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Ravens-Raiders: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 24 November 2018 by Luke Jones

Sunday brings the final calm before a December storm that could impact the Ravens for years to come.

John Harbaugh’s team would move back above the .500 mark with a win over Oakland, but three of the next four on the road after that will determine whether the Ravens return to the playoffs for the first time in four years. Failing to do so will likely spark substantial changes to both the coaching staff and the roster.

Simply put, a victory over the 2-8 Raiders is both expected and necessary.

It’s time to go on the record as these AFC teams meet for the fourth consecutive season. Baltimore holds a 7-3 advantage in the all-time regular-season series and won the only postseason encounter in the 2000 AFC Championship. The Ravens have won five of the past seven games against Oakland dating back to the 2006 season.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Lamar Jackson will have fewer than 15 carries, but he will pass for 185 yards and a touchdown. With the Raiders having a full game tape and 26 carries being unsustainable on a weekly basis, Jackson won’t be setting records with his legs, but he’ll remain a big part of the ground attack. What will be more interesting is how much the coaching staff allows him to do as a passer against an Oakland defense that’s been poor in most areas. Jackson will have another up-and-down passing day, but he’ll make more throws in his second start and find ex-Raider Michael Crabtree for a touchdown.

2. Tight end Jared Cook will catch the Raiders’ lone touchdown of the game. Oakland has been gutted at the wide receiver position, but Cook has been a standout performer, leading the team with 577 receiving yards and four touchdown receptions and grading as Pro Football Focus’ sixth-best tight end. It’s no secret the Ravens defense has had issues covering tight ends — and the middle of the field in general — so look for Raiders quarterback Derek Carr to lean heavily on Cook for what modest success they’ll find moving the ball on Sunday.

3. There will be no takeaways, but Baltimore will collect four sacks. It’s been seven calendar weeks since the Ravens intercepted a pass and five weeks since they recovered a fumble. The Raiders have been average in the giveaway department despite their record. In other words, I’m not predicting another Ravens takeaway until it actually happens again. That said, Oakland has given up 33 sacks and will struggle to gain separation in pass routes, which will force Carr to hold the ball at times. This will allow the Ravens defense to break a slump that’s consisted of only three sacks over the last four games.

4. Three Ravens players will rush for 50 or more yards. Last week’s combination of Jackson and Gus Edwards was a terrific story, but I don’t believe it signals the end for Alex Collins, who has been successful in three-wide sets and with Jackson on the field despite his disappointing overall numbers. In an effort to protect their rookie quarterback from taking too many hits, the Ravens will give the ball to Collins more often while Edwards maintains a workload similar to last week. The rushing total won’t be as lucrative as last week (267), but Jackson, Edwards, and Collins will have strong days on the ground.

5. The Ravens will remain in relatively comfortable control throughout a 23-13 win over Oakland. It was easy to get carried away with the understandable excitement over Jackson’s first start, but Baltimore scored 24 points against a defense giving up 32.1 per game this season and surrendered 21 points to an offense that was without its best player. I’m intrigued with Jackson’s potential for the future, but the Ravens continuing last week’s playing style isn’t going to lead to many blowouts, which leads me to believe this one will stay a little closer than many are anticipating. I expect Jackson to neither struggle mightily nor play unbelievable football in his second start, which won’t do Harbaugh any favors in deciding how to handle the quarterback position in the month of December. That debate remains on hold, however, as the Ravens take care of business against an inferior opponent to improve to 6-5.

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Jackson preparing for second start as Flacco remains sidelined

Posted on 21 November 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With Joe Flacco still recovering from a hip injury, the Ravens are preparing to go with rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson for the second straight week.

Head coach John Harbaugh admitted after Sunday’s win over Cincinnati that it would be difficult for Flacco to play against Oakland in Week 12, and the 11th-year veteran missing his fourth straight practice on Wednesday provided further confirmation. Coming off a franchise-record performance in which he ran for 117 yards on 27 carries, Jackson is aiming to increase his production in the passing game in his second NFL start — and keep his wide receivers happy in the process.

“I need to get these guys the ball. I don’t want them to think I’m just out here and, ‘Oh, he’s going to run every time he gets a chance,'” said Jackson, who completed 13 of 19 passes for 150 yards and an interception against the Bengals. “My eyes are always up the field. I have to get those guys the ball because they’re helping me out. They’re not out there to block — that’s not their job. Their job is to catch the ball [and] help us win games.”

Much was made about slot receiver Willie Snead’s sideline outburst as the offense settled for the eventual game-winning 24-yard field goal in the fourth quarter, but Snead and fellow veterans Michael Crabtree and John Brown have downplayed any perceived frustration, citing the Ravens snapping their three-game losing streak coming out of the bye week and the rookie making only his first start.

Jackson went out of his way to tell Crabtree that he needs to get him the ball more as he caught only one pass for seven yards on three targets, all season lows.

“We won the game, so I told him to not even put too much on getting targets and all of that,” Crabtree said. “Just worry about winning, and we came out with the ‘W.’ I’m excited to go out there this week and see what he’s got. This is his second game, so he’s just adding on.”

As you’d expect, Jackson received many congratulatory messages after winning his first NFL start, but his favorites came from Doug Williams and onetime Raven Randall Cunningham, two former NFL quarterbacks with whom he’s had past communication. Williams was the first African-American starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl while Cunningham’s dual-threat ability helped revolutionize a position that features more mobile passers than ever today.

“Those are the guys who paved the way for us,” Jackson said. “Without those guys, we probably wouldn’t be in situations that we are, so hats off to those guys. Them congratulating me? From the ‘GOATs?’ I’m like, ‘Yes, that’s cool.'”

In addition to Flacco, offensive tackle James Hurst (back) remained absent from practice and is in danger of missing his fifth straight game. Cornerback Tavon Young also missed Wednesday’s session with what was listed as a groin injury

After missing his second straight game with an ankle injury on Sunday, outside linebacker Tim Williams was a limited participant.

Left tackle Ronnie Stanley surprisingly wasn’t listed on the injury report despite playing through an ankle injury that forced him off the field at a few points against the Bengals.

“I was very impressed with Ronnie’s game, and he has a pretty good high ankle sprain,” Harbaugh said on Monday. “That’s never easy; that’s painful. He dealt with it. He had to come out a couple times, but he wanted to get right back in there and play. I was very proud of him.”

The Raiders put out an estimated injury report after only conducting a walk-through on Wednesday.

Below is Wednesday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: QB Joe Flacco (right hip), OT James Hurst (back), DB Anthony Levine (ankle), S Eric Weddle (non-injury), G Marshal Yanda (non-injury), CB Tavon Young (groin)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: LB Tim Williams (ankle)

OAKLAND
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: WR Martavis Bryant (knee), CB Leon Hall (back)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: C Rodney Hudson (ankle), S Karl Joseph (ribs), RB Doug Martin (ankle), OT Kolton Miller (knee), WR Jordy Nelson (knee), OL Kelechi Osemele (knee), DE Frostee Rucker (neck), CB Daryl Worley (shoulder)
FULL PARTICIPATION: CB Gareon Conley (groin), WR Dwayne Harris (foot), G Gabe Jackson (pectoral)

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Ravens-Panthers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 27 October 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens need to finish.

If losing a 10-point fourth-quarter lead to New Orleans last week weren’t enough, Carolina erasing a 17-0 deficit at Philadelphia should have Baltimore’s full attention for Sunday’s tilt in Charlotte. The Ravens are the superior team in most statistical categories, but the Panthers found a way last week while John Harbaugh’s team wilted too much in the fourth quarter. It’s a razor-thin margin that’s the difference between a 6-1 start and the current 4-3 mark, but the Ravens are still trying to graduate from good to really good.

It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet for just the six time in the all-time regular-season series with the Panthers holding a 3-2 advantage. Baltimore has won the last two meetings, the most recent being a 38-10 blowout at M&T Bank Stadium on Sept. 28, 2014.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Justin Tucker will connect on a field goal from beyond 50 yards. His missed extra point understandably remained a big story throughout the week, so the two-time Pro Bowl kicker’s next opportunity can’t come soon enough after much support from teammates, coaches, and Ravens fans. According to special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg, 272 extra points have been missed by 54 kickers since Tucker entered the league in 2012, which is appropriate perspective on an individual who’s won the Ravens a slew of games. That said, the tiniest bit of unknown remains until he makes his next kick.

2. Cam Newton will run for a touchdown and throw for another. Between the playful comments of Eric Weddle and Wink Martindale, the Panthers quarterback is apparently like a … fast, middle-school-aged dinosaur with a beard? All kidding aside, Newton is having one of the best seasons of his career so far and will be a big problem if the Ravens aren’t disciplined in their pass-rushing lanes. He’s dealing with a sore right shoulder, however, and hasn’t been throwing the deep ball that frequently as it is. A key will be the effectiveness of Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, who was quiet last week.

3. John Brown and Michael Crabtree will each make a touchdown catch on the outside. Joe Flacco has lived in the short middle portion of the field — going there with a third of his attempts — but that’s where Panthers linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis loom, which will likely mean a quiet day for tight ends and running backs that haven’t been all that impactful in recent weeks anyway. The good news is Brown and Crabtree should find some room on the outside against cornerbacks James Bradberry and Donte Jackson. If not, the Ravens will likely struggle to move the ball.

4. Christian McCaffrey will lead all players in yards from scrimmage. The Panthers running back is dynamic, averaging 4.9 yards per carry and making 40 receptions in six games. What makes him even more effective is Newton’s threat to run, which allows Carolina coordinator Norv Turner to use motion and misdirection to set up chunk runs. The Ravens rank fifth in the NFL in yards per carry allowed (3.8) — the Panthers average 5.2 yards per attempt — but their heavy use of the dime package occasionally leaves them vulnerable against an offense unafraid to run in some unorthodox spots.

5. A fourth-quarter takeaway will help the Ravens secure a much-needed 20-17 victory. Last week was an example of how difficult it is for a defense to sustain greatness for 60 minutes without a game-changing turnover — not counting Alvin Kamara’s opening-drive fumble on a fourth-down run that was already blown up — or a collection of sacks. The Ravens are tied for 21st in the league with just seven takeaways, which borders on shocking considering their other impressive numbers and the fact that they led the NFL in that category a year ago. Something has to give eventually, right? The Panthers do remind you of a better version of Tennessee in terms of their style of play, which should still bode well as Baltimore tries to bounce back from last week’s disappointment. Injuries along the offensive line and to starting cornerback Marlon Humphrey aren’t ideal, but Flacco and the Ravens offense will do just enough and the defense will finally get a clutch turnover to secure a really important win.

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Ravens need to steady October ship, build momentum for pivotal stretch

Posted on 11 October 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco didn’t exactly go full Aaron Rodgers mode this week, but the sentiment wasn’t too far off.

Speaking on Michael Crabtree’s recent drops and how the veteran wide receiver approached the quarterback about his struggles during the plane ride home from Cleveland, Flacco passed along good advice to Crabtree — and to the rest of the Ravens and their fans for that matter.

“We’re all out there trying to do our part and make plays that are going to change the game,” Flacco said. “I think sometimes you just have to relax, and let the game come to you.”

Make no mistake, the 12-9 overtime loss to the Browns was an ugly one for the Ravens, who failed to reach double-digit scoring for the first time since back-to-back defeats to Jacksonville and Pittsburgh early last season. You couldn’t help but feel it canceled out what was thought to be a breakthrough the previous week when Baltimore beat the Steelers for its most impressive road victory in years.

But a win at Tennessee makes everything OK again.

Playing four of their first six games on the road and being one of only three teams in 2018 with a stretch of three consecutive road contests that concludes Sunday, the Ravens would have gladly taken a 4-2 start when the schedule was released back in April. Their plus-55 point differential is the best in the AFC, and they’re still tied for the third-best record in the conference after losing to a Browns team that is better than it’s been in recent years. With the top-ranked scoring defense in the NFL and an offense ranking in the top 12 in most statistical categories, the makings of a playoff team are certainly there.

A second straight loss, however, changes the mood substantially.

A 3-3 record with three straight games against 2017 playoff teams — New Orleans, Carolina, and the Steelers — before the Week 10 bye puts the Ravens in all-too-familiar and uncomfortable territory. Late-season losses to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati the last two years have been the final nail in the coffin, but poor Octobers since their last Super Bowl have regularly left the Ravens little margin for error down the stretch.

There’s no apparent rhyme or reason for a 6-15 mark in October games dating back to 2013, but it’s the kind of trend John Harbaugh’s team needs to buck to be playing in January once again. Thirteen of those games did come on the road, but a 2-6 home mark makes that a flimsier excuse. It’s why the Ravens haven’t entered their bye with a winning record since 2014, leaving them a steep climb in the second half to qualify for the postseason.

A 3-0 start to begin the 2016 season became a distant memory after an 0-4 October that featured a home defeat to an 8-7-1 Washington team and a road loss against the eventual 5-11 New York Jets. Falling 26-9 at home to the Steelers last year was bad enough, but dropping one at M&T Bank Stadium to an eventual 5-11 Chicago team two weeks later was inexcusable. Injuries in each of those stretches the last two years were a factor, but squeezing out an extra win in either case would have painted a different picture in late December. Frankly, it’s the difference between the playoffs and mediocrity.

That’s why you can’t help but feel Sunday’s game against the Titans — who won a playoff tiebreaker last year thanks in part to their Week 9 win over the Ravens — is as important as it gets for mid-October in terms of both playoff implications and Baltimore maintaining its early-season mojo. A win gives the Ravens their first 4-2 start since 2014 — the last time they made the playoffs — and leaves you thinking they’re capable of winning 10 or 11 games.

A loss makes it feel like you’re watching the “same old Ravens” of the last few years.

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Critical question comes into focus during Ravens’ ugly loss

Posted on 07 October 2018 by Luke Jones

Michael Crabtree had the chance to rewrite the story of a poor performance for both him and the Ravens offense in Cleveland on Sunday.

His third-down drop on the opening drive of the game had cost the Ravens a chance at a long field goal or a fourth-and-short situation inside the 40-yard line. On the next drive, he dropped a slant on a second-and-3 that would have put the offense inside the red zone and instead led the Ravens to settle for a field goal two plays later. Those were just two of many mistakes made by an offense that arrived at FirstEnergy Stadium flying high after a 3-1 start to 2018.

Still, with a minute to go in regulation and the Ravens trailing 9-6, Crabtree could have made it all better.

Signed to a three-year, $21 million contract in large part for the 25 touchdowns he’d caught over the previous three seasons in Oakland, Crabtree dropped a perfect pass from Joe Flacco in the back of the end zone on third-and-10 from the Cleveland 14. Instead of taking a 13-9 lead and likely stealing an ugly road win, the Ravens settled for the game-tying three points before eventually falling 12-9 on a Greg Joseph 37-yard field goal with two seconds left in overtime.

As much as last week’s win in Pittsburgh looked like a potential breakthrough for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2014, Sunday felt like an all-too-familiar story for an offense that couldn’t live up to its end of the bargain. And it brought a lingering question about the Ravens’ passing game into sharper focus.

So much had been made about the balanced production for Baltimore’s wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs with eight or more players having caught passes in each of the first four games. Entering Sunday, eight players were on pace to catch 30 or more passes after only five Ravens made 30 or more receptions a year ago. Spreading the ball around is great when you’re clicking like the Ravens did over the season’s opening month, but it won’t always be that easy as we witnessed against an improved Browns defense.

When you’re struggling as Flacco and the offense did on Sunday, you need that safety net — “old reliable” if you will — to bail everyone out at the most critical moment. Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Smith fit that description to varying degrees over the last decade, making the play no one else was able to make at the most critical times. After not having that guy last season — Mike Wallace did his best down the stretch — the Ravens tabbed Crabtree to be that go-to target on third downs and inside the red zone. He didn’t need to be a 1,000-yard receiver, but they wanted him to handle the dirty work.

Instead, he entered Week 5 tied for the league lead in drops before adding three more against the Browns. He’s caught just 24 of his 46 targets in five games, the lowest percentage of his 10-year career. The slow start comes after Crabtree caught 58 passes for 618 receiving yards last season, his lowest totals since an injury-abbreviated 2013 campaign.

That’s not to say he won’t regroup to fill that intended role, but Flacco needs someone on which to lean in crunch time of close games. The speedy John Brown has been his most productive receiver, of course, but he’s more home-run hitter than the guy you’re targeting on third-and-7, at least based on how the Ravens have used him to this point. If it isn’t Crabtree, perhaps slot receiver Willie Snead or even rookie tight end Hayden Hurst eventually becomes that guy to make contested catches and move the chains when it matters most.

Someone has to do it if the Ravens expect a different result the next time they’re fighting for their lives late in a game. It’s a position they weren’t in during their three double-digit wins, but they’re sure to be in that tight spot again sooner than later.

To be clear, the Ravens wasted other opportunities as an ugly Flacco interception at the goal line cost them points in the second quarter, a Justin Tucker field goal was blocked at the end of the first half, and a Buck Allen fumble led to a Cleveland field goal midway through the third quarter. Baltimore didn’t really deserve a win after playing so poorly on the offensive side of the ball, but no play was bigger than Crabtree’s last-minute drop that could have made all those missteps — including the veteran receiver’s own — disappear.

There was other blame to go around, but that was the exact moment for which Baltimore had signed him in March.

Instead of escaping Cleveland with a victory, the Ravens offense took a step back and left a critical question unanswered for the coming weeks.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 47-3 win over Buffalo

Posted on 10 September 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens kicking off the season with an emphatic 47-3 win over Buffalo, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Sunday marked the first time in franchise history a Baltimore defense did not surrender a first down in the first half. The Bills had 33 yards compared to the Ravens’ 26 points at intermission. J. Peterman would have had a better chance than Nathan Peterman, who was awful.

2. Wink Martindale added some defensive wrinkles, including swapping out a linebacker for an extra defensive lineman in some nickel looks. My favorite was Za’Darius Smith’s quarterback sack when he also sent Terrell Suggs, Tim Williams, Matt Judon, Tyus Bowser, and C.J. Mosley after rookie Josh Allen. Yes, six linebackers.

3. Marlon Humphrey was Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded Ravens player as he finished with four pass breakups and two tackles. He’ll have bigger challenges over the next few weeks, but the 2017 first-round pick was excellent against the Bills.

4. How many people looking out their windows Sunday morning would have predicted Joe Flacco throwing 32 passes in the first half? He had no issues throwing a wet football and was Baltimore’s highest-graded offensive player, according to PFF.

5. It’s easy to forget how the offense sputtered in the second quarter as the Ravens gained only eight yards on 15 plays before the final touchdown drive when Michael Crabtree caught the 12-yard score. A pretty throw and even prettier footwork. That was an example of why they signed him.

6. Tavon Young wouldn’t have been my guess to exploit a porous Buffalo line, but he became the first Baltimore defensive back since Bennie Thompson in 1996 to collect two sacks in a game and was strong against the run. Martindale calls the 5-foot-9 nickel a “pit bull” for good reason.

7. Not much was made of Alex Collins receiving only three preseason carries, but he found little room and lost a fumble. You do wonder if a few more live-game touches would have been beneficial for a player who’s had some past fumbling concerns. Of course, suspect blocking wasn’t his fault.

8. Janarion Grant offered good and bad with a 51-yard punt return and a fumble that fortunately rolled out of bounds in the first half. It’s easy to blame the rain, but Grant appeared to take his eyes off the ball with a defender bearing down. That can’t happen.

9. None had a negative impact, but the Ravens didn’t get much of a return on the five offensive snaps Lamar Jackson played before then relieving Joe Flacco in the second half. It’s something for which opponents must prepare, but you sometimes worry about upsetting the overall rhythm of the offense.

10. Mark Andrews didn’t stand out often over the summer, but the Ravens have to be pleased with his three catches for 31 yards in the first half. PFF gave him the second-best grade among offensive players.

11. Being able to rest key veterans in the second half bodes well for a quick turnaround at Cincinnati on Thursday, but young players receiving extensive regular-season action could pay off down the line. Inside linebacker Kenny Young and cornerback Anthony Averett stood out in particular.

12. At an ordinary 218 pounds, Buck Allen doesn’t look the part of a short-yardage back, but he has a knack for getting to the desired mark. He lined up as the fullback on his 1-yard touchdown in the third quarter and showed off a respectable Ray Lewis dance to boot.

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Revamped Ravens passing attack shows off potential in big way

Posted on 09 September 2018 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The revamped Ravens passing game couldn’t have asked for a better season debut.

Say what you want about the Buffalo Bills, but 47-3 victories don’t happen often in the NFL. Only three other teams — Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Washington — won by more than one possession on Sunday, and their combined margin for victory (39) still didn’t add up to Baltimore’s.

How many times have we seen the Ravens slog through close games against lesser opponents in recent seasons?

Substantial rain and wind certainly weren’t conducive to quarterback Joe Flacco posting his best passer rating (121.7) since 2014 or throwing three touchdown passes — one each to veteran newcomers John Brown, Michael Crabtree, and Willie Snead — before exiting with a 40-0 lead early in the third quarter. The 33-year-old didn’t have three touchdowns in a game all last season and eclipsed Sunday’s passing total (236 yards) only five times in 2017, but he made sure his critics wouldn’t clamor for rookie first-round quarterback Lamar Jackson on Sunday.

The Ravens wasted no time on their opening drive, going 80 yards on 10 plays with an Alex Collins touchdown run serving as the exclamation point. It wasn’t even all perfect as a fumbled hand-off and an Alex Lewis holding penalty on consecutive snaps threatened to torpedo the drive before Flacco connected with Brown for a 29-yard gain into Buffalo territory.

“I think the first drive that we had today was really important for us,” said Flacco, who went 5-for-6 for 80 yards on that first scoring march. “I think it showed a little bit of what everybody can do, but we had [second-and-26] or something there, and we converted to get a first down. I think that was a huge step. Obviously, we went and scored a touchdown.

“That was a huge drive, a huge play on that drive. Without that, I don’t know if we would’ve set the tone quite in the same way.”

It’s important to note other free-agent wide receivers have flashed in their Baltimore debuts in recent years, keeping the feel-good touchdowns to Brown, Crabtree, and Snead in perspective. Jeremy Maclin caught a 48-yard touchdown in the opener at Cincinnati last year, and we all know how his one-year stay played out. Mike Wallace caught a 66-yard bomb in a Week 1 win over the Bills two years ago and even posted a 1,000-yard season, but the offense was still below average in 2016.

In those two season-opening wins, however, the Ravens offense had little more than a few nice moments, scoring a combined 33 points and mostly leaning on a dominant defense. Sunday was a demolition on both sides of the ball with the offense every bit the equal of a defense that didn’t surrender a first down in the first half against overwhelmed quarterback Nathan Peterman and the Bills offense.

With Flacco the healthiest he’s been in three years and the Baltimore front office finally putting forth more than a nominal effort in both free agency and the draft to improve the offense around him, Sunday’s performance felt different. It followed a summer in which the Ravens offense regularly challenged a talented defense in practices, something rarely seen in recent years.

“Our offense, obviously over the last couple years, has been up and down,” said safety Eric Weddle, who predicted a career year from Flacco back in July. “We’ve seen it. Obviously, you guys out at training camp have seen how they’ve gotten better over last season, and it showed today. Joe was putting the ball on the money. Without a couple drops here and there, his completion percentage would have been even better. When I said the [offensive] line could be a strength this year, it showed.

“It’s just a building block. This is a long season. You never want to get too high. You never want to overreact.”

In the post-game locker room, several players reiterated it being only one game as last year’s offense-challenged Ravens scored 38 or more points three times. The offensive line was strong in pass protection on Sunday, but the running game had only 16 yards on 11 carries in the first half, something that will need to improve moving forward.

But, as advertised, Brown showed off his speed, Crabtree shook off two early drops to show nifty footwork on a touchdown in the red zone, and Snead effectively worked the middle of the field. Flacco is also excited to throw to first-round tight end Hayden Hurst, who is currently sidelined with a stress fracture in his foot after an impressive training camp. In his absence, fellow rookie tight end Mark Andrews caught three passes for 31 yards, an encouraging sign after his quiet summer.

Time will tell whether the passing game builds on Sunday’s impressive win, but much that was drawn up on paper this offseason came to fruition in Week 1. And with that comes a growing confidence, something the Ravens will surely need traveling to play Cincinnati on Thursday night.

“It’s definitely good for us to go out there as a team and as an offense, speaking as the quarterback, to have the kind of game we did for sure,” Flacco said. “If we didn’t score 40 points and we scored 25 and we still won, it’s the same outcome. But there’s something to be said about going out there and playing the way we did today.

“Just for how everybody feels or how we feel as players, it can take you to another level.”

It’s a level that’s been all too elusive for a long time, but Flacco and a retooled passing game showed enticing potential on Sunday, whether it came against a bad opponent or not.

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Ravens-Bills: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 08 September 2018 by Luke Jones

One team’s pain was another’s euphoria.

The Ravens will face the team that advanced to the postseason thanks to their fourth-and-12 collapse against Cincinnati in Week 17 last year when they host Buffalo to begin the 2018 season. That moment in time not only ended the Bills’ 17-year playoff drought, but it kept John Harbaugh’s team out of the postseason for a third straight year, the Ravens’ longest skid since their first four seasons in Baltimore.

With four of their next five games on the road, the Ravens can’t afford to stub their toe against the rebuilding Bills, a scenario that would leave everyone doubting whether 2018 will be any different than the last few years. It would also put even more heat on a number of coaches and players whose long-term futures are up in the air.

It’s time to go on the record as Baltimore and Buffalo meet for the eighth time in the all-time regular-season series with the Ravens holding a 4-3 advantage and a 4-1 mark at M&T Bank Stadium. This marks the second time in three years these teams will open the season in Baltimore as the Ravens won a 13-7 final in 2016.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Joe Flacco will begin 2018 on a solid note with 220 passing yards and two touchdowns.

After endless discussion about his health, the new wide receivers and tight ends, a new quarterbacks coach, his strong summer performance, and, yes, rookie Lamar Jackson, Flacco will finally have his first meaningful chance to begin silencing his critics. A rainy forecast could alter game strategy and he’s facing a pass defense that ranked ninth in yards per pass attempt allowed last season, but the 33-year-old faces a front seven not adept at pressuring quarterbacks, which will help lead to an efficient day.

2. Bills running back LeSean McCoy will finish with under 60 rushing yards.

The offseason focus was on the collapse against the Bengals, but the Ravens allowing a franchise-worst 4.1 yards per carry last year really stuck in their craw. The defense allowed 38 percent of its total rushing yards in the four games Brandon Williams missed, but Baltimore still surrendered 3.9 yards per attempt in games he played. The presence of Williams and Michael Pierce as well as the Bills losing three key starters from their offensive line will lead to a long day for the six-time Pro Bowl back.

3. Michael Crabtree and Nick Boyle will catch touchdowns from Flacco.

There is much excitement about the vertical potential of John Brown, but Bills head coach Sean McDermott emphasizes taking away the big play as his defense allowed the seventh-fewest number of passes of 20 or more yards and an NFL-low three completions of 40 or more yards last season. With that in mind and the forecast not looking promising, Crabtree will do what he does best in the red zone and the blocking-minded Boyle will catch Bills linebackers napping for a touchdown score of his own.

4. Buffalo quarterback Nathan Peterman will throw two interceptions and be sacked five times.

Did I mention the Bills offensive line lost three key starters? Buffalo was wise to go with Peterman over rookie first-round pick Josh Allen in a Week 1 road game, but that doesn’t mean the former won’t be completely overwhelmed. New defensive coordinator Wink Martindale is a Ryan family pupil who will call everything he can to try to pressure the pocket. Peterman won’t be as historically bad as he was in tossing five interceptions in one half against the Los Angeles Chargers last year, but it won’t be pretty.

5. The Ravens will take an early lead and ride Alex Collins in the second half to a 27-10 win.

The coming weeks will reveal just how good the Ravens really are, but I’d be surprised if the Bills aren’t one of the worst five teams in the NFL after gutting a roster that was very fortunate to sneak in the playoffs last year. Harsh weather can always be an equalizer, but Baltimore will build an early lead and lean on Collins to do some heavy lifting after receiving only three carries in the preseason. The Ravens need to start the season on a winning note with three AFC North road games looming in the next four weeks, so there’s no overstating how disappointing a home loss would be against a team that looks bad on paper. They’ll take care of business in decisive fashion.

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humphrey

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Ten Ravens predictions for the 2018 season

Posted on 07 September 2018 by Luke Jones

Instead of going through the exercise of making league-wide predictions, the following focus on the Ravens and their goal to return to the playoffs for the first time since the 2014 season:

1. Joe Flacco will not have a career season, but he will throw 25 touchdowns for the third time in his 11 years. 

Coming off a career-worst 5.7 yards per attempt campaign, the 33-year-old is healthier than he’s been in three years, has a more diverse group of weapons, likes new quarterbacks coach James Urban, and, yes, feels some heat after Baltimore drafted a first-round quarterback. As the better part of the last five years taught us, you don’t want Flacco throwing the ball 600-plus times, but the aforementioned variables matched with a strong running game will lead to his best season since 2014. His 11 interceptions will be the third-lowest total of his career while a 7.0 yards per attempt average will elevate him to the middle of the pack, which is where he always was statistically when he played his best regular-season football.

2. Lamar Jackson will finish his rookie campaign with three touchdowns in a change-of-pace role.

Some national pundits continue to push the idea of Jackson taking Flacco’s job at some point in 2018, but the decision to retain Robert Griffin III should provide further confirmation that the rookie just isn’t ready to handle the starting duties. That said, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg would be crazy not to pick his spots to get Jackson on the field, especially as a runner. It won’t be a massive role as some defenses will be prepared for any trickery and Mornhinweg will need to be careful not to upset the overall rhythm of the offense, but Jackson will offer excitement and play a key role in helping the Ravens win a game or two over the course of the season.

3. Rookies Orlando Brown and Kenny Young will be starting by mid-October.

The Ravens beginning the season with James Hurst as the starting right tackle isn’t surprising as they’ve frequently given the initial nod to veterans in past position competitions. That said, Hurst has struggled on the outside in the past while Brown was impressive in his first preseason, making his poor combine performance that dropped him to the third round of the draft a distant memory. Meanwhile, Young will begin the season sharing first-team snaps with incumbent Patrick Onwuasor and has shown an impressive nose for the football at the weak-side inside linebacker spot. C.J. Mosley said this week that someone needs to emerge eventually, and Young has the skills to do just that.

4. Alex Lewis and Za’Darius Smith will take a step forward.

Lewis has received much fanfare since becoming a Week 1 starter as a rookie two years ago, but he’s played in only 10 of a possible 32 games and needs to stay on the field to help an interior line with questions at the center spot. The starting left guard received looks at center in camp, an idea that could be revisited at some point. Many noted Tim Williams’ play in the preseason, but Smith was also very disruptive and enters a contract year. Often compared to ex-Raven Pernell McPhee when drafted in 2015, Smith’s 10 sacks over his first three year eclipsed McPhee’s 9 1/2 from 2011-2013. Smith has often done the dirty work as a pass rusher, but he’ll see a bigger payoff in the sack department this season.

5. Matt Skura and Brandon Carr will take a step back.

Skura went from the practice squad at the start of last season to starting 12 games and filling in respectably at right guard, but expectations are higher this year as he attempts to replace Ryan Jensen at the center position. There is concern about his ability to stand his ground against hefty defensive tackles and give a clear path to pulling guards, a staple in Greg Roman’s run-blocking schemes. The 32-year-old Carr is one of the most respected players in the locker room and will continue his amazing streak of 160 consecutive starts on Sunday, but he’ll find himself spending more time on the sideline once top cornerback Jimmy Smith returns from his four-game suspension in October.

6. Marlon Humphrey will tie for the team lead in interceptions and be named a Pro Bowl alternate.

We know the Ravens defense has struggled without Smith over the years, making Humphrey that much more critical entering his second season. The 2017 first-round pick could be asked to travel with elite receivers such as A.J. Green, Demaryius Thomas, and Antonio Brown in Smith’s absence, so the opening month will be a test run for him as the No. 1 guy. The Alabama product has the skills to be a shutdown corner, and it’s no secret that Smith has played all 16 games only twice in his career and is scheduled to carry a $15.85 million salary cap figure in the final year of his contract next season. Humphrey will play at a level making it easier to move on from Smith next offseason.

7. Michael Crabtree will have the most touchdown catches in a season by a Raven since 2014.

The former Oakland Raider and San Francisco 49er provides the highest floor of the three free-agent additions at wide receiver, and Flacco will depend on him to be his most dependable target in the red zone. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Crabtree may have difficulty running away from defensive backs at this point, but his ability to make contested catches will be critical on third down and inside the opponent’s 20. He has only one 1,000-yard season in the last five years, but his 25 touchdown receptions over his last three campaigns are exactly what the Ravens are looking for in 2018. Crabtree will catch the most touchdowns by a Raven since Torrey Smith snatched 11 in his final season in Baltimore.

8. Alex Collins will give Baltimore its first 1,000-yard rusher since Justin Forsett.

A slight 205-pound frame makes you take pause when predicting monster numbers for the breakout performer from a year ago, but Collins has excellent feet and is a perfect fit in this multi-look ground attack. He is carrying a few extra pounds to try to account for a bigger workload this season, but expecting him to carry the ball 20-plus times every week would seem like a recipe to wear him down. The Ravens would be wise to do what they can to keep their starter fresh and throw carries in the direction of reliable backup Buck Allen and the talented Kenneth Dixon, but Collins is the guy and should be able to build on what he did in an impressive 2017 season.

9. Marshal Yanda and C.J. Mosley will make the Pro Bowl.

The offensive line did its best and improved over the course of last season, but there’s no understating how devastating Yanda’s Week 2 loss was to the offense’s ceiling. His streak of six straight trips to the Pro Bowl was snapped, but the 33-year-old is healthy and primed to continue building on a career resume that could garner some Hall of Fame consideration when it’s over. Contract talks have been very quiet with Mosley, who had a healthy offseason and is eager to take an already-impressive start to his career to the next level. With defensive coordinator Wink Martindale putting more responsibility on his leaders to make calls and adjustments on the fly, Mosley will remind just how valuable he is.

10. The Ravens will go 10-6, return to the playoffs, and advance to the divisional round.

After predicting 8-8 finishes in the last two years, I’m buying stock in a revamped and healthier offense being more consistent and finishing in the top half of the league, which would be marked improvement. I also think there hasn’t been enough discussion about the personnel continuity on defense, something that should more than make up for any early hiccups in the transition to Martindale as coordinator. There’s little question that big changes will be in order if the Ravens fail to make the playoffs for the fourth straight season. Despite a tougher schedule that includes a very competitive NFC South, I see a top-five defense and an improved Flacco guiding the Ravens into January and winning a playoff game.

Bonus Super Bowl pick no one asked for: New Orleans 31, Los Angeles Chargers 24

Future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees earns a second ring and retires after edging out Philip Rivers, the man who took his place in San Diego once upon a time.

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collins

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Twelve Ravens thoughts ahead of 2018 season opener

Posted on 04 September 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens opening the 2018 season by hosting Buffalo on Sunday, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. I’m more optimistic about the Ravens than I’ve been in a few years, but it has very little to do with the 5-0 preseason beyond staying pretty healthy. The Indianapolis game was the only time Baltimore played at full strength — or close to it — against another team at full strength.

2. Is it more surprising that Alex Collins, Michael Crabtree, John Brown, and Willie Snead combined to touch the ball only eight times in the preseason or that no one is talking about that? To be clear, that’s not a criticism, but it speaks to the unknown still at work here.

3. Is anyone else tired of talking about the backup quarterback situation? A healthy Joe Flacco playing at a higher level is the key to this season — not whether Lamar Jackson or Robert Griffin III is backing him up. In a perfect world, Griffin doesn’t take a snap all season.

4. Bills coach Sean McDermott made the right call naming Nathan Peterman his starting quarterback and protecting first-round pick Josh Allen from playing on the road against a tough Baltimore defense that’s frequently eaten rookie quarterbacks alive over the years. That won’t save Peterman though.

5. Remember how the Ravens had $17 million in dead money on their salary cap in 2015, the year they finished 5-11? Fresh off their first playoff appearance of the millennium, the Bills are carrying an unthinkable $53.1 million in dead money on this year’s cap. You can’t win that way.

6. Willie Henry’s early absence could change things, but I like the decision to shift Brandon Williams back to nose tackle after he played more of the 3-technique spot with Michael Pierce at the nose last year. Williams is excellent against the run, so you want to maximize his biggest strength.

7. The practice-squad signings of Cyrus Jones and Tim White should signal to Janarion Grant not to get too comfortable as the return specialist. I’m not convinced the Ravens have found their answer in this department or if that individual is currently in the organization.

8. I’m not sure how long rookie cornerback Darious Williams will be on the 53-man roster, but he began his Alabama-Birmingham career as a walk-on and stayed put through the football program’s temporary disbandment and two-year hiatus from playing games. That’s quite a journey to the NFL.

9. Four teams making waiver claims on Carl Davis and his release even after Henry’s injury should speak to the depth of the Baltimore defensive line. Seeing Cleveland grab the versatile Davis wasn’t remotely surprising.

10. The Ravens are starting their second decade of the John Harbaugh-Flacco era. Some would argue that isn’t a good thing, but that kind of continuity isn’t fully appreciated until it’s gone. Over the last decade, the Browns have had six head coaches and used 19 starting quarterbacks.

11. Questions remain about the circumstances that led to Kaare Vedvik being found with head and upper-body injuries early Saturday in East Baltimore. I feel for the 24-year-old as he had a good chance to be kicking in the NFL this year, but the outcome could have been much worse.

12. Kudos to the Ravens for naming Anquan Boldin their “Legend of the Game” for the opener. Does this reverse the “Boldin Curse” that’s resulted in four non-playoff seasons since he was traded for a sixth-round pick five weeks after Super Bowl XLVII?

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