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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 24-16 loss to Minnesota

Posted on 23 October 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens enduring their fourth loss in five games in a 24-16 final in Minnesota, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Resignation might be the Ravens’ biggest opponent at this point. Based on many of the post-game comments, they’re fighting doubts over whether this will improve. Terrell Suggs sounded as despondent as I’ve ever heard him and summed it up by saying, “Right now, we stink.” Indeed.

2. When Griff Whalen comes off the street to play 58 snaps, how do you expect anything different from this offense? Injuries don’t forgive the poor organizational approach, but “next man up” is merely a nice T-shirt slogan when an offense built to be average at best suffers this many.

3. Amazingly, seven NFL teams failed to score an offensive touchdown on Sunday as the Ravens avoided being the eighth with Chris Moore catching a touchdown as time expired. Since scoring five offensive touchdowns over the first two weeks, the offense has five in five games. Just brutal.

4. I didn’t buy Brandon Williams’ absence being the only reason the run defense was faring poorly, and the Ravens allowed over 160 rushing yards in his return. The defense isn’t getting any help from the offense, but too many resources have been used on this unit to be so underwhelming.

5. Mike Wallace didn’t always have the best reputation on some of his previous NFL stops, but I admire his strong desire to go back in the game after being concussed. And I’m glad he wasn’t allowed to.

6. How ironic it is that a litany of injuries at wide receiver left Michael Campanaro as the No. 1 guy still standing. He’s already set a career high for games played in a season, and I’m glad to see him stay on the field for an extended stretch.

7. After years of being the Achilles heel of the defense, cornerback has been its biggest strength as Brandon Carr has been a quality acquisition and grabbed his third interception of the season. It’s a shame to see the drop-off elsewhere.

8. Which was the more embarrassing moment for the offense Sunday: Buck Allen needing to line up at wide receiver or Joe Flacco tripping over his own two feet in the pocket? It’s a shame Todd Heap couldn’t come down from the radio broadcast booth to catch some passes.

9. Jaylen Hill performed well in his first NFL action, registering a tackle and a pass breakup in nine defensive snaps. I still wouldn’t be surprised to see him emerge as the nickel corner sooner than later.

10. How many times have you heard game broadcasters note the lack of urgency in Baltimore’s two-minute offense over the last couple years? It’s more like a two-hour offense too many times.

11. I’ve chuckled seeing some ask whether this offense is worse than the 2000 one. The answer is a resounding yes, and it’s not close. That group had the league’s fifth-ranked running game and a much better offensive line. This year’s offense might be the worst in team history.

12. I suppose it depends how the Ravens fare against Miami Thursday, but I don’t know how John Harbaugh doesn’t at least consider making some significant change with the extra break looming and the bye soon after that. How do you maintain the status quo with things trending this poorly?

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Brandon Williams returns to struggling Ravens run defense

Posted on 18 October 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Wearing his customary Incredible Hulk shirt under his jersey and shoulder pads Wednesday, Brandon Williams practiced fully for the first time in over a month.

The Ravens hope the defensive tackle’s return brings a superhero-like impact to their struggling run defense. It’s certainly needed with Baltimore ranking an unheard-of 30th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (141.3) and 21st in yards per carry (4.3). Both marks would shatter franchise-worst records for a defense that’s prided itself in shutting down opposing running games for two decades.

Is the standout defensive lineman the savior as the Ravens try to get back on track in Minnesota on Sunday?

“I’m just a guy,” said Williams, who hasn’t played since injuring his left foot in the first half of the 24-10 win over Cleveland on Sept. 17. “I’m just a guy who’s working to get back on the field. That’s all I’m doing. Today, it felt good. I have two more days [of practice] to go, and then hopefully, I’ll be back soon.”

At the time of Williams’ halftime exit in that Week 2 victory, the Ravens had allowed a stingy 3.4 yards per carry on 34 season attempts. They’ve surrendered an unimpressive 4.4 yards per rush since then as defensive end Brent Urban was lost for the season in Week 3 and emerging reserve Carl Davis has also missed action in recent weeks.

With the defensive line banged up and relying heavily on inexperienced backups, nose tackle Michael Pierce laughed at the notion of Williams proclaiming himself to be “just a guy” for a defense that had extraordinary expectations entering the 2017 season.

“That’s one of our key defensive pieces,” said Pierce, who has continued to play well despite receiving more attention from offensive lines in Williams’ absence. “Anytime you have him back, that frees up other guys to make plays. Double teams will start coming off of me, and they’ll start focusing on him more and free me up and free our ends up. It just frees everybody up. It definitely keeps our linebackers clean and that’s something we take pride in.”

The blame for the porous run defense doesn’t fall solely on the defensive line as both Davis and second-year defensive tackle Willie Henry have performed admirably despite their limited NFL experience. But plugging in solid rotational contributors isn’t the same as having the man who was awarded a $52.5 million contract in the offseason to be the anchor in the trenches.

The “next man up” mantra is the refrain uttered after any injury, but Williams is a difference-making talent on a team frankly in need of more game-changers.

“This machine has working parts to it, and you need all of your parts,” outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “It’s always great to have one of the best interior linemen back on the team.”

With Williams potentially returning to play against the Vikings, the Ravens hope the low point for their defense came last week when they allowed a franchise-record 231 yards on 54 attempts, which allowed Chicago to win with a rookie quarterback making his first career road start.

It’s all been a frustrating experience for the 2013 third-round pick, who hadn’t missed a game since his rookie season.

“Not being in the game and watching your brothers go out to battle, it is always tough to watch,” Williams said. “You want to be out there and you want to help, but there is nothing you can do. It stinks watching from the sidelines, but hopefully I can get right and get back out there soon.”

Williams may not be “just a guy” for the Ravens, but teammates acknowledged Wednesday that they all need to pick up their play after such a disappointing month. The problems stopping the run haven’t solely occurred between the tackles as outside linebackers haven’t set the edge consistently and inside linebackers and safeties have missed too many tackles.

Baltimore will catch a break Sunday with Vikings rookie running back Dalvin Cook now out for the season after suffering a torn ACL a few weeks ago, but it will take more than Williams’ return for this defense to regroup and reclaim its place as a top-10 run defense, a title held in 14 of the last 18 seasons.

“I think he’s a part of the answer,” said Pierce of his defensive line partner. “Everybody should be accountable for their gap integrity on each and every play. You just see leaks here and there from myself and from everybody on the defense. We have to clean that up, and he’s going to be a big help just taking on those double teams and freeing up guys.

“It’s a big help, but at the end of the day, everybody has to be accountable.”

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Jimmy Smith good to go for Ravens despite being listed as questionable

Posted on 06 October 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith returned to the field for the final practice of the week and is apparently good to go for Sunday’s game in Oakland.

Despite a questionable designation on the final injury report, head coach John Harbaugh said the Ravens were merely giving Smith some rest for his sore Achilles tendon this week. The seventh-year defensive back was replaced periodically by rookie Marlon Humphrey during the Week 4 loss to Pittsburgh, a sign that he’s been dealing with the issue for some time.

Smith was a full participant in Friday’s light practice.

“I know we didn’t announce that, but [his status] was not a question,” Harbaugh said. “He’s good.”

The Ravens will need Smith to be at full strength since Raiders wide receivers Michael Crabtree (chest) and Amari Cooper (knee) were full participants in Thursday and Friday practices and were not listed on the final injury report. Crabtree sat out his team’s Week 4 loss at Denver, but he has registered 16 catches for 199 yards and four touchdowns in his last two games against the Ravens.

Defensive tackle Brandon Williams (foot) was once again absent from practice and has been ruled out for the third consecutive game. Tight end Maxx Williams (ankle) will also miss his third straight contest, but he did some limited work on his own before leaving the field during the media viewing portion of practice on Friday.

Tight end Benjamin Watson (calf) returned to practice fully on Friday after missing workouts earlier in the week. He was officially listed as questionable, but he also sat out two practices last week before registering five catches for 43 yards against the Steelers.

Veteran defensive back Lardarius Webb (thigh) and rookie cornerback Jaylen Hill (hamstring) were present and working on Friday. Webb was listed as questionable to go against the Raiders, but he is expected to play after completing two full practices without incident. Hill is doubtful to play after missing more than a month with a hamstring injury, but Harbaugh liked what he saw from the undrafted free agent in his limited practice work this week.

“It was good to see him back,” Harbaugh said. “He looked good, moved well, had a couple interceptions out there during the course of the week. That was good to see.”

The Ravens also listed wide receiver Jeremy Maclin (hand) and defensive back Anthony Levine (thigh) as questionable, but neither is in danger of missing Sunday’s game.

There was a more interesting development with the Raiders’ final injury report as quarterback Derek Carr (back) was listed as questionable after practicing on a limited basis for the second straight day. Head coach Jack Del Rio announced at the beginning of the week that Carr suffered a transverse process fracture in his back in Week 4 — an injury that typically sidelines a player for two to six weeks — but the Raiders are at least making it look like their starting quarterback has a chance to play Sunday.

Whether it’s merely some gamesmanship or an amazing recovery by Carr, the Ravens need to be be prepared for a quarterback who’s thrown for 550 yards and seven touchdowns in two career games against them. If Carr doesn’t play, E.J. Manuel would start at quarterback for Oakland.

The Raiders also listed starting right guard Gabe Jackson as questionable after he missed practice time this week with a foot injury.

As is their normal routine for games on the West Coast, the Ravens traveled to Oakland Friday afternoon to give themselves an extra day to adjust to the three-hour time change. Baltimore hasn’t won a game in the Pacific Time Zone since the 2012 season and is winless in its last five road games against AFC West and NFC West opponents.

According to Weather.com, the Sunday forecast in Oakland calls for mostly sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-70s with winds 10 to 15 miles per hour and only a 10-percent chance of precipitation.

Below is the final injury report of the week:

BALTIMORE
OUT: DT Brandon Williams (foot), TE Maxx Williams (ankle)
DOUBTFUL: CB Jaylen Hill (thigh)
QUESTIONABLE: DB Anthony Levine (thigh), WR Jeremy Maclin (hand), CB Jimmy Smith (Achilles), TE Benjamin Watson (calf), DB Lardarius Webb (thigh)

OAKLAND
QUESTIONABLE: CB David Amerson (concussion), QB Derek Carr (back), CB Gareon Conley (shin), G Gabe Jackson (foot), RB DeAndre Washington (hamstring)

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 30 September 2017 by Luke Jones

Coming off one of the worst losses in team history and remembering what happened last Christmas Day, the Ravens should have no shortage of motivation against Pittsburgh on Sunday.

But it’s difficult knowing what to expect after such a shockingly poor performance in London and with the injuries continuing to mount. A Week 4 tilt is hardly a must-win game, but the Ravens surely would like to hold serve at home and escape the next two games with no worse than a 3-2 record going into the middle portion of the regular season.

The Steelers are coming off a disappointing loss of their own as their high-octane offense has been largely stuck in neutral through the first three weeks of the season. However, Pittsburgh does find itself in better shape than the Ravens from a health standpoint, a key factor in what’s always a very physical ballgame.

It’s time to go on the record as these AFC North foes meet for the 43rd time in the regular season with the Steelers holding a slight 22-20 edge as well as a 3-1 advantage in postseason encounters. Pittsburgh prevailed in dramatic fashion to clinch the division title last Dec. 25, but the Ravens have won six of the last eight meetings, a stretch that includes their only postseason victory since Super Bowl XLVII. Including the playoffs, 16 of the 21 showdowns with the Steelers in the John Harbaugh era have been decided by a single possession.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Alex Collins will lead the Ravens in rushing and will score his first touchdown. I’m not sure how real his 7.8 yards per attempt average is since he’s rarely carried the ball with a game’s outcome in doubt, but this sputtering offense is in desperate need of a spark and there’s no denying the urgency with which Collins has run. The Ravens have averaged 4.6 yards per carry since Marshal Yanda’s season-ending injury in Week 2, but most of that has come with a multi-score second-half lead over Cleveland and a huge deficit against Jacksonville and the Steelers are getting healthy with defensive end Stephon Tuitt returning. If the Baltimore passing game can’t get going again, Pittsburgh is likely to stack the box.

2. Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell will crack 100 yards of offense for the first time this season. It’s been a slow start to 2017 for the Steelers’ Pro Bowl running back, but the Ravens will be without standout defensive tackle Brandon Williams and defensive end Brent Urban, putting pressure on young linemen lacking experience against a rock-solid Pittsburgh offensive line. Baltimore linebackers were undisciplined in pass coverage against Jacksonville, which is another reason for concern with Bell’s ability as a receiver out of the backfield. The Ravens may need to take some chances with their linebackers to boost their pass rush, but that will leave them vulnerable on underneath throws.

3. Terrell Suggs will break a six-game drought against the Steelers with a sack against Ben Roethlisberger. No defender has more career takedowns of the Pittsburgh quarterback than Suggs, but the Ravens’ pass rush was nonexistent against Jacksonville while trying to rely mostly on a four-man rush. Not only do they need another edge rusher to consistently emerge opposite Suggs, but the inside pass rush is a big question mark since Urban was a major part of that equation. It isn’t enough to merely make Roethlisberger uncomfortable as Baltimore also needs to keep him in the pocket to prevent the downfield improvisation with his receivers that so often gets a secondary in trouble.

4. Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown will catch a touchdown despite being held to a season low for yards. The pain of last December’s game-winning score notwithstanding, the Ravens have generally done a respectable job against Brown while rarely having top cornerback Jimmy Smith travel with the All-Pro receiver. It will be interesting to see how much rookie cornerback Marlon Humphrey plays — especially with 6-foot-5 receiver Martavis Bryant back in the fold — but the Ravens are better equipped to handle the Pittsburgh passing game than they were in the fourth-quarter collapse in Week 16 last year. Brown will inevitably get touches, but he won’t be the difference in the game.

5. The Pittsburgh defense will be too much for the Ravens in a 17-14 loss. This will be a close one as it almost always is in this rivalry. I fully expect the Baltimore defense to rebound from last week’s embarrassment and play well despite being banged up on the defensive line, but it’s difficult having faith in the Ravens to score points considering the current state of the offensive line and how uncomfortable Joe Flacco has looked trying to throw the football down the field. They’re also facing a Steelers defense that’s improved from recent years despite its clear issues against the run in Chicago. Roethlisberger hasn’t won a game at M&T Bank Stadium since 2010 and the Steelers haven’t won in Baltimore since Charlie Batch pulled off an upset in 2012, but the Ravens are the inferior team on paper because of their many injuries and haven’t shown enough on offense to make me believe they’re going to win this one.

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Ravens defensive tackle Williams to miss second straight game

Posted on 29 September 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens will be without their best defensive lineman for the second straight week as Brandon Williams was officially ruled out for Sunday’s contest with Pittsburgh.

Williams did not practice all week and hasn’t played since injuring his foot in the Week 2 win over Cleveland. Head coach John Harbaugh reiterated Friday that the fifth-year defensive standout is making progress, but his return isn’t considered imminent.

“He’s got a lower leg issue that he’s dealing with,” Harbaugh said. “I think when you see him practicing, you’ll know that he’s either close to getting back or back. That’s kind of where it’s at right now. Like I said, it’s not going to be half the season or anything like that. It’s a matter of weeks from when he got hurt [on Sept. 17], and I’ll have my fingers crossed in the upcoming week or two and hope that he’ll be back.”

Williams’ absence is even more concerning after defensive end Brent Urban suffered a season-ending foot injury in last week’s loss to Jacksonville. With two starters on the defensive line now missing against the Steelers, the Ravens must rely on less-experienced options such as Carl Davis, Willie Henry, and Bronson Kaufusi to help contain Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell and a Pittsburgh running game off to a slow start in 2017.

Veteran tight end Benjamin Watson (calf) was listed as questionable on the final injury report after returning to practice as a full participant on Friday. He is expected to play without any setback between now and Sunday.

Baltimore ruled out cornerback Jaylen Hill (hamstring) and tight end Maxx Williams (ankle).

The Steelers listed four starters as questionable, a list that included two offensive linemen and both starting safeties. However, all of them practiced on at least a limited basis Friday.

According to Weather.com, Sunday’s forecast in Baltimore calls for sunny skies with temperatures reaching the low 70s and winds up to six miles per hour.

Below is the final injury report for the week:

BALTIMORE
OUT: CB Jaylen Hill (thigh), DT Brandon Williams (foot), TE Maxx Williams (ankle)
QUESTIONABLE: TE Benjamin Watson (calf)

PITTSBURGH
QUESTIONABLE: S Sean Davis (ankle), G Ramon Foster (thumb), OT Marcus Gilbert (hamstring), LB James Harrison (illness), S Mike Mitchell (hamstring)

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Ravens defense aiming to regroup without waking sleeping giant

Posted on 29 September 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Terrell Suggs and other veterans on the Ravens defense vow it won’t happen again.

After forcing a whopping 10 turnovers and allowing a total of 10 points in the first two games of the season, the Baltimore defense collapsed in London in an embarrassing 44-7 defeat. An inept offensive performance that included three turnovers certainly didn’t help, but the 44 points were the most allowed by the Ravens since the 2013 season opener in Denver.

No matter the explanation, the defense fell painfully short of the expectations set for the 2017 campaign after general manager Ozzie Newsome used extensive resources on that side of the ball this offseason.

“There has been a standard in this locker room and with this team and these colors,” Suggs said. “You definitely won’t see a performance like that [again].”

The feelings from that type of loss can linger, making it critical for players to regroup to focus on Sunday’s AFC North showdown with Pittsburgh. There’s also the reality of readjusting from the five-hour time change in London, leading some to believe the Ravens are essentially playing on a short week while the Steelers made only a short trip to Chicago last Sunday.

As ugly as the loss to Jacksonville was, the Ravens know a strong defensive performance and a win over their biggest rival would wipe away any lingering disappointment. The Steelers didn’t exactly fare well against the Bears, who ran for 222 yards against them in an overtime win. The optics may have been brutal, but the Ravens lost only the opportunity to move ahead of Pittsburgh in the AFC North standings when the emotions began to calm.

And if you’re even looking for some historical perspective, the vaunted 2000 Baltimore defense gave up 36 points to the Jaguars — at home, no less — in Week 2 while the 2012 Ravens were throttled by Houston in a 43-13 loss in Week 7. Both of those teams would go on to win the Super Bowl that season, reminding that even the best teams can have nightmare performances.

“A lot of guys were just distraught after the game — which you love to see,” safety Eric Weddle said. “Everyone deals with losses differently. Some guys, they are who they are. Some guys don’t want to talk; some guys are mad and mad for days. That’s good, but you also have to understand that it’s one game.

“We win and lose together. It’s never one guy that makes you lose.”

The defense knows there is work to be done, however, especially after losing defensive end Brent Urban for the season due to a foot injury. Standout defensive tackle Brandon Williams will also miss his second straight game with a foot ailment, putting further strain on a young defensive line lacking experience.

Missed tackles, a lack of pressure on Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles, and poor linebacker play were evident at Wembley Stadium, but defensive coordinator Dean Pees insisted Thursday there were fewer assignment mistakes against Jacksonville than in the first two games of the season. That’s difficult to fathom when a defense gives up over 400 yards of offense and five touchdowns, but it lends credence to the belief that the Ravens were flat because of the time change, the emotions stemming from President Donald Trump’s harsh comments about protesting NFL players last weekend, or both.

Whatever the reason, the Ravens were sleepwalking and failed to force a single turnover after coming away with five each against Cincinnati and Cleveland.

“We did not disappear on third down, we did not disappear in the running game, and it kind of offends me that that comment was made,” Pees said. “What we did disappear in is the intensity. It was the difference in that game and the other two games — turnovers. When you play intense and you are really flying around 100 miles per hour, you create turnovers. We didn’t create turnovers. We did not create those kinds of opportunities that we created in the other two games.”

On Sunday, there should be no excuse for the intensity to be lacking with the Steelers coming to M&T Bank Stadium, a place where they haven’t won since 2012. The Ravens will even be wearing their alternate black jerseys, a popular look with both players and fans.

But there’s a sleeping giant looming if the Ravens aren’t ready. Despite possessing some of the best skill-position talent in the NFL as well as a well-regarded offensive line, the Steelers have struggled offensively, ranking just 22nd in total offense and tied for 16th in points per game. After holding out during the preseason, Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell is averaging just 3.5 yards per carry so far and has yet to accumulate 100 yards of offense in any of his first three games.

The lone bright spot of the offense has been All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown, who has twice as many receptions (26) as Baltimore wide receivers combined (13). The memory of him stretching across the goal line to eliminate the Ravens from postseason contention last Christmas Day should provide more than enough motivation to want to keep him in check, but that’s still easier said than done.

Longtime quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has accepted the blame this week, saying Pittsburgh’s offensive struggles can be traced back to his own play. That’s an admirable stance from a team leader, but it’s one the Ravens aren’t buying for a minute.

“He is setting us up. Tell Ben I am on to his tricks,” said Suggs, who has sacked Roethlisberger more times than any other player. “I know what he is doing. I am not going to let him fool me with trickery and Jedi mind tricks.”

After enduring one of the worst losses in franchise history last week, the Ravens better have their minds right if they want to make good on their promise and keep the giant snoozing for another week.

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Ravens breaking out black jerseys for Pittsburgh game

Posted on 28 September 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens will try to give themselves an extra boost in bouncing back from one of the worst losses in franchise history by breaking out their popular black jerseys for Sunday’s showdown with Pittsburgh.

This marks the fourth time in six years that Baltimore will wear its alternate top against its AFC North rival. Dating back to 2004, the Ravens own a 16-6 all-time record wearing the black jerseys, which includes wins last season against Cincinnati in Week 12 and Philadelphia in Week 15.

Teams are allowed to wear alternate or throwback jerseys for two regular-season games per season, but that does not include the “Color Rush” uniforms introduced for Thursday night contests over the last couple seasons. Last year, the Ravens wore all-purple uniforms for the first time in team history in a win over the Cleveland Browns in Week 10.

The Steelers have not won a game at M&T Bank Stadium since 2012.

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Yanda injury puts more pressure on Ravens defense to be special

Posted on 17 September 2017 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens deserved to feel good about their 24-10 win over Cleveland Sunday to improve to 2-0 on the young season.

The defense was its own toughest critic after the game for allowing seven plays of 20 or more yards, but the Browns managed only 10 points, went 2-for-12 on third down, finished 0-for-1 in the red zone, and committed five turnovers. You’ll gladly take that kind of defensive performance in those four major categories while working to iron out the other kinks.

But the loss of six-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda to a season-ending ankle injury put a damper on the post-game locker room and was on the minds of even those on the opposite side of the ball. That’s how badly this one hurts for the Ravens.

“He is a leader. There is not a word in English dictionary that can describe — well, I can’t find one right now — what Marshal is to us,” said outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, Yanda’s teammate for the last decade. “It hurts. That hurts to lose your bell cow. But, the Ravens, our motto is ‘the next man up.’ We are going to miss him.”

The offensive line had already lost above-average right tackle Rick Wagner to free agency, starting left guard Alex Lewis and 2017 fourth-round guard Nico Siragusa to season-ending injuries in training camp, and fourth-year interior lineman John Urschel to a surprising retirement in late July. Those types of losses test an offensive line’s depth, but Yanda has long been the glue and heart of the group. He’s that rare talent who raises the play of those around him, meaning an already-suspect unit becomes even more troubling without him moving forward.

Other than quarterback Joe Flacco, Yanda was probably the player the Ravens offense could least afford to lose.

The Ravens did manage to rush for 69 yards on 20 carries in the second half to help protect a 21-7 halftime lead after Yanda was injured on the first play of scrimmage in the third quarter, but it’s not as simple as plugging in recently-acquired journeyman Tony Bergstrom at right guard and assuming all will be fine. It’s the latest challenge — and the biggest one yet — for an offense that’s been ravaged by injuries over the last 3 1/2 months.

“Even before I came here, everybody in the league knows about Marshal, how special he is, his excellence on the offensive line, and the way guys gravitate toward him, the leader that he is,” 14th-year tight end Benjamin Watson said. “It’s definitely going to hurt. Football is a team game. We’re going to put 11 on the field, and someone is going to play.”

Making the injury more frustrating is that the offense showed progress from Week 1 when it rode the coattails of a defensive shutout and really only needed to run the football at a functional level. Against the Browns, Flacco used an array of bootlegs and play-action passes to throw for two touchdowns and 217 yards with only one interception. The Ravens also rushed for 136 yards and averaged a solid 4.3 yards per carry.

But you can’t help but feel the Yanda injury represents at least a couple steps back after the stride forward on Sunday. Filling that colossal void won’t be easy, putting more pressure on the defense to continue playing at an elite level in the meantime.

Perhaps the group is up to the challenge after forcing 10 turnovers in the first two weeks of the season, an output incredibly just four shy of Baltimore’s total number of takeaways for the entire 2015 season. The competition will get tougher in the coming weeks, but this Ravens defense looks like it can be special.

It will need to be with the offense now forced to find its new footing after losing the best guard in football.

“No one can replace Marshal Yanda — no one person,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “But I think we traded for [Bergstrom] for a reason, and our scouts believed in him. It looks like a good trade. Everyone is going to have to collectively raise their effort level, their execution level to make up for the loss of a player like Marshal.”

Fair or not, that “everyone” will include a defense that’s already been rather spectacular.

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Ravens-Browns: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 15 September 2017 by Luke Jones

What will the Ravens defense do for an encore?

After recording their first shutout since 2009 in a 20-0 victory over Cincinnati, the Ravens host Cleveland in M&T Bank Stadium’s 20th home opener. And a defense that picked off Bengals veteran Andy Dalton four times and collected five sacks will face a rookie quarterback. Under head coach John Harbaugh, Baltimore hasn’t lost a home game to a first-year quarterback.

A victory would give the Ravens their fourth 2-0 start in Harbaugh’s 10 seasons while the Browns are trying to avoid an 0-2 start that would put them in a last-place tie with Cincinnati. Both teams are on the road next week.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens look to improve to 17-2 against the Browns in the Harbaugh era. Baltimore swept the season series last year and is 27-9 against Cleveland and 14-4 against the AFC North opponent at home in the all-time series.

Below are five predictions for Sunday afternoon:

1. Buck Allen will lead the Ravens in receptions filling in for the injured Danny Woodhead. Much discussion this week has centered around the novelty of Michael Campanaro taking on Woodhead’s responsibilities, but a 191-pound receiver isn’t a threat to run between the tackles or pass block in the backfield. It’s easy to forget after Allen’s disappointing 2016 campaign, but he caught 45 passes for 353 yards and two touchdowns in 393 offensive snaps as a rookie. He’s the best in-house bet to try to replicate Woodhead, and the Ravens need him to do a decent impression for the offense to click.

2. Baltimore will register its first defensive touchdown in nearly two years. Despite finishing tied for fourth in the NFL with 28 takeaways a year ago, the Ravens defense wasn’t able to take any of those back to the end zone, which hurt with a below-average offense that often struggled to finish drives. Lardarius Webb came very close last week with his interception off a batted pass that was returned to the Cincinnati 2. Given the ability and depth of this defense going against a rookie quarterback, Sunday feels like the overdue time for the first defensive score since C.J. Mosley’s fumble return on Sept. 27, 2015.

3. Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer will show some moxie orchestrating a touchdown drive despite being sacked four times. The second-round pick from Notre Dame had his moments against Pittsburgh, but the challenge is even tougher on the road against a defense vying to be the NFL’s best. Kizer was sacked seven times in Week 1, but a few of those were a result of him holding the ball too long. The Ravens aren’t going to shut out their opponent and have five takeaways every week, but they’ll still create pressure against an offensive line better than the one they faced in the season opener.

4. Joe Flacco will connect with Mike Wallace for a long touchdown in an otherwise run-heavy day for the offense. The Ravens won’t carry the ball 40-plus times again, but it’s easy to be committed to the run when holding a lead at home like they will Sunday. That said, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg does want to see more from Flacco and the passing game with some tough games approaching in the not-too-distant future. Browns cornerbacks Jason McCourty and Jamar Taylor are shaky at best, meaning Wallace will find enough space for a deep ball after a quiet Week 1 performance.

5. The Ravens will steadily remain in control in a 23-10 win to improve to 2-0 on the season. Cleveland has an improved roster and now needs to find out whether Kizer can be that elusive franchise quarterback the organization has lacked for decades. The Ravens will have their struggles moving the ball consistently against a decent front, but the Browns offense just isn’t going to do enough to seriously challenge in this game. It will be interesting to see what kind of progress Cleveland has made when these teams meet again in December, but the Ravens shouldn’t have too much trouble in Week 2.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 20-0 win over Cincinnati

Posted on 12 September 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens posting their first shutout since 2009 in a 20-0 win over Cincinnati to begin the 2017 season, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. C.J. Mosley’s end-zone interception in the second quarter was the turning point. Between that red-zone turnover and Andy Dalton’s poor throw to a wide-open Cody Core streaking down the sideline on the next drive, the Bengals could have led 10-3 late in the half. Instead, the Ravens dominated after that.

2. If that Mosley pick was the turning point, the 17-play drive lasting nearly 10 minutes in the third quarter killed what was left of Cincinnati’s spirit. The Ravens converted three times with runs on third-and-short on that long march. How many times has that happened in recent years?

3. I had to laugh at hearing some take exception with Joe Flacco’s quip that it wasn’t that fun for the offense while overlooking him saying winning was what mattered. So many complain about athletes being disingenuous in interviews, but then we never like what they have to say when honest.

4. Watching Terrell Suggs play at this stage of his career reminds me of Ray Lewis in his final few seasons. What he might lack physically compared to his younger self he makes up for with his impeccable mental preparation and instincts. He took Bengals left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi to school.

5. Other than a few exceptions, the Ravens generated most of their pocket pressure without using blitzes against the Bengals. Sending an extra defender or two in the right spot is great, but the special defenses can wreak havoc on the quarterback with a four-man rush.

6. It didn’t show up on the stat sheet, but Brandon Williams had one of the better games of his career as a pass rusher. His pressure on Dalton impacted the aforementioned poor pass that could have easily been a touchdown, and Pro Football Focus credited him with four quarterback pressures.

7. You can only hope Danny Woodhead is able to return sooner than later as you could see what kind of weapon he can be as a receiver out of the backfield and in the slot. Alas, the Ravens were aware of his injury history when they signed him in March.

8. Za’Darius Smith silenced critics with a strong preseason and looked like one of the best players on the field before injuring his left leg in the second quarter. Losing him would hurt Baltimore’s versatility as he can be used as an interior rusher in sub packages.

9. Buck Allen handled the No. 2 running back duties as his 21 carries more than doubled the nine total he received in his disappointing 2016 season. The running game wasn’t overwhelming, but it was up to the task of controlling the clock and protecting a sizable lead.

10. Between Marvin Lewis’ white-flag-waving punt from the Baltimore 43 with less than 10 minutes to go and trailing by 20 and Dalton throwing the ball away on fourth down inside the red zone on the following drive, the reaction is summed up nicely here:

11. Perhaps they haven’t yet realized, but it sure looks like the Bengals’ window with the current regime slammed shut after their colossal meltdown against Pittsburgh in the wild-card playoffs two years ago. Cincinnati’s offensive line made the Ravens’ questionable group look like the Dallas Cowboys.

12. I enjoyed seeing Zach Orr on the sideline and celebrating with Mosley after the latter’s key interception. You know Sunday had to be a bittersweet day for the retired linebacker, but he’ll have every opportunity to learn what it takes to be a coach or a scout this season.

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