Tag Archive | "Justin Tucker"

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Special teams elite once again for Ravens in 2015

Posted on 20 January 2016 by Luke Jones

The Ravens lacked the playmakers to win consistently in a 5-11 season that included 14 games decided by a single possession, but how did they remain competitive despite having 20 players on injured reserve?

The special teams were once again huge for Baltimore in 2015.

So huge in fact that longtime NFL writer Rick Gosselin of The Dallas Morning News named special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg’s group first overall in his annual rankings, which consist of the league’s 32 teams being ranked in 22 categories and assigned points according to their standing in each. According to Gosselin, the Ravens finished in the top 10 in 14 of the 22 categories to win in convincing fashion while the New York Giants, Jacksonville, Dallas, and Philadelphia rounded out the top five.

The Ravens have now finished in the top five in Gosselin’s rankings in four straight seasons. And if you’re skeptical of only one grading system’s results, Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus also graded Baltimore’s special teams as the finest in the NFL this season.

With punter Sam Koch and long snapper Morgan Cox each going to their first Pro Bowl, the Ravens were especially proficient in the punting categories. They finished second in the NFL in net punting average and allowed only 5.0 yards per punt return, which was best in the league.

The Ravens also became the first team since Atlanta in 1983 to block a kick — a punt, extra point, or field goal — in five straight games from Oct. 26 through Nov. 30, a streak that culminated with Will Hill’s game-winning 64-yard return for a touchdown off a blocked field goal on the final play in Cleveland.

Special teams rarely grab headlines, but the Ravens earned four of their five victories on the final play of the game with three Justin Tucker field goals and Hill’s return, making you wonder where they might have been with lesser contributions in that area. Rosburg and his special teams deserve plenty of credit in an otherwise-lost season, so it’s fitting that two of his key players will make the trip to Honolulu.

 

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Ravens-related thoughts from wild-card weekend

Posted on 11 January 2016 by Luke Jones

Some have perceived a softer culture for the Ravens since Super Bowl XLVII, but Cincinnati’s Vontaze Burfict reminded us Saturday that there’s a fine line between attitude and recklessness.

Baltimore may lack the big personalities and swagger that it once had on the defensive side of the football, but the Bengals linebacker has proven time and time again that you simply can’t trust him. His personal foul on Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown on Saturday was just the latest example of a player lacking any regard for others on the field and playing too recklessly in a critical spot. This came after replays showed him driving his knee into the right shoulder of Ben Roethlisberger on the sack that took the Steelers quarterback out of the game.

The Ravens are no strangers to Burfict’s antics as offensive lineman John Urschel pointed out the hit on rookie tight end Maxx Williams in Week 17 on Sunday. Former Baltimore wide receiver Torrey Smith called Burfict a “dirty” player last season, and ex-Ravens Ray Rice and Bobbie Williams had issues with the Bengals linebacker in his rookie season.

To be clear, the Ravens would benefit from having more attitude on the defensive side of the ball. They certainly would like to have the play-making ability demonstrated by Burfict on his late interception that looked like it would seal the Bengals’ first playoff win in a quarter-century before Jeremy Hill’s fumble.

But the famous rant from Mike Singletary describes Burfict perfectly: “It is more about them than it is about the team. Cannot play with them, cannot win with them, cannot coach with them. Can’t do it. I want winners.”

Intimidation and ferocity have been traits of many great players over the years, but only when those qualities can be harnessed, something Burfict was incapable of doing when it mattered most.

Was Mallett watching?

A fake Ryan Mallett Twitter account garnered some attention during the Houston Texans’ embarrassing 30-0 loss to Kansas City on Saturday, but you hope that the real Mallett did reflect as Brian Hoyer turned in one of the worst playoff performances by a quarterback in recent memory.

It’s fair to point out that Hoyer posted a solid 91.4 passer rating this season, but Mallett had a golden opportunity in Houston that he completely squandered as he’s more physically gifted than the Texans’ current starter. There’s no way to know for sure if Mallett would have fared any better against the Chiefs, but Houston was a much better opportunity for him than Baltimore in terms of playing time if he’d simply been more of a professional.

To his credit, Mallett has done all of the right things since signing with the Ravens, but Saturday should have been a reminder to him of what might have been. Now, he plays for a team that strictly views him as a backup behind an entrenched franchise quarterback.

He’ll be lucky to receive another opportunity like the one he had in Houston, but you hope he’s learned his lesson if that day does come.

Thankful for Tucker

While many thought of Billy Cundiff when Minnesota’s Blair Walsh missed a 27-yard chip shot that would have won the game for the Vikings, the reliability of Justin Tucker also came to mind.

To be fair, Walsh is a former Pro Bowl kicker and had missed just one kick inside 30 yards in his four-year career, but the 2012 sixth-round pick had also failed to convert four extra points this year, showing he hadn’t been as reliable from shorter distances. Meanwhile, Tucker has never missed from inside 30 in his NFL career and has missed just one field goal try inside 40 yards in his four seasons.

A miss such as Walsh’s could happen to anyone — these guys are human, after all — but Sunday likely reminded general manager Ozzie Newsome how lucky he’s been to have Tucker and how the Ravens can’t afford to let him go this offseason despite his issues from beyond 50 yards this past year.

Winning trumps all 

With John Harbaugh and the injury-ravaged Ravens speaking so much about their heart and resiliency at the end of the season, you hope that they take some notes from the Chiefs as they won their 11th consecutive game on Saturday.

At one point, the Chiefs were 1-5 and had lost their best player — four-time Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charles — to a season-ending knee injury in October, but Andy Reid’s team did more than just to keep fighting and to play teams close every week. Of course, the Ravens weren’t as talented as Kansas City and lost the likes of Joe Flacco and Steve Smith as the season progressed, making a turnaround of that magnitude virtually impossible.

But you also don’t want players to take too much satisfaction from a 5-11 record, no matter who was on the field by season’s end.

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Ravens switching to natural grass at M&T Bank Stadium next year

Posted on 04 December 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens will switch to a natural grass field at M&T Bank Stadium next year after using an artificial surface for the last 13 seasons.

Head coach John Harbaugh confirmed the change on Friday as the Ravens will play their home games on natural grass for the first time since 2002. Discussions began months ago with players having input in the decision.

“It kind of epitomizes what Baltimore is all about, the history of football in Baltimore,” said Harbaugh, who acknowledged he might have lobbied for the change. “To me, a Baltimore football team should be playing on a grass field in Baltimore. It’s kind of a recognition of that.”

With safety a major topic of discussion as it relates to concussions and lower-extremity injuries on artificial surfaces, most Ravens players welcome the news of being able to play home games on softer natural grass. Among AFC North division foes, Pittsburgh and Cleveland have grass surfaces while Cincinnati plays on an artificial surface.

Currently, seventeen teams in the NFL play their home games on natural grass.

Having suffered anterior cruciate ligament tears to both knees during his seven-year career, cornerback Lardarius Webb was among the many players pleased with the decision to make the switch next season. Over the years, veterans have often lamented the wear and tear of practicing on the harder artificial surface in the field house compared to working on their three outdoor grass fields at the Ravens’ Owings Mills practice facility.

The Ravens maintain that their field is among the best artificial surfaces in the league, but the preferences of players and coaches were clear.

“With my surgeries that I’ve had, I can tell after the game if I’ve played on that hard turf or have played on grass,” said Webb, who suffered ACL tears at M&T Bank Stadium in 2009 and 2012. “It’s a black-and-white difference. I just walked off practice and I can tell the difference from practicing on the turf field and outside [on grass]. It’s just a difference.

“We’re looking at the numbers. They say injuries happen more on turf than on grass. Simple as that.”

The Ravens played on natural grass at M&T Bank Stadium from the time it opened in 1998 through the 2002 season, but insufficient sunlight led to concerns with the consistency of the field, especially in the later weeks of the season. This led to the decision to install Sportexe Momentum Turf for the 2003 season, which was used until 2010 when the Ravens switched to the updated Shaw Momentum 51 turf.

According to Harbaugh, the organization has done extensive research on what type of grass to use as well as on ways to work around the sunlight concern, which would include using artificial light and replacing sod in the middle of the season if necessary. The natural surface will be a mix of Bermuda grass and some rye grass, which would be consistent with what the team has used for its practice fields in Owings Mills.

“There’s been a lot of technological advances with the grass from what I’m told in terms of the way our stadium is configured,” Harbaugh said. “It doesn’t get a lot of sun. That was something that was a big consideration as far as the turf originally. But our grounds people have done a great job of researching it and they feel like they have the type of grass now that can thrive in there.”

Justin Tucker is taking a wait-and-see approach on how the natural surface might impact the kicking game, especially in harsh conditions when a natural surface can deteriorate rapidly.

The fourth-year kicker has made 10 of 15 field goal tries at home in 2015, with all five misses from 50 yards or beyond. In his career, Tucker has gone 56-for-69 on field goal attempts at M&T Bank Stadium compared to making 65 of 69 on the road.

“It’ll be interesting to see how it holds up throughout the course of a season,” Tucker said. “I welcome the challenge. For me, I don’t think it really matters too much. It only matters if you let it matter. We’re going to do the exact same thing we always do and prepare every single game for the surface that we’re playing on.

“Maybe we’ll just kick on grass a little bit more.”

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Tucker not escaping Ravens’ list of struggles in 2015

Posted on 24 November 2015 by Luke Jones

All three of the Ravens’ victories in 2015 have come on a Justin Tucker field goal on the final play of the game, but the fourth-year kicker wasn’t all that happy after Sunday’s 16-13 win over St. Louis.

Despite making the game-winning 47-yarder as time expired, Tucker missed two kicks from 51 yards earlier in the day with the second coming with just 1:13 remaining in the fourth quarter. The misses continued a concerning trend for the 2013 Pro Bowl kicker on attempts from 50 or more yards where he has gone just 2-for-7 this season.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been this upset or mad after hitting a game-winner,” Tucker said on Sunday, “but this is kind of uncharted territory for me — and Morgan [Cox] and Sam [Koch] — all of us together. To be able to bounce back like that though, it’s definitely satisfying.”

To be clear, Tucker’s struggles are relative to the many kicking issues we’ve witnessed around the NFL. The 26-year-old has failed only once inside 50 yards all year, which was a 45-yard miss when he stepped into a large divot with his plant foot at Levi’s Stadium against San Francisco in Week 6.

Simply put, Tucker is still one of only a few kickers around the NFL who you want lining up for a huge kick late in a close game. However, his six misses in 10 games — he’s 22-for-28 in 2015 — have already surpassed his total in any of his first three full seasons in Baltimore.

Many have pointed to a declining success rate from 50 yards and beyond since his rookie season when he was a perfect 4-for-4. There was no significant drop-off during his Pro Bowl campaign in 2013 when he was 6-for-7 from 50-plus, including a game-winning 61-yarder at Detroit on Monday Night Football.

In 2014, Tucker was just 4-for-9 from 50 yards or longer, but all five of those misses came from 54 or longer, a reflection of the Ravens’ confidence in allowing him to try kicks from greater distances. The University of Texas product still went 3-for-3 on kicks from 50-53 yards, making those overall numbers less concerning.

Entering a contract year in 2015, Tucker has misfired on five tries from 50 or greater. But unlike last season, he hasn’t attempted most of those from exaggerated distances and is just 2-for-6 on tries from 50-53 yards.

How does head coach John Harbaugh — a longtime special teams coordinator in Philadelphia — explain Tucker’s two misses from 51 yards against the Rams in Week 11?

“There’s the hold, there’s the snap, the whole thing goes together,” said Harbaugh, who has shared his thoughts with Tucker. “There’s the wind. There’s the footing. All those things are a factor, no question, but the swing mechanics are the main thing. It’s not hard to see when the swing mechanics aren’t what we would be looking for or what he would be looking for. To my eye, that’s what happened in the game [Sunday].”

After Sunday’s game, Tucker acknowledged the challenges of kicking at M&T Bank Stadium where the open corners of the upper deck can lead to swirling winds. The kicker said he didn’t hit the first attempt well, but the second miss from 51 was struck “right on the screws” before it “just leaked” due to the wind.

Scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent after the season, Tucker is expected to seek a contract that would make him one of the highest-paid kickers — if not the highest paid — in the NFL. If the sides cannot agree to a deal in a timely fashion, the Ravens could use the franchise tag as the franchise tender at the kicker position was a reasonable $4.126 million in 2015 and wouldn’t increase dramatically next year.

Even if he’s been more erratic from beyond 50 yards since his remarkable Pro Bowl season, Tucker remains one of the best kickers in the NFL, making it unlikely that the Ravens would allow him to depart after the season. But it’s clear he has a high standard for himself that he hasn’t quite reached in 2015.

“I’ve been doing this long enough now to know at our stadium, I’ve just got to hit [what] we like to call a ‘Dawg Pound’ ball like we’re kicking into the ‘Dawg Pound’ in Cleveland,” said Tucker, alluding to the difficult conditions in FirstEnergy Stadium late in the season. “It’s a slightly different ball that you’ve got to hit. You just get it up over the line and make sure it goes straight. That’s basically what I’ve got to do moving forward, regardless of the distance of the kick.”

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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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Perriman “frustrated” not to be on field, position coach says

Posted on 03 November 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens wide receiver Breshad Perriman hasn’t spoken publicly since the eve of his first NFL training camp, only adding to the mystery of his knee injury suffered on July 30.

Three months later, the 2015 first-round pick still isn’t playing as Baltimore suffered its worst start in franchise history. After suffering a sprained posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on the first day of training camp, Perriman aggravated the injury on Sept. 27 and underwent arthroscopic knee surgery a few days later.

Head coach John Harbaugh said last week that Perriman still had a “chance” to play this season, a stark contrast from the initial diagnosis that the 6-foot-2 wideout had merely fallen on his knee and would only miss a day or two of practice.

“He has been a little frustrated,” wide receivers coach Bobby Engram said on Tuesday. “I think he wants to be out there. He wants to compete. He wants to play. But at the same time, he realizes he has to go through this process and get himself healthy.”

Harbaugh called Perriman’s injury “one of the all-time slowesthealing sprained PCLs ever” last month, a description that might be accurate but didn’t do much to help the Central Florida product’s perception with some fans questioning his toughness.

With Steve Smith suffering a season-ending torn Achilles tendon in Sunday’s win over San Diego, the Ravens would surely like to see how Perriman would perform as Joe Flacco’s No. 1 receiver, especially if Smith follows through with his previous plan to retire. He’s not the only 2015 first-round receiver not to play this season — Chicago’s first-round pick Kevin White is on the physically unable to perform list with a stress fracture in his lower leg — but Perriman has been frustrated not to be able to prove the Ravens right for selecting him with the 26th overall pick this spring.

“I’ve been disappointed for Breshad, because he put in so much work and preparation to give himself that opportunity,” said Engram, who played 14 years in the NFL. “It’s unfortunate, but that’s a part of this business that we take part in. Football, it’s a physical sport, and sometimes these things happen.

“But he has been around [the facility]. He has been in the meetings. His spirits have been good, and we look forward to getting him healthy and getting him back.”

Upshaw, Z. Smith not filling sacks void

A season ago, Elvis Dumervil, Terrell Suggs, and Pernell McPhee combined for a whopping 36 1/2 sacks.

But with McPhee now in Chicago and Suggs lost for the season in Week 1, the Ravens haven’t been able to fill the void with fourth-year linebacker Courtney Upshaw and rookie Za’Darius Smith, who have combined for just two sacks despite extensive opportunities to rush the quarterback. Serving almost exclusively as a run-stopping strong-side linebacker in his first three seasons, Upshaw hasn’t collected a sack since the 2013 season even though he’s received more playing time in 2015.

“You’ll see that Courtney is dominant on the edge of the run game,” linebackers coach Ted Monachino said. “He would love to have more production as a pass rusher. We would all love for him to have more production as a pass rusher. We’ve got combination of rush and coverage. We’ve got to find a way to tie those two things together better than what we have.”

The lack of an established threat on the opposite edge has allowed offensive lines to focus more on Dumervil, limiting the Pro Bowl linebacker to just 2 1/2 sacks in eight games. Assuming Suggs’ role as the every-down rush linebacker, Dumervil has still been able to generate pressure — even if not finishing plays with as many quarterback takedowns — and has graded as the ninth-best edge defender in the NFL this season, according to Pro Football Focus.

A fair question for the second half will be how well Dumervil holds up after seeing his most extensive action of his three years in Baltimore.

“I think that Elvis, as a run defender, is improving,” said Monachino, who added that Dumervil had previously served as a full-time player in Denver. “I think Elvis as a first- and second-down guy with some opportunity in the pass rush, I think that helps.

“We all recognize the fact that 55 [snaps in a game] is different than 35 reps for a guy that’s a pass rusher, especially a high-effort pass rusher. We’ve got to continue to find ways to get Elvis singled, and when we can, he has to take advantage of those opportunities.”

J. Smith still “dominating” despite inconsistency

After Jimmy Smith’s play was recently described as “tentative” by defensive coordinator Dean Pees, defensive backs coach Chris Hewitt took a more positive stance in assessing the No. 1 cornerback’s play in 2015.

Smith is returning from last year’s Lisfranc injury, which has led many to wonder whether he’s been fully healthy all season. The 2011 first-round pick’s play is low on Hewitt’s list of concerns for the league’s 30th-ranked pass defense, however.

“He’s giving up a couple of plays, but the guy — if you watch the entire film — the guy has been dominating people,” Hewitt said. “He has had some dominating plays. Has he had dominating games? No, but he has had dominating plays.

“I think he’s continuing to keep on getting better as a player. He’ll be the first to tell you that he wants to be better, and he has put a lot of weight on his shoulders and a lot of stress on himself to become that leader or that big-time playmaker that we need. He’s doing a great job. I’m not pressing too much on Jimmy.”

Rosburg not impressed with Tucker’s dance moves

Kicker Justin Tucker drew plenty of attention for his celebratory dance that followed his game-winning 39-yard field goal against San Diego, but his nod to Drake was lost on his special teams coordinator.

“I have no reaction whatsoever.” said Jerry Rosburg as he smiled when asked about Tucker’s “Hotline Bling” dance. “I’m not sure what it was, so I’m really not sure if I’ve seen it before.”

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Ravens take step forward by capitalizing on good fortune

Posted on 02 October 2015 by Luke Jones

The Ravens didn’t save their season on Thursday night, but Justin Tucker’s 52-yard field goal to top Pittsburgh in overtime was the claw of a hammer loosening the nails of their coffin.

An 0-3 team is never fixed with a single win, but the 23-20 victory over the Steelers was a step in the right direction. Though far from exceptional, the Ravens were just good enough to capitalize on some luck as well as critical mistakes by their AFC North rival.

And that’s progress after a September from hell that resulted in the worst start in franchise history.

“We know where we’re at. We know what we have to overcome,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “You can’t get two [wins] until you get one. This one was a long time coming. We’re happy to get it.”

Baltimore’s biggest stroke of good fortune came last Sunday when Ben Roethlisberger injured his knee in St. Louis, leaving the quarterbacking duties to Mike Vick on Thursday. The 35-year-old backup may not have lost the game for Pittsburgh, but he did nothing to help his team over the final 30 minutes of play on Thursday night.

Amazingly, the Steelers coaching staff kept putting the ball in his hands as he twice failed to convert fourth downs in overtime — one as a runner and another on an errant throw to All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown. How Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley didn’t give the ball to Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell — who became the first to eclipse the century mark on the ground against the Ravens defense in 30 games — in either situation is still a head-scratcher.

But the Ravens took advantage despite questionable fourth-down decisions of their own and injuries to Steve Smith and Michael Campanaro that left them with a receiving trio of Kamar Aiken, Marlon Brown, and rookie Darren Waller down the stretch. Joe Flacco shook off two costly turnovers earlier in the game to do just enough to make it work.

A defense heavily criticized for its inability to get off the field this season made several key stops, including a three-and-out late in regulation that gave Flacco and the offense a chance to drive 45 yards in the final minute to set up Tucker to make the game-tying 42-yard field goal. The secondary remains a major concern, but a pair of critical tackles by safety Will Hill in overtime and solid play from newly-acquired cornerback Will Davis were positives on which to build for a struggling unit.

The most encouraging development from Thursday’s win was the revitalization of the Ravens’ ground attack as Justin Forsett rushed for a game-high 150 yards on 27 carries. Largely ineffective in the first three weeks, the running game resembled what we saw under Gary Kubiak a year ago. With injuries at receiver and tight end and a shortage of playmakers on which Flacco can rely, the Ravens’ best hope to turn their season around will be to move the ball consistently on the ground and they did just that against a good run defense.

After mistakes, questionable decisions, and close calls for both sides throughout the night, the outcome of the game ultimately came down to which team had the better kicker. While Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin lost all confidence in Josh Scobee after two misses in the final three minutes of regulation and chose to go for two fourth downs in Baltimore territory in overtime, the Ravens once again enjoyed having the best kicker in the NFL.

Tucker’s 52-yard game-winner with 5:08 left in overtime was the latest kick that will allow the free-agent-to-be to put his feet up on owner Steve Bisciotti’s desk in the same way Flacco did before being paid a few years ago. Since arriving as a rookie free agent in 2012, Tucker has done everything you could ask to become the league’s highest-paid kicker and the Ravens have no choice but to reward him sooner rather than later.

They got a close look at the opposite side of the spectrum with Scobee’s misses and the Steelers’ lack of confidence in him that led to strategic changes that the Ravens took advantage of.

“In this league, most games come down to three points,” Harbaugh said. “We have a great kicker.”

Having a great kicker — and the Steelers lacking one — was the ultimate difference between the Ravens being 1-3 as opposed to 0-4 at the end of the night on Thursday. Now, they’ll feel much better about themselves as they rest up and hope for a number of injuries to heal up over the weekend before coming home to play Cleveland a week from Sunday.

Thursday’s win provided a brief exhale, but the Ravens still have a long way to go to save their season.

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2015 Ravens training camp preview: Specialists

Posted on 29 July 2015 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens beginning their 20th training camp in franchise history this week, expectations are high for John Harbaugh’s team as they eye their seventh trip to the postseason in eight years.

As veterans report to Owings Mills and the first full-squad workout takes place the following on Thursday, we’ll examine each position group entering the summer.

July 20: Quarterbacks
July 21: Defensive line
July 22: Running backs
July 23: Linebackers
July 24: Wide receivers
July 25: Tight ends
July 26: Cornerbacks
July 27: Offensive line
July 28: Safeties
July 29: Specialists

Below is a look at the Baltimore specialists:

SPECIALISTS (5)
LOCK: Sam Koch, Morgan Cox, Justin Tucker
BUBBLE: None
LONG SHOT: Justin Manton, Patrick Scales

Synopsis: With veteran punter Sam Koch locked up to a contract extension earlier this month, the Ravens couldn’t find any less drama with the specialist positions as all discussion will center around the kickoff and punt return jobs this summer. Those spots are wide open with younger players such as Michael Campanaro and DeAndre Carter and veterans like Steve Smith and Lardarius Webb firmly in the mix, but the trio of true specialists are as safe as ever in beginning their fourth straight year together.

One to watch: Whether it’s with a contract extension or via the franchise tag, Justin Tucker knows he’s extremely unlikely to be going anywhere next year, but the 2013 Pro Bowl kicker will still have his uncertain future on his mind entering his fourth season. His 89.8 percent success rate is tops in NFL history among kickers with a minimum of 100 field goal attempts, but he’ll face the challenge of an internal balance between wanting to become the highest-paid kicker in the league with simply continuing the success he found in his first three seasons. Given his resolve, it would be unwise to bet against him.

One on notice: If Morgan Cox had been more limited this spring in coming back from last year’s season-ending knee injury, Patrick Scales would have been a name to watch this summer, but the veteran long snapper appeared close to full strength during workouts. Barring something unforeseen, Cox isn’t in much danger since he has an affordable contract and is as reliable as they come.

Sleeper: None

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Dec 16, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker (9) celebrates after kicking a field goal during the third quarter against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

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Five questions pondering Tucker, Upshaw, Ravens defensive line

Posted on 17 July 2015 by Luke Jones

On Fridays, I’ll ponder five topics related to the Orioles or Ravens (or a mix of both).

Five questions …

1. Is it just me or are the parameters now in place to work out a Justin Tucker contract extension? New England signed three-time Pro Bowl kicker Stephen Gostkowski to a four-year, $17.2 million contract with a $6 million signing bonus this week, which should provide the framework for general manager Ozzie Newsome to extend Tucker for the long haul. Tucker is six years younger, so he will likely command more money — and perhaps an extra year or two on a deal — the longer the Ravens wait. A deal in the neighborhood of five years and $21 million total with a $7 million signing bonus would seem fair for both sides to continue their relationship.

2. Is it just me or does the hype surrounding Tyrod Taylor in Buffalo make you feel very lucky not to be a Bills fan? Taking nothing away from the former Ravens quarterback who was an acceptable backup and confidant for Joe Flacco, but it’s absurd to continue to see headlines about Taylor possibly becoming the Bills starting quarterback and simply shows how desperate teams without a franchise quarterback can be. With EJ Manuel and Matt Cassel as his only competition, Taylor is deserving of a chance to compete, but nothing about his play in the preseason or in very limited regular-season opportunities over the last four years suggested he has the ability to be a No. 1 quarterback.

3. Is it just me or will it be interesting to see how Courtney Upshaw performs in the final year of his rookie contract? Despite his weight being a sore subject in past summers, the 2012 second-round pick has been a mostly solid but unspectacular contributor for Baltimore in his first three seasons. Upshaw has profiled as a poor man’s Jarret Johnson, setting the edge and playing the run well, but I’m curious to see what kind of market there might be for the Alabama product. Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil are both on the wrong side of 30, but the free-agent loss of Pernell McPhee doesn’t leave the Ravens with any veteran depth behind them other than Upshaw. That said, the Ravens shouldn’t overpay to keep an outside linebacker who offers such little ability to rush the quarterback.

4. Is it just me or are you not buying Reggie Wayne as a good fit for the Ravens? The former Indianapolis Colts wide receiver says he wants to play one more year and has talked with several teams, but I don’t see this as a time when Baltimore needs a veteran receiver with his skill set as some have suggested. At this point in his brilliant career, Wayne profiles similarly to Steve Smith and is coming off a 2014 season in which he caught only 64 passes for 779 yards. If the Ravens are to add a veteran receiver to the picture, they’d be better off adding more speed to the outside in case Breshad Perriman is slow to develop. Wayne isn’t the player to do that.

5. Is it just me or could we see a couple talented defensive linemen left on the outside looking in at the end of the preseason? The Ravens will continue to hear questions about replacing five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, but there’s no shortage of talent on the defensive line, which could make for some interesting decisions when they trim the roster to 53. It wouldn’t stun me to see a healthy Brent Urban push Chris Canty to the bubble or to see rookie Carl Davis push a veteran backup such as DeAngelo Tyson off the roster at the end of August. With 10 defensive linemen sporting at least a decent chance to make the roster, Baltimore will likely need to part ways with at least a couple quality players from this group.

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Happy or not, Tucker should adjust well to new extra-point rule

Posted on 20 May 2015 by Luke Jones

After more than a year of debate, the NFL officially changed the extra point at its spring meetings in San Francisco on Tuesday.

Citing an ever-increasing success rate that’s made the extra point an automatic play, the league has elected to move kicking tries from the 2-yard line to the 15, transforming a 20-yard kick into what will now be an attempt from 33 yards. Two-point tries will remain at the 2, but opposing defenses will now have the ability to return failed kicks or turnovers on two-point attempts for their own two-point play, copying the collegiate rule.

To no one’s surprise after being quite vocal about the potential tinkering with the kicking game, Ravens kicker Justin Tucker didn’t offer a ringing endorsement to the team’s official website about the changes on Tuesday afternoon. It’s understandable not to celebrate a decision that will make his job more difficult, but the 2013 Pro Bowl kicker has never missed a kick from within 37 yards, which should give him a distinct advantage over most kickers in the NFL.

How dramatically will the new extra-point rules impact the game?

The league hopes such a change will prompt more two-point attempts, but I remain skeptical considering the ultraconservative nature of most NFL head coaches. The ability of the defense to return a point-after try for two points is an overdue change that could bring some excitement, but even that only figures to come into play a handful of times per season in the entire league.

Beyond the initial novelty, I don’t expect the game to change all that much as kickers converted 95.8 percent of field goals from 30-34 yards last season. According to the Wall Street Journal, this will essentially take the NFL extra point back to the success rate of the 1980s when the play was — you guessed it — not at all exciting, either.

Was the old extra point too easy and boring? Sure.

Was it something that was bothering my viewing experience? Not even a little.

If we’re truly interested in eliminating boredom from the game, the countless media timeouts are a much bigger problem, but, of course, there’s never any mention of that.

Will the new extra point still be too easy and boring? Most likely.

It won’t ruin my viewing experience, but this has felt more like change for the sake of change all along.

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