Tag Archive | "John Harbaugh"

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Ravens’ season-ending dud only reconfirms issues for offseason

Posted on 01 January 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens played exactly like a team whose season had come to an end in Pittsburgh a week earlier.

Despite practically taking offense at the notion that their season-ending trip to Cincinnati was meaningless throughout the week, Baltimore’s performance against the Bengals was nothing short of offensive on Sunday, particularly in the first half of the 27-10 defeat. But it shouldn’t change anything once you move past the New Year’s Day sting and take consolation in a better draft pick a few months from now.

It was a meaningless game, remember?

We weren’t going to learn anything about the Ravens that we didn’t already know, even if you were surprised to see them sleepwalk against a Bengals team that had been out of the playoff race for weeks.

We’d already seen this offense make it look incredibly difficult to move the ball throughout the season with few exceptions. This group once again made it look like the Ravens were playing 11-on-15 football for much of the afternoon.

Joe Flacco threw more than 40 passes for the 11th time this season, and the ninth-year quarterback failed to eclipse the 300-yard mark for the seventh of those performances, illustrating how inefficient this pass-heavy attack has been all year.

This offense needs to be blown up and rebuilt with the top objective of getting Flacco playing at a higher level in a more balanced attack. Other than a couple decent performances late in the season, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg showed little evidence of being able to do the job after replacing Marc Trestman in October. Sunday just reiterated that point when he called for a pass on first-and-goal at the Cincinnati 2 that resulted in a Flacco interception and later made the silly call to throw to offensive lineman Alex Lewis on a third-and-2 inside the Bengals’ 10.

The Ravens offense needs better coaching and more talent, especially with veteran wide receiver Steve Smith retiring.

More alarming than the season-long offensive ineptitude, however, has been the collapse of a defense that ranked first overall just a few weeks ago. The Ravens did nothing to bounce back from the ugliness of last week’s fourth quarter, allowing a Bengals offense without A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Jeremy Hill, and Giovani Bernard to score on each of its first four possessions.

That’s unacceptable.

After arguably doing the finest coaching job of his time in Baltimore through the first 12 games of the season, defensive coordinator Dean Pees is fairly under fire with the Ravens allowing 26 or more points in each of their final four games. The absence of No. 1 cornerback Jimmy Smith was significant, but that can’t excuse an undermanned Cincinnati offense moving against them with little resistance.

Was the defense tired down the stretch from carrying the offense for most of the season? What happened to a run defense that looked impenetrable just a few weeks ago?

The Ravens defense did an admirable job holding up without a consistent pass rush for much of the year, but that ability vanished down the stretch. Until Elvis Dumervil sacked Andy Dalton to conclude the third quarter on Sunday, Baltimore had gone almost 10 full quarters without a quarterback takedown.

Coaching changes or not, general manager Ozzie Newsome must address the pass rush with Terrell Suggs turning 35 next season and the 32-year-old Dumervil a possible salary-cap casualty. The secondary also needs more depth with injuries continuing to be a problem for Jimmy Smith.

Yes, it was alarming to see the Ravens go through the motions on Sunday, especially after head coach John Harbaugh was praised last season for the way his injury-depleted team continued to play hard down the stretch of a 5-11 campaign. But those players hadn’t experienced anything resembling the kind of gut-punch they took from the Steelers on Christmas.

The Ravens were ready to go home long before they took the field on Sunday, and what resulted wasn’t pretty. It was a bad look for both the coaching staff and the players — plain and simple.

But we’d already seen all there was to see from a team that wasn’t good enough in 2016.

How the Ravens performed in a meaningless game — good or bad — wasn’t going to change that.

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Ravens-Bengals: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 31 December 2016 by Luke Jones

Playing out the string.

Though the Ravens are closing out a regular season at Paul Brown Stadium for the fifth time in the last six years, this marks the first time that neither Baltimore nor Cincinnati is going to the playoffs since 2007 when John Harbaugh was still the special teams coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles. Even with nothing to play for beyond pride, the Ravens have declared their intentions to play all healthy veterans, a move that some have criticized in fear of a serious injury to a key player.

Meanwhile, the Bengals will miss the postseason for the first time since 2010 and have shut down several injured veterans such as wide receiver A.J. Green (hamstring) and tight end Tyler Eifert (back) in recent weeks.

It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet for the 42nd time in franchise history with Baltimore owning a 21-20 edge. The Ravens are seeking their first season sweep of the Bengals since 2011 and can also secure a 5-1 AFC North record, their best division mark since going 6-0 in that same season.

Below are five predictions for Sunday afternoon:

1. Justin Tucker will attempt a 60-plus-yard field goal. The two-time Pro Bowl kicker is a remarkable 10-for-10 on tries from 50 yards and longer and needs only one more to have sole possession of the single-season NFL record. The weather in Cincinnati should reach the mid-40s with minimal wind, conditions that are suitable enough to try a long field goal. Tucker has had one of the best kicking seasons in NFL history and deserves a chance to hit a season-long field goal at the very least.

2. Mike Wallace will reach 1,000 receiving yards for the first time since 2011. This is hardly going out on a limb with the first-year Raven just 16 yards shy of the mark, but Baltimore should make a conscious effort to get Wallace involved early after he was held to just four catches for 21 yards in Pittsburgh last week. Though the Ravens haven’t always utilized him well this season, Wallace has provided them with the vertical threat they sorely lacked after Torrey Smith’s free-agent departure.

3. Andy Dalton will throw for two touchdowns against a secondary once again without Jimmy Smith. It’s not a coincidence that the five highest passing totals allowed by the Baltimore defense this season have come in games in which the No. 1 cornerback missed significant time, a clear indication of the lack of depth in the secondary. The Ravens found a fourth-round gem in rookie Tavon Young, but finding another outside corner should be a priority this offseason.

4. Steve Smith will catch a touchdown and produce 80 receiving yards in his final NFL game. Joe Flacco throws to Smith often anyway, so there’s no reason to think the 37-year-old won’t be featured heavily. The mantra “Play like a Raven” has become a cliché in recent years, but the former Carolina Panther epitomizes the idea with the kind of intensity and physicality on which the success of this franchise was built. The Ravens are fortunate to have had the future Hall of Famer pass their way.

5. The Ravens will win in Cincinnati for the first time in exactly five years in a 23-17 final. Rarely have the Ravens ever looked like they were going through the motions under Harbaugh, which is why I expect them to play hard despite having their playoff hopes crushed last week in Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, the Bengals have been out of the playoff hunt for weeks while rumors have circulated about Marvin Lewis’ future. With an opportunity to send Steve Smith out on a positive note, the Ravens will win their first road game in over three months and finish the season with a respectable 9-7 record.

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Former Navy star Reynolds promoted to Ravens’ 53-man roster

Posted on 30 December 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The feel-good story of the Ravens’ 2016 draft class has taken the next step in fulfilling his NFL dream.

Wide receiver and former Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds was promoted to the 53-man roster on Friday morning after spending the entire year on the practice squad. The sixth-round pick was waived at the end of the preseason, but the Ravens thought highly enough of Reynolds’ character and potential to keep him in the organization.

“It’s a difficult thing making a transition like he’s doing,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “He works really hard at it every day. He’s learned a lot. Next year is going to be the year. We’ll see. He has to go to work the next three or four months, too, and get some real specific work as far as running routes and doing the things a slot receiver and an outside receiver have to do. He’s done a good job.”

It remains to be seen whether Reynolds will be active for Sunday’s season finale against Cincinnati after Harbaugh described his promotion as a reward from general manager Ozzie Newsome. Reynolds played sparingly in the preseason, making one catch for two yards and struggling to secure the football consistently as a return specialist.

Reynolds scored an NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision record 88 touchdowns while leading the triple-option attack for the Midshipmen.

“I was really happy. I called my parents to let them know,” Reynolds said. “It’s been a long season, and I’m just happy to be part of the squad on Sunday.”

To make room on the 53-man roster, cornerback Jimmy Smith (right ankle) was placed on season-ending injured reserve. Harbaugh said at the beginning of the week that Smith was likely to miss his third straight game with a high ankle sprain.

The Ravens officially ruled out inside linebacker Zach Orr (neck) and right tackle Rick Wagner (concussion). Scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent this offseason, Wagner may have played his final game with Baltimore last Sunday in Pittsburgh.

After practicing fully for the third straight week, rookie offensive lineman Alex Lewis (ankle) was once against listed as questionable on the final injury report, but he is likely to be active for the first time since Week 9 with Wagner sidelined. Lewis or veteran James Hurst will start at right tackle against the Bengals.

The Bengals officially ruled out left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi (shoulder) and wide receiver A.J. Green (hamstring) and declared linebacker Vontaze Burfict (concussion/knee) as doubtful to play. Running back Jeremy Hill (knee) is questionable to play against the Ravens.

The referee for Sunday’s game will be Pete Morelli.

According to Weather.com, the game-day forecast in Cincinnati calls for cloudy skies and temperatures in the mid-40s with a 70 percent chance of light rain and winds up to six miles per hour.

Below is the final full injury report:

BALTIMORE
OUT: LB Zach Orr (neck), OT Rick Wagner (concussion)
QUESTIONABLE: G Alex Lewis (ankle)

CINCINNATI
OUT: WR A.J. Green (hamstring), OT Cedric Ogbuehi (shoulder)
DOUBTFUL: LB Vontaze Burfict (knee/concussion), TE Tyler Kroft (knee/ankle)
QUESTIONABLE: RB Jeremy Hill (knee)

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Three Ravens starters still sidelined ahead of season finale

Posted on 29 December 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Three Ravens starters remain sidelined with injuries ahead of Sunday’s season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Right tackle Rick Wagner (concussion), inside linebacker Zach Orr (neck), and cornerback Jimmy Smith (ankle) all missed practice for the second straight day on Thursday. Head coach John Harbaugh said Monday that Smith is expected to miss his third straight game with a high ankle sprain.

It remains to be seen whether rookie Alex Lewis or veteran James Hurst would start at right tackle if Wagner cannot play while rookie Patrick Onwuasor could receive the start in place of Orr.

Center Jeremy Zuttah received a veteran day off on Thursday.

The Bengals continued to be without running back Jeremy Hill (knee), linebacker Vontaze Burfict (concussion/knee), and tight end Tyler Kroft (knee/ankle) for Thursday’s practice.

Below is Thursday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Zach Orr (neck), CB Jimmy Smith (ankle), OT Rick Wagner (concussion), C Jeremy Zuttah (non-injury)
FULL PARTICIPATION: G Alex Lewis (ankle), G Marshal Yanda (non-injury)

CINCINNATI
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Vontaze Burfict (knee/concussion), WR A.J. Green (hamstring), RB Jeremy Hill (knee), TE Tyler Kroft (knee/ankle), CB Josh Shaw (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: DE Will Clarke (ribs), CB Adam Jones (ankle), OT Cedric Ogbuehi (shoulder), LB Vincent Rey (hamstring), OT Andrew Whitworth (biceps), S Shawn Williams (ribs)

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 16 loss to Pittsburgh

Posted on 27 December 2016 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens falling 31-27 to Pittsburgh on Christmas Day to be eliminated from postseason contention, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The sting of a Ravens loss shouldn’t discount appreciation for what was a classic between these AFC North adversaries. This rivalry has lost some juice in recent years, but both teams deserve praise for one that was as good as it gets without being a playoff game.

2. That sentiment aside, the fourth-quarter defense must be addressed. I’ve been a supporter of defensive coordinator Dean Pees and believe he has done a good overall job with a unit lacking star power, but the Ravens have allowed 102 of their 294 total points in the final period this season.

3. If this is it for Steve Smith, Sunday was a strong final performance in the national spotlight as he caught seven passes for 79 yards and a touchdown. He’s 35 yards shy of an 800-yard season, which is exceptional for a 37-year-old coming off a serious Achilles injury.

4. It looked like 2016 was going to be a breakout year for Timmy Jernigan after he collected a sack in each of the first three games, but he’s recorded just one quarterback takedown since the Week 8 bye and hasn’t even registered a tackle over the last three games.

5. Breshad Perriman had a bad drop on the Ravens’ final touchdown drive, but I liked seeing Joe Flacco go right back to him on the next play for a 15-yard completion on third-and-10. This is going to be a huge offseason for the 2015 first-round pick to improve.

6. Counting the postseason, Baltimore is 11-22 on the road since Super Bowl XLVII with two wins against teams that finished with a winning record. The first was the 2014 wild-card victory over Pittsburgh and the other against the Steelers last year when Mike Vick started in place of Ben Roethlisberger.

7. The toughness with which he runs is impressive, but Kenneth Dixon won’t become a three-down back until he improves in pass protection. That has to be a goal for both him and Terrance West to work on this offseason.

8. The Ravens masked it well this season, but their pass rush ultimately cost them. According to Pro Football Focus, Roethlisberger was pressured on just four of his 33 dropbacks. It’s tough trying to blitz with Jimmy Smith out, but the defense needs more disruption from a four-man rush.

9. Terrell Suggs deserves praise for how he played this year, but the 34-year-old has gone without a sack in his last four games and had a combined one tackle against New England and Pittsburgh this month. Ozzie Newsome needs to find high-impact help at the position to help him out.

10. We all know health is the major concern with Michael Campanaro, but watching him these last two weeks makes you wonder why the Ravens didn’t part ways with Devin Hester a month sooner. Campanaro, Perriman, and Chris Moore are young players who should play more against Cincinnati.

11. I understand it’s in a coach’s fiber to do everything he can to win, but the organization should consider the dangers of exposing its most important players to injury in a meaningless road game against the Bengals. Does anyone sincerely care about finishing 9-7 compared to 8-8?

12. The seat is warm for John Harbaugh after missing the playoffs in three of four years, but firing him would be harsh after only one truly lousy season (2015). A once-proud franchise, Buffalo has had six head coaches since Harbaugh’s hiring. Finding someone even as good is hardly a given.

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Harbaugh says Ravens will play all healthy players against Cincinnati

Posted on 26 December 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — John Harbaugh says it will be business as usual for the Ravens as they conclude their season at Cincinnati on Sunday afternoon.

Despite being eliminated from postseason contention with their 31-27 defeat at Pittsburgh on Sunday, the ninth-year head coach expressed no intention of resting veterans in favor of younger players against the Bengals. A win would give the Ravens only their second winning season since Super Bowl XLVII.

“We’re going [there] to win the game,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll play our guys, and everybody that is healthy will go play. That’s the plan. I wouldn’t look at it any other way.”

With the Ravens having nothing to play before beyond the possibility of finishing with a winning record, a sound argument could be made for resting established veterans, especially those who’ve played with long-term injuries such as guard Marshal Yanda and linebacker Terrell Suggs. There’s always the risk of a key player suffering a serious injury that could hinder his status for the start of next season, but the limitations of a 53-man roster make it difficult to treat Sunday’s game like a preseason affair.

Still, young players such as wide receivers Breshad Perriman, Michael Campanaro, and Chris Moore, offensive linemen Alex Lewis and John Urschel, defensive end Brent Urban, and outside linebacker Matt Judon would benefit from more live-game reps after serving in limited roles this season. And observers who are focused on the big picture would also point to such a strategy increasing the likelihood of a loss to improve the Ravens’ standing for the 2017 draft.

Harbaugh shared no such sentiment on Monday.

“You try to win. We talked about it in the locker room after the game,” Harbaugh said. “That’s what I pointed towards is the next game. We want to go win it. We do want to be 9-7. That is important. It’s important to have one more win than we potentially could have. I don’t care what the record is.”

Harbaugh did say that No. 1 cornerback Jimmy Smith is likely to miss his third straight game with a high ankle sprain suffered against New England on Dec. 12. The Ravens were hoping at the time of the injury that he might be able to return for the playoffs.

The Bengals officially placed tight end Tyler Eifert (back) and guard Clint Boling (shoulder) on season-ending injured reserve on Monday and do not intend to play wide receiver A.J. Green (hamstring) on Sunday despite his return to practice two weeks ago.

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Ravens just not quite good enough when they needed to be

Posted on 26 December 2016 by Luke Jones

The Ravens and Steelers played a Christmas classic that removed any doubt about whether this rivalry is still among the best in the NFL.

Baltimore fought like hell until the bitter end and a four-point loss at Heinz Field is nothing to be ashamed of in the big picture, but this also wasn’t the AFC divisional round — as much as the one may have felt like a playoff game on Sunday. Being eliminated from postseason contention with a week to go in the regular season only reinforces a theme that’s become too familiar over the post-Super Bowl XLVII seasons under head coach John Harbaugh.

“We’re very close to being a very good football team,” Harbaugh said after the 31-27 loss. “We can be a great football team, but we’re not there yet. We haven’t gotten there this year, obviously. We’ve got to get there.”

Having now missed the playoffs in three of the last four years, the Ravens just aren’t quite good enough.

That was apparent on Sunday as a defense that had ranked in the top five all season inexplicably allowed three touchdowns in the final 12 minutes of play. There’s no excusing Dean Pees’ unit for surrendering a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in just over a minute that culminated with Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown reaching over the goal line with nine seconds remaining.

Instead of cementing its status among the better units in franchise history, this defense has crumbled down the stretch, allowing 26 or more points in three straight games. You can’t put all of that on the absence of cornerback Jimmy Smith as an underwhelming pass rush was exposed badly against the Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger rarely harassed in the pocket.

But before we put all blame on the defense for what amounted to the practical end of the Ravens’ season, let’s remember an 8-7 record is the result of a collection of missed opportunities and not just what was on display in Week 16.

An 0-4 October left very little margin for error while looking ahead to how difficult the December schedule would be. That loss to the woeful New York Jets in Week 7 is still painful and no less damaging two months later.

The Ravens offense may have come to play for the most part on Christmas, but how many times could we really say that about this below-average group in 2016? Marty Mornhinweg did little to spark the offense after the firing of coordinator Marc Trestman in October and showed no better commitment to the running game, instead allowing Joe Flacco to set a career high in passing attempts without the kind of productivity to justify the imbalance.

Even on Sunday, the Ravens entered Pittsburgh territory on all five of their drives in the first half and managed just six points by intermission. Tight end Darren Waller’s inability to secure a touchdown catch early in the fourth quarter served as a turning point as it forced Baltimore to settle for a short field goal and a 20-10 lead instead of a two-touchdown cushion.

Baltimore’s normally-superb special teams have been propped up by Pro Bowl kicker Justin Tucker, but a return game that stuck way too long with veteran Devin Hester did no favors for an offense that would have benefited from better field position all season. On Sunday, a bad snap cost the Ravens a chance for three points early in the second quarter.

Not good enough.

With the season finale in Cincinnati now a meaningless endeavor, attention shifts to the future.

Harbaugh’s not wrong in saying this team wasn’t that far away — they’re 8-7, not 3-12 — but the crucial question is whether the Ravens are moving in the right direction or falling further away. It’s difficult to say this is a better football team now than it was in September, and that’s a big concern.

The Ravens at least improved from last year’s 5-11 disaster that wasn’t all about injuries despite what many wanted to believe. That should be remembered when determining what changes need to be made this offseason.

Still, this team is depending heavily on a number of veterans who aren’t getting any younger or better at this stage of their careers. Unlike Flacco, who was relying on a 37-year-old receiver expected to retire at the end of the season and a 31-year-old tight end coming back from two major hip injuries, Roethlisberger turned to two Pro Bowl talents in their primes in Brown and Le’Veon Bell when it mattered most.

As we’ve now said for a few years, the Ravens need to find dynamic playmakers on both sides of the ball to make the difference in these close games that we see around the league on a weekly basis. The early returns from the 2016 draft have been very encouraging, but this roster is still feeling the effects of lackluster drafts in recent years.

Is this coaching staff capable of getting the most out of its players, especially younger ones who need to develop? There have been more questions about play-calling and game management this year than in the past, and the Ravens are one of the most penalized teams in the league.

Is Harbaugh willing to make changes to his staff, especially on the offensive side of the ball where the Ravens have struggled substantially in three of the last four seasons? Is the head coach’s message stale after nine seasons?

Questions that seemed silly just a couple seasons ago should now be asked with another quiet January in Baltimore. Of course, owner Steve Bisciotti has the only opinion that really matters, but both Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome have to explain why this team wasn’t good enough and how they plan to improve next year and moving forward.

Seats are getting warm now.

The Ravens weren’t quite good enough this year, but are they moving in the right direction or stuck in neutral?

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Ravens rule out cornerback Jimmy Smith for Pittsburgh

Posted on 23 December 2016 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Below is the final full injury report for the week:

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

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

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

Posted on 22 December 2016 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 15 win over Philadelphia

Posted on 20 December 2016 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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