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On rough day, Ravens lean on biggest strength to pull through

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On rough day, Ravens lean on biggest strength to pull through

Posted on 14 December 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens were predictably complimentary of the Jacksonville Jaguars following an uncomfortable 20-12 victory on Sunday.

Head coach John Harbaugh and his players spent plenty of time after the game praising the Jaguars despite their 2-12 record, but Terrell Suggs said it best after the Ravens struggled throughout the day against one of the NFL’s worst teams.

“It would have sucked if we lost,” said Suggs, who admitted to having flashbacks to the last-second home loss to San Diego two weeks ago. “It would have been very unfortunate. But you’ve got to commend this whole team — offense and defense alike — for putting it away this time.”

Nothing felt quite right on Sunday for the Ravens, from the sparser-than-normal crowd at M&T Bank Stadium with little to cheer for throughout the day to an uninspiring performance from a team in the midst of a tight playoff race. But there are no style points for winning pretty in the NFL as the Ravens prevailed in throwback fashion, relying on a dominating front seven that sacked Blake Bortles eight times and registered 15 hits on the Jacksonville quarterback.

Suggs finished with 2 1/2 sacks, rookie defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan added two, Pernell McPhee had 1 1/2, and C.J. Mosley and Elvis Dumervil added one apiece.

The pass rush once again masked a secondary further decimated by injuries in Week 15 as rookie safety Terrence Brooks and third-year cornerback Asa Jackson both left the game with serious knee injuries. To his credit, the previously unknown Rashaan Melvin was thrown into starting duty in his first action of the season for the Ravens and finished with five tackles — one for a loss — and a pass breakup.

The strong defensive effort was needed as the Ravens’ stout running game was nowhere to be found for much of the game and was held to just 31 yards on 13 carries before finally finding more room in the fourth quarter. Baltimore finished with 93 yards on 26 carries, averaging an underwhelming 3.6 yards per attempt.

And a special-teams group that’s been one of the finest in the NFL — and started the game with a blocked punt returned for a touchdown — had its worst game of the year as the Ravens fell for an onside kick and a fake punt, missed two field goals, and committed several key penalties and coaching gaffes.

If nothing else, the uneven performance was a group effort, but the Ravens still found a way to walk away with a victory to improve to 9-5 on the season. There isn’t much to take away beyond that.

“We didn’t play smart all the time,” Harbaugh said. “We had too many mistakes, too many errors that kept us off the field or put our defense back on the field — those kind of things. But I’ll tell you what, Jacksonville did a great job. It’s December football. You take every win you can get, and we’re proud of the victory.”

Yes, the Ravens would have been in serious trouble with a similar effort against many other teams in the NFL on Sunday, but the Jaguars were the opponent and no one else. And despite a valiant effort with nothing to play for, the Jaguars self-destructed just enough in crucial spots.

The good news is the Baltimore pass rush was at its best once again, illustrating how much a team can overcome with an ability to collapse the pocket. It’s the reason why the Ravens shouldn’t be counted out if they make the playoffs in spite of the NFL’s 31st-ranked pass defense.

We didn’t learn much about the Ravens on Sunday that we didn’t already know as they’ve struggled offensively when unable to run the football and the issues in the secondary aren’t going away. After a close call, they can only exhale before moving on to Week 16.

While remembering to thank a ferocious pass rush once again.

“We can’t really worry about too much other than going out and winning next week,” said quarterback Joe Flacco, who tossed a third-quarter touchdown to Owen Daniels and finished with an efficient 221 yards against the Jaguars. “We know what’s in front of us, and we’ve just got to make sure we take care of one piece at a time. Nothing is really new this week than last week. We know what we have to do. We’ve just got to go do it.”

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Ravens-Jaguars: Five predictions for Sunday

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Ravens-Jaguars: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 13 December 2014 by Luke Jones

There’s no big secret to Sunday’s game between the Ravens and the Jacksonville Jaguars.

If the Ravens are the playoff-caliber team they’ve shown themselves to be for much of the 2014 season, there won’t be any drama as they try to improve to 9-5. It’s difficult to call this one a trap game when 2-11 Jacksonville hasn’t won a game on the road all year and the Ravens win the games they’re supposed to — especially at home — in the John Harbaugh era.

The Ravens know they’re guaranteed a playoff spot by winning their final three games, but Sunday is the closest they’ll get to a sure thing the rest of the way with a challenging trip to Houston next week and a season-finale against Cleveland that will likely carry plenty of pressure. Meanwhile, the struggling Jaguars are now dealing with the season-ending loss of starting running back Denard Robinson due to a sprained foot.

It’s time to go on the record as these old AFC Central foes meet for the 18th time in regular-season history with the Jaguars holding a 10-7 edge. However, the Ravens are 5-4 in Baltimore and have won seven of the last nine meetings. Jacksonville won the last regular-season game between these teams, a 12-7 final on Oct. 24, 2011.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to move a step closer toward securing a playoff spot …

1. Terrell Suggs will pick up 2 1/2 sacks working against Jacksonville tackle Luke Joeckel. Opposing offensive lines haven’t been able to slide protection because of the pressure the Ravens have created from both edges this season, but you wonder if the Jaguars will pay more attention to Elvis Dumervil, who last week set the single-season franchise record in pushing his sack total to 16. Despite being the second overall pick of the 2013 draft, Joeckel has struggled mightily in his sophomore season and Suggs will take advantage to try to close the gap in the sack department. The Ravens shouldn’t have any trouble making rookie quarterback Blake Bortles uncomfortable with the 12th-year linebacker leading the effort.

2. With Torrey Smith limited, Marlon Brown will catch his first touchdown of the season. The Ravens surprisingly listed Smith as probable on their final injury report, but they’ll try to limit throwing him into the fire as much as possible on Sunday to rest his sprained knee, which will mean more opportunities for Brown and Kamar Aiken. It’s been a disappointing season for Brown after a surprising rookie year, but he’s been more involved with the offense since the bye week, a trend that will continue against the league’s 18th-ranked pass defense. Justin Forsett and the running game figures to be featured heavily, but quarterback Joe Flacco will find Brown in the red zone for a score.

3. Wide receiver Cecil Shorts will rein in a score in a rare highlight for the Jaguars on Sunday. If Jacksonville can find even a little time for Bortles in the pocket, it’s no secret that the Baltimore pass defense is vulnerable and ranked 31st in the NFL. The Jaguars figure to be throwing the ball a lot if they fall behind like most would expect, and defensive coordinator Dean Pees will play soft coverage in the back end as the game goes on. Bortles has shown flashes of promise when he hasn’t been annihilated in the pocket — Jacksonville has allowed an incredible 54 sacks this season — and he’ll orchestrate a nice scoring drive finished off with a short touchdown to Shorts.

4. Lardarius Webb will secure his first interception in what’s been a difficult season. The sixth-year cornerback is healthier now than he was earlier in the season, but it’s been a disappointing year for Webb as his future with the Ravens is in question due to his $12 million cap figure in 2015. However, the Jaguars don’t have any receivers that should scare the Ravens, and Bortles has thrown 16 interceptions in 379 pass attempts. The Ravens secondary hasn’t been able to create many turnovers this season, but the Jaguars are tied for 26th in the NFL with a minus-8 turnover margin. Webb will pick off his first pass of the season to set the Ravens up on a short field.

5. The Ravens will emphatically handle a team they’re supposed to beat in a 31-13 final. Nothing is guaranteed in the NFL, but this one is as close as it gets with an opponent having nothing to play for coming to M&T Bank Stadium to face the Ravens, who have very little margin for error as they try to make it back to the playoffs after a one-year absence. Short of something catastrophic such as a multiple-turnover performance or an injury to Flacco, the Ravens just aren’t going to let the lowly Jaguars beat them. It won’t be a flawless performance — the Ravens never seem to make it quite as easy as they should in these spots — but the home crowd will ultimately go home happy after the win.

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Forsett questionable, Torrey Smith probable for Sunday’s game in Miami

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Forsett questionable, Torrey Smith probable for Sunday’s game in Miami

Posted on 05 December 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens received encouraging news for the last practice of the week with the returns of wide receiver Torrey Smith, running back Justin Forsett, and center Jeremy Zuttah as they made final preparations for Sunday’s game in Miami.

Forsett (knee) was listed as questionable on the final injury report while Smith (knee) and Zuttah (ankle) were designated as probable to play on Sunday. All three were present and working during the portion of practice open to media after missing workouts on Wednesday and Thursday. Smith and Zuttah practiced fully while Forsett was a limited participant.

Despite his designation, Forsett is expected to play as the Ravens face a critical game against the Dolphins in the landscape of the AFC wild-card race.

“Just resting up,” said Forsett about missing Wednesday’s practice. “Regular soreness, especially coming into December. Just trying to take care of the body and take care of the little nicks and knacks I’ve gotten over the course of the year.”

Rookie tight end Crockett Gillmore was listed as questionable to play against the Dolphins after missing his second straight practice on Friday. The Ravens promoted tight end Phillip Supernaw to the 53-man roster on Friday, a good indication that Gillmore’s status is in jeopardy for Sunday. Supernaw takes the place of the suspended Haloti Ngata on the active roster.

Rookie wide receiver Michael Campanaro (thigh) and linebacker Albert McClellan (thigh) were also designated as questionable to play after Campanaro practiced fully all week and McClellan was limited. Campanaro hasn’t played in a game since injuring his hamstring against Cincinnati on Oct. 26.

Wide receiver Marlon Brown (concussion) has been cleared and is probable to play Sunday after practicing fully on Thursday and Friday.

Cornerback Tramain Jacobs was ruled out with a thigh injury after failing to practice on Friday.

Wide receiver Steve Smith, tight end Owen Daniels, linebacker Daryl Smith, and defensive lineman DeAngelo Tyson all returned to practice after being absent Thursday for non-injury reasons. Smith and Daniels received the day off while Tyson faced jury duty. Veteran linebacker Terrell Suggs did not practice Friday with what was listed as a non-injury reason.

All four were listed as probable.

Meanwhile, the Dolphins listed starting cornerback Cortland Finnegan (ankle) as doubtful for Sunday’s game and tight end Charles Clay (hamstring) as questionable. Five other starters were designated as questionable.

John Parry will be the referee for Sunday’s game in Miami.

The forecast for kickoff calls for mostly sunny skies and temperatures in the high 70s with winds up to eight miles per hour, according to Weather.com.

Below is the final injury report for the week:

BALTIMORE
OUT: CB Tramain Jacobs (thigh)
QUESTIONABLE: WR Michael Campanaro (thigh), RB Justin Forsett (knee), TE Crockett Gillmore (back), LB Albert McClellan (thigh)
PROBABLE: WR Marlon Brown (concussion), TE Owen Daniels (non-injury), LB C.J. Mosley (wrist), LB Daryl Smith (non-injury), WR Torrey Smith (knee), LB Terrell Suggs (non-injury), DT DeAngelo Tyson (non-injury), LB Courtney Upshaw (hand), C Jeremey Zuttah (ankle)

MIAMI
OUT: LB Jonathan Freeny (hamstring), CB Jamar Taylor (shoulder)
DOUBTFUL: G Nate Garner (illness), CB Cortland Finnegan (ankle), LB Chris McCain (ankle)
QUESTIONABLE: TE Charles Clay (hamstring)
PROBABLE: WR Brian Hartline (knee), T Ja’Wuan James (neck), LB Jelani Jenkins (shoulder), C Samson Satele (ribs), WR Mike Wallace (chest), S Jimmy Wilson (hamstring)

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Ravens-Chargers: Five predictions for Sunday

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Ravens-Chargers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 29 November 2014 by Luke Jones

Playing their final game of November, the Ravens welcome the San Diego Chargers to M&T Bank Stadium for a meeting with critical AFC playoff ramifications.

Both teams enter Week 13 with a 7-4 record, but the Chargers face a tall order in trying to become the first West Coast team ever to beat the Ravens in Baltimore. Of course, it’s no secret that West Coast teams flying east for 1 p.m. kickoffs generally don’t fare well as the Chargers were blanked 37-0 at Miami to begin the month of November.

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In addition to simply keeping pace in the very competitive AFC North where all teams in a division are three games above .500 for the first time in NFL history, the Ravens desperately need to improve a 3-4 conference record that can often be crucial in determining playoff spots at the end of the season. Of course, that record will take care of itself if Baltimore simply continues to win down the stretch.

Sunday marks the 10th time these teams have ever met with the Ravens holding a 5-4 all-time advantage and a 2-0 record in Baltimore. The Chargers will be playing in Baltimore for the first time since the 2006 season when Steve McNair threw a last-second touchdown to Todd Heap to give the Ravens a dramatic victory.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to improve to 8-4 in their quest to return to the postseason …

1. Brandon Williams will have another big game as San Diego struggles to run the ball between the tackles. The second-year nose tackle probably hasn’t gotten as much credit as he deserves in his first season as a starter and played his best game of the season in the win over New Orleans. Meanwhile, the Chargers have sent three centers to injured reserve this year and are now relying on rookie Chris Watt at the position. The third-round product from Notre Dame played well in his first start against St. Louis last week, but Williams and Haloti Ngata will make it a long day for a line that won’t be able to open running lanes for running back Ryan Mathews. San Diego will run for less than 85 yards on the day.

2. Chargers receiver Malcom Floyd will catch a touchdown pass matched up against one of the Ravens’ undersized cornerbacks. The Baltimore secondary gave up a slew of passing yards in New Orleans, but the unit was able to make plays when needed as was the case with safety Will Hill’s interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter. The 6-foot-5 Floyd presents a matchup problem without the more physical Jimmy Smith on the field. The 33-year-old has stayed healthy this year and is having one of the better seasons of his career with over 600 receiving yards. He’ll catch a touchdown in the red zone as the Chargers take advantage of his size advantage.

3. Justin Forsett will go over the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the first time in his career. San Diego’s defense is its biggest strength, but the Chargers are allowing 4.4 yards per carry, ranking 21st in the NFL. With the way the offensive line has blocked and Forsett has been able to find seams in the defense, how can you pick against the Baltimore running game at this point? The 29-year-old needs 97 yards on the ground for 1,000 on the season and he’ll reach that mark in the fourth quarter. The Ravens will establish the run early to set up play-action opportunities down the field against a strong secondary and the league’s sixth-ranked pass defense.

4. San Diego left tackle King Dunlap will not be able to stop Terrell Suggs, who will pick up two sacks on the day. It hasn’t been a poor season for the veteran linebacker, but you know he’d love to narrow the gap between his six sacks and Elvis Dumervil’s team-leading 12 1/2 in 2014. Suggs will have a great opportunity against Dunlap, who has struggled in pass protection and is much more effective as a run blocker. After crossing the 100-sack threshold for his career last week, Suggs will add two more to his total as the Chargers focus on giving right tackle D.J. Fluker more help in blocking Dumervil. The inability to run the football will leave San Diego with plenty of difficulty protecting the pocket all day.

5. Philip Rivers will throw for more yards than Joe Flacco, but the running game will control the tempo in a 26-14 win for the Ravens. The Chargers quarterback will play admirably, but the lack of a running game will have him running for his life far too often. In contrast, the Ravens’ ability to run the ball will limit Flacco’s opportunities, but the seventh-year quarterback will be efficient and cautious against a talented secondary. The Ravens will control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and have allowed just 10.6 points per home game this season. If this game were being played in San Diego, the result might be different, but the Ravens will be in command from the start on their way to a relatively comfortable win.

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McPhee, Suggs probable; Campanaro questionable for Chargers game

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McPhee, Suggs probable; Campanaro questionable for Chargers game

Posted on 28 November 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Returning to the practice field after the Thanksgiving holiday, the Ravens look to be in excellent shape from a health standpoint as they made final preparations for Sunday’s game against the San Diego Chargers.

Rookie wide receiver Michael Campanaro is the only Baltimore player listed as much as questionable for Week 13.

All players on the 53-man roster were present and working during the portion of practice open to reporters on Friday morning. Campanaro made his return to the practice field this week after a month-long absence due to a hamstring injury, but the Ravens training staff is bringing him along very slowly in fear of a mishap, making it unlikely that he’ll play on Sunday.

“He’s coming along. It’s a process with a hamstring,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “You can’t really push that thing so much. What usually happens with a hamstring is they’re pretty conservative and then all of a sudden they come back and tell you he’s ready to go. He did practice this week. It wasn’t all the time as fast as we want it to be, because we don’t want a setback. I imagine I’ll find out Sunday if he’s ready to go or not and if he is, we’ll see. That’s really the best we can do right now.”

Linebackers Terrell Suggs (foot) and Pernell McPhee (shoulder) are listed as probable after both were full participants on Friday. Reserve offensive lineman Jah Reid has also been a full participant all week after missing the last two games due to a broken hand.

With the disadvantage of a short week after playing a Monday night game in New Orleans, the Ravens sporting such a clean injury report is encouraging as they play the 7-4 Chargers at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday afternoon. The Ravens lead the all-time regular-season series by a 5-4 margin and have a 2-0 advantage playing in Baltimore.

The Chargers officially ruled out nose tackle Ryan Carrethers (elbow) and listed linebacker Andrew Gachkar (knee) as doubtful for Sunday’s game. Starting running back Ryan Mathews (shoulder) is probable.

The referee for Sunday’s game will be Walt Anderson.

According to Weather.com, Sunday’s forecast calls for partly cloudy skies with temperatures in the mid-50s and winds up to eight miles per hour.

Below is the final injury report of the week:

BALTIMORE
QUESTIONABLE: WR Michael Campanaro (thigh)
PROBABLE: LB Pernell McPhee (shoulder), OL Jah Reid (hand), LB Terrell Suggs (foot)

SAN DIEGO
OUT: NT Ryan Carrethers (elbow)
DOUBTFUL: LB Andrew Gachkar (knee)
QUESTIONABLE: G Ryan Miller (groin), DT Tenny Palepoi (non-injury)
PROBABLE: S Jahleel Addae (concussion), RB Ryan Mathews (shoulder), WR Eddie Royal (toe)

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Campanaro, Suggs practice for Ravens on Thanksgiving

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Campanaro, Suggs practice for Ravens on Thanksgiving

Posted on 27 November 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With the Ravens reporting early to work on Thanksgiving, linebacker Terrell Suggs returned to the practice field after sitting out with a foot injury.

The 12th-year linebacker was the only player to miss Wednesday’s workout as rookie wide receiver Michael Campanaro (hamstring) and offensive lineman Jah Reid (broken hand) have returned to the practice field this week. Campanaro hasn’t played since injuring his hamstring in the Oct. 26 loss at Cincinnati, but it’s possible the Ravens will continue to ease him back into action this week with thoughts of a return against Miami on Dec. 7.

Campanaro was once again a limited participant on Thursday while Reid was a full participant for the second straight day. The latter is practicing with a protective club on his right hand after he injured it a few days before the Week 10 win over Tennessee.

The Ravens reported to their Owings Mills facility at 7:15 a.m. for an early meeting and were practicing earlier than usual as head coach John Harbaugh planned to give them most of the afternoon off to enjoy Thanksgiving with their families. The Ravens brass were not taking a day off, however, as owner Steve Bisciotti, team president Dick Cass, and general manager Ozzie Newsome were all watching practice.

Below is Thursday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: WR Michael Campanaro (thigh), LB Pernell McPhee (shoulder)
FULL PARTICIPATION: G Jah Reid (hand), LB Terrell Suggs (foot)

SAN DIEGO
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: NT Ryan Carrethers (elbow), LB Andrew Gachkar (knee), DT Tenny Palepoi (non-injury)
FULL PARTICIPATION: S Jahleel Addae (concussion), LB Dwight Freeney (non-injury), RB Ryan Mathews (shoulder), WR Eddie Royal (toe)

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McPhee continues doing dirty work for Ravens defense

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McPhee continues doing dirty work for Ravens defense

Posted on 25 November 2014 by Luke Jones

The Ravens had a number of huge performances in the 34-27 win over the New Orleans Saints, but one of their better ones came from a defensive player who didn’t even make a tackle Monday night.

While Elvis Dumervil (two), Terrell Suggs, and C.J. Mosley combined for four sacks, it was situational rush specialist Pernell McPhee who brought the most pressure against Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Playing 28 defensive snaps, McPhee produced four hurries and three quarterback hits, according to Pro Football Focus.

Regularly credited for doing the dirty work up front while Dumervil and Suggs produce higher sack totals, McPhee has been effective as either an edge rusher spelling one of the veterans or as an interior lineman in obvious passing situations. The 280-pounder’s combination of strength and quickness has made him arguably the Ravens’ best inside rusher since Trevor Pryce, so it only made sense that he’d exploit a suspect interior part of the New Orleans offensive line.

McPhee doesn’t produce as many sacks because it’s generally easier for quarterbacks to recognize pressure and get rid of the ball when it’s right in front of them — he primarily lines up inside in sub packages — instead of dealing with rushers coming off the edge, but the 2011 fifth-round pick effectively collapses the pocket and is a key cog in helping to run stunts for others to pick up sacks. Playing fewer snaps than Suggs or Dumervil this season, McPhee leads all Ravens defensive players with 14 quarterback hits and 26 quarterback hurries, per PFF.

The Ravens knew they had something with McPhee in his rookie season when he collected six sacks as a situational rusher, but an array of nagging injuries limited his performance over the last two seasons. McPhee has stayed healthy in 2014 and has proven himself as a productive rusher in defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ rotation.

Keeping McPhee on a pitch count with his playing time appears to have maximized his production while also allowing Suggs and Dumervil to remain fresh, but it will be interesting to see how much interest the Mississippi State product draws this offseason when he becomes a free agent for the first time. In that regard, McPhee collecting only four sacks to this point in the year might be a blessing when trying to quantify his value on the open market.

Despite a suspect secondary that’s dealt with a number of injuries, the Ravens rank fifth in points allowed and 15th in total defense because of the strong play of their front seven with McPhee playing a vital part.

Even if it’s gone unnoticed for large stretches of time like it did Monday night.

 

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Ravens built for strong finish in tight AFC playoff picture

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Ravens built for strong finish in tight AFC playoff picture

Posted on 25 November 2014 by Luke Jones

NEW ORLEANS — The Ravens spent much of the spring and summer insisting they weren’t going to entertain thoughts of last season when they missed the playoffs for the first time under head coach John Harbaugh.

But linebacker Terrell Suggs wanted his teammates to remember exactly what happened a year ago as they returned from their bye this past week with a crucial road game at New Orleans staring them in the eye. It’s safe to say the Ravens responded to the veteran’s message with a crucial 34-27 win over the Saints to improve to 7-4, keeping pace in a combative and tight AFC North.

“Down this stretch, this is important,” said Suggs, who pressured quarterback Drew Brees into throwing an interception returned for a touchdown by safety Will Hill to give Baltimore the lead for good in the third quarter. “Last year, this is where we kind of lost ourselves, we kind of lost our way. Unfortunately, we were left out of the playoffs on the outside looking in. We don’t want to feel like that this year.”

Over the years, the Ravens have taken pride in saying they’re built for December and January, but the label didn’t fit last season as they couldn’t run the ball and struggled to pressure opposing quarterbacks down the stretch. Needing only one win in their final two weeks to secure a playoff spot, the Ravens lost their final two games by a combined 51 points.

If Monday night’s win was any indicator, the Ravens are primed to finish strong and make it back to the postseason — even with a very tight playoff picture. And it begins with Justin Forsett and the improved play of the offensive line under new coordinator Gary Kubiak.

Rushing for a career-high 182 yards and two touchdowns, Forsett continues to be one of the best stories of the 2014 season as his 5.8 yards per carry average leads all NFL running backs by a sizable margin. The offensive line consistently opens running lanes and the 29-year-old keeps finding daylight as he did repeatedly against New Orleans Monday night.

It’s the kind of style that should hold up nicely down the stretch for three more cold-weather games in Baltimore and whatever January could bring.

“Justin — awesome job, obviously, all year,” said quarterback Joe Flacco, who was very efficient in completing 18 of 24 passes for 243 yards and a touchdown. “The work he’s putting in, the results he’s getting and what he’s doing for this team was huge. Our offensive line’s doing a good job, and they’re creating those seams. He’s got good vision. He’s not letting the guy tackle him in the hole with his arms or anything like that. He’s breaking those little things.”

Defensively, the numbers looked ugly Monday as the Ravens surrendered 525 total yards, but the eyeball test was far more acceptable. Aside from Joseph Morgan’s 67-yard run on the second play from scrimmage, the Saints only ran for 59 yards on 20 carries.

The Ravens put plenty of heat on Brees as Elvis Dumervil collected two of four sacks total and the pass rush recorded eight quarterback hits in all. The secondary continues to be an area of concern and will likely remain that way for the rest of the season, but the emergence of Hill gives coordinator Dean Pees at least one defensive back with some playmaking ability and a consistent pass rush goes a long way in hiding vulnerabilities on the back end.

Much of the success of a 7-4 start can be attributed to the Ravens’ ability to win at the line of scrimmage, whether talking about their offensive line or the front seven’s ability to stop the run and wreak havoc on quarterbacks. It’s cliched to talk about dominating the trenches, but Baltimore has a great chance to punch its ticket to the playoffs by continuing to do just that.

How would the Ravens stack up against the likes of high-powered offenses like New England or Denver in the playoffs? They have to worry about getting to January first playing in a division where all teams are three games above .500 — the first time that’s happened in NFL history, per the Elias Sports Bureau.

“You’re going to have to win a lot of games to win the division,” Harbaugh said. “You’re going to have win a lot of games to make the playoffs in our conference. It’s just a fact. You’re going to need every win you can get.”

The Ravens appear well equipped to play into January with a strong running game and one of the best front sevens in football. It’s a profile that holds up well against most opponents, home or away.

And it allows them to overcome their weaknesses, something they were able to do Monday night in one of their biggest road wins in recent memory.

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Ravens-Saints: Five predictions for Monday night

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Ravens-Saints: Five predictions for Monday night

Posted on 23 November 2014 by Luke Jones

Fresh off their bye week and trying to complete a 2014 sweep of the NFC South, the Ravens return to the site of Super Bowl XLVII to take on the reeling New Orleans Saints Monday night.

Baltimore hopes that a Week 11 bye coupled with the Saints’ two-game losing streak will create enough momentum to snap New Orleans’ 14-game winning streak in prime-time home games. The 4-6 Saints are trying to find some semblance of consistency in a division in which no team has made a strong claim as a viable playoff contender.

The Ravens are 5-1 in games coming off their bye week in the John Harbaugh era and will attempt to win their third road game of the season. While they were able to find success against an underwhelming Tennessee offense in Week 10, the Baltimore secondary will have its hands full against the league’s third-ranked passing attack.

Monday marks the sixth all-time meeting between these teams with the Ravens holding a 4-1 advantage. This is the first contest between these teams at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome since the 2006 season — which resulted in a 35-22 win for Baltimore — but the Ravens are obviously familiar with the surroundings after winning the Super Bowl in New Orleans two years ago.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to improve to 7-4 to keep pace in the AFC North …

1. Will Hill will draw the bulk of the assignment against Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, who will catch a touchdown and eclipse 80 receiving yards. Much was made about Cincinnati’s physicality last week in limiting the All-Pro tight end to just three catches for 29 yards, but the Ravens haven’t exactly been imposing in the back end of the defense aside from Terrence Brooks’ big hit on Tennessee’s Delanie Walker two weeks ago. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will try to mix it up as much as possible against Graham, but Hill is the best fit with his 6-foot-1, 207-pound frame and ability in coverage. The Ravens have held tight ends in check for most of the season, but they haven’t encountered a talent like Graham and he will bounce back from a tough week against the Bengals with a strong game in Week 12.

2. Steve Smith and Marlon Brown will catch touchdowns passes against a banged-up New Orleans secondary. A week off and a meeting with an old foe he tormented year after year as a member of the Carolina Panthers are just what the doctor ordered for the 35-year-old Smith whose production has declined in recent weeks. The Saints are down to their third-string free safety and top cornerback Keenan Lewis has been dealing with a knee issue, which will lead to the veteran wideout finding the end zone for the first time since Week 6. Looking to boost their 19th-ranked red-zone offense, the Ravens will rediscover Brown as a viable option inside the 20 as the 6-foot-5 receiver will rein in a pass in the back of the end zone for his first touchdown of the 2014 season.

3. The Ravens will contain top rusher Mark Ingram, but a returning Pierre Thomas will create problems as a receiver out of the backfield. After a very slow start to his NFL career, Ingram has emerged in 2014 with a 4.5 yards per carry average to take over the feature back role for New Orleans, but the Baltimore defense has allowed only 3.4 yards per carry and won’t have an issue keeping him in check. The return of Thomas — who hasn’t played since Week 7 — will be critical for a passing game that will miss the injured Brandin Cooks, who was becoming the Saints’ second-best receiver behind Graham as a short-to-intermediate target. With the secondary providing plenty of cushion and linebackers paying close attention to wherever Graham is, the Saints will slip Thomas free out of the backfield repeatedly to move the chains.

4. C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith will both collect sacks as the Ravens use inside blitzing to try to get to Drew Brees. Pees knows his defense must create pressure in the pocket against one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, but Saints tackles Terron Armstead and Zach Strief have been the strengths of their offensive line, meaning it won’t be a given that Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs will create enough heat. The best way to pressure Brees is up the middle where center Jonathan Goodwin and guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs have struggled in pass protection. Smith and Mosley have both been effective as A-gap blitzers, making it a good bet that the Ravens will try to ambush Brees up the middle. The strategy will pay off with each inside linebacker collecting a sack on Monday night.

5. Joe Flacco and Brees will each throw for over 250 yards, but the veteran will be a little better in a 31-23 win for New Orleans. A few weeks ago, it would have been tough to give the Ravens much of a chance in this one following the injury to Jimmy Smith on top of the Saints’ reputation for playing so well at home. But New Orleans is difficult to figure out with two straight losses at home that came after blowing out mighty Green Bay less than a month ago. On the other hand, a solid performance against the Titans isn’t enough to ease concerns that the Ravens secondary will be able to prevent the Saints from passing up and down the field all night. Flacco and the offense will put together one of their better road performances of the year, but it won’t be quite enough to put the Ravens over the top on Monday night.

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Ravens right tackle Wagner earning attention in ways few expected

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Ravens right tackle Wagner earning attention in ways few expected

Posted on 05 November 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens coaches offered similar sentiments over and over as second-year right tackle Rick Wagner was trying to secure his spot as a starter during spring organized team activities and summer training camp.

They’d say they hadn’t really noticed him on tape and not much was being said about him, which are compliments to a young offensive lineman in the same way you prefer an umpire or a referee to not stick out while officiating a game. But plenty of doubt was expressed from everyone else as the Ravens needed to replace right tackle Michael Oher after he departed in the opening days of free agency to sign a four-year, $20 million contract with the Tennessee Titans.

Instead of drafting an offensive tackle in the early rounds of May’s draft or adding a veteran familiar with Gary Kubiak’s system such as Eric Winston, the Ravens appeared content with Wagner competing against other in-house options such as Jah Reid and Ryan Jensen to take Oher’s place. The rest would be up to the 2013 fifth-round pick to prove them right.

“After I found out he was leaving, that was the first thing on my mind: ‘I have a great opportunity to take over the right side,’” Wagner said. “I was just thankful that the coaches trusted in me.”

That trust has certainly paid off with Wagner not only taking full control of the job but blossoming into an above-average right tackle who’s now garnering attention for his strong play instead of simply trying to blend in. In fact, Wagner has outperformed the man he replaced as he’s graded out as the best right tackle in the NFL this season, according to Pro Football Focus. Meanwhile, Oher has struggled in his first year with the Titans, ranking 49th among the 51 tackles who’ve played at least 443 offensive snaps this season, per the same website.

Wagner has also committed only one penalty all season — a false start in Week 8 — after infractions were a frequent issue with Oher in his five years with Baltimore.

In the last week, Wagner was named to mid-season All-Pro teams by CBSSports.com and PFF, a reflection of how he’s more than just holding the job for the Ravens’ improved offensive line and how he’s slowly turning heads around the league. Head coach John Harbaugh said he had no idea when asked whether Wagner was playing at a Pro Bowl level, but the question alone reflects what great strides the second-year tackle has made in 2014 after playing just 131 snaps as a rookie when he was primarily used as an extra blocking tight end in the jumbo package.

After a 2013 season in which offensive line coach Juan Castillo drew plenty of criticism for the play of his unit, Wagner has been the assistant’s greatest success story in Baltimore.

“The thing that jumps out at me is his consistency. Rick is very consistent,” Harbaugh said. “He executes the techniques exactly the way that the scheme calls for. He gets it right most all the time. If he does get beat — like anybody does at times — it’s physically. And that doesn’t happen very often.”

A quiet but imposing 25-year-old with a 6-foot-6, 310-pound fram, Wagner is admittedly uncomfortable speaking with media — he joked that he was more at ease playing in Pittsburgh last Sunday than he was at the podium in Owings Mills Wednesday — but he’s taking the high praise as a confidence boost in his first full year as a starter.

Playing next to three-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda has certaintly helped Wagner’s development as the two share Big Ten roots — Yanda at Iowa and Wagner at Wisconsin — and have formed plenty of sizable running lanes for the league’s 10th-ranked running game. Despite being appreciative of the recognition, it’s clear Wagner prefers talking about the overall improvement of the offensive line rather than his individual contributions.

“I think pass protection has been pretty [improved],” said Wagner about how his game has improved since his rookie season. “Run blocking as a whole [offensive] line, we’ve been pretty good. It’s great playing next to Yanda. He really helps me out. It’s phenomenal playing next to him. The communication, the double-teams we have together — it makes my job easier.”

Wagner is the only Ravens player not to miss an offensive snap all season and doesn’t recall even missing a practice. It’s the kind of durability that commands respect and praise from teammates, both young and old.

There’s nothing fancy about him as veteran linebacker Terrell Suggs nicknamed Wagner “The Salesman” in reference to his ordinary name and a belief that he’d be good at selling “a lot of good stuff” despite his quiet demeanor. But there’s been nothing common about the tackle’s play as what was once a concern entering the season is now a position of strength for the Ravens.

“He has been working his tail off, and I think that’s a feel-good story,” Suggs said. “He showed that he can hold his own, and he has been playing phenomenal for us. You have to tip your hat to a guy that shows up to work. Those guys [are] in there in the trenches. They don’t really get a lot of credit for the things that they do, but he has definitely been a big part of our success.”

And it’s about time he’s being noticed for it.

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