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Ravens-related thoughts on Super Bowl 50

Posted on 08 February 2016 by Luke Jones

You couldn’t help but notice parallels between Peyton Manning’s improbable run to a win in Super Bowl 50 and Ray Lewis finishing his “last ride” with a championship in New Orleans three years ago.

The future Hall of Famers both missed substantial time with injuries in the regular season before returning in time for the playoffs. Each made important contributions on the playoff path to the Super Bowl as Lewis averaged just under 15 tackles per game in the first three rounds of the 2012 postseason and Manning threw for 222 yards against Pittsburgh — overcoming a number of dropped passes — and had two touchdown passes against New England in the AFC championship game.

But as much as we might have enjoyed seeing two of the greatest players in NFL history go out on top, it was apparent that each needed to retire after watching them play in the Super Bowl. While we remember Joe Flacco earning Super Bowl XLVII MVP honors, we try to forget Lewis looking slow and hopeless covering San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis or chasing after 49ers running back Frank Gore in that game.

Like the great Ravens linebacker against the 49ers, Manning had little to do with Denver winning its third Super Bowl title as the Broncos defense suffocated Carolina on Sunday night. Perhaps the 39-year-old Manning was owed one by the football gods after playing with some less-than-stellar defenses over the years in the same way that Lewis had some of his best years wasted by ineptitude on the other side of the ball.

If you’re a Ravens fan struggling to be happy for the quarterback who twice broke Baltimore’s heart in the playoffs — including the 2006 postseason defeat that was the most devastating home loss in franchise history — don’t forget his touching gesture in the playoffs three years ago. More than an hour after the Ravens had defeated the Broncos in an epic double-overtime contest in the divisional round, Manning and his family waited in the Baltimore locker room to congratulate Lewis personally.

Despite dealing with one of the most disappointing losses of his storied career, Manning still wanted to offer his respect to Lewis after the last of their many entertaining chess matches over the years.

It doesn’t matter if Manning — or Lewis — was no longer the same player when tasting championship glory for a final time. Seeing one of the all-time greats exit that way is special and rare.

Let’s just hope Manning actually retires now as most people expect.

Miller time

Four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Von Miller already had a résumé impressive enough to land a lucrative contract this offseason, but the Super Bowl 50 MVP took his performance to another level in the postseason.

Scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March, the 26-year-old had a combined five sacks, two forced fumbles, and an interception in the AFC championship game and Super Bowl. That’s the kind of timing that Flacco can appreciate after the Ravens quarterback threw for 11 touchdowns and no interceptions in the 2012 postseason to fetch a six-year, $120.6 million contract a few weeks later.

ESPN has already reported that Denver will use the franchise tag if a long-term deal isn’t reached, meaning Ravens fans should stop dreaming about Miller reuniting with Elvis Dumervil in Baltimore.

Kubiak turns to dark side

Former Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak did a masterful job of handling a difficult quarterback situation this season.

Leading 16-10 and facing a third-and-9 from his own 26 with less than six minutes remaining, the Broncos head coach didn’t allow Manning to even attempt a pass and ran the ball with C.J. Anderson before punting. It was both the right decision and a clear sign that Manning needs to retire.

Possessing a championship defense, the offensive-minded Kubiak turned to the “dark side” in a way reminiscent of how Brian Billick handled the 2000 Ravens by deferring to his defense and being conservative. The difference is that it was much easier to do such a thing with Trent Dilfer than with one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

Stewart shines

Darian Stewart was a nondescript performer in his lone year with the Ravens, but the Denver safety stood out in the Super Bowl.

He collected three tackles, a sack, two pass breakups, and a forced fumble when he put his helmet right on the ball to knock it away from Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert. It wasn’t just a one-game aberration, either, after Pro Football Focus graded Stewart 14th among NFL safeties during the 2015 season.

It really makes you wonder where that player was in Baltimore a year ago.

False start

After Panthers left tackle Michael Oher committed a false start late in the second quarter, you couldn’t help but be amused by the social-media reaction of Ravens fans who had seen that act often in Baltimore.

The 2009 first-round pick deserves much credit for working hard to get his career back on track in Carolina, but Super Bowl 50 was a forgettable performance for him and the rest of the Panthers offensive line.

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Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton greets Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, left, at midfield after a preseason NFL football game in Baltimore, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013. The Panthers defeated the Ravens 34-27. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

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Ravens-related thoughts on conference championship weekend

Posted on 25 January 2016 by Luke Jones

The lack of weapons surrounding Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has been a major topic of discussion in two of the last three years.

That’s why Cam Newton’s season for the NFC champion Carolina Panthers is nothing short of exceptional. The fifth-year quarterback wasn’t exactly a popular pick to be the league MVP — especially after the Panthers lost No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin to a season-ending knee injury in August — but he’s done everything he can to silence critics about his play on the field.

To be clear, Newton hasn’t done it alone as he has a Pro Bowl tight end in Greg Olsen and the league’s No. 1 rushing attack — to go along with an excellent defense — but to watch him throw for 35 touchdown passes and a 99.4 passer rating with former first-round bust Ted Ginn Jr., journeyman Jerricho Cotchery, 2014 undrafted free agent Philly Brown, and second-round rookie Devin Funchess as his top four wide receivers?

That’s not exactly a group that instilled fear in the hearts of defensive coordinators.

We’re used to seeing the likes of Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers put up impressive passing numbers despite not always having elite talent around them, but Newton deserves the praise he’s receiving as he prepares to play in his first Super Bowl. He’s always been dangerous with his legs — he’s rushed for 500 or more yards in each of his five NFL seasons — but to see his passing prowess take off this season with a less-than-stellar group of receivers is worthy of praise.

This isn’t meant as a knock on Flacco as plenty of good quarterbacks struggle to post big numbers without enough high-end talent around them, but Newton has had a special season.

Blind side surprise

Another reason that Newton has had such a successful year has been the play of Carolina’s offensive line, which includes former Raven Michael Oher playing left tackle.

Oher was mostly solid but still considered a disappointment in Baltimore as a first-round pick in the 2009 draft. The Ole Miss product was even worse with Tennessee in 2014 and was cut just one year after signing a four-year, $20 million contract with the Titans.

So, why the turnaround with the Panthers?

Oher has been reunited with John Matsko, the Ravens’ offensive line coach in his first two NFL seasons. The two share a good relationship, and perhaps it’s no coincidence that Oher has gotten his career back on track working with his old offensive line coach.

According to Pro Football Focus, Oher has graded 32nd among all offensive tackles in the NFL — Eugene Monroe was 22nd and Rick Wagner was 53rd — so it’s not as though he’s suddenly blossomed into a Pro Bowl player in his seventh season. But there’s no doubt that he’s played a key part in transforming what was a poor offensive line in 2014 into one of the better ones in the league.

Orange crush pass rush

The Denver Broncos registered a remarkable 20 quarterback hits on Tom Brady — the most any quarterback had taken in a game all season — over the course of Sunday’s 20-18 win in the AFC championship game.

But even more impressive was the fact that Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips blitzed a season-low 17.2 percent of the time, according to PFF. It certainly helps when you have a special pair of edge rushers like Von Miller — who will be a free agent this offseason — and DeMarcus Ware, but the Broncos’ success was a reminder that you need to be able to disrupt quarterbacks without leaving your pass coverage compromised.

After losing Terrell Suggs in the opener and having already lost Pernell McPhee via free agency, Dean Pees was left with a front unable to generate consistent pressure with a four-man rush for most of the season. As a result, the Ravens defensive coordinator felt compelled to blitz more, which left an underwhelming secondary even more vulnerable in coverage if the pressure didn’t get there in time. It wasn’t until late in the year with the improvement of rookie Za’Darius Smith that Baltimore started to be more disruptive without blitzing.

It’s easier said than done, but the Ravens need to improve their pass rush for 2016 and can’t just hope that the healthy return of Suggs alone will do the trick.

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Former Ravens coordinator Kubiak going to Super Bowl 50

Posted on 24 January 2016 by Luke Jones

Gary Kubiak had every intention of staying with the Ravens until his dream job suddenly opened up.

A year later, the former offensive coordinator is now going to the Super Bowl. A strong effort by his defense led the Denver Broncos to a 20-18 win over New England, giving Kubiak a shot at his first NFL championship as a head coach.

In his only season in Baltimore, Kubiak not only fixed an abysmal running game, but the Ravens set franchise records by scoring 25.6 points per game and producing 364.9 yards per game. After the season-ending playoff loss to New England last January, the 54-year-old declined interview requests from other NFL teams and even issued a statement that he would be staying with the Ravens before the Broncos parted ways with head coach John Fox the next day.

The subsequent call from former teammate and longtime friend John Elway was the “game-changer” for Kubiak, who had previously spent a combined 20 years in Denver as a player and assistant coach. The Ravens hired current offensive coordinator Marc Trestman soon after Kubiak became the head coach in Denver.

Two other ex-Ravens had big days for Denver on Sunday as tight end Owen Daniels caught two touchdown passes from Peyton Manning in the first half and safety Darian Stewart intercepted a Tom Brady pass in Broncos territory in the second quarter. Stewart later left the game with a knee injury, but he told reporters after the AFC championship game that he expected to be ready for Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, Calif. on Feb. 7.

Three other former Ravens will meet Denver in the Super Bowl as Michael Oher, Ed Dickson, and Dwan Edwards were part of Carolina’s dominating 49-15 win over Arizona. While Oher started at left tackle for the Panthers, Edwards had a tackle and a quarterback hit as part of the defensive line rotation and Dickson failed to rein in two passes from quarterback Cam Newton.

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Ravens-related thoughts from divisional round

Posted on 18 January 2016 by Luke Jones

Ravens fans undoubtedly took satisfaction from watching Pittsburgh lose to Denver in the divisional round on Sunday, but you couldn’t help but be in awe of the Steelers’ speed at the wide receiver position.

Playing without arguably the best receiver in the NFL in Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger still threw for over 300 yards against the Broncos’ top-ranked pass defense thanks to a 154-yard receiving day from Martavis Bryant as well as contributions from the speedy trio of Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Markus Wheaton. Having caught just one pass in the regular season, the rookie Coates caught two passes for 61 yards to show off the speed that Pittsburgh barely even used in 2015 after taking him in the third round out of Auburn.

That collection of speed nearly overcame a depleted running game that was without DeAngelo Williams as Bryant’s 40-yard run in the first quarter helped set up the Steelers’ lone touchdown of the game. Of course, speed isn’t everything — just ask Pittsburgh’s colossal 2014 third-round bust Dri Archer — but you could easily understand why Joe Flacco cited the AFC North rival’s offense when asked at the end of the season whether he believes the Ravens need to add more speed to the passing game.

“You see what speed does. It does a lot for football teams,” Flacco said. “You see what the Steelers are doing with the speed that they’ve added over the last couple years. It definitely makes a difference out there. I’m not saying that it’s something that we need, but when we’ve had it here, it’s definitely made a little bit of a difference. It helps.”

If the Ravens want to close the gap with Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in the AFC North, they must find more speed at the receiver position in addition to hoping that 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman is fully recovered from the partially-torn posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee that cost him his entire rookie season. Watching the Steelers on Sunday was just a reminder that Baltimore was playing a different game in 2015 with receivers incapable of consistently gaining separation or running away from anyone.

The combination of Kamar Aiken and a returning Steve Smith — Jeremy Butler also showed some promise late in the season — should leave the Ravens in good shape in terms of possession receivers, but general manager Ozzie Newsome needs to find another high-end speed guy to go with the unproven Perriman, whether that player comes via free agency or the draft.

When asked at the season-ending press conference, Newsome made it very clear that he would like to add another receiver or two this offseason. Fans will just hope one will make a substantial impact unlike the late-round picks over the last several drafts who’ve been nothing more than roster filler.

The Ravens have an abundance of No. 5 and No. 6 options, but they need to aim higher when looking for a wide receiver this offseason.

Up-and-down Sunday for ex-Ravens

While former Ravens such as Michael Oher, Ed Dickson, Dwan Edwards, Darian Stewart, and Owen Daniels helped their respective teams move closer to Super Bowl 50 on Sunday, ex-Raven Fitz Toussaint wore the goat horns for the Steelers.

The running back’s fumble with 10 minutes to play not only ended a potential scoring drive, but it was the catalyst for Denver’s only touchdown drive of the game in a 23-16 final. Even as Ravens fans took delight in watching Pittsburgh lose, you couldn’t help but feel for the 2014 rookie free agent from Michigan who was very emotional after the game.

Toussaint has received more postseason carries (31) than regular-season rushing attempts (24) in his first two NFL seasons and had 118 total yards in Pittsburgh’s win over Cincinnati, but Sunday is a day he’ll surely want to forget despite scoring his first NFL touchdown in the first quarter.

Coverage linebackers

It’s almost unfair to compare most linebackers to Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis in Carolina, but the Ravens need to find a way to improve their pass coverage with that positional group.

Still one of the better coverage linebackers in the league when the Ravens signed him three years ago, Daryl Smith clearly floundered in that department to the point that second-year linebacker Zach Orr was replacing him in the nickel package late in the season. More concerning, however, were the continued struggles of C.J. Mosley in pass coverage in his second season.

After Mosley became the first rookie to make the Pro Bowl in franchise history, many concluded he would be the next great Ravens defensive player, but 2015 didn’t go as smoothly for him. To his credit, the Alabama product overcame a slow start to play better as the season progressed, but he must improve in pass coverage if he’s to take his game from good to great.

Nod to Manning

This item isn’t related to the Ravens, but I find myself becoming an unabashed supporter for Peyton Manning at this late stage of his career.

You don’t have to be an NFL scout to recognize he’s a shell of his former self physically, but he also wasn’t responsible for a number of dropped passes from Broncos receivers that would have made for a very respectable day against Pittsburgh if some had been secured.

We all break down in various ways as we get older — the man underwent multiple neck surgeries in 2011 and still threw an NFL-record 55 touchdown passes and won the MVP two years later at age 37 — but instead of laughing over Manning’s decline, I appreciate seeing one of the greatest players in NFL history trying to use his incomparable football intellect and years of experience to overcome a once-powerful arm that won’t cooperate anymore. After years at the top of the mountain, Manning has strangely become the underdog trying to hold on at the end of his career.

Even if you’re not rooting for him, that fight still deserves respect.

Manning and the Broncos look like the least likely of the four remaining teams to raise the Vince Lombardi Trophy in Santa Clara next month, but I’ll be happy for him if he’s somehow still standing in the end — even if everyone will obnoxiously remind you over and over that it was more about Denver’s stout defense than him.

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Kansas City’s turnaround reflects bizarro season for Ravens

Posted on 18 December 2015 by Luke Jones

It wasn’t long ago that the red-hot Kansas City Chiefs were in the same spot as the Ravens.

Having completed a stretch of four of their first six on the road and lost star running back Jamaal Charles to a season-ending knee injury a week earlier, Andy Reid’s team was 1-5 after a 16-10 loss at Minnesota on Oct. 18. It was the same day Baltimore fell to San Francisco to drop to 1-5, the worst start in the 20-year history of the Ravens.

Two months later, Kansas City is in the midst of a seven-game winning streak and is in line to become the first NFL team since the 1970 Cincinnati Bengals to rebound from a 1-5 start to make the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Ravens need to win one more game just to avoid tying the worst record in team history.

It’s only fitting that the Ravens meet a bizarro version of themselves in this difficult 2015 season.

“We’re playing the hottest team in football coming in here, coached by a great coach,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “They have a bunch of great players. They’re plus-12 [in] turnovers. I don’t think they ever turn the ball over. They’re doing the things they need to do to win football games. They’re doing what we hoped to do after a slow start.”

When 12 of your 13 games have been decided by a single possession like the Ravens have experienced this season, you need to be good at protecting the football and limiting your opponents’ scoring chances to win those tight contests. Of course, 4-9 Baltimore hasn’t done that in ranking 31st in turnover ratio (minus-12), 30th in takeaways (11), and 24th in giveaways (23).

Kansas City ranks second in the league in turnover ratio in addition to having a top 10 defense and rushing attack.

The Chiefs are everything the Ravens want to be right now.

“Giving them away and not taking them away. That has been the story that has not helped us and [has] helped other teams,” cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “If I can pinpoint something, I would say defensively, it’s turnovers and big plays. That’s a huge part — interceptions and fumbles and forced fumbles, turnovers in general, being a stingy defense, taking that ball away.

“Giving our offense more opportunities [and] cutting other offenses’ opportunities short. That would have gone a long way this season for us.”

If it weren’t enough to look around the league and see Michael Oher starting at left tackle for the undefeated Carolina Panthers and Tyrod Taylor shining in Buffalo — two players often maligned to varying degrees by Ravens fans — Thursday may have brought an even better example of this bizarre world. Heavily criticized as a third-round bust in his four years with the Ravens, Jah Reid signed a three-year extension with the Chiefs on Thursday as he’s held down the starting right tackle job.

Strange times, indeed.

High school reunion

Sunday will be a proud day for Colton High School in California as not only will Ravens cornerbacks and high school teammates Jimmy Smith and Shareece Wright play their ninth game together, but they’ll look to the opposing sideline and see another familiar face from those days — Chiefs safety Daniel Sorensen.

“It’s pretty cool. Danny Sorensen, he was a young kid when I was at Colton — me and Shareece,” Smith said. “He was our safety. He comes from a long line of talented football players. His brother, actually, is Brad Sorensen, who was my high school quarterback, and he was the backup for San Diego a few weeks ago [when we played]. It’s kind of a cool thing.”

Daniel Sorensen was signed by Kansas City as a rookie free agent out of Brigham Young last year.

Pitta named Ed Block winner

After suffering two serious right hip injuries in a 14-month period, tight end Dennis Pitta was named the Ravens’ recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award this season.

The 30-year-old returned to the practice field in late October, but he was not cleared to return to live-game action and has remained on the physically unable to perform list. While his football future remains in doubt, Pitta has continued to serve as a mentor and an additional coach to a young group of tight ends throughout the 2015 season.

Thursday’s injury report

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: CB Kyle Arrington (back), WR Marlon Brown (back), TE Crockett Gillmore (back), Albert McClellan (ankle), LB Daryl Smith (non-injury), G Marshal Yanda (ankle)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: RB Terrance West (calf)
FULL PARTICIPATION: LB Elvis Dumervil (non-injury), G Kelechi Osemele (knee), QB Matt Schaub (chest)

KANSAS CITY
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: S Husain Abdullah (concussion), LB Justin Houston (knee), WR De’Anthony Thomas (concussion), RB Spencer Ware (rib)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: OL Jeff Allen (ankle)
FULL PARTICIPATION: DE Mike DeVito (concussion/shoulder), LB Tamba Hali (knee), TE Travis Kelce (groin/quad)

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Ravens continue chasing ghost at left tackle position

Posted on 15 December 2015 by Luke Jones

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome has used high draft picks, made trades, and even handed out long-term contracts, but the same pursuit continues beyond a stopgap or two.

He’s still chasing the on-field ghost of Jonathan Ogden, the Hall of Fame left tackle and the first player selected in the history of the franchise with the fourth pick of the 1996 draft. With every passing year, appreciation grows deeper for what Ogden did for more than a decade as they complete their eighth season since his retirement at the end of the 2007 campaign.

Finding a future Hall of Famer at the position is one thing, but Newsome and the Ravens would settle for a guy who they can pencil into the lineup for the next four or five years and be able to sleep well at night.

Not counting backups filling in due to injuries, there’s been Jared Gaither, Michael Oher, Bryant McKinnie, and Eugene Monroe, none holding down the position for more than a season or two before concerns resurface. Fourth-year left guard Kelechi Osemele has become the latest man to receive a shot as he started his first NFL game at left tackle in Sunday’s loss to Seattle.

Scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, Osemele will remain at left tackle for the final three games of 2015, according to head coach John Harbaugh.

“I thought he looked good. There are some things that he can do better,” Harbaugh said. “Sometimes the sets and the angles and the timing the movement, sometimes it’s something that he’ll get a feel for more and more as he plays. But he had lots of good blocks [in] pass protection and the run game. I thought he was a bright spot.”

A left tackle at Iowa State before being selected in the second round of the 2012 draft, Osemele expressed his enjoyment for the position after Sunday’s 35-6 loss, but the Ravens may only be enhancing the lineman’s value on the open market instead of finding a long-term solution for themselves. With a less-than-enviable salary cap situation going into the offseason, Newsome signed four-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda to a four-year extension earlier this fall, leading many to believe that Osemele will receive a big payday elsewhere.

Even if the above-average guard looks the part of a long-term left tackle over these final three games, there’s still the matter of what the Ravens will do with Monroe, who is only in the second season of a five-year, $37.5 million contract that clearly hasn’t worked out. Placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury over the weekend, Monroe has started just 17 games over the last two seasons and finished only three of the six contests he started this season.

Though he’s generally been solid when he’s played over the last two years, his performance still hasn’t been as strong as it was in 2013 when the Ravens traded fourth- and fifth-round draft picks to Jacksonville to acquire him in early October of that season. After concluding that Oher, their 2009 first-round pick, wasn’t suited for the blind side and having concerns about McKinnie’s commitment to the game, the Ravens felt Monroe would finally be the long-term answer they had sought from the time that Ogden retired.

After missing only four games in his first five seasons in the NFL, Monroe has missed 17 starts in the last two years, including two playoff games last season. After he left the Nov. 22 game against St. Louis with a shoulder injury, backup James Hurt rolled into quarterback Joe Flacco’s left knee, causing a season-ending injury.

In addition to Monroe reportedly refusing a simple contract restructuring that would have provided some salary-cap relief this past offseason, his inability to stay on the field at such an important position has frustrated the organization.

“It’s just disappointing, because here’s a guy that you’re counting on, we trade two picks for him, and he has played well,” Harbaugh said. “As he said, he was playing the best football of his career this year when he came back for two or three weeks or whenever he was back. I think that was the most crushing thing for him, because he felt like he was really playing really good football.

“It’s not what we hoped for. We hoped that he’d be in the lineup and playing, and that’s not what he hoped for [either]. Nobody works harder. This guy trains like you can’t believe, so it’s a tough deal.”

Many fans are clamoring for Monroe to be released in the offseason as he is scheduled to make $6.5 million in base salary and carry an $8.7 million figure for 2016. Cutting him with a pre-June 1 designation would save $2.1 million in cap space while leaving $6.6 million in dead money, a sizable chunk considering the many weaknesses Baltimore will need to address on both sides of the ball before next season. A post June-1 designation would push most of that dead money to 2017, but the Ravens would not be able to take advantage of that cap space until most free-agent activity would long be over.

Even if Newsome and the Ravens elect to move on from Monroe, it remains unclear whether Osemele would be within their price range, making it possible that they could turn to the draft to find their answer. Currently set to pick in the top five of April’s draft, the Ravens may find Laremy Tunsil of Ole Miss or Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley as attractive — and more affordable — options at left tackle with their first pick.

Regardless of what happens over the next few months, the Ravens find themselves back in an all-too-familiar position.

They’re still trying to replace No. 75.

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Five questions pondering Machado, Steve Smith, Harbaugh, Showalter

Posted on 19 June 2015 by Luke Jones

Every Friday, I’ll ponder five topics related to the Ravens or Orioles (or a mix of both).

Five questions …

1. Is it just me or is Manny Machado rapidly closing the gap with Adam Jones for the title of best Oriole? Because he’s been around since 2012, we often forget that the third baseman only turns 23 next month, making his start to the 2015 season that much more encouraging. Machado has already matched his career high with 14 home runs and is just five walks shy of his personal best set in 2013, a major reason why he’s performed well in the leadoff spot as the Orioles have few options at the top of the order. Two years ago, Machado’s 51 doubles led the league as he made his first All-Star team and many projected some of those two-baggers to eventually turn into homers, something now coming to fruition. His early-season defensive struggles have vanished and the 2010 first-round pick entered Friday leading the club with an .856 on-base plus slugging percentage. Take nothing away from Jones as he’s in the midst of another fine season and remains the heart and soul of the Orioles, you wonder how long he’ll be able to hold off Machado’s youthful talent to remain the best player on the team.

2. Is it just me or has Steve Smith been better than advertised as he approaches his second season with the Ravens? The 36-year-old will finish his NFL career with numbers that will garner Hall of Fame discussion, but I can’t help but be impressed with his commitment to the organization after spending his first 13 seasons with the Carolina Panthers. Still making his home in Charlotte, Smith could have understandably skipped voluntary organized team activities and simply showed up for this week’s mandatory minicamp, but he was present in Owings Mills throughout the last month to work with first-round rookie Breshad Perriman and a number of other talented but inexperienced wide receivers. The five-time Pro Bowl selection not only practiced, but he continued to look like the best player on the field, which is one heck of an example for his younger teammates to emulate. Even if Smith is unable to match his numbers from a year ago when he eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark, the Ravens still got an absolute steal when they signed Smith to a three-year, $10.5 million contract last year.

3. Is it just me or are the Ravens and Orioles both reaping the benefits of continuity with their head men? It’s difficult to believe that John Harbaugh will only be one year shy of Brian Billick’s run with the Ravens after the 2015 season, but it speaks to the stability the franchise has had on the sideline for nearly two decades. As if this weren’t enough, I was shocked to learn that Buck Showalter became the fifth-longest tenured manager in the majors after San Diego fired Bud Black earlier this week. When you consider the Orioles had eight different managers in a 16-year period before Showalter was hired in 2010, it’s strange to think of them as one of the more stable organizations in baseball when it comes to their man in the dugout. Only six current NFL head coaches have been in their positions longer than Harbaugh, an impressive feat when you recall how little fanfare the hiring of the longtime Philadelphia Eagles special teams coordinator received in 2008. Baltimore is very lucky to have these two leading its professional sports teams on the field.

4. Is it just me or does ex-Raven Michael Oher sound ridiculous blaming “The Blind Side” for an underwhelming NFL career? I can understand Oher’s desire to not be defined by a motion picture, but to suggest that he’s been evaluated unfairly because of the movie borders on the absurd. Despite what some fans try to say, Oher was far from a “bust” as a first-round pick — such a label speaks to how spoiled this fan base has been with Ozzie Newsome’s draft success — and probably didn’t benefit from being shifted so frequently between left and right tackle early in his career, but two teams in two years — Baltimore and Tennessee — deemed Oher not to be worth keeping around. His propensity for penalties alone make him a liability unless his blocking grades are through the charts, which hasn’t been the case for most of his career. Oher’s story is a wonderful example of courage and overcoming adversity as he’s etched out a solid career in the NFL. He never became a dominating left tackle, but it has nothing to do with the movie and how people perceive his play as a result.

5. Is it just me or would it make too much sense for the MLB All-Star Game to adopt the Pro Bowl’s system for voting? The mere notion that MLB says it’s canceled 60 million online votes casts even more doubt on the All-Star voting that currently features eight Kansas City Royals in the American League lineup. It makes you long for the days of paper ballots distributed at ballparks and how we’d punch out the little paper holes with a car key or a pencil, doesn’t it? Of course, this isn’t the first time voting changes have been suggested as you don’t have to go back too far to see AL starting lineups littered with Yankees and Red Sox players. While I’d never trade the quality of play in the All-Star Game for what is passed off as football in the Pro Bowl, the NFL’s voting system in which fans, coaches, and players split the vote makes too much sense for baseball not to adopt something similar next year. Especially if you’re going to have home-field advantage in the World Series determined by the outcome, we need to make sure the voting is as legitimate as possible and protected from overzealous fans.

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Old college teammate Oher sold Kendrick Lewis on Ravens

Posted on 17 March 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Free-agent safety Kendrick Lewis knew all about the Ravens’ tradition of defensive excellence, but it was an old college teammate and former Ravens offensive player who sold him on coming to Baltimore.

Reaching out to the man who hosted him on his first college visit to the University of Mississippi years ago, Lewis said it was former Ravens offensive tackle Michael Oher who convinced him he was making the right decision. It was quite an endorsement from the 2009 first-round pick, who left the Ravens as a free agent last offseason after an up-and-down five-year run.

The two played together for three seasons at Ole Miss with Oher being drafted a year earlier than the 2010 fifth-round selection of the Kansas City Chiefs.

“He was just upfront. He poured his heart out in all the great things he had to say about this organization to make my decision what it was,” Lewis said. “With my nature and the type of person I am and how Michael Oher described this place to me, I feel like it’s the best decision I made.”

The Ravens hope Lewis’ five years of starting experience in Kansas City and Houston will bring stability to the safety position that saw five different players receive meaningful snaps in 2014. Finishing 23rd in the NFL in pass defense, Baltimore hopes Lewis will bring stability next to the 25-year-old Will Hill, who emerged as a consistent starter in the second half of last season.

According to Pro Football Focus, opposing quarterbacks posted a 69.3 passer rating against Lewis in coverage, completing 20 of 33 passes for 252 yards, a touchdown, and two interceptions in 2014.

Lewis cited his pride in preparation and watching film as a strong asset in addition to his ball skills at the safety position. He has collected nine interceptions and 28 pass breakups in his five NFL seasons.

“He’s a guy that’s going to come here and solidify our defense, especially on the back end,” new defensive backs coach Chris Hewitt said. “He’s a guy that we’d looked for. We needed a veteran presence back there. He’s a guy that has been starting in this league ever since he has been here.”

Former Ravens safety Darian Stewart — who signed a two-year deal with Denver last week — and rookie Terrence Brooks struggled in deep coverage last season, giving up big plays at inopportune times. Lewis was most successful in Kansas City when playing away from the line of scrimmage and protecting against the deep pass.

His role changed in his one season with the Texans where he frequently played closer to the line of scrimmage. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees prefers being able to use his safeties interchangeably, shying away from the traditional roles of free safety and strong safety.

That will be just fine with Lewis, who enjoyed being able to show off his versatility in Houston.

“I don’t want to just put myself in a box and say I’m just a center fielder,” said Lewis, noting how he led the Texans in tackles last season. “I’m an all-around player. I’m here to do whatever the coaching staff allows me to do or wants me to do.”

Lewis is familiar with 2013 first-round pick Matt Elam after the two worked out together in Florida a couple offseasons ago. With a few more years of experience than Elam, Lewis could find himself in a mentoring role for the draft pick whose first two seasons have been a disappointment.

The Ravens could still look to add more safety depth over the course of the offseason, but Lewis will be expected to step into a leadership role at a position that featured plenty of inexperience in 2014. The 6-foot, 198-pound simply hopes to make what he already viewed as a good defense even better.

“When you see the Baltimore Ravens, you see their philosophy,” Lewis said. “You see their team was made up on defense. Me being a defensive guy, me being a safety, that’s what I wanted to be a part of.”

 

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Ravens right tackle Wagner earning attention in ways few expected

Posted on 05 November 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens coaches offered similar sentiments over and over as second-year right tackle Rick Wagner was trying to secure his spot as a starter during spring organized team activities and summer training camp.

They’d say they hadn’t really noticed him on tape and not much was being said about him, which are compliments to a young offensive lineman in the same way you prefer an umpire or a referee to not stick out while officiating a game. But plenty of doubt was expressed from everyone else as the Ravens needed to replace right tackle Michael Oher after he departed in the opening days of free agency to sign a four-year, $20 million contract with the Tennessee Titans.

Instead of drafting an offensive tackle in the early rounds of May’s draft or adding a veteran familiar with Gary Kubiak’s system such as Eric Winston, the Ravens appeared content with Wagner competing against other in-house options such as Jah Reid and Ryan Jensen to take Oher’s place. The rest would be up to the 2013 fifth-round pick to prove them right.

“After I found out he was leaving, that was the first thing on my mind: ‘I have a great opportunity to take over the right side,'” Wagner said. “I was just thankful that the coaches trusted in me.”

That trust has certainly paid off with Wagner not only taking full control of the job but blossoming into an above-average right tackle who’s now garnering attention for his strong play instead of simply trying to blend in. In fact, Wagner has outperformed the man he replaced as he’s graded out as the best right tackle in the NFL this season, according to Pro Football Focus. Meanwhile, Oher has struggled in his first year with the Titans, ranking 49th among the 51 tackles who’ve played at least 443 offensive snaps this season, per the same website.

Wagner has also committed only one penalty all season — a false start in Week 8 — after infractions were a frequent issue with Oher in his five years with Baltimore.

In the last week, Wagner was named to mid-season All-Pro teams by CBSSports.com and PFF, a reflection of how he’s more than just holding the job for the Ravens’ improved offensive line and how he’s slowly turning heads around the league. Head coach John Harbaugh said he had no idea when asked whether Wagner was playing at a Pro Bowl level, but the question alone reflects what great strides the second-year tackle has made in 2014 after playing just 131 snaps as a rookie when he was primarily used as an extra blocking tight end in the jumbo package.

After a 2013 season in which offensive line coach Juan Castillo drew plenty of criticism for the play of his unit, Wagner has been the assistant’s greatest success story in Baltimore.

“The thing that jumps out at me is his consistency. Rick is very consistent,” Harbaugh said. “He executes the techniques exactly the way that the scheme calls for. He gets it right most all the time. If he does get beat — like anybody does at times — it’s physically. And that doesn’t happen very often.”

A quiet but imposing 25-year-old with a 6-foot-6, 310-pound fram, Wagner is admittedly uncomfortable speaking with media — he joked that he was more at ease playing in Pittsburgh last Sunday than he was at the podium in Owings Mills Wednesday — but he’s taking the high praise as a confidence boost in his first full year as a starter.

Playing next to three-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda has certaintly helped Wagner’s development as the two share Big Ten roots — Yanda at Iowa and Wagner at Wisconsin — and have formed plenty of sizable running lanes for the league’s 10th-ranked running game. Despite being appreciative of the recognition, it’s clear Wagner prefers talking about the overall improvement of the offensive line rather than his individual contributions.

“I think pass protection has been pretty [improved],” said Wagner about how his game has improved since his rookie season. “Run blocking as a whole [offensive] line, we’ve been pretty good. It’s great playing next to Yanda. He really helps me out. It’s phenomenal playing next to him. The communication, the double-teams we have together — it makes my job easier.”

Wagner is the only Ravens player not to miss an offensive snap all season and doesn’t recall even missing a practice. It’s the kind of durability that commands respect and praise from teammates, both young and old.

There’s nothing fancy about him as veteran linebacker Terrell Suggs nicknamed Wagner “The Salesman” in reference to his ordinary name and a belief that he’d be good at selling “a lot of good stuff” despite his quiet demeanor. But there’s been nothing common about the tackle’s play as what was once a concern entering the season is now a position of strength for the Ravens.

“He has been working his tail off, and I think that’s a feel-good story,” Suggs said. “He showed that he can hold his own, and he has been playing phenomenal for us. You have to tip your hat to a guy that shows up to work. Those guys [are] in there in the trenches. They don’t really get a lot of credit for the things that they do, but he has definitely been a big part of our success.”

And it’s about time he’s being noticed for it.

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Ravens T Wagner on right tackle nod: “I definitely have to earn it”

Posted on 30 May 2014 by Ryan Chell

After an 8-8 season in which the Baltimore Ravens fell short of defending their Super Bowl title, many of John Harbaugh’s players are coming into this week’s OTAs with a huge chip on their shoulders in an attempt to get back to the playoffs.

However, that attitude is nothing new for Ravens 2nd-year offensive tackle Rick Wagner, who is getting a crack at the team’s starting right tackle spot going into OTAs-the position vacated by former first-round pick Michael Oher, who left via free agency to sign a contract with the Tennessee Titans.

Other candidates for the job include 2013 LG Kelechi Osemele, Jah Reid, Ryan Jensen, as well as undrafted rookie James Hurst.

Wagner, the team’s 5th round pick (168th overall) in the 2013 NFL Draft out of Wisconsin, has had an uphill battle since he was drafted by the Ravens last April.  Despite a high grade, he fell farther than his initial draft projection despite playing four years at Wisconsin-including 39 starts and Outland Trophy consideration.

The off-season was a disappointing one not only for Wagner in terms of becoming a starting NFL tackle, but also seeing his team fail to play deep into January for the first time in the John Harbaugh era.

“It’s not a good taste to have in our mouths right now,” Wagner told Glenn Clark on “The Reality Check” Thursday. “You can tell with the vets that they’re not used to that. “They’ve been making the playoffs for years here so we wanna get back and ultimately-that’s our number one priority.”

But behind the team goals, Wagner does find himself with a unique opportunity being tapped as the early candidate to start at right tackle for the Ravens going into training camp and ultimately in Week 1 against the Cincinnati Bengals on September 7th-a situation he fought his entire rookie year to try and achieve.

“I’m really excited, ” Wagner told Clark after practice. “Last year, I practiced like I was going start Week 1 because you never know what will happen with injuries, but [this year], I’m just trying to get the playbook down first, which I’m already feeling confident with in these first couple OTAs.”

That determination fueled Wagner going into his rookie year, and he earned playing time out of it-playing 13 games for the Ravens in 2013 and starting two as John Harbaugh’s “swing tackle” in Jumbo, short-yardage, and goal line situations. 

Wagner said playing his rookie year really gave him an edge in his short NFL career getting acclimated to the changing pace of the professional game.

“It’s such a change from college,” Wagner said. “The speed is so much more amped up, and that’s the real difference. That really helped me out last year, and I’m ready to go.”

Wagner said it definitely put things on perspective when it came to his own work ethic.

“Every player in the NFL is the best player you’ve faced in college.  It’s just a whole new intensity you have to get used to.”

But even with that experience under his belt, Wagner still understands that he’s going to have to compete for the right tackle job and that he won’t have it handed to him.

“I definitely have to earn it,” Wagner said.  “There’s nothing set until Week 1. I’m just gonna keep working and hope I earn that title.”

What’s he is getting used to in OTAs is lining up next to some new faces, including 3x All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda and getting line calls from a new center in former Buccaneeer Jeremy Zuttah.

Wagner said he owes so much to the two of them.

“It’s incredible to have him right next to me,” Wagner said of Yanda. “He helps me out every day and makes it so much easier when you have a vet like him next to you.”

And in regards to Zuttah, despite the center being in a Ravens uniform for two months, Wagner felt like with Zuttah’s knowledge and expertise, it feels like he’s been in the meeting rooms and on the field for years.

“We’re real comfortable already…it seems like he’s been here awhile,” Wagner said.  “He’s a real athletic guy and he’s fit right in since the first day.”

Now it’s all about the whole group grasping this new scheme being implemented by incoming offensive coordinator, Gary Kubiak. Despite the perceived complexity of a zone offense, Wagner though says it all comes down to execution despite the different terminology.

“Football is football,” Wagner said. “There isn’t really anything else we can do.”

What they do want to do is get back to establishing the running game to help out their quarterback in Joe Flacco.

“It’s a big emphasis. I’m really happy with the play-action stuff we have going this year-a lot different than last year.”

And while it’s been all business so far in camp, Wagner did say that he’s shared a few laughs so far seeing Flacco on some of Kubiak’s bootleg plays.

“He’s  a real athletic guy, and it’s good to see him getting out of the pocket and getting some runs going.”

WNST thanks Ricky Wagner for joining “The Reality Check!” Check out the entire conversation in the BuyaToyota.com Audio Vault at WNST.net! 

 

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