Tag Archive | "John Harbaugh"

Returning Ngata auditioning for future in playoff run

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Returning Ngata auditioning for future in playoff run

Posted on 30 December 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The timing couldn’t have been better for the return of Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata from a four-game suspension.

Not only do the Pittsburgh Steelers loom in the first round of the AFC playoffs, but Baltimore lost rookie defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan — Ngata’s replacement over the last month — to a foot injury in the regular-season finale. Even if the Steelers are without Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell on Saturday night, there’s no understating the boost a five-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman can provide for a postseason run.

“He was missed a lot in the locker room, especially by me,” said outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who’s teamed with Ngata for the last nine years. “But as soon as we won [last Sunday], we saw the score, we’re in, and we’re like, ‘Yo, we get Haloti back.’ Now the locker room is kind of back [and] complete, so to say. It’s good to have one of the best interior linemen in the game going into a big playoff game like this.”

Teammates and coaches appear to have welcomed Ngata back with open arms after a positive test for Adderall cost him the final four games of the regular season, but it’s fair to wonder how much damage might have been done to his potential future in Baltimore. Ngata is scheduled to carry a $16 million salary cap figure in 2015 — the final year of a $61 million deal signed in 2011 — and many wondered how the Ravens would plan to address his contract long before the news came of his suspension on Dec. 4.

The 2006 first-round pick is one of the best players in franchise history and has been a respected member of the locker room for nearly a decade, which made his suspension as surprising as it was disappointing. In the midst of his strongest season since 2011, Ngata testing positive for Adderall was, at best, a substantial error in judgment as it now makes critics question how long he’s used a drug the NFL considers a performance-enhancing substance without a prescription.

Ngata was noncommittal when asked if he’d seek a prescription to use Adderall in the future, preferring to keep the focus on the Ravens’ fourth all-time postseason meeting with Pittsburgh.

“It was rough — definitely rough,” Ngata said of his ban. “I was talking to a bunch of the guys, and it felt like I was retired watching football during the season while I was just at home watching the game. It felt weird, but I’m just glad that we were able to get the wins and get into the playoffs.”

The 30-year-old has played at a high level this season, but his suspension offered the Baltimore defense an opportunity to see how it would fare without him. Winning three of four games, the Ravens remained stout against the run as second-year nose tackle Brandon Williams and Jernigan anchored the defensive line for the league’s fourth-ranked rush defense. In truth, the unit didn’t appear to miss a beat, which is more of a compliment to the rest of the defensive line than a slight to Ngata.

General manager Ozzie Newsome and the front office have often preached about an “80/20 rule” for valuing players in which the Ravens will seek out players offering 80 percent of the production for 20 percent of the cost of a high-priced player. One wonders if spending high draft picks on Williams and Jernigan over the last two years and their performance in Ngata’s absence will ultimately push the veteran out the door this offseason — and save $8.5 million in cap space in the process.

Ngata will not only be returning to try to help the Ravens make another postseason run, but he’ll be auditioning for his future — in Baltimore or elsewhere. There’s no way the Ravens can justify a $16 million cap figure for Ngata next season, but the 340-pound defensive tackle has the opportunity to remind everyone of how much havoc he can create for an opposing offensive line.

But first, all eyes will be on his conditioning on Saturday after a four-game layoff.

“He’s been training — that’s what he told me,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “He looks good, and I’m sure he is. I’m sure he’s busting out of his skin. I’m sure he’s ready to go.”

The Ravens hope he’s ready to help them beat Pittsburgh for the first time ever in the postseason, and Ngata has plenty to prove in bouncing back from the lowest point of his NFL career. A standout showing in the postseason would make the Ravens feel better about pursuing a short-term extension with Ngata like they did with Suggs a year ago, but a quiet performance could reinforce the sentiment that it might be best to move on from the still-talented defensive tackle who is now on the wrong side of 30.

Ultimately, Newsome may decide it’s better to part ways with Ngata a year too early than to throw too much money at a player who isn’t getting any younger. His future may come down to just how much loyalty and regret he feels after putting his team in a bad spot over the final quarter of the regular season and how that could factor into negotiations.

If Ngata is looking for another significant payday, he may need to find it elsewhere. But if he’s willing to play ball with the Ravens in lowering his cap figure in exchange for a couple more seasons at a reasonable rate in Baltimore, he’ll have a chance to finish his career where it started.

“I just feel like I owe these guys,” said Ngata of his teammates. “I’m just going to do whatever I can to help the team, and I’m definitely just ready to get back out there again.”

The Ravens are certainly welcoming him back for what they hope is a meaningful postseason run, but how long will he remain after that?

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Harbaugh owes Andy Reid dinner for help getting to playoffs

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Harbaugh owes Andy Reid dinner for help getting to playoffs

Posted on 30 December 2014 by Luke Jones

Before turning his attention toward a wild-card meeting with Pittsburgh, head coach John Harbaugh thanked an old friend for helping the Ravens get to the postseason on Sunday.

Harbaugh reached out to Kansas City head coach Andy Reid via text messaging after the Chiefs knocked off San Diego to help the Ravens secure their sixth postseason berth in seven years. Baltimore earned the No. 6 seed after the 20-10 win over Cleveland and Kansas City’s 19-7 victory over the Chargers.

“I promised Andy dinner. He responded very favorably to that.,” said Harbaugh as he laughed. “He’s looking forward to his dinner. It probably won’t be cheap.”

Of course, Harbaugh worked as an assistant under Reid for nine years in Philadelphia, serving as his special teams coordinator for all but one of those seasons. The Ravens coach may need to sweeten the pot when remembering Reid and the Chiefs still had playoff hopes of their own in Week 17 before Baltimore and Houston both won.

It remains unclear whether Harbaugh will treat Reid to Maryland crab cakes or some famous Kansas City barbecue. Perhaps they’ll compromise by reminiscing over a couple Philly cheesesteaks.

Regardless of what’s ultimately on the menu, Harbaugh was glad to see the Chiefs rise to the occasion in the regular-season finale.

“Sometimes we don’t acknowledge how tough it is for everyone, [because] we look at our own situation all the time so hard,” Harbaugh said. “Everyone in this league fights week in and week out. It’s just a great league; it’s a great sport. It was a great victory for the Chiefs, and we’re happy they got it.”

The Ravens are scheduled to host the Chiefs at M&T Bank Stadium during the 2015 season.

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Ravens hoping for best with Jernigan, Monroe for Saturday

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Ravens hoping for best with Jernigan, Monroe for Saturday

Posted on 29 December 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens will prepare for their sixth postseason appearance in seven years this week knowing the status of defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan and left tackle Eugene Monroe will remain in question.

The rookie Jernigan left Sunday’s game with a left foot injury and didn’t return after being carted to the locker room. Head coach John Harbaugh didn’t offer a great deal of optimism for him playing in Saturday’s wild-card matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but Jernigan will not be placed on injured reserve and would appear to have a good chance to return for the divisional round if the Ravens advance.

In 12 games, Jernigan has collected 23 tackles and four sacks after being selected in the second round of May’s draft.

“I haven’t heard anything yet from our trainer other than it’s not a season-ending injury,” Harbaugh said on Monday. “It’s not a Lisfranc, so there is an opportunity possibly for him to get back Saturday night. It will be close, it will be tough, but if he responds really well in the next two days, he actually could get back and play.”

The loss of Jernigan is certainly eased by the return of five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata from a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy. Harbaugh said Monday that the 30-year-old appeared to be in good shape upon reporting back to the Ravens’ Owings Mills training facility.

Ngata hasn’t played since the Week 13 home loss to San Diego and was banned four games for testing positive for Adderall.

The potential for the return of left tackle Eugene Monroe sounds more promising after he missed Sunday’s 20-10 win over the Cleveland Browns. Monroe was in a walking boot last week after injuring his ankle in the Week 16 loss to Houston, but his chances appear better to play against the Steelers, which would be an important development in trying to slow the Pittsburgh pass rush.

Rookie free agent James Hurst made his fifth start of the year at left tackle on Sunday after filling in earlier in the year when Monroe underwent arthroscopic knee surgery.

“It’s at least 50-50. We’ll be pulling for that, but we’ll see how it goes,” said Harbaugh of Monroe’s chances of playing Saturday night. “I thought James played well. I really don’t feel a problem with James playing in there at all, either. It’s a real plus for us.”

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Ngata set to return from suspension for start of playoffs

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Ngata set to return from suspension for start of playoffs

Posted on 28 December 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata’s season isn’t over after all.

With Baltimore qualifying for the postseason on Sunday, the five-time Pro Bowl selection will be reinstated Monday after serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy. In a statement released by the team when he was suspended, Ngata admitted to testing positive for Adderall.

The ninth-year defensive lineman was in the midst of his best season since 2011 as he collected 31 tackles, two sacks, seven pass breakups, two forced fumbles, and two interceptions in 12 games before news came of his suspension on Dec. 4.

His return comes at the perfect time after rookie Timmy Jernigan left Sunday’s game with a foot injury. After filling in for Ngata over the last four games, Jernigan will undergo a magnetic resonance imaging exam on Monday.

“We get the big guy back,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “It’s very unfortunate about young Timmy Jernigan, but he’s young. Those kids heal amazing. He’s going to heal, and we’re going to get him back when we get him back. But it’s great to get my brother back, to [get] one of the leaders of this team back. That’s huge for us.”

Ngata’s conditioning will be in question after not playing in a game since Week 13.

He reportedly has been training at his home in Utah during the four-game ban. Head coach John Harbaugh said he expects the 6-foot-4, 340-pound Ngata to pick up where he left off when he returns to the Ravens’ Owings Mills facility this week.

Nose tackle Brandon Williams quipped after the game that he sent Ngata a text message reminding him about the defensive line’s lifting session on Monday morning.

“I’m confident Haloti will be ready to go. That’s his job — to be ready to go,” Harbaugh said. “I’m confident he’ll do it. He has done it before. He has been there; he knows what’s at stake.”

 

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Even with long odds, Ravens still rolling shiny dice in January

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Even with long odds, Ravens still rolling shiny dice in January

Posted on 28 December 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — It had been a forgettable seven quarters of football for Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense.

Coming off one of the worst games of his career in the offensive meltdown in Houston, Flacco and the Ravens weren’t faring much better Sunday as they trailed 10-3 to the Cleveland Browns entering the fourth quarter. Knowing they were getting the necessary help from Kansas City to make the playoffs as the No. 6 seed, the Ravens needed to break through the thick fog that was threatening to wreck their season.

Even if it took an extra quarter to take effect, the message came loud and clear from their franchise quarterback at halftime.

“Joe stepped up at halftime when he talked to the team briefly,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “He just made a point, kept it simple and said, ‘Let’s just go win a game.’ That kind of summed it all up for us. Let’s go do what we have to do to win a football game.”

Win is what the Ravens did in a 20-10 final to punch their ticket to the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years. The performance wasn’t pretty and does little to quell concerns about an offense that continues to start games at a glacial pace.

But with it also came a reminder why Baltimore can’t be counted out in the postseason despite a banged-up offensive line, a recently-inconsistent running game, and a patchwork secondary. Few expect a long playoff run for the Ravens as they face the prospects of three straight road games just to make it to Super Bowl XLIX, but don’t tell that to their seventh-year quarterback.

After completing just 14 of 27 passes for 151 yards and a 68.6 passer rating through the first three quarters Sunday, Flacco went 8-for-9 for 161 yards, two touchdown passes, and a perfect 158.3 rating in the final 15 minutes as the Ravens scored 17 unanswered points to finish off the Browns. It was the kind of performance that reminds you how dangerous Flacco can be when he heats up, just like he did in his historic 2012 postseason that resulted in a Super Bowl title.

“Anything can happen once you get into the playoffs, but I don’t necessarily want to approach it [with that mindset] with us,” Flacco said. “I’m not going to be surprised if, three weeks from now, we’re sitting here and still playing. I think when I say anything can happen — or if I was to say that — that’s implying we don’t deserve to win any games in the playoffs.”

Of course, Flacco wasn’t alone in stepping up in the fourth quarter as Torrey Smith beat Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden to make a spectacular 53-yard reception to swing the momentum with just over eight minutes to go. The fourth-year wideout then reined in a 16-yard touchdown catch on the next play as the Ravens took a 13-10 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

The Ravens know they’ll need to rediscover their running game for a full four quarters and to lean on a potent pass rush when potentially facing the AFC’s top quarterbacks in January — starting with Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger on Saturday night — but any chance of a meaningful playoff run will begin and end with Flacco, who had the best regular season of his career despite the poor showing in Houston and the shaky beginning to Sunday’s game. The 29-year-old threw for 3,986 yards and 27 touchdowns this season, which were both career highs.

Even with long odds as the No. 6 seed, the Ravens know Flacco can be the lucky dice at the playoff table.

“When Joe is hot, he’s tough to handle,” Smith said. “And that’s on us at times to get him hot and our offensive line to do a great job protecting him. When you get him hot, we’ve seen what he can do. Hopefully, that last quarter, or whatever amount it was he got hot, hopefully that continues on.”

The comparisons to 2012 will be made by optimists this week as the 10-6 Ravens return to the playoffs after a one-year absence, but they won’t be afforded the luxury of a wild-card round home game like they enjoyed two years ago. Baltimore only won consecutive road contests once this season in topping New Orleans and Miami over a three-week stretch and would need three straight to make it to Arizona.

Only one of the Ravens’ 10 wins this season came against an opponent that finished the year with a winning record — Pittsburgh in Week 2. They were 1-6 against teams that finished the season above .500.

The health of left tackle Eugene Monroe will be closely monitored after he missed Sunday’s game with an ankle injury. It’s difficult envisioning the Ravens surviving very long without either starting tackle as Rick Wagner was lost for the season last week.

A band-aid secondary has played admirably over the last four weeks, but too much optimism would be fool’s gold after the Ravens faced the likes of Blake Bortles, Case Keenum, and Connor Shaw in December. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata’s return from suspension will provide a boost to an already-imposing defensive line, but the foot injury suffered by improving rookie Timmy Jernigan on Sunday could neutralize the overall impact.

On top of it all, the Ravens will travel to Pittsburgh, a place where they’re winless in three previous playoff trips with the most recent coming at the end of the 2010 season.

There are plenty of reasons not to like the Ravens’ chances in the 2014 postseason, but could Flacco’s awakening in the fourth quarter on Sunday be a sign of what’s to come in January?

“I have no idea. If we go win the Super Bowl, I guess it will be,” Flacco said. “The goal is not to make the playoffs. That’s the first part. That has to happen in order to achieve your goal. That’s really not the goal. I’ve been here through plenty of wins in the playoffs and then losses in the AFC championship game, losses in the division round, and believe me, people aren’t any happier just because you made the playoffs. It’s not a good feeling.

“Like I said, I think if we go do what we’re capable of doing then a game like this will mean something.”

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Slow offensive starts threatening to bring Ravens’ season to abrupt finish

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Slow offensive starts threatening to bring Ravens’ season to abrupt finish

Posted on 22 December 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — No one could have predicted Sunday’s offensive debacle that resulted in the Ravens losing control of their path to the playoffs, but the 25-13 loss continued a disturbing trend in the final month of the season.

Despite winning two of three December games on the way to a 9-6 record, Baltimore has needed to overcome alarmingly slow starts against Miami, Jacksonville, and, finally, Houston. Of course, those offensive woes continued throughout the day against the Texans as the Ravens managed only 64 total yards through the first three quarters, bringing the concern to the forefront.

In 21 first-quarter plays against the Dolphins, Jaguars, and Texans, the Ravens compiled just 54 yards, one first down, and seven points, which came on a punt block returned for a touchdown against Jacksonville. For an offense that entered Week 16 ranked 10th in total yards and eighth in points per game, the poor starts are difficult to explain, but Sunday illustrated how a disturbing trend will ultimately catch up with you before too long.

Head coach John Harbaugh didn’t offer much clarity on the first-quarter problems when asked about them on Monday.

“Each game has been different,” Harbaugh said. “Every play and every series is different. There are different reasons for it. We’ve also had fast starts, too.”

The better starts have been few and far between as the Ravens have only scored more than seven points in the first quarter twice all season, the 28-point explosion against Tampa Bay in Week 6 and a 10-point effort against San Diego in Week 13. In contrast, Baltimore has failed to score in the opening quarter seven times this season while being shut out in only four other 15-minute periods.

The Ravens have scored 76 points in the first quarter this season with the 28 against the Buccaneers skewing the total substantially. They’ve scored 93 in the second, 91 in the third, and 129 in the fourth quarters of play.

So, what’s been the issue?

Some observers suggest the Ravens’ preference to defer whenever they win the coin toss as a potential factor. Baltimore has kicked off to begin games 10 times this year, but the offense has scored on three of five possessions when receiving the ball at the start of the game. Like Harbaugh, many coaches prefer receiving the ball to begin the second half when a game has already taken shape, but perhaps the Ravens offense needs to be thrown into the fire to wake up more quickly.

It’s fair to note that kicking off in the first quarter will limit a team’s possessions in the opening 15 minutes, but a 15-game body of work is too big of a sample to simply dismiss the problem.

“We give thought to that every week. We consider all the ramifications of that,” said Harbaugh about the decision to receive or defer. “We do what we think is best to win the game. We generally like to start on defense. That’s generally our rule of thumb. If you look at the stats on it, that’s the way to go. You have a little better chance, maybe a percent-and-a-half better at winning, historically, if you defer and kickoff.

“We also have a very good defense, so we like doing that. But it could change next week. It’s not to say that it couldn’t change or we have any aversion to taking the ball.”

Others wonder if offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s opening script of plays is either too predictable or fails to adjust to what a defense is showing in the early stages of the game. As was the case earlier in the year against Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and even Tennessee, the Texans showed plenty of A-gap blitzing to bring pressure up the middle against quarterback Joe Flacco. The Ravens failed to handle it physically or schematically in what was the start of a very long day.

But the biggest issue with the slow starts in recent weeks has been the absence of the running game, which has paced Baltimore to its 9-6 record and entered Sunday’s game ranked fifth in the NFL. In the last three games, the Ravens have gained only 18 yards on 10 carries in the first quarter.

The lack of production in the running game has led to far too many third-and-long situations and makes Flacco and the offense too predictable. The Ravens are 0-for-6 on third down in the first quarter over the last three weeks, failing to stay on schedule in sustaining drives.

“They’ve blitzed the run game quite a bit,” Harbaugh said. “In some games, we’ve handled that and made them pay for it, and some games we haven’t, and in this game we certainly didn’t hurt them.”

A game is rarely won or lost in the first quarter — as their overall record proves — but the Ravens’ most-recent streak of slow starts offensively finally caught up with them in dramatic fashion on Sunday. And if they manage to find their way into the postseason, the trend will need to be reversed if the Ravens want any good shot of competing beyond the first weekend in January.

It’s a weakness that’s prevented a good offense from being very good for the better part of the 2014 season.

“I guess I don’t feel as somber about it as you all do,” said Harbaugh about turning the page from the disappointment of Sunday. “There is no success without failure. You don’t improve and grow [without failure]. There’s a process to it all, and you come up short sometimes, and we came up short in this game, but that’s how you improve and get better.”

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Control of playoff path slips away along with Ravens’ late-season mettle

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Control of playoff path slips away along with Ravens’ late-season mettle

Posted on 21 December 2014 by Luke Jones

There are tough losses and then there’s that rare defeat that forces you to reevaluate everything you thought you knew about a football team.

The Ravens experienced the latter Sunday in falling to the Houston Texans in a 25-13 final with numbers that don’t do justice to how miserable the performance was. Baltimore has experienced bigger margins of defeat in the John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco era, but most haven’t come in a spot in which the Ravens had so much to lose.

Sunday was easily the worst offensive performance of the season as the Ravens were held to an anemic 64 yards through the first three quarters. From Flacco and the running game to the offensive line and the wide receivers, no part of the performance was remotely acceptable, including a coaching staff that failed to account for the Texans’ pass rush throughout the day or to find answers to get the all-important running game on track.

For the second straight year, the Ravens entered Week 16 in complete control of their path to the playoffs, needing two wins to guarantee a trip to the postseason. And just like last year’s home defeat to New England in the penultimate game of the regular season, the Ravens were dominated while watching that playoff power slip through their fingers.

Losing big at home to the Patriots last season was bad enough, but at least it came against a team regarded as one of the NFL’s best. On Sunday, the Ravens fell on the road to a team sporting a .500 record and starting a fourth-string quarterback who was signed off another team’s practice squad earlier in the week.

Of course, Sunday’s defeat had very little to do with Texans quarterback Case Keenum and everything to do with a Houston defense that overwhelmed Flacco and the offense. The Texans deserve plenty of credit and have the best defensive player on the planet in J.J. Watt, but the Ravens offense coming up so small with the stakes so high negates much of the progress made in Gary Kubiak’s first year as coordinator.

It reeked of the ineptitude of last year.

As much scrutiny as the Ravens defense has drawn over a secondary ravaged by injuries, Dean Pees’ unit played admirably in limiting the Texans to just one touchdown in seven trips inside the red zone. You could have almost stomached a defeat in which Texans receivers Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins kept running free and Keenum caught lightning in a bottle, but the Baltimore defense was acceptable on Sunday.

The Ravens can still make the playoffs with a win over Cleveland next Sunday and either two losses by Cincinnati or a San Diego loss at Kansas City, but their loss on Sunday makes you wonder if they’ve lost the late-season mettle made famous in Harbaugh’s first five years at the helm. Maybe it’s because of certain talent deficiencies, something missing in their current DNA, or both, but the Ravens just didn’t lose games like Sunday’s in Harbaugh’s first five seasons.

After 15 games and just two wins over teams currently holding a .500 record, the 9-6 Ravens just might not be all that good. Their biggest critics have repeatedly pointed out how they’ve benefited from playing the woeful NFC South as Baltimore holds a 5-6 record against the rest of the league. Beating bad teams is well and good, but you have to rise to the occasion to put yourself in position to do something special by beating quality opponents.

Are the Ravens good enough to make the playoffs in 2014? Sure, as long as they win next week and receive some outside help from other less-than-stellar talent in the AFC. Plenty of teams have made the playoffs without looking like they “deserve” it.

But it’s difficult envisioning the Ravens going on any kind of a significant run in January, especially with the offense regressing over the last few weeks and a defense with band-aids upon band-aids in the secondary. The uncertainty after injuries to offensive tackles Eugene Monroe and Rick Wagner certainly won’t help, either.

Sunday brought reality into a nightmarish focus.

The Ravens not only lost control of their path to the postseason, but their proven late-season mettle appeared to slip away with it.

They can begin trying to find it again next week, but there’s no guarantee the ride will continue beyond that.

And they have no one to blame but themselves.

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Ravens-Texans: Five predictions for Sunday

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Ravens-Texans: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 20 December 2014 by Luke Jones

Sunday represents a homecoming for a number of players and coaches as the Ravens travel to Houston to take on the Texans.

From offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and assistants Rick Dennison and Brian Pariani to tight end Owen Daniels, running back Justin Forsett, and wide receiver Jacoby Jones, plenty of Ravens will be returning to a place they called home for a number of years, but there’s little time for sentimentality when you’re in the playoff race. At 9-5, Baltimore can clinch a playoff spot in Week 16 with a win and losses by both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh or a win over the Texans coupled with defeats by both San Diego and Kansas City.

On the surface, the Ravens should feel very confident as the Texans are turning to their fourth quarterback of the season — expected to be the newly-signed Case Keenum — but Houston still possesses the best defensive player on the planet in J.J. Watt and a powerful running game that ranks fourth in the NFL. The 7-7 Texans are a long shot to sneak into the playoffs at this point, but they’d like nothing more than to spoil Baltimore’s playoff chances on Sunday.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Texans meet for the seventh time in regular-season history with the Ravens holding a 6-1 edge, which doesn’t include their 20-13 win over Houston in the 2011 postseason. Baltimore is 3-1 against Houston at NRG Stadium.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens hope to clinch a playoff spot in Week 16 …

1. Baltimore will advance its streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher to 25 games, but Arian Foster will have a season-high total against the Ravens defense. No opposing running back has even gotten close to the century mark this season as Ahmad Bradshaw of Indianapolis has the highest total of the year against the Ravens with just 68 in Week 5. However, Foster will represent the greatest test the Ravens have seen since Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata was suspended for Adderall use. Both defenses will be familiar with the opposing rushing attack as the Ravens and Texans both use the zone stretch, but Houston will be a bit too predictable relying on the run due to the uncertainty at the quarterback position. Foster will rush for more yards against the Ravens than any back this season, but his total will remain south of 100 yards.

2. Daniels will catch a touchdown and have his best game of the season against his former team. The longtime Texans tight end having a strong day against his former team would be a feel-good story, but quarterback Joe Flacco went out of his way earlier in the week to say Daniels needs to be more involved in the offense. Against Jacksonville, Daniels was targeted nine times — the most he’s been thrown to since Week 9 — and caught four passes for 62 yards and his first touchdown since Week 7. The Ravens’ 17th-ranked red-zone attack remains a weakness of a strong offensive attack, but the reemergence of Daniels would be a major factor in a potential trip to the playoffs. His familiarity with the Texans’ defensive personnel will help him produce a season-high in yards, besting the 70 he had against the Colts in Week 5.

3. Watt will collect a sack and bat down a pass, but the Ravens will throw away from him and run plenty of counters to try to minimize his impact. The Texans defensive end might go down as the most disruptive defensive force the NFL has seen since Lawrence Taylor, but the Ravens can only focus on minimizing his impact as much as possible on Sunday. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel will move Watt all over the defensive line, so the key is identifying where he lines up and running the play away from him. Flacco will throw to the opposite side of where Watt lines up to try to minimize his ability to use his 6-foot-5 frame to disrupt passing lanes, but running the counter is effective in slowing his motor as well as the rest of the Houston pass rush. Watt will see double-teams, chip blocks, and max protect as well, but play selection will be just as important.

4. Daryl Smith will pick up his second interception of the year to continue his strong finish to the season. A slow start and the emergence of rookie C.J. Mosley have led many to overlook how well the veteran linebacker has played in the second half of the season. An effective blitzer and still the Ravens’ best linebacker in pass coverage, Smith could be a key factor in trying to confuse Keenum, who proved to be an aggressive passer who couldn’t handle a pass rush in eight games for the Texans last season. It’s obvious the Baltimore defense will try to pressure the young quarterback, but Smith could prove key by showing blitz up the middle before dropping into pass coverage. The secondary will have its hands full with wide receivers Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins — if the latter plays — but Smith will come away with a pick with Keenum facing a heavy rush.

5. Baltimore’s advantage at the quarterback position will be the ultimate difference in a tight 23-16 win for the Ravens. Last week’s struggles against the Jaguars should remind everyone that nothing is guaranteed in the NFL, and the Texans remained competitive in Indianapolis last week despite veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick going down with a broken leg. Bill O’Brien’s team has talent on both sides of the ball, but it’s very difficult imagining John Harbaugh and the Ravens losing to a fourth-string quarterback under these critical circumstances. Flacco will need to stand tall against a formidable pass rush, but he’s played very well since the bye week, a trend that will continue against a mediocre secondary. It will be a tight game in Houston, but the Ravens will get some revenge for Kubiak and find a way to move to 10-5 on the season.

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With past and future hot topics, Kubiak focused on present with Ravens

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With past and future hot topics, Kubiak focused on present with Ravens

Posted on 18 December 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak quipped that he has his hands too full trying to slow All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt this Sunday to think about anything else, but you can only downplay the emotions of going home so much.

Not only is the 53-year-old assistant returning to Houston to face a Texans team he coached for eight years, but it’s the city in which Kubiak was born and raised, growing up five miles from the historic Astrodome and present-day NRG Stadium. And it’s where he feels he didn’t live up to expectations as the head coach when he was fired in early December of what amounted to a 2-14 season for the Texans a year ago.

Kubiak finished 61-64 in Houston, but his firing in 2013 came after consecutive AFC South division titles in 2011 and 2012, the only playoff appearances in the 13-year history of the franchise.

“I failed with that football team, so it’s very difficult and I understand the business and how it works,” said Kubiak, who spoke highly of the organization and Texans owner Bob McNair for giving him his first opportunity to be an NFL head coach. “But it’s funny how things work out, too. For me to have an opportunity with this organization, I’m just so appreciative of that and getting back to work. That’s the best medicine for a football coach.”

The stakes of Sunday’s game illustrate Kubiak’s focus on the present amidst questions about his past in Houston and his potential future as a head coaching candidate this offseason. The Ravens can clinch a playoff spot with a win and losses by both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh or a victory over Houston coupled with losses by Kansas City and San Diego in Week 16.

Of course, Kubiak isn’t alone in returning to Houston as tight end Owen Daniels began his NFL career with the Texans in 2006, Kubiak’s first year as the head coach, and running back Justin Forsett and wide receiver Jacoby Jones also played there. But it’s a different feeling for a former head coach than a player whose opportunities are typically more abundant when let go.

“We haven’t really talked about it too much,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “I saw [Kubiak’s wife, Rhonda, recently], and you definitely know that it means a lot. Like I said, I think he’ll probably have it in his mind, or Owen or whoever, but it’ll definitely be there in the back of some of our minds also just to make sure that we can [win for him].”

It’s hard to argue that Kubiak wound up in an enviable position directing the offense of a 9-5 team on the cusp of making the playoffs. And teams with potential head coaching openings will take notice of Flacco having the finest regular season of his career under Kubiak.

The seventh-year signal-caller has shown improved footwork and awareness in the pocket running Kubiak’s West Coast attack that focuses on more short-to-intermediate passing than what Flacco was used to in the past. Though much of Flacco’s direct communication is with quarterbacks coach Rick Dennison — Kubiak’s former offensive coordinator in Houston — the quarterback and the offensive coordinator have credited adjustments made at the bye week that have helped the 29-year-old raise his level of play down the stretch.

Flacco has completed 66.7 percent of his passes in three of the last four games to orchestrate key road wins in New Orleans and Miami. Kubiak said he looks forward to Flacco’s feedback for the game plan every week and says their relationship continues to improve with nearly a full season together under their belts.

“When he starts talking, Joe likes to talk, so he’ll let me know what he thinks,” said Kubiak as he chuckled. “Our relationship, it’s been good. I coach him hard, but I have a tremendous respect for him, and I think he knows that, and I need to listen to him. That’s my job as a coach.”

Flacco is only one part of the offensive renaissance as the Ravens are on pace to set franchise records for points scored and total yards. A running game that ranked last in the NFL in yards per carry (3.1) a year ago is averaging 4.6 yards per attempt, which would be the third-highest mark in franchise history behind only the 2003 and 2009 seasons. It was Kubiak who suggested to head coach John Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome that the Ravens bring in the journeyman Forsett, who leads all running backs with a 5.4 yards per carry average and has been one of the great stories of the 2014 season.

But Kubiak’s greatest success has been with the offensive line as his zone-blocking system has meshed better with personnel than what offensive line coach Juan Castillo tried to implement in a disastrous 2013 campaign. Left guard Kelechi Osemele and right tackle Rick Wagner have blossomed into Pro Bowl-caliber linemen this year while three-time Pro Bowl selection Marshal Yanda is having arguably the finest season of his career.

The offensive line has blocked for the league’s fifth-ranked rushing attack and has allowed Flacco to be sacked just 16 times all year, which currently ranks just ahead of the lowest single-season total allowed (17) in team history in 2006.

“The biggest thing is the way our offensive line has been playing,” Flacco said. “I think that has a lot to do with the way these guys coach it and the way their system runs. It allows them to play aggressively and play fast and really use their best assets to the fullest. They don’t have any tentativeness when they’re playing. They’re just going full-throttle and really attacking people, and I think that is why it serves us the best.”

Kubiak has been so successful that the Ravens may find themselves right back where they started last January if he receives another head coaching job after the season. Harbaugh and the organization would like nothing more than to have continuity at the offensive coordinator spot after Cam Cameron was dismissed late in the 2012 season and Jim Caldwell left to become the head coach of the Detroit Lions after last year’s 8-8 campaign.

Players such as Daniels and Forsett who remember Kubiak in Houston have said they’ve seen a more relaxed man with an obvious passion for teaching and coaching in his new role. A year away from the pressure of being the man in charge has likely helped his overall health, which came into question last year when he suffered a mini-stroke at halftime of a game in early November.

Asked if he’s thought about the possibility of another NFL team calling with the offer of a head gig this winter, Kubiak insists his focus lies solely with the Ravens.

“I don’t think about that at all; I can tell you that. I’m consumed with what I’m doing,” Kubiak said. “Every opportunity I’ve ever had in my life, hopefully it’s because I’m doing a good job and working my tail off where I’m at. I think if you worry about those things, you don’t enjoy what you’re doing at the time. Boy, am I enjoying what I’m doing right now.”

It’s human nature to take a moment from time to time to reflect on where you’ve been and where you might be going next, and Sunday will mark one of those times for Kubiak as the Ravens hope to punch their ticket to the postseason. He may not admit it openly, but you’d have to think he would like nothing more than to end what faint playoff hopes the 7-7 Texans currently have while guiding the Ravens offense to another victory.

A win may not erase the painful memory of being fired from a city he’s called home for much of his life, but Kubiak would be able to hold his head high while remembering his accomplishments in Houston.

“Last season wasn’t what we wanted when we were there,” said Daniels, who was cut by the Texans in March, “but he sure changed the culture around there in terms of everyone in that building being focused on winning. He deserves a lot of credit for that. For him to go back — and hopefully we can take care of business — that will be huge.”

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Ravens hoping best yet to come for veteran tight end Daniels

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Ravens hoping best yet to come for veteran tight end Daniels

Posted on 17 December 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens tight end Owen Daniels still makes his home in Houston and says he holds no “ill will” toward the Texans, but he won’t be feeling too sentimental playing his former team for the first time on Sunday.

Of course, the 9-5 Ravens have plenty to play for in trying to punch their ticket to the postseason, but the 32-year-old will also remember the place he called home for eight years telling him last March he was no longer wanted.

“When you work somewhere for so long and then they say that you’re not good enough to play there anymore and you get a chance to play them that following season, you definitely want to prove to them that they made a mistake,” Daniels said. “But I’ve been trying to do that all season with my play — not just in this one game.

“It will be cool going back there, and hopefully I’ll get a chance to make some plays. I don’t care if I don’t get one catch [and] block the whole game. As long as we come out there with a [win], that’s the best thing that can happen.”

The Ravens hope Daniels’ resurgence in the Week 15 win over Jacksonville is a sign of better things to come the rest of the way. In the 20-12 win, he caught four passes for 62 yards and a touchdown, his first score since the Week 7 win over Atlanta.

The strong performance broke a four-game stretch of Daniels catching only two passes per contest as he was targeted nine times by quarterback Joe Flacco against the Jaguars. Considering Daniels was signed to serve as the No. 2 tight end behind Dennis Pitta, the Ravens should be satisfied with the 45 catches, 474 receiving yards, and four touchdown receptions he’s provided after signing a one-year, $1 million contract in early April.

His solid play proves he still had something left in the tank despite a broken leg that limited him to five games in his final year with the Texans and concerns over a hamstring injury that slowed him during his first training camp with the Ravens.

“He’s having a lot of success up there this year,” said former Texans teammate and fellow University of Wisconsin product J.J. Watt, who played with Daniels for three seasons in Houston. “You’re happy for him, obviously being a Badger. It’s good to see him having success having played with him a little while here.”

His numbers aren’t eye-popping, but the leadership he’s provided rookie Crockett Gillmore and fellow youngster Phillip Supernaw has been invaluable in addition to filling the void left behind by the injured Pitta, who was lost for the season after dislocating and fracturing his hip for the second time in 14 months back in Week 3.

Despite undergoing a knee cleanup procedure days before the Week 8 loss at Cincinnati, Daniels returned the following week to make six catches for 53 yards in a losing effort at Pittsburgh. The procedure has allowed Daniels to feel fresh late in the season, a trait head coach John Harbaugh noticed recently while watching old film of Daniels when he was still playing as a member of the Texans.

“He said, ‘You are moving a lot better than you were last year,’” said Daniels of the coach’s remarks. “I’m not sure why. The knee feels good this year, especially since getting it cleaned out. It hasn’t been an issue, and hopefully it won’t be.”

Needing wins in their final two games to be guaranteed a trip to the playoffs, the Ravens know Daniels becoming a bigger part of the offense could be a significant factor in improving their chances in January. Both Daniels and Flacco acknowledged their chemistry is better while still having room to improve, but the Baltimore quarterback was outspoken in his desire to get the veteran tight end more involved in the passing game.

The Ravens rank only 17th in the NFL in red-zone offense, but it was Daniels’ 3-yard touchdown catch that gave them the lead for good against the Jaguars in the third quarter last Sunday.

“I’d like to get him even more involved, more catches,” Flacco said. “We had some opportunities in the game Sunday to make more plays, and we were just a little off. Each week’s getting better and better, but I want to get him involved because I think he’s a good player and he makes us go when we get him involved.”

 

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