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tannehill

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Pressuring Tannehill hidden key for Ravens against Miami

Posted on 01 December 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The matchup isn’t as imposing, but it’s a familiar one for the Ravens.

Two weeks after facing the best rushing attack in the NFL in a road loss to Dallas, Baltimore welcomes upstart running back Jay Ajayi and Miami to town on Sunday. The Dolphins have won six in a row behind the league’s sixth-ranked run offense and Ajayi’s 5.3 yards per carry, but the Ravens have allowed the fewest rushing yards in the NFL this season.

The Cowboys were the better team in that 27-17 final on Nov. 20, but they needed 30 carries to finish with 118 rushing yards, their third-lowest ground total of the season and fewest since Week 2. In other words, there’s little reason to think Ajayi is going to find a ton of running room against a defense that’s surrendered just 3.4 yards per carry, its best mark since 2009.

“That is Raven football,” outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “You do not want teams to run the ball on you. We take a lot of pride in that. We take a lot of pride in playing defense.”

The biggest key for the Ravens in Sunday’s tilt will likely be their ability to pressure Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who is in the midst of arguably his best season and one of the best stretches of his career over the last six weeks. Averaging a career-high 7.82 yards per attempt, Tannehill is completing 66 percent of his passes and has thrown nine touchdowns to just one interception over the last six contests.

The decision by first-year head coach Adam Gase to employ more of a power running attack since Miami’s 1-4 start has led to the emergence of Ajayi as well as a renaissance for Tannehill. Attempting a career-low 29.9 passing attempts per game this season, the 6-foot-4 Texas A&M product has been more efficient and productive than previous seasons.

Tannehill has received Pro Football Focus’ top quarterback grade in two of the last three weeks and has graded as the website’s 10th-best quarterback this season. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees credits Gase for taking pressure off the fifth-year signal-caller and making a more “quarterback-friendly” offense.

“When you’re running the football, you’re setting up the play-action, the quick game, all those kinds of things,” Pees said. “The other thing is you’re not in as many third-and-longs a lot of times as you are if your team is just throwing the ball all the time.

“The guy is a very, very accurate thrower. When he gets out of the pocket and runs with the ball and scrambles with the ball or even on a roll-out or [bootleg], he’s one of the most accurate quarterbacks I’ve seen throwing on the run. He is really, really good.”

Tannehill has especially thrived when working in a clean pocket this season, posting a 115.5 passer rating when not facing pressure. That’s good for fourth in the NFL and just a spot below rookie sensation Dak Prescott of the Cowboys.

Of course, it was Baltimore’s inability to pressure Prescott that led to him throwing for over 300 yards and three touchdown passes in Week 11. The Ravens are tied for 11th in the league with 26 sacks, but their pass rush has been more timely than consistent this season with long stretches of games in which opposing quarterbacks have gone largely untouched.

The Dolphins are hoping to welcome back left tackle Branden Albert and left guard Laremy Tunsil to their starting lineup after missing last week’s game, but Tannehill isn’t afraid to move out of the pocket. And that’s where the Ravens know he can become even more dangerous with the respectable trio of Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker, and Kenny Stills catching passes.

“Tannehill’s not making mistakes and is throwing the ball all over the place off the play-action,” safety Eric Weddle said. “He’s getting his feet out and extends plays, which kills the defense. And he’s extending [plays] to throw.”

The expected return of top cornerback Jimmy Smith should help a secondary that’s played remarkably well despite the lack of a consistent pass rush for much of the year. Five-time Pro Bowl pass rusher Elvis Dumervil will also be playing in his second straight game after coming up with the game-saving strip-sack against Cincinnati last week in his first action since early October.

The Ravens figure to be able to contain Ajayi and force the Dolphins into more throws than they’d prefer, but Pees and the defense need to be aggressive against Tannehill and cannot allow him to get comfortable behind his offensive line on Sunday. And that’s where Dumervil and Suggs have spoken openly this week about needing a raucous crowd at M&T Bank Stadium to make life even more difficult for the Miami quarterback.

The Ravens believe the loud closing minutes of Sunday’s game against Cincinnati helped lead to four batted passes and the strip-sack to preserve the victory. They want more noise against the Dolphins.

“It limits the checks. It eliminates a lot of the things the quarterback can do at the line of scrimmage,” Dumervil said. “That’s what happened toward the last series. They had to go with the plays. Once the guys on defense are locked and ready, we’re all moving at the same ball. That’s when we feel the crowd advantage. We need that 12th man stronger than ever this week.”

The Ravens need their pass rush to be right there with the fans in a game they need to win.

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suggs

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 12 win over Cincinnati

Posted on 29 November 2016 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens topping Cincinnati in a 19-14 final on Sunday to remain tied for first place in the AFC North, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. I don’t know what else there is to say about the excellence of Justin Tucker, but I sure hope he receives an opportunity one of these days to attempt a 65-yard field goal to set the NFL record. And then gets another chance to kick an even longer one.

2. The Ravens have more field goals (27) than anyone in the NFL, but they rank ahead of only Houston and Los Angeles with 19 touchdowns. That combination has earned them a 6-5 record, but it’s not a formula that will work against upper-tier teams.

3. Coming off his second Achilles injury in a four-year period and currently playing with a torn biceps, Terrell Suggs played a season-high 61 snaps and had two strip-sacks. Though not the consistent force he was in his prime, he’s earned even more respect as a player this season.

4. Don’t forget that Sam Koch’s safety went down as a run for minus-23 yards in the final statistics. Otherwise, the Baltimore running game gained 115 yards on 29 carries, a respectable average of just under 4.0 yards per attempt compared to the official 3.1 mark.

5. It’s difficult to recall a defensive line batting down four passes on a single drive, let alone doing it on the final series of a one-score game. It was a brilliant way to offset an inconsistent pass rush for much of the afternoon.

6. Nothing illustrated the up-and-down nature of the offense more than its third-down conversion rate against the Bengals. After going a strong 5-for-10 in a 16-point first half, the Ravens were 0-for-6 after intermission. Baltimore ranks last in the NFL with a 33.3 percent conversion rate on the season.

7. The decision to call an end-around hand-off to Mike Wallace on the final drive was questionable at best, but I applaud any extra attempts to get him the football otherwise. His explosive speed needs to be utilized as much as possible.

8. It came down to the numbers game with Elvis Dumervil returning, but Za’Darius Smith being a healthy inactive illustrates how much finding an edge pass rusher remains a priority this offseason. Rookie Matt Judon flashes potential, but Smith’s second season has been a disappointment.

9. Kamar Aiken caught a pass to move the chains on a key third down on each of the first two scoring drives and wasn’t targeted again after that. No one expected him to be Baltimore’s leading receiver again this season, but he shouldn’t have fewer receptions than Kyle Juszczyk.

10. I’m still surprised how reluctant some have been to embrace this defense. It may lack much star power, but this has been a top 5 unit all year. If your standard is the 2000 Ravens or you’re waiting for the next Ray Lewis to appear, you’ll never be satisfied.

11. Many are clamoring for the Ravens to use the no-huddle offense even more, but it bogged down after a fast start against Cincinnati. This group hasn’t shown the kind of precision or communication required to run it exclusively, but it can still be used plenty.

12. Coaches always receive criticism when teams lose, but John Harbaugh deserves praise for the way he handled the game-ending safety. He said all teams have that strategy in their special-teams playbook, but I highly doubt that.

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tucker

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Ravens take care of business using same flawed formula

Posted on 28 November 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens did what they needed to do to snap their five-game losing streak against Cincinnati.

No matter how depleted the current Bengals might be, you don’t take a victory for granted when you haven’t beaten the division rival in over three years and you need to win. The 19-14 final drew Baltimore even with Pittsburgh for first place with the calendar turning to December this week.

The Ravens couldn’t ask to be in better position, especially when you recall where they were a month ago.

But several offensive starters lamented the inability to build off a fast start that included a Joe Flacco 14-yard touchdown pass to Breshad Perriman and a field goal on their first two drives of the game. Leading 16-3 at halftime, the Ravens went 0-for-6 on third down and managed only one field goal the rest of the way, which gave the Bengals a chance to tie the game before Elvis Dumervil’s strip-sack and Lawrence Guy’s recovery with just over a minute remaining.

Yet again, a good defensive performance and a perfect Justin Tucker played the leading roles in the win while the offense spun its wheels after some early success.

“I’m confident in my ability to play games like this and win down the stretch and do the right thing with the football,” said Flacco, who was a relatively efficient 25 of 36 for 234 yards and an interception to go with the opening-drive score. “But in order for us to take that next step and be the kind of team that we want to be and be a championship football team, we’re not going to survive week in and week out doing things like this. We’ve got to keep the foot on the gas and learn how to put teams away.”

The ninth-year quarterback offered the same sentiment after the Week 3 win in Jacksonville two months ago. Fortunately, the offense has recovered from its miserable — and injury-plagued — October, but Flacco’s words reflect the lack of overall improvement from the opening month of the season until now.

The Ravens have scored just 19 touchdowns this season, ranking 31st of 32 teams in the NFL. The offense certainly deserves credit for the work required to put Justin Tucker in position to go a league-best 27-for-27 on field goal tries, but 18 were from 40 yards or longer, meaning the Ravens haven’t exactly been all that close to the end zone on most of those drives.

Baltimore has managed more than one offensive touchdown in just five of 11 games and has scored fewer than 20 points six times. The Ravens have scored 25 or more in just three games with two coming against winless Cleveland.

It’s scary to think where they might be without Tucker, who is rapidly cementing himself as the league’s best kicker and is an impressive 7-for-7 from 50 yards and beyond after converting three from that range in the first half on Sunday. He’s been to the Ravens what All-Star closer Zach Britton was to the Orioles this past season, the difference in making them a playoff contender despite other flaws.

For now, the offense can only continue working to improve, pointing to the recent stabilization of the offensive line and the steady emergence of rookie running back Kenneth Dixon as reasons for optimism.

“I know that we’re getting better on offense,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “I think we’re doing a good job, but we’re striving for more than that. Our guys are going to tell you, we want to put a lot more points up than that. That’s what we’re working towards.”

The most encouraging development from Sunday’s game may have come on the opposite side of the ball with the return of Dumervil, who was rusty in his first action in seven weeks until the final defensive play when he blew past Bengals right tackle Eric Winston to strip quarterback Andy Dalton of the football inside the red zone. The turnover sealed the victory for the Ravens defense, who buckled but didn’t break against a Cincinnati offense lacking its best player in wide receiver A.J. Green.

The Ravens need top cornerback Jimmy Smith to return from a back injury that’s sidelined him for the last two games, but a healthy Dumervil could work wonders for an edge pass rush that’s relied heavily on fellow veteran Terrell Suggs, who collected two strip-sacks of his own on Sunday. It was just the third game of the season for Dumervil, who’s dealt with a frustrating rehab from offseason foot surgery.

“You get a guy and add that to the defense that we already have, it just opens up the possibilities of being even better than what we are right now,” safety Eric Weddle said. “It was huge. He practiced outstanding the last two weeks. We knew it was going to give us a boost, and adding him across from [Suggs] and our other rushers and [to] our game plans, we’re going to be a tough team to stop.”

The Ravens keep hoping for their offense to improve, but maybe the current formula can be enough. After all, it’s earned them a 6-5 mark to this point, which is good enough for a first-place tie with a Steelers team sporting a very good offense but a below-average defense.

Baltimore plays two of the next three at home against Miami and Philadelphia, who are formidable teams but hardly juggernauts. The surprising Dolphins have won six straight, but the last five have been by a single possession and they rely heavily on their running game, a favorable matchup for the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.

Whether the Ravens will find enough wins over the final five games to make the playoffs remains to be seen, but Sunday was another reminder that it will probably look the way it has all season — a good defense, a frustrating and below-average offense, and the best kicker in football.

“If it ain’t tough, it ain’t the Raven way,” Suggs said. “I really wish we could have got off the field instead of scaring everybody and having Elvis make a fantastic play. But that’s the Raven way. It ain’t pretty, but we’ll take it.”

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jsmith

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J. Smith, Jernigan absent from Thursday’s Ravens practice

Posted on 17 November 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Moving closer to their big Week 11 encounter with the Dallas Cowboys, the Ravens were without seven players during Thursday’s practice session.

Headlining the list was No. 1 cornerback Jimmy Smith, who missed his second straight workout with a back issue. Head coach John Harbaugh downplayed the ailment on Wednesday and expressed confidence that Smith would be able to play on Sunday.

Harbaugh also said that he expected Smith to practice this week, making his status for Friday’s workout worth monitoring. Assuming he is able to play, the sixth-year defensive back will likely be trusted to match up with two-time Pro Bowl receiver Dez Bryant.

Defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (shoulder) was a new absences on Thursday after not being listed on the injury report a day earlier.

Running back Lorenzo Taliaferro (thigh), tight end Crockett Gillmore (thigh), and left guard Alex Lewis (ankle) were also missing from Thursday’s practice. Taliaferro was listed as a limited participant on Wednesday, making it likely that he suffered the injury during practice.

The Ravens also gave linebacker Terrell Suggs and center Jeremy Zuttah the day off. Zuttah played through a mild ankle sprain in last week’s win over Cleveland while it’s no secret that Suggs is playing with a torn left biceps.

For the second straight day, right guard Marshal Yanda (shoulder) and linebacker Elvis Dumervil (foot) were present and working as full participants. Dumervil wouldn’t confirm Thursday whether he would play against Dallas, but he believes he’s “really close” to being his old self from a physical standpoint after being shut down just over five weeks ago.

“Just the strength [is better],” said Dumervil, who has appeared in only two games this year after undergoing offseason foot surgery. “I think last time, as a competitor, as a winner, you just want to go out [and play]. Sometimes it is good to listen, and I learned that.”

Cowboys left tackle Tyron Smith (back/hip) returned to practice on a limited basis after sitting out on Wednesday.

Below is Thursday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: TE Crockett Gillmore (thigh), DT Timmy Jernigan (shoulder), G Alex Lewis (ankle), LB Terrell Suggs (non-injury), CB Jimmy Smith (back), RB Lorenzo Taliaferro (thigh), C Jeremy Zuttah (non-injury)
FULL PARTICIPATION: LB Kamalei Correa (thigh), LB Elvis Dumervil (foot), LB C.J. Mosley (thigh), CB Shareece Wright (thigh), G Marshal Yanda (shoulder)

DALLAS
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: S Barry Church (forearm), CB Morris Claiborne (groin)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: OT Chaz Green (foot/back), DE DeMarcus Lawrence (back), OT Tyron Smith (back/hip)
FULL PARTICIPATION: QB Tony Romo (back)

 

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elliott

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Ravens, Cowboys looking to reign supreme in running game

Posted on 16 November 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Something has to give between the Ravens and the Cowboys on Sunday.

It’s the No. 1 run defense against the top rushing attack in the NFL.

The Cowboys have run for more than 100 yards in every game this season while Baltimore has allowed more than 65 rushing yards in a game just twice. It’s the kind of game outside linebacker Terrell Suggs has relished throughout his 14-year career while playing on some of the better defenses in franchise history.

These Ravens are out to prove they belong in that conversation.

“You want to play against the best,” Suggs said. “When you were 10 years old, you were like, ‘I want to go play in the NFL. I want to be considered one of the best players in the NFL.’ To be the best, you have to play the best. It is a challenge for our defense, but we accept it.”

No one anticipated this kind of success for the Cowboys, who have been led by two rookies on their way to an 8-1 start. Fourth-round quarterback Dak Prescott has taken the league by storm after replacing an injured Tony Romo in the preseason, but first-round running back Ezekiel Elliott has proven why he was the first running back selected in the top five overall picks of the draft in four years.

Leading the NFL with 1,0005 rushing yards and ranking fourth among qualified players in yards per carry (5.1), Elliott would have garnered much consideration from the Ravens had he fallen to the sixth overall pick, according to head coach John Harbaugh. The Ohio State product has emerged as a league MVP candidate with a combination of rare explosiveness and mature vision.

“I think he already had that. I don’t think they had to teach it to him,” Harbaugh said. “That’s why they drafted him where he was. He’s a special guy. The offensive line [also] deserves a lot of credit for the success they’re having.”

Though Elliott is a unique talent, the Dallas offensive line is the primary reason why he has a legitimate chance to break the rookie rushing record of 1,808 yards set by Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson in 1983. Comprised of three former first-round picks, the Cowboys unit is the highest graded in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.

Elliott has gained a whopping 439 rushing yards before contact, illustrating how much his offensive line has aided in his instant stardom. In contrast, the Ravens have run for a total of just 773 yards in 2016.

The Cowboys have played their share of shoddy run defenses — a list including San Francisco, Washington, Cincinnati, and Cleveland — but they largely had their way with top 10 run defenses in Green Bay, Chicago, and the New York Giants as well. In fact, the Packers entered Week 6 as the No. 1 run defense in the league and proceeded to give up 191 yards on 33 rushing attempts in a 30-16 home loss to Dallas.

“I definitely think they’re the most athletic,” said defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan about the Cowboys offensive line. “They can go from sideline to sideline, make the cut, blocks on the backside and those different things. It’s going to be a challenge for us. But at the same time, I don’t think they’ve seen a front like ours, either.

“It’s going to be on, and we’re going to be ready for the challenge.”

As impressive as the Dallas ground game has been, the Ravens’ run defense may own a more eye-popping résumé.

Consider that Baltimore has allowed a league-low 3.3 yards per carry while also giving up the longest run of the entire NFL season when Cleveland’s Isaiah Crowell ran for an 85-yard touchdown in Week 2. That blemish can’t be erased, of course, but the Ravens have surrendered just under 2.9 yards per carry in opponents’ other 193 rushing attempts this season.

Baltimore has given up just two other runs of 20 or more yards this season while facing five teams — Buffalo, Cleveland, Oakland, Washington, and the New York Jets — currently ranking in the top 10 in yards per carry. Of the two occasions the Ravens have surrendered more than 65 rushing yards, one was the game in which Crowell recorded his league-long run and the other was against the Jets in Week 7 when Suggs and inside linebacker C.J. Mosley — two of the Ravens’ best run defenders — were out with injuries.

This stingy run defense falls well short of the 2000 Ravens who allowed a microscopic 2.68 rushing yards per carry in a historic season, but an imposing front seven led by nose tackle Brandon Williams, Mosley, and Suggs has its chance to make its biggest statement of the year by slowing Elliott and the red-hot Cowboys. That will be Baltimore’s best chance in trying to pull off the upset on Sunday.

Something will have to give.

“It’s what, nine games in? We’ve stopped the run, but are we going to slip up now and not be able to stop the run?” Harbaugh said. “You have to play every game the next week like it’s the most important game of the season. Our guys understand that. Our guys are going to get ready to play.”

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suggs

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 10 win over Cleveland

Posted on 12 November 2016 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens moving back above .500 after a 28-7 victory over winless Cleveland on Thursday night, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Watching Terrell Suggs get the best of nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas was special. He’s playing with one arm and isn’t the consistent game-wrecker he used to be, but the 34-year-old turned in a vintage performance with a strip sack and a pass defense leading to an interception.

2. He recovered nicely to throw three touchdown passes, but Joe Flacco looked jumpy and frenetic in the pocket throughout the first half. The Ravens can only hope his second-half rebound is a sign of better things to come, but that third-quarter interception in the end zone was ugly.

3. Marty Mornhinweg should continue using the crossing routes and slants we saw in the second half against the Browns. There’s no reason not to use the speed of Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman while letting Flacco get rid of the ball quickly.

4. We’ve talked plenty about Jimmy Smith and Tavon Young, but nickel cornerback Jerraud Powers turned in a strong performance. He broke up a pass the only time a Cleveland quarterback threw his way and intercepted another that was knocked up into the air.

5. You could tell how relieved John Harbaugh was to be able to smile and exhale over the final few minutes of Thursday’s 21-point win. Twenty-two of your previous 24 games being decided by a single possession will take a toll.

6. Jeremy Zuttah has had his struggles this season, but he’s the only Baltimore offensive lineman to start all nine games. Give the center credit for pushing through back and ankle issues to play 72 of 82 offensive snaps, especially after left guard Alex Lewis left with an ugly ankle injury.

7. It’s looking more and more like the offensive line problems aren’t going to be fixed this season. Lewis had looked good at left guard the last two games while the status of five-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda remains in question. Those are crippling losses.

8. Some of the gold numbers were difficult to read, but I give the “Color Rush” uniform a passing grade, especially compared to those of other teams. I’d like to see the striping on those purple pants added to the Ravens’ black pants that are too dull.

9. Every time Michael Pierce turns in another strong performance, I can’t help but think it pushes pending free agent Brandon Williams a little further out the door. The rookie free agent recorded a tackle for a loss and batted a pass at the line of scrimmage.

10. Josh McCown had past success against the Ravens, but Hue Jackson’s decision to bench Cody Kessler was still baffling. Kessler wasn’t great, but that was a quick hook for a rookie who had outplayed Flacco to that point and orchestrated a touchdown drive in the first half.

11. They can’t do it exclusively, but the no-huddle offense needs to become a bigger part of what the Ravens do after it led to two touchdowns in the second half. It could put some strain on the defense, but you have to do whatever it takes to get Flacco going.

12. Watching Steve Smith’s eyes light up when asked about doing the Ray Lewis dance reminds us how much the 37-year-old still feels like a kid. After getting permission from Lewis to do the dance, Smith watched some YouTube videos to make sure he got it right. Having fun matters.

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Underrated defense keeping Ravens competitive in mediocre AFC North

Posted on 07 November 2016 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

It’s clear where Baltimore’s strength lies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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stevesmith

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Ravens-Steelers: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 06 November 2016 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are Sunday’s inactives:

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

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

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 05 November 2016 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

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

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

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

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

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

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Ravens not buying uncertainty surrounding Roethlisberger’s status

Posted on 02 November 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Longtime Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs says he’s seen this Ben Roethlisberger movie before.

Cornerback Jimmy Smith quipped that he has “no question” in his mind that the Pittsburgh quarterback will play unless his leg literally isn’t intact.

Despite undergoing surgery on the torn meniscus in his left knee less than three weeks ago, the 34-year-old Roethlisberger has returned to practice on a limited basis and the early reviews of how he’s looked have been favorable. Since an early Sunday morning report casting doubt about his status for Week 9, more signs are pointing to what the Ravens believe to be the obvious outcome after witnessing him overcome past injuries to return to action sooner than anticipated.

“He’s going to act like, ‘I am not playing; I don’t know. I did individuals today; I threw a little bit. I still don’t know,'” said Suggs, who has sacked Roethlisberger 16 1/2 times over more than a decade of competition. “Then he’s going to walk his big ass on out there. I’ll be like, ‘How you doing, Benjamin?’ He’ll be like, ‘What’s up, Sizzle?’ Then, it’s on. Don’t fall for that.”

Ironically, Roethlisberger has missed more games against the Ravens (seven) in his career than he has against fellow AFC North foes Cincinnati and Cleveland combined (two). The Steelers are just 1-6 against Baltimore without their franchise quarterback under center since he became their starter early in the 2004 season. The Ravens are 7-9 in regular-season games started by Roethlisberger and 1-2 in the playoffs.

Both teams have plenty at stake at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday with just a game separating them in the division standings. Desperate for a win after an 0-for-October that crushed the good vibes of a 3-0 start, the Ravens are playing a 4-3 Steelers team that’s dropped two straight games and is struggling defensively despite being in first place in an underwhelming AFC North race.

“This is not an ideal situation to go into, especially against a team like this,” said Smith, referencing the Ravens still carrying a four-game losing streak out of the bye. “It’s not going to make or break our season, but we obviously have to have this win.”

The pre-game narrative centers around the status of Roethlisberger and the overall health of both teams, but the aura of this longstanding rivalry often supersedes what can appear to be a mismatch on paper. Last December, it was the recently-signed Ryan Mallett leading an injury-ravaged Ravens team to an upset win over the playoff-bound Steelers. In 2012, 37-year-old backup Charlie Batch led Pittsburgh to a comeback victory that snapped the 15-game home winning streak of the Ravens, who would then win Super Bowl XLVII two months later.

Whether Roethlisberger plays or not, you can expect a close game with 13 of the 16 regular-season games played between these teams in the John Harbaugh era decided by a single possession. That seems appropriate with the Ravens’ current stretch of 21 of their last 23 regular-season games being decided by eight or fewer points.

It’s no secret that Baltimore is below .500 and has just one playoff appearance since its last championship four years ago, making it all the more interesting that the Ravens have won five of the last six overall meetings with the Steelers.

“I’m talking to our young guys like, ‘These games will define you — hate or not,'” said Suggs, who missed both games with Pittsburgh last season due to a torn Achilles tendon and will attempt to play with a torn biceps on Sunday. “There was a time here where we couldn’t get over that Steeler hump, and you had to become a different kind of player when you played them. I love this game.”

The Ravens are searching for that killer instinct to which Suggs referenced as they try to stop the bleeding from October and avoid missing the playoffs for the third time in the last four years. They hope to welcome some of their own reinforcements back to the field, a list including Suggs, wide receiver Steve Smith, linebacker C.J. Mosley, and offensive linemen Marshal Yanda and Ronnie Stanley.

And despite the uncertainty expressed by the Steelers and the outside world, the Ravens’ minds are made up that Roethlisberger will be out there trying to continue their 2016 misery.

“I am telling my boys that ‘7’ is playing,” Suggs said. “Not only that, he’s going to try and light our ass up, so prepare.”

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