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Twelve Ravens thoughts on divisional-round weekend

Posted on 14 January 2019 by Luke Jones

With the NFL divisional round now in the books, I’ve offered a dozen Ravens-related thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The league’s top four scoring offenses advanced to the conference championship games with only one of those teams — New England — ranking in the top 10 in scoring defense. Remember that as Eric DeCosta weighs tough defensive roster decisions against the need to build an offense around 22-year-old quarterback Lamar Jackson.

2. Since the 2012 Ravens, no team playing in the wild-card round has made the Super Bowl. In fact, no team even playing a road playoff game since then has made it. Rest and home-field advantage remain way more important than being the hot upstart “nobody wants to see in January.”

3. After dominating Baltimore last week, the Chargers’ “quarter” defense had no answers for New England using big personnel and running right at them. The Patriots carving up Los Angeles didn’t make former offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg or the rest of the Baltimore offensive staff look any better.

4. Fans and even a player or two predictably suggested the Ravens would have put up a better fight against the Patriots. I’ll hear that with Baltimore’s defense, but Bill Belichick having an extra week to prepare for a rookie quarterback and a limited offense? That may not have been pretty.

5. New Orleans receiver Michael Thomas continued a remarkable 125-catch regular season with 12 receptions for 171 yards and a touchdown in Sunday’s win over Philadelphia. He was selected five spots after Kamalei Correa in the 2016 draft. Sorry for ruining your day.

6. Watching the divisional round reiterated how badly the Ravens need more talented pass catchers who can gain yards after the catch. They ranked 27th in the NFL in yards after the catch this season after their wide receivers ranked 31st in that category in 2017.

7. I couldn’t help but wonder if Haloti Ngata was playing his final NFL game with Philadelphia on Sunday. His star faded a long time ago, but a 340-pound defensive tackle lasting 13 seasons is really impressive. The five-time Pro Bowl selection is an instant shoo-in for the Ring of Honor.

8. The Patriots are the last team Ravens fans want to see winning the Super Bowl, but Albert McClellan was one of the most respected players in the Baltimore locker room for a long time. His special-teams prowess has fit well in New England as he recovered a fumble on Sunday.

9. Jared Goff going to the NFC Championship two years after an awful rookie season should be all the evidence needed to see why it’s unfair to draw strong conclusions about a quarterback so quickly. I’m fascinated to see how Jackson looks after a full offseason to refine his passing ability.

10. Having already announced plans to retire, former Raven Benjamin Watson will accomplish a rare feat if the Saints win the Super Bowl. The 38-year-old spent most of his rookie season on injured reserve, but he won a Super Bowl with the Patriots that year. Those would be quite the bookends.

11. Speaking of long careers, Joe Flacco arrived in Baltimore eight years after Tom Brady in New England, had a memorable 11-year-run that included a Super Bowl MVP award and a couple playoff wins in Foxboro, and will depart while the 41-year-old is still standing. How is that possible?

12. This isn’t related to the Ravens, but the video below tells my favorite story of the weekend.

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Ravens protect investment by shifting Roman to offensive coordinator

Posted on 11 January 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens don’t yet know what kind of passing game they’ll ultimately have with Lamar Jackson, but they immediately formed the NFL’s most dynamic rushing attack when the young quarterback became the starter in mid-November.

That element was too valuable to risk losing on the path of the 22-year-old’s development.

Head coach John Harbaugh recognized that truth in promoting assistant head coach and tight ends coach Greg Roman to offensive coordinator on Friday. Marty Mornhinweg will not remain on the Baltimore staff despite being offered a different job title, according to Harbaugh.

Reportedly drawing interest from other teams, Roman, 46, was the architect of a Baltimore ground game that gained nearly twice as many rushing yards over the final seven regular-season games as it did in the first nine contests with former starter Joe Flacco, whose Week 9 hip injury facilitated the change at quarterback and in philosophy. The offensive shakeup contributed to the Ravens winning six of their final seven games to win the AFC North and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

“Increasing Greg’s responsibilities will help us get where we’re going on offense,” Harbaugh said in a statement released by the Ravens. “His role with our offense has already been significant and substantial. His understanding of the run game we are building — which we saw some of in the second half of the season — and how it integrates with a consistent and big-play passing game is exciting.”

Down the stretch, Harbaugh repeatedly praised the work of the entire offensive coaching staff — Mornhinweg included — in pivoting at the bye week from a throw-happy offense that had averaged more than 640 passing attempts per season from 2015-17 to one that ran nearly twice as often as it passed, but the run-heavy schemes were the same ones employed by Roman in his previous stints as the offensive coordinator for San Francisco (2011-14) and Buffalo (2015-16), making it important not to lose him to another team. Debate remained over Mornhinweg being the right man to oversee Jackson’s development as a passer, but what was indisputable was the 2018 first-round pick’s fit in Roman’s rushing schemes as Baltimore averaged 5.1 yards per carry over the final seven regular-season games and the rookie rushed for 695 yards on 147 carries in his rookie season, a modern NFL record for attempts by a quarterback.

That made promoting Roman and risking losing Mornhinweg — which ultimately happened — the path of least resistance in maintaining some continuity while hoping to build on the 2018 success. Of course, that doesn’t change the need for the Ravens to find more offensive balance to better protect Jackson by decreasing his number of carries — and subsequent hits taken.

How the poor offensive showing in last Sunday’s playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers impacted Harbaugh’s thinking is unclear, but post-game comments from Chargers players suggesting they knew exactly what was coming didn’t reflect well on Mornhinweg or the rest of the offensive staff. The Ravens were held to just 90 yards on 23 carries with Jackson completing only three passes and posting a 2.8 passer rating through the first three quarters of his postseason debut.

It remains to be seen how Roman’s new role will impact Jackson’s development or whether the Ravens will seek additional help for the passing game with Mornhinweg’s departure. Friday’s press release made no mention of quarterbacks coach James Urban or any potential change in his job responsibilities.

In Roman’s five full seasons as a coordinator with the 49ers and Bills, his offenses annually finished in the bottom 10 in passing yards per game, but three of those units ranked in the top seven in yards per passing attempt, the kind of efficiency the Ravens would love to see in a more-developed Jackson. Over those years, Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick, and Tyrod Taylor all posted the highest single-season passer ratings of their respective careers.

Upon arriving in Baltimore as a senior offensive assistant and tight ends coach in 2017, Roman immediately made an impact in the running game as the Ravens improved from 28th in rushing yards in 2016 to 11th. It was a major reason why Harbaugh’s team was able to tread water in the first half of the season when Flacco was still feeling the effects of a back injury that sidelined him for the entire summer. That rushing success prompted the Ravens to re-sign Roman and promote him to the title of assistant head coach for the 2018 campaign.

Roman is a 21-year NFL coaching veteran who had a previous stint with the Ravens as an offensive line assistant under former head coach Brian Billick from 2006-07. He also worked for Carolina and Houston at the beginning of his coaching career before later being hired by Jim Harbaugh at Stanford and following him to the 49ers.

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Patience — and skepticism — warranted as Ravens’ fun 2018 ride comes to end

Posted on 08 January 2019 by Luke Jones

The 2018 Ravens were weird but fun, something that shouldn’t be forgotten in the aftermath of the ugly wild-card playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.

Winning its first AFC North championship in six years and returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2014, Baltimore completed one of the more memorable in-season turnarounds in team history. Faced with a three-game losing streak and a hip injury to longtime quarterback Joe Flacco at the bye week, head coach John Harbaugh and his coaching staff turned to rookie Lamar Jackson and zigged while the rest of the pass-happy NFL zagged with the Ravens rushing for over 1,600 yards in their final seven games, nearly twice as many as their total from the first nine weeks of the season. The coaches deserve much credit for remaking the offense on the fly, and that drastic change was embraced by players, including a group of wide receivers who were marginalized overnight.

However, that ride came to a screeching halt Sunday with the Chargers defense smothering the Ravens for the first 50 minutes of play, holding them to three points and 83 total yards through three quarters in their own stadium. It was obvious Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley figured out the unconventional Baltimore running game the second time around, but the Ravens were soundly beaten in their one-on-one matchups as well, especially on the offensive line. The offense was thoroughly outcoached and outplayed, and it was too late by the time the Ravens managed two late touchdowns against a sleepy Los Angeles defense to make the final score look respectable.

With an enjoyable season coming to an end, patience is warranted, but skepticism is fair in assessing the state of the Ravens moving forward. The first playoff appearance in four years typically signals brighter days ahead, but this season was as much a last hurrah for some key individuals as it was the start of a new chapter.

Change is already underway as longtime lieutenant Eric DeCosta becomes the general manager with Ozzie Newsome stepping aside after 23 years in charge of football operations. That should be as seamless a transition as you’ll find in this position with DeCosta having been with the Ravens since their inception, but that doesn’t guarantee success or the absence of some hiccups along the way.

The Ravens have publicly expressed their intentions of keeping Harbaugh, but rumors and speculation will persist until a contract extension becomes official. How his assistant coaches fit into that future also remains to be seen as Sunday wasn’t exactly a banner day for offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg.

We know Flacco is finished in Baltimore as Harbaugh eulogized the former Super Bowl MVP’s Ravens career minutes after Sunday’s loss, but he’s unlikely to be the only notable veteran player to depart. Retirement, free agency, or salary-cap decisions could lead to the exit of some combination of Marshal Yanda, Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, Eric Weddle, Za’Darius Smith, Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr, Michael Crabtree, John Brown, and Tony Jefferson. Much will depend on how dramatically DeCosta wants to reshape the roster and reset the salary cap in his first year calling the shots.

Regardless of other changes, Jackson’s development is obviously the biggest factor in determining the short-to-intermediate future and that will require some patience and perspective. The 22-year-old is a special talent who flashed much to like on his way to helping the Ravens win six of their last seven regular-season games, but significant questions about his ball security and passing ability cannot be overlooked because of the early team success. That was apparent Sunday as he fumbled three times and completed only three passes through three quarters until regrouping to throw two touchdowns in the final seven minutes to make the game interesting. His mental toughness to fight back in the closing minutes was admirable, but he looked in over his head for much of the day.

Jackson was hardly alone in the struggles as the offensive line was awful against the Chargers front, but it was a reminder that he has a long way to go. That’s OK, of course, as Flacco was far from stellar in his first few playoff games before becoming “January Joe” a few years later. Jackson’s first postseason performance really shouldn’t change anything as he was always going to need to make marked improvement, regardless of how far the Ravens advanced this January.

But what will the organization do to help him get there?

Assistant head coach Greg Roman deserves credit for implementing the same run-game schemes successfully used in his previous stops at San Francisco and Buffalo, but is Mornhinweg the right offensive coordinator for Jackson? It’s been much advertised that he and quarterbacks coach James Urban worked with a veteran Michael Vick in Philadelphia, but that was an eternity ago in NFL years. For what it’s worth, Mornhinweg’s arrival as the quarterbacks coach four years ago — with Marc Trestman as the offensive coordinator — coincided with an immediate statistical decline in Flacco after arguably his best season under Gary Kubiak in 2014.

Sunday was damning for Mornhinweg in terms of having no plan B as the Chargers seemingly knew what plays the Ravens were running in their second meeting in 15 days. However, Harbaugh has shown much faith in his offensive coordinator over these last few years, making it difficult to expect a change now as the head coach has newfound leverage with a division championship and playoff appearance.

The Ravens are likely to remain a run-first offense going forward, but more balance will be paramount. With his mobility, Jackson doesn’t need to become Peyton Manning to be very successful at this level, but his throwing mechanics, footwork, and ability to throw outside the numbers will be scrutinized even more next season. Before anything else, however, he needs to do a much better job protecting the football as he finished with 15 fumbles counting Sunday’s playoff game.

The offensive talent the Ravens add around Jackson will be just as important as his individual development. Contrary to the lazy narrative of the last six years being strictly about Flacco’s contract, the Ravens did a poor job building an offense around him. The organization used most of its early draft picks from 2013-17 on defense — with mixed results at best — and even gave out big contracts to defensive players at less valuable positions while the other side of the ball floundered with minimal resources. Flacco’s pending exit shouldn’t leave that truth forgotten.

The Ravens will have much more cap flexibility with a quarterback on a rookie contract for the next few years, but the defense will also be undergoing substantial change with several key veterans moving on sooner than later. In other words, it will be interesting to see if DeCosta and the organization evolve toward making offense the greater priority or whether Jackson will be asked to do less with more like his predecessor. Improving the interior offensive line and addressing the wide receiver position — again — will be just two of the priorities on the offensive side of the ball.

A new era has begun in Baltimore, one that warrants some patience with a new general manager, a number of potential veteran departures, and a talented 22-year-old quarterback. These are certainly interesting and exciting times at 1 Winning Drive.

But it’s fair to be skeptical as the Ravens hand the keys to Jackson, both for his own weaknesses and those of the organization in recent years.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 26-24 win over Cleveland

Posted on 01 January 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens clinching their first AFC North championship since 2012 with a 26-24 win over Cleveland, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The running game produced a season-high 296 yards and finished 2018 with the second-most rushing yards (2,441) in franchise history behind the 2003 team and ahead of the 2008 Ravens. What do those three playoff squads have in common? A rookie quarterback started a large portion of their games.

2. From going for a fourth-and-1 on the 48 on the first drive to using Cover 0 on the final four defensive plays, Baltimore was aggressive with the season on the line. Wink Martindale’s mindset was quite the contrast from rushing four and playing zone on fourth-and-12 last New Year’s Eve.

3. C.J. Mosley hasn’t had his best season and may not be worth the money required to re-sign him, but he made the game-sealing interception and was credited with four hurries by Pro Football Focus. I’ll maintain he’s underappreciated by much of a fan base using Ray Lewis as its standard.

4. Sam Koch deserves much credit for his 51-yard punt that put the Browns on their own 26 for their final drive. After a 37-yard return earlier, Antonio Callaway had nowhere to go near the sideline. A lesser punt very likely would have given Cleveland a potential game-winning field goal try.

5. The Ravens were an inch or two away from a 27-7 lead before Lamar Jackson’s fumble at the goal line. Not only were they fortunate a whistle prevented a Cleveland touchdown the other way, but the Browns failed to take advantage of further sloppy play from Baltimore before halftime.

6. Baker Mayfield made mistakes, but I couldn’t help but feel the Browns wasted plays at times trying to run and throw to the flats when they were having so much success pushing it down the field. The 7.6 yards per play allowed was easily a season worst for the Ravens.

7. Even in victory, it was concerning to see the offense unable to sustain a late drive to protect a one-score lead for the second straight contest. Marty Mornhinweg’s play-calling inside the red zone and on that fourth-quarter drive was questionable.

8. It’s been an up-and-down season for Jimmy Smith, but he came up with the first two-interception game by a Baltimore player since 2013. Per PFF, he allowed just one catch for one yard on seven targets into his coverage. Especially with Marlon Humphrey struggling mightily, that was a critical performance.

9. The short-term ramifications of Sunday’s game dominated the attention, but I’ll gladly sign up for many more Jackson-Mayfield meetings in the years to come. Terrell Suggs’ praise for both rookies said it all. Ben Roethlisberger remains the AFC North quarterback king for now, but a shift is already underway.

10. John Brown registered games of 116 receiving yards and a touchdown against Pittsburgh in Week 4 and 134 yards and a touchdown against New Orleans. Since Jackson became the starter, Brown has a total of eight catches for 114 yards and a touchdown. That’s rough playing on a one-year deal.

11. Sunday’s playoff contest will mark exactly six years since Ray Lewis and Ed Reed played their final home game as Ravens. It’s fitting Jackson, the most exciting player to arrive in Baltimore since Super Bowl XLVII, will start his first playoff game on that anniversary. What fun it should be.

12. Opinions differed on the black jerseys being paired with the purple pants for the first time, but I liked the unique look and hope to see it again, especially for a prime-time game. That was the 10th different uniform combination used by Baltimore this year. Oregon who?

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Harbaugh to remain as Ravens head coach in 2019

Posted on 21 December 2018 by Luke Jones

On the eve of another make-or-break game likely determining their playoff fate, the Ravens have apparently seen enough to recommit to 11th-year head coach John Harbaugh.

The organization issued a statement just over 24 hours before their Saturday showdown with the Los Angeles Chargers saying Harbaugh would return next year as the sides “are working on an extension to his existing contract, which expires after the 2019 season.” Winners of four of their last five games since their Week 10 bye, the Ravens currently hold the final wild-card spot in the AFC playoff race and are trying to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2014.

With former starting quarterback Joe Flacco suffering a hip injury in the Week 9 loss to Pittsburgh that dropped Baltimore’s record to 4-5, the coaching staff went to work revamping a pass-heavy offense during the bye week in preparation for first-round rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson making his first NFL start. What’s resulted is a dynamic run-first attack that’s produced at least 190 rushing yards in five straight games, the first time an NFL team has done that since the 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers. Harbaugh announced last week that Jackson would remain the starter with a now-healthy Flacco officially benched after 10 1/2 years as Baltimore’s franchise quarterback.

Despite being in danger of missing the playoffs for the fifth time in six years, Harbaugh has continued to receive strong support in the locker room with his teams consistently playing hard even when lacking talent at key positions or ravaged by injuries in previous seasons. The 56-year-old arguably would have been the top head coaching candidate around the NFL had the Ravens elected to part ways with him, and many had questioned whether the organization would find a replacement as good as Harbaugh.

Even with the Ravens’ resurgence since the bye, the timing of the announcement is peculiar as a loss to the Chargers would likely mean another non-playoff season for a franchise that has gone just 48-46 and has qualified for the postseason only once since winning Super Bowl XLVII. Owner Steve Bisciotti acknowledged in February that he briefly contemplated a coaching change after the Ravens’ stunning Week 17 loss to Cincinnati that knocked them out of the playoffs last year, but Harbaugh will now remain head coach as Eric DeCosta assumes the general manager role that will be relinquished by Ozzie Newsome at the end of this season.

With rumors and reports circulating about Harbaugh’s future as the Ravens dropped three straight from late October into early November, the team has responded by winning four games against opponents with a combined record of 19-37 and run defenses ranking in the bottom 10 of the NFL, making the Week 16 tilt against a strong and balanced Chargers team a significant test. This is the third straight year in which the Ravens have entered the penultimate week of the season with an 8-6 record and controlling their own path to a playoff spot.

Harbaugh has compiled a 102-72 regular-season record with six playoff appearances, 10 playoff wins, three AFC championship game appearances, and one Super Bowl title in his 11-year run in Baltimore. The Ravens have won at least eight games in all but one of his seasons.

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Red zone even more critical for revamped Ravens entering December

Posted on 30 November 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens are zigging while everyone else zags entering December.

In a season in which Seattle is the only NFL team running the ball more often than not (50.58 percent), Baltimore has run on 96 of its 144 plays — exactly two-thirds — over the last two games, resulting in wins over Cincinnati and Oakland to improve to 6-5 and move back into the No. 6 spot in the AFC. The Ravens had rushed just 36.15 percent of the time prior to their Week 10 bye when it was revealed veteran quarterback Joe Flacco would miss action with a hip injury. The dramatic shift in style figures to continue this week in Atlanta with Flacco officially doubtful after only returning to practice on a limited basis Thursday and rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson preparing to make his third straight start.

Over the last two weeks, the Ravens have increased their usage of the pistol formation and heavy sets featuring two running backs and two tight ends, which aren’t featured all that frequently in today’s NFL. Jackson’s remarkable mobility has put pressure on opposing defenses to account for two potential ball carriers in zone-read looks and run-pass options. That’s helped Jackson and rookie running back Gus Edwards rush for a combined 423 yards over the last two weeks. The entire Baltimore offense didn’t rush for that many yards over the final four games — three of them losses — before the bye.

The unconventional approach in a pass-happy league has led many to ask whether it’s sustainable as the Ravens try to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2014. It won’t be easy as John Harbaugh’s team plays three of its next four games on the road and the three away opponents — the Falcons, Kansas City, and the Los Angeles Chargers — possess offenses ranking in the top six in total yards per game and the top 11 in points per game.

Critics have fairly noted that the Bengals and Raiders have surrendered the most rushing yards in the NFL this year, but the Falcons and Chiefs rank even worse in yards per carry allowed. That’s why many believe the Ravens should stick with Jackson and their newfound approach in an effort to exploit bad run defenses and control the time of possession to limit the possessions for those explosive offenses. Over the last two weeks, the Ravens have possessed the ball more than 72 minutes compared to under 48 minutes for their opponents, an advantage the league’s top-ranked scoring defense certainly has appreciated.

However, the impressive rushing totals and big advantage in time of possession haven’t yet resulted in the offense scoring a tremendous number of points. Entering Week 11, the Ravens were averaging 23.7 points per game and scored 24 against the Bengals, who sport the worst defense in the league and have surrendered 34 or more in each of their other four contests since mid-October. Baltimore scored 34 points in last week’s win over Oakland, but that total was aided by Cyrus Jones’ punt return for a touchdown and Terrell Suggs’ fumble return for a score, which a team isn’t getting every week.

The two offensive touchdowns per game over the last two weeks would rank 26th in the NFL for the season and lags behind the 2.67 per contest registered from Weeks 1-9. Ideally, the run-heavy attack leads to longer drives to keep the opposing offense off the field, but that also means fewer possessions for yourself, making red-zone efficiency that much more important. The Ravens have scored touchdowns on only four of their eight trips inside the 20 over the last two games after entering Week 11 tied for ninth in the NFL at 66.7 percent.

That 50-percent mark was able to cut it playing bad teams at home, but it won’t on the road against teams with top 10-caliber offenses. Relying too much on field goals with fewer overall possessions simply won’t add up.

“I have to do better, we have to do better, all of those things, but yes, it’s big,” said offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg about red-zone efficiency. “We’ve put a little focus on that, just a little bit here, and we will do so [Thursday] and [Friday] as well on that part of the game. … It’s so important, especially if you don’t have all that many possessions. It becomes even more heightened.”

Unlike next week’s trip to Kansas City that will be a tall order no matter who’s at quarterback, Sunday should represent a reasonable challenge for the Ravens in Jackson’s first road start. Though the Falcons are coming off extended rest, they’ve also lost three straight games in which they’ve failed to score 20 points even once. Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn does have experience game-planning for a similar style of quarterback after the former Seattle defensive coordinator went up against San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick multiple times in the NFC West, but his current defense is allowing a brutal 5.1 yards per rushing attempt and 27.9 points per game while ranking 30th in the red zone (73.2 percent).

At the same time, the Falcons still possess an offense more dangerous than either of Baltimore’s last two opponents and have averaged 400 yards and 25.5 points per game this season. Ravens players and coaches are realistic about Atlanta’s ability to move the ball between the 20s, but a defense with superb numbers in most other categories ranks an underwhelming 22nd in red-zone touchdown percentage.

There are no guarantees with a rookie quarterback making his first road start as Jackson will face challenges not experienced in his home stadium. The Ravens must not only run the ball effectively to control the clock, but they must finish off those long drives with touchdowns to back up a defense that hasn’t created many turnovers or collected many sacks over the last five games. In turn, that defense must buckle down inside the 20 more than it has against better offenses this season.

“Just like I’ve told our [defensive backs], there are going to be some plays made,” defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said. “It’s just how are we going to handle the series of events?”

For the revamped Ravens feeling new life entering December, their playoff hopes could begin and end with how they fare inside the red zone on both sides of the ball.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 34-17 win over Oakland

Posted on 27 November 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens moving back over the .500 mark with the 34-17 win over Oakland, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The first half was an example why I can’t really trust this Ravens offense, regardless of who the quarterback is. Marty Mornhinweg calling nearly twice as many pass plays as runs after compiling 267 rushing yards the previous week is the kind of thing we’ve seen too often.

2. No moment better epitomized the second-half philosophical shift than Ronnie Stanley gesturing to the sideline for more runs after a nine-yard rush on the third play of the second half. The left tackle easily had one of the best run-blocking games of his career on Sunday.

3. If the Ravens stick with Lamar Jackson and a run-heavy approach to try to limit the number of possessions of explosive opposing offenses, they’ll need to do better than going 4-for-8 inside the red zone over the last two games. That percentage would rank 27th in the NFL for 2018.

4. My favorite part of the 74-yard strike to Mark Andrews wasn’t the perfect throw, but it was Jackson dipping his shoulders to really sell the play-fake, which kept Raiders cornerback Rashaan Melvin’s eyes in the backfield a moment too long as Andrews blew right past him.

5. Matt Judon’s three sacks on three straight defensive snaps not only sealed the victory, but they put Derek Carr in historic — and familiar — company. The last time a quarterback was sacked by the same player on three straight plays was in 2002, per NFL Research. That quarterback? David Carr. Remarkable.

6. Judon’s strip-sack led to Baltimore registering its first takeaway since Week 7, but the defense is still looking for its first interception since the first quarter of the Week 5 loss at Cleveland. Rookie sensation Gus Edwards was still on the practice squad at that point.

7. Cyrus Jones returning a punt 70 yards for a touchdown was a cool moment, but the former Gilman star should thank Anthony Levine and Patrick Onwuasor for their early blocks and Chris Moore and Judon for springing him all the way. That return was executed beautifully all the way around.

8. Per Sharp Football, the offense used two running backs and two tight ends 20 percent of the time — the league average is three percent — and used the shotgun 93 percent of the time on Sunday. Scoring four offensive touchdowns in two games is pedestrian, but it’s looked anything but that.

9. Remember how the Ravens didn’t allow a second-half touchdown in their first six games? Sunday marked the third straight contest in which they’ve allowed a touchdown on the first drive of the second half. Credit Wink Martindale’s group for clamping down after that, however.

10. The previous Mornhinweg criticism aside, one of my favorite calls of the game was Ty Montgomery’s third-and-5 run out of a three-wide set that moved the chains late in the third quarter. Teams should spread out and run on third downs of short-to-medium distance more often.

11. Joe Flacco wasn’t the only one who had Ed Reed on his mind as Terrell Suggs looked to lateral the ball on his 43-yard fumble return for a touchdown. I’m sure Reed was smiling as he watched, but not as much as John Harbaugh after Suggs decided to keep it.

12. Kudos to the Ravens for recognizing Colts Hall of Famer Lenny Moore on his 85th birthday and Orioles great Adam Jones, who raised $125,000 for the Living Classrooms Foundation and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Baltimore with his annual tailgate on Sunday. What blessings both men are.

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Ravens get win, but gain little clarity at quarterback position

Posted on 25 November 2018 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens got the win over Oakland, and that’s all that mattered.

For Week 12 anyway.

The many hoping to gain clarity at the quarterback position entering December likely walked away from Sunday’s 34-17 victory feeling much like they did the previous week. It’s a hell of a debate, evident by the strong and differing opinions from fans and media in favor of either rookie Lamar Jackson or veteran Joe Flacco. And it’s about to become real with Flacco aiming to return to practice this week — pending medical clearance — and the 6-5 Ravens about to play three of their next four games on the road.

To no big surprise, head coach John Harbaugh wasn’t biting when asked if a healthy Flacco would regain his starting job.

“I’m not going to get into that for a number of reasons,” said Harbaugh, who labeled a CBS Sports report suggesting Flacco would resume practicing on Tuesday as premature. “Whether that decision has been made or not is not important for anyone to know but us. If I decide to do it one way or the other, I don’t want our opponent to know. I’m probably not going to announce it for obvious reasons — just to make it tough on our next opponent. That’s the way we’ll go this week.”

Truthfully, we should be grading Jackson on two different scales: for the remainder of the 2018 season and the big picture.

The first-round pick from Louisville has shown more than enough in his first two NFL starts to be encouraged about the future. The favorable comparisons made to how Flacco fared as a rookie a decade ago are irrelevant to the present, but some flashes in the passing game coupled with his electric mobility bode well for next season and beyond. Even Jackson’s harshest critics need to acknowledge he’s done everything you could have reasonably asked from a rookie backup in two must-win games, regardless of the opponent.

What that means for next week in Atlanta and the four games to follow is a different story.

Deliberate or not, the first half of Sunday’s game served as a litmus test with the Ravens running the ball just 10 times compared to 19 pass plays. The 74-yard bomb to a wide-open Mark Andrews in the second quarter was a thing of beauty, but it also propped up a 9-for-18 performance for 140 yards that included two interceptions and too much indecisiveness. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg’s play-calling really needed more balance, but the first half wasn’t a strong endorsement for putting the game on Jackson’s arm, something the Ravens will inevitably need to do at some point if he’s to remain the starter the rest of the way.

After a lackluster six offensive points through the first two quarters, the Ravens wisely reverted to last week’s strategy against the Bengals, rushing 33 times for 178 yards and possessing the ball for more than 21 minutes in the second half. Jackson went 5-for-7 for 38 yards and an 8-yard touchdown to Michael Crabtree, but his biggest contribution came from his legs as he ran nine times for 60 yards and a touchdown after intermission. Again, they did what was needed to survive a game that was too close for comfort entering the fourth quarter, but will it work on the road against opponents with much better offenses?

The Ravens have rushed for a whopping 507 yards the last two weeks, but they scored 24 points against a Bengals defense that’s surrendered 34 or more in four of its last five games. The offense was responsible for 20 of Baltimore’s 34 points Sunday against a Raiders team that had given up 29.3 per game entering Week 12. Every game situation is unique and a heavy advantage in time of possession matters, of course, but the dramatic change in style shouldn’t be confused for an offensive juggernaut just yet.

Of course, simply handing the reins back to Flacco isn’t a guaranteed upgrade.

The 33-year-old being cleared to return from a right hip injury doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be 100 percent, a worrisome thought with an offensive line dealing with its own nagging injuries. You wouldn’t expect the same lucrative yardage from the running game without Jackson on the field, but the newfound combination of Gus Edwards and Ty Montgomery that resulted in 169 yards on Sunday hasn’t been used in concert with Flacco, making it unfair to assume the running game would remain just as inept as it was before the bye week.

Still, would the boost in the passing game be offset by a diminished ground attack? And what impact might that have on a Ravens defense that’s been unspectacular for several weeks and has benefited greatly from the favorable time of possession the last two weeks? Would we see a Flacco closer to what we saw over the first four weeks of the season or the lesser version witnessed in October?

An outsider can easily argue for Jackson to remain under center since he’s the quarterback of the future and the Ravens aren’t looking close to being a Super Bowl contender anyway, but try explaining that reasoning to Harbaugh and a coaching staff likely needing to make the playoffs to survive. Even if Flacco appears unlikely to remain in Baltimore beyond this season and only marginally improves their playoff hopes, that higher percentage could be the difference in saving others’ jobs.

Regardless of what anyone tries to tell you or which way Harbaugh ultimately goes, it’s far from an easy decision.

But after back-to-back wins to move into the No. 6 spot in the AFC, the Ravens are just glad to be in a position to have to make such a tough choice for the rest of the season.

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Jackson shows enough for Ravens to want to see more

Posted on 20 November 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens don’t need to apologize for Sunday’s strange 24-21 win over Cincinnati.

This is the same franchise that once won a playoff game — the 2009 wild-card round at New England — by 19 points despite completing just four passes for 34 yards. Coming off a three-game losing streak and needing a victory to preserve any realistic shot of making the playoffs, Baltimore did what it needed to do coming off the bye with an injured starting quarterback, running the ball 54 times against a Bengals defense that entered Week 11 ranked 29th in the NFL in allowing 5.0 yards per carry.

That shouldn’t be the knock on Lamar Jackson some have made it out to be after he ran for 117 of the Ravens’ 265 rushing yards, the fifth-highest total in franchise history. The rookie quarterback was far from perfect, but he was a big reason why they won the game, which is as much as you could hope for in his first NFL start coming in a virtual must-win situation. Making it more impressive was that his week of practice was interrupted by a Thursday trip to the hospital for stomach pains.

You obviously don’t need to be Sean McVay to recognize 27 rushing attempts — the most by an NFL quarterback since at least 1960 — being way too many to sustain on a weekly basis if you want Jackson to last, but his running ability is a large part of what makes him so appealing as a quarterback in the first place. He needs to learn to better protect himself, but those rushing yards still counted just the same to the Ravens’ success and shouldn’t be disqualified in assessing his play. Just ask Fran Tarkenton or Steve Young how important the ability to run was to their Hall of Fame careers.

Of course, Jackson the passer remains a major work in progress, but completing 13 of 19 throws for 150 yards is hardly an abomination at 7.9 yards per attempt. In contrast, Joe Flacco was 15 of 29 for only 129 yards in his rookie debut 10 years ago, and he turned out to be a legitimate NFL passer. Jackson throwing an interception as well as another pass that could have been picked in his 19 attempts is far from ideal, but his escape and scramble to find John Brown for 23 yards to set up a field goal in the final 20 seconds of the first half showed his ability to improvise that so many love. His inconsistent release point and footwork are problematic, but the 21-year-old completed four of five passes for 58 yards on Baltimore’s two second-half scoring drives, showing poise with the season all but hanging in the balance.

Jackson did enough for the Ravens to want to see more of him, but can he do more moving forward to create a full-blown quarterback controversy?

Head coach John Harbaugh hasn’t ruled out Flacco for Sunday’s game against Oakland, but he acknowledged it would be tough for the 33-year-old to play as he continues to recover from a hip injury sustained in Week 9. And given how Flacco has struggled when playing at less than 100 percent with  known injuries in the past, the Ravens shouldn’t hesitate to roll with the rookie against a 2-8 Raiders team sporting the league’s 30th-ranked scoring defense.

What the coaching staff asks Jackson to do this week could be telling about his chances of keeping the job for the rest of the season. Unlike the Bengals game that served as the guinea pig for a Jackson-led offense, Jon Gruden and the Raiders coaching staff will have a full game to identify his strengths and weaknesses, minimizing the element of surprise. A similar run-pass ratio would reinforce the idea of the coaching staff lacking confidence in his passing ability and would likely still work against the lowly Raiders, but you’d like to see offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg open up the game plan a little more to see how Jackson handles it. As quarterbacks coach James Urban said during the bye week, “If you put food on the plate and you eat it, then you get more food.”

Jackson showing meaningful growth in the passing department against the Raiders could create a fascinating decision for Harbaugh, who is coaching for his job. Does he show loyalty to the veteran quarterback who won him a Super Bowl and helped get him to the playoffs six times — albeit a long time ago — or go with the rookie quarterback whose development could provide a spark and potentially even save his job?

A poor performance by Jackson in his second start still resulting in a win would make an easy decision to go back to Flacco with three of the next four games coming on the road.

In a vacuum, a healthy Flacco very likely provides the Ravens a better chance to make the playoffs this year and undoubtedly gives them a better passing game, but the running game has clearly been superior with Jackson at quarterback, evident by rookie free agent Gus Edwards’ 115-yard day against the Bengals.

It’s complicated.

Will a less-than-100-percent Flacco — even when deemed healthy enough to return — playing behind the current offensive line really be an ideal fit, especially if the ground game remains so stagnant when Jackson isn’t on the field? Can the Ravens realistically hang tough on the road against Atlanta, Kansas City, and the Los Angeles Chargers using such a run-heavy approach with Jackson at quarterback? Does throwing the rookie into the fire of a playoff race provide valuable experience or potentially stunt his development and confidence if he’s just not ready to be a more consistent NFL passer?

Monday night’s epic showdown between Kansas City and the Los Angeles Rams reminded that there isn’t necessarily a wrong answer. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes certainly didn’t suffer from sitting out all but one game of his rookie season behind Alex Smith a year ago while Rams quarterback Jared Goff overcame a poor rookie year in 2016 to find much success with a new coaching staff.

In other words, we probably shouldn’t overreact to how Jackson plays or to the quarterback decision Harbaugh makes in the coming weeks — even though we undoubtedly will. No one knows what kind of NFL quarterback Jackson will ultimately become, but his debut showed enough to make it clear the Flacco era is rapidly winding down.

After watching Jackson against the Bengals, I’m looking forward to seeing more.

Whether that means next week, next month, or next year.

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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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