Tag Archive | "Joe Flacco"

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Ravens-Cowboys: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 19 November 2016 by Luke Jones

The Ravens are trying to prove they belong.

Two straight wins have moved them to the top of a bad division, but a road victory over Dallas would propel them into the conversation of compelling teams in the AFC. Baltimore’s No. 1 run defense is also trying to impose its will against the Cowboys’ top-ranked rushing attack in the marquee matchup of the game.

Meanwhile, the surprising Cowboys own the NFL’s best record at 8-1 and are coming off an emotional road win over Pittsburgh. That victory coupled with a big Thanksgiving meeting with NFC East rival Washington would appear to leave Dallas in danger of an emotional letdown against a 5-4 team on Sunday.

It’s time to go on the record as Baltimore tries to remain perfect in the all-time regular-season series against the Cowboys. The Ravens are 4-0 against Dallas, but only one of those was on the road, a 33-24 victory that closed old Texas Stadium on Dec. 20, 2008.

Below are five predictions for Sunday afternoon:

1. Steve Smith will catch a touchdown on the day he reaches 1,000 career receptions. The 37-year-old needs only three catches to reach that special mark and tie Hines Ward for 13th on the all-time list, but Smith will be determined to put on a show in a game in which most are expecting Dallas to win. The Cowboys secondary is without cornerback Morris Claiborne and will play plenty of Cover 2 to account for the speed of Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman, which will leave room for Smith to work the middle of the field. Joe Flacco has so much trust in Smith in a big game and will look his way early.

2. Dez Bryant will exploit a vulnerable Ravens secondary for a 100-yard receiving day. Even if Jimmy Smith plays after being listed as doubtful with a back issue, you can’t like his chances against the talented 6-foot-2 receiver. His expected absence is a big loss because the Ravens don’t have anyone else who matches up well against Bryant and it’s dangerous to take a defender out of the box against the Cowboys running game. Don’t be surprised if defensive coordinator Dean Pees uses Anthony Levine extensively as a dime back to defend the pass and provide help against the run.

3. Kenneth Dixon will receive more touches than starter Terrance West. The rookie had a career-high 80 total yards against Cleveland and matched his career high with 11 touches. Meanwhile, West averaged 3.1 yards per carry in Week 10 and has totaled just 96 rushing yards over the last three games. With the Cowboys ranking third in the NFL in run defense, the Ravens aren’t likely to open many rushing lanes and should utilize Dixon as a receiver out of the backfield. Philadelphia successfully unleashed the shifty Darren Sproles against Dallas in Week 8, which could be a blueprint for Dixon.

4. Ezekiel Elliott will have more rushing yards in the final quarter than the first three combined. The fourth pick of the 2016 draft and the Cowboys offensive line are special talents, but the Baltimore run defense has been just as impressive and will turn some heads. The Ravens will do all they can to take away the run and make rookie Dak Prescott beat them, but their own struggling offense as well as the absence of Jimmy Smith will leave too small of a margin for error on the afternoon. That will lead to some fatigue, which will allow Elliott to find some space for meaningful yardage late in the game.

5. The offense will once again be the Ravens’ primary downfall in a close 23-16 loss. Everyone has talked about the Ravens defense going up against the Cowboys offense, but the real key will be whether the Baltimore offense can do enough to keep up in this one. The Ravens scored a season-high 28 points against the worst team in the NFL last week, but that also included an ugly first half consisting of just two field goals. Optimists are talking about the second half of that one being the breakthrough for Flacco and the Ravens offense, but left guard Alex Lewis is out and right guard Marshal Yanda is far from 100 percent on an offensive line that has been the Achilles heel all year. Dallas lacks a strong pass rush and doesn’t have a great defense, but worse units have been able to shut down the Ravens this season. The defense will keep it close, but one good half against the lowly Browns isn’t enough to convince me that this offense is ready to do what it takes to beat a team like Dallas on the road.

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Flacco surprised by Lewis’ criticism, but message itself nothing new

Posted on 18 November 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Those hoping for a “passionate” response from Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco to former teammate Ray Lewis’ criticism were probably disappointed on Friday.

A day after Lewis criticized Flacco’s passion for football and sideline demeanor, Flacco said it’s nothing he hasn’t heard before despite not expecting the latest source of criticism to be the future Hall of Fame linebacker who retired at the end of the 2012 season.

“It’s a little surprising coming from Ray, but it’s been something I’ve dealt with [since] probably back before high school and even in high school,” Flacco said. “It’s just part of my personality. When things are going good, it’s [treated] as if it’s a good thing. When things aren’t going as well as you might like them to be, it’s always a question as to whether my personality is that of one that fits what an NFL quarterback should be. It’s not anything I’m not used to, but it is a little bit different coming from Ray.”

While many have blasted Lewis for failing to acknowledge Flacco’s dynamic role in helping him retire with a second NFL championship, the 31-year-old quarterback made no mention of his historic postseason run that included 11 touchdowns and no interceptions that culminated with an MVP performance in Super Bowl XLVII.

Outside observers may not be able to completely dismiss Lewis’ perspective since the two played together for five seasons, but it was apparent in the Baltimore locker room on Friday that the future Hall of Famer’s comments did not sit well with Flacco’s current teammates. Veteran safety Eric Weddle went as far as asking if Lewis had forgotten that Flacco won him a Super Bowl and suggested he should have something better to talk about than tearing down an old teammate.

The Ravens are in the midst of their fourth season since Lewis’ retirement.

“He hasn’t been, but he was here for a while,” Flacco said. “You want to be able to listen to what he says and all that. I know he hasn’t been here for a while, but we want him to feel part of this place and we want him to come around. I don’t know how much that plays or doesn’t play into it.”

Preparing for his biggest challenge of the season to date in playing on the road against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, Flacco made the right choice in taking the high road to prevent the controversy from becoming an even bigger story. Even if Lewis’ comments were unfair, Flacco is still in the midst of one of his worst seasons and likely wouldn’t come across well getting into a war of words with the best player in franchise history.

That being said, Flacco didn’t seem concerned about clearing the air when asked if he might give Lewis a call to try to clear the air.

“Probably not. Me and Ray are going to cross paths again,” Flacco said. “It might be brought up; it might not. Who knows?”

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Ray Lewis criticizes Flacco’s passion for football

Posted on 17 November 2016 by Luke Jones

It’s no secret that Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is having one of the worst seasons of his career.

Former teammate and future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis apparently has taken notice, labeling his play as inconsistent and questioning Flacco’s passion for the game in a conversation with Jason Whitlock on FOX Sports 1 on Thursday. Of course, this isn’t the first time that Lewis has criticized Flacco for not being more of a vocal leader.

Lewis was asked why the Super Bowl XLVII Most Valuable Player has been so inconsistent this season.

“I can’t tell you that,” Lewis said. “I’ll tell you what I do know. There is something called talent, and you see it a dime a dozen. Then, there’s something called being passionate about what you do — about really what you do. And me being around it … Gifted? Absolutely. Passionate about what he do? I’ve never seen that. I don’t know what that looks like.

“When you watch, sometimes he’s always isolating himself to go sit on the bench, never talking to anybody after a big play, bad play, whatever it is. Teammates figure out how to create this core that we all get along. Then, there’s a fact, right? Some people will be co-workers, some people will be teammates, and then some people you may call friends. I call Joe Flacco a teammate. We won a Super Bowl together.”

Having played with Flacco for five seasons, Lewis certainly has more perspective than an outside observer and there could be some level of truth in what he says. However, it’s a very poor look for Lewis to only mention in passing the fact that they won a Super Bowl together. Flacco’s historic play in the 2012 postseason was the biggest reason why Lewis was able to ride off into the sunset holding the Vince Lombardi Trophy for the second time in his 17-year career.

I’m guessing Lewis wasn’t worried about Flacco’s passion when he threw 11 touchdowns and no interceptions over those four postseason wins culminating with a title in New Orleans. Perhaps the former Raven is still a little sore about the quarterback poking fun at his sometimes-incoherent speeches a few years back.

Whitlock suggested that Flacco might have a little “Jay Cutler” in him, a comparison that Lewis didn’t go out of his way to refute.

“When you think about mentality, when you watch him, I don’t know how many times you will hear somebody go out on a limb to defend [and say], ‘He’s the greatest teammate I’ve ever had,'” Lewis said. “I don’t know how many times you would hear that. Maybe it’s because his personality just isn’t that personality. He’s not a ‘rah-rah’ guy. He won’t say much.

“But I still [think], in the game of football, there has to be some burning fire behind you. There has to be something that’s bigger than me. Like, ‘This is us. This is the core.’ And whether you understood everything that I used to do or why I used to do it, sometimes I didn’t rah-rah for me. Sometimes I rah-rahed because my boys needed the rah-rah. Sometimes I stepped in the huddle and said things and stood in the gap for them.”

Regardless of other circumstances such as an injury-riddled offensive line and an inconsistent running game, Flacco’s play is certainly deserving of criticism this season. But Lewis attacking his passion for the game and not offering anything else of substance about what has — or hasn’t — been happening on the field this season is a low blow.

Even if it hasn’t happened in 2016, Flacco has shown countless times that he can play at a high level without the kind of personality Lewis believes he needs. Having a different temperament doesn’t necessarily mean a guy lacks passion.

Maybe Lewis will remember that the next time he glances at his second Super Bowl ring.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 10 win over Cleveland

Posted on 12 November 2016 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens moving back above .500 after a 28-7 victory over winless Cleveland on Thursday night, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Watching Terrell Suggs get the best of nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas was special. He’s playing with one arm and isn’t the consistent game-wrecker he used to be, but the 34-year-old turned in a vintage performance with a strip sack and a pass defense leading to an interception.

2. He recovered nicely to throw three touchdown passes, but Joe Flacco looked jumpy and frenetic in the pocket throughout the first half. The Ravens can only hope his second-half rebound is a sign of better things to come, but that third-quarter interception in the end zone was ugly.

3. Marty Mornhinweg should continue using the crossing routes and slants we saw in the second half against the Browns. There’s no reason not to use the speed of Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman while letting Flacco get rid of the ball quickly.

4. We’ve talked plenty about Jimmy Smith and Tavon Young, but nickel cornerback Jerraud Powers turned in a strong performance. He broke up a pass the only time a Cleveland quarterback threw his way and intercepted another that was knocked up into the air.

5. You could tell how relieved John Harbaugh was to be able to smile and exhale over the final few minutes of Thursday’s 21-point win. Twenty-two of your previous 24 games being decided by a single possession will take a toll.

6. Jeremy Zuttah has had his struggles this season, but he’s the only Baltimore offensive lineman to start all nine games. Give the center credit for pushing through back and ankle issues to play 72 of 82 offensive snaps, especially after left guard Alex Lewis left with an ugly ankle injury.

7. It’s looking more and more like the offensive line problems aren’t going to be fixed this season. Lewis had looked good at left guard the last two games while the status of five-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda remains in question. Those are crippling losses.

8. Some of the gold numbers were difficult to read, but I give the “Color Rush” uniform a passing grade, especially compared to those of other teams. I’d like to see the striping on those purple pants added to the Ravens’ black pants that are too dull.

9. Every time Michael Pierce turns in another strong performance, I can’t help but think it pushes pending free agent Brandon Williams a little further out the door. The rookie free agent recorded a tackle for a loss and batted a pass at the line of scrimmage.

10. Josh McCown had past success against the Ravens, but Hue Jackson’s decision to bench Cody Kessler was still baffling. Kessler wasn’t great, but that was a quick hook for a rookie who had outplayed Flacco to that point and orchestrated a touchdown drive in the first half.

11. They can’t do it exclusively, but the no-huddle offense needs to become a bigger part of what the Ravens do after it led to two touchdowns in the second half. It could put some strain on the defense, but you have to do whatever it takes to get Flacco going.

12. Watching Steve Smith’s eyes light up when asked about doing the Ray Lewis dance reminds us how much the 37-year-old still feels like a kid. After getting permission from Lewis to do the dance, Smith watched some YouTube videos to make sure he got it right. Having fun matters.

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Youthful contributions offer hope for Ravens in second half and beyond

Posted on 11 November 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — It may well have been only fool’s gold against the worst team in the NFL, but the Ravens could still feel good about themselves after scoring a season high for points in a 28-7 win over Cleveland.

After an ugly first half in which they managed only two field goals, the second-half explosion was a confidence boost that a struggling offense desperately needed. After weeks of producing so little against mediocre-to-poor units, Baltimore was finally able to make a bad defense look, well, bad.

The first-place Ravens hope they can build off their 22-point output against the Browns in the second half, but it was the contributions of three young offensive players that offered the most excitement in Thursday’s win. Now preparing for a daunting seven-game stretch to conclude the 2016 regular season, the Ravens need more contributions from Breshad Perriman, Kenneth Dixon, and even Darren Waller like they received on Thursday night.

Veterans such as Steve Smith, Mike Wallace, and Dennis Pitta will continue to be the primary options for Joe Flacco in the passing game, but any successful offense needs meaningful contributions from others in any given week, especially against formidable opponents. After a season and a half of frustration primarily stemming from injuries, Perriman made a terrific adjustment on a 27-yard touchdown catch to cap off a 12-play, 90-yard drive in the fourth quarter.

The score was a long time coming for the 2015 first-round pick, who finished with three catches for 64 yards. Two of those receptions came on that scoring drive to put Cleveland away for good.

“For Breshad to go up and get that ball and adjust his body, it was fantastic,” said Smith, who finished with five catches for 60 yards and a touchdown. “That is dramatic. As your first career touchdown, that is as dramatic as you want it to be. That is a keeper.”

The Ravens can only hope that touchdown is a springboard for Perriman to truly become a keeper, but he wasn’t the only young player to impress against the Browns. Dixon, a fourth-round rookie from Louisiana Tech who turned heads in the preseason, finished with a team-high 80 yards from scrimmage on just 11 touches and flashed the ability that prompted some analysts to rate him as high as the second-best running back in this year’s draft behind only fourth overall pick Ezekiel Elliott.

Terrance West has proven himself to be a capable starting back through the first half of the season, but the 212-pound Dixon shows a combination of speed and surprising physicality — he broke at least two tackles on Thursday — that makes you think he can be more of a big-play option in the backfield. Injuries have been his biggest challenge as he is just now starting to look as explosive as he did in a strong preseason before suffering a torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee.

Through his first four NFL games, Dixon averaged just 1.5 yards per carry and caught only five passes for six yards, but he looked like a different player against the Browns.

“He got back from the knee about four weeks ago and has steadily looked better,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “I told him this week, I said, ‘This is your breakout game. You look like you’re ready.’ He did a great job.”

Waller isn’t someone who was on many people’s radar as the Ravens entered the season with extensive depth at tight end, but injuries have led to an increased role and it was his four-yard touchdown that put Baltimore ahead early in the third quarter. A converted receiver drafted in the sixth round out of Georgia Tech a year ago, Waller has a 6-foot-6, 255-pound frame and the kind of speed that could make him a significant matchup problem as he matures.

Entering the night ranked 24th in red-zone offense, the Ravens would be wise to continue to look his way in that area of the field where they’ve lacked an option to go up and get the ball.

“Darren’s a big guy that runs well, has great hands. He’s a real talented guy,” said Flacco, who shook off two interceptions to throw for 296 yards and three touchdown passes on Thursday. “I think getting him involved and showing himself that he can do it [is important]. He’s another guy that once he gets out there and gets more playing experience, he’ll start to really understand things. I think he’s got a great guy to watch in Dennis, in terms of running routes and stuff like that.”

The Ravens merely did what they were supposed to do against a team that hasn’t yet won a game, so it would be unwise to boldly proclaim Thursday as a turning point for an offense that’s disappointed all year. Nine games into the season, we know this team leans heavily on a strong defense that was once again sensational in limiting the Browns to just one touchdown and 144 total yards.

But seeing Perriman, Dixon, and Waller stand out was not just an encouraging sign for the playoff run over the final seven games. The Ravens need young players such as these to step forward for a brighter future.

“Any time you’re a young guy, and you do those things, it’s good in the long run,” Flacco said. “You feel a part of the team. And when you go out there, in order to really feel part of the team and feel great about it, it’s all about going out there and making plays and showing your teammates that you can do it.”

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Ravens-Browns: Five predictions for Thursday

Posted on 09 November 2016 by Luke Jones

The Ravens must build on what they accomplished in Week 9.

As veteran linebacker Terrell Suggs reminded in the post-game locker room on Sunday, a win over Pittsburgh means nothing if the Ravens stub their toe against 0-9 Cleveland on Thursday night. Of course, that stubbed toe would feel more like an amputation against a team that hasn’t won a game since before last Christmas.

A win would not only give the Ravens a half-game lead in the AFC North entering the weekend, but they would also move back above .500 for the first time since mid-October. On the flip side, the Browns are a loss away from their worst start in franchise history, a dubious possibility in a nationally-televised game.

It’s time to go on the record as Baltimore tries to avenge a rare home loss to Cleveland last season and complete the season sweep in 2016. The Ravens lead the all-time regular-season series by a 26-9 mark and are 13-4 against the Browns at M&T Bank Stadium. Cleveland has lost 15 of the 17 games played in this series during the John Harbaugh era.

Below are five predictions for Thursday night:

1. Steve Smith will shine in prime time with his second touchdown reception of the year. Thursday marks the first night game of the season for the Ravens, meaning the 37-year-old wide receiver will be eager to prove to a national audience that he’s still playing at a high level despite last year’s devastating Achilles tendon tear. Mike Wallace has had a strong season, but Smith is still the one who really makes the passing game go, evident by how mightily the Ravens struggled without him last month. He’ll take advantage of the league’s 23rd-ranked pass defense to find the end zone.

2. The Ravens secondary will victimize Browns rookie Cody Kessler with two interceptions. The rookie third-round pick from USC has played surprisingly well in his first six NFL starts, throwing for five touchdowns and only one interception while posting a 96.1 passer rating. However, you have to wonder how he responds on a big stage against a defense playing at a high level. After dropping multiple interceptions against Ben Roethlisberger in Week 9, Baltimore will be motivated to catch the ball to add to its total of nine picks on the season.

3. Terrelle Pryor will continue his strong season for Cleveland with 75 yards receiving and a touchdown catch. The 6-foot-4 former quarterback bounced from team to team for a couple years before finding a home with the Browns. Pryor has emerged as a play-maker with 46 catches for 579 yards and four touchdown catches despite a carousel of quarterbacks playing for the Browns. The return of rookie first-rounder Corey Coleman from a broken hand gives Cleveland another matchup problem, which will help Kessler find his top receiver for the Browns’ lone touchdown of the night.

4. Baltimore will eclipse 100 yards rushing for the first time since Week 5. After so much hand-wringing about the running game before Marc Trestman’s firing, the Ravens have been even worse on the ground since his exit, averaging just 2.4 yards per carry over the last three games. With Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda not expected to play and rookie left tackle Ronnie Stanley struggling mightily in his return last week, it’s in the Ravens’ best interest to be able to run the ball and the Browns are giving up 4.6 yards per carry this season. This team must find a solid ground game to stay in the playoff hunt.

5. Joe Flacco and the offense will be steady but unspectacular in a 20-12 win that looks like a typical short-week game. These NFL Thursday games are a terrible product and this one involves the worst team in the league and another that hasn’t blown anyone out in two years, a combination that doesn’t create the highest expectations. We know the Ravens have been a mess offensively for quite some time, but the Browns rank at or near the bottom in multiple defensive categories. Improved third-down efficiency and two touchdowns shouldn’t be too much to ask if the offense is going to start showing improvement. The Ravens will be in control, but a late Cleveland score results in another one-possession final.

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Ravens “haven’t done anything” to be able to take Cleveland lightly

Posted on 09 November 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens are playing the worst team in the NFL at home on a short week and are coming off a critical win over their biggest AFC North rival that moved them into a first-place tie.

Yes, the woeful Cleveland Browns haven’t won a game in nearly 11 months, but we’re also talking about a Baltimore team that’s lost four of its last five games and has made several below-average defenses look exceptional over that time. The Ravens also haven’t beaten a team by more than one possession in nearly two years and have seen 22 of their last 24 games decided by a single score.

There’s also that matter of what happened in Week 2 if there were any lingering question of whether the Browns had the Ravens’ attention. That’s why any thoughts about a potential letdown are being met with a different response than the one you usually hear from a team in first place.

The Ravens aren’t good enough themselves to take any team — even the Browns — lightly.

“We haven’t done anything yet. We’re 4-4,” safety Eric Weddle said. “We sit at the top of the division, but one loss and you’re out. This is a division game, a rival. They were up 20-0 on us and easily could have beaten us, so we can look at many factors to remind ourselves that we can’t take anything for granted.”

It’s easy to dismiss the Browns, who are 0-9 and own the worst point differential in the league at minus-105. First-year head coach and former Ravens assistant Hue Jackson knows what he’s dealing with as he spoke just this week about finding a way to avoid going 0-16.

The Browns do have a handful of talented players such as nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas, two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden, and young wide receivers Terrelle Pryor and Corey Coleman, but the problem is the rest of the roster that resembles an expansion team.

They have been competitive at times, starting with their surprising performance against the Ravens in which they jumped out to a 20-point lead in the first quarter before Baltimore scored 25 unanswered points the rest of the way. The Browns forced overtime at Miami the following week and held a second-half lead on the road against Washington in Week 4. They even held a 20-7 halftime lead over a New York Jets team that had beaten the Ravens just a week earlier.

“If you watch the tape, they are making a lot of really good plays,” head coach John Harbugh said. “This is a very formidable challenge. It was the first time we played them this year. It was both games last year. It was both games the year before that. It always is that way, so our guys understand the rivalry that we have with Cleveland. We understand how tough a game it’s going to be. We don’t put any stock in that [winless record].”

Despite those polite comments, the Ravens know they have no excuse not to win Thursday’s game.

The Browns rank 31st or 32nd in the league in total defense, run defense, points allowed per game, third-down defense, and red-zone defense. If Joe Flacco and the offense can’t get going against this miserable group, then it’s difficult to think they ever will this season.

The Ravens defense continued to earn more respect after overwhelming Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers for most of this past Sunday’s contest and will now have a chance to make life miserable for rookie Cody Kessler and an offense ranked 19th in total yards and 29th in points per game.

It likely won’t be the prettiest performance as we’ve come to expect for any Thursday night game, but it’s an opportunity to move back over .500 that the Ravens cannot afford to squander. Amazingly, a Browns loss could officially eliminate them from playoff contention this weekend depending on what happens elsewhere, but Baltimore is only concerned with taking care of its own business in the second of four home games over a five-game stretch.

“We haven’t played as well as we wanted to yet, but we’ve positioned ourselves to this point,” said Flacco, who threw for 302 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions against Cleveland in Week 2. “Our goal over the next month will be to put ourselves in a position to play meaningful games in December. If we can get ourselves to the point where we’re playing meaningful games in December, then that usually leads to playoff games where anything can happen.

“We have a lot of room to get better.”

That starts with doing what they’re supposed to do against a woeful opponent on Thursday.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 9 win over Pittsburgh

Posted on 07 November 2016 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens having snapped their four-game losing streak in a 21-14 win over Pittsburgh to move into first place in the AFC North, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Jimmy Smith and rookie Tavon Young could be the best cornerback duo the Ravens have had in a while. Smith is finally playing like he did before his foot injury two years ago, and the 5-foot-9 Young is making a strong case to be more than just a slot corner.

2. His broken brace earned attention, but a first-quarter sequence from Joe Flacco was inexcusable. After snapping the ball before his receivers were set — with 10 seconds still on the play clock — to negate a third-down conversion in the red zone, he then threw across his body for an ugly interception.

3. When Mike Wallace signed his two-year contract, it was mostly viewed as a one-season deal with a scheduled $8 million cap figure for 2017. He’s caught four of Flacco’s six touchdown passes and is on pace for 1,200 yards. The Ravens are cheapskates with their receivers, but shouldn’t be here.

4. Earning his first career interception in the third quarter, Timmy Jernigan fell to the ground after previously coughing up a fumble return deep in Baltimore territory in Week 7. It was good seeing him learn from a mistake and to be able to laugh, quipping how he’s a fast learner.

5. What are the odds of a rookie scoring his first two career touchdowns in consecutive games as a member of the punt return team but not as the actual returner? Chris Moore has certainly been in the right place at the right time.

6. He didn’t put up monster numbers with just five credited tackles and a dropped interception, but the difference in the Ravens defense was tangible with C.J. Mosley back in the middle. He was a major reason why Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell was a non-factor on Sunday.

7. Remember how the running game was trending upward despite Marc Trestman’s hesitancy to commit to it before his dismissal last month? The Ravens have averaged 2.4 yards per carry in three games with Marty Mornhinweg in charge.

8. With Flacco often checking down and Kenneth Dixon not showing the same explosiveness he had before his knee injury, why not give Buck Allen more chances out of the backfield? He struggles between the tackles, but he did catch 45 passes for 353 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie.

9. Speaking of Allen, the second-year running back provided the Ravens their 12th blocked kick since 2014 and their league-best fourth this season. When you lack dynamic play-makers, these types of special-teams plays are of the utmost importance.

10. I’m not concerned about his long-term prospects, but Ronnie Stanley committing four penalties on Sunday and acknowledging his foot was still “a little sore” after a four-game absence weren’t encouraging developments for the remainder of his rookie season.

11. I admittedly don’t spend a great deal of time discussing Justin Tucker because there’s only so much to say about his excellence. He’s a perfect 20-for-20 on the season and has silenced concerns about his accuracy from 50 yards and beyond. He’s been worth every penny of his contract.

12. How long had it been since the Ravens last won a game before Sunday’s victory? The Orioles had won four contests more recently despite their season coming to a bitter end more than a month ago. Maybe John Harbaugh just needed to call Zach Britton for some relief.

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 05 November 2016 by Luke Jones

Two rivals coming off their bye week and needing a win on Sunday.

The stakes are clear for both the Ravens and Pittsburgh when they meet for the 41st time in their regular-season history. Having lost four straight games in October, Baltimore is trying to turn its season around and pull even in the AFC North with the Steelers, who have dropped two consecutive games themselves.

Health is a hot topic for both teams as the Ravens expect to welcome back several key starters, a list including linebackers Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley and offensive linemen Marshal Yanda and Ronnie Stanley. Meanwhile, the Steelers appear likely to have starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger back under center less than three weeks after knee surgery.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens attempt to win their fourth straight game against Pittsburgh, which includes their victory in the 2014 postseason. The Steelers lead the regular-season series by a 21-19 edge, but Mike Tomlin’s team hasn’t won a game at M&T Bank Stadium since 2012. Counting the playoffs, Baltimore has won five of the last six meetings with its biggest rival.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Dennis Pitta will catch his first touchdown of the season while Darren Waller will make his first catches of 2016. Who would have guessed with the well-documented depth entering training camp that Pitta would be the only tight end to play in all of the Ravens’ first eight games? His production has slowed since surpassing the 100-yard receiving mark in Week 2, but he poses a problem for Pittsburgh linebackers who are weak in coverage. With Crockett Gillmore out, Waller is now the No. 2 option and is an imposing physical specimen offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg should utilize.

2. Le’Veon Bell will not do much against the Ravens on the ground, but the Pittsburgh running back will burn them in the passing game. The Baltimore run defense is for real and allowing just 3.5 yards per game, but a returning Mosley — and his hamstring — will face a heck of a test in coverage with Bell’s ability to separate as a pass catcher. With the way Matt Forte had success as a receiver against the Ravens in Week 7, Roethlisberger won’t hesitate to look for the explosive Bell out of the backfield to help keep the Steelers on schedule despite little production in the running game.

3. Suggs will collect a sack to add to an impressive mark, but Baltimore won’t get enough heat on a hobbled quarterback otherwise. Suggs poked fun earlier this week at the injury drama often surrounding Roethlisberger, the kind of trash talk bringing back memories of the prime of this rivalry. The six-time Pro Bowl linebacker has backed up the talk over the years with 16 1/2 career sacks against the Pittsburgh quarterback. However, an improved Steelers offensive line won’t have too many issues against a pass rush that’s been largely unproductive without Elvis Dumervil this season.

4. The Ravens secondary will fare respectably against Antonio Brown, but the big-play receiver will still catch a second-half touchdown. As tremendous as Brown has been for several seasons, Baltimore has surprisingly done a commendable job against him, holding him to just one touchdown reception. It will be interesting to see how the Ravens defense approaches Brown as Jimmy Smith has traveled with him at times in past meetings. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will likely mix up coverages against Brown, but the Steelers wideout will still find a way to the end zone on Sunday.

5. Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense will show some signs of improvement, but it won’t be enough in a 24-20 loss. The Steelers are the better football team, but the Ravens winning wouldn’t be surprising after Ryan Mallett’s heroics in the most recent meeting between these teams last December. You never truly know with this rivalry. Improved health on the offensive line should help the offense, but John Harbaugh’s team just isn’t inspiring enough confidence and Pittsburgh is also feeling plenty of urgency with higher expectations for the season. The Steelers have better play-makers, and that will be the difference in a narrow defeat for the Ravens that will only add to the frustration level in Baltimore.

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Slowing Pittsburgh play-makers tops priority list for Ravens

Posted on 04 November 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The biggest difference between the Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers comes down to two players.

Baltimore has the better defense while the Steelers possess a more stable offensive line. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is better than Joe Flacco, but we know the latter is capable of playing at a high level with enough good pieces around him.

Pieces more like Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, who are the biggest obstacles in Baltimore’s attempt to snap a four-game losing streak and pull even with the Steelers in the AFC North. Counting the 2014 postseason, the Ravens have won their last three games against Pittsburgh, but one of Roethlisberger, Brown, and Bell missed each one of those games.

The last time the dynamic trio played against the Ravens resulted in a 43-23 blowout at Heinz Field on Nov. 2, 2014 in which Roethlisberger threw six touchdown passes with Brown and Bell each catching one. It was a rare occasion in which Brown went off against the Ravens, catching 11 passes for 144 yards and a 54-yard touchdown.

Despite averaging an incredible 102.2 receiving yards per game in 55 contests since the start of the 2013 season, the four-time Pro Bowl receiver has eclipsed the century mark in only two of his last seven contests — one in the playoffs — against the Ravens and has only one touchdown reception in his career against Baltimore.

“It is a rivalry game. We know each other,” said cornerback Jimmy Smith about the Baltimore defense keep Brown in check on so many occasions. “We know what they are trying to do to us. They know what we are trying to do to them. It is one of those games that, fortunately, at times, we come out on the better side or get going against them. Some of the game plan is obviously directed towards him, so we are doing what we are supposed to do if we keep him with minimal yards and catches.”

Conventional wisdom suggests Smith — the Ravens’ top cornerback — would match up with Brown wherever the 5-foot-10 receiver lines up, but defensive coordinator Dean Pees has employed different strategies in recent meetings. In Week 2 of the 2014 season, Smith traveled with Brown and held him to seven catches for 90 yards on 12 targets, but the sixth-year defensive back stayed on one side of the field in two meetings last year as the Ravens held the Pittsburgh receiver to a total of 103 receiving yards and no touchdowns.

In a conference call with the Baltimore media this week, Brown said he prefers when the opposition matches one cornerback against him because it leads to more 1-on-1 opportunities. The star wideout has faced plenty of press coverage with safety help over the top in recent games.

“There are so many factors you take into account and your defensive calls [such as] if you’re going to play more zone or you’re going to play more man,” said defensive coordinator Dean Pees about the decision to have a cornerback travel with a specific receiver. “All of a sudden, you’re going to try to teach a defensive back that’s in the slot how to play zone in the slot as opposed to [playing outside]. It’s easier [to travel in man coverage], because you have the man. Every time I line a guy up there and that same DB lines up there, they look at it and say, ‘If that guy lines up in the slot, they’re in man coverage.’

“You have to be able to mix and match zones and mans. There’s a lot more to it than just easily stating, ‘Let’s put our best DB on their best receiver.'”

Bell could serve as an even bigger factor on Sunday with Roethlisberger still not 100 percent less than three weeks after knee surgery. The Ravens rank fourth in the NFL in run defense, but Pittsburgh would love to unleash the star running back early to ease pressure on the hobbled quarterback.

In 2016, the 24-year-old Bell is averaging 5.0 yards per carry and 7.5 receptions per game since returning from a three-game suspension.

“I tell him before every game that I’m excited to see what he is going to do,” Brown said. “You know what he brings in the running game; you know what he brings in the passing game. That is the type of guy you want to have on your team — a guy who comes to work every day, displays a good work ethic, and is a big-time player.”

The biggest key in trying to slow Bell will be the anticipated return of inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, who has missed the last two games with a hamstring injury. Besides being the leader of a defense that gave up too many big plays in the middle of the field in his absence, Mosley is the Ravens’ best linebacker in pass coverage and leads the team with three interceptions.

In 39 career games, Bell has caught 182 passes for 1,634 yards and three touchdowns.

Injuries and off-field issues have hindered the start of his career, but Bell possesses a rare combination of patience and downhill ability that makes him dangerous every time he touches the ball.

“Guys can’t guess. If you have a gap to control, you have to control that gap,” said Pees, who labeled Bell one of the best running backs he’s faced in his long coaching career. “You have to stay on your blocker and be patient. When you get a runner like that, you have to be very disciplined on defense, too. Like I tell everybody, when he gets the ball, everybody on defense is at the point of attack because he could go anywhere at any time.”

These dynamic play-makers are the reason why the Steelers are considered the favorite to win a division consumed with mediocrity in 2016. They’re the type of special players Baltimore lacks right now.

If the Ravens want to begin turning their season around on Sunday, they can’t allow Brown and Bell to explode.

“He is one of the biggest challenges in the NFL,” said Smith about the Pittsburgh receiver. “You know what he does. We all know. It is going to take a lot to contain him and No. 26.”

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