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Ravens’ rematch with Chargers carries much intrigue with playoff stakes

Posted on 03 January 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens are entering unusual territory for Sunday’s wild-card tilt against the Los Angeles Chargers.

Not only will it be their first home playoff game in six years, but the opponent is a team Baltimore saw — and defeated — just two weeks ago. Teams play their divisional foes twice per season, of course, but you rarely see a return bout after just 15 days, making the second meeting between these AFC teams that much more interesting after the Ravens’ convincing 22-10 win in Carson, California on Dec. 22.

The chess match is on against a familiar opponent who is also 8-0 in games played outside Los Angeles.

“Are they going to game-plan us the same way that they did the first game, or are they going to completely change the game plan?” right guard Marshal Yanda said. “Are we going to change the game plan? You really don’t know exactly if they’re going to stick to the script or if they’re going to install a new game plan. You just have to look at their entire body of work, their entire 16-game season.”

The last time the Ravens played the same team twice in such a short period of time was in 2012 when they beat Pittsburgh at Heinz Field in Week 11 and fell to the Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium two weeks later. That same season, Denver clobbered John Harbaugh’s team in Baltimore in mid-December, but you may recall the underdog Ravens faring a little differently at Mile High four weeks later on the way to the second Super Bowl title in franchise history.

No better examples are needed to remind nothing is assured for Baltimore — even with home-field advantage — despite its convincing road victory over Philip Rivers and the Chargers in Week 16. We constantly try to jump to conclusions from what we see in this league in a given week and are frequently sent back to the drawing board, which is what makes the NFL so much fun. The truth is we’re dealing with small sample sizes and many variables in contrast to the other sports that play many more games in a season.

But that brings us to Lamar Jackson and a Ravens running game that’s taken the league by storm over the last two months. Opponents have tried their best to simulate Jackson in practices by using a mobile quarterback or even a speedy player at another position, but his speed and agility have no parallel at the position in today’s game. Teams can watch film and prepare as much as possible, but experiencing this ground attack for the first time is different as the Ravens have rushed for at least 194 yards in six of the last seven games and Jackson set a single-season record for rushing attempts (147) by a quarterback despite starting only seven games.

It’s similar to a hitter stepping to the plate against a pitcher with triple-digit heat, nasty breaking stuff, and an unorthodox delivery for the first time after poring over the scouting reports and watching video in preparation. But in the same way batters have the chance to adjust in subsequent plate appearances, the Chargers’ ninth-ranked run defense will now have the opportunity to provide a meaningful answer to the question we’ve been asking for weeks.

How sustainable is the Ravens’ high-volume running game as opposing defenses are further exposed to it and given more time to prepare?

At first glance, the Chargers surrendering 159 rushing yards and 4.5 yards per carry in Week 16 isn’t worthy of praise, but they fared better against Jackson’s legs and the NFL’s second-ranked rushing attack than any other post-bye opponent. After registering a robust 5.4 yards per carry in the first half, the Ravens managed just 21 yards on their first 10 carries of the second half, contributing to three straight three-and-outs that kept the struggling Chargers within striking distance until Tavon Young’s late fumble return for a touchdown. Jackson carried 13 times for just 39 yards on the night, easily his lowest rushing total since Joe Flacco was still the starting quarterback and the rookie was playing sparingly.

“We weren’t as efficient in the second half as we needed to be,” said tight end Mark Andrews, who caught a 68-yard touchdown in the third quarter of the Week 16 win. “That’s probably one of those things [where] they played a good game and we fell off a little bit.”

It’s not as though opposing defenses haven’t attempted to adjust during games by keeping a safety in the box more frequently, using “Bear” or heavy fronts, or even utilizing pre-snap movement with defensive linemen pinching inside like Cleveland did in the fourth quarter. But this will be the first time an opponent has been able to go back to the laboratory with a full week to prepare and adjust after facing the real thing.

A few teams have managed to slow Baltimore’s ground game — at least somewhat — as Kansas City gave up only 3.8 yards per carry after halftime compared to 6.1 yards per attempt in the first half. The Browns surrendered 4.5 yards per carry in the second half last Sunday after being gashed to the tune of an absurd 8.5 yards per carry over the first two quarters. But only the Chargers have managed to shut down the Baltimore run over the final 30 minutes as the Ravens defense was forced to win the game.

Los Angeles’ propensity for frequently using safeties like rookie sensation Derwin James in the box and more athletic linebackers matches up better with Jackson on the edges.

“We know his speed. I watched him in college as well. His speed is really good,” Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn said. “We know that you have to protect the perimeter with this guy. On the edge, one-on-one — he can win. He’s like a running back with the ball in his hands.”

Such a strategy of using lighter players in the box would seemingly leave the Chargers vulnerable against inside runs. That proved true in the first half as Gus Edwards ran for 60 yards on eight carries, but the 238-pound rookie managed just 11 yards on five carries in the second half before finally breaking off a late 21-yard gain when the game was already decided.

We’re still dealing with such a small sample size, mind you, but did the Chargers manage to finally crack the code? Will Ravens run-game guru Greg Roman cook up something new that Los Angeles coordinator Gus Bradley and his defense won’t be able to handle? Or does Jackson build on what he did through the air against the Chargers after throwing for a career-high 204 yards the first time around?

A return meeting this soon with such high stakes couldn’t be more fascinating.

“They’re skilled. They’re well-coached. They’re disciplined. They make it hard,” said offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg of the Chargers. “They’re really good on defense, and that’s the way I perceive this group that we’re playing. They’ll do a couple of things [differently] during the game — we’ll do a few things [too] — because of the last ball game.

“But every game is its own entity.”

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Ravens-Chargers: Five predictions for Saturday night

Posted on 21 December 2018 by Luke Jones

Anything short of a win over the Los Angeles Chargers will leave the Ravens needing something close to a Christmas miracle to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

A victory won’t come easy as Baltimore will be playing the most balanced team in the conference that still has much to play for itself with the AFC West and home-field advantage still up for grabs. The Chargers certainly present the biggest defensive test the Ravens’ revamped offense will have encountered since the bye week.

Frankly, this is the kind of game John Harbaugh’s team just hasn’t won in December in the post-Super Bowl XLVII era with several commendable efforts ending in heartbreak.

It’s time to go on the record as these AFC teams meet for the 12th time in the all-time regular-season series with the Ravens holding a 6-5 advantage. The Chargers were 4-3 playing Baltimore in San Diego, but the Ravens are 3-2 against them in the John Harbaugh era with the last meeting being a 29-26 Ravens win at M&T Bank Stadium in 2015.

Below are five predictions for Saturday:

1. John Brown will catch a long touchdown. Lamar Jackson is a limited passer right now despite his electrifying mobility that’s helped the Ravens to this point. However, the one area of the field where Jackson has had success is the short middle (under 15 yards through the air) where he’s posted a 98 passer rating and completed 77 percent of his attempts, per SharpFootballStats.com. The problem is the Chargers defense has been very effective in that area, ranking first in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric against short passes and first against tight ends. However, the Chargers rank last in DVOA against deep passes over 15 yards in the air. Jackson is due to connect on a long one, and opportunities will be there.

2. Chargers running back Melvin Gordon will collect 125 total yards and a touchdown with much damage coming on passes. Los Angeles went 3-0 without the Pro Bowl running back, which speaks to how deep this offense is. The returning Gordon is averaging 5.2 yards per carry, but the biggest challenge he presents against a superb run defense is his ability to make plays as a receiver out of the backfield. Two weeks ago, Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes completed 10 passes to running backs in an effort to offset Baltimore’s pass rush, and I expect Philip Rivers to do the same. The difference is Gordon is more dangerous in the open field than any of the Chiefs’ current backs.

3. The Ravens will be held under 160 rushing yards for the first time since Week 9. This ground game is too good to be completely shut down at this point, especially with Greg Roman’s reputation for consistently adding new wrinkles. However, the Chargers do possess the best run defense the Ravens have seen since before the bye, and rookie safety Derwin James is the type of player who just might be able to bottle up Jackson more than previous teams could. The Chiefs held Baltimore to an ordinary 3.6 yards per carry after being gashed in the first quarter, which is why it’s critical for the Ravens to grab an early lead while the Chargers adjust to the shock of Jackson’s speed and this run game.

4. Los Angeles edge rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram will combine for three sacks. Bosa and Ingram will give Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. problems, but how they hold the edge will be crucial this week with Jackson’s ability to run. Meanwhile, Terrell Suggs and Matt Judon will try to get to Rivers, but the veteran has the ninth-fastest average time to throw from snap to release in the NFL and will use quick passes to Keenan Allen, who poses a challenge in the slot. The short week is also a factor as Judon has nursed a minor knee injury and Suggs was already quiet against Tampa Bay after playing a season-high 70 snaps in Kansas City. The Ravens need pressure from Za’Darius Smith inside.

5. More balance and extra rest will be the difference for the Chargers as the Ravens fall 26-17. I don’t believe this is a bad matchup for Baltimore as Marlon Humphrey and Jimmy Smith have enough size to combat the tall Los Angeles receivers, but I’m not confident enough in a one-dimensional offense producing enough points to offset the times when the Ravens defense is unable to get stops like we saw in the fourth quarter and overtime in Kansas City. The Chargers haven’t been held under 20 points in a game all season, and the revamped Ravens haven’t shown the ability to score into the high 20s without at least one touchdown from the defense or special teams. A cross-country trip on a short week also does veterans and a rookie quarterback no favors. It will be a close one throughout, but a late fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Rivers to Allen will put the game away for the Chargers and leave the Ravens scoreboard watching for the rest of the weekend.

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