Tag Archive | "Pittsburgh"

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New Orioles outfielder Snider not concerned with filling Markakis’ shoes

Posted on 24 February 2015 by Luke Jones

SARASOTA, Fla. — New Orioles outfielder Travis Snider may be the leading candidate to replace veteran Nick Markakis in right field, but he isn’t taking anything for granted this spring.

Playing parts of seven seasons without ever recording as many as 360 plate appearances in a single campaign, the 27-year-old can’t dwell on the opportunity presented to him in Baltimore after the free-agent departures of Markakis and slugger Nelson Cruz. Call it a force of habit for a former first-round pick who’s seen more disappointment than success in his major league career with numerous minor-league demotions and nagging injuries.

“I don’t worry about what happened last year and who you guys say I’m replacing,” Snider said in an interview with WNST.net. “I came here to play when they tell me to play and where they tell me to play. For me, the focus remains on the day to day of getting better and when they put my name in the lineup, I’ll be ready.”

Fair or not, the pressure is on Snider to perform as he represents the Orioles’ most significant addition of the offseason. The beginning of his career doesn’t remotely stack up to Markakis’ nine-year run in Baltimore, but executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette hopes Snider’s .776 on-base plus slugging percentage in 2014 — Markakis’ was .729 — is a sign of a once-heralded prospect finally figuring it out at the major league level.

Snider’s numbers spiked in the second half of 2014 as he hit .288 with nine home runs, 24 runs batted in, and an .880 OPS to help lead the Pittsburgh Pirates to a wild-card berth. The numbers reflected the kind of prospect Snider once was in posting a .968 OPS in 835 plate appearances at the Triple-A level.

Even if his offense remains a question as a .246 lifetime hitter according to William Hill Sports, the Orioles already like what they’ve seen from Snider defensively as he will potentially replace a two-time Gold Glove winner in right field. The left-handed thrower was viewed as a good defender in Pittsburgh and was frequently used as a defensive replacement when not in the starting lineup.

“I don’t care who you are, you always have these preconceived ideas and visual and then you actually see it,” manager Buck Showalter said. “I watched Travis Snider run two balls down in right field during [batting practice]. You take something out of everything.”

After five disappointing years with Toronto in which he could never live up to his potential as the 14th overall pick of the 2006 draft, Snider was traded to Pittsburgh midway through the 2012 season. His improvement at the plate hardly came overnight — the left-handed hitter batted just .215 in 2013 — but he credits the winning culture in Pittsburgh over the last two years for changing his mindset, which led to his own improvement in 2014.

After being acquired in exchange for minor-league pitchers Stephen Tarpley and Steven Vault, Snider believes playing for a club that has advanced to the postseason in two of the last three years and is coming off its first division title in 17 years is the perfect environment to pick up where he left off in his final year with the Pirates.

“I’ve been able to take some steps forward in my career and the way I approach each day by remaining focused on each day and not worrying about stat lines or box scores and those types of things,” Snider said. “As a young player, I got caught up worrying too much about myself. Being part of a winning culture, it made it easy to buy in and knowing that you’re playing for each other and the pressure is taken off of your personal accolades and put onto the team and what you have to do each night to get the win. It makes baseball a whole lot more fun when you play that way.”

With Snider and the impending signing of infielder Everth Cabrera the only notable position players added to the mix this winter, the Orioles will likely need a breakout performance from an unheralded name similar to what they received from Steve Pearce a year ago to give themselves the best chance to make it back to the postseason. A former Pirate himself, Pearce rose from anonymity at age 31 last year to hit 21 home runs and post a .930 OPS and is now being counted on to fill a regular role this season.

It’s the perfect example to which a player like Snider can aspire after years of failing to live up to expectations as one of the best prospects in the game.

“Steve Pearce was one of the best stories in baseball last year, and that was one of the first things that I told him,” Snider said. “Understanding that this game and this business doesn’t always go the way that we plan, the guys that are able to overcome that adversity and make the most of those opportunities [succeed]. It was a lot of fun for me to watch him do what he did last year.

“We all get humbled at some point in this game. Opportunities come and opportunities go, but understanding where that focus remains and to see guys go out there and do what he did last year, that’s pretty cool.”

The opportunity will be there for Snider this season, but it will be up to him to take advantage.

 

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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 show their toughness in exorcising Pittsburgh demons

Posted on 04 January 2015 by Luke Jones

PITTSBURGH — The Ravens surely didn’t need validation before their 30-17 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Saturday night.

Beating their fiercest rival in the playoffs for the first time doesn’t trump two Super Bowl titles and a wild-card win wouldn’t appear to register as more than a footnote for a franchise that’s made the postseason 10 times in the last 15 years, but the fans of Baltimore know the truth. After watching Pittsburgh get the best of the Charm City in postseason battles for the better part of four decades, the Ravens exacted a little revenge and it felt good.

It may not have erased the pain of the Ravens’ three prior postseason defeats at Heinz Field, the disappointment of back-to-back playoff losses suffered by the Colts to the Steelers in 1975 and 1976, or the agony of the Orioles’ two Game 7 World Series losses to the Pirates in 1971 and 1979, but Baltimore is entitled to bask in the satisfaction of ending the Steelers’ season.

“This is a very special victory for us, not just because it’s a playoff win,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “But because of who it comes against, which is our most respected rival.”

You know how important it was to the Ravens for Harbaugh, a man who loathes making comparisons because it diminishes someone or something in the process, to acknowledge this one meant a little bit more that the typical playoff victory. And it allowed the likes of Elvis Grbac, Daren Stone, and T.J. Houshmandzadeh to rest easy knowing the Ravens finally came through against Pittsburgh when it really mattered.

A look at the final statistics won’t overwhelm you as the Ravens failed to reach 300 yards of total offense and averaged just 2.0 yards per carry. Harbaugh labeled Saturday his team’s best game of the season, but the Ravens have scored more and allowed fewer points in other games this season.

More than anything, the performance was the perfect display of the toughness some doubted the Ravens had after an underwhelming month of December. Baltimore was aggressive on both sides of the ball and proved themselves as the more physical team despite the final numbers not blowing you away. A banged-up offensive line allowed only one sack while the pass rush continued to be ferocious in sacking Ben Roethlisberger five times, making life in the shaky secondary much easier as the Steelers were made one-dimensional by the absence of Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell.

But no one showed that toughness more than quarterback Joe Flacco, who picked up where he left off in his historic 2012 postseason by throwing for 259 yards and two touchdowns while posting a 114.0 passer rating. He’s now undefeated in his last five playoffs games and has tossed 13 touchdowns without throwing an interception in that span. In his last seven postseason contests, the 29-year-old has 17 touchdown passes and only one pick.

What is it about the postseason that makes Flacco so great?

“I really don’t know. I say that a lot, but it’s a tough question to answer,” Flacco said. “I come out here and do the same thing all the time. The biggest thing is to come out here and play a consistent football game.”

Of course, Flacco would be the first to tell you he wasn’t alone in disposing of the Steelers as the Ravens received spectacular plays such as Steve Smith’s 40-yard reception midway through the third quarter and Terrell Suggs’ legs-aided interception in the fourth that set up a quick score. But there were also a number of under-the-radar contributions that proved critical such as safety Darian Stewart driving Pro Bowl receiver Antonio Brown out of bounds to prevent a 29-yard touchdown in the second quarter and left guard Kelechi Osemele stymieing rush specialist James Harrison from a potential sack-strip of Flacco on the 11-yard touchdown strike to Torrey Smith that put the Ravens up 20-9 late in the third quarter.

The Ravens weathered adversity after Justin Forsett’s fumble and a quick Steelers touchdown — the kind of sequence that doomed them in previous playoff experiences against Pittsburgh — by responding with 10 points on their next two possessions to put the game away.

Baltimore was simply better than Pittsburgh on Saturday, and it’s been a long time coming for fans who’ve endured plenty of disappointment at the hands of the Steel City over the years. Flacco said earlier in the week that the Ravens weren’t brooding over previous playoff failures in Pittsburgh in the same way that they couldn’t dwell on the struggles of the final month of the regular season.

January brings a new season, and the Ravens certainly responded in the best way possible.

“You have to play these games to win,” Flacco said. “You can’t play not to lose. You have to go out there and you have to let everything go. You can’t worry about the outcome.”

And in not worrying, the Ravens were able to finally exorcise those old Pittsburgh demons.

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Turning out the lights in Pittsburgh…

Posted on 04 January 2015 by WNSTV

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Ravens-Steelers: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 03 January 2015 by Luke Jones

PITTSBURGH — One of the best rivalries in the NFL is renewed Saturday night as the Ravens meet the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Wild Card round.

After much discussion about the weather being a major factor in these teams’ first postseason meeting since the 2010 season, heavy rain subsided a few hours prior to kickoff and the updated Weather.com forecast calls for only a small chance of precipitation throughout the night with temperatures in the mid-40s and winds up to 12 miles per hour. The improved conditions likely aren’t good news for the Ravens as they had hoped heavy rain would hinder a Pittsburgh passing attack that ranked second in the NFL during the regular season.

The condition of the playing surface itself will remain a question, however, as the natural grass at Heinz Field typically doesn’t hold up late in the season. Tarps were covering the length of the field until they were removed a little less than three hours before kickoff.

Of course, the Steelers will be without Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell, who was officially ruled out Friday with a hyperextended knee suffered against Cincinnati in Week 17. Not only will Pittsburgh be without the league’s second-leading rusher, but Bell’s ability as a receiver and in pass protection will be missed against a relentless Baltimore pass rush.

On the flip side, the Ravens are hurting on the offensive line with Eugene Monroe (ankle) out and starting right tackle Rick Wagner (foot) already on injured reserve. Rookie free agent James Hurst will face the difficult task of handling the left tackle position and trying to slow veteran rush specialist James Harrison. Fellow rookie John Urschel will start at right guard with four-time Pro Bowl selection Marshal Yanda shifting to right tackle.

There were no real surprises on the inactives list for Baltimore as defensive end Chris Canty (ankle/thigh) will start after missing the regular-season finale while rookie wide receiver Michael Campanaro is active for the second straight week. Second-year linebacker Arthur Brown was placed on injured reserve Friday with a hamstring injury.

Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor (shoulder/forearm) is inactive despite being listed as probable and participating fully in practices all week, but Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu (knee) is active after missing the final two games of the regular season.

The return of five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata will provide a major boost to the league’s fourth-ranked run defense as the Steelers figure to use a committee approach of rookies Josh Harris and Dri Archer as well as newly-signed veteran Ben Tate. Rookie defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan was ruled out on Friday after suffering a foot injury in the regular-season finale.

Head coach John Harbaugh and the Ravens will have some extra support at Heinz Field as his younger brother Jim will be in attendance after accepting the head job at the University of Michigan earlier this week.

The Ravens will be playing Pittsburgh for the fourth time in their playoff history as they have dropped all three of the previous postseason games played at Heinz Field. Baltimore is 17-21 against the Steelers in the all-time regular-season history and owns a 7-12 regular-season record in Pittsburgh. In the Harbaugh era, 11 of the 15 games — including the postseason — played between these teams have been decided by one score.

The referee for Sunday night’s wild-card game will be Clete Blakeman.

The Ravens will be wearing white jerseys with black pants for Saturday night’s game while Pittsburgh dons its black tops with yellow pants.

Below are the inactives for Saturday night:

BALTIMORE
OT Eugene Monroe
DT Timmy Jernigan
TE Phillip Supernaw
DT Casey Walker
DT Terrence Cody
DE Steven Means
CB Chris Greenwood

PITTSBURGH
QB Landry Jones
RB Le’Veon Bell
WR Lance Moore
OL Chris Hubbard
TE Michael Palmer
DE Clifton Geathers
CB Ike Taylor

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Saturday night

Posted on 02 January 2015 by Luke Jones

Here we go again.

Regarded by many as the best rivalry in the NFL, the Ravens and Steelers meet for the third time this season and the fourth time ever in the postseason at Heinz Field on Saturday night. Baltimore and Pittsburgh split a pair of 20-point finals during the regular season with each team winning on its home field.

The weather figures to be a significant storyline as the forecast continues to call for a 90 to 100 percent chance of rain with temperatures in the mid-40s and winds that could reach 20 miles per hour.

Both teams will be dealing with significant injuries as the Steelers will be without Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell while the Ravens are missing left tackle Eugene Monroe for the second straight game, meaning rookie free agent James Hurst will start in his place. Pittsburgh will rely on rookies Josh Harris and Dri Archer as well as newly-signed veteran Ben Tate to pick up the slack in Bell’s absence.

In more positive news, the Ravens will welcome back five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata from suspension, which will more than offset the loss of rookie Timmy Jernigan (foot) in Week 17.

Of course, both team will lean heavily on Super Bowl winning quarterbacks to lead the way as Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger both know what it takes to make a meaningful run in January. Roethlisberger owns a 10-4 postseason record while Flacco owns a 9-4 mark in the playoffs.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Steelers meet for the fourth time in postseason history with Pittsburgh holding a 3-0 mark with all previous playoff games being played at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh also leads the all-time regular-season series 21-17, but 13 of the 16 games — including the postseason — played between the Ravens and Steelers in the John Harbaugh era have been decided by one possession.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to beat Pittsburgh for the first time ever in the postseason …

1. Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil will each collect a sack, but a sloppy field will neutralize some of their ability to wreak havoc. Bell’s absence will put plenty of attention on the Pittsburgh passing game, which will have the Ravens’ rush licking its chops over the possibility of being able to tee off on Roethlisberger. However, the Steelers offensive line is much better than it’s been in several years and the wet surface at Heinz Field will slow the rush for both teams. Suggs and Dumervil often try to jump snap counts to utilize their speed off the edge, but hard counts and a chewed-up field will make things easier for tackles Kelvin Beachum and Marcus Gilbert.

2. With the Ravens focused on slowing Pittsburgh receiver Antonio Brown, rookie Martavis Bryant will beat Rashaan Melvin for a long touchdown. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees knows Brown is the Steelers’ most dangerous weapon, which will make it even more important to focus on him in coverage with Bell unavailable. The Ravens will shade safety help to where Brown lines up as much as possible, but that could leave Melvin matched up against the 6-foot-4 Bryant. Melvin has played well since being thrown into the mix last month, but this will be his first NFL game against an elite quarterback and he’ll bite on a double move by Bryant for a score.

3. Justin Forsett will be the only running back from either team to find modest success on Saturday night with 70 yards and a touchdown. Considering few have run with any success against the Ravens this season, the Steelers won’t be able to do much without Bell, who will also be missed as a receiver and in pass protection. However, Baltimore has struggled to run consistently in recent weeks and will face the league’s sixth-ranked run defense. The Ravens will run wide and use counters to get the Steelers’ front seven moving laterally — something they also want to do with play-action plays to neutralize the pass rush — and Forsett will do enough to keep the Pittsburgh defense on its toes with the rain falling.

4. Both Flacco and Roethlisberger will throw more than 35 times despite a forecast conducive to running the ball. In the old days of this rivalry, Saturday’s forecast would have meant both sides grinding it out with the rushing attack, but the run defenses are too stout and the secondaries too vulnerable for the game not to be put in the hands of these franchise quarterbacks. The Ravens will mix in more runs than the Steelers, but Roethlisberger has better weapons to throw to in the passing game. As Harbaugh pointed out earlier in the week, both Flacco and Roethlisberger are used to playing in poor weather and the rain won’t prevent them from making some plays through the air.

5. The weather will contribute to another low-scoring tight one, but the Steelers will find a way to prevail in a 20-17 final. The loss of Bell is a major blow to Pittsburgh and could be enough to tip the scale in Baltimore’s favor, but the Ravens haven’t risen to the occasion against good teams, sporting only one win all season against a team that finished with a winning record. Many are pointing to 2012 as enough reason for the Ravens to be able to make a run, but even in the midst of losing four of their last five to close that regular season, there was the Week 16 demolition of the New York Giants that flashed what the offense would be able to do in the postseason. Despite a strong fourth quarter to beat Cleveland in Week 17, the Ravens have failed to inspire on offense for almost a month now, making it too difficult to believe the unit suddenly clicks in January with a banged-up offensive line. And after an admirable run against pedestrian passing games in December, a patchwork secondary isn’t going to hold up as well against the NFL’s second-ranked passing attack. Harbaugh’s group will give a one-dimensional Pittsburgh offense everything it can handle, but Roethlisberger has played the best football of his career this season and will do just enough at home to get by the Ravens yet again in the postseason.

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Ravens rule out Monroe, Jernigan for Saturday’s game

Posted on 02 January 2015 by Luke Jones

Despite being labeled earlier in the week as having a “50-50” chance to return for Saturday’s wild-card game against Pittsburgh, Ravens left tackle Eugene Monroe was officially ruled out against the Steelers.

Monroe hasn’t practiced since injuring his ankle in the Week 16 loss at Houston on Dec. 21 and will once again be replaced by rookie free agent James Hurst at the left tackle position. With starting right tackle Rick Wagner already on injured reserve, the Ravens will once again slide Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda out to right tackle with rookie John Urschel playing right guard.

Head coach John Harbaugh expressed optimism at the beginning of the week that Monroe might be able to return for the first round of the playoffs, but he has been in a walking boot since suffering the ankle injury in the penultimate game of the regular season.

Though some have downplayed the loss of Monroe after an injury-plagued season in which he struggled, Hurst has struggled immensely in pass protection and earned a cumulative minus-16.9 grade in pass blocking from Pro Football Focus compared to Monroe’s minus-1.0. Hurst has started five games in Monroe’s place this season.

The Ravens also officially ruled out defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (foot) and inside linebacker Arthur Brown (hamstring). The latter was placed on season-ending IR to make room for defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who was officially activated from the reserve-suspended list on Friday afternoon after serving a four-game ban in December.

That transaction brings the total count of Ravens players on IR to 19, matching a high in the Harbaugh era set in 2008.

Veteran defensive end Chris Canty (ankle/thigh) was designated as probable to play on Saturday after participating fully in practices this week. The 32-year-old missed the Ravens’ regular-season finale against Cleveland last week.

Meanwhile, the Steelers officially ruled out Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell after he suffered a hyperextended knee against Cincinnati last week. Even though a magnetic resonance imaging exam revealed no structural damage to his knee, Bell’s status had been in doubt all week as he didn’t take part in any practices.

Nine other Steelers players were listed as probable for Saturday’s game, including nose tackle Steve McLendon (shoulder), rush specialist James Harris (illness), cornerback Ike Taylor (shoulder/forearm), and safety Troy Polamalu (knee).

Below is the final injury report of the week:

BALTIMORE
OUT: LB Arthur Brown (thigh), DT Timmy Jernigan (foot/ankle), T Eugene Monroe (ankle)
PROBABLE: DE Chris Canty (thigh/ankle), TE Owen Daniels (non-injury)

PITTSBURGH
OUT: RB Le’Veon Bell (knee)
PROBABLE: T Mike Adams (illness), LB James Harrison (illness), QB Landry Jones (illness), DT Steve McLendon (shoulder), TE Heath Miller (non-injury), TE Michael Palmer (groin), S Troy Polamalu (knee), QB Ben Roethlisberger (non-injury), CB Ike Taylor (shoulder/forearm)

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Steelers running back Bell to miss Saturday’s wild-card game

Posted on 02 January 2015 by Luke Jones

As the Ravens and Steelers were making final preparations for Saturday’s wild-card meeting, Pittsburgh made it official Friday that Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell will not play.

The Steelers ruled out the second-year back after he had missed practices all week due to a hyperextended knee suffered in the regular-season finale against Cincinnati. Bell did not suffer any structural damage, but his status had remained in doubt all week for the first round of the playoffs.

In two games against the Ravens this year, Bell rushed for only 79 yards on 21 carries, but the second-year back caught 10 passes for 86 yards and a touchdown. Even though Bell finished second in the NFL in rushing yards, it’s his ability as a receiver and pass blocker that the Steelers will really miss against a ferocious pass rush.

“The game plan will change based on how their game plan changes — if it does,” said Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees about Bell’s status earlier this week. “At this point in the season, you have to look at everything that they do and take into account if he plays [and] if he doesn’t play, what might they go to. I can’t sit here with a crystal ball and tell you what they’re going to do, but what we have to do is be ready for whatever they decide to do. Game plan-wise, we just have to adapt to whatever they decide to do.”

Bell’s absence means Pittsburgh will be forced to lean on the trio of Josh Harris, rookie Dri Archer, and newly-signed veteran Ben Tate. Tate is now playing with his third different team this year while Harris and Archer combined to carry 19 times for 56 yards during the regular season.

 

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Ravens preparing for sloppy conditions at Heinz Field

Posted on 01 January 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After going through an entire season of mild weather, the Ravens are preparing for ugly conditions in Pittsburgh for Saturday night’s playoff meeting with the Steelers.

Forecasts continue to call for a 100 percent chance of rain with winds that could reach 20 miles per hour on Saturday night. It may create a fitting scene for what many consider a throwback rivalry, but which team has the advantage?

With the Steelers possessing the NFL’s second-ranked passing game and Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell’s status up in the air, the Ravens probably don’t mind a rainy forecast at Heinz Field. Head coach John Harbaugh sees drawbacks for each side of the ball if conditions are poor, but he doesn’t envision Joe Flacco or Ben Roethlisberger being dramatically impacted.

“Some days you feel like it’s an advantage to the defense, because maybe [the offense] can’t throw it quite as well,” Harbaugh said. “Other times you think it’s an advantage to the offense, because they know where they’re cutting and braking and things like that. I think both these quarterbacks are good bad-weather quarterbacks. That’s why they’re both successful in the AFC North.”

Despite showing inconsistency on the ground in recent weeks, the Ravens rank eighth in rush offense while Pittsburgh is only 16th and could be without Bell, who rushed for 1,361 yards in his second NFL season. Both teams have questionable depth at the position behind their starters as the Ravens lost rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro for the season and the Steelers had to sign veteran Ben Tate earlier this week.

Coming off the best regular season of his career, Justin Forsett sees nothing wrong with the wet conditions being predicted for Saturday. His impressive ability to change direction and low center of gravity are conducive traits to running effectively in wet conditions.

“As a running back, you love it,” Forsett said. “Usually, it means that you’re running the ball, but you never know. But I’m excited for it, either way.”

Beyond how much the weather itself might impact both teams’ game plans, the field conditions will be under scrutiny as the natural grass at Heinz Field holds up poorly late in the season. The Ravens haven’t played in substantially wet conditions in Pittsburgh since a 38-7 blowout loss suffered in a Monday night game in 2007.

In recent years, many have clamored for Pittsburgh to install an artificial surface at Heinz Field, which also serves as the home of University of Pittsburgh football and high school football playoff games.

“It’s terrible, man. They need to go ahead and put some turf up there or something,” wide receiver Torrey Smith said. “But you know that’s the case. Apparently the field gets a lot of use, so that’s good for them, but it’s terrible for [the players] playing this late. I’m sure they’ll do a great job prepping it, but if we use our fundamentals, the field shouldn’t matter.”

Versatile Yanda

With right tackle Rick Wagner out for the season and left tackle Eugene Monroe’s status for Saturday in doubt, the Ravens may be forced to use Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda at right tackle for a second straight start.

Of course, Yanda is no stranger to the position after playing the entire 2010 season there, but it’s a testament to the four-time Pro Bowl selection’s preparation and ability that he barely missed a beat in the regular-season finale against Cleveland. It’s another example of the 2007 third-round pick quietly establishing himself as one of the best players in franchise history.

“I told Marshal, ‘You’ll be fine. You could probably play quarterback.'” said offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak of the position change. “That’s the way he is. He’s an amazing player. His attention to detail, his commitment to the football team and what he does is as good as I’ve ever been around. So, [I’m] not surprised at all.”

Yanda’s versatility has allowed the Ravens to insert rookie John Urschel at right guard while rookie James Hurst has played left tackle in place of Monroe.

Taking the late-season change in stride, Yanda denied any ability or interest in lining up under center, but Kubiak has repeatedly said he’s as good as any offensive lineman he’s ever coached. The standout lineman’s focus remains on trying to beat Pittsburgh in the postseason for the first time in franchise history.

“I appreciate it, that’s for sure,” Yanda said. “Right now, you’re worried about playing well, practicing, and getting ready for the Steelers. There will be time to reflect back on the season after the season is over.”

Thursday’s injury report

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Arthur Brown (thigh), DT Timmy Jernigan (foot/ankle), T Eugene Monroe (ankle)
FULL PARTICIPATION: DE Chris Canty (thigh/ankle), TE Owen Daniels (non-injury)

PITTSBURGH
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: RB Le’Veon Bell (knee), LB James Harrison (illness), QB Landry Jones (illness)
FULL PARTICIPATION: T Mike Adams (illness), DT Steve McLendon (shoulder), TE Heath Miller (non-injury), TE Michael Palmer (groin), S Troy Polamalu (knee), QB Ben Roethlisberger (non-injury), CB Ike Taylor (shoulder/forearm)

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Slowing Antonio Brown critical to Ravens continuing playoff run

Posted on 31 December 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — As many focus on the status of Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell for Saturday’s playoff game in Pittsburgh, the Ravens know an ability to contain Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown would go a long way in trying to advance to the divisional round.

The 5-foot-10 Brown continues to defy the odds as a former sixth-round pick who led the NFL with 129 receptions and 1,698 receiving yards while catching a career-high 13 touchdown passes in 2014. And he presents the biggest challenge to a Ravens pass defense that’s played better in recent weeks but still ranked 24th in pass defense during the regular season.

“A lot of guys when they [discuss] who the best receiver in the game is, they want to look at the big, tall, dominant guys like Calvin [Johnson] and Dez [Bryant],” said cornerback Lardarius Webb, who labeled Brown as an elite receiver a few years ago when he was still playing in the shadow of former Steeler Mike Wallace. “With Antonio, he can do it all. He’s not the biggest guy, so a lot of guys might not want to say he’s the best receiver in the game because of his size. He can do a lot of things on that field to say, ‘Man, why not be the best receiver in the game?’”

After Jimmy Smith shadowed Brown in holding him to a quiet seven catches for 90 yards in a 26-6 win over the Steelers in Week 2, the Ravens faced Brown’s wrath in the regular-season rematch in Pittsburgh — a week after their top cornerback was lost for the season — in which he caught 11 passes for 144 yards and a 54-yard touchdown in a 43-23 final on Nov. 2. It remains to be seen whether Webb will draw the exclusive assignment of following Brown, but the Ravens haven’t done any mirroring of receivers since Smith was injured, instead keeping each starting cornerback on the same sides of the field.

Baltimore will obviously try to roll safety help to Brown’s side as much as possible, but Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley likes moving the speedy receiver all over the field. In addition to being targeted 25 times on passes 20 or more yards down field in the regular season, Brown also lines up in the slot at least a handful of times per game, which would create a significant problem if the Ravens are to use Matt Elam in certain nickel situations.

If a defense shows its hand too drastically in trying to bracket Brown, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t been afraid to go elsewhere in throwing for a career-high 4,952 yards in 2014. But Brown remains his most dangerous weapon with his 615 yards after the catch rank third in the NFL.

“He’s all over. They can screen him, they can stack,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “But the thing of it is I think Ben also sees what the coverage is, and all of a sudden, you’re rolling it. He’s not afraid to go to [Martavis Bryant or Markus Wheaton]. [Tight end Heath Miller] has always been a security blanket for him, and the guy has always made a clutch catch in clutch times.”

A Ravens secondary that’s been ravaged by injuries throughout the season is feeling better about itself heading into the postseason, but Roethlisberger and Brown present a far more imposing quarterback-receiver duo than anything seen over the final quarter of the season. Baltimore’s ability to slow the Steelers offense will once again come down to the pass rush, but Roethlisberger has shown an ability to get rid of the ball quickly in averaging just 2.5 seconds in the pocket before throwing, which Pro Football Focus ranked sixth in the NFL.

The faces have changed in the secondary since the Week 9 blowout in Pittsburgh as Dominique Franks and Chykie Brown were both cut and current starting cornerback Rashaan Melvin wasn’t even on the team at the time. Pees and several members of the secondary have credited continuity in recent weeks as a reason for the improvement.

“The last couple games we’ve been playing good ball all over the field,” Melvin said. “That confidence going into the playoffs is going to help us a lot. We just want to go in and play the best ball we can play as a second and as a defense in general and to go in there and do our assignments.”

Even if the Ravens are able to limit Brown’s opportunities as a receiver, they’ll need to watch out for him as a punt returner as Cincinnati found out last week when he returned a punt 71 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter. He ranked eighth in the NFL in punt return average this season and tied for sixth in return attempts, showing he isn’t conservative as a returner despite being valued as one of the best wide receivers in football.

His expansive skill set not only makes him one of the best receivers in the NFL but one of the best players overall. And the Ravens will have their hands full in trying to slow him enough to be able to continue playing beyond Saturday night.

“The same thing that makes him dangerous as a receiver makes him dangerous as a returner,” special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. “He’s very aggressive. He’s highly talented. He has a competitive spirit about him. He wants to make plays, and he has done it. He’s a very good player. We have to be at our best.”

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