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Harbaugh ready to finally lay eyes on 2020 Ravens

Posted on 30 July 2020 by Luke Jones

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh has been in this position before — at least from a football standpoint.

The 2011 NFL lockout canceled spring workouts and kept players away from team facilities until training camp in late July, but the temporary obstacles created by a labor dispute pale in comparison to the COVID-19 pandemic that will challenge — and threaten — so many aspects of preparing for a new season, including whether it will take place at all.

Asked what lessons from that unique experience might apply nine years later, Harbaugh was quick to note his brother, Jim Harbaugh, was a first-year head coach in San Francisco and surprisingly took the 49ers to the NFC Championship game that season. The Ravens also advanced to the conference championship game that year despite releasing several key veterans such as wide receiver Derrick Mason and tight end Todd Heap on the eve of training camp.

“Maybe the biggest lesson is that it can be done,” said Harbaugh about handling an abbreviated offseason and training camp. “You can build a football team as long as everybody is on the same playing field, no matter really what the organization is. The main thing is being able to keep the players safe enough and healthy to prepare them enough where they can protect themselves on the field [and] they can execute the techniques and the game in a way to protect themselves.”

The Ravens must wait a little longer to hit the field as veterans reported earlier this week for virus testing in hopes of clearance to enter the building to take physicals over the weekend and to begin football-related activities in Owings Mills on Monday. An extended acclimation period for strength and conditioning this summer means we won’t see full-contact practices until mid-August.

Such a timetable as well as the cancellation of preseason games will make it even more challenging to sort through an interior offensive line picture in which the Ravens must replace eight-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda, who announced his retirement in March. Bradley Bozeman is expected to start — likely at left guard — and the returning Matt Skura is a strong bet to remain at center if healthy, but offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris must evaluate veteran newcomer D.J. Fluker as well as second-year linemen Patrick Mekari and Ben Powers and rookies Ben Bredeson and Tyre Phillips, who all are vying for Yanda’s old spot.

Further complicating the offensive line discussion is the need to identify a swing tackle to back up Pro Bowl offensive tackles Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. following the offseason release of veteran James Hurst.

“We are going to give reps to different spots, so even our guards are going to be playing tackle some,” Harbaugh said. “You’ll see Tyre Phillips playing some tackle even though he’s still competing for the starting right guard and the backup left guard spots. That’s just going to be how it’s going to go this training camp, and we are going to have to really be flexible.”

Part of that flexibility is the possibility of players opting out due to the pandemic, something veteran offensive tackle Andre Smith did earlier in the week. Harbaugh called the decisions of Smith and return specialist De’Anthony Thomas “surprises,” but it’s part of a new reality in a contact sport not conducive to social distancing.

As of late Thursday morning, Harbaugh wasn’t aware of any other Baltimore players considering not playing in 2020.

“That’s not something I’ve talked to any of the guys about. Nobody has mentioned that to me,” Harbaugh said. “I think that’s a very personal type of a choice. If a guy wants to talk to me about it, I’m happy to talk to him, but I do think it’s such a personal choice. I don’t really know how much you can add from the outside to that decision.”

“We’ll look at any and every player”

The Antonio Brown questions just won’t go away as MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson admitted Wednesday to “still hoping a little bit” that the Ravens will sign the seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver.

Jackson and second-year receiver Marquise Brown worked out with the former Pittsburgh Steelers earlier this offseason and Harbaugh said he respects his quarterback’s opinion, but Antonio Brown’s off-field problems make it unclear whether he would face a suspension from the NFL even if general manager Eric DeCosta would choose to take a chance on the controversial wideout.

“We’ll look at any and every player at all times. Antonio Brown is no exception,” Harbaugh said. “Decisions will be made based on whatever they are made on. I don’t think he’s really available to even sign right now, so it’s not really a conversation that you have until he’s available to sign. Maybe I’m wrong about that. That’s something that I’ll have to ask Eric about — where that stands with the league and the player. But that’s where we stand on it, at least from my perspective.”

Safety or cornerback?

Harbaugh downplayed the notion of veteran Jimmy Smith moving to the safety position as he’s expected to be the No. 3 outside cornerback behind Pro Bowl starters Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters.

That doesn’t mean Smith won’t have a meaningful role in Wink Martindale’s versatile defense.

“If he lines up at safety, it will be for a reason to do a certain specific task or number of tasks,” Harbaugh said. “Any kind of a big-picture transition saying Jimmy Smith is a safety, that’s not really where we are going this year. He’s a corner and he’ll play corner, but he could be out there as a first corner, second corner, the third corner on the field, the fourth corner on the field. We’ll put different groups out there.”

Injury report

Harbaugh said slot cornerback Tavon Young (neck), outside linebacker Pernell McPhee (triceps), and safety DeShon Elliott (knee) are all in great shape and ready to go after suffering season-ending injuries in 2019, leaving Skura as the Ravens’ only real injury question going into training camp.

Despite suffering a major knee injury in late November, Skura made great progress with his rehabilitation this offseason and could be ready to practice sooner than most anticipated.

“I’m hearing great things. I’m optimistic about Matt; I really am,” Harbaugh said. “That’s a big plus for us if he can do it, but we’ll be careful. We’ll see how he looks and how he feels. A lot of it will be up to Matt too, but he knows himself really well and I know he’s worked really hard to be ready.”

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Ravens regular-season moment No. 2: “We know what kind of quarterback we have”

Posted on 26 June 2020 by Luke Jones

Check out the No. 3 regular-season moment in Ravens history HERE.

The Ravens had clobbered Pittsburgh in the 2011 opener in Baltimore.

But that didn’t matter now as they traveled to Heinz Field to take on a Steelers team that had won four straight entering November. A loss would drop the Ravens to third place behind both Pittsburgh and surprising Cincinnati in the AFC North, making their Week 9 clash on Sunday Night Football a crucial one.

Doubts about quarterback Joe Flacco persisted despite his comeback win in Pittsburgh the previous year as the Ravens had lost their home rematch in December — costing themselves the AFC North and a first-round bye in the process — and had blown a 14-point halftime lead in the their 2010 divisional-round defeat to the Steelers. Flacco was far from the only reason the Ravens lost those games, but he hadn’t played particularly well in some key moments as questions continued about his ability to lead his team to a championship. A stretch of lackluster performances in October hadn’t helped perceptions either.

The game started with a bang as Ray Rice took an inside hand-off, cut left, and galloped 76 yards for an apparent touchdown on the first play from scrimmage, reminiscent of the way the Ravens had begun the Week 1 blowout win. However, rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith was flagged for holding, negating the score and setting the tone for what would be a defensive battle for much of the night. The teams combined for five field goals in the first half with Billy Cundiff’s 51-yarder sending the Ravens to the locker room with a 9-6 lead at intermission.

The Steelers drove to the Baltimore red zone on the first drive of the second half before 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs intercepted Ben Roethlisberger’s pass in the short flat. With that turnover, the Ravens methodically moved down the field and took advantage of a 23-yard pass interference penalty as Rice’s 4-yard touchdown run increased the lead to 16-6 with 4:27 remaining in the third quarter.

The Steelers weren’t going away, however, as Roethlisberger bounced back from his mistake to lead an 11-play, 80-yard drive resulting in a 1-yard touchdown run for Rashard Mendenhall to make it 16-13 early in the fourth quarter.

The Ravens then marched to the Pittsburgh 36 before an all-too-familiar feeling of dread returned. On third-and-8, Pro Bowl outside linebacker James Harrison sacked Flacco, forcing a fumble that was recovered by the Steelers. Moving to the Baltimore 25 on five plays, Roethlisberger scrambled right on third-and-5 and found Mike Wallace in the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown with 4:59 to play.

On the ensuing possession, three straight Flacco incompletions resulted in a punt that Steelers receiver Antonio Brown returned to his own 46. The Ravens were in serious trouble as Pittsburgh had the ball, good field position, and a 20-16 lead with 4:30 remaining.

After converting a big third down, the Steelers moved into field-goal range before making a costly error. On fourth-and-5 from the 29, indecisiveness struck the Pittsburgh sideline as Roethlisberger initially lobbied to go for the first down and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was late sending kicker Shaun Suisham onto the field, resulting in a delay of game. With Suisham kicking into the tricky open end of Heinz Field, a 47-yard attempt would have been far from a sure thing, but the penalty instead prompted a Jeremy Kapinos punt that pinned the Ravens back at their own 8-yard line.

Ninety-two yards were needed with just 2:24 and one timeout remaining, a far more difficult position than the previous fall when Flacco had found T.J. Houshmandzadeh for the game-winner in Pittsburgh.

A 21-yard completion over the middle to Anquan Boldin got the Ravens out of the shadow of their own end zone at the two-minute warning. A 13-yard sideline strike to seldom-used undrafted rookie LaQuan Williams moved them to their own 42. A few plays later, Baltimore faced a fourth-and-1 from the Pittsburgh 49 when Flacco again found Boldin over the middle for 10 yards to extend the game.

But that’s when the drive began going sideways. On second-and-8 from the 37, Flacco escaped pressure, climbed the pocket, and threw deep to a wide-open Smith, who dropped the ball in the end zone. Boldin would catch the third-down pass to move the chains on the next snap, but the veteran receiver then dropped a perfect throw over the middle that would have moved the Ravens inside the 10.

As Cris Collinsworth remarked on the NBC broadcast, “Joe Flacco is doing a great job on this drive, and his receivers are completely letting him down.”

Facing third-and-10 from the 26, Flacco and the Ravens still had a timeout, but only 16 seconds remained. Undeterred by Smith’s drop moments earlier, Flacco threw deep to the sideline as the second-round rookie gave a veteran-like nudge to Steelers cornerback William Gay and caught the redemptive touchdown with eight seconds to go.

There was instant silence in Pittsburgh. In a throwback rivalry in which the most defining moments had always gone the other way, the Ravens finally enjoyed theirs in the national spotlight.

The 23-20 win proved to be the difference in the Ravens winning their first division title in five years and clinching a first-round bye. But it meant more than that for Flacco, who had orchestrated the most brilliant drive of his career. The touchdown pass in Pittsburgh the previous year had flashed his late-game ability, but leading a 92-yard march in a Sunday night road game against his biggest adversary was special, especially considering the aforementioned drops and the celebrated Ravens defense had given up 14 points in the final quarter.

No, Flacco wasn’t Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, or Peyton Manning and never would be, but he had touched greatness when it mattered most. And while the misfortunes of Cundiff and Lee Evans 2 1/2 months later in New England meant the Ravens would wait another year to finally taste Super Bowl glory, that 2011 win in Pittsburgh eliminated any doubt that such a postseason run was possible, whether Flacco’s critics wanted to admit it or not.

“Maybe people will stop putting him down now. We know what kind of quarterback we have,” Boldin said after the season-sweeping win over the Steelers. “There was no panic with our offense, and I think you saw that. A lot of it starts with our quarterback. He was real poised.”

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Five takeaways from interview session with Ravens coordinators

Posted on 24 June 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens making defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, offensive coordinator Greg Roman, and special teams coach Chris Horton available to local media for the first time since the end of the 2019 season, below are five takeaways from their video conference calls on Tuesday:

Establishing culture was king of the virtual offseason program.

We all know coaches and players were prohibited from gathering together in Owings Mills, but that doesn’t mean spring work was limited to individual training, film study, and X’s and O’s sessions via Zoom and other virtual programs.

In addition to extensive discussions on race and social justice reform following the killing of George Floyd and the powerful video released by the organization earlier this month, building and maintaining camaraderie and a strong team culture was a top priority for head coach John Harbaugh and his staff despite the inability to congregate in person. The “Chasing Greatness” series included whole-team sessions with Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed as well as former Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith, but Martindale took that initiative further with his defensive meetings, seeking out prominent names from both the sports world and other walks of life.

“As an old high school teacher, I taught some boring subjects. I think you had to be creative,” Martindale said. “My challenge and our challenge as a defensive staff was I wanted to make it must-see Zoom meetings. … You do get Zoom fatigue, but I wanted to make it where [players] couldn’t wait to come to the defensive meetings. We wanted to make it an event.”

The list of guest speakers included former Ravens defensive standouts Eric Weddle and Tony Siragusa, former Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg, former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, Basketball Hall of Famer Julius Erving, former heavyweight boxing champion Larry Holmes, former National League MVP Ryan Howard, former All-Pro pass rusher DeMarcus Ware, Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari, former NFL defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, Baltimore mayoral nominee Brandon Scott, ESPN anchor Sage Steele, and former Navy Seal Commander Mark McGinnis.

Martindale said he wants his defense and the Ravens to continue to build “a champion mindset,” noting the many accomplishments of the aforementioned speakers.

Experimenting further with last year’s “revolutionary” offense will be a balancing act. 

At this time a year ago, intrigue and mystery surrounded the new Ravens offense that Harbaugh dared to call “revolutionary” on more than one occasion.

What resulted was a historic MVP season from second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson and a run-first attack that set league and franchise records. The Baltimore coaching staff prides itself in remaining a step or two ahead of the competition, but visions of revolutionizing the game again should probably be tempered when the 2020 offense has yet to even huddle up on the field, let alone to try out new plays and packages.

“We haven’t had the luxury of the [organized team activities] and whatnot to really kind of test-run certain things, so we have to be really judicious with how we use that time in training camp to experiment,” Roman said. “I think experimenting this year is going to be very selective. Yes, definitely we’ve tweaked, we’ve added, updated, but how much we experiment in training camp, we’re really going to have to be selective with that.”

Of course, the Ravens have a superb baseline from which to work, and the rest of the league — that’s facing the same challenges — rarely showed the ability to slow down Jackson and this offense last year.

Improving in the return game is a point of emphasis for special teams.

Baltimore’s special teams weren’t perceived as favorably in 2019 as in previous years, but Horton downplayed any coverage concerns while stating the goal of being more productive with returns.

The Ravens ranked 21st in the NFL in kick return efficiency and 14th in punt return efficiency last year, according to Football Outsiders.

“We did a lot of studying this offseason, and that’s one area that we feel like we can be better in,” Horton said. “Whether it’s how we’re coaching it [or] how our players are responding to that coaching.”

This offseason, the Ravens re-signed return specialist De’Anthony Thomas and drafted James Proche and Devin Duvernay, two wide receivers with return experience at the collegiate level.

Expectations are high for a healthy Marquise Brown in his second season.

Many have noted that the 2019 first-round pick has looked bigger and stronger in workout videos posted on social media, a sentiment shared by Ravens coaches.

Devoting most of his rookie offseason to working his way back from Lisfranc surgery and with his left foot never 100 percent, Brown still managed to catch 46 passes for 584 yards and seven touchdowns in 14 games. The 170-pound wideout was also one of the few standout performers in the divisional-round loss to Tennessee with seven catches for 126 yards.

“Last year, all of us were saying, ‘Wow, once ‘Hollywood’ has an offseason — a real offseason — that’s going to be something,'” Roman said. “I think we are going to see that this year. He’s been working really hard. He’s not dealing with certain aspects that he had to deal with last year, and he did a great job of fighting through that and battling through it.”

Those high expectations for Brown haven’t made the Antonio Brown rumors and reports go away, but it’s clear the Ravens envision a significant jump from their talented 23-year-old receiver.

Even if the NFL can endure through the pandemic, much unknown remains.

We have no definitive idea when and if football will be played this year, but plenty of mystery remains even if the altered spring program proves to be the last of the major disruptions to the league calendar.

Veteran newcomers and first-year players alike haven’t had the opportunities to build on-field muscle memory in learning their new playbooks and systems. Trying to formulate a preliminary depth chart for training camp remains little more than guesswork at certain positions without the opportunity to evaluate during OTA sessions and mandatory minicamp.

And by this point, coaches have at least gained a working idea of what they have with their rookies, spotting deficiencies that may not have shown up in the pre-draft process and identifying later-round picks or undrafted talents as potential diamonds in the rough to watch this preseason.

“The rookie minicamps [in early May], it’s like Christmas Day for coaches,” Martindale said. “You can’t wait to see the new toys you have and what they can do and how much fun it would be to put them in the package. That’s just been pushed back.”

Of course, those unknowns don’t even include the exhaustive steps required to combat COVID-19 outbreaks. All parties continue to prepare and hope for the best-case scenario of a season that’s as close to normal as possible, but the potential alternatives are unsettling and not going away anytime soon.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts with virtual offseason program underway

Posted on 05 May 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens and the NFL now in the early stages of the virtual offseason workout program, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Don Shula was the winningest coach in NFL history and won two Super Bowls, but he’s remembered in Baltimore for 1964 NFL championship game and Super Bowl III losses in which the Colts were heavy favorites. There’s probably a lesson in there not to judge early postseason failures too harshly.

2. In a statement released on Shula, John Harbaugh shared the memory of being able to work with the legendary Miami coach when he served as a mentor coach with the Philadelphia staff for a week in the early 2000s. What an experience that had to be for an aspiring coach.

3. I’d rather watch paint dry than keep tabs on Antonio Brown, but his Photoshopped post of him wearing a Ravens uniform created more buzz. I take Steve Bisciotti at his word on his domestic abuse stance, but the longer Eric DeCosta gives non-answers on Brown, the longer unnecessary speculation persists.

4. The NFL releasing the 2020 schedule will be fun, but this feels premature with the uncertainty of the pandemic. With the draft, we know those players will definitely be playing football at some point. In this case, waiting another month or so would provide a better picture of reality.

5. Am I the only one who wonders if the value of a full 90-man offseason roster outweighs the challenge of trying to keep an even larger group of players and coaches coronavirus-free during an eventual training camp? Of course, we’re still at least 2 1/2 months away from that.

6. Rookie fourth-round guard Ben Bredeson said he sees “a lot of glaring similarities” between the Harbaugh brothers. We’ll see if Bredeson, a four-year starter for the Wolverines, works out better than other recent Michigan draft picks Willie Henry and Chris Wormley.

7. The list of notable seventh-round picks for the Ravens is a short one with DeAngelo Tyson, Ralph Staten, and Michael Campanaro, and Anthony Allen being the best ones. The field vision and pedigree of Iowa safety Geno Stone make him more interesting than the usual seventh-rounder.

8. Both Bredeson and Stone expressed excitement and relief that J.K. Dobbins, a former Big Ten rival, is now on their side after giving both of their schools problems. You don’t have to sell them on what the Ravens are getting with the standout running back.

9. Sixth-round wide receiver James Proche says he’s learning the Ravens playbook by adopting some helpful study habits from his mother, who’s currently in nursing school. That’s just another example of the unique circumstances created by this pandemic.

10. Proche admitted he was tracking how many catches Devin Duvernay made last season. Proche tied for first in the nation with LSU’s Justin Jefferson at 111 while Duvernay was third at 106. I suspect the competition between the two will carry over to training camp.

11. The signing of veteran Jake Ryan became official Tuesday, but the landscape of the inside linebacker position sure changed with the selections of Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison. Ryan still has a chance to stick if he can shine on special teams.

12. The idea of getting to be Lamar Jackson in a virtual reality game sounded like a blast until I began wondering what that might mean for the well-being of my ACLs.

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Lamar Jackson trying to stay ready in such unusual times

Posted on 21 April 2020 by Luke Jones

Under normal circumstances, Lamar Jackson and the Ravens would have been back in Owings Mills this week for the start of the offseason workout program.

We would have heard about the work he’s been doing with personal quarterback coach Joshua Harris, a partnership that resulted in a historic MVP campaign last season. His recent passing sessions with top wide receiver Marquise Brown — we’ll get to Antonio Brown’s presence in a moment — would have been praised rather than criticized for violating social distancing guidelines, measures unthinkable to us all before the coronavirus pandemic.

News of him being on the cover of the upcoming edition of Madden would have brought the same harmless debate about the video game’s alleged curse without the very real uncertainty of what the 2020 season might look like — or whether it will happen at all.

Instead, Jackson remains in South Florida, doing Pilates and working out by himself as we wait out a “new normal” that isn’t normal at all.

“I’m all business when it comes to football,” Jackson said in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday. “Everything else, I’m laid back. I don’t really do too much. I like to chill, so the quarantine is not really bothering me at all when it comes to just staying inside.”

The 23-year-old quarterback working out with the controversial Antonio Brown sparked much debate with general manager Eric DeCosta declining to comment earlier this month. While lamenting the timing and optics of conducting the workout in the midst of the pandemic, Jackson said it was the first time he’d met the seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver and cousin of Marquise Brown who’s been out of football since being released by New England last September.

Jackson downplayed the encounter beyond it being an opportunity to work on his craft, but he was asked about the possibility of the former Pittsburgh Steeler joining the Ravens.

“I’d be happy if they signed him,” Jackson said. “He’s a great player. He showed it each and every year when he was with the Steelers in the past, but it’s not my decision.”

With the draft set to begin on Thursday night and many clamoring for the Ravens to add more weapons to make a record-setting offense that much more dangerous in 2020, Jackson shared only one request that doesn’t come as a surprise after he gifted each of his offensive linemen a Rolex watch last Christmas.

He knows replacing eight-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda won’t be easy and is a greater priority than drafting another wide receiver, tight end, or running back. Jackson also wasn’t about to slight incumbent teammates who were part of the first offense in NFL history to average more than 200 yards rushing and 200 yards passing in a single season.

“Get the guys we need. We need a replacement for Marshal,” said Jackson about his draft wish list. “Marshal was that guy — first-ballot Hall of Famer. We need a guy for him. And whoever else we need, come in and help get us a championship.”

After piling up numerous team and league records in a franchise-best 14-2 season and becoming the second-youngest player in league history to win MVP, Jackson understands January success is the next step for both him and the Ravens, who have lost home playoff games in consecutive seasons. The disappointing defeat to Tennessee three months ago didn’t invalidate a fun and unforgettable year, but it left a cold truth for 2020.

It’s Super Bowl or bust.

“I need to win a playoff game before anything because I’m tired of that already,” said Jackson of the postseason criticism. “Once I get tired of something, I have to make it happen.”

Last year certainly showed how unwise it is to doubt Jackson, but that goal feels far away right now, much like so many other aspects of our lives.

In the meantime, the NFL’s most electrifying player is doing his best to stay ready in a sports world that’s been shut down indefinitely. And he’s trying not to dwell on the unknown.

“The world needs football,” said Jackson, even struggling with the possibility of playing games without fans in attendance this fall. “I think we’ll be playing football this year, so I’m not going to put that in my mind.”

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Twelve Ravens thoughts on pre-draft conference call

Posted on 06 April 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens brass conducting its annual pre-draft press conference via conference call on Monday afternoon, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Eric DeCosta described this draft as “old school” with more reliance than normal on game tape after the pandemic canceled so many pre-draft activities. It should help immensely having so much experience and continuity in the front office, scouting department, and coaching staff.

2. Many have discussed the possibility of DeCosta trading up in the first round, but he’s always spoken about desiring more picks. With this class presenting more uncertainty for obvious reasons, I’d be more inclined to use as many of those seven selections in the top 150 spots as I could.

3. With the draft being conducted away from team facilities, John Harbaugh has conveyed his concerns to the Ravens’ information technology department about various reports of security breaches in the Zoom software that’s become so popular in our current world. League-wide paranoia figures to be at an all-time high.

4. DeCosta estimated having 185 “draftable” players on his board, up from last year’s pre-draft estimate. That seemingly supports opinions of this being a deep class since you’d anticipate more prospects than usual to be removed from team boards over questions that went unanswered because of canceled pro days and visits.

5. Asked if he had interest in Antonio Brown after the former All-Pro receiver recently worked out with cousin Marquise Brown and Lamar Jackson, DeCosta declined to comment. It’s tricky discussing a relative of one of your key players, but the unfiltered answer should be a simple and definitive no.

6. DeCosta complimented his current wide receivers and stated his belief that some guys are “going to make that jump,” but I’d be surprised if the Ravens wouldn’t take a swing at such a deep position in this draft with one of their five scheduled picks over the first three rounds.

7. While acknowledging the more complete inside linebackers in this class who’ve been discussed at great length, Joe Hortiz said there are multiple options who could help this multi-look defense in more situational roles. I wonder if the Ravens are more comfortable with the mix-and-match approach than we think.

8. Harbaugh comparing replacing Marshal Yanda to Ray Lewis and Ed Reed speaks to his respect for the retired guard and a need to temper expectations. In Lewis’ case, Baltimore signed the rock-solid Daryl Smith and drafted C.J. Mosley a year later. Replacing Reed at safety was a multiyear headache, however.

9. Plans are ongoing for virtual team meetings and strength and conditioning sessions for the offseason workout program that’s scheduled to begin in two weeks. Harbaugh noted there being no excuse for players not to be in shape upon reporting to the team facility, a reference to ex-Raven Michael Pierce.

10. According to Harbaugh, Derek Wolfe has been on him “like a fly on something” to send him a copy of the defensive playbook. You get the sense that the veteran defensive lineman is going to be a popular addition in numerous ways.

11. Living in close proximity but limited to remote communication in recent weeks, Harbaugh predicted he would meet up with DeCosta for a walk at some point before the start of the draft. As long as they’re a minimum of six feet apart, of course.

12. The fantasy football draft jokes will be flowing with team executives working from their homes, but DeCosta’s shaky internet connection during Monday’s session makes you hope he has a backup queue in place. Just in case.

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New chapter upon us in old Ravens-Steelers rivalry

Posted on 04 October 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Lamar Jackson wasn’t even born yet when the Ravens played the Pittsburgh Steelers for the first time, reminding how long this rivalry has now existed.

It transformed from early Pittsburgh dominance to hostile nastiness to begrudging respect in quite possibly the NFL’s best rivalry over the last two decades. The annual meetings have become downright civil compared to the days of Ray Lewis, Chris McAlister, Hines Ward, Joey Porter, and so many others exchanging barbs off the field and violent hits on it.

If we’re being honest, the rivalry has aged in recent years with the 2016 Christmas Day game — a painful memory for Baltimore — being the most notable encounter. That’s not to say the games are any less competitive — 11 of the last 16 overall meetings have been decided by one score — but this year marks the first time since 2006 that neither Baltimore-Pittsburgh affair was scheduled for prime time if we’re including that nationally-televised Christmas meeting three years ago. Sunday’s encounter is the first time since 2013 these teams will meet in Pittsburgh for a run-of-the-mill afternoon game.

This AFC North rivalry inevitably cooled with the retirements of legends such as Lewis, Ward, Ed Reed, and Troy Polamalu, but this offseason brought the departures of Terrell Suggs, Joe Flacco, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell from their respective teams. Sunday will mark the first Ravens-Steelers game not including any of Suggs, Flacco, or Ben Roethlisberger — who’s out for the year with an elbow injury — since the final game of the 2002 season when Jeff Blake and Tommy Maddox were the quarterbacks and Todd Heap and Amos Zereoue were the standout performers of the day.

Only nine current Ravens were with the organization the last time these teams met in the playoffs five years ago, but one of them — outside linebacker Pernell McPhee in his second stint with Baltimore — offered what felt like a relic this week compared to the tame, respect-filled talk we’ve heard from both sides in recent years.

“We hate each other. I know for sure we hate them. We hate them,” said McPhee, who last played in a Ravens-Steelers game in the 2014 playoffs. “We respect them as men, but we really hate them.

“That’s just how it is. That’s the blood between the teams. It’s like God versus the Devil.”

Those words brought back plenty of fond memories, but the rivalry is now in need of a spark and a new chapter as much as each team could use a win with the Steelers trying to regroup from an 0-3 start and the Ravens aiming to snap their two-game losing streak. We’ve made mention of the “Bizarro” Ravens with a top-shelf offense and a bottom-10 defense so far, but the once-elite Steelers offense is suddenly counting on second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph to lead a group short on play-making ability with Bell now a New York Jet and Brown somewhere in his own little world.

This is when we come back to Jackson, who played a combined 22 snaps as a rookie in last season’s split against the Steelers. He’s rapidly become the face of the franchise since the last time Baltimore played Pittsburgh last November, Flacco’s final start as a Raven. Jackson’s comments on the rivalry and his first start at Heinz Field this week were both refreshing and a reminder of how much things have changed with the influx of youth on both sides.

“They play that little song (“Renegade”), and they wave their little flags and stuff with the little towels around,” Jackson said. “It was pretty dope. I enjoyed it. I did, I really did.”

Off to a terrific start to 2019 with 10 touchdown passes, a 109.4 passer rating, and a combined 1,348 yards through the air and on the ground, Jackson has his first real chance to make his mark against the Steelers after playing little more than a cameo role last season. With their defense reeling after giving up 73 points and 1,033 yards over the last two games, the Ravens need their 22-year-old quarterback to lead the way and give the Steelers fits for the first of what they hope will be many times in the coming years.

There’s no better candidate on either side to become the next star in Ravens-Steelers lore. Baltimore has the overwhelming advantage at the most important position on the field, but we’ve seen the likes of Charlie Batch and Ryan Mallett win games against Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks in this rivalry.

Nothing is guaranteed and you throw out the numbers for this one, but the Ravens need a win to get that “throw-up taste” out of their mouths from last week as McPhee described it. They can drop the Steelers to 1-4 and strengthen the notion of the AFC North being a two-team race with Cleveland. However, a Pittsburgh win gives Mike Tomlin’s team even more life and leaves us wondering if the Ravens are all that good at all.

Even if the rivalry isn’t what it used to be — at least for now — it’s time for Jackson and so many others stepping into larger roles on both sides of the ball to find out what Ravens-Steelers is all about.

“They’re becoming Ravens,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “One of the things that was said in the meeting [Wednesday] is, ‘You’re not a Raven until you beat the Steelers.’ Well, we have some young guys that still need to beat the Steelers.”

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday night

Posted on 29 September 2018 by Luke Jones

Making predictions for a Ravens-Steelers game is often a fool’s errand.

We know it’s typically close — 17 of the last 23 meetings including the playoffs have been decided by a single possession — but something crazy usually happens in the process.

Safety Eric Weddle said this week these aren’t the same old Ravens and they’ve learned from the last two heartbreaking defeats at Heinz Field in which they held double-digit fourth-quarter leads, but this is the chance to prove it and make an early statement that 2018 will be different than the last three non-playoff seasons. Sunday night marks the fifth consecutive season the Ravens’ trip to Pittsburgh will be televised before a national audience.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Steelers meet for the 45th time in the all-time regular-season series. Pittsburgh holds a 24-20 advantage and is 12-11 — including the playoffs — against Baltimore in the John Harbaugh era. The Steelers have won the last three meetings in this AFC North rivalry.

Below are five predictions for Sunday night:

1. JuJu Smith-Schuster will be the Steelers wide receiver giving the Ravens the biggest headache. It remains to be seen how defensive coordinator Wink Martindale approaches the challenge of covering Antonio Brown, but the 6-foot-1 Smith-Schuster does most of his damage from the slot, presenting a challenge for the 5-foot-9 Tavon Young. The nickel corner was exposed in Cincinnati in Week 2 and is still looking to regain his rookie form after last year’s knee injury. The Ravens will change up their coverages, but the defense needs a strong night from Young in order to get off the field.

2. John Brown and Willie Snead will each catch a touchdown against an injury-depleted Steelers secondary. Pittsburgh ranks 28th in the NFL in pass defense and is expected to be without starting safety Morgan Burnett and nickel corner Mike Hilton. It will be interesting to see how Steelers cornerback Joe Haden is used, but no one in the Pittsburgh secondary can run with the speedy Brown, who leads the Ravens with 222 receiving yards. If the protection can slow a capable Pittsburgh pass rush, Brown could be in line for a big night while Snead should find room in the middle of the field.

3. Pittsburgh tight ends and running backs will combine for 13 catches and a touchdown reception. Le’Veon Bell won’t be out there, but Steelers running backs and tight ends combined for 24 catches and two touchdown catches last December. The Ravens won’t have quite that much trouble, but C.J. Mosley will be less than 100 percent and the Steelers won’t hesitate to test Tony Jefferson and Weddle in coverage. Even with so much attention paid to Antonio Brown and Smith-Schuster, running back James Conner and tight ends Jesse James and Vance McDonald can’t be ignored.

4. Terrell Suggs will collect his first full sack against the Steelers since 2013. The personal rivalry between Suggs and Ben Roethlisberger goes back to 2004, but the seven-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker has just one-half sack in his last eight games against Pittsburgh. The Steelers will be welcoming right guard David DeCastro and right tackle Marcus Gilbert back to the lineup, which will only increase the challenge of pressuring the pocket. The Ravens finished with three sacks in the last meeting when Roethlisberger threw an absurd 66 passes. That can’t happen again if they want to win.

5. Joe Flacco and the offense will show up, but the Ravens defense falls short in a 31-27 loss. A rivalry once known for low-scoring affairs saw a whopping 77 points scored in the Week 14 contest played at Heinz Field last year. This one will follow a similar script as the Ravens offense will move the ball and score points, but the absence of Jimmy Smith once again looms large. After incorrectly picking Baltimore to win in Pittsburgh last December and watching Andy Dalton carve up the secondary in the first half of the Week 2 loss at Cincinnati, I need to see the Ravens prove they can get over the hump this time around. If it’s a different outcome, special teams could be the difference as Justin Tucker remains the best kicker in the NFL and Pittsburgh’s Chris Boswell is a total mess now.

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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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Some draft criticism unfair, but sum of parts still not adding up for Ravens

Posted on 16 January 2018 by Luke Jones

Some of the commentary from Ravens fans watching the divisional round of the playoffs was predictable.

All these years later, some still squawk about general manager Ozzie Newsome selecting Morehouse offensive lineman Ramon Harewood a pick before Pittsburgh took Central Michigan wide receiver Antonio Brown with the 195th overall selection of the 2010 draft. At this point, ESPN might as well make a “30 for 30” special on the two individuals just to torment Ravens fans.

Yes, the Steelers were so much smarter than Baltimore that they passed on the eventual best wide receiver in the NFL eight different times in that draft and took such studs as Crezdon Butler and Stevenson Sylvester before finally grabbing Brown in the sixth round.

It’s no secret that the Ravens could have traded with Dallas in 2016 to move up from the sixth spot to take future Pro Bowl cornerback Jalen Ramsey fourth overall, but Newsome didn’t want to part with his third-round pick that was used on defensive end Bronson Kaufusi, who’s played all of three games in two years. In a vacuum, it’s easy to call that a bad decision, but let’s remember quarterback Joe Flacco was rehabbing a torn ACL at the time and the Ravens didn’t have a trustworthy left tackle on the roster after the big contract awarded to Eugene Monroe two years earlier had turned out to be such a failure. Even if Ramsey becomes a Hall of Famer and Ronnie Stanley is never anything more than a reliable left tackle, it’s tough to be outraged by such a move if you’re someone who’s also blasted the organization for repeatedly neglecting its offense since Super Bowl XLVII.

Jacksonville linebacker Myles Jack intercepting a Ben Roethlisberger pass Sunday prompted some to point out that the Ravens passed on him, electing to trade back two different times to eventually take the disappointing Kamalei Correa in the second round of that same 2016 draft. However, the Ravens were far from the only team to pass on Jack, who was projected by some to be a top 5 pick if not for major concerns about the health of his knee. They also came away with starting outside linebacker Matthew Judon and strong special-teams contributor Chris Moore with those trades while Jack hasn’t been anything more than a solid starter for the Jaguars to this point.

If you really want to be mad about that second round, instead point to the Ravens taking Correa five picks before New Orleans drafted Pro Bowl wide receiver Michael Thomas, who’s caught a whopping 197 passes in his first two years.

And then there’s Minnesota wide receiver Stefon Diggs, the former University of Maryland standout who caught the miracle 61-yard touchdown from Case Keenum to send the Vikings to the NFC championship game. Even before Sunday’s heroics, this one had been reignited by the recent Sports Illustrated article citing Diggs’ mother telling Newsome that he should have been fired for not taking her son.

There’s no question that the Ravens should have had an advantage on intel about a prospect playing 40 miles down the road, but there were fair concerns about Diggs, ranging from his injury history in College Park to questions about his maturity. As a result, this was a player passed over multiple times by every team in the league, so the Ravens weren’t alone and Washington didn’t take the local kid either.

In the same way that I have a difficult time heaping too much praise on the Ravens for “discovering” Alex Collins when they were one of 31 teams who didn’t claim him on waivers at the end of the preseason and initially promoted Jeremy Langford from the practice squad over him, I struggle to criticize the organization too sharply for passing on Diggs — even if you wish they would have taken a chance on him rather than the little-known Tray Walker at the end of that fourth round.

The truth is you can go back in time to any draft and nitpick why Player A was taken over Player B over and over and over. Even after selecting two future Hall of Famers with his first two picks of the 1996 draft, Newsome took underwhelming cornerback DeRon Jenkins six spots before future nine-time Pro Bowl safety Brian Dawkins went to Philadelphia in the second round.

See how easy that was?

These arguments are easy to make with hindsight and lack context unless you’re talking about a clear-cut example such as two quarterbacks being taken with the first two picks of the draft. Even then, do you ever notice how you struggle to find anyone who would have drafted Ryan Leaf over Peyton Manning in 1998 despite that being a major debate at the time? Most critics aren’t so eager to point out the ones they were wrong about years later.

(For the record, I leaned toward Leaf as a know-it-all 14-year-old.)

As much as teams try to make the draft a science, much of it remains art with too many variables to possibly control. Even at their best, the Ravens never batted 1.000 in the draft, so there will always be picks to critique as many are doing now.

The real problem isn’t passing on these aforementioned players, but it’s that the Ravens haven’t been making enough great picks of their own in recent years to make these second-guessing exercises a moot point. At the macro level, it’s more than fair to argue that the Ravens have too frequently played it safe, relied on quantity over quality, and possibly even conformed with too much groupthink in recent drafts.

Sometimes you have to take a risk to come away with a truly great playmaker or two, which is something the Ravens desperately need on the offensive side of the ball and have for a long time now. You also can’t allow a failed pick like Breshad Perriman deter you from being bold when appropriate.

It’s not a secret that the organization has slanted much more toward defense with 13 of their 17 Day 1 and 2 picks since Super Bowl XLVII being on that side of the ball. That’s enough of a lopsided ratio to make you question whether the Ravens are valuing defensive players too much in favor of truly picking “the best player available” when on the clock.

Their recent drafts haven’t been as disastrous as some want to claim — the Ravens have still found plenty of good value in the latter half of drafts despite recent Day 1 and 2 problems — but they’ve merely been much more ordinary after years of the draft being considered a major advantage for Newsome and the Ravens over other teams.

Even if many of the decisions appeared sound at the time, the sum of the parts has still added up to too much mediocrity, the same place the Ravens are trying to escape.

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