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lamar

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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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humphrey

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Five Ravens predictions for rest of 2018 season

Posted on 09 November 2018 by Luke Jones

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

The story is all too familiar with the Ravens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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collins

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Lack of quality plaguing Ravens running game more than quantity

Posted on 09 October 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens head coach John Harbaugh noted his team had run the ball 25 times when the inevitable question came about the run-pass ratio from Sunday’s 12-9 loss at Cleveland.

Baltimore had also run a season-high 84 plays, but the 11th-year coach made his position clear on Monday.

“I don’t understand the question, why it’s a topic,” Harbaugh said. “You have to do whatever you have to do to move the ball and score points. We’ve been doing a pretty good job of that up until this last game. We just need to put more points on the board. Nine points — three, three, and three — is tough to win games that way. That’s the bottom line.

“But this run-pass balance thing, I don’t understand why it’s a topic.”

He’s right about both his offense — which ranked in the top 10 in multiple categories entering Week 5 — and the overall run-pass obsession many have when spitting out stats about win-loss records and running the ball a certain number of times that confuse correlation with causation. Simply put, teams run when they win, not win because they run. You sometimes wonder if some would prefer running the ball more — no matter how effectively — to their team actually winning games, but today’s NFL is a pass-heavy league and analytics-based principles such as throwing more frequently on first down improve your chances of winning compared to the traditional three yards and a cloud of dust. Like it or not, that mindset isn’t changing anytime soon.

The difference Sunday from previous weeks, however, was that the Ravens weren’t passing the ball effectively while they averaged a season-best 4.6 yards per carry, well ahead of what they’d done in the first four games. Joe Flacco produced 2018 worsts in both yards per attempt (5.3) and completion percentage (51.8 percent) on Sunday, but Baltimore continued to chuck it anyway with the veteran quarterback recording a season-high 56 attempts, territory in which few quarterbacks consistently function well. There were certainly occasions when offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg could have worked an additional run into the mix.

Passing on 11 of 14 plays inside the red zone was particularly questionable as Flacco threw an ugly interception on a second-and-goal play from the 2 in the second quarter that proved to be one of the most critical plays of the game. Harbaugh and the Ravens frequently view the goal line to be four-down territory — which is the correct mindset — so why not try to pound the ball into the end zone again after Buck Allen was stopped on the previous down?

It’s true that only six teams have more rushing attempts than the Ravens through Week 5, but they also lead the NFL in offensive plays run and only 10 teams have rushed less frequently than their 36.3 percent. When you match that with Baltimore winning all three of its games by double digits and trailing by multiple possessions in just one game (Cincinnati), you’re probably justified if you want to roll your eyes the next time you hear Mornhinweg say they want to run the ball. The Ravens are currently a passing team, and that had worked very well until Sunday.

The warranted criticism from Week 5 aside, the problem with the Ravens running game has been quality much more so than quantity. Clamoring for more rushes doesn’t exactly make a ton of sense when you rank 30th in the league in yards per carry (3.4). That’s not to say the ground game doesn’t need to improve with Sunday’s poor passing performance being a perfect example why.

“Yes, we’re concerned. We want to run the ball well,” Harbaugh said. “We’re working as hard as we can to do it. If the question is: Are you working hard at the run game? Yes, we’re working really hard at it. We want to be a really good running team just like we want to be a great passing team and great at everything else. We work hard at what we think we can do well.”

After adding three veteran wide receivers and drafting two tight ends, the Ravens passing more frequently than they did last year when they ran 43.6 percent of the time — 12th most in the NFL — seemed inevitable, but why has the running game struggled so much?

Assistant head coach Greg Roman and offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris were viewed as miracle workers last year when the Ravens averaged 4.0 yards per carry and finished 11th in rushing yards per game despite having four new starters along the offensive line. Even with the departures of center Ryan Jensen and right tackle Austin Howard, the healthy returns of guards Marshal Yanda and Alex Lewis brought optimism that the unit would improve from a year ago.

The group has held up well in pass protection, but Lewis, center Matt Skura, and right tackle James Hurst have graded particularly poorly in run blocking, according to Pro Football Focus. As was the case on Sunday when Alex Collins ripped off a 19-yard run on the first play from scrimmage and Allen picked up 17 yards on a third-quarter run, most of their rushing success has come on the outside, which makes sense when two of your three interior linemen have been below-average run blockers.

It’s also worth noting the Ravens have been in the shotgun much more frequently this season — 63 percent compared to 48 percent last year, according to Sharp Football — which certainly impacts the dynamics of a ground attack. That’s not to say an offense can’t run effectively from the shotgun, but it’s a more passing-minded formation and the Ravens are also running a little less frequently out of the gun than they did last year (18 percent compared to 22 percent, per Sharp).

Only one of the five opponents Baltimore has faced this season is allowing fewer than 4.1 yards per carry and only Cleveland ranks in the top 10 in Football Outsiders’ run defense efficiency metric. In other words, the Ravens haven’t exactly been running against the 2000 version of themselves in the season’s first month.

Surely concerns over Collins fumbling the ball haven’t helped, but he leads all running backs in forced missed tackles per touch, which reflects a lack of running room and a need to keep giving him opportunities to break longer runs. Allen is a capable short-yardage back and better in the passing game, but his 2.8 yards per carry average compared to Collins’ 3.8 reflects less explosiveness. Neither back has the dynamic talent of a Ray Rice, but the pair did the job for the Ravens last year, making it difficult not to look at an offensive line still trying to find its footing in the running game.

Perhaps Sunday’s defeat serves as both a necessary reminder that you can’t do it all with the pass and a sign of better things to come for the ground attack, but the week-to-week volatility of the NFL makes it difficult to predict.

“You just keep working. You keep grinding,” Harbaugh said. “When we come out and run for 200 yards — which we will — it’s not going to be ‘fixed.’ The next game is going to be a new game. It’s not like you’re going to come out and run for 200 yards every week. Every week is a new week in the National Football League. You see a different defense, you see different fronts, different guys are healthy, different guys aren’t healthy, plays get made, plays don’t get made — things happen.

“I don’t think it’s as much of a trend as everybody wants to look at it. The big-picture trends just really aren’t there.”

Maybe so, but it’s difficult envisioning the Ravens getting to where they want to be by season’s end without having a better running game in their back pocket when they need it.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 27-14 win over Denver

Posted on 25 September 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens improving to 2-1 in their 27-14 win over Denver, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Joe Flacco is on pace for 4,741 yards and 32 touchdowns, which would set career highs. His 6.89 yards per attempt could still tick up more and he now needs to play well on the road, but Flacco ranks ninth in Total QBR, a metric usually unkind to him.

2. If we’re going to praise Flacco after he dealt with the lack of pass-catching talent in recent years, Marty Mornhinweg also deserves credit for the strong offensive start. He put together a superb game plan to help neutralize the Denver pass rush and the offensive line excelled in pass protection.

3. The running game ranks 31st at 3.1 yards per attempt. It’s still early, but the comments citing the need to just break a long run are reminding me of 2013 when the Ravens ranked last in yards per carry (3.1). Offensive success won’t continue without better production on the ground.

4. After registering a sack, four quarterback hits, and seven total pressures, Za’Darius Smith now ranks ninth among edge defenders in Pro Football Focus’ pass rushing productivity this season. His improvement and ability to pressure from the inside have made for a strong start to a contract year.

5. Kenny Young continues to impress after recording a team-high 10 tackles. The rookie makes his share of mistakes, but you don’t notice because of the speed and aggressiveness with which he plays. I’m really looking forward to seeing what he’ll do with more experience and knowledge of the defense.

6. It was a dubious beginning for Ronnie Stanley as he was beaten by rookie Bradley Chubb for a sack on the second play from scrimmage, but he was strong after that, finishing with PFF’s second-highest grade for a Baltimore offensive player behind Flacco. The Ravens need more of that.

7. I’ve been in favor of giving Tyus Bowser more defensive snaps, but it was his whiff on a block that led to Sam Koch’s punt being blocked and an early 7-0 deficit. That’s not going to garner more favor with the coaching staff.

8. Chris Wormley is only 12 defensive snaps shy of matching his rookie season total. His play hasn’t jumped off the page, but he’s been solid filling in at the 3-technique spot for Willie Henry and is stronger and more versatile than he was a year ago.

9. Three of the five field goals made by Justin Tucker have been from 52 yards or longer. Dating back to last year, he’s made eight straight from 50 or more. Remember when Pittsburgh’s Chris Boswell made the Pro Bowl instead of him?

10. Regression to the mean is inevitable with the Ravens going 12-for-12 in the red zone to begin the season — Philadelphia ranked first last year at 65.45 percent — but you have to be encouraged by the offensive diversity with seven different players already scoring touchdowns.

11. Mark Andrews is one of the biggest surprises of the young season. Seeing him make plays down the seam makes it that much more enticing to think about what the intermediate passing game could look like when Hayden Hurst returns in the not-too-distant future.

12. Buck Allen leads the Ravens with four touchdowns. He has to be on John Harbaugh’s fantasy team, right?

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 34-23 loss to Cincinnati

Posted on 15 September 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens dropping their first road game of the season in a 34-23 loss to Cincinnati, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Third down was the defense’s demise in the first half as each of the Bengals’ four touchdown drives included a breakdown that kept Baltimore from getting off the field. Third-down penalties from Tony Jefferson and Terrell Suggs negated stops that would have led to likely field goals on two drives.

2. The Ravens defense found its footing in the second half, but no sacks and no takeaways will rarely add up to erasing a 21-point deficit. You wonder how the game might have turned out had Eric Weddle’s second foot been in on Andy Dalton’s end-zone throw on Cincinnati’s second drive.

3. Joe Flacco’s accuracy problems were more reminiscent of the last few seasons that the sharper quarterback observed throughout the preseason and in Week 1. Even several of his completions were delivered in ways that hindered receivers from picking up additional yardage.

4. Flacco wasn’t helped by an offensive line that played poorly for most of the night as even Marshal Yanda and Ronnie Stanley had difficulties against the Bengals front. This group had no answers for Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins and defensive end Carlos Dunlap.

5. Putting two blockers on Atkins makes sense, but Yanda and James Hurst double-teaming backup defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow and tight end Nick Boyle being left alone to block Dunlap on Flacco’s third-quarter interception was as baffling as it gets. Dunlap hit Flacco’s arm to force the errant throw.

6. Too much is made of run-pass ratios and the Ravens were always going to go into a heavier pass mode after falling behind big, but Marty Mornhinweg still needs to get Alex Collins more than four touches in the second half. Buck Allen shouldn’t be matching Collins in snaps either.

7. Matt Judon’s roughing the passer foul in the first half fell into the category of needing to be smarter than that in today’s quarterback-sensitive NFL, but the holding call on Tavon Young on a third-and-2 in the fourth quarter was nothing short of awful. Touching a receiver isn’t a hold.

8. Considering the overall lack of pressure generated against the Bengals, I’d like to have seen Tim Williams and Tyus Bowser get more playing time than their combined 19 defensive snaps, especially after both played well in Week 1. Just like with Lamar Jackson, there’s an endgame to consider as well.

9. John Harbaugh acknowledged considering kicking a field goal on the last drive to make it a one-score game, but not doing so was confusing as Flacco continued throwing underneath. No, it likely wouldn’t have mattered, but if that’s your argument, just kneel the ball a few times and go home.

10. Flacco throwing a one-yard pass to Allen on fourth-and-2 midway through the third quarter was an all-too-familiar occurrence. The play call itself was questionable enough, but the throw wasn’t even out in front of Allen to guide him to the mark.

11. That aside, I’m amazed by how many always oppose going for fourth downs or two-point tries in any situation that isn’t overwhelmingly obvious. Punting on short fields, forgoing two-pointers in logical situations, and kicking field goals inside the 5 are examples of playing not to lose rather than to win.

12. After crushing the mustard-colored pants worn for one game in 2015, I really liked the new purple pants with the white jerseys. Now just add similar side stripes to the black pants that look too much like tights. Let’s also see those purple pants with the black jerseys.

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Even with three quarterbacks, Ravens shouldn’t overthink game-day plans

Posted on 06 September 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After months of discussing and practicing ways to incorporate explosive rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson in the flow of the offense, the Ravens are suddenly tight-lipped.

It’s hardly surprising since this is what NFL coaches do the week of a game that actually counts, but the decision to keep Robert Griffin III — giving Baltimore three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster to begin a season for the first time since 2009 — has led many to wonder what the game-day plan will be at the position behind starter Joe Flacco. Teams may activate only 46 players for each game.

“We’ll see,” offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. “We’ll see how that goes.”

Carrying three quarterbacks is far from a novel approach despite the Ravens’ near-decade-long trend of keeping just two, but teams rarely activate all three for games as each active spot is valuable when accounting for the many reserves and special-teams players who contribute to winning games. For one example, Pittsburgh kept three quarterbacks on its 53-man roster all last season, but only two were active for each game.

There were only two instances last season in which the Ravens activated a player and didn’t use him other than sole backup quarterback Ryan Mallett, speaking to how extensively they use backups and special-teams players. In Week 11, offensive tackle Andrew Donnal was active as left tackle Ronnie Stanley missed the game with a concussion, but he was only going to play in an emergency after being claimed off waivers just days earlier. In Week 16, running back Terrance West was activated after a long layoff due to injury, but he was only an insurance policy after starter Alex Collins was banged up in the previous week’s game.

The Ravens leaving themselves vulnerable in another area to devote a third game-day spot to a quarterback unlikely to play would be surprising.

So, if only two quarterbacks are active, do they go with Jackson or Griffin behind Flacco?

The organization certainly values Griffin’s presence to step in should something happen to Flacco that would force him out of action for a few games, but the immediate appeal of drafting Jackson was to utilize his unique skills in creative ways, adding a play-making element to this offense that’s sorely needed. Deactivating Jackson in favor of Griffin might put the Ravens in a slightly better position in the event of an in-game injury to Flacco, but it would also stunt the offense’s potential upside and strip the rookie of experience. We don’t know whether Jackson will become a successful franchise quarterback in the future, but there’s no doubting his ability to contribute in certain situations right away.

The truth is backups receive very few practice reps with the starting offense over the course of the week, inevitably throwing any team into some degree of panic when the starter goes down in the middle of a game. Should that happen to the Ravens with Jackson as the only backup, they should just embrace that chaos by breaking out gadget plays, relying on their rushing attack, and leaning on their stout defense to get them through the game. Of course, if Flacco were to miss the following week’s game as well, Baltimore would turn to Griffin as the starter with Jackson remaining in his same game-day backup and hybrid role. Such an arrangement would seem to be the logical balance between optimizing the use of game-day roster spots and taking advantage of Jackson’s explosive athleticism.

“We’ll do whatever is best for our team,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “Any given Sunday, we’ll have the 46 guys up that give us the best chance to be successful, and we’ll just see what that is every week.”

Starting right tackle decided — for now

Mornhinweg confirmed veteran James Hurst will begin the season as the starting right tackle after the summer competition with rookie Orlando Brown.

It looked like the third-round pick might win the job as Hurst worked exclusively at right guard filling in for Marshal Yanda over the first few weeks of training camp and in preseason games, but Hurst began practicing at right tackle with the first-team line upon Yanda’s return to practice in August. Hurst has started 32 games in his career, but previous stints were all the result of injuries including left guard Alex Lewis’ season-ending shoulder injury last summer that led to Hurst starting all 16 games in 2017.

“Last year was kind of an injury circumstance with Alex,” Hurst said. “That was a goal. All preseason, I knew that I wanted to be a starter; I wanted to earn that starting spot and have that faith from the coaches. It’s very exciting for me, but it’s a stepping stone. You’ve got to build off that.”

The Ravens have frequently deferred to veterans in position battles in the past, but that doesn’t mean Brown won’t be able to unseat Hurst in the near future, especially if the veteran struggles on the outside as he did in past stints at both tackle spots.

“Orlando is coming. Orlando had just an outstanding preseason and training camp,” Mornhinweg said. “Orlando is ready to go. Now, that preparation is going to be key for him. James is a heck of a player, and Orlando’s on the come up.”

McClellan departs

The decision to release longtime reserve linebacker Albert McClellan may have been the Ravens’ most difficult last weekend.

Harbaugh has acknowledged the possibility of McClellan returning at some point, but special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg expressed his gratitude for the veteran’s contributions over the years.

“Albert made the meeting easy; he was amazing like you might expect him to be I guess,” Rosburg said. “Hopefully, I heard it mentioned that perhaps this is not over. I hope that’s the case, but we’ll see what goes on down the road. I know I owe a great deal to him personally. He’s been a big part of my life, and I know our club has been better for him being here, both as a player and a person.”

One of McClellan’s final acts was helping out the rookie who took his place on the 53-man roster. Chris Board, an undrafted free agent from North Dakota State, is expected to serve as a special-teams contributor and backup inside linebacker.

“He definitely taught me a lot, especially as far as special teams,” Board said. “He was kind of my mentor throughout this whole process [with] me being a rookie not knowing what to expect. I definitely have some really big shoes to fill.”

Thursday’s injury report

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: DT Willie Henry (abdomen), TE Hayden Hurst (foot)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: CB Maurice Canady (thigh)
FULL PARTICIPATION: LB Kenny Young (knee)

BUFFALO
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Lorenzo Alexander (non-injury), WR Ray-Ray McCloud (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: LB Julian Stanford (nose)

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jamesurban

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New quarterbacks coach Urban a breath of fresh air for Ravens offense

Posted on 29 August 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Working with three former first-round picks could have been a daunting challenge for new Ravens quarterbacks coach James Urban.

No quarterback rises to such heights without having great confidence and, frankly, some ego to go with his talents, but Urban has effectively managed a room that includes a Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, an NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, and a Heisman Trophy winner drafted four months ago using a balance of fun and attention to detail. That atmosphere and plenty of hard work have left starter Joe Flacco, veteran Robert Griffin III, and rookie Lamar Jackson trending upward as the preseason concludes Thursday night.

Flacco appears poised for his best season in a few years, Jackson is coming off his best performance of the summer, and Griffin has impressed so much after a year away from the NFL that the Ravens are considering entering a season with three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster for the first time since 2009. Fourth-string quarterback Josh Woodrum even has a 98.5 passer rating in limited preseason snaps while serving as a knowledgeable asset in the classroom and on the practice field.

So, what stands out about Urban, who spent the last seven years as the wide receivers coach of the Cincinnati Bengals?

“The thing that I think he does the best is allows you to feel like a football player, not a robot,” said Griffin after taking a playful dig at Urban’s short stature. “Not like pushing this button and then you go there, and pushing this button and you go there. I think he allows you to feel the game. He wants you to feel like you’re being fluid in the pocket, that you’re moving naturally. He’s also a stickler for, ‘Hey, when versus this coverage or versus this coverage, you’re supposed to go here.’ But he understands that maybe sometimes somebody gets through or you felt something and that’s why you made that throw.

“He doesn’t try to coach the playmaker out of you.”

Such a philosophy easily relates to mobile quarterbacks like Griffin and Jackson, but one of the first things Urban noted about Flacco this spring was his natural arm talent, something that hasn’t been utilized effectively in recent seasons. It’s no coincidence the Ravens have placed more emphasis on the deep passing game in training camp with Flacco regularly connecting with explosive newcomer John Brown as well as the improving Chris Moore during practices.

Flacco is practicing better than he has in years, even if everyone has at least a slightly different theory as to why. The 33-year-old is healthier than he’s been in a long time as he’s now three years removed from a serious knee injury and completely over the back ailment that cost him the entire 2017 preseason and lingered into the regular season. The offseason additions of Brown, Michael Crabtree, Willie Snead, and first-round tight end Hayden Hurst give Baltimore a more diverse set of skill position players after too many years of halfhearted attempts to put better talent around the veteran quarterback.

Opinions vary on just how much Jackson’s selection has impacted Flacco, but it’s human nature in any line of work to feel more urgency when the boss brings in a potential threat to your livelihood, even if the starting job is unquestionably his for the foreseeable future. Shoddy footwork was a common criticism of the Super Bowl XLVII MVP over these last few years, but Urban has seen a player more than willing to be coached entering his 11th season.

“They’re little things,” said Urban, who immediately emphasized mobility, movement in the pocket, and footwork timing during spring workouts. “Generally, Joe has not balked at a single thing: not any drill work, not any extra little conditioning drill work, not extra meeting time, nothing. He’s been open, willing, ready, and wants to [succeed] very badly, and that’s just evident. I love how he’s competing in practice.”

Much has been made about the time Urban spent with Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg in Philadelphia to help revitalize Michael Vick’s career with many naturally connecting those experiences to Jackson. However, their rapport goes beyond the rookie’s development as Mornhinweg admits the challenge of handling both coordinator and quarterbacks coaching duties was enjoyable but “a long, hard grind” as the Ravens offense struggled the last two seasons.

The new arrangement allows Mornhinweg to spend more time on the big picture of the entire offense and less with the quarterbacks while Urban serves as the liaison. That change shouldn’t be overlooked as Mornhinweg will be tasked with trying to take advantage of Jackson’s athleticism in some special packages while not upsetting the overall rhythm of the offense. Assistant head coach Greg Roman and Urban will also have input in that process with both having experience coaching mobile quarterbacks.

“Just the way [Urban] talks, the way we get in that room and the way he coaches it up, I think him and Marty have a connection, and they can talk the same lingo,” Flacco said. “I think that definitely helps when you get in the room. Last year, Marty was in our meetings constantly. Now, it allows him to go be a coordinator and bounce around from meeting to meeting, go up and spend some time by himself and work on the game plan. I think James has handled it well. He does a great job relaying that message. He’s somebody that we can talk to in meetings and bounce ideas off of, and then he can go relay them to Marty. It’s just a very good situation.”

While the 2018 performance of Flacco and the offense remains paramount as the Ravens try to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014, the long-term development of Jackson will remain important. Much progress has been made as the Louisville product has adjusted to more complicated verbiage — which is quite common transitioning from college football — and to playing under center more frequently. Urban has worked with Jackson to widen the base of his throwing motion in hopes of improving his accuracy and has even had him practice calling plays in front of a mirror to express the terminology in the huddle more naturally.

Each quarterback has noted enjoying working with Urban, but the 44-year-old is not afraid to offer tough love when necessary. Jackson noted this past week that the quarterbacks coach was critical of him for not getting sufficiently warmed up before the Indianapolis game, his worst performance of the summer. He made a point to be ready upon entering the game in Miami before running for a touchdown and throwing another while completing 70 percent of his passes.

Many have expressed concern about the hits Jackson has absorbed this preseason, but Urban says it’s a delicate balance between wanting to keep him safe and not eliminating what attracted the Ravens to him in the first place. Urban and Griffin have coached and mentored Jackson about the importance of sliding and avoiding contact when possible, but both acknowledge taking some hits is going to be part of the 21-year-old’s maturation process.

“Lamar has been a sponge,” Urban said. “Lamar shows just enough personality that you really like, but he’s respectful. If he said it once, he’s said it a bunch of times: ‘Joe Flacco has won a Super Bowl. That dude is real.’ That kind of thing — it’s been great.”

Every image or morsel of information regarding Flacco and Jackson has been over-analyzed from the moment general manager Ozzie Newsome traded back into the first round to take the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner in April, something Urban made a point to joke about in the spring to break the ice and ease any tension that could have existed. The two may not be best friends ready to rent an apartment complete with bunk beds, but any notions of chilliness are overblown.

“There’s absolutely no animosity,” Woodrum said. “The media loves to make up stories just because they know people will read them. There’s no animosity or anything. Our unit in there is just awesome. We have a great time. We bounce ideas off each other. We try to help each other be the best we can because there’s only one of us on the field at once. If one of us shines, it makes the whole room look pretty good.”

There’s no telling what the future might hold for Flacco and Jackson beyond this season — and for Griffin and Woodrum much sooner than that — but Urban has catered to each individual’s needs this summer, leaving the quarterbacks, Mornhinweg, and the entire offense in a better place entering the season.

It’s a breath of fresh air the Ravens hope will translate to more success.

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Banged-up offensive line could impact Ravens’ plans for Miami game

Posted on 22 August 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Going into what will be most starters’ final preseason tuneup on Saturday night, the Ravens are banged up along the offensive line.

Left tackle Ronnie Stanley left Monday’s game in Indianapolis with what was labeled a minor knee sprain, and the versatile James Hurst quietly exited before fellow interior starters Matt Skura and Alex Lewis and was not present for Wednesday’s practice. The potential absence of both Stanley and Hurst — who has served as the backup left tackle in past seasons — could complicate Baltimore’s plans against Miami, and that’s not even considering the status of right guard Marshal Yanda, who is practicing but has yet to play in the preseason after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery.

Should those three not play against the Dolphins, it’s fair to wonder whether head coach John Harbaugh would alter his plans for quarterback Joe Flacco’s playing time.

“It’s always a part of the decision-making,” offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. “However, it is football. And I’ll tell you what, with a backup man that’s fighting for a starting job, a good strategy is to put him in with the rest of the ‘ones’ and see how he does rather than put him in with the ‘twos’ or ‘threes.’ Sometimes you can’t get quite the evaluation, so there are a couple of those things that may happen as well.”

Rookie sixth-round pick Greg Senat has worked as the second-team left tackle in the preseason while Hurst has practiced at either right guard or right tackle. A former basketball player at Wagner, the 6-foot-6, 305-pound Senat is an intriguing prospect, but his lack of experience would be less than ideal protecting Flacco’s blindside this close to the start of the season.

Senat missed the start of training camp and the Hall of Fame Game with a lower leg injury before returning to practice in early August.

“Greg was hurt for a period of time,” Mornhinweg said. “The really good thing is — and we’ve had several players do this that have come in; they don’t have much work under their belt, but they’re getting better every day. He got better from last week to this week. That’s a good thing, and let’s see how far he can go in the next two weeks.”

Hurst’s absence could increase the likelihood of rookie third-round pick Orlando Brown Jr. beginning the season as the starting right tackle.

Returner competition

Monday wasn’t a banner game for return specialists Tim White and Janarion Grant, who each lost a fumble against the Colts, but the Ravens aren’t giving up on their potential.

Whether that means either makes the 53-man roster remains to be seen.

“They have the duty to the rest of the team to protect the football, and they know that,” special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. “It’s two young players that got in situations where they didn’t realize that they needed to practice the ball-security habits that they both have. They have those skills, and in both those situations, they need to lock the ball down and they didn’t. Hopefully, the lesson has been learned.”

Ideally, one of the two would seize the job and be able to provide a spark in the field-position game, but the Ravens could elect to just go with established veterans better trusted to secure the ball. Wide receiver Chris Moore served as the primary kick returner for much of last season, but not a single player to return a punt last season remains on the roster, leaving less clarity for that role.

Slot receiver Willie Snead has fielded plenty of punts during spring and summer workouts, but he fumbled his only career punt return for New Orleans last season.

“He’s been efficient. He’s in every meeting. He’s locked in,” Rosburg said. “He comes out here and practices well, and we’ll see how it plays out down the road. Again, we still have two preseason games left, so we want to give those other guys an opportunity to show what they can do.”

Mornhinweg concerned with Jackson taking hits

More than a few observers have expressed concerns about the number of hits taken by rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson in the preseason, a sentiment shared by Mornhinweg.

Shoddy pass protection from reserve offensive linemen has led to Jackson being sacked six times, but the former Heisman Trophy winner has taken multiple hits in the open field in lieu of trying to protect himself. It’s understandable for a rookie to be eager to make plays — especially playing before a national audience in two of the first three preseason games — but the Ravens clearly want him to stay healthy to continue his development.

“Yeah, that’s not good. You see what I’m saying? It’s just that simple,” Mornhinweg said. “Between the numbers, now, we want to get down underneath the hits unless you think you can score and typically you’re one-on-one. Outside the numbers, we want to get up and get out. And we’d rather get down a step too early than a step too late or get up and out a step too early than a step too late.

“That’s an ongoing process. Some of it is experience because he does have to filter through exactly what he can get away with and what he can’t in this league. It’s a little different situation here, a little different league, a little different speed, a little different quickness — all those things.”

Wednesday attendance

In addition to Stanley and Hurst, running back Kenneth Dixon, tight end Mark Andrews, defensive backs Maurice Canady and Bennett Jackson, and linebacker Alvin Jones did not participate in Wednesday’s practice.

Harbaugh noted after Monday’s game that Dixon was still not 100 percent after dealing with a hamstring injury for a large portion of camp. The third-year running back drew praise in his preseason debut by collecting 56 total yards on his nine touches, his first live-game action since 2016.

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Flacco, Ravens offense offer proper cameo against Rams

Posted on 10 August 2018 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — There was no other appropriate outcome for Joe Flacco and the Ravens’ starting offense on Thursday night.

Facing a Los Angeles Rams defense that played only one projected starter — outside linebacker Samson Ebukam — while several Pro Bowl talents sat, the Baltimore starters did exactly what was expected with a 10-play, 70-yard touchdown drive lasting just under five minutes.

The cameo was short but sweet for Flacco, who was playing in only his second preseason game since 2015.

“You know you’re probably only going to play 20 snaps or so,” said the 11th-year quarterback, who took 12 snaps if you count two plays negated by penalty. “You’ve got to get yourself ready to play an NFL football game, so it’s just these weird situations in the preseason. To go up there and have a drive like we did, it’s obviously the way we wanted it to go.”

The series began with an over-the-middle completion to rookie tight end Hayden Hurst for 12 yards and a first down. The first-round pick continues to impress with his soft hands and ability to make catches in traffic, something the Ravens have lacked over the middle since the days of a healthy Dennis Pitta.

On the first third down, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg called for a formation shift involving running back Buck Allen, who split out wide before motioning back to the backfield. The movement set up a soft pick from wide receiver Michael Crabtree’s inside route to give Allen just enough space from linebacker Bryce Hager to catch a short swing pass and move the chains.

Facing a second-and-25 a few plays later, Flacco hit John Brown and Crabtree on consecutive throws for a total of 47 yards. Brown took advantage of a matchup against linebacker Ramik Wilson, the result of a trips alignment in which Hurst was split outside the speedy receiver. Crabtree showed chemistry with his new quarterback on the next play by running up the field as Flacco rolled left, leading to a 30-yard completion on a third-and-8 to put the Ravens inside the red zone.

Baltimore looked like it would have to settle for a field goal until a third-down illegal contact penalty extended the drive. That was all Flacco would need as he finished it off with a play-action pass to fullback-defensive tackle Patrick Ricard in the flat for a 6-yard touchdown.

Frequently knocked for his mobility that’s suffered in recent years because of an ACL tear in 2015 and last summer’s back injury, Flacco moved effectively to extend plays and even managed to slide without breaking his knee brace on a scramble early in the drive. As has been the case all spring and summer, his passes were on point as he finished 5 of 7 for 71 yards and could have had another completion to Crabtree on a sideline throw that wasn’t corralled in traffic.

What more could you want in a limited sample?

“You get a sense of, ‘Hey, maybe we’re going to be good on offense,’” said head coach John Harbaugh, who called it a night for Flacco, Crabtree, Brown, and slot receiver Willie Snead after that touchdown. “But you want to see it in a game. And we’ll want to see it in another game. Then, we’ll want to see it in a regular-season game. We’re all going to feel that way about our offense and our defense.

“But to take this step at this time was really gratifying.”

Once again, it was a single preseason drive against another team’s backups. For some context, the Ravens offense struggled against the Rams’ first-team defense in Monday’s joint practice before bouncing back to move the ball more consistently the following day.

But taking care of business on that opening drive sure beat the alternative of a three-and-out, a turnover, or the listlessness too often on display in recent years.

The Ravens offense has practiced well, competing at a higher level against the talented Baltimore defense than it has in recent years. That hardly guarantees success when the season kicks off for real next month, but building mojo is important for a unit that couldn’t get out of its own way for much of last season, a big reason why the Ravens were again on the outside looking in at the playoffs.

Thursday was a positive step for a quarterback and an offense with much to prove in 2018.

“Once the regular season starts, this isn’t going to mean anything,” Flacco said. “But what it does for our confidence as a group, our confidence as a team, that will carry us pretty far into the season. Hopefully, we can keep this going. I think we’ve got the guys to do it.”

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Amid many doubts, Flacco trying to win the only way he can

Posted on 22 July 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — In many ways, Joe Flacco can’t win at this point.

The writing appears to be on the wall with the Ravens drafting a quarterback in the first round, even if former Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson needs some seasoning. Despite the proclamations of Flacco still being the franchise guy, an organization wanting to win now isn’t using two second-round picks to trade up to the 32nd overall selection simply for a better backup or someone seen as a project.

Even Flacco’s biggest supporters must acknowledge the need for him to show meaningful improvement after a third consecutive lackluster season in which Baltimore once again missed the playoffs and he finished dead last among qualified passers in yards per attempt. Some fans and critics are already clamoring for Jackson and will even louder at the first hint of trouble for the 11th-year quarterback and a passing game that ranked 29th in the NFL last season.

On the flip side, a Flacco renaissance will be chalked up by many solely to Jackson’s arrival motivating the former Super Bowl XLVII Most Valuable Player. And even if Flacco does play better, he might still receive the Alex Smith treatment next offseason as Kansas City traded its Pro Bowl quarterback in March to clear the way for 2017 first-round pick Patrick Mahomes.

Is the rookie’s presence the reason why some see more of a bounce in Flacco’s step this offseason?

“I don’t know. Does it matter what I say?” said Flacco as he smiled. “I think you guys will probably link it to Lamar anyway.”

It’s human nature in any line of work to feel more urgency when your employer hires a threat to your job, but perhaps he’s pleased with the organization making more than its typical halfhearted effort — at times, less than that — to improve the offensive side of the ball. Much is made about Flacco’s expensive price tag while the front office has frequently received a pass for investing resource after resource after resource into a defense that’s still come up too small in defining moments of the last five years.

Flacco’s hefty contract may justify more free-agent dollars going toward the defense in recent years, but using all but four of 17 total picks in the first three rounds of the 2013-17 drafts on defense was asking a quarterback to do more with less than anyone in the NFL. Exactly one of those four offensive picks (left tackle Ronnie Stanley) has made a lasting impact while the other three are either gone (tight end Crockett Gillmore) or likely soon on their way out the door (wide receiver Breshad Perriman and tight end Maxx Williams).

So little cheap labor with upside in addition to few impact free agents on his side of the ball for years, but it’s still all about his contract in the minds of many.

That the free-agent additions of wide receivers Michael Crabtree, John Brown, and Willie Snead — three players all coming off down seasons — and the early-round selections of tight ends Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews are viewed as a Herculean effort speaks to the lukewarm commitment to building a good offense since Super Bowl XLVII. These offseason additions still don’t make Baltimore anywhere close to a top 10 offense on paper, but they at least bring a more diverse skill set to the passing game to give Flacco a better chance to succeed in this make-or-break year.

“I know we brought in a lot of pieces, a lot of draft picks to help him do that,” said Snead, who has shown early chemistry with Flacco and caught a combined 141 passes in his first two seasons with New Orleans. “I think that’s all he needed — weapons. I think it’s all on him now to be able to make those plays, which I know he can.”

Perhaps even more important than the possibility of improved weapons is the veteran quarterback’s health. Flacco is another year removed from his 2015 knee injury and appears to be over the back injury that cost him all of last summer and hindered him well into the 2017 regular season.

Asked this past week to reflect on how challenging it was to step right into Week 1 last year after missing all of training camp and the preseason, Flacco still wasn’t interested in making excuses for his poor numbers. After registering just eight touchdown passes, 10 interceptions, a 72.7 passer rating, and just 5.3 yards per attempt over the first nine games of 2017, the Delaware product posted 10 touchdowns, three interceptions, an 89.1 passer rating, and 6.2 yards per attempt the rest of the way.

But it wasn’t enough to get the Ravens back to the postseason for the first time since 2014 or to prevent general manager Ozzie Newsome from drafting his likely successor.

“Hey, I wish we went out there last year and made the playoffs and won more games and wouldn’t have to deal with it,” Flacco said. “I wouldn’t have to deal with answering stuff, questions like that about making excuses and not getting that part of camp. That’s all in hindsight and it’s not the most ideal situation, but we should have made it work.”

The most observable difference with Flacco this spring and summer has been his mobility as his movement within the pocket has been more fluid and he’s looked faster on those rare occasions when he takes off running. That’s a reflection of better health and the arrival of new quarterbacks coach James Urban, who has emphasized improving his footwork that has slacked in recent seasons. No one ever accused Flacco of being a mobile quarterback, but better movement will be key with the Ravens trying to incorporate more run-pass options this season, another harbinger of Jackson.

With Stanley and right guard Marshal Yanda not practicing on Sunday, Flacco effectively stepped up in the pocket and moved his feet in response to constant pressure from the defensive front, even taking off once or twice to gain positive yardage.

“Many of those subtle movements are important, and once again he looks really healthy,” said offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, who estimated that a quarterback must deviate from his designed drop roughly half the time. “If you remember now, it’s been a couple years since he’s been healthy. He was really a fine, fine athlete [before the injuries], and he is a fine, fine athlete, especially for his size.”

Doubts surrounding his future will remain as Flacco is set to carry a $26.5 million cap figure with an $18.5 million base salary in 2019. Short of him being selected to his first Pro Bowl or making a deep playoff run, the Ravens may choose to move on from their longtime quarterback next offseason, especially if the gifted Jackson looks like the real deal in his development.

But Flacco has every intention of silencing such talk and at least delaying what many see as the inevitable in the only way he can — on the field.

“I think we’re going to win,” said Flacco, exuding the same confidence he had six years ago when he bet on himself as a pending free agent and led the Ravens to a championship. “And we’re not going to hear about it.”

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