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Chapter 20: Sup-Harb Bowl – A Crescent City Crowning for Ravens

Posted on 31 January 2018 by Nestor Aparicio




“We want to win Super Bowls. We want to make history. We want to do things that have never been done in the NFL before. Don’t we all want that in life? Don’t we all have dreams?”

John Harbaugh on WNST.net (March 2008)






THE NFL ALLOWS THE TWO TEAMS that win their conference championship game an extra week to prepare for the Super Bowl. For the Baltimore Ravens, it was just what the commissioner ordered – a few days to rest and enjoy their monumental accomplishment. Despite the need to prepare to beat the San Francisco 49ers, the Ravens were in dire need of a little time to breathe after what had been a physical and emotional roller coaster over the previous 21 days.

The Ray Lewis Last Ride. Beating the Colts. A new offensive coordinator. New personnel on both sides of the ball over three games. The brutal cold in Denver. The drama in Denver. The miracle in Denver. The emotions of Denver. And then the exorcising of some old demons in Foxborough, beating Tom Brady and overcoming the role of being a huge, road underdog two weeks in a row in the biggest games of their lives. It was indeed time to rest.

Sure, the Ravens were lucky to win in Denver. But statistically, and if not for shoddy coverage on the two Trindon Holliday returns for touchdowns, the Ravens played extremely well on offense and defense at Mile High. But it was in New England, where they fell behind early and took no mercy after halftime, that they showed true championship mettle. The Ravens beat the snot out of the Patriots in the second half on both sides of the ball. Flacco ran the offense up and down the field, and the Ravens defense held Brady scoreless in the second half. “When is the last time that happened at Foxboro?” said center Matt Birk. “Like, never? It’s unbelievable!”

But it was Flacco and the offense that put the pedal down and attacked the banged-up and depleted Patriots defense. “We realized that we just needed to put some pressure on them in that way,” Flacco said after the game in the Gillette Stadium locker room. “In the first half we were probably a little bit run-heavy, and they did a good job of stopping it, and we came out in the second half and decided to go with what we went with. We didn’t come all the way here to play it safe and hope to win. We came here to win the AFC Championship Game, and you have to play to win and you have to do some of those things, and our guys made plays – Anquan [Boldin] came up huge – all of our receivers [and] all of our tight ends, our linemen, everyone came up big when they needed to. We’ve definitely overcome a lot, but I think that – if you look at the Super Bowl winners over the past few years – I’d probably say that we’d have a lot in common with that. It’s about who can get ready and who can become their best at the right time and hit the ground running and that’s what we’re doing.”

The Ravens wouldn’t need to run to New Orleans. Like Fats Domino sang, they could’ve walked or floated with the emotional high they were on after New England.

The Big Easy would be waiting in seven days, and even though the strategy on the field would take a backseat to the Super Bowl media madness and storylines, the Ravens knew they had their hands full with upstart quarterback sensation Colin Kaepernick and his hard-to-mark “Pistol” offense. San Francisco also prided itself on a stingy defense led by a head coach that Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh knew all too well.

And as much as John Harbaugh begged the media to not delve to deeply into this unique story of brother vs. brother, he knew there was no stopping that train.

Let’s just cut that right out,” Harbaugh joked with the media from the podium immediately following the win in Foxborough. “Can we all agree? Just forget about that stuff. We did that last year, OK? It was fine. It got old last year. Did it not? My dad is definitely on board with that. [My parents] don’t take any interviews anyway. He’s in the basement down in Mequon [Wisconsin], and I hope he’s on his fourth or fifth beer

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Chapter 19: The purple revolution in New England

Posted on 30 January 2018 by Nestor Aparicio




“You guys will write great stories and can put it in way better words than I can. We’ve always believed in Joe. For Joe to come out and have this kind of game, on this kind of a stage, three weeks in a row…[Andrew] Luck’s a pretty good quarterback, [Peyton] Manning’s a pretty good quarterback, [Tom] Brady’s a great quarterback; all those guys are great players. But Joe’s a great quarterback. He’s proven that, and he’s not just proven that this year, he’s proven it for five years.”

– John Harbaugh (January 20, 2013)






IF REVENGE IS A DISH best served cold, then at least the elements and the weather in New England would cooperate accordingly. What could provide a better stage for a tale of vindication in Charm City than the Baltimore Ravens returning to Foxborough for a rematch of the AFC Championship Game?

It was like a Steel Cage Match.

Tom Brady vs. Joe Flacco. Ray Lewis and The Last Ride. Bill Belichick and the Patriots with yet another chance to make America groan by going to a sixth Super Bowl in 13 seasons in New England. There were no shortage of stories to be told.

When the Ravens boarded their happy flight for Baltimore from Denver two hours after the miraculous win over the Broncos, they were unsure of their destination for the final step toward Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. The Texans, who had whipped them in Houston back in October, were visiting New England the following afternoon. The Patriots, led by Tom Brady’s three TD passes, dispatched of the Texans in a 41-28 win, but lost tight end Rob Gronkowski with a left wrist injury.

A huge weapon for the Patriots was gone before the Ravens even had to assemble the game plan.

By late Sunday afternoon the travel plans were made for a trip that the Ravens knew all too well. They were heading to Foxborough. For more than 40 players and the entire coaching staff, it was back to Gillette Stadium 52 weeks later – 364 days after the most disappointing day of their lives. The Lee Evans drop. The Billy Cundiff kick. The cold, empty feeling in that locker room and Ray Lewis telling them to go make someone smile. The quiet flight home. And those long days afterward, when you just wanted to pull the blankets over your head in the morning because you still couldn’t accept that you lost that game.

It’s not one of those days you quickly forget.

Motivating players was not going to be an issue for head coach John Harbaugh this week. Calming them down, however, might be.

On Sunday night, in the middle of the Texans-Patriots game, Brendon Ayanbadejo fired the opening salvo via his Twitter page:

Are you watching the game pats vs. texans? If so you see the hurry snap offense catch em b4 they set up. It’s a gimmick.

Then, he followed with: New England does some suspect stuff on offense. Can’t really respect it. Comparable to a cheap shot b4 a fight

Then: You know the same organization that did spygate and cut a guy the day b4 the Super Bowl

Then: In a sport that is predicated on mano y mano, “lets hurry n snap it” = bitchassness

And finally: 18-1 …a reference to the Patriots losing in the Super Bowl to Giants in 2008

Ayanbadejo is no stranger to the back and forth of social media, yet his controversial stand on social issues were always consistent and relatively polite given the forum. But, something about watching the Patriots play the Texans in Foxborough clearly rubbed him the wrong way. And with his fingers on the trigger of his mobile device, and filled with emotion given the outcome and his role, he simply fired off his thoughts.

By lunchtime on Monday, Ayanbadejo had issued an apology on Twitter:

I made selfish comments on twitter last night that reflected poorly upon myself, my teammates, and the organization. For that I apologize.

One thing he was correct about was that the Patriots were going to try to snap the ball before the Ravens were ready. Harbaugh was more diplomatic. “They look to create advantages for themselves, and they do it with tempo a lot of times,” he said. “ It’s not just the fact that they go fast sometimes. They force you to line up. Sometimes they’ll force the defense to show their hand because you have to defend the play. If you don’t, they’ll run the play. You saw last week they got Houston in some tough situations, and it was big plays for them. It usually results in a big

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Chapter 16: I love you – and I mean it!

Posted on 27 January 2018 by Nestor Aparicio





“If you ask me to give you three words to describe this team, I’ll use three that Ray Lewis used a few weeks ago: faith, hope and love. Those are biblical words, but those are probably the three most important words in the English language. Faith in each other and in whatever greater thing you believe. Always hopeful. You can be discouraged, but there is no such thing as being disheartened. Love is what holds the universe together. It’s a selflessness that you put others before yourself. That’s the ultimate team quality. We’ll need a lot of all three to get us where we want to go.”

– John Harbaugh (December 2012)





AFTER A THIRD CONSECUTIVE LOSS in the NFL, if there’s not some palpable tension in the air then you’ve probably got a football team that’s far too comfortable.

Head coach John Harbaugh’s tireless optimism and foundational principles would be tested with the New York Giants coming to town in Week 16 and the home crowd coming back to the stadium after booing and exiting early in the shellacking by the Denver Broncos.

Harbaugh’s core, old-fashioned philosophies about faith, hope and love were drilled into the team in this time of adversity. For the most part, the media didn’t believe. The fans were restless, and the team was that had been 9-2 with dreams of a bye and an AFC Championship home game was a mere shadow of its former self. Now they were just trying to make the playoffs at 9-5 while staring down the defending champs on Christmas weekend, knowing that Cincinnati would be playing to get into the playoffs the following weekend. The losing streak would’ve been four games had it not been for a 4th & 29 miracle in San Diego.

Make no mistake about it, the Ravens were not playing well, and they weren’t healthy.

Sure, Harbaugh used the “us vs. them” mentality and also said that people outside the building didn’t believe. But that only goes so far if the core philosophy isn’t grounded in self-belief and integrity in the work ethic that backs it up.

Harbaugh’s enthusiasm is tireless, and his optimism never ceases. In the first year, many players found it almost hokey, corny in many ways. But it’s what John Harbaugh believes and what his family has preached for his half century on the planet.

Let’s be honest: “Who’s got it better than us?” is implicit in its optimism, right?

His father’s famous refrain, which his brother Jim had adopted with the San Francisco 49ers, and made famous – “Who’s got it better than us?” – with the retort, “Nobody!” had almost become part of the NFL vernacular.

It assumes happiness and steadfastly conveys success and gratitude. And if you woke up and said it every morning – and more importantly, really believed it – you would also be eternally optimistic.

That’s the faith and hope part of the equation.

The love was probably the easiest sell on his players. It’s hard to find a John Harbaugh speech or press conference where he doesn’t convey the value of “team” and “sticking together” as core values. The friendships that had sprung from battling together

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Ravens Press Conference 097

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Chapter 12: Oh, where is the ‘O’ in October?

Posted on 23 January 2018 by Nestor Aparicio





“I don’t take any credence in winning ugly; to me it doesn’t mean anything. Look around the league; it’s a tough league. Every team has great players. There are no homecoming opponents. This is the NFL. There is not going to be a lot of ‘pretty.’ There is really not.”

– John Harbaugh (October 2012)




WHEN FOOTBALL IS WORKING AT its best as an entertainment vehicle, it takes its audience away from the real world. The NFL is a pretend world where everyone is given a fresh chance, new players and a new salary cap number each season. If only the real world were that easy.

Despite another strong start on the field, Ravens fans and the players had all been subjected to the real world in the first weeks of the 2012 season, with the loss of Art Modell and Torrey Smith’s brother, Tevin, on the morning of the Patriots game.

On Monday, October 1, everyone in Owings Mills awakened with another gut punch to their hearts as news came from Indianapolis that Colts head coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia. Pagano, just 10 months removed from being in the Ravens’ building every day as the defensive coordinator, had a personal relationship with virtually everyone in the building and some special friendships with coaches and defensive players, who adored him during his four-year stay in Baltimore.

Word was that his form of leukemia was treatable and had an 80-to-90 percent chance of remission, but it was still a rough Monday to be back at work for Harbaugh and his staff in preparing for a trip to Kansas City.

“Chuck’s a fighter in every respect,” Harbaugh said. “Chuck’s got that swagger, and I’m completely confident that Chuck will go to work on this with the same enthusiasm he does everything else in his life, and he’ll be victorious. So, we’ll be pulling for him and praying for him on that.”

Ray Lewis, who knew Pagano from his early days at Miami when he coached Ed Reed in the 1990’s, spoke out about his former coordinator. “He’s a man of men,” Lewis said. “He’s a man that people want to aspire to be like. That when you grow up as a man, that when you’re around Chuck you realize that, you know what, if life offers nothing else it offered me the opportunity to be around a man. A true man.”

“He’s like a dad to me,” said Reed, who originally met Pagano when he recruited him to go to the University of Miami in 1997. “That’s family, which is first before football.”

Defensive tackle Arthur Jones would later shave his head to show his unity with a Twitter and internet movement known simply as #Chuckstrong.

Once the week got started in preparation for the Chiefs, the attention of local sports fans turned away from the Ravens and instead to the Baltimore Orioles, who were in the midst of qualifying for the MLB playoffs for the first time since 1997. On Wednesday, Ravens players sported orange T-shirts that had the team’s October catch phrase, “Buckle Up,” an ode to manager Buck Showalter as the team prepared for a weekend wild card game on Friday in Texas. The entire city was looking forward to the rare road and home doubleheader set to take place on Sunday, October 7th. The Ravens had an afternoon game at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, and the Orioles would be hosting Game 1 of the American League Division Series at Oriole Park at Camden Yards that evening against the New York Yankees.

And even if you find baseball boring by your tastes, there was no arguing that what would take place on the field in Baltimore that night had much more offense than what took place earlier in the day in Kansas City, where the Chiefs and Ravens played perhaps the ugliest NFL game of the year.

The natives were already restless for better football in Kansas City. Chiefs fans were on the warpath before the game began, but much of their ire was directed toward general manager Scott Pioli, head coach Romeo Crennel, and quarterback Matt Cassel, who were all put on watch by an angry fan base that has been accustomed to success over the past three decades. The 7-9 finish in 2011 was bad enough, but the Chiefs were off

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Chapter 9: Injury after insult after implosion – Psychology 2012

Posted on 20 January 2018 by Nestor Aparicio


“There’s really no way to accurately describe it or predict what it means. I’m never going to get over it. It’s never going to be OK.”

– John Harbaugh (March 2012)




ONE SPLIT SECOND. THAT’S ALL it took for New England Patriots defensive back Sterling Moore to swat the ball out of the hands of wide receiver Lee Evans in the southwest corner of the end zone at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough on January 22, 2012 in the waning moments of the AFC Championship Game.

The Ravens were a literally a blink of an eye away from going to the Super Bowl. Had Evans clutched the ball just a moment longer, the Ravens would’ve taken the lead in what was a 23-20 game with just 27 seconds left in regulation. Instead, a play later, as the play clock seemed to move at double speed and with head coach John Harbaugh still sitting on one timeout, Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff raced onto the field to kick what felt like an almost automatic 32-yard field goal that would tie the game and send it to overtime.

The chaos, the confusion, the play clock was winding, the indecision, the snap – it all happened so fast. There were 138 plays in the game and Ravens fans will only remember two of them: the Evans swat and drop and the Cundiff miss. The Cundiff field goal would’ve tied the game, but the Evans play was far closer to being successful and some replays, if slowed down enough, certainly looked like he had possession for an instant.

“Honestly, for a split-second I thought he caught the ball,” said Flacco. “I thought we were going to the Super Bowl. I threw the ball and I threw my hands up for a split second because I

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Twelve Ravens thoughts counting down to free agency

Posted on 15 February 2017 by Luke Jones

With the start of NFL free agency only three weeks away, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts on the Ravens, each in 50 words or less:

1. The Ravens now have until March 1 to potentially use their franchise tag on one of their pending free agents, but a projected $13.5 million number for nose tackle Brandon Williams would cripple Ozzie Newsome’s efforts to improve the roster. I’d be surprised if it’s a real consideration.

2. With 19 teams having more than $30 million in salary cap space, it’s tough to like Baltimore’s chances of re-signing either Williams or right tackle Rick Wagner once the league-wide negotiating window begins on March 7. The clock is ticking.

3. Even if you buy into the continuity with Marty Mornhinweg remaining the offensive coordinator, John Harbaugh not hiring a new quarterbacks coach is a tough sell in light of Joe Flacco’s body of work since Mornhinweg was hired as his positional coach in 2015. Rattling some cages wouldn’t have hurt.

4. The promotion of Chris Hewitt to secondary coach will be interesting to monitor after he was demoted in favor of Leslie Frazier after the 2015 season. The absence of Jimmy Smith aside, the defensive backfield was much more organized this past season, a credit to Frazier and safety Eric Weddle.

5. I understand the temptation to cut Mike Wallace to save $5.75 million in cap space, but the organization’s history at the wide receiver position makes it extremely difficult to trust the decision to willingly part with a 1,000-yard wideout with excellent speed.

6. Little free-agent discussion has centered around Lawrence Guy, but you wonder how easily the Ravens would replace him at the 5-technique defensive end spot. Injuries have hindered Brent Urban’s development, and Bronson Kaufusi missed his rookie year with a broken ankle. There’s a lot of unknown at that position.

7. When I hear critics say that the coaching staff has failed to develop talented draft picks in recent years, I then wonder why these “suppressed” talents aren’t catching on elsewhere to a meaningful degree. Linebacker John Simon did become a productive player in Houston, but who else?

8. I’ve opined plenty about Dennis Pitta and his $7.7 million cap figure, but there’s no diminishing the human element with what he’s been through. Asking him to take a pay cut with incentives for the second straight offseason is a tough sell, but it would probably be for the best.

9. If the Ravens covet a specific offensive playmaker, pass rusher, or cornerback in the pre-draft process, I’d like to see a greater willingness to jump up in the first round to get their guy. The roster needs a high-end difference-maker more than additional solid players in later rounds.

10. Despite much discussion about the tight end position, Maxx Williams has been all but forgotten. Few specifics are known about the procedure the 2015 second-round pick had to correct a cartilage problem in his knee, but he doesn’t turn 23 until April. You hope the issue is finally behind him.

11. The money may not make sense in the end, but I still see Pierre Garcon as the best free-agent fit at receiver. The 30-year-old eclipsed 1,000 yards in a deep receiver group and plays with toughness. The close proximity to where he’s played the last five years doesn’t hurt, either.

12. With Matt Birk eligible for Hall of Fame consideration next year, it reminds me of the issues the Ravens have had at center since his post-Super Bowl XLVII retirement. Jeremy Zuttah’s 2014 arrival brought improvement from the overmatched Gino Gradkowski, but upgrading this spot would help the offense immensely.

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Former Ravens center Birk named NFL director of football development

Posted on 10 July 2014 by WNST Staff


Former Minnesota Vikings and Baltimore Ravens center MATT BIRK has been named director of football development, the National Football League announced today.

Birk, a six-time Pro Bowl selection, was a standout center for the Vikings and Ravens from 1998-2012, concluding his career by helping Baltimore to a victory in Super Bowl XLVII. He spent the 2013 season working as an NFL-NFLPA appeals officer.

In his new role, Birk will assist in developing the game at all levels of the sport, from players to coaches to front office personnel. He will also assist in the administration of NFL game day operations.

Birk will guide the continued evolution of the Scouting Combine and Regional Combines as well as the annual all-star games for aspiring NFL players, such as the Senior Bowl and East-West Shrine Game.

“I’m very excited to begin this next chapter of my football career,” says Birk, who becomes the eighth former player to take a job at the NFL office, joining Merton Hanks, Dwight Hollier, Patrick Kerney, James Thrash, David Tyree, Troy Vincent and Charles Way. “It’s a real honor for me to be entrusted with developing the game in so many different ways.”

A native of St. Paul, Minnesota, Birk will play a leading role in the continuing evolution and emergence of the Career Development Symposium, oversee the Bill Walsh Minority Coaching Fellowship program and NFL-NCAA Future Football Coaches Academy initiative.

“Matt’s experience as a terrific NFL player, a model citizen in his community and a reputation as a forward-thinking leader make him ideally suited for this role,” said NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations TROY VINCENT. “There is no doubt he will continue to make a positive impact on our game and be a trusted advocate for those who play and coach at every level.”

Birk, who will also serve as a liaison for the Football Operations department on the international development of the game and assist in further strengthening the NFL High School Player Development program, will be based at NFL headquarters in New York.

A graduate of Harvard University with a degree in economics, Birk was the recipient of the 2011 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award for his excellence on and off the field, including his commitment to emphasizing the importance of education through his H.I.K.E. Foundation (hope, inspiration, knowledge and education).

Birk and his wife, Adrianna, are the parents of six children.

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I called it last week — and Harbaugh confirmed it yesterday

Posted on 09 January 2014 by Drew Forrester

A nice gesture by John Harbaugh in January of 2013 turned into a whopper of a train wreck for the Head Coach.

He took steps in an effort to fix it yesterday at the annual “State of the Ravens” press conference at the team’s facility in Owings Mills.

What did Harbaugh do?

He gave Juan Castillo the title he should have given him last January when the Ravens hired him to oversee their offensive line.

Last week as Luke and I reviewed the 2013 Ravens season, one of the topics centered on coaches and who we thought might return and who was on the bubble.

This was before Wilbert Montgomery was “moved on” for, essentially, insubordination.

As Luke and I went over the names, we eventually came to Castillo.  I contended then that Harbaugh’s biggest mistake was giving Juan Castillo the title of “Run Game Coordinator”.  I can see why Harbaugh did it that way, but hindsight tells us the title was a mistake.

To give Castillo a “new” title (the Ravens didn’t have a “Run Game Coordinator” before Castillo showed up) implied he was coming in to do something so specifically different that no one else on staff could manage it.  The only problem, of course, is the Ravens already had someone overseeing their run game.  His name was Wilbert Montgomery.  And, since a major component of running the ball is blocking for the ball carrier, they also had one of “those guys” in charge of coaching the offensive line — Andy Moeller.

Honestly, as I said last week, Harbaugh’s mistake wasn’t in hiring Castillo.  He’s a bright guy with a terrific resume.  John’s mistake was in giving Castillo the title of “Run Game Coordinator”.  When the running game fizzled in 2013, everyone simply pointed to the new guy who came in to coordinate the running game and said, “There’s the problem!”

Look, I understand John Harbaugh and Steve Bisciotti and everyone else at Owings Mills couldn’t care less about what the “armchair quarterbacks” (aka, the fans) think about their style, scheme and methods of coaching.  Frankly, the fans don’t know anything about football, truth be told.  They know when a player does something well and they know when Matt Elam gets beat by A.J. Green that Elam was to blame, but the fans don’t know anything, really, about the true inner workings of all eleven players on either side of the ball and how Player A’s mistake and Player B’s inability to cover up for it leaves Player C exposed.

That said, Harbaugh and Bisciotti do owe it to the fans to review the performance of their coaches and players and determine who deserves to carry on with the team and who doesn’t.

What “the fans” think about Juan Castillo shouldn’t have anything to do with whether the Ravens keep him or not, but it’s clear from yesterday’s press conference that Harbaugh IS aware of the scrutiny and criticism his “Run Game Coordinator” endured during the recently completed 8-8 season.

That’s why Castillo is now the team’s “Offensive Line Coach”.  It’s basically what he was all along, even with Moeller in the fold, but the Head Coach didn’t want to create a potential firestorm by stripping Moeller of his title.

And, for anyone who thinks Castillo was the guy who wrecked the running game, let me tell you this:  He didn’t coach the running backs.  Wilbert Montgomery did.  As someone in the organization said to me yesterday, “Wilbert’s job was to make the running backs better.  Whether or not he did that is up to you (the media) guys to decide and report on in whatever fashion you want.”

Oddly enough, the Ravens also brought in a smart football mind in 2013 to help with their defense.  His name was Steve Spagnuolo. The former Rams Head Coach joined the club as their “Senior Defensive Assistant”.  The Ravens defense, as we saw time and time again, couldn’t get off the field on 3rd down.  They had a tendency to give up the big play in the 4th quarter as the Ravens tried to steal a win or two in Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Cincinnati.  Even though the defense outperformed the offense in 2013, the team’s defense was certainly a liability on a somewhat regular basis.  Why, then, was Spagnuolo not the same sort of lightning rod as Castillo?  One reason:  Title.

Castillo’s title suggested he was going to “fix” the running game.

Spagnuolo’s title suggested he was there to watch game film with Harbaugh and play racquetball with the coaches and front office members on Tuesday afternoons.

In theory — and based on his day to day duties — Castillo was brought on board to work with the offensive line.  We all know, of course, that was quite a mountain to climb for anyone…based on the personnel.

It would have helped the running game, for sure, if the offensive line that Castillo coached would have been better.  And, perhaps, the running game would have been better if Castillo and Andy Moeller coached their players better.

The running game might have also performed better if the running backs were in shape when training camp started — and capable of taking the punishment of an NFL season.

Here’s the one bullet point from yesterday that was reinforced to me by a staffer: The biggest loss the team incurred – player wise –  was Matt Birk.  And, as the staffer emphasized, “It wasn’t even close.  Our most significant loss was Birk.  We’re a playoff team if he’s the center.”

Moving forward, now, Juan Castillo is the team’s Offensive Line Coach.

There’s no word what that means for Andy Moeller.

And the team currently doesn’t have a “Running Backs Coach” after the departure of Montgomery.

One thing, for sure…regardless of title, the microscope remains focused on Juan Castillo.

For better or worse, he’s the new scapegoat in town moving forward.

And Baltimore, perhaps like no other city in the country, loves themselves a good old fashioned scapegoat.

Have fun, Juan.

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Pain plaguing Ravens offense starts with running game

Posted on 24 September 2013 by Luke Jones

(This blog brought to you by Atlantic Remodeling. Visit www.atlanticremodeling.com to learn about their Red Cent Guarantee!)

To see the Ravens offense struggle through the first three weeks of the 2013 season isn’t surprising — or at least it shouldn’t have been.

There’s no underselling the losses of tight end Dennis Pitta and wide receiver Anquan Boldin — the pillars on which quarterback Joe Flacco relied last season — and how they would impact the passing game in the early stages of the season. Growing pains were expected as Flacco is still developing chemistry with every pass-catching target not named Torrey Smith, but the Ravens figured they could rely on their running game more heavily, especially in the early stages of the season.

But the results haven’t been there. In fact, the Ravens have one of the worst running games in the NFL through the first three weeks of the season in averaging just 2.6 yards per carry, ranking 31st in the league and only ahead of 0-3 Jacksonville. With Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice, highly-regarded backup Bernard Pierce, and Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach in tow, there’s simply no excuse for the overall lack of production.

“It’s going to be important, and we have the people to do it,” coach John Harbaugh said. “We’ve got some big, strong, tough offensive lineman, and we have really good backs. Our fullback [Vonta Leach] is the best blocking fullback in the league. The run game is something that has to happen for us.”

But it hasn’t and there have been a number of factors working against the Ravens through the early stages of the season. It would be unfair to overlook the fronts the Ravens have played as Denver, Cleveland, and Houston all rank in the top 5 in rushing yards per attempt surrendered. Expecting Baltimore to be gashing opponents in the running game would be unreasonable, but it still doesn’t excuse such an ineffective ground attack.

The absence of reliable targets in the passing game has prompted opposing defense to often play an extra defender in the box, creating problems when it comes to the simple number of blockers against defenders. Whether attempting to run to set up the pass or to throw to open up the running game, the Ravens have been spinning their wheels more often than not with an offense ranking 30th in total yards and 20th in passing yards. It’s the old chicken-or-the-egg question in which the Ravens are trying to figure out whether their passing game can breathe life into the running game or vice versa.

The Ravens are working with a new center in second-year lineman Gino Gradkowski, who replaced the retired Matt Birk and is responsible for making the calls for blocking assignments at the line of scrimmage. Besides the void in leadership, the Ravens have also been challenged up the middle by beefier defensive linemen against the undersized Gradkowski.

And Baltimore is even dealing with a new voice on the coaching staff as run-game coordinator Juan Castillo is running the show for the offensive line and the implementation of his inside zone blocking schemes appears to be a mixed bag at best thus far.

But the Ravens’ problems in the running game run deeper than the aforementioned variables as even reliable run blockers such as Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda and right tackle Michael Oher have struggled more than you’d typically expect so far.

“We do feel like we understand it and we’re working on it,” Harbaugh said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that it can be corrected. We’re not getting the production from the run game that we should, but we also feel like we’re on our way to getting that done. We just have to do it; you just have to go out there and get it done.”

A look back at the Ravens’ performance in the running game against Houston makes it difficult to pinpoint one specific problem above the rest. All five starting linemen missed assignments at different points, Pierce missed several running lanes, the Texans stacked eight men in the box on occasion, and backside pursuit was even a problem as defenders dragged down ball carriers from behind on a few occasions. Whether it was running to the strong side or the weak side of the line, it didn’t seem to matter as Pierce’s run off right tackle for 25 yards to end the third quarter was the only real bright spot for the ground attack.

Again, the Ravens have played talented defenses this season, but the sum of their talented parts hasn’t added up to even marginal success in most cases. Even in the fourth quarter when many credited the Ravens for wearing down Houston, they managed only 28 yards on 13 carries and needed to rely on Flacco’s arm for third-down conversions.

“One guy here, one miss there, one bad target in another place, each time that’s what holds you back,” Harbaugh said. “Their safeties do a great job of tackling, so they limit you from the big runs. Our run game is not where it needs to be. We’re going to go to work on that — we have been working on it. We’ll continue to do so, and we need to make that important. One thing we’ve seen that, philosophically, we’re going to stick with it.”

Of all the factors working against the Ravens in the running game, perhaps the most surprising has been the play of the left side of the offensive line. While veteran left tackle Bryant McKinnie has never been known as a strong run blocker, left guard Kelechi Osemele has looked nothing like the blocker we saw in last year’s postseason when many thought he had the potential to be a Pro Bowl lineman.

Harbaugh wasn’t willing to place blame on any one player or unit in explaining the running game struggles Monday, but it’s apparent the offensive line hasn’t been on the same page. And even when it has been, running backs haven’t made the proper zone reads.

“All of our guys are going to point the finger right back at themselves,” Harbaugh said. “That’s the kind of guys we have. I would characterize it more of being in sync, more in terms of working together more efficiently – combination blocks going to the right guy with the right technique at the right time. Those things – it’s not just a matter of just one-on-one knocking somebody off the ball. That’s not the way it works. It’s way more complicated than that up front.

“There’s a precision to the run game, too. It’s something that we don’t quite have ironed out yet against good fronts, and we’ve got to get there. That’s what we’re working on.”

Whether it’s a matter of still adjusting to Castillo or simply getting used to Gradkowski over the veteran Birk, the Ravens must improve with their ground attack to alleviate the pressure on Flacco and an undermanned passing game. On paper, the personnel is simply too good to be so unproductive — even against talented front sevens.

The real gauge for how severe the run problems are will come on Sunday when the Ravens travel to Buffalo to take on a Bills defense that’s surrendering 4.3 yards per carry and 155 yards per game on the ground. Even if Rice misses his second straight game with a left hip flexor strain, there’s no excuse for the Ravens not to make substantial progress with their running game against an underwhelming opponent.

To their credit, the Ravens haven’t abandoned their commitment to run — their 88 rushing attempts rank 10th in the league — but that only goes so far when you’re gaining minimal yardage on first and second down and putting Flacco and the passing game in difficult third-down situations. They know it needs to be an important part of their identity in 2013, but the production on the field hasn’t backed that up.

“It’s something that we think is important,” Harbaugh said. “We’re going to be able to run the ball here. It is a part of our DNA, and it is part of who we are as a football team.”

And it’s a side of the Ravens they need to start showing if their offense is to make strides as the season progresses.

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Ravens face several question marks on offense

Posted on 26 July 2013 by jeffreygilley

In exactly two weeks, the Baltimore Ravens will play their first preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Until then, we have training camp to diagnose the Ravens. Training camp will not be without intense competitions as the team has a few holes to fill.

Let’s start with the wide receiver position.

Anquan Boldin’s departure from Baltimore to San Francisco was well documented. Boldin was a stud in the postseason. Even if he wasn’t open, he found ways to make catches in clutch moments. But, the Ravens decided to move on and traded Boldin to the 49ers for a late round draft pick.

As of now, Jacoby Jones is projected to play across from Torrey Smith, the team’s unquestioned number one receiver. Behind Jones, the Ravens don’t have many options. Tandon Doss hasn’t proven anything and Tommy Streeter and Deonte Thompson are project players. True, Deonte Thompson has great physical abilities but those will only take him so far. In addition, Jones’s impact on the offense is a question mark in itself. When faced with a larger role in Houston, Jones struggled. If Jones struggled with Andre Johnson, how productive can he be with Torrey Smith?

Replacing Boldin’s production will fall on the shoulders of Dennis Pitta. Pitta is a versatile tight end that has played out wide at times throughout his short career. I expect to see Pitta play a hybrid role this season, switching between a slot receiver and tight end. Playing in the slot will allow Ed Dickson to make more of an impact in the passing game. Don’t forget, before Pitta broke out last season, Dickson had 54 receptions for 528 yards and five touchdowns in 2011.

If that weren’t enough, the Ravens can throw rookie Kyle Juszczyk into the picture. Juszczyk won’t play the role of a traditional full in Jim Caldwell’s offense. Therefore, Caldwell could use him as a third tight end in certain packages.

Matt Birk was an unheralded piece to the Ravens postseason run. With the offensive line struggling, the Ravens made some changes. Bryant McKinnie was plugged in at left take. This forced Michael Oher to the right side and Kelechi Osemele to left guard. Matt Birk held the offensive line together and redeemed himself after a putrid performance against the Patriots and Vince Wilfork in the 2011 AFC Championship.

Replacing Birk will be just as important as replacing Boldin. Gino Gradkowski is the favorite thus far but veteran AQ Shipley could take the job.

When the Ravens line up against the Broncos, expect Gradkowski to be the starter. Gradkowski was drafted to be the eventual replacement to Birk and played well in spot duty last season.

As for Joe Flacco, many are projecting a regression. Well, I don’t buy that for a second. An average completion percentage is a common argument against Joe Flacco. Flacco’s completion percentage last season ranked 19th in the league at 59.7 percent. But, that must be taken in context. Joe’s strength is down field passing which doesn’t bode well for any quarterback’s completion percentage.

Plus, did you see Joe Flacco in Jim Caldwell’s offense? Caldwell took over in week 15 against the Broncos. While Flacco struggled against the Broncos, he heated up against the Giants and didn’t look back. Flacco only threw one interception to 15 touchdowns with Caldwell calling plays.

The Ravens offense has a lot of potential this season. Although Boldin and Birk are gone, their replacements have the ability to step in and produce. Flacco has the opportunity to make his first Pro Bowl and with him at the helm, the Ravens will always have a chance to win another Super Bowl.

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