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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 2018 draft

Posted on 03 May 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens now finished with the draft and looking ahead to rookie minicamp this weekend, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. An organization that’s struggled to remain relevant nationally in recent years will have plenty of buzz as the Lamar Jackson watch begins. This will easily be the most interesting spring and preseason the Ravens have had in a long time.

2. Joe Flacco declining to speak to local reporters Saturday was much ado about nothing, but the Ravens created this situation and need to be prepared to handle it. Every national reporter coming through Owings Mills this year will be asking the veteran about the quarterback of the future.

3. I’m already seeing the annual overhype about the receiver competition as the Ravens added three veterans who combined for 87 catches for 1,009 yards last year and can point to Demetrius Williams as their greatest fourth- or fifth-round success story at the position in the 21st century. Pump the brakes.

4. With that said, I do like the diversity in skills and physical traits of the pass catchers added by general manager Ozzie Newsome. Even the surest thing, Michael Crabtree, coming off a down season makes you nervous, but there is enough potential and upside in this group to be hopeful.

5. Willie Snead was impressive in his press conference earlier this week, taking accountability for his difficult 2017 season without pointing any fingers for his disappearance in the New Orleans offense. Now we’ll find out if he was a byproduct of Drew Brees and Sean Payton or a productive slot option.

6. Drafting Anthony Averett gave Baltimore 11 corners on the preseason roster with as many as seven of those held in high regard. Health will factor heavily into the makeup of this group, of course, but the possibility of a late-summer trade to address another position of need still seems plausible.

7. Tight ends frequently struggle in their rookie season and his age could limit his overall ceiling, but I have little doubt that Hayden Hurst will be as good as he’s capable of being after reading this terrific piece by Bleacher Report’s Dan Pompei. He’s already dealt with failure admirably.

8. Since many have cited Marty Mornhinweg’s work with Michael Vick in Philadelphia to endorse the first-round selection of Jackson, I’ll note that Flacco’s numbers began declining as soon as Mornhinweg took over as his quarterbacks coach the year after arguably the best regular season of his career.

9. I’m curious to see how DeShon Elliott fits at the NFL level as Pro Football Focus views him as a free safety while others envision him playing more in the box. The Ravens hitting on a late-round safety after using so many resources at the position recently would be helpful.

10. Jordan Lasley is the kind of prospect on which a team should take a chance in the fifth round. His off-field issues were far from egregious, but the key will be whether his issues with drops are correctable. I still like the pick at a position lacking any long-term answers.

11. Considering their impeccable track record with undrafted free agents, the Ravens tying a franchise record with 12 picks in the draft was surprising. You just hope they didn’t miss out on some quality players in the name of adding so much quantity in the later rounds.

12. With Baker Mayfield going first overall to Cleveland, Jackson being the final pick of the first round, and first-round hopeful Mason Rudolph sliding to Pittsburgh in the third round, ESPN would have a good “30 for 30” topic if the quarterback future of the AFC North comes to fruition.

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Flacco-to-Jackson transition will prove challenging for Ravens

Posted on 27 April 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens took their quarterback of the future Thursday night.

General manager Ozzie Newsome and head coach John Harbaugh clearly stated Joe Flacco will remain their starter, but for how long? You don’t just trade back into the first round — surrendering a 2019 second-round pick in the process — and take Louisville’s Lamar Jackson to merely be a flier and long-term backup to light a fire under Flacco. Those picks are valuable commodities, especially for a team that’s made the playoffs just once in the last five years.

Drafting Jackson so early was a clear message that the Ravens have lost faith in their longtime starter.

It’s no secret that Flacco’s contract remains untouchable until next season while the consensus opinion is that the talented Jackson won’t be ready to play in the NFL right away. The Ravens would still be dealing with $16 million in dead money on their salary cap should they cut or trade Flacco next year, making it conceivable that he stays put for 2019 if he plays well this season or Jackson develops more slowly than they hope.

But how do the Ravens calibrate the present with Flacco while preparing for their future with Jackson?

Newsome said they want to win this year, but one of the major criticisms of the organization has been its inability to surround Flacco with more talent, something that wasn’t helped by drafting someone who will be standing on the sideline this season. Harbaugh cited New England as a recent example of a team contending while drafting a young quarterback early — Jimmy Garoppolo at the end of the second round in 2014 — but Flacco isn’t Tom Brady and the Patriots already had a championship-caliber roster in place. The Ravens really aren’t in a position to be using an early pick on a backup quarterback if they’re so determined to get back to the playoffs this season.

Beyond the question of whether Baltimore will adequately address its remaining needs, how do you go about developing Jackson appropriately? The idea of a first-round quarterback not playing right away was once commonplace, but that strategy is rarely executed successfully in today’s NFL for a variety of reasons, one of them being the overall shortage of practice time to adequately develop the player. There are only so many reps to go around, and an already-maligned veteran sharing valuable first-team reps with a developing backup isn’t a winning formula for Sundays.

Then again, the Ravens trying to utilize Jackson’s unique skills in some fashion during his rookie season should be a no-brainer. You can talk about practice reps and classroom time all you want, but there’s no substitute for live-game action and one of the major questions facing Jackson is his ability to handle pressure in the pocket, something not easily replicated in practice.

To little surprise, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg was vague when asked how the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner would be handled during his rookie season.

“We talked about it just briefly on his visit about how we would go about these things,” Mornhinweg said. “So [quarterbacks coach James Urban] and myself and John plan together, pre-practice, all those things. It’s going to be important. As far as the future, we’ll see what happens there. Joe’s the quarterback of this football team. Lamar is going to develop all those things. So, we’ll see what happens.”

What about the coaches’ status in this equation?

Many have assumed Harbaugh and his staff would likely be dismissed without a return to the playoffs this coming season, but much has been made about the experiences of Mornhinweg and Urban resurrecting Michael Vick’s career in Philadelphia and assistant head coach Greg Roman tutoring Colin Kaepernick and Tyrod Taylor at previous stops. If Jackson’s development is truly the priority it needs to be after using a first-round pick on him, firing the coaching staff a year into his NFL career would seemingly set him back.

On Thursday, Harbaugh spoke in such glowing terms about a quarterback who doesn’t currently figure to be a major factor in 2018 that you wonder if he’s received assurances from owner Steve Bisciotti — who admitted he considered replacing him at the end of the 2017 season — that he’s not facing a playoffs-or-bust scenario and that his staff will be given sufficient time to oversee Jackson’s development. Otherwise, it’s difficult to imagine Harbaugh being thrilled about valuable draft capital being used solely for the future.

What about the relationship between Flacco and Jackson? The 33-year-old has always been viewed as a good teammate, but he’s never before been threatened by another quarterback on the roster, making you wonder how eager he’ll be to help tutor someone tabbed to take his job.

How will other Ravens players react if Flacco gets off to a lackluster start and the talented rookie is itching for his opportunity? Quarterback controversies can easily fracture a locker room if you’re not careful.

And we haven’t even mentioned how ugly it could get as soon as Flacco throws an interception or the offense has a few three-and-outs playing at home. A viable backup quarterback is always the most popular guy in town, meaning fan pressure to replace Flacco with Jackson at the first sign of trouble will be immense.

It all has the potential to be a very bumpy ride.

Regardless of your view on the Ravens’ decision on Thursday night, Jackson has impressive abilities and could eventually blossom into a dangerous NFL quarterback, but he’ll need proper coaching as well as a good roster surrounding him to succeed. A less-than-ideal salary cap situation, questions about the long-term status of the coaching staff, and the incumbent still being on the roster could all prove to be significant challenges as the torch is eventually passed.

The process sure will be fascinating to watch.

And it could be very problematic.

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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 keep run-game architect Roman, hire new quarterbacks coach

Posted on 05 January 2018 by Luke Jones

The man who orchestrated a 2017 turnaround for the Ravens running game is staying put.

Senior offensive assistant and tight ends coach Greg Roman has re-signed with Baltimore despite growing concerns that he might depart for an opportunity elsewhere. Head coach John Harbaugh has promoted him to the title of assistant head coach, but Roman will continue his work with the tight ends as well as overseeing the running game.

“I’m thrilled to be back with the people and organization that is the Ravens,” Roman said to the team’s official website. “I enjoy coming to work every day and look forward to building upon what we did this year.”

After finishing 26th in run offense in 2015 and 28th in 2016, the Ravens hired Roman to rediscover the ground productivity that had disappeared since Gary Kubiak’s lone season in 2014. Abandoning their zone-heavy schemes in favor of a more multiple approach under Roman, the Ravens finished 11th in the NFL in rushing yards per game despite being without six-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda for most of the year and losing projected starting left guard Alex Lewis for the season during training camp.

Picked up after being cut by Seattle at the end of the preseason, second-year running back Alex Collins flourished in Baltimore, ranking 11th in the NFL with 973 rushing yards and averaging 4.6 yards per carry.

A day after leaving open the possibility of adding a quarterbacks coach, Harbaugh hired James Urban, who had worked in Cincinnati as the wide receivers coach for the last seven years. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg coached the quarterbacks the last three seasons, but Urban will take over those duties and previously served as the quarterbacks coach for Philadelphia from 2009-10 when Mornhinweg was the offensive coordinator for the Eagles. Urban worked with the accomplished Donovan McNabb as well as Michael Vick, who enjoyed a renaissance Pro Bowl season under his tutelage in 2010.

“I want to win football games, do what it takes to win football games, and put people in place to win football games,” Urban said in a statement. “The Ravens are about tough, physical, disciplined football, and those are appealing things to me. Obviously, Marty and I coached together for seven years, and he has guided me in many ways — in terms of what I believe about quarterback play and offensive play. I am really excited to be back with Marty and to go to work.”

The Ravens will hope Urban has a positive impact on Joe Flacco, who is coming off one of the more trying seasons of his 10-year career. His 5.72 yards per attempt average was the worst of his career and ranked last among qualified NFL quarterbacks. Excluding Flacco’s injury-shortened 2015 campaign, his 3,141 passing yards were his lowest total since his rookie year. Flacco did rebound over the final five games of the season, throwing nine touchdowns and posting a 91.4 passer rating while tossing only two interceptions.

Urban began his NFL coaching career with the Eagles in 2003 when Harbaugh was still the special teams coordinator under Andy Reid. The 44-year-old remained in that organization until being hired by Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis in 2011.

“Playing the Bengals twice a year, we’ve seen what a good job James does,” Harbaugh said in a statement. “He’s highly regarded around the league, including by Ozzie [Newsome] and Marty. We were all excited when he became available.”

The Ravens have yet to fill their vacant defensive coordinator position after the retirement of Dean Pees earlier this week, but former Indianapolis head coach and one-time Baltimore defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano and linebackers coach Don “Wink” Martindale are believed to be the top candidates for the job.

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Ravens still sounding too comfortable until they prove otherwise

Posted on 04 January 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — A few summers ago, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh walked to the interview podium wearing a shirt with an appropriate slogan for a sweltering training camp practice.

Get comfortable being uncomfortable.

Many are wondering if the Ravens are just plain comfortable these days despite having missed the playoffs in four of the last five seasons. Harbaugh’s decision to retain offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg certainly doesn’t do anything to debunk that perception. We may never know if the Ravens might have even retained defensive coordinator Dean Pees had he not chosen to retire.

Having just finished his first decade in Baltimore, Harbaugh began Thursday’s press conference not by lamenting his team not being good enough in 2017, but he instead expressed deep pride in his players’ hard work to be the best they could be. That’s a noble sentiment and not necessarily untrue, but it’s not the opening message your fan base wants to hear four days after one of the biggest collapses and worst home losses in team history. This is a results-driven business in which praise for hard work and doing your best rings hollow when you fail in such a crucial situation.

Announcing he was retaining Mornhinweg made it even worse.

“I believe in these coaches. I understand the job that they did this year because I see it close up,” said Harbaugh, who cited the the Ravens being the second-highest scoring team in the NFL after their bye week. “I think our offense made a heck of a lot of progress, especially considering the adversity that we faced and the challenges we were up against this year. That’s why we are rolling.”

Of course, the passing game being the worst in the NFL through the first three months of the season was a major reason why the Ravens needed to win six of their last seven games to make the playoffs. Let’s also not overlook the first half of Sunday’s game when the offense had seven straight three-and-outs and managed only two first downs to contribute to a double-digit deficit against Cincinnati. It’s no secret the Ravens didn’t exactly play a whopper of a schedule after the bye week either. Even as Joe Flacco showed much-needed improvement down the stretch, there were still plenty of head-scratching calls to point to.

Mornhinweg certainly dealt with difficult circumstances, ranging from the front office’s lack of commitment to improving the offense in the offseason to Flacco’s summer back injury and Marshal Yanda’s season-ending ankle fracture in Week 3. But does the December improvement and his overall body of work that began as the quarterbacks coach in 2015 — the first of three straight seasons in which Flacco’s yards per attempt rate has dropped — provide enough justification to retain him for another season?

Making matters more unsettling, the Ravens could lose senior offensive assistant and run-game guru Greg Roman, who is not under contract for 2018 and could garner consideration as an offensive coordinator elsewhere. His departure would renew fears about a ground attack that improved markedly this season after being woefully inadequate the previous two seasons under Marc Trestman and then Mornhinweg. A fair argument could be made to promote Roman and hire an outsider to work with Flacco and oversee the passing game, but the status quo will instead remain at the coordinator spot.

Is it continuity or complacency?

Let’s not forget this is the same head coach and organization that fired their offensive coordinator when the Ravens were 9-4 and already a safe bet to make the playoffs in mid-December of 2012. If you’re not going to shake things up after missing the postseason for the third straight year, when will you again?

Regardless of who’s calling the plays as the offensive coordinator, Harbaugh knows the Ravens must add playmakers at the wide receiver and tight end positions. Criticize Mornhinweg all you want, but having to count on the likes of Michael Campanaro and Quincy Adeboyejo with your season on the line isn’t exactly giving a coach a great chance to succeed.

“I think if anyone looks at the needs on our team, that’s where we’re going to be looking to fill our roster,” Harbaugh said. “I’m not giving away any secret there. Everybody in the league knows that. We have to do that.”

The problem is you could have pulled that same quote from 2013 or 2014 or 2015 or last year. That’s where the front office and scouting department come into the picture and must own their shortcomings.

After again pumping most of their resources into the defense last offseason, will general manager Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens finally change up their post-Super Bowl XLVII approach or offer more of the same? Will this organization do something to finally address its blind spot at the wide receiver position? Or will they stick with what’s comfortable?

You’d think jobs are depending on it, but many assumed that to be the case a year ago.

Those fans demanding a pound of flesh were likely always going to be disappointed short of owner Steve Bisciotti waking up on New Year’s Day and electing to clean house, but there’s still little evidence of a renewed sense of urgency after another January that will be spent watching the playoffs at home. The Ravens can’t keep using the “one play away” argument and expect their fans to buy it, evident by the thousands of empty seats at M&T Bank Stadium down the stretch.

Now 40-40 with only one playoff win since raising the Lombardi Trophy in New Orleans 59 months ago, Harbaugh still looked and sounded quite comfortable at the podium on Thursday, evident by the lack of changes to his staff.

It will now be up to the front office to change the Ravens’ perception to offer fans more hope for 2018 and beyond.

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Flacco expects Mornhinweg to return as Ravens offensive coordinator

Posted on 01 January 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens will have a new defensive coordinator in 2018, but it remains to be seen whether other changes are coming to the coaching staff.

Head coach John Harbaugh hasn’t addressed the status of his staff beyond issuing a statement on Dean Pees’ retirement on Monday, but Joe Flacco said he expects offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg to return next season. The veteran quarterback was asked about the importance of building continuity with the coordinator and play-caller, who took over for Marc Trestman in October of 2016.

“It’s always huge. Our relationship is growing,” Flacco said. “It’s always evolving. It’ll definitely be a big thing moving forward.”

Of course, Flacco doesn’t make the coaching staff decisions, but it’s worth noting he had just met extensively with Harbaugh before speaking with reporters in the locker room Monday afternoon. You wouldn’t think the veteran signal-caller would have wanted to comment on his offensive coordinator’s status if he was aware a change was coming, but that doesn’t mean any decision has been made.

The Ravens finished ninth in the NFL in points per game and ranked second in points scored after their Week 10 bye, but the offense reaped the benefits of a defense that led the league in takeaways and was easily among the worst in the NFL over the first three months of the season. Baltimore finished just 27th in total yards, 29th in passing offense, and 11th in rush offense.

Even with Flacco’s uptick in performance in December, he finished last among qualified quarterbacks in yards per passing attempt (5.72) and posted his lowest passer rating (80.4) and QBR (46.0) since 2013.

“We were dealing with a lot to be honest with you,” said Flacco, pretty clearly alluding to his summer back ailment and the slew of other injuries the offense sustained over the summer and early in the season. “We were trying to do our best to play winning football and put ourselves in position to win the football games the best that we could [and] the way that set up for our football team.

“I think that we had to win football games in certain ways in the early part of the year due to a lot of things. We were trying to play to that style and do those things. We just weren’t good enough at it.”

The status of senior offensive assistant and tight ends coach Greg Roman could also impact Mornhinweg’s future if the Ravens do not want to lose the man who coordinated an improved ground attack in 2017. If Roman draws interest as a potential offensive coordinator elsewhere, might Harbaugh and the Ravens consider promoting him and parting ways with the current offensive coordinator?

Retaining Mornhinweg this past year wasn’t a popular decision among fans, so maintaining the status quo would be a tough sell despite the improvement shown over the final month or so. Regardless of the offensive coordinator, the Ravens must upgrade the talent level at the skill positions after pumping few resources into the offense last offseason.

Wide receivers Mike Wallace and Michael Campanaro as well as tight end Benjamin Watson are set to become unrestricted free agents. Starting center Ryan Jensen and offensive lineman James Hurst — who filled in for the injured Alex Lewis at left guard all season — are also scheduled to hit the open market in March.

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New Year’s Eve brings new low for Ravens in stunning defeat

Posted on 01 January 2018 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens entered Sunday with roughly a 97-percent chance of making the playoffs, needing a win over Cincinnati or help from Miami or Jacksonville to punch their ticket.

An assist never came.

According to ESPN, their win probability still stood at 93.4 percent when Cincinnati burned its final timeout, facing a fourth-and-12 at the Baltimore 49 with 53 seconds to go. We know what happened next, and there’s no kind way to put it.

The Ravens choked. Once again, they couldn’t finish, an all-too-common theme of the post-Super Bowl XLVII era.

But this wasn’t arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history erasing two 14-point deficits against an undermanned Baltimore secondary in the 2014 playoffs. Or even Ben Roethlisberger finding Antonio Brown in the final seconds of a heartbreaking loss at Heinz Field last Christmas.

Those disappointments came on the road to superior teams, making them at least semi-tolerable after some time had passed. This one came in their own stadium where they’ve enjoyed one of the best home-field advantages in the NFL for nearly two decades.

Yes, the Ravens let Andy Dalton and Tyler Boyd — who entered the day with 17 receptions on the season — beat them on a 49-yard touchdown pass in the final minute. The Bengals, a losing team out of the playoffs and with nothing to play for on Sunday, ended Baltimore’s season this time.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. If owner Steve Bisciotti was full of “bewilderment” at the end of last season, how might he react to the Ravens missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five years despite a schedule that couldn’t have set up any better down the stretch? Would major changes really shock you after the most stunning home loss in team history and an abysmal first half from a team that came out flat and unprepared?

Head coach John Harbaugh needs to answer for that second part, especially on the heels of an uninspiring performance against Indianapolis last week.

It’s easy — and completely fair — to point blame at defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who reportedly plans to retire anyway. Few could argue that a defense that’s received so many resources over the last few years wouldn’t benefit from some new blood in the coaching department. Even if Pees changes his mind, it’s difficult to envision him coming back from something like this for a second year in a row.

Frankly, this organization needs to take a long look in the mirror and realize it’s about more than just another late defensive collapse. The truth is the overall vision has been flawed since raising the Lombardi Trophy in New Orleans five years ago. Ever since being led to a Super Bowl championship by Joe Flacco and their offense, the Ravens have been trying to chase the ghost of the 2000 defense, almost as if they were ashamed to have won their second championship in the manner they did.

General manager Ozzie Newsome signed Flacco to a big contract like any team would have in that position and has proceeded to pump virtually all meaningful resources into the other side of the ball while expecting the quarterback to be something he’s not. And please don’t say it’s all because of the quarterback’s salary cap number either as the Ravens have selected 13 defensive players with their 17 Day 1 and Day 2 picks over the last five drafts, the best avenue for finding inexpensive talent.

Even with all those picks as well as free-agent dollars exhausted, we’re still talking about the same defensive shortcomings while the offensive holes are mostly filled at the dollar store in hopes of being average if everything goes perfectly. The unbalanced approach has repeatedly netted a below-average offense and a good — but not great — defense with one playoff appearance in five years.

The Ravens can’t allow the finish to this season to fool them like it did a year ago when they went all in on defense in the offseason and barely touched the offense after the collapse against Pittsburgh. It was a commendable finish to 2017 by Flacco despite how little he had to work with and his own health concerns, but this offense was woeful over the first three months of the season and was inept in the first half of Sunday’s game, a big reason why the Ravens trailed by 14 midway through the third quarter.

The offense needs more skill-position talent and more innovative coaching.

This model of repeatedly trying to build a super defense while asking Flacco to do more with less just isn’t working. The truth is it’s really, really difficult to build a historic defense in today’s NFL, no matter how many resources you continue to pump into it.

Meanwhile, the Super Bowl XLVII Most Valuable Player will be turning 33 later this month and isn’t getting any younger. Flacco has his obvious flaws, but he’s proven to be good enough to win if this organization would make more than a halfhearted effort to build around him. Maybe the defense wouldn’t then find itself in quite as many of these late-game situations with little margin for error.

Frankly, I’ll still take my chances with Flacco and a better supporting cast around him over a defense that doesn’t have a 25-year-old Ray Lewis or Ed Reed walking through the door.

To be clear, this isn’t a call for Bisciotti to completely blow it up top to bottom. From Newsome to Harbaugh and others behind the scenes, there is a track record of past success that shouldn’t just be thrown away in haste.

But the same old practices aren’t working and haven’t for a while.

An embarrassing loss to the Bengals to ruin a trip to the playoffs should spark change, but it remains to be seen whether the Ravens will recognize that or just go down the same old path again.

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Flacco’s play on rise as Ravens grind closer to playoff spot

Posted on 24 December 2017 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens were hardly impressive in their 23-16 win over Indianapolis.

Playing a three-win team in rainy and windy conditions at M&T Bank Stadium wasn’t exactly a recipe to earn style points on Saturday anyway, and there was much to pick apart from the performance.

The defense continued its up-and-down play since the season-ending injury suffered by Jimmy Smith in Week 13, missing too many tackles and failing to consistently pressure Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett behind a decimated offensive line. The running game wasn’t much of a factor and averaged just 2.6 yards per carry in the fourth quarter before three kneel-downs to seal the win. Even the normally-superb special teams had a punt blocked late in the fourth quarter that could have cost the Ravens the game.

“We made a number of mistakes, starting with me,” said head coach John Harbaugh, citing his decision to decline a holding penalty before Indianapolis converted a fourth down in the final quarter. “Things that gave them a chance, especially in the fourth quarter. There are things that we have to get better at and work on.”

The Ravens will need a more complete performance next week to beat Cincinnati, an AFC North rival who’s winding down a disappointing season but has given them as much trouble as any team over the last few years. It only gets tougher after that if Baltimore does advance to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

But the most encouraging trend of the last month continued Saturday as Joe Flacco turned in his fourth consecutive good performance. It’s no secret that the 10th-year quarterback is in the midst of one of the most trying seasons of his career, but he looks healthier and his play down the stretch has reflected that.

Despite the less-than-ideal weather conditions, Flacco completed 76.3 percent of his passes against the Colts and threw for 237 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. It was the fourth straight game in which Flacco has thrown for at least that many yards after doing so only once in the first 11 contests of 2017. He’s thrown seven touchdowns and just one interception over those four weeks, raising his season passer rating from 74.2 to 81.4. He’s making plays while protecting the football, the opposite of what we saw for much of the season.

It wasn’t perfect on Saturday as he lamented his bad misfire to tight end Nick Boyle near the goal line in the second quarter as well as the offense scoring just two touchdowns despite five 10-play drives of 50 or more yards. But this is the Flacco more closely resembling the quarterback who helped guide the Ravens to six playoff appearances in his first seven seasons.

“I just feel, as an offense, we’re starting to hit our stride,” said Flacco, who’s showing better mobility than we saw in the first half of the season after his summer back injury. “I’m playing more consistent. The receivers are getting open quick. The line’s playing really well together. The backs are running the ball really hard, and it’s good to come out of these games and have some things that we left out there but still a lot of things that we did well.”

Most impressive about Flacco’s rise has been him doing it with a less-than-ideal supporting cast. The Ravens are currently playing with one established NFL wide receiver in Mike Wallace, who recorded his fourth straight game with at least 60 receiving yards. Flacco’s scores went to two players — Michael Campanaro and Maxx Williams — who hadn’t caught touchdown passes in over two years.

The offensive line has improved since the bye week, but its season-long trials are hardly a secret.

And while Marty Mornhinweg deserves credit for his improved unit now scoring 23 or more points in six consecutive games, the offensive coordinator still makes some calls — particularly inside the red zone — that make you scratch your head.

Through all of this, Flacco has rebounded from his own struggles and is making it work.

Saturday’s clunky overall performance won’t raise anyone’s confidence level about the Ravens making a deep run in January, but they got the job done in the end and are now one victory away from the opportunity to roll the dice. And with Flacco now playing his best football of the season and owning a stellar track record in January, the Ravens will take their chances having won five of their last six.

“One good game, and we’re in,” said linebacker Terrell Suggs, referencing next week’s tilt with the Bengals. “If we win, we’re in. Everybody knows that second season, we become a different team — a special team.

“‘January Joe’ — we’re all looking forward to seeing him. Absolutely.”

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Maclin listed as doubtful to play against Indianapolis

Posted on 21 December 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens are expected to be without one of their starting receivers against Indianapolis on Saturday as Jeremy Maclin has been designated as doubtful to play.

The veteran missed practices all week after suffering a left knee injury in the first quarter of last Sunday’s win at Cleveland. Maclin underwent a magnetic resonance imaging exam earlier this week, but there have been few details about the injury or his progress beyond head coach John Harbaugh saying Monday that he hadn’t sustained a season-ending injury.

“I think he’s doing OK. I don’t know,” said Harbaugh hours before the final injury report was released. “We’ll just have to talk to him and talk to [head athletic trainer Mark Smith]. That’s kind of day to day at this point in time right up until the game, really. It could be even a game-time decision.

“I’ll know more probably by the end of this afternoon through his rehab today — whether he’s been able to run and things like that.”

Harbaugh left open the possibility of the Ravens promoting a wide receiver from the practice squad with rookie Quincy Adeboyejo being the most logical candidate. Baltimore would need to make a roster decision by 4 p.m. on Friday, however.

Defensive end Carl Davis (shoulder), cornerback Maurice Canady (knee), and defensive back Anthony Levine (thigh) are all listed as questionable, but each practiced all week on at least a limited basis, leaving little doubt about their availability against the Colts. Davis and Canady were upgraded to full participation for Friday’s practice while Levine remained limited.

Left tackle Ronnie Stanley is officially listed as questionable for Week 16 after missing Friday’s practice with an illness, a day after outside linebacker Matthew Judon was limited due to being under the weather. The 2016 first-round pick’s status is not expected to be in any jeopardy, however.

Harbaugh said offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg was also sick Friday, but he was still on the practice field. The head coach was asked if the quirky assistant would be listed as a limited participant on the injury report.

“He is normally limited in different ways,” said Harbaugh, drawing laughter from reporters. “I’ll mention that to Ronnie though. Marty sucked it up and got out there.”

The Colts officially ruled out four players for Saturday’s game, a list that includes starting wide receiver Donte Moncrief (ankle), starting right tackle Denzelle Good (knee), and former Ravens cornerback Rashaan Melvin (hand).

According to Weather.com, the Saturday forecast calls for light rain and temperatures in the high 50s with winds 10 to 15 miles per hour and a 70-percent chance of precipitation.

On Friday, tight end Benjamin Watson was named the Ravens’ recipient of the 2017 Ed Block Courage Award. The 37-year-old leads the team with 49 receptions and is third in receiving yards after missing the entire 2016 season with a torn Achilles tendon sustained in the preseason.

“It’s one of the top awards in the National Football League,” Harbaugh said. “Overcoming adversity, dealing with the injury part of it and those kinds of things. He’s obviously done a tremendous job with the Achilles [recovery]. The way he’s playing right now, I think it speaks volumes. The fact that your peers — the players — vote for that award is quite a telling thing. Congratulations to Ben on that.”

Below is the final injury report of the week:

BALTIMORE
DOUBTFUL: WR Jeremy Maclin (knee)
QUESTIONABLE: CB Maurice Canady (knee), DT Carl Davis (shoulder), DB Anthony Levine (thigh), OT Ronnie Stanley (illness)

INDIANAPOLIS
OUT: RT Denzelle Good (knee), CB Rashaan Melvin (hand), WR Donte Moncrief (ankle), TE Jason Vander Laan (concussion), TE Brandon Williams (concussion)

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 27-10 win over Cleveland

Posted on 18 December 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens moving a step closer to securing a postseason berth in a 27-10 win over Cleveland, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The defense took advantage of rookie DeShone Kizer and the NFL’s most turnover-prone offense by forcing four turnovers that led to 14 points. Much of the damage hasn’t come against the stiffest competition, but a league-best 33 takeaways is impressive. Two years ago, the Ravens had only 14.

2. The offense didn’t light up the scoreboard like the previous two weeks, but still moving the ball despite the running game being a non-factor through the first three quarters is an encouraging sign. The Ravens were able to finish with 63 rushing yards on 11 carries in the final period.

3. This wasn’t the first time Matthew Judon was arguably the top player for the defense. He totaled a sack, two other tackles for a loss, and two more quarterback hits. His versatile play in all phases has been one of the most encouraging big-picture developments of the season.

4. Remember how completely helpless the passing game looked without Jeremy Maclin in two games earlier this season? He played only five snaps because of a left knee injury, but Joe Flacco still threw for a season-high 288 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions.

5. A major reason for that was Mike Wallace, who caught six passes for 89 yards with four of those going for first downs. Since the bye, Wallace is averaging 76.2 receiving yards per contest and 16.6 yards per catch. That equates to a 1,200-yard season over 16 games.

6. Terrell Suggs finished with an ordinary two tackles if you only looked at the standard box score, but he was consistently putting heat on Kizer and was credited with nine hurries by Pro Football Focus. He played a significant part in several good things that happened for the defense.

7. A read-option keeper for Flacco shouldn’t be called unless it’s the fourth quarter of a playoff game, but that play and the draw for a touchdown reflect the greater confidence in the quarterback’s health. Flacco also has a 94.5 passer rating with five touchdown passes over the last three games.

8. C.J. Mosley rebounded from a poor outing in Pittsburgh as he batted down a couple passes, was stronger in pass coverage, and delivered the crushing hit on the Duke Johnson fumble. Sending Mosley after the quarterback a few times was a needed changeup after his recent struggles in coverage.

9. John Harbaugh was wise to mostly keep Alex Collins out of harm’s way in the second half as he was visibly laboring several times. As tough and physical as Collins is, we sometimes forget he’s only 210 pounds, which is much lighter than many of the league’s bruising-style backs.

10. For the second straight year, the Ravens surrendered Isaiah Crowell’s longest run from scrimmage for the season. The run defense has mostly been terrific since late October, but allowing a 96-yard touchdown drive exclusively via the ground in the second quarter was mystifying.

11. I didn’t like Marty Mornhinweg’s outside run call on fourth-and-goal from the 1, but credit Cleveland defensive end Carl Nassib for blowing up an attempted double team from Matt Skura and Austin Howard. He was more disruptive than top overall pick Myles Garrett throughout the day.

12. I understand reluctance to embrace the 2017 Ravens because of the early-season inconsistency, but some of the fear expressed about the Browns this week was over the top. Their horrendous minus-25 turnover difference says it all while Baltimore leads the NFL at plus-17. Taking care of the football really matters.

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