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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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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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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Chuck Clark extension

Posted on 11 February 2020 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ravens continue prioritizing secondary by extending safety Chuck Clark

Posted on 10 February 2020 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Examining Ravens’ top 10 salary cap numbers for 2020

Posted on 04 February 2020 by Luke Jones

Coming off the best regular season in franchise history, general manager Eric DeCosta and the Ravens will try to take the next step in 2020 with NFL MVP Lamar Jackson entering only his third year.

We know the draft is the lifeblood of any organization wanting to find long-term prosperity, but teams need to receive appropriate production from their highest-paid veterans to maintain a balanced roster capable of competing for a Super Bowl championship. As of right now, the Ravens will devote just under $107 million in 2020 salary cap space to the 10 players possessing the highest cap numbers. The 2020 salary cap hasn’t yet been set, but it’s projected to rise from $188.2 million in 2019 to an estimated $200 million.

Below is a look at those 10 Baltimore players:

1. S Earl Thomas
2020 Week 1 age: 31
2020 cap number: $15 million
Synopsis: It may not have been a spectacular first season in Baltimore for the longtime Seattle Seahawk, but Thomas played well in the process of being named to his seventh Pro Bowl and being graded 16th among qualified safeties by Pro Football Focus. Another year in Wink Martindale’s defensive system should only increase his comfort level, but it’s always fair to wonder how the speed and range of any defensive back over the age of 30 will hold up, especially with Thomas owning the third-highest cap number among NFL safeties for 2020 and being signed through 2022.

1. CB Marcus Peters
2020 Week 1 age: 27
2020 cap number: $15 million
Synopsis: The acquisition of Peters from the Los Angeles Rams was probably the best in-season trade in the NFL this past year, but DeCosta signing the three-time Pro Bowl cornerback to a three-year, $42 million extension made the deal even better as Peters very likely would have done better on the open market. Grading fourth among qualified cornerbacks by PFF, Peters teams with fellow Pro Bowl selection Marlon Humphrey to give Baltimore one of the NFL’s best corner duos. Not resetting the market with Peters will help the Ravens’ future cap situation when it’s time to extend Humphrey.

3. DT Brandon Williams
2020 Week 1 age: 31
2020 cap number: $14.17 million
Synopsis: Projected to have the ninth-highest cap number among NFL interior defensive linemen in 2020, Williams hasn’t provided the best value on a five-year, $52.5 million contract that runs through 2021, but he remains one of the better run-stopping defensive linemen in the league. His presence will be even more important this coming season as the Ravens defense is likely to see much turnover with its front seven, which may include the free-agent exit of Michael Pierce. Williams’ cap number would be a bigger concern if not for the cap flexibility the Ravens have with a star quarterback still on a rookie deal.

4. OT Ronnie Stanley
2020 Week 1 age: 26
2020 cap number: $12.866 million
Synopsis: Widely regarded as the best left tackle in the NFL this season as a Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro selection, Stanley remains a bargain even with his fifth-year option as he currently owns just the 12th-highest cap number among left tackles for 2020. Signing the 2016 first-round pick to a long-term extension should be the top priority of the offseason among Baltimore players still under contract for 2020, but that may require making Stanley the highest-paid left tackle in the NFL. His age and performance this past season would certainly warrant such a demand from his representation.

5. S Tony Jefferson
2020 Week 1 age: 28
2020 cap number: $11.657 million
Synopsis: A popular locker room guy and a solid player in 2018, Jefferson suffered a serious knee injury in early October and was replaced by Chuck Clark, who emerged as a key piece of the defense and was seen as an upgrade at a fraction of the cost. Even if Jefferson were completely healthy, his status would have been in doubt as the Ravens can save $7 million in both cash and cap savings by releasing him this offseason. It’s tough envisioning a scenario in which Jefferson returns at anything but a dramatically reduced rate as his four-year, $34 million deal signed in 2017 hasn’t worked out as Baltimore planned.

6. G Marshal Yanda
2020 Week 1 age: 35
2020 cap number: $11 million
Synopsis: The only question here is whether the eight-time Pro Bowl lineman will return for a 14th season as Yanda remains one of the best guards in the NFL and carries the sixth-highest cap number among right guards for the 2020 season. The 2007 third-round pick retiring would create $7 million in cap savings for the Ravens, but it would open up a significant hole on the offensive line for the league’s top-ranked scoring offense. Yanda graded fourth among all qualified guards by PFF and looks like an eventual Hall of Famer, whether he continues playing or not.

7. CB Tavon Young
2020 Week 1 age: 26
2020 cap number: $8 million
Synopsis: The slot cornerback has shown much potential when he’s been able to stay on the field, but he’s appeared in just 15 games over the last three seasons and will be returning from a neck injury that cost him the entire 2019 campaign, creating some understandable concern about his value after he signed a lucrative extension last offseason. Young’s presence will allow the Ravens to move Humphrey back to an outside cornerback spot, strengthening a secondary that was already very strong this past season. There’s still upside at work with Young that the Ravens need to see come to fruition in 2020.

8. CB Brandon Carr
2020 Week 1 age: 34
2020 cap number: $7 million
Synopsis: His transition to a versatile safety role in sub packages should help Carr extend his playing career, but whether the Ravens elect to exercise their 2020 option on the veteran defensive back remains to be seen. With fellow veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, his status figures to impact what happens with Carr as both returning would seem unlikely. Baltimore would save $6 million in cap space by declining Carr’s option, but a respected and versatile veteran role player still chasing a Super Bowl ring might be amenable to returning at a reduced rate.

9. TE Nick Boyle
2020 Week 1 age: 27
2020 cap number: $6.833 million
Synopsis: His unique fit in Greg Roman’s run-first offense makes Boyle challenging to value as it relates to the other 31 teams, but the Ravens have no complaints about his 2019 production as he set new career highs in catches, receiving yards, and touchdown receptions after inking a three-year, $18 million contract last offseason. The 2015 fifth-round pick from Delaware remains one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL, grading 11th overall among qualified tight ends by PFF. He’s fondly referred to as a sixth offensive lineman on the field and provides some leadership for a very young offense.

10. WR Willie Snead
2020 Week 1 age: 27
2020 cap number: $5.412 million
Synopsis: Snead was extended through 2020 despite his catches and receiving yards falling off substantially from his first year in Baltimore. His ability to make plays from the slot is compromised by the Ravens’ frequent use of tight ends over the middle of the field, but Snead’s veteran presence and blocking ability are valued in such a young and unique offensive attack. DeCosta would seemingly like to add another impactful wide receiver to go with 2019 first-round pick Marquise Brown this offseason, a development that could further impact Snead’s role.

Next up:
11. RB Mark Ingram ($5.333 million)
12. OL James Hurst ($5.25 million)
13. K Justin Tucker ($5.1 million)

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Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson celebrates after throwing a touchdown pass against the Los Angeles Rams during the first half of an NFL football game Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

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After long layoff, top-seeded Ravens starting fast would ease biggest concerns

Posted on 09 January 2020 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Lamar Jackson says “it feels like it’s been forever” since he last played in a game, a full 20 days by the time the Ravens kick off their playoff opener against Tennessee on Saturday.

Rest and extra time to prepare are clear advantages for a team already superior in virtually every meaningful way to the Titans, who became the first team since the 2009 Ravens to beat New England in the wild-card round last weekend. But that’s an accomplishment and a path that shouldn’t be taken lightly, especially by an organization that relished an underdog road journey to two Super Bowl championships and a number of other playoff victories over the last two decades.

While the top-seeded Ravens focused on themselves and could prepare for the big picture over the better part of these last few weeks, the Titans have been busy fighting for their January lives with a Week 17 win at Houston to clinch a wild-card spot and a 20-13 victory over the Patriots in Foxborough just to get to Baltimore this weekend. If the 14-2 Ravens are slow to flip the switch in their first meaningful game since Week 16, that urgency is something that can work in No. 6 seed Tennessee’s favor.

“You just keep playing. You keep that edge. You are kind of going week to week,” said head coach John Harbaugh, whose Ravens knocked off a heavily favored Denver team on the way to a Super Bowl title seven years ago. “There’s not time to breathe or think about anything. I absolutely think that can be a plus. It has been for us in the past. We’ve been pretty good on the road over the years in the playoff times historically. There’s certainly something to that, and we’re well aware of that on the other side of it.”

That’s why the Ravens starting fast is more important than the typical way we discuss that cliche ahead of a big game. In fact, nearly every potential concern or pitfall discussed this week would be mitigated by the NFL’s best offense scoring on its first couple drives and one of the league’s top defenses making life difficult for the Tennessee offense early on. Such a beginning would make a blowout victory far more likely than the chance of an upset at M&T Bank Stadium.

Any concern of the Ravens being rusty or losing their edge after such a long layoff would be swatted away with a 10-0 lead before fans finish their first in-game beverage. That’s hardly out of the question considering Baltimore scored on its first two drives in eight of its 16 regular-season games while the Titans did that just once — Week 17 against a Texans team resting multiple starters — and managed to score on their opening drive only three times in the regular season before last Saturday’s playoff win.

But a slower start by the Ravens — one like we saw in Cleveland three weeks ago, for example — would give Tennessee the opportunity to carry over some of its wild-card weekend mojo and execute its optimal game plan. While quarterback Ryan Tannehill and the Titans rode NFL rushing champion Derrick Henry to an ordinary two-touchdown output against the Patriots, their offense ranks first in average yards per play, second in expected points added per play, and second in percentage of drives ending in touchdowns since Tannehill took over at quarterback in Week 7. It was a forgettable postseason debut for Tannehill with just 72 passing yards, a touchdown, and an interception last Saturday, but dismissing a 136.4 passer rating using play-action fakes and 22 touchdown passes to just six interceptions in 12 regular-season games is a brazen position.

Even if you’re waiting for the former Miami quarterback to turn back into a pumpkin after surprisingly leading the NFL in passer rating, Tannehill has been excellent against the blitz, something the Ravens do more frequently than anyone. Sustainable for the long haul or not, the formula has been there for Tannehill to succeed and the Titans to score prolifically with Henry and a good offensive line keeping them on schedule and rookie wide receiver A.J. Brown emerging as a big-play threat down the stretch.

It all begins with the 6-foot-3, 247-pound Henry, whom defensive coordinator Wink Martindale compared to a video-game creation at running back that “shouldn’t be that big and be able to run like he runs.” His propensity to get to the edge and cutback on outside-zone plays is a running style that’s given the Baltimore run defense some problems this season, another reason why a fast start is so important. An early deficit puts more pressure on Tannehill and minimizes Henry’s impact, even if he does find some running room over the course of the game.

“I think when the run game gets going, that’s when the play-action shot is available because the defense is so aggressive trying to stop the run,” safety Earl Thomas said. “If we knock that out from the start, I think we’ll be fine. If Tannehill tries to pass on us, I don’t think that will go in their favor. We know they’re going to try to run the ball. But we just have to stop the run and play sound on the back end. I think that will take care of the play-action pass.”

A strong beginning would also extinguish any lingering memory of last year’s playoff disappointment, a loss that drove Jackson’s remarkable improvement in the offseason that molded him into the league’s MVP. Of course, the 23-year-old needs no validation after a historic season in which he led the NFL in touchdown passes and shattered the single-season rushing record for a quarterback, but he’s waited and prepared 12 months for this very moment. Jackson is the first to tell you that all he cares about is winning the Super Bowl, which was what he famously promised on draft night less than two years ago.

That loss to the Los Angeles Chargers was not only a catalyst for the construction of the Ravens’ “revolutionary” offense this past offseason, but it serves as a painful reminder of how quickly playoff hopes can be dashed if you’re not ready. At one point in the first quarter of that 23-17 loss, Baltimore fumbled on three straight plays from scrimmage. Such a sequence seems unfathomable for a team that has won a franchise-record 12 consecutive games and has set all kinds of records, but a sleepy beginning and a critical mistake or two at the wrong time would give the upstart Titans their chance at an upset.

We’ll find out if it’s easier said than done Saturday night, but the Ravens merely need to pick up where they left off as the NFL’s best team over the last three months. A slow start hardly means they’re doomed, of course, but Baltimore would much prefer to leave no doubt from the opening kick and crush any hopes on the Titans’ side.

“Can’t start too late. You have to attack fast,” said Jackson about last year’s playoff loss. “It doesn’t really matter what quarter it is. First or second [quarter], you have to attack. You just have to finish the game strong.

“You can’t just go into the game playing half-assed. You’ll have the same results.”

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Ravens-Steelers: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 29 December 2019 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Few Ravens-Steelers games over the years have meant so little — at least on Baltimore’s side.

While John Harbaugh’s team has already clinched the top seed in the AFC, a first-round bye, and home-field advantage throughout the postseason, Pittsburgh needs a win over the Ravens and a Tennessee loss in Houston as the most feasible scenario to qualify for the playoffs as the No. 6 seed.

Ravens players and coaches have said all the right things by insisting that any game against their AFC North rival carries meaning, but Harbaugh is playing it safe with his top players by officially deactivating quarterback and MVP favorite Lamar Jackson, right guard Marshal Yanda, safety Earl Thomas, defensive tackle Brandon Williams, and left tackle Ronnie Stanley. Running back Mark Ingram was already ruled out Friday as he continues to recover from a left calf injury sustained in Week 16, but the Ravens have also deactivated tight end Mark Andrews, who missed most of the practice week with a minor right ankle injury suffered in Cleveland last week.

All 46 active players were suited up and going through pre-game warmups, but you’d have to assume Harbaugh will hold out or limit the snaps for at least a few more players in addition to the seven inactives. The starting offensive line during full-team warmups included James Hurst in place of Stanley at left tackle and Parker Ehinger at right guard in place of Yanda.

Making his first NFL start in three years, veteran quarterback Robert Griffin III was the first Ravens player on the field roughly two hours prior to kickoff. The 29-year-old has seen action in six other games this season, completing 12 of 17 passes for one touchdown and one interception. Rookie Trace McSorley will serve as Griffin’s backup after being a healthy scratch for the first 15 games of the regular season.

The Steelers will be without eight-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey (knee) and top running back James Conner (quadriceps), who were both ruled out on Friday. Even facing a Baltimore defense at less than full strength, those are challenging absences for rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges and a struggling Pittsburgh offense to overcome.

The ugly forecast in Baltimore calls for rain and temperatures in the mid-40s with winds five to 10 miles per hour and a 100-percent chance of preciptation, according to Weather.com.

Referee Bill Vinovich and his crew will officiate Sunday’s game.

The Ravens are wearing purple jerseys with black pants while Pittsburgh dons its white tops with yellow pants.

Below are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
QB Lamar Jackson
RB Mark Ingram
S Earl Thomas
G Marshal Yanda
OT Ronnie Stanley
TE Mark Andrews
DT Brandon Williams

PITTSBURGH
RB James Conner
C Maurkice Pouncey
CB Artie Burns
LB Tuzar Skipper
OL Chukwuma Okorafor
TE Zach Gentry
WR Amara Darboh

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Ravens, Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters reach contract extension

Posted on 28 December 2019 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Baltimore Ravens running back Gus Edwards runs for a touchdown against the Houston Texans during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 28 December 2019 by Luke Jones

A 12th win in a row would give the 2019 Ravens the first 14-2 record in franchise history, but there’s only one meaningful factor to monitor in Sunday’s regular-season finale against Pittsburgh.

That’s navigating 60 minutes of football without any injuries that could hinder a championship run.

Coaches and players have spoken all week about playing to win against their biggest rival, but John Harbaugh’s easy decision to rest MVP favorite Lamar Jackson, Marshal Yanda, Mark Ingram, Earl Thomas, and Brandon Williams tells you exactly how important this game is to Baltimore’s ultimate goal of winning the third Super Bowl in franchise history. It goes far beyond trying to eliminate an AFC North rival from playoff contention, setting additional regular-season records, or “maintaining momentum.” The threat of any top seed losing its edge or getting rusty is real, but that isn’t eliminated by simply playing Week 17 at full strength and doesn’t match any risk of losing a key player in a game lacking meaning.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Steelers meet for the 48th time in the regular season with Pittsburgh holding a 25-22 advantage as well as a 3-1 edge in playoff encounters. Baltimore is 13-13 against the Steelers in the Harbaugh era and seeks its first season sweep since 2015.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. The Ravens will rest or limit more starters than the aforementioned names. Harbaugh hasn’t revealed additional plans for playing time beyond what he announced Monday, but you’d assume he’ll hold out other key players or at least limit their snaps. In Week 17 of the 2012 season, he deactivated Yanda, Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Anquan Boldin, and Bernard Pollard and limited the likes of Ed Reed, Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Matt Birk, Torrey Smith, and Dennis Pitta to 16 or fewer snaps. Based on that as well as past preseasons, the Ravens can navigate a game with roughly 40 players.

2. Baltimore will set a new NFL record for rushing yards in a 16-game season. We saw Jackson’s impact on the run game from the moment he took the starting reins last year, so it’ll be interesting to see how productive the group is with Robert Griffin III at quarterback. The Ravens need 93 rushing yards to break the 1978 New England Patriots’ mark of 3,165, but they’re facing a Pittsburgh defense ranking third in the NFL at 3.7 yards per carry allowed. The volume of carries should still be there to set the record even if the Ravens average well below their season mark of 5.6 yards per rush.

3. JuJu Smith-Schuster will catch only his fourth touchdown of 2019. It was a quiet return for Smith-Schuster last week after a four-game absence due to a knee injury, but he provides a much-needed inside target for rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges and a sputtering Pittsburgh offense. Should the Ravens choose to limit Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey’s playing time, there isn’t an attractive backup option to play in the slot, a position Baltimore struggled to fill early in the year after Tavon Young was lost for the season in August. That’s even more reason not to play Humphrey too much in this game.

4. Justin Tucker will make his longest field goal of the season. We know a record-setting offense has marginalized the kicking game this year, but it’s mind-blowing to think the best in the NFL and three-time Pro Bowl selection hasn’t even attempted a field goal from 50 yards or more since Week 2. Tucker has just one missed field goal — and two unsuccessful extra points — this season, but Sunday will feel like a throwback performance with the Ravens relying more on field position and the kicking game. Some rain could make it tricky, but Tucker will connect on a field goal from longer than 51 yards.

5. The Ravens will be held under 20 points for the first time all season in a 17-16 loss. I haven’t picked against the Ravens since October and don’t plan to again in January, but this game simply doesn’t matter and can only harm their Super Bowl aspirations in the event of a notable injury or two. Baltimore winning with backups against an ordinary Steelers team wouldn’t surprise me by any means, but expecting the same intensity and brand of Ravens football — even if it’s against Pittsburgh — with Jackson and other top players in street clothes on the sideline is a lot to ask in a game in which the opponent has everything to play for. It will be a competitive game with points at a premium, but we’ll come away reminded why Jackson is the easy choice as the league MVP this season.

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Baltimore Ravens tight end Mark Andrews (89) celebrates his touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers with teammate Mark Ingram (21) in the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, in Baltimore, Md. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

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Ravens’ additional plans for regular-season finale remain unclear

Posted on 27 December 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — John Harbaugh said earlier in the week that the Ravens would make further decisions regarding playing time for the regular-season finale, but the head coach revealed no new plans Friday.

Running back Mark Ingram (calf) was officially declared out on the final injury report for Sunday’s meeting with Pittsburgh, but the veteran was already part of Harbaugh’s announced list including quarterback Lamar Jackson, safety Earl Thomas, right guard Marshal Yanda, and defensive tackle Brandon Williams that would sit out against the Steelers. Having already locked up the No. 1 seed in the AFC, the Ravens seem likely to rest at least a few more key starters, but those decisions could be impacted by the availability of four others officially listed as questionable on the Week 17 injury report.

Teams must deactivate seven players on game days, but Baltimore could still rest additional starters or at least limit their playing time. In the 2012 regular-season finale in Cincinnati, the Ravens deactivated seven players, held out another injured player, and limited 10 other starters or key contributors to 16 or fewer snaps after wrapping up the AFC North championship the previous week. That’s the closest situation to this one that Harbaugh has faced in his 12 seasons as head coach.

“The injury things in terms of who can make it to the game and who can’t, we’ll factor that in,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll just have to factor all of that in between now and Sunday. I don’t really have any announcements to make beyond those guys [ruled out on Monday]. … We’ll just get to the game and see where we’re at and try to put our best team out there that we choose to have available.”

Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews (ankle) was officially listed as questionable after returning to practice on a limited basis Friday. He is just four receiving yards shy of breaking Todd Heap’s team record for most in a season by a tight end (855 in 2005), but Andrews wasn’t moving around all that much during the portion of practice open to reporters. He turned his right ankle in the fourth quarter of last Sunday’s win in Cleveland.

Cornerbacks Marcus Peters (chest) and Jimmy Smith (groin) were limited in practices this week while wide receiver Marquise Brown missed Friday’s practice with an illness, leaving them all questionable on the injury report.

Thomas didn’t practice all week and was officially designated as questionable despite Harbaugh already saying the seven-time Pro Bowl safety wouldn’t play against the Steelers.

Another situation to monitor will be the status of inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor, who left the field early in Friday’s practice after what appeared to be an animated exchange with Harbaugh. The Baltimore coach wouldn’t comment on the details of what happened beyond describing it as “an internal matter.”

After focusing on individual drills and fundamentals work early in the practice week, Jackson ran the Ravens’ scout team in Friday’s workout as backup quarterback Robert Griffin III prepared to make his first NFL start in three years. It was quite the unique situation having the league MVP favorite playing the role of Steelers quarterback Devlin Hodges in practice.

“He looked good. It was a good look,” said Harbaugh as he laughed. “He made some plays.”

Needing a win over the Ravens and a Tennessee loss to Houston to secure the No. 6 seed in the AFC, the Steelers will be without Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey (knee) and starting running back James Conner (quad), who both missed the entire week of practice. Those absences won’t help a Pittsburgh offense that’s scored fewer than 20 points in five of its last seven games.

According to Weather.com, the Sunday forecast in Baltimore calls for rain and temperatures in the mid-40s with winds light and variable and a 70-percent chance of precipitation.

Below is the final injury report for Week 17:

BALTIMORE
OUT: RB Mark Ingram (calf)
QUESTIONABLE: TE Mark Andrews (ankle), WR Marquise Brown (illness), CB Marcus Peters (chest), CB Jimmy Smith (groin), S Earl Thomas (knee/hand)

PITTSBURGH
OUT: RB James Conner (quad), C Maurkice Pouncey (knee)

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