Tag Archive | "John Harbaugh"

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Jimmy Smith absent as Ravens begin preparing for Philadelphia

Posted on 14 December 2016 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Below is the full injury report for Wednesday:

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

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

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Ravens not showing what it takes to win games on road

Posted on 13 December 2016 by Luke Jones

The final score alone was nothing to be ashamed of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ravens trying to turn back clock against New England

Posted on 09 December 2016 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

But how much weight does the past carry?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 13 win over Miami

Posted on 06 December 2016 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ravens, Steelers following similar paths to Christmas showdown

Posted on 05 December 2016 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What more could you possibly want?

Weddle’s impact

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

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

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

Flacco getting hot?

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

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

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

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

Odds & ends

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

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Ravens offense finally provides real hope for stretch run

Posted on 05 December 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens had talked about the potential of their offense all season.

From John Harbaugh and Marty Mornhinweg to Joe Flacco and Mike Wallace, the word “close” had been uttered so many times in describing the unit’s pursuit of a breakout performance. But potential is meaningless without substance, especially when you’ve reached the month of December.

We’d seen decent stretches here and there this season, but never anything close to a full 60 minutes — not even in two wins over the lowly Cleveland Browns. That’s what made the 38-point, 496-yard explosion against the Miami Dolphins so uplifting on Sunday.

With three of their final four coming on the road — including games at New England and Pittsburgh — the Baltimore offense needed to prove it was capable of playing at such a high level after talking about doing it for months. Snapping Miami’s six-game winning streak in blowout fashion is one thing, but beating the Patriots in Foxborough would be another entirely.

It’s a task that appears more reasonable, however, after the Ravens’ highest scoring output in more than two years and their biggest margin of victory since 2012.

“I think it gives the guys a lot of confidence to see it and have done it,” Flacco said. “Now, we have to go up into a hostile place in New England that we really enjoy playing [at]. It’s going to be another important game in December up there.”

So, what was the difference on Sunday? After all, it’s not as though the Ravens offense just decided it would wait until Week 13 to magically shift into a higher gear. There was much discussion this week — including an animated debate between Mornhinweg and Flacco in the quarterbacks meeting room — about the offense needing to be more aggressive, but execution has to accompany that mindset.

The numbers didn’t lie on Sunday as Flacco turned in his best performance since Gary Kubiak was in charge of the offense two seasons ago, throwing for four touchdowns and 381 yards. His 36 completions were a single-game franchise record as he repeatedly carved up the middle of Miami’s zone defense.

“The guy who was throwing the ball,” wide receiver Steve Smith. “He was playing lights out. We go as he goes. When he does a great job, we all look better.”

The newfound stability of the offensive line has steadily made Flacco look better as well. Using the same starting five for the third straight week — the first time the Ravens could claim that since the first three games of the season — reaped the rewards of a clean pocket as a talented Miami front registered no sacks and just two quarterback hits on the day.

The offensive line paved the way for Terrance West and Kenneth Dixon to combine for 106 rushing yards on 16 carries, but it was the group’s work in pass protection that allowed Flacco to shine on Sunday. Eleven different Ravens caught passes with five registering at least 40 receiving yards.

“It starts up front. When he has time, he is a dangerous quarterback and we know that,” said tight end Dennis Pitta, who caught his first two touchdowns since Dec. 8, 2013. “We have a lot of weapons offensively and we always talked about the potential we have, but we weren’t quite there. Today, we recognized that potential and put it together.”

The Ravens hope this is the turning point for Flacco and an offense that’s underachieved all season. It had been far too long since we’d seen it, but Sunday reminded us how good the ninth-year quarterback is capable of being when he gets on a roll.

The timing couldn’t have been better with the Ravens likely needing to win three of their last four to secure a trip to the playoffs. This is the time of year when Flacco has often played some of his best football, and the Ravens will need him to be playing his best to prevail over Pittsburgh in the AFC North.

A trip to Gillette Stadium next Monday will provide a good indication whether the Week 13 performance was merely a tease of what many thought this offense could be in 2016 or the start of something exciting.

Were the Dolphins just that bad on Sunday or can the Ravens really be that good?

“We’ll see next week if it’s a launching point,” Smith said. “We want to say yes, but sometimes you guys discredit the other team.”

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 12 win over Cincinnati

Posted on 29 November 2016 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens topping Cincinnati in a 19-14 final on Sunday to remain tied for first place in the AFC North, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. I don’t know what else there is to say about the excellence of Justin Tucker, but I sure hope he receives an opportunity one of these days to attempt a 65-yard field goal to set the NFL record. And then gets another chance to kick an even longer one.

2. The Ravens have more field goals (27) than anyone in the NFL, but they rank ahead of only Houston and Los Angeles with 19 touchdowns. That combination has earned them a 6-5 record, but it’s not a formula that will work against upper-tier teams.

3. Coming off his second Achilles injury in a four-year period and currently playing with a torn biceps, Terrell Suggs played a season-high 61 snaps and had two strip-sacks. Though not the consistent force he was in his prime, he’s earned even more respect as a player this season.

4. Don’t forget that Sam Koch’s safety went down as a run for minus-23 yards in the final statistics. Otherwise, the Baltimore running game gained 115 yards on 29 carries, a respectable average of just under 4.0 yards per attempt compared to the official 3.1 mark.

5. It’s difficult to recall a defensive line batting down four passes on a single drive, let alone doing it on the final series of a one-score game. It was a brilliant way to offset an inconsistent pass rush for much of the afternoon.

6. Nothing illustrated the up-and-down nature of the offense more than its third-down conversion rate against the Bengals. After going a strong 5-for-10 in a 16-point first half, the Ravens were 0-for-6 after intermission. Baltimore ranks last in the NFL with a 33.3 percent conversion rate on the season.

7. The decision to call an end-around hand-off to Mike Wallace on the final drive was questionable at best, but I applaud any extra attempts to get him the football otherwise. His explosive speed needs to be utilized as much as possible.

8. It came down to the numbers game with Elvis Dumervil returning, but Za’Darius Smith being a healthy inactive illustrates how much finding an edge pass rusher remains a priority this offseason. Rookie Matt Judon flashes potential, but Smith’s second season has been a disappointment.

9. Kamar Aiken caught a pass to move the chains on a key third down on each of the first two scoring drives and wasn’t targeted again after that. No one expected him to be Baltimore’s leading receiver again this season, but he shouldn’t have fewer receptions than Kyle Juszczyk.

10. I’m still surprised how reluctant some have been to embrace this defense. It may lack much star power, but this has been a top 5 unit all year. If your standard is the 2000 Ravens or you’re waiting for the next Ray Lewis to appear, you’ll never be satisfied.

11. Many are clamoring for the Ravens to use the no-huddle offense even more, but it bogged down after a fast start against Cincinnati. This group hasn’t shown the kind of precision or communication required to run it exclusively, but it can still be used plenty.

12. Coaches always receive criticism when teams lose, but John Harbaugh deserves praise for the way he handled the game-ending safety. He said all teams have that strategy in their special-teams playbook, but I highly doubt that.

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Ravens secondary trying to hold on without Jimmy Smith

Posted on 28 November 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens bent but didn’t break without cornerback Jimmy Smith this time.

After Dallas rookie Dak Prescott threw for 301 yards and three touchdowns in Baltimore’s 27-17 loss to the Cowboys last week, the secondary fared better against Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton, who needed 48 pass attempts to throw for 283 yards and only one touchdown. Of course, the Bengals not having Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green helped immensely while the Ravens played their second straight game without Smith, who continues to deal with a back issue.

The results weren’t perfect, but head coach John Harbaugh will always sign up for his defense allowing 12 points — the Bengals’ other two points came on the game-ending safety — in a 19-14 victory. It sure beat what happened against the Cowboys and in the second half of the Week 6 loss to the New York Giants after Smith left the game with a concussion.

“I thought our defensive backs did a much better job in man-to-man coverage than the week before,” Harbaugh said. “They had been doing a good job at times throughout the course of the season — for most of the season — playing man coverage, but yesterday they really stepped it up and had some good reps out there.”

The Ravens hope to see Smith return this week as the Miami Dolphins come to town sporting a six-game winning streak, their longest in over a decade. The Dolphins offense is built around surprising star running back Jay Ajayi, but quarterback Ryan Tannehill works with a trio of receivers in Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker, and Kenny Stills each with at least 480 receiving yards this season.

After revealing late last week that Smith’s back injury is a muscular issue, Harbaugh said Monday that the sixth-year defensive back continues improving. Whether that means a Week 13 return is unknown.

“I was hopeful he would get back [against the Bengals],” Harbaugh said. “He ran again on Saturday, and he tried to see how well he ran on the ground, and it was better, but it was not good enough to play. That is where we’re at. He is close. He has been able to run for about a week, so we’ll see.”

The Ravens have moved Shareece Wright back into the starting lineup in Smith’s absence over the last two weeks, but defensive coordinator Dean Pees interestingly used different combinations in the nickel package on Sunday. Perhaps a reflection of his recent struggles against Dallas, veteran slot corner Jerraud Powers played only 25 of 75 defensive snaps against Cincinnati. It was his lowest snap total since suffering a groin injury in the Week 6 loss to the Giants.

Reserve safety and former first-round pick Matt Elam played a season-high 27 snaps while starting safety Lardarius Webb moved down to the slot in the nickel package, a position where he thrived early in his career. Harbaugh wouldn’t disclose whether we’d see more of that alignment moving forward.

“Those are different packages that we had in,” Harbaugh said. “Some of the packages are more passing. Some of them are more running. Some of them have to do with pressures. Some of them are more base calls. We’re just trying to have guys out there for what they do best and try to get our matchups as best as we can. That’s really what it was. We try to put guys in positions to do what they do best.”

No matter who else is out there, the Ravens secondary will only be at its best down the stretch with a healthy Smith back on the field.

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Ravens take care of business using same flawed formula

Posted on 28 November 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens did what they needed to do to snap their five-game losing streak against Cincinnati.

No matter how depleted the current Bengals might be, you don’t take a victory for granted when you haven’t beaten the division rival in over three years and you need to win. The 19-14 final drew Baltimore even with Pittsburgh for first place with the calendar turning to December this week.

The Ravens couldn’t ask to be in better position, especially when you recall where they were a month ago.

But several offensive starters lamented the inability to build off a fast start that included a Joe Flacco 14-yard touchdown pass to Breshad Perriman and a field goal on their first two drives of the game. Leading 16-3 at halftime, the Ravens went 0-for-6 on third down and managed only one field goal the rest of the way, which gave the Bengals a chance to tie the game before Elvis Dumervil’s strip-sack and Lawrence Guy’s recovery with just over a minute remaining.

Yet again, a good defensive performance and a perfect Justin Tucker played the leading roles in the win while the offense spun its wheels after some early success.

“I’m confident in my ability to play games like this and win down the stretch and do the right thing with the football,” said Flacco, who was a relatively efficient 25 of 36 for 234 yards and an interception to go with the opening-drive score. “But in order for us to take that next step and be the kind of team that we want to be and be a championship football team, we’re not going to survive week in and week out doing things like this. We’ve got to keep the foot on the gas and learn how to put teams away.”

The ninth-year quarterback offered the same sentiment after the Week 3 win in Jacksonville two months ago. Fortunately, the offense has recovered from its miserable — and injury-plagued — October, but Flacco’s words reflect the lack of overall improvement from the opening month of the season until now.

The Ravens have scored just 19 touchdowns this season, ranking 31st of 32 teams in the NFL. The offense certainly deserves credit for the work required to put Justin Tucker in position to go a league-best 27-for-27 on field goal tries, but 18 were from 40 yards or longer, meaning the Ravens haven’t exactly been all that close to the end zone on most of those drives.

Baltimore has managed more than one offensive touchdown in just five of 11 games and has scored fewer than 20 points six times. The Ravens have scored 25 or more in just three games with two coming against winless Cleveland.

It’s scary to think where they might be without Tucker, who is rapidly cementing himself as the league’s best kicker and is an impressive 7-for-7 from 50 yards and beyond after converting three from that range in the first half on Sunday. He’s been to the Ravens what All-Star closer Zach Britton was to the Orioles this past season, the difference in making them a playoff contender despite other flaws.

For now, the offense can only continue working to improve, pointing to the recent stabilization of the offensive line and the steady emergence of rookie running back Kenneth Dixon as reasons for optimism.

“I know that we’re getting better on offense,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “I think we’re doing a good job, but we’re striving for more than that. Our guys are going to tell you, we want to put a lot more points up than that. That’s what we’re working towards.”

The most encouraging development from Sunday’s game may have come on the opposite side of the ball with the return of Dumervil, who was rusty in his first action in seven weeks until the final defensive play when he blew past Bengals right tackle Eric Winston to strip quarterback Andy Dalton of the football inside the red zone. The turnover sealed the victory for the Ravens defense, who buckled but didn’t break against a Cincinnati offense lacking its best player in wide receiver A.J. Green.

The Ravens need top cornerback Jimmy Smith to return from a back injury that’s sidelined him for the last two games, but a healthy Dumervil could work wonders for an edge pass rush that’s relied heavily on fellow veteran Terrell Suggs, who collected two strip-sacks of his own on Sunday. It was just the third game of the season for Dumervil, who’s dealt with a frustrating rehab from offseason foot surgery.

“You get a guy and add that to the defense that we already have, it just opens up the possibilities of being even better than what we are right now,” safety Eric Weddle said. “It was huge. He practiced outstanding the last two weeks. We knew it was going to give us a boost, and adding him across from [Suggs] and our other rushers and [to] our game plans, we’re going to be a tough team to stop.”

The Ravens keep hoping for their offense to improve, but maybe the current formula can be enough. After all, it’s earned them a 6-5 mark to this point, which is good enough for a first-place tie with a Steelers team sporting a very good offense but a below-average defense.

Baltimore plays two of the next three at home against Miami and Philadelphia, who are formidable teams but hardly juggernauts. The surprising Dolphins have won six straight, but the last five have been by a single possession and they rely heavily on their running game, a favorable matchup for the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.

Whether the Ravens will find enough wins over the final five games to make the playoffs remains to be seen, but Sunday was another reminder that it will probably look the way it has all season — a good defense, a frustrating and below-average offense, and the best kicker in football.

“If it ain’t tough, it ain’t the Raven way,” Suggs said. “I really wish we could have got off the field instead of scaring everybody and having Elvis make a fantastic play. But that’s the Raven way. It ain’t pretty, but we’ll take it.”

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Cincinnati bearing strong resemblance to last year’s Ravens

Posted on 25 November 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The 2016 script for the Cincinnati Bengals should sound familiar to the Ravens.

A heartbreaking playoff loss the previous January.

The departure of a popular offensive coordinator and the loss of several key free agents.

A difficult early-season schedule that included four of the first six games on the road.

And a growing list of injuries.

At 3-6-1, the Bengals find their season all but ruined without a miraculous turnaround. The injuries to Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green and shifty running back Giovani Bernard felt like the final nails in the coffin last Sunday, but consecutive post-bye losses by a total of five points have dropped Cincinnati out of serious contention in a mediocre AFC North.

It all sounds a lot like the Ravens’ circumstances a year ago that resulted in a 5-11 season, the franchise’s worst in nearly a decade. At the same point last year, Baltimore was 3-7 and already out of playoff contention.

“We haven’t won close games,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “We’ve had opportunities in the fourth quarter of football games. We’ve had leads. We’ve had opportunities, and we haven’t closed the games out.”

Of course, the Bengals’ woes guarantee nothing for the Ravens, who haven’t made things easy on themselves all season. Three of their five wins have come against the two worst teams in the AFC — Cleveland and Jacksonville — and just one of their victories has been by more than one score.

And don’t forget about that five-game losing streak against the Bengals, a drought dating back to the 2013 season. The Week 16 rematch with Pittsburgh is the most crucial game remaining on the schedule, but two games against Cincinnati — Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium and then the regular-season finale at Paul Brown Stadium — will be critical in determining the Ravens’ fate.

“We have to find a way to beat them,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “If we do not start beating the Bengals, then we are not going to win any division championships. That is especially true this year. To me, the whole thing goes through Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. We are going to have to win a couple other games, too, but it is the division. This is a division game. It is as simple as that.”

Starting fast is a goal every week, but the Ravens are facing a team that has one victory — against the winless Browns — since late September and will be without its best player. If ever there were a time for Baltimore to come out of the gate trying to step on the neck of an opponent, Week 12 is it.

The Bengals are down and know they likely need to win out to have any chance of extending their string of five consecutive trips to the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Ravens know they need to win these next two home games — including next week against Miami — to keep pace with the Steelers and put themselves in good position for a brutal final quarter of the season that includes road games at New England, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati.

On Sunday, the Ravens can’t afford to give hope to a struggling team that still has some talented players on both sides of the ball.

“We want to continue to build and get better,” said quarterback Joe Flacco, whose 19 career interceptions against the Bengals are the most he’s thrown against any team. “I think it is huge to get going just to get our crowd in it and to get everybody excited — to get our guys excited. These guys have played us well. We have not beaten them in a long time. It is definitely going to be a tough game, but early on will be a big part.”

We know this is a flawed Ravens team expected to once again be without top cornerback Jimmy Smith, but their problems don’t run as deep as those of the Bengals, whose penalty-riddled collapse against Pittsburgh last January now looks like the moment their window of opportunity slammed shut. Baltimore is trying to show its own window is still open despite going 10-16 since the start of last season.

There’s no excuse not to beat the struggling Bengals if the Ravens want to be taken seriously the rest of the way. A loss would drastically change their outlook for their five remaining games.

Peppered with questions from the Baltimore media this week about how the losses of Green and Bernard impact his struggling team, Lewis said the Bengals still plan on showing up at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday. No matter how Cincinnati might look right now, the Ravens can’t afford to take their AFC North rival lightly.

“Five straight is five straight. Numbers don’t lie,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “They have kind of had our number. We are going to see what we can do to change that.”

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