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Five questions for Ravens defense entering organized team activities

Posted on 23 May 2018 by Luke Jones

Contrary to what you might conclude from this offseason, the Ravens do have another side of the ball.

While spending most attention and resources on revamping the NFL’s 29th-ranked passing game, general manager Ozzie Newsome parted ways with only one player — defensive back Lardarius Webb — who played defensive snaps in 2017. That’s a remarkable level of continuity in this era, but will it pay off?

The Ravens defense was exceptional at times in 2017, leading the league in takeaways and pitching three shutouts. The group ranked in the top 10 in most significant statistical categories until late in the season and still finished fifth overall in Football Outsiders’ weighted defense rankings.

But the defense struggled down the stretch, blowing a late lead in Pittsburgh for the second year in a row and suffering one of the bigger collapses in team history when Cincinnati scored on a fourth-and-12 play from the Baltimore 49 with under a minute left in Week 17 to knock the Ravens out of the playoffs. No matter what the numbers said, the defense came up small in some of the biggest moments of the season.

Below are five pressing questions for the Ravens defense as organized team activities are now underway:

1. How much will change under new defensive coordinator Wink Martindale?

Players have provided glowing endorsements of Martindale and anticipate more flexible and aggressive schemes than those employed by Dean Pees. Criticisms of the former defensive coordinator are fair — leaving Brandon Carr on an island with Antonio Brown late in the Week 14 loss to the Steelers was just one example — but these types of sentiments about new coaches are commonplace whenever teams fall short the previous season. It’s easy to subtly point fingers at individuals no longer in the picture, but Martindale’s roots with the Ryan family are definitely intriguing from a schematic standpoint. On the flip side, the former linebackers coach must prove his failed stint in Denver eight years ago was mostly due to the Broncos’ lack of talent since this defense has the talent to be a good-to-great unit.

2. Who will man the inside linebacker position next to C.J. Mosley?

This is likely a multi-pronged answer since former rookie free agent Patrick Onwuasor started 13 games at the weak-side spot and the dime package was frequently used in passing situations with an extra safety playing in the box last season. The Ravens should continue to be creative with sub packages, but they need more consistency at this position in the base defense, whether it’s Onwuasor taking the next step in his development or fourth-round rookie Kenny Young seizing the opportunity to get on the field. You’d expect Martindale to continue to use the likes of Anthony Levine and Chuck Clark in the dime package when appropriate, but Baltimore identifying another inside linebacker who can hold up in pass coverage will be vital to the overall success and flexibility of the defense.

3. Will the Ravens get more out of safety Tony Jefferson?

The prize free-agent acquisition of 2017 was ordinary in his first year with the Ravens, providing ammunition for critics who wondered why Newsome invested a four-year $34 million contract in a box safety when there were clear needs on the other side of the ball a year ago. Many point to Pees too frequently using Jefferson away from the line of scrimmage — a valid claim, especially in the first half of the 2017 season — but there were also examples of him being beaten in coverage by tight ends and not being as strong against the run as advertised. Martindale should continue using Jefferson in the box as much as possible, but Eric Weddle will need to be able to hold up in back-end coverage. Even after a restructure, Jefferson has the team’s ninth-highest cap number and must bring more to the table.

4. What will the 5-technique defensive end spot look like?

The season-ending loss of Brent Urban in Week 3 last season was unfortunate after the 6-foot-7, 300-pound lineman appeared on his way to becoming an impact player, and the Ravens struggled to fill this position for much of the season, another factor that hurt their run defense in addition to the four-game absence of Brandon Williams. Re-signing Urban to a cheap one-year deal was a prudent move, but counting on a player who’s missed 39 games in a four-year career is problematic at best. Carl Davis shifted outside to do a respectable job in the second half of last season, but he’s also entering the final year of his contract, making it critical for either 2017 third-round pick Chris Wormley or 2016 third-round pick Bronson Kaufusi to step up to become a real contributor at this spot.

5. How will a deep group of cornerbacks be handled?

On paper, this is one of the deepest cornerback groups the Ravens have ever had with young talents still pursuing their ceiling. Jimmy Smith’s health is the major question as he recovers from last December’s torn Achilles tendon, but Marlon Humphrey looked the part of a future shutdown corner as a rookie and the solid veteran Carr was retained as a pricey insurance policy. Beyond that, Tavon Young is back in the fold after serving as a strong slot defender as a rookie two years ago, and Maurice Canady will try to build on his late success at the nickel last season. Those numbers don’t even take into account fourth-round rookie Anthony Averett or Jaylen Hill, who showed potential last summer before being stricken with injuries. If all are healthy — a major if — Martindale will have a good problem on his hands.

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How did Ravens inside linebackers stack up to rest of NFL in 2017?

Posted on 31 January 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens failed to make the postseason for the fourth time in five years, but where exactly did their players stack up across the NFL in 2017?

Whether it’s discussing the Pro Bowl or picking postseason awards, media and fans spend much time debating where players rank at each position, but few put in the necessary time and effort to watch every player on every team extensively enough to develop any kind of an authoritative opinion.

Truthfully, how many times did you closely watch the offensive line of the Los Angeles Chargers this season? What about the Detroit Lions linebackers or the Miami Dolphins cornerbacks?

That’s why I can appreciate projects such as Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 and the grading efforts of Pro Football Focus. Of course, neither should be viewed as the gospel of evaluation and each is subjective, but I respect the exhaustive effort to grade players across the league when so many of us watch only one team or one division on any kind of a consistent basis. It’s important to note that the following PFF rankings are where the player stood at the conclusion of the regular season.

Below is a look at where Ravens wide receivers ranked across the league, according to those outlets:

Running backs
Defensive linemen
Tight ends
Cornerbacks
Wide receivers

C.J. Mosley
2017 defensive snap count: 1,078
NFL1000 ranking: 3rd among inside linebackers
PFF ranking: 37th among linebackers
Skinny: He’ll always be unfairly compared to Ray Lewis, but the 2014 first-round pick made his third Pro Bowl in four seasons despite dealing with an array of nagging injuries late in the season. His pass coverage still needs to improve, but signing Mosley to a long-term contract is on the to-do list this spring.

Patrick Onwuasor
2017 defensive snap count:
648
NFL1000 ranking:
38th among inside linebackers
PFF ranking:
41st among linebackers
Skinny:
The 25-year-old was the latest in a long line of former rookie free agents to start at inside linebacker for the Ravens, beating out Kamalei Correa for the weak-side spot. Onwuasor shows the aggressive physicality you like, but he needs to be more consistent to remain in a starting role.

Kamalei Correa
2017 defensive snap count:
147
NFL1000 ranking:
59th among inside linebackers
PFF ranking:
n/a
Skinny:
The Ravens saw Correa as a tweener and moved him inside as a rookie because of immediate need and short arms that were expected to be a hindrance on the edge. The move hasn’t worked, and a return to his college spot may be in order to try to salvage value from a disappointing second-round pick.

Bam Bradley
2017 defensive snap count:
2
NFL1000 ranking:
n/a
PFF ranking:
n/a
Skinny:
The rookie from Pitt was one of the good stories of the preseason as he made the 53-man roster before tearing an ACL in Week 2. With Onwuasor being inconsistent as a starter and Correa not living up to expectations, Bradley is a sleeper at this position to watch in the preseason.

2018 positional outlook

The Ravens appeared to be in really good shape at this position before the unfortunate retirement of Zachary Orr last January, and they predictably experienced drop-off with his replacements. The use of the dime package helps minimize deficiencies at the inside linebacker spot, but Baltimore needs more from both Mosley and whoever else is on the field as covering tight ends was a significant issue throughout the season. With Mosley in line for a big payday and only under contract through the 2018 season, the Ravens need to be economical with any efforts to improve at the other spot. Special-teams standout and veteran linebacker Albert McClellan remains under contract after missing the entire 2017 season with a torn ACL, but the presence of so many younger options could lead to him being a casualty of a tight salary cap this offseason.

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Examining the Ravens’ 2018 class of free agents

Posted on 03 January 2018 by Luke Jones

Free agency won’t begin until March 14, but the Ravens face arguably the most pivotal offseason in team history after missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five years and seeing fan support dwindle in 2017.

As has become Baltimore’s annual story, salary cap space will be a problem as the Ravens currently hold an estimated 2018 Rule of 51 commitment of just under $170 million, according to Spotrac.com. The 2018 salary cap won’t be set until March, but it is projected to rise from $167 million in 2017 to somewhere between $174 million and $178 million. Since the aforementioned commitment doesn’t include any of their pending free agents, the Ravens will clearly have difficult decisions to make with some cap analysts already painting a very gloomy picture about their lack of cap space and their limited flexibility.

This comes with the reality that the Ravens have substantial work to do to their roster — especially on the offensive side of the ball — if they want to escape the land of mediocrity in which they’ve resided since Super Bowl XLVII.

Of course, the Ravens can create cap space by renegotiating, extending, or terminating veteran contracts and will surely do some combination of that. Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, cornerback Brandon Carr, running back Danny Woodhead, right tackle Austin Howard, defensive back Lardarius Webb, and linebacker Albert McClellan stand out as veteran candidates who could become cap casualties this winter.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

The Ravens will have the opportunity to retain any of the following 12 unrestricted free agents before they can officially sign with any other team beginning on March 14 at 4 p.m.

CB Brandon Boykin: Once considered one of the better slot corners in the league, Boykin was placed on injured reserve in early September and is not expected to return.

OL Luke Bowanko: The veteran saw action in all 16 games and made one start, but the returns of guards Marshal Yanda, Alex Lewis, and Nico Siragusa from injuries make him expendable.

WR Michael Campanaro: The River Hill product played in a career-high 13 games and did nice work as a punt returner, making him a candidate to be re-signed at a cheap price.

TE Crockett Gillmore: The 6-foot-6, 266-pound Gillmore showed intriguing potential in 2015, but he’s missed 29 of Baltimore’s last 36 games due to injury, making his return highly questionable.

OL James Hurst: The once-maligned reserve offensive tackle found a niche as a serviceable starting left guard in 2017, but the aforementioned returning depth inside probably makes him expendable.

C Ryan Jensen: His emergence as a formidable starting center was a godsend with two backups handling the guard spots all year, but did the rest of the NFL also take notice in the process?

LB Steven Johnson: The veteran journeyman did a solid job on special teams in 10 games, but his spot and opportunity will likely go to a younger and cheaper player in 2018.

QB Ryan Mallett: With Joe Flacco turning 33 later this month and battling inconsistency and some health concerns in recent years, the Ravens should be looking to draft a backup with more upside.

DE Brent Urban: The 6-foot-7 specimen looked poised for a strong year during the preseason, but he’s missed 39 games in four seasons, making him a poor candidate in which to invest any real money.

WR Mike Wallace: Market demand will be a major factor here, but the Ravens will be looking at needing to add two to three impactful receivers if Wallace exits and the disappointing Maclin is cut.

TE Benjamin Watson: The 37-year-old was a good story coming back from last year’s torn Achilles tendon to lead the team in catches, but the Ravens really need more of a play-maker at this position. 

RB Terrance West: The Baltimore native and Towson product turned his career around with the Ravens, but he will likely be seeking a better opportunity elsewhere in 2018.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS – none in 2018

EXCLUSIVE-RIGHTS FREE AGENTS

These seven players have less than three years of accrued service and can be tendered a contract for the league minimum based on their length of service in the league. If tendered, these players are not free to negotiate with other teams. The Ravens usually tender all exclusive-rights free agents with the thought that there’s nothing assured beyond the opportunity to compete for a spot. Exclusive-rights tenders are not guaranteed, meaning a player can be cut at any point without consequence to the salary cap.

WR Quincy Adeboyejo: The rookie turned some heads early in training camp and received a Week 17 promotion from the practice squad, but he’ll need to earn his way onto the 2018 roster.

RB Alex Collins: Given the present challenges with the cap, Collins falling into the Ravens’ laps was a major development of the season as he’ll be the clear favorite to be the 2018 starter at a cheap cost.

CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste: Promoted to the active roster after Jimmy Smith tore his Achilles tendon in early December, Jean-Baptiste will be in the mix next summer to try to make the roster.

TE Vince Mayle: Though not a factor as an offensive player, Mayle was a consistent special-teams contributor and has a chance to reprise that role next season.

LB Patrick Onwuasor: With the disappointing development of Kamalei Correa, Onwuasor started 12 games at the weak-side inside spot, but the Ravens could use some more competition here.

OL Maurquice Shakir: Promoted from the practice squad at the end of October, Shakir was inactive for eight games and will have the chance to compete for a job next summer.

G Matt Skura: The former undrafted free agent and practice-squad member did a respectable job filling in for the injured Yanda and could be in the mix at center if Jensen departs via free agency.

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday night

Posted on 09 December 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens don’t really need to beat Pittsburgh on Sunday night.

A one-game lead for the final wild-card spot, a strong tiebreaker profile, and three remaining games — two at home — against teams that are a combined 20 games below .500 make Baltimore’s chances to make it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2014 very strong already. But a victory would bring the elusive signature win that would make the doubters — and perhaps John Harbaugh’s team itself — start to believe the Ravens are capable of being a legitimate threat in January.

Meanwhile, the Steelers hope to extend their seven-game winning streak, but a defeat would still leave them within striking distance of New England, who will visit Heinz Field next week with the upper hand for the No. 1 seed in the AFC on the line. The immediate incentive for Pittsburgh to win Sunday would be to clinch the AFC North title, but its three-game advantage with four weeks to go leaves quite a margin for error in the division race.

In other words, the renewal of this intense rivalry lacks the same stakes as last year’s Christmas Day affair that essentially served as a division championship game.

Last week’s serious back injury suffered by Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier has been on the minds of both teams as the former Pro Bowl selection’s future on and off the field remains unclear. With many Pittsburgh players planning to wear cleats paying tribute to their injured teammate, how the Steelers respond emotionally playing at home could certainly be a factor for at least the beginning of Sunday night’s game.

It’s time to go on the record as these AFC North rivals meet for the 44th time in the regular-season series with the Steelers holding a slight 23-20 advantage to go with a 3-1 edge in postseason encounters. Pittsburgh has won the last two meetings and is in search of its first regular-season sweep of the Ravens since 2008. Including the playoffs, 16 of the 22 showdowns with the Steelers in the John Harbaugh era have been decided by a single possession.

Below are five predictions for Sunday night:

1. Danny Woodhead will have his best game as a Raven with 60 receiving yards and a touchdown. The focus on Shazier’s injury has rightly been on his health and not on football, but the Steelers will miss his presence in pass coverage as he recorded an interception and four breakups against Baltimore’s underneath passing game in Week 4. With Cam Heyward and a strong Pittsburgh front dominating the line of scrimmage in that first meeting, Joe Flacco may have to rely on more short passing and less of Alex Collins and the running game. With outside linebacker Arthur Moats filling in on the inside, this is the game Woodhead and the Ravens need to exploit an advantageous matchup.

2. Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell will finish with 115 total yards of offense. It’s no secret the run defense has been superb since Brandon Williams’ return in late October, but Bell’s huge game in Week 4 was more about the inability to set the edge on outside runs and to handle the Steelers’ pulling interior linemen on counters than struggles inside as he averaged just 2.2 yards per carry between the tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. The Ravens will be hellbent to slow Bell as a runner, but linebackers C.J. Mosley and Patrick Onwuasor have been vulnerable in pass coverage and this is where Bell will find more of his success. He’ll extend a streak of 57 or more receiving yards to four straight games.

3. Mike Wallace and Martavis Bryant will catch long touchdowns for their respective teams. With Steelers cornerback Joe Haden still out and their safeties inclined to play a little closer to the line of scrimmage to help the inside linebackers in coverage, there should be some opportunities for the Ravens to take deep shots and Wallace has been playing his best football of the year since the bye. On the flip side, Baltimore will do whatever it can schematically to prevent Antonio Brown from killing a secondary without Jimmy Smith, but that will leave Marlon Humphrey or Brandon Carr occasionally on an island matched up with Bryant, who is still dangerous despite a disappointing season.

4. Joe Flacco will be efficient and play turnover-free football for the third straight week. The 10th-year quarterback is coming off his best game of the year and needs to play more like that down the stretch if the Ravens are to become a realistic threat in the AFC. Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler will do more to try to confuse Flacco and mix up coverages than Detroit did a week ago, but his fourth-ranked defense ranks a pedestrian 14th in the NFL in takeaways. Pass protection needs to hold up better than it did in the first meeting between these teams, but Flacco will effectively find Woodhead and Jeremy Maclin in the short-to-intermediate area of the field.

5. The Ravens will pull off the upset for their first signature win of the season in a 23-20 final. Perhaps I’m drinking too much purple Kool-Aid, but the Steelers are coming off a short and emotional week following a Monday night road game and have trailed in the second half of four of their last five games, illustrating how vulnerable they’ve looked at times despite a terrific 10-2 record. Baltimore has one last chance to earn a signature win and needs to build on its strong performance from a week ago to build confidence that the offense can be productive enough moving forward to have a real chance in the playoffs. The Steelers are the better team overall, but this week’s circumstances set up favorably for the Ravens to steal a road win in Pittsburgh and further improve their playoff positioning.

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Mosley, Stanley questionable, but expected to play against Houston

Posted on 25 November 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens’ prayers on inside linebacker C.J. Mosley were answered.

After an initial plea for divine intervention on the sideline and then downplaying the severity of Mosley’s sprained right ankle late in last week’s 23-0 win at Green Bay, head coach John Harbaugh proved to be right as the standout defensive player returned to practice as a full participant Saturday and will play against Houston on Monday night.

Mosley is officially listed as questionable on the final injury report after missing workouts earlier in the week, but he left no doubt regarding his status against the Texans.

“I’m playing, so I’m not worried about that,” Mosley said. “It wasn’t a high ankle sprain, so that’s what the doctors feared most [initially]. After we found out it wasn’t that, it was just about trying to get as much treatment as possible and rest.”

Mosley said the plan was for him to sit out practice through most of the week and wanted to return to the field Saturday for peace of mind more than anything else. The Ravens not playing until Monday night certainly helped in the recovery process.

A reflection of how good he’s feeling two days prior to Monday Night Football, the two-time Pro Bowl selection even took a playful jab at fellow inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor for his indirect role in the injury occurring just before the two-minute warning at Lambeau Field.

“I didn’t even see who landed on me. I was just trying to make a tackle,” Mosley said. “I blamed it on ‘Peanut’ since he wasn’t on the field. We [only] had 10 men, so I was about to call timeout, but I just let the play go on. It was probably his fault.

“It could have been bad because I was getting blocked back while I got landed on. Luckily, it was a minor sprain. I felt pretty decent out there today.”

Left tackle Ronnie Stanley is also listed as questionable against Houston, but he will return to action after being cleared from the concussion protocol on Friday. He and right tackle Austin Howard (knee) — who was also designated as questionable — have been hampered with injuries recently, but the Ravens will have their normal offensive line on the field to try to slow standout pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney.

That continuity is of the utmost importance after Stanley’s absence against the Packers last week forced starting left guard James Hurst to left tackle and reserve Luke Bowanko into the starting lineup, leaving the Ravens weaker at both blindside positions.

“It’s good to have your guys, your starters out there,” Harbaugh said. “They’re the starters for a reason. And we’ll be going in there full strength Monday night, and we’re excited about that.”

As expected, starting cornerback Jimmy Smith (Achilles tendon) returned to practice as a full participant Saturday after missing workouts earlier in the week and is officially listed as questionable. The veteran has regularly missed practice time with tendinitis since early October and was also listed as questionable in each of the last six games before playing in them all, leaving very little doubt about his availability.

Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs has been slowed by an ankle injury this week, but he is expected to play despite being listed as questionable. He received his usual veteran day off Saturday to conclude the practice week.

Baltimore officially ruled out rookie offensive lineman Jermaine Eluemunor with a shoulder injury. With only one of their seven game-day scratches in line to be because of injury, the Ravens arguably find themselves in the best shape from a health standpoint that they’ve enjoyed since the start of the season.

Meanwhile, the Texans officially ruled out second-year wide receiver Will Fuller as he continues to recover from cracked ribs. Star wideout DeAndre Hopkins will play despite being slowed by a foot injury in practices earlier in the week.

Below is the final injury report of the week:

BALTIMORE
OUT: OL Jermaine Eluemunor (shoulder)
QUESTIONABLE: OT Austin Howard (knee), LB C.J. Mosley (ankle), CB Jimmy Smith (Achilles), OT Ronnie Stanley (concussion), LB Terrell Suggs (ankle), RB Terrance West (calf)

HOUSTON
OUT: OT Julien Davenport (shoulder), WR Will Fuller (ribs), OL Greg Mancz (shoulder)

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 30-17 win over Oakland

Posted on 10 October 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens snapping their two-game losing streak with a 30-17 win over Oakland, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. It was encouraging seeing an aggressive offense effective in pass protection from the beginning of the game, but these aren’t exactly novel concepts outsiders have only recently been clamoring for. The Ravens need to continue that to prove it wasn’t simply an aberration.

2. Mike Wallace made up for his drop on a deep throw last week with two receptions of over 50 yards, one on the game’s first play. It’s criminal when the Ravens don’t throw at least a couple deep balls his way trying to draw pass interference at the very least.

3. After being inactive the first two weeks and not playing a single snap as a rookie, Willie Henry may have been Baltimore’s best defensive player on Sunday. He’s batted down four passes at the line of scrimmage over the last two weeks and is playing strong inside.

4. It’s apparent that Patrick Onwuasor has seized control of the weak-side inside linebacker job after Kamalei Correa played only one defensive snap. Onwuasor’s aggressiveness and physicality were apparent from his very first training camp, and he forced the fumble that Jimmy Smith returned for a touchdown.

5. In Terrance West’s absence, Buck Allen and Alex Collins combined for 140 total yards and a touchdown. Allen is becoming a trustworthy contributor while Collins averaged 4.6 yards per carry on 12 attempts without a fumble and effectively used Tiki Barber’s old high-and-tight grip on the football.

6. The run defense tightened up in the second half, but the Ravens still surrendered 4.3 yards per carry against an underwhelming Oakland ground game. Baltimore ranks 23rd in rushing yards per game allowed and 20th at 4.3 yards per carry. Brandon Williams or not, that needs to get better.

7. After an underwhelming start to the season, Matt Judon played well against Oakland, effectively defending two passes and finishing with four tackles. The Ravens need more consistency from their outside linebackers, and that was a step in the right direction.

8. You had to feel good for the rarely-used Vince Mayle scoring a touchdown to finish off the opening drive. John Harbaugh describes Mayle as “a serious dude” who was all smiles getting his moment in the spotlight after playing only three offensive snaps over the first four games.

9. With the Ravens struggling to generate pressure from a standard four-man rush, Dean Pees used the dime package to unleash Tony Jefferson and Anthony Levine for drive-killing sacks. I’ll continue to believe Jefferon’s skill set is best used playing close to the line of scrimmage as often as possible.

10. Kudos to Las Vegas native Ronnie Stanley for donating $26,000 to shooting victims and their families based on his strong performance against Oakland. He’s really starting to come on after a slow start to the season.

11. Remember how seemingly every Ravens game the last few years was decided by a single possession? All five of their contests in 2017 have been decided by double digits after 26 of their previous 32 games were single-score affairs.

12. As mercurial as their performances have been from week to week, the Ravens now face four straight opponents currently sporting murky quarterback situations. If they want to be taken seriously as a playoff contender, a 6-3 record entering the bye is a very reasonable expectation.

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Season-opening win for Ravens brings different feeling

Posted on 11 September 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The results of the first week of the season can often be fool’s gold.

Even the mighty New England Patriots lost Week 1 contests in three of their five Super Bowl championship campaigns this century. In 2003, they were embarrassed in a 31-0 final at Buffalo before winning 17 of their next 18 games while the Bills would finish with a 6-10 record. That’s why no one with a brain is counting them out despite being beaten by Kansas City in decisive fashion at home last Thursday night.

Cincinnati will try to lean on that example after being dominated by the Ravens in a 20-0 final at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday, but Baltimore hopes its first season-opening shutout since 2006 is a sign of better things to come after missing the playoffs in three of the last four years.

Of course, it was only last year that the Ravens won their first three games before finishing with an underwhelming 8-8 mark. But Sunday’s victory over the Bengals brought a different feeling, the kind that tempts observers to want to rethink their expectations for the new season.

Having not won in Cincinnati in nearly six years, head coach John Harbaugh and his team would have taken a victory no matter how close the score. Winning ugly is always better than losing with style, but a 13-12 final probably wouldn’t have sparked much enthusiasm beyond the typical satisfaction of any victory.

We just haven’t seen the Ravens overwhelm any opponent like that on the road in quite some time. In fact, it was just the third time since Super Bowl XLVII — and first since 2014 — that they won a regular-season away game by more than one possession, a telling reflection of their struggles away from M&T Bank Stadium in recent seasons.

They earned their first shutout since 2009, a stretch of time that contained some still-formidable defenses that included future Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Perhaps a brutal offensive line will reveal the 2017 Bengals to be an outfit more closely resembling the Cleveland Browns than a playoff contender as the season progresses, but let’s not pretend the Ravens have blown out the perennial doormats of the AFC North in recent road meetings, either. Simply put, trying to make the final outcome all about the shortcomings of Andy Dalton and the Bengals sells the Ravens short for their sensational defensive work that included five sacks and five takeaways.

We know the Baltimore offense remains a significant work in progress, but the running game was effective enough Sunday to complement the superb defense as a rusty Joe Flacco didn’t even have to complete a pass in the second half. That exact formula won’t work every week, of course, but a similar model carried the 2008 Ravens to the AFC championship game when Flacco was a rookie starter.

And while it’s way too premature — and unfair — to begin making comparisons to the 2000 Ravens, that was the blueprint for the franchise’s first Super Bowl championship team. You didn’t have to squint too hard to see a Trent Dilfer-like performance from Flacco on Sunday even though the overall expectations are obviously much higher for one of the highest-paid players in football.

It could all prove to be fool’s gold, but perhaps the Ravens defense can be really special while the offense improves over the course of the season. Or maybe the Bengals are just that bad. Or it’s some of both.

Only time will tell, but Sunday brought a feeling not experienced in these parts in quite some time. And you can’t blame Ravens fans for hoping it signals a return to being a serious contender after recent years of mediocrity.

Humphrey earning playing time

Rookie first-round cornerback Marlon Humphrey didn’t receive extensive preseason action until the finale in New Orleans, but that didn’t stop defensive coordinator Dean Pees from using him in Week 1.

The Alabama product provided a bit of relief to starters Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr in a way you typically see defensive linemen and edge rushers rotated over the course of a 60-minute game. Humphrey didn’t record an official defensive statistic, but he did make a favorable impression in limited work.

“I thought Marlon played really well. He definitely earned more snaps,” Harbaugh said. “He played nine plays on defense and played really well on special teams. I would say he earned more snaps. He played well. All corners played exceptionally well.”

Smith, Carr, and nickel corner Lardarius Webb all recorded interceptions in the blowout victory.

Timeshare at inside linebacker

Starter Kamalei Correa registered a tackle for a loss and former undrafted free agent Patrick Onwuasor tipped the Dalton pass intercepted by Carr in the first quarter in what amounted to a timeshare at the weakside inside linebacker spot next to C.J. Mosley.

Correa played 27 defensive snaps compared to 20 for Onwuasor, but the lion’s share of the work at that position remains up for grabs as the defense tries to fill the void left behind by the retired Zach Orr.

“If they’re both playing at a Pro Bowl level, then you play them both,” said Harbaugh, who added that rookie Bam Bradley is also in the mix. “If one of them starts to separate from the other, then one would take the job. I’d like to see one of them playing at a Pro Bowl level. Neither of them are doing that right now. But they’re both playing well enough to win.”

Injury updates

Harbaugh provided no definitive outlook on the injuries sustained by running back Danny Woodhead and outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith in the first half of Sunday’s win as both underwent MRI exams.

Woodhead is expected to miss some time after suffering a hamstring injury — the same ailment that kept him out for much of the summer — while Smith’s announced knee sprain may not be as serious as initially feared when he was carted to the locker room.

“We know it is not a structural knee thing,” Harbaugh said. “I think I know that. We think we know that, but we will know for sure once he gets out of the MRI.”

The absence of Woodhead could prompt the Ravens to promote a running back from the practice squad as former Chicago Bears starter Jeremy Langford and former Seattle Seahawk Alex Collins joined the organization last week. Terrance West and Buck Allen are the only healthy tailbacks on the current 53-man roster.

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mcclellan

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Ravens lose versatile linebacker McClellan for season

Posted on 28 August 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens have lost one of their best special-teams players and a versatile linebacker as veteran Albert McClellan sustained a season-ending knee injury last week.

Head coach John Harbaugh announced Monday that the 31-year-old tore his ACL in a non-contact play at practice last Wednesday. The team initially hoped the injury was not as severe before a magnetic resonance imaging exam confirmed the tear.

“He’ll be with us next year,” Harbaugh said. “It provides a great opportunity for a couple of these young linebackers who have played well on special teams.”

Originally an undrafted free agent from Marshall who spent the entire 2010 season on the practice squad, McClellan has started only 24 games in his career, but he’s been a pillar on special teams since 2011 and has played all four linebacker positions. McClellan started 11 of his 16 games last season, collecting a career-high 52 tackles and one sack.

He led the Ravens in special-teams stops in 2011, 2013, and 2014 and finished tied for second in 2015.

His versatility is valued on game days when there are only 46 active players and few backups within each positional group. The injury leaves former rookie free agent Patrick Onwuasor as the primary reserve behind projected starting inside linebackers C.J. Mosley and Kamalei Correa. It also improves the chances of an undrafted rookie such as Bam Bradley or Donald Payne to make the 53-man roster, but McClellan’s loss may prompt general manager Ozzie Newsome to seek veteran depth at the position.

The Ravens have now lost 10 players for the season since the beginning June, a list that includes cornerback Tavon Young (knee), tight ends Dennis Pitta (hip) and Crockett Gillmore (knee), running back Kenneth Dixon (knee), guards Alex Lewis (shoulder) and Nico Siragusa (knee), and wide receiver Tim White (thumb). Baltimore also lost tight end Darren Waller to a one-year drug-related suspension and fourth-year offensive lineman John Urschel to a surprising retirement at the start of training camp.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 13-9 win over Buffalo

Posted on 27 August 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens improving to 3-0 in the preseason with a 13-9 win over Buffalo, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The narrative remained the same for the third preseason game with the defense excelling and the offense struggling to move the ball. Maybe the defense will be up to the task in 2017, but winning 13-9 games leaves very little margin for error.

2. I’ve said this before, but the defensive depth continues to impress as there’s been little drop-off in play from the opening quarter to the final minutes of each game. Ozzie Newsome isn’t going to be able to keep a few defensive players who definitely would have stuck in the past.

3. After averaging 3.5 yards per carry in the first half of the first two preseason games, the Ravens gained 41 yards on 16 carries in the first two quarters against the Bills. The running game is even more important with Joe Flacco’s situation, but it hasn’t shown many encouraging signs.

4. Baltimore was credited with six passes batted down at the line of scrimmage. The secondary has been strong and the young outside linebackers have received plenty of attention, but this deep defensive front has been very disruptive this summer.

5. Watching Justin Tucker make tackles or even pick up a fumble in Miami last week makes for a fun story until he suffers a close call like he did on Saturday night. The Ravens really need their All-Pro kicker to show more restraint, especially in a meaningless preseason game.

6. Rather than asking whether Jaylen Hill makes the roster, I’m now wondering how long it will be before he carves out a meaningful role on the defense. Lardarius Webb has had a strong summer at the nickel, but there’s a reason why he was moved to safety two years ago.

7. Nothing enhances the enjoyment of preseason football more than a combined 17 penalties for 156 yards in the first half. Our poor eyes.

8. Patrick Onwuasor alternating series with Kamalei Correa at inside linebacker was one of the more interesting developments of the third preseason game. He’s only 227 pounds, but Onwuasor plays with a mean streak that was evident in his rookie season and just continues to improve.

9. Filling in for the injured Danny Woodhead, Taquan Mizzell presented himself well by catching six passes for 54 yards and a touchdown. His skill set is similar to Woodhead’s, which hurts his roster chances and makes him intriguing at the same time.

10. Bubble players filling a prominent role on special teams included Chris Matthews, Sheldon Price, Lorenzo Taliaferro, Robertson Daniel, and Vince Mayle. That doesn’t mean they’re all making the roster, of course, but that tends to be an indication of any tiebreaker with another bubble player.

11. Marshal Yanda has been one of my favorite players for a long time, but seeing him as the last offensive player out of the tunnel during stadium introductions says a lot about the current state of that side of the ball.

12. Breshad Perriman and Marlon Humphrey showed encouraging signs before the game. Perriman ran at three-quarters speed and was cutting and running routes effectively while Humphrey looked like someone ready to return to the field, backpedaling and sprinting at full speed.

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Ravens-Bills preseason primer: Five players to watch

Posted on 25 August 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens defense enters Saturday’s preseason game against Buffalo having lived up to very lofty expectations through the first two exhibition contests.

First in the NFL in points per game allowed, rushing yards per game allowed, passing yards per game allowed, and total yards per game allowed, Baltimore knows preseason success doesn’t automatically translate to the regular season, but playing this well sure beats the alternative. Just ask the injury-riddled offense that has more questions than answers at this point.

“The whole idea of us going into this year was that we want to be a great defense and we want to finish,” said defensive coordinator Dean Pees, whose unit struggled mightily in the final month of the 2016 season. “You have to start to finish. I would rather have a good start than a bad start and be sitting there worried about a bunch of stuff. But I’m still worried about it.

“To say it doesn’t mean anything — I think coaches tell you that — I think that is crap. You want to go out there and you want to play well every day and every week no matter who is on the field.”

Viewed as the dress rehearsal for the start of the regular season, the third preseason game typically involves starters playing the entire first half. However, with the Ravens already dealing with a plethora of injuries, the plan might be different against the Bills.

Head coach John Harbaugh didn’t offer many specifics on what to expect.

“We just have a plan for this year that we are sticking with,” Harbaugh said. “It does not really compare to any other year. You never really know. Different guys have different situations. It is more individualized probably than ever before. You play guys according to their needs.”

Saturday marks the first time since 2003 that the Ravens and Buffalo have met in the preseason with the Bills having won two of the previous three exhibition contests. These teams met in the 2016 season opener with the Ravens winning 13-7 at M&T Bank Stadium.

Baltimore owns a 26-12 record in preseason games under Harbaugh.

Unofficial (and largely speculative) injury report

The Ravens are not required to release an injury report like they do for regular-season games, but I’ve offered my best guess on what the injury report would look like if one were to be released ahead of Saturday’s game.

Most of the players ruled out will come as no surprise, but the status of a few will remain in question. Of course, this list does not consider any veterans who could be held out due to the coaching staff’s preference.

Again, this is not an official injury report released by the Ravens:

OUT: QB Joe Flacco (back), WR Breshad Perriman (hamstring), OT Ronnie Stanley (undisclosed), CB Maurice Canady (knee), RB Kenneth Dixon (knee), OL Nico Siragusa (knee), CB Tavon Young (knee), OL Alex Lewis (shoulder), WR Tim White (thumb)
DOUBTFUL: CB Marlon Humphrey (hamstring), RB Danny Woodhead (hamstring), CB Brandon Boykin (undisclosed), OT Stephane Nembot (undisclosed), LB Donald Payne (undisclosed)
QUESTIONABLE: G Marshal Yanda (shoulder), CB Sheldon Price (shoulder), WR Quincy Adeboyejo (knee), LB Albert McClellan (undisclosed)

Five players to watch Thursday night

LB Tim Williams

After struggling in the preseason opener against Washington, the third-round pick from Alabama showed off his pass-rushing skills against Miami with a sack and two quarterback hits. Williams has a long way to go to be an every-down linebacker, but the Ravens need players who can get to the quarterback off the edge and he can still carve out a role as a situational pass rusher.

RB Buck Allen

The third-year back looked like he’d face an uphill battle to make the roster several weeks ago, but injuries have afforded him more chances and he’s run with more urgency this summer. Though Terrance West is still projected to be the starter, senior offensive assistant Greg Roman likes to have more than one back involved in the ground game and Allen has rushed for 61 yards on 18 carries this summer.

CB Sheldon Price

Hampered by a shoulder issue for a good portion of the summer, Price is trying to solidify a spot on the 53-man roster and his 6-foot-2, 198-pound frame is ideal for an outside corner. The current absence of 2017 first-round pick Marlon Humphrey helps Price’s case, but rookie free agent Jaylen Hill has all but locked up a job at this point, making it critical for Price to play well in the last two preseason games.

C Jeremy Zuttah

The Ravens needed depth after losing their starting left guard and two other interior options, but Zuttah must prove he can hold up in Roman’s schemes that are more downhill and physical. The fact that Zuttah was released by San Francisco five months after being traded there means he has essentially been cut twice since March and he needs to play with a chip on his shoulder if he wants to unseat Ryan Jensen.

LB Bam Bradley

The reviews for Kamalei Correa at inside linebacker have been mixed, but the Ravens don’t have many alternatives at the position. The 237-pound Bradley has more bulk than special-teams standout Patrick Onwuasor and has played well this preseason, making him one of several undrafted free agents who remain in the conversation for a spot on the 53-man roster.

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