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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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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 12-9 overtime loss at Cleveland

Posted on 09 October 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens falling to 3-2 following the ugly 12-9 overtime loss to Cleveland, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Baltimore has had past performances like Sunday’s at FirstEnergy Stadium, but the difference was you could always count on a lousy football team to “Brown” it up at the most critical moment. The Browns were far from perfect, but Baker Mayfield clearly makes them a better team.

2. You hate criticizing a group that surrendered only 12 points, but the two-minute defense left a lot to be desired, allowing a 78-yard touchdown drive at the end of the first half, a 38-yard drive in the final minute of regulation, and the 65-yard game-ending drive in overtime.

3. Had anyone heard of Derrick Willies before his 39-yard reception on third-and-8 in overtime? The rookie free agent caught a combined 40 passes in three collegiate seasons at Texas Tech and Iowa and hadn’t caught an NFL pass before the fourth quarter.

4. Arguably worse was Duke Johnson’s 15-yard run on the next play that put the Browns at the Baltimore 28. It was a less-than-stellar showing from Tyus Bowser and C.J. Mosley on that run since Cleveland kicker Greg Joseph wasn’t inspiring any confidence that he’d make a longer kick.

5. I’ve written extensively about the running game this week, but Lamar Jackson leads the team in yards per carry (min. 15 rushes), making it understandable why the Ravens want to keep him involved. Still, bringing him on the field for an inside rush on first-and-16 in overtime made little sense.

6. The defense recorded five sacks and a total of 27 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. The Ravens allowed Mayfield to escape the pocket a few times, but the pass rush bounced back from a quiet performance in Pittsburgh. Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith were particularly good in that area.

7. Joe Flacco was among those complaining about the illegal block in the back call on Chris Moore that wiped away Alex Collins’ 17-yard run in overtime, but it was avoidable just like Matt Judon’s that canceled out a touchdown against Denver. You have to see what you’re hitting.

8. Anthony Levine continues to play terrific football after recording three pass breakups for the second straight week. He’s a good example of how using creativity with sub packages can work to your advantage. Levine isn’t a pure safety, linebacker, or cornerback, but he’s a good football player.

9. John Harbaugh acknowledged not planning to use Willie Henry for 39 defensive snaps in his return from August hernia surgery, but he played well, registering a sack and another tackle. He provides another inside pass-rushing option to rotate with Smith and Brent Urban.

10. The Ravens lead the NFL in scoring defense and rank in the top five in a number of other categories, but they’ve recorded just six takeaways in their first five games after having 10 in the first two contests last year. I suspect that’s going to change sooner than later.

11. Browns cornerback Denzel Ward was responsible for taking as many as 10 points off the board from the Ravens with his goal-line interception and field goal block. He, Mayfield, and defensive end Myles Garrett sure look poised to make Cleveland an interesting team over the next few years.

12. Watching a 9-9 contest in the final seconds of overtime brought memories of the only tie in Ravens history, which came against Philadelphia at Memorial Stadium on Nov. 16, 1997. I recall leaving that day as fans from both teams argued over which team stunk more. Both finished 6-9-1.

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Seven Ravens players designated as questionable for Cleveland game

Posted on 05 October 2018 by Luke Jones

(Updated: Saturday 1:30 p.m.)

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens have designated seven players as questionable and ruled two others out for Sunday’s AFC North meeting with the Cleveland Browns.

Outside linebacker Tim Williams and cornerback Anthony Averett won’t play after missing practices all week with hamstring injuries while the list of questionable players is headlined by defensive tackle Michael Pierce (foot), outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith (hamstring), and rookie first-round tight end Hayden Hurst (foot).

Pierce hadn’t been included on the injury report all week before missing Friday’s practice, a concerning development since he missed the Denver game two weeks ago with a foot injury. Smith practiced on a limited basis on Friday, but he didn’t appear close to 100 percent during the media viewing portion of the workout, leaving Baltimore’s depth at outside linebacker potentially vulnerable. Hurst was still only a limited participant in practices all week, leaving some question as to whether he’ll be active against the Browns after missing the first four games of the season.

One player not listed on the injury report who will make his 2018 season debut on Sunday is cornerback Jimmy Smith. The Ravens officially elevated Smith to the 53-man roster on Saturday as he’ll officially make his return from a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy.

“He obviously did a really good job of staying in shape [and] worked hard over the period of time that he was away,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “That was good to see. He’s getting in football shape; I think he mentioned that. That’s part of it. You have to play the game to play the game. But I feel good about where he’s at and anticipate him playing on Sunday and playing well.”

Baltimore waived rookie cornerback Darious Williams to make room for Smith on the active roster, leaving the Ravens with four healthy cornerbacks against the Browns. Williams appeared in three games and would seem to be a logical candidate for the practice squad if he clears waivers.

Cornerback Brandon Carr (knee), defensive back Anthony Levine (hamstring), and running back Alex Collins (knee) were all full participants on Friday, leaving little doubt about their status for Week 5. Collins wasn’t even listed on the final game status injury report, backing up Harbaugh’s Friday assertion that the starting back was fine.

After practicing all week on a limited basis for the first time since undergoing hernia surgery in late August, defensive tackle Willie Henry was listed as questionable for Sunday.

“He looked good. Willie hasn’t done quite as much because of the nature of his injury,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll just have to see about that and see how he responds to practice today and things like that. Really, the other part of that is going to be the roster and where we’re at with the 46-, 53-[man roster] numbers and the injuries and things like that. That will all kind of play into that decision. He probably could go. Whether he will or not, I’ll probably know within 24 hours.”

Starting left guard Alex Lewis was a late addition to the injury report after being limited with a shoulder issue on Friday. Whether it’s the same shoulder that was surgically repaired last August is unclear, but Lewis was listed as questionable.

Meanwhile, the Browns officially ruled out reserve middle linebacker James Burgess with a knee injury and designated starting outside linebcker Christian Kirksey (illness) and starting safety Damarious Randall (heel) as questionable.

According to Weather.com, the Sunday forecast for Cleveland calls for partly cloudy skies with scattered thunderstorms and temperatures reaching the mid-70s. There is a 40-percent chance of rain with winds five to 10 miles per hour.

Below is the final injury report for Sunday’s game:

BALTIMORE
OUT: CB Anthony Averett (hamstring), LB Tim Williams (hamstring)
QUESTIONABLE: CB Brandon Carr (knee), DT Willie Henry (abdomen), TE Hayden Hurst (foot). DB Anthony Levine (hamstring), G Alex Lewis (shoulder), DT Michael Pierce (foot), LB Za’Darius Smith (hamstring)

CLEVELAND
OUT: LB James Burgess (knee)
QUESTIONABLE: LB Christian Kirksey (illness), S Damarious Randall (heel)

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 27-14 win over Denver

Posted on 25 September 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens improving to 2-1 in their 27-14 win over Denver, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Joe Flacco is on pace for 4,741 yards and 32 touchdowns, which would set career highs. His 6.89 yards per attempt could still tick up more and he now needs to play well on the road, but Flacco ranks ninth in Total QBR, a metric usually unkind to him.

2. If we’re going to praise Flacco after he dealt with the lack of pass-catching talent in recent years, Marty Mornhinweg also deserves credit for the strong offensive start. He put together a superb game plan to help neutralize the Denver pass rush and the offensive line excelled in pass protection.

3. The running game ranks 31st at 3.1 yards per attempt. It’s still early, but the comments citing the need to just break a long run are reminding me of 2013 when the Ravens ranked last in yards per carry (3.1). Offensive success won’t continue without better production on the ground.

4. After registering a sack, four quarterback hits, and seven total pressures, Za’Darius Smith now ranks ninth among edge defenders in Pro Football Focus’ pass rushing productivity this season. His improvement and ability to pressure from the inside have made for a strong start to a contract year.

5. Kenny Young continues to impress after recording a team-high 10 tackles. The rookie makes his share of mistakes, but you don’t notice because of the speed and aggressiveness with which he plays. I’m really looking forward to seeing what he’ll do with more experience and knowledge of the defense.

6. It was a dubious beginning for Ronnie Stanley as he was beaten by rookie Bradley Chubb for a sack on the second play from scrimmage, but he was strong after that, finishing with PFF’s second-highest grade for a Baltimore offensive player behind Flacco. The Ravens need more of that.

7. I’ve been in favor of giving Tyus Bowser more defensive snaps, but it was his whiff on a block that led to Sam Koch’s punt being blocked and an early 7-0 deficit. That’s not going to garner more favor with the coaching staff.

8. Chris Wormley is only 12 defensive snaps shy of matching his rookie season total. His play hasn’t jumped off the page, but he’s been solid filling in at the 3-technique spot for Willie Henry and is stronger and more versatile than he was a year ago.

9. Three of the five field goals made by Justin Tucker have been from 52 yards or longer. Dating back to last year, he’s made eight straight from 50 or more. Remember when Pittsburgh’s Chris Boswell made the Pro Bowl instead of him?

10. Regression to the mean is inevitable with the Ravens going 12-for-12 in the red zone to begin the season — Philadelphia ranked first last year at 65.45 percent — but you have to be encouraged by the offensive diversity with seven different players already scoring touchdowns.

11. Mark Andrews is one of the biggest surprises of the young season. Seeing him make plays down the seam makes it that much more enticing to think about what the intermediate passing game could look like when Hayden Hurst returns in the not-too-distant future.

12. Buck Allen leads the Ravens with four touchdowns. He has to be on John Harbaugh’s fantasy team, right?

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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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Ten Ravens predictions for the 2018 season

Posted on 07 September 2018 by Luke Jones

Instead of going through the exercise of making league-wide predictions, the following focus on the Ravens and their goal to return to the playoffs for the first time since the 2014 season:

1. Joe Flacco will not have a career season, but he will throw 25 touchdowns for the third time in his 11 years. 

Coming off a career-worst 5.7 yards per attempt campaign, the 33-year-old is healthier than he’s been in three years, has a more diverse group of weapons, likes new quarterbacks coach James Urban, and, yes, feels some heat after Baltimore drafted a first-round quarterback. As the better part of the last five years taught us, you don’t want Flacco throwing the ball 600-plus times, but the aforementioned variables matched with a strong running game will lead to his best season since 2014. His 11 interceptions will be the third-lowest total of his career while a 7.0 yards per attempt average will elevate him to the middle of the pack, which is where he always was statistically when he played his best regular-season football.

2. Lamar Jackson will finish his rookie campaign with three touchdowns in a change-of-pace role.

Some national pundits continue to push the idea of Jackson taking Flacco’s job at some point in 2018, but the decision to retain Robert Griffin III should provide further confirmation that the rookie just isn’t ready to handle the starting duties. That said, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg would be crazy not to pick his spots to get Jackson on the field, especially as a runner. It won’t be a massive role as some defenses will be prepared for any trickery and Mornhinweg will need to be careful not to upset the overall rhythm of the offense, but Jackson will offer excitement and play a key role in helping the Ravens win a game or two over the course of the season.

3. Rookies Orlando Brown and Kenny Young will be starting by mid-October.

The Ravens beginning the season with James Hurst as the starting right tackle isn’t surprising as they’ve frequently given the initial nod to veterans in past position competitions. That said, Hurst has struggled on the outside in the past while Brown was impressive in his first preseason, making his poor combine performance that dropped him to the third round of the draft a distant memory. Meanwhile, Young will begin the season sharing first-team snaps with incumbent Patrick Onwuasor and has shown an impressive nose for the football at the weak-side inside linebacker spot. C.J. Mosley said this week that someone needs to emerge eventually, and Young has the skills to do just that.

4. Alex Lewis and Za’Darius Smith will take a step forward.

Lewis has received much fanfare since becoming a Week 1 starter as a rookie two years ago, but he’s played in only 10 of a possible 32 games and needs to stay on the field to help an interior line with questions at the center spot. The starting left guard received looks at center in camp, an idea that could be revisited at some point. Many noted Tim Williams’ play in the preseason, but Smith was also very disruptive and enters a contract year. Often compared to ex-Raven Pernell McPhee when drafted in 2015, Smith’s 10 sacks over his first three year eclipsed McPhee’s 9 1/2 from 2011-2013. Smith has often done the dirty work as a pass rusher, but he’ll see a bigger payoff in the sack department this season.

5. Matt Skura and Brandon Carr will take a step back.

Skura went from the practice squad at the start of last season to starting 12 games and filling in respectably at right guard, but expectations are higher this year as he attempts to replace Ryan Jensen at the center position. There is concern about his ability to stand his ground against hefty defensive tackles and give a clear path to pulling guards, a staple in Greg Roman’s run-blocking schemes. The 32-year-old Carr is one of the most respected players in the locker room and will continue his amazing streak of 160 consecutive starts on Sunday, but he’ll find himself spending more time on the sideline once top cornerback Jimmy Smith returns from his four-game suspension in October.

6. Marlon Humphrey will tie for the team lead in interceptions and be named a Pro Bowl alternate.

We know the Ravens defense has struggled without Smith over the years, making Humphrey that much more critical entering his second season. The 2017 first-round pick could be asked to travel with elite receivers such as A.J. Green, Demaryius Thomas, and Antonio Brown in Smith’s absence, so the opening month will be a test run for him as the No. 1 guy. The Alabama product has the skills to be a shutdown corner, and it’s no secret that Smith has played all 16 games only twice in his career and is scheduled to carry a $15.85 million salary cap figure in the final year of his contract next season. Humphrey will play at a level making it easier to move on from Smith next offseason.

7. Michael Crabtree will have the most touchdown catches in a season by a Raven since 2014.

The former Oakland Raider and San Francisco 49er provides the highest floor of the three free-agent additions at wide receiver, and Flacco will depend on him to be his most dependable target in the red zone. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Crabtree may have difficulty running away from defensive backs at this point, but his ability to make contested catches will be critical on third down and inside the opponent’s 20. He has only one 1,000-yard season in the last five years, but his 25 touchdown receptions over his last three campaigns are exactly what the Ravens are looking for in 2018. Crabtree will catch the most touchdowns by a Raven since Torrey Smith snatched 11 in his final season in Baltimore.

8. Alex Collins will give Baltimore its first 1,000-yard rusher since Justin Forsett.

A slight 205-pound frame makes you take pause when predicting monster numbers for the breakout performer from a year ago, but Collins has excellent feet and is a perfect fit in this multi-look ground attack. He is carrying a few extra pounds to try to account for a bigger workload this season, but expecting him to carry the ball 20-plus times every week would seem like a recipe to wear him down. The Ravens would be wise to do what they can to keep their starter fresh and throw carries in the direction of reliable backup Buck Allen and the talented Kenneth Dixon, but Collins is the guy and should be able to build on what he did in an impressive 2017 season.

9. Marshal Yanda and C.J. Mosley will make the Pro Bowl.

The offensive line did its best and improved over the course of last season, but there’s no understating how devastating Yanda’s Week 2 loss was to the offense’s ceiling. His streak of six straight trips to the Pro Bowl was snapped, but the 33-year-old is healthy and primed to continue building on a career resume that could garner some Hall of Fame consideration when it’s over. Contract talks have been very quiet with Mosley, who had a healthy offseason and is eager to take an already-impressive start to his career to the next level. With defensive coordinator Wink Martindale putting more responsibility on his leaders to make calls and adjustments on the fly, Mosley will remind just how valuable he is.

10. The Ravens will go 10-6, return to the playoffs, and advance to the divisional round.

After predicting 8-8 finishes in the last two years, I’m buying stock in a revamped and healthier offense being more consistent and finishing in the top half of the league, which would be marked improvement. I also think there hasn’t been enough discussion about the personnel continuity on defense, something that should more than make up for any early hiccups in the transition to Martindale as coordinator. There’s little question that big changes will be in order if the Ravens fail to make the playoffs for the fourth straight season. Despite a tougher schedule that includes a very competitive NFC South, I see a top-five defense and an improved Flacco guiding the Ravens into January and winning a playoff game.

Bonus Super Bowl pick no one asked for: New Orleans 31, Los Angeles Chargers 24

Future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees earns a second ring and retires after edging out Philip Rivers, the man who took his place in San Diego once upon a time.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following third preseason victory

Posted on 21 August 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens improving to 3-0 in the preseason in a 20-19 win over Indianapolis, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. It’s OK to believe the Ravens have the depth to endure the potential suspension of Jimmy Smith and to still be worried about potential drop-off. The combination of Marlon Humphrey and Brandon Carr still looks good on paper, but a healthy Smith and a more experienced Humphrey could be special.

2. Kenneth Dixon needed to show up in his first preseason action and did exactly that with 56 yards from scrimmage on nine touches. He showed better speed than he had in practices and was able to gain yards after contact. Now, he needs to build on that performance.

3. Tim Williams still looks like the most improved player on the roster as he collected five tackles, a sack, and another quarterback hit while making a few good plays against the run. Pro Football Focus credited him and Za’Darius Smith with a combined 10 pressures. That’s an interesting rotational duo.

4. Remember the anticipated competition among the young wide receivers? It hasn’t materialized, continuing a summer tradition. The Ravens have never cut a fourth-round pick in his first season, but Jaleel Scott played only three offensive snaps and dropped a short slant pass late in the fourth quarter. Yikes.

5. The return specialist battle hasn’t been any better as both Tim White and Janarion Grant fumbled. There are too many crowded position groups to keep a returner you don’t trust to secure the ball. Chris Moore returning kicks and a veteran such as Willie Snead handling punts remain options.

6. After starting fast and then regressing in the second preseason game, Lamar Jackson did the opposite against Indianapolis, struggling mightily early before regrouping. His bullet touchdown to Moore reinforced the notion that he’s better throwing on the run than from the pocket. He remains a work in progress.

7. Michael Pierce feels like a forgotten man with Brandon Williams back at nose tackle and Willie Henry manning the 3-techinique spot in the base defense, but he gave Colts center Ryan Kelly fits and collected a tackle for a loss and a forced fumble. His 13 snaps were very disruptive.

8. Kenny Young continued to alternate series with incumbent starting inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor, but the rookie fourth-rounder led the team with seven tackles and shows impressive closing quickness to the football. His fill and tackle on the late two-point try is exactly what you want to see.

9. Orlando Brown Jr. hasn’t played flawlessly, but his body of work continues to support him being deserving of starting at right tackle over James Hurst, who’s practiced there recently while still taking all live-game snaps at right guard. How can you not root for Brown after a tweet like this?

10. Despite Brown’s progress, the interior offensive line beyond Yanda remains a concern as the sight of former Ravens edge rusher John Simon bull-rushing Hurst back into Joe Flacco’s legs brought back unpleasant memories. This group struggled to protect Jackson in particular.

11. Anthony Averett was terrific during the third-quarter goal-line stand with an assisted tackle, a pass breakup, and tight coverage on an incompletion on consecutive plays, continuing his solid preseason. Not bad for a fourth-round rookie who’s only fifth or sixth in the cornerback pecking order right now.

12. Flacco finished a solid but unspectacular night with good throws to Michael Crabtree and John Brown on his final touchdown drive, but his hard count inducing a neutral zone infraction didn’t go unnoticed. Varying the cadence has quietly been a focus this summer after too much predictability in the past.

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How did Ravens outside linebackers stack up to rest of NFL in 2017?

Posted on 09 February 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens failed to make the postseason for the fourth time in five years, but where exactly did their players stack up across the NFL in 2017?

Whether it’s discussing the Pro Bowl or picking postseason awards, media and fans spend much time debating where players rank at each position, but few put in the necessary time and effort to watch every player on every team extensively enough to develop any kind of an authoritative opinion.

Truthfully, how many times did you closely watch the offensive line of the Los Angeles Chargers this season? What about the Detroit Lions linebackers or the Miami Dolphins cornerbacks?

That’s why I can appreciate projects such as Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 and the grading efforts of Pro Football Focus. Of course, neither should be viewed as the gospel of evaluation and each is subjective, but I respect the exhaustive effort to grade players across the league when so many of us watch only one team or one division on any kind of a consistent basis. It’s important to note that the following PFF rankings are where the player stood at the conclusion of the regular season.

Below is a look at where Ravens outside linebackers ranked across the league, according to those outlets:

Running backs
Defensive linemen
Tight ends
Cornerbacks
Wide receivers
Inside linebackers
Offensive linemen
Safeties
Quarterbacks

Terrell Suggs
2017 defensive snap count: 845
NFL1000 ranking: 19th among edge rushers, 7th among 3-4 outside linebackers
PFF ranking: 16th among edge defenders
Skinny: The 35-year-old had already made a sound case for an eventual invitation to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but his 11-sack season and a seventh invitation to the Pro Bowl may have sealed his place in Canton. Whatever Suggs has lost in physical ability is made up for by his mental prowess.

Matthew Judon
2017 defensive snap count: 789
NFL1000 ranking: 33rd among edge rushers, 11th among 3-4 outside linebackers
PFF ranking: 80th among edge defenders
Skinny: The 2016 fifth-round selection was arguably Baltimore’s most improved player and emerged as an every-down linebacker capable of playing the run, pressuring quarterbacks, and effectively dropping into coverage. The next question is whether Judon will take his strong play to a Pro Bowl-caliber level.

Za’Darius Smith
2017 defensive snap count:
531
NFL1000 ranking:
111th among edge rushers, 36th among 3-4 outside linebackers
PFF ranking:
83rd among edge defenders
Skinny:
Smith provides value as an interior rusher in sub packages, but he remains inconsistent setting the edge against the run, a big reason why he fell behind Judon on the depth chart. He never blossomed into the Pernell McPhee clone the Ravens hoped he might be, but he’s still a useful contributor.

Tyus Bowser
2017 defensive snap count: 161
NFL1000 ranking: 105th among edge rushers, 30th among 3-4 outside linebackers
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The second-rounder was voted Rookie of the Week after an interception and sack in Week 2, but a poor game in London landed him in the doghouse as he played more than 10 snaps in a game only three more times. Bowser has the tools to be an every-down player, making this a big offseason for him.

Tim Williams
2017 defensive snap count: 125
NFL1000 ranking: 116th among edge rushers, 41st among 3-4 outside linebackers
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The rookie flashed pass-rushing potential during training camp and the preseason, but he was a liability against the run and a hamstring injury cost him multiple weeks. Williams was active for only eight games, but the Ravens need him to emerge as no worse than a situational rusher in 2018.

2018 positional outlook

Judon’s impressive development in 2017 buys some time for the rest of this group as the Ravens will hope the incomparable Suggs continues fighting off Father Time for another season. Smith is entering the final year of his rookie contract and probably isn’t in the organization’s long-term plans, but Bowser and Williams taking sizable steps forward in their second season would make this positional group one of the roster’s best on either side of the ball. With Suggs entering his 16th season and the final year of his current contract, Bowser would ideally become a starting-caliber player and Williams a productive situational rusher in 2018 to prevent the Ravens from being backed into a corner in determining whether they want to extend their relationship with the veteran beyond 2018. Suggs remains the glue of this group, but the young outside linebackers must show they’re closer to being ready for life without him.

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