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Amid Ravens’ offensive line trials, Jensen emerging as answer at center

Posted on 12 October 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ask any Ravens player which teammate is most likely to get into a scuffle in training camp, and the answer would be unanimous.

It’s the man who’s helped stabilize the middle of an offensive line that’s endured more than its share of injuries this season. And after years of competing and scrapping in relative obscurity, center Ryan Jensen has been one of the Ravens’ biggest surprises in his first full season as a starter.

“He gets a little feisty; he’ll throw a helmet here and there,” inside linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “He’s a great competitor, and you want that kind of play with all your players, especially on the o-line. He’s not going to let anyone [bully] him. He’s always going to get the better end of it. Playing against him in practice, that keeps you aware.

“Even though you think he’s being a butthole, he’s actually making you better because you’re protecting yourself.”

Jensen says he takes such a description from a teammate as a compliment and quips that his red hair explains why he’s so “ornery” on the field, but such a temperament can be a challenge for a young player trying to establish himself among veteran teammates. A 2013 sixth-round pick out of Division II Colorado State-Pueblo, Jensen didn’t appear in a game as a rookie after breaking his foot early in his first training camp and was then waived at the end of the 2014 preseason, which led to him spending most of that campaign on Baltimore’s practice squad.

If those setbacks weren’t enough to make Jensen wonder if he would ever become a full-time NFL starter, the 6-foot-4, 319-pound lineman was a healthy scratch for the final nine weeks of 2016 after he’d made three fill-in starts early in the season. He’d also started six games because of injuries late in 2015, but the Ravens always seemed to end up going in a different direction whenever he’d receive a look as a starter.

“My second year when I got released, there is always a little doubt that gets put in the back of your mind,” Jensen said. “Working through that is big.”

Despite appearing to fall out of favor last season, Jensen received a $1.797 million tender as a restricted free agent in March. And after incumbent starting center Jeremy Zuttah was traded to San Francisco later that month, head coach John Harbaugh and his staff liked that Jensen had gotten bigger and stronger in the offseason. Senior offensive assistant Greg Roman and new offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris wanted more size and physicality at the center position in the transition from an outside-zone blocking system to a multiple approach that would include more man blocking and downhill running.

As many continued to clamor for former New York Jets center Eric Mangold and the focus on the in-house competition remained on John Urschel before his abrupt retirement in late July, Jensen lined up as the starting center on the first day of training camp and never relinquished the job. In fact, he was the only constant on the field throughout the summer as projected starters at every other position battled injuries or were working their way back from offseason surgeries.

Jensen’s first career start at center was uneven as he helped the Ravens run for a season-high 157 yards in the season-opening win at Cincinnati, but he also committed three holding penalties, prompting critics to wonder if he could channel his aggressiveness to play with enough discipline. Since then, however, he hasn’t committed a penalty and is coming off arguably the best game of his career last Sunday in Oakland as he was graded out higher than any center in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.

“I feel good about my performance. I feel good about the offensive line performance,” said Jensen, who currently ranks third among centers in PFF’s grading system for 2017. “We have been meshing together really well. We have injuries and stuff like that, but we are plowing forward and we are getting there.”

Making Jensen’s emergence even more impressive has been the disruption at both guard positions. Second-year left guard Alex Lewis underwent season-ending shoulder surgery in August — and has since been replaced by James Hurst — and six-time Pro Bowl selection Marshal Yanda was lost for the year due to a broken ankle in Week 2, leaving Jensen to work with three different players at right guard since then. With Matt Skura now expected to miss action with a knee injury, the Ravens will be on their third different starting right guard in the season’s first six weeks.

Yanda’s absence in particular has forced Jensen to grow up quickly as he’s responsible for assessing the defense’s pre-snap alignment and making protection calls at the line of scrimmage.

“He is a great communicator. He’s a fine player. He’s a tough guy,” offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. “You guys know how up front that stuff happens fast and furious. It is wicked fast, so the communication has to be there. We have been through several guys [at guard], and he has done a great job of sort of running the show there.”

An offense still trying to find its footing is also benefiting from his attitude. With so many of his offensive teammates having more reserved personalities, Jensen isn’t afraid to get in the face of an opponent, something the Ravens had lost in the offseason with the retirement of wide receiver Steve Smith.

Jensen has managed to harness his temper that was so often on display during those practice-field scuffles in Owings Mills over the last few years and is forcing the rest of the league to take notice of his play.

“Ryan is a confident person. I think he has always been that way,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “The thing that you see with him the most is how nasty he is on Sunday and the style that he plays with. We play football, so that’s what it’s all about.

“You need that kind of player. You love to have those guys on your side.”

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Ravens re-sign Rainey to add depth at running back

Posted on 10 October 2017 by Luke Jones

After losing running back Terrance West to a calf injury in Sunday’s win over Oakland, the Ravens have re-signed veteran Bobby Rainey to boost their depth in the backfield.

Head coach John Harbaugh wouldn’t specify a timetable for West’s return Monday, but an NFL Network report indicated he would miss some action. Rainey, 29, spent the entire preseason with Baltimore, rushing for 75 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. He is expected to work behind Alex Collins and Buck Allen, who combined for 128 yards on 33 carries against the Raiders in Week 5.

In five NFL seasons, Rainey has rushed for 1,053 yards and six touchdowns on 266 carries and has caught 71 passes for 530 yards and two touchdowns. He also has experience returning kickoffs and punts, which could factor into the Ravens’ special-teams plans.

Rainey received his start with the Ravens as an undrafted free agent from Western Kentucky in 2012, but he never appeared in a regular-season game with Baltimore and would eventually spend time with Cleveland, Tampa Bay, and the New York Giants.

To make room for Rainey on the 53-man roster, the Ravens waived offensive tackle Dieugot Joseph. He was inactive for each of his three weeks on the 53-man roster.

West is the latest injury to plague the Ravens backfield after 2016 fourth-round pick Kenneth Dixon was lost to a season-ending knee injury in July and veteran newcomer Danny Woodhead suffered a long-term hamstring injury in the season opener. Woodhead is currently on injured reserve, but he is expected to be able to return at some point in the second half of the season.

General manager Ozzie Newsome also made changes to his practice squad on Tuesday, signing defensive tackle Kapron Lewis-Moore and center Derrick Nelson while cutting tight end Ryan Malleck and cornerback Ronald Martin. Lewis-Moore was a sixth-round pick by Baltimore in the 2013 draft and spent this preseason with the Chicago Bears, who will visit M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday.

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Ravens defense passes first test facing familiar problem

Posted on 09 October 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Jimmy Smith’s 47-yard fumble return for a touchdown in Sunday’s 30-17 win over Oakland came at a price for the Ravens.

The veteran cornerback felt his tender Achilles tendon flare up toward the end of the run, putting the defense in an all-too-familiar position as he played just four defensive snaps in third-down situations the rest of the way. But unlike past instances when the secondary all but collapsed without its best talent on the field, the Ravens persevered to hold Raiders quarterback EJ Manuel to 159 yards and a single touchdown pass for the game.

Perhaps it would have played out differently had two-time Pro Bowl selection Derek Carr been under center, but the Ravens passed their first test in the exact situation for which they’d prepared this offseason. It’s unknown whether the lack of drop-off in Smith’s absence will prompt the Ravens to sit him down for some period of time in hopes of his Achilles improving for the second half of the season.

“We just have guys that we can play. We are very good with the guys that we have,” Harbaugh said. “We want Jimmy out there. He is a topnotch corner. I think he is one of the best corners in football. I am a big Jimmy Smith fan.”

But the organization also knows injuries have plagued the talented defensive back throughout his career. It was just last year when the Ravens went 2-5 in games in which Smith missed significant time, a major reason why they missed the postseason for the third time in four seasons.

General manager Ozzie Newsome addressed that reality by signing free-agent veteran Brandon Carr and drafting Marlon Humphrey in the first round, the first time he’d taken a cornerback on the opening day of the draft since picking Smith in 2011. And while Humphrey’s selection with the 16th overall pick raised a few eyebrows with the roster having more pressing needs, the Alabama product again looked the part in Week 5 as he frequently faced Raiders wide receiver Michael Crabtree.

The Oakland veteran entered Sunday having produced four touchdown receptions and 199 receiving yards in his last two contests against the Ravens, but Humphrey mostly held his own playing man-to-man coverage. Crabtree’s 41-yard touchdown grab in the second quarter came against Carr in coverage after Manuel escaped the pocket to extend the play. The No. 1 receiver finished with six catches for 82 yards overall.

“Crabtree is pretty special. We have had some experience with him, haven’t we, in Baltimore?” Harbaugh said. “He is a great one. Marlon didn’t back down. Marlon is confident. They got him on the three-stop nines or hitch [routes], if you want to call them that, versus press. Marlon played him a certain way. That was really the plan.

“Hindsight being 20-20, I think we might have played that with a little different technique than we did and helped Marlon out a little bit. Those are great learning experiences.”

Not only is Humphrey continuing to learn on the job, but he’s affording the Ravens the luxury of being able to rest their top corner without the fear of a collapse coming.

Injury report grows

Smith wasn’t the only injury concern emerging on Sunday as running back Terrance West (left calf), right guard Matt Skura (knee), and defensive tackle Carl Davis (hamstring) left the game and didn’t return.

On Monday, Harbaugh deferred to an NFL Network report indicating West would not be a long-term absence, but he didn’t offer any details on a timeline for his return or about a contingency plan at running back. Buck Allen and Alex Collins are the only healthy running backs currently on the roster, meaning Baltimore will likely look to add depth in the short term.

“We have to see if we can execute it right now in terms of what we’re going to do, who we’re going to look at,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll just wait until we know. I don’t want to start putting the plans out there until we know if we can pull it off.”

According to The Sun, Skura could miss two to four weeks with a medial collateral ligament sprain in his knee. That means rookie Jermaine Eluemunor will likely be the next man up at the position, and the offensive line will need to adjust to another starting combination.

“It just doesn’t matter,” Harbaugh said. “It is not something we think about. It is not something we quantify. We don’t waste any energy thinking about that. You just go and get ready for the next game.”

Monday night scouting

Harbaugh and the Ravens had the rare opportunity to scout their next two opponents — Chicago and Minnesota — by merely turning on ESPN’s Monday Night Football.

Rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky was making his first NFL start for the Bears and is expected to start his first road contest at M&T Bank Stadium this Sunday.

“Normally on these Monday nights, I get home maybe at halftime and decide if I want to stay awake or not. Usually the answer is no,” said Harbaugh as he laughed. “Sometimes if it’s an AFC North team, you have to do it, or the Patriots or somebody like that.

“But this game we’ll be watching. I will get home in time to watch this one.”

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Ravens stop bleeding, reboot season with win at Oakland

Posted on 09 October 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens stopped the bleeding and rebooted their season with a 30-17 win at Oakland on Sunday.

A road defeat wouldn’t have doomed them for the remainder of 2017, but one wonders what the ramifications might have been for a third straight loss, this one against a backup quarterback in a league having nowhere close to even 32 quality starters. The Raiders were also without two of their top three cornerbacks in a rare instance in which the opposition’s game-day injury woes could actually compete with Baltimore’s.

It was nearly a year to the day that the Ravens fired Marc Trestman, and another poor performance might have led offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg to a similar fate with critics pointing to senior offensive assistant Greg Roman as a logical alternative. But such talk was halted — at least for one week — when Joe Flacco delivered a pretty 52-yard strike to the speedy Mike Wallace on the first play from scrimmage.

That early aggressiveness coupled with the superb play of the offensive line proved to be the biggest keys in the victory as the Ravens jumped out to an early lead and produced a season-high 30 points. Their four plays of 25 or more yards eclipsed their total over their first four games (three) and deflated a struggling Raiders team also in need of a win Sunday.

It was easily Flacco’s best performance of the season as he completed 19 of 26 passes for 222 yards and ended his streak of 10 consecutive games with an interception. Entering Week 5 ranked last in the NFL among qualified quarterbacks with a career-worst 5.1 yards per attempt, the 10th-year quarterback averaged 8.54 yards per throw, his best single-game mark in nearly two years.

Not one to exaggerate or put much stock into any single win or loss over the course of his career, Flacco said Sunday’s win brought extra significance after admitting last week that the confidence of the entire offense wasn’t where it needed to be. The performance also reminded us what Flacco is capable of doing when the other variables are in proper place to help him succeed.

The running game and pass protection were strong despite the offensive line suffering its latest injury with right guard Matt Skura leaving with a knee injury early in the second half. Flacco also demonstrated better footwork, moving forward or sidestepping in the pocket to make several throws and to successfully avoid what little pressure Oakland was able to muster on Sunday. A Raiders front led by All-Pro defensive end Khalil Mack failed to register a sack and recorded only two quarterback hits all day.

At least for one week, the Baltimore offense was capable of playing at a level high enough to win a game in which the defense didn’t play at an incredible level. Jimmy Smith’s fumble recovery for a touchdown certainly provided extra cushion in the first quarter, but the unit’s overall play was a far cry from the first two weeks of the season when it forced a whopping 10 turnovers and the offense needed only not to screw up.

The Ravens offense even responded to adversity after the the defense allowed a Marshawn Lynch touchdown late in the third quarter to make it a one-possession game for the first time since the opening minutes. Without as much as a first down in their first two drives of the second half, Flacco and the offense orchestrated a 72-yard drive of more than five minutes that included critical third-down conversions to Breshad Perriman and Wallace. Justin Tucker’s short field goal put Baltimore ahead by 10 with just over 13 minutes to go and all but ended Oakland’s real hopes for a comeback.

As John Harbaugh noted in his post-game press conference, this is a week-to-week league with results frequently lacking rhyme or reason. The offense isn’t close to being out of the woods yet as a lackluster performance at home against Chicago next week will prompt the return of the same doubts and questions.

But the Ravens managed to escape a challenging and travel-filled five-week stretch to open the season with a 3-2 record, once again tied with Pittsburgh atop the AFC North. They now face a reasonable run of alternating home and away games over the next four weeks that should keep them in the playoff hunt with any semblance of steady play going into their Week 10 bye.

To say the win at Oakland saved their season would be an exaggeration, but it did stop the substantial bleeding from the last two weeks. And there’s no telling what chain of events a third straight ugly loss might have triggered for a team in search of its first postseason berth in three years.

The Ravens instead came home with a winning record and newfound positive vibes.

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Ravens-Raiders: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 07 October 2017 by Luke Jones

The details may differ, but the Ravens and the Oakland Raiders find themselves in a very similar position.

Both have lost two straight and are in danger of losing ground to the leaders in their respective divisions. The Baltimore defense and the Raiders offense were expected to be elite units, but each has underperformed so far this season, contributing to the overall struggles for both teams.

The most intriguing story entering Sunday might be the status of Oakland starting quarterback Derek Carr, who surprisingly practiced on Thursday and Friday and was listed as questionable on the final injury report despite having suffered a fracture in his lower back last week. It’s still assumed that backup EJ Manuel will start in his place, but Carr was reportedly taking Friday practice reps ahead of No. 3 quarterback Connor Cook, perhaps an indication that he could at least serve as the backup in Week 5.

His availability would certainly change expectations in this contest as Carr has thrown for 550 yards and seven touchdowns in his two games against the Ravens.

It’s time to go on the record as these AFC teams meet for the third consecutive season with the Raiders having won the last two meetings including a last-minute 28-27 win at M&T Bank Stadium last October. Baltimore holds a 6-3 advantage in the all-time regular-season series and won the only playoff encounter in the 2000 AFC championship game. The Ravens’ last win at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum came in Week 17 of the 2009 season when they clinched a trip to the playoffs.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Joe Flacco will throw an interception for the 11th consecutive game. What we’re seeing from the 10th-year quarterback is his own regression magnified by a lack of commitment to improve the variables around him for years. Not only as he tossed picks in 10 straight games, but he’s thrown at least one in 13 of 15 games with Marty Mornhinweg as offensive coordinator and 23 of 30 with him as the quarterbacks coach, a stretch that followed the best regular season of his career in 2014. Suspect coaching, an injury-ravaged offensive line that wasn’t very good to begin with, average skill-position players, and Flacco’s own weaknesses result in a broken offense.

2. Raiders receiver Michael Crabtree will continue his recent success against the Ravens with a touchdown catch. Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb are both expected to play despite missing practice time this week, but the secondary will need to be ready as Crabtree has produced four touchdowns and 199 receiving yards in his last two games against Baltimore. The Ravens front must generate more pressure than it has the last two weeks to force Manuel into mistakes in the pocket as he’ll likely be looking for Crabtree and tight end Jared Cook as his security blankets. With former first-round pick Amari Cooper struggling to catch the ball consistently, Crabtree is a big key to the Raiders’ success.

3. Alex Collins will run for a season-high 85 yards and a touchdown — without a fumble. It speaks volumes about the Ravens that a street free agent signed to the practice squad in early September has been their best offensive playmaker, but that doesn’t mean that Collins hasn’t impressed with an 8.2 yards per carry average. Head coach John Harbaugh has bristled over his two fumbles on 25 carries, but this struggling offense has little choice but to continue giving him the ball while hoping that running backs coach Thomas Hammock can help rectify the issue. The Ravens offensive line has done a solid job in run blocking and should find room against an Oakland front allowing 4.3 yards per carry.

4. Oakland defensive end Khalil Mack will collect two sacks and force a fumble. After having a brutal day against Jacksonville edge rusher Dante Fowler in London two weeks ago, right tackle Austin Howard is really going to have his hands full with his former teammate, who is one of the NFL’s best defensive players. Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. likes to move Mack around to create matchup problems, meaning left tackle Ronnie Stanley will also need to be ready. As if Mack weren’t enough, defensive end Mario Edwards also creates problems as an interior rusher on passing downs and it’s no secret that the Ravens have struggled mightily at the guard position without Marshal Yanda.

5. The Ravens offense fails to score 14 points for the third straight game in a 19-13 loss. I fully expect the run defense to bounce back after a poor performance last week, but the Ravens will have trouble generating pressure against Pro Football Focus’ most efficient pass-blocking line in the league, which will limit their opportunities for takeaways to put the offense on a short field. Since a 48-yard touchdown pass to Jeremy Maclin in the season opener, Flacco hasn’t completed a single pass for even half as much yardage as that in 105 attempts. That’s simply not a winning formula, especially on the West Coast where Baltimore hasn’t fared well in recent years. Until this offense shows otherwise, the Ravens aren’t a good bet to win any road game — even one against a backup quarterback.

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Ravens offense not even talking a good game at this point

Posted on 06 October 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Joe Flacco acknowledged this week that the Ravens offense isn’t playing with as much confidence as it needs to.

It was an honest assessment considering the quarterback and the unit rank near the bottom of the NFL in numerous categories, but how do you go about raising that confidence level in hopes of it carrying over to Sundays? Do coaches add new wrinkles to the playbook, invite more player input during meetings, or even try something as simple as having a little more fun during practices to put minds at ease?

Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg was posed that simple question on Thursday.

“Just a little juice, you know? Hey, we’ve got proud men here,” Mornhinweg said. “We talked about this the other day. We’ve got a lot of proud men and a lot of confident guys. When you go through a couple weeks like this, confidence is a great weapon. I think it’s the best weapon known to mankind. Confidence is at an all-time high.”

Not only does Mornhinweg not answer the original question, but he contradicts the starting quarterback’s opinion by saying the group’s confidence is greater than ever. That’s not exactly a good look when media and fans are demanding answers from one of the worst offenses in the league through the first month of the season.

Now in his third season as the quarterbacks coach, Mornhinweg is doubly responsible for Flacco ranking 32nd in passing yards, last among qualified quarterbacks with a career-worst 5.1 yards per attempt, and 31st of 32 qualified quarterbacks with a 65.0 passer rating. So, what is he having the 10th-year veteran work on during practices?

“There’s a lot of specific things, and that goes with every position,” Mornhinweg said. “These more than a handful of plays last ballgame — details. It’s really every position, you know? Details, and then you end up getting those four, five, six, seven plays in a game that may make a little bit of a difference.”

Again, what?

To be clear, talking to the media is far from Mornhinweg’s primary job responsibility and he’s never been an eloquent speaker, something the team’s official website has even had fun with on occasion. However, failing to answer fair questions with any substance isn’t amusing when many fans are calling for a coordinator change and already weren’t thrilled with John Harbaugh’s decision to retain him in January.

Is there any sign the offensive coordinator is seeing that a breakout could be coming?

“We’ll see, we’ll see,” Mornhinweg said. “You keep working hard, you keep preparing, good things tend to happen.”

You can only hope he’s a better communicator with his players than he is with the media or there truly is no hope for an offensive turnaround.

Pees blames himself for run defense issues

A week after suggesting the Ravens’ problems in London stemmed from a lack of intensity, defensive coordinator Dean Pees took the blame for Pittsburgh gaining 173 rushing yards on 42 carries in Week 4.

The Ravens’ outside linebackers did a poor job setting the edge, but Pees said he didn’t have his defense prepared for the type of pulling the Steelers employed with their interior linemen on outside runs.

“It’s not the players fault. It’s my fault,” Pees said. “The Steelers — I give them credit — [offensive line coach Mike Munchak] and those guys did a different scheme on some of their pullers than what we had ever seen. They did. It was different than what I’ve seen the Steelers run. But it’s my job to get it adapted and fixed and corrected and put the guys in a better position than what they were put in.”

Pees did try to cherry-pick the final numbers by saying that the Ravens held the Steelers to 2.3 yards per carry on 36 of their 42 attempts — any defense is going to look much better when you remove the top six plays — but at least he took responsibility for a run defense needing to be better than it’s shown so far. The Ravens currently rank 26th in rushing yards allowed per game (127.3) and 20th in yards per carry allowed (4.2).

Secondary shuffling

We’re unlikely to see any notable changes if cornerback Jimmy Smith misses Sunday’s game in Oakland, but the Ravens secondary could stand to benefit from a facelift in the near future.

With nickel corner Lardarius Webb struggling in coverage and 2017 first-round pick Marlon Humphrey looking like the real deal, the Ravens should look to move the latter into the starting lineup and continue experimenting with Brandon Carr at the nickel spot as they’ve done on a few occasions this year. Impressive rookie free agent Jaylen Hill could also be in the nickel mix once he gets back into football shape from the hamstring injury that sidelined him for over a month.

Webb’s best role at this point is at the safety position, which gives the Ravens an opportunity to be more creative with their sub packages while also keeping the veteran involved in the defense.

Safety Tony Jefferson hasn’t made a major impact so far, but one could question whether he’s being used properly. His strength is playing closer to the line of scrimmage against the run and in pass coverage against tight ends, but Pees has used him as more of a traditional safety so far. Sliding Jefferson down to a hybrid dime position in many passing situations would allow the Ravens to take the weak-side inside linebacker off the field — a position that’s been an issue — and to move Webb to the back end of the defense where he played next to Eric Weddle last year.

Anything that maximizes their $34 million investment in Jefferson and gets Humphrey on the field should be on the table.

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Even with injuries, Ravens brass deserves blame for offensive mess

Posted on 02 October 2017 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — There’s much blame to go around for this absolute mess of a Ravens offense.

Those pointing to injuries, the current state of the offensive line, quarterback Joe Flacco’s poor play, and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg’s play-calling are all correct to some degree or another. But the buck really needs to stop with the Ravens brass.

While many gushed over a defense-focused offseason and were waxing nostalgic about recreating the 2000 Ravens, others waited for significant work to be done to a below-average offense in 2016 that lost four starters to free agency or retirement. Instead of making significant improvements to that side of the ball, general manager Ozzie Newsome and head coach John Harbaugh seemingly settled for a ceiling of mediocrity, and that was long before the injuries that have put this offense in full-blown crisis mode before Columbus Day.

The offseason began with Harbaugh’s decision to retain Mornhinweg as coordinator despite the offense showing no meaningful improvement from the time he took over for the fired Marc Trestman last October. Harbaugh did hire Greg Roman to reboot the running game — a move that has produced positive results through four games — but one of the prevailing themes of the season-ending press conference in January was the need to get more out of Flacco, whose play had regressed in the two seasons since the departure of offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and quarterbacks coach Rick Dennison. Those two were sticklers about Flacco’s footwork and fundamentals and helped guide the Super Bowl XLVII Most Valuable Player to arguably his best regular season in 2014.

The hiring of a new quarterbacks coach at the very least was a no-brainer, but Mornhinweg also retained that role after serving in that capacity over Flacco’s last two lackluster campaigns. Instead of seizing the chance to bring in a new mind and a different pair of eyes, the Ravens maintained the status quo in the coaching department for their high-priced quarterback.

What about improving the offensive personnel that has been lacking playmakers and consistent offensive line play for years?

Newsome’s free-agent splash in March consisted of giving sizable contracts to defensive tackle Brandon Williams and free-agent defensive backs Tony Jefferson and Brandon Carr. Meanwhile, the only offensive addition in the first, second, and third waves of free agency was the oft-injured 32-year-old running back Danny Woodhead, who had missed 27 games the previous three seasons and — to no surprise — would suffer a long-term hamstring injury in the season opener.

Surely the Ravens would address their offense with four Day 1 and Day 2 picks in April’s draft then, right? Newsome selected four defensive players with those choices before finally taking a pair of developmental offensive linemen on the final day. The plan going into spring workouts would be to replace above-average right tackle Rick Wagner and three-year starting center Jeremy Zuttah with in-house options, players who hadn’t previously been good enough to crack the lineup of an already-shaky offensive line.

To be fair, Baltimore did eventually sign veteran wide receiver Jeremy Maclin in mid-June after he was cut by Kansas City and inked veteran right tackle Austin Howard in early August. But did these moves really represent a significant net gain compared to the retired Steve Smith and Wagner on an offense that was barely functional a year ago?

Was the goal to merely be as good as last year’s unit that ranked 17th in total yards and 21st in points per game?

To be clear, there’s no diminishing the absence of six-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda, and the loss of promising left guard Alex Lewis was another tough blow. The Ravens also hoped that running back Kenneth Dixon would take a major step forward in his second season, but a four-game suspension had already stunted that optimism before he sustained a season-ending knee injury in July.

The many injuries they’ve endured do tell a large part of the story, but the offense was constructed to be no better than average based on the way the Ravens used their cap dollars and draft picks and made their coaching decisions this offseason. That ceiling is too low when planning for at least a few inevitable injuries over the course of a season.

Perhaps the current state of affairs wouldn’t be as frustrating if the Ravens wouldn’t continue to neglect their offense on an annual basis, a pattern that began with the decision to trade away wide receiver Anquan Boldin weeks after the Super Bowl in 2013 and has continued with the selection of just four offensive players with their 17 combined Day 1 and Day 2 draft picks since then. It’s one thing to point to Flacco’s huge contract as justification not to spend as much free-agent money on the offense, but Newsome’s drafting reinforces the lack of interest in putting better talent around the quarterback.

Instead, the Ravens continue to expect him to do more with less than he had in that historic 2012 postseason and wonder why they’ve only been back to the playoffs once since then.

Flacco has obvious flaws and is what he is in his 10th season, but the Ravens keep beating their heads against a brick wall trying to do the bare minimum with their offense and expecting a different result. You get what you pay for, and that isn’t very much with mediocre talent and an uninspiring offensive coordinator.

Making matters worse, the use of all those resources on defense in recent years has yet to net a special group on that side of the ball.

Yes, you can continue to blame the offensive woes all on the injuries and keep beating up a quarterback who certainly needs to take his share of the responsibility for his poor performance, but offseason decisions stunted this offense’s ceiling before the injuries began over the summer. The truth is the focus should have been on that side of the ball from the start while looking to tweak a defense that finished in the top 10 in most major categories a year ago.

Sadly, what we’re now witnessing isn’t all that surprising.

And it’s difficult imagining this broken offense being fixed in the near future.

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 30 September 2017 by Luke Jones

Coming off one of the worst losses in team history and remembering what happened last Christmas Day, the Ravens should have no shortage of motivation against Pittsburgh on Sunday.

But it’s difficult knowing what to expect after such a shockingly poor performance in London and with the injuries continuing to mount. A Week 4 tilt is hardly a must-win game, but the Ravens surely would like to hold serve at home and escape the next two games with no worse than a 3-2 record going into the middle portion of the regular season.

The Steelers are coming off a disappointing loss of their own as their high-octane offense has been largely stuck in neutral through the first three weeks of the season. However, Pittsburgh does find itself in better shape than the Ravens from a health standpoint, a key factor in what’s always a very physical ballgame.

It’s time to go on the record as these AFC North foes meet for the 43rd time in the regular season with the Steelers holding a slight 22-20 edge as well as a 3-1 advantage in postseason encounters. Pittsburgh prevailed in dramatic fashion to clinch the division title last Dec. 25, but the Ravens have won six of the last eight meetings, a stretch that includes their only postseason victory since Super Bowl XLVII. Including the playoffs, 16 of the 21 showdowns with the Steelers in the John Harbaugh era have been decided by a single possession.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Alex Collins will lead the Ravens in rushing and will score his first touchdown. I’m not sure how real his 7.8 yards per attempt average is since he’s rarely carried the ball with a game’s outcome in doubt, but this sputtering offense is in desperate need of a spark and there’s no denying the urgency with which Collins has run. The Ravens have averaged 4.6 yards per carry since Marshal Yanda’s season-ending injury in Week 2, but most of that has come with a multi-score second-half lead over Cleveland and a huge deficit against Jacksonville and the Steelers are getting healthy with defensive end Stephon Tuitt returning. If the Baltimore passing game can’t get going again, Pittsburgh is likely to stack the box.

2. Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell will crack 100 yards of offense for the first time this season. It’s been a slow start to 2017 for the Steelers’ Pro Bowl running back, but the Ravens will be without standout defensive tackle Brandon Williams and defensive end Brent Urban, putting pressure on young linemen lacking experience against a rock-solid Pittsburgh offensive line. Baltimore linebackers were undisciplined in pass coverage against Jacksonville, which is another reason for concern with Bell’s ability as a receiver out of the backfield. The Ravens may need to take some chances with their linebackers to boost their pass rush, but that will leave them vulnerable on underneath throws.

3. Terrell Suggs will break a six-game drought against the Steelers with a sack against Ben Roethlisberger. No defender has more career takedowns of the Pittsburgh quarterback than Suggs, but the Ravens’ pass rush was nonexistent against Jacksonville while trying to rely mostly on a four-man rush. Not only do they need another edge rusher to consistently emerge opposite Suggs, but the inside pass rush is a big question mark since Urban was a major part of that equation. It isn’t enough to merely make Roethlisberger uncomfortable as Baltimore also needs to keep him in the pocket to prevent the downfield improvisation with his receivers that so often gets a secondary in trouble.

4. Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown will catch a touchdown despite being held to a season low for yards. The pain of last December’s game-winning score notwithstanding, the Ravens have generally done a respectable job against Brown while rarely having top cornerback Jimmy Smith travel with the All-Pro receiver. It will be interesting to see how much rookie cornerback Marlon Humphrey plays — especially with 6-foot-5 receiver Martavis Bryant back in the fold — but the Ravens are better equipped to handle the Pittsburgh passing game than they were in the fourth-quarter collapse in Week 16 last year. Brown will inevitably get touches, but he won’t be the difference in the game.

5. The Pittsburgh defense will be too much for the Ravens in a 17-14 loss. This will be a close one as it almost always is in this rivalry. I fully expect the Baltimore defense to rebound from last week’s embarrassment and play well despite being banged up on the defensive line, but it’s difficult having faith in the Ravens to score points considering the current state of the offensive line and how uncomfortable Joe Flacco has looked trying to throw the football down the field. They’re also facing a Steelers defense that’s improved from recent years despite its clear issues against the run in Chicago. Roethlisberger hasn’t won a game at M&T Bank Stadium since 2010 and the Steelers haven’t won in Baltimore since Charlie Batch pulled off an upset in 2012, but the Ravens are the inferior team on paper because of their many injuries and haven’t shown enough on offense to make me believe they’re going to win this one.

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Ravens defensive tackle Williams to miss second straight game

Posted on 29 September 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens will be without their best defensive lineman for the second straight week as Brandon Williams was officially ruled out for Sunday’s contest with Pittsburgh.

Williams did not practice all week and hasn’t played since injuring his foot in the Week 2 win over Cleveland. Head coach John Harbaugh reiterated Friday that the fifth-year defensive standout is making progress, but his return isn’t considered imminent.

“He’s got a lower leg issue that he’s dealing with,” Harbaugh said. “I think when you see him practicing, you’ll know that he’s either close to getting back or back. That’s kind of where it’s at right now. Like I said, it’s not going to be half the season or anything like that. It’s a matter of weeks from when he got hurt [on Sept. 17], and I’ll have my fingers crossed in the upcoming week or two and hope that he’ll be back.”

Williams’ absence is even more concerning after defensive end Brent Urban suffered a season-ending foot injury in last week’s loss to Jacksonville. With two starters on the defensive line now missing against the Steelers, the Ravens must rely on less-experienced options such as Carl Davis, Willie Henry, and Bronson Kaufusi to help contain Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell and a Pittsburgh running game off to a slow start in 2017.

Veteran tight end Benjamin Watson (calf) was listed as questionable on the final injury report after returning to practice as a full participant on Friday. He is expected to play without any setback between now and Sunday.

Baltimore ruled out cornerback Jaylen Hill (hamstring) and tight end Maxx Williams (ankle).

The Steelers listed four starters as questionable, a list that included two offensive linemen and both starting safeties. However, all of them practiced on at least a limited basis Friday.

According to Weather.com, Sunday’s forecast in Baltimore calls for sunny skies with temperatures reaching the low 70s and winds up to six miles per hour.

Below is the final injury report for the week:

BALTIMORE
OUT: CB Jaylen Hill (thigh), DT Brandon Williams (foot), TE Maxx Williams (ankle)
QUESTIONABLE: TE Benjamin Watson (calf)

PITTSBURGH
QUESTIONABLE: S Sean Davis (ankle), G Ramon Foster (thumb), OT Marcus Gilbert (hamstring), LB James Harrison (illness), S Mike Mitchell (hamstring)

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Flacco defends Ravens offense despite awful Week 3 performance

Posted on 28 September 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Joe Flacco made no excuses for the Ravens offense’s performance in the 44-7 loss to Jacksonville this past Sunday.

The 10th-year quarterback threw for a career-worst 28 yards in easinly one of the worst game of his career. Jaguars signal-caller Blake Bortles threw for more yards on his first attempt of the game, illustrating just how impotent the Baltimore offense was in London.

But Flacco doesn’t think that poor showing should skew the narrative about the Baltimore offense so far in 2017. The group may rank dead last in the NFL in total yards per game and passing offense through the first three weeks of the season, but Flacco says those numbers don’t paint an accurate picture.

“I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves when we all of a sudden say we haven’t played well for three weeks,” Flacco said. “We played terribly last week. There is no way around that, but the other two weeks, we did what we had to do to win football games. I don’t think that is anything that we can hang our heads over.”

Flacco has a point — at least to some degree. In the season opener, the defense forced five turnovers to make it easy for the offense as the Ravens ran 42 times for 157 yards to protect a big second-half lead at Cincinnati. Baltimore again benefited from five takeaways in Week 2, but the offense did produce 21 first-half points before playing ball control in the second half. The ground game hasn’t been spectacular, but it’s averaged a respectable 4.3 yards per carry to rank 11th in the NFL.

It’s an acceptable formula if you remain on a historic pace for creating turnovers, but therein lies the problem. What happens when the Ravens defense doesn’t play at an unbelievable level?

Our first glimpse at that reality certainly wasn’t pretty as the offense showed no ability to help out the other side of the ball. When Flacco’s best defense is that the offense did what they needed to do in the first two games of the season, how does anyone really know what to expect when the Ravens start playing tougher competition such as Pittsburgh and Oakland the next two weeks?

The problems on offense are plentiful, but the state of the offensive line is far and away the biggest issue, greatly impacting other phases of the unit in the process. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley is now the only holdover from last year’s starting offensive line, and even he hasn’t played at a high level so far in 2017 with Pro Football Focus ranking him 38th among all offensive tackles. Head coach John Harbaugh did express satisfaction with the combination of Matt Skura and Jermaine Eluemunor in Sunday’s loss, but the fact that the Ravens have already used three different players in place of injured six-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda doesn’t speak well for their confidence level.

There just isn’t a lot of upside or reason for optimism with the group.

“I wasn’t at all displeased with the way the two right guards played,” said Harbaugh of Skura and Eluemunor. “But across the board, we had an issue here, an issue there that ended up hurting us against a defense that played really well, and it snowballed on us.”

The line is the biggest reason for concern, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other problems. Flacco continues to check down and throw short passes at an alarming rate, even on the occasions when there isn’t pressure in the pocket. His 5.3 yards per attempt rank last in the NFL and will not quell concerns about the health of his back as he’s already thrown four interceptions in just 69 attempts.

Perhaps more appalling than anything has been the disappearance of the wide receivers, who have caught a total of 13 passes. Thirty-five players in the league currently have more receptions while Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman have caught only four passes for 26 yards between them. The trio of Jeremy Maclin, Wallace, and Perriman should be a relative strength of the offense, but you’d never know it when watching the Ravens operate so far in September.

Flacco again pointed to game situations to defend the poor numbers, but he acknowledged the need for improvement moving forward.

“If you don’t get everybody involved and get those guys’ confidence going and level of play really going, you have no shot,” Flacco said. “Football is a team game, and it is about getting everybody going and everybody involved. The more that we can do that, the better it is going to suit us.”

Sunday’s game will provide an interesting test. The Ravens return home to M&T Bank Stadium where Pittsburgh hasn’t won since 2012, but the Steelers currently rank second in total defense and pass defense and third in the NFL in points per game allowed.

Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh offense are off to a slow start in September, but they have too much talent to expect them to be down for long. The Ravens offense is going to have to show it can pick up the slack, but we have no idea if the group is capable without an otherworldly performance by the defense.

Last Sunday’s test was a colossal failure, but the Ravens want to prove that was an aberration.

“We built our team to play against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are coming to our house this week, and we have a good football team,” Flacco said. “We have to continue to believe that and continue to go out there and do what we have been doing and do it a little better.”

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