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Veteran safety Tony Jefferson officially released by Ravens

Posted on 14 February 2020 by Luke Jones

The inevitable became official Friday as the Ravens announced the release of safety Tony Jefferson, a move that saves the organization $7 million in cash and salary cap space for the 2020 season.

Jefferson, 28, suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 5 last season and was replaced by third-year safety Chuck Clark, who played at a high level and relayed the calls in the defensive huddle for the remainder of the season. Clark signed a three-year extension through 2023 that included $15.3 million in new money earlier this week, which all but sealed Jefferson’s future with Baltimore. Jefferson’s $11.647 million cap figure was scheduled to be the fifth highest on the team next season while Clark has a cap number of just over $3.4 million for 2020.

Signed to a four-year, $34 million deal with $19 million guaranteed at the start of free agency in 2017, Jefferson was a popular figure in the locker room and very active in the community, but his play struggled to meet that lofty financial standard. In 35 career games with the Ravens, the 5-foot-11, 211-pound safety finished with 174 tackles, two interceptions, 11 pass breakups, 3 1/2 sacks, and two forced fumbles. More effective playing closer to the line of scrimmage and defending the run, Jefferson wasn’t as strong against the pass as he surrendered a 91.6 passer rating in coverage in 2018 and a 141.4 mark last season, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.

Jefferson continues to work his way back from a torn ACL in his left knee, which could delay his quest to join another team this offseason.

“This is the worst part of this business,” general manager Eric DeCosta said in a statement released by the organization. “Tony is the consummate teammate and someone who is respected by everyone for his leadership, determination, humility and toughness. He’s a friend to all and a true Raven.

“We know he’s going to beat this injury, and we will be cheering for him all along the way. We wish the very best to Tony and his family.”

Undrafted out of Oklahoma in 2013, Jefferson developed into a starting-caliber talent over his first four seasons with the Arizona Cardinals.

With Jefferson no longer in the picture, the Ravens will likely aim to add a young safety in April’s draft to develop behind Clark and seven-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas, who will turn 31 in May. Third-year safety DeShon Elliott remains an intriguing talent, but injuries have limited the 2018 sixth-round pick out of Texas to just six career games. Baltimore also owns a 2020 option worth $6 million for veteran Brandon Carr, who moved from cornerback to a dime safety role in the second half of last season.

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

Posted on 12 February 2020 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

Earl Thomas
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 947
PFF ranking: 16th among safeties
Skinny: Thomas was named to his seventh Pro Bowl and played well in his first year with Baltimore, but there was a definite adjustment with the 30-year-old being asked to be more multiple than he was in Seattle’s Cover 3 looks. For what it’s worth, Thomas registered his lowest PFF season grade since 2012, which is something to keep in mind as he enters the second year of a lucrative $55 million contract.

Chuck Clark
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 803
PFF ranking: 36th among safeties
Skinny: Clark entering the starting lineup and taking over the play-calling responsibilities in the huddle helped spark a turnaround after the season’s opening month as he led the Ravens in tackles. His contract extension signals he’ll be the starter next to Thomas moving forward, but it will be interesting to see if he keeps the green-dot helmet and continues to play “Mike” linebacker in select defensive packages.

Tony Jefferson
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 281
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: A serious knee injury cut Jefferson’s season short in Week 5, but his PFF grade was the lowest of his career and would have landed him among the worst qualified safeties in the league for the full season. His health and Clark’s emergence make it very likely that the Ravens will move on from Jefferson this offseason since he’s scheduled to make $7 million in base salary in the final year of a $34 million deal.

Anthony Levine
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 167
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: Regarded as one of the better dime backs in the league in previous seasons, Levine saw his defensive role diminish after the bye week as veteran cornerback Brandon Carr shifted to a safety role in the dime package. Still a strong special-teams player, Levine registered his lowest defensive snap count since 2016 and lowest PFF grade since 2014, trends that weren’t great for him going into free agency.

DeShon Elliott
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 40
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The 2018 sixth-round pick has flashed potential in the spring and summer, but injuries have limited him to just six games in his first two seasons, making it difficult to know what the Ravens really have with the Texas product. With other veteran backups scheduled to hit free agency, an opportunity should be there for Elliott to carve out a meaningful role in sub packages if he can finally stay healthy.

Brynden Trawick
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 11
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: A former Pro Bowl special-teams player with Tennessee a few years ago, the 30-year-old was limited to six regular-season games with an elbow injury and is scheduled to become a free agent.  With the Ravens facing the possibility of some substantial roster turnover on special teams, Trawick returning for a salary near the veteran minimum would be a possibility.

Jordan Richards
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 1
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The former Patriot joined the Ravens in October in what was essentially a swap as special-teams standout Justin Bethel wound up in New England, but Richards was a healthy scratch for the playoff loss to Tennessee, which doesn’t say much for how Baltimore valued him as a special-teams player.

2020 positional outlook

The Ravens have been at or near the top in spending and exhausting resources at the safety position for years now, but the results have been a mixed bag with some unsuccessful early draft picks and disappointing returns on free-agent contracts besides the Eric Weddle deal. Time will tell on the Thomas contract, of course, but wondering whether he’s a $14 million-per-year safety at this stage of his career is a reasonable question. Clark may not be spectacular, but he brings a high floor and long-term stability to the position at an affordable cost, the latter part being something that’s eluded the organization for quite a while. Considering how often the Ravens used three-safety alignments — and occasionally four safeties — this past season, it will be interesting to see if they elect to keep Carr for a hybrid role, roll the dice on Elliott finally staying healthy, or aim to draft a young safety to develop. Thomas and Clark are set as starters for the upcoming season, but more safety depth will be needed if the Ravens indeed move on from Jefferson and Carr while letting Levine, Trawick, and Richards depart in free agency.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Chuck Clark extension

Posted on 11 February 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens locking up another piece of their secondary with Chuck Clark’s three-year contract extension, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Who would have imagined the 2017 sixth-round pick receiving $10 million guaranteed when Clark had only two career starts under his belt a year ago? He flashed starter potential filling in late in 2018, but few would have guessed him being the first from his draft class to get extended.

2. Clark citing Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson as individuals aiding in his development wasn’t surprising, but he also mentioned retired special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg, who had a similar impact on numerous young players who eventually worked their way up to meaningful defensive or offensive roles. He was highly respected.

3. The signing reiterated the writing on the wall for Jefferson and his future in Baltimore that’s felt apparent for a while, but the veteran’s congratulatory tweet was a snapshot of why teammates and coaches like him so much. Regardless of what happens, he’ll have many rooting for him.

4. The overwhelming reaction to Weddle’s retirement wasn’t surprising as his three seasons in Baltimore stabilized a safety position that had been problematic since the end of the Ed Reed era. Echoing others, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him back with the organization in some capacity down the road.

5. I sometimes wonder if the Ravens have missed out on helpful free agents over the years at the expense of their compensatory pick obsession, but Day 3 guys like Clark and Nick Boyle — not compensatory selections themselves — receiving second contracts helps one understand why they value those late lottery tickets.

6. Speaking of former Day 3 picks, I’m fascinated to see how the Matthew Judon situation plays out. You don’t want to overpay, but that’s easier said than done at a position of great need for a Super Bowl-caliber team with a favorable salary cap picture for the next couple years.

7. I’m reluctant to pay substantial money to re-sign Jimmy Smith since he’ll be 32 and hasn’t played more than 12 games in a season since 2015, but Clark’s extension reminded how highly the Ravens value the secondary. Insurance behind Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, and Tavon Young will be prioritized.

8. Andre Smith wouldn’t have been anywhere near my short list of Baltimore free agents to re-sign before hitting the market, but he’ll have a chance to impact the evaluation of swing tackle James Hurst, who is scheduled to make a pricey $4 million in base salary in 2020.

9. Josh Bynes will be 31 in August and isn’t a long-term answer, but he’s being sold short as an attractive option to re-sign while mock drafts link Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray to the Ravens. Last year illustrated the danger of just handing the keys to inexperienced options at inside linebacker.

10. OverTheCap.com does a terrific job breaking down the nuances of the NFL salary cap and offered evidence why the Ravens might be more active than usual spending cash in free agency. That could also create more urgency to extend Ronnie Stanley sooner than later, an action I support.

11. It’s that time of year when we conjure signing and trade ideas, but the price for Stefon Diggs would be steep and there’s no guarantee he’d be happier playing in a run-first offense and passing game anchored by tight ends than he is in Minnesota. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

12. The days of an annual “State of the Ravens” including Steve Bisciotti appear to be long gone, but Eric DeCosta hasn’t met with local media since last year’s draft and apparently won’t again until the pre-draft luncheon. He’ll speak at the scouting combine in Indianapolis, but that’s still surprising.

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Baltimore Ravens defensive back Chuck Clark, left, brings down Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Vance McDonald during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

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Ravens continue prioritizing secondary by extending safety Chuck Clark

Posted on 10 February 2020 by Luke Jones

Even in an offseason in which the Ravens need to revamp their front seven, maintaining a strong secondary remains a top defensive objective.

General manager Eric DeCosta reinforced that stance Monday by reaching a three-year contract extension with starting safety Chuck Clark, who was entering the final year of his rookie contract after a breakout 2019 campaign. Taking over for the injured Tony Jefferson in Week 5, Clark proved to be an upgrade at safety and led the Ravens with 68 tackles to help spark a defensive turnaround. Graded 36th among qualified safeties by Pro Football Focus in 2019, the 24-year-old registered an interception, ranked third on the team with nine passes defensed, and forced two fumbles.

According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the three-year extension running through 2023 is worth $15.3 million with $10 million in guarantees for the 2017 sixth-round pick out of Virginia Tech. Clark was already scheduled to make just over $778,000 in the final year of his rookie contract.

“Chuck is a great story about hard work, patience, preparation, and passion,” DeCosta said in a statement released by the team. “He waited for his chance and seized the opportunity. Chuck’s a good football player, a fine teammate, and respected leader. He’s the type of player we want on our defense for a long time. Congrats to Chuck and his family.”

Making 12 starts in the regular season and starting in the playoff loss against Tennessee, Clark played all but two defensive snaps after Week 5, wearing the “green dot” communication helmet and relaying defensive calls in the huddle. That leadership proved to be a key to Baltimore’s defensive turnaround when early struggles at inside linebacker prompted roster shuffling and a platoon at a position traditionally entrusted to make the calls in the defensive huddle.

The versatile Clark also saw snaps in the box playing as the “Mike” linebacker, which allowed the Ravens to use Brandon Carr as a third safety in their popular dime package. His presence was frequently cited as a major reason why Baltimore ranked fourth in total defense, sixth in pass defense, and third in points allowed by season’s end despite struggling mightily over the first month of the year.

“It’s unbelievable,” said defensive coordinator Wink Martindale about Clark’s play in late December. “As far as the communicator, as far as the checks, as far as just the football smarts, he has become that [Eric] Weddle, that Magic Johnson of the defense of getting people lined up and setting them up to make plays, as well. He’s had a tremendous year, and I’m really happy for him.”

Long before taking over as a starter in October, Clark had been praised by teammates and coaches for his football intelligence. Upon arriving last spring, seven-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas even quipped that he wondered why the Ravens had signed him to a lucrative contract when they already had Clark, who had mostly played special teams over his first two seasons and started two games in place of an injured Jefferson late in 2018.

According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, quarterbacks completed 62.9 percent of passes and posted a 75.1 rating when targeting Clark in coverage this season. The 6-foot, 205-pound safety was also an important cog for a defense using blitzes more than any team in the NFL as Clark blitzed 97 times, registering a sack and three quarterback hits.

“I’m just taking my career from being a full-time special teams player to being a full-time defensive starter,” Clark said last month. “This year, I showed what I can do, but every year — I know I’ve said this before — this league is a league where you have to prove yourself every day, every practice, every game, every rep. I’ll just keep building on that.”

The Ravens now have their top five secondary pieces — Clark, Thomas, Marcus Peters, Marlon Humphrey, and Tavon Young — under team control through at least the 2021 season. All but Humphrey are under contract through 2022, but extending the Pro Bowl cornerback is expected to be a priority in the coming months as the Ravens can exercise their fifth-year option on the 2017 first-round pick from Alabama this spring.

Clark’s extension only reinforces the likelihood of the Ravens moving on from Jefferson, who is still recovering from a serious knee injury sustained in early October. Entering the final season of a four-year, $34 million contract signed in 2017, Jefferson is scheduled to make $7 million in base salary, but Baltimore can save that amount in salary cap space by releasing the 28-year-old.

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Ravens, Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters reach contract extension

Posted on 28 December 2019 by Luke Jones

A critical component of the remarkable in-season transformation of the Ravens defense will be sticking around beyond the 2019 season.

Just 2 1/2 months after being acquired from the Los Angeles Rams, Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters has agreed to a three-year contract extension worth $42 million and $32 million guaranteed, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. The deal runs through the 2022 season and makes Peters one of the eight highest-paid cornerbacks in the NFL in terms of both average annual value and guaranteed money, according to OverTheCap.com.

With the Ravens having endured numerous injuries in the secondary and ranking 25th in pass defense after Week 6, general manager Eric DeCosta sent disappointing inside linebacker Kenny Young and a 2020 fifth-round pick to the Rams for Peters. The move lacked the fanfare — or long-term risk — of Los Angeles’ decision to then trade two first-round picks and a fourth-round selection to Jacksonville for disgruntled Pro Bowl cornerback Jalen Ramsey, but Peters’ arrival brought immediate dividends for Baltimore, who has climbed all the way to seventh in pass defense entering Week 17.

Despite logging only two practices with the Ravens and flying across the country twice in less than three days, the 26-year-old returned a Russell Wilson pass 67 yards for a touchdown in his Ravens debut, a 30-16 win at Seattle. Peters also returned a pick for a score against Cincinnati in Week 10, giving him a league-leading three interceptions returned for touchdowns this season. The outspoken cornerback also preserved a 24-17 win in Buffalo with a fourth-down pass breakup in the final minutes of Week 14.

Pro Football Focus has graded Peters as the third-best cornerback in the NFL this season, an effort that resulted in the 6-foot, 197-pound defensive back being named to his third Pro Bowl earlier this month.

The financial commitment to Peters is the latest example of DeCosta and the Ravens subscribing to the analytics-minded approach of prioritizing coverage on the back end above all else defensively. Even with veteran Jimmy Smith scheduled to become a free agent, Baltimore has the cornerback trio of Peters, fellow Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey, and slot man Tavon Young under control through at least the 2021 season while Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas is signed through 2022 and fellow starting safety Chuck Clark is under contract through next season.

Having a reputation as a polarizing player both on and off the field prior to his arrival, Peters has been labeled a cornerback “savant” by defensive coordinator Wink Martindale and has fit in well with a defense that’s been one of the NFL’s best since the first month of the season.

Kansas City’s 2015 first-round pick out of Washington, Peters has the most interceptions (27) in the NFL by a wide margin over the last five seasons and is tied for fourth in the league with five interceptions this season. He’s also collected 52 tackles and 14 pass breakups in 15 games split between the Ravens and Rams in 2019.

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Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) scrambles against the Cleveland Browns during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019, in Cleveland. The Ravens won 31-15. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 16 win at Cleveland

Posted on 23 December 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens clinching the AFC’s top seed and home-field advantage in the playoffs for the first time in team history in a 31-15 win over Cleveland, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The turning point of Sunday’s victory was the 14-0 run over the final 78 seconds of the first half, but the defense forcing a three-and-out between those two touchdown drives without cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Jimmy Smith on the field was enormous.

2. I saw a little Ben Roethlisberger in Lamar Jackson’s second touchdown pass in which he evaded pressure in the pocket and then muscled an end-zone throw to Mark Andrews. His speed and agility are givens, but Jackson doesn’t get enough credit for his strength.

3. Jackson recorded his fifth 100-yard rushing game of the season — equaling the total produced by all Ravens players from 2015-17 — and now owns the ninth 1,200-yard rushing season in franchise history. Not bad for a quarterback.

4. The Baltimore run defense has been fairly scrutinized despite a shiny ranking in yards per game allowed, but it answered the bell holding Nick Chubb to 45 yards after he embarrassed the Ravens in Week 4. The dime package sometimes springs leaks against the run, but not this week.

5. The decline of the ground game was a major part of the post-Super Bowl XLVII era with the Ravens producing only one 1,000-yard rusher — Justin Forsett in 2014 — over six seasons. To now have only the seventh 1,000-yard rushing duo in NFL history with one being their quarterback is remarkable.

6. You never want to see fumbles, but it really is amazing that miscues at the mesh point between Jackson and Mark Ingram have been so rare this season. John Harbaugh will now hope his team got that seemingly overdue sloppiness out of its system after a season-high three fumbles.

7. On a day when the defense had some trouble getting off the field due to several drive-extending penalties, Chuck Clark was credited with four pass breakups to continue his breakout season. Two of those breakups came on Cleveland’s final three-and-out of the first half.

8. Mark Andrews is three receiving yards shy of Todd Heap’s single-season team record for a tight end, but a tender ankle could impact his Week 17 status. He may need to settle for becoming the third Raven to catch 10 touchdowns in a season, joining Michael Jackson and Torrey Smith.

9. Ingram will have nearly three weeks to recover from a left calf strain, but Justice Hill scoring his first NFL touchdown should provide a confidence boost if the Ravens need to lean on the rookie a little more in the postseason. The fourth-round pick’s opportunities have been limited.

10. L.J. Fort having two interceptions wiped away by a penalty and a replay review prompted me to look up whether he’d ever picked off a pass. His only career interception came in his first NFL game seven years ago — in Cleveland. Quite the coincidence that likely prompted some memories.

11. We know the 2019 Ravens’ legacy will ultimately be defined in the postseason, but Football Outsiders ranks them very favorably among the greatest regular-season teams of the last 35 years. Knowing the best team doesn’t always win the Super Bowl, remember to enjoy the journey — even as the favorite.

12. We place such importance on the postseason while oddly marginalizing it in the record book. That’s why I had bristled some over this year’s team being recognized as having the longest winning streak in franchise history when the 2000 Ravens won 11 in a row overall. They’re now even.

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Opponent doesn’t matter as Ravens seek final clinching win in December

Posted on 19 December 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Sunday’s game in Cleveland isn’t about the Ravens settling a score or exacting revenge against the last team to beat them nearly three months ago.

It’s not about strengthening Lamar Jackson’s position as the MVP favorite, showcasing a record-tying 12 Pro Bowl selections, or collecting more style points in extending their winning streak to 11.

Division rivalry games in December usually carry great meaning, but the class of the AFC North has been clear since Halloween. The final objective for John Harbaugh’s team in the regular season is a single victory to clinch the No. 1 seed in the AFC and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Nothing more, nothing less.

The Browns are just another opponent, regardless of their surprising 40-25 win in Baltimore on Sept. 29.

“We can control our own fate, have two home games no matter what if we win the first playoff game and have that first-round bye,” said 13th-year right guard and Super Bowl XLVII champion Marshal Yanda. “That’s obviously what we’re fighting for, and that’s a huge deal for sure. That shouldn’t change the way we play [Sunday], but obviously, we understand that’s in front of us.”

Much has changed since that first meeting when the Ravens allowed an ugly 40 points, 530 yards, and 193 rushing yards, all season highs. Of the 21 Baltimore players to play defensive snaps in that Week 4 effort, 12 are either in a reduced defensive role, on injured reserve, or out of the organization entirely. Seven players who played 17 or more defensive snaps last week — cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Jimmy Smith, defensive tackles Brandon Williams and Domata Peko, inside linebackers Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort, and rotational pass rusher Jihad Ward — were either not with the organization for that first meeting or out due to injury while another major contributor, starting safety Chuck Clark, played just 14 snaps in Week 4.

That in-season facelift has transformed the Ravens defense from a bottom-10 unit after the first month of the season to one ranking in the top seven in most major categories entering Week 16. Since giving up 30 points in the second half of that Week 4 loss, the Ravens haven’t given up more than 23 in an entire game, improvement that’s cemented their position as the Super Bowl favorite.

“When you get new guys coming in, it’s not one of those, ‘Hurry up and get going, and you’ll get with us when you get with us,’” said Williams, who missed the loss to the Browns due to a knee injury. “We’re picking everybody up, trying to get everybody on the same page. If you come in here, you have to help us to win. We want to get you to your peak as fast as possible.”

The defensive performance in that loss has been the more popular topic of discussion this week, but how the offense fared that day could bring the more relevant lesson for Sunday’s tilt. In a season in which their top-ranked, record-setting scoring offense has come away with points on 10 of its 14 opening drives, the Ravens punted on each of their first three possessions against the Browns and scored just seven points in the first half, allowing the visitor to play with a lead for most of the afternoon.

A repeat of that slow start could give a Cleveland team all but officially eliminated from playoff contention the incentive and energy to play up to its talent level, a rare occurrence in 2019. On the flip side, a fast beginning for the Ravens would sour an already disenchanted crowd for Cleveland’s home finale and likely return the 6-8 Browns to the lifeless funk they showed in a 38-24 loss at Arizona last week.

The objective is clear without any need for extra story lines or drama.

Win one more game against one more regular-season opponent.

“We know they want to sweep us,” Jackson said. “We’re the Ravens, and we’re having so much success this year. That’s what everybody wants to do: beat us. We just have to go into Cleveland and have a good game.”

Yanda strengthens Canton case

Few would have guessed Yanda would one day trail only three Hall of Famers on the Ravens’ all-time Pro Bowl selections list when he was entering his fifth season in Baltimore.

The 2007 third-round pick from Iowa had a solid reputation at that point in his career, but a serious knee injury in his second season and annual questions along the Baltimore offensive line had left Yanda as more of a super-utility lineman, moving back and forth between right guard and right tackle. That versatility prompted the Ravens to extend Yanda prior to the 2011 season, the year he’d finally settle in at right guard and earn his first trip to the Pro Bowl.

After eight Pro Bowls in a nine-year period — the one miss coming in a season in which he played in just two games due to a broken ankle — Yanda continues to build an impressive resume at a position not commonly recognized in Canton.

“It doesn’t matter if you’d made one or you’d made 15, it’s a special deal for sure,” Yanda said. “Everybody works extremely hard. Every year, you start at the bottom of the mountain and you’ve got to climb and you’ve got to put the work in.”

You wonder if he’d have a couple more Pro Bowls to his name and an easier case for the Pro Football Hall of Fame had he settled into the right guard spot sooner, but those early career circumstances may not even matter as his elite reputation continues to grow in his mid-30s.

Special teams mishaps

Special teams coach Chris Horton didn’t offer many specifics about his units’ difficulties in the Week 15 win over the New York Jets, but the urgency is there to rebound on Sunday.

How poor was the special-teams performance? It ranked as Football Outsiders’ worst single-game showing of any team this year in terms of DVOA, dropping the Ravens in special-teams efficiency from fourth to 14th for the season.

“They did some things on kickoff return that we got a chance to see, but we have to just stick to our details,” said Horton, who also cited communication issues on the blocked punt returned for a Jets touchdown. “We have to get off blocks, and we have to go make plays. It just came down to the little details that I always talk about.

“We’re back at it, and we’re looking forward to going out and playing another game.”

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Ravens-49ers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 30 November 2019 by Luke Jones

A Super Bowl rematch and preview?

The Ravens have emerged as the Super Bowl favorite in the eyes of many, but San Francisco is an overtime field goal away from still being undefeated, making this the largest remaining regular-season test for a John Harbaugh team that’s dominated the competition for the better part of the last six weeks. Both teams face an extra challenge in this one as the 49ers will play a 1 p.m. Eastern time zone game while Baltimore is on short rest after playing a Monday night game across the country in Los Angeles.

It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet for the sixth time ever in the regular season and the first time since 2015. The Ravens lead the all-time series by a 3-2 margin and defeated San Francisco 34-31 in Super Bowl XLVII nearly seven years ago.

Below are five predictions for Monday night:

1. The Ravens will lose a fumble for the first time since Week 9. The loss of center Matt Skura to a season-ending knee injury and the elevation of rookie Patrick Mekari to the starting lineup already raised concern since Baltimore works from the shotgun or pistol formation roughly 95 percent of the time, but Sunday’s forecast continues to call for rain, creating an extra challenge against the NFC’s best defense. Remarkably, the Ravens have lost only four fumbles all season despite many mesh-point plays in which the quarterback or running back can be prone to mistake. They’re probably due for another.

2. Mark Andrews and George Kittle will each catch a touchdown. Pro Football Focus ranks Kittle first and Andrews second in its season grading at the tight end position, which says a lot about the former fifth- and third-round draft picks. Despite being an every-down player compared to Andrews having more of a situational workload, Kittle has only three touchdown receptions in nine games this season. Meanwhile, Andrews is one touchdown catch shy of tying the franchise single-season record for a tight end (seven), which is currently shared by Todd Heap (2005) and Dennis Pitta (2012).

3. Chuck Clark will intercept his first pass of the season. It’s easy to take for granted what Clark has done replacing Tony Jefferson at safety, relaying the calls in the defensive huddle, and moving down to the dime spot since he doesn’t make many splash plays. However, his emergence is one of the notable reasons why this ascending defense now ranks in the top 10 in several categories and is fourth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. Clark and other defensive teammates will have a substantial challenge slowing Kittle, but he’ll bait 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo into an underneath mistake in wet conditions.

4. Lamar Jackson will set an NFL record with his fourth 100-yard rushing game of 2019. The 49ers defense is much stronger against the pass, but the heralded group is just 19th against the run, which spells trouble against a rushing attack averaging 210.5 yards per game. Nothing Jackson does surprises me anymore as he enters Week 13 tied for the NFL lead in touchdown passes, but the weather and matchup set up for this to be more of a legs day for the MVP favorite. He hasn’t eclipsed the century mark on the ground since Week 7, so why not? Doing so would set a single-season quarterback record.

5. The Ravens will win their eighth straight game in a 27-13 final over San Francisco. It’s not that I don’t believe the 49ers are a very good team, but it’d be disingenuous to say I believe this is going to be a particularly close game. What we’ve watched over the last six weeks is not only the most impressive regular-season run in Ravens history, but it ranks up there among the most impressive regular-season stretches by any team in recent memory. Double-digit blowouts aren’t the norm in the NFL, but the Ravens are trying to convince you otherwise, almost making you think you’re watching a Clemson or an Alabama play its early-season out-of-conference schedule instead of an NFL team going up against quality competition. This won’t last forever, but I’m not betting against Baltimore until it’s stopped. It won’t be a fourth straight Robert Griffin III mop-up game, but the 49ers don’t have the firepower to keep up with the NFL’s best offense, which still feels so strange to say about a Ravens team.

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Old question flipped as high-powered Ravens take on Rams

Posted on 23 November 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The question would have been flipped if the Ravens had traveled to Los Angeles to take on the eventual NFC champion Rams a year ago.

How do you make enough stops against an elite offense and produce enough touchdown drives of your own to pull off the upset?

It was the challenge going up against Peyton Manning or Tom Brady for years and most recently facing the Kansas City Chiefs. But that’s all changed in 2019 with MVP favorite Lamar Jackson and the NFL’s top-scoring offense on Baltimore’s side. The Ravens have scored at least 40 points in a game three times — they’d done it only 14 times in their previous 23 years — and have scored no fewer than 23 points in a single game all season after averaging 24.3 per contest last year.

The debate is no longer whether this Ravens offense can be “figured out” as defensive coordinators have lost plenty of sleep trying — and failing — this season. The more realistic challenge is whether an opposing unit can slow it down, something a Rams defense with Pro Bowl talent at every level might be capable of doing on Monday night.

But that brings us to the second part of the original question that’s becoming more problematic for opponents and will be for a middle-of-the-pack Rams offense on Monday. A Ravens defense that was largely a mess after the season’s opening month has arguably been the NFL’s best over the last five weeks. That improvement has made Baltimore the best team in football entering Week 12.

“Go back to the Seahawks game. They got that turnover, and they gave us a boost,” said Jackson, referencing Marcus Peters’ interception return for a touchdown late in the first half of Week 7 win. “We started off very slow, and we needed that edge from our defense. Those guys showed it, and they’ve been proving it each and every week. It just helps us, relying on those guys to stop offenses — great offenses at that.”

The Ravens scored two defensive touchdowns in that road win and held Russell Wilson and Seattle to a season-low 16 points. After the bye, Baltimore registered another defensive touchdown and held Tom Brady and New England to 20 points, the Patriots’ third-worst output of the season. But the most impressive defensive showing of the season came last Sunday when Deshaun Watson and Houston managed only a single touchdown in a 41-7 final, a rare game in which the Ravens offense started slowly with a scoreless first quarter before exploding with points on seven of its next eight drives. Such a slow start two months ago might have left Baltimore in an early hole, but the defense didn’t flinch against one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.

Jackson and the offense haven’t needed help very often this season, but this newfound balance in the midst of a six-game winning streak — the Ravens’ longest in 19 years — is what transforms a Super Bowl hopeful into the favorite to win it all. Offense may drive the modern NFL, but just ask the Patriots how important their defense was in last year’s Super Bowl after being a middling unit during the regular season.

Through the first month of the season, the Ravens looked more like a team that would have to win shootouts against elite competition, something they fell short in doing against Kansas City in Week 3. Surrendering 33 points and more than 500 yards of offense to the Chiefs was one thing, but Cleveland coming into M&T Bank Stadium the following week to score 40 and go over the 500-yard mark was the breaking point. Changes were in order for defensive coordinator Wink Martindale’s unit that had lost outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith, inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, and safety Eric Weddle in the offseason and was searching for its identity.

“Every team makes mistakes on the field. But early in the year when a guy would make a mistake, another guy didn’t just fall into that place and cover for him,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “I think it was new guys and some new spots. It took us a while to gel, but now we’ve been gelling. Yes, there have still been some same mistakes, but guys are covering for guys and we’re seeing things a little bit differently just because the communication and really knowing each other has really helped out.

“That’s really come from Wink, too. We put our foot down after those two losses and said, ‘Look, if we’re going to be a great defense, we have to do some things a little differently.'”

Dissatisfied with a young group of inside linebackers that was struggling to fill the void left by Mosley, the Ravens signed veterans Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort, moved Patrick Onwuasor from the middle back to his old weak-side position, and benched Kenny Young and Chris Board. Those changes paid immediate dividends in a road win at Pittsburgh with Bynes taking over as the “Mike” linebacker and recording an interception on the second defensive drive of the game. Bynes and Fort weren’t Pro Bowl-caliber additions, but they brought more down-to-down consistency to a position that had been highly problematic early on.

After the defense made incremental improvement against the Steelers and Cincinnati, general manager Eric DeCosta made the season-altering acquisition of Peters, sending only the benched Young and a 2020 fifth-round pick to the Rams in return. A secondary that had lost slot cornerback Tavon Young and starting safety Tony Jefferson to season-ending injuries and veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith to a multi-week knee injury now had a legitimate play-maker in Peters to begin the daunting stretch of six out of seven games against teams with winning records.

Peters wasted no time making an impact, returning a Wilson interception 67 yards for a touchdown in his first game as a Raven and following that with another interception return for a score against Cincinnati two weeks later. Baltimore knew it was getting a two-time Pro Bowl selection who had led the NFL in interceptions since the start of 2015, but Peters’ football intellect is what has resonated with teammates and coaches since he arrived in Owings Mills less than six weeks ago.

“You really don’t know until a guy gets into your locker room and into the defensive meetings of how football smart they are,” Martindale said. “He’s a savant when it comes to playing corner and routes and everything else. That’s been really refreshing because as I’ve said many times, knowledge is power in this league. You can see with his play that he has a lot of knowledge, and that’s what has jumped out the most to me.”

Peters was the marquee addition, but the in-season reset of the defense has been a collaborative effort, starting with DeCosta and the pro personnel department bringing in the aforementioned names as well as other role players such as Jihad Ward, Domata Peko, and Justin Ellis to fortify depth. Martindale and his coaching staff have done an exceptional job making strategic adjustments and bringing new players up to speed to be able to contribute immediately. And incumbents have stepped up, ranging from longtime veteran Brandon Williams playing his best football in recent memory to former reserve safety Chuck Clark stepping into a starting role and relaying calls in the defensive huddle.

The details of the path weren’t anticipated, but this Ravens defense was always built for the secondary to lead the way, which is exactly what we’ve seen in recent weeks. The addition of Peters and Smith’s return from injury have made the group as versatile as ever, evident by the amount of dime and quarter looks deployed in which Clark moves into the box and veteran cornerback Brandon Carr enters at safety.

Such sub packages allow Martindale to be more selective with his use of inside linebackers, who have fared much better as situational contributors than every-down players. It’s a far cry from the days of the Ravens having a perennial Pro Bowl selection like Ray Lewis or Mosley in the middle, but the defense being so multiple is working.

Last week, the tight coverage on the back end finally paid off for a maligned pass rush that registered a season-high seven sacks against Watson and a top-10 passing game. What the Ravens lack in standout pass rushers they’ve made up for with lock-down coverage that forces quarterbacks to hold the ball — against frequent blitzing — or attempt throws into tighter windows. It’s a defensive roster-building philosophy endorsed by the football analytics community that’s now paying off with roster tweaking and improved health in the secondary.

Opponents are now discovering they not only need to find a way to slow Jackson and the Ravens offense but also crack a confident defense growing stingier by the week. Seattle, New England, and Houston learned the hard way, and the increasingly desperate Rams face that unenviable task Monday night.

Even if the talented Los Angeles defense is able to make some stops, will Rams quarterback Jared Goff and his offense be able to do enough against the Baltimore defense for it to matter?

“It just starts to reveal who we are and what we can be if we keep doing what we’ve been doing. It’s been fun. It’s been going by like that though,” said safety Earl Thomas as he snapped his fingers. “We’ve been at it with some tough opponents, but we’ve been standing up. It’s just been one after another.

“We’ve just been proving people wrong. Let’s just keep doing it.”

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Five Ravens players to watch for rest of 2019 season

Posted on 25 October 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens are 5-2 atop the AFC North and are enjoying their bye week with a winning record for the first time since 2014, but unknowns remain that will surely impact the rest of this season and beyond.

Which individuals a bit more on the periphery than budding stars such as Lamar Jackson and Marlon Humphrey could have a significant impact on the second half of the season as well as future decision-making?

Below are five players to watch for the remainder of the season:

WR Miles Boykin

It’s no secret that production from wide receivers not named Marquise Brown has been less than stellar this season, in part because of the lack of opportunities in a run-first offense prominently featuring tight ends. But the last few weeks have illustrated the need for another dependable option to emerge for the Ravens to alleviate some of the pressure on Jackson, who’s accumulated 56.7 percent of his season rushing attempts over the last three games in which Brown was either out or limited. Boykin has reeled in nine of his 13 targets, a percentage high enough to warrant more looks. After experiencing some growing pains, the 6-foot-4 wideout stepping up would improve the Ravens’ chances the rest of the way while easing some of the urgency for general manager Eric DeCosta to add more help at the position in the offseason.

S Chuck Clark

Since losing Tony Jefferson to a season-ending knee injury in Pittsburgh, the Ravens couldn’t have asked for more from Clark, who has played well in Jefferson’s absence and seamlessly assumed the responsibilities of relaying calls in the defensive huddle. Pro Football Focus has graded the 2017 sixth-round pick from Virginia Tech as the NFL’s 17th-best safety this season and much more favorably in pass coverage than Jefferson. Clark proved his worth as a valuable backup filling in for Jefferson last season, but a strong finish to the season could give him the inside track on the 2020 starting job with Jefferson entering the final year of his contract and scheduled to make $7 million in base salary while recovering from a major knee injury. Clark’s challenge now is to show week-to-week consistency.

OLB Jaylon Ferguson

Whether or not the right pass rusher at the right price becomes available for a successful trade before Tuesday’s 4 p.m. deadline, the Ravens will be depending on the third-round rookie from Louisiana Tech to step up with the versatile Pernell McPhee gone for the season with a triceps injury. Defensive line coach Joe Cullen confirmed Ferguson will be used in McPhee’s hybrid role in which he’ll line up as an edge defender or as an interior rusher in sub packages. That’s a lot to ask of someone who was a healthy scratch at the start of the season, but the silver lining is the Ravens will get a long look as how effective Ferguson can be at the next level, which contrasts how the first couple years played out with Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams. That knowledge should assist in how to attack the pass rush this offseason.

TE Hayden Hurst

His rookie year was a lost cause because of a foot injury that lingered throughout the season, but the former first-round pick has remained a bit player in Baltimore’s offense so far while fellow 2018 draft choice Mark Andrews is rapidly becoming one of the best tight ends in the NFL. Hurst has caught 14 of his 18 targets this season — the team’s highest percentage from any non-running back — but PFF has graded him as the worst run-blocking tight end in the league entering Week 8 while Andrews has shown marked improvement in that area. Hurst’s name has reportedly been mentioned in trade discussions, but there’s still time for him to carve out a more meaningful role in this offense, especially with the Ravens looking for a more prominent No. 3 pass-catching option behind Andrews and Brown.

CB Marcus Peters

The trade sending linebacker Kenny Young and a 2020 fifth-round pick to the Los Angeles Rams paid immediate dividends with Peters returning an interception for a touchdown in the impressive 30-16 win over Seattle. Leading the NFL in picks (25) and interceptions returned for touchdowns (five) since his rookie season in 2015, Peters has a propensity for making big plays while also giving up some of his own, a high-variance quality that will be interesting to watch the rest of the way. He’ll be a free agent in March, which gives DeCosta another decision to make with Jimmy Smith also hitting the market and the team holding a 2020 option for Brandon Carr. There’s also the matter of planning for the massive extension the 23-year-old Humphrey will very likely command in the not-too-distant future.

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