Tag Archive | "John Harbaugh"

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Ravens rule out cornerback Jimmy Smith for Pittsburgh

Posted on 23 December 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — If the Ravens are to extend their franchise-best four-game winning streak against their bitter rival and move closer to a division title, they’ll have to do it without their top cornerback on Christmas Day.

Jimmy Smith was officially declared out for Sunday’s AFC North showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers as he continues to recover from a sprained right ankle. The 28-year-old hasn’t practiced since injuring the ankle in the Week 14 loss at New England on Dec. 12 and missed last Sunday’s win over Philadelphia.

On Friday, Smith declined an interview request and was wearing a walking boot on his right foot as he left the Ravens locker room. His absence spells trouble against All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown and a Pittsburgh passing game ranking fifth in the NFL.

Though Baltimore has rarely used Smith to travel with Brown exclusively in past meetings, defensive coordinator Dean Pees will now be counting on the cornerback trio of rookie Tavon Young and veterans Shareece Wright and Jerraud Powers to contain one of the best receivers in the league.

“Jimmy is a different kind of mover than Antonio Brown, so it wouldn’t necessarily be the guy that you would match up with [him],” head coach John Harbaugh said. “You could in certain places and wherever you run certain routes, you would have to be really diligent about the details of that. We play a lot of zone coverage and man coverage. We mix our coverages up, so whether we did that or not would depend on the call and the situation.”

Brown recorded seven catches for 85 yards and a touchdown in Pittsburgh’s 21-14 loss to the Ravens on Nov. 6, but the 5-foot-10 receiver had just two receptions for nine yards until the fourth quarter when the Steelers already trailed 21-0. Baltimore has typically held him in check compared to his impressive success over the last five years, but most of those meetings included a healthy Smith in the defensive backfield.

In the two meetings with Pittsburgh that followed Smith’s season-ending foot injury in 2014, the Ravens allowed Brown to record a combined 20 catches for 261 yards and a touchdown.

Veteran wide receiver Steve Smith (thigh) was listed as questionable after being added to the injury report as a limited participant in Thursday’s practice, but he participated fully in Friday’s walk-through, leaving little doubt about his status for Sunday’s game.

The Ravens ruled out rookie linebacker Kamalei Correa (ribs) and listed defensive back Anthony Levine (toe), defensive end Brent Urban, and guard Alex Lewis (ankle) as questionable. Levine practiced on a limited basis all week while Lewis was a full participant in every practice.

The Steelers are dealing with several key injuries of their own as they officially listed tight end Ladarius Green (concussion) and wide receiver Sammie Coates (hamsring) as doubtful and designated starting defensive end Stephon Tuitt (knee) as questionable to play on Sunday. Tuitt did not practice all week after injuring his knee in last week’s win at Cincinnati.

Steelers safety Sharmarko Thomas was officially ruled out with a concussion.

The referee for Sunday’s game will be John Parry.

According to Weather.com, the Christmas Day forecast for Pittsburgh calls for partly cloudy skies with a high of 44 degrees and light winds reaching five miles per hour.

The Ravens will be wearing white jerseys with white pants for the first time this season while Pittsburgh dons its all-black “Color Rush” uniforms for the nationally-televised game on NFL Network.

Below is the final full injury report for the week:

BALTIMORE
OUT: LB Kamalei Correa (ribs), CB Jimmy Smith (ankle)
QUESTIONABLE: DB Anthony Levine (toe), G Alex Lewis (ankle), WR Steve Smith (thigh), DT Brent Urban (illness)

PITTSBURGH
OUT: S Shamarko Thomas (concussion)
DOUBTFUL: WR Sammie Coates (hamstring), TE Ladarius Green (concussion)
QUESTIONABLE: LB Anthony Chickillo (ankle), WR Darrius Heyward-Bey (foot), DE Ricardo Mathews (ankle), DE Stephon Tuitt (knee)

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“January Joe” needs to arrive early for playoff-hopeful Ravens

Posted on 22 December 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — One gift tops the list of goodies that the Ravens hope to find under their Christmas tree on Sunday.

It would be the early arrival of “January Joe” for their AFC North showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers. That postseason version of Joe Flacco would go a long way in helping Baltimore secure its first AFC North division title since 2012 while also washing away much memory of a trying season.

The issues with the league’s 18th-ranked offense run deeper than the play of the ninth-year quarterback, but the near-certainty of Flacco reaching the 4,000-yard passing mark for the first time — an elusive landmark his critics have regularly used against him over the years — does not mask his struggles. Starting all 14 games in his return from last year’s ACL injury, Flacco ranks 27th in the NFL at just 6.54 yards per attempt and is 25th with an 84.8 passer rating.

Asked about the 2008 first-round pick being on the verge of setting a career high for pass attempts, head coach John Harbaugh declined to assess his quarterback’s play, instead focusing on the task of winning at Heinz Field for the third straight time.

“I respect everything about what he does and how he does it, how he competes and everything like that,” Harbaugh said. “The other stuff [and] the big-picture questions are really for another time. I’m just excited to go play the game on Sunday. I know Joe is and everybody is. We’re preparing and planning on going and playing our best football.”

With the Baltimore defense likely to be without No. 1 cornerback Jimmy Smith, Flacco will need to be at his best to trade blows with Pro Bowl quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and a dangerous Steelers passing game that ranks fifth in the NFL. It’s a story similar to what the Ravens faced in road losses at Dallas and New England earlier this year, but the stakes are much higher now.

In case you’ve forgotten what “January Joe” can do, Flacco has thrown 24 touchdowns and just four interceptions in his last 10 postseason games dating back to the 2010 season. Sunday is as close as it gets to a playoff game — especially if Miami beats Buffalo on Saturday to make it a win-or-bust proposition on Christmas Day — so why wouldn’t the Ravens hope the postseason version of Flacco comes early?

The good news is that the 31-year-old has done it before at Heinz Field, throwing for 259 yards and two touchdowns without an interception in Baltimore’s last postseason win over the Steelers two years ago. Counting that playoff victory, the Ravens have won six of their last seven games against their bitter rival with Flacco throwing nine touchdowns to three interceptions in the six contests in which he played.

Win or lose, history tells us the environment won’t be too big for him and the Ravens. The Steelers look like the better team at this point and are carrying a five-game winning streak into Sunday’s game, but you have to wonder how much Baltimore is in their heads after winning four straight in the series and backup quarterback Ryan Mallett even beating them last December.

Counting the playoffs, the Ravens hold a respectable 5-6 record at Heinz Field in the Harbaugh-Flacco era.

“You picture going into a place and playing in front of 70,000 people that hate you,” Flacco said. “That is what makes it fun. … There are not too many feelings in this world that are better than winning an NFL football game. That probably gets amplified a little bit when you get to silence a crowd.”

Of course, what’s happened in the past doesn’t guarantee success on Sunday. After all, this is a Ravens offense that’s dealt with numerous problems, ranging from play-calling issues and injuries along the offensive line to an up-and-down running game and uneven play at wide receiver and tight end. Flacco’s 13 interceptions are the second-highest total of his career, and he’s been criticized for poor footwork and checking down too frequently in lieu of looking to push the ball down the field.

The Ravens are also facing a Pittsburgh defense that’s improved since the first half of the season, allowing just 14 points per game over its last five contests. The Pittsburgh secondary is relying on a pair of rookies — first-round cornerback Artie Burns and second-round safety and University of Maryland product Sean Davis — but the two have steadily played better as the season has progressed.

This Baltimore offense does have more going for it now than it did for much of the year with a healthier offensive line that’s played better in recent weeks and a running game that produced a season-high 151 yards against Philadelphia last Sunday. Not a single offensive player has missed a practice this week for an injury-related reason, either.

A 38-point outburst and four-touchdown performance from Flacco against Miami three weeks ago showed what this offense is capable of doing when firing on all cylinders, but the peaks have been rare and the valleys all the more frustrating. The Ravens haven’t won a game away from M&T Bank Stadium in three months and their veteran quarterback has posted an ugly 75.7 passer rating on the road this season, making trips to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati to conclude the season an unsettling proposition.

“It is tough to look back at the whole thing, but we have hit our bumps here and there,” Flacco said. “But I think we are starting to hit a stride. When you come out here and watch our practices, you can tell we are starting to hit a stride. This second half of the season, it is coming together with some of the new guys and our offensive line play and myself.”

If the Ravens offense is ever truly going to come together, now is the time.

And the return of “January Joe” needs to be part of the equation.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 15 win over Philadelphia

Posted on 20 December 2016 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens surviving in a 27-26 win over Philadelphia on Sunday to remain one game behind Pittsburgh in the AFC North, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. I don’t believe hangovers and letdowns in sports are as common as we think, but the Ravens had a difficult time moving past their performance against New England. Perhaps that partially explains why the offense showed such late recklessness and the defense reacted slowly to being punched in the mouth.

2. After losing touches to Kenneth Dixon in recent weeks, Terrance West made a statement with 122 yards from scrimmage, his highest total since Week 6. The Baltimore native’s career was a mess a year ago, but he’s done a fine job reestablishing himself as a legitimate NFL running back.

3. Praised by some recently as being better than the 2000 Ravens, the run defense gave up a season-worst 169 rushing yards to the Eagles and has allowed 3.9 yards per carry over the last five games. Philadelphia did a great job getting to the second level running the zone stretch.

4. Despite this hardly being his best campaign, Joe Flacco is 212 yards away from his first 4,000-yard season. The problem is he’s also on pace to shatter his career high for passing attempts (614 in 2013) and is averaging 6.5 yards per attempt, the second-lowest mark of his career.

5. Justin Tucker improved to a remarkable 10-for-10 on field goals from 50 yards and beyond for the season. That’s more than he’d made in his last two years combined. No one can accuse him of resting on his laurels after a big payday.

6. Barring an unforeseen spike in offensive production leading to a deep playoff run, I don’t see how the Ravens can stick with Marty Mornhinweg as their offensive coordinator in 2017. The spark for which they were looking when John Harbaugh fired Marc Trestman never materialized.

7. The Ravens rushed for a season-high 151 yards against the Eagles, but they’ve gained more than 3.8 yards per carry in an away game just once this year. As Terrell Suggs likes to say, you need to pack your defense and your running game to win on the road.

8. Speaking of Suggs, I couldn’t help but wonder which Ravens veterans we were possibly seeing for the final time at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday. Because of age or contract status, Suggs, Steve Smith, Elvis Dumervil, Dennis Pitta, and Lardarius Webb are among the fair question marks.

9. His four-game absence in October put a damper on his rookie season, but Ronnie Stanley is playing more and more like the sixth overall pick that the Ravens envisioned this spring. It probably hasn’t hurt having five-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda playing next to him, either.

10. Shareece Wright showed in the second half of last season that he’s capable of playing at an acceptable level as a starting cornerback. The Ravens can only hope his solid — albeit mostly untested — performance against the Eagles puts him in the right frame of mind for Pittsburgh.

11. Under Harbaugh, the Ravens have gone at least 6-2 at home in all but one season. The problem is a 10-20 regular-season road record since Super Bowl XLVII. They’ll need to win their first road games in three months over these next two weeks.

12. I’m late with this prediction, but my Ravens picks for this year’s Pro Bowl would be Tucker, Yanda, safety Eric Weddle, and fullback Kyle Juszczyk.

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Alarming lack of offensive leadership nearly costs Ravens dearly

Posted on 19 December 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens got the 27-26 win in the end, but they still couldn’t help themselves on Sunday.

Leading 27-17 with less than seven minutes remaining, Joe Flacco had just completed a third-down pass to Mike Wallace, who sprinted all the way to the Philadelphia 11 for a 54-yard pickup that should have all but sealed a must-win game against the struggling Eagles. Facing an opponent that had relied on its ground attack all day, Baltimore needed only to run the ball to chew away more time and, at worst, kick a field goal to make it a 13-point lead.

Even novice football fans would say to run it to drain the clock or force Eagles head coach Doug Pederson to start using his timeouts early.

Yes, the Ravens defense had struggled more than expected on Sunday, but rookie quarterback Carson Wentz had shown no evidence throughout the day that he would be able to orchestrate two touchdown drives in the final few minutes. Instead of showing common football sense, head coach John Harbaugh, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, and quarterback Joe Flacco gave the Eagles new life.

According to ESPN, the Ravens’ win probability stood at 99.2 percent when they took a timeout with 6:21 remaining to contemplate their first-and-10 play from the 11. In lieu of a running game that averaged 6.3 yards per carry on Sunday, Mornhinweg called a pass play and Flacco threw an unthinkable interception to Eagles linebacker Jordan Hicks, who returned the ball to the Philadelphia 40 to spark an unlikely comeback.

“All-time worst call ever. I’ll take responsibility for it,” Harbaugh said. “I should have vetoed it right away. I like an aggressive mindset, but that was way too aggressive. It’s the worst play call we’ve had, and it’s my fault. It should have never happened. We should have never been in that situation as a result of that.”

At least Harbaugh took responsibility after the game, but how does a ninth-year head coach who’s won a Super Bowl allow that to happen? What was being discussed during that timeout?

The writing is on the wall for Mornhinweg with this latest example of lacking any feel for the game or the Ravens offense, but Harbaugh is ultimately responsible for his coaching staff. This was the kind of reckless decision that costs coaches their jobs if the final outcome goes the other way.

Saying the Baltimore defense needed to tighten up over those final two drives doesn’t excuse such a blunder in a must-win game. Opponents will sometimes get the best of you between the lines as the Eagles ran for an impressive 169 yards, but the Ravens needed much better from veteran coaches late in Sunday’s game.

And what about Flacco?

The execution was awful enough in trying to force a throw to wide receiver Steve Smith, but shouldn’t a veteran quarterback speak up if the head coach and offensive coordinator have lost their minds? Flacco’s leadership has been a hot topic throughout his career — often unfairly — but this was a time when you’d like a ninth-year quarterback to be a voice of reason and not be focused on his stat line.

“To be honest with you, my thought was, ‘Shoot, Marty is going to give me a third touchdown pass on the day,'” Flacco said. “I was kind of happy about it at that point — being selfish — but you’ve got to just to take care of the football and it’s a non-issue.”

It was a disappointing response from a veteran known for having a winning moxie.

No, Flacco doesn’t call the plays, but he isn’t just a trained robot out there, either.

Either way, that pick can’t happen.

Until C.J. Mosley deflected Wentz’s 2-point conversion pass that would have handed Harbaugh the worst defeat of his career, the defense couldn’t pick up the slack after the interception. That’s a concerning development with road games at Pittsburgh and Cincinnati to conclude the regular season and the Ravens likely needing to win both to make the playoffs.

But the blame still comes back to an offense that had a solid day before that fourth-quarter meltdown from Harbaugh, Mornhinweg, and Flacco. No matter how you want to rank them, all deserved substantial blame for what happened.

“I’ve played a lot of football, so I’ve seen a lot worse,” said Smith, who is now in the final weeks of his 16th season. “I’ve witnessed a lot worse. Whatever, I’m not getting into that.”

No matter what the Ravens try to tell you or themselves, the numbers don’t lie. They haven’t been all that interested in running the football all year — even when they’ve done it well.

They were lucky it didn’t cost them their season on Sunday.

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Ravens-Eagles: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 18 December 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — One game at a time.

That’s been the message all week for the Ravens, who must put aside thoughts of a Christmas Day showdown with Pittsburgh to take care of the struggling Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday afternoon. Likely needing to win the final three weeks to qualify for the postseason, Baltimore can’t afford to overlook a team that’s lost six of seven since a promising 4-2 start.

Of course, the Ravens will be shorthanded in the secondary with cornerback Jimmy Smith sidelined with an ankle injury and already declared out on Friday. The league’s 11th-ranked pass defense has struggled mightily without Smith — giving up their four biggest passing totals in games in which he’s missed significant time this season — but the Eagles have struggled offensively behind rookie quarterback Carson Wentz and an underwhelming group of wide receivers.

After practicing on a limited basis all week, nickel cornerback Jerraud Powers has passed the concussion protocol and is active for Sunday’s game. Shareece Wright is expected to start in place of Smith opposite rookie cornerback Tavon Young in the base defense.

Despite being full participants in practice by the end of the week, both offensive lineman Alex Lewis (ankle) and tight end Crockett Gillmore (hamstring) are inactive. Outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith is a healthy scratch for the third time in the last four games, continuing a disappointing season for the 2015 fourth-round pick.

As expected, third-year wide receiver Michael Campanaro is active and will make his 2016 debut as a return specialist for Baltimore. He was promoted from the practice squad this week to replace struggling veteran Devin Hester, who was waived on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the Eagles will have wide receivers Jordan Matthews (ankle) and Dorial Green-Beckham (abdomen) on the field despite both being listed as questionable on the final injury report. Matthews working in the slot against Powers could be a problematic matchup for the Ravens defense.

The Eagles deactivated offensive lineman Allen Barbre (hamstring) and will start Stefen Wisniewski at left guard. Rookie Isaac Seumalo will start in place of the injured Halapoulivaati Vaitai (knee), becoming Philadelphia’s fifth right tackle of the season.

Eagles running back Darren Sproles (concussion) was ruled out on Friday.

The Ravens and Eagles will be meeting for the fifth time in the regular season with Philadelphia holding a 2-1-1 advantage. Baltimore will be trying to avoid going 0-4 against the NFC East this season, but is 13-7 at home in the month of December under ninth-year head coach John Harbaugh.

The forecast for Sunday’s game calls for light rain and cloudy skies with temperatures starting in the high 50s and dropping into the 40s later in the afternoon. There will also be winds up to 17 miles per hour, which could present an issue for the passing and kicking games.

It will also be interesting to see how the grass surface holds up after there were complaints about the footing from the Miami Dolphins two weeks ago.

The referee for Sunday’s game will be Craig Wrolstad.

The Ravens will be wearing black jerseys with black pants while Philadelphia dons its white tops with green pants.

Below are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
CB Jimmy Smith
RB Buck Allen
LB Lamar Louis
OL Ryan Jensen
OL Alex Lewis
TE Crockett Gillmore
LB Za’Darius Smith

PHILADELPHIA
WR Paul Turner
CB Dwayne Gratz
RB Darren Sproles
DE Steven Means
OT Halapoulivaati Vaitai
OL Allen Barbre
DT Taylor Hart

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Jimmy Smith absent as Ravens begin preparing for Philadelphia

Posted on 14 December 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens began preparations for their Week 15 contest against Philadelphia without their top cornerback on the practice field.

Jimmy Smith was not present for Baltimore’s Wednesday walk-through as he recovers from a right ankle sprain suffered in Monday’s loss to New England. The 2011 first-round pick left the game late in the first quarter and did not return, but head coach John Harbaugh has offered no clarity on his status for Sunday’s game or beyond.

“I really don’t want to get into that, to be honest with you,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t really see any purpose to get into that. Thanks for asking.”

Should Smith not be able to play against the Eagles on Sunday, the Ravens would likely turn to Shareece Wright to start opposite rookie Tavon Young. Slot cornerback Jerraud Powers practiced on a limited basis despite leaving Monday’s game with a concussion.

Reserve defensive back Anthony Levine (toe) and linebacker Terrell Suggs were absent from Wednesday’s practice. Suggs received a veteran day off.

Tight end Crockett Gillmore (hamstring) made his return to practice on a limited basis after missing his sixth straight game. Rookie guard Alex Lewis (ankle) was a full participant after practicing on a limited basis last week. He appears poised to return against Philadelphia after missing four consecutive games.

Third-year wide receiver Michael Campanaro was officially promoted to the 53-man roster on Wednesday and is expected to be in the return specialist mix with veteran safety Lardarius Webb, according to Harbaugh. The Ravens waived four-time Pro Bowl returner Devin Hester on Tuesday.

“That was a little bit of a tough move just because we have so much respect for Devin and the effort he’s put in,” Harbaugh said. “I told him I feel like we didn’t get the job done. We didn’t do enough to make the return game productive enough to make it worthwhile.”

The Eagles were without top receiver Jordan Matthews (ankle) and veteran running back Darren Sproles (concussion) during their Wednesday practice.

The Ravens will wear their black jerseys for their home finale on Sunday. They own a 15-6 all-time record when wearing their alternate tops and are 12-3 under Harbaugh.

Below is the full injury report for Wednesday:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: DB Anthony Levine (toe), CB Jimmy Smith (ankle), LB Terrell Suggs (non-injury)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: TE Crockett Gillmore (thigh), CB Jerraud Powers (concussion)
FULL PARTICIPATION: G Alex Lewis (ankle)

PHILADELPHIA
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: G Allen Barbre (hamstring), WR Jordan Matthews (ankle), RB Darren Sproles (concussion), OT Halapoulivaati Vaitai (knee)
FULL PARTICIPATION: G Brandon Brooks (illness), TE Brent Celek (stinger), WR Dorial Green-Beckham (abdomen)

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Ravens not showing what it takes to win games on road

Posted on 13 December 2016 by Luke Jones

The final score alone was nothing to be ashamed of.

Many thought the Ravens could win in New England on Monday, but fewer expected them to really pull off the upset. The end result technically only means that John Harbaugh’s team has no realistic path to an AFC North title that doesn’t involve winning at Pittsburgh in Week 16.

So, why then does this one sting that much more than last month’s defeat at Dallas?

It’s because the Ravens showed that they still don’t have what it takes to win a big game on the road and haven’t displayed that moxie in quite some time. The 38-6 thumping of Miami last week was supposed to be the offensive breakthrough that would propel them down a final stretch that included three of four away games, but we instead saw the same offense we witnessed over the first 11 games of the season.

Instead of giving the Patriots everything they could handle to show they were back among the AFC’s top tier of contenders, the Ravens looked like the mediocre team their 7-6 record says they are.

Removing their injury-riddled October from the equation, they’re just not noticeably better than they were at the beginning of the season when they produced their only two road wins. Those victories came after erasing a 20-point deficit to lowly Cleveland in Week 2 and edging Jacksonville with a 54-yard field goal in the final minute of a Week 3 tilt. Yes, Baltimore’s only road victories of the season were nail-biters against the two worst teams in the AFC back in September.

Former offensive coordinator Marc Trestman was still two weeks away from being fired when the Ravens last won outside Baltimore, and it will have been exactly three months since that last road win when the Ravens take the field against the Steelers on Christmas Day.

They have been a good team at M&T Bank Stadium with a 5-2 mark in 2016, but also a pretty bad one on the road. We know winning at Heinz Field will be a tough task, but nothing about the Ravens’ current profile suggests their Week 17 trip to Cincinnati — where they haven’t won in five years — should be considered a sure thing, especially if five-time Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green is playing.

The Ravens struggled in every phase of the game on Monday, ranging from the offense and defense to special teams and coaching. If we’re being truthful about what we watched and are weary of moral victories in which they “battled” and “fought” back, the Ravens were very fortunate to even be in the game over the final 20 minutes. Winning the turnover battle by a 3-1 margin normally results in a victory, but that doesn’t happen when you stink up the joint for the first 2 1/2 quarters against arguably the best head coach and quarterback in NFL history.

The defense was torched by Tom Brady and the special teams — specifically former return specialist Devin Hester — also played a big part in the loss, but the Ravens offense was its usual self after the one-week aberration against the Dolphins that prompted many observers to buy into the newfound hype.

Passing the ball all day — running game be damned — and checking down all night while being completely perplexed by zone coverage. Not one touchdown drive beyond the two early Christmas gifts provided by New England’s special teams in the third quarter. A way-too-lethargic pace when trailing by two scores late in the fourth quarter.

It wasn’t good enough from Marty Mornhinweg, Joe Flacco, and company. Even the defense has looked mortal on the road as it’s allowed 24 or more points in each of the last four contests and may once again be without top cornerback Jimmy Smith, who injured his ankle on Monday night.

The Ravens are now 10-20 in regular-season road games since Super Bowl XLVII. The old formula of dominating at home and playing .500 ball away from M&T Bank Stadium brought much success in Harbaugh’s first five seasons — a 21-19 record on the road over that time — but the Ravens have fallen off the away cliff over the last four years, which helps explain their absence from January football.

If they don’t quickly find a way to play better in opposing cities, another New Year’s end to a season will be in order.

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Ravens trying to turn back clock against New England

Posted on 09 December 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — You can sense the confidence in the Ravens locker room this week.

Winners of four of their last five games and coming off their most impressive performance of the season, the Ravens are suddenly being discussed as a viable threat in the AFC. And while a trip to Gillette Stadium to take on New England won’t be easy, they’re hardly walking into uncharted territory on Monday night.

Few teams have approached the kind of success the Ravens have enjoyed against the Patriots in the John Harbaugh-Joe Flacco era. Of their four postseason meetings in Foxborough, the Ravens own two  victories and their two losses came by a combined seven points.

This marks the first regular-season meeting between these teams in New England since 2010.

“When you have not experienced it much, I think they are a team that can intimidate some people,” Flacco said. “But I don’t think that is us. I think that we have done it enough that we feel good about doing it. We have had good teams. We have always had good teams going up there and a bunch of guys that feel that way and have felt that we can win the game. I think that always helps.”

But how much weight does the past carry?

Only 11 players on the current team were with the organization when the Ravens last beat New England in the 2012 AFC championship game. That group includes Flacco, six-time Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs, five-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda, cornerback Jimmy Smith, and tight end Dennis Pitta.

Of course, players have come and gone on the New England side as well, but future Hall of Fame coach Bill Belichick and future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady have just continued winning.

The last meeting between these teams took place in the 2014 divisional round when Baltimore squandered two different 14-point leads in a 35-31 defeat. Since then, the Patriots have won a Super Bowl and appeared in another conference championship game while the Ravens have gone 12-16 and are trying to avoid missing the playoffs for the second straight year.

This game is not only an opportunity for the Ravens to improve their playoff standing, but it’s a chance to show the football world that they’re back among the serious contenders. Young players such as receiver Breshad Perriman and left tackle Ronnie Stanley will also have their first opportunity to make names for themselves against the Patriots.

“You can’t really transfer experience,” Harbaugh said. “We try to prepare them for what’s going to happen in the next game and prepare them for that as best we can. The past games aren’t a part of this game. It’s the next game, and it’s the one we’re focusing on.”

Win or lose, the Ravens need to show they can compete with a heavyweight like New England on the road as they haven’t won away from M&T Bank Stadium since September 25. With another road showdown looming at Heinz Field against Pittsburgh on Christmas Day, an offense that’s been below average this year must prove last week’s explosion against Miami was more than just a pleasant aberration.

The last time these teams met in the regular season was in 2013 when the Ravens were riding a four-game winning streak and trying to recover from a rough start not terribly different from this year’s. Like we’ve seen this week, the hype was growing before the Patriots came to Baltimore and won by 34 points. The Ravens lost again the following week and missed the playoffs.

Baltimore is the healthier team now without a single defensive player on this week’s injury report while All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski is gone for the season and wide receiver Danny Amendola is not expected to play for the Patriots on Monday. The Ravens also sport their best defense since future Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed were still playing at a high level.

This may not be a must-win game for Baltimore, but it’s an opportunity to send a warning to the rest of the AFC. And it’s a chance to reestablish one of the league’s best rivalries despite the Ravens getting sidetracked over the better part of the last 15 months.

“You’re a fan of football,” safety Eric Weddle said. “Being in San Diego the last few years and not being in the playoffs, you watch those games from afar and are envious of wanting to play in them. Now is my opportunity. It should be a great game.”

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 13 win over Miami

Posted on 06 December 2016 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens blowing out Miami in a 38-6 final on Sunday to remain tied atop the AFC North, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. How badly did Joe Flacco need a performance like that? It was the first time he’d thrown more than one touchdown pass in a game against a team not named the Cleveland Browns in over a year.

2. Considering his salary cap figure is the second highest on the team and fourth among NFL safeties, Lardarius Webb stepping up in response to Eric Weddle’s recent challenge to elevate his play is an encouraging development. His end-zone interception in the second quarter was sensational.

3. Kyle Juszczyk might be the best fullback in the NFL, but he saw his lowest snap total on Sunday since Week 3. I couldn’t help but think that was a positive development in getting more dynamic receivers on the field to help the passing game.

4. Using the same starting offensive line for the third straight game — the first time the Ravens have done that since the first three weeks of the season — resulted in zero sacks and just two quarterback hits allowed against the Dolphins’ talented front four. Continuity is critical with line play.

5. Remember how the Ravens ranked last in the NFL with just six interceptions last season? Their three-pick performance against Ryan Tannehill gave them 14 for the season, which is tied for second in the league entering Week 14.

6. Count me among those who expected the Ravens to run the ball more in the second half, but I sometimes wonder if some care more about the run-pass ratio than scoring points and accumulating yards. Taking issue after the highest scoring output in over two years is silly.

7. I’m not sure I’ve seen linebackers more clueless in coverage than Miami’s were. Flacco and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg were smart to attack the middle of the field to exploit them.

8. Of the nine Ravens players selected on Day 2 of the draft since Super Bowl XLVII, just two — Brandon Williams and Timmy Jernigan — were active for Sunday’s game. That isn’t easy to overcome as an organization.

9. Terrance West has averaged a solid 4.0 yards per carry this season, but Kenneth Dixon is gaining 5.9 yards per attempt over his last four games after averaging 1.5 yards per carry in his first four games back from injury. It’s getting tougher and tougher to hold the rookie back.

10. Miami’s complaints about the field at M&T Bank Stadium are noteworthy after the switch to natural grass this season, but the Ravens didn’t seem to have any problems. It will be interesting to see how the surface holds up for the Army-Navy game and the Philadelphia game in Week 15.

11. The Ravens have surrendered the fifth-fewest pass plays of 25 or more yards this season, but they’re on pace to produce fewer pass plays of 25 or more than they did last year when they lacked any viable vertical threat. This offense has disappointed, but I wouldn’t have guessed that.

12. I understand John Harbaugh’s team was really banged up at the time, but watching the New York Jets play Monday reminded how maddening that Week 7 loss was. The Ravens remain in good position now, but that one still hangs over their heads as a potential season-killer.

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Ravens, Steelers following similar paths to Christmas showdown

Posted on 05 December 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens face their biggest challenge of the season at New England next Monday night, but it’s difficult not to look ahead to Christmas Day.

As it has so many times over the last 15 years, the AFC North championship will come down to Baltimore and Pittsburgh with their Week 16 meeting at Heinz Field potentially serving as a pseudo-championship game. Despite neither team being dominant in 2016, some of the similarities between the Ravens and the Steelers are striking.

Both teams appeared to be in serious trouble only a month ago before regrouping to hold matching 7-5 records going into the final quarter of the regular season.

“We like the fact that we’re in it,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “We like the fact that we’re in a fight for the division championship. That’s our first goal — the starting point of everything we try to accomplish one week at a time.”

The Ravens began the season with three straight wins, then suffered a four-game losing streak, and now have won four of their last five games. Meanwhile, the Steelers won four of their first five, sustained their own four-game slide, and have now prevailed in three straight games.

Each team owns two home losses and three defeats on the road. Hoping to keep pace in the division on Sunday, the Ravens and Steelers each took out an opponent that entered the day riding a six-game winning streak.

While the Ravens offense finally busted out with a 38-point showing against Miami, the Steelers’ maligned defense has allowed a total of 30 points over the last three games. Those improvements have led many to point to Baltimore and Pittsburgh as potential sleepers in the AFC.

But that depends on who prevails in the AFC North since a wild card is unlikely to come from the division at this point.

The schedule favors the Steelers as their remaining opponents are a combined 17-30-1 while the Ravens’ are 26-21-1, but the next two weeks provide interesting possibilities. Pittsburgh plays back-to-back road games at Buffalo and Cincinnati, two teams who have had their struggles but remain capable of pulling off upsets in their home stadiums. The Ravens face the daunting task of a Monday night game against the Patriots in Foxborough, but their Dec. 18 home game against the fading Philadelphia Eagles looks more favorable by the week.

Considering the Ravens already have a win over Pittsburgh — and would thus own the head-to-head tiebreaker with a Week 16 victory — they simply need to be no worse than one game behind the Steelers when they arrive at Heinz Field on Dec. 25. A win over the Eagles in two weeks would ensure that, no matter what happens against the Patriots or in Pittsburgh’s next two contests.

Of course, much could change over the next couple weeks, but both the Ravens and the Steelers appear to be peaking at the right time and are on a Christmas collision course with a division title at stake.

What more could you possibly want?

Weddle’s impact

Safety Eric Weddle came away with his third interception of the season on Sunday, matching his total over his final three seasons with San Diego.

In addition to being Pro Football Focus’ top-graded safety for much of the season, the 31-year-old has brought much-needed leadership and experience to the secondary. From recently challenging fellow safety Lardarius Webb to elevate his play to being one of the first players in the building every day, Weddle has provided a presence the Ravens lacked on the back end of the defense after Ed Reed’s departure a few years ago.

“He is that way at 5:30 in the morning in the weight room. He is that way at 6:30 at night when he is just finishing up his work on tape,” said Harbaugh about the veteran’s enthusiasm. “That is how he lives his life. He is that way when he has his kids in the building. That is how he lives.”

Flacco getting hot?

Asked whether Joe Flacco’s four-touchdown, 381-yard performance on Sunday prompted him to wonder if this was the start of a hot streak for the ninth-year quarterback, Harbaugh didn’t want to make any assumptions.

It only makes sense in the midst of a disappointing year for Flacco and the Baltimore offense.

“It is not like golf, where you go out there and all of a sudden your swing starts grooving [like], ‘I am going to make a bunch of putts in a row,'” Harbaugh said. “There is an opponent over there that is trying to take away your swing. They are blocking your putt. You have to find a way to maneuver through.

“It’s tough because every single play presents a new challenge against a tough opponent that is doing everything they can within their intellect and their physical opportunity to thwart your efforts. We just have to find a way to win the next play.”

Odds & ends

Justin Tucker led AFC kickers in the Pro Bowl voting update released on Monday. He is now 28-for-28 on field goal tries, had made eight attempts from 50 yards or longer, and hasn’t missed a single extra point. He was named to his only Pro Bowl back in 2013. … Cut by Detroit over the weekend, ex-Ravens running back Justin Forsett was claimed off waivers by Denver on Monday, reuniting him with Gary Kubiak. The 31-year-old averaged 5.4 yards per carry in a 2014 Pro Bowl season when Kubiak was his offensive coordinator. … On the heels of the center portion of the field being re-sodded at M&T Bank Stadium, several Miami players complained about poor footing on Sunday, a problem the Ravens didn’t seem to have. “It felt good when I walked on it; I didn’t slip,” said Harbaugh, drawing laughter from media. “But our players didn’t slip, either. Our guys were prepared for it. That is an individual thing as a player. You have to go out there and find your footing in pregame.”

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