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Ravens regular-season moment No. 17: “Our backs were against the wall”

Posted on 22 May 2020 by Luke Jones

Check out the No. 18 regular-season moment in Ravens history HERE.

The Ravens hadn’t won a truly critical December game in a very long time.

After missing the playoffs in each of the previous three years, Baltimore was a team in transition as rookie first-round quarterback Lamar Jackson had replaced the injured Joe Flacco during the Week 10 bye. Many assumed that makeover would continue with a new head coach as rumors had swirled about John Harbaugh and the organization likely parting ways at the end of the season.

Jackson was still another offseason of development away from blossoming into the league MVP, but his presence had revitalized a stagnant rushing attack and breathed new life into the Ravens, who had won four of five coming out of the bye week to climb back into the playoff race. The revamped ball-control offense had better complemented a defense that dominated down the stretch and finished first in the NFL in total yards allowed, second in points allowed, and third in defensive efficiency.

But a Week 16 showdown with the red-hot Los Angeles Chargers — who were coming off extra rest after an impressive Thursday road win over AFC-leading Kansas City the week before — was the kind of test the Ravens simply hadn’t passed in recent years. Memories of the Christmas loss in Pittsburgh two years earlier and the fourth-and-12 choke against Cincinnati in the 2017 finale were too strong for most to believe Baltimore would beat one of the NFL’s elite, especially on the road.

The plot felt all too familiar as the Ravens dominated the first half statistically, but they led only 6-3 at halftime after going 0-for-3 inside the red zone. Jackson’s beautiful 68-yard touchdown pass to fellow rookie Mark Andrews and a Justin Tucker 56-yard field goal gave the Ravens a 16-10 lead in the third quarter, but the offense then stalled with three straight three-and-outs, continuing to put great pressure on a Baltimore defense that had bullied eight-time Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers and one of the league’s best offenses all night.

In the post-Super Bowl XLVII era, Ravens defenses had remained strong statistically, but a reputation for faltering at critical moments was impossible to overlook. Even two weeks earlier, Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs had pulled off a miraculous fourth-down conversion to force overtime and deny Baltimore an upset bid at Arrowhead Stadium.

That’s why Ravens fans couldn’t help but feel uneasy when Sam Koch’s punt from his own end zone was returned 24 yards by Desmond King to the Baltimore 39 with three minutes remaining. Not only could Rivers and the Chargers take the lead with a touchdown, but they had a short field to do it.

Someone would have to make a play for the Ravens to keep strong playoff hopes alive.

A holding penalty pushed Los Angeles back before Rivers completed a first-and-20 throw over the middle to eight-time Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates, who fought for more yardage as cornerback Brandon Carr wrapped him up. Linebacker Patrick Onwuasor arrived a moment later to punch out the football, and slot cornerback Tavon Young scooped it up and sprinted 62 yards for a touchdown.

Game over.

The defense had closed a terrific performance, and the Ravens had secured their biggest December victory in years. And with Pittsburgh losing at New Orleans the following day, Baltimore needed only a Week 17 win to secure its first AFC North championship since 2012.

The Chargers would exact their revenge in a wild-card round rematch at M&T Bank Stadium two weeks later, but the Ravens had finally broken through after not being quite good enough for too long. The Week 16 win brought Jackson’s first 200-yard passing performance as a pro, the defense’s ability to finish, and validation for the previous night’s announcement that Harbaugh would return in 2019 with a new contract extension to continue to lead a new era for the Ravens.

“Once again, our backs were against the wall,” Harbaugh said to his players in the locker room after the 22-10 victory. “Nobody thought we’d come out here and win. Except who? Us.”

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Ravens regular-season moment No. 19: “You want to be the last team standing”

Posted on 19 May 2020 by Luke Jones

Check out the No. 20 regular-season moment in Ravens history HERE.

The 2006 campaign was shaping up to be a pivotal one.

With the Ravens coming off their worst season since 1998, head coach Brian Billick was firmly on the hot seat and former first-round pick Kyle Boller wasn’t the franchise quarterback the organization hoped he would be after drafting him three years earlier. That prompted general manager Ozzie Newsome to trade a fourth-round pick to Tennessee for former MVP quarterback and longtime rival Steve McNair to boost a mediocre offense needing to better complement a championship-caliber defense led by future Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, who were both healthy after injuries the previous year.

Baltimore began the season with a bang, shutting out Tampa Bay on the road and flattening Oakland in the home opener. A fourth-quarter comeback win at Cleveland gave the Ravens the first 3-0 start in franchise history to set up a Week 4 showdown with undefeated San Diego at an energized M&T Bank Stadium. Led by MVP running back LaDainian Tomlinson, the Chargers and their No. 1 scoring offense going up against the league’s best defense felt like a potential preview of the AFC Championship game.

The teams traded touchdowns in the first quarter, but it was an ugly affair for the Ravens for much of the day with McNair throwing two interceptions, backup tight end Dan Wilcox fumbling at the San Diego 1 in the third quarter, and top wide receiver Derrick Mason dropping a sure touchdown in the fourth quarter. But the Chargers had made their own mistakes with conservative play calling and a fumbled snap that squandered a 52-yard field goal attempt that could have put them ahead by two scores midway through the final period.

Backed up on its next possession and not wanting to give the Ravens a short field with time winding down, San Diego intentionally took a safety to make it a 13-9 game with 3:12 remaining. It was just enough time for McNair, who had led the go-ahead drive against the Browns a week earlier and was trying to redeem himself after a poor showing in front of his new fans.

After punting or committing a turnover on their first five drives of the second half, the Ravens moved into the red zone thanks to two completions to Mark Clayton and a vintage 12-yard scramble by McNair. Out of timeouts after burning all three in the third quarter, Baltimore faced a second down from the 10 with 41 seconds to go.

Motioning across the formation, Todd Heap wasn’t a primary read on the play, but the Chargers rushed only three after applying heavy pressure much of the day, allowing McNair to look back to his left. Heap, a two-time Pro Bowl tight end despite having played with a motley crew of quarterbacks over his first five seasons, reined in a high pass and absorbed a shot from Pro Bowl outside linebacker Shawne Merriman at the 3 before stretching across the goal line with 34 seconds remaining.

“I felt the hit,” Heap said after the 16-13 win. “Luckily, I was able to bounce, fight, and do whatever I could to get in the end zone. You want to be able to take the hit. You want to be the last team standing.”

The upper deck seemingly shook during one of the loudest eruptions in the stadium’s history. All that was left was for the Ravens defense to put a bow on its impressive performance against an offense that averaged just over 30 points per game that season.

A fourth-down completion from Philip Rivers to Antonio Gates gave the Chargers a last-gasp chance from the Baltimore 49, but outside linebacker Jarret Johnson sacked the San Diego quarterback on the next play as time expired. The Ravens had prevailed to improve to 4-0 and would go 13-3, the best regular-season record in franchise history until 2019.

The Chargers and Ravens would finish as the AFC’s top two seeds respectively in 2006, but there would be no January rematch with both teams being upset in the divisional round. Still, you couldn’t ask for better theater in Week 4 than what Ravens fans witnessed on that early October afternoon.

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Ravens reportedly agree to deal with veteran guard D.J. Fluker

Posted on 28 April 2020 by Luke Jones

Needing to replace one of the best players in franchise history, the Ravens have added an experienced veteran to the competition to replace eight-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda.

According to NFL Network, the Ravens have agreed to terms on a deal with former Seattle guard D.J. Fluker, pending a physical. The Seahawks released the 29-year-old after drafting LSU guard Damien Lewis in the third round of this weekend’s draft. Fluker started 14 games in the regular season and two playoff contests at right guard this past year, but he missed the Week 7 meeting with the Ravens due to a hamstring injury.

Pro Football Focus graded Fluker 48th among 81 qualified guards last season.

The 11th overall pick of the 2013 draft out of Alabama, Fluker began his career with San Diego and spent three seasons with current Ravens offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris, who held the same job with the Chargers from 2013-15. The 6-foot-5, 342-pound Fluker began his career at right tackle before moving to right guard in 2015.

Fluker played four seasons with the Chargers before spending 2017 with the New York Giants and playing for the Seahawks the last two seasons. He’s started 88 of his 92 games played over seven seasons.

The competition at right guard also includes 2019 undrafted free agent Patrick Mekari, 2019 fourth-round pick Ben Powers, and 2020 draft picks Tyre Phillips and Ben Bredeson, but the two rookies could be at a significant disadvantage with on-site spring workouts wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic. None will fully replace the Hall of Fame-caliber play of Yanda, of course, but Fluker’s experience edge could prove the difference amidst the uncertainty of the summer and the 2020 season as a whole.

Much of the offseason responsibility will fall on players to keep themselves in shape between now and whenever they’re allowed back at practice facilities.

“The other advantage is them knowing the playbook inside and out, not just starting when they come back,” said head coach John Harbaugh about the challenge of rookies being limited to remote work with coaches. “We’re teachers; our coaches want to coach. We’ve been developing all these applications remotely, teaching tools and interactive-type teaching tools and games and things like that. We’re going to get those guys plugged into that stuff right away just like we are with the veterans.”

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Ravens officially commit to Harbaugh as they enter new era

Posted on 24 January 2019 by Luke Jones

Just over a month after stating their long-term commitment to John Harbaugh, the transitioning Ravens have finally made it official with a new four-year contract announced on Thursday.

The Super Bowl XLVII-winning head coach who led Baltimore to its first AFC North championship since 2012 this past season is now under contract through 2022, removing any doubt about owner Steve Bisciotti’s choice to lead the Ravens into a new era. With Eric DeCosta now the general manager — with Ozzie Newsome remaining in a “significant” role — and Lamar Jackson the starting quarterback, Harbaugh will enter his 12th season as head coach with the Ravens trying to build upon their first trip to the playoffs since 2014 and facing a number of difficult roster decisions.

“I’m very excited with this contract, the opportunity to continue our work here, and I’m humbled by it,” Harbaugh said in a statement released by the organization. “I am thankful for the support from the Ravens, especially Steve Bisciotti. We’re working hard to make the 2019 Ravens the best we can be. We have an excellent team foundation, and we have a great organization with smart, hard-working people.”

It’s an outcome that appeared unlikely less than three months ago when Baltimore entered its Week 10 bye with a three-game losing streak and veteran quarterback Joe Flacco nursing a hip injury. Harbaugh and his coaching staff revamped a formerly pass-heavy offense with Jackson at the helm as the Ravens would go 6-1 and lead the NFL in rushing yards over the final seven weeks of the season. The changing of the guard at quarterback was completed prior to Week 15 when Harbaugh declared Jackson the permanent starter and benched a healthy Flacco, the Super Bowl XLVII Most Valuable Player and best signal-caller in franchise history who arrived in Baltimore at the same time as the head coach in 2008.

With reports circulating about other teams’ interest in their head coach, the Ravens announced the night before their critical Week 16 tilt against the Los Angeles Chargers that Harbaugh would return for the 2019 season — the final year of his previous contract — as the sides worked toward a long-term extension. With players rejuvenated by the news, Baltimore secured its biggest road victory in years against the Chargers and clinched the division title with a win over Cleveland the following week, ending a three-year playoff drought with a 10-6 record.

The challenge now becomes building a more balanced and sustainable offense to aid in the development of Jackson, who set an NFL record for rushing attempts by a quarterback (147) despite starting only seven games as a rookie. The Ravens didn’t ask the 2018 first-round pick to do much as a passer, a plan that worked beautifully over the second half of the season before being smothered by the Chargers in a 23-17 loss in the wild-card round. Jackson, 22, completed 58.2 percent of his passes for 1,201 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions in the regular season, but he struggled with accuracy outside the numbers and his 15 fumbles — including three in the playoff loss — led the NFL.

On Jan. 11, Harbaugh promoted Greg Roman to offensive coordinator after the assistant head coach and run-game guru was credited for implementing his rush-heavy schemes in the second half of the season. A target for criticism after the ugly playoff defeat to Los Angeles and throughout his three-year tenure, former offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg declined to remain on the coaching staff in a different capacity. Roman will become Harbaugh’s sixth offensive coordinator since the start of the 2012 season, a variable frequently cited in Flacco’s post-Super Bowl decline.

Harbaugh’s 114 victories — including 10 postseason wins — are easily the most in Ravens history, and he is the only head coach in league history to win a playoff game in six of his first seven seasons. However, Baltimore owns a rather ordinary 50-46 regular-season record since the start of the 2013 season and has just one playoff victory over the last six years. Bisciotti acknowledged he considered replacing Harbaugh after the 2017 season, leading many to assume the 56-year-old was coaching for his job this past year despite having just one losing campaign in his career.

The new four-year contract will silence the discussion about the coach’s future, but Harbaugh would be the first to dispute the notion of having long-term security in the crucible that is the NFL. The franchise’s history backs that claim as Bisciotti fired former head coach and Super Bowl XXXV winner Brian Billick only one season after awarding him a four-year extension in 2007.

How the Ravens fare with Jackson at quarterback will be the largest factor in determining whether Harbaugh’s new contract serves more as a temporary reprieve or as the second act of what could eventually be a Hall of Fame coaching career.

Bisciotti is certainly betting on the latter with the only head coach he’s ever hired.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts on divisional-round weekend

Posted on 14 January 2019 by Luke Jones

With the NFL divisional round now in the books, I’ve offered a dozen Ravens-related thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The league’s top four scoring offenses advanced to the conference championship games with only one of those teams — New England — ranking in the top 10 in scoring defense. Remember that as Eric DeCosta weighs tough defensive roster decisions against the need to build an offense around 22-year-old quarterback Lamar Jackson.

2. Since the 2012 Ravens, no team playing in the wild-card round has made the Super Bowl. In fact, no team even playing a road playoff game since then has made it. Rest and home-field advantage remain way more important than being the hot upstart “nobody wants to see in January.”

3. After dominating Baltimore last week, the Chargers’ “quarter” defense had no answers for New England using big personnel and running right at them. The Patriots carving up Los Angeles didn’t make former offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg or the rest of the Baltimore offensive staff look any better.

4. Fans and even a player or two predictably suggested the Ravens would have put up a better fight against the Patriots. I’ll hear that with Baltimore’s defense, but Bill Belichick having an extra week to prepare for a rookie quarterback and a limited offense? That may not have been pretty.

5. New Orleans receiver Michael Thomas continued a remarkable 125-catch regular season with 12 receptions for 171 yards and a touchdown in Sunday’s win over Philadelphia. He was selected five spots after Kamalei Correa in the 2016 draft. Sorry for ruining your day.

6. Watching the divisional round reiterated how badly the Ravens need more talented pass catchers who can gain yards after the catch. They ranked 27th in the NFL in yards after the catch this season after their wide receivers ranked 31st in that category in 2017.

7. I couldn’t help but wonder if Haloti Ngata was playing his final NFL game with Philadelphia on Sunday. His star faded a long time ago, but a 340-pound defensive tackle lasting 13 seasons is really impressive. The five-time Pro Bowl selection is an instant shoo-in for the Ring of Honor.

8. The Patriots are the last team Ravens fans want to see winning the Super Bowl, but Albert McClellan was one of the most respected players in the Baltimore locker room for a long time. His special-teams prowess has fit well in New England as he recovered a fumble on Sunday.

9. Jared Goff going to the NFC Championship two years after an awful rookie season should be all the evidence needed to see why it’s unfair to draw strong conclusions about a quarterback so quickly. I’m fascinated to see how Jackson looks after a full offseason to refine his passing ability.

10. Having already announced plans to retire, former Raven Benjamin Watson will accomplish a rare feat if the Saints win the Super Bowl. The 38-year-old spent most of his rookie season on injured reserve, but he won a Super Bowl with the Patriots that year. Those would be quite the bookends.

11. Speaking of long careers, Joe Flacco arrived in Baltimore eight years after Tom Brady in New England, had a memorable 11-year-run that included a Super Bowl MVP award and a couple playoff wins in Foxboro, and will depart while the 41-year-old is still standing. How is that possible?

12. This isn’t related to the Ravens, but the video below tells my favorite story of the weekend.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 23-17 loss to Chargers

Posted on 08 January 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens’ season coming to an end in a 23-17 playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. I understand John Harbaugh wanted to make it a one-score game when he had Justin Tucker try a 50-yard field goal on fourth-and-2 late in the third quarter, but the decision was surprising based on analytics and his team’s psyche. Even before the miss, it felt like a demoralizing choice.

2. The Ravens made clear they were just about finished with Joe Flacco during the draft and reached the point of no return when Harbaugh officially benched him. Considering the Chargers’ pass rush, I didn’t have an issue with leaving someone who hadn’t played in over two months on the bench.

3. In the big picture that shouldn’t be ignored, Lamar Jackson remaining in the game and finding some late success was important. Harbaugh benching him at the first sign of trouble would have been a tough message for Jackson — and the entire locker room — to forget this offseason.

4. Lost in the disappointment was another strong defensive performance as the Chargers were held to one touchdown and Philip Rivers averaged just 5.0 yards per passing attempt. Prior to the fourth quarter, this game very much reminded me of the excruciating 2006 playoff loss to Indianapolis.

5. Was fumbling on three consecutive offensive plays or going two hours in real time between pass completions the more embarrassing feat? It’s remarkable the Ravens didn’t lose by four touchdowns.

6. Matthew Judon registered two tackles for a loss and five quarterback hits in another superb effort. He really elevated his play down the stretch, which is significant since he’s the only starting-caliber outside linebacker under contract for 2019.

7. James Hurst is a hard worker and a high-character individual, but Sunday was a reminder that he’s better suited to be a versatile backup and not a starter. Pro Football Focus credited him with surrendering three sacks and a quarterback hit and gave him a 0.0 pass-blocking grade. Ouch.

8. Scheduled to become a restricted free agent, Patrick Onwuasor elevated his standing down the stretch as he recorded another forced fumble and a sack. With C.J. Mosley uncertain to return as an unrestricted free agent, Onwuasor’s emergence is even more significant.

9. The snap count was skewed by the final two drives, but I still can’t believe heavy formations and power rushing weren’t bigger factors against the Chargers’ quarter defense employing seven defensive backs. Nick Boyle played a season-low 18 snaps while Maxx Williams’ 17 were his fewest since Week 12.

10. Two fourth-quarter touchdowns don’t make up for a disappointing season from Michael Crabtree. It’ll be interesting to see how the wide receiver position plays out this offseason after the dramatic shift toward the running game, but his $9.33 million salary cap number for 2019 doesn’t sound appealing.

11. Playing fewer snaps than last season resulted in just 1 1/2 sacks after Week 7 for Terrell Suggs, who reconfirmed his desire to continue playing for the Ravens while acknowledging that may not happen. Even if Suggs signs a cheap short-term deal, Eric DeCosta really must address this position.

12. I understand players reacting to fans booing in the aftermath of Sunday’s loss and admire their desire to stick up for Jackson, but they needed to move on by Monday’s media availability instead of fanning the flames. Robert Griffin III provided both an experienced and measured response HERE (4:00 mark).

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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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Ravens-Chargers: Five predictions for AFC wild-card game

Posted on 05 January 2019 by Luke Jones

Much has changed since the Ravens last hosted a playoff game six years ago.

Ray Lewis is in the Hall of Fame, Ed Reed will join him in a few weeks, and Joe Flacco has quite possibly already played his final snap as a Raven. Baltimore had made the playoffs just once since that last home playoff win over Indianapolis, but the start of the Lamar Jackson era seven weeks ago has created an energy not seen in these parts in quite some time. Winners of six of their last seven to clinch the AFC North title, the Ravens hope that vibe carries them to victory in Sunday’s wild-card game.

Standing in their way is the Los Angeles Chargers, who finished tied for the third-best record in football and had the misfortune of being in the same division as No. 1 seed Kansas City. Despite traveling to the East Coast for a 1 p.m. game, Anthony Lynn’s team is 8-0 in contests played outside Los Angeles this season, which included wins in Seattle, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City.

It’s time to go on the record as these AFC teams meet in the postseason for the first time ever. Of course, the Ravens toppled the Chargers 22-10 in their Week 16 meeting to improve to 7-5 in the all-time regular-season series. Baltimore owns a 3-1 record against them at M&T Bank Stadium, but the teams split the last two games there in 2014 and 2015 with the outcomes decided by a combined four points.

Below are five predictions for Saturday:

1. The Chargers will speed up the pace and spread out the Baltimore defense for an early touchdown. The Ravens controlled the tempo throughout the Week 16 meeting, harassing Philip Rivers with blitzes that the Chargers rarely had answers for. This time, I expect Los Angeles to use some no-huddle and empty formations to try to slow the pass rush and keep the Ravens off-balance early on. It’s worth noting Pro Bowl wide receiver Keenan Allen is healthier this time around and will find space for an early touchdown reception after being held to a quiet five catches for 58 yards in the first meeting.

2. Gus Edwards will rush for a career-high 120 yards and a score. The Chargers use the dime package more than anyone in the NFL, which helped them hold Jackson to just 39 rushing yards in Week 16. However, a lighter front leaves Los Angeles more susceptible to the dive plays so frequently run by Edwards. To their credit, the Chargers slowed down the 238-pound rookie in the second half, but he still managed 92 yards on 14 carries two weeks ago. Making matters worse, Los Angeles nose tackle Brandon Mebane isn’t expected to play, making the front seven even more vulnerable against power runs.

3. Jackson will run for more yards than Pro Bowl running back Melvin Gordon. We’ve spent ample time talking about the Ravens’ running game, but has anyone noticed what their rush defense has done since the bye week? Opponents are averaging just 3.4 yards per carry and only two players have managed as much as 60 rushing yards against them over the last seven contests. Gordon is a dynamic player capable of leaving a huge mark in his first NFL playoff game, but he’s more likely to do that as a receiver out of the backfield. I also expect Jackson to find more daylight as the game progresses with the Chargers tweaking their front to account for the inside power runs.

4. A long Cyrus Jones punt return will set up a Ravens touchdown. The running game and a dominant defense have received most of the credit for the post-bye turnaround, but the special teams rose from a pedestrian 13th in special teams DVOA at the bye to sixth by season’s end. Football Outsiders rated Baltimore’s punt return unit second in the league while the Chargers’ punt unit was rated next to last. That disparity didn’t show up to any dramatic degree in Week 16, but Jones has offered a boost in the field-position game since becoming the punt returner and will break a long one on Sunday.

5. Another strong defensive effort will send Baltimore to the divisional round with a 20-17 win. The Chargers were my preseason pick to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, but the first meeting showed this isn’t a great matchup for them. I expect their offense to put up a better fight than it did a couple weeks ago, but Rivers isn’t mobile enough to give the blitz-heavy Ravens the same degree of trouble as Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield did. Credit Los Angeles for doing a better job against the Baltimore running game than any other team over the last two months, but absences at the wrong spots on its dime defense will lead to the Ravens staying more consistent on the ground in the second half. It will be another close game because that’s just a product of the style these current Ravens play, but another complementary effort will be enough to defeat the Chargers for the second time in three weeks. John Harbaugh will improve to 6-0 in wild-card playoff games.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts entering wild-card weekend

Posted on 05 January 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens preparing for their first playoff game in four years against the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The 68-yard touchdown highlighted a career passing day for Lamar Jackson in Week 16, but he also made some good decisions on check-downs and short throws in the first half. He’ll need more of that to offset the Chargers’ pass rush the second time around.

2. No matter what happens, the 21-year-old gaining playoff experience as a rookie is invaluable — and exciting — for the future. Joe Flacco posted a 50.8 passer rating with one touchdown and three interceptions in his first postseason run before eventually becoming “January Joe.” Be sure to keep that perspective.

3. Taking nothing away from the Ravens’ dominant defensive performance, seven of the eight Chargers penalties were committed by the offense with a few wiping out big gains and stalling any momentum for Philip Rivers. Like in Week 16, Clete Blakeman will be Sunday’s referee.

4. Za’Darius Smith will again be a key figure trying to exploit an underwhelming interior offensive line. The pending free agent has positioned himself for quite a payday with 8 1/2 sacks. Following up what he did in the first meeting against the Chargers — 1 1/2 sacks — will only strengthen that.

5. Los Angeles would be wise to spread the Ravens defense out more frequently and throw to running backs on the perimeter to try to offset the pass rush that made Rivers miserable. Chargers running backs did Rivers no favors in pass protection the first time around anyway.

6. Baltimore isn’t trending in the right direction in the red zone and on third down the last two weeks, going 1-for-7 and 7-for-27 in those respective categories. You can only expect other areas of the game to overcome those deficiencies for so long without substantial improvement.

7. How the Chargers fare against this running game the second time around will be fascinating, but the absences of linebacker Jatavis Brown and nose tackle Brandon Mebane loom large. You never want to test your depth against a rushing attack known for wearing down its opposition.

8. Mark Andrews led all rookie tight ends in receiving yards, yards per catch, yards after the catch, and first-down receptions, per Pro Football Focus. The third-round pick’s emergence as a big-play threat and reliable target has been critical when Jackson has needed to throw.

9. Only 12 players on the current roster were in the organization the last time the Ravens appeared in the playoffs four years ago, but Jimmy Smith was on injured reserve then and Flacco is now the backup quarterback. Things sure change quickly, don’t they?

10. Speaking of Flacco, his comment admitting the backup job is “not the most fun position in the world” predictably drew criticism from the same folks who’d likely bash him for not being a competitor if he said he enjoyed his new role. I won’t miss this kind of nonsensical criticism.

11. Justin Tucker was an AP first-team All-Pro selection while Marshal Yanda and C.J. Mosley were second team. Reporters receive much criticism — some deserved — for awards and Hall of Fame voting, but players, coaches, and fans are the ones voting for the Pro Bowl that again excluded the NFL’s best kicker.

12. Whether the Ravens advance or not, you just know Kansas City and New England coaches have spent more time on their bye week preparing for Baltimore’s rushing attack than for any other AFC team playing this weekend. It’s a scary matchup for anyone.

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Three Ravens players listed as questionable for Sunday’s wild-card game

Posted on 04 January 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens should have their entire 53-man roster available for Sunday’s wild-card playoff game against the Los Angeles Chargers.

Wide receiver Chris Moore, cornerback Tavon Young, and guard Alex Lewis were all designated as questionable on the final injury report, but all should be available as Baltimore makes its first playoff appearance since the 2014 season. Young was a limited participant in Friday’s walk-through after missing workouts on Wednesday and Thursday with a groin issue that’s limited him for much of the last two months.

Moore’s status didn’t appear to be in any doubt after he practiced fully on Wednesday and Thursday, but the special-teams standout was absent from Friday’s session because of a hip ailment. The third-year wide receiver left the Week 17 win over Cleveland with a shoulder injury, leaving Willie Snead and Ty Montgomery to handle kick returns in the fourth quarter.

“We’ll be fine. We have guys ready to go,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “I think Chris will be out there; I’d be surprised if he wasn’t. But, just in case, we have guys ready to roll.”

Lewis has been practicing fully for the last three weeks, but he hasn’t been active since Week 13 while dealing with a shoulder injury. Veteran James Hurst has taken his place as the starting left guard with rookie Bradley Bozeman also receiving occasional snaps there.

The Chargers’ injury picture isn’t as flattering as starting outside linebacker Jatavis Brown is officially out with an ankle injury that’s expected to sideline him for the entire postseason. Brown collected eight tackles in the Week 16 meeting with the Ravens, making his absence significant against Baltimore’s second-ranked rushing attack.

Los Angeles is also unlikely to have starting nose tackle Brandon Mebane, who was officially listed as doubtful for a non-injury reason. The 33-year-old has been away from the team this week to be with his infant daughter, who was born with a serious heart condition in November.

Pro Bowl running back Melvin Gordon (ankle) was a full participant in practice all week while backup running back Austin Ekeler (groin) is questionable to play after being limited all week.

It remains to be seen whether the Chargers will activate tight end Hunter Henry (knee) from injured reserve by Saturday’s 4 p.m. deadline to do so. Head coach Anthony Lynn has told reporters that Henry will be on a pitch count if he’s able to make his season debut after suffering a torn ACL during organized team activities in the spring.

According to Weather.com, the Sunday forecast in Baltimore calls for sunny skies and temperatures in the low 50s with winds 10 to 15 miles per hour.

Below is the final injury report of the week:

BALTIMORE
QUESTIONABLE: G Alex Lewis (shoulder), WR Chris Moore (shoulder/hip), CB Tavon Young (groin)

LOS ANGELES
OUT: LB Jatavis Brown (ankle)
DOUBTFUL: DT Brandon Mebane (non-injury)
QUESTIONABLE: RB Austin Ekeler (groin)

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