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With pains at receiver, Ravens facing Cleveland at perfect time

Posted on 06 October 2015 by Luke Jones

Expecting to take the field without the services of Steve Smith on Sunday, the Ravens are hurting at the wide receiver position entering Week 5.

Their projected No. 1 receiver against the Browns, Kamar Aiken, has just 11 receptions for 165 yards and a touchdown through the first four games of the season. Those numbers don’t even match what the 36-year-old Smith did in Week 3 against Cincinnati alone.

That’s why the Ravens’ 191-yard rushing performance in last Thursday’s win at Pittsburgh couldn’t have come at a better time. Prior to Week 4, Baltimore had averaged just 3.3 yards per carry in its 0-3 start, perhaps the most surprising development of the early season.

Now, head coach John Harbaugh hopes the ground performance against the Steelers is a sign of better things to come.

“Sometimes you have to keep pounding that rock,” Harbaugh said. “They made a lot of plays against the run — especially early — and finally it kind of opened up toward the end there a little bit more. But it’s always important for us. It’s something that we count on doing well, and we need to continue to improve. I don’t think we’re where we need to be with the run game, yet. That’s something we need to continue to work on really hard.”

With Smith sidelined and starting tight end Crockett Gillmore still recovering from a calf injury, the Ravens are playing the 1-3 Browns at a perfect time. Cleveland brings the league’s 32nd-ranked defense in total yards and its rush defense ranks 31st in giving up 141.5 yards per game.

The Browns rank 29th in allowing 4.8 yards per carry, which comes a year after their defense surrendered more rushing yards than any team in the NFL. Those 2014 struggles prompted the selection of defensive tackle Danny Shelton with the 12th overall pick of this spring’s draft, but the 339-pounder’s presence has yet to make a major difference for the Browns’ front.

Of course, quarterback Joe Flacco and the Ravens will need to do enough through the air to prevent the Cleveland defense from consistently stacking the box, but there appears to be little reason why Justin Forsett, Lorenzo Taliaferro, and Buck Allen won’t find running room to move the chains and take pressure off an undermanned group of pass-catchers. The Ravens will need a produtive running game moving forward, especially until Smith is ready to return to action.

Even if they’re playing at M&T Bank Stadium where the Browns haven’t won since 2007, Harbaugh made it clear that the Ravens are in no position to take Cleveland lightly.

“I mean, hey, we’re 1-3, too,” Harbaugh said. “We have two 1-3 teams going at it here. We’re battling to be third place in the division right now. That’s where we stand, and that’s a tall order and we have work to do. But they have a heck of a front seven. They have good pass rushers on both edges. They have some of the most talented secondary players in the league, and we’ve seen them up close and personal every time we play them.”

Pass-rushing reinforcements

The Ravens enter Week 5 tied for sixth in the NFL with 11 sacks, but the pass rush remains a topic of concern for the league’s 16th-ranked pass defense.

The good news was the boost defensive coordinator Dean Pees received from Za’Darius Smith, who collected the first two sacks of his NFL career in the third quarter of the win at Pittsburgh. In 19 snaps, the rookie collected two other tackles in addition to his takedowns of Mike Vick, flashing the skills he showed at Kentucky that prompted the Ravens to draft him in the fourth round.

“I think he has really been ramping up his intensity level,” Harbaugh said, “how he plays from one play to the next, understanding at this level the edge that you have to play on to be successful, and how hard you have to play. He applied that in that Pittsburgh game better than he has at any point in time. He has always been good, but not really good enough to make a difference until this game, and that was really good to see.”

With Elvis Dumervil and Courtney Upshaw taking on heavier workloads since the season-ending injury to Terrell Suggs, the Ravens need Za’Darius Smith and veteran Jason Babin to be productive when asked to spell the starters.

Making his Ravens debut after being inactive for two games, Babin only played seven snaps and did not record any official statistics, but Pro Football Focus credited him with a quarterback hurry.

“He was really disciplined with his pass rush,” Harbaugh said. “The thing we asked our guys to do in this game was be very disciplined with their pass rush and treat it almost like run defense, because you have  a guy back there who can throw and can run and can really hurt you with him arm and with his legs.”

Challenging Jernigan

One of the quieter stories of the early season has been the demotion of second-year defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, who has been replaced by rookie Carl Davis in the base defense in each of the last two games.

The 2014 second-round pick missed the season opener with a knee injury and started against Oakland in Week 2, but a foolish roughing-the-passer penalty on the Raiders’ game-winning drive landed him behind Davis on the depth chart. Jernigan played just 17 of 63 defensive snaps against the Steelers, but the Ravens will need him to be a major part of their inside pass rush as the season progresses.

“Timmy is getting better and better,” Harbaugh said. “He really stepped it up the last week or so — in practice and in games. He’s very capable of being a real factor inside there, and it’s especially true when he plays a certain way, when he really gets after it, when he cuts it loose. That’s what we’re trying to get him to do — get off the ball, get off blocks, run to the football, be a physical force in there, and play fast.

“Sometimes, too much thinking is not good. He knows the defense now, and we expect him to play with a real high motor. And when he does that, he’s very effective.”

Returning questions in return game

With Michael Campanaro now out for the season with a back injury, the Ravens have gone back to the drawing board with their return game.

The latest depth chart lists veteran Lardarius Webb as the No. 1 punt returner, but the kick returner is listed as “to be determined.” Newly-acquired Chris Givens has experience returning kicks in St. Louis while Taliaferro and Allen also practiced handling kickoffs over the summer.

However, the Ravens’ best option might be on their practice squad where receiver Jeremy Ross currently resides. Ross returned kicks and punts in Detroit for two years and scored a touchdown doing each during the 2013 season.

“We’ll look at all our options. We have guys on the roster that can do it,” Harbaugh said. “Chris is a guy that can do it, too, as far as the kick return stuff. We’ll just see where we’re at come Sunday on that, but it could be someone here. Obviously, it could be somebody outside, too.”

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Ravens take step forward by capitalizing on good fortune

Posted on 02 October 2015 by Luke Jones

The Ravens didn’t save their season on Thursday night, but Justin Tucker’s 52-yard field goal to top Pittsburgh in overtime was the claw of a hammer loosening the nails of their coffin.

An 0-3 team is never fixed with a single win, but the 23-20 victory over the Steelers was a step in the right direction. Though far from exceptional, the Ravens were just good enough to capitalize on some luck as well as critical mistakes by their AFC North rival.

And that’s progress after a September from hell that resulted in the worst start in franchise history.

“We know where we’re at. We know what we have to overcome,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “You can’t get two [wins] until you get one. This one was a long time coming. We’re happy to get it.”

Baltimore’s biggest stroke of good fortune came last Sunday when Ben Roethlisberger injured his knee in St. Louis, leaving the quarterbacking duties to Mike Vick on Thursday. The 35-year-old backup may not have lost the game for Pittsburgh, but he did nothing to help his team over the final 30 minutes of play on Thursday night.

Amazingly, the Steelers coaching staff kept putting the ball in his hands as he twice failed to convert fourth downs in overtime — one as a runner and another on an errant throw to All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown. How Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley didn’t give the ball to Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell — who became the first to eclipse the century mark on the ground against the Ravens defense in 30 games — in either situation is still a head-scratcher.

But the Ravens took advantage despite questionable fourth-down decisions of their own and injuries to Steve Smith and Michael Campanaro that left them with a receiving trio of Kamar Aiken, Marlon Brown, and rookie Darren Waller down the stretch. Joe Flacco shook off two costly turnovers earlier in the game to do just enough to make it work.

A defense heavily criticized for its inability to get off the field this season made several key stops, including a three-and-out late in regulation that gave Flacco and the offense a chance to drive 45 yards in the final minute to set up Tucker to make the game-tying 42-yard field goal. The secondary remains a major concern, but a pair of critical tackles by safety Will Hill in overtime and solid play from newly-acquired cornerback Will Davis were positives on which to build for a struggling unit.

The most encouraging development from Thursday’s win was the revitalization of the Ravens’ ground attack as Justin Forsett rushed for a game-high 150 yards on 27 carries. Largely ineffective in the first three weeks, the running game resembled what we saw under Gary Kubiak a year ago. With injuries at receiver and tight end and a shortage of playmakers on which Flacco can rely, the Ravens’ best hope to turn their season around will be to move the ball consistently on the ground and they did just that against a good run defense.

After mistakes, questionable decisions, and close calls for both sides throughout the night, the outcome of the game ultimately came down to which team had the better kicker. While Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin lost all confidence in Josh Scobee after two misses in the final three minutes of regulation and chose to go for two fourth downs in Baltimore territory in overtime, the Ravens once again enjoyed having the best kicker in the NFL.

Tucker’s 52-yard game-winner with 5:08 left in overtime was the latest kick that will allow the free-agent-to-be to put his feet up on owner Steve Bisciotti’s desk in the same way Flacco did before being paid a few years ago. Since arriving as a rookie free agent in 2012, Tucker has done everything you could ask to become the league’s highest-paid kicker and the Ravens have no choice but to reward him sooner rather than later.

They got a close look at the opposite side of the spectrum with Scobee’s misses and the Steelers’ lack of confidence in him that led to strategic changes that the Ravens took advantage of.

“In this league, most games come down to three points,” Harbaugh said. “We have a great kicker.”

Having a great kicker — and the Steelers lacking one — was the ultimate difference between the Ravens being 1-3 as opposed to 0-4 at the end of the night on Thursday. Now, they’ll feel much better about themselves as they rest up and hope for a number of injuries to heal up over the weekend before coming home to play Cleveland a week from Sunday.

Thursday’s win provided a brief exhale, but the Ravens still have a long way to go to save their season.

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Jimmy Smith trying to shake off disappointing start to 2015

Posted on 29 September 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Asked how he shakes off one of the most difficult games of his NFL career, Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith demonstrated by literally shaking his arms and shoulders while smiling.

Even when dealing with an 0-3 start, it’s important to have a sense of humor — and a short memory — when competing in an NFL secondary. That’s not to say that Smith didn’t take his poor performance hard on Sunday, declining to speak to the media after giving up the game-winning touchdown pass to four-time Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green in the 28-24 loss to Cincinnati.

“I took the loss as a loss,” said Smith, who apologized Monday for being “too emotional” to talk after the defeat. “It wasn’t so much that I was just so down on myself, it was just a loss. I didn’t play as well as I wanted to, so all of that affected it.”

Signed in the offseason to a four-year, $41 million contract extension through 2019, Smith appeared ready to pick up where he left off last season, returning a Peyton Manning interception for the Ravens’ only touchdown in a 19-13 season-opening loss to Denver. However, the 27-year-old cornerback has struggled since then, allowing a long touchdown to Amari Cooper in the Week 2 loss at Oakland before being torched by Green in Week 3.

In three games, Smith has been thrown at 28 times and has allowed 18 receptions for 275 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions, according to Pro Football Focus. It’s a stark contrast from a year ago when the 2011 first-round pick was targeted just 39 times in eight games and allowed 20 receptions for 163 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception. A Lisfranc injury that required season-ending surgery last November short-circuited a Pro Bowl-caliber campaign and forced Smith to spend much of the offseason rehabbing, but he was mostly a full participant in training camp and played in two preseason games.

The early-season woes have led many to wonder if his left foot is still an issue 11 months after the injury. A problem to the foot area can be debilitating at a position requiring backpedaling and such frequent changes in direction, but Smith wouldn’t comment on the possibility of any lingering effects.

“People come back from injuries; they play,” said Smith, who’s missed 17 games due to injuries in his young career. “Until this season is over, I’ll never talk about my foot.”

Identified as one of the leaders of a defense trying to fill the void of the injured Terrell Suggs, Smith said he isn’t lacking confidence despite allowing Green to make seven catches for 126 yards and a touchdown when they were matched on Sunday. He cited his preparation and film study as the biggest reasons why his recent play won’t shake his confidence moving forward.

Of course, the proof lies on the field where he’s appeared hesitant to engage in press coverage such as when he was beaten badly by Cooper on the 2015 first-round pick’s touchdown in Week 2. His early third-quarter interception of Andy Dalton on Sunday was a flash of what he’s capable of doing, but Smith hasn’t carried the same swagger on the field that he did a year ago when he had appeared to finally arrive as one of the best cornerbacks in the AFC.

The struggles have been across the board in the secondary as the Ravens currently rank 29th in pass defense. Miscommunication, technique flaws, and poor tackling have plagued Baltimore in each of the last two weeks, but Smith views these issues as correctable with better preparation as well as “effort and will” to bring down ball-carriers.

“There are times when we’re playing at a high level; it’s just we’ve got to be way more consistent,” Smith said. “Even though they’re huge plays, it’s a minor technique that we’re missing or that we’re not completing. So, it’s not even the calls; it’s things we have to fix and clean up, and we’ll get that done.”

Trying to rebound from the first 0-3 start in team history to save their season, the Ravens need Smith playing at his highest level in order to do so. Other than the passing combination of quarterback Joe Flacco and wide receiver Steve Smith, there may not be a more important player to the Ravens’ success than Smith when he’s playing at his best.

For what it’s worth, teammates and coaches haven’t lost faith in him despite the last two weeks.

“Jimmy is one of our best corners,” linebacker Elvis Dumervil said. “He’s one of the good players on our team — great guy, great teammate. Some days you give up plays; some days you make plays. That’s just the National Football League, and I wouldn’t want to take any other corner but him.”

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Too many issues for winless Ravens to hide from truth

Posted on 28 September 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens had chances to win in the fourth quarter of each of their first three games, but that doesn’t hide the truth after a 28-24 loss to Cincinnati on Sunday.

This is a bad football team at 0-3.

At least right now.

A loss in Denver wasn’t unexpected despite it being a winnable game. Falling to Oakland was surprising, but the Ravens have laid the occasional egg on the road in the John Harbaugh era. But failing to prevail in a must-win game at M&T Bank Stadium when they owned two separate leads late in the game?

The difference between most good teams and most bad teams in the NFL isn’t that much, but the Ravens have shown it through the first three weeks of the 2015 season. They’re not bad in the same sense as an 0-3 Chicago Bears team that’s been outscored by 59 points this season, but that’s no consolation for a franchise so used to success over the last 15 years.

“Very disappointing,” said Harbaugh after the Ravens fell to 0-3 for the first time in franchise history. “We had the lead twice in the fourth quarter and couldn’t hold onto it. It’s happened too much lately. It’s on us.”

The sad thing is that the Ravens of old flashed at a few different points in the second half, making you think they would find a way to steal one that they really had no business winning after being dominated in the first half. The defense was even the catalyst as Elvis Dumervil stripped Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton of the football and C.J. Mosley picked up the fumble and ran 41 yards for the go-ahead touchdown with 6:49 remaining in the fourth quarter.

The narrative was there for an ugly — but season-saving — win around which the Ravens could rally and remove the bad taste of the first two losses from their palates.

But then four-time Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green took over, catching an 80-yard touchdown against a confused and poor-tackling secondary. And he did it again after the Ravens had punched back with a Joe Flacco touchdown to Steve Smith that put them back in front with just under four minutes remaining.

After fourth-quarter failures against the Broncos and Raiders in the previous two weeks, the defense once again melted down when the Ravens needed it to make just one last stop.

“Once we had the lead in the fourth quarter, we’re supposed to keep it,” cornerback Lardarius Webb said. “With this defense, we’re supposed to get off the field. We haven’t been getting off the field this whole year, and that’s what you get when you don’t get off the field on third down.”

Even with the healthy returns of Jimmy Smith and Webb and the free-agent additions of Kendrick Lewis and Kyle Arrington, we knew the Ravens secondary might still be an issue, but the defense has allowed 291 passing yards per game and six touchdowns so far in 2015. Two of those performances came against Oakland’s second-year quarterback Derek Carr and then Dalton, who has been the quarterback punchline of playoff failures over the last four years.

Is it the talent, the execution, or the coaching? When a team is 0-3, it’s all of the above.

The pass rush without Terrell Suggs, Pernell McPhee, and Haloti Ngata is a shell of its former self, leading to quite a predicament for defensive coordinator Dean Pees. When you need to blitz to pressure the pocket, you make shaky defensive backs even more vulnerable to giving up the big play, but rushing three or four while dropping extra defenders in coverage hasn’t worked either.

There’s been too much miscommunication on the back end of the defense — seeing Lewis trying to cover Green on his 80-yard score in a three-deep zone was a perfect example on Sunday — not to question Pees’ calls while also holding players accountable for their performance. You could certainly interpret Harbaugh’s thoughts on Green’s final touchdown as a critique of both.

“You take responsibility across the board,” Harbaugh said. “It’s execution, it’s finding a better way to play. There are options that you have on that last play down there in the red zone on the [7]-yard line besides man coverage, but we decided to blitz them and get after them and they beat us. We have an option there, we can check to a zone coverage. We didn’t have that on, but there are always options.”

Understandably, the defense is receiving most of the blame for Sunday’s loss, but let’s not pretend all is well with the offense, either. Not only did the group sleepwalk through the entire first half, but the passing game remains too dependent on Steve Smith as he was targeted 17 times on his way to 13 catches for 186 yards and two touchdowns. Other than maybe second-year tight end Crockett Gillmore — who sat out the second half with an undisclosed injury — Flacco doesn’t have a single pass-catcher he can trust beyond the 36-year-old wideout, who was terrific on Sunday but can’t be expected to repeat this every week.

Perhaps the biggest — and easily the most surprising — concern on either side of the ball for the Ravens has been their running game, which was a non-factor against the Cincinnati defense on Sunday. After running for just 35 yards on 13 carries in the first half, the Ravens gained only one yard on five second-half carries.

For a team that pledged to maintain the blocking principles introduced by Gary Kubiak a year ago, the running game under Marc Trestman has more closely resembled the disastrous 2013 ground attack so far, averaging just 3.3 yards per carry in three games. That spells trouble for a team lacking play-makers through the air and a pass defense that needs to be protected as much as possible.

With concerns on both sides of the ball, the 0-3 Ravens can only push forward while trying to resolve at least some of the problems.

“If [those losses are] in your head, then you’re just going to be constantly trying to crawl out of a hole that you can’t get out of right away,” said Flacco, who thought the offense “wasted” the entire first half not taking advantage of the Bengals playing “conservative” defensive looks. “It’s going to take time. We’ve had opportunities to win each one of these three games, and we’re just not good enough to be good in crunch-time situations and it’s getting us beat.”

Numerous players spoke about getting their heads right as the talented Steelers — even without Ben Roethlisberger — loom on Thursday night. There was plenty of talk about accountability and being better than their record indicates, but actions speak louder than words and the Ravens know that.

Players and coaches need to be better, including Harbaugh after he burned a precious timeout on a spot challenge he had no chance of winning early in the fourth quarter.

There are just too many problems to go around for the Ravens to hide from the truth that they’ve been a bad football team through three weeks. And if they want to have any visions of becoming the fourth 0-3 team since 1990 to make the playoffs, much needs to change in a hurry.

“We’ve got to get going,” Dumervil said. “We have a short turnaround against a good team [on the road]. We’ve got to have a short memory and get going.”

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Ravens-Bengals: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 27 September 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Playing their 20th home opener in Baltimore, the Ravens have entered uncharted territory under eighth-year coach John Harbaugh with an 0-2 record to begin the 2015 season.

For a team entering the season with Super Bowl aspirations, the urgency couldn’t be greater in Week 3 as the undefeated Cincinnati Bengals try to bury the Ravens before October. Since 1990, only three 0-3 teams have rebounded to make the playoffs and the prospects of an 0-4 start would be alarming with a Thursday game in Pittsburgh looming in just a few days.

Surprisingly, the Ravens deactivated veteran pass rusher Jason Babin for a second consecutive week after citing his lack of familiarity with the defensive system as the reason he sat against the Raiders a week ago. With the current concerns over the pass rush, Babin being inactive doesn’t speak well for the Ravens’ confidence in him to be able to contribute off the edge.

Baltimore had already ruled out rookie wide receiver Breshad Perriman (knee), defensive end Chris Canty (calf), and left tackle Eugene Monroe (concussion) on Friday. Perriman practiced on a limited basis on Thursday and Friday and went through another pre-game workout on Sunday morning as he tries to work his way back from a sprained knee suffered on the first day of training camp in late July.

Running back Lorenzo Taliaferro (foot) was active after being listed as questionable on the final injury report of the week.

Cornerback Rashaan Melvin will make his 2015 season debut after dealing with a hamstring injury dating back to the preseason. Given how well he performed in training camp and how much No. 3 cornerback Kyle Arrington struggled in Oakland, Melvin would be a good bet to see playing time in the nickel defense against the Bengals.

Acquired from the Miami Dolphins in exchange for a 2016 seventh-round pick earlier this week, cornerback Will Davis was inactive as he continues to learn the Baltimore defensive system. With Melvin returning to action, the Ravens had less of a need to activate Davis. Rookie Tray Walker was also inactive for Baltimore.

These teams are meeting for the 39th time with the Ravens holding a slight 20-18 advantage and 13-6 mark in Baltimore. However, the Bengals have won three straight and four of the last five in the series after completing a season sweep in 2014.

The forecast called for cloudy skies with temperatures in the low 70s, a 15 percent chance of rain, and winds up to 11 miles per hour.

Referee Walt Anderson and his crew will officiate Sunday’s game.

The Ravens are wearing purple jerseys with white pants while Cincinnati dons its white tops with black pants.

Here are Sunday’s inactives:

WR Breshad Perriman
CB Tray Walker
CB Will Davis
LB Jason Babin
OT Eugene Monroe
DT Christo Bilukidi
DE Chris Canty

WR Greg Little
WR Mario Alford
CB Chris Lewis-Harris
TE C.J. Uzomah
DL Marcus Hardison
DL Pat Sims
DL Margus Hunt

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Ravens-Bengals: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 26 September 2015 by Luke Jones


It’s a word unfamiliar to the Ravens at this early stage of a season under eighth-year head coach John Harbaugh as they find themselves 0-2 for the first time since 2005. Not only must they beat the Cincinnati Bengals to avoid the first 0-3 start in franchise history, but a Thursday road game at Pittsburgh awaits just four days later.

In other words, the Ravens know their season could be all but doomed before Columbus Day if they don’t answer the bell for these next two games. The Bengals, however, would like nothing more than to continue their recent success against the Ravens while improving to 3-0 in the young 2015 season.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens play Cincinnati for the 39th time in franchise history as they own a 20-18 mark. Baltimore has lost three straight and four of the last five to the Bengals, who last year handed the Ravens a season-opening loss at M&T Bank Stadium and swept the season series for the first time since 2009.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to improve to 46-11 in home games under Harbaugh, the second-best mark in the NFL since 2008 …

1. As Jimmy Smith tries to lock down A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard will present matchup problems with a combined 125 receiving yards and a touchdown. Last week was a forgettable performance for the Ravens’ top cornerback, but he will bounce back to prevent Green from singlehandedly wrecking the game. The third-year tight end Eifert is emerging as a dangerous weapon and strong safety Will Hill is dealing with a knee ailment, a worrisome combination. Eifert and Bernard matching up against Ravens linebackers will favor Cincinnati and the pair will help Andy Dalton move the chains on several occasions on Sunday.

2. The Ravens will get their running game on track as Justin Forsett rushes for 80 yards and a touchdown. Through two games, Baltimore has averaged just 2.1 yards per carry in under-center formations as Forsett has largely been bottled up. The Ravens have gained 91 yards on 13 carries from the shotgun, but that’s not a viable long-term plan, putting pressure on the offensive line to open running lanes. The Bengals defense gave up 5.2 yards per carry a week ago, and you can bet that Harbaugh wants the Ravens to get back to their roots in all phases of the game after an 0-2 start. That means heavy doses of Forsett, Lorenzo Taliaferro, and Buck Allen, and more running room will be there.

3. Elvis Dumervil will pick up his first sack of the season, but the pass rush will remain largely ineffective. The Ravens hope that Jason Babin can bring some life to a front seven missing Terrell Suggs, but putting consistent pressure on the quarterback will be an issue for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the Bengals offensive line hasn’t allowed a sack yet this season and the Ravens only sacked Dalton twice in two games last year with Suggs and Haloti Ngata having one each in the second meeting. Dumervil will slip by Bengals tackle Andrew Whitworth for a takedown, but this is not a good matchup for a group trying to find its way and going against a passing game that gets the ball out quickly

4. Rookie Maxx Williams will catch his first career touchdown. The offense took some encouraging steps forward last week in Oakland with Crockett Gillmore catching two touchdowns and Kamar Aiken adding 89 receiving yards to shake off a brutal first-quarter fumble, but the Ravens need their 2015 second-round tight end to become a bigger part of what they do in the passing game, especially with limited speed at the receiver position. The Bengals’ otherwise-stout defense is average at the linebacker position and offensive coordinator Marc Trestman will try to create favorable matchups for the talented but raw Williams. He’ll take advantage with a touchdown inside the red zone.

5. Joe Flacco will fight off the demons of past Cincinnati performances to lead the Ravens to a much-needed 23-21 win. These are the desperate times in which you lean on your stars, but Flacco has thrown more than twice as many career interceptions against the Bengals than any other team, making this one difficult to predict. Cincinnati is the more balanced team on paper and the early-season results for both teams speak for themselves, but Flacco plays better at home and will play an efficient game with minimal mistakes to lead the Ravens to a win. It won’t be pretty as the defense will bend plenty without breaking and the offense will struggle to finish off a few drives, but the Ravens will make just a few more plays than the Bengals to earn their first win of 2015.

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BALTIMORE, MD - NOVEMBER 20: Coach John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens (L) and coach Marvin Lewis of the Cincinnati Bengals shake hands after an NFL game at M&T Bank Stadium on November 20, 2011 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Ravens won, 31-24. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

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Bengals bring much continuity to Baltimore on Sunday

Posted on 23 September 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens have stumbled out of the 2015 gate with a pair of losses following an offseason filled with change while the rival Cincinnati Bengals have steadily plugged away with a 2-0 start to take the early lead in the AFC North.

Their well-documented postseason failures aside, the Bengals have returned 21 of 22 starters from a year ago and have had the opportunity to settle in with offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, both in their second year in those posts. It’s the kind of continuity that the Ravens likely envy as they just began their fourth straight season with a different offensive coordinator and seemingly replace important players on both sides of the ball every offseason.

Head coach John Harbaugh raised a few eyebrows with his praise for the Bengals during his Monday press conference, but the reaction reflects the heavy attention paid to the Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers in the offseason while Cincinnati largely flew under the radar.

“I do believe it is the most talented team in the league,” Harbaugh said. “I’ve seen that over the years. We have great respect for them, for their coaches, [and] the way they play. Obviously, it starts with A.J. Green, but the whole cast of characters there on offense is very talented and gifted.”

Cincinnati certainly wishes for the Ravens’ success in January after first-round exits in each of the last four years, but the Bengals have won four of the last five meetings between the teams, including a season sweep a year ago. They also matched Baltimore with 40 regular-season wins from 2011-2014, one more than Pittsburgh’s 39.

But unlike the Ravens under Harbaugh and the Steelers under Mike Tomlin, 13th-year head coach Marvin Lewis is feeling heat over the Bengals’ failure to simply earn their first playoff victory since 1990, let alone win a Super Bowl to match their AFC North rivals. For that reason, continuity only goes so far if the Bengals don’t break through this season.

“We’ve been able to continue to grow our guys from the ground up, and that’s an important part [of] the program here,” Lewis said. “We’ve been fortunate to have coaches and so forth in place, but the main thing is — hopefully, throughout this whole thing — you’ve got to keep getting better as a football team.

“Continuity is not very good if you’re not good enough.”

The questions begin and end with fifth-year quarterback Andy Dalton, who is off to a strong start in 2015 with five touchdown passes and no interceptions. Despite being named to two Pro Bowls in his career, Dalton has never inspired enough confidence to make you think he’s capable of leading a team to the Super Bowl. In the Bengals’ four playoff losses, he’s thrown one touchdown and six interceptions.

But those postseason shortcomings haven’t stopped the Bengals from topping the Ravens in the regular season as they scored a combined 50 points in their two wins in 2014. In preparing for Cincinnati for the 39th time in franchise history, the Ravens will see the same faces who have given them plenty of trouble in recent years.

“It is surprising to see that in the salary-cap era,” defensive end Chris Canty said. “They have that continuity and they’ve been able to have a lot of success with that core group of players. That presents a challenge for you. You have to understand they’ve been running a system for a long time and now that system has been allowed to take the next step because they’ve been able to keep that group of players together for so long. That only makes them better, so we have to be prepared for everything they throw at us on Sunday.”

More troubling than the Bengals’ offensive success against Baltimore is how effectively their defense has frustrated Joe Flacco over the years. The eighth-year quarterback has thrown an ugly 18 interceptions in his 14 career games against Cincinnati, more than twice as many as he’s thrown against any other team over the course of his career.

In a pair of losses last season, Flacco threw three interceptions to just one touchdown. On Sunday, he’ll see virtually the same defense that will also include returning defensive end Michael Johnson, who spent 2014 in Tampa Bay.

“They play aggressively, they have good corners, they have a good front, and they get after the passer,” Flacco said. “They have a group that has played together for a pretty long time now. They feel confident with each other; they know what they’re doing.”

The Ravens are clearly desperate for a win as they don’t want to fall to 0-3, a hole that only three teams have escaped to make the playoffs since 1990.

Standing in their way is a team that’s received plenty of criticism in January but has matched them blow for blow in the regular season over the last several years. The Bengals would love nothing more than to extend Baltimore’s early-season nightmare while maintaining a strong start of their own to 2015.

“It’s not often there is an opportunity to go up — after three games — by three games on a team in your division,” said Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert, who has led Cincinnati with 153 receiving yards to provide another offensive weapon. “We’ve definitely noticed that, and we want to go in there and play well and get a win.”

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An 0-2 start all that matters for hodge-podge Ravens

Posted on 21 September 2015 by Luke Jones

All we really know about the Ravens right now is that they’re 0-2 and in last place in the AFC North and that’s what matters.

The defense isn’t as bad as it played in Sunday’s 37-33 loss to Oakland, but it’s probably not as strong as it looked in Denver, either.

The offense isn’t as poor as it looked in Week 1 — really, it couldn’t have been much worse — but scoring 33 points against a bad Raiders defense isn’t the best barometer to conclude that all is fine with Marc Trestman’s unit.

Optimists will say John Harbaugh’s team was two plays away from being 2-0 in two road games out west despite playing poorly. They’ll maintain that the Ravens will be fine if the Week 1 defense and the Week 2 offense can simply show up at the same time.

Pessimists will tell you Baltimore couldn’t win against a Peyton Manning-led offense that was completely out of sync in the opener or even beat one of the worst teams in the NFL in Week 2. And they’ll remind you again that just 24 of the 205 teams that have started a season 0-2 since 1990 have made the playoffs — roughly one team per year.

Contrary to the sentiments shared by much of a frustrated fan base, the season isn’t over as the aforementioned statistic includes plenty of bad teams that never had a good chance to make the playoffs long before the season began. Indianapolis started 0-2 a year ago before advancing to the conference championship game and Steve Smith’s old team — the Carolina Panthers — lost its first two games of 2013 before making it to the divisional round that January.

Even the two-time defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks are in the same boat as the Ravens right now.

But the Ravens are in danger of having the season spiral out of control before Columbus Day if they don’t get to work immediately. On Sunday, they return home to play an undefeated Cincinnati Bengals team that’s won three of their last four meetings and then travel to Pittsburgh four days later to play the Steelers on a short week.

If you think 0-2 is quite a hole to escape, an 0-4 start would be the Grand Canyon.

Two weeks in, we just don’t know what to make of this Ravens team other than the clear stigma of an 0-2 record. Is it the offense, the defense, or both? Is this just another Harbaugh-led team that struggles on the road and wreaks havoc on opponents at M&T Bank Stadium to ultimately land in the playoffs like six of the last seven years?

A defense that carried much promise a week ago looked every bit the part of a unit playing its first game without Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis, or Ed Reed — the trinity of Ravens defensive excellence — since 1998. The pass rush was nonexistent, the coverage in the secondary was abysmal, the tackling was even worse, and Dean Pees’ coaching adjustments didn’t work.

Some media and fans tried to argue that the loss of Suggs would not be that severe, but the Ravens defense looked like a group sorely missing his play and leadership in Oakland. Even so, the outside linebacker’s absence alone can’t explain — or excuse — the poor performance throughout the defense.

The lack of the pass rush coupled with a 2014-like performance from the secondary will create much concern about the Ravens’ ability to stop opposing offenses, especially after second-year quarterback Derek Carr and the lowly Raiders picked them apart to the tune of 351 passing yards and three touchdown passes.

It didn’t help that untimely penalties doomed the defense on Oakland’s final scoring drive as a senseless roughing-the-passer foul by Timmy Jernigan put the Raiders in field goal position and a defensive holding penalty on Will Hill wiped out what would have been the game-clinching interception. Those types of mistakes, particularly the Jernigan penalty, aren’t indicative of winning teams.

If you’re looking for the silver lining, the offense made strides on Sunday with tight end Crockett Gillmore catching two touchdowns and wide receiver Kamar Aiken bouncing back from an early fumble to help back up Smith’s 10 catches and 150 receiving yards. Yes, an otherwise-strong Joe Flacco misfired on a few throws that could have led to more points — including one to a wide-open Steve Smith that would have meant a touchdown instead of a field goal on their penultimate drive — but you should beat the Raiders 100 times out of 100 when you score 33 points.

Trestman’s decision to throw on second-and-8 from the Oakland 13 on the play before Flacco’s errant throw to Smith was baffling as an incompletion stopped the clock with 2:19 remaining, but we knew all along that the offense would be a work in progress and the group did its job for the most part on Sunday.

Everything we’ve witnessed in the Harbaugh era suggests the Ravens are better than their 0-2 record indicates, but they’ve hit uncharted territory under the eighth-year coach as the franchise has lost its first two games for the first time since 2005. It’s in rough patches when Harbaugh is generally at his best, but he sees exactly what we’ve all witnessed over the first two weeks and can’t feel good about it.

A horrendous performance by the offense and a strong defensive effort in Week 1 followed by a good offensive showing and a nightmarish game from the defense in Week 2. You just don’t know what to expect at this point from either side of the ball.

Will the real Ravens step forward? They’re better than their 0-2 record, right?

Or, maybe they are a hodpe-podge group with the latest offseason of substantial changes finally catching up with them.

If they really are this bad, we’ll find out quickly with their two biggest divisional foes looming over the next 10 days.

If the Ravens are better than this, they have no choice but to start proving it immediately.

Because 0-2 tells you all that matters.

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Ravens-Raiders: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 19 September 2015 by Luke Jones

Ted Marchibroda was their head coach, Eric Zeier their quarterback, and Bill Clinton was the president of the United States the last time the Ravens played a game without any of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, or Terrell Suggs on the field.

Sunday will mark the first game since Oct. 11, 1998 that the Ravens will compete without any of the three greatest defensive players in franchise history, signaling a new era for a Baltimore defense that still possesses much talent. More importantly, Baltimore is trying to avoid its first 0-2 start since 2005 after a disappointing showing in Denver last week. Since 1990, only 24 of 205 teams to begin a season 0-2 have made the playoffs.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens play Oakland for the eighth time in the all-time regular-season series as they own a 6-1 record. Baltimore carries a 1-1 regular-season record in Oakland, but the Ravens won their only playoff game at O.co Coliseum in topping the Raiders in the 2000 AFC championship game. The Ravens have won four straight over the Raiders with their only loss coming in 2003.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to improve to 29-10 in games immediately following a loss under John Harbaugh, the second best mark in the NFL since 2008 …

1. Steve Smith and Crockett Gillmore will catch touchdown passes against a banged-up Oakland secondary that won’t be up to the task. The Raiders pass defense isn’t very good anyway, but the unit will be without safety Nate Allen and fellow safety Charles Woodson’s status is in question with a shoulder injury. Oakland cornerbacks won’t be able to hang with Smith, who will use a double move to catch a long touchdown. Gillmore will split the safeties down the seam to catch a touchdown on the same route we saw in the third preseason game before the score was negated by a penalty. It won’t be a record-setting day for the passing game, but Joe Flacco and his pass-catchers will make progress.

2. The Baltimore offensive line will provide more room in the running game, but pass protection will remain a concern. This unit can’t be any worse than it was last week, and they’ll pave the way for 100-plus rushing yards. But the absence of left tackle Eugene Monroe will still present a problem as James Hurst will be overmatched against the likes of Justin Tuck, Khalil Mack, and Aldon Smith coming off the edge. Unlike last week, Marc Trestman will use more max protect to help Hurst — or right tackle Rick Wagner — and to avoid Flacco being pressured on every two of three snaps like last week. However, the Raiders will still harass Flacco too often and will sack him three times.

3. Jason Babin will collect a sack in his debut with the Ravens. It will be fascinating to see how Dean Pees goes about replacing Suggs’ snaps and production, but the 35-year-old Babin is in good shape and will get on the board early with a quarterback takedown in the first half. The biggest overall concern will be how an increased workload impacts Elvis Dumervil, who has been terrific as a situational player but isn’t as effective against the run as Suggs. The front seven is too good against the run to allow the Raiders to exploit the transition on Sunday, but creativity will be a must to maintain an effective pass rush and to set the edge, the latter being an underrated part of Suggs’ weekly contributions.

4. Derek Carr will find Michael Crabtree for a touchdown pass, but the Raiders quarterback will struggle to consistently move the ball. The Baltimore secondary was quite impressive a week ago, but I’m not convinced that their problems from 2014 are long gone either and Oakland will find some gaps in the pass defense from time to time despite little room to run. Rookie Amari Cooper has all the tools to be an impact receiver, but Crabtree also has something to prove this year after lukewarm interest from teams in free agency. He’ll slip by veteran cornerback Lardarius Webb in the red zone for Oakland’s only touchdown of the afternoon.

5. The Ravens will make more plays to maintain control in a 24-16 win over the Raiders. Oakland has more talent at the top end of its roster than it’s had in quite a while, but Baltimore is a much better football team. That being said, the Ravens rarely dominate on the road and own a total of three wins by more than one possession away from M&T Bank Stadium over the previous three seasons. The Ravens offense will be better, but they have a lot of work to do to become the kind of unit that can dominate a team on the road. The Ravens will lead the entire way, but the offense will lack the consistency to pull away as some fans will grumble about an underwhelming win.

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Five numbers behind Ravens’ 19-13 loss in Denver

Posted on 15 September 2015 by Luke Jones

Every week, we’ll ponder five numbers stemming from the Ravens’ latest game, this one being the ugly 19-13 loss to Denver to begin the 2015 season …

3.66 — Joe Flacco’s yards per attempt
Skinny: The pass protection was awful and his pass-catching targets were unable to create separation, making it no surprise that the eighth-year quarterback couldn’t throw the ball down the field. This was Flacco’s worst yards per attempt average since a loss in Houston on Oct. 21, 2012 (3.42) and the third-worst mark of his NFL regular-season career. His worst overall came in the 2009 playoff win over New England when a banged-up Flacco went 4-for-10 for 34 yards, a 3.40 average.

9 — Total catches made by Ravens receivers and tight ends
Skinny: Many expressed concerns over Flacco’s group of young receivers and tight ends, and Sunday proved to be a nightmare as even Steve Smith managed just two catches for 13 yards and couldn’t bring in the potential game-winning touchdown on the Ravens’ penultimate play of the game. Fellow starter Kamar Aiken was even worse as he lost a yard on his only reception. With or without rookie Breshad Perriman, this group needs to be markedly better for Baltimore to make any real noise this year.

27 — Consecutive games in which the Ravens defense hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher
Skinny: It was an impressive effort on the other side of the ball as the Ravens continued the longest active streak in the NFL of not allowing an opposing player to eclipse the century mark on the ground. With Brandon Williams dominating the line of scrimmage and C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith at the inside linebacker spots, the Ravens have to like their chances to keep this streak going. Meanwhile, the Broncos will need to average much better than 2.8 yards per carry to help Peyton Manning’s deteriorating arm.

56 — Yards of offense from Justin Forsett
Skinny: The 2014 Pro Bowl running back didn’t have much of a chance behind a less-than-stellar performance from the offensive line, but his output was lower than all but two of his regular-season games a year ago. Forsett’s numbers would have been even worse if not for his 20-yard run on the final drive of the game. With Buck Allen showing some promise in limited opportunities and Lorenzo Taliaferro possibly returning this Sunday, it will be interesting to see how the carries are distributed.

291 — Consecutive games (counting the postseason) in which Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, or Terrell Suggs has been on the field for Baltimore
Skinny: The 2015 opener brought the unfortunate end of a remarkable run in franchise history with Suggs suffering a season-ending Achilles injury in the fourth quarter. This Sunday will mark the first time that the Ravens will play a game without any of the three best defensive players in their history since Oct. 11, 1998 when Eric Zeier was the quarterback and they lost 12-8 to the Tennessee Oilers as Lewis sat out with a dislocated elbow. Nothing lasts forever, but it’s strange thinking about the old guard of Baltimore defense that also included Haloti Ngata being no more — at least until next year.

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