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Ravens-Bengals: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 17 November 2018 by Luke Jones

Sunday could possibly mark the start of a new era for the Ravens.

Or at least the soft opening of one.

With Joe Flacco not expected to play after sustaining a hip injury two weeks ago, Baltimore will enter a meaningful game with someone else at quarterback — the 2015 team was already buried when Flacco tore his ACL — for the first time since Kyle Boller relieved an injured Steve McNair midway through a disastrous 2007 season that ended with Brian Billick’s dismissal. Eleventh-year head coach John Harbaugh hopes for a different outcome as the Ravens aim to beat Cincinnati to snap a three-game losing streak and preserve their playoff hopes.

It’s time to go on the record as these AFC North rivals meet for the 46th time in the all-time regular-season series with the Bengals holding a 23-22 advantage. The Ravens are 9-12 against Cincinnati in the Harbaugh era, and they’ve lost eight of the last 10 meetings, which includes the 34-23 defeat at Paul Brown Stadium in Week 2.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Lamar Jackson will throw for a touchdown and run for another. My expectation is the rookie first-round pick from Louisville making his first NFL start, but a stomach illness forcing him to miss Thursday’s practice wasn’t ideal, leaving open the possibility of Robert Griffin III starting. Either way, Jackson will have a larger role as Marty Mornhinweg tries to take advantage of his mobility and set him up with high-percentage throws to tight ends and running backs from big formations, especially early on. Jackson doesn’t have to be the reason the Ravens win; he just can’t be why they lose.

2. Tyler Boyd and Joe Mixon will carry the Cincinnati offense with a touchdown apiece. In 11 career games against Baltimore, A.J. Green has averaged 4.8 catches for 80.5 yards and has caught nine touchdowns, making his absence significant for a struggling Bengals offense. However, Boyd has emerged as one of the NFL’s best slot receivers — a critical factor with Baltimore’s issues covering the middle of the field — and has also made plays on the outside. Mixon ranks 11th in the league in yards per carry (4.9) while the Ravens have given up over 100 rushing yards in four of their last five games.

3. The Baltimore defense will awaken with three sacks and an interception against Andy Dalton. As I wrote this week, Wink Martindale’s group needs to step up if the Ravens want to save their season and survive this less-than-ideal quarterback situation. They have only two sacks in their last three games and just one takeaway in their last four while the Bengals offensive line surrendered three quarterback takedowns and 11 other pressures in 28 dropbacks against New Orleans last week. After repeatedly noting how many batted balls they have this season, it’s about time the Ravens catch one.

4. Alex Collins will eclipse 80 rushing yards for the first time all season. Much is made about Jackson’s presence helping the running game, but a Pro Football Weekly article illustrated it’s more than that. Collins has averaged 4.7 yards per carry on 29 attempts from “11” personnel (one running back, one tight end) and just 2.97 yards on 33 carries from “12” personnel (one running back, two tight ends). What does that mean? No matter the quarterback, the Ravens should spread defenses out more when running and scale back the heavy formations that haven’t worked as effectively as they did last season.

5. The Ravens will survive in a 20-17 final to stop the pre-bye bleeding. Even against a Cincinnati defense that’s been disastrous in recent weeks and just fired coordinator Teryl Austin, expectations need to be tempered for a rookie quarterback making his first start in a critical game for a struggling playoff-hopeful team. That doesn’t mean Jackson won’t make some plays, but anyone labeling him an instant upgrade from Flacco is both placing too much pressure on a 21-year-old and disrespecting the veteran quarterback. Baltimore needs to go old school in this one by relying on the running game and a healthier defense that should be eager to prove it’s better than the last few weeks have reflected. If you’re asking what’s underneath the hood for this team right now, the losses to Carolina and Pittsburgh weren’t encouraging going into the bye. That said, I’d like to believe the Ravens aren’t quite ready to wave their playoff hopes goodbye, and the Bengals have lost three of four and are banged up at multiple positions. Given the current adversity for both teams, my honest feeling going into this one is closer to the old ¯\(ツ)/¯ emoji, but I’ll give the home team the benefit of the doubt.

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Flacco listed as doubtful by Ravens after missing practice all week

Posted on 16 November 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After failing to practice all week while nursing a hip injury, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was officially listed as doubtful for Sunday’s meeting with Cincinnati.

With the 33-year-old expected to miss only the seventh game of his career with a hip injury, rookie first-round pick Lamar Jackson or veteran Robert Griffin III will start at quarterback as Baltimore tries to right its season against the Bengals. Jackson practiced fully after missing Thursday’s workout with an illness and assured reporters that he was “good” on Friday.

The common assumption early in the week had been Jackson making his first NFL start if Flacco were unable to play, but the former’s Thursday absence was “not ideal,” according to head coach John Harbaugh. Griffin has been inactive for each of the first nine games of the season, but the Ravens kept him on the 53-man roster to mentor Jackson and potentially serve as a short-term insurance policy as the starter in the event of a Flacco injury — at least early in the season.

“I would not name a starter,” said Harbaugh, who again wouldn’t rule out Flacco prior to Friday’s injury report being released. “There will be a quarterback starting. I can guarantee that. There will be a quarterback starting. And, every play, there will be at least one quarterback on the field.”

Short of becoming the first Raven in at least several years to play after being listed as doubtful on the final injury report, Flacco will be included on the game-day inactives list for the first time in his career. When he suffered his season-ending knee injury in the second half of the 2015 season, Flacco was placed on injured reserve and came off the 53-man roster two days later.

If Jackson starts, his performance against the Bengals could go a long way in both shaping the short-term quarterback picture and determining the long-term future of Flacco, who will carry a $26.5 million salary cap figure and $18.5 million base salary for the 2019 season. Jackson playing at a high level to spark a struggling offense after the bye would make for an interesting decision once Flacco is again healthy enough to play, but the Ravens will settle for a Week 11 win any way they can get it.

Right tackle James Hurst (back) was officially ruled out and will miss his fourth straight game, but left tackle Ronnie Stanley (ankle) was upgraded to full participation in Friday’s practice and was listed as questionable to play against the Bengals. Stanley sat out the Week 9 loss to Pittsburgh.

Safety Tony Jefferson (thigh) and cornerback Tavon Young (ankle) were also listed as questionable, but both were practicing fully by the end of the week, leaving little doubt about their status.

Running back Kenneth Dixon (knee) has returned to practice and will join cornerback Maurice Canady (thigh) as Baltimore’s two designations to return from IR. Neither will play in Week 11, but both players have now begun their 21-day practice windows before the Ravens must make a determination about their roster status. Harbaugh had previously said the team was waiting for league approval to allow Dixon to practice, which led to speculation that he was potentially facing discipline. The 2016 fourth-round pick served two drug-related suspensions while on IR last season.

“We got the word this morning that he was OK to practice for his situation,” Harbaugh said. “It was a unique situation. I can’t get into it because I’m not allowed to, but also, it would be up to him to explain whatever he would want to about that.”

Cornerback Jaylen Hill also began practicing earlier in the week, but he was unable to take part in Friday’s workout, which is cause for concern in his recovery from an ACL injury suffered last December. He is on the reserve physically unable to perform list.

The Ravens’ quarterback situation is far from ideal, but the Bengals roster is more banged up as seven-time Pro Bow wide receiver A.J. Green (toe) was listed as doubtful and five others were ruled out for Sunday’s game. That list of inactives will include starting linebackers Preston Brown (knee) and Nick Vigil (knee) as well as tight end Tyler Kroft (foot), who has been placed on season-ending IR.

Starting outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict (hip) was designated as questionable after practicing on a limited basis all week.

The Ravens will wear their alternate black jerseys for the second straight game.

The Weather.com forecast for Sunday’s game calls for cloudy skies and temperatures reaching the high 40s with winds light and variable and only a 10-percent chance of precipitation.

Below is the final injury report of the week:

BALTIMORE
OUT: OT James Hurst (back), LB Tim Williams (ankle)
DOUBTFUL: QB Joe Flacco (right hip)
QUESTIONABLE: S Tony Jefferson (thigh), OT Ronnie Stanley (ankle), CB Tavon Young (ankle)

CINCINNATI
OUT: LB Preston Brown (knee), TE Tyler Kroft (foot), WR Josh Malone (hamstring), LB Nick Vigil (knee), DT Adolphus Washington (knee)
DOUBTFUL: WR A.J. Green (toe)
QUESTIONABLE: LB Vontaze Burfict (hip), CB Dre Kirkpatrick (concussion), WR John Ross (groin)

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Coming off bye, Ravens defense as we know it could be making last stand

Posted on 15 November 2018 by Luke Jones

The focus on the Ravens has been apparent coming off the bye week.

The future of John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco has dominated the big-picture discussion. An uncertain quarterback situation for Week 11 took another turn Thursday with 2018 first-round pick Lamar Jackson missing practice with an illness, joining Flacco and his injured hip on the injury report and leaving Robert Griffin III as the only quarterback on the field in Owings Mills.

Playing a banged-up Flacco, a rookie who’s never made an NFL start, or a veteran who was out of the league in 2017 and hasn’t started a regular-season contest in nearly two years doesn’t inspire great confidence in a must-win game. The Cincinnati defense being a disaster over the last month certainly eases concerns, but that only goes so far in a division rivalry in which the Ravens have lost eight of the last 10 meetings. Say what you want about Marvin Lewis and the Bengals, but they’ve had Baltimore’s number in this post-Super Bowl XLVII era.

So, what about the Ravens defense that sported such shiny overall numbers in the first half of the season?

It’s that side of the ball to which more salary-cap dollars are tied this season — even taking into account Flacco’s $24.75 million number for the offense. The defense carries seven of the nine highest cap numbers on this year’s roster and absorbed 13 of the organization’s 17 Day 1 and 2 draft picks from 2013-17.

But it’s also surrendered 76 points over the last nine quarters of play, albeit against three scoring offenses ranked in the top 10. The Ravens have one takeaway over their last four games and haven’t intercepted a pass since Oct. 7. Since a franchise-record 11-sack performance at Tennessee in Week 6, Baltimore has a combined two sacks in three games — all of them losses.

This wasn’t a unit constructed to be just OK or only really good against bad offenses, a reality more important with an uncertain quarterback situation for Sunday’s game. The defense was able to get healthier over the bye week, and it must regroup if the Ravens want to save their season.

“Teams have been trying to keep us off-balance, whether it’s with personnel, whether it’s with tempo, and, of course, to try to attack our schemes,” said cornerback Brandon Carr about the struggles in recent weeks. “But the great thing about this league [is] we got a bye. We got a week off and an opportunity for us to self-evaluate ourselves, figure out where our weaknesses are, areas we can fix, and that’s what we’ve been doing throughout last week and carrying over to this week.”

The successful quick passing used by Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton in Week 2 served as a basic blueprint for teams to offset the pass rush and limit opportunities to create turnovers as the Ravens didn’t record a single sack or takeaway in that 34-23 Thursday night defeat. It’s not a novel approach in today’s game, but New Orleans, Carolina, and Pittsburgh were able to control the game on third down with quick throws over the middle of the field, a problem the Ravens hope to have solved over the bye.

Expected to be without seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green on Sunday, the Bengals figure to do more quick passing as Dalton is tied for the NFL’s fifth-quickest average time to throw from snap to release.

“He’s really throwing the ball well in rhythm right now, so we need to be physical with the receivers at the line of scrimmage,” defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said. “I know we’re in the top five for sure — maybe second — with batted balls. We’ve had some success in the past with knocking some of the balls that he’s thrown up in the air and we’ve come down with them. We just haven’t come down with them yet this year.”

Green’s absence is a major development for a Cincinnati offense that’s dropped to 25th in total yards and 11th in scoring per game after averaging more than 30 points per contest through Week 5. He caught three first-half touchdowns to help the Bengals jump to a 21-0 lead in the first 17 minutes of the first meeting this season.

However, the Ravens have learned the hard way about slot receiver Tyler Boyd, evident by his shocking fourth-and-12 touchdown catch to knock them out of the playoffs last December and his six catches for 91 yards and a touchdown in the Week 2 defeat. Boyd has caught 52 passes for 685 yards and five touchdowns this season, serving as a dangerous No. 2 receiver who can exploit that problematic middle portion of the field.

“The past two games, we didn’t really give him much respect, and he’s definitely shown us we should,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “The time they beat us last year, he went [and] did a lot of good things.”

Much has been said about these final seven games being the swan song for Harbaugh and Flacco in Baltimore, but an older institution could also be on the verge of change. It’s no secret that defense has been king in this town since Ozzie Newsome’s selection of Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis with the 26th overall pick of the 1996 draft, and that mindset has remained despite the current offensive revolution in the NFL.

Even after Flacco and the offense led the way to victory in Super Bowl XLVII, the Ravens remained obsessed with returning the defense to a dominant level. They invested more early draft picks and free-agent dollars on that side of the ball while asking Flacco — a quarterback who had never put up overly impressive regular-season numbers — to make it work with supporting casts that were inferior to even those of other high-paid quarterbacks. The approach has resulted in defenses that still haven’t finished a single season in the top five in total yards or points allowed, offenses that have typically ranged from inept to mediocre, and one playoff appearance — and win — since that last Super Bowl.

This April’s draft may have finally signaled the start of a philosophical shift as the Ravens used their first four picks on offensive players, something they hadn’t done since 2000. With Jackson tabbed to be the quarterback of the future and veteran defensive players like Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, Jimmy Smith, Eric Weddle, and Carr either in the final year of their contracts or carrying bloated cap figures for 2019, Eric DeCosta will have the chance to remake this roster in his first year as general manager.

Building an explosive offense around a young quarterback on a rookie contract should be the priority as defense just doesn’t carry a team like it once could.

Harbaugh and Flacco might be receiving the headlines, but Baltimore’s longtime identity is also holding on by a thread. And given the uncertainty at the quarterback position this weekend, a throwback defensive performance would certainly be appreciated — the kind in which Lewis and future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed would simply say, “We’ve got this.”

“There’s no magic potion to it; we definitely need to win,” Suggs said. “That comes by any means necessary. You’re like, ‘What do we need to do?’ We have to play winning football.”

The Ravens will try it this way one more time.

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Jackson joins Flacco as non-participant for Ravens on Thursday

Posted on 15 November 2018 by Luke Jones

An already-uncertain Ravens quarterback situation took another twist Thursday as rookie Lamar Jackson joined starter Joe Flacco as a non-participant in practice, creating more uncertainty for Sunday’s game against Cincinnati.

While Flacco sat out a second straight day with a right hip injury suffered against Pittsburgh two weeks ago, Jackson missed Thurday’s workout with an illness, leaving Robert Griffin III as the only quarterback taking part in the session. Jackson had been photographed by a member of Baltimore’s public relations staff enjoying the snow in Owings Mills a couple hours earlier.

You certainly wouldn’t expect a reported stomach bug to jeopardize Jackson’s availability for Sunday’s game, but missing practice time ahead of his potential first start isn’t ideal for a team desperate to snap a three-game losing streak and keep its playoff hopes alive. The consensus expectation has been Jackson stepping in if Flacco is out — which is appearing more likely — but could Thursday’s absence open the door for Griffin to start?

“My job is to make sure I’m always ready,” Griffin said on Wednesday. “Whether that’s during practice, after practice, maximizing the reps that I do get and making sure that, after practice, I’m getting the things that I feel like I need if I’m called upon that week to play. But that’s my job, that’s why they brought me here. They brought me here to be a pro; they brought me here to help this team if need be. I try to help the defense every week on scout team and do those things. If my number is called, I’ll be able to go out there and lead this team.”

Griffin, 28, hasn’t started an NFL regular-season game since the 2016 season finale when he was a member of the Cleveland Browns.

Safety Tony Jefferson (thigh) returned to practice as a limited participant, but offensive tackle James Hurst (back) failed to participant again, making it more likely he’ll miss his fourth consecutive game. Defensive back Anthony Levine (ankle) missed Thursday’s workout after not being listed on the injury report the previous day.

Left tackle Ronnie Stanley (ankle) was listed as a limited participant for a second straight day.

The Bengals were once again missing superstar wide receiver A.J. Green (toe), making it all but certain he’ll miss Sunday’s game — the expectation all along. Starting linebackers Preston Brown (knee) and Nick Vigil (knee) also remained sidelined from practice, which is bad news for a Cincinnati defense that’s allowed more than 500 yards in each of the last three games.

Below is Thursday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: QB Joe Flacco (right hip), OT James Hurst (back), QB Lamar Jackson (illness), DB Anthony Levine (ankle)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: S Tony Jefferson (thigh), OT Ronnie Stanley (ankle), LB Tim Williams (ankle)
FULL PARTICIPATION: CB Tavon Young (ankle)

CINCINNATI
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Preston Brown (knee), OT Jake Fisher (non-injury), WR A.J. Green (toe), TE Tyler Kroft (foot), WR Josh Malone (hamstring), LB Nick Vigil (knee), DT Adolphus Washington (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: LB Vontaze Burfict (hip), CB Darqueze Dennard (sternoclavicular), CB Dre Kirkpatrick (concussion), RB Joe Mixon (knee), G Alex Redmond (hamstring), LB Vincent Rey (groin), WR John Ross (groin)

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Flacco, Jefferson absent as Ravens return to practice field

Posted on 14 November 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Joe Flacco was nowhere to be found on the practice field, and head coach John Harbaugh wasn’t about to offer any more clarity on the Ravens’ quarterback situation on Wednesday.

The 11th-year quarterback continues to nurse a right hip injury, leaving his status uncertain for a crucial meeting with Cincinnati on Sunday. It was the first regular-season practice missed by Flacco in over two years as speculation persists about the possibility of rookie first-round pick Lamar Jackson making his first career start. On Monday, Harbaugh left open the possibility of Flacco, Jackson, or even third-string veteran Robert Griffin III playing against the Bengals, who currently occupy the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoff race.

“Rather than dip my toe in the water and start answering one question and then not answering the next one, I’m just not going to get into it and just leave it alone,” Harbaugh said before Wednesday’s practice. “I really don’t feel like we owe anybody any answers, so we’re just getting ready for the game.”

Flacco was receiving treatment while the locker room was open to reporters, leaving Jackson and Griffin to answer questions about the possibility of filling in for the veteran starter. Jackson, the 32nd overall pick in April’s draft, has played 86 offensive snaps in a hybrid role this season while Griffin has been inactive for each of the first nine games and hasn’t played in a regular-season contest since the finale of the 2016 season with Cleveland.

Griffin has been an integral part of Jackson’s development throughout the season and does provide more experience if Flacco can’t play and the Ravens deem the rookie unready to start such a pivotal game for Baltimore’s playoff hopes.

“The thing I try to preach to Lamar is he’s been doing this his whole life,” Griffin said. “It’s a new level, but the cream always rises to the top. I think he’s done a good job of adjusting his level of play as he’s gotten more and more game reps. I think even throughout the preseason you could see from his first start to the last time he played, he just continued to get better. That’s what you want to see out of a young guy.

“If he gets the nod, or if I get the nod, to go out there and lead this team, we’re all going to be there for each other.”

Flacco wasn’t the only Ravens starter absent from Wednesday’s workout as safety Tony Jefferson (thigh) and offensive lineman James Hurst (back) did not participate. Jefferson missed practice time with a hamstring injury two weeks ago prior to playing 80 of 81 defensive snaps in the loss to Pittsburgh, making his absence a concerning development after the bye week.

Hurst hasn’t practiced since Oct. 19 and has missed the last three games with rookie Orlando Brown Jr. stepping into the starting lineup at right tackle. With Brown holding his own, some have opined about the possibility of moving Hurst to left guard — where he played last season — but his absence now extending beyond the bye week isn’t encouraging.

Left tackle Ronnie Stanley (ankle) returned to practice after missing the Steelers game, but he was listed as a limited participant and wasn’t taking part in full-team drills during the portion of the workout open to media. Outside linebacker Tim Williams (ankle) was also a limited participant after missing Week 9.

In addition to firing defensive coordinator Teryl Austin on Monday and inviting former Cleveland head coach Hue Jackson to rejoin the organization, head coach Marvin Lewis and the Bengals are dealing with key injuries of their own. The list is headlined by seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green, whose status is in serious doubt as he continues to recover from a toe injury that sidelined him for last Sunday’s blowout loss to New Orleans.

The Bengals were also without starting linebackers Preston Brown (knee) and Nick Vigil (knee) while outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict (hip) was a limited participant in Wednesday’s practice. Burfict has missed the last two games while Vigil has missed the last three contests.

Cincinnati cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick also missed practice as he recovers from a concussion sustained in Week 10.

Below is Wednesday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: QB Joe Flacco (right hip), OT James Hurst (back), S Tony Jefferson (thigh)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: OT Ronnie Stanley (ankle), LB Tim Williams (ankle)
FULL PARTICIPATION: CB Tavon Young (ankle)

CINCINNATI
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Preston Brown (knee), WR A.J. Green (toe), CB Dre Kirkpatrick (concussion), TE Tyler Kroft (foot), WR Josh Malone (hamstring), LB Nick Vigil (knee), DT Adolphus Washington (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: LB Vontaze Burfict (hip), CB Darqueze Dennard (sternoclavicular), G Alex Redmond (hamstring), LB Vincent Rey (groin), WR John Ross (groin)

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Ravens still want to win, but weighing possible outcomes no easy chore

Posted on 13 November 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens want to make the playoffs and still have a reasonable chance to do so despite losing four of their last five games before their bye week.

Football Outsiders currently has their playoff chances at 32.7 percent while ESPN’s Power Football Index estimates their odds at 36.1 percent with Tennessee being the only No. 6 seed hopeful with better playoff odds (41.9 percent and 43 percent, respectively) in the AFC. The Ravens aren’t the favorites and must show improvement in multiple areas, but making it isn’t just a pipe dream, especially when sizing up the rest of the wild-card competition.

The hip injury to Joe Flacco has sparked much outside conversation about first-round pick Lamar Jackson and whether he might be the better option even if the former is healthy down the stretch, but head coach John Harbaugh expressed his stance on Monday as the Ravens returned to work to begin preparations for the Cincinnati Bengals. And it sounds as though he still believes Flacco — at least a healthy version of him — gives Baltimore its best chance to win now.

“If Joe can play, he’ll play,” Harbaugh said. “He’s rehabbing to play. Joe does not have to practice to play. He’s practiced the whole season; he’s practiced for 11 years. But he might practice, so we’ll just have to see how it goes. It’s up in the air; we’re not worried about it. We’re blessed with a good quarterback room, and that’s a good thing, that’s a positive thing.”

But let’s put Flacco’s Week 11 status and the current quarterback debate aside, at least until we have more information in the next few days.

What’s really best for the Ravens over the remainder of the 2018 season and beyond?

Let’s remove the long shot of Flacco suddenly recapturing his 2012 mojo and leading the Ravens to a Super Bowl — or even an AFC championship game appearance — from consideration. We’ll also throw out the possibility of Jackson taking over and being an instant superstar because history suggests that’s an unreasonable expectation. Either of those outcomes would alter the perception of both the quarterback position and the future of the coaching staff compared to where most opinions stand now.

The Ravens failing to make the playoffs and rolling with Flacco until falling out of the race — potentially leaving little time for Jackson to make an impression — would certainly be the path of least resistance to major changes. You’d like to see Flacco play more like he did in September to help his potential trade value, but keeping him for another year under this scenario would be a bigger indictment of Jackson’s behind-the-scenes development than a show of faith in what will be an expensive 34-year-old quarterback next season.

What if Flacco and the Ravens regroup to finish 9-7 and sneak into the playoffs for the first time since 2014? Would that be enough to call off what currently feels like the inevitable? Would a win in the wild-card round do it?

Flacco’s future would still be tied to Jackson’s readiness, but Harbaugh is only under contract through the 2019 season and you wouldn’t expect him to be receptive to another one-year extension, which could create a messy situation. Kansas City didn’t hesitate to trade 2017 Pro Bowl quarterback Alex Smith this past offseason to usher in the Patrick Mahomes era while Tennessee still fired head coach Mike Mularkey even after winning a first-round playoff game last January, leaving recent precedent to make bold changes — right or wrong — even after some modest success.

If you’re owner Steve Bisciotti, would the Ravens winning their remaining home games and squeaking out a road win over Atlanta, Kansas City, or the Los Angeles Chargers to slide into the playoffs drastically change your mind about a coach you admitted to considering firing a year ago or a quarterback whose eventual replacement was drafted this past April? Would you make a long-term commitment to keep Harbaugh if he forces your hand?

It’s a difficult call even when you remove sentimentality from the picture.

But that brings us to Jackson and how he fits into the decision-making process the rest of the way.

If the 21-year-old fills in for an injured Flacco on Sunday — or takes over in the next few weeks — and plays pretty well the rest of the way, wouldn’t you have to consider keeping a coaching staff that appears to have his development on the right track even if the Ravens fall short of the playoffs? Does it make sense to force Jackson to start over if he displays enough signs to suggest what the current staff is doing is working? Wasn’t one of the selling points of drafting the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner the fact that offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, quarterbacks coach James Urban, and assistant head coach Greg Roman had successfully worked with quarterbacks with similar skill sets in the past?

The current staff being let go at the end of 2018 is a potential scenario many pointed to when criticizing the Jackson pick in the first place.

That brings us to the possibility that Jackson really struggles while making some starts down the stretch, which wouldn’t be a shocking development for a rookie quarterback. That would mean no playoffs and easier justification for dismissing the current staff, but you’d also wonder how attractive the job might be to certain coaching candidates. Making any definitive judgments on Jackson based on a handful of games would be patently unfair, of course, but we’re also not talking about a Jared Goff, who was the first overall pick in Jeff Fisher’s final season with the Los Angeles Rams. Jackson would have fallen to the second round had Ozzie Newsome not traded up, so you do wonder how eager some candidates might be to work with him compared to an earlier pick like Baker Mayfield in Cleveland or even the opportunity to be part of the process to handpick your own quarterback elsewhere — like Harbaugh with Flacco a decade ago.

Then again, it was never a secret that Jackson would best fit a coach who embraces his unique skill set and will scheme accordingly rather than trying to fit him into a more conventional system. Those individuals are certainly out there.

Of course, this is all a big-picture look at the Ravens, something naturally done with an organization at a crossroads during its bye week. The current focus is on trying to figure out who’s going to be under center on Sunday and beating the Bengals, a team dealing with its own turmoil this week. Winning the next two games would put the long-term discussion on the back burner just like when the Ravens won in convincing fashion at Heinz Field to improve to 3-1 six weeks ago.

A lot can change in a short period of time.

“We’ll write the story of the Ravens’ 2018 season by how we play in the next seven weeks,” Harbaugh said on Monday. “That’s what our guys are juiced up for. All the other stuff is just fluff; it’s just noise; it’s just banter. It’s bar room talk.”

Maybe so, but these next seven weeks will be pivotal in determining the long-term outlook of the organization. Winning remains the priority for now, but how that relates to the future is more complicated.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts on current quarterback situation

Posted on 11 November 2018 by Luke Jones

With Joe Flacco dealing with a hip injury and many clamoring for the Ravens to begin the Lamar Jackson era, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The last two days of speculation are an example why it’s usually a good idea to pump the brakes in such situations. Whether Flacco plays against Cincinnati remains uncertain, but the number of fans and even some media who’ve so eagerly thrown dirt on his Baltimore tenure is disappointing.

2. The Ravens will try to make the best of the situation by keeping the Bengals guessing as much as possible this week. Marvin Lewis’ defense being awful of late and A.J. Green’s status being in doubt certainly should help Baltimore’s chances.

3. I look forward to watching Jackson play whenever that time comes, but the definitive takes ranging from him providing an instant upgrade to him not being an NFL-caliber quarterback are silly. Based only on the limited role Jackson’s fulfilled so far, no one really knows how he’ll fare initially.

4. My educated guess is that the Ravens would run the ball more effectively while taking a substantial hit in the passing game. I don’t believe that net result is improving — or matching — their chances to make the playoffs compared to a healthy Flacco playing the rest of the way.

5. As I pointed out in my rest-of-the-season predictions piece that was torpedoed by news of Flacco’s injury, Baltimore’s next five opponents rank in the bottom 10 in Football Outsiders’ weighted defense metric, which should bode well for either quarterback.

6. A retiring Hall of Fame executive, a general manager in waiting, a Super Bowl-winning head coach and quarterback on the hot seat, other key veterans potentially on their last ride, a rookie first-round quarterback, and less-than-ideal — but hardly impossible — postseason hopes. Awkward much?

7. If Flacco only needs to miss the Bengals game, what do the Ravens do after that? If they lose, do you just stick with Jackson — no matter how he plays — with their playoff hopes even more remote? If they win and the rookie doesn’t play poorly, do you keep rolling with him? Again, awkward.

8. The best-case scenario has always been Flacco playing well and Jackson showing strong behind-the-scenes development to prompt an offseason trade. What remains as a three-year, $63 million non-guaranteed deal should have some appeal for a quarterback-needy team with a strong roster. This injury doesn’t help that cause.

9. Flacco’s most undervalued trait for a long time was his availability as he didn’t miss a game through his first 7 1/2 seasons, but a 2015 ACL tear, last year’s back injury, and his current hip ailment show durability rarely lasts.

10. This article is a reminder why most probably need to lower whatever expectations they have for the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner this season. It also means he shouldn’t be labeled a bust if he struggles with any extended playing time over these final seven games.

11. Per OverTheCap.com, Baltimore has an average ranking of 22nd in the NFL in cap spending on offense since 2013, which includes Flacco. Coupling that with mostly defense-heavy drafts since Super Bowl XLVII, the organizational commitment to offense must improve. This past offseason being praised so much reflects a low standard.

12. With the dumb conspiracy theories suggesting a fake injury for Flacco — despite numerous people observing a leg issue early in the Pittsburgh game — as an excuse for the Ravens to start Jackson, is it any wonder grocery stores in the greater Baltimore area were all out of tinfoil?

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humphrey

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Five Ravens predictions for rest of 2018 season

Posted on 09 November 2018 by Luke Jones

(Editor’s note: This post was completed before news broke about Joe Flacco’s hip injury Friday afternoon.)

The story is all too familiar with the Ravens.

An encouraging start followed by a dreadful October leaving Baltimore too little margin for error down the stretch. Only this time around feels like the final stand for 11th-year head coach John Harbaugh and a number of aging veterans with high salary-cap numbers.

A look back at my preseason predictions brings mixed reviews at best as I envisioned the Ravens having their best year since 2014, but a return to the playoffs isn’t yet out of the question with a seemingly pedestrian field competing for the second AFC wild card. At the same time, this hasn’t been the ideal year to face a very strong NFC South after the 2014 Ravens went undefeated against that same division, the difference in them making the playoffs.

Will the Ravens miss out on the postseason for the fourth straight year and fifth time in six tries since their victory in Super Bowl XLVII that feels like a long time ago?

Below are five predictions for the remainder of the 2018 season:

1. Lamar Jackson will see increased snaps and even throw a couple touchdown passes. This one isn’t exactly going out on a limb based on Harbaugh’s recent comments, but how it looks is key. I don’t expect the rookie to become the starter — then again, I also didn’t expect the organization to draft a first-round quarterback this year — as long as the Ravens are in the hunt, but Marty Mornhinweg needs to be willing to call for Jackson to throw the ball more frequently if he’s going to be taking upwards of 10 to 12 snaps per game. The current offense is too predictable, so why not mix it up and allow Jackson to take a deep shot to John Brown? If it means he’s the only quarterback on the field at times, so be it.

2. The running game will perform at a league-average rate the rest of the way. The Ravens have quietly improved running the ball by averaging just under 4.1 yards per carry over the last five games, but that’s coincided with four losses. Baltimore must find a way to run effectively from its “traditional” offense because it’s becoming too obvious that Joe Flacco is passing the ball when he’s at quarterback and the Ravens are running when Jackson lines up there. The recently-acquired Ty Montgomery will provide some help to go with Alex Collins while the Ravens will keep Orlando Brown Jr. at right tackle and move James Hurst to left guard. Those changes will bring steadier production.

3. More takeaways and sacks will finally come — at home. I’ve written at length about these subjects recently, but I still believe this defense is too talented and has also been unlucky to have only five interceptions — despite ranking second in the NFL in passes defended and first in batted balls at the line of scrimmage — and two fumble recoveries in nine games. Opportunities will come at home with Oakland, Tampa Bay, and Cleveland ranking in the top 11 in giveaways, but the problem is their three road opponents (Atlanta, Kansas City, and the Los Angeles Chargers) have committed a total of just 19 turnovers. My confidence in the pass rush isn’t as high as 22 of their 28 sacks came against Buffalo, the Browns, and Tennessee, whose lines rank in the bottom five in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate.

4. Flacco will not just lose his job lying down. His future in Baltimore largely depends on what the organization is seeing with Jackson’s development, but I don’t expect the 33-year-old to play out his potential final weeks with the Ravens without a fight. Flacco has historically performed better in the second half of most seasons, and his next five opponents rank in the bottom 10 in Football Outsiders’ weighted defense metric, meaning there’s little excuse not to improve after averaging just 5.8 yards per passing attempt over the last five games. Flacco won’t get to 25 touchdown passes as I originally predicted, but he’ll play well enough to keep the door open for his 2019 return or create optimism about his offseason trade value.

5. History will repeat itself as the Ravens finish 8-8 and miss the playoffs, prompting substantial changes. Didn’t I sound so optimistic in the previous points? Baltimore is 16-29 on the road since the start of the 2013 season after going 21-19 in away games from 2008-12. Since 2013, Pittsburgh is 27-16-1, New England 31-13, Kansas City 28-17, and Cincinnati 21-23 on the road, a sampling that illustrates how this franchise has fallen behind even the Bengals in terms of AFC relevance. I expect the Ravens to take care of business in their remaining home games and to play hard as they almost always have under Harbaugh, but they own a total of five road wins against opponents finishing a season with a record of .500 or better since 2013. They’ll need at least one against the Falcons, Chiefs, or Chargers just to get to 9-7, and that’s needing a perfect 4-0 home mark. I just don’t see it, which is why I thought the Ravens needed to be 6-3 at the bye to finish 10-6. We’ll look back at the Week 5 road loss to the Browns as the dagger sparking Steve Bisciotti to begin a reboot.

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jamesurban

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Questions plaguing the Ravens — and how assistant coaches answered

Posted on 07 November 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens are below the .500 mark at the bye for the fourth straight season, leaving plenty of questions for both the rest of the season and beyond.

Below are some answers to questions posed to Baltimore position coaches this week and some thoughts on what they had to say:

Why was the offensive line able to run-block so effectively even without six-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda last season and hasn’t this year?

Offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris: “Some things happen that way. There are situational [runs where] we’ve done very well. In the red zone, in two-minute when we’ve had to do that, we’re really prospering in the situational area. Some of the run game sometimes has sputtered. It’s a hit-and-miss [thing], and hopefully we can improve it. The good news is we have a game coming up against Cincinnati, and we’ll see how we’ll improve in that area.”

My take: Coaches rarely throw their players under the bus, but there obviously isn’t much insight offered here. I’ll never pretend to be an offensive line expert or anything close to it, but Matt Skura ranks 19th among qualified centers, Alex Lewis 63rd among qualified guards, and James Hurst 58th among qualified offensive tackles in Pro Football Focus’ grading system. The Ravens were justified not committing lucrative money to Ryan Jensen — who PFF ranks a disappointing 27th among qualified centers this year — but his physicality was critical for the running game a year ago. The solid play of rookie Orlando Brown Jr. could allow the Ravens to shift Hurst to left guard where he was a little better last season. As for D’Alessandris mentioning the red zone, the Ravens rank 12th in the NFL with a 54 percent success rate on runs inside the red zone, according to Sharp Football. That still doesn’t come close to making up for ranking 31st in yards per carry overall.

Why have the Ravens run the ball more effectively with Lamar Jackson in the game and not as well with their conventional offense?

Assistant head coach Greg Roman: “Anytime you have a dynamic quarterback that can run, you have an extra running back on the field, so you change the math so to speak. Now it gives you the ability to run called quarterback runs or you can run some quarterback-read-type plays. You’re essentially adding a number to the offense, which puts a little more stress on the defense. That’s really it in a nutshell. I think each week we’ve thrown some new stuff at people they haven’t seen before, so it takes them a little bit to adjust to that as well. The second tier of your question: I think guys are working hard. We’re grinding at it. We’re close on some things, but we just need a little bit more precision — little bit more precise coaching, playing, everything. We’re working in that direction. The thing we’re doing a very good job of is certain situational [runs]. Running situations, guys are doing a phenomenal job. I think we have the most short-yardage situations in the league. If not, I’d be very surprised. Guys are doing really good in that area, and when we have to run it, we’re doing a good job. We’re just not getting the big hits right now. Generally speaking, those things will happen just by everybody being a little bit more precise.”

My take: There isn’t much else to add here, but Roman was mostly right about short yardage as the Ravens have run the second-most plays of one yard to go for a first down or touchdown in the NFL behind only New England. Their 79 percent success rate on short-yardage runs is 10th best in the league, according to Sharp Football. It’s difficult imagining the Ravens getting where they want to go without finding that aforementioned precision when Jackson isn’t on the field. They’re just too predictable now.

Where have the takeaways gone after leading the NFL in that category last season?

Secondary coach Chris Hewitt: “The way I look at it is, we’re playing a little bit more man coverage than we’ve done in the past. We’re not playing as much zone as we’ve done in the past. We’re doing a lot more man coverage. When you’re playing as much man coverage as you are, you have your back to the quarterback. You can’t see the quarterback throwing the ball out of his hands and then be able to get a break on the ball. Now, when we do play zone coverages, and we get an opportunity to catch the ball, we have to catch the ball. Those are the things that, as far as with the sacks and takeaways, those things come in bunches.”

My take: This was an interesting point that has merit. I wrote at length about their lack of takeaways last week and acknowledged luck as being an undeniable variable in the Ravens only having seven takeaways in nine games. They’re tied for second in the NFL in passes defended, meaning they’re still batting passes at the line of scrimmage and getting their hands on footballs downfield. That said, it’s fair to question whether certain veterans have slowed down from previous seasons, turning potential takeaways until mere pass breakups. Perhaps even more surprising than the lack of interceptions has been the Ravens forcing only four fumbles this season after forcing 17 in 2017.

Why has the defense struggled to get off the field on third down in recent weeks?

Hewitt: “When you’re playing the type of coverages that we play and people are throwing the ball short and intermediate routes, I equate it to I’ll take the paper cut instead of somebody stabbing me in the heart, so I’m not trying to give up any big plays. We’ll take those little short-to-intermediate routes. Now, going with that, obviously we have to get off the field on third down. That’s something that we haven’t done a very good job of over the last two weeks or so. In this last game, we were 10-for-16 getting [off the field] on third down, and that can’t happen. For us to become the defense that we want to be — and we’re still a great defense, obviously, we’re still ranked No. 1, No. 2 against the pass or whatever we are as far as statistics are concerned — it’s all about limiting the opportunities for the offense to continue to keep those drives going. Again, we have to do better on third down. That’s the most important thing: We have to do better on third down, get ourselves off the field. But on first and second down, we can’t give them third-and-short, either. We have to do a better job on first and second down stopping them on first and second down. Now, we have third-and-long situations. Now, we can get a chance to go after the quarterback. We can play different zone coverages. Now, we get our eyes back on the quarterback, and now we can intercept some balls. But, as far as playing man coverages, sometimes you’re going to win some, sometimes you’re going to lose some. But, the ones that you lose, you want those to be five yards instead of 30 yards.”

My take: The Ravens have allowed the sixth-fewest number of completions of 20 or more yards and surrendered their first pass play of 40 or more yards of the season against the Steelers on Sunday. As for needing to avoid third-and-short situations, seven of Pittsburgh’s 10 conversions came on plays requiring six yards or less for a first down. The Ravens still rank fifth in the league in third-down defense, but it hasn’t been trending in the right direction against dynamic offenses the last three weeks.

Why has Joe Flacco’s play declined after such a promising September?

Quarterbacks coach James Urban: “Some of the big plays we’ve just missed on or just got edged or just didn’t have enough time, missed a couple throws that I’m sure he’d like to have back. But I think it’s not just one thing. I wish I could say, ‘It’s this one thing,’ or, ‘We need to do this more.’ That’s one thing that’s frustrating: We don’t turn the ball over and score 16 points [against Pittsburgh] — that’s not very common. But you miss two opportunities in the red zone. We were very, very good in the red zone for a long stretch. I think it’s a combination of several things. Joe was playing at a very high level. Joe is a tough sucker; he’s mentally tough. We just have to get over the hump. We just have to make a few more plays, and then it’ll just all happen naturally.”

My take: Remember how we were saying the early success for Flacco and the passing game wouldn’t continue without incorporating an effective running game? Since the Week 4 win at Pittsburgh, the 11th-year quarterback is averaging 5.8 yards per passing attempt and owns a 73.7 passer rating. He’s also leading the NFL in passing attempts, territory he shouldn’t approach. Haven’t we seen this movie before? You can harp on Flacco needing to be better all you want — that’s true, to be clear — but when has he ever played well for an extended period of time without a solid running game? That’s not magically changing.

Is it challenging for Flacco to find and maintain his rhythm with Jackson coming in and out of the game?

Urban: “It’s as much or as little as you allow it to be. That’s my experience. That goes back to years ago when Marty [Mornhinweg] and I were doing it with Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick. As much as you allow it to be a distraction, it’ll be a distraction. Joe has been great with that. He sees the production. He sees the plays that we’ve been able to use and utilize, and he understands that we’re just trying to get our best players out on the field to help us win.”

My take: This is a tricky balance since the Ravens haven’t shown the ability to sustain a ground game without the gadgetry involving Jackson. It’s impossible to quantify, but I don’t know how anyone could deny there being occasions when the offense loses its rhythm and becomes disjointed when the starting quarterback completes a couple passes and then is told to go out wide to stand as a receiver. As Andy Benoit of Sports Illustrated said this week, “When you watch Ravens film and see how the Lamar Jackson package impacts the down-to-down rhythm, there’s no way Flacco doesn’t hate it.”

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 23-16 loss to Pittsburgh

Posted on 06 November 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens suffering their third straight loss and fourth in their last five games in a 23-16 final against Pittsburgh, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Baltimore will never take the next step by settling for 23-yard field goals against a high-scoring offense. The analytics did support those decisions to kick, but I would have considered going for the fourth-and-3 from the 5 in the second quarter. “Take the points” isn’t always the best strategy.

2. As I’ve written other times, Joe Flacco is far from the only reason for the recent offensive struggles, but he hasn’t been a big enough part of the solution either. He was under duress quite a bit Sunday, but he easily missed a half-dozen throws working from a satisfactory pocket.

3. Insinuating Flacco didn’t throw to Lamar Jackson out of spite is taking quite a leap to trash the character of someone who’s never done anything to warrant such treatment. It’s not like his ability to see the field or go through progressions has never been criticized, so why get personal?

4. How the middle of the field continues to be such a problematic area for the pass defense when C.J. Mosley, Eric Weddle, and Tony Jefferson account for $22.625 million on the 2018 salary cap is a tough pill to swallow.

5. Orlando Brown Jr. continues to be a bright spot. According to Pro Football Focus, he didn’t allow a pressure against Pittsburgh and has yet to allow a sack or quarterback hit this season. The right tackle spot should be his with James Hurst potentially moving to left guard when healthy.

6. Matthew Judon hasn’t taken the leap many predicted this season, but he registered Baltimore’s lone sack as well as two hits and two hurries against the Steelers, according to PFF. The Ravens need to see more of that with Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith scheduled to hit free agency.

7. Like Drew Brees’ third-down completion while in the grasp of Jefferson in Week 7, I thought the defense forcing a three-and-out right after Alex Collins’ touchdown might be the turning point. Instead, a holding penalty, a sack, two passes short of the chains, and a punt quickly dashed that thought.

8. I don’t believe it was a coincidence that Jimmy Smith played better with Marlon Humphrey back in action and Wink Martindale once again rotating those two and Brandon Carr on the outside. The defense has certainly had its recent issues, but that luxury should still pay off down the stretch.

9. Those saying Jackson’s use is disrupting offensive rhythm received ammunition when he entered for a run of no gain immediately following Flacco strikes to Michael Crabtree and Chris Moore. If you want to run there, why not hand to Collins on an uptempo play instead of broadcasting what you’re doing?

10. Brandon Williams noted after the game that teams are approaching the Ravens defense differently and aren’t playing “actual football” by running so many sweeps and screens to take interior players like him out of the equation. There’s that whole “needing to adapt” theme popping up again.

11. Don’t look now, but the Ravens are on track to lead the NFL in passing attempts for the third time in the last four years. They also rank in the bottom five in yards per passing attempt for the fourth straight season. Jamal Lewis weeps.

12. Regardless of what happens over these next two months, I’ll maintain that John Harbaugh is a good football coach. However, he doesn’t do himself any favors with a rookie mistake like not using his timeouts ahead of the two-minute warning to conserve more clock.

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