Tag Archive | "Steelers"

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Reynolds reaches out to enemy lines for NFL advice

Posted on 06 May 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Before the draft, new Ravens wide receiver Keenan Reynolds sought advice from a former NFL player who understood the transition he’s currently going through.

Former Pittsburgh Steelers great Hines Ward began his career at the University of Georgia playing quarterback and running back before finally excelling at the wide receiver position. And after racking up 1,000 catches and more than 12,000 receiving yards in 14 NFL seasons, Ward was a valuable source of information for Reynolds.

After being drafted by the Ravens in the sixth round of last weekend’s draft, however, the former Navy quarterback knew he might receive flak for fraternizing with a former member of Baltimore’s AFC North rival.

“I know that’s like a cardinal sin in this building,” said Reynolds as he laughed. “We got to talk before the draft — to ease anybody’s mind. I talked to him, because in his college experience, he did play wide receiver, but he also played quarterback [and] running back. He was all over the place, so he had to adjust to the new role of being a permanent wide receiver. He gave me some tips and tricks and things to work on to perfect my craft.”

The Ravens have already said that they envision Reynolds as a slot receiver and a contributor in the return game. Though making it clear that he’s willing to play anywhere to succeed at the NFL level, the 21-year-old acknowledged it has been an adjustment realizing he would no longer be a quarterback after setting the FBS record with 4,559 rushing yards at the position.

In fact, Reynolds didn’t even learn that he’d work as a running back at the East-West Shrine until reading an article listing him at the running back position.

“When I got invited to the Shrine game, I saw that I wasn’t a quarterback anymore, and I was like, ‘Well, this is fun,'” said Reynolds, who scored more touchdowns than anyone in NCAA Division I history. “I was like, ‘This is an opportunity to pursue the dream at the next level,’ and I’m embracing it with everything I can. [There have] been several guys that have come before me that have been able to make the transition successfully, so I’ve been trying to model my game after them, talk to them, and just hear what they have to say.”

The 5-foot-11, 205-pound Reynolds has worked extensively with former Pro Bowl selection Brian Mitchell to learn the finer points of the return game. He wouldn’t be the first college quarterback to succeed as an NFL return specialist as Antwaan Randle El did it for the Steelers and New England’s Julian Edelman has thrived as both a receiver and returner more recently.

Reynolds even thinks his experience running the triple-option offense at Navy will better prepare him for his new role as a return specialist.

“I think there are some similar traits that you have to have on that level as a punt returner,” Reynolds said. “You have to be able to make quick decisions; you have to be quick in tight spaces, make a move and make somebody miss. Every day in practice, anytime we ran an inside run as a quarterback, we were making the safety miss, making the safety miss. That was something that coaches always ingrained in the quarterback’s head.

“Making that first guy miss and trying to make a play is what I was doing for the last four years.”

The Ravens love Reynolds’ character and athleticism, but he knows the transition won’t be easy as he’ll be competing with a deep group of receivers who have many more years of experience playing the position than he does.

But if his career at Navy was any indication, Reynolds will embrace the opportunity to succeed at the next level. He certainly doesn’t plan on allowing his work ethic to be questioned along the way.

“Every position has a technique that you have to perfect,” Reynolds said. “Guys have spent 10 [or] 15 years perfecting these techniques, and I’m a newborn in this position. I just have to work extremely hard — twice as hard as the next man — to get used to the position [and] get better at the technique.”

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Five questions about the Ravens’ 2016 schedule

Posted on 15 April 2016 by Luke Jones

The 2016 schedule is officially set for the Ravens and below are five questions to ponder:

1. What will the Ravens’ record be at the bye?

I’ll abstain from predicting Baltimore’s record when the draft hasn’t even taken place yet, but it is interesting to note that six of the Ravens’ first seven games will come against non-playoff teams from a year ago. However, this is a bit deceiving as the New York Jets finished with a 10-6 record in 2015 and the Oakland Raiders may have the best young roster in the league after adding even more talent this offseason.

Still, I’m not sure I’ll like the Ravens’ chances of getting to the playoffs if they’re anything less than 5-2 by the time they hit their Week 8 bye, especially when they play road games at New England, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati in a four-week span to close the regular season.

2. Has a team ever played back-to-back road games at the same venue?

We’ve seen Week 17 opponents meet in the first round of the playoffs in the same stadium, but I’m curious to know how many times a team has played road games against the New York Giants and the New York Jets in consecutive weeks. At least the Ravens should be very familiar with MetLife Stadium by around 4:15 p.m. on Oct. 23.

No, I’m not interested enough to do the research to find out if and when it’s happened before, but I’d gladly thank you if you are willing to do the work.

3. What will the “Color Rush” uniforms look like for the Ravens-Browns game on Nov. 10?

The Color Rush uniforms we began seeing for Thursday games last year will return, so it will be interesting to see what that might look like for the Ravens. Truthfully, the all-black uniforms are no longer special at this point, so what about purple jerseys and purple pants for that nationally-televised game?

Let’s hope the mustard-colored pants from last year never see the light of day again.

Would Cleveland wear orange jerseys and orange pants to go with orange helmets or would the Browns sport an all-brown getup? Remembering how ugly their new uniforms looked last year, do we really want to know?

4. How do we feel about the Ravens playing in the afternoon on Christmas Day?

It’s probably just me being a whiny sportswriter — to be clear, I do love my job — but do we need multiple NFL games on Christmas? It was one thing for the Ravens to play on Christmas night 11 years ago, but an afternoon game is intrusive for many people wanting to celebrate the holiday with their families — in Pittsburgh or Baltimore.

Do you really want Aunt Edna bugging you about when you’re ever going to get married or have kids while you’re trying to watch Joe Flacco drive the Ravens the length of the field in the fourth quarter?

For Ravens fans unhappy about only having two prime-time games in 2016, this one practically counts as a third since it will be a nationally-televised game on NFL Network.

5. Why are the Ravens finishing the regular season in Cincinnati again?

Many are complaining about the Ravens now having 10 of their last 11 Monday night games on the road when they travel to New England on Dec. 12, but going to Paul Brown Stadium to conclude the regular season for the fifth time in six years is ridiculous.

Imagine the uproar if the Ravens had to go to Heinz Field for Week 17 every year. How irritated would Pittsburgh be to go to Baltimore or Cincinnati to conclude the season on an annual basis?

The Bengals’ losing past still resonates with many, but they’ve beaten the Ravens five straight times and are the only team in the AFC North to have made the playoffs in each of the last five years. The Monday night thing is quirky, but at least Baltimore has had plenty of prime-time home games over that time.

The Ravens shouldn’t have to go to Cincinnati for the final week every year.

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Ravens add much-needed diversity to passing game

Posted on 15 March 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Asked in early January whether the Ravens needed more speed in the passing game, Joe Flacco answered carefully while making his stance clear.

“I don’t know if it’s something that it needs, but you see what speed does,” the veteran quarterback said. “It does a lot for football teams. 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.”

The Ravens took a step to copy Pittsburgh’s formula on Tuesday by signing former Steelers receiver Mike Wallace to a two-year deal worth a reported $11.5 million.

Not only does the union provide the Ravens another vertical threat to pair with 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman, but it provides Wallace the chance to get his career back on track after setting new lows in receiving yards (473) and touchdowns (two) last year. Playing the last three seasons with quarterbacks in Miami’s Ryan Tannehill and Minnesota’s Teddy Bridgewater who aren’t known for their arm strength, the 29-year-old sees the strong-armed Flacco as the perfect passer for his skill set.

“I always loved his deep ball ever since I was in Pittsburgh watching Torrey [Smith] catch them,” Wallace said. “I was like, ‘Man, this guy gets like eight of them in a row!’ I need me some of that.”

After Perriman missed his entire rookie season due to a right knee injury suffered on the first day of training camp, the Ravens can hardly afford a repeat of 2015 when they lacked a speed receiver to stretch the field and create more space for Steve Smith and Kamar Aiken on short-to-intermediate routes. Baltimore finished eighth in passing offense, but the unit ranked 30th in yards per attempt (6.6), reflecting its inability to push the ball down the field.

Now, the Ravens hope the addition of Wallace and Perriman’s healthy return will bring more diversity to the passing game and better utilize Flacco’s strengths.

Head coach John Harbaugh is excited about the potential of his top four receivers and how it might impact opponents’ preparation for his offense.

“It’s going to cause people some problems,” Harbaugh said. “You have some considerations back there on defense. If you’re going to put your defense over one guy or another guy and leave some pretty talented guys open on the other side, that’s going to create some problems for defenses.”

The Ravens may lack a true No. 1 option with Steve Smith turning 37 and coming back from a torn Achilles tendon, but Wallace doesn’t need to be a 1,200-yard receiver for the Baltimore passing game to thrive in 2016. The key is having wideouts who bring different skills to the table, whether you’re factoring in Steve Smith’s toughness and experience, Aiken’s reliable hands, or the high-end speed of Wallace and Perriman.

On paper, it could be the most talented group of pass-catchers the Ravens have had since the 2012 season that culminated with a win in Super Bowl XLVII, and it should fulfill Flacco’s desire to have more speed on the outside.

Both Baltimore and Wallace hope their partnership will be the right fit. The Ravens need to replace the big-play ability they were missing after Torrey Smith’s free-agent departure, and last year showed that they couldn’t count solely on the unproven Perriman to do it when he has yet to complete as much as a full-contact practice in the NFL. Wallace is out to prove he’s still capable of being the playmaker he was with Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh and isn’t just the guy who signed a mega contract with the Dolphins three offseasons ago and was all but forgotten in the Vikings offense last year.

“I’ll show everybody. I’ve been taking a lot of heat for about three years in a row,” Wallace said. “We’ll see about that though. I promise I’ll get the last laugh. Hopefully we can get where we want to get, and that’s to the championship.”

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Great news on saving lives and “An Evening of Heroes: Champions and Survivors” is set for May 19th

Posted on 04 March 2016 by Nestor Aparicio

Great news on saving lives and “An Evening of Heroes: Champions and Survivors” is set for May 19th

I got an email on Thursday afternoon from our friends and partners at There Goes My Hero with an update on our work from last year’s 30-30 MLB #GiveASpit Tour and our other Baltimore area swabbing events. I’d like to share it with you:

 

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It’s very gratifying to see the fruits of our labor and the real, life-saving “scoreboard” that’s starting to mount with There Goes My Hero in just the first full year of our efforts to pay forward the incredible generosity of my wife’s 22-year old donor from Germany. We’re still a few months away from being able to meet the man who has saved Jenn’s life twice since June 2014, but we’re already generating the warmth and pride that comes with doing our part to help others in the future.

Last year, we honored Chuck Pagano, Dick Cass and Brenda Frese for their stories and the bravery of their families through the journey of saving lives on the Thursday before the Preakness. When the event was over, my friends and family and sponsors all asked if we were planning on making it an annual event. I always dream big but – honestly, how do you top that head table of heroes?

Pagano survived leukemia and has now coached my wife through two battles with the same disease.

Cass saved a college friend’s life with a kidney a decade ago.

And many are familiar with Frese’s son, Tyler, who battled leukemia for much of his childhood and is now a healthy, happy little boy running around chasing the Lady Terps on another March journey.

But I have since learned that inspiration is all around us. We just need to look for it!

When Jenn survived her first cancer battle, Ravens Director of Player Engagement Harry Swayne grabbed me in the hallway in Owings Mills. “Did you know James Trapp had the same battle as your wife,” he told me. Sure, enough, the Ravens special teams captain in Super Bowl XXXV was diagnosed with leukemia in 2010 and had his life saved by a bone marrow transplant from his sister, who was a perfect match.

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Trapp is now the Assistant Director of Player Engagement for the Buffalo Bills and his head coach that day in Tampa is my WNST business partner Brian Billick, who bought part of our company to benefit the Living Classrooms Foundation. I knew we had the foundation of something special if I engaged some of his teammates from that 2001 Super Bowl win.

Back in August, I saw John Harbaugh and Billick together on the field in Owings Mills as the old championship coach was addressing the newer championship coach’s team and I saw them embrace. I’m pretty sure the two have never been publicly seen in the same place at the same time. And they certainly have never been engaged in that kind of setting and forum to compare and contrast their mutually loved Baltimore championships.

Three weeks later, Jenn and I saw this on HBO’s Real Sports:

I reached to Ma’ake in January, once my wife was getting better after spending most of three months in Johns Hopkins fighting leukemia again, and he and his brother are excited to be joining us on May 19th the Baltimore Harbor Hotel to raise awareness for There Goes My Hero.

By the way, Ma’ake said that Dick Cass was one of the first people to call him to give him some comfort that he’d be OK after the procdure to save Chris’ life.

Then, there was the call to Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, whom I’ve strangely befriended along life’s twisted highway. I wrote about it when I did a mini-series on our 30-30 MLB #GiveASpit Tour last summer. You can read my whole “back story” with Tomlin here.

Tomlin text me back immediately: “I’m two feet in…”

He then mentioned something about needing security. LOL!

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So, on Thursday, May 19th we’ll all gather – fierce foes on the football field and the stands but united for an evening of civility to discuss the journey and paths of these six men: coaches, heroes and survivors. Obviously, the Pittsburgh vs. Baltimore rivalry will set a backdrop. But remember: there’s a story of a Raven saving a Steeler on stage with us, a brother giving a kidney to save a brother’s life. And a sister who saved a brother. And the audience will be peppered with people like my wife, who’ve had their lives saved by complete strangers.

That’s what this is all about!

I hope you join us and bring along some friends for “An Evening of Heroes: Survivors and Champions.

We hope to make this an annual event to benefit There Goes My Hero every third Thursday of May.

Tickets are on sale now. We have discounted single tickets through THIS MONDAY ONLY!!! Regular price will be $150 each but it’s just $125 for the early birds who want to commit to joining us.

If you are a business owner, I’m sweetening the pot with a free month of gold-level advertising on WNST.net & AM 1570 for all local shops who buy tables.

And if you have any questions or need me: nasty@wnst.net always finds me via email. Save the date and help us save more lives via our friends at There Goes My Hero.

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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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