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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 24-21 win over Cincinnati

Posted on 20 November 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens snapping their three-game losing streak and moving into the No. 6 spot in the AFC with a 24-21 win over Cincinnati, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. I feel for Gus Edwards as the rookie free agent rushing for 115 yards would have been the big story if not for Lamar Jackson. Others have noted this, but his running style reminds of Le’Ron McClain, which was perfect against a bad defense already dealing with a mobile quarterback.

2. The Ravens defense managed only one sack and again failed to generate a turnover, but a simplified game plan that included press coverage and few blitzes did the trick to neutralize Andy Dalton’s short passes. Of course, A.J. Green not playing really helped.

3. Considering the defense had at least five defensive backs on the field for all but a few plays, holding Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard to a combined 19 rushing yards on 14 carries was very impressive and a critical development in the game.

4. Time of possession was certainly a byproduct of the run-heavy offense as the defense was on the field for just 55 snaps and less than 22 minutes. Perhaps that wasn’t as critical coming off the bye week, but it can still pay off down the stretch.

5. I’ve already written much about him, but I’m impressed with Jackson’s willingness to continue looking downfield as he scrambles like he did on the 23-yard completion to John Brown and the 19-yard dart to Mark Andrews. Those were easily his best plays of the day.

6. Justin Tucker making his 56-yard attempt at the end of the first half and Randy Bullock missing his 52-yard try late in the fourth quarter served as a reminder of how important the kicking game is in a grind-it-out affair. Tucker’s now made nine straight from 50 or more yards.

7. After giving up an acrobatic touchdown catch to John Ross despite good coverage, Marlon Humphrey atoned with a pass breakup against Cody Core to seal the win. Forcing Dalton to throw 36 times to collect 211 yards was a solid day at the office for the Ravens defense.

8. I’m not making much of Willie Snead’s blowup on the sideline that he and John Harbaugh downplayed after the game, but this is the potential risk if the Ravens stick with such a run-heavy approach. I want wide receivers who want the ball.

9. C.J. Mosley recorded his highest Pro Football Focus grade of 2018 as he recorded five tackles and a pass breakup while appearing to move better than he was before the bye. The 2014 first-round pick hasn’t had the ideal contract year as he ranks 28th among qualified linebackers, per PFF.

10. I’ve said repeatedly that coaches should go for it more on fourth down, but it felt panicky for the Ravens to try to convert the fourth-and-1 from their own 45 with 25 minutes to play in a low-scoring game. The failed challenge of the spot made it worse.

11. PFF grades Brandon Williams 69th among interior defensive linemen, which ranks behind Michael Pierce (fifth), Brent Urban (42nd), and Chris Wormley (64th). I don’t necessarily buy that, but are the Ravens getting enough value from their expensive run-stopping nose tackle in today’s pass-happy NFL? He played 24 snaps on Sunday.

12. As you could see from Harbaugh’s post-game speech, the Ravens were fired up — almost euphoric — after a much-needed victory. Jackson’s first start was fun to watch, but let’s remember they scored 24 points against an extremely poor defense in a close game that easily could have gone the other way.

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Ravens-Bengals: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 18 November 2018 by Luke Jones

(Updated: 12:35 p.m.)

The Ravens come out of the bye week trying to snap a three-game losing streak and save their season against Cincinnati while starting a new quarterback.

With 11th-year starter Joe Flacco officially deactivated with a right hip injury, rookie Lamar Jackson will make his first NFL start, becoming the last of the five 2018 first-round quarterbacks to start a game this season. Jackson will also be the first quarterback other than Flacco to start a meaningful game for Baltimore since Kyle Boller midway through the 2007 season.

No pressure, right?

With Flacco on the game-day inactives list for the first time in his career — he was immediately placed on injured reserve after he tore his ACL in 2015 — veteran Robert Griffin III is active for the first time this season. How much he might play remains to be seen, but you’d expect offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg to continue to occasionally use two-quarterback formations — only this time with two mobile options on the field.

After missing the Pittsburgh game with an ankle injury, left tackle Ronnie Stanley is active, but it was Jermaine Eluemunor lining up as the starting left tackle during pre-game warmups. Stanley was talking to members of the training staff as well as head coach John Harbaugh and offensive line coach Joe D’Allesandris, making it unclear if he was always going to be the emergency backup or potentially tweaked his ankle warming up.

Offensive lineman James Hurst remains sidelined with a back injury, meaning rookie third-round pick Orlando Brown Jr. will make his fourth straight start at right tackle.

Running back Ty Montgomery will be making his Ravens debut. The former Green Bay Packer was acquired at the trade deadline late last month, but he was a healthy scratch against the Steelers in Week 9. He joins starter Alex Collins, veteran Buck Allen, and rookie Gus Edwards to form a quartet of active running backs against Cincinnati.

While the Ravens will be without their starting quarterback for Week 11, the Bengals will be without seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green (toe) as well as starting linebackers Preston Brown (knee) and Nick Vigil (knee). The impact of Green not playing speaks for itself, but the absences of Brown and Vigil will put pressure on reserves Hardy Nickerson and Vincent Rey to keep Jackson and the Baltimore running game in check. The good news for the Bengals, however, is the return of outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who missed the last two games with a hip injury.

Bengals wide receiver John Ross is also active after being limited with a groin injury this week.

Sunday’s referee is Walt Coleman.

According to Weather.com, the Sunday forecast in Baltimore calls for cloudy skies and temperatures reaching the high 40s with winds five to 10 miles per hour and no precipitation.

The Ravens are wearing their black jerseys with black pants while Cincinnati dons white tops with black pants for Week 11.

Sunday marks the 46th all-time meeting between these teams with the Bengals holding a 23-22 series advantage. Cincinnati has won eight of the last 10 against the Ravens and is seeking its third season sweep in the last five years. That is one of the more telling factoids of the post-Super Bowl XLVII era that features just one playoff appearance for Baltimore.

Below are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
QB Joe Flacco
OT James Hurst
LB Tim Williams
WR Jordan Lasley
OL Hroniss Grasu
TE Maxx Williams
DL Zach Sieler

CINCINNATI
WR A.J. Green
CB KeiVarae Russell
LB Preston Brown
LB Nick Vigil
OT Cedric Ogbuehi
WR Josh Malone
DT Adolphus Washington

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Ravens-Bengals: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 17 November 2018 by Luke Jones

Sunday could possibly mark the start of a new era for the Ravens.

Or at least the soft opening of one.

With Joe Flacco not expected to play after sustaining a hip injury two weeks ago, Baltimore will enter a meaningful game with someone else at quarterback — the 2015 team was already buried when Flacco tore his ACL — for the first time since Kyle Boller relieved an injured Steve McNair midway through a disastrous 2007 season that ended with Brian Billick’s dismissal. Eleventh-year head coach John Harbaugh hopes for a different outcome as the Ravens aim to beat Cincinnati to snap a three-game losing streak and preserve their playoff hopes.

It’s time to go on the record as these AFC North rivals meet for the 46th time in the all-time regular-season series with the Bengals holding a 23-22 advantage. The Ravens are 9-12 against Cincinnati in the Harbaugh era, and they’ve lost eight of the last 10 meetings, which includes the 34-23 defeat at Paul Brown Stadium in Week 2.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Lamar Jackson will throw for a touchdown and run for another. My expectation is the rookie first-round pick from Louisville making his first NFL start, but a stomach illness forcing him to miss Thursday’s practice wasn’t ideal, leaving open the possibility of Robert Griffin III starting. Either way, Jackson will have a larger role as Marty Mornhinweg tries to take advantage of his mobility and set him up with high-percentage throws to tight ends and running backs from big formations, especially early on. Jackson doesn’t have to be the reason the Ravens win; he just can’t be why they lose.

2. Tyler Boyd and Joe Mixon will carry the Cincinnati offense with a touchdown apiece. In 11 career games against Baltimore, A.J. Green has averaged 4.8 catches for 80.5 yards and has caught nine touchdowns, making his absence significant for a struggling Bengals offense. However, Boyd has emerged as one of the NFL’s best slot receivers — a critical factor with Baltimore’s issues covering the middle of the field — and has also made plays on the outside. Mixon ranks 11th in the league in yards per carry (4.9) while the Ravens have given up over 100 rushing yards in four of their last five games.

3. The Baltimore defense will awaken with three sacks and an interception against Andy Dalton. As I wrote this week, Wink Martindale’s group needs to step up if the Ravens want to save their season and survive this less-than-ideal quarterback situation. They have only two sacks in their last three games and just one takeaway in their last four while the Bengals offensive line surrendered three quarterback takedowns and 11 other pressures in 28 dropbacks against New Orleans last week. After repeatedly noting how many batted balls they have this season, it’s about time the Ravens catch one.

4. Alex Collins will eclipse 80 rushing yards for the first time all season. Much is made about Jackson’s presence helping the running game, but a Pro Football Weekly article illustrated it’s more than that. Collins has averaged 4.7 yards per carry on 29 attempts from “11” personnel (one running back, one tight end) and just 2.97 yards on 33 carries from “12” personnel (one running back, two tight ends). What does that mean? No matter the quarterback, the Ravens should spread defenses out more when running and scale back the heavy formations that haven’t worked as effectively as they did last season.

5. The Ravens will survive in a 20-17 final to stop the pre-bye bleeding. Even against a Cincinnati defense that’s been disastrous in recent weeks and just fired coordinator Teryl Austin, expectations need to be tempered for a rookie quarterback making his first start in a critical game for a struggling playoff-hopeful team. That doesn’t mean Jackson won’t make some plays, but anyone labeling him an instant upgrade from Flacco is both placing too much pressure on a 21-year-old and disrespecting the veteran quarterback. Baltimore needs to go old school in this one by relying on the running game and a healthier defense that should be eager to prove it’s better than the last few weeks have reflected. If you’re asking what’s underneath the hood for this team right now, the losses to Carolina and Pittsburgh weren’t encouraging going into the bye. That said, I’d like to believe the Ravens aren’t quite ready to wave their playoff hopes goodbye, and the Bengals have lost three of four and are banged up at multiple positions. Given the current adversity for both teams, my honest feeling going into this one is closer to the old ¯\(ツ)/¯ emoji, but I’ll give the home team the benefit of the doubt.

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Flacco listed as doubtful by Ravens after missing practice all week

Posted on 16 November 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After failing to practice all week while nursing a hip injury, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was officially listed as doubtful for Sunday’s meeting with Cincinnati.

With the 33-year-old expected to miss only the seventh game of his career with a hip injury, rookie first-round pick Lamar Jackson or veteran Robert Griffin III will start at quarterback as Baltimore tries to right its season against the Bengals. Jackson practiced fully after missing Thursday’s workout with an illness and assured reporters that he was “good” on Friday.

The common assumption early in the week had been Jackson making his first NFL start if Flacco were unable to play, but the former’s Thursday absence was “not ideal,” according to head coach John Harbaugh. Griffin has been inactive for each of the first nine games of the season, but the Ravens kept him on the 53-man roster to mentor Jackson and potentially serve as a short-term insurance policy as the starter in the event of a Flacco injury — at least early in the season.

“I would not name a starter,” said Harbaugh, who again wouldn’t rule out Flacco prior to Friday’s injury report being released. “There will be a quarterback starting. I can guarantee that. There will be a quarterback starting. And, every play, there will be at least one quarterback on the field.”

Short of becoming the first Raven in at least several years to play after being listed as doubtful on the final injury report, Flacco will be included on the game-day inactives list for the first time in his career. When he suffered his season-ending knee injury in the second half of the 2015 season, Flacco was placed on injured reserve and came off the 53-man roster two days later.

If Jackson starts, his performance against the Bengals could go a long way in both shaping the short-term quarterback picture and determining the long-term future of Flacco, who will carry a $26.5 million salary cap figure and $18.5 million base salary for the 2019 season. Jackson playing at a high level to spark a struggling offense after the bye would make for an interesting decision once Flacco is again healthy enough to play, but the Ravens will settle for a Week 11 win any way they can get it.

Right tackle James Hurst (back) was officially ruled out and will miss his fourth straight game, but left tackle Ronnie Stanley (ankle) was upgraded to full participation in Friday’s practice and was listed as questionable to play against the Bengals. Stanley sat out the Week 9 loss to Pittsburgh.

Safety Tony Jefferson (thigh) and cornerback Tavon Young (ankle) were also listed as questionable, but both were practicing fully by the end of the week, leaving little doubt about their status.

Running back Kenneth Dixon (knee) has returned to practice and will join cornerback Maurice Canady (thigh) as Baltimore’s two designations to return from IR. Neither will play in Week 11, but both players have now begun their 21-day practice windows before the Ravens must make a determination about their roster status. Harbaugh had previously said the team was waiting for league approval to allow Dixon to practice, which led to speculation that he was potentially facing discipline. The 2016 fourth-round pick served two drug-related suspensions while on IR last season.

“We got the word this morning that he was OK to practice for his situation,” Harbaugh said. “It was a unique situation. I can’t get into it because I’m not allowed to, but also, it would be up to him to explain whatever he would want to about that.”

Cornerback Jaylen Hill also began practicing earlier in the week, but he was unable to take part in Friday’s workout, which is cause for concern in his recovery from an ACL injury suffered last December. He is on the reserve physically unable to perform list.

The Ravens’ quarterback situation is far from ideal, but the Bengals roster is more banged up as seven-time Pro Bow wide receiver A.J. Green (toe) was listed as doubtful and five others were ruled out for Sunday’s game. That list of inactives will include starting linebackers Preston Brown (knee) and Nick Vigil (knee) as well as tight end Tyler Kroft (foot), who has been placed on season-ending IR.

Starting outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict (hip) was designated as questionable after practicing on a limited basis all week.

The Ravens will wear their alternate black jerseys for the second straight game.

The Weather.com forecast for Sunday’s game calls for cloudy skies and temperatures reaching the high 40s with winds light and variable and only a 10-percent chance of precipitation.

Below is the final injury report of the week:

BALTIMORE
OUT: OT James Hurst (back), LB Tim Williams (ankle)
DOUBTFUL: QB Joe Flacco (right hip)
QUESTIONABLE: S Tony Jefferson (thigh), OT Ronnie Stanley (ankle), CB Tavon Young (ankle)

CINCINNATI
OUT: LB Preston Brown (knee), TE Tyler Kroft (foot), WR Josh Malone (hamstring), LB Nick Vigil (knee), DT Adolphus Washington (knee)
DOUBTFUL: WR A.J. Green (toe)
QUESTIONABLE: LB Vontaze Burfict (hip), CB Dre Kirkpatrick (concussion), WR John Ross (groin)

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Coming off bye, Ravens defense as we know it could be making last stand

Posted on 15 November 2018 by Luke Jones

The focus on the Ravens has been apparent coming off the bye week.

The future of John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco has dominated the big-picture discussion. An uncertain quarterback situation for Week 11 took another turn Thursday with 2018 first-round pick Lamar Jackson missing practice with an illness, joining Flacco and his injured hip on the injury report and leaving Robert Griffin III as the only quarterback on the field in Owings Mills.

Playing a banged-up Flacco, a rookie who’s never made an NFL start, or a veteran who was out of the league in 2017 and hasn’t started a regular-season contest in nearly two years doesn’t inspire great confidence in a must-win game. The Cincinnati defense being a disaster over the last month certainly eases concerns, but that only goes so far in a division rivalry in which the Ravens have lost eight of the last 10 meetings. Say what you want about Marvin Lewis and the Bengals, but they’ve had Baltimore’s number in this post-Super Bowl XLVII era.

So, what about the Ravens defense that sported such shiny overall numbers in the first half of the season?

It’s that side of the ball to which more salary-cap dollars are tied this season — even taking into account Flacco’s $24.75 million number for the offense. The defense carries seven of the nine highest cap numbers on this year’s roster and absorbed 13 of the organization’s 17 Day 1 and 2 draft picks from 2013-17.

But it’s also surrendered 76 points over the last nine quarters of play, albeit against three scoring offenses ranked in the top 10. The Ravens have one takeaway over their last four games and haven’t intercepted a pass since Oct. 7. Since a franchise-record 11-sack performance at Tennessee in Week 6, Baltimore has a combined two sacks in three games — all of them losses.

This wasn’t a unit constructed to be just OK or only really good against bad offenses, a reality more important with an uncertain quarterback situation for Sunday’s game. The defense was able to get healthier over the bye week, and it must regroup if the Ravens want to save their season.

“Teams have been trying to keep us off-balance, whether it’s with personnel, whether it’s with tempo, and, of course, to try to attack our schemes,” said cornerback Brandon Carr about the struggles in recent weeks. “But the great thing about this league [is] we got a bye. We got a week off and an opportunity for us to self-evaluate ourselves, figure out where our weaknesses are, areas we can fix, and that’s what we’ve been doing throughout last week and carrying over to this week.”

The successful quick passing used by Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton in Week 2 served as a basic blueprint for teams to offset the pass rush and limit opportunities to create turnovers as the Ravens didn’t record a single sack or takeaway in that 34-23 Thursday night defeat. It’s not a novel approach in today’s game, but New Orleans, Carolina, and Pittsburgh were able to control the game on third down with quick throws over the middle of the field, a problem the Ravens hope to have solved over the bye.

Expected to be without seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green on Sunday, the Bengals figure to do more quick passing as Dalton is tied for the NFL’s fifth-quickest average time to throw from snap to release.

“He’s really throwing the ball well in rhythm right now, so we need to be physical with the receivers at the line of scrimmage,” defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said. “I know we’re in the top five for sure — maybe second — with batted balls. We’ve had some success in the past with knocking some of the balls that he’s thrown up in the air and we’ve come down with them. We just haven’t come down with them yet this year.”

Green’s absence is a major development for a Cincinnati offense that’s dropped to 25th in total yards and 11th in scoring per game after averaging more than 30 points per contest through Week 5. He caught three first-half touchdowns to help the Bengals jump to a 21-0 lead in the first 17 minutes of the first meeting this season.

However, the Ravens have learned the hard way about slot receiver Tyler Boyd, evident by his shocking fourth-and-12 touchdown catch to knock them out of the playoffs last December and his six catches for 91 yards and a touchdown in the Week 2 defeat. Boyd has caught 52 passes for 685 yards and five touchdowns this season, serving as a dangerous No. 2 receiver who can exploit that problematic middle portion of the field.

“The past two games, we didn’t really give him much respect, and he’s definitely shown us we should,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “The time they beat us last year, he went [and] did a lot of good things.”

Much has been said about these final seven games being the swan song for Harbaugh and Flacco in Baltimore, but an older institution could also be on the verge of change. It’s no secret that defense has been king in this town since Ozzie Newsome’s selection of Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis with the 26th overall pick of the 1996 draft, and that mindset has remained despite the current offensive revolution in the NFL.

Even after Flacco and the offense led the way to victory in Super Bowl XLVII, the Ravens remained obsessed with returning the defense to a dominant level. They invested more early draft picks and free-agent dollars on that side of the ball while asking Flacco — a quarterback who had never put up overly impressive regular-season numbers — to make it work with supporting casts that were inferior to even those of other high-paid quarterbacks. The approach has resulted in defenses that still haven’t finished a single season in the top five in total yards or points allowed, offenses that have typically ranged from inept to mediocre, and one playoff appearance — and win — since that last Super Bowl.

This April’s draft may have finally signaled the start of a philosophical shift as the Ravens used their first four picks on offensive players, something they hadn’t done since 2000. With Jackson tabbed to be the quarterback of the future and veteran defensive players like Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, Jimmy Smith, Eric Weddle, and Carr either in the final year of their contracts or carrying bloated cap figures for 2019, Eric DeCosta will have the chance to remake this roster in his first year as general manager.

Building an explosive offense around a young quarterback on a rookie contract should be the priority as defense just doesn’t carry a team like it once could.

Harbaugh and Flacco might be receiving the headlines, but Baltimore’s longtime identity is also holding on by a thread. And given the uncertainty at the quarterback position this weekend, a throwback defensive performance would certainly be appreciated — the kind in which Lewis and future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed would simply say, “We’ve got this.”

“There’s no magic potion to it; we definitely need to win,” Suggs said. “That comes by any means necessary. You’re like, ‘What do we need to do?’ We have to play winning football.”

The Ravens will try it this way one more time.

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Jackson joins Flacco as non-participant for Ravens on Thursday

Posted on 15 November 2018 by Luke Jones

An already-uncertain Ravens quarterback situation took another twist Thursday as rookie Lamar Jackson joined starter Joe Flacco as a non-participant in practice, creating more uncertainty for Sunday’s game against Cincinnati.

While Flacco sat out a second straight day with a right hip injury suffered against Pittsburgh two weeks ago, Jackson missed Thurday’s workout with an illness, leaving Robert Griffin III as the only quarterback taking part in the session. Jackson had been photographed by a member of Baltimore’s public relations staff enjoying the snow in Owings Mills a couple hours earlier.

You certainly wouldn’t expect a reported stomach bug to jeopardize Jackson’s availability for Sunday’s game, but missing practice time ahead of his potential first start isn’t ideal for a team desperate to snap a three-game losing streak and keep its playoff hopes alive. The consensus expectation has been Jackson stepping in if Flacco is out — which is appearing more likely — but could Thursday’s absence open the door for Griffin to start?

“My job is to make sure I’m always ready,” Griffin said on Wednesday. “Whether that’s during practice, after practice, maximizing the reps that I do get and making sure that, after practice, I’m getting the things that I feel like I need if I’m called upon that week to play. But that’s my job, that’s why they brought me here. They brought me here to be a pro; they brought me here to help this team if need be. I try to help the defense every week on scout team and do those things. If my number is called, I’ll be able to go out there and lead this team.”

Griffin, 28, hasn’t started an NFL regular-season game since the 2016 season finale when he was a member of the Cleveland Browns.

Safety Tony Jefferson (thigh) returned to practice as a limited participant, but offensive tackle James Hurst (back) failed to participant again, making it more likely he’ll miss his fourth consecutive game. Defensive back Anthony Levine (ankle) missed Thursday’s workout after not being listed on the injury report the previous day.

Left tackle Ronnie Stanley (ankle) was listed as a limited participant for a second straight day.

The Bengals were once again missing superstar wide receiver A.J. Green (toe), making it all but certain he’ll miss Sunday’s game — the expectation all along. Starting linebackers Preston Brown (knee) and Nick Vigil (knee) also remained sidelined from practice, which is bad news for a Cincinnati defense that’s allowed more than 500 yards in each of the last three games.

Below is Thursday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: QB Joe Flacco (right hip), OT James Hurst (back), QB Lamar Jackson (illness), DB Anthony Levine (ankle)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: S Tony Jefferson (thigh), OT Ronnie Stanley (ankle), LB Tim Williams (ankle)
FULL PARTICIPATION: CB Tavon Young (ankle)

CINCINNATI
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Preston Brown (knee), OT Jake Fisher (non-injury), WR A.J. Green (toe), TE Tyler Kroft (foot), WR Josh Malone (hamstring), LB Nick Vigil (knee), DT Adolphus Washington (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: LB Vontaze Burfict (hip), CB Darqueze Dennard (sternoclavicular), CB Dre Kirkpatrick (concussion), RB Joe Mixon (knee), G Alex Redmond (hamstring), LB Vincent Rey (groin), WR John Ross (groin)

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Flacco, Jefferson absent as Ravens return to practice field

Posted on 14 November 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Joe Flacco was nowhere to be found on the practice field, and head coach John Harbaugh wasn’t about to offer any more clarity on the Ravens’ quarterback situation on Wednesday.

The 11th-year quarterback continues to nurse a right hip injury, leaving his status uncertain for a crucial meeting with Cincinnati on Sunday. It was the first regular-season practice missed by Flacco in over two years as speculation persists about the possibility of rookie first-round pick Lamar Jackson making his first career start. On Monday, Harbaugh left open the possibility of Flacco, Jackson, or even third-string veteran Robert Griffin III playing against the Bengals, who currently occupy the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoff race.

“Rather than dip my toe in the water and start answering one question and then not answering the next one, I’m just not going to get into it and just leave it alone,” Harbaugh said before Wednesday’s practice. “I really don’t feel like we owe anybody any answers, so we’re just getting ready for the game.”

Flacco was receiving treatment while the locker room was open to reporters, leaving Jackson and Griffin to answer questions about the possibility of filling in for the veteran starter. Jackson, the 32nd overall pick in April’s draft, has played 86 offensive snaps in a hybrid role this season while Griffin has been inactive for each of the first nine games and hasn’t played in a regular-season contest since the finale of the 2016 season with Cleveland.

Griffin has been an integral part of Jackson’s development throughout the season and does provide more experience if Flacco can’t play and the Ravens deem the rookie unready to start such a pivotal game for Baltimore’s playoff hopes.

“The thing I try to preach to Lamar is he’s been doing this his whole life,” Griffin said. “It’s a new level, but the cream always rises to the top. I think he’s done a good job of adjusting his level of play as he’s gotten more and more game reps. I think even throughout the preseason you could see from his first start to the last time he played, he just continued to get better. That’s what you want to see out of a young guy.

“If he gets the nod, or if I get the nod, to go out there and lead this team, we’re all going to be there for each other.”

Flacco wasn’t the only Ravens starter absent from Wednesday’s workout as safety Tony Jefferson (thigh) and offensive lineman James Hurst (back) did not participate. Jefferson missed practice time with a hamstring injury two weeks ago prior to playing 80 of 81 defensive snaps in the loss to Pittsburgh, making his absence a concerning development after the bye week.

Hurst hasn’t practiced since Oct. 19 and has missed the last three games with rookie Orlando Brown Jr. stepping into the starting lineup at right tackle. With Brown holding his own, some have opined about the possibility of moving Hurst to left guard — where he played last season — but his absence now extending beyond the bye week isn’t encouraging.

Left tackle Ronnie Stanley (ankle) returned to practice after missing the Steelers game, but he was listed as a limited participant and wasn’t taking part in full-team drills during the portion of the workout open to media. Outside linebacker Tim Williams (ankle) was also a limited participant after missing Week 9.

In addition to firing defensive coordinator Teryl Austin on Monday and inviting former Cleveland head coach Hue Jackson to rejoin the organization, head coach Marvin Lewis and the Bengals are dealing with key injuries of their own. The list is headlined by seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green, whose status is in serious doubt as he continues to recover from a toe injury that sidelined him for last Sunday’s blowout loss to New Orleans.

The Bengals were also without starting linebackers Preston Brown (knee) and Nick Vigil (knee) while outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict (hip) was a limited participant in Wednesday’s practice. Burfict has missed the last two games while Vigil has missed the last three contests.

Cincinnati cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick also missed practice as he recovers from a concussion sustained in Week 10.

Below is Wednesday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: QB Joe Flacco (right hip), OT James Hurst (back), S Tony Jefferson (thigh)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: OT Ronnie Stanley (ankle), LB Tim Williams (ankle)
FULL PARTICIPATION: CB Tavon Young (ankle)

CINCINNATI
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Preston Brown (knee), WR A.J. Green (toe), CB Dre Kirkpatrick (concussion), TE Tyler Kroft (foot), WR Josh Malone (hamstring), LB Nick Vigil (knee), DT Adolphus Washington (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: LB Vontaze Burfict (hip), CB Darqueze Dennard (sternoclavicular), G Alex Redmond (hamstring), LB Vincent Rey (groin), WR John Ross (groin)

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Twelve Ravens thoughts on current quarterback situation

Posted on 11 November 2018 by Luke Jones

With Joe Flacco dealing with a hip injury and many clamoring for the Ravens to begin the Lamar Jackson era, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The last two days of speculation are an example why it’s usually a good idea to pump the brakes in such situations. Whether Flacco plays against Cincinnati remains uncertain, but the number of fans and even some media who’ve so eagerly thrown dirt on his Baltimore tenure is disappointing.

2. The Ravens will try to make the best of the situation by keeping the Bengals guessing as much as possible this week. Marvin Lewis’ defense being awful of late and A.J. Green’s status being in doubt certainly should help Baltimore’s chances.

3. I look forward to watching Jackson play whenever that time comes, but the definitive takes ranging from him providing an instant upgrade to him not being an NFL-caliber quarterback are silly. Based only on the limited role Jackson’s fulfilled so far, no one really knows how he’ll fare initially.

4. My educated guess is that the Ravens would run the ball more effectively while taking a substantial hit in the passing game. I don’t believe that net result is improving — or matching — their chances to make the playoffs compared to a healthy Flacco playing the rest of the way.

5. As I pointed out in my rest-of-the-season predictions piece that was torpedoed by news of Flacco’s injury, Baltimore’s next five opponents rank in the bottom 10 in Football Outsiders’ weighted defense metric, which should bode well for either quarterback.

6. A retiring Hall of Fame executive, a general manager in waiting, a Super Bowl-winning head coach and quarterback on the hot seat, other key veterans potentially on their last ride, a rookie first-round quarterback, and less-than-ideal — but hardly impossible — postseason hopes. Awkward much?

7. If Flacco only needs to miss the Bengals game, what do the Ravens do after that? If they lose, do you just stick with Jackson — no matter how he plays — with their playoff hopes even more remote? If they win and the rookie doesn’t play poorly, do you keep rolling with him? Again, awkward.

8. The best-case scenario has always been Flacco playing well and Jackson showing strong behind-the-scenes development to prompt an offseason trade. What remains as a three-year, $63 million non-guaranteed deal should have some appeal for a quarterback-needy team with a strong roster. This injury doesn’t help that cause.

9. Flacco’s most undervalued trait for a long time was his availability as he didn’t miss a game through his first 7 1/2 seasons, but a 2015 ACL tear, last year’s back injury, and his current hip ailment show durability rarely lasts.

10. This article is a reminder why most probably need to lower whatever expectations they have for the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner this season. It also means he shouldn’t be labeled a bust if he struggles with any extended playing time over these final seven games.

11. Per OverTheCap.com, Baltimore has an average ranking of 22nd in the NFL in cap spending on offense since 2013, which includes Flacco. Coupling that with mostly defense-heavy drafts since Super Bowl XLVII, the organizational commitment to offense must improve. This past offseason being praised so much reflects a low standard.

12. With the dumb conspiracy theories suggesting a fake injury for Flacco — despite numerous people observing a leg issue early in the Pittsburgh game — as an excuse for the Ravens to start Jackson, is it any wonder grocery stores in the greater Baltimore area were all out of tinfoil?

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Ravens-Bengals: Five predictions for Thursday night

Posted on 13 September 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens had little time to revel in a blowout Week 1 victory with their Thursday trip to Cincinnati.

The second game of the season hardly approaches must-win territory, but each team has an opportunity to improve to 2-0 in the AFC North while Pittsburgh is coming off a tie with lowly Cleveland and continuing to experience life without Le’Veon Bell. A Thursday road game is a daunting challenge, but the early-season timing is a plus, especially after head coach John Harbaugh enjoyed the luxury of resting a number of key veterans in the second half of the 47-3 win over Buffalo.

“When you get late in the year, your bodies have just taken such a beating already,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “I’m not really saying this from personal experience, but just talking to some of the guys playing along the line of scrimmage, I think it’s definitely an advantage to do it early when you haven’t kind of taken the brunt of the whole season.”

It’s time to go on the record as these division rivals collide for the 45th time in the all-time regular-season series with each team owning 22 wins and the Bengals enjoying a 14-8 advantage in Cincinnati. The Ravens have lost five of the last six played at Paul Brown Stadium, but they came away with an impressive 20-0 win there to open the 2017 season.

Below are five predictions for Thursday night:

1. Bengals receiver A.J. Green will catch a touchdown in a mostly quiet night when matched against Marlon Humphrey. Lost in the agony of “fourth-and-12” was the defense holding the Pro Bowl wideout to two catches for 17 yards in the 2017 finale, a surprising feat without Jimmy Smith. The Ravens typically haven’t used their top corner to travel with elite receivers in recent years, but Wink Martindale would be wise to pick his spots for Humphrey to do just that. Green will find the end zone and be more productive this time around, but the Ravens won’t let him wreck the game.

2. Alex Collins and Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon will both eclipse 75 total yards with a touchdown apiece. Not that it was needed with the passing game carving up the Bills, but the Ravens struggled to run the ball, averaging just 1.5 yards per carry in the first half and 3.4 for the game. Their offensive line will fare better against a Bengals front that gave up 4.2 yards per carry in 2017. Meanwhile, Mixon nearly eclipsed 100 yards against Baltimore last December and had 149 total yards last week. Neither back will find a ton of running room, but they’ll help keep their offenses on schedule.

3. Cincinnati defensive tackle Geno Atkins will register a sack and give Matt Skura big problems. One of the best matchups of the last several years in the NFL has been Atkins against six-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda as both are among the absolute best at their positions, but the bigger concern is how Skura and the still-inexperienced Alex Lewis will hold up against the 300-pound defensive tackle. The coaching staff will use double teams and as much misdirection as they can, but Atkins will be disruptive against the run and pressure the pocket more than anyone did for Buffalo.

4. C.J. Mosley will collect a sack and an interception to set up a touchdown. The Pro Bowl inside linebacker didn’t have a monster statistical output in Week 1, but he was part of a strong effort to bottle up LeSean McCoy. Two of Mosley’s eight career interceptions have come against Cincinnati, and his coverage will be vital as Andy Dalton relies on short throws to tight ends and running backs to offset Baltimore’s rush. He’ll add another pick to put the Ravens on a short field and register a quarterback takedown as Martindale tests Bengals rookie center Billy Price with stunts and A-gap blitzes.

5. Joe Flacco and the passing game will come back to earth, but the Ravens will do just enough in a 20-17 win. It’s no secret the 11th-year quarterback has struggled against the Bengals throughout his career, and former Baltimore assistant Teryl Austin figures to show some new wrinkles in his first year running the Cincinnati defense. However, Ravens quarterbacks coach James Urban spent the last seven years as a Bengals assistant, giving him some useful intel to combat their defense. Thursday games are rarely pretty because of the truncated time to prepare in addition to the physical challenges of a short week, which will keep scoring down as both teams plod through this one. If you subscribe to the idea of a playoff-hopeful team needing to go no worse than .500 on the road, this looks like one of the more reasonable games on the schedule to secure a victory. It won’t be pretty, but I’m buying more stock in the Ravens than the Bengals at this point as Harbaugh’s team will improve to 2-0.

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Will the Ravens change the narrative without Jimmy Smith this time around?

Posted on 22 August 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The question has been asked over and over and is again relevant with Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith being suspended for the first four games of the 2018 season.

The circumstances are different since this isn’t a season-ending injury nor a team operating with a small margin for error late in the year, but the doubts remain.

How will the Ravens defense deal without the presence of its top cornerback?

If history is any indication, not well.

In 2014, the Ravens made the playoffs despite Smith missing the second half of the year with a Lisfranc injury, but their season came to an end as Tom Brady picked apart a helpless Rashaan Melvin and New England erased two 14-point leads to prevail in the divisional round. In reality, it was remarkable the Ravens had even gotten that far after cycling through the likes of Asa Jackson, Chykie Brown, Danny Gorrer, and Dominique Franks in the secondary, but they’ll always wonder what could have been had Smith not been injured.

Two years ago, Baltimore entered its Week 14 contest with the Patriots ranked first in total defense, tied for second in scoring defense, seventh in pass defense, and 11th in red-zone defense. A high ankle sprain sidelined Smith early in that game and for the remainder of the season as the Ravens would finish seventh in total defense, ninth in scoring defense, ninth in pass defense, and 18th in red-zone defense. More painful than those numbers, however, was Antonio Brown extending the ball over the goal line in the final seconds in Pittsburgh on Christmas Day, ending the Ravens’ playoff hopes in the process.

After Smith’s season-ending Achilles tendon tear last December, the Ravens slipped from seventh to 12th in total defense, second to sixth in scoring defense, second to 10th in pass defense, and fifth to 11th in red-zone defense. And, of course, Andy Dalton to Tyler Boyd on fourth-and-12 earned a painful place in Baltimore football lore as the Ravens missed the playoffs for the third straight season.

There are too many other variables at work to place all blame on one player’s absence, but there is too large a sample of advanced stats, conventional numbers, and anecdotal evidence that brings you to the same conclusion.

The Ravens defense hasn’t been the same without Smith, but will it be different this time around?

“I don’t think you can just look at it that way with Jimmy because there were other guys that were out during that time,” said first-year defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, specifically referencing the 2017 season. “I think that the toolbox is full. It’s full with our players and our depth, and it’s full with our coverages that we can go to if someone is struggling. I don’t see that in the very near future, but we have those things we can go to with that.”

Martindale makes a fair point as promising nickel cornerback Tavon Young missed all of last season with a torn ACL sustained in the spring. It’s also fair to note after going 2-5 in games in which Smith missed significant action in 2016, the Ravens improved to 4-2 in that department last year with those losses coming in heartbreaking fashion at Pittsburgh in Week 14 and to the Bengals in the season finale.

In Smith’s absence to begin the season, the projected top threesome of Brandon Carr, Marlon Humphrey, and Young definitely looks better on paper than Lardarius Webb, Melvin, and Anthony Levine in 2014 or Young, Shareece Wright, and Jerraud Powers down the stretch two seasons ago.

The defense still wilted last December with Carr and Humphrey at the outside spots and Maurice Canady playing the nickel, but the Ravens will hope the 32-year-old Carr defies Father Time for another season, Young provides an upgrade in the slot, and Humphrey takes another step or two forward after his impressive rookie season. Opponents’ 53.5 passer rating when targeting the 2017 first-round pick ranked second among NFL rookie cornerbacks behind New Orleans’ Marshon Lattimore (45.3), who was voted the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

The 6-foot, 197-pound Humphrey looking like a No. 1 cornerback would certainly enhance Baltimore’s chances in September road contests against A.J. Green and Cincinnati in Week 2 and Antonio Brown and Pittsburgh in Week 4. It would also improve the secondary’s long-term outlook as the organization will weigh what to do with Smith and his $15.85 million salary cap number for 2019 after the season. Humphrey’s draft status, size, and ability in press coverage make it no secret the Ravens envision him taking the mantle from Smith sooner or later with the latter’s off-field problems and injury history likely accelerating that transition.

Beyond the top three, the Ravens hope the versatility of Canady — who’s practiced more as an outside corner this summer — and the upside of fourth-round rookie Anthony Averett will provide quality reinforcements if an injury or two occurs before Smith is eligible to return in October. And there’s always the possibility of general manager Ozzie Newsome revisiting interest in free agent Bashaud Breeland or scouring the market for another veteran cornerback.

The spotlight will be on Baltimore’s corners, but survival without Smith is truly a team effort as the front seven will need to create more pressure in the pocket and stop the run effectively to account for any adjustments needing to be made in the back end of the defense. Unlike previous years, the Ravens will have the benefit of more time to regroup if the secondary struggles to find its footing, but dropping a division road game or two — even in September — could leave a difficult path the rest of the way.

“We have a lot of depth. Some guys are just going to have to step up early,” said Martindale, who will put his schematic fingerprints on the matter after replacing former defensive coordinator Dean Pees. “We’re still working on that and how we’re going to do that. I’m not going to sit and say for the rest of the league, and especially for Buffalo and the next three games, on how we’ll do it.

“They’ll just have to see. We have plenty of players that can play.”

Talking about depth is always preferable to having to use it. Only then do you really find out whether it’s quality or overhyped inventory.

It’s an all-too-familiar and uncomfortable position, but the Ravens hope to have the right answer this time.

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