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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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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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Twelve Ravens thoughts on Flacco trade to Denver

Posted on 13 February 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens set to trade longtime quarterback Joe Flacco to Denver for a fourth-round pick next month, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Credit Eric DeCosta for extracting value from an inevitable divorce, especially after the organization hadn’t even tried to be coy about its intentions. I was skeptical he’d find a trade partner. Taking the entire $16 million dead money hit in 2019 will leave a clean salary cap for 2020.

2. Flacco will be remembered in part for what he never became — below-average post-Super Bowl numbers bear that out — but he was the best quarterback in team history and, most importantly, a champion. The Ravens are lucky he passed their way after years wasted in the quarterback doldrums.

3. It’s easy to say Flacco didn’t live up to his historic contract signed after his 2012 postseason, but the organization never adjusted upon seeing he couldn’t do it by himself, continuing to prioritize defense and putting far fewer resources into the offense. The letdown was mutual at the very least.

4. He’d never admit something that’s subconscious anyway, but I don’t think Flacco has recovered mentally from his 2015 ACL injury. Some free-agent departures on the offensive line didn’t help, but his tendencies to check down and feel pressure even when it wasn’t there became more pronounced after the injury.

5. The Ravens dumping Anquan Boldin remains indefensible six years later, but the post-Super Bowl fall of Ray Rice was even more devastating to Flacco’s career considering what he produced as a receiver out of the backfield. Baltimore still hasn’t come close to replacing that element.

6. Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, and Haloti Ngata are among the best Ravens ever, but they didn’t own a single playoff win until 2008. Flacco benefited greatly from them too, of course, but you wonder what could have been if he’d come along five years earlier instead of Kyle Boller.

7. Of the Ravens’ 17 Day 1 and 2 draft picks from 2013-17, Crockett Gillmore, Breshad Perriman, Maxx Williams, and Ronnie Stanley were the only offensive players selected. Flacco’s hefty contract never explained that.

8. Durability was one of Flacco’s biggest strengths early in his career, but injuries have either disrupted his preparation or cost him games in each of the last four seasons. It’s tough seeing that trend improving as the 34-year-old enters his 12th year in the NFL.

9. I never understood the criticism of Flacco not making his receivers better. Steve Smith and Mike Wallace became 1,000-yard receivers again after appearing to be in decline elsewhere. Torrey Smith’s numbers crashed as soon as he departed. Who are these former Ravens receivers who suddenly blossomed elsewhere?

10. It’s strange to think exactly six years, two months, and one day after the “Mile High Miracle,” the Broncos will officially welcome Flacco to Denver. I’m guessing Rahim Moore and Jacoby Jones won’t be at the introductory press conference.

11. Flacco didn’t perform to his record contract, but he remained a good teammate and never complained about the aforementioned variables that didn’t help his cause. Yes, he made a ton of money, but that hasn’t stopped other high-priced athletes from being malcontents over the years.

12. What would you really change about the Flacco era? The Ravens weren’t letting the Super Bowl MVP walk, and he had extraordinary contract leverage. The success early in his career should far outweigh the last several years in which he and Baltimore remained competitive but weren’t quite good enough.

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No Raven brought same excitement as newest Hall of Famer Ed Reed

Posted on 02 February 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens have provided no shortage of exciting players in more than two decades in Baltimore.

Some local fans would describe the pre-game dance of Ray Lewis, the greatest player in team history and face of the franchise, as something resembling a religious experience. A pair of Pro Bowl running backs, Jamal Lewis and Ray Rice, were legitimate threats to score every time they touched the ball. Two All-Pro return specialists — Jermaine Lewis and Jacoby Jones — shined on the most critical stage the NFL has to offer. Many others have brought thrills for an organization with two Super Bowl championships in its trophy case.

But none quite compare to nine-time Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed, who was officially elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday. The first-ballot selection was perhaps the most anticlimactic achievement in a career that made observers anticipate the most unexpected of feats.

Fellow first-ballot Hall of Famers Lewis and Jonathan Ogden are the greatest players in team history on their respective sides of the ball, but the ball-hawking Reed is the most exciting we’ve witnessed. Unlike running backs, wide receivers, or kick returners who regularly touch the ball when in the game, Reed would seemingly come out of nowhere, even after the opposing coaching staff would preach all week about not letting him do it.

The sight of Reed with the ball brought emotions ranging from euphoria as he’d turn the game’s outcome with an unlikely touchdown to occasional horror as he’d inexplicably lateral the ball in traffic, sometimes giving it right back to the opposition. Reed unquestionably moved to the beat of his own drum, but you couldn’t ask more of an entertainer and play-maker over 11 seasons in Baltimore.

The simplest objective of the safety position is to prevent an opponent from wrecking the game with an explosive pass play, but there was nothing “safe” about the way Reed stalked in the secondary, creating nightmares for quarterbacks and often doing the very thing the opponent was trying to accomplish against the Baltimore defense — score. When arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history felt compelled to put “Find 20 on every play” on his wristband, what else really needed to be said about his case for Canton?

Reed’s 64 regular-season interceptions rank seventh on the NFL’s career list while he’s the all-time leader in interception return yards. No player has more postseason interceptions (tied with three others with nine), and Reed became the first man in league history to score return touchdowns off an interception, a fumble, a punt, and a blocked punt. He set the NFL record with a last-second 106-yard interception return for a touchdown to seal a tight game against Cleveland in 2004 before breaking that mark four years later with a 107-yard interception return to put away a win against Philadelphia.

In all, 46 passers were intercepted by Reed in his career with half of that group going to at least one Pro Bowl and six being the starting quarterback of a Super Bowl winner.

Though Reed was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2004, the greatest of his individual achievements came late in the 2008 season when he registered an extraordinary 10 interceptions over a seven-game stretch that culminated with two — one returned for a touchdown — in a playoff victory at Miami. For context, the entire Baltimore defense from this past season had only 12 in 17 games.

The 2002 first-round pick from Miami is tied for 19th on the Ravens’ all-time touchdowns list (13) despite having the football in his hands far fewer times than anyone else — all offensive players — in that top 20. The number of actual planned times Reed touched the ball was even lower as he registered a modest 30 punt returns in his career and never caught a pass or recorded a rushing attempt as an offensive player.

Not only one of the greatest safeties to ever play the game, Reed had an extraordinary ability to block punts before coaches eventually kept him out of potential harm’s way in his later years. The 5-foot-11, 205-pound Reed blocked four punts over the first 27 games of his career and frequently drew holding flags as opponents tried to account for his explosive jump off the line of scrimmage.

So often praised for his football instincts, Reed’s preparation was exceptional as he followed Lewis’ initial lead when it came to watching film and studying the playbook. That enabled Reed to so often be in the right place at the right time as he knew where the ball was going before the quarterback even threw it. Later in his career, he passed on those study habits to younger teammates, quietly exhibiting strong leadership in the shadows of Lewis’ camera-friendly methods.

Even his closest confidants acknowledged Reed’s personality ran hot or cold with the position of the hood of his sweatshirt often signaling whether you could engage in spirited conversation or should probably steer clear that day. He could ruffle feathers with comments about even his own teammates, but his intentions usually came from a good place. And while dealing with injuries late in his career, the veteran safety would both ponder retirement and campaign for a new contract in the same breath.

That was Reed.

A nerve impingement suffered late in the 2007 season zapped him of the underrated physicality he displayed early in his career and left him with neck and shoulder pain, but he played through it and did so at the highest level, making five more Pro Bowls while picking his spots to deliver the occasional hit. Even while sporting a red jersey to signal no contact during practices, the veteran safety would light up an unsuspecting young wide receiver from time to time, again reflecting that eccentric personality.

Super Bowl XLVII is most remembered as the culmination of Joe Flacco’s historic 2012 playoff run and Lewis’ last ride, but it was the night Reed finally raised the Vince Lombardi Trophy after years of playing with offenses that couldn’t hold up their end of the bargain. It would be Reed’s final game in a Baltimore uniform — he’d play one more season split between Houston and the New York Jets — but Ravens fans shared in his joy a couple days later as he bellowed out the words to Eddie Money’s “Two Tickets to Paradise” at the victory parade.

It was one last thrill in a career that was long before destined for a gold jacket and the football paradise that is Canton.

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Ravens-Chargers: Five predictions for AFC wild-card game

Posted on 05 January 2019 by Luke Jones

Much has changed since the Ravens last hosted a playoff game six years ago.

Ray Lewis is in the Hall of Fame, Ed Reed will join him in a few weeks, and Joe Flacco has quite possibly already played his final snap as a Raven. Baltimore had made the playoffs just once since that last home playoff win over Indianapolis, but the start of the Lamar Jackson era seven weeks ago has created an energy not seen in these parts in quite some time. Winners of six of their last seven to clinch the AFC North title, the Ravens hope that vibe carries them to victory in Sunday’s wild-card game.

Standing in their way is the Los Angeles Chargers, who finished tied for the third-best record in football and had the misfortune of being in the same division as No. 1 seed Kansas City. Despite traveling to the East Coast for a 1 p.m. game, Anthony Lynn’s team is 8-0 in contests played outside Los Angeles this season, which included wins in Seattle, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City.

It’s time to go on the record as these AFC teams meet in the postseason for the first time ever. Of course, the Ravens toppled the Chargers 22-10 in their Week 16 meeting to improve to 7-5 in the all-time regular-season series. Baltimore owns a 3-1 record against them at M&T Bank Stadium, but the teams split the last two games there in 2014 and 2015 with the outcomes decided by a combined four points.

Below are five predictions for Saturday:

1. The Chargers will speed up the pace and spread out the Baltimore defense for an early touchdown. The Ravens controlled the tempo throughout the Week 16 meeting, harassing Philip Rivers with blitzes that the Chargers rarely had answers for. This time, I expect Los Angeles to use some no-huddle and empty formations to try to slow the pass rush and keep the Ravens off-balance early on. It’s worth noting Pro Bowl wide receiver Keenan Allen is healthier this time around and will find space for an early touchdown reception after being held to a quiet five catches for 58 yards in the first meeting.

2. Gus Edwards will rush for a career-high 120 yards and a score. The Chargers use the dime package more than anyone in the NFL, which helped them hold Jackson to just 39 rushing yards in Week 16. However, a lighter front leaves Los Angeles more susceptible to the dive plays so frequently run by Edwards. To their credit, the Chargers slowed down the 238-pound rookie in the second half, but he still managed 92 yards on 14 carries two weeks ago. Making matters worse, Los Angeles nose tackle Brandon Mebane isn’t expected to play, making the front seven even more vulnerable against power runs.

3. Jackson will run for more yards than Pro Bowl running back Melvin Gordon. We’ve spent ample time talking about the Ravens’ running game, but has anyone noticed what their rush defense has done since the bye week? Opponents are averaging just 3.4 yards per carry and only two players have managed as much as 60 rushing yards against them over the last seven contests. Gordon is a dynamic player capable of leaving a huge mark in his first NFL playoff game, but he’s more likely to do that as a receiver out of the backfield. I also expect Jackson to find more daylight as the game progresses with the Chargers tweaking their front to account for the inside power runs.

4. A long Cyrus Jones punt return will set up a Ravens touchdown. The running game and a dominant defense have received most of the credit for the post-bye turnaround, but the special teams rose from a pedestrian 13th in special teams DVOA at the bye to sixth by season’s end. Football Outsiders rated Baltimore’s punt return unit second in the league while the Chargers’ punt unit was rated next to last. That disparity didn’t show up to any dramatic degree in Week 16, but Jones has offered a boost in the field-position game since becoming the punt returner and will break a long one on Sunday.

5. Another strong defensive effort will send Baltimore to the divisional round with a 20-17 win. The Chargers were my preseason pick to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, but the first meeting showed this isn’t a great matchup for them. I expect their offense to put up a better fight than it did a couple weeks ago, but Rivers isn’t mobile enough to give the blitz-heavy Ravens the same degree of trouble as Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield did. Credit Los Angeles for doing a better job against the Baltimore running game than any other team over the last two months, but absences at the wrong spots on its dime defense will lead to the Ravens staying more consistent on the ground in the second half. It will be another close game because that’s just a product of the style these current Ravens play, but another complementary effort will be enough to defeat the Chargers for the second time in three weeks. John Harbaugh will improve to 6-0 in wild-card playoff games.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 26-24 win over Cleveland

Posted on 01 January 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens clinching their first AFC North championship since 2012 with a 26-24 win over Cleveland, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The running game produced a season-high 296 yards and finished 2018 with the second-most rushing yards (2,441) in franchise history behind the 2003 team and ahead of the 2008 Ravens. What do those three playoff squads have in common? A rookie quarterback started a large portion of their games.

2. From going for a fourth-and-1 on the 48 on the first drive to using Cover 0 on the final four defensive plays, Baltimore was aggressive with the season on the line. Wink Martindale’s mindset was quite the contrast from rushing four and playing zone on fourth-and-12 last New Year’s Eve.

3. C.J. Mosley hasn’t had his best season and may not be worth the money required to re-sign him, but he made the game-sealing interception and was credited with four hurries by Pro Football Focus. I’ll maintain he’s underappreciated by much of a fan base using Ray Lewis as its standard.

4. Sam Koch deserves much credit for his 51-yard punt that put the Browns on their own 26 for their final drive. After a 37-yard return earlier, Antonio Callaway had nowhere to go near the sideline. A lesser punt very likely would have given Cleveland a potential game-winning field goal try.

5. The Ravens were an inch or two away from a 27-7 lead before Lamar Jackson’s fumble at the goal line. Not only were they fortunate a whistle prevented a Cleveland touchdown the other way, but the Browns failed to take advantage of further sloppy play from Baltimore before halftime.

6. Baker Mayfield made mistakes, but I couldn’t help but feel the Browns wasted plays at times trying to run and throw to the flats when they were having so much success pushing it down the field. The 7.6 yards per play allowed was easily a season worst for the Ravens.

7. Even in victory, it was concerning to see the offense unable to sustain a late drive to protect a one-score lead for the second straight contest. Marty Mornhinweg’s play-calling inside the red zone and on that fourth-quarter drive was questionable.

8. It’s been an up-and-down season for Jimmy Smith, but he came up with the first two-interception game by a Baltimore player since 2013. Per PFF, he allowed just one catch for one yard on seven targets into his coverage. Especially with Marlon Humphrey struggling mightily, that was a critical performance.

9. The short-term ramifications of Sunday’s game dominated the attention, but I’ll gladly sign up for many more Jackson-Mayfield meetings in the years to come. Terrell Suggs’ praise for both rookies said it all. Ben Roethlisberger remains the AFC North quarterback king for now, but a shift is already underway.

10. John Brown registered games of 116 receiving yards and a touchdown against Pittsburgh in Week 4 and 134 yards and a touchdown against New Orleans. Since Jackson became the starter, Brown has a total of eight catches for 114 yards and a touchdown. That’s rough playing on a one-year deal.

11. Sunday’s playoff contest will mark exactly six years since Ray Lewis and Ed Reed played their final home game as Ravens. It’s fitting Jackson, the most exciting player to arrive in Baltimore since Super Bowl XLVII, will start his first playoff game on that anniversary. What fun it should be.

12. Opinions differed on the black jerseys being paired with the purple pants for the first time, but I liked the unique look and hope to see it again, especially for a prime-time game. That was the 10th different uniform combination used by Baltimore this year. Oregon who?

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 34-17 win over Oakland

Posted on 27 November 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens moving back over the .500 mark with the 34-17 win over Oakland, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The first half was an example why I can’t really trust this Ravens offense, regardless of who the quarterback is. Marty Mornhinweg calling nearly twice as many pass plays as runs after compiling 267 rushing yards the previous week is the kind of thing we’ve seen too often.

2. No moment better epitomized the second-half philosophical shift than Ronnie Stanley gesturing to the sideline for more runs after a nine-yard rush on the third play of the second half. The left tackle easily had one of the best run-blocking games of his career on Sunday.

3. If the Ravens stick with Lamar Jackson and a run-heavy approach to try to limit the number of possessions of explosive opposing offenses, they’ll need to do better than going 4-for-8 inside the red zone over the last two games. That percentage would rank 27th in the NFL for 2018.

4. My favorite part of the 74-yard strike to Mark Andrews wasn’t the perfect throw, but it was Jackson dipping his shoulders to really sell the play-fake, which kept Raiders cornerback Rashaan Melvin’s eyes in the backfield a moment too long as Andrews blew right past him.

5. Matt Judon’s three sacks on three straight defensive snaps not only sealed the victory, but they put Derek Carr in historic — and familiar — company. The last time a quarterback was sacked by the same player on three straight plays was in 2002, per NFL Research. That quarterback? David Carr. Remarkable.

6. Judon’s strip-sack led to Baltimore registering its first takeaway since Week 7, but the defense is still looking for its first interception since the first quarter of the Week 5 loss at Cleveland. Rookie sensation Gus Edwards was still on the practice squad at that point.

7. Cyrus Jones returning a punt 70 yards for a touchdown was a cool moment, but the former Gilman star should thank Anthony Levine and Patrick Onwuasor for their early blocks and Chris Moore and Judon for springing him all the way. That return was executed beautifully all the way around.

8. Per Sharp Football, the offense used two running backs and two tight ends 20 percent of the time — the league average is three percent — and used the shotgun 93 percent of the time on Sunday. Scoring four offensive touchdowns in two games is pedestrian, but it’s looked anything but that.

9. Remember how the Ravens didn’t allow a second-half touchdown in their first six games? Sunday marked the third straight contest in which they’ve allowed a touchdown on the first drive of the second half. Credit Wink Martindale’s group for clamping down after that, however.

10. The previous Mornhinweg criticism aside, one of my favorite calls of the game was Ty Montgomery’s third-and-5 run out of a three-wide set that moved the chains late in the third quarter. Teams should spread out and run on third downs of short-to-medium distance more often.

11. Joe Flacco wasn’t the only one who had Ed Reed on his mind as Terrell Suggs looked to lateral the ball on his 43-yard fumble return for a touchdown. I’m sure Reed was smiling as he watched, but not as much as John Harbaugh after Suggs decided to keep it.

12. Kudos to the Ravens for recognizing Colts Hall of Famer Lenny Moore on his 85th birthday and Orioles great Adam Jones, who raised $125,000 for the Living Classrooms Foundation and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Baltimore with his annual tailgate on Sunday. What blessings both men are.

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Ravens guard Yanda aiming for another chapter of greatness

Posted on 07 August 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Last season was supposed to be the continuation of Ravens veteran Marshal Yanda’s reign as the best guard in the NFL.

His six straight Pro Bowl selections had tied Ray Lewis for the third-longest streak in franchise history behind only Jonathan Ogden (11 straight from 1997-2007) and Ed Reed (seven in a row from 2006-12). That exclusive company began prompting some discussion about Yanda’s chances of joining that trio — and perhaps current teammate Terrell Suggs — in Canton one day, especially if he were to add a few more years of elite play to his impressive resume. The Hall of Fame is certainly rare territory for a guard, but momentum had been building as analytic sites like Pro Football Focus touted his excellence and Yanda was even profiled by a national website last summer.

Then, his 2017 season was over soon after it started when he fractured his left ankle in Week 2, an injury that required surgery to repair the damage. After battling through countless ailments to play all but five games in the previous eight seasons, Yanda would sit out the final 14 contests and the Ravens would miss the playoffs for the third straight year, in part because of an offensive line that struggled to gel without its best player in the first half of the season. The 2007 third-round pick has shown little interest in individual accolades over the years, but the thought of not being there for his team was difficult to take.

“It was a heart-breaking deal. I thought I was going to maybe miss some time but be able to find some way to fight through it and get back on the field,” Yanda said. “But to have the news that it was season-ending was really tough. It was really hard for me being away, but that’s part of football. You have to deal with it.”

The frustration didn’t end there as Yanda hurt his shoulder lifting weights just as he was winding down his ankle rehabilitation last December. Instead of risking further damage to his rotator cuff by trying to push through the injury, the 2007 third-round pick chose to have surgery early this offseason, a move that further delayed his return to the practice field.

There was no doubt that Yanda would return to action in 2018, but it’s fair to wonder if he’ll regain his elite playing status as he turns 34 next month and comes off his third shoulder surgery — each arm has been worked on — in the last five years. Of course, he need look no further for inspiration than Suggs, who has recorded a total of 19 sacks in two seasons since suffering the second torn Achilles tendon of his career in 2015. At the time of that injury, many thought a 33-year-old Suggs might be all but finished, but he’s only strengthened his case for an eventual place in the Hall of Fame.

It isn’t difficult envisioning the 6-foot-3, 305-pound lineman following a similar script to put himself in the conversation at the very least.

Yanda swats away any mention of him eventually being worthy of such a historic honor, but he has every intention of again being the leader and linchpin of the Baltimore offensive line after returning to the practice field this week for the first time in 11 months.

“You understand that guys can definitely come back from [injuries], and even though they’re older players, they can still be productive,” Yanda said. “They can still do everything they want to do, so I’ve just attacked [rehab] every single day. I feel like, as you get older as a player, this game means more to you every single year that you play.

“I obviously understand that it’s a young man’s game, but I’m going to be fighting every single day to be ready to roll and to be productive.”

Whether it was returning from emergency leg surgery in days to help the Ravens clinch a division title in 2011 or switching from right guard to left guard because of a serious shoulder injury and still making the Pro Bowl in 2016, Yanda has proven time and time again not to doubt him. His place among the top 10 players in franchise history is cemented, but his toughness is second to none in the 22-year history of the franchise.

How much longer Yanda will play remains to be seen as his current contract runs through the end of next season. With more than a decade in the NFL under his belt, the Iowa native is taking a year-by-year approach to his career.

“Me not playing pretty much at all last year, there was no question I definitely wanted to play this fall and get after it and be a part of it,” Yanda said. “You reassess and reevaluate. I’ll take my time after the season, but right now I’m focused on this year and doing my part.”

The Ravens are hoping it’s that same gigantic part as before.

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