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Cornerback Humphrey limited during Thursday’s Ravens practice

Posted on 18 October 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Preparing to face one of the best passing games in the NFL in Week 7, the Ravens added starting cornerback Marlon Humphrey to their injury report on Thursday.

The 2017 first-round pick was listed as a limited participant with a thigh issue, making it unclear whether he sustained an injury during practice or if it’s something with which he was already dealing. Humphrey’s status will come into better focus on Friday when the Ravens conduct their final practice ahead of their meeting with New Orleans. Slot cornerback Tavon Young missed last Thursday’s practice with a hip issue before practicing the next day and playing without any apparent limitations against Tennessee.

Even if Humphrey’s availability were to be in doubt, the Ravens would simply turn to Jimmy Smith, who has played 62 snaps in a rotational capacity in each of the last two games. Smith was suspended for the first four games of the season and is coming back from a torn Achilles tendon sustained last December.

“He’s starting to play. He’s getting used to playing again in the second week, and you can see it,” defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said. “We didn’t play that many plays, but he was doing some things really well and receivers were having a hard time getting off the line of scrimmage. It was fun to see.”

As expected, veteran cornerback Brandon Carr practiced fully after sitting out the previous day. He has missed the last four Wednesday practices with what’s listed as a knee issue, so there had been no real concern regarding his availability to play against the Saints.

Left guard Alex Lewis remains sidelined with a neck injury that appears likely to keep him sidelined for Sunday’s game. Rookie right tackle Orlando Brown says he’s prepared to play should the Ravens elect to place him in the starting lineup while moving veteran James Hurst over to left guard. Rookie Bradley Bozeman is another option to start at left guard after he filled in for Lewis in the fourth quarter of last Sunday’s win over the Titans.

“I’m just approaching it like I approach every other week,” said Brown, a third-round pick in April’s draft. “I don’t know what the coaches plan to do. They know I’m ready, so I’m just going to continue to work this week and develop my game.”

Both of the Saints’ starting guards sat out Thursday’s workout as Andrus Peat (head) had practiced on a limited basis the previous day and Larry Warford (back) was a new addition to the injury report.

Below is Thursday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: G Alex Lewis (neck)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: CB Anthony Averett (hamstring), CB Marlon Humphrey (thigh), DB Anthony Levine (hamstring)
FULL PARTICIPATION: WR John Brown (non-injury), CB Brandon Carr (knee), , S Eric Weddle (non-injury)

NEW ORLEANS
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: OL Jermon Bushrod (non-injury), WR Ted Ginn Jr. (knee), G Andrus Peat (head), DT Taylor Stallworth (ankle), G Larry Warford (back)
FULL PARTICIPATION: OT Terron Armstead (knee), CB Marshon Lattimore (concussion), WR Cameron Meredith (knee)

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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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Historic outing puts Ravens in good position for defining stretch

Posted on 15 October 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Tennessee Titans waved the white flag early in their shutout loss to the Ravens on Sunday.

Perhaps it wasn’t as pronounced as when Chris McAlister claimed Eddie George “folded like a baby” after taking a big hit from Ray Lewis in an old AFC Central rivalry game that was once every bit as intense and nasty as what Baltimore-Pittsburgh would become, but the Titans running the ball on a third-and-10 play from their own 36 late in the second quarter said all you needed to know after the Ravens had already collected six sacks in the first half.

The score was just 14-0, but Tennessee wasn’t going to threaten the rest of the way, crossing midfield only once after intermission — to the Baltimore 49 — in a 21-0 final that included a franchise-record 11 sacks. Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota never had a chance as he finished with fewer completions than the number of times he was sacked.

Yes, it was a historic single-game defensive performance by the Ravens, a team that’s no stranger to such feats over the last two decades. But playing defense in today’s offense-crazy NFL is a different animal than it was six or seven years ago, let alone trying to make modern-day comparisons to the gold standard that is the 2000 Ravens. For some context, only four teams in that Super Bowl XXXV season averaged 25 points per game whereas nearly half the league is doing that so far in 2018.

That’s not to say this year’s Ravens after just six games are anywhere close to being deserving of comparisons to that historic group or another handful of great Baltimore defenses, but the eye-popping numbers are tough to ignore. Consider that Sunday’s marquee showdown between New England and Kansas City featured a total of 83 points scored, six more than the Ravens have allowed all season. Early opponents Tennessee, Cleveland, Denver, and Buffalo may not be keeping defensive coordinators up at night, but the Ravens are surrendering only 12.8 points per game in a league in which only six other teams are allowing under 20 points per contest. Chicago is the only other team to surrender fewer than 100 points on the season, and the Bears have allowed 96 — in five games.

Baltimore still hasn’t surrendered a second-half touchdown despite playing four of its first six on the road, including the last three in a row. The Ravens defense has had only one truly bad half of football when it gave up 28 points to Cincinnati in a Thursday road game, which is always a difficult proposition.

Making the aforementioned numbers even more amazing is the fact that Wink Martindale’s defense has forced only six turnovers so far, meaning the Ravens have shut down opponents in a more “straight-up” fashion. Sunday was the 14th shutout in franchise history and the first not to feature a single takeaway, meaning there was never the need for a fumble recovery in the red zone or an end-zone interception as is usually the case to preserve a goose egg.

That will need to change with the real fun about to begin.

The Ravens will play four of their next five games at M&T Bank Stadium, but their next four opponents — New Orleans, at Carolina, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati — all rank in the top 15 in scoring offense with the Saints, Steelers, and Bengals each in the top seven. Week 7 features the No. 1 scoring offense against the top scoring defense in the league as future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees and Super Bowl-winning coach Sean Payton have had an extra week to prepare for Martindale’s creative schemes.

The good news is the defense shouldn’t need to do it alone as the offense is much improved from recent years and ranks in the top 12 in most major categories. You can’t expect to entirely shut down a team like the Saints, of course, but what’s made the Ravens’ 4-2 start so encouraging is how much more balanced the performances have been. It will certainly mark the biggest test of the season to date.

John Harbaugh’s team finished its road-heavy start to the season on a high note Sunday with one of the greatest single-game defensive performances in team history. Victories in two of the next three games — a challenging but reasonable goal for a legitimate playoff team — would put the Ravens at 6-3 entering their bye. They’ve entered their bye week with a losing record in each of the last three seasons, ultimately leaving too little margin for error down the stretch each time. December trips to Atlanta, Kansas City, and the Los Angeles Chargers will be easier to navigate if the Ravens are contending for a first-round bye rather than needing to be virtually perfect just to sneak into the tournament.

The Ravens have looked like a playoff team with an elite — and throwback — defense, an above-average offense, and an ability to hold their own on the road to give them their best start since 2014.

Now we’ll find out just how great this defense is and how truly serious the Ravens are as contenders.

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flaccobrowns

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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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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 26-14 win over Pittsburgh

Posted on 02 October 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens earning their first road victory of the season in a 26-14 final over Pittsburgh, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. You can’t harp on the Ravens not being able to beat an elite quarterback on the road and not give proper credit when they do — without Jimmy Smith. That was their best win since the 2014 playoffs and puts them in the conversation as a legitimate contender in the AFC.

2. Despite a 96.9 season passer rating, Joe Flacco was annoyed about the offense squandering opportunities to score more points Sunday. Tell me again that his improvement is all about Lamar Jackson — which implies he didn’t care before — and not about the organization putting better talent around him.

3. John Brown already has a team-best six catches of 20 or more yards, which would have ranked second behind Mike Wallace’s 11 for the entire 2017 season. His 22.5 yards per catch average is third in the NFL. He’s fun to watch, and his chemistry with Flacco can still improve.

4. The biggest criticism of the defense in recent years has been the inability to close in critical games. Anthony Levine was responsible for ending all three of Pittsburgh’s fourth-quarter drives by breaking up a third-down pass to force a punt, intercepting another, and batting away a fourth-down attempt. Clutch.

5. Too much is usually made about halftime adjustments, but Wink Martindale’s defense has yet to allow a touchdown after intermission in four games — allowing just nine points total — and pitched a second-half shutout at Heinz Field. He’s clearly doing something right.

6. John Harbaugh wisely expressed confidence Monday that Alex Collins will improve his ball security as he did last year, but his goal-line fumble completely changed a game that was bordering on becoming a blowout. The running game remains a concern, but the Ravens must stick with Collins’ upside.

7. Kenny Young played 24 defensive snaps compared to Patrick Onwuasor’s six, signaling a shift in the competition for the inside linebacker job next to C.J. Mosley. That said, both must improve in coverage or we’ll continue to see Martindale use Levine (28 snaps) as a dime more frequently.

8. The third-and-1 completion to Maxx Williams to extend a long fourth-quarter drive drew praise — and controversy — because of his alignment. Flacco said after the game they’d practiced that play for two years, and it was the first time Williams had gotten through the line of scrimmage unscathed. Interesting stuff.


(Screen capture courtesy of NFL Game Pass)

9. My guess is the Ravens continue to carry four tight ends with the anticipated return of Hayden Hurst this week. However, with Williams and rookie Mark Andrews playing so well, you wonder if Nick Boyle would be the most vulnerable if a move needed to be made there.

10. Sunday night was an example of how to play strong defense without much of a pass rush as the Ravens faked blitzes, effectively disguised looks, and covered very well. Baltimore is tops in the NFL in yards per play allowed at just 4.4.

11. Tony Jefferson hasn’t made as many splash plays as you’d like after the Ravens gave him a four-year, $34 million contract, but his strip and recovery against Vance McDonald on Pittsburgh’s opening drive was spectacular. He fairly noted after the game how that could have been ruled an interception.

12. If you didn’t hear Harbaugh’s post-game press conference on Sunday night, take a listen at the 2:45 mark HERE. Kudos for recognizing the memory of Bobbi Engram, the daughter of wide receivers coach Bobby Engram, and giving her a game ball. Powerful stuff.

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Getting over Pittsburgh road hump would help push Ravens to next level

Posted on 28 September 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — We know what the Ravens-Steelers rivalry is all about.

It’s physical, intense, and ultra competitive with all but six of the 23 games played in the John Harbaugh era — including the postseason — decided by one possession. Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said this week that you don’t earn your “badge of honor” as a Raven until you’ve played in a Pittsburgh game. In an evolving NFL catering more to the offense, this game still evokes that old-school feeling, even as the teams combined to score a whopping 77 points in their most recent showdown last December.

But putting those recycled narratives aside and acknowledging there’s much football to be played after Week 4, the Ravens could really use a win on Sunday night. “Need” is an overused word in the sports realm and doesn’t really apply this week, but a victory at Heinz Field would be as beneficial psychologically as it would be in the standings for a team with some key veterans running out of time and young players needing to grow up quickly.

Despite the predictable claims of every game being important, this one carries more gravity than a another notch in the win or loss column. There’s been too much disappointment in recent years for the Ravens to suggest otherwise.

The Steelers have won three straight over Baltimore for the first time since Harbaugh’s debut season as head coach, and we all witnessed what happened at Heinz Field in each of the last two Decembers. Still, the significance of Sunday’s game goes beyond trying to beat the Steelers, who appear as vulnerable as they’ve been in a while without All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell or much evidence of an effective defense.

There’s the Jimmy Smith narrative that Ravens defensive players are sick of hearing about, but what better way to welcome back their top cornerback from suspension next week than by beating an elite passing attack on the road without him?

It’s much more than just playing without Smith, however. The Ravens need to make a winning statement on the road against an accomplished quarterback at some point if they want to get over the hump and back to the postseason for the first time since 2014. If it isn’t against the Steelers this week, Baltimore is scheduled to deal with the likes of Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, the upstart Patrick Mahomes, and Philip Rivers in away games later this season.

Since their 2014 playoff win over Roethlisberger and the Steelers — only 10 players from that 53-man roster are still with the team (see below) — the Ravens have won just eight away games. The most accomplished quarterback they’ve beaten on the road is Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton, who’s 3-1 against them at Paul Brown Stadium over that time.

The remaining quarterbacks the Ravens have defeated away from M&T Bank Stadium since 2014 are Mike Vick (in his final NFL season), Blake Bortles, EJ Manuel, Brett Hundley, Josh McCown (twice), and DeShone Kizer. Only one of them is currently a starter, and Bortles wasn’t exactly setting the league on fire when the Ravens beat Jacksonville early in the 2016 season.

To be fair, you can’t control your schedule of opponents and blame falls on both sides of the ball in compiling an 8-17 road record over the last three-plus seasons, but no one is taking you seriously as a contender if you can’t beat a top-flight quarterback outside your home stadium from time to time. That’s not too much to ask as we’re talking about a team that won road games over Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in back-to-back weeks on the way to winning a Super Bowl six years ago.

Players have tried to say the right things publicly this week, acknowledging the rivalry while maintaining this one holds no more significance than any other game. Losing on Sunday hardly derails the young season in the same way that winning guarantees nothing, but flying back from western Pennsylvania early Monday morning with another defeat would only extend doubts about the Ravens’ road pedigree with three of the next four away from home still to come.

The Ravens don’t want to find themselves in a similar position to the last two seasons when they’ve needed to play lights out down the stretch to make the playoffs. We know how that turned out.

With better health and improved offensive weapons, Baltimore hopes the balance of power could finally be shifting in the AFC North this season. After a tough loss at Cincinnati on a short week earlier this month, the next litmus test has arrived.

“I look at it as it’s been a great learning experience for us as players and coaches and this organization,” said safety Eric Weddle about the last two heartbreaking losses in Pittsburgh. “As bad as we wanted to win those games, things have come up in those situations and throughout those games that we’ve gotten better from.”

Maybe so, but the Ravens have to prove it at some point.

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boyd

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Ravens try to put “fourth-and-12” behind them with trip to Cincinnati

Posted on 12 September 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens were on their way to the playoffs while Marvin Lewis was on his way out the door as Cincinnati’s longtime head coach last New Year’s Eve.

Then, “fourth-and-12” happened, a play that needs no further description or analysis in Baltimore.

Andy Dalton’s 49-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd with less than a minute remaining knocked the Ravens out of the playoffs and shook up both organizations to some degree. Instead of parting ways with his head coach, Bengals owner Mike Brown gave Lewis a two-year extension to continue a run that began in 2003. Changes to the Ravens were more nuanced after a third straight season without a postseason berth, this time with the backdrop of dwindling attendance down the stretch.

Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti didn’t fire anyone, but he admitted a month later to at least briefly considering replacing John Harbaugh, who is now in his 11th season in Baltimore. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees followed through on plans to retire — something he had reconsidered in previous years — before resurfacing with Tennessee just a few weeks later. Pees surviving a second straight late-season collapse after the previous Christmas in Pittsburgh would have been a tough pill to swallow for disgruntled fans, and he apparently wasn’t interested in forcing the organization’s hand.

If that final pass had been knocked away, do the playoff-bound Ravens trade back into the first round to draft quarterback Lamar Jackson, a move interpreted by some as partly made to rejuvenate the fan base? For all the handwringing about Joe Flacco, the veteran threw 10 touchdowns to just three interceptions for an 89.1 passer rating in the final seven games of last season and was Pro Football Focus’ 11th-highest-graded quarterback in the second half of 2017 as he finally got over the back injury that sidelined him for the entire preseason.

Do we see the organization’s concerted effort to improve the passing game if the Ravens play in January and even manage to win a playoff game? Or would it have been the typical halfhearted approach on the offensive side of the ball that we’ve too often seen in recent years?

One thing is certain despite some players’ best efforts to claim the contrary. The stunning 31-27 loss is still on their minds as they travel to Cincinnati on Thursday night.

“If I were to say no, I’d be lying,” cornerback Brandon Carr said. “We’ve still got that bitter taste in our mouths, but this is a new year, new look, new opportunity for us to go out there and set the tone early. Some things we want back from that game, but that’s the past.”

To be clear, this is far from a must-win game so early in the season, but the Ravens have gone into their bye week with losing records in each of the last two seasons, illustrating how little margin for error they’ve afforded themselves the last two Decembers. It remains to be seen how strong the Bengals will be in 2018, but the defending AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers look as vulnerable as they’ve been in quite some time with All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell continuing his holdout, meaning any advantage gained now is valuable ahead of whenever he returns.

Playing five of the next seven games away from M&T Bank Stadium will be a daunting stretch, so a road win over a divisional foe carries more clout than any notion of the Ravens exorcising demons from last season. The best way to prevent history from repeating itself isn’t just to execute in that critical moment, but it’s to play well enough over 16 games to not be in such a hanging-by-a-thread playoff position once again.

“How many losses did we have last year, seven?” Flacco said. “You can argue any one of those teams ended it. We didn’t play good enough in any of those games, and I don’t think we’re really thinking about that. I’m not thinking about that. I’m just thinking about how confident I am in this group that’s here right now and what we’re getting ready to go do.”

That Week 17 loss certainly appeared to alter the present with a revamped passing attack coming off a superb Week 1 and new coordinator Wink Martindale now running the defensive show. How Jackson fits in the present and as the potential quarterback of the future will also be intriguing to watch.

But you wonder how it all might have played out if “fourth-and-12” didn’t become a thing.

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humphrey

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 47-3 win over Buffalo

Posted on 10 September 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens kicking off the season with an emphatic 47-3 win over Buffalo, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Sunday marked the first time in franchise history a Baltimore defense did not surrender a first down in the first half. The Bills had 33 yards compared to the Ravens’ 26 points at intermission. J. Peterman would have had a better chance than Nathan Peterman, who was awful.

2. Wink Martindale added some defensive wrinkles, including swapping out a linebacker for an extra defensive lineman in some nickel looks. My favorite was Za’Darius Smith’s quarterback sack when he also sent Terrell Suggs, Tim Williams, Matt Judon, Tyus Bowser, and C.J. Mosley after rookie Josh Allen. Yes, six linebackers.

3. Marlon Humphrey was Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded Ravens player as he finished with four pass breakups and two tackles. He’ll have bigger challenges over the next few weeks, but the 2017 first-round pick was excellent against the Bills.

4. How many people looking out their windows Sunday morning would have predicted Joe Flacco throwing 32 passes in the first half? He had no issues throwing a wet football and was Baltimore’s highest-graded offensive player, according to PFF.

5. It’s easy to forget how the offense sputtered in the second quarter as the Ravens gained only eight yards on 15 plays before the final touchdown drive when Michael Crabtree caught the 12-yard score. A pretty throw and even prettier footwork. That was an example of why they signed him.

6. Tavon Young wouldn’t have been my guess to exploit a porous Buffalo line, but he became the first Baltimore defensive back since Bennie Thompson in 1996 to collect two sacks in a game and was strong against the run. Martindale calls the 5-foot-9 nickel a “pit bull” for good reason.

7. Not much was made of Alex Collins receiving only three preseason carries, but he found little room and lost a fumble. You do wonder if a few more live-game touches would have been beneficial for a player who’s had some past fumbling concerns. Of course, suspect blocking wasn’t his fault.

8. Janarion Grant offered good and bad with a 51-yard punt return and a fumble that fortunately rolled out of bounds in the first half. It’s easy to blame the rain, but Grant appeared to take his eyes off the ball with a defender bearing down. That can’t happen.

9. None had a negative impact, but the Ravens didn’t get much of a return on the five offensive snaps Lamar Jackson played before then relieving Joe Flacco in the second half. It’s something for which opponents must prepare, but you sometimes worry about upsetting the overall rhythm of the offense.

10. Mark Andrews didn’t stand out often over the summer, but the Ravens have to be pleased with his three catches for 31 yards in the first half. PFF gave him the second-best grade among offensive players.

11. Being able to rest key veterans in the second half bodes well for a quick turnaround at Cincinnati on Thursday, but young players receiving extensive regular-season action could pay off down the line. Inside linebacker Kenny Young and cornerback Anthony Averett stood out in particular.

12. At an ordinary 218 pounds, Buck Allen doesn’t look the part of a short-yardage back, but he has a knack for getting to the desired mark. He lined up as the fullback on his 1-yard touchdown in the third quarter and showed off a respectable Ray Lewis dance to boot.

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Ravens-Bills: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 08 September 2018 by Luke Jones

One team’s pain was another’s euphoria.

The Ravens will face the team that advanced to the postseason thanks to their fourth-and-12 collapse against Cincinnati in Week 17 last year when they host Buffalo to begin the 2018 season. That moment in time not only ended the Bills’ 17-year playoff drought, but it kept John Harbaugh’s team out of the postseason for a third straight year, the Ravens’ longest skid since their first four seasons in Baltimore.

With four of their next five games on the road, the Ravens can’t afford to stub their toe against the rebuilding Bills, a scenario that would leave everyone doubting whether 2018 will be any different than the last few years. It would also put even more heat on a number of coaches and players whose long-term futures are up in the air.

It’s time to go on the record as Baltimore and Buffalo meet for the eighth time in the all-time regular-season series with the Ravens holding a 4-3 advantage and a 4-1 mark at M&T Bank Stadium. This marks the second time in three years these teams will open the season in Baltimore as the Ravens won a 13-7 final in 2016.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Joe Flacco will begin 2018 on a solid note with 220 passing yards and two touchdowns.

After endless discussion about his health, the new wide receivers and tight ends, a new quarterbacks coach, his strong summer performance, and, yes, rookie Lamar Jackson, Flacco will finally have his first meaningful chance to begin silencing his critics. A rainy forecast could alter game strategy and he’s facing a pass defense that ranked ninth in yards per pass attempt allowed last season, but the 33-year-old faces a front seven not adept at pressuring quarterbacks, which will help lead to an efficient day.

2. Bills running back LeSean McCoy will finish with under 60 rushing yards.

The offseason focus was on the collapse against the Bengals, but the Ravens allowing a franchise-worst 4.1 yards per carry last year really stuck in their craw. The defense allowed 38 percent of its total rushing yards in the four games Brandon Williams missed, but Baltimore still surrendered 3.9 yards per attempt in games he played. The presence of Williams and Michael Pierce as well as the Bills losing three key starters from their offensive line will lead to a long day for the six-time Pro Bowl back.

3. Michael Crabtree and Nick Boyle will catch touchdowns from Flacco.

There is much excitement about the vertical potential of John Brown, but Bills head coach Sean McDermott emphasizes taking away the big play as his defense allowed the seventh-fewest number of passes of 20 or more yards and an NFL-low three completions of 40 or more yards last season. With that in mind and the forecast not looking promising, Crabtree will do what he does best in the red zone and the blocking-minded Boyle will catch Bills linebackers napping for a touchdown score of his own.

4. Buffalo quarterback Nathan Peterman will throw two interceptions and be sacked five times.

Did I mention the Bills offensive line lost three key starters? Buffalo was wise to go with Peterman over rookie first-round pick Josh Allen in a Week 1 road game, but that doesn’t mean the former won’t be completely overwhelmed. New defensive coordinator Wink Martindale is a Ryan family pupil who will call everything he can to try to pressure the pocket. Peterman won’t be as historically bad as he was in tossing five interceptions in one half against the Los Angeles Chargers last year, but it won’t be pretty.

5. The Ravens will take an early lead and ride Alex Collins in the second half to a 27-10 win.

The coming weeks will reveal just how good the Ravens really are, but I’d be surprised if the Bills aren’t one of the worst five teams in the NFL after gutting a roster that was very fortunate to sneak in the playoffs last year. Harsh weather can always be an equalizer, but Baltimore will build an early lead and lean on Collins to do some heavy lifting after receiving only three carries in the preseason. The Ravens need to start the season on a winning note with three AFC North road games looming in the next four weeks, so there’s no overstating how disappointing a home loss would be against a team that looks bad on paper. They’ll take care of business in decisive fashion.

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Even with three quarterbacks, Ravens shouldn’t overthink game-day plans

Posted on 06 September 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After months of discussing and practicing ways to incorporate explosive rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson in the flow of the offense, the Ravens are suddenly tight-lipped.

It’s hardly surprising since this is what NFL coaches do the week of a game that actually counts, but the decision to keep Robert Griffin III — giving Baltimore three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster to begin a season for the first time since 2009 — has led many to wonder what the game-day plan will be at the position behind starter Joe Flacco. Teams may activate only 46 players for each game.

“We’ll see,” offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. “We’ll see how that goes.”

Carrying three quarterbacks is far from a novel approach despite the Ravens’ near-decade-long trend of keeping just two, but teams rarely activate all three for games as each active spot is valuable when accounting for the many reserves and special-teams players who contribute to winning games. For one example, Pittsburgh kept three quarterbacks on its 53-man roster all last season, but only two were active for each game.

There were only two instances last season in which the Ravens activated a player and didn’t use him other than sole backup quarterback Ryan Mallett, speaking to how extensively they use backups and special-teams players. In Week 11, offensive tackle Andrew Donnal was active as left tackle Ronnie Stanley missed the game with a concussion, but he was only going to play in an emergency after being claimed off waivers just days earlier. In Week 16, running back Terrance West was activated after a long layoff due to injury, but he was only an insurance policy after starter Alex Collins was banged up in the previous week’s game.

The Ravens leaving themselves vulnerable in another area to devote a third game-day spot to a quarterback unlikely to play would be surprising.

So, if only two quarterbacks are active, do they go with Jackson or Griffin behind Flacco?

The organization certainly values Griffin’s presence to step in should something happen to Flacco that would force him out of action for a few games, but the immediate appeal of drafting Jackson was to utilize his unique skills in creative ways, adding a play-making element to this offense that’s sorely needed. Deactivating Jackson in favor of Griffin might put the Ravens in a slightly better position in the event of an in-game injury to Flacco, but it would also stunt the offense’s potential upside and strip the rookie of experience. We don’t know whether Jackson will become a successful franchise quarterback in the future, but there’s no doubting his ability to contribute in certain situations right away.

The truth is backups receive very few practice reps with the starting offense over the course of the week, inevitably throwing any team into some degree of panic when the starter goes down in the middle of a game. Should that happen to the Ravens with Jackson as the only backup, they should just embrace that chaos by breaking out gadget plays, relying on their rushing attack, and leaning on their stout defense to get them through the game. Of course, if Flacco were to miss the following week’s game as well, Baltimore would turn to Griffin as the starter with Jackson remaining in his same game-day backup and hybrid role. Such an arrangement would seem to be the logical balance between optimizing the use of game-day roster spots and taking advantage of Jackson’s explosive athleticism.

“We’ll do whatever is best for our team,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “Any given Sunday, we’ll have the 46 guys up that give us the best chance to be successful, and we’ll just see what that is every week.”

Starting right tackle decided — for now

Mornhinweg confirmed veteran James Hurst will begin the season as the starting right tackle after the summer competition with rookie Orlando Brown.

It looked like the third-round pick might win the job as Hurst worked exclusively at right guard filling in for Marshal Yanda over the first few weeks of training camp and in preseason games, but Hurst began practicing at right tackle with the first-team line upon Yanda’s return to practice in August. Hurst has started 32 games in his career, but previous stints were all the result of injuries including left guard Alex Lewis’ season-ending shoulder injury last summer that led to Hurst starting all 16 games in 2017.

“Last year was kind of an injury circumstance with Alex,” Hurst said. “That was a goal. All preseason, I knew that I wanted to be a starter; I wanted to earn that starting spot and have that faith from the coaches. It’s very exciting for me, but it’s a stepping stone. You’ve got to build off that.”

The Ravens have frequently deferred to veterans in position battles in the past, but that doesn’t mean Brown won’t be able to unseat Hurst in the near future, especially if the veteran struggles on the outside as he did in past stints at both tackle spots.

“Orlando is coming. Orlando had just an outstanding preseason and training camp,” Mornhinweg said. “Orlando is ready to go. Now, that preparation is going to be key for him. James is a heck of a player, and Orlando’s on the come up.”

McClellan departs

The decision to release longtime reserve linebacker Albert McClellan may have been the Ravens’ most difficult last weekend.

Harbaugh has acknowledged the possibility of McClellan returning at some point, but special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg expressed his gratitude for the veteran’s contributions over the years.

“Albert made the meeting easy; he was amazing like you might expect him to be I guess,” Rosburg said. “Hopefully, I heard it mentioned that perhaps this is not over. I hope that’s the case, but we’ll see what goes on down the road. I know I owe a great deal to him personally. He’s been a big part of my life, and I know our club has been better for him being here, both as a player and a person.”

One of McClellan’s final acts was helping out the rookie who took his place on the 53-man roster. Chris Board, an undrafted free agent from North Dakota State, is expected to serve as a special-teams contributor and backup inside linebacker.

“He definitely taught me a lot, especially as far as special teams,” Board said. “He was kind of my mentor throughout this whole process [with] me being a rookie not knowing what to expect. I definitely have some really big shoes to fill.”

Thursday’s injury report

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: DT Willie Henry (abdomen), TE Hayden Hurst (foot)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: CB Maurice Canady (thigh)
FULL PARTICIPATION: LB Kenny Young (knee)

BUFFALO
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Lorenzo Alexander (non-injury), WR Ray-Ray McCloud (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: LB Julian Stanford (nose)

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