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What’s next in Ravens’ quest for pass catchers?

Posted on 20 March 2018 by Luke Jones

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome uttered the key term at the conclusion of last Friday’s press conference introducing free-agent acquisition John Brown.

Pass catchers.

The Ravens need more of them.

Newsome began to make good on his vow to change the look of the wide receiver room by adding two in the opening week of free agency with established veteran Michael Crabtree and the talented but oft-injured Brown, but there’s more work to be done. What that looks like by the time the Ravens kick off in September remains to be seen with needs remaining not only at wide receiver but tight end, and one could even argue that a situational running back would be helpful after the release of pass-catching specialist Danny Woodhead.

Of course, the goal isn’t just to fill open roster spots at those positions as quickly as you can with familiar names. The Ravens need diverse skills in a passing game that ranked 29th in the NFL last season and has been broken since Gary Kubiak’s lone season as offensive coordinator in 2014. They need pass catchers at every level who can make plays and create yards after the catch.

It sounds simple, but the last several years have proven it’s anything but that for an organization that signed Super Bowl XLVII MVP Joe Flacco to a record-setting contract in 2013 and has proceeded to neglect his side of the ball on a near-annual basis. One hopes the Ravens have finally learned their lesson after signing two wide receivers this past week and agreeing to terms with another before a failed physical squashed their four-year, $29 million deal with the unproven Ryan Grant, a development that understandably raised some scrutiny.

Crabtree isn’t a No. 1 receiver, but he offers a skill set that fits more closely to that of Anquan Boldin than any receiver Baltimore has had since jettisoning the latter five years ago. Not known for his speed even in his younger days, the 30-year-old uses toughness and route-running ability to make contested catches to move the chains and finish drives in the red zone, evident by his 25 touchdown catches over the last three seasons.

It’s fair to note the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Crabtree is coming off his worst statistical year since his in-season return from an Achilles injury in 2013, but motivation from being released by Oakland and an environment that’s been hospitable to veteran wideouts in the past set up a reasonable scenario for him to rebound from a 58-catch, 618-yard campaign that still included eight touchdowns. The ceiling may not be terribly high for a seasoned veteran with just two 1,000-yard campaigns in his career, but Crabtree should remain reliably productive if healthy.

Meanwhile, the speedy Brown is a $5 million wild card who appeared on his way to becoming a standout contributor after his first two NFL seasons in which he caught a combined 113 passes for 1,699 yards and 12 touchdowns in an Arizona offense that had much competition for targets. However, injuries have plagued him since his 1,003-yard campaign in 2015 as he was diagnosed with the sickle-cell trait and has been slowed by an array of ailments.

On paper, the 27-year-old fills the role of free-agent vertical threat Mike Wallace, but he’s shown the ability to be more diverse in running routes and shouldn’t be classified as a “one-trick pony” either. Unfortunately, a 2017 season in which he missed six games and registered only 299 receiving yards should make it obvious that he can’t be the only option in the speed department either. That’s why a reunion with Wallace on a modest deal could make sense as Newsome confirmed he’s remained in contact with the veteran’s representation.

Unless Crabtree moves inside more frequently than he has in the past, a slot receiver remains on the Ravens’ wish list with the just-released Allen Hurns representing an intriguing option on the market. At 6-foot-3, he’s not the prototypical slot guy, but he’s been productive in that role and his big frame would be another good red-zone target for Flacco. The problem is he’s also dealt with injuries, missing a total of 11 games since his breakout 2015 season.

It’s a critical balance for the Ravens as they need to do more at wide receiver and tight end, but they shouldn’t fixate too much on band-aid veterans with limited upside at the expense of finding long-term answers, which are more likely to come in next month’s draft. No, you can’t count on a rookie wide receiver or tight end to pop immediately, but that shouldn’t be an argument to sign an inferior veteran and forgo drafting players at those positions altogether. It’s easy to point to 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman as validation for not drafting a wide receiver, but remember he’s the only wide receiver selected by Baltimore in the first three rounds of the last six drafts.

Going off what’s currently available on the open market and barring an unforeseen trade, you’d like to see the Ravens come away with at least one wide receiver and one tight end over the first few rounds of the draft. If not, you can’t help but think they’ll be right back in the same position with the same issues next year.

When a team has this much work to do to fix its passing game, questions will inevitably remain entering the season.

Last week was a start, but a deeper collection of experience and youth with diverse skills is needed to breathe life into an offense that’s held Baltimore back for too long. Crabtree presents a good safety net on third down and in the red zone while Brown is a boom-or-bust option.

Let’s see if the Ravens finish the job this time around.

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Ravens-Jaguars: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 23 September 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens face a familiar opponent in unfamiliar territory on Sunday.

Playing Jacksonville for the fourth consecutive season, Baltimore will play its first ever game in London at the famous Wembley Stadium. The Ravens seek their third 3-0 start of the John Harbaugh era while the Jaguars try to rebound from an embarrassing home loss to Tennessee.

Of course, poor health continues to be a major part of the story for the Ravens as a staggering 15 players have already been placed on injured reserve — along with practice-squad member Jeremy Langford — and four additional players have already been ruled out for Week 3.

It’s time to go on the record as Baltimore seeks its second consecutive win over the Jaguars, who still lead the all-time series with an 11-9 mark that largely stems from the days of the old AFC Central. The Ravens have won nine of the last 12 meetings dating back to the 2000 season.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Even without Brandon Williams, Baltimore will hold Leonard Fournette to less than 3.5 yards per carry. The Jaguars rank ninth in the NFL in rushing yards per game while the Ravens defense has been leakier against the run than you’d expect at 4.0 yards per carry allowed. There was plenty of debate in the offseason about whether giving Williams a lucrative deal was the best use of cap resources when you considered the young depth on the defensive line that includes nose tackle Michael Pierce. We’ll find out how that group looks against a rookie running back with exceptional talent.

2. Mike Wallace and Allen Hurns will catch touchdown passes for their respective teams. The Baltimore receiver was sure to emphasize that he wants to win more than anything when he talked about wanting the ball more this week, but offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg does need to get the downfield passing game going. Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey is dealing with an ankle injury, which should leave his secondary vulnerable to a big play. Meanwhile, Hurns has been forced to pick up the slack for the injured Allen Robinson, and the Ravens have given up some yards through the air so far.

3. The Ravens will finish with under 100 rushing yards in their first full game without Marshal Yanda. Only Denver recorded more carries than the Ravens over the first two weeks of the season and the Jaguars have given up 136.0 yards per game on the ground, but the loss of a six-time Pro Bowl guard will impact any team’s ability in the trenches. Harbaugh has expressed confidence in new right guard Tony Bergstrom, but he struggled last week and will have his hands full with defensive tackle Malik Jackson. It also doesn’t help that starting running back Terrance West is dealing with a calf issue.

4. Tony Jefferson will record his first interception for one of two Ravens’ takeaways on the day. It’s incredible to think Baltimore has already surpassed its interception total from the entire 2015 season, but Jefferson is the lone member of the starting secondary not to grab one thus far, which has earned him plenty of ribbing from defensive teammates. The Jaguars will do everything they can to keep the game out of the hands of maligned quarterback Blake Bortles, but he’s thrown 53 interceptions in 48 career games and will be picked off by Jefferson at a critical moment of a low-scoring game.

5. Justin Tucker will shine in a grind-it-out 16-13 victory for Baltimore. The Jaguars’ experience playing overseas and the need to adjust to the five-hour time change are legitimate concerns for the Ravens, who were 2-6 on the road last season and haven’t played well away from M&T Bank Stadium for years now. It won’t be a pretty performance, but Tucker will hit a field goal from beyond 50 yards and add two more to put on a good show for the soccer faithful in London. With Pittsburgh and Oakland looming in the next two weeks, the Ravens would very much like to win this one.

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Ravens-Jaguars: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 15 November 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — A fresh start.

That’s what the Ravens hope Sunday brings as they return from their bye week to welcome the Jacksonville Jaguars to M&T Bank Stadium.

Sporting as healthy of a 53-man roster as they’ve enjoyed in quite some time, the Ravens look to improve to 7-1 in games immediately following their bye week under head coach John Harbaugh. They’re also looking for back-to-back wins for the first time all season after a disappointing 2-6 first half.

Despite being listed as questionable on the final injury report and only returning to practice on Friday, starting center Jeremy Zuttah is active and will play after suffering a left shoulder injury two weeks ago against San Diego. Left tackle Eugene Monroe (shoulder) is also active after missing the Chargers game, giving the Ravens their entire starting offensive line for just the fifth game this season.

The list of inactives was headlined by the healthy scratch of second-year safety Terrence Brooks, who has recovered from a thumb injury that cost him three games before the bye week. Wide receiver Breshad Perriman (knee) was already ruled out on Friday.

Meanwhile, the Jaguars will have the services of second-year wide receivers Allen Hurns (foot, thigh) and Marqise Lee (hamstring), who were both listed as questionable for Sunday’s game. Jacksonville sports the 11th-best passing attack in the NFL, which will pose quite a challenge to the Ravens’ 29th-ranked pass defense.

Pete Morelli will be the referee for Sunday’s game.

The Ravens will be wearing purple jerseys and white pants while Jacksonville dons its white tops with black pants.

The Sunday afternoon forecast calls for sunny skies with temperatures in the low 60s and winds up to 15 miles per hour, according to Weather.com.

Sunday marks the 19th all-time meeting between the Ravens and the Jaguars with Jacksonville owning the 10-8 advantage after winning the first eight all-time meetings between these old AFC Central foes. Jacksonville hasn’t won a road game since Dec. 1, 2013 and is seeking its first win in Baltimore since 1999.

Below are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
WR Breshad Perriman
WR Joe Morgan
CB Tray Walker
S Terrence Brooks
OL Ryan Jensen
DL Kapron Lewis-Moore
OT De’Ondre Wesley

JACKSONVILLE
LB Dan Skuta
RB Toby Gerhart
S James Sample
DT Michael Bennett
C Luke Bowanko
RB Joe Banyard
DE Chris Smith

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Ravens-Jaguars: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 14 November 2015 by Luke Jones

This isn’t a “homecoming” game for the Ravens.

Scoff as much as you’d like over the notion of the 2-6 Jacksonville Jaguars winning a road game for the first time in nearly two years and earning a victory at M&T Bank Stadium for the first time since Bill Clinton was in the White House (1999), but the 2-6 Ravens have no room to be taking any opponent lightly these days. That’s especially true when one of the Jaguars’ greatest strengths — the NFL’s 11th ranked passing game — matches up against Baltimore’s 29th-ranked pass defense.

Head coach John Harbaugh and the Ravens have spoken all week about Sunday providing the opportunity for a fresh start and the first of many steps toward climbing back into an underwhelming AFC playoff race, but they’ll first need to show they’ve put some of their first-half struggles behind them.

It’s time to go on the record as Baltimore and Jacksonville meet for the 19th time in the regular-season history and for the second consecutive year at M&T Bank Stadium. The Jaguars hold a 10-8 advantage in the all-time series, but that can be attributed to Jacksonville winning the first eight all-time meetings between the teams from 1996-1999 when they were old AFC Central foes. Dating back to 2000, the Ravens have won eight of 10 against Jacksonville.

Here’s what to expect as Baltimore tries to win consecutive games for the first time all season …

1. The team that performs better on third down will win on Sunday. This is a boring talking point often used by the unimaginative, but I only bring it up because both teams are so poor in this area, a major reason why they sport matching 2-6 records. The Ravens rank 24th in third-down offense and dead last in the NFL in third-down defense while Jacksonville is 19th in third-down offense and 29th in third-down defense. Baltimore will be challenged to find success running the ball in early-down situations against the league’s seventh-ranked rush defense while the Jaguars want to avoid putting the mistake-prone Blake Bortles in third-and-long spots. This will be critical factor in a close contest.

2. The Ravens secondary will snap Allen Hurns’ touchdown streak, but Allen Robinson will post over 100 receiving yards and a touchdown. Hurns is questionable to play with a foot injury, meaning he will be less than 100 percent if he does find his way to the field on Sunday to try to continue a streak of six consecutive games with a touchdown reception. However, the 2014 second-round pick Robinson is emerging as one of the better big-play threats in the NFL and will create problems for Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb. The Ravens should be fine if they can limit one of Jacksonville’s two impact receivers, but Robinson is just too good for the Baltimore secondary to stop at this point.

3. Kamar Aiken will have an encouraging day as the No. 1 receiver, catching six passes for 80 yards and a score. After two weeks to prepare and to talk a good game, the Ravens will now face the reality of life without Steve Smith the rest of the way. The good news for Baltimore is that Jacksonville sports the league’s 25th-ranked pass defense and has struggled to create pressure on quarterbacks this season, which should allow time for Aiken and Chris Givens to gain separation. Jacksonville’s starting cornerbacks, Davon House and Aaron Colvin, are solid, but No. 3 option Dwayne Gratz is a liability in the nickel, which will create a good matchup for Aiken on a touchdown pass.

4. Bortles will throw a costly interception midway through the fourth quarter. Counting the postseason, the Ravens have created four or more turnovers in a game 51 times in franchise history, but they have just four total takeaways in eight games in 2015. That trend just has to change at some point, right? Bortles has shown plenty of promise and has played at a high level at times this season, but he hasn’t been able to avoid critical mistakes like he made against the New York Jets last week. In a tight game, the Ravens will force their first turnover since Week 3 to end a scoring threat and preserve a narrow lead. The five-game streak without a takeaway has to end — even if it’s by accident.

5. Efficiency will be the theme of the day for Joe Flacco and the Ravens in a 28-23 win over Jacksonville. I feel for the Ravens quarterback, who has been given inferior weapons to work with in two of the last three seasons, but you never hear him complain about the factors regularly working against him. It will be interesting to see how the Ravens offense functions the rest of the way with Steve Smith out and the running game being a disappointment to this point. But Flacco will consistently make plays to move the chains and take a few deep shots to Givens in the process. The Ravens found a way to score 30 points without Smith in Week 5, and they’ll find ways to score enough against Jacksonville.

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Jacksonville possesses exactly what Ravens lack at receiver

Posted on 12 November 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — It’s been a long time since the Jacksonville Jaguars had much of anything that the Ravens coveted.

But with nothing but question marks at the wide receiver position after the season-ending injury to Steve Smith in Week 8, the Ravens will find it difficult not to look across the field on Sunday and wish they were the ones who had the most talented receiving duo in the NFL that no one knows about. Second-year wide receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns are quietly blossoming into standout performers in one of the least-heralded markets in the NFL.

“The ‘Allens’ — you don’t hear about them on ESPN SportsCenter every day,” cornerback Lardarius Webb said. “But whenever you pull out the numbers, their names start coming up and you’re wondering like, ‘Who are these guys?’ You pop on film and you’re like, ‘These are the guys. They can play ball.’ They just hide them because they’re in Jacksonville, so a lot of people don’t really pay attention to them.”

The Ravens’ 29th-ranked pass defense cannot lose sight of Robinson — a 2014 second-round pick from Penn State — or Hurns — a surpising undrafted free agent from Miami a year ago — who enter Week 10 ranked eighth and 18th in NFL receiving yards, respectively. The pair have combined to make 76 catches for 1,342 yards and 12 touchdowns in Jacksonville’s eight games in 2015.

Jacksonville has been without its other 2014 second-round receiver, Marquise Lee, for most of the season, but that hasn’t mattered with Robinson and Hurns emerging as dangerous weapons for young quarterback Blake Bortles, also in his second NFL season. Despite a 2-6 start, Jacksonville finally has hope for the future with such talent at the offensive skills positions.

“I think it’s super special,” Bortles said in a conference call with Baltimore media. “To be able to come in with those guys as rookies and to able to go through and grow and watch those guys grow [is special]. We got our first offseason together and did some work there and then continued to carry that over into the season.”

The debate continues in Jacksonville over which receiver is better as Robinson is considered the “home-run hitter” — 17 catches of 20 or more yards — while Hurns is steadier in catching a higher percentage of passes thrown his way with 36 receptions on just 59 targets.

Opposing defenses have generally matched their No. 1 cornerbacks against the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Robinson, but Hurns has now caught a touchdown in six consecutive games. Against a talented New York Jets secondary featuring Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, and Buster Skrine last Sunday, Robinson and Hurns each posted over 120 receiving yards in a narrow defeat.

“I think the biggest thing that I really noticed about them is their catch radius,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “They do a great job — when the ball is in the air — of finding the ball, locating the ball, and then catching it. That’s a good feeling for a quarterback when you can throw one up even when he’s covered and think the guy has a good chance of coming down with it.”

Coming off their bye and trying to win consecutive games for the first time all season, the Ravens know they face a below-average football team on Sunday, but Jacksonville has the ability to exploit Baltimore’s biggest weakness with the league’s 11th-ranked passing game. The Jaguars are an opponent that can’t be taken lightly or the Ravens could find themselves in a position similar to Week 5 when Cleveland won at M&T Bank Stadium for the first time since 2007.

The Jaguars haven’t won in Baltimore since 1999 when Mark Brunell was their quarterback and the teams were part of the old AFC Central division. With the Ravens also holding a 2-6 record, they’re in no position to be taking any opponent lightly, and Robinson and Hurns will be ready to take full advantage if they do.

“A lot of people don’t really pay attention to them, but they’re making big plays,” Webb said. “They together are a great duo in the NFL. Our corners — me and Jimmy [Smith] — have to be on point with these guys and knowing where they are on the field. We have to make some disruptive plays to get this victory.”

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