Tag Archive | "Lardarius Webb"

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Ranking the Ravens’ defensive needs for 2016

Posted on 22 January 2016 by Luke Jones

The Ravens defense needs some work.

Yes, the unit finished eighth in total defense and surrendered the fewest passing yards in the NFL over the second half of the season, but five of the Ravens’ final eight games came against passing attacks ranked 19th or worse and another came against an AJ McCarron-led Cincinnati attack in the season finale.

The improvement was encouraging, but it wasn’t enough to just assume everything is fine, especially after the defense finished with just 14 takeaways, shattering the worst mark in team history. The hiring of former NFL head coach Leslie Frazier to coach the secondary highlights the Ravens’ desire to improve against the pass.

With free agency set to begin in less than two months — March 9 at 4 p.m. — and the draft set for April 28-30, the Ravens are currently evaluating their biggest needs in all three phases of the game. In the second of a three-part series — we’ve already looked at the offense and special teams will follow — I offer my thoughts on the defensive side of the football and rank the positions of greatest need.

1. Cornerback

Some will argue that improving the pass rush is a bigger need than cornerback, but with Shareece Wright scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent and Lardarius Webb moving to safety, who will start opposite top cornerback Jimmy Smith?

Even if they’re able to re-sign Wright — who shook off a nightmare debut against San Francisco to play quite well the rest of the way — the Ravens would benefit from having another high-end cornerback. In addition to hoping that Smith is finally over the effects of his 2014 foot surgery, they need another playmaker in the secondary.

That’s the biggest reason why the Ravens have been linked to top cornerback prospects such as Jalen Ramsey from Florida State or Vernon Hargreaves from Florida with the sixth overall pick in this spring’s draft.

Baltimore has some internal options such as Will Davis who carry intrigue, but none have a body of work suggesting you could pencil them into the starting lineup with any great level of confidence.

2. Outside linebacker

Owner Steve Bisciotti spoke at length at the season-ending press conference about how much the Ravens missed Terrell Suggs after he was lost for the year in the 2015 opener, but the six-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker will be 34 in October and coming off his second Achilles injury in four years.

Further complicating matters is the pending free agency of Courtney Upshaw, who lacks pass-rushing skills but is effective setting the edge against the run. The Ravens saw promising development from 2015 fourth-round pick Za’Darius Smith late in the year, but they’d love to add another outside linebacker to ease the workload of the 32-year-old Elvis Dumervil, who wore down late in the year as a three-down player.

The defense needs a young outside linebacker who can get after the quarterback, but the top options in the draft beyond Ohio State’s Joey Bosa — Myles Jack of UCLA and Leonard Floyd of Georgia — would likely be considered a reach where the Ravens are picking in the first round.

There’s a lot of uncertainty at this position for 2016 and beyond when your top two options are both well over 30.

3. Safety

Since the departure of Ed Reed, the Ravens have pumped so many resources into improving this position with very underwhelming results.

Though not quite as consistent as you’d probably like, Will Hill has emerged as a solid starter at strong safety, but the free safety position remains a different story. Kendrick Lewis just doesn’t show enough ability to make high-impact plays, and Lardarius Webb’s $9.5 million salary cap figure for 2016 will need to be addressed if he’s even to remain on the team.

Terrence Brooks has flashed his athleticism when given opportunities, but the 2014 third-round pick has battled injuries and has yet to earn the trust of the coaching staff from a mental standpoint.

Unless you draft Ramsey and move him to safety, there doesn’t appear to be a safety in this year’s draft who can bring the type of impact the Ravens are seeking. This could mean another year of hoping an internal option such as Brooks finally emerges as more of a ball-hawking threat.

4. Inside linebacker

Daryl Smith will be 34 and is no guarantee to return, meaning the Ravens should be looking for the inside linebacker of the future next to 2014 Pro Bowl selection C.J. Mosley.

Former undrafted free agent Zach Orr showed solid coverage skills while replacing Smith in the nickel package late last season, but it remains to be seen whether he can be a viable three-down linebacker. And 2013 second-round pick Arthur Brown is more likely to be cut then to suddenly become a starter after three disappointing seasons in Baltimore.

Considering Mosley has struggled in pass coverage, the Ravens would benefit greatly from having another inside linebacker who can stick with running backs or tight ends in routes.

Whether it’s for 2016 or beyond, general manager Ozzie Newsome would probably be wise to be on the lookout for an inside backer with upside in the middle rounds of the draft.

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Pondering the Ravens’ potential 2016 salary cap cuts

Posted on 12 January 2016 by Luke Jones

The Ravens are facing their most critical offseason of the John Harbaugh era, but revamping a 5-11 team won’t be easy with a salary cap lacking flexibility.

Having entered the offseason with an estimated 2016 commitment of just under $146 million to 47 players, general manager Ozzie Newsome can only hope that the salary cap will rise to the highest reported estimate of $153.4 million, an increase of $10 million from this past season. However, that would still leave little room to sign some of their own free agents, let alone try to make other additions.

The direction of the offseason hinges on Baltimore’s ability to adjust quarterback Joe Flacco’s $28.55 million salary cap figure for the 2016 season, but additional cap-related moves will likely still need to be made. The Ravens may not have an extensive list of high-priority free agents, but standing pat after missing the playoffs in two of the last three seasons won’t sit well with the fan base — or owner Steve Bisciotti.

And after last week’s revelation that Harbaugh doesn’t plan to make any changes to his coaching staff, the Ravens are signaling that the roster was the bigger problem in 2015.

In evaluating cap space and potential cuts, it’s important to remember the rule of 51 as the top 51 cap numbers on the roster count against the salary cap. The savings from any released player is offset in part by an additional player jumping into the top 51 from the bottom of the list. For example, if a released player carrying a $3 million cap number is replaced in the top 51 by another player carrying a $450,000 cap number, the end result is a $2.55 million savings on the salary cap.

Below is a list of veteran candidates to be cut for cap purposes (with the pre-June 1 cap savings noted in parentheses):

CB Kyle Arrington ($1.433 million)
Skinnny: Signed last spring to serve as Baltimore’s No. 3 corner, Arrington struggled and saw his playing time dwindle dramatically until the late-season move of Lardarius Webb to safety. With younger options such as Will Davis and Tray Walker already on the roster and the Ravens mentioning cornerback as a need to address this offseason, Arrington’s roster spot would appear to be in serious jeopardy.

DE Chris Canty ($2.15 million)
Skinny: The 33-year-old is still a useful player when healthy, but injuries and the presence of Lawrence Guy and Brent Urban for the 5-technique spot make it likely that the Ravens will elect to cut Canty this winter. The organization decided to bring the veteran back after terminating his contract a year ago, but you wonder if either side would have interest in doing that again.

S Matt Elam ($1.328 million)
Skinny: The Ravens would still like to salvage some production out of the worst defensive first-round pick in franchise history, but Elam is making enough money now to wonder if it’s worth it. With Will Hill manning the strong safety spot, where does the University of Florida product even fit? Elam would be an expensive backup and special-teams player at a crowded position.

RB Justin Forsett ($2.3 million)
Skinny: The Ravens have three young running backs behind him on the depth chart, but Lorenzo Taliaferro hasn’t been able to stay healthy, Buck Allen had ball-security issues late in the season, and Terrance West wore out his welcome with two other NFL teams in less than two years. Forsett may not be a home-run hitter, but his $3.7 million cap figure is reasonable and Allen didn’t quite show enough for the Ravens to sign off on him being ready to be a No. 1 running back just yet.

S Kendrick Lewis ($933,333)
Skinny: Though Lewis didn’t bring the impact to the free safety position that the Ravens hoped when they signed him last offseason, his release wouldn’t bring much in the way of cap savings. That being said, if the Ravens truly intend to make Webb their starting free safety, cutting Lewis might be a football move more than one related to the salary cap.

OT Eugene Monroe ($2.1 million)
Skinny: This could be the most complicated decision of the offseason as Monroe has started only 16 games since signing a five-year, $37.5 million contract two years ago. Cutting Monroe leaves $6.6 million in dead money on the 2016 cap, and re-signing Kelechi Osemele won’t be an easy task. If Laremy Tunsil of Ole Miss or Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley falls into their laps in the first round, the Ravens could wave goodbye to Monroe. Otherwise, they may look to draft a tackle in the second or third round and hold their breath that Monroe bounces back in 2016.

TE Dennis Pitta ($600,000)
Skinny: The veteran tight end said at the end of the season that nothing has changed in terms of his hopes to play again, but things have changed for the Ravens as his 2016 base salary ($5 million) is not guaranteed like it was this past year. There’s always a chance that Pitta agrees to an incentive-laden deal with no guaranteed money to continue with a potential comeback, but he is more likely to be released or to retire. The question will be whether the Ravens want $6.6 million in dead money to be absorbed in 2016 or to give him a post-June 1 designation to push $4.4 million of that to 2017. Either way, Pitta’s exit isn’t going to be of great assistance when it comes to making moves this offseason.

LB Daryl Smith ($2.625 million)
Skinny: The veteran has done a fine job stepping into the position once held by Ray Lewis, but he wore down as 2015 progressed and was being replaced by Zach Orr in nickel situations late in the season. There isn’t an obvious every-down replacement waiting in the wings, but Smith will be 34 and carries a $4.375 million cap figure for 2016. In a perfect world, 2013 second-round pick Arthur Brown already would have stepped into the spot next to C.J. Mosley, but we know how that story has played out.

CB Lardarius Webb ($3.5 million)
Skinny: Newsome spoke with conviction at the season-ending press conference about the Ravens moving Webb to free safety, but his $9.5 million cap figure for 2016 would make him one of the most expensive safeties in the league despite his inexperience there. Webb accepted a pay cut a year ago and will likely need to take another one unless the Ravens are that blindly confident in him being a Pro Bowl-caliber safety. The fact that Webb already proclaimed himself to be a safety moving forward probably won’t help his cause in negotiating with the Ravens or on the open market if he’s let go.

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Ravens better hope losing doesn’t stick with continuity

Posted on 07 January 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Owner Steve Bisciotti’s description of his reaction to the 2015 season best summarizes the reaction to Thursday’s “State of the Ravens” press conference.

“Disappointed, yes. Mad, no.”

Any Ravens fan demanding a pound of flesh was probably going to be unhappy. Successful organizations don’t panic, and it would have been wrong for Bisciotti to do anything drastic in response to eighth-year coach John Harbaugh’s first losing season and the organization’s first since 2007.

But that doesn’t mean the Ravens are only a couple minor tweaks away from being back in the playoffs a year from now, either, and that’s where the tone of the decision-makers fell a little flat after a nightmare season that began with lofty expectations.

“I don’t really think that a lot has to be done,” Bisciotti said. “One thing that I’m proud of is that we all view continuity as a strength. Continuity doesn’t stem from laziness. It comes from confidence, and I believe in these guys. I have a lot of faith that we’ll get it straightened out. I hope we don’t have as many injuries, and I hope we have a whole lot more turnovers. I think those kind of differences would get us back to where we want to be.”

Going 8-8 is one thing, but seasons of double-digit losses don’t just happen without some issues stretching beyond injuries and that shortage of takeaways that has been a trend for several seasons now. The Ravens lacked play-makers at key positions long before an absurd run of injuries midway through the season cost them quarterback Joe Flacco, wide receiver Steve Smith, running back Justin Forsett, and others. Baltimore was 1-6 at a time when the only missing players of great significance were linebacker Terrell Suggs and rookie wide receiver Breshad Perriman.

Those injuries certainly hurt, but they shouldn’t bring a free fall in the standings for a balanced and talented football team.

Harbaugh said Thursday that he does not plan to make any changes to his coaching staff beyond the departure of linebackers coach Ted Monachino to Indianapolis. Of course, some tweaks could always be made in the coming weeks, but it was fair to wonder whether some different voices needed to be injected after a disappointing 5-11 season.

Instead, the status quo will prevail.

Asked about his secondary, general manager Ozzie Newsome spoke about the impact the move of Lardarius Webb to safety could have without mentioning his $9.5 million salary cap figure next year, which would make him one of the most expensive — and unproven — safeties in the game. The lack of  play-making safeties has been one of the organization’s biggest weaknesses since the departure of Ed Reed three years ago, and pointing to Webb as the answer seems shaky at best.

Bisciotti discussed the dramatic impact of Suggs’ absence on the defense, but the 2011 AP Defensive Player of the Year will be 34 in October and is coming off his second Achilles injury in less than four years. The collapse of the unit without him is a compliment to his talents over the years, but the Ravens banking on him to be the Suggs of old would be unwise, if not reckless.

Left tackle, cornerback, pass rusher, and wide receiver were all mentioned as positions to address, but the Ravens’ cap situation will hinge on the potential reworking of Flacco’s contract and there are only so many high draft picks to go around.

Those four positions are arguably the most critical ones on the field after the quarterback in today’s NFL, and the Ravens are either lacking options or have substantial question marks at all of them.

That sounds like a lot that needs to be done.

“We need to augment our team, but John and his staff do a very good job of developing players, and we depend on that,” Newsome said. “You need to have some players that when the game is on the line, they have the ability to make a play. We will be trying to add some of that to our team, but a lot of that can be done through development.”

Harbaugh’s decision to keep his coaching staff intact reflects that confidence, but it will be up to Newsome to find high-impact talent starting with the sixth overall choice of the draft, Baltimore’s earliest pick since 2000. The Ravens will see special play-makers like Antonio Brown and A.J. Green on display when AFC North rivals Pittsburgh and Cincinnati face off in the postseason while they watch the playoffs from home for the second time in three years.

The Bengals in particular have been a problem as they’ve won five straight over the Ravens.

“If we get all of our players back, I think we’ll close that gap,” Bisciotti said. “If we have a good draft, if we do well in free agency, we can compete with them. But that’s a stain — Cincinnati beating us as frequently as they have recently.”

Plenty of ifs.

No, Bisciotti, Newsome, and Harbaugh didn’t flinch or show panic on Thursday, but you hope that there’s more urgency beneath the surface than they expressed publicly after a 5-11 campaign.

There’s a fine line between confidence and complacency in what you do.

Their actions in the coming months and the results in 2016 will determine which one it was for the Ravens brass on Thursday.

After all, success on the field is far more important than winning a press conference.

Even if the message wasn’t all that inspiring on Thursday.

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Ravens lose cornerback Jimmy Smith to thigh injury

Posted on 20 December 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens lost top cornerback Jimmy Smith to a thigh injury on the opening series of their 34-14 loss to Kansas City on Sunday.

The fifth-year defensive back appeared to hurt his hamstring chasing after Chiefs running back Charcandrick West on his 38-yard touchdown run. Minutes after going to the Baltimore locker room for further examination, Smith was declared out for the remainder of the game.

Head coach John Harbaugh did not have an update on Smith after the Ravens’ 10th loss of the season.

“I don’t have an update on that. I don’t know,” Harbaugh said. “I knew he was out for the game, but that’s the last I’ve talked to the doctors about that.”

Intending to use Lardarius Webb exclusively as a nickel back and at safety this week, the Ravens instead moved the veteran back outside — opposite of Shareece Wright — in the base defense after Smith’s injury.

Smith’s exit created an opportunity for the recently-promoted Jumal Rolle to play cornerback in the nickel package for the remainder of the game. After appearing in 18 games for Houston over the last two seasons, Rolle was signed to the Baltimore practice squad after being cut by the Texans last month.

Harbaugh said earlier in the week that he wanted to give Rolle a chance to play over the final three weeks of the season.

“We had guys to come in and step it up,” Webb said. “Jumal Rolle came in, played good. We’ve got Shareece here. I thought he came in and did an awesome job when Jimmy went down.”

Should Smith not be able to return to play in Week 16, a high-octane Pittsburgh passing game will face even less resistance in a Baltimore secondary that has struggled all season.

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Ravens-Chiefs: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 19 December 2015 by Luke Jones

The questions run rampant for the Ravens’ Week 15 meeting with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Who’s starting at quarterback?

What will the secondary look like?

Does Sunday represent the Ravens’ last best chance to win another game before the most disappointing season in franchise history mercifully comes to an end?

Meanwhile, Kansas City comes to town having won seven in a row to erase a 1-5 start and enter Sunday holding the first of two wild-card spots in the AFC. Simply put, the Chiefs are exactly what the Ravens wanted to be after the worst start in franchise history, but it simply hasn’t happened for the latter.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens play Kansas City for the seventh time in their regular-season history with the series tied 3-3. Baltimore has lost three of the four meetings between the teams at M&T Bank Stadium, but the Ravens won the last of those home contests back in 2009. Counting the postseason, the Ravens have won their last four meetings with the Chiefs.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to avoid the first five-loss home schedule in the 20-year history of the franchise …

1. The Chiefs will hold a plus-two turnover advantage in a microcosm of the season for both teams. Though their list of injuries isn’t quite as extensive, the Chiefs lost star running back Jamaal Charles for the season in October and has been without All-Pro linebacker Justin Houston since late November. Andy Reid’s team has kept ticking by forcing turnovers on defense and committing few with an efficient offense. Meanwhile, the Ravens rank 30th in takeaways (11) and 24th in giveaways (23). Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith won’t wow you with ability, but he’s thrown just four interceptions all year. Baltimore will be turning to Matt Schaub or Jimmy Clausen, who both struggle to protect the football. If both teams follow their 2015 scripts, the Chiefs will capitalize on the Ravens’ mistakes.

2. Elvis Dumervil will exploit former teammate Jah Reid for two quarterback sacks. As bizarre as it was to read that Reid received a three-year contract extension earlier this week, Pro Football Focus has graded the former Raven 73rd of 77 offensive tackles in the NFL this season. On top of that, the first overall pick of the 2013 draft, left tackle Eric Fisher, has graded only 37th overall, according to PFF. This should help Dumervil, who has been limited to just six sacks without a viable edge rusher playing on the opposite side. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will try to run some stunts to take advantage of an offensive line that’s allowed 41 sacks, fourth worst in the NFL. The Ravens defense ranks 20th in the league with only 28 sacks, but Dumervil will turn in a 2014-like performance on Sunday.

3. Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce will catch a touchdown pass and collect over 80 receiving yards. Kansas City sports the league’s 27th-ranked passing game, but Smith has effectively used his tight end to the tune of 59 catches for 749 yards and four touchdowns this season. Whether trying to use linebackers or safeties, Baltimore has struggled to cover tight ends and Kelce will effectively move the chains to continue drives for the Chiefs. It will be interesting to see how the Ravens try to cover Kelce as inside linebacker Daryl Smith has been replaced more and more by Zach Orr in the nickel in recent weeks. And with Lardarius Webb now factoring into the rotation at safety, you wonder if even more communication issues are inevitable. Kelce will be ready to take advantage on Sunday.

4. The Baltimore secondary will offer new looks, but Alex Smith will throw for 225 yards and two touchdowns. Head coach John Harbaugh said earlier in the week that it was time for young defensive backs such as 2015 fourth-round cornerback Tray Walker, second-year safety Terrence Brooks, and former Houston Texans cornerback Jumal Rolle to receive more opportunities. While it will be important to evaluate the aforementioned players in the final three weeks of the season, the results probably won’t be pretty for a defense that has repeatedly failed to be on the same page even with veterans on the field. Smith carries the dreaded “game manager” label, but he will take advantage of Baltimore mistakes to find Kelce and top receiver Jeremy Maclin for several big plays on Sunday.

5. The Ravens will rebound cosmetically from the Week 14 blowout loss, but Kansas City won’t provide enough help in a 23-14 defeat. Even while carrying a louder tone of resignation this week following an embarrassing loss to Seattle, Baltimore will return to its pattern of competing more like it did in the first 12 games of the season that were all decided by one possession. However, the injury-ravaged Ravens aren’t talented enough to beat a quality team without substantial help from the opposition. The Chiefs won’t figure to provide that assistance as they’ve committed just 12 turnovers all season, third fewest in the NFL. Either Jimmy Clausen or Matt Schaub will facilitate a couple scoring drives against the NFL’s 15th-ranked pass defense, but a couple Ravens mistakes will be the difference.

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

Posted on 04 December 2015 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Landry remains threat despite Miami’s offensive woes

Posted on 03 December 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens won’t know exactly what to expect from a Miami offense under new leadership on Sunday.

Ranking 27th in the NFL in total offense, rush offense, and points per game, the Dolphins fired offensive coordinator Bill Lazor on Monday with quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor now taking over the play-calling duties and quarterback Ryan Tannehill having more input with the offensive game plan. It can’t get any worse for a group that’s averaged just 20.5 points per game and ranks 31st in the NFL in third-down conversions at just 27.7 percent.

Now in his fourth year after signing a $96 million extension in the spring, Tannehill hasn’t had a poor season statistically, but his offense simply hasn’t gotten on track in a disappointing 2015 season that began with the Dolphins expecting to compete for a playoff spot.

“It’s a little bit of everything and everybody has their own piece of it for sure, absolutely,” said second-year wide receiver Jarvis Landry, who is one of the few bright spots for Miami in 2015. “The key things are definitely turnovers and penalties. I think that has held us back thus far. If we find ways to eliminate that, then I think we can be an explosive offense.”

Building on a solid rookie season, Landry has become the Dolphins’ best offensive player in making 76 catches for 816 yards and four touchdowns and rushing for 107 yards and a touchdown. The LSU product fell to the second round of the 2014 draft because of an underwhelming 40-yard dash time at the NFL scouting combine, but his 358 yards after the catch are tied for fourth among NFL wide receivers this season.

Though his pass defense has made modest improvement in recent weeks and is now up to 24th in the league, defensive coordinator Dean Pees knows whatever new wrinkles the Dolphins might show are bound to include new ways to get the football to Landry. The Ravens will need to know where Landry is at all times as they try to not only win their third straight game but also win a game in Miami for the third consecutive season.

“There are guys like that who do not necessarily go out and run a 40 that absolutely blows everybody’s mind, but they are just really good football players– great eyes, quick, good vision,” Pees said. “Not every great [skill-position player] in the NFL has been a 4.3 guy. There are guys that have good vision. He is one of those guys that when he catches a ball, it’s like a punt return. He has quick feet, exceptional eyes. His yards come running after the catch, and he makes a lot of people miss.

“I can’t tell you what it is; it’s just it.”

Landry takes a high number of snaps in the slot, meaning it will primarily be the responsibility of cornerback Lardarius Webb to keep him in check when the Ravens are in the nickel package. Maligned due to health concerns and uninspiring play over the last couple years, the 30-year-old has quietly had a solid season playing in all but one of Baltimore’s 11 games.

Despite expressing kind words for the Ravens secondary, the 5-foot-11, 202-pound Landry will be licking his chops against a pass defense that has struggled mightily to defend the middle portion of the field. And Baltimore defenders need to be sure tacklers when he gets the ball in open space.

“Obviously, you see a group of veteran guys,” Landry said. “Guys that have definitely made plays, guys that have consistently made plays, and guys that look like to be still having production. I have a lot of respect for those guys.”

The Ravens will need to show even more respect for Landry, regardless of what else a revamped Miami offense might throw their way on Sunday.

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Ravens-Rams: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 21 November 2015 by Luke Jones

Nothing is a given for the disappointing Ravens.

The fact that all nine of their games have been decided by one possession leads you to believe that the 2-7 Ravens are likely to win at least a couple more games in 2015, but last Sunday’s home loss to Jacksonville further changed their perception after the bye week. Baltimore may be able to compete — even win — any of its seven remaining game, but none can be pointed to as a predicted win with any level of confidence, either.

That principle certainly applies against a St. Louis team that sports the NFL’s 31st-ranked offense but also the sixth-ranked defense int he league. However, the Rams will be missing Pro Bowl defensive end Robert Quinn, which will hurt one of the best pass rushes in the league.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and St. Louis meet for the sixth time in their regular-season history and for the first time at M&T Bank Stadium since 2007. Baltimore holds a 3-2 advantage in the all-time series as the Rams are seeking their first road win in three tries against the Ravens.

Here’s what to expect as Baltimore tries to win just its second home game this season …

1. Lardarius Webb will see more snaps as a safety and secure another interception. The veteran cornerback saw a handful of opportunities at the new position against Jacksonville, and head coach John Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Dean Pees like his range and ball skills in that spot. It would be even more interesting to see the Ravens work Terrence Brooks into the mix and use him and Webb interchangeably between safety and the nickel spot in passing situations. The new look will result in Webb picking off a pass for the second straight week against the worst passing game in the league.

2. Todd Gurley will remind us why he’s the next big thing at the running back position. With Case Keenum taking over for the benched Nick Foles at quarterback and winds that could approach 20 miles per hour on Sunday, the Rams figure to ride their rookie running back, who is averaging 5.5 yards per carry. He’ll approach his career high of 30 carries and eclipse the century mark with a touchdown on the ground against a good Baltimore run defense that has given up just 3.8 yards per attempt. Gurley once lived in Baltimore and rooted for the Ravens, so it will be a nice homecoming.

3. John Urschel will hold up respectably in his first NFL start at center. With left guard Kelechi Osemele likely departing via free agency this offseason, Urschel figures to step into a permanent starting role next season, but he’ll be filling in for the injured Jeremy Zuttah for the rest of 2015. It won’t be an easy task blocking 2014 Defensive Rookie of the Year Aaron Donald, but Urschel proved his worth as a blocker filling in late last season. He won’t shut Donald down completely, but there won’t be much drop-off from Zuttah and he’ll quell concerns about his shaky shotgun snaps from Week 8.

4. Keenum will make some plays as a passer while still looking like a backup. Yes, the 27-year-old quarterback played against the Ravens last year in an embarrassing defeat at Houston, but Keenum only completed 47.6 percent of his passes in that game. With Kenny Britt and Tavon Austin as pass-catching weapons, Keenum will be able to make some throws, but this is a very poor passing game that hasn’t been able to sustain drives all season. Rams offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti will rely on the running game, but Keenum will commit two turnovers to go along with his 160 passing yards.

5. The Ravens defense will be the difference in a 17-16 win for Baltimore. The long touchdown to Malcom Floyd in Week 8 and a heartbreaking ending last week have masked the fact that Pees’ unit has played better in recent weeks, and that improvement will continue against a bad offense now turning to its backup quarterback. Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense won’t be able to consistently march up and down the field against a talented Rams front seven, but they’ll do enough to narrowly pull out a victory in what looks like another coin-flip game between two disappointing teams.

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Jacksonville possesses exactly what Ravens lack at receiver

Posted on 12 November 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — It’s been a long time since the Jacksonville Jaguars had much of anything that the Ravens coveted.

But with nothing but question marks at the wide receiver position after the season-ending injury to Steve Smith in Week 8, the Ravens will find it difficult not to look across the field on Sunday and wish they were the ones who had the most talented receiving duo in the NFL that no one knows about. Second-year wide receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns are quietly blossoming into standout performers in one of the least-heralded markets in the NFL.

“The ‘Allens’ — you don’t hear about them on ESPN SportsCenter every day,” cornerback Lardarius Webb said. “But whenever you pull out the numbers, their names start coming up and you’re wondering like, ‘Who are these guys?’ You pop on film and you’re like, ‘These are the guys. They can play ball.’ They just hide them because they’re in Jacksonville, so a lot of people don’t really pay attention to them.”

The Ravens’ 29th-ranked pass defense cannot lose sight of Robinson — a 2014 second-round pick from Penn State — or Hurns — a surpising undrafted free agent from Miami a year ago — who enter Week 10 ranked eighth and 18th in NFL receiving yards, respectively. The pair have combined to make 76 catches for 1,342 yards and 12 touchdowns in Jacksonville’s eight games in 2015.

Jacksonville has been without its other 2014 second-round receiver, Marquise Lee, for most of the season, but that hasn’t mattered with Robinson and Hurns emerging as dangerous weapons for young quarterback Blake Bortles, also in his second NFL season. Despite a 2-6 start, Jacksonville finally has hope for the future with such talent at the offensive skills positions.

“I think it’s super special,” Bortles said in a conference call with Baltimore media. “To be able to come in with those guys as rookies and to able to go through and grow and watch those guys grow [is special]. We got our first offseason together and did some work there and then continued to carry that over into the season.”

The debate continues in Jacksonville over which receiver is better as Robinson is considered the “home-run hitter” — 17 catches of 20 or more yards — while Hurns is steadier in catching a higher percentage of passes thrown his way with 36 receptions on just 59 targets.

Opposing defenses have generally matched their No. 1 cornerbacks against the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Robinson, but Hurns has now caught a touchdown in six consecutive games. Against a talented New York Jets secondary featuring Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, and Buster Skrine last Sunday, Robinson and Hurns each posted over 120 receiving yards in a narrow defeat.

“I think the biggest thing that I really noticed about them is their catch radius,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “They do a great job — when the ball is in the air — of finding the ball, locating the ball, and then catching it. That’s a good feeling for a quarterback when you can throw one up even when he’s covered and think the guy has a good chance of coming down with it.”

Coming off their bye and trying to win consecutive games for the first time all season, the Ravens know they face a below-average football team on Sunday, but Jacksonville has the ability to exploit Baltimore’s biggest weakness with the league’s 11th-ranked passing game. The Jaguars are an opponent that can’t be taken lightly or the Ravens could find themselves in a position similar to Week 5 when Cleveland won at M&T Bank Stadium for the first time since 2007.

The Jaguars haven’t won in Baltimore since 1999 when Mark Brunell was their quarterback and the teams were part of the old AFC Central division. With the Ravens also holding a 2-6 record, they’re in no position to be taking any opponent lightly, and Robinson and Hurns will be ready to take full advantage if they do.

“A lot of people don’t really pay attention to them, but they’re making big plays,” Webb said. “They together are a great duo in the NFL. Our corners — me and Jimmy [Smith] — have to be on point with these guys and knowing where they are on the field. We have to make some disruptive plays to get this victory.”

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S. Smith injury makes Sunday’s win feel like loss for Ravens

Posted on 01 November 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens and their fans deserved to feel good after Sunday’s 29-26 win over the San Diego Chargers.

Only their second win overall and first at M&T Bank Stadium in 2015, the Ravens at least had a modest reason to smile and exhale going into their bye with thoughts of transforming a 2-6 record into a respectable second half with a favorable schedule that includes five home games.

That was until the official news came regarding Steve Smith.

With the 36-year-old receiver suffering a torn Achilles tendon late in the third quarter, we’re now left wondering if we’ve seen the last of Smith, who moved past Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter into 10th place on the NFL’s all-time list for receiving yards on Sunday. Despite recently reconfirming his plans to retire at the end of the 2015 season, the fierce competitor may not want to end his career in such heartbreaking fashion.

In the meantime, reality has yet set in for the Ravens as they try to enjoy their first win in a month and some much-needed rest this coming week. Already lacking playmakers on both sides of the ball, Baltimore just lost its best one as well as one of its most respected leaders on the field and in the locker room.

“I don’t think we’ve felt the full effects of it yet,” cornerback Lardarius Webb said. “I look up to the guy. It’s sad, for the moment, that he not just goes out like that [but] just for him to go down [for] the season. He’s meant so much to this team, just his leadership and the guy who he is.”

Describing any injury as crippling is difficult when you’re already 2-6 and going nowhere in terms of the playoff race, but Smith’s ability and passion are not easily replaced in the second half of the season.

As they have all year with all eight of their games decided by one possession, the Ravens will continue to compete with head coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco leading the way. But much like when they lost six-time Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs in the season opener, the Ravens can’t simply use the “next man up” mantra in response to Smith’s injury.

He’s too important.

“It’s going to be an emotional thing just to lose players like that at any point,” Flacco said. “I’m not afraid to say — when you have a guy like that — what he means to this team, this organization, myself. What he’s done and just the kind of competitor he is, it’s probably a little bit tougher when you lose a guy like that.”

How the Ravens replace Smith’s production will likely keep offensive coordinator Marc Trestman awake at night over the bye week as the 15th-year wideout entered Week 8 with more receiving yards and touchdown catches than every other Baltimore receiver combined. Kamar Aiken will become the No. 1 receiver by default — complete with all 49 of his career receptions — but finding another starter from a group including Marlon Brown, Jeremy Ross, Chris Givens, and Jeremy Butler is a sobering challenge.

The season-long absence of first-round pick Breshad Perriman now becomes even more frustrating with Smith out of the picture and the Ravens not having the opportunity to see how the rookie would fare as the No. 1 receiver, the long-term role they envisioned for him when he was chosen with the 26th overall pick this spring. Harbaugh said last week that Perriman has a “shot” to play this season, but what that means is anyone’s guess after three months of frustration stemming from the 6-foot-2 wideout’s knee injury sustained on the first day of training camp.

Flacco will do what he can to try to maximize this offense, much like he did when the Ravens managed to score 30 points against the Browns with Smith on the sideline. The running game and their trio of young tight ends will become even more important than they already were with an underwhelming group of receivers behind Smith.

With two home dates against Jacksonville and St. Louis following the bye and only two of their eight remaining games against opponents currently holding winning records, the Ravens should be able to find at least a few more wins before the season from hell comes to an end.

But losing Smith is a sickening punch to a gut already too tender from six one-score defeats in eight games and a list of other injuries.

“Obviously, it makes it a little bit tougher than we’d like,” Flacco said, “but we’ve played a game this year without him and I think our guys did a great job stepping up. We were able to put some offense up, put some points on the board. The next guy steps up.

“It’s not like we’re just going to be playing with a ghost out there.”

But it feels that way right now.

And Smith’s injury made a much-needed win feel too much like a loss on Sunday.

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