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Ravens regular-season moment No. 5: “Hey diddle diddle, Ray Rice up the middle”

Posted on 19 June 2020 by Luke Jones

Check out the No. 6 regular-season moment in Ravens history HERE.

The 2012 Ravens were a tough team to figure out.

Long before they’d win Super Bowl XLVII or go through a brutal December, there were fair questions about a group that had won two games by over 30 points, lost one by 30 points, and barely squeaked by some of the worst teams in the league over the first three months of the season. The Ravens were certainly good, but were they as great as an 8-2 start often suggests?

For much of their Week 12 clash with San Diego, the answer appeared to be no. The Ravens offense sleepwalked through the first half at Qualcomm Stadium, managing no points and just 90 total yards as the Chargers led 10-0 at intermission.

A 54-yard completion from Joe Flacco to Torrey Smith on the opening drive of the second half set up a Justin Tucker field goal, but the offense again went quiet until midway through the fourth quarter. Doing the heavy lifting throughout the day to keep the score close, the Baltimore defense surrendered a long drive resulting in a field goal to give San Diego a 13-3 lead with 7:51 remaining in regulation.

The time was now for Flacco and the offense to come alive if the Ravens wanted to win their fourth straight game. The fifth-year quarterback did exactly that, going 7-for-8 for 86 yards on a drive ending with a 4-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dennis Pitta to shrink the deficit to 13-10 with 4:19 to go.

Inspired by the reappearance of the offense, the Ravens defense forced a quick three-and-out and Pro Bowl return specialist Jacoby Jones returned the punt 23 yards to the Baltimore 40. After picking up one first down, however, the ensuing drive quickly began unraveling.

A rare Marshal Yanda holding penalty pushed the Ravens back into their own territory. And following back-to-back incompletions, Flacco was sacked and stripped by Chargers outside linebacker Antwan Barnes on third-and-20, setting up what seemed to be an impossible situation entering the two-minute warning.

What could the Ravens do on fourth-and-29 from their own 37-yard line? Take a deep shot to Smith or Jones in hopes of at least drawing a pass interference flag? Throw a strike down the seam to Anquan Boldin and see if the tough-as-nails receiver breaks a tackle or two?

With time to throw and looking downfield, Flacco checked down with a short pass to the right flat just beyond the line of scrimmage.

Really?

You’ve got to be kidding.

Seriously?

“It was really kind of a Hail Mary situation,” Flacco said after the game. “We were running down the field and I was hoping because they were playing so soft, sometimes you can kind of get in behind one of those guys and catch them flat-footed and maybe find a soft spot and rip a ball real quick into somebody. I didn’t really see anything like that. I didn’t want to just throw a Hail Mary.

“I wanted to give somebody a chance.”

Ray Rice, the three-time Pro Bowl running back who often carried the Ravens offense in those years, got that opportunity.

With an effort one could hardly believe, Rice eluded a few tacklers, cut all the way across the field to the left, and got a crushing Boldin block on Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle before lunging for the first down. A replay review moved back the initial spot of the miraculous play, but a measurement still gave the Ravens a first down, keeping the drive alive.

A 38-yard Tucker field goal moments later tied the game and the Ravens won with another Tucker 38-yarder late in overtime, but all that transpired the rest of the way couldn’t come close to matching Rice’s extraordinary effort. What we didn’t know was how critical the victory would be at a time when many were pondering the 9-2 Ravens chasing a first-round bye and home-field advantage.

The win over the Chargers would be the Ravens’ last for a month as they’d lose their next three games and fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron would be replaced by Jim Caldwell. It’s impossible to know how losing to San Diego might have impacted the remaining five games on the schedule — the Ravens rested multiple starters in their Week 17 loss at Cincinnati, for example — but finishing 10-6 compared to 9-7 was the difference between winning the AFC North and being the No. 6 seed.

The significance in the big picture only added to the mystique and real-time insanity of “Hey diddle diddle, Ray Rice up the middle” as the fifth-year running back nicknamed the play.

“It was just total will,” Rice said after the 16-13 overtime win. “Once I made the first guy miss when I cut back across the grain, I actually saw the defense had to flip their hip and I kept eyeing the first down. I looked and said, ‘Should I keep running to the sideline or should I just keep trying to get up field?’ And that’s what I did. I just kept getting upfield.”

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Twelve Ravens thoughts ahead of Memorial Day weekend

Posted on 20 May 2020 by Luke Jones

With the NFL’s virtual offseason program rolling on, I’ve offered a dozen Ravens thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Team president Dick Cass confirmed again this week that the organization aims to be able to conduct training camp and has no expectation of the 90-man roster being at the Owings Mills facility before then. Time remains on teams’ side with the usual start to camp still two months away.

2. Two-time Pro Bowl receiver Adam Thielen said he wouldn’t have made it in the NFL had the pandemic taken place when he went undrafted in 2013. With Baltimore already having a deep roster and 10 draft picks, rookie free agents are missing out on valuable opportunities to impress.

3. Opinions vary on playing football this fall, but Dr. David Chao, former team physician of the San Diego Chargers, discussed key considerations in this video ranging from what to do about team meetings and locker rooms to considering face shields on helmets and alternatives for huddling. Really interesting stuff.

4. With Rooney Rule changes making headlines, the lack of diversity in NFL hiring remains disappointing with Ozzie Newsome going from a Hall of Fame playing career to becoming one of the best general managers of all time serving as the best example one needs. The league must do better.

5. Some have mentioned the peculiarity of having two preseason games against regular-season opponents (Dallas and Washington), but teams just don’t show enough in these exhibition contests for this to really matter anymore. Conducting joint practices with a regular-season opponent would be a different story.

6. A superb secondary and Wink Martindale’s propensity to blitz should ease short-term concerns at edge rusher, but Matthew Judon, Pernell McPhee, Jihad Ward, and Tyus Bowser are only under contract through 2020. Even if Jaylon Ferguson takes a step forward, something will have to give.

7. Calais Campbell has wasted no time making an impact locally as his foundation announced an initiative to provide 100 laptops to disadvantaged students. His superb play is a given, but adding a veteran like him during such unusual times will pay off even more on and off the field.

8. The recently retired Eric Weddle taking time to speak to Ravens players virtually was hardly surprising. He’ll relish more time with his family, but it’s difficult imagining him staying away from the game for very long.

9. Many have already dunked on the following tweet, but the 2012 defense did come up big in some critical spots despite its mediocre overall profile. Still, I would put at least 15 Ravens defenses ahead of that one without even needing to look up any stats. What an odd pairing.

10. Terrell Suggs had a forgettable Arizona homecoming, but he recently drew praise as a mentor from Cardinals edge rusher Chandler Jones, who led the NFL in sacks in 2017 and had 19 last year. It’s unclear whether he’ll return for an 18th season, but the ex-Raven became an underrated leader.

11. If you felt old hearing Ray Lewis turned 45 years old late last week, perhaps you’ll take consolation learning Cal Ripken will be 60 in August. You’re welcome.

12. I really could have gone without reading the latest example of what’s made Tom Brady so insane great over the years. At least Ryan Mallett learned something from the six-time Super Bowl champion?

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How did Ravens safeties stack up to rest of NFL in 2019?

Posted on 12 February 2020 by Luke Jones

The Ravens recorded the best regular season in franchise history, but where did their individual players stack up across the NFL in 2019?

Whether it’s discussing the Pro Bowl — Baltimore had a record-tying 13 selections — or determining postseason awards, media and fans spend much time debating where players rank at each position, but few watch every player on every team closely enough to form any real authoritative opinion.

Truthfully, how many times did you watch the Tampa Bay offensive line this season? What about the Atlanta Falcons linebackers or the Detroit Lions cornerbacks?

That’s why I do respect the efforts of Pro Football Focus while acknowledging their grading is hardly the gospel of evaluation. I don’t envy the exhaustive effort to evaluate players across the league when most of us watch one team or maybe one division on any kind of a regular basis.

We’ll look at each positional group on the roster in the coming days, but below is a look at where Ravens safeties ranked across the NFL this past season followed by the position outlook going into 2020:

Earl Thomas
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 947
PFF ranking: 16th among safeties
Skinny: Thomas was named to his seventh Pro Bowl and played well in his first year with Baltimore, but there was a definite adjustment with the 30-year-old being asked to be more multiple than he was in Seattle’s Cover 3 looks. For what it’s worth, Thomas registered his lowest PFF season grade since 2012, which is something to keep in mind as he enters the second year of a lucrative $55 million contract.

Chuck Clark
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 803
PFF ranking: 36th among safeties
Skinny: Clark entering the starting lineup and taking over the play-calling responsibilities in the huddle helped spark a turnaround after the season’s opening month as he led the Ravens in tackles. His contract extension signals he’ll be the starter next to Thomas moving forward, but it will be interesting to see if he keeps the green-dot helmet and continues to play “Mike” linebacker in select defensive packages.

Tony Jefferson
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 281
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: A serious knee injury cut Jefferson’s season short in Week 5, but his PFF grade was the lowest of his career and would have landed him among the worst qualified safeties in the league for the full season. His health and Clark’s emergence make it very likely that the Ravens will move on from Jefferson this offseason since he’s scheduled to make $7 million in base salary in the final year of a $34 million deal.

Anthony Levine
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 167
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: Regarded as one of the better dime backs in the league in previous seasons, Levine saw his defensive role diminish after the bye week as veteran cornerback Brandon Carr shifted to a safety role in the dime package. Still a strong special-teams player, Levine registered his lowest defensive snap count since 2016 and lowest PFF grade since 2014, trends that weren’t great for him going into free agency.

DeShon Elliott
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 40
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The 2018 sixth-round pick has flashed potential in the spring and summer, but injuries have limited him to just six games in his first two seasons, making it difficult to know what the Ravens really have with the Texas product. With other veteran backups scheduled to hit free agency, an opportunity should be there for Elliott to carve out a meaningful role in sub packages if he can finally stay healthy.

Brynden Trawick
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 11
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: A former Pro Bowl special-teams player with Tennessee a few years ago, the 30-year-old was limited to six regular-season games with an elbow injury and is scheduled to become a free agent.  With the Ravens facing the possibility of some substantial roster turnover on special teams, Trawick returning for a salary near the veteran minimum would be a possibility.

Jordan Richards
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 1
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The former Patriot joined the Ravens in October in what was essentially a swap as special-teams standout Justin Bethel wound up in New England, but Richards was a healthy scratch for the playoff loss to Tennessee, which doesn’t say much for how Baltimore valued him as a special-teams player.

2020 positional outlook

The Ravens have been at or near the top in spending and exhausting resources at the safety position for years now, but the results have been a mixed bag with some unsuccessful early draft picks and disappointing returns on free-agent contracts besides the Eric Weddle deal. Time will tell on the Thomas contract, of course, but wondering whether he’s a $14 million-per-year safety at this stage of his career is a reasonable question. Clark may not be spectacular, but he brings a high floor and long-term stability to the position at an affordable cost, the latter part being something that’s eluded the organization for quite a while. Considering how often the Ravens used three-safety alignments — and occasionally four safeties — this past season, it will be interesting to see if they elect to keep Carr for a hybrid role, roll the dice on Elliott finally staying healthy, or aim to draft a young safety to develop. Thomas and Clark are set as starters for the upcoming season, but more safety depth will be needed if the Ravens indeed move on from Jefferson and Carr while letting Levine, Trawick, and Richards depart in free agency.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Chuck Clark extension

Posted on 11 February 2020 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Demarcus Robinson (11) makes a one-handed touchdown catch in front of Baltimore Ravens cornerback Brandon Carr (24) during the first half of an NFL football game in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

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Loss in Kansas City reflects growing pains for revamped Ravens defense

Posted on 23 September 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Some growing pains were always likely for the Ravens defense, especially when playing the NFL’s MVP and best offense from a year ago in Week 3.

It was easy to be dismissive of the departure of several key veterans in the offseason, citing the bloated contracts they received with their new teams and a notion that they’re overrated or past their prime. Some even had the gall to suggest the exits of mainstays such as C.J. Mosley, Terrell Suggs, and Eric Weddle would be addition by subtraction for a faster, younger defense in 2019.

That certainly wasn’t the case Sunday when the Ravens defense surrendered more than 500 yards in a 33-28 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Last December’s 27-24 overtime loss was far from perfect, but Baltimore allowed 61 fewer yards on 19 more plays in that contest that also included Pro Bowl wide receiver Tyreek Hill and starting left tackle Eric Fisher, who both sat out with injuries Sunday. The Chiefs registered four plays of more than 35 yards compared to just one last year — Patrick Mahomes’ miracle 49-yard completion to Hill on fourth-and-9 to set up the tying score late in the fourth quarter.

No, the Ravens defense wasn’t good enough Sunday — few are against Mahomes and Kansas City — but that doesn’t mean head coach John Harbaugh or anyone else should be panicking. There wasn’t a more difficult game on the schedule going into the 2019 season, but the Ravens still fell by just five points despite neither side of the ball performing at its best. There’s no shame in a revamped defense being unable to match last year’s showing or Lamar Jackson and a young offense not quite being ready for a full-blown shootout in the season’s third game.

“Can we play better? We will play better, and we’ll learn a lot from that experience,” Harbaugh said. “That team is no better than us, but they played better than us. Let’s get better. Let’s play better. Let’s coach better. Let’s get ourselves to the point where we can go into a game like that and win.

“We weren’t good enough on Sunday based on the way we played. But we will be because these guys aren’t backing down.”

There are issues to correct, however.

The coverage breakdowns that surfaced in Week 2 when Arizona rookie Kyler Murray threw for 349 yards continued against Mahomes, who was much more adept at making the Ravens pay for their mistakes. Cornerback Jimmy Smith remains sidelined with a sprained MCL in his right knee while nickel corner Tavon Young was lost for the year in August, but the secondary can’t chalk up all hiccups to those absences — as significant as they might be.

Six-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas presented an upgrade from the aging Weddle’s individual play, but the latter was the quarterback of the defense last year, diagnosing opponents’ plays and serving as a traffic cop for Wink Martindale’s deceptive schemes. That’s not to suggest Thomas, Tony Jefferson, or anyone else is incapable of filling that role, but it’s a different dynamic needing time to gel like the Ravens defense did down the stretch in 2018 after a shaky middle portion of the season.

Baltimore wasn’t tested by a woeful Miami offense in the opener and played well enough in the red zone and on third down to overcome coverage mistakes against the Cardinals, but it was the wrong time to be playing the Chiefs’ mighty offense, evident by Mahomes’ 83-yard touchdown strike to a wide-open Mecole Hardman on a drive that began on Kansas City’s own 4 in the second quarter.

“You never know the exact route you’re going to get, but there are principles involved in those coverages,” said Harbaugh, who added that the coaching staff must better prepare players for every situation. “We’ve had breakdowns two weeks in a row in different coverages. And that’s not good. That’s what costs you big gains when you’re playing good teams who are explosive as [the Chiefs] are and can make those plays. We just can’t have it. Our guys know it.”

The problems extend beyond the secondary as Ravens inside linebackers have struggled to hang with tight ends and running backs more frequently than the too harshly criticized Mosley would in coverage in the past. After platooning effectively last season, Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young have made some splash plays in expanded roles, but the Ravens have missed the down-to-down consistency and aptitude of the four-time Pro Bowl inside linebacker. Some overpursuit and difficulty shedding blocks also contributed to Kansas City averaging 5.4 yards per carry.

None of this is to suggest Mosley was worth the $17 million per year the New York Jets are paying him, but Sunday was a reminder why the Ravens were still trying to re-sign him before the bidding became too lucrative in the end. Replacing him is easier said than done — even if he wasn’t Ray Lewis.

“We have not been great in man coverage all the time,” said Harbaugh of his inside linebackers. “We’ve had some really good moments, and then we’ve had some not good moments. We had one situation where it was a half-roll pass in a certain zone coverage that we didn’t get back to the spot where we want to be, and they hit [Travis] Kelce over the middle one time. It’s different issues. We can be better there.”

Outside linebacker was discussed at great length throughout the spring and summer, but the same questions persist three weeks into the season. The Ravens have received quality play from starters Matthew Judon and Pernell McPhee, but Harbaugh called out 2017 draft picks Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams and their need to be better as the pair has combined for five tackles, zero sacks, and one quarterback hit in 125 combined snaps this season.

Harbaugh was more forgiving of rookie Jaylon Ferguson in his NFL debut, but setting the edge against the run — an underrated part of Suggs’ game even late in his career — has been problematic for the young outside linebackers, another reason why Martindale has leaned so heavily on Judon and McPhee. Against the Chiefs, Judon played 58 of 68 defensive snaps while McPhee took 56. More effective as a situational pass rusher on a limited pitch count throughout his career, McPhee has already played 118 snaps, more than halfway to his total of 204 with Washington last year.

Williams, Bowser, and Ferguson aren’t just going to be handed snaps, however.

“Those reps are definitely up for grabs. We’ll see who takes them,” Harbaugh said. “In my mind, those young guys, the reps are there. We need to give our older guys a break. They can’t be playing all those snaps all year.

“We want to play fast defense. We want to be rested and healthy. But none of those guys have stepped up in my mind and taken the reps yet. That’s disappointing, so we’ll see who’s the man for the job. The ball is in their court.”

The good news is most of the aforementioned players are young and capable of improving as the year progresses. The return of a healthy Smith in a few weeks should help calm the secondary at the very least while the Ravens search for more consistency and production at inside and outside linebacker.

Again, the Chiefs averaged just over 35 points per game last season. Concerns about the Ravens defense aren’t as severe as Sunday’s loss suggested just like the group wasn’t as good as the season-opening win over woeful Miami indicated. The truth lies in between with the Ravens having much work to do to become a top-flight defense rather than the ordinary group that experienced too many breakdowns Sunday.

There’s still plenty of room and time to grow.

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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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Ravens defense begins OTAs sporting different look

Posted on 23 May 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens’ first open organized team activity didn’t offer a great look at a defense that’s undergone substantial change this offseason.

As if the offseason departures of Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, Eric Weddle, Za’Darius Smith, and Brent Urban weren’t enough, six other notable defensive players weren’t participating in Thursday’s voluntary workout, leaving only a few established veterans, role players, and unproven young talents on the practice field. The list of absentees was headlined by six-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas, the blockbuster free-agent acquisition handpicked to help fill voids in leadership and play-making ability. Other defensive players not taking part were cornerback Jimmy Smith, defensive tackles Michael Pierce and Brandon Williams, outside linebacker Matthew Judon, and safety Tony Jefferson, who is still working his way back to full strength from offseason ankle surgery and was a sideline observer.

Though led by one of the NFL’s best and deepest secondaries, the Ravens defense faces major questions at the inside and outside linebacker positions ahead of the 2019 season

“There are a lot of stories you’ve seen about new faces on the Ravens, but you guys see a lot of new faces and I see a lot of new opportunities,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “A lot of guys, especially in my [2017] draft class and the class last year, are stepping into bigger roles — including myself — so I look forward to that as an opportunity and for new guys to make plays and make names for themselves and to become those household names.”

As expected, Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young were lining up as the starting inside linebackers after sharing time at the weak-side inside backer spot next to Mosley last year, but trying to project the starting outside linebacker opposite Judon is anyone’s guess after Suggs manned the spot for the last 15 years. The Ravens hope some combination of third-round rookie Jaylon Ferguson and 2017 draft picks Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams will emerge, but the low-risk signings of Pernell McPhee, 30, and Shane Ray, 26 last week delivered the message that young players won’t be handed snaps without first earning them.

McPhee, who played for the Ravens from 2011-14, and Ray combined for only one sack with their former teams last season, but they rank first and third, respectively, among current Baltimore players in career sacks, illustrating the lack of established edge rushers on the roster.

“That certainly made it more interesting over there, and those two guys are both in really good shape,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “They both came in, and obviously, they were preparing and training for when their opportunity would come. You get in a situation like that, and you don’t always know when it’s going to come and not everybody does a good job of that. They did a good job of that. They were out there today. You saw them competing, so they looked good.”

Absences on the offensive side of the ball were more related to health as rookie wide receivers Marquise Brown (foot) and Miles Boykin (hamstring) only observed and guard Alex Lewis continues to recover from offseason shoulder surgery. Right guard Marshal Yanda was not present, but the seven-time Pro Bowl selection has skipped voluntary OTAs in the past.

The most interesting absence Thursday was running back Kenneth Dixon, who likely stands fourth in his position’s hierarchy behind free-agent addition and two-time Pro Bowl selection Mark Ingram, 2018 leading rusher Gus Edwards, and rookie fourth-round pick Justice Hill. Despite averaging an impressive 5.6 yards per carry upon returning from a knee injury late last season, Dixon is entering the final year of his rookie contract, a variable that often leaves a player’s job security vulnerable when competing at a deep position. His history of injuries and drug-related suspensions also works against him.

“He was here the last few days,” Harbaugh said. “Where was he today? I don’t know. They don’t have to tell us. There’s no rule.”

Cornerback and punt returner Cyrus Jones and rookie defensive tackle Gerald Willis were also absent, but Willis did sustain an apparent leg injury during rookie camp earlier this month.

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Five Ravens questions for start of organized team activities

Posted on 20 May 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens conducting their first week of organized team activities and opening up Thursday’s practice to the media, below are five questions on the defending AFC North champions in late May:

1. How will Lamar Jackson look passing the ball?

There’s no shortage of unknowns about the Ravens as they attempt to win back-to-back division titles for the first time since 2011 and 2012, but Jackson’s greatest supporters and toughest critics agree his development as a passer entering his first full season as the starter tops the priority list. He again worked on his mechanics and footwork with high school coach Joshua Harris and threw to Ravens wide receivers Jordan Lasley and Jaylen Smith in Florida, but OTAs will offer a glimpse at the strides he’s made. Team-produced highlight videos and public comments from coaches and teammates will be all positive, of course, but media will be permitted to watch three OTA workouts ahead of Baltimore’s mandatory three-day minicamp in mid-June. That’s not to say reporters will — or should — overreact to every rep, but more consistency is needed on a throw-to-throw basis, especially on out-breaking routes. How Jackson throws in spring practices will only tell so much, but it’s more than we know now after an offseason full of speculation, debate, and, in some cases, mindless hot takes about the quarterback’s abilities.

2. How will an uncertain linebacker picture start to take shape?

A 23-year-old franchise that’s reaped the benefits of seven different linebackers making a combined 33 Pro Bowls has never had a cloudier situation following the departures of Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley. There’s no shortage of competition at outside linebacker with recent free-agent arrivals Pernell McPhee and Shane Ray competing with rookie third-round pick Jaylon Ferguson and 2017 draft picks Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams for playing time opposite veteran starter Matthew Judon. However, general manager Eric DeCosta has yet to add a notable inside linebacker in the quest to replace Mosley, leaving former weak-side platoon partners Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young as de facto starters. We’re a long way from any decisions needing to be made and you can only take away so much from non-contact workouts, but how — and with which unit — these linebackers even line up will be interesting to watch. In an ideal world, at least one of McPhee and Ray would work out and one of Bowser and Williams would emerge to form a solid rotation with Judon and Ferguson. A veteran inside linebacker could still be added, but the Ravens seemingly want to take a long look at Onwuasor and Young as the two starters.

3. What will new offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s offense look like?

It’s no secret Roman was the mastermind behind the shift to a run-heavy attack when Jackson took the starting reins last November, but head coach John Harbaugh and the Ravens have repeatedly discussed the rebuilding and revamping of the offense “from the ground up” this offseason, making it clear they want to play to their quarterback’s strengths. We know the ground game will remain the foundation with DeCosta spending substantial money to sign former Pro Bowl running back Mark Ingram and blocking tight end Nick Boyle to multi-year deals, but the wide receiver position has undergone significant change and the offensive line remains a position group of great interest with the competition at left guard — and perhaps center — shaping up to be tight. In addition to leaning heavily on the running game and the use of multiple tight ends, play-action passes were a staple in Roman’s past offenses.

4. Who will show up in Owings Mills and who won’t?

This is your annual reminder that OTAs are voluntary, but that won’t stop us from noting player attendance, in part because we know it’s important to coaches and many fans are interested. Prominent veterans around the league seeking long-term deals often skip these workouts, but that doesn’t mean we won’t see Judon, Michael Pierce, and others set to become free agents next year over these next few weeks. It’s also worth noting a few prominent veterans who regularly attended OTAs in the past such as Eric Weddle and Mosley are gone, which makes you wonder if incumbents in their mid-to-late-20s will feel as much unstated pressure to attend. Again, none of this is the big deal many try to make it out to be.

5. Will the Ravens escape the spring without any significant injuries?

Washington lost linebacker Reuben Foster to what’s believed to be a season-ending torn ACL Monday. Two springs ago, the Ravens lost slot cornerback Tavon Young and tight end Dennis Pitta to season-ending injuries on consecutive days. Yes, teams are laying the groundwork for the 2019 season over these next several weeks, but getting through May and June workouts with your roster intact tops any coach’s spring wish list. First-round rookie wide receiver Marquise Brown isn’t expected to be on the practice field until training camp as he recovers from Lisfranc surgery and guard Alex Lewis’ short-term status is unclear after his January shoulder surgery, but the Ravens will use caution with every little ailment this spring while keeping their fingers crossed that nothing catastrophic occurs.

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Ravens defense looking like good case study for coverage-pressure debate

Posted on 13 May 2019 by Luke Jones

With veteran pass rusher and free-agent target Ezekiel Ansah joining Seattle last week, the Ravens defense faces a likely reality with organized team activities set to begin next week.

Barring something completely unforeseen, general manager Eric DeCosta probably isn’t upgrading the current group of pass rushers to a substantial degree. That’s not to say a veteran won’t still be added to the mix as former Los Angeles Ram Matt Longacre reportedly visited the Ravens Monday, but the quality of edge defenders still on the market isn’t dramatically different from the in-house options behind veteran Matt Judon that include third-round rookie Jaylon Ferguson and 2017 Day 2 picks Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams.

It’s not as though DeCosta hasn’t tried to add a veteran pass rusher after the departures of 2018 sacks leader Za’Darius Smith and the franchise’s all-time sacks leader in Terrell Suggs, but the short-term contracts given to Ansah and Justin Houston — who signed with Indianapolis — were a bit rich for a team trying to maintain an optimal salary-cap situation for 2020 and beyond. Few would argue with the decisions not to pay Smith and Suggs what they ultimately received from their new teams, but the defense is still losing just over 40 percent of its sack production from last year when you include the two combined sacks from fellow departures C.J. Mosley, Eric Weddle, and Brent Urban.

Of course, DeCosta hasn’t just stood pat defensively after losing those key players as his first major free-agent signing as general manager was six-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas to a four-year, $55 million contract. Injuries limited the 30-year-old to just 29 games in his final three seasons with the Seahawks, but Thomas represents a substantial upgrade — at least on paper — from the 34-year-old Weddle, who was using his intellect to overcome his physical limitations more than ever last season.

That upgrade to a secondary already viewed as one of the NFL’s best and the current concerns about the pass rush spark a fascinating question, one the football analytics community has debated at length in recent years.

Which is more valuable: coverage or pass rush?

The phrase “you win in the trenches” being drilled into ours heads for decades may have you laughing at the very notion of pass coverage being more important than pressure, but that’s a growing stance in today’s pass-happy NFL in which quarterbacks are getting rid of the ball more quickly and teams are using more play-action calls to neutralize defensive fronts. To be clear, pressure remains very important as the two feed off each other — you want both in a perfect world — but an edge rusher getting stonewalled by an offensive tackle typically brings less potential consequence than a defensive back faltering for even a fraction of a second in coverage on a given pass play.

Asked about which was more precious earlier this offseason, head coach John Harbaugh offered an answer seemingly agreeing with the analytics community’s position of coverage being more valuable than pass rush. It reflects Baltimore’s greatest defensive strength going into OTAs.

“I think coverage in the back end because I think you can create pressure,” Harbaugh said at the league meetings in March. “Pressure breaks pipes. You don’t have to be a one-dimensional, one pass-rush type guy. But the more good pass rushers you put into a pressure scheme, obviously, the better off you’re going to be. And you have more options. You can rush four, you can rush three. You can rush different people.

“I do believe you have to cover people in this league, but I can go the other way if you really squeeze me on it. But I don’t like not being able to cover people in all honesty. Maybe that’s just my own bias — I played defensive back a little, coached it. I really do believe you have to be able to cover people.”

It’s not as though the Ravens don’t desire good pass rushers, but they’ve made quality and depth in the secondary a priority over these last few years. After enduring draft disappointments Matt Elam and Terrence Brooks and underwhelming “value” signings in the three seasons following Super Bowl XLVII, Baltimore has awarded big contracts to safeties in three of the last four offseasons. Last month also marked the fifth consecutive year in which the Ravens drafted a cornerback in the fourth round or earlier, creating a talent pipeline to avoid a repeat of 2014 when street free agent Rashaan Melvin was starting playoff games due to the lack of secondary depth entering that campaign. The recent investment of draft capital in cornerbacks coincided with signing veteran Brandon Carr to a four-year, $24 million contract two years ago and making Tavon Young the highest-paid slot cornerback in the NFL in February.

Perhaps the best indication of their current philosophy is the Ravens retaining cornerback Jimmy Smith despite having two other starting-caliber — and cheaper — cornerbacks in Marlon Humphrey and Carr and talented young options behind them. Smith will turn 31 in July and carries the highest 2019 cap number on the team at $15.85 million, which led many to view him as a likely cap casualty this offseason. Injuries and suspensions have limited him to 12 or fewer games in six of his eight NFL seasons and he was coming off an uneven 2018, but Baltimore has expressed little apparent interest in compromising its deep depth in the secondary, even if the $9.5 million saved by releasing Smith could have helped land a free-agent pass rusher like Houston or Ansah.

It remains to be seen how the pass rush fares without Za’Darius Smith and Suggs, whose combined 150 career sacks are more than twice as many as the 64 career takedowns produced by the entire current roster. Does a secondary potentially better than last year force opposing quarterbacks to hold the ball longer to create more pressure and sack opportunities for young rushers? Does the potential lack of pressure from inexperienced edge defenders cause more coverage breakdowns than we witnessed last year? Or, as Harbaugh suggested, are the Ravens confident in their ability to scheme pressure — as defensive coordinator Wink Martindale did last year — as long as the secondary performs at a high level?

The Ravens are pretty clearly betting on the coverage side of the give-take relationship, which should provide an interesting case study in the overall debate. Baltimore is depending on that philosophy minimizing what some fear could be a substantial drop-off on the defensive side of the ball.

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Ravens to play three prime-time games as part of 2019 schedule

Posted on 17 April 2019 by Luke Jones

Aiming to defend their AFC North championship and make the playoffs in back-to-back years, the Ravens are scheduled to appear in prime time three times during the 2019 season.

Baltimore opens the season at Miami on Sept. 8, but the schedule is headlined by a Sunday night encounter with defending Super Bowl champion New England on Nov. 3. This marks the first time the Ravens will host Sunday Night Football since 2012, which was also against the Patriots. It’s worth noting, however, that three other originally-scheduled Sunday night games — one in 2013 and two in 2015 — were flexed out of the prime-time spot over that time.

The Ravens will also host the New York Jets for a Thursday game in Week 15. They are 6-0 in Thursday home games under 12th-year head coach John Harbaugh.

Making their first trip to the historic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the Ravens will take on the defending NFC champion Rams on Nov. 25 for their lone appearance of the season on Monday Night Football.

Surprisingly, this marks the first time since 2006 that the Ravens and Pittsburgh aren’t scheduled to square off in a prime-time game — if including the 2016 Christmas Day classic that kicked off in the late afternoon — but these AFC North rivals will play in the regular-season finale for the first time since 2007 and the fourth time ever, which could create some captivating drama.

After a few daunting stretches of road games in recent seasons, the Ravens are the only team in the NFL who will alternate home and away games throughout the season, the first time that’s occurred in franchise history. The most challenging stretch of the season appears to be Week 7 through Week 12 when the Ravens play four playoff teams from a year ago, but even that run includes their bye week.

The Ravens will play five games against playoff teams from last season: Houston, Kansas City, the Los Angeles Rams, New England, and Seattle. They have nine games against opponents who finished below .500 in 2018: Arizona, Buffalo, Cincinnati (twice), Cleveland (twice), Miami, the New York Jets, and San Francisco.

For now, 12 of Baltimore’s 16 regular-season games are scheduled for 1 p.m. Sunday starts, but most games are subject to flexible scheduling (see below).

2019 SCHEDULE

Sunday, Sept. 8 at Miami Dolphins — 1:00 p.m. (CBS)
Skinny: As road openers go, the Ravens can’t be too unhappy with an opponent considered an early favorite for the first pick in the 2020 draft as these teams meet for the sixth time in the last seven years.

Sunday, Sept. 15 Arizona Cardinals — 1:00 p.m. (FOX)
Skinny: Ed Reed played against the Ravens as a New York Jet in 2013, but Terrell Suggs walking into Baltimore as “the bad guy” after 16 seasons in purple will be surreal.

Sunday, Sept. 22 at Kansas City Chiefs — 1:00 p.m. (CBS)
Skinny:  A trip to Arrowhead Stadium is always a daunting task, but these teams played one of the best regular-season games of the season there last year.

Sunday, Sept. 29 Cleveland Browns — 1:00 p.m. (CBS)
Skinny: The Browns have four all-time wins at M&T Bank Stadium, but last season’s Week 17 meeting between Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson left everyone excited for more.

Sunday, Oct. 6 at Pittsburgh Steelers — 1:00 p.m. (CBS)
Skinny: For the first time since 2013, the Ravens will not play be playing under the lights at Heinz Field, which will make everyone in Baltimore happy.

Sunday, Oct. 13 Cincinnati Bengals — 1:00 p.m. (CBS)
Skinny: You can make reasonable arguments for Baltimore, Cleveland, or Pittsburgh to win the AFC North, but it sure feels like the Bengals are “drawing dead” with Andy Dalton at this point.

Sunday, Oct. 20 at Seattle Seahawks — 4:25 p.m. (FOX)
Skinny: You know six-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas has been thinking about this one since before the ink was dry on his four-year, $55 million contract with his new team.

Sunday, Oct. 27  BYE
Skinny: Baltimore’s break falls no earlier than Week 8 for the eighth consecutive year.

Sunday, Nov. 3 vs. New England Patriots — 8:20 p.m. (NBC)
Skinny: Times have definitely changed as just six players remain who were with the Ravens the last time they beat Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, which was in the 2012 AFC championship game.

Sunday, Nov. 10 at Cincinnati Bengals — 1:00 p.m. (CBS)
Skinny: For the second year in a row, the Ravens will not close the regular season against the Bengals. New Year’s will never be the same.

Sunday, Nov. 17 Houston Texans — 1:00 p.m. (CBS)
Skinny: Deshaun Watson went down with a knee injury weeks before the Texans’ last trip to Baltimore, but seeing him match up with the man who beat him out for the 2016 Heisman Trophy should be a blast.

Monday, Nov. 25 at Los Angeles Rams — 8:15 p.m. (ESPN)
Skinny: After going against the speedy Jackson in practice for a year, former Raven Eric Weddle will certainly share his tendencies with his Rams teammates for this attractive prime-time game.

Sunday, Dec. 1 San Francisco 49ers — 1:00 p.m. (FOX)
Skinny: The 49ers finished 4-12 last year, but a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo would make this late-season encounter far from a layup for the Ravens, who will be playing on a short week.

Sunday, Dec. 8 at Buffalo Bills — 1:00 p.m. (CBS)
Skinny: The Ravens are 0-2 in their previous trips to western New York with neither of those being played in December when the weather can be major factor.

Thursday, Dec. 12 vs. New York Jets — 8:20 p.m. (FOX/NFL Network)
Skinny: Four-time Pro Bowl inside linebacker C.J. Mosley returns to Baltimore as the Ravens will hope to be jockeying for postseason positioning on a short week, which is always a test.

Sunday, Dec. 22 at Cleveland Browns — 1:00 p.m. (CBS)
Skinny: The upstart Browns have four prime-time games on their schedule, but I’m honestly surprised the Ravens’ trip to Cleveland wasn’t one of them.

Sunday, Dec. 29 Pittsburgh Steelers — 1:00 p.m. (CBS)
Skinny: How exciting would it be for this one to be flexed to Sunday Night Football if the division title happens to be on the line?

Notes: Flexible scheduling can be applied for all Sunday games in Weeks 5 through 17. A flex-scheduling change would be announced at least 12 days before the game except in the final week of the season. For Week 17, the Sunday night game is announced no later than six days prior to Dec. 29.

Another wrinkle implemented in recent years is a select number of games being “cross-flexed,” moving between CBS and FOX to bring certain games to wider audiences.

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