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Waiting continues after “game wrecker” McCoy concludes visit with Ravens

Posted on 29 May 2019 by Luke Jones

After a “great” two-day visit with free-agent defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the Ravens will now wait and see if one of the NFL’s best interior pass rushers of the last decade will join their revamped defense.

The six-time Pro Bowl selection left the team’s Owings Mills training facility without signing a contract Wednesday, but the Ravens remain in the running for his services along with Cleveland and Carolina. McCoy will reportedly next visit the Panthers after spending extensive time with both the Browns and Ravens over the last week.

The 31-year-old was released by Tampa Bay earlier this month after registering six or more sacks in each of the last six seasons. The Ravens are deep at nose tackle with Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce, but they lack interior pass rushers with the offseason departures of Za’Darius Smith and Brent Urban, making McCoy an intriguing option to lead the likes of Willie Henry, Pernell McPhee, and 5-technique defensive ends Chris Wormley, and Zach Sieler.

Regarded as a high-character individual around the league, McCoy would also join free safety Earl Thomas to help fill the veteran leadership void left with the exits of Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, and Eric Weddle. His ability to disrupt the pocket is the primary drawing factor, of course.

“I think everybody out there has seen what he can do,” owner Steve Bisciotti said in a Wednesday conference call with season-ticket holders. “I think he’s a bit of a game wrecker. … He brings something to the table that we don’t have.”

The third overall pick of the 2010 draft out of Oklahoma, McCoy has collected 53 1/2 sacks in his nine seasons, but the Buccaneers weren’t willing to pay their longtime defensive star $13 million this fall, making him a free agent for the first time in his decorated career. According to Pro Football Focus, the 6-foot-4, 300-pound McCoy graded as the 28th-best interior defender among qualified NFL players and received the lowest pass-rushing grade of his career last season despite still registering six sacks and 21 quarterback hits.

The Ravens currently have $13.484 million in salary cap space, which could make it challenging to strike a deal if McCoy desires a one-year contract with a high base salary in hopes of reestablishing his value and hitting the open market next March. Baltimore still needs cap room to sign its remaining draft picks, pay practice-squad players during the regular season, and maintain enough financial flexibility to sign additional players in the event of injuries, meaning general manager Eric DeCosta would likely need to create some more room at some point if McCoy agrees to terms.

The Browns have over $32 million in cap space while the Panthers sport just over $8.5 million, according to the NFL Players Association. McCoy has reportedly received one-year offers as high as $11 million.

An appealing factor working in the Ravens’ favor is the way defensive coordinator Wink Martindale likes to rotate his defensive linemen, which could keep McCoy fresh and more productive over a full season. His 732 defensive snaps last season ranked 31st among NFL defensive linemen and were 210 more than any Baltimore defensive linemen played, reflecting how heavily the Buccaneers defense leaned on the veteran. McCoy also has a relationship with Ravens defensive line coach Joe Cullen after the two worked together in Tampa Bay in 2014 and 2015.

Expecting McCoy to regain his peak form might be unrealistic, but he’d give the Ravens their highest-profile all-around defensive tackle since Haloti Ngata, who coincidentally had his retirement press conference Wednesday. McCoy attended part of the session before leaving the team facility, but Ngata had the opportunity to make his own pitch to the free agent.

“He’d be an amazing, amazing, amazing player to have here,” said Ngata, who made five Pro Bowls and was a member of the Super Bowl XLVII championship team. “As you guys know, he’s done a lot of amazing things in Tampa. We talked, and I just wished him the best in wherever he decides to go.

“If it’s here, that’s even better.”

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 36-21 loss at Carolina

Posted on 30 October 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens dropping to 4-4 in their 36-21 loss at Carolina, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The pass rush has produced a total of one sack since dropping Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota a team-record 11 times and didn’t take down Cam Newton once. Twenty-two of Baltimore’s league-leading 27 sacks came against Tennessee, Buffalo, and Cleveland. Is a bit more consistency too much to ask?

2. With the way the first half was going, the head-scratching Joe Flacco interception with no Ravens receiver even in the area felt inevitable. Pass protection wasn’t great and there were again too many drops, but Flacco went 0-for-9 with two picks on throws traveling 15 or more yards downfield. Yuck.

3. The running game was buoyed by three gains of 13 or more yards early on, but Baltimore averaged a season-best 5.6 yards per carry, one of the few positives from Sunday. I don’t see a successful playoff push without improvement on the ground. The October numbers support that.

4. According to Pro Football Focus, Jimmy Smith gave up five of six targets thrown into his coverage for 58 yards. He ranks 106th out of 110 qualified corners in PFF’s grading system. I’ll stand by what I wrote last week, but the Ravens really need to start seeing improvement.

5. It was a forgettable day for the league’s top-ranked defense, but slot cornerback Tavon Young played well, allowing only one catch for minus-two yards and making two tackles. He’s quietly played well since his rough outing at Cincinnati in Week 2.

6. Baltimore’s fake punt from its own 10 early in the first half was unmarked territory in the NFL for at least the last 25 years, but an illegal shift on Morgan Cox wiped out the conversion. Watching the all-22 replay, I’m with John Harbaugh in not seeing what Cox did.

7. Allowing the fourth-and-7 conversion to set up Graham Gano’s 54-yard field goal to end the first half was embarrassing for Wink Martindale and the defense. How no one thought to call a timeout there is a bad look for both the coaching staff and veteran players.

8. After knocking off early rust, Marshal Yanda has again settled in as one of the NFL’s best guards, ranking fifth among all qualified guards in PFF’s grading system. In addition to giving others plenty of help, Yanda has occasionally even pulled on play-action to protect Flacco’s blindside this season.

9. Considering the resources that have been devoted to the safety and inside linebacker positions, the Ravens’ inability to consistently cover tight ends and the middle of the field remains very frustrating. Sunday was a rough day for C.J. Mosley and Tony Jefferson in particular.

10. Some criticism for the Lamar Jackson short-arm incompletion to Willie Snead and praise for the rookie’s play in garbage time from fans and media seemed over the top. If Baltimore falls out of playoff contention, I’m all for evaluating for the future by starting Jackson. Until then, just stop.

11. The left-side combination of Jermaine Eluemunor and Hroniss Grasu for 19 plays gave off quite a preseason feel. Being down to your third-string options on the blindside is a sobering thought with Pittsburgh coming to town. Get well, Ronnie Stanley and Alex Lewis. And James Hurst and Bradley Bozeman.

12. In order to finish with the 10-6 record that usually makes a team a strong bet to at least secure a wild card, the Ravens will need six wins in their remaining eight games. Baltimore hasn’t pulled off a 6-2 stretch since going 9-2 to begin the 2012 season.

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Ravens no longer convincing anyone this season’s going to be different

Posted on 28 October 2018 by Luke Jones

Keep reciting the Ravens’ numbers and resume to try to convince yourself.

A top-ranked defense, an improved offense, a convincing victory at Pittsburgh, and a record-setting performance at Tennessee. Baltimore still has the NFL’s third-best point different (plus-60), which is supposed to be an indicator of future results. Even after last week’s tough loss to New Orleans, many still believed the Ravens were markedly better than last year.

But after Sunday’s listless 36-21 defeat at Carolina to finish off a 1-3 October — which follows last season’s 2-3 October and a winless October the year before that — the Ravens have returned to their post-Super Bowl XLVII home. John Harbaugh’s team is 4-4 at the midway point for the third straight season. It’s the fifth time in six years the Ravens have failed to have a winning record through eight games, and you know how those campaigns turned out.

“Overall, when you look at us, you would think that we are pretty good,” said quarterback Joe Flacco, who threw two interceptions in what was arguably his worst game of the season. “But when you look at each individual game for what it is and each individual situation and the reasons why we lost some of those games, then it is what it is.

“There is no lying in this league. You are what your record says you are, and that’s the bottom line.”

There’s no sense belaboring what happened against the Panthers when there’s so much blame to go around. From the moment rookie Lamar Jackson threw a wounded duck short of a wide-open Willie Snead on a third-and-1 gadget play on the second offensive drive, the Ravens fell apart in all three phases of the game. Baltimore was thoroughly outplayed and outcoached as Carolina would score 27 straight points from late in the first quarter until the final seconds of the third period, transforming a 7-0 lead into a 20-point deficit.

Flacco struggled behind a makeshift offensive line missing two starters, his receivers dropped passes, and the offense committed too many costly penalties. A poor running game finished with flashy numbers for once, but Panthers defensive tackle Kyle Love came untouched as he blew up an Alex Collins run and forced a fumble in the second quarter, leading to a touchdown. After such a promising September, the Ravens averaged just 18.5 points per game and Flacco only 5.9 yards per passing attempt in October, signs that being so one-dimensional is really beginning to catch up with the offense.

Three turnovers did the defense no favors on Sunday, but the group allowed a 99-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter and an 85-yard touchdown drive after the deficit was trimmed to 13 at the end of the third quarter. Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale had no answers for quarterback Cam Newton, who had his way with the Ravens both through the air and with his legs as the Panthers finished 4-for-5 inside the red zone.

In addition to failing to record a single sack, the defense had no takeaways and has only one since Tavon Young’s first-quarter interception in the loss at Cleveland in Week 5. No matter how shiny the rest of the numbers might be, the last two weeks have reflected how difficult it is to win a close game or spark a comeback without a game-changing play from your defense.

After so much was made of Justin Tucker’s stunning missed extra point last week, perhaps the pep talks needed to go to everyone else.

“We just didn’t have it,” Harbaugh said. “We weren’t there in terms of what we needed to do — coaching, playing. It starts with me. It’s on my shoulders completely. I’ll take responsibility for it.”

You hoped the Week 7 defeat to the Saints would serve as a lesson about the need to finish in the fourth quarter, but the Ravens instead responded with their worst performance of the year. It was hardly the worst loss of the Harbaugh era, but it was the kind that makes you question what’s underneath the hood of this football team.

Where was the energy and urgency?

As was the case right around this time last season and the year before that, the season is far from ruined. The Ravens won’t play on the road again until December and play their next two games against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, the two teams they’re chasing in the AFC North. Consecutive wins would put them back on track and leave them feeling better about their playoff chances at 6-4.

But another slip-up ahead of December road games at Atlanta, Kansas City, and the Los Angeles Chargers would leave anyone doubting this team’s ability to go on the kind of run needed to make it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2014. You’d certainly expect them to need plenty of help from other teams under that scenario.

“Always more, never less” is the 2018 team slogan, but it doesn’t apply to the Ravens’ annual margin for error down the stretch. It’s all-too-familiar territory, but Baltimore stills hope for a different outcome this time around.

Those prospects have become less convincing over the last two weeks as these sure look like the “same old Ravens” after all.

“We’re an average team at this point, but everything’s still right there,” safety Eric Weddle said. “We’ve got eight games, divisional games coming up, a lot of home games. It’s there for us to go get it if we want to go get it. If we get it done, it will be on us. If not, then we weren’t good enough.”

The Ravens certainly weren’t on Sunday.

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Ravens-Panthers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 27 October 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens need to finish.

If losing a 10-point fourth-quarter lead to New Orleans last week weren’t enough, Carolina erasing a 17-0 deficit at Philadelphia should have Baltimore’s full attention for Sunday’s tilt in Charlotte. The Ravens are the superior team in most statistical categories, but the Panthers found a way last week while John Harbaugh’s team wilted too much in the fourth quarter. It’s a razor-thin margin that’s the difference between a 6-1 start and the current 4-3 mark, but the Ravens are still trying to graduate from good to really good.

It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet for just the six time in the all-time regular-season series with the Panthers holding a 3-2 advantage. Baltimore has won the last two meetings, the most recent being a 38-10 blowout at M&T Bank Stadium on Sept. 28, 2014.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Justin Tucker will connect on a field goal from beyond 50 yards. His missed extra point understandably remained a big story throughout the week, so the two-time Pro Bowl kicker’s next opportunity can’t come soon enough after much support from teammates, coaches, and Ravens fans. According to special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg, 272 extra points have been missed by 54 kickers since Tucker entered the league in 2012, which is appropriate perspective on an individual who’s won the Ravens a slew of games. That said, the tiniest bit of unknown remains until he makes his next kick.

2. Cam Newton will run for a touchdown and throw for another. Between the playful comments of Eric Weddle and Wink Martindale, the Panthers quarterback is apparently like a … fast, middle-school-aged dinosaur with a beard? All kidding aside, Newton is having one of the best seasons of his career so far and will be a big problem if the Ravens aren’t disciplined in their pass-rushing lanes. He’s dealing with a sore right shoulder, however, and hasn’t been throwing the deep ball that frequently as it is. A key will be the effectiveness of Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, who was quiet last week.

3. John Brown and Michael Crabtree will each make a touchdown catch on the outside. Joe Flacco has lived in the short middle portion of the field — going there with a third of his attempts — but that’s where Panthers linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis loom, which will likely mean a quiet day for tight ends and running backs that haven’t been all that impactful in recent weeks anyway. The good news is Brown and Crabtree should find some room on the outside against cornerbacks James Bradberry and Donte Jackson. If not, the Ravens will likely struggle to move the ball.

4. Christian McCaffrey will lead all players in yards from scrimmage. The Panthers running back is dynamic, averaging 4.9 yards per carry and making 40 receptions in six games. What makes him even more effective is Newton’s threat to run, which allows Carolina coordinator Norv Turner to use motion and misdirection to set up chunk runs. The Ravens rank fifth in the NFL in yards per carry allowed (3.8) — the Panthers average 5.2 yards per attempt — but their heavy use of the dime package occasionally leaves them vulnerable against an offense unafraid to run in some unorthodox spots.

5. A fourth-quarter takeaway will help the Ravens secure a much-needed 20-17 victory. Last week was an example of how difficult it is for a defense to sustain greatness for 60 minutes without a game-changing turnover — not counting Alvin Kamara’s opening-drive fumble on a fourth-down run that was already blown up — or a collection of sacks. The Ravens are tied for 21st in the league with just seven takeaways, which borders on shocking considering their other impressive numbers and the fact that they led the NFL in that category a year ago. Something has to give eventually, right? The Panthers do remind you of a better version of Tennessee in terms of their style of play, which should still bode well as Baltimore tries to bounce back from last week’s disappointment. Injuries along the offensive line and to starting cornerback Marlon Humphrey aren’t ideal, but Flacco and the Ravens offense will do just enough and the defense will finally get a clutch turnover to secure a really important win.

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Ravens offensive line, secondary again hurting for Carolina game

Posted on 26 October 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — For the second straight week, the Ravens will be without at least one starter on the offensive line and in their secondary.

Starting right tackle James Hurst (back) and starting cornerback Marlon Humphrey (thigh) will miss a second straight game after officially being ruled out Friday while starting left guard Alex Lewis (neck) was designated as doubtful to play against Carolina. Lewis had practiced on a limited basis on Wednesday and Thursday before sitting out Friday’s closed walk-through, making it unclear whether he suffered a setback or if he simply hasn’t been cleared for contact since suffering a pinched nerve at Tennessee two weeks ago. Neither Hurst nor Humphrey practiced this week, but head coach John Harbaugh said they were “doing well” and “working hard” when asked about their progress on Friday.

Further complicating matters for the offensive line is the status of rookie guard Bradley Bozeman, who was listed as questionable with a calf injury after only returning to practice on a limited basis on Friday. Bozeman started in place of Lewis against New Orleans and battled through the injury to play 56 of 68 offensive snaps, but his potential absence would leave either Hroniss Grasu or the recently-promoted Jermaine Eluemunor to start at left guard against the Panthers. Should Bozeman be inactive, the Ravens would have only one reserve lineman — a risk they endured last week — unless they make a roster move by Saturday afternoon.

Another potential nightmare scenario would be an in-game injury to left tackle Ronnie Stanley, who is typically backed up by Hurst and then Lewis to protect quarterback Joe Flacco’s blindside.

The Baltimore secondary managed to hold Saints quarterback Drew Brees to just 212 yards while Humphrey was out in Week 7, but veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith struggled in his first start of the season and was nursing a groin injury earlier this week. After resting on Wednesday, Smith practiced fully on Thursday and Friday and is expected to start, but his health will be something to monitor over the course of the afternoon in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Rookie cornerback Anthony Averett (hamstring) logged limited practices for the second straight week and was finally upgraded to full participation on Friday, meaning he could be poised to make his return to action after a five-game absence. The 2018 fourth-round pick’s presence would give the Ravens some depth on the outside behind Smith and fellow veteran starter Brandon Carr.

The Panthers officially ruled out former Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith with a knee injury sustained in last week’s comeback victory at Philadelphia. Smith had been hoping to play against the team that drafted him for just the second time since his free-agent departure after the 2014 season.

Carolina didn’t list three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Cam Newton on the final game status report, but he was limited in practices all week with a sore right throwing shoulder, which will certainly be worth monitoring as the Panthers try to win their second straight game.

The Weather.com forecast for Sunday calls for mostly sunny skies and temperatures reaching the mid-60s with winds five to 10 miles per hour.

Below is the final injury report of the week:

BALTIMORE
OUT: CB Marlon Humphrey (thigh), OT James Hurst (back)
DOUBTFUL: G Alex Lewis (neck)
QUESTIONABLE: CB Anthony Averett (hamstring), G Bradley Bozeman (calf), DB Anthony Levine (hamstring), CB Jimmy Smith (groin)

CAROLINA
OUT: LB Andre Smith (hamstring), WR Torrey Smith (knee)
DOUBTFUL: S Rashaan Gaulden (ankle)

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Ravens corners Humphrey, Smith absent from Wednesday’s practice

Posted on 24 October 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Coming off one of the worst performances of his career, Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith is now dealing with a physical concern ahead of Sunday’s trip to Carolina.

Smith (groin) and second-year cornerback Marlon Humphrey (thigh) were absent from Wednesday’s practice, leaving their status against the Panthers in question. Humphrey missed the first game of his NFL career against New Orleans this past Sunday, and head coach John Harbaugh was tight-lipped when asked about his status for Week 8.

It remains unclear whether Smith’s absence was more of a precautionary measure early in the week, but he was present in the locker room prior to practice. Matching up extensively against Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas, Smith surrendered five receptions and a touchdown on the six times he was targeted in coverage and also committed two pass interference penalties in the 24-23 loss.

“We’ve all had games like that. I’ve had horrible games. You never hope you do, but it happens,” safety Eric Weddle said. “You just get back on the horse and look at what you did, get back to technique and working hard in practice. Practice takes a lot of the areas that you may not have been very good at in the game — that can make up for a lot — and get you back playing the way you want to.

“Jimmy is a pro; he’s going to work hard.”

Cornerback Brandon Carr (knee) was also absent from practice, but this was the fifth straight Wednesday he’s sat, making it more of a rest day despite the injury description. Weddle and wide receivers John Brown and Michael Crabtree also received a veteran rest day.

The return of left guard Alex Lewis to practice was an encouraging sign less than two weeks after he was stretchered off the field with a neck injury in Tennessee. The third-year lineman was listed as a limited participant on Wednesday and has a “good chance” to play against Carolina, according to head coach John Harbaugh.

“I had some numbness, but that was scary,” said Lewis of the pinched nerve he suffered on Oct. 14. “Once I got into the ambulance on the way to the hospital, it started to go away. I’m just thankful now that I can be walking around here and be back on the team.”

Right tackle James Hurst (back) and rookie interior lineman Bradley Bozeman (calf) did not take part in Wednesday’s workout as the Ravens remain thin along the offensive line. Harbaugh expressed optimism about Hurst’s chances of playing this Sunday after his back flared up late last week, forcing him out of the Saints game. Making his first NFL start in place of Lewis in Week 7, Bozeman was in and out of Sunday’s game after sustaining a calf injury.

Harbaugh revealed defensive tackle Willie Henry was placed on injured reserve Tuesday after suffering a herniated disc in his back. The third-year defensive lineman does have a chance to return to play this season, but he would not be eligible to be activated until late December. The injury is a blow to Baltimore’s sub package as Henry was one of the defense’s best interior rushers last season.

“It’s going to fall on our shoulders to get more pressure on the quarterback,” defensive tackle Michael Pierce said. “We’re going to have to take up some of the slack he had in those dime packages and stuff like that. We’ve got our work cut out for us, and we’ve got to get to the passer.”

The Panthers held out former Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith (knee) and starting defensive end Mario Addison (back) from Wednesday’s practice. Quarterback Cam Newton (right shoulder) and tight end Greg Olsen (foot) were limited participants.

Below is Wednesday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: G Bradley Bozeman (calf), WR John Brown (non-injury), CB Brandon Carr (knee), WR Michael Crabtree (non-injury), CB Marlon Humphrey (thigh), OT James Hurst (back), CB Jimmy Smith (groin), S Eric Weddle (non-injury)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: CB Anthony Averett (hamstring), DB Anthony Levine (hamstring), G Alex Lewis (neck)

CAROLINA
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: S Mike Adams (non-injury), DE Mario Addison (back), DE Julius Peppers (non-injury), LB Andre Smith (hamstring), WR Torrey Smith (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: TE Greg Olsen (foot), QB Cam Newton (right shoulder)

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Twelve Ravens thoughts on preseason win over Carolina

Posted on 12 August 2016 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens kicking off the preseason with a 22-19 win over Carolina, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Terrance West and Buck Allen combined for three touchdowns, but I was most impressed with the quickness of Kenneth Dixon, who ran for a game-high 44 yards on nine carries. He has the potential to be a home-run hitter as a change-of-pace back, which is something the Ravens need.

2. With Jerraud Powers and Kyle Arrington both struggling, I’d like to see Tavon Young and Terrence Brooks get more opportunities at the nickel. Young played sparingly, but he has shown good ball skills in practices. Brooks’ size is an intriguing option there, especially since Baltimore’s starting safeties are undersized.

3. First-round rookie Ronnie Stanley performed well in his first start, and Harbaugh made a point to praise the young left tackle’s strong desire to play despite suffering a recent injury. I wonder if that was a coincidence after ex-Raven Eugene Monroe started just 17 games over the last two years.

4. The Kaelin Clay muffed punt and John Harbaugh’s post-game comments lead you to believe the 2016 punt returner may not be on the current roster. The Ravens were right to cut Jacoby Jones two offseasons ago, but they’ve surely had their problems replacing him.

5. After a fast start to camp, Kamalei Correa had a relatively quiet night, failing to record a statistic in 21 defensive snaps. He appeared to play exclusively as an edge defender, making you wonder if Zach Orr has a bigger lead in the inside linebacker competition than we thought.

6. Entering his sixth year, linebacker Chris Carter was facing second- and third-team offensive linemen, but he showed impressive quickness off the edge and also made plays at inside linebacker. Versatility and his special-teams ability will help in his bid to win a job.

7. Speaking of edge defenders, Victor Ochi has flashed potential on more than one occasion during camp, but the rookie free agent only saw the field for seven snaps. That makes you wonder if the Ravens are trying to hide him in an effort to sneak him onto the practice squad.

8. Starting in place of Marshal Yanda, Vlad Ducasse may have been the Ravens’ most impressive offensive lineman, making terrific blocks on Dixon’s 19-yard run and Allen’s 19-yard touchdown catch. He’s not a sure bet to make the roster, but he has made 22 starts in six NFL seasons.

9. The Ravens only suited up five receivers, making it concerning that Keenan Reynolds wasn’t targeted once despite playing 29 offensive snaps. Everyone is rooting for the former Navy standout, but he remains a work in progress with a long way to go as both a punt returner and receiver.

10. Built similarly to Brandon Williams, rookie nose tackle Michael Pierce showed impressive push inside to collect three tackles and split a sack with Carter. Making the 53-man roster might appear to be a tall order, but the Samford product has definitely turned some heads.

11. After calling plays from the upstairs booth the last few seasons, defensive coordinator Dean Pees was on the sideline during Thursday’s game. It will be interesting to hear his rationale for the change and whether it will carry over to the regular season.

12. The fans’ reaction to Michael Phelps winning his 22nd Olympic gold medal on Thursday night was hardly surprising, but the enthusiasm shown by players watching the replay of the race on the video board was a memorable moment late in a pedestrian preseason game.

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Young Ravens flash some potential in mundane preseason opener

Posted on 12 August 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — With so many key veterans not even suited up, there wasn’t much to take away from the Ravens’ 22-19 win over Carolina to begin the preseason.

There was some good, some bad, and plenty of “meh” over the course of the night, which is what you expect in the first preseason game when starters might not make as much as a cameo appearance. But head coach John Harbaugh made it clear earlier in the week that he wanted to see something from his younger players after a 5-11 season in which nine different losses were decided by one possession.

He was looking for some game-changing plays.

“You just don’t know until you see something happen,” Harbaugh said. “Now [that] we have this game behind us, we can watch the tape and have a sense of, ‘OK, this is kind of our beginning, this is where we start.’ Some of these young guys, we drafted them for a reason, and I think they showed up tonight. But they have to keep getting better if they’re going to win games in the National Football League against top-flight guys.”

A few players flashed that ability despite the Ravens having just one play of 20 or more yards, a 29-yard completion from No. 3 quarterback Josh Johnson to tight end Nick Boyle in the third quarter.

Starting at rush linebacker in place of Terrell Suggs, Za’Darius Smith provided the first game-changing play of the night when he blew past reserve tackle Daryl Williams to sack and strip Panthers backup quarterback Derek Anderson, allowing defensive tackle Carl Davis to recover the fumble deep in Carolina territory. The Ravens offense would give the ball right back to Carolina a few plays later, but creating turnovers has been a bigger point of emphasis than normal this year after the defense had just 14 takeaways in 2015, the lowest single-season total in franchise history.

With Suggs and Elvis Dumervil each on the wrong side of 30, Smith developing into an impact pass rusher would go a long way in helping the Baltimore defense. It was also encouraging to see draft picks Matt Judon and Willie Henry be disruptive in their first preseason action.

On the offensive side of the ball, a trio of young running backs showcased their potential with Terrance West rushing for two touchdowns, Buck Allen catching a 19-yard score, and lightning-quick rookie Kenneth Dixon carrying nine times for 44 yards and picking up the longest run of the night, a 19-yard sprint behind superb blocks from John Urschel and Vlad Ducasse. West’s 25 yards on nine carries didn’t look like much on paper, but the jump cut he displayed to move the chains on a third-and-2 run in the first quarter and his acceleration while changing direction on a 2-yard touchdown in the third quarter reinforced the improvement he’s shown in practices this summer.

Those offerings were probably enough to make starter Justin Forsett eager to get back on the field after he was among the veterans to receive the night off on Thursday. With the Ravens coming off the most disappointing season of the Harbaugh era, that kind of competition is a good thing.

“I’m just trying to win [over] every guy in that building and show the Ravens [organization] that they can count on me,” West said. “Accountability. I am just trying to come out here and work hard and show these guys that they can depend on me.”

Of course, there was much not to like on Thursday, ranging from the lackluster performance of the secondary to shaky special teams. Veterans Jerraud Powers and Kyle Arrington did nothing to quell concerns about the nickel cornerback job while Kaelin Clay’s muffed punt reflected how unimpressive the return specialist competition has been.

The Ravens remain a work in progress, but a team needing some young players to step forward saw a few flashes of promise in an otherwise mundane preseason game.

“Those are the plays that win you games, the game-changing-type plays,” said safety Eric Weddle of Smith’s strip sack in the opening quarter. “You can watch the film. There’s 60, 70 snaps, [and] there will be four or five plays. You either make them and you win the game or you don’t and the other team does and they win. We want to be on the right side of that and win a bunch of games.”

After being on the wrong side all last year, Baltimore is hoping to flip the script in 2016.

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Ravens-Panthers preseason primer: Five players to watch

Posted on 10 August 2016 by Luke Jones

Thursday will feel familiar as the Ravens begin the preseason against the defending NFC champion Carolina Panthers.

With Joe Flacco and other veterans not expected to play, the game will resemble the end of last season with backup quarterback Ryan Mallett and other young players factoring heavily into the action immediately. Of course, the Ravens don’t mind that reality as much right now with the start of the regular season still a month away.

“It’s going to be the young guys,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “It’s going to be the guys that need to play in this game that we want to find out about. Anybody that has a health issue or anything like that is not even going to be thinking about playing. It’s just going to be one of those kinds of camp games that we learn about our young guys.”

Coming off a 5-11 season and their worst campaign in nearly a decade, the Ravens are feeling more urgency in this year’s preseason for obvious reasons. Wins and losses in the summer may not have a strong bearing on how a team will fare in the regular season, but a 1-3 preseason last year was a reflection of how little depth the Ravens had in 2015, a weakness that was painfully exposed as injuries piled up.

With the likes of Steve Smith, Terrell Suggs, and Elvis Dumervil still working their way back to full health, the Ravens want to see young players seize opportunities and make names for themselves on a roster clearly in transition. As much as the discussion has centered around older players on this roster, young play-makers must emerge to help facilitate Baltimore’s return to contender status in 2016 and beyond.

“I can’t wait to see how this shakes out on Thursday, but also for the next three weeks seeing who the guys are,” Harbaugh said. “I’m looking for the guys to make plays. Who is going to make the plays? That’s it. We have a bunch of guys with potential who are definitely talented enough to do it.

“The best guy is going to make it. The roster is way too tight for anybody to be a project right now; it’s going to be [about] guys making plays.”

Thursday marks the seventh time these teams have met in the preseason with the Ravens holding the 4-2 edge over the Panthers. Baltimore has compiled a 20-12 record in preseason games under Harbaugh.

Unofficial (and largely speculative) injury report

The Ravens are not required to release an injury report like they do for regular-season games, but I’ve offered my best guess on what the injury report would look like if one were to be released ahead of Thursday night’s game against Carolina.

Most of the players ruled to be out will come as no surprise, but the status of a few will remain in question. Of course, this list does not consider any veteran players — like Flacco — who will be held out of the preseason opener due to the coaching staff’s preference.

Again, this is not an official injury report released by the Ravens:

OUT: WR Steve Smith (Achilles), LB Terrell Suggs (Achilles), LB Elvis Dumervil (foot), WR Breshad Perriman (knee), RB Lorenzo Taliaferro (foot), WR Chris Moore (foot), TE Crockett Gillmore (hamstring), DE Bronson Kaufusi (ankle)
DOUBTFUL: TE Dennis Pitta (finger/hip), WR Chris Matthews (“soft tissue” injury), CB Maurice Canady (undisclosed)
QUESTIONABLE: DT Timmy Jernigan (ribs), OT Ronnie Stanley (“soft tissue” injury), WR Michael Campanaro (unspecified strains), TE Maxx Williams (undisclosed)
PROBABLE: QB Joe Flacco (knee), RB Kenneth Dixon (knee), TE Daniel Brown (jaw), CB Jimmy Smith (foot)

Five players to watch Thursday night

RB Terrance West

Much focus has been placed on the number of absences in the first two weeks of training camp, but West has arguably been the early star of the summer, looking lighter and more explosive than he did last season when he rushed for 180 yards on 46 carries in six games with the Ravens. Coaches have been pleased with West’s work ethic as he’s shown improved field vision and is better in pass protection. His performance to this point has likely dismissed pre-camp predictions that he would be on the roster bubble, but carrying over that success to preseason games would put West in the conversation to start.

LB Kamalei Correa

The rookie second-round pick has brought athleticism and an edge to a group of Ravens linebackers that’s been practicing without Suggs and Dumervil. Until recently, he looked like the clear favorite to start at the weak-side inside linebacker spot next to C.J. Mosley, but third-year linebacker Zach Orr is also competing for the job and has taken more starter reps over the last few practices. Regardless of how that battle shakes out, Correa will see plenty of action inside and as an edge defender in sub packages. If his practice performance translates to the preseason, his No. 51 will be called frequently on Thursday.

OT Alex Lewis

With first-round pick Ronnie Stanley’s status for Thursday in question after he suffered a minor injury last weekend, the Ravens may start Lewis at left tackle after selecting him in the fourth round of April’s draft. Baltimore appears comfortable with Stanley handling the job as a rookie, but it’s clear that an upgrade is needed from top reserve James Hurst, who has been practicing more extensively at guard in recent practices. If Lewis can hold up to some reasonable degree against a tough Carolina front, the Ravens would feel a lot better about the prospects of him being Stanley’s primary backup in 2016.

LB Za’Darius Smith

He hasn’t received a ton of press, but Smith could be one of the biggest keys for the Ravens defense in 2016. With Suggs turning 34 in October and coming off an Achilles injury and Dumervil better suited for a situational role, the 6-foot-4, 275-pound Smith becoming an impact player would quell the many concerns about the pass rush. He’s primarily been working at Suggs’ rush linebacker spot, but he has improved at setting the edge, making you wonder if he could step into a hybrid role with responsibilities formerly held by Courtney Upshaw and Pernell McPhee. This defense would be a lot better if he can.

WR Jeremy Butler

Butler is rarely mentioned while other young receivers are frequently discussed, but he has stacked quality practices after catching 31 passes for 363 yards in eight games last year. Though more of a possession receiver, the 6-foot-2 Butler makes catches in traffic and has managed to stay on the field while the likes of Michael Campanaro, Chris Moore, Chris Matthews, and Breshad Perriman have missed time with injuries. Butler may lack the upside of some of the aforementioned names, but there’s something to be said about being able to stay on the field and produce when jobs are clearly up for grabs.

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Ravens-related thoughts on Super Bowl 50

Posted on 08 February 2016 by Luke Jones

You couldn’t help but notice parallels between Peyton Manning’s improbable run to a win in Super Bowl 50 and Ray Lewis finishing his “last ride” with a championship in New Orleans three years ago.

The future Hall of Famers both missed substantial time with injuries in the regular season before returning in time for the playoffs. Each made important contributions on the playoff path to the Super Bowl as Lewis averaged just under 15 tackles per game in the first three rounds of the 2012 postseason and Manning threw for 222 yards against Pittsburgh — overcoming a number of dropped passes — and had two touchdown passes against New England in the AFC championship game.

But as much as we might have enjoyed seeing two of the greatest players in NFL history go out on top, it was apparent that each needed to retire after watching them play in the Super Bowl. While we remember Joe Flacco earning Super Bowl XLVII MVP honors, we try to forget Lewis looking slow and hopeless covering San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis or chasing after 49ers running back Frank Gore in that game.

Like the great Ravens linebacker against the 49ers, Manning had little to do with Denver winning its third Super Bowl title as the Broncos defense suffocated Carolina on Sunday night. Perhaps the 39-year-old Manning was owed one by the football gods after playing with some less-than-stellar defenses over the years in the same way that Lewis had some of his best years wasted by ineptitude on the other side of the ball.

If you’re a Ravens fan struggling to be happy for the quarterback who twice broke Baltimore’s heart in the playoffs — including the 2006 postseason defeat that was the most devastating home loss in franchise history — don’t forget his touching gesture in the playoffs three years ago. More than an hour after the Ravens had defeated the Broncos in an epic double-overtime contest in the divisional round, Manning and his family waited in the Baltimore locker room to congratulate Lewis personally.

Despite dealing with one of the most disappointing losses of his storied career, Manning still wanted to offer his respect to Lewis after the last of their many entertaining chess matches over the years.

It doesn’t matter if Manning — or Lewis — was no longer the same player when tasting championship glory for a final time. Seeing one of the all-time greats exit that way is special and rare.

Let’s just hope Manning actually retires now as most people expect.

Miller time

Four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Von Miller already had a résumé impressive enough to land a lucrative contract this offseason, but the Super Bowl 50 MVP took his performance to another level in the postseason.

Scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March, the 26-year-old had a combined five sacks, two forced fumbles, and an interception in the AFC championship game and Super Bowl. That’s the kind of timing that Flacco can appreciate after the Ravens quarterback threw for 11 touchdowns and no interceptions in the 2012 postseason to fetch a six-year, $120.6 million contract a few weeks later.

ESPN has already reported that Denver will use the franchise tag if a long-term deal isn’t reached, meaning Ravens fans should stop dreaming about Miller reuniting with Elvis Dumervil in Baltimore.

Kubiak turns to dark side

Former Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak did a masterful job of handling a difficult quarterback situation this season.

Leading 16-10 and facing a third-and-9 from his own 26 with less than six minutes remaining, the Broncos head coach didn’t allow Manning to even attempt a pass and ran the ball with C.J. Anderson before punting. It was both the right decision and a clear sign that Manning needs to retire.

Possessing a championship defense, the offensive-minded Kubiak turned to the “dark side” in a way reminiscent of how Brian Billick handled the 2000 Ravens by deferring to his defense and being conservative. The difference is that it was much easier to do such a thing with Trent Dilfer than with one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

Stewart shines

Darian Stewart was a nondescript performer in his lone year with the Ravens, but the Denver safety stood out in the Super Bowl.

He collected three tackles, a sack, two pass breakups, and a forced fumble when he put his helmet right on the ball to knock it away from Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert. It wasn’t just a one-game aberration, either, after Pro Football Focus graded Stewart 14th among NFL safeties during the 2015 season.

It really makes you wonder where that player was in Baltimore a year ago.

False start

After Panthers left tackle Michael Oher committed a false start late in the second quarter, you couldn’t help but be amused by the social-media reaction of Ravens fans who had seen that act often in Baltimore.

The 2009 first-round pick deserves much credit for working hard to get his career back on track in Carolina, but Super Bowl 50 was a forgettable performance for him and the rest of the Panthers offensive line.

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