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Ravens-Bengals: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 31 December 2016 by Luke Jones

Playing out the string.

Though the Ravens are closing out a regular season at Paul Brown Stadium for the fifth time in the last six years, this marks the first time that neither Baltimore nor Cincinnati is going to the playoffs since 2007 when John Harbaugh was still the special teams coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles. Even with nothing to play for beyond pride, the Ravens have declared their intentions to play all healthy veterans, a move that some have criticized in fear of a serious injury to a key player.

Meanwhile, the Bengals will miss the postseason for the first time since 2010 and have shut down several injured veterans such as wide receiver A.J. Green (hamstring) and tight end Tyler Eifert (back) in recent weeks.

It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet for the 42nd time in franchise history with Baltimore owning a 21-20 edge. The Ravens are seeking their first season sweep of the Bengals since 2011 and can also secure a 5-1 AFC North record, their best division mark since going 6-0 in that same season.

Below are five predictions for Sunday afternoon:

1. Justin Tucker will attempt a 60-plus-yard field goal. The two-time Pro Bowl kicker is a remarkable 10-for-10 on tries from 50 yards and longer and needs only one more to have sole possession of the single-season NFL record. The weather in Cincinnati should reach the mid-40s with minimal wind, conditions that are suitable enough to try a long field goal. Tucker has had one of the best kicking seasons in NFL history and deserves a chance to hit a season-long field goal at the very least.

2. Mike Wallace will reach 1,000 receiving yards for the first time since 2011. This is hardly going out on a limb with the first-year Raven just 16 yards shy of the mark, but Baltimore should make a conscious effort to get Wallace involved early after he was held to just four catches for 21 yards in Pittsburgh last week. Though the Ravens haven’t always utilized him well this season, Wallace has provided them with the vertical threat they sorely lacked after Torrey Smith’s free-agent departure.

3. Andy Dalton will throw for two touchdowns against a secondary once again without Jimmy Smith. It’s not a coincidence that the five highest passing totals allowed by the Baltimore defense this season have come in games in which the No. 1 cornerback missed significant time, a clear indication of the lack of depth in the secondary. The Ravens found a fourth-round gem in rookie Tavon Young, but finding another outside corner should be a priority this offseason.

4. Steve Smith will catch a touchdown and produce 80 receiving yards in his final NFL game. Joe Flacco throws to Smith often anyway, so there’s no reason to think the 37-year-old won’t be featured heavily. The mantra “Play like a Raven” has become a cliché in recent years, but the former Carolina Panther epitomizes the idea with the kind of intensity and physicality on which the success of this franchise was built. The Ravens are fortunate to have had the future Hall of Famer pass their way.

5. The Ravens will win in Cincinnati for the first time in exactly five years in a 23-17 final. Rarely have the Ravens ever looked like they were going through the motions under Harbaugh, which is why I expect them to play hard despite having their playoff hopes crushed last week in Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, the Bengals have been out of the playoff hunt for weeks while rumors have circulated about Marvin Lewis’ future. With an opportunity to send Steve Smith out on a positive note, the Ravens will win their first road game in over three months and finish the season with a respectable 9-7 record.

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Ravens back in familiar position with Smith’s expected retirement

Posted on 28 December 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The free-agent signing of Steve Smith more than two years ago helped rectify one of the biggest mistakes in Ravens history.

But his “89 percent” likely retirement following Sunday’s season finale in Cincinnati puts the franchise back in an all-too-familiar position.

Even at age 37 and coming off a horrific Achilles injury, Smith still served as quarterback Joe Flacco’s most reliable weapon in a trying season. He may not have enjoyed the same team success in his three seasons in purple, but Smith put up similar numbers to those produced by Anquan Boldin, the man he eventually replaced after a post-Super Bowl XLVII trade blew up in the Ravens’ faces in the 2013 season.

“I feel very fortunate to be with him,” Flacco said. “His competitive nature and the way he plays his game and the talent that he has, he’s definitely unique and a rare breed. Anytime you get a chance to play with a guy that’s really a legend in this game is, count yourself lucky.”

Once the Ravens sort out their offensive coaching staff for next season, replacing Smith will be one of the top priorities of the offseason.

The cupboard isn’t completely bare at wide receiver with Mike Wallace under contract for 2017 and on the cusp of completing a 1,000-yard season, but the speedy veteran fits better as the No. 2 wideout to stretch the field vertically with explosive plays. Expecting him to be the well-rounded top guy would likely fetch similar results to what happened in 2013 when Torrey Smith was miscast as a No. 1 receiver.

There’s also 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman, but injuries and inconsistency have made it difficult for the Ravens to plan for him to be anything more than a No. 3 option with upside entering next season. It’s much too soon to declare Perriman a bust, but he has a lot of work to do to become a integral cog.

Kamar Aiken led the Ravens with 944 receiving yards in 2015 and has shown physicality that you like to see in a possession receiver, but he’s also scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent and has been unhappy with his diminished role this season. That leads you to believe he’ll be looking to move on this winter.

Whether general manager Ozzie Newsome pursues an accomplished veteran such as Pierre Garcon in free agency or once again dips his toes into draft waters that have been unkind in the past, the Ravens will need a receiver to aggressively work the intermediate portion of the field and to gain yards after the catch. Even with his speed not being what it was in his early days with Carolina, Smith always played bigger and tougher than his 5-foot-9, 195-pound frame suggested.

“He’s powerful. He’s not very big, but he’s so explosive, so powerful, can change directions like that,” Flacco said. “He’s just so strong for his size — not even just for his size. He’s just a strong dude. The ferociousness that he runs with the ball, how he runs with the ball, so many things. I think that comes out in people saying ‘competitiveness.’ He’s just got a lot of ability, and he’s not afraid.”

Of course, Smith brought much more to the table than what showed up in the box score.

Like Boldin, he provided attitude to an offense led by the even-keeled Flacco. His intensity occasionally ruffled feathers — including when he got into a fight with veteran defensive back Lardarius Webb during his first minicamp in Owings Mills — but teammates on both sides of the ball respected that fire.

Smith brought the kind of swagger to the offense that was typically found on many Ravens defenses of yesteryear. Of course, performance on the field is paramount, but that ferocity is something Baltimore frankly needs more of after missing the playoffs in three of the last four seasons.

The intangibles will be difficult to replace, no matter how the Ravens go about replacing Smith’s production.

“Whether it is walking around the locker room yelling at someone or on the field [during] one-on-ones, he is definitely one of a kind,” said safety Eric Weddle, who shared a close friendship with Smith long before he signed with Baltimore this past offseason. “You have to get adjusted to that, just his personality and how big it is and to know this is who he is. This is what drives him. This is what makes him special.”

And with Smith’s decision to walk away, the Ravens are back in a familiar spot looking for someone special at wide receiver.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 16 loss to Pittsburgh

Posted on 27 December 2016 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens falling 31-27 to Pittsburgh on Christmas Day to be eliminated from postseason contention, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The sting of a Ravens loss shouldn’t discount appreciation for what was a classic between these AFC North adversaries. This rivalry has lost some juice in recent years, but both teams deserve praise for one that was as good as it gets without being a playoff game.

2. That sentiment aside, the fourth-quarter defense must be addressed. I’ve been a supporter of defensive coordinator Dean Pees and believe he has done a good overall job with a unit lacking star power, but the Ravens have allowed 102 of their 294 total points in the final period this season.

3. If this is it for Steve Smith, Sunday was a strong final performance in the national spotlight as he caught seven passes for 79 yards and a touchdown. He’s 35 yards shy of an 800-yard season, which is exceptional for a 37-year-old coming off a serious Achilles injury.

4. It looked like 2016 was going to be a breakout year for Timmy Jernigan after he collected a sack in each of the first three games, but he’s recorded just one quarterback takedown since the Week 8 bye and hasn’t even registered a tackle over the last three games.

5. Breshad Perriman had a bad drop on the Ravens’ final touchdown drive, but I liked seeing Joe Flacco go right back to him on the next play for a 15-yard completion on third-and-10. This is going to be a huge offseason for the 2015 first-round pick to improve.

6. Counting the postseason, Baltimore is 11-22 on the road since Super Bowl XLVII with two wins against teams that finished with a winning record. The first was the 2014 wild-card victory over Pittsburgh and the other against the Steelers last year when Mike Vick started in place of Ben Roethlisberger.

7. The toughness with which he runs is impressive, but Kenneth Dixon won’t become a three-down back until he improves in pass protection. That has to be a goal for both him and Terrance West to work on this offseason.

8. The Ravens masked it well this season, but their pass rush ultimately cost them. According to Pro Football Focus, Roethlisberger was pressured on just four of his 33 dropbacks. It’s tough trying to blitz with Jimmy Smith out, but the defense needs more disruption from a four-man rush.

9. Terrell Suggs deserves praise for how he played this year, but the 34-year-old has gone without a sack in his last four games and had a combined one tackle against New England and Pittsburgh this month. Ozzie Newsome needs to find high-impact help at the position to help him out.

10. We all know health is the major concern with Michael Campanaro, but watching him these last two weeks makes you wonder why the Ravens didn’t part ways with Devin Hester a month sooner. Campanaro, Perriman, and Chris Moore are young players who should play more against Cincinnati.

11. I understand it’s in a coach’s fiber to do everything he can to win, but the organization should consider the dangers of exposing its most important players to injury in a meaningless road game against the Bengals. Does anyone sincerely care about finishing 9-7 compared to 8-8?

12. The seat is warm for John Harbaugh after missing the playoffs in three of four years, but firing him would be harsh after only one truly lousy season (2015). A once-proud franchise, Buffalo has had six head coaches since Harbaugh’s hiring. Finding someone even as good is hardly a given.

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Ravens 31-32 since 2012 Super Bowl victory

Posted on 26 December 2016 by Dennis Koulatsos

After their heart breaking loss to the Steelers last night, the Ravens are now a very pedestrian 31-32 since they beat the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII in 2012.  Over that period, they have been very mediocre, very average, with only one playoff appearance.

The loss to the Steelers was devastating on a number of levels. This was a critical game for both organizations. Had the Steelers loss, Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley would have been left wide open for criticism by their fan base, front office and ownership.

They would have had to account for burning all of their time outs on their last drive. For not leaving at least one in order for them to kick a field goal, in a worst case scenario setting, that would have taken the game into overtime had Antonio Brown failed to cross the goal line.

Antonio Brown had the presence of mind to stretch his left arm and break the plane of the goal line.  It was a play for the ages, by a magnificent player.  Never mind that Steelers WR Cobi Hamilton was not set on that play. Never mind that Ravens safety Eric Weddle had several of his fingers wrapped around Brown’s facemask. But hey, that’s the game.

The outcome of this game can potentially set both of these franchises in dramatically different directions. This will no doubt will be an interesting off-season, especially for the Ravens.

For all of the questions as to whether Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti will bring back coach John Harbaugh, one has to wonder as to whether or not Harbaugh will be in a mood to come back, depending on how the conversation goes.

For one, coach Harbaugh will have options, no matter what. I don’t know that he’ll be in a mood to be a lame duck coach with one year left on his contract.  I would think he’d want more a vote of confidence from ownership, versus playing out what amounts to a “show me, prove yourself” one year deal.

Not when – if he were to become available – he would have a plethora of suitors to pick from. I know that he loves living in Maryland, and I know that he loves being the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens.  But with that said, I don’t know that he’d stick out what amounts to a one year contract at 7 million, where he may be able to get a 4 year deal at 7 million somewhere else. He also may be able to get a 5 year deal that would also pay him north of that 7 million mark.  That’s not a stretch and it very well could happen.

Harbaugh would be a hot commodity not only with current vacancies in the NFL, but also with college football opportunities as well.  He is charismatic and a proven winner, so recruiting players for his college team (if it goes down that way) should not be a problem for him. Plus big brother Jim has done a nice job with his college programs, and that’s something else that works in his favor.

In regards to explaining the team’s mediocre record the past 4 seasons, Harbaugh could point in the scouting department and GM Ozzie Newsome’s direction. With the exception of their most recent draft, the Ravens have not drafted particularly well.  They have missed on a slew of top draft picks. That is simply something that cannot be pinned on Harbaugh.

Ozzie Newsome selects the players, and John Harbaugh coaches them. It has always been that way. Who’s responsible and who’s accountable? We can debate that all day long, but both have left themselves open to scrutiny.

Since the conclusion of the 2012 season, the talent level on this team hasn’t been on par with division rivals Steelers and Bengals. That falls on the shoulders of the front office. For his part, coach Harbaugh has to answer for his team blowing a 10 point lead on the road to the hapless New York Jets. Plus a dismal home loss to the Washington Redskins. Those October losses have come back to haunt the Ravens, and one can easily argue that they shouldn’t have been in the position of having to beat the Steelers last night for the division crown as well as a playoff berth.

I think it’s fair to question Harbaugh’s loyalty to offensive line coach Juan Castillo, who seems to be a polarizing figure since the day he arrived. There’s no doubt that the offense has to be completely overhauled. The Ravens need an offensive coordinator who will install a system that takes full advantage QB Joe Flacco’s strengths, while minimizing his weaknesses.

I don’t think the Ravens are that far away from becoming a perennial contender once again.  I believe with another strong draft and a new offensive coordinator, this team can get deep into the playoffs next year. I believe with their first 3 picks, they need to take a cornerback, a free safety and a rush end. No particular order, just the best player available at those positions when they’re on the clock.

It will be interesting to see if coach Harbaugh is here for those picks.  The team has options, and so does he.  In this situation, the door certainly swing both ways. Unless something drastic happens after the season’s last game in Cincinnati, I would say at this point it’s 50/50 that he comes back.

 

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Ravens just not quite good enough when they needed to be

Posted on 26 December 2016 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not good enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seats are getting warm now.

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

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Christmas Day

Posted on 24 December 2016 by Luke Jones

It became crystal clear for the Ravens on Saturday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on 22 December 2016 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 15 win over Philadelphia

Posted on 20 December 2016 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Alarming lack of offensive leadership nearly costs Ravens dearly

Posted on 19 December 2016 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what about Flacco?

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

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

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

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

Either way, that pick can’t happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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Ravens-Eagles: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 17 December 2016 by Luke Jones

It was a tough week for the Ravens.

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

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

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

Below are five predictions for Sunday …

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

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

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

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

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

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