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Ingram “pretty sure” he’ll be ready to go for Ravens’ first playoff game

Posted on 26 December 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — It’s a move Ravens running back Mark Ingram said he’d made “8 million times” before sustaining a non-contact injury on the first play of the fourth quarter in Cleveland last Sunday.

The Pro Bowl selection and 1,000-yard rusher went to the ground after a fake hand-off from quarterback Lamar Jackson and initially feared the worst before the diagnosis of what head coach John Harbaugh described as “a mild-to-moderate calf strain.” Ingram won’t play in the regular-season finale against Pittsburgh on Sunday, but he expressed confidence that he’ll be ready to go in top-seed Baltimore’s first playoff game two weeks from this weekend.

“I just did a step-back, and it just felt like somebody like kicked me or hit me in the back of my calf,” Ingram said. “I didn’t know if Lamar had cleated me when he ran by, but he didn’t. It just felt like somebody kind of popped a balloon in my calf. It was kind of scary, kind of nerve-wracking.

“You hear about that feeling a lot of times when guys do more serious stuff. I’m just happy that it wasn’t serious like that.”

Ingram was not wearing a walking boot on his left leg Thursday like he did when leaving the visitor locker room in Cleveland four days earlier, another positive development in his recovery.

Even if healthy, Ingram would have been unlikely to play against the Steelers with Harbaugh planning to rest several top starters in a game with no playoff implications for the Ravens. Winners of 11 straight games, Baltimore needs just 93 yards to set the new 16-game single-season record for rushing yards in a season currently held by the 1978 New England Patriots (3,165).

Top backup running back Gus Edwards is expected to start Sunday with rookie Justice Hill backing him up, but the 30-year-old Ingram believes the extra time to recover will allow him to be on the field for the divisional round. The former New Orleans Saint will be missing his first game for health reasons — he served a four-game suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy last year — since sitting out four games with a shoulder injury in 2015.

“I have confidence I’ll be ready to go,” Ingram said. “The team’s doing a good job, the training staff’s doing a good job [with] around-the-clock treatment and getting it ready to go. I’m pretty sure I’ll be ready to go for that first playoff game.”

Ingram wasn’t the only key player sitting out Thursday’s practice with an injury as tight end Mark Andrews (ankle) and safety Earl Thomas (knee/hand) were also absent. Harbaugh already said Thomas would be part of the list of key players including Jackson, right guard Marshal Yanda, and defensive tackle Brandon Williams who would rest in Week 17.

Cornerbacks Marcus Peters (chest) and Jimmy Smith (groin) were limited participants in Thursday’s practice.

Needing a win over the Ravens and a Tennessee loss at Houston as the most plausible scenario to sneak into the playoffs as the No. 6 seed, the Steelers will be without Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey (knee) and may not have top running back James Conner, who missed his second straight practice with a quad injury. Starting cornerback Joe Haden also missed Thursday’s practice with a foot injury.

Below is Thursday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: TE Mark Andrews (ankle), RB Mark Ingram (calf), S Earl Thomas (knee/hand), DT Brandon Williams (non-injury), DE Chris Wormley (non-injury)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: CB Marcus Peters (chest), CB Jimmy Smith (groin)
FULL PARTICIPATION: CB Brandon Carr (non-injury)

PITTSBURGH
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: RB James Conner (quad), G Ramon Foster (non-injury), CB Joe Haden (foot), C Maurkice Pouncey (knee)
FULL PARTICIPATION: LB Mark Barron (non-injury), G David DeCastro (non-injury), DT Cameron Hayward (non-injury), TE Vance McDonald (non-injury), CB Steven Nelson (groin), OT Alejandro Villanueva (non-injury), LB T.J. Watt (non-injury)

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Ravens to rest Jackson, other veterans for regular-season finale

Posted on 23 December 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After clinching the No. 1 seed in the AFC, the Ravens will keep the expected NFL MVP and several key veterans out of harm’s way in the regular-season finale against Pittsburgh.

Head coach John Harbaugh announced quarterback Lamar Jackson, running back Mark Ingram, right guard Marshal Yanda, safety Earl Thomas, and defensive tackle Brandon Williams are among those who won’t play against the Steelers on Sunday. At least a couple others are expected to be added to that list this week as Ravens players return to the team facility on Christmas Eve.

With Jackson having already locked up the MVP award in the eyes of most as the only quarterback in NFL history to throw for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in a single season, there was just no compelling upside to playing him compared to exposing him to even the slightest risk of an injury. For what it’s worth, more than three weeks lapsed from the 22-year-old’s final preseason snaps until Week 1 when he threw five touchdowns and produced a perfect passer rating.

Acknowledging the balance between resting players and keeping them sharp for what the organization hopes will be a long postseason run next month, Harbaugh is choosing not to expose his best players to even a small chance of injury in a game carrying no tangible value to Baltimore’s Super Bowl aspirations. The 12th-year head coach has never been in this position before, but he rested multiple starters in Week 17 of the 2012 season after the Ravens had clinched the AFC North division championship the previous week and had only a small chance to move up from the fourth spot to the No. 3 seed in the playoff field.

“I talked to a few guys on the plane. Marshal was the main guy that I had some time talking to about it,” Harbaugh said. “I feel confident that everybody is on board. I talked to the coordinators, assistant head coach [David Culley], and [director of football research] Scott Cohen was involved in that today.

“It was pretty straight forward. It’s not really hard. It’s not a hard decision really if you really sit back on it and think about it. It’s a solid decision.”

Veteran backup Robert Griffin III will start at quarterback against the Steelers, but Harbaugh left open the possibility of rookie sixth-round pick Trace McSorley also seeing playing time.

Though many pundits and fans are referring to Sunday’s game as a glorified preseason game from the Ravens’ perspective, Harbaugh doesn’t have the luxury of a 90-man roster to navigate 60 minutes of play like he does in August. With only seven players deactivated for games, many veterans will still see action, but you’d expect workloads to be eased for select starters.

“We’re very healthy, so that does bode well,” said Harbaugh, who added that the Ravens will play to win with all players active against the playoff-hopeful Steelers. “It will be an opportunity for some guys to play who have been inactive, so that’s a big plus for us. It gives some guys some experience, and we’ll just roll with it.”

Harbaugh acknowledged there being merit to the other side of the debate suggesting a team already holding a first-round bye is in danger of losing its edge with too long a layoff from live-game action. It’s a fair concern that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy without taking the proper measures, but the practice schedule, mental preparation, and how players take care of their bodies over the next couple weeks carry more weight than playing an arbitrary numbers of snaps — and risking injury — in an inconsequential game that’s still two full weeks before the divisional round. In other words, there’s still much time to collect rust if you’re not managing those other variables wisely, no matter how you handle the Week 17 game itself.

Harbaugh confirmed all healthy players will practice this week and during the bye.

“Our goal is to be the very best football team we can become for that divisional game,” Harbaugh said. “We have a number of practices between now and then, and we have to make the most of every practice, every rep, every meeting, everything we do to be a much better football team than we are right now.”

If the Ravens were unsure how to handle the regular-season finale, seeing Ingram exit with a left calf injury early in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s win in Cleveland probably ended the debate.

Harbaugh described the results of Ingram’s MRI as “good news” after the Pro Bowl running back suffered the non-contact injury, but his status will be one of the major questions going into the postseason. Second-year running back Gus Edwards and rookie Justice Hill will handle greater workloads against Pittsburgh, but the Ravens remain hopeful that Ingram will be ready for the second weekend in January.

“He has a mild-to-moderate calf strain, so he won’t play this week,” Harbaugh said. “He probably wouldn’t play this week no matter what the circumstance was with that calf strain. We’d be looking for him to be ready in two weeks, so we’ll see how that goes going forward.”

2020 opponents revealed

With first place in each of the four AFC divisions now decided, the Ravens’ slate of 2020 opponents has been finalized.

Already scheduled to play the entire AFC South and NFC East divisions next season, Baltimore officially learned it will host AFC West champion Kansas City and travel to AFC East-winning New England.

HOME: Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Jacksonville, Tennessee, Dallas, New York Giants, Kansas City

AWAY: Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Houston, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Washington, New England

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Ravens sport clean bill of health ahead of Sunday’s trip to Cleveland

Posted on 19 December 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILS, Md. — The Ravens haven’t been immune to injuries over the course of 2019, but they couldn’t ask for a much better bill of health entering the penultimate week of the regular season.

Needing a win in Cleveland to clinch a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, Baltimore hasn’t had a single player absent or limited during practice for a health-related reason through the week’s first two practices. Pro Bowl left tackle Ronnie Stanley and reserve inside linebacker Chris Board were full participants for the second straight day Thursday after missing last week’s 42-21 win over the New York Jets due to concussions sustained in Week 14.

Navigating their way through a short week for their 10th straight victory last Thursday, the Ravens had the reward of some extra rest last weekend, something that wasn’t taken for granted by even the best team in the NFL this late in the season.

“It’s definitely a positive for us, for any team,” head coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “It’s a plus to get a little bit of time to get healed up and get rested up a little bit. We’ll have to come back and get sharp and make sure we practice really well and just get ready to play the game on Sunday. But I would say all in all, it’s a benefit.”

Defensive tackle Brandon Williams was the only Ravens player not on the practice field Thursday as he received a veteran day off.

The 6-8 Browns couldn’t say the same about their injury outlook as starting defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson (back) and starting center JC Tretter (knee) were again absent from practice on Thursday. Both played in last Sunday’s loss at Arizona and appear likely to play against the Ravens.

Nine Cleveland players were listed as limited participants on Thursday, a list including starting wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. (groin) and Jarvis Landry (hip), starting right tackle Chris Hubbard (knee), and top cornerback Denzel Ward (ankle). Starting defensive end Olivier Vernon (knee) was also limited and has missed five of the last six games.

Below is Thursday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: DT Brandon Williams (non-injury)
FULL PARTICIPATION: LB Chris Board (concussion), RB Mark Ingram (non-injury), CB Jimmy Smith (non-injury), OT Ronnie Stanley (concussion), S Earl Thomas (non-injury), G Marshal Yanda (non-injury)

CLEVELAND
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: DT Sheldon Richardson (back), C JC Tretter (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: WR Odell Beckham Jr. (groin), LB Tae Davis (knee), RB Dontrell Hilliard (neck), OT Chris Hubbard (knee), OT Kendall Lamm (knee), WR Jarvis Landry (hip), S Eric Murray (knee), DE Olivier Vernon (knee), CB Denzel Ward (ankle)
FULL PARTICIPATION: DE Porter Gustin (neck)

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Jackson headlines list of record 12 Ravens selections for Pro Bowl

Posted on 17 December 2019 by Luke Jones

An NFL-record-tying 12 Ravens players were selected to play in next month’s Pro Bowl in Orlando, but they hope to be busy preparing for a more meaningful game further down the road in Florida the following Sunday.

To no surprise, MVP favorite and NFL leading vote-getter Lamar Jackson was selected as the AFC’s starting quarterback, continuing a historic season in which he currently leads the NFL in touchdown passes (33) and has already set the league’s single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback (1,103). Jackson, 22, is the first Ravens quarterback to be named the Pro Bowl starter and only the second in their 24-year history to be a Pro Bowl selection, joining Vinny Testaverde in 1996.

Jackson needs one more touchdown pass to surpass Testaverde for the franchise single-season record and currently ranks first in the NFL in adjusted QBR (81.3), first in yards per carry (6.9), first in overall touchdowns (40), third in passer rating (112.8), and eighth in rushing yards. He is the first quarterback in NFL history to produce at least 2,500 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a single season, but Jackson hopes to lead the 12-2 Ravens to Super Bowl LIV in Miami in lieu of playing in the Pro Bowl.

“This honor is all about my teammates and our coaches, because without them, the success we’ve had as a team wouldn’t be possible,” Jackson said in a statement released by the team. “I’m also grateful for all the fans who continue to support us and who have helped make this season so special. Ultimately, it’s about winning, and we still have a lot of work to do before we accomplish our biggest goals.”

Right guard Marshal Yanda, left tackle Ronnie Stanley, and fullback Patrick Ricard were also named starters for the AFC while kicker Justin Tucker and long snapper Morgan Cox were named AFC specialists. Tight end Mark Andrews, running back Mark Ingram, cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, outside linebacker Matthew Judon, and safety Earl Thomas round out Baltimore’s list of Pro Bowl selections as reserves.

Named to the Pro Bowl for the eighth time in the last nine years, Yanda is now fourth on the Ravens’ all-time Pro Bowl selections list behind Hall of Famers Ray Lewis (13), Jonathan Ogden (11), and Ed Reed (nine). He has led an offensive line that’s blocked for the NFL’s top-ranked scoring and rushing offense as the Ravens have set franchise records for total touchdowns (58), points (472), and rushing yards (2,830). Pro Football Focus has graded Yanda fourth among all NFL guards this season.

“Being voted to the Pro Bowl is an entire team honor — not just the individual,” Yanda said. “And this year, we have a lot of guys who have worked extremely hard and are being rewarded.”

Yanda wasn’t the only Baltimore offensive lineman to make it as left tackle Ronnie Stanley received his first Pro Bowl nod and has graded first among NFL left tackles by PFF. Andrews and Ricard are also first-time selections representing the Ravens offense while Ingram was named to his third career Pro Bowl in his first season with Baltimore.

Ingram is on pace to rush for over 1,000 yards for the third time in his career and ranks fourth in the NFL with 14 total touchdowns scored. Andrews’ eight touchdown receptions lead all NFL tight ends and have set a franchise record for touchdown receptions by a tight end in a single season.

“This is an extreme honor, especially since I’m in my second year,” Andrews said. “I wouldn’t be here without my teammates, particularly our other tight ends — Nick Boyle and Hayden Hurst — with everything that we all do on the field. They make my job easier, so this is not an individual award — it’s a team award.”

Humphrey and Judon also received their first Pro Bowl nods in helping lead a Baltimore defense that ranks in the top 10 in most major categories despite a slow start to the season. A 2017 first-round pick, Humphrey is one of six NFL defenders this season to post at least two interceptions, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries.

Judon has recorded team highs in sacks (8 1/2), tackles for a loss (13), forced fumbles (three), and quarterback hits (29) this season and is one of only three NFL defenders to have at least eight sacks, 10 tackles for loss, 25 quarterback hits, and three forced fumbles. The honor comes in a contract season for the 2016 fifth-round pick, who’s taken on more of a leadership role after the free-agent departure of longtime Raven Terrell Suggs.

“I was overjoyed when I heard the news,” Judon said. “It was probably one of the most exciting moments of my career so far. We work so hard in this game — everybody on our team has — and it’s just so rewarding. We’ve put in the work, and for so many of us to get recognized like this, it’s a testament to our hard work and our great coaching staff.

“For the fans, the coaches, and the players to say you’re one of the best players in the league this year, it really means a lot.”

Thomas was selected to his first Pro Bowl as a Raven after being named to his first six with the Seattle Seahawks. Acquired in an October trade with the Los Angeles Rams, Peters was named to his third Pro Bowl after returning an NFL-best three interceptions for touchdowns — two with the Ravens — and tying for the third-most interceptions (five) in the league this season.

The most accurate kicker in NFL history, Tucker stands second in the league this season with a 95.8-percent success rate (23-for-24) and has made two game-winning field goals — one in overtime against Pittsburgh in Week 5 and the other coming against San Francisco in Week 13. This is Tucker’s third Pro Bowl selection.

This is Cox’s third Pro Bowl selection as he’s served as the Ravens’ long snapper since 2010. Long snappers were added to the player and coach balloting system for the first time this season after the head coach of each Pro Bowl team would previously select a long snapper as a “need” player.

Nine of Baltimore’s 12 Pro Bowl selections are homegrown players who were either drafted or signed as rookie free agents by the organization. That includes first-round picks selected in three consecutive years: Stanley (2016), Humphrey (2017), and Jackson (2018). The list is certainly headlined by the sensational Jackson, but Ricard may have been the most improbable choice at the beginning of the season since he didn’t appear to even be in the Ravens’ long-term plans at the end of 2018.

“I feel humbled and appreciative because a year ago at this time, I was inactive for the final month of the season and there was outside talk about me not even making the team in 2019,” Ricard said. “I want to give credit to [offensive coordinator] Greg Roman, first and foremost, for transitioning me to fullback three years ago when I was an undrafted defensive lineman.

“Additionally, [tight ends coach Bobby] Engram and [assistant tight ends coach Andy] Bischoff — none of this would be possible without their guidance. But ultimately, I want to thank all the fans and players who voted for me, and I give a great deal of credit to my amazing teammates.”

Punter Sam Koch and right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. were named first alternates for the AFC Pro Bowl roster.

The Pro Bowl will be played at Camping World Stadium in Orlando on Jan. 26, but the Super Bowl takes place at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium a week later on Feb. 2. Any Pro Bowl players whose teams make it to the Super Bowl will be replaced for the exhibition game.

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San Francisco 49ers defensive back Marcell Harris (36) strips the ball from Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) to cause a fumble in the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, in Baltimore, Md. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

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On imperfect day, everything still falls into place for Ravens

Posted on 02 December 2019 by Luke Jones

The weather was miserable.

The defense allowed its first opening-drive touchdown of the season and its highest rushing total since Week 4, the last time the Ravens actually lost a game.

The Baltimore offense produced its season low for points while Lamar Jackson lost a fumble for the first time since January and produced his lowest passing yardage total of the season.

Sunday felt far from perfect as the Ravens trailed in a game for the first time since before Halloween, yet they still beat the best team in the NFC. And they went to bed Sunday night knowing they now occupy the top spot in the AFC and control their path to securing home-field advantage throughout the playoffs for the first time in team history.

The 20-17 win over San Francisco was both a commentary on the 49ers being a dangerous adversary and how our expectations have changed watching the Ravens play nearly flawlessly over the previous six weeks. Beating a 10-1 opponent by any means and score should be celebrated unconditionally, but perceptions are warped when you’ve beaten the previous five opponents — four of them with winning records — by an average margin of four touchdowns, leaving some to ask a question or two about what happened after the grind-it-out win.

The truth is this was as valuable a victory for John Harbaugh’s team as any this season in how it relates to the big picture. The Ravens earned an abundance of style points in recent weeks and have really tested conventional thinking, but we know winning in the NFL isn’t easy. That’s a lesson that probably doesn’t need to be reiterated to the likes of Marshal Yanda, Earl Thomas, or Jimmy Smith at this point, but there were just enough mistakes on each side of the ball Sunday for the coaching staff to have the attention of anyone who might have been feeling a little too invincible after winning the previous three games by a combined 109 points.

You’re unlikely to see many plays from Sunday’s performance in Jackson’s 2019 highlight reel — other than his juke on 49ers cornerback K’Waun Williams that left Ravens defensive tackle Brandon Williams to “hope his ankles are OK” after the game — but the 22-year-old again played like an MVP when it mattered, going 3-for-3 for 27 yards and picking up two critical first downs on short-yardage runs on the final drive. After the game, Jackson said the cold, rainy weather messed with him “a lot” as a passer and he was still angry about the third-quarter fumble that threatened to swing the game in favor of the 49ers, but the ball remained in his hands whenever the Ravens needed a play against a tough San Francisco defense that was determined to hit the young quarterback hard and often. He rushed for over 100 yards for the fourth time this year, an NFL single-season record for a quarterback.

Sunday was also a reminder of what the Ravens still have in their back pocket despite not needing them as often this season. The light workload for veteran punter Sam Koch has served as a punchline for weeks, but his 61-yard punt pinned the 49ers back at their own 1 late in a third quarter that had featured Jackson’s fumble, a long San Francisco drive that ended with a field goal to tie the game at 17, and another Baltimore series that had stalled.

Then, there was Justin Tucker making his 15th career game-winning field goal. Attempting such a high-leverage kick from 49 yards away in those conditions, many kickers would probably hope for it be a coin flip. But Tucker again showed why he’s the NFL’s best, even if he’s kicking more extra points than field goals these days.

The Ravens now find themselves in the top spot via their head-to-head tiebreaker win over New England in Week 9. Baltimore will be favored to win each of its final four games to close the regular season. But a tweet from retired linebacker and current director of player engagement Jameel McClain late Sunday should resonate after the Ravens won their eighth straight game, their longest ever regular-season stretch.

Sunday showed the Ravens don’t need to be at their best to beat a top-tier opponent, a terrifying proposition for the rest of the NFL. But the narrow win reiterated that it won’t be easy the rest of the way.

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Maintaining edge one of Ravens’ bigger challenges entering December

Posted on 29 November 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Asked about Sunday’s showdown between the Ravens and San Francisco being a potential Super Bowl preview, safety Earl Thomas offered an answer that raised some eyebrows.

“You think the 49ers are going to the Super Bowl? It could be, let’s see,” Thomas said. “We just go out there and try to play the best football we can possibly do. When the Super Bowl comes, whoever we play, they’re going to be in trouble.”

To describe the latter part of his answer as a Joe Namath-like guarantee would be a bit much since Thomas was directly asked about a contrived narrative, but the six-time Pro Bowl selection knew exactly what he was saying. It’s the kind of bravado reminiscent of a previous era of Ravens football, something that’s dissipated — at least in terms of expressing it to reporters — over the course of the John Harbaugh era. A 12th-year head coach who prefers his players to do their talking on the field probably didn’t love Thomas’ words, but we’re also discussing a team that has won seven in a row and outscored its last five opponents — four of them owning a combined 32-12 record — by an absurd 140 points.

The 10-1 49ers indeed present Baltimore’s greatest remaining regular-season challenge on paper, but similar thoughts were expressed about Seattle, New England, Houston, and the Los Angeles Rams and we saw how those meetings played out. Yes, the NFL has a way of humbling a team when it starts believing its own hype — we’ve also mentioned that a few times in recent weeks, haven’t we? — but the Ravens are in the midst of the most dominant all-around stretch in franchise history with a record-setting offense and an ascending defense that’s played as well as any in the league since mid-October.

All eyes should be on Sunday’s clash with San Francisco, but the best team in the NFL is allowed to have some extra swagger and should possess an unapologetic urgency to win the Super Bowl, which is what makes Thomas’ answer so refreshingly honest. Maintaining their current intensity level could be a challenge as the Ravens move into December with five regular-season games to go and even an 89.5 percent chance to secure a first-round bye, according to Football Outsiders. Chasing the Patriots for home-field advantage throughout the postseason will help, but it’s human nature to wonder if the Ravens can maintain this same edge after embarrassing quality opponents for the better part of the last six weeks.

Two months ago, the popular sentiment was that the Ravens were probably another year away from being a top-tier Super Bowl contender, but Lamar Jackson emerging as the clear MVP favorite has drastically altered expectations. And while it’s fun for observers to get ahead of themselves and ponder whether Harbaugh and Jackson might become the next Bill Belichick and Tom Brady as the Ravens reap the benefits of having a franchise quarterback on a rookie contract, not even that first championship is guaranteed.

Consider how quickly the fortunes of the Sean McVay-Jared Goff pairing have soured as the Rams went from being the NFC’s young darlings to a team with real roster and salary cap concerns. For a more historical example, Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino was NFL MVP and led 14-2 Miami to the Super Bowl in his second season before losing to Joe Montana and the 49ers and never getting back to the sport’s pinnacle game.

We often speak of a team’s championship window like there’s a gradual progression, but it often slams shut prematurely for any number of reasons, ranging from injuries and bad luck to poor roster management and coaching changes.

A veteran like Thomas has won a Super Bowl and understands how difficult it is to do after Seattle lost its bid to repeat and hasn’t been back to even an NFC championship game since then despite still having one of the league’s best quarterbacks in Russell Wilson. Marshal Yanda probably figured he’d have another real shot or two at a championship playing with a quarterback who was the Super Bowl MVP, but the Ravens won only one more playoff game with Joe Flacco at the helm and have since reset to give the seven-time Pro Bowl guard another title opportunity with the electric Jackson now leading the way.

The time is now for the Ravens to seize a championship opportunity. That’s why you can’t blame Thomas’ bravado and extra desire to speak a Super Bowl into existence despite the game itself still being more than two months away.

Motion sickness (for opposition)

The Ravens have used the most pre-snap motion in the NFL with ESPN taking an interesting look at what this has meant for the league’s top-ranked scoring and rushing offense.

Offensive coordinator Greg Roman was asked Friday about why he prefers using so much pre-snap movement and the challenge it presents to an opposing defense.

“Do we use motions? Oh yeah, we do, don’t we?” said Roman as he smiled. “I mean it depends what defensive call they have on. Different shifts and motions can certainly impact each differently. Then you end up with, as you look at an entire game, if you take every defensive call, every offensive call, every shift, every motion and you multiply them by the possibilities of adjustments, you’re looking at a lot of adjustments. We do what we do, and whatever happens, we’ll let the chips fall where they may. There certainly has to be some adjustments being made, and they can be very simple adjustments or very complex. Really and truly, some of them are more important than others, but I’m going to kind of keep those to myself.”

If that sounds confusing, imagine having to prepare for it. Such tactics were often described in the past as little more than smoke and mirrors, but the substance the Ravens bring behind that pre-snap movement continues to overwhelm defenses.

Wet Week 13?

The Weather.com forecast for Baltimore on Sunday calls for rain, temperatures reaching the high 40s, and winds 10 to 15 miles per hour with rainfall expected to be around half an inch.

That precipitation could complicate matters for an offense that uses the shotgun or pistol formation 95 percent of the time and will have rookie free agent Patrick Mekari making his first NFL start at center. The Ravens offense addressed that potential challenge by practicing with wet footballs during Thursday’s practice.

“We got some really good work with that,” Roman said. “Really, [the rain] affects the footing obviously for every player on the field. That can work as a positive or a negative to anybody really. I don’t think it’s specifically harder on the defense. People like to say that, but it really requires you to play in balance throughout the game, getting in and out of cuts, that kind of thing. You have to make sure your footwear is correct.

“But really, it comes down to being great with the ball-handling. That’s where you really [see] the impact of the game. You have to really focus in on the ball-handling.”

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Old question flipped as high-powered Ravens take on Rams

Posted on 23 November 2019 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Defensive tackle Pierce listed as doubtful for Ravens-Texans game

Posted on 15 November 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens defensive tackle Michael Pierce is listed as doubtful to play in Sunday’s AFC clash with the Houston Texans.

The run-stopping defensive lineman missed practice all week as he continues to recover from a right ankle injury sustained on the first defensive play of last Sunday’s win in Cincinnati. Head coach John Harbaugh said Pierce will be a game-time decision, but he appears likely to miss his first game of the season after starting each of the first nine contests.

Baltimore signed veteran defensive tackles Domata Peko and Justin Ellis earlier this week to boost its run defense with Pierce’s expected absence. The Texans own the NFL’s fourth-ranked run offense.

“I feel good about them to contribute Sunday,” Harbaugh said. “They both practiced well. They practiced hard. They’re in good shape. It’s not the most complicated thing to understand. They have to figure out where to line up on the different calls. There are certain checks that they need to understand, but they’re good at that and they know how to play the techniques that we play. That’s why we signed them.

“Yes, they have a chance to play on Sunday if the circumstances work out with Michael.”

Wide receiver Marquise Brown (right ankle) returned to practice on a limited basis Friday and is expected to play despite being listed as questionable on the injury report. Wide receiver Chris Moore (left thumb) is also questionable after practicing on a limited basis all week and missing last Sunday’s game against the Bengals.

Safety Earl Thomas (knee) was not listed on the final game status injury report after practicing fully on Thursday and Friday.

The Texans listed four starters as questionable to play coming off their bye week. Wide receiver Will Fuller (hamstring) and Tashaun Gipson (back/wrist) missed Houston’s final two games before its Week 10 bye while cornerback Bradley Roby (hamstring) has missed the last three games. Texans left tackle Laremy Tunsil missed the Week 9 win over Jacksonville.

According to Weather.com, the Sunday forecast in Baltimore calls for cloudy skies and temperatures reaching the mid-40s with winds 10 to 15 miles per hour and only a slight chance of precipitation.

Below is the final injury report for Sunday’s game:

BALTIMORE
DOUBTFUL: DT Michael Pierce (ankle)
QUESTIONABLE: WR Marquise Brown (ankle), WR Chris Moore (thumb)

HOUSTON
QUESTIONABLE: WR Will Fuller (hamstring), S Tashaun Gipson (back/wrist), CB Bradley Roby (hamstring), OT Laremy Tunsil (shoulder)

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 10 win at Cincinnati

Posted on 12 November 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens winning their fifth consecutive game in a 49-13 final at Cincinnati, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. After posting a 158.3 passer rating 30 miles from his hometown in Week 1, Lamar Jackson had another perfect day 100 miles from where he won a Heisman Trophy at Louisville. Playing like that in front of so many who watched him on his path to NFL stardom is special.

2. Being traded in the middle of a contract year can be a challenging transition, but Marcus Peters has now returned two interceptions for touchdowns over his first three games as a Raven. A cornerback with a boom-or-bust reputation is putting himself in position for a huge payday.

3. Marquise Brown has caught seven of eight targets for 128 yards and a touchdown since returning from an ankle sprain. The rookie performing like this at less than 100 percent continues to be impressive and encouraging for his future if he can stay healthy.

4. The Ravens haven’t posted a winning road record in the regular season since 2010, but they’re 4-1 in away games this season and 6-2 on the road since Jackson became the starter last year. Road success in the regular season is what allows teams to play at home in January.

5. Brandon Williams has played some of the best football of his career in recent weeks, which included a season-best seven tackles in 59 defensive snaps with Michael Pierce exiting Sunday’s game early. Williams’ Week 4 spat with Earl Thomas feels like a long time ago, doesn’t it?

6. Nick Boyle had four catches for a career-high 78 yards and has now set a new single-season high in receiving yards nine games into 2019. Mark Andrews headlines, but all three Baltimore tight ends have been superb, combining to catch 71.6 percent of targets for 949 yards and seven touchdowns.

7. In a combined 30 snaps between offense and defense, Patrick Ricard had a big block on Mark Ingram’s touchdown run, recorded a tackle for no gain, logged a strip-sack returned by Tyus Bowser for a touchdown, and had another tackle for a minimal gain. That’s quite a splash.

8. The “Heisman Package” resulted in a 12-yard gain as Jackson pitched to Robert Griffin III on the option. As John Harbaugh said, “Guys like to have fun,” but I’m now expecting Vinny Testaverde, Ricky Williams, and Troy Smith to come back if they’re serious about this Heisman thing.

9. With the return of Jimmy Smith, the arrival of Peters, and the shift of Brandon Carr to safety and Chuck Clark to the box in the dime, Anthony Levine has played only 11 defensive snaps since the bye. Levine is a good player, but it speaks to improved secondary depth.

10. Sam Koch didn’t have to punt until the 1:14 mark of the fourth quarter in Cincinnati. His career low for punts in a season is 60, but the longtime Raven is currently on pace to punt only 37 times in 2019. Things sure have changed here in Baltimore.

11. Jackson did the heavy lifting, but CBS play-by-play man Kevin Harlan’s call of the electric 47-yard touchdown run was a lot of fun. Harlan is one of the more underrated broadcasters in the business. “He is Houdini!” will be remembered by Ravens fans for a long time.

12. I couldn’t have been the only one who thought of Tony Siragusa late in the Ravens’ 2000 playoff win over Tennessee when Jackson was shown wearing sunglasses on the sideline. Siragusa gets bonus points for taking those shades from Brian Billick and that being a more important game, however.

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Ravens-Bengals: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 10 November 2019 by Luke Jones

A little sickness wasn’t about to keep Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson from making his 16th career regular-season start.

The second-year starter and NFL MVP candidate is active and will play despite being officially listed as questionable on the final injury report for the Week 10 tilt against winless Cincinnati. Jackson was a full participant in Friday’s practice and declared himself “good” after that workout, removing any doubt about his status. Jackson rushed for more than 100 yards in each of his first two games against the Bengals, who haven’t come close to finding an answer for the talented 22-year-old to this point.

The Ravens have made a change at punt returner with wide receiver De’Anthony Thomas replacing cornerback Cyrus Jones, who was a healthy scratch Sunday after losing a fumble in the second quarter of last week’s 37-20 win over New England. The speedy Thomas has extensive experience as a return man dating back to 2014, but his two fumbles earlier this season contributed to his release from Kansas City last month.

Wide receiver and special-teams standout Chris Moore is also inactive after a left thumb injury severely limited him in practices this week. That means Thomas is likely to also be a kick returner with rookie running back Justice Hill against the Bengals. Moore also serves as a gunner on the punt team, which means special teams coach Chris Horton will be replacing both gunners from last month’s meeting with Cincinnati when special-teams ace Justin Bethel was still on the roster.

As expected, wide receiver Marquise Brown (ankle/thigh) and safety Earl Thomas (knee) are active and will play after being listed as questionable on the final injury report.

Rookie quarterback Ryan Finley will be making his NFL debut for the Bengals, but the fourth-round pick won’t have the services of seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green (ankle), who was officially ruled out Friday after initially hoping to make his season debut this week. Cincinnati also deactivated left tackle Cordy Glenn despite him practicing fully all week, continuing an uncomfortable saga in which the veteran was suspended one game for conduct detrimental to the team last month and hasn’t played since sustaining a concussion in the preseason.

Sunday’s referee is Scott Novak.

According to Weather.com, the Sunday forecast in Cincinnati calls for sunny skies and temperatures reaching the high 50s with winds 10 to 15 miles per hour and no chance of precipitation.

The Ravens are wearing their white jerseys with white pants while Cincinnati dons black tops with black pants for Week 10.

Sunday marks the 48th all-time meeting between these teams with the Ravens holding a 24-23 edge after last month’s 23-17 victory at M&T Bank Stadium. Baltimore is aiming for its first season sweep of of the Bengals since 2011, but John Harbaugh’s team is just 1-6 in its last seven trips to Paul Brown Stadium.

Below are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
WR Chris Moore
CB Cyrus Jones
QB Trace McSorley
WR Jaleel Scott
G Ben Powers
DT Daylon Mack
DE Ufomba Kamalu

CINCINNATI
CB Dre Kirkpatrick
CB Torry McTyer
G Alex Redmond
G/T Fred Johnson
LT Cordy Glenn
WR A.J. Green
QB Jake Dolegala

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