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Pondering the Ravens’ potential 2016 salary cap cuts

Posted on 12 January 2016 by Luke Jones

The Ravens are facing their most critical offseason of the John Harbaugh era, but revamping a 5-11 team won’t be easy with a salary cap lacking flexibility.

Having entered the offseason with an estimated 2016 commitment of just under $146 million to 47 players, general manager Ozzie Newsome can only hope that the salary cap will rise to the highest reported estimate of $153.4 million, an increase of $10 million from this past season. However, that would still leave little room to sign some of their own free agents, let alone try to make other additions.

The direction of the offseason hinges on Baltimore’s ability to adjust quarterback Joe Flacco’s $28.55 million salary cap figure for the 2016 season, but additional cap-related moves will likely still need to be made. The Ravens may not have an extensive list of high-priority free agents, but standing pat after missing the playoffs in two of the last three seasons won’t sit well with the fan base — or owner Steve Bisciotti.

And after last week’s revelation that Harbaugh doesn’t plan to make any changes to his coaching staff, the Ravens are signaling that the roster was the bigger problem in 2015.

In evaluating cap space and potential cuts, it’s important to remember the rule of 51 as the top 51 cap numbers on the roster count against the salary cap. The savings from any released player is offset in part by an additional player jumping into the top 51 from the bottom of the list. For example, if a released player carrying a $3 million cap number is replaced in the top 51 by another player carrying a $450,000 cap number, the end result is a $2.55 million savings on the salary cap.

Below is a list of veteran candidates to be cut for cap purposes (with the pre-June 1 cap savings noted in parentheses):

CB Kyle Arrington ($1.433 million)
Skinnny: Signed last spring to serve as Baltimore’s No. 3 corner, Arrington struggled and saw his playing time dwindle dramatically until the late-season move of Lardarius Webb to safety. With younger options such as Will Davis and Tray Walker already on the roster and the Ravens mentioning cornerback as a need to address this offseason, Arrington’s roster spot would appear to be in serious jeopardy.

DE Chris Canty ($2.15 million)
Skinny: The 33-year-old is still a useful player when healthy, but injuries and the presence of Lawrence Guy and Brent Urban for the 5-technique spot make it likely that the Ravens will elect to cut Canty this winter. The organization decided to bring the veteran back after terminating his contract a year ago, but you wonder if either side would have interest in doing that again.

S Matt Elam ($1.328 million)
Skinny: The Ravens would still like to salvage some production out of the worst defensive first-round pick in franchise history, but Elam is making enough money now to wonder if it’s worth it. With Will Hill manning the strong safety spot, where does the University of Florida product even fit? Elam would be an expensive backup and special-teams player at a crowded position.

RB Justin Forsett ($2.3 million)
Skinny: The Ravens have three young running backs behind him on the depth chart, but Lorenzo Taliaferro hasn’t been able to stay healthy, Buck Allen had ball-security issues late in the season, and Terrance West wore out his welcome with two other NFL teams in less than two years. Forsett may not be a home-run hitter, but his $3.7 million cap figure is reasonable and Allen didn’t quite show enough for the Ravens to sign off on him being ready to be a No. 1 running back just yet.

S Kendrick Lewis ($933,333)
Skinny: Though Lewis didn’t bring the impact to the free safety position that the Ravens hoped when they signed him last offseason, his release wouldn’t bring much in the way of cap savings. That being said, if the Ravens truly intend to make Webb their starting free safety, cutting Lewis might be a football move more than one related to the salary cap.

OT Eugene Monroe ($2.1 million)
Skinny: This could be the most complicated decision of the offseason as Monroe has started only 16 games since signing a five-year, $37.5 million contract two years ago. Cutting Monroe leaves $6.6 million in dead money on the 2016 cap, and re-signing Kelechi Osemele won’t be an easy task. If Laremy Tunsil of Ole Miss or Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley falls into their laps in the first round, the Ravens could wave goodbye to Monroe. Otherwise, they may look to draft a tackle in the second or third round and hold their breath that Monroe bounces back in 2016.

TE Dennis Pitta ($600,000)
Skinny: The veteran tight end said at the end of the season that nothing has changed in terms of his hopes to play again, but things have changed for the Ravens as his 2016 base salary ($5 million) is not guaranteed like it was this past year. There’s always a chance that Pitta agrees to an incentive-laden deal with no guaranteed money to continue with a potential comeback, but he is more likely to be released or to retire. The question will be whether the Ravens want $6.6 million in dead money to be absorbed in 2016 or to give him a post-June 1 designation to push $4.4 million of that to 2017. Either way, Pitta’s exit isn’t going to be of great assistance when it comes to making moves this offseason.

LB Daryl Smith ($2.625 million)
Skinny: The veteran has done a fine job stepping into the position once held by Ray Lewis, but he wore down as 2015 progressed and was being replaced by Zach Orr in nickel situations late in the season. There isn’t an obvious every-down replacement waiting in the wings, but Smith will be 34 and carries a $4.375 million cap figure for 2016. In a perfect world, 2013 second-round pick Arthur Brown already would have stepped into the spot next to C.J. Mosley, but we know how that story has played out.

CB Lardarius Webb ($3.5 million)
Skinny: Newsome spoke with conviction at the season-ending press conference about the Ravens moving Webb to free safety, but his $9.5 million cap figure for 2016 would make him one of the most expensive safeties in the league despite his inexperience there. Webb accepted a pay cut a year ago and will likely need to take another one unless the Ravens are that blindly confident in him being a Pro Bowl-caliber safety. The fact that Webb already proclaimed himself to be a safety moving forward probably won’t help his cause in negotiating with the Ravens or on the open market if he’s let go.

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Making sense of Ravens’ running game in 2015

Posted on 11 January 2016 by Luke Jones

Plenty of factors interfered with the Ravens’ ability to run the football in 2015.

The departure of offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, injuries along the offensive line and to 2014 Pro Bowl running back Justin Forsett, more eight-man boxes due to limited weapons in the passing game, and a questionable commitment from new coordinator Marc Trestman all contributed to the Baltimore rushing game dropping from eighth in 2014 all the way to 26th this past season. The Ravens averaged 4.5 yards per attempt in Kubiak’s lone season in Baltimore and averaged just 3.9 yards per carry in 2015 (24th in the NFL).

“To the extent that we didn’t run the ball well, yes, we lost our identity a little bit and we have to be able to do that,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “We’re going to find our way back that way, and we’re going to work on that right now.”

Media and fans frequently speak about the commitment — or lack thereof — to the running game, citing overused stats about a team’s record when they rush a certain number of times in a game. For this reason, some have pointed to the Ravens’ 383 rushing attempts — fewest in franchise history and tied for 25th in the NFL — as the biggest culprit in the struggles.

That simply isn’t the case.

Research has shown over and over that running the ball more often doesn’t cause a team to win more games just like simply trying to bench-press the most weight doesn’t magically make you stronger. Being strong to begin with (having leads) puts you in position to lift that heavier weight (carrying the ball more frequently). Otherwise, a team would mindlessly run the ball for the first 20 or 25 plays of a game to hit those statistical landmarks and have a big lead in the first half, right?

There are always exceptions, but teams that run the most generally do so because they have the lead with Carolina being a perfect example with a league-high 526 rushing attempts despite a 4.3 average that ranked only 10th in the NFL. It’s no coincidence that the 15-1 Panthers led for a league-best average of 39:47 per game and trailed an average of just 8:57 — also best in the NFL — according to Football Outsiders. They also averaged fewer runs in the first quarter than in any of the final three quarters, reflecting again that it’s more about running when you have the lead than “establishing the run” early.

In contrast, the 5-11 Ravens led an average of just 14:37 per game (27th in the NFL) and trailed for 32:13 per contest (26th in the league), easily their worst marks since Football Outsiders began keeping track in 1997. Of the 66 periods (counting two overtimes) in which they played during the 2015 season, the Ravens led at the conclusion of just 19 of them.

Of the five teams that led less frequently than the Ravens in 2015 — Miami, Chicago, Jacksonville, San Francisco, and Cleveland — only the Bears finished outside the bottom 10 in rushing attempts. All five of those teams also averaged better than Baltimore’s 3.9 yards per carry clip.

Whether they take it too far or not, teams pass more frequently when they’re behind as even the worst passing teams in the NFL average more yards per throwing attempt than the most efficient rushing teams average yards per carry. It’s common sense that you can catch up more quickly by going through the air, even if that leaves you prone to more turnovers.

The 2010 Ravens averaged 3.8 yards per carry — a mark slightly worse than this year’s team — but carried the ball 104 more times in a 12-4 season. Yes, you can argue that Cam Cameron had a stronger affinity for the running game than Trestman, but Baltimore also enjoyed the lead an average of 38:26 per contest, the best in the NFL that season.

It’s easy to run the ball when you’re protecting a lead.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that the running game wasn’t problematic or one of many reasons leading to the first losing season of the Harbaugh era. The issues with the running game just didn’t have as much to do with the number of attempts as it did the lack of efficiency and how regularly the Ravens trailed in games.

In looking at the breakdown of rushes by quarter, however, there’s little excusing Trestman for the Ravens only having 91 rushing attempts in the first quarter compared to the league average of 106.3. Strangely, the Ravens collected more rushing attempts (105) in the fourth quarter than in any other period — a trend usually indicative of a winning team — but that number was skewed by a combined 25 fourth-quarter carries against Pittsburgh and Cleveland in Weeks 4 and 5, their best rushing performances of the season by a significant margin.

At times, there was certainly a questionable commitment to the running game — a knock on Trestman before he was hired by Harbaugh last January — but the Ravens’ frequent deficits magnified the problem.

“Part of that is scheme, part of that is how many times we call it and when we call it,” said Harbaugh about the problems with the running game. “There’s play-action that goes with it [and] passes behind runs that keep the linebackers off your run game — all of those things that we need to build into our run game to be as good as we can be.”

The healthy returns of Forsett and starting center Jeremy Zuttah, finding stability at left tackle, and the continued development of Buck Allen, Lorenzo Taliaferro, and Terrance West should help to improve the running game. Gaining more leads by playing better on both sides of the ball will create more opportunities that weren’t there for a ground game that struggled to find its groove throughout the season.

But it will ultimately be about running the ball better — not just more often — in 2016.

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Pondering Ravens left tackle, 2015 draft class, quarterback, more

Posted on 08 December 2015 by Luke Jones

It wasn’t long ago that left tackle Eugene Monroe was emerging as one of the Ravens’ best players.

General manager Ozzie Newsome and the organization certainly thought so after they acquired the former Jacksonville Jaguar for fourth- and fifth-round picks just over two years ago. His strong play in 11 games in 2013 prompted the Ravens to sign Monroe to a five-year, $37.5 million contract that included $17.5 million in guaranteed money.

Since then, Monroe has started just 17 of 30 games (including the postseason) as knee, foot, and shoulder injuries as well as a concussion at the start of the 2015 season have cost him extensive time. The 28-year-old missed only four games over his first five NFL seasons, but he’s started and finished just three games this year, leaving the overmatched James Hurst to fill in at left tackle. Even when Monroe has played, it’s been at an underwhelming level in comparison to his $7.7 million cap figure this year.

Many fans have questioned Monroe’s toughness, and it was interesting to hear John Harbaugh mention the left tackle’s agent on Monday when discussing the status of his injured shoulder that’s cost him three games and parts of two others this season. To be clear, the head coach did not speak with any hint of animosity, but you simply don’t hear an agent being cited very often in such discussions, leading one to wonder if the Ravens and Monroe have differing opinions on his health.

Regardless of whether Monroe returns to play in 2015, the Ravens will need to take a long look at the left tackle position this offseason as he simply hasn’t been dependable enough at a critical position. Hurst is a hard worker, but Pro Football Focus has graded him 74th out of 76 offensive tackles this season and he was the one who rolled into Joe Flacco’s left knee, causing the season-ending injury last month. The second-year tackle is just not starting material.

Monroe is scheduled to make $6.5 million and to carry an $8.7 million cap figure in 2016, but cutting him would still leave $6.6 million in dead money unless the Ravens were to use a post-June 1 designation. However, that strategy wouldn’t free up that cap space until after most free-agent activity was long finished.

With the Ravens now 4-8 and potentially picking in the top five of April’s draft, Ole Miss left tackle Laremy Tunsil will be one of many intriguing prospects to watch over the next few months.

Awful year for rookie class

The four-game suspension of rookie tight end Nick Boyle was the rotten cherry on top of a lousy first season for the 2015 draft class aside from fourth-round running back Buck Allen.

Facing so many offseason departures, the Ravens used their draft class to fill an assortment of needs, but that meant a cast of rookies needed to contribute immediately if they were to reach their lofty goals for the 2015 season. Needless to say, that hasn’t come close to happening.

Selected to replace speedy wide receiver Torrey Smith, first-round pick Breshad Perriman hurt his knee on the first day of training camp and didn’t play as much as a preseason snap in his rookie season. Tight end Maxx Williams has flashed potential here and there, but 19 catches and one touchdown are nothing to write home about for a second-round pick.

Drafted to essentially take the spots of free-agent departures Haloti Ngata and Pernell McPhee, third-round defensive tackle Carl Davis and fourth-round Za’Darius Smith have largely been non-factors with the former not even being active for the last two games. And though fourth-round cornerback Tray Walker was considered a bit of a project out of Texas Southern, it’s become clear that the Ravens drafted him way too early — even if he does eventually develop into a useful player.

Fifth-round guard Robert Myers didn’t even make the team — he’s now on the practice squad — and sixth-round receiver Darren Waller caught only two passes before a hamstring injury landed him on injured reserve.

Yes, it’s only the first season, so this isn’t a final condemnation on the 2015 draft class by any means. But the group couldn’t have been much more disappointing in its rookie campaign.

And now that Boyle’s better-than-expected play has been superseded by the disappointment of a four-game ban, Allen’s development into a starting-caliber back is the only saving grace of the group in 2015.

Running back debate

Allen is the most intriguing reason to watch the Ravens these days, but his performance is creating an interesting debate for the offseason.

Though he is averaging only 3.9 yards per carry, his ability as a receiver out of the backfield — an impressive 29 catches on 32 targets — is making quite a statement for the USC product to be the Ravens’ No. 1 back in 2016. And Terrance West has provided good depth in averaging 4.5 yards per carry in his two games with Baltimore thus far.

For those reasons, might the Ravens consider moving on from veteran Justin Forsett this offseason?

The 30-year-old will carry a $3.7 million cap figure next year and releasing him would save $2.3 million in salary cap space, no small amount for a team that will be looking for room even after renegotiating Flacco’s massive contract. And it’s not as though the Ravens wouldn’t have an impressive collection of young talent with Allen, West, and a returning Lorenzo Taliaferro in the backfield.

That trio would certainly benefit from Forsett’s experience and leadership, but how much is that worth? Would the Ravens feel comfortable handing the reins to an inexperienced threesome?

If Allen and West continue to play well over the final quarter of the season, Newsome may be faced with a difficult decision on Forsett, who is a popular player in the locker room and has been one of the feel-good stories of the last couple seasons.

Depressing quarterback situation

I can’t bring myself to care about a quarterback controversy for a 4-8 football team, but some fans are already clamoring for Jimmy Clausen to play with Matt Schaub having thrown two interceptions returned for touchdowns in two starts.

Given the current state of the offensive line and how sore Schaub was after the Miami game, it would not be surprising to see Clausen get a look sooner rather than later. It’s also worth remembering that the Ravens worked out former Houston quarterback Ryan Mallett last week, and he could still be summoned at some point over the final month.

The organization would like to identify someone who can handle the backup job, especially with Flacco unlikely to be ready until training camp at the earliest next season. But is it really all that interesting to watch such a competition play out for a team that’s going nowhere in December?

I’d rather watch Flacco rehab his surgically-repaired left knee.

NFC Least

Over the years, some Baltimore fans have suggested how interesting it would be if the Ravens were to move to the NFC East to compete against geographic neighbors Washington and Philadelphia.

Imagine if the 4-8 Ravens could be just one game out in a hapless division currently sporting three 5-7 teams tied for first place.

My pick to win that awful division?

Just give it to the Arizona Cardinals for old times’ sake after they languished in the NFC East for years.

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Ravens officially place Forsett on IR, activate Urban

Posted on 27 November 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — What was a formality became official on Friday when the Ravens placed running back Justin Forsett on injured reserve and elevated defensive end Brent Urban to the 53-man roster.

Forsett suffered a broken right forearm in Sunday’s win over St. Louis. The injury will sidelined him for the rest of the season, but the 30-year-old is expected to be ready to participate in the Ravens’ offseason workout program.

Head coach John Harbaugh said earlier in the week that Urban would be activated from injured reserve with the designation to return. The second-year defensive lineman suffered a torn biceps in early August, but he began a 21-day practice window on Nov. 9 and needed to be placed on the 53-man roster by Monday.

Returning to the practice field after the Thanksgiving holiday, the Ravens again were without the starting left side of their offensive line as tackle Eugene Monroe (shoulder) and guard Kelechi Osemele (knee) were both absent on Friday. Should the pair not be able to play against Cleveland on Monday night, the Ravens would use James Hurst at left tackle and Ryan Jensen at left guard.

“I thought he did very well. He played fast,” said offensive coordinator Marc Trestman about Jensen in his first NFL start. “I thought it was a really good start for him. And [John] Urschel moving in at center again did a very nice job as well.”

Wide receiver Marlon Brown (back) also remained sidelined with a back injury after he played just four offensive snaps against the Rams on Sunday.

The only new addition to Friday’s injury report was cornerback Shareece Wright, who was a limited participant due to a back issue.

Tight end Nick Boyle (foot) was again practicing fully after missing his first game of the season in Week 11.

The Browns continued to practice without several key players, but starting guard Joel Bitonio (ankle) participated on a limited basis on Friday.

Below is Friday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: WR Marlon Brown (back), OT Eugene Monroe (shoulder), G Kelechi Osemele (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: CB Shareece Wright (back)
FULL PARTICIPATION: TE Nick Boyle (foot)

CLEVELAND
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: WR Taylor Gabriel (concussion), CB Joe Haden (concussion), WR Andrew Hawkins (concussion), DE Randy Starks (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: G Joel Bitonio (ankle)
FULL PARTICIPATION: QB Johnny Manziel (right elbow), QB Josh McCown (ribs), S Donte Whitner (concussion)

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Ravens defensive end Urban to be elevated to 53-man roster

Posted on 25 November 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Now in his third week of practice since returning from a torn biceps, Ravens defensive end Brent Urban will be elevated to the 53-man roster.

Head coach John Harbaugh did not immediately announce an official roster move as Urban would not have to be placed on the active roster until Monday if Baltimore elected to wait. The 2014 fourth-round pick injured his biceps in early August and was placed on injured reserve with the designation to return at the start of the regular season.

“Whether he’ll be active or not and play in the [Cleveland] game, we’ll have to figure that out, but Brent will come up and be on the 53-man,” Harbaugh said. “He’s done a really good job. He’s worked hard; he looks good. It’s going to be exciting to see him in real action at some point in time and see how he does, because he hasn’t played that much. But he’s practiced really well.”

It remains unclear when the move will be made official as running back Justin Forsett has yet to be placed on IR after suffering a broken right forearm in Sunday’s win over St. Louis. The Ravens are currently ailing along the offensive line with left tackle Eugene Monroe (shoulder) and left guard Kelechi Osemele (knee) both injured and missing practice on Wednesday, so they may also need to add an offensive lineman to the roster ahead of Monday’s game with Cleveland.

Urban’s 21-day practice window doesn’t expire until Sunday, meaning he can continue to participate without being added to the active roster until then.

In addition to Osemele and Monroe, wide receiver Marlon Brown was also absent from Wednesday’s practice after playing only four offensive snaps against St. Louis.

Rookie tight end Nick Boyle returned to practice after missing the Rams game with a left foot injury that had him in a walking boot last week.

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Forsett expected to be ready for offseason workouts

Posted on 23 November 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Overshadowed by the season-ending knee injury suffered by Joe Flacco, Ravens running back Justin Forsett underwent surgery to repair a broken right forearm on Monday.

The 30-year-old suffered fractures to the radius and ulna in the first quarter of Sunday’s 16-13 win over St. Louis, but head coach John Harbaugh doesn’t expect the injury to be a major disruption to Forsett’s preparations for the 2016 season.

“My assumption is that bones heal pretty quickly, so I’m sure he’ll be back in the offseason lifting weights and training,” Harbaugh said. “I would expect Justin back next year full-speed, ready to go. He’s under contract and a big part of what we’re doing going forward.”

Signed through the 2017 season, Forsett is scheduled to make a $3 million base salary and carry a $3.7 million cap figure next season. A reserve journeyman when he was signed by the Ravens, Forsett rushed for a career-high 1,266 yards and eight touchdowns to earn his first trip to the Pro Bowl last season.

In Forsett’s absence, rookie Buck Allen is expected to assume the starting role for the remainder of the season. The fourth-round pick from USC ran for 67 yards on 22 carries and caught five passes for 48 yards against the Rams on Sunday.

Another interesting option in the backfield will be second-year running back and former Towson standout Terrance West, who was initially signed to the practice squad and elevated to the 53-man roster last week. The 2014 third-round pick wore out his welcome in both Cleveland and Tennessee earlier this year, but his decorated career at the FCS level makes him a viable back to evaluate over the final six games of 2015 if he’s willing to put in the work.

“He’ll definitely get an opportunity,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll see as far as activation and depth charts and things like that as we go throughout the course of the week. But he’s practiced well for us since he has been here and is learning the offense. He doesn’t have it all probably 100 percent down right now, but he’s working hard at it. We’ve been impressed with what we’ve seen so far.”

Receiver shuffling

As all attention now falls on the new man who will be delivering the football, the Ravens again shuffled the deck at the wide receiver position  by promoting Chuck Jacobs from the practice squad and waiving veteran Joe Morgan on Monday.

“He has been practicing with us and done a really nice job, so we’re excited to add him,” said Harbaugh about Jacobs, who played for Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco. “We let Joe Morgan go to make room on the [roster]. Joe did a good job for us. It just wasn’t working in the plans there for us fit-wise.”

Baltimore also signed Seattle wide receiver Chris Matthews to the practice squad. The 6-foot-5 target has just four career regular-season catches, but he made a name for himself with four receptions for 109 yards and a touchdown in Super Bowl XLIX.

Koch short-lived backup

The Ravens were working on signing another quarterback on Monday to back up new starter Matt Schaub, which means punter Sam Koch’s time as the primary backup won’t last long.

When asked if Koch had received any reps as Baltimore’s emergency No. 3 quarterback this season, Harbaugh laughed and insisted he had not. Before the veteran punter, ex-Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin served as the emergency signal-caller from 2010-2012, but he began his college career at Florida State as a quarterback.

“I guess it’s by default like they have the line and everybody steps back,” Harbaugh said. “And Sam was still standing there. That’s how Anquan got it. Anquan actually played in college at least, but Sam can throw.”

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Ravens couldn’t be further from “paradise” right now

Posted on 22 November 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Upon being inducted into the Ring of Honor at halftime on Sunday, former Ravens safety Ed Reed ended his brief speech by belting out the refrain from “Two Tickets to Paradise,” conjuring memories from the franchise’s victory in Super Bowl XLVII.

The Ravens couldn’t be further from that paradise almost 34 months later after losing Joe Flacco — the MVP 0n that memorable night in New Orleans — to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on the final drive of the 16-13 win over St. Louis. Of course, Baltimore’s 2015 playoff hopes were all but officially gone long before Flacco and 2014 Pro Bowl running back Justin Forsett suffered season-ending injuries on Sunday, but losing your franchise quarterback to a serious injury rocks an organization from top to bottom.

The season from hell continues.

“I’m probably still in shock a little bit,” said Flacco, who started the Ravens’ last 137 games counting the playoffs and will now miss the first action of his eight-year career. “You play football and you play as long as I have and you play as hard as we do out there, then stuff like this happens. You have to just stand tall and be tough about it.

“That’s all you can do.”

At 3-7 and now preparing for the final six games with veteran backup Matt Schaub at the helm, the Ravens will play out the string with eyes pointing squarely toward the future and an unsettling offseason. In addition to improving a roster lacking game-changing talent on both sides of the ball, general manager Ozzie Newsome will need to renegotiate Flacco’s contract that carries a $28.55 million salary cap figure in 2016 while not knowing for sure if the veteran signal-caller will be ready for the start of next season.

Until Flacco is healthy and back under center, the Ravens won’t be able to help but feel there’s a black cloud hanging over their heads.

In the meantime, the Ravens and their fans will receive a glimpse of life without their franchise quarterback. Troy Smith was the last quarterback not named Flacco to start a regular-season game for the Ravens when Hall of Fame left tackle Jonathan Ogden was playing in his final game and Brian Billick was coaching his last contest on Dec. 30, 2007.

Jettisoned by Houston and Oakland in the last two years, Schaub will now be asked to compete without the Ravens’ top two receivers (Steve Smith and Breshad Perriman), top two running backs (Forsett and Lorenzo Taliaferro), and starting center (Jeremy Zuttah) entering training camp. Frankly, it’s a near-impossible situation for a 34-year-old many feared had already reached the end of the road as an NFL quarterback before signing a one-year deal to back up the durable Flacco.

The Ravens may be fortunate to win another game the rest of the way, which would at least help their position in the 2016 draft after the most disappointing season in franchise history. From that perspective, the ugly win over the Rams on Sunday felt more like a loss, especially after learning of Flacco’s injury minutes after Justin Tucker’s game-winning 47-yard field goal.

Anyone watching the Ravens play in 2015 knows the problems run deeper than a slew of injuries to impact players such as six-time Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs, tight end Dennis Pitta, Smith, and now Flacco and Forsett, but it’s difficult to recall too many NFL teams suffering such a number of injuries to high-impact players in recent memory. At least an already-poor record numbs the disappointment of losing Flacco compared to if the Ravens had been 7-3 and just seen their Super Bowl aspirations crushed on Sunday like Arizona experienced losing Carson Palmer to a torn ACL last November.

But you still can’t help but feel like the Ravens are snakebitten.

“I guess when it rains it pours,” outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil said. “We’ve been dealing with it all year, from Suggs to Steve. It’s tough. … Nobody feels sorry for us. We’ve got to make sure we come out and prepare hard.”

What’s next?

Many wondered how the Ravens would respond to last week’s gut-wrenching loss to Jacksonville and if they would continue to compete in the way they have all season with one-possession outcomes in every game. Baltimore flirted with the wheels completely falling off the cart for much of Sunday’s game with more than 100 yards in penalties in the first half and scoring just three points through three quarters.

Receiving plenty of help from the sloppy Rams, the Ravens managed to pull out their third victory of the season by making fewer mistakes than their opponent in the end. But without Flacco — or Forsett — for the rest of the season on top of their many other injuries, when will enough finally become enough physically, mentally, and emotionally?

“It’s tremendously disappointing for those [injured] guys,” said John Harbaugh, who will coach his first game without Flacco under center next Monday night in Cleveland. “We’ll be fine as a football team. We’ll bounce back — that’s what you do. Matt Schaub can play quarterback, and he’s going to come in [and] he’s going to play very well.”

If only it were that simple, but what else can the Ravens coach really say at this point?

The Ravens were reminded on Sunday that it wasn’t that long ago that they reached paradise in raising the second Vince Lombardi Trophy in franchise history.

But less than three years later, that memory feels a universe away.

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Ravens lose starting running back Forsett to broken arm

Posted on 22 November 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — An injury-plagued 2015 season got even worse for the Ravens in the first quarter of Sunday’s 16-13 win over the St. Louis Rams.

Starting running back and 2014 Pro Bowl selection Justin Forsett was lost for the rest of the season after suffering a broken right forearm in the first quarter. The veteran back was slammed to the turf by Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, and television replays showed his arm bending in a grotesque manner.

Forsett’s right forearm was immediately placed in an air cast before he was helped to the locker room.

“I kind of looked over his body and just saw his forearm and said, ‘OK. I’m not looking at that anymore.'” said quarterback Joe Flacco, who also suffered a season-ending knee injury in the fourth quarter. “I didn’t see much, but I knew it wasn’t good. It’s a shame, but we gutted it out and got a win.”

The Ravens immediately announced the severity of the injury as their starting offense has now lost its starting quarterback (Flacco), top two receivers (Steve Smith and Breshad Perriman), top two running backs (Forsett and Lorenzo Taliaferro), and starting center (Jeremy Zuttah) to season-ending injuries in 2015. With the Ravens having deactivated Terrance West prior to Sunday’s game, they were down to just two healthy running backs — rookies Buck Allen and Raheem Mostert — for the remainder of the game.

In Forsett’s absence, Allen accumulated 115 total yards despite only averaging 3.0 yards per carry against a stingy St. Louis defense. The 2015 fourth-round pick is expected to be the starter for the remainder of the season.

“He played like a pro. He played like a top-caliber NFL running back,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “You saw it out there. He made guys miss. He made plays in the passing game, plays in the run game. I thought our offensive line did a great job.”

Entering Sunday’s game, Forsett was averaging 4.2 yards per carry and had rushed for 26 yards on four carries against the Rams. The 30-year-old signed a three-year, $9 million in the offseason after rushing for a career-high 1,266 yards last season.

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Ravens running game continues to be forgotten under Trestman

Posted on 17 November 2015 by Luke Jones

The Ravens have lost their way.

That statement carries many connotations these days as Baltimore holds a 2-7 record for the first time since 2005, but it’s especially true when examining the disappearance of the running game after the Ravens finished eighth in the NFL with 126.2 rushing yards per game under Gary Kubiak a year ago. Despite maintaining that it was in the Ravens’ DNA to run the football when they hired pass-happy offensive coordinator Marc Trestman, head coach John Harbaugh has seen his rushing attack plummet to 23rd in the NFL with just 98.1 yards on the ground per game. The Ravens rank 18th in the league at 4.0 yards per carry after averaging a healthier 4.5 yards per attempt in 2014.

The running game again wasn’t a major factor in Sunday’s 22-20 loss to Jacksonville as the Ravens carried 21 times for 89 yards while Joe Flacco attempted 45 passes.

“We’d like to run the ball more; there’s no question,” Harbaugh said. “On the other hand, if you look at the defenses [the Jaguars] were playing, there were eight guys within four or five yards of the line of scrimmage at all times, pretty much, and even then, we had some really good runs. We had some nice runs in the second half. We weren’t able to finish in four-minute [drill] like we would have wanted to; we were close to popping a couple of those runs.

“In the first half, we weren’t getting much. If we could have converted a couple more first downs there, you would have seen more runs. It’s something we had planned on doing. We were going to run it at them anyway, but we just didn’t get the opportunities that we wanted to.”

It’s fair to note that the Jaguars entered Sunday ranked seventh in the NFL in run defense, but the Ravens barely even tried in the first half with just four designed runs compared to 29 drop-backs for Flacco in his first game since No. 1 receiver Steve Smith was lost for the season. As for Harbaugh’s explanation, the Ravens picked up 11 first downs in the first 30 minutes of action, which wasn’t indicative of a team struggling to get on schedule with moving the chains.

Asked if Flacco checked out of a high number of plays at the line of scrimmage because of the Jaguars stacking the box, Harbaugh said that there were only a couple instances when the original play was changed, leading one to conclude that Trestman was responsible for the out-of-whack ratio. The pass-happy attack may have found success to the tune of 14 points and 223 yards of offense in the first half, but the approach backfired in the third quarter with Flacco turning the ball over on the first three possessions after intermission.

The Ravens carried 16 times for 70 yards in the second half.

“We knew we had some opportunities in the passing game, but we always look to run,” said running back Justin Forsett, who finished with 53 yards on 14 carries. “It’s just tough that we didn’t get it going faster. If we had, we would’ve been able to run the ball a little bit better. At the end, we just didn’t finish well.”

It’s easy to point to the opponent to defend Trestman’s approach on Sunday, but the Ravens also ran six times — one was a quarterback kneel — for 15 yards in the first half against San Diego, a run defense that currently ranks 27th in the NFL. Not counting plays resulting in sacks, the Ravens rank 26th in the NFL in running the ball just 37.29 percent of the time in 2015.

Last year, Baltimore ran the ball 44.67 percent of the time to rank 11th in the league.

Is it understandable to expect more passing in 2015 with the Ravens trailing in more games? Absolutely, but Baltimore has trailed by more than one score in the second half of just four games this year and one of those was the comeback win at Pittsburgh when the Ravens ran for almost 200 yards in an overtime victory. It’s difficult to say you’re committed to the running game when it wasn’t even allowed to find a rhythm in the first half of each of the last two games when they never trailed by more than seven points.

Whether because of a lack of commitment or production — or both — a ground game that returned the same starting running back and same starting offensive line from a year ago continues to be a significant disappointment under Trestman. It’s made life even more difficult on Flacco, who is trying to succeed with arguably the most underwhelming group of pass-catchers in the NFL.

The Ravens rank ninth in the NFL with 263.6 passing yards per game, but they’re 25th at 6.7 yards per attempt. For the second time in three years, the offense has fallen on Flacco’s shoulders despite a substandard cast of receivers around him.

Despite what the coaching staff has said at numerous times this season, there doesn’t appear to be much urgency to get the ground game going after the latest soft showing against Jacksonville.

“The run game is something to talk about,” Harbaugh said on Monday. “We were looking at it hard this morning, this afternoon with the coaches. Early in the game, we’re a block here and a block there away from popping runs. But a block here and a block there doesn’t get it done. We did a lot of things with scheme. We had a lot of formations. We protected our edges with tight ends and with seal blocks coming back and sift blocks coming back the other way. We did a good job of protecting our edges. But inside of all that, they had a couple of little changeups with their linebackers that gave us a little trouble that we sorted out toward the end of the game, [and we] had some better runs.”

Entering 2015, the running game was supposed to be the rock-solid commodity for a Ravens offense that experienced plenty of change in the offseason. Instead, it’s become just another of the many problems plaguing a 2-7 football team.

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Crazy or not, Ravens striking right chord after bye week

Posted on 10 November 2015 by Luke Jones

An 8-0 finish?

Playoffs?

Seriously?

The chatter among players began moments after the win over San Diego and has only been amplified with a bye week to rest their bodies and minds. Despite a 2-6 record that has them standing 13th out of 16 teams in the AFC entering Week 10, the Ravens still have their sights set on the playoffs as they trail current No. 6 seed Pittsburgh by 2 1/2 games.

Few outside the Baltimore locker room think qualifying for the postseason is anything but crazy talk, but that’s perfectly fine with the Ravens.

“That’s why it’s going to feel so much greater when we finally make it,” cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “Coming back from this type of record and this season and the first eight [games], it’s going to feel that much greater when we make the playoffs. Let’s make some history.”

Unrealistic? Absolutely. Insane? Perhaps.

But I still like it.

Recent Ravens teams haven’t exactly oozed swagger like those from yesteryear, and that was even before they lost their two most demonstrative leaders — Terrell Suggs and Steve Smith — to season-ending injuries in the first half. Players know the odds are wildly against them, but believing you’re good enough fits into that winning equation — whether you actually are or not in the end.

Doubting talent and coaching is fair, but questioning the effort of these Ravens doesn’t mesh with all six of their losses coming by just one possession and a combined 30 points. A team that’s mailed it in doesn’t compete on a weekly basis, making the post-bye confidence an encouraging sign for better results with a more favorable schedule in the second half.

Of course, how much better is the real question, and that can only be answered on the field.

“We have to earn our way to have that conversation for sure,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “But I expect our guys to have high expectations. The standard here has been high. We’ve set a high bar here for a long time, and we’re proud of that. We have high expectations, so we’re not going to let those expectations go. We’re not pleased with where we are — just like the fans aren’t pleased, coaches aren’t pleased, players aren’t pleased. Nobody in the organization is pleased with where we are, and we’re very determined to turn it around.”

We’ve all heard how the Ravens could be better than their 2-6 record. Given the small margin of defeat in those six losses, it’s fair to acknowledge the possibility, but let’s not forget those two victories could have easily turned into defeats as well. The eternal optimist would be stretching further to say the Ravens could be 6-2 or better than the pessimist would be in pointing to the possibility of a winless record through eight games.

Even if you believe that the Ravens were unlucky in the first half of the season, that doesn’t mean a run of good fortune is on the way. With Baltimore having a poor defense and an average offense lacking reliable pass-catchers — even before Smith’s Achilles injury — for Joe Flacco, predicting much better than a .500 record in the second half of the season would be based more on blind optimism than what we watched in the first half of 2015.

But players and coaches certainly don’t have to feel that way.

“The mindset is 1-0. Take care of what we have to take care of this week,” said running back Justin Forsett, who “definitely” thinks the Ravens can still make the playoffs. “We’ll just do our part and control what we control. Hopefully, at the end, we’ll be where we want to be.”

Even if the Ravens were to somehow run the table to finish 10-6, there’s no guarantee of even that being good enough as they needed help in Week 17 a year ago to make the playoffs with that same record. Rebounding from 2-6 is an incredible long shot, but who said the Ravens or their fans need to be grounded in reality, especially with eight games to go?

Does Harbaugh think the Ravens can make history as the first team to start 1-6 and make the NFL playoffs under the current format?

“Of course we can. We’re planning on it,” Harbaugh said. “We’re very optimistic about what’s in front of us, our future. We love our players, love the way they work, love the enthusiasm that they had today coming back and getting ready for Jacksonville.

“We’ll take it one day at a time, one game at a time.”

That’s all the Ravens can do, but some extra bravado can only help their near-impossible cause.

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