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Ravens-Colts: Five predictions for Saturday

Posted on 22 December 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens have no need for an out-of-town scoreboard for Christmas.

Two wins will punch their ticket to the playoffs for the first time since the 2014 season. Those two contests come against opponents with a combined one win since Thanksgiving, leaving no need for John Harbaugh’s team to pay attention to what other teams are doing this weekend.

Indianapolis comes to town Saturday riding a five-game losing streak and is winding down a lost season without injured franchise quarterback Andrew Luck. The Colts’ struggles are likely to cost former Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano his job after six years as head coach.

Of course, Baltimore has dealt with its own trials this season with 14 players on injured reserve, many of those coming on the offensive side of the ball. However, a post-bye surge has many viewing the Ravens as an intriguing threat come January.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens try to win for the fifth time in six games and improve their all-time regular-season mark against Indianapolis to 4-8. Including the postseason, Baltimore is 4-4 against the Colts at M&T Bank Stadium with the last meeting coming in the 2012 playoffs, a 24-9 victory in Ray Lewis’ final game in front of the home crowd.

Below are five predictions for Saturday:

1. Joe Flacco will continue his late-season surge with two touchdown passes. There are many reasons why the Ravens have averaged 36.3 points per game over the last three weeks, but the improved play of the quarterback is the biggest as Flacco has thrown five touchdowns and one interception with a 94.5 passer rating during that time. Making that more impressive has been those performances coinciding with Jeremy Maclin mostly being a non-factor. With Maclin not expected to play, look for Flacco to try to go to tight end Benjamin Watson over the middle with Mike Wallace continuing to make plays on the outside against the NFL’s 30th-ranked pass defense. Each will have a touchdown reception.

2. The Baltimore defense will sack Indianapolis quarterback Jacoby Brissett five times. The second-year signal-caller has been intercepted just seven times all year, but that’s come at a price with Indianapolis surrendering a league-high 53 sacks, often a result of Brissett holding the ball too long. Making matters worse, the Colts just placed starting center Ryan Kelly on injured reserve and have ruled out starting right tackle Denzelle Good for Saturday’s game. Terrell Suggs will have the toughest matchup going up against above-average left tackle Anthony Castonzo, but Dean Pees shouldn’t hesitate to bring A-gap blitzes inside and various pressures against a shuffled right side of the Colts line.

3. Jack Doyle will catch the lone touchdown of the day for the Colts. Ravens linebackers and safeties rebounded nicely last week from their poor showing against Pittsburgh’s tight ends, but that position has still been a problem at various times and Doyle leads Indianapolis in receptions with 71. The secondary will be concerned with containing big-play wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, so the Ravens will concede some space underneath for Doyle to operate from time to time and Brissett will attempt to get rid of the ball quickly against an active pass rush. The Colts will have great difficulty moving the ball with any consistency, but they’ll put together a decent drive or two with Doyle in the middle of it.

4. Buck Allen will lead the way in a 135-yard effort for the running game. Starter Alex Collins isn’t listed on the injury report, but anyone who watched the Week 15 win at Cleveland saw the second-year running back was laboring on multiple occasions. With the playoffs looming, the Ravens would be wise to try to ease Collins’ workload by giving more carries to Allen, who has done a trustworthy job as the backup this season. Indianapolis ranks an unimpressive 29th in rushing yards allowed per game, but its 4.1 yards per carry surrendered ranks a solid 12th in the NFL. Collins will make his mark early in this game, but it will be Allen carrying it more in the second half as the Ravens protect a double-digit lead.

5. The Ravens will take care of business in a 27-10 win. Many fans felt some level of angst about Baltimore playing at the winless Browns last week, but it’s much more difficult envisioning a scenario in which Harbaugh’s team lays a home egg on Saturday. Indianapolis has played hard for the most part and would be a bigger threat in its own stadium, but an undermanned roster doesn’t have the horses to stick with an improved team smelling the playoffs. As was the case against the hapless Browns, the Ravens aren’t going to earn any style points by beating a three-win team, but they’ll clinch their first winning season since 2014 and give their fans a happier Christmas than last year’s crushing loss in Pittsburgh.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 27-10 win over Cleveland

Posted on 18 December 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens moving a step closer to securing a postseason berth in a 27-10 win over Cleveland, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The defense took advantage of rookie DeShone Kizer and the NFL’s most turnover-prone offense by forcing four turnovers that led to 14 points. Much of the damage hasn’t come against the stiffest competition, but a league-best 33 takeaways is impressive. Two years ago, the Ravens had only 14.

2. The offense didn’t light up the scoreboard like the previous two weeks, but still moving the ball despite the running game being a non-factor through the first three quarters is an encouraging sign. The Ravens were able to finish with 63 rushing yards on 11 carries in the final period.

3. This wasn’t the first time Matthew Judon was arguably the top player for the defense. He totaled a sack, two other tackles for a loss, and two more quarterback hits. His versatile play in all phases has been one of the most encouraging big-picture developments of the season.

4. Remember how completely helpless the passing game looked without Jeremy Maclin in two games earlier this season? He played only five snaps because of a left knee injury, but Joe Flacco still threw for a season-high 288 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions.

5. A major reason for that was Mike Wallace, who caught six passes for 89 yards with four of those going for first downs. Since the bye, Wallace is averaging 76.2 receiving yards per contest and 16.6 yards per catch. That equates to a 1,200-yard season over 16 games.

6. Terrell Suggs finished with an ordinary two tackles if you only looked at the standard box score, but he was consistently putting heat on Kizer and was credited with nine hurries by Pro Football Focus. He played a significant part in several good things that happened for the defense.

7. A read-option keeper for Flacco shouldn’t be called unless it’s the fourth quarter of a playoff game, but that play and the draw for a touchdown reflect the greater confidence in the quarterback’s health. Flacco also has a 94.5 passer rating with five touchdown passes over the last three games.

8. C.J. Mosley rebounded from a poor outing in Pittsburgh as he batted down a couple passes, was stronger in pass coverage, and delivered the crushing hit on the Duke Johnson fumble. Sending Mosley after the quarterback a few times was a needed changeup after his recent struggles in coverage.

9. John Harbaugh was wise to mostly keep Alex Collins out of harm’s way in the second half as he was visibly laboring several times. As tough and physical as Collins is, we sometimes forget he’s only 210 pounds, which is much lighter than many of the league’s bruising-style backs.

10. For the second straight year, the Ravens surrendered Isaiah Crowell’s longest run from scrimmage for the season. The run defense has mostly been terrific since late October, but allowing a 96-yard touchdown drive exclusively via the ground in the second quarter was mystifying.

11. I didn’t like Marty Mornhinweg’s outside run call on fourth-and-goal from the 1, but credit Cleveland defensive end Carl Nassib for blowing up an attempted double team from Matt Skura and Austin Howard. He was more disruptive than top overall pick Myles Garrett throughout the day.

12. I understand reluctance to embrace the 2017 Ravens because of the early-season inconsistency, but some of the fear expressed about the Browns this week was over the top. Their horrendous minus-25 turnover difference says it all while Baltimore leads the NFL at plus-17. Taking care of the football really matters.

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Ravens use effective road formula to stay in playoff position

Posted on 17 December 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens beating 0-14 Cleveland was never going to bring any earth-shattering developments beyond the possibility of a serious injury to a key player.

Only an unthinkable loss jeopardizing their playoff chances would have spawned a major headline.

The Browns again showed Sunday why they’re the worst team in the NFL, but Baltimore did what was necessary to remain in the driver’s seat for an AFC wild-card spot with two games remaining. In the 27-10 victory, the Ravens forced four turnovers, played superb special teams, and turned in another solid offensive performance to continue that encouraging late-season trend.

Despite some angst from fans reluctant to embrace a team with just one win against opponents currently holding a winning record, Baltimore didn’t come close to becoming the first team to lose to the hapless Browns, after all. And two home wins against opponents with a combined 8-20 record will result in the first trip to the playoffs since 2014.

Rebounding from last week’s awful performance in Pittsburgh, the Ravens defense intercepted two passes and forced and recovered two fumbles to take the NFL lead from Jacksonville with 33 total takeaways. Questions understandably will persist about this unit’s performance against better offenses and better quarterbacks, but forcing turnovers on the road will be a key part of the formula for any potential run in January. Baltimore had a whopping 15 takeaways in its four road wins this season.

Nearly as important as those turnovers was the offense’s ability to protect the football on the road yet again. The Ravens committed no turnovers Sunday and had no more than one in six of their eight away games this season. Baltimore also has just one giveaway over the current three-game offensive surge.

It’s no secret that Joe Flacco and the passing game have been more aggressive — and productive — in recent weeks, but that change in mindset does little good if accompanied by carelessness with the football. Flacco threw for a season-high 288 yards against the Browns and has now been intercepted only once over the last four games.

An offense scoring points is paramount, but taking care of the ball gives you a chance, especially when lacking an abundance of playmakers.

Sunday also offered a reminder of how brilliant punter Sam Koch has been this season — and for a long time — as he dropped three punts inside the 5-yard line and two on back-to-back drives in the third quarter. That field position led to Za’Darius Smith’s strip-sack of DeShone Kizer and Brandon Williams’ recovery for a touchdown that gave the Ravens a 24-10 lead that wouldn’t be challenged again.

Punting is an underappreciated skill because of its direct association with offensive failure, but Koch has been an incredible asset for a team that’s so frequently depended on field position and the success of its defense this season. The 12th-year veteran may never be viewed as the biggest reason for any single victory, but the cumulative value he brings over the course of 16 games shouldn’t be dismissed.

The victory over the Browns netted the Ravens a 4-4 road record for the season, and that’s nothing to take for granted if you’ve been paying attention the last few years. John Harbaugh’s best teams were never particularly great away from M&T Bank Stadium, but a .500 away mark has often served as a benchmark for a postseason berth.

Bad road losses have contributed to the Ravens missing the playoffs in recent years, but they’ve managed to avoid those this year. In 2013, upset defeats at Buffalo and Cleveland contributed to a 2-6 road record and an 8-8 finish. Last year, it was an ugly loss to an eventual 5-11 New York Jets team in October that contributed to the Ravens having no margin for error while facing a brutal December schedule.

Say what you want about a team lacking a signature win against a projected playoff team, but the Ravens have only one bad loss — the Week 6 tilt against Chicago — on their résumé. Since mid-October, they’ve beaten the teams they were supposed to beat.

And that’s all they have to do at home these final two weeks, thanks to another clean road performance on Sunday.

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Ravens-Browns: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 16 December 2017 by Luke Jones

The task is clear for the Ravens after last Sunday’s heartbreaking loss in Pittsburgh.

Three wins will very likely assure them of their first trip to the playoffs since 2014. Anything less leaves them at the mercy of how other AFC playoff contenders such as Buffalo, Tennessee, Kansas City, and Los Angeles will fare. Their focus must remain on beating a Cleveland team desperate for its first win, but the Ravens will naturally be taking a peek at the out-of-town scoreboard on Sunday.

“I always look. It is always interesting to see what the scores are,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “I’m sure we’ll be interested in that, but really, it doesn’t matter. We need to win. We need to win. We don’t need to be [dealing with] any tiebreakers or anything like that. We just need to win.”

Regardless of what other teams do, there are no excuses for the Ravens the rest of the way with such a reasonable schedule. Losing to the winless Browns, the Luck-less Colts, or the listless Bengals could send shock waves through the organization after Steve Bisciotti exercised much patience the previous two offseasons. Blowing a fourth-quarter lead at Heinz Field for the second straight year didn’t sit well with the owner last week, so you can only imagine how he’d react if the Ravens were to drop the ball at any point before the ball drops on New Year’s Eve.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens meet Cleveland for the 38th time in the all-time series and hold a 28-9 advantage after their 24-10 win at M&T Bank Stadium in Week 2. Despite the overall perception, the last four contests played at FirstEnergy Stadium have been decided by one possession.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Browns rookie edge rusher Myles Garrett will collect 1 1/2 sacks in the first of many encounters with Ronnie Stanley. The first overall pick of this year’s draft has missed five games due to injuries, but he has five sacks and has consistently caused problems in the pocket. Meanwhile, Stanley has had a solid season, but the 2016 first-round pick hasn’t yet taken his game to the next level from his encouraging rookie campaign. This is a matchup that will be worth watching over the next few years, but you’d expect Ravens tight ends to help out by chipping the talented 272-pound defensive end on Sunday.

2. Alex Collins will eclipse 75 rushing yards while finding the end zone for the fifth straight game. The Browns have allowed an NFL-best 3.3 yards per carry and will present a tough challenge for a running game that’s been terrific over the last two weeks. Collins continues to pick up plenty of yardage after contact and will need to do that once again against a tough front. Joe Flacco and the passing game has been much better recently, but much of that stems from play-action calls and Collins will have plenty of opportunities to control the tempo of the game, especially with a lead.

3. Marlon Humphrey will match up with Josh Gordon and allow a touchdown reception in an otherwise strong performance. Much has been made about Dean Pees’ play-calling in the Pittsburgh game, but the biggest takeaway was Brandon Carr struggling much more in coverage than the coaching staff anticipated. The Ravens have rarely even used Jimmy Smith to travel with a specific wide receiver over the years, but Humphrey could earn that very assignment against the supremely-talented Gordon, who’s shown little rust in his first action in three years. This will be a fun matchup to watch.

4. Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer will commit two turnovers in Baltimore territory. According to ESPN, the rookie is the NFL’s lowest-rated passer inside the red zone, the main reason why his team is 26th in red-zone offense. Cleveland has also had predictable problems with pass protection since left tackle Joe Thomas was lost for the season, so that should open the door for Terrell Suggs to put heat on Kizer and force him into rushing throws. A plus-13 turnover difference has left the 7-6 Ravens in the playoff race while a league-worst minus-21 turnover ratio largely explains why the Browns are 0-13.

5. The Ravens will overcome a lethargic start to prevail in a 23-13 final. A slow beginning wouldn’t be a shock after an emotionally-draining loss to the Steelers while the Browns should be energized and motivated playing in their last home game. Cleveland would like nothing more than to put Baltimore’s playoff hopes in jeopardy, but there’s a reason why this team hasn’t won a game all season and the Ravens have won three of their last four and have been better on the road than in recent campaigns. It won’t be the kind of win that will improve the eyeball test for Harbaugh’s team, but a steady performance is all that’s needed for the first of three wins to help wrap up a postseason berth.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 39-38 loss to Pittsburgh

Posted on 12 December 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens falling in heartbreaking fashion in a 39-38 loss at Pittsburgh, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The final outcome hurt, but the highest-scoring Ravens-Steelers game we’ve ever seen was as entertaining as it gets and again cemented this rivalry as the best in the NFL. There’s no reason for John Harbaugh’s team to fear a third meeting if that’s how it plays out.

2. Yes, you must vary coverage looks, but leaving Brandon Carr on an island against arguably the league’s MVP with the game on the line while deep safety Tony Jefferson was more concerned with Martavis Bryant down the seam is indefensible. It was bad play-calling, bad execution, or both.

3. Ben Roethlisberger dropped back to pass 69 times and was sacked only three times and not picked once despite a couple of interceptable throws. The failure to generate pressure with a four-man rush and shortcomings in man coverage make for a deadly combination against an elite passing game.

4. Alex Collins gained 95 of his 120 rushing yards after contact, according to Pro Football Focus. He’s been a godsend and won’t even become a restricted free agent until after next season, which is great news for an offense needing more skill-position talent. Keep feeding him the ball.

5. The interception that likely took three points off the board on the opening drive was brutal, but Joe Flacco followed his best performance of the season last week with another solid outing. I’ll take my chances if he can play more like this the rest of the way.

6. C.J. Mosley has had challenges in coverage in the past, but he was eaten alive and showed no explosiveness as Pittsburgh’s pedestrian tight ends feasted in the middle of the field. Injuries are taking their toll on him, and that has to be a concern the rest of the way.

7. On the flip side, Baltimore tight ends combined for one catch for one yard despite Benjamin Watson, Nick Boyle, and Maxx Williams playing a combined 107 snaps. The Ravens desperately need to find some speed at this position in the offseason.

8. The absence of Za’Darius Smith hasn’t been discussed much, but he’s normally part of the interior-rush rotation in sub packages and Chris Wormley was trusted to play just two snaps, leaving Brandon Williams and Willie Henry to play over 60 each. No wonder there wasn’t any inside pressure.

9. Jeremy Maclin has eight catches on 24 targets over the last three games as his rapport with Flacco has gone the wrong way since the bye. Harbaugh’s lack of an answer when asked about this was telling. Maclin has been much more T.J. Houshmandzadeh than Steve Smith, a clear disappointment.

10. The emergence of Chris Moore has been encouraging as the special-teams standout had his best game as a pro with an impressive concentration catch for a 30-yard touchdown. You hope a hip injury doesn’t halt that momentum since the Ravens need all the help they can get at wide receiver.

11. Anthony Levine being able to tackle Bryant in the end zone on a third-quarter kickoff sure would have been an interesting variable to throw into the mix of a classic one-point game. It was just one of several plays after which the Ravens had to be asking, “What if?”

12. We know rules are catered toward offense, but some of the pass interference flags on both sides couldn’t have been more ticky-tack calls. That offers some context to these teams combining for 77 points and 747 net passing yards.

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Painful loss to Pittsburgh should still bring hope for Ravens

Posted on 11 December 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — No matter the circumstances or stakes, losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers is about as painful as it gets for the Ravens.

That’s the burden of a tremendous rivalry as the sting of Sunday’s heartbreaking 39-38 defeat will linger throughout the week and possibly a little longer. Suffering their first regular-season sweep at the hands of the Steelers since 2008, many players were despondent in the locker room after squandering a two-score lead in the fourth quarter, conjuring memories of last year’s defensive collapse on Christmas.

Baltimore was one stop or one drive away from a huge victory at Heinz Field, but we know close only counts in horseshoes, right? Terrell Suggs was among those who didn’t want to hear about any moral victory of the Ravens giving Pittsburgh everything it could handle and then some as they led by nine points with less than seven minutes to go.

Coaches, players, media, and fans alike understand giving up 19 points in the final 13 minutes is inexcusable as Ben Roethlisberger threw for 506 yards — 228 in the fourth quarter — and Antonio Brown caught 11 passes for 213 yards, but there’s a critical difference with this one compared to last season’s Week 16 collapse. That loss left the Ravens to think all offseason about how close they came before Brown extended the ball over the goal line and eliminated them from playoff contention with that dramatic last-second touchdown.

Sunday certainly hurt, but the loss only narrowed the margin for error the rest of the way as they try to secure a wild-card spot and their first trip to the playoffs since 2014. A division title would have remained a long shot even with a win, so the task is clear for the Ravens as three wins against three sub-.500 opponents will still guarantee them some January football.

A narrow loss to Pittsburgh — the expected outcome in the eyes of most observers entering Week 14 — shouldn’t meaningfully alter anyone’s outlook for the final three weeks. If you don’t believe in the Ravens’ ability to beat Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Cincinnati, were you honestly expecting a competitive game against the Steelers in the first place?

A deep breath and 24 hours bring some needed perspective for the long-term outlook.

Had Chris Boswell missed the 46-yard field goal in the final minute or the Ravens simply made one more game-changing play down the stretch, euphoria undoubtedly would have replaced disgust and the focus would have been on a strong offensive showing for the second straight week rather than the terrible defensive performance. Concerns about the defense still would have been warranted had the Ravens figured out a way to escape western Pennsylvania with a win, but that wouldn’t have been the primary topic of discussion.

A signature win would have helped the eyeball test, but it wouldn’t have suddenly made Baltimore the new favorite in the AFC. A return trip to Heinz Field next month would have still labeled the Ravens as the underdog against the Steelers. This remains a flawed team, and a win wouldn’t have changed that if we’re being honest.

The silver lining from Sunday is that the offense was able to duplicate last week’s impressive production against Detroit. It’s no secret that this group has been the Ravens’ biggest weakness, but scoring a combined 82 points the last two games brings more optimism down the stretch. Alex Collins continues to look like a difference-maker while Joe Flacco has thrown for 538 yards and four touchdowns the last two weeks, marked improvement from what we’ve seen most of this season.

We knew this offense needed to improve if the Ravens were going to pose any threat in a potential trip to the postseason, and it’s finally showing signs of progress.

On the other hand, the defense is fairly being criticized after being carved up by Roethlisberger and giving up 59 points in its last six quarters of action, but the Ravens will now play three bottom-10 offenses to try to make necessary corrections and better adjust to life without top cornerback Jimmy Smith. Sunday certainly brought validation to the criticism regarding the lack of elite offenses on the schedule and the group’s ability without Smith on the field, but this defense has been good enough over the course of the season to at least envision better results on that side of the ball if the teams were to meet a third time.

It was only three years ago that the Ravens were blown out by the Steelers in their first full game without Smith and returned to Heinz Field two months later to win in the opening round of the playoffs. Regardless of how it ended Sunday night, a one-point road loss to an 11-2 team shouldn’t prompt any fear if given the chance to roll the dice again, and there isn’t much more you can ask for beyond that.

It’s fair to be ticked off about such a frustrating loss for the Ravens. Harbaugh and his team certainly are.

But it didn’t end their season this time around, and there was enough good to take away from the performance to ponder the possibilities of a third meeting sometime next month.

That is, if the Ravens handle their business between now and then.

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday night

Posted on 09 December 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens don’t really need to beat Pittsburgh on Sunday night.

A one-game lead for the final wild-card spot, a strong tiebreaker profile, and three remaining games — two at home — against teams that are a combined 20 games below .500 make Baltimore’s chances to make it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2014 very strong already. But a victory would bring the elusive signature win that would make the doubters — and perhaps John Harbaugh’s team itself — start to believe the Ravens are capable of being a legitimate threat in January.

Meanwhile, the Steelers hope to extend their seven-game winning streak, but a defeat would still leave them within striking distance of New England, who will visit Heinz Field next week with the upper hand for the No. 1 seed in the AFC on the line. The immediate incentive for Pittsburgh to win Sunday would be to clinch the AFC North title, but its three-game advantage with four weeks to go leaves quite a margin for error in the division race.

In other words, the renewal of this intense rivalry lacks the same stakes as last year’s Christmas Day affair that essentially served as a division championship game.

Last week’s serious back injury suffered by Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier has been on the minds of both teams as the former Pro Bowl selection’s future on and off the field remains unclear. With many Pittsburgh players planning to wear cleats paying tribute to their injured teammate, how the Steelers respond emotionally playing at home could certainly be a factor for at least the beginning of Sunday night’s game.

It’s time to go on the record as these AFC North rivals meet for the 44th time in the regular-season series with the Steelers holding a slight 23-20 advantage to go with a 3-1 edge in postseason encounters. Pittsburgh has won the last two meetings and is in search of its first regular-season sweep of the Ravens since 2008. Including the playoffs, 16 of the 22 showdowns with the Steelers in the John Harbaugh era have been decided by a single possession.

Below are five predictions for Sunday night:

1. Danny Woodhead will have his best game as a Raven with 60 receiving yards and a touchdown. The focus on Shazier’s injury has rightly been on his health and not on football, but the Steelers will miss his presence in pass coverage as he recorded an interception and four breakups against Baltimore’s underneath passing game in Week 4. With Cam Heyward and a strong Pittsburgh front dominating the line of scrimmage in that first meeting, Joe Flacco may have to rely on more short passing and less of Alex Collins and the running game. With outside linebacker Arthur Moats filling in on the inside, this is the game Woodhead and the Ravens need to exploit an advantageous matchup.

2. Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell will finish with 115 total yards of offense. It’s no secret the run defense has been superb since Brandon Williams’ return in late October, but Bell’s huge game in Week 4 was more about the inability to set the edge on outside runs and to handle the Steelers’ pulling interior linemen on counters than struggles inside as he averaged just 2.2 yards per carry between the tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. The Ravens will be hellbent to slow Bell as a runner, but linebackers C.J. Mosley and Patrick Onwuasor have been vulnerable in pass coverage and this is where Bell will find more of his success. He’ll extend a streak of 57 or more receiving yards to four straight games.

3. Mike Wallace and Martavis Bryant will catch long touchdowns for their respective teams. With Steelers cornerback Joe Haden still out and their safeties inclined to play a little closer to the line of scrimmage to help the inside linebackers in coverage, there should be some opportunities for the Ravens to take deep shots and Wallace has been playing his best football of the year since the bye. On the flip side, Baltimore will do whatever it can schematically to prevent Antonio Brown from killing a secondary without Jimmy Smith, but that will leave Marlon Humphrey or Brandon Carr occasionally on an island matched up with Bryant, who is still dangerous despite a disappointing season.

4. Joe Flacco will be efficient and play turnover-free football for the third straight week. The 10th-year quarterback is coming off his best game of the year and needs to play more like that down the stretch if the Ravens are to become a realistic threat in the AFC. Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler will do more to try to confuse Flacco and mix up coverages than Detroit did a week ago, but his fourth-ranked defense ranks a pedestrian 14th in the NFL in takeaways. Pass protection needs to hold up better than it did in the first meeting between these teams, but Flacco will effectively find Woodhead and Jeremy Maclin in the short-to-intermediate area of the field.

5. The Ravens will pull off the upset for their first signature win of the season in a 23-20 final. Perhaps I’m drinking too much purple Kool-Aid, but the Steelers are coming off a short and emotional week following a Monday night road game and have trailed in the second half of four of their last five games, illustrating how vulnerable they’ve looked at times despite a terrific 10-2 record. Baltimore has one last chance to earn a signature win and needs to build on its strong performance from a week ago to build confidence that the offense can be productive enough moving forward to have a real chance in the playoffs. The Steelers are the better team overall, but this week’s circumstances set up favorably for the Ravens to steal a road win in Pittsburgh and further improve their playoff positioning.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 44-20 win over Detroit

Posted on 05 December 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens securing their first three-game winning streak since the start of last season with a 44-20 victory over Detroit, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Where has this offense been all year? While recording season highs in points and yards while committing no turnovers, the Ravens were aggressive and effectively used play fakes. The group’s response after Detroit made it a one-score game late in the third quarter was the best drive of the season.

2. Joe Flacco was superb with active feet in the pocket and his most accurate passing of the season. His best throw was the 23-yard back-shoulder connection to Mike Wallace as he was being hit. Flacco would have eclipsed 300 yards if not for four drops by receivers.

3. The key to the offensive success was first-down productivity as Baltimore averaged 7.7 yards on first down and still came in at 5.8 if you want to take away the outlier of Wallace’s 66-yard catch. Marty Mornhinweg deserves credit for mixing up tendencies to help keep the offense on schedule.

4. Eric Weddle got off to a rough start this season, but his strip-sack led to excellent field position for a touchdown in the second quarter and his interception returned for a touchdown capped a dominant fourth. The secondary needs his leadership more than ever with the Jimmy Smith injury.

5. There’s no overlooking his rough performance against the Lions, but Marlon Humphrey had already done enough as a rookie to inspire confidence moving forward. Offenses will be looking to attack him now, but he has a good demeanor and all the talent he needs to contribute in Smith’s place.

6. Wallace was in the slot on the 66-yard bomb from Flacco, an example of personnel shuffling within a formation to create a favorable matchup against a safety. Mornhinweg also used a trips bunch formation to get Jeremy Maclin free on a crossing route. The Ravens need more of this.

7. Seeing Willie Henry scoop up a fumble and run 16 yards was amusing enough, but the second-year defensive tackle diagnosed a screen to make a tackle for a loss and registered a quarterback hit. “Big Earl” continues to be a significant contributor in the rotation.

8. Patrick Ricard registered his first touchdown since high school Sunday, but the converted defensive lineman also delivered several impressive blocks and matched a season high with 18 offensive snaps. The rookie is making more of an impact at fullback recently.

9. Maurice Canady appears to have overtaken Lardarius Webb as the primary nickel. In addition to five tackles and the hit on Jake Rudock’s interception to Weddle, Canady recovered Michael Campanaro’s fumble. He plays with much confidence and aggression for someone with such little NFL experience.

10. I’ve been clamoring for Tyus Bowser to receive more opportunities in this defense, but the rookie whiffing when he had a straight path to Matthew Stafford in the second quarter isn’t going to help his cause in the short term.

11. He only missed a couple plays after passing concussion screening, but C.J. Mosley suffered a stinger for the second straight week. You hope there’s no underlying cause for those because the Ravens can’t afford to be without him.

12. The Lions had nine players on the field for Flacco’s key third-down throw to a wide-open Chris Moore on the touchdown drive early in the fourth. That summed up the uninspiring football Detroit played for large stretches of a game they needed to have in a crowded NFC playoff race.

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Smith’s injury reiterates Ravens need more of what they did Sunday

Posted on 03 December 2017 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Sunday’s performance by the Ravens felt very familiar.

Joe Flacco and the offense turned in their best performance of the season against Detroit nearly a year to the day after they blew out Miami, a playoff contender turned away at M&T Bank Stadium to begin the final month of 2016. The 44-20 win over the Lions lifted the Ravens to 7-5, the same record they owned after their 38-6 victory over the Dolphins last Dec. 4.

Unfortunately, history repeated itself again when cornerback Jimmy Smith tore his Achilles tendon late in the first half, ending the best season of his career and leaving the defense without arguably its best player. It was Week 14 last year when the Ravens lost Smith to a high ankle sprain, an injury that torpedoed what had been the league’s top-ranked defense at the time.

That injury preceded three losses in the final four weeks as the Ravens missed the playoffs for the third time in four seasons. The schedule is certainly more favorable this time around with just one game remaining against a winning team — next Sunday in Pittsburgh — and the final two contests coming at home.

Still, there’s no underselling the loss of Smith, especially for a team that’s relied so heavily on its defense all season.

“It’s different than it’s been before,” said head coach John Harbaugh, citing his defense’s struggles without its top corner in 2014 and last year. “We have a lot of depth. We have a lot of good, young players. We’ll step up, and we’ll still play at a really high level in the secondary. I’m very confident of that.”

The Ravens are better equipped to carry on without Smith after signing reliable veteran Brandon Carr — who’s amazingly never missed a game in his 10-year career — and drafting the talented Marlon Humphrey in the first round this past spring. Turning over a starting job to Humphrey is quite an improvement from a year ago when Shareece Wright stepped in for Smith opposite rookie Tavon Young.

But there will still be some drop-off, evident by Humphrey’s difficulties in coverage against speedy Lions receiver Marvin Jones. The Alabama product may eventually be as good as Smith — or even better — but expecting that immediately would be unfair and unrealistic.

That makes it even more critical for this Ravens offense to look more like it did Sunday the rest of the way.

Veterans Terrell Suggs and Eric Weddle admitted after the game that the defense was feeling deflated after officially learning of Smith’s fate at halftime. Two touchdown drives orchestrated by Lions quarterback Mathew Stafford in the third quarter transformed a comfortable 20-0 lead into a one-possession game, but Flacco and the offense fought right back with a nine-play, 74-yard drive ending with a 7-yard touchdown run by Alex Collins to make it a 27-13 lead early in the final quarter.

Given the importance of the game and the way it was trending, that touchdown drive may have been the offense’s best and most important of the year to this point. The Ravens then answered a Stafford touchdown pass with another drive resulting in a field goal to put them up by multiple scores for good with 6:54 remaining.

“Well, we have to do our part at some point, right?” said wide receiver Mike Wallace, who finished with 116 yards on five catches. “The offense, we have to come up. Our defense has been incredible. Our special teams have been incredible. The offense, not so much.

“Today, we made strides. This game is about peaking at the right time, so hopefully we can do that.”

The convincing win tightened the Ravens’ grip on the No. 6 seed as they own a one-game lead as well as tiebreakers over the top three teams chasing them in the AFC wild-card race, but building on this performance will be of the utmost importance. Baltimore will be an underdog against the Steelers next Sunday night, but a good showing from Flacco and the offense for a second straight week would create more optimism about this team being able to make noise in January.

The defense should still be more than good enough that the Ravens won’t need to put 44 points on the board every week like they did Sunday, but any expectation of this unit continuing to carry an inept offense likely vanished as Smith collapsed to the ground with 4:21 to go in the second quarter. That unbalanced formula may still be good enough against a soft remaining regular-season schedule, but it certainly won’t fly in the playoffs.

Many saw that as the Ravens’ reality anyway, but losing an elite defensive talent brings it into sharper focus.

The offense stepped up to do the heavy lifting when the defense suddenly found itself on the ropes Sunday.

The coming weeks will determine whether that was merely an aberration or the start of the offense more consistently pulling its own weight.

The latter would make for a more interesting January.

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Ravens-Lions: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 02 December 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens don’t own a victory over a team currently holding as much as a .500 record.

Five of their six wins have come against a rookie or backup quarterback.

Baltimore has the opportunity to fight back at both of those criticisms Sunday when Matthew Stafford and Detroit come to town. More importantly, the Ravens can improve their playoff chances as they enter Week 13 holding the No. 6 seed in the AFC.

John Harbaugh’s team is eyeing its first three-game winning streak since the first three weeks of the 2016 season while the 6-5 Lions are trying to stay in the hunt in a much tougher NFC playoff race. Detroit enters the weekend one game behind Atlanta for the final spot in the conference.

It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet for the first time since 2013 with the Ravens having won the last two meetings and owning a 3-1 advantage in the all-time regular-season series. The Lions are seeking their first win in Baltimore since defeating the Colts 13-10 at Memorial Stadium in 1977.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Detroit’s Golden Tate will lead both teams in receiving yards. The Lions own the 30th-ranked running game in the NFL, but no one has found room on the ground against the Ravens over their last four games anyway, making Tate much more critical. The slot receiver ranks sixth in the league in yards after the catch and 51 of his 63 catches have come on throws 10 or fewer yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Baltimore’s pass defense has mostly been superb, but nickel corner Lardarius Webb has had his issues in coverage and the middle of the field has been a vulnerable area that Tate can exploit.

2. Terrell Suggs will register a strip-sack for the third consecutive game. Harbaugh labeled the 35-year-old “Ponce de Leon” for seemingly finding the Fountain of Youth after his performance against Houston, and few would argue with Suggs registering two-sack efforts in both games since the bye week. He’s one-half sack away from reaching double digits for the seventh time in his career and will be lining up against Taylor Decker, a talented left tackle who has struggled since returning last month from offseason shoulder surgery. This matchup is one of the biggest swing factors of the game.

3. Stafford will throw two touchdown passes against a tough secondary. As I wrote earlier this week, the Ravens shouldn’t apologize for the opponents they’ve faced, but it’s fair to wonder just how good this secondary will be against tougher competition, which is what Stafford and the league’s 10th-ranked passing game will offer. The Ravens defense leads the NFL with 18 interceptions, but the Lions quarterback has tossed only six in 395 attempts. If Baltimore can’t sustain pressure against an offensive line that’s been pretty solid after a slow start, Stafford will be able to make some plays at every level.

4. Joe Flacco will toss a touchdown and two interceptions as his 2017 struggles continue. The Lions have had substantial issues stopping the run in recent weeks, but any defense not loading the box against Baltimore to force the ball in Flacco’s hands is crazy. It’s no secret this passing game is a total mess that hasn’t produced against even below-average pass defenses, and Detroit is tied for fifth in the NFL in takeaways despite ranking 23rd against the pass. Flacco’s comments after the Houston win reflect the frustration for the veteran, who’s eclipsed 200 passing yards only once since Week 5.

5. The lack of offensive balance and turnovers will catch up with the Ravens in a 20-16 loss. These teams are fairly equal in quality, but Baltimore is coming off a short week and its passing game is a much bigger weakness than anything the Lions are dealing with. Stafford isn’t going to totally pick the defense apart, but there will be some shock going up against a top quarterback that will put the Ravens behind and take them out of their formula of running the ball and being aggressive on defense to force turnovers. The Ravens have won the turnover battle in all six of their wins this season and have enjoyed at least a plus-2 margin in five of those. Short of that happening, they’ll drop a close one.

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