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Flacco not thinking about contract during rehab process

Posted on 04 January 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — It will be anything but a normal offseason for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco as he prepares for his ninth season in Baltimore.

Currently rehabbing his surgically-repaired left knee, Flacco knows his contract will be a hot topic for discussion as he enters the fourth season of a six-year, $120.6 million agreement signed just a few weeks after winning Super Bowl XLVII. General manager Ozzie Newsome and Flacco’s agent, Joe Linta, negotiated the deal in the winter of 2013 with the understanding that it would be revisited after he earned a total of $62 million over the first three years.

“I haven’t thought about it too much,” Flacco said. “I know that it’s obviously out there, and it’s probably going to be somewhat of an issue. I guess I haven’t thought about it too much, haven’t talked to anybody about it. I do know that it’s sitting there.”

Flacco is set to carry a $28.55 million salary cap figure for the 2016 season, which is close to the total cap space he accounted for in 2014 ($14.8 million) and 2015 ($14.55 million) combined. With the Ravens trying to address a plethora of needs in the aftermath of their first losing season since 2007, restructuring the deal to level off his future cap figures is a must.

A renegotiation won’t solve all of the Ravens’ cap woes as the realistic scenario is adjusting his cap numbers closer to the $20.1 million average annual value of the original deal. With Flacco scheduled to make base salaries of $18 million in 2016, $20.6 million in 2017, and $20 million in 2018 — his cap figures are $31.15 million in 2017 and $24.75 million in 2018 — the Ravens will likely attempt to turn a large portion of those scheduled salaries into a bonus while tacking on two or three additional years and more money to the contract.

But Flacco says he will leave the details up to the Ravens and Linta with a realistic deadline of early March to get something worked out before the new league years begins and teams must be under the cap.

“The first few years of my deal, the cap number wasn’t very big, so you don’t really have any other way around it [but] to have a monster one at the end of it,” Flacco said. “You know it’s coming unless the salary cap makes some kind of enormous jump, but it’s really kind of out of my control. It’s just an issue that these guys are used to dealing with day in and day out.”

Head coach John Harbaugh has said that Flacco is expected to be 100 percent for the start of training camp in late July, but he hasn’t been given any definitive timetable as he continues to rehab on a daily basis. Flacco tore the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee in the closing moments of Baltimore’s Nov. 22 win over St. Louis.

Turning 31 later this month, Flacco had not missed a game in his career before missing the final six weeks of a 5-11 season.

“By August, I’ll be like eight months out of surgery,” Flacco said. “I don’t know what the timeline is on these things, but I’m in there doing the work. I’m expecting I’ll be ready to go. I really have no idea though.”

Monroe not dwelling on future

Many have speculated about the future of Eugene Monroe, but the left tackle isn’t focusing on whether he’ll be back for the third season of a five-year, $37.5 million contract that included $17.5 million guaranteed.

“That’s not something I’m concerned with at all,” said Monroe, who has started just 17 of the Ravens’ last 34 games counting the postseason. “I’m focused on getting healthy and getting back to ball.”

After missing action due to knee surgery and an ankle injury in 2014, Monroe missed three games with a concussion at the beginning of the season and six more contests with a shoulder injury that eventually required season-ending surgery last month. Starting left guard Kelechi Osemele moved to left tackle for the final four games of the season, and many believe he played well enough for the Ravens to consider re-signing him to play the position permanently and releasing Monroe.

A 2009 first-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Monroe had missed just four games in his first five NFL seasons and is scheduled to make $6.5 million in base salary and carry an $8.7 million cap figure next year.

“Frustration isn’t going to do me any good,” Monroe said. “No one likes to be hurt and not on the field, but it is what it is, and I’ve had some things happen that just were unfortunate. But I’ll make sure I continue to work my ass off and continue to get better.”

Ravens sign seven players

With the 2015 regular season over, the Ravens signed seven players to reserve-future contracts, which will allow them to be with the organization during the offseason and to compete for roster spots during training camp and the preseason.

The list includes linebacker Brennen Beyer, guard Leon Brown, defensive end Nordly Capi, offensive tackle Blaine Clausell, wide receiver Chuck Jacobs, safety Nick Perry, and tight end Harold Spears, who all spent time on the Baltimore practice squad this season.

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Tough part now begins trying to improve undermanned Ravens

Posted on 03 January 2016 by Luke Jones

The 2015 season is finally over for the Ravens.

Fourteen of their 16 games were decided by a single possession.

Twenty-one players finished the season on injured reserve or on the physically unable to perform list. That list included eight starters as well as 2015 first-round receiver Breshad Perriman.

Head coach John Harbaugh still called it one of his most rewarding seasons with the way his players and coaches continued to fight and show heart every week, but all of this only clouds the truth about one of the most disappointing years in the history of the franchise.

Despite plenty of preseason love, the Ravens lacked the dynamic playmakers to be a serious contender this year.

That reality was apparent before the laundry list of injuries decimated the Ravens to the point that you needed a roster sheet handy just to follow the final weeks of action. Remember that other than outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and Perriman, an unproven rookie who was the only plan for replacing speedy receiver Torrey Smith, the Ravens were still a relatively-healthy football team when they entered Week 8 with a 1-6 record and their season all but shot.

And this is where general manager Ozzie Newsome could face more scrutiny this offseason than at any point during his 20 mostly-brilliant years in Baltimore.

It will be interesting to see where owner Steve Bisciotti directs his disappointment when the Ravens brass meets with the media to discuss the 2015 season and what lies ahead. While coaches and players have faced the music on a weekly basis and must shoulder their part of the blame, it’s difficult to win consistently without dynamic, game-changing players on either side of the football.

The Ravens simply lacked the speed and big-play talent at crucial positions such as wide receiver, edge rusher, and in the secondary to win in the modern NFL.

Ultimately, Newsome is responsible for putting together the roster. Many factors brought the Ravens to this point with some of those out of the general manager’s control but others falling directly on his shoulders.

To be clear, the Ravens don’t need to overhaul their entire roster as they have some good players on both sides of the ball, but they lack the special ones for which the opposition game-plans on a weekly basis in the way Cincinnati’s A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert showed on Sunday. With injured franchise quarterback Joe Flacco expected to be ready for training camp and Harbaugh showing commendable leadership in keeping the locker room together during an 11-loss season, the Ravens are in a much better position than many non-playoff teams, but they will need a strong offseason to return to the playoffs next season.

Baltimore has multiple needs including finding a ball-hawking defensive back, bolstering the pass rush, adding more speed to the wide receiver position, and potentially making their latest change at left tackle.

Choosing sixth overall in the 2016 draft should certainly help, but Newsome and the rest of the front office need to take a long look at the way they’ve done things in recent years as there were many falling dominoes that led to such a disappointing season. Recent draft history, bad contracts, and too much reliance on unproven players were all factors contributing to a 5-11 season before it ever began.

There’s been too little emphasis on speed at multiple positions, and Newsome hasn’t put enough talent around a quarterback who’s in his prime and has already proven he can win a championship with a good — not necessarily great — supporting cast around him.

Harbaugh has answered questions all year, but Newsome hasn’t addressed the media since the final day of the draft, which will make his first public comments about the 2015 season highly anticipated. Changes to the coaching staff could be coming, but improving personnel will be far more important to the Ravens’ fate in 2016 and beyond.

Injuries, questionable officiating, and tough breaks in close games may have contributed to a 5-11 record, but this was a flawed team from the start and not the Super Bowl contender that the Ravens — or outsiders — thought it was. You just hope the decision-makers acknowledge as much instead of using injuries as the primary excuse or trying to shift too much blame to Harbaugh, his coaches, and current players.

It may not have been easy watching the Ravens play out the string, but now the tough part begins.

Fixing a football team with a plethora of needs.

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Aiken holds chance to reach rare company on Sunday

Posted on 02 January 2016 by Luke Jones

A forgettable 2015 season for the Ravens has been anything but that for wide receiver Kamar Aiken.

In a starting offense that’s lost six Week 1 starters and first-round receiver Breshad Perriman to season-ending injuries, Aiken has quietly produced one of the better receiving seasons in franchise history. And with 132 receiving yards in Sunday’s season finale against Cincinnati, the 26-year-old Aiken would produce the 12th 1,000-yard receiving season in the 20-year history of the franchise.

Only six Ravens players — Derrick Mason (four times), Qadry Ismail (twice), Derrick Alexander (twice), Steve Smith, Torrey Smith, and Michael Jackson — have earned the achievement in an underwhelming history for the Ravens at the receiver position. Even if Aiken became the last man standing to which quarterbacks could confidently throw — four different signal-callers have started over the last six games — he’s firmly established himself as a legitimate possession receiver with 51 receptions for 597 yards and three touchdowns over his last eight games.

After being held without a catch — the only time all season — against the Bengals in Week 3, the 6-foot-2 receiver would like nothing more than to have the career-best performance needed to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark.

“It’d be big just to get it because you never know when you’re going to get another chance to get that close,” Aiken said. “Tomorrow’s not promised; that next down isn’t promised, so it’d be big from that standpoint. I’m going to do everything I can to possibly get it if I can, and that’s all I can do about it.”

In a season lacking continuity on the offensive side of the ball due to injuries, Aiken can set a franchise record if he can make five catches on Sunday, which would give him nine consecutive games reaching that plateau. He’s currently tied with Mason, who caught at least five passes in eight straight contests in 2007.

With the Ravens lacking another established receiver down the stretch, Aiken has likely seen more targets than he would have in a more prolific offense, but he’s caught 61.4 percent of his 114 targets, which isn’t far behind Steve Smith’s 63 percent before his Achilles injury on Nov. 1. Unlike his veteran teammate, however, Aiken has had to adapt to playing with Matt Schaub, Jimmy Clausen, and Ryan Mallett after starting quarterback Joe Flacco was lost for the season in late November.

Head coach John Harbaugh has also praised his toughness and durability as many liken Aiken’s qualities and skill set to those of Anquan Boldin, who never had more than 921 receiving yards in any of his three seasons with Baltimore.

“He has been hit in the head more times probably than any receiver in the league, and it hasn’t been called,” Harbaugh said. ” He doesn’t get protected. He bounces back up and he’s back out there, and he shows up the next week. It’s just impressive what he has done this year, and I’m proud of him.”

In the most frustrating season in franchise history, Harbaugh and the Ravens can certainly appreciate the example and production that Aiken has offered.

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Ravens-Bengals: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 02 January 2016 by Luke Jones

For the first time since Super Bowl XLVII, the Ravens enter a game knowing it will be their last one of a season.

Their playoff hopes may have been all but crushed by Halloween, but John Harbaugh and his team have looked toward the future and believe they’re already laying the groundwork for the 2016 season despite 20 players — eight of them starters — currently residing on injured reserve. Last Sunday’s 20-17 upset win over Pittsburgh served as their version of a Super Bowl in Baltimore’s first season with double-digit losses since 2007.

Of course, a number of Ravens could be playing their final game with the franchise on Sunday as offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele, linebacker Courtney Upshaw, and kicker Justin Tucker headline a list of pending free agents this offseason. Specifics remain cloudy, but Baltimore will undergo a number of changes this winter in an effort to bounce back from the first losing season of the Harbaugh era.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens play Cincinnati for the 40th time in franchise history and own a 20-19 mark. Baltimore has lost four straight and five of the last six to the Bengals, who are trying to clinch a first-round bye with a win and a Denver loss.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to wrap a disappointing 2015 season on a high note with back-to-back wins over Pittsburgh and Cincinnati …

1. Ryan Mallett will come back down to earth after a surprising Ravens debut. I still can’t quite believe how easy it looked for the quarterback against the Steelers as he made good decisions and commanded the huddle less than two weeks after being signed. That said, Mallett was playing at home and against a defense inferior to the one he’ll see this week. The Bengals are effective disguising their blitzes and coverages before the snap, which will result in choppier results from the Baltimore offense playing in a hostile environment. Mallett showed against Pittsburgh why the Ravens envision him as their 2016 backup to Joe Flacco, but he’ll make more mistakes and turn it over twice in his second start.

2. The Ravens secondary will not hold down A.J. Green like it did against Antonio Brown. Asked how to stop the Bengals’ five-time Pro Bowl receiver, defensive coordinator Dean Pees joked, “Make him inactive.” The Ravens threw everything but the kitchen sink at Brown in coverage last week and held him to seven catches for 61 yards, but Green is a different player because of his 6-foot-4 frame. It will be interesting to see if Jimmy Smith shadows Green, but the cornerback had one of his worst games of the season against him in Week 3. Green’s recent numbers have been stunted with AJ McCarron starting, but that will change as he goes over 100 receiving yards and catches a touchdown.

3. Maxx Williams will finish with the best game of his rookie season. It’s been a quiet year for the second-round pick, but his 26 catches for 215 yards and a touchdown have outdone the likes of Todd Heap, Dennis Pitta, and Crockett Gillmore in their respective rookie years. The 21-year-old needs to mature physically and improve his agility and quickness this offseason, but he’s been targeted 10 times over the last two games and should have an advantage when matched up against Cincinnati’s coverage-challenged linebackers. With the Bengals strong in the secondary, Mallett will look Williams’ way over the middle portion of the field and he’ll catch a touchdown and surpass 50 receiving yards.

4. Giovani Bernard and Buck Allen will each catch touchdown passes against linebackers who struggle in coverage. McCarron and Mallett will see check-downs to their backs as their best friend. Daryl Smith and C.J. Mosley have both struggled against the pass this year, so look for the Ravens to again use Zach Orr in some obvious passing situations in an effort to slow Bernard out of the backfield. Meanwhile, the Bengals’ trio of A.J. Hawk, Rey Maualuga, and Vontaze Burfict simply lack the athleticism to cover, which should create some open space for Allen. Neither quarterback will put up big-time numbers, but their running backs will help in moving the ball through the air.

5. The Ravens will conclude the 2015 season with a 24-17 loss, their 14th game decided by one possession. You couldn’t help but be impressed by the way Baltimore played against its arch rival in Week 16, but the Bengals are a more balanced team than Pittsburgh and have something to play for in the regular-season finale. The Ravens will compete despite their personnel deficiencies and misfortune, but I just can’t see Mallett playing at such a high level again on the road and against a better defense that’s given Flacco problems over the years. Ultimately, a couple crucial mistakes will be the difference as Baltimore is left wondering what might have been in the final game of a lost season.

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Yanda named 2015 Ravens MVP by local media

Posted on 30 December 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Rarely is an offensive lineman ever discussed as an NFL team’s most valuable player, but the 2015 season has been anything but typical for the Ravens.

With 20 players currently on injured reserve and suffering their first losing season of the John Harbaugh era, the Ravens have leaned on the offensive leadership of five-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda, who was voted team MVP by local media on Wednesday. In his ninth season, Yanda is the first offensive lineman to receive the annual award introduced in 2003.

“[It’s just] the attitude of offensive linemen, just the daily grind of the guy that doesn’t get the recognition, which that’s fine with me,” Yanda said. “I’ve always been the guy that I’m happy to be out there and playing in the NFL and being able to compete with the best in the world. I’m happy with being out there and to say that I can stand out there with those men.

“It’s neat to be recognized, but it’s one of those things where I’ve always been happy and relished the opportunity to play in the NFL.”

Signed to a four-year extension through 2019 earlier this season and named to his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl last week, Yanda has been graded by Pro Football Focus as the top guard in the NFL and has been viewed by many as the best at his position for a few years now. He is just one of six players in the 20-year history of the Ravens to be named to five Pro Bowls as members of the organization.

Durability has been considered one of Yanda’s biggest strengths as he’s missed only two games since missing much of the 2008 season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The 2007 third-round pick out of Iowa has also played right tackle on more than one occasion in his career including last year’s postseason.

“I feel like football is a sport where it’s not if you get hurt, but when,” Yanda said. “You’re going to get hurt no matter what in this business. It’s part of having to play through injuries, because your team needs you and because they need production out of you. You owe it to the guy next to you. I owe it to Joe [Flacco] to be out there and do my job to keep him clean.”

The local media also voted cornerback Jimmy Smith as the winner of the Good Guy Award, an honor bestowed upon a Ravens player who has been particularly helpful in granting interviews and being accessible to reporters.

Below are past winners with the MVP listed first and the Good Guy Award winner second:

2003: Jamal Lewis, Gary Baxter
2004: Ed Reed, Anthony Weaver
2005: Adalius Thomas, Jamal Lewis
2006: Steve McNair, Bart Scott
2007: Willis McGahee, Derrick Mason
2008: Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs
2009: Ray Rice, Jarret Johnson
2010: Haloti Ngata, Chris Carr
2011: Ray Rice, Bernard Pollard
2012: Ray Rice, Arthur Jones
2013: Justin Tucker, Joe Flacco
2014: Justin Forsett, Torrey Smith

Flacco remains on track for training camp

Head coach John Harbaugh reiterated Wednesday that he expects Flacco to be ready for training camp as he continues to rehab his surgically-repaired left knee.

A CBS Sports report recently said that Flacco is already riding a stationary bike, and the 30-year-old has been seen walking around the Ravens’ training facility with minimal use of crutches after undergoing surgery earlier this month. The Super Bowl XLVII MVP had never missed a game in his NFL career prior to tearing his ACL in a win over St. Louis on Nov. 22.

“I guess you never say never, but everything I’ve been told is he’s going to be ready for training camp — 100 percent ready to go,” Harbaugh said. “The key with all these injuries is that they get the most out of every day, but there’s never a setback. If you don’t have a setback, then it should be fine.”

More than steak

After having a 101-yard interception return for a touchdown wiped away due to Courtney Upshaw’s offside penalty, Smith quipped after Sunday’s win over Pittsburgh that he expected a steak dinner to make up for it.

Now, the fifth-year cornerback expects more from his teammate.

“After I re-watched the play, I think I needed more,” said Smith as he smiled. “That type of play is the play that every corner always dreams of. That’s the first time that’s ever happened for me. Even in practice, that’s never happened. I don’t know what I want. Maybe some new rims for my car — I don’t know.”

Wednesday’s injury report

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Elvis Dumervil (non-injury), FB Kyle Juszczyk (illness), LB Albert McClellan (ankle)

CINCINNATI
OUT: QB Andy Dalton (right thumb)
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: RB Ryan Hewitt (knee/illness)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: DE Carlos Dunlap (hamstring), S George Iloka (groin), WR Marvin Jones (hamstring), QB AJ McCarron (left wrist)
FULL PARTICIPATION: TE Tyler Eifert (concussion)

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Eagles job “not even part of the conversation” for Harbaugh

Posted on 30 December 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — From the moment that Philadelphia announced the dismissal of head coach Chip Kelly on Tuesday, some Eagles fans and media mentioned John Harbaugh as a potential replacement.

Under contract through 2017, the Ravens head coach quickly dismissed any notion that he’d entertain the thought of returning to Philadelphia, where he spent a decade as a special teams coordinator and defensive backs coach.

“Is it flattering to be talked about on Philly talk radio? Usually not,” said Harbaugh as he laughed. “No, it’s not even part of the conversation. I hope [the talk is] flattering.”

Though in the midst of the only losing season of his eight-year run in Baltimore, Harbaugh has been praised for his ability to keep the locker room united and to motivate his players in continuing to play hard after a 1-6 start and a slew of injuries to key players.

Asked once again whether he would consider interest from the Eagles after Baltimore’s season concludes against Cincinnati on Sunday, the 53-year-old made it clear that he doesn’t expect to go anywhere.

“No, it won’t be part of the conversation,” Harbaugh said.

The Ravens practiced for three days with the Eagles in Philadelphia in August ahead of their preseason game at Lincoln Financial Field. This marks the second straight year that they’ve practiced with a team that dismissed their head coach later in the same season after Jim Harbaugh parted ways with San Francisco at the end of 2014.

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Ravens thoughts on winning vs. draft pick, 2016 opponents, more

Posted on 29 December 2015 by Luke Jones

The Ravens took great satisfaction in sweeping the Pittsburgh Steelers and putting their playoff hopes in serious danger, but the 20-17 win didn’t do any favors to Baltimore’s 2016 draft positioning.

Entering Week 16 holding the third overall pick in the first round of next year’s draft, the Ravens dropped all the way to eighth after pulling off one of the biggest upsets in franchise history. And it only added more fuel to the ongoing debate over whether it’s better for the Ravens to win now or to lose with an eye toward April.

To be clear once again, this isn’t a question of whether the Ravens themselves should be trying to win. The sheer number of injuries they’ve suffered has already cut John Harbaugh’s team off at the knees in the second half of the season, but many players and coaches are still fighting for their jobs and their efforts were rewarded on Sunday by completing the third season sweep of Pittsburgh in team history.

This also isn’t about the pointless debate of what it means to be a “true” fan, a concept that sounds elitist and is impossible to define. It’s perfectly acceptable to root for the instant gratification that the Ravens experienced against the Steelers on Sunday or to be thinking about the future of your favorite team and wanting a larger talent pool from which general manager Ozzie Newsome can choose in every round of this spring’s draft.

Ultimately, fans want to see their team win every Sunday and also win championships, right?

Harbaugh as well as some media and fans have spoken about the value of finishing the season on a high note, but that’s difficult to quantify when you’re considering the patchwork roster currently playing and how many of those players will either be gone or will have diminished roles next season. Winning these final two games would provide a short-term emotional boost, but that doesn’t equate to success in 2016 without some marked upgrades to the roster.

What isn’t as difficult to quantify, however, is how many draft prospects will be unavailable to the Ravens over the course of a seven-round draft should they finish 6-10 as opposed to 5-11 or 4-12. And that’s where the win over Pittsburgh followed by a potential upset at Cincinnati would leave fans with a hollow feeling in the offseason.

Even with potential wins over the Steelers and the Bengals to wrap the season, Baltimore will still be sitting at home watching the playoffs like the rest of us next week.

Good players can be found in every round of the draft if your talent evaluation is sound and you have some luck along the way. You can whiff picking at any spot in the draft, but you are improving the chances of landing better players the earlier you select.

It’s true that a better draft pick won’t guarantee that the Ravens land a future Pro Bowl player, but you won’t convince me that winning games when you’re playing out the string is all that valuable to the future, either. This is the equivalent of September baseball for a losing club, something Orioles manager Buck Showalter always warns can fool you when evaluating players.

The reality lies somewhere in between. It’s perfectly acceptable to be happy with a win over the Steelers, but you can also choose not to be distraught if the Ravens lose to the Bengals to wrap up the season. And I won’t accuse you of not being a “true” fan no matter what.

Brown done?

It was two years ago Tuesday when wide receiver Marlon Brown caught his seventh touchdown of his rookie season in a season-ending loss at Cincinnati.

Despite the Ravens missing the playoffs at 8-8 a year after winning the Super Bowl, the rookie free agent out of Georgia was one of the bright spots of 2013 and caught 49 passes for 524 yards. Since then, however, Brown has made just 38 receptions for 367 yards and no touchdowns in 24 games.

“Marlon is one of my favorite guys, and he works really hard at it, has a great attitude and, to my eyes, is very talented,” Harbaugh said. “But it just hasn’t worked in the last two years like we all expected after his rookie year, especially how Marlon expected to continue to improve. It’s going to be a really important offseason for him, and it’s going to be a critical season for him when he comes back.”

Brown’s back injury that cost him the final six games of 2015 doesn’t mask the disappointing of his last two seasons. And with the 6-foot-5 wideout scheduled to become a restricted free agent this winter, you wonder if he’s played his final game with the Ravens.

It’s remarkable to think that Brown was catching touchdowns for the Ravens two years ago while Kamar Aiken was on the practice squad and to see how different their careers have gone since then.

2016 opponents

Having clinched third place in the AFC North on Sunday, the Ravens officially learned their full slate of opponents for the 2016 season. The schedule itself is typically released in late April.

Below is a look at those opponents:

HOME: Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Miami, Philadelphia, Washington, Oakland
AWAY: Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, New England, New York Jets, Dallas, New York Giants, Jacksonville

It’s too soon to know what the Ravens or any of these opponents will look like from a talent standpoint  — only five of their 13 opponents in 2016 enter Week 17 with a winning record — but the travel schedule will lighten considerably with just one game (Dallas) played outside the Eastern time zone. After the Ravens played four games out west in the first seven weeks of the 2015 season, that should be a pleasant change as they try to bounce back from the first losing season of the Harbaugh era.

Good shape at guard

It remains to be seen what the Ravens will do at left tackle moving forward, but the last couple weeks make you think that the interior offensive line will be in good shape without Kelechi Osemele.

The organization has long been confident in John Urschel’s ability to play guard, but 2013 sixth-round pick Ryan Jensen has improved substantially over the last couple weeks and earned high marks for his blocking against Pittsburgh on Sunday. With starting center Jeremy Zuttah under contract for next season, the Ravens could elect to have Urschel and Jensen compete for the starting left guard spot in training camp.

Even if Osemele is re-signed, he won’t be playing left guard, but the Ravens should feel confident about their options to replace him.

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Ravens come out of Pittsburgh win in good health

Posted on 28 December 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — A day after the Ravens’ surprising win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, head coach John Harbaugh received a surprising revelation from head athletic trainer Mark Smith.

“Mark gave me the good news,” said Harbaugh on Monday. “‘There’s good news and good news: We won the game, and nobody is getting an MRI [the day after a game] for the first time all year.'”

In the final stretch of an injury-plagued 2015 season, the Ravens came out of Sunday’s game without any substantial injury concerns, a rarity in what is typically a physical game with their biggest rival. Wide receiver Kamar Aiken was the only player noticeably shaken up during the 20-17 win, but his hand injury was not deemed serious before he returned to the game.

On Monday, Harbaugh did offer clarity on the status of wide receiver Marlon Brown, who missed his fifth consecutive game with a back injury and will not play against Cincinnati in the season finale.

“His back has just not responded,” said Harbaugh, who wasn’t sure why general manager Ozzie Newsome didn’t put Brown on injured reserve a couple weeks ago. “He’s had back spasms, then they found — I don’t know what it was exactly, whether it was a little bit of a disc issue or something in there.

“They kept trying to get him back. And then about two weeks ago, I could just tell he wasn’t going to get back, so I kind of gave up hope, and I think he did, too. He just knew it wasn’t responding.”

Brown is a restricted free agent at the end of the season, making it possible that he’s played his final game with the Ravens. After catching 49 passes for 524 yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie, Brown has caught just 38 passes for 367 yards and no touchdowns in his last two seasons combined.

Harbaugh also confirmed left tackle Eugene Monroe underwent shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum. Monroe was placed on season-ending IR earlier this month and played in only six games this season.

“I think it’s a pretty quick recovery,” Harbaugh said. “It shouldn’t be an issue from what I understand.”

TV CHANGE: Originally scheduled to be televised on CBS, Sunday’s Baltimore-Cincinnati game will instead be shown on FOX at 1 p.m. after it was cross-flexed by the NFL on Monday.

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Mallett shows why Ravens were so eager to play him

Posted on 28 December 2015 by Luke Jones

It was a baptism by fire starting their fourth quarterback in six weeks against their biggest rival on Sunday, but the Ravens clearly wanted to see what Ryan Mallett could do.

Less than two weeks after being signed, the talented but troubled quarterback responded with the biggest game of his NFL career and made his mark in Ravens lore by completing a season sweep of the Pittsburgh Steelers and putting their playoff hopes in serious jeopardy.

“I know what it’s about now. I like it,” said Mallett after the 20-17 upset victory. “What Steve Smith said, ‘big-boy football,’ right?”

There is no quarterback controversy in Baltimore for 2016, but Mallett showed exactly why the Ravens envision him being their backup to a healthy Joe Flacco. Possessing a strong arm and a 6-foot-6 frame, the 27-year-old is similar to Flacco physically, which is what you’re typically looking for in a backup quarterback.

It was apparent from the beginning of Sunday’s game that Mallett is more talented than Matt Schaub or Jimmy Clausen, but the 2011 third-round pick also played smart football and didn’t look like someone with less than two weeks working in offensive coordinator Marc Trestman’s system.

Mallett turned in the first turnover-free performance by a Ravens quarterback since Nov. 1, a stretch that included Flacco’s final two starts of 2015.

“To operate the way he did, change plays at the line the way he did, I think it says a lot about him, but it says a lot about our coaches as well,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “Just a great effort. This kid was in there 24-7. This kid was in the staff meetings at night.”

Mallett has made an excellent first impression with his new team, but he must continue to show that the concerns about his maturity and commitment that led to his demise in Houston are behind him for good. Showing ability and fire that inspired his teammates on Sunday, Mallett should benefit from working with the even-keeled Flacco in the coming months.

With quality quarterback play at a premium around the NFL, you can’t ask for much more than Mallett offered on Sunday as he threw for a career-high 274 yards, completed 68.3 percent of his passes, and threw a touchdown pass on his opening drive. A quality backup effectively runs your offense and gives you a solid chance to win some games with your regular supporting cast when the starter is out for a short period of time.

Mallett more than looked that part on Sunday.

“I want to thank the Ravens organization for bringing me in and giving me a shot and giving me a workout and coach Harbaugh,” Mallett said. “Just being here, I don’t even know what to say right now. It’s an emotional time, but it’s fun.”

Allen bounces back

After being benched for losing a fumble for the second straight game last week, rookie running back Buck Allen bounced back with one of his best performances of the year as he collected 114 yards from scrimmage and the first rushing touchdown of his NFL career against Pittsburgh.

His six carries for 26 yards over the final 6:24 of the fourth quarter don’t jump out on the stat sheet, but that sequence proved the Ravens hadn’t lost confidence in Allen from a ball security standpoint while only holding a three-point lead. The fourth-round rookie didn’t disappoint as he protected the ball against a Steelers front that was desperate for a turnover.

“Last week hurt to go out there and fumble and change the momentum of the game,” Allen said. “That’s all on me — nobody’s fault but mine and I took full responsibility. I knew coming into this game that I couldn’t make that mistake. The coaching staff believed in me and kept feeding me the ball. I just want to thank them for doing that.”

Upshaw redemption

Courtney Upshaw’s offside penalty that wiped away Jimmy Smith’s 101-yard interception return for a touchdown felt like it would be the turning point and the latest misfortune in a lost season.

But the outside linebacker responded emphatically on the following drive by sacking Ben Roethlisberger to set up a second-and-long situation and then hit the Steelers quarterback again on the fourth-down incompletion that ended Pittsburgh’s last real drive. Upshaw said he still owed Smith after the game, but his pressure prevented Roethlisberger from orchestrating his late-game magic.

“That’s just how you do it. I was on the bench, and I was like ‘I’ve got to make up for that,'” Upshaw said. ” I had the opportunity to go in and apply some kind of pressure. I ended up getting a sack — me and [Elvis Dumervil] — and then on that last one, get a hit on Ben. At the end of the day, we come out here and we try to fight for the win together.”

Mallett to… Matthews?

It wasn’t as synonymous with Ravens football as Flacco to Steve Smith, but Mallett’s run in Baltimore officially began with a pretty touchdown pass to… Chris Matthews?

The little-used receiver who earned fame for a 100-yard performance with Seattle in last year’s Super Bowl caught the first regular-season touchdown pass of his NFL career to put the Ravens on the board in the first quarter. Matthews was promoted from the practice squad to the 53-man roster on Dec. 12 and had just two receptions for 27 yards in his first two games with Baltimore.

“We were just looking for a certain defense,” Matthews said. “They came out in that two-shell and we wanted to exploit it. I was the single man down the middle and I’m 6-foot-5, so you can’t really miss that. Ryan threw an amazing ball and I went up there and caught it.”

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Upset proves Ravens-Steelers rivalry not going anywhere

Posted on 27 December 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — After receiving a season’s worth of coal, the Ravens handed some to Pittsburgh two days after Christmas to put their playoff hopes in serious jeopardy.

The 20-17 victory over their arch rival doesn’t wipe away the disappointment of a lost year, but a season sweep and potentially knocking the Steelers out of the playoffs?

That sounds pretty sweet to the Ravens, especially when few gave them a chance against an offense that had scored 30 or more points in six straight games. And as much as they tried to downplay it during the week, the Ravens wanted nothing more than to prevent their AFC North counterpart from clinching a playoff berth at M&T Bank Stadium.

“If we can’t get in there, then you can’t get in, either,” cornerback Lardarius Webb said. “Exactly that’s how we want it.”

We know misery loves company, but Ravens fans have heard for years about “tainted” victories over the Steelers on several occasions when Ben Roethlisberger was out of the lineup. Pittsburgh fans taunted them when graybeard backup Charlie Batch led the Steelers to a December victory in Baltimore in 2012 — even if the Ravens still went on to win the Super Bowl two months later.

On Sunday, Pittsburgh was facing a Ravens team without quarterback Joe Flacco and 19 other players who were officially out for the season. And the Steelers lost to Baltimore’s fourth starting quarterback of the season as Ryan Mallett will now go down in rivalry lore, especially if the New York Jets win at Buffalo next week to officially knock Pittsburgh out of the playoffs.

Yes, the Ravens are still 5-10 and hurt their draft position with Sunday’s win, but simply holding a lead for four quarters — they had led at the conclusion of just 14 of 58 periods of play this season entering Week 16 — was a pleasant diversion in a frustrating season. The fact that it came against the Steelers made it that much sweeter.

“The lead is important. I think we had maybe 10 points on turnovers,” said head coach John Harbaugh, who directed the Ravens to the third season sweep of Pittsburgh in the 20-year history of the franchise. “We didn’t give up any points on turnovers. That’s winning football. That’s the way we want to play, and to me, that’s a blueprint for us going forward. Now we have to try to replicate that blueprint.”

What this win really means for the future is anyone’s guess. As impressive as Mallett’s performance was less than two weeks after signing a contract, the Ravens hope the Week 17 finale in Cincinnati will be the last time he’ll have to play if Flacco is healthy for the start of the 2016 season.

You hope that young players like Buck Allen and Za’Darius Smith learned valuable lessons from the upset victory, but many players involved in Sunday’s game are unlikely to be in the picture moving forward.

If nothing else, it was a fun three-hour diversion from a nightmare season. This time, the Ravens were able to create a nightmare for someone else.

“It definitely feels special today,” wide receiver Kamar Aiken said. “Keeping them out of the playoffs, and just being able to sweep them this year. They didn’t get a win this year. It’s always good when you beat Pittsburgh.”

Sunday’s upset reminded us that Ravens-Steelers isn’t going anywhere. It’s true that the rivalry has lost some luster in recent years, but how could it not with future Hall of Fame players like Ray Lewis and Hines Ward and Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu no longer in the picture?

As division rivals playing at least twice a year, the Ravens and Steelers have proven over and over again that anything can happen, regardless of what the numbers tell you before they meet. Counting the playoffs, Baltimore has won five of the last six games between these teams, but 12 of the 16 regular-season meetings in the Harbaugh era have been decided by three or fewer points.

With the Ravens long out of playoff contention, more Steelers fans than normal made their way into the stadium on Sunday, but that only challenged the home fans to be louder than they’d been all year, creating an atmosphere reminiscent of high-stakes meetings of the past.

It may no longer be the hottest matchup in the NFL, but Baltimore-Pittsburgh has become a legacy rivalry that will endure those rare times when one or both teams are down. The organizations are two of the best in the NFL, making a win over the other special no matter what their records might be in a given season.

The Ravens hope that Sunday’s win will be a springboard into better fortunes in 2016.

“To sweep Pittsburgh is a very valuable thing,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a very meaningful thing. And this team accomplished that. When you have failure in life, sometimes woven into the failure are great successes and great wins.”

And through that surprising Week 16 success, the Ravens could take joy in handing the Steelers some failure that could doom their own season.

Petty or not, that’s what a great rivalry is all about.

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