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Ravens-Bengals: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 30 December 2017 by Luke Jones

One more win.

That’s what the Ravens need to secure their first trip to the playoffs since 2014. Of course, a loss by either Buffalo or Tennessee would also send Baltimore to the postseason, but relying on the out-of-town scoreboard for help is an unsettling proposition in Week 17.

The Ravens will be facing a disappointing Cincinnati team playing out the string and quite possibly preparing to bid farewell to longtime head coach Marvin Lewis. The Bengals secured a 26-17 win over playoff-hopeful Detroit last week, but they’d lost their previous two games by a combined 53 points, which isn’t exactly indicative of a team playing all that hard for its coach down the stretch.

Still, Cincinnati has given the Ravens as many problems as anyone over the last few years, winning six of the last eight meetings with two of those coming at M&T Bank Stadium. And after being embarrassed in a 20-0 shutout by Baltimore to open the 2017 season, the Bengals would like nothing more than to wreck an AFC North rival’s postseason hopes.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens lead the all-time regular-season series by a 22-21 margin and own a 14-7 advantage in Baltimore. However, 10th-year head coach John Harbaugh is just 9-10 against the Bengals, who will miss the postseason for the second straight year.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Terrell Suggs will record 1 1/2 sacks against an overwhelmed Cincinnati offensive line. The Bengals will be without left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi and are likely to again move left guard Clint Boling outside, which will spell trouble. Suggs was quiet against Indianapolis last week, but he was just named team MVP for the first time in his outstanding career and can taste a trip to the postseason. These are the types of games in which Suggs rises up to make a big play such as a strip-sack or batted pass, especially when playing at home. The 35-year-old had two sacks in the Week 1 meeting with the Bengals.

2. Cincinnati’s A.J. Green will catch his first touchdown since Week 13. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees has occasionally used rookie cornerback Marlon Humphrey to match up over the last two weeks, and I’d expect that trend to continue going up against Green, who is the biggest threat to the Ravens winning this game. Humphrey has played very well since his rough outing against Detroit in Week 13, so the stakes of this contest shouldn’t be too big for him. Like T.Y. Hilton last week, Green will make plays, but the Baltimore secondary will prevent him from being a game-wrecker.

3. Mike Wallace and Nick Boyle will make touchdown receptions for Baltimore. Since the bye, Wallace is averaging 73.5 receiving yards per game, which translates to 1,176 yards over a full season and is quite a contrast from earlier in the year. The uncertain status of Bengals cornerback William Jackson could lead to a big day for Wallace. Cincinnati ranks 31st against tight ends in Football Outsiders’ rankings, which is good news for Benjamin Watson and Boyle. The Bengals’ run defense is poor, but a big key to Baltimore’s offensive surge has been more aggressive passing on first down.

4. The Ravens defense will not duplicate its Week 1 output, but four sacks and two takeaways will do the trick. The Bengals were a mess at the beginning of the season and fired their offense coordinator after Week 2, but things haven’t gotten all that much better since. Andy Dalton isn’t going to throw four interceptions again, but the Cincinnati quarterback will be under some duress and repeatedly check down to running back Giovani Bernard. Unlike the Colts, the Bengals haven’t taken very good care of the ball this year and will make a mistake or two to stall promising drives.

5. Justin Tucker’s late field goal will allow the Ravens to exhale in a 23-13 win over the Bengals. Last week should have provided a good lesson as a three-win Indianapolis team gave the Ravens everything they could handle in a must-win situation. The Bengals’ recent success against Harbaugh’s team should provide more than enough motivation to not take them lightly, but that doesn’t mean it will be a cakewalk as Ravens fans will be biting their nails in the second half. Tucker hasn’t had the chance to make many big fourth-quarter kicks this season, but he’ll convert a long one with a few minutes left to make it a two-possession game and send the Ravens back to the playoffs.

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Suggs was fitting choice for Ravens MVP in grind-it-out season

Posted on 29 December 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Identifying a team MVP wasn’t a slam-dunk proposition in a grind-it-out season for the Ravens.

There were a number of reasonable candidates, ranging from surprising running back Alex Collins to Pro Bowl selections Eric Weddle and C.J. Mosley, but none jumped off the page as the obvious choice. If not for injuries that cost them substantial portions of the season, defensive tackle Brandon Williams and cornerback Jimmy Smith would have garnered stronger consideration. And when you consider how dependent the Ravens have been on field position, even punter Sam Koch deserved mention for his strong campaign.

But the strong play, mental prowess, and veteran leadership of outside linebacker Terrell Suggs made him a fitting choice to receive the local media’s award. Amazingly, it’s the first time the 35-year-old has received the honor, but his mere candidacy in his 15th season — along with his seventh trip to the Pro Bowl — may have helped cement his eventual place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Looking and sounding genuinely touched and surprised to be named team MVP, Suggs says his primary focus is on the Ravens clinching their first trip to the playoffs since 2014.

“This is flattering. I’m speechless. I didn’t know this was this award,” said Suggs, who initially thought he was receiving the local media’s “Good Guy” award on Friday. “This is awesome. It would be a sour note if we don’t win on Sunday, so that is pretty much my big focus right now. This is great among the achievements that we all have achieved this year, but we want to be having a football game next week.”

After changing up his offseason routine by training at the team’s Owings Mills facility rather than in his home state of Arizona, Suggs has enjoyed his finest season in a few years, recording a team-leading 11 sacks and forcing four fumbles. The 2003 first-round pick will play in all 16 regular-season games for the first time since 2014 and has played just over 76 percent of the Ravens’ defensive snaps, dismissing any notions about him becoming more of a situational player this season.

It’s an outcome few would have predicted after he suffered the second torn Achilles tendon of his career just two years ago.

Suggs has credited the revamped offseason regimen for improved health and conditioning, helping him record double-digit sacks for the seventh time in his career. His veteran teammates have also pointed to his presence at spring workouts and meetings as a positive influence on younger players as the Ravens were coming off their second straight season without a playoff berth.

His on-field production and colorful personality have been givens for years, but his underrated cerebral approach to the game has allowed him to continue playing at a high level despite his advancing age. Over the years, opponents have repeatedly noted Suggs’ ability to sometimes call out their offensive plays before the snap, a product of his rigid preparation.

“You see how much fun he is and how much energy he brings to practice,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “I don’t think you fully understand what he’s like off the field studying. He is from the book of Ed Reed and Ray Lewis and those guys.”

In a season in which the Ravens rebounded from a rash of early injuries and a 4-5 start, a healthy and productive Suggs receiving the MVP nod was an appropriate outcome as he moves closer to his eventual place in Canton.

Weddle receives “Good Guy” honor

The local media named Weddle the 2017 recipient of the “Good Guy” award, an honor bestowed upon the player deemed most helpful to reporters.

In his second season with the Ravens, the veteran safety has regularly been available after losses and during tough times when it isn’t as easy to talk to the media.

“The media out here is great. It’s always an obligation for us and for myself,” said Weddle, who was named to his fifth Pro Bowl earlier this month. “I’ve always said that I will always be honest and upfront — good, bad, or indifferent. I’m a man of my word and respect everyone’s jobs. It’s pretty sweet that you guys think that highly of me.”

As a token of their appreciation for Weddle’s cooperation this season, the local media will make a donation in his name to the Ed Block Courage Award Foundation.

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Were PSLs really an ‘investment’ all those years ago? Ravens fans will soon find out

Posted on 27 December 2017 by Nestor Aparicio

Part 3: The Ghost of Baltimore Football Future

As Baltimore Ravens president Dick Cass recently pointed out in a letter to the club’s Personal Seat License holders and top financial supporters, the spaciousness of the team’s home games this season can certainly be traced back to a warm afternoon a continent away in London, England when a dozen players took The Wembley Knee during the National Anthem.

Or, on “foreign soil,” as so many patriots have stated on the internet. It’s unclear how many PSL owners are purposely keeping those seats empty as a boycott and how many just can’t resell or even give away the tickets for free as a gift.

The new “cool debate” during the holidays has been the loyal Ravens fans excited about a playoff berth and still going to the games fighting with the ones who used to go to the games about how any real, true-blooded American could possibly support the National Football League and these disrespectful black players who hate our military and The President.

That’s where we are in this debate entering 2018.

But you want me to “stick to sports,” right?

Let’s be clear about how the upper deck got empty and how the fan base got uppity: if Donald J. Trump didn’t go on the attack with NFL players and call them “sons of bitches,” The Wembley Knee wouldn’t exist nor would The Knee of 180 players of color that around the sport that day in September 2017.

No sane person should argue this point.

But, no matter the reason, rationale, politics, philosophy, patriotism or the color of your skin or theirs, the result has been quite eye-opening for anyone who has witnessed a home game for the Baltimore Ravens since The Wembley Knee and subsequent drubbing at the hands of the Jacksonville Jaguars in London back on September 24th.

Time will tell what the impact of The Wembley Knee will be in the coming years to season tickets and PSLs and their street value.

Time will also tell what real damage there will be to the franchise and how it rebounds from this political crisis that Steve Bisciotti never could’ve

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Flacco’s play on rise as Ravens grind closer to playoff spot

Posted on 24 December 2017 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens were hardly impressive in their 23-16 win over Indianapolis.

Playing a three-win team in rainy and windy conditions at M&T Bank Stadium wasn’t exactly a recipe to earn style points on Saturday anyway, and there was much to pick apart from the performance.

The defense continued its up-and-down play since the season-ending injury suffered by Jimmy Smith in Week 13, missing too many tackles and failing to consistently pressure Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett behind a decimated offensive line. The running game wasn’t much of a factor and averaged just 2.6 yards per carry in the fourth quarter before three kneel-downs to seal the win. Even the normally-superb special teams had a punt blocked late in the fourth quarter that could have cost the Ravens the game.

“We made a number of mistakes, starting with me,” said head coach John Harbaugh, citing his decision to decline a holding penalty before Indianapolis converted a fourth down in the final quarter. “Things that gave them a chance, especially in the fourth quarter. There are things that we have to get better at and work on.”

The Ravens will need a more complete performance next week to beat Cincinnati, an AFC North rival who’s winding down a disappointing season but has given them as much trouble as any team over the last few years. It only gets tougher after that if Baltimore does advance to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

But the most encouraging trend of the last month continued Saturday as Joe Flacco turned in his fourth consecutive good performance. It’s no secret that the 10th-year quarterback is in the midst of one of the most trying seasons of his career, but he looks healthier and his play down the stretch has reflected that.

Despite the less-than-ideal weather conditions, Flacco completed 76.3 percent of his passes against the Colts and threw for 237 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. It was the fourth straight game in which Flacco has thrown for at least that many yards after doing so only once in the first 11 contests of 2017. He’s thrown seven touchdowns and just one interception over those four weeks, raising his season passer rating from 74.2 to 81.4. He’s making plays while protecting the football, the opposite of what we saw for much of the season.

It wasn’t perfect on Saturday as he lamented his bad misfire to tight end Nick Boyle near the goal line in the second quarter as well as the offense scoring just two touchdowns despite five 10-play drives of 50 or more yards. But this is the Flacco more closely resembling the quarterback who helped guide the Ravens to six playoff appearances in his first seven seasons.

“I just feel, as an offense, we’re starting to hit our stride,” said Flacco, who’s showing better mobility than we saw in the first half of the season after his summer back injury. “I’m playing more consistent. The receivers are getting open quick. The line’s playing really well together. The backs are running the ball really hard, and it’s good to come out of these games and have some things that we left out there but still a lot of things that we did well.”

Most impressive about Flacco’s rise has been him doing it with a less-than-ideal supporting cast. The Ravens are currently playing with one established NFL wide receiver in Mike Wallace, who recorded his fourth straight game with at least 60 receiving yards. Flacco’s scores went to two players — Michael Campanaro and Maxx Williams — who hadn’t caught touchdown passes in over two years.

The offensive line has improved since the bye week, but its season-long trials are hardly a secret.

And while Marty Mornhinweg deserves credit for his improved unit now scoring 23 or more points in six consecutive games, the offensive coordinator still makes some calls — particularly inside the red zone — that make you scratch your head.

Through all of this, Flacco has rebounded from his own struggles and is making it work.

Saturday’s clunky overall performance won’t raise anyone’s confidence level about the Ravens making a deep run in January, but they got the job done in the end and are now one victory away from the opportunity to roll the dice. And with Flacco now playing his best football of the season and owning a stellar track record in January, the Ravens will take their chances having won five of their last six.

“One good game, and we’re in,” said linebacker Terrell Suggs, referencing next week’s tilt with the Bengals. “If we win, we’re in. Everybody knows that second season, we become a different team — a special team.

“‘January Joe’ — we’re all looking forward to seeing him. Absolutely.”

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Ravens-Colts: Five predictions for Saturday

Posted on 22 December 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens have no need for an out-of-town scoreboard for Christmas.

Two wins will punch their ticket to the playoffs for the first time since the 2014 season. Those two contests come against opponents with a combined one win since Thanksgiving, leaving no need for John Harbaugh’s team to pay attention to what other teams are doing this weekend.

Indianapolis comes to town Saturday riding a five-game losing streak and is winding down a lost season without injured franchise quarterback Andrew Luck. The Colts’ struggles are likely to cost former Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano his job after six years as head coach.

Of course, Baltimore has dealt with its own trials this season with 14 players on injured reserve, many of those coming on the offensive side of the ball. However, a post-bye surge has many viewing the Ravens as an intriguing threat come January.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens try to win for the fifth time in six games and improve their all-time regular-season mark against Indianapolis to 4-8. Including the postseason, Baltimore is 4-4 against the Colts at M&T Bank Stadium with the last meeting coming in the 2012 playoffs, a 24-9 victory in Ray Lewis’ final game in front of the home crowd.

Below are five predictions for Saturday:

1. Joe Flacco will continue his late-season surge with two touchdown passes. There are many reasons why the Ravens have averaged 36.3 points per game over the last three weeks, but the improved play of the quarterback is the biggest as Flacco has thrown five touchdowns and one interception with a 94.5 passer rating during that time. Making that more impressive has been those performances coinciding with Jeremy Maclin mostly being a non-factor. With Maclin not expected to play, look for Flacco to try to go to tight end Benjamin Watson over the middle with Mike Wallace continuing to make plays on the outside against the NFL’s 30th-ranked pass defense. Each will have a touchdown reception.

2. The Baltimore defense will sack Indianapolis quarterback Jacoby Brissett five times. The second-year signal-caller has been intercepted just seven times all year, but that’s come at a price with Indianapolis surrendering a league-high 53 sacks, often a result of Brissett holding the ball too long. Making matters worse, the Colts just placed starting center Ryan Kelly on injured reserve and have ruled out starting right tackle Denzelle Good for Saturday’s game. Terrell Suggs will have the toughest matchup going up against above-average left tackle Anthony Castonzo, but Dean Pees shouldn’t hesitate to bring A-gap blitzes inside and various pressures against a shuffled right side of the Colts line.

3. Jack Doyle will catch the lone touchdown of the day for the Colts. Ravens linebackers and safeties rebounded nicely last week from their poor showing against Pittsburgh’s tight ends, but that position has still been a problem at various times and Doyle leads Indianapolis in receptions with 71. The secondary will be concerned with containing big-play wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, so the Ravens will concede some space underneath for Doyle to operate from time to time and Brissett will attempt to get rid of the ball quickly against an active pass rush. The Colts will have great difficulty moving the ball with any consistency, but they’ll put together a decent drive or two with Doyle in the middle of it.

4. Buck Allen will lead the way in a 135-yard effort for the running game. Starter Alex Collins isn’t listed on the injury report, but anyone who watched the Week 15 win at Cleveland saw the second-year running back was laboring on multiple occasions. With the playoffs looming, the Ravens would be wise to try to ease Collins’ workload by giving more carries to Allen, who has done a trustworthy job as the backup this season. Indianapolis ranks an unimpressive 29th in rushing yards allowed per game, but its 4.1 yards per carry surrendered ranks a solid 12th in the NFL. Collins will make his mark early in this game, but it will be Allen carrying it more in the second half as the Ravens protect a double-digit lead.

5. The Ravens will take care of business in a 27-10 win. Many fans felt some level of angst about Baltimore playing at the winless Browns last week, but it’s much more difficult envisioning a scenario in which Harbaugh’s team lays a home egg on Saturday. Indianapolis has played hard for the most part and would be a bigger threat in its own stadium, but an undermanned roster doesn’t have the horses to stick with an improved team smelling the playoffs. As was the case against the hapless Browns, the Ravens aren’t going to earn any style points by beating a three-win team, but they’ll clinch their first winning season since 2014 and give their fans a happier Christmas than last year’s crushing loss in Pittsburgh.

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Suggs, Mosley, Weddle named to this year’s Pro Bowl

Posted on 19 December 2017 by Luke Jones

At an age when many of the greatest players in NFL history were already a couple years into retirement, Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs is instead going back to the Pro Bowl.

The 35-year-old was one of three Baltimore players to receive this year’s honor, joining inside linebacker C.J. Mosley and safety Eric Weddle. Suggs was named to his seventh Pro Bowl and first since the 2013 season, a feat that could cement his case for an eventual invitation to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In 14 games, Suggs leads the Ravens with 11 sacks and four forced fumbles while holding the franchise’s career record in each category. This is the seventh time in his career that the 2003 first-round pick and 2011 AP Defensive Player of the Year has reached double-digit sacks.

Suggs ranks 16th among all NFL edge defenders in Pro Football Focus’ grading system entering Week 16. He will serve as the reserve behind Denver’s Von Miller and Houston’s Jadeveon Clowney in the AFC.

“I’m speechless,” said Suggs, who credited good health and hard work in the offseason for his best campaign in several years. “Every time you make it, it’s like making it for the first time all over again. It’s a really great feeling.”

Mosley continues an impressive start to his NFL career with his third invitation to the Pro Bowl in his first four seasons. The 2014 first-round selection ranks sixth in the NFL with 121 tackles while adding two interceptions and three forced fumbles.

The 25-year-old ranks 39th among qualified linebackers in PFF’s grading and will be the starting middle linebacker for the AFC.

“It’s always great to represent your teammates and the organization,” said Mosley, who gave much credit to his coaches. “All the blood, sweat, and tears you go through during the season — it’s all worth it to make the All-Star game. I give a lot of credit to the [defensive] line for keeping linemen off me.”

After being named an alternate and eventually being invited to play in last year’s game, Weddle has received the fifth Pro Bowl nod of his 11-year career with his first three coming as a member of the San Diego Chargers. The 32-year-old is tied for second in the NFL with six interceptions and has six pass breakups and two forced fumbles in his second season with Baltimore.

His slow start to the season helps explain why he ranks 30th among qualified NFL safeties in PFF’s grading system, but he has risen to 18th in pass coverage with a strong second half. His leadership and experience have been major reasons why the Ravens have ranked in the top 10 in pass defense all year and lead all 32 teams with 22 interceptions.

He will be the starting free safety for the AFC.

“I’ve never worked as hard as I did this past year to try and get better from last season and help this team and lead even more so,” said Weddle, whose 10 interceptions over the last two seasons lead all NFL safeties. “I’m ecstatic because I’ve done so much over the last year to get back to this point, to help my team win, and to hopefully get back to the playoffs.”

The biggest Ravens snub was kicker Justin Tucker, who was denied his third career trip to the Pro Bowl despite having missed only three field goal tries and not missing an extra point all season. He had misfires from 58 and 62 yards while a 46-yard attempt was blocked, but he has connected on five other field goals of 50 or more yards.

Tucker was named the first alternate behind Pittsburgh’s Chris Boswell, who has benefited from the opportunity to make four game-winning field goals in the final minute this season. Considered the best kicker in the league by many, Tucker hasn’t had the opportunity to kick a game-winning field goal in the fourth quarter all season.

Punter Sam Koch was also left out of the Pro Bowl despite leading the NFL with 37 punts inside the 20-yard line. Tennessee’s Brett Kern was named the AFC punter and leads the league in both gross and net average, but he has placed only 22 inside the 20.

This marks the 12th consecutive year that the Ravens will have had at least three players in the Pro Bowl.

The exhibition game will take place on Jan. 28 in Orlando with selections from the two teams playing in Super Bowl LII not taking part.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 27-10 win over Cleveland

Posted on 18 December 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens moving a step closer to securing a postseason berth in a 27-10 win over Cleveland, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The defense took advantage of rookie DeShone Kizer and the NFL’s most turnover-prone offense by forcing four turnovers that led to 14 points. Much of the damage hasn’t come against the stiffest competition, but a league-best 33 takeaways is impressive. Two years ago, the Ravens had only 14.

2. The offense didn’t light up the scoreboard like the previous two weeks, but still moving the ball despite the running game being a non-factor through the first three quarters is an encouraging sign. The Ravens were able to finish with 63 rushing yards on 11 carries in the final period.

3. This wasn’t the first time Matthew Judon was arguably the top player for the defense. He totaled a sack, two other tackles for a loss, and two more quarterback hits. His versatile play in all phases has been one of the most encouraging big-picture developments of the season.

4. Remember how completely helpless the passing game looked without Jeremy Maclin in two games earlier this season? He played only five snaps because of a left knee injury, but Joe Flacco still threw for a season-high 288 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions.

5. A major reason for that was Mike Wallace, who caught six passes for 89 yards with four of those going for first downs. Since the bye, Wallace is averaging 76.2 receiving yards per contest and 16.6 yards per catch. That equates to a 1,200-yard season over 16 games.

6. Terrell Suggs finished with an ordinary two tackles if you only looked at the standard box score, but he was consistently putting heat on Kizer and was credited with nine hurries by Pro Football Focus. He played a significant part in several good things that happened for the defense.

7. A read-option keeper for Flacco shouldn’t be called unless it’s the fourth quarter of a playoff game, but that play and the draw for a touchdown reflect the greater confidence in the quarterback’s health. Flacco also has a 94.5 passer rating with five touchdown passes over the last three games.

8. C.J. Mosley rebounded from a poor outing in Pittsburgh as he batted down a couple passes, was stronger in pass coverage, and delivered the crushing hit on the Duke Johnson fumble. Sending Mosley after the quarterback a few times was a needed changeup after his recent struggles in coverage.

9. John Harbaugh was wise to mostly keep Alex Collins out of harm’s way in the second half as he was visibly laboring several times. As tough and physical as Collins is, we sometimes forget he’s only 210 pounds, which is much lighter than many of the league’s bruising-style backs.

10. For the second straight year, the Ravens surrendered Isaiah Crowell’s longest run from scrimmage for the season. The run defense has mostly been terrific since late October, but allowing a 96-yard touchdown drive exclusively via the ground in the second quarter was mystifying.

11. I didn’t like Marty Mornhinweg’s outside run call on fourth-and-goal from the 1, but credit Cleveland defensive end Carl Nassib for blowing up an attempted double team from Matt Skura and Austin Howard. He was more disruptive than top overall pick Myles Garrett throughout the day.

12. I understand reluctance to embrace the 2017 Ravens because of the early-season inconsistency, but some of the fear expressed about the Browns this week was over the top. Their horrendous minus-25 turnover difference says it all while Baltimore leads the NFL at plus-17. Taking care of the football really matters.

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Painful loss to Pittsburgh should still bring hope for Ravens

Posted on 11 December 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — No matter the circumstances or stakes, losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers is about as painful as it gets for the Ravens.

That’s the burden of a tremendous rivalry as the sting of Sunday’s heartbreaking 39-38 defeat will linger throughout the week and possibly a little longer. Suffering their first regular-season sweep at the hands of the Steelers since 2008, many players were despondent in the locker room after squandering a two-score lead in the fourth quarter, conjuring memories of last year’s defensive collapse on Christmas.

Baltimore was one stop or one drive away from a huge victory at Heinz Field, but we know close only counts in horseshoes, right? Terrell Suggs was among those who didn’t want to hear about any moral victory of the Ravens giving Pittsburgh everything it could handle and then some as they led by nine points with less than seven minutes to go.

Coaches, players, media, and fans alike understand giving up 19 points in the final 13 minutes is inexcusable as Ben Roethlisberger threw for 506 yards — 228 in the fourth quarter — and Antonio Brown caught 11 passes for 213 yards, but there’s a critical difference with this one compared to last season’s Week 16 collapse. That loss left the Ravens to think all offseason about how close they came before Brown extended the ball over the goal line and eliminated them from playoff contention with that dramatic last-second touchdown.

Sunday certainly hurt, but the loss only narrowed the margin for error the rest of the way as they try to secure a wild-card spot and their first trip to the playoffs since 2014. A division title would have remained a long shot even with a win, so the task is clear for the Ravens as three wins against three sub-.500 opponents will still guarantee them some January football.

A narrow loss to Pittsburgh — the expected outcome in the eyes of most observers entering Week 14 — shouldn’t meaningfully alter anyone’s outlook for the final three weeks. If you don’t believe in the Ravens’ ability to beat Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Cincinnati, were you honestly expecting a competitive game against the Steelers in the first place?

A deep breath and 24 hours bring some needed perspective for the long-term outlook.

Had Chris Boswell missed the 46-yard field goal in the final minute or the Ravens simply made one more game-changing play down the stretch, euphoria undoubtedly would have replaced disgust and the focus would have been on a strong offensive showing for the second straight week rather than the terrible defensive performance. Concerns about the defense still would have been warranted had the Ravens figured out a way to escape western Pennsylvania with a win, but that wouldn’t have been the primary topic of discussion.

A signature win would have helped the eyeball test, but it wouldn’t have suddenly made Baltimore the new favorite in the AFC. A return trip to Heinz Field next month would have still labeled the Ravens as the underdog against the Steelers. This remains a flawed team, and a win wouldn’t have changed that if we’re being honest.

The silver lining from Sunday is that the offense was able to duplicate last week’s impressive production against Detroit. It’s no secret that this group has been the Ravens’ biggest weakness, but scoring a combined 82 points the last two games brings more optimism down the stretch. Alex Collins continues to look like a difference-maker while Joe Flacco has thrown for 538 yards and four touchdowns the last two weeks, marked improvement from what we’ve seen most of this season.

We knew this offense needed to improve if the Ravens were going to pose any threat in a potential trip to the postseason, and it’s finally showing signs of progress.

On the other hand, the defense is fairly being criticized after being carved up by Roethlisberger and giving up 59 points in its last six quarters of action, but the Ravens will now play three bottom-10 offenses to try to make necessary corrections and better adjust to life without top cornerback Jimmy Smith. Sunday certainly brought validation to the criticism regarding the lack of elite offenses on the schedule and the group’s ability without Smith on the field, but this defense has been good enough over the course of the season to at least envision better results on that side of the ball if the teams were to meet a third time.

It was only three years ago that the Ravens were blown out by the Steelers in their first full game without Smith and returned to Heinz Field two months later to win in the opening round of the playoffs. Regardless of how it ended Sunday night, a one-point road loss to an 11-2 team shouldn’t prompt any fear if given the chance to roll the dice again, and there isn’t much more you can ask for beyond that.

It’s fair to be ticked off about such a frustrating loss for the Ravens. Harbaugh and his team certainly are.

But it didn’t end their season this time around, and there was enough good to take away from the performance to ponder the possibilities of a third meeting sometime next month.

That is, if the Ravens handle their business between now and then.

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Smith’s injury reiterates Ravens need more of what they did Sunday

Posted on 03 December 2017 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Sunday’s performance by the Ravens felt very familiar.

Joe Flacco and the offense turned in their best performance of the season against Detroit nearly a year to the day after they blew out Miami, a playoff contender turned away at M&T Bank Stadium to begin the final month of 2016. The 44-20 win over the Lions lifted the Ravens to 7-5, the same record they owned after their 38-6 victory over the Dolphins last Dec. 4.

Unfortunately, history repeated itself again when cornerback Jimmy Smith tore his Achilles tendon late in the first half, ending the best season of his career and leaving the defense without arguably its best player. It was Week 14 last year when the Ravens lost Smith to a high ankle sprain, an injury that torpedoed what had been the league’s top-ranked defense at the time.

That injury preceded three losses in the final four weeks as the Ravens missed the playoffs for the third time in four seasons. The schedule is certainly more favorable this time around with just one game remaining against a winning team — next Sunday in Pittsburgh — and the final two contests coming at home.

Still, there’s no underselling the loss of Smith, especially for a team that’s relied so heavily on its defense all season.

“It’s different than it’s been before,” said head coach John Harbaugh, citing his defense’s struggles without its top corner in 2014 and last year. “We have a lot of depth. We have a lot of good, young players. We’ll step up, and we’ll still play at a really high level in the secondary. I’m very confident of that.”

The Ravens are better equipped to carry on without Smith after signing reliable veteran Brandon Carr — who’s amazingly never missed a game in his 10-year career — and drafting the talented Marlon Humphrey in the first round this past spring. Turning over a starting job to Humphrey is quite an improvement from a year ago when Shareece Wright stepped in for Smith opposite rookie Tavon Young.

But there will still be some drop-off, evident by Humphrey’s difficulties in coverage against speedy Lions receiver Marvin Jones. The Alabama product may eventually be as good as Smith — or even better — but expecting that immediately would be unfair and unrealistic.

That makes it even more critical for this Ravens offense to look more like it did Sunday the rest of the way.

Veterans Terrell Suggs and Eric Weddle admitted after the game that the defense was feeling deflated after officially learning of Smith’s fate at halftime. Two touchdown drives orchestrated by Lions quarterback Mathew Stafford in the third quarter transformed a comfortable 20-0 lead into a one-possession game, but Flacco and the offense fought right back with a nine-play, 74-yard drive ending with a 7-yard touchdown run by Alex Collins to make it a 27-13 lead early in the final quarter.

Given the importance of the game and the way it was trending, that touchdown drive may have been the offense’s best and most important of the year to this point. The Ravens then answered a Stafford touchdown pass with another drive resulting in a field goal to put them up by multiple scores for good with 6:54 remaining.

“Well, we have to do our part at some point, right?” said wide receiver Mike Wallace, who finished with 116 yards on five catches. “The offense, we have to come up. Our defense has been incredible. Our special teams have been incredible. The offense, not so much.

“Today, we made strides. This game is about peaking at the right time, so hopefully we can do that.”

The convincing win tightened the Ravens’ grip on the No. 6 seed as they own a one-game lead as well as tiebreakers over the top three teams chasing them in the AFC wild-card race, but building on this performance will be of the utmost importance. Baltimore will be an underdog against the Steelers next Sunday night, but a good showing from Flacco and the offense for a second straight week would create more optimism about this team being able to make noise in January.

The defense should still be more than good enough that the Ravens won’t need to put 44 points on the board every week like they did Sunday, but any expectation of this unit continuing to carry an inept offense likely vanished as Smith collapsed to the ground with 4:21 to go in the second quarter. That unbalanced formula may still be good enough against a soft remaining regular-season schedule, but it certainly won’t fly in the playoffs.

Many saw that as the Ravens’ reality anyway, but losing an elite defensive talent brings it into sharper focus.

The offense stepped up to do the heavy lifting when the defense suddenly found itself on the ropes Sunday.

The coming weeks will determine whether that was merely an aberration or the start of the offense more consistently pulling its own weight.

The latter would make for a more interesting January.

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Ravens-Lions: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 02 December 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens don’t own a victory over a team currently holding as much as a .500 record.

Five of their six wins have come against a rookie or backup quarterback.

Baltimore has the opportunity to fight back at both of those criticisms Sunday when Matthew Stafford and Detroit come to town. More importantly, the Ravens can improve their playoff chances as they enter Week 13 holding the No. 6 seed in the AFC.

John Harbaugh’s team is eyeing its first three-game winning streak since the first three weeks of the 2016 season while the 6-5 Lions are trying to stay in the hunt in a much tougher NFC playoff race. Detroit enters the weekend one game behind Atlanta for the final spot in the conference.

It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet for the first time since 2013 with the Ravens having won the last two meetings and owning a 3-1 advantage in the all-time regular-season series. The Lions are seeking their first win in Baltimore since defeating the Colts 13-10 at Memorial Stadium in 1977.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Detroit’s Golden Tate will lead both teams in receiving yards. The Lions own the 30th-ranked running game in the NFL, but no one has found room on the ground against the Ravens over their last four games anyway, making Tate much more critical. The slot receiver ranks sixth in the league in yards after the catch and 51 of his 63 catches have come on throws 10 or fewer yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Baltimore’s pass defense has mostly been superb, but nickel corner Lardarius Webb has had his issues in coverage and the middle of the field has been a vulnerable area that Tate can exploit.

2. Terrell Suggs will register a strip-sack for the third consecutive game. Harbaugh labeled the 35-year-old “Ponce de Leon” for seemingly finding the Fountain of Youth after his performance against Houston, and few would argue with Suggs registering two-sack efforts in both games since the bye week. He’s one-half sack away from reaching double digits for the seventh time in his career and will be lining up against Taylor Decker, a talented left tackle who has struggled since returning last month from offseason shoulder surgery. This matchup is one of the biggest swing factors of the game.

3. Stafford will throw two touchdown passes against a tough secondary. As I wrote earlier this week, the Ravens shouldn’t apologize for the opponents they’ve faced, but it’s fair to wonder just how good this secondary will be against tougher competition, which is what Stafford and the league’s 10th-ranked passing game will offer. The Ravens defense leads the NFL with 18 interceptions, but the Lions quarterback has tossed only six in 395 attempts. If Baltimore can’t sustain pressure against an offensive line that’s been pretty solid after a slow start, Stafford will be able to make some plays at every level.

4. Joe Flacco will toss a touchdown and two interceptions as his 2017 struggles continue. The Lions have had substantial issues stopping the run in recent weeks, but any defense not loading the box against Baltimore to force the ball in Flacco’s hands is crazy. It’s no secret this passing game is a total mess that hasn’t produced against even below-average pass defenses, and Detroit is tied for fifth in the NFL in takeaways despite ranking 23rd against the pass. Flacco’s comments after the Houston win reflect the frustration for the veteran, who’s eclipsed 200 passing yards only once since Week 5.

5. The lack of offensive balance and turnovers will catch up with the Ravens in a 20-16 loss. These teams are fairly equal in quality, but Baltimore is coming off a short week and its passing game is a much bigger weakness than anything the Lions are dealing with. Stafford isn’t going to totally pick the defense apart, but there will be some shock going up against a top quarterback that will put the Ravens behind and take them out of their formula of running the ball and being aggressive on defense to force turnovers. The Ravens have won the turnover battle in all six of their wins this season and have enjoyed at least a plus-2 margin in five of those. Short of that happening, they’ll drop a close one.

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