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Ravens-Saints: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 20 October 2018 by Luke Jones

Sunday isn’t just an enticing showdown between the top scoring offense and best scoring defense in the NFL, but it serves as a measuring stick for both the Ravens and New Orleans.

Allowing a minuscule 12.8 points per game and ranking at or near the top in virtually every notable category, the Baltimore defense has faced the fourth-easiest slate of offenses so far this season, according to Football Outsiders. Meanwhile, the Saints are scoring a whopping 36.0 points per game against the second-easiest schedule of defenses to this point.

Regardless of the competition, each group’s body of work is very impressive, but this matchup offers the opportunity to prove just how great they truly are.

It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet for just the seventh time with the Ravens holding a 5-1 advantage and a 3-1 record in Baltimore. As has been mentioned throughout the week, Drew Brees is 0-4 in his career against the Ravens, the only NFL team the future Hall of Fame quarterback hasn’t defeated over his 18 seasons.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Brees will throw his 500th and 501st career touchdowns as well as his first two interceptions of the year. The 39-year-old is off to a brilliant start with a 122.3 passer rating through five games, but he’s yet to face a defense quite like the Ravens, who are allowing just 6.0 yards per passing attempt. Marlon Humphrey’s status could be pivotal, but Jimmy Smith should be ready for a bigger workload with two games under his belt if the former can’t go. How nickel corner Tavon Young holds up defending Cameron Meredith or even Michael Thomas in the slot will be critical, but the Ravens will mix their coverages enough to force Brees into making a few more mistakes than usual.

2. Willie Snead will lead the Ravens in receptions and catch a touchdown against his former team. The slot receiver downplayed the significance of this one, but you know it would mean plenty to show well after his nightmare 2017 that followed 141 catches and 1,879 yards in the previous two seasons. Twenty of Snead’s 30 receptions — tied with Michael Crabtree for the team lead — have gone for first downs this season as he’s been exactly what Ozzie Newsome and John Harbaugh envisioned. The Saints have had significant problems at the slot cornerback position since the injury to Patrick Robinson, setting up Snead to gain some payback with his second score of the year.

3. Saints running back Alvin Kamara will score the first second-half touchdown of 2018 against Baltimore. Much was made about Kamara receiving only nine touches in Mark Ingram’s return to action two weeks ago, but the former is averaging 9.2 yards per reception, which is prime Ray Rice territory out of the backfield. The Ravens have covered running backs well so far this season, but Kamara presents a different kind of challenge who will offset the efforts of the pass rush at times and test tackling ability. Baltimore is bound to give up a post-halftime touchdown at some point, and Kamara will get loose for a score to put that impressive streak to an end.

4. Za’Darius Smith will collect another sack for one of three total for the Ravens. The key to slowing Brees and the New Orleans offense is disguise and deception, which is what Wink Martindale has so masterfully used to this point in his early tenure as defensive coordinator. Because Brees gets the ball away so quickly, you cannot count on edge rushers to get to him and need your interior linemen to hit him or at least make him move his feet to throw off his timing. Saints left guard Andrus Peat is out and right guard Larry Warford is questionable, which should make things easier for Smith, Brent Urban, and Willie Henry. The inside rushers will do just enough to make life difficult for Brees.

5. Joe Flacco and the passing game will be the difference in a 27-23 Ravens victory. The sexy story all week has understandably been about the Baltimore defense trying to slow the Saints offense, but New Orleans ranks 30th in the league in pass defense and the Ravens have been a top 10 passing attack so far this season. Talented Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore may contain one side of the field, but Flacco should be able to make plays against the rest of the New Orleans secondary for a productive day. Brees and Saints head coach Sean Payton having the bye week to try to crack the code that’s been the Ravens defense does make you take pause, but home-field advantage and a more balanced roster will make the difference in a game that has the potential to be a regular-season classic.

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Ravens-Saints showdown capable of giving both sides “nightmares”

Posted on 17 October 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — A meeting between the NFL’s top scoring offense and best scoring defense feels like a heavyweight fight, but Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs didn’t offer the anticipated bravado.

Not when you’re facing a quarterback who just broke the career passing yardage record and is still going strong at age 39 in an offense averaging 36.0 points per game.

“They’re the kind of explosive offense that gives you nightmares,” said Suggs about Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. “It’s going to be a good, fun game. We get to play football against one of the premier quarterbacks, the premier offenses with explosive pieces.”

At the same time, Brees spent his bye week watching the Ravens defense collect a franchise-record 11 sacks in a 21-0 road shutout against Tennessee. Baltimore’s 12.8 points per game allowed this season looks like something out of 1978 rather than in 2018 when offense reigns supreme.

He’s faced them only four times, but Brees is fully aware the Ravens are the only team he’s never defeated in his 18-year career. Suggs — a rookie when Baltimore beat Brees for the first time when he was the quarterback of the San Diego Chargers in 2003 — tried to chalk up that past success to “luck” on Wednesday, but the future Hall of Fame quarterback has fallen prey to an abundance of defensive standouts from Ray Lewis and Ed Reed to Haloti Ngata and Elvis Dumervil over the years.

Now Brees will meet a deep and unpredictable defense that leads the league in sacks and has allowed only eight touchdowns in six games — none after halftime.

“They’re all over the place, and I think that’s just something we have to be aware of,” Brees said in a conference call with Baltimore media. “Making sure that we’re spot-on with our scheme and what we’re doing, making sure that the ball gets out on time, making sure we’re doing good things in the back end in regards to getting open. But yes, it’s a formidable defense. It’s a formidable pass rush.”

“All over the place” is an appropriate description as new defensive coordinator Wink Martindale has employed extensive depth and more pre- and in-snap flexibility to keep opposing offenses guessing as to what the Ravens are doing. Whether disguising coverage and blitzes or even using “amoeba” looks (see below) with upwards of seven or eight players at the line of scrimmage before the snap, the Ravens have confused quarterbacks, forcing them into mistakes or holding the ball too long as the pass rush gets home.


(Screen shot courtesy of NFL Game Pass)

Of course, the Ravens are unlikely to confuse the veteran Brees to the same degree they baffled Nathan Peterman, Case Keenum, or Marcus Mariota, but their style of play is already the blueprint for trying to slow down a quarterback who processes information quickly and makes plenty of pre-snap adjustments. The concern is Brees and Saints head coach Sean Payton have had an extra week to study the Baltimore defense, adding another layer to an already-intriguing chess match.

“If he knows what you’re doing or what you’re going to do, you’re going to have a long day,” said Ravens slot receiver Willie Snead, who spent the last three seasons with the Saints. “I think disguise is going to be huge with the [defense] because they do have a great offense. Drew Brees is one of the best. You guys know that.

“But I think the way you get him off his game is you have to bring pressure. You have to mix it up, and you have to make sure that he doesn’t know what you’re doing. I think that’s the biggest thing.”

Knowing you have to pressure Brees and doing it are two different things as he’s been sacked just eight times in five games this season and has been dropped just 28 times since the start of 2017. The New Orleans offensive line ranks fifth in Pro Football Focus’ most recent rankings with offensive tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk grading particularly well.

The challenge of pressuring Brees is compounded by how quickly he gets rid of the football, another obstacle for rushers trying to come off the edge. According to Next Gen Stats, Brees’ average time to throw of 2.52 seconds from snap to release is tied for second fastest in the league and is 0.04 seconds quicker than Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton, whose quick throws frustrated the Ravens in a Week 2 loss in which they didn’t record a single sack.

Those variables are why it’s critical for the inside pass rush to get Brees off his spot and keep him out of rhythm. That effort will be led by the surging Za’Darius Smith, who is coming off a career-best three-sack performance against the Titans. Smith estimated Wednesday that the coverage in the Ravens secondary just needs to give the front “three to four seconds” to get after Brees.

Easier said than done, but the Ravens don’t have to try to be something they’re not, which is good news when playing such an explosive offense. Ultimately, they’re hoping to give Brees some nightmares of his own while continuing their undefeated streak against one of the best quarterbacks of all time.

“We’ve got to do our best to not let him know what we’re in before the snap because we’re going to be dead if he does know,” safety Eric Weddle said. “It’s a fun challenge. The great ones always bring out the best in you, and they can bring out the worst in you too. If you make a mistake, it’s a touchdown. That’s the pressure you like.”

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 21-0 win over Tennessee

Posted on 16 October 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens improving to 4-2 in their 21-0 win at Tennessee, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Ravens defenders said all the right things about Dean Pees last week, but the group’s post-game celebration with Wink Martindale reflected how much the record-setting shutout in front of their old defensive coordinator really meant. They wanted to prove they’re a better defense now.

2. What gives Za’Darius Smith a slight edge over Terrell Suggs as the Ravens’ best pass rusher? His ability to pressure from the inside is so crucial with today’s quarterbacks getting the ball out as quickly as possible. He continues to be on the Pernell McPhee contract year plan.

3. One of the undersold aspects of this terrific defensive start is the depth the Ravens continue to use as 20 players took defensive snaps against the Titans. Rotating defensive linemen and edge rushers have long been common practices, but the Ravens are doing this at every level of their defense.

4. Getting Michael Crabtree involved early was a prudent move to help his confidence after last week’s performance, but remember this is a veteran who caught 25 touchdowns from 2015-17. The real test will be the next time he has a chance to make a defining catch in the closing minutes.

5. Converting 10 of the first 11 third downs of the game was impressive enough, but the Ravens moved the chains on four requiring nine or more yards. You want to avoid those third-and-long situations, but being able to convert some is a mark of a good offense.

6. The running game was functional, but I roll my eyes when someone praises the final run-pass balance as the key to winning. Building a 21-0 lead was the blueprint for running that frequently. Running more effectively remains critical as Baltimore averaged 2.4 yards per carry in the first half.

7. The 14th shutout in team history was aided by the Ravens only playing 44 defensive snaps, an incredibly low number. The defense had much to do with that, of course, but credit the offense for putting together three drives of seven or more minutes each. That’s complementary football.

8. Joe Flacco had a good day, particularly on third down, but his interception on a deep throw down the middle to Willie Snead late in the first half was a little too aggressive with three timeouts and a minute remaining. Titans safety Kevin Byard’s catch also should have been reviewed.

9. Cyrus Jones recorded a 26-yard punt return in his Ravens debut, but what a day to be able to share the field with former Gilman teammate and Titans kick returner Darius Jennings. I also liked seeing Chris Moore back as the kick returner even though he received only one opportunity.

10. Plays like the unnecessary roughness penalty for pushing Titans punter Brett Kern in the back late in the first half are preventing Matt Judon from taking the step from pretty good player to really good player. It happens too often and isn’t smart football.

11. Gus Edwards wasn’t spectacular, but 42 yards on 10 carries should warrant some more opportunities. He runs well for a 238-pound back and certainly brings more physicality to this running game.

12. Remember those old Ramon Harewood-Antonio Brown comparisons from the 2010 draft? A healthy scratch in Week 6, Tyus Bowser was selected 15 spots before JuJu Smith-Schuster in the 2017 second round. The difference this time is Smith-Schuster wasn’t an unknown while playing a position of great need. I’m just saying.

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Critical question comes into focus during Ravens’ ugly loss

Posted on 07 October 2018 by Luke Jones

Michael Crabtree had the chance to rewrite the story of a poor performance for both him and the Ravens offense in Cleveland on Sunday.

His third-down drop on the opening drive of the game had cost the Ravens a chance at a long field goal or a fourth-and-short situation inside the 40-yard line. On the next drive, he dropped a slant on a second-and-3 that would have put the offense inside the red zone and instead led the Ravens to settle for a field goal two plays later. Those were just two of many mistakes made by an offense that arrived at FirstEnergy Stadium flying high after a 3-1 start to 2018.

Still, with a minute to go in regulation and the Ravens trailing 9-6, Crabtree could have made it all better.

Signed to a three-year, $21 million contract in large part for the 25 touchdowns he’d caught over the previous three seasons in Oakland, Crabtree dropped a perfect pass from Joe Flacco in the back of the end zone on third-and-10 from the Cleveland 14. Instead of taking a 13-9 lead and likely stealing an ugly road win, the Ravens settled for the game-tying three points before eventually falling 12-9 on a Greg Joseph 37-yard field goal with two seconds left in overtime.

As much as last week’s win in Pittsburgh looked like a potential breakthrough for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2014, Sunday felt like an all-too-familiar story for an offense that couldn’t live up to its end of the bargain. And it brought a lingering question about the Ravens’ passing game into sharper focus.

So much had been made about the balanced production for Baltimore’s wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs with eight or more players having caught passes in each of the first four games. Entering Sunday, eight players were on pace to catch 30 or more passes after only five Ravens made 30 or more receptions a year ago. Spreading the ball around is great when you’re clicking like the Ravens did over the season’s opening month, but it won’t always be that easy as we witnessed against an improved Browns defense.

When you’re struggling as Flacco and the offense did on Sunday, you need that safety net — “old reliable” if you will — to bail everyone out at the most critical moment. Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Smith fit that description to varying degrees over the last decade, making the play no one else was able to make at the most critical times. After not having that guy last season — Mike Wallace did his best down the stretch — the Ravens tabbed Crabtree to be that go-to target on third downs and inside the red zone. He didn’t need to be a 1,000-yard receiver, but they wanted him to handle the dirty work.

Instead, he entered Week 5 tied for the league lead in drops before adding three more against the Browns. He’s caught just 24 of his 46 targets in five games, the lowest percentage of his 10-year career. The slow start comes after Crabtree caught 58 passes for 618 receiving yards last season, his lowest totals since an injury-abbreviated 2013 campaign.

That’s not to say he won’t regroup to fill that intended role, but Flacco needs someone on which to lean in crunch time of close games. The speedy John Brown has been his most productive receiver, of course, but he’s more home-run hitter than the guy you’re targeting on third-and-7, at least based on how the Ravens have used him to this point. If it isn’t Crabtree, perhaps slot receiver Willie Snead or even rookie tight end Hayden Hurst eventually becomes that guy to make contested catches and move the chains when it matters most.

Someone has to do it if the Ravens expect a different result the next time they’re fighting for their lives late in a game. It’s a position they weren’t in during their three double-digit wins, but they’re sure to be in that tight spot again sooner than later.

To be clear, the Ravens wasted other opportunities as an ugly Flacco interception at the goal line cost them points in the second quarter, a Justin Tucker field goal was blocked at the end of the first half, and a Buck Allen fumble led to a Cleveland field goal midway through the third quarter. Baltimore didn’t really deserve a win after playing so poorly on the offensive side of the ball, but no play was bigger than Crabtree’s last-minute drop that could have made all those missteps — including the veteran receiver’s own — disappear.

There was other blame to go around, but that was the exact moment for which Baltimore had signed him in March.

Instead of escaping Cleveland with a victory, the Ravens offense took a step back and left a critical question unanswered for the coming weeks.

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Ravens-Browns: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 06 October 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens aim for their first 4-1 start since 2012 when they travel to Cleveland for a Week 5 meeting with the Browns on Sunday afternoon.

That’s significant not only because it was the last time they won the Super Bowl, but the Ravens have made the playoffs and advanced to at least the divisional round every time they’ve won four of their first five games to begin a season, something they also did in 2000, 2006, 2010, and 2011. In contrast, a 3-1 start hasn’t always guaranteed January football as Baltimore missed the playoffs in 1997 and, most recently, two years ago. Coming off their biggest road victory in years in Pittsburgh last Sunday night, the Ravens have no room for complacency as they still play three of their next four away from M&T Bank Stadium — a stretch that includes three opponents that made the playoffs a year ago.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Browns meet for the 39th time in the regular season with Baltimore holding an overwhelming 29-9 edge and an 18-2 advantage in the John Harbaugh era. Cleveland hasn’t beaten the Ravens at FirstEnergy Stadium since the 2013 season.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield will be intercepted twice in his first test against a top-tier defense. Mayfield’s arrival could mean the days of automatically chalking up two annual wins against the Browns are coming to an end, but Wink Martindale labeling Mayfield “this generation’s Brett Favre or John Elway” predictably drew mocking from even coaches in Cleveland. Mayfield will want to test the returning Jimmy Smith, who will rotate with outside corners Marlon Humphrey and Brandon Carr. That will lead to a pick for Smith, who will be playing for the first time since Week 13 of last season.

2. Willie Snead will stand out in another good performance from Joe Flacco. The Cleveland defense has given up plenty of yards, but the group leads the NFL with 13 takeaways and has more talent, meaning Flacco will need to play smart. The Brown lost starting corner Terrance Mitchell to injured reserve last week and have been vulnerable at the nickel with neither T.J. Carrie nor Briean Boddy-Calhoun holding up well. To offset the pass-rushing ability of Myles Garrett, Larry Ogunjobi, and surprising rookie Genard Avery, Flacco will lean on Snead and the tight ends over the middle.

3. Browns running backs Nick Chubb and Duke Johnson will each score a touchdown to keep it close. Carlos Hyde has the most carries in the league and is averaging just 3.4 yards per carry while the rookie Chubb ran for 105 yards on three carries last week. No matter how talented Mayfield is, Cleveland will try to borrow the formula Chicago used to beat Baltimore last year when the Bears ran for over 200 yards and kept the pressure off Mitchell Trubisky. It won’t be nearly that extreme, but Chubb’s explosiveness and Johnson’s receiving ability will help keep the Ravens defense off balance.

4. The Ravens special teams’ edge will shine through at a critical moment. The likes of Mayfield and Garrett may eventually lead Cleveland to prominence, but the special teams have remained on brand as Cleveland has had kicks blocked and surrendered long returns early in the season. Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric ranks the Browns last in the NFL in special teams. The Ravens have had their own hiccups, specifically with the punt team, but Justin Tucker and Sam Koch always give them an edge. The Browns will “Brown” in a crucial spot to help the Ravens maintain a lead.

5. Baltimore will grind its way to a 24-16 win. Four of the last five meetings in Cleveland have been decided by a single possession and each of the Browns’ two losses this season — both on the road — have come by one score, meaning the Ravens have no excuse to feel too confident in their second of three straight away from home. Mayfield will be making his first home start after coming off the bench two weeks ago to lead the Browns to their first win since 2016, meaning the Cleveland crowd will be fired up more than usual for a game against the team that once played there. The Ravens will be tested, but the composure displayed at Heinz Field last Sunday will show up again in a workmanlike win.

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday night

Posted on 29 September 2018 by Luke Jones

Making predictions for a Ravens-Steelers game is often a fool’s errand.

We know it’s typically close — 17 of the last 23 meetings including the playoffs have been decided by a single possession — but something crazy usually happens in the process.

Safety Eric Weddle said this week these aren’t the same old Ravens and they’ve learned from the last two heartbreaking defeats at Heinz Field in which they held double-digit fourth-quarter leads, but this is the chance to prove it and make an early statement that 2018 will be different than the last three non-playoff seasons. Sunday night marks the fifth consecutive season the Ravens’ trip to Pittsburgh will be televised before a national audience.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Steelers meet for the 45th time in the all-time regular-season series. Pittsburgh holds a 24-20 advantage and is 12-11 — including the playoffs — against Baltimore in the John Harbaugh era. The Steelers have won the last three meetings in this AFC North rivalry.

Below are five predictions for Sunday night:

1. JuJu Smith-Schuster will be the Steelers wide receiver giving the Ravens the biggest headache. It remains to be seen how defensive coordinator Wink Martindale approaches the challenge of covering Antonio Brown, but the 6-foot-1 Smith-Schuster does most of his damage from the slot, presenting a challenge for the 5-foot-9 Tavon Young. The nickel corner was exposed in Cincinnati in Week 2 and is still looking to regain his rookie form after last year’s knee injury. The Ravens will change up their coverages, but the defense needs a strong night from Young in order to get off the field.

2. John Brown and Willie Snead will each catch a touchdown against an injury-depleted Steelers secondary. Pittsburgh ranks 28th in the NFL in pass defense and is expected to be without starting safety Morgan Burnett and nickel corner Mike Hilton. It will be interesting to see how Steelers cornerback Joe Haden is used, but no one in the Pittsburgh secondary can run with the speedy Brown, who leads the Ravens with 222 receiving yards. If the protection can slow a capable Pittsburgh pass rush, Brown could be in line for a big night while Snead should find room in the middle of the field.

3. Pittsburgh tight ends and running backs will combine for 13 catches and a touchdown reception. Le’Veon Bell won’t be out there, but Steelers running backs and tight ends combined for 24 catches and two touchdown catches last December. The Ravens won’t have quite that much trouble, but C.J. Mosley will be less than 100 percent and the Steelers won’t hesitate to test Tony Jefferson and Weddle in coverage. Even with so much attention paid to Antonio Brown and Smith-Schuster, running back James Conner and tight ends Jesse James and Vance McDonald can’t be ignored.

4. Terrell Suggs will collect his first full sack against the Steelers since 2013. The personal rivalry between Suggs and Ben Roethlisberger goes back to 2004, but the seven-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker has just one-half sack in his last eight games against Pittsburgh. The Steelers will be welcoming right guard David DeCastro and right tackle Marcus Gilbert back to the lineup, which will only increase the challenge of pressuring the pocket. The Ravens finished with three sacks in the last meeting when Roethlisberger threw an absurd 66 passes. That can’t happen again if they want to win.

5. Joe Flacco and the offense will show up, but the Ravens defense falls short in a 31-27 loss. A rivalry once known for low-scoring affairs saw a whopping 77 points scored in the Week 14 contest played at Heinz Field last year. This one will follow a similar script as the Ravens offense will move the ball and score points, but the absence of Jimmy Smith once again looms large. After incorrectly picking Baltimore to win in Pittsburgh last December and watching Andy Dalton carve up the secondary in the first half of the Week 2 loss at Cincinnati, I need to see the Ravens prove they can get over the hump this time around. If it’s a different outcome, special teams could be the difference as Justin Tucker remains the best kicker in the NFL and Pittsburgh’s Chris Boswell is a total mess now.

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Revamped Ravens passing attack shows off potential in big way

Posted on 09 September 2018 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The revamped Ravens passing game couldn’t have asked for a better season debut.

Say what you want about the Buffalo Bills, but 47-3 victories don’t happen often in the NFL. Only three other teams — Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Washington — won by more than one possession on Sunday, and their combined margin for victory (39) still didn’t add up to Baltimore’s.

How many times have we seen the Ravens slog through close games against lesser opponents in recent seasons?

Substantial rain and wind certainly weren’t conducive to quarterback Joe Flacco posting his best passer rating (121.7) since 2014 or throwing three touchdown passes — one each to veteran newcomers John Brown, Michael Crabtree, and Willie Snead — before exiting with a 40-0 lead early in the third quarter. The 33-year-old didn’t have three touchdowns in a game all last season and eclipsed Sunday’s passing total (236 yards) only five times in 2017, but he made sure his critics wouldn’t clamor for rookie first-round quarterback Lamar Jackson on Sunday.

The Ravens wasted no time on their opening drive, going 80 yards on 10 plays with an Alex Collins touchdown run serving as the exclamation point. It wasn’t even all perfect as a fumbled hand-off and an Alex Lewis holding penalty on consecutive snaps threatened to torpedo the drive before Flacco connected with Brown for a 29-yard gain into Buffalo territory.

“I think the first drive that we had today was really important for us,” said Flacco, who went 5-for-6 for 80 yards on that first scoring march. “I think it showed a little bit of what everybody can do, but we had [second-and-26] or something there, and we converted to get a first down. I think that was a huge step. Obviously, we went and scored a touchdown.

“That was a huge drive, a huge play on that drive. Without that, I don’t know if we would’ve set the tone quite in the same way.”

It’s important to note other free-agent wide receivers have flashed in their Baltimore debuts in recent years, keeping the feel-good touchdowns to Brown, Crabtree, and Snead in perspective. Jeremy Maclin caught a 48-yard touchdown in the opener at Cincinnati last year, and we all know how his one-year stay played out. Mike Wallace caught a 66-yard bomb in a Week 1 win over the Bills two years ago and even posted a 1,000-yard season, but the offense was still below average in 2016.

In those two season-opening wins, however, the Ravens offense had little more than a few nice moments, scoring a combined 33 points and mostly leaning on a dominant defense. Sunday was a demolition on both sides of the ball with the offense every bit the equal of a defense that didn’t surrender a first down in the first half against overwhelmed quarterback Nathan Peterman and the Bills offense.

With Flacco the healthiest he’s been in three years and the Baltimore front office finally putting forth more than a nominal effort in both free agency and the draft to improve the offense around him, Sunday’s performance felt different. It followed a summer in which the Ravens offense regularly challenged a talented defense in practices, something rarely seen in recent years.

“Our offense, obviously over the last couple years, has been up and down,” said safety Eric Weddle, who predicted a career year from Flacco back in July. “We’ve seen it. Obviously, you guys out at training camp have seen how they’ve gotten better over last season, and it showed today. Joe was putting the ball on the money. Without a couple drops here and there, his completion percentage would have been even better. When I said the [offensive] line could be a strength this year, it showed.

“It’s just a building block. This is a long season. You never want to get too high. You never want to overreact.”

In the post-game locker room, several players reiterated it being only one game as last year’s offense-challenged Ravens scored 38 or more points three times. The offensive line was strong in pass protection on Sunday, but the running game had only 16 yards on 11 carries in the first half, something that will need to improve moving forward.

But, as advertised, Brown showed off his speed, Crabtree shook off two early drops to show nifty footwork on a touchdown in the red zone, and Snead effectively worked the middle of the field. Flacco is also excited to throw to first-round tight end Hayden Hurst, who is currently sidelined with a stress fracture in his foot after an impressive training camp. In his absence, fellow rookie tight end Mark Andrews caught three passes for 31 yards, an encouraging sign after his quiet summer.

Time will tell whether the passing game builds on Sunday’s impressive win, but much that was drawn up on paper this offseason came to fruition in Week 1. And with that comes a growing confidence, something the Ravens will surely need traveling to play Cincinnati on Thursday night.

“It’s definitely good for us to go out there as a team and as an offense, speaking as the quarterback, to have the kind of game we did for sure,” Flacco said. “If we didn’t score 40 points and we scored 25 and we still won, it’s the same outcome. But there’s something to be said about going out there and playing the way we did today.

“Just for how everybody feels or how we feel as players, it can take you to another level.”

It’s a level that’s been all too elusive for a long time, but Flacco and a retooled passing game showed enticing potential on Sunday, whether it came against a bad opponent or not.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts ahead of 2018 season opener

Posted on 04 September 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens opening the 2018 season by hosting Buffalo on Sunday, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. I’m more optimistic about the Ravens than I’ve been in a few years, but it has very little to do with the 5-0 preseason beyond staying pretty healthy. The Indianapolis game was the only time Baltimore played at full strength — or close to it — against another team at full strength.

2. Is it more surprising that Alex Collins, Michael Crabtree, John Brown, and Willie Snead combined to touch the ball only eight times in the preseason or that no one is talking about that? To be clear, that’s not a criticism, but it speaks to the unknown still at work here.

3. Is anyone else tired of talking about the backup quarterback situation? A healthy Joe Flacco playing at a higher level is the key to this season — not whether Lamar Jackson or Robert Griffin III is backing him up. In a perfect world, Griffin doesn’t take a snap all season.

4. Bills coach Sean McDermott made the right call naming Nathan Peterman his starting quarterback and protecting first-round pick Josh Allen from playing on the road against a tough Baltimore defense that’s frequently eaten rookie quarterbacks alive over the years. That won’t save Peterman though.

5. Remember how the Ravens had $17 million in dead money on their salary cap in 2015, the year they finished 5-11? Fresh off their first playoff appearance of the millennium, the Bills are carrying an unthinkable $53.1 million in dead money on this year’s cap. You can’t win that way.

6. Willie Henry’s early absence could change things, but I like the decision to shift Brandon Williams back to nose tackle after he played more of the 3-technique spot with Michael Pierce at the nose last year. Williams is excellent against the run, so you want to maximize his biggest strength.

7. The practice-squad signings of Cyrus Jones and Tim White should signal to Janarion Grant not to get too comfortable as the return specialist. I’m not convinced the Ravens have found their answer in this department or if that individual is currently in the organization.

8. I’m not sure how long rookie cornerback Darious Williams will be on the 53-man roster, but he began his Alabama-Birmingham career as a walk-on and stayed put through the football program’s temporary disbandment and two-year hiatus from playing games. That’s quite a journey to the NFL.

9. Four teams making waiver claims on Carl Davis and his release even after Henry’s injury should speak to the depth of the Baltimore defensive line. Seeing Cleveland grab the versatile Davis wasn’t remotely surprising.

10. The Ravens are starting their second decade of the John Harbaugh-Flacco era. Some would argue that isn’t a good thing, but that kind of continuity isn’t fully appreciated until it’s gone. Over the last decade, the Browns have had six head coaches and used 19 starting quarterbacks.

11. Questions remain about the circumstances that led to Kaare Vedvik being found with head and upper-body injuries early Saturday in East Baltimore. I feel for the 24-year-old as he had a good chance to be kicking in the NFL this year, but the outcome could have been much worse.

12. Kudos to the Ravens for naming Anquan Boldin their “Legend of the Game” for the opener. Does this reverse the “Boldin Curse” that’s resulted in four non-playoff seasons since he was traded for a sixth-round pick five weeks after Super Bowl XLVII?

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Ravens rest key veterans as health concerns begin to grow

Posted on 26 August 2018 by Luke Jones

Even on a night when quarterback Joe Flacco and several other key veterans were held out, the Ravens are suddenly managing a growing list of health concerns following the 27-10 preseason win over Miami.

It was only last week that Baltimore was flirting with the proverbial perfect game as no player had suffered a long-term injury in the month since training camp had opened, a stark contrast from last year when the Ravens lost multiple players to season-ending injuries long before the season even began. However, that run of good fortune came to a screeching halt with the announcement of cornerback Jimmy Smith’s four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy and the news that 2018 first-round tight end Hayden Hurst would miss multiple weeks with a stress fracture in his foot, a substantial blow to each side of the ball to start the season.

After Saturday’s game, head coach John Harbaugh confirmed the Hurst injury and reported timetable of three to four weeks for his return and then revealed projected starting defensive tackle Willie Henry would also miss the start of the season after undergoing surgery for an umbilical hernia. It’s a tough break for a player from which many are predicting a breakout season, but the defensive line is one of the Ravens’ deepest position groups on either side of the ball. Henry’s absence could prompt defensive coordinator Wink Martindale to revert to last year’s base upfront alignment that featured Michael Pierce at the nose tackle spot with Brandon Williams as the 3-technique defensive tackle. Williams had been playing the nose this summer with Henry at the 3-technique on the starting defensive line and Pierce in a reserve role.

“It’s not really football related, but maybe it had been there and it just opened up on him a little bit,” said Harbaugh of Henry’s hernia. “He had surgery for that, so he’ll be [sidelined] a few weeks.”

The news was much worse for rookie safety DeShon Elliott as Harbaugh said it “looks like” he fractured his forearm in the second half of Saturday’s win over the Dolphins. It’s unclear whether the sixth-round pick from Texas will miss the entire season, but he will almost certainly be placed on injured reserve with the possibility of being designated to return later in the year. The short-term silver lining would be not having to carry a fifth safety on the 53-man roster, but the Ravens had been impressed with Elliott’s physicality and nose for the football despite his inexperience and current place on the depth chart.

Fellow sixth-round rookie Greg Senat also left Saturday’s game with a foot injury after making the start at left tackle in place of the injured Ronnie Stanley. Senat missed the first two weeks of training camp with a foot injury, and he’ll be evaluated further on Sunday to determine how long he’ll be sidelined.

In addition to Flacco, wide receivers Michael Crabtree, John Brown, and Willie Snead, tight end Nick Boyle, guard Marshal Yanda, linebackers Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley, and safety Eric Weddle were held out for precautionary reasons. It was an unusual measure with this week of the preseason traditionally serving as the final tuneup for the opener, but Harbaugh provided sound reasoning that went beyond not wanting to play Flacco behind an offensive line missing three notable players.

“We’ve had so much good work in training camp,” Harbaugh said. “We were here a week early. We had the two joint practices. We had four great practices where our starters got lots of reps. And we had already played, going into this game, three preseason games. Even though those [veteran] guys didn’t play in the first game, they played significantly in the last two. We just felt like we had the work we needed.”

Flacco played only 31 snaps in the preseason, but he’s performed well in two games, completing 12 of 16 passes for 143 yards and two touchdowns for a passer rating of 141.4. More importantly, he has practiced very well and remained healthy throughout the spring and summer, a quality the Ravens were very wise to preserve on Saturday.

In addition to the veterans who sat out, Stanley, offensive lineman James Hurst, cornerback Maurice Canady, safety Bennett Jackson, and linebacker Alvin Jones all missed the game for injury-related reasons. Stanley and Hurst are both expected to be ready to return well ahead of the Sept. 9 opener.

Another interesting absence from Saturday’s game was rookie wide receiver Jaleel Scott, who participated in practices this week and was not known to be dealing with an injury before sitting out. The fourth-round pick from New Mexico State has struggled this summer and played only three offensive snaps against Indianapolis last Monday, leading many to believe he could become the first fourth-round pick in Ravens history to be cut as a rookie.

Perhaps the Ravens have discovered an ailment that could conveniently land Scott on IR — and off the 53-man roster — or they’re attempting to hide him in hopes of passing him through waivers and re-signing him to the practice squad. Either way, Saturday was more evidence that the 6-foot-5 is unlikely to be on the active roster come Week 1.

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Banged-up offensive line could impact Ravens’ plans for Miami game

Posted on 22 August 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Going into what will be most starters’ final preseason tuneup on Saturday night, the Ravens are banged up along the offensive line.

Left tackle Ronnie Stanley left Monday’s game in Indianapolis with what was labeled a minor knee sprain, and the versatile James Hurst quietly exited before fellow interior starters Matt Skura and Alex Lewis and was not present for Wednesday’s practice. The potential absence of both Stanley and Hurst — who has served as the backup left tackle in past seasons — could complicate Baltimore’s plans against Miami, and that’s not even considering the status of right guard Marshal Yanda, who is practicing but has yet to play in the preseason after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery.

Should those three not play against the Dolphins, it’s fair to wonder whether head coach John Harbaugh would alter his plans for quarterback Joe Flacco’s playing time.

“It’s always a part of the decision-making,” offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. “However, it is football. And I’ll tell you what, with a backup man that’s fighting for a starting job, a good strategy is to put him in with the rest of the ‘ones’ and see how he does rather than put him in with the ‘twos’ or ‘threes.’ Sometimes you can’t get quite the evaluation, so there are a couple of those things that may happen as well.”

Rookie sixth-round pick Greg Senat has worked as the second-team left tackle in the preseason while Hurst has practiced at either right guard or right tackle. A former basketball player at Wagner, the 6-foot-6, 305-pound Senat is an intriguing prospect, but his lack of experience would be less than ideal protecting Flacco’s blindside this close to the start of the season.

Senat missed the start of training camp and the Hall of Fame Game with a lower leg injury before returning to practice in early August.

“Greg was hurt for a period of time,” Mornhinweg said. “The really good thing is — and we’ve had several players do this that have come in; they don’t have much work under their belt, but they’re getting better every day. He got better from last week to this week. That’s a good thing, and let’s see how far he can go in the next two weeks.”

Hurst’s absence could increase the likelihood of rookie third-round pick Orlando Brown Jr. beginning the season as the starting right tackle.

Returner competition

Monday wasn’t a banner game for return specialists Tim White and Janarion Grant, who each lost a fumble against the Colts, but the Ravens aren’t giving up on their potential.

Whether that means either makes the 53-man roster remains to be seen.

“They have the duty to the rest of the team to protect the football, and they know that,” special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. “It’s two young players that got in situations where they didn’t realize that they needed to practice the ball-security habits that they both have. They have those skills, and in both those situations, they need to lock the ball down and they didn’t. Hopefully, the lesson has been learned.”

Ideally, one of the two would seize the job and be able to provide a spark in the field-position game, but the Ravens could elect to just go with established veterans better trusted to secure the ball. Wide receiver Chris Moore served as the primary kick returner for much of last season, but not a single player to return a punt last season remains on the roster, leaving less clarity for that role.

Slot receiver Willie Snead has fielded plenty of punts during spring and summer workouts, but he fumbled his only career punt return for New Orleans last season.

“He’s been efficient. He’s in every meeting. He’s locked in,” Rosburg said. “He comes out here and practices well, and we’ll see how it plays out down the road. Again, we still have two preseason games left, so we want to give those other guys an opportunity to show what they can do.”

Mornhinweg concerned with Jackson taking hits

More than a few observers have expressed concerns about the number of hits taken by rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson in the preseason, a sentiment shared by Mornhinweg.

Shoddy pass protection from reserve offensive linemen has led to Jackson being sacked six times, but the former Heisman Trophy winner has taken multiple hits in the open field in lieu of trying to protect himself. It’s understandable for a rookie to be eager to make plays — especially playing before a national audience in two of the first three preseason games — but the Ravens clearly want him to stay healthy to continue his development.

“Yeah, that’s not good. You see what I’m saying? It’s just that simple,” Mornhinweg said. “Between the numbers, now, we want to get down underneath the hits unless you think you can score and typically you’re one-on-one. Outside the numbers, we want to get up and get out. And we’d rather get down a step too early than a step too late or get up and out a step too early than a step too late.

“That’s an ongoing process. Some of it is experience because he does have to filter through exactly what he can get away with and what he can’t in this league. It’s a little different situation here, a little different league, a little different speed, a little different quickness — all those things.”

Wednesday attendance

In addition to Stanley and Hurst, running back Kenneth Dixon, tight end Mark Andrews, defensive backs Maurice Canady and Bennett Jackson, and linebacker Alvin Jones did not participate in Wednesday’s practice.

Harbaugh noted after Monday’s game that Dixon was still not 100 percent after dealing with a hamstring injury for a large portion of camp. The third-year running back drew praise in his preseason debut by collecting 56 total yards on his nine touches, his first live-game action since 2016.

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