noting that Flacco has thrown 10 of his 17 touchdowns in three games against the lowly NFC South as Carolina, Tampa Bay, and Atlanta all currently rank in the bottom eight in the NFL in total defense. In his other seven games this season — five against the AFC North — Flacco has thrown seven touchdowns and six interceptions for a 77.2 passer rating.

Overall, the offensive line has done a good job protecting Flacco as he’s only been pressured on 30 percent of his dropbacks — the 10th-best mark in the league, per Pro Football Focus — but his 61 percent accuracy rate (passes completed including drops) under pressure ranks only 16th in the NFL. Flacco’s receivers have often let him down this year as they’re tied for third in the NFL with 23 dropped passes, according to PFF, and questions will remain about how many consistent playmakers the quarterback really has to throw to.

Kubiak’s comments shouldn’t be interpreted as sounding the alarm over how Flacco has played, but the Ravens offense must be better down the stretch in all phases. The season-ending loss of Dennis Pitta has limited Baltimore’s options over the middle portion of the field, but the return of Michael Campanaro could provide a complement to Owen Daniels in that area of the field as the rookie was slowly beginning to emerge as a short-to-intermediate target prior to his hamstring injury in Week 8.

More than anything, the last three weeks have shown the offense under Kubiak remains a work in progress with more room to grow down the stretch. And Kubiak trying to bring out the best in Flacco will be critical in determining the Ravens’ fate at the end of the season as they’ll likely need to win at least one or two of their last three road games (New Orleans, Miami, and Houston) to put themselves in position to return to the playoffs.

“I’m trying to go back and really look at the things that he’s very comfortable with and doing very well, and maybe some of the things I’ve asked him to do here over the course of a few weeks that maybe got him out of that comfort zone,” Kubiak said. “I’m trying to find that as a coach as we get into these last six weeks [and] get him as comfortable as I can. But Joe is working really hard.”

 

 

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Mosley second among NFL inside linebackers in Pro Bowl voting

Posted on 12 November 2014 by WNST Staff

PRESS RELEASE

Denver Broncos quarterback PEYTON MANNING, with 359,598 votes, leads all NFL players in balloting for the 2015 Pro Bowl, NFL.com announced today.

Fan voting for the 2015 Pro Bowl, presented by McDonald’s, will continue online and on web-enabled mobile phones by going to www.NFL.com/probowl/ballot until Monday, December 15.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback ANDREW LUCK (284,575 votes) ranks second overall, while Green Bay Packers quarterback AARON RODGERS (280,394 votes), Dallas Cowboys running back

DE MARCO MURRAY (263,097 votes) and New England Patriots quarterback TOM BRADY (254,807 votes) round out the top five on NFL.com.

Balloting will conclude on Monday, December 15. The Pro Bowl players will be announced on Tuesday, December 23.

Players will later be assigned to teams through the Pro Bowl Draft during the week leading up to the game, which will also air on NFL Network.

The 2015 Pro Bowl will be played on Sunday, January 25, 2015 and televised live on ESPN at 8:00 PM ET from University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, site of Super Bowl XLIX.

The Pro Bowl will be “unconferenced” for the second consecutive year.

Last season, the familiar AFC vs. NFC match-up that had existed since 1971 was eliminated. Instead, players are selected without regard to conference in voting by fans, coaches and players. For example, the top six quarterbacks following voting will earn distinction as All-Stars, regardless of how many are from AFC or NFC teams.

Then, the NFL’s All-Stars will be realigned through a fantasy football-style draft.

The Pro Bowl players are determined by the consensus votes of fans, players and coaches. Each group’s vote counts one-third toward determining the 88 All-Star players who will be eligible for the Pro Bowl Draft.

NFL players and coaches will cast their votes on December 19. The NFL is the only sports league that combines voting by fans, coaches and players to determine its all-star teams. It was the first professional sports league to offer online all-star voting in 1995.

Fans interested in purchasing Pro Bowl game tickets may go to NFL.com/probowl for more information.

NFL ALL-STAR TOP-TEN VOTE-GETTERS

 

POS.

NAME, TEAM

VOTES

QB

Peyton Manning, Denver

359,598

QB

Andrew Luck, Indianapolis

284,575

QB

Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay

280,394

RB

DeMarco Murray, Dallas

263,097

QB

Tom Brady, New England

254,807

RB

Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh

210,331

WR

Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh

200,230

QB

Philip Rivers, San Diego

199,720

RB

Arian Foster, Houston

196,306

RB

Matt Forte, Chicago

182,940

 

NFL LEADING VOTE-GETTERS BY POSITION

 

POS.

NAME, TEAM

VOTES

POS.

NAME, TEAM

VOTES

QB

Peyton Manning, Denver

359,598

DE

J.J. Watt, Houston

155,819

QB

Andrew Luck, Indianapolis

284,575

DE

DeMarcus Ware, Denver

134,126

RB

DeMarco Murray, Dallas

263,097

DT

Marcell Dareus, Buffalo

104,416

RB

Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh

210,331

DT

Muhammad Wilkerson, NYJ

91,610

FB

John Kuhn, Green Bay

78,995

OLB

Von Miller, Denver

101,875

FB

Darrel Young, Washington   78,138

OLB

Justin Houston, Kansas City

71,063

WR

Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh

200,230

ILB

Luke Kuechly, Carolina

105,730

WR

Demaryius Thomas, Denver

182,922

ILB

C.J. Mosley, Baltimore

71,246

TE

Rob Gronkowski, New England

166,066

CB

Kyle Fuller, Chicago

83,363

TE

Julius Thomas, Denver

148,461

CB

Aqib Talib, Denver

83,223

T

Tyron Smith, Dallas

77,959

SS

Kam Chancellor, Seattle

47,667

T

Ryan Clady, Denver

77,442

SS

Antrel Rolle, NYG

36,979

G

Zack Martin, Dallas

68,896

FS

Tashaun Gipson, Cleveland

48,674

G

Josh Sitton, Green Bay

55,333

FS

Earl Thomas, Seattle

40,246

C

Travis Frederick, Dallas

79,612

P

Tress Way, Washington

34,520

C

Maurkice Pouncey, Pittsburgh

72,836

P

Pat McAfee, Indianapolis

27,015

K

Stephen Gostkowski, New England

67,814

ST

Matt Slater, New England

36,679

K

Dan Bailey, Dallas

57,618

ST

Jarrett Bush, Green Bay

25,224

RS

Devin Hester, Atlanta

50,897

 

RS

Adam Jones, Cincinnati

33,157

 

 

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Slow starts by Ravens offense could prevent strong finish

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Slow starts by Ravens offense could prevent strong finish

Posted on 09 November 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Sunday was a good day for the Ravens as they embarked on their bye week with a 6-4 record and remained right in the thick of an AFC North race that features all four teams with winning records.

In addition to making it through Sunday’s victory over the Tennessee Titans without any significant injuries, a revamped secondary passed its first test and the Pittsburgh Steelers stubbed their toe to leave Cleveland alone in first place, further jumbling the AFC North with less than two months remaining in the regular season. Even with their struggles, injuries, and missed opportunities through the first 10 weeks, the Ravens are in perfect position to make a run in a division in which just a half-game separates first and last place.

But it would be a lie to suggest the 21-7 win over the 2-7 Titans went exactly as planned as the final score didn’t reflect just how uncomfortable the Ravens were for a sizable portion of the afternoon. In fact, Baltimore was fortunate to be tied 7-7 at halftime after the Titans had fumbled at the Ravens’ 1-yard line on the opening drive of the game.

“We weren’t playing very well,” Harbaugh said about his team’s performance in the first half. “We were out of sync, we weren’t handling pressures, we couldn’t run the ball, we couldn’t cut them off in the back side. They owned the line of scrimmage there in the first half, but we managed to figure out a couple ideas, hit a couple passes, and start to crack them in the run game.”

The Ravens did make the adjustments to make some plays through the air in the second half and rush for an impressive 151 yards while committing zero turnovers, but Sunday marked the third straight week in which the offense has started slowly. It’s a frustrating development after the unit appeared to be finding its stride last month when the Ravens scored a combined 77 points in wins over Tampa Bay and Atlanta.

In their last three games, the Ravens have managed to score just 23 total points in the first half. Of course, struggling on the road against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh isn’t shocking, but managing just seven points and 86 total yards in the first half at home against the Titans’ 23rd-ranked defense isn’t encouraging with consecutive games against top 10 passing offenses — New Orleans and San Diego — coming right after the bye. A difficult road game at playoff-contending Miami follows after that.

It’s fair to point out that the Titans were coming off their own bye and had an extra week to prepare, but Gary Kubiak’s offense should have been able to jump on a defense that ranked 28th against the run and 22nd in points allowed per game. Instead, the Ravens couldn’t pass, run, or block for much of the first 30 minutes of the game aside from a 46-yard touchdown drive midway through the second quarter that was set up by excellent field position.

“They really came up after us and played a lot of cover zero and tried to get us off balance as much as they could,” said quarterback Joe Flacco, who completed 16 of 27 passes for 169 yards and a 32-yard touchdown to Torrey Smith in the fourth quarter. “They were able to get some guys free to defend our passing game. It was tough sledding in there, but I thought we hung in there really well. It was a really tough game and nothing came easy and we really had to grind it out.”

The Ravens did what was needed in the second half and rushed 16 times for 85 yards in the fourth quarter to chew the clock, but they’ll need much more from their offense over the final six weeks of the season to keep themselves in good position to make it back to the playoffs. New cornerbacks Anthony Levine and Danny Gorrer deserve credit for the way they held up in the secondary, but Baltimore can’t depend on its defense to turn in the same kind of performance against teams with proven offenses.

And Kubiak needs to figure out a way to get his offense going more quickly than it has in the last few weeks. Whether it’s making quicker adjustments to counteract the A-gap blitzes that have given Flacco and the offensive line difficulty or being more imaginative with passing routes, the Ravens offense needs to be able to find a tempo from the very beginning instead of having it dictated to them like it has over the last three games.

“We have to be able to bounce back,” said Forsett, who rushed for a season-high 112 yards and two touchdowns. “Sometimes, you start slow, but you’ve got to be able to finish strong, and we showed some resilience. I’m proud of the way we worked today.”

The Ravens should feel good about the win and where they stand in the playoff hunt while they reap the benefits of a week off, but the offense needs to be able to explode out of the gate for the final six weeks.

They’re going to need faster starts to be able to finish strong down the stretch.

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Ravens right tackle Wagner earning attention in ways few expected

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Ravens right tackle Wagner earning attention in ways few expected

Posted on 05 November 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens coaches offered similar sentiments over and over as second-year right tackle Rick Wagner was trying to secure his spot as a starter during spring organized team activities and summer training camp.

They’d say they hadn’t really noticed him on tape and not much was being said about him, which are compliments to a young offensive lineman in the same way you prefer an umpire or a referee to not stick out while officiating a game. But plenty of doubt was expressed from everyone else as the Ravens needed to replace right tackle Michael Oher after he departed in the opening days of free agency to sign a four-year, $20 million contract with the Tennessee Titans.

Instead of drafting an offensive tackle in the early rounds of May’s draft or adding a veteran familiar with Gary Kubiak’s system such as Eric Winston, the Ravens appeared content with Wagner competing against other in-house options such as Jah Reid and Ryan Jensen to take Oher’s place. The rest would be up to the 2013 fifth-round pick to prove them right.

“After I found out he was leaving, that was the first thing on my mind: ‘I have a great opportunity to take over the right side,’” Wagner said. “I was just thankful that the coaches trusted in me.”

That trust has certainly paid off with Wagner not only taking full control of the job but blossoming into an above-average right tackle who’s now garnering attention for his strong play instead of simply trying to blend in. In fact, Wagner has outperformed the man he replaced as he’s graded out as the best right tackle in the NFL this season, according to Pro Football Focus. Meanwhile, Oher has struggled in his first year with the Titans, ranking 49th among the 51 tackles who’ve played at least 443 offensive snaps this season, per the same website.

Wagner has also committed only one penalty all season — a false start in Week 8 — after infractions were a frequent issue with Oher in his five years with Baltimore.

In the last week, Wagner was named to mid-season All-Pro teams by CBSSports.com and PFF, a reflection of how he’s more than just holding the job for the Ravens’ improved offensive line and how he’s slowly turning heads around the league. Head coach John Harbaugh said he had no idea when asked whether Wagner was playing at a Pro Bowl level, but the question alone reflects what great strides the second-year tackle has made in 2014 after playing just 131 snaps as a rookie when he was primarily used as an extra blocking tight end in the jumbo package.

After a 2013 season in which offensive line coach Juan Castillo drew plenty of criticism for the play of his unit, Wagner has been the assistant’s greatest success story in Baltimore.

“The thing that jumps out at me is his consistency. Rick is very consistent,” Harbaugh said. “He executes the techniques exactly the way that the scheme calls for. He gets it right most all the time. If he does get beat — like anybody does at times — it’s physically. And that doesn’t happen very often.”

A quiet but imposing 25-year-old with a 6-foot-6, 310-pound fram, Wagner is admittedly uncomfortable speaking with media — he joked that he was more at ease playing in Pittsburgh last Sunday than he was at the podium in Owings Mills Wednesday — but he’s taking the high praise as a confidence boost in his first full year as a starter.

Playing next to three-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda has certaintly helped Wagner’s development as the two share Big Ten roots — Yanda at Iowa and Wagner at Wisconsin — and have formed plenty of sizable running lanes for the league’s 10th-ranked running game. Despite being appreciative of the recognition, it’s clear Wagner prefers talking about the overall improvement of the offensive line rather than his individual contributions.

“I think pass protection has been pretty [improved],” said Wagner about how his game has improved since his rookie season. “Run blocking as a whole [offensive] line, we’ve been pretty good. It’s great playing next to Yanda. He really helps me out. It’s phenomenal playing next to him. The communication, the double-teams we have together — it makes my job easier.”

Wagner is the only Ravens player not to miss an offensive snap all season and doesn’t recall even missing a practice. It’s the kind of durability that commands respect and praise from teammates, both young and old.

There’s nothing fancy about him as veteran linebacker Terrell Suggs nicknamed Wagner “The Salesman” in reference to his ordinary name and a belief that he’d be good at selling “a lot of good stuff” despite his quiet demeanor. But there’s been nothing common about the tackle’s play as what was once a concern entering the season is now a position of strength for the Ravens.

“He has been working his tail off, and I think that’s a feel-good story,” Suggs said. “He showed that he can hold his own, and he has been playing phenomenal for us. You have to tip your hat to a guy that shows up to work. Those guys [are] in there in the trenches. They don’t really get a lot of credit for the things that they do, but he has definitely been a big part of our success.”

And it’s about time he’s being noticed for it.

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