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Twelve Ravens thoughts on DeCosta, Harbaugh remarks from NFL combine

Posted on 28 February 2019 by Luke Jones

With Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta and head coach John Harbaugh answering questions at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. If you had simply read the transcript, DeCosta sounded very similar to Ozzie Newsome speaking at his first combine as the general manager, which isn’t surprising as few executives and coaches tip their hands with free agency two weeks away.

2. The balance between keeping as much of the defense together as possible and building a stronger offense continues to strike me as a difficult task, especially factoring the age of some key defensive players. This is what happens when trying to rebuild on the fly.

3. DeCosta expressed pride in the Ravens’ identity being built on defense historically and stated a desire to continue that tradition. It’s understandable, but Baltimore continuing that philosophy has netted one playoff win since Ray Lewis and Ed Reed suited up for the final time.

4. Harbaugh expects Marshal Yanda to continue playing, which is great news for an offensive line that could already stand to improve inside. The seven-time Pro Bowl guard is entering the final year of his contract and probably could play at a high level longer than that if he wants.

5. While dancing around questions about Eric Weddle and Jimmy Smith, DeCosta said he expects Brandon Carr to return, which could be bad news for Smith and his $15.85 million cap number. Carr is older, but he’s cheaper, more durable, and coming off a more consistent season than Smith.

6. DeCosta didn’t completely dismiss the possibility of using the franchise tag on C.J. Mosley, but he made it clear a long-term deal remains the goal with talks “ongoing” and expected to continue with agent Jimmy Sexton in Indianapolis. This figures to be a critical week on that front.

7. The Ravens brass being complimentary of John Brown wasn’t surprising, but I remain skeptical there’s a great fit there — from his perspective — in terms of price tag and offensive philosophy. Either way, he should do well in what appears to be an underwhelming free-agent market for wide receivers.

8. Terrell Suggs stated his intentions months ago to continue playing in 2019, but talks will be delicate in trying to be realistic about the 36-year-old’s current value without insulting someone who’s been so critical to the organization. You hope something can be worked out that makes sense for both sides.

9. Harbaugh praised the inside-outside versatility and intensity of Za’Darius Smith, but the lack of discussion about Baltimore’s 2018 sack leader reflects how few expect him to return. His market should be interesting, especially if a few other free-agent pass rushers indeed receive the franchise tag.

10. DeCosta summed up his thoughts on Lamar Jackson’s rushing ability by saying, “We certainly want to keep him healthy, but we also want to win and … score points.” The keys are his passing development and adding enough talent to diminish the need for him to run 15-plus times per game.

11. Harbaugh acknowledged the organization’s need to draft and develop wide receivers more effectively while DeCosta said, “We’ve got to add playmakers.” Yes.

12. Counting the Joe Flacco trade and the Michael Crabtree release, the Ravens are already dealing with nearly $22 million in dead money on this year’s salary cap. With another big release or two still very possible, that figure is shaping up to be their largest amount since 2015.

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tavonyoung

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Ravens reach contract extension with cornerback Tavon Young

Posted on 21 February 2019 by Luke Jones

At his introductory press conference last month, new Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta shared a desire to retain talented young players long before they reach free agency when the cost and risk of losing them rise.

Baltimore has apparently done that with slot cornerback Tavon Young, who tweeted Thursday he’s reached a contract extension with the organization that selected him in the fourth round of the 2016 draft. The Ravens announced they’ll hold a Friday morning press conference with DeCosta, head coach John Harbaugh, and an unnamed player expected to be the fourth-year defensive back.

According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the agreement is a three-year, $25.8 million contract with a max value of $29 million, which will make Young the highest-paid nickel corner in the NFL.

Young, 24, had one year remaining on his rookie contract and was scheduled to make just over $2 million in 2019 after reaching the proven performance escalator that’s in place for later-round draft picks. Despite missing the entire 2017 season with a torn ACL, the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Young has filled a significant role in the Ravens secondary, playing in 31 games and making 17 starts. He showed the ability to play outside as a rookie despite his diminutive size, but the presence of Marlon Humphrey, Brandon Carr, and Jimmy Smith allowed him to remain in the slot for his third NFL season.

Teammates and coaches have often praised Young’s toughness with defensive coordinator Wink Martindale even labeling him “a pit bull” last season.

“Tavon is very aggressive. He has great ball skills. He’s a good tackler,” secondary coach Chris Hewitt said last November. “He’s having that small linebacker [role] being able to cover and be able to play against the run as well. Having a slot corner be able to cover, that’s paramount in a league where you’re facing three wide-receiver sets every time.”

The Oxon Hill native and Temple product rebounded nicely from the knee injury this past season, appearing in 15 games and collecting 37 tackles, one interception, and five pass breakups. He returned two fumbles for touchdowns in the final month of the season before missing the playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers with a sports hernia that required offseason surgery.

Young being a priority for an extension is a reflection of today’s NFL in which most teams use the nickel package as their base defense. Despite missing two whole games and parts of others with the sports hernia, the slot cornerback played over 58 percent of Baltimore’s defensive snaps in 2018.

With veteran quarterback Joe Flacco set to be traded to Denver next month and the 22-year-old Lamar Jackson — and his cheap rookie contract — entering his first full season as the starter, the Ravens find themselves in a better salary-cap position than they’ve enjoyed in years. Young is the first to reap the benefits of that flexibility.

“We would love to keep as much young talent as we can in Baltimore,” DeCosta said last month. “That’s hard to do at times when you have a really, really good quarterback who’s making a lot of money and you have less cap room. It’s tougher for you to keep your roster intact. It is a lot easier to do when you don’t have those parameters.”

It remains to be seen which other young players the Ravens are hoping to extend, but left tackle Ronnie Stanley and outside linebacker Matthew Judon headline the list of logical candidates who aren’t scheduled to hit the market this offseason.

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humphrey

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How did Ravens cornerbacks stack up to rest of NFL in 2018?

Posted on 15 February 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2014, but where did their players stack up across the NFL in 2018?

Whether it’s discussing the Pro Bowl 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 extensively enough to form any type of an authoritative opinion.

Truthfully, how many times did you watch the offensive line of the Detroit Lions this season? What about the Oakland Raiders linebackers or the San Francisco 49ers cornerbacks?

That’s why I appreciate the grading efforts of Pro Football Focus while acknowledging these rankings shouldn’t be viewed as infallible or the gospel of evaluation. I can respect the exhaustive effort to grade players across the league when most of us watch only one team or one division on any kind of a consistent basis.

Below is a look at where Ravens cornerbacks ranked at their positions followed by the positional outlook going into 2019:

Offensive linemen
Linebackers
Tight ends
Defensive linemen
Running backs

Brandon Carr
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 876
PFF ranking: 35th among cornerbacks
Skinny: The 32-year-old played and started in every game for the 11th straight year and was one of the most reliable performers on a top-ranked defense, finishing with 45 tackles and two interceptions. He also filled in effectively in the slot, making him more valuable at a $7 million salary cap figure for 2019.

Marlon Humphrey
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 718
PFF ranking: 11th among cornerbacks
Skinny: Humphrey emerged as one of Baltimore’s best players in his second season and appears on the cusp of becoming a Pro Bowl cornerback. Per PFF, his 52.5-percent catch rate allowed was the seventh best in the league while his 22.5-percent forced incompletion rate ranked third best.

Jimmy Smith
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 611
PFF ranking: 81st among cornerbacks
Skinny: Returning from a torn Achilles tendon and a four-game suspension to begin 2018, Smith struggled for much of the season before playing better down the stretch. A $15.85 million cap figure and $9.5 million salary for 2019 make it very possible the veteran has played his final game for Baltimore.

Tavon Young
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 602
PFF ranking: 75th among cornerbacks
Skinny: A sports hernia hindered him late in the year, but the slot corner played better than his PFF grade indicates, especially after missing the 2017 season with a knee injury. Young is entering the final year of his rookie contract and plays bigger and tougher than his 5-foot-9, 185-pound frame suggests.

Anthony Averett
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 71
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The fourth-round rookie from Alabama missed five games with a hamstring injury, but he showed promise when he filled in for an injured Humphrey against Kansas City in Week 14. Optimism about his talent and development could make it easier to move on from Smith this offseason.

Maurice Canady
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 10
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: After emerging as a solid slot cornerback in the second half of 2017, Canady sustained a hamstring injury in the season opener and missed nine games. He returned in late November to contribute on special teams, but injuries have prevented him from consistently staying on the field.

Cyrus Jones
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 5
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The former Gilman standout is unlikely to fit into Baltimore’s defensive plans, but he offered a major lift as a punt returner, averaging 14.4 yards per attempt and returning one for a touchdown in Week 12. The ball security that doomed him in New England wasn’t a big issue this season.

2019 positional outlook

After enduring depth problems at cornerback for a few years, the Ravens have done a commendable job assembling a strong collection over the last couple offseasons, leaving them in solid position moving forward. Deciding what to do with Smith and his untenable cap number is the first item of business, but the veteran corner still has strong support within the organization, leaving open the possibility of working out a pay cut with incentives or even a modest short-term extension to lower his 2019 cap number. Some have speculated about Carr’s future in the same light, but his 2018 performance, superior durability, and cheaper cap number make him the better investment for the upcoming season. The Ravens have taken a cornerback with no lower than a fourth-round pick in four consecutive drafts, a streak I expect to continue if Smith is indeed released or traded in the coming weeks.

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jimmysmith

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Examining Ravens’ top 11 salary cap numbers for 2019

Posted on 05 February 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens face their most intriguing offseason in years after making the playoffs for the first time since 2014 and transitioning to a new general manager and starting quarterback for 2019.

It’s no secret the draft is the lifeblood of any organization wanting to find — and maintain — prosperity, but teams need to receive appropriate production from their highest-paid veterans to maintain a balanced roster capable of competing for a Super Bowl championship. As of right now, the Ravens will devote $121.547 million in 2019 salary cap space to the 11 players possessing the highest cap numbers. The 2019 salary cap hasn’t yet been set, but it’s projected to rise from $177.2 million in 2018 to at least $188 million.

Below is a look at those 11 players:

1. QB Joe Flacco
2019 Week 1 age: 34
2019 cap number: $26.5 million
Synopsis: Flacco is the reason why I expanded from the normal 10 to the top 11 figures as Baltimore has already made clear its plans to move on from the veteran. Whether Eric DeCosta will be able to find a trade partner remains to be seen, but Flacco’s exit will create $10.5 million in cap savings while leaving $16 million in dead money on this year’s cap. My hope is the organization prioritizes building an offense around Lamar Jackson after using most of its meaningful draft capital and available cap dollars on the defense since Super Bowl XLVII. Flacco’s contract was a convenient excuse to overlook the entire truth.

2. CB Jimmy Smith
2019 Week 1 age: 31
2019 cap number: $15.85 million
Synopsis: Had the Ravens not restructured his deal in 2016 and 2017 to create cap space — and inflate his 2019 cap number in the process — I’d be more in favor of letting Smith play out the final year of his contract after he did perform better down the stretch last season. However, I just don’t see how this number is tenable for someone who’s played all 16 games in a season just twice in his career. The Ravens have done a good job building depth at cornerback, so it should be time to tap into that unless Smith agrees to a pay cut. Releasing him or working out a trade would save $9.5 million in cap space.

3. DT Brandon Williams
2019 Week 1 age: 30
2019 cap number: $14.17 million
Synopsis: Williams remains one of the better run-stopping nose tackles in the NFL, but his limitations as a pass rusher and the presence of Michael Pierce — regarded by some as a better player — haven’t quieted critics of the five-year, $52.5 million contract signed in 2017. A couple contract restructures have inflated Williams’ cap figures to over $14 million for each of the next three years, but the dead money involved makes it prohibitive to consider doing anything with his deal until next year at the earliest. He played in 50 percent of the defensive snaps in 2018, his lowest share in a season in which he’s played in all games.

4. S Tony Jefferson
2019 Week 1 age: 27
2019 cap number: $12.657 million
Synopsis: The strong safety was better in 2018 than he was in his first season with Baltimore, but this is another example where it’s more than fair to question whether the Ravens are getting enough value for what they’re paying with Jefferson’s contract currently ranking ninth among NFL safeties in average annual value, according to OverTheCap.com. Two restructures and the uncertain future of several defensive veterans more than likely keep Jefferson in the plans for 2019, but seeing him have the fourth-highest cap number on the team doesn’t add up compared to the kind of player he’s been.

5. G Marshal Yanda
2019 Week 1 age: 34
2019 cap number: $10.125 million
Synopsis: Even with his advancing age, Yanda is the first player on the list who remains a relative bargain considering he just made his seventh Pro Bowl in the last eight years — he missed nearly the entire 2017 season with an ankle injury — and his contract currently ranks 13th in average annual value earned among right guards. Any questions about his future should only be based on how much longer he wants to continue playing. Frankly, the Ravens should be exploring his interest in a reasonable extension if he wants to strengthen his case for possible induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day.

6. WR Michael Crabtree
2019 Week 1 age: 31
2019 cap number: $9.333 million
Synopsis: Coming off a second straight year in which he barely cracked 600 receiving yards, Crabtree would appear to be a strong candidate to become a cap casualty, but this year’s free-agent market for receivers is lukewarm and the organization’s history of drafting at the position ranges from poor to not even trying. That makes you wonder if the Ravens could keep Crabtree around for the sake of continuity, but his 16.9-percent drop rate is difficult to overlook. The veteran might be able to help the position group’s floor, but there isn’t much upside there anymore. Cutting him creates $4.667 million in space.

7. S Eric Weddle
2019 Week 1 age: 34
2019 cap number: $9.25 million
Synopsis: Trying to assess Weddle’s value is difficult as his mental prowess was credited by players and coaches as the reason why the defense was so deceptive. However, he finished his 12th season without an interception — he had a combined 10 in the previous two years — and a career-low three pass breakups. The Ravens could use more range at free safety, but there’s no guarantee they’ll find it immediately and Weddle’s leadership would be hard to replace. A pay cut with incentives would be ideal, but he’s already backed down from his initial vow not to play elsewhere. Releasing him saves $7.5 million in space.

8. CB Brandon Carr
2019 Week 1 age: 33
2019 cap number: $7 million
Synopsis: Carr continued his remarkable streak of never missing a game over his 11-year career and was second on the team in defensive snaps, providing very solid play on the outside and effectively filling in at the slot corner position when required. Despite Carr’s age, I’d much prefer his reasonable $6 million payout for 2019 compared to the $9.5 million base salary the Ravens are scheduled to give the oft-injured Smith. His leadership on defense could also become more critical depending on what happens with the likes of Weddle and free agents Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley.

9. OT Ronnie Stanley
2019 Week 1 age: 25
2019 cap number: $6.517 million
Synopsis: The Ravens will need to decide this spring whether to exercise their fifth-year option on Stanley, but that decision should be a no-brainer. Stanley hasn’t blossomed into the Pro Bowl left tackle Baltimore hoped he would become when selecting him sixth overall in the 2016 draft, but he’s been a steady contributor playing through a series of nagging ailments over his first three seasons.

10. K Justin Tucker
2019 Week 1 age: 29
2019 cap number: $5.145 million
Synopsis: Tucker is still regarded by many as the best kicker in the NFL as he enters the final year of his current contract, making him a logical candidate for an extension that could lower his 2019 cap figure a bit and keep him in Baltimore for several more years.

11. WR Willie Snead
2019 Week 1 age: 26
2019 cap number: $5 million
Synopsis: The slot receiver was one of Jackson’s favorite targets down the stretch and is the only sure thing in Baltimore’s group of wide receivers entering the offseason, making his compensation reasonable.

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suggs

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Ravens-Chargers: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 06 January 2019 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Playoff football returns to the Charm City for the first time in six years as the AFC North champion Ravens host the Los Angeles Chargers in an AFC wild-card game.

It’s the first postseason appearance since 2014 for John Harbaugh’s team, but Sunday marks exactly six years to the day that the Ravens last hosted a playoff game. That 24-9 victory over Indianapolis was the final home contest for both Ray Lewis and Ed Reed as Ravens. Now, rookie Lamar Jackson becomes the youngest quarterback in NFL history to start a playoff game, continuing an improbable 6-1 run after replacing longtime starter and former Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco in Week 11.

Baltimore will be without a key member of its secondary as slot cornerback Tavon Young is out after missing practices on Wednesday and Thursday and being listed as questionable on the final injury report. Young has been playing through a groin injury since November, but he didn’t appear to be moving well in a pre-game workout and talked at length with defensive coordinator Wink Martindale and head athletic trainer Ron Medlin before leaving the field. His absence likely means more work in the slot for veteran cornerback Brandon Carr.

Wide receiver Chris Moore (shoulder/hip) is active and will play despite missing practice on Friday. He also went through a pre-game workout roughly an hour before the inactive list was released.

Despite practicing fully for the third straight week, guard Alex Lewis (shoulder) is inactive for the fifth consecutive game as veteran James Hurst is expected to again start at left guard. Backup running back Buck Allen is active after being a healthy scratch in the final two regular-season games.

As expected, the Chargers will be without starting nose tackle Brandon Mebane as the veteran defensive lineman continues to be with his infant daughter, who was born with a serious heart condition in November. His absence is a significant one for the Los Angeles run defense as it tries to slow Jackson and the league’s second-ranked rushing attack. Starting linebacker Jatavis Brown (ankle) was already declared out on Friday.

Chargers running back Austin Ekeler (groin) is active after being listed as questionable on the final injury report. He did not play in the Week 16 meeting between these teams, but the primary backup to Pro Bowl running back Melvin Gordon has collected more than 900 total yards in 14 games this season, making him someone to watch.

Sunday’s referee is Clete Blakeman, who also worked the Week 16 game in Carson, California.

According to Weather.com, the Sunday forecast in Baltimore calls for partly cloudy skies and temperatures in the low 50s with winds 10 to 20 miles per hour and no chance of precipitation.

The Ravens are wearing their purple jerseys with white pants while Los Angeles dons white tops with white pants.

Sunday marks the first postseason meeting between these teams, but the Ravens hold a 7-5 advantage in the all-time regular-season series and are 3-1 against the Chargers at M&T Bank Stadium. Baltimore is aiming for its second win against Los Angeles in 15 days after prevailing in a 22-10 final on Dec. 22.

Below are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
QB Robert Griffin III
WR Jordan Lasley
CB Tavon Young
FB/DL Patrick Ricard
LB Tim Williams
G Alex Lewis
DL Zach Sieler

LOS ANGELES
RB Troymaine Pope
G Forrest Lamp
LB Jatavis Brown
C Cole Toner
WR Dylan Cantrell
DE Anthony Lanier
NT Brandon Mebane

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carrgoodguy

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Humphrey named 2018 Ravens MVP; Carr chosen as media “Good Guy”

Posted on 28 December 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — One of the more unusual seasons in recent memory brought an interesting choice for the Ravens’ Most Valuable Player award.

Longtime quarterback Joe Flacco may have been the choice after the first quarter of the season while the man who replaced him, rookie Lamar Jackson, helped spark a second-half rebound that’s left Baltimore a win away from securing its first AFC North title since 2012. However, the constant in a season filled with ups and downs has been a defense ranking first in the NFL in total yards and points allowed entering Sunday’s regular-season finale against Cleveland.

That’s why standout cornerback Marlon Humphrey was ultimately selected as the 2018 Ravens MVP on Friday with Jackson finishing second and seven-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda ranking third in votes from the local media. The 2017 first-round pick from Alabama has broken out this season to become one of the better cornerbacks in the AFC and leads the Ravens in pass breakups (14) and is tied for the team lead in interceptions (two) despite missing two October games with a thigh injury. Humphrey enters Week 17 ranked as the NFL’s fifth-best cornerback, according to Pro Football Focus’ grading system.

His performance has been particularly superb in the second half of the season as he made key plays to secure victories over Cincinnati, Tampa Bay, and the Los Angeles Chargers, feats that haven’t gone unnoticed.

“I guess you know it when you see it. Hey, actions speak louder than words, right?” said head coach John Harbaugh about Humphrey’s recent knack for finishing off games. “The proof is in the pudding. But he does a good job of that, and that’s what it’s all about and that’s how you win games. You make plays at the end to win games, especially in this league.”

The second-year cornerback declined to accept the honor or to be present for an informal ceremony with a team spokesman saying that Humphrey didn’t want to separate himself from his teammates.

Veteran cornerback Brandon Carr was voted as the local media’s “Good Guy,” an honor bestowed upon a player who goes above and beyond normal media obligations to be cooperative and make himself available to reporters. The 32-year-old is also the Ravens’ nominee for the 2018 Walter Payton Man of the Year award and is very active with charitable causes related to children’s literacy, breast cancer, social justice, and serving underprivileged youth.

“Some things may be harder than others to publish, but you have to do it,” said Carr about being named “Good Guy” by media. “But, also, thank you for the voice you give the fans to get their feedback and just their gauge of the team [and] what’s going on. We all have a job to do; I appreciate you for doing yours as well.”

Wide receiver Willie Snead, safety Tony Jefferson, inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, and Yanda also received votes for the “Good Guy” award. As a token of gratitude, the local media will make a donation in Carr’s name to the Ed Block Courage Award Foundation.

Below is a history of the team MVP and “Good Guy” selections (in that order) dating back to their introduction by the local media in 2003:

2003: Jamal Lewis, Gary Baxter
2004: Ed Reed, Anthony Weaver
2005: Adalius Thomas, Jamal Lewis
2006: Steve McNair, Bart Scott
2007: Willis McGahee, Derrick Mason
2008: Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs
2009: Ray Rice, Jarret Johnson
2010: Haloti Ngata, Chris Carr
2011: Ray Rice, Bernard Pollard
2012: Ray Rice, Arthur Jones
2013: Justin Tucker, Joe Flacco
2014: Justin Forsett, Torrey Smith
2015: Marshal Yanda, Jimmy Smith
2016: Justin Tucker, Zachary Orr
2017: Terrell Suggs, Eric Weddle
2018: Marlon Humphrey, Brandon Carr

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Ravens secondary continues to be banged up entering Week 15

Posted on 10 December 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With another pass-heavy opponent on the schedule for Week 15, the Ravens continue to deal with health concerns in the secondary.

Not only did safety Tony Jefferson miss his second straight game with an ankle injury, but cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Tavon Young sat out extended stretches of Sunday’s 27-24 overtime loss at Kansas City. Humphrey and Young both missed practice time with groin injuries this past week and were limited to just 44 and 24 snaps, respectively, of Baltimore’s 86 total in Week 14.

Humphrey’s status is of particular concern as the Ravens now prepare to face a Tampa Bay offense ranking first in the NFL in passing yards per game (331.4) and third in yards per passing attempt (8.7). Baltimore is 0-3 in games in which the 2017 first-round pick has missed extensive time or sat out completely this season.

“It’s annoying. It takes a while for it to go away completely,” said head coach John Harbaugh of Humphrey’s injury. “Sometimes you can re-tweak it a little bit too. It’s probably something he’s going to be feeling for a while. It’s just the way groins are.”

With Humphrey and Young not taking their normal share of snaps against the Chiefs, Jimmy Smith played a season-high 84 snaps and Brandon Carr saw 68, his highest single-game total since Week 7.

Since sitting out the Week 12 win over Oakland, Young has played a total of 42 snaps over the last two games with Carr seeing more opportunities in the slot. Clearly not 100 percent against the Chiefs’ explosive offense, Humphrey played only a few snaps in the second half on Sunday as rookie fourth-round cornerback Anthony Averett saw 39 snaps, which more than doubled his season total.

Despite missing five games with a hamstring injury early in the season, Averett has impressed with his solid play in limited opportunities, helping give Baltimore its deepest secondary in recent years. He finished with two tackles against the Chiefs.

“Every round he’s gone out there, he’s done a good job,” Harbaugh said. “He only gets better. It just makes our corner situation even better than it was before. I was really pleased with how he played. It helped Marlon too as far as the long-term health for him.”

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suggs

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

Posted on 15 November 2018 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ravens will try it this way one more time.

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levine

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Takeaways largely absent as Ravens try to get back on track

Posted on 02 November 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Anthony Levine’s interception undoubtedly brought a sigh of relief to the Ravens sideline at Pittsburgh in Week 4.

Though already leading 23-14 with under four minutes remaining, Baltimore had blown double-digit fourth-quarter leads at Heinz Field in each of the previous two seasons. But Levine picking off Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger ended any thought of history repeating itself again.

That takeaway was the exclamation point on a 26-14 victory that propelled the Ravens to a 3-1 start. Since then, however, John Harbaugh’s team has lost three of four games while forcing only two turnovers: a Tavon Young interception at Cleveland and a Michael Pierce fumble recovery against New Orleans. Those takeaways occurred in the opening quarter and didn’t dramatically move the meter in eventual one-score defeats for a team now standing at 4-4 and entering a critical rematch with the Steelers on Sunday.

Despite the last five quarters in which the Ravens have allowed an unseemly 53 points, the defense remains at or near the top of many statistical categories. But after collecting a league-leading 34 takeaways last season and tying for the NFL lead in interceptions in 2016, Baltimore has forced just seven turnovers in its first eight games, which is tied for 21st in a league in which 13 teams have played seven games compared to the Ravens’ eight.

It’s as much surprising as it is concerning for a defense needing to get back on track against Pittsburgh. In a rivalry in which 17 of the last 24 games — counting the playoffs — have been decided by a single possession, turnovers become even more important than they already are in any given week.

“They’ve been a little more conservative in some ways,” said Harbaugh about how opponents have approached a defense with a reputation for taking the ball away so far this season. “Some of it’s on us — we haven’t made plays on the ball all the time like we need to. Sometimes the ball hasn’t gone our way. But we haven’t caused very many fumbles, and we haven’t gotten our hands on as many balls as we did last year, for sure. We have to find a way to do that. I’m disappointed in that for sure. That’s something that we need to do better.”

The Ravens have forced only four fumbles — falling on two — in their first eight games this season after forcing 17 and recovering 12 last year, a dramatic decline for a defense that regularly practices stripping the ball away from the opposition. Their five interceptions are tied for 19th in the league after finishing first with 22 last season. And though Baltimore’s 41 passes defended are on a comparable pace to last season’s total of 80 for 16 games, opponents are passing more frequently than they did through the first eight games of 2017.

The turnover decline isn’t easy to explain since so much of the defensive personnel is identical to last season, and the few changes — Brent Urban and Tavon Young being healthy — are viewed as upgrades. Truthfully, the defense continuing to rank so highly while playing so much “straight-up” football is a testament to the unit, but it’s also difficult to sustain.

“We’re conscious of that. We run [to] the ball. We’re doing the same things as we’ve always done,” safety Eric Weddle said. “The opportunities are there. We dropped a couple picks early on this season. We’ve got forced fumbles, and they’ve bounced the other way. They’re going to start coming, and when they do, it’s going to make our defense even stronger and our team better. We’ve had about six quarters of not-very-good football, and everything else has been solid.”

To be clear, the Ravens defense hasn’t been completely devoid of big plays. Baltimore leads the league with 27 sacks — including a team-record 11 in the 21-0 shutout at Tennessee on Oct. 14 — but 22 of those came in three games against the Titans, the Browns, and Buffalo, meaning the defense has just five total in its other five games.

Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale hasn’t hesitated to dial up more blitzes this year than predecessor Dean Pees and remains confident that the turnovers will arrive in bunches if his group remains true to itself, quipping Thursday how it’s difficult to pick off a screen pass on second-and-long.

The Ravens know they must remain disciplined in their effort to force turnovers, but you also wonder how a fourth-quarter turnover against the Browns or the Saints could have made the difference in one-score defeats. An interception or forced fumble can also be so critical in sparking a comeback, something that never materialized in Cincinnati or Carolina. The absence of starting cornerback Marlon Humphrey certainly didn’t help against the Saints and Panthers these last two weeks.

“They’re going to come. There’s no doubt,” cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “It’s not like we’re doing something so much more crazy on defense that we’re not trying to get those. As corners, me, Brandon [Carr] and Marlon, we have to get our hands on the ball more, create some plays ourselves, and then some tips and overthrows, hopefully, a couple of lucky passes.

“It’s good to be lucky as well.”

Yes, any number of football studies will tell you luck is a bigger element in forcing turnovers than coaches, players, media, and fans want to admit. But studies also confirm just how critical prevailing in the turnover battle is with teams coming out on top winning almost 80 percent of the time.

That element of chance is an unsettling reality as the Ravens try to avoid a third straight loss and recalibrate their quest to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

“We’re minus-four. You can put it right on that if you want,” said Harbaugh, referencing his team’s turnover differential through eight games. “If we’re not minus-four, what’s our record? If we’re even? If we’re plus-four, what’s our record? It’s probably completely flipped. It’s a big part of it.”

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stanley

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Eight injured Ravens sit out practice to begin Pittsburgh week

Posted on 31 October 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens face a slew of health concerns on both sides of the ball as they try to right their season against rival Pittsburgh on Sunday.

Eight players sat out Wednesday’s practice for injury-related reasons, a list that includes six starters and four offensive linemen. The timing couldn’t be much worse as Baltimore tries to snap its two-game losing streak and keep pace with the first-place Steelers in the AFC North. The 4-4 Ravens are trying to avoid falling below .500 entering their bye week for the fourth consecutive season.

Left tackle Ronnie Stanley (ankle) is the newest addition to the group of injured offensive linemen already counting starting left guard Alex Lewis (neck) and starting right tackle James Hurst (back). The latter two have missed the last two games while Stanley hurt his left ankle early in the second half of the 36-21 loss to Carolina. Rookie backup Bradley Bozeman (calf) was active for the Panthers game, but he did not play, leaving veteran reserve Hroniss Grasu to make his first start of the season. Second-year lineman Jermaine Eluemunor played 19 snaps at left tackle in place of Stanley.

Starting cornerback Marlon Humphrey remains sidelined with a thigh injury that’s cost him the last two games, but starting inside linebacker C.J. Mosley (thigh) and starting safety Tony Jefferson (hamstring) were also absent from Wednesday’s session, creating greater concern as the Ravens have already allowed 53 points over their last five quarters of play and will now face the league’s fifth-ranked scoring offense. Both Mosley and Jefferson played 63 of the total 65 defensive snaps against the Panthers, making it unclear when they sustained their injuries.

Running back Alex Collins was a limited participant with a foot issue.

Newly-acquired running back Ty Montgomery took part in his first practice after arriving at the team facility on Wednesday morning, but it remains to be seen whether the former Green Bay Packer will be ready to play against the Steelers. Head coach John Harbaugh downplayed any notion of the trade being a direct response to the Ravens ranking 31st in the NFL in yards per carry this season, noting his versatility as a former wide receiver and his ability in pass protection.

“We always want good players, and Ty can help us run the ball,” Harbaugh said. “That’s good. I don’t want to frame it like he can’t help us. It certainly can, but that wasn’t part of the conversation. It happened late. Ozzie [Newsome] came in at about 3 p.m. and said, ‘Hey, we’re doing this,’ and we’re rolling. We’re excited about it.”

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did not practice on Wednesday after suffering a fractured left index finger in their Week 8 win over Cleveland, but he is fully expected to play against the Ravens. Pittsburgh linebacker Bud Dupree missed the workout due to an illness.

Below is Wednesday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: G Bradley Bozeman (calf), CB Brandon Carr (non-injury), CB Marlon Humphrey (thigh), OT James Hurst (back), S Tony Jefferson (hamstring), G Alex Lewis (neck), LB C.J. Mosley (thigh), OT Ronnie Stanley (ankle), LB Tim Williams (ankle)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: RB Alex Collins (foot)

PITTSBURGH
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Bud Dupree (illness), C Maurkice Pouncey (non-injury), QB Ben Roethlisberger (left finger/coaches’ decision), CB Coty Sensabaugh (toe)
FULL PARTICIPATION: OT Marcus Gilbert (knee)

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