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Ravens-Buccaneers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 15 December 2018 by Luke Jones

The more things change for the Ravens, the more they stay the same as they host Tampa Bay on Sunday.

The quarterback and offense are different, but Baltimore entered the bye week with a 4-5 record, won three straight against underwhelming competition, and then lost a heartbreaker on the road against one of the best teams in the NFL. John Harbaugh’s team hadn’t done that since … wait for it … last year.

Still sporting a chance to win the AFC North and considered the favorite in a group of flawed teams currently vying for the No. 6 seed, will the Ravens get the job done this time around?

It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet for just the sixth time ever with the Ravens enjoying a 3-2 advantage. Baltimore has won the last three contests in the series as the Buccaneers haven’t won since 2002, which was their Super Bowl-winning season.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Ex-Raven Ryan Jensen will be flagged for mixing it up with a former teammate. Ozzie Newsome was wise not to give Jensen a $42 million deal, but that doesn’t mean Baltimore hasn’t missed him as his departure was the biggest change in a sound running game from a year ago becoming inept in the first half of 2018. The Ravens liked Jensen’s fire and physicality, but he’s struggled in Tampa Bay with penalties and underwhelming play as Pro Football Focus ranks him 29th among centers. His propensity for playing through the whistle is a recipe for an altercation with someone like Matt Judon.

2. Kenneth Dixon will lead Baltimore in rushing. Last Sunday’s loss at Kansas City was easily the best Dixon has looked since his rookie season as he registered 80 total yards and a touchdown on nine touches. Meanwhile, Gus Edwards has averaged an ordinary 4.0 yards per carry over the last two games after racking up 5.8 per attempt in the previous two weeks. Edwards will remain heavily involved, but a healthy Dixon is the most versatile of the Ravens’ running backs and gives them some juice as a receiver. Now, you hold your breath that the 2016 fourth-round pick can stay on the field.

3. Tampa Bay’s James Winston will throw a critical interception to spoil a two-touchdown day. The Buccaneers haven’t won a road game since Week 1, but any team that’s beaten New Orleans and held a 14-3 halftime lead in last week’s rematch should have your attention. It’s been a turbulent year for Winston, but he’s thrown eight touchdowns and two picks while averaging 243 passing yards per game over the last four weeks. Meanwhile, Marlon Humphrey, Tony Jefferson, and Tavon Young aren’t 100 percent in the Ravens secondary. That’s a concern facing the league’s No. 1 passing attack that has one of the better receivers in football in Mike Evans.

4. Lamar Jackson will find Willie Snead for the slot receiver’s first touchdown since Week 1. It’s difficult figuring out where the rapport is between these two as Snead was Baltimore’s leading receiver in Jackson’s first start as well as in Kansas City, but the slot receiver had a total of one catch for eight yards in the wins over Oakland and Atlanta. The Ravens need to find more production out of their passing game down the stretch, and Jackson has been most successful throwing over the middle from spread formations, making Snead’s presence important. Tampa Bay ranks dead last in red-zone defense.

5. The Ravens will strengthen their playoff chances with an unspectacular 26-17 victory. My confidence level in a win remains high, but the Buccaneers are capable of giving any team problems with the way they throw the ball all over the field. Their fatal flaw has been an unthinkable 24 interceptions this season, but the Ravens rank 31st in the league with just 10 takeaways — six of them interceptions — and are banged up in the secondary. Playing another bad run defense will help, but the last four weeks have each been one-score games in the fourth quarter as the Ravens aren’t built to blow out teams without the defense or special teams contributing a touchdown or two. Harbaugh’s team won’t gain much from the eyeball-test perspective on Sunday, but a win is all that matters in mid-December.

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Humphrey, Jefferson questionable for Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay

Posted on 14 December 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Facing a Tampa Bay offense entering Week 15 with the most passing yards in the NFL, the Ravens hope to have their entire starting secondary back on the field on Sunday.

Cornerback Marlon Humphrey (groin) returned to practice on a limited basis Friday and was listed as questionable on the final injury report. The 2017 first-round pick missed most of the second half of last Sunday’s loss at Kansas City and missed workouts on Wednesday and Thursday. Humphrey hurt his groin late in the Week 13 win over Atlanta.

“He’s just trying to get this strong and make sure it’s right,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “He was out there today. We’ll have to watch the tape and talk to [head athletic trainer Ron Medlin] — and Marlon, of course — and see how he looked and how he felt.”

Humphrey’s absence would be significant as Baltimore lost games to New Orleans and Carolina earlier this season when the talented defensive back was sidelined with a thigh injury. Rookie Anthony Averett saw extensive snaps in his place against the Chiefs.

Safety Tony Jefferson hopes to make his return after a two-game absence with an ankle injury. He practiced on a limited basis on Thursday and Friday and also received the questionable designation. Second-year safety Chuck Clark has filled in for Jefferson since Week 12.

“If I was making the decision, he would be playing on Sunday,” Harbaugh said. “So, we’ll see what the trainers say, but I thought he did well.”

Left guard Alex Lewis was listed as doubtful and is expected to miss his second straight game with a lingering shoulder issue. The third-year offensive lineman was a limited participant in Wednesday’s practice, but he didn’t participate on Thursday or Friday. Veteran James Hurst would presumably make his second straight start at left guard.

Quarterback Joe Flacco (right hip) was listed as questionable on the final injury report, but he is set to serve as the backup to rookie starter Lamar Jackson after practicing fully all week. Sunday will mark the first time in Flacco’s career he will not start a game in which he’s been active, but it remains unclear whether the 11th-year quarterback will have any role beyond serving as a traditional backup.

How the Ravens would adjust their run-heavy attack under Jackson to the less mobile Flacco on the fly would be interesting.

“We have plans, and Joe feels really good about the things that we would immediately go to when he’s in the game,” offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. “I went through it the past couple weeks, really. We have more than enough for Joe to be able to go in and have some success without sort of reverting back.”

Cornerback Tavon Young (groin) and defensive back Anthony Levine (ankle) were also listed as questionable for Sunday, but both practiced fully on Friday after missing practice time earlier in the week.

The Buccaneers officially ruled out veteran wide receiver DeSean Jackson (thumb) and safety Justin Evans (toe) and listed defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (knee/hip) as questionable for Sunday.

In other Ravens news, national scout Milt Hendrickson is expected to leave the organization to become Green Bay’s new assistant general manager, according to Packers insider Bob McGinn. Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst reportedly wanted to hire Hendrickson last spring, but an interview request was denied by Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome.

The Weather.com Sunday forecast in Baltimore calls for rain and temperatures in the mid-40s with winds 10 to 15 miles per hour and a 90-percent chance of precipitation.

Below is the final injury report of the week:

BALTIMORE
DOUBTFUL: G Alex Lewis (shoulder)
QUESTIONABLE: QB Joe Flacco (right hip), CB Marlon Humphrey (groin), S Tony Jefferson (ankle), DB Anthony Levine (ankle), LB Tim Williams (ankle), CB Tavon Young (groin)

TAMPA BAY
OUT: S Justin Evans (toe), WR DeSean Jackson (thumb)
QUESTIONABLE: DT Beau Allen (wrist), CB Carlton Davis (knee), OT Demar Dotson (knee), S Isaiah Johnson (concussion), DE Jason Pierre-Paul (knee/hip), LB Adarius Taylor (non-injury)

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FILE - In this Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017, file photo, Baltimore Ravens defensive back Marlon Humphrey (29) celebrates his interception with teammate Tony Jefferson in the second half of an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions in Baltimore. As a member of the Alabama football, Marlon Humphrey knew what to expect against non-league foes such as Mercer and Kent State. Now a rookie starting cornerback with the Ravens, he finds himself in a similar situation entering Sunday’s game against the winless Cleveland Browns. (AP Photo/Gail Burton, File)

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Ravens without Humphrey, T. Young for Wednesday’s practice

Posted on 12 December 2018 by Luke Jones

While fully healthy at the quarterback position for the first time since early November, the Ravens are dealing with several injury concerns in the secondary ahead of their Week 15 meeting with Tampa Bay.

Cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey (groin) and Tavon Young (groin) and safeties Tony Jefferson (ankle) and Anthony Levine (ankle) all missed practice on Wednesday as Baltimore prepares for an offense ranking first in the NFL in passing yards per game. Humphrey and Young both exited last Sunday’s loss at Kansas City with lingering groin injuries while Jefferson is trying to avoid missing his third straight contest.

“He’s close,” said head coach John Harbaugh of Jefferson’s status. “He tells me he’s going to play, and [the training staff] says we need to see him run full speed, so we’ll be looking for that this week. He told me he was going to play last week. He told me he was going to play the week before that, so that’s Tony. But I have my fingers crossed.”

Offensive lineman Alex Lewis (shoulder) returned to practice after missing last week’s game, but it remains to be seen whether he or veteran James Hurst will receive the starting nod at left guard. Hurst returned to action after a six-game absence to start in place of Lewis against the Chiefs. Harbaugh confirmed rookie Orlando Brown would remain the starting right tackle, the position Hurst held over the first six games of the season before being sidelined with a back injury.

Quarterbacks Lamar Jackson (ankle) and Joe Flacco (hip) were full participants in practice after Harbaugh announced Jackson will remain Baltimore’s starter moving forward. Jackson confirmed his ankle was “100 percent” after exiting late in the overtime loss to the Chiefs.

The Buccaneers were without veteran wide receiver DeSean Jackson (thumb) and starting safety Justin Evans (toe) for Wednesday’s workout. Both have missed recent games with their respective injuries.

Below is Wednesday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: CB Marlon Humphrey (groin), S Tony Jefferson (ankle), DB Anthony Levine (ankle), S Eric Weddle (non-injury), G Marshal Yanda (non-injury), CB Tavon Young (groin)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: G Alex Lewis (shoulder)
FULL PARTICIPATION: QB Joe Flacco (right hip), QB Lamar Jackson (ankle), LB Tim Williams (ankle)

TAMPA BAY
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: S Justin Evans (toe), WR DeSean Jackson (thumb), S Isaiah Johnson (concussion)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: CB Carlton Davis (knee), OT Demar Dotson (knee), DT Gerald McCoy (shoulder), DE Jason Pierre-Paul (knee/hip)

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With Ravens’ starting decision made, pressure ramps up for Lamar Jackson

Posted on 12 December 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens made their quarterback decision official on Wednesday.

With no remaining ambiguity regarding the health of Joe Flacco’s hip, head coach John Harbaugh revealed rookie Lamar Jackson would remain the starter while the greatest quarterback in franchise history assumes the backup role for the first time in his NFL career. The news was hardly shocking with the Ravens having won three of the last four games thanks in large part to their revamped run-heavy offense, but it made the announcement no less delicate when demoting an individual who’s meant so much to the organization.

Whether you agreed with the decision or not, Harbaugh deserves credit for controlling the story and not subjecting the 33-year-old quarterback who helped win him a Super Bowl, a rookie preparing for his fifth NFL start, or the rest of the locker room to media questions about who would — or should — play on Sunday. Any perceived competitive edge gained by delaying the announcement just didn’t outweigh the human element this time around.

In truth, the epilogue for the Flacco era can wait a few more weeks as even Harbaugh acknowledged the distinct possibility of the veteran being called upon to help win the Ravens a game for any number of reasons, but things are now different for Jackson despite his best efforts to suggest otherwise. The first-round pick from Louisville and 2016 Heisman Trophy winner is no longer just the talented understudy filling in for the injured starter or the quarterback of the future gaining some experience.

He’s the guy.

“It’s our team — all of us together. It’s our team,” said Jackson when asked if Wednesday’s announcement made the Ravens “his” team. “I don’t go out there and block. I don’t go out there and catch the ball. I don’t make tackles. I just do my part. It’s all of our team.”

Of course, we know it’s a team game and the 21-year-old’s humility is impressive, but the starting quarterback is different from any other player. It’s why they make the big bucks for achieving glory and often receive too much blame when things go awry. Flacco knows that all too well by now.

Over the last four weeks, Jackson was being graded on two scales: his present play and his long-term viability as a franchise quarterback. That still holds true, but current expectations are heightened when you’ve been deliberately chosen to start over a veteran with a proven track record.

To be clear, Jackson doesn’t suddenly need to become someone he’s not. The game plan shouldn’t change as this decision was much more about the best team fit than one quarterback being better than the other. But Jackson is no longer “just a rookie” being pressed into starting duty anymore like he was last month or even this past Sunday.

Fellow 2018 first-round picks Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, and Josh Rosen are starting for teams already eliminated from postseason contention, minimizing any pressure for results. Top overall pick Baker Mayfield has been the star of this year’s quarterback crop, but his playoff hopes are microscopic at this point. Even a rookie Flacco had only an equally-unproven Troy Smith and journeyman Todd Bouman waiting in the wings in 2008, meaning the Ravens were going to sink or swim with their rookie quarterback.

This situation is different with so many players and coaches fighting for their futures with an organization entering a transition period as Eric DeCosta becomes the general manager this offseason.

Two Jackson first-half interceptions like we saw against Oakland or three fumbles as witnessed in the Atlanta game won’t be viewed through the same lens with an active Flacco waiting on the sideline rather than Robert Griffin III. That’s not to suggest perfection is expected by any stretch — Flacco is far from flawless — or that Jackson should be pulled at the first sign of trouble, but he’s starting meaningful December games for a franchise desperate to return to the playoffs for the first time in four years.

Based on the poise he displayed in Kansas City — the best performance of his four starts — that sealed the Ravens’ decision to stick with him, Jackson should be up for the challenge, at least in terms of the moment not being too big for him.

But Flacco’s hip injury and pending return is no longer the safety net as it was these last few weeks. And while Jackson said Wednesday was “the same as any other day,” that’s just not the case. A new job description brings greater expectations, and it will be exciting to see how he handles the pressure.

The Ravens are putting much trust in him as they leave past glory standing on the sideline.

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Ravens quarterback situation finally appears coming to a head

Posted on 11 December 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — This figures to be one of the more interesting weeks in Ravens history, and it has nothing to do with Tampa Bay coming to town.

With Joe Flacco medically cleared for game action and about to log a full week of practice and head coach John Harbaugh reiterating Monday that Lamar Jackson “should be fine” despite leaving Sunday’s loss in Kansas City with an ankle injury, the Ravens can no longer kick the can down the road with their quarterback position. Frankly, there’s little reason to think Jackson won’t — and shouldn’t — remain the starting quarterback with the Ravens having won three of their last four and rushing for nearly 230 yards per game over that time, a style conducive to controlling the clock and keeping their defense fresh.

But this isn’t like Trent Dilfer replacing Tony Banks or the debate between Elvis Grbac and Randall Cunningham years ago. Potentially telling the best quarterback in franchise history — one who won you a Super Bowl six years ago — he’s no longer “the guy” should be a delicate matter. Harbaugh didn’t announce his Week 15 starter on Monday, but he was asked if he expected Flacco to be active and to play against the Buccaneers.

“I haven’t had a chance to sit down with all the parties yet [who are] involved,” Harbaugh said. “I think it stands to reason that if Joe is ready to go, then he’ll be part of the game plan. He’s too good of a player not to be. We’ll just figure that out as we go this week — to what degree, how it works. Everybody will know going in. Perhaps except everybody outside, mostly, unless I change my mind on that. I’m excited. If we get Joe back, it’s good because it’s another good player.”

There was nothing definitive in that answer, of course, but it doesn’t sound as though the Ravens simply intend to make Flacco the No. 3 quarterback — and game-day inactive — with Robert Griffin III remaining the primary backup to Jackson as some have suggested doing. A factor in that thought process would be not wanting to risk a serious injury to Flacco that would complicate the organization’s presumed intentions to either trade or release the 33-year-old this offseason, but deliberately removing him from the equation wouldn’t be a decision based on trying to win now, especially with Jackson having missed snaps in each of the last two games.

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This offense is certainly unconventional and has run the ball exceptionally well with Jackson at the helm, but let’s not pretend there isn’t room for improvement. Many have cited the Ravens averaging 27 points per game over the last four weeks compared to the 23.7 per contest from Weeks 1-9, but that includes three touchdowns provided by the defense and special teams after neither unit offered a single return score in the first nine games. Removing those from the equation leaves an offense averaging 21.75 points per game while producing just 148 passing yards per contest.

Running the ball and controlling time of possession — the latter didn’t happen against the Chiefs in Week 14 — isn’t a formula that guarantees points or victories, leaving one to wonder if there’s another element to add to this revamped offense.

Are there ways to utilize Flacco’s throwing arm in smaller doses?

Some — like CBS Sports analyst and former NFL quarterback Tony Romo on Sunday — have suggested using Flacco in two-minute situations or when facing a multi-score deficit, but are there other possibilities? What about using a hurry-up attack — something with which Flacco has succeeded in the past — for a series against a winded defense after a long Jackson-led scoring drive and a quick three-and-out from your own defense?

Yes, playing two quarterbacks would be unconventional and doesn’t sound sustainable, but we’ve said the same thing about an offense running the ball more frequently than anyone in the NFL over the last month and we’re not talking about a 50-50 split here. If Ravens coaches were willing to risk disrupting their veteran quarterback’s rhythm to get Jackson on the field earlier in the season, why wouldn’t they at least consider a Flacco package — a “Flacckage” — to occasionally mix into a run-heavy attack? That wouldn’t mean Jackson wouldn’t pass the ball or the Ravens would never run with Flacco on the field, but it would give opposing defenses something else to consider.

If the Ravens have already embraced the weirdness, why not ponder getting a little weirder? We hear all the time that two-quarterback systems don’t work, but it’s not something that’s been tried all that frequently in the modern NFL, especially with two options who are viable in different ways. Considering each of the last four games have been one-score encounters in the fourth quarter and the Ravens can’t assume they’re going to keep getting touchdowns from their defense and special teams, why not consider a wrinkle that could potentially net an extra score over the course of 60 minutes?

Of course, that’s assuming all egos can be put aside. No veteran quarterback is going to be doing cartwheels at the notion of playing second fiddle after a decade as the starter, but Flacco should be eager to prove he’s both healthy and a legitimate starting option for another team next year. Why wouldn’t the Ravens try to benefit from that motivation as their rookie quarterback still searches for consistency as a passer?

No matter what the Ravens roll out against the Buccaneers on Sunday, it figures to be a fascinating week with Harbaugh not tipping his quarterback hand just yet.

“I’ll just have to let you know. It could entail anything right now,” Harbaugh said. “I know what we want to do; I have a plan. We have a plan. We talked about it. We have to talk to the guys about it, and whether we share that publicly, we’ll decide as the week goes on.”

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Ravens secondary continues to be banged up entering Week 15

Posted on 10 December 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With another pass-heavy opponent on the schedule for Week 15, the Ravens continue to deal with health concerns in the secondary.

Not only did safety Tony Jefferson miss his second straight game with an ankle injury, but cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Tavon Young sat out extended stretches of Sunday’s 27-24 overtime loss at Kansas City. Humphrey and Young both missed practice time with groin injuries this past week and were limited to just 44 and 24 snaps, respectively, of Baltimore’s 86 total in Week 14.

Humphrey’s status is of particular concern as the Ravens now prepare to face a Tampa Bay offense ranking first in the NFL in passing yards per game (331.4) and third in yards per passing attempt (8.7). Baltimore is 0-3 in games in which the 2017 first-round pick has missed extensive time or sat out completely this season.

“It’s annoying. It takes a while for it to go away completely,” said head coach John Harbaugh of Humphrey’s injury. “Sometimes you can re-tweak it a little bit too. It’s probably something he’s going to be feeling for a while. It’s just the way groins are.”

With Humphrey and Young not taking their normal share of snaps against the Chiefs, Jimmy Smith played a season-high 84 snaps and Brandon Carr saw 68, his highest single-game total since Week 7.

Since sitting out the Week 12 win over Oakland, Young has played a total of 42 snaps over the last two games with Carr seeing more opportunities in the slot. Clearly not 100 percent against the Chiefs’ explosive offense, Humphrey played only a few snaps in the second half on Sunday as rookie fourth-round cornerback Anthony Averett saw 39 snaps, which more than doubled his season total.

Despite missing five games with a hamstring injury early in the season, Averett has impressed with his solid play in limited opportunities, helping give Baltimore its deepest secondary in recent years. He finished with two tackles against the Chiefs.

“Every round he’s gone out there, he’s done a good job,” Harbaugh said. “He only gets better. It just makes our corner situation even better than it was before. I was really pleased with how he played. It helped Marlon too as far as the long-term health for him.”

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Flacco questionable for Kansas City game after logging full practice

Posted on 07 December 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was listed as questionable to play in Sunday’s game against Kansas City after logging his first full practice since early November.

Head coach John Harbaugh left open the possibility of Flacco being active and serving in a backup capacity against the Chiefs, but rookie first-round pick Lamar Jackson is still expected to make his fourth consecutive start after leading Baltimore to three straight wins. Flacco had yet to be cleared for game action as of early Friday afternoon, but he moved around better in practices this week, which could leave the Ravens with an interesting decision for Week 15 and the remainder of the season.

The 11th-year starter has been sidelined since injuring his right hip in the Week 9 loss to Pittsburgh on Nov. 4, but the Ravens have reeled off three consecutive 200-yard rushing performances with the speedy Jackson at quarterback, leaving many to believe the rookie better fits their newfound identity. Flacco returned to practice on a limited basis prior to the Week 13 win in Atlanta.

“He threw. He handed off. I mean, really, what more do you want me to say?” said Harbaugh about Flacco’s progress. “He played quarterback. He looked good; he looked like he always looks. It didn’t look like there were any ill effects from the hip or anything like that. I think we did the right things. It looks to me like — [from] my amateur eye — it looks like it was the right thing and looks like it was the right thing to give him the rest. We’ll see what the docs say.”

Cornerback Marlon Humphrey was also listed as questionable on the final injury report after returning to practice on a limited basis on Friday. Harbaugh said he expects Humphrey to play after a groin injury kept him out of practice on Wednesday and Thursday. The 2017 first-round pick’s availability and effectiveness will be critical going up against the Chiefs’ third-ranked passing attack.

Offensive lineman James Hurst (back) is expected to make his return after a six-game absence. Hurst practiced fully on Friday and could be in line to start at left guard with Alex Lewis missing practices all week and being listed as questionable with a lingering shoulder injury. Baltimore’s right tackle through the first six weeks of the season, Hurst started primarily at left guard last season.

“He did well. I think he looks good, has a legit chance to go and play,” Harbaugh said. “I’d be surprised if he wasn’t ready. Barring a setback, he should be ready to go.”

Safety Tony Jefferson (ankle) was listed as doubtful and is expected to miss his second straight game after not practicing all week. Second-year safety Chuck Clark will start in his place.

Meanwhile, the Chiefs listed wide receiver Sammy Watkins as doubtful after he suffered a setback with the foot injury that’s kept him out of two of their last three games. Kansas City signed veteran wideout Kelvin Benjamin on Friday, but the former first-round pick is unlikely to be active on Sunday.

The Chiefs hope to welcome back five-time Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry, who has yet to play this season after suffering a torn Achilles tendon in the 2017 opener and dealing with setbacks in his recovery. Berry practiced on a limited basis all week and was listed as questionable on the final injury report.

According to Weather.com, the Sunday forecast in Kansas City calls for mostly sunny skies and temperatures in the high 30s with winds light and variable.

Below is the final injury report of the week:

BALTIMORE
DOUBTFUL: S Tony Jefferson (ankle)
QUESTIONABLE: QB Joe Flacco (right hip), CB Marlon Humphrey (groin), OT James Hurst (back), DB Anthony Levine (ankle), G Alex Lewis (shoulder), LB Tim Williams (ankle), CB Tavon Young (groin)

KANSAS CITY
DOUBTFUL: WR Sammy Watkins (foot)
QUESTIONABLE: S Eric Berry (heel), TE Demetrius Harris (knee/illness)

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Ravens defense facing biggest challenge yet in Kansas City

Posted on 06 December 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith compared Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes to a young Brett Favre.

Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said the second-year quarterback reminds him of Joe Montana and called Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill “the fastest human being I’ve ever seen wear a helmet.” The coach also noted how you don’t stop Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce as much as you merely try to limit his big plays.

You’d say the top-ranked Ravens defense is buttering up its opponent until you dive into the numbers for an offense averaging 37.0 points and 437.2 yards per game. With a quarter of the regular season to go, Mahomes has already thrown 41 touchdowns while Hill and Kelce have each eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards with a combined 20 touchdown catches.

Even after holding Atlanta to just nine offensive points in last week’s victory, the Ravens understand what awaits at Arrowhead Stadium. It’s a road challenge unlike any they’ve encountered this season.

“We know we have to go out and play great to have a chance to win this game, let alone stop them,” safety Eric Weddle said. “In reality, holding this team to what we did [against the Falcons last week] is probably not going to happen. But we can make things tough on them. We can create turnovers. We can hold them in the red zone.”

Those prospects don’t sound as encouraging when you consider Baltimore is tied for 30th in the NFL with just nine takeaways and hasn’t intercepted a pass since Week 5. The Ravens have surrendered a league-best 17.8 points per game, but their red-zone defense is an underwhelming 25th with opponents maximizing their opportunities inside the 20, rare as they might be.

Those red-zone issues largely stem from problems covering tight ends, which is even more concerning against a unique talent like Kelce. Despite ranking second in passing yards allowed per game, the Ravens have allowed a touchdown reception to a tight end in five of the last six games and rank 25th in the NFL against tight ends in Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average metric.

Kelce has caught 79 passes for 1,082 yards and nine touchdowns this season and lines up all over the field, making him a matchup nightmare for even the best defenses. According to ESPN, he ranks second in the league in receiving yards from the slot and first in yards after the catch from the slot, meaning Kelce should be treated more like a receiver than a tight end typically covered by a linebacker or safety.

Might the Ravens be better served using one of their big cornerbacks like Smith or Marlon Humphrey to travel with Kelce when he lines up away from the tackle box?

“It’s interesting. I didn’t think about that,” said Smith as he smiled when presented with the possibility. “I don’t know, maybe our coaches might think of something like that. That would be something for them to look at.”

The Ravens will need to vary their fronts and coverages — one of their biggest strengths — to try to keep the Chiefs guessing. As Martindale said, “If they know what you’re in, they will slaughter you.”

Home cooking for Chiefs defense?

Many have cited the Ravens’ need to continue to run the ball effectively to control the clock and limit Kansas City’s possessions, but assumptions that they’ll be able to score plenty might be premature.

Kansas City ranks 31st in total defense, 22nd in rush defense, 32nd in pass defense, and 27th in points allowed per game, but the splits suggest a more formidable defense playing at home. The Ravens should take comfort in the Chiefs allowing an ugly 5.3 yards per carry at home, but they’ve surrendered just 17.6 points per game at Arrowhead Stadium, which is less than the 18.7 points per game allowed by Baltimore on the road this year.

The Chiefs have registered eight of their 11 interceptions and 21 of their 39 sacks in their five home games, a profile that doesn’t bode well for rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson and a passing game that’s been inconsistent at best over these last three weeks. The Ravens have rushed for over 200 yards in each of their last three games, but they’ve managed just five offensive touchdowns and have gone 5-for-10 inside the red zone over that stretch.

They’ll need to do better than that to have a good chance on Sunday, and the Kansas City defense may not be as cooperative as many are assuming at first glance.

Suggs on L.T.’s heels

Following the win in Atlanta, Martindale received a call from his son informing him 16th-year linebacker Terrell Suggs was now only one sack away from passing Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor on the all-time list.

“I won’t tell you what I told my son because I’m going to keep it clean up here, but I said, ‘Wow!’” Martindale said. “You don’t think about that because we see ‘Sizz’ all the time, every day.”

Suggs recorded the 132nd sack of his career against the Falcons in Week 13, just a half shy of the New York Giants legend’s total. It’s fair noting Taylor accumulated his 132 1/2 in 13 seasons, but Suggs moving into 13th place on the all-time list with his next quarterback takedown will only strengthen his case for Canton one day.

The 36-year-old needs 3 1/2 sacks in the final four games to record the eighth double-digit sack campaign of his career.

Injury report

Humphrey missed his second straight practice with a groin injury, heightening concerns about his availability for Sunday’s game against the Chiefs. Safety Tony Jefferson (ankle) and left guard Alex Lewis (shoulder) also missed Thursday’s session.

Quarterback Joe Flacco (right hip) was a limited participant once again and is moving around better in practices than he did last week, but it remains unclear whether he’ll be cleared to be active for Week 14. Offensive lineman James Hurst (back) continues to be limited after both he and head coach John Harbaugh expressed hope earlier this week for his potential return after a six-game absence.

Below is Thursday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: WR John Brown (non-injury), CB Marlon Humphrey (groin), S Tony Jefferson (ankle), G Alex Lewis (shoulder)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: QB Joe Flacco (right hip), OT James Hurst (back), DB Anthony Levine (ankle), CB Tavon Young (groin)
FULL PARTICIPATION: WR Michael Crabtree (non-injury), LB Tim Williams (ankle), S Eric Weddle (non-injury), G Marshal Yanda (non-injury)

KANSAS CITY
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: TE Demetrius Harris (illness/knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: S Eric Berry (heel), WR Sammy Watkins (foot)
FULL PARTICIPATION: LB Anthony Hitchens (quadriceps/rib)

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Time has come for Ravens to embrace the weirdness

Posted on 03 December 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens are weird.

Very weird.

There’s nothing conventional about possessing the ball for more than 24 minutes in the second half or running nearly twice as often as you pass in today’s NFL. You don’t plan for your punter to make the best throw of the day or your starting quarterback to fumble three times and pass for 125 yards in your biggest road game of the season to date.

But that all happened as the Ravens won — again.

Nothing about this is ideal, nor should it be viewed as any kind of long-term blueprint for talented rookie Lamar Jackson, who is an electric runner with a long way to go to become an all-around franchise quarterback. To be clear, that’s to be expected after only three starts, but his athleticism and upside cannot dismiss concerns about ball security, a shortage of plays in the passing game, inconsistent mechanics and accuracy, and not doing the little things such as throwing the ball away instead of taking a loss. If nothing else, we can all agree Jackson running more often than he passes is not a recipe for keeping him healthy for the long haul, a reality that shouldn’t be completely ignored in the present.

In a perfect world, a healthy Joe Flacco would be under center as the Ravens make their December push for the playoffs. The 33-year-old would have a strong running game in the conventional sense, a stout and healthy offensive line, and wide receivers who consistently gain separation and catch the football to allow him to potentially channel past postseason success.

But that’s not reality, which is why Jackson’s skill set is the better fit for what the Ravens have become over the last three weeks in which they’ve gone from a 4-5 team circling the drain to one holding the No. 6 spot in the AFC and just a half-game behind Pittsburgh in the AFC North. A healthy Flacco and a more conventional offense may have also won three straight against struggling teams, but we can’t say that for sure, making it a difficult sell to a rejuvenated locker room that you’re just going to pivot back toward the hypothetical.

Perhaps the rise of Gus Edwards and bye-week adjustments would have led to a better running game with Flacco at quarterback than what we saw with running back Alex Collins over the first half of the season, but we’ve watched the Ravens rush for a remarkable 716 yards over the last three weeks with Jackson’s speed putting incredible pressure on opposing run defenses. Baltimore ran for just 834 yards over its first nine games, and no one could objectively argue that the ground game would be as explosive with an immobile quarterback on the field these last three weeks.

That’s more of a knock on the front office and coaching staff for not being able to field a productive running game by conventional measures, but here we are going into Week 14. Giving yourself the best chance to win in December isn’t about what’s fair to any individual player — even one who won you a Super Bowl several years ago.

It’s time to embrace the weirdness and let it ride in a way similar to how Brian Billick embraced “the dark side” on the way to an eventual Super Bowl win 18 years ago. As head coach John Harbaugh said after Sunday’s 26-16 win in Atlanta, no one really knows exactly where this is going, which should make it fun.

Perhaps the best way to describe what the Ravens have become is a warped version of that 2000 team. This defense doesn’t compare to that historic unit, of course, but holding the league’s 11th-ranked scoring offense to 131 yards and nine points — Jackson’s second fumble resulted in the other Falcons touchdown — was a terrific road performance. No one is ready to confuse Edwards with a young Jamal Lewis, but the rookie free agent’s 5.0 yards per carry and physical style have been a godsend. And if Jackson can limit the turnovers, he at least represents a much more athletic version of Trent Dilfer for now.

None of that is to suggest the Ravens fit the profile of a team poised to make a deep run in January. They might lose by three touchdowns in Kansas City this Sunday, but you could have said the same about the struggling team we saw before the bye week. The Ravens’ best chance — even if still not a good one — is to play keep-away from Patrick Mahomes and the high-powered Chiefs offense while hoping their own offense becomes more efficient inside the opponent’s 30, something that remains a pressing concern.

Unforeseen circumstances have led to the Ravens discovering a nightmare-inducing running game that’s allowed them to dominate the time of possession, proving the opportunity for the defense to be fresher late in games. The Chiefs will offer the ultimate test as we continue to wonder how long this approach can be sustained. A disastrous performance could lead to reassessing — especially if Flacco is fully healthy and looks good in practice — but we said the same thing last week before Baltimore recorded only its second December road win in the last four years.

There will be plenty of time to debate what Jackson will ultimately become, but keeping him on the field does add the long-term benefit of him gaining experience while the Ravens try to “weird” their way to the playoffs for the first time in four years.

It’s time to just go with it and enjoy the ride.

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Ravens place Collins on IR, activate running back Dixon

Posted on 01 December 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens have made a substantial change to their backfield depth ahead of Sunday’s game at Atlanta.

Former starting running back Alex Collins has been placed on injured reserve to make room for the activation of running back Kenneth Dixon, who had been on IR since suffering a knee injury in the Week 1 win over Buffalo. Dixon was designated to return to practice two weeks ago and is in line to play in just his second game in the last two seasons as Baltimore aims for its third straight win against the Falcons in Week 13.

Collins was listed as a full participant in Friday’s practice, but the third-year back had been dealing with a foot injury since before the bye week and was deactivated for last week’s win over Oakland. Despite rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson’s dramatic impact on the running game, Collins rushed for just 18 yards on seven carries against Cincinnati two weeks ago while rookie Gus Edwards impressively ran for 115 yards to all but officially win the starting job moving forward.

“It’s just day-to-day with Alex right now as far as I know,” head coach John Harbaugh said on Wednesday. “That’s where we’re at with that.”

One of the feel-good stories of 2017 after emerging from the practice squad to rush for 973 yards and average 4.6 yards per carry, Collins never got on track this season as he averaged 3.6 yards per carry despite a team-high eight touchdowns. He will be a restricted free agent, leaving the Ravens with an interesting decision in an offseason expected to bring substantial changes to the roster.

A 2016 fourth-round pick out of Louisiana Tech, the talented Dixon has seen the start of his NFL career derailed by injuries and off-field issues. After running for 382 yards and averaging 4.3 yards per carry in 12 games as a rookie, Dixon missed the entire 2017 season with a knee injury and also served two drug-related suspensions. He rushed for 44 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries in the 2018 opener against Buffalo before hurting his knee and being placed on IR a few days later.

With Edwards and veteran Ty Montgomery recently emerging as a formidable 1-2 punch in Baltimore’s revamped rushing attack, Dixon will need to stay healthy to provide viable depth in a running back group that also includes Buck Allen.

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