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Flacco unfazed by lack of offseason additions to Ravens offense so far

Posted on 19 April 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — It’s no secret that the Ravens have invested heavily in revamping their defense this offseason while an offense that was below average in 2016 has been forced to wait.

With 32-year-old running back Danny Woodhead being the only free-agent addition and right tackle Rick Wagner, wide receivers Steve Smith and Kamar Aiken, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, and center Jeremy Zuttah no longer on the roster, you could understand if Joe Flacco felt anxious, especially when a theme from the Ravens brass’ season-ending press conference was a desire to see better play from the veteran quarterback. But Flacco expressed little concern when asked about the holes that remain on his side of the ball with the NFL draft only a week away.

“It’s the NFL. We have a lot of good guys around here that we are focused on getting better and going out and winning football games with,” Flacco said. “I never really expect too much to happen in the offseason, and whatever does happen, happens. I have been around long enough to know that guys change teams and you get new guys and that can happen all the way up to the time the season starts. You never know.”

Flacco expressing confidence in the players currently on the roster is hardly surprising — it’s the appropriate public stance to take — but two openings on the offensive line and the lack of an intermediate receiver don’t exactly inspire confidence for a team trying to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

So, if the 32-year-old signal-caller isn’t concerned, has he at least approached general manager Ozzie Newsome with suggestions regarding a particular free agent or a positional need?

“If they ask my opinion, then I will give it to them,” said Flacco, who acknowledged hope that the Ravens would bring back former teammate Torrey Smith before he signed with Philadelphia last month. “But I don’t necessarily go up there and push one way or another. Obviously, there are certain things that I can feel strongly about.”

Asked about the possibility of the Ravens bringing back veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin, Flacco chose his words carefully while acknowledging that he had a great on-field relationship with the 36-year-old and that he could still help any team.

Reiterating his confidence in his current teammates, Flacco even went as far as saying he doesn’t think that the Ravens need another wide receiver.

“I think we have a lot of young, talented guys that are ready to make a name for themselves and are going to work really hard this offseason to get that done,” Flacco said. “Whenever you have guys that are working really hard and you have that camaraderie out here and everyone is looking to get better, you are just developing relationships. I think that is all going to help when we get to the field.”

It would be tough to fathom the Ravens not adding another wideout between now and the start of the season, but the organization is clearly counting on 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman and 2016 fourth-round pick Chris Moore to take steps forward this season. Veteran receiver Mike Wallace went out of his way to express his belief that Moore will surprise observers this season despite catching only seven passes as a rookie.

As for the draft, Flacco hasn’t watched any tape of the top prospects, but he did receive some unique perspective on Western Michigan wide receiver Corey Davis, who was a teammate of Flacco’s brother Tom. Considered one of the top three receiver prospects in the draft along with Clemson’s Mike Williams and Washington’s John Ross, Davis visited with the Ravens earlier this week and would bring the intermediate skill set that they currently lack at the position.

The 6-foot-3, 212-pound receiver caught 97 passes for 1,500 yards and 19 touchdowns as a senior and finished his collegiate career with over 5,000 receiving yards and 52 touchdown receptions.

“My brother said, ‘Listen, this is all I know, but he was at another level,’” Flacco said. “He was a really good player. He thought he had really good hands. He thought he was really strong; he could run really well. That is all he knows, but he could definitely tell the difference between him and the guys he was seeing week to week.”

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Ravens offense waits as defense receives substantial facelift

Posted on 23 March 2017 by Luke Jones

During Brandon Carr’s press conference this week, Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees was recalling how he’d sent a text message to John Harbaugh after the latest defensive signing was made when the head coach interjected.

“I got a text from Marty [Mornhinweg], too, by the way,” said Harbaugh about his offensive coordinator. “He thought it was a good signing, too — just for the record. We’ve got some work to do over there, too.”

That’s an understatement as general manager Ozzie Newsome has spent lucrative dollars and most of his salary-cap space to revamp a defense that still finished in the top 10 of most significant statistical categories last season despite its well-documented problems down the stretch. Meanwhile, an offense that ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in virtually everything in 2016 has last four starters and has added only 32-year-old running back Danny Woodhead, who is an intriguing talent but coming off a major knee injury.

Some have attempted to skew the 2016 narrative by pointing to a 27-point scoring output and the late defensive collapse in Pittsburgh on Christmas Day as justification for focusing on the defense this offseason, but that anecdotal evidence clouds the truth. The offense played at a high level only a few times all year while the defense — flawed as it was when cornerback Jimmy Smith wasn’t on the field — was the bigger reason why the Ravens were still in contention in Week 16. That’s not to say that improvements weren’t warranted on the defensive side — which still could use another edge rusher — but the offense was summarily broken all year and has only gotten worse since the season finale in Cincinnati. You can certainly be excited about the re-signing of nose tackle Brandon Williams and the additions of safety Tony Jefferson and Carr, but it’s fair to ask if some of those resources might have been better served addressing the offense.

To be clear, we know the start of the season is more than five months away, and Newsome and the Ravens are aware that they still have much work to do on that side of the ball. But with the first and second waves of free agency now in the books, Baltimore has fewer remaining channels — with the draft being the biggest one — to not only replace departed starters but find ways to markedly improve the offense. Of course, the margin for error is smaller without a dynamic offensive playmaker on which to lean.

Harbaugh sent a loud signal that the Ravens want to get back to running the ball at a high level by hiring senior offensive assistant and ground-game guru Greg Roman, but they need the horses in the trenches to do it. Otherwise, the offense will inevitably revert to Joe Flacco throwing more than 40 times per game, and we’ve seen how that’s worked out since Super Bowl XLVII.

The biggest objective must be to address the offensive line after the departure of right tackle Rick Wagner and the trade of center Jeremy Zuttah to San Francisco. Whether you believe Detroit overpaid for Wagner or not, replacing an above-average right tackle without meaningful drop-off will be very difficult unless new offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris has a trick up his sleeve.

Moving on from the underwhelming Zuttah wasn’t shocking, but they have to replace him with someone better or at least as good. There’s been little chatter about former New York Jet Nick Mangold to this point, and even if the Ravens eye a draft prospect such as Ethan Pocic from LSU, there are no guarantees of landing him in the second or third round. The Ravens could consider an internal candidate, but neither John Urschel nor Ryan Jensen inspire much confidence after their respective 2016 campaigns.

Finding a fullback to replace 2016 Pro Bowl selection Kyle Juszczyk shouldn’t be too difficult, but — like with Wagner — it may not be easy to do it without some drop-off.

Then, there’s wide receiver, that position we’ve discussed this time of year on an annual basis.

Baltimore lost its top two possessions receivers in Steve Smith and Kamar Aiken and elected not to sign any free-agent wideouts from a top tier that included Alshon Jeffery and Terrelle Pryor. Perhaps the next Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, or Smith will be acquired in the coming weeks, but one can only look to 2013 and 2015 as recent examples of the Ravens being underprepared at that position and it hurting them substantially. Even looking past the organization’s poor track record with drafting receivers, relying heavily on a rookie wideout is a risky proposition for any team.

You might be willing to give the Ravens the benefit of the doubt along the offensive line — after all, Wagner was mostly an unknown three years ago — but skepticism at wide receiver is justified, whether it’s March or September.

It’s been interesting to see how the offseason has played out to this point, starting with Harbaugh’s decision to retain Mornhinweg as his offensive coordinator despite showing little improvement taking over for the fired Marc Trestman. The team’s brass spoke at length at the season-ending press conference about needing to do whatever it takes to help Flacco play better in 2017, but a below-average offense from a year ago is currently standing at a net loss, putting heavy pressure on the front office and scouting department to nail next month’s draft and to find an under-the-radar free agent or two while also hoping that internal options take significant steps forward.

Otherwise, the Ravens will be needing a 2000-like performance from its revamped defense to have a real shot at getting back to the playoffs in 2017.

Yes, there’s plenty of time left, but many boxes remain unchecked.

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Aiken agrees to one-year deal with Indianapolis

Posted on 21 March 2017 by Luke Jones

Kamar Aiken became the latest Ravens offensive player to exit this offseason after agreeing to a one-year deal with Indianapolis on Tuesday.

The wide receiver was coming off a 2016 season in which he struggled and the Ravens did little to get him involved. Aiken caught 29 passes for 328 yards and one touchdown while playing 342 fewer offensive snaps than he did the previous season. This came after the 27-year-old excelled in place of an injured Steve Smith in 2015, finishing with a career-high 75 receptions for 944 yards and five touchdown catches while playing with four different starting quarterbacks.

Aiken had made it clear that he was looking to move on this offseason after slipping to fourth on the wide receiver depth chart behind Smith, Mike Wallace, and Breshad Perriman.

“It was one of the most frustrating years I’ve had since I’ve been in the league,” said Aiken on Jan. 2. “I would say I was proud of how I handled it. I handled it the best way I could. I’m alright with it.”

His departure leaves another offensive hole for general manager Ozzie Newsome to fill as the Ravens have now lost two of their top four wide receivers, their starting right tackle, their starting center, and their starting fullback. The only notable addition on offense has been running back Danny Woodhead, who is 32 and coming off major knee surgery.

Most of the organization’s salary-cap resources have been exhausted on improving the defense, a group that finished seventh in the NFL in total yards and ninths in points allowed last season. The Baltimore offense ranked 17th in total yards and 21st in points per game after replacing offensive coordinator Marc Trestman with Marty Mornhinweg in October.

Newsome has said he’d like to add a “complementary” receiver to go along with the speedy combination of Wallace and Perriman, but the Ravens refrained from signing any notable free-agent wideouts in a cooler-than-expected market for the position.

Aiken’s agreement with the Colts was first reported by NFL Network and later confirmed by agent David Canter.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts after first wave of free agency

Posted on 14 March 2017 by Luke Jones

With the first wave of NFL free agency in the rear-view mirror, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts on the Ravens, each in 50 words or less:

1. Some may scoff at the emotion shown by Brandon Williams after signing a five-year, $52.5 million contract, but his right to maximize his earnings doesn’t mean staying in Baltimore wasn’t important to him. You could also see how happy general manager Ozzie Newsome was during Monday’s press conference.

2. Kudos to Williams for paying tribute to the late Clarence Brooks for his impact on the nose tackle’s career. The 28-year-old said the longtime defensive line coach saw everything that he could be and envisioned this happening for him one day. Brooks is definitely missed.

3. The addition of Tony Jefferson could really help in trying to replace linebacker Zach Orr. If the Ravens add a complementary third safety, defensive coordinator Dean Pees could use Jefferson as a dime in passing situations and minimize the need for a three-down linebacker, which is more difficult to find.

4. Major investments have been made in the defense, but you hope Newsome has more than couch change to address a Ravens offense that was summarily broken in 2016 and has lost key pieces. The hiring of Greg Roman will help the running game, but that only goes so far.

5. I’ll give the Ravens the benefit of the doubt at right tackle, but color me skeptical about wide receiver with free-agent options dwindling and prices having not been all that outrageous. Being underprepared at the position doomed Baltimore in 2013 and 2015, and you hope that odd-year trend doesn’t continue.

6. The Anthony Levine re-signing didn’t receive much attention, but losing the likes of Orr and fullback Kyle Juszczyk hurt the special teams and Levine has been a core contributor to Jerry Rosburg’s units.

7. I’m intrigued by the addition of the diminutive Danny Woodhead, who can do some of the things Juszczyk provided despite the obvious difference in size. The Ravens view Woodhead as a potential playmaker, but he’s also 32 and coming off major knee surgery, leaving some substantial unknown.

8. The fascination with free-agent cornerback Morris Claiborne is baffling with the former Dallas Cowboy missing 41 percent of games over his five-year career and having underperformed until 2016. Barring a cheap price tag — multiple teams are interested — this feels like a fool’s gold signing.

9. The Ravens loudly reconfirmed their longtime philosophy of being strong up the middle defensively with the financial commitments made to Williams and Jefferson, but I still wonder if that thinking needs to be adjusted in today’s NFL. Fortunately, this year’s draft is rich with edge rushers and cornerbacks.

10. He’s not a No. 1 receiver, but teams are sleeping on Kamar Aiken compared to some other receivers who’ve already signed. He wasn’t keen on returning to Baltimore at the end of 2016 after being underutilized, but the Ravens could do worse than bringing back their leading receiver from 2015.

11. The Ravens have had some players recruit free agents in the past, but you have to be impressed with the efforts of Eric Weddle after just one year with the organization. He’s one of those rare veterans whom you wish could have been a Raven for his entire career.

12. Lardarius Webb is a prime example of some of the tough luck the Ravens have experienced in recent years. He was Baltimore’s best defensive player in 2012 before suffering the second ACL injury of his career six months after signing a six-year, $50 million contract. He was never the same.

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How did Ravens offense stack up at each position in 2016?

Posted on 09 January 2017 by Luke Jones

We know the sum of their parts didn’t add up to a trip to the postseason for the Ravens, but where exactly did their offensive players stack up at each position across the NFL in 2016?

Whether it’s discussing the Pro Bowl or picking postseason awards, media and fans spend much time debating where players rank at each position, but few realistically have the time — or want to make the effort — to watch every player on every team extensively enough to develop an informed opinion.

How many times did you closely watch the offensive line of the Tennessee Titans this season?

What about the Los Angeles Rams linebackers or the San Diego Chargers cornerbacks?

That’s why I appreciate projects such as Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 and the grading efforts of Pro Football Focus. Of course, neither the NFL1000 nor PFF should be viewed as the gospel truth of evaluation and they have their limitations, but I respect the exhaustive effort to grade players across the league when so many of us watch only one team or one division on any kind of a consistent basis.

Below is a look at where Ravens offensive players rank at their respective positions, according to those outlets:

QB Joe Flacco
NFL1000 ranking: 27th
PFF ranking: 26th
Skinny: These kinds of sites have rarely been kind to the veteran over the years (Football Outsiders also ranked him 29th), but Flacco must be better in 2017 if the Ravens are to return to the playoffs.

RB Terrance West
NFL1000 ranking: 38th
PFF ranking: 12th
Skinny: West may not be a game-changing back, but he did enough to establish himself as a regular contributor in an NFL backfield after his career was at a crossroads just a year ago.

RB Kenneth Dixon
NFL1000 ranking: 39th
PFF ranking: 23rd
Skinny: The 2016 fourth-round pick was trending upward late in the season and displays impressive toughness for a 212-pound back, making him the early favorite to be the starter in 2017.

FB Kyle Juszczyk
NFL1000 ranking: first
PFF ranking: first
Skinny: You can debate how much value a fullback brings to an offense in today’s NFL, but there was apparently no arguing over who was the best all-around talent at the position in 2016.

WR Steve Smith
NFL1000 ranking: 20th
PFF ranking: 37th
Skinny: The 37-year-old didn’t catch as many passes or finish with as many receiving yards as Mike Wallace, but replacing the retired Smith is clearly one of the top challenges of the offseason.

WR Mike Wallace
NFL1000 ranking: 24th
PFF ranking: 42nd
Skinny: The speedy Wallace profiles best as a No. 2 wideout, but the Ravens couldn’t have asked for much more from the 30-year-old as he posted his first 1,000-yard campaign since 2011.

WR Breshad Perriman
NFL1000 ranking: 78th
PFF ranking: 88th
Skinny: The 2015 first-round pick flashed at times, but these sites agree with the consensus opinion that the Ravens can’t count on the inconsistent Perriman to step into a starting role in 2017.

WR Kamar Aiken
NFL1000 ranking: 102nd
PFF ranking: 95th
Skinny: Targeted 77 fewer times than he was in 2015, Aiken didn’t receive enough opportunities, but he didn’t always take advantage of those chances, either, and is a likely departure via free agency.

TE Dennis Pitta
NFL1000 ranking: 16th
PFF ranking: 50th
Skinny: The fact that Pitta caught more passes than any tight end and was ranked so low by both outlets reflects a yards per catch (8.5) average that was 55th of 56 players with 60 or more receptions.

TE Crockett Gillmore
NFL1000 ranking: 45th
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The 2014 third-round pick showed exciting potential in 2015, but he’s played in just seven of Baltimore’s last 20 regular-season games because of various injuries.

TE Darren Waller
NFL1000 ranking: 75th
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The Ravens have quite an inventory of tight ends — all with baggage — but Waller has the most upside if the former receiver puts in the work and continues learning the finer points of the position.

TE Nick Boyle
NFL1000 ranking: 85th
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The Delaware product looks like a reliable blocker as a No. 2 or No. 3 tight end, but two performance-enhancing drug suspensions in two years make him difficult to trust in the long run.

LT Ronnie Stanley
NFL1000 ranking: 19th among left tackles
PFF ranking: 25th among all offensive tackles
Skinny: A four-game absence due to a foot injury disrupted an encouraging rookie season, but Stanley allowed only one sack over his final eight games and made PFF’s top 25 players under age 25 list.

RT Rick Wagner
NFL1000 ranking: 21st among right tackles
PFF ranking: 19th among all offensive tackles
Skinny: Wagner isn’t a Pro Bowl talent, but the Ravens would be wise to retain his rock-solid services if the free-agent bidding doesn’t get out of hand this offseason.

G Marshal Yanda
NFL1000 ranking: first among all guards
PFF ranking: first among all guards
Skinny: It’s amazing that Yanda continued to play at an elite level after a left shoulder injury eventually forced him to move from right guard to the left side, but he’s just a special player.

G Alex Lewis
NFL1000 ranking: 35th among all guards
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: Switching between tackle and guard so frequently in the first half of the season hurt the rookie’s development, but Lewis was settling in nicely at left guard before his Week 10 ankle injury.

G Vladimir Ducasse
NFL1000 ranking: 47th among all guards
PFF ranking: 59th
Skinny: Re-signed to the roster in October, the 29-year-old played the way you’d realistically expect him to and shouldn’t be viewed as anything more than veteran depth if he were to be re-signed.

C Jeremy Zuttah
NFL1000 ranking: 26th
PFF ranking: 13th
Skinny: Though PFF graded Zuttah as a slightly above-average center in 2016, the Ravens believe upgrading this position is a major key to improving their below-average offense next season.

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Steve Smith submits official retirement letter with style

Posted on 06 January 2017 by Luke Jones

Steve Smith has officially submitted his retirement letter to the NFL while taking a final shot at his competitors.

The former Ravens wide receiver shared his letter to commissioner Roger Goodell via his official Twitter account on Friday morning, which notes that he “will no longer be antagonizing defensive backs” in the NFL. Though saying he was 89 percent likely to retire prior to Baltimore’s season-ending loss at Cincinnati, Smith confirmed his decision to walk away from a 16-year career after the 27-10 defeat.

Returning from a horrific Achilles tendon injury to play one more season, the 37-year-old added to his impressive credentials with 70 catches for 799 yards and five touchdowns in 14 games. The five-time Pro Bowl receiver retires from the game ranking seventh in all-time receiving yards (14,731), 12th in career receptions (1,031), and 26th in touchdown receptions (81), numbers that give him a compelling case for eventual Hall of Fame induction.

Smith spent the first 13 seasons of his career with the Carolina Panthers before joining the Ravens in 2014.

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Ravens’ season-ending dud only reconfirms issues for offseason

Posted on 01 January 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens played exactly like a team whose season had come to an end in Pittsburgh a week earlier.

Despite practically taking offense at the notion that their season-ending trip to Cincinnati was meaningless throughout the week, Baltimore’s performance against the Bengals was nothing short of offensive on Sunday, particularly in the first half of the 27-10 defeat. But it shouldn’t change anything once you move past the New Year’s Day sting and take consolation in a better draft pick a few months from now.

It was a meaningless game, remember?

We weren’t going to learn anything about the Ravens that we didn’t already know, even if you were surprised to see them sleepwalk against a Bengals team that had been out of the playoff race for weeks.

We’d already seen this offense make it look incredibly difficult to move the ball throughout the season with few exceptions. This group once again made it look like the Ravens were playing 11-on-15 football for much of the afternoon.

Joe Flacco threw more than 40 passes for the 11th time this season, and the ninth-year quarterback failed to eclipse the 300-yard mark for the seventh of those performances, illustrating how inefficient this pass-heavy attack has been all year.

This offense needs to be blown up and rebuilt with the top objective of getting Flacco playing at a higher level in a more balanced attack. Other than a couple decent performances late in the season, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg showed little evidence of being able to do the job after replacing Marc Trestman in October. Sunday just reiterated that point when he called for a pass on first-and-goal at the Cincinnati 2 that resulted in a Flacco interception and later made the silly call to throw to offensive lineman Alex Lewis on a third-and-2 inside the Bengals’ 10.

The Ravens offense needs better coaching and more talent, especially with veteran wide receiver Steve Smith retiring.

More alarming than the season-long offensive ineptitude, however, has been the collapse of a defense that ranked first overall just a few weeks ago. The Ravens did nothing to bounce back from the ugliness of last week’s fourth quarter, allowing a Bengals offense without A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Jeremy Hill, and Giovani Bernard to score on each of its first four possessions.

That’s unacceptable.

After arguably doing the finest coaching job of his time in Baltimore through the first 12 games of the season, defensive coordinator Dean Pees is fairly under fire with the Ravens allowing 26 or more points in each of their final four games. The absence of No. 1 cornerback Jimmy Smith was significant, but that can’t excuse an undermanned Cincinnati offense moving against them with little resistance.

Was the defense tired down the stretch from carrying the offense for most of the season? What happened to a run defense that looked impenetrable just a few weeks ago?

The Ravens defense did an admirable job holding up without a consistent pass rush for much of the year, but that ability vanished down the stretch. Until Elvis Dumervil sacked Andy Dalton to conclude the third quarter on Sunday, Baltimore had gone almost 10 full quarters without a quarterback takedown.

Coaching changes or not, general manager Ozzie Newsome must address the pass rush with Terrell Suggs turning 35 next season and the 32-year-old Dumervil a possible salary-cap casualty. The secondary also needs more depth with injuries continuing to be a problem for Jimmy Smith.

Yes, it was alarming to see the Ravens go through the motions on Sunday, especially after head coach John Harbaugh was praised last season for the way his injury-depleted team continued to play hard down the stretch of a 5-11 campaign. But those players hadn’t experienced anything resembling the kind of gut-punch they took from the Steelers on Christmas.

The Ravens were ready to go home long before they took the field on Sunday, and what resulted wasn’t pretty. It was a bad look for both the coaching staff and the players — plain and simple.

But we’d already seen all there was to see from a team that wasn’t good enough in 2016.

How the Ravens performed in a meaningless game — good or bad — wasn’t going to change that.

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Ravens-Bengals: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 31 December 2016 by Luke Jones

Playing out the string.

Though the Ravens are closing out a regular season at Paul Brown Stadium for the fifth time in the last six years, this marks the first time that neither Baltimore nor Cincinnati is going to the playoffs since 2007 when John Harbaugh was still the special teams coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles. Even with nothing to play for beyond pride, the Ravens have declared their intentions to play all healthy veterans, a move that some have criticized in fear of a serious injury to a key player.

Meanwhile, the Bengals will miss the postseason for the first time since 2010 and have shut down several injured veterans such as wide receiver A.J. Green (hamstring) and tight end Tyler Eifert (back) in recent weeks.

It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet for the 42nd time in franchise history with Baltimore owning a 21-20 edge. The Ravens are seeking their first season sweep of the Bengals since 2011 and can also secure a 5-1 AFC North record, their best division mark since going 6-0 in that same season.

Below are five predictions for Sunday afternoon:

1. Justin Tucker will attempt a 60-plus-yard field goal. The two-time Pro Bowl kicker is a remarkable 10-for-10 on tries from 50 yards and longer and needs only one more to have sole possession of the single-season NFL record. The weather in Cincinnati should reach the mid-40s with minimal wind, conditions that are suitable enough to try a long field goal. Tucker has had one of the best kicking seasons in NFL history and deserves a chance to hit a season-long field goal at the very least.

2. Mike Wallace will reach 1,000 receiving yards for the first time since 2011. This is hardly going out on a limb with the first-year Raven just 16 yards shy of the mark, but Baltimore should make a conscious effort to get Wallace involved early after he was held to just four catches for 21 yards in Pittsburgh last week. Though the Ravens haven’t always utilized him well this season, Wallace has provided them with the vertical threat they sorely lacked after Torrey Smith’s free-agent departure.

3. Andy Dalton will throw for two touchdowns against a secondary once again without Jimmy Smith. It’s not a coincidence that the five highest passing totals allowed by the Baltimore defense this season have come in games in which the No. 1 cornerback missed significant time, a clear indication of the lack of depth in the secondary. The Ravens found a fourth-round gem in rookie Tavon Young, but finding another outside corner should be a priority this offseason.

4. Steve Smith will catch a touchdown and produce 80 receiving yards in his final NFL game. Joe Flacco throws to Smith often anyway, so there’s no reason to think the 37-year-old won’t be featured heavily. The mantra “Play like a Raven” has become a cliché in recent years, but the former Carolina Panther epitomizes the idea with the kind of intensity and physicality on which the success of this franchise was built. The Ravens are fortunate to have had the future Hall of Famer pass their way.

5. The Ravens will win in Cincinnati for the first time in exactly five years in a 23-17 final. Rarely have the Ravens ever looked like they were going through the motions under Harbaugh, which is why I expect them to play hard despite having their playoff hopes crushed last week in Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, the Bengals have been out of the playoff hunt for weeks while rumors have circulated about Marvin Lewis’ future. With an opportunity to send Steve Smith out on a positive note, the Ravens will win their first road game in over three months and finish the season with a respectable 9-7 record.

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Ravens back in familiar position with Smith’s expected retirement

Posted on 28 December 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The free-agent signing of Steve Smith more than two years ago helped rectify one of the biggest mistakes in Ravens history.

But his “89 percent” likely retirement following Sunday’s season finale in Cincinnati puts the franchise back in an all-too-familiar position.

Even at age 37 and coming off a horrific Achilles injury, Smith still served as quarterback Joe Flacco’s most reliable weapon in a trying season. He may not have enjoyed the same team success in his three seasons in purple, but Smith put up similar numbers to those produced by Anquan Boldin, the man he eventually replaced after a post-Super Bowl XLVII trade blew up in the Ravens’ faces in the 2013 season.

“I feel very fortunate to be with him,” Flacco said. “His competitive nature and the way he plays his game and the talent that he has, he’s definitely unique and a rare breed. Anytime you get a chance to play with a guy that’s really a legend in this game is, count yourself lucky.”

Once the Ravens sort out their offensive coaching staff for next season, replacing Smith will be one of the top priorities of the offseason.

The cupboard isn’t completely bare at wide receiver with Mike Wallace under contract for 2017 and on the cusp of completing a 1,000-yard season, but the speedy veteran fits better as the No. 2 wideout to stretch the field vertically with explosive plays. Expecting him to be the well-rounded top guy would likely fetch similar results to what happened in 2013 when Torrey Smith was miscast as a No. 1 receiver.

There’s also 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman, but injuries and inconsistency have made it difficult for the Ravens to plan for him to be anything more than a No. 3 option with upside entering next season. It’s much too soon to declare Perriman a bust, but he has a lot of work to do to become a integral cog.

Kamar Aiken led the Ravens with 944 receiving yards in 2015 and has shown physicality that you like to see in a possession receiver, but he’s also scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent and has been unhappy with his diminished role this season. That leads you to believe he’ll be looking to move on this winter.

Whether general manager Ozzie Newsome pursues an accomplished veteran such as Pierre Garcon in free agency or once again dips his toes into draft waters that have been unkind in the past, the Ravens will need a receiver to aggressively work the intermediate portion of the field and to gain yards after the catch. Even with his speed not being what it was in his early days with Carolina, Smith always played bigger and tougher than his 5-foot-9, 195-pound frame suggested.

“He’s powerful. He’s not very big, but he’s so explosive, so powerful, can change directions like that,” Flacco said. “He’s just so strong for his size — not even just for his size. He’s just a strong dude. The ferociousness that he runs with the ball, how he runs with the ball, so many things. I think that comes out in people saying ‘competitiveness.’ He’s just got a lot of ability, and he’s not afraid.”

Of course, Smith brought much more to the table than what showed up in the box score.

Like Boldin, he provided attitude to an offense led by the even-keeled Flacco. His intensity occasionally ruffled feathers — including when he got into a fight with veteran defensive back Lardarius Webb during his first minicamp in Owings Mills — but teammates on both sides of the ball respected that fire.

Smith brought the kind of swagger to the offense that was typically found on many Ravens defenses of yesteryear. Of course, performance on the field is paramount, but that ferocity is something Baltimore frankly needs more of after missing the playoffs in three of the last four seasons.

The intangibles will be difficult to replace, no matter how the Ravens go about replacing Smith’s production.

“Whether it is walking around the locker room yelling at someone or on the field [during] one-on-ones, he is definitely one of a kind,” said safety Eric Weddle, who shared a close friendship with Smith long before he signed with Baltimore this past offseason. “You have to get adjusted to that, just his personality and how big it is and to know this is who he is. This is what drives him. This is what makes him special.”

And with Smith’s decision to walk away, the Ravens are back in a familiar spot looking for someone special at wide receiver.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 16 loss to Pittsburgh

Posted on 27 December 2016 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens falling 31-27 to Pittsburgh on Christmas Day to be eliminated from postseason contention, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The sting of a Ravens loss shouldn’t discount appreciation for what was a classic between these AFC North adversaries. This rivalry has lost some juice in recent years, but both teams deserve praise for one that was as good as it gets without being a playoff game.

2. That sentiment aside, the fourth-quarter defense must be addressed. I’ve been a supporter of defensive coordinator Dean Pees and believe he has done a good overall job with a unit lacking star power, but the Ravens have allowed 102 of their 294 total points in the final period this season.

3. If this is it for Steve Smith, Sunday was a strong final performance in the national spotlight as he caught seven passes for 79 yards and a touchdown. He’s 35 yards shy of an 800-yard season, which is exceptional for a 37-year-old coming off a serious Achilles injury.

4. It looked like 2016 was going to be a breakout year for Timmy Jernigan after he collected a sack in each of the first three games, but he’s recorded just one quarterback takedown since the Week 8 bye and hasn’t even registered a tackle over the last three games.

5. Breshad Perriman had a bad drop on the Ravens’ final touchdown drive, but I liked seeing Joe Flacco go right back to him on the next play for a 15-yard completion on third-and-10. This is going to be a huge offseason for the 2015 first-round pick to improve.

6. Counting the postseason, Baltimore is 11-22 on the road since Super Bowl XLVII with two wins against teams that finished with a winning record. The first was the 2014 wild-card victory over Pittsburgh and the other against the Steelers last year when Mike Vick started in place of Ben Roethlisberger.

7. The toughness with which he runs is impressive, but Kenneth Dixon won’t become a three-down back until he improves in pass protection. That has to be a goal for both him and Terrance West to work on this offseason.

8. The Ravens masked it well this season, but their pass rush ultimately cost them. According to Pro Football Focus, Roethlisberger was pressured on just four of his 33 dropbacks. It’s tough trying to blitz with Jimmy Smith out, but the defense needs more disruption from a four-man rush.

9. Terrell Suggs deserves praise for how he played this year, but the 34-year-old has gone without a sack in his last four games and had a combined one tackle against New England and Pittsburgh this month. Ozzie Newsome needs to find high-impact help at the position to help him out.

10. We all know health is the major concern with Michael Campanaro, but watching him these last two weeks makes you wonder why the Ravens didn’t part ways with Devin Hester a month sooner. Campanaro, Perriman, and Chris Moore are young players who should play more against Cincinnati.

11. I understand it’s in a coach’s fiber to do everything he can to win, but the organization should consider the dangers of exposing its most important players to injury in a meaningless road game against the Bengals. Does anyone sincerely care about finishing 9-7 compared to 8-8?

12. The seat is warm for John Harbaugh after missing the playoffs in three of four years, but firing him would be harsh after only one truly lousy season (2015). A once-proud franchise, Buffalo has had six head coaches since Harbaugh’s hiring. Finding someone even as good is hardly a given.

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