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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 1 win over Cleveland

Posted on 15 September 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens winning their fifth straight season opener in a 38-6 blowout final over Cleveland, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Calais Campbell made his presence felt on the opening drive, batting down a pass and then dropping into coverage to deflect another throw into the arms of Marlon Humphrey. The 6-foot-8 Campbell pounded his fist on the ground over not catching it, but he was terrific in his Baltimore debut.

2. Campbell and fellow newcomer Derek Wolfe will be effective chess pieces for Wink Martindale, but Week 1 indicated the Ravens will again need to rely on blitzing and numbers for a pass rush. You’d love to get home with a four-man rush, but a strong secondary makes up for it.

3. According to Next Gen Stats, Lamar Jackson was 11-for-13 on passes traveling at least 10 yards downfield and his 47-yard throw to Marquise Brown outside the numbers was gorgeous, but reaction to his performance surprised me a bit. He didn’t lead the NFL in touchdown passes by accident last year.

4. Jackson’s downfield pitch to Mark Ingram reminded of Willie Mays Hayes making the basket catch and being greeted in the dugout by manager Lou Brown in “Major League.” “Nice catch, Hayes. Don’t ever [expletive] do it again.” It was also clearly illegally forward, but Ed Reed had to be smiling.

5. Two touchdowns overshadowed J.K. Dobbins gaining a modest 22 yards on seven carries, but the rookie starting the second half over Mark Ingram felt notable and reflects there not being much of a gap in the hierarchy so early in the season. It isn’t great news for Gus Edwards either.

6. Jaylon Ferguson registered a tackle and a quarterback hit and had a fourth-quarter sack wiped away by a penalty, but he played the fewest snaps (22) of the five outside linebackers. This came on the heels of a quiet summer for the second-year outside linebacker. Baltimore needs a step forward.

7. All focus has been on the young receivers, but Willie Snead’s 64 receiving yards marked his highest single-game total since 2016. After dropping some weight and having a good training camp, Snead doesn’t appear ready to surrender playing time just yet.

8. The element of surprise can always be used as a defense, but Greg Roman choosing a third-and-1 from the Cleveland 7 to give Patrick Ricard his first career carry felt a little too cute. You wonder how long Ricard will wait for his next carry after the fumble.

9. John Harbaugh is correct that few NFL coaches pull their quarterbacks particularly early when leading big, but acknowledging the Ravens did that with Jackson a couple times last year made his argument less convincing, especially as D.J. Fluker was filling in for an injured Ronnie Stanley.

10. Beyond James Proche not catching a punt that rolled to the 1, special teams were solid with L.J. Fort’s hit on Cleveland’s fake punt standing out. Still, the kickoff team settling for touchbacks all seven times after doing that only 53.8 percent of the time last year is worth monitoring.

11. Which best reflected Cleveland’s ineptitude: that ill-advised fake punt, the disinterest of Odell Beckham Jr., or third-and-41? The benefit of the doubt is appropriate for teams that went through significant changes this offseason, but “the Browns gonna Brown.” At least they fixed their uniforms, which do look sharp.

12. We laugh about Justin Tucker and Sam Koch not having as much work in this new era of Ravens offense, but there were 19 missed field goals and five missed extra points across the league. The continuity provided by the “Wolfpack” is more important than ever with the pandemic restrictions.

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Ravens rookies make Week 1 impact despite challenging offseason

Posted on 14 September 2020 by Luke Jones

Rookies were supposed to be at a major disadvantage in this unusual 2020 season, but you wouldn’t know it watching the Ravens in their Week 1 win over Cleveland.

First-round inside linebacker Patrick Queen starting in the middle of the Baltimore defense was always anticipated, but he was just one of seven 2020 draft picks to make their NFL debut against the Browns. Of those seven, three started and five played at least 20 snaps on either side of the ball. In contrast, the 2019 draft class featured only three players — wide receivers Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin and running back Justice Hill — who were active in Week 1 last year. Queen and second-round running back J.K. Dobbins — who scored two touchdowns on seven carries for 22 yards — garnered the attention on Sunday, but it was another rookie who saw the most snaps of the three. After playing left tackle at Mississippi State last year, third-round pick Tyre Phillips made the start at right guard, beating out veteran D.J. Fluker this summer to replace the retired Marshal Yanda. John Harbaugh labeled it “pretty remarkable” that the 6-foot-5, 330-pound Phillips made his first start at a position he didn’t play in college, and the head coach generally liked what he saw from Phillips’ 56 snaps.

“He has a long way to go. He can improve so much, but I look at that as a real positive,” Harbaugh said. “He’s only going to get better because he’s really smart and he’s really a detail-oriented person. He’s the kind of guy who once he’s experienced it, he corrects it. He’s going to learn from every single snap that he takes out there. He had a few things, but he cleaned them up right away. He’s a heck of an athlete [and] a real strong guy.

“I would say he graded out a plus, for sure, in the game. He had a good game.”

Queen’s debut was encouraging with a team-high eight tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble in 54 snaps despite the LSU product being targeted in pass coverage twice for two receptions totaling 20 yards, according to Pro Football Focus.

“He did a good job with his run-fits. He was downhill. I thought he showed his explosive speed a couple times where he went and made some plays,” Harbaugh said. “But generally speaking, [he was] just very solid in terms of the basics; the run-fits, the angles he took, the zone-drops, the way he related the routes, the patience he showed there. He didn’t panic at all. I felt like that was the best thing about it as a start. He should only improve from here.”

Harbaugh was also pleased with fellow rookie inside linebacker Malik Harrison, who also drew a start in Baltimore’s base defense and played 21 defensive snaps in a rotation that also included veterans L.J. Fort and Chris Board. Harrison, a third-round selection from Ohio State, registered four tackles and deflected a pass intended for Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.

Fifth-round defensive tackle Broderick Washington recorded a tackle on 28 snaps in the defensive line rotation while rookie wide receivers Devin Duvernay and James Proche handled the kickoff and punt return duties respectively. Duvernay averaged 32.0 yards on his two kick returns and also caught one pass for 12 yards while Proche returned two punts for 26 yards to shake off a second-quarter gaffe that resulted in a Cleveland punt being downed at the Ravens’ 1-yard line.

The performances left room for growth and roles frequently change this early in the season, but the poise and confidence with which the rookies played was impressive considering the group didn’t have the opportunity to play in any preseason games this summer.

“We’re all in the same place, doing the same thing, and we’re all trying to make a statement,” Queen said. “Anytime our number is called, we’re coming to play and coming to dominate. Everybody that comes in, they’re going to get our all, and that’s all we can ask as a team. As a coaching staff, they just want us to play 100 percent.”

Stanley’s status

Harbaugh had no update on left tackle Ronnie Stanley, who sustained a left ankle injury on the opening drive of the second half and didn’t return.

The 2019 Pro Bowl selection remained on the sideline and walked only with a slight limp, encouraging signs for his Week 2 status against Houston.

“I haven’t been told anything serious,” Harbaugh said. “They’re working on him down in the training room. I’d say Wednesday we’ll have a pretty good idea. But again, I expect him to be out there practicing Wednesday. That’s my expectation at this point.”

Week 1 notes

The Ravens became the first team in NFL history to win three straight season openers by 30 or more points after registering blowout Week 1 wins over Cleveland (38-6 in 2020), Miami (59-10 in 2019), and Buffalo (47-3) in 2018). … Sunday marked the third 99-yard drive in franchise history and the first since one in the 2001 postseason that ended with a 4-yard touchdown pass from Elvis Grbac to Travis Taylor in a wild-card round win at Miami. … Queen (21 years, 1 month) became the second-youngest player ever to start a game for the Ravens as only former Pro Bowl running back Jamal Lewis (21 years, 18 days) was younger as a rookie in 2000.

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In Ravens opener unlike any other, Jackson shines as bright as ever

Posted on 13 September 2020 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens’ 25th season opener was unlike anything we’ve seen in Baltimore.

A 71,000-seat stadium normally whipped into a frenzy for Week 1 instead sat empty, replaced by cardboard cutouts, inflatable tube people, and some artificial crowd noise. One of the NFL’s better home-field advantages was all but eliminated by COVID-19 protocols, leaving players to “B.Y.O.E.” — “bring your own energy” — after an abbreviated summer without the benefit of even a preseason game tuneup.

It was all so strange.

After setting an NFL single-season record with 3,296 rushing yards a year ago, Baltimore didn’t run the ball particularly well, averaging just 3.6 yards per carry. In fact, the 107 rushing yards marked the Ravens’ lowest single-game total since the 2018 postseason loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.

But it didn’t matter one bit because of one man: reigning league MVP Lamar Jackson. On a day that felt different in so many ways, Jackson’s dominance hadn’t changed. It was never more evident than on the final two drives of the first half after fullback Patrick Ricard’s fumble inside the Cleveland 10-yard line had short-circuited a promising drive and kept the game close.

With the Ravens pinned back at their own 1 and leading 10-6 with 8:41 to go before halftime, Jackson took over in the way he did so many times last year, going 5-for-5 for 75 yards with pitch-and-catch throws to Miles Boykin, Marquise Brown, and Willie Snead. For large portions of the afternoon against a hapless Browns secondary dealing with multiple injuries, Jackson made the game look like a 7-on-7 drill on the back practice fields in Owings Mills.

“My boy is definitely a playmaker,” said rookie running back J.K. Dobbins, whose 3-yard touchdown run capped that 99-yard drive late in the first half. “When we mess up a few times, he can definitely make it right. It definitely helps a lot having him back there under the center.”

Jackson was just as impressive on the next drive after Browns kicker Austin Seibert missed a 41-yard field goal with 41 seconds to go. Making accurate throws on the run to Snead, Brown, and Mark Andrews to march inside the 10, Jackson threw a strike to Andrews in the end zone for the Pro Bowl tight end’s second touchdown of the first half. Just like that, a narrow four-point lead grew to 24-6 as Jackson went 10-for-12 for 144 yards on the final two scoring drives before intermission.

Perhaps Mark Ingram’s assessment last week that the 23-year-old quarterback was “a million times ahead” of last year was a bit much — we’re talking about the reigning MVP who led the league in touchdown passes after all — but his 2020 debut reminded us why doubting Jackson and his ability to get better and better is a fool’s errand.

The Browns certainly didn’t “figure him out” or find a way to slow him down in Baltimore’s 38-6 victory.

“It’s just hard work and dedication,” said Jackson about carrying over his success from last year. “It started with the COVID, our guys coming down [to South Florida] trying to get some chemistry down pat. The quick turnaround with camp, we started getting chemistry there and our guys just dialed in. They helped me out a lot, made my job a lot easier.”

In addition to Andrews’ two touchdowns, Brown had five catches for 101 yards in the first half while Snead pulled in a gorgeous 19-yard touchdown pass on Baltimore’s second drive of the second half. But Jackson’s teammates weren’t about to take any credit for his brilliance. They know better.

Even on a strange day in which the Ravens never fully unleashed their vaunted rushing attack, Jackson’s arm made the result elementary with three touchdowns, 275 yards, an 80-percent completion percentage, and a 152.1 passer rating. The performance made him the first player in league history to have three games with at least three touchdown passes and a 150.0-plus passer rating in his first three seasons.

There’s simply no ceiling for someone who’s thrown at least three touchdowns nine times and produced a 100.0 or better passer rating in 12 of his 23 career regular-season games.

“To me, he’s obviously the best player in the world, and his arm reflects that,” Andrews said. “It reflected that last year; it’s this year as well. He’s going to continue to grow, and he has. It’s just a blessing to be able to play with him.

“He says I make his job easy, but it’s the other way around for sure.”

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Ravens-Browns: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 13 September 2020 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — A new season brought an all-too-familiar concern for the Ravens as veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith was added to the injury report with back spasms on Sunday morning.

However, the 32-year-old Smith was still activated to play against Cleveland after coming out of the locker room two hours prior to kickoff to stretch, go through agility work, and engage in a brief discussion with defensive coaches. Transitioning to a hybrid defensive role in sub packages this season, Smith is expected to play a big part in helping slow down tight ends Austin Hooper, David Njoku, and Harrison Bryant in the Browns’ revamped offense under new head coach Kevin Stefanski.

As anticipated after logging a full practice on Friday, rookie Tyre Phillips (ankle) is active and will start at right guard to replace the retired Marshal Yanda, a daunting task for the third-round pick out of Mississippi State. After not even being on the injury report this week, veteran Matt Skura will indeed start at center less than 10 months after sustaining a serious knee injury in Week 12 of the 2019 season, an admirable accomplishment for the fourth-year lineman.

After being elevated from the practice squad, veteran safety Jordan Richards is active and expected to be a regular on special teams. He doesn’t count against the 53-man roster and can be returned to the practice squad on Monday.

Baltimore ruled out wide receiver Chris Moore (finger), running back Justice Hill (thigh), and defensive tackle Justin Madubuike (knee) on Friday, and there were no other surprises among the remaining inactives.

After ruling out cornerbacks Greedy Williams and Kevin Johnson and outside linebacker Mack Wilson on Friday, the Browns will have the services of starting center JC Tretter, who only returned to practice this week after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in August.

Sunday’s referee is Ronald Torbert.

According to Weather.com, the Sunday forecast in Baltimore calls for partly cloudy skies and temperatures reaching 80 degrees with calm winds and no chance of precipitation.

The Ravens are wearing their white jerseys with purple pants while Cleveland dons brown tops with white pants for the season opener.

Sunday marks the 43rd all-time meeting between these AFC North teams with the Ravens enjoying a major 31-11 advantage. Baltimore is 20-4 against Cleveland in the John Harbaugh era, but the teams have split the season series in each of the last two seasons.

The Ravens are trying to win their fifth consecutive Week 1 game and are 9-3 in season openers under Harbaugh.

Below are Sunday’s inactives:

QB Trace McSorley
WR Chris Moore
S Geno Stone
RB Justice Hill
G Ben Bredeson
DT Justin Madubuike

WR Donovan Peoples-Jones
CB Greedy Williams
CB Kevin Johnson
LB Mack Wilson
OT Chris Hubbard
DE Joe Jackson

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Ravens-Browns: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 12 September 2020 by Luke Jones

A Week 1 that felt uncertain and at times unlikely over the offseason is finally upon as the Ravens host the Cleveland Browns to kick off their 25th season in Baltimore.

The popular perception is Super Bowl or bust for John Harbaugh’s team after last season’s 14-2 record and early playoff exit, but the unknown applies more than ever after the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the in-person offseason workout program as well as the preseason schedule. That poses an early-season challenge to even the most stable organizations, let alone teams like the Browns with new coaching staffs.

We’re about to find out what that looks like.

“There’s definitely more uncertainty. It’s self-evident I think that there’s more uncertainty from a football standpoint,” said Harbaugh, who believes the ramp-up period in early August eases injury concerns. “Just going to have to go out there and play. I want to get out there and play and see where we’re at. That’s going to be an unknown until we start playing. Until we start kicking and throwing and punting and passing and tackling, we’re not going to know for sure.”

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Browns meet for the 43rd time in the regular season with Baltimore holding a massive 31-11 advantage and a 20-4 mark in the Harbaugh era. The teams have split the season series in each of the last two years.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Lamar Jackson will pass for two touchdowns and run for another against a banged-up Cleveland defense. Expecting a perfect passer rating and five touchdown passes like in the 2019 opener would be a bit much, but the Browns will be without two of their top three cornerbacks — Greedy Williams and Kevin Johnson — and outside linebacker Mack Wilson after already losing rookie safety Grant Delpit last month. When you combine that with no preseason games, slowing down the dual-threat Jackson won’t be easy, even if he needs a little time to knock off the live-game rust.

2. The Ravens will hold Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt under 100 rushing yards total. Baltimore is in the same boat as Cleveland in terms of trying to slow a potent rushing attack, but Baker Mayfield poses little threat to run compared to Jackson. The quality of tackling for both teams figures to be tested early and often, but one of the primary objectives of the offseason for general manager Eric DeCosta was revamping the front seven to better stop the run. The Ravens will reap the rewards of those efforts before the Browns fall behind and largely abandon the run in the second half.

3. Jarvis Landry will continue his recent success against Baltimore with a touchdown and 75 receiving yards. The slot receiver had a combined 15 catches for 241 yards in the two games against the Ravens last year, making him a big challenge for returning cornerback Tavon Young. Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski is a big proponent of play-action passing, which should make Landry and new tight end Austin Hooper — a big test for rookie inside linebacker Patrick Queen — prominent targets over the middle of the field for Mayfield when he isn’t looking for Odell Beckham Jr.

4. Calais Campbell will register a sack and bat down a pass in his Ravens debut. The five-time Pro Bowl defensive end just turned 34, but he’s aged like a fine wine, playing the best football of his career with 31 1/2 sacks over the last three years with Jacksonville. Baltimore hasn’t had a 5-technique quite like Campbell since Trevor Pryce, who registered 13 sacks in his first year with the Ravens in 2006. The 6-foot-8, 300-pound Campbell may not do that, but he’ll have a strong Week 1 showing lining up outside and inside against a Browns offensive line less than 100 percent on Sunday.

5. The Ravens will handle their business with a 31-14 win in an unprecedented season opener. Week 1 is always unpredictable and Baltimore needs to come out of the gate focused playing in an empty M&T Bank Stadium, but this isn’t one to overthink as the better team with the same coaching staff from a year ago has a clear advantage against an outfit with a new staff that had very little time to establish its culture and way of doing things on the field this summer. The Browns showed in Week 4 last year that they certainly have the talent to win in Baltimore, but that one remains fresh in the minds of the Ravens, who will build a comfortable lead by the third quarter and win their fifth straight season-opening game.

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Ten Ravens predictions for the 2020 season

Posted on 12 September 2020 by Luke Jones

Instead of going through the exercise of making league-wide predictions, the following focus on the Ravens and the quest to win their third Super Bowl in the 25-year history of the franchise:

1. The offense will score at least 10 fewer touchdowns than a year ago.

Yes, Greg Roman is back, J.K. Dobbins joins a strong backfield, and a very young group has another year of experience under its belt, all reasons to argue the record-setting offense scoring 58 touchdowns a year ago could be even better. But reality suggests otherwise from a statistical standpoint as 30 of the 34 teams to score at least 50 offensive touchdowns in a season since 2007 saw their total drop the following year and 20 of those saw a double-digit decrease. For perspective, even Super Bowl champion Kansas City scored 20 fewer offensive touchdowns last year than in 2018. None of this is to suggest the offense will be anything but terrific again or that opponents will have “solved” it, but it’s a tribute to how remarkable and efficient the 2019 offense really was and an indication that opponents are likely to adopt more best practices to keep the Ravens from scoring 40 or more as often.

2. Lamar Jackson will once again lead the Ravens in rushing by going over 1,000 yards for the second straight year.

I fully expect Dobbins to cut into the workload of both Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards, which will keep Ingram from going over the 1,000-yard mark for the second straight season. But the arrival of the former Ohio State star doesn’t change the fact that Jackson has the ball in his hands for the start of every one of those read-option plays, meaning the reigning NFL MVP isn’t going to suddenly see a sizable decrease in his number of carries over the course of the season. Make no mistake, Jackson can and will win plenty of games with his arm and Baltimore has very talented running backs, but the third-year quarterbacks’ athleticism remains the truly transcendent component of this one-of-a-kind offense, evident by his league-best 6.9 yards per carry average last year. That isn’t changing for now.

3. Jackson will improve his yards per attempt despite throwing fewer touchdowns than a year ago.

I expect Jackson to throw more passes than last year’s 401, but throwing a touchdown on 9.0 percent of his attempts again is highly unlikely. For context, Tom Brady has never recorded a single-season percentage that high while Patrick Mahomes (5.4 percent) and Russell Wilson (6.0 percent) were well below that mark last season. Where I do anticipate growth is Jackson pushing the ball down the field more often and making more throws outside the numbers, points of emphasis for him this offseason. Jackson’s 7.8 yards per attempt ranked 13th in the NFL last year, but landing in the top 10 in that category will be a sign of the passing game having a better ability to play off schedule and from behind. He won’t be quite as touchdown efficient, but adding more explosiveness will go a long way.

4. Mark Andrews will go over 1,100 receiving yards to lead all Baltimore pass catchers.

Improved health, a bigger frame, and no shortage of workout videos on social media have made Marquise Brown the popular choice for a breakout season. I definitely expect a sizable jump for the 2019 first-round pick who collected 584 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, but Andrews made the Pro Bowl and set team highs with 852 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns catches despite playing just 41 percent of the offensive snaps and dealing with a nagging ankle injury for a good chunk of the season. With Hayden Hurst in Atlanta and the Ravens carrying just two tight ends on the 53-man roster, Andrews’ increased snap count alone suggests more targets and production in his third season.

5. The run defense will rank in the top 10 in yards per carry allowed and efficiency.

Finishing an underwhelming 21st in the NFL in both departments last year, the Ravens added veteran defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe as well as rookie inside linebacker Patrick Queen to boost a run defense that proved too vulnerable in key matchups, none more obvious than the heartbreaking playoff loss to Tennessee. Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale will still need to rely heavily on the blitz to pressure quarterbacks, but these additions along with moving Brandon Williams back to his natural nose tackle spot should result in less handwringing about an inability to stop the run, especially if edge defenders show more consistency setting the edge against stretch zone rushes.

6. Marlon Humphrey will grab a career-high five interceptions to be named a first-team All-Pro again.

There is no shortage of talent in the secondary, but Humphrey is the most complete player after showing off his versatility last season by frequently moving inside after excelling as an outside corner in his first two seasons. With nickel corner Tavon Young returning from last year’s neck injury, Humphrey will again be able to thrive on the outside and strengthen his case as one of the very best at his position in the league. The 24-year-old tackles like a linebacker, covers at an elite level, and will solidify his status as the best player on this defense. Another All-Pro season will have him knocking on the door for a contract extension not far off from what the Los Angeles Rams just gave Jalen Ramsey.

7. A shaky November will cost the Ravens the top seed in the AFC.

Trying to anticipate what teams will look like from a health standpoint — which takes on a different meaning in the midst of the pandemic — in November is anyone’s guess, but a post-bye trip to play a talented Indianapolis team, a road game at New England the next week, and a Thanksgiving night trek to Pittsburgh four days after hosting the Titans? That’s easily the most challenging four-game stretch on the schedule and the biggest roadblock on paper to securing the No. 1 seed for a second straight year. Going 2-2 over that stretch would hardly be disastrous, but it may not be good enough.

8. Six Ravens players will be named to the Pro Bowl.

Jackson, Humphrey, Andrews, Campbell, left tackle Ronnie Stanley, and kicker Justin Tucker will receive the nod, but the Ravens will hope not to be participating in that shoddy exhibition again.

9. A 12-4 record will give the Ravens their third straight AFC North championship.

No AFC North team has ever won the division in three straight seasons as you’d have to go back to the old AFC Central days when Pittsburgh won four consecutive division titles from 1994-97. The Ravens remain a clear favorite, but strong arguments can be made for all three division foes being better than a year ago. If Ben Roethlisberger looks anywhere close to his pre-injury self, the Steelers will be a formidable playoff team. The Browns should win more than six games and have a chance of sneaking in as a wild card with the AFC postseason field now expanded to seven teams. And Cincinnati should improve as the year progresses after handing the keys to first overall pick Joe Burrow. The Ravens won’t run away with this division by six games like last year, but they still own the AFC North.

10. The Ravens will defeat New Orleans 33-24 to win Super Bowl LV in Tampa.

After using much of this space to say the Ravens won’t be as dominant as last year, I’m picking John Harbaugh’s team to break through and win the third Super Bowl in franchise history. As memorable as the best regular-season team in Ravens history was, the winter was as cold as ever after the loss to Tennessee. The best record in the league and the No. 1 seed, an abundance of broken records and individual accolades, and, yes, plenty of national media love and respect — all things coveted by Baltimore fans for years — proved not as fulfilling as seeing the Ravens raise the Lombardi Trophy at the end of 2000 and 2012, two seasons with far more adversity. With Jackson taking a cue from Mahomes in winning the MVP award in his second season, why not continue the trend with a Super Bowl victory in his third year? The Ravens won’t find the 2020 regular season as easy or fruitful in terms of records and awards, but they’ll finally take down the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium in the AFC Championship. The electrifying Jackson will then get the best of future Hall of Famer Drew Brees, fulfilling that promise he made the night he was drafted with the 32nd overall pick less than three years ago. Baltimore will be picking there again next spring because of him.

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Ravens rule out three, list Phillips as questionable for 2020 opener

Posted on 11 September 2020 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens have ruled out three players and listed a potential rookie starter as questionable for the 2020 season opener against Cleveland on Sunday.

Wide receiver Chris Moore (finger), running back Justice Hill (thigh), and defensive tackle Justin Madubuike (knee) won’t play in Week 1 after missing the entire week of practice with injuries sustained during training camp. One of Baltimore’s better special teams contributors, Moore hasn’t practiced since breaking a finger the week before the start of full-team workouts in mid-August. Hill, listed as the top kick returner on the unofficial depth chart, has had two different injury stints since the start of open training camp.

“Chris is a very experienced special teams player, but he hasn’t been with us for a couple weeks,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “We knew we were going to have to adapt to him not being there this week, and we’ll see for next week. But it does open the door for some younger guys. The same thing with Justice.”

With Moore and Hill both out, the Ravens could elevate veteran safety Jordan Richards from the practice squad to help out on special teams for Sunday. Teams are now permitted to elevate up to two players from the practice squad to play in games without having to place them on the 53-man roster.

Friday brought good news for rookie offensive lineman Tyre Phillips, who was a full practice participant after sitting out Thursday with an ankle injury. The third-round pick from Mississippi State is officially listed as questionable for Week 1 and is believed to be the favorite to start at right guard, the position previously held by the retired Marshal Yanda. The 6-foot-5, 330-pound Phillips had a strong finish to training camp after veteran newcomer D.J. Fluker entered the summer as the favorite at right guard.

Meanwhile, the Browns are in worse shape from an injury standpoint as two of their top three cornerbacks — Greedy Williams and Kevin Johnson — and starting outside linebacker Mack Wilson were officially declared out on Friday. Cleveland listed starting center JC Tretter as questionable after he practiced all week on a limited basis in his return from August knee surgery.

Asked about Sunday’s national anthem in the wake of how Houston and Kansas City handled the pre-game on Thursday, Harbaugh said his team will be on the field for the anthem with players electing whether to be “standing or kneeling or clasping or whatever guys choose to do.” The organization collaborated to come to that consensus, and owner Steve Bisciotti recently met with the player leadership committee to share plans for the organization’s social justice and racial equality initiatives.

“We’re just choosing to let everyone do what they choose to do,” said safety Chuck Clark about players’ plans for the anthem. “We all come from different backgrounds. A lot of us have different experiences. Some of us, we can’t relate to what others have been through, so we’re letting every guy do what they choose to do on their own. And we all respect that and understand that. Just as a family, we respect what everyone does, so we’re allowing guys to do what they choose to do and we’re not making anyone do anything they don’t want to do.”

According to Weather.com, the Sunday forecast in Baltimore calls for mostly cloudy skies and temperatures in the low 80s with a 20 percent chance of a thunderstorm and winds five to 10 miles per hour.

The Ravens also put together this wonderful tribute to the late Mo Gaba, the 14-year-old Baltimore superfan who died of cancer in late July:

Below is the final injury report for Week 1:

OUT: RB Justice Hill (thigh), DT Justin Madubuike (knee), WR Chris Moore (finger),
QUESTIONABLE: G Tyre Phillips (ankle)

OUT: OT Chris Hubbard (ankle), CB Kevin Johnson (liver), CB Greedy Williams (shoulder), LB Mack Wilson (knee)
QUESTIONABLE: CB M.J. Stewart Jr. (hamstring), C JC Tretter (knee)

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New injury adds another wrinkle to Ravens’ right guard situation

Posted on 10 September 2020 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — A new injury added another wrinkle to the Ravens’ right guard competition just days before Sunday’s season opener against Cleveland.

Rookie third-round pick Tyre Phillips was absent with what was listed as an ankle injury on Thursday. The Mississippi State product emerged as the potential favorite to start at right guard late in training camp, but his addition to the injury report further clouds the decision as to who might assume Marshal Yanda’s old spot on the offensive line.

Veteran newcomer D.J. Fluker began the summer as the favorite at right guard, but Baltimore may also consider a younger option such as Patrick Mekari, who worked extensively at center during camp as Matt Skura continued to work his way back to full strength from a serious knee injury. Head coach John Harbaugh said earlier this week he wouldn’t announce his starting offensive line for Week 1 prior to Sunday’s game.

Wide receiver Chris Moore (finger), running back Justice Hill (thigh), and defensive tackle Justin Madubuike (knee) remained absent from practice, further decreasing the likelihood of their availability against the Browns.

There were no changes to Cleveland’s injury report from Wednesday.

Below is Thursday’s full injury report:

DID NOT PARTICIPATE: RB Justice Hill (thigh), DT Justin Madubuike (knee), WR Chris Moore (finger), G Tyre Phillips (ankle)

DID NOT PARTICIPATE: OT Chris Hubbard (ankle), CB Kevin Johnson (liver), CB Greedy Williams (shoulder), LB Mack Wilson (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: CB M.J. Stewart Jr. (hamstring), C JC Tretter (knee)

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Ravens’ ability to handle unknowns key to 2020 season

Posted on 10 September 2020 by Luke Jones

Even for a top Super Bowl contender like the Ravens, the unknowns are what make a new season both exciting and unsettling.

Who will start at right guard and try to adequately replace future Hall of Famer Marshal Yanda?

Does a revamped “30-something” defensive line live up to the hype and improve both the pass rush and run defense?

How will the unproven DeShon Elliott fill the on-field void of dismissed seven-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas?

Will defending NFL MVP Lamar Jackson and a record-setting offense remain a step or two ahead of defenses or will a few more opponents narrow the gap after an offseason to carefully study the “revolution” that took the league by storm?

Do the Ravens finally have a January breakthrough with little else to accomplish in terms of regular-season records and awards after last year’s embarrassment of riches?

These are all legitimate questions, but nothing out of the ordinary.

The unknowns extend far beyond the roster and the field in 2020, of course. Every NFL event this offseason ranging from free agency and the draft to the schedule release was accompanied by the real doubt of whether there would even be a season due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now that we know football will begin, the question becomes whether it will be continue without interruption. The league knows it has no time to exhale despite the encouraging testing results of the preseason.

With players now having more free time in regular-season mode and teams now traveling to other cities for games, what happens if there’s a virus outbreak akin to what the Miami Marlins or St. Louis Cardinals endured in Major League Baseball this summer?

Will there be more injuries than usual after an abbreviated training camp and the cancellation of preseason games?

How will teams and players be impacted mentally and emotionally by the absence — or at least the significant reduction — of fans in a sport strongly tied to the concept of home-field advantage?

Will a continuing push for social justice reform and racial equality put a halt to the schedule at some point as the other major professional sports experienced last month?

No one knows the answers to these questions now, but teams like the Ravens with strong leadership and continuity appear better equipped to navigate these challenges, making Sunday’s opener against Cleveland an interesting contrast. Baltimore has a 13th-year head coach, both coordinators returning, and a general manager who’s been with the organization since its inaugural 1996 season while the Browns are again starting over with a new coaching staff and general manager.

First-year head coach Kevin Stefanski may have the element of surprise on his side with a talented roster that didn’t live up to last year’s hype, but that leadership transition was accompanied by a restrictive offseason and abbreviated summer. Many anticipate tackling being an issue across the league in the early going, but the idea of slowing Jackson and a record-setting rushing attack from a year ago seems more problematic than containing Cleveland’s impressive running duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.

Yes, every team figures to have some early hiccups, whether it’s the aforementioned tackling, poor offensive line play that’s a hot topic even during normal times, or sloppiness on special teams. But the teams with an established process and strong culture figure to have a better-than-normal chance to succeed in what could be the most volatile season in NFL history. Organizations still finding their footing in those areas may not reach stable ground before its too late for 2020.

Early tackling test

The additions of defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe and the first-round selection of inside linebacker Patrick Queen were made in large part to improve a run defense ranking just 21st in yards per carry allowed and efficiency.

The Browns were the first opponent to expose that weakness last year in their convincing Week 4 win, so they provide a good test for a revamped front. Chubb ran for a season-high 165 yards in that contest, but Baltimore held him to 45 yards in Week 16. Many hoped that was a sign of the Ravens fixing their issues against the run before Derrick Henry and Tennessee ran all over them in January.

The fundamentals of tackling have been a point of emphasis in summer practices despite few “live” opportunities without preseason games. How that translates to the first game will be a major question around the league.

“You have to have your angles, you have to bring your feet, you have to bring your hands, your feet,” defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said. “And the biggest thing is that you gang tackle if that first guy does miss. Watching college games [last weekend], you saw some missed tackling in that Navy-BYU game, for example, that jumps out. I think it’s going to be a big focal point for both sides.”

Returner mystery remains

Special teams coordinator Chris Horton wouldn’t reveal who would handle punt and kick return duties in the opener, allowing the mystery to linger for a few more days.

“I think we’ve waited a long time. I think we can wait three more days to figure out who’s going to be out there,” Horton said. “Again, whoever we put out there is going to be the guy for the job.”

Of Baltimore’s punt returner candidates, rookie sixth-round wide receiver James Proche looked the most comfortable during practices open to reporters, but veteran slot receiver Willie Snead is listed ahead of him on the unofficial depth chart put out by the public relations staff. Identifying the kick returner is more challenging with running back Justice Hill and wide receiver Chris Moore currently sidelined with injuries, but rookie third-round wide receiver Devin Duvernay is listed behind them on the depth chart and could receive the first opportunity.

Odds & ends

The Ravens have “full confidence” in Elliott making his first career start at safety after last month’s untimely dismissal of Thomas. “He loves the game of football,” Martindale said. “I told [pass defense coordinator] Chris Hewitt, “You might want to have a brown paper bag over there for him too because he’s going to get so excited, he might be hyperventilating.’ Just teasing with him, but he’s going to be ready to go.” … Pro Bowl fullback Patrick Ricard is expected to have an expanded role on offense, especially with the Ravens carrying just two tight ends on the active roster for now. “He has practiced a lot more in the tight end role, so I think he can do more,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “Every year, he’s been able to do more and more, so we’re really glad we have him.” … Thursday’s NFL-opening game between Houston and defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City provides the Ravens an early look at their next two opponents. Baltimore will play its first road game against the Texans in Week 2 and will host the Chiefs for Monday Night Football on Sept. 28. “All eyes are on Cleveland,” said Martindale from a preparation perspective. “I think that I’d be lying to you if I’m not going to go home tonight and watch that game because I’m just like you guys — we’re just excited to see football.”

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After longest offseason, Ravens finally begin road to January redemption

Posted on 09 September 2020 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — This was always going to be the longest offseason for the Ravens after “the hard truth” of their crushing playoff loss to Tennessee last January.

Shaking off that kind of defeat is easier said than done when you were the consensus best team in the NFL with a 14-2 record, a record-setting offense, and transcendent league MVP Lamar Jackson at quarterback. The stars had seemingly aligned with good health and a 12-game winning streak to clinch the AFC’s top seed and home-field advantage through the postseason, but three months of domination vanished in three hours against the Titans, leaving the Ravens to ponder what had happened.

Second-year wide receiver and close friend Marquise Brown recalls talking with Jackson that night about what they “could have done or what should have happened” for a different outcome.

“We knew that the next thing we needed to do was focus on next year and what we could do to improve to be 1-0 each week,” Brown said. “That’s been his mindset. It’s like, we have to win each week — each week — and that goes into the playoffs. You can’t look over anybody [or] look over a game. You have to take each week seriously and win each week.”

Of course, one day and one week at a time took on a much different meaning for the Ravens and the rest of the world with the coronavirus pandemic, which closed the Owings Mills training facility for months and limited the spring workout program to Zoom meetings and remote work. Baltimore players itching to get back to work and put the end of last season behind them couldn’t begin congregating until late July, instead working out individually in various parts of the country.

With COVID-19 testing and protocols ongoing, the Ravens finally take the field Sunday to begin their 25th season in Baltimore without any fans gathered at M&T Bank Stadium, another wrinkle in this unprecedented season.

“This year is definitely so unique,” said veteran newcomer Calais Campbell, noting how long it’s felt since last playing a game after no preseason action. “All the preparation to get to this point — you’re not even sure if it’s going to happen. Here we are, and we’re just trying to lock in and find a way to get off to a fast start.”

The Ravens will have officially had eight months and two days to move on from that 28-12 loss to the Titans, knowing expectations are only greater this time around. Perhaps they should look no further than defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City for inspiration.

After falling short as the AFC’s No. 1 seed in the conference championship game a year earlier, the Chiefs found 2019 to be a bumpy road. Andy Reid’s team dealt with more health concerns, including a knee injury that sidelined 2018 league MVP Patrick Mahomes for nearly three full games. Kansas City scored 20 fewer offensive touchdowns than the year before when the offense was otherworldly. And despite facing double-digit deficits in all three postseason games, the Chiefs still found a way to win their first Super Bowl in 50 years.

History suggests Baltimore won’t match its 58 offensive touchdowns from last year, let alone break the single-season rushing record again. The Ravens probably aren’t going 14-2 again, but a deep and talented roster remains perfectly positioned to win a Super Bowl, even if Jackson doesn’t lead the league in touchdown passes or become the fifth man to win back-to-back NFL MVP awards.

Asked Wednesday about the previous two MVPs — Tom Brady in 2017 and Mahomes in 2018 — winning the Super Bowl the following year, Jackson simply replied, “Hopefully, the third one will be me.” Losses in each of his first two career playoff games provide ammunition for his lingering critics, but doubting Jackson after the dramatic improvement shown in his first full season as a starter still feels unwise.

“He’s going to continue to get better,” running back Mark Ingram said. “He’s going to continue to be more confident in his abilities within the offense — knowing the offense, knowing the ins and outs, the adjustments within the offense. He’s just continuing to grow. It’s special to be able to see it because I feel like he’s a million times ahead of where he was at this point last year.”

The reality is Jackson and the Ravens will now be judged solely by what happens in January, but there’s much work to be done over the next 17 weeks just to have that opportunity, which is why Cleveland is an appropriate Week 1 opponent. The Browns don’t offer the same revenge quotient as the Titans or Chiefs, but their Week 4 beatdown of the Ravens in Baltimore last season serves as a reminder for John Harbaugh’s team not to look ahead or take any opponent lightly.

That sentiment has been conveyed by the 34-year-old Campbell, a five-time Pro Bowl defensive end who went to a Super Bowl as a rookie with Arizona in 2008 and hasn’t been back since. He accepted a trade this offseason to play for a revamped Ravens defense because of the perceived chance to win a championship.

“The biggest thing is staying in the moment. You can’t win the Super Bowl today,” Campbell said last month. “I don’t care how good you are in August. You’ve got to go through the process. You can’t even win the first game today.”

The road to January redemption remains long with no guarantee of a regular-season ride as smooth as last year, but the Ravens are glad to finally reach that first game.

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