Tag Archive | "Steelers"

Issues with Tate, Blount show how lucky Ravens got with Forsett

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Issues with Tate, Blount show how lucky Ravens got with Forsett

Posted on 18 November 2014 by Luke Jones

(Updated: 1:30 p.m.)

A look at the current AFC North is a great reminder of how volatile the running back position can be and just how lucky the Ravens were signing veteran running back Justin Forsett to a one-year deal back in April.

The Cleveland Browns parted ways with Ben Tate Tuesday as he was growing increasingly unhappy splitting carries with rookies Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell. After signing a two-year deal worth up to $6.2 million in a market particularly cool on running backs, Tate averaged just 3.1 yards per attempt and received only two carries in Sunday’s loss to Houston.

Tate’s recent remarks questioning his role followed by Browns head coach Mike Pettine’s response saying the two rookies had more pop and explosiveness made it clear that the relationship was rapidly deteriorating before the Browns officially waived the 26-year-old Tuesday morning.

Things weren’t much better in Pittsburgh for backup running back LeGarrette Blount, who was released a day after embarrassing himself on Monday night by turning his back on his team and going to the locker room before the Steelers had finished off their 27-24 win over Tennessee. Blount didn’t receive a carry against the Titans while surging starter Le’Veon Bell rushed for 204 yards on 33 carries.

Blount signed a two-year, $3.85 million contract with the Steelers this offseason, but he and Bell were arrested for marijuana possession in August and Blount was seeing his role diminish with Bell emerging as one of the top running backs in the NFL. The 27-year-old was averaging 4.1 yards per carry but has just 23 yards on 15 rushing attempts over his last three games.

Meanwhile, the Ravens keep chugging along with Forsett, who signed a one-year, $730,000 contract as an addition viewed strictly as an insurance policy for the troubled Ray Rice at the time. The 29-year-old now ranks seventh in the NFL in rushing and leads all running backs with a 5.4 yards per carry average.

“The role he has played is exactly the one I envisioned for him when he came in here. Saw it all along,” said Harbaugh as he chuckled following the Week 10 win over Tennessee in which Forsett ran for 112 yards and two touchdowns. “But he’s the kind of guy that deserves it. He’s the kind of guy that has had a really good career. When you watch him on tape, he has always been a playmaker, and now he’s getting an opportunity to prove that.”

By all accounts, Forsett has been a great teammate who was just thankful for the opportunity when it looked like his NFL career may have been circling the drain after an injury-riddled season in Jacksonville a year ago. Instead, he’s having a career season in helping the Ravens pick up the pieces left behind by the Rice saga and his positive attitude has made him easy to root for.

Tate and Blount were two talented backs many wanted the Ravens to sign last offseason and there’s no way of knowing if either would have worked out better in Baltimore, but it’s difficult to argue with the production Forsett has provided at a reduced rate.

Even if the Ravens couldn’t have expected anything close to it at the time.

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Who will prevail in the AFC North?

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Who will prevail in the AFC North?

Posted on 14 November 2014 by Luke Jones

Halloween has come and gone, but that hasn’t prevented the AFC North from looking like something out of the twilight zone as the Ravens enjoy their bye this weekend.

Every team in the division is at least two games above .500, the first time that’s happened in the NFL since 1935. The Cleveland Browns — yes, those Cleveland Browns — are in first place in a year in which many talked about Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh battling for the top spot in a wide-open division.

Wide open indeed.

But who will prevail?

And just how strong is this division that’s gone 7-1-1 against the woeful NFC South but sports just one win — Pittsburgh’s 51-34 thrashing of Indianapolis — against winning teams outside the division?

Who will win the AFC North?

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Below is a look at each of the four teams and what lies ahead over the final seven weeks of the regular season:

CLEVELAND (6-3)
Division record: 2-2
Remaining schedule: Houston, at Atlanta, at Buffalo, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, at Carolina, at Baltimore
Skinny: On paper, this schedule doesn’t look too intimidating with four games against teams currently sporting non-winning records, but it also includes four out of seven on the road. The Browns deserve credit for the way they beat up the Bengals on the road in Week 10, but old habits die hard and it’s still difficult to believe they’re going to be the team left standing at the end of the season. These next three weeks are critical to the Browns’ chances as they face three very beatable opponents despite two coming on the road. If the Browns win at least two, they’re in decent shape entering a tough final month. Winning all three of those likely makes Cleveland the favorite to win the division entering the last four weeks.

CINCINNATI (5-3-1)
Division record: 2-1
Remaining schedule: at New Orleans, at Houston, at Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, at Cleveland, Denver, at Pittsburgh
Skinny: If it weren’t for their season sweep of the Ravens, the Bengals wouldn’t even be discussed as a playoff contender as their other three wins have come at home against Atlanta, Tennessee, and Jacksonville. If you’re head coach Marvin Lewis, the hope is that a healthy A.J. Green will provide the spark because Cincinnati has gone 2-3-1 since the first month of the season. Even if the Bengals have the most talented roster in the division, five of their remaining seven games are on the road and four come against teams sporting winning records. You never know in the unpredictable NFL where things can change quickly from week to week, but Cincinnati looks like the team least equipped to make a run to win the AFC North.

PITTSBURGH (6-4)
Division record: 2-2
Remaining schedule: at Tennessee, Bye, New Orleans, at Cincinnati, at Atlanta, Kansas City, Cincinnati
Skinny: There may not be a more bipolar team in the entire league as the Steelers own the best win (Indianapolis) and two of the three worst losses (Tampa Bay and the New York Jets) of any team in the division. Like the Ravens, they will benefit from having a late-season bye and the balance of three home and three away games over their final six. If Pittsburgh survives a trap game at Tennessee on Monday night, three of the remaining five games come against teams with winning records and two of those will be played at Heinz Field. Based on the remaining schedule, you might be inclined to label the Steelers the favorite of the four teams, but how can you fully trust a team that’s lost games to the 1-8 Buccaneers and the 2-8 Jets?

BALTIMORE (6-4)
Division record: 2-3
Remaining schedule: Bye, at New Orleans, San Diego, at Miami, Jacksonville, at Houston, Cleveland
Skinny: The Ravens should feel good about their remaining home schedule — even with two games against teams with winning records — but their road games against the Saints, the Dolphins, and the Texans won’t be easy for a team sporting just two wins away from M&T Bank Stadium. The Miami game on Dec. 7 might be the biggest of the year if Baltimore wants to be in good position to win the division or at least clinch a playoff spot when it hosts the Browns in the regular-season finale. Winning one of their three road games and winning out at home would get the Ravens to 10 wins, but John Harbaugh would feel a lot better with a 10-5 mark going into the finale against Cleveland than a 9-6 record with so-so division and conference records.

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Ravens miffed by CBS showing Harbaugh’s post-game comments

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Ravens miffed by CBS showing Harbaugh’s post-game comments

Posted on 09 November 2014 by Luke Jones

Head coach John Harbaugh was understandably in a good mood following the 21-7 win over the Tennessee Titans Sunday, but the Ravens weren’t happy that CBS aired his post-game comments referencing the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“That team beat us last week,” Harbaugh said to his team in the locker room at M&T Bank Stadium moments after the win. “Then, they went and got their ass kicked this week.”

The remarks were unlikely to raise too many eyebrows anyway after the Steelers laid a colossal egg in a 20-13 loss to the hapless New York Jets, but the Ravens issued a statement explaining how that part of Harbaugh’s speech was not approved for TV viewing.

Ironically, the video didn’t appear to go viral until after the Ravens drew attention to the gaffe with their statement.

“The comments made by John Harbaugh in the locker room following today’s victory over the Titans were meant for Ravens players and coaches only,” senior vice president of public and community relations Kevin Byrne said. “The CBS-TV crew that was in the locker room was told by coach Harbaugh that it could not broadcast what he was about to say. When coach Harbaugh finished talking about various things happening around the NFL and in the AFC North, he told the crew that it could now use what he was going to say. Inexplicably, CBS-TV then aired comments coach Harbaugh specifically said were not to leave the locker room. CBS-TV immediately pulled the video and apologized to the Ravens.”

Truthfully, those taking offense to Harbaugh’s comments are only showing a lack of experience in post-game locker room settings — at any level — that are often emotional and oozing with testosterone. Harbaugh and the Ravens were fully aware that they were embarrassed by Pittsburgh a week earlier, but that wasn’t going to stop them from reveling in a division rival’s loss on the same day that they won. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and his team would have every right to do the same — and undoubtedly have done so — whenever the roles are flipped.

CBS issued its own statement reiterating that the network had made a mistake in airing Harbaugh’s comments that can be seen in part below.

“We broadcast a clip during our postgame show that should not have aired,” CBS spokesperson Jennifer Sabatelle said. “We immediately pulled it down and called the Baltimore Ravens to apologize.”

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Ravens-Steelers: Inactives and pre-game notes

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Ravens-Steelers: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 02 November 2014 by Luke Jones

PITTSBURGH — Trying to keep pace in a very competitive AFC North, the Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers renew their intense rivalry for Sunday Night Football for the third time in four years at Heinz Field.

With Cincinnati and Cleveland both winning on Sunday, the loser of Sunday night’s meeting will find themselves sitting in last place with a 5-4 record, an indicator of how tough the division has been so far this season. The Ravens seek their first regular-season sweep of the Steelers since 2011 while Pittsburgh is trying to win its third straight game for sole possession of second place right behind the Bengals.

The Ravens will be shorthanded in the secondary after cornerback Jimmy Smith was officially ruled out on Friday with a mid-foot sprain expected to keep him sidelined until at least after their Week 11 bye. Veteran Dominique Franks, who was re-signed by Baltimore less than a month ago — is expected to start opposite Lardarius Webb in the defensive backfield. How defensive coordinator Dean Pees uses the nickel package remains to be seen as strong safety Matt Elam handled the nickel position extensively earlier in the year when injuries at cornerback were a concern.

Tight end Owen Daniels is active and makes his return after only a one-game absence due to a cleanup procedure in his knee. He looked good running routes during pre-game warmups and practiced on Wednesday and Friday this past week.

As expected, defensive end Chris Canty (wrist) and right guard Marshal Yanda (knee) are also active after both were listed as questionable on the final injury report. Canty missed the last four games while recovering from surgery due to a wrist infection, but he was a full participant in practices all week.

After being inactive in each of Baltimore’s first eight games, second-year linebacker Arthur Brown is active for the first time this season. The 2013 second-round pick is expected to mostly fill a special-teams role, but he could see some snaps in the nickel package with his ability to blitz.

The biggest surprise on the inactive list was rookie safety Terrence Brooks after he was burned on a 53-yard reception on the Bengals’ final scoring drive last week. This will likely lead to more opportunities for safety Will Hill in the Baltimore secondary behind Elam and fellow starter Darian Stewart. Brooks was also inactive for Baltimore’s Week 3 win at Cleveland.

The Ravens will be playing Pittsburgh for the 38th time in their regular-season history as they own a 17-20 record. However, they have won three of their last four regular-season games at Heinz Field and own a 7-10 all-time record in Pittsburgh. The Ravens have won the last four games played in prime time against the Steelers as the teams have split the all-time prime-time series at 6-6.

The referee for Sunday night’s game will be Bill Vinovich.

According to Weather.com, the forecast in Pittsburgh Sunday night calls for temperatures to dip into the mid-30s, but no precipitation is expected and winds will only reach six miles per hour.

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

Below are the inactives for Sunday night:

BALTIMORE
CB Jimmy Smith
WR Michael Campanaro
S Terrence Brooks
LB Zach Orr
OL Gino Gradkowski
DE Lawrence Guy
OL Jah Reid

PITTSBURGH
CB Ike Taylor
S Ross Ventrone
QB Landry Jones
WR Justin Brown
CB B.W. Webb
DL Daniel McCullers
OL Chris Hubbard

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday night

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday night

Posted on 01 November 2014 by Luke Jones

No strangers to meeting in the national spotlight, the Ravens and Steelers will meet in prime time for the 13th time in the series history on Sunday night.

Baltimore will be looking for its first regular-season sweep of Pittsburgh since 2011 while the Steelers aim for their third straight win overall. Both teams enter the weekend right on the heels of the first-place Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North.

Sunday marks the 38th time these teams have met in the regular season with the Steelers owning a 20-17 advantage. The Ravens are 7-11 in regular-season games played in Pittsburgh, but they’ve won three of the last four played at Heinz Field.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to improve to 6-3 in a very competitive AFC North …

1. Steelers wideout Antonio Brown will catch a long touchdown in the first quarter as a reshuffled secondary tries to get its bearings. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will need to be creative with coverages as top cornerback Jimmy Smith is out. The timing couldn’t be much worse as Brown has been arguably the best receiver in the NFL this season and is tied for the league lead with 10 catches of 25 or more yards. Pees will likely entrust Lardarius Webb to cover Brown, which is a daunting task for a cornerback working his way back to top form after a lengthy absence due to a back injury. A miscommunication will allow Brown to break free for a long score as the Ravens defense tries to get in sync.

2. Rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro will score a touchdown for a second straight game and lead the Ravens in rushing. Baltimore ran for 157 yards in the first meeting against the Steelers in Week 2, but it wasn’t until the fourth quarter that the running game really wore down a tired Pittsburgh front. This defense is softer than the typical Steelers unit and ranks 11th against the run, and the physicality of Taliaferro will be a strong change of pace from shifty starter Justin Forsett. With concerns in their own secondary, the Ravens will want to control the clock and limit the Steelers’ opportunities for possessions and Taliaferro will get plenty of carries in the second half with Bernard Pierce now third on the depth chart.

3. The Baltimore defense will limit Le’Veon Bell’s production on the ground, but the Pittsburgh running back will lead his team in receptions. The Ravens are allowing only 3.7 yards per carry and rank seventh in the NFL in run defense as they’ve slowed opposing running backs all season. However, the Steelers are finding more and more ways to get the ball to the 244-pound back as a receiver as he’s second on the team in receiving yards. With the Ravens trying to account for not having Smith, they’re going to be content with giving cushion and allowing throws underneath to prevent the big play. Pittsburgh will use this to its advantage by getting the ball to Bell in the passing game.

4. Terrell Suggs will collect two sacks to pick up 100 for his career. There’s no downplaying how crucial it will be for the Ravens to generate pressure as they’ll be depending on the pair of Dominique Franks — who was on the street at this time a month ago — and Chykie Brown — who spent the last two weeks on the inactive list — at the cornerback position opposite Webb. Much like he’ll mix and disguise coverages in the back end, Pees will move Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and Pernell McPhee around to confuse an improving offensive line and harass Roethlisberger. Suggs needs two sacks for 100 in his career, and nothing would be more fitting than doing it against the quarterback he’s sacked more than any other rusher has.

5. Pittsburgh will win a 26-23 game that goes back and forth for much of the night. Admittedly, when trying to break down Ravens-Steelers, it’s probably best to put aside the numbers and simply remember that 11 of the 15 total meetings in the John Harbaugh era — counting the postseason — have been decided by four or fewer points. However, the loss of Smith hurts more than any player on the current roster beyond quarterback Joe Flacco and the Steelers offense is playing at a high level at the wrong time for Baltimore. Both offenses will move the ball effectively, but the Steelers will do a little too much damage in the passing game for the Ravens to overcome.

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High stakes return for Ravens-Steelers, even if same bite hasn’t

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High stakes return for Ravens-Steelers, even if same bite hasn’t

Posted on 31 October 2014 by Luke Jones

The infamous lyrics are piped through the speakers as the Ravens offense huddles up for its next play.

Oh, Mama, I’m in fear for my life from the long arm of the law… 

Only it’s not a critical fourth-quarter moment against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field as the Styx song is instead sounding as the Ravens go through a Wednesday practice in Owings Mills. A number of Ravens players have admitted over the last couple years to liking “Renegade” as the Steelers’ anthem has become a fixture on the playlist used at practices in Owings Mills.

It’s a sentiment that was unlikely to be uttered by Ravens players a decade ago, but perhaps it speaks to the way the Baltimore-Pittsburgh rivalry has evolved in recent years. Sunday marks the 41st overall meeting between these AFC North foes with the stakes as high as they can be in early November with the Ravens and Steelers right on the heels of first-place Cincinnati.

But you can’t help but feel something has been lacking from Ravens-Steelers recently. The games have remained close with the Ravens’ 26-6 win over Pittsburgh earlier this season being the only one of the last five to be decided by more than three points, but the same bite hasn’t quite been there.

A rivalry in which the pre-game trash talk and bulletin-board material once rivaled the car-crash play on the field from an entertainment standpoint no longer fills reporters’ notebooks in the same way as even the once-brash Terrell Suggs has been more subdued in recent years. Former players and coaches such as Ray Lewis, Hines Ward, and Bill Cowher have provided the only inflammatory commentary in recent weeks by labeling Pittsburgh “soft” on defense, but you rarely hear such critiques from either side anymore as most vocal disdain has been replaced by mutual respect, which isn’t a bad thing, mind you.

The truth is these teams are different than the longstanding idea of the Ravens-Steelers mystique that fetches words such as bloodshed and old-school football.

On top of the departure of a number of outspoken figureheads including Lewis, Ward, Ed Reed, and LaMarr Woodley, Pittsburgh hasn’t made the playoffs since 2011 and last year marked the first time since 2002 that these teams played a game in which both entered with sub-.500 records. After Pittsburgh and Baltimore were near the top of every defensive category for more than a decade, both teams now lean more on offense — the Ravens do rank second in points allowed this year — with defenses in transition and possessing vulnerabilities.

By no means is the rivalry dead — far from it — but the narrative that once centered around two soul-crushing defenses now focuses on quarterbacks Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger. And we’ll see if Sunday’s higher stakes pump new life into a Ravens-Steelers rivalry that’s seen more bizarre — journeyman quarterback Charlie Batch beating Baltimore in 2012 and Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin interfering with Jacoby Jones’ sideline return last Thanksgiving night — than instant classic over the last couple years.

It’s an opportunity for new names to be made in the same way that wide receiver Torrey Smith entered his into Baltimore-Pittsburgh lore three years ago in catching the game-winning touchdown in the closing seconds of a Sunday night game at Heinz Field. That 2011 win was the difference in the Ravens clinching the AFC North title and a first-round bye and the Steelers losing a first-round game at Denver as both teams finished 12-4 with Baltimore’s season sweep being the tiebreaker.

After more than a decade of fighting high-stakes wars and spewing venom at one another, the annual meetings may not be the hottest thing going in the NFL anymore, but Ravens-Steelers has become a legacy rivalry, which is a tribute to how long these teams have beaten the hell out of each other. Many of the Ravens’ youngest players were only in elementary school when the Pittsburgh-Baltimore rivalry first took off at the start of the new millennium, which is difficult to believe for a franchise still less than two decades old.

It may lack the history of Packers-Bears or Cowboys-Redskins, but the rivalry isn’t going anywhere with at least two games guaranteed every year and each fan base holding more disdain for the other than even the teams do. And young players on each side want to make their own mark after watching from afar and listening to veteran teammates talk about the battles of yesteryear in Pittsburgh.

“These guys all know it. They’ve watched it. They’ve grown up with it,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “C.J. Mosley and I were talking, and he said he has been watching Ravens-Steelers since he was a little kid. For him, that’s about as long as the Ravens have been around. That goes to show you his whole life has been Ravens-Steelers.

“People talk about us being a young franchise, but for that generation we’ve been around for as long as any other franchise. This rivalry dates back for those guys that play for us that are young.”

Even if the rivalry has changed, the NFL still sees it as a major attraction with both Ravens-Steelers games landing in prime-time slots this season and at least one annual game being a nationally-televised affair since 2007.

The high stakes are back on Sunday with each team sporting a 5-3 record.

It will be fun to see what they have in store for one another.

And you know the Ravens won’t blink when they hear those familiar lyrics sound through the Heinz Field speakers at some point in the fourth quarter.

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Short-handed Ravens secondary has no time for excuses against Steelers

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Short-handed Ravens secondary has no time for excuses against Steelers

Posted on 30 October 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — There’s no hiding from the danger of Jimmy Smith being absent in the Ravens’ secondary, especially when you’re facing Ben Roethlisberger and a Pittsburgh Steelers passing game that threw for over 500 yards last week.

They won’t find an easy fix for a pass defense that ranks 22nd in the NFL and has looked vulnerable even with the Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback in the secondary. But the Ravens have no time to feel sorry for themselves as they look to improve to 6-3 in an ultra-competitive AFC North with all four teams currently sporting winning records.

“I don’t think the Steelers are feeling really bad about it, so we can’t feel really bad about it,” said defensive coordinator Dean Pees about Smith’s foot injury expected to keep him out at least until after the Week 11 bye. “We just have to go with the next guy. [We] have to do what we can do to try to get the guys in the best position we can put them in as a coaching staff to give them success and go with it.”

But who is that next guy opposite Lardarius Webb, who is still working his way back to pre-injury form himself?

Is it Dominique Franks, who recently found his way into the nickel package after being signed to replace the injured Asa Jackson in early October? He was on the free-agent market at this time last month after being deemed not good enough by Baltimore at the end of the preseason.

Then there’s Chykie Brown, who entered training camp as the favorite to be the No. 3 cornerback behind Smith and Webb before struggling so dramatically that he was a healthy inactive the last two weeks. Safety Anthony Levine has also practiced at the cornerback position since the summer, but he’s played only five defensive snaps all season.

The Ravens could promote Tramain Jacobs — a rookie free agent from Texas A&M who impressed during training camp — from the practice squad, but a move such as that would likely see him serving on a special-teams role and as an insurance policy behind the others.

None of the aforementioned options opposite Webb inspire confidence, and that’s assuming Pees uses one of the Ravens’ safeties at the nickel position as he has for large stretches of the season.

“We’ve got to find somebody to step up,” strong safety Matt Elam said. “We know it’s going to be hard to do the things Jimmy’s been doing, but we need somebody to step up and do whatever it takes to help the team win. We’ve still got [time] to prepare and get right so we can execute. Just do whatever it takes to get a [win].”

It’s easier said than done against an offense sporting arguably the best receiver in the NFL in Antonio Brown as well as emerging young wideouts Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton. Pees spoke Thursday about the challenge of not being able to put all their focus on slowing Brown with Roethlisberger suddenly having more options to throw to at the wide receiver position.

Needless to say, the pressure to contain Brown is likely to fall on the shoulders of Webb, whose own status many were questioning just a few weeks ago after a back injury had wiped out his entire summer as well as much of the first month of the season. The 5-foot-10 Brown isn’t physically imposing, which is good news for the similarly-statured Webb if he’s to shadow him all over the field.

Now would be a great time for Webb to regain the form he enjoyed prior to his second ACL injury in 2012 when he was on the verge of becoming one of the best cornerbacks in the AFC. His style is a major contrast to the 6-foot-2 Smith, who uses a combination of speed and physicality.

“Webb is more [of] a quicker guy and a lot smaller, more fluid, [and has good hands],” said Brown, who leads the NFL with 60 receptions on a staggering 87 targets in eight games. “Smith is a bigger, stronger guy who they like to put on the line of scrimmage and be disruptive at the line of scrimmage.”

The good news for the Ravens defense is the overall familiarity the coaching staff and veteran players have with the Pittsburgh offense. There are few surprises between these teams and the Ravens were certainly able to harass Roethlisberger in their Week 2 win in Baltimore when they held the Steelers to only six points.

But the Ravens know the pass rush must be on point in not only disrupting the signal-caller’s timing but in keeping him in the pocket as head coach John Harbaugh acknowledged no one is capable of the “extend the play thing” better than Roethlisberger. It’s a scene all too familiar in watching the Pittsburgh quarterback escape pressure to eventually find an open receiver breaking away from downfield coverage.

The challenge is always there for a coordinator to strike the right balance between sending extra blitzers — leaving fewer in coverage — or playing with more defenders in the back end and relying on a four-man rush, but Pees will need to be more creative than ever with the shortage at cornerback. How the secondary will look is anyone’s guess as the Ravens may go back to Elam playing the nickel position as they’ve frequently done this season or they could turn to another such as the intriguing Will Hill or rookie Terrence Brooks, who played some nickel in the preseason.

It won’t be easy against the league’s fourth-ranked passing game, but anyone knows not to dwell too much on the numbers in this AFC North rivalry in which 10 of the last 13 regular-season meetings have been decided by three or fewer points.

“We have the guys we need. Every team faces some kind of a situation at some position,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve had injuries all year in different positions, and you just have to step up. It’s not something we talk about. We don’t make a big deal about it. It’s not a point of emphasis for us. It’s just we’re the team; it’s the Ravens’ team. And whoever is part of it goes out there and plays and does their best.”

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Ravens staking claim as one of NFL’s best with fast start

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Ravens staking claim as one of NFL’s best with fast start

Posted on 19 October 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens staked their claim as the best team in the AFC North with a 29-7 win over the Atlanta Falcons Sunday to move into first place ahead of Cincinnati.

With their fourth 5-2 start in the last five years, the Ravens have put themselves in prime position to return to the playoffs as they approach the midway point of the 2014 season. But how much does that mean as we approach the final week of October?

“Meaningful in Week 7, so, it’s good to be there in that situation at this time,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “But you have to build on it, you have to keep getting better. We’re not a good enough team to do the things that we want to do right now, so we have to keep improving.”

Baltimore may not be a flawless team — there’s no such thing in the modern NFL — but it’s difficult to look at the numbers and not be impressed with what Harbaugh’s group has done through the first seven weeks of 2014. Even with 14 teams having played only six games at the end of business on Sunday, the Ravens have allowed the fewest points (104) and own the best point differential (plus 89) in the NFL.

Yes, they appear to have drawn the right year to play the woeful NFC South — a division where 3-3-1 Carolina currently sits in first place — but you can’t control which teams are on the schedule. The Ravens are not only beating the teams they’re supposed to beat, but they’re throttling them, which doesn’t often happen in the parity-driven NFL.

Already securing four wins of 20 or more points, the improved Ravens offense has received much of the attention, but the defense is taking major strides with its second straight game collecting five sacks, the first time that’s happened since the 2006 season. It was no surprising feat to limit the hapless Tampa Bay offense last week, but holding Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ third-ranked unit to just seven points was an impressive task.

With the pass rush coming alive and the play of the secondary stabilizing, the confidence on the defensive side of the ball is growing. Several defensive players spoke after the game about the speech linebackers coach Ted Monachino offered Saturday night, challenging a talented group of outside linebackers to raise its level of play to where it belongs.

It’s safe to say the message was received on Sunday as Ryan was hit nine times a week after Buccaneers quarterback Mike Glennon was hit 15 times.

“We’re dangerous, and we’re real serious. We’re coming out playing with an attitude,” said rush specialist Pernell McPhee, who added two more sacks on Sunday to continue his strong season. “Our [secondary] needs us, and I know we need them. I think [defensive coordinator] Dean Pees is doing a great job of calling the plays and setting us up to get the sacks. We’re just focusing in and trying to play ball.”

Much credit should go to Pees, who has shown various looks up front by moving around Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and McPhee to cause confusion while using a safety-by-committee approach in the secondary. Matt Elam and Darian Stewart started the game, but rookie Terrence Brooks and the returning Will Hill also saw extensive action at the safety position.

Former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan was known for bringing “organized chaos,” but Pees’ decision to substitute so frequently in the secondary reminded the 65-year-old coordinator of his college coaching days at Miami of Ohio when he used various personnel looks in a 1986 upset win over a top 10 LSU team in Baton Rouge. Of course, Baltimore didn’t face that kind of a talent disadvantage Sunday, but it illustrates the creative lengths used to help mask what’s been a deficiency of the defense to this point in the season.

Time will tell whether the safety rotation will continue, but the best weapon to neutralize a shaky secondary has been the major heat in the pocket. It’s also created more opportunities for turnovers as defensive backs got their hands on several Ryan passes despite not coming away with any interceptions.

“Those dudes are our best friends,” said cornerback Jimmy Smith about the pass rush. “They get in there, they disrupt things, they cause havoc, they make quarterbacks panic and throw the ball in the air. And on our end, we have to do a better job of coming up with some more turnovers. We’ve had a lot of opportunities, and we have a lot of drops.”

Unlike last season’s 8-8 team that remained static with issues on each side of the ball showing up on a weekly basis, these Ravens appear to be improving as the year progresses. Their only loss since Week 1 came on the road two weeks ago against Indianapolis, a team that’s won five straight games and only beat them by seven points at Lucas Oil Stadium.

It’s true that no one should confuse Tampa Bay or Atlanta for juggernauts, but the Ravens have a tremendous opportunity to not only seize commanding control of the AFC North but to make an emphatic claim as one of the best teams in the NFL if they can take care of business in trips to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh the next two weeks. It won’t be easy playing on the road against their two biggest rivals, but the Ravens have looked like the class of the division through seven weeks while the Bengals have gone 0-2-1 since their bye with two road losses of 26 or more points.

The Ravens continue to show improvement on both sides of the ball while stacking wins as they now have a chance to pay back Cincinnati for its Week 1 win in Baltimore.

“We have everything that we want to do right in front of us,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “We just have to go out there and continue to play well. We have a tough opponent next week that we didn’t play necessarily good against, at least for a half, in the first game. We have to come back out there and prove ourselves. They’re a good football team, and they’re going to be hungry, and we’re [playing] there. It’s going to be a tough test; I can’t wait for it.”

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Five numbers behind Ravens’ 26-6 win over Pittsburgh

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Five numbers behind Ravens’ 26-6 win over Pittsburgh

Posted on 12 September 2014 by Luke Jones

After every Ravens game this season, we’ll take a look at five numbers that help explain the outcome …

1 — The number of pass attempts thrown by Joe Flacco that traveled 20 or more yards
Skinny: Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s West Coast system is based on shorter throws in which the quarterback releases the ball quickly, and that’s exactly what Flacco did against the Steelers on Thursday. Knowing what kind of arm Flacco has, the Ravens will certainly mix in some deep shots, but Flacco completed 72.4 percent of his passes as the offense possessed the ball for 35:08. That kind of a game plan — along with the arrival of veteran Steve Smith — has temporarily stunted the production of speedy wide receiver Torrey Smith, but the Steelers failed to record a sack or even a quarterback hit against the Baltimore offense, which is exactly what you want every week.

3 — The number of takeaways by the Baltimore defense
Skinny: Though the Steelers were held to six points, they only produced 22 fewer total yards than the Ravens as three turnovers thwarted a couple attempts to get things going offensively. No takeaway was bigger than the one that came on the opening drive of the game when Pittsburgh had marched inside the red zone before linebacker Daryl Smith stripped the ball away from wide receiver Justin Brown to end a drive that had lasted 12 plays and gained 54 yards. Fellow inside backer C.J. Mosley forced and recovered a fumble of his own that led to a short field goal, and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata tipped a pass to himself for the third takeaway of the night, putting an exclamation point on an opportunistic performance by the defense.

4 — The number of drives lasting 10 or more plays completed by the Ravens
Skinny: You should be noticing a trend of dictating the tempo of the game as the Ravens were essentially in complete control from their first offensive drive of the night. The unusual statistic accompanying this was the Ravens only going 5-for-12 on third down, but that just shows how effective they were on first and second down. Baltimore scored on all four of these drives — totaling 20 points — while the Steelers managed only three total points on their two drives that were 10 or more plays. The biggest negative you can draw from Thursday’s game was the red-zone offense in which the Ravens only scored touchdowns on two of six trips, three times settling for short field goals after driving inside the 5.

4.39 — The number of yards per play the Ravens averaged on first down
Skinny: I mentioned this number to follow up the stat from last week’s game in which the Ravens averaged just 1.67 yards per first-down play before the final drive of the first half. We constantly talk about the importance of third-down conversions, but success or failure on first down has an overwhelming impact on the outlook of a drive in terms of what play options are reasonably at your disposal. The Ravens success on first down against the Pittsburgh defense allowed them to maintain a better semblance of balance with the opponent not knowing whether to expect the run or pass when you’re consistently avoiding second-and-long situations.

36 — The number of rushes by the Ravens
Skinny: Throwing 62 passes is almost never an acceptable outcome, but last week’s passing total stuck out even more after an offseason in which the Ravens spoke ad nauseam about returning to their roots and committing to the running game. The final rushing total of 157 yards in Week 2 was a bit deceiving when you remember the Ravens only averaged 2.7 yards per carry through the first three quarters, but they ran effectively enough early to keep it as a viable part of the game plan and to avoid becoming one-dimensional. When they reached the fourth quarter with a 17-6 lead, the Ravens were committed to simply beating up the Pittsburgh front and that’s exactly what they did to the tune of 96 yards on 13 carries to sew up the first win of the season.

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Focused Ravens do exactly what was needed after trying week

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Focused Ravens do exactly what was needed after trying week

Posted on 12 September 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — If you allowed yourself to think about football over the last few days, you couldn’t help but wonder how the Ravens would respond to the most tumultuous in-season week in franchise history.

From the release of the second Ray Rice video that led to the running back’s release Monday afternoon to the countless questions faced by the players remaining in the locker room, it seemed like a lot to ask of a team — speaking in a football sense, of course — to prepare to play the rival Pittsburgh Steelers on a short week. Scrutiny and criticism justifiably rained on the NFL, commissioner Roger Goodell, and Ravens leadership while players knew they needed to avoid an 0-2 start that would have already put Baltimore in a significant hole in the AFC North.

Those same players also absorbed the loss of a valued teammate and friend whom they care about, even if they were as disturbed as anyone watching the video of what Rice did to his then-fiancée in that elevator in Atlantic City. For as much as we admire what these professional athletes accomplish on the field, they’re human beings with emotions just like anyone else, making their convincing 26-6 win over Pittsburgh that much more impressive on Thursday night.

“Whenever you lose a brother, it’s tough,” said linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who collected the only two sacks of the game as the Ravens held Pittsburgh to just two field goals. “Obviously, understanding the situation, we have a bunch of men on our team and you know it’s a business. Things have to happen, and you just have to prepare for it.”

The performance was focused and efficient as the Ravens put together four scoring drives of 10 plays or more to bounce back from a disappointing start to the season against Cincinnati in Week 1. In fact, if you hadn’t known which team had been dealing with such off-field adversity this week, you might have guessed it was the Steelers as they committed three turnovers, nine penalties for 75 yards, and mustered only six points to fall to 1-1.

Thursday was a reasonable blueprint of what you expect to see from Gary Kubiak’s new offense as Joe Flacco completed 21 of 29 passes for 166 yards and two touchdowns — the quarterback also wasn’t sacked once — and the Ravens rushed for 157 yards on 36 carries. The numbers weren’t gaudy, but the final score reflected a convincing win over an opponent they outplayed for the better part of 60 minutes.

The tone was set on the opening drive of the game after quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh offense initially moved down the field in impressive fashion. It was looking like another shaky start for the Ravens defense before safety Darian Stewart delivered a vicious blow to temporarily knock standout receiver Antonio Brown out of the game — he was a non-factor when he returned — and linebacker Daryl Smith followed that by stripping wideout Justin Brown inside the red zone, allowing defensive end DeAngelo Tyson to recover the fumble.

It was basically all Ravens after that as Flacco and the offense marched down the field for a 12-play drive that culminated with a 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Owen Daniels. Baltimore would score six times in all before the night was over.

“That’s just the icing on the top,” said Daniels about his two touchdown catches. “We put great drives together [with] a lot of people contributing in those drives to get us down to that goal line, and I just happened to be that guy to score that touchdown. Huge team effort overall — huge offensive effort; a lot of guys contributing.”

The performance wasn’t perfect as the Ravens only went 2-for-6 inside the red zone with three fourth-quarter drives stalling inside the 5-yard line. And the impressive final rushing totals were a product of a 96-yard fourth quarter against a clearly-tired Pittsburgh defense after gaining only 61 yards on 23 carries through the first 45 minutes when the outcome remained somewhat in doubt.

But there was plenty to like on both sides of the ball as an efficient offense was complemented by a defense that offered an improved pass rush from a week ago and forced three takeaways to stall what little momentum the Steelers offense was able to create over the course of the night.

Following the game, it was clear to see the Ravens’ satisfaction in not only rising to the occasion after a difficult week but responding with a strong sense of urgency to a disappointing Week 1 loss. Thursday night’s win was one the Ravens needed badly on a variety of levels as they attempt to move past the Rice saga and turn all attention toward returning to the postseason in 2014.

“We’ve been through a lot together,” Flacco said. “No matter what it is, I think that we’re a team that tends to group together and come together through tough times. I never had a doubt that we wouldn’t be able to come out here and go get a win tonight.”

And the Ravens certainly played that way Thursday night.

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