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Monroe questionable, Jernigan probable for Saturday’s game

Posted on 09 January 2015 by Luke Jones

The Ravens will hope to get an important piece of their offensive line back as left tackle Eugene Monroe was officially designated as questionable for Saturday’s divisional playoff game in New England.

Monroe practiced on a limited basis all week in his first on-field activity since injuring his ankle in the Week 16 loss at Houston. Rookie free agent James Hurst has filled in for Monroe in each of the last two games, leaving the Ravens without either starting tackle after Rick Wagner was lost for the season in late December.

Should Monroe be able to play, the Ravens will be faced with an interesting decision of whether to shift Hurst to the right tackle spot — allowing Marshal Yanda to return to his normal right guard position — or to stay with the current alignment on the right side of rookie John Urschel at right guard and Yanda playing right tackle.

Rookie defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (foot/ankle) was listed as probable to play against the Patriots after participating fully in practices all week. The 2014 second-round pick missed last week’s wild-card game in Pittsburgh after injury his left foot in the regular-season finale.

After enjoying their bye week, the Patriots are in excellent health after listing four players as probable for Saturday’s game.

QUESTIONABLE: OT Eugene Monroe (ankle)
PROBABLE: TE Owen Daniels (non-injury), DT Timmy Jernigan (foot/ankle), LB Daryl Smith (non-injury), LB Terrell Suggs (non-injury)

PROBABLE: QB Tom Brady (ankle), WR Julian Edelman (concussion), RB Jonas Gray (ankle), WR Brandon LaFell (shoulder/toe)

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Ravens-Patriots: Five predictions for Saturday

Posted on 09 January 2015 by Luke Jones

The Ravens have made a mostly-pleasant habit of traveling to Foxborough in January to take on the New England Patriots.

The latest chapter in this underrated rivalry will be written Saturday with Baltimore eyeing its fourth trip to the AFC Championship game under head coach John Harbaugh. Meanwhile, the No. 1 seed Patriots are seeking their first championship in a decade with 37-year-old quarterback Tom Brady not getting any younger.

Joe Flacco will try to continue an impeccable postseason run in which he’s thrown 20 touchdowns and just two interceptions over his last nine playoff games. The seventh-year signal-caller has thrown 13 touchdowns without an interception in leading the Ravens to wins in their last five postseason contests.

Who will win on Saturday?

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It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Patriots meet for the fourth time ever in the playoffs — all have been in Foxborough — with Baltimore holding a 2-1 edge. New England leads the all-time regular-season series by a 7-1 margin despite the Ravens’ postseason success at Gillette Stadium.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to hand New England another loss in the postseason …

1. Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski will be chased by Will Hill most of the day while catching a touchdown and posting 100 receiving yards. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will throw the kitchen sink at New England in trying to cover the All-Pro tight end, but Hill will draw most of the responsibility with little success. The 6-foot-1, 207-pound safety did an admirable job in holding New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham to six catches for 47 yards in late November, but Gronkowski has played at a different level than anyone at his position this year and is more physical. Brady will go to him early and often to try to offset a Baltimore pass rush bearing down on him.

2. Three of the Ravens’ sacks against Brady will come from inside pressure. Four has been the magic number for the Ravens as they’ve collected at least four sacks in their last eight wins and are 0-4 when failing to reach the plateau over that stretch. Brady was sacked just 21 times this year, but his quick release was a bigger factor in that statistic than an offensive line that’s been shaky in pass protection this year. The Ravens will exploit rookie center Bryan Stork and guards Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell with A-gap blitzing as well as the presence of Haloti Ngata, Pernell McPhee, and Timmy Jernigan in passing situations. Inside pressure will force Brady backward and give Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil time to reach him off the edges.

3. Steve Smith will have a quiet game, but Torrey Smith will catch a touchdown and fetch a key pass interference call. Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis is expected to match up against Steve Smith, which will spell trouble for the veteran wideout as Revis will match the 35-year-old’s physicality with press coverage. This will leave the 6-foot-4 Brandon Browner against Torrey Smith in a matchup that could determine the outcome of the game. The Maryland product will be challenged by Browner’s physicality, but the former Seattle defensive back is prone to penalties, drawing 15 flags in nine games in the regular season. The speedy fourth-year wideout draws pass interference calls as well as anyone and will fetch a big one inside the red zone in addition to catching a first-half touchdown.

4. Brady will pass for more yards, but Flacco will throw more touchdown passes. The Patriots will try to establish the run with their extensive collection of running backs, but they won’t find much room against the league’s fourth-ranked run defense, meaning the ball will be in their franchise quarterback’s hands all day. Brady will make amends for his 56.8 passer rating in his three previous playoff games against the Ravens, but Baltimore will clamp down inside the red zone. In contrast, the Ravens will find enough running room to keep Justin Forsett involved, and Flacco will have another efficient game like he did in Pittsburgh with 220 yards and two touchdowns to put his team in position to grab a victory in the fourth quarter.

5. Justin Tucker will kick the game-winning field goal to give the Ravens a 24-23 win. New England was the better team this season, but Baltimore has history on its side and — more importantly – the right tools to match up with the Patriots. If the Ravens are able to pressure Brady inside and out, it will make up for potential problems in the secondary and allow the Baltimore offense to keep up as it deals with an improved Patriots defense. This game could go either way, but it’s getting to the point where you just can’t pick against Flacco in the playoffs until someone finally cools him off. The Ravens won’t be scared playing in familiar Foxborough, and they’ll find a way to win there once again in January.

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Monroe remains limited participant for Thursday’s practice

Posted on 08 January 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — There were no significant changes to Thursday’s injury report as the Ravens completed their final full practice of the week in preparation for their divisional-round meeting with the New England Patriots.

Starting left tackle Eugene Monroe (ankle) remained a limited participant as he hopes to make his return to action for the first time since Dec. 21. Head coach John Harbaugh acknowledged Monroe is “progressing well” but wouldn’t elaborate beyond that when asked by reporters.

Rookie Timmy Jernigan (foot/ankle) was a full participant for the second straight day and appears on track to be back in the defensive line rotation after missing last week’s playoff win in Pittsburgh.

Veteran linebacker Terrell Suggs received a day off from the final practice of the week as he regularly has late in the season.

Meanwhile, the Patriots removed running back LeGarrette Blount (illness) from their injury report a day after he was listed as a limited participant.

Below is Thursday’s full injury report:

DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Terrell Suggs (non-injury)
FULL PARTICIPATION: DT Timmy Jernigan (foot/ankle), TE Owen Daniels (non-injury), LB Daryl Smith (non-injury)

LIMITED PARTICIPATION: WR Julian Edelman (concussion), RB Jonas Gray (ankle), WR Brandon LaFell (shoulder/toe)

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Frigid temperatures await Ravens in New England

Posted on 08 January 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens completed their final full practice of the week Thursday with unusual conditions ahead of Saturday’s playoff game in New England.

Offsetting their inability to practice outside due to Tuesday’s snowfall on top of already-frozen fields, head coach John Harbaugh opened the doors of their Owings Mills field house to create colder temperatures for Thursday’s workout on the indoor turf field. It’ll be the Ravens’ closest simulation this week to Saturday’s forecast in Foxborough, Mass. predicting a high of 20 degrees and winds up to 20 miles per hour for the 4:35 p.m. kickoff.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has had his team practice outdoors all week, but the Ravens are no strangers to frigid temperatures in January. Practicing outside at least a day or two would have been preferable, but Harbaugh wasn’t dwelling on any potential drawbacks as the Ravens try to become the NFL’s all-time leader in road playoff wins Saturday.

“It’ll be good. The situation is what it is,” Harbaugh said. “It’s not worth even contemplating. We don’t really have a turf field out here.”

Baltimore’s last trip to New England two years ago may have been 20 degrees warmer than Saturday’s prediction, but the Ravens experienced a game-time temperature of 13 degrees — with a wind chill of minus-1 — in Denver two years ago. Of course, the Ravens prevailed 38-35 in that double-overtime thriller against the Broncos in which quarterback Joe Flacco threw for 331 yards and three touchdowns.

But with only 17 players who were active that day remaining on the current 53-man roster — cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Anthony Levine were both on injured reserve at the end of that season — it’s fair to wonder how much the frigid temperatures might affect the Ravens as they try to advance to their fourth AFC Championship game under Harbaugh.

“It’s going to be cold,” veteran linebacker Daryl Smith said. “You just have to focus on playing ball no matter the elements — if it’s rain, snow, whatever it is. We have a job to do, and that should be our only focus.”

As you’d expected, a number of players insisted they won’t wear sleeves as they desire the proper mindset to play in their coldest game of the 2014 season. Tight end Owen Daniels downplayed how much of an advantage Patriots players gained by working outside this week, wondering if they bundled up more for practices than they will for the game.

A former member of the Houston Texans, the 32-year-old played at New England in the playoffs two years ago, but the temperature was in the low 50s.

“It has to be really, really cold — negative temperatures — for it to get to players,” said tight end Owen Daniels, who studied meteorology at the University of Wisconsin. “The ball will be a little bit harder, a little more slick, so there are little issues you have to adjust to each week depending on the weather of the game.”


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Ravens facing big challenge in Patriots secondary this time around

Posted on 07 January 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens and New England Patriots have uttered similar thoughts throughout the week about Saturday’s divisional playoff meeting in Foxborough.

As the rest of the world focuses on their three previous postseason encounters at Gillette Stadium, coaches and players from each side put little stock in what happened in the past. It’s difficult to argue the point from the Ravens’ side as just 19 players on the current 53-man roster were with the organization when they topped New England in the AFC Championship to go to the Super Bowl two years ago.

The biggest on-field difference between these teams may lie in the Patriots’ secondary, a unit that was their Achilles heel in recent years. When the Ravens met them in consecutive conference championship games, the Patriots ranked 31st in pass defense in 2011 and 29th in 2012, but the unit improved to 17th in the NFL this season because of two key offseason additions at cornerback.

The arrivals of six-time Pro Bowl selection Darrelle Revis and the 6-foot-4 Brandon Browner have transformed one of the Patriots’ biggest positional weaknesses into a strength, especially as the season has progressed. In addition to the veteran free-agent signings, 2013 third-round pick Logan Ryan has emerged as a solid option at the nickel in his second year.

“All three of those guys give them the ability to play man coverage more than they ever have before,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “They play a lot of single-high [safety]. They have a lot of people down in the box to stop the run. They’ll press you. They’ll play combinations where they double a certain player, take him out of the game. They can do that because they have corners that can single people up.”

The combination presents a problem for the Ravens, who have traditionally struggled against press coverage. Veteran Steve Smith certainly won’t shy away from physical play, but it’s fair to wonder if the 35-year-old has enough speed at this stage of the season to take advantage of any upper hand he can gain when the 5-foot-11 Revis tries to press him at the line of scrimmage.

After only one year in Tampa Bay that saw the Buccaneers wasting his talents in zone coverage, the 29-year-old Revis — two years removed from a serious knee injury suffered in his final season with the New York Jets — has retaken his place as one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL. And he’ll likely be asked to take the veteran Smith out of the game on Saturday.

“Is Revis still Revis? I think his ID and his social security number and those things [still say] ‘Revis,'” said Steve Smith as he smiled. “Revis can play. He’s a great corner. He’s a corner that you have to prepare for; you have to watch film. You can’t just walk in there thinking [it will be easy]. He’s a professional, and you have to approach it with a professional mindset.

“I have to be patient and understand he’s going to make his plays. That’s it. Be patient. It’s a long game. A lot of things happen.”

On the opposite side of the field, Browner will likely match up against Torrey Smith, who has improved against press coverage since his rookie season but generally doesn’t play with much physicality. What Browner may lack in speed he makes up for with a massive frame used to try to knock receivers off their spot.

It will present an interesting matchup as Torrey Smith has repeatedly drawn penalties from the opposition this season while Browner was flagged 15 times to lead the Patriots despite playing in only nine games during the regular season. The University of Maryland product could be in line for a big day if he can win the first couple steps of his routes, but New England will likely be inclined to shade safety help his way while entrusting Revis to handle Steve Smith.

Now in his fourth year, Torrey Smith hopes his experiences playing against both Revis and Browner as a rookie will pay dividends despite being held without a catch on three total targets matched up against them in games against the Jets and Seattle Seahawks in 2011.

“I just think they’re going to try to have a bigger body on me [and] try to be a little physical at the line,” Torrey Smith said. “I’ll check [Browner] out a little more, but I’ve played against both of them. I was a young pup, but I’ve played against them both and I’ve gotten a lot better since then. I’ll be ready for it. It was definitely different seeing Revis walk out on me as a rookie, but that’s just pretty cool.”

How can the Ravens combat the Patriots cornerbacks’ physical play?

Bunch formations, motion, and pick plays can be used to offset press coverage, but the Ravens won’t shy away from using double-moves as well as an improved play-action passing game to gain separation.

However, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak warned that the Ravens can’t reinvent the wheel in an effort to account for tough press coverage. And Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia are also masters of changing up strategies and giving opponents different looks than they anticipated after a full week of preparation.

“We have to go do what we do. We can’t sit here and assume, ‘Well, this guy is going to play that guy,'” Kubiak said. “We can’t do that. We have to go out and run the things we run and do them well. But that’s a strength of their defense, and if we’re going to find a way to get it done, we’re going to have to beat as good of a man coverage as there is in football, and we understand that.”

As the Ravens have come to expect with so much postseason success over the last seven years, quarterback Joe Flacco will be the biggest factor in beating the Patriots secondary and he won’t be afraid to test Revis if the opportunities are there.

It was an aggressive approach that led to an impressive 30-17 victory over Pittsburgh last Saturday, and Flacco says the Ravens could run into trouble if they try to deviate too much from what they do best.

“As a quarterback, you have to go out there and just go through your reads. If he’s open, throw it to him; if he’s not, don’t,” Flacco said. “We’re going to have to make contested catches, contested throws — all those things. But I know in the past when we’ve played against some guys and you’ve tried to avoid him or done things game plan-wise to get matchups in other places, it usually just takes your attention away from what you should be doing.

“I think that has a bigger effect than sometimes the actual guy can.”

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Monroe limited, Jernigan full participant in Wednesday’s practice

Posted on 07 January 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Optimism continues to grow for the availability of Eugene Monroe and Timmy Jernigan as the Ravens continue preparations for Saturday’s divisional playoff game against the New England Patriots.

The pair practiced for a second straight day Wednesday with Monroe being listed as a limited participant and Jernigan full participating in the workout. The starting left tackle spent time working individually with offensive line coach Juan Castillo during the portion of practice open to reporters.

Monroe told reporters after Wednesday’s practice that he was “very optimistic” about his chances of returning to action for the first time since injuring his ankle in the Week 16 loss at Houston. Rookie free agent James Hurst has been filling in at left tackle while Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda has moved to right tackle and rookie John Urschel has handled the right guard position.

Jernigan injured his left foot in the regular-season finale against Cleveland and missed last Saturday’s playoff game in Pittsburgh. With veteran defensive tackle Haloti Ngata back in the starting lineup, the rookie Jernigan would return to a reserve role in trying to put interior heat on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

“I feel like I can get back into the rotation, but at the end of the day, that’s the coach’s decision,” said Jernigan, who added he was feeling really good after returning to practice Tuesday. “All I can control is me and the way that I prepare.”

Tight end Owen Daniels and linebacker Daryl Smith both received the day off on Wednesday as they often do for the second practice day of a week

Wide receiver Marlon Brown was back at practice on Wednesday and not listed on the first injury report of the week after he wasn’t present during the open portion of Tuesday’s workout.

Meanwhile, the Patriots saw their entire 53-man roster practicing in Foxborough on Wednesday with starting receivers Julian Edelman (concussion) and Brandon LaFell (shoulder/toe) both limited participants.

DID NOT PARTICIPATE: TE Owen Daniels (non-injury), LB Daryl Smith (non-injury)
FULL PARTICIPATION: DT Timmy Jernigan (foot/ankle)

LIMITED PARTICIPATION: RB LeGarrett Blount (illness), WR Julian Edelman (concussion), RB Jonas Gray (ankle), WR Brandon LaFell (shoulder/toe)

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Monroe, Jernigan return to practice on Tuesday

Posted on 06 January 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — As expected, the Ravens saw the return of two key cogs to their offensive and defensive lines as Eugene Monroe and Timmy Jernigan took part in the first practice of the week ahead of Saturday’s divisional round meeting with New England.

Head coach John Harbaugh said Monday he expected both players to return from injuries that kept them out of last Saturday’s wild-card win in Pittsburgh. Monroe (ankle) did not appear to be doing much during the portion of practice open to reporters while Jernigan (foot) and the defensive line only observed and stretched during the special-teams part of practice.

Monroe hasn’t played in a game since Week 16 as rookie free agent James Hurst has filled in at left tackle. The Ravens will evaluate how he progresses over the course of the week before making a decision on his availability against the Patriots.

With veteran defensive tackle Haloti Ngata back from suspension, Jernigan’s presence isn’t as critical, but his return would give the Baltimore defense another dangerous interior rusher to harass Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the pocket.

Wide receiver Marlon Brown was the only player on the 53-man roster not present for Tuesday’s practice. The second-year wideout did not appear to suffer a significant injury in Pittsburgh in the process of catching one pass for nine yards in 13 offensive snaps.

With a couple inches of snow falling in Owings Mills Tuesday, the Ravens practiced on the turf field inside their field house.

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Is the 2014 season Harbaugh’s best coaching job?

Posted on 06 January 2015 by Luke Jones

Despite admittedly being a history buff, John Harbaugh was in no mood to reflect on the past less than 48 hours after the Ravens’ 30-17 first-round playoff win over Pittsburgh.

The seventh-year head coach tied Tom Landry and Tom Coughlin for the most road playoff wins (seven) in NFL history on Saturday as the Ravens matched the Green Bay Packers for the most postseason road victories (10) in league history. Harbaugh has guided Baltimore to at least one playoff win in six of his first seven seasons as well as a Super Bowl title and three conference championship appearances.

“It’s great after you do it, but it doesn’t mean much for the next game,” said Harbaugh when asked to reflect on his postseason achievements. “We’re excited about the challenge — looking forward to New England.”

With the Ravens defeating the Steelers in the playoffs for the first time in four tries, it would be difficult to deem this season as anything but a success regardless of what happens against the Patriots on Saturday. And with the well-documented adversity the Ravens have experienced from the Ray Rice saga to 19 players landing on season-ending injured reserve this season, a simple question must be asked.

Has this year been Harbaugh’s finest coaching job?

It’s tough to argue against his 2012 campaign in which the Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII after changing offensive coordinators in the middle of December. And his 2008 debut season garners strong consideration after the Ravens had finished 5-11 the previous year and went all the way to the AFC Championship with a rookie quarterback named Joe Flacco starting all 16 games and also having 19 players on IR.

But the adversity has never been greater than it was this season as the Ravens dealt with off-field turmoil that brought the entire organization under fire as well as a plethora of injuries while maintaining an impressive level of focus en route to a 10-6 regular season. Countless players have credited Harbaugh’s encouragement and ability to keep the focus on the task at hand as major reasons why they’ve overcome so many trials.

“Just like any teacher, if you’re proud of anything, you’re proud of the accomplishments of your students,” Harbaugh said. “You’re proud of the fact that you’re associated with them and you get to be a part of their journey. That’s the most important thing for a coach or a teacher.”

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Like any head coach, Harbaugh isn’t perfect as his in-game decision-making and clock management often come under scrutiny, but any suggestion that he has simply been along for the ride — a phrase his biggest critics have had the nerve to utter — is absurd after such an extended period of success. Many questioned the team’s leadership after the retirement of Ray Lewis and the departure of Ed Reed, but Saturday’s playoff win in Pittsburgh — something neither future Hall of Famer accomplished, mind you — suggests the Ravens continue to be in good hands moving forward.

Even if the former Philadelphia Eagles special teams coordinator lacks a perceived expertise on either side of the ball, he’s proven himself to be an excellent motivator and delegator, traits that a successful NFL head coach must have. Harbaugh has also done an exceptional job of assembling and restocking his coaching staff over the years with a few assistants moving on to become head coaches elsewhere.

Asked to react to longtime Cleveland sportswriter Tony Grossi’s proclamation over the weekend that the Ravens have the best overall coaching staff in the NFL, Harbaugh showed self-deprecating humor in his response that should also serve as a dig to his harshest detractors.

“Well, then I’ll try not to drag us down too much, you know?” said Harbaugh as he laughed. “Hopefully, they’ll carry me. We have a great staff. They do a great job.”

Brotherly support

Harbaugh was unsure if his younger brother Jim would be accompanying the Ravens to Foxborough, but it was clear he was appreciative of the new University of Michigan head coach’s support in attending Saturday’s playoff game in Pittsburgh.

It had to be a surreal feeling for the former San Francisco 49ers head coach wearing Ravens gear less than two years after falling to them in the Super Bowl, but the older Harbaugh saw an extra perk with his brother being on the sideline.

“I told him, ‘That’s probably pretty good recruiting, you know?'” John Harbaugh said. “You tell those guys, ‘You want to play in the National Football League, come to Michigan.’ That’s a recruiting pitch, right?

“It was great to have him there, and it seemed like he enjoyed it. He was able to enjoy the environment. When you are coaching, you don’t really enjoy the environment that much. I saw him looking around up at the crowd and the players and interacting with guys, and that stuff was neat to see.”

Fresher Ngata

Several Ravens players commented on how fresh defensive tackle Haloti Ngata appeared to be in his return on Saturday, but it was apparent that his head coach had no interest trying to glean any positive from his four-game suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy.

“We don’t have the ‘fresh leg’ meter to give you an empirical answer to the question,” Harbaugh said. “I’ll just go with what the players saw. They probably have a pretty good eye for that.”

The five-time Pro Bowl selection Ngata played in 50 of 75 defensive snaps against the Steelers, finishing with two tackles, a sack, and a pass breakup in his first action since Nov. 30.

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Ravens expecting Monroe, Jernigan to return to practice Tuesday

Posted on 05 January 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens have revealed good news on the health front ahead of Saturday’s divisional round playoff game with New England.

Not only did Baltimore appear to come out of the 30-17 wild-card win over Pittsburgh without any substantial injuries, but left tackle Eugene Monroe and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan are expected to return to practices this week. Monroe has missed the last two games since injuring his ankle in Houston while Jernigan hurt his left foot in the regular-season finale and did not play against the Steelers.

“It looks like they will take the practice field tomorrow,” head coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “We’ll see how those guys do, and we’ll have injury reports as we go through the week.”

Monroe’s return could create an interesting decision for the Ravens after they’ve used rookie free agent James Hurst at left tackle while sliding Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda out to right tackle with rookie John Urschel filling in at right guard. Hurst was considered the primary backup to Rick Wagner before the starting right tackle went on injured reserve late last month, but Yanda has filled in admirably at right tackle and Hurst is a more natural fit on the left side, making you wonder if the Ravens might continue using Yanda and Urschel on the right side with Monroe returning to his left tackle spot.

Of course, the presence of five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Vince Wilfork on the New England defensive line could make Yanda’s return to the right guard position a preferable scenario.

Jernigan filled in admirably in place of the suspended Haloti Ngata for four games, but the latter’s return to action for the playoffs means the rookie will return to a part-time role, which would certainly boost an already-deep group of defensive linemen.

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Ravens pass rush in race against quick-release Brady on Saturday

Posted on 05 January 2015 by Luke Jones

The Ravens have come to expect strong play from quarterback Joe Flacco in the postseason like they witnessed in the wild-card win in Pittsburgh, but the biggest key in beating the New England Patriots on Saturday may lie on the opposite side of the ball.

Future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady presents a great challenge to the NFL’s 24th-ranked pass defense, but Baltimore possesses the single-best weapon you can have to potentially slow the league’s No. 9 passing attack.

A dominating pass rush.

How significant has it been to Baltimore’s success during the 2014 season? The Ravens have collected four or more sacks in each of their last eight wins, including the 30-17 victory over the Steelers in which they sacked Ben Roethlisberger five times. Over that same time, they are 0-4 when failing to reach the four-sack plateau.

A quick look at the numbers suggests pass protection isn’t a concern for the Patriots as Brady was sacked only 21 times in the regular season — backup Jimmy Garoppolo was also dropped five times — but that is more a reflection of the 37-year-old getting the ball out more quickly that just about any quarterback in the league. Per Pro Football Focus, Brady’s average time of 2.39 seconds before throwing, being sacked, or scrambling is the third quickest in the league behind only Denver’s Peyton Manning and Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton.

The Patriots received the fourth-worst pass-blocking grade in the league from PFF, suggesting Baltimore shouldn’t be overly concerned with New England’s offensive line. Only right tackle Sebastian Vollmer received a positive cumulative grade in pass blocking among the Patriots’ starters during the regular season.

New England is particularly vulnerable inside with starting guards — Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell — who are much stronger as run blockers than in pass protection. This could spell trouble with defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and situational rusher Pernell McPhee primed to bring inside heat while Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil come off the edges.

But how do you reach Brady when he’s so adept at getting rid of the ball quickly?

The Ravens have made no secret about their attempts to jump the opposition’s snap count to get to the quarterback this season. This leads to some pre-snap penalties, which head coach John Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Dean Pees don’t condone but acknowledge as an occasional “cost of doing business.” They view them in a similar manner to how many great power hitters in baseball are also prone to striking out.

Of course, Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Brady will be aware of Baltimore’s aggression up front, making you believe they’ll throw some hard counts and cadence variations into the mix Saturday to keep the pass rush at bay.

Baltimore could also mix in some press coverage from defensive backs to temporarily hold up receivers in hopes that the rush gets to Brady after an extra split-second or two of holding the ball. In doing so, the Ravens do run the risk of giving up a big play if the pressure doesn’t get there, but they made it clear against the Steelers that they weren’t afraid to be aggressive on either side of the ball.

The Ravens’ biggest problem will be All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, whose 6-foot-6, 265-pound frame doesn’t make it feasible to jam him at the line of scrimmage. Will Hill did a commendable job against New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham during the regular season, and you’d expect the safety to receive a bulk of the coverage duties against Gronkowski on Saturday.

The defense showed once again that it can make up for an injury-plagued secondary by consistently pressuring the Steelers in the wild-card round, and the Ravens will need to do it again Saturday to be in position to continue their playoff run.



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