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Ravens-related thoughts from divisional round

Posted on 18 January 2016 by Luke Jones

Ravens fans undoubtedly took satisfaction from watching Pittsburgh lose to Denver in the divisional round on Sunday, but you couldn’t help but be in awe of the Steelers’ speed at the wide receiver position.

Playing without arguably the best receiver in the NFL in Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger still threw for over 300 yards against the Broncos’ top-ranked pass defense thanks to a 154-yard receiving day from Martavis Bryant as well as contributions from the speedy trio of Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Markus Wheaton. Having caught just one pass in the regular season, the rookie Coates caught two passes for 61 yards to show off the speed that Pittsburgh barely even used in 2015 after taking him in the third round out of Auburn.

That collection of speed nearly overcame a depleted running game that was without DeAngelo Williams as Bryant’s 40-yard run in the first quarter helped set up the Steelers’ lone touchdown of the game. Of course, speed isn’t everything — just ask Pittsburgh’s colossal 2014 third-round bust Dri Archer — but you could easily understand why Joe Flacco cited the AFC North rival’s offense when asked at the end of the season whether he believes the Ravens need to add more speed to the passing game.

“You see what speed does. It does a lot for football teams,” Flacco said. “You see what the Steelers are doing with the speed that they’ve added over the last couple years. It definitely makes a difference out there. I’m not saying that it’s something that we need, but when we’ve had it here, it’s definitely made a little bit of a difference. It helps.”

If the Ravens want to close the gap with Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in the AFC North, they must find more speed at the receiver position in addition to hoping that 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman is fully recovered from the partially-torn posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee that cost him his entire rookie season. Watching the Steelers on Sunday was just a reminder that Baltimore was playing a different game in 2015 with receivers incapable of consistently gaining separation or running away from anyone.

The combination of Kamar Aiken and a returning Steve Smith — Jeremy Butler also showed some promise late in the season — should leave the Ravens in good shape in terms of possession receivers, but general manager Ozzie Newsome needs to find another high-end speed guy to go with the unproven Perriman, whether that player comes via free agency or the draft.

When asked at the season-ending press conference, Newsome made it very clear that he would like to add another receiver or two this offseason. Fans will just hope one will make a substantial impact unlike the late-round picks over the last several drafts who’ve been nothing more than roster filler.

The Ravens have an abundance of No. 5 and No. 6 options, but they need to aim higher when looking for a wide receiver this offseason.

Up-and-down Sunday for ex-Ravens

While former Ravens such as Michael Oher, Ed Dickson, Dwan Edwards, Darian Stewart, and Owen Daniels helped their respective teams move closer to Super Bowl 50 on Sunday, ex-Raven Fitz Toussaint wore the goat horns for the Steelers.

The running back’s fumble with 10 minutes to play not only ended a potential scoring drive, but it was the catalyst for Denver’s only touchdown drive of the game in a 23-16 final. Even as Ravens fans took delight in watching Pittsburgh lose, you couldn’t help but feel for the 2014 rookie free agent from Michigan who was very emotional after the game.

Toussaint has received more postseason carries (31) than regular-season rushing attempts (24) in his first two NFL seasons and had 118 total yards in Pittsburgh’s win over Cincinnati, but Sunday is a day he’ll surely want to forget despite scoring his first NFL touchdown in the first quarter.

Coverage linebackers

It’s almost unfair to compare most linebackers to Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis in Carolina, but the Ravens need to find a way to improve their pass coverage with that positional group.

Still one of the better coverage linebackers in the league when the Ravens signed him three years ago, Daryl Smith clearly floundered in that department to the point that second-year linebacker Zach Orr was replacing him in the nickel package late in the season. More concerning, however, were the continued struggles of C.J. Mosley in pass coverage in his second season.

After Mosley became the first rookie to make the Pro Bowl in franchise history, many concluded he would be the next great Ravens defensive player, but 2015 didn’t go as smoothly for him. To his credit, the Alabama product overcame a slow start to play better as the season progressed, but he must improve in pass coverage if he’s to take his game from good to great.

Nod to Manning

This item isn’t related to the Ravens, but I find myself becoming an unabashed supporter for Peyton Manning at this late stage of his career.

You don’t have to be an NFL scout to recognize he’s a shell of his former self physically, but he also wasn’t responsible for a number of dropped passes from Broncos receivers that would have made for a very respectable day against Pittsburgh if some had been secured.

We all break down in various ways as we get older — the man underwent multiple neck surgeries in 2011 and still threw an NFL-record 55 touchdown passes and won the MVP two years later at age 37 — but instead of laughing over Manning’s decline, I appreciate seeing one of the greatest players in NFL history trying to use his incomparable football intellect and years of experience to overcome a once-powerful arm that won’t cooperate anymore. After years at the top of the mountain, Manning has strangely become the underdog trying to hold on at the end of his career.

Even if you’re not rooting for him, that fight still deserves respect.

Manning and the Broncos look like the least likely of the four remaining teams to raise the Vince Lombardi Trophy in Santa Clara next month, but I’ll be happy for him if he’s somehow still standing in the end — even if everyone will obnoxiously remind you over and over that it was more about Denver’s stout defense than him.

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Ravens better hope losing doesn’t stick with continuity

Posted on 07 January 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Owner Steve Bisciotti’s description of his reaction to the 2015 season best summarizes the reaction to Thursday’s “State of the Ravens” press conference.

“Disappointed, yes. Mad, no.”

Any Ravens fan demanding a pound of flesh was probably going to be unhappy. Successful organizations don’t panic, and it would have been wrong for Bisciotti to do anything drastic in response to eighth-year coach John Harbaugh’s first losing season and the organization’s first since 2007.

But that doesn’t mean the Ravens are only a couple minor tweaks away from being back in the playoffs a year from now, either, and that’s where the tone of the decision-makers fell a little flat after a nightmare season that began with lofty expectations.

“I don’t really think that a lot has to be done,” Bisciotti said. “One thing that I’m proud of is that we all view continuity as a strength. Continuity doesn’t stem from laziness. It comes from confidence, and I believe in these guys. I have a lot of faith that we’ll get it straightened out. I hope we don’t have as many injuries, and I hope we have a whole lot more turnovers. I think those kind of differences would get us back to where we want to be.”

Going 8-8 is one thing, but seasons of double-digit losses don’t just happen without some issues stretching beyond injuries and that shortage of takeaways that has been a trend for several seasons now. The Ravens lacked play-makers at key positions long before an absurd run of injuries midway through the season cost them quarterback Joe Flacco, wide receiver Steve Smith, running back Justin Forsett, and others. Baltimore was 1-6 at a time when the only missing players of great significance were linebacker Terrell Suggs and rookie wide receiver Breshad Perriman.

Those injuries certainly hurt, but they shouldn’t bring a free fall in the standings for a balanced and talented football team.

Harbaugh said Thursday that he does not plan to make any changes to his coaching staff beyond the departure of linebackers coach Ted Monachino to Indianapolis. Of course, some tweaks could always be made in the coming weeks, but it was fair to wonder whether some different voices needed to be injected after a disappointing 5-11 season.

Instead, the status quo will prevail.

Asked about his secondary, general manager Ozzie Newsome spoke about the impact the move of Lardarius Webb to safety could have without mentioning his $9.5 million salary cap figure next year, which would make him one of the most expensive — and unproven — safeties in the game. The lack of  play-making safeties has been one of the organization’s biggest weaknesses since the departure of Ed Reed three years ago, and pointing to Webb as the answer seems shaky at best.

Bisciotti discussed the dramatic impact of Suggs’ absence on the defense, but the 2011 AP Defensive Player of the Year will be 34 in October and is coming off his second Achilles injury in less than four years. The collapse of the unit without him is a compliment to his talents over the years, but the Ravens banking on him to be the Suggs of old would be unwise, if not reckless.

Left tackle, cornerback, pass rusher, and wide receiver were all mentioned as positions to address, but the Ravens’ cap situation will hinge on the potential reworking of Flacco’s contract and there are only so many high draft picks to go around.

Those four positions are arguably the most critical ones on the field after the quarterback in today’s NFL, and the Ravens are either lacking options or have substantial question marks at all of them.

That sounds like a lot that needs to be done.

“We need to augment our team, but John and his staff do a very good job of developing players, and we depend on that,” Newsome said. “You need to have some players that when the game is on the line, they have the ability to make a play. We will be trying to add some of that to our team, but a lot of that can be done through development.”

Harbaugh’s decision to keep his coaching staff intact reflects that confidence, but it will be up to Newsome to find high-impact talent starting with the sixth overall choice of the draft, Baltimore’s earliest pick since 2000. The Ravens will see special play-makers like Antonio Brown and A.J. Green on display when AFC North rivals Pittsburgh and Cincinnati face off in the postseason while they watch the playoffs from home for the second time in three years.

The Bengals in particular have been a problem as they’ve won five straight over the Ravens.

“If we get all of our players back, I think we’ll close that gap,” Bisciotti said. “If we have a good draft, if we do well in free agency, we can compete with them. But that’s a stain — Cincinnati beating us as frequently as they have recently.”

Plenty of ifs.

No, Bisciotti, Newsome, and Harbaugh didn’t flinch or show panic on Thursday, but you hope that there’s more urgency beneath the surface than they expressed publicly after a 5-11 campaign.

There’s a fine line between confidence and complacency in what you do.

Their actions in the coming months and the results in 2016 will determine which one it was for the Ravens brass on Thursday.

After all, success on the field is far more important than winning a press conference.

Even if the message wasn’t all that inspiring on Thursday.

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Ravens thoughts on winning vs. draft pick, 2016 opponents, more

Posted on 29 December 2015 by Luke Jones

The Ravens took great satisfaction in sweeping the Pittsburgh Steelers and putting their playoff hopes in serious danger, but the 20-17 win didn’t do any favors to Baltimore’s 2016 draft positioning.

Entering Week 16 holding the third overall pick in the first round of next year’s draft, the Ravens dropped all the way to eighth after pulling off one of the biggest upsets in franchise history. And it only added more fuel to the ongoing debate over whether it’s better for the Ravens to win now or to lose with an eye toward April.

To be clear once again, this isn’t a question of whether the Ravens themselves should be trying to win. The sheer number of injuries they’ve suffered has already cut John Harbaugh’s team off at the knees in the second half of the season, but many players and coaches are still fighting for their jobs and their efforts were rewarded on Sunday by completing the third season sweep of Pittsburgh in team history.

This also isn’t about the pointless debate of what it means to be a “true” fan, a concept that sounds elitist and is impossible to define. It’s perfectly acceptable to root for the instant gratification that the Ravens experienced against the Steelers on Sunday or to be thinking about the future of your favorite team and wanting a larger talent pool from which general manager Ozzie Newsome can choose in every round of this spring’s draft.

Ultimately, fans want to see their team win every Sunday and also win championships, right?

Harbaugh as well as some media and fans have spoken about the value of finishing the season on a high note, but that’s difficult to quantify when you’re considering the patchwork roster currently playing and how many of those players will either be gone or will have diminished roles next season. Winning these final two games would provide a short-term emotional boost, but that doesn’t equate to success in 2016 without some marked upgrades to the roster.

What isn’t as difficult to quantify, however, is how many draft prospects will be unavailable to the Ravens over the course of a seven-round draft should they finish 6-10 as opposed to 5-11 or 4-12. And that’s where the win over Pittsburgh followed by a potential upset at Cincinnati would leave fans with a hollow feeling in the offseason.

Even with potential wins over the Steelers and the Bengals to wrap the season, Baltimore will still be sitting at home watching the playoffs like the rest of us next week.

Good players can be found in every round of the draft if your talent evaluation is sound and you have some luck along the way. You can whiff picking at any spot in the draft, but you are improving the chances of landing better players the earlier you select.

It’s true that a better draft pick won’t guarantee that the Ravens land a future Pro Bowl player, but you won’t convince me that winning games when you’re playing out the string is all that valuable to the future, either. This is the equivalent of September baseball for a losing club, something Orioles manager Buck Showalter always warns can fool you when evaluating players.

The reality lies somewhere in between. It’s perfectly acceptable to be happy with a win over the Steelers, but you can also choose not to be distraught if the Ravens lose to the Bengals to wrap up the season. And I won’t accuse you of not being a “true” fan no matter what.

Brown done?

It was two years ago Tuesday when wide receiver Marlon Brown caught his seventh touchdown of his rookie season in a season-ending loss at Cincinnati.

Despite the Ravens missing the playoffs at 8-8 a year after winning the Super Bowl, the rookie free agent out of Georgia was one of the bright spots of 2013 and caught 49 passes for 524 yards. Since then, however, Brown has made just 38 receptions for 367 yards and no touchdowns in 24 games.

“Marlon is one of my favorite guys, and he works really hard at it, has a great attitude and, to my eyes, is very talented,” Harbaugh said. “But it just hasn’t worked in the last two years like we all expected after his rookie year, especially how Marlon expected to continue to improve. It’s going to be a really important offseason for him, and it’s going to be a critical season for him when he comes back.”

Brown’s back injury that cost him the final six games of 2015 doesn’t mask the disappointing of his last two seasons. And with the 6-foot-5 wideout scheduled to become a restricted free agent this winter, you wonder if he’s played his final game with the Ravens.

It’s remarkable to think that Brown was catching touchdowns for the Ravens two years ago while Kamar Aiken was on the practice squad and to see how different their careers have gone since then.

2016 opponents

Having clinched third place in the AFC North on Sunday, the Ravens officially learned their full slate of opponents for the 2016 season. The schedule itself is typically released in late April.

Below is a look at those opponents:

HOME: Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Miami, Philadelphia, Washington, Oakland
AWAY: Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, New England, New York Jets, Dallas, New York Giants, Jacksonville

It’s too soon to know what the Ravens or any of these opponents will look like from a talent standpoint  — only five of their 13 opponents in 2016 enter Week 17 with a winning record — but the travel schedule will lighten considerably with just one game (Dallas) played outside the Eastern time zone. After the Ravens played four games out west in the first seven weeks of the 2015 season, that should be a pleasant change as they try to bounce back from the first losing season of the Harbaugh era.

Good shape at guard

It remains to be seen what the Ravens will do at left tackle moving forward, but the last couple weeks make you think that the interior offensive line will be in good shape without Kelechi Osemele.

The organization has long been confident in John Urschel’s ability to play guard, but 2013 sixth-round pick Ryan Jensen has improved substantially over the last couple weeks and earned high marks for his blocking against Pittsburgh on Sunday. With starting center Jeremy Zuttah under contract for next season, the Ravens could elect to have Urschel and Jensen compete for the starting left guard spot in training camp.

Even if Osemele is re-signed, he won’t be playing left guard, but the Ravens should feel confident about their options to replace him.

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Mallett shows why Ravens were so eager to play him

Posted on 28 December 2015 by Luke Jones

It was a baptism by fire starting their fourth quarterback in six weeks against their biggest rival on Sunday, but the Ravens clearly wanted to see what Ryan Mallett could do.

Less than two weeks after being signed, the talented but troubled quarterback responded with the biggest game of his NFL career and made his mark in Ravens lore by completing a season sweep of the Pittsburgh Steelers and putting their playoff hopes in serious jeopardy.

“I know what it’s about now. I like it,” said Mallett after the 20-17 upset victory. “What Steve Smith said, ‘big-boy football,’ right?”

There is no quarterback controversy in Baltimore for 2016, but Mallett showed exactly why the Ravens envision him being their backup to a healthy Joe Flacco. Possessing a strong arm and a 6-foot-6 frame, the 27-year-old is similar to Flacco physically, which is what you’re typically looking for in a backup quarterback.

It was apparent from the beginning of Sunday’s game that Mallett is more talented than Matt Schaub or Jimmy Clausen, but the 2011 third-round pick also played smart football and didn’t look like someone with less than two weeks working in offensive coordinator Marc Trestman’s system.

Mallett turned in the first turnover-free performance by a Ravens quarterback since Nov. 1, a stretch that included Flacco’s final two starts of 2015.

“To operate the way he did, change plays at the line the way he did, I think it says a lot about him, but it says a lot about our coaches as well,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “Just a great effort. This kid was in there 24-7. This kid was in the staff meetings at night.”

Mallett has made an excellent first impression with his new team, but he must continue to show that the concerns about his maturity and commitment that led to his demise in Houston are behind him for good. Showing ability and fire that inspired his teammates on Sunday, Mallett should benefit from working with the even-keeled Flacco in the coming months.

With quality quarterback play at a premium around the NFL, you can’t ask for much more than Mallett offered on Sunday as he threw for a career-high 274 yards, completed 68.3 percent of his passes, and threw a touchdown pass on his opening drive. A quality backup effectively runs your offense and gives you a solid chance to win some games with your regular supporting cast when the starter is out for a short period of time.

Mallett more than looked that part on Sunday.

“I want to thank the Ravens organization for bringing me in and giving me a shot and giving me a workout and coach Harbaugh,” Mallett said. “Just being here, I don’t even know what to say right now. It’s an emotional time, but it’s fun.”

Allen bounces back

After being benched for losing a fumble for the second straight game last week, rookie running back Buck Allen bounced back with one of his best performances of the year as he collected 114 yards from scrimmage and the first rushing touchdown of his NFL career against Pittsburgh.

His six carries for 26 yards over the final 6:24 of the fourth quarter don’t jump out on the stat sheet, but that sequence proved the Ravens hadn’t lost confidence in Allen from a ball security standpoint while only holding a three-point lead. The fourth-round rookie didn’t disappoint as he protected the ball against a Steelers front that was desperate for a turnover.

“Last week hurt to go out there and fumble and change the momentum of the game,” Allen said. “That’s all on me — nobody’s fault but mine and I took full responsibility. I knew coming into this game that I couldn’t make that mistake. The coaching staff believed in me and kept feeding me the ball. I just want to thank them for doing that.”

Upshaw redemption

Courtney Upshaw’s offside penalty that wiped away Jimmy Smith’s 101-yard interception return for a touchdown felt like it would be the turning point and the latest misfortune in a lost season.

But the outside linebacker responded emphatically on the following drive by sacking Ben Roethlisberger to set up a second-and-long situation and then hit the Steelers quarterback again on the fourth-down incompletion that ended Pittsburgh’s last real drive. Upshaw said he still owed Smith after the game, but his pressure prevented Roethlisberger from orchestrating his late-game magic.

“That’s just how you do it. I was on the bench, and I was like ‘I’ve got to make up for that,'” Upshaw said. ” I had the opportunity to go in and apply some kind of pressure. I ended up getting a sack — me and [Elvis Dumervil] — and then on that last one, get a hit on Ben. At the end of the day, we come out here and we try to fight for the win together.”

Mallett to… Matthews?

It wasn’t as synonymous with Ravens football as Flacco to Steve Smith, but Mallett’s run in Baltimore officially began with a pretty touchdown pass to… Chris Matthews?

The little-used receiver who earned fame for a 100-yard performance with Seattle in last year’s Super Bowl caught the first regular-season touchdown pass of his NFL career to put the Ravens on the board in the first quarter. Matthews was promoted from the practice squad to the 53-man roster on Dec. 12 and had just two receptions for 27 yards in his first two games with Baltimore.

“We were just looking for a certain defense,” Matthews said. “They came out in that two-shell and we wanted to exploit it. I was the single man down the middle and I’m 6-foot-5, so you can’t really miss that. Ryan threw an amazing ball and I went up there and caught it.”

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Upset proves Ravens-Steelers rivalry not going anywhere

Posted on 27 December 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — After receiving a season’s worth of coal, the Ravens handed some to Pittsburgh two days after Christmas to put their playoff hopes in serious jeopardy.

The 20-17 victory over their arch rival doesn’t wipe away the disappointment of a lost year, but a season sweep and potentially knocking the Steelers out of the playoffs?

That sounds pretty sweet to the Ravens, especially when few gave them a chance against an offense that had scored 30 or more points in six straight games. And as much as they tried to downplay it during the week, the Ravens wanted nothing more than to prevent their AFC North counterpart from clinching a playoff berth at M&T Bank Stadium.

“If we can’t get in there, then you can’t get in, either,” cornerback Lardarius Webb said. “Exactly that’s how we want it.”

We know misery loves company, but Ravens fans have heard for years about “tainted” victories over the Steelers on several occasions when Ben Roethlisberger was out of the lineup. Pittsburgh fans taunted them when graybeard backup Charlie Batch led the Steelers to a December victory in Baltimore in 2012 — even if the Ravens still went on to win the Super Bowl two months later.

On Sunday, Pittsburgh was facing a Ravens team without quarterback Joe Flacco and 19 other players who were officially out for the season. And the Steelers lost to Baltimore’s fourth starting quarterback of the season as Ryan Mallett will now go down in rivalry lore, especially if the New York Jets win at Buffalo next week to officially knock Pittsburgh out of the playoffs.

Yes, the Ravens are still 5-10 and hurt their draft position with Sunday’s win, but simply holding a lead for four quarters — they had led at the conclusion of just 14 of 58 periods of play this season entering Week 16 — was a pleasant diversion in a frustrating season. The fact that it came against the Steelers made it that much sweeter.

“The lead is important. I think we had maybe 10 points on turnovers,” said head coach John Harbaugh, who directed the Ravens to the third season sweep of Pittsburgh in the 20-year history of the franchise. “We didn’t give up any points on turnovers. That’s winning football. That’s the way we want to play, and to me, that’s a blueprint for us going forward. Now we have to try to replicate that blueprint.”

What this win really means for the future is anyone’s guess. As impressive as Mallett’s performance was less than two weeks after signing a contract, the Ravens hope the Week 17 finale in Cincinnati will be the last time he’ll have to play if Flacco is healthy for the start of the 2016 season.

You hope that young players like Buck Allen and Za’Darius Smith learned valuable lessons from the upset victory, but many players involved in Sunday’s game are unlikely to be in the picture moving forward.

If nothing else, it was a fun three-hour diversion from a nightmare season. This time, the Ravens were able to create a nightmare for someone else.

“It definitely feels special today,” wide receiver Kamar Aiken said. “Keeping them out of the playoffs, and just being able to sweep them this year. They didn’t get a win this year. It’s always good when you beat Pittsburgh.”

Sunday’s upset reminded us that Ravens-Steelers isn’t going anywhere. It’s true that the rivalry has lost some luster in recent years, but how could it not with future Hall of Fame players like Ray Lewis and Hines Ward and Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu no longer in the picture?

As division rivals playing at least twice a year, the Ravens and Steelers have proven over and over again that anything can happen, regardless of what the numbers tell you before they meet. Counting the playoffs, Baltimore has won five of the last six games between these teams, but 12 of the 16 regular-season meetings in the Harbaugh era have been decided by three or fewer points.

With the Ravens long out of playoff contention, more Steelers fans than normal made their way into the stadium on Sunday, but that only challenged the home fans to be louder than they’d been all year, creating an atmosphere reminiscent of high-stakes meetings of the past.

It may no longer be the hottest matchup in the NFL, but Baltimore-Pittsburgh has become a legacy rivalry that will endure those rare times when one or both teams are down. The organizations are two of the best in the NFL, making a win over the other special no matter what their records might be in a given season.

The Ravens hope that Sunday’s win will be a springboard into better fortunes in 2016.

“To sweep Pittsburgh is a very valuable thing,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a very meaningful thing. And this team accomplished that. When you have failure in life, sometimes woven into the failure are great successes and great wins.”

And through that surprising Week 16 success, the Ravens could take joy in handing the Steelers some failure that could doom their own season.

Petty or not, that’s what a great rivalry is all about.

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Ravens-Steelers: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 27 December 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — As the Pittsburgh Steelers hope to punch their ticket to the playoffs on Sunday, the Ravens will feature their fourth starting quarterback in the last six weeks.

After being signed less than two weeks ago, fifth-year quarterback Ryan Mallett will start as the Ravens continue to evaluate him for 2016. General manager Ozzie Newsome signed Mallett through next season with visions of him serving as the backup behind a healthy Joe Flacco.

He will be backed up by Matt Schaub after Jimmy Clausen started each of the last two weeks for the Ravens and was deactivated for Sunday’s game. Schaub started the first two games after Flacco’s season-ending knee injury on Nov. 22, but the veteran had been sidelined with a chest injury the last two weeks.

The only other surprise among the Baltimore inactives was cornerback Jumal Rolle, who filled in as the No. 3 cornerback in the nickel package last week when Jimmy Smith exited with a hamstring injury. Smith is active after being listed as probable on the final injury report this week.

Linebacker Albert McClellan (ankle) will miss his second straight game after being listed as doubtful on the final injury report and missing practice all week. Newly-signed linebacker Chris Carter will make his Ravens debut and is expected to play special teams.

Former Ravens returner and wide receiver Jacoby Jones is inactive for Pittsburgh for the third straight game after being benched for fumbling concerns earlier this month. Jones visited with former teammates on the field a couple hours before kickoff.

These teams are meeting for the 40th time in the regular season with the Steelers leading 28-18 but holding a 9-10 record in Baltimore. However, the Ravens are looking for just the third season sweep of Pittsburgh in franchise history after previously doing it in 2006 and 2011.

John Harbaugh’s team is also trying to avoid its third straight loss at home. The Ravens have lost three straight home games only two other times — 1999 and 2007 — in their 20-year history. Baltimore lost four straight home contests in the midst of a nine-game losing streak in 2007, which was Brian Billick’s final season.

The forecast in Baltimore calls for mostly cloudy skies and temperatures reaching 70 degrees with a small chance for precipitation and winds up to 13 miles per hour, according to Weather.com.

Referee Craig Wrolstad and his crew will officiate Sunday’s game.

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

Here are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
QB Jimmy Clausen
WR Marlon Brown
RB Terrence Magee
CB Jumal Rolle
CB Jermaine Whitehead
LB Albert McClellan
DE Kapron Lewis-Moore

PITTSBURGH
QB Mike Vick
OT Byron Stingily
DE L.T. Walton
RB Jordan Todman
WR Sammie Coates
LB Anthony Chickillo
WR Jacoby Jones

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Mallett to make first Ravens start against Pittsburgh

Posted on 27 December 2015 by Luke Jones

(Updated: 11:35 a.m.)

BALTIMORE — A new wrinkle will be added to an already-bizarre season for the Ravens on Sunday.

Ryan Mallett will become the fourth quarterback to start a game for Baltimore in 2015 as the Pittsburgh Steelers come to M&T Bank Stadium for a Week 16 tilt. The Ravens have never started more than three quarterbacks in the same season in the 20-year history of the franchise.

The news was originally reported by NFL Network early Sunday morning.

Despite being signed less than two weeks ago, Mallett has been praised for his effort in learning the offense. Head coach John Harbaugh was noncommittal about who his starting quarterback would be earlier in the week, but offensive coordinator Marc Trestman made it clear Thursday that the former Houston Texans quarterback had learned enough of the offense to be ready to play if called upon.

Matt Schaub and Jimmy Clausen have started two games apiece since franchise quarterback Joe Flacco suffered a season-ending knee injury on Nov. 22. After working him out earlier in the month, the 4-10 Ravens signed Mallett to a contract through the 2016 season, making it preferable to take a look at him in live-game action before going into an offseason in which Flacco will be rehabbing his surgically-repaired left knee and isn’t expected to be ready before training camp.

“He has had enough reps that if John decides to play him, and we decide to go that way, we feel he could manage the game,” Trestman said. “The most significant part of the week has been the way the three of them have handled the situation and worked together to try to optimize the understanding of our game plan and getting it accomplished.”

Jettisoned from Houston for missing a team flight in late October after concerns already existed about his maturity and committment, Mallett would be making his seventh career start and has thrown five touchdowns and seven interceptions while completing 53.1 percent of his passes. He was originally a third-round pick of the New England Patriots in 2011 and served as a backup to Tom Brady for his first three seasons before being traded to the Texans prior to the 2014 season.

Mallett, 27, was already familiar with Ravens wide receiver Kamar Aiken, who spent parts of two seasons with the Patriots.

“I’ve been catching balls with him when I was in New England, so I’m pretty comfortable with him and everybody else,” Aiken said on Wednesday. “He’s a really talented guy. He has to get the offense. I guess whoever’s out there is out there.”

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 26 December 2015 by Luke Jones

“The night is darkest just before the dawn.”

Recently adding to Harvey Dent’s sentiment expressed in “The Dark Knight” movie was injured Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, who told the team’s official website that watching this season is like “being in Bane’s prison with your back broken, watching the city in turmoil.”

That dawn — or an escape — doesn’t figure to come Sunday as the 4-10 Ravens welcome their hated AFC North rivals to town. Not only do the Pittsburgh Steelers have an opportunity to clinch a playoff spot with a win and a New York Jets loss, but their fans could take over M&T Bank Stadium in a manner we haven’t seen in Baltimore in a long time. Based on the higher-than-normal volume of visiting fans in town over the last two weeks, that scenario appears likely for the final home game of the 2015 season.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said this week that he couldn’t care less about the possibility of punching a ticket to the playoffs in Baltimore, but you know there’s little Pittsburgh would like more than to further embarrass their rivals when they’re down.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Steelers meet for the 40th in their regular-season history with Pittsburgh holding a 21-18 advantage, but 13 of the 18 games — including the postseason — in the John Harbaugh era have been decided by one possession, which includes the Ravens’ 23-20 overtime win at Heinz Field in Week 4. The Ravens are 10-9 against the Steelers in Baltimore.

Here’s what to expects as the Ravens try to win just their third home game of 2015 …

(Editor’s note: A report early Sunday morning indicated that Ryan Mallett will start against the Steelers, allowing the reader to skip to the No. 2 prediction.)

1. Jimmy Clausen will start and play respectably against one of the league’s worst pass defenses. Harbaugh and Marc Trestman have left the door open for Ryan Mallett to make his first start, but it’s difficult imagining him truly being ready with less than two weeks to learn the system and it makes little sense throwing him into such a difficult setting. Meanwhile, Clausen has played well enough in his first two starts to make you think he can make some plays against Pittsburgh’s 31st-ranked pass defense. The Ravens offense lacks the pieces to score many points, but Clausen’s developing chemistry with Kamar Aiken will allow them to at least move the chains on Sunday.

2. Jimmy Smith will intercept a pass, but Antonio Brown will catch a touchdown and post over 100 receiving yards. The fifth-year cornerback being listed as probable is good news, but it’s not as though the pass defense has thrived with Smith, who has disappointed coming off last year’s Lisfranc injury. The Ravens have one interception in the last three months — Lardarius Webb picked off Blake Bortles on Nov. 15 — and Smith will intercept Ben Roethlisberger in the first half. However, he’ll be no match for Brown as he eclipses the century mark in receiving yards for the fifth time in seven games. There are just too many weapons for Pittsburgh and not enough talent in the Ravens secondary.

3. Buck Allen will redeem himself from Week 15 with 115 yards from scrimmage. I wasn’t a fan of Harbaugh’s treatment of the rookie running back after his first-quarter fumble, but the coach indicated that Allen’s bench won’t carry over. The Steelers remain stout against the run, but their linebackers are poor in pass coverage, which should open up opportunities for Allen to catch passes out of the backfield. With Pittsburgh expected to score plenty of points and the Ravens likely playing from behind, Clausen will find Allen as a nice safety valve out of the backfield to help move the chains and the 2015 fourth-round pick will put the memory of the last two weeks behind him with a strong day.

4. Ben Roethlisberger will throw for over 300 yards for the sixth time in the last seven games. It’s hard to believe there was a time when the Pittsburgh quarterback was considered much more of a game manager, but the only thing to consistently stop him in 2015 has been injuries as Roethlisberger continues to put up big numbers. The Ravens will try to exploit Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, but the pass rush just isn’t good enough and the veteran signal-caller will be more than willing to roll out to his right and wait for his receivers to get open down the field. It will be a far cry from Week 4 when the Ravens were able to bottle up Mike Vick for most of the evening.

5. The Ravens will keep it close in the first half before Pittsburgh pulls away in a 31-13 final. Baltimore was competitive early against Seattle and Kansas City, but the resiliency and talent just aren’t there to overcome a turnover, a big penalty, or a gut-wrenching play by the opposition at this point. The Steelers have won three straight and have reached the 30-point mark in their last six contests, making them arguably the biggest AFC threat to New England should they reach the postseason. It’s easy to say it’s a Ravens-Steelers game and anything could happen, but do we really even recognize this Baltimore team at this point? Considering what’s at stake for Pittsburgh, the Ravens winning on Sunday would be one of the biggest upsets in the 20-year history of the franchise.

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Wagner, J. Smith probable to play against Pittsburgh

Posted on 25 December 2015 by Luke Jones

The Ravens listed right tackle Rick Wagner and cornerback Jimmy Smith as probable for Sunday’s home finale against Pittsburgh.

Wagner (knee) and Smith (thigh) both missed practice on Wednesday before participating fully in Thursday’s workout. The Ravens did not practice on Christmas Day and will wrap up preparations for the Steelers on Saturday.

Sidelined since last month with a back injury, wide receiver Marlon Brown was ruled out for Sunday and will miss his fifth consecutive game. It remains unclear why the Ravens haven’t elected to place the third-year wideout on injured reserve as he’s caught a career-low 14 passes for 112 yards this season.

Linebacker and special-teams standout Albert McClellan (ankle) was listed as doubtful after missing practices all week. He missed last Sunday’s loss to Kansas City after missing only one game in his previous two seasons combined.

Needing a win and a New York Jets loss to New England to clinch an AFC wild-card spot, the Steelers listed no player worse than probable on their final injury report.

The referee for Sunday’s game will be Craig Wrolstad.

The Ravens will wear their black jerseys for Sunday’s game after wearing their all-black uniforms in the Week 5 loss to Cleveland.

According to Weather.com, Sunday’s forecast calls for partly cloudy skies with temperatures in the low 70s and winds up to 11 miles per hour.

Below is the final injury report for Sunday:

BALTIMORE
OUT: WR Marlon Brown (back)
DOUBTFUL: LB Albert McClellan (ankle)
PROBABLE: CB Jimmy Smith (thigh), OT Rick Wagner (knee), LB Daryl Smith (non-injury)

PITTSBURGH
PROBABLE: S Will Allen (non-injury), CB William Gay (non-injury), LB James Harrison (non-injury), S Mike Mitchell (shoulder), TE Matt Spaeth (knee)

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J. Smith, Wagner practice fully on Christmas Eve

Posted on 24 December 2015 by Luke Jones

Before departing to enjoy the Christmas holiday with their families, the Ravens welcomed back two starters to the practice field on Thursday as they count down to their Week 16 tilt with Pittsburgh.

Cornerback Jimmy Smith (thigh) and right tackle Rick Wagner (knee) were full participants a day after missing practice with injuries suffered in this past Sunday’s loss to Kansas City. This bodes well for their availability against the Steelers, who will try to clinch a playoff spot on Sunday with a win and a New York Jets loss.

Linebacker Albert McClellan (ankle) and wide receiver Marlon Brown (back) were absent from practice for the second straight day. Linebacker Daryl Smith received a veteran day off as he typically does on Thursdays.

For Pittsburgh, safety Mike Mitchell (shoulder) returned to practice as a full participant.

Below is the full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: WR Marlon Brown (back), LB Albert McClellan (ankle), LB Daryl Smith (non-injury)
FULL PARTICIPATION: CB Jimmy Smith (thigh), OT Rick Wagner (knee)

PITTSBURGH
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: S Will Allen (non-injury), TE Matt Spaeth (knee)
FULL PARTICIPATION: CB William Gay (non-injury), LB James Harrison (non-injury), S Mike Mitchell (shoulder)

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