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Jackson preparing for second start as Flacco remains sidelined

Posted on 21 November 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With Joe Flacco still recovering from a hip injury, the Ravens are preparing to go with rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson for the second straight week.

Head coach John Harbaugh admitted after Sunday’s win over Cincinnati that it would be difficult for Flacco to play against Oakland in Week 12, and the 11th-year veteran missing his fourth straight practice on Wednesday provided further confirmation. Coming off a franchise-record performance in which he ran for 117 yards on 27 carries, Jackson is aiming to increase his production in the passing game in his second NFL start — and keep his wide receivers happy in the process.

“I need to get these guys the ball. I don’t want them to think I’m just out here and, ‘Oh, he’s going to run every time he gets a chance,'” said Jackson, who completed 13 of 19 passes for 150 yards and an interception against the Bengals. “My eyes are always up the field. I have to get those guys the ball because they’re helping me out. They’re not out there to block — that’s not their job. Their job is to catch the ball [and] help us win games.”

Much was made about slot receiver Willie Snead’s sideline outburst as the offense settled for the eventual game-winning 24-yard field goal in the fourth quarter, but Snead and fellow veterans Michael Crabtree and John Brown have downplayed any perceived frustration, citing the Ravens snapping their three-game losing streak coming out of the bye week and the rookie making only his first start.

Jackson went out of his way to tell Crabtree that he needs to get him the ball more as he caught only one pass for seven yards on three targets, all season lows.

“We won the game, so I told him to not even put too much on getting targets and all of that,” Crabtree said. “Just worry about winning, and we came out with the ‘W.’ I’m excited to go out there this week and see what he’s got. This is his second game, so he’s just adding on.”

As you’d expect, Jackson received many congratulatory messages after winning his first NFL start, but his favorites came from Doug Williams and onetime Raven Randall Cunningham, two former NFL quarterbacks with whom he’s had past communication. Williams was the first African-American starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl while Cunningham’s dual-threat ability helped revolutionize a position that features more mobile passers than ever today.

“Those are the guys who paved the way for us,” Jackson said. “Without those guys, we probably wouldn’t be in situations that we are, so hats off to those guys. Them congratulating me? From the ‘GOATs?’ I’m like, ‘Yes, that’s cool.'”

In addition to Flacco, offensive tackle James Hurst (back) remained absent from practice and is in danger of missing his fifth straight game. Cornerback Tavon Young also missed Wednesday’s session with what was listed as a groin injury

After missing his second straight game with an ankle injury on Sunday, outside linebacker Tim Williams was a limited participant.

Left tackle Ronnie Stanley surprisingly wasn’t listed on the injury report despite playing through an ankle injury that forced him off the field at a few points against the Bengals.

“I was very impressed with Ronnie’s game, and he has a pretty good high ankle sprain,” Harbaugh said on Monday. “That’s never easy; that’s painful. He dealt with it. He had to come out a couple times, but he wanted to get right back in there and play. I was very proud of him.”

The Raiders put out an estimated injury report after only conducting a walk-through on Wednesday.

Below is Wednesday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: QB Joe Flacco (right hip), OT James Hurst (back), DB Anthony Levine (ankle), S Eric Weddle (non-injury), G Marshal Yanda (non-injury), CB Tavon Young (groin)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: LB Tim Williams (ankle)

OAKLAND
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: WR Martavis Bryant (knee), CB Leon Hall (back)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: C Rodney Hudson (ankle), S Karl Joseph (ribs), RB Doug Martin (ankle), OT Kolton Miller (knee), WR Jordy Nelson (knee), OL Kelechi Osemele (knee), DE Frostee Rucker (neck), CB Daryl Worley (shoulder)
FULL PARTICIPATION: CB Gareon Conley (groin), WR Dwayne Harris (foot), G Gabe Jackson (pectoral)

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 24-21 win over Cincinnati

Posted on 20 November 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens snapping their three-game losing streak and moving into the No. 6 spot in the AFC with a 24-21 win over Cincinnati, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. I feel for Gus Edwards as the rookie free agent rushing for 115 yards would have been the big story if not for Lamar Jackson. Others have noted this, but his running style reminds of Le’Ron McClain, which was perfect against a bad defense already dealing with a mobile quarterback.

2. The Ravens defense managed only one sack and again failed to generate a turnover, but a simplified game plan that included press coverage and few blitzes did the trick to neutralize Andy Dalton’s short passes. Of course, A.J. Green not playing really helped.

3. Considering the defense had at least five defensive backs on the field for all but a few plays, holding Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard to a combined 19 rushing yards on 14 carries was very impressive and a critical development in the game.

4. Time of possession was certainly a byproduct of the run-heavy offense as the defense was on the field for just 55 snaps and less than 22 minutes. Perhaps that wasn’t as critical coming off the bye week, but it can still pay off down the stretch.

5. I’ve already written much about him, but I’m impressed with Jackson’s willingness to continue looking downfield as he scrambles like he did on the 23-yard completion to John Brown and the 19-yard dart to Mark Andrews. Those were easily his best plays of the day.

6. Justin Tucker making his 56-yard attempt at the end of the first half and Randy Bullock missing his 52-yard try late in the fourth quarter served as a reminder of how important the kicking game is in a grind-it-out affair. Tucker’s now made nine straight from 50 or more yards.

7. After giving up an acrobatic touchdown catch to John Ross despite good coverage, Marlon Humphrey atoned with a pass breakup against Cody Core to seal the win. Forcing Dalton to throw 36 times to collect 211 yards was a solid day at the office for the Ravens defense.

8. I’m not making much of Willie Snead’s blowup on the sideline that he and John Harbaugh downplayed after the game, but this is the potential risk if the Ravens stick with such a run-heavy approach. I want wide receivers who want the ball.

9. C.J. Mosley recorded his highest Pro Football Focus grade of 2018 as he recorded five tackles and a pass breakup while appearing to move better than he was before the bye. The 2014 first-round pick hasn’t had the ideal contract year as he ranks 28th among qualified linebackers, per PFF.

10. I’ve said repeatedly that coaches should go for it more on fourth down, but it felt panicky for the Ravens to try to convert the fourth-and-1 from their own 45 with 25 minutes to play in a low-scoring game. The failed challenge of the spot made it worse.

11. PFF grades Brandon Williams 69th among interior defensive linemen, which ranks behind Michael Pierce (fifth), Brent Urban (42nd), and Chris Wormley (64th). I don’t necessarily buy that, but are the Ravens getting enough value from their expensive run-stopping nose tackle in today’s pass-happy NFL? He played 24 snaps on Sunday.

12. As you could see from Harbaugh’s post-game speech, the Ravens were fired up — almost euphoric — after a much-needed victory. Jackson’s first start was fun to watch, but let’s remember they scored 24 points against an extremely poor defense in a close game that easily could have gone the other way.

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Ravens-Panthers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 27 October 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens need to finish.

If losing a 10-point fourth-quarter lead to New Orleans last week weren’t enough, Carolina erasing a 17-0 deficit at Philadelphia should have Baltimore’s full attention for Sunday’s tilt in Charlotte. The Ravens are the superior team in most statistical categories, but the Panthers found a way last week while John Harbaugh’s team wilted too much in the fourth quarter. It’s a razor-thin margin that’s the difference between a 6-1 start and the current 4-3 mark, but the Ravens are still trying to graduate from good to really good.

It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet for just the six time in the all-time regular-season series with the Panthers holding a 3-2 advantage. Baltimore has won the last two meetings, the most recent being a 38-10 blowout at M&T Bank Stadium on Sept. 28, 2014.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Justin Tucker will connect on a field goal from beyond 50 yards. His missed extra point understandably remained a big story throughout the week, so the two-time Pro Bowl kicker’s next opportunity can’t come soon enough after much support from teammates, coaches, and Ravens fans. According to special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg, 272 extra points have been missed by 54 kickers since Tucker entered the league in 2012, which is appropriate perspective on an individual who’s won the Ravens a slew of games. That said, the tiniest bit of unknown remains until he makes his next kick.

2. Cam Newton will run for a touchdown and throw for another. Between the playful comments of Eric Weddle and Wink Martindale, the Panthers quarterback is apparently like a … fast, middle-school-aged dinosaur with a beard? All kidding aside, Newton is having one of the best seasons of his career so far and will be a big problem if the Ravens aren’t disciplined in their pass-rushing lanes. He’s dealing with a sore right shoulder, however, and hasn’t been throwing the deep ball that frequently as it is. A key will be the effectiveness of Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, who was quiet last week.

3. John Brown and Michael Crabtree will each make a touchdown catch on the outside. Joe Flacco has lived in the short middle portion of the field — going there with a third of his attempts — but that’s where Panthers linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis loom, which will likely mean a quiet day for tight ends and running backs that haven’t been all that impactful in recent weeks anyway. The good news is Brown and Crabtree should find some room on the outside against cornerbacks James Bradberry and Donte Jackson. If not, the Ravens will likely struggle to move the ball.

4. Christian McCaffrey will lead all players in yards from scrimmage. The Panthers running back is dynamic, averaging 4.9 yards per carry and making 40 receptions in six games. What makes him even more effective is Newton’s threat to run, which allows Carolina coordinator Norv Turner to use motion and misdirection to set up chunk runs. The Ravens rank fifth in the NFL in yards per carry allowed (3.8) — the Panthers average 5.2 yards per attempt — but their heavy use of the dime package occasionally leaves them vulnerable against an offense unafraid to run in some unorthodox spots.

5. A fourth-quarter takeaway will help the Ravens secure a much-needed 20-17 victory. Last week was an example of how difficult it is for a defense to sustain greatness for 60 minutes without a game-changing turnover — not counting Alvin Kamara’s opening-drive fumble on a fourth-down run that was already blown up — or a collection of sacks. The Ravens are tied for 21st in the league with just seven takeaways, which borders on shocking considering their other impressive numbers and the fact that they led the NFL in that category a year ago. Something has to give eventually, right? The Panthers do remind you of a better version of Tennessee in terms of their style of play, which should still bode well as Baltimore tries to bounce back from last week’s disappointment. Injuries along the offensive line and to starting cornerback Marlon Humphrey aren’t ideal, but Flacco and the Ravens offense will do just enough and the defense will finally get a clutch turnover to secure a really important win.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 24-23 loss to New Orleans

Posted on 23 October 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens falling to 4-3 in their 24-23 loss to New Orleans, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Jimmy Smith played poorly in his first start with Marlon Humphrey sidelined, but some criticism was over the top. Being suspended didn’t change the reality of him coming back from a torn Achilles, an injury that takes time for someone to return to previous form. Michael Thomas is also terrific.

2. Especially with the Saints down to their third-string left guard during Sunday’s game, you’d like to see the pass rush manage more than one sack and three quarterback hits. It’s very tough to beat a great offensive team without more disruption in the pocket or a game-changing turnover.

3. I’m all for trying to keep opponents guessing, but eight different Ravens running the ball at least once Sunday says plenty about the current state of a ground attack that ranks 31st in the NFL in yards per carry. The only team worse (Arizona) just fired its offensive coordinator.

4. Of the 16 times running backs carried the ball, 10 went for two or fewer yards and only one netted a first down. I’d be much more interested in upgrading the offensive line before the trade deadline, but exploring other running backs should be a consideration as well.

5. Both Drew Brees and Sean Payton talked about the 20-play opening drive setting the tone and allowing the Saints to jump ahead in time of possession despite not scoring. The Ravens defense surrendered only seven points through three quarters, but that long series took a toll later in the game.

6. Of course, that drive would have ended quickly had the special teams stopped a fake punt attempt after what looked like an initial three-and-out. I’m a big Jerry Rosburg guy, but there have been too many lapses with multiple special-teams units this season.

7. Coming off two quiet games, John Brown made seven catches for 134 yards — season highs — and a touchdown. Considering he caught all seven targets, why not go to him even more, especially in the first two fourth-quarter drives when he was thrown to just once for 17 yards?

8. Mark Andrews caught a touchdown Sunday, but tight ends have combined for 11 receptions for 84 yards over the last three games. Nick Boyle and Maxx Williams are helping offensive tackles in pass protection, but you want more when dressing four tight ends. Hayden Hurst needs to be more involved.

9. Lamar Jackson’s usage continues to be debated, but it was good seeing him pass in a third-down situation, something the Ravens must be willing to do if he’s going to play. His first NFL touchdown on a read-option run was a great example of how to properly use him.

10. I agreed with kicking the extra point, but there would have been at least an argument to go for the win if the Ravens had a running game. I wouldn’t have loved their chances in overtime after Brees had carved up the defense on three straight drives. Challenge traditional thinking.

11. The Ravens are 8-13 in games decided by a single possession since the start of 2016 and dropped to 0-2 this season. Common sense would tell you a playoff-hopeful team should be .500 or better in this department. Fourth quarters like Sunday’s have loomed large.

12. The debut of the purple-on-purple uniform — non-“Color Rush” edition — was the sixth different combination used by the Ravens since the start of the preseason, and they haven’t even worn their black alternates or the aforementioned purple tops with gold numbering yet. Watch out, Oregon.

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Signs there, but Ravens still learning how to become really good team

Posted on 22 October 2018 by Luke Jones

Nothing really changed about the Ravens with their 24-23 loss to New Orleans.

The defense remains at or near the top of most statistical categories after holding the high-powered Saints — with an extra week to prepare coming off a bye, mind you — to 12 points below their season average, a number many fans would have taken going into Sunday’s game. Even while struggling to run the football, the offense ranks in the top half of the league, which is substantial improvement from the last few years.

We did learn Justin Tucker is human after all, but he remains the best kicker in the NFL and has won a slew of games over the years, earning him plenty of slack for missing the game-tying extra point.

To be clear, there’s no shame in losing to the Saints, who might be the second-best team in the NFC and are viewed by many as a serious Super Bowl contender. Perhaps you expected John Harbaugh’s team to go undefeated at M&T Bank Stadium, but New Orleans was easily one of the season’s two most difficult home games on paper — the other being Pittsburgh — entering the season. This loss hardly breaks them.

Sunday’s defeat was a missed opportunity, however, and a reminder that the Ravens are still learning how to truly become a very good team. The components are there for a return to the playoffs and to perhaps make some noise if they get there, but just 13 players remain from Baltimore’s last playoff team in 2014, meaning a number of key individuals — including the last four draft classes — are still seeking what it takes to make it to January.

You have to finish when owning a 17-7 lead entering the fourth quarter, something the Ravens have struggled to do against top-flight teams these last few seasons. Yes, they went toe to toe with the Saints in an intense game and were only an extra point from likely forcing overtime, but let’s not pretend the last couple non-playoff teams were always blown out in such affairs either. The truth is this one hurt because the Ravens have had more than their share of “moral victories” as some have tried to label this one to be.

Holding future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints offense to a single touchdown through three quarters is a very impressive feat, but surrendering 17 points in the final three drives — not counting Brees’ final kneel-down — left the defense licking its wounds. The turning point really came late in the third quarter when Brees converted a third-and-8 pass to wide receiver Michael Thomas as safety Tony Jefferson was bringing the 39-year-old quarterback to the ground. From there, the run began in a way not unlike an NBA team erasing a double-digit fourth-quarter deficit in the blink of an eye.

Just like when playing Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, or Peyton Manning several years back, the best defense is only going to hold down Brees for so long. That’s just reality in today’s offense-driven game, especially without a game-changing turnover or a few more sacks to help get you off the field in crunch time. You’re only going to make so many stops straight up when facing an explosive offense, and the Ravens defense just couldn’t make a big play when the momentum shifted.

More to blame than the defense was a Ravens offense that sleepwalked through most of the fourth quarter and didn’t awaken until a 10-point lead had turned into a seven-point deficit with just over two minutes remaining. Injuries along the offensive line and a shortage of possessions in the first half didn’t help the overall output, but responding to two long touchdown drives in the fourth quarter with a three-and-out and a turnover on downs against a below-average New Orleans defense isn’t a winning formula against a great opponent. Games against Brees have been rare for the Ravens, but they’ve played Brady and Ben Roethlisberger too many times not to know how a low-scoring affair can morph into a shootout at a moment’s notice. The offense wasn’t prepared to counter-punch until it proved too late with Tucker’s rare misfire.

Asked after the game about his 14-yard touchdown pass to John Brown that looked like it would tie the game with 24 seconds remaining, quarterback Joe Flacco regretted the offense not coming away with some points on the previous two drives. A poor running game didn’t help as the Ravens offense neither provided rest nor scoring reinforcements for its defense after the Saints came alive. Scoring 23 points usually isn’t going to get the job done against an elite offense.

How the Ravens respond over these next two weeks will go a long way in determining whether they’re closer to becoming a really good team. Rebounding from Sunday’s loss to top a tough Carolina team on the road and to beat Pittsburgh at home would give them a 6-3 record entering the bye week and put them in really good shape to contend for their first AFC North championship since 2012. Anything less feels too much like the last couple years and leaves a tiny margin for error down the stretch with road games still to be played at Atlanta, Kansas City, and the Los Angeles Chargers.

If the Ravens want to make it back to the playoffs, they’ll need to get on a roll at some point. It looked like they might have graduated after their huge road victory at Pittsburgh, but they produced a dud in Cleveland the next week. Their dominating shutout at Tennessee was followed by a potential win slipping through their fingers on Sunday.

At some point, they’ll have to break the pattern of one step forward and one step back to get to the next level.

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Critical question comes into focus during Ravens’ ugly loss

Posted on 07 October 2018 by Luke Jones

Michael Crabtree had the chance to rewrite the story of a poor performance for both him and the Ravens offense in Cleveland on Sunday.

His third-down drop on the opening drive of the game had cost the Ravens a chance at a long field goal or a fourth-and-short situation inside the 40-yard line. On the next drive, he dropped a slant on a second-and-3 that would have put the offense inside the red zone and instead led the Ravens to settle for a field goal two plays later. Those were just two of many mistakes made by an offense that arrived at FirstEnergy Stadium flying high after a 3-1 start to 2018.

Still, with a minute to go in regulation and the Ravens trailing 9-6, Crabtree could have made it all better.

Signed to a three-year, $21 million contract in large part for the 25 touchdowns he’d caught over the previous three seasons in Oakland, Crabtree dropped a perfect pass from Joe Flacco in the back of the end zone on third-and-10 from the Cleveland 14. Instead of taking a 13-9 lead and likely stealing an ugly road win, the Ravens settled for the game-tying three points before eventually falling 12-9 on a Greg Joseph 37-yard field goal with two seconds left in overtime.

As much as last week’s win in Pittsburgh looked like a potential breakthrough for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2014, Sunday felt like an all-too-familiar story for an offense that couldn’t live up to its end of the bargain. And it brought a lingering question about the Ravens’ passing game into sharper focus.

So much had been made about the balanced production for Baltimore’s wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs with eight or more players having caught passes in each of the first four games. Entering Sunday, eight players were on pace to catch 30 or more passes after only five Ravens made 30 or more receptions a year ago. Spreading the ball around is great when you’re clicking like the Ravens did over the season’s opening month, but it won’t always be that easy as we witnessed against an improved Browns defense.

When you’re struggling as Flacco and the offense did on Sunday, you need that safety net — “old reliable” if you will — to bail everyone out at the most critical moment. Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Smith fit that description to varying degrees over the last decade, making the play no one else was able to make at the most critical times. After not having that guy last season — Mike Wallace did his best down the stretch — the Ravens tabbed Crabtree to be that go-to target on third downs and inside the red zone. He didn’t need to be a 1,000-yard receiver, but they wanted him to handle the dirty work.

Instead, he entered Week 5 tied for the league lead in drops before adding three more against the Browns. He’s caught just 24 of his 46 targets in five games, the lowest percentage of his 10-year career. The slow start comes after Crabtree caught 58 passes for 618 receiving yards last season, his lowest totals since an injury-abbreviated 2013 campaign.

That’s not to say he won’t regroup to fill that intended role, but Flacco needs someone on which to lean in crunch time of close games. The speedy John Brown has been his most productive receiver, of course, but he’s more home-run hitter than the guy you’re targeting on third-and-7, at least based on how the Ravens have used him to this point. If it isn’t Crabtree, perhaps slot receiver Willie Snead or even rookie tight end Hayden Hurst eventually becomes that guy to make contested catches and move the chains when it matters most.

Someone has to do it if the Ravens expect a different result the next time they’re fighting for their lives late in a game. It’s a position they weren’t in during their three double-digit wins, but they’re sure to be in that tight spot again sooner than later.

To be clear, the Ravens wasted other opportunities as an ugly Flacco interception at the goal line cost them points in the second quarter, a Justin Tucker field goal was blocked at the end of the first half, and a Buck Allen fumble led to a Cleveland field goal midway through the third quarter. Baltimore didn’t really deserve a win after playing so poorly on the offensive side of the ball, but no play was bigger than Crabtree’s last-minute drop that could have made all those missteps — including the veteran receiver’s own — disappear.

There was other blame to go around, but that was the exact moment for which Baltimore had signed him in March.

Instead of escaping Cleveland with a victory, the Ravens offense took a step back and left a critical question unanswered for the coming weeks.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 26-14 win over Pittsburgh

Posted on 02 October 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens earning their first road victory of the season in a 26-14 final over Pittsburgh, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. You can’t harp on the Ravens not being able to beat an elite quarterback on the road and not give proper credit when they do — without Jimmy Smith. That was their best win since the 2014 playoffs and puts them in the conversation as a legitimate contender in the AFC.

2. Despite a 96.9 season passer rating, Joe Flacco was annoyed about the offense squandering opportunities to score more points Sunday. Tell me again that his improvement is all about Lamar Jackson — which implies he didn’t care before — and not about the organization putting better talent around him.

3. John Brown already has a team-best six catches of 20 or more yards, which would have ranked second behind Mike Wallace’s 11 for the entire 2017 season. His 22.5 yards per catch average is third in the NFL. He’s fun to watch, and his chemistry with Flacco can still improve.

4. The biggest criticism of the defense in recent years has been the inability to close in critical games. Anthony Levine was responsible for ending all three of Pittsburgh’s fourth-quarter drives by breaking up a third-down pass to force a punt, intercepting another, and batting away a fourth-down attempt. Clutch.

5. Too much is usually made about halftime adjustments, but Wink Martindale’s defense has yet to allow a touchdown after intermission in four games — allowing just nine points total — and pitched a second-half shutout at Heinz Field. He’s clearly doing something right.

6. John Harbaugh wisely expressed confidence Monday that Alex Collins will improve his ball security as he did last year, but his goal-line fumble completely changed a game that was bordering on becoming a blowout. The running game remains a concern, but the Ravens must stick with Collins’ upside.

7. Kenny Young played 24 defensive snaps compared to Patrick Onwuasor’s six, signaling a shift in the competition for the inside linebacker job next to C.J. Mosley. That said, both must improve in coverage or we’ll continue to see Martindale use Levine (28 snaps) as a dime more frequently.

8. The third-and-1 completion to Maxx Williams to extend a long fourth-quarter drive drew praise — and controversy — because of his alignment. Flacco said after the game they’d practiced that play for two years, and it was the first time Williams had gotten through the line of scrimmage unscathed. Interesting stuff.


(Screen capture courtesy of NFL Game Pass)

9. My guess is the Ravens continue to carry four tight ends with the anticipated return of Hayden Hurst this week. However, with Williams and rookie Mark Andrews playing so well, you wonder if Nick Boyle would be the most vulnerable if a move needed to be made there.

10. Sunday night was an example of how to play strong defense without much of a pass rush as the Ravens faked blitzes, effectively disguised looks, and covered very well. Baltimore is tops in the NFL in yards per play allowed at just 4.4.

11. Tony Jefferson hasn’t made as many splash plays as you’d like after the Ravens gave him a four-year, $34 million contract, but his strip and recovery against Vance McDonald on Pittsburgh’s opening drive was spectacular. He fairly noted after the game how that could have been ruled an interception.

12. If you didn’t hear Harbaugh’s post-game press conference on Sunday night, take a listen at the 2:45 mark HERE. Kudos for recognizing the memory of Bobbi Engram, the daughter of wide receivers coach Bobby Engram, and giving her a game ball. Powerful stuff.

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday night

Posted on 29 September 2018 by Luke Jones

Making predictions for a Ravens-Steelers game is often a fool’s errand.

We know it’s typically close — 17 of the last 23 meetings including the playoffs have been decided by a single possession — but something crazy usually happens in the process.

Safety Eric Weddle said this week these aren’t the same old Ravens and they’ve learned from the last two heartbreaking defeats at Heinz Field in which they held double-digit fourth-quarter leads, but this is the chance to prove it and make an early statement that 2018 will be different than the last three non-playoff seasons. Sunday night marks the fifth consecutive season the Ravens’ trip to Pittsburgh will be televised before a national audience.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Steelers meet for the 45th time in the all-time regular-season series. Pittsburgh holds a 24-20 advantage and is 12-11 — including the playoffs — against Baltimore in the John Harbaugh era. The Steelers have won the last three meetings in this AFC North rivalry.

Below are five predictions for Sunday night:

1. JuJu Smith-Schuster will be the Steelers wide receiver giving the Ravens the biggest headache. It remains to be seen how defensive coordinator Wink Martindale approaches the challenge of covering Antonio Brown, but the 6-foot-1 Smith-Schuster does most of his damage from the slot, presenting a challenge for the 5-foot-9 Tavon Young. The nickel corner was exposed in Cincinnati in Week 2 and is still looking to regain his rookie form after last year’s knee injury. The Ravens will change up their coverages, but the defense needs a strong night from Young in order to get off the field.

2. John Brown and Willie Snead will each catch a touchdown against an injury-depleted Steelers secondary. Pittsburgh ranks 28th in the NFL in pass defense and is expected to be without starting safety Morgan Burnett and nickel corner Mike Hilton. It will be interesting to see how Steelers cornerback Joe Haden is used, but no one in the Pittsburgh secondary can run with the speedy Brown, who leads the Ravens with 222 receiving yards. If the protection can slow a capable Pittsburgh pass rush, Brown could be in line for a big night while Snead should find room in the middle of the field.

3. Pittsburgh tight ends and running backs will combine for 13 catches and a touchdown reception. Le’Veon Bell won’t be out there, but Steelers running backs and tight ends combined for 24 catches and two touchdown catches last December. The Ravens won’t have quite that much trouble, but C.J. Mosley will be less than 100 percent and the Steelers won’t hesitate to test Tony Jefferson and Weddle in coverage. Even with so much attention paid to Antonio Brown and Smith-Schuster, running back James Conner and tight ends Jesse James and Vance McDonald can’t be ignored.

4. Terrell Suggs will collect his first full sack against the Steelers since 2013. The personal rivalry between Suggs and Ben Roethlisberger goes back to 2004, but the seven-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker has just one-half sack in his last eight games against Pittsburgh. The Steelers will be welcoming right guard David DeCastro and right tackle Marcus Gilbert back to the lineup, which will only increase the challenge of pressuring the pocket. The Ravens finished with three sacks in the last meeting when Roethlisberger threw an absurd 66 passes. That can’t happen again if they want to win.

5. Joe Flacco and the offense will show up, but the Ravens defense falls short in a 31-27 loss. A rivalry once known for low-scoring affairs saw a whopping 77 points scored in the Week 14 contest played at Heinz Field last year. This one will follow a similar script as the Ravens offense will move the ball and score points, but the absence of Jimmy Smith once again looms large. After incorrectly picking Baltimore to win in Pittsburgh last December and watching Andy Dalton carve up the secondary in the first half of the Week 2 loss at Cincinnati, I need to see the Ravens prove they can get over the hump this time around. If it’s a different outcome, special teams could be the difference as Justin Tucker remains the best kicker in the NFL and Pittsburgh’s Chris Boswell is a total mess now.

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Revamped Ravens passing attack shows off potential in big way

Posted on 09 September 2018 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The revamped Ravens passing game couldn’t have asked for a better season debut.

Say what you want about the Buffalo Bills, but 47-3 victories don’t happen often in the NFL. Only three other teams — Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Washington — won by more than one possession on Sunday, and their combined margin for victory (39) still didn’t add up to Baltimore’s.

How many times have we seen the Ravens slog through close games against lesser opponents in recent seasons?

Substantial rain and wind certainly weren’t conducive to quarterback Joe Flacco posting his best passer rating (121.7) since 2014 or throwing three touchdown passes — one each to veteran newcomers John Brown, Michael Crabtree, and Willie Snead — before exiting with a 40-0 lead early in the third quarter. The 33-year-old didn’t have three touchdowns in a game all last season and eclipsed Sunday’s passing total (236 yards) only five times in 2017, but he made sure his critics wouldn’t clamor for rookie first-round quarterback Lamar Jackson on Sunday.

The Ravens wasted no time on their opening drive, going 80 yards on 10 plays with an Alex Collins touchdown run serving as the exclamation point. It wasn’t even all perfect as a fumbled hand-off and an Alex Lewis holding penalty on consecutive snaps threatened to torpedo the drive before Flacco connected with Brown for a 29-yard gain into Buffalo territory.

“I think the first drive that we had today was really important for us,” said Flacco, who went 5-for-6 for 80 yards on that first scoring march. “I think it showed a little bit of what everybody can do, but we had [second-and-26] or something there, and we converted to get a first down. I think that was a huge step. Obviously, we went and scored a touchdown.

“That was a huge drive, a huge play on that drive. Without that, I don’t know if we would’ve set the tone quite in the same way.”

It’s important to note other free-agent wide receivers have flashed in their Baltimore debuts in recent years, keeping the feel-good touchdowns to Brown, Crabtree, and Snead in perspective. Jeremy Maclin caught a 48-yard touchdown in the opener at Cincinnati last year, and we all know how his one-year stay played out. Mike Wallace caught a 66-yard bomb in a Week 1 win over the Bills two years ago and even posted a 1,000-yard season, but the offense was still below average in 2016.

In those two season-opening wins, however, the Ravens offense had little more than a few nice moments, scoring a combined 33 points and mostly leaning on a dominant defense. Sunday was a demolition on both sides of the ball with the offense every bit the equal of a defense that didn’t surrender a first down in the first half against overwhelmed quarterback Nathan Peterman and the Bills offense.

With Flacco the healthiest he’s been in three years and the Baltimore front office finally putting forth more than a nominal effort in both free agency and the draft to improve the offense around him, Sunday’s performance felt different. It followed a summer in which the Ravens offense regularly challenged a talented defense in practices, something rarely seen in recent years.

“Our offense, obviously over the last couple years, has been up and down,” said safety Eric Weddle, who predicted a career year from Flacco back in July. “We’ve seen it. Obviously, you guys out at training camp have seen how they’ve gotten better over last season, and it showed today. Joe was putting the ball on the money. Without a couple drops here and there, his completion percentage would have been even better. When I said the [offensive] line could be a strength this year, it showed.

“It’s just a building block. This is a long season. You never want to get too high. You never want to overreact.”

In the post-game locker room, several players reiterated it being only one game as last year’s offense-challenged Ravens scored 38 or more points three times. The offensive line was strong in pass protection on Sunday, but the running game had only 16 yards on 11 carries in the first half, something that will need to improve moving forward.

But, as advertised, Brown showed off his speed, Crabtree shook off two early drops to show nifty footwork on a touchdown in the red zone, and Snead effectively worked the middle of the field. Flacco is also excited to throw to first-round tight end Hayden Hurst, who is currently sidelined with a stress fracture in his foot after an impressive training camp. In his absence, fellow rookie tight end Mark Andrews caught three passes for 31 yards, an encouraging sign after his quiet summer.

Time will tell whether the passing game builds on Sunday’s impressive win, but much that was drawn up on paper this offseason came to fruition in Week 1. And with that comes a growing confidence, something the Ravens will surely need traveling to play Cincinnati on Thursday night.

“It’s definitely good for us to go out there as a team and as an offense, speaking as the quarterback, to have the kind of game we did for sure,” Flacco said. “If we didn’t score 40 points and we scored 25 and we still won, it’s the same outcome. But there’s something to be said about going out there and playing the way we did today.

“Just for how everybody feels or how we feel as players, it can take you to another level.”

It’s a level that’s been all too elusive for a long time, but Flacco and a retooled passing game showed enticing potential on Sunday, whether it came against a bad opponent or not.

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Ravens-Bills: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 08 September 2018 by Luke Jones

One team’s pain was another’s euphoria.

The Ravens will face the team that advanced to the postseason thanks to their fourth-and-12 collapse against Cincinnati in Week 17 last year when they host Buffalo to begin the 2018 season. That moment in time not only ended the Bills’ 17-year playoff drought, but it kept John Harbaugh’s team out of the postseason for a third straight year, the Ravens’ longest skid since their first four seasons in Baltimore.

With four of their next five games on the road, the Ravens can’t afford to stub their toe against the rebuilding Bills, a scenario that would leave everyone doubting whether 2018 will be any different than the last few years. It would also put even more heat on a number of coaches and players whose long-term futures are up in the air.

It’s time to go on the record as Baltimore and Buffalo meet for the eighth time in the all-time regular-season series with the Ravens holding a 4-3 advantage and a 4-1 mark at M&T Bank Stadium. This marks the second time in three years these teams will open the season in Baltimore as the Ravens won a 13-7 final in 2016.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Joe Flacco will begin 2018 on a solid note with 220 passing yards and two touchdowns.

After endless discussion about his health, the new wide receivers and tight ends, a new quarterbacks coach, his strong summer performance, and, yes, rookie Lamar Jackson, Flacco will finally have his first meaningful chance to begin silencing his critics. A rainy forecast could alter game strategy and he’s facing a pass defense that ranked ninth in yards per pass attempt allowed last season, but the 33-year-old faces a front seven not adept at pressuring quarterbacks, which will help lead to an efficient day.

2. Bills running back LeSean McCoy will finish with under 60 rushing yards.

The offseason focus was on the collapse against the Bengals, but the Ravens allowing a franchise-worst 4.1 yards per carry last year really stuck in their craw. The defense allowed 38 percent of its total rushing yards in the four games Brandon Williams missed, but Baltimore still surrendered 3.9 yards per attempt in games he played. The presence of Williams and Michael Pierce as well as the Bills losing three key starters from their offensive line will lead to a long day for the six-time Pro Bowl back.

3. Michael Crabtree and Nick Boyle will catch touchdowns from Flacco.

There is much excitement about the vertical potential of John Brown, but Bills head coach Sean McDermott emphasizes taking away the big play as his defense allowed the seventh-fewest number of passes of 20 or more yards and an NFL-low three completions of 40 or more yards last season. With that in mind and the forecast not looking promising, Crabtree will do what he does best in the red zone and the blocking-minded Boyle will catch Bills linebackers napping for a touchdown score of his own.

4. Buffalo quarterback Nathan Peterman will throw two interceptions and be sacked five times.

Did I mention the Bills offensive line lost three key starters? Buffalo was wise to go with Peterman over rookie first-round pick Josh Allen in a Week 1 road game, but that doesn’t mean the former won’t be completely overwhelmed. New defensive coordinator Wink Martindale is a Ryan family pupil who will call everything he can to try to pressure the pocket. Peterman won’t be as historically bad as he was in tossing five interceptions in one half against the Los Angeles Chargers last year, but it won’t be pretty.

5. The Ravens will take an early lead and ride Alex Collins in the second half to a 27-10 win.

The coming weeks will reveal just how good the Ravens really are, but I’d be surprised if the Bills aren’t one of the worst five teams in the NFL after gutting a roster that was very fortunate to sneak in the playoffs last year. Harsh weather can always be an equalizer, but Baltimore will build an early lead and lean on Collins to do some heavy lifting after receiving only three carries in the preseason. The Ravens need to start the season on a winning note with three AFC North road games looming in the next four weeks, so there’s no overstating how disappointing a home loss would be against a team that looks bad on paper. They’ll take care of business in decisive fashion.

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