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Ravens pass on expensive safety net to keep Pro Bowl linebacker Mosley

Posted on 05 March 2019 by Luke Jones

Tuesday’s deadline to use the franchise tag passed with the Ravens forgoing an expensive safety net to keep free-agent inside linebacker C.J. Mosley for the 2019 season.

That means the four-time Pro Bowl selection is now scheduled to hit the open market next week where other suitors with more salary cap space than Baltimore will be waiting to negotiate. The decision came on the same day the Ravens elected to release Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle, another integral part of the defense in recent years.

First-year general manager Eric DeCosta sounded lukewarm to using the $15.433 million franchise tag on Mosley when asked about the possibility last week, making Tuesday’s news unsurprising.

“I think our preference would always be to do a long-term deal with a player like C.J.,” said DeCosta at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. “He’s a great player. We have to use every means to build our team that we can, whether that’s the draft, free agency, undrafted free agency, looking at prospective trades. All the different tools that we have that the league office lets us build our team, we’ll consider it.”

The Ravens could still re-sign Mosley since a similar scenario played out two years ago with nose tackle Brandon Williams, who signed a five-year, $52.5 million contract after the start of free agency. However, the probability seemingly declines daily with other teams allowed to begin negotiating with free agents on Monday afternoon.

The debate over Mosley’s value has continued for months with some viewing the 2014 first-round pick from Alabama as the indispensable leader of the Ravens defense and others criticizing his coverage ability in an increasingly pass-happy NFL. Mosley led the Ravens with 105 tackles last season and recording the playoff-clinching interception against Cleveland in Week 17, but his Pro Football Focus pass coverage grade ranked a pedestrian 17th among linebackers in 2018.

Mosley’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, is believed to be seeking a contract exceeding the five-year, $61.795 million deal signed by six-time Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly with Carolina nearly four years ago.

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Franchise tag window could drive talks between Mosley, Ravens

Posted on 18 February 2019 by Luke Jones

The NFL’s window for teams to use the franchise tag on a pending unrestricted free agent opens Tuesday, but whether the Ravens go that route with four-time Pro Bowl inside linebacker C.J. Mosley remains to be seen.

New general manager Eric DeCosta expressed his desire to keep Mosley during his introductory press conference last month, but the start of free agency is now just over three weeks away. And with each passing day, the thought of hitting the open market has to be more appealing for the 2014 first-round pick who won’t turn 27 until June. The Ravens can prevent that from happening, of course, by either striking a long-term extension or using the tag, which is projected to cost over $15.5 million for a linebacker — inside or outside — for the 2019 season. That alone would exhaust almost half of Baltimore’s projected cap space upon the completion of the Joe Flacco trade to Denver next month.

“I think everything is on the table right now,” said DeCosta when asked if using the franchise tag on Mosley was a possibility. “I certainly hope that C.J. is back. I believe in my heart that he will be. We’re having those discussions now. I think we have several different strategies in place. We’re in the business of keeping our good football players. Talent wins in the NFL and he’s a Pro Bowl linebacker, so we’re going to do what we can to make sure that C.J. is back on the team.”

The franchise tag would be a steep price since the highest-paid inside linebacker in the league — Carolina’s Luke Kuechly — makes just $12.359 million per season, but the average annual value of that deal was a contract extension signed back in 2015, a long time in NFL terms. That’s where we keep encountering the same question about Mosley, which might explain why a deal many anticipated as early as last offseason hasn’t yet come to fruition.

What exactly is he worth to the Ravens and on the open market?

Mosley doesn’t meet the impossible standard set by Hall of Famer Ray Lewis and may not be in the same elite tier as Kuechly or Seattle’s Bobby Wagner among his contemporaries, but he is widely recognized as one of the NFL’s top inside linebackers and is constantly praised in the Baltimore locker room for his unassuming leadership, something that can’t be ignored with Terrell Suggs and Eric Weddle both nearing the end of their careers and uncertain to return next season. The only other Ravens to make the Pro Bowl four times in their first five seasons were Lewis and fellow Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden, illustrating the rare territory Mosley has reached in a short period of time.

Losing him would leave the Ravens with former undrafted free agent Patrick Onwuasor and 2018 fourth-round pick Kenny Young at inside linebacker next season. Both are talented players, but neither could reasonably be expected to step into Mosley’s role without substantial drop-off. In other words, inside linebacker would immediately become a need should Mosley depart.

But there are still questions that make you take pause before potentially making him the highest-paid inside linebacker in the NFL. His pass coverage has often come under scrutiny as Pro Football Focus graded him just 31st among qualified linebackers in that category despite crediting him with career bests in passing yards allowed (408), yards per reception (9.3), and yards after the catch (190) in 2018. The Alabama product graded 22nd overall among qualified linebackers in 2018 after finishing 37th at the end of the 2017 regular season and 11th in 2016. Those numbers would support the less flattering opinions of Mosley being a consistently solid-to-good player, but not a great one worthy of a lucrative contract.

There’s also the topic of positional value with Mosley’s biggest strength being his run defense in a league increasingly driven by the passing game. Many of the same critics of the five-year, $52.5 million contract awarded to run-stopping nose tackle Brandon Williams two offseasons ago don’t want to see the Ravens spend big on an inside linebacker who isn’t dynamic in pass coverage, especially with so many other needs to address on both sides of the ball. At the very least, Mosley plays every down unlike Williams, who participated in just 50 percent of defensive snaps this past season.

“You can get caught up in these types of positions that guys get paid,” DeCosta said. “‘You should pay the left tackle or you pay the corner, but not pay the defensive tackle or the inside linebacker.’ That’s all well and good unless someone rushes for 250 yards against you. Then, all of a sudden, you change the dynamic and say, ‘Well, we should sign the inside linebacker or the defensive tackle.’ You want to be a balanced team, you want as many good players as you can. You try to fit that in under the parameters of the salary cap that you can.”

Opinions are split on what Mosley would be worth on the open market with Jason Fitzgerald of OverTheCap.com projecting him to receive $11.5 million per year and Spotrac.com’s calculated market value at only $9.7 million per season. The average annual value of the deals for Kuechly ($12.359 million) and Wagner ($10.75 million) aren’t the most helpful guidelines since the salary cap has increased annually since those extensions were signed nearly four years ago. Mosley wanting to eclipse those marks would be a reasonable goal when considering his age and a salary cap expected to approach $190 million this coming season.

If he does indeed hit the market, all it takes is one or two interested teams with substantially more cap space than Baltimore to drive up the linebacker’s price to the point where the franchise tag suddenly doesn’t look as lucrative as it does now. That’s why the tag is something DeCosta and the Ravens must at least consider between Tuesday and March 5 — the final day a team can use it on a player — if they’re determined to keep Mosley but an agreement isn’t imminent.

Both sides know the tag is at least a possibility, which should help push discussions to keep Mosley in Baltimore — if that’s what both he and the Ravens ultimately want.

But the clock is ticking louder every day.

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

Posted on 12 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 defensive linemen ranked at their positions followed by the positional outlook going into 2019:

Offensive linemen
Linebackers
Tight ends

Brandon Williams
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 517
PFF ranking: 33rd among interior defenders
Skinny: Williams ranked 22nd among interior defenders against the run, but opinions have varied on his value since before he signed his $52.5 million contract two years ago. The nose tackle played a major part in Baltimore ranking third in yards per carry allowed, but he played just 50 percent of defensive snaps.

Brent Urban
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 522
PFF ranking: 49th among interior defenders
Skinny: Urban played all 16 games in a season for just the second time in his career and did the dirty work at the 5-techniqe end spot, but he made few splash plays with only a half-sack and two tipped passes. The Ravens would likely be interested in re-signing Urban again to a short-term deal.

Chris Wormley
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 401
PFF ranking: 67th among interior defenders
Skinny: The 2017 third-round pick made six starts prior to the bye week and established himself as a regular member of the game-day rotation, but his playing time declined after the bye as he made less of an impact. Wormley could find himself playing more 5-techinique if Urban departs via free agency.

Michael Pierce
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 389
PFF ranking: fifth among interior defenders
Skinny: Despite being slowed by a foot injury early in the year, Pierce thrived in his third season, providing more ammunition for critics of the Williams contract. The former undrafted free agent is positioning himself for a strong payday after 2019, especially if he can offer a little more as a pass rusher.

Willie Henry
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 82
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: Henry was on his way to becoming the starting 3-techinique defensive tackle before August hernia surgery cost him the first four games of the year and an October back injury ended his season. The Ravens missed his inside pass-rushing ability, something he’ll hope to reestablish in a contract year.

Patrick Ricard
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 47
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The versatile Ricard also took snaps as a blocking fullback, but he wasn’t active after Week 12 and the surfacing of past racist and homophobic tweets didn’t help his perception. His ability to play on either side of the ball helps his roster standing, but he’s far from a lock to make the team in 2019.

Zach Sieler
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 17
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: Ozzie Newsome’s final draft pick last April, Sieler spent most of the year as a game-day inactive, but the Ferris State product flashed enough last summer to warrant the organization keeping him on the roster. Sieler could move into a more significant role in 2019, especially if Urban signs elsewhere.

2019 positional outlook

Even with Urban being an unrestricted free agent and Pierce a restricted free agent, this remains one of the better positional groups on the roster going into next season. The Ravens would benefit from Wormley and Sieler taking a step forward to become bigger factors as 5-technique players, but they’ll again be strong inside with Williams, Pierce, and a returning Henry. It’s worth mentioning how frequently linebacker Za’Darius Smith moved to the interior line to rush the quarterback in obvious passing situations this past season, so Baltimore will have its eyes peeled for an interior lineman who can pressure the pocket. It will be fascinating to see how Pierce and Williams play in 2019 and how that might impact the organization’s plans for 2020 and beyond. Pierce is 3 1/2 years younger and will be an unrestricted free agent while the Ravens could conceivably move on from Williams’ deal next offseason.

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Ravens defensive tackle Brandon Williams added to Pro Bowl roster

Posted on 15 January 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens will be sending a fourth player to this month’s Pro Bowl as defensive tackle Brandon Williams was named an injury replacement for Cincinnati’s Geno Atkins on Tuesday.

This marks Williams’ first career trip to the Pro Bowl after the 29-year-old collected 34 tackles, a sack, and one pass defensed in 16 starts this season. The run-stopping nose tackle played 564 snaps and ranked 36th among the NFL’s interior defenders in Pro Football Focus’ grading system. Interestingly, PFF graded Ravens teammate Michael Pierce fifth among all interior defenders, but he played just 408 snaps.

Williams has anchored Baltimore’s run defense since becoming a starter in 2014. This past season, the Ravens ranked fourth in rushing yards allowed per game (82.9) and third in yards per carry allowed (3.7), their best finishes in those departments since 2014.

“My wife and I couldn’t hold back our tears of excitement and joy to know that after six wonderful years in the NFL, and with God’s guidance, we have reached our goal of getting selected to the Pro Bowl!” Williams said in a statement released by the Ravens. “I couldn’t be more appreciative and thankful to everyone who has had a hand or vote in getting my dream to come true, and I look forward to playing the game in Orlando.

“I vowed to myself and to my wife that we could not take a trip to Hawaii until after I went to the Pro Bowl. Honey, pack your bags!”

Williams will join right guard Marshal Yanda, inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, and safety Eric Weddle in representing Baltimore at the Pro Bowl on Jan. 27. The 2013 third-round pick is in the midst of a five-year, $52.5 million contract signed in 2017.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 20-12 win over Tampa Bay

Posted on 18 December 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens collecting their fourth win in five games in a 20-12 final against Tampa Bay, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Marlon Humphrey turned in the best performance of his young career with an interception, four pass breakups, and a tackle for a loss. He reiterated why he’s been this defense’s best player this season and is probably deserving of being a Pro Bowl alternate.

2. Not counting the final three kneel-downs, the Ravens rushed 29 times for 168 yards in the second half with Gus Edwards carrying eight times for 60 yards in the fourth quarter. This running game has the effect of a great bullpen in baseball. If trailing late, you’re very likely done.

3. That may not have been possible if not for a fortunate first quarter. A drop by Chris Godwin could have been a Tampa Bay touchdown and Buccaneers linebacker Riley Bullough dropped a sure interception. Add those plays to the lost fumble, and the Ravens could have been trailing double digits.

4. Red-zone defense transformed two disastrous plays — Mike Evans’ 64-yard catch on third-and-20 and Cyrus Jones’ inexplicable punt muff — into little more than annoying blips on the radar. Baltimore entered the week just 25th in red-zone defense (65.7 percent) before going a critical 1-for-3.

5. Much has been made about whether Lamar Jackson can be effective in a two-minute drill, but he went 5-for-7 for 56 yards on an eight-play, 63-yard drive for a field goal to close the first half. That was encouraging after a rough start that included another fumble for the rookie.

6. Ten of Jackson’s 14 completions were to the middle of the field with only one traveling more than 20 yards through the air. It’s obvious where he’s most comfortable passing at this point, but the run-pass options and play-action plays open that portion of the field.

7. Brandon Williams has received criticism for not providing enough bang for the buck this season, but his third-and-1 stuff of Peyton Barber for a three-yard loss helped seal the win midway through the fourth quarter. He beat former teammate Ryan Jensen badly on that play.

8. Willie Snead’s 28-yard catch late in the second quarter and Edwards’ 26-yard run late in the fourth doubled the Ravens’ total number of plays of 25 or more yards since the bye. They had 13 over their first nine games. This is definitely a “grind-it-out” team now.

9. One of the more surprising parts of Sunday was Tampa Bay running for 68 yards on 15 carries in the first half. Credit the defense for limiting the Buccaneers to 17 rushing yards after intermission, but that early production from a pedestrian rushing attack in the rain was unexpected.

10. John Harbaugh confirmed Bradley Bozeman rotating with James Hurst at left guard was part of the game plan. Bozeman has improved since the preseason and is a solid bet to eventually be a starting interior lineman, especially with Alex Lewis’ inability to stay healthy.

11. I couldn’t help but wonder what Joe Flacco was thinking as Jackson struggled with the elements early, especially after the former starter threw for 513 yards and four touchdowns without a turnover in the first two rain-heavy home games of 2018 against Buffalo and Denver.

12. The Ravens are 8-6 entering Week 16 with their playoff hopes hanging in the balance for the third straight season. Even with a new quarterback and the drastic change in offensive style of play, Ravens fans can hardly be blamed if they can’t shake feelings of déjà vu.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 26-16 win over Atlanta

Posted on 04 December 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens improving their playoff hopes by way of a 26-16 win over Atlanta, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. We’d be talking differently if the defense had been even average in the first half when time of possession was balanced and the offense bumbled more than rumbled. If Atlanta scores to go up 17-7 after taking over at midfield with 3:05 left, how does the second half change?

2. The sum is greater than the parts for a defense continuing to rank first in points allowed and total yards. No individual really stands out as being all that deserving of making the Pro Bowl, but this group was terrific against the Falcons.

3. Marlon Humphrey would top my list of defensive players to at least consider as he currently ranks as the 10th-best cornerback in the NFL in Pro Football Focus’ grading system. His strong play on Sunday continued a surge that began after he returned from his October thigh injury.

4. Rewatching the game honestly made me feel worse about how Lamar Jackson played in his first road start, but the difference between him and other quarterbacks is what he’ll always provide with his legs if healthy. Traditional passers have bad games, but what else are they contributing when they do?

5. Matt Ryan had thrown for 250 yards in every game this season and Julio Jones had registered six straight 100-yard receiving days before being smothered by Baltimore. Ryan had only 54 passing yards in the second half while Jones didn’t have a catch after the game’s first drive. Crazy.

6. Jackon’s fumble returned 74 yards for a touchdown by Vic Beasley was cringe-worthy enough, but Kenneth Dixon didn’t earn any pats on the back for his effort to bring Beasley down. Dixon did finish with 37 rushing yards in only his second game of the last two seasons.

7. Between Michael Pierce destroying a double team on the fourth-and-1 stop in the second quarter and Brandon Williams pressuring Ryan on Tavon Young’s fumble return for a touchdown, the defense received excellent play from its two mountains in the middle.

8. The two-minute drill resulting in a field goal late in the first half wasn’t pretty and was even head-scratching toward the end, but it was good to see Jackson operate that scoring drive as fair questions persist about what this offense will do if required to go into catch-up mode.

9. With Austin Hooper’s late score, the Ravens have now allowed a touchdown catch to a tight end in five of the last six games. I’m sure Kansas City’s Travis Kelce will bring some restless nights for Wink Martindale this week.

10. Chris Moore finished with more offensive snaps than John Brown and Michael Crabtree while Buck Allen only played on special teams in Atlanta. This offense sure has changed quickly, hasn’t it?

11. Sam Koch being a career 5-for-5 passer for 69 yards is one of the cooler stat lines in team history. The 13th-year punter is a good athlete and doesn’t get enough credit for how good he’s been for a long time. He throws a pretty ball, too.

12. How often do you see a 14-play drive lasting more than eight minutes result in a not-exactly-a-gimme 45-yard field goal? As I wrote earlier this week, embrace the weirdness. Maybe that should be this team’s new hashtag the rest of the way.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 24-21 win over Cincinnati

Posted on 20 November 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens snapping their three-game losing streak and moving into the No. 6 spot in the AFC with a 24-21 win over Cincinnati, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. I feel for Gus Edwards as the rookie free agent rushing for 115 yards would have been the big story if not for Lamar Jackson. Others have noted this, but his running style reminds of Le’Ron McClain, which was perfect against a bad defense already dealing with a mobile quarterback.

2. The Ravens defense managed only one sack and again failed to generate a turnover, but a simplified game plan that included press coverage and few blitzes did the trick to neutralize Andy Dalton’s short passes. Of course, A.J. Green not playing really helped.

3. Considering the defense had at least five defensive backs on the field for all but a few plays, holding Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard to a combined 19 rushing yards on 14 carries was very impressive and a critical development in the game.

4. Time of possession was certainly a byproduct of the run-heavy offense as the defense was on the field for just 55 snaps and less than 22 minutes. Perhaps that wasn’t as critical coming off the bye week, but it can still pay off down the stretch.

5. I’ve already written much about him, but I’m impressed with Jackson’s willingness to continue looking downfield as he scrambles like he did on the 23-yard completion to John Brown and the 19-yard dart to Mark Andrews. Those were easily his best plays of the day.

6. Justin Tucker making his 56-yard attempt at the end of the first half and Randy Bullock missing his 52-yard try late in the fourth quarter served as a reminder of how important the kicking game is in a grind-it-out affair. Tucker’s now made nine straight from 50 or more yards.

7. After giving up an acrobatic touchdown catch to John Ross despite good coverage, Marlon Humphrey atoned with a pass breakup against Cody Core to seal the win. Forcing Dalton to throw 36 times to collect 211 yards was a solid day at the office for the Ravens defense.

8. I’m not making much of Willie Snead’s blowup on the sideline that he and John Harbaugh downplayed after the game, but this is the potential risk if the Ravens stick with such a run-heavy approach. I want wide receivers who want the ball.

9. C.J. Mosley recorded his highest Pro Football Focus grade of 2018 as he recorded five tackles and a pass breakup while appearing to move better than he was before the bye. The 2014 first-round pick hasn’t had the ideal contract year as he ranks 28th among qualified linebackers, per PFF.

10. I’ve said repeatedly that coaches should go for it more on fourth down, but it felt panicky for the Ravens to try to convert the fourth-and-1 from their own 45 with 25 minutes to play in a low-scoring game. The failed challenge of the spot made it worse.

11. PFF grades Brandon Williams 69th among interior defensive linemen, which ranks behind Michael Pierce (fifth), Brent Urban (42nd), and Chris Wormley (64th). I don’t necessarily buy that, but are the Ravens getting enough value from their expensive run-stopping nose tackle in today’s pass-happy NFL? He played 24 snaps on Sunday.

12. As you could see from Harbaugh’s post-game speech, the Ravens were fired up — almost euphoric — after a much-needed victory. Jackson’s first start was fun to watch, but let’s remember they scored 24 points against an extremely poor defense in a close game that easily could have gone the other way.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 23-16 loss to Pittsburgh

Posted on 06 November 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens suffering their third straight loss and fourth in their last five games in a 23-16 final against Pittsburgh, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Baltimore will never take the next step by settling for 23-yard field goals against a high-scoring offense. The analytics did support those decisions to kick, but I would have considered going for the fourth-and-3 from the 5 in the second quarter. “Take the points” isn’t always the best strategy.

2. As I’ve written other times, Joe Flacco is far from the only reason for the recent offensive struggles, but he hasn’t been a big enough part of the solution either. He was under duress quite a bit Sunday, but he easily missed a half-dozen throws working from a satisfactory pocket.

3. Insinuating Flacco didn’t throw to Lamar Jackson out of spite is taking quite a leap to trash the character of someone who’s never done anything to warrant such treatment. It’s not like his ability to see the field or go through progressions has never been criticized, so why get personal?

4. How the middle of the field continues to be such a problematic area for the pass defense when C.J. Mosley, Eric Weddle, and Tony Jefferson account for $22.625 million on the 2018 salary cap is a tough pill to swallow.

5. Orlando Brown Jr. continues to be a bright spot. According to Pro Football Focus, he didn’t allow a pressure against Pittsburgh and has yet to allow a sack or quarterback hit this season. The right tackle spot should be his with James Hurst potentially moving to left guard when healthy.

6. Matthew Judon hasn’t taken the leap many predicted this season, but he registered Baltimore’s lone sack as well as two hits and two hurries against the Steelers, according to PFF. The Ravens need to see more of that with Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith scheduled to hit free agency.

7. Like Drew Brees’ third-down completion while in the grasp of Jefferson in Week 7, I thought the defense forcing a three-and-out right after Alex Collins’ touchdown might be the turning point. Instead, a holding penalty, a sack, two passes short of the chains, and a punt quickly dashed that thought.

8. I don’t believe it was a coincidence that Jimmy Smith played better with Marlon Humphrey back in action and Wink Martindale once again rotating those two and Brandon Carr on the outside. The defense has certainly had its recent issues, but that luxury should still pay off down the stretch.

9. Those saying Jackson’s use is disrupting offensive rhythm received ammunition when he entered for a run of no gain immediately following Flacco strikes to Michael Crabtree and Chris Moore. If you want to run there, why not hand to Collins on an uptempo play instead of broadcasting what you’re doing?

10. Brandon Williams noted after the game that teams are approaching the Ravens defense differently and aren’t playing “actual football” by running so many sweeps and screens to take interior players like him out of the equation. There’s that whole “needing to adapt” theme popping up again.

11. Don’t look now, but the Ravens are on track to lead the NFL in passing attempts for the third time in the last four years. They also rank in the bottom five in yards per passing attempt for the fourth straight season. Jamal Lewis weeps.

12. Regardless of what happens over these next two months, I’ll maintain that John Harbaugh is a good football coach. However, he doesn’t do himself any favors with a rookie mistake like not using his timeouts ahead of the two-minute warning to conserve more clock.

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Ravens aiming to get back to their roots in Week 3

Posted on 18 September 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens had made it a one-possession game for the first time since the opening period and needed a defensive stop in the fourth quarter at Cincinnati last Thursday.

Instead, the Bengals marched 65 yards and took more than six minutes off the clock before Randy Bullock’s 28-yard field goal made it a 31-23 deficit with 2:59 remaining. Just under half of that yardage came on the ground as Cincinnati rushed six times for 32 yards, including Joe Mixon’s 21-yard cutback run that was the key play in setting up an easy field goal.

No, the Bengals’ rushing attack didn’t gash the Ravens, but 108 yards on 28 carries over the course of the night helped control the tempo after quarterback Andy Dalton connected with wide receiver A.J. Green for three touchdown passes in the game’s first 17 minutes.

“It was OK — not great. It needs to be better. It’s not to our standards,” said head coach John Harbaugh of his run defense. “All our guys will probably echo that. We have a high, high standard. It might be good enough for other teams around the league, but it’s not going to be good enough for us.”

Lost in the heartbreak of “fourth-and-12” and the focus on Jimmy Smith’s absence at the end of last season was the declining standard of the rush defense. Stopping the run has defined the Ravens more than any other quality over two-plus decades in Baltimore as they finished in the top 10 in yards per carry allowed for 20 straight seasons and had only four finishes outside the top nine in rushing yards surrendered from 1999-2016.

In 2017, however, the Ravens finished just 16th in yards per carry allowed and surrendered a full 4.0 yards per carry — without rounding up or down — for the first time in franchise history last season. They also ranked 15th in rushing yards per game surrendered. The four-game absence of run-stopping nose tackle Brandon Williams in the first half of the season didn’t help those numbers, but the Ravens still allowed more than 3.9 yards per carry in the 12 games he played, which would have left them 10th in the NFL.

It was less than two years ago when the Ravens ranked first in run defense entering Week 14 of the 2016 season and some were even singing the group’s praises from a historical context. Baltimore lost three of the final four games that season while giving up 544 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 4.4 yards per carry to drop them from that all-time-great conversation to fifth in the league. The Ravens’ run defense has had strong games since then, but the unit has yet to recapture its aura or same level of consistency.

To be clear, the run defense hardly qualifies as a weakness, but when you devote the kind of resources the Ravens have to the defensive side of the ball in terms of cap dollars and draft picks in recent years, you’d like to see more dominant results and less wavering at critical times. It’s certainly something Harbaugh’s team wants to get back to in 2018, beginning with Sunday’s tilt against 2-0 Denver.

The surprising Broncos enter Week 3 ranked second in the NFL in rushing offense and are trying not to put too much on the right shoulder of quarterback Case Keenum, who is coming off a surprising 2017 season with Minnesota after years as a journeyman. Despite being listed third on the Broncos’ current depth chart, rookie running back Phillip Lindsay is third in the league in rushing and became the first undrafted player in NFL history to eclipse 100 yards from scrimmage in each of his first two games.

“It’s incredible, these [rookie] free agent running backs around the league,” Harbaugh said. “He’s fast — that’s what stands out about him. He’s quick, he’s kind of fearless. They put him in good situations, [and] they get the ball to both rookie backs — [Royce] Freeman from Oregon, too.

“They get the ball outside quick on the edge a couple different ways. They run a lot of draws really well, some screens. They get him in space. The offensive line has done a good job, but this kid is running and he’s making plays with his speed and his fearlessness.”

The Ravens could be without three-time Pro Bowl linebacker C.J. Mosley on Sunday, but it will be up to the rest of the front seven to slow the backfield trio of Lindsay, Freeman, and Devontae Booker. Even with talented Broncos receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders to consider, the Ravens will try to force Keenum to beat them through the air as he’s already thrown four interceptions in two home games with his new team.

On the flip side, Baltimore needs to get its own running game going after averaging just 3.3 yards per carry in the first two weeks. Game situation has certainly impacted the ground attack as the Ravens were throwing the ball against Buffalo at will in the season opener and the Bengals exploded to an early 21-point lead last Thursday, but quarterback Joe Flacco throwing 50-plus times just hasn’t been a formula for success over the years.

Running back Alex Collins has touched the ball just 20 times for 109 total yards over the first two contests after nearly rushing for 1,000 yards and ranking ninth in the league in yards per carry last season. According to Pro Football Focus, Collins has forced 10 missed tackles on those 20 touches in 2018, which would suggest a need to block better and to give him the ball more frequently.

“We’re not in any way pleased with the numbers,” Harbaugh said. “And we’re very determined to run the ball well because we think it fits our offense. It’s something that opens everything else up, so we have to get that going.”

Stopping the run and running the ball, two staples of success the Ravens need to rediscover entering a critical early-season stretch that includes four road games in the next six weeks.

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Ravens-Bills: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 08 September 2018 by Luke Jones

One team’s pain was another’s euphoria.

The Ravens will face the team that advanced to the postseason thanks to their fourth-and-12 collapse against Cincinnati in Week 17 last year when they host Buffalo to begin the 2018 season. That moment in time not only ended the Bills’ 17-year playoff drought, but it kept John Harbaugh’s team out of the postseason for a third straight year, the Ravens’ longest skid since their first four seasons in Baltimore.

With four of their next five games on the road, the Ravens can’t afford to stub their toe against the rebuilding Bills, a scenario that would leave everyone doubting whether 2018 will be any different than the last few years. It would also put even more heat on a number of coaches and players whose long-term futures are up in the air.

It’s time to go on the record as Baltimore and Buffalo meet for the eighth time in the all-time regular-season series with the Ravens holding a 4-3 advantage and a 4-1 mark at M&T Bank Stadium. This marks the second time in three years these teams will open the season in Baltimore as the Ravens won a 13-7 final in 2016.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Joe Flacco will begin 2018 on a solid note with 220 passing yards and two touchdowns.

After endless discussion about his health, the new wide receivers and tight ends, a new quarterbacks coach, his strong summer performance, and, yes, rookie Lamar Jackson, Flacco will finally have his first meaningful chance to begin silencing his critics. A rainy forecast could alter game strategy and he’s facing a pass defense that ranked ninth in yards per pass attempt allowed last season, but the 33-year-old faces a front seven not adept at pressuring quarterbacks, which will help lead to an efficient day.

2. Bills running back LeSean McCoy will finish with under 60 rushing yards.

The offseason focus was on the collapse against the Bengals, but the Ravens allowing a franchise-worst 4.1 yards per carry last year really stuck in their craw. The defense allowed 38 percent of its total rushing yards in the four games Brandon Williams missed, but Baltimore still surrendered 3.9 yards per attempt in games he played. The presence of Williams and Michael Pierce as well as the Bills losing three key starters from their offensive line will lead to a long day for the six-time Pro Bowl back.

3. Michael Crabtree and Nick Boyle will catch touchdowns from Flacco.

There is much excitement about the vertical potential of John Brown, but Bills head coach Sean McDermott emphasizes taking away the big play as his defense allowed the seventh-fewest number of passes of 20 or more yards and an NFL-low three completions of 40 or more yards last season. With that in mind and the forecast not looking promising, Crabtree will do what he does best in the red zone and the blocking-minded Boyle will catch Bills linebackers napping for a touchdown score of his own.

4. Buffalo quarterback Nathan Peterman will throw two interceptions and be sacked five times.

Did I mention the Bills offensive line lost three key starters? Buffalo was wise to go with Peterman over rookie first-round pick Josh Allen in a Week 1 road game, but that doesn’t mean the former won’t be completely overwhelmed. New defensive coordinator Wink Martindale is a Ryan family pupil who will call everything he can to try to pressure the pocket. Peterman won’t be as historically bad as he was in tossing five interceptions in one half against the Los Angeles Chargers last year, but it won’t be pretty.

5. The Ravens will take an early lead and ride Alex Collins in the second half to a 27-10 win.

The coming weeks will reveal just how good the Ravens really are, but I’d be surprised if the Bills aren’t one of the worst five teams in the NFL after gutting a roster that was very fortunate to sneak in the playoffs last year. Harsh weather can always be an equalizer, but Baltimore will build an early lead and lean on Collins to do some heavy lifting after receiving only three carries in the preseason. The Ravens need to start the season on a winning note with three AFC North road games looming in the next four weeks, so there’s no overstating how disappointing a home loss would be against a team that looks bad on paper. They’ll take care of business in decisive fashion.

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