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Ravens-Jaguars: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 14 November 2015 by Luke Jones

This isn’t a “homecoming” game for the Ravens.

Scoff as much as you’d like over the notion of the 2-6 Jacksonville Jaguars winning a road game for the first time in nearly two years and earning a victory at M&T Bank Stadium for the first time since Bill Clinton was in the White House (1999), but the 2-6 Ravens have no room to be taking any opponent lightly these days. That’s especially true when one of the Jaguars’ greatest strengths — the NFL’s 11th ranked passing game — matches up against Baltimore’s 29th-ranked pass defense.

Head coach John Harbaugh and the Ravens have spoken all week about Sunday providing the opportunity for a fresh start and the first of many steps toward climbing back into an underwhelming AFC playoff race, but they’ll first need to show they’ve put some of their first-half struggles behind them.

It’s time to go on the record as Baltimore and Jacksonville meet for the 19th time in the regular-season history and for the second consecutive year at M&T Bank Stadium. The Jaguars hold a 10-8 advantage in the all-time series, but that can be attributed to Jacksonville winning the first eight all-time meetings between the teams from 1996-1999 when they were old AFC Central foes. Dating back to 2000, the Ravens have won eight of 10 against Jacksonville.

Here’s what to expect as Baltimore tries to win consecutive games for the first time all season …

1. The team that performs better on third down will win on Sunday. This is a boring talking point often used by the unimaginative, but I only bring it up because both teams are so poor in this area, a major reason why they sport matching 2-6 records. The Ravens rank 24th in third-down offense and dead last in the NFL in third-down defense while Jacksonville is 19th in third-down offense and 29th in third-down defense. Baltimore will be challenged to find success running the ball in early-down situations against the league’s seventh-ranked rush defense while the Jaguars want to avoid putting the mistake-prone Blake Bortles in third-and-long spots. This will be critical factor in a close contest.

2. The Ravens secondary will snap Allen Hurns’ touchdown streak, but Allen Robinson will post over 100 receiving yards and a touchdown. Hurns is questionable to play with a foot injury, meaning he will be less than 100 percent if he does find his way to the field on Sunday to try to continue a streak of six consecutive games with a touchdown reception. However, the 2014 second-round pick Robinson is emerging as one of the better big-play threats in the NFL and will create problems for Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb. The Ravens should be fine if they can limit one of Jacksonville’s two impact receivers, but Robinson is just too good for the Baltimore secondary to stop at this point.

3. Kamar Aiken will have an encouraging day as the No. 1 receiver, catching six passes for 80 yards and a score. After two weeks to prepare and to talk a good game, the Ravens will now face the reality of life without Steve Smith the rest of the way. The good news for Baltimore is that Jacksonville sports the league’s 25th-ranked pass defense and has struggled to create pressure on quarterbacks this season, which should allow time for Aiken and Chris Givens to gain separation. Jacksonville’s starting cornerbacks, Davon House and Aaron Colvin, are solid, but No. 3 option Dwayne Gratz is a liability in the nickel, which will create a good matchup for Aiken on a touchdown pass.

4. Bortles will throw a costly interception midway through the fourth quarter. Counting the postseason, the Ravens have created four or more turnovers in a game 51 times in franchise history, but they have just four total takeaways in eight games in 2015. That trend just has to change at some point, right? Bortles has shown plenty of promise and has played at a high level at times this season, but he hasn’t been able to avoid critical mistakes like he made against the New York Jets last week. In a tight game, the Ravens will force their first turnover since Week 3 to end a scoring threat and preserve a narrow lead. The five-game streak without a takeaway has to end — even if it’s by accident.

5. Efficiency will be the theme of the day for Joe Flacco and the Ravens in a 28-23 win over Jacksonville. I feel for the Ravens quarterback, who has been given inferior weapons to work with in two of the last three seasons, but you never hear him complain about the factors regularly working against him. It will be interesting to see how the Ravens offense functions the rest of the way with Steve Smith out and the running game being a disappointment to this point. But Flacco will consistently make plays to move the chains and take a few deep shots to Givens in the process. The Ravens found a way to score 30 points without Smith in Week 5, and they’ll find ways to score enough against Jacksonville.

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Examining Ravens receivers, draft history, Yanda, Maryland product

Posted on 20 October 2015 by Luke Jones

It doesn’t require a football savant to assess the Ravens’ wide receiver picture these days.

The 36-year-old Steve Smith has been terrific, turning in another strong performance with a broken back on Sunday. Even after missing a game, Smith is tied for 13th in the NFL in receptions (36) and ranks 12th in receiving yards (510) entering Week 7.

Everyone else? Not so much.

Though he often disappears for long stretches in games, Kamar Aiken at least has done enough to prove himself as a decent complementary piece, but only as a No. 3 or No. 4 option. His 18 catches for 265 yards and two touchdowns are respectable, but he’s been targeted 34 times to accumulate those numbers. Aiken has shown decent hands in his two years with the Ravens, but he still struggles to gain enough consistent separation to be considered a starting-caliber player.

Still, Aiken is the second-best option the Ravens have with Breshad Perriman remaining sidelined with a knee injury.

Trying to find a No. 3 option has been a real problem as Marlon Brown isn’t getting the job done despite entering the year as the Ravens’ most-experienced option behind Smith. His successful 2013 rookie campaign feels like a distant memory now as the third-year receiver has just 10 catches for 84 yards on 23 targets.

The lack of production isn’t because of a lack of playing time, either, as Brown’s 188 snaps running pass routes rank 38th in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus data. Among the 95 receivers to run at least 100 routes this season, Brown ranks last with just 0.45 receiving yards per route.

Since catching 49 passes for 524 yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie, Brown hasn’t reached the end zone in his last 20 regular-season games and has also dropped three passes this season, giving Joe Flacco little reason to throw to him on the occasions when he does get open.

Should the Ravens turn elsewhere?

Rookie Darren Waller missed Sunday’s game with a concussion, but the duo of Jeremy Ross and Chris Givens outproduced Aiken and Brown against the 49ers. While the latter pair combined for just four catches, 31 yards, and a touchdown in 105 snaps, the speedier Ross and Givens totaled five catches for 52 yards in just 43 combined snaps.

Neither Ross nor Givens approach Brown’s height, but how often have you seen the 6-foot-5 receiver effectively use his size for that to matter?

It’s not a long-term solution by any means, but putting Ross or Givens — or both — on the field more often with Smith and Aiken at least gives Baltimore more speed, something sorely lacking in the passing game in 2015. And taking a longer look at Waller would also be wise in evaluating for the future as Brown just isn’t getting the job done with extensive opportunities.

Recent draft history

The Ravens need to improve their speed and play-making ability at the wide receiver and defensive back positions moving forward, but their recent draft history at those important spots helps explain how they’ve gotten to the point of being 1-5 in 2015.

Consider the wide receivers drafted by the Ravens since Torrey Smith in 2011:

Tandon Doss (2011 fourth round)
Tommy Streeter (2012 sixth round)
Aaron Mellette (2013 seventh round)
Michael Campanaro (2014 seventh round)
Breshad Perriman (2015 first round)
Darren Waller (2015 sixth round)

Of course, the fate of the last three on that list remains to be seen and most of these names were late-round picks, but general manager Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens brass have expressed confidence annually that they can find receiver talent in every round of a draft.

The commitment of resources to improving the position hasn’t been there, and the poor return speaks for itself.

The picture may even be uglier when looking at the defensive backs drafted since Jimmy Smith in 2011:

CB Chykie Brown (2011 fifth round)
S Christian Thompson (2012 fourth round)
CB Asa Jackson (2012 fifth round)
S Matt Elam (2013 first round)
CB Marc Anthony (2013 seventh round)
S Terrence Brooks (2014 third round)
CB Tray Walker (2015 fourth round)

Maybe Brooks and Walker still develop into quality players — even if drafting the latter in the fourth round was a reach — but the Ravens have used higher picks in the secondary than at wide receiver in recent years and have fetched similarly disappointing results.

Maybe Shareece Wright was the wrong individual with which to be upset over Sunday’s loss.

Yanda in unique company

Newsome has often spoken about the unique individuals drafted by the Ravens to earn a second contract after their rookie deal, but four-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda joined an even more exclusive group to receive a third payday with Baltimore.

Hall of Fame left tackle Jonathan Ogden received contract extensions in 2000 and 2004 after being taken with the fourth overall pick in 1996. Future Hall of Fame inside linebacker Ray Lewis agreed to extensions in 1998 and 2002 and re-signed with Baltimore after becoming a free agent for the first time in 2009. Six-time Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs received a third contract with Baltimore just two offseasons ago.

But plenty of other great players in franchise history have not — including future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed.

Yanda doesn’t play a glamorous position, but he’s been the best guard in football for a few years now and has quietly built a strong résumé as one of the best players in franchise history. The Ravens wisely recognized that by awarding the 2007 third-round pick a four-year extension last Friday.

Diggs shining in Minnesota

Using 20-20 hindsight to judge a draft is easy, but you still can’t help but wonder whether the Ravens should have pulled the trigger in drafting former Maryland wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who is earning major praise with the Minnesota Vikings for his last two games.

Freak injuries — a broken leg and a lacerated kidney — and poor quarterback play in College Park were significant reasons why the talented Diggs fell to the fifth round this spring, but no one can deny the 6-foot, 191-pound receiver’s athleticism. Even after drafting Perriman, the Ravens still could have used more speed at wide receiver and an intriguing option in an unclear return game picture.

With Diggs on the board, the Ravens selected Walker from Texas Southern with the final selection of the fourth round. Ten picks later, Minnesota drafted the former Terp with the 146th overall pick.

A non-factor so far in his rookie season, the 6-foot-2 Walker may still have the superior career to validate the Ravens passing over a talent from their own backyard at that spot, but Diggs sure would look good in a different shade of purple than what he’s wearing these days.

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Ravens “all have to step up” in Steve Smith’s absence

Posted on 08 October 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With a 1-3 record to begin 2015, the Ravens can’t afford to take any opponent lightly.

Not even the Cleveland Browns.

That sentiment rings truer without veteran wideout Steve Smith, who is expected to miss Sunday’s game with microfractures in his lower back suffered in last week’s win in Pittsburgh. In two games over Cleveland a year ago, Smith caught 13 passes for 191 yards in two fourth-quarter comeback victories.

The Ravens instead will count on a quartet of receivers who have combined for 21 receptions and 264 yards so far this season, eight fewer catches and 109 fewer receiving yards than Smith in his four games.

“It’s definitely not ideal. It’s going to be a little bit challenging for us an offense, but it’s just the way it is,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “We wouldn’t want it any other way. These are the guys that are going to go out there and make plays for us, start making a name for themselves, and help us win, so I’m excited about it.”

It’s a given that Flacco will need to be sharper than he was a week ago when he turned the ball over twice in a 23-20 overtime win. With Smith, Breshad Perriman, Michael Campanaro, and tight end Crockett Gillmore all injured, the Ravens will ask their starting quarterback to elevate the level of play of his inexperienced teammates, at least enough to squeak out a win over Cleveland’s 22nd-ranked pass defense.

Baltimore wants its running game to build on what it did a week ago as the Ravens face the league’s 31st-ranked run defense on Sunday, but the passing attack will need to do enough to prevent the Browns from stacking the box.

The Ravens have said all of the right things, but how much can you reasonably expect from Flacco as he’s working with two former undrafted free agents — Kamar Aiken and Marlon Brown — as his starters, a rookie sixth-round pick (Darren Waller), and a veteran (Chris Givens) acquired just a week ago?

“Joe can only do so much. He has to do his job,” offensive coordinator Marc Trestman said. “It’s up to all of us to help all of us to get this done. It’s a team game, and it’s not one guy. Certainly, Joe expects to play at a high level and does every week. This week should be no different than any week.”

Aiken and Brown will be expected to gain separation against Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden and veteran Tramon Williams. Haden has struggled early this season while battling injuries, but the 32-year-old Williams has played at a high level in his first season with Cleveland.

It’s been a bizarre start to the season for Aiken as he has two performances of 77 or more receiving yards while combining for one catch and minus-1 yard in the other two contests. The 6-foot-5 Brown has struggled to catch the football so far in 2015, making just eight receptions for 75 yards while serving mostly as the No. 3 receiver.

The Ravens would stand to benefit from Brown channeling the success of his rookie year when he caught 49 passes for 524 yards and seven touchdowns in 2013. His role in the Baltimore offense has mostly diminished since then.

“I’ve completed a lot of passes to both of them — Kamar recently and Marlon in the past,” Flacco said. “We just have to get them rolling and have confidence that they’re going to go out there and do the job because they’re our guys right now. They have a lot of ability, and we can’t treat them any other way.”

With Smith’s injury in Pittsburgh, the comparisons have been made to the 2013 season when the Ravens were reeling from the offseason trade of Anquan Boldin and the serious hip injury to Dennis Pitta, but Flacco could at least throw to Torrey Smith then. On Sunday, the eighth-year signal-caller is projected to have just two targets at receiver or tight end — Aiken and Givens — who were even in the league when Flacco led Baltimore to a Super Bowl less than three years ago.

But that won’t deter him from showing confidence in an inexperienced group — at least on Sunday.

“I know you guys might not see him talk much or encourage much,” said Aiken about the even-keeled Flacco, “but he’s always trying to motivate us in the huddle and tell us, ‘Let’s go!’ and stuff like that. It’s great to have Joe as a quarterback, even with us going through all this. That’s why I feel so confident that we’ll be fine.”

Changes to nickel defense

An interesting personnel development from the Week 4 win at Pittsburgh was the emergence of the recently-acquired Will Davis as the No. 3 corner over veteran Kyle Arrington in the second half.

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees has previously stated his preference to use starting cornerback Lardarius Webb inside in the nickel package, but Arrington has struggled when asked to play outside as the third cornerback. In 23 snaps in his first game with the Ravens, Davis finished with a tackle and a pass breakup while Arrington played only 20 defensive snaps, most of that coming in the first half.

“I really feel like [Webb] is a really good inside player and a good nickel for us,” Pees said. “And when we play sub [packages], we would like to keep him there as opposed to outside if we can, and I just feel like that’s a great matchup for us. It’s [not] because of anything down on Kyle; it’s a little bit more of a good fit for Webby and, really, a better fit for Will because he’s really an outside guy only.”

Trestman-McCown respect

Trestman and Browns quarterback Josh McCown have expressed great admiration for each other this week after the pair worked together in Chicago in 2013.

In Trestman’s first season as head coach of the Bears, the journeyman McCown made five starts in place of an injured Jay Cutler and posted a 109.0 passer rating. That performance has led to McCown’s starting jobs with Tampa Bay and Cleveland and the pair have remained in touch, but there hasn’t been any text messaging this week, according to the Baltimore coordinator.

“We’re just doing our job this week, but I’m excited for his opportunity,” said Trestman, who added that McCown’s athleticism and mental capacity for the game are his underrated traits. “I was when he left Chicago. He had a great opportunity, and I was excited for him, excited for the career he has extended.”

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Givens aiming to be “explosive” catching passes from Flacco

Posted on 07 October 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Buried on the St. Louis depth chart at the start of his fourth NFL season, Chris Givens became suspicious when he heard from an old college teammate a couple weeks ago.

Ravens wide receiver and fellow Wake Forest product Michael Campanaro had reached out to the speedy wideout to tell him that the Baltimore coaching staff had been asking about him, a sure sign that general manager Ozzie Newsome was interested in acquiring the Rams’ 2012 fourth-round pick. With rookie Breshad Perriman sidelined since the start of training camp with a knee injury, the Ravens were in need of a vertical threat in their passing game.

“I just thought it was talk,” said Givens, who was acquired from the Rams in exchange for a 2016 seventh-round pick on Saturday. “But once things started getting weird around Rams Park, I knew something was up. I basically just didn’t practice [last] Tuesday through Friday, so I knew something was up.”

When an NFL player is acquired in the middle of a season, there’s generally an acclimation period of a week or two to learn a new system before being thrown into the fire of competition. But the Ravens don’t have that luxury with both No. 1 receiver Steve Smith (back) and Perriman expected to miss Sunday’s game against Cleveland.

Baltimore hopes Givens can provide the ability to stretch the field in the passing game while potentially providing another option to replace the injured Campanaro at kick returner. Barring other roster moves, the Ravens will need him to serve as no worse than the No. 4 receiver against the Browns with quarterback Joe Flacco missing so many other pass-catching targets.

Averaging 16.3 yards per catch in his career, Givens expressed confidence in his ability to learn a new offense, saying the biggest challenge was adjusting to new terminology after picking up the passing concepts of offensive coordinator Marc Tresetman.

“He’s going to be out there on Sunday,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “How much he plays depends on how well he does. I’m really hopeful that he plays a lot. It’ll be up to him and how well he can learn what we’re doing.”

The 6-foot wideout only had one reception in the Rams’ first three games this season, but his 1,433 career receiving yards are more than Baltimore’s other healthy receivers — Kamar Aiken, Marlon Brown, and Darren Waller — have combined (1,303). Givens, a 2012 fourth-round pick out of Wake Forest, enjoyed his best season as a rookie when he caught 42 passes for 698 yards and three touchdowns.

However, the 25-year-old’s numbers had declined every year since as he struggled to catch the football consistently and other St. Louis receivers leapfrogged him on the depth chart. Givens quipped that he now has a “potato” — not a chip — on his shoulder coming to Baltimore.

“It was very frustrating,” said Givens about his last couple seasons with the Rams. “I knew I was a guy that could complement the team and play well. I don’t know if it wasn’t the right fit or they liked other guys or whatever the case may be, because after the first year, my opportunities just went down.”

The Ravens certainly hope he can recapture the success he found early in his career with St. Louis.

Not lacking confidence, Givens will be given every opportunity to carve out a meaningful role with the banged-up Ravens as he praised the talents of Flacco. The pair will be challenged to build a rapport in a short period of time, but Flacco said the receiver’s speed jumped out immediately in their first couple practices together.

“It can be explosive,” said Givens of the chance to catch deep passes from Flacco. “It’s one of those things that you’ve just got to take advantage of the talents and opportunities. I’m just looking forward to doing that.”

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With pains at receiver, Ravens facing Cleveland at perfect time

Posted on 06 October 2015 by Luke Jones

Expecting to take the field without the services of Steve Smith on Sunday, the Ravens are hurting at the wide receiver position entering Week 5.

Their projected No. 1 receiver against the Browns, Kamar Aiken, has just 11 receptions for 165 yards and a touchdown through the first four games of the season. Those numbers don’t even match what the 36-year-old Smith did in Week 3 against Cincinnati alone.

That’s why the Ravens’ 191-yard rushing performance in last Thursday’s win at Pittsburgh couldn’t have come at a better time. Prior to Week 4, Baltimore had averaged just 3.3 yards per carry in its 0-3 start, perhaps the most surprising development of the early season.

Now, head coach John Harbaugh hopes the ground performance against the Steelers is a sign of better things to come.

“Sometimes you have to keep pounding that rock,” Harbaugh said. “They made a lot of plays against the run — especially early — and finally it kind of opened up toward the end there a little bit more. But it’s always important for us. It’s something that we count on doing well, and we need to continue to improve. I don’t think we’re where we need to be with the run game, yet. That’s something we need to continue to work on really hard.”

With Smith sidelined and starting tight end Crockett Gillmore still recovering from a calf injury, the Ravens are playing the 1-3 Browns at a perfect time. Cleveland brings the league’s 32nd-ranked defense in total yards and its rush defense ranks 31st in giving up 141.5 yards per game.

The Browns rank 29th in allowing 4.8 yards per carry, which comes a year after their defense surrendered more rushing yards than any team in the NFL. Those 2014 struggles prompted the selection of defensive tackle Danny Shelton with the 12th overall pick of this spring’s draft, but the 339-pounder’s presence has yet to make a major difference for the Browns’ front.

Of course, quarterback Joe Flacco and the Ravens will need to do enough through the air to prevent the Cleveland defense from consistently stacking the box, but there appears to be little reason why Justin Forsett, Lorenzo Taliaferro, and Buck Allen won’t find running room to move the chains and take pressure off an undermanned group of pass-catchers. The Ravens will need a produtive running game moving forward, especially until Smith is ready to return to action.

Even if they’re playing at M&T Bank Stadium where the Browns haven’t won since 2007, Harbaugh made it clear that the Ravens are in no position to take Cleveland lightly.

“I mean, hey, we’re 1-3, too,” Harbaugh said. “We have two 1-3 teams going at it here. We’re battling to be third place in the division right now. That’s where we stand, and that’s a tall order and we have work to do. But they have a heck of a front seven. They have good pass rushers on both edges. They have some of the most talented secondary players in the league, and we’ve seen them up close and personal every time we play them.”

Pass-rushing reinforcements

The Ravens enter Week 5 tied for sixth in the NFL with 11 sacks, but the pass rush remains a topic of concern for the league’s 16th-ranked pass defense.

The good news was the boost defensive coordinator Dean Pees received from Za’Darius Smith, who collected the first two sacks of his NFL career in the third quarter of the win at Pittsburgh. In 19 snaps, the rookie collected two other tackles in addition to his takedowns of Mike Vick, flashing the skills he showed at Kentucky that prompted the Ravens to draft him in the fourth round.

“I think he has really been ramping up his intensity level,” Harbaugh said, “how he plays from one play to the next, understanding at this level the edge that you have to play on to be successful, and how hard you have to play. He applied that in that Pittsburgh game better than he has at any point in time. He has always been good, but not really good enough to make a difference until this game, and that was really good to see.”

With Elvis Dumervil and Courtney Upshaw taking on heavier workloads since the season-ending injury to Terrell Suggs, the Ravens need Za’Darius Smith and veteran Jason Babin to be productive when asked to spell the starters.

Making his Ravens debut after being inactive for two games, Babin only played seven snaps and did not record any official statistics, but Pro Football Focus credited him with a quarterback hurry.

“He was really disciplined with his pass rush,” Harbaugh said. “The thing we asked our guys to do in this game was be very disciplined with their pass rush and treat it almost like run defense, because you have  a guy back there who can throw and can run and can really hurt you with him arm and with his legs.”

Challenging Jernigan

One of the quieter stories of the early season has been the demotion of second-year defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, who has been replaced by rookie Carl Davis in the base defense in each of the last two games.

The 2014 second-round pick missed the season opener with a knee injury and started against Oakland in Week 2, but a foolish roughing-the-passer penalty on the Raiders’ game-winning drive landed him behind Davis on the depth chart. Jernigan played just 17 of 63 defensive snaps against the Steelers, but the Ravens will need him to be a major part of their inside pass rush as the season progresses.

“Timmy is getting better and better,” Harbaugh said. “He really stepped it up the last week or so — in practice and in games. He’s very capable of being a real factor inside there, and it’s especially true when he plays a certain way, when he really gets after it, when he cuts it loose. That’s what we’re trying to get him to do — get off the ball, get off blocks, run to the football, be a physical force in there, and play fast.

“Sometimes, too much thinking is not good. He knows the defense now, and we expect him to play with a real high motor. And when he does that, he’s very effective.”

Returning questions in return game

With Michael Campanaro now out for the season with a back injury, the Ravens have gone back to the drawing board with their return game.

The latest depth chart lists veteran Lardarius Webb as the No. 1 punt returner, but the kick returner is listed as “to be determined.” Newly-acquired Chris Givens has experience returning kicks in St. Louis while Taliaferro and Allen also practiced handling kickoffs over the summer.

However, the Ravens’ best option might be on their practice squad where receiver Jeremy Ross currently resides. Ross returned kicks and punts in Detroit for two years and scored a touchdown doing each during the 2013 season.

“We’ll look at all our options. We have guys on the roster that can do it,” Harbaugh said. “Chris is a guy that can do it, too, as far as the kick return stuff. We’ll just see where we’re at come Sunday on that, but it could be someone here. Obviously, it could be somebody outside, too.”

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An 0-2 start all that matters for hodge-podge Ravens

Posted on 21 September 2015 by Luke Jones

All we really know about the Ravens right now is that they’re 0-2 and in last place in the AFC North and that’s what matters.

The defense isn’t as bad as it played in Sunday’s 37-33 loss to Oakland, but it’s probably not as strong as it looked in Denver, either.

The offense isn’t as poor as it looked in Week 1 — really, it couldn’t have been much worse — but scoring 33 points against a bad Raiders defense isn’t the best barometer to conclude that all is fine with Marc Trestman’s unit.

Optimists will say John Harbaugh’s team was two plays away from being 2-0 in two road games out west despite playing poorly. They’ll maintain that the Ravens will be fine if the Week 1 defense and the Week 2 offense can simply show up at the same time.

Pessimists will tell you Baltimore couldn’t win against a Peyton Manning-led offense that was completely out of sync in the opener or even beat one of the worst teams in the NFL in Week 2. And they’ll remind you again that just 24 of the 205 teams that have started a season 0-2 since 1990 have made the playoffs — roughly one team per year.

Contrary to the sentiments shared by much of a frustrated fan base, the season isn’t over as the aforementioned statistic includes plenty of bad teams that never had a good chance to make the playoffs long before the season began. Indianapolis started 0-2 a year ago before advancing to the conference championship game and Steve Smith’s old team — the Carolina Panthers — lost its first two games of 2013 before making it to the divisional round that January.

Even the two-time defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks are in the same boat as the Ravens right now.

But the Ravens are in danger of having the season spiral out of control before Columbus Day if they don’t get to work immediately. On Sunday, they return home to play an undefeated Cincinnati Bengals team that’s won three of their last four meetings and then travel to Pittsburgh four days later to play the Steelers on a short week.

If you think 0-2 is quite a hole to escape, an 0-4 start would be the Grand Canyon.

Two weeks in, we just don’t know what to make of this Ravens team other than the clear stigma of an 0-2 record. Is it the offense, the defense, or both? Is this just another Harbaugh-led team that struggles on the road and wreaks havoc on opponents at M&T Bank Stadium to ultimately land in the playoffs like six of the last seven years?

A defense that carried much promise a week ago looked every bit the part of a unit playing its first game without Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis, or Ed Reed — the trinity of Ravens defensive excellence — since 1998. The pass rush was nonexistent, the coverage in the secondary was abysmal, the tackling was even worse, and Dean Pees’ coaching adjustments didn’t work.

Some media and fans tried to argue that the loss of Suggs would not be that severe, but the Ravens defense looked like a group sorely missing his play and leadership in Oakland. Even so, the outside linebacker’s absence alone can’t explain — or excuse — the poor performance throughout the defense.

The lack of the pass rush coupled with a 2014-like performance from the secondary will create much concern about the Ravens’ ability to stop opposing offenses, especially after second-year quarterback Derek Carr and the lowly Raiders picked them apart to the tune of 351 passing yards and three touchdown passes.

It didn’t help that untimely penalties doomed the defense on Oakland’s final scoring drive as a senseless roughing-the-passer foul by Timmy Jernigan put the Raiders in field goal position and a defensive holding penalty on Will Hill wiped out what would have been the game-clinching interception. Those types of mistakes, particularly the Jernigan penalty, aren’t indicative of winning teams.

If you’re looking for the silver lining, the offense made strides on Sunday with tight end Crockett Gillmore catching two touchdowns and wide receiver Kamar Aiken bouncing back from an early fumble to help back up Smith’s 10 catches and 150 receiving yards. Yes, an otherwise-strong Joe Flacco misfired on a few throws that could have led to more points — including one to a wide-open Steve Smith that would have meant a touchdown instead of a field goal on their penultimate drive — but you should beat the Raiders 100 times out of 100 when you score 33 points.

Trestman’s decision to throw on second-and-8 from the Oakland 13 on the play before Flacco’s errant throw to Smith was baffling as an incompletion stopped the clock with 2:19 remaining, but we knew all along that the offense would be a work in progress and the group did its job for the most part on Sunday.

Everything we’ve witnessed in the Harbaugh era suggests the Ravens are better than their 0-2 record indicates, but they’ve hit uncharted territory under the eighth-year coach as the franchise has lost its first two games for the first time since 2005. It’s in rough patches when Harbaugh is generally at his best, but he sees exactly what we’ve all witnessed over the first two weeks and can’t feel good about it.

A horrendous performance by the offense and a strong defensive effort in Week 1 followed by a good offensive showing and a nightmarish game from the defense in Week 2. You just don’t know what to expect at this point from either side of the ball.

Will the real Ravens step forward? They’re better than their 0-2 record, right?

Or, maybe they are a hodpe-podge group with the latest offseason of substantial changes finally catching up with them.

If they really are this bad, we’ll find out quickly with their two biggest divisional foes looming over the next 10 days.

If the Ravens are better than this, they have no choice but to start proving it immediately.

Because 0-2 tells you all that matters.

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Chances should be there for Ravens to throw downfield in Oakland

Posted on 17 September 2015 by Luke Jones

The failures of the Ravens’ passing game were a collaborative effort in Week 1, but the peripheral numbers will still make you shudder as the attention has shifted toward Sunday’s meeting with the Oakland Raiders.

In the first half in Denver, Joe Flacco threw exactly one pass more than eight yards beyond the line of scrimmage through the air. It came on a pass he threw away on the final play of the second quarter.

The eighth-year quarterback had just two throws of that variety through the first three quarters. Of Flacco’s 32 pass attempts in the 19-13 loss to the Broncos, just eight traveled more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage through the air. Seven other passes were either at or behind the line of scrimmage.

Even with lousy pass protection and receivers lacking speed, the Ravens needed to pose some semblance of a threat to throw the ball down the field to keep the opposition honest. And that responsibility largely falls on the shoulders of new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman, a sentiment that Flacco gently alluded to when addressing reporters in California on Wednesday.

“We didn’t ever really attempt to do it and we’ve talked about that. We need to take our shots,” Flacco said. “If nothing else, at least let teams know that we’re going to do that and have the confidence in ourselves in doing that. As far as confidence goes, I think that also translates to us. If we’re going to call those things and get them going, I think it’ll give us the confidence to go out there and execute plays and have some explosiveness to us.

“It’s tough to maintain 15-play drives consistently and score points, so we’re going to have to have that as part of our game. To start off, I would say that and then we just have to make sure that we protect and I find the soft zone in the pocket and put the ball where it needs to be.”

In fairness, Trestman lacks the luxury of having ex-Raven Torrey Smith or even speedy rookie Breshad Perriman on the outside, but the Ravens must find a way to push the ball downfield in Week 2. It will begin with improved pass protection against an Oakland front seven that isn’t as imposing as Denver’s, but the Raiders’ pash-rushing trio of Justin Tuck, Khalil Mack, and Aldon Smith will try to tee off on Flacco in a similar fashion.

If the offensive line can bounce back in Week 2, opportunities should be there to take a few shots against an Oakland secondary that is likely to be without either of its starting safeties from Week 1. Nate Allen suffered a season-ending knee injury and Charles Woodson suffered a shoulder injury in the lost to Cincinnati.

Larry Asante and Taylor Mays could be their respective replacements with the latter having just been re-signed this week. They would join starting cornerbacks T.J. Carrie — a 2014 seventh-round pick — and 2013 first-round selection D.J. Hayden, who hasn’t shown much at the NFL level.

Those realities should spell trouble for a pass defense that finished 16th in the NFL a year ago and allowed Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton to throw for 269 yards last week.

Of course, speed will remain a weakness for the Ravens as Perriman isn’t expected to play in Week 2, but Flacco said that’s no excuse for a passing game that produced fewer yards than any in the league last week. Trestman must incorporate his young tight ends against suspect safeties while seizing a few opportunities to test them deep, even if it only leads to more breathing room underneath.

“It’s about exploiting weaknesses in defenses and just a combination of things and hitting them at the right time,” Flacco said. “It’s not about coming over there and running a 4.2 [40-yard dash] running by guys; you seldom see that. I don’t think we’re going to have that guy right now that’s going to run by guys five times a game, but we definitely have guys that can run crossing routes and be hit 30 yards downfield and can run double moves downfield — things like that.

“That’s what we’re going to have to do.”

If the Ravens offense is unable to do those things against a banged-up Oakland secondary, it could be time to panic.

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Five numbers behind Ravens’ 19-13 loss in Denver

Posted on 15 September 2015 by Luke Jones

Every week, we’ll ponder five numbers stemming from the Ravens’ latest game, this one being the ugly 19-13 loss to Denver to begin the 2015 season …

3.66 — Joe Flacco’s yards per attempt
Skinny: The pass protection was awful and his pass-catching targets were unable to create separation, making it no surprise that the eighth-year quarterback couldn’t throw the ball down the field. This was Flacco’s worst yards per attempt average since a loss in Houston on Oct. 21, 2012 (3.42) and the third-worst mark of his NFL regular-season career. His worst overall came in the 2009 playoff win over New England when a banged-up Flacco went 4-for-10 for 34 yards, a 3.40 average.

9 — Total catches made by Ravens receivers and tight ends
Skinny: Many expressed concerns over Flacco’s group of young receivers and tight ends, and Sunday proved to be a nightmare as even Steve Smith managed just two catches for 13 yards and couldn’t bring in the potential game-winning touchdown on the Ravens’ penultimate play of the game. Fellow starter Kamar Aiken was even worse as he lost a yard on his only reception. With or without rookie Breshad Perriman, this group needs to be markedly better for Baltimore to make any real noise this year.

27 — Consecutive games in which the Ravens defense hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher
Skinny: It was an impressive effort on the other side of the ball as the Ravens continued the longest active streak in the NFL of not allowing an opposing player to eclipse the century mark on the ground. With Brandon Williams dominating the line of scrimmage and C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith at the inside linebacker spots, the Ravens have to like their chances to keep this streak going. Meanwhile, the Broncos will need to average much better than 2.8 yards per carry to help Peyton Manning’s deteriorating arm.

56 — Yards of offense from Justin Forsett
Skinny: The 2014 Pro Bowl running back didn’t have much of a chance behind a less-than-stellar performance from the offensive line, but his output was lower than all but two of his regular-season games a year ago. Forsett’s numbers would have been even worse if not for his 20-yard run on the final drive of the game. With Buck Allen showing some promise in limited opportunities and Lorenzo Taliaferro possibly returning this Sunday, it will be interesting to see how the carries are distributed.

291 — Consecutive games (counting the postseason) in which Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, or Terrell Suggs has been on the field for Baltimore
Skinny: The 2015 opener brought the unfortunate end of a remarkable run in franchise history with Suggs suffering a season-ending Achilles injury in the fourth quarter. This Sunday will mark the first time that the Ravens will play a game without any of the three best defensive players in their history since Oct. 11, 1998 when Eric Zeier was the quarterback and they lost 12-8 to the Tennessee Oilers as Lewis sat out with a dislocated elbow. Nothing lasts forever, but it’s strange thinking about the old guard of Baltimore defense that also included Haloti Ngata being no more — at least until next year.

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Ten Ravens prophecies for the 2015 season

Posted on 13 September 2015 by Luke Jones

As many go through the endeavor of making division-by-division forecasts, these predictions focus on the Ravens and their quest to advance to the playoffs for the seventh time in eight years and to possibly win their third Super Bowl title in their 20th season in Baltimore.

A look back at last year’s predictions show a mixed bag — predicting Elvis Dumervil would take a step back before he went on to set the Ravens’ single-season sack record was particularly embarrassing — but it’s fun to envision how the next four months or so will play out.

Below is a new forecast to tear apart:

1. Joe Flacco will finally be named the team’s Most Valuable Player in his eighth season.

The fact that the quarterback hasn’t won a team MVP award from local media — for what it’s worth, I voted for him over winner Justin Forsett last year — illustrates how much he is taken for granted. After having arguably his best statistical season a year ago, Flacco will post similar numbers despite having a slew of inexperienced weapons behind 36-year-old Steve Smith, a testament to his ability.

2. Brandon Williams will play at a Pro Bowl level, but he will not receive that recognition.

The third-year nose tackle is one of the NFL’s best-kept secrets and the Ravens will need him to anchor the defensive line with Haloti Ngata now a member of the Detroit Lions. Williams will be Baltimore’s best defensive lineman by a wide margin, but playing a position where statistics don’t jump out will force him to wait another year to receive a Pro Bowl nod.

3. Rashaan Melvin will be starting over Lardarius Webb by the end of the year.

Even if you can forgive Webb’s play in 2014 because of a back injury, how much can he really bounce back as he turns 30 in October? A hamstring issue prevented the seventh-year cornerback from playing in the preseason, creating more questions about Webb’s durability. Though Melvin’s play in last year’s playoff loss to New England was brutal, the Ravens think they have something with the 6-foot-2 corner.

4. Will Hill and Crockett Gillmore will be players to take a step forward.

His troubled history is no secret, but Hill has done everything that Ozzie Newsome asked of him when he came to Baltimore last summer and the Ravens rewarded the 25-year-old safety with an extension through 2016. Gillmore is probably receiving too much hype after a quiet rookie year, but the Ravens would be very pleased if he can match Owen Daniels’ 2014 production (48 catches for 527 yards).

5. Marlon Brown and Chris Canty will be players to take a step back.

It seems unfair to pick Brown for this again, but he had a quiet summer and just never seems to play as big as his frame while the Ravens drafted the 6-foot-6 Darren Waller in May. The 32-year-old Canty was re-signed after being cut this offseason, but Brent Urban receiving the designation to return reflects the Ravens’ vision of him taking over the 5-technique defensive end spot sooner rather than later.

6. Third-round pick Carl Davis will be the Ravens’ most impressive rookie.

Without knowing what injured first-round pick Breshad Perriman can bring to the table after missing the entire preseason, Davis looks to be the most NFL-ready rookie that the Ravens have as he will receive plenty of time in the defensive line rotation and could push Timmy Jernigan to start. At 6-foot-5 and 320 pounds, Davis brings impressive size that could eventually make him a poor man’s Haloti Ngata.

7. Free safety Kendrick Lewis will be the disappointing veteran newcomer.

The 27-year-old has received positive reviews from coaches and teammates, but Lewis did not have a good preseason and was merely an average starting safety in Houston and Kansas City. He will be a better free-agent acquisition than monumental bust Michael Huff, but I’m not convinced that he’ll be a noticeable upgrade from Darian Stewart at the free safety spot.

8. Marshal Yanda, C.J. Mosley, Jimmy Smith, and Kelechi Osemele will be Baltimore’s Pro Bowl selections.

The choices of Yanda and Mosley would hardly be surprising, but Smith and Osemele will receive recognition that they deserve. This will be especially meaningful for Osemele in the final year of his rookie deal as he’ll position himself for a payday that’s unlikely to come from the Ravens. Yanda will earn his fifth straight trip to the Pro Bowl to cement his status as one of the top players in franchise history.

9. This will be Terrell Suggs’ final season.

This is a shot in the dark and not at all an indictment of how I anticipate Suggs playing this year, but the soon-to-be 33-year-old admitted this spring that he pondered his football future and didn’t work out in the same way that he would in past offseasons. The six-time Pro Bowl selection knows he’s the last man standing from the old Baltimore guard, so it wouldn’t be stunning to see him call it a career after 2015.

10. The Ravens will qualify for the postseason as a wild card with a 10-6 record and will exit in the second round.

Too many questions on the offensive side of the ball will stunt the Ravens’ growth just enough to prevent them from winning the AFC North. With their questions in the passing game and Pittsburgh’s defensive problems, Cincinnati quietly has the most stability in the division and is built to be a strong regular-season team. That said, Baltimore will top the Bengals in a wild-card round meeting to extend the playoff misery of Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton. The Ravens will then lose a close one at Indianapolis in the divisional round before the Colts go on to win the AFC championship.

Bonus Super Bowl pick that no one asked for: Green Bay will prevail over Indianapolis as Aaron Rodgers wins his second championship in a 34-24 final in Santa Clara.

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Ravens-Broncos: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 12 September 2015 by Luke Jones

Beginning their eighth season with head coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco leading the way, the Ravens once again have high expectations as they travel to Denver on Sunday.

Playing the Broncos in Week 1 for the second time in three years, Baltimore hopes to wipe out the memory of the 2013 opener in which Peyton Manning threw an NFL record-tying seven touchdown passes in a 49-27 loss. Of course, much has changed for both teams since then with players coming and going and former Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak taking over as head coach of the Broncos this season.

It’s time to go on record as the Ravens play Denver for the 11th time in the all-time regular-season series and each team owns five wins. Baltimore carries a 1-4 regular-season record in Denver, but Harbaugh’s team did win its only playoff game against the Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Ravens are 2-0 against Denver in their playoff history.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens open their 20th season and try to improve to 6-2 in season openers under Harbaugh …

1. Steve Smith catches a long touchdown pass to exploit former teammate Darian Stewart in coverage. Knowing how underwhelming the ex-Ravens safety was playing the deep ball in 2014, Baltimore would love to have rookie Breshad Perriman’s speed to stretch the field against the weak link in the Broncos secondary, but the first-round pick hasn’t even practiced since spraining his knee on July 30. The Ravens will try to go vertical using the 36-year-old Smith, who is still capable of using a double move to blow past his man and catch a long bomb from Flacco against the right coverage. He’ll do exactly that against Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib and Stewart will be late with over-the-top coverage.

2. Lardarius Webb will not be able to keep up with Emmanuel Sanders while Jimmy Smith does his best to lock down No. 1 wideout Demaryius Thomas on the opposite side. It’s fair enough to wonder what we’ll see from Smith coming off last October’s season-ending foot injury, but at least the 27-year-old was able to play in the preseason. Webb has practiced for the last couple weeks and Harbaugh said he looks like the “old” Webb after dealing with a hamstring injury in August, but you can only hope the coach meant a better version than what we witnessed a year ago. Webb has a lot to prove and Sanders was a 2014 Pro Bowl selection. He’ll be good for a touchdown catch and 85 receiving yards.

3. Terrell Suggs will collect two sacks and get the best of Denver rookie Ty Sambrailo off the edge, but pressure up the middle will be scarce. The 13th-year rush linebacker should be licking his chops going against the second-round pick, but the key to disrupting Manning is pressure up the middle, making the expected absence of Timmy Jernigan problematic. Last year, the Ravens used a combination of Pernell McPhee, Haloti Ngata, and Jernigan for their inside rush, but none of them will be on the field for Sunday’s game, putting a lot on rookie Za’Darius Smith and run-stopping nose tackle Brandon Williams. Broncos center Matt Paradis is inexperienced, but the Ravens won’t have enough to exploit him in passing situations, leaving space for Manning to get the ball away quickly.

4. Kamar Aiken and Marlon Brown will struggle to gain separation as the Broncos bring heat off the edges to disrupt Flacco’s timing. While Stewart might be a liability, the Broncos have a stout trio of cornerbacks in Talib, Harris, and the young Bradley Roby. Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips can use either Harris or Roby inside, which gives their defense the ability to show different looks in coverage. The Ravens have expressed confidence in Aiken as a starter, but I’m not convinced that he’s ready to be more than a No. 3 option, especially without a deep threat on the field. He and Brown will only combine for 50 receiving yards as the Broncos play tight man coverage and relentlessly try to bring outside linebackers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware off the edges.

5. The Denver defense will be the biggest factor as the Ravens offense struggles to move the ball consistently in a 26-16 loss to the Broncos. As much as Manning has dominated the pre-game conversation, Denver’s real strength is its defense with few weaknesses at any level. Baltimore will do a decent job establishing the run, but Flacco will be too dependent on Smith to make plays through the air, which will stall a couple promising drives. Ultimately, I see the Broncos taking a step back this season, but they’ll be too much to handle with a top 5-caliber defense and a healthy Manning early in the season. If this one were to be played later in the year, I’d like the Ravens’ chances a lot more, but Denver will score late to put a close one out of reach.

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