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Ravens-Chargers: Five predictions for AFC wild-card game

Posted on 05 January 2019 by Luke Jones

Much has changed since the Ravens last hosted a playoff game six years ago.

Ray Lewis is in the Hall of Fame, Ed Reed will join him in a few weeks, and Joe Flacco has quite possibly already played his final snap as a Raven. Baltimore had made the playoffs just once since that last home playoff win over Indianapolis, but the start of the Lamar Jackson era seven weeks ago has created an energy not seen in these parts in quite some time. Winners of six of their last seven to clinch the AFC North title, the Ravens hope that vibe carries them to victory in Sunday’s wild-card game.

Standing in their way is the Los Angeles Chargers, who finished tied for the third-best record in football and had the misfortune of being in the same division as No. 1 seed Kansas City. Despite traveling to the East Coast for a 1 p.m. game, Anthony Lynn’s team is 8-0 in contests played outside Los Angeles this season, which included wins in Seattle, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City.

It’s time to go on the record as these AFC teams meet in the postseason for the first time ever. Of course, the Ravens toppled the Chargers 22-10 in their Week 16 meeting to improve to 7-5 in the all-time regular-season series. Baltimore owns a 3-1 record against them at M&T Bank Stadium, but the teams split the last two games there in 2014 and 2015 with the outcomes decided by a combined four points.

Below are five predictions for Saturday:

1. The Chargers will speed up the pace and spread out the Baltimore defense for an early touchdown. The Ravens controlled the tempo throughout the Week 16 meeting, harassing Philip Rivers with blitzes that the Chargers rarely had answers for. This time, I expect Los Angeles to use some no-huddle and empty formations to try to slow the pass rush and keep the Ravens off-balance early on. It’s worth noting Pro Bowl wide receiver Keenan Allen is healthier this time around and will find space for an early touchdown reception after being held to a quiet five catches for 58 yards in the first meeting.

2. Gus Edwards will rush for a career-high 120 yards and a score. The Chargers use the dime package more than anyone in the NFL, which helped them hold Jackson to just 39 rushing yards in Week 16. However, a lighter front leaves Los Angeles more susceptible to the dive plays so frequently run by Edwards. To their credit, the Chargers slowed down the 238-pound rookie in the second half, but he still managed 92 yards on 14 carries two weeks ago. Making matters worse, Los Angeles nose tackle Brandon Mebane isn’t expected to play, making the front seven even more vulnerable against power runs.

3. Jackson will run for more yards than Pro Bowl running back Melvin Gordon. We’ve spent ample time talking about the Ravens’ running game, but has anyone noticed what their rush defense has done since the bye week? Opponents are averaging just 3.4 yards per carry and only two players have managed as much as 60 rushing yards against them over the last seven contests. Gordon is a dynamic player capable of leaving a huge mark in his first NFL playoff game, but he’s more likely to do that as a receiver out of the backfield. I also expect Jackson to find more daylight as the game progresses with the Chargers tweaking their front to account for the inside power runs.

4. A long Cyrus Jones punt return will set up a Ravens touchdown. The running game and a dominant defense have received most of the credit for the post-bye turnaround, but the special teams rose from a pedestrian 13th in special teams DVOA at the bye to sixth by season’s end. Football Outsiders rated Baltimore’s punt return unit second in the league while the Chargers’ punt unit was rated next to last. That disparity didn’t show up to any dramatic degree in Week 16, but Jones has offered a boost in the field-position game since becoming the punt returner and will break a long one on Sunday.

5. Another strong defensive effort will send Baltimore to the divisional round with a 20-17 win. The Chargers were my preseason pick to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, but the first meeting showed this isn’t a great matchup for them. I expect their offense to put up a better fight than it did a couple weeks ago, but Rivers isn’t mobile enough to give the blitz-heavy Ravens the same degree of trouble as Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield did. Credit Los Angeles for doing a better job against the Baltimore running game than any other team over the last two months, but absences at the wrong spots on its dime defense will lead to the Ravens staying more consistent on the ground in the second half. It will be another close game because that’s just a product of the style these current Ravens play, but another complementary effort will be enough to defeat the Chargers for the second time in three weeks. John Harbaugh will improve to 6-0 in wild-card playoff games.

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Three Ravens players listed as questionable for Sunday’s wild-card game

Posted on 04 January 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens should have their entire 53-man roster available for Sunday’s wild-card playoff game against the Los Angeles Chargers.

Wide receiver Chris Moore, cornerback Tavon Young, and guard Alex Lewis were all designated as questionable on the final injury report, but all should be available as Baltimore makes its first playoff appearance since the 2014 season. Young was a limited participant in Friday’s walk-through after missing workouts on Wednesday and Thursday with a groin issue that’s limited him for much of the last two months.

Moore’s status didn’t appear to be in any doubt after he practiced fully on Wednesday and Thursday, but the special-teams standout was absent from Friday’s session because of a hip ailment. The third-year wide receiver left the Week 17 win over Cleveland with a shoulder injury, leaving Willie Snead and Ty Montgomery to handle kick returns in the fourth quarter.

“We’ll be fine. We have guys ready to go,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “I think Chris will be out there; I’d be surprised if he wasn’t. But, just in case, we have guys ready to roll.”

Lewis has been practicing fully for the last three weeks, but he hasn’t been active since Week 13 while dealing with a shoulder injury. Veteran James Hurst has taken his place as the starting left guard with rookie Bradley Bozeman also receiving occasional snaps there.

The Chargers’ injury picture isn’t as flattering as starting outside linebacker Jatavis Brown is officially out with an ankle injury that’s expected to sideline him for the entire postseason. Brown collected eight tackles in the Week 16 meeting with the Ravens, making his absence significant against Baltimore’s second-ranked rushing attack.

Los Angeles is also unlikely to have starting nose tackle Brandon Mebane, who was officially listed as doubtful for a non-injury reason. The 33-year-old has been away from the team this week to be with his infant daughter, who was born with a serious heart condition in November.

Pro Bowl running back Melvin Gordon (ankle) was a full participant in practice all week while backup running back Austin Ekeler (groin) is questionable to play after being limited all week.

It remains to be seen whether the Chargers will activate tight end Hunter Henry (knee) from injured reserve by Saturday’s 4 p.m. deadline to do so. Head coach Anthony Lynn has told reporters that Henry will be on a pitch count if he’s able to make his season debut after suffering a torn ACL during organized team activities in the spring.

According to Weather.com, the Sunday forecast in Baltimore calls for sunny skies and temperatures in the low 50s with winds 10 to 15 miles per hour.

Below is the final injury report of the week:

BALTIMORE
QUESTIONABLE: G Alex Lewis (shoulder), WR Chris Moore (shoulder/hip), CB Tavon Young (groin)

LOS ANGELES
OUT: LB Jatavis Brown (ankle)
DOUBTFUL: DT Brandon Mebane (non-injury)
QUESTIONABLE: RB Austin Ekeler (groin)

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Ravens’ rematch with Chargers carries much intrigue with playoff stakes

Posted on 03 January 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens are entering unusual territory for Sunday’s wild-card tilt against the Los Angeles Chargers.

Not only will it be their first home playoff game in six years, but the opponent is a team Baltimore saw — and defeated — just two weeks ago. Teams play their divisional foes twice per season, of course, but you rarely see a return bout after just 15 days, making the second meeting between these AFC teams that much more interesting after the Ravens’ convincing 22-10 win in Carson, California on Dec. 22.

The chess match is on against a familiar opponent who is also 8-0 in games played outside Los Angeles.

“Are they going to game-plan us the same way that they did the first game, or are they going to completely change the game plan?” right guard Marshal Yanda said. “Are we going to change the game plan? You really don’t know exactly if they’re going to stick to the script or if they’re going to install a new game plan. You just have to look at their entire body of work, their entire 16-game season.”

The last time the Ravens played the same team twice in such a short period of time was in 2012 when they beat Pittsburgh at Heinz Field in Week 11 and fell to the Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium two weeks later. That same season, Denver clobbered John Harbaugh’s team in Baltimore in mid-December, but you may recall the underdog Ravens faring a little differently at Mile High four weeks later on the way to the second Super Bowl title in franchise history.

No better examples are needed to remind nothing is assured for Baltimore — even with home-field advantage — despite its convincing road victory over Philip Rivers and the Chargers in Week 16. We constantly try to jump to conclusions from what we see in this league in a given week and are frequently sent back to the drawing board, which is what makes the NFL so much fun. The truth is we’re dealing with small sample sizes and many variables in contrast to the other sports that play many more games in a season.

But that brings us to Lamar Jackson and a Ravens running game that’s taken the league by storm over the last two months. Opponents have tried their best to simulate Jackson in practices by using a mobile quarterback or even a speedy player at another position, but his speed and agility have no parallel at the position in today’s game. Teams can watch film and prepare as much as possible, but experiencing this ground attack for the first time is different as the Ravens have rushed for at least 194 yards in six of the last seven games and Jackson set a single-season record for rushing attempts (147) by a quarterback despite starting only seven games.

It’s similar to a hitter stepping to the plate against a pitcher with triple-digit heat, nasty breaking stuff, and an unorthodox delivery for the first time after poring over the scouting reports and watching video in preparation. But in the same way batters have the chance to adjust in subsequent plate appearances, the Chargers’ ninth-ranked run defense will now have the opportunity to provide a meaningful answer to the question we’ve been asking for weeks.

How sustainable is the Ravens’ high-volume running game as opposing defenses are further exposed to it and given more time to prepare?

At first glance, the Chargers surrendering 159 rushing yards and 4.5 yards per carry in Week 16 isn’t worthy of praise, but they fared better against Jackson’s legs and the NFL’s second-ranked rushing attack than any other post-bye opponent. After registering a robust 5.4 yards per carry in the first half, the Ravens managed just 21 yards on their first 10 carries of the second half, contributing to three straight three-and-outs that kept the struggling Chargers within striking distance until Tavon Young’s late fumble return for a touchdown. Jackson carried 13 times for just 39 yards on the night, easily his lowest rushing total since Joe Flacco was still the starting quarterback and the rookie was playing sparingly.

“We weren’t as efficient in the second half as we needed to be,” said tight end Mark Andrews, who caught a 68-yard touchdown in the third quarter of the Week 16 win. “That’s probably one of those things [where] they played a good game and we fell off a little bit.”

It’s not as though opposing defenses haven’t attempted to adjust during games by keeping a safety in the box more frequently, using “Bear” or heavy fronts, or even utilizing pre-snap movement with defensive linemen pinching inside like Cleveland did in the fourth quarter. But this will be the first time an opponent has been able to go back to the laboratory with a full week to prepare and adjust after facing the real thing.

A few teams have managed to slow Baltimore’s ground game — at least somewhat — as Kansas City gave up only 3.8 yards per carry after halftime compared to 6.1 yards per attempt in the first half. The Browns surrendered 4.5 yards per carry in the second half last Sunday after being gashed to the tune of an absurd 8.5 yards per carry over the first two quarters. But only the Chargers have managed to shut down the Baltimore run over the final 30 minutes as the Ravens defense was forced to win the game.

Los Angeles’ propensity for frequently using safeties like rookie sensation Derwin James in the box and more athletic linebackers matches up better with Jackson on the edges.

“We know his speed. I watched him in college as well. His speed is really good,” Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn said. “We know that you have to protect the perimeter with this guy. On the edge, one-on-one — he can win. He’s like a running back with the ball in his hands.”

Such a strategy of using lighter players in the box would seemingly leave the Chargers vulnerable against inside runs. That proved true in the first half as Gus Edwards ran for 60 yards on eight carries, but the 238-pound rookie managed just 11 yards on five carries in the second half before finally breaking off a late 21-yard gain when the game was already decided.

We’re still dealing with such a small sample size, mind you, but did the Chargers manage to finally crack the code? Will Ravens run-game guru Greg Roman cook up something new that Los Angeles coordinator Gus Bradley and his defense won’t be able to handle? Or does Jackson build on what he did through the air against the Chargers after throwing for a career-high 204 yards the first time around?

A return meeting this soon with such high stakes couldn’t be more fascinating.

“They’re skilled. They’re well-coached. They’re disciplined. They make it hard,” said offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg of the Chargers. “They’re really good on defense, and that’s the way I perceive this group that we’re playing. They’ll do a couple of things [differently] during the game — we’ll do a few things [too] — because of the last ball game.

“But every game is its own entity.”

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Ravens carry season of good health into wild-card weekend

Posted on 02 January 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — A number of factors have gone into the Ravens’ first trip to the playoffs in four years, ranging from Lamar Jackson and an explosive running game to the continued dominance of one of the best defenses in the NFL.

But a season of good health might be as big a reason as any, especially after the long list of injuries that plagued Baltimore through the better part of the last three non-playoff seasons. The Ravens haven’t needed to make a 53-man roster move in over a month and just two players from the Week 1 active roster — running back Alex Collins and defensive tackle Willie Henry — are currently on injured reserve.

The Ravens finished with the sixth-most adjusted games lost in the NFL last season, but the projected starters on the offensive and defensive units for Sunday’s wild-card meeting with the Los Angeles Chargers have missed a total of just 14 games due to injury this season. Seven-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda was sidelined for that many alone last season.

“I think it’s been big,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “The fact that we were healthy, the healthiest we’ve been all year, credit goes to the players for how hard they work and for our strength and conditioning and performance people. What a great job they’ve done. The continuity of practice and then games and having a full roster is really important.”

Ironically, it was the hip injury to longtime quarterback Joe Flacco that forced Jackson into the starting lineup and resulted in the transformation of a pass-heavy offense into an unconventional unit that’s run the ball more than any team in the league since Week 11. A starting quarterback missing multiple games is usually a death knell for a team’s playoff hopes, but it speaks to just how unusual this season has been for the Ravens and how healthy they’ve remained at other positions to thrive through such a transition.

Cornerback Tavon Young was the only Raven to miss Wednesday’s practice for an injury-related reason as he continues to play through a groin issue that sidelined him in Week 12 and has cost him practice time for multiple weeks. Wide receiver Chris Moore (shoulder) was a full participant on Wednesday despite leaving in the fourth quarter of the Week 17 win over Cleveland.

The Chargers present a more interesting injury picture this week as tight end Hunter Henry could make his season debut after rehabbing from a torn ACL suffered last spring. Henry remains on the physically unable to perform list after returning to practice last month, but reports have indicated he will take first-team reps this week in hopes of playing.

Henry caught a combined 12 touchdowns in his first two seasons and appeared poised for a breakout 2018 before injuring his knee during organized team activities.

“We’re not quite sure where he’s at right now,” Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn said in a conference call. “He hasn’t been on the football field since April. The expectations wouldn’t be real high to be honest with you. We’ll evaluate him at the end of the week, and we’ll see where he’s at.”

Los Angeles outside linebacker Jatavis Brown is expected to miss the rest of the season after suffering an ankle injury in Week 17, a significant development as the Chargers try to slow Baltimore’s rushing attack. However, Pro Bowl running back Melvin Gordon (ankle) was a full participant in Wednesday’s practice and is expected to play.

Below is Wednesday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: CB Tavon Young (groin), G Marshal Yanda (non-injury)
FULL PARTICIPATION: G Alex Lewis (shoulder), WR Chris Moore (shoulder)

LOS ANGELES
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Jatavis Brown (ankle), NT Brandon Mebane (non-injury)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: RB Austin Ekeler (groin)
FULL PARTICIPATION: S Jahleel Addae (shoulder), G Dan Feeney (knee), RB Melvin Gordon (ankle), OT Sam Tevi (groin)

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