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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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Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Devlin Hodges (6) tries to throw a pass from his team's end zone as Baltimore Ravens cornerback Brandon Carr (39) grabs him during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, in Baltimore. Hodges was penalized for an intentional grounding penalty and the Ravens were given two points on a the safety. The Ravens won 28-10. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

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Ravens must weigh dime options for their evolving defense

Posted on 13 February 2020 by Luke Jones

The three-year extension awarded to safety Chuck Clark ensured the Ravens would have their top five defensive backs under team control through at least the 2021 season.

But that doesn’t mean general manager Eric DeCosta can turn all attention toward the defensive line and linebacker groups in need of significant revamping. The numbers suggest Baltimore has at least one more substantial decision to make in its secondary beyond the annual task of adding depth.

A year after using the dime package on 26 percent of defensive snaps, the Ravens had six defensive backs play at least 45 percent of their snaps in each of the eight games following the bye week when Marcus Peters was in the fold and Jimmy Smith was finally back from injury. In other words, the popularity of the dime package only increased while the defense would sometimes go entire games without lining up in a traditional “base” 3-4 alignment. The game is changing with defensive packages and personnel continuing to reflect that.

The Ravens certainly need to address their pass rush and talent level at linebacker, but the overwhelming strength of the defense will remain on the back end, making pending decisions on Smith and Brandon Carr that much more interesting to watch. Though not a dime option himself, Smith is scheduled to become a free agent for the first time in his career. Meanwhile, Carr is scheduled to make $6 million if the Ravens exercise a team option for the 2020 season. Anthony Levine, the man Carr replaced in the dime package midway through the season, is also scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent.

The only other in-house option for the dime package would appear to be third-year safety DeShon Elliott, who has been limited to just six career games due to injuries despite showing some promise in spring and summer practices.

Baltimore’s preference is maintaining their veteran depth, however.

“We want both those guys back,” said head coach John Harbaugh about Smith and Carr last month. “We’re not going to try to weaken ourselves in the secondary, but we can focus on the front seven. That’s the thing, and we know with our scheme and the way that we get attacked, we know the kind of player that we want.”

Wanting to keep both and actually doing it are different concepts, of course, with other areas to address on both sides of the ball. At face value, many would argue Smith is the better player since he’s two years younger and brings more value as an outside corner whereas Carr is now better suited for the dime safety role he played down the stretch last year. But it’s more complicated than that since we’re no longer talking about an every-down role for either veteran.

Smith will be an unrestricted free agent and is projected by OverTheCap.com to receive a two-year, $16 million deal with $8.5 million guaranteed. That’s substantial money when the Ravens have already awarded Peters and returning slot cornerback Tavon Young with big extensions over the last 12 months and will need to spend lucrative cash to extend No. 1 cornerback Marlon Humphrey in the not-too-distant future. Giving real money to a 32-year-old Smith who’s played all 16 contests just twice in his nine seasons — Carr has never missed a game in his 12-year career — doesn’t sound like the best investment, especially when Smith would be third in the outside corner pecking order and hasn’t shown the positional versatility of Carr over the last couple seasons.

That said, the 2020 price tag for a 34-year-old you’d prefer not to play at outside corner anymore — even in the event of injury — is also expensive. Carr did a respectable job filling in as a nickel corner in parts of the last two seasons, but he found a new fit at safety when the Ravens would slide Clark down to the box in the dime package.

All things equal, Carr could have a more defined role in the dime package while Smith’s real value would come in the event of an injury to one of the top three corners as he could step in for Humphrey or Peters and Humphrey could move to the nickel spot in the event of an injury to Young like we saw last season. Carr’s injury replacement value would likely be limited to safety or the nickel corner position. The Ravens have prioritized secondary depth over the last couple years, but at what cost?

Ultimately, the futures of Smith and Carr will come down to money with the first one to blink having a better chance to return in 2020, but DeCosta will need to add more youth to the secondary in any case. Both veterans have expressed a desire to continue playing for the Ravens, but Smith will probably need to accept a team-friendly deal and Carr might have to take a pay cut to make it happen.

The allure of chasing a Super Bowl could help the Ravens’ efforts with Smith, Carr, or any other veteran option out there.

“I hope my body of work thus far has proven that I can play this game still at a high level, play safety,” Carr said last month. “And I’m still learning. I think I still have some potential left in that position. But I just love to play the game of football, whether it’s safety, nickel, corner, special teams, whatever the case is.

“At this point, I just want to win. It’s been 12 years. I’m just trying to get a ring.”

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earlthomas

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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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mcphee

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Ravens lose McPhee for season, cut Bethel to recoup compensatory pick

Posted on 21 October 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Coming off their best performance of the season in which two takeaways were returned for touchdowns, the Ravens still can’t catch a break on defense.

After leaving the game early in the second quarter of Sunday’s 30-16 win over Seattle, veteran outside linebacker Pernell McPhee is expected to miss the remainder of the season with what’s believed to be a torn triceps, according to head coach John Harbaugh. It’s a major blow to a pass rush that has recorded just 12 sacks over the first seven games of the season and has struggled to consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks.

The 30-year-old had collected three sacks and started all seven games after signing a one-year, $1.03 million contract in May to return to Baltimore to help fill the void left by free-agent departures Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith and rejuvenate a career plagued by injuries in recent years. Expected to be more of a situational rusher before younger edge defenders struggled in the preseason, McPhee was averaging a career-high 42.5 defensive snaps per game through the first six weeks, serving both as an edge defender and as an interior rusher in obvious passing situations.

“He wanted to prove himself. He wanted to get back on track and demonstrate that he still could play,” Harbaugh said. “And to do it here, to be the leader that he was, he’s been instrumental. He’s been instrumental with the young guys. He’s been a very good player for us.

“I see no reason why he can’t recover from a triceps injury and be back next year stronger than ever.”

McPhee’s injury creates even more urgency for general manager Eric DeCosta to add pass-rushing help by the Oct. 29 trade deadline, but the Ravens started Monday with just $1.933 million in 2019 salary cap space, according to the NFL Players Association. With McPhee playing only 12 defensive snaps against Seattle, rookie Jaylon Ferguson played 46 defensive snaps, third-year outside linebacker Tyus Bowser played 22, and situational rusher Jihad Ward saw 39.

With limited resources available and not knowing how much other teams might ask for an impact pass rusher in a potential trade, the Ravens’ best bet for meaningful improvement might be the continued development of Ferguson, who was drafted in the third round out of Louisiana Tech in April and holds the NCAA Division I career sacks record previously set by Suggs. The 6-foot-5, 270-pound Ferguson finished with three tackles (one for a loss) and a quarterback hit against the Seahawks.

“He played his best game, a very physical game and against a couple of really big, grabby tackles to say the least,” Harbaugh said. “He was strong at the point of attack and applied pressure, ran to the ball. He played really well.”

Sunday marked the third straight game in which a Baltimore defensive player was lost to a season-ending injury after starting strong safety Tony Jefferson sustained a torn ACL in Week 5 and reserve safety DeShon Elliott hurt his knee in Week 6.

Business decision with Bethel

The Ravens signing unrestricted free-agent cornerback Justin Bethel in the opening week of free agency was always surprising because of the negative impact on the compensatory pick formula, but it spoke to how they valued the three-time Pro Bowl special-teams player.

Their hand was forced over the weekend, however, when Tennessee released former Baltimore defensive end Brent Urban, a move that would have stripped the Ravens of a projected 2020 fourth-round compensatory pick had Bethel remained on the roster through Week 10. Despite the 29-year-old leading Baltimore with four special-teams tackles this season, DeCosta simply couldn’t justify passing on an early Day 3 draft pick to keep someone who’s played only 16 defensive snaps this season.

Bethel was released Monday, giving the coaching staff time over the bye week to account for his departure.

“That’s tough for us because he’s playing [so well],” Harbaugh said. “I told him I think he’s the best special-teams player in the NFL, and he’s playing that way. That’s going to be a blow, and we’re going to have to find a way to overcome that.”

Full strength after bye week?

Despite the McPhee injury, Harbaugh expressed optimism about his team’s health coming out of the Week 8 bye with an exciting Nov. 3 showdown with New England looming.

Wide receiver Marquise Brown (ankle) and inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor (ankle) have missed the last two games while cornerback Jimmy Smith (knee) has been out since the season opener, but all are on track to return against the Patriots, according to Harbaugh. Reserve cornerback Maurice Canady also missed Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury suffered against Cincinnati in Week 6.

“We feel very confident we should have all those guys back barring a setback, so to speak, and I can’t even imagine what that would be right now,” Harbaugh said. “Very optimistic that we’ll be full strength coming out of the bye.”

Smith worked out on a limited basis last week before missing his sixth straight game, but neither Brown nor Onwuasor have seen the practice field since being injured in the Week 5 win at Pittsburgh.

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marquisebrown

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Ravens-Seahawks: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 20 October 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens will be without their top wide receiver for a second straight game.

After missing the entire week of practice, rookie Marquise Brown will not play against Seattle as he continues to recover from a right ankle injury sustained two weeks ago in Pittsburgh. Head coach John Harbaugh didn’t want to rule Brown out after Friday’s workout, but it was apparent he was very unlikely to play after missing two whole weeks of practice.

Brown’s absence is bad news for a passing game struggling to make big plays in recent weeks. After completing 16 passes for 20 or more yards over the first three games of the season, the Ravens have a total of just six over their last three games.

Inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor (ankle) was also deactivated after not practicing the entire week and will miss his second straight game. Veteran L.J. Fort is expected to again start at the weak-side inside linebacker spot next to “Mike” linebacker Josh Bynes with Chris Board serving as the primary backup.

Cornerback Marcus Peters will indeed make his Ravens debut after being acquired from the Los Angeles Rams Tuesday and logging only two practices with his new team. That’s good news for a Baltimore secondary that will be without veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith (knee) for the sixth straight game and cornerback Maurice Canady, who hurt his hamstring in last week’s win over Cincinnati. Second-year cornerback Anthony Averett is active despite missing the final two practices of the week with an ankle injury.

Left tackle Ronnie Stanley is active and will start despite being slowed by a knee injury this week. He had been listed as questionable on the final injury report, but he practiced fully Friday to ease any lingering concerns about his availability against the Seahawks.

Safety Bennett Jackson is active and will finally appear in his first NFL game five years after being selected by the New York Giants in the sixth round of the 2014 draft. The Ravens signed Jackson off the New York Jets practice squad this week after he’d spent parts of the last two years with the organization. He’s expected to play on special teams and could be a part of some defensive sub packages after second-year safety DeShon Elliott was lost for the season due to a knee injury last week.

The Seahawks are dealing with some notable injuries of their own as they deactivated starting left tackle Duane Brown (biceps) and starting defensive end Ziggy Ansah (ankle) for Sunday’s game. Starting safety Bradley McDougald is also out with a back injury.

Seattle right guard D.J. Fluker is active after missing last week’s game with a hamstring injury.

Prior to Saturday’s 4 p.m. roster deadline, the Seahawks activated defensive tackle Jarran Reed and placed tight end Will Dissly (Achilles tendon) on injured reserve. Reed just served a six-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy, but he’s coming off a 2018 campaign in which he collected a career-high 10 1/2 sacks, making him a potential problem for Baltimore’s interior offensive line.

The Ravens and Seahawks will be meeting for the sixth time ever in the regular season with Seattle having won each of the last three meetings and holding a 3-2 advantage. Baltimore is winless in its two previous trips to CenturyLink Field and hasn’t beaten the Seahawks since a 44-41 thriller at M&T Bank Stadium on Nov. 23, 2003.

According to Weather.com, the Sunday forecast in Seattle calls for cloudy skies and temperatures reaching the low 50s with winds five to 10 miles per hour and only a 25-percent chance of some rain showers.

The referee for Sunday’s game will be Brad Allen.

The Ravens will be wearing white jerseys with purple pants while Seattle dons its blue tops with blue pants for Week 7.

Below are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
QB Trace McSorley
WR Marquise Brown
CB Jimmy Smith
CB Maurice Canady
LB Patrick Onwuasor
G Ben Powers
DT Daylon Mack

SEATTLE
DE Ziggy Ansah
OT Duane Brown
WR Gary Jennings
S Bradley McDougald
G Jordan Roos
WR John Ursua
S Lano Hill

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Ravens sign safety Bennett Jackson, place DeShon Elliott on IR

Posted on 15 October 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens have brought back a familiar preseason face in the wake of their latest injury at the safety position.

General manager Eric DeCosta signed veteran safety Bennett Jackson off the New York Jets practice squad after placing DeShon Elliott (knee) on injured reserve Tuesday morning. Jackson, 28, spent the last two offseasons with the organization and knows Baltimore’s defensive system, but he’d been a victim of the numbers game in a once-deep secondary that’s now lost three safeties — Elliott, Tony Jefferson, and Brynden Trawick — to injuries over the last month.

Jackson played well this past preseason, finishing with nine tackles, one interception, and a pass breakup. That performance resulted in the Jets claiming him off waivers after final roster cuts, but he spent only one week on their 53-man roster before being cut and re-signed to their practice squad.

“He’s been around a long time. He’s worked hard,” said head coach John Harbaugh in August. “He’s faced a lot of adversity with the injuries and different things. It’s good to see him play well, and he’s definitely good enough play in the National Football League.”

The 2014 sixth-round pick of the New York Giants battled injuries early in his career and has never played in a regular-season game, making him an impressive example of perseverance more than five years after being drafted out of Notre Dame. Jackson will likely fill a special-teams role for the Ravens and could factor into certain sub packages if defensive coordinator Wink Martindale wants to continue using some of the four-safety looks we saw in the Week 6 win over Cincinnati.

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Elliott goes down with latest season-ending injury in Ravens secondary

Posted on 14 October 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The injury hits to the Ravens secondary keep on coming.

A week after starting safety Tony Jefferson suffered a torn ACL, reserve safety DeShon Elliott sustained a knee injury against Cincinnati that’s expected to sideline him for the rest of the season. The second-year defensive back hurt his left knee in a collision with teammate Justin Bethel on a deep pass intended for Bengals wide receiver Alex Erickson late in the fourth quarter.

“It’s just way worse than we thought it was going to be — that the doctors thought after the game,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “That’s preliminary, but it sounded like they were pretty confident that it wasn’t good. We’ll go with that until further notice, and that’s where we’re at. We’ll have to find a replacement there and move forward.”

A 2018 sixth-round pick out of Texas, Elliott had just stepped into a larger role as the top backup behind starters Earl Thomas and Chuck Clark, playing a career-high 27 defensive snaps and finishing with one tackle and a pass breakup in the 23-17 win. The 22-year-old missed his entire rookie season with a fractured forearm and turned heads with his play during spring and summer practices.

With the Ravens revamping the inside linebacker position over the last two weeks and playing without starter Patrick Onwuasor against Cincinnati, defensive coordinator Wink Martindale frequently used sub packages that didn’t include any traditional inside linebackers as Elliott entered at safety and Clark played in the box. Elliott’s injury leaves Baltimore with only one healthy reserve safety — dime back Anthony Levine — behind Thomas and Clark, making an outside addition likely. Safety A.J. Howard was signed to the practice squad last week, but the Appalachian State product hasn’t appeared in an NFL game after going undrafted last year.

The Ravens began the regular season with six safeties on the 53-man roster before losing veteran reserve Brynden Trawick (elbow), Jefferson, and now Elliott. Cornerback Maurice Canady also left Sunday’s game with a hamstring issue, which forced Bethel — almost exclusively a special-teams player — into fourth-quarter action against the Bengals.

“I don’t know to what degree,” said Harbaugh about Canady’s hamstring injury. “I’d say he’s probably day-to-day. We’ll see how he does Wednesday, Thursday.”

It remains unclear when cornerback Jimmy Smith will return to practice after missing his fifth straight game with a Grade 2 MCL sprain in his right knee. The Ravens lost slot cornerback Tavon Young to a season-ending neck injury and rookie corner Iman Marshall to a toe injury in August, but the latter remains eligible to return later this season.

Harbaugh was noncommittal about the Week 7 availability of Onwuasor and top wide receiver Marquise Brown, who both missed Sunday’s game with right ankle injuries suffered against Pittsburgh. The two remain “day-to-day” after missing practices all last week.

“If we see them practicing as the week goes on, we’ll be confident that they can play,” Harbaugh said. “If we don’t, then we won’t. They both have ankles that they’re dealing with, and those things just kind of heal when they heal.

“They had a chance [to play Sunday]; I was told that they had a chance for the game. After Friday, it didn’t look as good. They just didn’t feel that they were there, and they weren’t.”

After this Sunday’s game at Seattle, the Ravens will welcome their Week 8 bye to try to get healthy for a challenging second-half schedule.

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With tough schedule ahead, Ravens defense hoping for another step forward

Posted on 10 October 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens defense took a step in the right direction in Pittsburgh.

Needing overtime to beat Steelers rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges — who still managed a 98.1 passer rating in relief of the injured Mason Rudolph — hardly qualifies as a breakthrough, but standout cornerback Marlon Humphrey’s strip and recovery against Pro Bowl wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was exactly what the Ravens needed for a 26-23 win and a long exhale after giving up a combined 73 points and over 1,000 yards the previous two weeks. The performance was far from perfect, but it was good enough, especially with a home game against winless Cincinnati looming on Sunday and the rest of the AFC North seemingly in disarray.

Executive vice president and former general manager Ozzie Newsome said it best to defensive coordinator Wink Martindale on the plane ride home to Baltimore.

“He said, ‘Just keep getting better. Just keep getting better,’” said Martindale, who praised his group’s improved tackling and situational work against the Steelers. “And that’s true. That’s the way this National Football League is.”

Of course, the road victory over their struggling division rival didn’t come without another significant setback as strong safety Tony Jefferson was lost for the season with a serious knee injury. Labeled the “heart and soul” of the defense by head coach John Harbaugh and having just taken over the responsibilities of relaying the calls in the defensive huddle, Jefferson was a veteran leader for a group already missing former Ravens Terrell Suggs, Eric Weddle, and C.J. Mosley. Jefferson’s loss on top of the existing concerns about the pass rush, inside linebacker, and the other injuries in the secondary is tough to take.

Third-year safety Chuck Clark is expected to take his place with 2018 sixth-round pick DeShon Elliott also stepping into a larger role in different sub packages. It’s hardly ideal, but Clark played well in two starts in place of Jefferson last year and has been praised repeatedly for his football intellect. The Ravens are about to find out what they have with their two younger options next to six-time Pro Bowl free safety Earl Thomas, who is still finding his own way in a more complex system than what he was used to in Seattle.

“We just have to go on with business as usual,” Thomas said. “Chuck will come in, and he’ll help out and I’ll fit right where I need to be. If I know the check-it and I see it, I’ll be vocal about it, but Chuck is going to take on that role as well.”

The Ravens were able to slow their heartbeat at inside linebacker with the addition of veteran Josh Bynes, whose performance as the “Mike” linebacker against Pittsburgh after only three practices and not being with an NFL team since March was nothing short of remarkable. The 30-year-old has rarely been a full-time starter in a nine-year career that began in Baltimore and will surely be tested by better offenses in the coming weeks, but the Ravens hope the stability he brought to the position in Week 5 will continue after the offseason plan to go exclusively younger and faster in the wake of Mosley’s free-agent departure clearly wasn’t working.

Bynes’ arrival has allowed the Ravens to move Patrick Onwuasor back to the weak-side position where he thrived down the stretch last season. It’s a move the fourth-year linebacker is on board with after his early struggles at Mosley’s old position. The shuffling led to 2018 fourth-round pick Kenny Young being a healthy scratch and fellow second-year linebacker Chris Board playing only one defensive snap against the Steelers.

“I felt way more comfortable. I was flying around,” said Onwuasor, who finished with seven tackles and one for a loss. “That was my natural position. It just felt like it fit me perfectly, and I think Wink could tell a little bit that I like that position a little bit better.”

Martindale will continue to tinker with both the starting lineup and sub packages to find the optimal fits, especially in a secondary ravaged by injuries. Last week brought the promotion of veteran cornerback Maurice Canady to the starting lineup after second-year defensive back Anthony Averett had struggled in place of the injured Jimmy Smith, who will miss his fifth straight game with a knee injury. Brandon Carr continues to play most of the snaps at the nickel position after the preseason loss of Tavon Young, but the 33-year-old would ideally be on more of a pitch count to keep him fresh all year.

Still, the greatest concern remains with the pass rush as the Ravens are tied for 24th in the NFL with only nine sacks and 26th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate, which is adjusted for down, distance, and opponent. Unlike the secondary that has Smith’s return to look forward to, there are no pass-rushing reinforcements on the way unless general manager Eric DeCosta pulls off a significant trade by the Oct. 29 deadline. Harbaugh and Martindale both expressed optimism this week about an increasing role for rookie Jaylon Ferguson, but 2017 third-round pick Tim Williams was waived just over a week ago after being advertised this offseason as part of the solution to replace Suggs and fellow free-agent departure Za’Darius Smith. Those two combined for 15 1/2 sacks last season and have a total of 8 1/2 for their new teams so far.

The Ravens have received three sacks apiece from starting outside linebackers Matthew Judon and Pernell McPhee, but they’re playing too many snaps, putting strain on their second-half performances as well as their long-term stamina for a 16-game season. Judon is playing 82.1 percent of the snaps on defense after taking 65.1 percent of them a year ago while McPhee is averaging a career-high 42.6 defensive snaps per game, far from ideal for a 30-year-old with an injury history.

Despite Martindale bringing plenty of blitzes in hopes of pressuring and overwhelming two inexperienced quarterbacks in Pittsburgh, the Ravens managed only one sack and three quarterback hits in nearly 65 minutes of play.

“When it really comes down to it, we have to win our one-on-ones up front,” Judon said. “We have to help our defense. We have to do a better job of getting to the quarterback and applying pressure and helping our secondary out, so they don’t have to cover forever.”

The reality is this is a much different defense than the top-shelf group that last played Cincinnati in Week 11 last season, meaning expectations for improvement must be realistic. Of the 11 defensive players who started against the Bengals in Lamar Jackson’s first NFL start 11 months ago, eight are either no longer with the organization or sidelined with long-term injuries. When dealing with that much change, you’ll gladly take another step or two in the right direction against a struggling opponent Sunday — even if the Bengals’ recent history of success against Baltimore shouldn’t be forgotten.

The schedule picks up considerably in Week 7 and beyond, meaning the Ravens must take advantage of this opportunity for a win and another confidence boost. Yes, Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton has broken the Ravens’ hearts in the past, but the Bengals have already allowed 20 sacks and rank in the bottom 10 in many offensive categories. The continued absence of seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green will certainly help as the Baltimore secondary tries to find its way with another key cog now out of the picture.

“We’re seeing what we’re good at. We’re seeing what we’re struggling at, and we’re making the right corrections,” Thomas said. “It might not show up right off, but it’s going to pay off in the end.”

After Sunday, the Ravens will play six of their next seven games against teams currently holding winning records. The defense is going to need those growing pains and adjustments to start paying off much sooner than later.

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Ravens sign defensive lineman Jihad Ward, place Tony Jefferson on IR

Posted on 07 October 2019 by Luke Jones

Aiming to breathe life into a floundering pass rush, the Ravens are taking a flier on a former second-round pick.

Baltimore signed defensive lineman Jihad Ward to try to help a defense tied for 24th in the NFL with nine sacks in their first five games. Oakland’s second-round pick in 2016, the Illinois product has collected four sacks in 30 career games with the Raiders and Indianapolis.

“We have to find a way to get more sacks,” said head coach John Harbaugh before the Monday evening signing. “We have to find a way to get more pressure. We have to find a way to get more turnovers. All of those things are things that we really want to work hard at doing better at.”

Ward, 25, was waived earlier this month by the Colts, who signed defensive lineman Trevon Coley off the Ravens practice squad. The 6-foot-5, 287-pound Ward appeared in three games this season and registered one pass breakup.

Baltimore officially placed safety Tony Jefferson on injured reserve after he sustained a torn ACL and other damage to his left knee in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s win in Pittsburgh. Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott are expected to see larger roles in place of Jefferson, who is one of Baltimore’s most respected players on the field and in the locker room.

“He’s a leader. He’s a great player, just a high-energy player,” Harbaugh said. “He’s a guy that flies around and makes plays. He’s a communicator for us in the back end. Those are going to be challenging things. At the same time, these are things that happen in this game. You just have to deal with them.”

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 4 loss to Cleveland

Posted on 01 October 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens losing their second straight game in a 40-25 setback against Cleveland, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. With 10 of the previous 15 games between these teams decided by one score despite the Ravens’ dominant record, you couldn’t help but think the Browns would “Brown” when Baltimore made it 24-18. Instead, the Ravens didn’t even touch Nick Chubb on his 88-yard touchdown run. Just brutal.

2. The first turnover of the season was inevitable, but Mark Ingram’s fumble in the third quarter summed up the day for the offense. Averaging 5.9 yards per play, the Ravens moved the ball well, but they made too many mistakes at the wrong times.

3. The defense deserves most of the blame for the two-game losing streak, but the offense has scored a total of 13 first-half points the last two weeks. That’s usually not going to get the job done, especially with the current state of this defense.

4. John Harbaugh noted Cleveland was content playing off in coverage to give the Ravens short passes — mostly to the outside — as Lamar Jackson was 6-for-8 for 34 yards in the first half. Still, Greg Roman has to find a better way to test a unit missing both starting cornerbacks.

5. There was no shortage of new defensive looks as Wink Martindale used four safeties — the starters, Chuck Clark, and DeShon Elliott — on occasion and removed Patrick Onwuasor in certain sub packages after he’d previously been an every-snap linebacker. Twenty-one players saw at least seven snaps. Martindale is exploring answers.

6. Tony Jefferson took over the defensive huddle and wore the green-dot helmet to relay the calls from the sideline, a decision made to streamline communication for the secondary and take some responsibilities off Onwuasor’s plate. Baltimore has to get its inside linebackers to play better.

7. Per OverTheCap.com, no team has more money tied to the safety position over the next two years than Baltimore, but Pro Football Focus has graded Earl Thomas 19th and Jefferson 75th among qualified safeties through Week 4. These two need to be a much bigger part of the solution.

8. Brandon Williams’ absence didn’t mean an opportunity for rookie Daylon Mack as much as bigger workloads for Michael Pierce, Chris Wormley, and Patrick Ricard. Mack played nine snaps while the veteran trio set season highs in snaps by significant margins. That takes a toll, especially later in the game.

9. Just how problematic has the defense been with surrendering big plays? The Ravens have already allowed six pass plays of 40 or more yards, one shy of last season’s total. Only two teams — Oakland and Jacksonville — have surrendered more completions of 20 or more yards so far.

10. His final stat line wasn’t the most accurate portrayal of his day, but Jackson’s first interception of the season was a product of needing to be aggressive down multiple scores with time dwindling. I’ll take that over dinking and dunking without the necessary urgency. The quarterback wasn’t the problem Sunday.

11. The hand-wringing over the third-quarter scuffle between Marlon Humphrey and Odell Beckham Jr. is getting ridiculous. Each team should be happy its player wasn’t kicked out of the game and just move on.

12. Justice Hill returning kicks looked like a good move to utilize his speed, but his latest drop to open the second half led to Chris Moore replacing him. Coverage has been good, but the Ravens could really use more production out of their kick returns, which rank 21st.

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