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Twelve Ravens thoughts from first open OTA workout

Posted on 25 May 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens holding their first open organized team activity session on Thursday, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Most attention was on what Joe Flacco said in his first press conference since the draft, but the 11th-year quarterback looks leaner and is moving better than he has in quite some time. He threw the ball well and is pleased with the efforts made to improve the pass-catching spots.

2. Lamar Jackson connected on a beautiful back-shoulder touchdown to fellow rookie Jaleel Scott during a red-zone drill, but he later threw a bad interception to safety Kai Nacua in the flat. Patience is needed with his development, but he’s sure fun to watch when he takes off with the ball.

3. Many wide receivers can look great this time of year — Breshad Perriman has fit that description in the past — but Michael Crabtree stands out in a way similar to when Steve Smith and Anquan Boldin first arrived in Baltimore. You can tell Flacco is happy to have him.

4. Many players have cited new defensive coordinator Wink Martindale offering more freedom and flexibility within schemes, and John Harbaugh even used a military analogy to describe the changes (11:59 mark). It’s an interesting concept, but with great power comes great responsibility.

5. Kenneth Dixon could still stand to shed a couple pounds — Harbaugh acknowledged he hadn’t been in the best shape returning from last year’s knee injury and suspension — but he showed shifty moves in the open field. He remains a wild card for this offense if healthy and committed to football.

6. Kamalei Correa is again working at outside linebacker after attempts to make him an inside linebacker, but Martindale — formerly the linebackers coach — said last fall he envisions him in an Albert McClellan role being able to play all positions. That’s his best path to a roster spot.

7. Willie Snead looks the part of a slot receiver, using his running back-like frame to quickly change directions. I don’t expect him to put up huge numbers in this offense, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be a productive addition.

8. Harbaugh said Patrick Ricard will continue to be used as both a fullback and defensive lineman, but his build more closely resembles a nose tackle now rather than the hybrid player he was as a rookie. He definitely got bigger this offseason.

9. Marshal Yanda won’t take part in spring workouts, but he watched part of practice and continues to work his way back to full strength. The muscle atrophy in his lower left leg is still noticeable, but the Ravens remain confident he’ll be ready well in time for the season.

10. The new kickoff rule drew praise from Harbaugh, who sees the potential for bigger returns with the kicking team no longer allowed a running start. The former special teams coordinator says teams could counter that by booting the ball into the end zone for touchbacks more frequently. We’ll see.

11. With Jimmy Smith still on the mend and carrying a $15.675 million cap figure next season, the Ravens would be wise to begin viewing Marlon Humphrey as their No. 1 cornerback. It’s easy to see the potential for him to be a special player sooner than later.

12. I liked seeing Ed Reed speak to the Ravens rookies during OTAs, but how could the timing not remind you of his annual flirtations with retirement and desires for a new contract this time of year? Those good old days also brought one of my favorite tweets of all time:

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Five questions for Ravens defense entering organized team activities

Posted on 23 May 2018 by Luke Jones

Contrary to what you might conclude from this offseason, the Ravens do have another side of the ball.

While spending most attention and resources on revamping the NFL’s 29th-ranked passing game, general manager Ozzie Newsome parted ways with only one player — defensive back Lardarius Webb — who played defensive snaps in 2017. That’s a remarkable level of continuity in this era, but will it pay off?

The Ravens defense was exceptional at times in 2017, leading the league in takeaways and pitching three shutouts. The group ranked in the top 10 in most significant statistical categories until late in the season and still finished fifth overall in Football Outsiders’ weighted defense rankings.

But the defense struggled down the stretch, blowing a late lead in Pittsburgh for the second year in a row and suffering one of the bigger collapses in team history when Cincinnati scored on a fourth-and-12 play from the Baltimore 49 with under a minute left in Week 17 to knock the Ravens out of the playoffs. No matter what the numbers said, the defense came up small in some of the biggest moments of the season.

Below are five pressing questions for the Ravens defense as organized team activities are now underway:

1. How much will change under new defensive coordinator Wink Martindale?

Players have provided glowing endorsements of Martindale and anticipate more flexible and aggressive schemes than those employed by Dean Pees. Criticisms of the former defensive coordinator are fair — leaving Brandon Carr on an island with Antonio Brown late in the Week 14 loss to the Steelers was just one example — but these types of sentiments about new coaches are commonplace whenever teams fall short the previous season. It’s easy to subtly point fingers at individuals no longer in the picture, but Martindale’s roots with the Ryan family are definitely intriguing from a schematic standpoint. On the flip side, the former linebackers coach must prove his failed stint in Denver eight years ago was mostly due to the Broncos’ lack of talent since this defense has the talent to be a good-to-great unit.

2. Who will man the inside linebacker position next to C.J. Mosley?

This is likely a multi-pronged answer since former rookie free agent Patrick Onwuasor started 13 games at the weak-side spot and the dime package was frequently used in passing situations with an extra safety playing in the box last season. The Ravens should continue to be creative with sub packages, but they need more consistency at this position in the base defense, whether it’s Onwuasor taking the next step in his development or fourth-round rookie Kenny Young seizing the opportunity to get on the field. You’d expect Martindale to continue to use the likes of Anthony Levine and Chuck Clark in the dime package when appropriate, but Baltimore identifying another inside linebacker who can hold up in pass coverage will be vital to the overall success and flexibility of the defense.

3. Will the Ravens get more out of safety Tony Jefferson?

The prize free-agent acquisition of 2017 was ordinary in his first year with the Ravens, providing ammunition for critics who wondered why Newsome invested a four-year $34 million contract in a box safety when there were clear needs on the other side of the ball a year ago. Many point to Pees too frequently using Jefferson away from the line of scrimmage — a valid claim, especially in the first half of the 2017 season — but there were also examples of him being beaten in coverage by tight ends and not being as strong against the run as advertised. Martindale should continue using Jefferson in the box as much as possible, but Eric Weddle will need to be able to hold up in back-end coverage. Even after a restructure, Jefferson has the team’s ninth-highest cap number and must bring more to the table.

4. What will the 5-technique defensive end spot look like?

The season-ending loss of Brent Urban in Week 3 last season was unfortunate after the 6-foot-7, 300-pound lineman appeared on his way to becoming an impact player, and the Ravens struggled to fill this position for much of the season, another factor that hurt their run defense in addition to the four-game absence of Brandon Williams. Re-signing Urban to a cheap one-year deal was a prudent move, but counting on a player who’s missed 39 games in a four-year career is problematic at best. Carl Davis shifted outside to do a respectable job in the second half of last season, but he’s also entering the final year of his contract, making it critical for either 2017 third-round pick Chris Wormley or 2016 third-round pick Bronson Kaufusi to step up to become a real contributor at this spot.

5. How will a deep group of cornerbacks be handled?

On paper, this is one of the deepest cornerback groups the Ravens have ever had with young talents still pursuing their ceiling. Jimmy Smith’s health is the major question as he recovers from last December’s torn Achilles tendon, but Marlon Humphrey looked the part of a future shutdown corner as a rookie and the solid veteran Carr was retained as a pricey insurance policy. Beyond that, Tavon Young is back in the fold after serving as a strong slot defender as a rookie two years ago, and Maurice Canady will try to build on his late success at the nickel last season. Those numbers don’t even take into account fourth-round rookie Anthony Averett or Jaylen Hill, who showed potential last summer before being stricken with injuries. If all are healthy — a major if — Martindale will have a good problem on his hands.

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Five young players the Ravens need more from in 2018

Posted on 16 February 2018 by Luke Jones

Urgency is at an all-time high in the John Harbaugh era with the Ravens falling short of the playoffs for the third straight year and fourth time in five seasons.

Most offseason attention has naturally fallen on free agency and the draft, but a less-than-ideal salary cap situation and picks falling in the middle of each round are challenges to making significant improvements to last year’s team. Those realities make it critical for the Ravens to see improvement from within as they did from Matthew Judon and Willie Henry in 2017.

It’s no secret that a number of underwhelming Day 1 and Day 2 draft picks in recent years have stunted the upside of rosters and have even forced general manager Ozzie Newsome to dump further resources into certain positions. Safety is one example as failed draft picks Matt Elam and Terrence Brooks and a number of underwhelming free-agent additions preceded the expensive contracts awarded to Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson in the last two offseasons.

Below is a look at five young players the Ravens need more from in 2018 to improve their chances of making it back to the postseason:

2017 list
2016 list
2015 list
2014 list

1. LB Tyus Bowser

The 2017 second-round pick from Houston looked poised to become a standout rookie when he recorded a sack and an interception against Cleveland in Week 2, but a rough performance in London the following week led to him playing more than 10 defensive snaps in only three more contests the rest of the way. With Terrell Suggs turning 36 in October and entering the final year of his contract and backup Za’Darius Smith also a free agent after 2018, Bowser needs to look like a player ready to step into a starting role in 2019 if needed. New defensive coordinator Wink Martindale shouldn’t hesitate to utilize Bowser’s athleticism and versatility in creative ways like Rex Ryan did with Bart Scott years ago.

2. DE Chris Wormley

Wormley became the latest 5-technique defensive end drafted by Baltimore to make little impact in his rookie year, but it’s a position requiring strength and discipline, making it less than shocking that the third-round pick from Michigan played only 120 defensive snaps. This is a critical offseason for him with the oft-injured Brent Urban being a free agent, 2017 starter Carl Davis recovering from shoulder surgery, and 2016 third-round pick Bronson Kaufusi rapidly approaching bust territory. There’s a golden opportunity for Wormley to seize the starting job and become a meaningful contributor as an inside pass rusher in sub packages, another need for the Baltimore defense.

3. LB Tim Williams

Are you noticing a trend here? The Ravens went all in on defense in the 2017 draft and received very little from their trio of Day 2 picks as Williams was inactive for eight games and played only 125 defensive snaps. It was hardly a shock to see the Alabama product struggle to set the edge and establish a role on special teams, but he’ll need to improve in these areas to put himself in better position for meaningful playing time. That said, Williams being a rush specialist in college was hardly a secret and the coaching staff needs to find ways to get him on the field to take advantage of that valuable dimension. As previously mentioned with Bowser, more snaps should be there if Williams is ready to capitalize.

4. G Alex Lewis

Of course, Lewis sat out the entire 2017 season after undergoing shoulder surgery in training camp, but this came after he missed eight starts due to injury as a rookie, making his durability a legitimate concern. The 2016 fourth-round pick showed promise at left guard as a rookie and even filled in at an acceptable level at left tackle when Ronnie Stanley was injured, but the time is now for Lewis to firmly entrench himself as a dependable starter, especially with starting center Ryan Jensen a free agent and questionable to return. With there being so many questions at wide receiver and tight end, the Ravens need their offensive line to be as strong as possible and Lewis is a major key to that happening.

5. WR Chris Moore

The special-teams standout’s mention on this list is a product of circumstance as he is the only sure bet among the incumbent wide receivers to be on next year’s roster. Moore received praise for his play down the stretch and recorded half of his season receptions and two of his three touchdowns in December, but that excitement was more a response to the terrible play of Breshad Perriman than anything else. The second-year wideout only reined in 18 of 38 targets and needs to be more consistent to be considered as much as a No.3 option. Make no mistake, Moore has met expectations as a fourth-round pick with his play on special teams alone, but the Ravens need as much help as possible at wide receiver.

Others considered: WR Breshad Perriman, LB Kamalei Correa, DE Bronson Kaufusi, G Nico Siragusa, RB Kenneth Dixon

Perriman, Correa, and Kaufusi landed on the wrong side of this list after being non-factors at positions that had major opportunities for playing time in 2017. There’s always the chance of any of these former early draft picks being late bloomers, but that sentiment now falls more into the category of wishful thinking rather than there being serious expectations. We’ve heard little about Siragusa’s recovery from a serious knee injury, but the Ravens had high hopes for him as a 2017 fourth-round pick and could have an opening at center. Dixon is a wild card after suffering a season-ending knee injury in July and serving two drug-related bans. The talent is there, but is he healthy and truly committed to playing in the NFL?

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How did Ravens inside linebackers stack up to rest of NFL in 2017?

Posted on 31 January 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens failed to make the postseason for the fourth time in five years, but where exactly did their players stack up across the NFL in 2017?

Whether it’s discussing the Pro Bowl or picking postseason awards, media and fans spend much time debating where players rank at each position, but few put in the necessary time and effort to watch every player on every team extensively enough to develop any kind of an authoritative opinion.

Truthfully, how many times did you closely watch the offensive line of the Los Angeles Chargers this season? What about the Detroit Lions linebackers or the Miami Dolphins cornerbacks?

That’s why I can appreciate projects such as Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 and the grading efforts of Pro Football Focus. Of course, neither should be viewed as the gospel of evaluation and each is subjective, but I respect the exhaustive effort to grade players across the league when so many of us watch only one team or one division on any kind of a consistent basis. It’s important to note that the following PFF rankings are where the player stood at the conclusion of the regular season.

Below is a look at where Ravens wide receivers ranked across the league, according to those outlets:

Running backs
Defensive linemen
Tight ends
Cornerbacks
Wide receivers

C.J. Mosley
2017 defensive snap count: 1,078
NFL1000 ranking: 3rd among inside linebackers
PFF ranking: 37th among linebackers
Skinny: He’ll always be unfairly compared to Ray Lewis, but the 2014 first-round pick made his third Pro Bowl in four seasons despite dealing with an array of nagging injuries late in the season. His pass coverage still needs to improve, but signing Mosley to a long-term contract is on the to-do list this spring.

Patrick Onwuasor
2017 defensive snap count:
648
NFL1000 ranking:
38th among inside linebackers
PFF ranking:
41st among linebackers
Skinny:
The 25-year-old was the latest in a long line of former rookie free agents to start at inside linebacker for the Ravens, beating out Kamalei Correa for the weak-side spot. Onwuasor shows the aggressive physicality you like, but he needs to be more consistent to remain in a starting role.

Kamalei Correa
2017 defensive snap count:
147
NFL1000 ranking:
59th among inside linebackers
PFF ranking:
n/a
Skinny:
The Ravens saw Correa as a tweener and moved him inside as a rookie because of immediate need and short arms that were expected to be a hindrance on the edge. The move hasn’t worked, and a return to his college spot may be in order to try to salvage value from a disappointing second-round pick.

Bam Bradley
2017 defensive snap count:
2
NFL1000 ranking:
n/a
PFF ranking:
n/a
Skinny:
The rookie from Pitt was one of the good stories of the preseason as he made the 53-man roster before tearing an ACL in Week 2. With Onwuasor being inconsistent as a starter and Correa not living up to expectations, Bradley is a sleeper at this position to watch in the preseason.

2018 positional outlook

The Ravens appeared to be in really good shape at this position before the unfortunate retirement of Zachary Orr last January, and they predictably experienced drop-off with his replacements. The use of the dime package helps minimize deficiencies at the inside linebacker spot, but Baltimore needs more from both Mosley and whoever else is on the field as covering tight ends was a significant issue throughout the season. With Mosley in line for a big payday and only under contract through the 2018 season, the Ravens need to be economical with any efforts to improve at the other spot. Special-teams standout and veteran linebacker Albert McClellan remains under contract after missing the entire 2017 season with a torn ACL, but the presence of so many younger options could lead to him being a casualty of a tight salary cap this offseason.

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Some draft criticism unfair, but sum of parts still not adding up for Ravens

Posted on 16 January 2018 by Luke Jones

Some of the commentary from Ravens fans watching the divisional round of the playoffs was predictable.

All these years later, some still squawk about general manager Ozzie Newsome selecting Morehouse offensive lineman Ramon Harewood a pick before Pittsburgh took Central Michigan wide receiver Antonio Brown with the 195th overall selection of the 2010 draft. At this point, ESPN might as well make a “30 for 30” special on the two individuals just to torment Ravens fans.

Yes, the Steelers were so much smarter than Baltimore that they passed on the eventual best wide receiver in the NFL eight different times in that draft and took such studs as Crezdon Butler and Stevenson Sylvester before finally grabbing Brown in the sixth round.

It’s no secret that the Ravens could have traded with Dallas in 2016 to move up from the sixth spot to take future Pro Bowl cornerback Jalen Ramsey fourth overall, but Newsome didn’t want to part with his third-round pick that was used on defensive end Bronson Kaufusi, who’s played all of three games in two years. In a vacuum, it’s easy to call that a bad decision, but let’s remember quarterback Joe Flacco was rehabbing a torn ACL at the time and the Ravens didn’t have a trustworthy left tackle on the roster after the big contract awarded to Eugene Monroe two years earlier had turned out to be such a failure. Even if Ramsey becomes a Hall of Famer and Ronnie Stanley is never anything more than a reliable left tackle, it’s tough to be outraged by such a move if you’re someone who’s also blasted the organization for repeatedly neglecting its offense since Super Bowl XLVII.

Jacksonville linebacker Myles Jack intercepting a Ben Roethlisberger pass Sunday prompted some to point out that the Ravens passed on him, electing to trade back two different times to eventually take the disappointing Kamalei Correa in the second round of that same 2016 draft. However, the Ravens were far from the only team to pass on Jack, who was projected by some to be a top 5 pick if not for major concerns about the health of his knee. They also came away with starting outside linebacker Matthew Judon and strong special-teams contributor Chris Moore with those trades while Jack hasn’t been anything more than a solid starter for the Jaguars to this point.

If you really want to be mad about that second round, instead point to the Ravens taking Correa five picks before New Orleans drafted Pro Bowl wide receiver Michael Thomas, who’s caught a whopping 197 passes in his first two years.

And then there’s Minnesota wide receiver Stefon Diggs, the former University of Maryland standout who caught the miracle 61-yard touchdown from Case Keenum to send the Vikings to the NFC championship game. Even before Sunday’s heroics, this one had been reignited by the recent Sports Illustrated article citing Diggs’ mother telling Newsome that he should have been fired for not taking her son.

There’s no question that the Ravens should have had an advantage on intel about a prospect playing 40 miles down the road, but there were fair concerns about Diggs, ranging from his injury history in College Park to questions about his maturity. As a result, this was a player passed over multiple times by every team in the league, so the Ravens weren’t alone and Washington didn’t take the local kid either.

In the same way that I have a difficult time heaping too much praise on the Ravens for “discovering” Alex Collins when they were one of 31 teams who didn’t claim him on waivers at the end of the preseason and initially promoted Jeremy Langford from the practice squad over him, I struggle to criticize the organization too sharply for passing on Diggs — even if you wish they would have taken a chance on him rather than the little-known Tray Walker at the end of that fourth round.

The truth is you can go back in time to any draft and nitpick why Player A was taken over Player B over and over and over. Even after selecting two future Hall of Famers with his first two picks of the 1996 draft, Newsome took underwhelming cornerback DeRon Jenkins six spots before future nine-time Pro Bowl safety Brian Dawkins went to Philadelphia in the second round.

See how easy that was?

These arguments are easy to make with hindsight and lack context unless you’re talking about a clear-cut example such as two quarterbacks being taken with the first two picks of the draft. Even then, do you ever notice how you struggle to find anyone who would have drafted Ryan Leaf over Peyton Manning in 1998 despite that being a major debate at the time? Most critics aren’t so eager to point out the ones they were wrong about years later.

(For the record, I leaned toward Leaf as a know-it-all 14-year-old.)

As much as teams try to make the draft a science, much of it remains art with too many variables to possibly control. Even at their best, the Ravens never batted 1.000 in the draft, so there will always be picks to critique as many are doing now.

The real problem isn’t passing on these aforementioned players, but it’s that the Ravens haven’t been making enough great picks of their own in recent years to make these second-guessing exercises a moot point. At the macro level, it’s more than fair to argue that the Ravens have too frequently played it safe, relied on quantity over quality, and possibly even conformed with too much groupthink in recent drafts.

Sometimes you have to take a risk to come away with a truly great playmaker or two, which is something the Ravens desperately need on the offensive side of the ball and have for a long time now. You also can’t allow a failed pick like Breshad Perriman deter you from being bold when appropriate.

It’s not a secret that the organization has slanted much more toward defense with 13 of their 17 Day 1 and 2 picks since Super Bowl XLVII being on that side of the ball. That’s enough of a lopsided ratio to make you question whether the Ravens are valuing defensive players too much in favor of truly picking “the best player available” when on the clock.

Their recent drafts haven’t been as disastrous as some want to claim — the Ravens have still found plenty of good value in the latter half of drafts despite recent Day 1 and 2 problems — but they’ve merely been much more ordinary after years of the draft being considered a major advantage for Newsome and the Ravens over other teams.

Even if many of the decisions appeared sound at the time, the sum of the parts has still added up to too much mediocrity, the same place the Ravens are trying to escape.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 31-27 loss to Cincinnati

Posted on 02 January 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five years in a 31-27 loss to Cincinnati, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. I initially called it the most devastating home loss in team history and was quickly reminded by several folks on Twitter of the crushing 2006 playoff defeat to Indianapolis. They were right, but I’ll still say this was the most stunning home defeat in 22 seasons of Ravens football.

2. Andy Dalton’s 49-yard touchdown to Tyler Boyd will be remembered, but don’t forget the horrendous first half that put the Ravens in a hole. His team looking flat and unprepared with the season on the line was a poor reflection on John Harbaugh, especially after a shaky performance against Indianapolis.

3. Maurice Canady was a Week 16 hero, but he was picked on during the final drive and was out of position to make a play on the ball or the tackle on Boyd’s touchdown. Eric Weddle was also in no man’s land in zone after showing blitz before the snap.

4. Remember the talk about the Ravens not letting A.J. Green beat them? The seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver finished with two catches for 17 yards. Feel any better that the “Tylers” — Boyd and Kroft — did it instead? Yeah, didn’t think so.

5. We certainly saw a less-accurate Joe Flacco than we’d seen in recent weeks and his third-down throwaway before Cincinnati’s final drive was terrible — Mike Wallace was wide open underneath to at least attempt to keep the clock moving — but five drops from his receivers did him no favors.

6. Wallace had a few and is no better than a No. 2 wideout, but letting him walk would feel similar to Torrey Smith’s exit. I also have doubts about Jeremy Maclin’s future, so do you trust the Ravens to add at least two impactful receivers this offseason? I certainly don’t.

7. The defense allowed a whopping 126 rushing yards in the first half and surrendered over 4.0 yards per carry in a season for the first time in team history. Brandon Williams’ four-game absence explains much of that, but the run defense was still quite disappointing relative to expectations.

8. After all the discussion about the impact of Danny Woodhead returning, the 32-year-old caught 30 passes for 167 yards after the bye and eclipsed 40 yards from scrimmage in a game twice. The Ravens touted his signing as their major offensive addition last offseason before Maclin fell into their laps.

9. Breshad Perriman was a healthy scratch in favor of an undrafted rookie receiver who was making his NFL debut in Quincy Adeboyejo. What else is there to say about the 2015 first-round pick?

10. Speaking of underwhelming draft choices, Kamalei Correa, Bronson Kaufusi, Tyus Bowser, Chris Wormley, and Tim Williams combined for seven defensive snaps Sunday. The last three are rookies and absolutely deserve more time before judgment, but that’s not much of an early return from Day 2 of the last two drafts.

11. Flacco throwing well short of the chains on fourth-and-14 was a fitting way to close the book on the 2017 Ravens, but there were only two healthy wide receivers on the field and one was a rookie who had been on the practice squad all year. Not ideal.

12. This had to be one of the weirdest games I’ve ever seen in terms of time of possession. The Ravens held the ball for barely more than nine minutes in the first half while Cincinnati possessed it for less than eight minutes after intermission. Strange.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 30-17 win over Oakland

Posted on 10 October 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens snapping their two-game losing streak with a 30-17 win over Oakland, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. It was encouraging seeing an aggressive offense effective in pass protection from the beginning of the game, but these aren’t exactly novel concepts outsiders have only recently been clamoring for. The Ravens need to continue that to prove it wasn’t simply an aberration.

2. Mike Wallace made up for his drop on a deep throw last week with two receptions of over 50 yards, one on the game’s first play. It’s criminal when the Ravens don’t throw at least a couple deep balls his way trying to draw pass interference at the very least.

3. After being inactive the first two weeks and not playing a single snap as a rookie, Willie Henry may have been Baltimore’s best defensive player on Sunday. He’s batted down four passes at the line of scrimmage over the last two weeks and is playing strong inside.

4. It’s apparent that Patrick Onwuasor has seized control of the weak-side inside linebacker job after Kamalei Correa played only one defensive snap. Onwuasor’s aggressiveness and physicality were apparent from his very first training camp, and he forced the fumble that Jimmy Smith returned for a touchdown.

5. In Terrance West’s absence, Buck Allen and Alex Collins combined for 140 total yards and a touchdown. Allen is becoming a trustworthy contributor while Collins averaged 4.6 yards per carry on 12 attempts without a fumble and effectively used Tiki Barber’s old high-and-tight grip on the football.

6. The run defense tightened up in the second half, but the Ravens still surrendered 4.3 yards per carry against an underwhelming Oakland ground game. Baltimore ranks 23rd in rushing yards per game allowed and 20th at 4.3 yards per carry. Brandon Williams or not, that needs to get better.

7. After an underwhelming start to the season, Matt Judon played well against Oakland, effectively defending two passes and finishing with four tackles. The Ravens need more consistency from their outside linebackers, and that was a step in the right direction.

8. You had to feel good for the rarely-used Vince Mayle scoring a touchdown to finish off the opening drive. John Harbaugh describes Mayle as “a serious dude” who was all smiles getting his moment in the spotlight after playing only three offensive snaps over the first four games.

9. With the Ravens struggling to generate pressure from a standard four-man rush, Dean Pees used the dime package to unleash Tony Jefferson and Anthony Levine for drive-killing sacks. I’ll continue to believe Jefferon’s skill set is best used playing close to the line of scrimmage as often as possible.

10. Kudos to Las Vegas native Ronnie Stanley for donating $26,000 to shooting victims and their families based on his strong performance against Oakland. He’s really starting to come on after a slow start to the season.

11. Remember how seemingly every Ravens game the last few years was decided by a single possession? All five of their contests in 2017 have been decided by double digits after 26 of their previous 32 games were single-score affairs.

12. As mercurial as their performances have been from week to week, the Ravens now face four straight opponents currently sporting murky quarterback situations. If they want to be taken seriously as a playoff contender, a 6-3 record entering the bye is a very reasonable expectation.

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Season-opening win for Ravens brings different feeling

Posted on 11 September 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The results of the first week of the season can often be fool’s gold.

Even the mighty New England Patriots lost Week 1 contests in three of their five Super Bowl championship campaigns this century. In 2003, they were embarrassed in a 31-0 final at Buffalo before winning 17 of their next 18 games while the Bills would finish with a 6-10 record. That’s why no one with a brain is counting them out despite being beaten by Kansas City in decisive fashion at home last Thursday night.

Cincinnati will try to lean on that example after being dominated by the Ravens in a 20-0 final at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday, but Baltimore hopes its first season-opening shutout since 2006 is a sign of better things to come after missing the playoffs in three of the last four years.

Of course, it was only last year that the Ravens won their first three games before finishing with an underwhelming 8-8 mark. But Sunday’s victory over the Bengals brought a different feeling, the kind that tempts observers to want to rethink their expectations for the new season.

Having not won in Cincinnati in nearly six years, head coach John Harbaugh and his team would have taken a victory no matter how close the score. Winning ugly is always better than losing with style, but a 13-12 final probably wouldn’t have sparked much enthusiasm beyond the typical satisfaction of any victory.

We just haven’t seen the Ravens overwhelm any opponent like that on the road in quite some time. In fact, it was just the third time since Super Bowl XLVII — and first since 2014 — that they won a regular-season away game by more than one possession, a telling reflection of their struggles away from M&T Bank Stadium in recent seasons.

They earned their first shutout since 2009, a stretch of time that contained some still-formidable defenses that included future Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Perhaps a brutal offensive line will reveal the 2017 Bengals to be an outfit more closely resembling the Cleveland Browns than a playoff contender as the season progresses, but let’s not pretend the Ravens have blown out the perennial doormats of the AFC North in recent road meetings, either. Simply put, trying to make the final outcome all about the shortcomings of Andy Dalton and the Bengals sells the Ravens short for their sensational defensive work that included five sacks and five takeaways.

We know the Baltimore offense remains a significant work in progress, but the running game was effective enough Sunday to complement the superb defense as a rusty Joe Flacco didn’t even have to complete a pass in the second half. That exact formula won’t work every week, of course, but a similar model carried the 2008 Ravens to the AFC championship game when Flacco was a rookie starter.

And while it’s way too premature — and unfair — to begin making comparisons to the 2000 Ravens, that was the blueprint for the franchise’s first Super Bowl championship team. You didn’t have to squint too hard to see a Trent Dilfer-like performance from Flacco on Sunday even though the overall expectations are obviously much higher for one of the highest-paid players in football.

It could all prove to be fool’s gold, but perhaps the Ravens defense can be really special while the offense improves over the course of the season. Or maybe the Bengals are just that bad. Or it’s some of both.

Only time will tell, but Sunday brought a feeling not experienced in these parts in quite some time. And you can’t blame Ravens fans for hoping it signals a return to being a serious contender after recent years of mediocrity.

Humphrey earning playing time

Rookie first-round cornerback Marlon Humphrey didn’t receive extensive preseason action until the finale in New Orleans, but that didn’t stop defensive coordinator Dean Pees from using him in Week 1.

The Alabama product provided a bit of relief to starters Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr in a way you typically see defensive linemen and edge rushers rotated over the course of a 60-minute game. Humphrey didn’t record an official defensive statistic, but he did make a favorable impression in limited work.

“I thought Marlon played really well. He definitely earned more snaps,” Harbaugh said. “He played nine plays on defense and played really well on special teams. I would say he earned more snaps. He played well. All corners played exceptionally well.”

Smith, Carr, and nickel corner Lardarius Webb all recorded interceptions in the blowout victory.

Timeshare at inside linebacker

Starter Kamalei Correa registered a tackle for a loss and former undrafted free agent Patrick Onwuasor tipped the Dalton pass intercepted by Carr in the first quarter in what amounted to a timeshare at the weakside inside linebacker spot next to C.J. Mosley.

Correa played 27 defensive snaps compared to 20 for Onwuasor, but the lion’s share of the work at that position remains up for grabs as the defense tries to fill the void left behind by the retired Zach Orr.

“If they’re both playing at a Pro Bowl level, then you play them both,” said Harbaugh, who added that rookie Bam Bradley is also in the mix. “If one of them starts to separate from the other, then one would take the job. I’d like to see one of them playing at a Pro Bowl level. Neither of them are doing that right now. But they’re both playing well enough to win.”

Injury updates

Harbaugh provided no definitive outlook on the injuries sustained by running back Danny Woodhead and outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith in the first half of Sunday’s win as both underwent MRI exams.

Woodhead is expected to miss some time after suffering a hamstring injury — the same ailment that kept him out for much of the summer — while Smith’s announced knee sprain may not be as serious as initially feared when he was carted to the locker room.

“We know it is not a structural knee thing,” Harbaugh said. “I think I know that. We think we know that, but we will know for sure once he gets out of the MRI.”

The absence of Woodhead could prompt the Ravens to promote a running back from the practice squad as former Chicago Bears starter Jeremy Langford and former Seattle Seahawk Alex Collins joined the organization last week. Terrance West and Buck Allen are the only healthy tailbacks on the current 53-man roster.

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Ravens lose versatile linebacker McClellan for season

Posted on 28 August 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens have lost one of their best special-teams players and a versatile linebacker as veteran Albert McClellan sustained a season-ending knee injury last week.

Head coach John Harbaugh announced Monday that the 31-year-old tore his ACL in a non-contact play at practice last Wednesday. The team initially hoped the injury was not as severe before a magnetic resonance imaging exam confirmed the tear.

“He’ll be with us next year,” Harbaugh said. “It provides a great opportunity for a couple of these young linebackers who have played well on special teams.”

Originally an undrafted free agent from Marshall who spent the entire 2010 season on the practice squad, McClellan has started only 24 games in his career, but he’s been a pillar on special teams since 2011 and has played all four linebacker positions. McClellan started 11 of his 16 games last season, collecting a career-high 52 tackles and one sack.

He led the Ravens in special-teams stops in 2011, 2013, and 2014 and finished tied for second in 2015.

His versatility is valued on game days when there are only 46 active players and few backups within each positional group. The injury leaves former rookie free agent Patrick Onwuasor as the primary reserve behind projected starting inside linebackers C.J. Mosley and Kamalei Correa. It also improves the chances of an undrafted rookie such as Bam Bradley or Donald Payne to make the 53-man roster, but McClellan’s loss may prompt general manager Ozzie Newsome to seek veteran depth at the position.

The Ravens have now lost 10 players for the season since the beginning June, a list that includes cornerback Tavon Young (knee), tight ends Dennis Pitta (hip) and Crockett Gillmore (knee), running back Kenneth Dixon (knee), guards Alex Lewis (shoulder) and Nico Siragusa (knee), and wide receiver Tim White (thumb). Baltimore also lost tight end Darren Waller to a one-year drug-related suspension and fourth-year offensive lineman John Urschel to a surprising retirement at the start of training camp.

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Ravens-Bills preseason primer: Five players to watch

Posted on 25 August 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens defense enters Saturday’s preseason game against Buffalo having lived up to very lofty expectations through the first two exhibition contests.

First in the NFL in points per game allowed, rushing yards per game allowed, passing yards per game allowed, and total yards per game allowed, Baltimore knows preseason success doesn’t automatically translate to the regular season, but playing this well sure beats the alternative. Just ask the injury-riddled offense that has more questions than answers at this point.

“The whole idea of us going into this year was that we want to be a great defense and we want to finish,” said defensive coordinator Dean Pees, whose unit struggled mightily in the final month of the 2016 season. “You have to start to finish. I would rather have a good start than a bad start and be sitting there worried about a bunch of stuff. But I’m still worried about it.

“To say it doesn’t mean anything — I think coaches tell you that — I think that is crap. You want to go out there and you want to play well every day and every week no matter who is on the field.”

Viewed as the dress rehearsal for the start of the regular season, the third preseason game typically involves starters playing the entire first half. However, with the Ravens already dealing with a plethora of injuries, the plan might be different against the Bills.

Head coach John Harbaugh didn’t offer many specifics on what to expect.

“We just have a plan for this year that we are sticking with,” Harbaugh said. “It does not really compare to any other year. You never really know. Different guys have different situations. It is more individualized probably than ever before. You play guys according to their needs.”

Saturday marks the first time since 2003 that the Ravens and Buffalo have met in the preseason with the Bills having won two of the previous three exhibition contests. These teams met in the 2016 season opener with the Ravens winning 13-7 at M&T Bank Stadium.

Baltimore owns a 26-12 record in preseason games under Harbaugh.

Unofficial (and largely speculative) injury report

The Ravens are not required to release an injury report like they do for regular-season games, but I’ve offered my best guess on what the injury report would look like if one were to be released ahead of Saturday’s game.

Most of the players ruled out will come as no surprise, but the status of a few will remain in question. Of course, this list does not consider any veterans who could be held out due to the coaching staff’s preference.

Again, this is not an official injury report released by the Ravens:

OUT: QB Joe Flacco (back), WR Breshad Perriman (hamstring), OT Ronnie Stanley (undisclosed), CB Maurice Canady (knee), RB Kenneth Dixon (knee), OL Nico Siragusa (knee), CB Tavon Young (knee), OL Alex Lewis (shoulder), WR Tim White (thumb)
DOUBTFUL: CB Marlon Humphrey (hamstring), RB Danny Woodhead (hamstring), CB Brandon Boykin (undisclosed), OT Stephane Nembot (undisclosed), LB Donald Payne (undisclosed)
QUESTIONABLE: G Marshal Yanda (shoulder), CB Sheldon Price (shoulder), WR Quincy Adeboyejo (knee), LB Albert McClellan (undisclosed)

Five players to watch Thursday night

LB Tim Williams

After struggling in the preseason opener against Washington, the third-round pick from Alabama showed off his pass-rushing skills against Miami with a sack and two quarterback hits. Williams has a long way to go to be an every-down linebacker, but the Ravens need players who can get to the quarterback off the edge and he can still carve out a role as a situational pass rusher.

RB Buck Allen

The third-year back looked like he’d face an uphill battle to make the roster several weeks ago, but injuries have afforded him more chances and he’s run with more urgency this summer. Though Terrance West is still projected to be the starter, senior offensive assistant Greg Roman likes to have more than one back involved in the ground game and Allen has rushed for 61 yards on 18 carries this summer.

CB Sheldon Price

Hampered by a shoulder issue for a good portion of the summer, Price is trying to solidify a spot on the 53-man roster and his 6-foot-2, 198-pound frame is ideal for an outside corner. The current absence of 2017 first-round pick Marlon Humphrey helps Price’s case, but rookie free agent Jaylen Hill has all but locked up a job at this point, making it critical for Price to play well in the last two preseason games.

C Jeremy Zuttah

The Ravens needed depth after losing their starting left guard and two other interior options, but Zuttah must prove he can hold up in Roman’s schemes that are more downhill and physical. The fact that Zuttah was released by San Francisco five months after being traded there means he has essentially been cut twice since March and he needs to play with a chip on his shoulder if he wants to unseat Ryan Jensen.

LB Bam Bradley

The reviews for Kamalei Correa at inside linebacker have been mixed, but the Ravens don’t have many alternatives at the position. The 237-pound Bradley has more bulk than special-teams standout Patrick Onwuasor and has played well this preseason, making him one of several undrafted free agents who remain in the conversation for a spot on the 53-man roster.

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