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Ravens-related thoughts from divisional round

Posted on 18 January 2016 by Luke Jones

Ravens fans undoubtedly took satisfaction from watching Pittsburgh lose to Denver in the divisional round on Sunday, but you couldn’t help but be in awe of the Steelers’ speed at the wide receiver position.

Playing without arguably the best receiver in the NFL in Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger still threw for over 300 yards against the Broncos’ top-ranked pass defense thanks to a 154-yard receiving day from Martavis Bryant as well as contributions from the speedy trio of Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Markus Wheaton. Having caught just one pass in the regular season, the rookie Coates caught two passes for 61 yards to show off the speed that Pittsburgh barely even used in 2015 after taking him in the third round out of Auburn.

That collection of speed nearly overcame a depleted running game that was without DeAngelo Williams as Bryant’s 40-yard run in the first quarter helped set up the Steelers’ lone touchdown of the game. Of course, speed isn’t everything — just ask Pittsburgh’s colossal 2014 third-round bust Dri Archer — but you could easily understand why Joe Flacco cited the AFC North rival’s offense when asked at the end of the season whether he believes the Ravens need to add more speed to the passing game.

“You see what speed does. It does a lot for football teams,” Flacco said. “You see what the Steelers are doing with the speed that they’ve added over the last couple years. It definitely makes a difference out there. I’m not saying that it’s something that we need, but when we’ve had it here, it’s definitely made a little bit of a difference. It helps.”

If the Ravens want to close the gap with Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in the AFC North, they must find more speed at the receiver position in addition to hoping that 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman is fully recovered from the partially-torn posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee that cost him his entire rookie season. Watching the Steelers on Sunday was just a reminder that Baltimore was playing a different game in 2015 with receivers incapable of consistently gaining separation or running away from anyone.

The combination of Kamar Aiken and a returning Steve Smith — Jeremy Butler also showed some promise late in the season — should leave the Ravens in good shape in terms of possession receivers, but general manager Ozzie Newsome needs to find another high-end speed guy to go with the unproven Perriman, whether that player comes via free agency or the draft.

When asked at the season-ending press conference, Newsome made it very clear that he would like to add another receiver or two this offseason. Fans will just hope one will make a substantial impact unlike the late-round picks over the last several drafts who’ve been nothing more than roster filler.

The Ravens have an abundance of No. 5 and No. 6 options, but they need to aim higher when looking for a wide receiver this offseason.

Up-and-down Sunday for ex-Ravens

While former Ravens such as Michael Oher, Ed Dickson, Dwan Edwards, Darian Stewart, and Owen Daniels helped their respective teams move closer to Super Bowl 50 on Sunday, ex-Raven Fitz Toussaint wore the goat horns for the Steelers.

The running back’s fumble with 10 minutes to play not only ended a potential scoring drive, but it was the catalyst for Denver’s only touchdown drive of the game in a 23-16 final. Even as Ravens fans took delight in watching Pittsburgh lose, you couldn’t help but feel for the 2014 rookie free agent from Michigan who was very emotional after the game.

Toussaint has received more postseason carries (31) than regular-season rushing attempts (24) in his first two NFL seasons and had 118 total yards in Pittsburgh’s win over Cincinnati, but Sunday is a day he’ll surely want to forget despite scoring his first NFL touchdown in the first quarter.

Coverage linebackers

It’s almost unfair to compare most linebackers to Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis in Carolina, but the Ravens need to find a way to improve their pass coverage with that positional group.

Still one of the better coverage linebackers in the league when the Ravens signed him three years ago, Daryl Smith clearly floundered in that department to the point that second-year linebacker Zach Orr was replacing him in the nickel package late in the season. More concerning, however, were the continued struggles of C.J. Mosley in pass coverage in his second season.

After Mosley became the first rookie to make the Pro Bowl in franchise history, many concluded he would be the next great Ravens defensive player, but 2015 didn’t go as smoothly for him. To his credit, the Alabama product overcame a slow start to play better as the season progressed, but he must improve in pass coverage if he’s to take his game from good to great.

Nod to Manning

This item isn’t related to the Ravens, but I find myself becoming an unabashed supporter for Peyton Manning at this late stage of his career.

You don’t have to be an NFL scout to recognize he’s a shell of his former self physically, but he also wasn’t responsible for a number of dropped passes from Broncos receivers that would have made for a very respectable day against Pittsburgh if some had been secured.

We all break down in various ways as we get older — the man underwent multiple neck surgeries in 2011 and still threw an NFL-record 55 touchdown passes and won the MVP two years later at age 37 — but instead of laughing over Manning’s decline, I appreciate seeing one of the greatest players in NFL history trying to use his incomparable football intellect and years of experience to overcome a once-powerful arm that won’t cooperate anymore. After years at the top of the mountain, Manning has strangely become the underdog trying to hold on at the end of his career.

Even if you’re not rooting for him, that fight still deserves respect.

Manning and the Broncos look like the least likely of the four remaining teams to raise the Vince Lombardi Trophy in Santa Clara next month, but I’ll be happy for him if he’s somehow still standing in the end — even if everyone will obnoxiously remind you over and over that it was more about Denver’s stout defense than him.

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Flacco not thinking about contract during rehab process

Posted on 04 January 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — It will be anything but a normal offseason for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco as he prepares for his ninth season in Baltimore.

Currently rehabbing his surgically-repaired left knee, Flacco knows his contract will be a hot topic for discussion as he enters the fourth season of a six-year, $120.6 million agreement signed just a few weeks after winning Super Bowl XLVII. General manager Ozzie Newsome and Flacco’s agent, Joe Linta, negotiated the deal in the winter of 2013 with the understanding that it would be revisited after he earned a total of $62 million over the first three years.

“I haven’t thought about it too much,” Flacco said. “I know that it’s obviously out there, and it’s probably going to be somewhat of an issue. I guess I haven’t thought about it too much, haven’t talked to anybody about it. I do know that it’s sitting there.”

Flacco is set to carry a $28.55 million salary cap figure for the 2016 season, which is close to the total cap space he accounted for in 2014 ($14.8 million) and 2015 ($14.55 million) combined. With the Ravens trying to address a plethora of needs in the aftermath of their first losing season since 2007, restructuring the deal to level off his future cap figures is a must.

A renegotiation won’t solve all of the Ravens’ cap woes as the realistic scenario is adjusting his cap numbers closer to the $20.1 million average annual value of the original deal. With Flacco scheduled to make base salaries of $18 million in 2016, $20.6 million in 2017, and $20 million in 2018 — his cap figures are $31.15 million in 2017 and $24.75 million in 2018 — the Ravens will likely attempt to turn a large portion of those scheduled salaries into a bonus while tacking on two or three additional years and more money to the contract.

But Flacco says he will leave the details up to the Ravens and Linta with a realistic deadline of early March to get something worked out before the new league years begins and teams must be under the cap.

“The first few years of my deal, the cap number wasn’t very big, so you don’t really have any other way around it [but] to have a monster one at the end of it,” Flacco said. “You know it’s coming unless the salary cap makes some kind of enormous jump, but it’s really kind of out of my control. It’s just an issue that these guys are used to dealing with day in and day out.”

Head coach John Harbaugh has said that Flacco is expected to be 100 percent for the start of training camp in late July, but he hasn’t been given any definitive timetable as he continues to rehab on a daily basis. Flacco tore the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee in the closing moments of Baltimore’s Nov. 22 win over St. Louis.

Turning 31 later this month, Flacco had not missed a game in his career before missing the final six weeks of a 5-11 season.

“By August, I’ll be like eight months out of surgery,” Flacco said. “I don’t know what the timeline is on these things, but I’m in there doing the work. I’m expecting I’ll be ready to go. I really have no idea though.”

Monroe not dwelling on future

Many have speculated about the future of Eugene Monroe, but the left tackle isn’t focusing on whether he’ll be back for the third season of a five-year, $37.5 million contract that included $17.5 million guaranteed.

“That’s not something I’m concerned with at all,” said Monroe, who has started just 17 of the Ravens’ last 34 games counting the postseason. “I’m focused on getting healthy and getting back to ball.”

After missing action due to knee surgery and an ankle injury in 2014, Monroe missed three games with a concussion at the beginning of the season and six more contests with a shoulder injury that eventually required season-ending surgery last month. Starting left guard Kelechi Osemele moved to left tackle for the final four games of the season, and many believe he played well enough for the Ravens to consider re-signing him to play the position permanently and releasing Monroe.

A 2009 first-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Monroe had missed just four games in his first five NFL seasons and is scheduled to make $6.5 million in base salary and carry an $8.7 million cap figure next year.

“Frustration isn’t going to do me any good,” Monroe said. “No one likes to be hurt and not on the field, but it is what it is, and I’ve had some things happen that just were unfortunate. But I’ll make sure I continue to work my ass off and continue to get better.”

Ravens sign seven players

With the 2015 regular season over, the Ravens signed seven players to reserve-future contracts, which will allow them to be with the organization during the offseason and to compete for roster spots during training camp and the preseason.

The list includes linebacker Brennen Beyer, guard Leon Brown, defensive end Nordly Capi, offensive tackle Blaine Clausell, wide receiver Chuck Jacobs, safety Nick Perry, and tight end Harold Spears, who all spent time on the Baltimore practice squad this season.

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Tough part now begins trying to improve undermanned Ravens

Posted on 03 January 2016 by Luke Jones

The 2015 season is finally over for the Ravens.

Fourteen of their 16 games were decided by a single possession.

Twenty-one players finished the season on injured reserve or on the physically unable to perform list. That list included eight starters as well as 2015 first-round receiver Breshad Perriman.

Head coach John Harbaugh still called it one of his most rewarding seasons with the way his players and coaches continued to fight and show heart every week, but all of this only clouds the truth about one of the most disappointing years in the history of the franchise.

Despite plenty of preseason love, the Ravens lacked the dynamic playmakers to be a serious contender this year.

That reality was apparent before the laundry list of injuries decimated the Ravens to the point that you needed a roster sheet handy just to follow the final weeks of action. Remember that other than outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and Perriman, an unproven rookie who was the only plan for replacing speedy receiver Torrey Smith, the Ravens were still a relatively-healthy football team when they entered Week 8 with a 1-6 record and their season all but shot.

And this is where general manager Ozzie Newsome could face more scrutiny this offseason than at any point during his 20 mostly-brilliant years in Baltimore.

It will be interesting to see where owner Steve Bisciotti directs his disappointment when the Ravens brass meets with the media to discuss the 2015 season and what lies ahead. While coaches and players have faced the music on a weekly basis and must shoulder their part of the blame, it’s difficult to win consistently without dynamic, game-changing players on either side of the football.

The Ravens simply lacked the speed and big-play talent at crucial positions such as wide receiver, edge rusher, and in the secondary to win in the modern NFL.

Ultimately, Newsome is responsible for putting together the roster. Many factors brought the Ravens to this point with some of those out of the general manager’s control but others falling directly on his shoulders.

To be clear, the Ravens don’t need to overhaul their entire roster as they have some good players on both sides of the ball, but they lack the special ones for which the opposition game-plans on a weekly basis in the way Cincinnati’s A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert showed on Sunday. With injured franchise quarterback Joe Flacco expected to be ready for training camp and Harbaugh showing commendable leadership in keeping the locker room together during an 11-loss season, the Ravens are in a much better position than many non-playoff teams, but they will need a strong offseason to return to the playoffs next season.

Baltimore has multiple needs including finding a ball-hawking defensive back, bolstering the pass rush, adding more speed to the wide receiver position, and potentially making their latest change at left tackle.

Choosing sixth overall in the 2016 draft should certainly help, but Newsome and the rest of the front office need to take a long look at the way they’ve done things in recent years as there were many falling dominoes that led to such a disappointing season. Recent draft history, bad contracts, and too much reliance on unproven players were all factors contributing to a 5-11 season before it ever began.

There’s been too little emphasis on speed at multiple positions, and Newsome hasn’t put enough talent around a quarterback who’s in his prime and has already proven he can win a championship with a good — not necessarily great — supporting cast around him.

Harbaugh has answered questions all year, but Newsome hasn’t addressed the media since the final day of the draft, which will make his first public comments about the 2015 season highly anticipated. Changes to the coaching staff could be coming, but improving personnel will be far more important to the Ravens’ fate in 2016 and beyond.

Injuries, questionable officiating, and tough breaks in close games may have contributed to a 5-11 record, but this was a flawed team from the start and not the Super Bowl contender that the Ravens — or outsiders — thought it was. You just hope the decision-makers acknowledge as much instead of using injuries as the primary excuse or trying to shift too much blame to Harbaugh, his coaches, and current players.

It may not have been easy watching the Ravens play out the string, but now the tough part begins.

Fixing a football team with a plethora of needs.

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Yanda named 2015 Ravens MVP by local media

Posted on 30 December 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Rarely is an offensive lineman ever discussed as an NFL team’s most valuable player, but the 2015 season has been anything but typical for the Ravens.

With 20 players currently on injured reserve and suffering their first losing season of the John Harbaugh era, the Ravens have leaned on the offensive leadership of five-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda, who was voted team MVP by local media on Wednesday. In his ninth season, Yanda is the first offensive lineman to receive the annual award introduced in 2003.

“[It’s just] the attitude of offensive linemen, just the daily grind of the guy that doesn’t get the recognition, which that’s fine with me,” Yanda said. “I’ve always been the guy that I’m happy to be out there and playing in the NFL and being able to compete with the best in the world. I’m happy with being out there and to say that I can stand out there with those men.

“It’s neat to be recognized, but it’s one of those things where I’ve always been happy and relished the opportunity to play in the NFL.”

Signed to a four-year extension through 2019 earlier this season and named to his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl last week, Yanda has been graded by Pro Football Focus as the top guard in the NFL and has been viewed by many as the best at his position for a few years now. He is just one of six players in the 20-year history of the Ravens to be named to five Pro Bowls as members of the organization.

Durability has been considered one of Yanda’s biggest strengths as he’s missed only two games since missing much of the 2008 season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The 2007 third-round pick out of Iowa has also played right tackle on more than one occasion in his career including last year’s postseason.

“I feel like football is a sport where it’s not if you get hurt, but when,” Yanda said. “You’re going to get hurt no matter what in this business. It’s part of having to play through injuries, because your team needs you and because they need production out of you. You owe it to the guy next to you. I owe it to Joe [Flacco] to be out there and do my job to keep him clean.”

The local media also voted cornerback Jimmy Smith as the winner of the Good Guy Award, an honor bestowed upon a Ravens player who has been particularly helpful in granting interviews and being accessible to reporters.

Below are past winners with the MVP listed first and the Good Guy Award winner second:

2003: Jamal Lewis, Gary Baxter
2004: Ed Reed, Anthony Weaver
2005: Adalius Thomas, Jamal Lewis
2006: Steve McNair, Bart Scott
2007: Willis McGahee, Derrick Mason
2008: Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs
2009: Ray Rice, Jarret Johnson
2010: Haloti Ngata, Chris Carr
2011: Ray Rice, Bernard Pollard
2012: Ray Rice, Arthur Jones
2013: Justin Tucker, Joe Flacco
2014: Justin Forsett, Torrey Smith

Flacco remains on track for training camp

Head coach John Harbaugh reiterated Wednesday that he expects Flacco to be ready for training camp as he continues to rehab his surgically-repaired left knee.

A CBS Sports report recently said that Flacco is already riding a stationary bike, and the 30-year-old has been seen walking around the Ravens’ training facility with minimal use of crutches after undergoing surgery earlier this month. The Super Bowl XLVII MVP had never missed a game in his NFL career prior to tearing his ACL in a win over St. Louis on Nov. 22.

“I guess you never say never, but everything I’ve been told is he’s going to be ready for training camp — 100 percent ready to go,” Harbaugh said. “The key with all these injuries is that they get the most out of every day, but there’s never a setback. If you don’t have a setback, then it should be fine.”

More than steak

After having a 101-yard interception return for a touchdown wiped away due to Courtney Upshaw’s offside penalty, Smith quipped after Sunday’s win over Pittsburgh that he expected a steak dinner to make up for it.

Now, the fifth-year cornerback expects more from his teammate.

“After I re-watched the play, I think I needed more,” said Smith as he smiled. “That type of play is the play that every corner always dreams of. That’s the first time that’s ever happened for me. Even in practice, that’s never happened. I don’t know what I want. Maybe some new rims for my car — I don’t know.”

Wednesday’s injury report

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Elvis Dumervil (non-injury), FB Kyle Juszczyk (illness), LB Albert McClellan (ankle)

CINCINNATI
OUT: QB Andy Dalton (right thumb)
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: RB Ryan Hewitt (knee/illness)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: DE Carlos Dunlap (hamstring), S George Iloka (groin), WR Marvin Jones (hamstring), QB AJ McCarron (left wrist)
FULL PARTICIPATION: TE Tyler Eifert (concussion)

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Mallett shows why Ravens were so eager to play him

Posted on 28 December 2015 by Luke Jones

It was a baptism by fire starting their fourth quarterback in six weeks against their biggest rival on Sunday, but the Ravens clearly wanted to see what Ryan Mallett could do.

Less than two weeks after being signed, the talented but troubled quarterback responded with the biggest game of his NFL career and made his mark in Ravens lore by completing a season sweep of the Pittsburgh Steelers and putting their playoff hopes in serious jeopardy.

“I know what it’s about now. I like it,” said Mallett after the 20-17 upset victory. “What Steve Smith said, ‘big-boy football,’ right?”

There is no quarterback controversy in Baltimore for 2016, but Mallett showed exactly why the Ravens envision him being their backup to a healthy Joe Flacco. Possessing a strong arm and a 6-foot-6 frame, the 27-year-old is similar to Flacco physically, which is what you’re typically looking for in a backup quarterback.

It was apparent from the beginning of Sunday’s game that Mallett is more talented than Matt Schaub or Jimmy Clausen, but the 2011 third-round pick also played smart football and didn’t look like someone with less than two weeks working in offensive coordinator Marc Trestman’s system.

Mallett turned in the first turnover-free performance by a Ravens quarterback since Nov. 1, a stretch that included Flacco’s final two starts of 2015.

“To operate the way he did, change plays at the line the way he did, I think it says a lot about him, but it says a lot about our coaches as well,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “Just a great effort. This kid was in there 24-7. This kid was in the staff meetings at night.”

Mallett has made an excellent first impression with his new team, but he must continue to show that the concerns about his maturity and commitment that led to his demise in Houston are behind him for good. Showing ability and fire that inspired his teammates on Sunday, Mallett should benefit from working with the even-keeled Flacco in the coming months.

With quality quarterback play at a premium around the NFL, you can’t ask for much more than Mallett offered on Sunday as he threw for a career-high 274 yards, completed 68.3 percent of his passes, and threw a touchdown pass on his opening drive. A quality backup effectively runs your offense and gives you a solid chance to win some games with your regular supporting cast when the starter is out for a short period of time.

Mallett more than looked that part on Sunday.

“I want to thank the Ravens organization for bringing me in and giving me a shot and giving me a workout and coach Harbaugh,” Mallett said. “Just being here, I don’t even know what to say right now. It’s an emotional time, but it’s fun.”

Allen bounces back

After being benched for losing a fumble for the second straight game last week, rookie running back Buck Allen bounced back with one of his best performances of the year as he collected 114 yards from scrimmage and the first rushing touchdown of his NFL career against Pittsburgh.

His six carries for 26 yards over the final 6:24 of the fourth quarter don’t jump out on the stat sheet, but that sequence proved the Ravens hadn’t lost confidence in Allen from a ball security standpoint while only holding a three-point lead. The fourth-round rookie didn’t disappoint as he protected the ball against a Steelers front that was desperate for a turnover.

“Last week hurt to go out there and fumble and change the momentum of the game,” Allen said. “That’s all on me — nobody’s fault but mine and I took full responsibility. I knew coming into this game that I couldn’t make that mistake. The coaching staff believed in me and kept feeding me the ball. I just want to thank them for doing that.”

Upshaw redemption

Courtney Upshaw’s offside penalty that wiped away Jimmy Smith’s 101-yard interception return for a touchdown felt like it would be the turning point and the latest misfortune in a lost season.

But the outside linebacker responded emphatically on the following drive by sacking Ben Roethlisberger to set up a second-and-long situation and then hit the Steelers quarterback again on the fourth-down incompletion that ended Pittsburgh’s last real drive. Upshaw said he still owed Smith after the game, but his pressure prevented Roethlisberger from orchestrating his late-game magic.

“That’s just how you do it. I was on the bench, and I was like ‘I’ve got to make up for that,'” Upshaw said. ” I had the opportunity to go in and apply some kind of pressure. I ended up getting a sack — me and [Elvis Dumervil] — and then on that last one, get a hit on Ben. At the end of the day, we come out here and we try to fight for the win together.”

Mallett to… Matthews?

It wasn’t as synonymous with Ravens football as Flacco to Steve Smith, but Mallett’s run in Baltimore officially began with a pretty touchdown pass to… Chris Matthews?

The little-used receiver who earned fame for a 100-yard performance with Seattle in last year’s Super Bowl caught the first regular-season touchdown pass of his NFL career to put the Ravens on the board in the first quarter. Matthews was promoted from the practice squad to the 53-man roster on Dec. 12 and had just two receptions for 27 yards in his first two games with Baltimore.

“We were just looking for a certain defense,” Matthews said. “They came out in that two-shell and we wanted to exploit it. I was the single man down the middle and I’m 6-foot-5, so you can’t really miss that. Ryan threw an amazing ball and I went up there and caught it.”

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Upset proves Ravens-Steelers rivalry not going anywhere

Posted on 27 December 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — After receiving a season’s worth of coal, the Ravens handed some to Pittsburgh two days after Christmas to put their playoff hopes in serious jeopardy.

The 20-17 victory over their arch rival doesn’t wipe away the disappointment of a lost year, but a season sweep and potentially knocking the Steelers out of the playoffs?

That sounds pretty sweet to the Ravens, especially when few gave them a chance against an offense that had scored 30 or more points in six straight games. And as much as they tried to downplay it during the week, the Ravens wanted nothing more than to prevent their AFC North counterpart from clinching a playoff berth at M&T Bank Stadium.

“If we can’t get in there, then you can’t get in, either,” cornerback Lardarius Webb said. “Exactly that’s how we want it.”

We know misery loves company, but Ravens fans have heard for years about “tainted” victories over the Steelers on several occasions when Ben Roethlisberger was out of the lineup. Pittsburgh fans taunted them when graybeard backup Charlie Batch led the Steelers to a December victory in Baltimore in 2012 — even if the Ravens still went on to win the Super Bowl two months later.

On Sunday, Pittsburgh was facing a Ravens team without quarterback Joe Flacco and 19 other players who were officially out for the season. And the Steelers lost to Baltimore’s fourth starting quarterback of the season as Ryan Mallett will now go down in rivalry lore, especially if the New York Jets win at Buffalo next week to officially knock Pittsburgh out of the playoffs.

Yes, the Ravens are still 5-10 and hurt their draft position with Sunday’s win, but simply holding a lead for four quarters — they had led at the conclusion of just 14 of 58 periods of play this season entering Week 16 — was a pleasant diversion in a frustrating season. The fact that it came against the Steelers made it that much sweeter.

“The lead is important. I think we had maybe 10 points on turnovers,” said head coach John Harbaugh, who directed the Ravens to the third season sweep of Pittsburgh in the 20-year history of the franchise. “We didn’t give up any points on turnovers. That’s winning football. That’s the way we want to play, and to me, that’s a blueprint for us going forward. Now we have to try to replicate that blueprint.”

What this win really means for the future is anyone’s guess. As impressive as Mallett’s performance was less than two weeks after signing a contract, the Ravens hope the Week 17 finale in Cincinnati will be the last time he’ll have to play if Flacco is healthy for the start of the 2016 season.

You hope that young players like Buck Allen and Za’Darius Smith learned valuable lessons from the upset victory, but many players involved in Sunday’s game are unlikely to be in the picture moving forward.

If nothing else, it was a fun three-hour diversion from a nightmare season. This time, the Ravens were able to create a nightmare for someone else.

“It definitely feels special today,” wide receiver Kamar Aiken said. “Keeping them out of the playoffs, and just being able to sweep them this year. They didn’t get a win this year. It’s always good when you beat Pittsburgh.”

Sunday’s upset reminded us that Ravens-Steelers isn’t going anywhere. It’s true that the rivalry has lost some luster in recent years, but how could it not with future Hall of Fame players like Ray Lewis and Hines Ward and Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu no longer in the picture?

As division rivals playing at least twice a year, the Ravens and Steelers have proven over and over again that anything can happen, regardless of what the numbers tell you before they meet. Counting the playoffs, Baltimore has won five of the last six games between these teams, but 12 of the 16 regular-season meetings in the Harbaugh era have been decided by three or fewer points.

With the Ravens long out of playoff contention, more Steelers fans than normal made their way into the stadium on Sunday, but that only challenged the home fans to be louder than they’d been all year, creating an atmosphere reminiscent of high-stakes meetings of the past.

It may no longer be the hottest matchup in the NFL, but Baltimore-Pittsburgh has become a legacy rivalry that will endure those rare times when one or both teams are down. The organizations are two of the best in the NFL, making a win over the other special no matter what their records might be in a given season.

The Ravens hope that Sunday’s win will be a springboard into better fortunes in 2016.

“To sweep Pittsburgh is a very valuable thing,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a very meaningful thing. And this team accomplished that. When you have failure in life, sometimes woven into the failure are great successes and great wins.”

And through that surprising Week 16 success, the Ravens could take joy in handing the Steelers some failure that could doom their own season.

Petty or not, that’s what a great rivalry is all about.

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Mallett to make first Ravens start against Pittsburgh

Posted on 27 December 2015 by Luke Jones

(Updated: 11:35 a.m.)

BALTIMORE — A new wrinkle will be added to an already-bizarre season for the Ravens on Sunday.

Ryan Mallett will become the fourth quarterback to start a game for Baltimore in 2015 as the Pittsburgh Steelers come to M&T Bank Stadium for a Week 16 tilt. The Ravens have never started more than three quarterbacks in the same season in the 20-year history of the franchise.

The news was originally reported by NFL Network early Sunday morning.

Despite being signed less than two weeks ago, Mallett has been praised for his effort in learning the offense. Head coach John Harbaugh was noncommittal about who his starting quarterback would be earlier in the week, but offensive coordinator Marc Trestman made it clear Thursday that the former Houston Texans quarterback had learned enough of the offense to be ready to play if called upon.

Matt Schaub and Jimmy Clausen have started two games apiece since franchise quarterback Joe Flacco suffered a season-ending knee injury on Nov. 22. After working him out earlier in the month, the 4-10 Ravens signed Mallett to a contract through the 2016 season, making it preferable to take a look at him in live-game action before going into an offseason in which Flacco will be rehabbing his surgically-repaired left knee and isn’t expected to be ready before training camp.

“He has had enough reps that if John decides to play him, and we decide to go that way, we feel he could manage the game,” Trestman said. “The most significant part of the week has been the way the three of them have handled the situation and worked together to try to optimize the understanding of our game plan and getting it accomplished.”

Jettisoned from Houston for missing a team flight in late October after concerns already existed about his maturity and committment, Mallett would be making his seventh career start and has thrown five touchdowns and seven interceptions while completing 53.1 percent of his passes. He was originally a third-round pick of the New England Patriots in 2011 and served as a backup to Tom Brady for his first three seasons before being traded to the Texans prior to the 2014 season.

Mallett, 27, was already familiar with Ravens wide receiver Kamar Aiken, who spent parts of two seasons with the Patriots.

“I’ve been catching balls with him when I was in New England, so I’m pretty comfortable with him and everybody else,” Aiken said on Wednesday. “He’s a really talented guy. He has to get the offense. I guess whoever’s out there is out there.”

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Groundhog Day continues for Ravens at quarterback

Posted on 22 December 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — If you listened closely, you can almost hear the strains of “I Got You Babe” in the background as Ravens coach John Harbaugh was asked about his starting quarterback for Week 16.

Groundhog Day continues for the Ravens as Harbaugh wouldn’t even commit to veteran Matt Schaub being his starter if healthy enough to play, a departure from the last two weeks that were already filled with uncertainty. With the 34-year-old dealing with a chest injury, Jimmy Clausen has started each of the last two games for Baltimore.

Who will be under center for the 4-10 Ravens against Pittsburgh on Sunday is anyone’s guess.

“I just don’t want to put any parameters on it right now,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a unique situation right now that we’re in, obviously. It’s different than normal. We’ll see how it plays out. We’re probably not going to say anything. We’ll see who the guy is. I don’t know who the guy is going to be right now at this stage, so we’ll see.”

As if there wasn’t enough discussion about whether Schaub or Clausen would start the previous two weeks, the recently-signed Ryan Mallett figures to now enter the discussion over these final two games of 2015. Signed through next season on a contract that doesn’t include any guaranteed money, the troubled Mallett is an obvious candidate to be a healthy Joe Flacco’s backup in 2016.

In addition to finding out if the 27-year-old has learned from the mistakes that led to his dismissal in Houston, the Ravens would probably like to see Mallett play before the season concludes if he’s up to speed with the offense to a reasonable degree.

“We’ll see how that goes. He has done a good job,” Harbaugh said. “He has been here since Tuesday, so he has done a good job. He has been here practically 24-7 learning the offense. We’ll see where it goes this week. Obviously, the clock is ticking. If we want to see him this year, we’re going to have to put him out [there] pretty quick, but that’s a matter of whether he’s ready to play. We also want to do justice to our chances to win the game, too.”

Given the lack of a supporting cast on offense, none of their three options at quarterback would appear to give the Ravens a good chance to beat either Pittsburgh or Cincinnati. But at the very least, Clausen’s performance should propel him into the conversation for the backup job next season, especially considering he’s spent just a month with the organization. In two games with the Ravens against quality defenses, Clausen has completed 57.6 percent of his pass attempts for 555 yards, two touchdowns, and three interceptions.

A solid backup quarterback should give a team a chance to win a couple games in the short term if he has a good supporting cast around him. Of course, it’s only been two games, but Clausen has played well enough to make you think he could do that if the Ravens weren’t already so depleted on offense.

With Flacco expected to be sidelined until training camp — and not guaranteed to be ready for those first practices in late July — the Ravens would be wise to have two viable backup options for the spring and summer. Why not allow Clausen and Mallett to battle it out for the backup job in the preseason?

Many have already anointed Mallett the backup for 2016 without knowing whether he’s learned his lesson and is finally committed to putting his talents to good use and realizing his potential. With Mallett’s contract guaranteeing nothing but a chance, Clausen should also be re-signed if he doesn’t receive a more attractive opportunity elsewhere.

But given the lack of starting quarterbacks around the league, let alone backups, other quarterback-needy teams may come calling with an opportunity to potentially compete for a starting job, something that wouldn’t happen in Baltimore.

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Loss in Miami reminds Ravens just how much Flacco missed

Posted on 06 December 2015 by Luke Jones

There isn’t much worth remembering when looking back at the Ravens’ 15-13 loss to Miami on Sunday.

Rookie wide receiver Daniel Brown fell victim to one of the worst offensive pass interference calls you’ll ever see, but that was barely a drop in an ocean of poor officiating around the NFL in 2015. It’s a problem the league desperately needs to address in the offseason if it cares about maintaining any semblance of integrity with players, coaches, and fans.

But even after the baffling call that wiped out a 52-yard touchdown pass, the Ravens still had 50 minutes to overcome the misfortune that occurred when the game was still scoreless in the first quarter.

On the positive side, rookie Buck Allen continues to look like he’s more than capable of being a No. 1 running back after collecting 170 total yards and 12 receptions, one shy of the franchise’s single-game record for catches. The 2015 fourth-round pick has become the Ravens’ best offensive option — which admittedly isn’t saying much with the current group of weapons — and is doing everything he can to spark an interesting discussion about the future of veteran Justin Forsett in the offseason.

Beyond that, Sunday’s slop-fest between two bad teams only brought a reminder of just how much the Ravens and their fans should appreciate Joe Flacco when he returns to the field next season. As lousy as Miami’s fourth-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill was for the better part of 60 minutes, his turnover-free performance was preferable to the 30 seconds from hell turned in by Matt Schaub late in the first half that turned out to be the difference in the game.

Two interceptions — one serving as a catalyst for a 38-yard touchdown pass to DeVante Parker and the other returned for a touchdown — and 15 points, which were all the Dolphins needed against an undermanned Baltimore offense. Those turnovers overshadowed what was a strong performance by a Ravens defense that has steadily improved against a pedestrian group of opponents over the last month.

Sunday brought final confirmation that the concerns expressed by “amateur evaluators” about Schaub throughout training camp were more than fair. The longtime Houston Texans quarterback just can’t shake the nightmare that began in his final season as a starter in 2013.

The Ravens simply cannot expect to win with the 34-year-old quarterback at the helm. And how could he do it with such a depleted group of weapons around him? His wide receivers on Sunday would be no better than No. 3, No. 4, and No. 5 options at best on most teams, and starting tight end Crockett Gillmore became the latest offensive weapon to go down when he left the game with a back injury.

Last week’s win in Cleveland came thanks to two special-teams touchdowns that made up for an interception returned for a touchdown and another ugly pick thrown in the final minute. On Sunday, there was no hiding Schaub’s inability to protect the football.

The Ravens may not have been winning much with Flacco in 2015 — he admittedly wasn’t playing his best football — but the last two weeks have offered a reminder to anyone ever trying to undersell just how important the eighth-year quarterback is to Baltimore’s success. Regardless of where he ranks among NFL quarterbacks, Flacco has proven that he can win you a championship with a good group of weapons around him.

That’s more that you can say about Schaub or Tannehill after watching both quarterbacks flounder on Sunday.

There isn’t much else to say about the 4-8 Ravens, who have now clinched just the second non-winning season of the John Harbaugh era. Another week and another game decided by a single score, but we again watched a team not good enough to overcome back-breaking turnovers, untimely penalties, poor officiating, and a plethora of injuries that have decimated the roster.

You can pick apart the minutia of another loss as much as you’d like, but nothing else really matters when you don’t have a quarterback.

Fortunately, it’s only temporary pain for the Ravens, but it’s a reminder of where this franchise stood for years when it squandered a number of championship-caliber defenses as the likes of Kyle Boller and Anthony Wright tried to play quarterback before Flacco finally came along in 2008.

It’s unlikely to be a fun final quarter of the season with the Ravens facing four teams with winning records and firmly in the race for postseason spots.

So, as you brace yourself and try to take consolation in knowing that losses like Sunday’s only improve their 2016 draft position, just remind yourself how good the Ravens have had it for so long with Flacco at the helm.

And try to erase the memory of Schaub’s ugly interceptions as much as you can.

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Matching records aside, Ravens quite different from Miami

Posted on 03 December 2015 by Luke Jones

Matching 4-7 records reflect that the Ravens and the Miami Dolphins have failed to live up to expectations as AFC playoff contenders this season.

But as the tough-luck Ravens have set an NFL record with their first 11 games each being decided by one possession, the Dolphins have experienced more embarrassment as six of their seven losses have come by 10 or more points and four have come by 16 or more. Only three of Miami’s 11 games have been decided by one possession, making the Dolphins the anti-Ravens in some regards.

Aside from their first two games under interim coach Dan Campbell — blowout wins over Tennesee and Houston in October — the Dolphins have rarely even been all that competitive, leading you to wonder about the future of an organization that hasn’t made the postseason since 2008. It’s one thing to lose big at New England on a Thursday night, but this is a Miami team that lost a home game to Buffalo by 27 points in late September.

You can doubt their talent, discipline, or football IQ, but the Ravens have rarely made you question their effort in a string of heartbreaking losses in 2015. Though not a good football team, Baltimore has shown up to play hard every week, which reflects a locker room not giving up on head coach John Harbaugh and the coaching staff.

The final score of the Dolphins’ 38-20 defeat to the New York Jets this past Sunday doesn’t fully illustrate how poor and listless the performance was that led to offensive coordinator Bill Lazor being fired on Monday, almost two months after head coach Joe Philbin was dismissed. Needless to say, 2015 has been a lost season for Miami like it’s been for the Ravens in this pass-fail business.

So, what exactly has gone wrong for a Miami team that ranks 27th in total offense and 28th in total defense?

We know that the Ravens’ well-documented injuries are a major factor — not the only one, but still a significant one — in one of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history as 18 players currently reside on injured reserve or the physically unable to perform list. That group includes their Super Bowl XLVII MVP quarterback, their No. 1 receiver, their starting running back, the 2011 AP Defensive Player of the Year and six-time Pro Bowl linebacker, their starting center, and a former starting tight end.

But Miami has only two players on IR this season, though it’s important to note that one is four-time Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake. For a team with attractive pieces on both sides of the football, that level of health should typically put you in position to make a push for the postseason.

Instead, the Dolphins have floundered for most of the season due to poor coaching or a poor response to coaching — mostly likely both.

Miami has more talent than these current injury-ravaged Ravens and may show up to beat a team that’s led by veteran backup quarterback Matt Schaub on Sunday. But the Dolphins are just as likely to go through the motions and lose by double digits like they have too often in 2015.

Their records are the same and that’s all that matters in the end.

But only one team is deserving of respect.

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