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Ravens narrowly avoided Atlanta’s fate four years ago

Posted on 06 February 2017 by Luke Jones

The Atlanta Falcons are predictably the butt of many jokes after surrendering the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history on Sunday night.

Coughing up a 25-point lead in the second half will do that to you, but Ravens fans should pause a moment or two before piling on Matt Ryan and company with too much enthusiasm. After all, Baltimore nearly suffered a similar fate in Super Bowl XLVII four years ago.

No one will forget the image of Joe Flacco raising the first Vince Lombardi Trophy or Ray Lewis celebrating the euphoric conclusion of his “last ride” in New Orleans, but the Ravens came dangerously close to squandering a 22-point lead in the second half. Such a notion felt impossible after Jacoby Jones’ 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to begin the third quarter, but San Francisco finally found its offense while the Ravens offense couldn’t run and managed only two field goals in the second half.

It didn’t take long for a comfortable 28-6 lead to become a heart-stopping affair.

You can blame the Superdome blackout if you’d like, but a defense led by Lewis and Ed Reed at the end of their careers gave up three second-half touchdowns and a field goal, which is exactly what the Falcons did before the Patriots marched down the field for the winning touchdown in overtime.

Just imagine how differently we’d view Super Bowl XLVII had Jimmy Smith been flagged on fourth-and-goal from the 5 or the 49ers hadn’t forgotten over their final four plays inside the 10 that Frank Gore was gashing a Baltimore front playing without the injured Haloti Ngata. Of course, unlike the Falcons, the Ravens were able to make a few plays to protect their narrow lead in the end, and that’s all that matters.

Super Bowl LI reminded us that you should never count out the New England Patriots and that the margin between winning and losing can be so razor thin. It also might help to run the ball when you’re protecting a 28-20 lead and are comfortably in field-goal range with under five minutes remaining.

But before mocking Atlanta too much, remember that the Ravens nearly became the Falcons four years ago and breathe a quick sigh of relief that a storybook ending didn’t turn into a nightmare.

** Many Ravens fans predictably went to social media to use Sunday’s result as validation for Flacco being better than Ryan — a tired debate that needs to end — but I’d hardly pin that loss on the quarterback as much as I would on the offensive play-calling of Kyle Shanahan and a defense that couldn’t stop a nosebleed in the second half.

Regardless, Flacco and the Ravens have a lot of work to do to give fans something more current to brag about. Even with the fallout of a devastating Super Bowl defeat, Ryan and the Falcons have a lot more going for them right now.

** After watching his limitations as a pass rusher with just five total sacks in his four seasons in Baltimore, Courtney Upshaw collecting the first quarterback takedown of Super Bowl LI wasn’t what I expected to see.

The former Ravens linebacker added weight to play on the Falcons defensive line this year, and that sack was his only tackle of the postseason.

** Every organization and fan base would love to be the Patriots, but Ravens director of public relations Patrick Gleason offered some perspective hours before Sunday’s kickoff in Houston.

It’s understandable to be discouraged by the Ravens missing the playoffs in three of the last four years and improvements certainly need to be made from top to bottom, but this organization has built up a ton of equity over the last two decades and is still just four years removed from winning the ultimate prize. Relative to most teams around the NFL, the Ravens have spoiled their fans for a long time, which isn’t easy to do.

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Critical Ravens offseason even more unsettling after Orr retirement

Posted on 24 January 2017 by Luke Jones

We already knew the Ravens were facing a critical offseason.

Having missed the playoffs in three of the last four years and sporting an underwhelming 31-33 record since winning Super Bowl XLVII, Baltimore knows it has work to do to reclaim its place as an annual contender in the AFC. Sure, you could try to argue that the Ravens are “close” since they were a tackle away from topping Pittsburgh in Week 16 to take the AFC North lead, but an 8-8 record with such a veteran-dependent roster doesn’t exactly scream that they’re moving in the right direction. It also means that they’re picking in the middle of each round of the 2017 draft, making it more difficult to land the kind of elite game-changing talent they desperately need.

And then the news broke last Friday that 24-year-old inside linebacker Zach Orr was retiring due to a rare congenital spine condition.

The former undrafted free agent wasn’t going to be the next Ray Lewis, but Orr was one of the few second- and third-year Ravens to take a major step forward, establishing himself as a quality talent in his first year as a starter. While general manager Ozzie Newsome has recently counted on many veterans to fight off Father Time to maintain a high level of play, Orr had the potential to get even better, the kind of upside the Ravens need more of to climb out of their rut of mediocrity.

The young linebacker’s unexpected retirement only makes the offseason to-do list longer.

Their 2016 starters at nose tackle, 5-technique defensive end, right tackle, and fullback are unrestricted free agents. The Ravens need to add starting-caliber options at wide receiver, cornerback, and edge pass rusher. They would like to upgrade at center and may need a starting safety if Lardarius Webb ends up being among their salary-cap casualties.

And inside linebacker has now been added to the list of concerns after that position was regarded as one of the most stable. Perhaps they will find an internal option to take Orr’s place, but the Ravens aren’t in a position where they can afford to downgrade their strengths.

With only so much cap space at their disposal, the Ravens won’t be able to address all of the aforementioned needs to the degree they’d like and frankly will need good fortune along the way, whether it’s finding some late-round gems or a diamond-in-the-rough free agent or two.

Losing Orr is the opposite of good luck and is unsettling in a crucial offseason that hasn’t really started yet.

Pro Bowl shuffling

With safety Eric Weddle and center Jeremy Zuttah added to the AFC roster on Monday, the Ravens now claim a total of seven players invited to the Pro Bowl, one shy of the franchise high.

At what point does the madness end with this charade of a game in which many players don’t even want to participate and many fans don’t want to watch?

Even if fans and media were too hard on Zuttah this season, it’d be very tough to argue that his play warranted an invitation to Orlando as an alternate. What about Denver quarterback Trevor Siemian, who reportedly would have been invited to play in the game if not for recent shoulder surgery?

Ask Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert if playing in the game is worth it after an ankle injury suffered in last year’s Pro Bowl cost him half of the 2016 season.

If the NFL wants to preserve whatever prestige that remains for being a Pro Bowl selection, the game needs to be discontinued. Maybe they could instead hold a rousing game of musical chairs, a much better reflection of the roster shuffling.

Keep the honor, but please dump the game.

Second-round suffering

With Orr’s retirement, many have pointed to Kamalei Correa as his potential replacement with the Ravens currently viewing the 2016 second-round pick as more of an inside linebacker than an outside option.

To do that, Correa will need to buck the trend of second-round disappointments after he played just 48 defensive snaps as a rookie. Baltimore’s last four selections in the second round have made a total of 31 starts with defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan making 24 of those.

Jernigan may not blossom into a Pro Bowl player, but he’s at least been a productive starter, a fair standard for a second-round choice. In contrast, inside linebacker Arthur Brown didn’t make it through his rookie contract, tight end Maxx Williams is coming off major knee surgery for a cartilage problem, and Correa couldn’t crack an outside linebacker rotation that had playing time up for grabs in 2016.

This is a big offseason for the Boise State product to prove he’s not the latest second-round disappointment.

Patriots Invitational

Perhaps a healthy Derek Carr would have made the Oakland Raiders an intriguing foe, but it was clear how big the divide was between New England and everyone else after Pittsburgh was demolished in the AFC championship game on Sunday.

Even in past years in which the Patriots ultimately advanced to the Super Bowl, you usually felt there were at least a couple AFC teams who had a real chance to beat them, but that simply wasn’t the case this season.

A league that champions parity had more mediocrity than usual with most of the 12 playoff teams not posing a serious threat to the contenders at the top. Eight of the 10 playoff games being blowouts helped support that notion.

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Weddle to replace New England’s McCourty in this week’s Pro Bowl

Posted on 23 January 2017 by Luke Jones

Despite initially being left out, Ravens safety Eric Weddle will join several teammates at the Pro Bowl in Orlando this week, after all.

The 32-year-old was added to the AFC roster on Monday as a replacement for New England’s Devin McCourty, who will play in Super Bowl LI. Weddle was deemed a second alternate when the original rosters were unveiled last month, and former Raven and current Denver safety Darian Stewart — the first alternate — had already been announced as a replacement for Eric Berry of Kansas City.

This is Weddle’s fourth career selection to the Pro Bowl.

Weddle was a standout performer in his first season with Baltimore, collecting 89 tackles, four interceptions, a sack, a forced fumble, and 13 pass breakups. After being graded as the top safety in the NFL by Pro Football Focus, Weddle’s absence from the Pro Bowl was considered by many to be a snub.

“I know how it works. I’ve been around a long time,” said Weddle a day after the announcements were made last month. “I know what my teammates and the organization think of me and what I’ve brought to this team. At the end of the day, that’s really all that matters. The people that know me see what I do on and off the field. That’s what you count on.”

Weddle will join four of his teammates in Orlando, a group that includes inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, kicker Justin Tucker, and long snapper Morgan Cox. A shoulder injury prompted six-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda to decline the invitation to play in the game.

Signed to a four-year, $26 million contract last offseason after spending the first nine years of his career with the San Diego Chargers, Weddle brought stability to a secondary that had been lacking leadership since Ed Reed’s departure following Super Bowl XLVII. Defensive teammates affectionately referred to Weddle as “coach” for his rigorous preparation in meetings and cerebral presence on the field.

“You do not get a chance to see the kind of leader he is, the type of person [he is],” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “It is not easy to come off of a new team, come in here, and try to prove to everybody, ‘I belong here; I’m a good player.’ And at the same time, be a leader right away. That is the thing you can feel from Eric. He has come in here, and he has not been bashful. He has made the right impact right away in leading this football team.”

The Pro Bowl will be played on Sunday at 8 p.m.

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Ravens not showing what it takes to win games on road

Posted on 13 December 2016 by Luke Jones

The final score alone was nothing to be ashamed of.

Many thought the Ravens could win in New England on Monday, but fewer expected them to really pull off the upset. The end result technically only means that John Harbaugh’s team has no realistic path to an AFC North title that doesn’t involve winning at Pittsburgh in Week 16.

So, why then does this one sting that much more than last month’s defeat at Dallas?

It’s because the Ravens showed that they still don’t have what it takes to win a big game on the road and haven’t displayed that moxie in quite some time. The 38-6 thumping of Miami last week was supposed to be the offensive breakthrough that would propel them down a final stretch that included three of four away games, but we instead saw the same offense we witnessed over the first 11 games of the season.

Instead of giving the Patriots everything they could handle to show they were back among the AFC’s top tier of contenders, the Ravens looked like the mediocre team their 7-6 record says they are.

Removing their injury-riddled October from the equation, they’re just not noticeably better than they were at the beginning of the season when they produced their only two road wins. Those victories came after erasing a 20-point deficit to lowly Cleveland in Week 2 and edging Jacksonville with a 54-yard field goal in the final minute of a Week 3 tilt. Yes, Baltimore’s only road victories of the season were nail-biters against the two worst teams in the AFC back in September.

Former offensive coordinator Marc Trestman was still two weeks away from being fired when the Ravens last won outside Baltimore, and it will have been exactly three months since that last road win when the Ravens take the field against the Steelers on Christmas Day.

They have been a good team at M&T Bank Stadium with a 5-2 mark in 2016, but also a pretty bad one on the road. We know winning at Heinz Field will be a tough task, but nothing about the Ravens’ current profile suggests their Week 17 trip to Cincinnati — where they haven’t won in five years — should be considered a sure thing, especially if five-time Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green is playing.

The Ravens struggled in every phase of the game on Monday, ranging from the offense and defense to special teams and coaching. If we’re being truthful about what we watched and are weary of moral victories in which they “battled” and “fought” back, the Ravens were very fortunate to even be in the game over the final 20 minutes. Winning the turnover battle by a 3-1 margin normally results in a victory, but that doesn’t happen when you stink up the joint for the first 2 1/2 quarters against arguably the best head coach and quarterback in NFL history.

The defense was torched by Tom Brady and the special teams — specifically former return specialist Devin Hester — also played a big part in the loss, but the Ravens offense was its usual self after the one-week aberration against the Dolphins that prompted many observers to buy into the newfound hype.

Passing the ball all day — running game be damned — and checking down all night while being completely perplexed by zone coverage. Not one touchdown drive beyond the two early Christmas gifts provided by New England’s special teams in the third quarter. A way-too-lethargic pace when trailing by two scores late in the fourth quarter.

It wasn’t good enough from Marty Mornhinweg, Joe Flacco, and company. Even the defense has looked mortal on the road as it’s allowed 24 or more points in each of the last four contests and may once again be without top cornerback Jimmy Smith, who injured his ankle on Monday night.

The Ravens are now 10-20 in regular-season road games since Super Bowl XLVII. The old formula of dominating at home and playing .500 ball away from M&T Bank Stadium brought much success in Harbaugh’s first five seasons — a 21-19 record on the road over that time — but the Ravens have fallen off the away cliff over the last four years, which helps explain their absence from January football.

If they don’t quickly find a way to play better in opposing cities, another New Year’s end to a season will be in order.

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Ravens-Patriots: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 12 December 2016 by Luke Jones

The Ravens are taking their improved show on the road.

Winners in four of their last five games and coming off their most impressive performance of the season, the Ravens will try to carry over their recent success to the road as they seek their first victory away from M&T Bank Stadium since Sept. 25. Of course, facing the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium is as challenging as it gets in the NFL.

A win would move Baltimore back into the No. 3 spot in the AFC playoff picture while dropping Pittsburgh to the final wild-card spot. A loss leaves the Steelers in sole position of first place in the AFC North and puts the Ravens in the eighth spot in the conference with three games remaining.

There weren’t any major surprises among the Ravens’ inactives as the status of guard Marshal Yanda (shoulder) was never in doubt despite him being listed as questionable on the final injury report. As expected, rookie guard Alex Lewis (ankle) was deactivated after practicing on a limited basis this past week and being listed as doubtful to play.

Rookie linebacker Kamalei Correa is active after being inactive two straight weeks while second-year outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith is a healthy scratch against New England. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees likely views Correa as a better option in pass coverage to potentially match up with Patriots running backs in certain sub packages.

The Ravens also deactivated Buck Allen, leaving starter Terrance West and rookie Kenneth Dixon as their only active tailbacks. Third-year tight end Crockett Gillmore will miss his sixth straight game with a hamstring injury suffered during the bye week.

Meanwhile, the Patriots deactivated cornerback Eric Rowe after he was limited in practices all week with a hamstring issue. His loss is significant after the former Philadelphia Eagle had played well in the New England secondary in recent weeks.

Wide receiver Danny Amendola (ankle) was officially declared out over the weekend.

The referee for Monday’s game will be Ed Hochuli.

Monday marks the ninth regular-season meeting between these teams with New England holding a 7-1 advantage. Of course, the teams are tied 2-2 over four postseason encounters — all played in Foxborough — but the Ravens will be aiming for their first win over the Patriots since the 2012 AFC championship game.

According to Weather.com, the Monday forecast calls for clear skies with temperatures in the low 30s and winds up to eight miles per hour.

Baltimore will wear white jerseys with black pants while the Patriots sport navy blue jerseys with silver pants.

Below are Monday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
CB Chris Lewis-Harris
RB Lorenzo Taliaferro
RB Buck Allen
G Ryan Jensen
G Alex Lewis
TE Crockett Gillmore
LB Za’Darius Smith

NEW ENGLAND
CB Eric Rowe
OT LaAdrian Waddle
DT Woodrow Hamilton
S Jordan Richards
RB D.J. Foster
WR Griff Whalen
WR Danny Amendola

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Sunday brings mixed bag to Ravens’ playoff picture

Posted on 11 December 2016 by Luke Jones

The Ravens aren’t likely to send former defensive coordinator Rex Ryan a Christmas card after Buffalo’s disappoint showing against Pittsburgh on Sunday.

Despite intercepting Ben Roethlisberger three times in snowy conditions, the Bills allowed nearly 300 yards from scrimmage to running back Le’Veon Bell in their 27-20 defeat to the Steelers at New Era Field. The final score didn’t indicate how lopsided the game was as Pittsburgh moved a half-game ahead in the AFC North, putting more pressure on Baltimore for its Monday meeting with New England.

A loss to the Patriots wouldn’t wipe away the Ravens’ division hopes by any means, but it would all but eliminate any realistic chance of being able to win the AFC North without a victory at Heinz Field on Christmas Day.

Sunday wasn’t a complete disappointment for the Ravens, however, as Denver lost to Tennessee and is now barely holding on as the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoff picture. The Broncos fell to 8-5 and now face a brutal final three weeks, opening the door for a team outside the AFC West to potentially steal the last wild card.

Currently holding a 7-2 conference record, the Ravens are in good shape from a tiebreaker standpoint. They also hold the head-to-head advantage with Miami, who beat Arizona on Sunday to improve to 8-5 but lost quarterback Ryan Tannehill to what’s believed to be a season-ending knee injury. The Dolphins will play their final three games against division opponents — including the next two on the road — with veteran backup Matt Moore likely leading the way.

A loss on Monday night would drop the Ravens into a tie with Tennessee at 7-6, but the Titans own a poor 4-5 conference record and play their next two games on the road.

The Ravens’ best path to the playoffs is still winning the division, but Sunday’s action opened the door further for a potential wild card. And that eases the sting of the Bills not being able to beat the Steelers.

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Ravens-Patriots: Five predictions for Monday night

Posted on 11 December 2016 by Luke Jones

The Ravens can make a statement to a national audience on Monday night.

A 38-6 home thrashing of Miami was their most impressive victory of the season last week, but besting the New England Patriots in Foxborough would emphatically announce their return to the upper tier of contenders in the AFC. A loss wouldn’t cripple their playoff hopes, but it would give Pittsburgh a one-game lead in the AFC North with a Christmas Day showdown looming in less than two weeks.

Baltimore has the upper hand from a health standpoint with not a single defensive player listed on the final injury report and no significant offensive players expected to miss the game. Having already lost All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski to season-ending back surgery last week, the Patriots will be without  wide receiver Danny Amendola (ankle) and listed improving cornerback Eric Rowe (hamstring) as questionable to play.

It’s time to go on the record as these teams play for the ninth time in their regular-season history. The Patriots own a 7-1 advantage in the regular season, but the Ravens have won two of their four postseason games played at Gillette Stadium since 2009. Baltimore hasn’t beaten New England since the 2012 AFC Championship.

Below are five predictions for Monday night:

1. Patriots running backs will score two touchdowns. LeGarrette Blount is on the verge of his first 1,000-yard rushing season since 2010, but he could be the least of the Ravens’ problems on Monday night. The Ravens sport the best run defense in the NFL and are allowing just 3.4 yards per carry, but James White and Dion Lewis are strong receivers out of the backfield capable of running the entire route tree, which could spell problems for linebackers already trying to slow tight end Martellus Bennett. Baltimore will slow Blount between the tackles, but White and Lewis will be problems underneath.

2. Eric Weddle will collect only the second interception of the year from Tom Brady. You’d never know Brady is 39 years old by watching him play this season, but Baltimore has given him as much trouble as virtually anyone in his impeccable career, picking him off 11 times in 10 career games. Expecting the Ravens to shut down the league’s sixth-ranked offense would be unfair, but forcing a turnover or two to set up the offense on a short field at some point would go a long way in giving them a chance. Their ability to contain Blount early will force Brady to take risks, and Weddle will be waiting.

3. Steve Smith will catch a touchdown as Joe Flacco is forced to work the sidelines. Even if the Ravens are able to match their production from the Miami game, it’s difficult to fathom Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia giving Flacco the same windows in the middle of the field, likely forcing the quarterback to work the sidelines. Dennis Pitta also won’t see the same free releases off the line, prompting Flacco to look to Smith more often on short-to-intermediate throws. A more methodical approach is not what the Ravens prefer, but the 37-year-old receiver will be eager to shine in prime time.

4. Terrell Suggs will collect his ninth sack of the year, but pressure on Brady will be scarce. The ball comes out so quickly that you have to pick your poison in attacking Brady. Suggs continues to play at a high level despite a biceps injury and will best left tackle Nate Solder for a sack, but the Ravens would be wise to use the 6-foot-7 Brent Urban and even the 6-foot-4 Za’Darius Smith as sub-package rushers to try to get hands up in passing lanes. New England’s offensive line is vulnerable inside, but Timmy Jernigan’s play has cooled considerably since a strong start.

5. The Patriots will win the fourth quarter to prevail 26-23 over the Ravens. This will be a close game, but I’m just not convinced that the Baltimore offense is ready to do everything it takes to beat one of the NFL’s best teams on the road after a single great performance at home against a mediocre Miami defense. The Ravens defense will get some stops to keep Flacco and the offense in it, but New England will dictate the tempo in the final period, mixing enough runs into a game plan centered around Brady’s passing to protect a tight lead and run out the clock. This one will be similar to last month’s loss to Dallas, but the offense will show more this time around, which bodes well for the final three games.

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Ravens couldn’t ask for better health entering clash with Patriots

Posted on 10 December 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — No matter what happens in their Week 14 showdown with New England, the Ravens couldn’t ask for much better health going into Monday night’s game.

Five-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda (shoulder) was officially designated as questionable and is the most notable name on the final injury report, but he will play after practicing fully on Friday and Saturday. The 32-year-old will be making his fourth straight start at left guard after moving over from the right side last month to help protect his injured left shoulder.

Baltimore ruled out tight end Crockett Gillmore (hamstring) and running back Lorenzo Taliaferro (hamstring) while rookie guard Alex Lewis (ankle) was listed as doubtful. Gillmore will be sidelined for the sixth straight game and Taliaferro his fourth, but Lewis practiced on a limited basis for the second straight day on Saturday, a good sign for his status against Philadelphia next week.

Not a single Baltimore defensive player was listed on the final injury report, an exciting development for a group that ranks No. 1 in the NFL despite rarely being at full strength this season. Neither cornerback Jimmy Smith nor outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil appeared on the injury report all week.

“We’re always striving for greatness and trying to be better each and every week,” inside linebacker Zach Orr said. “Getting Jimmy back and ‘Doom’ back is big for us because we’re finally starting to get healthy. When you have two of your best players back on the field, it’s only going to make you better.”

The injuries are a different story for the Patriots, who already placed All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski (back) on season-ending injured reserve last week and officially ruled out wide receiver Danny Amendola (ankle) for Monday’s game. Those two have combined for 783 receiving yards and seven touchdown receptions this season.

New England also listed tight end Martellus Bennett (ankle/shoulder) and cornerback Eric Rowe (hamstring) as questionable to play against the Ravens. Bennett’s status is not believed to be in real question, but Rowe was limited in practices this week after injuring his hamstring last Sunday.

The referee for Monday’s game will be Ed Hochuli.

According to Weather.com, the Foxborough forecast calls for partly cloudy skies with temperatures falling to the low 30s and winds around 10 miles per hour on Monday evening.

The Ravens will wear white jerseys with black pants for the New England game.

Below is the final injury report of the week:

BALTIMORE
OUT: TE Crockett Gillmore (thigh), RB Lorenzo Taliaferro (thigh)
DOUBTFUL: OL Alex Lewis (ankle)
QUESTIONABLE: G Marshal Yanda (shoulder)

NEW ENGLAND
OUT: WR Danny Amendola (ankle)
QUESTIONABLE: TE Martellus Bennett (ankle/shoulder), S Jordan Richards (knee), LB Elandon Roberts (hamstring), CB Eric Rowe (hamstring), WR Matt Slater (foot)

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Ravens will go as far as offense can take them down stretch

Posted on 09 December 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Cornerback Jimmy Smith may have offered the defining statement for the remainder of the season for the Ravens this week.

Asked if his healthy return from a back injury as well as pass rusher Elvis Dumervil’s presence provided optimism that the NFL’s top-ranked defense could get even better down the stretch, the sixth-year defensive back provided an interesting answer. It may have been slightly off-topic and reflective of some yearlong frustration with the opposite side of the ball, but Smith wasn’t wrong in his assessment as the Ravens prepare for their toughest game of the season at New England on Monday night.

“Our defense is going to look even better if — and when — our offense goes out and puts up points,” Smith said. “We can start playing the defense where we can get after a lot of guys, pin our ears back, get sacks and a lot more turnovers. How our offense goes for the next four weeks will [determine] how even more great our defense can be.”

The Ravens are in position to make the playoffs mostly because of their exceptional defense, but it was only this past Sunday when you began feeling they might have a chance to make real noise down the stretch and into January. A season-high 38-point explosion and Joe Flacco’s best performance in two years will bring that kind of optimism for an offense that’s been below average all year.

Of course, going on the road to face a Patriots defense ranking in the top 10 in most statistical categories is a much different challenge than blowing out Miami at M&T Bank Stadium in Week 13. Whether they’re ready or not, the Ravens couldn’t ask for a better test to see if last week was more aberration or transformation.

There’s also the matter of knowing that future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady looms on the opposing side. Expecting the Baltimore defense to shut down the New England offense would be unfair, which is why the Ravens need to start fast and keep the foot on the accelerator like they finally did against the Dolphins.

Even with an elite defense, Flacco doesn’t want to be conservative against anyone, let alone the Patriots.

“You don’t want to wait for them. You do not want to just wait and hope that they do not come back,” Flacco said. “You still have to take your chances and rely on you playing sound football. Understand that if you do make a mistake in the moment, it is still going to pay off in the long run more so than it might hurt you in that one specific play. Yes, you might turn the ball over and they might get a touchdown — a quick touchdown. But if you keep it going, it usually pays dividends in the long run.”

At this point, we know the Ravens are going to throw the ball and throw it a lot. Despite averaging 4.6 yards per carry over their last three games with the same starting offensive line, Flacco is still averaging just under 40 pass attempts per game over that time and ranked behind only Drew Brees in total pass attempts entering Week 14.

The Ravens continued to use the no-huddle offense and exploited the middle of the Dolphins’ pass defense over and over, but will the Patriots allow the same free releases off the line of scrimmage? Will their secondary allow similar cushion for the crossing routes and slants run so effectively by Mike Wallace, Steve Smith, and Breshad Perriman? Will Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia have a better plan to confuse Flacco, who made it look so easy against Miami?

Asked what finally clicked against the Dolphins after weeks of frustration, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg wasn’t interested in taking credit — or divulging any secrets.

“The players did a heck of a job,” Mornhinweg said. “The position coaches who are involved in the game plan did an outstanding job. It’s just that simple.”

Monday will reveal if it really is that simple and whether the newfound optimism for the Ravens is warranted. Only then will we know if Baltimore can forget about the first three months of offensive frustration and turn the page toward an exciting finish to the season.

And we also might be able to see if this defense can reach another level as Smith suggested.

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Ravens rookie guard Lewis makes surprise return to practice

Posted on 09 December 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Rookie guard Alex Lewis made a surprise return to practice as the Ravens moved closer to their Monday night meeting with the New England Patriots.

Sidelined with a right ankle sprain suffered in the Week 10 win over Cleveland on Nov. 10, Lewis was expected to miss at least six weeks of action at the time of the injury. Head coach John Harbaugh even labeled Lewis “a good ways away” when asked about his status this past Monday.

A return for the Patriots game might be too aggressive after a month-long absence, but the better question is where Lewis will fit in for the remainder of the season. Five-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda has played the last three games on the left side out of necessity because of his bad left shoulder.

Yanda told WNST.net this week that he was all but resigned to needing season-ending surgery last month before Lewis’ injury opened the door for his idea to switch to left guard, a position that is easier on his damaged shoulder.

Despite being a 10-year veteran, Yanda has acknowledged the difficulty in making the in-season transition to the opposite side, making you wonder if they’d move Lewis to right guard in place of veteran Vlad Ducasse. The Ravens could just continue with the same offensive line combination used in last Sunday’s 38-6 blowout win over Miami.

“It’s not as drastic as going from writing with your right hand to going with your left, but it’s very similar in that aspect of it,” Yanda said. “Your feet are flipped, and just the way you set with your feet, it just feels awkward as heck flipping your stance. It takes some time, and I’m still awkward.”

Ducasse has started the last four games at right guard after being re-signed in October. Lewis, a fourth-round pick out of Nebraska, has made five starts at left guard and three at left tackle in his rookie season.

Running back Lorenzo Taliaferro (hamstring) and tight end Crockett Gillmore (hamstring) remained sidelined on Friday and appear unlikely to play against the Patriots. Linebacker Terrell Suggs and center Jeremy Zuttah were also given a veteran day off.

Below is Friday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: TE Crockett Gillmore (thigh), LB Terrell Suggs (non-injury), RB Lorenzo Taliaferro (thigh), C Jeremy Zuttah (non-injury)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: G Alex Lewis (ankle)
FULL PARTICIPATION: G Marshal Yanda (shoulder)

NEW ENGLAND
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: WR Danny Amendola (ankle)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: TE Martellus Bennett (ankle/shoulder), S Jordan Richards (knee), LB Elandon Roberts (hamstring), CB Eric Rowe (hamstring), WR Matt Slater (foot)

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