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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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Twelve Ravens thoughts in early part of June

Posted on 04 June 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens moving into the final weeks of virtual workouts and coaches on the verge of returning to the team facility in Owings Mills, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Steve Bisciotti’s latest of many donations in a difficult year was $1 million for a group of former and current Ravens to distribute to social justice reform efforts. Some have fairly noted the organization not signing Colin Kaepernick three years ago, but actions accompanying team-released statements are what’s needed now.

2. As they did with Terrell Suggs in 2008, the Ravens working out a compromise with Matthew Judon for his franchise tag tender always made sense. What doesn’t make sense is the NFL still using generic position labels like “linebacker” and “offensive lineman” in this system.

3. Ronnie Stanley made no reference to becoming the league’s highest-paid left tackle, but he wants “to get paid my value and what I’m worth” and expressed happiness for Laremy Tunsil’s record contract. Why wouldn’t he expect at least as much as what Houston is paying another 2016 draftee?

4. With uncertainty surrounding the season and how that could hurt the salary cap in the next year or two if fans can’t attend games or the schedule is condensed, teams are seemingly in no rush to do extensions right now. Tagging Stanley next March would be a no-brainer anyway.

5. I’ve always believed way too much is made of player-organized offseason workouts, but seeing clips of Lamar Jackson throw to some teammates in South Florida is another step toward some sports normalcy. I’m all for that.

6. The NFL requiring teams to stay at home facilities for training camp was hardly surprising, but you now wonder if we’ve seen the last of off-site camps, which were already disappearing rapidly. The 2011 lockout was the dagger for the Ravens training in Westminster.

7. New Carolina coach Matt Rhule revealed Wednesday that the Panthers were set to have joint practices with the Ravens in Owings Mills before the third preseason game until the pandemic erased those plans. More of these sessions still feel like the future for summer preparations.

8. Bradley Bozeman went from being perceived by many as the weak link who needed to be replaced early last season to someone already counted as a 2020 starter at either guard or center by his head coach. Of course, some continuity inside is critical with Marshal Yanda now retired.

9. In revealing Chuck Clark would likely continue to relay the calls in the defensive huddle and wear the “green-dot” helmet, John Harbaugh said, “He’s bold, he’s brilliant, and he’s brief.” Few Ravens have been praised for their football intellect like Clark in recent years.

10. I certainly would have endorsed the Ravens adding an elite talent like DeAndre Hopkins, but there’s something to be said for continuity at wide receiver while adding rookies Devin Duvernay and James Proche to the mix. A revolving door of veterans makes it difficult for a passing game to grow.

11. In handling great expectations for the upcoming season, Harbaugh said, “We’re going to be everyone’s most important game.” I can’t wait to see what Greg Roman comes up with to counter 2020 opponents who’ve been brainstorming all offseason to try to slow Jackson and this offense.

12. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my top 25 Ravens regular-season moments countdown as much as I’ve liked putting it together. It’s been a fun trip down memory lane at a time when many of us need that, and we still have quite a few to go.

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Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson keeps the ball for a touchdown on a fourth-down play against the Seattle Seahawks during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019, in Seattle. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

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Ravens regular-season moment No. 20: “Hell yeah, coach, let’s go for it!”

Posted on 15 May 2020 by Luke Jones

Check out the No. 21 regular-season moment in Ravens history HERE.

By Week 7 of the 2019 season, many were still trying to figure out just how real the Ravens and Lamar Jackson’s MVP candidacy were.

Baltimore certainly looked the part of a playoff-caliber team, but its four wins had come against teams with a combined 4-19-1 record through the first six weeks of the season. And while Jackson had amazed the football world by throwing seven touchdown passes in the first two games — topping his total from his entire rookie season — the 22-year-old quarterback had thrown four touchdowns and five interceptions over the last four contests, quieting some of the early MVP hype from September.

A daunting cross-country trip to Seattle to take on Russell Wilson, the early MVP favorite, and the 5-1 Seahawks would be a great litmus test going into the bye week. A win would combat doubts about the Ravens being legitimate Super Bowl contenders, and Jackson shining in a showdown with one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks would command more respect from his skeptics.

Defensive touchdowns scored by cornerbacks Marcus Peters — acquired from the Los Angeles Rams only days earlier — and Marlon Humphrey and 116 yards rushing from Jackson were the difference in Baltimore’s 30-16 win, but what transpired late in the third quarter would have a far greater reach than any highlight-reel play or the victory itself.

The moment defined the 2019 season and could define the Ravens in the years to come.

With the game tied 13-13, the Ravens had moved the ball inside the red zone before seemingly self-destructing with two uncharacteristic drops from tight end Mark Andrews and a delay-of-game penalty leading to a third-and-15 from the Seattle 21. A terrific 13-yard run by Jackson set up fourth-and-2 from the 8-yard line, but head coach John Harbaugh wanted to at least come away with the go-ahead field goal in the rainy conditions at CenturyLink Field.

His quarterback wasn’t happy coming to the sideline after the Ravens had already twice settled for field goals inside the red zone in the first half.

“He came off, and I could just see it in his face,” Harbaugh said. “I asked him, ‘Do you want to go for it?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, I want to go for it; let’s get it.’ I was told that Marshal [Yanda] said, ‘If he wants to go for it, I want to go for it.’ I felt the same way. If he wants to go for it, I want to go for it too.

“I went down and called timeout, and it was just a great play.”

Offensive coordinator Greg Roman called “quarterback power,” a play that included six offensive linemen, three tight ends, and a fullback on a designed inside run by Jackson, a tactic the Ravens tried to avoid as much as possible to keep their quarterback out of harm’s way. Patrick Ricard motioned to the play side and left guard Bozeman pulled to the right as Jackson plowed his way to the end zone for the touchdown and a lead the Ravens wouldn’t relinquish over the final 16:20 of the game.

The execution was impressive and the touchdown run important, but the conviction and confidence exuded by Jackson in the moment had prompted a Super Bowl-winning head coach in his 12th year and the perennial Pro Bowl right guard in his 13th season to follow his lead. Jackson’s performance that day moved him into the top tier of an MVP race he would win by unanimous vote and Baltimore made its statement as a legitimate contender on the way to a franchise-best 14-2 season, but the story was bigger than that, extending beyond the remainder of the 2019 season.

The Ravens were officially Jackson’s team now.

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earlthomas

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 2020 schedule release

Posted on 11 May 2020 by Luke Jones

With the NFL unveiling the 2020 regular-season schedule late last week, I’ve offered a dozen Ravens thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. What we know about the alarming incident between Earl Thomas and his wife doesn’t — and shouldn’t — provide any grounds to jeopardize his employment, but the Ravens’ terse statement made clear their disenchantment about being left in the dark. Practically speaking, a public figure’s right to privacy only goes so far.

2. The schedule release highlighted what we already knew about Baltimore being in tremendous shape from a travel standpoint with the longest trip of the season being to Houston in Week 2. Already dominant on the road last season, the Ravens should be able to continue such away success.

3. Even if one argues the Ravens are better from a talent standpoint and have a favorable schedule on paper, ESPN’s Mike Clay presented some data that should make you take pause before boldly predicting another 14-2 or better finish. What they did offensively last season just isn’t easy to duplicate.

4. With five prime-time games, four in a five-week period from November into early December, and the reigning NFL MVP, the Ravens have never carried a brighter national profile than they do right now, which is saying plenty for an organization with two Super Bowl titles in the last 20 years.

5. Asked about the center spot in a call with season-ticket holders, Eric DeCosta mentioning Bradley Bozeman was interesting, especially since left guard was seemingly the only stable interior line spot entering 2020 after Bozeman started every game there last year. Will we see three different starters inside?

6. When an elite player retires at the top of his game, speculation can persist about a comeback, but Marshal Yanda left no doubt by losing 45 pounds in two months after his final game and looking even thinner on “The Pat McAfee Show.” He looked lighter than the ex-Indianapolis punter.

7. No matter how you felt about the second-round selection of J.K. Dobbins, I don’t get the rush some have to trade Gus Edwards or Justice Hill for what would likely be an inconsequential draft pick. If more depth at running back was important, hastily diminishing the group makes little sense.

8. DeCosta acknowledged the Ravens having limited avenues to clear meaningful salary cap space without striking a long-term deal for Matthew Judon or Ronnie Stanley, who carry two of their five largest cap numbers for 2020. These negotiations and decisions won’t get any easier.

9. First-round pick Patrick Queen bought his mother a new Range Rover over the weekend. Seeing a young player fulfill his NFL dream after years of hard work and finally be able to gift a token of appreciation to a parent never gets old.

10. Asked once again — this time by a season-ticket holder and not the media — whether the Ravens were interested in signing Antonio Brown, DeCosta provided a “filibuster” non-answer that would make Dan Duquette smile.

11. With Joe Flacco undergoing neck surgery and reportedly not expected to be cleared to play until late August, you wonder if the 35-year-old has played his final snap. However, Jets general manager and ex-Ravens scout Joe Douglas “discovered” Flacco and does need a backup to Sam Darnold.

12. A personal thanks to director of player personnel Joe Hortiz for taking extensive time to conduct a virtual film session on the Ravens’ 2020 draft class and answering questions from local reporters. Such a forum offers transparency and better educates media to hopefully improve our coverage for fans.

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How did Ravens offensive linemen stack up to rest of NFL in 2019?

Posted on 27 February 2020 by Luke Jones

The Ravens recorded the best regular season in franchise history, but where did their individual players stack up across the NFL in 2019?

Whether it’s discussing the Pro Bowl — Baltimore had a record-tying 13 selections — or determining postseason awards, media and fans spend much time debating where players rank at each position, but few watch every player on every team closely enough to form any real authoritative opinion.

Truthfully, how many times did you watch the Tampa Bay offensive line this season? What about the Atlanta Falcons linebackers or the Detroit Lions cornerbacks?

That’s why I respect the efforts of Pro Football Focus while acknowledging their grading is far from the gospel of evaluation. I don’t envy the exhaustive effort to evaluate players across the league when most of us watch one team or maybe one division on any kind of a regular basis.

We’ll look at each positional group on the roster in the coming days, but below is a look at where Ravens offensive linemen ranked across the NFL this past season followed by the positional outlook going into 2020:

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

Ronnie Stanley
2019 offensive snap count (including postseason): 1,036
PFF ranking: fourth among offensive tackles
Skinny: PFF’s highest-graded left tackle and top-graded overall pass blocker for 2019, Stanley, 25, had the best season of his career as he was named to his first Pro Bowl and was a first-team All-Pro selection. The 2016 first-round pick also ranked 10th in run blocking among qualified tackles as the Ravens may need to make him the highest-paid left tackle in NFL history to extend his contract beyond 2020.

Marshal Yanda
2019 offensive snap count (including postseason): 1,068
PFF ranking: fourth among guards
Skinny: The 35-year-old continued to strengthen his case for Canton by making his eighth Pro Bowl in nine years and again ranking among the league’s best guards in his 13th season. Yanda led all guards in PFF’s pass-blocking efficiency metric and remained the anchor for an offensive line that blocked for a ground game that set a new NFL record for rushing yards in a season.

Orlando Brown Jr.
2019 offensive snap count (including postseason): 1,204
PFF ranking: 25th among offensive tackles
Skinny: After starting 10 games as a rookie, the 2018 third-round pick from Oklahoma firmly established himself as a quality NFL starter as he started every game and played in his first Pro Bowl after initially being named an alternate. His historically poor combine testing two years ago feels like a distant memory as Brown has been everything the Ravens could have reasonably wanted at right tackle.

Bradley Bozeman
2019 offensive snap count (including postseason): 1,204
PFF ranking: 32nd among guards
Skinny: Left guard was a concerning position battle last summer as others failed to take the reins before the Ravens turned to the 2018 sixth-round pick from Alabama in the final days of the summer. Many wondered if Bozeman would be a liability at the position, but his play was solid throughout the season as he played every offensive snap and was rarely a topic of conversation, a good sign for a young lineman.

Matt Skura
2019 offensive snap count (including postseason): 717
PFF ranking: 17th among centers
Skinny: The former practice-squad lineman solidified his place as a starting-caliber NFL center before sustaining ACL, PCL, and MCL tears as well as a dislocated left kneecap in late November. The 27-year-old is still expected to be tendered as a restricted free agent, but it remains unclear whether Skura’s surgically-repaired knee will be ready for the start of training camp.

Patrick Mekari
2019 offensive snap count (including postseason): 530
PFF ranking: 14th among centers
Skinny: The undrafted free agent from Cal-Berkeley had a strong preseason to earn a 53-man roster spot and was active as a reserve every week until Skura’s knee injury threw him into the starting lineup. Baltimore didn’t skip a beat over the final five regular-season games before the 22-year-old Mekari was one of many Ravens players to have a bad night against Tennessee in the playoff loss.

James Hurst
2019 offensive snap count (including postseason): 194
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The versatile veteran set a career low for snaps, but he filled in effectively at left tackle for the injured Stanley in Week 15. The Ravens value Hurst’s ability to play four different positions, but his four-game suspension to start 2020 could compromise his roster standing as he’s scheduled to make a steep $4 million in base salary as a backup and Baltimore signed veteran Andre Smith to a one-year deal.

Parker Ehinger
2019 offensive snap count (including postseason): 54
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The former fourth-round pick signed with Baltimore’s practice squad in September and was promoted to the active roster in late November, faring pretty well in limited snaps. Ehinger will be a restricted free agent and could return to compete for a 53-man roster spot.

Ben Powers
2019 offensive snap count (including postseason): 30
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The fourth-round pick from Oklahoma graded quite well in his lone action of the season at right guard in Week 17, but Powers being inactive for every other game as a rookie leaves plenty of questions regarding his ability. Regardless of what happens with Yanda or others, the spring and summer will be critical for Powers’ development as an NFL-caliber guard.

Hroniss Grasu
2019 offensive snap count (including postseason): 1
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: Claimed off waivers in early December for his second stint with the Ravens, the 28-year-old served as an active reserve for the final few games and is unlikely to return on anything but a league-minimum deal with a chance to compete for a roster spot in the preseason.

2020 positional outlook

The current state of the offensive line begins with the status of Yanda, who still hasn’t informed the Ravens whether he plans to return for a 14th season and chase another Super Bowl ring. Yanda retiring would create a major void at right guard — and from a leadership standpoint — that the Ravens won’t easily replace. The interior offensive line is further complicated by the uncertain health of Skura, making it ideal for general manager Eric DeCosta to add a starting-caliber option to the inside mix. On the bright side, the Ravens boast one of the best offensive tackle duos in the NFL with two Pro Bowl selections under age 27. Signing Stanley to a contract extension beyond 2020 should be one of the top priorities of the offseason as the Ravens searched nearly a decade for a franchise left tackle after the retirement of Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden. Even if Yanda decides his football days are over, the mere presence of dual-threat MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson puts so much pressure on defensive fronts that the offensive line remains at a clear advantage.

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Pierce, Boykin, four other Ravens listed as questionable for Sunday’s game

Posted on 29 November 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens listed six players as questionable for Sunday’s tilt against NFC-leading San Francisco, but all but one participated fully in the final practice of the week.

Wide receiver Miles Boykin was the only player absent from the field on Friday and was seen walking through the locker room with his ankle heavily taped. The rookie third-round pick is coming off his best showing since the bye with a two-catch, 54-yard effort in the 45-6 win over the Los Angeles Rams and hadn’t been on the injury report until Friday, leaving his status for Week 13 up in the air.

Defensive tackle Michael Pierce appears on track to potentially make his return from a right ankle injury that’s sidelined him since the Week 10 win in Cincinnati. He was a limited participant on Wednesday and Thursday before practicing fully on Friday, a positive development for the nose tackle’s availability against an offense ranking second in the NFL behind only Baltimore in rushing yards per game.

“You know I’m not going to go down that street of whether or not he’s going to do anything yet,” defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said. “But yes, it was good to see him out there for three days in a row.”

Defensive tackle Domata Peko (knee) missed the first two practices of the week while tight end Nick Boyle, outside linebacker Matthew Judon, and left guard Bradley Bozeman were all limited in some form with ankle injuries this week, leading to questionable designations.

The 49ers officially ruled out starting defensive end Dee Ford with quad and hamstring injuries, but left tackle Joe Staley (finger) and running back Matt Breida (ankle) are both questionable and could return to game action this week after practicing on a limited basis.

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

BALTIMORE
QUESTIONABLE: WR Miles Boykin (ankle), TE Nick Boyle (ankle), G Bradley Bozeman (ankle), LB Matthew Judon (ankle), DT Domata Peko (knee), DT Michael Pierce (ankle)

SAN FRANCISCO
OUT: DE Dee Ford (quad, hamstring), WR Dante Pettis (knee)
QUESTIONABLE: RB Matt Breida (ankle), OT Joe Staley (finger)

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Ravens-Rams: Five predictions for Monday night

Posted on 24 November 2019 by Luke Jones

You win on the road in the regular season to play at home in January.

The 8-2 Ravens travel to Los Angeles to take on the Rams in hopes of improving to 5-1 on the road and winning what would be a team-record fourth straight regular-season away game. Baltimore hasn’t posted a winning road record since 2010, but an explosive offense and a rapidly improving defense have traveled well, making John Harbaugh’s team the best in the NFL in the eyes of many.

Meanwhile, the 6-4 Rams are aiming to record their fourth win in five games as they enter Week 12 three games out in the NFC West and 1 1/2 games behind the second wild-card spot in the NFC. The urgency is certainly there for Los Angeles to take care of business at home.

It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet for the seventh time ever in the regular season and first time since 2015. The Ravens lead the all-time series by a 4-2 margin and are 2-0 in the Harbaugh era, but this is their first ever trip to the historic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Below are five predictions for Monday night:

1. Marcus Peters will register an interception against his former team. The Ravens defensive back insists he doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder returning to Los Angeles after being traded last month, but that won’t stop the man Wink Martindale called a cornerback “savant” from preying on Rams quarterback Jared Goff, whose superb first two seasons under coach Sean McVay feel like a long time ago. Peters came away with an interception against Kansas City on Monday Night Football last year, and he’ll pull off the same trick against another former team.

2. Brandin Cooks will catch a touchdown as the Rams use a no-huddle approach. Teams need to be aggressive and step outside their comfort zone if they want to have a real chance to beat Baltimore on either side of the ball right now. An up-tempo, no-huddle attack is a risky proposition with the Ravens’ ability to control the clock on the other side, but it neutralizes Martindale’s ability to substitute and tests the stamina of what’s still an ordinary group of pass rushers. New England had some success with this strategy in Week 9, but no Baltimore opponent has really tried it since then.

3. Lamar Jackson will throw touchdowns to Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst. The Rams have a talented trio at cornerback, but Ravens wide receivers aren’t a big part of the passing attack anyway, which will make it interesting to see how Los Angeles defensive coordinator Wade Phillips tries to use top corner Jalen Ramsey. Rams linebacker Cory Littleton is strong in coverage and safety Taylor Rapp is capable as well, but their responsibilities against the run will make it difficult to consistently stick with Baltimore’s tight ends. Hurst has caught 20 of his 24 targets and is long overdue for a score.

4. Aaron Donald will record a sack for the sixth straight game. You need Pro Bowl-caliber talent and discipline at every level to have any meaningful chance of slowing down Jackson and the Ravens offense, but the biggest key might be having an interior player who can control the line of scrimmage against the run and pass. Pittsburgh’s Cam Heyward did it in Week 5 — the Ravens’ worst offensive showing of 2019 at just 3.8 yards per play — and Donald is widely considered the NFL’s best defensive player. Marshal Yanda, Matt Skura, and Bradley Bozeman will have their hands full.

5. Another strong dual-threat showing from Jackson will be the difference in a 27-16 win. The more desperate Rams coming away with a victory wouldn’t shock me as this is one of Baltimore’s more difficult remaining games on the schedule and I’m not expecting Harbaugh’s team to win out looking from a macro perspective. At the same time, it’s tough envisioning the Los Angeles defense getting enough stops and a middling Rams offense producing enough touchdown drives for the math to add up unless the Ravens beat themselves with turnovers and penalties. Over the last four games, Baltimore has committed just three turnovers with ex-Raven Cyrus Jones and backup quarterback Robert Griffin III accounting for two. This team is making explosive plays and playing smart football, a good formula for winning anywhere. It doesn’t hurt having the current MVP favorite on your side either.

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Revisiting 2019 Ravens predictions coming out of bye week

Posted on 28 October 2019 by Luke Jones

Looking back at preseason predictions can be an amusing or embarrassing exercise, but that’s what makes it fun, right?

If we truly knew how the Ravens’ 2019 season would play out, I’d spend less time writing about it and more time pondering my retirement plans at the nearest sportsbook. As it relates to the present, I originally envisioned Baltimore being 4-3 at the bye with the result of the Cleveland and Pittsburgh games flipped and a loss at Seattle in Week 7. I certainly didn’t anticipate the rest of the AFC North being a combined 4-17 entering Monday, which bodes very well for the Ravens the rest of the way.

Let’s review how my 10 Ravens predictions for 2019 are holding up through the bye week and adjust where necessary:

1. Lamar Jackson won’t break Michael Vick’s season rushing record for a quarterback, but his 3,000 passing yards and 60-percent completion percentage will be positive steps in his development.

Remember Week 1 when Lamar Jackson ran the ball only three times, one of those being an end-of-half kneel? The 22-year-old quarterback has registered double-digit carries in four of the last six games, leads the NFL in yards per carry (6.9), and is 10th overall in rushing. He’s not only going to shatter Vick’s record (1,039 yards in 2006), but Jackson will finish with just over 3,400 passing yards and a completion percentage over 60 percent. We’re watching a special talent who has shown marked improvement from his rookie year and is firmly in the MVP discussion halfway through the season.

2. The defense will register 37 sacks and see its pressure rate fall to the bottom half of the league.

I was too generous in the sack department as Baltimore is currently on pace to finish with 27 quarterback takedowns, but there is at least some evidence suggesting the pass rush is better than the sack total indicates if you look at quarterback hits and ESPN Analytics’ pass rush win rate. Of course, Pernell McPhee’s season-ending injury complicates that argument and puts more pressure on Eric DeCosta to land a pass rusher by Tuesday’s trade deadline. The biggest factor helping the pass rush could be the acquisition of Marcus Peters and the return of Jimmy Smith, who should provide better coverage in the secondary. Put me down for 30 sacks by season’s end.

3. Mark Ingram will give Baltimore its first 1,000-yard rusher since Justin Forsett.

The former New Orleans Saint has been as advertised with a 4.7 yards per carry average and is on pace to gain 1,074 rushing yards. However, it’s fair to note that opposing defenses have been more successful slowing the Baltimore ground game between the tackles in recent weeks as Ingram has averaged only 3.2 yards per attempt over the last three contests. Opponents must make a conscious choice between accounting for runs between the tackles and trying to prevent Jackson from killing them off the edge. With that push-pull dilemma, Jackson and Ingram will become the first teammates to rush for 1,000 yards in the same season since Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams for Carolina in 2009.

4. Mark Andrews and Patrick Onwuasor will take a step forward.

If there was one prediction I was confident about prior to the season, it was Andrews breaking out as one of the NFL’s top tight ends. Even with some nagging injuries and a nightmare Week 7 showing against the Seahawks, Andrews is on pace to become the first tight end in team history to go over 1,000 receiving yards. Meanwhile, Onwuasor has taken a step back after struggling at the “Mike” linebacker position and missing the last two games with a high ankle sprain. How that impacts his value going into free agency will be interesting, but his return to the weak-side spot should be a plus for him and the pass rush when considering Onwuasor’s ability to blitz and the 5 1/2 sacks he collected last year.

5. Gus Edwards and Jimmy Smith will take a step back.

Since averaging an underwhelming 3.35 yards per carry in the first two games, Edwards has been very productive at 5.2 yards per carry over the last five contests. The problem continues to be few chances when you’re behind arguably the most dynamic running quarterback in NFL history and a two-time Pro Bowl back in the pecking order. Edwards could see a few more carries here and there, but there’s only one football to go around. Smith’s knee injury on the sixth defensive snap of the season was unfortunate in a contract year, but it’s the story of his career as he’s now missed at least four games in seven of his nine seasons. The 31-year-old does have time to rebuild some value and give the Ravens a boost the rest of the way, but we’ll always wonder how much better Smith might have been with good health.

6. Ben Powers will be starting at left guard by the bye week.

Based on comments made by offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris last week, there’s little reason to believe Bradley Bozeman won’t be starting at left guard against New England. The second-year lineman hasn’t been great every week, but Pro Football Focus has graded him 42nd among qualified guards, a reminder that there just isn’t as much quality around the league as fans and some media want to believe when scrutinizing individual teams. Powers has been a healthy scratch every week and received a lengthy look at left guard early in training camp before falling out of the starting race, factors leading one to believe the 2019 fourth-round pick isn’t beating down the door for a starting gig at this point. If anything, fellow rookie Patrick Mekari would seem to be the first in line to replace Bozeman.

7. A rough November will cost the Ravens their chance at winning the AFC North.

This month’s schedule remains challenging with three of the four opponents sporting no worse than a 5-3 record and even lowly Cincinnati coming off its bye to host the Ravens in Week 10, but John Harbaugh’s team clearly has some room for error with the rest of the AFC North under .500. Even a disastrous November coupled with Pittsburgh or Cleveland reeling off a perfect month would leave the Ravens in the thick of the division race entering December. More importantly, the convincing road win over the Seahawks provided much confidence that the Ravens can at least hold their own with five of the next six games coming against teams owning winning records.

8. Miles Boykin will tie the franchise rookie record for touchdown receptions with seven.

If you’d told me at the start of the season that one of Baltimore’s two rookie wide receivers would have 21 catches for 326 yards and three touchdowns at the bye, I would have picked Boykin after Marquise Brown missed the entire spring and a large portion of the summer recovering from Lisfranc surgery. Boykin does have two touchdowns and has recorded his two longest catches over the last two games, but he has much work ahead to match the record shared by Torrey Smith and Marlon Brown. If fully healthy — a fair question after a two-game absence — Marquise Brown has the better chance to break it.

9. Marlon Humphrey, Marshal Yanda, and Earl Thomas will be named to the Pro Bowl.

Despite being a little less consistent than last season, Humphrey has made enough splash plays to keep himself in position for his first Pro Bowl invitation with a strong finish to the season. The 35-year-old Yanda is no longer the best guard in football, but he continues to play at a high level to presumably receive the nod for the eighth time in his career. Thomas hasn’t been spectacular, but he has played well and benefits from a strong reputation around the league in the same way Eric Weddle did. I’ll add Jackson and Andrews to my list of Pro Bowl picks with Ronnie Stanley being a first alternate.

10. A December rally will lead to a 9-7 finish and another trip to the playoffs.

With the current state of the AFC North and the Ravens off to a 5-2 start, anything less than a division championship and a home playoff game would be a big disappointment, but the final month of the season does look more difficult than it did several weeks ago with San Francisco still undefeated and playoff-hopeful Buffalo likely having much to play for in Week 14. I thought throughout the offseason that the Ravens had a higher ceiling — and a lower floor — than in recent years because of their youth, but Jackson’s development was always going to be the biggest factor determining their fate. With the second-year quarterback playing like a legitimate MVP candidate, I see the Ravens going 11-5 and advancing to the divisional round of the playoffs. A deeper postseason run no longer feels farfetched if they can stay healthy the rest of the way.

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Questions about the 2019 Ravens — and how Baltimore coaches answered

Posted on 23 October 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens are over .500 at their bye week for the first time since 2014, creating plenty of optimism for the rest of the 2019 season and beyond.

Below are some answers to questions posed to Baltimore coaches this week and some thoughts on what they had to say:

What about the current state of the pass rush?

Defensive line coach Joe Cullen: “Hits aren’t good enough. We want to get [quarterbacks] down. Obviously, you want to affect the quarterback. The other day we had one sack, but I thought we affected that quarterback similar to the [Patrick] Mahomes game a year ago when we had a lot of hits, hurries, and it flustered him a little bit. Now, obviously, we’d like to get him down, and we will. We’ll keep working on that, but we just have to keep working together. Sometimes it’s the rush not getting there, and we have great coverage. Sometimes the rush is really good, maybe the coverage [isn’t], but when we hone in on our rush and our coverage is working like it did the other day, the sacks will come. It’s like a hitter. He hits a line drive off the wall, and he’s not going back to the dugout all upset. The home runs will come, just like the sacks will come. As long as you keep doing the little things – getting off the ball, making your moves, powering if you’re a power rusher and then making sure the rush lanes are all involved, and when you blitz, blitz; things of that nature – they’ll come.”

My take: The Ravens are tied for fourth in the NFL with 45 quarterback hits and have five fewer sacks than any other team with at least 40 quarterback hits this season, lending credence to Cullen’s general point about some regression to the mean being inevitable. However, Baltimore entered Week 7 with the highest blitz rate in the NFL while ranking only 23rd in pressure rate, according to Pro Football Focus. Hitting the quarterback after the ball is out doesn’t mean the play was disrupted, a reality that becomes more costly when relying on blitzes that will compromise coverage in the back end of the defense if they don’t get home. The quality of the pass rush is probably better than its No. 25 ranking in sacks (12) would indicate, but the number of hits is likely buoyed with more rushers being sent on average. The Ravens can expect tighter coverage on the back end with the addition of Marcus Peters and the return of Jimmy Smith, but the loss of Pernell McPhee puts even more pressure on Eric DeCosta to try to find some pass-rushing help by Tuesday’s trade deadline.

How impressive is Lamar Jackson’s ability to avoid hard contact when he takes off?

Quarterbacks coach James Urban: “I’m pleased that he’s been able to avoid the big hits, of course. Listen, he has a unique ability. Within that, we talk about getting all you can get, and then get down or get out [of bounds]. And you see him routinely trying to get outside, and we’re trying to do those sorts of things to avoid some of those hits. But for the most part, I would say that it’s him sticking to our game plan and how we talk about things.”

My take: You might be able to count on one hand the number of times Jackson has taken a hard hit as a runner that made you hold your breath this year as he’s been coached to avoid cutting back toward the middle and offensive coordinator Greg Roman rarely calls designed Jackson runs between the tackles. However, Jackson ranks 21st overall in rushing attempts, 17th in pass attempts, and ninth in most sacks taken this season, a high volume of plays in which the ball is in his hands for an extended period of time. It’s worth noting Kyler Murray, Andy Dalton, and Matt Ryan have totaled more plays in which they’ve attempted a pass, taken a sack, or run the ball, which would support Jackson’s workload — while unique — hardly being out of control. Quarterbacks are susceptible to injuries in the pocket or as a runner, but the Ravens have seemingly done a good job trying to minimize risk while understanding anyone can be injured on any given play and not trying to eliminate what makes Jackson so special.

Why is Patrick Onwuasor better at the weak-side inside linebacker spot than at the “Mike” position? 

Linebackers coach Mike Macdonald: “I think he’s just more natural at the dime spot … or “Will” — whatever you want to call it. What happens is when you’re over there, you’re a little bit more on the edge of the defense. There’s a little bit more blitzing to be involved in. He’s a great blitzer, so you’re really asking him to do the things that he’s naturally really gifted at doing, using his length, that sort of thing. Yes, I’d say dime is more of his natural spot, and you can see it in his production.”

My take: The Ravens severely miscalculated what they had at inside linebacker this offseason following the free-agent departure of C.J. Mosley, but the veteran signings of Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort have stabilized the position in a matter of weeks. Macdonald revealed Onwuasor played roughly half of the Pittsburgh game with a high ankle sprain, but the fourth-year linebacker should be back for the New England game. A three-man rotation should keep each player fresh and allow defensive coordinator Wink Martindale to play to each individual’s strengths while continuing to use sub packages with one or even no linebackers on the field. Onwuasor had 5 1/2 sacks last season, so the move back to his original position could be a meaningful boost to the pass rush.

How do you explain Miles Boykin’s slow start after such a strong summer from the third-round rookie wide receiver?

Wide receivers coach David Culley: “During training camp and during the preseason, we didn’t really show a whole lot on offense. As the volume started coming in this offense — and I’ve always felt this way — as a wide receiver, it’s probably the toughest position because of the run game and the pass game when it comes to learning everything that you need to know. I think the volume got him a little bit, which affected him thinking about things instead of just reacting. I think it was more so of him just not being as comfortable as he was early when he was just playing and reacting and not thinking about things. But as the offense got more and more [complex], he started thinking about things, and I think that had a lot to do with that. But I think right now at this point, I think he’s in a good place with that.”

My take: What we’ve seen with Boykin is admittedly what I expected from fellow rookie Marquise Brown after the first-round pick missed the entire spring and a large chunk of the summer recovering from January foot surgery. Wide receivers making the jump from college to the pros is a difficult adjustment, but the good news is Boykin has reeled in his two longest receptions of the season over the last two games. Jackson could really use a steadier No. 3 option behind tight end Mark Andrews and Brown in the passing game, and Boykin is a logical candidate with his combination of size and speed.

How is Bradley Bozeman holding up as the starting left guard?

Offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris: “Bradley has done a heck of a job, one heck of a job. I mean, you look at the people he’s had to block, from Week 1 to last weekend. He had to go against Chris Jones. He had to go against [Cameron] Heyward. He’s had to go against the young man that they activated last week from Alabama (Jarran Reed), his old teammate. He’s had the top inside people and has done one heck of a job. I’ve seen nothing but good growth. He’s improved as a puller. He’s improved as a good pass protector. We all make mistakes — coaches, players. We all have a little flaw here or there. The object is to correct it, and he’s correctable and works hard at it.”

My take: Considering how much concern the coaching staff had after giving lengthy looks to ex-Raven Jermaine Eluemunor and rookie fourth-round pick Ben Powers at left guard over the summer, the Ravens seem satisfied with Bozeman, who’s graded as the NFL’s 45th-best guard by PFF entering Week 8. His four-penalty showing against Cincinnati was ugly, but I don’t sense the same level of disenchantment from the coaching staff that I see from some fans on a weekly basis. The 2018 sixth-round pick from Alabama is far from a Pro Bowl lineman, but the reality around the league is that virtually every team has at least one spot bordering on problematic — or worse — in any given week.

How critical has Earl Thomas’ increasing comfort level been to the recent defensive improvement?

Defensive backs coach Chris Hewitt: “There was a lot of talk out there like he’s been making mistakes or whatever. But the first seven games now, seven games into it, he hasn’t busted any coverages. When he talks about his comfort level, it’s just about him being able to go out there and play free. But he hasn’t busted any coverages. He’s playing good football.”

My take: Any suggestion that Thomas hasn’t played well in his first year with the Ravens would be way off-base, but he’s recorded only one pass breakup since intercepting Ryan Fitzpatrick on the first defensive series of the season. Much of the criticism directed at Eric Weddle last season centered around him needing to make more plays on the ball, but we haven’t seen many splash plays from Thomas, even if chances have been rare. The six-time Pro Bowl safety recently commented that Martindale has given him the “green light” on defense, which you hope will lead to more game-changing plays. Thomas has graded as PFF’s 14th-best safety through Week 7, but his confidence in a more complex defensive system than what he was used to in Seattle appears to be growing, which should pay off in the second half of the season.

Is this the offensive revolution you envisioned prior to the season?

Head coach John Harbaugh: “As a great person once said, ‘Let he who has eyes, he who has ears…’ For those who are paying attention, there’s something pretty cool going on, and it’s right here in Baltimore. So, call it whatever you want. It’s pretty neat.”

My take: Taking nothing away from a coaching staff that wisely built an offensive system that caters to its quarterback’s strengths, Jackson himself is the “revolution” as he leads the NFL in yards per carry at 6.9. If you eliminate the 10 quarterback kneels he’s taken, Jackson is gaining 8.03 yards per rushing attempt. His passing has come back down to earth over the last few weeks, but this is still a 22-year-old quarterback who has already made substantial improvement as a passer and shows impressive intangibles in less than a full season of starts. I can’t wait to watch him for the rest of 2019 and beyond.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 3 loss to Kansas City

Posted on 24 September 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens suffering their first loss of the season in a 33-28 final at Kansas City, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Those criticizing the unsuccessful fourth down and two-point conversions must acknowledge John Harbaugh netted the Ravens six points by scoring touchdowns in two situations many coaches would “take the points” and kick field goals. You can’t have it both ways and judge only by the end result.

2. I agree going for two when down 11 sounds counterintuitive. However, are you then trusting a defense that forced two punts all day to get two stops in regulation and likely another in overtime to win? Playing for a tie doesn’t always give you the best chance to win.

3. I’d probably take more issue with the failed fourth down on the second drive if the Ravens didn’t pin Kansas City deep to conclude their following series and allow an 83-yard touchdown three plays later. This was a game about maximizing scoring over trying to play field position.

4. Now, the play calls themselves and the execution in those situations left much to be desired. The analytics would also support not going for it if the Ravens continue to struggle to convert, but this offense is built to succeed in short yardage.

5. The Ravens couldn’t have asked for a better early return from Mark Ingram, who is on pace to rush for over 1,300 yards despite averaging less than 15 carries per game. His leadership is also valued, but that carries much more clout when a player produces at a high level.

6. Lamar Jackson came back to earth in Week 3, but there’s no reason to be discouraged by that. His timing and accuracy never quite got on track against Kansas City’s secondary, but the 22-year-old continued to compete in the second half and still made some highlight plays in the process.

7. Jackson has now gone eight straight regular-season games without an interception. His field vision doesn’t receive enough credit, but he was lucky to see that streak continue Sunday after throwing multiple passes that could have been picked.

8. Anthony Averett has had the chance to show he can handle a full-time role, but it hasn’t gone well. In addition to struggling in coverage, Averett failed to recover a gift-wrapped fumble on the opening drive and missed a tackle on Mecole Hardman that led to a big gain.

9. Gus Edwards hadn’t looked as explosive or physical over the first two games, but he quelled concerns with 53 yards on seven carries and a 45-yard run wiped out by a questionable holding call. It’s challenging for Greg Roman to get him carries with Ingram running so well.

10. Sunday served as a reminder of the need to get other receivers more involved as Mark Andrews was slowed by a foot issue and the Chiefs took away the deep stuff to Marquise Brown. Willie Snead and Seth Roberts combining for five catches and 84 yards was a silver lining.

11. Miles Boykin received much hype and played well during training camp, but his rookie campaign is off to a slow start with just two catches for 16 yards in three games. One of Jackson’s prettier passes Sunday went through Boykin’s fingers on Baltimore’s final touchdown drive.

12. The offensive line wasn’t perfect against Kansas City, but Bradley Bozeman has rarely been mentioned over the first three games. That’s good news for a left guard position that was scrutinized all spring and summer.

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