Tag Archive | "Joe Flacco"

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Ravens preparing for sloppy conditions at Heinz Field

Posted on 01 January 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After going through an entire season of mild weather, the Ravens are preparing for ugly conditions in Pittsburgh for Saturday night’s playoff meeting with the Steelers.

Forecasts continue to call for a 100 percent chance of rain with winds that could reach 20 miles per hour on Saturday night. It may create a fitting scene for what many consider a throwback rivalry, but which team has the advantage?

With the Steelers possessing the NFL’s second-ranked passing game and Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell’s status up in the air, the Ravens probably don’t mind a rainy forecast at Heinz Field. Head coach John Harbaugh sees drawbacks for each side of the ball if conditions are poor, but he doesn’t envision Joe Flacco or Ben Roethlisberger being dramatically impacted.

“Some days you feel like it’s an advantage to the defense, because maybe [the offense] can’t throw it quite as well,” Harbaugh said. “Other times you think it’s an advantage to the offense, because they know where they’re cutting and braking and things like that. I think both these quarterbacks are good bad-weather quarterbacks. That’s why they’re both successful in the AFC North.”

Despite showing inconsistency on the ground in recent weeks, the Ravens rank eighth in rush offense while Pittsburgh is only 16th and could be without Bell, who rushed for 1,361 yards in his second NFL season. Both teams have questionable depth at the position behind their starters as the Ravens lost rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro for the season and the Steelers had to sign veteran Ben Tate earlier this week.

Coming off the best regular season of his career, Justin Forsett sees nothing wrong with the wet conditions being predicted for Saturday. His impressive ability to change direction and low center of gravity are conducive traits to running effectively in wet conditions.

“As a running back, you love it,” Forsett said. “Usually, it means that you’re running the ball, but you never know. But I’m excited for it, either way.”

Beyond how much the weather itself might impact both teams’ game plans, the field conditions will be under scrutiny as the natural grass at Heinz Field holds up poorly late in the season. The Ravens haven’t played in substantially wet conditions in Pittsburgh since a 38-7 blowout loss suffered in a Monday night game in 2007.

In recent years, many have clamored for Pittsburgh to install an artificial surface at Heinz Field, which also serves as the home of University of Pittsburgh football and high school football playoff games.

“It’s terrible, man. They need to go ahead and put some turf up there or something,” wide receiver Torrey Smith said. “But you know that’s the case. Apparently the field gets a lot of use, so that’s good for them, but it’s terrible for [the players] playing this late. I’m sure they’ll do a great job prepping it, but if we use our fundamentals, the field shouldn’t matter.”

Versatile Yanda

With right tackle Rick Wagner out for the season and left tackle Eugene Monroe’s status for Saturday in doubt, the Ravens may be forced to use Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda at right tackle for a second straight start.

Of course, Yanda is no stranger to the position after playing the entire 2010 season there, but it’s a testament to the four-time Pro Bowl selection’s preparation and ability that he barely missed a beat in the regular-season finale against Cleveland. It’s another example of the 2007 third-round pick quietly establishing himself as one of the best players in franchise history.

“I told Marshal, ‘You’ll be fine. You could probably play quarterback.'” said offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak of the position change. “That’s the way he is. He’s an amazing player. His attention to detail, his commitment to the football team and what he does is as good as I’ve ever been around. So, [I’m] not surprised at all.”

Yanda’s versatility has allowed the Ravens to insert rookie John Urschel at right guard while rookie James Hurst has played left tackle in place of Monroe.

Taking the late-season change in stride, Yanda denied any ability or interest in lining up under center, but Kubiak has repeatedly said he’s as good as any offensive lineman he’s ever coached. The standout lineman’s focus remains on trying to beat Pittsburgh in the postseason for the first time in franchise history.

“I appreciate it, that’s for sure,” Yanda said. “Right now, you’re worried about playing well, practicing, and getting ready for the Steelers. There will be time to reflect back on the season after the season is over.”

Thursday’s injury report

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Arthur Brown (thigh), DT Timmy Jernigan (foot/ankle), T Eugene Monroe (ankle)
FULL PARTICIPATION: DE Chris Canty (thigh/ankle), TE Owen Daniels (non-injury)

PITTSBURGH
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: RB Le’Veon Bell (knee), LB James Harrison (illness), QB Landry Jones (illness)
FULL PARTICIPATION: T Mike Adams (illness), DT Steve McLendon (shoulder), TE Heath Miller (non-injury), TE Michael Palmer (groin), S Troy Polamalu (knee), QB Ben Roethlisberger (non-injury), CB Ike Taylor (shoulder/forearm)

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Even with long odds, Ravens still rolling shiny dice in January

Posted on 28 December 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — It had been a forgettable seven quarters of football for Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense.

Coming off one of the worst games of his career in the offensive meltdown in Houston, Flacco and the Ravens weren’t faring much better Sunday as they trailed 10-3 to the Cleveland Browns entering the fourth quarter. Knowing they were getting the necessary help from Kansas City to make the playoffs as the No. 6 seed, the Ravens needed to break through the thick fog that was threatening to wreck their season.

Even if it took an extra quarter to take effect, the message came loud and clear from their franchise quarterback at halftime.

“Joe stepped up at halftime when he talked to the team briefly,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “He just made a point, kept it simple and said, ‘Let’s just go win a game.’ That kind of summed it all up for us. Let’s go do what we have to do to win a football game.”

Win is what the Ravens did in a 20-10 final to punch their ticket to the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years. The performance wasn’t pretty and does little to quell concerns about an offense that continues to start games at a glacial pace.

But with it also came a reminder why Baltimore can’t be counted out in the postseason despite a banged-up offensive line, a recently-inconsistent running game, and a patchwork secondary. Few expect a long playoff run for the Ravens as they face the prospects of three straight road games just to make it to Super Bowl XLIX, but don’t tell that to their seventh-year quarterback.

After completing just 14 of 27 passes for 151 yards and a 68.6 passer rating through the first three quarters Sunday, Flacco went 8-for-9 for 161 yards, two touchdown passes, and a perfect 158.3 rating in the final 15 minutes as the Ravens scored 17 unanswered points to finish off the Browns. It was the kind of performance that reminds you how dangerous Flacco can be when he heats up, just like he did in his historic 2012 postseason that resulted in a Super Bowl title.

“Anything can happen once you get into the playoffs, but I don’t necessarily want to approach it [with that mindset] with us,” Flacco said. “I’m not going to be surprised if, three weeks from now, we’re sitting here and still playing. I think when I say anything can happen — or if I was to say that — that’s implying we don’t deserve to win any games in the playoffs.”

Of course, Flacco wasn’t alone in stepping up in the fourth quarter as Torrey Smith beat Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden to make a spectacular 53-yard reception to swing the momentum with just over eight minutes to go. The fourth-year wideout then reined in a 16-yard touchdown catch on the next play as the Ravens took a 13-10 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

The Ravens know they’ll need to rediscover their running game for a full four quarters and to lean on a potent pass rush when potentially facing the AFC’s top quarterbacks in January — starting with Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger on Saturday night — but any chance of a meaningful playoff run will begin and end with Flacco, who had the best regular season of his career despite the poor showing in Houston and the shaky beginning to Sunday’s game. The 29-year-old threw for 3,986 yards and 27 touchdowns this season, which were both career highs.

Even with long odds as the No. 6 seed, the Ravens know Flacco can be the lucky dice at the playoff table.

“When Joe is hot, he’s tough to handle,” Smith said. “And that’s on us at times to get him hot and our offensive line to do a great job protecting him. When you get him hot, we’ve seen what he can do. Hopefully, that last quarter, or whatever amount it was he got hot, hopefully that continues on.”

The comparisons to 2012 will be made by optimists this week as the 10-6 Ravens return to the playoffs after a one-year absence, but they won’t be afforded the luxury of a wild-card round home game like they enjoyed two years ago. Baltimore only won consecutive road contests once this season in topping New Orleans and Miami over a three-week stretch and would need three straight to make it to Arizona.

Only one of the Ravens’ 10 wins this season came against an opponent that finished the year with a winning record — Pittsburgh in Week 2. They were 1-6 against teams that finished the season above .500.

The health of left tackle Eugene Monroe will be closely monitored after he missed Sunday’s game with an ankle injury. It’s difficult envisioning the Ravens surviving very long without either starting tackle as Rick Wagner was lost for the season last week.

A band-aid secondary has played admirably over the last four weeks, but too much optimism would be fool’s gold after the Ravens faced the likes of Blake Bortles, Case Keenum, and Connor Shaw in December. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata’s return from suspension will provide a boost to an already-imposing defensive line, but the foot injury suffered by improving rookie Timmy Jernigan on Sunday could neutralize the overall impact.

On top of it all, the Ravens will travel to Pittsburgh, a place where they’re winless in three previous playoff trips with the most recent coming at the end of the 2010 season.

There are plenty of reasons not to like the Ravens’ chances in the 2014 postseason, but could Flacco’s awakening in the fourth quarter on Sunday be a sign of what’s to come in January?

“I have no idea. If we go win the Super Bowl, I guess it will be,” Flacco said. “The goal is not to make the playoffs. That’s the first part. That has to happen in order to achieve your goal. That’s really not the goal. I’ve been here through plenty of wins in the playoffs and then losses in the AFC championship game, losses in the division round, and believe me, people aren’t any happier just because you made the playoffs. It’s not a good feeling.

“Like I said, I think if we go do what we’re capable of doing then a game like this will mean something.”

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Ravens-Browns: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 27 December 2014 by Luke Jones

(Editor’s note: The Browns announced that wide receiver Josh Gordon was suspended for a team violation after this post was published.)

Needing help in Week 17 is never a comfortable feeling, but it’s reality for the Ravens as they welcome the Cleveland Browns to town for the regular-season finale on Sunday.

Baltimore needs a win coupled with a Kansas City victory over San Diego to advance to the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years under head coach John Harbaugh. Should the Ravens win and not receive help from the Chiefs — who will be starting backup Chase Daniel in place of injured quarterback Alex Smith — it would be the first time in franchise history that they’d finish a year with double-digit wins and not make the postseason.

Of course, the Ravens wouldn’t trade their current predicament with the Browns, who are losers of four straight and are forced to start rookie free agent Connor Shaw due to Week 16 injuries suffered by Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel. While many in Baltimore are displeased by the possibility of the Ravens missing the playoffs for a second straight year, Cleveland needs a win just to complete its third non-losing season since 1999.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Browns meet for the 32nd time in regular-season history. Baltimore is 12-3 against Cleveland at M&T Bank Stadium and has won 12 of the last 13 over the Browns under Harbaugh. The Browns haven’t beaten the Ravens in Baltimore since 2007.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens hope to extend their season beyond Week 17 …

1. Torrey Smith will catch a touchdown in what could be his final game with the Ravens. The Browns own the league’s seventh-ranked pass defense, but top cornerback Joe Haden is questionable with a shoulder injury that limited him in practice all week. Meanwhile, Smith is facing the possibility of Sunday being his last game with Baltimore. It will be interesting to see what kind of market potentially develops for the 2011 second-round pick as he’s proven himself as a solid — and occasionally spectacular — No. 2 receiver, but the Ravens cannot and should not pay him as anything more than that. Regardless of what happens this offseason, Smith will catch his team-leading 11th touchdown of the 2014 campaign.

2. Browns wideout Josh Gordon will have his best game since his 2014 season debut in Week 12. Draw whatever conclusion you’d like, but Cleveland’s once-promising season crashed right around the time that the talented receiver returned from a lengthy suspension. There’s no doubting Gordon’s immense talent, but he hasn’t provided the shot in the arm the Browns needed as they’ve lost four of the five games in which he’s played. Gordon will have a chance to finish the season on a high note against the league’s 28th-ranked pass defense and even with Shaw under center, the 6-foot-3 receiver will eclipse 75 receiving yards and catch his first touchdown of the year, beating Rashaan Melvin in coverage.

3. Timmy Jernigan and Pernell McPhee will combine for three sacks against a vulnerable Browns interior line. All eyes will be on Elvis Dumervil and his quest to lead the league in sacks, but the Ravens should have few problems exploiting the interior portion of the Cleveland line as Nick McDonald is expected to start at center for the injured Ryan Seymour. The Browns have struggled inside since the loss of Pro Bowl center Alex Mack earlier in the year, and McPhee and Jernigan have had plenty of success as interior rushers in passing situations. While Cleveland will do whatever it can to contain Dumervil and Terrell Suggs off the edges, the Ravens will wreak havoc on the rookie Shaw with pressure right up the middle.

4. Justin Forsett will crack the century mark to complete one of the most surprising seasons in franchise history. The running game has suddenly become a concern over the last couple weeks, but the Browns are dead last in the NFL against the run, which will soften the blow of neither Eugene Monroe or Rick Wagner playing on Sunday. Even without his starting tackles to block for him, Forsett will take advantage of a front seven that will struggle to set the edge and will fail to protect cutback lanes, leading to a couple long runs. Forsett will join Jamal Lewis, Willis McGahee, and Ray Rice as the only running backs in franchise history to post a 1,200-yard season.

5. The Ravens will win 24-13 before learning they will miss the postseason after not receiving the necessary help from Kansas City. Sunday’s game will be one of those contests that’s closer than it should be, but the Browns’ inability to consistently move the ball will allow the Ravens to stay ahead until they put together a fourth-quarter drive to make it a two-score game. Unfortunately, the Chargers will continue their late-season mojo with a win over the Chiefs to clinch the No. 6 spot. Considering the adversity and injuries the Ravens experienced in 2014, a 10-win season looks good on paper, but the memory of late-season losses to San Diego and Houston will lead to the most offseason pressure Harbaugh has felt since coming to Baltimore.

 

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Control of playoff path slips away along with Ravens’ late-season mettle

Posted on 21 December 2014 by Luke Jones

There are tough losses and then there’s that rare defeat that forces you to reevaluate everything you thought you knew about a football team.

The Ravens experienced the latter Sunday in falling to the Houston Texans in a 25-13 final with numbers that don’t do justice to how miserable the performance was. Baltimore has experienced bigger margins of defeat in the John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco era, but most haven’t come in a spot in which the Ravens had so much to lose.

Sunday was easily the worst offensive performance of the season as the Ravens were held to an anemic 64 yards through the first three quarters. From Flacco and the running game to the offensive line and the wide receivers, no part of the performance was remotely acceptable, including a coaching staff that failed to account for the Texans’ pass rush throughout the day or to find answers to get the all-important running game on track.

For the second straight year, the Ravens entered Week 16 in complete control of their path to the playoffs, needing two wins to guarantee a trip to the postseason. And just like last year’s home defeat to New England in the penultimate game of the regular season, the Ravens were dominated while watching that playoff power slip through their fingers.

Losing big at home to the Patriots last season was bad enough, but at least it came against a team regarded as one of the NFL’s best. On Sunday, the Ravens fell on the road to a team sporting a .500 record and starting a fourth-string quarterback who was signed off another team’s practice squad earlier in the week.

Of course, Sunday’s defeat had very little to do with Texans quarterback Case Keenum and everything to do with a Houston defense that overwhelmed Flacco and the offense. The Texans deserve plenty of credit and have the best defensive player on the planet in J.J. Watt, but the Ravens offense coming up so small with the stakes so high negates much of the progress made in Gary Kubiak’s first year as coordinator.

It reeked of the ineptitude of last year.

As much scrutiny as the Ravens defense has drawn over a secondary ravaged by injuries, Dean Pees’ unit played admirably in limiting the Texans to just one touchdown in seven trips inside the red zone. You could have almost stomached a defeat in which Texans receivers Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins kept running free and Keenum caught lightning in a bottle, but the Baltimore defense was acceptable on Sunday.

The Ravens can still make the playoffs with a win over Cleveland next Sunday and either two losses by Cincinnati or a San Diego loss at Kansas City, but their loss on Sunday makes you wonder if they’ve lost the late-season mettle made famous in Harbaugh’s first five years at the helm. Maybe it’s because of certain talent deficiencies, something missing in their current DNA, or both, but the Ravens just didn’t lose games like Sunday’s in Harbaugh’s first five seasons.

After 15 games and just two wins over teams currently holding a .500 record, the 9-6 Ravens just might not be all that good. Their biggest critics have repeatedly pointed out how they’ve benefited from playing the woeful NFC South as Baltimore holds a 5-6 record against the rest of the league. Beating bad teams is well and good, but you have to rise to the occasion to put yourself in position to do something special by beating quality opponents.

Are the Ravens good enough to make the playoffs in 2014? Sure, as long as they win next week and receive some outside help from other less-than-stellar talent in the AFC. Plenty of teams have made the playoffs without looking like they “deserve” it.

But it’s difficult envisioning the Ravens going on any kind of a significant run in January, especially with the offense regressing over the last few weeks and a defense with band-aids upon band-aids in the secondary. The uncertainty after injuries to offensive tackles Eugene Monroe and Rick Wagner certainly won’t help, either.

Sunday brought reality into a nightmarish focus.

The Ravens not only lost control of their path to the postseason, but their proven late-season mettle appeared to slip away with it.

They can begin trying to find it again next week, but there’s no guarantee the ride will continue beyond that.

And they have no one to blame but themselves.

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Ravens-Texans: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 20 December 2014 by Luke Jones

Sunday represents a homecoming for a number of players and coaches as the Ravens travel to Houston to take on the Texans.

From offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and assistants Rick Dennison and Brian Pariani to tight end Owen Daniels, running back Justin Forsett, and wide receiver Jacoby Jones, plenty of Ravens will be returning to a place they called home for a number of years, but there’s little time for sentimentality when you’re in the playoff race. At 9-5, Baltimore can clinch a playoff spot in Week 16 with a win and losses by both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh or a win over the Texans coupled with defeats by both San Diego and Kansas City.

On the surface, the Ravens should feel very confident as the Texans are turning to their fourth quarterback of the season — expected to be the newly-signed Case Keenum — but Houston still possesses the best defensive player on the planet in J.J. Watt and a powerful running game that ranks fourth in the NFL. The 7-7 Texans are a long shot to sneak into the playoffs at this point, but they’d like nothing more than to spoil Baltimore’s playoff chances on Sunday.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Texans meet for the seventh time in regular-season history with the Ravens holding a 6-1 edge, which doesn’t include their 20-13 win over Houston in the 2011 postseason. Baltimore is 3-1 against Houston at NRG Stadium.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens hope to clinch a playoff spot in Week 16 …

1. Baltimore will advance its streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher to 25 games, but Arian Foster will have a season-high total against the Ravens defense. No opposing running back has even gotten close to the century mark this season as Ahmad Bradshaw of Indianapolis has the highest total of the year against the Ravens with just 68 in Week 5. However, Foster will represent the greatest test the Ravens have seen since Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata was suspended for Adderall use. Both defenses will be familiar with the opposing rushing attack as the Ravens and Texans both use the zone stretch, but Houston will be a bit too predictable relying on the run due to the uncertainty at the quarterback position. Foster will rush for more yards against the Ravens than any back this season, but his total will remain south of 100 yards.

2. Daniels will catch a touchdown and have his best game of the season against his former team. The longtime Texans tight end having a strong day against his former team would be a feel-good story, but quarterback Joe Flacco went out of his way earlier in the week to say Daniels needs to be more involved in the offense. Against Jacksonville, Daniels was targeted nine times — the most he’s been thrown to since Week 9 — and caught four passes for 62 yards and his first touchdown since Week 7. The Ravens’ 17th-ranked red-zone attack remains a weakness of a strong offensive attack, but the reemergence of Daniels would be a major factor in a potential trip to the playoffs. His familiarity with the Texans’ defensive personnel will help him produce a season-high in yards, besting the 70 he had against the Colts in Week 5.

3. Watt will collect a sack and bat down a pass, but the Ravens will throw away from him and run plenty of counters to try to minimize his impact. The Texans defensive end might go down as the most disruptive defensive force the NFL has seen since Lawrence Taylor, but the Ravens can only focus on minimizing his impact as much as possible on Sunday. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel will move Watt all over the defensive line, so the key is identifying where he lines up and running the play away from him. Flacco will throw to the opposite side of where Watt lines up to try to minimize his ability to use his 6-foot-5 frame to disrupt passing lanes, but running the counter is effective in slowing his motor as well as the rest of the Houston pass rush. Watt will see double-teams, chip blocks, and max protect as well, but play selection will be just as important.

4. Daryl Smith will pick up his second interception of the year to continue his strong finish to the season. A slow start and the emergence of rookie C.J. Mosley have led many to overlook how well the veteran linebacker has played in the second half of the season. An effective blitzer and still the Ravens’ best linebacker in pass coverage, Smith could be a key factor in trying to confuse Keenum, who proved to be an aggressive passer who couldn’t handle a pass rush in eight games for the Texans last season. It’s obvious the Baltimore defense will try to pressure the young quarterback, but Smith could prove key by showing blitz up the middle before dropping into pass coverage. The secondary will have its hands full with wide receivers Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins — if the latter plays — but Smith will come away with a pick with Keenum facing a heavy rush.

5. Baltimore’s advantage at the quarterback position will be the ultimate difference in a tight 23-16 win for the Ravens. Last week’s struggles against the Jaguars should remind everyone that nothing is guaranteed in the NFL, and the Texans remained competitive in Indianapolis last week despite veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick going down with a broken leg. Bill O’Brien’s team has talent on both sides of the ball, but it’s very difficult imagining John Harbaugh and the Ravens losing to a fourth-string quarterback under these critical circumstances. Flacco will need to stand tall against a formidable pass rush, but he’s played very well since the bye week, a trend that will continue against a mediocre secondary. It will be a tight game in Houston, but the Ravens will get some revenge for Kubiak and find a way to move to 10-5 on the season.

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Sports world amused by President Obama’s “Flacco” goof

Posted on 19 December 2014 by Luke Jones

The debate continues over where Joe Flacco ranks in the NFL quarterbacking hierarchy, but the Ravens signal-caller was apparently on the mind of the most powerful man in the world on Friday.

Addressing the hack of Sony and the cancelled release of “The Interview” on Friday afternoon, President Barack Obama intended to mention the stars of the movie — Seth Rogen and James Franco — but instead uttered the name “James Flacco” to set off a social media frenzy of laughter.

The slip of the tongue prompted a swift response from the seventh-year quarterback’s official Twitter account:

 

Of course, this meant the rest of the Twitter world needed a piece of the action and didn’t disappoint as a “James Flacco” account quickly offered this gem:

 

Never change, Internet.

But the most important question has yet to be answered.

Is James Flacco elite?

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With past and future hot topics, Kubiak focused on present with Ravens

Posted on 18 December 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak quipped that he has his hands too full trying to slow All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt this Sunday to think about anything else, but you can only downplay the emotions of going home so much.

Not only is the 53-year-old assistant returning to Houston to face a Texans team he coached for eight years, but it’s the city in which Kubiak was born and raised, growing up five miles from the historic Astrodome and present-day NRG Stadium. And it’s where he feels he didn’t live up to expectations as the head coach when he was fired in early December of what amounted to a 2-14 season for the Texans a year ago.

Kubiak finished 61-64 in Houston, but his firing in 2013 came after consecutive AFC South division titles in 2011 and 2012, the only playoff appearances in the 13-year history of the franchise.

“I failed with that football team, so it’s very difficult and I understand the business and how it works,” said Kubiak, who spoke highly of the organization and Texans owner Bob McNair for giving him his first opportunity to be an NFL head coach. “But it’s funny how things work out, too. For me to have an opportunity with this organization, I’m just so appreciative of that and getting back to work. That’s the best medicine for a football coach.”

The stakes of Sunday’s game illustrate Kubiak’s focus on the present amidst questions about his past in Houston and his potential future as a head coaching candidate this offseason. The Ravens can clinch a playoff spot with a win and losses by both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh or a victory over Houston coupled with losses by Kansas City and San Diego in Week 16.

Of course, Kubiak isn’t alone in returning to Houston as tight end Owen Daniels began his NFL career with the Texans in 2006, Kubiak’s first year as the head coach, and running back Justin Forsett and wide receiver Jacoby Jones also played there. But it’s a different feeling for a former head coach than a player whose opportunities are typically more abundant when let go.

“We haven’t really talked about it too much,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “I saw [Kubiak’s wife, Rhonda, recently], and you definitely know that it means a lot. Like I said, I think he’ll probably have it in his mind, or Owen or whoever, but it’ll definitely be there in the back of some of our minds also just to make sure that we can [win for him].”

It’s hard to argue that Kubiak wound up in an enviable position directing the offense of a 9-5 team on the cusp of making the playoffs. And teams with potential head coaching openings will take notice of Flacco having the finest regular season of his career under Kubiak.

The seventh-year signal-caller has shown improved footwork and awareness in the pocket running Kubiak’s West Coast attack that focuses on more short-to-intermediate passing than what Flacco was used to in the past. Though much of Flacco’s direct communication is with quarterbacks coach Rick Dennison — Kubiak’s former offensive coordinator in Houston — the quarterback and the offensive coordinator have credited adjustments made at the bye week that have helped the 29-year-old raise his level of play down the stretch.

Flacco has completed 66.7 percent of his passes in three of the last four games to orchestrate key road wins in New Orleans and Miami. Kubiak said he looks forward to Flacco’s feedback for the game plan every week and says their relationship continues to improve with nearly a full season together under their belts.

“When he starts talking, Joe likes to talk, so he’ll let me know what he thinks,” said Kubiak as he chuckled. “Our relationship, it’s been good. I coach him hard, but I have a tremendous respect for him, and I think he knows that, and I need to listen to him. That’s my job as a coach.”

Flacco is only one part of the offensive renaissance as the Ravens are on pace to set franchise records for points scored and total yards. A running game that ranked last in the NFL in yards per carry (3.1) a year ago is averaging 4.6 yards per attempt, which would be the third-highest mark in franchise history behind only the 2003 and 2009 seasons. It was Kubiak who suggested to head coach John Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome that the Ravens bring in the journeyman Forsett, who leads all running backs with a 5.4 yards per carry average and has been one of the great stories of the 2014 season.

But Kubiak’s greatest success has been with the offensive line as his zone-blocking system has meshed better with personnel than what offensive line coach Juan Castillo tried to implement in a disastrous 2013 campaign. Left guard Kelechi Osemele and right tackle Rick Wagner have blossomed into Pro Bowl-caliber linemen this year while three-time Pro Bowl selection Marshal Yanda is having arguably the finest season of his career.

The offensive line has blocked for the league’s fifth-ranked rushing attack and has allowed Flacco to be sacked just 16 times all year, which currently ranks just ahead of the lowest single-season total allowed (17) in team history in 2006.

“The biggest thing is the way our offensive line has been playing,” Flacco said. “I think that has a lot to do with the way these guys coach it and the way their system runs. It allows them to play aggressively and play fast and really use their best assets to the fullest. They don’t have any tentativeness when they’re playing. They’re just going full-throttle and really attacking people, and I think that is why it serves us the best.”

Kubiak has been so successful that the Ravens may find themselves right back where they started last January if he receives another head coaching job after the season. Harbaugh and the organization would like nothing more than to have continuity at the offensive coordinator spot after Cam Cameron was dismissed late in the 2012 season and Jim Caldwell left to become the head coach of the Detroit Lions after last year’s 8-8 campaign.

Players such as Daniels and Forsett who remember Kubiak in Houston have said they’ve seen a more relaxed man with an obvious passion for teaching and coaching in his new role. A year away from the pressure of being the man in charge has likely helped his overall health, which came into question last year when he suffered a mini-stroke at halftime of a game in early November.

Asked if he’s thought about the possibility of another NFL team calling with the offer of a head gig this winter, Kubiak insists his focus lies solely with the Ravens.

“I don’t think about that at all; I can tell you that. I’m consumed with what I’m doing,” Kubiak said. “Every opportunity I’ve ever had in my life, hopefully it’s because I’m doing a good job and working my tail off where I’m at. I think if you worry about those things, you don’t enjoy what you’re doing at the time. Boy, am I enjoying what I’m doing right now.”

It’s human nature to take a moment from time to time to reflect on where you’ve been and where you might be going next, and Sunday will mark one of those times for Kubiak as the Ravens hope to punch their ticket to the postseason. He may not admit it openly, but you’d have to think he would like nothing more than to end what faint playoff hopes the 7-7 Texans currently have while guiding the Ravens offense to another victory.

A win may not erase the painful memory of being fired from a city he’s called home for much of his life, but Kubiak would be able to hold his head high while remembering his accomplishments in Houston.

“Last season wasn’t what we wanted when we were there,” said Daniels, who was cut by the Texans in March, “but he sure changed the culture around there in terms of everyone in that building being focused on winning. He deserves a lot of credit for that. For him to go back — and hopefully we can take care of business — that will be huge.”

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Ravens hoping best yet to come for veteran tight end Daniels

Posted on 17 December 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens tight end Owen Daniels still makes his home in Houston and says he holds no “ill will” toward the Texans, but he won’t be feeling too sentimental playing his former team for the first time on Sunday.

Of course, the 9-5 Ravens have plenty to play for in trying to punch their ticket to the postseason, but the 32-year-old will also remember the place he called home for eight years telling him last March he was no longer wanted.

“When you work somewhere for so long and then they say that you’re not good enough to play there anymore and you get a chance to play them that following season, you definitely want to prove to them that they made a mistake,” Daniels said. “But I’ve been trying to do that all season with my play — not just in this one game.

“It will be cool going back there, and hopefully I’ll get a chance to make some plays. I don’t care if I don’t get one catch [and] block the whole game. As long as we come out there with a [win], that’s the best thing that can happen.”

The Ravens hope Daniels’ resurgence in the Week 15 win over Jacksonville is a sign of better things to come the rest of the way. In the 20-12 win, he caught four passes for 62 yards and a touchdown, his first score since the Week 7 win over Atlanta.

The strong performance broke a four-game stretch of Daniels catching only two passes per contest as he was targeted nine times by quarterback Joe Flacco against the Jaguars. Considering Daniels was signed to serve as the No. 2 tight end behind Dennis Pitta, the Ravens should be satisfied with the 45 catches, 474 receiving yards, and four touchdown receptions he’s provided after signing a one-year, $1 million contract in early April.

His solid play proves he still had something left in the tank despite a broken leg that limited him to five games in his final year with the Texans and concerns over a hamstring injury that slowed him during his first training camp with the Ravens.

“He’s having a lot of success up there this year,” said former Texans teammate and fellow University of Wisconsin product J.J. Watt, who played with Daniels for three seasons in Houston. “You’re happy for him, obviously being a Badger. It’s good to see him having success having played with him a little while here.”

His numbers aren’t eye-popping, but the leadership he’s provided rookie Crockett Gillmore and fellow youngster Phillip Supernaw has been invaluable in addition to filling the void left behind by the injured Pitta, who was lost for the season after dislocating and fracturing his hip for the second time in 14 months back in Week 3.

Despite undergoing a knee cleanup procedure days before the Week 8 loss at Cincinnati, Daniels returned the following week to make six catches for 53 yards in a losing effort at Pittsburgh. The procedure has allowed Daniels to feel fresh late in the season, a trait head coach John Harbaugh noticed recently while watching old film of Daniels when he was still playing as a member of the Texans.

“He said, ‘You are moving a lot better than you were last year,'” said Daniels of the coach’s remarks. “I’m not sure why. The knee feels good this year, especially since getting it cleaned out. It hasn’t been an issue, and hopefully it won’t be.”

Needing wins in their final two games to be guaranteed a trip to the playoffs, the Ravens know Daniels becoming a bigger part of the offense could be a significant factor in improving their chances in January. Both Daniels and Flacco acknowledged their chemistry is better while still having room to improve, but the Baltimore quarterback was outspoken in his desire to get the veteran tight end more involved in the passing game.

The Ravens rank only 17th in the NFL in red-zone offense, but it was Daniels’ 3-yard touchdown catch that gave them the lead for good against the Jaguars in the third quarter last Sunday.

“I’d like to get him even more involved, more catches,” Flacco said. “We had some opportunities in the game Sunday to make more plays, and we were just a little off. Each week’s getting better and better, but I want to get him involved because I think he’s a good player and he makes us go when we get him involved.”

 

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Flacco quietly continuing finest regular season of career

Posted on 16 December 2014 by Luke Jones

As the Houston Texans face the prospects of using their fourth quarterback of the year on Sunday, the Ravens haven’t even carried three quarterbacks on their active roster since 2009 due to Joe Flacco never missing an NFL game.

It’s been a peculiar season for Flacco under new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak as a revamped rushing attack ranks fifth in the NFL and has taken much of the attention away from the veteran quarterback. But that hasn’t stopped the 29-year-old from quietly having the best season of his career with the Ravens in position to secure their sixth trip to the postseason in seven years as early as this Sunday in Houston.

Set to make his 111th consecutive regular-season start on Sunday — he’ll be opposed by Thad Lewis or Case Keenum — the durable Flacco is on pace to set career highs in a number of categories including completion percentage (64.2 percent), passing yards, touchdown passes, and passer rating (94.8). He’ll set a career low in interceptions if he can refrain from throwing one in his final two games, and his 7.4 yards per attempt average would match his career-best mark set in 2010.

Flacco set a career high with five touchdown passes in a 48-17 win over Tampa Bay in Week 6, setting an NFL record by throwing those five scores in the first 16:03 of the game.

Even the chic ESPN Total Quarterback Rating metric lands Flacco fifth in the NFL for the 2014 season, behind only Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Tony Romo, and Tom Brady and ahead of the likes of Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, and Matt Ryan.

His critics will point to his poor performance in consecutive road losses against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh — he threw two touchdowns and three interceptions in those games — as a reason why Baltimore is currently not in position to win the AFC North, but the 2008 first-round pick has found more consistency than in the past and is on the verge of guiding the Ravens back to the postseason after a one-year absence.

The differences in his game have been noticeable in Kubiak’s West Coast attack as his six completions of 40 or more yards would be the lowest single-season total of his career with the Ravens relying on more short-to-intermediate passing this year. But Flacco has been as efficient as ever, especially since the bye week as he’s completed 66.7 percent of his passes in three of four games.

His weapons are better than they were a year ago with the free-agent arrivals of Steve Smith and Owen Daniels, but the season-ending injury to tight end Dennis Pitta in Week 3 has negated some of their impact and you still wouldn’t hold the Ravens’ pass-catching targets in the same regard as other top offenses in the league. Of course, the emergence of Justin Forsett in the running game has provided much more balance than the Ravens had with their disastrous ground game last season.

And that’s where we acknowledge arguably the biggest factor in Flacco’s strong season — the offensive line.

In addition to opening running lanes for the NFL’s No. 1 running back in yards per carry, the unit has protected Flacco better than ever as he’s been sacked just 16 times all season. His previous career low for being sacked occurred in 2011 when he was dropped 31 times.

Kubiak’s tutelage includes making quick decisions and getting rid of the ball, factors also reflecting the low sack total. Flacco owns a 110.2 passer rating when dropping back in the pocket for 2.5 seconds or less, which Pro Football Focus says is the fourth-best mark in the NFL. In contrast, his 72.5 passer rating when standing in the pocket 2.6 seconds or longer ranks 20th in the NFL.

Flacco is at his best with an effective running game and with a simple approach that allows him to make swift choices, two variables that have been in place all year.

It’s largely gone unnoticed with the black cloud of the Ray Rice saga still hanging over the organization and other headlines such as the improved running game and the struggling secondary garnering more attention, but Flacco has bounced back nicely from the most difficult season of his career.

And it’s a major reason why the Ravens are once again on the cusp of an invitation to play in January.

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On rough day, Ravens lean on biggest strength to pull through

Posted on 14 December 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens were predictably complimentary of the Jacksonville Jaguars following an uncomfortable 20-12 victory on Sunday.

Head coach John Harbaugh and his players spent plenty of time after the game praising the Jaguars despite their 2-12 record, but Terrell Suggs said it best after the Ravens struggled throughout the day against one of the NFL’s worst teams.

“It would have sucked if we lost,” said Suggs, who admitted to having flashbacks to the last-second home loss to San Diego two weeks ago. “It would have been very unfortunate. But you’ve got to commend this whole team — offense and defense alike — for putting it away this time.”

Nothing felt quite right on Sunday for the Ravens, from the sparser-than-normal crowd at M&T Bank Stadium with little to cheer for throughout the day to an uninspiring performance from a team in the midst of a tight playoff race. But there are no style points for winning pretty in the NFL as the Ravens prevailed in throwback fashion, relying on a dominating front seven that sacked Blake Bortles eight times and registered 15 hits on the Jacksonville quarterback.

Suggs finished with 2 1/2 sacks, rookie defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan added two, Pernell McPhee had 1 1/2, and C.J. Mosley and Elvis Dumervil added one apiece.

The pass rush once again masked a secondary further decimated by injuries in Week 15 as rookie safety Terrence Brooks and third-year cornerback Asa Jackson both left the game with serious knee injuries. To his credit, the previously unknown Rashaan Melvin was thrown into starting duty in his first action of the season for the Ravens and finished with five tackles — one for a loss — and a pass breakup.

The strong defensive effort was needed as the Ravens’ stout running game was nowhere to be found for much of the game and was held to just 31 yards on 13 carries before finally finding more room in the fourth quarter. Baltimore finished with 93 yards on 26 carries, averaging an underwhelming 3.6 yards per attempt.

And a special-teams group that’s been one of the finest in the NFL — and started the game with a blocked punt returned for a touchdown — had its worst game of the year as the Ravens fell for an onside kick and a fake punt, missed two field goals, and committed several key penalties and coaching gaffes.

If nothing else, the uneven performance was a group effort, but the Ravens still found a way to walk away with a victory to improve to 9-5 on the season. There isn’t much to take away beyond that.

“We didn’t play smart all the time,” Harbaugh said. “We had too many mistakes, too many errors that kept us off the field or put our defense back on the field — those kind of things. But I’ll tell you what, Jacksonville did a great job. It’s December football. You take every win you can get, and we’re proud of the victory.”

Yes, the Ravens would have been in serious trouble with a similar effort against many other teams in the NFL on Sunday, but the Jaguars were the opponent and no one else. And despite a valiant effort with nothing to play for, the Jaguars self-destructed just enough in crucial spots.

The good news is the Baltimore pass rush was at its best once again, illustrating how much a team can overcome with an ability to collapse the pocket. It’s the reason why the Ravens shouldn’t be counted out if they make the playoffs in spite of the NFL’s 31st-ranked pass defense.

We didn’t learn much about the Ravens on Sunday that we didn’t already know as they’ve struggled offensively when unable to run the football and the issues in the secondary aren’t going away. After a close call, they can only exhale before moving on to Week 16.

While remembering to thank a ferocious pass rush once again.

“We can’t really worry about too much other than going out and winning next week,” said quarterback Joe Flacco, who tossed a third-quarter touchdown to Owen Daniels and finished with an efficient 221 yards against the Jaguars. “We know what’s in front of us, and we’ve just got to make sure we take care of one piece at a time. Nothing is really new this week than last week. We know what we have to do. We’ve just got to go do it.”

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