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Ravens, Steelers following similar paths to Christmas showdown

Posted on 05 December 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens face their biggest challenge of the season at New England next Monday night, but it’s difficult not to look ahead to Christmas Day.

As it has so many times over the last 15 years, the AFC North championship will come down to Baltimore and Pittsburgh with their Week 16 meeting at Heinz Field potentially serving as a pseudo-championship game. Despite neither team being dominant in 2016, some of the similarities between the Ravens and the Steelers are striking.

Both teams appeared to be in serious trouble only a month ago before regrouping to hold matching 7-5 records going into the final quarter of the regular season.

“We like the fact that we’re in it,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “We like the fact that we’re in a fight for the division championship. That’s our first goal — the starting point of everything we try to accomplish one week at a time.”

The Ravens began the season with three straight wins, then suffered a four-game losing streak, and now have won four of their last five games. Meanwhile, the Steelers won four of their first five, sustained their own four-game slide, and have now prevailed in three straight games.

Each team owns two home losses and three defeats on the road. Hoping to keep pace in the division on Sunday, the Ravens and Steelers each took out an opponent that entered the day riding a six-game winning streak.

While the Ravens offense finally busted out with a 38-point showing against Miami, the Steelers’ maligned defense has allowed a total of 30 points over the last three games. Those improvements have led many to point to Baltimore and Pittsburgh as potential sleepers in the AFC.

But that depends on who prevails in the AFC North since a wild card is unlikely to come from the division at this point.

The schedule favors the Steelers as their remaining opponents are a combined 17-30-1 while the Ravens’ are 26-21-1, but the next two weeks provide interesting possibilities. Pittsburgh plays back-to-back road games at Buffalo and Cincinnati, two teams who have had their struggles but remain capable of pulling off upsets in their home stadiums. The Ravens face the daunting task of a Monday night game against the Patriots in Foxborough, but their Dec. 18 home game against the fading Philadelphia Eagles looks more favorable by the week.

Considering the Ravens already have a win over Pittsburgh — and would thus own the head-to-head tiebreaker with a Week 16 victory — they simply need to be no worse than one game behind the Steelers when they arrive at Heinz Field on Dec. 25. A win over the Eagles in two weeks would ensure that, no matter what happens against the Patriots or in Pittsburgh’s next two contests.

Of course, much could change over the next couple weeks, but both the Ravens and the Steelers appear to be peaking at the right time and are on a Christmas collision course with a division title at stake.

What more could you possibly want?

Weddle’s impact

Safety Eric Weddle came away with his third interception of the season on Sunday, matching his total over his final three seasons with San Diego.

In addition to being Pro Football Focus’ top-graded safety for much of the season, the 31-year-old has brought much-needed leadership and experience to the secondary. From recently challenging fellow safety Lardarius Webb to elevate his play to being one of the first players in the building every day, Weddle has provided a presence the Ravens lacked on the back end of the defense after Ed Reed’s departure a few years ago.

“He is that way at 5:30 in the morning in the weight room. He is that way at 6:30 at night when he is just finishing up his work on tape,” said Harbaugh about the veteran’s enthusiasm. “That is how he lives his life. He is that way when he has his kids in the building. That is how he lives.”

Flacco getting hot?

Asked whether Joe Flacco’s four-touchdown, 381-yard performance on Sunday prompted him to wonder if this was the start of a hot streak for the ninth-year quarterback, Harbaugh didn’t want to make any assumptions.

It only makes sense in the midst of a disappointing year for Flacco and the Baltimore offense.

“It is not like golf, where you go out there and all of a sudden your swing starts grooving [like], ‘I am going to make a bunch of putts in a row,'” Harbaugh said. “There is an opponent over there that is trying to take away your swing. They are blocking your putt. You have to find a way to maneuver through.

“It’s tough because every single play presents a new challenge against a tough opponent that is doing everything they can within their intellect and their physical opportunity to thwart your efforts. We just have to find a way to win the next play.”

Odds & ends

Justin Tucker led AFC kickers in the Pro Bowl voting update released on Monday. He is now 28-for-28 on field goal tries, had made eight attempts from 50 yards or longer, and hasn’t missed a single extra point. He was named to his only Pro Bowl back in 2013. … Cut by Detroit over the weekend, ex-Ravens running back Justin Forsett was claimed off waivers by Denver on Monday, reuniting him with Gary Kubiak. The 31-year-old averaged 5.4 yards per carry in a 2014 Pro Bowl season when Kubiak was his offensive coordinator. … On the heels of the center portion of the field being re-sodded at M&T Bank Stadium, several Miami players complained about poor footing on Sunday, a problem the Ravens didn’t seem to have. “It felt good when I walked on it; I didn’t slip,” said Harbaugh, drawing laughter from media. “But our players didn’t slip, either. Our guys were prepared for it. That is an individual thing as a player. You have to go out there and find your footing in pregame.”

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Ravens in position to take advantage of down AFC North

Posted on 15 November 2016 by Luke Jones

The Ravens haven’t really looked the part of a division champion through the first nine games of the season.

They didn’t win a game in the month of October.

The offensive line can’t stay healthy and the offense ranks in the NFL’s bottom 10 in most statistical categories.

Three of their five victories have come against two teams who’ve gone a combined 2-17.

Their highly-paid quarterback has thrown as many interceptions as touchdowns and is in the midst of one of the worst seasons of his career.

And yet the 5-4 Ravens are in sole possession of first place and have the only winning record in the AFC North entering the latter half of November. Flawed as they might be, the rest of a struggling division envies Baltimore’s position with Thanksgiving right around the corner.

Since divisional realignment took place in 2002, the champion of the AFC North hasn’t won fewer than 10 games. Including the history of the old AFC Central, you’d have to go back to 1990 when Cincinnati went 9-7 to find a division champion with fewer than 10 wins.

Barring dramatic improvement from Baltimore, Pittsburgh (4-5), or Cincinnati (3-5-1) over the final seven games, no team appears likely to reach that 10-win plateau. It’s no sure thing that anyone even reaches nine wins, either, especially when you’re reminded that the Ravens still have to face four non-division teams currently sporting winning records.

With the Bengals’ loss to the New York Giants on Monday night, the AFC North fell to 7-19-1 in non-division games in 2016. Even removing winless Cleveland from the equation, the AFC North holds the worst winning percentage in non-division games among the NFL’s eight divisions.

In short, it’s been a bad year for a proud division that’s sent at least two teams to the playoffs in seven of the last eight seasons. But the Ravens are in solid position to take advantage of the mediocrity.

John Harbaugh’s team faces a difficult task playing at Dallas on Sunday, but three of Baltimore’s next four games after that will be played at M&T Bank Stadium. Winning all three of those home games against Cincinnati, Miami, and Philadelphia would put the Ravens in position to finish 9-7 if they can win just one more road game down the stretch. The Christmas Day game at Pittsburgh would be the most meaningful from a potential tie-breaking standpoint.

The offense is likely to remain the Ravens’ Achilles heel with the injuries along the offensive line, but a defense ranking first in yards allowed, rushing yards allowed, and third-down defense and ranking in the top five in several other statistical categories is eager to prove it belongs among the more special groups in franchise history. The Ravens will have their chance to show it with several tough opponents on the horizon.

The path will be difficult, but it’s looking better than the rest of a down AFC North at the moment.

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Eight days change outlook of season for Ravens

Posted on 13 November 2016 by Luke Jones

Just over a week ago, the Ravens were coming off the bye with their season dangerously close to circling the drain before Thanksgiving.

Two victories and two Pittsburgh losses later, Baltimore wakes up Monday in sole possession of first place in the AFC North. That winless October now feels like a long time ago as the 5-4 Ravens are the only team in the division above .500.

Even if you still aren’t ready to believe in the Ravens with their well-known issues, the Steelers (4-5) are now in the midst of their own four-game losing streak after falling to Dallas in the closing seconds at Heinz Field on Sunday. It wasn’t a divisional showdown like the Ravens’ 21-14 win over Pittsburgh the previous week, but the game felt no less pivotal for the struggling Steelers, who will now play four of their next five on the road.

The Steelers were considered the early class of the division after winning four of their first five, but that is no longer the case in mid-November as Ezekiel Elliott’s last-second touchdown changed the landscape of the AFC North on Sunday evening.

The attention now shifts to Cincinnati’s Monday road game against the New York Giants as a win would move the Bengals (3-4-1) into sole possession of second place. In two weeks, the Ravens will try to snap their five-game losing streak against the Bengals that dates back to the 2013 season.

Of course, seven weeks remain in the regular season with the Ravens playing road games against two first-place teams — Dallas and New England — and against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in the final two weeks. Their final two home games come against Miami and Philadelphia, who both own winning records and are better than anyone expected them to be at the start of the season.

No matter how mediocre the rest of the division looks, it still won’t be easy for Baltimore.

The Ravens’ problems on offense can’t be dismissed despite a 22-point second-half outburst against Cleveland on Thursday, but a very strong defense and the Steelers’ struggles suddenly make the path to a division title appear less daunting. Pittsburgh will have an easier task next week with a road game against the winless Browns while the Ravens must play at one-loss Dallas, but Baltimore will be firmly in the division mix at Thanksgiving no matter what the Steelers and Bengals do.

You can’t ask for more than that after losing four straight in October.

The chances of a wild card appear bleak for any AFC North team with the AFC West currently sporting three seven-win teams, but a 9-7 record is looking more and more like the mark to win the division.

And even with the difficult remaining schedule, that goal looks more attainable after a fruitful eight days for the Ravens.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 9 win over Pittsburgh

Posted on 07 November 2016 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens having snapped their four-game losing streak in a 21-14 win over Pittsburgh to move into first place in the AFC North, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Jimmy Smith and rookie Tavon Young could be the best cornerback duo the Ravens have had in a while. Smith is finally playing like he did before his foot injury two years ago, and the 5-foot-9 Young is making a strong case to be more than just a slot corner.

2. His broken brace earned attention, but a first-quarter sequence from Joe Flacco was inexcusable. After snapping the ball before his receivers were set — with 10 seconds still on the play clock — to negate a third-down conversion in the red zone, he then threw across his body for an ugly interception.

3. When Mike Wallace signed his two-year contract, it was mostly viewed as a one-season deal with a scheduled $8 million cap figure for 2017. He’s caught four of Flacco’s six touchdown passes and is on pace for 1,200 yards. The Ravens are cheapskates with their receivers, but shouldn’t be here.

4. Earning his first career interception in the third quarter, Timmy Jernigan fell to the ground after previously coughing up a fumble return deep in Baltimore territory in Week 7. It was good seeing him learn from a mistake and to be able to laugh, quipping how he’s a fast learner.

5. What are the odds of a rookie scoring his first two career touchdowns in consecutive games as a member of the punt return team but not as the actual returner? Chris Moore has certainly been in the right place at the right time.

6. He didn’t put up monster numbers with just five credited tackles and a dropped interception, but the difference in the Ravens defense was tangible with C.J. Mosley back in the middle. He was a major reason why Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell was a non-factor on Sunday.

7. Remember how the running game was trending upward despite Marc Trestman’s hesitancy to commit to it before his dismissal last month? The Ravens have averaged 2.4 yards per carry in three games with Marty Mornhinweg in charge.

8. With Flacco often checking down and Kenneth Dixon not showing the same explosiveness he had before his knee injury, why not give Buck Allen more chances out of the backfield? He struggles between the tackles, but he did catch 45 passes for 353 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie.

9. Speaking of Allen, the second-year running back provided the Ravens their 12th blocked kick since 2014 and their league-best fourth this season. When you lack dynamic play-makers, these types of special-teams plays are of the utmost importance.

10. I’m not concerned about his long-term prospects, but Ronnie Stanley committing four penalties on Sunday and acknowledging his foot was still “a little sore” after a four-game absence weren’t encouraging developments for the remainder of his rookie season.

11. I admittedly don’t spend a great deal of time discussing Justin Tucker because there’s only so much to say about his excellence. He’s a perfect 20-for-20 on the season and has silenced concerns about his accuracy from 50 yards and beyond. He’s been worth every penny of his contract.

12. How long had it been since the Ravens last won a game before Sunday’s victory? The Orioles had won four contests more recently despite their season coming to a bitter end more than a month ago. Maybe John Harbaugh just needed to call Zach Britton for some relief.

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Underrated defense keeping Ravens competitive in mediocre AFC North

Posted on 07 November 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Eric Weddle was honest about the Ravens following their 21-14 win over Pittsburgh to snap a four-game losing streak on Sunday.

The veteran safety wasn’t trying to knock the offense, but he was stating the obvious eight games into the 2016 season. Tied with the Steelers for first place in the AFC North with a 4-4 record, Baltimore is leaning on an underrated defense to carry an offense that was again ineffective beyond Mike Wallace’s 95-yard touchdown on a short slant pass from Joe Flacco late in the first quarter.

The Ravens hope the offense will improve in the coming weeks, but the bye week and the return of three starters on that side of the ball once again brought disappointing results against a mediocre Pittsburgh defense.

It’s clear where Baltimore’s strength lies.

“Where we’re at as a team, we have to play great week in and week out to give ourselves a chance to win,” said Weddle about a defense that shut out the Steelers through the first three quarters. “When we limit teams’ big plays and we don’t let the ball go over our heads, you see what we can do and what were capable of.”

The standard for defense is unsurprisingly high in this town after watching the likes of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Terrell Suggs over the years, but the Ravens have quietly ranked in the top 10 in most major defensive categories, an improvement from the last few seasons. The 2016 defense might be a far cry from some of the elite units of yesteryear, but today’s NFL is also a different game with more rules catered toward scoring.

Allowing under 20 points per game says a lot more now than it used to.

Of course, the Ravens weren’t happy with allowing touchdowns on two of their final three defensive series, but those hiccups came only after Ben Roethlisberger and Pittsburgh had gained a total of 69 yards and two first downs through three quarters. The Baltimore offense didn’t help matters in that final period by failing to pick up a single first down to run more clock.

Still, it’s no surprise that the elder statesman of the defense was quick to note the imperfections in a win that brought more relief than excitement in the locker room. He helped set those high standards, after all.

“We gave up some plays down the stretch, and I don’t like that,” Suggs said. “You don’t ever want to have to win the game with your ‘hands’ team, especially when you have a 21-point lead in the fourth quarter. We’ve definitely got to finish better. We’ve got to get better. We’re going to take the win, but we’re not satisfied.”

Some good fortune was at work on Sunday with Roethlisberger clearly not himself less than three weeks removed from knee surgery, but the Ravens did an impeccable job keeping Pittsburgh’s two biggest play-makers — wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell — in check for much of the game. It wasn’t until the fourth quarter that Brown finally hit double-digit receiving yards while Bell finished with an underwhelming 70 yards from scrimmage on 20 touches.

With Suggs and inside linebacker C.J. Mosley returning to action and the defense controlling the line of scrimmage, the Ravens allowed just 2.0 yards per carry despite the Steelers’ clear desire to run the ball to take pressure off their hobbled quarterback. Mosley’s presence also tightened up pass coverage in the middle of the field, which had been a problem for Baltimore during his two-game absence.

Brown caught his second career touchdown against the Ravens on Sunday, but he found space only after the deficit had already grown to 21-0 with a punt block returned for a touchdown by rookie Chris Moore early in the fourth quarter. The four-time Pro Bowl receiver finished with seven catches for 85 yards, which included his 23-yard score with 8:38 remaining.

“It was really a team effort and a lot of credit goes to Dean Pees for his game plan,” said cornerback Jimmy Smith, who continues to play at a high level in the secondary. “We mixed some things up and kept Pittsburgh on their heels. They got some things late, which no one likes. But we’re real happy with our performance.”

The Ravens should be even happier with the current state of the AFC North. A 4-4 record typically doesn’t land a team in first place, but Pittsburgh has proven to be as mediocre as everyone else in the division with its current three-game losing streak. A 9-7 mark might win this underwhelming division, giving Baltimore a chance despite having a more challenging second-half schedule than the Steelers or Cincinnati.

The offense continues to be a major concern after gaining just 110 yards on 49 plays over the final three quarters, but it’s time to start giving more credit to this Ravens defense, especially with five-time Pro Bowl pass rusher Elvis Dumervil missing all but two games this season. It’s not an elite group, but the numbers shouldn’t be ignored.

Baltimore has allowed only 3.4 yards per carry with rookie free agent Michael Pierce serving as an impressive complement to Brandon Williams and Timmy Jernigan on the defensive line. The secondary has been better than expected with the free-agent arrival of Weddle and the surprising contributions of fourth-round rookie Tavon Young as a starting cornerback opposite Smith.

The defense did as much as you could have asked for against a talented Pittsburgh offense, but time will tell if the strong play will continue late into the season. Of course, it may not matter if the offense doesn’t start pulling its own weight.

“It’s all in how you finish. If you miss the playoffs, who cares where your defense ranked?” Suggs said. “This is about winning games, going to the playoffs, winning division championships, winning championships. At the end of the year, you can [say], ‘Oh, they had a top-10 defense, whatever.’

“But if you don’t win, it doesn’t matter.”

The strong defense certainly mattered on Sunday as the Ravens were able to stop the bleeding from last month and climb back into first place of a forgiving division.

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Ravens-Steelers: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 06 November 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens hope improved health brings better fortune after an injury-riddled and winless October to forget.

Welcoming back five key players to the starting lineup on Sunday, Baltimore aims to snap its four-game losing streak against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who come to town sporting a two-game slide of their own. Of course, first place in the AFC North is on the line as the 3-4 Ravens trail their biggest rival by just one game entering Week 9.

Despite conflicting reports throughout the week, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is active and will start less than three weeks after undergoing surgery on his left knee. The Ravens prepared all along for the veteran signal caller to play and weren’t buying the possibility of him sitting out after practicing on a limited all week.

After returning to practice late this week, veteran wide receiver Steve Smith (ankle) is active and will make his return after a two-game absence. The 37-year-old hinted on social media Sunday morning that he intended to play and went through pre-game warmups without any apparent issues.

Smith’s return is good news for quarterback Joe Flacco, who has thrown just two touchdown passes in his last five games.

As expected, linebackers C.J. Mosley (hamstring) and Terrell Suggs (biceps) and offensive linemen Marshal Yanda (shoulder) and Ronnie Stanley (foot) are active and will start after missing action last month. Stanley had missed four straight games, putting plenty of strain on an offensive line that entered the season in transition.

The Ravens will have all five members of their starting offensive line on the field for the first time since Week 3.

As expected, cornerback Shareece Wright (hamstring) is inactive, joining the trio of Elvis Dumervil (foot), Kamalei Correa (thigh), and Crockett Gillmore (thigh) who were officially ruled out on Friday. Elevated to the 53-man roster on Saturday, safety Matt Elam is active and will appear in his first game for the Ravens since the 2014 postseason.

With both Yanda and Stanley returning to the starting lineup, offensive lineman Ryan Jensen is a healthy scratch after starting three of the last four games.

Pittsburgh running back DeAngelo Williams (knee) is also active and will back up starter Le’Veon Bell after being listed as questionable on the final injury report of the week.

These teams are meeting for the 41st time in the regular season with the Steelers leading 21-19 and holding a 9-11 record in Baltimore. Counting the postseason, the Ravens are looking for their fourth straight win over Pittsburgh, which would be a franchise best against their biggest rival.

The forecast in Baltimore calls for partly cloudy skies and temperatures reaching 65 degrees with winds up to 14 miles per hour, according to Weather.com.

Referee John Hussey and his crew will officiate Sunday’s game.

The Ravens are wearing purple jerseys with black pants while Pittsburgh dons its white tops with yellow pants.

Here are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
CB Shareece Wright
LB Kamalei Correa
LB Elvis Dumervil
G Vlad Ducasse
OL Ryan Jensen
DT Willie Henry
TE Crockett Gillmore

PITTSBURGH
WR Markus Wheaton
QB Zach Mettenberger
FB Roosevelt Nix
LB L.J. Fort
OT Brian Mihalik
CB Justin Gilbert
DE L.T. Walton

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 05 November 2016 by Luke Jones

Two rivals coming off their bye week and needing a win on Sunday.

The stakes are clear for both the Ravens and Pittsburgh when they meet for the 41st time in their regular-season history. Having lost four straight games in October, Baltimore is trying to turn its season around and pull even in the AFC North with the Steelers, who have dropped two consecutive games themselves.

Health is a hot topic for both teams as the Ravens expect to welcome back several key starters, a list including linebackers Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley and offensive linemen Marshal Yanda and Ronnie Stanley. Meanwhile, the Steelers appear likely to have starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger back under center less than three weeks after knee surgery.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens attempt to win their fourth straight game against Pittsburgh, which includes their victory in the 2014 postseason. The Steelers lead the regular-season series by a 21-19 edge, but Mike Tomlin’s team hasn’t won a game at M&T Bank Stadium since 2012. Counting the playoffs, Baltimore has won five of the last six meetings with its biggest rival.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Dennis Pitta will catch his first touchdown of the season while Darren Waller will make his first catches of 2016. Who would have guessed with the well-documented depth entering training camp that Pitta would be the only tight end to play in all of the Ravens’ first eight games? His production has slowed since surpassing the 100-yard receiving mark in Week 2, but he poses a problem for Pittsburgh linebackers who are weak in coverage. With Crockett Gillmore out, Waller is now the No. 2 option and is an imposing physical specimen offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg should utilize.

2. Le’Veon Bell will not do much against the Ravens on the ground, but the Pittsburgh running back will burn them in the passing game. The Baltimore run defense is for real and allowing just 3.5 yards per game, but a returning Mosley — and his hamstring — will face a heck of a test in coverage with Bell’s ability to separate as a pass catcher. With the way Matt Forte had success as a receiver against the Ravens in Week 7, Roethlisberger won’t hesitate to look for the explosive Bell out of the backfield to help keep the Steelers on schedule despite little production in the running game.

3. Suggs will collect a sack to add to an impressive mark, but Baltimore won’t get enough heat on a hobbled quarterback otherwise. Suggs poked fun earlier this week at the injury drama often surrounding Roethlisberger, the kind of trash talk bringing back memories of the prime of this rivalry. The six-time Pro Bowl linebacker has backed up the talk over the years with 16 1/2 career sacks against the Pittsburgh quarterback. However, an improved Steelers offensive line won’t have too many issues against a pass rush that’s been largely unproductive without Elvis Dumervil this season.

4. The Ravens secondary will fare respectably against Antonio Brown, but the big-play receiver will still catch a second-half touchdown. As tremendous as Brown has been for several seasons, Baltimore has surprisingly done a commendable job against him, holding him to just one touchdown reception. It will be interesting to see how the Ravens defense approaches Brown as Jimmy Smith has traveled with him at times in past meetings. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will likely mix up coverages against Brown, but the Steelers wideout will still find a way to the end zone on Sunday.

5. Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense will show some signs of improvement, but it won’t be enough in a 24-20 loss. The Steelers are the better football team, but the Ravens winning wouldn’t be surprising after Ryan Mallett’s heroics in the most recent meeting between these teams last December. You never truly know with this rivalry. Improved health on the offensive line should help the offense, but John Harbaugh’s team just isn’t inspiring enough confidence and Pittsburgh is also feeling plenty of urgency with higher expectations for the season. The Steelers have better play-makers, and that will be the difference in a narrow defeat for the Ravens that will only add to the frustration level in Baltimore.

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Ravens elevate Elam to 53-man roster for Sunday’s game

Posted on 05 November 2016 by Luke Jones

After it looked like his career with the Ravens might be over a few months ago, 2013 first-round pick Matt Elam will get a final chance beginning with Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh.

The fourth-year safety was elevated to the 53-man roster on Saturday after being designated to return from injured reserve during the bye week. Elam has practiced for the last two weeks after missing the final two preseason games and the first seven games of the regular season while recovering from knee surgery.

“He’s healthy. He could do it,” said head coach John Harbaugh on Friday about the possibility of Elam being activated. “It’s just a matter of whether we decide to do it this week or not in terms of is he ‘football ready’ to play in a game [and is] physically and mentally ready to play well in a game.”

The Ravens waived cornerback Robertson Daniel to make room for Elam on the active roster. The moves came a day after Baltimore cut cornerback Will Davis and claimed cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris off waivers from Cincinnati.

Regarded as one of the most disappointing draft picks in franchise history, Elam hasn’t played in a real game since the end of the 2014 postseason. The University of Florida product missed the entire 2015 season with a torn biceps suffered early in training camp.

In 32 career games (26 starts), Elam has collected 127 tackles, one interception, one forced fumble, seven pass breakups, and one-half of a sack. The 5-foot-10, 208-pound safety lost his starting role during the 2014 season as he continued to struggle in pass coverage and missed too many tackles.

Elam is in the final year of his rookie contract after the Ravens declined to pick up his fifth-year option last offseason.

The Ravens also announced that they waived tight end Nic Jacobs from their practice squad, which means they will have just two tight ends active for Sunday’s game — Dennis Pitta and Darren Waller. Crockett Gillmore was ruled out with a thigh injury on Friday after missing the entire week of practice.

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Slowing Pittsburgh play-makers tops priority list for Ravens

Posted on 04 November 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The biggest difference between the Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers comes down to two players.

Baltimore has the better defense while the Steelers possess a more stable offensive line. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is better than Joe Flacco, but we know the latter is capable of playing at a high level with enough good pieces around him.

Pieces more like Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, who are the biggest obstacles in Baltimore’s attempt to snap a four-game losing streak and pull even with the Steelers in the AFC North. Counting the 2014 postseason, the Ravens have won their last three games against Pittsburgh, but one of Roethlisberger, Brown, and Bell missed each one of those games.

The last time the dynamic trio played against the Ravens resulted in a 43-23 blowout at Heinz Field on Nov. 2, 2014 in which Roethlisberger threw six touchdown passes with Brown and Bell each catching one. It was a rare occasion in which Brown went off against the Ravens, catching 11 passes for 144 yards and a 54-yard touchdown.

Despite averaging an incredible 102.2 receiving yards per game in 55 contests since the start of the 2013 season, the four-time Pro Bowl receiver has eclipsed the century mark in only two of his last seven contests — one in the playoffs — against the Ravens and has only one touchdown reception in his career against Baltimore.

“It is a rivalry game. We know each other,” said cornerback Jimmy Smith about the Baltimore defense keep Brown in check on so many occasions. “We know what they are trying to do to us. They know what we are trying to do to them. It is one of those games that, fortunately, at times, we come out on the better side or get going against them. Some of the game plan is obviously directed towards him, so we are doing what we are supposed to do if we keep him with minimal yards and catches.”

Conventional wisdom suggests Smith — the Ravens’ top cornerback — would match up with Brown wherever the 5-foot-10 receiver lines up, but defensive coordinator Dean Pees has employed different strategies in recent meetings. In Week 2 of the 2014 season, Smith traveled with Brown and held him to seven catches for 90 yards on 12 targets, but the sixth-year defensive back stayed on one side of the field in two meetings last year as the Ravens held the Pittsburgh receiver to a total of 103 receiving yards and no touchdowns.

In a conference call with the Baltimore media this week, Brown said he prefers when the opposition matches one cornerback against him because it leads to more 1-on-1 opportunities. The star wideout has faced plenty of press coverage with safety help over the top in recent games.

“There are so many factors you take into account and your defensive calls [such as] if you’re going to play more zone or you’re going to play more man,” said defensive coordinator Dean Pees about the decision to have a cornerback travel with a specific receiver. “All of a sudden, you’re going to try to teach a defensive back that’s in the slot how to play zone in the slot as opposed to [playing outside]. It’s easier [to travel in man coverage], because you have the man. Every time I line a guy up there and that same DB lines up there, they look at it and say, ‘If that guy lines up in the slot, they’re in man coverage.’

“You have to be able to mix and match zones and mans. There’s a lot more to it than just easily stating, ‘Let’s put our best DB on their best receiver.'”

Bell could serve as an even bigger factor on Sunday with Roethlisberger still not 100 percent less than three weeks after knee surgery. The Ravens rank fourth in the NFL in run defense, but Pittsburgh would love to unleash the star running back early to ease pressure on the hobbled quarterback.

In 2016, the 24-year-old Bell is averaging 5.0 yards per carry and 7.5 receptions per game since returning from a three-game suspension.

“I tell him before every game that I’m excited to see what he is going to do,” Brown said. “You know what he brings in the running game; you know what he brings in the passing game. That is the type of guy you want to have on your team — a guy who comes to work every day, displays a good work ethic, and is a big-time player.”

The biggest key in trying to slow Bell will be the anticipated return of inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, who has missed the last two games with a hamstring injury. Besides being the leader of a defense that gave up too many big plays in the middle of the field in his absence, Mosley is the Ravens’ best linebacker in pass coverage and leads the team with three interceptions.

In 39 career games, Bell has caught 182 passes for 1,634 yards and three touchdowns.

Injuries and off-field issues have hindered the start of his career, but Bell possesses a rare combination of patience and downhill ability that makes him dangerous every time he touches the ball.

“Guys can’t guess. If you have a gap to control, you have to control that gap,” said Pees, who labeled Bell one of the best running backs he’s faced in his long coaching career. “You have to stay on your blocker and be patient. When you get a runner like that, you have to be very disciplined on defense, too. Like I tell everybody, when he gets the ball, everybody on defense is at the point of attack because he could go anywhere at any time.”

These dynamic play-makers are the reason why the Steelers are considered the favorite to win a division consumed with mediocrity in 2016. They’re the type of special players Baltimore lacks right now.

If the Ravens want to begin turning their season around on Sunday, they can’t allow Brown and Bell to explode.

“He is one of the biggest challenges in the NFL,” said Smith about the Pittsburgh receiver. “You know what he does. We all know. It is going to take a lot to contain him and No. 26.”

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S. Smith, Mosley questionable to play against Pittsburgh

Posted on 04 November 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — If Steve Smith says his right ankle is ready to go, the Ravens will welcome the veteran wide receiver back to action for Sunday’s critical AFC North meeting with Pittsburgh.

The 37-year-old participated in practice for the second straight day on Friday and was listed as questionable to play against the Steelers. Head coach John Harbaugh told reporters that Smith only worked on a limited basis as he did the previous day, but he was officially listed as a full participant for the walk-through practice.

Smith was not present for the portions of practices open to media on Thursday or Friday, making it difficult to gauge where he is health-wise or just how many reps he took. He hasn’t played in a game since spraining his right ankle in the first quarter of the Week 5 loss to Washington on Oct. 9.

“We’ll just see where he’s at,” said Harbaugh about the injury that’s sidelined Smith for nearly three full games. “I didn’t have any expectations for it beforehand. I just wait for the trainers to say [he’s ready] and the player, of course. It’s that type of a thing, too. When everybody says the player is ready to go, we put him out there. That’s how we do it.”

The 16th-year receiver was not in the locker room after Friday’s practice to speak with reporters.

The Ravens also listed inside linebacker C.J. Mosley (hamstring) as questionable after he took part in practices on a limited basis all week. He was upgraded to full participation on Friday and appears to be a good bet to make his return after a two-game absence.

Baltimore officially ruled out linebackers Elvis Dumervil (foot) and Kamalei Correa (thigh) as well as tight end Crockett Gillmore (thigh) after all three missed the entire week of practice. Cornerback Shareece Wright is doubtful to play as he continues to nurse a hamstring injury that kept him out of practices on Thursday and Friday.

Despite being full participants in practice all week, linebacker Terrell Suggs (biceps), offensive linemen Marshal Yanda (left shoulder) and Ronnie Stanley (foot), safety Lardarius Webb (hamstring), and cornerback Tavon Young (concussion) were all designated as questionable. All five are expected to play against the Steelers, however.

It remains to be seen whether Baltimore will activate safety Matt Elam in time for Sunday’s game. Elam has taken part in all practices over the last two weeks, but a roster move would need to be made by 4 p.m. on Saturday for the 2013 first-round pick to play against Pittsburgh.

To no surprise, the Steelers listed quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (left knee) as questionable after he practiced on a limited basis all week. Reports this week have indicated that he will start against the Ravens despite undergoing surgery for a torn meniscus less than three weeks ago.

Backup running back DeAngelo Williams (knee) and cornerback William Gay (foot) were also designated as questionable by Pittsburgh.

The referee for Sunday’s game will be John Hussey.

According to Weather.com, Sunday’s forecast in Baltimore calls for sunny skies with temperatures reaching the mid-60s and winds up to 11 miles per hour.

Below is the final injury report for Sunday’s game:

BALTIMORE
OUT: LB Kamalei Correa (thigh), LB Elvis Dumervil (foot), TE Crockett Gillmore (thigh)
DOUBTFUL: CB Shareece Wright (thigh)
QUESTIONABLE: LB C.J. Mosley (thigh), WR Steve Smith (ankle), OT Ronnie Stanley (foot), LB Terrell Suggs (biceps), S Lardarius Webb (thigh), G Marshal Yanda (shoulder), CB Tavon Young (concussion)

PITTSBURGH
OUT: C Cody Wallace (knee)
QUESTIONABLE: CB William Gay (foot), QB Ben Roethlisberger (left knee), RB DeAngelo Williams (knee)

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