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Ravens not good enough to overcome coaching errors

Posted on 09 October 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Ravens offensive coordinator Marc Trestman deserved a pass last season.

With a lack of speed at the skill positions and a run of injuries that made the offense look like a preseason unit over the final two months, how could you fairly critique the assistant in his first season in Baltimore?

But the red flags were there. The running game lacked productivity or commitment — or both — and the passing attacked often lacked rhyme or reason. A year later, the same problems persist as the Ravens offense turned in an embarrassing performance in being blanked over the final 44 minutes of a 16-10 loss to Washington, who entered Sunday ranked 29th in the NFL in total defense and 26th in points allowed.

It looked so promising early with a nine-play, 75-yard opening drive that resulted in a 7-yard touchdown pass from Joe Flacco to Crockett Gillmore. In the first quarter, the Ravens went 3-for-5 on third down, rushed 11 times for 74 yards, and accumulated 146 yards of offense.

If only the game had ended after Justin Tucker’s 31-yard field goal to give the Ravens a 10-6 lead to begin the second quarter.

Over the last three quarters, Baltimore went 0-for-10 on third down and ran the ball eight times, one of those a fourth-down scramble by Flacco on the final drive. Instead of continuing to try to gash the Redskins with the run, the Ravens appeared to go away from the ground game whenever they could as Flacco threw the ball 46 times for just 210 yards. The ninth-year quarterback has now thrown a whopping 98 times over the last two games for just 508 yards, an anemic 5.2 yards per attempt.

If the opponent is truly adjusting to take away the run, then the passing game is hopelessly broken to not be able to take advantage. There’s no excuse to fall apart after the 37-year-old Steve Smith exited the game late in the first quarter with a sprained ankle.

But as the passing game languished, Terrance West averaged 8.6 yards per carry on 11 rushes on Sunday.

Eleven.

He was responsible for the two longest plays of the game for Baltimore with runs of 35 and 27 yards while Flacco dropped back to throw 50 times and had nothing longer than a 15-yard completion on the day.

“We didn’t get first downs,” said head coach John Harbaugh when asked about the disappearance of the running game. “Eight rushes [after the first quarter] and how many three-and-outs? How many runs do you want? That’s the bottom line. You have to move the ball, you have to get first downs. We have to have more plays. How many plays did we have if you’re not going to count the two-minute drive? You just have to look at how many plays we had in those situations.

“I didn’t think we abandoned the run. I would’ve liked to have seen us score. Once we got the turnover down [in the red zone in the second quarter], we threw it and got nothing there. Maybe we could’ve run it there if I was going to look back.”

The weekly excuses for not running the ball are wearing thin, and the frustration was apparent in the post-game locker room. Trestman isn’t solely to blame as the offensive line is banged up, receivers are dropping too many passes and struggling to gain separation, and Flacco isn’t playing at his best. Players must execute and the opponent is also competing, but even the most even-keeled observer has to question whether the maligned coordinator is able to put this offense in the best position to succeed at this point.

Do changes need to be made?

“I’m not going to get into all that. We’re not playing well enough,” said Flacco, who added that it was “embarrassing” to play that way in front of a disenchanted home crowd. “We’re not making plays. Yeah, there’s probably only a couple plays, we’re only giving ourselves a couple of plays to be made, but when they’re there, we’re just not making them. We are running off the field way too much. Definitely, definitely not fun to be out there today after the first series.”

Of course, the offense wasn’t the only problem on Sunday.

The special teams continue to struggle as the Redskins scored their first touchdown on an 85-yard punt return by Jamison Crowder in the first quarter. A bad Sam Koch punt early in the third quarter set up Washington at midfield for its eventual second touchdown.

On defense, the secondary buckled too much in the third quarter and linebacker C.J. Mosley’s fumble through the end zone on what looked like a game-changing interception was a back-breaker, but too much pressure is being placed on a much-improved unit that allowed only 10 points on Sunday.

But it was another coaching gaffe in the second quarter that stood out in the six-point defeat.

After linebacker Zach Orr forced and recovered a fumble inside the red zone, the Ravens failed to pick up a first down on three plays and lined up to try a 35-yard field goal to push the lead to 13-6. However, the Ravens called for their kicker to throw a pass despite the windy conditions at M&T Bank Stadium. Unsurprisingly, the pass to Gillmore was underthrown and fell incomplete.

Tucker said after the game that they had practiced the trick play — which included him initially lining up as a left-footed kicker — over the last five years, but there had been no discussion on the sideline about the crosswind potentially impacting the ability to run the fake. He maintained that the wind was not a factor on his throw and suggested that Gillmore may have slipped on the play, but the failure was neither of those players’ fault.

How you call a play for a non-quarterback to throw the ball in less-than-ideal conditions is baffling. We don’t know how the game might have changed if the Ravens had successfully kicked there, but they would have only needed a field goal to tie the game on their final drive if the score had been 16-13.

“You can second-guess it, but I’m not second-guessing it,” Harbaugh said. “I’ve stood up here for nine years and said we’re going to be aggressive. People are going to have to defend fakes, they’re going to have to defend us going for it on fourth down. That’s just the way we’re going to continue to play, because that’s what we believe in. We believe in giving our players a chance to make plays, and we’re going to keep doing it. We’re not apologizing for that.”

The head coach’s answer was predictable, but there’s really no defending the call.

Plenty went wrong in the loss and players must take their share of the responsibility, but the Ravens just aren’t good enough to overcome the type of coaching errors that were made on Sunday.

Harbaugh and Trestman needed to be better in what was a very winnable game.

Now, the Ravens are left to rebound from two straight home losses that have all but washed away the good vibes of a 3-0 start.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts on Week 3 win in Jacksonville

Posted on 27 September 2016 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens improving to 3-0 for the first time since 2009 with a 19-17 victory at Jacksonville on Sunday, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Much praise has already been offered to the fourth-quarter performance of the Ravens defense, but the numbers were just sensational. Jacksonville ran 17 plays for four net yards while Baltimore collected four sacks, two interceptions, and two batted passes. That’s how you finish games.

2. Mentioning last week how methodical the Jacksonville defense has forced the Ravens to be, Joe Flacco threw 40 times with only completions of 20 or more yards. The Jaguars used deep safeties and an underwhelming running game didn’t help matters, but the Ravens must take more vertical shots.

3. Speaking of the running game, many want Terrance West to receive the bulk of the carries, but the Ravens don’t trust him as much in pass protection, which can’t be overlooked in a pass-happy offense. Still, you hope rookie Kenneth Dixon can eventually give a sputtering ground attack a spark.

4. John Harbaugh quipped that rookie linebacker Kamalei Correa needs extra work on the JUGS machine after dropping an interception that could have been a touchdown, but it was good to see the second-rounder make on impact with his first defensive action. Now he needs to build on that.

5. I had concerns after his Week 1 performance in which he had only 19 receiving yards on eight targets, but Steve Smith looked like his old self against Jacksonville, gaining yards after the catch and making four receptions in the fourth quarter. Maybe Jalen Ramsey did him a favor?

6. Many have criticized Shareece Wright after two rough games in a row, but shouldn’t Jimmy Smith be traveling with a receiver as talented as Jacksonville’s Allen Robinson? Wright does need to be better in coverage, but the Ravens gave Smith a big contract for those types of matchups.

7. Just 8-for-19 on tries from at least 50 yards in the previous two seasons, Justin Tucker is living up to a fat contract by nailing all three tries from that range so far, including the game-winning 54-yarder in Jacksonville. He’s easy to take for granted, but he shouldn’t be.

8. It’s ironic that Flacco’s franchise record of 21 consecutive completions ended on his best throw of the day that was dropped in the end zone by Mike Wallace. It wasn’t the best day for the veteran receiver or Breshad Perriman, who also dropped a couple of passes.

9. One of the big differences in the defense has been the improved pass coverage from the inside linebackers. C.J. Mosley and Zach Orr are getting better depth in their drops, and both came away with interceptions on Sunday.

10. Brent Urban gave the Ravens’ their 10th blocked kick since 2014, which proved to be the difference in the game. Special teams can be a great equalizer in overcoming deficiencies on offense or defense, and blocks have swung momentum two weeks in a row.

11. Alex Lewis did leave Sunday’s game with a concussion, but the Ravens listing the same seven inactives for the third straight week illustrates how healthy they’ve remained since the start of the regular season. They need Elvis Dumervil and Dixon to return, but they should feel fortunate otherwise.

12. Harbaugh says he isn’t superstitious, but his gray T-shirt worn on the sideline two weeks in a row will apparently be donned again against Oakland. It’s a more relaxed look for the ninth-year coach than we’re used to seeing, and it reminds a bit of Bill Belichick with the hoodie.

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No matter how it’s looked, Ravens in great position early in 2016

Posted on 25 September 2016 by Luke Jones

You don’t have to buy into the 3-0 Ravens after a sloppy 19-17 win over Jacksonville on Sunday.

They’ve defeated three teams that are a combined 1-8 so far this season. Baltimore has won each of those games by a single possession and trailed in the fourth quarter of the last two.

Quarterback Joe Flacco spoke the truth after the game despite the Ravens being off to their best start since 2009 and standing alone in first place in the AFC North.

“You don’t want to have to be winning these games the way we are,” said Flacco, who threw two fourth-quarter interceptions after a whopping 21 straight completions earlier in the game. “I think it makes us tougher as a football team. At the same time, you’re not going to be able to get away with this when you’re playing really, really good teams in January.”

The mere fact that Flacco could mention January says it all, however. That possibility was already looking bleak after an 0-3 start last year.

The Ravens may not be a great team, but they’re in a great position with a perfect record through the first three weeks. Since 1990, teams starting 3-0 have made the playoffs 75.6 percent of the time.

The odds look even better with the Ravens now playing consecutive home games against Oakland and Washington. A 5-0 start hardly appears out of the question, and that would be welcomed when you consider what the rest of the schedule looks like after that.

The offense has managed only four touchdowns in three games. The running game has largely been a non-factor at a meager 3.3 yards per carry. The passing game has impressed at times, but then there are moments such as Mike Wallace’s drop in the end zone on the opening drive of the third quarter on Sunday that throw the rhythm out of whack for an extended period of time.

Still, you see plenty of reason for optimism with Steve Smith and Dennis Pitta looking more and more like their old selves, Wallace providing a needed vertical presence, and young receivers such as Breshad Perriman and Chris Moore flashing potential. The offensive line has been an obvious concern, but there were always going to be growing pains with two rookies starting on the left side.

In other words, there’s reason to think the group can improve markedly. That’s why a 3-0 record feels that much better, regardless of the quality of opponents.

“I think we’re a team that’s kind of growing as we’re moving along here,” Flacco said. “We have a lot of moving parts and a lot of guys who haven’t played with us before. At some point, we might see that we’re building up, building up, building up and all of a sudden it turns over very quickly. That’s kind of what I’m looking for — for it to turn over very quickly and for us to explode as an offense and really take off.”

The most impressive part of the Ravens through the first three weeks, however, has been a defense that’s allowed only 14.7 points per game. That’s including a 20-point nightmare of a first quarter in Cleveland, meaning the defense has been even stingier in its other 11 quarters of action.

The pass rush hasn’t been as consistent as defensive coordinator Dean Pees would like, but it has stepped up when needed, sacking Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles four times in the fourth quarter after failing to register one in the first three quarters on Sunday. You’d like to see more pressure off the edge, but veteran Terrell Suggs came alive with two quarterback takedowns in the final period and the Ravens will hope to welcome back Elvis Dumervil in Week 4. The interior rush has been more consistently disruptive with Timmy Jernigan leading the way with three sacks in the first three games.

But the biggest difference from last year’s defense has been the ability to force turnovers. The Ravens intercepted three passes against the Jaguars to give them five for the season, just one shy of their franchise-worst 2015 total.

On Sunday, Baltimore picked off Bortles twice in the final five minutes. Last week, it was a C.J. Mosley interception in the final minute that preserved a 25-20 victory. These were the game-changing plays that were largely absent against both good teams and bad teams a year ago.

Despite their imperfections on Sunday, the Ravens had two distinct advantages over the Jaguars that Suggs identified after the game. And they’re huge reasons why Baltimore should feel even more optimistic about a 3-0 start.

“You want a quarterback with ice in his veins,” Suggs said, “and you damn sure want a kicker with ice in his veins as well.”

Justin Tucker proved the latter with a 54-yard field goal with 1:02 remaining to complete a 4-for-4 day. He has now connected on all three of his tries from at least 50 yards, an area where he struggled last season.

The Ravens may not be the best 3-0 team in the NFL, but they’ll take that over being called the best 2-1 team like Pittsburgh or a good 1-2 squad like Cincinnati. Sure, you can argue that the Ravens haven’t beaten anybody, but they haven’t lost to anybody, either.

A 3-0 start leaves less work to do later and more leeway to figure things out in the coming weeks as the Ravens will hope to be ready to step up their play against the better teams looming later in the year.

Maybe even in January.

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Ravens need youth movement for 2016 and beyond

Posted on 09 September 2016 by Luke Jones

Your outlook on the Ravens this season likely depends on how you viewed a forgettable 2015 in which they finished 5-11.

If you point to more than 20 players suffering season-ending injuries — the most in the John Harbaugh era — and nine losses decided by one possession, a dramatic turnaround feels inevitable with any reasonable shift in luck.

Or, you remember the myriad of reasons that contributed to a 1-6 start long before the losses of Steve Smith, Joe Flacco, and Justin Forsett transformed a lost season into one more conveniently excused by injuries. From that perspective, those failures were less about bad fortune and more the culmination of a series of missteps over the previous few years.

No matter where your assessment of last season lies, the 2016 Ravens are relying on a slew of older players at key positions, which is a slippery slope. According to Jimmy Kempski of PhillyVoice.com, Baltimore had the sixth-oldest 53-man roster in the NFL on final cut-down day. That was before general manager Ozzie Newsome re-signed the 30-year-old Justin Forsett and added 33-year-old return specialist Devin Hester at the beginning of the week.

Fifteen players on the active roster are 30 or older. Of their 12 former Pro Bowl selections, only two — linebacker C.J. Mosley and kicker Justin Tucker — are currently in their 20s.

Their projected starting outside linebackers, wide receivers, safeties, and running back are all 30 or older. Experience is certainly valuable, but those are positions where you don’t want to be sparring too frequently with Father Time.

The Ravens have obvious exceptions to the rule — a few of them will eventually be in the discussion for the Hall of Fame — but this is largely a young man’s game.

And that brings us to the biggest key for the Ravens in 2016 and certainly beyond.

The youth movement needs to start now.

Seeing the likes of Smith and Terrell Suggs return from injuries to lead the Ravens back into postseason contention would be fun, but it would be in vain if several younger players don’t take significant steps forward. At 31, Flacco should have several more productive seasons ahead of him at quarterback, but this is an otherwise aging core of difference-makers, which was true even before pass rusher Elvis Dumervil suffered a setback from offseason foot surgery that will keep him sidelined for the start of the season.

It’s time for the next wave of great Ravens to emerge. In fact, it’s overdue, which is a significant reason why 2015 was such a disappointment.

Excluding players yet to take an NFL snap like rookie left tackle Ronnie Stanley and wide receiver Breshad Perriman, who are the under-30 talents on this roster that other teams truly covet?

Brandon Williams might be the best run-stopping nose tackle in the league and Tucker is arguably the NFL’s top kicker, but who else?

Mosley and cornerback Jimmy Smith? Maybe in 2014, but not based on the way they performed a year ago.

Others have potential, but the Ravens thought the same about failed draft picks such as Matt Elam, Arthur Brown, and Terrence Brooks not long ago. The proof will be in the results on the field.

Za’Darius Smith, Matt Judon, or Kamalei Correa needs to become as a significant pass-rushing threat to complement Suggs and Dumervil. The defense will be even more dangerous if more than one can do it.

As their earliest first-round pick in 16 years, Stanley must make fans forget every left tackle the Ravens have had since Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden.

Perriman needs to stay healthy and show why he was the first receiver the organization drafted in the first round in a decade.

Jimmy Smith and Mosley have to look more like the players they were in 2014.

If others step up along the way, the Ravens will really be in business — not just for this season but for the future.

If young players fail to develop, they will once again be depending too heavily on aging talent trying to stay healthy enough to play at a high level for another year.

Baltimore can bounce back with the combination of veterans returning and young play-makers emerging.

But it’s difficult to imagine it happening to any meaningful degree without the latter.

The Ravens need their youth to take the baton and step to the forefront.

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Ten Ravens thoughts on first week of training camp

Posted on 02 August 2016 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens approaching the end of their first week of training camp, I’ve offered 10 early thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The Ravens have numerous injury questions, but Joe Flacco is looking less and less like one. Other than the brace on his left knee, you’d never know he’s eight months removed from surgery. He’s moving and throwing like he always did and says he’s not even thinking about the knee.

2. Everyone is rooting for Keenan Reynolds to make an impact after his brilliant career at Navy, but he’s a substantial work in progress. It’s still very early, but he hasn’t played with much confidence and has dropped more passes and kicks than you’d like to see even in practices.

3. With other running backs currently sidelined, Terrance West is taking advantage of the reps and has looked the part of a motivated young player vying for a significant role in the offense. West has shed 15 pounds from last season and is noticeably more explosive running the football.

4. After missing spring workouts to have the screws removed from his right foot, Jimmy Smith has had a quiet start. He hasn’t practiced poorly, but he’s still working his way back to full strength. The defense sorely needs him to return to his pre-surgery 2014 form this season.

5. An understated need in 2016 will be for Za’Darius Smith to become an impact player. He looks comfortable in pass coverage and has shown good pass-rush ability. If he can handle responsibilities formerly held by Pernell McPhee and Courtney Upshaw, less pressure falls on Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil.

6. Though Jerraud Powers remains the favorite to play slot cornerback in sub packages, rookie Tavon Young has displayed good ball skills and has shown good aggression in coverage. He also looked smooth and fast returning a kickoff at Monday’s stadium practice. He’s someone to watch in the preseason.

7. Much has been written about Kamalei Correa competing to start at inside linebacker next to C.J. Mosley, but he plays with an edge, evident by the skirmishes on Monday. The Ravens need more attitude and higher-end talent, and Correa has a chance to bring both to the defense.

8. It’s unclear how much time he’ll miss, but it was a shame to see rookie receiver Chris Moore walking with his left foot in a boot on Monday. It was only a couple practices, but his acceleration going after the deep ball reminds a little bit of Torrey Smith.

9. It was interesting to see Justin Tucker repeatedly pop kickoffs into the air that landed inside the 5-yard line on Monday. With touchbacks on kickoffs moving to the 25, John Harbaugh said this offseason that the Ravens could alter their approach instead of just booting it through the end zone.

10. Crockett Gillmore has a rare combination of size and quickness that is fun to watch, but you wonder if his physical style of play will continue hindering his durability. He’s already had quite a few injuries in two-plus years with a hamstring strain the latest ailment to sideline him.

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Wallace turns in strong performance after rough start to camp

Posted on 01 August 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Mike Wallace didn’t get off to the kind of start he envisioned in his first training camp with the Ravens, but the speedy receiver finally made his mark on Sunday.

Though initially failing his conditioning test and being quiet over his first couple practices, Wallace stood out with several receptions and beat Shareece Wright for a touchdown from Joe Flacco during a red-zone drill. With Steve Smith and Breshad Perriman currently sidelined with injuries, Wallace looked like the best receiver on the field for the Ravens on Sunday.

The strong showing came after a drop early in practice that drew an animated pep talk from head coach John Harbaugh. After only being able to work with Flacco in the meeting room during the spring, Wallace is relishing the opportunity to build a rapport with his new quarterback, who has returned to practice less than eight months removed from major knee surgery.

“I’m just trying to get better every day,” Wallace said. “Obviously, I’m on a new team, so I’m just trying to get comfortable with my quarterbacks — all of them, especially Joe. It’s just great to be out there with a guy who has been around for so long and just knows the game.”

Though failing the conditioning test wasn’t the best look for a veteran player in his first season with the Ravens, Wallace has made a good impression with coaches and teammates since signing a two-year, $11.5 million in March. He also downplayed the challenge of learning the Baltimore offense, noting that this is his sixth offensive system in the last six years.

Wallace hopes the latest change will bring a career renaissance after he was held to a career-low 473 receiving yards and two touchdowns in Minnesota last season. The 30-year-old made it no secret that working with the strong-armed Flacco was one of the biggest draws in deciding to come to Baltimore.

“Just seeing Joe is like, ‘This guy is really good,'” Wallace said. “The play-calling is just aggressive, and that’s what I was looking for. I’ve been on some great teams. My quarterbacks before were really good quarterbacks. I have no problems with those guys. It’s just this style of offense fits what I want to do.”

Sunday camp highlights

** After receiving the largest amount of guaranteed money for any kicker in NFL history earlier this month, Justin Tucker connected on a 69-yard field goal to conclude Sunday’s practice, which earned a chest bump from Harbaugh. The NFL record is a 64-yarder.

** Rookie inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor continues to turn heads with his physicality as he delivered a crushing blow to knock over defensive tackle Trevon Coley, who was holding a blocking pad during a kickoff coverage drill. Onwuasor later decked Kyle Juszczyk on a run play, which prompted the fullback to get up and push the 217-pound undrafted free agent from Portland State.

** It was another sloppy day for the offense as Kamar Aiken, Chris Matthews, Daniel Brown, and Wallace were among the receivers with drops. There were also a few quarterback-center exchange problems.

** Veteran safety Eric Weddle continues to impress as he made a nice breakup on a Flacco pass intended for Wallace on a deep out along the sideline.

** Wanting to see more interceptions in 2016 after the Ravens set a franchise worst with only six last year, secondary coach Leslie Frazier had an assistant hit tennis balls in the air for his defensive backs to practice catching in an unusual drill.

Injury report

Guard Marshal Yanda and wide receiver Michael Campanaro received the day off and did not practice.

Rookie cornerback Maurice Canady was the other new absence on Sunday, but Harbaugh would only say that he has a “little issue” that’s going to keep him out for “a little while.” The head coach said he will no longer describe player injuries or speculate about recovery timetables, citing what happened with Perriman last season.

Rookie receiver Chris Moore missed his second straight practice with what Harbaugh described as “a little tweak” that he’ll have to work on. Defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (ribs) is “fine” despite missing Sunday’s workout, according to Harbaugh.

Others missing from Sunday’s practice included Perriman (knee) and Smith (Achilles), tight end Crockett Gillmore (hamstring), linebackers Terrell Suggs (Achilles) and Elvis Dumervil (foot), and running backs Kenneth Dixon (knee), Trent Richardson (knee), and Lorenzo Taliaferro (foot).

Super Bowl XXXV champions visit practice

The Ravens had two special visitors to Sunday’s practice as former head coach and current NFL Network analyst Brian Billick broadcasted live from Owings Mills and former Pro Bowl return specialist Jermaine Lewis was there with family.

Billick interviewed Harbaugh after practice while Lewis spent time chatting with Smith and Harbaugh.

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More questions than answers for Ravens entering training camp

Posted on 20 July 2016 by Luke Jones

We’re finally a week away from the curtain rising on the 2016 Ravens.

Sure, we caught a brief glimpse during last month’s mandatory minicamp, but how much could we really learn from non-contact practices that didn’t even include the starting quarterback, their No. 1 receiver, the starting outside linebackers, the top cornerback, and their 2015 first-round pick?

Trying to rebound from the worst season of the John Harbaugh era, the Ravens are hoping for better health after a team-record 21 players finished 2015 on injured reserve or the physically unable to perform list. They believe the free-agent additions of safety Eric Weddle, tight end Benjamin Watson, and wide receiver Mike Wallace and the continuing development of young players will provide the upside to return to the playoffs after failing to qualify in two of the last three years.

With a pedigree that includes two Super Bowl championships, four division titles, and 10 playoff appearances in the last 16 years, the Ravens bouncing back from a 5-11 campaign to once again become an AFC contender in 2016 would hardly be shocking. But there are more questions to ask than answers to offer as players report to Owings Mills over the next week.

What about this roster truly makes the Ravens brass rest easy at night?

Coming back from the first significant injury of his career, Joe Flacco is a franchise quarterback capable of playing at a championship level, even if his regular-season numbers don’t always reflect that. Coaches will need to be smart with him less than eight months removed from major knee surgery, but it’s comforting to know that the 31-year-old will be back on the field for the first day of training camp.

The Ravens offense has the best guard in football in Marshal Yanda and veteran starters at center and right tackle as well as arguably the deepest collection of tight ends in the NFL. The defense has one of the NFL’s best nose tackles, a 2015 Pro Bowl outside linebacker, a young inside linebacker who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, and a three-time Pro Bowl safety in Weddle, who should bring more leadership and order to a volatile secondary.

Baltimore has an elite trio of specialists in kicker Justin Tucker, punter Sam Koch, and long snapper Morgan Cox, who have all been to Pro Bowls and have signed long-term contracts over the last 12 months.

The talent and potential strengths don’t end there, but the serious questions begin at this point.

What can we reasonably expect from Steve Smith and Terrell Suggs coming back from Achilles tendon injuries?

It’s been a difficult recovery for the veteran receiver, who originally intended to make 2015 his last season. Doubting Smith’s heart and determination is foolish, but we know Father Time is undefeated, making it fair to question whether the 37-year-old can play close to the level he did prior to last year’s injury when he was still a No.1 option.

The little we’ve seen from Suggs since his injury last September includes a traffic-related arrest in Arizona in March and a guest appearance on HBO’s Ballers in which he played himself getting into a scrap with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s character. Set to turn 34 in October, the six-time Pro Bowl linebacker has been working out at the team’s facility in Owings Mills, but his conditioning and explosiveness will be scrutinized after his second Achilles injury in a four-year period. A substantially-diminished Suggs puts even more pressure on fellow veteran Elvis Dumervil as well as unproven options such as Za’Darius Smith and Kamalei Correa as pass rushers.

Will a second foot procedure allow Jimmy Smith to recapture his No. 1 cornerback form?

The 28-year-old had the screws removed from his surgically-repaired right foot this spring after he was still experiencing soreness from the 2014 Lisfranc procedure. The Ravens paid him handsomely last spring to be a difference-making presence in the secondary and need him to be the player he was in 2013 and 2014 if this defense is going to take a significant step forward this season.

What’s the reality with the Breshad Perriman injury?

It was great news that Dr. James Andrews didn’t recommend full ACL reconstruction surgery for Perriman in June, but the fact that he still prescribed a stem-cell injection makes you wonder about the healing process and stability of his left knee. The young receiver missed his entire rookie year with a right knee injury originally considered to be minor, so you hope this isn’t a cruel repeat of 2015.

For a team in desperate need of dynamic playmakers on both sides of the ball, Perriman may possess more upside than anyone on the roster if he can just stay on the field.

The questions go beyond players coming off injuries.

Even if 2016 first-round pick Ronnie Stanley proves to be more like Jonathan Ogden and less like the many who have tried to replace the Hall of Fame left tackle over the last decade, how confident can the organization honestly feel about a rookie and a new starter at left guard — projected to be John Urschel — protecting the blindside of a quarterback coming off a serious knee injury?

Baltimore has a collection of talented running backs, but is there truly a No. 1 guy in the bunch?

Who is going to play inside linebacker next to Mosley?

Is the rest of the defensive backfield ready to build on its second-half improvement from last year to be more of a force under new secondary coach Leslie Frazier?

Who might step forward to make a difference in the return game?

Finally and perhaps most importantly, are there at least a couple of young players ready to step forward to become special?

The Ravens have solid-to-good football players; they need more great ones.

All teams face questions this time of year, but there are more than usual for Baltimore entering 2016. It’s understandable after a 5-11 season that fell apart even before the injuries piled up at a record level.

We’ll soon get to see what’s behind the curtain.

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Ravens, Tucker strike four-year deal ahead of Friday deadline

Posted on 15 July 2016 by Luke Jones

Despite reportedly feeling “disillusioned” with negotiations a day earlier, kicker Justin Tucker came to a new four-year agreement with the Ravens less than an hour before Friday’s 4 p.m. deadline to sign franchise players.

According to ESPN, the sides agreed to a four-year, $16.8 million contract that included a $6 million signing bonus and a total of $10.8 million guaranteed, the highest guaranteed amount awarded to a kicker in NFL history. The total money falls just short of the four-year, $17.2 million deal signed by New England’s Stephen Gostkowski last summer, the contract many viewed all along as the framework for a Tucker contract.

“Justin has become a cornerstone for our team, and we are happy to get this contract completed,” general manager Ozzie Newsome said in a statement released by the team on Friday afternoon. “What is good for the Ravens right now is that we have our Pro Bowl special teams group — Sam [Koch], Morgan [Cox], and Justin — signed through the next three seasons.”

Tucker had been scheduled to play under the kicker franchise tag amount of $4.572 million, but his agent, Robert Roche, told ESPN that his client would not negotiate with the Ravens after the 2016 season if he did not get a long-term deal by Friday. Baltimore would have had the option of again using the franchise tag on Tucker next offseason under such a scenario.

Asked about his feelings over the last couple days, Tucker downplayed there being any animosity moving forward.

“It’s definitely an emotional rollercoaster; there’s no other way to put it,” Tucker said in a conference call with local media. “You do everything you can to try to compartmentalize your feelings and realize that whatever happens off the field, business is just business. The nature of my position is one that I put everything I have mentally, and emotionally, and spiritually into every single kick that I go out there and attempt during the football season.”

The second-most accurate kicker in NFL history among those with 100 attempts (87.8 percent) and the fastest kicker to both 100 field goals and 500 career points in league history, Tucker missed just one field goal try under 50 yards last season and has never missed an extra point in his career. However, his seven field goal misses in 2015 were a career worst, and Tucker has gone 8-for-19 on tries from 50 yards or more over the last two seasons.

Tucker converted “walk-off” field goals in three of Baltimore’s five wins last season and is considered one of the best clutch kickers in the NFL with 10 game-winning field goals in his first four seasons. He proved his great worth as an undrafted rookie from the University of Texas when he hit the game-winning 47-yarder in double overtime to beat Denver in the 2012 divisional round, one of the defining moments in the Ravens’ run to the Super Bowl XLVII title.

His 2013 season in which he converted 38 of 41 field goal tries resulted in him being voted the team MVP by local media and receiving an invitation to the Pro Bowl.

“It does me no good as a football player to look in the past and to celebrate my own accomplishments,” said Tucker when asked if the record contract has prompted him to reflect on his success. “I can’t ever think about it like that. I’ll have plenty of time to do that when I retire; hopefully, that is a long way away. All I’m focusing on is remaining and becoming, all at the same time, the best player that I can be.”

Newsome has now successfully signed the last five players on which he’s used the franchise tag to long-term contracts as Tucker joins running back Ray Rice (2012), defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (2011), linebacker Terrell Suggs (2009), and cornerback Chris McAlister (2004).

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Tucker reportedly won’t re-sign with Ravens if no deal by Friday

Posted on 14 July 2016 by Luke Jones

Less than 24 hours prior to the deadline to sign franchise players to long-term contracts, negotiations have apparently turned ugly between kicker Justin Tucker and the Ravens.

According to a report from ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the 26-year-old says he will not entertain the possibility of signing a long-term deal with Baltimore after the 2016 season if an agreement is not reached by Friday’s 4 p.m. deadline. Tucker has repeatedly expressed optimism about signing a long-term contract, but his agent, Robert Roche, painted a different picture on Thursday.

“Justin’s disillusioned with the process right now and the Ravens position with him on his contract,” Roche told ESPN. “If we don’t get a long-term deal done by Friday, Justin will not entertain offers from the Ravens after the season.”

The report claims that Baltimore lowered its latest offer from previous ones on Thursday and the amount was less than the four-year, $16.1 million deal signed by Green Bay’s Mason Crosby earlier this offseason.

Of course, Roche’s comments are being viewed by most as a negotiating tactic, but it’s no secret that media-driven ploys do not sit well with general manager Ozzie Newsome, who rarely speaks to reporters. Still holding nearly $13 million in salary cap space with Tucker’s $4.572 million tag on the books, the Ravens are hardly in a position where they need to give in if he is looking to set a new and lucrative standard for kicker contracts.

Tucker signed his franchise tender in early March and attended spring organized team activities and June’s mandatory minicamp.

The four-year, $17.2 million agreement with $10.1 million guaranteed awarded to New England’s Stephen Gostkowski last summer is the richest kicker deal in NFL history with many outsiders considering it a reasonable point of reference for the negotiations with Tucker, who is five years younger but has three fewer Pro Bowl invitations to his name.

It’s also worth noting that the Ravens would have the option to use the tag on Tucker again next year if he were to follow through with the intention not to negotiate after the 2016 season. Giving him the franchise tag in 2017 would cost 120 percent of this year’s salary, which would come out to just under $5.5 million.

With that reality in mind, Tucker would be justified asking for nothing less than $10 million guaranteed in any long-term deal, which would be the sum of the tag amounts for 2016 and 2017.

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As deadline approaches, Ravens in good position with Tucker

Posted on 11 July 2016 by Luke Jones

Justin Tucker deserves to be made one of the highest-paid kickers in the NFL by the Ravens.

In fact, the 26-year-old has a good argument to top the list as he enters his fifth season as the second-most accurate kicker in league history among those with 100 field goal attempts. There’s no disputing the value he’s brought to Baltimore with only six career misses inside 50 yards and just one over the last two seasons combined.

But as Friday’s 4 p.m. deadline to sign franchise-tag players to long-term contracts rapidly approaches, general manager Ozzie Newsome shouldn’t feel too desperate to get a deal done. Even with Tucker’s $4.572 franchise tender currently on the books, the Ravens have almost $13 million in salary cap space, more than enough to make another veteran signing or two and to have flexibility going into the regular season when injuries are bound to occur.

The franchise amount would give Tucker the second-largest cash payout among kickers for 2016, behind only Green Bay’s Mason Crosby after he signed a long-term deal this winter. That outcome would hardly be a sign of disrespect for Tucker, who was originally undrafted from the University of Texas in 2012.

Despite Tucker expressing nothing but confidence this spring about a long-term deal getting done, it remains unclear what he and agent Robert Roche are asking for in terms of compensation. The four-year, $17.2 million deal with $10.1 million guaranteed signed by New England’s Stephen Gostkowski — a four-time Pro Bowl selection — last summer would appear to be a fair framework, but the Ravens shouldn’t feel obligated to set a new standard for kickers if that’s Tucker’s vision.

Kicker success can be fleeting — don’t forget that Baltimore signed Billy Cundiff to a five-year, $15 million deal just one year before his fateful miss in Foxborough — and it’s worth noting that Tucker has gone only 8-for-19 from 50 or more yards over the last two seasons. His incredible accuracy inside 50 cannot be discounted, but the Ravens would surely like to see him rediscover some of the long-ball success he displayed over his first two years when he went 10-for-11 from 50 or longer.

That’s a reasonable expectation if Tucker is looking to become the highest-paid kicker on the planet. And it’s fair to wonder if that’s the sticking point if the 2013 Pro Bowl kicker is seeking a lucrative and trend-setting contract.

Tight end clarity

Much has been written about the Ravens’ extensive depth at tight end, but these types of competitions often have a way of sorting themselves out as we witnessed with 2015 sixth-round pick Darren Waller being suspended four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy earlier this month.

This news coupled with the 10-game suspension for second-year tight end Nick Boyle will make for some easier roster decisions for the Ravens, who already have Benjamin Watson, Crockett Gillmore, Maxx Williams, and Dennis Pitta on the depth chart. What remains to be seen is whether there will be roster room — or enough forgiveness — for Waller and Boyle when their bans expire.

This is Boyle’s second suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy while Waller is facing his first NFL discipline after being suspended twice at Georgia Tech for testing positive for marijuana.

One who fortunately got away

Remember when the Ravens signed Rolando McClain to potentially take over for Ray Lewis in 2013 before the troubled linebacker got arrested and abruptly retired? Remember how they gave the former Oakland Raider another chance a year later before he flopped during a workout and retired again?

Newsome netted a sixth-round pick by sending McClain and a seventh-round choice to Dallas in the summer of 2014, but the Ravens clearly dodged a bullet with the 26-year-old now being suspended for a second time with the Cowboys for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.

The Ravens may currently face uncertainty at inside linebacker next to C.J. Mosley, but McClain did them a favor — twice — by demonstrating his lack of commitment to be a successful NFL player. He’s played well at times over the last two years, but he’s fortunately the Cowboys’ problem and wasn’t worth the trouble.

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