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Twelve Ravens thoughts on array of offseason topics

Posted on 12 February 2018 by Luke Jones

With free agency a month away and the Ravens offseason still taking shape, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. I’m intrigued to learn just how “significant” Ozzie Newsome’s post-2018 position will be as Eric DeCosta succeeds him as general manager. The two have a great relationship, of course, but it’s not difficult envisioning such an arrangement being problematic if DeCosta is truly supposed to be in charge.

2. The Jimmy Garoppolo deal is the latest reminder of how expensive a franchise quarterback is if you’re not willing to roll the dice in trying to draft one. That won’t stop Joe Flacco’s detractors from complaining about his contract, but it’s the cost of doing business.

3. The Ravens eyeing a bargain at inside linebacker or 5-technique end is fine, but the catalysts for defensive improvement need to come from within and from Wink Martindale’s fresh perspective. Citing the offense’s late statistical improvement as an excuse to use meaningful resources on defense would be a major mistake.

4. Speaking of coaching impact, Sports Illustrated NFL analyst Andy Benoit is a big fan of new quarterbacks coach James Urban. He offered a look into Urban’s football mind last year, and offered more insight on the new Ravens assistant from Radio Row in Minneapolis.

5. Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson are already recruiting free-agent-to-be Jarvis Landry. He caught a career-high 112 passes at a career-low 8.8 yards per catch in Miami’s mess of a passing attack in 2017. His price tag as a slot receiver will be interesting, but certainly not cheap.

6. I’ve debated what should be done with Brandon Carr, who’s owed a bonus next month and brings $4 million in savings if he’s cut. Baltimore sure could use him if Jimmy Smith isn’t ready for Week 1, but Carr is a backup with a $7 million number if he is.

7. With the Ravens lacking any semblance of a consistent red-zone threat for years, Jimmy Graham is intriguing at the right price despite his lowest yardage total since his rookie season. Of course, other teams with more cap space are likely to find his 10 touchdowns just as enticing.

8. He may never hit the market, but a healthy Allen Robinson is an excellent fit for what Flacco needs in a receiver. Some have suggested his signing coming at a discount after last September’s ACL injury, but I’m not convinced that happens with the 6-foot-3 target only being 24.

9. Philadelphia winning the Super Bowl despite losing its franchise quarterback, Pro Bowl left tackle, starting middle linebacker, and a productive third-down running back sure doesn’t help the perception of the Ravens not being able to overcome injuries to sneak into the playoffs with one of the league’s easiest schedules.

10. With many anticipating the Ravens being selected to play in the Hall of Fame Game for the first time, head coach John Harbaugh will surely like having additional training camp practices. It’s also an extra week and an extra meaningless game putting players at risk for injury.

11. Brian Dawkins being voted into the Hall of Fame in his second year of eligibility gives me greater confidence that Ed Reed will be inducted next year. Voters haven’t been kind to pure safeties over the years, but Reed not being a first-ballot Hall of Famer would be a joke.

12. I was glad to see both Marlon Humphrey and a fan have a sense of humor about his recent arrest. It was certainly a mistake from which the young cornerback hopefully learns, but another 2017 first-round pick is in far deeper trouble.

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

Posted on 29 January 2018 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

Running backs
Defensive linemen
Tight ends

Jimmy Smith
2017 defensive snap count: 599
NFL1000 ranking: 2nd among outside cornerbacks
PFF ranking: 14th
Skinny: The talented and oft-injured Smith was having the best season of his career and was arguably the team MVP before tearing his Achilles tendon. It’s now fair to wonder if his best days are behind him as he turns 30 in July and will also carry cap numbers north of $15 million in each of the next two years.

Brandon Carr
2017 defensive snap count: 1,024
NFL1000 ranking: 22nd among outside cornerbacks
PFF ranking: 68th
Skinny: Carr struggled down the stretch, but he was still a solid No. 2 corner playing all 16 games and did well with Baltimore’s emphasis on press coverage. His $7 million cap hit for 2018 isn’t outrageous, but the Ravens will have quite a decision on their hands with so many moving parts at the position.

Marlon Humphrey
2017 defensive snap count: 596
NFL1000 ranking: 17th among outside cornerbacks
PFF ranking: 34th
Skinny: The Alabama product being taken in the first round wasn’t popular with fans, but the 21-year-old didn’t play like a rookie, excelling while spelling Smith and then taking his place when the veteran’s Achilles finally gave out. Humphrey isn’t just ready to be a starter, but he looks like a future No. 1 corner.

Maurice Canady
2017 defensive snap count: 319
NFL1000 ranking: 24th among slot cornerbacks
PFF ranking: 76th
Skinny: Despite not playing a single defensive snap as a rookie and injuring his knee in training camp, Canady returned midseason and soon took over as the nickel corner, using his size and physicality effectively. His ability to play outside, inside, or at safety is an intriguing skill set moving forward.

Lardarius Webb
2017 defensive snap count: 377
NFL1000 ranking: n/a
PFF ranking: 105th
Skinny: Transitioning to a reserve role after years as a starter, the 32-year-old was miscast as a slot corner to begin the season after the long-term injuries to Tavon Young and Canady. It had become apparent in recent years that Webb was no longer a corner, so he predictably struggled in this role.

Jaylen Hill
2017 defensive snap count: 16
NFL1000 ranking: n/a
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: Arguably the best story of the summer as a rookie free agent who made the 53-man roster, Hill missed multiple weeks with a hamstring injury and couldn’t carve out a role on defense before tearing his ACL late in the season. He remains an interesting name to watch once he’s healthy again.

2018 positional outlook

Even with Smith, Young, and Hill coming back from serious injuries, the Ravens remain in pretty good shape at this position with the rapid emergence of Humphrey being the biggest reason why. One of the most interesting decisions of the offseason might be what to do with Carr since the Ravens need cap space to address a number of holes on the offensive side of the ball. General manager Ozzie Newsome could cut Carr or trade him to a corner-needy team, but that may depend on Smith’s progress as well as the status of Young, who looked the part of a starting-caliber player as a rookie. If Smith is ready to return by Week 1, Carr could turn out to be a very expensive backup. Webb looks to be a likely cap casualty with a $2.15 million salary scheduled for 2018. Ultimately, a healthy Smith and Humphrey as the starting corners with Young and Canady working in sub packages would be quite a foursome.

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Ravens cornerback Humphrey charged with third-degree robbery

Posted on 25 January 2018 by Luke Jones

Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey was arrested and charged with third-degree robbery on Thursday, according to the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Office.

The arrest stemmed from a Jan. 13 incident in which Humphrey allegedly took a phone charger from an Uber driver outside the Hotel Capstone on the University of Alabama campus. According to the accuser, Humphrey had asked to borrow the charger and then refused to give it back, elbowing the driver without leaving a mark or doing any injury.

Upon arriving at the scene, University of Alabama Police discovered the charger did not fit Humphrey’s phone and returned it to the driver. The incident report indicated Humphrey was suspected of using alcohol.

Humphrey was booked into the Tuscaloosa County Jail Thursday morning on a $2,500 bond.

The Ravens are aware of the incident.

“Marlon told us that it was a misunderstanding regarding a $15 telephone charger, which he thought was his,” the team said in a statement. “Our understanding is that he has been interviewed by University of Alabama Police and is cooperating. We are monitoring the situation.”

Humphrey, 21, was selected in the first round of the 2017 draft after a standout collegiate career at Alabama and played in all 16 games as a rookie, making five starts and finishing with two interceptions. He is the son of former NFL running back and Alabama product Bobby Humphrey.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts on quiet start to offseason

Posted on 19 January 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens still not having set a date for their season review press conference, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The brass never reveals every detail of its offseason game plan, but perhaps we can anticipate more candor than usual at the annual “State of the Ravens” since the summit at Steve Bisciotti’s Florida home will have already taken place. Fighting fan apathy has to be a major concern.

2. There’s little to take away from an introductory press conference, but Wink Martindale passed the test by citing his aggressive personality when calling a game. It’s unfair to judge him too harshly for his poor 2010 results in Denver, but the proof will be in the results this coming fall.

3. I’m sure no one in Cleveland will be shedding any tears, but only six NFL teams now have a longer playoff appearance drought than the Ravens. That really speaks to the parity of the league and should also tick some people off in Owings Mills.

4. John Harbaugh acknowledged the possibility of drafting a quarterback, but taking one any earlier than the third or fourth round would clash with the goal of getting back to the postseason in 2018. Aim to upgrade from Ryan Mallett and if you discover the successor to Joe Flacco, that’s perfect.

5. Marlon Humphrey looked the part of a budding No. 1 cornerback down the stretch. If he continues blossoming and Smith struggles in his return from a torn Achilles tendon next season, you’d have to think the latter could be a cap casualty in 2019 with a $16.175 million number scheduled.

6. Ryan Jensen won’t be easy to re-sign, but you’d hate losing someone who stabilized an important position that had been an issue since Matt Birk’s retirement. Just handing the job to Matt Skura and assuming everything will be OK is a risk. Jensen graded as PFF’s ninth-best center this season.

7. There’s no guarantee Smith will be ready for the start of 2018, but I’m inclined to move on from Brandon Carr to save $4 million in cap space if Tavon Young is cleared for spring workouts. There are too many holes on the opposite side of the ball to address.

8. Breshad Perriman finished 119th out of 119 qualified wide receivers in PFF’s grading system and regressed dramatically from a 2016 season in which he was at least a functional contributor with 499 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Doesn’t someone have to be accountable for this besides the player?

9. The thought of a healthy Kenneth Dixon teaming with starter Alex Collins next season is intriguing, but Dixon has a lot to prove after a major knee injury and two suspensions. Much like tight end Darren Waller, the Ravens shouldn’t count on him until he proves otherwise.

10. Much has been made of the offense’s post-bye improvement, but the Ravens scored only three offensive touchdowns in the first quarter all season and had none after Week 8. In the same way the defense must learn how to finish, this offense has to start faster.

11. I’m not ready to compare Jacksonville to the 2000 Ravens, but the swagger of its defense reminds me of old teams here. The Jaguars benefited from early draft picks and much cap space, but they’re a better version of what Baltimore tried to build this year.

12. I have interest and work responsibilities in other sports, but I’m still amazed how quickly many dive into draft discussion. I prefer waiting for at least the Senior Bowl and the combine for more context before discussing the same names for the next three months, but to each his own.

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Ravens offensive lineman Eluemunor named to PFWA All-Rookie team

Posted on 16 January 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens had one entry on the 2017 Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie team, but the individual will surprise you.

Despite appearing in only eight games and making just two starts overall, guard Jermaine Eluemunor received the honor, which was much more of a reflection on the shortage of rookies playing the position this season rather than his play. The fifth-round pick from Texas A&M started at right guard in Weeks 6 and 7 while Matt Skura was out with a knee injury and finished with the 12th-worst grade among all guards playing at least 198 offensive snaps this season, according to Pro Football Focus.

Eluemunor dealt with a shoulder injury for most of the second half of the season and was inactive for the final six games, but head coach John Harbaugh provided an honest assessment of where the rookie lineman stood during the bye week.

“We knew he was a project. In all honesty, he didn’t play much football,” Harbaugh said. “He was in a spread offense in college. You have to give him a lot of credit for how well he’s done so far just as a really inexperienced player. He’s done pretty OK. Is it good enough to win? No. He knows that, but he’s not there yet.

“But he practices out here really hard every single day. He listens, he’s coachable, has talent, [and is a] big, strong guy. I think he’s going to be a good player.”

Los Angeles Chargers lineman Dan Feeney and Seattle’s Ethan Pocic were the other guards on the All-Rookie team. Both played substantially more than Eluemunor this season, but Pocic actually finished with a lower PFF grade than the Baltimore lineman.

First-round pick Marlon Humphrey was the only other Ravens player who would have garnered any real consideration to make the All-Rookie team, but the Alabama product predictably lost out to Marshon Lattimore of New Orleans and Buffalo’s Tre’Davious White at the cornerback position. Lattimore was voted the PFWA’s Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Kansas City running back Kareem Hunt was named the PFWA’s 2017 Rookie of the Year and shared Offensive Rookie of the Year honors with New Orleans running back Alvin Kamara.

Below is the full All-Rookie team:

2017 PFWA ALL-ROOKIE TEAM

Offense

QB – Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans

RB – Kareem Hunt, Kansas City Chiefs; Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints

WR – Cooper Kupp, Los Angeles Rams; Juju Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers

TE – Evan Engram, New York Giants

C – Pat Elflein, Minnesota Vikings

G – Dan Feeney, Los Angeles Chargers; Jermaine Eluemunor, Baltimore Ravens, and Ethan Pocic, Seattle Seahawks (tie)

T – Garett Bolles, Denver Broncos; Ryan Ramczyk, New Orleans Saints

Defense

DL – Derek Barnett, Philadelphia Eagles; Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns; Carl Lawson, Cincinnati Bengals; Dalvin Tomlinson, New York Giants

LB – Jarrad Davis, Detroit Lions; Reuben Foster, San Francisco 49ers; T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers

CB – Marshon Lattimore, New Orleans Saints; Tre’Davious White, Buffalo Bills

S – Jamal Adams, New York Jets; Marcus Williams, New Orleans Saints

Special Teams

PK – Harrison Butker, Kansas City Chiefs

P – Rigoberto Sanchez, Indianapolis Colts

KR – Ryan Switzer, Dallas Cowboys

PR – Jamal Agnew, Detroit Lions

ST – Budda Baker, Arizona Cardinals

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Ravens, Green Bay providing interesting contrast to start of offseason

Posted on 05 January 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens are again preaching continuity after missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five years, but a contemporary with an even better track record over the last decade is proceeding quite differently.

If any team had an excuse for missing the playoffs in 2017, it was probably Green Bay after six-time Pro Bowl quarterback Aaron Rodgers missed over half of the season with a broken collarbone. The Packers fared exactly how you’d expect with backup Brett Hundley under center as the Ravens even contributed to that misery with a 23-0 shutout victory at Lambeau Field in Week 11. But that hasn’t stopped Green Bay from making substantial changes after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

In place as the general manager since 2005, Ted Thompson has stepped aside and will now serve in an advisory role. Head coach Mike McCarthy has fired both his offensive and defensive coordinators as well as his defensive line and inside linebackers coaches. The Packers also allowed their quarterbacks coach’s contract to expire after Hundley wasn’t up to the task of filling in for Rodgers.

Of course, every situation is unique and can be driven by factors other than the results on the field, but it’s a substantial shakeup for the Packers, who had been tied with New England for the longest active playoff appearance streak in the NFL at eight consecutive seasons. This is a team coming off an appearance in last year’s NFC Championship, so it’s more than fair to argue this being an overreaction when you lose one of the best quarterbacks in the league.

Regardless, it’s an interesting contrast from Ravens head coach John Harbaugh defending offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and the rest of his offensive staff by citing quarterback Joe Flacco missing all of training camp with a back injury and starting guards Alex Lewis and Marshal Yanda being lost for the season. No one would compare Flacco’s impact to that of a future Hall of Fame quarterback, but the Ravens did have their franchise signal-caller available for all 16 games — even at less than 100 percent. And while there’s no understating the Week 2 loss of a six-time Pro Bowl right guard for the remainder of the year, Green Bay also dealt with a number of injuries on its offensive line this season.

One approach isn’t necessarily more correct than the other as time will tell whether these teams who have both won a Super Bowl in the last eight years will get back on track, but the Packers are certainly being aggressive trying to address their 2017 failures after a 7-9 finish while the Ravens have so far only been tasked with replacing their defensive coordinator after Dean Pees’ retirement. The juxtaposition of those two reactions to missing the playoffs will be interesting to monitor in 2018.

Jimmy Smith ready for start of next season?

It’s been just over a month since veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith suffered a torn Achilles tendon, leaving his status for the start of the 2018 season up in the air.

In the midst of the best campaign of his career at the time of the injury, Smith missed the final four contests and also served a four-game ban for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. It marked the fifth time in seven years that the 2011 first-round pick played no more than 12 games, making many understandably skeptical that he’ll be ready for Week 1 in September.

“You saw how fast [Terrell Suggs] came back from his,” said Harbaugh, referencing his remarkable 2012 return from an Achilles tear in under six months. “Then, there’s always a building back to your skill set, too, so we understand that. If you do the math, eight months [to recover would] be September for Jimmy. That’s conservative; it’s really a little more than that.

“We’ll see where he’s at. I’m hopeful, but we’ll have a bunch of corners here, too, to make sure that we have enough corners.”

Smith’s injury could open the door for veteran Brandon Carr to remain in Baltimore. The 31-year-old struggled down the stretch, but he has never missed a game in his career and cutting him would leave the youthful trio of Marlon Humphrey, Tavon Young, and Maurice Canady atop the depth chart until Smith is ready to return.

Releasing Carr would save $4 million in salary cap space for the 2018 season.

Infirmary report

Harbaugh said he will likely hold Yanda out until training camp, but the 33-year-old will be ready to go before then and is “already moving and doing some things” after suffering a season-ending ankle injury on Sept. 17.

According to the coach, Lewis (shoulder), Young (knee), and running back Kenneth Dixon (knee) will be ready for the start of the offseason conditioning program in April while linebacker Albert McClellan (knee) should be ready to return by the start of training camp. Rookie wide receiver Tim White has been 100 percent for roughly the last six weeks after suffering a serious thumb injury in the first preseason game. Defensive end Brent Urban (foot) will also be ready by the spring, but he is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March.

Harbaugh said he hasn’t had any contact with tight end Darren Waller, who was suspended for a year for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy in June.

Young backup for Flacco

Harbaugh acknowledged the possibility of the Ravens drafting a young quarterback this spring.

Flacco will turn 33 later this month and has been hampered by knee and back injuries over the last three seasons and sustained a concussion in Week 8. He is under contract through the 2021 season, but the Super Bowl XLVII MVP is coming off one of the more trying seasons of his 10-year career. Backup Ryan Mallett has served as his backup for the last two seasons and struggled this past preseason, leading many to clamor for the Ravens to draft a quarterback with some long-term upside.

“It’s something that we will talking about for sure,” Harbaugh said. “Every position, certain positions are going to be more important than others, but when you have a veteran quarterback at this stage, that is the time you are always looking for a young backup. I don’t think that jeopardizes Joe at all. He is our guy, and I am excited about our chances next year having a great season, and Joe is too.

“If we draft a quarterback, if it turns out to be the thing we do, it is only going to make our team stronger.”

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 23-16 win over Indianapolis

Posted on 26 December 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens clinching their first winning season since 2014 after a 23-16 victory over Indianapolis, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Critics say this defense hasn’t been very good when it hasn’t forced turnovers, but isn’t that true of many units? Sure, there’s been some variance in the overall performance, but give me the group more dynamic taking the ball away over a more “consistent” unit that’s ordinary in that department.

2. The offense continues to play at a higher level in December, but the Ravens have scored just three touchdowns in seven trips inside the red zone the last two weeks since going 4-for-4 against Pittsburgh. Justin Tucker field goals in that area aren’t going to cut it in January.

3. Both Alex Collins and Michael Campanaro put the ball on the ground against the Colts, but the Ravens have committed only two turnovers in the last six games since the bye. That’s strong evidence supporting the notion that this offense was way too conservative through the first three months.

4. Maurice Canady saved the day with his fourth-down pass breakup to preserve a one-score lead, and his emergence sure gives the Ravens some good cornerback depth moving forward. Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr, Marlon Humphrey, Tavon Young, and Canady are all under contract for 2018.

5. Jack Doyle didn’t put up monster numbers, but he was the latest tight end to give the Ravens issues in coverage. It’s tough not to be nervous about that deficiency with a potential matchup with Kansas City’s three-time Pro Bowl selection Travis Kelce looming in the wild-card round.

6. I understand frustration and even boos when a player isn’t performing, but the Bronx cheers for Breshad Perriman’s 8-yard reception in the third quarter felt a little too mean-spirited for my taste, especially since the guy has barely played since the bye anyway.

7. Speaking of disappointing early picks, Maxx Williams caught his first touchdown in over two years. He’s done a solid job as a blocker this year, but that’s not exactly what Ozzie Newsome had in mind when he traded up in the second round of the 2015 draft to take him.

8. Buck Allen has averaged an ordinary 3.7 yards per carry overall, but he’s done a solid job in short-yardage situations despite not being a bruising back. He was initially stuffed on fourth-and-1 on the opening drive and reached for the first down with second effort.

9. Remember when some wondered if Kamar Aiken might eventually develop into a poor man’s version of Anquan Boldin after leading the Ravens with 75 receptions in 2015? He has 14 catches on 42 targets with Indianapolis this season and a combined 43 catches in 30 games since that campaign.

10. Frank Gore was never viewed as the best running back in the NFL at any point, but the 34-year-old is closing in on 14,000 career rushing yards in an era when backs increasingly have a shorter shelf life. Longevity is an underrated quality, especially in this sport.

11. The Ravens could end up making a January run, but their strength of victory ranks 13th of 16 AFC teams and would still be 10th if you remove the two wins over 0-15 Cleveland. Even after their early injuries, not making the playoffs with this schedule would be extremely disappointing.

12. Baltimore surprisingly broke out its black jerseys despite having already worn the alternate tops two other times this year. The black-on-white look — the Ravens’ seventh different uniform combination of the season — is an underrated one.

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Ravens-Browns: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 16 December 2017 by Luke Jones

The task is clear for the Ravens after last Sunday’s heartbreaking loss in Pittsburgh.

Three wins will very likely assure them of their first trip to the playoffs since 2014. Anything less leaves them at the mercy of how other AFC playoff contenders such as Buffalo, Tennessee, Kansas City, and Los Angeles will fare. Their focus must remain on beating a Cleveland team desperate for its first win, but the Ravens will naturally be taking a peek at the out-of-town scoreboard on Sunday.

“I always look. It is always interesting to see what the scores are,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “I’m sure we’ll be interested in that, but really, it doesn’t matter. We need to win. We need to win. We don’t need to be [dealing with] any tiebreakers or anything like that. We just need to win.”

Regardless of what other teams do, there are no excuses for the Ravens the rest of the way with such a reasonable schedule. Losing to the winless Browns, the Luck-less Colts, or the listless Bengals could send shock waves through the organization after Steve Bisciotti exercised much patience the previous two offseasons. Blowing a fourth-quarter lead at Heinz Field for the second straight year didn’t sit well with the owner last week, so you can only imagine how he’d react if the Ravens were to drop the ball at any point before the ball drops on New Year’s Eve.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens meet Cleveland for the 38th time in the all-time series and hold a 28-9 advantage after their 24-10 win at M&T Bank Stadium in Week 2. Despite the overall perception, the last four contests played at FirstEnergy Stadium have been decided by one possession.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Browns rookie edge rusher Myles Garrett will collect 1 1/2 sacks in the first of many encounters with Ronnie Stanley. The first overall pick of this year’s draft has missed five games due to injuries, but he has five sacks and has consistently caused problems in the pocket. Meanwhile, Stanley has had a solid season, but the 2016 first-round pick hasn’t yet taken his game to the next level from his encouraging rookie campaign. This is a matchup that will be worth watching over the next few years, but you’d expect Ravens tight ends to help out by chipping the talented 272-pound defensive end on Sunday.

2. Alex Collins will eclipse 75 rushing yards while finding the end zone for the fifth straight game. The Browns have allowed an NFL-best 3.3 yards per carry and will present a tough challenge for a running game that’s been terrific over the last two weeks. Collins continues to pick up plenty of yardage after contact and will need to do that once again against a tough front. Joe Flacco and the passing game has been much better recently, but much of that stems from play-action calls and Collins will have plenty of opportunities to control the tempo of the game, especially with a lead.

3. Marlon Humphrey will match up with Josh Gordon and allow a touchdown reception in an otherwise strong performance. Much has been made about Dean Pees’ play-calling in the Pittsburgh game, but the biggest takeaway was Brandon Carr struggling much more in coverage than the coaching staff anticipated. The Ravens have rarely even used Jimmy Smith to travel with a specific wide receiver over the years, but Humphrey could earn that very assignment against the supremely-talented Gordon, who’s shown little rust in his first action in three years. This will be a fun matchup to watch.

4. Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer will commit two turnovers in Baltimore territory. According to ESPN, the rookie is the NFL’s lowest-rated passer inside the red zone, the main reason why his team is 26th in red-zone offense. Cleveland has also had predictable problems with pass protection since left tackle Joe Thomas was lost for the season, so that should open the door for Terrell Suggs to put heat on Kizer and force him into rushing throws. A plus-13 turnover difference has left the 7-6 Ravens in the playoff race while a league-worst minus-21 turnover ratio largely explains why the Browns are 0-13.

5. The Ravens will overcome a lethargic start to prevail in a 23-13 final. A slow beginning wouldn’t be a shock after an emotionally-draining loss to the Steelers while the Browns should be energized and motivated playing in their last home game. Cleveland would like nothing more than to put Baltimore’s playoff hopes in jeopardy, but there’s a reason why this team hasn’t won a game all season and the Ravens have won three of their last four and have been better on the road than in recent campaigns. It won’t be the kind of win that will improve the eyeball test for Harbaugh’s team, but a steady performance is all that’s needed for the first of three wins to help wrap up a postseason berth.

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday night

Posted on 09 December 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens don’t really need to beat Pittsburgh on Sunday night.

A one-game lead for the final wild-card spot, a strong tiebreaker profile, and three remaining games — two at home — against teams that are a combined 20 games below .500 make Baltimore’s chances to make it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2014 very strong already. But a victory would bring the elusive signature win that would make the doubters — and perhaps John Harbaugh’s team itself — start to believe the Ravens are capable of being a legitimate threat in January.

Meanwhile, the Steelers hope to extend their seven-game winning streak, but a defeat would still leave them within striking distance of New England, who will visit Heinz Field next week with the upper hand for the No. 1 seed in the AFC on the line. The immediate incentive for Pittsburgh to win Sunday would be to clinch the AFC North title, but its three-game advantage with four weeks to go leaves quite a margin for error in the division race.

In other words, the renewal of this intense rivalry lacks the same stakes as last year’s Christmas Day affair that essentially served as a division championship game.

Last week’s serious back injury suffered by Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier has been on the minds of both teams as the former Pro Bowl selection’s future on and off the field remains unclear. With many Pittsburgh players planning to wear cleats paying tribute to their injured teammate, how the Steelers respond emotionally playing at home could certainly be a factor for at least the beginning of Sunday night’s game.

It’s time to go on the record as these AFC North rivals meet for the 44th time in the regular-season series with the Steelers holding a slight 23-20 advantage to go with a 3-1 edge in postseason encounters. Pittsburgh has won the last two meetings and is in search of its first regular-season sweep of the Ravens since 2008. Including the playoffs, 16 of the 22 showdowns with the Steelers in the John Harbaugh era have been decided by a single possession.

Below are five predictions for Sunday night:

1. Danny Woodhead will have his best game as a Raven with 60 receiving yards and a touchdown. The focus on Shazier’s injury has rightly been on his health and not on football, but the Steelers will miss his presence in pass coverage as he recorded an interception and four breakups against Baltimore’s underneath passing game in Week 4. With Cam Heyward and a strong Pittsburgh front dominating the line of scrimmage in that first meeting, Joe Flacco may have to rely on more short passing and less of Alex Collins and the running game. With outside linebacker Arthur Moats filling in on the inside, this is the game Woodhead and the Ravens need to exploit an advantageous matchup.

2. Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell will finish with 115 total yards of offense. It’s no secret the run defense has been superb since Brandon Williams’ return in late October, but Bell’s huge game in Week 4 was more about the inability to set the edge on outside runs and to handle the Steelers’ pulling interior linemen on counters than struggles inside as he averaged just 2.2 yards per carry between the tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. The Ravens will be hellbent to slow Bell as a runner, but linebackers C.J. Mosley and Patrick Onwuasor have been vulnerable in pass coverage and this is where Bell will find more of his success. He’ll extend a streak of 57 or more receiving yards to four straight games.

3. Mike Wallace and Martavis Bryant will catch long touchdowns for their respective teams. With Steelers cornerback Joe Haden still out and their safeties inclined to play a little closer to the line of scrimmage to help the inside linebackers in coverage, there should be some opportunities for the Ravens to take deep shots and Wallace has been playing his best football of the year since the bye. On the flip side, Baltimore will do whatever it can schematically to prevent Antonio Brown from killing a secondary without Jimmy Smith, but that will leave Marlon Humphrey or Brandon Carr occasionally on an island matched up with Bryant, who is still dangerous despite a disappointing season.

4. Joe Flacco will be efficient and play turnover-free football for the third straight week. The 10th-year quarterback is coming off his best game of the year and needs to play more like that down the stretch if the Ravens are to become a realistic threat in the AFC. Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler will do more to try to confuse Flacco and mix up coverages than Detroit did a week ago, but his fourth-ranked defense ranks a pedestrian 14th in the NFL in takeaways. Pass protection needs to hold up better than it did in the first meeting between these teams, but Flacco will effectively find Woodhead and Jeremy Maclin in the short-to-intermediate area of the field.

5. The Ravens will pull off the upset for their first signature win of the season in a 23-20 final. Perhaps I’m drinking too much purple Kool-Aid, but the Steelers are coming off a short and emotional week following a Monday night road game and have trailed in the second half of four of their last five games, illustrating how vulnerable they’ve looked at times despite a terrific 10-2 record. Baltimore has one last chance to earn a signature win and needs to build on its strong performance from a week ago to build confidence that the offense can be productive enough moving forward to have a real chance in the playoffs. The Steelers are the better team overall, but this week’s circumstances set up favorably for the Ravens to steal a road win in Pittsburgh and further improve their playoff positioning.

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Humphrey’s time arrives for playoff-hopeful Ravens

Posted on 06 December 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey will be playing at Heinz Field for the first time Sunday night, but he has an idea of what to expect against Pittsburgh.

Facing the NFL’s fourth-ranked passing attack in his first start in place of the injured Jimmy Smith, the first-round rookie knows he’ll have a bullseye on his back as Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger surveys a Baltimore secondary now without its top corner. Humphrey acknowledges this in a matter-of-fact way without a hint of intimidation or even all that much excitement in his voice.

It’s not the first time he’s been under the microscope on a big stage, of course, as it was just two years ago that he was a redshirt freshman starting for a national championship Alabama team.

“I’m sure if there’s a weak link they have to pick out, it would definitely be me,” said Humphrey, referencing the big plays he gave up against Detroit last Sunday. “Big Ben likes to throw it up. He’s a great quarterback, so I’m sure if he has to take those shots, it’ll probably be at me.”

The six-foot, 197-pound cornerback struggled as Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford targeted him frequently after Smith suffered a torn Achilles tendon late in the second quarter, but it’s not as though Humphrey hadn’t already shown enough for the Ravens to be confident in him. It was just a couple weeks ago when many began wondering if Humphrey was on the cusp of earning a starting position before a thigh issue limited him to seven defensive snaps in Week 12.

His talent was evident from the first day of organized team activities when he was still two months shy of his 21st birthday. Humphrey didn’t look much like a rookie in the spring and summer as he practiced press coverage and displayed the kind of polish you expect from a cornerback with at least a couple seasons under his belt.

This past Sunday was arguably the first time the moment has looked too big for him since he was selected with the 16th overall pick in April’s draft, and he still recovered in the fourth quarter to intercept a Stafford pass to help preserve the win.

“He has good composure on the field. He has God-given speed,” 10th-year cornerback Brandon Carr said. “The ability he has, he can make up for a lot of things that he hasn’t learned yet as far as technique and the ins and outs of the receivers. But he has a knack for just going out there and making plays.”

The Ravens would surely prefer having Smith on the field against the likes of All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown and deep threat Martavis Bryant in a nationally-televised prime-time game, but it’s not as though they’re throwing Humphrey to the wolves as an untested commodity. He’s already logged more than 300 defensive snaps this season — including 55 against an Oakland offense that included wide receivers Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper — after frequently spelling a banged-up Smith and replacing Carr when he struggled to slow down Green Bay’s speedy receivers late last month.

According to Pro Football Focus, Humphrey has graded a respectable 41st among qualified cornerbacks and is allowing a passer rating of just 52.3 when targeted. He has collected 25 tackles and two interceptions to go along with eight pass breakups. The latter stat ranks second on the team and reflects how quarterbacks had already tried to test the rookie with little success before Stafford’s last Sunday.

Prior to Smith’s injury, coaches had boasted that they had three starting corners on the league’s third-ranked pass defense, and the numbers support that idea as Humphrey has played 18 or more snaps seven times this season.

“I think it’ll help a lot,” Humphrey said. “Coaches have given me a lot of time to play for me [being] a backup corner. It’ll definitely help that I’ve got some game experience.”

Of course, the apprenticeship is now over as Humphrey will start opposite of Carr and the Ravens will try to avoid their second straight late-season collapse following an injury to Smith. There’s no safety net as the next men up on the depth chart are also inexperienced in Maurice Canady, Jaylen Hill, and Stanley Jean-Baptiste.

Frankly, this exact scenario with the oft-injured Smith is why general manager Ozzie Newsome passed on prospects at other positions of need to select Humphrey. Some growing pains are likely or even inevitable down the stretch, but his talent and even-keeled personality are major reasons why the Ravens believe they can endure Smith’s absence this time around after it was their fatal flaw last December.

“If a ball is completed on him, it’s not ‘sulk and go in the tank’ like some rookies can do,” said defensive coordinator Dean Pees about Humphrey early last month. “Every defensive back that is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame has gotten beat — every one of them. It is just a matter of the ones that are really in there are the ones that could forget that and go play the next play.

“I’m certainly not putting him in that category yet, but he has that quality.”

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