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Eight-time Pro Bowl guard Yanda retires as one of best, toughest Ravens ever

Posted on 10 March 2020 by Luke Jones

After famously encouraging teammates to “embrace the grind” early in what would be the 2012 Super Bowl season, Marshal Yanda is retiring as one of the best and toughest Ravens ever.

The news wasn’t shocking as the 35-year-old had pondered retirement these last couple years and was noticeably more reflective during the 2019 season, but his departure leaves a massive hole Baltimore won’t easily replace in terms of both his elite play and leadership by example.

Some stories about the eight-time Pro Bowl right guard and Iowa farm boy are the stuff of folk heroes — like willingly being tasered three times in the locker room for $600 as a rookie — but the day-to-day consistency of his 13-year career is what made Yanda special. Any offensive lineman would tell you anonymity is a desired trait as it means you’re getting the job done for the guys who touch the ball and star in the highlight shows, but the unassuming Yanda was too great for too long for even the most casual fan not to take some notice after a while.

“For most of your career, most people — including the media, believe it or not — don’t pay attention to those guys up front,” said head coach John Harbaugh last November. “They pay attention to all the other stuff. And the linemen, when they start getting talked about as Hall of Fame players, then all of a sudden, people start watching them. To me, I believe Marshal is doing that at the highest level. He’s playing some of his best football, if not his best football, right now.”

It didn’t come easy, however, for one of only 13 guards in NFL history to be named to eight Pro Bowls.

Unlike other Baltimore greats such as Ray Lewis, Jonathan Ogden, Ed Reed, and Terrell Suggs who were drafted in the first round with some hope of greatness from Day 1, Yanda wasn’t selected until the third round in 2007 after beginning his collegiate career at North Iowa Area Community College and working to eventually become a second-team All-Big Ten selection at the University of Iowa. He wasn’t even the first guard drafted by the Ravens that year as then-general manager Ozzie Newsome took Auburn’s Ben Grubbs in the first round, but the organization knew it had added a gamer based on endorsements from longtime Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz, who had previously spent three years as a Ravens assistant.

An early-season injury to Ogden and the subsequent offensive line shuffling threw Yanda into the lineup for 12 starts at right tackle as a rookie. He tore multiple knee ligaments just five games into 2008, a season-ending injury that would also impact his playing time early the following season as veteran Chris Chester fared well at right guard and Yanda was working his way back to full strength. In 2010, offensive line uncertainty again moved him out to right tackle where he’d start all 16 games for the first time in his career.

That stellar play and versatility prompted the Ravens to re-sign Yanda to a five-year, $32 million contract prior to the 2011 season when he could finally call right guard his full-time home and people began taking notice. From there, he’d become the NFL’s best at his position for the better part of a decade, making the Pro Bowl every year other than 2017 when a broken ankle ended his season in Week 2.

The examples of toughness go beyond the “easy money” he made for that locker-room stunt as a rookie and working his way back from the serious knee injury sustained in his second year. Despite undergoing emergency surgery for compartment syndrome in his lower leg in Week 16 of the 2011 campaign, Yanda — also dealing with a painful rib injury — was back on the field the following Sunday to help the Ravens win their first AFC North title in five years and clinch a first-round bye. Instead of succumbing to a season-ending left shoulder injury in 2016, he came up with the idea of moving to left guard, which eased the stress on that arm and allowed him to finish another Pro Bowl campaign. Even upon breaking his ankle in 2017, Yanda walked off the field under his own power.

Aside from overcoming those physical challenges, trying to identify Yanda’s signature play or moment isn’t as easy as with those regularly touching the football or pursuing it every play. An offensive line coach would cite hundreds of examples over the years in which Yanda displayed his masterful technique, but his grit and determination to play through the whistle showed up at a key moment in one of the greatest games in team history.

Tied 35-35 in the 2012 divisional round (see below), the underdog Ravens were trying to move into field goal range and faced a second-and-10 from the Denver 45 on the final play of the first overtime. Ray Rice took a hand-off and ran nine yards before being stood up by two defenders, seemingly leaving Baltimore with an uncertain third-and-1 against a Broncos defense that had mostly bottled up Rice late in the game. However, it never came to that as Yanda, nearing the end of a night in which he played 86 total snaps in single-digit wind chills, ran forward from the second level and plowed Rice and the would-be tacklers an additional two yards for the first down. It was the last meaningful offensive play of the game as Justin Tucker kicked the game-winning field goal moments later and the Ravens would go on to win their second Super Bowl a few weeks later.

Joe Flacco and Jacoby Jones owned the night with the “Mile High Miracle,” of course, but Yanda’s late push helped ensure that would be a winning memory and was just one example of his unrelenting will to win.

His Pro Football Hall of Fame fate remains to be seen after playing a position many view as underrepresented in Canton. Former Pittsburgh guard Alan Faneca is still waiting for the call after a 13-year career that included nine straight Pro Bowls from 2001-09, but game-film enthusiasts and football analytics sites have sung Yanda’s praises for years, making him more of a household name than the top interior linemen of previous eras and increasing the likelihood of him receiving a much deserved gold jacket one day. When news broke of his retirement, Pro Football Focus was quick to note how he allowed just one sack in the last 2,331 pass-blocking snaps of his career and just 20 career sacks, a total many guards allow in just two or three seasons.

Yanda could have made his Hall of Fame case more elementary with another Pro Bowl season or two and maybe a second Super Bowl ring as the Ravens come off a 14-2 season led by MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson, a thrilling young player the grizzled veteran enthusiastically embraced after having a close relationship with Flacco. Yes, the 6-foot-3, 305-pound lineman easily could have held on for a few more years, but he never played for individual accolades, making the decision admirable as he still ranks as one of the game’s best at his position in his mid-30s. That’s a claim some of the absolute best players in Ravens history can’t make.

“It’s never been about me. I feel fortunate to be a part of this organization, to be drafted here, and the type of success we’ve had in all the games that I’ve been able to be a part of,” Yanda said in early January. “I’m just taking it one day at a time. The most important thing is our next opponent.”

In Yanda’s mind, it was time to walk away if he weren’t fully committed to “embrace the grind” for a 14th season. That journey will now go on without him, but the lessons instilled won’t be forgotten in the same way a 23-year-old Yanda learned what it meant to be a professional from Ogden in the last season of his Hall of Fame career.

For a player many barely noticed in the best possible way week after week and season after season, Yanda sure will be missed.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Super Bowl LIV

Posted on 03 February 2020 by Luke Jones

With Super Bowl LIV now in the books after Kansas City topped San Francisco, I’ve offered a dozen Ravens thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. After faltering as the top seed last year, the Chiefs lost their star quarterback for nearly three full games, held a 6-4 mark in November, and needed Week 17 help just to get a bye. That’s good inspiration for Baltimore, who will be hard-pressed to match its record-setting 14-2 campaign.

2. In case it weren’t obvious after the playoff loss to Tennessee, the Ravens offense’s need to be able to play off schedule more effectively was reinforced by Kansas City erasing double-digit deficits in each of its three postseason games. That’s not how you draw it up, but it’s remarkable nonetheless.

3. A year after winning NFL MVP, Patrick Mahomes became the youngest Super Bowl MVP quarterback and youngest to claim both honors. Lamar Jackson would be the youngest if he can repeat a Mahomes feat for a second straight season. These two facing off for years is going to be fun.

4. Terrell Suggs had two tackles and a quarterback hit as he won a second Super Bowl in his decorated 17-year career. In a SportsCenter interview, Suggs said he’ll take some time to ponder his future, but he’ll turn 38 in October. He’s unlikely to have a better ending than that.

5. Andy Reid could have hired a new special teams coordinator upon arriving in Philadelphia in 1999, but he chose to retain John Harbaugh, who had just completed his first year as an NFL assistant. The Ravens head coach had to feel good for his mentor finally winning that elusive ring.

6. The Baltimore defense will continue to lean on its superb secondary and plenty of blitzing, but watching the 49ers front four make Mahomes look so mortal for 3 1/2 quarters reiterated the work Eric DeCosta has to do in that department this offseason. Nick Bosa was a game-wrecker.

7. Former Ravens fullback Kyle Juszczyk scored San Francisco’s first touchdown and was one yard shy of a second in the third quarter. The 49ers paid a steep price for him in free agency three years ago, but he just finished his fourth straight Pro Bowl campaign. Not bad.

8. Steve Hutchinson being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame was good for Marshal Yanda. The 12-year guard had seven Pro Bowls, five first-team All-Pro selections, and two second-team selections. Yanda has eight Pro Bowls, two first-team All-Pro selections, five second-team nods, and a Super Bowl ring.

9. I was surprised the vote for NFL Coach of the Year wasn’t a little closer between Harbaugh and Kyle Shanahan. Harbaugh was my choice, but the 49ers going from 4-12 a year ago to 13-3 is the kind of turnaround that often sways voters.

10. Jonathan Ogden, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Colts legends Lenny Moore and Raymond Berry being part of the on-field ceremony honoring the NFL 100 all-time team reminded how tremendous Baltimore’s football history is. Johnny Unitas, John Mackey, Jim Parker, and Gino Marchetti were also selected.

11. After watching those introductions for both the 49ers and Chiefs, I vote for The Rock to be the hype man for every major sporting event. He’s the most electrifying man in all of entertainment after all.

12. According to Caesars Sportsbook, Kansas City opens as the Super Bowl favorite (6-1) for 2020 with Baltimore right behind at 7-1. Super Bowl LV will take place in Tampa, the same city the Ravens won their first NFL championship 20 years earlier. Sounds like a good story to me.

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Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson hugs Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff after an NFL football game Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 12 win over Rams

Posted on 26 November 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens winning a franchise-record fourth straight road game in a 45-6 rout of the defending NFC champion Los Angeles Rams, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Five games into what was to be a daunting stretch of six of seven contests against teams over .500, Baltimore is 5-0 by a margin of 202-62. The Ravens haven’t trailed in a game in five weeks, a stretch of 18 quarters. It’s really not supposed to be this easy.

2. Much like they couldn’t know Ray Lewis or Ed Reed would be Hall of Famers when they fell to them, the Ravens didn’t foresee Lamar Jackson being the MVP favorite in his second year or they wouldn’t have risked losing him multiple times. But their innovative vision has been brilliant.

3. Despite 22 quarterbacks having more pass attempts, Jackson pulled into a tie with Russell Wilson for the NFL lead with 24 touchdown passes. He’s doubled his season total over the last three weeks and is now nine shy of Vinny Testaverde’s single-season team record. He also runs pretty well.

4. Against a top-tier rush defense, Baltimore ran for a season-high 285 yards, the fifth-highest total in team history. Between that and Jackson’s 76-percent completion percentage since the bye, I’m not sure how much you’d stop them right now even if the NFL allowed opponents to use a 12th defender.

5. Playing with an offense that scores touchdowns on its first six possessions is much different than protecting a late one-score lead, but the intensity maintained by the Ravens defense was impressive. That group has become a very worthy partner that will be needed more at some point — I think.

6. You hope for the best for Matt Skura, who had many doubters this offseason and has played rock-solid football in the middle of the offensive line. However, the Ravens have to be pleased with how undrafted rookie Patrick Mekari filled in at center, a position he never played in college.

7. The group was already improving, but the acquisition of Marcus Peters and the healthy return of Jimmy Smith returned the Ravens defense to a level its more accustomed to being. Both are in contract years and have been dynamic contributors in the secondary, especially Peters.

8. Speaking of dynamic talents, there hasn’t been a better defensive player in football over the last five years than Aaron Donald, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year winner. Making the Rams defensive tackle an utter non-factor is the offensive line’s most impressive feat of the season.

9. Running the ball on third-and-12 from the Los Angeles 34 and then going for a fourth-and-1 shows how John Harbaugh, Greg Roman, and this staff are playing chess while most of the league plays checkers. That’s a compliment typically reserved for Bill Belichick and New England, but it’s fitting.

10. A sideline camera showing Sam Koch and Justin Tucker whenever the Ravens approach — and then forgo — a potential kicking situation would be entertaining. Koch has punted just four times since the bye week. He’s getting plenty of work as the holder, however.

11. My only nitpick from Monday — other than the Rams’ Big Bird uniforms — was Jackson taking a few too many hits, especially when the game was out of hand. I believe in his ability to avoid contact, but there’s no need to test that when up by four or five touchdowns.

12. Hearing Jackson talk Super Bowl, I recall Brian Billick’s words to the 2000 Ravens after clinching a playoff spot in Week 15: “The time is here. It’s time to go to a Super Bowl.” Competitive windows aren’t guaranteed; the moment is now for a team capable of winning it all.

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earlthomas

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 9 win over New England

Posted on 05 November 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens improving to 6-2 for the first time since 2012 after a 37-20 win over New England, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Baltimore couldn’t have asked for a better start with 17 points on the first three drives against a team that hadn’t allowed more than 14 points in an entire game. The Ravens gained 133 yards in that first quarter while the Patriots possessed the ball for all of 132 seconds.

2. You knew it couldn’t continue to be that easy when Cyrus Jones muffed the punt early in the second quarter. The Gilman product has been pretty sure-handed with the Ravens, but coughing one up against his original team had to bring back some unpleasant memories that hopefully won’t linger.

3. The defense did strong work holding the Patriots to field goals on the final two drives of the first half, but kicking twice inside the 5 didn’t feel very “Belichickian.” Was it hubris that his defense had figured out the Ravens offense or some telling concern about his own offense?

4. To drain more than 17 minutes from the clock over its last two drives (not counting the final two kneels) speaks to this offense’s ability to crush an opponent’s soul. Lamar Jackson’s conversions to Mark Andrews and Willie Snead in that third-quarter drive were massive when leading by just four.

5. Earl Thomas played his best game as a Raven as he recorded a quarterback hit and grabbed his first interception since the opener. However, his best play came late in the second quarter when he broke up a Tom Brady pass intended for Julian Edelman at the goal line.

6. Marquise Brown didn’t post big numbers in his return from an ankle sprain, but his diving third-down reception and his catch and run for 26 yards set the tone on that opening drive. He wasn’t at full speed, but his presence is important for this offense to continue to thrive.

7. The rotation at inside linebacker was about what we expected, but Patrick Onwuasor reminded why he’s more effective playing the weak-side spot. He tied for the team lead with eight tackles, recorded a sack on a blitz, and forced the fumble returned for a touchdown by Marlon Humphrey.

8. Sunday was five seasons in the making for Nick Boyle, who caught his first career touchdown. Boyle is the constant in a tight end room that’s changed plenty since he was drafted in 2015 — three rounds after Maxx Williams — so it was cool seeing him enjoy the celebration with teammates.

9. Not only did Brandon Carr see extensive work at safety in the dime and quarter packages when Chuck Clark moved to linebacker, but he often played deep as Wink Martindale moved Thomas around the field. Carr, 33, rolls with the punches and embraces whatever the defense needs from him.

10. In addition to the conservative decisions to kick short field goals, New England committed four penalties that gave the Ravens first downs, headlined by a neutral-zone infraction turning a short field goal into a touchdown on the opening drive. A few of those flags were back breakers.

11. No team has advanced to the Super Bowl without the benefit of a first-round bye since the 2012 Ravens. At 6-2, the goal is no longer to simply win an underwhelming AFC North. Several tough opponents remain, but securing the first weekend off in January is more than doable.

12. Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, Jonathan Ogden, and Lenny Moore being in the building was special and highlights how incredible Baltimore’s football history is. Seeing Reed watch from the sideline reminded me of the legendary Johnny Unitas watching the new Ravens years ago. Sunday night was an electric atmosphere.

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Ravens-Patriots: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 03 November 2019 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — For the first time since 2012, Sunday Night Football has returned to Baltimore with the Ravens hosting the undefeated New England Patriots in the headline matchup of Week 9.

After much discussion all week about Lamar Jackson facing Bill Belichick’s top-ranked scoring defense, we’ll find out how the 22-year-old handles what one of the best defensive minds in NFL history throws at him in these teams’ first meeting since 2016. Of course, the Ravens are trying to maintain the momentum of a three-game winning streak that’s propelled them to the No. 2 seed position in the AFC entering Sunday night. The Ravens are seeking their first 6-2 start since the 2012 season and their first four-game winning streak since 2013.

Despite missing Friday’s practice with a thigh issue to go along with the sprained right ankle that cost him the last two games, rookie wide receiver Marquise Brown is active and returns to action for the first time since Week 5. His speed will be needed to help keep a tough Patriots defense honest throughout the evening, but his effectiveness will be closely monitored.

As expected, cornerback Jimmy Smith (right knee) and inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor (right ankle) are also active and will make their respective returns. Smith hasn’t played since injuring his knee on the second defensive series of the season in Miami on Sept. 8, so it will be interesting to see how much defensive coordinator Wink Martindale leans on him in a deep group of cornerbacks. Onwuasor missed the last two games after hurting his ankle in the overtime win at Pittsburgh.

Backup safety and special-teams contributor Bennett Jackson is active after missing the final two practices of the week with an ankle issue, but the Ravens deactivated reserve cornerback Maurice Canady, who was limited all week with a thigh injury originally sustained against Cincinnati in Week 6.

New England running back James White is active after being added to the injury report as questionable with a toe injury on Friday. He ranks second on the Patriots with 42 catches for 358 yards and a touchdown.

The Patriots activated rookie wide receiver N’Keal Harry from injured reserve Saturday, but the first-round pick is inactive for Sunday night’s game.

Sunday’s referee is Carl Cheffers.

According to Weather.com, the Sunday night forecast in Baltimore calls for clear skies and temperatures in the mid-40s at kickoff with winds light and variable and no chance of precipitation.

The Ravens are wearing their alternate black jerseys with white pants while New England dons white tops with navy blue pants for Week 9.

Ravens legend Ed Reed is in attendance and will receive his Pro Football Hall of Fame ring during a halftime ceremony.

Sunday marks the 10th all-time regular-season meeting between these teams with the Patriots holding an 8-1 advantage and a 3-1 record in Baltimore. Counting the postseason, the Ravens are 3-6 against New England in the John Harbaugh era, which includes a 2-2 split in playoff games.

Below are Sunday night’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
QB Trace McSorley
WR Jaleel Scott
CB Maurice Canady
G Ben Powers
DT Daylon Mack
DL Zach Sieler
DE Ufomba Kamalu

NEW ENGLAND
WR N’Keal Harry
OL Korey Cunningham
WR Gunner Olszewski
DB Joejuan Williams
RB Damien Harris
QB Cody Kessler
TE Matt LaCosse

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Twelve Ravens thoughts going into Week 9

Posted on 29 October 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens coming off their bye week with a 5-2 record and a two-game lead in the AFC North, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The winless Miami Dolphins were the big only “buyers” on a toothless trade deadline day, but remember the Ravens acquired two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters two weeks ago for a benched linebacker and a 2020 fifth-round pick. That’s a lot more than other contenders could say.

2. That Eric DeCosta inquired about Pro Bowl safety Jamal Adams reaffirms the philosophy of having a strong secondary above all else on defense. Legitimate pass-rush concerns remain, but having Peters and a healthy Jimmy Smith helps reset the defense closer to its pre-summer state. We’ll see how it plays out.

3. Not counting Pittsburgh’s annual trip to Baltimore, I’m not sure the Ravens have played a more anticipated home game in the regular season since hosting New England for Sunday Night Football in 2012, a contest sandwiched between their AFC Championship meetings. I can’t wait.

4. After labeling Lamar Jackson “a big problem” for his defense, Bill Belichick is bound to show the young quarterback something he hasn’t seen before. However, the future Hall of Fame coach hasn’t seen a talent quite like Jackson either. I’ll repeat that throughout the week.

5. If you bristled over the talk about the Ravens’ schedule prior to the win at Seattle, pump the brakes on being too dismissive about the New England defense’s slate of opponents to this point. The numbers are simply ridiculous — even against bad competition — in today’s NFL.

6. The Ravens are 9-2 immediately following their bye in the John Harbaugh era with the only defeats coming in 2013 and 2015, two of Harbaugh’s three non-winning seasons. That doesn’t guarantee victory, but Baltimore usually plays its best with extra time to prepare, which isn’t a given in this league.

7. Former Raven Lawrence Guy has carved out a nice place for himself in New England, but his career highlight may now be his involvement in a play the “Butt Fumble” thought was embarrassing. Congratulations are in order for his first career interception.

8. I’ve been asked recently about Gus Edwards receiving more touches. Edwards has averaged 5.2 yards per carry since Week 3 while Mark Ingram — a more complete back — has been slowed some recently, but there’s only one football. I suspect we’ll see a few more carries for Edwards down the stretch.

9. After watching another uninspiring performance by Cleveland and Pittsburgh falling behind 14-0 to Miami before waking up to regroup, I remain convinced it would take quite a collapse by the Ravens to not win the AFC North in comfortable fashion. Those division foes aren’t reeling off a long winning streak.

10. The Willie Snead extension didn’t prove to be the harbinger of a deadline trade, but Baltimore had under $2 million in salary cap space and needed flexibility for inevitable roster maneuvering the rest of the way. It’s a solid move to keep a reliable slot receiver who’s a good blocker.

11. News of C.J. Mosley missing at least another five to six weeks with a groin injury was bad news for the Ravens’ projected third-round compensatory pick. The more time he misses, the greater the chance that selection becomes a fourth-rounder. Mosley missed just three games in five years with Baltimore.

12. The Ravens will be wearing their black jerseys for the first time this season, and Ed Reed will be in the house to receive his Hall of Fame ring at halftime. As if you needed more reason to be pumped for a game against Tom Brady and the undefeated Patriots.

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Former Raven Suggs returns to place most assumed he’d never leave

Posted on 13 September 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Marshal Yanda said seeing his name on the scouting report was “pretty funny.”

Rookie Jaylon Ferguson mimicked him in practices this week wearing a new No. 56 unfamiliar to Baltimore while Marlon Humphrey noted it would be strange seeing him in Arizona Cardinals red.

When Terrell Suggs arrives at M&T Bank Stadium Sunday morning, he’ll walk into the visiting locker room, a place he never entered in 16 years with the Ravens. As the seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker who played more regular-season games than any other Raven noted, “It will be kind of weird for all of us.”

“When the schedule came out, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to downplay it as just another game.’ But we all know that’d be bulls–t,” Suggs said on a conference call with Baltimore reporters this week. “It’s kind of a unique situation, isn’t it? It’s kind of weird. Everybody is just kind of anxious to see what it’s going to be like.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Unlike Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed’s free-agent departure in 2013 when the organization showed only tepid interest compared to the more lucrative three-year, $15 million contract he signed with Houston in the weeks following Super Bowl XLVII, the Ravens wanted Suggs to return for a 17th season, which would have matched Hall of Fame inside linebacker Ray Lewis for the longest tenure in franchise history. The 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year may not be the dominant and feared player he once was, but he’d still be lining up as the Ravens’ starting rush linebacker had he stayed put.

Of course, the business side of the game has a way of complicating matters as contract talks stalled leading up to free agency and the Cardinals offered Suggs $7 million guaranteed for the 2019 season. The Ravens came “close” to matching that offer in owner Steve Bisciotti’s words, but the thought of playing in Arizona — where he attended high school and college — and seeing so many other veterans exit aided in the 36-year-old’s decision to go home.

“There wasn’t really a moment,” said Suggs about signing with the Cardinals. “They (the Ravens) essentially made a last push. They did. I just felt it was time. It was time.”

Coming off Sunday’s 59-10 win in which Lamar Jackson tied a franchise record with five touchdown passes and produced the only perfect passer rating in team history, the Ravens know the future is now. Jackson is the new face of the franchise while Suggs saw his former Super Bowl-winning quarterback traded in the offseason and his two legendary former teammates of a decade — Lewis and Reed — officially enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame these last two summers. Those factors are more than enough to make anyone question his football mortality.

After spending years as the last man standing from the old defensive guard that included Lewis, Reed, and the recently-retired Haloti Ngata, Suggs could see the defense getting younger down the stretch last year. And though legitimate questions remain about an inexperienced pass rush that could still use him this season, Suggs apparently felt it was best to move on, a sentiment he shared with former teammates such as inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor.

“When he left, he texted me and said, ‘It’s time for you guys to start your own legacy and start the new brand of Raven football and just continue to be what the Ravens are all about,'” Onwuasor said.

His presence is still felt in the building as he stays in touch with teammates and is still mentioned in meeting rooms with his reputation as a brilliant student of the game. More than a few players laughed this week when asked to share stories about Suggs, often reluctant to share their colorful nature. Viewed as the talented class clown early in his career, the 2003 first-round pick from Arizona State grew into a leadership role over time while maintaining his boisterous demeanor, whether it was singing loudly on his way out to the practice, taking Bisciotti’s golf cart for a joyride, or wearing a gladiator mask during pre-game introductions.

Much like Suggs didn’t become a carbon copy of Lewis following his post-Super Bowl XLVII retirement, the Ravens haven’t replaced his defensive leadership with a single person this year, instead trusting a group of incumbents and veteran newcomers Earl Thomas and Pernell McPhee to help lead in their own ways. It’s never the same when an iconic player departs, but that’s a testament to the individual rather than a slight to anyone else.

“His name still comes up,” said Ferguson, who broke Suggs’ NCAA record for career sacks and was drafted this spring as part of the attempt to replace him. “He’s an awesome pass rusher. He’s one of the best pass rushers in history.

“His name has got no choice but to come up.”

Suggs will be more than just a name Sunday as he tries to help the Cardinals defense slow Jackson and a talented, young offense that surprised everyone last week. He and two-time Pro Bowl edge rusher Chandler Jones will try to get past Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr., two offensive tackles Suggs has faced plenty in a practice setting.

Regardless of how much he has left in his 17th NFL season — he registered just 1 1/2 sacks after Week 7 last year — Suggs showed plenty of juice last week with two sacks and a forced fumble in his Arizona debut. The thought of playing his final game in Baltimore has undoubtedly crossed his mind in a way it didn’t during the playoff loss in January when everyone assumed he’d be back.

Being the movie buff and screenwriter he is off the field, Suggs having a big returning performance has to be part of his script even as he said, “You kind of have to let it write itself.”

There’s a job to do on both sides, but Sunday is sure to be entertaining, weird, and emotional after Suggs’ abrupt departure in March.

“I couldn’t help myself; I watched him play last week on tape,” said defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, who coached Suggs for seven seasons and still beams over his accomplishments. “He hasn’t lost a step. It’s going to be a lot of fun.

“But I think it’s going to be harder for him.”

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edreed

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Ed Reed’s Hall of Fame moment for a grieving son

Posted on 04 August 2019 by Luke Jones

What’s left to say about the great Ed Reed that hasn’t already been shared in recent days by so many talented writers and those who know the Ravens legend best?

The nine-time Pro Bowl safety and 2004 Defensive Player of the Year officially took his place in Canton Saturday and goes down as at least the most exciting player in Ravens history. As John Harbaugh said recently, if you were to break the Pro Football Hall of Fame itself into tiers, Reed would be among the very best of the best to ever play the game and quite possibly the greatest free safety we’ve ever seen.

My experiences covering Reed’s final years with the Ravens are special to me, but they’re pretty ordinary as media interactions go.

I remember a sweltering afternoon practice in Westminster in 2010 in which Reed wasn’t taking part. As I watched with another reporter or two, Reed strolled to the sideline and put an arm around me asking how I was doing, chatting with us for a couple minutes. I’m sure he confused me with someone else since my interactions with him to that point in my very young media career consisted of no more than an ordinary question or two in a press conference, but a know-nothing reporter living his dream wasn’t about to correct Ed Reed! As I would witness covering one of his football camps or simply watch him interact with so many fans over the years, perhaps he was just being friendly to an unfamiliar face.

One of my favorite memories covering Super Bowl XVLII came in the bowels of the Superdome long after the game had ended and Reed had lifted the Vince Lombardi Trophy for the first time. Only a few reporters remained in the locker room with the 11th-year safety being one of the last players who hadn’t yet left for the team party, but he granted a final interview as he put on a three-piece suit — now complete with a Super Bowl champions cap. The questions and answers were inconsequential, but I’ll never forget that combination of joy and exhaustion over his face as a brilliant career that needed no validation had still received its satisfying exclamation point. It was a privilege to witness such a moment.

I’ll always appreciate those experiences, but what I remember most about Reed took place long before I was fortunate enough to work in the media or had ever met him. It’s the kind of personal story to which others can likely relate and reminds us why sports are both inconsequential and so precious, even when we’re simply watching our favorite athletes and favorite teams from afar.

My father passed away suddenly on Nov. 1, 2004, just a day after we’d watched a Ravens game — a frustrating loss in Philadelphia — as we had every autumn weekend since 1996. To offer an idea of how much Baltimore sports meant to him, he was dressed in his Ravens jersey for the viewing and memorial service. To know what kind of father he was, he passed on working the 1983 World Series as an usher at Memorial Stadium to instead watch at home with his son born earlier that month, a decision he repeatedly said he never regretted despite plenty of prodding over the years. He was my hero, my best friend, and the man I strive to be like to this day.

One of Dad’s closest friends invited me to attend that Sunday’s game against Cleveland. I graciously accepted the invitation while privately considering how difficult it might be since I could count on one hand the number of Orioles and Ravens games I’d attended without my dad in our 21 years together.

It turned out to be a typical Kyle Boller era game with the Ravens holding a narrow lead and Jeff Garcia and the Browns driving for the potential game-tying touchdown in the final minute. Many Ravens fans could probably tell you what happened next as Reed picked off a deflected pass from his shoe tops in the end zone and sprinted an NFL-record 106 yards for a touchdown to put away the victory, a play still remembered as one of the very best of his career.

In the moments following the initial joy and excitement from such an unbelievable play, my dad’s friend put his arm around me and I received a few text messages from close friends with the same refrain:

That one was for your dad.

The play itself wasn’t divine intervention as such a label would probably be an insult to Reed’s special talents and to God, who would have no reason to be picking on the already-hapless Browns. But I do believe it was a message from my dad, telling me he’d always be with me and I’d continue enjoying the things we always loved together — like watching Baltimore sports. I cried plenty that week, but not like I did from the time the emotions of that message hit me until we were halfway home, which had to be quite a scene for the many nearby fans exiting the stadium in celebration.

Watching that extraordinary play at that moment in my life is why I’ll always view Reed differently than any athlete I’ve ever appreciated watching. It’s an example of why sports hold such a special place in so many of our lives as an escape from financial troubles, sickness, relationship problems, and, yes, even the death of a loved one. Reed mentioning his late brother in his induction speech Saturday and how he played through that grief in the 2010 postseason reinforces that none of us are immune to such heartache — even one of the greatest players of all time — but that sports can provide that temporary reprieve from reality.

Reflecting on Reed this weekend, I couldn’t help but think of how many people he — and so many other special athletes — have knowingly or unknowingly touched with charitable endeavors, community involvement, autograph signings, or by merely providing a special memory on the field to someone struggling in his or her life. This November will mark 15 years since my father’s passing, but I’ll always view that play in that game as a meaningful part of my grieving process.

Congratulations, Ed, and thank you for that joy you brought — and the reflection it prompted — at the end of the toughest week of my life.

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2019 Ravens training camp preview: Safeties

Posted on 16 July 2019 by Luke Jones

With training camp beginning in just over a week and the preseason opener less than a month away, we’ll look at each Ravens position group before players begin reporting to Owings Mills for the first full-squad practice on July 25.

Cornerbacks
Running backs
Defensive line
Tight ends

We continue at safety, a position at which the organization has exhausted extensive resources since Ed Reed played his final game as a Raven in Super Bowl XLVII. After failed draft picks and several underwhelming value signings, Baltimore finally went all in at the position by giving out a free-agent contract totaling $26 million or more in three of the last four offseasons. Those dollars have given the Ravens one of the best safety groups in the NFL

This position isn’t quite as deep as cornerback, but the philosophy is similar with versatile pieces capable of filling different roles within the defense. This offers defensive coordinator Wink Martindale the option to rotate if he wants to give someone a breather or offer a different look to an opponent.

Below is a look at the safeties who stand out for various reasons:

The Man — Earl Thomas
Skinny: The six-time Pro Bowl selection who helped lead Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” defense to a Super Bowl championship and another appearance in the big game gives the Ravens their first true center fielder at free safety since Reed. The defense will miss Eric Weddle’s football intellect on the back end, but Thomas provides a clear play-making upgrade and shouldn’t have too much difficulty adjusting to Baltimore’s more complex system from the direct Cover 3 looks he ran with the Seahawks. A four-year, $55 million contract including $32 million guaranteed automatically makes you “the man” of this group.

Old Reliable — Tony Jefferson
Skinny: Considering Thomas hasn’t played as much as a preseason game in a Ravens uniform, Jefferson is the default choice here as he’s become one of the defensive leaders after the departures of Weddle, Terrell Suggs, and C.J. Mosley in the offseason. The 27-year-old is at his best playing closer to the line of scrimmage and has missed only three games in his six-year NFL career. Critics may knock his four-year, $34 million contract or his intermediate-to-deep pass coverage, but the Ravens very much value what Jefferson brings to the field and the locker room.

Under Fire — Thomas
Skinny: The lucrative financial commitment made to Thomas came after he broke his lower left leg for the second time in three seasons last September and played in just 29 games over the last three seasons. The 30-year-old was playing at an elite level in the opening month of 2018, but you have to at least wonder what long-term toll the latest injury might have on his speed and agility entering his 10th season. Much is riding on Thomas remaining a special talent after so many key departures on defense left plenty of question marks among the front seven.

Up-and-Comer — DeShon Elliott
Skinny: The 2018 sixth-round pick from Texas missed his rookie year after breaking his forearm in the preseason, but he was arguably the biggest surprise of the spring, showing impressive range in pass coverage on a few highlight interceptions. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Elliott also stood out with some physical play early in last year’s training camp, so that coupled with coverage ability could make it difficult to keep the 22-year-old off the field if the same play-making ability flashes this summer.

Sleeper — Anthony Levine
Skinny: The 32-year-old really shouldn’t be a sleeper at this point, but he remains underappreciated — especially outside Baltimore — as one of the best dime backs in the NFL. After years of that sub package being an afterthought, Levine finally got his chance in the role a few years ago and has excelled. The longtime special-teams standout recorded pass breakups on two of the final four defensive plays in the win over Cleveland last December to clinch the AFC North title, just an example of how important he’s been to the Ravens’ defensive success over the last few years.

The Rest — Chuck Clark, Bennett Jackson
Skinny: Clark has been a rock-solid contributor as a backup safety and special-teams player over his first two seasons, but the deep depth across the secondary may mean it’s no lock the 2017 sixth-round selection from Virgina Tech makes the roster. Despite never appearing in an NFL regular-season game after being drafted by the New York Giants out of Notre Dame in 2014, Jackson is still chasing the dream after spending the 2018 preseason and part of the regular season on Baltimore’s practice squad.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts on DeCosta, Harbaugh remarks from NFL combine

Posted on 28 February 2019 by Luke Jones

With Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta and head coach John Harbaugh answering questions at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. If you had simply read the transcript, DeCosta sounded very similar to Ozzie Newsome speaking at his first combine as the general manager, which isn’t surprising as few executives and coaches tip their hands with free agency two weeks away.

2. The balance between keeping as much of the defense together as possible and building a stronger offense continues to strike me as a difficult task, especially factoring the age of some key defensive players. This is what happens when trying to rebuild on the fly.

3. DeCosta expressed pride in the Ravens’ identity being built on defense historically and stated a desire to continue that tradition. It’s understandable, but Baltimore continuing that philosophy has netted one playoff win since Ray Lewis and Ed Reed suited up for the final time.

4. Harbaugh expects Marshal Yanda to continue playing, which is great news for an offensive line that could already stand to improve inside. The seven-time Pro Bowl guard is entering the final year of his contract and probably could play at a high level longer than that if he wants.

5. While dancing around questions about Eric Weddle and Jimmy Smith, DeCosta said he expects Brandon Carr to return, which could be bad news for Smith and his $15.85 million cap number. Carr is older, but he’s cheaper, more durable, and coming off a more consistent season than Smith.

6. DeCosta didn’t completely dismiss the possibility of using the franchise tag on C.J. Mosley, but he made it clear a long-term deal remains the goal with talks “ongoing” and expected to continue with agent Jimmy Sexton in Indianapolis. This figures to be a critical week on that front.

7. The Ravens brass being complimentary of John Brown wasn’t surprising, but I remain skeptical there’s a great fit there — from his perspective — in terms of price tag and offensive philosophy. Either way, he should do well in what appears to be an underwhelming free-agent market for wide receivers.

8. Terrell Suggs stated his intentions months ago to continue playing in 2019, but talks will be delicate in trying to be realistic about the 36-year-old’s current value without insulting someone who’s been so critical to the organization. You hope something can be worked out that makes sense for both sides.

9. Harbaugh praised the inside-outside versatility and intensity of Za’Darius Smith, but the lack of discussion about Baltimore’s 2018 sack leader reflects how few expect him to return. His market should be interesting, especially if a few other free-agent pass rushers indeed receive the franchise tag.

10. DeCosta summed up his thoughts on Lamar Jackson’s rushing ability by saying, “We certainly want to keep him healthy, but we also want to win and … score points.” The keys are his passing development and adding enough talent to diminish the need for him to run 15-plus times per game.

11. Harbaugh acknowledged the organization’s need to draft and develop wide receivers more effectively while DeCosta said, “We’ve got to add playmakers.” Yes.

12. Counting the Joe Flacco trade and the Michael Crabtree release, the Ravens are already dealing with nearly $22 million in dead money on this year’s salary cap. With another big release or two still very possible, that figure is shaping up to be their largest amount since 2015.

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